Read CHAPTER SIX - FIRST PERILS. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

The next day there was something else to think about, for the arctic summer strongly resembled a temperate zone winter.  The wind came in heavy gusts from the north-east; there were snow-squalls which shut them in, and on passing away left the deck an inch deep in the soft white fur, while for a time every yard, rope, and sail was covered.

“Doesn’t seem much like June, eh, Steve?” said the doctor.

But in the intervals between the squalls the sun came out warmly, the snow melted aloft, and was rapidly swept from the deck.

Three days passed like this, during which careful, slow progress had to be made, for it was early in the year yet, and June meant a month when the ice was still packed heavily and had not had time to break up and disperse, so that in even this brief time the Hvalross had sailed from summer back, as it were, into winter.  Then the wind dropped, the sea grew calm, and the vessel lay rolling slowly in the heavy swell, apparently with night coming on, which seemed the more strange, for evening by evening it had grown lighter, and but for the clouds Steve’s great desire would have been gratified, and he would have seen the midnight sun.

On this particular evening, as they lay rolling there, a dense fog had settled down upon the sea, producing the aforesaid darkness; and though this thick gloom was somewhat modified by what seemed to be a dim reflection as of light trying to force its way through, the mist was so dense that the fore part of the vessel was invisible from by the wheel, as the boy stood with the captain and Dr Handscombe waiting for the fog to lift.

A man had been sent up to the crow’s-nest; but the fog was more dense there than below, and he had descended.

“This means ice close by somewhere, eh, Lowe?” said the captain.

“Yes, sir; I’ve been listening for it, but my ear is not keen enough to pierce this fog.  Hullo! what’s the matter with the dog?”

For just then the big collie began to whine and sniff about uneasily, making little snaps in the air.

“His nose is sharper than your ears, then,” said the doctor.  “He smells something.  Can it be the land?”

“No; we must be fifty or sixty miles from the nearest land,” said the captain, and the dog barked sharply.

“What is it, Skeny?” cried Steve, stooping and patting the animal’s shaggy neck; “what is it, old fellow?”

The dog looked up at him sharply, barked again, and ran forward to scramble up on the bowsprit, where he barked loudly, sniffing uneasily in the intervals.

Two of the Norwegian sailors were forward keeping as sharp a look-out as was possible for the mist; and as Steve followed the dog he was sensible of a peculiar feeling of chill, as if an icy breath was blowing over him.

Then the dog barked again a perfect volley, and in an instant Steve felt his heart stand still, for there was a whirring rush, which rose into quite a roar, mingled with the flapping and beating of wings, and the dog grew almost frantic.

“What is it?” whispered Steve in awe-stricken tones.

“Sea-birds,” said one of the men, calmly enough.  “A big field of ice is floating by.”

He had hardly spoken before there was a heavy thud against the ship’s bows, another, and then a heavy thrusting blow which made her quiver from stem to stern and careen over, while above where they stood there was the gleam of ice, a huge mass standing five or six feet above the bulwarks, against which it kept scraping and rubbing and careening the vessel over more and more.

The captain shouted an order to the man at the wheel, and he rammed down the rudder, but there was hardly a breath of air, and the ship had no way on.  Then running forward, Captain Marsham shouted to the men to seize hitchers, sweeps, anything, to try and thrust off the vessel from the ice-floe, but all in vain.  Vessel and ice continued to grind slowly together, the ship yielding to the mighty pressure of the floe; and as every one had now rushed on deck, it seemed as if the next thing would be to lower the boats and escape before the ice rode right over the Hvalross and sank her in the icy depths.

The men toiled and thrust, but their efforts were utterly without effect, for the two heavy floating bodies had an attraction one for the other, and the grinding noise continued, till it sounded to Steve as if the ice would soon work its way through the stout copper and planks; but a few minutes later three pieces of stout spar were lowered down between the vessel’s hull and the ice to be rubbed into shreds, while the Hvalross, after yielding and careening over foot by foot to the tremendous, pressure, began to right herself till she floated upon an even keel.

If anything the fog was now more dense, making it impossible to take any observations.  All they knew was that they were changing their position as they floated steadily along in a heavy current, and that the ice which seemed to hold them fast was gradually revolving, till, from being pointed north-west, the Hvalross’ bowsprit was south-east.

