An Antarctic Mystery
Chapter 6: An Ocean Waif
Copyright© 2012 by Jules Verne
The navigation of the Halbrane went on prosperously with the help of the sea and the wind. In fifteen days, if this state of things lasted, she might reach Tristan d'Acunha. Captain Len Guy left the working of the ship to James West, and well might he do so; there was nothing to fear with such a seaman as he.
"Our lieutenant has not his match afloat," said Hurliguerly to me one day. "He ought to be in command of a flag-ship."
"Indeed," I replied, "he seems to be a true son of the sea."
"And then, our Halbrane, what a craft! Congratulate yourself, Mr. Jeorling, and congratulate yourself also that I succeeded in bringing the captain to change his mind about you."
"If it was you who obtained that result, boatswain, I thank you heartily."
"And so you ought, for he was plaguily against it, was our captain, in spite of all old man Atkins could say. But I managed to make him hear reason."
"I shan't forget it, boatswain, I shan't forget it, since, thanks to your intervention, instead of moping at Kerguelen. I hope shortly to get within sight of Tristan d'Acunha."
"In a few days, Mr. Jeorling. Only think, sir, according to what I hear tell, they are making ships in England and America with machines in their insides, and wheels which they use as a duck uses its paddles. All right, we shall know what's the good of them when they come into use. My notion is, however, that those ships will never be able to fight with a fine frigate sailing with a fresh breeze."
It was the 3rd of September. If nothing occurred to delay us, our schooner would be in sight of port in three days. The chief island of the group is visible on clear days at a great distance.
That day, between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning, I was walking backwards and forwards on the deck, on the windward side. We were sliding smoothly over the surface of an undulating sea. The Halbrane resembled an enormous bird, one of the gigantic albatross kind described by Arthur Pym--which had spread its sail-like wings, and was carrying a whole ship's crew towards space.
James West was looking out through his glasses to starboard at an object floating two or three miles away, and several sailors, hanging over the side, were also curiously observing it.
I went forward and looked attentively at the object. It was an irregularly formed mass about twelve yards in length, and in the middle of it there appeared a shining lump.
"That is no whale," said Martin Holt, the sailing-master. "It would have blown once or twice since we have been looking at it."
"Certainly!" assented Hardy. "Perhaps it is the carcase of some deserted ship."
"May the devil send it to the bottom!" cried Roger. "It would be a bad job to come up against it in the dark; it might send us down before we could know what had happened."
"I believe you," added Drap, "and these derelicts are more dangerous than a rock, for they are now here and again there, and there's no avoiding them."
Hurliguerly came up at this moment and planted his elbows on the bulwark, alongside of mine.
"What do you think of it, boatswain?" I asked.
"It is my opinion, Mr. Jeorling," replied the boatswain, "that what we see there is neither a blower nor a wreck, but merely a lump of ice."
"Hurliguerly is right," said James West; "it is a lump of ice, a piece of an iceberg which the currents have carried hither."
"What?" said I, "to the forty-fifth parallel?"
"Yes, sir," answered West, "that has occurred, and the ice sometimes gets up as high as the Cape, if we are to take the word of a French navigator, Captain Blosseville, who met one at this height in 1828."
"Then this mass will melt before long," I observed, feeling not a little surprised that West had honoured me by so lengthy a reply.
"It must indeed be dissolved in great part already," he continued, "and what we see is the remains of a mountain of ice which must have weighed millions of tons."
Captain Len Guy now appeared, and perceiving the group of sailors around West, he came forward. A few words were exchanged in a low tone between the captain and the lieutenant, and the latter passed his glass to the former, who turned it upon the floating object, now at least a mile nearer to us.
"It is ice," said he, "and it is lucky that it is dissolving. The Halbrane might have come to serious grief by collision with it in the night."
I was struck by the fixity of his gaze upon the object, whose nature he had so promptly declared: he continued to contemplate it for several minutes, and I guessed what was passing in the mind of the man under the obsession of a fixed idea. This fragment of ice, torn from the southern icebergs, came from those waters wherein his thoughts continually ranged. He wanted to see it more near, perhaps at close quarters, it might be to take away some bits of it. At an order from West the schooner was directed towards the floating mass; presently we were within two cables'-length, and I could examine it.
The mound in the center was melting rapidly; before the end of the day nothing would remain of the fragment of ice which had been carried by the currents so high up as the forty-fifth parallel.
Captain Len Guy gazed at it steadily, but he now needed no glass, and presently we all began to distinguish a second object which little by little detached itself from the mass, according as the melting process went on--a black shape, stretched on the white ice.
What was our surprise, mingled with horror, when we saw first an arm, then a leg, then a trunk, then a head appear, forming a human body, not in a state of nakedness, but clothed in dark garments.
For a moment I even thought that the limbs moved, that the hands were stretched towards us.
The crew uttered a simultaneous cry. No! this body was not moving, but it was slowly slipping off the icy surface.
I looked at Captain Len Guy. His face was as livid as that of the corpse that had drifted down from the far latitudes of the austral zone. What could be done was done to recover the body of the unfortunate man, and who can tell whether a faint breath of life did not animate it even then? In any case his pockets might perhaps contain some document that would enable his identity to be established. Then, accompanied by a last prayer, those human remains should be committed to the depths of the ocean, the cemetery of sailors who die at sea.
A boat Was let down. I followed it with my eyes as it neared the side of the ice fragment eaten by the waves.