THE Polarity was rapidly approaching her destination. Her stokehold staff were working like niggers, while the engineers did their utmost to raise every possible ounce of steam.
However urgent had been the call for aid, that call was now even greater, for on getting within wireless range of Claude Ranworth’s apparatus, the Polarity’s people learnt that another misfortune had overtaken the explorers.
In spite of strenuous precautions, the dreaded scurvy had broken out, and five men had already succumbed to its ravages. In addition, nearly all the Esquimaux dogs used for drawing the sleighs had died from some unaccountable reason, and the explorers were compelled to shelter in snow huts at a spot nearly forty-five miles inland from Desolation Inlet.
Already the crew had donned their Arctic clothing, for the temperature was falling rapidly as the vessel reached the high latitudes.
Drifting bergs, some several hundred feet in height, were constantly being met, proving the Norwegian whaler’s statement that the ice was breaking up earlier than usual. There was no longer any night. During the whole twenty-four hours of each day the sun was visible, a pale, watery orb in a misty sky.
Just as Captain Stormleigh was congratulating himself upon having made a quick passage, the Polarity encountered a belt of fog. For forty-eight hours it was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. Speed had to be reduced to five knots, not on account of the possibility of colliding with other vessels, but with obstructions that are without means of indicating their presence—the dreaded “growlers,” or masses of ice showing only a few feet above the surface.
Icebergs, of course, constituted a danger, but their presence can generally be detected by a rapid fall of temperature, and frequently by the cracking and rending of the berg itself.
On the second day of the fog, Leslie and Guy had just gone on board after dinner when they heard the engine-room telegraph-bell ring. Quickly the engines were reversed, the two propellers throwing a cascade of white foam past the entire length of the ship.
For’ard, both the look-out men were shouting at the same moment, with the result that what they said was unintelligible to the officers on the bridge. Then, with a terrific crash, the foremast was shattered twenty feet below the truck, the broken spar with the crow’s nest attached to it falling upon the deck, together with a large fragment of ice.
Hearing the crash, but unable to see what had happened owing to the fog, the two lads groped their way for’ard, until their progress was barred by the dï¿½bris of the foremast.
Another grinding sound pierced the veil of mist. The Polarity, still forging ahead, in spite of the reversed engines, had run into an almost perpendicular wall of ice. Fortunately she carried but little way, otherwise the impact would have stove in her bows. As it was, the shock was sufficient to throw both lads to the deck.
Leslie realised that the ship was in collision, but he was still ignorant of the nature of the obstruction.
The perils of the situation were magnified by the grim nature of the surroundings, for if the Polarity had sustained a mortal blow the whole of her crew were doomed. It might be possible to take to the boats, but that would only prolong the agony. No human being could survive a lengthy voyage in an open boat in that Arctic weather.
As the lads were picking themselves up, Paul Travers bumped heavily into them. The second officer was on his way for’ard to ascertain the nature of the damage.
“It’s all right, sir!” he shouted. “She’s not making any water. The stem is twisted a bit, and the bow plates are slightly buckled above the water-line.”
Captain Stormleigh heaved a sigh of relief. He was a brave seaman, but the perils of a fog at sea he dreaded, more especially in the present case. Having escaped lightly this time, he decided to back astern for at least a couple of miles and lay to until the fog lifted.
“Berg astern, sir!” shouted one of the seamen, who was stationed right aft.
The Polarity, having hit a berg when travelling ahead, was now in danger of hitting another when going astern.
Again the telegraph-bell clanged. This time the ship’s way was more readily stopped, since her speed astern was barely two knots.
“How’s that, Captain Stormleigh?” asked a voice, which Leslie and Guy recognised as that of Mr. Ranworth. “If we are retracing our course, how is it that we missed this berg before?”
“Can’t say, sir,” replied Captain Stormleigh abruptly. He was but dimly conscious of the question; his whole attention was centred upon the perils that beset him.
Slowly the ship forged ahead, this time circling to starboard. Five minutes later came a warning shout:
The Polarity had attempted three different courses, and each attempt had been foiled by the presence of ice. Unwittingly she had entered a veritable trap.
“Mr. Travers!” sang out the captain.
“Aye, aye, sir!”
