James Fenimore Cooper.

Works (Volume 32) online

. (page 36 of 39)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperWorks (Volume 32) → online text (page 36 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


wondered, while reading the Bible Mary Pratt had put into
his hand, at the stubborn manner in which the chosen
people of God had returned to their " idols," and their



390 THE SEA LIONS.

" groves," and their " high places ;" but he was now made
to understand that others still erred in this great particular,
and that of all the idols men worship, that of self was per
haps the most objectionable.



CHAPTER XXYIH.

"Long swoln in drenching rains, seeds, germs, and buds
Start at the touch of vivifying beams.
Moved by their secret force, the vital lymph
Diffusive runs, and spreads o'er wood and field
A flood of verdure."

WILCOI.

AT length it came to be rumoured among the sealers
that the fires must be permitted to go out, or that the mate
rials used for making the berths, and various other fixtures
of the house, must be taken to supply the stove. It was
when it got to be known that the party was reduced to this
sad dilemma, that Roswell broke through the bank of snow
that almost covered the house, and got so far into the open
air as to be able to form some estimate of the probable con
tinuance of the present cold weather. The thermometer,
within the bank of snow, but outside of the building, then
stood at twenty below zero; but it was much colder in the
unobstructed currents of as keen and biting a south wind
as ever came howling across the vast fields of ice that
covered the polar basin. The snow had long ceased, but
not until an immense quantity had fallen ; nearly twice as
much, Roswell and Hazard thought, as they had seen on
the rocks at any time that winter.

" I see no signs of a change, Mr. Hazard," Roswell re
marked, shivering with the intensity of the cold. " We
had better go back into the house before we get chilled,
for we have no fire now to go to, to warm ourselves. It is
much warmer within doors, than it is in the open air, fire
or no fire."

" There are many reasons for hat, Captain Gar'ner/



THE SEA LIONS. 391

answered the mate. " So many bodies in so small a space,
the shelter from the wind and outer air, and the snow
banks, all help us. I think we shall find the thermometer
indoors at a pretty comfortable figure this morning."

On examining it, it was found to stand at only fifteen
below zero, making a difference of five degrees in favour
of the house, as compared with the sort of covered gallery
under the tent, and probably of five more, as compared with
the open air.

On a consultation, it was decided that all hands should
eat a hearty meal, remove most of their clothes, and get
within the coverings of their berths, to see if it would not
be possible to wear out the cold spell, in some tolerable
comfort, beneath rugs and blankets. On the whole, it was
thought that the berths might be made more serviceable
by this expedient, than by putting their materials into the
stoves. Accordingly, within an hour after Roswell and his
mate had returned from their brief out-door excursion, the
whole party was snugly bestowed under piles of rugs,
clothes, sails, and whatever else might be used to retain
the animal heat near the body, and exclude cold. In this
manner, six-and-thirty hours were passed, not a man of
them all having the courage to rise from his lair, and en
counter the severity of the climate, now unrelieved by any
thing like a fire.

Roswell had slept most of the time, during the last ten
hours, and in this he was much like all around him. A
general feeling of drowsiness had come over the men, and
the legs and feet of many among them, notwithstanding
the quantity of bed-clothes that were, in particular, piled
on that part of their person, were sensitively alive to the
cold. No one ever knew how low the thermometer went
that fearful night ; but a sort of common consciousness pre
vailed, that nothing the men had yet seen, or felt, equalled
its chill horrors. The cold had got into the house, con
verting every article it contained into a mass of frost. The
berths ceased to be warm, and the smallest exposure of a
shoulder, hand, or ears, soon produced pain. The heads
of very many of the party were arFecttd, and breathing be
came difficult and troubled. A numbness began to steal
over the lower limbs; and this was the last unpleasant sen-



392 THE SEA LIONS.

sation remembered by Roswell, when he fell into another
short and disturbed slumber. The propensity to sleep was
very general now, though many struggled against it, know
ing it was the usual precursor of death by freezing.

