Aurora Australis/An Interview with an Emperor

Aurora Australis (1909)
An Interview with an Emperor by A. F. M.
2151540Aurora Australis — An Interview with an EmperorA. F. M.


It was a perfect Antarctic winter night. A— and I were trudging merrily along over the sea-ice, under the cliffs to the north of Erebus, for in such weather it seemed a crime to remain indoors.

The moon shone full, dimming the stars and paling the sky in the zenith, though round the horizon its colour deepened into a rich ultramarine. On our right towered the mighty volcano, swelling up at first in long glittering snow slopes, which formed a noble pedestal to the beetling rocky spurs which buttressed the summit cone and ice-cap.

From the active crater jetted a delicate pure white stream of curling vapour, clear-cut against the sky, like a cameo tracery. It was a scene in whites and blues, only relieved by the rich brown of the rocks.

But such whites and blues! They were livid, ethereal, electric. Artists speak, I believe, of a dead white, but such an adjective could never be applied to the whites of the Antarctic snows by moonlight.

It would be a platitude to compare the whole to a vista of fairyland, and perhaps an anticlimax to say that it was like some lovely transformation scene, viewed by the wrapt gaze of childhood.

One thing is certain, that the whole effect seemed almost supernatural, and it did not require an impressionable mind to be uplifted by it to a height almost more than mortal.

So we swung along; it seemed as if fatigue were one of those earthly ills left far behind us in prosaic temporate climes.

The creaking snow, blown down and packed hard by the southerly blizzard from the slopes above us, made the most perfect going. The ever-changing views of the broken ice-cliffs and mountain slopes drew us on. We felt as if we could have gone on for a week.

Yet it was strange, and almost uncanny to think that in all the miles and miles of land over which our eyes ranged there was not one living, breathing creature, – no, not one!

The Adélie penguins, those cheery summer visitors, had gone far north with the sun, ten degrees below the horizon. The seals were away out on the edge of the sea ice, and that was farther away, at any rate, than we could see.

True, the Emperors, most majestic of living birds, are said to conduct their royal accouchements in this region in July, that is, the depth of our winter, and it was June as yet.

But we were going in the direction of the Emperors’ rookery at Cape Crozier, and in this wonderland anything might happen.

Trudge, trudge, trudge we went, saying very little. It was no time for conversation. Those who don’t know what a polar climate is like, might think we felt cold, but no such discomfort dashed our elated spirits.

This goodly portion of the Earth’s fair surface was ours. No polluting foot save ours defaced its virgin solitudes. We might fare where we list; none could say us nay.


No uniformed park-ranger, or corduroyed gamekeeper could bar our way, with horrid threats, and perhaps still more horrid action.

But stay!— What form is that emerging from the shade of yonder ice-berg? It strides towards us with swinging gait, recalling to my mind unpleasant memories of my bird-nesting days.

I cannot control a strange flutter of apprehension in the slack of my trousers, a sort of prophetic sensation of tenderness behind.

That is strangely like a knotted cudgel carried, with ill-concealed menace, under the left arm. “No Gamekeepers” did I say? It must be a gamekeeper.

But he is upon us! All doubt is banished. He is the most enormous Emperor Penguin I have ever met. Full six feet high, and broad quite out of proportion, his appearance is so extraordinary that I must describe it minutely.

The large, angry eyes, glaring from beneath a close-fitting cap, drawn down over the ears, flank a prodigious black bill, a foot long and curved like a scythe-blade. He wears a black velveteen coat with long skirts, and underneath this a white moleskin waistcoat with brass buttons, and baggy trousers of the same colour. The delicate creamy tinge which I have observed on the throats of common emperors is developed into a gorgeous red and gold collar or stock.

Under his arm, or flipper, he carries a heavy truncheon, fashioned from the backbone of a seal. As he stood before us, all this could be taken in at a glance.

I have had many a painful interview with gamekeepers, and people of that kidney, but this one would take all my diplomacy to meet. But a bland smile and a voluble tongue might pull us through.

“If you please game-keeper, park-officer, I mean,” I began:-

But he interrupted me in a harsh voice, and with an accent strongly reminiscent of the land of cakes:-

“Noo then, you twa," he cried, “what the deevil are ye daein' here? Ye ken vara weel this is private property. - Let me see what ye hae got in your pockets.”

When I had first seen him I had instinctively plunged my hands into these receptacles, with the idea of dropping anything of a compromising nature into the nearest ditch. But my fingers came in contact with something of a different nature.

I seldom go for a long walk without that vademecum, universal panacea, and open sesame, a pocket-flask.

I grasped it, and my courage revived. If “wi’usquebaugh” I could face the deevil, why not an Emperor Penguin. I was in case to justle a constable.

Our enemy, however was in an aggressive mood. We hesitated at the idea of turning out our pockets to this truculent fowl, so he without more ado, passed his stick over my clothes. It struck my flask with a full sound. At once his worst suspicions were re-doubled.

