Read CHAPTER TWENTY TWO - ON THE BRINK. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

“Do you hear, aloft there?” roared the captain.  “Down with you!”

“Ay, ay, sir!” cried the Norseman, as he grasped to the full their perilous situation.

“Go down, Johannes,” said Steve faintly; “never mind me.”

The Norseman uttered a low laugh.

“Yes, sir; go down and leave you here!  Of course!”

But his hands were busy.  He thrust the glass into the case slung from Steve’s shoulder, and taking the line he wore like a baldrick from his own, he hung it on one arm while he made fast the end round the lad’s chest.

“You can use your hands?” he cried.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then keep yourself clear of the yards and stays as I lower you down.  Don’t cling anywhere.  I’ll let you down safely.”

“Are you coming?” roared the captain.

“Ay, ay, sir.  Below there!” shouted back the Norseman; and with one rapid movement he whipped Steve out of the crow’s-nest, and, grasping the line, began to lower him rapidly, till he caught first here and again there, over and over again, for there was the rigging to pass through; but in a very few seconds the boy was on deck, and the line dropped after him.  Then the trap was snatched up, Johannes lowered himself through, stepped down the spells, caught hold of one of the ice-covered stays, and slid down, to catch another lower, and reach the deck in turn.  He joined the men in getting together biscuit, tinned meat, and flour bags, ready to cast upon the ice when the terrible nip should come, and either crack the ship’s timbers like an eggshell or force her up on to the surface, to go on drifting north, while the ice by the great pressure consolidated into a dense block.

The captain and doctor had in turn been busy, and brought up guns, rifles, and ammunition; and both now, in spite of the impending peril, had then devoted themselves to the task of restoring circulation to Steve’s lower limbs, and to so good an effect that he soon struggled to his feet.

“Don’t ­don’t mind me,” he cried; “I ­I will be better now.”

“Let him be,” said the doctor in a low voice; “it will do him good to exert himself.”

“I will stand by the lad, and help him,” said a voice behind the doctor; and he turned sharply to find that Johannes was standing there.

“Yes, sir,” he said; “and I will try to help as well.”

These words were hurriedly spoken in whispers, with the lips close to each listener’s ear, for their terrible position filled them with awe, and they spoke with bated breath, listening the while to the hideous crashing and creaking of the ice which moment by moment came nearer, while the huge fragments towered up on their right, and ­slowly now ­ came on to crush the Hvalross against the cliff-like floe some fifteen feet in height on their left.  For there was that difference in the walls of their prison:  they had been gliding along by the side of a vast field whose movement had grown slower, while the smaller fragments on their right had increased in speed, and at times raced along as if in a flooded river of enormous size.

And now no man spoke, but all stood with blanched lips gazing at the ice cliff on their left, as if measuring its height, the crew dividing naturally into three parties ­one to the shrouds of each of the three masts, ready to ascend and leap from the ratlines on to the surface of the ice, some of the more daring making up their minds to make for the top, and run out on the great yard of the big square-sail, and drop from that if there should be time.

Only one thought was common to all, and that was to reach the ice.  The provisions which had been hastily brought on deck lay where they had been placed amongst the remains of the powdery snow which had not melted in the sun’s rays; and even then in those terrible moments ­so strangely are little petty things mixed up with the most momentous in our lives ­ Steve thought to himself that when the two sides of their rapidly narrowing canal did come together, crushing the ship, not a man would stop to pick up anything to help keep himself alive.

“Mr Steve ­doctor!” said Johannes suddenly, “there will be a rush for the shrouds when the nip comes, and it will be every man for himself.”

“Yes, of course,” said Mr Handscombe.

“Let them go that way; you both follow me.”

“Where?” said Steve huskily.

“For that boat;” and he nodded toward the one swinging from the davits on the port side.

“What for, man?” said the doctor coldly.  “The boat must be crushed, like the ship.”

“Not before I have had time to reach the top of the ice from it.  I have been measuring the distance, and I can do it and reach down to lend you both a hand up.”

“Hah!  Yes!” exclaimed Steve, forgetting the cold and numbness now in the excitement of seeing a way to escape.  “But the captain ­tell him.”

“There is no need,” said the Norseman; “he is cleverer than I, and will know what to do.  Besides, he will not stir till every man is safe; an English captain never does.”

“But ­” began Steve.

“Don’t talk, sir; do as I say,” said the Norseman sternly.  “You will be helping the captain to escape if you leave him free to act by saving yourself.”

“I will do as you say,” replied Steve; but even as he spoke he felt as if it would be cowardly to leave Captain Marsham alone in the wreck.

Every man was now on deck, the engineer and his fireman having come up, leaving the steam blowing off with a shriek which minute by minute grew more horrible as it was confined between the two walls of ice, now not fifty yards apart.

The water looked wilder than ever where it was not covered with small fragments of ice, which came rushing up as if driven by the current beneath the towering masses on their right; and as they literally darted up they rushed on to hit against the cliff on their left, some of them striking the sides of the Hvalross blows which made her jar, and shook the ice and snow from the rigging, to come rattling down upon the deck.

