« ПредишнаНапред »
the 30th, they fetched Prince Charles Island, and the next day entered into Magdalena Bay.
We had then arrived at the end of our long and adventurous voyage: at Spitzbergen!
Spitzbergen is a country that lies farther to the north than the country of the Samoieds, than Siberia or Nova Zembla; it is an island veritably placed at the confines of the earth ; it is a strange place, of which very little is, in truth, known; for when I was in Denmark and Sweden, several persons, hearing that I was going to Spitzberg, asked me if I really intended ascending to the summit. The word Spitzberg, which means pointed mountain, led them into error, and they were thus induced to imitate the monkey of La Fontaine, who mistook the name of a port for that of a man.
Little as it is known, Spitzbergen has a master; it belongs to the Emperor of Russia, who has not yet made use of it as a place of relief to Siberia. Such an act would, at all events, be one of mercy, as here the exile would be sure to perish the first winter. In November quicksilver freezes, brandy is broken with a hatchet, and from 45 to 50 degrees of cold may be noted.
The greater island of Spitzbergen is in the form of the letter N, being penetrated by two deep gulfs, one to the north and another to the south. It has even been supposed that it really consists of two islands soldered together by a glacier, but the fact has never yet been ascertained. The bay of Magdalena is on the western side, confronting Greenland; it is surrounded on all sides by mountains of granite from fifteen to eighteen hundred feet high. Immense glaciers nearly fill up the spaces between the mountains, and they are said to have a convex form, whereas those of the Alps are said to be concave.
At the epoch when the French expedition arrived at Magdalena Bay, the brief summer of the Arctic regions had just commenced, and where our fair traveller expected nothing but gloom and silence, there was, on the contrary, a very great commotion, tumult, and noise. The ship was surrounded by floating ice, whose various forms and hues she dilates upon with a woman's prolixity. If we are to believe her, there were “clochers, colonnes, minarets, ogives, pyramides, tourelles, coupoles, créneaux, volutes, arcades, frontons, assises colossales,” and “sculptures délicates,' all in ice—a glossary of architecture ready illustrated.
The sea, bristling with sharp-pointed icebergs, was loudly agitated; the elevated peaks of the coast slipped away, detached themselves, and fell into the gulf with a frightful noise; mountains cracked and split open ; waves beat furiously against the capes of granite; islands of ice broke up with reports which resembled the discharge of musketry; the wind raised up columns of snow with hoarse moanings; altogether it was terrible, yet magnificent; one fancies oneself listening to a choir from the abyss of the old world, preluding a new chaos.
If the aspect of Magdalena Bay was not very inviting, that of the shore was not much more so. There was indeed no land visible at that timenothing but snow, save where the beach was sea-washed, and the scene there exhibited was not that which was most agreeable to a lady.
