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

A CHANGE OF BASE.-- BUILDING A SNOW-HUT.-- THE VIEW FROM THE BERG.-- A STRANGE MEETING.

Breakfast over, all decided to remove at once to the higher ice of the vast floe occupied by the seals. There were a number of reasons why this place was chosen, but the principal ones were, that it would be likely to be sought by sealers, would supply them for a long time with food and fire, and would stand almost any pressure and a heavy sea, without “breaking up.”

The boat was accordingly loaded with the weapons, tools, and bedding, and run over the intervening ice with very little difficulty, although it took a good half hour to ascend the ice-slopes, which were steep and slippery. Returning, the party took each a seal-skin, with the hair side down, and loading them with the remaining decoys, fragments of wood, the Esquimaux lamp and its chimney, and a part of the fir boughs, returned again to their new location.

Some convulsion of the ice, had strewed the shores of this field with piles of young field-ice about a foot thick, and with this material Regnar at once commenced operations. While Peter rapidly split off cakes about a foot wide and two or three long, La Salle and Waring slid them along the ice to Orloff, who, furnished with the other axe and a pail of water, rapidly built them into walls a foot thick and eight feet square. A dash of water soon froze the blocks together, and as the material was near at hand, in the course of the forenoon walls five feet in height, with a single narrow entrance, had been raised. At this height the blocks were ordered to be made two feet square, and of but half the thickness.

These were laid flatways, with their edges not quite plumb with the outside edge of the wall, and being frozen into place, left an uncovered space about five feet six inches square. Returning to the old berg, the party took down the shooting-box from the top of the cave, and filling it with the remaining boughs, and a part of the seal-skins, blubber, &c., regained the floe, and unloading the box, placed it as a roof on the new dwelling. A single layer of “ice-bricks,” as Waring termed them, was placed around its edge, and being thoroughly wetted, formed a strong and weather-proof joining; and shoveling the debris from the interior, the lamp was set up and lighted, the twigs spread thickly over the icy floor, and bringing in their few household goods, the party, tired and hungry, sat down to a lunch of hard bread and weak coffee.

A final trip of all hands brought over the remainder of their birds, blubber, and skins, much being drawn back on the bottom of the float, which, although lessened in width nearly a foot, still retained both its runners, and made quite a decent sledge.

The wind still blew from the north-west, and the pack began to show evidences of the pressure of the large body of ice to windward; but La Salle and Orloff, although much fatigued, still thought it best to try to get a survey of the scene from the great berg a little over a mile away. Keeping on the leeward side of the floes, they reached its base without difficulty, and without delay sought a place to ascend. Fortunately a large stream of fresh water from above, had worn a deep gulch in the huge wall, and up this our adventurers managed to climb, although more than once each had to use his axe to cut steps in the glassy ice.

Once on the top of the berg, however, they felt repaid for the additional fatigue of their journey and ascent. Below them to the east, the floes were like those they had traversed, covered with seals, and about twenty miles away the highlands of Amherst Island showed plainly in the crimson light of the declining sun.

To the north and west all was ice, and in neither direction could either see any signs of the presence of man. To the southward the pack seemed more open, and as they watched, they saw the leads grow wider, and the pools becoming more frequent.

“We are passing the islands fast,” said Regnar, “and by to-morrow will be well to the south-east of Deadman’s Island. Let us descend, for it grows colder every moment.”

Turning, they sought the gulch, only pausing a moment to view the pond which fed the streams, which poured continuously from the sides of this great ice-island. It occupied a large depression in the centre of the berg, and was estimated by Regnar to occupy an area of at least six acres.

As they turned to go, Regnar’s eye caught sight of a floe at the foot of the berg.

“Are not those dead seals yonder?” said he. “It seems to me that I see piles of dead bodies, and skins hung on the pinnacles, and then yes, there is a flag on a pole.”

Hastily descending, the two friends ran at full speed to the floe. It proved to be as Regnar had said. There were hundreds of slaughtered seals, and it was evident that, as far as the eye could reach, the work of death had been complete.

Still something had occurred to prevent the hunters from securing their rich booty, for huge piles of skins, with their adhering blubber, were scattered over the ice, and near one was planted firmly in the floe a boat-hook, with a small flag at the top. Regnar drew it from the ice, and looked searchingly at flag and shaft; the pennon was of crimson, without lettering or private signal, but on the pole was scorched in deep, black characters, the legend “Str. Mercedes.”