Our hero never knew how long he slept in the last nap
he took on that memorable occasion. When he awoke, he
found a bright light blazing in the hut, and heard some one
moving about the camboose. Then his thoughts reverted
to himself, and to the condition of his limbs. On trying to
rub his feet together, he found them so nearly without sen
sation as to make the consciousness of their touching each
other almost out of the question. Taking the alarm at once,
he commenced a violent friction, bntil by slow degrees he
could feel that the nearly stagnant blood was getting again
into motion. So great had been Roswell's alarm, and so
intent his occupation, that he took no heed of the person
who was busy at the camboose, until the man appeared at
the side of his berth, holding a tin pot in his hand. It was
Stimson, up and dressed, without his skins, and seemingly
in perfect preservation.

"Here's some hot coffee, Captain Gar'ner," said the
provident boat-steerer, " and then turn out. The wind has
shifted, by the marcy of God, and it has begun to rain.
Now, I think we may have summer in 'arnest, as summer
comes among these sealin' islands."

Roswell took six or eight swallows of the coffee, which
was smoking hot, and instantly felt the genial influence
diffused over his whole frame. Sending Stephen to the
other berths with this timely beverage, he now sat up in hij>
berth, and rubbed his feet and legs with his hands. The
exercise, friction, and hot coffee, soon brought him round ;
and he sprang out of his berth, and was quickly dressed.
Stimson had lighted a fire in the camboose, using the very
last of the wood, and the warmth was beginning to diffuse
itself through the building. But the change in the wind,
and the consequent melioration of the temperature, proba
bly alone saved the whole of the Oyster Pond crew from
experiencing the dire fate of that of the Vineyard craft.

Stephen got man after man out of his berth, by doses of
the steaming coffee ; and the blood being thus stimulated,
by the aid of friction, everybody was soon up and stirring.



THE SEA LIONS. 393

It was found, on inquiry, that all three of the blacks had
toes or ears frozen, and with them the usual application of
snow became necessary ; but the temperature of the house
Boon got to be so high as to render the place quite comfort
able. Warm food being deemed very essential, Stephen
had put a supply of beans and pork into his coppers; and
(he frost having been extracted from a quantity of the
bread by soaking it in cold water, a hearty meal of good,
hot, and most nourishing food, was made by all hands.
This set our sealers up, no more complaints of the frost
being heard.

It was, indeed, no longer very cold. The thermometer
was up to twenty-six above zero in the house when Roswell
turned out; and the cooking process, together with Ste
phen's fires and the shift of wind, soon brought the mer
cury up to forty. This was a cheering temperature for
those who had been breathing the polar air; and the influ
ence of the north-east gale continued to increase. The
rain and thaw produced another deluge; and the cliffs pre
sented, for several hours, a sight that might have caused
Niagara to hide her head in mortification. These sublime
scenes are of frequent occurrence amid the solitudes of the
earth ; the occasional phenomena of nature often surpass
ing in sublimity and beauty her rarest continued efforts.

The succeeding day the rain ceased, and summer ap
peared to have come in reality. It is true that at mid-day
the thermometer in the shade stood at only forty-eight ; but
in the sun it actually rose to seventy. Let those who have
ever experienced the extremes of heat and cold imagine
the delight with which our sealers moved about under such
a sun! All excess of clothing was thrown aside; and
many of the men actually pursued their work in their shirt
sleeves.

As the snow had vanished quite as suddenly as it came,
everything and everybody was now in active motion. Not
a man of the crew was disposed to run the risk of encoun
tering nny more cold on Sealer's Land. Roswell himself
was of opinion that the late severe weather was the dying
effort of the winter, and that no more cold was to be ex
pected ; and Stimson agreed with him in this notion. The
Bails were taken down from around the house, and those



394 THE SEA LIONS.

articles it was intended to carry away were transferred to
the schooner as fast as the difficulties of the road would
allow. While his mates were carrying on this duty, our
young master took an early occasion to examine the state
of matters generally on the island. With this view he
ascended to the plain, and went half-way up the mountain,
desiring to get a good look into the offing.

