This new incident, these first words which Altamont uttered,
had completely altered the situation of the castaways; but just
now they had been far from any possible aid, without a reasonable
chance of reaching Baffin's Bay, threatened with starvation
on a journey too long for their wearied bodies, and now, within
four hundred miles from their snow-house, there was a ship which
offered them bounteous supplies, and perhaps the means of continuing
their bold course to the Pole. Hatteras, the doctor,
Johnson, and Bell, all began to take heart after having been so
near despair; they were nearly wild with joy.
But Altamont's account was still incomplete, and, after a few
moments' repose, the doctor resumed his talk with him; he
framed his questions in such a way that a simple sign of the head
or a motion of the eyes would suffice for an answer.
Soon he made out that the Porpoise was an American bark
from New York, that it had been caught in the ice with a large
supply of food and fuel; and, although she lay on her beam-ends,
she must have withstood the ice, and it would be possible to save
Two months before, Altamont and the crew had abandoned her,
carrying the launch upon a sledge; they wanted to get to Smith's
Sound, find a whaling-vessel, and be carried in her to America;
but gradually fatigue and disease had fallen upon them, and they
fill aside on the way. At last only the captain and two sailors
were left of a crew of thirty men, and Altamont's life was the
result of what was really a miracle.
Hatteras wanted to find out from the American what he was
doing in these high latitudes.
Altamont managed to make him understand that he had been
caught in the ice and carried by it without possibility of resisting it.
Hatteras asked him anxiously for what purpose he was sailing.
Altamont gave them to understand that he had been trying
the Northwest Passage.
Hatteras did not persist, and asked no other question of the sort.
The doctor then began to speak.
“Now,” he said, “all our efforts should be directed to finding
the Porpoise; instead of struggling to Baffin's Bay, we may, by
means of a journey only two thirds as long, reach a ship which
will offer us all the resources necessary for wintering.”
“There's nothing more to be done,” said Bell.
“I should add,” said the boatswain, “that we should not lose
a moment; we should calculate the length of our journey by the
amount of our supplies, instead of the other and usual way, and
be off as soon as possible.”
“You are right, Johnson,” said the doctor; “if we leave tomorrow,
Tuesday, February 26th, we ought to reach the Porpoise
March 15th, at the risk of starving to death. What do you
think of that, Hatteras?”
“Let us make our preparations at once,” said the captain,
“and be off. Perhaps we shall find the way longer than we
“Why so?” asked the doctor. “This man seemed certain of
the situation of his ship.”
“But,” answered Hatteras, “supposing the Porpoise has been
drifting as the Forward did?”
“True,” said the doctor, “that's not unlikely.”
Johnson and Bell had nothing to urge against the possibility
of a drift of which they had themselves been victims.
But Altamont, who was listening to the conversation, gave the
doctor to understand that he wished to speak. After an effort of
about a quarter of an hour, Clawbonny made out that the Porpoise
was lying on a bed of rocks, and so could not have drifted
away. This information calmed the anxiety of the Englishmen;
still it deprived them of their hope of returning to Europe, unless
Bell should be able to build a small boat out of the timbers of the
Porpoise. However that might be, it was now of the utmost
importance that they should reach the wreck.
The doctor put one more question to the American, namely,
whether he had found an open sea at latitude 83°.
“No,” answered Altamont.
There the conversation stopped. They began at once to prepare
for departure; Bell and Johnson first began to see about the
sledge, which needed complete repairing. Since they had plenty
of wood, they made the uprights stronger, availing themselves of
the experience of their southern trip. They had learned the
dangers of this mode of transport, and since they expected to find
plenty of deep snow, the runners were made higher.
On the inside Bell made a sort of bed, covered with the canvas
of the tent, for the American; the provisions, which were unfortunately
scanty, would not materially augment the weight of the
sledge, but still they made up for that by loading it with all the
wood it could carry.
