“You must understand,” he said to his men, “that to leave the ship is a supreme measure, to which we must have recourse only at the last extremity. All our efforts ought to be directed toward saving the ‘Alaska.’ Deprived of her, our situation will be a very precarious one on the ice. It is only in case of our vessel becoming uninhabitable that we must desert it. In any case such a movement should be made in an orderly manner to avoid disasters. I therefore expect that you will return quietly to your supper, and leave to your superior officers the task of determining what is best to do!”
The firmness with which he spoke had the effect of reassuring the most timid, and they all descended again. Erik then called Mr. Hersebom and asked him to untie his good dog Kaas, and follow him without making any noise.
“We will go on the field of ice,” he said, “and seek for the fugitives and make them return to their duty, which will be better for them than wandering about.”
The poor devils were huddled together on the ice, ashamed of their escapade, and at the first summons were only too glad to take the path toward the “Alaska.”
Erik and Mr. Hersebom having seen them safely on board, walked as far as their depot of provisions, thinking that another sailor might have taken refuge there. They went all around it but saw no one.
“I have been asking myself the last few moments,” said Erik, “if it would not be better to prevent another panic by landing part of the crew?”
“It might be better perhaps,” answered the fisherman. “But would not the men who remained on board feel jealous and become demoralized by this measure?”
“That is true,” said Erik. “It would be wiser to occupy them up to the last moment in struggling against the tempest, and it is in fact the only chance we have of saving the ship. But since we are on the ice we may as well take advantage of it, and explore it a little. I confess all these crackings and detonations inspire me with some doubt as to its solidity!”
Erik and his adopted father had not gone more than three hundred feet from their depot of provisions before they were stopped short by a gigantic crevasse which lay open at their feet. To cross it would have required long poles, with which they had neglected to supply themselves. They were therefore compelled to walk beside it obliquely toward the west, in order to see how far it reached.
They found that this crevasse extended for a long distance, so long that after they had walked for half an hour they could not see the end of it. Feeling more secure about the extent of this field of ice upon which they had established their depot of provisions, they turned to retreat their steps.
After they had walked over about half of the distance a new vibration occurred, followed by detonations and tumultuous heavings of ice. They were not greatly disturbed by this, but increased their speed, being anxious to discover whether this shock had had done the “Alaska” any mischief.