Doctor Molke's Friends
SIPSU THE SAVAGE.
“ DO you wish to see one of my friends?” said Doctor Molke to me one bright morning, as we sat at breakfast in the cosey little dining-room of the Doctor’s Greenland lodge.
“ But he’s fifty miles or so away.”
“ So much the better.”
“And to reach him is not without danger.”
“ Not greater to others, perhaps, than to yourself.”
“ Shall we set out at once ? ”
“ The sooner the better.”
And the Doctor once more tinkled his little silver bell ; and once more Sophy of the silver seal-skin pantaloons and dainty snow-white boots tripped softly through the door.
“ We are going on a journey, Sophy,” said the Doctor ; “ can you put up for us something to eat and drink ? ”
“ Yes,” said Sophy promptly, “ but I should know better what to do if Doctor Molke would tell me how long he means to be away.”
“ Perhaps a week.”
“A week!” exclaimed Sophy, evidently surprised ; and she appeared as if very much inclined to ask the Doctor where he proposed taking the American to stay so long, for she looked first at him and then at me, and then at him again.
The Doctor quickly interpreted the puzzled expression of the countenance of his housekeeper, and prepared to gratify her.
“ You would like to know, Sophy,” said he, “where we are going,— would n’t you ? ”
“Yes,” she answered, and with a promptness, too, which showed that she had great interest in the matter, though I could not imagine why.
“ Then suppose I tell you we are going to pay a visit to Sipsu the savage,” said the Doctor.
“ I should n’t half believe it if you did,” answered Sophy.
“ But we are, really and truly,” said the Doctor.
“ Really and truly?” echoed Sophy, in, as it seemed to me, a half-inquiring, half-pleading tone of voice.
“ Yes, really and truly, Sophy.”
“ O, don’t do that! ” said she.
“ Why not, Sophy ? ”
“ Because,” said she, hesitating, — “ because it’s such a horrid place to take the American ; it will give him such a bad idea of the country.”
“ Perhaps his ideas of the country are as bad as bad can be already, Sophy ; at any rate, I think he can stand it; so be a good girl now, and help us off.”
This appeal to be a good girl and help us off was clearly made on the weak side of Sophy’s character ; for it was easy to see that a good girl in Doctor Molke’s estimation was what Sophy was very glad to be. At least, she made no further remonstrance, but at once tripped lightly out, as she had tripped lightly in, to do her master’s bidding ; giving, as she turned to go, a cunning little pout, and a modest shrug, which could not have been better done nor more charming to look upon had Sophy been dressed in petticoats and skirts, instead of silver-seal-skin pantaloons, and dainty snow-white boots, and fur-tipped jacket reaching to the waist.
In a couple of hours everything was ready for the start, and we went down to the boat. And the boat was really ready to some purpose. The sternsheets presented a tempting nest of fine robes of bear and fox skins ; a tent lay rolled up beside the mast ; the locker beneath the robes was filled with whatever in the shape of eatables and drinkables and smokables the most fastidious taste or hungry appetite could, in reason, desire ; while stretched across the ’thwarts were guns and rifles and pouches, and indeed everything that a hunter needed for a long campaign. Then there was a cooking furnace forward in the bows ; and it was clear enough that nothing had been neglected by my prudent host, or the thoughtful Sophy, or the pilot Adam, that could contribute to the comfort of the inner or the outer man.
Adam was as odd-looking a pilot as was ever seen. Coppery-faced, heavyjawed, broad-visaged, beardless, furcoated, and altogether stumpy, he was clearly a native-born Esquimau ; for nothing else was ever moulded exactly after that pattern. He was clean, which showed that he had received instruction and had profited by itHis name indicated that he enjoyed the benefits of baptism, and was of the Christian faith. He could speak a little English, which proved that " the schoolmaster was abroad,” even in Greenland.
“All ready, Adam?” inquired the Doctor, as we stepped aboard.
“Very ready,” answered the pilot, evidently desiring to exhibit his proficiency in the English tongue for my benefit.
“ Up anchor, then, and shake out the sails.”
