But I think I can read your motive. Have you any practical suggestion to offer?”
“No,” said Hatteras, after a little hesitation.
“You don’t doubt our courage,” continued the Doctor. “We would follow you to the last—you know that. But must we not, meantime, give up all hope of reaching the Pole? Your plans have been defeated by treachery. Natural difficulties you might have overcome, but you have been outmatched by perfidy and human weakness. You have done all that man could do, and you would have succeeded I am certain; but situated as we are now, are you not obliged to relinquish your projects for the present, and is not a return to England even positively necessary before you could continue them?”
“Well, captain?” asked Johnson after waiting a considerable time for Hatteras to reply.
Thus interrogated, he raised his head, and said in a constrained tone—
“You think yourselves quite certain then of reaching the Sound, exhausted though you are, and almost without food?”
“No,” replied the Doctor, “but there is one thing certain, the Sound won’t come to us, we must go to it. We may chance to find some Esquimaux tribes further south.”
“Besides, isn’t there the chance of falling in with some ship that is wintering here?” asked Johnson.
“Even supposing the Sound is blocked up, couldn’t we get across to some Greenland or Danish settlement? At any rate, Hatteras, we can get nothing by remaining here. The route to England is towards the south, not the north.”
“Yes,” said Bell, “Mr. Clawbonny is right. We must start, and start at once. We have been forgetting our country too long already.”
“Is this your advice, Johnson?” asked Hatteras again.
“And yours, Doctor?”
Hatteras remained silent, but his face, in spite of himself, betrayed his inward agitation. The issue of his whole life hung on the decision he had to make, for he felt that to return to England was to lose all! He could not venture on a fourth expedition.
The Doctor finding he did not reply, added—
“I ought also to have said, that there is not a moment to lose. The sledge must be loaded with the provisions at once, and as much wood as possible. I must confess six hundred miles is a long journey, but we can, or rather we must make twenty miles a day, which will bring us to the coast about the 26th of March.”
“But cannot we wait a few days yet?” said Hatteras.
“What are you hoping for?” asked Johnson.
“I don’t know. Who can tell the future? It is necessary, too, that you should get your strength a little recruited. You might sink down on the road with fatigue, without even a snow hut to shelter you.”
“But think of the terrible death that awaits us here,” replied the carpenter.
“My friends,” said Hatteras, in almost supplicating tones; “you are despairing too soon. I should propose that we should seek our deliverance towards the north, but you would refuse to follow me, and yet why should there not be Esquimaux tribes round about the Pole as well as towards the south? The open sea, of the existence of which we are certified, must wash the shores of continents. Nature is logical in all her doings. Consequently vegetation must be found there when the earth is no longer ice-bound. Is there not a promised land awaiting us in the north from which you would flee?”
Hatteras became animated as he spoke, and Doctor Clawbonny’s excitable nature was so wrought upon that his decision began to waver. He was on the point of yielding, when Johnson, with his wiser head and calmer temperament, recalled him to reason and duty by calling out—
“Come, Bell, let us be off to the sledge.”
“All right,” said Bell, and the two had risen to leave the hut, when Hatteras exclaimed—
“Oh, Johnson! You! you! Well, go! I shall stay, I shall stay!”
“Captain!” said Johnson, stopping in spite of himself.
“I shall stay, I tell you. Go! Leave me like the rest! Come, Duk, you and I will stay together.”
The faithful dog barked as if he understood, and settled himself down beside his master. Johnson looked at the Doctor, who seemed at a loss to know what to do, but came to the conclusion at last that the best way, meantime, was to calm Hatteras, even at the sacrifice of a day.