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No. 11.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXVI, No. 5 (Nov 1887)
pp. 395-400.



No. 11.

Perils of an Antarctic Snowdrift. – Buried and Resurrected. – Burdick's Experimental Voyage. – "Fire!" – A Mysterious Craft.

      About the first of June occurred a snowstorm, far exceeding in violence anything we had yet experienced. Indeed, all the previous ones were mere trifles compared to it. It was accompanied by a howling gale, which rendered it literally impossible to stir abroad. No one could have passed over even the distance between the nearest houses, without great risk of perishing on the road.

      Crowded into our little hut, with every crack securely closed, and with an abundance of fuel, which we had taken care to bring indoors at the commencement of the storm, we remained penned up during an afternoon and the whole succeeding night. Scarcely had we dared, during all this time, to open the door far enough to peep out, now and then, at the weather for a single moment. Our quickly-made observations were sufficient, however, to show that we were in no great danger of finding ourselves snowbound after the storm should have abated. The winds had a fair rake across the low land where our hut stood, and the feathery particles were swept away to form drifts in other localities, with the exception of what lodged in the intervals between the turf-knolls.

      Satisfied on this point, we wore away the night indoors, lying in our bunks most of the time. I had, long ago, devoured all the reading matter on the island, even to the most obscure advertisements in such newspapers as were to be found among us. But not feeling sleepy, I lay awake a great part of the night, listening to the roaring gale and the beating of the snow against the walls of our frail shanty.

      I turned out about midnight to stretch myself, and found Dave Bryant with his jacket on, sitting near the small stove which had been put up in the " cabin." A roaring fire was going on in this, as well as in the cooking-stove in the larger room, and several of the men were up and moving. I ventured to open the outer door far enough to admit my nose and one eye, and faced, only for an instant, the blinding drift.

      "How's the weather, Joe?" asked Bryant, anxiously.

      "About the same. I don't see any change yet. Have you been asleep, Dave?"

      "No," said he; " nor I don't think I shall while the storm lasts."

      I had no need to ask the cause of my friend's sleeplessness, for I knew it well enough. I had felt much anxiety upon the same subject; as, also, it appeared, had Mr. Fielding, who now sat up in his bunk and joined in the conversation.

      "I reckon this will be the storm of the season," he said. "But we seem to be making good weather of it, except the dripping down round the chimney funnels from the snow that melts. I wish I could feel as easy about McDougal and his party as I can about ourselves."

      "So do I," I replied.

      My chum said nothing, but thought more than either.

      "They can't do much about keeping themselves clear while the storm continues as it is now. They might as well try to dam up the breakers on the beach here as to fight this drift with brooms or shovels.

      "We can do nothing to help them yet," said I.

      "We couldn't even get to them," returned Fielding. "It would be more than a man's life is worth to make the voyage from here over to the Rookery in a night like this. The fact is, McDougal ought to have moved his shanty before winter came on. It wasn't his fault that it was built where it was in the first place; but after he could have had his own way, he ought to have broken up and moved. So I told him long ago."

      "Come, Dave," said I, " don't be glum about it. Cheer up, man! This can't last many hours longer, and we'll muster up there in the morning, and dig them out."

      "If we only knew just how they are weathering it at this moment," he said. "But I'm afraid the snow will bank so high over the shanty as to crush the roof with its


weight. There couldn't be a worse site found on the island; that is, for a drifting snowstorm. His house is much larger than ours. It has more length of rafters, and is not so strong."

      "That's true," replied Fielding, thoughtfully. "But we must hope for the best, and wait patiently for daylight."

      "Could we hear a gun, do you think, if they should fire one?" asked Bryant.

      "No, not in this gale, unless it were a cannon, which they haven't got. The brig's six-pounder lies on the beach yet, near the Wreck. But I think it lulls a little, boys. The gale is about breaking up, I really believe."

      "I hope you are right," said Bryant, fervently. "But I am afraid the wish is father to the thought."

