The three skins were then carefully stripped of blubber and membrane, and Peter, taking the brains, mixed them with water into a soft paste, which was spread over the inner side of each skin. Each was then folded once, and then formed into a compact roll, tightly bound with the sinews, after which the three skins were suspended at the top of the hut above the stove, to await the softening action of the brain-paste.
A SAIL.—THE SEALING GROUNDS.—THE ESQUIMAUX LAMP.—AN INDIAN LEGEND.
About a hundred pounds of blubber lay upon the ice, and Carlo was luxuriating on a whole hind quarter, which was given up to his especial use, to make up for the rather short commons he had of late been reduced to. About fifty birds lay behind the hummock, and Peter, who was anxious to secure a bird-skin coverlet for his own use, set himself down to skin the finest ones. Waring joined him in the task.
"There's the big berg where we killed ussuk yesterday. Less go and look around. Perhaps we see land," said Regnar.
"No, Regnie; we are fifty miles from any land now, and I think about one third of the way across to the Magdalen Islands. Still, I should like to take an observation, and see where we are; and we may not have such a calm spell again for two or three days."
Pulling off to the berg, they found the shelf on which lay the dead seal, and climbing the ice-cliff, they saw spread out before them a strange and pleasing spectacle. The fog had lifted, for it was now nearly noon, and although some rain still fell, the eye could see the broken ice-pack seamed with channels, and scarred with pools of varying size, for at least eight miles in any direction. Regnar started, turned to his companion, and seizing his shoulder with convulsive energy, pointed to the east. A long ribbon of black vapor hung over the ice, low down on the horizon, and beneath it towered the topsail of a brigantine, going free before the wind.
"It is a sealing steamer, boring out of the pack," said Regnar.
La Salle's first impulse was to rush to the boat, and rejoin his comrades, to set signals, burn bonfires—anything which might possibly call the attention of those on board. Then he considered the futility of such endeavors, and he turned to his comrade,—
"We can't signal her now, Regnar, and we won't excite in our friends hopes which cannot fail to be disappointed. We shall see her again soon."
Regnar looked around them, cast glances of admiration on the abundance of animal life presented to their view, gave a look of approval to his friend, and answered in his Esquimaux-English,—
"It is good. I fear not. That steamer sail away to-day, for wind fair. If wind east to-morrow, she sail this way. If wind north, she go south; but she no leave this place till she beats the pack, like a hound. Look there—see that floe. Plenty seal there to load one vessel."
The view was indeed charming, for ice and water were alive with birds, and among them moved in every direction the bullet heads of many seals.
About three miles to the eastward lay a large pan, and around it the water was dark with the older amphibia, while from it came, in the occasional calm intervals, the unceasing whine, which the baby seal never foregos for a moment, except when asleep or feeding.
"We want more skins, master," said the boy. "We could soon fill our boat—we two."
A cold puff came from the westward, and a slight break showed itself in the north-west.
"We shall have clear weather and a westerly breeze after sunset," said La Salle. "We will get ready to-night, and to-morrow we will have a battle among the seals."
Retracing their steps, they entered their boats, and returned to their friends, to whom they imparted the news of the proximity of the sealing-grounds.
"We need about ten large skins, and some smaller ones. So let us get ready to-night, and if the weather is favorable, visit the 'nursery' to-morrow."
So saying, La Salle took one of the large floating decoys made of cork and canvas, and painted black, and drawing a nail from the broken boat, fastened it to the end of a strip from the bottom—in fact, one of the runners. This was planted beside the strip, sustaining the record contained in the copper case, and formed a beacon, easily distinguished against the lighter ice.
Guns were cleaned, knives and axes sharpened, for the soapstone boulder had been brought from the berg, and afforded quite a good whetstone, to patient labor; and Peter, with his knife, finished, in the course of the evening, a number of wooden bolts for himself, La Salle, and Regnar; and even Waring fitted a couple into two of the brass shells of his breech-loader.
Regnar took the remains of the steel boat-hook, and succeeded in straightening the hook, which he drew down into the shape of a rude chisel. Peter tempered it for him, and then, with this rude tool and an axe, he split the boulder of soapstone into halves, making two bowl-shaped pieces, about fifteen inches across, in the line of cleavage. One of these he proceeded to hollow out into an Esquimaux lamp, for the stock of wood had been largely drawn upon during the cold spell just over, and only about twenty decoys remained unburnt. Waring sat next him, unraveling one of the old cotton-flannel over-shirts, and twisting the fibres into large wicks; while La Salle made a cover of the last remaining sheet-iron decoy, with holes for six wicks. As they sat around the fire, Waring suddenly broke the silence.
"Charley," said he, "you have never told your story, although all the rest of the club took their turn. We are not making much noise with our work. Can't you give us your story now, to while away the evening?"
La Salle was at first disposed to comply, but his eye fell on the dark features of Peter, opposite him.
"Peter," said he, "tell us one of the tales your old people tell around the winter fire in the long, cold evenings. Tell us of Teahm or Kit-pus-e-ag-a-now."
"How you know them?" asked the Indian, surprised out of his usual self-possession. "You speak Micmac too?"
"O, no, Peter; but I have heard many of these old tales, and I know the lads would like to hear them too."
"Yes, yes, Peter," added Waring, "let us have one, by all means."
Peter laid aside his pipe, for he still retained a little of his treasured tobacco, and in a slow, sententious tone repeated one of those tribal legends which are all that keep alive the fire of patriotism and national pride, in the breasts of a people who find themselves strangers, outcasts, and without a country in the land of their birth, once theirs alone.
"The old people were camped long, long ago, near the Oolastook, where now stands St. John. All this lan' Indian then. No 'hite man live here that time, and the hunter always find game plenty—plenty moose, plenty bear, plenty fish, plenty everyting.
"Then Indians not so wicked as now, and God had not sent 'hite men to punish them for their sins. But even then they fought each other; and between my people and the Quedetchque—that my name; you call 'em Mohawk, I b'lieve—there was war, all time war.
"The Quedetchque come down every fall, follow down banks of river, wait alound village until all my people asleep; make warwhoop, fire arrows, set fire to womegun, lun off with prisoner, and plenty scalp. One time all my people away, only squaw and children in town; Quedetchque war-party come, burn an' kill; get plenty scalp of women and boy, and chief take away Coquan, what you call 'Lainbow,' wife of great chief 'Tamegun,' the tomahawk.
"They hurry home fas', but the snow fall thick, an' soon Tamegun an' one other man come home, fin' wigwam burnt, an' dead people all alound. They tighten belts, take bow, knife, an' axe, and follow on track.
"One night they find tracks in snow, and soon come up to the camp. Many warriors in that camp—make long camp, and door at each end, and fire at door. All Quedetchque inside take off moccason and bathe sore feet in big birch-bark tub near door; then wait until Coquan mend moccasons. All this Tamegun see, and he find out where his squaw sit in lodge.
"Then he creep up like wildcat, and peep through bark so close he could almos' touch her; but he only lift edge of bark, and slide in wampum belt. Coquan work war-belt for him, and know who it is at once. Then she go out, an' they talk together, far from the camp.
"Then Coquan go back into camp, and take all the moccasons outside, and set the tubs of dirty water outside each door. Then she see Tamegun an' his friend tie rope across door, jus' above ground, and the Lainbow slip out again. Then Micmacs catch up tubs and throw water on the fires; all out in a minute.
"Both cly the warwhoop many times at the door, an' the woman shoot arrows through the bark. All the Quedetchque jump up, take knife an' axe, think Micmacs got into the tent. All is dark; see nothing; think everybody enemy. They stab with knife, cly war-cly, strike with axe, kill each other. Some lun out doors, tumble over cord. Micmacs kill every one. At last all dead but two boys, and Tamegun tie these to trees.
"Then Tamegun get scalp, skin, beads, knife, spear, everyting he want. Make three taboggin; load all they can carry; then set fire to camp and burn all up. Then, when all ready, Tamegun draw his knife, an' cut prisoners loose.
"'Go back to Quedetchque,' he say. 'They are squaws an' cowards. Tell them come no more into Meegum-Ahgee,—in Micmac land,—for two Micmac men an' a squaw have kill all your people. Go! You are too young to die. Your flesh is soft. Come back when your scalps are fit for a Micmac's belt.'
"So Tamegun got home all light, an' Quedetchque come no more for many years. But my people no more fight. Many die in battle long ago. Many die of small-pox an' fever, and now we are few. So it will be until He comes for whom all Indians wait. The story is ended."