It was soon ascertained that the recent deluge had swept
all the ice and every trace of the dead into the sea. The
body of Daggett had disappeared, with the snow-bank in
which it had been buried; and all the carcases of the seals
had been washed away. In a word, the rocks were as
naked and as clean as if man's foot had never passed over
them. From the facts that skeletons of seals had been
found strewed along the north shore, and the present void,
Roswell was led to infer that the late storm had been one
of unusual intensity, and most probably of a character to
occur only at long intervals.

But the state of the ice was the point of greatest interest.
The schooner could now be got ready for sea in a week,
and that easily ; but there she lay, imbedded in a field of
ice that still covered nearly the whole of the waters within
the group. As Roswell stood on the cliffs which overlooked
the cove, he calculated the distance it would be necessary
to take the schooner through the ice by sawing and cutting,
and that through a field known to be some four feet thick,
at five good miles at least. So Herculean did this task ap
pear to be, that he even thought of abandoning his vessel
altogether, and of setting out in the boats, as soon as the
summer was fairly commenced. On reflection, however,
this last plan was reserved as a dernier ressort, the danger
of encountering the tempests of those seas in a whale-boat,
without covering or fire, being much too great to be thought
of, so long as any reasonable alternative offered.

The bergs to the southward were in motion, and a large
fleet of them was putting to sea, as it might be, coming in
v om those remote and then unknown regions in which
tey were formed. From the mountain, our hero counted
1 least a hundred, all regularly shaped, with tops like that
of table-land, and with even, regular sides, and upright at
titudes. It was very desirable to get ahed of the*e new



THE SEA LIONS. 305

maritime Alps, for the ocean to the northward was un
usually clear of ice of all kinds, that lodged between the
islands excepted.

So long as it was safe to calculate on the regular changes
of the seasons, Roswell knew that patience and vigilance
would serve his turn, by bringing everything round in its
proper time and place. But it was by no means certain
that it was a usual occurrence for the Great Bay to be
crammed with field-ice, as had happened the past winter ;
if the actual state of the surrounding waters were an ex
ception instead of the rule. On examining the shores,
however, it was found that the rain and melted snow had
created a sort of margin, and that the strong winds which
had been blowing, and which in fact were still blowing,
had produced a gradually increasing attrition, until a space
existed between the weather-side of the field and the rocks
that was some thirty fathoms wide. This was an important
discovery, and brought up a most grave question for deci
sion.

Owing to the shape of the surrounding land, it would not
be possible for the ice to float out in a body, for two or
three months to come ; or until so much had melted as to
leave room for the field to pass the capes and head-lands.
It never could have entered the bay for the same reason,
but for the resistless power of a field that extended leagues
out into the ocean, where, acted on jointly by wind and
tide, it came down with a momentum that was resistless,
ripping and tearing the edges of the field as if they had
been so much freshly turned up mould. It was, then, a
question how to get the schooner out of her present bed,
and into clear water.

The reader will probably remember that, on her first
arrival at the group, the Sea Lion had entered the Great
Bay from the southward ; while, in her subsequent effort to
get north, she had gone out by the opposite passage. Now,
it occurred to Roswell that he might escape by the former
of these routes more readily than by the latter, and for the
following reasons: No field-ice had ever blocked up the
southern passage, which was now quite clear, though the
approach to it just then was choked by the manner in
which the north-east crala that was still blowing, pressed
34



396 THE SEA LIONS.

home against the rocks the field that so nearly filled the
bay. A shift of wind, however, must soon come ; and
when that change occurred, it was certain that this field
would move in an opposite direction, leaving the margin
of open water, that has already been mentioned, all along
the rocks. The distance was considerable, it is true riot
less than fifteen miles and the whole of it was to be made
quite close to sharp angular rocks that would penetrate the
schooner's sides almost as readily as an axe, in the event
of a nip ; but this danger might be avoided by foresight,
and a timely attention to the necessities of the case. See
ing no more available plan to get the vessel out of her pre
sent duresse, the mates came readily into this scheme, and
preparations were made to carry it out. As the cove was
so near the north-east end of Sealer's Land, it may be well
to explain that the reason this same mode of proceeding
could not be carried out in a northern direction, was the
breadth of the field seaward, and the danger of following
the north shore when the solid ice did leave it, on account
of the quantities of broken fragments that were tossing and
churning in ts front, far as the eye could reach from the
cliffs themselves.

