In choosing the site of the hut on our Home Beach I had thought of the possibility of northerly winds bringing a swell, but had argued, firstly, that no heavy northerly swell had ever been recorded in the Sound; secondly, that a strong northerly wind was bound to bring pack which would damp the swell; thirdly, that the locality was excellently protected by the Barne Glacier, and finally, that the beach itself showed no signs of having been swept by the sea, the rock fragments composing it being completely angular.
When the hut was erected and I found that its foundation was only 11 feet above the level of the sea ice, I had a slight misgiving, but reassured myself again by reconsidering the circumstances that afforded shelter to the beach.
The fact that such question had been considered makes it easier to understand the attitude of mind that readmitted doubt in the face of phenomenal conditions.
The event has justified my original arguments, but I must confess a sense of having assumed security without sufficient proof in a case where an error of judgment might have had dire consequences.
It was not until I found all safe at the Home Station that I realised how anxious I had been concerning it. In a normal season no thought of its having been in danger would have occurred to me, but since the loss of the ponies and the breaking of the Glacier Tongue I could not rid myself of the fear that misfortune was in the air and that some abnormal swell had swept the beach; gloomy thoughts of the havoc that might have been wrought by such an event would arise in spite of the sound reasons which had originally led me to choose the site of the hut as a safe one.
The late freezing of the sea, the terrible continuance of wind and the abnormalities to which I have referred had gradually strengthened the profound distrust with which I had been forced to regard our mysterious Antarctic climate until my imagination conjured up many forms of disaster as possibly falling on those from whom I had parted for so long.
We marched towards Cape Evans under the usually miserable conditions which attend the breaking of camp in a cold wind after a heavy blizzard. The outlook was dreary in the grey light of early morning, our clothes were frozen stiff and our fingers, wet and cold in the tent, had been frostbitten in packing the sledges.
A few comforting signs of life appeared as we approached the Cape; some old footprints in the snow, a long silk thread from the meteorologist’s balloon; but we saw nothing more as we neared the rocks of the promontory and the many grounded bergs which were scattered off it.
To my surprise the fast ice extended past the Cape and we were able to round it into the North Bay. Here we saw the weather screen on Wind Vane Hill, and a moment later turned a small headland and brought the hut in full view. It was intact – stables, outhouses and all; evidently the sea had left it undisturbed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. We watched two figures at work near the stables and wondered when they would see us. In a moment or two they did so, and fled inside the hut to carry the news of our arrival. Three minutes later all nine occupants were streaming over the floe towards us with shouts of welcome. There were eager inquiries as to mutual welfare and it took but a minute to learn the most important events of the quiet station life which had been led since our departure. These under the circumstances might well be considered the deaths of one pony and one dog. The pony was that which had been nicknamed Hackenschmidt from his vicious habit of using both fore and hind legs in attacking those who came near him. He had been obviously of different breed from the other ponies, being of lighter and handsomer shape, suggestive of a strain of Arab blood. From no cause which could be discovered either by the symptoms of his illness or the post-mortem held by Nelson could a reason be found for his death. In spite of the best feeding and every care he had gradually sickened until he was too weak to stand, and in this condition there had been no option but to put him out of misery. Anton considers the death of Hackenschmidt to have been an act of ‘cussedness’ – the result of a determination to do no work for the Expedition!! Although the loss is serious I remember doubts which I had as to whether this animal could be anything but a source of trouble to us. He had been most difficult to handle all through, showing a vicious, intractable temper. I had foreseen great difficulties with him, especially during the early part of any journey on which he was taken, and this consideration softened the news of his death. The dog had been left behind in a very sick condition, and this loss was not a great surprise.
These items were the worst of the small budget of news that awaited me; for the rest, the hut arrangements had worked out in the most satisfactory manner possible and the scientific routine of observations was in full swing. After our primitive life at Cape Armitage it was wonderful to enter the precincts of our warm, dry Cape Evans home. The interior space seemed palatial, the light resplendent, and the comfort luxurious. It was very good to eat in civilised fashion, to enjoy the first bath for three months, and have contact with clean, dry clothing. Such fleeting hours of comfort (for custom soon banished their delight) are the treasured remembrance of every Polar traveller. They throw into sharpest contrast the hardships of the past and the comforts of the present, and for the time he revels in the unaccustomed physical contentment that results.
I was not many hours or even minutes in the hut before I was haled round to observe in detail the transformation which had taken place during my absence, and in which a very proper pride was taken by those who had wrought it.