* * * * *
Thus in rude English, Peter related one of the many tales, which still serve to keep alive a people's pride in the glories of bygone days, so unlike their present degradation, that to the general observer the civilized Indian seems to know nothing of the past, to be scarcely conscious of his ignoble surroundings and circumstances, and to have no care or hope for a brighter future. La Salle knew well the wild legend of the Deliverer, in whom, in spite of his Catholic faith, the Indian everywhere has an inherent trust, as the slowly but surely-coming protector and restorer, of his ancient happiness.
"Thank you, Peter," said he, kindly. "Your people were a brave race, and true as steel to your Wenooch (i.e., French). They fought as long as their allies dared to strive; and it was long after the last French fortress surrendered that the warriors met at Bay Verte, to become true subjects to the king they had fought against for years."
"Yes," said Peter, sadly. "My people once strong and brave; now they waste away like the snow. I know many families almost gone, an' but few pure Indian live this end of island. We see it, if 'hite people think not, but we do not care to let them see our tears."
There was a simple pathos in the broken words of this unlearned man—for he was no savage—which went to the hearts of his hearers; and La Salle felt more strongly than ever, the cruel cowardice of that popular outcry, which denies a whole people all share of innate nobility and virtue, and visits on a deceived and wronged race, both their own sins and the short-comings of those who should be their natural protectors.
The party finished their various undertakings, carefully removing their litter. La Salle and Regnar went outside to take a last look at the sea and sky. The stars were visible here and there, through the dispersing clouds, and the drip of melting ice was no longer heard, for the temperature had again fallen below the freezing point.
"We are drifting south of east," said Regnar, quietly, "and unless picked up will probably clear the south point of the Magdalen Islands."
"How can you tell that?" asked La Salle.
"Easily enough," said the lad, talking still in French. "The wind is westerly, and the current runs from north to south."
"But how can you decide on the points of the compass?" persisted La Salle.
For the first time the boy seemed to wonder at the question, and to doubt the wisdom of his friend.
"Who can fail to know?" said he, quietly, "when he can see in the heavens above him, the steady light of the Polar Star?"
THE BREEDING-GROUNDS OF THE SEAL.—A CURIOUS SIGHT.—A SHARP ENCOUNTER.—ICE CHANGES.
Early the next morning the breakfast was hurried over, and a survey of the ice disclosed little change from the conditions of the day before, except that the natural attraction of floating bodies for each other was evidently slowly closing the pools and intervening channels.
Leaving Carlo to guard their dwelling, and tying the black "McIntosh" blanket to the signal-staff, the four stepped into the somewhat narrow quarters of their clumsy boat, and using the oars as paddles, set off through a channel which led, as nearly as they could judge, in the direction of the field of seals seen the day before, and whose constant whining still gave evidence of their close proximity.
Scarcely two miles of tortuous winding through channels of perfectly calm water, led them into a pool in which hundreds of large seals were disporting themselves, but which, on seeing the boat, scattered in all directions, after a moment of stupidly curious exposure to the fire of the intruders.
"How lucky it is that these animals don't know their own power!" said Waring. "If they chose they could soon upset the boat, and tear us in pieces."
"Not without losing at least half a dozen of their leaders, and that is generally sufficient to deter hundreds of men, whose reasoning powers are much superior to these amphibia," said La Salle.
Passing into a narrow channel, in which at every turn they came close upon swimming and sleeping seals, they suddenly swept up to the verge of a vast and heavy field, on which thousands of the young of these animals lay in helpless inability to move. Most of these were what are called "white-coats,"—fat little things, covered with a thick coat of woolly fur,—but a few had attained their third week of existence, and wore their close-laid fur, whose silvery, sword-like fibres, when wet, lie flat and smooth as glass.
Among the smaller fry were many adult animals, both male and female—the latter being generally engaged in suckling their young.
The landing of the hunters was the signal for a general stampede, and the monotonous whining of the "white-coats" was almost lost in the deep barking of the mothers, and the hoarse roars of the large males.
The floe on which the young seals lay was a thick field of ice, whose clear, greenish sides showed that it was the product of some Greenland glacier. Years ago, when first detached from the ice-river of some tortuous fiord, it had perhaps measured its depth in hundreds of yards; and even now, judging from its height above the surface of the sea,—about eight feet on the average,—it must have drawn nearly eight fathoms of water.
The party had landed on a kind of sloping beach, probably worn by the action of the sun, and what is even more destructive, the wash of the sea-waves, and ascending found that the floe was nearly level for an area of at least half a square mile, forming a kind of ice-meadow, surrounded on three sides by sloping hills twenty feet higher. In the sheltered valley thus formed lay at least a thousand seals, old and young, of several species, and all ages.
There were, here and there, pairs of the small Greenland seal (Phoca Vitulina), weighing from forty to sixty pounds, and marked on the back with beautiful mottlings of black, shaded down to the silvery white of its spotless breast. These, when disturbed near the edge of the floe, slid noiselessly into the water, going down tail foremost into the depths. Most plentiful of all were the "springing seals," (Phoca Hispida),—known sometimes from its markings as "the harp,"—less beautiful in form, and with hair of a dusky yellow on the under side. These, when near the slope, sprang headlong into the water, and, diving with a splash, came up in shoals, darting forward with a springing motion, and emerging and disappearing much like a shoal of porpoises.
Larger, coarser, and with crested heads, long bristles, and harsher hair, the "bearded seal" (Phoca Barbata),—the noblest quarry of the Newfoundland sealer, who always speaks of him as "the old hood sile,"—crawled with uncouth but rapid shuffling motions to the brink, and with splashings that threw the spray high in air, dived at once, only emerging when almost beyond rifle range, where rolling, and splashing like whales, the uncouth monsters would turn to inspect the strange intruder.
"Come, Charley," said Waring, "let us shoot. See, they will all be in the water before we begin."
"No hurry," said Regnar, phlegmatically. "Steamer almos' load here."
"There is no heed of haste," said La Salle, pointing to the upper end of the ice-valley. "We have the seals in a cul-de-sac, and can take our pick, as they pass by us to the water. We want ten of the largest hoods at first, and we have about that number of bolts with us. After we get them, each can kill what small seals he needs for boots and clothing. Now for the old hoods. Fire at close range, and don't miss. Come, let us begin the battle, for they are coming down upon us."
By this time the alarm had become general, and finding their retreat cut off, about five hundred seals, leaving behind their helpless young, came in a disordered but solid body down towards the hunters, the smaller Greenland and "harp" seals on the wings, and evidently wishing only to escape; but in the centre a small band of the more savage "bearded seal," their coarse bristles quivering with rage, the loose skin of their heads distended with air, and the white teeth of their yawning jaws threatening wounds and death to the invaders, came on with hoarse roarings, which rose above the weaker cries of the uncouth host like the thunder of artillery over the rattle of musketry in battle.
The usually impassive Indian now seemed in his element. His sullen eyes lit up with a true hunter's love of the chase, when the danger is not all on one side, and only the confidence of greater skill and superior weapons overcomes the sense of personal peril. Leaping forward, he led the attack, running for some forty yards towards the advancing monsters, followed by the others, who came close on his tracks, but quite unable to charge in line.
Raising his gun, he suddenly halted scarce ten paces from the front of the sea-wolves, and, without hesitation, two of the largest shuffled ahead of their comrades, knitting their brows, and roaring with a fury which might well try the nerves of any man exposed to such an attack. One fell a little behind as Peter brought his gun to his shoulder. The first rushed forward, but as he lowered his huge head to attack, the arrow-point, hardened in the fire, shot forth in a sheet of flame, and buried itself to the feather in the brain, passing through the thin walls of the top of the skull.
At the unwonted sound, reverberated again and again from the cliff, even the forlorn hope retreated a little; but not so with the second seal. Throwing back his head until his yawning jaws almost hid the rest of his body, he came straight at the destroyer of his mate, roaring with redoubled fury. The heavy gun again poured forth its contents, but to the horror of the advancing friends of the Micmac, the huge animal, vomiting torrents of blood, was seen, amid the smoke, to strike down the Indian, who was at once lost to view under the ponderous animal, which instantly rolled over dead.
In a second La Salle and Orloff were on the spot, but their aid was needless. Bruised and sore with the fall and compression, but not otherwise injured, Peter sprang to his feet, and placing his gun between his knees, proceeded to reload.
"Hold seal die hard. Spose me miss 'em at first. Arrow hit all light. Me plenty wet blood though."
