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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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than their hoof-prints in the moss, we returned on board.
The next day--but I need not weary you with a journal of
our daily proceedings, for, however interesting each
moment of our stay in Spitzbergen was to ourselves--as
much perhaps from a vague expectation of what we might
see, as from anything we actually did see--a minute
account of every walk we took, and every bone we picked
up, or every human skeleton we came upon, would probably
only make you wonder why on earth we should have wished
to come so far to see so little. Suffice it to say that
we explored the neighbourhood in the three directions
left open to us by the mountains, that we climbed the
two most accessible of the adjacent hills, wandered along
the margin of the glaciers, rowed across to the opposite
side of the bay, descended a certain distance along the
sea-coast, and in fact exhausted all the lions of the
vicinity.

During the whole period of our stay in Spitzbergen, we
had enjoyed unclouded sunshine. The nights were even
brighter than the days, and afforded Fitz an opportunity
of taking some photographic views by the light of a
MIDNIGHT sun. The cold was never very intense, though
the thermometer remained below freezing, but about four
o'clock every evening, the salt-water bay in which the
schooner lay was veneered over with a pellicle of ice
one-eighth of an inch in thickness, and so elastic, that
even when the sea beneath was considerably agitated, its
surface remained unbroken, the smooth, round waves taking
the appearance of billows of oil. If such is the effect
produced by the slightest modification of the sun's power,
in the month of August,--you can imagine what must be
the result of his total disappearance beneath the horizon.
The winter is, in fact, unendurable. Even in the height
of summer, the moisture inherent in the atmosphere is
often frozen into innumerable particles, so minute as to
assume the appearance of an impalpable mist. Occasionally
persons have wintered on the island, but unless the
greatest precautions have been taken for their preservation,
the consequences have been almost invariably fatal. About
the same period as when the party of Dutch sailors were
left at Jan Mayen, a similar experiment was tried in
Spitzbergen. At the former place it was scurvy, rather
than cold, which destroyed the poor wretches left there
to fight it out with winter; at Spitzbergen, as well as
could be gathered from their journal, it appeared that
they had perished from the intolerable severity of the
climate,--and the contorted attitudes in which their
bodies were found lying, too plainly indicated the amount
of agony they had suffered. No description can give an
adequate idea of the intense rigour of the six months'
winter in this part of the world. Stones crack with the
noise of thunder; in a crowded hut the breath of its
occupants will fall in flakes of snow; wine and spirits
turn to ice; the snow burns like caustic; if iron touches
the flesh, it brings the skin away with it; the soles of
your stockings may be burnt off your feet, before you
feel the slightest warmth from the fire; linen taken out
of boiling water, instantly stiffens to the consistency
of a wooden board; and heated stones will not prevent
the sheets of the bed from freezing. If these are the
effects of the climate within an air-tight, fire-warmed,
crowded hut--what must they be among the dark, storm-lashed
mountain-peaks outside?

It was now time to think of going south again; we had
spent many more days on the voyage to Spitzbergen than
I had expected, and I was continually haunted by the
dread of your becoming anxious at not hearing from us.
It was a great disappointment to be obliged to return
without having got any deer; but your peace of mind was
of more consequence to me than a ship-load of horns, and
accordingly we decided on not remaining more than another
day in our present berth leaving it still an open question
whether we should not run up to Magdalena Bay, if the
weather proved very inviting, the last thing before
quitting for ever the Spitzbergen shores.

