THE first business next day was to arrange for a hunt. It was settled that Altamont, Bell, and Hatteras should form the party, while Clawbonny should go and explore as far as Isle Johnson, and make some hydrographic notes and Johnson should remain behind to keep house.
The three hunters soon completed their preparations. They armed themselves each with a double barrelled revolver and a rifle, and took plenty of powder and shot. Each man also carried in his belt his indispensable snow knife and hatchet, and a small supply of pemmican in case night should surprise them before their return.
Thus equipped, they could go far, and might count on a good supply of game.
At eight o’clock they started, accompanied by Duke, who frisked and gambolled with delight. They went up the hill to the east, across the cone, and down into the plain below.
The Doctor next took his departure, after agreeing with Johnson on a signal of alarm in case of danger.
The old boatswain was left alone, but he had plenty to do. He began by unfastening the Greenland dogs, and letting them out for a run after their long, wearisome confinement. Then he attended to divers housekeeping matters. He had to replenish the stock of combustibles and provisions, to arrange the store-houses, to mend several broken utensils, to repair the rents in coverlets, and get new shoes ready for summer excursions. There was no lack of work, and the old sailor’s nimble clever fingers could do anything.
While his hands were busy, his mind was occupied with the conversation of the preceding evening. He thought with regret over the captain’s obstinacy, and yet he felt that there was something grand and even heroic in his determination that neither an American nor an American ship should first touch the Pole.
The hunters had been gone about an hour when Johnson suddenly heard the report of a gun.
“Capital!” he exclaimed. “They have found something, and pretty quickly too, for me to hear their guns so distinctly. The atmosphere must be very clear.”
A second and a third shot followed.
“Bravo!” again exclaimed the boatswain; “they must have fallen in luck’s way!”
But when three more shots came in rapid succession, the old man turned pale, and a horrible thought crossed his mind, which made him rush out and climb hastily to the top of the cone. He shuddered at the sight which met his eyes. The three hunters, followed by Duke, were tearing home at full speed, followed by the five huge bears! Their six balls had evidently taken no effect, and the terrible monsters were close on their heels. Hatteras, who brought up the rear, could only manage to keep off his pursuers by flinging down one article after another—first his cap, then his hatchet, and, finally, his gun. He knew that the inquisitive bears would stop and examine every object, sniffing all round it, and this gave him a little time, otherwise he could not have escaped, for these animals outstrip the fleetest horse, and one monster was so near that Hatteras had to brandish his knife vigorously, to ward off a tremendous blow of his paw.
At last, though panting and out of breath, the three men reached Johnson safely, and slid down the rock with him into the snow-house. The bears stopped short on the upper plateau, and Hatteras and his companions lost no time in barring and barricading them out.
“Here we are at last!” exclaimed Hatteras; “we can defend ourselves better now. It is five against five.”
“Four!” said Johnson in a frightened voice.
“The Doctor!” replied Johnson, pointing to the empty sitting-room.
“Well, he is in Isle Johnson.”
“A bad job for him,” said Bell.
“But we can’t leave him to his fate, in this fashion,” said Altamont.
“No, let’s be off to find him at once,” replied Hatteras.
He opened the door, but soon shut it, narrowly escaping a bear’s hug.
“They are there!” he exclaimed.
“All?” asked Bell.
“The whole pack.”
Altamont rushed to the windows, and began to fill up the deep embrasure with blocks of ice, which he broke off the walls of the house.
His companions followed his example silently. Not a sound was heard but the low, deep growl of Duke.
To tell the simple truth, however, it was not their own danger that occupied their thoughts, but their absent friend, the Doctor’s. It was for him they trembled, not for themselves. Poor Clawbonny, so good and devoted as he had been to every member of the little colony! This was the first time they had been separated from him. Extreme peril, and most likely a frightful death awaited him, for he might return unsuspectingly to Fort Providence, and find himself in the power of these ferocious animals.
“And yet,” said Johnson, “unless I am much mistaken, he must be on guard. Your repeated shots cannot but have warned him. He must surely be aware that something unusual has happened.”
“But suppose he was too far away to hear them,” replied Altamont, “or has not understood the cause of them? It is ten chances to one but he’ll come quickly back, never imagining the danger. The bears are screened from sight by the crag completely.”
“We must get rid of them before he comes,” said Hatteras.
“But how?” asked Bell.
