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The Paradise of the Ice Wilderness

Jul. Regis

We were half a dozen good friends, enjoying a glass of beer at the village inn, and we had just asked the sea captain for a story.

He put down his pipe and produced two small cuttings from his pocket-book. He cleared his throat and began:

Well, I should like to refute those strange hypotheses and statements which have been produced from many quarters regarding what occurred at the bay of Chantanga east of Cape Tscheljuskin in North Siberia during the winter of 1896-'97. It happened during the trip along the coast of North Asia, which I then made with the Swedish whaler, The White Bear, and the story which I am going to tell you will thus be the narrative of an eye witness to a queer occurrence in North Siberia on Christmas Eve in 1896.

For those among you who peradventure have not heard anything about the matter, I will read both these cuttings.

"December 29th, 1896. A Curious Discovery. On the morning of Christmas Day, a trapper of Russian nationality arrived at the little town of Popigaisk, near the mouth of the Chantanga in Chantanga Bay, telling the people in town and asking to be believed, that he had seen, some miles north of the town, fresh tracks of a large animal; and he was quite sure that this animal was a mastodon. If the man was right in his supposition, this means an astonishing bit of news. Our correspondent adds that a heavy snowfall has already blotted out the tracks of the animal."

"January 9th, 1897. A Christmas Guest from the Primitive Ages? A week ago we published a short article regarding a queer discovery in unknown Siberia. It seems now as if the discovery may be confirmed from another source. Many persons have certainly been looking for the tracks of the mastodon without result, but if we dared believe the Esquimau Amsalic, he has been close upon making a nearer acquaintance with the strange animal. He, too, had been searching for the tracks, until dusk began to fall and with it a fine, thick snow, which made it impossible for him to proceed any further. He was about to turn back, when, in the darkness, he heard a loud cracking — like that of ice breaking up in spring, he said. The next instant heavy clumsy feet resounded against the frozen ground and a clumsy, gigantic body of unusual shape rushed past by him so closely that he felt the rush of air. The animal had undoubtedly been frightened by something, perhaps by Amsalic himself. Since this narrative has been made public, several hunters have set out to hunt the mysterious animal."

When these articles were printed, I was frozen in with my ship and crew in the Polar Sea, but I have been told that they aroused considerable interest in certain quarters. Various ideas were debated; everyone had his own version of the matter. The most fantastic comments were published. Nevertheless, the truth seems more fantastic still.

On August 1st I sailed from Hammerfest, as captain, with my vessel, the old splendid White Bear, which, in spring, 1899, collided with an iceberg and sank off Archangel. The plan of the expedition was the usual one: to proceed along the north coast of Europe and Asia as long as possible, hunting for the whales and seals which are getting scarcer year by year. It was no new and untried enterprise. Already in the middle of 1800 an attempt had been made to create a regular whale traffic in those waters. Such an expedition usually stayed away a year, but proceeded in the summer as far as possible. In the winter it lay frozen in by the ice and returned the following spring with heavily-laden vessels.

We thus coasted along the shore of Kola and Kanin south of Koljugow and up towards Karuporten, a voyage which is a little longer in reality than in description. We were lucky. In three months we were able to discharge a full cargo at the company's station on Nova Semlja. Encouraged by our progress we continued eastwards, so that at the beginning of the winter we found ourselves at 114° eastern longitude in Nordenskiolds sea, after having followed about the same course as the Vega. Here, at the mouth of the Chantanga, we ultimately became icebound for the winter and had to prepare for an arctic winter sojourn.

The vast ice desert which surrounded us would have been irritating in its monotony if the eye had not found a fixed point in the expanse of white. Hardly fifty yards to our right was s little island, also covered with ice, from which one had a view of the narrow sound that separates the island from the mainland. The island was a mass of rock, in some pasts unusually high over the water's edge, while the mountain top in its center had a height of say three thousand feet. The island, which has no name on the chart, was christened by the crew "Hermit Island."

While the ship was being pushed out of the water by the ice, we built ourselves a winter hut on the island. Our new residence was very comfortable. The house was divided into one large and one small room. In the former resided a part of the crew and in the latter the mate, trapper Jenssen, the controller of the company, a young man, named Berg, who was much like on board the steamer on account of his friendly and pleasant manner, and lastly myself. The rooms were lighted and warmed by a dynamo which we had on board.

Under such circumstances it is not surprising that life is likely to be lonely and sad. And it was worst at Christmas time. We felt homesick, while we were sitting at a late breakfast on the 24th of December on Hermit Island. Everyone of us was taken up with his own thoughts, even the controller, Berg, showed a gloomy face, and we expected no pleasant Christmas.

But if we wanted a stimulating interruption, we got it. We had not quite finished our meal when the ship's cook threw open the door and rushed in, followed by a sailor. I asked in astonishment what was the matter, but the man was so bewildered that he could not reply, and the sailor explained, instead.

"Well, captain, we have made a discovery!" he said.

