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The "Spider."—Fried Eggs.—The "Plates."—"Awful Fresh!"—No Salt.—Plans for getting Salt from Sea-Water.—Ice-Water.—Fried Goose.—Plans to escape.—A Gloomy Night.—Fight with a Walrus.—Another "Wood-Pile."—Wade Sick.—A Peevish Patient and a Fractious Doctor.—The Manufacture of Salt.
We stood and warmed our hands. It felt comfortable,—decidedly so; for though the sun was high and bright, yet the north-west wind drove smartly across the rocks above us. Currents of air fresh from the lair of icebergs can't be very warm ever. There was plenty of ice all about.
"Ready to cook those eggs, Weymouth?" Raed exclaimed. "You were going to furnish spider, kettle, or something of that sort, you know."
"Yes, sir; and all I'll ask is that some of you will be dressing a couple of those geese while I am gone. I've a mind to dine off goose to-day."
"Well, that's reasonable," said Donovan. "Go ahead, matey! Bring on your spider! We'll have the geese ready for it!"
"If you will go with me," Weymouth said, nodding over to where I was enjoying the fire. "Two may perhaps find what I want sooner than one."
I followed him.
"My idea is," said he, turning when we were off a few rods, "to get a flat, hollowing stone,—'bout as big over as a milk-pan, say; kind of hollowed out on the top side, just so grease won't run off it. We can set that up on small rocks, and let the fire run under. It'll soon get hot: then grease it, and break the eggs into it just as they do into a spider. You see?"
I saw it,—a very reasonable project. The only difficulty was to find such a stone. To do that we separated. Weymouth followed out along the shore, while I climbed up among the crags. There were plenty of flat rocks; but to find one sufficiently spider-shaped for our purpose was not so easy. At length I came upon one—a flake of felspar of a dull cream-color—hollowed enough on one side to hold a pint or upwards. But it was heavy: must have weighed fully a hundred pounds. I called to Weymouth: he was out of hearing. Nothing to do but carry it. So, after some mustering of my spare muscle, I picked it up, and, going along to a favorable spot, succeeded in getting down to the beach with it, whence I toiled along to our camp-fire. Weymouth had got there a little ahead of me with a flat stone worn smooth by the waves. It was not so thick as mine, nor so heavy: it was a sort of dark slate-stone. Forthwith a discussion arose as to the merits of the two spiders; which was finally decided in favor of the one I had found, from its being the whitest and cleanest-looking. Meanwhile Donovan had been feeding the fire so profusely, that all hands had been obliged to get back from it. Animal fat, like this of the walrus, makes an exceedingly hot flame. Three flat stones were set up edgewise, and the spider set on them. The flaming meat was then thrust under it so as to heat the spider. From its thickness, it took some minutes for it to become heated through; but, in the course of a quarter of an hour, Kit pronounced it ready. Weymouth cut out a chunk of walrus-blubber, with which he basted it, the melted fat collecting in a little puddle at the bottom.
"Now for the eggs!" he exclaimed.
Raed handed them to him, one by one; while he broke them on the edge of the butcher-knife, and dropped a half-dozen into the novel frying-pan.
"Better be getting your plates ready!" he shouted, turning them over with the knife to the tune of a mighty frizzling.
We all took the hint, and scattered to find flat stones for platters. 'Twas a singular assortment of kitchenware that we re-appeared with a few minutes later. Taking up the fried eggs with his knife, Weymouth tossed us each one, which we caught on our plates. Another batch was then broke into the spider, fried, and distributed like the first.
"Now then!" cried Kit. "Draw jack-knives, and dine!"
Several mouthfuls were eaten in silence.
"What think of 'em?" Weymouth asked, casting a sly glance around. "How do they go?"
"Rather oily!" grumbled Wade.
"Awful fresh!" Kit complained.
"Not a dust of salt in this camp!" Raed exclaimed.
"We never can live without any salt," said I. "Nothing will relish so fresh as these eggs."
"But where's your salt coming from?" Kit demanded.
"Plenty of it in the sea," said Donovan. "Might boil down some of the salt water."
"If we only had a kettle to boil it in," Raed added.
"Well, there's the old tin dipper in the boat that we used to bail out the rain-water with," replied Don. "We could keep that boiling. Might boil away six or seven quarts by morning. That would give quite a pinch of salt."
