Polar Tales

It was only after much effort (and the beggaring of our several fortunes) that we managed to mount our Polar expedition. On the ship south there was much chaffing and general badinage, mostly to my detriment, as I have never been possessed of a lively wit; nor do I take pleasure in sly comments and friendly put-downs, being peaceably and sincerely inclined. But I bore all the sallies and raillery in the best humor I could muster, and turned what I trusted was a winning smile to all — in this way I hoped to demonstrate my own good graces, and let the earnestness of my phiz stand my surety.

In the Antarctic, conditions, while terrible, were no worse than expected — the summer being comparable, perhaps, to the heart of a Michigan winter — and much was wrought, and skillfully so. McWilliams especially distinguished himself by the subtlety of his brain and the muscularity of his hands; without him I don’t think we should have accomplished half of what we did. A small drop it was, perhaps, in the vast ocean of scientific studies that have been published regarding that uninhabitable continent, but worthwhile, nonetheless, and not unregarded by the community, I fancy.

But one particular incident lingers with me, even now, years later, when I look back on our time there, one that has not been published in any of the accounts of our journeying; indeed, we all swore the most solemn oaths to never breathe a word of what transpired on that most arid of continents, lest ridicule and ruin be our sole inheritence. But they are all dead, now, and I am the last, and feel the slow breath of Time upon me, and so I take up pen and write, that this rare incident — rarer, perhaps, than any heretofore recorded — shall not pass unknown into the darkest night with me. Though it shall not be believed, still I must write. Listen, then:

It was, I imagine, about midway through the three months of our expedition that McWilliams gathered us together and declared his intention to push out onto what was at that time an unexplored and disregarded peninsula, as much out of boredom as anything else. Certainly his stated purpose — to gather detailed notes on the curious gathering of penguins that was happening there — was the merest bagatelle; McWilliams was in wise a zoologist, and had heretofore evinced no interest in the manners and mores of the Antarctic fauna. Gardner was eager to go, of course, and his enthusiasm (so apparently unfeigned) soon convinced the rest of us of the merit of the excursion. I, too, went along, though I expected to be of little use, my mathematics being more useful in analyzing data than in gathering it; I own I was as bored and cabin-feverish as anyone, and any promise of novelty would have been sufficient excuse after six weeks of work, work, work.

It was a fine day for it, being a balmy 1 degree Centigrade, and clear as most days are, and — rarer luck! — windless; we set out in grand high spirits, singing and swinging our arms and high-stepping like grenadiers. The peninsula McWilliams had in mind was some few miles distant, and so we got there late in the day, three in the afternoon according to our chronometers, though of course we were in the middle of the long Antarctic summer and had weeks of daylight left, still in high spirits. McWilliams’ penguins were there, all right, and in such numbers as we had never seen. Gardner was in raptures, and directed us all with the dispatch of a Wellington, so that we took pictures and compiled notes for hours while the laborers erected the temporary shelters we planned to use while we conducted our explorations. I don’t know that I ever worked harder, or more cheerfully, while I was down there, notwithstanding the first, manic days when we all labored like stevedores.

We stayed there three days, and would have stayed there longer, save that our supplies were running low, and none of us — excepting perhaps Gardner — quite felt that the research we were conducting justified the expense and labor of staying longer. But Gardner, as I said, was in raptures, and insisted that we stay absolutely as long as possible, and managed to convince a handful of us to linger behind a few hours while the laborers and the bulk of the expedition set out for home; those few being himself, Tafferty, Barker, Clemens, Tiptree, and me, plus three coolies to ‘do’ for us. McWilliams was dead set against it, and abused us most foully — he’d gotten sick the second day and been in a pet ever since. He left with the rest, cursing us until his voice was swallowed by the howling of the wind; something we laughed about, afterward, having gotten used to his temper and his language over the weeks.

When we were alone, I think we all felt the freedom, and were inclined toward celebration. Gardner had a bottle of Bombay that he’d been saving and introduced it among us, saying, “No finer time for a celebration!” and laying a finger slyly alongside his nose. (It was no secret that he and McWilliams couldn’t abide each other; there was some history there that I’d never gotten the straight of, something going back to their college days — they’d attended the same university, and had been, apparently, inseparable, and later fallen out catastrophically, as is always the case when a close friendship sours.) We greeted this revelation with the verve and joy of the Marys experiencing the Resurrection on the road from the tomb, and proceeded to grow quite tipply.

I mention this, by the way, that none might accuse me of leaving aside incidents that might redound to my discredit; nonetheless, by the time of the Event we were all sober — stone sober — and, had any remained still under the influence of brother Booze, the Event itself would have sufficed to counteract his fell influence.

But, by and by, we finished with our carousing, and squared our shoulders to the task ahead of us, and did our level best to not think about the long, cold walk that waited for us beyond that. For hours we surveyed and photographed and filmed and annotated; Gardner seemed everywhere, adjusting this lens, correcting that observation, a veritable dynamo of scientific ecstasy, cracking jokes and jollying us along, even those of us (like myself) who had little intrinsic interest in penguins or, indeed, any Antarctic wildlife, until each of us began to feel something of his passion.

But, sadly, the Antarctic chill began to work its inexorable way among us, and, one by one, we slowed at our tasks, and turned our minds toward home. Even Gardner, indefatigable Gardner, eventually clapped his gloves together and cried out cheerily, “A brave and noble work, my friends! Thank you, all, for indulging me, but enough is enough, and we still have miles to go before we sleep. I think –“

There came an enormous hue and cry from the mass of penguins, a quite ungodly din that seemed like it went on for hours. Deafening, really, so much so that I (who have always been susceptible to loud noises) clapped my hands to my ears and closed my eyes tightly, and knew no more until the clamor had died down and the main body of the flightless beasts had dispersed.

We crept, the six of us and the three stevedores, over the slight ridge that had separated our camp from the empire of penguins, with no small amount of trepidation, for anything that could drive off that mass of flightless water fowl needs must give us pause, mere men that we were. A large white object had come to rest, just at the water’s edge, and it was this that appeared to have driven off the penguins.

“What is it?” cried Tafferty.

“It looks like –” murmured Clemens, and coughed asthmatically into his glove.

“–a bathtub, by God!” finished Tiptree, and sure enough it looked like a bathtub, an old-fashioned one of the claw-foot variety, a little weather-beaten perhaps by the salt water, but nothing that would have seemed out of place in an old Victorian house in Akron, Ohio.

Gardner wanted to get a closer look. I opposed the idea, but against the will of the group, who were (I fear) apt to be a little too hilarious about the whole escapade; in the end they carried the motion and set out boldly toward the quiddity, I trailing forlornly along behind, lonely as a cloud.

Upon inspection, the nonesuch was a bathtub, and one tenanted by two especially fine examples of Pygocelis antarctica. They were fighting, quite viciously, over some small package that lay in the bottom of the bathtub. The others burst out laughing.

“What?” I said. “What is it? A bar of soap?”

“No’,” gasped Barker, his Scottish burr rendered nearly indecipherable by the strength of his laughter, “no’ soap! Radio!” And collapsed back against the ice.

“I don’t understand,” I said.