Read CHAPTER ELEVEN - ENCAMPED ON THE ISLET. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

It was with feelings of profound thankfulness and relief that Adolay landed on the first of the islets, and surveyed the chaotic though beautiful floes from which they had escaped.

And in truth Cheenbuk had required all his skill and experience more than once to avoid the dangers by which they had been beset, for, although the weather was perfectly calm and the ice nearly motionless, they had frequently to pass through channels so narrow that the slightest current might have caused a nip and obliged them to take hurried refuge on the floes, while, at other times, when compelled to pass rather close to the small bergs, lumps dropped into the water perilously near to them from the overhanging ice-cliffs.

“There has been some danger,” remarked the girl, turning to her protector.

“All is well when it ends well,” replied the Eskimo, nearly, but unconsciously, quoting Shakespeare.  “But the danger was not very great, for if the ice had closed in we could have jumped on it, and carried the canoe to the nearest open water.”

“But what if a lump had dropped into the canoe and sunk it?” asked Adolay.

“We should have had to scramble on the floes and wait there till-till we died together.”

He said this with some degree of solemnity, for it was an uncomfortable reflection.

“I would prefer,”-she stopped suddenly, for in the haste of the moment she was going to have said-“that we should live together rather than die together,”-but maiden modesty, not unfamiliar even among savages, restrained her, and Cheenbuk, who was not observant in the matter of imperfect speech, took no notice of the abrupt pause.

The evening was far advanced, for it had taken them the whole day to reach the islet, owing to the windings of the lanes of water and the frequency with which they had to turn back in consequence of having run into what may be termed blind alleys.  It was resolved, therefore, that they should rest there for the night.

As there was no fear, by that time, of their being pursued by Indians, Cheenbuk resolved that they should have a good warm supper to recruit their somewhat exhausted energies.  Of course Adolay was only too glad to fall in with this arrangement, and said that she would go along the shore and collect small masses of drift-wood for the fire, while her companion lifted up the canoe and made the encampment.

“You will not find much drift-wood, I think,” said Cheenbuk, as she was about to set off, “for the currents don’t set upon this island much.  The long point of the bigger island over there turns the currents off from this one, but perhaps you may find a little.”

Adolay found this to be true, for she wandered several miles along shore-indeed, went nearly round the islet, which was a low rocky one, almost devoid of verdure-before she had collected a good bundle of dry sticks.

Meanwhile the Eskimo set to work with characteristic enthusiasm to arrange the camp.  Choosing a spot where a low wall of rock sheltered him from the north, he laid a few stones in a heap to mark the place for the fire.  Then he carried up the canoe, and laid it down bottom up, so as to face the fire.  Underneath it he made a snug nest of twigs and leaves for Adolay to rest in.  Then, on the opposite side of the fire, he made another lair-a sort of open-air nest-for himself, after which he collected a good many of the small dead twigs among the scrub, which he piled up in readiness around a large piece of drift timber he had the good fortune to discover, not far from the spot where they landed.

This done, he stood back a few paces and admired his handiwork, his head on one side with quite the air of a connoisseur.

Presently he began to wish that Adolay would return, and then sat down to make fire by the slow and laborious Eskimo process of rubbing two pieces of stick rapidly together until the friction should ignite them.  He was still absorbed in the work when the Indian girl returned with a bundle of wood which she threw down beside the rest.

“You have had better luck than I expected,” said Cheenbuk.  “See, I have made you a nest to sleep in,” he added, pointing to the canoe.

“It is very nice,” she observed, with an appreciative smile.  “What are you doing?”

“Making fire,” he answered, resuming his work and continuing it with such vigour that beads of perspiration stood on his brow.

Without speaking, the girl went to the canoe and opened a bundle wrapped in deerskin which formed part of its lading.  She drew therefrom a fire-bag, richly ornamented with beads, such as Indian chiefs and braves are wont to carry under their belts.  It contained the pipe, tinder-box, flint, steel, and tobacco which are usually supplied by the fur-traders to the Red men.

Cheenbuk was so interested in the proceedings of his companion that he ceased to carry on his own work, thereby allowing the sticks to cool and losing his labour.

