"There's no doubt of that," said the doctor; "let us avoid showing ourselves. We are not strong enough to fight successfully."
"But where do these devilish bears come from?" asked Bell.
"From behind those pieces of ice to the east, where they are spying us; don't let us get too near them."
"And our hunt?" asked Altamont.
"Let us put it off for a few days," answered the doctor; "let us again rub out these nearest marks, and to-morrow we shall see if they are renewed. In this way we can see the manoeuvres of our enemies."
The doctor's advice was taken, and they returned to the fort; the presence of these terrible beasts forbade any excursion. Strict watch was kept over the neighborhood of Victoria Bay. The lighthouse was dismantled; it was of no real use, and might attract the attention of the animals; the lantern and the electric threads were carried to the house; then they took turns in watching the upper plateau.
Again they had to endure the monotony of loneliness, but what else was to be done? They dared not risk a contest at so fearful odds; no one's life could be risked imprudently. Perhaps the bears, if they caught sight of nothing, might be thrown off the track; or, if they were met singly, they might be attacked successfully. However, this inaction was relieved by a new interest; they had to keep watch, and no one regretted it.
April 28th passed by without any sign of the existence of the enemy. The next morning their curiosity as to the existence of new tracks was succeeded by astonishment. Not a trace was to be seen; the snow was intact.
"Good," shouted Altamont, "the bears are thrown off the track! They have no perseverance! They are tired of waiting, and have gone! Good by, and now off to the hunt!"
"Eh!" answered the doctor, "who can say? For greater safety, my friends, I beg one more day of watching; it is certain the enemy did not approach last night, at least from this side—"
"Let us make a circuit of the plateau," said Altamont, "and then we shall make sure."
"Willingly," said the doctor.
But with all their care in exploration, not the slightest trace could be found.
"Well, shall we start on our hunt?" asked Altamont, impatiently.
"Let us wait till to-morrow," urged the doctor.
"All right," answered Altamont, who had some reluctance, however, about conceding.
They returned to the fort. Each one had to watch for an hour, as on the previous evening. When Altamont's turn came, he went to relieve Bell. As soon as he was gone, Hatteras called his companions together. The doctor left his notes, and Johnson his furnaces. It might have been supposed that Hatteras was going to discuss the dangers of the situation; he did not even think of them.
"My friends," he said, "let us take advantage of the absence of this American, to talk over our affairs; some things don't concern him at all, and I don't care to have him meddling with them."
The others looked at one another, uncertain of his meaning.
"I want to speak with you," he said, "about our future plans."
"Well," answered the doctor, "let us talk now we are alone."
"In a month, or six weeks at the latest," Hatteras began, "we shall be able to make distant excursions. Had you thought of what might be done in the summer?"
"Had you, Captain?" asked Johnson.
"I? I can say that not an hour passes without my mind's recurring to my plan. I suppose no one of you has any thought of returning—"
There was no immediate answer to this insinuation.
"As for me," continued Hatteras, "if I have to go alone, I shall go to the North Pole; we are only three hundred and sixty miles from it at the outside. No men have ever been so near it, and I shall not let such a chance go by without the attempt, even if it be impossible. What are your views in the matter?"
"Your own," answered the doctor.
"And yours, Johnson?"
"The same as the doctor's," answered the boatswain.
"It is your turn to speak, Bell," said Hatteras.
"Captain," answered the carpenter, "it is true we have no family awaiting us in England, but our country is our country: don't you think of going back?"
"We shall go back easily as soon as we shall have discovered the Pole. In fact, more easily. The difficulties will not increase, for, on our way thither, we leave behind us the coldest spots on the globe. We have supplies of all sorts for a long time. There is nothing to hinder us, and we should be to blame if we did not push on to the end."
"Well," answered Bell, "we are all of your opinion, Captain."
"Good!" replied Hatteras. "I have never doubted of you. We shall succeed, my friends, and England shall have all the glory of our success."
"But there is an American with us," said Johnson.
Hatteras could not restrain a wrathful gesture at this remark.
"I know it," he said in a deep voice.
"We can't leave him here," continued the doctor.
"No, we cannot," answered Hatteras, coldly.
"And he will certainly come."
"Yes, he will come, but who will command?"
"And if you obey me, will this Yankee refuse to obey?"
"I don't think so," answered Johnson; "but if he is unwilling to obey your orders—"
"It would have to be settled between him and me."
The three Englishmen looked at Hatteras without a word. The doctor broke the silence.
"How shall we travel?" he asked.
"By keeping along the coast as much as possible," answered Hatteras.
"But if we find the sea open, as is likely?"
"Well, we shall cross it."
"How? We have no boat."
Hatteras did not answer; he was evidently embarrassed.
"Perhaps," suggested Bell, "we might build a launch out of the timbers of the Porpoise."
"Never!" shouted Hatteras, warmly.
"Never?" exclaimed Johnson.
The doctor shook his head; he understood the captain's unwillingness.
"Never!" the latter answered. "A launch made out of the wood of an American ship would be an American launch—"
"But, Captain—" interposed Johnson.
The doctor made a sign to the old boatswain to keep silent. A more suitable time was required for that question. The doctor, although he understood Hatteras's repugnance, did not sympathize with it, and he determined to make his friend abandon this hasty decision. Hence he spoke of something else, of the possibility of going along the coast to the north, and that unknown point, the North Pole. In a word, he avoided all dangerous subjects of conversation up to the moment when it was suddenly ended by the entrance of Altamont. He had nothing new to report. The day ended in this way, and the night was quiet. The bears had evidently disappeared.
CHAPTER XII. THE ICE PRISON.
The next day they determined to arrange the hunt, in which Hatteras, Altamont, and the carpenter were to take part; no more tracks were to be seen; the bears had decidedly given up their plan of attack, either from fear of their unknown enemies, or because there had been no sign of living beings beneath the mass of snow. During the absence of the three hunters, the doctor was to push on to Johnson Island to examine the condition of the ice, and to make some hydrographic investigations. The cold was sharp, but they supported it well, having become accustomed to it by this time. The boatswain was to remain at Doctor's House; in a word, to guard the house.
The three hunters made their preparations; each one took a double-barrelled rifled gun, with conical balls; they carried a small quantity of pemmican, in case night should fall before their return; they also were provided with the snow-knife, which is so indispensable in these regions, and a hatchet which they wore in their belts. Thus armed and equipped they could go far; and since they were both skilled and bold, they could count on bringing back a good supply.
At eight in the morning they set out. Duke sprang about ahead of them; they ascended the hill to the east, went about the lighthouse, and disappeared in the plains to the south, which were bounded by Mount Bell. The doctor, having agreed on a danger-signal with Johnson, descended towards the shore so as to reach the ice in Victoria Bay.
The boatswain remained at Fort Providence alone, but not idle. He first set free the Greenland dogs, which were playing about the Dog Palace; they in their joy rolled about in the snow. Johnson then gave his attentions to the cares of housekeeping. He had to renew the fuel and provisions, to set the stores in order, to mend many broken utensils, to patch the coverings, to work over the shoes for the long excursions of the summer. There was no lack of things to do, but the boatswain worked with the ease of a sailor, who has generally a smattering of all trades. While thus employed he began to think of the talk of the evening before; he thought of the captain, and especially of his obstinacy, which, after all, had something very heroic and very honorable about it, in his unwillingness that any American man or boat should reach the Pole before him, or even with him.
"Still, it seems to me," he said to himself, "no easy task to cross the ocean without a boat; and if we have the open sea before us, we should need one. The strongest Englishman in the world couldn't swim three hundred miles. Patriotism has its limits. Well, we shall see. We have still time before us; Dr. Clawbonny has not yet said his last word in the matter; he is wise, and he may persuade the captain to change his mind. I'll bet that in going towards the island he'll glance at the fragments of the Porpoise, and will know exactly what can be made out of them."
Johnson had reached this point in his reflections, and the hunters had been gone an hour, when a loud report was heard two or three miles to windward.
"Good!" said the sailor; "they have come across something, and without going very far, for I heard them distinctly. After all, the air is so clear."
A second and then a third report was heard.
"Hulloa!" continued Johnson, "they've got into a good place."
Three other reports, in quicker succession, were heard.
"Six shots!" said Johnson; "now they've fired off everything. It was a hot time! Is it possible—"
At the thought, Johnson grew pale; he quickly left the snow-house, and in a few moments he had run up to the top of the cone. He saw a sight that made him tremble.
"The bears!" he shouted.
The three hunters, followed by Duke, were running rapidly, followed by five enormous animals; their six bullets had not disabled them; the bears were gaining on them; Hatteras, behind the others, could only keep his distance from the animals by throwing away his cap, hatchet, and even his gun. The bears stopped, according to their habit, to sniff at the different objects, and lost a little on this ground on which they would have outstripped the swiftest horse. It was thus that Hatteras, Altamont, and Bell, all out of breath, came up to Johnson, and they all slid down the slope to the snow-house. The five bears were close behind, and the captain was obliged to ward off the blow of a paw with his knife. In a moment Hatteras and his companions were locked in the house. The animals stopped on the upper plateau of the truncated cone.
"Well," said Hatteras, "we can now defend ourselves better, five to five!"
"Four to five!" shouted Johnson in a terrified voice.
"What?" asked Hatteras.
"The doctor!" answered Johnson, pointing to the empty room.
"He is on the shore of the island!"
"Poor man!" cried Bell.
"We can't abandon him in this way," said Altamont.
"Let us run!" said Hatteras.
He opened the door quickly, but he had hardly time to shut it; a bear nearly crushed his skull with his claw.
"They are there," he cried.
"All?" asked Bell.
"All!" answered Hatteras.