He was, in truth, a fearful spectacle, being covered with gore; but a glance at the dead beast revealed the cause. The arrow had passed into the mouth, transfixing the large arteries and the base of the brain, and the blood was still deluging the ice in a crimson tide, from which the hot vapors and sickening odor rose, maddening the remaining "hoods" to another charge.
Quite a number of the smaller seals on the flanks had got by, and as the pressure lessened, the array of the centre partook more of the "open order" of advance. To a party as well armed as the four friends, this change assured a bloodless victory. Each missile, fired point-blank, did its work, and the huge monsters, unable to seize the agile hunters, as they eluded their ponderous charge, received the fatal shot at such close range that the fur around the wound was often scorched by the burning powder.
Every barrel had been discharged, nine hooded seals had fallen, and the survivors had already reached the open water; but frightened by the unwonted sights and sounds, many of the smaller seals still remained at the upper end of the valley, or with awkward speed were climbing the sloping ice-hills which sheltered it. Drawing an axe from his belt, Regnar started forward in pursuit. Peter and Waring, with clubs of hard wood, followed, and La Salle, reloading his ponderous weapon, brought up the rear.
A massacre of helpless and beautiful animals followed, for the next few moments, for Regnar, with a single tap on the nose, killed two Greenland seals; and following his example, Peter and Waring disposed of as many more. Suddenly a loud cry from the latter broke the silent butchery.
"Look! Stop that old hood! That makes ten. My goodness! I never see such seal! That's right, Peter, head him off. Hit him again, Waring! Take that, you old bladder-nose!"
The seal, a monstrous one, a veteran male, had attempted to scale the higher mounds, but surrounded by his more agile enemies, halted and showed fight. In vain Waring and Peter showered tremendous blows upon his head with their beechen clubs, and even the heavy axe of Orloff fell upon his natural helmet of air-distended skin, with a violence whose only effect was to increase the anger of the enraged amphibia, and fill the scene of the strife with hollow sounds, like the hoarse booming of a big drum.
At last Waring missed his aim, and his club, which was slung at his wrist by a kind of sword knot, was seized in the jaws of the seal, and his succeeding rush jerked the frightened lad from his footing beneath the fore-flippers of the animal. It was only the work of an instant for those terrible jaws to grind the club into splinters, and the next second the glittering teeth were about to close upon his helpless victim. At that juncture a huge rusty tube was thrust past Regnar's head into the very face of the seal; a tremendous concussion threw him upon the ice, stunned and deafened; and the monster, rearing into the air, seemed to be fairly dashed to the ice, shivering with the tremor of death.
"Are you hurt, George?" asked La Salle, breathless with haste and restrained emotion.
"No, Charley; I am safe, thanks to you."
And the lad, still weak with his previous illness, fear, and excitement, rose, threw his arms around his preserver's neck, and burst into a passion of tears.
"Better look, Regnar. Guess blow him head off too," grumbled Peter, with a strange mixture of vexation, pleasure, and humor in his tone, for he loved Regnar, disliked to see men or boys cry, and knew that Regnar's misadventure was more unpleasant than dangerous.
In a moment or so Regnar arose, holding his head with both hands, and an evident feeling of uncertainty as to his whereabouts.
"Well, you call that gun Baby! I don't want her crying anywhere near me, after this. I say, La Salle, you sure my head all right on shoulders?"
La Salle hastened to assure him that all was correct, but Regnar gave a grim smile, and continued:—
"It no use; I can't hear, not if it thunder. I've no doubt you say you're sorry, but I no hear your 'pology, and I don't think I ever shall again. Well, never mind. No time then to say, 'By your leave, sir,' and I glad George got clear all right."
Drawing their knives the party commenced the less pleasant and exciting task of flaying and butchering their victims. The ten "hoods" were enormous fellows, averaging eight feet in length, and nearly six in circumference, and weighing from five to six hundred weight each. Only two were eviscerated for the sake of the heart and membranous vessels; but the heads of all were struck off for the sake of the brains, and the large sinews were extracted for "sewing thread." It was noon when the first load was sent off, under the care of Regnar and La Salle, to the home berg, and, two hours later, when they returned to the floe, they found, with pleasure, that the distance between the two points had materially lessened.
Climbing the highest point of the floe, La Salle looked down upon a strange spectacle. Reaching away a mile or two to windward was a succession of floes, similar to the one on which he stood. Upon them all the seals were gathered in hundreds, and beyond the last of the chain a huge iceberg—a perfect mountain of congealed water—rose nearly a hundred feet into the air. From its sides, resplendent with prismatic colors and reflected light, flashed more than one cascade of pure fresh water, and the light breeze, as it blew against its vertical walls, or perhaps some currents deep down below the surface, was impelling the huge mass, and the line of floes pushed before it, down the lane of open water, which led to the floating home of the wanderers.
"We shall have but a short distance to row this load," said La Salle, as he descended to the party; and indeed at that very moment the discolored mound, surmounted by its dusky banner, appeared in sight, and before long only about a quarter of a mile separated the two. At this point the undetermined cause which had produced this change ceased, and the party rowed homeward with their last load, just in time as the pack closed in, and the channel through which they had rowed, in the morning, over a glassy expanse of nearly a mile in width, narrowed, until, with a shock which was wholly unexpected, so gradual and gentle seemed the motion, the opposing borders were again united, and the waves of the sea were no longer accessible.
That evening the party supped off fried seal liver and heart, and found them fully up to the standard of excellence expressed by Regnar, who said,—
"Reindeer steak good beef, ptarmigan good beef, brent good beef, seal liver best beef of all."
Before going to bed La Salle cut into the ice-hole, which had been filled some days before with salt water. After much cutting, he came to about two quarts of water, which seemed thick and heavy. Baling this, with a rude spoon, into their only iron utensil, it was placed amid the embers, and left to boil away for the evening, while the adventurers, gathering around their fire took counsel as to what step was to be taken next.
"Let us make a tent," said Waring. "First thing we know this old floe will split in two in a storm, and we shall have no house."
"Spose 'em lose house, we want clo'es. Need good boots too," said Peter, who was indeed but poorly provided in this respect, compared with the rest of the four adventurers.
"If we have a good boat, we have shelter on land or water," said Regnar, sententiously.
"Regnar is right, and we must enlarge the capacity of our boat. She has too little standing room, and we four should have little chance in her in a heavy storm at sea. To-morrow we will make her into a life-boat at once, for this pleasant weather cannot last long."
All agreed with La Salle in this decision, and accordingly the evening was spent in preparing the seal-sinews, and in cutting thongs of seal-hide from one of the largest skins. These, when soaked in water, were capable of considerable extension, but in drying contracted, making a lashing of the hardness and nearly the strength of iron.
The sinews were, many of them, a yard in length, and at least the diameter of a large goose-quill. These split readily into threads of any required firmness, and before the party retired, quite a bundle of large and small thread was prepared. For the first time they worked by the glare of their Esquimaux lamp, which, besides its shallow bowl of soapstone, consisted of a top of thin sheet-iron pierced for six wicks, each of which was flat, about one sixteenth of an inch thick, and an inch wide. That evening all six were lighted—five of them being of cotton thread, and the sixth cut from the brim of an old white felt summer hat, used by Waring instead of his fur cap, when the sun shone too warmly at noon. The top was made loose, so as to rest on the blubber, and the heat tried out the oil as fast as it was wanted.
The heat produced was quite sufficient for this narrow room, and the soft light afforded by the seal-oil, lit up the hut with a mild yellow radiance, far more cheerful than the red glare of the wood-fire, and the old stove suspended above the flame carried off the smoke, and refracted the heat more perfectly into the lower part of the hut.
The day's hunt had afforded all the blubber which they could burn in a month; and their stock of meat, "cached" in another hillock of their berg, was nearly sufficient food for the same period. But long before that time should elapse the young leader knew that relief must come, or that in some grand convulsion of the warring elements, amid the crash of colliding ice-fields and the sweep of resistless surges, the unequal conflict between human weakness and the tireless forces of nature must end, and to him and his comrades "life's fitful dream" would be over.
Therefore, as he made the seventh brief entry in his pocket diary, he watched jealously the faces of his companions, lest they should read in his face the reflection of his misgivings, as he traced these lines,—
"A week has elapsed since we left St. Pierre's; and as yet we have been safe in the centre of the pack. It is scarcely possible that another week will be as favorable to us as this has been, and no risk must prevent us from reaching the first sail in sight."
