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

THE RING.-- THE BURIAL.-- A MAUSOLEUM OF ICE.

In the early dawn La Salle started from sleep, as he felt a chill touch upon his forehead, and saw Regnar standing above him, booted and equipped for travel. In one hand he held a cup of hot coffee, and in the other the breast of a roast goose, which he offered to La Salle in silence. Fearful of awaking their companions, nothing was said by either, until, armed and equipped, they issued from the hut, and hastened towards the scene of last night’s strange adventure.

It was the nineteenth of the month, and the ninth day of their involuntary voyage, and La Salle, as usual, gave a sweeping glance at ice and sky, to determine as nearly as possible the direction of their drift, and the probable state of the weather for the next twelve hours.

“We shall know all that at sunrise,” said Regnar; and avoiding the haunts of the seals, they hurried through the gray light along the devious windings of the ice-foot, until they reached the murdered sealer. The body lay as it had been landed on the edge of a pool, and was that of a singularly handsome man, about forty-five years of age. No beard, save a well-kept mustache, covered the sharply-moulded features; and even the death-wound the work of a small-sized bullet had left but a tiny livid discoloration on the marble forehead.

Turning the body over, a work of some time and difficulty, for the wet clothes had frozen, an expression of surprise escaped the lips of Regnar, for the rear of the skull, from which the missile had issued, was almost blown into pieces.

“How could a bullet have done this?” asked the youth, gravely.

“There is but one kind of missile which produces such a terrible wound the percussion rifle-shell, perfected years ago by an army officer in India, and since then introduced into every part of the globe. Into the point of a cylindro-conical slug is inserted a thin copper cartridge, loaded with powder, and primed with fulminate of mercury. This bullet enters the flesh, but explodes when it strikes a bone, and a huge mass of bone and muscle is usually driven out in front of the issuing projectile. Such a bullet has destroyed this man.”

A curious ring on the little finger of the right hand attracted the notice of Regnar, who with a glad cry seized the stiffened hand and tried to remove it, but the swollen flesh baffled his efforts.

“I must have that ring, La Salle,” said he, ceasing his futile efforts. “I cannot leave that with his body.” And taking up his axe, he severed the finger at the joint, and removed the circlet.

La Salle started back in horror at what he could but consider a senseless and unwarranted profanation; but Orloff, drawing his knife, made a close search of the clothing worn by the deceased, ripping open every seam and fold which seemed capable of concealing the slightest scrap of paper, while his companion, lost in astonishment and disgust, scorned to question, and awaited an explanation of his conduct.

Beyond the ring, however, little was found, for the larger pockets of the deceased were turned inside out, the vest had been opened, and a sharp knife had evidently cut through the heavy under-garments of knitted woolens. No mark of the knife was to be seen on the exposed flesh; and Regnar, breaking the oppressive silence, said,

“Why was this done, La Salle?”

“Perhaps he had a money-belt around his waist. Many people carry their money and valuables thus,” said La Salle, coldly.

Regnar continued the search, finding in a narrow pocket, like that used by carpenters for their rules, but opening on the inside of the right pantaloon pocket, a long, slender dagger, with double cutting edges. The handle was curiously carved, of walrus ivory, and represented an ancient Danish warrior, in his mail-shirt, and armed with battle-axe and sword. The sheath, slender and flexible, was evidently of more modern make, formed of rough shark-skin, with richly chased mountings of silver.

“That is all,” said Regnar. “Let us find him a grave.”

“We must hide the body surely,” said La Salle, “for if the vessel returns to get her load, and it is found, we may be charged with mutilating the body, and perhaps with murder. Let us consign it to the sea.”

“We have nothing with which to sink it, and the waters have already given up their trust. There, if I mistake not, we shall find a tomb worthy of a better man than this.”

A ledge of the iceberg, some forty feet above the wave-worn base, had received a tiny branch of the fresh-water stream, at some time long previous, and its course could still be traced by the immense icicle formation, which, in fantastical imagery of a lofty cascade, seemed still to fall from base to summit. Between the ledge and the water were formed huge irregular pillars and buttresses of opaline ice whose semi-transparency seemed to indicate the presence of a cave beneath.