The anchor was soon brought up out of a great bed of sea-weed in which it had been lying, and the sails unfurled by the seal-skin-coated Adam, assisted by three other natives, who had been shipped to pull an oar in case of need ; and with the Doctor at the tiller-ropes, we were soon gliding out of the harbor, shaping our course for the main-land, to the eastward.
The wind soon became light and baffling ; but, it being nearly midsummer, the temperature was quite warm, and the sun shone upon us all the time, — as bright and glorious at midnight as at noonday. This circumstance gave to the day a strange, romantic freshness that was truly delightful; for although the continuous daylight of the Arctic summer was not new to me, yet it seemed strange to be sailing on and on in an open boat, and never needing to look up a place of retreat for the night.
We were full thirty-six hours in the boat; and during this protracted sail we watched the changing scenery without weariness,-—-breaking the monotony, now and then, by prying into the mysteries of Sophy’s well-stocked locker, or by a shot at a passing bird, or by a nap, or by whatever else served most pleasantly to while away the time.
And the scenery about us was at all times enough in itself to occupy the thoughts and prevent fatigue. The great solid wall of the Greenland coast rose steadily before us ; and the multiplying cones of whiteness which climbed up behind it melted away among the clouds, unbroken by a single ray of green, — one boundless waste of sterile rocks, sublime as they were desolate.
By and by little islands began to show themselves above the water; and, as we passed near some of them, the eye was charmed by the discovery of here and there a patch of grass or moss mosaicked in dark slopes like emerald in a bed of jet. On several of these islands there were lonely little hunters’ huts. Sometimes the huts had peaked roofs, but more usually the roof was flat; the former denoting the white man’s home, the latter the shelter of a native hunter. Desolate as appeared the land, and dreary as it seemed for human residence, the air and sea were teeming with life. Great flocks of birds — principally eiderducks, different varieties of auks, and glaucous, tridactyl, and other kinds of gulls — were constantly darting by, or curiously hovering overhead. Seals in great numbers were sporting in the sea, putting up their faces as we neared them, as if to ask why we had come into their haunts ; and sometimes again upon the ice-fields that we passed great schools of them were lazily basking in the summer’s sun, or were fast asleep in the noonday heat.
And during all this time icebergs were constantly in sight, rising one after another from the sea before us, and sinking behind us, — passing us, as it were, in solemn procession, —sparkling all the while like precious gems, and now and then cracking and crumbling to pieces, piercing the air with sounds compared to which the loudest thunder would be hoarse and feeble. This latter phenomenon was clearly caused by the heat of the sun, which, falling unequally upon them, splits them with explosive violence, and tumbles fragments from their sides like a blast of powder in a quarry cliff.
Passing on among these unusual scenes, we came at length beneath a lofty cape, which rose almost square from the sea to the height of a thousand feet or more. Commencing at the bottom, a series of ledges followed each other to the very top; and on these ledges were standing, or sitting, bolt upright, long rows of birds, with black heads and backs and pure white breasts, crowded close together, and looking for all the world like soldiers with black shakos and Austrian coats, shoulder to shoulder, in solid column, on parade. They were the well-known lumme, one of the most numerous varieties of the Greenland auks.
There was not much sport to be had in slaughtering such stupid-looking innocents as these ; so we ran in close to the cliff, to observe, rather than to shoot.
The birds upon, the lower ledges were, as we came near, readily counted ; but above they vanished into scarcely distinguishable streaks of white. To and from all the ledges, low and high, birds were coming and going continually, as bees come and go from a hive, — hurrying to the sea to get a meal of shrimps, and hurrying back again to nurse their eggs, — each to its own particular egg (for each lays but one), on which it sits or stands bolt upright, and hatches out the chick, without a nest of any sort, and without the least protection from the naked rock.