ENLARGING THE BOAT.—WINGED SCAVENGERS.—NOTICE TO QUIT.
Orloff's final observation, at about ten o'clock on the night of the 19th, judging by the position of the North Star, gave the wind as about west-south-west, blowing pretty sharply, and closing the scattered pack well together. The following morning the wind still remained in the same quarter, and it was generally agreed that they must be somewhere in latitude 48 deg.+ and longitude 63 deg.+, or say about forty miles north-west of Amherst Island, the largest of the Magdalen group.
After a breakfast of stewed phalaropes, whose tender, plover-like flesh was a pleasing change from the hitherto almost unvaried roast sea-fowl diet of the last week, the boat was drawn out upon the level platform near the hut, and removing her side and covering boards, the party held a survey of their only resource in case of a breaking up of the ice. After being measured by Peter, who claimed that the upper joint of his thumb was just an inch in length, the following measurements were found to be nearly correct: Length over all, sixteen feet; extreme breadth of beam, four feet; length of well, eight feet; breadth of well, three feet; depth of boat, fifteen inches.
About eight feet, it will be seen, was decked, and a space of only eight feet by three was all that was available for the reception of four men and the working of the boat. It was decided to remove three feet of the rear half-deck, increasing the open space to eleven feet. This was easily done, leaving the strong cross-timbers untouched, and also six inches of weather-board on each side.
The after part of the combing of the old well was removed and set up farther aft, and that of the sides was continued until the whole of the open section of the boat was thus protected from the wash of the sea. The smaller seals had been skinned, as a stocking is turned off of the foot, leaving but one aperture, that of the diameter of the neck. It was a work of some trouble, but was at last accomplished, and these skins, after being deprived of their inner coating of blubber, were easily formed into air-tight bags, and provided with narrow tube-like nozzles by carefully removing the bones from one of the flippers. These were duly inflated with air, and securely lashed on the inner side of the boat under the weather-boarding. Six of these were thus placed, two on each side, forward and aft, and two cross-ways under the thwarts, thus forming a very fair life-boat.
In addition to these the bows and stern were raised about six inches by strips of the sides of the broken float nailed to the gunwale, and strengthened by cross-pieces of planking from the bottom. These were given considerable shear, so as to be lifted by a sea, instead of cutting into it. Besides these, rue-raddies, or shoulder-belts of hide, with a strap attached to the sides of the boat, were adapted to the height of each man, and each of the party was assigned a position in the craft, from which there was to be no deviation.
Thus La Salle steered while Waring sat next on the port side. Peter, with his single strong arm, took the other starboard berth, and Regnar was bow oar, or, rather, paddle, while Carlo's place was under the half-deck forward.
The three seal-skins first procured were already about half tanned, and were formed into tarpaulins, being split in two lengthwise, sewed together at the ends, and again sewed to the edges of the combings with seal-sinews, forming a cover for the guns, and also by means of a gathering cord of fishing-line looped through their edges, capable of being drawn up and fastened at about the height of the waist of a man when kneeling, thus forming an additional protection against a breaking sea.
The oars, with one exception, were cut down into paddles by Peter, for the paddle, in ice navigation, is incomparably superior to the oar, which requires open water for effectual use. One oar, however, was left of its original length for a support to the McIntosh, which, being about eight feet square, and furnished with brass eyelets, was easily fitted as a sail; and owing to its black hue, was especially suitable for a signal of distress among the ice-islands of the Gulf.
It was nearly six o'clock when these repairs were completed, and the party sat down to dinner, for, except a lunch of cold roast duck, they had eaten nothing since morning. The salt water, concentrated by freezing in the Russian manner, and left to boil down the night before, had produced about two pounds of good salt; and Peter, taking his knife, soon made a neat tub, like a miniature butter firkin, in which to preserve it.
After dinner it was proposed that a short walk over the intervening ice to the sealing-grounds should be undertaken, and headed by Peter, with an axe to try any suspicious ice, the adventurers reached the floe in about fifteen minutes' walk. Climbing the higher shore of the berg, they advanced noiselessly, and without being observed by the seals, gazed down upon the scene of yesterday's battle. None of the seals seemed to have deserted the floe, but the ice was crowded with the young "calves" and the adult parents. Everywhere the mothers might be seen suckling their helpless young, while the males lazily basked in the rays of the setting sun, or occasionally indulged in a battle with some rival, which was not always a bloodless encounter.
Among the living lay the mangled corpses of yesterday's hunt, and over each fought and feasted a host of gannets, sea-gulls, and cormorants. The bodies were hidden from view by the birds, which tore with beak and weak palmated talons, at the greasy, bloody carcasses, and above these wheeled and fluttered a cloud of competitors for a share of the spoils. Occasionally a bird bolder than the rest would swoop at an unprotected baby-seal, whose mother was absent, or had possibly perished the day before; but at once the older amphibia would roar in hideous concert, and charge the birds, who seemed to understand that they must give up the living prey, and confine themselves to their legitimate duties, as scavengers of this grand camping-ground of the genus Phocae.
Returning rather hastily, the party reached their quarters just at dusk, and lighting their lamp, made some weak, but very hot, coffee, the greatest treat which their limited variety of comestibles afforded. Peter busied himself with cleaning and inflating a number of the larger entrails and membranous viscera of the hooded seal. These were for life-preservers, and vessels for the preservation of water and oil in their anticipated boat-voyage. Regnar cut out no less than three pairs of moccason-boots, choosing the thickest skins, and then prepared them with the brain-paste for curing in the mild warmth of the air around the chimney. Waring cleansed the cooking utensils, and made up some bundles of fir-twigs to cover the bottom of the boat, and La Salle wrote up his diary, sharpened an axe, fitted a strip of pine board for a sprit to the blanket sail, and as bedtime drew near, went out to take a last look at the weather.
It was quite cold, and the wind, although light, was from the north-west, as near as could be judged without a compass. As Peter had noted a change of wind about midday, the pack had probably again changed its course of drift from east to south-east, or, perhaps, a point farther south, as the general course of the current in that part of the Gulf ran from south-south-east to south.
Returning to his companions, he communicated these details, closing by saying,—
"As I think, we are now about due west of the Magdalen group; and if this wind holds, we shall probably pass Amherst Island during the next twenty-four hours. If in sight, we must try to push through the ice to land, for the whole shore is inhabited. As many sealers should now be in this part of the Gulf, we should always be upon the watch for them."
"I think," said Waring, "that we ought to keep one man as a lookout on the highest ice in the vicinity."
"Pity the great iceberg so far off," added Regnar.
"Sposum wind hold north-west, and ice keep packed, why not go down to-morrow and look alound?" asked Peter, quietly.
"If these westerly winds hold, there will be no danger in so doing, if, as I guess, the pack extends from here to the shore of the Magdalens. If so, we are not likely to find any sealers to the eastward, unless they have got jammed in the pack; and probably that steamer we saw the other day has passed to the south, and will make to westward before another southerly gale comes to open the ice."
"You right, master," said Regnar. "We go to-morrow to berg; see great ways from there, if we can get up. 'Nother thing we ought to do—move off this floe before next gale, else get house broken, and lose many things."
"Pooh!" said Waring, carelessly; "this berg would last a month yet."
"I risk this hice, more'n twenty, tirty feet tick. Sea no break this up."
Orloff's eyes flashed, and he seemed about to make some angry reply, but with a visible effort to restrain himself, signed to La Salle to follow him, and went out of the hut. La Salle found him on the summit of the lookout, gazing out over the star-lit sea.
"I was angry, and came near forgetting the part I play," said he, bitterly, in French; "but they know nothing of ice-lore, and I should not be angry at them for believing that this heavy bit of ice, although not as large as those around us, is equally as safe."
"And why is it not?" asked La Salle.
"Because," answered the lad, "this floe is of snow-ice, probably pierced by dozens of hidden cavities. I fancied the other night that I heard a ripple of water beneath me, as I have heard it in winter when seeking the hidden streams beneath the glaciers, but I did not hear it again, and may have been mistaken."
"Well, we are safe, I suppose, as long as we lie deep in the pack."
Regnar smiled pityingly.
"Do you see the kind of ice which surrounds us now—those heavy floes, hard, flinty, and widespread, and that berg, gigantic, and almost as hard as glass? Well, if we have a heavy blow from the north-west, we shall be jammed between the ice now resting on the Magdalens and those Greenland monsters yonder, and if there is a weak spot in our berg—"
"Well, what then, Regnie?"
"We shall be ground to powder, or, at least, our berg will; and in such a break-up, we shall have little chance to save anything except our lives."