On all sides the soil was covered with the bones of walruses and seals, left there by Norwegian or Russian fishermen who used to come to manufacture oil
the in these remote regions, but for some years past they have ceased to do profits not counterbalancing the perils of such an expedition. These great fishbones, whitened by time and preserved by cold, seemed like the skeletons of giants, the inhabitants of the city which had just foundered close by. The long,
fleshless fingers of the seals, so like those of the human hand, rendered the illusion striking, and caused feelings of terror. I left this charnel-house, and, making my way over the slippery soil with precaution, I went on towards the interior. "I soon found myself in the midst of a kind of cemetery; this time it was really, relics of humanity that lay upon the snow. Several coffins, half opened and empty, had contained bodies which had been profaned by the teeth of bears. In the impossibility there was to dig graves, on account of the thickness of the ice, a number of enormous stones had been primitively piled upon the coffin-lids and around, so as to serve as a rampart against wild beasts; but the sturdy arms of the gros homme en pelisse the fat man in a furred robe-as Norwegian fishermen picturesquely designate the Polar bear, had displaced the stones and devastated the tombs; several bones were scattered about, half broken and gnawed, sad relics of ursine repasts. I gathered them together with care, and piously replaced them in the coffins. Some of the tombs had been spared, and they contained skeletons in various degrees of preservation; most of the coffins bore no inscriptions. On one, however, a friendly band had cut, with a knife, these words : Dortrecht, Hollande, 1783. A name had preceded the date, but it was no longer legible. Another sailor had come from Bremen; his death dated 1697. Two coffins placed in the hollow of a rock were in excellent keeping; the bodies which they enclosed had not only their flesh on, but even their clothes, but no inscription recorded either the name or the country of the dead. I counted fifty-two tombs disseminated in this cemetery, more frightful than any other, without epitaphs, without monuments, without flowers, without reminiscences, without tears, without regrets, without prayers; most desolate cemetery, where it seems as if forgetfulness twice enshrouds the dead, where a sigh, or a voice, or even a footfall is never heard; most fearful solitude ; deep, icy silence, only broken by the howl of the white bear or the roaring of the tempest ! I was seized with an inexpressible horror amidst these sepultures ;
the thought that I had come to take my place among them suddenly came upon me in fearful distinctness. I had been forewarned as to the dangers of our expeditioni; I had accepted, and thought that I understood its risks, yet did the sight of these tombs make me shudder, and for the first time I cast a thought of regret at France, my family, my friends, the fine sky, and the quiet, easy life which I had left, to confront the chances of such a dangerous pilgrimage! As to the poor dead men now around me, their history was the same for all. They were neither learned men who had been led thither by the love of discovery, nor curious men urged thither by the attraction of the unknown; they were honest Norwegian, Russian, or Dutch fishermen, who had come there to seek by hard toil, and amidst great dangers, a subsistence for their family. At first all might go on well; the walruses might be plentiful, the seals easy of capture; they were successfully hunted; oil was made on the coast itself; the great green ivory teeth of the walruses, so esteemed in Sweden, were shipped; they were talking of the value of their cargo, and of the profits and the pleasures of their anticipated return. And then suddenly, an unexpected cold would come on; winter would seize upon them when least expected, the sea would become firm and motionless around their little ship, and the way to their country would be closed for nine, perhaps for ten, months ; ten months in such a place is condemnation to death! They would be thus exposed to undergo forty-five degrees of cold in the midst of a perpetual night! What tragedies have not these soli. tudes seen! What must have been the agonies they suffered ? By what prodigies of courage and perseverance did man keep off from day to day that death which he yet knew to be inevitable? In what manner did he sustain that supreme struggle? At first they would keep to the ship, economising provisions, warming themselves with bear's grease, fish-bones, oil, and everything on board that could be destroyed without affecting the safety of the ship, for that was a sacred thing; man thinks of the future even under the most desperate circumstances, and no doubt each of these poor fishermen expected to see
accomplished in his person that rare miracle, a return from wintering in Spitzbergen. As the provisions became exhausted, privations would become also greater, and the Polar bear and blue fox, the only inhabitants of the islands, would be hunted with renewed zeal. Then one day, a terrible day, after the death of one of their number, after fearful sufferings, they would decide upon warming themselves with the ship; holes would be dug in the ice, a kind of hut constructed on shore, and they would get into and make themselves as comfortable as possible. At least they would have the satisfaction of warming themselves; but whilst the body was deriving a temporary satisfaction from the genial warmth, alas! the mind would be icy in despair ; that very fire was consuming their last hope-that fire was destroying the greatest force that Heaven has given to man. What remained would be the last struggle of the instinct of preservation against death, death being always victorious; one by one the little crew would diminish in numbers, and each of these obscure martyrs would be laid down in his turn in the icy cemetery where I found them. All
, thus, to the last : he, more robust and more unfortunate than the others, would have no friendly hand to tender him in his last hour and to preserve his remains by pious precautions; he would become the prey of bears as soon as he had breathed the last sigh, or even indeed so soon as he could no longer defend himself.
