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

the northern extremity of Iceland lay leagues away on
our starboard quarter, faintly swimming through the haze;
up overhead blazed the white sun, and below glittered
the level sea, like a pale blue disc netted in silver
lace. I seldom remember a brighter day; the thermometer
was at 72 degrees, and it really felt more as if we were
crossing the line than entering the frigid zone.

Animated by that joyous inspiration which induces them
to make a fete of everything, the French officers, it
appeared, wished to organize a kind of carnival to
inaugurate their arrival in Arctic waters, and by means
of a piece of chalk and a huge black board displayed from
the hurricane-deck of the "Reine Hortense," an inquiry
was made as to what suggestion I might have to offer in
furtherance of this laudable object. With that poverty
of invention and love of spirits which characterise my
nation, I am obliged to confess that, after deep reflection,
I was only able to answer, "Grog." But seeing an extra
flag or two was being run up at each masthead of the
Frenchman, the lucky idea occurred to me to dress the
"Foam" in all her colours.  The schooner's toilette
accomplished, I went on board the "Reine Hortense," and
you cannot imagine anything more fragile, graceful, or
coquettish, than her appearance from the deck of the
corvette,--as she curtsied and swayed herself on the
bosom of the almost imperceptible swell, or flirted up
the water with her curving bows. She really looked like
a living little lady.

But from all such complacent reveries I was soon awakened
by the sound of a deep voice, proceeding apparently from
the very bottom of the sea, which hailed the ship in the
most authoritative manner, and imperiously demanded her
name, where she was going, whom she carried, and whence
she came: to all which questions, a young lieutenant,
standing with his hat off at the gangway, politely
responded.  Apparently satisfied on these points, our
invisible interlocutor then announced his intention of
coming on board. All the officers of the ship collected
on the poop to receive him.

In a few seconds more, amid the din of the most unearthly
music, and surrounded by a bevy of hideous monsters, a
white-bearded, spectacled personage-clad in bear-skin,
with a cocked hat over his left ear-presented himself in
the gangway, and handing to the officers of the watch an
enormous board, on which was written


by way of visiting card, proceeded to walk aft, and take
the sun's altitude with what, as far as I could make out,
seemed to be a plumber's wooden triangle. This preliminary
operation having been completed, there then began a
regular riot all over the ship. The yards were suddenly
manned with red devils, black monkeys, and every kind of
grotesque monster, while the whole ship's company, officers
and men promiscuously mingled, danced the cancan upon
deck. In order that the warmth of the day should not make
us forget that we had arrived in his dominions, the Arctic
father had stationed certain of his familiars in the
tops, who at stated intervals flung down showers of hard
peas, as typical of hail, while the powdering of each
other's faces with handfuls of flour could not fail to
remind everybody on board that we had reached the latitude
of snow.  At the commencement of this noisy festival I
found myself standing on the hurricane deck, next to,
one of the grave savants attached to the expedition, who
seemed to contem-plate the antics that were being played
at his feet with that sad smile of indulgence with which
Wisdom sometimes deigns to commiserate the gaiety of
Folly. Suddenly he disappeared from beside me, and the
next that I saw or heard of him--he was hard at work
pirouetting on the deck below with a red-tailed demon,
and exhibiting in his steps a "verve" and a graceful
audacity which at Paris would have certainly obtained
for him the honours of expulsion at the hands of the
municipal authorities. The entertainment of the day
concluded with a discourse delivered out of a wind-sail
by the chaplain attached to the person of the Pere
Arctique, which was afterwards washed down by a cauldron
full of grog, served out in bumpers to the several actors
in this unwonted ceremonial. As the Prince had been good
enough to invite us to dinner, instead of returning to
the schooner I spent the intermediate hour in pacing the
quarter-deck with Baron de la Ronciere,--the naval
commander entrusted with the charge of the expedition.
Like all the smartest officers in the French navy, he
speaks English beautifully, and I shall ever remember
with gratitude the cordiality with which he welcomed me
on board his ship, and the thoughtful consideration of
his arrangements for the little schooner which he had
taken in tow. At five o'clock dinner was announced, and
I question if so sumptuous a banquet has ever been served
up before in that outlandish part of the world, embellished
as it was by selections from the best operas played by
the corps d'orchestre which had accompanied the Prince
from Paris. During the pauses of the music the conversation
naturally turned on the strange lands we were about to
visit, and the best mode of spifflicating the white bears
who were probably already shaking in their snow shoes:
but alas! while we were in the very act of exulting in
our supremacy over these new domains, the stiffened finger
of the Ice king was tracing in frozen characters a "Mene,
mene, tekel upharsin" on the plate glass of the cabin
windows. During the last half-hour the thermometer had
been gradually falling, until it was nearly down to 32
degrees; a dense penetrating fog enveloped both the
vessels--(the "Saxon" had long since dropped out of
sight), flakes of snow began floating slowly down, and
a gelid breeze from the north-west told too plainly that
we had reached the frontiers of the solid ice, though we
were still a good hundred miles distant from the American
shore.  Although at any other time the terrible climate
we had dived into would have been very depressing, under
present circumstances I think the change rather tended
to raise our spirits, perhaps because the idea of fog
and ice in the month of June seemed so completely to
uncockneyfy us. At all events there was no doubt now we
had got into les mers glaciales, as our French friends
called them, and, whatever else might be in store for
us, there was sure henceforth to be no lack of novelty
and excitement.

