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

ENLARGING THE BOAT.-- WINGED SCAVENGERS.-- NOTICE TO QUIT.

Orloff’s final observation, at about ten o’clock on the night of the 19th, judging by the position of the North Star, gave the wind as about west-south-west, blowing pretty sharply, and closing the scattered pack well together. The following morning the wind still remained in the same quarter, and it was generally agreed that they must be somewhere in latitude 48 deg.+ and longitude 63 deg.+, or say about forty miles north-west of Amherst Island, the largest of the Magdalen group.

After a breakfast of stewed phalaropes, whose tender, plover-like flesh was a pleasing change from the hitherto almost unvaried roast sea-fowl diet of the last week, the boat was drawn out upon the level platform near the hut, and removing her side and covering boards, the party held a survey of their only resource in case of a breaking up of the ice. After being measured by Peter, who claimed that the upper joint of his thumb was just an inch in length, the following measurements were found to be nearly correct: Length over all, sixteen feet; extreme breadth of beam, four feet; length of well, eight feet; breadth of well, three feet; depth of boat, fifteen inches.

About eight feet, it will be seen, was decked, and a space of only eight feet by three was all that was available for the reception of four men and the working of the boat. It was decided to remove three feet of the rear half-deck, increasing the open space to eleven feet. This was easily done, leaving the strong cross-timbers untouched, and also six inches of weather-board on each side.

The after part of the combing of the old well was removed and set up farther aft, and that of the sides was continued until the whole of the open section of the boat was thus protected from the wash of the sea. The smaller seals had been skinned, as a stocking is turned off of the foot, leaving but one aperture, that of the diameter of the neck. It was a work of some trouble, but was at last accomplished, and these skins, after being deprived of their inner coating of blubber, were easily formed into air-tight bags, and provided with narrow tube-like nozzles by carefully removing the bones from one of the flippers. These were duly inflated with air, and securely lashed on the inner side of the boat under the weather-boarding. Six of these were thus placed, two on each side, forward and aft, and two cross-ways under the thwarts, thus forming a very fair life-boat.

In addition to these the bows and stern were raised about six inches by strips of the sides of the broken float nailed to the gunwale, and strengthened by cross-pieces of planking from the bottom. These were given considerable shear, so as to be lifted by a sea, instead of cutting into it. Besides these, rue-raddies, or shoulder-belts of hide, with a strap attached to the sides of the boat, were adapted to the height of each man, and each of the party was assigned a position in the craft, from which there was to be no deviation.

Thus La Salle steered while Waring sat next on the port side. Peter, with his single strong arm, took the other starboard berth, and Regnar was bow oar, or, rather, paddle, while Carlo’s place was under the half-deck forward.

The three seal-skins first procured were already about half tanned, and were formed into tarpaulins, being split in two lengthwise, sewed together at the ends, and again sewed to the edges of the combings with seal-sinews, forming a cover for the guns, and also by means of a gathering cord of fishing-line looped through their edges, capable of being drawn up and fastened at about the height of the waist of a man when kneeling, thus forming an additional protection against a breaking sea.

The oars, with one exception, were cut down into paddles by Peter, for the paddle, in ice navigation, is incomparably superior to the oar, which requires open water for effectual use. One oar, however, was left of its original length for a support to the McIntosh, which, being about eight feet square, and furnished with brass eyelets, was easily fitted as a sail; and owing to its black hue, was especially suitable for a signal of distress among the ice-islands of the Gulf.

It was nearly six o’clock when these repairs were completed, and the party sat down to dinner, for, except a lunch of cold roast duck, they had eaten nothing since morning. The salt water, concentrated by freezing in the Russian manner, and left to boil down the night before, had produced about two pounds of good salt; and Peter, taking his knife, soon made a neat tub, like a miniature butter firkin, in which to preserve it.

After dinner it was proposed that a short walk over the intervening ice to the sealing-grounds should be undertaken, and headed by Peter, with an axe to try any suspicious ice, the adventurers reached the floe in about fifteen minutes’ walk. Climbing the higher shore of the berg, they advanced noiselessly, and without being observed by the seals, gazed down upon the scene of yesterday’s battle. None of the seals seemed to have deserted the floe, but the ice was crowded with the young “calves” and the adult parents. Everywhere the mothers might be seen suckling their helpless young, while the males lazily basked in the rays of the setting sun, or occasionally indulged in a battle with some rival, which was not always a bloodless encounter.

Among the living lay the mangled corpses of yesterday’s hunt, and over each fought and feasted a host of gannets, sea-gulls, and cormorants. The bodies were hidden from view by the birds, which tore with beak and weak palmated talons, at the greasy, bloody carcasses, and above these wheeled and fluttered a cloud of competitors for a share of the spoils. Occasionally a bird bolder than the rest would swoop at an unprotected baby-seal, whose mother was absent, or had possibly perished the day before; but at once the older amphibia would roar in hideous concert, and charge the birds, who seemed to understand that they must give up the living prey, and confine themselves to their legitimate duties, as scavengers of this grand camping-ground of the genus Phocae.

