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The Dip of the Needle.—The North Magnetic Pole.—A Kayak Bottom up, with its Owner Head down.—Ice-Patches.—Anchoring to an Ice-floe.—A Bear-hunt in the Fog.—Bruin charges his Enemies.—Soundings.—The Depth of the Straits.
Before we were up next morning "The Curlew" was on her way.
A great number of small islands, not even indicated on our chart, compelled us to veer to the southward during the forenoon.
For several days the needle of our compass had been giving us some trouble by its strong inclination to dip. Three times, since starting, we had been obliged to move the sliding weight out a little on the bar. The farther north we got, the stronger was the tendency of the north pole, or end of the needle, to point downward, and the south pole to rise up correspondingly. By running the sliding weight out a little toward the south pole, its leverage was increased, and the parallel position restored. This was what Capt. Mazard was doing when we went on deck that morning.
"How do you account for this dipping of the needle?" he asked Raed.
"By the present theory of magnetism, the earth itself is considered to be a magnet with two poles," replied Raed. "These poles attract and repel the corresponding poles of a magnetic needle, just as another large needle would. The nearer we get up to the north magnetic pole of the earth, the more the pole of our needle is pulled down toward it. We're not such a great distance from it now. What's our latitude this morning?"
"Capt. Ross, in the expedition of 1829, made out the earth's north magnetic pole to be in 70° north latitude, farther west, in the upper part of Hudson Bay. At that place he reports that a magnetic needle, suspended so that it turned easily, pointed directly downward."
"We've got a needle hung in a graduated scale downstairs," remarked Kit.
We had nearly forgotten it, however.
"Bring it up," said Raed.
Wade went after it.
It was set on the deck, and, after vibrating a few seconds, came to rest at a dip of about 83°.
"If we were up at the point Capt. Ross reached, it would point directly down, or at 90°, I suppose," said Kit.
"That's what he reported," said Raed. "There's no reason to doubt it."
"But where is the south pole?" Wade asked.
"That has never been exactly reached," said Raed. "It is supposed to be in 75°, south latitude, south of New Holland, in the Southern Ocean. A point has been reached where the dip is 88-2/3°, however."
"Of course this magnetic pole that Ross found in 70° is not the bona fide north pole of the earth," Wade observed.
"Oh, no!" said the captain. "The genuine north pole is not so easily reached."
"It's curious what this magnetic attraction is," said Kit reflectively.
"It is now considered to be the same thing as electricity, is it not?" I asked.
"Yes," replied Kit; "but whether they are a fluid or a force is not so clear. Tyndall and Faraday think they are a sort of force."
"It is found that this dip of the needle, or, in other words, the position of the magnetic poles, varies with the amount of heat which the earth receives from the sun," remarked Raed. "We know that heat can be changed into electricity, and, consequently, into magnetism. So, at those seasons of the year when the earth receives least sun-heat, there is least electric and magnetic force."
"That only confirms me in my belief that the luminiferous ether through which light and heat come from the sun is really the electric and magnetic element itself," remarked Kit; "that strange fluid which runs through the earth as water does through a sponge, making currents, the direction of which are indicated by these magnetic poles. The same silent fluid which makes this needle point down to the deck makes the telegraphic instrument click, makes the northern lights, and makes the lightning."
"I agree with you exactly," said Raed.
It's no use talking with these two fellows: they've made a regular hobby of this thing, and ride it every chance they get.
Prince Henry's Foreland, on the south side of the straits, was in sight at noon, distant, we presumed,—from our estimate of the width of the passage at this place,—about eleven leagues. It is a high, bold promontory of the south main of Labrador. At this distance it rises prominently from the sea. The glass shows it to be bare, and destitute of vegetation. By two o'clock, P.M., we had passed the scattered islets, and bore up toward the north main again to avoid the floating ice. At five we were running close under a single high island of perhaps an acre in extent, and rising full a hundred feet above the sea, when old Trull, who was in the bows, called sharply to the man at the wheel to put the helm a-starboard.
"What's that for?" shouted the captain, who was standing near the binnacle.
"Come and take a look at this, sur," replied the old man.
Kit and I were just coming up the companion-stairs, and ran forward with the captain. A long, leather-colored fish, as we thought at first, was floating just under the starboard bow.
"Thought it was a low ledge," said the old man. "I see 'twan't a moment after. I take that to be a sea-sarpent, sur."
As the object was certainly twenty feet long, and not more than a foot and a half in diameter, Trull's supposition had the benefit of outside resemblance. The captain seized one of the pike-poles, and made a jab at it; but the schooner, under full headway, had passed it too far.
"Get a musket!" shouted Kit.
We all made a rush down stairs for the gun-rack. Only three were loaded. Catching up one of these, I ran up.
