The next morning Johnson and Bell set about carrying on
board the camping material. At eight o'clock all the preparations
for departure were complete. At the moment of starting the
doctor's thoughts returned to the footprints they had seen.
Were these men trying to gain the North? Had they any means
of crossing the Polar Sea? Should they meet them again?
three days they had come across no trace of the travellers, and
certainly, whoever they were, they could not have reached Altamont
Harbor. That was a place which they were the first to
set foot in.
But the doctor, who was harassed by his thoughts,
wanted to take a last view of the country, and he ascended a
little hill about a hundred feet high, whence he had a distant
view to the south.
When he had reached the top, he put his glass to his eyes.
Great was his surprise when he found he could not see anything,
either at a distance on the plains, or within a few feet of him.
This seemed very odd; he made another examination, and at last
he looked at the glass,—the object-glass was missing.
“The object-glass!” he cried.
The sudden revelation may be imagined; he uttered a cry so
loud as to be heard by his companions, and they were much
astonished at seeing him running down the hill.
“Well, what's the matter now?” asked Johnson.
The doctor was out of breath, and unable to speak. At length
he managed to bring out,—
“The footprints!—the expedition!—”
“Well, what?” said Hatteras; “are they here?”
“No, no!” resumed the doctor,—“the object-glass, mine!”
And he showed his own glass.
“0, ho!” cried the American, “so you lost—”
“But then the footprints—”
“Our own!” cried the doctor. “We lost our way in the fog!
We went around in a circle, and came across our own footprints!”
“But the print of the shoes?” asked Hatteras.
“Bell's, you know, who walked all day in the snow after
breaking his snow shoes.”
“That's true,” said Bell.
Their mistake was so clear, that they all, except Hatteras,
burst out laughing, and he was none the less pleased at the discovery.
“We were stupid enough,” said the doctor, when they had
stopped laughing. “What good guesses we made! Strangers up
here! Really, we ought to think before speaking, Well, since
we are easy on this point, we can't do better than start.”
“Forward!” said Hatteras.
A quarter of an hour later each one had taken his place on
board of the launch, which sailed out of Altamont Harbor under
mainsail and jib.
This voyage began Wednesday, July 10th;
they were then very near the Pole, exactly one hundred and
seventy-five miles from it. However small the land might be at
that point of the globe, the voyage would certainly be a short
The wind was light, but fair. The thermometer stood at
50°; it was really warm.
The launch had not been injured by the journey on the sledge;
it was in perfect order, and sailed easily. Johnson was at the
helm; the doctor, Bell, and Altamont were lying as best they
might among the load, partly on deck, partly below.
Hatteras stood forward, with his eyes turned to the mysterious
point, which attracted him with an irresistible power, as the
magnetic pole attracts the needle. If there should be any land,
he wanted to be the first to see it. This honor really belonged to
He noticed, besides, that the surface of the Polar Sea was
covered with short waves, like those of land locked seas. This he
considered a proof of the nearness of the opposite shore, and the
doctor shared his opinion.
Hatteras's desire to find land at the North Pole is perfectly
comprehensible. His disappointment would have been great if
the uncertain sea covered the place where he wanted to find a
piece of land, no matter how small! In fact, how could he give
a special name to an uncertain portion of the sea? How plant
the flag of his country among the waves? How take possession, in
the name of her Gracious Majesty, of the liquid element?
So Hatteras, compass in hand, gazed steadily at the north.
There was nothing that he could see between him and the horizon,
where the line of the blue water met the blue sky. A few
floating icebergs seemed to be leaving the way free for these bold
The appearance of this region was singularly strange.
Was this impression simply the result of the nervous excitement
of the travellers? It is hard to say. Still, the doctor in his
journal has described the singular appearance of the ocean; he
spoke of it as Penny did, according to whom these countries
present an appearance ``offering the most striking contrast of a
sea filled with millions of living creatures.
The sea, with its various colors, appeared strangely transparent,
and endowed with a wonderful dispersive quality, as if it had been
made with carburet of sulphur. This clearness let them see
down into immeasurable depths; it seemed as if the sea were lit
up like a large aquarium; probably some electric phenomenon at
the bottom of the sea lit it up. So the launch seemed hung in
a bottomless abyss.
On the surface of the water the birds were flying in large
flocks, like thick clouds big with a storm. Aquatic birds of all
sorts were there, from the albatross which is common to the
south, to the penguin of the arctic seas, but of enormous size.
Their cries were deafening. In considering them the doctor found
his knowledge of natural history too scanty; many of the names
escaped him, and he found himself bowing his head when their
wings beat the air.
Some of these large birds measured twenty feet from tip to tip;
they covered the whole launch with their expanded wings; and
there were legions of these birds, of which the names had never
appeared in the London Index Ornithologus.
