The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter 2.IV

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Johnson had admitted the tired dogs into the snow-house; when the snow is falling heavily it serves as a covering to the animals, preserving their natural heat. But in the open air, with a temperature of -40°, they would soon have frozen to death.

Johnson, who made an excellent dog-driver, tried feeding the dogs with the dark flesh of the seals which the travellers could not swallow, and to his great surprise they made a rich feast out of it; the old sailor in his delight told the doctor. He, however, was not in the least surprised; he knew that in the north of America the horses make fish their main article of food, and what a herbivorous horse could content himself with would certainly satisfy an omnivorous dog.

Before going to rest, although sleep became an imperious necessity for men who had walked fifteen miles on the ice, the doctor wished to have a few serious words with his companions about the dangers of their situation.

“We are only at latitude 82°,” he said, “and our supplies are already running short.”

“A reason for losing no time,” answered Hatteras; “we must push on; the strong can draw the feeble.”

“Shall we find a ship when we get there?” asked Bell, who was much depressed by the fatigue of the journey.

“Why doubt it?” said Johnson; “the American's safety depends on ours.”

To make sure, the doctor was anxious to question Altamont again. He could speak easily, although his voice was weak; he confirmed all the statements he had already made; he repeated that the ship was aground on some granite rocks, where it could not stir, and that it lay in longitude 120°15', and latitude 83°35'.

“We can't doubt this statement,” resumed the doctor; “the difficulty is not whether the Porpoise is there, but the way of getting to her.”

“How much food have we left?” asked Hatteras.

“Enough for three days at the outside,” answered the doctor.

“Well, we must get to her in three days,” said the captain, firmly.

“We must indeed,” continued the doctor, “and if we succeed we shall have no need to complain, for we shall have been favored by faultless weather; the snow has given us a fortnight's respite, and the sledge has glided easily on the hardened ice! Ah, if it duly carried two hundred pounds of food! Our dogs could have managed it easily enough. But still we can't help it!”

“With luck and skill,” said Johnson, “we might put to some use the few charges of powder which are left us. If we should kill a bear we should be supplied for all the rest of the journey.”

“Without doubt,” answered the doctor, “but these animals are rare and shy; and then, when one thinks of the importance of a shot, his hand will shake and his aim be lost.”

“But you are a good shot,” answered Bell.

“Yes, when four men's dinners do not depend on my hitting; still, I will do my best if I get a chance. Meanwhile let us try to satisfy ourselves with this thin soup of scraps of pemmican, then go to sleep, and to-morrow early we'll start forth again.”

A few moments later excessive fatigue outweighed every other feeling, and they all sank into a heavy sleep. Early on Saturday Johnson awoke his companions; the dogs were harnessed to the sledge, and they took up again their journey northward.

The heavens were magnificent, the air was very clear, the temperature very low; when the sun appeared above the horizon it appeared like an elongated ellipse; its horizontal diameter appeared, in consequence of refraction, to be double its vertical diameter. It sent forth its clear, cold rays over the vast icy plain. This return to light, if not to heat, rejoiced them all.

The doctor, gun in hand, walked off for a mile or two, braving the cold and solitude; before going he measured the supply carefully; only four charges of powder were left, and three balls; that was a small supply when one remembers that a strong animal like the polar bear often falls only after receiving ten or twelve shots. Hence the doctor did not go in search of so fierce game; a few hares or two or three foxes would have satisfied him and given him plenty of provisions. But during that day, if he saw one, or could not approach one, or if he were deceived by refraction, he would lose his shot; and this day, as it was, cost him a charge of powder and a ball. His companions, who trembled with hope at the report of his gun, saw him returning with downcast looks; they did not say anything; that evening they went to sleep as usual, after putting aside two quarter-rations reserved for the two following days. The next day their journey seemed more laborious; they hardly walked, they rather dragged along; the dogs had eaten even the entrails of the seal, and they were beginning to gnaw their harness.

A few foxes passed at some distance from the sledge, and the doctor, having missed another shot as he chased them, did not dare to risk his last ball and his last charge save one of powder.

That evening they halted early, unable to set one foot before the other, and, although their way was lighted by a brilliant aurora, they could not go on. This last meal, eaten Sunday evening under their icy tent, was very melancholy. If Heaven did not come to their aid, they were lost. Hatteras did not speak, Bell did not even think, Johnson reflected in silence, but the doctor did not yet despair.