Altamont hastened to the windows, heaping up the bays with pieces of ice torn from the walls of the house. His companions did the same without speaking. Duke's dull snarls alone broke the silence.
But it must be said these men had only a single thought; they forgot their own danger, and only considered the doctor. Poor Clawbonny! so kind, so devoted! the soul of the little colony! for the first time he was missing; extreme peril, a terrible death, awaited him; for when his excursion was over he would return quietly to Fort Providence, and would find these ferocious animals. And there was no way of warning him.
"If I'm not mistaken, he will be on his guard; your shots must have warned him, and he must know something has happened."
"But if he were far off," answered Altamont, "and did not understand? There are eight chances out of ten that he'll come back without suspicion of danger! The bears are hiding behind the scarp of the fort, and he can't see them."
"We shall have to get rid of these dangerous beasts before his return," answered Hatteras.
"But how?" asked Bell.
To answer this question was not easy. A sortie seemed impossible. They took the precaution to barricade the entrance, but the bears could easily have overcome the obstacles if the idea had occurred to them; they knew the number and strength of their adversaries, and they could easily have reached them. The prisoners were posted in each one of the chambers of Doctor's House to watch for every attempt at entrance; when they listened, they heard the bears coming and going, growling, and tearing at the walls with their huge paws. But some action was necessary; time was pressing. Altamont resolved to make a loop-hole to shoot the assailants; in a few minutes he had made a little hole in the ice-wall; he pushed his gun through it; but it had scarcely reached the other side before it was torn from his hands with irresistible force before he could fire.
"The devil!" he cried, "we are too weak."
And he hastened to close the loop-hole. Thus matters went for an hour, without any end appearing probable. The chances of a sortie were discussed; they seemed slight, for the bears could not be fought singly. Nevertheless, Hatteras and his companions, being anxious to finish it, and, it must be said, very much confused at being thus imprisoned by the beasts, were about to try a direct attack, when the captain thought of a new means of defence.
He took the poker and plunged it into the stove; then he made an opening in the wall, but so as to keep a thin coating of ice outside. His companions watched him. When the poker was white hot, Hatteras said,—
"This bar will drive away the bears, for they won't be able to seize it, and through the loop-hole we will be able to fire at them, without their taking our guns away from us."
"A good idea!" cried Bell, going towards Altamont.
Then Hatteras, withdrawing the poker from the stove, pushed it through the wall. The snow, steaming at its touch, hissed sharply. Two bears ran to seize the bar, but they roared fearfully when four shots were fired at once.
"Hit!" shouted the American.
"Hit!" repeated Bell.
"Let us try again," said Hatteras, closing the opening for a moment.
The poker was put again into the fire; in a few minutes it was red hot.
Altamont and Bell returned to their place after loading their guns; Hatteras again pushed the poker through the loop-hole. But this time an impenetrable substance stopped it.
"Curse it!" cried the American.
"What's the matter?" asked Johnson.
"The matter! These cursed animals are heaping up the ice and snow so as to bury us alive!"
"See, the poker can't go through! Really, this is absurd!"
It was more than absurd, it was alarming. Matters looked worse. The bears, which are very intelligent beasts, employed this method of suffocating their prey. They heaped the ice in such a way as to render flight impossible.
"This is hard," said Johnson, with a very mortified air. "It's well enough to have men treat you in this way, but bears!"
After this reflection two hours passed by without any material change in their situation; a sortie became impossible; the thickened walls deadened all sound without. Altamont walked to and fro like a bold man in face of a danger greater than his courage. Hatteras thought anxiously of the doctor, and of the great danger awaiting him when he should return.
"Ah," shouted Johnson, "if Dr. Clawbonny were only here!"
"Well, what would he do?" asked Altamont.
"O, he would be able to help us!"
"How?" asked the American, with some asperity.
"If I knew," answered Johnson, "I shouldn't want him here. Still, I can think of a piece of advice he would give us at this moment."
"What is that?"
"To take some food. It can't hurt us. What do you think, Mr. Altamont?"
"Let us eat if you care to," was the answer; "although our condition is stupid, not to say disgraceful."
"I'll bet," said Johnson, "that we'll find some way of driving them off after dinner."
They made no reply, but sat down to dinner. Johnson, as a pupil of the doctor, tried to be a philosopher in the face of danger, but he succeeded ill; his jokes stuck in his throat. Besides, they began to feel uncomfortable; the air was growing bad in this hermetically sealed prison; the stove-pipe drew insufficiently, and it was easy to see that in a short time the fire would go out; the oxygen, consumed by their lungs and the fire, would be replaced by carbonic acid, which would be fatal to them, as they all knew. Hatteras was the first to detect this new danger; he was unwilling to hide it from the others.
"So, at any risk we must get out!" said Altamont.
"Yes," answered Hatteras; "but let us wait till night; we will make a hole in the snow that we may get fresh air; then one shall take his place here and fire at the bears."
"It's the only thing we can do," said the American.
Having agreed on this, they waited for the time of action; and during the following hours, Altamont did not spare imprecations against a state of things in which, as he put it, "there being men and bears concerned, the men were getting the worst of it."
CHAPTER XIII. THE MINE.
Night came, and the lamp began to burn dimly in the close air of the room. At eight o'clock they made their final preparations. The guns were carefully loaded, and an opening was begun in the roof of the snow-house. Bell worked cleverly at this for a few minutes, when Johnson, who had left the bedroom, where he was on guard, for a few minutes, returned rapidly to his companions. He seemed disturbed.
"What is the matter?" the captain asked.
"The matter? nothing!" answered the old sailor, hesitatingly, "yet—"
"What is it?" asked Altamont.
"Hush! Don't you hear a strange sound?"
"On which side?"
"There! There is something happening to the wall of that room."
Bell stopped his work; each one listened. A distant noise could be heard, apparently in the side wall; some one was evidently making a passage-way through the ice.
"It's a tearing sound!" said Johnson.
"Without a doubt," answered Altamont.
"The bears?" asked Bell.
"Yes, the bears," said Altamont.
"They have changed their plan," continued the sailor; "they've given up trying to suffocate us."
"Or else they think they've done it," added the American, who was getting very angry.
"We shall be attacked," said Bell.
"Well," remarked Hatteras, "we shall fight against them."
"Confound it!" shouted Altamont; "I prefer that decidedly! I've had enough working in the dark! Now we shall see one another and fight!"
"Yes," answered Johnson; "but with our guns it is impossible in so small a space."
"Well, with a hatchet or a knife!"
The noise increased; the scratching of claws could be heard; the bears had attacked the wall at the angle where it joined the snow fastened to the rock."
"Evidently," said Johnson, "the animal is within six feet of us."
"You are right, Johnson," answered the American, "but we have time to prepare ourselves to receive it!"
The American took the axe in one hand, his knife in the other; resting on his right foot, his body thrown back, he stood ready to attack. Hatteras and Bell did the same. Johnson prepared his gun in case fire-arms should be necessary. The noise grew louder and louder; the ice kept cracking beneath the repeated blows. At last only a thin crust separated the adversaries; suddenly this crust tore asunder like paper through which a clown leaps, and an enormous black body appeared in the gloom of the room. Altamont raised his hand to strike it.
"Stop! for heaven's sake, stop!" said a well-known voice.
"The doctor, the doctor!" shouted Johnson.
It was indeed the doctor, who, carried by the impetus, rolled into the room.
"Good evening, my friends," he said, springing to his feet.
His companions remained stupefied; but joy succeeded their stupefaction; each one wished to embrace the worthy man; Hatteras, who was much moved, clasped him for a long time to his breast. The doctor answered by a warm clasp of the hand.
"What! you, Dr. Clawbonny!" said the boatswain.
"Why, Johnson, I was much more anxious about your fate than you about mine."
"But how did you know that we were attacked by bears?" asked Altamont; "our greatest fear was to see you returning quietly to Fort Providence without thought of danger."
"O, I saw everything!" answered the doctor; "your shots warned me; I happened to be near the fragments of the Porpoise; I climbed up a hummock; I saw five bears chasing you; ah, I feared the worst for you! But the way you slid down the hill, and the hesitation of the animals, reassured me for a time; I knew you'd had time to lock yourselves in. Then I approached gradually, climbing and creeping between cakes of ice; I arrived near the fort, and I saw the huge beasts working like beavers; they were tossing the snow about, heaping up the ice so as to bury you alive. Fortunately, they did not think of hurling the blocks down from the top of the cone, for you would have been crushed without mercy."
"But," said Bell, "you were not safe, Doctor; couldn't they leave their place and attack you?"
"They didn't think of it; the Greenland dogs which Johnson let loose would sniff around at a little distance, but they didn't think of attacking them; no, they were sure of better game."
"Thanks for the compliment," said Altamont, smiling.
"O, you needn't be vain of it! When I saw the tactics of the bears, I resolved to join you; to be prudent, I waited till night; so at twilight I slipped noiselessly towards the slope, on the side of the magazine; I had my own idea in choosing this point; I wanted to make a gallery; so I set to work; I began with my snow-knife, and a capital tool it is! For three hours I dug and dug, and here I am, hungry and tired, but here at last—"
"To share our fate?" asked Altamont.
"To save all of us; but give me a piece of biscuit and some meat; I'm half starved."
Soon the doctor was burying his white teeth in a large slice of salt beef. Although he was eating, he appeared willing to answer the questions they put to him.
"To save us?" Bell began.
"Certainly," answered the doctor, "and to rid us of the malicious pests who will end by finding our stores and devouring them."
"We must stay here," said Hatteras.
"Certainly," answered the doctor, "and yet rid ourselves of these animals."
"There is then a means?" asked Bell.
"A sure means," answered the doctor.
"I said so," cried Johnson, rubbing his hands; "with Dr. Clawbonny, we need not despair; he always has some invention handy."
