ON the 26th of April during the night there was a sudden change in the weather. The thermometer fell several degrees, and the inmates of Doctor’s House could hardly keep themselves warm even in their beds. Altamont had charge of the stove, and he found it needed careful replenishing to preserve the temperature at 50° above zero.
This increase of cold betokened the cessation of the stormy weather, and the Doctor hailed it gladly as the harbinger of his favourite hunting and exploring expeditions.
He rose early next morning, and climbed up to the top of the cone. The wind had shifted north, the air was clear, and the snow firm and smooth to the tread.
Before long the five companions had left Doctor’s House, and were busily engaged in clearing the heavy masses of snow off the roof and sides, for the house was no longer distinguishable from the plateau, as the snow had drifted to a depth of full fifteen feet. It took two hours to remove the frozen snow, and restore the architectural form of the dwelling. At length the granite foundations appeared, and the storehouses and powder magazines were once more accessible.
But as, in so uncertain a climate, a storm might cut off their supplies any day, they wisely resolved to provide for any such emergency by carrying over a good stock of provisions to the kitchen; and then Clawbonny, Altamont, and Bell started off with their guns in search of game, for the want of fresh food began to be urgently felt.
The three companions went across the east side of the cone, right down into the centre of the far-stretching, snow-covered plain beneath, but they did not need to go far, for numerous traces of animals appeared on all sides within a circle of two miles round Fort Providence.
After gazing attentively at these traces for some minutes, the hunters looked at each other silently, and then the Doctor exclaimed:—
“Well, these are plain enough, I think!”
“Ay, only too plain,” added Bell, “bears have been here!”
“First rate game!” said Altamont. “There’s only one fault about it.”
“And what is that?” asked Bell.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this—there are distinct traces of five bears, and five bears are rather too much for five men.”
“Are you sure there are five?” said Clawbonny.
“Look and see for yourself. Here is one footprint, and there is another quite different. These claws are far wider apart than those; and see here, again, that paw belongs to a much smaller bear. I tell you, if you look carefully, you will see the marks of all five different bears distinctly.”
“You’re right,” said Bell, after a close inspection.
“If that’s the case, then,” said the Doctor, “we must take care what we’re about, and not be foolhardy, for these animals are starving after the severe winter, and they might be extremely dangerous to encounter and, since we are sure of their number——”
“And of their intentions, too,” put in Altamont.
“You think they have discovered our presence here?”
“No doubt of it, unless we have got into a bear-pass, but then, why should these footprints be in a circle round our fort? Look, these animals have come from the south-east, and stopped at this place, and commenced to reconnoitre the coast.”
“You’re right,” said the Doctor, “and, what’s more, it is certain that they have been here last night.”
“And other nights before that,” replied Altamont.
“I don’t think so,” rejoined Clawbonny. “It is more likely that they waited till the cessation of the tempest, and were on their way down to the bay, intending to catch seals, when they scented us.”
“Well, we can easily find out if they come tonight,” said Altamont.
“By effacing all the marks in a given place, and if to-morrow, we find fresh ones, it will be evident that Fort Providence is the goal for which the bears are bound.”
“Very good, at any rate we shall know, then, what we have to expect.”
The three hunters set to work, and scraped the snow over till all the footprints were obliterated for a considerable distance.
“It is singular, though,” said Bell, “that bears could scent us all that way off; we have not been burning anything fat which might have attracted them.”
“Oh!” replied the Doctor, “bears are endowed with a wonderfully keen sense of smell, and a piercing sight; and, more than that, they are extremely intelligent, almost more so than any other animal. They have smelt something unusual; and, besides, who can tell whether they have not even found their way as far as our plateau during the tempest?”
“But then, why did they stop here last night?” asked Altamont.
“Well, that’s a question I can’t answer, but there is no doubt they will continue narrowing their circles, till they reach Fort Providence.”
“We shall soon see,” said Altamont.
“And, meantime, we had best go on,” added the Doctor, “and keep a sharp look out.”
But not a sign of anything living was visible, and after a time they returned to the snow-house.
Hatteras and Johnson were informed how matters stood, and it was resolved to maintain a vigilant watch. Night came, but nothing disturbed its calm splendour—nothing was heard to indicate approaching danger.
Next morning at early dawn, Hatteras and his companions, well armed, went out to reconnoitre the state of the snow. They found the same identical footmarks, but somewhat nearer. Evidently the enemy was bent on the siege of Fort Providence.
“But where can the bears be?” said Bell.
“Behind the icebergs watching us,” replied the Doctor. “Don’t let us expose ourselves imprudently.”
“What about going hunting, then?” asked Altamont.
