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The Giant of the North: Pokings Round the Pole

The Giant of the North: Pokings Round the Pole

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


The Giant was an Eskimo of the Arctic regions. At the beginning of his career he was known among his kindred by the name of Skreekinbroot, or the howler, because he howled oftener and more furiously than any infant that had ever been born ...
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  The Giant was an Eskimo of the Arctic regions. At the beginning of hiscareer he was known among his kindred by the name of Skreekinbroot, orthe howler, because he howled oftener and more furiously than any infantthat had ever been born in Arctic land. His proper name, however, wasChingatok, though his familiars still ventured occasionally to style himSkreekinbroot.

  Now it must not be supposed that our giant was one of those ridiculousmyths of the nursery, with monstrous heads and savage hearts, who liveon human flesh, and finally receive their deserts at the hands of famousgiant-killing Jacks. No! Chingatok was a real man of moderate size--not more than seven feet two in his sealskin boots--with a lithe,handsome figure, immense chest and shoulders, a gentle disposition, anda fine, though flattish countenance, which was sometimes grave withthought, at other times rippling with fun.

  We mention the howling characteristic of his babyhood because it was, inearly life, the only indication of the grand spirit that dwelt withinhim--the solitary evidence of the tremendous energy with which he wasendowed. At first he was no bigger than an ordinary infant. He was,perhaps, a little fatter, but _not_ larger, and there was not an oilyman or woman of the tribe to which he belonged who would have noticedanything peculiar about him if he had only kept moderately quiet; butthis he would not or could not do. His mouth was his safety-valve. Hisspirit seemed to have been born big at once. It was far too large forhis infant body, and could only find relief from the little plumpdwelling in which it was at first enshrined by rushing out at the mouth.The shrieks of pigs were trifles to the yelling of that Eskimo child'simpatience. The caterwauling of cats was as nothing to the growls ofhis disgust. The angry voice of the Polar bear was a mere chirpcompared with the furious howling of his disappointment, and the barkingof a mad walrus was music to the roaring of his wrath.

  Every one, except his mother, wished him dead and buried in the centreof an iceberg or at the bottom of the Polar Sea. His mother--squat,solid, pleasant-faced, and mild--alone put up with his ways with thatlong-suffering endurance which is characteristic of mothers. Nothingcould disturb the serenity of Toolooha. When the young giant,

that wasto be

, roared, she fondled him; if that was ineffectual, she gave him awalrus tusk or a seal's flipper to play with; if that did not suffice,she handed him a lump of blubber to suck; if that failed, as wassometimes the case, she gambolled with him on the floor of her snow-hut,and rubbed his oily visage lovingly over her not less oleaginouscountenance. Need we enlarge on this point? Have not all mothers actedthus, or similarly, in all times and climes?

  From pole to pole a mother's soulIs tender, strong, and true;Whether the loved be good or bad--White, yellow, black, or blue.

  But Toolooha's love was wise as well as strong. If all else failed, shewas wont to apply corporal punishment, and whacked her baby with hertail. Be not shocked, reader. We refer to the tail of her coat, whichwas so long that it trailed on the ground, and had a flap at the endwhich produced surprising results when properly applied.

  But the howling condition of life did not last long.

  At the age of five years little Chingatok began to grow unusually fast,and when he reached the age of seven, the tribe took note of him as amore than promising youth. Then the grand spirit, which had hithertosought to vent itself in yells and murderous assaults on its dotingmother, spent its energies in more noble action. All the little boys ofhis size, although much older than himself, began to look up to him as achampion. None went so boldly into mimic warfare with the walrus andthe bear as Chingatok. No one could make toy sledges out of inferiorand scanty materials so well as he. If any little one wanted asuccourer in distress, Skreekinbroot was the lad to whom he, or she,turned. If a broken toy had to be mended, Chingatok could do it betterthan any other boy. And so it went on until he became a man and agiant.

  When he was merely a big boy--that is, bigger than the largest man ofhis tribe--he went out with the other braves to hunt and fish, andsignalised himself by the reckless manner in which he would attack thepolar bear single-handed; but when he reached his full height andbreadth he gave up reckless acts, restrained his tendency to display hisgreat strength, and became unusually modest and thoughtful, evenpensive, for an Eskimo.

