Read CHAPTER NINE - THE WRECK ASHORE. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

A coast could never have been more eagerly scanned than was that of this island, for every man of the crew was longing for a run ashore in search of some little adventure to break the monotony of the life on board; and again and again, as a seal was seen to slip off the rocks after staring at them for a while with its peculiar, half human countenance, or a flock of sea-birds was passed, the men looked disappointed that no efforts were made to harpoon the one or shoot the other.  But as far as landing was concerned, the heavy waves which foamed among the craggy masses thoroughly precluded that, and at last they neared the wreck once more, looking as grim and desolate as ever.  Steve had just turned his glass to examine the snow near the top of the volcano where the smoke was issuing, and was wondering why it did not melt, when Jakobsen, the principal harpooner of the Norwegian party, gave a shout and pointed shoreward and forward.

“Yes, what is it?” cried Captain Marsham.

“Landing-place, sir.”

There it was, surely enough, hidden from them as they came south, but plain to view now at the back of a huge mass of rock which acted as a breakwater; and there, in quite a recess, was a patch of yellow sand, over which the sea glided gently, while behind the rock the water seemed to be deep and still.

Five minutes after the engine was stopped, the boat lowered, and the captain, doctor, Steve, and a strong crew jumped in, leaving Mr Lowe in charge, the dog leaping in last of all.  A short row, for the most part balanced on the top of a great roller gliding shoreward to break on the rocks, and then a smart pull to the right, and they were behind the great rock, riding gently on deep crystal-like water.  Fifty yards farther the boat was beached on the thick sand, drawn up, and the party set off, climbing over the tumbled-together rocks to reach the more level ground and make straight for the wreck, which lay some quarter of a mile to the north.

The captain took a sharp look round, and then suggested loading the heavy double guns he, the doctor, and Steve carried, the right bore with the heaviest shot, the rifled barrel with bullet.

One of the men carried a spare rifle, and Johannes and Jakobsen each shouldered a heavy walrus lance, a terrible weapon in the hands of a strong man, with its stout pole about nine feet long and keen leaf-shaped blade, so that they felt themselves more than a match for any polar bear which might show itself in front.

“Gun heavy, Steve?” said the captain.

“Eh?  Yes ­no!  I don’t know,” he replied; “I had not thought about the weight.”

“Which means, I suppose, that you were thinking of having a shot at a bear.”

“Well, yes, sir; I was thinking of something of the kind,” said Steve, colouring.

“You must be careful, then.  I will not say do not fire, my lad; but a gun is a dangerous weapon in unskilled hands, as dangerous sometimes for the people round as for the quarry in front.”

“I’ll take care, sir,” said Steve, in a tone full of confidence.

The captain turned and looked at him sharply.

“I’d rather you had said, `I’ll try to take care.’”

“Snubbed,” thought Steve.  “Why, of course I shall take care.  Does he think I shall shoot one of the men?”

He had other things to think of a few minutes later, for there before them, as they toiled on over the rocks and sand, with the breakers thundering away just to their right, lay the wreck, making them all hasten their pace, which gradually increased until it was a run, Steve at last leading, in spite of the weight of the heavy gun, and reaching the stranded vessel many yards in front of the doctor, who was next.

“I forgot all about the bears,” said the latter, giving a sharp look round with his gun ready.

But there was nothing in sight but a great gull floating gently along over the breaking waves, and looking down eagerly for anything edible cast up by the sea.

Then the rest came up, and they looked round the vessel, lying quite firmly wedged in the rocks, one of them having pierced its bottom, making a gap, through which the sand had made its way till it was half filled.

The bows were examined and then the stern, but everything bearing the vessel’s name and the port from which she sailed had been swept away, save two letters ­two E’s on the starboard side, just below the stern cabin window.

“Do you think it is the Ice Blink, sir?” said Steve in an awe-stricken whisper; for in spite of the bright sunshine and dazzling blue of sea and sky, there was something so weird and grim about the loose, torn, shattered wreck that the boy felt as if it were impossible to speak aloud.

“No,” said the captain decidedly; and in an instant the sight of the torn timbers seemed less terrible, and the pictures Steve was calling up of his uncle and crew lying somewhere about buried in the sand faded away.

As the captain gave vent to that decisive utterance he climbed on board, and stood up on the stones and sand which filled the angle between the bulwarks and the sloping deck.

