NIGHT drew on, and the lamp in the sitting-room already began to burn dim for want of oxygen.
At eight o’clock the final arrangements were completed, and all that remained to do was to make an opening in the roof.
They had been working away at this for some minutes, and Bell was showing himself quite an adept in the business, when Johnson, who had been keeping watch in the sleeping room, came hurriedly in to his companions, pulling such a long face, that the captain asked immediately what was the matter?
“Nothing exactly,” said the old sailor, “and yet—”
“Come, out with it!” exclaimed Altamont.
“Hush! don’t you hear a peculiar noise?”
“Here, on this side, on the wall of the room.”
Bell stopped working, and listened attentively like the rest. Johnson was right; a noise there certainly was on the side wall, as if some one were cutting the ice.
“Don’t you hear it?” repeated Johnson.
“Hear it? Yes, plain enough,” replied Altamont.
“Is it the bears?” asked Bell.
“Well; they have changed their tactics,” said old Johnson, “and given up the idea of suffocating us.”
“Or may be they suppose we are suffocated by now,” suggested the American, getting furious at his invisible enemies.
“They are going to attack us,” said Bell.
“Well, what of it?” returned Hatteras.
“We shall have a hand-to-hand struggle, that’s all.”
“And so much the better,” added Altamont; “that’s far more to my taste; I have had enough of invisible foes—let me see my antagonist, and then I can fight him.”
“Ay,” said Johnson; “but not with guns. They would be useless here.”
“With knife and hatchet then,” returned the American.
The noise increased, and it was evident that the point of attack was the angle of the wall formed by its junction with the cliff.
“They are hardly six feet off now,” said the boatswain.
“Right, Johnson!” replied Altamont; “but we have time enough to be ready for them.”
And seizing a hatchet, he placed himself in fighting attitude, planting his right foot firmly forward and throwing himself back.
Hatteras and the others followed his example, and Johnson took care to load a gun in case of necessity.
Every minute the sound came nearer, till at last only a thin coating separated them from their assailants.
Presently this gave way with a loud crack, and a huge dark mass rolled over into the room.
Altamont had already swung his hatchet to strike, when he was arrested by a well-known voice, exclaiming—
“For Heaven’s sake, stop!”
“The Doctor! the Doctor!” cried Johnson.
And the Doctor it actually was who had tumbled in among them in such undignified fashion.
“How do ye do, good friends?” he said, picking himself smartly up.
His companions stood stupefied for a moment, but joy soon loosened their tongues, and each rushed eagerly forward to welcome his old comrade with a loving embrace. Hatteras was for once fairly overcome with emotion, and positively hugged him like a child.
“And is it really you, Mr. Clawbonny?” said Johnson.
“Myself and nobody else, my old fellow. I assure you I have been far more uneasy about you than you could have been about me.”
“But how did you know we had been attacked by a troop of bears?” asked Altamont. “What we were most afraid of was that you would come quickly back to Fort Providence, never dreaming of danger.”
“Oh, I saw it all. Your repeated shots gave me the alarm. When you commenced firing I was beside the wreck of the Porpoise, but I climbed up a hummock, and discovered five bears close on your heels. Oh, how anxious I was for you! But when I saw you disappear down the cliff, while the bears stood hesitating on the edge, as if uncertain what to do, I felt sure that you had managed to get safely inside the house and barricade it. I crept cautiously nearer, sometimes going on all-fours, sometimes slipping between great blocks of ice, till I came at last quite close to our fort, and then I found the bears working away like beavers. They were prowling about the snow, and dragging enormous blocks of ice towards the house, piling them up like a wall, evidently intending to bury you alive. It is a lucky thing they did not take it into their heads to dash down the blocks from the summit of the cone, for you must have been crushed inevitably.”
“But what danger you were in, Mr. Clawbonny,” said Bell. “Any moment they might have turned round and attacked you.”
“They never thought of it even. Johnson’s Greenland dogs came in sight several times, but they did not take the trouble to go after them. No, they imagined themselves sure of a more savoury supper!”
