Read CHAPTER XVI of Adrift in the Ice-Fields , free online book, by Charles W. Hall, on ReadCentral.com.

THE BREEDING-GROUNDS OF THE SEAL.-- A CURIOUS SIGHT.-- A SHARP ENCOUNTER.-- ICE CHANGES.

Early the next morning the breakfast was hurried over, and a survey of the ice disclosed little change from the conditions of the day before, except that the natural attraction of floating bodies for each other was evidently slowly closing the pools and intervening channels.

Leaving Carlo to guard their dwelling, and tying the black “McIntosh” blanket to the signal-staff, the four stepped into the somewhat narrow quarters of their clumsy boat, and using the oars as paddles, set off through a channel which led, as nearly as they could judge, in the direction of the field of seals seen the day before, and whose constant whining still gave evidence of their close proximity.

Scarcely two miles of tortuous winding through channels of perfectly calm water, led them into a pool in which hundreds of large seals were disporting themselves, but which, on seeing the boat, scattered in all directions, after a moment of stupidly curious exposure to the fire of the intruders.

“How lucky it is that these animals don’t know their own power!” said Waring. “If they chose they could soon upset the boat, and tear us in pieces.”

“Not without losing at least half a dozen of their leaders, and that is generally sufficient to deter hundreds of men, whose reasoning powers are much superior to these amphibia,” said La Salle.

Passing into a narrow channel, in which at every turn they came close upon swimming and sleeping seals, they suddenly swept up to the verge of a vast and heavy field, on which thousands of the young of these animals lay in helpless inability to move. Most of these were what are called “white-coats,” fat little things, covered with a thick coat of woolly fur, but a few had attained their third week of existence, and wore their close-laid fur, whose silvery, sword-like fibres, when wet, lie flat and smooth as glass.

Among the smaller fry were many adult animals, both male and female the latter being generally engaged in suckling their young.

The landing of the hunters was the signal for a general stampede, and the monotonous whining of the “white-coats” was almost lost in the deep barking of the mothers, and the hoarse roars of the large males.

The floe on which the young seals lay was a thick field of ice, whose clear, greenish sides showed that it was the product of some Greenland glacier. Years ago, when first detached from the ice-river of some tortuous fiord, it had perhaps measured its depth in hundreds of yards; and even now, judging from its height above the surface of the sea, about eight feet on the average, it must have drawn nearly eight fathoms of water.

The party had landed on a kind of sloping beach, probably worn by the action of the sun, and what is even more destructive, the wash of the sea-waves, and ascending found that the floe was nearly level for an area of at least half a square mile, forming a kind of ice-meadow, surrounded on three sides by sloping hills twenty feet higher. In the sheltered valley thus formed lay at least a thousand seals, old and young, of several species, and all ages.

There were, here and there, pairs of the small Greenland seal (Phoca Vitulina), weighing from forty to sixty pounds, and marked on the back with beautiful mottlings of black, shaded down to the silvery white of its spotless breast. These, when disturbed near the edge of the floe, slid noiselessly into the water, going down tail foremost into the depths. Most plentiful of all were the “springing seals,” (Phoca Hispida), known sometimes from its markings as “the harp,” less beautiful in form, and with hair of a dusky yellow on the under side. These, when near the slope, sprang headlong into the water, and, diving with a splash, came up in shoals, darting forward with a springing motion, and emerging and disappearing much like a shoal of porpoises.

Larger, coarser, and with crested heads, long bristles, and harsher hair, the “bearded seal” (Phoca Barbata), the noblest quarry of the Newfoundland sealer, who always speaks of him as “the old hood sile,” crawled with uncouth but rapid shuffling motions to the brink, and with splashings that threw the spray high in air, dived at once, only emerging when almost beyond rifle range, where rolling, and splashing like whales, the uncouth monsters would turn to inspect the strange intruder.

“Come, Charley,” said Waring, “let us shoot. See, they will all be in the water before we begin.”

“No hurry,” said Regnar, phlegmatically. “Steamer almos’ load here.”

“There is no heed of haste,” said La Salle, pointing to the upper end of the ice-valley. “We have the seals in a cul-de-sac, and can take our pick, as they pass by us to the water. We want ten of the largest hoods at first, and we have about that number of bolts with us. After we get them, each can kill what small seals he needs for boots and clothing. Now for the old hoods. Fire at close range, and don’t miss. Come, let us begin the battle, for they are coming down upon us.”

By this time the alarm had become general, and finding their retreat cut off, about five hundred seals, leaving behind their helpless young, came in a disordered but solid body down towards the hunters, the smaller Greenland and “harp” seals on the wings, and evidently wishing only to escape; but in the centre a small band of the more savage “bearded seal,” their coarse bristles quivering with rage, the loose skin of their heads distended with air, and the white teeth of their yawning jaws threatening wounds and death to the invaders, came on with hoarse roarings, which rose above the weaker cries of the uncouth host like the thunder of artillery over the rattle of musketry in battle.

