“YOU know, Doctor,” said Hatteras, as they returned to the hut, “the polar bears subsist almost entirely on seals. They’ll lie in wait for them beside the crevasses for whole days, ready to strangle them the moment their heads appear above the surface. It is not likely, then, that a bear will be frightened of a seal.”
“I think I see what you are after, but it is dangerous.”
“Yes, but there is more chance of success than in trying any other plan, so I mean to risk it. I am going to dress myself in the seal’s skin, and creep along the ice. Come, don’t let us lose time. Load the gun and give it me.”
The Doctor could not say anything, for he would have done the same himself, so he followed Hatteras silently to the sledge, taking with him a couple of hatchets for his own and Johnson’s use.
Hatteras soon made his toilette, and slipped into the skin, which was big enough to cover him almost entirely.
“Now, then, give me the gun,” he said, “and you be off to Johnson. I must try and steal a march on my adversary.”
“Courage, Hatteras!” said the Doctor, handing him the weapon, which he had carefully loaded meanwhile.
“Never fear! but be sure you don’t show yourselves till I fire.”
The Doctor soon joined the old boatswain behind the hummock, and told him what they had been doing. The bear was still there, but moving restlessly about, as if he felt the approach of danger.
In a quarter of an hour or so the seal made his appearance on the ice. He had gone a good way round, so as to come on the bear by surprise, and every movement was so perfect an imitation of a seal, that even the Doctor would have been deceived if he had not known it was Hatteras.
“It is capital!” said Johnson, in a low voice. The bear had instantly caught sight of the supposed seal, for he gathered himself up, preparing to make a spring as the animal came nearer, apparently seeking to return to his native element, and unaware of the enemy’s proximity. Bruin went to work with extreme prudence, though his eyes glared with greedy desire to clutch the coveted prey, for he had probably been fasting a month, if not two. He allowed his victim to get within ten paces of him, and then sprang forward with a tremendous bound, but stopped short, stupefied and frightened, within three steps of Hatteras, who started up that moment, and, throwing off his disguise, knelt on one knee, and aimed straight at the bear’s heart. He fired, and the huge monster rolled back on the ice.
“Forward! Forward!” shouted the Doctor, hurrying towards Hatteras, for the bear had reared on his hind legs, and was striking the air with one paw and tearing up the snow to stanch his wound with the other.
Hatteras never moved, but waited, knife in hand. He had aimed well, and fired with a sure and steady aim. Before either of his companions came up he had plunged the knife in the animal’s throat, and made an end of him, for he fell down at once to rise no more.
“Hurrah! Bravo!” shouted Johnson and the Doctor, but Hatteras was as cool and unexcited as possible, and stood with folded arms gazing at his prostrate foe.
“It is my turn now,” said Johnson. “It is a good thing the bear is killed, but if we leave him out here much longer, he will get as hard as a stone, and we shall be able to do nothing with him.”
He began forthwith to strip the skin off, and a fine business it was, for the enormous quadruped was almost as large as an ox. It measured nearly nine feet long, and four round, and the great tusks in his jaws were three inches long.
On cutting the carcase open, Johnson found nothing but water in the stomach. The beast had evidently had no food for a long time, yet it was very fat, and weighed fifteen hundred pounds. The hunters were so famished that they had hardly patience to carry home the flesh to be cooked, and it needed all the Doctor’s persuasion to prevent them eating it raw.
On entering the hut, each man with a load on his back, Clawbonny was struck with the coldness that pervaded the atmosphere. On going up to the stove he found the fire black out. The exciting business of the morning had made Johnson neglect his accustomed duty of replenishing the stove.
The Doctor tried to blow the embers into a flame, but finding he could not even get a red spark, he went out to the sledge to fetch tinder, and get the steel from Johnson.
The old sailor put his hand into his pocket, but was surprised to find the steel missing. He felt in the other pockets, but it was not there. Then he went into the hut again, and shook the blanket he had slept in all night, but his search was still unsuccessful.
He went back to his companions and said—
“Are you sure, Doctor, you haven’t the steel?”
“And you haven’t it either, captain?”
“Not I!” replied Hatteras.
“It has always been in your keeping,” said the Doctor.
“Well, I have not got it now!” exclaimed Johnson, turning pale.
“Not got the steel!” repeated the Doctor, shuddering involuntarily at the bare idea of its loss, for it was all the means they had of procuring a fire.
“Look again, Johnson,” he said.
The boatswain hurried to the only remaining place he could think of, the hummock where he had stood to watch the bear. But the missing treasure was nowhere to be found, and the old sailor returned in despair.
Hatteras looked at him, but no word of reproach escaped his lips. He only said—
“This is a serious business, Doctor.”
“It is, indeed!” said Clawbonny.
“We have not even an instrument, some glass that we might take the lens out of, and use like a burning glass.”
“No, and it is a great pity, for the sun’s rays are quite strong enough just now to light our tinder.”
“Well,” said Hatteras, “we must just appease our hunger with the raw meat, and set off again as soon as we can, to try to discover the ship.”
