Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Cape Resolution.—The Entrance into Hudson's Straits.—The Sun in the North-east.—The Resolution Cliffs.—Sweating among Icebergs.—A Shower and a Fog.—An Anxious Night.—A Strange Rumbling.—Singular Noises and Explosions.—Running into an Iceberg.—In Tow.—A Big Hailstone drops on Deck.—Boarding an Iceberg.—Solution of the Explosions.—A Lucky Escape.
"Land and ice, land and ice, ho!" sang out our old sea-dog from his lookout in the bow.
'Twas the morning of the 7th of July. We had expected to make Cape Resolution the evening before. Kit and I had been on deck till one o'clock, watching in the gleaming twilight. Never shall I forget those twilights. The sun was not out of sight more than three hours and a half, and the whole northern semicircle glowed continuously. It shone on the sails; it shone on the sea. The great glassy faces of the swells cast it back in phosphorescent flashes. The patches of ice showed white as chalk. The ocean took a pale French gray tint. Overhead the clouds drifted in ghostly troops, and far up in the sky an unnatural sort of glare eclipsed the sparkle of stars. Properly speaking, there was no night. One could read easily at one o'clock. Twilight and dawn joined hands. The sun rose far up in the north-east. Queer nights these! Until we got used to it, or rather until fatigue conquered us, we had no little difficulty in going to sleep. We were not accustomed to naps in the daytime. As a sort of compromise, I recollect that we used to spread an old sail over the skylight, and hang up blankets over the bull's-eyes in the stern, to keep out this everlasting daylight. We needed night. Born far down toward the equinoxes, we sighed for our intervals of darkness and shadows. But we got used to it after a fortnight of gaping. One gets used to any thing, every thing. "Use is second nature," says an old proverb. It is more than that: it is Nature herself.
Land and ice, ho!
"Tumble out!" shouted Raed.
It was half-past three. We went on deck. The sun was shining brightly. Scarcely any wind; sea like glass in the sunlight; ice in small patches all about.
"Where's your land?" asked Wade.
"Off there," replied young Hobbs, pointing to the north-west.
Ah, yes! there it was,—a line of dark gray cliffs, low in the water. Between us and them a dozen white icebergs glittered in the sun.
"Is that the cape, captain?" queried Kit.
"Must be," was the reply. "Same latitude. Can't be any thing else. Answers to the chart exactly."
"Oh! that's Cape Resolution fast enough," said Raed. "Those cliffs correspond with the descriptions, I should say."
"How far off?" asked Wade.
"Well, seven or eight leagues," replied the captain.
"The Button Islands, on the south side of the entrance, ought to be in sight, to the south-west," remarked Raed, looking off in that direction; "but I don't see them," he added.
The captain got his glass, and climbed up to the gaff of the foresail.
"Yes, there 'tis!" he shouted. "Low down; low land. No cliffs."
"Why are they called 'Button Isles' on the chart?" he asked, sliding down the shrouds. "Is it because they resemble buttons?"
"No," said Raed. "They were named for Capt. Button, who sailed through here more than a century ago. He was one of those navigators who tried so hard to find the 'north-west passage' by sailing through Hudson's Straits. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the London merchants sent out expeditions nearly every year in the hope of finding a passage through here to China and India. This Button was one of their captains."
"Then this low land to the south-west of us is Cape Chidleigh, is it not?" said Wade.
"No," said Raed. "Cape Chidleigh is the main land of Labrador down to the south-east of the Button Isles. You couldn't see that, could you, captain?"
"Saw some high peaks to the south, far down on the horizon. Those are on Labrador, I presume. Couldn't say whether they are the cape proper or not. They are in about the direction of the cape as indicated on the chart."
As the sun rose higher a breeze sprang up, and the sails filled. The schooner was headed W.N.W. to run under the cape; Bonney being set to watch sharp for the floating ice.
"Coffee, sar!" cried Palmleaf from the companion-way.
