“THAT’S done it!” ejaculated Wilson. “We were only just in time. Say, Mike, how are we off for grub?”
O’Donovan, thus addressed, was stumped for a reply. The sudden caving in of the buried sleigh had resulted in the loss of the bulk of the provisions. Only a small quantity, originally intended for the use of the men selected for the march to Desolation Inlet, had been saved, and that quantity was sufficient for all hands for but one day, and then only with the greatest care.
At all costs, and notwithstanding the blizzard, it seemed imperative that communication should be speedily set up with the Polarity, so preparations were made for the journey.
Leslie, O’Donovan, and the two Russians were selected for this mission, while Guy, Johnson, and Wilson were to remain with the injured survivors of the Bird of Freedom.
The provisions were divided between the two parties in proportion to their numbers, those of Leslie’s men being placed on the rough sleigh.
“How about this gun?” asked Wilson, indicating a rifle which had been brought up from the buried sleigh just before the final disaster.
“Keep it,” replied O’Donovan. “We won’t need it. You might knock over a seal or two if you’re lucky.”
“Sorry I’m not coming with you, old man,” said Guy, as the two chums prepared to take leave of each other.
“I don’t suppose you’ll miss much,” replied Leslie with forced cheerfulness.
“No, it’s you I’m thinking about. I shouldn’t mind in the slightest if I were with you, but tramping through that blizzard is rotten work.”
O’Donovan gave the signal. The Russians took up the drag-rope of the sleigh. With a cheery wave of the hand Leslie fell in with the rest of the party, and the driving snow hid him from his chum’s sight.
None of the party was provided with snow-shoes or skis. At every step the men sank almost to their knees in snow. On and on they stumbled. Not a word was spoken. Instinctively they realised that every ounce of strength they possessed must be carefully husbanded if they hoped to survive the strain of those few miles.
Fortunately there was no chance of losing their way. The route was well defined by towering cliffs on either side, from which masses of snow and ice were continually falling.
They plodded thus for an hour, during which time they had only traversed half a mile. Their lower limbs, unaccustomed to the violent muscular efforts required to lift them clear of the snow, felt numb and as heavy as lead. They were glad when O’Donovan called for a ten minutes’ halt.
Huddled together for mutual protection, and with their backs to the wind, the jaded men strove to withstand the almost overpowering desire to sleep. Even as they sat, the snow drifted until it was level with their shoulders.
All around came the thunder of the falling debris from the top of the cliffs, punctuated by the deeper roar which O’Donovan and the Russians understood. Fortunately, perhaps, Leslie was in ignorance of the meaning of the low rumble. It was the rapid breaking up of the lower portion of the glacier.
Presently one of the Russians clapped his gloved hands. O’Donovan, who was actually dozing, opened his eyes. He regained his feet, painfully and laboriously.
“Time!” he exclaimed.
Before a fresh start could be made, the accumulation of snow on the sleigh had to be removed and the vehicle dragged from under two feet of drift. Leslie and O’Donovan took their turns at the drag-ropes, the Russians following. It was evident that these men were more accustomed to the severe wintry conditions than even the weather-beaten seamen.
Presently one of the Russians noticed that the lad was making very slow headway. Without a word he took the rope from his hand. As he did so, he looked into the youth’s face, then, stooping and picking up a handful of snow, he dashed it against Leslie’s nose and began to rub that organ with the utmost vigour.
“Sure, I didn’t notice it myself, bad cess to me,” exclaimed O’Donovan. “Don’t you worry, Master Leslie. It’s for your good.”
Leslie had been too taken aback by this sudden attack to offer any resistance, even if he retained sufficient energy to do so. Quite unconscious of the fact, his nose was showing signs of frostbite, and the Russian had taken drastic but effectual steps to ward off the dire consequences.
“Halt!” ordered O’Donovan in a loud voice.
Another hour or an hour and a half had elapsed.
The men had rested for the third time, and had only just resumed their toilsome way.
“Here we stop,” he continued. “We’ll have to knock up some kind of a shelter. Master Leslie, do you tell those fellows.”
“Tell them what?” asked Leslie.
“That we don’t go another step farther till the blizzard’s done. If we do, I reckon we’ll find ourselves sliding over the ice and into the sea.”
“But we are some distance yet,” expostulated Leslie, who recognised the place by a remarkable contraction of the cliffs.
A loud crash drowned O’Donovan’s reply.
“Don’t know as we oughtn’t to go back a bit,” he said. “This ice ain’t none too safe.”
The Russians were evidently of the same opinion, for they had already turned the sleigh round in the opposite direction.
“Good!” exclaimed the seaman. “‘Tis back it is. This is no place for Mike O’Donovan.”
Right into the eye of the wind, the four well-nigh exhausted men struggled. Their former pace was a rapid one compared with that battle with the elements. The very force of the driving flakes produced a sensation of suffocation.
Blinded by the drifting snow, buffeted by the wind, and with hardly the strength to draw their feet, from the half-frozen slush, they struggled on literally inch by inch.
“Enough!” shouted O’Donovan.