By this time it was already well on in the evening, so
having agreed with Monsieur de la Ronciere on a code of
signals in case of fogs, and that a jack hoisted at the
mizen of the "Reine Hortense," or at the fore of the
schooner, should be an intimation of a desire of one or
other to cast off, we got into the boat and were dropped
down alongside our own ship. Ever since leaving Iceland
the steamer had been heading east-north-east by compass,
but during the whole of the ensuing night she shaped a
south-east course; the thick mist rendering it unwise to
stand on any longer in the direction of the banquise, as
they call the outer edge of the belt that hems in Eastern
Greenland. About three A.M.  it cleared up a little. By
breakfast time the sun re-appeared, and we could see five
or six miles ahead of the vessel. It was shortly after
this, that as I was standing in the main rigging peering
out over the smooth blue surface of the sea, a white
twinkling point of light suddenly caught my eye about a
couple of miles off on the port bow, which a telescope
soon resolved into a solitary isle of ice, dancing and
dipping in the sunlight. As you may suppose, the news
brought everybody upon deck, and when almost immediately
afterwards a string of other pieces, glittering like a
diamond necklace, hove in sight, the excitement was

Here at all events was honest blue saltwater frozen solid,
and when, as we proceeded, the scattered fragments
thickened, and passed like silver argosies on either
hand, until at last we found oumelves enveloped in an
innumerable fleet of bergs,--it seemed as if we could
never be weary of admiring a sight so strange and beautiful.
It was rather in form and colour than in size that these
ice islets were remarkable; anything approaching to a
real iceberg we neither saw, nor are we likely to see.
In fact, the lofty ice mountains that wander like vagrant
islands along the coast of America, seldom or never come
to the eastward or northward of Cape Farewell. They
consist of land ice, and are all generated among bays
and straits within Baffin's Bay, and first enter the
Atlantic a good deal to the southward of Iceland; whereas
the Polar ice, among which we have been knocking about,
is field ice, and--except when packed one ledge above
the other, by great pressure--is comparatively flat. I
do not think I saw any pieces that were piled up higher
than thirty or thirty-five feet above the sea-level,
although at a little distance through the mist they may
have loomed much loftier.

In quaintness of form, and in brilliancy of colours,
these wonderful masses surpassed everything I had imagined;
and we found endless amusement in watching their fantastic

At one time it was a knight on horseback, clad in sapphire
mail, a white plume above his casque. Or a cathedral
window with shafts of chrysophras, new powdered by a
snow-storm. Or a smooth sheer cliff of lapis lazuli; or
a Banyan tree, with roots descending from its branches,
and a foliage as delicate as the efflorescence of molten
metal; or a fairy dragon, that breasted the water in
scales of emerald; or anything else that your fancy chose
to conjure up. After a little time, the mist again
descended on the scene, and dulled each glittering form
to a shapeless mass of white; while in spite of all our
endeavours to keep upon our northerly course, we were
constantly compelled to turn and wind about in every
direction--sometimes standing on for several hours at a
stretch to the southward and eastward.  These perpetual
embarrassments became at length very wearying, and in

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: