They began their preparations for departure by making a sledge which they were to draw themselves, as they had no dogs. This was not ready till the 15th of February, and I was always hoping for your arrival, though I half dreaded it too, for you could have done nothing with the men, and they would have massacred you rather than remain on board. I tried my influence on each one separately, remonstrating and reasoning with them, and pointing out the dangers they would encounter, and also the cowardice of leaving you, but it was a mere waste of words; not even the best among them would listen to me. Shandon was impatient to be off, and fixed the 22nd of February for starting. The sledge and the boat were packed as closely as possible with provisions and spirits, and heaps of wood, to obtain which they had hewed the brig down to her water-line. The last day the men ran riot. They completely sacked the ship, and in a drunken paroxysm Pen and two or three others set it on fire. I fought and struggled against them, but they threw me down and assailed me with blows, and then the wretches, headed by Shandon, went off towards the east and were soon out of sight. I found myself alone on the burning ship, and what could I do? The fire- hole was completely blocked up with ice. I had not a single drop of water! For two days the Forward struggled with the flames, and you know the rest.”
A long silence followed the gloomy recital, broken at length by Hatteras, who said—
“Johnson, I thank you; you did all you could to save my ship, but single-handed you could not resist. Again I thank you, and now let the subject be dropped. Let us unite efforts for our common salvation. There are four of us, four companions, four friends, and all our lives are equally precious. Let each give his opinion on the best course for us to pursue.”
“You ask us then, Hatteras,” said the Doctor, “we are all devoted to you, and our words come from our hearts. But will you not state you own views first?”
“That would be little use,” said Hatteras, sadly; “my opinion might appear interested; let me hear all yours first.”
“Captain,” said Johnson, “before pronouncing on such an important matter, I wish to ask you a question.”
“Ask it, then, Johnson.”
“You went out yesterday to ascertain our exact position; well, is the field drifting or stationary?”
“Perfectly stationary. It had not moved since the last reckoning was made. I find we are just where we were before we left, in 80° 15” lat. and 97° 35” long.”
“And what distance are we from the nearest sea to the west?”
“About six hundred miles.”
“And that sea is——?”
“Smith’s Sound,” was the reply.
“The same that we could not get through last April?”
“Well, captain, now we know our actual situation, we are in a better position to determine our course of action.”
“Speak your minds, then,” said Hatteras, again burying his head in his hands.
“What do you say, Bell?” asked the Doctor.
“It strikes me the case doesn’t need long thinking over,” said the carpenter. “We must get back at once without losing a single day or even a single hour, either to the south or west, and make our way to the nearest coast, even if we are two months doing it!”
“We have only food for three weeks,” replied Hatteras, without raising his head.
“Very well,” said Johnson, “we must make the journey in three weeks, since it is our last chance. Even if we can only crawl on our knees before we get to our destination, we must be there in twenty-five days.”
“This part of the Arctic Continent is unexplored. We may have to encounter difficulties. Mountains and glaciers may bar our progress,” objected Hatteras.
“I don’t see that’s any sufficient reason for not attempting it. We shall have to endure sufferings, no doubt, and perhaps many. We shall have to limit ourselves to the barest quantities of food, unless our guns should procure us anything.”
“There is only about half a pound of powder left,” said Hatteras.
“Come now, Hatteras, I know the full weight of your objections, and I am not deluding myself with vain hopes.