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Walton's ship had been in a very dangerous situation, stranded in the water, "nearly surrounded by ice which closed in...on all sides, scarcely leaving (the ship) the sea-room in which she floated". The situation had been further complicated by a "thick fog" which obscured all vision; for awhile, the crew could do nothing but "lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather". After some time, the ice finally broke and freed the ship, but, "fearing to encounter in the dark those large loose masses which float about after the breaking up of the ice", the ship lay to until morning.
At daybreak, the crew spied a sledge which had drifted toward the ship in the night "on a large fragment of ice". Only one dog of the team that pulled it remained alive, along with the driver of the sledge. The sailors were trying to persuade this stranger to come on board the vessel, but the man first felt the need to inquire, "Before I come on board...will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?" Walton is astonished that "a man on the brink of destruction and to whom (he) should have supposed that (the) vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth (could) afford", would even think to ask about the vessel's intended destination before allowing himself to be taken on board. Instead of being unspeakably grateful that his life had been saved, the stranger instead was so focused on some unnamed objective that he had the audacity to ask where the vessel was headed, as if, had it not been headed where he wanted to go, he might have a better option than to accept its help ("Letter 4").
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