The usually impassive Indian now seemed in his element. His sullen eyes lit up with a true hunter’s love of the chase, when the danger is not all on one side, and only the confidence of greater skill and superior weapons overcomes the sense of personal peril. Leaping forward, he led the attack, running for some forty yards towards the advancing monsters, followed by the others, who came close on his tracks, but quite unable to charge in line.

Raising his gun, he suddenly halted scarce ten paces from the front of the sea-wolves, and, without hesitation, two of the largest shuffled ahead of their comrades, knitting their brows, and roaring with a fury which might well try the nerves of any man exposed to such an attack. One fell a little behind as Peter brought his gun to his shoulder. The first rushed forward, but as he lowered his huge head to attack, the arrow-point, hardened in the fire, shot forth in a sheet of flame, and buried itself to the feather in the brain, passing through the thin walls of the top of the skull.

At the unwonted sound, reverberated again and again from the cliff, even the forlorn hope retreated a little; but not so with the second seal. Throwing back his head until his yawning jaws almost hid the rest of his body, he came straight at the destroyer of his mate, roaring with redoubled fury. The heavy gun again poured forth its contents, but to the horror of the advancing friends of the Micmac, the huge animal, vomiting torrents of blood, was seen, amid the smoke, to strike down the Indian, who was at once lost to view under the ponderous animal, which instantly rolled over dead.

In a second La Salle and Orloff were on the spot, but their aid was needless. Bruised and sore with the fall and compression, but not otherwise injured, Peter sprang to his feet, and placing his gun between his knees, proceeded to reload.

Hold seal die hard. Spose me miss ’em at first. Arrow hit all light. Me plenty wet blood though.”

He was, in truth, a fearful spectacle, being covered with gore; but a glance at the dead beast revealed the cause. The arrow had passed into the mouth, transfixing the large arteries and the base of the brain, and the blood was still deluging the ice in a crimson tide, from which the hot vapors and sickening odor rose, maddening the remaining “hoods” to another charge.

Quite a number of the smaller seals on the flanks had got by, and as the pressure lessened, the array of the centre partook more of the “open order” of advance. To a party as well armed as the four friends, this change assured a bloodless victory. Each missile, fired point-blank, did its work, and the huge monsters, unable to seize the agile hunters, as they eluded their ponderous charge, received the fatal shot at such close range that the fur around the wound was often scorched by the burning powder.

Every barrel had been discharged, nine hooded seals had fallen, and the survivors had already reached the open water; but frightened by the unwonted sights and sounds, many of the smaller seals still remained at the upper end of the valley, or with awkward speed were climbing the sloping ice-hills which sheltered it. Drawing an axe from his belt, Regnar started forward in pursuit. Peter and Waring, with clubs of hard wood, followed, and La Salle, reloading his ponderous weapon, brought up the rear.

A massacre of helpless and beautiful animals followed, for the next few moments, for Regnar, with a single tap on the nose, killed two Greenland seals; and following his example, Peter and Waring disposed of as many more. Suddenly a loud cry from the latter broke the silent butchery.

“Look! Stop that old hood! That makes ten. My goodness! I never see such seal! That’s right, Peter, head him off. Hit him again, Waring! Take that, you old bladder-nose!”

The seal, a monstrous one, a veteran male, had attempted to scale the higher mounds, but surrounded by his more agile enemies, halted and showed fight. In vain Waring and Peter showered tremendous blows upon his head with their beechen clubs, and even the heavy axe of Orloff fell upon his natural helmet of air-distended skin, with a violence whose only effect was to increase the anger of the enraged amphibia, and fill the scene of the strife with hollow sounds, like the hoarse booming of a big drum.

At last Waring missed his aim, and his club, which was slung at his wrist by a kind of sword knot, was seized in the jaws of the seal, and his succeeding rush jerked the frightened lad from his footing beneath the fore-flippers of the animal. It was only the work of an instant for those terrible jaws to grind the club into splinters, and the next second the glittering teeth were about to close upon his helpless victim. At that juncture a huge rusty tube was thrust past Regnar’s head into the very face of the seal; a tremendous concussion threw him upon the ice, stunned and deafened; and the monster, rearing into the air, seemed to be fairly dashed to the ice, shivering with the tremor of death.

“Are you hurt, George?” asked La Salle, breathless with haste and restrained emotion.

“No, Charley; I am safe, thanks to you.”

And the lad, still weak with his previous illness, fear, and excitement, rose, threw his arms around his preserver’s neck, and burst into a passion of tears.

“Better look, Regnar. Guess blow him head off too,” grumbled Peter, with a strange mixture of vexation, pleasure, and humor in his tone, for he loved Regnar, disliked to see men or boys cry, and knew that Regnar’s misadventure was more unpleasant than dangerous.

In a moment or so Regnar arose, holding his head with both hands, and an evident feeling of uncertainty as to his whereabouts.

“Well, you call that gun Baby! I don’t want her crying anywhere near me, after this. I say, La Salle, you sure my head all right on shoulders?”

La Salle hastened to assure him that all was correct, but Regnar gave a grim smile, and continued:

“It no use; I can’t hear, not if it thunder. I’ve no doubt you say you’re sorry, but I no hear your ’pology, and I don’t think I ever shall again. Well, never mind. No time then to say, ‘By your leave, sir,’ and I glad George got clear all right.”

