Read CHAPTER TWENTY NINE - CURIOSITY AND PRESUMPTION FOLLOWED BY CATASTROPHE. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Most of the able-bodied men and a few of the youngsters set off next day to obtain a supply of walrus, seal, and musk-ox flesh-or anything else that happened to be procurable.

Mrs Mangivik and other ladies were left to look after the camp and prepare for the return of the men, strict orders being left that no one should go on board the ship on any pretext whatever.

But strict orders are not always obeyed.  There was one little boy in that community-not a bad boy, but a precocious and very ambitious boy- who chanced not to hear the orders given.  Whether he was partially deaf, or purposely did not hear the orders, we cannot say.  This little boy’s chief weakness was a desire to mimic.  Having admired the wooden leg on Anteek’s head, and having observed where Anteek had stowed the leg away before setting off with the hunters, he possessed himself of it, put it on his head, and strutted about the camp to the admiration and envy of all his compeers; for he was a very daring and domineering boy, although small.  His name was Doocheek.

Another of Doocheek’s weaknesses was a desire to ape the men, and think himself a man in consequence.  This, coupled with a consuming curiosity in regard to Nazinred’s tobacco-pipe, caused him to observe-for he was remarkably observant-that the Indian had, for the first time since he resided among them, gone off on an expedition and left his pipe behind him-accidentally, no doubt.  Doocheek watched his opportunity and secured the fire-bag which contained the smoking implements.  Stolen waters are sweet, even in cold climates where all the waters freeze, and the boy cast about for a secluded place in which he might enjoy the sweetness of his pipe to the full without fear of interruption.  A blue cavern in an iceberg might do, but the atmosphere in such caves was rather cold.  Under the cliffs there were many sheltered places, but the juvenile members of the community were playing there, and would certainly intrude.  Out on the floes was an exposed place-to vision as well as to wind and drift.  What was left to him, then, but the ship?

Hurrying through the village in order to carry out his plans, the boy encountered Mrs Mangivik at the entrance to her hut.

“Where are you going, Doocheek?” demanded the woman, with a look of suspicion born of frequent experience.

With that spirit of ambiguous contradiction which would seem to prevail among the youth of all nations, Doocheek replied, “Nowhere.”

It is interesting to observe how that remarkable answer seems to satisfy inquirers, in nine cases out of ten, everywhere!  At all events Mrs Mangivik smiled as if she were satisfied, and re-entered her hut, where Nootka was engaged in conversation with Adolay, while she taught her how to make Eskimo boots.

“Did not Cheenbuk forbid every one to go near the big kayak while the men were away?” demanded the woman.

“Yes he did,” answered Nootka, without raising her eyes.-“Now look here, Ad-dolay.  You turn the toe up this way, and the heel down that way, and shove your needle in so, and then-”

“I am very sure,” interrupted Mrs Mangivik, “that little Doocheek has gone down there.  There’s not another little boy in the tribe but himself would dare to do it.”

“He will lose some of his skin if he does,” said Nootka quietly- referring not to any habit of the Eskimos to flay bad boys alive, but to their tendency to punish the refractory in a way that was apt to ruffle the cuticle.

Quite indifferent to all such prospects in store for him, the boy hurried on until he reached the foot of the snow staircase.  It had been repaired by that time, and the deck was easily gained.  Descending to a part of the interior which was rather dark-for the boy was aware that his deeds were evil-he sat down on a locker and opened his fire-bag.

Eskimos are not quite free from superstition.  Doocheek had plenty of natural courage, but he was apt to quail before the supernatural.  Apart from the conscience, which even in Arctic bosoms tends to produce cowardice, the strange surroundings of the place-the deep shadows, merging into absolute obscurity, and the feeling of mystery that attached to everything connected with the vessel-all had the effect of rendering Doocheek’s enjoyment somewhat mixed.  To look at him as he sat there, glaring nervously on all sides, one would have been tempted to say that his was what might be called a fearful joy.  If a rat or a mouse had scurried past him at that moment he would have fled precipitately, but no rat or mouse moved.  Probably they were all frozen, and he had the place entirely to himself-too much to himself.  He began at that point to wish that he had brought another little boy, or even a girl, with him, to keep up his courage and share in his triumphant wickedness.

However, as nothing happened, his courage began to return, and he emptied the contents of the bag on the locker.  He knew exactly what to do, for many a time had he watched the Indian fill his pipe and produce fire with flint, steel, and tinder.  Beginning with the pipe, he filled it, and then proceeded to strike a light.  Of course he found this much more difficult than he had expected.  It seemed so easy in the Indian’s hands-it was so very difficult in his!  After skinning his knuckles, however, chipping his thumb-nail, and knocking the flint out of his hand several times, he succeeded in making the right stroke, and a shower of sparks rewarded his perseverance.