"That's the idea!" said Kit. "Let's get it going as soon as we can. Wash it out, and dip it up two-thirds full of water, Don. I'll fix a way to set it over the fire."
Meanwhile Weymouth was frying another dozen of eggs.
"I think I can suggest a better way of evaporating the sea-water," remarked Raed as Donovan came up with the two-quart dipper of water. "You see that little hollow in the ledge just the other side of the fire: that will hold several pailfuls, probably. The fire on the rocks must make that warm: you see if it isn't, Wash."
I was on that side. The ledge for several yards from the blaze was beginning to get warmed up.
"We might brush that out clean," Raed continued, "and fill it with water. It will evaporate fast there, and leave its salt on the bottom of the hollow. We can move the fire along a little nearer to make the rocks hotter. I'm not sure that we could not make the water boil in there."
The place was brushed, and a dozen bumperfuls turned into the hollow, where it soon began to steam.
"That'll do it!" exclaimed Kit. "Never mind: we shall have salt by to-morrow!"
After eating the eggs, one of the geese, which Donovan and Raed had dressed, was cut up raw, and fried on the spider. We had sharpened appetites; and, had the morsels been flavored with salt, it would not have tasted bad. Wade tried dipping his in the bumper of sea-water,—with no great satisfaction to his palate, I inferred; for he did not repeat the experiment.
"How about drink?" Kit observed at length. "I don't suppose there's a spring on the island. I'm getting thirsty. What's to be done for water?"
"Have to melt ice," Raed replied. "There's ice along the shore, among the rocks."
Kit started off, and presently came back with a large lump. Bits of it were broken off and put in the bumper, and held over the fire. The water thus obtained and cooled with ice was not salt exactly. Still it was not, as has sometimes been affirmed, pure fresh water, by any means: it had a brackish taste.
The weather, which had been clear during the day thus far, began to foul toward evening. It was now after six. The wind had veered to the south-west. Wild, straggling fogs, with black clouds higher up, were running into the north-east. Damp, cold gusts blew in from the water.
"We shall have a chilly night," Wade said, shivering a little. "Rain and sleet before morning, likely as not."
We set about preparing for it. A little back from the fire a wall of rough stones was hastily thrown up to the height of three feet or over, and continued for ten or twelve feet, with both ends brought round toward the fire. We then got the boat up out of the water, and, by hard lifting, raised it bottom-up, and laid it on our semicircular wall. It thus formed a kind of shed large enough to creep under. But, not satisfied with this, Donovan fell to work with his butcher-knife, and, in the course of an hour, had cleaved the skin off both sides of the walrus down to where it rested on the rock. Then, using the hafts of the oars as levers, we rolled the carcass on one side. The hide was then skinned off underneath; when, on rolling the carcass clean over, we had the hide off in one broad, immensely-heavy sheet. Raed estimated it to contain twenty square yards, reckoning the average girth of the walrus at twelve feet, and its length at fifteen feet. By means of the oars and thwarts as supports, the skin was then raised with the raw side up in tent form over the wall and boat, making shelter sufficient for us all to get under with comfort.
"Now let it storm, if it wants to!" cried Weymouth: "we've got a water-proof seal-skin at least!"
An arch of stones, with our spider set in the top, was then built over the fire to protect it from the weather.
"How long will this walrus last for firewood, suppose?" I asked.
"Oh! two or three days, for a guess," Donovan thought.
"After that, what?" said Wade.
"It's no use to trouble ourselves about that now," said Kit: "the Bible expressly forbids it. Besides, we've had trouble enough for one day. I'm for turning in and having a nap."
"Not much fun in turning in on a bare ledge, I fancy," Wade replied. "We shall miss our mattresses."
"A bare rock is a rather hard thing to bunk on, I do think," Raed remarked, peeping under the walrus-skin. "If we were in Maine, now, we should qualify that with a 'shake-down' of spruce-boughs. Didn't see any thing of the evergreen sort among the rocks, did you, Wash?"
We had not. It then occurred to me that we had observed several little shrubs common to the mountains of Labrador, and known to naturalists as the Labrador tea-plant.
"Any thing is better than the bare rock," Raed remarked, when I spoke of this shrub; and we all sallied out to glean an armful.