“What do you say she is, Johannes?” cried the captain to the sturdy Norseman, who stood leaning on the shaft of his great spear.

“Whaler, sir, and been here for three or four years,” replied the man.

“Yes, I thought it was not a last season’s wreck.  E ­E,” he said thoughtfully; “where can she be from?”

“Dundee!” cried Steve quickly.

“Good.  Of course, a Dundee whaler,” said Captain Marsham.  “That brings to an end all idea of the Ice Blink coming to grief here.  But let’s see; we may find traces of the poor fellows who were wrecked;” and after a look at the remains of the broken masts, the huge cavern-like hollow ripped in the deck, where tons upon tons of sand were lying as it had been tossed in during storms, he led the way aft to the cabin; but there was little to see there.  The windows had been battered in by the stones and pieces of rock hurled at them by the waves; but two of the dead-lights, which had been evidently closed during the storm in which the vessel was wrecked, were still held in their places.  As for the cabin itself, the contents had been torn and beaten away through a huge gap on one side of the rudder, which reached upward to the deck, and nothing remained of locker or berth that could give any trace of the crew.  From here they went forward to the forecastle, the hatch of which gaped widely open; and as they stood below it at the bottom of the sloping deck, Steve felt a strange sensation of shrinking, and as if he would prefer to leave any secrets which the cabin might hide in peace.  Captain Marsham felt, too, something of the kind, and he said a few words in a low voice to the doctor.

“Yes,” replied the latter, “perhaps so, poor fellows; but we ought to see.”

That was enough to suggest to Steve the possibility of the remains of the crew being below, just as they had died of cold, perhaps of starvation.  The desire to leave the deck increased, but he tried to brace himself together, and listened as the doctor said: 

“Shall I go?”

“No,” replied the captain; and taking hold of the hatch he drew himself up to it and peered down; then handing his gun to Steve, he lowered himself down feet first and disappeared, while the rest stood watching the square opening and listening intently.

“Rather dark,” came up from the forecastle, and they heard the sharp scratching sound made by the striking of a match.

“No one here.  Plenty of sand drifted right in.”

Another match was struck, and then, after the short period one of the little tapers would take to burn out, the captain’s hands appeared and he climbed out.

“Nothing whatever,” he said.  “No trace of a soul, and everything has been cleared out; not so much as a blanket left.”

“That looks as if the crew must have stripped the vessel, and built themselves a place somewhere inland.”

“Or on the shore,” said the captain.  “No; I fancy that this vessel was forsaken long ago.  Her crew must have taken to the boats, and let us hope that they all escaped across to Hammerfest, or some other port.”

“Will you search any further?” asked Steve.  “There is nothing to search for here, my boy,” replied the captain; “but we will have a tramp forward, and see if any traces have been left of hut or signal-post, though I feel certain that no one is here.”

The doctor looked doubtful, and Steve felt glad, for he thought the captain was taking matters too coolly.

“Well,” continued that gentleman, turning to the doctor, “supposing that it was your misfortune to be cast ashore on this desolate place, what would be the first thing you would try to do?”

“Try to get away,” replied the doctor, smiling.  “Exactly; and if you had no means of getting away, would you not hoist a flag on some prominent place where it would be seen by a passing vessel?”

“Of course.”

“Where is the spar, then, hoisted on the cliff?” The doctor shook his head, and Steve gazed up and along the top of the long, level height, which looked like a mighty rampart at the foot of a snowy pyramid.

“Here, what do you say, Johannes?  You have had plenty of experience of sea life.  Where is the crew of this schooner?”

The man shook his head and smiled.  “Who knows, sir?” he said.  “I don’t think they ever landed here.  It was a deserted ship when it came ashore.”

“Why do you say that?” said the doctor sharply.  “I see nothing, sir:  no timbers or spars dragged up the beach; not a sign of anything having been moored.”

At that moment the dog, which had followed them, quietly waiting for the first shot to be fired, when his task of retrieving the game would begin, uttered an uneasy whimper and cocked his ears.

“Quiet, Skeny!  What is it?” said Steve, stooping to pat him.  “Only getting impatient.”

“Yes,” said the captain, “and we may as well move on.  No, doctor, there is nobody to search for, so let’s take a tramp for a few miles, try and pick up a few wild fowl, and get back on board.  Eh? you have something to say, Jakobsen?” he continued, as he caught the second Norwegian’s eye.