“You need not work so hard,” said Adolay, taking a flint, steel, and piece of tinder from the bag and, beginning to strike a light, to the great interest of the Eskimo.  “We manage to get fire differently and more easily.”

In a few seconds a spark caught on the tinder, which began to smoke, and the girl, wrapping it in a bundle of dry grass, whirled it round at arm’s-length until the draught caused it to burst into flame.  Thrusting the burning mass into the heart of the twigs, which had been previously prepared, she glanced up at her protector with a look that said plainly, “Watch, now, the result.”

But Cheenbuk required no encouragement to do so.  He had been watching all the time with mouth, as well as eyes, wide-open, and a loud “hoi! hoi! ho!” burst from him as the flame leaped up, suffusing the canoe and wall of rock and the near objects with a ruddy glow which paled everything else to a cold grey by contrast.

“I’ve seen that once before,” exclaimed Cheenbuk with delight, taking up the fire-bag tenderly, “and have often wished that I had these things for making fire.”

“Well, you may have them now.  They belonged to my father.  All our men carry bags with these things in them.”

“And I’ve seen this too-once,” continued the youth, smiling, as he pulled out a tobacco-pipe.  Then he bent his head suddenly, put his nose to the bag, and made a face expressive of supreme disgust.

“Ho! and I’ve seen this too.  I have tasted it, and after tasting it I was very miserable-so miserable that I hope never to be as miserable again!”

As he spoke he looked at Adolay with that extreme solemnity which was one of the characteristics of his face.

The girl returned the look, but did not smile.  She did not speak, but waited for more.

“The man who showed me these things was a good man,” continued Cheenbuk.  “I do not know his name, but I liked him much.  Yet I think he was not wise to fill his mouth with smoke and his inside with sickness.”

“Was he sick?” asked Adolay.

“No-he was not, but-I was.”

While he was speaking he drew a long piece of Canada twist tobacco out of the bag, and looked at it sagaciously for some time, nodding his head as if he knew all about it.

“Yes, that is the thing he put in the pipe, and, after making a small fire over it, drew the smoke into himself.  At first I thought he would die, or catch fire and burst-but he-he didn’t, and he seemed to like it.”

“All our men like it,” said Adolay; “they smoke every day-sometimes all day.  And some of our women like it too.”

“Do you like it?” asked the Eskimo, quickly.

“No, I don’t like it.”

“Good-that is well.  Now, we will cook some of your dried meat for supper.”

By that time the fire was blazing cheerily.  As the shades of night deepened, the circle of light grew more and more ruddy until it seemed like a warm cosy chamber in the heart of a cold grey setting.  A couple of small stakes were thrust into the ground in such a way that the two pieces of venison impaled on them were presented to the heart of the fire.  Soon a frizzling sound was heard; then odours of a kind dear to the hearts of hungry souls-to say nothing of their noses-began to arise, and the couple thus curiously thrown together sat down side by side to enjoy themselves, and supply the somewhat clamorous demands of Nature.

They said little while feeding, but when the venison steaks had well-nigh disappeared, a word or two began to pass to and fro.  At last Cheenbuk arose, and, taking a small cup of birch-bark, which, with a skin of water, formed part of the supplies provided by Adolay, he filled it to the brim, and the two concluded their supper with the cheering fluid.

“Ah!” sighed the girl, when she had disposed of her share, “the white traders bring us a black stuff which we mix with water hot, and find it very good to drink.”

“Yes?  What is it?” asked Cheenbuk, applying his lips a second time with infinite zest to the water.

“I know not what it is.  The white men call it tee,” said Adolay, dwelling with affectionate emphasis on the ee’s.

“Ho!  I should like to taste that tee-ee,” said the youth, with exaggerated emphasis on the ee’s.  “Is it better than water?”

“I’m not sure of that,” answered the girl, with a gaze of uncertainty at the fire, “but we like it better than water-the women do; the men are fonder of fire-water, when they can get it, but the white traders seldom give us any, and they never give us much.  We women are very glad of that, for the fire-water makes our men mad and wish to fight.  Tee, when we take too much of it-which we always do-only makes us sick.”

“Strange,” said Cheenbuk, with a look of profundity worthy of Solomon, “that your people should be so fond of smokes and drinks that make them sick and mad when they have so much of the sparkling water that makes us comfortable!”

