IT did not take the sleigh more than five minutes from the time of starting to traverse the belt of comparatively smooth ice. In fact, Leslie had hardly begun to increase the speed of the motors before Ranworth signalled for them to be switched off.
Leslie promptly obeyed, while Guy, acting upon previous instructions, applied the brakes, two saw-edged supplementary runners, which when in action transferred the weight of the sleigh from the smooth steel ones.
Having brought his charge to a standstill, Leslie looked out from the forward observation scuttle.
Although the temperature of the open air was twenty-five degrees below freezing point, and that of the interior of the cabin of the sleigh was hovering around sixty, there were no signs of moisture upon the glass, which had been specially treated to prevent the inconvenience of condensation.
The lad was now able to understand the reason for the unexpected halt. The sleigh was about to make a sea voyage across the forty miles of open water between the northern limit of the drifting ice and the island of Nova Cania.
Between the smooth ice and the sea a barrier of drift ice had piled itself up to a height of twenty feet. The irregular blocks appeared insurmountable, so steep did their visible face look when viewed through the cabin scuttle.
“Decapod!” ordered Ranworth, briefly.
“That lever, Guy; not too smart with it,” exclaimed Leslie, indicating a small steel rod on the after bulkhead of the engine-room.
Acting upon instructions, Guy slowly depressed the lever. As he did so, he became aware of the fact that the whole fabric was rising. The sleigh was no longer supported by the runners, but by four flanged wheels; each pair coupled in a fore and aft direction by a broad spiked chain.
Throwing the clutch into the lowest gear, Leslie restarted the motors. At a speed of two miles an hour the huge vehicle moved towards the icy barrier. The motion was decidedly uncanny. It reminded Leslie of the erratic waddle of a tortoise. The lack of speed in spite of the fact that the motors were purring at a high rate of revolution, seemed to irritate him. He felt inclined to let the engine “all out.”
Presently the sleigh began to tilt, the fore part rearing as the wheels encountered the stiff slope. Ranworth had chosen the easiest path, yet it necessitated a fifteen feet climb over a wall of ice, inclined at an angle of thirty degrees to the perpendicular.
Above the purr of the motors could be heard the crunching of the ice under the grip of the spiked wheels. Once or twice the vehicle faltered, then, recovering itself, slowly made its way up the steep incline.
Small projections of ice it simply pounded to a powder. Narrow fissures it bridged without any apparent effort, and although the crew had to hang on to the nearest support to prevent themselves sliding against the after-bulkhead, the lumbering “house on wheels” advanced with the ease of a fly walking on a ceiling.
Again Ranworth signalled for the motors to be switched off. The sleigh was now on the summit of the drift ice. In front of it lay the sea, the surface of which was quite twenty feet below the level on which the sleigh was perched.
“A tough job, Leslie,” remarked Ranworth. “Think she’ll do it?”
“She will right enough, sir,” replied Leslie, confidently.
“Of course,” added Ranworth, with a grim laugh. “But the question is, will she smash herself up in the attempt? There’s no checking her, remember, once she gets over the brink.”
“I’m willing to risk the dive, sir,” replied Leslie.
The boy had abundant confidence in the specifications and plans his father had made. Provided the makers had implicitly followed Mr. Ward’s instructions, the material of the sleigh was quite strong enough to resist the shock of a twenty-feet dive into the sea.
“And so am I,” added Ranworth. “At the same time, there’s a risk, and it is obviously unfair to keep all the crew on board when two will be ample for this occasion.”
Despite the protestations of Guy and the two seamen, Rogers and Payne, the trio were ordered to leave the cabin and take their place on the ice. If things went amiss, and the cabin walls were stove in, the sleigh would sink like a stone, without the faintest chance of escape for Ranworth and Leslie. In that case, Guy and the two men would be able to retrace their way on foot to the Polarity.
Leslie felt sorry for Guy, as his chum exchanged the comfort of the enclosed cabin for the bitter cold of the open air. In spite of his warm fur clothing, the keenness of the wind cut Guy like a knife.
With the deepest concern and anxiety, he saw the sleigh move slowly forward. At the very brink of the glacial wall it hung irresolute as the chain bands cut into the “rotten” ice. Then, tilting bows downwards, it toppled, and, like an arrow, plunged into the sea.
