THE prisoners were free, and their joy found vent in the noisiest demonstrations. They employed the rest of the day in repairing the house, which had suffered greatly by the explosion. They cleared away the blocks piled up by the animals, and filled up the rents in the walls, working with might and main, enlivened by the many songs of old Johnson.
Next morning there was a singular rise in the temperature, the thermometer going up to 15° above zero.
This comparative heat lasted several days. In sheltered spots the glass rose as high as 31°, and symptoms of a thaw appeared.
The ice began to crack here and there, and jets of salt water were thrown up, like fountains in an English park. A few days later, the rain fell in torrents.
Thick vapour rose from the snow, giving promise of the speedy disappearance of these immense masses. The sun’s pale disc became deeper in colour, and remained longer above the horizon. The night was scarcely longer than three hours.
Other tokens of spring’s approach were manifest of equal significance, the birds were returning in flocks, and the air resounded with their deafening cries. Hares were seen on the shores of the bay, and mice in such abundance that their burrows completely honeycombed the ground.
The Doctor drew the attention of his companions to the fact, that almost all these animals were beginning to lose their white winter dress, and would soon put on summer attire, while nature was already providing mosses, and poppies, and saxifragas, and short grass for their sustenance. A new world lay beneath that melting snow.
But with these inoffensive animals came back their natural enemies. Foxes and wolves arrived in search of their prey, and dismal howls broke the silence of the short night.
Arctic wolves closely resemble dogs, and their barking would deceive the most practised ears; even the canine race themselves have been deceived by it. Indeed, it seems as if the wily animals employed this ruse to attract the dogs, and make them their prey. Several navigators have mentioned the fact, and the Doctor’s own experience confirmed it. Johnson took care not to let his Greenlanders loose; of Duke there was little fear; nothing could take him in.
For about a fortnight hunting was the principal occupation. There was an abundant supply of fresh meat to be had. They shot partridges, ptarmigans, and snow ortolans, which are delicious eating. The hunters never went far from Fort Providence, for game was so plentiful that it seemed waiting their guns, and the whole bay presented an animated appearance.
The thaw, meanwhile, was making rapid progress. The thermometer stood steadily at 32° above zero, and the water ran down the mountain sides in cataracts, and dashed in torrents through the ravines.
The Doctor lost no time in clearing about an acre of ground, in which he sowed the seeds of anti-scorbutic plants. He just had the pleasure of seeing tiny little green leaves begin to sprout, when the cold returned in full force.
In a single night, the thermometer lost nearly 40°; it went down to 8° below zero. Everything was frozen—birds, quadrupeds, amphibia disappeared as if by magic; seal-holes reclosed, and the ice once more became hard as granite.
The change was most striking; it occurred on the 18th of May, during the night. The Doctor was rather disappointed at having all his work to do again, but Hatteras bore the grievance most unphilosophically, as it interfered with all his plans of speedy departure.
“Do you think we shall have a long spell of this weather, Mr. Clawbonny?” asked Johnson.
“No, my friend, I don’t; it is a last blow from the cold. You see these are his dominions, and he won’t be driven out without making some resistance.”
“He can defend himself pretty well,” said Bell, rubbing his face.
“Yes; but I ought to have waited, and not have wasted my seed like an ignoramus; and all the more as I could, if necessary, have made them sprout by the kitchen stoves.”
“But do you mean to say,” asked Altamont, “that you might have anticipated the sudden change?”
“Of course, and without being a wizard. I ought to have put my seed under the protection of Saint Paucratius and the other two saints, whose fête days fall this month.”
“Absurd! Pray tell me what they have to do with it? What influence can they possibly have on the temperature?”
“An immense one, if we are to believe horticulturists, who call them the patron saints of the frost.”
“And for what reason?”
“Because generally there is a periodical frost in the month of May, and it is coldest from the 11th to the 13th. That is the fact.”
“And how is it explained?”
“In two ways. Some say that a larger number of asteroids come between the earth and the sun at this time of year, and others that the mere melting of the snow necessarily absorbs a large amount of heat, and accounts for the low temperature. Both theories are plausible enough, but the fact remains whichever we accept, and I ought to have remembered it.”
The Doctor was right, for the cold lasted till the end of the month, and put an end to all their hunting expeditions. The old monotonous life in-doors recommenced, and was unmarked by any incident except a serious illness which suddenly attacked Bell. This was violent quinsy, but, under the Doctor’s skilful treatment, it was soon cured. Ice was the only remedy he employed, administered in small pieces, and in twenty-four hours Bell was himself again.