"Off astern there!" cried Weymouth.
We were already fifty yards away; but, getting a glimpse of it, I fired. There was no movement.
"Missed him!" exclaimed Wade. "I'll bore him!"
He fired. Still there was no apparent motion.
"Miss number two," said I.
Kit then took a careful aim, and banged away. The creature didn't stir.
"Number three," laughed Wade.
"That fish must either bear a charmed life, or else it's ball-proof!" Kit exclaimed.
Meanwhile "The Curlew" was being brought round. The captain was getting interested. Raed brought up one of our long cod-lines with the grapnel on it,—the same contrivance with which old Trull had drawn in the boat some days before; and, on getting back within twenty yards, he threw it off. It struck into the water beyond, and, on being drawn in, played over the back of the leathern object till one of the hooks caught fast. Still there was no movement.
"There can't be any life in it," said Wade.
Raed pulled in slowly, the captain assisting him, till they had drawn it up under the bows. It certainly looked as much like a sea-serpent as any thing yet. A strong line, with another grapple, was then let down, and hooked into it with a jerk. Donovan and Hobbs tugged away at it; one foot—two feet—three feet.
"Humph!" exclaimed the captain. "One of those Husky kayaks!"
Four feet—five feet—six feet. Something rose with it, dripping underneath.
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Raed, turning away.
"There's an Esquimaux in it, hanging head down!" cried Kit.
The sailors crowded round. It was a ghastly sight. The legs of the corpse were still fast inside the little hoop around the hole in the deck in which the man had sat. His arms hung down limp and dripping. His long black hair streamed with water. He might have been floating there head down for a week.
"Wal, I shouldn't s'pose the darn'd fool need to have expected any thing else!" exclaimed Corliss. "To go to sea with his feet fast in such a little skite of a craft as that! Might ha' known the darned thing 'ud 'a' capsized an' drownded him."
"What shall we do with it?" I asked. "We might sink it with three or four of those six-pound shot, I suppose."
"No, no!" exclaimed Wade. "We can't afford six-pound shots to bury the heathen: it's as much as we can do to get enough to kill them with."
"Oh, don't, Wade!" said Raed. "It's a sad sight at best."
"Of course it is. But then we've only got seventeen balls left, and no knowing how many battles to fight."
This last argument was a clincher.
"Let go!" ordered the captain.
Don and Hobbs shook the line violently, but couldn't tear out the grapple from the tough seal-skin.
"Well, let go line and all, then!" cried the captain.
With a dull plash the kayak fell back into the sea; and we all turned away.
At midnight the ice-patches were thickening rapidly; and by two o'clock all sail had to be taken in, the bumps had grown so frequent and heavy. On the port side lay a large ice-floe of many acres extent. The schooner gradually drifted up to it. Raed and Kit had gone on deck.
"I think we may as well make fast to it," I heard the captain say; and, a moment later, the order was given to get out the ice-anchors.
Wade and I then went up. "The Curlew" lay broadside against the floe. The wind, with a current caused perhaps by the tide, held us up to it so forcibly, that the vessel careened slightly. Weymouth and Hobbs were getting down on to the ice with the ice-chisels in their hands, and, going off twenty or thirty yards, began to cut holes. The ice-anchors were then thrown over on to the floe. To each of them was bent one of our two-and-a-half-inch hawsers. The anchors themselves were, as will probably be remembered, simply large, strong grapnels. Dragging them along to the holes, they were hooked into the ice, and the hawsers drawn in tight from deck. Planks, secured to the rail by lines, were then run down to bear the chafe. This was our process of anchoring to ice. Sometimes three or four grapnels were used when the tendency to swing off was greater. To-night there was so much floating ice all about, that the swell was almost entirely broken, and the schooner lay as quiet as if in a country lake. A watch was set, and we turned in again.
Breakfast at six. Fog thick and flat on the ice. The breeze in the night, blowing against the schooner, had turned the ice-field completely round. Occasionally a cake of ice would bump up against us. We could hear them grinding together all about; yet the wind was light, otherwise we might have had heavier thumps. About seven o'clock we heard a splashing out along the floe.
"Seals!" remarked the captain.
"Bet you, I'll have one of those fellows!" exclaimed Donovan, catching up a pike-pole, and dropping over the rail.
"Can he get near enough to kill them with a pole, suppose?" Wade queried.
"That's the way the sealers kill them," replied the captain. "Send the men out on the ice with nothing but clubs and knives. The seals can't move very fast: nothing but their flippers to help themselves with. The men run along the edges of the ice, and get between them and the water. The seals make for the water; and the men knock them on the heads with clubs, and then butcher them."
"It's a horribly bloody business, I should think," said Raed.
