It was intended that, as soon as a satisfactory examination had been made and a depot landed, the ships should advance without delay into Kane Sea.
There was no expectation of finding that any one had been at the cape, or that the cairns or caches had been disturbed, as it was clear that if Greely had arrived he would have been short of provisions, and would therefore have sought to obtain those at Littleton Island; and nobody could have imagined for a moment that with prospective starvation on one side of the strait, and a provision depot (although a small one) twenty-three miles off on the other, a party supplied with a boat and oars would have preferred the former alternative. In fact, at the time the cutter started, the crew of the “Bear” were getting provisions on deck, to be in readiness for the sledge journey that was to be made northward, after the ships were stopped by the fast ice. As the cutter left the ship, Colwell picked up a can of hard-tack and two one-pound cans of pemmican, as he thought that his party might be out all night, and a little of something to eat would not go amiss.
Within half an hour after the first parties had left the ship cheers were heard above the roaring of the wind. At first it was impossible to tell from what quarter the sound proceeded, but soon the cheering was heard a second time more distinctly, in the direction of Brevoort Island. Almost immediately after, Ensign Harlow was observed signalling from Stalknecht Island. His message read, “Have found Greely’s record; send five men.”
Before this request could be carried out, Yewell was seen running over the ice towards the ships, and a few minutes later he came on board, almost out of breath, with the information that Lieutenant Taunt had found a message from Greely in the cairn on Brevoort Island. Yewell brought the papers with him, and called out, as he gave them to the officer of the deck, that Greely’s party were at Cape Sabine, all well. The excitement of the moment was intense, and it spread with the rapidity of lightning through both the ships. It was decided instantly to go on to the Cape, and a general recall was sounded by three long blasts from the steam-whistle of the “Thetis.”
The first thing to be done before taking definite action was to go carefully over the papers that Taunt had found. All the officers who had remained behind in the two ships gathered around the wardroom table of the “Thetis,” and the records were hurriedly read aloud. As one paper after another was quickly turned over, until the last was reached, it was discovered with horror that the latest date borne by any of them was October 21, 1883, and that but forty days’ complete rations were left to live upon. Eight months had elapsed since then, and the belief was almost irresistible that the whole party must have perished during this terrible period of waiting and watching for relief.
It was a wonderful story. It told how the expedition, during its two years at Lady Franklin Bay, had marked out the interior of Grinnell Land, and how Lockwood had followed the northern shore of Greenland, and had reclaimed for America the honor of “the farthest north.” But there was no time now to think of what the expedition had accomplished; that was already a matter of history. The pressing question was, Where was Greely’s party now? and to that question it was too probable that there was but one answer.
The records had named the wreck-cache as the site of Greely’s camp, and preparations were made at once to go there. The cutter, with Colwell and his party on board, had not yet got away, having been stopped by the cries from the shore, and she now steamed back under the stern of the “Thetis.” Colwell was directed to go to the site of the cache and look for the explorers; and if any were alive,—of which the record gave little hope,—to tell them that relief was close at hand. As he was about to leave, he called out for a boat-flag, and one was thrown to him from the ship. This was bent on a boat-hook and set up in the stern of the boat.
Before the cutter had disappeared to the northward the commander of the expedition had gone on board the “Bear,” and the ship was under way, following the track of the cutter around the cape. The detachment under Harlow, which had found Greely’s scientific records and instruments on Stalknecht Island, and the other party under Melville, some of whom had not yet returned, were to come after in the “Thetis,” which was left behind to pick them up. The passage which the ships and the cutter were to make was about six miles, although from Payer Harbor to the wreck-cache, in a straight line, across the rugged neck of intervening land, it was less than half that distance. Fortunately, the southerly gale had set the ice off shore into Kane Sea, leaving a clear passage around for the vessels.