"Not always handy; but after thinking for a while—"
"Doctor," interrupted Altamont, "can't the bears get through the passage-way you cut?"
"No, I took the precaution of closing it behind me; and now we can go from here to the powder-magazine without their suspecting it."
"Good! Will you tell us what means you intend to employ to rid us of these unpleasant visitors?"
"Something very simple, and which is already half done."
"You'll see. But I forgot I didn't come alone."
"What do you mean?" asked Johnson.
"I have a companion to introduce to you."
And with these words he pulled in from the gallery the newly killed body of a fox.
"A fox!" cried Bell.
"My morning's game," answered the doctor, modestly, "and you'll see no fox was ever wanted more than this one."
"But what is your plan, after all?" asked Altamont.
"I intend to blow the bears up with a hundred pounds of powder."
They all gazed at the doctor with amazement.
"But the powder?" they asked.
"It is in the magazine."
"And the magazine?"
"This passage-way leads to it. I had my own reason for digging this passage sixty feet long; I might have attacked the parapet nearer to the house, but I had my own idea."
"Well, where are you going to put the mine?" asked the American.
"On the slope, as far as possible from the house, the magazine, and the stores."
"But how shall you get all the bears together?"
"I'll take charge of that," answered the doctor; "but we've talked enough, now to work; we have a hundred feet to dig out to-night; it's tiresome work, but we five can do it in relays. Bell shall begin, and meanwhile we can take some rest."
"Really," said Johnson, "the more I think of it, the more I admire Dr. Clawbonny's plan."
"It's sure," answered the doctor.
"O, from the moment you opened your mouth they are dead bears, and I already feel their fur about my shoulders!"
"To work, then!"
The doctor entered the dark gallery, followed by Bell; where the doctor had gone through, his companions were sure to find no difficulty; two reached the magazine and entered among the barrels, which were all arranged in good order. The doctor gave Bell the necessary instructions; the carpenter began work on the wall towards the slope, and his companion returned to the house.
Bell worked for an hour, and dug a passage about ten feet long, through which one might crawl. Then Altamont took his place, and did about as much; the snow which was taken from the gallery was carried into the kitchen, where the doctor melted it at the fire, that it might take up less room. The captain followed the American; then came Johnson. In ten hours, that is to say, at about eight o'clock in the morning, the gallery was finished. At daybreak the doctor peeped at the bears through a loop-hole in the wall of the powder-magazine.
The patient animals had not left their place; there they were, coming and going, growling, but in general patrolling patiently; they kept going around the house, which was gradually disappearing beneath the snow. But at length they seemed to lose patience, for the doctor saw them begin to tear away the ice and snow they had heaped up.
"Good!" he said to the captain, who was standing near him.
"What are they doing?" he asked.
"They seem to be trying to destroy what they have done and to get to us! But they'll be destroyed first! At any rate, there is no time to lose."
The doctor made his way to the place where the mine was to be laid; then he enlarged the chamber all the height and breadth of the slope; a layer of ice, only a foot thick at the outside, remained; it had to be supported lest it should fall in. A stake resting on the granite soil served as a post; the fox's body was fastened to the top, and a long knotted cord ran the whole length of the gallery to the magazine. The doctor's companions followed his orders without clearly understanding his intention.
"This is the bait," he said, pointing to the fox.
At the foot of the post he placed a cask holding about a hundred pounds of powder.
"And here is the charge," he added.
"But," asked Hatteras, "sha'n't we blow ourselves up at the same time?"
"No, we are far enough off from the explosion; besides, our house is solid; and if it is hurt a little we can easily repair it."
"Well," continued Altamont; "but how are you going to set it off?"
"This way. By pulling this cord we pull over the post which holds up the ice above the powder; the fox's body will suddenly be seen on the slope, and you must confess that the starving animals will rush upon this unexpected prey."
"Well, at that moment I shall explode the mine, and blow up guest and dinner."
"Well, well!" exclaimed Johnson, who was listening eagerly.
Hatteras had perfect confidence in his friend, and asked no question. He waited. But Altamont wanted it made perfectly clear.
"Doctor," he began, "how can you calculate the length of the fuse so exactly that the explosion will take place at the right moment?"
"It's very simple," answered the doctor; "I don't make any calculation."
"But you have a fuse a hundred feet long?"
"Shall you set a train of powder simply?"
"No! that might fail."
"Will some one have to volunteer and light the powder?"
"If you want any one," said Johnson, eagerly, "I'm your man."
"It's not necessary, my friend," answered the doctor, grasping the boatswain's hand; "our five lives are precious, and they will be spared, thank God!"
"Then," said the American, "I can't guess."
"Well," answered the doctor, smiling, "if we couldn't get out of this little affair, what would be the use of physics?"
"Ah!" said Johnson, brightening up, "physics!"
"Yes! Haven't we here an electric pile and wires long enough,—those, you know, which connected with the lighthouse?"
"Well, we shall explode the powder when we please, instantly, and without danger."
"Hurrah!" shouted Johnson.
"Hurrah!" repeated his companions, not caring whether the enemy heard them or not. Soon the electric wires were run through the gallery from the house to the chamber of the mine. One of the extremities remained at the pile, the other was plunged into the centre of the cask, the two ends being placed at but a little distance from one another. At nine of the morning all was finished, and it was time; the bears were tearing the snow away furiously. The doctor thought the proper time had come. Johnson was sent to the magazine and charged with pulling the cord fastened to the post. He took his place.
"Now," said the doctor to his companions, "load your guns in case they should not be all killed at once, and take your place near Johnson; as soon as you hear the explosion, run out."
"All right!" said the American.
"And now we have done all that men can do! We have helped ourselves; may God help us!"
Hatteras, Altamont, and Bell went to the magazine. The doctor remained alone at the pile. Soon he heard Johnson's voice crying,—
"All right!" he answered.
Johnson gave a strong pull at the rope; it pulled over the stake; then he ran to the loop-hole and looked out. The surface of the slope had sunk in. The fox's body was visible upon the shattered ice. The bears, at first surprised, crowded about this new prey.
"Fire!" shouted Johnson.
The doctor at once established the electric current between the threads; a loud explosion followed; the house shook as if in an earthquake; the walls fell in. Hatteras, Altamont, and Bell hastened out of the magazine, ready to fire. But their guns were not needed; four of the five bears fell about them in fragments, while the fifth, badly burned, ran away as fast as he could.
"Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" shouted the doctor's companions, while they crowded about him and embraced him.
CHAPTER XIV. THE POLAR SPRING.
The prisoners were set free; they expressed their joy by the warmth of their thanks to the doctor. Johnson regretted somewhat the skins, which were burned and useless; but his regret did not sour his temper. They spent the day in repairing the house, which was somewhat injured by the explosion. They took away the blocks heaped up by the animals, and the walls were made secure. They worked briskly, encouraged by the cheery songs of the boatswain.
The next day the weather was much milder; the wind changed suddenly, and the thermometer rose to +15 degrees. So great a difference was soon felt by both man and nature. The southerly wind brought with it the first signs of the polar spring. This comparative warmth lasted for many days; the thermometer, sheltered from the wind, even rose as high as +31 degrees, and there were signs of a thaw. The ice began to crack; a few spirts of salt-water arose here and there, like jets in an English park; a few days later it rained hard.
A dense vapor arose from the snow; this was a good sign, and the melting of the immense masses appeared to be near at hand. The pale disk of the sun grew brighter and drew longer spirals above the horizon; the night lasted scarcely three hours. Another similar symptom was the reappearance of some ptarmigans, arctic geese, plover, and flocks of quail; the air was soon filled with the deafening cries which they remembered from the previous summer. A few hares, which they were able to shoot, appeared on the shores of the bay, as well as the arctic mice, the burrows of which were like a honeycomb. The doctor called the attention of his friends to the fact that these animals began to lose their white winter plumage, or hair, to put on their summer dress; they were evidently getting ready for summer, while their sustenance appeared in the form of moss, poppy, saxifrage, and thin grass. A new life was peering through the melting snows. But with the harmless animals returned the famished foes; foxes and wolves arrived in search of their prey; mournful howling sounded during the brief darkness of the nights.
The wolf of these countries is near of kin to the dog; like him, it barks, and often in such a way as to deceive the sharpest ears, those of the dogs themselves, for instance; it is even said that they employ this device to attract dogs, and then eat them. This has been observed on the shores of Hudson's Bay, and the doctor could confirm it at New America; Johnson took care not to let loose the dogs of the sledge, who might have been destroyed in that way. As for Duke, he had seen too many of them, and he was too wise to be caught in any such way.
During a fortnight they hunted a great deal; fresh food was abundant; they shot partridges, ptarmigans, and snow-birds, which were delicious eating. The hunters did not go far from Fort Providence. In fact, small game could almost be killed with a stick; and it gave much animation to the silent shores of Victoria Bay,—an unaccustomed sight which delighted their eyes.
The fortnight succeeding the great defeat of the bears was taken up with different occupations. The thaw advanced steadily; the thermometer rose to 32 degrees, and torrents began to roar in the ravines, and thousands of cataracts fell down the declivities. The doctor cleared an acre of ground and sowed in it cresses, sorrel, and cochlearia, which are excellent remedies for the scurvy; the little greenish leaves were peeping above the ground when, with incredible rapidity, the cold again seized everything.
In a single night, with a violent north-wind, the thermometer fell forty degrees, to -8 degrees. Everything was frozen; birds, quadrupeds, and seals disappeared as if by magic; the holes for the seals were closed, the crevasses disappeared, the ice became as hard as granite, and the waterfalls hung like long crystal pendants.
It was a total change to the eye; it took place in the night of May 11-12. And when Bell the next morning put his nose out of doors into this sharp frost, he nearly left it there.