We went down to breakfast and talk over matters with the captain. It was decided to work up under the cape, and so, hugging the land on the north side as closely as possible, get into the strait as far as we could that day. We all felt anxious; for though the sea was now smooth, sky clear, and the wind fair, yet we knew that it was rather the exception than the average. The idea of being caught here among these cliffs and icebergs in a three-days' fog or a north-east gale, with the whole fury of the Atlantic at our backs, was anything but encouraging. The advice of the elder navigators, "to seize a favorable day and get as far up the straits as possible," kept recurring to our minds. The words had an ominous sound. They were the utterances of many a sad experience.
"There never could be a better day nor a fairer wind," remarked the captain.
"Now's our chance; I'm convinced of it," said Kit.
The mainsail, which had been taken in the previous evening, and the topsail, were both set; and, the breeze freshening, "The Curlew" rapidly gathered way. Considerable care had to be used, however, to avoid the broad cakes of ice which were floating out all around us. Small bits, and pieces as large as a hogshead, we paid no attention to; let the cut-water knock them aside. But there were plenty of large, angular, ugly-looking masses, which, if struck would have endangered the schooner's side. These were sheered off from: so that our course was made up of a series of curves and windings in and out. It seemed odd to see so much ice, and feel the deadly chill of the water, with so hot a sun on deck that the pitch started on the deal planks. In our companion-way the thermometer rose to eighty-seven degrees, with icebergs glittering at every point of the compass.
By eight o'clock, A.M., we were abreast the cliffs of Resolution Island, at a distance of a couple of miles. With our glasses we examined them attentively. Hoary, gray, and bare, they were, as when first split out of the earth's flinty crust, and thrust above the waves. The sun poured a flood of warm light over them; but no green thing could be discerned. Either there was no soil, or else the bleak frost-winds effectually checked the outcrop of life. To the south the Button Islands showed like brown patches on the shimmering waves. The width of the straits at this point is given on the chart at twelve leagues,—thirty-six miles. We could see the land on either side.
By eleven, A.M., we were twenty miles inside the outer cape. The cliffs continued on the north side, and the schooner was headed up within a mile of them. There were no signs of reefs or sunken ledges, however; and, on heaving the lead, a hundred fathoms of line were run out without touching bottom. The cliffs seem thus to form the side of an immense chasm partially filled by the ocean. Raed estimated their height above the sea to be near four hundred feet. At the distance of a mile they appeared to tower and almost impend over us.
Toward noon the wind flawed for half an hour, then dropped altogether. The current, which was setting out to sea, began to drag us back with it slowly. There wasn't a breath of air stirring. Blazes! how the sun poured down! Guard got round in the thin shadow of the mainsail, and actually lolled among icebergs. There we were stuck. That is one of the disadvantages of a sailing-vessel: you have to depend on the wind,—the most capricious thing in the universe. I suppose the air-current had veered about from north-east to north, so that the lofty cliffs intercepted them completely.
Dinner was eaten. One o'clock,—two o'clock. We were glad to take refuge with Guard in the shade of the sails. All around us was a stillness which passes words, broken loudly by our steps on the hot deck, and the occasional graze of ice-cakes against the sides. We felt uneasy enough. This calm was ominous.
"There's mischief brewing!" muttered Kit; "and here we are in the very jaws of the straits!"
Since the wind dropped, the ice had seemed to thicken ahead. To the southward, farther out from the shore, where the outward current was stronger, we could see it driving along in a glittering procession of white bergs. The wisdom of keeping on the north side of the strait was apparent from this; though it seemed likely to cost us dear in the consequent loss of the wind. On many of the larger cakes we could see dark objects, which the glass disclosed to be seals, sunning.
Presently a dense mass of blue-black clouds loomed suddenly over the brow of the cliffs.
"A shower!" cried Raed.
"A squall!" exclaimed old Trull.
"All hands take in sail!" shouted the captain.
Our Gloucester lads needed no further awakening. We all bore a hand, and had the mainsail down on the boom, short order; and, while Wade and I tried our hand at lashing it with the gaskets, the rest got down the foresail and the topsail. The jib was not furled, but got ready to "let go" in case of fierce gusts. Low, heavy peals of thunder began to rumble behind the cliffs. The dark cloud-mass heaved up, till a misty line of foamy, driving rain and hail showed over the flinty crags. Bright flashes gleamed out, followed shortly by heavy, hollow peals. The naked ledges added vastly, no doubt, to the tone of the reverberations. The rain-drift broke over the cliffs; but the shower passed mainly to the north-west. Only some scattered drops, with a few big straggling pellets of hail, hit on the deck. An eddy of cool air followed the gust. The jib puffed out on a sudden.
