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The Middle Savage Isles.—Glimpse of an Esquimau Canoe.—Firing at a Bear with the Cannon-Rifle.—A Strange Sound.—The Esquimaux.—Their Kayaks.—They come on board.—An Unintelligible Tongue.—"Chymo."
During the night following our bear-hunt a storm came on,—wind, rain, and snow, as before,—and continued all the next day. The tremendous tides, however, effectually prevented any thing like dullness from "creeping over our spirits;" since we were sure of a sensation at least twice in twenty-four hours. But during the next night it cleared up, with the wind north; and, quite early on the morning of the 11th of July, we dropped out of "Mazard's Bay," and stood away up the straits.
At one o'clock we sighted another group of mountainous isles,—the same figured on the chart as the "Middle Savage Isles;" and by five o'clock we were passing the easternmost a couple of miles to the southward. Between it and the next island, which lay a little back to the north, there was a sort of bay filled with floating ice. Raed was leaning on the bulwarks with his glass, scanning the islands as we bowled along under a full spread of canvas. Suddenly he turned, and called to Kit.
"Get your glass," he said. "Or never mind: take mine. Now look right up there between those islands. What do you see?"
"Seals," replied Kit slowly, with the glass to his eye. "Any quantity of seals on the ice there; and—there's something larger scooting along. That's a narwhal: no, 'tain't, either. By jolly! see the seals flop off into the water as it shoots along! afraid of it. There! something flashed then in the sun! Raed, I believe that's a kayak,—an Esquimau canoe! An Esquimau catching seals!"
"That's what I thought."
"Get your glasses, and come here quick!"
"What's that about Esquimau?" demanded Capt. Mazard, coming along from the binnacle.
"An Esquimau kayak!" said Raed.
"That so?" running after his glass.
In a few moments we were all—all who had glasses—looking off at the wonderful object, to see which had been one of the pleasant hopes of our voyage; and yet I am bound to say, that, in and of itself, it was no great of a sight, especially at a distance of two miles. But, considered as an invention perfected through centuries by one of the most singular peoples of the Man family, it is, in connection with all their implements of use, well worth a study. Indeed, there is, to me at least, something so inexpressibly quaint and bizarre about this race, as to render them an object well deserving of a visit. More strikingly even than the Hottentot or the Digger Indian of the Western sage deserts do they exhibit the iron sway of climate and food over habits and character, as well as physical growth and development.
The kayak moved about from point to point for some minutes; then shot up into the passage between the islets, and was lost from view.
"Suppose he saw us,—saw the schooner?" said Wade.
"Should have thought he might," replied the captain. "Must be a pretty conspicuous object out here in the sun, with all sail set."
"He may have gone to give news of our arrival," said Raed; "for I presume there are others—whole families—not far away. These people always live in small communities or villages, I understand."
"This may be as good a chance to see them as we shall get," said Kit. "What say for shortening sail, or standing up nearer the islands, and laying to for the night?"
"Just as you say, gentlemen," replied the captain.
It was agreed to stand up within half a mile, and so cruise along leisurely; thus giving them a chance to communicate with us if they desired. The helm was accordingly put round, and "The Curlew" headed for the second island. Half an hour took us up within a thousand yards of the ledges: the schooner was then hove to for an hour.
"A few discharges from the howitzer might stir them up," suggested Wade.
"We could do that!" exclaimed Raed.
Powder was brought up, and the gun charged and fired. A thunderous echo came back from the rocky sides of the islands. A second and a third shot were given at intervals of five minutes: but we saw nothing more of the kayak; and, after waiting nearly an hour more, the schooner was headed around, and continued on her course at about the same distance from the islands. A gun was fired every hour till midnight. We then turned in for a nap.
From this time till four o'clock the next morning we passed three islands: so the sailors reported. The high mainland was distinctly visible four or five miles to the northward.