"O, this polar climate!" cried the doctor, a little disappointed; "that's the way it goes! Well, I shall have to begin sowing again."
Hatteras took things less philosophically, so eager was he to renew his explorations. But he had to resign himself.
"Will this cold weather last long?" asked Johnson.
"No, my friend, no," answered Clawbonny; "it's the last touch of winter we shall have! You know it's at home here, and we can't drive it away against its will."
"It defends itself well," said Bell, rubbing his face.
"Yes, but I ought to have expected it," said the doctor; "and I should not have thrown the seed away so stupidly, especially since I might have started them near the kitchen stove."
"What!" asked Altamont, "could you have foreseen this change of weather?"
"Certainly, and without resorting to magic. I ought to have put the seed under the protection of Saints Mamert, Panera, and Servais, whose days are the 11th, 12th, and 13th of this month."
"Well, Doctor," said Altamont, "will you tell me what influence these three saints have on the weather?"
"A very great influence, to believe gardeners, who call them the three saints of ice."
"And why so, pray?"
"Because generally there is a periodic frost in the month of May, and the greatest fall of temperature takes place from the 11th to the 13th of this month. It is a fact, that is all."
"It is curious, but what is the explanation?" asked the American.
"There are two: either by the interposition of a greater number of asteroids between the earth and the sun at this season, or simply by the melting of the snow, which thereby absorbs a great quantity of heat. Both explanations are plausible; must they be received? I don't know; but if I'm uncertain of the truth of the explanation, I ought not to have been of the fact, and so lose my crop."
The doctor was right; for one reason or another the cold was very intense during the rest of the month of May; their hunting was interrupted, not so much by the severity of the weather as by the absence of game; fortunately, the supply of fresh meat was not yet quite exhausted. They found themselves accordingly condemned to new inactivity; for a fortnight, from the 11th to the 25th of May, only one incident broke the monotony of their lives; a serious illness, diphtheria, suddenly seized the carpenter; from the swollen tonsils and the false membrane in the throat, the doctor could not be ignorant of the nature of the disease; but he was in his element, and he soon drove it away, for evidently it had not counted on meeting him; his treatment was very simple, and the medicines were not hard to get; the doctor simply prescribed pieces of ice to be held in the mouth; in a few hours the swelling went down and the false membrane disappeared; twenty-four hours later Bell was up again.
When the others wondered at the doctor's prescriptions: "This is the land of these complaints," he answered; "the cure must be near the disease."
"The cure, and especially the doctor," added Johnson, in whose mind the doctor was assuming colossal proportions.
During this new leisure the latter resolved to have a serious talk with the captain; he wanted to induce Hatteras to give up his intention of going northward without carrying some sort of a boat; a piece of wood, something with which he could cross an arm of the sea, if they should meet one. The captain, who was fixed in his views, had formally vowed not to use a boat made of the fragments of the American ship. The doctor was uncertain how to broach the subject, and yet a speedy decision was important, for the month of June would be the time for distant excursions. At last, after long reflection, he took Hatteras aside one day, and with his usual air of kindness said to him,—
"Hatteras, you know I am your friend?"
"Certainly," answered the captain, warmly, "my best friend; indeed, my only one."
"If I give you a piece of advice," resumed the doctor, "advice which you don't ask for, would you consider it disinterested?"
"Yes, for I know that selfish interest has never been your guide; but what do you want to say?"
"One moment, Hatteras; I have something else to ask of you: Do you consider me a true Englishman like yourself, and eager for the glory of my country?"
Hatteras looked at the doctor with surprise.
"Yes," he answered, with his face expressing surprise at the question.
"You want to reach the North Pole," resumed the doctor; "I understand your ambition, I share it, but to reach this end we need the means."
"Well, haven't I so far sacrificed everything in order to succeed?"
"No, Hatteras, you have not sacrificed your personal prejudices, and at this moment I see that you are ready to refuse the indispensable means of reaching the Pole."
"Ah!" answered Hatteras, "you mean the launch; this man—"
"Come, Hatteras, let us argue coolly, without passion, and look at all sides of the question. The line of the coast on which we have wintered may be broken; there is no proof that it runs six degrees to the north; if the information which has brought you so far is right, we ought to find a vast extent of open sea during the summer months. Now, with the Arctic Ocean before us, free of ice and favorable for navigation, what shall we do if we lack the means of crossing it?"
Hatteras made no answer.
"Do you want to be within a few miles of the Pole without being able to reach it?"
Hatteras's head sank into his hands.
"And now," continued the doctor, "let us look at the question from a moral point of view. I can understand that an Englishman should give up his life and his fortune for the honor of his country. But because a boat made of a few planks torn from a wrecked American ship first touches the coast or crosses the unknown ocean, can that diminish the honor of the discovery? If you found on this shore the hull of an abandoned ship, should you hesitate to make use of it? Doesn't the glory of success belong to the head of the expedition? And I ask you if this launch built by four Englishmen, manned by four Englishmen, would not be English from keel to gunwale?"
Hatteras was still silent.
"No," said Clawbonny, "let us talk frankly; it's not the boat you mind, it's the man."
"Yes, Doctor, yes," answered the captain, "that American; I hate him with real English hate, that man thrown in my way by chance—"
"To save you!"
"To ruin me! He seems to defy me, to act as master, to imagine he holds my fate in his hands, and to have guessed my plans. Didn't he show his character when we were giving names to the new lands? Has he ever said what he was doing here? You can't free me of the idea which is killing me, that this man is the head of an expedition sent out by the government of the United States."
"And if he is, Hatteras, what is there to show that he is in search of the Pole? Can't America try to discover the Northwest Passage as well as England? At any rate, Altamont is perfectly ignorant of your plans; for neither Johnson nor Bell nor you nor I has said a single word about them in his presence."
"Well, I hope he'll never know them!"
"He will know them finally, of course, for we can't leave him alone here."
"Why not?" asked the captain, with some violence; "can't he remain at Fort Providence?"
"He would never give his consent, Hatteras; and then to leave him here, uncertain of finding him again, would be more than imprudent, it would be inhuman. Altamont will come with us; he must come! But since there is no need of suggesting new ideas to him, let us say nothing, and build a launch apparently for reconnoitring these new shores."
Hatteras could not make up his mind to accede to the demands of his friend, who waited for an answer which did not come.
"And if he refused to let us tear his ship to pieces!" said the captain, finally.
"In that case, you would have the right on your side; you could build the boat in spite of him, and he could do nothing about it."
"I hope he will refuse," exclaimed Hatteras.
"Before he refuses," answered the doctor, "he must be asked. I will undertake to do it."
In fact, that evening, before supper, Clawbonny turned the conversation to certain proposed expeditions in the summer months for hydrographic observations.
"I suppose, Altamont," he said, "that you will join us?"
"Certainly," was the reply; "we must know how large New America is."
Hatteras gazed earnestly at his rival while he made his answer.
"And for that," continued Altamont, "we must make the best use we can of the fragments of the Porpoise; let us make a strong boat which can carry us far."
"You hear, Bell," said the doctor, quickly; "to-morrow we shall set to work."
CHAPTER XV. THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.
The next day Bell, Altamont, and the doctor went to the Porpoise; they found no lack of wood; the old three-masted launch, though injured by being wrecked, could still supply abundant material for the new one. The carpenter set to work at once; they needed a seaworthy boat, which should yet be light enough to carry on a sledge. Towards the end of May the weather grew warmer; the thermometer rose above the freezing-point; the spring came in earnest this time, and the men were able to lay aside their winter clothing. Much rain fell, and soon the snow began to slide and melt away. Hatteras could not hide his joy at seeing the first signs of thaw in the ice-fields. The open sea meant liberty for him.
Whether or not his predecessors had been wrong on this great question of an open polar sea, he hoped soon to know. All chance of success in his undertaking depended on this. One evening, after a warm day in which the ice had given unmistakable signs of breaking up, he turned the conversation to the question of an open sea. He took up the familiar arguments, and found the doctor, as ever, a warm advocate of his doctrine. Besides, his conclusions were evidently accurate.
"It is plain," he said, "that if the ocean before Victoria Bay gets clear of ice, its southern part will also be clear as far as New Cornwall and Queen's Channel. Penny and Belcher saw it in that state, and they certainly saw clearly."
"I agree with you, Hatteras," answered the doctor, "and I have no reason for doubting the word of these sailors; a vain attempt has been made to explain their discovery as an effect of mirage; but they were so certain, it was impossible that they could have made such a mistake."
"I always thought so," said Altamont; "the polar basin extends to the east as well as to the west."
"We can suppose so, at any rate," answered Hatteras.
"We ought to suppose so," continued the American, "for this open sea which Captains Penny and Belcher saw near the coast of Grinnell Land was seen by Morton, Kane's lieutenant, in the straits which are named after that bold explorer."
"We are not in Kane's sea," answered Hatteras, coldly, "and consequently we cannot verify the fact."
"It is supposable, at least," said Altamont.
"Certainly," replied the doctor, who wished to avoid useless discussion. "What Altamont thinks ought to be the truth; unless there is a peculiar disposition of the surrounding land, the same effects appear at the same latitudes. Hence I believe the sea is open in the east as well as in the west."
"At any rate, it makes very little difference to us," said Hatteras.
"I don't agree with you, Hatteras," resumed the American, who was beginning to be annoyed by the affected unconcern of the captain; "it may make considerable difference to us."
"And when, if I may ask?"
"When we think of returning."
"Returning!" cried Hatteras, "and who's thinking of that?"
"No one," answered Altamont; "but we shall stop somewhere, I suppose."
"And where?" asked Hatteras.
For the first time the question was fairly put to Altamont. The doctor would have given one of his arms to have put a stop to the discussion. Since Altamont made no answer, the captain repeated his question.
