Courage, True Hearts: Sailing in Search of Fortune
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Then the men and the skipper himself lit their pipes, and lay down to rest for half an hour on the top if the sunlit snow. They would need all their strength and courage now without a doubt.
"Now, my brave fellows" – it was Talbot's voice that broke the intensity of silence, and a cheery one it was-"now, my lads, our motto must be that of the youth who passed in such a hurry through the Alpine village while shades of night were falling fast-Excelsior!"
"Onwards and upwards!"
"That's it, Duncan. As to the bold youth with his bold banner, I think he must have been somewhat foolish to start after sunset. Well, that was his lookout. Anyhow, we have a twenty hours' long day before us, so I must now give the word-March!"
And on they went.
On and on, and up and up.
No thoughts of singing now, however. The ascent was steep, and scarce had anyone breath enough to spend in talking.
But the brave young mountaineer Duncan, alpenstock in hand, was first, with Captain Talbot by his side, and a little farther down struggled Conal encouraging the men, and now and then helping to carry their loads.
These, however, were not very heavy. But the lightest burden seems a great weight when one is climbing a mountain.
It was one o'clock before they had succeeded in reaching an altitude of four thousand feet, and the worst was all before them.
Everyone was tired enough by this time. Tired and hungry too.
But while coffee was being warmed and provision tins opened, those not actually engaged at the work lay down to rest, Conal and Duncan, with the captain and the other carrier, among the rest.
The sun had, of course, crossed the meridian, but though still brightly shining, his rays were far indeed from warm or inspiring.
Moreover, although there was no wind on the great snow-plains below, here a breeze was blowing, and it needed not only food but the hottest of coffee to enable them to stand the cold.
They had now a much longer rest than before, and more than one man fell so soundly asleep that his pipe dropped out of his mouth.
"Now, lads," said the skipper at last, "let us put another thousand feet in it. Never say die, boys. Excelsior, you know!"
He did not speak loud. No need to; for the slightest whisper could have been heard in the silence around them, even a hundred yards away.
The silence, indeed, was solemn, awesome; a silence that could be felt; a silence that seemed to creep round the heart and senses, and which no one cared to break. Not even the light breeze made murmur, or even whisper, as it swept over the plateau on which they now sat.
But from their elevated situation the scene spread out before them was wondrous in the extreme. To the north they could gaze away and away over the far-off blue ocean, and to the east all was ice.
It was towards the south, however, that Talbot's telescope was turned, with so many longing, lingering looks, before he resumed the upward journey.
The Norsemen have a legend that around the North Polar regions-at the Pole itself, indeed-there is a great open sea; that green luxuriant islands dot its blue surface, and that thereon dwell a people who have never committed sin, but are still in a pristine state of innocence, just as God made them-"but a little lower than the angels".
Was Talbot expecting to gaze upon just such another open sea as this, I wonder? If so, he was disappointed.So he shut up the great telescope with a sigh. Higher up he would see further, however.
So the march was resumed.
And now for many miles, although the hill-gradient was not so steep, walking was infinitely more arduous, and every here and there they came upon a crevasse in the ice, which had to be bridged over at its very narrowest part by the plank. This was fearsome and truly dangerous work, for that plank was but narrow, and, moreover, it was impossible to keep it from being slippery here and there.
Talbot was ever the first to walk across that terrible bridge; but he was secured to those on the other side by the long rope; and so handy did this bridge turn out that they gained an elevation that day of six thousand feet above the level of the sea.
At this point they reached a perpendicular ice-cliff that rose sheer up from a narrow plateau to a height of probably five hundred feet.
It was found impossible to scale it, so they had to wend their way around to the west side of this mountain, so well named Mount Terror.
The day was now far spent, and so Talbot determined to order a halt, and after supper to rest till another day should break.
Except when cliffs intervened, they had hitherto been quite in sight of the ship, and could even make out her signals. But now a shoulder of the mount itself intervened, and for a time they should see theFlora M'Vayne no more.
But now a new surprise awaited them. For just here, on this side of the hill, they found a stream, or spring of water, trickling down the mountain side, and forming in its way a clear and wonderfully-shaped icy cascade.
It was caused by the melting of the snow, certainly not by the sun's heat, but by the eternal volcanic fires that were pent up in the mountain itself.
What could be more marvellous!
Strangely beautiful, too, were these frozen cascades, for therein could be seen every colour of the rainbow, all of radiant light. Beauties certainly never designed to please man's eye.