Adolay made no reply to this, for her mind was not by nature philosophically disposed, though she was intelligent enough to admire the sagacity of a remark that seemed to her fraught with illimitable significance.

“Have you any more strange things in your bundle?” asked the Eskimo, whose curiosity was awakened by what had already been extracted from it.  “Have you some of the tee, or the fire-water, or any more of the thing that smokes-what you call it?”

“Tubuko-no, I have no more of that than you saw in the fire-bag.  The white men sometimes call it bukey, and I have no fire-water or tee.  Sometimes we put a nice sweet stuff into the tee which the white men call shoogir.  The Indian girls are very fond of shoogir.  They like it best without being mixed with water and tee.  But we have that in our own land.  We make it from the juice of a tree.”

The interest with which Cheenbuk gazed into the girl’s face while she spoke, was doubtless due very much to the prettiness thereof, but it is only just to add that the number and nature of the absolutely new subjects which were thus opened up to him had something to do with it.  His imperfect knowledge of her language, however, had a bamboozling effect.

“Here is a thing which I think you will be glad to see,” continued the girl, as she extracted a small hatchet from the bundle.

“Yes indeed; that is a very good thing,” said the youth, handling the implement with almost affectionate tenderness.  “I had one once-and that, too, is a fine thing,” he added, as she drew a scalping-knife from her bundle.

“You may have them both,” she said; “I knew you would need them on the journey.”

Cheenbuk was too much lost in admiration of the gifts-which to him were so splendid-that he failed to find words to express his gratitude, but, seizing a piece of firewood and resting it on another piece, he set to work with the hatchet, and sent the chips flying in all directions for some time, to the amusement, and no small surprise, of his companion.  Then he laid down the axe, and, taking up the scalping-knife, began to whittle sticks with renewed energy.  Suddenly he paused and looked at Adolay with ineffable delight.

“They are good?” she remarked with a cheerful nod.

“Good, good, very good!  We have nothing nearly so good.  All our things are made of bone or stone.”

“Now,” returned the girl, with a blink of her lustrous eyes, and a yawn of her pretty mouth, which Nature had not yet taught her to conceal with her little hand, “now, I am sleepy.  I will lie down.”

Cheenbuk replied with a smile, and pointed to the canoe with his nose.

Adolay took the hint, crept into the nest which the gallant youth had prepared for her, curled herself up like a hedgehog, and was sound asleep in five minutes.

The Eskimo, meanwhile, resumed his labours with the scalping-knife, and whittled on far into the night-whittled until he had reduced every stick within reach of his hand to a mass of shavings-a beaming childlike glow of satisfaction resting on his handsome face all the while, until the embers of the fire began to sink low, and only an occasional flicker of flame shot up to enlighten the increasing darkness.  Then he laid the two implements down and covered them carefully with a piece of deerskin, while his countenance resumed its wonted gravity of expression.

Drawing up his knees until his chin rested on them, and clasping his hands round them, he sat for a long time brooding there and gazing into the dying embers of the fire; then he rose, stretched himself, and sauntered down to the shore.

The night, although dark for the Arctic regions at that time of the year, was not by any means obscure.  On the contrary, it might have passed for a very fair moonlight night in more southern climes, and the flush of the coming day in the eastern sky was beginning to warm the tops of the higher among the ice-masses, thereby rendering the rest of the scene more coldly grey.  The calm which had favoured the escape of our fugitives still prevailed, and the open spaces had gradually widened until the floes had assumed the form of ghostly white islets floating in a blue-black sea, in which the fantastic cliffs, lumps, and pinnacles were sharply reflected as in a mirror.

There was a solemnity and profound quietude about the scene and the hour which harmonised well with the sedate spirit of the young Eskimo, as he stood there for a long time contemplating the wonders and the beauties of the world around and about him.

We know not what passes through the minds of untutored men in such circumstances, but who shall dare to say that the Spirit of their Creator may not be holding intercourse with them at such times?

Turning his back at length upon the sea, Cheenbuk returned to the camp, lay down on the couch which he had made for himself on the opposite side of the fire from the canoe, and, in a few moments more, was in the health- and strength-restoring regions of Oblivion.