At five o'clock we were off a small, low islet,—scarcely more than a broad ledge, rising at no point more than ten feet above the sea. It was several miles from the island next above it, however, and girdled by a glittering ice-field, the remains of last winter's frost, not yet broken up. Altogether the islet and the ice-field about it was perhaps two or two miles and a half in diameter. On the west it was separated from the island below it—a high, black dome of sienite—by a narrow channel of a hundred and fifty yards. Hundreds of seals lay basking in the sun along the edges of the ice-field; and, as we were watching them, we saw a bear swim across the channel and climb on to the ice-field. Landing, he gave his shaggy sides a shake; then, making a short run, seized upon a seal, off which he was soon breakfasting.
"We'll spoil his fun!" exclaimed Kit. "Bring up one of those solid shots, Wade. We've got two bear-skins; but we shall want one apiece. I propose to have an overcoat next winter out of that fellow's hide."
The howitzer was loaded with the six-pound iron ball. Kit undertook to do the shooting this time. The distance was, we judged, somewhere from three-fourths of a mile to a mile. The rest of us got our glasses, and went back toward the stern to watch the effect of the shot. Of course it is hap-hazard work, firing at so small an object at so great a distance, with a cannon, from the deck of a vessel in motion. Nevertheless Kit made quite a show of elevating the gun and getting the range. Presently he touched off. The first we saw of the shot was its striking on the ice-field at a long distance short of the bear. The bits of ice flew up smartly, and the ball must have ricochetted; for we saw the ice fly up again quite near the bear, and then at another point beyond him. It probably went over him at no great height. The creature paused from his bloody feast, looked round, and then ran off a few rods, and stood sniffing for some moments, but soon came back to the seal. Whether it was the report, or the noise of the ball whirring over, which had startled him, was not very evident.
"Not an overcoat!" laughed Raed.
"It's my turn now," said I, uncovering my smaller cannon. "I'll make the next bid for that overcoat."
I put in a little less than half a gill of powder this time, and wrapped a thin patch round the ball to make it fit tightly. It was all we could do to drive it down. The gun was then capped and cocked. I moved the screw to elevate it about an inch, and, watching my chance as the schooner heaved, let drive. But the bear kept on eating. There was a general laugh.
"Didn't even notice you!" cried Kit. "I can overbid that!"—taking up the powder to reload the howitzer.
"Not before I bid again," said I.
And at it we went to see who would get loaded first to get the next shot. But, my gun being so much the smaller and more easily handled, I had my ball down before Kit had his powder-wad rammed. The rest stood clapping and cheering us. Hastily priming the tube, I whipped on a cap, then beckoned to old Trull.
"Here," said I, "shoot that bear for me!"
The old salt chuckled, and had his eye to the piece immediately. I snatched up my glass. Kit paused to see the result. The old man pulled the trigger. There was a moment's hush, then a great "Hurrah!" The bear had jumped up, and, whirling partly round, ran off across the ice-field roaring, we fancied; for he had his mouth open, and snapping round to his flanks. He had been grazed, if nothing more. With the glass we could detect blood on his white coat.
"He's hit!" said I. "Let's bear up into the channel: that'll stop him from getting back to the high islands. We can then hunt him at leisure on the ice-field. He won't care to swim clean up to the"—
"Hark!" exclaimed Raed suddenly. "What's that noise?"
We all listened.
It was a noise not greatly unlike the faint, distant cawing and hawing of a vast flock of crows as they sometimes congregate in autumn.
"It's some sort of water-fowl clanging out there about the high islands," said I.
Again it rose, borne on the wind,—"Ta-yar-r-r! ta-yar-r-r! ta-yar-r-r!" Had we been at home, I should have taken it for a distant mass-meeting cheering the result of the presidential election, or perhaps the presidential nomination at the convention. It had a peculiarly barbarous, reckless sound, which was not wholly unfamiliar. But up here in Hudson Straits we were at a loss how to account for it.
"I believe it's the Huskies," said the captain. "Take a good look all around with your glasses."
We ran our eyes over the islands. They looked bare of any thing like an Esquimau convention. Presently Kit uttered an exclamation.
"Why, just turn your glass off to the main, beyond the islands; right over the ice-field; on that lofty brown headland that juts out from the main! There they are!"