Simpson’s Corner was the first visited. Here the eye travelled over numerous shelves laden with a profusion of self-recording instruments, electric batteries and switchboards, whilst the ear caught the ticking of many clocks, the gentle whir of a motor and occasionally the trembling note of an electric bell. But such sights and sounds conveyed only an impression of the delicate methodical means by which the daily and hourly variations of our weather conditions were being recorded – a mere glimpse of the intricate arrangements of a first-class meteorological station – the one and only station of that order which has been established in Polar regions. It took me days and even months to realise fully the aims of our meteorologist and the scientific accuracy with which he was achieving them. When I did so to an adequate extent I wrote some description of his work which will be found in the following pages of this volume.  The first impression which I am here describing was more confused; I appreciated only that by going to ‘Simpson’s Corner’ one could ascertain at a glance how hard the wind was blowing and had been blowing, how the barometer was varying, to what degree of cold the thermometer had descended; if one were still more inquisitive he could further inform himself as to the electrical tension of the atmosphere and other matters of like import. That such knowledge could be gleaned without a visit to the open air was an obvious advantage to those who were clothing themselves to face it, whilst the ability to study the variation of a storm without exposure savoured of no light victory of mind over matter.
The dark room stands next to the parasitologist’s side of the bench which flanks Sunny Jim’s Corner – an involved sentence. To be more exact, the physicists adjust their instruments and write up books at a bench which projects at right angles to the end wall of the hut; the opposite side of this bench is allotted to Atkinson, who is to write with his back to the dark room. Atkinson being still absent his corner was unfurnished, and my attention was next claimed by the occupant of the dark room beyond Atkinson’s limit. The art of photography has never been so well housed within the Polar regions and rarely without them. Such a palatial chamber for the development of negatives and prints can only be justified by the quality of the work produced in it, and is only justified in our case by the possession of such an artist as Ponting. He was eager to show me the results of his summer work, and meanwhile my eye took in the neat shelves with their array of cameras, &c., the porcelain sink and automatic water tap, the two acetylene gas burners with their shading screens, and the general obviousness of all conveniences of the photographic art. Here, indeed, was encouragement for the best results, and to the photographer be all praise, for it is mainly his hand which has executed the designs which his brain conceived. In this may be clearly seen the advantage of a traveller’s experience. Ponting has had to fend for himself under primitive conditions in a new land; the result is a ‘handy man’ with every form of tool and in any circumstances. Thus, when building operations were to the fore and mechanical labour scarce, Ponting returned to the shell of his apartment with only the raw material for completing it. In the shortest possible space of time shelves and tanks were erected, doors hung and windows framed, and all in a workmanlike manner commanding the admiration of all beholders. It was well that speed could be commanded for such work, since the fleeting hours of the summer season had been altogether too few to be spared from the immediate service of photography. Ponting’s nervous temperament allowed no waste of time – for him fine weather meant no sleep; he decided that lost opportunities should be as rare as circumstances would permit.
This attitude was now manifested in the many yards of cinematograph film remaining on hand and yet greater number recorded as having been sent back in the ship, in the boxes of negatives lying on the shelves and a well-filled album of prints.
Of the many admirable points in this work perhaps the most notable are Ponting’s eye for a picture and the mastery he has acquired of ice subjects; the composition of most of his pictures is extraordinarily good, he seems to know by instinct the exact value of foreground and middle distance and of the introduction of ‘life,’ whilst with more technical skill in the manipulation of screens and exposures he emphasises the subtle shadows of the snow and reproduces its wondrously transparent texture. He is an artist in love with his work, and it was good to hear his enthusiasm for results of the past and plans of the future.
Long before I could gaze my fill at the contents of the dark room I was led to the biologists’ cubicle; Nelson and Day had from the first decided to camp together, each having a habit of methodical neatness; both were greatly relieved when the arrangement was approved, and they were freed from the chance of an untidy companion. No attempt had been made to furnish this cubicle before our departure on the autumn journey, but now on my return I found it an example of the best utilisation of space. The prevailing note was neatness; the biologist’s microscope stood on a neat bench surrounded by enamel dishes, vessels, and books neatly arranged; behind him, when seated, rose two neat bunks with neat, closely curtained drawers for clothing and neat reflecting sconces for candles; overhead was a neat arrangement for drying socks with several nets, neatly bestowed. The carpentering to produce this effect had been of quite a high order, and was in very marked contrast with that exhibited for the hasty erections in other cubicles. The pillars and boarding of the bunks had carefully finished edges and were stained to mahogany brown. Nelson’s bench is situated very conveniently under the largest of the hut windows, and had also an acetylene lamp, so that both in summer and winter he has all conveniences for his indoor work.
