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

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In the night of April 26–27, the weather changed; the thermometer fell many degrees, and the inhabitants of Doctor's House perceived it from the cold which made its way beneath their coverings; Altamont, who was watching the stove, took care not to let the fire get low, and he was kept busy putting on enough coal to keep the temperature at 50°. This cold weather announced the end of the storm, and the doctor was glad of it, for now they could resume their usual occupations, their hunting, excursions, and explorations; this would put an end to the apathy of their loneliness, which in time sours even the finest characters.

The next morning the doctor rose early, and made his way over the drifts to the lighthouse. The wind was from the north; the air clear, the snow was hard under his feet. Soon his five companions had left Doctor's House; their first care was to dig away the drifted snow, which now disguised the plateau; it would have been impossible to discover any traces of life upon it, for the tempest had buried all inequalities beneath fifteen feet of snow. After the snow was cleared away from the house, it was necessary to restore its architectural outline. This was very easy, and after the ice was removed a few blows with the snow-knife gave it its normal thickness. After two hours' work the granite appeared, and access to the stores and the powder-house was free. But since, in these uncertain climates, such things can happen every day, a new supply of food was carried to the kitchen. They were all wearied of salt food and yearned for fresh meat, and so the hunters were charged with changing the bill of fare, and they prepared to set out.

Still the end of April did not bring with it the polar spring, which was yet six weeks off; the sun's rays were still too feeble to melt the snow or to nourish the few plants of these regions. They feared lest animals should be scarce, both birds and quadrupeds. But a hare, a few ptarmigans, even a young fox, would have been welcome to the table of Doctor's House, and the hunters resolved to shoot whatever should come within range.

The doctor, Altamont, and Bell determined to explore the country. Altamont, they felt sure from his habits, was a bold and skilful hunter, and, with all his bragging, a capital shot. So he went with the hunters, as did Duke, who was equally skilful and less prone to boasting.

The three companions ascended the east cone and set out towards the large white plains; but they had gone no farther than two or three miles before they saw numerous tracks; from that point, they ran down to the shore of Victoria Bay, and appeared to surround Fort Providence with a series of concentric circles.

After they had followed these footprints for a short time, the doctor said,—

“Well, that is clear enough.”

“Too clear,” said Bell; “they are bear tracks.”

“Good game,” continued Altamont, “and there is only one fault in it to-day.”

“What's that?” asked the doctor.

“The abundance,” answered the American.

“What do you mean?” asked Bell.

“I mean that there are distinct tracks of five bears; and five bears are a good many for five men.”

“Are you sure of what you say?” asked the doctor.

“Judge for yourself; this mark is different from any other; the claws on this one are farther apart than those. Here is the print of a smaller bear. If you compare them together, you'll find traces of five animals.”

“You are right,” said Bell, after a careful examination.

“Then,” said the doctor, “there is no need of useless bravado, but rather of caution; these animals are famished at the end of a severe winter, and they may be very dangerous; and since there is no doubt of their number—”

“Nor of their intentions,” interrupted the American.

“Do you suppose,” he asked, “that they have discovered our presence here?”

“Without a doubt, unless we've fallen on a whole band of bears; but in that case, why do their prints go about in a circle, instead of running out of sight? See, they came from the south-west and stopped here, and began to explore the country.”

“You are right,” said the doctor, “and it's certain they came last night.”

“And the other nights too,” answered Altamont; “only the snow has covered their tracks.”

“No,” said the doctor; “it's more likely that they waited for the end of the storm; they went to the bay to catch some seals, and then they scented us.”

“True,” said Altamont; “so it is easy to know whether they will return to-night.”

“How so?” asked Bell.

“By rubbing out some of their tracks; and if we find new ones to-morrow, we can be sure that they are trying to get into Fort Providence.”

“Well,” said the doctor, “we shall at least know what to expect.”

The three then set to work, and soon effaced all the tracks over a space of about six hundred feet.

“It's strange, however,” said Bell, “that they could scent us at so great a distance; we did n't burn anything greasy which could attract them.”

“0,” answered the doctor, “they have very fine sight, and delicate sense of smell! Besides, they are very intelligent, perhaps the most intelligent of animals, and they have found out something strange here.”

“Perhaps,” continued Bell, “during the storm, they came up as far as the plateau.”

“Then,” said the American, “why should they have stopped there?”

“True, there is no answer to that,” answered the doctor; “and we ought to believe that they are shortening the circle about Fort Providence.”

“We shall see,” answered Altamont.

“Now, let us go on,” said the doctor; “but we'll keep our eyes open.”

They kept careful watch, through fear lest some bear should be hidden behind the masses of ice; often they took the blocks for animals, from their shape and whiteness, but soon they discovered their mistake.

They returned at last to the shore beneath the cone, and from there their eyes swept in vain from Cape Washington to Johnson Island. They saw nothing; everything was white and motionless; not a sound was to be heard. They entered the snow-house.

Hatteras and Johnson were informed of the condition of affairs, and they resolved to keep a strict watch. Night came; nothing occurred to alarm them, or to mar its beauty. At dawn the next morning, Hatteras and his companions, fully armed, went out to examine the condition of the snow; they found the same tracks as on the previous day, only nearer. Evidently the enemy was preparing to lay siege to Fort Providence.

“They have opened their second parallel,” said the doctor.

“They have made a point in advance,” answered Altamont; “see those footprints coming nearer the plateau; they are those of some strong animal.”

“Yes, they are gaining ground gradually,” said Johnson; “it is evident that they are going to attack us.”

“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 manœuvres 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?”

“You, Captain.”

“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.