[Jules Verne’s Le Sphinx des glaces, published in 1897, was a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Of the two existing English translations, the 1898 version by Mrs. Cashel Hoey, under the title An Antarctic Mystery, is by far the more complete, and is in many ways quite good. However, it omits as much as forty percent of the the original text, eliminating much of the descriptive material and some dialogue. I have begun a fairly extensive revision and completion of that translation, and will post chapters on the blog as they are completed.]
The Sphinx of the Ice Fields
By Jules Verne
The Kerguelen Islands
No doubt this tale of the Sphinx of Ice will be met with disbelief. No matter. It is good, I think, that it be put before the public, which is free to believe it or not.
It would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for the beginning of these marvelous and terrible adventures than the Desolation Islands. Their name was given to them, in 1779, by Captain Cook, and, indeed, given what I have seen during a stay of some weeks there, I can affirm that they deserve the lamentable title given them by the celebrated English navigator. Desolation Islands—that says it all.
I know that geographical nomenclature insists on the name of Kerguelen, generally adopted for the group which lies in 49° 45’ south latitude, and 69° 6’ east longitude. This is because, in the year 1772, the French baron Kerguelen was the first to report those islands in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the commander of the squadron on that voyage believed that he had found a new continent on the limit of the Antarctic seas, but in the course of a second expedition he recognized his error. There was only an archipelago. But trust me when I say that Desolation Islands is the only suitable name for this group of three hundred isles or islets in the midst of the vast expanse of ocean, which is constantly disturbed by austral storms
Nevertheless, the group is inhabited, and as of August 2, 1839, thanks to my presence at Christmas Harbour, the number of Europeans and Americans who formed the nucleus of the Kerguelen population had for two months even been increased by one unit. It I true, I only awaited an opportunity to leave the place, having completed the geological and mineralogical studies which had brought there.
Christmas Harbour belongs to the most important isle of the archipelago, with an area measuring four thousand five hundred kilometers square—half that of Corsica. It is quite secure, with straight and easy access. The ships can moor there in four fathoms of water. After having doubled, to the north, that Cape François that Table Mountain dominates from twelve hundred feet, look across the arch of basalt, largely hollow at its point. You will see a narrow bay, protected by islets against the furious winds from the east and west. At the base is carved Christmas Harbour. Let your ship make way directly starboard. When it is returned to its anchorage, it can rest on a single anchor, with ease in turning, as the bay is not covered by ice.
Moreover, the Kerguelens possess other fiords, and those by the hundreds. Their coasts are ragged, frayed like the hem of a poor woman’s skirt, especially in the parts between the north and the south-east. Islands and islets abound. The soil, of volcanic origin, is composed of quartz, mixed with a bluish stone. In summer it is covered with green mosses, grey lichens, various hardy plants, especially wild saxifrage. Only one edible plant grows there, a kind of cabbage, with a very bitter flavor, that one would seek in vain in other countries.
There are indeed surfaces which are suited, as rookeries, for the habitat of royal and other penguins, innumerable bands of which people these environs. Dressed in yellow and white, their heads thrown back, their wings appearing like the sleeves of a robe, these stupid fowl resemble from afar a line of monks in a procession along the shoreline.
Let us add that the islands afford refuge to numbers of sea-calves, seals, and sea-elephants. The taking of those amphibious animals either on land or from the sea is profitable, and may lead to a trade which will bring a large number of vessels into these waters.
On the day already mentioned, I was strolling on the port when my host accosted me and said:
“Unless I am much mistaken, time is beginning to seem very long to you, Mr. Jeorling?”
The speaker was a big tall American, installed for twenty years at Christmas Harbour, who kept the only inn on the port.
“If you will not be offended, Mr. Atkins, I will acknowledge that I do find it long.”
“Not at all,” replied that gallant. “You can imagine that I ma as accustomed to answers of that kind as the rocks of the Cape are to the rolling waves.”
“And you resist them as well.”
“Of course. From the day of your arrival at Christmas Harbour, when you descended at the inn of Fenimore Atkins, at the sign of the Green Cormorant, I said to myself: In a fortnight, if not in a week, you would have enough of it, and would be sorry you had landed in the Kerguelens.”