Pleasant contemplations these among the sublimities of Spitzbergen! The only excuse is, that they were of a nature fully calculated to awaken such. Everything was alike austere and repulsive : the climate was severe, the heavens were overcast, the land buried in snow and fog, the mountains were crumbling, the ice was breaking up, and sea and air were either sullenly or rudely agitated. Then as to what remained of life, it was nought but relics. Bones of the slain walrus and seal and the tombs of the benighted slayers !
The thought of a possible detention during a winter in Spitzbergen filled our fair traveller's mind, according to her own confession, for several days after these meditations among the tombs, and she soon discovered that she was not the only one who indulged in such gloomy anticipations, but which had really no foundation whatsoever, except in the timid apprehensions of those who entertained them. It was not likely that a French scientific expedition was going to winter in the Arctic regions. One morning she was seated on a gun, buried in a vast fur cloak, looking now at the heavens, and then at the sea and the strange forms that floated on its surface, when she heard her name pronounced by one among a group of melancholy French tars. Listening, she made out the following sentences :
“What an idea to have brought a lady with us! Are voyages like this des courses de femme?"
“Too true,” remarked another ; " and if we are caught by those fine crystals, as you have just explained to me, one may be quite sure that she will be the first
“Well, old one!” replied the first, “she will only show the way; we should soon follow her. True, we have a year's provisions on board, but we have no firing, and here there is not wood to light a pipe, whilst in winter the wind must blow pretty sharp, to judge by the dog days !"
“ And what a woman !" joined in another, in a tone of contempt; une femme pálotte, menue, maigrette, with feet like finger-cakes, and hands that could not lift up an oar; a woman whom one could break on one's knee, and put the bits into one's pocket
. If even she had been a woman from our parts. (He was a Breton.) At Ponant we have some commères who think nothing of hoisting a sail or rowing a boat; our women are nearly as good as the men ; but this one,
with her peaky Parisian face, she is as chilly as a Senegal parrot. If we are caught by the ice, she will die of the first frost, that is quite certain."
There was an interval of silence, during which each man relit his pipe; then the one who had spoken first resumed the conversation by way of summary.
“Well, at the best, it does not concern us; it is for those who were stupid enough to bring her here to get anxious. If we do winter here she must do as she can-she will have to do as all the rest do."
An old quartermaster now broke in upon the conversation, in which he had not hitherto taken part.
“Boys,” said he, “I am sorry for you, but there is no common sense in what you say ; what you, four of the best and eldest sailors on board, you have no more nous, can't see further than that? Upon one point I agree with you, they were perhaps wrong in bringing this little lady along with us, but the misfortune is for her rather than for us; for us it is, on the contrary, most fortunate, and it will even be still more fortunate if we have to winter in this cursed country than if we get out of it.”
“How is that?" exclaimed the sailors.
" It is very simple, and I will explain it to you. She is very weak, very delicate, is she not? Well, so much the better. It would be she who would go first if we were caught in the ice? Well
, so much the better. These are only so many reasons for making her precious to us. The most dangerous thing, you see, in wintering in the ice, the most difficult thing to avoid, is the demoralisation of the crew. Captain Parry relates that it was especially against the discouragement of his men that he had to struggle; he describes in his narrative how much more he dreaded the effects of panic than the rigours of the climate. Well, we shall have nothing to apprehend from such demoralisation if we succeed in preserving the life of this young lady; it will be said to those who exhibit signs of weakness, Come, are you not ashamed ? the cold is not so intense since a woman can bear it. So I tell you we must do everything in our power to preserve the life of this little lady ; her presence in the midst of us will ensure alike the courage and the health of the crew; and I know that the captain thinks just like me on that subject; he said as much to the first lieutenant the other day when walking with him."
“Oh! if the captain has said so,” unanimously joined in the group, "then it must be right."
