The Field of Ice, by Jules Verne

Chapter 8

An Excursion to the North of Victoria Bay

Next morning Clawbonny was out by dawn of day. Clambering up the steep, rocky wall, against which the Doctor’s House leaned, he succeeded, though with considerable difficulty, in reaching the top, which he found terminated abruptly in a sort of truncated cone. From this elevation there was an extensive view over a vast tract of country, which was all disordered and convulsed as if it had undergone some volcanic commotion. Sea and land, as far as it was possible to distinguish one from the other, were covered with a sheet of ice.

A new project struck the Doctor’s mind, which was soon matured and ripe for execution. He lost no time in going back to the snow house, and consulting over it with his companions.

“I have got an idea,” he said; “I think of constructing a lighthouse on the top of that cone above our heads.”

“A lighthouse!” they all exclaimed.

“Yes, a lighthouse. It would be a double advantage. It would be a beacon to guide us in distant excursions, and also serve to illumine our plateau in the long dreary winter months.”

“There is no doubt,” replied Altamont, “of its utility; but how would you contrive to make it?”

“With one of the lanterns out of the Porpoise.”

“All right; but how will you feed your lamp? With seal oil?”

“No, seal oil would not give nearly sufficient light. It would scarcely be visible through the fog.”

“Are you going to try to make gas out of our coal then?”

“No, not that either, for gas would not be strong enough; and, worse still, it would waste our combustibles.”

“Well,” replied Altamont; “I’m at a loss to see how you —”

“Oh, I’m prepared for everything after the mercury bullet, and the ice lens, and Fort Providence. I believe Mr. Clawbonny can do anything,” exclaimed Johnson.

“Come, Clawbonny, tell us what your light is to be, then,” said Altamont.

“That’s soon told,” replied Clawbonny. “I mean to have an electric light.”

“An electric light?”

“Yes, why not? Haven’t you a galvanic battery on board your ship?”

“Yes.”

“Well, there will be no difficulty then in producing an electric light, and that will cost nothing, and be far brighter.”

“First-rate?” said Johnson; “let us set to work at once.”

“By all means. There is plenty of material. In an hour we can raise a pillar of ice ten feet high, and that is quite enough.

Away went the Doctor, followed by his companions, and the column was soon erected and crowned with a ship lantern. The conducting wires were properly adjusted within it, and the pile with which they communicated fixed up in the sitting-room, where the warmth of the stove would protect it from the action of the frost.

As soon as it grew dark the experiment was made, and proved a complete success. An intense brilliant light streamed from the lantern and illumined the entire plateau and the plains beneath.

Johnson could not help clapping his hands, half beside himself with delight.

“Well, I declare, Mr. Clawbonny,” he exclaimed, “you’re our sun now.”

“One must be a little of everything, you know,” was Clawbonny’s modest reply.

It was too cold. however, even to stand admiring more than a minute, and the whole party were glad enough to get indoors again, and tuck themselves up in their warm blankets.

A regular course of life commenced now, though uncertain weather and frequent changes of temperature made it sometimes impracticable to venture outside the hut at all, and it was not till the Saturday after the installation, that a day came that was favourable enough for a hunting excursion; when Bell, and Altamont, and the Doctor determined to take advantage of it, and try to replenish their stock of provisions.

They started very early in the morning, each armed with a double- barrelled gun and plenty of powder and shot, a hatchet, and a snow knife.

The weather was cloudy, but Clawbonny put the galvanic battery in action before he left, and the bright rays of the electric light did duty for the glorious orb of day, and in truth was no bad substitute, for the light was equal to three thousand candles, or three hundred gas burners.

It was intensely cold, but dry, and there was little or no wind. The hunters set off in the direction of Cape Washington, and the hard snow so favoured their march, that in three hours they had gone fifteen miles, Duk jumping and barking beside them all the way. They kept as close to the coast as possible, but found no trace of human habitation and indeed scarcely a sign of animal life. A few snow birds, however, darting to and fro announced the approach of spring and the return of the animal creation. The sea was still entirely frozen over, but it was evident from the open breathing holes in the ice, that the seals had been quite recently on the surface. In one part the holes were so numerous, that the Doctor said to his companions that he had no doubt that when summer came, they would be seen there in hundreds, and would be easily captured, for on unfrequented shores they were not so difficult of approach. But once frighten them and they all vanish as if by enchantment, and never return to the spot again. “Inexperienced hunters,” he said, “have often lost a whole shoal by attacking them, en masse, with noisy shouts instead of singly and silently.”

“Is it for the oil or skin that they are mostly hunted?”

“Europeans hunt them for the skin, but the Esquimaux eat them. They live on seals, and nothing is so delicious to them as a piece of the flesh, dipped in the blood and oil. After all, cooking has a good deal to do with it, and I’ll bet you something I could dress you cutlets you would not turn up your nose at, unless for their black appearance.”

“We’ll set you to work on it,” said Bell, “and I’ll eat as much as you like to please you.”

“My good Bell, you mean to say to please yourself, but your voracity would never equal the Green-landers’, for they devour from ten to fifteen pounds of meat a day.”

“Fifteen pounds!” said Bell. “What stomachs!”

