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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XIII. — The Snow-Storm - Migration of the Seals - Death of his Majesty, Royal tom -The Aurora Australis, or "Southern Lights" - A Shock of Earthquake

page 122

Chapter XIII.
The Snow-Storm - Migration of the Seals - Death of his Majesty, Royal tom -The Aurora Australis, or "Southern Lights" - A Shock of Earthquake.

"Monday, May 21. Thick mantle of snow covers the earth; the evergreen foliage of the Austral or Southern flora disappears under a layer of accumulated snow-flakes; trees, bushes, and tufts of herbage are so many white bouquets. Nature seems attired as if for a festival; and yet how lugubrious is all this dazzling decoration! It must be the festival of death. "An extraordinary calm broods over sea and land. The surface of the bay is scarcely rippled by the almost imperceptible breath of the hushed wind. The emerald crests of the waves have ceased to move to and fro, and no longer wear their white crowns of foam. The sea, smooth as a mirror, reflects every surrounding object — the cliffs and the trees of the coast, as well as the mountains shrouded in their white panoply, which appear, through an optical delusion, not above one-half their usual altitude.

So transparent is the atmosphere that we can clearly distinguish the distant horizons, which generally elude our gaze; the distances seem shortened, and all objects are brought astonishingly near.

"The tempest, sovereign of these regions, has abdicated his throne. For awhile, silence is absolute lord of the solitudes. At long intervals, the weak and timid cry of a bird, or the distant bleating of some young seal, is the only audible sound.

"The change which has taken place during the night has been so sudden, so complete, the picture presented to our eyes is so new, that we stand for a long time motionless and amazed to contemplate it.

"Suddenly a strange phenomenon occurs: the surface of the bay, but a moment since so tranquil, is now astir at several points, is agitated and page 123covered with foam, and yet no wind is perceptible; at least we feel none. If any whirlwind had descended from the mountains, it would have carried with it and gathered up in its bosom a mass of snow-flakes, torn from the earth or the branches of the trees, which would have rendered its passage visible; but we have seen no sign. No; the agitation is evidently caused by the disporting of some marine monsters.

"And, in fact, while we are eagerly seeking to penetrate this mysterious phenomenon, it clears itself up by drawing nearer to us; and soon several troops of seals, swimming with great rapidity, and from time to time leaping out of the water like porpoises, pass within a short distance of the shore.

"On seeing so great a number of these animals, which for some time had been extremely rare, and which we feared were on the point of disappearing altogether, we felt a great joy; but, alas! this joy was not of long duration.

"A moment afterwards, we easily divined, from their evolutions, that these amphibians had simply assembled together before abandoning the bay. Of this we were convinced, when the different troops, uniting in one large body, took the direction of the principal mouth of the port.

"The sea-lions had migrated! I cannot describe the heartache we experienced. It was our daily food, the support of our lives, which was disappearing before our eyes.

"By a common impulse we hastened to the shore, launched our boat, and, seizing our oars, pulled as hard as we could for the Eighth Island, in the hope of falling in with a few stragglers, for our stock of fresh meat was nearly exhausted. Our search was vain; the shore was desolate; Royal Tom himself did not appear; and we concluded that he had quitted his favourite domain. We must return to Epigwait with empty hands.

"We were sad and despondent. Before us was the prospect of many months of misery, many months of distress. How should we support them?

"In the first place, we must put ourselves upon rations, for from the following day we should be reduced to the few pieces of salted meat which we had suspended to the rafters of the chimney. The salt and smoke together had cured it thoroughly, but the oil in it had turned rank, and given it the flavour of stale fish, rendering it unwholesome. We had no choice; we must continue to make use of it, even if our health suffered: a circumstance filling us with the liveliest fears for the future.

"More eagerly than ever we sought to add to and vary this diet by mussels, fish, and a few cormorants, shot now and then on the rocks; but, as I have already said, the weather did not often allow of our going a-page 124fishing; and as for the birds, we fired at them but seldom, from a wish to economise as much as possible our small remaining stock of ammunition, not knowing when the hoped-for succour might arrive, supposing that it ever did arrive. Our situation was truly wretched.

"Friday, June 1. — The weather very cold; the thermometer registers two degrees below zero. Since the 23rd of last month we have had almost continual bad weather. Copious showers of rain, coming up with the northwest wind, have melted the snow, except on the heights, where the frost, by solidifying it, has added a new stratum to the glaciers which crown their peaks.