Alas! what poor selfish mortals we human beings are! Everything made for our use, indeed! The very idea makes one who has travelled, and who has seen Nature in all its shows and forms, smile. It is a doctrine that only your poor stay-at-home mortals can possibly put faith in.
Another surprise-a cave.
They venture fearfully into it, feeling their way with their alpen-stocks.
They have not gone far ere a low, half-stifled roar, from far beneath apparently, falls upon their ears. It is like the first angry growling of a lion ere he springs upon his prey.
They pause and listen. The sound is repeated, and they will venture no farther for the present.
But here, in this vast cavern, which, when lighted up by torches which have been brought on purpose-for Talbot had expected to meet with caves-its beauty is of so extraordinary a character that it cannot be described.
A great galaxy of shining pillars that are found to be some strange form of stalactite, emitting on every side more than the light and colour and glory of a billion of diamonds!
By torch-light they ventured somewhat farther on, until an awful crevasse interrupted their progress. So dark, so deep and awesome it seemed, that all hands drew back, almost in a sweat of cold terror. But it was apparently from the bottom of this fearful gully that the muttering noises proceeded now and then, and holding each other as they gazed far down the dark abyss, they could see tongues of lurid fire, blue, green, and deepest crimson, playing about. Yet no suffocating odour arose therefrom. Hence Captain Talbot concluded that some other outlet and current of air carried these away.
Retreating some distance towards the entrance, Duncan found a piece of rock, and hurled it towards the crevasse. The result was wonderful. The hurtling thunder was deafening, and the echoes came rumbling from every portion of the cave, and continued for many minutes. But whence, or why the sound of explosions, as if cannonading were going on in every direction? Not even Captain Talbot himself, scientist though he was, could give a sufficient answer to a question like this.
But this cave must be their camping ground to-night. So once more the big spirit-stove was lit, and they prepared to enjoy their well-earned supper.
Then they sat and smoked and yarned for quite a long time.
Nor did Talbot forget to splice the main-brace, and surely no men were ever more deserving of a dram, as Duncan and Conal called it, than the three brave fellows who had struggled so far up the mountainside with their heavy loads.
"This is not Saturday night, men," said the skipper, raising his mug of coffee with a suspicion of whisky therein, "but nevertheless I must propose once more the dear old toast: 'Sweethearts and wives', and may the Lord be near them."
"Sweethearts and wives!" cried all the group. Then caps were raised, and cups were speedily drained.
"And the Lord be near us too, this night," said one of the men. "Ah! little does our people at home know where we are, sir."
"Well, the Lord is everywhere near to those who call on him," replied the skipper.
"I'm sayin', sorr," said Ted Noolan, a light-hearted Paddy whom no kind of danger could ever daunt; "saints be praised the Lord is near, but troth it's meself that's believin' the d-l-bad scran to him! – can't be far away either, for lookin' down that awful gulch, 'Ted,' says I to meself, 'if that ain't the back-door to the bad place, it's nowhere else on earth.'"
But his superstition did not prevent Paddy from curling up on his rugs when the others did, and going soundly off to sleep.
Nor did the far-off muttering thunders of the dread abyss keep anybody from enjoying a real good night's rest.
CHAPTER X. – SO POOR CONAL MUST PERISH!
Duncan was first to the fore in the morning. He touched Captain Talbot lightly on the shoulder, and he awoke at once.
It took a whole series of shakings, however, to arouse Conal. He had been dreaming of his far-off Highland home, and when he did at last sit up and rub his eyes, it took him fully a minute to know where he was in particular.
Well, while the men prepared a simple breakfast of coffee, sardines, butter, and soft tack, the skipper and the boys left the cave and went in for as thorough ablution as was in their power at the snow-water rill. They felt infinitely refreshed thereafter; a large box of sardines, placed for discussion before each, disappeared almost magically, for bracing indeed was the breeze that blew high up on this dreary mountain.
And now, the sun being well up, climbing was resumed.
Only about two thousand feet more remained to be discussed, but this formed the toughest climb of all. For not only was the breeze now high and the gradient steep, but the cold was intense, while breathing was far from easy.
Indeed, although an ascent of ten to twelve thousand feet may not be considered a tall record for accomplished club-men in the Alpine regions of Europe, it would be a terrible undertaking for even those among the perpetual snows of the Antarctic.
