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full shock of the cold blasts from the pole, consequently she is
enveloped almost to the middle of the island by fields of ice several
feet in thickness.

They spent fifteen days in the harbor and then the "Alaska" mounted
Davis' Straits, and keeping along the coast of Greenland, gained the
polar sea.

On the 28th of May for the first time they encountered floating ice in
70 15' of north latitude, with a temperature two degrees below zero.
These first icebergs, it is true, were in a crumbling condition, rapidly
breaking up into small fragments. But soon they became more dense, and
frequently they had to break their way through them. Navigation,
although difficult, was not as yet dangerous. By a thousand signs they
perceived, however, that they were in a new world. All objects at a
little distance appeared to be colorless, and almost without form; the
eye could find no place to repose in this perpetually changing horizon,
which every minute assumed a new aspect.

"Who can describe," says an eye-witness, "these melancholy surroundings,
the roaring of the waves beating beneath the floating ice, the singular
noise made by the snow as it falls suddenly into the abyss of waters?
Who can imagine the beauty of the cascades which gush out on all sides,
the sea of foam produced by their fall, the fright of the sea-birds who,
having fallen asleep on a pyramid of ice, suddenly find their
resting-place overturned and themselves obliged to fly to some other
spot? And in the morning, when the sun bursts through the fog, at first
only a little of the blue sky is visible, but it gradually widens, until
the view is only limited by the horizon."

These spectacles, presented by the polar sea, Erik and his friends were
able to contemplate at their leisure as they left the coast of
Greenland, to which they had kept close until they had reached
Uppernavik. Then they sailed westward across Baffin's Bay. Here
navigation became more difficult, for this sea is the ordinary course of
the polar icebergs which are drawn in by the innumerable currents which
traverse it. Sometimes they found their course checked by insurmountable
barriers of ice, which it was impossible to break, and therefore they
were compelled to turn aside. The "Alaska" was obliged continually to
break her way through immense fields of ice. Sometimes a tempest of snow
assailed them which covered the deck and the masts with a thick coat.
Sometimes they were assailed by ice dashed over them by the wind, which
threatened to sink the vessel by its weight. Sometimes they found
themselves in a sort of lake, surrounded on all sides by fields of ice
apparently firm and impassable, and from which they had great difficulty
to extricate themselves and gain the open sea. Then they had to exercise
great vigilance to escape some enormous iceberg sailing down from the
north with incredible swiftness, a frightful mass, which could have
crushed the "Alaska" like a walnut. But a greater danger still was the
submarine ice, which could injure her and act like a battering-ram.

The "Alaska" lost her two large boats. One must experience the dangers
which polar navigation presents at every moment to have any just
appreciation of them.

After one or two weeks of such experience the most intrepid crew become
exhausted, and repose is necessary for them.

Sometimes, although surrounded by all these dangers, they made rapid
progress; at others they made scarcely any; but at length, on the 11th
of June, they came in sight of land again, and cast anchor at the
entrance to Lancaster Sound.

Erik had expected to be obliged to wait some days before being able to
enter the sound; but, to his surprise and joy, he found it open, at
least at the entrance. He entered resolutely, but only to find the next
day his passage impeded by ice, which held them prisoners for three
days; but, thanks to the violent currents which sweep through this
Arctic canal, he at last was able to free his vessel and continue his
route as the whalers of Godhaven had told him he would be able to do.

On the seventeenth he arrived at Barrow's Straits, and made all the
speed he could; but on the nineteenth, as he was about to enter Melville
Sound, he was again blocked in by the ice.

At first he patiently accepted the situation, waiting for it to break
up; but day succeeded to day and still this did not happen.

There were, however, many sources of amusement open to the voyagers.
They were near the coast and supplied with everything that could render
their life comfortable in that latitude. They could take sleigh-rides
and see in the distance the whales enjoying their diversions. The summer
solstice was approaching. Since the fifteenth the occupants of the
"Alaska" had beheld a new and astonishing spectacle, even for Norwegians
and the natives of southern Sweden; it was the sun at midnight touching
the horizon without disappearing and then mounting again in the sky. In
these high latitudes and desolate coasts the star of day describes in
twenty-four hours a complete circle in space. The light, it is true, is
pale and languishing, objects lose their perfect shape, and all nature
has a shadowy appearance. One realizes profoundly how far he is removed
from the world, and how near he is to the pole. The cold, however, was
not extreme. The temperature did not fall more than four or five degrees
below zero, and the air was sometimes so mild that they could hardly
believe that they were in the center of the arctic zone.

