CHAPTER IX. THE RETURN FROM THE WEST
Ceaseless frost round the vast solitude
Bound its broad zone of stillness.
'We are all,' Scott wrote in his diary, 'very proud of our march out. I don't know where we are, but I know we must be a long way to the west from my rough noon observation of the compass variation.' But not for anything in the world did he want again to see the interior of Victoria Land. Writing two years after this great march he says: 'For me the long month which we spent on the Victoria Land summit remains as some vivid but evil dream. I have a memory of continuous strain on mind and body, lightened only by the unfailing courage and cheerfulness of my companions.'
From first to last the month of November had been a struggle to penetrate into this barren, deserted, wind-swept, piercingly cold, and fearfully monotonous region, and although on turning homewards the travelers were relieved by having the wind at their backs, the time of trial was by no means over. Only by utilizing all their powers of marching could they hope to retreat in safety from their position, and December opened with such overcast weather that valuable time had to be spent in the tent. During the next few days, however, good marches were made, until on December 9 everything changed abruptly for the worse.
On the afternoon of the 9th the surface became so abominably bad, that by pulling desperately they could not get the sledge along at more than a mile an hour. Oil was growing short, and in view of the future Scott had to propose that marching hours should be increased by one hour, that they should use half allowance of oil, and that if they did not sight landmarks within a couple of days their rations should be reduced. 'When I came to the cold lunch and fried breakfast poor Evans' face fell; he evidently doesn't much believe in the virtue of food, unless it is in the form of a hoosh and has some chance of sticking to one's ribs.'
Land was sighted on the 10th, 11th, and 12th, but the weather was as overcast as ever, and Scott was still in dreadful uncertainty of their whereabouts, because he was unable to recognize a single point. Ten hours' pulling per day was beginning to tell upon them, and although apart from the increasing pangs of hunger there was no sign of sickness, Scott remarks, on the 12th, that they were becoming 'gaunt shadows.'
During the morning of the 13th Evans' nose, which had been more or less frost-bitten for some weeks, had an especially bad attack. His attitude to this unruly member was one of comic forbearance, as though, while it scarcely belonged to him, he was more or less responsible for it and so had to make excuses. On this occasion when told that it had 'gone,' he remarked in a resigned tone, 'My poor old nose again; well, there, it's chronic!' By the time it had been brought round a storm was blowing, and though they continued to march, the drift was so thick that at any moment they might have walked over the edge of a precipice - a fitting prelude to what, by general consent, was admitted to be the most adventurous day in their lives.
Prospects, when they started to march on the next morning, were at first a little brighter, but soon a bitterly cold wind was blowing and high ice hummocks began to appear ahead of them. In this predicament Scott realized that it was both rash to go forward, as the air was becoming thick with snow-drift, and equally rash to stop, for if they had to spend another long spell in a blizzard camp, starvation would soon be staring them in the face. So he asked Evans and Lashly if they were ready to take the risk of going on, and promptly discovered that they were. Then they marched straight for the ice disturbance, and as the surface became smoother and the slope steeper their sledge began to overrun them. At this point Scott put Evans and Lashly behind to hold the sledge back, while he continued in front to guide its course, and what happened afterwards is described most graphically in the diary of the 15th.
'Suddenly Lashly slipped, and in an instant he was sliding downward on his back; directly the strain came on Evans, he too was thrown off his feet. It all happened in a moment, and before I had time to look the sledge and the two men hurtled past me; I braced myself to stop them, but might as well have attempted to hold an express train. With the first jerk I was whipped off my legs, and we all three lay sprawling on our backs and flying downward with an ever-increasing velocity. For some reason the first thought that flashed into my mind was that someone would break a limb if he attempted to stop our mad career, and I shouted something to this effect, but might as well have saved my breath. Then there came a sort of vague wonder as to what would happen next, and in the midst of that I was conscious that we had ceased to slide smoothly and were now bounding over a rougher incline, sometimes leaving it for several yards at a time; my thought flew to broken limbs again, for I felt we could not stand much of such bumping.
'At length we gave a huge leap into the air, and yet we traveled with such velocity that I had not time to think before we came down with tremendous force on a gradual incline of rough, hard, wind-swept snow. Its irregularities brought us to rest in a moment or two, and I staggered to my feet in a dazed fashion, wondering what had happened.