Our fair adventurer was consoled after overhearing this conversation by the feeling that the egotism of her companions in travel would ensure such attentions as would retard her death as long as possible. Yet did she nevertheless look upon such a catastrophe as certain in case they were caught by the ice, in consequence of the indisposition which she felt, notwithstanding all the anxious care that was bestowed upon her. She was allowed the captain's berth, and, when giving it up to her, he had done everything to ensure its being warm and comfortable; all the holes had been hermetically sealed, the ceiling had been covered with reindeer skins, the bed had been heaped with eider-down; it was really more of a nest than a cabin, and yet, notwithstanding all these considerate attentions, she suffered from cold and could not sleep. The latter she, however, attributed not so much to the cold as to the peculiar circumstances under which she was placed, and more especially to what she designates as an « ultra-tonic diet !"
Our fair adventurer, it is also to be noticed, wore a garb which she declares to have been très-commode et parfaitement disgracieux-men's trousers, a middy's shirt of thick blue stuit
, a neckerchief of red wool, a black leather belt, boots lined with felt, and a sailor's cap, with no end of Aannel underneath all. She had cut her hair, which she had found it im
possible to keep in order during the passage, and when she went on deck she added to the mountain of flannel and other garments a heavy mantle with a hood, so as to reduce her altogether into a great packet without form or shape, except, perhaps, its rotundity : "additions and subtractions concurred," she intimates, “ to render her very ugly; but in such a place one only thinks of how to suffer the least possible from the cold, and all coquetting is misplaced.”
The recreation to be derived from researches in natural history at Spitzbergen were naturally very limited, and still more so to a lady to whom a search for marine animals would be next to impossible in such a climate. One of the most interesting points that presented itself to her contemplation was the coloured snow, which she describes as being at times of a pale green, or a pale roseate colour. This coloration, which is produced by the presence of minute cryptogamous plants, is the most striking vegetation in Spitzbergen, and it is vegetation in truly its most elementary state, even more so than in the form of lichens, because nature in her prolificacy develops it even on a transient surface. A few lichens were also to be met with on bare rocks, and a tuft of black moss occurred here and there in the valleys, like bits of dark moist sponge. There were also to be found, by dint of careful search in certain sheltered crevices, a few spare, blanched, struggling plants, their flowers bending sorrowfully to the soil. These were the saxifrage, the yellow ranunculus, and a white poppy:
They grew to about the size of lucifer matches. Polar bears and reindeer are said to abound in Spitzbergen, but whether it was not the season, or our lady traveller did not venture far enough away from the ship, she did not see any. Seals, however, were in great numbers; their quiet, confiding manners soon awoke an interest, and their look, so like that of rational beings, made it seem a crime to slay them. Only one walrus was seen, but they were said to be common on the southern shores. A few blue foxes were killed by the sportsmen : they were small, spare, and ugly. Their fur was massed and entangled, and their flesh was not relished.
A considerable number of sea-birds tenanted both the rocks and ice around, but our lady traveller asserts that, instead of enlivening the scene, they only made it more melancholy. These plumed denizens of the Arctic regions were, in her eyes, voracious, ferocious, quarrelsome, and noisy. Their cries were offensive, varying from a croak to something even more dismal. Some of the gulls complained like children crying, whilst others indulged in a kind of sardonic laughter. “ There is nothing in this sinister country,” she adds, “ for the eye to repose upon ; nothing charms the ear; everything is gloomy and miserable—everything, even to the birds !"
Thus is outward nature made the reflexion of a petted, spoilt, diseased imagination. To those who study the resources of a kind Providence, as manifested in its various creations, the razor-bills and foolish guillemots, the black-billed auks and lesser guillemots, with their silky plumage and strange habits, congregating on ledges of high marine precipices, sitting closely together, tier above tier and row above row, depositing their single large egg on the bare rock, yet without confusion, or the egg ever rolling off in a gale of wind or a rush of birds, alike present much that is at once interesting and instructive to contemplate. The black guillemot, known