The doctor, as he packed all the provisions, made out a very
careful list of their amount; he calculated that each man could
have three quarters of a ration for a journey of three weeks. A
whole ration was set aside for the four dogs which should draw
it. If Duke aided them, he was to have a whole ration.
These preparations were interrupted by the need of sleep and
rest, which they felt at seven o'clock in the evening; but before
going to bed they
gathered around the
stove, which was
well filled with fuel,
and these poor men
luxuriated in more
warmth than they
had enjoyed for a
long time; some
pemmican, a few
biscuits, and several
cups of coffee soon put them in good humor, especially when
their hopes had been so unexpectedly lighted up. At seven in
the morning they resumed work, and finished it at three in the
afternoon. It was already growing dark. Since January 31st
the sun had appeared above the horizon, but it gave only a pale
and brief light; fortunately the moon would rise at half past
six, and with this clear sky it would make their path plain. The
temperature, which had been growing lower for several days, fell
at last to -33°.
The time for leaving came. Altamont received the order with
joy, although the jolting of the sledge would increase his sufferings;
he told the doctor that medicine against the scurvy would
be found on board of the Porpoise. He was carried to the sledge
and placed there as comfortably as possible; the dogs, including
Duke, were harnessed in; the travellers cast one last glance at
the spot where the Forward had lain. A glow of rage passed
over Hatteras's face, but he controlled it at once, and the little
band set out with the air very dry at first, although soon a mist
came over them.
Each one took his accustomed place, Bell ahead pointing out
the way, the doctor and Johnson by the sides of the sledge,
watching and lending their aid when it was necessary, and Hatteras
behind, correcting the line of march.
They went along tolerably quickly; now that the temperature
was so low, the ice was hard and smooth for travel; the five dogs
easily drew the sledge, which weighed hardly more than nine hundred
pounds. Still, men and beasts panted heavily, and often
they had to stop to take breath.
Towards seven o'clock in the evening, the moon peered through
mist on the horizon. Its rays threw out a light which was reflected
from the ice; towards the northwest the ice-field looked
like a perfectly smooth plain; not a hummock was to be seen.
This part of the sea seemed to have frozen smooth like a lake.
It was an immense, monotonous desert.
Such was the impression that this spectacle made on the doctor's
mind, and he spoke of it to his companion.
“You are right, Doctor,” answered Johnson; “it is a desert,
but we need not fear dying of thirst.”
“A decided advantage,” continued the doctor; “still, this immensity
proves one thing to me, and that is that we are far distant
from any land; in general, the proximity of land is indicated
by a number of icebergs, and not one is to be seen near us.”
“We can't see very far for the fog,” said Johnson.
“Without doubt; but since we started we have crossed a
smooth field of which we cannot see the end.”
“Do you know, Doctor, it's a dangerous walk we are taking!
We get used to it and don't think of it, but we are walking over
“You are right, my friend, but we need not fear being swallowed;
with such cold as this the ice is very strong. Besides, it
has a constant tendency to get thicker, for snow falls nine days
out of ten, even in April, May, and June, and I fancy it must
be something like thirty or forty feet thick.”
“That is a comfort,” said Johnson.
“In fact, we are very much better off than those who skate on
the Serpentine, and who are in constant dread of falling through;
we have no such fear.”
“Has the resistance of ice been calculated?” asked the old
sailor, who was always seeking information from the doctor.
“Yes,” the latter answered; “everything almost that can be
measured is now known, except human ambition! and is it not
that, which is carrying us towards the North Pole? But to return
to your question, my answer is this. Ice two inches thick will
bear a man; three and a half inches thick, a horse and rider;
five inches thick, an eight-pound cannon; eight inches, a fully
harnessed artillery-piece; and ten inches, an army, any number
of men! Where we are now, the Liverpool Custom House or the
Halls of Parliament in London could be built.”