“Thanks for the compliment!” said Altamont, laughing.
“Oh, there is nothing to be proud of. When I saw what the bears were up to, I determined to get back to you by some means or other. I waited till night, but as soon as it got dark I glided noiselessly along towards the powder-magazine. I had my reasons for choosing that point from which to work my way hither, and I speedily commenced operations with my snow-knife. A famous tool it is. For three mortal hours I have been hacking and heaving away, but here I am at last tired enough and starving, but still safe here.”
“To share our fate!” said Altamont.
“No, to save you all; but, for any sake, give me a biscuit and a bit of meat, for I feel sinking for want of food.”
A substantial meal was soon before him, but the vivacious little man could talk all the while he was eating, and was quite ready to answer any questions.
“Did you say to save us?” asked Bell.
“Most assuredly!” was the reply.
“Well, certainly, if you found your way in, we can find our way out by the same road.”
“A likely story, and leave the field clear for the whole pack to come in and find out our stores. Pretty havoc they would make!”
“No, we must stay here,” said Hatteras.
“Of course we must,” replied Clawbonny, “but we’ll get rid of the bears for all that.”
“I told you so,” said Johnson, rubbing his hands. “I knew nothing was hopeless if Mr. Clawbonny was here; he has always some expedient in his wise head.”
“My poor head is very empty, I fear, but by dint of rummaging perhaps I——”
“Doctor,” interrupted Altamont, “I suppose there is no fear of the bears getting in by the passage you have made?”
“No, I took care to stop up the opening thoroughly, and now we can reach the powder-magazine without letting them see us.”
“All right; and now will you let us have your plan of getting rid of these comical assailants?”
“My plan is quite simple, and part of the work is done already.”
“What do you mean?”
“You shall see. But I am forgetting that I brought a companion with me.”
“What do you say?” said Johnson.
“I have a companion to introduce to you,” replied the Doctor, going out again into the passage, and bringing back a dead fox, newly killed.
“I shot it this morning,” he continued, “and never did fox come more opportunely.”
“What on earth do you mean?” asked Altamont.
“I mean to blow up the bears en masse with 100 lbs of powder.”
“But where is the powder?” exclaimed his friend.
“In the magazine. This passage will lead to it. I made it purposely.”
“And where is the mine to be?” inquired Altamont.
“At the furthest point from the house and stores.”
“And how will you manage to entice the bears there, all to one spot?”
“I’ll undertake that business; but we have talked enough, let us set to work. We have a hundred feet more to add to our passage to-night, and that is no easy matter, but as there are five of us, we can take turns at it. Bell will begin, and we will lie down and sleep meantime.”
“Well, really,” said Johnson, “the more I think of it, the more feasible seems the Doctor’s plan.”
“It is a sure one, anyway,” said Clawbonny.
“So sure that I can feel the bear’s fur already on my shoulder. Well, come, let’s begin then.”
Away he went into the gloomy passage, followed by Bell, and in a few moments they had reached the powder-magazine, and stood among the well-arranged barrels. The Doctor pointed out to his companion the exact spot where he began excavating, and then left him to his task, at which he laboured diligently for about an hour, when Altamont came to relieve him. All the snow he had dug out was taken to the kitchen and melted, to prevent its taking up room.
The captain succeeded Altamont, and was followed by Johnson. In ten hours—that is to say, about eight in the morning—the gallery was entirely open.
With the first streak of day, the Doctor was up to reconnoitre the position of the enemy. The patient animals were still occupying their old position, prowling up and down and growling. The house had already almost disappeared beneath the piled-up blocks of ice, but even while he gazed a council of war seemed being held, which evidently resulted in the determination to alter the plan of action, for suddenly all the five bears began vigorously to pull down these same heaped-up blocks.
“What are they about?” asked Hatteras, who was standing beside him.
“Well, they look to me to be bent on demolishing their own work, and getting right down to us as fast as possible; but wait a bit, my gentlemen, we’ll demolish you first. However, we have not a minute to lose.”