"What, then, ought we to do?"
"We must be ready to move as soon as we crush in through this thin ice," said Regnar, pointing to the new ice and broken fragments over which they had crossed at dark. "Let us put our guns and food in the boat, and have her already for use; by morning we shall have a heavy nip, or a shift of wind, and in either case we ought to change our quarters."
As they turned to descend the hummock, a crack was heard, and a large part of the berg fell with a terrible crash. Peter and Waring rushed from the hut with cries of terror, and Carlo, whining with fear, bounded up the slope, as if to seek protection from his master. Regnar was the first to recover his coolness.
"Let us see what damage is done now," said he; and descending, he seized an oar and a rope, and went to the verge of the chasm. La Salle rushed into the hut, lighted his lantern, and joined Regnar, who was fastening the rope around his waist. "I don't think there is much danger, but if I get in, haul me out," said he, giving the coil into La Salle's keeping; and seizing the lantern, he leaped down upon the severed portion.
Fearlessly moving along the face of the berg, he surveyed it as thoroughly as possible by the light of his lantern, and at last, approaching the lowest part of the wall, called to them to pull sharply on the rope, and with its help ascended the berg.
"You are all right just now," said he, "but when a strain does come upon us, the cleavage will be right through our hut. We had better get our tools into the boat, and keep watch during the night, for, with the first nip, or heavy sea, we shall no longer have a house to cover us."
It may well be believed but few of the party slept much that night, and that the first dawn was hailed as a welcome visitant. Regnar alone, who had been the first to give the alarm, was the only one who could sleep soundly through the hours not occupied on the watch, and he alone awoke refreshed and vigorous when the welcome sunrise flooded the east with rosy beams, and cast a magical flood of reflected light over every berg and pinnacle.
A CHANGE OF BASE.—BUILDING A SNOW-HUT.—THE VIEW FROM THE BERG.—A STRANGE MEETING.
Breakfast over, all decided to remove at once to the higher ice of the vast floe occupied by the seals. There were a number of reasons why this place was chosen, but the principal ones were, that it would be likely to be sought by sealers, would supply them for a long time with food and fire, and would stand almost any pressure and a heavy sea, without "breaking up."
The boat was accordingly loaded with the weapons, tools, and bedding, and run over the intervening ice with very little difficulty, although it took a good half hour to ascend the ice-slopes, which were steep and slippery. Returning, the party took each a seal-skin, with the hair side down, and loading them with the remaining decoys, fragments of wood, the Esquimaux lamp and its chimney, and a part of the fir boughs, returned again to their new location.
Some convulsion of the ice, had strewed the shores of this field with piles of young field-ice about a foot thick, and with this material Regnar at once commenced operations. While Peter rapidly split off cakes about a foot wide and two or three long, La Salle and Waring slid them along the ice to Orloff, who, furnished with the other axe and a pail of water, rapidly built them into walls a foot thick and eight feet square. A dash of water soon froze the blocks together, and as the material was near at hand, in the course of the forenoon walls five feet in height, with a single narrow entrance, had been raised. At this height the blocks were ordered to be made two feet square, and of but half the thickness.
These were laid flatways, with their edges not quite plumb with the outside edge of the wall, and being frozen into place, left an uncovered space about five feet six inches square. Returning to the old berg, the party took down the shooting-box from the top of the cave, and filling it with the remaining boughs, and a part of the seal-skins, blubber, &c., regained the floe, and unloading the box, placed it as a roof on the new dwelling. A single layer of "ice-bricks," as Waring termed them, was placed around its edge, and being thoroughly wetted, formed a strong and weather-proof joining; and shoveling the debris from the interior, the lamp was set up and lighted, the twigs spread thickly over the icy floor, and bringing in their few household goods, the party, tired and hungry, sat down to a lunch of hard bread and weak coffee.
A final trip of all hands brought over the remainder of their birds, blubber, and skins, much being drawn back on the bottom of the float, which, although lessened in width nearly a foot, still retained both its runners, and made quite a decent sledge.
The wind still blew from the north-west, and the pack began to show evidences of the pressure of the large body of ice to windward; but La Salle and Orloff, although much fatigued, still thought it best to try to get a survey of the scene from the great berg a little over a mile away. Keeping on the leeward side of the floes, they reached its base without difficulty, and without delay sought a place to ascend. Fortunately a large stream of fresh water from above, had worn a deep gulch in the huge wall, and up this our adventurers managed to climb, although more than once each had to use his axe to cut steps in the glassy ice.
Once on the top of the berg, however, they felt repaid for the additional fatigue of their journey and ascent. Below them to the east, the floes were like those they had traversed, covered with seals, and about twenty miles away the highlands of Amherst Island showed plainly in the crimson light of the declining sun.
To the north and west all was ice, and in neither direction could either see any signs of the presence of man. To the southward the pack seemed more open, and as they watched, they saw the leads grow wider, and the pools becoming more frequent.
"We are passing the islands fast," said Regnar, "and by to-morrow will be well to the south-east of Deadman's Island. Let us descend, for it grows colder every moment."
Turning, they sought the gulch, only pausing a moment to view the pond which fed the streams, which poured continuously from the sides of this great ice-island. It occupied a large depression in the centre of the berg, and was estimated by Regnar to occupy an area of at least six acres.
As they turned to go, Regnar's eye caught sight of a floe at the foot of the berg.
"Are not those dead seals yonder?" said he. "It seems to me that I see piles of dead bodies, and skins hung on the pinnacles, and then—yes, there is a flag on a pole."
Hastily descending, the two friends ran at full speed to the floe. It proved to be as Regnar had said. There were hundreds of slaughtered seals, and it was evident that, as far as the eye could reach, the work of death had been complete.
Still something had occurred to prevent the hunters from securing their rich booty, for huge piles of skins, with their adhering blubber, were scattered over the ice, and near one was planted firmly in the floe a boat-hook, with a small flag at the top. Regnar drew it from the ice, and looked searchingly at flag and shaft; the pennon was of crimson, without lettering or private signal, but on the pole was scorched in deep, black characters, the legend "Str. Mercedes."
"Here has been a good day's work, probably by that steamer whose smoke we saw the other day," said La Salle; "doubtless she was afraid of being nipped by this ice in the last southerly gale, and made off in time to avoid it. If so, she will be back again after her cargo, when the ice gets south of the islands."
"Is that a seal, Charley?"
The words were simple, but the tone was so unlike the usual voice of the speaker, so tinged with awe and doubt, that La Salle felt a chill traverse his frame as he turned to see what had provoked the question.
Regnar stood on the brink of the only pool of open water in sight, gazing earnestly at a floating object in the centre, which appeared at first sight like a dead seal, but a second glance at the shape and size of the body revealed the corpse of a man clad in a seal-skin coat, and floating on its face.
"It is some poor fellow who has been drowned in passing from one cake to another," said La Salle, gravely. "Let us examine the body; perhaps there are papers or valuables on it, which will identify it, or be of value to its friends. At all events, we can give it a more Christian sepulture to-morrow."
Regnar gave no answer, but stood motionless as if turned into stone.
"Come, Regnar! wake up, man! Surely you are not afraid of a poor lifeless body. Bear a hand with that boat-hook, or, if you don't care to touch it, hand it to me."
Starting as if from a trance, Regnar extended the long boat-hook and gently drew the body to the shore, where La Salle, making a loop of the rope they carried, dropped it over the head and shoulders, and drawing it tightly under the arm-pits, gave one end to Regnar.
"His pockets are turned inside out," said La Salle.
"The man has been murdered," almost whispered the lad. "See what a terrible wound there is in the skull."
"Let us land him, any way, Regnar. We will get him upon the ice, and to-morrow we can come down here and look into the matter. Gently, now; that's right. Great Heavens! Regnie, lad, are you mad?"
As the body was landed, turning slowly over on its back, exposing a face handsome even in death, Regnar started, glanced curiously at the features, and dropping the line, raised the boat-hook, and with every muscle and feature alive with rage and fury, seemed about to transfix the senseless body of the dead. Then a change came over him; he lowered his arm, dropped the useless weapon, and burst into tears.
"Come, Regnie, you are worn out, and it is growing late; let us hasten back to our new hut. To-morrow we can return and look after this poor stranger."
"Stranger! He is no stranger to me. For two years I have sought him in both hemispheres, urged on by the love of my only relative whom he betrayed, and hatred of him which could end but with his life or mine. My fondest hope was to find him, my dearest wish to lay him dead at my feet; and thus we meet at last."