"Up with the foresail!" was the order.
It was at once set; and "The Curlew" started on in the wake of the shower. The cloud passed across the straits diagonally to the south-west. We could see it raining heavily on the ice-flecked water a few miles farther up; and immediately the whole surface began to steam. We watched it with considerable anxiety.
"It will be a fog, I'm afraid," groaned Raed.
"It's sure to be," said young Hobbs. "I never seed a scud on the 'Banks' but 'ut it was allus follered by a fog."
White-gray, cold-looking clouds began to drift along the sun from the seaward. A sudden change in the air was felt. Cool, damp gusts swept down from the crags. The thermometer was falling rapidly. It had stood at ninety-four degrees just previous to the shower. Kit now reported it at seventy-three degrees; and, in less than an hour, it had fallen twenty degrees more. This sudden change was probably due to the veering of the wind from east round to north. The cold blasts from "Greenland's icy mountains" speedily dissipated our miniature summer. There was a general rush for great-coats and thick jackets. Thin lines of vapor streamed up from the water as the cold gusts swept across it. The hot sunbeams falling on the sea had doubtless raised the temperature considerably, despite the ice; and this sudden change in the air could but raise a great mist. Yet I doubt whether Nature's wonderful and legitimate processes were ever regarded with greater disfavor and apprehension.
"The barometer's falling a good deal too," remarked the captain, coming hastily up the companion-stairs. "Either a rain-storm, or a smart gale from the north'ard: both, perhaps. We're in a tight place."
"What's to be done?" Raed asked.
"Hadn't we better try to beat out of the straits into the open sea again, clear of the land and ice?" said Kit.
"Can't do it. It would take all night to do that, if there were no ice to hinder. The gale will come before morning, if it comes at all; and the entrance of the straits would be the worst possible place to weather it."
"But, captain, what can we do?" Wade demanded, looking a little pale.
"Well, not much. We must keep on,—get as far up the straits as we can; and then trust to good luck to escape being smashed or jammed. The farther we get up the channel, the less we shall feel the violence of a gale from the seaward."
It was a rather gloomy prospect. The sky was thickening, and darkening rapidly. The mist kept streaming up from the water. What wind there was continued fitfully. We kept the foresail and the jib set, and jogged on, doubling amid the ice. Meanwhile the fog grew so dense, that every thing was very dim at fifty yards. But for the mist, and the danger of striking against large fragments of ice, we should have set the mainsail and the topsail to make the most of our wind ere it blew too hard; for it was plainly rising. Now and then a gust would sigh past the sheets. Supper was eaten in squads of two and three. The thermometer fell constantly. It grew so chilly, that we were glad to slip down into the galley occasionally to warm our fingers at Palmleaf's stove. Guard had already taken up his quarters there.
"Dis am berry suddin change," the darky would remark gravely to each of us as we successively made our appearance. "Berry suddin. The gerometum fallin' fast. Srink 'im all up, ser cold. Now, dis forenoon it am quite comf'ble; warm 'nuf ter take a nap in the sun: but now—oo-oo-ooo! awful cold!" And Palmleaf would move his sable cheek up close to the hot stove-pipe, Guard all the time regarding him soberly from the other side.
Bidding the negro keep coffee hot and ready for us, we would hurry on deck again, and resume our places in the bow; for it required vigilant eyes to look out for all the ugly ice-cakes among which the schooner was driving. The weather grew thicker, and the sky darker. By half-past ten, P.M., although the sun must have been still high above the horizon, it was dark as one often sees it on a stormy night when there is a moon in the heavens. In fact, it grew too dark to make out the ice-patches; for, despite our watchfulness, at about five minutes to eleven we struck against a large mass with a shock which made things rattle down stairs. Guard barked, and Palmleaf showed a very scared face in the companion-way.
"Where are your eyes there, forward?" shouted the captain. "Couldn't you see that?"
Just then we grazed pretty heavily against another cake.
"It is really getting too dark for us, captain," said Raed.
"Take in the foresail, then."