It was half-past eight o’clock in the evening as the cutter steamed around the rocky bluff of Cape Sabine and made her way to the cove, four miles farther on, which Colwell remembered so well from his hurried landing with the stores on the terrible night following the wreck of the “Proteus.” The storm, which had been raging with only slight intervals since early the day before, still kept up, and the wind was driving in bitter gusts through the openings in the ridge that followed the coast to the westward. Although the sky was overcast, it was broad daylight,—the daylight of a dull winter afternoon,—and as the cutter passed along, Colwell could recognize the familiar landmarks of the year before; the long sweep of the rocky coast, with its ice-foot spanning every cove, the snow gathered in the crevices, the projecting headlands, and the line of the ice-pack which had ground up the “Proteus,” dimly seen in the mists to the north, across the tossing waters of Kane Sea. At last the boat arrived at the site of the wreck-cache, and the shore was eagerly scanned, but nothing could be seen. Rounding the next point, the cutter opened out the cove beyond. There, on the top of a little ridge, fifty or sixty yards above the ice-foot, was plainly outlined the figure of a man. Instantly the coxswain caught up the boat-hook and waved his flag. The man on the ridge had seen them, for he stooped, picked up a signal-flag from the rock, and waved it in reply. Then he was seen coming slowly and cautiously down the steep rocky slope. Twice he fell down before he reached the foot. As he approached, still walking feebly and with difficulty, Colwell hailed him from the bow of the boat.
“Who all are there left?”
As the cutter struck the ice, Colwell jumped off and went up to him. He was a ghastly sight. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes wild, his hair and beard long and matted. His army blouse, covering several thicknesses of shirts and jackets, was ragged and dirty. He wore a little fur cap and rough moccasins of untanned leather tied around the leg. As he spoke, his utterance was thick and mumbling, and in his agitation his jaws worked in convulsive twitches. As the two met, the man, with a sudden impulse, took off his glove and shook Colwell’s hand.
“Where are they?” asked Colwell, briefly.
“In the tent,” said the man, pointing over his shoulder; “over the hill; the tent is down.”
“Is Mr. Greely alive?”
“Yes, Greely’s alive.”
“Any other officers?”
“No.” Then he repeated, absently, “The tent is down.”
“Who are you?”
Before this colloquy was over Lowe and Norman had started up the hill. Hastily filling his pockets with bread, and taking the two cans of pemmican, Colwell told the coxswain to take Long into the cutter, and started after the others with Ash. Reaching the crest of the ridge, and looking southward, they saw spread out before them a desolate expanse of rocky ground, sloping gradually from a ridge on the east to the ice-covered shore, which at the west made in and formed a cove. Back of the level space was a range of hills rising up eight hundred feet, with a precipitous face, broken in two by a gorge, through which the wind was blowing furiously. On a little elevation directly in front was the tent. Hurrying on across the intervening hollow, Colwell came up with Lowe and Norman just as they were greeting a soldierly-looking man who had come out from the tent.
As Colwell approached, Norman was saying to the man,—
“There is the lieutenant.”
And he added to Colwell,—
“This is Sergeant Brainard.”
Brainard immediately drew himself up to the position of the soldier, and was about to salute when Colwell took his hand.
At this moment there was a confused murmur within the tent, and a voice said,—
Norman answered, “It’s Norman,—Norman who was in the ‘Proteus.’”
This was followed by cries of “Oh, it’s Norman!” and a sound like a feeble cheer.
Meanwhile, one of the relief party, who in his agitation and excitement was crying like a child, was down on his hands and knees trying to roll away the stones that held down the flapping tent cloth. The tent was a “tepik,” or wigwam tent, with a fly attached. The fly, with its posts and ridge-pole, had been wrecked by the gale which had been blowing for thirty-six hours, and the pole of the tepik was toppling over, and only kept in place by the guy-ropes. There was no entrance except under the flap opening, which was held down by stones. Colwell called for a knife, cut a slit in the tent-cover, and looked in.
It was a sight of horror. On one side, close to the opening, with his head towards the outside, lay what was apparently a dead man. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were open, but fixed and glassy, his limbs were motionless. On the opposite was a poor fellow, alive to be sure, but without hands or feet, and with a spoon tied to the stump of his right arm. Two others seated on the ground, in the middle, had just got down a rubber bottle that hung on the tent-pole, and were pouring from it into a tin can. Directly opposite, on his hands and knees, was a dark man with a long matted beard, in a dirty and tattered dressing-gown, with a little red skull-cap on his head, and brilliant staring eyes. As Colwell appeared, he raised himself a little, and put on a pair of eye-glasses.
“Who are you?” asked Colwell.
The man made no answer, staring at him vacantly.
“Who are you?” again.
One of the men spoke up: “That’s the major,—Major Greely.”
Colwell crawled in and took him by the hand, saying to him, “Greely, is this you?”
“Yes,” said Greely in a faint broken voice, hesitating and shuffling with his words, “yes—seven of us left—here we are—dying—like men. Did what I came to do—beat the best record.”
Then he fell back exhausted.
