Make your own free website on Tripod.com

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

line, more interminable, apparently, than the last. But
why should I weary you with the detail of our various
manoeuvres during the ensuing days? They were too tedious
and disheartening at the time, for me to look back upon
them with any pleasure. Suffice it to say, that by dint
of sailing north whenever the ice would permit us, and
sailing west when we could not sail north, we found
ourselves on the 2nd of August, in the latitude of the
southern extremity of Spitzbergen, though divided from
the land by about fifty miles of ice. All this while the
weather had been pretty good, foggy and cold enough, but
with a fine stiff breeze that rattled us along at a good
rate whenever we did get a chance of making any Northing.
But lately it had come on to blow very hard, the cold
became quite piercing, and what was worse--in every
direction round the whole circuit of the horizon, except
along its southern segment,--a blaze of iceblink illuminated
the sky.  A more discouraging spectacle could not have
met our eyes. The iceblink is a luminous appearance,
reflected on the heavens from the fields of ice that
still lie sunk beneath the horizon; it was, therefore on
this occasion an unmistakable indication of the encumbered
state of the sea in front of us.

I had turned in for a few hours of rest, and release from
the monotonous sense of disappointment, and was already
lost in a dream of deep bewildering bays of ice, and
gulfs whose shifting shores offered to the eye every
possible combination of uncomfortable scenery, without
possible issue,--when "a voice in my dreaming ear"
shouted "LAND!" and I awoke to its reality. I need not
tell you in what double quick time I tumbled up the
companion, or with what greediness I feasted my eyes on
that longed-for view,--the only sight--as I then thought--we
were ever destined to enjoy of the mountains of Spitzbergen!

The whole heaven was overcast with a dark mantle of
tempestuous clouds, that stretched down in umbrella-like
points towards the horizon, leaving a clear space between
their edge and the sea, illuminated by the sinister
brilliancy of the iceblink. In an easterly direction,
this belt of unclouded atmosphere was etherealized to an
indescribable transparency, and up into it there gradually
grew--above the dingy line of starboard ice--a forest of
thin lilac peaks, so faint, so pale, that had it not been
for the gem-like distinctness of their outline, one could
have deemed them as unsubstantial as the spires of
fairy-land. The beautiful vision proved only too transient;
in one short half hour mist and cloud had blotted it all
out, while a fresh barrier of ice compelled us to turn
our backs on the very land we were striving to reach.

Although we were certainly upwards of sixty miles distant
from the land when the Spitzbergen hills were first
observed, the intervening space seemed infinitely less;
but in these high latitudes the eye is constantly liable
to be deceived in the estimate it forms of distances.
Often, from some change suddenly taking place in the
state of the atmosphere, the land you approach will appear
even to RECEDE; and on one occasion, an honest skipper--one
of the most valiant and enterprising mariners of his
day--actually turned back, because, after sailing for
several hours with a fair wind towards the land, and
finding himself no nearer to it than at first, he concluded
that some loadstone rock beneath the sea must have
attracted the keel of his ship, and kept her stationary.

The next five days were spent in a continual struggle
with the ice. On referring to our log, I see nothing but
a repetition of the same monotonous observations.

"July 31st.--Wind W. by S.--Courses sundry to clear ice."

"Ice very thick."

"These twenty-four hours picking our way through ice."

"August 1st.--Wind W.--courses variable--foggy--continually
among ice these twenty-four hours."

And in Fitz's diary, the discouraging state of the weather
is still more pithily expressed:--

"August 2nd.--Head wind--sailing westward--large hummocks
of ice ahead, and on port bow, i.e. to the westward--hope
we may be able to push through. In evening, ice gets
thicker; we still hold on--fog comes on--ice getting
thicker--wind freshens--we can get no farther--ice impass-
able, no room to tack--struck the ice several times--
obliged to sail S. and W.--things look very shady."

Sometimes we were on the point of despairing altogether,
then a plausible opening would show itself as if leading
towards the land, and we would be tempted to run down it
until we found the field become so closely packed, that
it was with great difficulty we could get the vessel
round,--and only then at the expense of collisions, which
made the little craft shiver from stem to stern. Then a
fog would come on--so thick, you could almost cut it
like a cheese, and thus render the sailing among the
loose ice very critical indeed then it would fall dead
calm, and leave us, hours together, muffled in mist, with
no other employment than chess or hopscotch. It was during
one of those intervals of quiet that I executed the
annexed work of art, which is intended to represent
Sigurdr, in the act of meditating a complicated gambit
for the Doctor's benefit.