All this time, while the other sailors seemed excited and startled by the risk, the Norwegians were perfectly calm and cool, Johannes expressing his opinion that they would not hurt now, but that the vessel would hug the great floe till the wind sprang up.  But Captain Marsham was not so confident of their not coming to harm grinding against an ice rock whose extent, save that it was some twenty feet above the water, it was impossible to compute; and as soon as he had convinced himself that they would not have to take to the boats, he had given orders which resulted in the rattling of iron doors and a dull roar from the engine-room, while the semi-darkness grew more dense as the grey fog-cloud began to be pervaded by another and a blacker cloud, which poured out of the funnel and then spread itself around in the calm, dense air, till the branches, as it were, of some huge tree, of which the vessel’s funnel was the stem, were spread overhead, giving the gleaming ice a peculiarly weird look.  For the engineer and his two assistants were hard at work trying to get up steam ­a long and tedious task under the circumstances.

Very little was said, very little heard but the roar of the furnace; but every now and then the pieces of spar creaked and groaned with the pressure upon them, and twice over there was a sharp splitting sound and a splash as a huge piece of the floe fell away, raising such a wave that the Hvalross swayed over as she rose and fell.

Captain Marsham paced the deck anxiously, and Steve had the doctor for companion, but they only spoke in whispers of the risk they ran.

“What I fear is,” said the latter, “that with this grinding together a great piece may split off and fall over upon our deck.”

“Not high enough,” said Steve decisively.  “If a piece did break away, it could only give us a heavy push, and might do good.”

But, all the same, as he spoke he felt that he would rather that good were not done, and contrived that in their walks about the deck they should be able to peer down into the engine-room, where the men were stoking and raking the fire to make it roar more fiercely, knowing, as they did, that once they could get up steam a very few turns of the screw would back them away from their icy enemy and make all safe.

“The first taste of the perils of the arctic sea, Steve,” said the doctor quietly.  “What would it have been if we had been going full speed and struck on this mass of ice!”

“We shouldn’t have been going full speed,” replied Steve confidently, ­“not in a fog; and I suppose we should have had some warning, as we did a little while ago.”

“Little while ago!” said the doctor; “it was hours!”

The intense excitement of the time had made it seem so short.

And all the while the roar of the fire kept on, the great tree of smoke spread more and more over the cold mist and darkened the air, till it appeared as if they were going to have real night once more instead of the light into which they had sailed.  But still the steam was not available, and after one long grinding crash Captain Marsham gave orders which resulted in bags of biscuit, tins of meat, and casks of water being placed in the two largest boats; after which, as if from a sudden thought, he ordered some blankets to be added.

“I say,” whispered Steve to the doctor, after watching these proceedings for some time, “how long will it take us to row to the nearest port?”

“To Hammerfest, my lad?  Don’t ask me.”

There was another grinding, rending noise, as the great ice-floe revolved slowly in one direction and the current bore the vessel against it in another; and as these sounds arose Steve felt a strange oppression at the chest, and it ached where Johannes had seized him, and his wrenched shoulder began to throb.  For it was as if the ice was stripping the planking of the ship from the timbers, and the boy listened for the sound of rushing water making its way below.  But on going to the side and looking over, he could see the pieces of wood which had been lowered down between the vessel’s hull and the ice being ground up and torn into fibres, while the ice kept splintering away from the edge of the floe, where in the foggy gloom the fragments looked of a dirty-white against the black, solid mass.

Steve tried to be calm and composed, but at such a time it was impossible; and with the natural desire to find some one to whom he could talk and with whom he could find companionship, he looked round to see that the doctor had joined the mate, and that the captain was on the bridge pacing anxiously to and fro and communicating with the engineer from time to time.

He glanced at the sailors, and they all but one were waiting to obey the instructions they received, and were ready with spars and ropes to lower fresh material down! for the ice-floe to grind up against the vessel’s side.

The only man not busy was Andrew McByle, and Steve hurried to him.

“Think we shall get off safely, Andra?” he whispered, as a piece of one of the spars gave forth a dismal, groaning sound which vibrated through every nerve.

“No.  She was thenking aboot my pipes, laddie.  The skipper’s certain to mak’ a fuss gin I tak’ them wi’ me in the boat.”

“Then you think we shall have to take to the boats?” said Steve excitedly.

“Ay, laddie; what else can we do?  There’s nae wint, not eneuch to turn a weather-cock upon a kirk, and there’s nae steam.  Piff wi’ all your talk aboot the engines to use when there’s nae wint!  Where are they the noo?”

“But they’ll soon have the steam up now, Andra.”

