Read CHAPTER TWENTY THREE - AFTER STORM—­CALM. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

There was plenty of floating ice in the open water running rapidly northward; but the task of avoiding this was easy, for the engineer had followed out the captain’s instructions, and there was a sufficiency of steam for navigating the vessel.

It was needed, too; for though they had escaped from the terrible trap in which they had been caught, the peril was not far away.  A few minutes’ observation showed that the great body of ice was closing in upon the land, and that if before long the Hvalross was not placed in a safe anchorage she would certainly be crushed, the only difference being that she would be crushed between ice-floe and rock, and not between ice and ice, the doctor saying that they would have jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire.

There was the danger still coming on as they steamed northward between the moving ice and the perpendicular cliffs of the great headland on their right.  But the fires were humming and roaring away below, the rattle of stoking implements and shovel was heard on the iron stoke-hole floor; and as the engine worked and panted away, and the propeller shaft made the after part of the vessel thrill, there were divers hissings and snorts which told that there would soon be plenty of steam for the captain’s purpose, as he stood on the bridge with his binocular scanning the opening on the right to see if it would give them the security he sought.

“Up aloft again, Johannes!” he cried.  “Take a glass and see if you can con a way round and through those rocks.”

Steve started, and took a step forward; but the captain shook his head.

“Not this time,” he said.

The boy shrank back feeling disappointed, for this observing from the crow’s-nest seemed to have become partly his work; but he said nothing, for he felt that he had not distinguished himself very highly aloft upon two occasions, so he contented himself with watching the grand coast they had reached.  He gazed at the towering cliffs a couple of hundred yards upon his right, streaked in every crevice with snow, which crossed these streaks again, lying as it did upon every ledge, and forming a gigantic network on the black rock.  Higher up the streaking and netting ceased, for the rocks were not so perpendicular; and here they were coated with dazzling ice.

The sea-birds circled about the vessel by hundreds, while thousands must have been seated in rows upon the ledges, from which, as they came and went, throwing themselves off as if diving into the air, and taking a flight before resettling, they disturbed the newly-fallen, powdery snow, which fell in showers, glittering in the brilliant sunshine like diamond dust, and at times forming tiny rainbows, which came and went as the Hvalross glided on.

“We shall not starve here, Steve, in spite of the cold,” said the doctor, who now joined him.  “This must be nesting time, and the storm has disturbed the birds and invaded their nests.  How grand it all seems now one can look around without feeling one’s heart in one’s mouth, and thinking that the next minute may be our last!”

“Then you felt frightened, too?” said Steve.

“Frightened?  Why, my good lad, do you think any one could face peril like that we have gone through without feeling frightened?”

“I should have thought brave men would.”

“I should like to see the man who could pass through what we did unmoved.  Perhaps I’m wrong, my boy, but I don’t think he has been born yet.  There, don’t let’s talk about it.  Come and watch the man heaving the lead.”

They went forward to where Andrew was standing in the forechains busy with the lead, casting it from time to time, for there were rocks all about the entrance of the inlet or fiord they were making for; but the lead always went down and down into deep water, and was rapidly hauled up again, for all that was wanted was to know whether there was sufficient depth for the vessel to pass along in safety.

“We’re getting a lesson in arctic navigation, Steve,” said the doctor quietly.  “People who sit at home at ease, as the song says, little know how difficult it is.”

“Ah! they don’t know, indeed,” said Steve.  “Any one would think that all we had to do was to steam right on till we were opposite the fiord, and then turn to the right and go in at once.”

“Which does not sound very nautical, Master Steve, and would result most likely in landing the vessel upon the rocks.  Water cold, Andra?” to the man, as he hauled in the lead.

“Ferry, sir, ferry cauld inteet.  She feels as if she hadna got any fingers left.  But it’s a coot chop to do when she tidna know her way.”

“Keep heaving more quickly!” cried the captain; and he then signalled to the engine-room for more speed, while the Norsemen in the bows went on fending off the pieces of ice through which they were now passing, the surface being quite white with fragments.

The next moment there was a horrible crashing noise from astern, and fresh orders were sent down into the engine-room, the gong sounding quite faintly now.

“Whatever is that?” whispered the doctor.  “Are we on a rock?”

“No; the propeller is beating on the pieces of ice.  We must go softly, or one of the blades will be broken.”

In fact, the speed was checked so that the propeller was kept barely in motion, just sufficient to give the vessel steering way, and all the time a glance to the left showed that the ice-floe was closing in upon them fast, while they were some distance yet from the opening.

Meantime, Johannes hailed the deck from time to time, enabling the captain to direct the man at the wheel, so as to avoid dangerous rocks, invisible from the bridge, but quite plain from the commanding height aloft.

And thus the position was growing to be one of extreme peril once more, and it became evident to those who, as non-combatants in this fight with the grand forces of Nature, could only look on, that, unless the captain risked the breaking of the propeller, they would be crushed by the ice against the rocks and rendered a hopeless wreck long before they could round the southern point of the fiord.  Even if they could reach the inlet, it might prove to be so encumbered with rocks that they could not enter; but it was their only hope now.

Fortunately the current ran swiftly, and as the ice neared more swiftly still, and just when the position was growing most perilous, the surface became clear of floating fragments, such as would injure the screw.