There they were, sure enough,—a grimy, bare-headed crowd, swinging their arms, and gesticulating wildly. It could not have been less than five miles; but the faint "Ta-yar-r-r!" still came to our ears.
"Suppose they are calling to us?" cried Raed.
"Yes; looks like that," replied the captain.
"Heard the guns, you see," said Kit; "those we fired at the bear."
"Port the helm!" ordered the captain. "We'll beat up through this channel to the north side of the ice-field."
"Perhaps we had best not go up too near them at first," remarked Raed, "till we find out what sort of folks they are."
"No: two miles will be near enough. They will come off to us,—as many of them as we shall want on board at one time, I dare say."
The schooner bore up through the channel, and wore along the ice-field on the north side at a distance of a few hundred yards from it. We saw the bear running off round to the south-east side to keep away from us; though, as may readily be supposed, our attention was mainly directed to the strange people on the headland, whose discordant cries and shouts could now be plainly heard. We could see them running down to the shore; and immediately a score of canoes shot out, and came paddling towards us.
"You don't doubt that their coming off is from friendly motives, captain?" Kit asked.
"Still forty or fifty stout fellows might give us our hands full, if they were ill-disposed," remarked Wade.
"That's a fact," admitted the captain; "though I don't believe they would attempt any thing of the sort."
"Well, there is no harm in being well armed," said Raed. "Kit, you and Wash get up half a dozen of the muskets, and load them. Fix the bayonets on them too. Wade and I will load the howitzer and the mighty rifle. And, captain, I don't believe we had better have more than a dozen of them on board at one time till we know them better."
"That may be as well," replied Capt. Mazard. "It will be unpleasant having too many of them aboard at once, anyway. And, in order to have the deck under our thumb a little more, I am going to station two of the sailors with muskets, as a guard, near the man at the wheel, another amidships, and two more forward."
Meanwhile the kayaks were approaching, a whole school of them, shouting and racing with each other. Such a barbaric din! The crowd on the shore added their distant shouts.
"There's another thing we must look out for," remarked the captain. "These folks are said to be a little thievish. It will be well enough to put loose small articles out of sight."
Hastily perfecting our arrangements, we provided ourselves each with a musket, and were ready for our strange visitors. They came paddling up, one to a canoe. Their paddles had blades at each end, and were used on either side alternately, with a queer windmill sort of movement.
"Twenty-seven of them," said Kit.
"Bareheaded, every mother's son of them!" exclaimed Weymouth.
"Only look at the long-haired mokes!" laughed Donovan.
"Why, they're black as Palmleaf!" cried Hobbs.
"Oh, no! not nearly so black," said Bonney. "Just a good square dirt-color."
This last comparison was not far from correct. The Esquimaux are, as a matter of fact, considerably darker than the red Indians of the United States. They are not reddish: they are brown, to which grease and dinginess add not a little. On they came till within fifty yards; when all drew up on a sudden, and sat regarding us in something like silence. Perhaps our bayonets, with the sunlight flashing on them, may have filled them with a momentary suspicion of danger. Seeing this, we waved our arms to them, beckoning them to approach. While examining the relics of a past age,—the stone axes, arrow-heads, and maces,—I have often pictured in fancy the barbarous habits, the wild visages, and harsh accents, of prehistoric races,—races living away back at the time when men were just rising above the brute. In the wild semi-brutish shouts and gesticulations which followed our own gesture of friendliness I seemed to hear and see these wild fancies verified,—verified in a manner I had not supposed it possible to be observed in this age. And yet here were primitive savages apparently, not fifteen hundred miles in a direct course from our own enlightened city of Boston, where, as we honestly believe, we have the cream (some of it, at least) of the world's civilization. Reflect on this fact, ye who think the whole earth almost ready for the reign of scientific righteousness!
Such an unblessed discord! such a cry of pristine savagery! They came darting up alongside, their great fat, flat, greasy faces, with their little sharp black eyes, looking up to us full of confidence and twinkling with expectation of good bargains.