The eggs being all alike, it seemed to me strange that each bird should know its own, and come back to it; but the Doctor told me that they did this with unerring certainty, each picking out its egg, as a hen would pick her brood of chickens from the largest flock. Sometimes an egg, however, tumbles from the shelf while its owner is away; and then the unhappy bird seizes upon the first unclaimed one she can find when she comes back, and down she sits upon it as unconcernedly as if it were her own, and there were no means among the feathered tribes for punishing theft. But she must take good care that she is not observed, else punishment will surely come. The robbed bird may rob another in her turn. But woe be unto her if the theft is known! I saw one old sober-sides, as we passed along, suddenly pounced upon by an infuriated hen, whose egg she had doubtless stolen ; and then began a combat as fierce and angry as ever took place between old fishwives. The birds clutched each other by the throat, they pounded each other with their wings, they pegged away at each other’s eyes, until at last their bills were locked together, and down they floundered to the water, where they kept on fighting still, until we pulled them into the boat and parted them, when Adam quickly wrung their necks, and soon after had them stewing in his pot, and made a meal of them.
Combats such as these were very frequent ; and the shrieks of the fighting birds, the screams of other birds who seemed to be spoiling for a fight, the endless scoldings and chatterings that were going on between near neighbors, as they sat there stiff and straight upon their rocky shelves, — all mingled with and added to the ceaseless flutter of the wings of birds that were flying to and fro, — filled the air with a roaring sound, which, distinguishable at a distance of several miles, almost drowned our voices as we neared the cape.
But this was nothing to what we were to see, for the Doctor had it in his head to make a sensation. He proposed a shot, — not, as he said, to slaughter the innocents, but to give them a fright for my benefit. Accordingly, all our pieces being made ready, we fired them off in concert. The effect was wonderful. As the strange, wild echo of our guns rang from crag to crag, off from every ledge, from the top to the bottom of the lofty wall, and throughout its mile or more of length from end to end, the startled birds came with the rush of a tornado, — ten thousand, or perhaps a thousand times ten thousand, frightened, fluttering, screaming birds. It was an instantaneous rush, a wild leap into the air, — some darting upwards, some downwards, others in a zigzag course, and all in such rapid flight that they fairly whistled through the air, while down along the wall behind them, from ledge to ledge, came a perfect cataract of spattering eggs.
The number of birds that passed over us was something almost incredible. They were so thick for a few moments that they cast a shadow like a cloud. They soon came down with a tremendous splash upon the sea, — all, at least, except a few of the bravest, which wheeled about and put back again before they had flown far. Upon the sea, however, they did not long remain, but, gaining courage, all swarmed back again to their rocky ledges, hastening to get upon their eggs once more before they cooled; and there, as we looked back with our glasses, we saw them in the distance, in long rows, bolt upright as they had been before, looking still more and more like soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, in solid column, on parade.
This cape passed, we were now fairly within a deep, wide bay or fiord. The coast on either side was tortuous and craggy ; the land behind the coast was mountainous and white. The fiord was dotted with islands and was crowded with icebergs.
The scene was dreary past description, and grew more and more dreary as we went along; for the icebergs multiplied in number, and the smaller fragments covered the sea to such an extent that we were often compelled to pick a crooked passage, or to make a wide detour. And all the while, as we were thus pushing our way into this dreary wilderness, deafening sounds were pealing through the air, and reverberating from the cliffs ; for masses of ice were, as described before, tumbling from the bergs on every side, while now and then a berg turned over in the sea, rolling the waves beneath us as if a gale of wind were piling up the waters.
To the dreariness of the scene a weird effect was added by the strange forms of the bergs as we passed them by. For in the clear, glittering ice were fashioned rude semblances of towers and spires, — of castles, and architectural designs of every sort, and beasts and birds and sphinx-like shapes, colossal as those of Thebes.
But a pleasant light was stealing through the ice-forest from the midnight sun, and the bergs reflected the hues of the sky and clouds above,— blue and purple and bright crimson, — while the water, as seen against the ice, was green. Its tender emerald hues were reflected up into the deep caverns, and underneath the overhanging shelves and tongues of the icy walls; and as the waves rolled into these caverns, and beneath these overhanging shelves, sometimes with a deep, resounding roar, the green light would come and go, and flutter as if it were a vapor playing there.
This play of light in the air and water was, however, of short duration ; for a heavy cloud at length came trailing over us from the sea, at first winding gracefully about the crests of the icebergs, and then, after a while, settling down heavily upon the waters in a blinding mist.
