The Field of Ice, by Jules Verne

Chapter 7

An Important Discussion.

While all these preparations for winter were going on Altamont was fast regaining strength. His vigorous constitution triumphed, and he was even able to lend a helping hand in the unlading of the ship. He was a true type of the American, a shrewd, intelligent man, full of energy and resolution, enterprising, bold, and ready for anything. He was a native of New York, he informed his companions, and had been a sailor from his boyhood.

The Porpoise had been equipped and sent out by a company of wealthy merchants belonging to the States, at the head of which was the famous Grinnell.

There were many points of resemblance between Altamont and Hatteras, but no affinities. Indeed, any similarity that there was between them, tended rather to create discord than to make the men friends. With a greater show of frankness, he was in reality far more deep and crafty than Hatteras. He was more free and easy, but not so true-hearted, and somehow his apparent openness did not inspire such confidence as the Englishman’s gloomy reserve.

The Doctor was in constant dread of a collision between the rival captains, and yet one must command inevitably, and which should it be! Hatteras had the men, but Altamont had the ship, and it was hard to say whose was the better right.

It required all the Doctor’s tact to keep things smooth, for the simplest conversation threatened to lead to strife.

At last, in spite of all his endeavours, an outbreak occurred on the occasion of a grand banquet by way of “house-warming,” when the new habitation was completed.

This banquet was Dr Clawbonny’s idea. He was head-cook, and distinguished himself by the concoction of a wonderful pudding, which would positively have done no dishonour to the cuisine of the Lord Chancellor of England.

Bell most opportunely chanced to shoot a white hare and several ptarmigans, which made an agreeable variety from the pemmican and salt meat.

Clawbonny was master of the ceremonies, and brought in his pudding, adorning himself with the insignia of his office — a big apron, and a knife dangling at his belt.

As Altamont did not conform to the teetotal régime of his English companions, gin and brandy were set on the table after dinner, and the others, by the Doctor’s orders, joined him in a glass for once, that the festive occasion might be duly honoured. When the different toasts were being drunk, one was given to the United States, to which Hatteras made no response.

This important business over, the Doctor introduced an interesting subject of conversation by saying —

“My friends, it is not enough to have come thus far in spite of so many difficulties; we have something more yet to do. I propose we should bestow a name on this continent, where we have found friendly shelter and rest, and not only on the continent, but on the several bays, peaks, and promontories that we meet with. This has been invariably done by navigators and is a most necessary proceeding.”

“Quite right,” said Johnson, “when once a place is named, it takes away the feeling of being castaways on an unknown shore.”

“Yes,” added Bell, “and we might be going on some expedition and obliged to separate, or go out hunting, and it would make it much easier to find one another if each locality had a definite name.”

“Very well; then,” said the Doctor, “since we are all agreed, let us go steadily to work.”

Hatteras had taken no part in the conversation as yet, but seeing all eyes fixed on him, he rose at last, and said —

“If no one objects, I think the most suitable name we can give our house is that of its skilful architect, the best man among us. Let us call it ‘Doctor’s House.’ “

“Just the thing!” said Bell.

“First rate!” exclaimed Johnson, “ ‘Doctor’s House!’ “

“We cannot do better,” chimed in Altamont. “Hurrah for Doctor Clawbonny.”

Three hearty cheers were given, in which Duk joined lustily, barking his loudest.

“It is agreed then,” said Hatteras, “that this house is to be called ‘Doctor’s House.’ “

The Doctor, almost overcome by his feelings, modestly protested against the honour; but he was obliged to yield to the wishes of his friends, and the new habitation was formally named “Doctor’s House.”

“Now, then,” said the Doctor, “let us go onto name the most important of our discoveries.”

“There is that immense sea which surrounds us, unfurrowed as yet by a single ship.”

“A single ship!” repeated Altamont. “I think you have forgotten the Porpoise, and yet she certainly did not get here overland,”

“Well, it would not be difficult to believe she had,” replied Hatteras, “to see on what she lies at present.”

“True, enough, Hatteras,” said Altamont, in a piqued tone; “but, after all, is not that better than being blown to atoms like the Forward?”

Hatteras was about to make some sharp retort, but Clawbonny interposed.

“It is not a question of ships, my friends,” he said, “but of a fresh sea.”

“It is no new sea,” returned Altamont; “it is in every Polar chart, and has a name already. It is called the Arctic Ocean, and I think it would be very inconvenient to alter its designation. Should we find out by and by, that, instead of being an ocean it is only a strait or gulf, it will be time enough to alter it then.”

“So be it,” said Hatteras.

“Very well, that is an understood thing, then,” said the Doctor, almost regretting that he had started a discussion so pregnant with national rivalries.

“Let us proceed with the continent where we find ourselves at present,” resumed Hatteras. “I am not aware that any name whatever has been affixed to it, even in the most recent charts.”

He looked at Altamont as he spoke, who met his gaze steadily, and said —

“Possibly you may be mistaken again, Hatteras.”

“Mistaken! What! This unknown continent, this virgin soil ——”

“Has already a name,” replied Altamont, coolly.