“Yes!” replied Clawbonny, speaking to himself, absorbed in his own reflections. “Yes, that might do at a pinch! Why not? We might try.”
“What are you dreaming about?” asked Hatteras.
“An idea has just occurred to me.”
“An idea come into your head, Doctor,” exclaimed Johnson; “then we are saved!”
“Will it succeed? that’s the question.”
“What’s your project?” said Hatteras.
“We want a lens; well, let us make one.”
“How?” asked Johnson.
“With a piece of ice.”
“What? Do you think that would do?”
“Why not? All that is needed is to collect the sun’s rays into one common focus, and ice will serve that purpose as well as the finest crystal.”
“Is it possible?” said Johnson.
“Yes, only I should like fresh water ice, it is harder and more transparent than the other.”
“There it is to your hand, if I am not much mistaken,” said Johnson, pointing to a hummock close by.
“I fancy that is fresh water, from the dark look of it, and the green tinge.”
“You are right. Bring your hatchet, Johnson.”
A good-sized piece was soon cut off, about a foot in diameter, and the Doctor set to work. He began by chopping it into rough shape with the hatchet; then he operated upon it more carefully with his knife, making as smooth a surface as possible, and finished the polishing process with his fingers, rubbing away until he had obtained as transparent a lens as if it had been made of magnificent crystal.
The sun was shining brilliantly enough for the Doctor’s experiment. The tinder was fetched, and held beneath the lens so as to catch the rays in full power. In a few seconds it took fire, to Johnson’s rapturous delight.
He danced about like an idiot, almost beside himself with joy, and shouted, “Hurrah! hurrah!” while Clawbonny hurried back into the hut and rekindled the fire. The stove was soon roaring, and it was not many minutes before the savoury odour of broiled bear-steaks roused Bell from his torpor.
What a feast this meal was to the poor starving men may be imagined. The Doctor, however, counselled moderation in eating, and set the example himself.
“This is a glad day for us,” he said, “and we have no fear of wanting food all the rest of our journey. Still we must not forget we have further to go yet, and I think the sooner we start the better.”
“We cannot be far off now,” said Altamont, who could almost articulate perfectly again; “we must be within forty-eight hours’ march of the Porpoise.”
“I hope we’ll find something there to make a fire with,” said the Doctor, smiling. “My lens does well enough at present; but it needs the sun, and there are plenty of days when he does not make his appearance here, within less than four degrees of the pole.”
“Less than four degrees!” repeated Altamont, with a sigh; “yes, my ship went further than any other has ever ventured.”
“It is time we started,” said Hatteras, abruptly.
“Yes,” replied the Doctor, glancing uneasily at the two captains.
The dogs were speedily harnessed to the sledge, and the march resumed.
As they went along, the Doctor tried to get out of Altamont the real motive that had brought him so far north. But the American made only evasive replies, and Clawbonny whispered in old Johnson’s ear—
“Two men we’ve got that need looking after.”
“You are right,” said Johnson.
“Hatteras never says a word to this American, and I must say the man has not shown himself very grateful. I am here, fortunately.”
“Mr. Clawbonny,” said Johnson, “now this Yankee has come back to life again, I must confess I don’t much like the expression of his face.”
“I am much mistaken if he does not suspect the projects of Hatteras.”
“Do you think his own were similar?”
“Who knows? These Americans, Johnson, are bold, daring fellows. It is likely enough an American would try to do as much as an Englishman.”
“Then you think that Altamont—”
“I think nothing about it, but his ship is certainly on the road to the North Pole.”
“But didn’t Altamont say that he had been caught among the ice, and dragged there irresistibly?”
“He said so, but I fancied there was a peculiar smile on his lips while he spoke.”
“Hang it! It would be a bad job, Mr. Clawbonny, if any feeling of rivalry came between two men of their stamp.”
“Heaven forfend! for it might involve the most serious consequences, Johnson.”
“I hope Altamont will remember he owes his life to us?”
“But do we not owe ours to him now? I grant, without us, he would not be alive at this moment, but without him and his ship, what would become of us?”
“Well, Mr. Clawbonny, you are here to keep things straight anyhow, and that is a blessing.”
“I hope I may manage it, Johnson.”
The journey proceeded without any fresh incident, but on the Saturday morning the travellers found themselves in a region of quite an altered character. Instead of the wide smooth plain of ice that had hitherto stretched before them, overturned icebergs and broken hummocks covered the horizon; while the frequent blocks of fresh-water ice showed that some coast was near.
Next day, after a hearty breakfast off the bear’s paws, the little party continued their route; but the road became toilsome and fatiguing. Altamont lay watching the horizon with feverish anxiety—an anxiety shared by all his companions, for, according to the last reckoning made by Hatteras, they were now exactly in latitude 83° 35’ and longitude 120° 15’, and the question of life or death would be decided before the day was over.
At last, about two o’clock in the afternoon, Altamont started up with a shout that arrested the whole party, and pointing to a white mass that no eye but his could have distinguished from the surrounding icebergs, exclaimed in a loud, ringing voice, “The Porpoise.”