This was charming.  The place was so dark that the sparks seemed as large and bright as stars, while the darkness that followed was deeper by contrast.  Forgetting the pipe and tobacco in this new-found joy, Doocheek kept pelting away at the flint, sending showers of sparks past his knees, and some of them were so large that they even fell upon the deck before going out.

But an abrupt stop was put to his amusement.  Whether it was that something or other in the sides of the ship had given way, or the energetic action of the boy had shaken some fastening loose, we cannot say, but just as he was in the act of raising his hand for another feu-de-joie, a shelf over his head gave way, and a perfect avalanche of pots, pans, and noisy tin articles came down with a hideous crash on the deck!

To leap from the locker like a bomb-shell, and go straight up the hatchway like a rocket, was only natural.  Doocheek did that as far as was compatible with flesh and blood.  He could not remember afterwards by what process he reached the ice and found himself on the skirts of the village.  But at that point his self-control returned, and he sauntered home-flushed, it is true, and a little winded, yet with the nonchalant air of a man who had just stepped out to “have a look at the weather.”  His conscience was rather troubled, it is true, when he thought of the fire-bag and the pipe, etcetera, left behind, but nothing would have induced him to return for these at that time.

Towards evening the walrus-hunters returned.  They had been very successful.  The sledges were loaded up with the meat of several large animals, so that there was a prospect of unlimited feasting for more than a week to come.

“Now, old woman,” said Cheenbuk with cheery irreverence to his mother, and with that good-natured familiarity which is often engendered by good fortune, “stir up the lamps and get ready the marrow-bones!”

Regardless of lamps and marrow-bones, all the children of the community, even to the smallest babes, were sucking raw blubber as children in less favoured lands suck lollipops.

“Had you to go far?” asked Adolay.

“Not far.  We found them all close by, and would have been back sooner, but some of them fought hard and took up much time,” answered Cheenbuk, who awaited the cooking process; for since he had discovered the Indian girl’s disgust at raw meat, he had become a total abstainer on the point.

“And,” he added, beginning to pull off his boots, “if your father had not been there with the spouter we should have been out on the floes fighting still, for some of the walruses were savage, and hard to kill.”

After supper, as a matter of course, Nazinred looked round with an air of benign satisfaction on his fine face.

“Is my fire-bag behind you, Adolay?” he asked in a low voice.

Doocheek was present and heard the question, but of course did not understand it, as it was put in the Dogrib tongue.  The search, however, which immediately began induced him to retire promptly and absent himself from home for the time being.

“It is not here, father.”

A more careful search was made, then a most careful one, but no fire-bag was to be found.

“Perhaps Nootka took it to her sleeping-place to keep it safe,” suggested old Mangivik.

No; Nootka had seen nothing of it, and Nootka was not a little annoyed when, in spite of her assertion, a search was made in her boudoir, and not a little triumphant when the search proved fruitless.

“Surely no one has taken it away,” said Cheenbuk, looking round with an expression that would have sunk Doocheek through the snow into the earth if he had been there.

If any one has taken it away,” said Aglootook, with a profundity of meaning in his tone that was meant to paralyse the guilty, and serve as a permanent caution to the innocent, “something awful will happen.  I don’t say what, but something; so it will be as well to confess, for I’m sure to find it out-if not soon, then in a long time.”

For some moments after this there was dead silence, but nobody confessed, and they all looked at each other as if they expected some one to go off like a cannon shot through the roof suddenly, and were somewhat disappointed that no one did.

By degrees they began to breathe more freely, and at last some went out to seek repose in their own huts, while the inmates of Mangivik’s dwelling began to turn in for the night.  Nootka and Adolay retired to the boudoir, and the men, drawing bear or seal-skins over them, lay down, each where he had feasted.

Nazinred alone remained sitting up, the victim of unsatisfied craving.  North American Indians are noted for their power to conceal their feelings, and Nazinred was not an exception to the rule, for no sign did he betray of the longing desire for a pipe that consumed him.  Only a tendency to silence, and a deeper solemnity than usual, seemed to indicate that all was not as he would wish.

At last he lay down.  About an hour afterwards, finding that he could not sleep, he arose, cast an envious glance at the peaceful slumberers around him, crept through the entrance tunnel, and stood erect outside, with a gaze of subdued inquiry at the starry host overhead.  Bringing his eyes slowly down to the things of earth, his gaze changed suddenly into one of wild alarm.