While thus engaged, Wade and Kit espied a bed of moss in a hollow between the crags, a portion of which was dry enough for our purpose. After bringing an armful of the tea-plant, we made a trip to the moss-patch. What we could all bring at once piled upon the coarse shrubs made a bed by no means to be despised by—cast-aways.
"I presume there's no need of mounting guard or setting a watch here," Donovan said.
"How do we know that some party of Huskies or Indians has not been watching our movements all day?" Weymouth suggested.
"I don't think it likely," said Raed. "We may all venture to go to sleep, I guess, and trust to Guard to keep watch for us."
"I don't know about that," Kit remarked, patting the old fellow's head. "He's eaten so much of our woodpile, that he will be but a drowsy sentinel, I'm afraid."
The fire was replenished with blubber; and we all lay down on our mossy beds inside our fresh-smelling tent.
The sun must have been still high in the north-west; but so wild and dark were the clouds, that it had grown quite dark by nine o'clock. The damp wind-gusts sighed; the surf swashed drearily on the rocks. Despite all our efforts to bear up and seem gay, a weight of doubt and danger rested heavily on our spirits. "Where is 'The Curlew' now?" was the question that would keep constantly recurring, followed by a still more ominous query, "What would become of us if she should not return?"
"Isn't there a town out on the Atlantic coast of Labrador, a town or a village, settled by the Moravian missionaries?" Raed asked suddenly, after we had been lying there quietly for some minutes.
"Seems to me there is," Kit replied after a moment of reflection.
"There's one indicated on our geography-maps, I'm pretty sure, called Nain, or some such scriptural name. Don't you remember it, Wash?"
I did distinctly; and also another, either above or below it on the coast, called Hopedale, colonized by missionaries from South Greenland.
"Those Moravians are very good folks, I've heard," Wade said. "They're a very pious, Christian people. I have read, too, that they have succeeded in Christianizing many of the coast Esquimaux."
"Those Huskies must make queer Christians!" exclaimed Donovan.
"How far do you suppose it is out to those towns, Nain, say, from here, for a guess?" Raed asked a few minutes after.
"I was just thinking of that," said Kit. "Well, I should say four hundred miles."
"Not less than six hundred," said Wade.
I thought it as likely to be seven or eight hundred.
"That would be a good way to travel on foot," muttered Raed reflectively.
"Yes, it would," said Kit. "Still I shouldn't quite despair of doing it if there was no other way out of this."
"How long would it take us, do you suppose?" Raed asked after another pause. "How many miles a day could we make, besides hunting and getting our food?"
"Not more than twelve on an average," Kit thought.
"Suppose it to be seven hundred miles, that would take us near sixty days," Raed remarked; "seventy, counting out Sundays."
"We never could do that in the world!" Wade exclaimed. "It would take us till midwinter, in this country! We should starve! We should freeze to death!"
"Couldn't very well do both," Kit observed rather dryly.
"The journey would be well-nigh impossible, I expect," Raed remarked. "On getting in from the coast, we should probably meet with no sea-fowl, no seals: in fact, I hardly know what we should be able to get for game. I have heard that caribou-deer are common in Labrador; but they are, as we know from experience in the wilderness about Mount Katahdin, very difficult to kill. And then our cartridges!"
"We might possibly attach ourselves to some party of Esquimaux going southward," Kit suggested.
"And be murdered by them for our guns and knives," exclaimed Wade.
"Oh, no! not so bad as that, I should hope. But let's go to sleep now, and discuss this to-morrow."
There was something horrible to our feelings in this thought of our perfect isolation from the world. I think Wade realized it, or at least felt it, more than either of the other boys. Kit either didn't or wouldn't seem to mind it much after the first hour or two. Raed probably saw the chances of our getting away more clearly than any of us; but I doubt if he felt the wretchedness of our situation so keenly as either Wade or myself. He was always cool and collected in his plans, and not a little inclined to stoicism as regarded personal danger. These philosophical persons are apt to be so. What the most of folks feel badly about they laugh at: it is better so, perhaps. Yet pity and sympathy are good things in their way. They help hold society together; and are, I think it likely, about its strongest bonds of union. As for Weymouth and Donovan, they bore it all very lightly: indeed, they didn't seem to give the subject any great thought, farther than to exclaim occasionally that it was "rough on us," and a "tough one." Sailors always have a vein of recklessness in their mental processes. It comes from their manner of life,—its constant peril. They learn the uselessness of "borrowing trouble."