“One can hardly imagine such strength,” said Johnson; “but
just now, Doctor, you spoke of snow falling nine clays out often;
that is true, but where does all the snow come from? The sea is
all frozen, and I don't see how the vapor can rise to form the
“A very keen observation, Johnson; but, in my opinion, the
greatest part of the snow or rain which we receive in the polar
regions is formed from the water of the seas in the temperate
zones. One flake arose into the air under the form of vapor from
some river in Europe, it helped make a cloud, and finally came
here to be condensed; it is not impossible that we who drink it
may be quenching our thirst at the rivers of our own country.”
“That is true,” answered Johnson.
At that moment Hatteras's voice was heard directing their
steps and interrupting their conversation. The fog was growing
thicker, and making a straight line hard to follow.
Finally the little band halted at about eight o'clock in the
evening, after walking nearly fifteen miles; the weather was dry;
the tent was raised, the fire lighted, supper cooked, and all rested
Hatteras and his companions were really favored by the
weather. The following days brought no new difficulties,
although the, cold became extremely severe and the mercury
remained frozen in the thermometer. If the wind had risen, no
one could have withstood the temperature. The doctor was able
to corroborate Parry's observations, which he made during his
journey to Melville Island; he said that a man comfortably
dressed could walk safety in the open air exposed to great cold,
if the air were only calm; but as soon as the slightest wind
arose, a sharp pain was felt in the face, and an extreme headache
which is soon followed by death. The doctor was very
anxious, for a slight wind would have frozen the marrow in their
March 5th he observed a phenomenon peculiar to these latitudes:
the sky was clear and thick with stars, and thick snow
began to fall without any cloud being visible; the constellations
shone through the flakes which fell regularly on the ice-field.
This went on for about two hours, and stopped before the doctor
had found a satisfactory explanation of its fall.
The last quarter of the moon had then disappeared; total
darkness reigned for seventeen hours out of the twenty-four; the
travellers had to tie themselves together by a long cord, to avoid
being separated; it was almost impossible for them to go in a
Still, these bold men, although animated, by an iron will, began
to grow weary; their halts were more frequent, and yet they
ought not to lose an hour, for their supplies were rapidly diminishing.
Hatteras would often ascertain their position by observation
of the moon and stars. As he saw the days pass by and the
destination appear as remote as before, he would ask himself
sometimes if the Porpoise really existed, whether the American's
brain might not have been deranged by his sufferings, or whether,
through hate of the English, and seeing himself without resources,
he did not wish to drag them with him to certain death.
He expressed his fears to the doctor, who discouraged them
greatly, but he readily understood the lamentable rivalry which
existed between the American and English captains.
“They are two men whom it will be hard to make agree,” he
said to himself.
March 14th, after journeying for sixteen days, they had only
reached latitude 82°; their strength was exhausted, and they
were still a hundred miles from the ship; to add to their sufferings,
they had to bring the men down to a quarter ration, in order
to give the dogs their full supply.
They could not depend on their shooting for food, for they had
left only seven charges of powder and six balls; they had in vain
fired at some white hares and foxes, which besides were very rare.
None had been hit.
Nevertheless, on the 18th, the doctor was fortunate enough to
find a seal lying on the ice; he wounded him with several balls;
the animal, not being able to escape through his hole in the ice,
was soon slain. He was of very good size. Johnson cut him up
skilfully, but he was so very thin that he was of but little use to
the men, who could not make up their minds to drink his oil,
like the Esquimaux. Still the doctor boldly tried to drink the
slimy fluid, but he could not do it. He preserved the skin of the
animal, for no special reason, by a sort of hunter's instinct, and
placed it on the sledge.
The next day, the 16th, they saw a few icebergs on the horizon.
Was it a sign of a neighboring shore, or simply a disturbance of
the ice? It was hard to say.
When they had reached one of these hummocks, they dug in it
with a snow-knife a more comfortable retreat than that afforded
by the tent, and after three hours of exertion they were able to
rest about their glowing stove.
1^ There's inconsistency with the dates here. Osgood gives 18th; Verne gives le vendredi (Friday) 13 (on wikisource; TBC with original sources). The date should be Friday March 15, 1861.