Read CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN - INTERESTING, AMUSING, AND ASTOUNDING DISCOVERIES. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Although close under the cliffs, and apparently on the rocks, the vessel was by no means a wreck, neither had it the aspect of one.  There were no broken masts or tattered sails or ropes dangling from the yards.  On the contrary, the masts were straight and sound; such of the yards as had not been lowered were squared, and all the ropes were trim and taut.

The deck was covered over with a roof of canvas, and the snow banked up all round so as to meet the lower edges of it and form a protection from the wind.  Up one side of this bank of snow a flight of stairs had been cut, leading to the port gangway, and the prints of many feet were seen all round the ship converging towards the stairs, the steps of which were worn as if by much use.

At first the natives approached the vessel with extreme caution, not being sure of what might be their reception if any man should be on board, and with a sense of awe at beholding a mysterious object which had hitherto been utterly beyond the range of their experience, though not quite unknown to them by report.  By degrees, however, they drew nearer and nearer, until they reached the bottom of the snow staircase.  Still there was no sound to be heard in the white man’s big canoe to indicate the presence of a human being.

At last Cheenbuk uttered a shout with the view of attracting attention, but there was no reply.

“Make the fire-spouter speak,” he said, looking at his Indian friend.

Nazinred silently obeyed, pointed his gun at the clouds, and fired; then the whole party awaited the result, listening intently.  They heard much more than had been expected, for the cliffs embraced several echoes, which, being thus rudely awakened, sent the shot crashing back with multiplied violence, to the no little surprise, as well as alarm, of the hearers.

Still all was silent on board of the ship, and at last, coming to the conclusion that there was no living soul there at all, the Indian, having reloaded his gun, began to ascend the staircase, closely followed by Cheenbuk, Oolalik, Anteek, and Aglootook-which last, being a cautious man, was careful to bring up the rear.  Nootka and Cowlik remained on the ice to observe the end of it all-the former anxiously curious, the latter curiously easy.  For some time these two stood in silent expectancy.  Then Oolalik appeared at the top of the staircase, and, looking down with a face in which solemn wonder had reached its utmost limit of expression, beckoned them to come up.

Nootka obeyed with alacrity; her companion, leisurely.

What the party saw on entering the vessel was well fitted to arouse wonder in their unsophisticated minds.  Whether it was one of the numerous discovery ships that have invaded those regions in the present century, or a whaler which had been driven out of its course by stress of weather or power of ice, is uncertain, for although some relics of the expedition ultimately reached the outpost of the fur-traders, nothing was brought away by the Eskimos which bore name or date or writing of any kind.  Although ignorant of the meaning as well as the uses of almost everything they saw, those natives were quite sufficiently intelligent to guess that the white man’s big canoe had been set fast in the ice the previous autumn, and laid up for the winter in this place of safety to serve as a big igloe or hut.

Their examination of the ship was at first very slow, for they stepped about on tiptoe as if afraid of disturbing some of the ghosts of its former inhabitants.  Then, a speculative gaze had to be turned on each object for a few moments, followed by an inquiring glance at each other.  The deck and its accompaniments of masts rising through the canvas roof, and ropes, and blocks, hatches, skylights, companions, etcetera, afforded them matter for unbounded astonishment; though what they afterwards discovered below was productive of unutterable amazement.

“Hoi!” exclaimed Cheenbuk, pointing at something with all his ten fingers expanded.

He had discovered the binnacle, and was gazing for the first time at the mariner’s compass!

“Hi!” cried the responsive Anteek in a wide-eyed condition.

He had discovered the after-companion, which was partially open, and was gazing solemnly into the depths below.

The unwonted nature of their surroundings developed an unsuspected vein of curiosity in Cowlik, who pushed the companion-door open, and, seeing a flight of steps with some degree of light below, she began to descend.  Whether Nootka’s surprise at this sudden act of self-assertion, or her curiosity, was the stronger, it would be hard to say, but she immediately went after Cowlik.  The men, seeing the way thus indicated, did not hesitate to follow.

Of course they all held tenaciously by the brass rail, being afraid to slip on the steep stair, and some of them, slewing round almost naturally, went down in true sailor fashion, backwards.

Reaching the bottom, the girls, probably by chance, turned to the left and entered the after-cabin.  The men of the party turned to the right, and became absorbed in contemplation of the steward’s pantry.  It smelt deliciously, but that was all that remained of its native attractions, for of food or drink there was nothing left.

They had just made this discovery when a loud laugh and then a wild scream from the cabin horrified them.  Cheenbuk and Oolalik drew their knives, Nazinred cocked his gun, Anteek grasped a rolling-pin that lay handy, and all four sprang to the rescue.

The scream came from Cowlik.  She had suddenly faced a mirror that hung in the cabin, and beheld a perfect representation of her own fat face.  It was by no means an unknown face, for she had often had an imperfect view of it in pools and in calm seas, but it quite took her aback when thus unexpectedly and clearly presented.  The blaze of astonishment that followed the first glance caused the burst of laughter referred to, and the display of her wide mouth and white teeth in the changed expression induced the scream of alarm.  It also made her start backward so quickly that she sent poor Nootka crashing against the starboard bulkhead.