Hastening away to the mine, he had the chamber where the powder was to be lodged enlarged the whole breadth and height of the sloping rock against which the wall leaned, till the upper part was about a foot thick, and had to be propped up to prevent its falling in. A strong stake was fixed firmly on the granite foundation, on the top of which the dead fox was fastened. A rope was attached to the lower part of the stake, sufficiently long to reach the powder stores.
“This is the bait,” he said, pointing to the dead fox, “and here is the mine,” he added, rolling in a keg of powder containing about 100 lbs.
“But, Doctor,” said Hatteras, “won’t that blow us up too, as well as the bears?”
“No, we shall be too far from the scene of explosion. Besides, our house is solid, and we can soon repair the walls even if they should get a bit shaken.”
“And how do you propose to manage?” asked Altamont.
“See! By hauling in this rope we lower the post which props up the roof, and make it give way, and bring up the dead fox to light, and I think you will agree with me that the bears are so famished with their long fasting, that they won’t lose much time in rushing towards their unexpected meal. Well, just at that very moment, I shall set fire to the mine, and blow up both the guests and the meal.”
“Capital! Capital!” shouted Johnson, who had been listening with intense interest.
Hatteras said nothing, for he had such absolute confidence in his friend that he wanted no further explanation. But Altamont must know the why and wherefore of everything.
“But Doctor,” he said, “can you reckon on your match so exactly that you can be quite sure it will fire the mine at the right moment?”
“I don’t need to reckon at all; that’s a difficulty easily got over.”
“Then you have a match a hundred feet long?”
“You are simply going to lay a train of powder.”
“No, that might miss fire.”
“Well, there is no way then but for one of us to devote his life to the others, and go and light the powder himself.”
“I’m ready,” said Johnson, eagerly, “ready and willing.”
“Quite useless my brave fellow,” replied the Doctor, holding out his hand. “All our lives are precious, and they will be all spared, thank God!”
“Well, I give it up!” said the American. “I’ll make no more guesses.”
“I should like to know what is the good of learning physics,” said the Doctor, smiling, “if they can’t help a man at a pinch like this. Haven’t we an electric battery, and long enough lines attached to it to serve our purpose? We can fire our mine whenever we please in an instant, and without the slightest danger.”
“Hurrah!” exclaimed Johnson.
“Hurrah!” echoed the others, without heeding whether the enemy heard them or not.
The Doctor’s idea was immediately carried out, and the connecting lines uncoiled and laid down from the house to the chamber of the mine, one end of each remaining attached to the electric pile, and the other inserted into the keg of powder.
By nine o’clock everything was ready. It was high time, for the bears were furiously engaged in the work of demolition. Johnson was stationed in the powder-magazine, in charge of the cord which held the bait.
“Now,” said Clawbonny to his companions, “load your guns, in case our assailants are not killed. Stand beside Johnson, and the moment the explosion is over rush out.”
“All right,” said Altamont.
“And now we have done all we can to help ourselves. So may Heaven help us!”
Hatteras, Altamont, and Bell repaired to the powder-magazine, while the Doctor remained alone beside the pile.
Soon he heard Johnson’s voice in the distance calling out “Ready.”
“All right,” was the reply.
Johnson pulled his rope vigorously, and then rushed to the loop-hole to see the effect. The thin shell of ice had given way, and the body of the fox lay among the ruins. The bears were somewhat scared at first, but the next minute had eagerly rushed to seize the booty.
“Fire!” called out Johnson, and at once the electric spark was sent along the lines right into the keg of powder. A formidable explosion ensued; the house was shaken as if by an earthquake, and the walls cracked asunder. Hatteras, Altamont, and Bell hurried out with the guns, but they might spare their shot, for four of the bears lay dead, and the fifth, half roasted, though alive, was scampering away in terror as fast as his legs could carry him.
“Hurrah! Three cheers for Clawbonny,” they shouted and overwhelmed the Doctor with plaudits and thanks.