"Where we are going," answered the American, quietly.
"And who knows where that is?" said the peace-loving doctor.
"I say, then," Altamont went on, "that if we want to make use of the polar basin in returning, we can try to gain Kane's sea; it will lead us more directly to Baffin's Bay."
"So that is your idea?" asked the captain, ironically.
"Yes, that is my idea, as it is that if these seas ever become practicable, they will be reached by the straightest way. O, that was a great discovery of Captain Kane's!"
"Indeed!" said Hatteras, biting his lips till they bled.
"Yes," said the doctor, "that cannot be denied; every one should have the praise he deserves."
"Without considering," went on the obstinate American, "that no one had ever before gone so far to the north."
"I like to think," said Hatteras, "that now the English have got ahead of him."
"And the Americans!" said Altamont.
"Americans!" repeated Hatteras.
"What am I, then?" asked Altamont, proudly.
"You are," answered Hatteras, who could hardly control his voice,—"you are a man who presumes to accord equal glory to science and to chance! Your American captain went far to the north, but as chance alone—"
"Chance!" shouted Altamont; "do you dare to say that this great discovery is not due to Kane's energy and knowledge?"
"I say," answered Hatteras, "that Kane's name is not fit to be pronounced in a country made famous by Parry, Franklin, Ross, Belcher, and Penny in these seas which opened the Northwest Passage to MacClure—"
"MacClure!" interrupted the American; "you mention that man, and yet you complain of the work of chance? Wasn't it chance alone that favored him?"
"No," answered Hatteras, warmly,—"no! It was his courage, his perseverance in spending four winters in the ice—"
"I should think so!" retorted the American; "he got caught in the ice and couldn't get out, and he had to abandon the Investigator at last to go back to England."
"My friends—" said the doctor.
"Besides," Altamont went on, "let us consider the result. You speak of the Northwest Passage; well, it has yet to be discovered!"
Hatteras started at these words; no more vexatious question could have arisen between two rival nationalities. The doctor again tried to intervene.
"You are mistaken, Altamont," he said.
"No, I persist in my opinions," he said obstinately; "the Northwest Passage is yet to be found, to be sailed through, if you like that any better! MacClure never penetrated it, and to this day no ship that has sailed from Behring Strait has reached Baffin's Bay!"
That was true, speaking exactly. What answer could be made?
Nevertheless, Hatteras rose to his feet and said,—
"I shall not permit the good name of an English captain to be attacked any further in my presence."
"You will not permit it?" answered the American, who also rose to his feet; "but these are the facts, and it is beyond your power to destroy them."
"Sir!" said Hatteras, pale with anger.
"My friends," said the doctor, "don't get excited! We are discussing a scientific subject."
Clawbonny looked with horror at a scientific discussion into which the hate of an American and an Englishman could enter.
"I am going to give you the facts," began Hatteras, threateningly.
"But I'm speaking now!" retorted the American.
Johnson and Bell became very uneasy.
"Gentlemen," said the doctor, severely, "let me say a word! I insist upon it, I know the facts as well, better than you do, and I can speak of them impartially."
"Yes, yes," said Bell and Johnson, who were distressed at the turn the discussion had taken, and who formed a majority favorable to the doctor.
"Go on, Doctor," said Johnson, "these gentlemen will listen, and you cannot fail to give us some information."
"Go on, Doctor," said the American.
Hatteras resumed his place with a sign of acquiescence, and folded his arms.
"I will tell the simple truth about the facts," said the doctor, "and you must correct me if I omit or alter any detail."
"We know you, Doctor," said Bell, "and you can speak without fear of interruption."
"Here is the chart of the Polar Seas," resumed the doctor, who had brought it to the table; "it will be easy to trace MacClure's course, and you will be able to make up your minds for yourselves."
Thereupon he unrolled one of the excellent maps published by order of the Admiralty, containing the latest discoveries in arctic regions; then he went on:—
"You know, in 1848, two ships, the Herald, Captain Kellet, and the Plover, Commander Moore, were sent to Behring Strait in search of traces of Franklin; their search was vain; in 1850 they were joined by MacClure, who commanded the Investigator, a ship in which he had sailed, in 1849, under James Ross's orders. He was followed by Captain Collinson, his chief, who sailed in the Enterprise; but he arrived before him. At Behring Strait he declared he would wait no longer, and that he would go alone, on his own responsibility, and—you hear me, Altamont—that he would find either Franklin or the passage."
Altamont showed neither approbation nor the contrary.
"August 5, 1850," continued the doctor, "after a final communication with the Plover, MacClure sailed eastward by an almost unknown route; see how little land is marked upon the chart. August 30th he rounded Cape Bathurst; September 6th he discovered Baring Land, which he afterwards discovered to form part of Banks Land, then Prince Albert's Land. Then he resolved to enter the long straits between these two large islands, and he called it Prince of Wales Strait. You can follow his plan. He hoped to come out in Melville Sound, which we have just crossed, and with reason; but the ice at the end of the strait formed an impassable barrier. There MacClure wintered in 1850-51, and meanwhile he pushed on over the ice, to make sure that the strait connected with the sound."
"Yes," said Altamont, "but he didn't succeed."
"One moment," said the doctor. "While wintering there, MacClure's officers explored all the neighboring coasts: Creswell, Baring's Land; Haswell, Prince Albert's Land, to the south; and Wynniat, Cape Walker, to the north. In July, at the beginning of the thaw, MacClure tried a second time to carry the Investigator to Melville Sound; he got within twenty miles of it, twenty miles only, but the winds carried him with irresistible force to the south, before he could get through the obstacle. Then he determined to go back through Prince of Wales Strait, and go around Banks Land, to try at the west what he could not do in the east; he put about; the 18th he rounded Cape Kellet; the 19th, Cape Prince Alfred, two degrees higher; then, after a hard struggle with the icebergs, he was caught in Banks Strait, in the series of straits leading to Baffin's Bay."
"But he couldn't get through them," said Altamont.
"Wait a moment, and be as patient as MacClure was. September 26th, he took his station for the winter in Mercy Bay, and stayed there till 1852. April came; MacClure had supplies for only eighteen months. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to return; he started, crossing Banks Strait by sledge, and reached Melville Island. Let us follow him. He hoped to find here Commander Austin's ships, which were sent to meet him by Baffin's Bay and Lancaster Sound; April 28th he arrived at Winter Harbor, at the place where Parry had wintered thirty-three years previously, but no trace of the ships; only he found in a cairn a paper, telling him that MacClintock, Austin's lieutenant, had been there the year before, and gone away. Any one else would have been in despair, but MacClure was not. He put in the cairn another paper, in which he announced his intention of returning to England by the Northwest Passage, which he had discovered by reaching Baffin's Bay and Lancaster Sound. If he is not heard from again, it will be because he will have been to the north or west of Melville Island; then he returned, not discouraged, to Mercy Bay for the third winter, 1852-53."
"I have never doubted his courage," said Altamont, "but his success."
"Let us follow him again," resumed the doctor. "In the month of March, being on two-thirds rations, at the end of a very severe winter, when no game was to be had, MacClure determined to send back half of his crew to England, either by Baffin's Bay, or by Mackenzie River and Hudson's Bay; the other half was to bring the Investigator back. He chose the weakest men, who could not stand a fourth winter; everything was ready, and their departure settled for April 15th, when on the 6th, MacClure, who was walking on the ice with his lieutenant, Creswell, saw a man running northward and gesticulating; it was Lieutenant Pim of the Herald, lieutenant of the same Captain Kellet whom two years before he had left at Behring Strait, as I said when I began. Kellet, having reached Winter Harbor, found the paper left there by MacClure; having heard in that way of his position in Mercy Bay, he sent Lieutenant Pim to meet the captain. He was followed by a detachment of the men of the Herald, among whom was a midshipman of a French ship, M. de Bray, who was a volunteer aid of Captain Kellet. You don't doubt this meeting?"
"Not at all," answered Altamont.
"Well, see what followed, and whether the Northwest Passage was really made. If you join Parry's discoveries to those of MacClure, you will see the northern coast of America was rounded."
"But not by a single ship," said Altamont.
"No, but by a single man. Let us go on. MacClure went to see Captain Kellet at Melville Island; in twelve days he made the one hundred and seventy miles between Winter Harbor and the island; he agreed with the commander of the Herald to send him his sick, and returned; many others would have thought, had they been in MacClure's place, that they had done enough, but this bold young man determined to try his fortune again. Then, and please observe this, Lieutenant Creswell, with the sick and disabled men of the Investigator, left Mercy Bay, reached Winter Harbor, and from there, after a journey of four hundred and seventy miles on the ice, reached Beechey Island, June 2d, and a few days later, with twelve of his men, he took passage on board of the Phoenix."
"In which I was at the time," said Johnson, "with Captain Inglefield, and we returned to England."
"And October 7, 1853," continued the doctor, "Creswell arrived at London, after having crossed over the whole distance between Behring Strait and Cape Farewell."
"Well," said Hatteras, "to enter at one end and go out by the other, isn't that going through?"
"Yes," answered Altamont, "but by going four hundred and seventy miles over the ice."
"Well, what difference does that make?"
"The whole," answered the American. "Did MacClure's ship make the passage?"
"No," answered the doctor, "for after a fourth winter, MacClure was obliged to leave it in the ice."
"Well, in a sea-voyage it's important to have the ship reach her destination. If the Northwest Passage ever becomes practicable, it must be for ships and not for sledges. The ship must accomplish the voyage, or if not the ship, the launch."
"The launch!" shouted Hatteras, who detected the hidden meaning in the American's words.
"Altamont," said the doctor, hurriedly, "you make a puerile distinction, and we all consider you wrong."