But those novel surrounding were not sufficient to satisfy Erik, or make
him lose sight of the supreme object which had brought them there. He
had not come to herbalize like Mr. Malarius, who returned every evening
more and more delighted with his explorations, both of the country and
of its unknown plants, which he added to his collection; nor to enjoy
with Dr. Schwaryencrona and Mr. Bredejord the novelty of the sights
which nature offered to them in these polar regions. He wanted to find
Nordenskiold and Patrick O'Donoghan - to fulfill a sacred duty while he
discovered, perhaps, the secret of his birth. This was why he sought
untiringly to break the circle of ice which hemmed them in. He made
excursions with his sleigh and on his snow-shoes, reconnoitered in every
direction for ten days, but it was all in vain. At the west, as well as
the north and east, the banks of ice remained firm.

It was the 20th of June, and they were still far from the Siberian Sea.

Must he confess himself vanquished? Erik could not make up his mind to
do this. Repeated soundings had revealed that under the ice there was a
swift current running toward Franklin's Strait, that is to say toward
the south; he told himself that some effort might suffice to break up
the ice, and he resolved to attempt it.

For the length of seven marine miles he had hollowed in the ice a series
of chambers, and in each of them was placed a kilogramme of dynamite.
These were connected by a copper wire inclosed in gutta percha.

On the 30th of June, at eight o'clock in the morning, Erik from the deck
of the "Alaska" pressed the button of the electrical machine, and a
formidable explosion took place. The field of ice shook and trembled,
and clouds of frightened sea-birds hovered around uttering discordant
cries. When silence was restored, a long black train cut into
innumerable fissures met their anxious gaze. The explosion of the
terrible agent had broken up the ice field. There was, so to speak, a
moment of hesitation, and then the ice acted as if it had only been
waiting for some signal to move. Cracking in all parts it yielded to the
action of the current, and they beheld here and there whole continents,
as it were, gradually moving away from them. Some portions, however,
were more slow to move; they seemed to be protesting against such
violence. The next day the passage was clear, and the "Alaska" rekindled
her fires.

Erik and his dynamite had done what it would probably have taken the
pale arctic sun a month longer to accomplish.

On the 2d of July, the expedition arrived at Banks' Straits; on the
fourth, she issued from the Arctic Sea properly speaking. From this time
the route was open notwithstanding icebergs, fogs, and snow-storms. On
the twelfth, the "Alaska" doubled Ice Cape; on the thirteenth, Cape
Lisburne, and on the fourteenth she entered the Gulf of Kotzebue to the
north of Behring's Straits and found there, according to instructions,
the boat loaded with coal which had been sent from San Francisco.

Thus in two months and sixteen days they had accomplished the programme
arranged by Erik before they left the coast of France.

The "Alaska" had hardly ceased to move, when Erik rushed into a small
boat and hurried off to accost the officer who had charge of the boat
loaded with coal.

"_Semper idem!_" said he, as he approached.

"Lisbon!" answered the Yankee.

"How long have you been waiting here for me?"

"Five weeks - we left San Francisco one month after the arrival of your

"Have you heard any news of Nordenskiold?"

"At San Francisco they had not received any reliable information about
him. But since I have been here I have spoken to several captains of
whaling-vessels, who said that they had heard from the natives of
Serdze-Kamen that an European vessel had been frozen in by the ice for
nine or ten months; they thought it was the 'Vega.'"

"Indeed!" said Erik, with a joy which we can easily understand. "And do
you believe that it has not yet succeeded in getting through the

"I am sure of it - not a vessel has passed us for the last five weeks,
which I have not seen and spoken to."

"God be praised - our troubles will not be without recompense, if we
succeed in finding Nordenskiold."