Johnson thought of setting some traps that night; but since he had no bait, he had very little hope of success, and in the morning he found, as he expected, that, although a great many foxes had left their marks around, yet not one had been caught. He was returning much disappointed, when he saw an enormous bear sniffing the air at about thirty yards from the sledge. The old sailor thought Providence had sent this animal to him to be slain; without awakening his companions he seized the doctor's gun and made his way towards the bear.

Having got quite near he took aim, but just as he was about to pull the trigger he felt his arm trembling; his large fur gloves were in his way; he took them off quickly, and seized his gun with a firmer hand. Suddenly, a cry of pain escaped him; the skin of his fingers, burned by the cold of the gun-barrel, remained clinging to it, while the gun fell to the ground, and went off from the shock, sending the last ball off into space. At the sound of the report the doctor ran; he understood everything at a glance; he saw the animal trot quickly away; Johnson was in despair, and thought no more of the pain.

“I'm as tender as a baby,” he cried, “not to be able to endure that pain! And an old man like me!”

“Come back, Johnson,” the doctor said to him, “you'll get frozen; see, your hands are white already; come back, come!”

“I don't deserve your attentions, Doctor,” answered the boatswain; “leave me!”

“Come along, you obstinate fellow! Come along! It will soon be too late!”

And the doctor, dragging the old sailor under the tent, made him plunge his hands into a bowl of water, which the heat of the stove had kept liquid, although it was not much above the freezing-point; but Johnson's hands had no sooner touched it than it froze at once.

“You see,” said the doctor, “it was time to come back, otherwise I should have had to amputate your hands.”

Thanks to his cares, all danger was gone in an hour; but it was no easy task, and constant friction was necessary to recall the circulation into the old sailor's fingers. The doctor urged him to keep his hands away from the stove, the heat of which might produce serious results.

That morning they had to go without breakfast; of the pemmican and the salt meat nothing was left. There was not a crumb of biscuit, and only half a pound of coffee. They had to content themselves with drinking this hot, and then they set out.

“There's nothing more!” said Bell to Johnson, in a despairing accent.

“Let us trust in God,” said the old sailor; “he is able to preserve us!”

“This Captain Hatteras!” continued Bell; “he was able to return from his first expeditions, but he'll never get back from this one, and we shall never see home again!”

“Courage, Bell! I confess that the captain is almost foolhardy, but there is with him a very ingenious man.”

“Dr. Clawbonny!” said Bell.

“Yes,” answered Johnson.

“What can he do in such circumstances?” retorted Bell, shrugging his shoulders. “Can he change these pieces of ice into pieces of meat? Is he a god, who can work by miracles?”

“Who can say?” the boatswain answered his companion's doubts; “I trust in him.”

Bell shook his head, and fell into a silent apathy, in which he even ceased to think.

That day they made hardly three miles; at evening they had nothing to eat; the dogs threatened to devour one another; the men suffered extremely from hunger. Not a single animal was to be seen. If there had been one, of what use would it have been? They could not go hunting with a knife. Only Johnson thought he recognized a mile to leeward the large bear, who was following the ill-fated little party.

“It is spying us!” he said to himself; “it sees a certain prey in us!”

But Johnson said no word to his companions; that evening they made their accustomed halt, and their supper consisted only of coffee. They felt their eyes growing haggard, their brain growing confused, and, tortured by hunger, they could not get an hour's sleep; strange and painful dreams took possession of their minds.

At a latitude in which the body imperiously demands refreshment, these poor men had not eaten solid food for thirty-six hours, when Tuesday morning came. Nevertheless, inspired by superhuman energy, they resumed their journey, pushing on the sledge which the dogs were unable to draw. At the end of two hours they fell, exhausted. Hatteras wanted to push on. He, still strong, besought his companions to rise, but they were absolutely unable. Then, with Johnson's assistance, he built a resting-place in an iceberg. It seemed as if they were digging their own graves.

“I am willing to die of hunger,” said Hatteras, “but not of cold.”

After much weariness the house was ready, and they all entered it.

So that day passed. In that evening, while his companions lay inert, Johnson had a sort of hallucination; he dreamed of an immense bear. That word, which he kept repeating, attracted the doctor's attention, so that he shook himself free from his stupor, and asked the old sailor why he kept talking about a bear, and what bear he meant.

“The bear which is following us,” answered Johnson.