"This, then, is the man you have sought, and for this you have hidden your true character from all men. Is this the gift by which you were to gain, and I to lose?" said La Salle.
"Ask me no more to-night," said the boy, whose powers of self-control, were only less marvellous than the innate force of his intense nature. "We have none too much light for our homeward way, and to-morrow's sun may help us to learn more of the cause of his death, and our own duty in the premises. We will say nothing to our friends of this dreadful matter, and at early dawn we will set off alone to return here;" and taking the boat-hook and his weapons, Orloff set off with his usual firm step and tireless energy.
It was nearly dusk when they reached the floe, and saw at some hundreds of feet distant the moving lantern that told that Peter and Waring were anxious about the safety of their friends. La Salle hardly dared trust his voice, but Orloff uttered his well-known halloo; and of the four who were gathered in that dwelling of ice, the most cheerful and kindly, was he whose dead enemy lay gazing with stony eyeballs at the wintry skies, amid a golgotha of animal butchery, with the dark impress of a rifle-bullet in the centre of his forehead.
That night the cold north-wester died away, and a gentle breeze began to blow from the south. The tired Indian and the delicately-nurtured merchant's son slept side by side on their leaf-strewn floor, and even La Salle, excited and surprised as he had been, at last fell into a broken slumber. But when all were asleep, and no human eye could pry into his secret sorrows, Regnar seated himself by the flaring lamp, and drawing from his breast a locket, took from it a small folded paper, and a closely-curled ringlet of yellow hair, such as St. Olave, the warrior saint of Norway, laid in the lap of the fair Geyra, princess of Vendland.
With many a kiss, passionate and sorrowful, he greeted the hidden love-treasures, and many a falling tear dimmed the bold eyes, and wet the ruddy cheeks of the youthful watcher, as late into the night he sat gazing into the flaring flame of that element, in which many a sorrowful heart, in its agony, seems to find a parallel of the torture it endures, and to find a saddened pleasure in the contemplation. But at last the watcher turned to his rude couch, and only the radiance of the lamp, diffused through the opaline walls of the hut, gave evidence of the presence of human beings in that desolate, wave-borne, wind-driven, desert of ice.
THE RING.—THE BURIAL.—A MAUSOLEUM OF ICE.
In the early dawn La Salle started from sleep, as he felt a chill touch upon his forehead, and saw Regnar standing above him, booted and equipped for travel. In one hand he held a cup of hot coffee, and in the other the breast of a roast goose, which he offered to La Salle in silence. Fearful of awaking their companions, nothing was said by either, until, armed and equipped, they issued from the hut, and hastened towards the scene of last night's strange adventure.
It was the nineteenth of the month, and the ninth day of their involuntary voyage, and La Salle, as usual, gave a sweeping glance at ice and sky, to determine as nearly as possible the direction of their drift, and the probable state of the weather for the next twelve hours.
"We shall know all that at sunrise," said Regnar; and avoiding the haunts of the seals, they hurried through the gray light along the devious windings of the ice-foot, until they reached the murdered sealer. The body lay as it had been landed on the edge of a pool, and was that of a singularly handsome man, about forty-five years of age. No beard, save a well-kept mustache, covered the sharply-moulded features; and even the death-wound—the work of a small-sized bullet—had left but a tiny livid discoloration on the marble forehead.
Turning the body over,—a work of some time and difficulty, for the wet clothes had frozen,—an expression of surprise escaped the lips of Regnar, for the rear of the skull, from which the missile had issued, was almost blown into pieces.
"How could a bullet have done this?" asked the youth, gravely.
"There is but one kind of missile which produces such a terrible wound—the percussion rifle-shell, perfected years ago by an army officer in India, and since then introduced into every part of the globe. Into the point of a cylindro-conical slug is inserted a thin copper cartridge, loaded with powder, and primed with fulminate of mercury. This bullet enters the flesh, but explodes when it strikes a bone, and a huge mass of bone and muscle is usually driven out in front of the issuing projectile. Such a bullet has destroyed this man."
A curious ring on the little finger of the right hand attracted the notice of Regnar, who with a glad cry seized the stiffened hand and tried to remove it, but the swollen flesh baffled his efforts.
"I must have that ring, La Salle," said he, ceasing his futile efforts. "I cannot leave that with his body." And taking up his axe, he severed the finger at the joint, and removed the circlet.
La Salle started back in horror at what he could but consider a senseless and unwarranted profanation; but Orloff, drawing his knife, made a close search of the clothing worn by the deceased, ripping open every seam and fold which seemed capable of concealing the slightest scrap of paper, while his companion, lost in astonishment and disgust, scorned to question, and awaited an explanation of his conduct.
Beyond the ring, however, little was found, for the larger pockets of the deceased were turned inside out, the vest had been opened, and a sharp knife had evidently cut through the heavy under-garments of knitted woolens. No mark of the knife was to be seen on the exposed flesh; and Regnar, breaking the oppressive silence, said,—
"Why was this done, La Salle?"
"Perhaps he had a money-belt around his waist. Many people carry their money and valuables thus," said La Salle, coldly.
Regnar continued the search, finding in a narrow pocket, like that used by carpenters for their rules, but opening on the inside of the right pantaloon pocket, a long, slender dagger, with double cutting edges. The handle was curiously carved, of walrus ivory, and represented an ancient Danish warrior, in his mail-shirt, and armed with battle-axe and sword. The sheath, slender and flexible, was evidently of more modern make, formed of rough shark-skin, with richly chased mountings of silver.
"That is all," said Regnar. "Let us find him a grave."
"We must hide the body surely," said La Salle, "for if the vessel returns to get her load, and it is found, we may be charged with mutilating the body, and perhaps with murder. Let us consign it to the sea."
"We have nothing with which to sink it, and the waters have already given up their trust. There, if I mistake not, we shall find a tomb worthy of a better man than this."
A ledge of the iceberg, some forty feet above the wave-worn base, had received a tiny branch of the fresh-water stream, at some time long previous, and its course could still be traced by the immense icicle formation, which, in fantastical imagery of a lofty cascade, seemed still to fall from base to summit. Between the ledge and the water were formed huge irregular pillars and buttresses of opaline ice whose semi-transparency seemed to indicate the presence of a cave beneath.
Axe in hand, Regnar led the way to the base of the berg, and carefully examined every nook and cranny, evidently seeking a concealed opening. A narrow aperture was at last found, some twenty feet above the ice-pool; and at the call of his companion, La Salle ascended with the coil of rope, one end of which he fastened firmly to a projection of the berg.
"Come down here; there is no danger," said the lad; and descending, La Salle found himself in a cave of large size and almost fairy-like beauty.
Over their heads the ledge projected some twenty feet above a floor, levelled by the earlier flow of the cascade, which, by some sudden removal of obstructing ice or snow, had been projected beyond the little pool, whose surface had frozen into a level floor of crystal. Over this, as upon the roof and back of the cave, had gathered groups of those beautiful congelations to be found only on newly-formed ice, and in seasons of intense cold. Among them were to be noticed many minute patterns of the most delicate star-crystals, and the surface of the floor was nearly covered with congelations of the purest white, resembling in shape, size, and beauty the leaf of the moss-rose. A fantastic conglomeration of irregular, round, and convoluted pillars, running into each other in indescribable ramifications, formed the outer wall, whose semi-translucent crystal, like opal glass, allowed the rays of the rising sun to shower a mild and silvery radiance upon the hidden wonders of the spacious grotto.
"Here he will sleep, after a life of crime and treachery, in a tomb such as few monarchs can boast of, until in some terrible gale, amid tremendous and overwhelming seas, this vast fabric shall strew the ocean with its ruins, and give his icy form to the monsters of the summer seas."
"Let us then to our task, Regnar," said La Salle, "for our friends may follow on our track, and I fear we shall have need of the closest secrecy concerning the fate of this unhappy man, at least until we are safely landed on civilized shores."
Carefully descending the slippery way which led up to the aperture, they descended to the level ice, and seeking the floe, enveloped the body in one of the many seal-skins surrounding them, swathing it closely, and binding the hairy covering with strong lashings of raw hide, leaving loops at each extremity. Gently drawing it to the ice below the aperture, they ran the cord through the loops, knotting each firmly, so that nearly half the rope projected from each end.
Taking one end, and setting the shrouded form upright against the smooth slope, the companions ascended to the aperture, and with some difficulty managed to haul up their unwonted burden.