"You will not be the first who has done so!" said the Yankee, with an
ironical smile - "an American yacht has preceded you. It passed here
three days ago, and like you was inquiring for Nordenskiold."

"An American yacht?" repeated Erik, half stupefied.

"Yes - the 'Albatross,' Captain Tudor Brown, from Vancouver's Island. I
told him what I had heard, and he immediately started for Cape



Tudor Brown had evidently heard of the change in the route of the
"Alaska." He had reached Behring's Straits before them. But by what
means? It seemed almost supernatural, but still the fact remained that
he had done so.

Erik was greatly depressed by this information, but he concealed his
feelings from his friends. He hurried on the work of transporting the
coal, and set out again without losing a moment.

Serdze-Kamen is a long Asiatic-promontory situated nearly a hundred
miles to the west of Behring's Straits, and whaling-vessels from the
Pacific visit it every year.

The "Alaska" reached there after a voyage of twenty-four hours, and soon
in the bay of Koljutschin behind a wall of ice, they discovered the
masts of the "Vega," which had been frozen in for nine months.

The barrier which held Nordenskiold captive was not more than ten
kilometers in size. After passing around it, the "Alaska" came to anchor
in a little creek, where she would be sheltered from the northerly
winds. Then Erik with his three friends made their way overland to the
establishment which the "Vega" had made upon the Siberian coast to pass
this long winter, and which a column of smoke pointed out to them.

This coast of the Bay of Koljutschin consists of a low and slightly
undulating plain. There are no trees, only some dwarf willows, marine
grasses and lichens. Summer had already brought forth some plants, which
Mr. Malarius recognized as a species which was very common in Norway.

The encampment of the "Vega" consisted of a large store-house for their
eatables, which had been made by the orders of Nordenskiold, in case the
pressure of the ice should destroy his ship, which so frequently happens
on these dangerous coasts. It was a touching fact that the poor
population, although always half starved, and to whom this depot
represented incalculable wealth in the shape of food, had respected it,
although it was but poorly guarded. The huts of skin of these
Tschoutskes were grouped here and there around the station. The most
imposing structure was the "Tintinjaranga," or ice-house, which they had
especially arranged to use for a magnetic observatory, and where all the
necessary apparatus had been placed. It had been built of blocks of ice
delicately tinted and cemented together with snow; the roof of planks
was covered with cloth.

The voyagers of the "Alaska" were cordially welcomed by the young
astronomer, whom they found at the time of their arrival holding a
consultation with the man in charge of the store-house. He offered
with hearty goodwill to take them on board the "Vega" by the path
which had been cut in the ice in order to keep open the means of
communication between the vessel and the land, and a rope attached to
stones served as a guide on dark nights. As they walked, he related to
them their adventures since they had been unable to send home any

After leaving the mouth of the Lena, Nordenskiold had directed his
course toward the islands of New Siberia, which he wished to explore,
but finding it almost impossible to approach them, on account of the
ice which surrounded them, and the shallowness of the water in that
vicinity, he abandoned the idea, and resumed his course toward the
east. The "Vega" encountered no great difficulties until the 10th of
September, but about that time a continuance of fogs, and freezing
nights, compelled her to slacken her speed, besides the darkness
necessitated frequented stoppages. It was therefore the 27th of
September before she reached Cape Serdze-Kamen. They cast her anchor
on a bank of ice, hoping to be able the next day to make the few miles
which separated her from Behring's Straits and the free waters of the
Pacific. But a north wind set in during the night, and heaped around
the vessel great masses of ice. The "Vega" found herself a prisoner
for the winter at the time when she had almost accomplished her work.

"It was a great disappointment to us, as you can imagine!" said the
young astronomer, "but we soon rallied our forces, and determined to
profit by the delay as much as possible, by making scientific
investigations. We made the acquaintance of the 'Tschoutskes' of the
neighborhood, whom no traveler has hitherto known well, and we have
made a vocabulary of their language, and also gathered together a
collection of their arms and utensils. The naturalists of the 'Vega'
have also been diligent, and added many new arctic plants to their
collection. Lastly, the end of the expedition has been accomplished,
since we have doubled Cape Tchelynskin, and traversed the distance
between it and the mouth of the Yenisei and of the Lena. Henceforth
the north-east passage must become a recognized fact. It would have
been more agreeable for us, if we could have effected it in two
months, as we so nearly succeeded in doing. But provided we are not
blocked in much longer, as the present indications lead us to hope, we
will not have much to complain of, and we shall be able to return with
the satisfaction of knowing that we have accomplished a useful work."