“Take a cast with the lead.”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
The second mate called to a seaman, who, armed with the “dipsey”—deep-sea lead—clambered on to the bow bulwark by the main shrouds.
The cast gave bottom at six fathoms.
“Great Scott!” ejaculated Travers. “There ought to be six hundred fathoms at the very least.”
“What does it mean?” asked Ranworth, when the second mate had made his report to the bridge.
“Simply that we are inside an iceberg,” replied Captain Stormleigh calmly, for now that way was off the ship his anxiety had considerably lessened. “There’s a wall of ice on three sides of us at least, since we’ve sighted it. There’s ice under us, otherwise the lead would give a jolly sight more than six fathoms, and there is, or was, ice above us, otherwise we shouldn’t have lost part of our foremast.”
“What’s to be done?” asked Ranworth anxiously.
“Grope our way out—if we can,” replied the skipper. “Unless I’m very much mistaken——”
His words were interrupted by a low rumble that quickly increased into a roar like thunder. Almost at the same time the hitherto calm sea was strangely agitated. A dull shock was distinctly felt under the ship’s keel.
“Berg breaking up,” remarked Captain Stormleigh, as calmly as possible, yet fear was gripping his mind. He alone knew the danger. The Polarity was almost in contact with a mountain of ice, which was on the point of toppling over. Every minute was precious, and a way had yet to be found to extricate the ship from her hazardous position.
Suddenly—owing to the disturbance of the atmosphere caused by the fall of a huge portion of the berg—the fog was riven asunder, and an awe-inspiring sight met the eyes of the two lads.
The Polarity lay in a deep narrow inlet. On three sides rose a continuous wall of ice, terminating three hundred feet above the surface in pinnacles of fantastic shape. From this precipice masses of ice jutted out at varying angles. It was against one of these unstable projections that the foremast of the ship had struck.
The opening by which the Polarity had, by a pure fluke, entered the ice-incircled inlet was now visible; a gap roughly a hundred yards in width at the surface, and two-thirds of that distance from the nearmost of the opposite peaks. It was this part of the berg that threatened to collapse next. The overlapping mass was groaning ominously. Should a slide occur, the Polarity would be hopelessly trapped.
Not only was the ship almost surrounded by the berg, but underneath her keel was a ledge of ice that was part and parcel of the floating mountain of frozen water.
Again a terrific crash announced that another fall of the ice had taken place. Evidently the slide was of great size, sufficient to imperil the stability of the whole berg. The waters of the inlet were violently agitated as the towering mass swayed.
The Polarity, lying broadside on and without way, in the trough of the waves, was in danger of being hurled violently upon the jagged cliff of ice.
Captain Stormleigh saw his chance and seized it. His sole hope lay in getting steerage way upon the ship, and making for the narrow outlet to the open sea. Ordering “Easy ahead, both engines,” he steadied the vessel on her helm. Beyond the gap, the fog-bank still held as heavily as before. In that pall of vapour other bergs perhaps existed, but in any case it was better to risk the perils of the fog than to be entombed by the overturning of the berg.
Slowly—ever so slowly—the Polarity began her bid for safety. There was a possibility that by this time the berg had tilted sufficiently to reduce the depth of water over the “bar” of the inlet, in which case the escape of the ship would be prevented. All, then, that could be done would be to take to the boats on a forlorn and almost hopeless dash for the nearest whaling station.
Wallowing like a porpoise, the staunch ship gradually approached the entrance. On her port side a massive ledge of steel-blue ice jutted fully fifty feet beyond the base of the berg. So insecure did it look that it seemed in momentary danger of breaking away and crashing upon the deck of the vessel. To edge farther away to starboard was impossible, owing to the obvious presence of a ledge of ice a few feet beneath the surface.
Leslie and Guy gazed spellbound as the masthead approached the overhanging ice. It seemed as if the stout spars must crash into the obstruction. Perhaps it was as well that the foremast had been partly carried away, for, as it was, the main truck missed the lower side of the ledge by a few inches.
A few seconds of breathless suspense followed, until the Polarity drew clear of the supreme danger and entered a wider and less obstructed stretch of water.
Even then the peril was not yet over. Not until the ship was in deep water, and well away from the dangerous berg, could her crew breathe freely.