It was difficult to reply to this, for a sortie was out of the question. They had taken care to barricade the entrance passage, but the bears could easily find a way in if they chose. So it was thought advisable to keep a close watch on their movements outside, by listening attentively in each room, so as to be able to resist all attempts at invasion. They could hear them distinctly prowling about, growling and scraping the walls with their enormous paws.
However, some action must be taken speedily, for time was passing. Altamont resolved to try a port-hole through which he might fire on his assailants. He had soon scooped out a hole in the wall, but his gun was hardly pushed through, when it was seized with irresistible force, and wrested from his grasp before he could even fire.
“Confound it!” he exclaimed, “we’re no match for them.”
And he hastened to stop up the breach as fast as possible.
This state of things had lasted upwards of an hour, and there seemed no prospect of a termination. The question of a sortie began now to be seriously discussed. There was little chance of success, as the bears could not be attacked separately, but Hatteras and his companions had grown so impatient, and it must be confessed were also so much ashamed of being kept in prison by beasts, that they would even have dared the risk if the captain had not suddenly thought of a new mode of defence.
He took Johnson’s furnace-poker, and thrust it into the stove while he made an opening in the snow wall, or rather a partial opening, for he left a thin sheet of ice on the outer side. As soon as the poker was red hot, he said to his comrades who stood eagerly watching him, wondering what he was going to do—
“This red-hot bar will keep off the bears when they try to get hold of it, and we shall be able easily to fire across it without letting them snatch away our guns.”
“A good idea,” said Bell, posting himself beside Altamont.
Hatteras withdrew the poker, and instantly plunged it in the wall. The melting snow made a loud hissing noise, and two bears ran and made a snatch at the glowing bar; but they fell back with a terrible howl, and at the same moment four shots resounded, one after the other.
“Hit!” exclaimed Altamont.
“Hit!” echoed Bell.
“Let us repeat the dose,” said Hatteras, carefully stopping up the opening meantime.
The poker was again thrust into the fire, and in a few minutes was ready for Hatteras to recommence operations.
Altamont and Bell reloaded their guns, and took their places; but this time the poker would not pass through.
“Confound the beasts!” exclaimed the impetuous American.
“What’s the matter?” asked Johnson.
“What’s the matter? Why, those plaguey animals are piling up block after block, intending to bury us alive!”
“Look for yourself; the poker can’t get through. I declare it is getting absurd now.”
It was worse than absurd, it was alarming. Things grew worse. It was evident that the bears meant to stifle their prey, for the sagacious animals were heaping up huge masses, which would make escape impossible.
“It is too bad,” said old Johnson, with a mortified look. “One might put up with men, but bears!”
Two hours elapsed without bringing any relief to the prisoners; to go out was impossible, and the thick walls excluded all sound. Altamont walked impatiently up and down full of exasperation and excitement at finding himself worsted for once. Hatteras could think of nothing but the Doctor, and of the serious peril which threatened him.
“Oh, if Mr. Clawbonny were only here!” said Johnson.
“What could he do?” asked Altamont.
“Oh, he’d manage to get us out somehow.”
“How, pray?” said the American, crossly.
“If I knew that I should not need him. However, I know what his advice just now would be.”
“To take some food; that can’t hurt us. What do you say, Mr. Altamont?”
“Oh, let’s eat, by all means, if that will please you, though we’re in a ridiculous, not to say humiliating, plight.”
“I’ll bet you we’ll find a way out after dinner.”
No one replied, but they seated themselves round the table.
Johnson, trained in Clawbonny’s school, tried to be brave and unconcerned about the danger, but he could scarcely manage it. His jokes stuck in his throat. Moreover, the whole party began to feel uncomfortable. The atmosphere was getting dense, for every opening was hermetically sealed. The stoves would hardly draw, and it was evident would soon go out altogether for want of oxygen.
Hatteras was the first to see their fresh danger, and he made no attempt to hide it from his companions.
“If that is the case,” said Altamont, “we must get out at all risks.”
“Yes,” replied Hatteras; “but let us wait till night. We will make a hole in the roof, and let in a provision of air, and then one of us can fire out of it on the bears.”
“It is the only thing we can do, I suppose,” said Altamont.
So it was agreed; but waiting was hard work, and Altamont could not refrain from giving vent to his impatience by thundering maledictions on the bears, and abusing the ill fate which had placed them in such an awkward and humbling predicament. “It was beasts versus men,” he said, “and certainly the men cut a pretty figure.”