The doctor was
dejected and stupefied at finding his science so faulty.
when his glance fell from the wonders of the air to the calm surface
of the ocean, he saw no less astonishing productions of the
animal kingdom, among others, medusæ thirty feet broad; they
served as food for the other fish, and they floated like islands
amid the sea-weed. What a difference from the microscopic medusæ
observed in the seas of Greenland by Scoresby, and of
which that explorer estimated the number at twenty-three trillions
eight hundred and ninety-eight billions of millions in a
space of two square miles!
Then the eye glancing down into the transparent water, the
sight was equally strange, so full was it of fishes; sometimes
the animals were swimming about below, and the eye saw them
gradually disappearing, and fading away like spectres; then they
would leave the lower layers and rise to the surface. The monsters
seemed in no way alarmed at the presence of the launch;
they even passed near it, rubbing their fins against it; this, which
would have alarmed whalers, did not disturb these men, and yet
the sea-monsters were very large.
Young sea-calves played about them; the sword-fish, with its
long, narrow, conical sword, with which it cleaves the ice, was
chasing the more timid cetacea; numberless spouting whales
wei-e clearly to be heard. The sword-caper, with its delicate tail
and large caudal fins, swam with incomprehensible quickness,
feeding on smaller animals, such as the cod, as swift as itself;
while the white whale, which is more inactive, swallowed peacefully
the tranquil, lazy mollusks.
Farther down were Greenland anamaks, long and dark; huge
sperm-whales, swimming in the midst of ambergris, in which took
place thomeric battles that reddened the ocean for many miles
around; the great Labrador tegusik. Sharp-backed dolphins, the
whole family of seals and walruses, sea-dogs, horses and bears,
lions and elephants, seemed to be feeding on the rich pastures;
and the doctor admired the numberless animals, as he would have
done the Crustacea in the crystal basins of the zoological garden.
What beauty, variety, and power in nature! How strange and
wonderful everything seemed in the polar regions!
The air acquired an unnatural purity; one would have said it
was full of oxygen; the explorers breathed with delight this air,
which filled them with fresher life; without taking account of
the result, they were, so to speak, exposed to a real consuming
tire, of which one can give no idea, not even a feeble one. Their
emotions, their breathing and digestion, were endowed with superhuman
energy; their ideas became more excited; they lived a
whole day in an hour.
Through all these wonders the launch pushed on before a
moderate breeze, occasionally feeling the air moved by the albatrosses'
Towards evening, the coast of New America disappeared beneath
the horizon. In the temperate zones, as well as at the
equator, night falls; but here the sun simply described a circle
parallel to the line of the horizon. The launch, bathed in its
oblique rays, could not lose sight of it.
The animate beings of these regions seemed to know the approach
of evening as truly as if the sun had set; birds, fish,
cetacea, all disappeared. Whither? To the depths of the ocean?
Who could say? But soon total silence succeeded to their cries,
and the sound of their passage through the water; the sea grew
calmer and calmer, and night retained its gentle peace even beneath
the glowing sun.
Since leaving Altamont Harbor the launch had made one
degree to the north; the next day nothing appeared on the
horizon, neither projecting peaks nor those vague signs by which
sailors detect their nearness to land.
The wind was good, but not strong, the sea not high; the birds
and fish came as thick as the day before; the doctor, leaning over
the gunwale, could see the cetacea rising slowly to the surface; a
few icebergs and scattered pieces of ice alone broke the monotony
of the ocean.
But the ice grew rarer, and was not enough to interfere with
the boat. It is to be remembered that the launch was then ten
degrees above the pole of cold; and as to the parallels of temperature,
they might as well have been ten degrees to the other side.
There was nothing surprising in the sea being open at this epoch,
as it must have been at Disco Island in Baffin's Bay. So a sailing
vessel would have plenty of sailing room in the summer months.
This observation had a great practical importance: in fact, if
whalers can ever get to the polar basin, either by the seas of
North America or those of the north of Asia, they are sure
of getting full cargoes, for this part of the ocean seems to be
the universal fishing-pond, the general reservoir of whales, seals,
and all marine animals. At noon the line of the horizon was
still unbroken; the doctor began to doubt of the existence of a
continent in so high latitudes.
Still, as he reflected, he was compelled to believe in the existence
of an arctic continent; in fact, at the creation of the world,
after the cooling of the terrestrial crust, the waters formed by
the condensation of the atmospheric vapor were compelled to
obey the centrifugal force, to fly to the equator and leave the
motionless extremities of the globe. Hence the necessary emersion
of the countries near the Pole. The doctor considered this
reasoning very just. And so it seemed to Hatteras.
Hence the captain still tried to pierce the mists of the horizon.
His glass never left his eyes. In the color of the water, the
shape of the waves, the direction of the wind, he tried to find
traces of neighboring land. His head was bent forward, and even
one who did not know his thoughts would have admired, so full
was his attitude of energetic desire and anxious interrogation.