And now the sounds of falling ice, which before could be traced to their source, came from out a gloom into which the eye could not penetrate. Mysterious darkness hung over the fiord, and it seemed as if mysterious voices were warning us away or enticing us to ruin.
And as I listened to these voices coming from the fog, (which appeared so heavy that the sun could never lift it,) and watched the angular and threatening masses and fragments of ice among which we were moving, and thought how frail was our little boat, and how merciless the ice, it seemed to me indeed that the voices might well be warnings of approaching evil, for in the event of a collision there was but a slender chance for us.
The Doctor was intent upon his duty of steering the boat, and he guided it with a skilful hand. Conversation was checked by the necessity for greater caution and watchfulness. I observed the Doctor’s fine face attentively. His practised eye was quick to detect every new danger in time to avoid it, and I was charmed with the calmness and confidence of his whole demeanor.
Presently, however, his face wore an expression of intense earnestness. He peered into the dense fog-bank ahead of us with an eagerness which astonished me. Then his smooth, calm brow became suddenly knit; and, as it seemed to me, an impatient, angry shadow passed across his features. In an instant he jammed his helm hard down, and called sharply to Adam to “ let go the sheets.”
The boat came quickly to, but I could see no cause for this manœuvre. There was scarcely a piece of ice visible, and we were free, so far as I could see, from every source of danger, lying quietly upon the dark waters, the sails shaking and flapping in the wind.
But when I directed my eyes to the same quarter with Doctor Molke’s, I was not long in detecting a moving object, vaguely looming through the murky air, and very near to us. The fog and the sea were so closely blended that there was no line of demarcation visible beyond the distance of a few yards, and the object, whatever it might be, seemed as if it were floating in the air, swaying from side to side, and steadily coming towards us. When it had arrived within about fifty yards, it wheeled to the left, and appeared to increase its speed.
Up to this time, whatever may have been the impression upon Doctor Molke’s mind as to the nature of the apparition, I was certainly much puzzled, the thick atmosphere magnified it so immensely, and distorted its proportions in every way. The refraction of the fog apparently lifted it above the place where the imagination placed the line of water, and it might well have been taken for some huge winged creature from the skies, sweeping down upon us with threatening gestures.
I was not, however, long in doubt; for the moment the object wheeled, I detected, in the little shimmering line of light which lay above the water, the outlines of a boat, and the figure of a man, paddling through the mist.
At this instant the Doctor called loudly to the strange boatman to stop; but he was evidently not so inclined, — holding steadily to his course, and apparently exerting himself to the utmost to hide himself again in the fog from which he had so suddenly appeared.
As soon as it became clear that the boatman would not stop in obedience to his summons, the Doctor dropped the tiller-ropes, and sprang to his feet ; and before I knew what he was about, the sharp crack of a rifle stunned my ears, and went echoing among the icebergs that lay buried in the mist.
I saw the rifle-ball strike the water to the left of the boatman ; and as my curiosity was keenly excited to know more of him, I was glad that no harm had as yet come to him. And in truth there was, on the Doctor’s part, no present intention of hurting him. At least he said that the rifle had not been aimed. He had fired merely to “bring him to,” — and it had that result very speedily; for the boat was wheeled about at once, and the boatman halted, facing us.
“Come here ! ” shouted the Doctor, in a peremptory tone of voice. Without further delay the boatman started towards us,— slowly, however, and cautiously.
The conduct of this boatman was wholly inexplicable to me, for there could be no doubt that he saw us, and also heard the summons of Dr. Molke. Why, then, was he seeking to avoid us ? It seemed to me that the meeting of human beings in a place like this —lonely and full of danger —must be such an unusual event, that, under any circumstances, it would be welcome.
Why, on the other hand, the Doctor should manifest such great eagerness to speak to the man, when he was, with not less eagerness, striving to avoid us, I was equally at a loss to understand, the more especially as I could not see that the Doctor would in any possible way be the gainer by an interview.
I looked intently into the Doctor’s face to see if that would help me to read the riddle.
Clearly Doctor Molke was not a man in the habit of seeing his commands slighted ; but there was more than this at the bottom of his undisguised displeasure. Besides, he must have too much sense, I thought, to be displeased merely because a wayfarer on the fiord might choose to pass him by, and go on about his business.