Returning rather hastily, the party reached their quarters just at dusk, and lighting their lamp, made some weak, but very hot, coffee, the greatest treat which their limited variety of comestibles afforded. Peter busied himself with cleaning and inflating a number of the larger entrails and membranous viscera of the hooded seal. These were for life-preservers, and vessels for the preservation of water and oil in their anticipated boat-voyage. Regnar cut out no less than three pairs of moccason-boots, choosing the thickest skins, and then prepared them with the brain-paste for curing in the mild warmth of the air around the chimney. Waring cleansed the cooking utensils, and made up some bundles of fir-twigs to cover the bottom of the boat, and La Salle wrote up his diary, sharpened an axe, fitted a strip of pine board for a sprit to the blanket sail, and as bedtime drew near, went out to take a last look at the weather.

It was quite cold, and the wind, although light, was from the north-west, as near as could be judged without a compass. As Peter had noted a change of wind about midday, the pack had probably again changed its course of drift from east to south-east, or, perhaps, a point farther south, as the general course of the current in that part of the Gulf ran from south-south-east to south.

Returning to his companions, he communicated these details, closing by saying,

“As I think, we are now about due west of the Magdalen group; and if this wind holds, we shall probably pass Amherst Island during the next twenty-four hours. If in sight, we must try to push through the ice to land, for the whole shore is inhabited. As many sealers should now be in this part of the Gulf, we should always be upon the watch for them.”

“I think,” said Waring, “that we ought to keep one man as a lookout on the highest ice in the vicinity.”

“Pity the great iceberg so far off,” added Regnar.

“Sposum wind hold north-west, and ice keep packed, why not go down to-morrow and look alound?” asked Peter, quietly.

“If these westerly winds hold, there will be no danger in so doing, if, as I guess, the pack extends from here to the shore of the Magdalens. If so, we are not likely to find any sealers to the eastward, unless they have got jammed in the pack; and probably that steamer we saw the other day has passed to the south, and will make to westward before another southerly gale comes to open the ice.”

“You right, master,” said Regnar. “We go to-morrow to berg; see great ways from there, if we can get up. ’Nother thing we ought to do move off this floe before next gale, else get house broken, and lose many things.”

“Pooh!” said Waring, carelessly; “this berg would last a month yet.”

“I risk this hice, more’n twenty, tirty feet tick. Sea no break this up.”

Orloff’s eyes flashed, and he seemed about to make some angry reply, but with a visible effort to restrain himself, signed to La Salle to follow him, and went out of the hut. La Salle found him on the summit of the lookout, gazing out over the star-lit sea.

“I was angry, and came near forgetting the part I play,” said he, bitterly, in French; “but they know nothing of ice-lore, and I should not be angry at them for believing that this heavy bit of ice, although not as large as those around us, is equally as safe.”

“And why is it not?” asked La Salle.

“Because,” answered the lad, “this floe is of snow-ice, probably pierced by dozens of hidden cavities. I fancied the other night that I heard a ripple of water beneath me, as I have heard it in winter when seeking the hidden streams beneath the glaciers, but I did not hear it again, and may have been mistaken.”

“Well, we are safe, I suppose, as long as we lie deep in the pack.”

Regnar smiled pityingly.

“Do you see the kind of ice which surrounds us now those heavy floes, hard, flinty, and widespread, and that berg, gigantic, and almost as hard as glass? Well, if we have a heavy blow from the north-west, we shall be jammed between the ice now resting on the Magdalens and those Greenland monsters yonder, and if there is a weak spot in our berg

“Well, what then, Regnie?”

“We shall be ground to powder, or, at least, our berg will; and in such a break-up, we shall have little chance to save anything except our lives.”

“What, then, ought we to do?”

“We must be ready to move as soon as we crush in through this thin ice,” said Regnar, pointing to the new ice and broken fragments over which they had crossed at dark. “Let us put our guns and food in the boat, and have her already for use; by morning we shall have a heavy nip, or a shift of wind, and in either case we ought to change our quarters.”

As they turned to descend the hummock, a crack was heard, and a large part of the berg fell with a terrible crash. Peter and Waring rushed from the hut with cries of terror, and Carlo, whining with fear, bounded up the slope, as if to seek protection from his master. Regnar was the first to recover his coolness.

“Let us see what damage is done now,” said he; and descending, he seized an oar and a rope, and went to the verge of the chasm. La Salle rushed into the hut, lighted his lantern, and joined Regnar, who was fastening the rope around his waist. “I don’t think there is much danger, but if I get in, haul me out,” said he, giving the coil into La Salle’s keeping; and seizing the lantern, he leaped down upon the severed portion.

Fearlessly moving along the face of the berg, he surveyed it as thoroughly as possible by the light of his lantern, and at last, approaching the lowest part of the wall, called to them to pull sharply on the rope, and with its help ascended the berg.

“You are all right just now,” said he, “but when a strain does come upon us, the cleavage will be right through our hut. We had better get our tools into the boat, and keep watch during the night, for, with the first nip, or heavy sea, we shall no longer have a house to cover us.”

It may well be believed but few of the party slept much that night, and that the first dawn was hailed as a welcome visitant. Regnar alone, who had been the first to give the alarm, was the only one who could sleep soundly through the hours not occupied on the watch, and he alone awoke refreshed and vigorous when the welcome sunrise flooded the east with rosy beams, and cast a magical flood of reflected light over every berg and pinnacle.