"We can find no footing here," said Regnar, who no longer affected his partial ignorance of English. "You, I think, had better descend again, and take a turn of your end around that pinnacle. I will go down into the grotto and guide its descent."
By this means the closely-swathed body was gently lowered into its last resting-place, and gathering up the axes and his rifle, La Salle followed to assist in in the final rites of sepulture. Regnar pointed to the centre of the floor.
"That will furnish a pedestal which would befit the sarcophagus of a king."
Among the irregular mounds formed by the dripping of water from the roof above, was an ice stalagmite, about five feet high, and seven feet in length, broad at the base, but rapidly narrowing to a sharp point. Attacking this with his axe, Regnar soon split off the point, and commenced hewing the stalagmite down to a uniform height of about two feet. La Salle assisted, and in the course of twenty minutes they had formed a snowy pedestal, whose irregular outline bore no small resemblance to that of the burden it was to sustain. Regnar cleared away the ice-chips, hurling the larger shards to an obscure corner, and carrying the smaller ones in his reversed fur cap.
At last the work was completed to his satisfaction; and motioning to La Salle, he cast off the lashings, and raising the body, they placed it on the pedestal of ice. Drawing the long, slender dagger from its sheath, Regnar pierced several holes through the corners of the pedestal, and with the tough cords of raw hide lashed the body firmly to its spotless support; then kneeling beside it, the lad bowed his head as if in silent prayer. La Salle followed his example.
For a moment or two he heard nothing but the ripple and plash of the ice-brook descending the side of the berg fifty yards away; but with the burial of his enemy, the lad's self-control had deserted him, and he burst into a passionate outbreak of sobs and tears.
A STRANGE LIFE-HISTORY.—AMONG THE RED INDIANS.
La Salle had been, as we have said, displeased and disgusted, as well as puzzled, by much which had occurred; but his heart melted when he realized the sorrow and suffering, which, in spite of unusual self-restraint, was thus laid bare before him. He threw one arm around the boy's neck, and gently pressed his hand.
"Forgive me, Regnar, if I have been unkind. I will be your friend if you desire it. Confide in me, and I will try to assist you, if you need aid or counsel."
"You are kind, very kind, Charley; and perhaps I have been wrong in not trusting more in you heretofore. There is no time, however, like the present, and no more secret and fitting place than this burial-grot of the cause of all my sorrow."
"My father was a Danish youth of good parentage, whose strange and roving predilections sent him early in manhood to an outlying station in the north of Greenland, where, between his books and the wild life of that savage coast, he passed several years, until his unpleasant relations with the Danish officials made a change desirable, and he sought the Moravian settlements on the Labrador coast.
"He had plenty of money, and soon became well known along the coast, which he searched thoroughly in his trading schooner, doing a brisk business in furs, seal-oil, and skins, and at the same time making frequent metallurgical discoveries and adventurous exploring expeditions. It was said that no man on the coast knew so much of the topography of Labrador, between Hamilton Inlet and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a strange adventure opened to him new and startling experiences in the northern central portion of Newfoundland, then, as now, almost a terra incognita.
"Twenty years ago he made his last voyage down the coast, attended by the man who lies yonder, an American, named Perry, a native of Baltimore, who, it afterwards transpired, fled from that city, having killed an opponent in a political quarrel.
"Albert Perry was well educated, bold, and politic, and he formed a friendship with my father which ended only with life, and, as I believe, served him but too faithfully through good and ill, until death broke the bond between two men who were not fitted to lead the comparatively calm, eventless life which the laws of society, and the wants of the many prescribe to all; under penalty of social ostracism to the few who scorn to be fettered by a multitude of social conventionalities.
"With this man as mate, and a crew of four Esquimaux, my father found himself, in July, in one of the little harbors, on the Newfoundland shore, of the Straits of Belle Isle. The night was dark, but calm, and at about ten he retired, to be awakened an hour later by Perry.
"'Come on deck, captain; there's something going on up in the mountains yonder that I cannot make out.'
"My father, already half dressed, was soon upon deck, and found the whole crew on the after-deck, gazing eagerly at the hills, which, covered with forest, surrounded the low land at the head of the bay. Near the summit of the highest, a fire of large size had been kindled, and lit up the dark sky above it, and the tops of the surrounding trees, with a deep crimson glow, while from time to time unearthly and savage cries were borne on the night air to the ears of the wondering voyagers.
"'Have you any idea what that means, captain?' asked the American.
"'What do you say, Krasippe?' said my father, addressing a huge-shouldered Esquimaux, grizzled and scarred, who had followed his fortunes from Greenland, and knew all the lore of his wandering brethren of the Labrador coast.
"'Me tink it red Injin. Have dance; deer now come north. Marcus Jungsten, down at Hopedale, tell me he see such ting five year ago.'
"'But the red Indians are all dead, captain,' said Perry, who had spent a year or two on the coast, and heard many stories of the unconquerable ferocity and final extinction of that strange race—the aborigines of Newfoundland.
"'Such, indeed, is said to be the case, but I have met several who have seen and heard similar things, such as we hear and see to-night, and they refer them to the presence of remnants of that savage and solitary race. I shall soon know, however. Krasippe, will you get your rifle, and go with me?
"'I'll go with you, Hubel,' said Perry, eagerly.
"But my father stopped, and said, gravely,—
"'There is too much of danger in this adventure for us both to risk our lives at once. Krasippe belongs to me. I have saved his life half a score of times, but I have no claim on you; and, besides, the vessel must be taken back to Hopedale, and you must stay to do it;' and so saying, he retired to his cabin.
"When he returned, he carried in his hand a light rifle and a number of glittering wands, while a row of bright medals shone against the thick pile of a close-fitting robe of black velvet, and upon his head a cap of the same material, encircled by a strip of ermine, bore a single red feather, with an agraffe of diamonds.
"'I have done wonders with this dress, amid the fire-rocks of the Nasquapees. Krasippe, old fellow, are you ready?'
"Krasippe, grinning from ear to ear, nodded assent, and launching the captain's boat,—a light wherry for two pairs of sculls,—they pushed off from the vessel's side.
"'Watch that spot,' said Hubel, 'and if you see the stars of this Roman candle, launch your boat, and come to the shore at once. Vasa there,' pointing to a huge Danish hound, 'will find me for you, if need be.'
"An hour or two later, Perry saw the stars of green and crimson shooting through the lurid cloud into the midnight sky. A rifle-shot echoed through the valley and across the bay, and the fire was instantly extinguished. Perry, who had prepared everything for such an emergency, pushed off in his boat at once, taking his three men, all well armed, and Vasa, the great hound. Pulling at full speed, they struck in for the shore, and at last found the captain's boat hauled upon the beach. Taking the leash of the hound in his left hand, Perry sprang ashore, ordered his men to secure the boat, and lighting a dark lantern secured to his belt, he gave the word to Vasa, who set off, with an eager whine, at such a pace that it was hard to keep up with him.
"In about half an hour they emerged into a large glade, and the hound stopped with a low howl over a prostrate body. It was that of Krasippe. He was lying on his face, with a deep gash on the shoulder, and a bruise on the top of the skull, but still breathed, although insensible. Perry, who doubted not that Hubel would be found near the body of his faithful follower, let slip the chain from Vasa's collar, and he at once darted off into the darkness, while Perry, drawing the slide of his bull's-eye, and pistol in hand, carefully examined the glade.
"He found the remains of a large fire, some ten feet in circumference, still steaming with the water used to quench it, a few fragments of venison, as well as a hatchet-head of white quartz, broken from its helve, not far from where Krasippe had received his wound; but they looked in vain for their captain.
"Morning had just dawned when Vasa reappeared, and wagging his tail, came up to Perry. Around his neck was looped a piece of birch bark, on opening which Perry found the following note:—
"'AMONG THE INDIANS—MIDNIGHT.
"'I take my pencil to send you what may be my final directions, for as yet I am doubtful as to what may be my fate. Poor Vasa was about to be killed, as they dare keep no dogs; but I take advantage of his old tricks to send him to you. Take the vessel to Hopedale, and use her as if you were managing her for me, and next year at this time await me here. I have such an opportunity as no other man has had to learn the truth about these savages, and I risk my life willingly on the chance.
(Signed) "'PAUL HUBEL.'"