  The superiority of Chingatok's mind, as well as his body, soon becamemanifest. Even among savages, intellectual power commands respect.When coupled with physical force it elicits reverence. The young giantsoon became an oracle and a leading man in his tribe. Those who hadwished him dead, and in the centre of an iceberg or at the bottom of thePolar Sea, came to wish that there were only a few more men like him.

  Of course he had one or two enemies. Who has not? There were a few whoenvied him his physical powers. There were some who envied him hismoral influence. None envied him his intellectual superiority, for theydid not understand it. There was one who not only envied but hated him.This was Eemerk, a mean-spirited, narrow-minded fellow, who could notbear to play what is styled second fiddle.

  Eemerk was big enough--over six feet--but he wanted to be bigger. Hewas stout enough, but wanted to be stouter. He was influential too, butwanted to reign supreme. This, of course, was not possible while thereexisted a taller, stouter, and cleverer man than himself. Even ifEemerk had been the equal of Chingatok in all these respects, therewould still have remained one difference of character which would haverendered equality impossible.

  It was this: our young giant was unselfish and modest. Eemerk wasselfish and vain-glorious. When the latter killed a seal he always keptthe tit-bits for himself. Chingatok gave them to his mother, or to anyone else who had a mind to have them. And so in regard to everything.

  Chingatok was not a native of the region in which we introduce him tothe reader. He and the tribe, or rather part of the tribe, to which hebelonged, had travelled from the far north; so far north that nobodyknew the name of the land from which they had come. Even Chingatokhimself did not know it. Being unacquainted with geography, he knew nomore about his position on the face of this globe than a field-mouse ora sparrow.

  But the young giant had heard a strange rumour, while in his far-offcountry, which had caused his strong intellect to ponder, and his hugeheart to beat high. Tribes who dwelt far to the south of his northernhome had told him that other tribes, still further south, had declaredthat the people who dwelt to the south of them had met with a race ofmen who came to them over the sea on floating islands; that theseislands had something like trees growing out of them, and wings whichmoved about, which folded and expanded somewhat like the wings of thesea-gull; that these men's faces were whiter than Eskimo faces; thatthey wore skins of a much more curious kind than sealskins, and thatthey were amazingly clever with their hands, talked a language that noone could understand, and did many wonderful things that nobody couldcomprehend.

  A longing, wistful expression used to steal over Chingatok's face as hegazed at the southern horizon while listening to these strange rumours,and a very slight smile of incredulity had glimmered on his visage, whenit was told him that one of the floating islands of these Kablunets, orwhite men, had been seen with a burning mountain in the middle of it,which vomited forth smoke and fire, and sometimes uttered a furioushissing or shrieking sound, not unlike his own voice when he was aSkreekinbroot.

  The giant said little about these and other subjects, but thoughtdeeply. His mind, as we have said, was far ahead of his time andcondition. Let us listen to some of the disjointed thoughts thatperplexed this man.

  "Who made me?" he asked in a low tone, when floating alone one day inhis kayak, or skin canoe, "whence came I? whither go I? What is thisgreat sea on which I float? that land on which I tread? No sledge, nospear, no kayak, no snow-hut makes itself! Who made all that which Ibehold?"

  Chingatok looked around him, but no audible answer came from Nature. Helooked up, but the glorious sun only dazzled his eyes.

  "There _must_ be One," he continued in a lower tone, "who made allthings; but who made _Him_? No one? It is impossible! The Maker musthave ever been. _Ever been_!" He repeated this once or twice with alook of perplexed gravity.

  The northern savage had grasped the grand mystery, and, like all truephilosophers savage or civilised who have gone before him, relapsed intosilence.

  At last he resolved to travel south, until he should arrive at thecoasts where these strange sights before described were said to havebeen seen.

  Having made up his mind, Chingatok began his arrangements without delay;persuaded a few families of his tribe to accompany him, and reached thenorth-western shores of Greenland after a long and trying journey bywater and ice.