Once in the night I woke,—woke from a pleasant dream of home. For several seconds I was utterly bewildered; did not know where I was. Then it burst upon me; and such a wave of desolation and trouble broke with the realization, that the tears would start in spite of all shame. It was raining on the green hide overhead with a peculiarly soft patter. The strong odor of burning fat from the fire filled our rude tent; to which were added the fresh, sick smells from the great newly-butchered carcass of the walrus. The boys were sound asleep, breathing heavily. Guard roused up at our feet to scratch himself, then snuggled down again. The wind howled dismally, throwing down gusts of rain. It dripped and pattered off the skin-covering on to the boat and on to the rocks. Now and then a faint scream from high aloft declared the passage of some lonely seabird; and the ceaseless swash and plash of the sleepless sea filled out in my mind a picture of home-sick misery. It is no time, or at least the worst of all times, to reflect on one's woes in the night when just awakened from dreams: better turn over and go to sleep again. But I had not got that lesson quite so well learned then, and so lay cultivating my wretchedness for nearly an hour, picturing our future wanderings among these northern solitudes, and our final starvation. "Perchance," I groaned to myself, "in after-years, some party of adventurers may come upon our white bones, what the gluttons leave of them." I even went farther; for I was presuming enough to imagine that our melancholy disappearance might become the subject of some future ballad. How would it begin? What would they say of me? What had I done in the world to deserve any thing by way of a line of praise or a tear of pity? Nothing that I could think of. At best, the ballad, if written at all (and of that I was beginning to have my doubts the more I thought it over), could but run,—
"Whilom in Boston town there dwelt a youth
Who ne'er did well except in dying young."
That was as far as I could get with it: in fact, that was about all there was to be said by way of eulogy. The sea seemed to get hold of those two lines somehow, and kept repeating them with its eternal swish-swash, swash-swish.
The rain pattered it out in its heroic pentameters,—
Pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat!
Pity-pat, pat-pit, pat-pit, pity-pit, pit-pat!
All at once the regular rhythm of the sea was broken by a slight splash out of time. Instantly my morbid ear detected it, and I listened intently. Something was splashing along in the water.
"Sea-fowl," I hastily assured myself. No, that was not likely, either; for it was quite dark, and the sea rather rough.
"The Huskies trying to surprise us?" It might be. Something was certainly splashing the water very near. Why didn't Guard notice it? Talk about a dog's keen ears!—there lay the Newfoundland snoring loudest of anybody! Just then a scraping sound, accompanied by a dull rattling of the shingle among the rocks, startled me afresh. We were being surprised, stole upon, by something, undoubtedly. Repressing a strong inclination to yell out, I arose softly, and peeped past the drooping, flapping side of the walrus-skin. The splashings were now still more distinct; and I saw, dimly through the rain and darkness, a large, dark object near the water. What could it be? A hundred fearful fancies darted into my mind. Then there came a gruff snort; and the great dusky form heaved up higher on the rocks, upon which lay the carcass of the sea-horse. It seemed to be moving around it, making a dull, scraping noise. Suddenly a deep, horrid groan, ending in a prolonged bellow, burst on the damp air. Guard bounded up with a growl, and rushed out barking. Raed and Kit jumped up. They were all scrambling up. There was a moment of uncertain silence; then Kit cried,—
"Hollo! What was that?"
"Don't be scared," I said. "It's another walrus, I guess. Keep still; but get your guns ready."
"Another walrus, did you say?" muttered Raed, coming to look out.
"I think it's one come up to smell round the carcass of the one we've killed."
"So it is!" exclaimed Raed. "Like as not, it's this one's mate. What a hideous noise!" for the huge creature was giving vent to the most terrific snortings and snufflings.
We could hear it butt its head against the carcass.
"It has come round here hunting for its mate," said Kit. "That's its way of showing grief, I suppose."
Guard was darting up to it, barking furiously: but the great beast did not at first seem to pay much attention to the dog; till on a sudden it turned, with another dreadful bellowing,—we thought the dog had bitten one of its tail flippers,—and came waddling after him, snorting, and gnashing its tusks. Guard fell back toward our shelter.