The third day after the commencement of the thaw, the
wind came tound again from the south-west, blowing hea
vily. As was expected, this soon began to set the field in
motion, driving it over towards the volcano, and at the
same time northerly. About six in the morning, Hazard
brought a report to Roswell that a margin of open water
was beginning to form all along under the cliffs, while
there was great danger that the channel which had been
cut from the schooner to the nearest point beneath the
rocks, in readiness for this very contingency, might be
closed by the pressure of the ice without, on that within
the cove. No time was to be lost, therefore, if it was in
tended to move the craft on this shift of wind. The dis
tance that had been sawed through to make the channel
just named, did not exceed a hundred yards. The passage
was not much wider than the schooner's breadth; and it
will be easily understood that it was to the last degree im
portant to carry her through this strait as soon as possible
Although many useful articles were scattered about on the



THE -SEA LIONS. 397

ice, and several remained to be brought over the rocks
from the house, the order was given to get out lines, and
to move the vessel at once, the men set to work with hearty
good will, another glimpse of home rising before their ima
ginations; and, in five minutes after Hazard had made his
communication, the Sea Lion had gone six or eight times
her length towards the cliffs. Then came the pinch ! Had
not the ice been solid between the cape and the berth just
before occupied by the schooner, she would have been
hopelessly nipped by the closing of the artificial channel.
As it was, she was caught, and her progress was arrested ,
but the field took a cant, in consequence of the resistance
of the solid ice that filled the whole cove to the eastward
of the channel ; and, before any damage was done, the
latter began to open even faster than it had come together.
The instant the craft was released the sealers manned their
hauling lines again, and ran her up to the rocks with a
hurrah ! The margin of water was just opening, but so
prompt had been the movement of the men that it was not
yet wide enough to permit the vessel to go any further;
and it was found necessary to wait until the passage was
sufficiently wide to enable her to move ahead. The inter
vening time was occupied in bringing to the craft the arti
cles left behind.

By nine o'clock everything was on board ; the winding
channel that followed the sinuosities of the coast could be
traced far as the eye could see; the lines were manned;
and the word was again given to move. Roswell now felt
that he was engaged in much the most delicate of all his
duties. The desperate run through the fleet of bergs, and
the second attempt to get to sea, were not in certain parti
culars as hazardous as this. The field had been setting
back and forth now, for several weeks ; the margin of cleai
water increasing by the attrition at each return to the
rocks ; and it was known by observation that these changes
often occurred at very short notices. Should the wind haul
round with the sun, or one of the unaccountable currents
of those seas intervene before the south-east cape was
reached, the schooner would probably be broken into splin
ters, or ground into powder, in the course of some two or



398 THE SEA H-ONS.

three hours. It was all-important, therefore, to lose not a
moment.

Several times in the course of the first hour, the move
ment of the schooner was arrested by the want of sufficient
room to pass between projecting points in the cliffs and the
edge of the ice. On two of these occasions passages were
cut with the saw, the movement of the field not answering
to the impatience of the sealers. At the end of that most
momentous hour, however, the craft had been hauled ahead
a mile and a half, and had reached a curvature in the coast
where the margin of open water was more than fifty fathoms
wide, and the tracking of the vessel became easy and rapid.
By two o'clock the Sea Lion was at what might be called
the bottom of the Great Bay, some three or four leagues
from the cove, and at the place where the long low cape
began to run out in a south-easterly direction. As the
wind could now be felt over the rocks, the foretopsail was
set, as well as the lower sails, the latter being mainly be
calmed, however, by the land ; when the people were all
taken on board, the craft moving faster under her canvass
than by means of the hauling lines. The wind was very
fresh, and in half an hour more the south-east cape came
in sight, close as were the navigators to the rocks. Ten
minutes later, the Sea Lion was under reefed sails, stretch
ing off to the southward and eastward, in perfectly clear
water !

At first, Roswell Gardiner was disposed to rejoice, under
the impression that his greatest labour had been achieved.
A better look at the state of things around him, however,
taught the disheartening lesson of humility, by demon
strating that they had in truth but just commenced.