Fifty yards farther on the vessel’s keel grated heavily. She had grounded upon the ice floor of the inlet. Yet her way still carried her forward.
The ice appeared to give under the grinding mass of steam-propelled hull, yet, after scraping along for nearly her own length, the Polarity began to hang up. The water was shoaling with considerable rapidity.
In place of the unimpeded motion of the ship in the open sea, was that lifelessness which seamen know and dread. The Polarity was no longer water-borne, but on the point of being hard and fast aground.
Captain Stormleigh knew full well that once the ship’s way was stopped she would never be able to get off again under her own efforts. He promptly telegraphed below for full speed ahead.
Under the action of the twin screws churning the water to the utmost capacity of the powerful engines, the Polarity scraped and ground her way for another fifty yards. Then, without warning, her bows dipped sharply, her whole fabric seemed to tremble as if on a balance, and, gliding with quickened pace, she slid into deep water.
“Look!” exclaimed Guy to his chum, as the Polarity drew away from the dangerous iceberg.
He pointed to a gently shelving part of the ice-mountain quite two hundred feet above the sea. On it was a large polar bear, standing with paws outstretched and neck extended as rigid as a marble statue.
“It’s dead!” declared Leslie. “Frozen to death, by the look of it. I wonder how it got on the berg?”
“No fear, it’s not dead!” said his companion. “You can just——”
The sentence was interrupted by a warning shout from some of the crew. The whole berg was in the act of toppling over.
Silently at first the mountainous mass of ice began to tilt. Then, amid an ever-increasing roar of the agitated water and the crash of detached pieces of the berg, the list grew more and more.
Even now it was a race between the toppling cliffs of ice and the ship, for the latter had not put a safe distance between herself and the berg.
The lads, even in the midst of this new peril, could see the now aroused bear, striving to run up the steeply shelving ice wall which a few moments previously had been almost level.
For a few yards the animal made good progress, then its massive paws began to slip. Struggling in vain for a foothold, the bear slid backwards with increasing speed till, like a stone shot from a catapult, its huge body was flung over the edge of the precipice, to disappear in a moment beneath the foam-crested waves.
The noise of the collapsing berg grew till it rivalled the crash of thunder. The sea, thrashed by huge fragments of dislodged ice, many of them forming small bergs, was churned into a heavy mass of foam.
The Polarity won the race by barely her own length as the topmost pinnacle of the iceberg struck the sea.
“Hold on, men!” roared Captain Stormleigh.
But his voice could not be heard owing to the ear-splitting crashes. Nevertheless, all hands clung on like grim death as a cascade of water, topped by a fringe of foam, burst over the vessel’s stern.
Clinging desperately to a life-rail, Leslie and Guy thought that the Polarity was doomed.
Buried ten feet below the waves of icy water, and almost torn from their hold, they knew not whether the vessel were plunging to the bottom or otherwise. Both lads were seized by a frantic desire to release their grasp and strike out for the surface. The water trickled down their mouths and nostrils, its very coldness lacerating their throats and causing them intense pain.
Then, as suddenly as they had been overwhelmed, the rush of water subsided, as the Polarity gamely shook herself clear of the giant wave.
Gasping for breath, Leslie took in the scene of confusion. Guy was sprawling on the deck, his hands still grasping a massive belaying-pin in the life-rail. To leeward, the water was pouring in eddying torrents through the scuppers, where five or six of the crew, swept across the deck, were lying in a struggling heap.
Amidships, about ten feet of the bulwarks had been carried away, while the two quarter-boats had been hurled from the davits and smashed to splinters against the battered engine-room hatchway.
Another and yet another wave followed in quick succession, each smaller than the one preceding, and although the Polarity was tossed like a cork, very little water broke on deck.
“Any men lost?” shouted Captain Stormleigh, after the immediate danger was over.
“No, sir,” replied Travers. “Bill Smith has fractured his thigh, and there are a few minor injuries.”
“We’ve come out of it lightly, then,” rejoined the skipper, “thanks to a merciful Providence.”
“We have,” agreed Ranworth; then, unbuttoning his fur coat and consulting his watch, he added: “And six precious hours wasted!”