It needed not only all the strength, but even all the courage that our heroes were possessed of, to finally succeed. For in many parts a single slip might have precipitated three of them at least into chasms or over precipices that were too fearful even to think of.
Indeed, several such slips did occur, but luckily the ropes held, and the foremost men, planting their feet firmly against the mountain-side, succeeded in preventing an accident.
The danger was quite as great, when steps had to be hewn on the sides of ice-rocks, and the labour in such cases five times as fatiguing, and happy they felt, on every such occasion, when they found themselves on a plateau.
"Whatever a man dares he can do!"
The grand old motto of, I believe, the clan Cameron; but many a man of a different clan has felt the force and the truth of these brave words. Both Duncan and his brother seemed to do so, when they stood at long last with their comrades on the very summit of Mount Terror, and on the brink of its terrible, though partially extinct, crater.
Who would venture to peep over into the awful gulf, which, by the way, Ted Noolan believed to be really an opening into the nether regions-the regions of despair?
Duncan was the first to volunteer. The others followed suit with one exception.
What a gulf! It must have been acres in extent, and fully one thousand feet in depth. The precipices that formed its sides were at times even black and sheer; in some places overhanging, and in others sloping so that one might have tobogganed down into the regions of perpetual fire. Not everywhere down yonder, however, were flames visible. It was more a collection of boiling, bubbling cauldrons, emitting jets of sulphurous smoke, the surface of the molten lava being continually crossed by flickering tongues of flame, transcendently beautiful.
Right in the centre was an irregular gaping mouth, and from this smoke now and then arose, accompanied by hurtling horrible thunders that made our strong-hearted heroes quiver. Not with fear, I shall not go so far as that, but no one could tell at what moment an eruption might take place.
To Duncan's waist the rope had been made fast, else he never would have ventured to lean over that awful crater.
It was the captain's turn next. Then came Conal's and the men's.
All but Ted.
"Is it me myself?" he said, drawing back, when asked to do as the others had done. "Fegs! no. It is faint I would entoirely, and faint and fall over. Bedad! I've no raison to go to such a place as that before my time."
Captain Talbot now proceeded to take his observations. His aneroid told him, to begin with, that the mountain was more nearly twelve than eleven thousand feet above the sea-level. Piercingly cold though it was, he took time to make a note of everything. But I should not have used the word "cold". This is far from descriptive of the lowness of temperature experienced, for the spirit thermometer stood at 40° below zero.
It was now four o'clock in the afternoon, and all hands were almost exhausted from fatigue. But Talbot was not so foolish as to give them stimulants. This would only have resulted in a sleepy or partially comatose state of the brain, and an accident would assuredly have followed.
"Now, men, we have seen all there is to see, and I've taken my observations, so it is time we were getting down again to our sheltering cave, in which we shall pass one night more. But we can say that we have been the first to ascend this mighty mountain, and human feet have never before traversed the ground on which you now are standing.
"See here," he continued, suiting the action to the word, "I place this little flag-the British ensign-and though storms may rend it, this mountain, and all the land and country around, shall evermore belong to us."
He handed the still-extended telescope to Duncan as he spoke and pointed to the south.
No open sea there! But the roughest, wildest kind of snow-clad country anyone could well imagine. Yet, far far away, the jagged peaks of many a mountain rose high on the horizon.
And now "God save the Queen", was sung, and the very crater itself seemed to echo back the wild cheers that rose high on the evening air.
Solemn and serious all must be now however, for although the descent would not occupy so much time, it was quite as fraught with peril as the coming up had been, and even more so.
The rope was constantly kept taut, however, on every extra dangerous position, with the happy result that they reached the cave in good time, all tired, but all safe.
The cold was not nearly so intense here, however, and in the strange and beautiful-nay, but fairy-like cave-it was almost nil.
Never did brave and weary travellers enjoy a supper more. So sure were they of reaching their ship next day, that they gave themselves some extra indulgences, and tins of mock-turtle soup were warmed and eaten with the greatest of relish.
They sat long together to-night talking of home in the "olde countrie", and many a droll yarn was told and many a story of adventure by sea and land.
Bed at last, if one may call it a bed, with only the hard rock to lie upon, and a rug wherein to wrap one's-self, curled up like a ferret to retain all the warmth of the body. For sleeping-bags had been left behind after all.
What though subterranean thunders roared far beneath them many times and oft during the night, they heard them not, so doubly soundly did they sleep.