The sail was at once furled. The jib was kept on, however, to hold us steady. We were now merely breasting the current, and driving on a little with the gusts. Soon it began to rain,—rain and snow together. The dreariness and uncertainty of our situation can hardly be imagined. We did not even know how near we were to the foot of the cliffs, and could merely keep the schooner headed as she had been during the afternoon.
"The main thing for us now is to keep her as nearly stationary as we can," said the captain. "Between wind and water, I hope not to move half a knot all night."
It was now nearly twelve.
"We may as well go below," said Kit. "No use standing here in the rain when we can do no good."
We had been up nearly twenty-one hours since our last nap. Sleep will have its tribute, even in the face of danger. Hastily flinging off our wet coats, we lay down. The wind and rain wailed among the rigging above. Chuck-chock, chock-chuck, went the waves under the stern; while every few minutes a heavy jarring bump, followed by a long raspy grind along the side, told of the icy processions floating past. Those were our lullabies that night. Truly it required a sharp summoning of our fortitude not to feel a little home-sick. But we went to sleep; at least I did, and slept a number of hours.
Voices roused me. The captain was standing beside our mattresses.
"Wake up!" he was saying. "Get up, and come on deck!"
At the same moment I heard, indistinctly, a strange, rumbling sound.
"What is it? what's the matter?" cried Kit, starting up.
"Oh! don't be scared; we've been hearing it for some time," replied the captain. "Put on your rubber coats."
We did so, and followed him up the stairway. The rain and snow still came fast and thick. The deck was soppy. Hobbs was at the wheel. Donovan and Weymouth were forward. I could just make them out, standing wrapped up against the bulwarks.
"Now hark!" said the captain.
We all listened. A heavy noise, like that of some huge flouring-mill in full operation, could be plainly heard above the swash of the waves and the drive and patter of the storm.
"Thunder?—no, it isn't thunder," muttered Raed.
"Breakers!" exclaimed Kit. "It's the sea on the rocks,—those cliffs,—isn't it?"
"Trull," said the captain to that old worthy, who was just poking his head up out of the forecastle,—"Trull, is that noise the surf?"
The veteran turned an experienced ear aport, listened a moment, and then replied,—
"No, sir," promptly.
"Well, what in the world is it, then?"
The old salt listened again attentively. The steady rumble continued without intermission.
"Don't know, sir," replied Trull, shaking his head. "Never heard any thing like it."
"Are you sure it's not breakers?" demanded Kit. "I'm afraid we're drifting on the rocks. It's dead ahead too!"
But neither the captain nor Trull nor Donovan could believe it was the surf.
"We began to hear it over an hour ago," remarked the captain. "It sounded low then; we could just hear it: but it grows louder. It's either coming towards us, or else we are going towards it. I presume the storm drives us with it considerably."
"I tell you that it is some dangerous reef!" exclaimed Kit; "some hole or cavern which the water is playing through."
"It may be," muttered the captain. "Starboard the helm, Hobbs!"
At this instant a heavy, near explosion boomed out, followed momentarily by another and another.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Raed.
"Cannon!" shouted Wade: "it's a vessel in distress!"
"Impossible!" cried the captain. "No ship would fire cannon here, even if wrecked. There wouldn't be one chance in ten thousand of its being heard by another vessel."
"Hark! did you not hear that splashing noise that followed the explosion?" demanded Kit.
We had all heard it; for, by this time, the sailors who were below had come on deck. The heavy rumbling noise began afresh, and sounded louder than before. We were completely mystified, and stood peering off from the bulwarks into the stormy obscurity of the night.
"Are there volcanoes on these straits, suppose?" Wade asked.
No one had ever heard of any.
"There were none in my geography," said Raed. "But there may be one forming."
Indeed, we were so much in doubt, that even this improbable suggestion was caught at for the moment.
"But where's the fire and smoke?" replied Kit. "Methinks it ought to be visible."
We could feel, rather than see, that the schooner was veering slowly to the left, in obedience to her helm,—a fact which left no doubt that we were, as the captain had surmised, drifting with the storm against the current; or perhaps, before this, the tide coming in had made a counter-current up the straits. The roaring noise was growing more distinct every minute; till all at once Bonney, who was looking attentively out from the bow, exclaimed,—
"What's that ahead, captain? Isn't there something?"