While listening to their guide with deep interest, the travelers were
pursuing their way. They were now near enough to the "Vega" to see
that her deck was covered over with a large canvas, and that her sides
were protected by lofty masses of snow, and that her smoke-stacks had
been carefully preserved from contact with the ice.

The immediate approach to the vessel was still more strange; she was
not, as one would have expected, completely incrusted in a bed of ice,
but she was suspended, as it were, in a labyrinth of lakes, islands,
and canals, between which they had been obliged to throw bridges
formed of planks.

"The explanation is very simple," said the young astronomer, in reply to
a question from Erik. "All vessels that pass some months surrounded by
ice form around them a bed of refuse, consisting principally of coal
ashes. This is heavier than snow, and when a thaw begins, the bed around
the vessel assumes the aspect which you behold."

The crew of the "Vega," in arctic clothing, with two or three officers,
had already seen the visitors whom the astronomer was bringing with him.
Their joy was great when they saluted them in Swedish, and when they
beheld among them the well-known and popular physiognomy of Dr.

Neither Nordenskiold nor Captain Palender were on board. They had gone
upon a geological excursion into the interior of the country, and
expected to be absent five or six days. This was a disappointment to the
travelers, who had naturally hoped when they found the "Vega" to present
their congratulations to the great explorer.

But this was not their only disappointment.[1]

[Footnote 1: They returned sooner, for on the 18th of July the ice broke
up, and after 264 days of captivity the "Vega" resumed her voyage. On
the 20th of July she issued from Behring's Straits and set out for

They had hardly entered the officer's room, when Erik and his friends
were informed that three days before the "Vega" had been visited by an
American yacht, or rather by its owner, Mr. Tudor Brown. This gentleman
had brought them news of the world beyond their settlement, which was
very acceptable, they being confined to the limited neighborhood of the
Bay of Koljutschin. He told them what had happened in Europe since their
departure - the anxiety that Sweden and indeed all civilized nations felt
about their fate, and that the "Alaska" had been sent to search for
them. Mr. Tudor Brown came from Vancouver's Island, in the Pacific, and
his yacht had been waiting there for him for three months.

"But," exclaimed a young doctor, attached to the expedition, "he told us
that he had at first embarked with you, and only left you at Brest,
because he doubted whether you would be able to bring the enterprise to
a successful termination!"

"He had excellent reasons for doubting it," replied Erik, coolly, but
not without a secret tremor.

"His yacht was at Valparaiso and he telegraphed for her to wait for him
at Victoria, on the coast of Vancouver," continued the doctor; "then he
took the steamer from Liverpool to New York, and the railroad to the
Pacific. This explains how he was able to reach here before you."

"Did he tell you why he came?" asked Mr. Bredejord.

"He came to help us, if we stood in need of assistance, and also to
inquire about a strange enough personage, whom I had incidentally
mentioned in my correspondence, and in whom Mr. Tudor Brown seemed to
take a great interest."

The four visitors exchanged glances.

"Patrick O'Donoghan - was not that the name?" asked Erik.

"Precisely - or at least it is the name which is tattooed on his body,
although he pretends it is not his own, but that of a friend. He calls
himself Johnny Bowles."

"May I ask if this man is still here?"

"He left us ten months ago. We had at first believed that he might
prove useful to us by acting as interpreter between us and the natives
of this coast, on account of his apparent knowledge of their language;
but we soon discovered that his acquaintance with it was very
superficial - confined, in fact, to a few words. Besides, until we came
here, we were unable to hold any communications with the natives. This
Johnny Bowles, or Patrick O'Donoghan, was lazy, drunken, and undisciplined.
His presence on board would only have occasioned trouble for us. We
therefore acceded without regret to his request to be landed on the
large Island of Ljakow, as we were following the southern coast."