      Fielding was right, however. The back of the storm was really broken, and it was not long before we all felt certain of the fact, though the change in the weather was gradual. The long winter night wore away at last, and with returning daylight, having fortified ourselves with a hot breakfast, we sallied forth into the cheerless waste without.

      The snow had ceased to fall, but the quantity deposited during the twelve hours past seemed incredible. Paths and landmarks were, for the most part, obliterated; but, avoiding the deeper drifts, we struggled on, keeping a general direction towards the Rookery.

      When we arrived at the turning where we had been accustomed to obtain the first distant view of the smoke from Daphne Cottage, we looked in vain for that cheering signal. An unbroken snowdrift lay against the wall of the bluff behind the cottage, which, at the point of junction with the rock, must have been, at least, thirty feet deep, sloping towards us with a gradual inclination. The top of the house, we judged, must be buried several feet under the snowbank.

      Fielding raised the gun which he had brought with him, and discharged both barrels in the air. This was the signal to notify our comrades that help was needed. The wind had so far moderated that the report could easily be heard; and, pending the arrival of our comrades, we proceeded, with what coolness the anxiety of our hearts would admit, to select the spot for commencing operations.

      We now perceived, directly over the spot where we supposed the house to be, a partial break or hole in the smoothness of the white covering. This, while it served as a guide in our engineering operations, at the same time struck a chill to our hearts, as it tended to confirm our worst fears, that the roof of the shanty had fallen in upon its crowded tenants. Sadly, but with vigorous arms we plied the shovels, hoping that our task might be accomplished in season to save some of the party alive. My friend, Bryant, spoke not a word, but seemed to work mechanically, with the calmness of despair.

      Probably it was but a few minutes, though it seemed an hour, before we saw our men approaching in a body, armed with shovels, boards, or whatever implements seemed most available to forward the work. They pointed their hands, and raised a shout, as they drew near, to call our attention to something pushed up through the snow at the spot where we had observed the break, or hollow. It was shaken back and forth, revolved, and the British ensign of the "Daphne" was blown out on the cold breeze.

      A spontaneous cheer greeted the assurance that, at least, some of the party were yet alive; and the labor being organized so as to make the fastest progress, our efforts were redoubled. Small groups of reinforcements kept arriving from time to time; for the news had been sent to the other American parties, and all came armed, so far as possible, for the work before us. The task was a slow and tedious one, for the snow was not sufficiently compact for tunneling under. We were obliged to cut down from the very top of the drift, and carry it all out, or nearly so.

      Before long, a cry was heard from the direction of the house, and a man's head appeared above the snow. Alone he worked for a time, shoveling snow and throwing it out upon the bank, and then another head was seen, and a tall form, recognized instantly as that of McDougal himself, rose into view. His bearing and gestures, as he cheered and waved his cap, satisfied us that his daughter, and probably all his party, were still living.

      We had plenty of hands now, and the gangs relieved each other from time to time, cheered by the certainty that our labors were not in vain.

      As the imprisoned inmates of the house


had succeeded in digging their way up to the surface, we knew that they must be engaged in cutting towards us from the other end of the route. McDougal had disappeared again; but, a few moments later, the young lady herself was elevated into view. She was muffled up in such a manner that her figure was all lost; but her beautiful head was not to be mistaken, and three hearty cheers greeted the apparition, which was returned by the English party, from behind the snowdrift.

      As soon as the cut had been carried far enough to converse with each other, we learned that all were still alive, though four men had been severely injured. That which we feared had partially taken place. Three rafters of the house had given way under the weight of snow, and a part of the roof at one end had fallen. By getting up shores with lumber and provision barrels, they had saved the rest, and it still remained in place. But the avalanche of snow which had been blown in at the open end had almost buried them, and had the gale continued in its original fury for a few hours longer, they must all have perished. Their fire had been extinguished, and they had found it quite impossible to keep one going. They had done nothing but fight snow ever since midnight, but had made no progress until after the violence of the wind went down.