We all strained our eyes.
Dim amid the fog and rain something which seemed like a great pale shadow loomed before the schooner. For a moment we gazed, uncertain whether it were real, or an illusion of darkness; then Donovan shouted,—
"Ice!—it's an iceberg!"
"Hard a-starboard!" yelled Capt. Mazard.
It was not a hundred feet distant. Old Trull and Bonney caught up the pike-poles to fend off with. "The Curlew" drove on. The vast shadowy shape seemed to approach. A chill came with it. A few seconds more, and the bowsprit punched heavily against the ice-mountain. The shock sent the schooner staggering back like a pugilist with a "blimmer" between the eyes. Had we been sailing at our usual rate, it would have stove in the whole bow. The storm immediately forced us forward again; and the bowsprit, again striking, slid along the ice with a dull, crunching sound as the schooner fell off sidewise.
"Stand by those pike-poles!" shouted the captain; for so near was the iceberg, that we could easily reach it with a ten-foot pole from the bulwarks.
Striking the iron spikes into the ice, the men held the schooner off while she drifted past. The rumbling noise, louder than before, seemed now to come from out the solid berg.
"Let's get away from this before it splits or explodes again!" exclaimed Raed.
"Heavens! it sounds like a big grist-mill in full blast!" said Kit.
"More like a powder-mill, I should judge from the blasts we heard a few minutes ago," remarked Wade.
More poles were brought up, and we all lent a hand to push off from our dangerous neighbor. After fending along its massy side for several hundred yards, we got off clear from an angle.
"Farewell, old thunder-mill!" laughed Kit.
But we had not got clear of it so easily: for the vast lofty mass so broke off the wind and storm, that, immediately on passing it to the leeward, we hadn't a "breath of air;" and, as a consequence, the berg soon drifted down upon us. Again we pushed off from it, and set the fore-sail. The sail merely flapped occasionally, and hung idly; and again the iceberg came grinding against us. There were no means of getting off, save to let down the boat, and tow the schooner out into the wind,—rather a ticklish job among ice, and in so dim a light. "The Curlew" lay broadside against the berg, but did not seem to chafe or batter much: on the contrary, we were borne along by the ice with far less motion than if out in open water.
"Well, why not let her go so?" said Kit after we had lain thus a few minutes. "There doesn't seem to be any great danger in it. This side of the iceberg, so far as I can make it out, doesn't look very dangerous."
"Not a very seamanlike way of doing business," remarked the captain, looking dubiously around.
"Catching a ride on an iceberg," laughed Weymouth. "That sort of thing used to be strictly forbidden at school."
"But only listen to that fearful rumble and roar!" said Raed. "It seems to come from deep down in the berg. What is it?"
"Must be the sea rushing through some crack, or possibly the rain-water and the water from the melted ice on top streaming down through some hole into the sea," said the captain.
"But those explosions!—how would you account for those?" asked Wade.
"Well, I can't pretend to explain that. I have an idea, however, that they resulted from the splitting off of large fragments of ice."
On the whole, it was deemed most prudent to let the schooner lay where she was,—till daylight at least. Planks were got up from below, and thrust down between the side and the ice to keep her from chafing against the sharp angles.
By this time it was near six o'clock, morning, and had begun to grow tolerably light. The rain still continued, however, as did also the bellowings inside the iceberg. Old Trull and Weymouth were set to watch the ice, and the rest of us went down to breakfast. The schooner lay so still, that it seemed like being on shore again. We had got as far as our second cup of coffee, I recollect, when we were startled by another of the same heavy explosions we had heard a few hours previous. It was followed instantly by a second. Then we heard old Trull sing out,—
"Avast from under!"
And, a moment later, there was a tremendous crash on deck, accompanied by a hollow, rattling sound. Dropping our knives and forks, we sprang up the companionway.
"What was that, Trull?" demanded Capt. Mazard.
"A chunk of ice, sir, as big as my old sea-chest!"
"How came that aboard?"
"Rained down, sir. Went up from the top o' the barg, sir, at that thunder-clap, and came plumb down on deck."
The deck-planks were shattered and split where it had struck, and pieces of ice the size of a quart measure lay all about.