There is always one thing to be said concerning adventures of a very dangerous character, namely, that though kept up by excitement, we may not be sorry to enter into them, and go through with them, too, like Britons bold and true, still we are rather glad than otherwise when they are over.
Our heroes awoke next morning, therefore, betimes, and squatted down to breakfast, hungry and happy enough. Would they not soon be back once more on their brave barque, to tell their comrades of all their strange experiences?
It is doubtless a good thing for us that we are not prescient, else thinking of troubles to come would cast a gloom over everyone's life that nothing could banish.
Little did these officers and men of the Flora M'Vayne, as they resumed their downward journey, know of the trouble before them.
They had reached the very last crevasse, and were in full view of the ship, although at least five thousand feet above it, when an accident occurred of a very startling nature indeed.
The plank was just thrown across and Conal had stepped on to it, roped, of course, to his fellows, when, to their horror, it slipped, and was precipitated into the chasm.
And with it fell Conal!
The skipper and Duncan had held the rope taut, but it snapped as if it had been made of straw.
Luckily, although the wretched boy fell sheer down only a distance of about fifty feet, the rest he slid on loose pieces of ice and snow.
On referring to the log-book of Captain Talbot, which lies on my table before me, the abyss or ice-crevasse is stated to have been about two hundred feet in depth. And there was no outlet.
Nor any apparent means of saving the poor fellow, for although his companions would gladly have hurried to the ship for assistance they could not cross that ice-ravine, nor could they retreat for want of a plank.
So, poor Conal must perish!
It was about two bells in the first watch, and Frank with faithful Vike was walking to and fro on the quarter-deck.
He had a telescope under his arm, and every now and then he directed it to the far-off mountain, adown which he had observed his shipmates streaming since ever they had arrived on the easternmost side of Mount Terror.
How well named!
So good was the glass that he could count them as he came, and even make out their forms. Duncan's was stalwart and easily seen, Conal's lither far than Captain Talbot's, and the men were bearing their packages.
He watched them as they approached the last dread crevasse.
With some anxiety, he could not tell why, he saw the plank raised and lowered across the abyss, and noticed that it was Conal's light form that first began to cross.
Suddenly he uttered a bitter cry of anguish and despair.
"Mate, mate!" he shouted. "Oh, come, come! There has been a fearful accident, and Conal is killed."
As if hoping against hope, both he and the mate counted the number on the small ice plateau over and over again.
There had been six in all.
Now there were but five!
And these seemed now to be signalling for assistance.
There was but one thing to be done, however hopeless it might seem, and that was to get up and despatch a party to the rescue as soon as day should once more break.
Had they been ready they should have started at once. But Frank had a good head on his shoulders for one so young, and in a matter of life and death like this he was right in considering well what had best be done.
Of course he consulted with the mate, and he immediately suggested a rope of many, many fathoms in length.
"Doubtless," he said, "poor Conal is dead, or if stunned he will speedily freeze to death, but we would be all unwilling to sail away and leave the poor bruised body in the terrible crevasse."
"Have we rope enough on board to be of real service?" asked Frank in a voice broken with emotion.
"Bless you, yes, my boy, fifty fathoms of manilla, light, but strong enough to bear an ox's weight."
"Thank God!" cried Frank fervidly.
There was little thought of rest now till long past sunset.
A plank of extra breadth was got ready, and the rope was coiled so that several hands could assist in bearing it along.
Provisions were also packed, and so all was ready for the forlorn hope.
The relief party now lay down to snatch a few hours of rest, but, soon after the crimson and orange glory of the sky heralded the approach of the sun, they were aroused from their slumbers.
Breakfast was speedily discussed, and now they were ready.
There was no hesitation about Frank Trelawney, the Cockney boy, now. He was British all over, and brave because he was British. His dearest friend, Conal, lay stark and stiff in that fearful ice-gap; he would be one of the first to help the poor bruised body to bank, ay, and bedew it with tears which it would be impossible to restrain.
It had been an anxious and sad night for those on the hill. They could until sunset see the wretched Conal in that darksome crevasse, and they did all they could do, for they made up a bundle of rugs with plenty of provisions enclosed and hurled it down.
Strangely enough, he could talk to those on the hillside, and they to him, without elevating their voices.
They bade him be of good cheer, for signals from the Flora told them that preparations for rescue were already being made.
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