"That is easy, gentlemen," answered the American; "you are four to one. But that won't keep me from holding my own opinion."
"Keep it," said Hatteras, "and so closely that we need hear nothing about it."
"And what right have you to speak to me in that way?" asked the American in a rage.
"My right as captain," answered Hatteras.
"Am I under your commands?" retorted Altamont.
"Without doubt, and look out for yourself, if—"
The doctor, Johnson, and Bell intervened. It was time; the two enemies were gazing at one another. The doctor was very anxious. Still, after a few gentler words, Altamont went off to bed whistling "Yankee Doodle," and, whether he slept or not, he did not speak. Hatteras went out and paced up and down for an hour, and then he turned in without saying a word.
CHAPTER XVI. NORTHERN ARCADIA.
On May 29th, for the first time, the sun did not set; it merely touched the horizon and then rose at once; the day was twenty-four hours long. The next day it was surrounded by a magnificent halo, a bright circle with all the colors of the prism; this apparition, which was by no means rare, always attracted the doctor's attention; he never failed to note the date and appearance of the phenomenon; the one he saw on that day was of an elliptic shape, which he had seldom seen before.
Soon the noisy flocks of birds appeared; bustards and wild geese came from Florida or Arkansas, flying northward with inconceivable rapidity and bringing the spring with them. The doctor shot a few, as well as three or four cranes and a single stork. However, the snow was melting everywhere beneath the sun; the salt-water, which overran the ice-field through the crevasses and the seal-holes, hastened the melting; the ice which was mingled with salt-water formed a soft slush. Large pools appeared on the land near the bay, and the exposed soil seemed to be a production of the arctic spring.
The doctor then resumed his planting; he had plenty of seed; besides, he was surprised to see a sort of sorrel growing naturally between the dried rocks, and he wondered at the force of nature which demanded so little in order to manifest itself. He sowed some cresses, of which the young sprouts, three weeks later, were already an inch long.
The heath began to show timidly its little pale, rosy flowers. In fact, the flora of New America is very defective; still, this rare vegetation was agreeable to their eyes; it was all the feeble rays of the sun could nourish, a trace of the Providence which had not completely forgotten these distant countries. At last it became really warm; June 15th the thermometer stood at 57 degrees; the doctor could hardly believe his eyes; the country changed its appearance; numerous noisy cascades fell from the sunny summits of the hills; the ice loosened, and the great question of an open sea would soon be decided. The air was full of the noise of avalanches falling from the hills to the bottom of the ravines, and the cracking of the ice-field produced a deafening sound.
A trip was made to Johnson Island; it was merely an unimportant, arid, barren island; but the old boatswain was no less proud of giving his name to a few desolate rocks. He even wanted to carve it on a high peak. During this excursion, Hatteras had carefully explored these lands, even beyond Cape Washington; the melting of the snow sensibly changed the country; ravines and hillocks appeared here and there, where the snow indicated nothing but monotonous stretches. The house and magazines threatened to melt away, and they had frequently to be repaired; fortunately, a temperature of 57 degrees is rare in these latitudes, and the mean is hardly above the freezing-point.
By the middle of June the launch was far advanced and getting into shape. While Bell and Johnson were working at it, the others had a few successful hunts. Reindeer were shot, although they are hard to approach; but Altamont put in practice a device employed by the Indians of his own country; he crept over the ground with his gun and arms outstretched like the horns of one of these shy animals, and having thus come within easy gunshot, he could not fail.
But the best game, the musk-ox, of which Parry found plenty at Melville Island, appeared not to frequent the shores of Victoria Bay. A distant hunt was determined on, as much to get these valuable animals as to reconnoitre the eastern lands. Hatteras did not propose to reach the Pole by this part of the continent, but the doctor was not sorry to get a general idea of the country. Hence they decided to start to the east of Fort Providence. Altamont intended to hunt; Duke naturally was of the party.
So, Monday, June 17th, a pleasant day, with the thermometer at 41 degrees, and the air quiet and clear, the three hunters, each carrying a double-barrelled gun, a hatchet, a snow-knife, and followed by Duke, left Doctor's House at six o'clock in the morning. They were fitted out for a trip of two or three days, with the requisite amount of provisions. By eight o'clock Hatteras and his two companions had gone eight miles. Not a living thing had tempted a shot, and their hunt threatened to be merely a trip.
This new country exhibited vast plains running out of sight; new streams divided them everywhere, and large, unruffled pools reflected the sun. The layers of melting ice bared the ground to their feet; it belonged to the great division of sedimentary earth, and the result of the action of the water, which is so common on the surface of the globe. Still a few erratic blocks were seen of a singular nature, foreign to the soil where they were found, and whose presence it was hard to explain. Schists and different productions of limestone were found in abundance, as was also a sort of strange, transparent, colorless crystal, which has a refraction peculiar to Iceland spar.
But, although he was not hunting, the doctor had not time to geologize; he had to walk too quickly, in order to keep up with his friends. Still, he observed the land and talked as much as possible, for had he not there would have been total silence in the little band; neither Altamont nor the captain had any desire to talk to one another.
By ten o'clock the hunters had got a dozen miles to the east; the sea was hidden beneath the horizon; the doctor proposed a halt for breakfast. They swallowed it rapidly, and in half an hour they were off again. The ground was sloping gently; a few patches of snow, preserved either by their position or the slope of the rocks, gave it a woolly appearance, like waves in a high wind. The country was still barren, and looking as if no living being had ever set foot in it.
"We have no luck," said Altamont to the doctor; "to be sure, the country doesn't offer much food to animals, but the game here ought not to be over-particular, and ought to show itself."
"Don't let us despair," said the doctor; "the summer has hardly begun; and if Parry met so many animals at Melville Island, we may be as lucky here."
"Still, we are farther north," said Hatteras.
"Certainly, but that is unimportant; it is the pole of cold we ought to consider; that is to say, that icy wilderness in the middle of which we wintered with the Forward; now the farther north we go, the farther we are from the coldest part of the globe; we ought to find, beyond, what Parry, Ross, and others found on the other side."
"Well," said Altamont, with a regretful sigh, "so far we've been travellers rather than hunters."
"Be patient," answered the doctor; "the country is changing gradually, and I should be astonished if we don't find game enough in the ravines where vegetation has had a chance to sprout."
"It must be said," continued Altamont, "that we are going through an uninhabited and uninhabitable country."
"O, uninhabitable is a strong word!" answered the doctor; "I can't believe any land uninhabitable; man, by many sacrifices, and for generations using all the resources of science, might finally fertilize such a country."
"Do you think so?" asked Altamont.
"Without doubt! If you were to go to the celebrated countries of the world, to Thebes, Nineveh, or Babylon, in the fertile valleys of our ancestors, it would seem impossible that men should ever have lived there; the air itself has grown bad since the disappearance of human beings. It is the general law of nature which makes those countries in which we do not live unhealthy and sterile, like those out of which life has died. In fact, man himself makes his own country by his presence, his habits, his industry, and, I might add, by his breath; he gradually modifies the exhalations of the soil and the atmospheric conditions, and he makes the air he breathes wholesome. So there are uninhabited lands, I grant, but none uninhabitable."
Talking in this way, the hunters, who had become naturalists, pushed on and reached a sort of valley, fully exposed, at the bottom of which a river, nearly free of ice, was flowing; its southern exposure had brought forth a certain amount of vegetation. The earth showed a strong desire to grow fertile; with a few inches of rich soil it would have produced a good deal. The doctor called their attention to these indications.
"See," he said, "a few hardy colonists might settle in this ravine. With industry and perseverance they could do a great deal; not as much as is seen in the temperate zones, but a respectable show. If I am not mistaken, there are some four-footed animals! They know the good spots."
"They are Arctic hares," shouted Altamont, cocking his gun.
"Wait a moment," cried the doctor,—"wait a moment, you hasty fellow. They don't think of running away! See, they'll come to us!"
And, in fact, three or four young hares, springing about in the heath and young moss, ran boldly towards the three men; they were so cunning that even Altamont was softened.
Soon they were between the doctor's legs; he caressed them with his hand, saying,—
"Why shoot these little animals which come to be petted? We need not kill them."
"You are right, Doctor," answered Hatteras; "we'll let them live."
"And these ptarmigan, too, which are flying towards us!" cried Altamont; "and these long-legged water-fowl!"
A whole flock of birds passed over the hunters, not suspecting the peril from which the doctor's presence saved them. Even Duke was compelled to admire them.
They were a curious and touching sight, flying about without fear, resting on Clawbonny's shoulders, lying at his feet, offering themselves to his caresses, seeming to do their best to welcome their new guests; they called one another joyously, flying from the most distant points; the doctor seemed to be a real bird-charmer. The hunters continued their march up the moist banks of the brook, followed by the familiar band, and turning from the valley they perceived a troop of eight or ten reindeer browsing on a few lichens half buried beneath the snow; they were graceful, quiet animals, with their branching antlers, which the female carried as well as the male; their wool-like fur was already losing its winter whiteness in favor of the summer brown and gray; they seemed no more timid than the hares and birds of the country. Such were the relations of the first men to the first animals in the early ages of the world.
The hunters reached the middle of the band without any one flying; this time the doctor found it hard to restrain the instincts of Altamont, who could not calmly look on this game without a thirst for blood rising in his brain. Hatteras looked mildly at these gentle beasts, who rubbed their noses against the doctor's clothes; he was the friend of all the animals.
"But," said Altamont, "didn't we come here to shoot?"
"To shoot musk-ox," answered Clawbonny, "and nothing else! We should have no need of this game; we have food enough, so let us enjoy the sight of man walking thus among these animals, without alarming them."
"That proves they have never seen one before," said Hatteras.