  Here he spent the winter. When spring came, he continued his journeysouth, and at last began to look out, with sanguine expectation, for thefloating islands with wings, and the larger island with the burningmountain on it, about which he had heard.

  Of course, on his way south, our giant fell in with some members of thetribes through whom the rumours that puzzled him had been transmitted tothe far north; and, as he advanced, these rumours took a more definite,also a more correct, form. In time he came to understand that thefloating islands were gigantic kayaks, or canoes, with masts and sails,instead of trees and wings. The burning mountain, however, remained anunmodified mystery, which he was still inclined to disbelieve. Butthese more correct views did not in the least abate Chingatok's eagerdesire to behold, with his own eyes, the strange men from the unknownsouth.

  Eemerk formed one of the party who had volunteered to join Chingatok onthis journey. Not that Eemerk was influenced by large-minded views or athirst for knowledge, but he could not bear the thought that his rivalshould have all the honour of going forth on a long journey ofexploration to the mysterious south, a journey which was sure to be fullof adventure, and the successful accomplishment of which wouldunquestionably raise him very much in the estimation of his tribe.

  Eemerk had volunteered to go, not as second in command, but as anindependent member of the party--a sort of free-lance. Chingatok didnot quite relish having Eemerk for a companion, but, being agood-humoured, easy-going fellow, he made no objection to his going.Eemerk took his wife with him. Chingatok took his mother and littlesister; also a young woman named Tekkona, who was his wife's sister.These were the only females of the exploring party. Chingatok had lefthis wife behind him, because she was not robust at that time; besides,she was very small--as is usually the case with giants' wives--and hewas remarkably fond of her, and feared to expose her to severe fatigueand danger.

  The completed party of explorers numbered twenty souls, with theirrespective bodies, some of which latter were large, some small, but allstrong and healthy. Four of the men were friends of Eemerk, whom he hadinduced to join because he knew them to be kindred spirits who wouldsupport him.

  "I go to the ice-cliff to look upon the sea," said Chingatok onemorning, drawing himself up to his full height, and unconsciouslybrushing some of the lamp-black off the roof of his hut with the hood ofhis sealskin coat.

  At this point it may be well to explain, once for all, that our giantdid not speak English, and as it is highly improbable that the readerunderstands the Eskimo tongue, we will translate as literally aspossible--merely remarking that Chingatok's language, like his mind, wasof a superior cast.

  "Why goes my son to the ice-cliff?" asked Toolooha in a slightlyreproachful tone. "Are not the floes nearer? Can he not look on thegreat salt lake from the hummocks? The sun has been hot a long timenow. The ice-cliffs are dangerous. Their edges split off every day.If my son goes often to them, he will one day come tumbling down uponthe floes and be crushed flat, and men will carry him to his mother'sfeet like a mass of shapeless blubber."

  It is interesting to note how strong a resemblance there is in sentimentand modes of thought between different members of the human family.This untutored savage, this Polar giant, replied, in the Eskimo tongue,words which may be freely translated--"Never fear, mother, I know how totake care of myself."

  Had he been an Englishman, he could not have expressed himself morenaturally. He smiled as he looked down at his stout and genial mother,while she stooped and drew forth a choice morsel of walrus flesh fromone of her boots. Eskimo ladies wear enormous sealskin boots the wholelength of their legs. The tops of these boots are made extremely wide,for the purpose of stowing away blubber, or babies, or other oddarticles that might encumber their hands.

  Chingatok seemed the personification of savage dignity as he stoodthere, leaning on a short walrus spear. Evidently his little motherdoted on him. So did Oblooria, a pretty little girl of about sixteen,who was his only sister, and the counterpart of her mother, hairy coatand tail included, only a few sizes smaller.

  But Chingatok's dignity was marred somewhat when he went down on hishands and knees, in order to crawl through the low snow-tunnel which wasthe only mode of egress from the snow-hut.

  Emerging at the outer end of the tunnel, he stood up, drew the hood ofhis sealskin coat over his head, shouldered his spear, and went off withhuge and rapid strides over the frozen billows of the Arctic Sea.