“I dinna believe it.  She’s fashed wi’ your new-fangled rubbish; all weel eneuch in fine weather, but when she want it the puir feckless mairsheennary isn’t there.”

“But you can hear the fire roaring.”

“Ay, she can hear the great flaming thing burning oop mair coal and mair coal; but it isna fire we want, laddie, but steam.”

“Yes, it is a long time,” sighed Steve.  “Do you think we must take to the boats?”

“Ay, laddie; if I were skipper I’d joost hae plenty o’ food and claes pit upon the ice, and camp there wi’ the boats hanging on aboot.  We could tak’ to them when the ice was a’ melted doon, an’ ­”

“Here, hi! lend a hand, my lad!” shouted the mate, and Andrew trotted off, leaving Steve more low-spirited than ever.

For it seemed so terrible, just on the threshold of an exciting voyage, in which he had painted to himself plenty of sport and adventure, ending in the discovery of his uncle and the men who had been his companions.  All had gone wrong, and he felt that they would have to accept their failure, and try to get back to the nearest Norwegian port, a terribly dangerous journey in an open boat.

And now, more than ever, he felt the want of some companionship, and, with a feeling of regret, he thought of the one nearest to him in years.

“They’re all men,” he said to himself, “and I’m only a boy.  They don’t think about me.  Wish I hadn’t kicked poor old Watty.”

As he thought this he walked to the door of the galley and looked in, to find that the cook was rating the boy of whom he had been thinking.

“What!” he was saying; “want to go and be ready to take to the boats?  You stay where you are till you’re wanted.  They won’t leave us behind.  Such a fuss about getting up a bit of steam; why, I’d have made that water boil an hour ago if I’d had it to do.  They don’t know how to manage it!”

“Ow !”

This was a dismal beginning of a howl from Watty.

“Here, stop that, you miserable Highland calf!  You’ve got breeches on, so I suppose you’re a boy!  Do you suppose an English lad would make that row?  I’ll be bound to say Mr Steve Young’s somewhere aft, with his hands in his pockets as usual, looking on as cool as a cucumber.”

“Na, he’s a cooard!” cried Watty viciously, ­“a lang, ugly cooard!  Makking a show o’ gooing up aloft, and all the time had to be held on.”

“You’d better not let him hear you say that, my lad, or he’ll thrash you.”

“Yah! not he!” whined the boy.  “He’s a cooard, that’s what he is; and he’s on deck waiting to be ane of the fust to go off in the boots, and I’m kep’ doon here.”

“Stop that row!” cried the cook viciously.

“I canna, I canna!  Awm thenking aboot my mither!”

“Bo! you great goose!  And nice and proud your mither’ must be of such a booby.”

“But I dinna want to be drooned!” sobbed Watty.

“Then what are you drooning yourself for in hot water?  It don’t improve you a bit, only shows white streaks on your dirty face.  Look here, if you don’t stop that noise, I’ll tell the captain when we take to the boats that you’re not worth saving, and then he’ll leave you behind.”

“Tell him to leave him behind!” whined Watty.  “He’s no good.”

“Listeners never hear any good of themselves,” said Steve to himself as he walked aft, and then made for the way down to the engine-room.  “But do I always have my hands in my pockets?”

In spite of the cold, darkness, danger, and dread the boy could not help smiling at himself and the force of habit; for at that moment there was a heavy shock caused by a loose mass of ice striking the vessel just on her sharp stem, and startled into the belief that something terrible was about to happen, Steve answered the question he had just asked himself about his hands by snatching them from his pockets to lay hold of the vessel’s side.  Then as he looked over and saw the piece of ice ­a large fragment that must have been many tons in weight ­grinding along by the vessel’s side, he could not help laughing, while directly after a thrill of delight shot through him and the men sent up a cheer.  For a communication had passed between the captain and the engine-room as a loud hissing noise was heard; and then, as an order was shouted to the man at the wheel, the Hvalross quivered in every timber with a peculiar vibration.

The steam was up at last; the fans of the propeller were spinning round and churning up the icy water, and the Hvalross backed away from the dangerous position.

“There, Andra!” cried Steve, as he approached the man who had just hauled up one of the wooden fenders ground down into a mass of ragged fibres, “what do you say to the steam now?”

“Joost naething, laddie.  I’d hae done it better wi’ hairf a capfu’ o’ wint.”

“But there was no wind!” cried Steve.

“Nae, there was nae wint.  But it’s a blessing we’re awa frae the ice, for it would hae maist broke my hairt to hae left my pipes ahint.”