      Men were despatched at once to bring the sledges, of which each party had one. They had been built in our leisure moments, of planks, strongly shod with hoop iron, with a view of being made useful in transporting blubber during the winter. But here was a call for them such as we had not then foreseen. By the time they arrived on the stage, our shovels were meeting those of the Englishmen, and communication was open.

      Their sledge was also dug out, and the four wounded men, as also the young lady, who came out from her snow burial as bright and as brave as she had from all her previous perils, were at once taken in tow by many strong arms, and carried off to the other houses.

      The interior of Daphne Cottage presented a sad scene of chaotic confusion. There was no damage done but what it was possible to have repaired. But McDougal yielded to the pressure brought to bear upon him by all his advisers. It was true we might not have another snowstorm as heavy as this which had buried him; but it was not prudent to run the risk. As the house was now partly down, it was razed entirely, and everything transported on the sledges to the lowlands where the rest of us had built. A few days of fair weather succeeded, and Daphne Cottage was again erected and made habitable. It was now within easy communication of the Woodlark's Nest, in any state of weather, much to the satisfaction of all parties interested, and to the delight of Dave Bryant in particular.

      On visiting the beach, we found a Strang* alteration in the position of the wrecked brig. The action of the undertow in the various northerly gales had undermined her keel, as she lay high up against the bank, and the fury of the late south-wester sweeping across the Point had been sufficient to right and roll her over. She now lay with her deck inclined seaward, but bedded as firmly as ever.

      The galley on the Point, rooted so firmly in the sand, still stood like a rock. But, wandering up towards the Glacier, a few days after the storm, I discovered that the unoccupied house left by Morgan's party on the hill, had been completely unroofed by the force of the wind. Not a vestige of the roof was to be found. It had, doubtless, been carried bodily off to sea, and the Argyle Arms consisted simply of four walls, enclosing an immense snowdrift.

      Clear, cold weather prevailed the last of June and most of July. There was much less snow falling, and there were many days when the wind was moderate, and it was possible to do a good day's work. For we found the climate quite endurable during all our stay at Hurd's Island, excepting when it was blowing fresh.

      But no sea-elephants came; and, in default of larger game, we resolved to make an onslaught upon the penguins at the Rookery. At this season of the year, these birds have a thick leaf of fat under their hides. Nothing was easier than to knock them over by thousands, with clubs, when they were so thickly huddled together. They were then skinned on the spot where they fell, this part of the work being the coldest and most laborious. The skins were loaded upon the sledges and brought over to headquarters, where the fat was fleused off with knives, and thrown into the ever-ready caldron at the tryworks. Of course, hundreds of penguins must be slaughtered to make a single barrel of oil, and the business could hardly


be called remunerative, if a fair valuation were set upon time and labor. But it was better than idleness, and was pursued quite extensively by all of us, whenever the weather was suitable for outdoor work.

      To lighten the labor, and, if possible, to do away with the toil of dragging the loaded sledge so great a distance, the enterprising Burdick had rigged his with a lofty mast, and improvised a large square-sail bent to a yard, with tacks, sheets, and braces in seaman-like style. He had read of something of the kind, he said, in "Parry's Overland Expedition," and had seen it in a picture. Of course, we were all on tiptoe to see how the craft was going to work. And when, after a day's hard skinning, she was heavily loaded with the fatty spoils, and the doughty skipper stepped his mast and prepared to take the helm himself, there was a concentric rush to see the start. Not Professor King himself, with his balloon on Boston Common, could draw a more eager or more interested crowd, though it might be larger in point of numbers.

      "Aren't you going to have any deck hands, Burdick?" asked Fielding. "You'll want one man, at least, to work the forecastle."

      "No, I don't," said the rattle-headed young man. "I'll man her myself. You see my tacks and sheets all lead aft to my hand, and I'm going to be captain, mate, and all hands."

      "But how are you going to heave her to, when you get over on the beach?"

      "Take in sail, of course. Don't you see this elect here to belay my halyards to?"