Day appeared to have been unceasingly busy during my absence. Everyone paid tribute to his mechanical skill and expressed gratitude for the help he had given in adjusting instruments and generally helping forward the scientific work. He was entirely responsible for the heating, lighting, and ventilating arrangements, and as all these appear satisfactory he deserved much praise. Particulars concerning these arrangements I shall give later; as a first impression it is sufficient to note that the warmth and lighting of the hut seemed as good as could be desired, whilst for our comfort the air seemed fresh and pure. Day had also to report some progress with the motor sledges, but this matter also I leave for future consideration.
My attention was very naturally turned from the heating arrangements to the cooking stove and its custodian, Clissold. I had already heard much of the surpassingly satisfactory meals which his art had produced, and had indeed already a first experience of them. Now I was introduced to the cook’s corner with its range and ovens, its pots and pans, its side tables and well-covered shelves. Much was to be gathered therefrom, although a good meal by no means depends only on kitchen conveniences. It was gratifying to learn that the stove had proved itself economical and the patent fuel blocks a most convenient and efficient substitute for coal. Save for the thickness of the furnace cheeks and the size of the oven Clissold declared himself wholly satisfied. He feared that the oven would prove too small to keep up a constant supply of bread for all hands; nevertheless he introduced me to this oven with an air of pride which I soon found to be fully justified. For connected therewith was a contrivance for which he was entirely responsible, and which in its ingenuity rivalled any of which the hut could boast. The interior of the oven was so arranged that the ‘rising’ of the bread completed an electric circuit, thereby ringing a bell and switching on a red lamp. Clissold had realised that the continuous ringing of the bell would not be soothing to the nerves of our party, nor the continuous burning of the lamp calculated to prolong its life, and he had therefore added the clockwork mechanism which automatically broke the circuit after a short interval of time; further, this clockwork mechanism could be made to control the emersion of the same warning signals at intervals of time varied according to the desire of the operator; – thus because, when in bed, he would desire a signal at short periods, but if absent from the hut he would wish to know at a glance what had happened when he returned. Judged by any standard it was a remarkably pretty little device, but when I learnt that it had been made from odds and ends, such as a cog-wheel or spring here and a cell or magnet there, begged from other departments, I began to realise that we had a very exceptional cook. Later when I found that Clissold was called in to consult on the ailments of Simpson’s motor and that he was capable of constructing a dog sledge out of packing cases, I was less surprised, because I knew by this time that he had had considerable training in mechanical work before he turned his attention to pots and pans.
My first impressions include matters to which I was naturally eager to give an early half-hour, namely the housing of our animals. I found herein that praise was as justly due to our Russian boys as to my fellow Englishmen.
Anton with Lashly’s help had completed the furnishing of the stables. Neat stalls occupied the whole length of the ‘lean to,’ the sides so boarded that sprawling legs could not be entangled beneath and the front well covered with tin sheet to defeat the ‘cribbers.’ I could but sigh again to think of the stalls that must now remain empty, whilst appreciating that there was ample room for the safe harbourage of the ten beasts that remain, be the winter never so cold or the winds so wild.
Later we have been able to give double space to all but two or three of our animals, in which they can lie down if they are so inclined.
The ponies look fairly fit considering the low diet on which they have been kept; their coats were surprisingly long and woolly in contrast with those of the animals I had left at Hut Point. At this time they were being exercised by Lashly, Anton, Demetri, Hooper, and Clissold, and as a rule were ridden, the sea having only recently frozen. The exercise ground had lain on the boulder-strewn sand of the home beach and extending towards the Skua lake; and across these stretches I soon saw barebacked figures dashing at speed, and not a few amusing incidents in which horse and rider parted with abrupt lack of ceremony. I didn’t think this quite the most desirable form of exercise for the beasts, but decided to leave matters as they were till our pony manager returned.
Demetri had only five or six dogs left in charge, but these looked fairly fit, all things considered, and it was evident the boy was bent on taking every care of them, for he had not only provided shelters, but had built a small ‘lean to’ which would serve as a hospital for any animal whose stomach or coat needed nursing.
Such were in broad outline the impressions I received on my first return to our home station; they were almost wholly pleasant and, as I have shown, in happy contrast with the fears that had assailed me on the homeward route. As the days went by I was able to fill in the detail in equally pleasant fashion, to watch the development of fresh arrangements and the improvement of old ones. Finally, in this way I was brought to realise what an extensive and intricate but eminently satisfactory organisation I had made myself responsible for.