Their whole appearance was one of such helpless astonishment that I followed the two men without a word. My four comrades accompanied me, of course, and our two guides led us to the foot of a cliff, where the whole of the crew was standing staring at something. Not a little inquisitive, we made our way to them through the snow. At the side of the perpendicular stone wall a compact mass of ice had been gathering through the ages. Its size and color hinted a great age. The secret which it was hiding would, however, never have been revealed, if the cook, who was a very smart fellow, had not made a fire on exactly this spot in order to get some fresh water for the kitchen. The result was astonishing. When the cook returned for more water, the fire had melted a deep hollow in the ice at the side of the cliff, and when, by chance, he cast a glance through this ice window, what he saw was sufficient to make him sit down in the snow, dumb with astonishment.

The sparkling fire continued its work, and when we arrived, the hollow was over six feet deep, making a cavity in the ice wall outside of which the fire was burning. There was nothing unusual in all this but through the clear ice wall, the contours of a big animal could be seen. Embedded in the blue ice, we saw two curved tusks, each as long as a full-grown man.

"Ohoy," exclaimed Berg, his jovial mind soon mastering the astonishment. "More fuel! We are going to melt out the poor thing!"

Wood was fetched and the fire crackled and blazed.

The flames threw red reflections in among the ice rocks, and the shadows were deep violet and farther away blue. Above us the stars were sparkling and bright northern lights fluttered over half the sky. The intense heat caused the icy water to rush around our feet, but, while the undermost layers of wood hissed and sputtered and smoked in the snow-water, the uppermost flamed briskly, fed with dry bushes, which in more protected places had carried on a hopeless fight against the arctic cold. Round the fire all the crew of The White Bear were standing, gazing almost in stupor, at the scene and at each other. The contours of the big animal emerged more and more. The ice grew thinner and whiter. All at once a little black spot appeared. It grew bigger, and a brown-grey, hairy hide was bared.

"What the — is it not a mammoth?" cried Berg in his impulsive manner.

So it was. My men wished to cut out the animal with their axes, but I forbade it, fearing to injure the body. The ice melted slowly away, and finally the colossus stood free, under an arched roof of dripping ice. The shapeless beast measured about eleven feet in height and twelve feet in length — the trunk wag longer than the tallest man among the crew. The second mate, who always boasted of his knowledge, remarked that such discoveries had been made before in several places in Siberia and that the ice hermetically sealed and preserved the dead body and saved it from decay, as the cold hindered the activity of the decaying organism. The flesh of the animal before us was, therefore, as fresh as if it had lived yesterday and not several thousand years ago. In order to confirm his word, the man inserted his knife in the animal's side and behold — some drops of blood squirted out of the cut! At this sight, several of the fellows paled and I, too, grew more than astonished. This blood, that I saw dripping before my eyes, had been coursing through the veins of the animal during the primeval ages!

The crew, however, had brought more wood and the red flames from the fire threw a weird shining reflection on the thousand or more years old ice wall.

This scene in the darkness of the frozen expanses of the Polar Sea at Christmas time was so like a saga, that we hardly should have been astonished if the big animal body had awakened to life and stepped out among us. The hide was steaming, and the hairy trunk shook. Berg was polishing his nose loudly — would the mastodon lift its trunk in a thundering answer?

In eager curiosity the ship's mate was running about the animal, fingering it, measuring it and all the while holding a short scientific lecture to us others who were regarding the wonder in silence.

But this animal? Did not the legs shake under it? Did it not slowly alter its position? What would happen now?

Frozen and hungry, but not less interested, we waited breathlessly for the continuation of the adventure. And it came, though it took time.

When the fire had been fighting the thousand year old ice for some hours the colossus from antiquity began to stagger, and with a noise which shook the ground, the gigantic animal fell heavily on one side, extinguishing the flames as if he had blown out a candle. But simultaneously something else happened. Just where the colossus had been standing beside the wall of the cliff, we discovered a vault and within this we saw . . .

Several years have now passed since this event happened, but still I can hardly describe what we heard and saw when the thousand year old ice-field revealed its secret to us. During the whole of a long winter we had only seen ice, ice in every conceivable formation.

The monotony of the white and solitary ice-fields that stretched to the horizon had almost killed us. We had lost all hope of a change. I do not know whether you will understand me, but the mere prospect of an adventure of such unexpected proportions as this quite bewildered us.

Before our eyes there opened a rocky passage, covered with bleached skulls and skeletons, the bones of animals. These were creatures from hoary antiquity, which had guarded the secret! Above us loomed the heavy rock formations of the mountain, in their shadow hiding a world-startling mystery. For already from without we could see that the passage led into the depths of darkened caverns, into a system of passages and caves.

"Forward boys — follow your leader!" cried Berg and stormed into the darkness.

"Wait — a lantern!" I cried.

"Not necessary — it is already lighter here!" His answer sounded hollow, as if it had come from a mine.

We stood bewildered, not believing our eyes or ears. Finally four others and myself penetrated into the passage. From a distance, Berg called to us. The echoes changed each of his words to a rattling volley of musketry.