“Here has been a good day’s work, probably by that steamer whose smoke we saw the other day,” said La Salle; “doubtless she was afraid of being nipped by this ice in the last southerly gale, and made off in time to avoid it. If so, she will be back again after her cargo, when the ice gets south of the islands.”

“Is that a seal, Charley?”

The words were simple, but the tone was so unlike the usual voice of the speaker, so tinged with awe and doubt, that La Salle felt a chill traverse his frame as he turned to see what had provoked the question.

Regnar stood on the brink of the only pool of open water in sight, gazing earnestly at a floating object in the centre, which appeared at first sight like a dead seal, but a second glance at the shape and size of the body revealed the corpse of a man clad in a seal-skin coat, and floating on its face.

“It is some poor fellow who has been drowned in passing from one cake to another,” said La Salle, gravely. “Let us examine the body; perhaps there are papers or valuables on it, which will identify it, or be of value to its friends. At all events, we can give it a more Christian sepulture to-morrow.”

Regnar gave no answer, but stood motionless as if turned into stone.

“Come, Regnar! wake up, man! Surely you are not afraid of a poor lifeless body. Bear a hand with that boat-hook, or, if you don’t care to touch it, hand it to me.”

Starting as if from a trance, Regnar extended the long boat-hook and gently drew the body to the shore, where La Salle, making a loop of the rope they carried, dropped it over the head and shoulders, and drawing it tightly under the arm-pits, gave one end to Regnar.

“His pockets are turned inside out,” said La Salle.

“The man has been murdered,” almost whispered the lad. “See what a terrible wound there is in the skull.”

“Let us land him, any way, Regnar. We will get him upon the ice, and to-morrow we can come down here and look into the matter. Gently, now; that’s right. Great Heavens! Regnie, lad, are you mad?”

As the body was landed, turning slowly over on its back, exposing a face handsome even in death, Regnar started, glanced curiously at the features, and dropping the line, raised the boat-hook, and with every muscle and feature alive with rage and fury, seemed about to transfix the senseless body of the dead. Then a change came over him; he lowered his arm, dropped the useless weapon, and burst into tears.

“Come, Regnie, you are worn out, and it is growing late; let us hasten back to our new hut. To-morrow we can return and look after this poor stranger.”

“Stranger! He is no stranger to me. For two years I have sought him in both hemispheres, urged on by the love of my only relative whom he betrayed, and hatred of him which could end but with his life or mine. My fondest hope was to find him, my dearest wish to lay him dead at my feet; and thus we meet at last.”

“This, then, is the man you have sought, and for this you have hidden your true character from all men. Is this the gift by which you were to gain, and I to lose?” said La Salle.

“Ask me no more to-night,” said the boy, whose powers of self-control, were only less marvellous than the innate force of his intense nature. “We have none too much light for our homeward way, and to-morrow’s sun may help us to learn more of the cause of his death, and our own duty in the premises. We will say nothing to our friends of this dreadful matter, and at early dawn we will set off alone to return here;” and taking the boat-hook and his weapons, Orloff set off with his usual firm step and tireless energy.

It was nearly dusk when they reached the floe, and saw at some hundreds of feet distant the moving lantern that told that Peter and Waring were anxious about the safety of their friends. La Salle hardly dared trust his voice, but Orloff uttered his well-known halloo; and of the four who were gathered in that dwelling of ice, the most cheerful and kindly, was he whose dead enemy lay gazing with stony eyeballs at the wintry skies, amid a golgotha of animal butchery, with the dark impress of a rifle-bullet in the centre of his forehead.

That night the cold north-wester died away, and a gentle breeze began to blow from the south. The tired Indian and the delicately-nurtured merchant’s son slept side by side on their leaf-strewn floor, and even La Salle, excited and surprised as he had been, at last fell into a broken slumber. But when all were asleep, and no human eye could pry into his secret sorrows, Regnar seated himself by the flaring lamp, and drawing from his breast a locket, took from it a small folded paper, and a closely-curled ringlet of yellow hair, such as St. Olave, the warrior saint of Norway, laid in the lap of the fair Geyra, princess of Vendland.

With many a kiss, passionate and sorrowful, he greeted the hidden love-treasures, and many a falling tear dimmed the bold eyes, and wet the ruddy cheeks of the youthful watcher, as late into the night he sat gazing into the flaring flame of that element, in which many a sorrowful heart, in its agony, seems to find a parallel of the torture it endures, and to find a saddened pleasure in the contemplation. But at last the watcher turned to his rude couch, and only the radiance of the lamp, diffused through the opaline walls of the hut, gave evidence of the presence of human beings in that desolate, wave-borne, wind-driven, desert of ice.