During this compulsory leisure, Clawbonny determined to have a talk with the captain on an important subject—the building of a sloop out of the planks of the Porpoise.
The Doctor hardly knew how to begin, as Hatteras had declared so vehemently that he would never consent to use a morsel of American wood; yet it was high time he were brought to reason, as June was at hand, the only season for distant expeditions, and they could not start without a ship.
He thought over it a long while, and at last drew the captain aside, and said in the kindest, gentlest way—
“Hatteras, do you believe I’m your friend?”
“Most certainly I do,” replied the captain, earnestly; “my best, indeed my only friend.”
“And if I give you a piece of advice without your asking, will you consider my motive is perfectly disinterested?”
“Yes, for I know you have never been actuated by self-interest. But what are you driving at?”
“Wait, Hatteras, I have one thing more to ask. Do you look on me as a true-hearted Englishman like yourself, anxious for his country’s glory?”
Hatteras looked surprised, but simply said—
“You desire to reach the North Pole,” the Doctor went on; “and I understand and share your ambition, but to achieve your object you must employ the right means.”
“Well, and have I not sacrificed everything for it?”
“No, Hatteras, you have not sacrificed your personal antipathies. Even at this very moment I know you are in the mood to refuse the indispensable conditions of reaching the pole.”
“Ah! it is the boat you want to talk about, and that man——”
“Hatteras, let us discuss the question calmly, and examine the case on all sides. The coast on which we find ourselves at present may terminate abruptly; we have no proof that it stretches right away to the pole; indeed, if your present information prove correct, we ought to come to an open sea during the summer months. Well, supposing we reach this Arctic Ocean and find it free from ice and easy to navigate, what shall we do if we have no ship?”
Hatteras made no reply.
“Tell me, now, would you like to find yourself only a few miles from the pole and not be able to get to it?”
Hatteras still said nothing, but buried his head in his hands.
“Besides,” continued the Doctor, “look at the question in its moral aspect. Here is an Englishman who sacrifices his fortune, and even his life, to win fresh glory for his country, but because the boat which bears him across an unknown ocean, or touches the new shore, happens to be made of the planks of an American vessel—a cast-away wreck of no use to anyone—will that lessen the honour of the discovery? If you yourself had found the hull of some wrecked vessel lying deserted on the shore, would you have hesitated to make use of it; and must not a sloop built by four Englishmen and manned by four Englishmen be English from keel to gunwale?”
Hatteras was still silent.
“No,” continued Clawbonny; “the real truth is, it is not the sloop you care about: it is the man.”
“Yes, Doctor, yes,” replied the captain. “It is this American I detest; I hate him with a thorough English hatred. Fate has thrown him in my path.”
“To save you!”
“To ruin me. He seems to defy me, and speaks as if he were lord and master. He thinks he has my destiny in his hands, and knows all my projects. Didn’t we see the man in his true colours when we were giving names to the different coasts? Has he ever avowed his object in coming so far north? You will never get out of my head that this man is not the leader of some expedition sent out by the American government.”
“Well, Hatteras, suppose it is so, does it follow that this expedition is to search for the North Pole? May it not be to find the North-West Passage? But anyway, Altamont is in complete ignorance of our object, for neither Johnson, nor Bell, nor myself, have ever breathed a word to him about it, and I am sure you have not.”
“Well, let him always remain so.”
“He must be told in the end, for we can’t leave him here alone.”
“Why not? Can’t he stay here in Fort Providence?”
“He would never consent to that, Hatteras; and, moreover, to leave a man in that way, and not know whether we might find him safe when we came back, would be worse than imprudent: it would be inhuman. Altamont will come with us; he must come. But we need not disclose our projects; let us tell him nothing, but simply build a sloop for the ostensible purpose of making a survey of the coast.”
Hatteras could not bring himself to consent, but said—
“And suppose the man won’t allow his ship to be cut up?”
“In that case, you must take the law in your own hands, and build a vessel in spite of him.”
“I wish to goodness he would refuse, then!”
“He must be asked before he can refuse. I’ll undertake the asking,” said Clawbonny.
He kept his word, for that very same night, at supper, he managed to turn the conversation towards the subject of making excursions during summer for hydrographical purposes.
“You will join us, I suppose, Altamont,” he said.
“Of course,” replied the American. “We must know how far New America extends.”
Hatteras looked fixedly at his rival, but said nothing.
“And for that purpose,” continued Altamont, “we had better build a little ship out of the remains of the Porpoise. It is the best possible use we can make of her.”
“You hear, Bell,” said the Doctor, eagerly. “We’ll all set to work to-morrow morning.”