"Evidently," answered the doctor; "and so we can be sure that these animals are not of American origin."
"And why so?" said Altamont.
"If they were born on the continent of North America, they would know what to think of men, and they would have fled at the sight of us. No; they probably came from the north, from those unknown lands where our kind has never set foot, and they have crossed the continents near the Pole. So, Altamont, you can't claim them as your fellow-countrymen."
"O," answered Altamont, "a hunter does not scrutinize so closely, and the game belongs to the land where it was shot!"
"Well, calm yourself, my Nimrod! As for me, I would rather never fire a gun in my life than alarm this timid population. See, even Duke fraternizes with the charming beasts! Come, we'll be kind when we can! Kindness is a force!"
"Well, well," answered Altamont, who sympathized but slightly with this sensitiveness; "but I should be amused to see you armed with this kindness alone among a flock of bears or wolves!"
"O, I don't pretend to charm wild beasts!" answered the doctor; "I have little faith in the enchantment of Orpheus; besides, bears and wolves wouldn't come up to us like the hares, partridges, and reindeer."
"Why not," answered Altamont, "if they have never seen men?"
"Because they are naturally ferocious, and ferocity, like maliciousness, begets suspicion; a remark which is true of man as well as of animals. A wicked man is distrustful, and fear is commonly found in those who are able to inspire it."
This little lesson in natural philosophy ended the conversation.
The whole day was passed in this Northern Arcadia, as the doctor named the valley, with the consent of his companions; and that evening, after a supper which had not cost the life of a single inhabitant of the country, the three hunters went to sleep in a cleft of a rock which was admirably adapted for a shelter.
CHAPTER XVII. ALTAMONT'S REVENGE.
The next day the doctor and his two companions woke up after a perfectly quiet night. The cold, although not keen, increased towards daybreak, but they were well covered, and slept soundly under the watch of the peaceful animals.
The weather being pleasant, they resolved to consecrate the day to a reconnaissance of the country, and the search of musk-oxen. Altamont insisted on shooting something, and they decided that, even if these oxen should be the gentlest animals in the world, they should be shot. Besides, their flesh, although strongly flavored with musk, was pleasant eating, and they all hoped to carry back to Fort Providence a good supply of it.
During the early morning hours nothing noteworthy took place; the land grew different in the northeast; a few elevations, the beginning of a mountainous district, indicated a change. If this New America were not a continent, it was at any rate an important island; but then they did not have to trouble themselves about its geography.
Duke ran ahead, and soon came across some traces of a herd of musk-oxen; he then advanced rapidly, and soon disappeared from the eyes of the hunters. They followed his clear barking, which soon grew so hasty that they knew he had discovered the object of their search. They pushed on, and in an hour and a half they came up to two of these animals; they were large, and formidable in appearance. They appeared much surprised at Duke's attacks, but not alarmed; they were feeding off a sort of reddish moss which grew on the thin soil. The doctor recognized them at once from their moderate height, their horns, which were broad at the base, the absence of muzzle, their sheep-like forehead, and short tail; their shape has earned for them from naturalists the name of "ovibos," a compound, and which expresses the two sorts of animals whose characteristics they share. Thick, long hair and a sort of delicate brown silk formed their fur.
They ran away when they saw the two hunters, who came running up after them. It was hard to reach them for men who were out of breath after running half an hour. Hatteras and his companions stopped.
"The Devil!" said Altamont.
"That's just the word," said the doctor, as soon as he could take breath. "I'll grant they are Americans, and they can't have a very good idea of your countrymen."
"That proves we are good hunters," answered Altamont.
Still, the musk-oxen, seeing they were not pursued, stopped in a posture of surprise. It became evident that they could never be run down; they would have to be surrounded; the plateau on which they were aided this manoeuvre. The hunters, leaving Duke to harass them, descended through the neighboring ravines, so as to get around the plateau. Altamont and the doctor hid behind a rock at one end, while Hatteras, suddenly advancing from the other end, should drive the oxen towards them. In half an hour each had gained his post.
"You don't object any longer to our shooting?" asked Altamont.
"No, it's fair fighting," answered the doctor, who, in spite of gentleness, was a real sportsman.
They were talking in this way, when they saw the oxen running, and Duke at their heels; farther on Hatteras was driving them, with loud cries, towards the American and the doctor, who ran to meet this magnificent prey.
At once the oxen stopped, and, less fearful of a single enemy, they turned upon Hatteras. He awaited them calmly, aimed at the nearest, and fired; but the bullet struck the animal in the middle of his forehead, without penetrating the skull. Hatteras's second shot produced no other effect than to make the beasts furious; they ran to the disarmed hunter, and threw him down at once.
"He is lost," cried the doctor.
At the moment Clawbonny pronounced these words with an accent of despair, Altamont made a step forward to run to Hatteras's aid; then he stopped, struggling against himself and his prejudices.
"No," he cried, "that would be cowardice."
He hastened with Clawbonny to the scene of combat. His hesitation had not lasted half a second. But if the doctor saw what was taking place in the American's heart, Hatteras understood it, who would rather have died than have implored his rival's interference. Still, he had hardly time to perceive it, for Altamont appeared before him. Hatteras, lying on the ground, was trying to ward off the horns and hoofs of the two animals. But he could not long continue so unequal a struggle. He was about to be torn in pieces, when two shots were heard. Hatteras heard the bullets whistling by his head.
"Don't be frightened!" shouted Altamont, hurling his gun to one side, and rushing upon the angry animals.
One of the oxen fell, shot through the heart; the other, wild with rage, was just going to gore the captain, when Altamont faced him, and plunged into his mouth his hand, armed with a snow-knife; with the other he gave him a terrible blow with a hatchet on the head. This was done with marvellous rapidity, and a flash of lightning would have lit up the whole scene.
The second ox fell back dead.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" cried Clawbonny.
Hatteras was saved. He owed his life to the man whom he detested most in the world. What was going on in his mind at this time? What emotion was there which he could not master? That is one of the secrets of the heart which defy all analysis.
However that may be, Hatteras advanced to his rival without hesitation, and said to him seriously,—
"You have saved my life, Altamont."
"You saved mine," answered the American. There was a moment's silence. Then Altamont added, "We are now quits, Hatteras!"
"No, Altamont," answered the captain; "when the doctor took you from your icy tomb, I did not know who you were, and you have saved me at the risk of your own life, knowing who I was."
"You are a fellow-being," answered Altamont; "and whatever else he may be, an American is not a coward."
"No, he is not," said the doctor; "he is a man! a man like you, Hatteras!"
"And like me he shall share the glory which is awaiting us!"
"The glory of going to the North Pole?" said Altamont.
"Yes," said the captain, haughtily.
"I had guessed it!" exclaimed the American. "So you dared conceive of this bold design! You dared try to reach that inaccessible point! Ah, that is great! It is sublime!"
"But you," asked Hatteras, hurriedly, "were you not on your way to the Pole?"
Altamont seemed to hesitate about replying.
"Well?" said the doctor.
"Well, no," answered the American,—"no; tell the truth, and shame the Devil! No, I did not have this great idea, which has brought you here. I was trying simply to sail through the Northwest Passage, that is all."
"Altamont," said Hatteras, holding out his hand to the American, "share our glory, and go with us to the North Pole!"
The two men then shook hands warmly.
When they turned towards the doctor, they saw his eyes full of tears.
"Ah, my friends," he murmured, as he dried his eyes, "how can my heart hold the joy with which you fill it? My dear companions, you have sacrificed a miserable question of nationality in order to unite in your common success! You know that England and America have nothing to do with all this; that mutual sympathy ought to bind you together against the dangers of the journey! If the North Pole is discovered, what difference does it make who does it? Why stand bickering about English or American, when we can be proud of being men?"
The doctor embraced the reconciled foes; he could not restrain his joy. The two new friends felt themselves drawn closer together by the friendship this worthy man had for them both. Clawbonny spoke freely of the vanity of competition, of the madness of rivalry, and of the need of agreement between men so far from home. His words, his tears and caresses, came from the bottom of his heart.
Still, he grew calm after embracing Hatteras and Altamont for the twentieth time.
"And now," he said, "to work, to work! Since I was no use as a hunter, let me try in another capacity!"
Thereupon he started to cut up the ox, which he called the "ox of reconciliation," but he did it as skilfully as if he were a surgeon conducting a delicate autopsy. His two companions gazed at him in amusement. In a few minutes he had cut from the body a hundred pounds of flesh; he gave each one a third of it, and they again took up their march to Fort Providence. At ten o'clock in the evening, after walking in the oblique rays of the sun, they reached Doctor's House, where Johnson and Bell had a good supper awaiting them.
But before they sat down to table, the doctor said in a voice of triumph, as he pointed to his two companions,—
"Johnson, I carried away with me an Englishman and an American, did I not?"
"Yes, Dr. Clawbonny," answered the boatswain.
"Well, I've brought back two brothers."
The two sailors gladly shook Altamont's hand; the doctor told them what the American captain had done for the English captain, and that night the snow-house held five perfectly happy men.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE LAST PREPARATIONS.
The next day the weather changed; there was a return of cold; the snow and rain gust raged for many days.
Bell had finished the launch; it was perfectly satisfactory for the purpose it was intended for; partly decked, and partly open, it could sail in heavy weather under mainsail and jib, while it was so light as not to be too heavy a load on the sledge for the dogs.
Then, too, a change of great importance was taking place in the state of the polar basin. The ice in the middle of the bay was beginning to give way; the tallest pieces, forever weakened by the collision of the rest, only needed a sufficiently heavy tempest to be torn away and to become icebergs. Still, Hatteras was unwilling to wait so long before starting. Since it was to be a land journey, he cared very little whether the sea was open or not. He determined to start June 25th; meanwhile all the preparations could be completed. Johnson and Bell put the sledge into perfect repair; the frame was strengthened and the runners renewed. The travellers intended to devote to their journey the few weeks of good weather which nature allows to these northern regions. Their sufferings would be less severe, the obstacles easier to overcome.