Although there was scarcely any field-ice to the south
ward of the group, and in its immediate neighbourhood,
there was a countless number of bergs. It is true, these
floating mountains did not come very near the passage, for
the depth of water just there usually brought them up ere
they could get into it; nevertheless, a large fleet of them
was blockading the entire group, far as the eye could reach,
looking east, west and south, or along the whole line of the
southern coast. It was at first questionable whether, and
Boon after it became certain, that the schooner could never



THE SEA LIONS. 399

beat through such dangers. Had the wind been fair, the
difficulty would have been insurmountable ; but ahead, and
blowing a little gale, the matter was out of the question.
Some other course must be adopted.

There was a choice of alternatives. One was to go en
tirely round the whole group, passing to the eastward of
the volcano, where no one of the party had ever been ; and
the other was to follow the eastern margin of the bay, keep
ing inside of it, and trusting to finding some opening by
which the schooner could force her way into clear water
to the northward. After a very brief consultation with his
mates, Roswell decided on attempting the last.

As the course now to be steered was almost dead before
the wind, the little craft, lightened of so much of her upper
works, almost flew through the water. The great source
of apprehension felt by our young men in attempting this
new expedient, was in the probability that the field would
drift home to the rocks in the north-east quarter of the
bay, which, with a south-west wind, was necessarily a quar
ter to leeward. Should this prove to be the case, it might
be found impossible to pass ahead, and the schooner would
be caught in a cul de sac ; since it would not be in the
power of her people to track her back again in the teeth of
so strong a wind. Notwithstanding these probabilities, on
Roswell went; for he saw plain enough that at such a mo
ment almost anything was better than indecision.

The rate at which the little craft was flying before a
fresh gale, in perfectly smooth water, soon put our sealers
in a better condition to form closer estimates of their
chances. The look-outs aloft, one of whom was Hazard,
the first officer, sent down on deck constant reports of what
they could see.

" How does it look ahead, now, Mr. Hazard?" demanded
Roswell, about five in the afternoon, just as his schooner
was coming close under the smoking sides of the volcano,
which had always been an object of interest to him, though
he had never found time to visit it before. " Is there no
danger of our touching the ground, close in as we are to
this island?"

" I think not, sir ; when I landed here, we kept the lead
going the whole time, and we got two fathoms quite up to
34*



400 THE SEA LIONS.

the shore. In my judgment, Captain Gar'ner, we may run
down along this land as bold as lions."

"And how does it look ahead? I've no wish to get
jammed here, close aboard of a volcano, which may be
choking us all with its smoke before we know where we
are."

" Not much danger of that, sir, with this wind. These
volcanoes are nothin' but playthings, a'ter all. The vapour

is driving off towards the north-east That was a crack,

with a vengeance !"

Just as Hazard was boasting of the innocuous character
of a volcano, that near them fired a gun, as the men after
wards called it, casting into the air a large flight of cinders
and stones, accompanied by a sharp flash of flame. All
the lighter materials drove away to leeward, but the hea
vier followed the law of projectiles, and scattered in all
directions. Several stones of some size fell quite close to
the schooner, and a few smaller actually came down on her
decks.

" It will never do to stop here to boil our pot," cried
Roswell to the mate. " We must get away from this, Mr.
Hazard, as fast as the good craft can travel !"

" Get away it is, sir. There is nothing very near ahead
to stop us; though it does look more toward the east .cape
as if the field was jammed in that quarter."

" Keep all your eyes about you, sir ; and look out espe
cially for any opening among the smaller islands ahead. I
am not without hope that the currents which run among
them may give us a clear passage in that quarter."

These words explain precisely that which did actually
occur. On went the schooner, almost brushing the base of
the volcano, causing Roswell many a bound of the heart,
when he fancied she must strike; but she went clear. All
this time, it was crack, crack, crack, from the crater, rum
bling sounds and heavy explosions ; the last attended by
flames, and smoke of a pitchy darkness. A dozen times the
Sea Lion had very narrow escapes when nearest to the
danger, stones of a weight to pass through her decks and



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperWorks (Volume 32) → online text (page 36 of 39)