For several seconds the sleigh was invisible owing to the depth to which it had descended, and to the mighty column of spray it had thrown up on impact with the water.
Then, to Guy’s intense satisfaction, the amphibious invention reappeared, bobbing buoyantly upon the surface. He watched it anxiously. Seconds passed, but the floating sleigh showed no signs of foundering. It had survived the shock and was undoubtedly watertight.
Under the sharp stern the water began to churn. Leslie had coupled up and was running the “nautical” propeller. To attempt to approach the wall of ice under the action of the twin aerial propellers, was to court disaster.
Adroitly manoeuvred, the sleigh was brought alongside the ice. By means of a rope fastened to a crowbar, which in turn was wedged tightly in a crevasse, Guy and the two seamen slid down to the roof—or, as Rogers expressed it, the upper deck—whence by means of a hatchway they regained the interior of the cabin.
Once clear of the ice, the floating sleigh was headed northwards, the aerial propellers were brought into action, and at a speed of twenty-five knots the unique craft glided with a hydroplane-like motion over the waves.
Leslie was now at liberty to “stand easy.” There was no immediate or apparent reason why the motors should be stopped or slowed down during the sea passage, unless small floes, rising sufficiently high out of the water, were encountered. Then the danger would arise of the aerial propellers striking the obstruction; hence to prevent such a possibility it would be necessary to use the marine propeller only.
Ranworth’s decision to make use of the twin aerial propellers was determined solely by a desire to attain the greatest possible speed. In conjunction with the marine propeller, an increase of 25 per cent. in speed was obtainable.
“Going jolly well now, Leslie,” observed Ranworth, enthusiastically, as the lad joined him at the foremost observation scuttle. “‘Pon my word, you’ve managed to get a bit out of the motors.”
“They’re not going so badly,” admitted Leslie modestly.
“It occurred to me that we ought to give the sleigh a name,” continued Ranworth. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the word ‘sleigh’ is not sufficiently appropriate. What we have is really a combined cabin-boat on runners or wheels, or floating on the water according to circumstances. Hence, since she’s a sort of boat, she ought to be named, Now, what do you suggest?”
“It’s rather hard lines that the responsibility of giving her a name should rest with me, sir,” objected Leslie, laughingly.
“Subject to mutual approval, of course,” corrected Ranworth. “Now suggest something.”
“The Bird of Freedom,” replied Leslie.
“But she isn’t an aeroplane; she doesn’t fly in the air,” remarked Guy.
“Neither does an ostrich, but it’s a bird all the same,” retorted Leslie. “This craft is certainly a flier both on the ice and on the water. She is proceeding to the rescue of Mr. Ranworth’s brother and his companions; hence the allusion to freedom.”
“The ayes have it,” declared Ranworth. “The Bird of Freedom she shall be. But stand by, Leslie; unless I’m much mistaken, there’s trouble ahead.”
At about a mile distant the open water seemed to end abruptly. So far as the eye could reach, the horizon was bounded by a line of ice, projecting with comparative regularity to a height of ten feet above the surface of the sea.
Leslie quickly reduced the speed of the motors, then, disconnecting the shafting of the aerial propellers, allowed the Bird of Freedom to approach at a modest ten knots the hitherto unsuspected barrier.
It soon became apparent that the ice field consisted of a number of floes intersected by narrow channels, the width of which was constantly varying owing to the erratic motion of the whole extent of drift ice.
Had the floe been one continuous expanse, it would have been a difficult matter for the Bird of Freedom to scale the almost perpendicular edge. Even if she were able to, no good result would be obtained, since the intersecting fissures were impassable.
“Now, if we could fly, what a difficulty could be overcome!” commented Ranworth. “But since the Bird of Freedom cannot fly, nor swim under water, we must devise some other means.”
“Perhaps there’s a channel wide enough for her,” suggested Guy.
“Possibly; I’ll sound Rogers on the point.”
The Polar veteran, on the suggestion being put before him, resolutely shook his head.
“Too jolly risky, sir,” he said. “Not that I mind taking risks, sir, you’ll understand. You see, sir, it’s like this: the whole drift is ‘lively.’ The floes are all moving according to wind and tide. We might get her a couple of hundred yards in and find we’re done: then before we could get clear we might be properly trapped. An’ if this ‘ere packet got nipped, she wouldn’t stand a dog’s chance. She’d be stove in like an egg-shell.”
