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

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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 could n'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 dear.”

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.

“Well?”

“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 he 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!”

“Impossible!”

“See, 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 should n'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 sec 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.”