The cause was obvious enough.  When Doocheek fled from the avalanche of pots and tins, as before mentioned, he failed to observe that one of the sparks, which had filled him with delight, had remained nestling and alive in a mass of cotton-waste, or some such rubbish, lying on the lower deck.  With the tendency of sparks to increase and propagate their species, this particular one soon had a large and vigorous family of little sparks around it.  A gentle puff of wind made these little ones lively, and induced them, after the manner of little ones everywhere, to scatter on exploring rambles.  Like juveniles, too, their food at first was simple,-a few more mouthfuls of waste and a bit of rope here and there; hence their progress was slow and quiet.  But time and increasing strength soon made them impatient of such light food.  Ere long they created a draught of their own, and were blown into a flame.  Then some of them laid hold of some bedding, while others seized upon a bulkhead, and, gathering courage from success, they finally enveloped the ’tween-decks in a mass of flame.

It was at this point in the business that the eyes of Nazinred beheld a column of smoke rising from the after-companion hatch which threw his own smoking powers entirely into the shade, and induced him to utter an unreasoning war-whoop that roused the Eskimo tribe as if by a shock of electricity.

The entire population rushed out like one man.  They saw the smoke, with a lurid flame licking out here and there amid the blackness, and seeing the Indian flying down the beach as if he were witch-possessed-as indeed he was-they uttered a united howl, and made off in the same direction.

Fire brigades, of course, are unknown among the Eskimos, but the way in which Cheenbuk improvised and organised an Arctic brigade might have roused the envy even of the London force!

Great men are always with us, though not always recognised.  It requires specially great occasions to draw them forth, and make them visible even to themselves.  Many a time in former years had Cheenbuk spilt water on the cooking-lamp and put it out.  Water at once occurred to his mind in connection with the tremendous lamp that was now fairly alight.  But water was at that time locked up seven or eight feet under the solid ice.  The active mind of the Eskimo naturally reverted to snow ere yet he had covered the distance between ship and shore.  We say naturally, because he was quite aware that snow also extinguished lamps.

Cutting a huge block of snow with his bone knife from the beaten plain, he shouted in a voice of thunder:  “Hi! every one.  Look at me!  Do as I do!”

He shouldered the mass, sprang up the snow stair, and plunged down the smoking hatchway.

Cheenbuk and Oolalik, who were as quick to obey as to command-perhaps quicker-followed their leader’s example.  Others followed suit according to their respective natures and capacities.  Anteek, bearing a mass nearly as big as himself, also dashed below in wild excitement.  Some of the young men tumbled their burdens of snow down the smoking hole and went back for more.  Even old Mangivik did that as fast as his rheumatic limbs would let him.  Raventik, reckless as usual, sprang down with a mighty lump, but finding the atmosphere below uncongenial, hurled it towards his predecessors, and sprang up again for a fresh supply, watering at the eyes and choking.  The poor invalid Ondikik walked as hard as his fast-failing strength would permit.  The women even, led by the thoroughly roused Cowlik, bore their share in the work.  The children took prompt advantage of the occasion to enjoy by far the wildest game that had ever yet been suggested to their imaginations, and Aglootook the magician, seeing that something had come at last to verify his predictions, stood by the capstan and appointed himself to the command of the upper deck brigade, while the others were battling with the flames below.

The battle was indeed a tough one; for the fire had got a firm hold, not only of the materials already mentioned, but also of a mass of canvas and cordage in what must have been the sail-maker’s department, and the smoke was growing so dense that it was becoming difficult for the firemen to breathe.

“Here!  Nazinred, Oolalik, throw the biggest lumps you can lift over there.”

Cheenbuk pointed to what seemed a red-hot spot in the dense smoke before them, and set them the example by heaving a gigantic mass at the same place.

A tremendous hiss came forth as the snow was converted into steam, but there was no abatement in the roar of the devouring element as it licked up everything around it, making the iron bolts red, and, though not themselves combustible, assistants to combustion.

“More snow, Anteek! more snow!” gasped Cheenbuk.

The boy, with a mass of half-melted snow still in his hand, sprang up the ladder, scarce knowing what he did, and appeared on deck, blackened and wildly dishevelled.  Aglootook was close to the opening at the moment, giving sententious directions to some little boys.  Anteek hurled the snow-mass full at his face with the force of an ardent nature intensified by contempt, and sent him sprawling among the children as he leaped over the side to carry out his orders.