"Shoot him!" Raed exclaimed.
Kit and Donovan both fired at the monster; but, with ferocious snorts, it kept after the dog.
"Run!" shouted Weymouth. "Out of this!" for the dog was backing right in upon us.
We had to scurry out in a hurry to avoid being penned there. Guard, like a fool, kept backing in that direction. By the time we had got clear of the shelter, he had got himself backed into it; and, the sea-horse essaying to follow him, the oar that held up the skin in front was knocked away, and down it came, burying the dog, and partially covering the walrus. A fearful uproar of barking, howling, and snorting, followed. Presently Guard got out from under, and ran yelping off, leaving his pursuer floundering about under the hide. Kit rushed up, and thrust his bayonet into the creature's exposed side; when with a mighty squirm it turned itself, knocking down the boat, and sending our stone wall flying in all directions. The battle was now fairly begun. We all closed in round the animal, thrusting at it with our bayonets anywhere we could stab. Yet it fought ferociously, with bellowings enough to make one's blood run chill. It seemed marvellous how a creature so unwieldy could turn itself so rapidly. Pain and rage made it no mean antagonist. Once Raed's musket was sent flying out of his hands several rods; and Wade, thrusting at its head, had his bayonet wrenched off at a single twist. We afterwards found it bent up and broken. I think Weymouth gave it a mortal wound by firing a bullet into its head; though Kit and I repeatedly ran our bayonets into its sides clean up to the rings. It succumbed at last, dying hard, with many a finishing thrust.
The gray morning light was beginning to outline the dreary shore. The chilly rain still poured. The reader can imagine in what a plight we were. The fire had gone out. Our skin-tent lay in a wad; and in the midst of our beds sprawled the dead sea-horse, weltering in its blood; while we ourselves, drenched with rain and bespattered with gore, stood round, steaming from our warlike exertions.
"This is a pretty how-d'y'-do!" Kit exclaimed. "Look at our 'shake downs!'—all blood and mire!"
"Well, we've got another wood-pile," said Donovan.
"I wish it had selected a more fitting time to make its appearance," Raed muttered. "It has demoralized us completely."
"Nothing to do but re-organize," laughed Kit. "Get the painter-line. Let's drag him off."
That was a heavy job, and took us nigh half an hour. Then there were the blood-soaked moss and tea-plant shrubs to get up and throw away, the wall to rebuild, the boat to set up, and the skin to repitch on the oars. All this time it continued to rain hard, with mingled flakes of snow. A tough time, we called it. And, after the tent was pitched again, we had no fire; and could only crouch, wet and shivering, on the bare ledge. I never felt more uncomfortable: my bones all ached; my head ached: I was sick. Wade was worse off than myself even. Throwing himself flat on the rock, he buried his face in his arms, and lay so for more than an hour. Raed and Kit sat blackguarding each other to keep up their spirits. Donovan was trying to dry some pine-splinters to build a fire with by sitting on them. Weymouth was cutting out blubber from the skinned carcass for the fire, so soon as the splinters could be dried. Two matches were burned trying to kindle the pine-shavings. We thought our fire dearly purchased at such a cost.
"Only four more," remarked Donovan gravely.
"We must not let it go out again," Raed said. "We must sit up, some of us, in future, to tend it."
Any thing like the dreary gloom of that morning I hope never to experience again. Sea, sky, and crags seemed all of one color,—lead. Seven or eight miles to southward, the mountains of the mainland (Labrador) showed their black bases under the fog-clouds. The great island to the south-east seemed to have been dipped in ink, so funereal was its hue.
The rain had frustrated our attempt at salt manufacture. We had to take our breakfast of fried goose in all the freshness of nature.
Our clothes gradually dried on us.
During the forenoon Kit sallied out on a hunting excursion, and, about noon, returned with a fine, plump, canvas-backed duck, which we ate for our dinner.
Toward four o'clock it stopped raining. Donovan and Weymouth improved the chance to skin the sea-horse we had killed during the night, it was rather larger than the first one, and had prodigious stiff, wiry whiskers about its upper lip, some of which we kept for a curiosity. They were over a foot in length, and as large as a coarse darning-needle. The tusks, too, were broken out, and laid aside.
