A few snow birds, however, darting to and fro announced the approach of spring and the return of the animal creation. The sea was still entirely frozen over, but it was evident from the open breathing holes in the ice, that the seals had been quite recently on the surface. In one part the holes were so numerous, that the Doctor said to his companions that he had no doubt that when summer came, they would be seen there in hundreds, and would be easily captured, for on unfrequented shores they were not so difficult of approach. But once frighten them and they all vanish as if by enchantment, and never return to the spot again. “Inexperienced hunters,” he said, “have often lost a whole shoal by attacking them, en masse, with noisy shouts instead of singly and silently.”
“Is it for the oil or skin that they are mostly hunted?”
“Europeans hunt them for the skin, but the Esquimaux eat them. They live on seals, and nothing is so delicious to them as a piece of the flesh, dipped in the blood and oil. After all, cooking has a good deal to do with it, and I’ll bet you something I could dress you cutlets you would not turn up your nose at, unless for their black appearance.”
“We’ll set you to work on it,” said Bell, “and I’ll eat as much as you like to please you.”
“My good Bell, you mean to say to please yourself, but your voracity would never equal the Green-landers’, for they devour from ten to fifteen pounds of meat a day.”
“Fifteen pounds!” said Bell. “What stomachs!”
“Arctic stomachs,” replied the Doctor, “are prodigious; they can expand at will, and, I may add, contract at will; so that they can endure starvation quite as well as abundance. When an Esquimaux sits down to dinner he is quite thin, and by the time he has finished, he is so corpulent you would hardly recognize him. But then we must remember that one meal sometimes has to last a whole day.”
“This voracity must be peculiar to the inhabitants of cold countries,” said Altamont.
“I think it is,” replied the Doctor. “In the Arctic regions people must eat enormously: it is not only one of the conditions of strength, but of existence. The Hudson’s Bay Company always reckoned on this account 8 lbs. of meat to each man a day, or 12 lbs. of fish, or 2 lbs. of pemmican.”
“Invigorating regimen, certainly!” said Bell.
“Not so much as you imagine, my friend. An Indian who guzzles like that can’t do a whit better day’s work than an Englishman, who has his pound of beef and pint of beer.”
“Things are best as they are, then, Mr. Clawbonny.”
“No doubt of it; and yet an Esquimaux meal may well astonish us. In Sir John Ross’s narrative, he states his surprise at the appetites of his guides. He tells us that two of them—just two mind—devoured a quarter of a buffalo in one morning. They cut the meat in long narrow strips, and the mode of eating was either for the one to bite off as much as his mouth could hold, and then pass it on to the other, or to leave the long ribbons of meat dangling from the mouth and devour them gradually like boa-constrictors, lying at full length on the ground.”
“Faugh!” exclaimed Bell, “what disgusting brutes!”
“Every man has his own fashion of dining,” remarked the philosophical American.
“Happily,” said the Doctor.
“Well, if eating is such an imperative necessity in these latitudes, it quite accounts for all the journals of Arctic travellers being so full of eating and drinking.”
“You are right,” returned the Doctor. “I have been struck by the same fact; but I think it arises not only from the necessity of full diet, but from the extreme difficulty sometimes in procuring it. The thought of food is always uppermost in the mind, and naturally finds mention in the narrative.”
“And yet,” said Altamont, “if my memory serves me right, in the coldest parts of Norway the peasants do not seem to need such substantial fare. Milk diet is their staple food, with eggs, and bread made of the bark of the birch-tree; a little salmon occasionally, but never meat; and still they are fine hardy fellows.”
“It is an affair of organization out of my power to explain,” replied Clawbonny; “but I have no doubt that if these same Norwegians were transplanted to Greenland, they would learn to eat like the Esquimaux by the second or third generation.