But no energy on the part of Cheenbuk and his comrades, no efforts on the part of their assistants, strong or feeble, could avert that ship’s doom.  Ere long the smoke and heat between decks became unbearable, and drove the gallant leaders back, inch by inch, foot by foot, until they were compelled to take refuge on the upper deck, when nothing more could be done to arrest the progress of the flames.  They retired therefore to the quarter-deck, where the whole of the Eskimos-men, women, and children-assembled to look on at the destruction which they could not now prevent.

“This is a great loss,” observed Cheenbuk regretfully, as he sat on the after-rail, mopping the perspiration off his blackened face with his sleeve.

“It might have been a greater loss,” said Nazinred, glancing towards the well-filled storehouses on shore.

“That is true; but just think of what a supply of wood for spears and sledges!  It would have been enough to last the lives of our children’s children, if not longer.”

“Did I not tell you that something would happen?” said Aglootook, coming forward at that moment.

“Yes, and something did happen,” said old Mangivik, “though I could not see how it happened, for the smoke.  Did not a lump of snow fly in your face and knock you over among the children?”

The magician ignored the question altogether, and, turning to Cheenbuk, asked if he thought there was yet any chance of saving the ship.

“Not unless you manage to send some of your magic down and stop the fire.”

“That is not possible,” returned the other, with a wisely grave look.  “I can do much, but I cannot do that.”

As he spoke, a fresh roar of the fire up the hatch-way attracted attention.  Gathering strength, it burst up in a bright flame, showing that the quarter-deck could not long remain a place of security.

Suddenly Nazinred showed signs of excitement which were very unusual in him.  Fighting the walrus or bear, or battling with the fire, had never produced such an expression as crossed his face, while he cast a hasty glance round on the women and children, whose forms were by that time lit up by the dull red glow that issued from the column of smoke.

“Cheenbuk,” he said in a low voice, “the black stuff that I put in my spouter is kept by traders in round things-I forget the name.  If there is one of these round things here, and it catches fire, we shall, every one of us, with the ship, be sent up to the stars!”

The remark was meant to reach the ear of the leader alone, but several of those around heard it, and a wild rush was instantly made for the snow stair, amid feminine and juvenile shrieks.  Aglootook incontinently hurled himself over the side, and fell on his hands and knees on the ice, where an opportune snow-drift saved him.  Most of the party ran or leaped out of the threatened danger.

“Does not my father think that we should go?” asked Cheenbuk, who began to feel uneasy as a fresh burst of flame set fire to the canvas awning, and made the place they stood on unpleasantly hot.

“Yes, my son, he does,” replied Nazinred; “but it does not become men to run from danger.”

So saying he began to move as if in a funeral procession, closely followed by Cheenbuk, Oolalik, and old Mangivik.

As they reached the head of the staircase something like an explosion occurred, for the deck was partially burst up by the heat.  The three Eskimos, who did not think their dignity affected by haste, leaped down the stair in two bounds, but Nazinred did not alter his walk in the least.  Step by step he descended deliberately, and walked in stolid solemnity to the spot on which the community had assembled as a place of safety.

They did not speak much after that, for the sight was too thrilling and too novel to admit of conversation.  Shouts and exclamations alone broke forth at intervals.

The danger to which they had been exposed while on the quarter-deck became more apparent when a clear bright flame at length shot upwards, and, catching some of the ropes, ran along and aloft in all directions.

Hitherto the fire had been much smothered by its own smoke and the want of air below, but now that it had fairly burst its bonds and got headway, it showed itself in its true character as a fierce and insatiable devourer of all that came in its way.

Catching hold of the awning over the deck, it swept fore and aft like a billow, creating such heat that the spectators were forced to retreat to a still safer distance.  From the awning it licked round the masts, climbed them, caught the ropes and flew up them, sweeping out upon the yards to their extreme ends, so that, in a few minutes, the ship was ablaze from hold to truck, and stem to stern.

Then the event which Nazinred had referred to occurred.  The flames reached the powder magazine.  It exploded, and the terrified natives yelled their feelings, while the entire structure went up into the heavens with a roar to which the loudest thunder could not compare, and a sheet of intense light that almost blinded them.

The explosion blew out every fork of flame, great and small, and left an appalling blackness by contrast, while myriads of red-hot fragments fell in a shower on the ice, and rebounded from it, like evil spirits dancing around the tremendous wreck that they had caused.

Fortunately the Eskimos were beyond the range of the fiery shower.  When they ventured, with awe-stricken looks, to approach the scene of the catastrophe, only a yawning cavern in the floe remained to tell of the stately vessel that had thus ended her final voyage.