“Look!” cried the frightened girls, pointing to the mirror.

The three Eskimos sprang forward and received something like an electric shock on beholding their own faces.

Cheenbuk turned to Nazinred, but that usually grave Indian was indulging in a patronising smile instead of sharing their surprise.

“I know what it is,” he said quietly.  “I have seen it before, in the stores of the fur-traders, but never so big as that.”

Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt.  After gazing at themselves in the miraculous mirror for some time, an idea occurred to Anteek.  He suddenly shot out his tongue, which happened to be a very long one.  Anteek’s reflection did the same.  Thereupon Oolalik opened his mouth wide and laughed.  So did Oolalik’s reflection, which had such an effect upon Cheenbuk that he also burst into a fit of laughter.  The girls, pressing forward to see what it was, likewise presented grinning faces, which formed such a contrast to the grave countenance of Nazinred, as he stood there in all the dignity of superior knowledge, that the whole party went off into uncontrollable explosions, which fed upon what they created until the tears were running down the cheeks of the Eskimos, and the Indian himself was constrained at last to smile benignly.

But mirth gave place to solemnity again, not unmingled with pity, as they spent hour after hour examining the various parts of the forsaken ship.  Of course they could go over only a small part of it that day.  When the short day came to a close they went to the shore and encamped in their usual way-not daring to sleep on board a big canoe, about which as yet they knew so little.

On shore they found more subjects of interest and perplexity, for here were several mounds marked by crosses, and a large mound surmounted by a pole on the top of which were fluttering a few remnants of red cloth.  The shape of the smaller mounds naturally led them to infer that they were the graves of white men who had died there, but the large mound was inexplicable until Nazinred recollected having seen a flag hoisted on a pole at the fort on Great Bear Lake.

“I remember,” he said to Cheenbuk, “that the traders used to hoist a piece of cloth to the top of a pole like this, at times, when something of importance happened.  Perhaps the chief of the big canoe died and was buried here, and they hoisted the red cloth over him to mark the place.”

“My father may be right,” observed the Eskimo; “but why did they put such a heap of stones above him?”

“Perhaps to keep the bears from getting at him,” returned the Indian thoughtfully, “or, it may be, to show him great respect.”

Resting satisfied with these surmises, the two men returned to their encampment without disturbing the mound, which was, in all probability, a cairn covering a record of the expedition which had come to such an untimely end.

Next day, the moment there was enough of light to enable them to resume the search, the Eskimos hurried on board the ship and began to ransack every hole and corner, and they found much that caused their eyes to glitter with the delight of men who have unexpectedly discovered a mine of gold.  Among other things, they found in a small room which had been used as a blacksmith’s forge, large quantities of hoop, bar, and rod-iron.  While Cheenbuk and Oolalik were rejoicing over this find, Anteek rushed in upon them in a state of considerable excitement with something in his hand.  It was a large watch of the double-cased “warming-pan” tribe.

“Listen!” exclaimed the boy, holding it up to Cheenbuk’s ear, and giving it a shake; “it speaks.”

“What is it?” murmured the Eskimo.

“I don’t know, but it does not like shaking, for it only speaks a little when I shake it.  I tried squeezing, but it does not care for that.”

Here again Nazinred’s superior knowledge came into play, though to a limited extent.

“I have seen a thing like that,” he said.  “The trader at the great fresh-water lake had one.  He carried it in a small bag at his waist, and used often to pull it out and look at it.  He never told me what it was for, but once he let me hear it speak.  It went on just like this one-tik, tik, tik-but it did not require shaking or squeezing.  I think it had a tongue like some of our squaws, who never stop speaking.  One day when I went into the trader’s house I saw it lying on the thing with four legs which the white men put their food on when they want to eat, and it was talking away to itself as fast as ever.”

They were still engaged with this mystery when a cry of delight from Nootka drew them back to the cabin, where they found the girl clothed in a pilot-cloth coat, immensely too large for her.  She was standing admiring herself in the mirror-so quickly had her feminine intelligence applied the thing to its proper use; and, from the energetic but abortive efforts she made to wriggle round so as to obtain a view of her back, it might have been supposed that she had been trained to the arts of civilisation from childhood.

With equal and earnest assiduity Cowlik was engaged in adorning her head with a black flannel-lined sou’-wester, but she had some trouble with it, owing to the height of her top-knot of hair.

Ridiculous though the two girls might have looked in our eyes, in those of their companions they only seemed peculiar and interesting, for the step between the sublime and ridiculous is altogether relative, in Eskimo-land as elsewhere.  There was no opportunity, however, to dwell long in contemplation of any new thing, for the discoveries came thick and fast.  Cowlik had barely succeeded in pulling the ear-pieces of the sou’-wester well down, and tying the strings under her fat chin, when a tremendous clanking was heard, as of some heavy creature approaching the cabin door.  Cheenbuk dropped forward the point of his spear, and Nazinred kept his gun handy.  Not that they were actually alarmed, of course, but they felt that in such unusual circumstances the least they could do was to be ready for whatever might befall-or turn up.