“No, Mr. Atkins; I never regret anything I have done.”
“That’s a good habit, sir.”
“Besides, in wandering this group, I have gained by observing curious things. I have crossed the rolling plains, covered with hard stringy mosses, and I shall take away curious mineralogical and geological specimens with me. I have gone sealing, and taken sea-calves with your people. I have visited the rookeries where the penguin and the albatross live together in good fellowship, and that was well worth my while. You have given me now and again a dish of petrel, seasoned by your own hand, and very acceptable when one has a fine healthy appetite. I have found a friendly welcome at the Green Cormorant, and I am very much obliged to you. But, if I am right in my reckoning, it is two months since the Chilean two-master Penãs set me down at Christmas Harbour in mid-winter…
“And you want,” exclaimed the innkeeper, “to get back to your country, which is mine as well, Mr. Jeorling, to return to Connecticut, to see once more Hartford, our capital…”
“Doubtless, Mr. Atkins, for I have been a globe-trotter for close upon three years. One must come to a stop and take root at some time.”
“Yes! Yes! And when you have taken root, replied the American with a wink, you end up putting out branches!”
“Just so! master Atkins. However, as I have no more family, it is likely that I shall bring the line of my ancestors to an end! At forty I do not fancy putting out branches, as you have, my dear innkeeper, for you are a tree, and a fine tree at that…”
“An oak, and even a green oak, if you will, Mr. Jeorling.”
“And you were right to obey the law of nature! Now, if nature has given us the legs to walk… “
“She has also given us something to sit upon!” responded Fenimore Atkins, with a great laugh. “That’s why I am comfortably settled at Christmas Harbour. My companion Betsey has gratified me with ten children, who will present me with grandchildren in their turn, who will climb my calves like kittens.”
“Will you never return to your native land?… “
“What would I do there, Mr. Jeorling, and what could I have done?… The poverty!… Here, on the contrary, in these Desolation Islands, where I have never had the occasion to feel desolate, ease has come to me and mine.
“Without doubt, Master Atkins, and I congratulate you for it, since you are happy… Nevertheless, it is possible that one day the desire might take hold of you…”
“To uproot myself, Mr. Jeorling!… Come on!… An oak, I tell you, and just try to uproot an oak, when it is rooted to mid-trunk in the rock of Kerguelen!”
It was delightful to hear this worthy American, so completely acclimated to this archipelago, so vigorously tempered in the harsh inclemencies of its climate. He lived there, with his family, like the penguins in their rookeries,–the mother, a hearty matron, the sons, all strong, in thriving health, knowing nothing of the distempers or dilatations of the stomach. Business was good. The Green Cormorant, adequately stocked, had the practice of all ships, whalers and others, that dropped anchor at Kerguelen. He provided them with tallow, grease, tar, pitch, spices, sugar, tea, canned goods, whiskey, gin, brandy.
One would have looked in vain for a second inn at Christmas-Harbour. As for the sons of Fenimore Atkins, they were carpenters, sail-makers, fishermen, and hunted amphibians at the base of all the passes during the warm season. They were honest folk who had, without much ado, followed their destiny…
“Well, Master Atkins, let me assure you,” I declared, “I am delighted to have come from Kerguelen, and I will take away good memories… However, I will not be sorry to take to the sea again…”
“Come on, Mr. Jeorling, a little patience!” this philosopher told me. You should never desire or hasten the hour of separation. Do not forget, besides, that the fine weather will not be slow to return… In five or six weeks…
“In the meantime,” I cried, “the hills and the plains, the rocks and the shores will be covered with thick snow, and the sun will not have the strength to dissolve the mists on the horizon…”
“Why, Mr. Jeorling! You can already see the wild grass push up through its white jacket!… Look closely…”
“Yes, with a magnifying glass!… Between us, Atkins, do you dare to claim that your bays are not still ice-locked in this month of August, which is the February of our northern hemisphere?…”
“I acknowledge that, Mr. Jeorling. But again I say have patience! The winter has been mild this year. The ships will soon show up, in the east or in the west, for the fishing season is near.”
