A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 8



THUS the first barriers to the advance into the North were passed in July. A score of vessels, ice-crushed and split, lie at the bottom of these Arctic channels; but the Viborg at last turned, in fog that was dense, dark and all-obscuring, westward to work between the islands opposite Greenland to the goal on the shores of the west polar sea.

Day after day the Arctic fog shut out the sun and the sea and blanketed icebergs ahead and alongside. The weather was not cold as thermometers show temperatures, but its penetrating dampness chilled men through and through. McNeal, tough Arctic sailor though he was, shivered at the wheel. The men on watch—and now lookouts were needed on watch everywhere, besides a man constantly to cast the lead—were near perishing with the cold, and stamped their feet and beat their hands in the endeavour to keep warm. The fog settled down and drenched everything it touched. When it lightened, heavy rains—cold, black, dreary rains—poured down and made sheer misery even for the dogs, who would not lie on the soaking decks but stood about day after day surly and dejected, too spiritless even to fight, and took their sleep on their feet. Disease broke out among them; and each morning for a week a rifle rang out, to put dying beasts out of pain and prevent spread of their infection to others.

Slowly, painfully, with infinite risks and dangers the Viborg forced its way on through the fog.

Days came again with the fog cleared. The grey plateaus and wild, rugged heights slipped by; at one spot crosses indicating graves appeared on the shore—crosses well known to Arctic men and that need not be examined. They marked the first of the graves of the six score of Franklin's men who starved to the last man on those shores sixty-five years before.

There the little crosses stood, alone in that dreary land. Ten years had had to pass, Margaret remembered, and a dozen expeditions were made into the Arctic, before the fate of Franklin's two great ships and his hundred and thirty men could be learned. Might the little Viborg with its crew find two men alone in all that northern wilderness?

Lost men, in passing down a shore, would build cairns on headlands to tell their line of travel to any other party. Now and again, as piles that might be cairns appeared, the Viborg halted and a boat took men ashore to search the heaps for messages. But only one might have been a cairn built by man; and that was too old and not of the Aurora cairn type. It gave no message if it ever bore one. The fog closed over the channels and the ship forced on. The shortening days and the sinking of the sun now warned of the nearing of winter; there was no time to waste while ice conditions in the channels favoured the vessel.

"Stop! Full speed ahead! Reverse; full speed astern! Full speed ahead!" The signals, with the bumping and scraping and battering against the ice in the closing channels, marked the mile after mile that the Viborg achieved. Once, in a spot where the chart of the only ship which had previously traversed that channel showed deep water, a ledge suddenly shot up from the bottom and the Viborg was forced on to it at full speed. The wind and sea drove it harder on. It cost the deck load and too many hundred pounds from the boxes in the hold before the Viborg, with engine full astern and all hands pulling on the anchor, got clear. For fifty hours no one slept. But now the goal was nearing. The sea and wind went down; watches again could be divided. Geoff, in his turn, went to his bunk. Toward morning, Latham opened the cabin door and threw himself on his bed.

"McNeal's given it up," he announced. "We're somewhere off the south end of Mason Island, with the ice between us and the shore."