“Come away, noo, oot wi’ it,” he cried. “Yon’s an egg, ye young rascal, if I’m no vera much mistaken."

“Indeed it is not,” I replied, with new found confidence. “That’s my pocket flask, by the way have a dram, will you?” For I thought this was the psychical moment for the introduction of this delicate, but at the same time not disagreeable subject.

“Na, na, laddie,” he said“, “no sae fast as a’ that. I’ll jeest take your names and addresses and what’s your business here.”

Now there are many ways of revealing one’s identity and asserting one’s position on an occasion like this, but there is none so dignified, not to say majestic, as the display of a clean visiting-card. A lightning thought struck me, and plunging my hand into my breast pocket, I produced the required piece of pasteboard, with an austere flourish and a general air of hauteur. True, it was curled up at the corners, and rather soiled with tobacco ash, and, in place of my own august cognomen, it bore that of an enterprising washerwoman, who had sent it on board at our last port of call.

But it fixed our friend the enemy. He scratched his head, looked at it upside down then backside foremost, and finally pulled off his cap, stuck the card in the lining and replaced the cap on his head.

“Weel Gentlemen,” he said, “ I’ll jeest show ye aff the estate if ye’ll tell me whaur ye come frae, and what’s yer beesiness?”

“Well! come now my man,” I replied, “have a dram, and I’m sure we’re very sorry to have caused you any trouble.”

With that I again brought forth the flask. He took a long gurgling swig, coughed and threw back his head, shutting his eyes and smacking his bill in a way half human, half galline.

“Man, yon’s the richt stuff,” he murmured, handing it back. “It’s gey scarce aboot here.”

“And pray,” I went on, thinking it well to avoid an answer to his last question. “Whose estate do we happen to have trespassed upon? I was not aware that there were any private grounds in this district.”

“Oo jeest Mr Forsteri, Aptenodytes Forsteri, a cousin o’ the M. P., I’m surprised ye didna ken, man! Its a vera auld family.”

“No doubt” I replied, “but you see we are strangers here. But does all the ground about here belong to Mr Forsteri?”

“Oo aye, sir, ye’ll see the march burn ahint ye there, by the laich side 0’ yon big scaur? The Maister’s vera parteeklar about this time o’ year. Ye see a’ the gentry will be comin’ for the nestin’ in june, and if he was tae see ye here then I dinna ken what he would say.”

“But we’re very inoffensive people, you know. We’re geologists, we just go about collecting stones for our own amusement.”

“Wha—at, gatherin’ stanes, are ye? Ye’re surely no nestin’ tae? Ye canna possibly dae it about here. The maister wouldna hear o’ it!

I should explain that the penguin builds his nest of stones only, so I hastened to explain.

“Oh! no no,” I said, "we merely collect the stones to take home, and show to people who are interested in them.”

“Besides,” said A— in a tone of deep melancholy, “ we’ve no hens with us.”

“Aye, aye,” he replied, nodding his head thoughtfully, “ye’ll be frae yin o’ they expedeetions, are ye no?”

“Yes,”I said boldly, seeing that the cat must come out of the bag. “We are from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907.”

“Mphm! are ye though? Ye’re queer folk, man! I often wonder what brings ye here. I mind the last yin that was here, somewhere about seven years syne.”

“A pack o’ them cam’ ower tae the rookery, after the maist o’ us was gane. We thought they were sea-leopards at first, and some o’ the weans was gey scared.”

“But as far as I ken, they ta’en naething but a wheen auld rotten eggs. What in a’ the world they were gaun tae dae wi’ them is a pairfect meestery tae me.”

“The Maister was no at hame at the time, but he was awfu’ vexed when he heard tell o’ it. He said he would ha’e the law o’ them if they ever came again.”

“Well! I hope we will get on better with you,” I said. “We’ll try not to annoy you in any way.”

I wondered at the time if he would object to being stewed, for we were all growing rather tired of Adélies.

All this time we had been walking slowly back towards the hut. I kept hoping that our new acquaintance would leave us, for I dreaded what might happen if we met any of our dogs.

The sight of this majestic bird, pursued by half a dozen yelping curs, tobogganning along on his stomach, and tearing all his brass buttons off on the ice, would have been most painful to me.

But my mind was soon relieved. Our friend stopped and looked round him, squawked thoughfully, and, extending a flipper to me he said:–

“Weel! here we are at the march. I’ll jeest say good-bye tae ye.”

“I would advise ye no tae come ower here again till the Maister’s gane.”

“It’s no that I care much mysel’, but he’s vera parteeklar.”

We shook hands with him, and started away for home.

“Quite a civil bird,” I said to A—.

“Yes,” he replied, “and I thought, rather intelligent.” But his voice ‘far, far away did seem.’

I pinched myself surreptitiously, glanced at my companion and then over my shoulder. Not a sign of our late acquaintance was to be seen, and there was hardly an ice-hummock about that could have concealed him.

Was it all a dream then?
At any rate, we have obeyed his orders.

A. F. M.