      It was capital sledging all the way; and, save here and there a hummock to be avoided, the snow lay level and unbroken over the whole frozen surface of the pond, across which his route lay. With a cracking breeze at the south-west, the canvas was hoisted and the sheets trimmed. The "Experiment," as it had already been christened, was held fast at her moorings, while Burdick, armed with a stout pike-staff, took his station on the quarter-deck, vowing that her name should be changed to the " Success," before she made her second voyage.

      "All ready, Burdick? She tugs hard on our hands."

      "Ay, ay!" he roared. "Clear the track! Let her go!"

      She darted off like a hound from the leash, followed by a shouting crowd, and skillfully guided by using the pike alternately on each quarter. For Burdick, as all knew, possessed both nerve and muscle in abundance, and certainly managed his vessel with wonderful skill. She flew across the pond at a rate that soon left the fastest runners behind; but we still followed, anxious to keep her in view, and to see how he would manage in stopping her mad career.

      He went on famously, now and then finding time to snatch his cap from his head and wave it at us in triumph, until, coming to a slight rise at the further bank of the pond, one runner glanced upon a rock concealed by its snowy covering. The shock, which found Burdick quite off his guard, threw him from his feet, and he executed a back somersault over the stern upon the hard crust of snow.

      Leaving him to rub his bruises, the sledge pursued the voyage on her own hook. After passing this slight rise, the ground sloped gently towards the sea, and it was here that she required the careful hand to round her to and lower the sail. But our efforts to overtake her were vain, and we reached the ridge just in time to see her plunge madly into the surf. The breaker was not very heavy at that time, and we managed to save and drag her ashore again though in a sadly battered condition. The mast had been thrown out of the step, otherwise the power of her sail might have been sufficient to carry her to sea.

      But the cargo, which had cost so much toil to collect, was floated off and scattered at the mercy of the Southern Ocean. Burdick was not much hurt; and, though we were sorry for his loss, the ludicrous element predominated so largely in his adventure that it was never after referred to without a roar of laughter at his expense.

      It was near midnight of a still but stinging cold night, when we were rudely awakened from sleep by the fearful cry of "Fire!" sweeping ominously past our shanty, and blending with the hurried tramping of many feet over the crisp, snowy surface. The Englishmen had discovered it, and were rushing by our door as it was thrown open.

      "Where's the fire?" was the startled inquiry.

      "Burdick's tryworks!" and a glance confirmed the statement.

      A flame was rising fiercely to the sky in


that direction, and throwing a glare upon the adjacent shanty of the " Ripple," with the space immediately round it. The forms of eager men could he seen rushing to and fro, but their efforts to subdue the fire appeared to have little or no effect.

      "Burdick'll be burnt out," said Mr. Fielding, quietly, at the first glance. "He built his tryworks too near the house, but I could not make him believe it at the time. We must look out for our own quarters, McDougal, for the cinders will sweep down this way. Warner's safe enough, for he's to windward of it—and as for Burdick—we may as well make arrangements to receive him and his gang in among us, for the present."

      We had always looked upon fire as the most terrible visitation that could befall us. And it was mainly for this reason that wc had built at a considerable distance apart, instead of huddling together in a small compass. A conflagration which should destroy the whole village during the winter season, would prove certain death to most, if not all of us.

      Leaving a guard near our houses to watch the floating cinders, and to fight them with snow, if necessary, the majority of us hurried to the scene of the fire. It was a clear night, cold and dry, with a moderate breeze to fan the flame. The material from which it was fed, with all the surroundings, were highly combustible, and Burdick's men had hardly time to drag their clothes and bedding out into the snow, before their dwelling was wrapped in flames. It stood directly under the lee of the tryworks, and, as Fielding had observed, imprudently near.

      It appeared that a boatsteerer of the "Adelaide," who had been left in charge of the fires for boiling penguin oil, had suffered the pot to get too hot, and the whole contents had ignited. Water was not at hand in any great quantity, for everything was frozen. Snow was freely used, but the fire had gathered such quick headway from the caldron of blazing oil, that everyone was driven back from the spot.