"The sky at length has a little cleared, and the solar disc is visible occasionally between the wreaths of vapour which float lightly above the mountains. Its light is very pale; yet, when it shines, all the glaciers brighten, and throw forth a myriad sparks, like diadems of diamonds.

"All these days we have lived on a little rancid seal's flesh, and the indigestible plant which we have named sacchary. We are sick and feeble; our position becomes more and more critical.

"Today, the wind having somewhat subsided, we have taken advantage of the respite to launch our boat, to see if in the West Channel we cannot fall in with a sea-lion or two.

"The bay, which but lately we could not traverse without encountering several of these animals, was now completely deserted. We rowed slowly, for we had not much strength; at length we reached the entrance of the channel. We rested on our oars for awhile at Mask Island to recover our breath and rest ourselves a little.

"While Alick was mooring the boat to a projecting point of rock, Musgrave, who for a moment had been listening attentively, suddenly exclaimed, 'Do I not hear a seal's cry? How fortunate for us if we should find here what we want!'

"And nothing, indeed, could have happened more opportunely, for it relieved us from the necessity of going further, and in that season the days were so short that at the utmost we should have time only to reach the West Channel before evening came on. Now the prospect of passing a second night away from Epigwait, without fire and without shelter, and suffering from cold, as in our former experience, was anything but agreeable.

"A hoarse growl was heard above us. Musgrave was not deceived. Close at hand was a sea-lion.

"Seizing our weapons — namely, our musket and cudgels, we leaped on page 125shore, and in a moment found ourselves in the presence of three seals. One was our old acquaintance, his majesty, Royal Tom, and the others were two females as old as he, and doubtlessly his wives.

"Royal Tom, then, had not left us. He had been unable to tear himself away from the places so familiar to him, or else he had not had the strength, any more than the two lionesses, to follow the great army of emigrants. He had abdicated his power, let us suppose, in favour of some young lion, his descendant, who will have conducted his people into regions more propitious, out of the reach of man, the enemy of his race, the murderer of his children. As for him, he would remain where he had lived, where he had reigned so long, and where death might at any moment surprise him. What mattered it to him? He had but a few days to live.

"Such were the reflections which the sight of the old monarch suggested to my mind in far less time than it has taken me to record them.

"Royal Tom recognised us; and leaving behind him his two companions, he advanced to meet us, uttering as usual his roar of defiance.

"It cost us a pang to kill these poor animals, and particularly the old lion, whom we had always respected; but necessity pressed us, hunger threatened us, we could not recede. A few moments, and the three beasts were lying dead at the bottom of our boat.

"Shortly before four o'clock we landed at Epigwait. It was already night.

"In the evening, after the classes were over (for we had not given up our school), and we were about to turn to our usual pastimes, George, who had left the hut for a minute, re-entered it quickly, exclaiming, 'Come, come; come and look!'

"Following him, we saw before us a most magnificent spectacle. It was a Southern aurora in all its pomp of splendour. The cold was intense; the breeze had ceased to blow; the white vapours had disappeared; the sky was cloudless and spotless over its entire surface. The stars paled before the sheaves of fire of different colours which rose from the horizon, and sprang towards the zenith, swift as lightnings, but succeeding one another without intermission. In the south, the aurora was permanent: it was a grand semicircle inclosing a ghosdy radiance, whence in every direction darted forth the serpentine fires.

We wearied not of contemplating and admiring the phenomenon. How the sight of such splendours soothes and elevates the soul! How one forgets one's-self and one's wretchedness before these imposing manifestations of the grandeur of nature and the power of the Creator!

page 126
"We Took the Bible, and Read Some Passages Aloud."

"We Took the Bible, and Read Some Passages Aloud."

page 127

"During the night another phenomenon occurred, not less surprising than the first. We were aroused from our sleep by a shock of earthquake. The movement went in the direction of N.N.E. to S.S.W. It was accompanied by a singular noise, like the rattling of a thousand chariots down a rocky declivity. The vibration lasted for ten or fifteen seconds: our beds, our table, the very house, shook heavily. We were frozen with terror.

"Some burning brands having been flung out of the fire and upon the flooring, we hastened to restore them to their place.

"We did not again retire to rest. Seated in a circle round the chimney, we waited for day to dawn. We took the Bible, and read some passages aloud; choosing those which speak of God's clemency, of His goodness towards all His creatures, even the most paltry, to whom He ensures their subsistence, and especially towards man, His most favoured creature, whom He loves with a Father's love:–

"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him." Ps. ciii. 8, 10, 11.

"Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee." Isa. xlix. 15.

"For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee." Isa. liv. 10.