Drawing their knives the party commenced the less pleasant and exciting task of flaying and butchering their victims. The ten “hoods” were enormous fellows, averaging eight feet in length, and nearly six in circumference, and weighing from five to six hundred weight each. Only two were eviscerated for the sake of the heart and membranous vessels; but the heads of all were struck off for the sake of the brains, and the large sinews were extracted for “sewing thread.” It was noon when the first load was sent off, under the care of Regnar and La Salle, to the home berg, and, two hours later, when they returned to the floe, they found, with pleasure, that the distance between the two points had materially lessened.

Climbing the highest point of the floe, La Salle looked down upon a strange spectacle. Reaching away a mile or two to windward was a succession of floes, similar to the one on which he stood. Upon them all the seals were gathered in hundreds, and beyond the last of the chain a huge iceberg a perfect mountain of congealed water rose nearly a hundred feet into the air. From its sides, resplendent with prismatic colors and reflected light, flashed more than one cascade of pure fresh water, and the light breeze, as it blew against its vertical walls, or perhaps some currents deep down below the surface, was impelling the huge mass, and the line of floes pushed before it, down the lane of open water, which led to the floating home of the wanderers.

“We shall have but a short distance to row this load,” said La Salle, as he descended to the party; and indeed at that very moment the discolored mound, surmounted by its dusky banner, appeared in sight, and before long only about a quarter of a mile separated the two. At this point the undetermined cause which had produced this change ceased, and the party rowed homeward with their last load, just in time as the pack closed in, and the channel through which they had rowed, in the morning, over a glassy expanse of nearly a mile in width, narrowed, until, with a shock which was wholly unexpected, so gradual and gentle seemed the motion, the opposing borders were again united, and the waves of the sea were no longer accessible.

That evening the party supped off fried seal liver and heart, and found them fully up to the standard of excellence expressed by Regnar, who said,

“Reindeer steak good beef, ptarmigan good beef, brent good beef, seal liver best beef of all.”

Before going to bed La Salle cut into the ice-hole, which had been filled some days before with salt water. After much cutting, he came to about two quarts of water, which seemed thick and heavy. Baling this, with a rude spoon, into their only iron utensil, it was placed amid the embers, and left to boil away for the evening, while the adventurers, gathering around their fire took counsel as to what step was to be taken next.

“Let us make a tent,” said Waring. “First thing we know this old floe will split in two in a storm, and we shall have no house.”

“Spose ’em lose house, we want clo’es. Need good boots too,” said Peter, who was indeed but poorly provided in this respect, compared with the rest of the four adventurers.

“If we have a good boat, we have shelter on land or water,” said Regnar, sententiously.

“Regnar is right, and we must enlarge the capacity of our boat. She has too little standing room, and we four should have little chance in her in a heavy storm at sea. To-morrow we will make her into a life-boat at once, for this pleasant weather cannot last long.”

All agreed with La Salle in this decision, and accordingly the evening was spent in preparing the seal-sinews, and in cutting thongs of seal-hide from one of the largest skins. These, when soaked in water, were capable of considerable extension, but in drying contracted, making a lashing of the hardness and nearly the strength of iron.

The sinews were, many of them, a yard in length, and at least the diameter of a large goose-quill. These split readily into threads of any required firmness, and before the party retired, quite a bundle of large and small thread was prepared. For the first time they worked by the glare of their Esquimaux lamp, which, besides its shallow bowl of soapstone, consisted of a top of thin sheet-iron pierced for six wicks, each of which was flat, about one sixteenth of an inch thick, and an inch wide. That evening all six were lighted five of them being of cotton thread, and the sixth cut from the brim of an old white felt summer hat, used by Waring instead of his fur cap, when the sun shone too warmly at noon. The top was made loose, so as to rest on the blubber, and the heat tried out the oil as fast as it was wanted.

The heat produced was quite sufficient for this narrow room, and the soft light afforded by the seal-oil, lit up the hut with a mild yellow radiance, far more cheerful than the red glare of the wood-fire, and the old stove suspended above the flame carried off the smoke, and refracted the heat more perfectly into the lower part of the hut.

The day’s hunt had afforded all the blubber which they could burn in a month; and their stock of meat, “cached” in another hillock of their berg, was nearly sufficient food for the same period. But long before that time should elapse the young leader knew that relief must come, or that in some grand convulsion of the warring elements, amid the crash of colliding ice-fields and the sweep of resistless surges, the unequal conflict between human weakness and the tireless forces of nature must end, and to him and his comrades “life’s fitful dream” would be over.

Therefore, as he made the seventh brief entry in his pocket diary, he watched jealously the faces of his companions, lest they should read in his face the reflection of his misgivings, as he traced these lines,

“A week has elapsed since we left St. Pierre’s; and as yet we have been safe in the centre of the pack. It is scarcely possible that another week will be as favorable to us as this has been, and no risk must prevent us from reaching the first sail in sight.”