A few days before their departure, June 20th, the ice had so many free passages, that they were able to make a trial trip on board of the new launch as far as Cape Washington. The sea was not perfectly free, far from it; but its surface was not solid, and it would have been impossible to make a trip on foot over the ice-fields. This half-day's sail showed the good sailing qualities of the launch. During the return they beheld a curious incident. It was a monstrous bear chasing a seal. Fortunately the former was so busily occupied, that he did not see the launch, otherwise he would certainly have pursued it; he kept on watch near a crevasse in the ice-field, into which the seal had evidently plunged. He was awaiting his reappearance with all the patience of a hunter, or rather of a fisherman, for he was really fishing. He was silent, motionless, without any sign of life. Suddenly the surface of the water was agitated; the seal had come up to breathe. The bear crouched low upon the ice, and rounded his two paws about the crevasse. The next moment the seal appeared, with his head above water; but he had not time to withdraw it. The bear's paws, as if driven by a spring, were clashed together, strangling the animal with irresistible force and dragging it out of the water.
It was but a brief struggle; the seal struggled for a few seconds, and was then suffocated on the breast of his adversary, who, dragging him away easily, in spite of his size, and springing lightly from one piece of ice to another, reached land and disappeared with his prey.
"A pleasant journey!" shouted Johnson; "that bear has got rather too many paws!"
The launch soon reached the little anchorage Bell had made for her in the ice.
Only four days were there before the time fixed for their departure. Hatteras hurried on the last preparations; he was in a hurry to leave New America, a land which was not his, and which he had not named; he did not feel at home.
June 22d they began to carry to the sledge their camp-material, tent, and food. They carried only two hundred pounds of salt meat, three chests of preserved meat and vegetables, fifty pounds of pickles and lime-juice, five quarters of flour, packets of cresses and cochlearia from the doctor's garden; with the addition of two hundred pounds of powder, the instruments, arms, and personal baggage, the launch, Halkett-boat, and the weight of the sledge itself, the whole weighed fifteen hundred pounds,—a heavy load for four dogs, especially since, unlike the Esquimaux, who never travel more than four days in succession, they had none to replace them, and would have to work them every day. But the travellers determined to aid them when it was necessary, and they intended to proceed by easy stages; the distance from Victoria Bay to the Pole was three hundred and fifty-five miles at the outside, and going twelve miles a day they could make the journey in a month. Besides, when the land came to an end, the launch would enable them to finish the journey without fatigue for dogs or men.
The latter were well, and in excellent condition. The winter, although severe, ended favorably enough. Each one had followed the doctor's advice, and escaped from the diseases common in these severe climates. In fact, they had grown a trifle thinner, which gave a great deal of pleasure to Clawbonny; but their bodies were inured to the rigors of that life, and these men were able to face the severest attacks of cold and hunger without succumbing. And then, too, they were going to the end of their journey, to the inaccessible Pole, after which their only thought would be of returning. The sympathy which bound together the five members of the expedition would aid their success in this bold trip, and no one doubted of their success.
As a precaution, the doctor had urged his companions to prepare themselves for some time beforehand, and to "train" with much care.
"My friends," he used to say, "I don't ask you to imitate the English racers, who lose eighteen pounds after two days' training, and twenty-five after five days, but we ought to do something to get into the best possible condition for a long journey. Now the first principle of training is to get rid of the fat on both horse and jockey, and this is done by means of purging, sweating, and violent exercise. These gentlemen know they will lose so much by medicine, and they arrive at their results with incredible accuracy; such a one who before training could not run a mile without being winded, can run twenty-five easily after it. There was a certain Townsend who ran a hundred miles in twelve hours without stopping."
"A good result," answered Johnson; "and although we are not very fat, if we must get thinner yet—"
"There is no need of it, Johnson; but without exaggerating, it can't be denied that training produces good effects; it strengthens the bones, makes the muscles more elastic, improves the hearing and the sight; so let us not forget it."
In short, whether in training or not, the travellers were ready June 23d; it was Sunday, and the day was devoted to absolute rest.
The time for departure drew near, and the inhabitants of Fort Providence could not see it approach without a certain emotion. It grieved them to leave this snow-hut which had served so well to protect them; Victoria Bay, this hospitable shore where they had spent the last days of the winter. Would they find these buildings standing when they returned? Would not the rays of the sun melt away its fragile walls?
In a word, they had passed pleasant hours there. The doctor, at the evening meal, called up to his companions' memory touching reminiscences, and he did not forget to thank Heaven for its evident protection.
At last the hour of sleeping came. Each one went to bed early, so as to be up betimes. Thus passed their last night at Fort Providence.
CHAPTER XIX. THE JOURNEY NORTHWARD.
At dawn the next day Hatteras gave the signal for departure. The dogs were harnessed to the sledge; since they were well fed and had thoroughly rested, after a comfortable winter there was no reason for their not being of great service during the summer. Hence they were not averse to being put into harness.
After all, these Greenland dogs are kind beasts. Their wildness was partly gone; they had lost their likeness to the wolf, and had become more like Duke, the finished model of the canine race,—in a word, they were becoming civilized. Duke could certainly claim a share in their education; he had given them lessons and an example in good manners. In his quality of Englishman, and so punctilious in the matter of cant, he was a long time in making the acquaintance of the other dogs, who had not been introduced to him, and in fact he never used to speak to them; but after sharing the same dangers and privations, they gradually grew used to one another. Duke, who had a kind heart, made the first advances, and soon all the dogs were friends. The doctor used to pet the Greenland dogs, and Duke saw him do it without jealousy. The men were in equally good condition; if the dogs could draw well, the men could walk well.
They left at six o'clock in the morning; it was a very pleasant day. After they had followed the line of the bay and passed Cape Washington, Hatteras gave the order to turn northward; by seven the travellers lost sight of the lighthouse and of Fort Providence in the south.
The journey promised well, much better than the expedition begun in the dead of winter in search of coal. Hatteras then left behind him, on board of the ship, mutiny and despair, without being certain of the object of his journey; he left a crew half dead with cold, he started with companions who were weakened by the miseries of an arctic winter; he, too, eager for the north, had to return to the south! Now, on the other hand, surrounded by vigorous, healthy friends, encouraged and aided in many ways, he was starting for the Pole, the object of his whole life! No man had ever been nearer acquiring this glory for himself and his country.
Was he thinking of all this, which was so naturally inspired by his present position? The doctor liked to think so, and could hardly doubt it when he saw him so eager. Clawbonny rejoiced in what so pleased his friend; and since the reconciliation of the two captains, the two friends, he was the happiest of men; for hatred, envy, and rivalry were passions he had never felt. What would be the issue of this voyage he did not know; but, at any rate, it began well, and that was a good deal.
The western shore of New America stretched out in a series of bays beyond Cape Washington; the travellers, to avoid this long curve, after crossing the first spurs of Mount Bell, turned northward over the upper plateaus. This was a great saving of time; Hatteras was anxious, unless prevented by seas or mountains, to make a straight line of three hundred and fifty miles to the Pole from Fort Providence.
Their journey was easy; these lofty plains were covered with deep snow, over which the sledge passed easily, and the men in their snow-shoes walked easily and rapidly.
The thermometer stood at 37 degrees. The weather was not absolutely settled; at one moment it was clear, the next cloudy: but neither cold nor showers could have stopped the eager party. They could be followed easily by the compass; the needle was more active as they receded from the magnetic pole; it is true that it turned to the opposite direction and pointed to the south, while they were walking northward; but this did not in any way embarrass them. Besides, the doctor devised a simple method of staking out the way and thereby avoiding perpetual reference to the compass; when once they had got their bearings by some object two or three miles to the north, they walked till they reached it, when they chose another, and so on. In this way they had a straight road.
In the first two days they made twenty miles in twelve hours; the rest of the time was devoted to meals and rest. The tent was ample protection against the cold when they were sleeping. The temperature gradually rose. The snow melted away in some places, according to the shape of the ground, while in others it lay in large patches. Broad pools appeared here and there, often almost as large as lakes. They would walk in up to their waists very often; but they only laughed at it, and the doctor more than any.
"Water has no right to wet us in this country," he used to say; "it ought to appear only as a solid, or a gas; as to its being liquid, it's absurd! Ice or vapor will do, but water won't!"
They did not forget their shooting, for thereby they got fresh meat. So Altamont and Bell, without going very far away, scoured the neighboring ravines; they brought back ptarmigan, geese, and a few gray rabbits. Gradually these animals became very shy and hard to approach. Without Duke they would often have found it hard to get any game. Hatteras advised them not to go off farther than a mile, for not a day nor an hour was to be lost, and he could not count on more than three months of good weather.
Besides, each one had to be at his post by the sledge whenever a hard spot, a narrow gorge, or steep inclines lay in the path; then each one helped pull or push. More than once everything had to be taken off; and this even did not fully protect against shocks and damage, which Bell repaired as well as he could.
The third day, Wednesday, June 26th, they came across a vast lake, still frozen by reason of its being sheltered from the sun; the ice was even strong enough to bear both men and sledge. It was a solid mirror which no arctic summers had melted, as was shown by the fact that its borders were surrounded by a dry snow, of which the lower layers evidently belonged to previous years.
From this moment the land grew lower, whence the doctor concluded that it did not extend very far to the north. Besides, it was very likely that New America was merely an island, and did not extend to the Pole. The ground grew more level; in the west a few low hills could be seen in the distance, covered with a bluish mist.