A continuous dull roar, as a thousand detached pieces of ice ground against each other, added weight to the sailor’s objections.
“Then what do you suggest?” asked Ranworth impatiently, for the plight of the men he was on his way to rescue was always in his mind. “You’ve had experience in these matters.”
“Yes, sir; in a triple-planked, heavily-timbered whaler, but not in a glorified band-box, if you’ll pardon my way of expressing myself, sir,” said Rogers. “Even then I remember quite well getting a nasty nip. Stove a hole in our port bow, but luckily above the water-line. The best thing to do, sir, is to sheer off and run a few miles to the westward. You’ll probably find the drift doesn’t extend very far; only a matter of an hour’s run.”
“Your advice sounds goods Rogers,” remarked Ranworth.
“Sure, sir, it always is,” rejoined the man, not from any motives of self-conceit. “I’ll allow you’ll find I’m right before another hour’s past an’ gone.”
Keeping within half a mile of the edge of the newly-encountered barrier, the Bird of Freedom maintained a steady, unswerving course. In order carefully to examine the ice for a possible passage, her speed had to be materially reduced.
Payne took the helm while Ranworth kept his binoculars upon the long, low-lying expanse of ice. Leslie and Guy, their work for the time being completed, took up their positions at one of the observation scuttles and watched the monotonous aspect of the Arctic sea.
Suddenly a column of water rose thirty or forty feet from the surface at about a hundred yards on the starboard bow.
In a loud voice that almost caused the two lads to start with alarm, Rogers shouted:
“There she blows!”
Then, realising his surroundings, the seaman added apologetically:
“Sure, I was forgetting myself entirely, sir; yon’s a whale, an’ for the moment I thought I was back on the old Sarah Ann of Hull.”
“A true hunter’s instincts, eh?”
“Don’t know about that, sir,” replied the imperturbable seaman. “All I know is that yonder a small fortune’s goin’ a-beggin’, and there ain’t a harpoon on board.”
“Hadn’t you better alter helm, Payne?” asked Ranworth. “We don’t want to try conclusions with the animal.”
“No need, sir,” replied the helmsman reassuringly. “They’re right down cowardly fish. They scoot like——”
His words were interrupted by the appearance of a dark, ill-defined object less than fifty feet from the port bow. The object resolved itself into the tail of an enormous whale.
Giving the water a blow that sounded like the explosion of a 6-inch gun, the mammal disappeared in a smother of foam and a violent upheaval of water that caused the buoyant Bird of Freedom to surge and roll at an alarming angle.
“Jolly good thing we weren’t closer to that fellow’s tail,” exclaimed Guy. “My word, what a smack.”
“A miss is as good as a mile, Master Guy,” declared Payne. “He’s off this time—sounded, we call it. It’ll be half an hour or more before he comes up again for a breather.”
Guy did not feel so certain about it after the rapid collapse of Payne’s previous attempt at prophecy. His doubts were soon confirmed, for a warning shout from Rogers announced the reappearance of the whale a couple of hundred yards astern.
“Well, of all the cool cheek!” he ejaculated. “Blest if I ever saw a whale do that before. Clap on steam, sir, he’s coming for us.”
The old whaler man was right, for the animal, possibly mistaking the sleigh for a mammoth after its own kind, was preparing to attack.
As quickly as possible Leslie coupled up the two aerial propellers, at the same time increasing the revolutions of the motor. With a decided jerk, the Bird of Freedom picked up speed and fled.
“Hanged if we are even holding our own,” exclaimed Ranworth, who with Guy and Rogers had gone aft to keep the pursuing whale under observation.
“We’re not, sir,” added Rogers calmly. “Can I have a shot at him?”
Ranworth assented. The seaman, taking a rifle from the rack, methodically adjusted the back sight. Then, unscrewing one of the two after scuttles, he rested the rifle upon the brass rim.
“Missed, by smoke!” he cried. “My own fault; the rattle of the scuttle did it. I ought to have known better.”
Again levelling the weapon, Rogers took good care to hold it so that it did not come in contact with the vibrating metalwork. This time the bullet found a billet in the leather-like hide of the whale’s back.
Infuriated by the pain, the animal thrashed the water with its tail and dived, only to reappear after a brief interval, and hold doggedly in pursuit.