“Arctic stomachs,” replied the Doctor, “are prodigious; they can expand at will, and, I may add, contract at will; so that they can endure starvation quite as well as abundance. When an Esquimaux sits down to dinner he is quite thin, and by the time he has finished, he is so corpulent you would hardly recognize him. But then we must remember that one meal sometimes has to last a whole day.”

“This voracity must be peculiar to the inhabitants of cold countries,” said Altamont.

“I think it is,” replied the Doctor. “In the Arctic regions people must eat enormously: it is not only one of the conditions of strength, but of existence. The Hudson’s Bay Company always reckoned on this account 8 lbs. of meat to each man a day, or 12 lbs. of fish, or 2 lbs. of pemmican.”

“Invigorating regimen, certainly!” said Bell.

“Not so much as you imagine, my friend. An Indian who guzzles like that can’t do a whit better day’s work than an Englishman, who has his pound of beef and pint of beer.”

“Things are best as they are, then, Mr. Clawbonny.”

“No doubt of it; and yet an Esquimaux meal may well astonish us. In Sir John Ross’s narrative, he states his surprise at the appetites of his guides. He tells us that two of them — just two mind — devoured a quarter of a buffalo in one morning. They cut the meat in long narrow strips, and the mode of eating was either for the one to bite off as much as his mouth could hold, and then pass it on to the other, or to leave the long ribbons of meat dangling from the mouth and devour them gradually like boa-constrictors, lying at full length on the ground.”

“Faugh!” exclaimed Bell, “what disgusting brutes!”

“Every man has his own fashion of dining,” remarked the philosophical American.

“Happily,” said the Doctor.

“Well, if eating is such an imperative necessity in these latitudes, it quite accounts for all the journals of Arctic travellers being so full of eating and drinking.”

“You are right,” returned the Doctor. “I have been struck by the same fact; but I think it arises not only from the necessity of full diet, but from the extreme difficulty sometimes in procuring it. The thought of food is always uppermost in the mind, and naturally finds mention in the narrative.”

“And yet,” said Altamont, “if my memory serves me right, in the coldest parts of Norway the peasants do not seem to need such substantial fare. Milk diet is their staple food, with eggs, and bread made of the bark of the birch-tree; a little salmon occasionally, but never meat; and still they are fine hardy fellows.”

“It is an affair of organization out of my power to explain,” replied Clawbonny; “but I have no doubt that if these same Norwegians were transplanted to Greenland, they would learn to eat like the Esquimaux by the second or third generation. Even if we ourselves were to remain in this blessed country long, we should be as bad as the Esquimaux, even if we escaped becoming regular gluttons.”

“I declare, Mr. Clawbonny, you make me feel hungry with talking so much about eating,” exclaimed Bell.

“Not I!” said Altamont. “It rather sickens me, and makes me loathe the sight of a seal. But, stop, I do believe we are going to have the chance of a dinner off one, for I am much mistaken if that’s not something alive lying on those lumps of ice yonder!”

“It is a walrus!” exclaimed the Doctor. “Be quiet, and let us get up to him.”

Clawbonny was right, it was a walrus of huge dimensions, disporting himself not more than two hundred yards away. The hunters separated, going in different directions, so as to surround the animal and cut off all retreat. They crept along cautiously behind the hummocks, and managed to get within a few paces of him unperceived, when they fired simultaneously.

The walrus rolled over, but speedily got up again, and tried to make his escape, but Altamont fell upon him with his hatchet, and cut off his dorsal fins. He made a desperate resistance, but was overpowered by his enemies, and soon lay dead, reddening the ice-field with his blood.

It was a fine animal, measuring more than fifteen feet in length, and would have been worth a good deal for the oil; but the hunters contented themselves with cutting off the most savoury parts, and left the rest to the ravens, which had just begun to make their appearance.

Night was drawing on, and it was time to think of returning to Fort Providence. The moon had not yet risen, but the sky was serene and cloudless, and already glittering with stars — magnificent stars.

“Come,” said the Doctor, “let us be off, for it is getting late. Our hunting has not been very successful; but still, if a man has found something for his supper, he need not grumble. Let us go the shortest road, however, and get quickly home without losing our way. The stars will guide us.”

They resolved to try a more direct route back by going further inland, and avoiding the windings of the coast; but, after some hours’ walking, they found themselves no nearer Doctor’s House, and it was evident that they must have lost their way. The question was raised whether to construct a hut and rest till morning, or proceed; but Clawbonny insisted on going on, as Hatteras and Johnson would be so uneasy.

“Duk will guide us,” he said; “he won’t go wrong. His instinct can dispense with star and compass. Just let us keep close behind him.”

They did well to trust to Duk, for very speedily a faint light appeared in the horizon almost like a star glimmering through the mist, which hung low above the ground.

“There’s our lighthouse!” exclaimed the Doctor.

“Do you think it is, Mr. Clawbonny?” said Bell.

“I’m certain of it! Come on faster.” The light became stronger the nearer they approached, and soon they were walking in a bright luminous track, leaving their long shadows behind them on the spotless snow.

Quickening their steps, they hastened forward, and in another half hour they were climbing the ascent to Fort Providence.

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