"Perry seized Vasa's collar and knotted the leash, then, turning to his men, ordered them to take up Krasippe and carry him down to the shore, where, launching the boat, they returned to the vessel. The next day they made sail, but it was several days before Krasippe recovered sufficiently to detail his portion of the adventure, which ran somewhat as follows:—
"'Me land with capten. We go up hill trough de hood. We see ten, twelve, Injin almos' naked, eatin', drinkin', dancin', an' yell like debbil. Capten say, "Stay here, Krasippe; I get hind bush." Capten creep trough bush, light cannle, an' bust out trough circle to middle of fire. I see fifty Injin fright dat way. Dose Injin not frighten much. I see one man jump on capten, trow him down, raise hatchet to kill him. Then one girl catch at his arm, an' I fire my rifle. Then I see no more until I wake up.'"
"'Well, Krasippe, the captain is alive, and we are to meet him here in a year from now. In the mean time we'll try to navigate the Thyri, and make as much money for the skipper as we can;' and well he kept his word."
"A year later the Thyri crept again into the rock-bound haven, and for a week Perry and his crew watched by night and day for his friend. At last, one evening they saw a fire on the shore opposite the vessel, and rowing ashore, a strange figure rushed to meet Perry, saying, 'I am here at last.'"
"It was Hubel, but he was clad in tanned deerskins, ornamented with the dyed quills of the porcupine, and his face and naked breast were painted with a mixture of deer-suet and ocher, while from his hair, long, unshorn, and gathered into a knot, waved a plume of the war-eagle. His story I give in a few words."
"'I advanced cautiously, intending to surprise and awe the Indians, as I have before done with the heathen savages, who still hunt beyond the head waters of the Mistassini, in the Labrador peninsula. As Krasippe told you, I failed; but the strange garb that I wore, and the interposition of a woman, saved my life for the time being, and the wonders of my magic wands added to the first impression, and gave me an importance I could have acquired in no other way. The riches and weapons of the whites have no charms for them, and the memory of their massacred and hunted relatives will never die until the last of the race sleep amid the islands of the great lakes of the interior; but when they saw me shake coals of fire at will from a wand filled with pyrophoric lead, they felt at once that I must be of another race than their persecutors.'"
"'So they took me with them to the south, along the trail of the migrating reindeer; they gave me the best of their simple food and raiment, and the girl who saved my life came to my lodge, and served me with a love that I can never forget. She died in childbirth two months ago, and when I left the tribe to return to my own people, her father wanted to keep the infant, and at last I consented that he should remain with him a year longer. "Give me a token," said I, "and when, a year from now, you follow the deer northward, seek the bay, and if a vessel lies there at anchor, look each day in the glade for the signet of our bond. When you find it, leave the babe beside it, and I will take him across the ocean, and teach him to be wise and brave; then he shall come back to his tribe, and help them to become again a happy and powerful people.'"
"The Thyri went northward, and Hubel was received as one who returns from the dead; but none save his mate knew the whole story of his wanderings."
"'I have sworn to tell no one,' he said, in reply to all questionings, 'and should I break my oath, it would, in all human probability, cost the lives of the few remaining warriors of that unfortunate race. The people of Newfoundland can never blot out the memory of their past cruelties, and any party who strives to penetrate to their wilderness fastnesses, must either kill or be killed.'"
"Before the next year elapsed, Hubel was summoned back to Denmark, having succeeded to his father's property; but before leaving Hopedale, he had a final interview with his chief officer."
"'I give you, Perry, the Thyri and all her outfit, as well as the goods I have here, on one condition. You must keep the tryst I cannot keep, and bring the child you know of to the settlement at Hopedale. I have spoken to brother Hans, who will see after him until I send or come for him.'"
"'I will do your bidding, Paul; but I shall not stay upon this coast after that job is over. There will be nothing to keep me in this desolate land after you leave it;' and tears glistened in the eyes of that cool, cynical, worldly-minded adventurer, for he really loved my father."
"'When your work is done here, Albert, come to me in Denmark. There is enough for us both, and we have been so long together, that we shall never be happy apart. Will you come?'"
"Perry said nothing, but pressing the hand of his friend with painful energy, he rushed up the beach, and seeking the hill behind the little settlement, watched the ship as she sailed out of the firth and disappeared in the gathering twilight. The next summer he sought the appointed spot, and left this talisman tied to the top of a bush, which stood alone almost in the centre of the glade."
La Salle curiously examined the ring, whose gold circlet of European manufacture held securely an oval bit of jasper, on whose polished surface was cut the rude outline of a beaver wounded with an arrow.
"The next day he went again: the stone had disappeared; but two arrows, headed with flint, lay beside the bush, one pointed to the interior, the other to the shore. 'I suppose that means "I go, I return," said he; and I shall find the child here to-morrow night.'"
"He was right in his conjectures, for on going to the spot the next night, he found beneath the bush a little boy clad in a strange melange of Indian finery, and the bizarre attire worn by Paul Hubel when he set out on his strange adventure. That child was myself."
La Salle had listened to the strange story with amazement, which increased as it progressed.
"You tell me, Regnie, though, only of good deeds and faithful services rendered by the dead. You say that he loved your father, and served him faithfully as long as he lived."
Regnar took up the word in bitter wrath, strangely mingled with regret.
"As long as he lived—yes! But listen only until the end, and you shall judge for yourself of my justice to the memory of the dead.
"On the breast of the babe lay the talisman, and a facsimile, pierced and suspended by a cord round the child's neck, lay beneath its clothing. See, I wear it still, and shall wear it until I meet again with my mother's people.
"I must hasten to end my story. I was taken to Hopedale, where I remained ten years, at the end of which time Perry was sent from Europe to take me to my father, who had taken to his home a daughter born of an earlier marriage, whose mother, unable to understand the caprices of my father, had returned, almost broken-hearted, to her father's house, and died during his voluntary exile in Greenland.
"I spent four years in Europe, studying most of the time at Bonn; and then my father sent for me, and I lived another year on his estate, learning all that I could of the various handicrafts and avocations, especially the best modes of agriculture. At the end of the fifth year, he called me into the library, and spoke to me as follows:—
"'You are now sixteen years of age, and you know that I have given you opportunities such as are seldom lavished on young men of your age. I would like to keep you with me longer, but I have told you of your mother, and the sufferings of her people. It is my wish that you should visit them within two years, and I have imparted to you much knowledge of their mode of life and government. Spend one year at Hopedale, and learn the lore of the fisherman and the craft of the hunter; and when I shall send you this ancient weapon, you will find within its hilt all that I dare not commit to paper, or the lips of my messenger.'
"The week after, I sailed for Hopedale; but before the year of my stay had elapsed, I learned from a friend's letter of the sudden death of my father. 'I suppose that your father's friend and your sister have joined you in America, and that you will be consoled somewhat for your loss by their affection, and your changed fortunes.'
"Thus ran the letter; but it was not until the arrival of the fall ship that I learned that my father was indeed no longer living, and that fully six months had elapsed since my sister, accompanied by the man who lies yonder, had set out to join her half brother, whom she had never seen, and to share with him the personal fortune of their common father; for the hereditary acres could not, by the laws of Denmark, fall to my lot, but went to the next nearest male relative.
"Since that time I have sought everywhere for tidings of my sister's fate, or news of the whereabouts of that man. I heard of him once as a slaver, and a year ago I learned of his having been seen on this coast. I have but one more explanation to make, and that is of the strange statement I made to you, when we stood alone looking across the moonlit waste of the drifting pack.
"About a month before you hired me at the trading post, I met Krasippe, now a very old man, and claiming some power as a prophet, or 'angekok,' among his people; for, although Christianized, they have not thrown off many of their old superstitions. He took me in his arms and wept over me, and growled a bitter curse on the treachery of his old associate. Then he appeared lost in deep thought, which seemed to absorb every sense, and his countenance became almost terrible in its fixed expression. At last, as if by no volition of his own, he uttered, in low, stern tones, the following rhapsody:—
"'You will meet in the desert of ice the man who will lead you to your heart's dearest wish. He shall lose, and you will gain.'"
La Salle's face was pale, and his lips firmly set, as he listened to the ending of this strange recital; but he took up the broken chain of evidence, with the firm intention of finding the missing links.
"Did you read my letter because you thought that Miss Randall might prove to be your sister?"
"Yes, Charley, I did. Her name was Pauline Hubel. She was named after our father, Paul Hubel. My name is Regnar Orloff Hubel."
"Well, Regnie, all I can tell you now is, that the young lady's English is not the best in the world, and that she is an orphan child. Of the whereabouts of her adopted father she knows nothing, but in a book which I took up there one day, I found written, 'A. P. Randall;' and Mrs. Randall said—"