The effect was most remarkable as the boat approached us. From its immense size, and the constantly changing shape which it assumed in the dense fog, the figure dwindled down at length to human proportions, as it came near, — paddling to right and left. My interest was by this time raised to the highest pitch. There was something so strange in our situation and surroundings, that the introduction of this episode into the experiences of the day — the sudden appearance of a human being in this vast ice-forest and impenetrable mist, and the bringing him to our side a captive—added the fascination of mystery to the sense of novelty and surprise. The incident occurred most opportunely, for I had already made up my mind that with the closing down of the fog had come the end of our pleasant experiences, and, growing damp and chilly, was about to bury myself in the fur robes, and be patient.
But who and what was this mysterious boatman who was coming to us a captive ? To give it the greater romance, I might have taken him for some pirate of the ice-forest, had the idea of icebergs and pirates been in any way capable of association. There was more reason for belief that he was some outlawed criminal, fleeing from the sight of man, and venturing abroad only when nature dropped a curtain behind which he might steal in safety; for when I got a fair view of his face, I found it altogether villanous ; and yet one could not feel disposed to judge him by any common standard.
A more singular-looking creature it would be difficult to imagine. His boat itself was a curiosity to see, — the frailest thing, perhaps, that ever carried human freight; and yet, to the nautical eye, its lines were beautiful, — gracefully curved and indicating speed. It had no keel, and rode upon the water with the lightness of a duck, turning about as easily, and shooting forwards or backwards without any apparent effort of the boatman. It was propelled and guided by a long oar, which the boatman grasped in the middle, and which had a blade at either end, neatly tipped and strengthened with ivory. The length of the boat was about twenty feet, and its width as many inches at the middle, from which it tapered to a sharp point at either end, where were ivory ornaments, as on the paddles, and an ivory cut-water, thin and sharp, like the blade of a knife. The frame of it was made of light wood, cunningly lashed together, and over this frame tanned seal-skins were stretched, and sewed with sinew thread in a perfect seam. The skins covered both the top and the bottom, leaving only a small hole at the centre, to admit the boatman’s body to the waist. Around this hole was drawn firmly the lower margin of the boatman’s outer coat, which, made of the same tanned leather as the boat itself, was surmounted with a hood which covered up the head and was brought tightly with a draw-string around the face before the ears, while the sleeves were fastened with other draw-strings about the wrists. There was not left a single orifice through which a drop of water could find its way either to the body of the man or inside his boat, no matter how much the waves might wash over him, — even burying man, boat, and all from sight.
The man and the boat were indeed one, — bound together, moving together, acting together in every way, and apparently possessed of the same life and will. Every movement was firm and free, through the lightness and gracefulness of the boat and the extraordinary strength of the boatman. His arms and shoulders were immense. The former were long and large ; the latter were broad and square ; while a tremendous chest gave a firm support to both.
I have said the face of the man was villanous ; but I should rather say that it was savage, — savage in every feature, — coarse and unrestrained and strong, — full of passion and of energy; but whether naturally cruel I could not well make out.
His features showed plainly that he belonged to the same race as our pilot, Adam, and differed only in degree,— in being coarser in every particular. Everything that was marked in Adam’s face was more marked in this mysterious boatman’s. The face was something broader, the cheek-bones were more projecting, the jaws were heavier, the nose was flatter. The mouth was very large and very wide, the chin was small, and the lips were thick. The upper lip was long, and on this and the chin there were a few stiff black bristles ; but upon no other part of the face was there any beard. As in all his race, the inner corners of the boatman’s eyes were drawn down, giving the impression that the nose had tumbled from its natural fastenings, and had pulled the eyes a little out of place.
The whole aspect of the man, as he came paddling towards us in his little boat, with the water flying over him as he lifted up his oar on one side to dip it on the other, was therefore most forbidding; while the light and easy movement of the man and boat together was most attractive, and a charming sight to see.
Why he was coming, or rather had been brought, towards us, was of course what I wished to know ; but the Doctor was so intent upon securing him, that I determined to postpone the solution of the mystery to some other time, — contenting myself with observing, before he came well in view, that I thought it “ strange that he should desire to avoid us.”
