No one answered, and the Doctor did not dare to guess his meaning; but Hatteras soon made them understand it, for presently he said, in a hurried, agitated manner, as if he could scarcely command himself—
“Friends, listen to me. We have done much already, but much yet remains to be done.”
His companions heard him with profound astonishment.
“Yes,” he resumed, “we are close to the Pole, but we are not on it.”
“How do you make that out,” said Altamont.
“Yes,” replied Hatteras, with vehemence, “I said an Englishman should plant his foot on the Pole of the world! I said it, and an Englishman shall.”
“What!” cried Clawbonny.
“We are still 45” from the unknown point,” resumed Hatteras, with increasing animation, “and to that point I shall go.”
“But it is on the summit of the volcano,” said the Doctor.
“I shall go.”
“It is an inaccessible cone!”
“I shall go.”
“But it is a yawning fiery crater!”
“I shall go.”
The tone of absolute determination in which Hatteras pronounced these words it is impossible to describe.
His friends were stupefied, and gazed in terror at the blazing mountain.
At last the Doctor recovered himself, and began to urge and entreat Hatteras to renounce his project. He tried every means his heart dictated, from humble supplications to friendly threats; but he could gain nothing—a sort of frenzy had come over the captain, an absolute monomania about the Pole.
Nothing but violent measures would keep him back from destruction, but the Doctor was unwilling to employ these unless driven to extremity.
He trusted, moreover, that physical impossibilities, insuperable obstacles would bar his further progress, and meantime finding all protestations were useless, he simply said—
“Very well, since you are bent on it, we’ll go too.”
“Yes,” replied Hatteras, “half-way up the mountain, but not a step beyond. You know you have to carry back to England the duplicate of the document in the cairn——”
“It is settled,” said Hatteras, in an imperious tone; “and since the prayers of a friend will not suffice, the captain commands.”
The Doctor did not insist longer, and a few minutes after the little band set out, accompanied by Duk.
It was about eight o’clock when they commenced their difficult ascent; the sky was splendid, and the thermometer stood at 52°.
Hatteras and his dog went first, closely followed by the others.
“I am afraid,” said Johnson to the Doctor.
“No, no, there’s nothing to be afraid of; we are here.”
This singular little island appeared to be of recent formation, and was evidently the product of successive volcanic eruptions. The rocks were all lying loose on the top of each other, and it was a marvel how they preserved their equilibrium. Strictly speaking, the mountain was only a heap of stones thrown down from a height, and the mass of rocks which composed the island had evidently come out of the bowels of the earth.
The earth, indeed, may be compared to a vast cauldron of spherical form, in which, under the influence of a central fire, immense quantities of vapours are generated, which would explode the globe but for the safety-valves outside.
These safety-valves are volcanoes, when one closes another opens; and at the Poles where the crust of the earth is thinner, owing to its being flattened, it is not surprising that a volcano should be suddenly formed by the upheaving of some part of the ocean-bed.
The Doctor, while following Hatteras, was closely following all the peculiarities of the island, and he was further confirmed in his opinion as to its recent formation by the absence of water. Had it existed for centuries, the thermal springs would have flowed from its bosom.
As they got higher, the ascent became more and more difficult, for the flanks of the mountain were almost perpendicular, and it required the utmost care to keep them from falling. Clouds of scorić and ashes would whirl round them repeatedly, threatening them with asphyxia, or torrents of lava would bar their passage. In parts where these torrents ran horizontally, the outside had become hardened; while underneath was the boiling lava, and every step the travellers took had first to be tested with the iron-tipped staff to avoid being suddenly plunged into the scalding liquid.