About this period Wilson culminated. Ever since leaving
Bear Island he had been keeping a carnival of grief in
the pantry, until the cook became almost half-witted by
reason of his Jeremiads. Yet I must not give you the
impression that the poor fellow was the least wanting in
PLUCK--far from it.  Surely it requires the highest order
of courage to anticipate every species of disaster every
moment of the day, and yet to meet the impending fate
like a man--as he did. Was it his fault that fate was
not equally ready to meet him? HIS share of the business
was always done: he was ever prepared for the worst; but
the most critical circumstances never disturbed the
gravity of his carriage, and the fact of our being destined
to go to the bottom before tea-time would not have caused
him to lay out the dinner-table a whit less symmetrically.
Still, I own, the style of his service was slightly
depressing. He laid out my clean shirt of a morning as
if it had been a shroud; and cleaned my boots as though
for a man ON HIS LAST LEGS. The fact is, he was imaginative
and atrabilious,--contemplating life through a medium of
the colour of his own complexion.

This was the cheerful kind of report he used invariably
to bring me of a morning. Coming to the side of my cot
with the air of a man announcing the stroke of doomsday,
he used to say, or rather, TOLL--

"Seven o'clock, my Lord!"

"Very well; how's the wind?"

"Dead ahead, my Lord--DEAD!"

"How many points is she off her course?"

"Four points, my Lord--full four points!" (Four points
being as much as she could be.)

"Is it pretty clear? eh! Wilson?"

"--Can't see your hand, my Lord!--can't see your hand!"

"Much ice in sight?"

"--Ice all round, my Lord--ice a-all ro-ound!"--and so
exit, sighing deeply over my trousers.

Yet it was immediately after one of these unpromising
announcements, that for the first time matters began to
look a little brighter. The preceding four-and-twenty
hours we had remained enveloped in a cold and dismal fog.
But on coming on deck, I found the sky had already begun
to clear; and although there was ice as far as the eye
could see on either side of us, in front a narrow passage
showed itself across a patch of loose ice into what seemed
a freer sea beyond. The only consideration was--whether
we could be certain of finding our way out again, should
it turn out that the open water we saw was only a basin
without any exit in any other direction. The chance was
too tempting to throw away; so the little schooner
gallantly pushed her way through the intervening neck of
ice where the floes seemed to be least huddled up together,
and in half an hour afterwards found herself running up
along the edge of the starboard ice, almost in a due
northerly direction. And here I must take occasion to
say that, during the whole of this rather anxious time,
my master--Mr. Wyse--conducted himself in a most admirable
manner. Vigilant, cool, and attentive, he handled the
vessel most skilfully, and never seemed to lose his
presence of mind in any emergency. It is true the silk
tartan still coruscated on Sabbaths, but its brilliant
hues were quite a relief to the colourless scenes which
surrounded us, and the dangling chain now only served to
remind me of what firm dependence I could place upon its
wearer.

Soon after, the sun came out, the mist entirely disappeared,
and again on the starboard hand shone a vision of the
land; this time not in the sharp peaks and spires we had
first seen, but in a chain of pale blue egg-shaped islands,
floating in the air a long way above the horizon. This
peculiar appearance was the result of extreme refraction,
for, later in the day, we had an opportunity of watching
the oval cloud-like forms gradually harden into the same
pink tapering spikes which originally caused the island
to be called Spitzbergen:  nay, so clear did it become,
that even the shadows on the hills became quite distinct,
and we could easily trace the outlines of the enormous
glaciers--sometimes ten or fifteen miles broad--that fill
up every valley along the shore.  Towards evening the
line of coast again vanished into the distance, and our
rising hopes received an almost intolerable disappointment
by the appearance of a long line of ice right ahead,
running to the westward, apparently, as far as the eye
could reach. To add to our disgust, the wind flew right
round into the North, and increasing to a gale, brought
down upon us--not one of the usual thick arctic mists to
which we were accustomed, but a dark, yellowish brown
fog, that rolled along the surface of the water in twisted
columns, and irregular masses of vapour, as dense as coal
smoke.  We had now almost reached the eightieth parallel
of north latitude, and still an impenetrable sheet of
ice, extending fifty or sixty miles westward from the

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >



Other sites:

db3nf.com screen-capture.net floresca.net simonova.net flora-source.com flora-source.com sourcecentral.com sourcecentral.com geocities.com