The treachery, or rather the despondency, of his worn-out crew, and the criminal folly of one or two leading spirits among them had left him and his little band of men in a terrible situation—helpless in an icy desert, two thousand five hundred miles away from their native land, and without even a ship to shelter them.
However, the courage of Hatteras was still undaunted. The three men which were left him were the
best on board his brig, and while they remained he might venture to hope.
After the cheerful, manly words of the captain, the Doctor felt the best thing to be done was to look their prospects fairly in the face, and know the exact state of things. Accordingly, leaving his companions, he stole away alone down to the scene of the explosion.
Of the Forward, the brig that had been so carefully built and had become so dear, not a vestige remained. Shapeless blackened fragments, twisted bars of iron,
cable ends still smouldering, and here and there in the distance spiral wreaths of smoke, met his eye on all sides. His cabin and all his precious treasures were gone, his books, and instruments, and collections reduced to ashes. As he stood thinking mournfully of his irreparable loss, he was joined by Johnson, who grasped his offered hand in speechless sorrow.
“What’s to become of us?” asked the Doctor.
“Who can tell!” was the old sailor’s reply.
“Anyhow,” said Clawbonny, “do not let us despair! Let us be men!”
“Yes, Mr. Clawbonny, you are right. Now is the time to show our mettle. We are in a bad plight, and how to get out of it, that is the question.”
“Poor old brig!” exclaimed the Doctor. “I had grown so attached to her. I loved her as one loves a house where he has spent a life-time.”
“Ay! it’s strange what a hold those planks and beams get on a fellow’s heart.”
“And the long-boat—is that burnt?” asked the Doctor.
“No, Mr. Clawbonny. Shandon and his gang have carried it off.”
“And the pirogue?”
“Shivered into a thousand pieces? Stop. Do you see those bits of sheet-iron? That is all that remains of it.”
“Then we have nothing but the Halkett-boat?”
“Yes, we have that still, thanks to your idea of taking it with you.”
“That isn’t much,” said the Doctor.
“Oh, those base traitors!” exclaimed Johnson. “Heaven punish them as they deserve!”
“Johnson,” returned the Doctor, gently, “we must not forget how sorely they have been tried. Only the best remain good in the evil day; few can stand trouble. Let us pity our fellow-sufferers, and not curse them.”
For the next few minutes both were silent, and then Johnson asked what had become of the sledge.
“We left it about a mile off,” was the reply.
“In charge of Simpson?”
“No, Simpson is dead, poor fellow!”
“Yes, his strength gave way entirely, and he first sank.”
“Poor Simpson! And yet who knows if he isn’t rather to be envied?”
“But, for the dead man we have left behind, we have brought back a dying one.”
“A dying man?”
“Yes, Captain Altamont.”
And in a few words he informed Johnson of their discovery.
“An American!” said Johnson, as the recital was ended.
“Yes, everything goes to prove that. But I wonder what the Porpoise was, and what brought her in these seas?”
“She rushed on to her ruin like the rest of foolhardy adventurers; but, tell me, did you find the coal?”
The Doctor shook his head sadly.
“No coal! not a vestige! No, we did not even get as far as the place mentioned by Sir Edward Belcher.”
“Then we have no fuel whatever?” said the old sailor.
“And no provisions?”
“And no ship to make our way back to England?”
It required courage indeed to face these gloomy realities, but, after a moment’s silence, Johnson said again—
“Well, at any rate we know exactly how we stand. The first thing to be done now is to make a hut, for we can’t stay long exposed to this temperature.”
“Yes, we’ll soon manage that with Bell’s help,” replied the Doctor. “Then we must go and find the sledge, and bring back the American, and have a consultation with Hatteras.”
“Poor captain,” said Johnson, always forgetting his own troubles, “how he must feel it!”
Clawbonny and Bell found Hatteras standing motionless, his arms folded in his usual fashion.