“ O, not at all,” said the Doctor, — “ not at all ; these Greenlanders are an odd race, and their whims are endless.”
“He is, then, an Esquimau?” said I, inquiringly.
“ Yes, and I should have told you that before. But you see I took a fancy to speak with him, and I was busy about that. I did not want him to get away, you know. Not only is he an Esquimau, but an untamed one. We call him Sipsu the savage.”
“ The name, I think, of the person we are to visit, if I remember rightly.”
“The very same, and this is the very man himself. You see I did well to send that ball after the fellow, for otherwise we should have missed him.”
Sipsu came up looking very sullen, as he had abundant cause to do. When within a few yards of us, he backed water with his oar, and brought his boat to rest, almost with the suddenness of a skilful rider bringing up a horse on his haunches.
“ Hallo, Sipsu! ” cried the Doctor, as if not noticing his sullen looks ; “ I thought you did n’t see us, and did n’t hear me call, so I fired to let you know we were about.”
Sipsu did not appear to see any joke in the firing of the gun, or pleasure in being near us ; for he gave neither smile nor answer, and did not change a muscle of his sullen face.
“ We are going up to see you,” continued the Doctor. “ Here is a stranger come in a big ship from a great country far away across the waters, and he wants to visit you. We are going up to your island.”
The savage manifested no further signs of satisfaction than he had done before, merely nodding his head and saying “Ap” for “Yes,” by way of signifying that he understood what was said to him.
“ Where were you going to in such a hurry, Sipsu ?” asked the Doctor.
“ Catch seals,” answered Sipsu, in a language which former experiences enabled me sufficiently to understand.
“ And how long since you learned to catch seals without a harpoon?” inquired the Doctor, pointing to the place on the boat where the hunting implements belonged, and where there was nothing but a spear and line.
“ Harpoon over there,” said Sipsu, pointing with his oar.
“ All right,” replied the Doctor, “very good. Now, Sipsu, lead the way, while we follow after ; and, mind, don’t go too fast. If you hear me call, you had better stop at once.”
The savage appeared to hesitate, and looked more sullen than ever.
“ Do you hear ?” exclaimed the Doctor, in a louder voice.
At this the savage dipped his oar, and turned his boat up the fiord, and with two sturdy strokes shot his little craft ahead as if it were an arrow from a bow.
“ Slow and easy,” called the Doctor, after him, — “ slow and easy ” ; — and Sipsu eased his stroke and proceeded quietly.
“ A little angry just now at being disturbed,” said the Doctor, in his usual quiet way, “but he ’ll soon cool off.”
“ Much bad man,” exclaimed Adam, overhearing his master’s words.
“ Much mind your business, and get that jib tack aboard, or I ’ll much break your head,” exclaimed the Doctor, impatiently.
Under the healthful stimulus of this warning, Adam and his fellows quickly performed their part of the preparations for getting under way; and we were soon once more standing up the fiord, Sipsu leading off, and, as he had been directed, adapting his movements to ours.
We had not far to go, for in less than half an hour a dark rock loomed through the thick atmosphere, and almost as soon as it was seen we were alongside of it and ashore. Sipsu pulled up near by, and, laying his boat close to the rock, he placed his paddle on it, and, with this to steady him, drew himself out of his cranky little boat; and then, seizing it with his right hand, he took it on his arm as one would take a marketbasket, and started up the rocky slope, we following.
In a few moments we came to a large seal-skin tent; and on a great platform of flat stones, elevated on eight pillars of the same material, Sipsu placed his boat. This platform was about six feet from the ground, and held a sledge, a great quantity of harpoons and spears and lines, and harness for dogs.
“ Why were these things put there so carefully ? ”
“ To keep the dogs from tearing them to pieces.”
And indeed the looks of the dogs were in keeping with their destructive reputation. Savage and untamed, like their master, they came crowding round us, howling and snarling in a very threatening and disagreeable sort of way. There were about two or three dozen of them, of all sizes and colors ; and, unlike those which I had usually seen in the country elsewhere, they were sleek and well fed, and looked as if they might whirl a sledge over the ice at a very rapid rate.