“May heaven attend you, Master Atkins, and may it guide safely to port the ship which cannot tarry… the schooner Halbrane!…
“Captain Len Guy, replied the innkeeper. He is a gallant sailor, although he is English—there are fine folks everywhere–and he takes in his supplies at the Green Cormorant.”
“You think that the Halbrane…”
“Will be reported within eight days off Cape Francois, Mr. Jeorling, or, if it is not, it will be because there is no longer a Captain Len Guy, and if there is no longer a Captain Len Guy, it is because the Halbrane has sunk under full sail between the Kerguelens and the Cape of Good Hope!”
With that, and a haughty gesture, indicating that such a turn of events was hardly possible, Master Fenimore Atkins left me.
I hoped that the predictions of my innkeeper would not be slow in coming to pass, for the season advanced. As he said, there were already visible symptoms of the summer season–summery for these waters, at least. Let the site of the principal island be roughly the same in latitude as that of Paris in Europe and Quebec City in Canada, very well! But it is a question of the southern hemisphere, and, we know it well, thanks to the elliptical orbit that the earth describes, of which the sun occupies one of the foci, that hemisphere is colder I winter than the northern hemisphere, and also warmer than it in summer. What is certain is that the wintry period is terrible in the Kerguelens because of the storms, and because the seas are frozen for several months, although the temperature there is not extraordinarily harsh, – being on an average two degrees centigrade in winter, and seven in summer, as in the Falklands or at Cape Horn.
It goes without saying that, during that period, Christmas-Harbour and the other ports no longer shelter a single ship. In the era of which I speak, steamers were still rare. As for sailing ships, concerned to not let themselves be captured by the ice, they went in search of the ports of South America, on the west coast of Chili, or those of Africa, – most generally Cape-Town of the Cape of Good Hope. A few row boats, some taken by the frozen waters, others beached and encrusted in ice to the tip of their masts, was all that the surface of Christmas-Harbour offered to my view.
However, if the differences in temperature were not great in the Kerguelens, the climate there was still damp and cold. Very frequently, especially in the western parts, the group is assailed by squalls from the north or west, mixed with hail or rain. To the east, the skies are clearer, although the light there is half veiled, and on that side the snow line on the mountain ridges is at fifty feet above the sea.
Thus, after the two months that I had just passed in the Kerguelen archipelago, I awaited nothing so much as the occasion to depart again on the schooner Halbrane, the qualities of which my enthusiastic innkeeper never ceased to extol to me, from both the social and maritime points of view.
“You will never find better!” he repeated day and night. “Of all the long captain in the long history of the English fleets, not a one is comparable to my friend Len Guy, either for bravery, or for skill!… If he showed himself more forthcoming, plus talkative, he would be perfect!”
Thus I had resolved to take the recommendation of Master Atkins. My passage would be booked as soon as the schooner had dropped anchor in Christmas-Harbour. After a rest of six to seven days, she would take to the sea again, headed for Tristan da Cunha, whence she carried a cargo of tin and copper ore.
My plan was to remain a few weeks of the summer season on that island. From there, I intended to set out for Connecticut. However, I did not fail to take into due account the share that belongs to chance in human affairs, for it is wise, as Edgar Poe has said, always “to reckon with the unforeseen, the unexpected, the inconceivable, which have a very large share (in those affairs), and chance ought always to be a matter of strict calculation.”
And if I quote our great American author, it is because, although I am a very practical sort, of a very serious character and a hardly imaginative nature, I nonetheless admire that genial poet of human peculiarities.
Besides, to return to the Halbrane, or rather to the occasions that would be offered me to embark at Christmas-Harbour, I feared no disappointment. At that time, the Kerguelens were visited every year by a large number of ships – at least five hundred. The whale fishery gave fruitful results, as one will judge by the fact that an elephant of the sea can provide a ton of oil, that is to say a return equal to that of a thousand penguins. It is true that in recent years not more than a dozen ships land at this archipelago, since the abusive destruction of the cetaceans has so drastically reduced their number.