“It can’t be long now,” thought Steve; and he glanced up at the boat, and then at the captain, who stood perfectly calm upon the bridge; and just then there was a sharp, whimpering bark from by the bowsprit, followed by a perfect roulade, the dog catching sight of a seal.

“Oh, poor old Skeny!  We must not leave him,” muttered Steve; and he called the dog loudly.

The collie came with a rush, and crouched at his master’s feet.

“Johannes,” whispered the lad.  “My poor dog, ­I can’t leave him.  He could not get up to the boat.”

The great calm-looking fellow turned and gave Steve a pleasant smile.  Then, stooping down, he lifted the dog in his arms, reached up and placed the paws well over the side of the boat, where he hung a good seven feet above the deck.  The dog whined, and seemed disposed to struggle to get free; but at a word from his master he made a scrambling effort, received a good thrust from Johannes, and the next instant was in the boat barking at them as he stood on the thwart and looked over the side, as if asking them to come there as well.

“Is it quite hopeless?” whispered the doctor.

“Who can say, sir?” replied the Norseman.  “It is very hard now that we are so near a safe harbour.  If the ice does join we must be crushed, for it is too high above us to lift us up.”

“And if the ship is crushed,” whispered Steve, “will it sink?”

“The minute the ice loosens its grip, sir, she must go down.”

The walls were not forty yards apart now, and the unfortunate crew could pretty well pick out the rugged prominences on their right which would just touch and drive them against the smooth, cliff-like mass on their left.  More awe-inspiring still, they could see that as soon as the shock came vast pieces of piled-up ice must lose their equilibrium and topple down on the deck, crushing everything they touched; and onward still the terrible line came till it was not twenty yards away.

“The ice cliff is not moving,” said Johannes, “and the crash will be the greater.  Be ready, gentlemen; in another minute the blow must come.  Great heavens! what is that?”

He looked astern, as a terrible rushing noise was heard; and as all followed his example, struck by the sound, there, about a hundred yards behind them, the water was foaming and rushing toward them in a wave laden with fragments of ice.

It was plain enough:  the pressure of the ice behind was driving the water compressed between those narrow walls forward, like some cataract, which looked as if it would sweep the deck before the two cliffs joined.

“Ready!” shouted the captain.  “But don’t stir till the crash begins.  The vessel will be at its closest to the cliff on this side.”

“But ta watter will sweep us awa’, captain!” yelled Hamish.

“Silence; the wave will pass under us!” roared the captain, his voice being hardly heard.  “Wait till I give the word.”

And in those brief moments the space between the walls had grown narrower, till the yards nearly touched on either side, and the loose fragments that fell from the rugged masses on the right kept on splashing the water up on to the deck.

Just then Skene uttered a fierce bark at the coming wall, Johannes gave Steve a sharp look, and laid his hand upon the gunwale of the boat, drawing it down, the men stepped close to the shrouds, and the captain darted a sharp glance from the bridge at the top of the floe, which was to be their asylum.

Then, roaring loudly, the ice-laden wave struck the poop with a tremendous crash, lifted the vessel, and bore her onward on the breast of the furious cataract, onward and onward along the narrow passage, which seemed to open out before the rushing water.  The yards scraped here and scraped there along the cliff-sides; the ice pounded them, and gave forth a peculiar, hollow, echoing roar, but, swiftly almost as an arrow, they were borne along, with the steam whistle shrieking as if the unfortunate boat were in agony.

A minute.

It seemed to all an hour of horror too terrible to be borne, and then the captain, with both hands to his mouth, roared: 

“Engineer! below! stop that escape of steam!”

The man darted to the engine-room hatch, and disappeared, just as the walls behind them closed in with a deafening crash as of a thousand thunder peals, the water rushed by them as if shot from some gigantic pipe, and the Hvalross was borne forward at a speed such as she had never half achieved before.  Then, as the walls behind continued to close, the vessel glided into open water, which grew clearer and clearer right ahead, where it was running like some mighty mill-race a mile wide northward, between the ice and the great promontory, which jutted out from the land.

“Steve!” said the doctor, with his lips to his young companion’s ear; “and they say the days of miracles are past!”

Without another word he went below into the cabin, and Steve felt his hand grasped from above.  He looked up to see that it was Johannes leaning down from the boat.

“We are saved, my dear lad,” he said in a voice deep with emotion; and as if he, too, could participate in the general feeling of thankfulness, Skene burst into a joyful fit of barking and leaped right down upon the deck.

The sun shone more brightly than ever, the snow crystals glistened like diamonds, and the cliffs and mountains towering up on their right above the blue fiord were glorious to behold; but everything to Steve Young looked misty, and he could only see Captain Marsham as through a veil when that gentleman followed the example of Johannes and reached down from the bridge to grasp the boy’s hand.