A moment later and Aglootook stalked into the cabin, his legs encased in a pair of fishermen’s sea-boots, so large that they seemed quite to diminish his natural proportions.

In all their discoveries, however, they did not find a single scrap of any kind of food.  It was quite clear that the poor fellows had held by the ship as long as provisions lasted, in the hope, no doubt, that they might ultimately succeed in working their way out of the ice, and then, when inevitable starvation stared them in the face, they had tried to escape in their boats, but without success-at least in one case, though how many boats had thus left to undertake the forlorn hope of storming the strongholds of the polar seas it was impossible to tell.

On the second night, as the Eskimos sat in their igloe at supper talking over the events of the day, Nazinred asked Cheenbuk what he intended to do-

“For,” said he, “it is not possible to take back with us on one sledge more than a small part of the many good things that we have found.”

“The man-of-the-woods is right,” interposed the magician; “he is wise.  One sledge cannot carry much.  I told you that we were sure to find something.  Was I not right?  Have we not found it?  My advice now is that we go back with as much as we can carry, and return with four or five sledges-or even more,-and take home all that it is possible to collect.”

“Aglootook is always full of knowledge and wisdom,” remarked Cheenbuk, as he drove his powerful teeth into a tough bear-steak, and struggled with it for some moments before continuing his remarks; “but-but-ha! he does not quite see through an iceberg.  I will-(Give me another, Nootka, with more fat on it),-I will go back, as he wisely advises, with as much as the sledge will carry, and will return not only with four or five sledges, but with all the sledges we have got, and all the dogs, and all the men and women and children-even to the smallest babe that wears no clothes and lives in its mother’s hood, and sucks blubber.  The whole tribe shall come here and live here, and make use of the good things that have fallen in our way, till the time of open water draws near.  Then we will drive to the place where we have left our kayaks and oomiaks, some of us will go to Waruskeek, and some to pay a visit to the Fire-spouters at Whale River.-Give me another lump, Nootka.  The last was a little one, and I am hungry.”

The grandeur of Cheenbuk’s plan, as compared with Aglootook’s suggestion, was so great that the poor magician collapsed.

Anteek looked at him.  Then he covered his young face with his hands and bent his head forward upon his knees.  It was too early for going to rest.  The boy might have been sleeping, but there was a slight heaving of the young shoulders which was not suggestive of repose.

Later on in the evening, while Nazinred was enjoying his pipe, and the Eskimos were looking on in unspeakable admiration, Cheenbuk remembered that the last time he quitted the ship he had left his spear behind him.

“I’ll go and fetch it,” said Anteek, who possessed that amiable and utterly delightful nature which offers to oblige, or do a service, without waiting to be asked.  In a few minutes he was out upon the ice on his errand.  Soon he gained the snow staircase, and, running up, made his way to the cabin where the spear had been left.

Now it chanced that a polar bear, attracted perhaps by the odour of cooked food, had wandered near to the ship and observed the young Eskimo ascend.  Polar bears are not timid.  On the contrary, they are usually full of courage.  They are also full of curiosity.  The night was clear, and when that bear saw the youth go up the stair, it immediately went to the place to inspect it.  Courage and caution are not necessarily antagonistic.  On arriving at the foot of the stair it paused to paw and otherwise examine it.  Then it began to ascend slowly, as if doubtful of consequences.

Now, if it were not for coincidences a great many of the extraordinary events of this life would never have happened.  For instance-but the instances are so numerous that it may be well not to begin them.  It happened that just as the bear began to ascend the snow staircase Anteek with the spear in his hand began to ascend the companion-ladder.  But the chief point of the coincidence lay here-that just as the bear reached the top of the stair the boy reached the very same spot, and next moment the two stood face to face within four feet of each other.

We will not go into the irrelevant question which was the more surprised.  Anteek at once uttered a yell, compounded of courage, despair, ferocity, horror, and other ingredients, which startled into wild confusion all the echoes of the cliffs.  The bear opened its mouth as if to reply, and the boy instantly rammed the spear into it.

He could not have done anything worse, except run away, for a bear’s mouth is tough.  Happily, however, the monster was standing in a very upright position, and the violence of the thrust sent him off his balance.  He fell backwards down the stair, and came on the ice with an astounding crash that doubled him up and crushed all the wind out of his lungs in a bursting roar.

Fortunately his great weight caused the destruction of five or six of the lower steps, so that when he rose and tried viciously to re-ascend, he was unable to do so.

Of course the uproar brought the men on shore to the rescue, and while the bear was making furious attempts to reconstruct the broken staircase, Nazinred went close up and put a bullet in its brain.