"Did you see it fly up from the top of the berg, Weymouth?" Raed asked.
"Yes, sir. It didn't go up till the second pop. I was looking then. It went up like as if it had been shot from a gun; went up thirty or forty feet, then turned in the air, and came down on us. Thought 'twould sink us, sir, sure. There were streams of water in the air at the same time; and water by the hogshead came sloshing over the side of the ice."
"I don't understand that at all," said the captain.
"We must investigate it," said Raed, "if we can. But let's make sure of our breakfast first. I suppose there will be no great danger in letting down the boat as soon as it gets fairly light, will there, captain? This iceberg seems to be a rather mysterious chap. I propose that we circumnavigate it in the boat. Perhaps we may find a chance to climb on to it."
It was already light; and, by the time breakfast was over, the rain had subsided to a drizzly mist: but the fog was still too thick to see far in any direction. The sea continued comparatively calm. A few minutes after seven, the boat was lowered. Raed and the rest of us boys, with the captain and Weymouth, got in, and pulled round to the windward of the berg. It was a vast, majestic mass, rising from forty to fifty feet above the water, and covering three or four acres. On the south, south-east, and east sides it rose almost perpendicularly from the sea. No chance to scale it here; and, even if there had been, the water was much too rough to the windward to bring the boat up to it. We continued around it, however, and, near the north-west corner, espied a large crevice leading up toward the top, and filled with broken ice.
"Might clamber up there," suggested the captain.
It looked a little pokerish.
"Let's try it," said Kit.
The boat was brought up within a yard or so of the ice. Watching his chance, Capt. Mazard leaped into the crack.
"Jump, and I'll catch you if you miss," said he.
Raed jumped, and got on all right; but Kit slipped. The captain caught him by the arm, and pulled him up, with no greater damage than a couple of wet trousers-legs. Wade and I followed dry-shod.
"Shove off a few yards, Weymouth, and be ready in case we slip down," directed the captain.
But we had no difficulty in climbing up.
The top of the berg was irregular and rough, with pinnacles and "knolls," between which were many deep puddles of water,—fresh water: we drank from one. For some time we saw nothing which tended to explain the explosions; though the dull, roaring noise still continued, seeming directly under our feet: but on crossing over to the south-west side, beneath which the schooner lay, Wade discovered a large, jagged hole something like a well. It was five or six feet across, and situated twenty or twenty-five yards from the side of the berg. Standing around this "well," the rumbling noises were more distinct than we had yet heard them, and were accompanied by a great splashing, and also by a hissing sound, as of escaping air or steam; and, on peering cautiously down into the hole, we could discern the water in motion. The iceberg heaved slightly with the swell: the gurgling and hissing appeared to follow the heaving motion.
"I think there must be great cavities down in the ice, which serve as chambers for compressed air," remarked Raed; "and somehow the heaving of the berg acts as an air-pump,—something like an hydraulic ram, you know."
As none of us could suggest any better explanation, we accepted this theory, though it was not very clear.
We were going back toward the crevice, when a loud gurgling roar, followed by a report like the discharge of a twenty-four-pounder, made the berg tremble; and, turning, we saw the water streaming from the well. Another gurgle and another report succeeded, almost in the same instant. Jets of water, and bits of ice, were spouted high into the air, and came down splashing and glancing about. We made off as expeditiously as we could. Fortunately none of the pieces of ice struck us; though Wade and Raed, who were a little behind, were well bespattered. We hurried down to the boat, greatly to the relief of Weymouth, who expected we had "got blown up."
[Raed begs me to add that he hopes the reader will be able to suggest a better explanation of this singular phenomenon than the one that has occurred to him.]
Jumping to the boat, we pulled round to "The Curlew." The sailors were watching for us, with a touch of anxiety on their rough, honest faces.
"Throw us a line!" shouted Capt. Mazard; "and bear a hand at those pike-poles to shove her off. We'll get clear of this iceberg as quick as we can. Something the matter with its insides: liable to bust, I'm afraid."
Catching the line, we bent to the oars, and, with the help of the men with the poles tugged the schooner off, and gradually towed her to a distance of three or four hundred yards from the berg. The boat was then taken in, sail made, and we were again bumping on up the straits.