The four men in the tent with Greely were two sergeants, Elison and Fredericks; Bierderbick, the hospital steward; and Private Connell, who, with Brainard and Long, were all that remained of the twenty-five members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. The scene, as Colwell looked around, was one of misery and squalor. The rocky floor was covered with cast-off clothes, and among them were huddled together the sleeping-bags in which the party had spent most of their time during the last few months. There was no food left in the tent but two or three cans of a thin, repulsive-looking jelly, made by boiling strips cut from the seal-skin clothing. The bottle on the tent-pole still held a few teaspoonfuls of brandy, but it was their last, and they were sharing it as Colwell entered; it was evident that most of them had not long to live.
As soon as Colwell understood the condition of affairs, he sent Chief-Engineer Lowe back to the cutter to put off to the “Bear” with Long, to report what had happened, and bring off the others with the surgeon and stimulants. Fredericks and Bierderbick presently got up and came out. Colwell gave them, as well as Greely and Elison, a little of the biscuit he had in his pocket, which they munched slowly and deliberately. Then he gave them another bit, while Norman opened one of the cans of pemmican. Scraping off a little with a knife, Colwell fed them slowly by turns. It was a pitiable sight. They could not stand up, and had dropped down on their knees, and held out their hands begging for more. After they had each been fed twice, they were told that they had had enough, that they could not eat more then without danger; but their hunger had now come back with full force, and they begged piteously to be helped again, protesting that it could do them no harm. Colwell was wisely deaf to their entreaties and threw away the can. When Greely found that he was refused he took out a can of the boiled seal-skin, which had been carefully husbanded, and which he said he had a right to eat, as it was his own. This was taken away from him, but while Colwell was at work trying to raise the tent, some one got the half-emptied can of pemmican, and by the time it was discovered had eaten its contents.
The weaker ones were like children, petulant, rambling and fitful in their talk, absent, and sometimes a little incoherent. While they were waiting for the return of the boat, Colwell and the ice-masters did their best to cheer them up by telling them that relief was at hand, and that the others would soon arrive. They could not realize it, and refused to believe it. So they were humored, and by way of taking up their thoughts, Colwell told them something of what had been going on in the world during their three years of exile. Curiously enough, there was much that they knew already. It turned out that among the stores from the “Proteus” were two boxes of lemons, and the fruit had been wrapped up in scraps of English newspapers,—“those lemons which your dear wife put up for us,” as one of them said to Colwell in a moment of wandering fancy. The latter could only disclaim the imaginary obligation to an imaginary person, but the impression had already faded.
As Greely complained of cold, Colwell gave him his gloves, and persuaded him to go back to his sleeping-bag. This was lying under the fallen tent-cloth, which the party had been too weak or too discouraged to raise up and disengage. Where the single remaining pole supported the tent there was a clear space of perhaps six feet, just enough for a man to stand upright, but around it the canvas was lying on the ground. The bag, from which Greely had hardly moved for a month, was found under the canvas, and by the united efforts of the three men the tent was partly raised.
Meanwhile, the “Bear” had arrived and Lowe had gone off in the cutter, taking with him Sergeant Long. Long was too weak to get on board without assistance, and was lifted over the side by some of the crew and taken to a chair in the wardroom. In reply to questions about the party and their condition, Long, in a husky voice, told his story: that all were dead except Greely and five others, who were on shore in “sore distress—sore distress;” that they had had a hard winter, and “the wonder was how in God’s name they had pulled through.” No words can describe the pathos of this man’s broken and enfeebled utterance as he said, over and over, “a hard winter—a hard winter;” and the officers who were gathered about him in the wardroom felt an emotion which most of them were at little pains to conceal. The first sign of the relief expedition which had reached the camp was the sound from the steam whistle of the “Thetis,” recalling the shore parties at Payer Harbor. Lieutenant Greely, lying on the ground in his tent, had heard it, as it was borne faintly over the neck of land, but the others had not noticed it in the roaring wind, and when he told them he had heard a steamer’s whistle, they thought it only the impression of his disturbed imagination. Long crawled out of the tent and, bracing himself against the wind, struggled up to the ridge; but nothing could be seen but the rocky coast, and the ice-foot, and the chopping sea with the pack stretching off in the distance. It was a bitter disappointment. Long went back disheartened, but after waiting uneasily awhile longer, he mounted the ridge a second time. Still there was nothing to be seen but the same hopeless prospect, and he was about to return again when the cutter came into view around the point above. After all these months of waiting it was hard to believe that he was not dreaming, but when he saw the coxswain wave the familiar flag, he knew that relief had come at last.