  Spring was far advanced at the time of which we write, and the sun shonenot only with dazzling brilliancy, but with intense power on the fieldsof ice which still held the ocean in their cold unyielding embrace. Theprevious winter had been unusually severe, and the ice showed little orno sign of breaking up, except at a great distance from land, where theheaving of the waves had cracked it up into large fields. These weregradually parting from the main body, and drifting away withsurface-currents to southern waters, there to be liquefied and re-unitedto their parent sea.

  The particular part of the Greenland coast to which the giant went inhis ramble is marked by tremendous cliffs descending perpendicularlyinto the water. These, at one part, are divided by a valley tilled witha great glacier, which flows from the mountains of the interior with asteep declivity to the sea, into which it thrusts its tongue, or extremeend. This mighty river of ice completely fills the valley from side toside, being more than two miles in width and many hundred feet thick.It seems as solid and motionless as the rocks that hem it in,nevertheless the markings on the surface resemble the currents andeddies of a stream which has been suddenly frozen in the act of flowing,and if you were to watch it narrowly, day by day, and week by week, youwould perceive, by the changed position of objects on its surface, thatit does actually advance or flow towards the sea. A further proof ofthis advance is, that although the tongue is constantly shedding offlarge icebergs, it is never much decreased in extent, being pushed outcontinuously by the ice which is behind. In fact, it is this pushingprocess which causes the end of the tongue to shed its bergs, because,when the point is thrust into deep water and floats, the motion of thesea cracks the floating mass off from that pail which is still aground,and lets it drift away.

  Now it was to these ice-cliffs that the somewhat reckless giant betookhimself. Although not well acquainted with that region, or fully aliveto the extent of the danger incurred, his knowledge was sufficient torender him cautious in the selection of the position which should formhis outlook.

  And a magnificent sight indeed presented itself when he took his standamong the glittering pinnacles. Far as the eye could reach, the sea laystretched in the sunshine, calm as a mill-pond, and sparkling withice-jewels of every shape and size. An Arctic haze, dry and sunny,seemed to float over all like golden gauze. Not only was the sunencircled by a beautiful halo, but also by those lovely lights of theArctic regions known as parhelia, or mock-suns. Four of these made nomean display in emulation of their great original. On the horizon,refraction caused the ice-floes and bergs to present endless variety offantastic forms, and in the immediate foreground--at the giant's feet--tremendous precipices of ice went sheer down into the deep water, while,away to the right, where a bay still retained its winter grasp of anice-field, could be seen, like white bee-hives, the temporary snow-hutsof these wandering Eskimos.

  Well might the eye, as well as the head, of the so-called savage riseupwards while he pondered the great mystery of the Maker of all! As hestood on the giddy ledge, rapt in contemplation, an event occurred whichwas fitted to deepen the solemnity of his thoughts. Not twenty yardsfrom the point on which he stood, a great ice-cliff--the size of anaverage house--snapped off with a rending crash, and went thunderingdown into the deep, which seemed to boil and heave with sentient emotionas it received the mass, and swallowed it in a turmoil indescribable.

  Chingatok sprang from his post and sought a safer but not less loftyoutlook, while the new-born berg, rising from the sea, swayedmajestically to and fro in its new-found cradle.

  "It is not understandable," muttered the giant as he took up his newposition and gazed with feelings of awe upon the grand scene. "I wonderif the pale-faced men in the floating islands think much about thesethings. Perhaps they dwell in a land which is still more wonderful thanthis, and hunt the walrus and the seal like us. It is said they comefor nothing else but to see our land and find out what is in it. Whyshould I not go to see their land? My kayak is large, though it has nowings. The land may be far off, but am I not strong? They arepale-faced; perhaps the reason is that they are starved. That must beso, else they would not leave their home. I might bring some of thepoor creatures to this happy land of ours, where there is always plentyto eat. They might send messengers for their relations to come anddwell with us. I will speak to mother about that; she is wise!"

  Like a dutiful son, the giant turned on his heel, descended the cliffs,and went straight home to consult with his mother.