ON the 29th of May, for the first time, the sun never set. His glowing disc just touched the boundary line of the horizon, and rose again immediately. The period was now entered when the day lasts twenty-four hours.
Next morning there was a magnificent halo; the monarch of day appeared surrounded by a luminous circle, radiant with all the prismatic colours. This phenomenon never lost its charm, for the Doctor, however frequently it occurred, and he always noted carefully down all particulars respecting it.
Before long the feathered tribes began to return, filling the air with their discordant cries. Flocks of bustards and Canadian geese from Florida or Arkansas came flying north with marvellous rapidity, bringing spring beneath their wings. The Doctor shot several, and among them one or two cranes and a solitary stork.
The snow was now fast melting, and the ice-fields were covered with “slush.” All round the bay large pools had formed, between which the soil appeared as if some product of spring.
The Doctor recommenced his sowing, for he had plenty of seed; but he was surprised to find sorrel growing already between the half-dried stones, and even pale sickly heaths, trying to show their delicate pink blossoms.
At last it began to be really hot weather. On the 15th of June, the thermometer stood at 57° above zero. The Doctor scarcely believed his eyes, but it was a positive fact, and it was soon confirmed by the changed appearance of the country.
An excursion was made to Isle Johnson, but it turned out to be a barren little islet of no importance whatever, though it gave the old boatswain infinite pleasure to know that those sea girt rocks bore his name.
There was some danger of both house and stores melting, but happily this high temperature proved exceptional, the thermometer seldom averaging much above freezing point.
By the middle of June, the sloop had made good progress, and already presented a shapely appearance. As Bell and Johnson took the work of construction entirely on themselves, the others went hunting, and succeeded in killing several deer, in spite of its being difficult game to approach. Altamont adopted the Indian practice of crawling on all fours, and adjusting his gun and arms so as to simulate horns and deceive the timid animal, till he could get near enough to take good aim.
Their principal object of pursuit, however, was the musk-ox, which Parry had met with in such numbers in Melville Island; but not a solitary specimen was to be seen anywhere about Victoria Bay, and a distant excursion was, therefore, resolved upon, which would serve the double purpose of hunting and surveying the eastern coast.
The three hunters, accompanied by Duke, set out on Monday, the 17th of June, at six in the morning, each man armed with a double-barrelled gun, a hatchet and snow-knife, and provisions for several days.
It was a fine bright morning, and by ten o’clock they had gone twelve miles; but not a living thing had crossed their path, and the hunt threatened to turn out a mere excursion.
However, they went on in hope, after a good breakfast and half-an-hour’s rest.
The ground was getting gradually lower, and presented a peculiar appearance from the snow, which lay here and there in ridges unmelted. At a distance it looked like the sea when a strong wind is lashing up the waves, and cresting them with a white foam.
Before long they reached a sort of glen, at the bottom of which was a winding river. It was almost completely thawed, and already the banks were clothed with a species of vegetation, as if the sun had done his best to fertilise the soil.
“I tell you what,” said the Doctor, “a few enterprising colonists might make a fine settlement here. With a little industry and perseverance wonders might be done in this country. Ah! if I am not much mistaken, it has some four-footed inhabitants already. Those frisky little fellows know the best spots to choose.”
“Hares! I declare. That’s jolly!” said Altamont, loading his gun.
“Stop!” cried the Doctor; “stop, you furious hunter. Let the poor little things alone; they are not thinking of running away. Look, they are actually coming to us, I do believe!”
He was right, for presently three or four young hares, gambolling away among the fresh moss and tiny heaths, came running about their legs so fearlessly and trustfully, that even Altamont was disarmed. They rubbed against the Doctor’s knees, and let him stroke them till the kind-hearted man could not help saying to Altamont—
“Why give shot to those who come for caresses? The death of these little beasts could do us no good.”
“You say what’s true, Clawbonny. Let them live!” replied Hatteras.
“And these ptarmigans too, I suppose, and these long-legged plovers,” added Altamont, as a whole covey of birds flew down among the hunters, never suspecting their danger. Duke could not tell what to make of it, and stood stupefied.
It was a strange and touching spectacle to see the pretty creatures; they flew on Clawbonny’s shoulders, and lay down at his feet as if inviting friendly caresses, and doing their utmost to welcome the strangers. The whole glen echoed with their joyous cries as they darted to and fro from all parts. The good Doctor seemed some mighty enchanter.
The hunters had continued their course along the banks of the river, when a sudden bend in the valley revealed a herd of deer, eight or ten in number, peacefully browsing on some lichens that lay half-buried in the snow. They were charming creatures, so graceful and gentle, male and female, both adorned with noble antlers, wide-spreading and deeply-notched. Their skin had already lost its winter whiteness, and began to assume the brown tint of summer. Strange to say, they appeared not a whit more afraid than the birds or hares.
The three men were now right in the centre of the herd, but not one made the least movement to run away. This time the worthy Doctor had far more difficulty in restraining Altamont’s impatience, for the mere sight of such magnificent animals roused his hunting instincts, and he became quite excited; while Hatteras, on the contrary, seemed really touched to see the splendid creatures rubbing their heads so affectionately and trustfully against the good Clawbonny, the friend of every living thing.
“But, I say,” exclaimed Altamont, “didn’t we come out expressly to hunt?”
“To hunt the musk-ox, and nothing else,” replied Clawbonny. “Besides, we shouldn’t know what to do with this game, even if we killed it; we have provisions enough. Let us for once enjoy the sight of men and animals in perfect amity.”
“It proves no human beings have been here before,” said Hatteras.
“True, and that proves something more, these animals are not of American origin.”
“How do you make that out?” said Altamont.
“Why, if they had been born in North America they would have known how to treat that mammiferous biped called man, and would have fled at the first glimpse of us. No, they are from the north, most likely from the untrodden wilds of Asia, so Altamont, you have no right to claim them as fellow-countrymen.”
“Oh! a hunter doesn’t examine his game so closely as all that. Everything is grist that comes to his mill.”
“All right. Calm yourself, my brave Nimrod! For my own part, I would rather never fire another shot than make one of these beautiful creatures afraid of me. See, even Duke fraternizes with them. Believe me, it is well to be kind where we can. Kindness is power.”
“Well, well, so be it,” said Altamont, not at all understanding such scruples. “But I should like to see what you would do if you had no weapon but kindness among a pack of bears or wolves! You wouldn’t make much of it.”
“I make no pretensions to charm wild beasts. I don’t believe much in Orpheus and his enchantments. Besides, bears and wolves would not come to us like these hares, and partridges, and deer.”
“Why not? They have never seen human beings either.”
“No but they are savage by nature,” said Clawbonny, “and ferocity, like wickedness, engenders suspicion. This is true of men as well as animals.”
They spent the whole day in the glen, which the Doctor christened “Arctic Arcadia,” and when evening came they lay down to rest in the hollow of a rock, which seemed as if expressly prepared for their accommodation.