During our voyage we had got out of our books quite a number of Esquimaux words with their English meanings; but these fellows gabbled so fast, so shockingly indistinct, and ran every thing together so, that we could not gain the slightest idea of what they were saying, further than by the word "chymo," which, as we had previously learned, meant trade, or barter. But they had nothing with them to trade off to us, save their kayaks, paddles, and harpoons.
"But let's get a lot of them up here where we can see them," said Wade.
We now made signs for them to climb on deck; and immediately half a dozen of them stood up, and, with a spring, caught hold of the rail, and came clambering up, leaving their canoes to float about at random. Five—seven—eleven—thirteen—came scratching over.
"There, that'll do for one dose," said Raed.
Kit and Wade stepped along, and thrust out their muskets to stop the stream. One little fellow, however, had got half up: so they let him nig in, making fourteen in all. Three or four more had tried to get up near the stern; but Weymouth and Don, who were on duty there, rapped their knuckles gently, as a reminder to let go and drop back into their kayaks, which they did without grumbling. Indeed, they seemed singularly inoffensive; and, come to get them on deck, they were "little fellows,"—not so tall as we boys even by a whole head. They were pretty thick and stout, however, and had remarkably large heads and faces. I do not think the tallest of them was much, if any, over five feet. Donovan, who was about six feet, looked like a giant beside them. They stood huddled together, looking just a little wistful at being cut off from their fellows, and casting fearful glances at Guard, who stood barking excitedly at them from the companion-way. Though used to dogs, they had very likely never seen a jet-black Newfoundland before. Possibly they mistook him for some different animal.
"What are we thinking of," exclaimed Raed, "with our guns and bayonets! Why, these little chaps look the very embodiment of good nature! Here they trust themselves among us without so much as a stick in their hands; while we've got out all our deadly weapons! Let's let the rest of them come up if they want to."
Kit and Wade stood back, and beckoned to the others: whereat they all came climbing up, save one, who stayed, apparently, to look out for the empty kayaks, which were floating about. They brought rather strong odors of smoke and greasy manginess; but more good-natured faces I never saw.
"My eye! but aren't they flabby fat!" exclaimed Hobbs.
"That comes of drinking seal and whale oil," said Bonney.
"Guess they don't sport combs much," said Donovan. "Look at those tousled heads! Bet you, they're lousy as hens!"
"Talk to 'em, Raed," said Kit. "Say something. Ask 'em if they want to chymo."
At the sound of this last word they turned their little sharp eyes brightly on Kit.
"Chymo?" said Raed interrogatively.
Instantly they began to crowd round him, a dozen jabbering all at once. Faster even than before they ran on, amid which we could now and then distinguish words which sounded like oomiaksook, hennelay, cob-loo-nak, yemeck. These words, as we had read, meant big ship, woman, Englishman, water, respectively. But it was utterly impossible to make out in what connection they were used. Despite our vocabulary, we were as much at a loss as ever.
"Confound it!" Kit exclaimed. "Let's make signs. No use trying to talk with them."
"We shall want one of those kayaks to carry home," remarked Raed. "Captain, will you please bring up a couple of those long bars of iron and three or four yards of red flannel? We will see what can be done in the chymo line."
Capt. Mazard soon appeared with the iron and the flannel; at sight of which the exclamation of "Chymo!" and "Tyma!" ("Good!") were redoubled. Raed then took the articles, and, going to the side, pointed down to one of the canoes, then to the iron bars, and said chymo. At that some of them said "Tyma," and others "Negga-mai," with a shake of their heads; but when Raed pointed to both the iron and the flannel, undoubling it as he did so, they all cried "Tyma!" and one of them (the owner of the kayak, as it proved) came forward to take the things. Raed gave them to him. A line with a slip-noose was then dropped over the nose of the kayak, and it was pulled on board.