During the night it faired; and the morning was sunny. Wade had become very unwell. He had taken cold from his drenching, and was shivering and feverish by turns. His courage, too, was clean down to zero. He knew we should never see home again, and didn't seem to care whether he lived or not. That is about as bad a way as a fellow can get into ever. I was little better than sick myself; and, while the others went off after eggs and game, I stayed to keep the fire going and take care of Wade. No small stint I had of it too; for he was peevish and touchy as a young badger. I knew he ought to take something hot of the herb-tea sort, and so started off and gathered a dipperful of the tea-plant leaves. Then, getting a lump of ice, I melted it, and made a strong dish of the "tea." Wade was lying under the shelter, face down into his coat-sleeve. Carrying in the steaming dipper, I told him I thought he had better take some of it: it would, I hoped, help his cold, &c.
No: he wouldn't touch it!
I then reasoned a while. This not having any perceptible effect, I next resorted to coaxing.
No: he wouldn't drink the stinking stuff!
Now, no doctor, I take it, likes to have his potions called "stinking stuff." I began to remonstrate; and from that—not being in a very amiable frame of mind—I ere long got mad, and was on the point of pitching into the sufferer, when it occurred to me that for a doctor to be caught thrashing his patient would be a very unbecoming spectacle! So I contented myself with giving him a "setting-up;" calling him, according to the best of my recollections, supported by the subsequent testimony of the patient, an "ungrateful dog," "peep," "nincompoop," et als.: after listening to which for a space, Wade got up and drank the tea. Peace was immediately restored with this act of obedience; and I proceeded to get him to bed. Pulling down the boat, I filled it half up with such of the shrubs and moss as had not been besmirched with the blood of the walrus. Wade then got into it. I made him a pillow of the geese-feathers by piling them into the bow under his head, and spreading over them my pocket-handkerchief. I next had him take off his boots, and set a hot rock from the fire at his feet. What to cover him up with was something of a problem. I managed it by putting on a layer of the moss, and laying the thwarts of the boat over this. Then, feeling somewhat fatigued after my labors, I crept in with him; and, ere long, we both went to sleep. The hunting-party coming back, two or three hours after, laden with eggs and brant geese, awoke me. Wade was sweating profusely beneath the boards and moss. We took care not to wake him till near eight o'clock, evening; when he got up, considerably better.
The next day (July 26) was spent in the manufacture of salt; not the manufacture of it exactly, either, but the extraction of it from sea-water. We were getting perfectly frantic for salt. The fresh food sickened us. I think we should soon have been really ill from the want of it. Filling the hollow in the ledge with the sea-water, we first tried to get fire enough about it to make the water boil. This we found it impossible to do, and so had recourse to a plan suggested by Kit. It was to get eight or ten stones about the size of the tin bumper, and heat them in the fire. When red-hot, these were successively rolled into the water in the hollow, raising great clouds of steam, and soon causing it to boil furiously. Continuing this stone-heating process for three or four hours, we succeeded in boiling away fully half a dozen pailfuls of water. There was then found to be a thin stratum of salt deposited along the bottom of the hollow. How we crowded around it, wetting the ends of our fingers, and licking it up! Eggs were then fried by the dozen, and eaten with a relish that only salt can give. I should add, however, that this appeared to me to be a very poor quality of salt; or else it had other mineral matter mixed with it, giving it a slightly bitter taste.
The quantity obtained at this our first boiling was so small, that we ate it all that night, and with our breakfast next morning.
The next forenoon was passed boiling down a second vatful. Wade and I attended to the salt-making, while the rest of the party went off to the islet next to the west after eggs and game. In the evening we provided ourselves with fresh "shake-downs" of moss and the tea-plant.
The 28th was devoted by Raed, Kit, and Donovan to a trip down to the mainland on the south. Raed wanted to see what sort of a country it was, with a view to our attempt at going down to Nain in case "The Curlew" should not come back. They did not get back till nine in the evening. They had found the hills and mountains along the coast to be mere barren ridges of lichen-clad rock, with moss-beds in the hollows. But from the summit of the high ridge, about two miles in from the shore, they had seen with the glass, to the southward, what seemed to be low thickets of stunted evergreen,—fir or spruce. From this Raed argued that fuel might be obtained by a party travelling through the country; and, from that, went on to picture these thickets to abound with deer and hares.