"Well, not so bad as a Brighton slaughter-pen, quite," rejoined the captain. "But I never much admired it, I must confess."
Just then Donovan came racing out of the fog, and, jumping for the rail, drew his legs up as if he believed them in great peril.
"What ails you?" Kit cried out. "What are you running from?"
"Oh! nothing—much," replied Donovan, panting. "Met—a—bear out here: that's all."
"Met a bear!" exclaimed Raed.
"Yes. I was going along, trying to get by some of the seals. All at once I was face to face with a mighty great chap, on the same business with myself, I suppose. Thought I wouldn't wait. He looked pretty big. I'd nothing but the pole, you know."
"We must have him!" exclaimed Wade.
"Best way will be to let down the boat, and work round the floe to prevent his taking to the water," advised the captain. "They will swim like ducks three or four miles at a time."
While the boat was being let down, Kit and I ran to load the muskets.
"I'm going to put the bayonets on our two," said Kit. "They'll be handy if we should come to close quarters with him."
Raed and Wade, with the captain, were getting ready to go out on the ice. Weymouth and Hobbs were already in the boat. Kit and I followed.
"Now be very careful about firing in this fog," the captain called after us. "We are going off to the right, round the edge of the floe on that side. You keep off on the left to see that he don't escape that way. Head him up toward the schooner if you can; but look out how you shoot."
Old Trull and Corliss, each with a gun, had been stationed at the rail to shoot the bear from the deck if he should come out in sight.
Thus arranged, we pulled away, veering in and out among the ice-patches, and keeping about twenty yards from the floe. We could just see the edge of it rising a few feet from the water.
"Guess the bear run from Don after all his fright," said Weymouth when we had gone a hundred yards or more.
He was not on our side, we felt pretty sure; and, a few minutes later, Guard barked, and we heard the captain shouting from across the field.
"Here he is over here!" And a moment after, "Gone over towards your side! Look out for him!"
We looked out as sharply as we could for fog: nevertheless, the first notice we got of his arrival in our vicinity was a splash into the water several rods farther on.
"Give way sharp," shouted Kit, "or we shall lose him!"
The boat leaped under the strong stroke; and, a moment after, we saw the bear climbing out on to a cake, which tipped up as he got on to it.
"Give him your shot, Wash!" Kit exclaimed.
We were not more than fifty feet away. I aimed for his head, and let go. The bullet clipped one of his ears merely, and he turned round with a dreadfully savage growl. Of course it was a bad shot; but some allowance must be made for the rocking of the boat. As he turned to us, the ice-cake tipped and rolled under him, nearly throwing him off; at which he growled and barked out all the louder. Kit hesitated to fire.
"He might make a break, and get his paws on to the boat before we could back off, if you shouldn't kill him," said Hobbs.
"Load as quick as you can, Wash," Kit said. "I'll wait till we have a reserve shot."
Meanwhile we heard voices coming out on the floe. Guard began to bark again, and came jumping from cake to cake out within a few rods of the bear, and rather between us and him.
"Be ready, now," said Kit; when some one of the party on the floe fired on a sudden.
Instantly the bear jumped for the dog; and the dog, turning, leaped for a little cake between him and the boat. The bear splashed through, and gained the cake Guard had stood on.
Crack—crack! from the floe.
The bear growled frightfully as he felt the bullets, and plunged after the dog. We both fired as he went down into the water. Guard's paws were already on the gunwale, when the bear rose, head and paws, and swept the dog down with him, souse! A howl and a growl mingled. The water was streaked red with the bear's blood. The captain and Wade and Donovan came leaping out from one fragment to another. Up popped the dog's black head. Something bumped the bottom of the boat simultaneously. The bear had come up under us, and floated out on the port side, a great mass of dripping, struggling white hair. Everybody was shouting now. Wade fired. Bits of blazing cartridge-paper flew into our faces. Kit and I thrust wildly with our bayonets; but the poor beast had already ceased all offensive warfare. He was dead enough. But who had killed him it was hard saying. No less than seven bullets had been fired into him from "a standard weapon," as Wade calls our muskets. We towed the carcass up to the edge of the floe, and pulled it up. The captain estimated its gross weight to be from four hundred and fifty to five hundred pounds. This was the largest one we had killed. Donovan and Weymouth and Hobbs were occupied the rest of the forenoon skinning it.
It being a favorable opportunity, we improved it to make soundings. From where we lay moored to the floe, the nearest island was about three leagues to the east, and the northern main from ten to twelve miles. For sounding we had a twenty-four-pound iron weight, with a staple leaded into it for the line. Dropping it out of the stern, we ran out a hundred and seventy-three fathoms before it slacked. The depth of the strait at that place was given at ten hundred and thirty-eight feet. I should add, that this was considerably deeper than we had found it below that point.