Make your own free website on

List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

order to relieve the tedium of our progress I requested
the Doctor to remove one of my teeth. This he did with
the greatest ability--a wrench to starboard,--another
to port, and up it flew through the cabin sky-light.

During the whole of that afternoon and the following
night we made but little Northing at all, and the next
day the ice seemed more pertinaciously in our way than
ever; neither could we relieve the monotony of the hours
by conversing with each other on the black boards, as
the mist was too thick for us too distinguish from on
board one ship anything that was passing on the deck of
the other.  Notwithstanding the great care and skill with
which the steamer threaded her way among the loose floes,
it was impossible sometimes to prevent fragments of ice
striking us with considerable violence on the bows; and
as we lay in bed at night, I confess that until we got
accustomed to the noise, it was by no means a pleasant
thing to hear the pieces angrily scraping along the ship's
sides--within two inches of our ears. On the evening of
the fourth day it came on to blow pretty hard, and at
midnight it had freshened to half a gale; but by dint of
standing well away to the eastward we had succeeded in
reaching comparatively open water, and I had gone to bed
in great hopes that at all events the breeze would brush
off the fog, and enable us to see our way a little more
clearly the next morning.

At five o'clock A.M. the officer of the watch jumped down
into my cabin, and awoke me with the news--"That the
Frenchman was a-saying summat on his black board!" Feeling
by the motion that a very heavy sea must have been knocked
up during the night, I began to be afraid that something
must have gone wrong with the towing-gear, or that a
hawser might have become entangled in the corvette's
screw--which was the catastrophe of which I had always
been most apprehensive; so slipping on a pair of fur
boots, which I carefully kept by the bedside in case of
an emergency, and throwing a cloak over--

      "Le simple appareil
   D'une beaute qu'on vient d'arracher au sommeil,"

I caught hold of a telescope, and tumbled up on deck.
Anything more bitter and disagreeable than the icy blast,
which caught me round the waist as I emerged from the
companion I never remember. With both hands occupied in
levelling the telescope, I could not keep the wind from
blowing the loose wrap quite off my shoulders, and except
for the name of the thing, I might just as well have been
standing in my shirt. Indeed, I was so irresistibly struck
with my own resemblance to a coloured print I remember
in youthful days,--representing that celebrated character
"Puss in Boots," with a purple robe of honour streaming
far behind him on the wind, to express the velocity of
his magical progress--that I laughed aloud while I shivered
in the blast. What with the spray and mist, moreover, it
was a good ten minutes before I could make out the writing,
and when at last I did spell out the letters, their
meaning was not very inspiriting: "Nous retournons a
Reykjavik!" So evidently they had given it up as a bad
job, and had come to the conclusion that the island was
inaccessible.  Yet it seemed very hard to have to turn
back, after coming so far! We had already made upwards
of three hundred miles since leaving Iceland: it could
not be much above one hundred and twenty or one hundred
and thirty more to Jan Mayen; and although things looked
unpromising, there still seemed such a chance of success,
that I could not find it in my heart to give in; so,
having run up a jack at the fore--all writing on our
board was out of the question, we were so deluged with
spray--I jumped down to wake Fitzgerald and Sigurdr, and
tell them we were going to cast off, in case they had
any letters to send home. In the meantime, I scribbled
a line of thanks and good wishes to M. de la Ronciere,
and another to you, and guyed it with our mails on board
the corvette--in a milk can.

In the meantime all was bustle on board our decks, and
I think every one was heartily pleased at the thoughts
of getting the little schooner again under canvas. A
couple of reefs were hauled down in the mainsail and
staysail, and everything got ready for making sail.

"Is all clear for'ard for slipping, Mr. Wyse?"

"Ay, ay, Sir; all clear!"

"Let go the tow-ropes!"

"All gone, Sir!"