In plan it was much like our cedar "shells" used at regattas,—a narrow skiff about twenty-three feet in length by eighteen inches in width. At the centre there was a small round hole just large enough for one to sit with his legs under the seal-skin deck, which was bound tightly to a hoop encircling the hole. Indeed, the whole outside of this singular craft was of seal-skins, sewed together and drawn tight as a drum-head over a frame composed mainly of the rib-bones of the walrus. The double-bladed paddle was tied to the kayak with a long thong; as was also a harpoon, made of bones laid together, and wound over with a long thong of green seal-skin. The lance-blade at the point was of very white, fine ivory; probably that of the walrus. Attached to the harpoon was a very long coil of line, made also of braided seal-skin, and wound about a short, upright peg behind the hoop. We supposed that the paddle and the harpoon went with the kayak. But the owner did not see it in that light. As soon as it had been hauled on deck, he proceeded to untie the thongs, much to the amusement of the captain. As we wished these articles to go together, nothing remained but to drive a new bargain for them. Raed, therefore, took one of our large jack-knives from his pocket, and, opening it, pointed to the paddle, and again said chymo.
They all negga-mai-ed, giving us to understand that it wouldn't be a fair trade; in other words, that they couldn't afford it: and the owner of the paddle kept repeating the work karrack deprecatingly.
"What in the world does karrack mean?" Raed asked, turning to us.
"Karrack?" queried he.
"Karrack, karrack!" was the reply.
"Karrack, karrack, karrack!" they all cried, pointing to the paddle and also to the bulwarks.
"They mean wood!" exclaimed the captain. "Corliss, bring up two or three of those four-foot sticks such as we are using for firewood."
It was brought, and thrown down on deck.
"Karrack, karrack!" they all exclaimed, and fell to laughing in a most extraordinary way, making a noise which seemed to come from low down in their stomachs, and resembled the syllables heh-heh, or yeh-yeh, over and over and over. Raed pointed to the three sticks of wood, and then to the paddle, with another "chymo." That was tyma; for they all nodded and heh-hehed again.
"A trade," said the captain. "Now for the harpoon and line."
These we got for a bar of iron and another stick of wood. It at first seemed rather singular that they should prize a stick of ordinary split wood so highly; but it was easily accounted for when we came to reflect that this vast region is destitute of trees of any size. Wood was almost as eagerly sought for as iron. I have no doubt that a very profitable trade might be made with a cargo of wood along these straits, exchanged for walrus-ivory, bear-skins, and seal-skins.
They wore a sort of jacket, or round frock, of bear-skin, with a cap, or hood, fastened to the collar like the hood of a water-proof. It was tied with thongs in front, and came down to the thigh. Kit bought one of these for a jack-knife,—for a curiosity, of course. Wade also purchased a pair of seal-skin moccasons, with legs to the knee, for a butcher-knife; which gave us a chance to observe that the owner wore socks of dog-skin, with the hair in. A pair of these were chymoed from another man for a stick of wood.
Beneath their bear-skin frocks they wore a shirt of some thin skin, which the captain pronounced to be bladder-skin,—of bears, perhaps. I got one of these shirts for a jack-knife. Wishing to have an entire outfit, we bought a pair of breeches of the man of whom we had already purchased the boots, for a dozen spike-nails. These were of fox-skin, apparently, with the hair worn next the skin. I noticed that one man wore a small white bone or ivory trinket, seemingly carved to represent a child. Pointing to it, I held out a butcher-knife,—a good bargain, I fancied. Somewhat to my surprise, he negga-mai-ed with a very grave shake of his head. Two or three others who saw it shook their heads too. Wishing to test him, I brought up a bar of iron, and made another tender of both knife and iron. But he shook his head still more decidedly, and turned away as if to put a stop to further bantering on the subject. We were at a loss to know whether it was a souvenir,—the image of some dead child, or an object of religious reverence. Finally the captain pointed across the ice-field, where the bear was sitting crouched on the margin of it, and said, "Nen-ook." At that they all looked, and, espying him, gave vent to a series of cries and shouts. Six of them immediately dropped into their kayaks and set off after him. Reaching the ice, they landed, and pulled the canoes on to it. Then, taking their harpoons, they divided into three parties of two each. One of these went straight across toward the bear; the second followed round the edge of the field to the right, the third to the left. The bear must have been pretty severely wounded by our six-ounce bullet, I think; for he paid no attention to their approach till they were within four or five rods, when he made a feeble attempt to get past them. They rushed up to him without the slightest hesitation, and despatched him in a twinkling.