It was a low irregular vault, half dark for about a thousand yards ahead and filled by violently scattered rocks which in some places only gave space enough to creep through. The cleft finally widened into a high vaulted grotto, which lost itself in twilight in all directions — a silent and sinister place, whose inhabitants had been dumb for generations. Everywhere these bones! Eloquent, even if dumb evidences of races that perished long ago! A cold, dry air of decay and death filled our nostrils, yet the place was not uncanny or even sinister. The ground was covered with gorgeously shaped plants, many of which were luminous or strangely colored. There were ferns of a height that seemed enormous to us — unknown kinds of trees, flowers in subdued tints, mostly pale red, some with white stripes. It was a radiance of pale and clear colors that was delightful. While we were devouring the scene with our eyes, Berg joined us. Some yards farther on we were stopped by a murmuring sound. A watercourse slowly sought its way between the stones. And on its margins we found big bleached human bones. I took one of the grinning skulls in my hand. It stared at me with its empty eye cavities as if it were saying:

"Solve my secret, if you can!"

But where did this vegetation come from, this rich verdure in the midst of the ice wilderness? After having followed the watercourse for a while, we found the explanation. It stopped suddenly at the foot of a wall of rock, where a whirlpool was in action. I dipped my hand in the water. It was warm. A subterranean spring then — and further away — very, very high up — faint light was visible. There must be an opening.

The mate declared that we were standing on a volcanic crater bottom in what had been a fire-vomiting mountain, extinct long ago.

It was a paradise we had discovered, a paradise of twilight and solitude, it is true, but a pleasure garden compared with the cold expanse which outside stretched in all directions. We balanced ourselves on the stones and crossed over the watercourse and walked up the opposite shore, which sloped up from the water. Arrived at the top we found before us a large expanse, whose borders were lost in the darkness on all sides. Here and there phosphoric fungus growths spread a pale light over the bed rock. I sniffed the air.

"Queer," I remarked. "It seems to me as if..."

"It smelt of stables, yes," Berg interrupted me with a snort.

"And hundreds of them," added the mate emphatically.

Berg set up an hallooing. The echo replied with a hollow roar that startled us.

"What a mighty echo," remarked Berg, a trifle pale. After it had died away, a sinister silence fell over the cavern. We did not move.

"Down there, where the earth is softer . . ." the mate muttered in a perplexed voice.

"What?" I exclaimed.

He pointed along the shore.

"Do you not see the earth is full of footprints?"

"By Jove!" exclaimed Berg. "Footprints of the mammoth!"

"Or of a still bigger animal," the mate continued. "Some are old and dried up. Some were made later. Some were made today!"

He spoke the last sentence in such bewilderment, that we all drew nearer. All at once it seemed darker and uncannier about us than ever before.

"Hm," said Berg with a voice which he tried to make steady. "For my part I am turning back."

"Yes, let us go back!" I repeated.

At the same instant the echo was heard before us again, though we had only spoken in whisperings. Out of the darkness came a roar, strong as the trump of doom, and uttered at short intervals. It was heard again and again, followed by a sound as if a sledgehammer were regularly being thrown against the earth. My hair seemed to rise on my head and I lifted my arms, for I thought that the mountain was going to fall over me.

Something panted and stamped among the rocks, something roared and rumbled. Without a sound the mate held up his hand and pointed.

I followed his glance.

"Great Heaven!" I whispered.

There — between some gigantic ferns stood a comrade to the prehistoric animal we had just melted out of the ice, but living and, it seemed, of quite a different kind. The legs were those of an elephant, the body large and the throat thick and covered with long, straggling, red bristles. The head was enormous and finished almost abruptly with a large, broad mouth. The tail, which was furiously whipping the leaves of the giant ferns, was long, resembling that of a lizard.

The giant lizard, or whatever I am to call the thing, set up a hissing sound and approached us.

There was no mistake about it; its eyes were staring at us! It looked at us with a greediness which unrolled a perspective of horrible views for our inner sight.

For a moment we stared at each other, the animal from antiquity and the men from the Swedish whaler, The White Bear. Then the mate set off at top speed over stock and stone towards the entrance of the passage, followed closely by the rest of us. One of us cried out, but I do not think it was I.

We were running for life, and after us came a roll like thunder, when four heavy feet stamped against the bottom of the crater and the panting animal voice rose and fell. I sent up a silent prayer to the great Someone, that we might be permitted to get outside ere those feet....

The mate was running like a madman before me, to my left Berg, behind us the others and lastly the animal. In this order we entered the passage.

As it was very narrow and hardly would permit an animal of such dimensions to pass through it, we felt pretty safe here, but we didn't think of that. We imagined that the beast was close on our heels and on we ran. We used up the last remnant of air in our lungs to reach the entrance. But the cold had already begun to close it, and we had hard work to break it open again. Without a snowstorm raged, and it was a white death that confronted us. When we had worked halfway out to the ship, a man with a lighted but snowed-over lantern, met us. The North wind had raised its mighty voice, and the ice was already jamming The White Bear. For two weeks we worked day and night to save the ship. When we finally succeeded, we had drifted so far out that we dared not risk another attempt to reach the Hermit Island.

The ice wilderness up there still hides a sealed-up paradise. But by all top-lanterns and yard-arms, I am in no hurry to penetrate into that hidden region a second time

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