Steve’s heart was sinking again, for the great ice wall was getting very close, and he had given many looks at the huge cliff to see whether it would be possible to climb up, when once more the sinking spirits rose with a bound, for, in the nick of time, Johannes shouted, “All clear ahead!” the gong sent forth its notes to order full speed, and the water was churned into a foam as the propeller began to spin round.

“Stand away with that lead!” shouted the captain; and Andrew coiled up the wet line with a sigh of relief.

“He’s going to risk the rocks now,” whispered Steve.

“Yes; I suppose it’s our only chance,” replied the doctor; and they both went as far forward as they could get to join the Norsemen who were on the look-out for danger.

They had about a quarter of a mile still to go, but now their speed was greater than that of the closing-in ice, and the men at last burst into a cheer as, in obedience to a motion of the captain’s hand, the spokes were spun round, and the Hvalross glided along in a sharp curve right in between two towering walls of rocks facing each other at a distance of some sixty yards.  Then the engine was slowed down, and they passed more quietly along a rugged channel which went straight in for a short distance, and then bore sharply round to the left.

They were none too soon, for, long before they reached this curve, the ice-floe touched the headland they had passed, and there arose a crashing roar mingled with thunderous sounds that were deafening.  It was as if the huge fields of ice were about to be swept right over the land, and the perpendicular rocks, as they bore the brunt, echoed the terrible volleying noise.  The sight was awful in its majesty:  one floe ploughed up another, and vast fragments fell over and over, to fall with a crash upon others, or into the waters of the inlet, churning them up as if in some furious tempest, driving billows up against the rocks on either side, and making the Hvalross rock and roll as she sped slowly on.  And all the while, driven by the almost irresistible force behind, the ice-floes came on and on, filling up the inlet, and roaring with fury as the vessel they seemed to be pursuing kept still beyond their reach.

The lead was out again and rapidly heaved, but the water kept of a great depth, and the channel was clear of scattered rocks, so that the opening where it bore off to the left was reached with ease, and the Hvalross bore round in answer to her helm, and began once more to make for the north.

Ten minutes later the whole of the inlet that ran so nearly straight in was jammed right up with mountainous masses of ice, which ran right across the angle where they had turned off to the north, and then the ice came on, mounting over that which was below, grinding, crackling, and pressing it solid, deafening the ears of those who listened for a few minutes, and then dying off into a more and more distant sound.  This soon grew fainter, heard as it seemed to be from the other side of the cliffs on their left, while the water in the fiord, which had been tremendously agitated, rushing on past the Hvalross and leaving her rolling and the crow’s-nest in which Johannes stood describing a long arc in the air, began to subside, the billows ceased to leap up the cliffs, the loose fragments of ice to eddy and rush together, and the vessel floated upon an even keel.

The peril was at an end, for the floes, after completely choking up the entrance to the fiord to the height of at least fifty feet, were now grinding and crushing their way onward outside, and the vessel lay in perfect safety.  But, unless there was a way out at the other end of the fiord, they were completely sealed in by ice that, from all appearances, as it towered up from side to side, seemed as if it would take years to melt, while as likely as not it would go on consolidating and increasing in bulk till time should be no more.

No one spoke, though a strange silence gathered round them, the roar of the ice-floes upon the cliffs of this unknown land sounding hushed and strange.  Every eye was fixed upon the dazzling white wall which, with its thousands of tons of ice, had been built in a few minutes right across the opening by which they had entered the now fast calming fiord.  For that piled-up mass was indescribably grand as it glistened in the sunshine, every crack and depression being of the most lovely blue, from the palest sapphire to the deepest amethyst.  It was magnificent, it was grand; and all started at something which was terribly incongruous; for a great flock of the northern gulls suddenly came sweeping down over the ice into the narrow fiord, shrieking, crying, and uttering sounds which were like mocking laughter, to break the solemnity of the scene.

Worse still, his duties having been interfered with in no way, and too busy to take any note of the fresh peril, the cook suddenly appeared from the galley, whose fire had been roaring away for the past two hours, and, walking under the bridge, he looked up to the captain and said loudly: 

“Capital haunch of venison, roasted to a turn, sir.  If you are at liberty, you can have the dinner in now.”

The grandeur, the solemnity, the thoughts of this fresh miraculous escape, all passed away on the instant.  The men made a movement toward the forecastle, looking inquiringly at the mate, for they knew that their meal would be ready too, and Steve turned to the doctor so comically perplexed a face that the latter smiled.

“Hungry, Steve?” he said.

“I ­I didn’t know it before, sir,” he replied; “but I suppose I am.”

“Well, il faut manger, as the French say.  Come along.”

He led the way to the bridge, where the cook was still waiting, for the captain had not spoken.

“Can you come down, Marsham?” said the doctor.  “It is many hours since we have broken our fast.”

“Eh?” came back.  “Yes.  Ahoy, there, Johannes! that will do.  Come down, Handscombe?” said the captain thoughtfully.  “Yes, we may as well have something to eat, for we shall have plenty of time.”

He pointed to the huge rampart of ice right across the inlet, and said quietly: 

“A man needs to be well educated in the ways of nature in the north to navigate his ship.  Our only hope now is ­”

“Let’s talk of that when we have studied nature’s daily wants,” said the doctor, smiling.  “We are safe, are we not?”

“Oh yes,” said the captain bitterly, “we are quite safe now.”