“Can you get any more out of the motor?” asked Ranworth through a voice tube.
“She is doing her utmost, sir,” replied Leslie.
The whale was now within fifty feet of the after part of the Bird of Freedom. Owing to her light displacement, and small rudder area, the latter could not manoeuvre quickly, otherwise Ranworth would have attempted to shake off pursuit by a rapid use of the helm.
To him the situation appeared serious, especially as the small rifle bullet seemed to have no effect in bringing the pursuer’s progress to a standstill.
“Never fear, sir,” declared Rogers confidently. “I’ll get him properly plugged in half a jiffy.”
His rifle cracked as he spoke. More by good luck than good judgment the bullet struck the whale fairly in the left eye. Throwing up a column of blood-tinged water the animal dived and did not reappear.
“Your hour’s nearly up, Rogers,” said Ranworth, consulting his watch.
The crew had now gone for’ard again, and although the Bird of Freedom had traversed nearly fifty miles of water as she skirted the gigantic floe, no sign of an opening had yet presented itself.
The seaman merely shrugged his broad shoulders.
It wanted five minutes to the hour. “There’s a likely place, sir,” announced Payne, pointing to a part of the ice-barrier where, instead of ice ten to twenty feet of vertical cliff, the ice shelved towards the sea.
The Bird of Freedom was headed towards the spot. As she drew nearer, it became apparent to the crew that the ice did not slope so gently as it seemed to at first sight. Yet with a little caution and skilful manoeuvring it might be possible to draw the huge bulk of the sleigh upon the level ice beyond.
“Yes, it looks scaleable,” agreed Ranworth. “But we don’t know what is beyond. It’s no use if we find the ice is intersected by numerous crevasses. Easy with her, Leslie; we’ll bring up close alongside, and get ashore. It will be worth the trouble.”
Adroitly the Bird of Freedom was taken close in to the ice, and a couple of grapnels thrown ashore. Securely moored, the floating sleigh could be safely left for a brief interval, since there were no indications of a change in the weather.
Armed with an ice-axe, Rogers scrambled upon the shelving, slippery ice and proceeded to cut niches in the hard, smooth surface.
As soon as he had established a means of communication with the upper portion of the floe, a rope was thrown to him. This he made fast to the handle of his ice-axe, the after part of which was driven firmly into the ice. Steadying themselves by the rope, the rest of the party rejoined Rogers on the ice.
It was excessively cold. Coming direct from the comparatively warm cabin, the explorers noticed the change acutely in spite of their thick furs. Their limbs felt like lead, their faces were lacerated by the biting wind. To talk required a strenuous effort. Their exhaled breath, rapidly congealing, fell to the ground in the form of minute particles of ice.
On and on in single file plodded the five adventurers, bending as they faced the cutting northerly wind. Ranworth led the way, keeping a compass course, while, to make additionally sure of being able to retrace their steps, long scars were cut in the ice, pointing in the direction from which the party had come.
After traversing a mile, and meeting with no fissure in the ice sufficiently wide to impede the progress of the sleigh, Ranworth called a halt.
Sheltering under the lee side of a hummock, and huddled together for mutual warmth, the pioneers rested for a quarter of an hour. Hardly a word was spoken during the interval. The men were too exhausted, after stepping and stumbling over the rough ice and facing the biting wind.
Once more they resumed their slow march. Two more miles brought them within sight of open water. A passage had been found at the expense of hours of physical and mental exertion—a distance that could be covered in the sleigh in the space of five or six minutes.
“Best be getting back, sir,” said Rogers huskily, pointing with his mittened hand towards the north. “There’s snow falling beyond yon grey streak. Looks a regular blizzard.”
The seaman was right. Before the party had traversed a quarter of a mile of the return journey, the watery-looking sun was hidden from sight. The wind rose until it blew with considerable violence, moaning dismally as it swept over the icebound plateau.
Each man was now tormented with the same thought, yet none dared express himself to the others. With the sudden springing up of the gale, the Bird of Freedom was in danger. Should the grapnels drag, or the securing ropes part under the strain, the sleigh would scud rapidly along away from the floe. The explorers, without provisions and means of shelter, would be doomed.
Then, accompanied by a rush of wind that almost threw the jaded men on their faces, came the blizzard.