Hatteras was silent, but his lip quivered.

“And what name has it, then?” asked the Doctor, rather astonished at Altamont’s affirmation.

“My dear Clawbonny,” replied the American, “it is the custom, not to say the right, of every navigator to christen the soil on which he is the first to set foot. It appears to me, therefore, that it is my privilege and duty on this occasion to exercise my prerogative, and —”

“But, sir,” interrupted Johnson, rather nettled at his sang froid.

“It would be a difficult matter to prove that the Porpoise did not come here, even supposing she reached this coast by land,” continued Altamont, without noticing Johnson’s protest. “The fact is indisputable,” he added looking at Hatteras.

“I dispute the claim,” said the Englishman, restraining himself by a powerful effort. “To name a country, you must first discover it, I suppose, and that you certainly did not do. Besides, but for us, where would you have been, sir, at this moment, pray? Lying twenty feet deep under the snow.”

“And without me, sir,” retorted Altamont, hotly, “without me and my ship, where would you all be at this moment? Dead, from cold and hunger.”

“Come, come, friends,” said the Doctor, “don’t get to words, all that can be easily settled. Listen to me.”

“Mr. Hatteras,” said Altamont, “is welcome to name whatever territories he may discover, should he succeed in discovering any; but this continent belongs to me. I should not even consent to its having two names like Grinnell’s Land, which is also called Prince Albert’s Land, because it was discovered almost simultaneously by an Englishman and an American. This is quite another matter; my right of priority is incontestable. No ship before mine ever touched this shore, no foot before mine ever trod this soil. I have given it a name, and that name it shall keep.”

“And what is that name?” inquired the Doctor.

“New America,” replied Altamont.

Hatteras trembled with suppressed passion, but by a violent effort restrained himself.

“Can you prove to me,” said Altamont, “that an Englishman has set foot here before an American?”

Johnson and Bell said nothing, though quite as much offended as the captain by Altamont’s imperious tone. They felt that reply was impossible.

For a few minutes there was an awkward silence, which the Doctor broke by saying —

“My friends, the highest human law is justice. It includes all others. Let us be just, then, and don’t let any bad feeling get in among us. The priority of Altamont seems to me indisputable. We will take our revenge by and by, and England will get her full share in our future discoveries. Let the name New America stand for the continent itself, but I suppose Altamont has not yet disposed of all the bays, and capes, and headlands it contains, and I imagine there will be nothing to prevent us calling this bay Victoria Bay?”

“Nothing whatever, provided that yonder cape is called Cape Washington,” replied Altamont.

“You might choose a name, sir,” exclaimed Hatteras, almost beside himself with passion, “that is less offensive to an Englishman.”

“But not one which sounds so sweet to an American,” retorted Altamont, proudly.

“Come, come,” said the Doctor, “no discussion on that subject. An American has a perfect right to be proud of his great countryman! Let us honour genius wherever it is met with; and since Altamont has made his choice, let us take our turn next; let the captain ——”

“Doctor!” interrupted Hatteras, “I have no wish that my name should figure anywhere on this continent, seeing that it belongs to America.”

“Is this your unalterable determination?” asked Clawbonny.

“It is.”

The Doctor did not insist further.

“Very well, we’ll have it to ourselves then,” he continued, turning to Johnson and Bell. “We’ll leave our traces behind us. I propose that the island we see out there, about three miles away from the shore, should be called Isle Johnson, in honour of our boatswain,’’

“Oh, Mr. Clawbonny,” began Johnson, in no little confusion.

“And that mountain that we discovered in the west we will call Bell Mount, if our carpenter is willing.”

“It is doing me too much honour,” replied Bell.

“It is simple justice,” returned the Doctor.

“Nothing could be better,” said Altamont.

“Now then, all we have to do is to christen our fort,” said the Doctor, “about that there will be no discussion, I hope, for it is neither to our gracious sovereign Queen Victoria, nor to Washington, that we owe our safety and shelter here, but to God, who brought about our meeting, and by so doing saved us all. Let our little fort be called Fort Providence.”

“Your remarks are just,” said Altamont; “no name could be more suitable.”

“Fort Providence,” added Johnson, “sounds well too. In our future excursions, then, we shall go by Cape Washington to Victoria Bay, and from thence to Fort Providence, where we shall find food and rest at Doctor’s House!”

“The business is settled then so far,” resumed the Doctor. “As our discoveries multiply we shall have other names to give; but I trust, friends, we shall have no disputes about them, for placed as we are, we need all the help and love we can give each other. Let us be strong by being united. Who knows what dangers yet we may have to brave, and what sufferings to endure before we see our native land once more. Let us be one in heart though five in number, and let us lay aside all feelings of rivalry. Such feelings are bad enough at all times, but among us they would be doubly wrong. You understand me, Altamont, and you, Hatteras?”

Neither of the captains replied, but the Doctor took no notice of their silence, and went on to speak of other things. Sundry expeditions were planned to forage for fresh food. It would soon be spring, and hares and partridges, foxes and bears would re-appear. So it was determined that part of every day should be spent in hunting and exploring this unknown continent of New America.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24