“Only that I think as Johannes does, sir, that you are right.  She was a forsaken vessel when she struck there.”

“Forward, then,” cried the captain, shouldering his gun; and they dropped down on to the drift of sand below her, walked round by the bow, and, keeping a sharp look-out for game, tramped away northward, but bearing for the cliff, where at one point a glacier came right down, and at its foot the snow lay in a long slope; not soft, flocculent snow fresh fallen, but a collection of hard pellets, more resembling a gigantic heap of the remains seen after a very heavy hail-storm.  But it was suggestive to Skene of the mountain-side far away beyond the Clyde at home, and with a sharp bark he dashed at it, thrust his nose in the cool, rounded fragments, and then cast himself upon his side to plough his way through them, sniffling and snuffling the while, as if he were trying to find snow-buried sheep after a winter’s gale.

“Goot tog, goot tog,” muttered Andrew, who carried the spare rifle, and he shifted it from one shoulder to the other.  “Ah, laddie,” he whispered to Steve, “how it ‘minds me o’ bonnie Scotland.”

They tramped on, noting flock after flock, thousands upon thousands in fact, of sea-birds, sitting in rows upon the ledges of the cliffs many of them, while others flew seaward, wheeling round and retiring; so plentiful were they ­auks, puffins, guillemots, and tern ­that the men might easily have been loaded with the spoil.  But these birds were not tempting from a food point of view; and though Steve was anxious for a trial, the captain had no mind to stop while the boy ran risks by climbing to the ledges in search of the eggs that no doubt were there in thousands; so they kept on, looking vainly for ducks or geese.

“There,” said the captain at last, “we have nothing to gain by tramping along here.  We know that if we keep on we shall come to the ice cliff, and be turned back.  It is impossible to get up here and go inward without chipping a way up that glacier, to find more snow, so let’s go back.”

“Without a single bird?” cried the doctor in a disappointed tone.

“Well, another hundred yards or so, then,” said the captain; “but I don’t think we shall get anything.  We want the mouth of a river or a lagoon from which the ice has just melted.”

“What’s the matter with the dog?” said Steve suddenly, after they had walked on for another ten minutes; for Skene had suddenly seemed as if he had conceived it to be his duty to turn himself into as near a resemblance to an arctic wolf as he possibly could.  His ears were laid back, his eyes lurid, his teeth bared, and the thick ruff above his neck and shoulders set up, bristling and waving as if swept by a strong current of air.

“Look out, gentlemen; he scents game,” whispered Johannes.

“Stop!” said the captain.  “It was near here that we saw the bears.”

“No, no, a mile farther,” said the doctor.

At that moment Skene growled savagely, and from behind a pile of grey rocks some fifty yards to their right a large animal suddenly rushed out, turned and stared at them for a moment or two, and then shuffled off at a lumbering trot, going rapidly over the rough ground in the direction of the ice.

“Don’t fire! don’t fire!” cried the captain.  “A stern shot would only injure without killing the poor brute.  Let him go.”

“My word!” cried the doctor as he lowered his gun; “but he is a fine one.”

Steve, too, had eagerly raised his double gun to fire, and felt quite resentful at being ordered not to draw trigger; and he stood now watching the great, thick-legged creature with its long, silky, cream-coloured fur hanging low down, the animal being as big in body as an ox, but with small, sharp, ferrety-looking head.

“But if the gentleman fires and hits, sir,” said Jakobsen eagerly, “it will stop him and make him angry; then we can kill him with the spears.”

“Look out!” cried the captain; “the other.  Hah!  Good dog!”

For, unnoticed by them as they watched the retreating bear, Skene had rushed off round the pile of rocks and put up the second bear, a monster certainly bigger than the first, and it rushed into sight before the party from the Hvalross, pursued by the dog, which was barking loudly now and snapping at its heels.

After shuffling along a little way without noticing the men, the bear seemed to think that it was extremely undignified and cowardly to run from a fierce little animal something like the dogs it had probably seen in the Esquimaux sledges, and, stopping short, it faced round to look wonderingly at its pursuer.

This was the opportunity the collie sought, and without hesitation it sprang right at the bear’s muzzle, but so quickly that the act was hardly perceptible; the bear raised one paw, gave a tap with it, and poor Skene went flying, rolling over and over, and then lay for a few moments motionless, with the bear walking slowly toward him, but stopping short as it became aware of the presence of the party from the ship.