When Sipsu had put away his boat (kayak he called it), he took off his tanned seal-skin coat, and stood before us robed in shaggy furs ; and now it was that, for the first time, the sullen lines of his face were crossed by any other expression. Suddenly he gave a broad and hideous grin, and proceeded to imitate a white man’s custom by advancing towards me with an outstretched hand. For an instant I felt inclined to shrink as I would from the embrace of one of Du Chaillu’s gorillas ; but my repugnance to the savage did not make itself apparent; and, indeed, when he opened his mouth to speak, I found myself so much amused by what he said that I only remembered I was holding the hand of an exceedingly interesting and curious specimen of the human race.
“ Why,” said he to Doctor Molke, with an apparent heartiness, difficult, after the Doctor’s recent treatment of him, to understand,-—“why, it ’s as good as a big fat seal to see you, and better than a pile of eggs to see this other man ! Who is he?”
Whereupon the Doctor told him; and then the savage invited us to enter his tent, himself leading the way.
“ Here’s an intérieur for you ! ” said the Doctor, as we entered.
And truly it was a curious one. Half the floor (which was the smooth surface of the rock on which the tent was pitched) was raised a little above the other with flat stones ; and on the edge of this raised place sat three women, dressed in shaggy furs like Sipsu, and having round coarse faces like Sipsu, and the same flat and tumble-down appearance generally of eyes and nose which distinguished the Sipsu countenance ; and behind these three women, seven children had rooted and stowed themselves away in a nest of furs, as little pigs would root and stow themselves away in a well-littered sty, leaving their seven odd-shaped little heads only to be seen ; and from these seven little heads fourteen little tumble-down eyes stared at us wildly.
These were Sipsu’s seven children, and the three women were his wives.
Two of these women were watching lamps which were supported upon stones, and were smoking villanously beneath pots which hung suspended from the rafters of the tent. From these same rafters were dangling articles of dress and skins of birds and foxes. In the left-hand corner there was a pile of the same sort of materials ; in the right-hand corner there was a litter of whining puppies ; and directly in the centre there was the quarter of a seal, which the third woman was cutting into bits, and tossing into the pots which hung above the smoking lamps.
Curiosity satisfied, we were glad enough to get out into the open air again, and to look about a little. The tent was Sipsu’s summer residence ; but near by was his residence for the winter. This was simply a low, flat hut, built of stones and turf, and was evidently thought to be a great affair by its savage proprietor ; but it did not possess sufficient attraction to tempt either of us within the entrance, where we should have been compelled to stoop very low, or crawl ten feet on our hands and knees, before reaching the doorway.
Passing this hut, we went on to a little lake of melted snow, around which grew a fringe of moss and grass. Some snipe were flying about, which we were quick to bag; and we plucked some bright little flowers, which were growing there in a very doleful sort of way, and apparently unhappy. I thought they looked up into my face appealingly, but when I stuck them in my button-hole they did not seem so grateful, for they wilted away immediately.
There was no need to wander farther, for there was nothing more to see, — a mass of rough and rugged rocks as bare of life as the desert sands. But here, in spite of the desolation, the savage Sipsu lived and prospered, and here he was at home. A strange home, truly,— on a little rocky island in a wilderness of icebergs, and within the sound of their everlasting cannonade. Great icebergs towered above the island on every side, and great heaps of ice were piled along the beach. Yet myriads of birds were flying through the air, and seals in any number were playing in the sea. It was not difficult to see whence the savage Sipsu drew his supplies.
And his supplies were plentiful, as was shown on every hand. I asked him if he never came to want.
“ Did he always have everything he needed ? ”
“ What was the food he most relied upon ? ”
“The skins of what animals for clothes ? ”
“No others ? ”
“ Bears and foxes.”
“ No more ? ”
“ Sometimes birds.”
The savage seemed indisposed to talk, but he would answer; so I kept up a fusillade of questions, determined, if I could, to draw him out.
“ Why did he live upon this rocky island, away up here among the icebergs ? ”
“Because he liked to.”
This might well have posed a modest man ; but I was not to be baffled thus.