“The bear which is following us?” repeated the doctor.

“Yes, the last two days.”

“The last two days! Have you seen him?”

“Yes, he's a mile to leeward.”

“And you didn't tell us, Johnson?”

“What was the us?”

“True,” said the doctor; “we have no ball to fire at him.”

“Not a slug, a bit of iron, nor a bolt!” said the old sailor.

The doctor was silent, and began to think intently. Soon he said to the boatswain,---

“You are sure the bear is following us?”

“Yes, Doctor, he's lying in wait to eat us. He knows we can't escape him!”

“Johnson!” said the doctor, touched by the despairing accent of his companion.

“His food is sure,” continued the poor man, who was beginning to be delirious; “he must be half famished, and I don't see why we need keep him waiting any longer!”

“Be quiet, Johnson!”

“No, Doctor; if we've got to come to it, why should we prolong the animal's sufferings? He's hungry as we are; he has no seal to eat! Heaven sends him us men; well, so much the better for him!”

Thereupon Johnson went out of his mind; he wanted to leave the snow-house. The doctor had hard work to prevent him, and he only succeeded by saying, as if he meant it,---

“To-morrow I shall kill that bear!”

“To-morrow!” said Johnson, as if he had awakened from a bad dream.

“Yes, to-morrow.”

“You have no ball!”

“I shall make one.”

“You have no lead!”

“No, but I have some quicksilver.”

Thereupon the doctor took the thermometer; it marked +50°. He went outside, placed the instrument on the ice, and soon returned. The outside temperature was -50°. Then he said to the old sailor,---

“Now go to sleep, and wait till to-morrow.”

That night they endured the horrors of hunger; only the doctor and the boatswain were able to temper them with a little hope. The next morning, at dawn, the doctor rushed out, followed by Johnson, and ran to the thermometer; all the mercury had sunk into the bulb, in the form of a compact cylinder. The doctor broke the instrument, and seized in his gloved fingers a piece of very hard metal. It was a real bullet.

“Ah, Doctor,” shouted the old sailor, “that's a real miracle! You are a wonderful man!”

“No, my friend,” answered the doctor, “I am only a man with a good memory, who has read a good deal.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“I happened to remember something Captain Ross related in the account of his voyage: he said he shot through an inch plank with a bullet of frozen mercury; if I had any oil it would amount to nearly the same thing, for he speaks of a ball of sweet almond, which was fired against a post and fell back to the ground unbroken.”

“That is hardly credible!”

“But it is true, Johnson; this piece of metal may save our lives; let us leave it here in the air before we take it, and go and see whether the bear is still following us.”

At that moment Hatteras came out of the hut; the doctor showed him the bullet, and told him what he thought of doing; the captain pressed his hand, and the three went off to inspect. The air was very clear. Hatteras, who was ahead of his companions, discovered the bear about a half-mile off. The animal, seated on his hind quarters, was busily moving his head about, sniffing towards these new arrivals.

“There he is!” shouted the captain.

“Silence!” said the doctor.

But the huge beast did not stir when he saw the hunters. He gazed at them without fear or anger. Still, it would be found hard to approach him.

“My friends,” said Hatteras, “we have not come out for sport, but to save our lives. Let us act cautiously.”

“Yes,” answered the doctor; “we can only have one shot, and we must not miss; if he were to run away, he would be lost, for he can run faster than a hare.”

“Well, we must go straight for him,” said Johnson; “it is dangerous, but what does it matter? am willing to risk my life.”

“No, let me go!” cried the doctor.

“No, I shall go,” answered Hatteras, quietly.

“But,” said Johnson, “are not you of more use to the others than I should be?”

“No, Johnson,” answered the captain, “let me go; I shall run no needless risk; perhaps, too, I shall call on you to help me.”

“Hatteras,” asked the doctor, “are you going to walk straight towards the bear?”

“If I were sure of hitting him, I would do so, even at the risk of having my head torn open, but he would flee at my approach. He is very crafty; we must try to be even craftier.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“To get within ten feet of him without his suspecting it.”

“How are you going to do it?”

“By a simple but dangerous method. You kept, did you not, the skin of the seal you shot?”

“Yes, it is on the sledge.”

“Well, let us go back to the snow-house, while Johnson stays here on watch.”

The boatswain crept behind a hummock which hid him entirely from the sight of the bear, who stayed in the same place, continually sniffing the air.