And down went the heavy hawsers into the sea, up fluttered
the staysail,--then--poising for a moment on the waves
with the startled hesitation of a bird suddenly set
free,--the little creature spread her wings, thrice dipped
her ensign in token of adieu--receiving in return a hearty
cheer from the French crew--and glided like a phantom
into the North, while the "Reine Hortense" puffed back
to Iceland.  [Footnote: It subsequently appeared that
the "Saxon," on the second day after leaving Onunder
Fiord, had unfortunately knocked a hole in her bottom
against the ice, and was obliged to run ashore in a
sinking state. In consequence of never having been rejoined
by her tender, the "Reine Hortense" found herself short
of coals; and as the encumbered state of the sea rendered
it already very unlikely that any access would be found
open to the island, M. de la Ronciere very properly judged
it advisable to turn back. He re-entered the Reykjavik
harbour without so much as a shovelful of coals left on

Ten minutes more, and we were the only denizens of that
misty sea. I confess I felt excessively sorry to have
lost the society of such joyous companions; they had
received us always with such merry good nature; the Prince
had shown himself so gracious and considerate, and he
was surrounded by a staff of such clever, well-informed
persons, that it was with the deepest regret I watched
the fog close round the magnificent corvette, and bury
her--and all whom she contained--within its bosom. Our
own situation, too, was not altogether without causing
me a little anxiety. We had not seen the sun for two
days; it was very thick, with a heavy sea, and dodging
about as we had been among the ice, at the heels of the
steamer, our dead reckoning was not very much to be
depended upon. The best plan I thought would be to stretch
away at once clear of the ice, then run up into the
latitude of Jan Mayen, and--as soon as we should have
reached the parallel of its northern extremity--bear down
on the land. If there was any access at all to the island,
it was very evident it would be on its northern or eastern
side; and now that we were alone, to keep on knocking up
through a hundred miles or so of ice in a thick fog, in
our fragile schooner, would have been out of the question.

The ship's course, therefore, having been shaped in
accordance with this view, I stole back into bed and
resumed my violated slumbers. Towards mid-day the weather
began to moderate, and by four o'clock we were skimming
along on a smooth sea, with all sails set. This state of
prosperity continued for the next twenty-four hours; we
had made about eighty knots since parting company with
the Frenchman, and it was now time to run down West and
pick up the land. Luckily the sky was pretty clear, and
as we sailed on through open water I really began to
think our prospects very brilliant. But about three
o'clock on the second day, specks of ice began to flicker
here and there on the horizon, then larger bulks came
floating by in forms as picturesque as ever--(one, I
particularly remember, a human hand thrust up out of the
water with outstretched forefinger, as if to warn us
against proceeding farther), until at last the whole sea
became clouded with hummocks that seemed to gather on
our path in magical multiplicity.

Up to this time we had seen nothing of the island, yet
I knew we must be within a very few miles of it; and now,
to make things quite pleasant, there descended upon us
a thicker fog than I should have thought the atmosphere
capable of sustaining; it seemed to hang in solid festoons
from the masts and spars. To say that you could not see
your hand, ceased almost to be any longer figurative;
even the ice was hid--except those fragments immediately
adjacent, whose ghastly brilliancy the mist itself could
not quite extinguish, as they glimmered round the vessel
like a circle of luminous phantoms. The perfect stillness
of the sea and sky added very much to the solemnity of
the scene; almost every breath of wind had fallen, scarcely
a ripple tinkled against the copper sheathing, as the
solitary little schooner glided along at the rate of half
a knot or so an hour, and the only sound we heard was
the distant wash of waters, but whether on a great shore,
or along a belt of solid ice, it was impossible to say.
In such weather, as the original discoverers of Jan Mayen
said under similar circumstances,--"it was easier to hear
land than to see it." Thus, hour after hour passed by
and brought no change.  Fitz and Sigurdr--who had begun
quite to disbelieve in the existence of the island--went
to bed, while I remained pacing up and down the deck,
anxiously questioning each quarter of the grey canopy
that enveloped us. At last, about four in the morning,
I fancied some change was going to take place; the heavy
wreaths of vapour seemed to be imperceptibly separating,
and in a few minutes more the solid roof of grey suddenly
split asunder, and I beheld through the gap--thousands
of feet over--head, as if suspended in the crystal sky--a
cone of illuminated snow.

[Figure: fig-p121.gif]

You can imagine my delight. It was really that of an
anchorite catching a glimpse of the seventh heaven. There
at last was the long-sought-for mountain actually tumbling
down upon our heads. Columbus could not have been more
pleased when, after nights of watching, he saw the first
fires of a new hemisphere dance upon the water; nor,
indeed, scarcely less disappointed at their sudden
disappearance than I was, when, after having gone below
to wake Sigurdr, and tell him we had seen bona fide
terra-firma, I found, on returning upon deck, that the
roof of mist had closed again, and shut out all trace of

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: