“And the sooner we go the better,” added Johnson, “for the time we allow ourselves must depend on our provisions.”
“You are right, Johnson,” returned the Doctor. “If we start to- morrow, we must reach the Porpoise by the 15th of March, unless we mean to die of starvation. What do you say, Hatteras?”
“Let us make preparations immediately, but perhaps the route may be longer than we suppose.”
“How can that be, captain? The man seems quite sure of the position of his ship,” said the Doctor.
“But suppose the ice-field should have drifted like ours?”
Here Altamont, who was listening attentively, made a sign that he wished to speak, and, after much difficulty, he succeeded in telling the Doctor that the Porpoise had struck on rocks near the coast, and that it was impossible for her to move.
This was re-assuring information, though it cut off all hope of returning to Europe, unless Bell could construct a smaller ship out of the wreck.
No time was lost in getting ready to start. The sledge was the principal thing, as it needed thorough repair. There was plenty of wood, and, profiting by the experience they had recently had of this mode of transit, several improvements were made by Bell.
Inside, a sort of couch was laid for the American, and covered over with the tent. The small stock of provisions did not add much to the weight, but, to make up the deficiency, as much wood was piled up on it as it could hold.
The Doctor did the packing, and made an exact calculation of how long their stores would last. He found that, by allowing three-quarter rations to each man and full rations to the dogs, they might hold out for three weeks.
Towards seven in the evening, they felt so worn out that they were obliged to give up work for the night; but, before lying down to sleep, they heaped up the wood in the stove, and made a roaring fire, determined to allow themselves this parting luxury. As they gathered round it, basking in the unaccustomed heat, and enjoying their hot coffee and biscuits and pemmican, they became quite cheerful, and forgot all their sufferings.
About seven in the morning they set to work again and by three in the afternoon everything was ready.
It was almost dark, for, though the sun had reappeared above the horizon since the 31st of January, his light was feeble and of short duration. Happily the moon would rise about half-past six, and her soft beams would give sufficient light to show the road.
The parting moment came. Altamont was overjoyed at the idea of starting, though the jolting would necessarily increase his sufferings, for the Doctor would find on board the medicines he required for his cure.
They lifted him on to the sledge, and laid him as comfortably as possible, and then harnessed the dogs, including Duk. One final look towards the icy bed where the Forward had been, and the little party set out for the Porpoise. Bell was scout, as before; the Doctor and Johnson took each a side of the sledge, and lent a helping hand when necessary; while Hatteras walked behind to keep all in the right track.
They got on pretty quickly, for the weather was good, and the ice smooth and hard, allowing the sledge to glide easily along, yet the temperature was so low that men and dogs were soon panting, and had often to stop and take breath. About seven the moon shone out, and irradiated the whole horizon. Far as the eye could see, there was nothing visible but a wide- stretching level plain of ice, without a solitary hummock or patch to relieve the uniformity.
As the Doctor remarked to his companion, it looked like some vast, monotonous desert.
“Ay! Mr. Clawbonny, it is a desert, but we shan’t die of thirst in it at any rate.”
“That’s a comfort, certainly, but I’ll tell you one thing: it proves, Johnson, we must be a great distance from any coast. The nearer the coast, the more numerous the icebergs in general, and you see there is not one in sight.”
“The horizon is rather misty, though.”
“So it is, but ever since we started, we have been on this same interminable ice-field.”
“Do you know, Mr.