"What! did he go there? But this island is uninhabited!" cried Erik.

"Entirely; but what attracted the man appeared to be the fact that its
shores are literally covered by bones, and consequently by fossil ivory.
He had conceived the plan of establishing himself there, and of
collecting, during the summer months, all the ivory that he could find;
then when, in winter, the arm of the sea which connects Ljakow with the
continent should be frozen over, to transport in a sleigh this treasure
to the Siberian coast, in order to sell it to the Russian traders, who
come every year in search of the products of the country."

"Did you tell these facts to Mr. Tudor Brown?" asked Erik.

"Assuredly, he came far enough to seek for them," replied the young
doctor, unaware of the deep personal interest that the commander of the
"Alaska" took in the answers to the questions which he addressed to him.

The conversation then became more general. They spoke of the comparative
facility with which Nordenskiold had carried out his programme. He had
not met with any serious difficulties, and consequently the discovery of
the new route would be an advantage to the commerce of the world. "Not,"
said the officer of the "Vega," "that this path was ever destined to be
much frequented, but the voyage of the 'Vega' would prove to the
maritime nations of the Atlantic and Pacific that it was possible to
hold direct communication with Siberia by water. And nowhere would these
nations, notwithstanding the vulgar opinions, find a field as vast and

"Is it not strange," observed Mr. Bredejord, "that they have failed
completely during the last three centuries in this attempt that you have
now accomplished without difficulty?"

"The singularity is only apparent," answered one of the officers. "We
have profited by the experience of our predecessors, an experience often
only acquired at the cost of their lives. Professor Nordenskiold has
been preparing himself for this supreme effort during the last twenty
years, in which he has made eight arctic expeditions. He has patiently
studied the problem in all its aspects, and finally succeeded in solving
it. Then we have had what our predecessors lacked, a steam vessel
especially equipped for this voyage. This has enabled us to accomplish
in two months a voyage that it would have taken a sailing vessel two
years to do. We have also constantly been able not only to choose, but
also to seek out, the most accessible route. We have fled from floating
ice and been able to profit by the winds and tides. And still we have
been overtaken by winter. How much more difficult it would have been for
a mariner who was compelled to wait for favorable winds, and see the
summer passing in the meantime."

In such conversation they passed the afternoon, and after accepting
their invitation and dining on board the "Vega," they carried back with
them to supper on board the "Alaska" all the officers who could be
spared from duty. They mutually gave each other all the information and
news in their power. Erik took care to inform himself exactly of the
route followed by the "Vega," in order to utilize it for his own profit.
After exchanging many good wishes and with the heartfelt desire that
they would all soon return in safety to their country, they separated.

The next day at dawn Erik had the "Alaska" steering for the island of
Ljakow. As for the "Vega" she had to wait until the breaking up of the
ice would permit her to reach the Pacific.

The first part of Erik's task was now accomplished. He had found
Nordenskiold. The second still remained to be fulfilled: to find Patrick
O'Donoghan, and see if he could persuade him to disclose his secret.
That this secret was an important one they were now all willing to
admit, or Tudor Brown would never have committed such a dastardly crime
to prevent them from becoming acquainted with it.

Would they be able to reach the Island of Ljakow before him?

It was hardly probable, for he was three days in advance of them: never
mind - he would make the attempt.

The "Albatross" might lose her way, or meet with some unforeseen
obstacles. As long as there was even a probability of success Erik
determined to take the chances.

The weather was now mild and agreeable. Light fogs indicated an open
sea, and a speedy breaking of the ice along the Siberian coast where the
"Vega" had been held prisoner so long. Summer was advancing, and the
"Alaska" could reasonably count upon at least ten weeks of favorable
weather. The experience which they had acquired amongst the American ice
had its value and would render this new enterprise comparatively easy.
Lastly the north-east passage was the most direct way to return to
Sweden, and besides the deep personal interest which induced Erik to
take it, he had a truly scientific desire to accomplish in a reverse

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Online LibraryAndré LaurieThe Waif of the Cynthia → online text (page 12 of 17)