Thus, I had no uncertainty about the opportunities that would present themselves to leave Christmas-Harbour, even if, the Halbrane failing to make its rendezvous, captain Len Guy did not arrive to clasp the hand of his chum Atkins.
Each day, I went for a walk around the port. The sun was beginning to grow strong. The rocks, volcanic terraces and columns, shed bit by bit their white winter gown. On the beaches, on the basalt cliff, grew a wine-colored moss, and, offshore, snaked ribbons of seaweed fifty or sixty yards long. On the flats, toward the far end of the bay, some grasses raised their time points – and amongst them the lyella, which was of Andean origin, those produced by the Fuegian flora, and also the only shrub on this soil, the gigantic cabbage of which I have already spoken, so precious for its anti-scorbutic properties.
As for land mammals, although marine mammals abound in these parts, I did not encounter a single one, nor any batrachians or reptiles. There were only a few insects – butterflies and other species – and even these did not fly, for before they could put their wings to use, the atmospheric currents would carry them away and onto the rolling billows of these seas.
Once or twice, I had gone out in one of these solid longboats in which the fishermen face the gales that beat the rocks of the Kerguelen like catapults. With these boats, one could attempt the crossing to Cape-Town, and reach that port, if one had the time. But let me assure you, I had no intention of leaving Christmas-Harbour under those conditions… No! I would pin my hopes on the schooner Halbrane, and that without delay.
In the course of these promenades around the bay, my curiosity attempted to grasp all the various aspects of that rugged coast, that bizarre, colossal, skeleton, all made up of igneous formations, whose bluish bones emerged through holes in winter’s white shroud…
What impatience gripped me, sometimes, despite the wise counsels of my innkeeper, so happy with his existence in his house at Christmas-Harbour! It is a rare breed, in this world, that the practice of life has made into philosophers. However, in Fenimore Atkins, the muscular system did not prevail over the nervous system. Perhaps he also possessed less intelligence than instinct. Such people are better armed against the jolts of life, and it is possible, when all is said and done, that their chances of finding happiness here below are more considerable.
“And the Halbrane…?” I would say to Atkins each morning.
“The Halbrane, Mr. Jeorling?” he would respond to me in a positive tone. “Of course, it will arrive today, and if not today, it will be tomorrow!… In any event, there will certainly come a day, will there not, which will be the eve of the day when the flag of captain Len Guy will fly at the entrance to Christmas-Harbour!”
Certainly, in order increase the field of view, I would have had to climb the Table-Mount. By an ascent of twelve hundred feet, one obtained a range of thirty-four or thirty-five miles, and, even through the haze, perhaps the schooner would have been glimpsed twenty-four hours sooner? But to climb that mountain, with its flanks still puffy with snow to the very summit… only a fool would have thought of it.
In my rambles on the shore, I put numerous amphibians to flight, sending them plunging into the newly released waters. But the penguins, heavy and impassive creatures, did not decamp at my approach. Was it not for the air of stupidity that characterizes them, one would have been tempted to speak to them, on the condition of speaking their shrill, deafening tongue. As for the black petrels, the black and white puffins, the grebes, the terns, and the scoters, they were quick to take wing.
One day, I was permitted to witness the departure of an albatross, saluted by the very best croaks of the penguins,—like a friend who no doubt abandoned them forever. These powerful fliers can cover stages of two hundred leagues, without taking a moment’s rest, and with such rapidity that they sweep through vast spaces in a few hours.
That albatross, motionless upon a high rock, at the end of the bay at Christmas-Harbour, watched the sea as the surf broke violently on the reefs.
Suddenly, the bird rose with a great sweep into the air, its claws folded beneath it, its head stretched out like the prow of a ship, uttering its shrill cry: a few moments later it was reduced to a black speck in the vast height and disappeared behind the misty curtain of the south.
To be continued…
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur, based in part
on the 1898 translation by Mrs. Cashel Hoey.]
on the 1898 translation by Mrs. Cashel Hoey.]