Axe in hand, Regnar led the way to the base of the berg, and carefully examined every nook and cranny, evidently seeking a concealed opening. A narrow aperture was at last found, some twenty feet above the ice-pool; and at the call of his companion, La Salle ascended with the coil of rope, one end of which he fastened firmly to a projection of the berg.

“Come down here; there is no danger,” said the lad; and descending, La Salle found himself in a cave of large size and almost fairy-like beauty.

Over their heads the ledge projected some twenty feet above a floor, levelled by the earlier flow of the cascade, which, by some sudden removal of obstructing ice or snow, had been projected beyond the little pool, whose surface had frozen into a level floor of crystal. Over this, as upon the roof and back of the cave, had gathered groups of those beautiful congelations to be found only on newly-formed ice, and in seasons of intense cold. Among them were to be noticed many minute patterns of the most delicate star-crystals, and the surface of the floor was nearly covered with congelations of the purest white, resembling in shape, size, and beauty the leaf of the moss-rose. A fantastic conglomeration of irregular, round, and convoluted pillars, running into each other in indescribable ramifications, formed the outer wall, whose semi-translucent crystal, like opal glass, allowed the rays of the rising sun to shower a mild and silvery radiance upon the hidden wonders of the spacious grotto.

“Here he will sleep, after a life of crime and treachery, in a tomb such as few monarchs can boast of, until in some terrible gale, amid tremendous and overwhelming seas, this vast fabric shall strew the ocean with its ruins, and give his icy form to the monsters of the summer seas.”

“Let us then to our task, Regnar,” said La Salle, “for our friends may follow on our track, and I fear we shall have need of the closest secrecy concerning the fate of this unhappy man, at least until we are safely landed on civilized shores.”

Carefully descending the slippery way which led up to the aperture, they descended to the level ice, and seeking the floe, enveloped the body in one of the many seal-skins surrounding them, swathing it closely, and binding the hairy covering with strong lashings of raw hide, leaving loops at each extremity. Gently drawing it to the ice below the aperture, they ran the cord through the loops, knotting each firmly, so that nearly half the rope projected from each end.

Taking one end, and setting the shrouded form upright against the smooth slope, the companions ascended to the aperture, and with some difficulty managed to haul up their unwonted burden.

“We can find no footing here,” said Regnar, who no longer affected his partial ignorance of English. “You, I think, had better descend again, and take a turn of your end around that pinnacle. I will go down into the grotto and guide its descent.”

By this means the closely-swathed body was gently lowered into its last resting-place, and gathering up the axes and his rifle, La Salle followed to assist in in the final rites of sepulture. Regnar pointed to the centre of the floor.

“That will furnish a pedestal which would befit the sarcophagus of a king.”

Among the irregular mounds formed by the dripping of water from the roof above, was an ice stalagmite, about five feet high, and seven feet in length, broad at the base, but rapidly narrowing to a sharp point. Attacking this with his axe, Regnar soon split off the point, and commenced hewing the stalagmite down to a uniform height of about two feet. La Salle assisted, and in the course of twenty minutes they had formed a snowy pedestal, whose irregular outline bore no small resemblance to that of the burden it was to sustain. Regnar cleared away the ice-chips, hurling the larger shards to an obscure corner, and carrying the smaller ones in his reversed fur cap.

At last the work was completed to his satisfaction; and motioning to La Salle, he cast off the lashings, and raising the body, they placed it on the pedestal of ice. Drawing the long, slender dagger from its sheath, Regnar pierced several holes through the corners of the pedestal, and with the tough cords of raw hide lashed the body firmly to its spotless support; then kneeling beside it, the lad bowed his head as if in silent prayer. La Salle followed his example.

For a moment or two he heard nothing but the ripple and plash of the ice-brook descending the side of the berg fifty yards away; but with the burial of his enemy, the lad’s self-control had deserted him, and he burst into a passionate outbreak of sobs and tears.