      "Never mind," said the philosophical Warner. "It's well the rest of us are no nearer to you, Burdick, or we would all have been turned out of house and home together. Carry everything right to windward, up to my shanty. We'll make you snug among us until we can bring down that shell that the Cape Towners left on the hill yonder, and start you in business again. It's only wasting labor to fight the fire any more. You might as well let her burn I"

      The flaming building shed a wild light upon the scene of utter desolation round about. Everything was covered with a white, wintry mantle down to high water mark, beyond which the sea formed a dark aud striking contrast. It was always open to navigation, for the prevalence of strong gales, and the constant agitation against the shore, were unfavorable to the formation of saline ice. Some might be found, at times, in the crescent beyond the Glacier, where it was more sheltered. But the beaches of the Point were never ice-bound.

      As the roof and sides fell into the sea of fire within, a fresh spire of flame shot skyward from the whole mass, by the light of which was revealed a sight that riveted the gaze of every one, at the cry:—

      "Sail Oh!"

      The phrase, so natural to the seaman's tongue, at the first sight of a strange vessel, was, in this case, a misnomer, inasmuch as the craft had no canvas set. She was a square-rigged brig of nearly two hundred tons, drifting under bare poles, and was already within the chord-line spanning the crescent from the Glacier to the rocks off the extreme south end of the Point. She was not more than a mile from the beach in the shortest direct line, which would strike near the wreck of the "Daphne."

      "What does it all mean?" said McDougal, after we had stared at the vessel and at each other for a minute, at least. "He can't stand a great while on that tack, or he will pile himself up along with my poor brig."

      "There's nobody aboard there," answered Warner. "No live man would have his craft under bare poles such a fine night as this, or run her away in here unless he intended to anchor. They must be either dead, or dead drunk, which amounts to the same thing."

      "There's no one there that's able to take care of her, that's a sure thing," said Fielding. "Here's a case of salvage for us, I reckon; and if we can get aboard, and drop an anchor before she gets ashore, we may make a good night's work of it. Let's make a safe thing of this fire. Scrawm it out, and smother it with snow, some of ye! Come on, the rest of us, and let's get the boats ready to shove out."

      We hurried down to where the two boats


were lashed side by side, and eager hands soon had them cleared away and ready to launch, despite the cold, biting air, which we hardly minded now, so great was the excitement induced by this new and strange adventure. We could see her distinctly without the aid of the firelight, for she loomed darkly against a clear sky, and we perceived that she did not set directly inshore, but, acted upon by the wind and tide at the same time, was making her drift obliquely down into the arc. She would strike the beach, on that course, three or four miles below her present position. We hoped, therefore, to find means to anchor her, and keep her afloat.

      "Now I think of it, Fielding," said the captain, as we cleared the beach and fell into a regular stroke at the oars, " that brig must have drifted here from Desolation. Most likely parted her chains while lying at anchor. You know the wind has prevailed at nor'west for several days past."

      "That would account for her having no sail set," was the answer.

      "But 'twouldn't account for having nobody aboard," interposed Warner, who was close by us in the other boat. "What vessel would be lying at anchor there with all hands out of her? Unless she was a tender left by some ship, to be used again next season. But in that case, she would have been left in Three Island Harbor, and I can't believe she ever found her own way to sea out of that snug place."

      "She must be the Phantom Ship of Good Hope," said Dave, " and has drifted off her cruising ground."

      "No, no," I replied, " you mustn't touch upon classic subjects, or attempt to spoil so beautiful a legend as that of the Flying Dutchman. You know that she is only seen in a gale of wind, and that she always carries all sail, blow high or blow low. To believe otherwise is rank heresy."

      Thus between jokes and conjectures we passed the time, as we pulled towards the dark loom of the strange craft. In drawing near, we noted that her bow and sides were much lumbered with ice that had accumulated in masses. The square sails were furled to the yards, but in a very clumsy and slouchy manner, as if she had been too short-handed to manage them. But the storm staysails and trysail had been blown away, leaving the bolt-ropes with here and there a bit of fringe adhering.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Beyond Desolation - No. 11.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 66, No. 5 (Nov 1887)
Pages: 395-400