“ Why did he not go down where Doctor Molke lived ? ”
“ Among the Christian folks ?” asked Sipsu; and he grinned a horrid grin.
“ I hate them.”
“What, Doctor Molke here, and all ? ”
“ No, not him ; but all the rest of them”; — and he laughed a savage laugh.
I could get little out of him; but, by keeping up the questions, I found (at least, that was what he told me) that he would not go down to where Doctor Molke lived, because, if he did, he would be obliged to give up two of his wives, — which he would never think of doing, — and to do what the missionary bade him, — which he would never, never do, for, if he did, he would “be as poor as all the rest of them.”
“ But was he not poor here ? ”
“ No ; who ever said he was ? He always had plenty to eat and plenty to wear. His wives and children never wanted for anything, and nobody ever came there and went away with a hungry stomach.”
“ Do you think him a case for conversion ?" asked the Doctor, laughing.
I had to own that I thought the man was fixed in a faith not easily shaken. His theory of life was deeply rooted ; and he had clearly no doubt whatever that he had done his part, when he kept his wives and children well fed and clothed, and had a good supply of food laid up against an evil day, with blubber enough to wash it down, and to keep his lamps well going in the long, dark winter; and when, besides keeping himself and family in comfort, he could also give to any weary hunter who might pass that way food and shelter.
“ One of your friends, I think you told me,” said I to the Doctor, as we walked down towards the boat.
“ Rather a sorry one, you think.”
“ Each to his taste ; but I should hardly suppose the savage would quickly forget that business in the fog, or be inclined to love you very deeply if such are your approaches to his heart.”
“ Ah,” replied the Doctor, “ he knows me of old ; and if he does not, as is quite likely, love me very deeply, he has a wholesome fear of me, which is perhaps as well. Yet, after all, he has befriended me, and would serve me now, though in truth he has little cause to love me; and I really cannot help liking the fellow after a fashion. He is the most perfect type of his race that I have met with, and it is always something, at least, to get hold of a man with real character.”
“Certainly, whether good or bad.”
“ Well,” continued the Doctor, “ there is not much of the good, according to our civilized notions, in this savage Sipsu, as several persons hereabouts can testily to their sorrow. He has all the savage virtues, if you know what they are, as well as savage resentment. It so happens that I am the only man who can do anything with him, and the only white man for whom he manifests the least attachment.”
“ I should not think,” said I, “ that sending balls about his head, as you did to-day, would be calculated to strengthen it.”
The Doctor smiled, and said the fellow was rather used to it.
“ What was his business in the fog? ”
“ That is what I should like to know myself, and is what I shall try to find out, — some villany, you maybe sure. In such a fog hunters will never stir abroad on any pretext, for they are sure to lose their way ; they cannot hunt, and are always in needless danger. But this savage finds his way through a fog in a most marvellous manner, with the instinct of the sleuthhound upon the scent.”
By the time the Doctor had finished this not very flattering account of his friend, we had reached our landingplace, where Adam had found a patch of grass, and pitched our tent, and cooked a supper (or dinner, or breakfast, whatever it might be,—for, the sun being always up, we gave no thought to the time of day), and had ransacked Sophy’s well-stored locker, and spread all the eatables and drinkables and smokables upon a huge flat rock near by. And to these things we did, as one may well suppose, full and ample justice.
Supper over, we crept into the tent, and stowed ourselves away in the furs we had brought with us, and, undisturbed by the ceaseless roar of the crumbling ice on every side, or by the damp and chilly fog, I slept as soundly as I had done before on the Doctor’s “ shake-down ” in his Greenland lodge ; and even more soundly, for I did not dream, as I had done there, of the man in the moon, nor indeed of anything. But before I fell asleep I could not but reflect how strange it was that a human being should from choice live in such an icy wilderness; and as I thought of my companion in the tent, and remembered my wonder on seeing him first in the lonely spot which he had chosen for his residence, and then recalled what I had seen of the strange relation existing between these two men, — the one a type of everything refined, the other a true savage, — both alone in solitary places, with all the evidences about them of their status in the social scale, — it seemed to me that I had come into a very land of wonders, and that they would never cease.
- See Article “ Doctor Molke, " in the Number for July, 1867.↩