“We must put it off for a day or two, I think, and rub out the marks again, and see if they are renewed to-morrow.”
The Doctor’s advice was followed, and they entrenched themselves for the present in the fort. The lighthouse was taken down, as it was not of actual use meantime, and might help to attract the bears. Each took it in turn to keep watch on the upper plateau.
The day passed without a sign of the enemy’s existence, and next morning, when they hurried eagerly out to examine the snow, judge their astonishment to find it wholly untouched!
“Capital!” exclaimed Altamont. “The bears are put off the scent; they have no perseverance, and have grown tired waiting for us. They are off, and a good riddance. Now let us start for a day’s hunting.”
“Softly, softly,” said the Doctor; “I’m not so sure they have gone. I think we had better wait one day more. It is evident the bears have not been here last night, at least on this side; but still—”
“Well, let us go right round the plateau, and see how things stand,” said the impatient Altamont.
“All right,” said Clawbonny. “Come along.”
Away they went, but it was impossible to scrutinize carefully a track of two miles, and no trace of the enemy was discoverable.
“Now, then, can’t we go hunting?” said Altamont.
“Wait till to-morrow,” urged the Doctor again.
His friend was very unwilling to delay, but yielded the point at last, and returned to the fort.
As on the preceding night, each man took his hour’s watch on the upper plateau. When it came to Altamont’s turn, and he had gone out to relieve Bell, Hatteras called his old companions round him. The Doctor left his desk and Johnson his cooking, and hastened to their captain’s side, supposing he wanted to talk over their perilous situation; but Hatteras never gave it a thought.
“My friends,” he said, “let us take advantage of the American’s absence to speak of business. There are things which cannot concern him, and with which I do not choose him to meddle.”
Johnson and Clawbonny looked at each other, wondering what the captain was driving at.
“I wish,” he continued, “to talk with you about our plans for the future.”
“All right! talk away while we are alone,” said the Doctor.
“In a month, or six weeks at the outside, the time for making distant excursions will come again. Have you thought of what we had better undertake in summer?”
“Have you, captain?” asked Johnson.
“Have I? I may say that not an hour of my life passes without revolving in my mind my one cherished purpose. I suppose not a man among you intends to retrace his steps?”
No one replied, and Hatteras went on to say—
“For my own part, even if I must go alone, I will push on to the North Pole. Never were men so near it before, for we are not more than 360 miles distant at most, and I will not lose such an opportunity without making every attempt to reach it, even though it be an impossibility. What are your views, Doctor?”
“Your own, Hatteras.”
“And yours, Johnson?”
“Like the Doctor’s.”
“And yours, Bell?”
“Captain,” replied the carpenter, “it is true we have neither wives nor children waiting us in England, but, after all, it is one’s country—one’s native land! Have you no thoughts of returning home?”
“We can return after we have discovered the Pole quite as well as before, and even better. Our difficulties will not increase, for as we near the Pole we get away from the point of greatest cold. We have fuel and provisions enough. There is nothing to stop us, and we should be culpable, in my opinion, if we allowed ourselves to abandon the project.”
“Very well, captain, I’ll go along with you.”
“That’s right; I never doubted you,” said Hatteras. “We shall succeed, and England will have all the glory.”
“But there is an American among us!” said Johnson.
Hatteras could not repress an impatient exclamation.
“I know it!” he said, in a stern voice.
“We cannot leave him behind,” added the Doctor.
“No, we can’t,” repeated Hatteras, almost mechanically.
“And he will be sure to go too.”
“Yes, he will go too; but who will command?”
“And if you all obey my orders, will the Yankee refuse?”
“I shouldn’t think so; but suppose he should, what can be done?”
“He and I must fight it out, then.”
The three Englishmen looked at Hatteras, but said nothing. Then the Doctor asked how they were to go.
“By the coast, as far as possible,” was the reply.
“But what if we find open water, as is likely enough?”
“Well, we’ll go across it.”
“But we have no boat.”
Hatteras did not answer, and looked embarrassed.
“Perhaps,” suggested Bell, “we might make a ship out of some of the planks of the Porpoise.”
“Never!” exclaimed Hatteras, vehemently.
“Never!” said Johnson.
The Doctor shook his head. He understood the feeling of the captain.
“Never!” reiterated Hatteras. “A boat made out of an American ship would be an American!”
“But, captain——” began Johnson.
The Doctor made a sign to the old boatswain not to press the subject further, and resolved in his own mind to reserve the question for discussion at a more opportune moment. He managed to turn the conversation to other matters, till it abruptly terminated by the entrance of Altamont.
This ended the day, and the night passed quietly without the least disturbance. The bears had evidently disappeared.