We had killed nothing as yet, except a few eider ducks,
and one or two ice-birds--the most graceful winged
creatures I have ever seen, with immensely long pinions,
and plumage of spotless white. Although enormous seals
from time to time used to lift their wise, grave faces
above the water, with the dignity of sea-gods, none of
us had any very great inclination to slay such rational
human-looking creatures, and--with the exception of
these and a white fish, a species of whale--no other
living thing had been visible. On the very morning,
however, of the day settled for our departure, Fitz came
down from a solitary expedition up a hill with the news
of his having seen some ptarmigan. Having taken a rifle
with him instead of a gun, he had not been able to shoot
more than one, which he had brought back in triumph as
proof of the authenticity of his report, but the extreme
juvenility of his victim hardly permitted us to identify
the species; the hole made by the bullet being about the
same size as the bird. Nevertheless, the slightest prospect
of obtaining a supply of fresh meat was enough to reconcile
us to any amount of exertion; therefore, on the strength
of the pinch of feathers which Fitz kept gravely assuring
us was the game he had bagged, we seized our guns--I took
a rifle in case of a possible bear--and set our faces
toward the hill.  After a good hour's pull we reached
the shoulder which Fitz had indicated as the scene of
his exploit, but a patch of snow was the only thing
visible. Suddenly I saw Sigurdr, who was remarkably
sharp-sighted, run rapidly in the direction of the snow,
and bringing his gun up to his shoulder, point it--as
well as I could distinguish--at his own toes. When the
smoke of the shot had cleared away, I fully expected to
see the Icelander prostrate; but he was already reloading
with the greatest expedition. Determined to prevent the
repetition of so dreadful an attempt at self-destruction,
I rushed to the spot. Guess then my relief when the bloody
body of a ptarmigan--driven by so point blank a discharge
a couple of feet into the snow--was triumphantly dragged
forth by instalments from the sepulchre which it had
received contemporaneously with its death wound, and thus
happily accounted for Sigurdr's extraordinary proceeding.
At the same moment I perceived two or three dozen other
birds, brothers and sisters of the defunct, calmly
strutting about under our very noses. By this time Sigurdr
had reloaded, Fitz had also come up, and a regular massacre
began. Retiring to a distance--for it was the case of
Mahomet and the mountain reversed--the two sportsmen
opened fire upon the innocent community, and in a few
seconds sixteen corpses strewed the ground.

Scarcely had they finished off the last survivor of this
Niobean family, when we were startled by the distant
report of a volley of musketry, fired in the direction
of the schooner. I could not conceive what had happened.
Had a mutiny taken place? Was Mr. Wyse re-enacting, with
a less docile ship's company, the pistol scene on board
the Glasgow steamer? Again resounded the rattle of the
firing.  At all events, there was no time to be lost in
getting back, so, tying up the birds in three bundles,
we flung ourselves down into the gully by which we had
ascended, and leaping on from stone to stone, to the
infinite danger of our limbs and necks, rolled rather
than ran down the hill. On rounding the lower wall of
the curve which hitherto had hid what was passing from
our eyes, the first I observed was Wilson breasting up
the hill, evidently in a state of the greatest agitation.
As soon as he thought himself within earshot, he stopped
dead short, and, making a speaking-trumpet with his
hands, shrieked, rather than shouted, "If you please, my
Lord!"--(as I have already said, Wilson never forgot les
convenances)--"If you please, my Lord, there's a
b-e-a-a-a-a-r!" prolonging the last word into a polysyllable
of fearful import. Concluding by the enthusiasm he was
exhibiting, that the animal in question was at his
heels,--hidden from us probably by the inequality of the
ground,--I cocked my rifle, and prepared to roll him over
the moment he should appear in sight. But what was my
disappointment, when, on looking towards the schooner,
my eye caught sight of our three boats fastened in a row,
and towing behind them a white floating object, which my
glass only too surely resolved the next minute into the
dead bear!

On descending to the shore, I learned the whole story.
As Mr. Wyse was pacing the deck, his attention was suddenly
attracted by a white speck in the water, swimming across
from Prince Charles's Foreland,--the long island which
lies over against English Bay. When first observed, the
creature, whatever it might be, was about a mile and a
half off,--the width of the channel between the island
and the main being about five miles. Some said it was a
bird, others a whale, and the cook suggested a mermaid.
When the fact was ascertained that it was a BONA FIDE
bear, a gun was fired as a signal for us to return; but
it was evident that unless at once intercepted, Bruin
would get ashore. Mr. Wyse, therefore, very properly
determined to make sure of him. This was a matter of no
difficulty: the poor beast showed very little fight. His
first impulse was to swim away from the boat; and even
after he had been wounded, he only turned round once or
twice upon his pursuers. The honour of having given him
his death wound rests between the steward and Mr. Wyse;
both contend for it. The evidence is conflicting, as at
least half-a-dozen mortal wounds were found in the animal's
body; each maybe considered to have had a share in his
death. Mr. Grant rests his claim principally upon the
fact of his having put two bullets in my new rifle--
which must have greatly improved the bore of that
instrument.  On the strength of this precaution, he now
wears as an ornament about his person one of the bullets
extracted from the gizzard of our prize.

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