The meaning of the word was plain even to the Russians. Like a flock of sheep the men crowded together to regain their breath.
At the end of a brief respite, all hands set to work to build a shelter, consisting of two snow walls barely a yard apart, and a third wall joining one end of each to the other. Over this the sleigh was placed, its contents having previously been stowed away in safety.
For the next half-hour the men took turns in holding down the frail roof, until the drift accumulated sufficiently to protect it from the force of the blizzard.
A slender meal was then served out, and, having eaten, the men proposed to rest, one of their number having to be on guard in order to give the alarm in the event of the ice breaking in the vicinity of the snow hut.
In spite of the weird noises and the crash of the broken ice, Leslie slept soundly. His companions failed to awaken him, the Russians taking his turn on watch. When at length he awoke the blizzard had practically ceased, and the men were preparing to dig a way out through the deep snow drift.
A strange sight met Leslie’s eyes as he gained the open air.
Although it was supposed to be midnight, the sun was showing dully in the northern sky, and casting long shadows on the hummocks across the undulating plain of white snow. But what had been a portion of the vast glacier only a day or so before was now open water, dotted with masses of floating ice.
Almost half a mile of glacier had separated from the main ice river and had been hurled into Desolation Inlet. The sea was within two hundred yards of the hut, but the Polarity was no longer to be seen.
“The ship!” exclaimed Leslie. “Where is she? Has she been ‘nipped’?”
He knew the danger of a vessel being crushed between those miniature bergs, and the thought that the Polarity had foundered under the impact of the detached ice filled him with alarm.
“Nipped?” repeated O’Donovan, “Not her. Faith, she’s slipped her cables and stood out to sea. I’ll allow Cap’n Stormleigh wouldn’t wait for those chunks of ice to hit him. She’ll be back presently.”
Although O’Donovan spoke hopefully, in his inmost thoughts he knew there might be a possibility of the catastrophe at which Leslie had hinted actually taking place. If so, the fate of the fifteen men left on Nova Cania would be a terrible one.
Four tedious hours passed, yet the Polarity did not put in an appearance. O’Donovan consoled his companions by suggesting that perhaps there was a thick fog outside, so that the vessel would be compelled to wait before attempting to recross the dangerous bar. Or, again, the floating ice might have become “packed” lower down the inlet, thus rendering it impossible for the Polarity to return until the barrier was removed.
The Russians, upon the seaman’s surmises being translated, nodded gravely. Their stolidity seemed in keeping with the suspense of the situation.
“It’s quarter rations now,” announced O’Donovan, as he doled out the provisions for another meal. “Maybe we’ll be in luck and knock over a seal or two. They’re not nice to eat, Master Leslie, but half a loaf is better than no bread, and a bit of seal’s fat is better than no half a loaf.”
While the men were slowly eating what might prove to be their last meal but one, a rattling sound was heard without, as if something were disturbing the tins in which the provisions were kept.
In a trice one of the Russians made for the door, unclasping a formidable knife as he did so. His compatriot, seizing an ice-axe, followed with greater deliberation, while Leslie and O’Donovan guessing that the alarm was justified, grasped their spades and made for the open air.
Licking an almost empty preserved meat tin was a huge white bear, greater even than the one which had attacked Aubrey Hawke on the ice-floe. With her was a young cub.
The bear showed no inclination to decline an encounter, for directly she perceived the Russians she threw her cub from her, and, rearing, made straight for her foes.
Seeing her approach, the first Russian drew back to await a chance of an opening. His compatriot raised his axe and dealt the bear a furious blow. The keen blade, missing the animal’s muzzle by a few inches, descended with lightning speed upon a lump of ice. The shock sent the axe spinning along the slippery surface, while the man, losing his balance, sprawled upon his face.
Even as the bear bent to seize the unlucky Russian, Leslie and O’Donovan lunged with their long-handled shovels.
With a rapid blow of her massive paw, the bear turned the Irishman’s thrust aside, but Leslie contrived to get a staggering lunge fairly into the animal’s capacious and wide-open jaws.
Taking advantage of the bear’s obvious discomfiture, the second Russian closed and drove his knife deeply into the creature’s throat. As he did so, he received a blow which ripped his fur coat from shoulder to wrist, then, throwing herself upon the prostrate man, the bear clawed his back vigorously in spite of a shower of blows rained at her by Leslie and the seaman.
It was the bear’s despairing effort. Momentarily she was growing weaker from loss of blood.
Again the Russian with the knife closed and got home a deep cut which completely severed the animal’s jugular vein. With a dull thud the enormous brute rolled over on the snow, struggled feebly for a few minutes, and then lay still.
“Stone dead,” exclaimed O’Donovan triumphantly. “Faith! We’ll not be wanting meat now.”
The cub, curious to see what was the matter with its dam, ambled awkwardly towards the dead bear. O’Donovan was about to fell it with a blow from the Russian’s axe, which he had picked up, when Leslie interposed.
“Let’s save it and keep it for a pet,” he said.
The Irishman looked at the lad to see if he were really in earnest, then burst into a hearty laugh.
“A pet, be jabers! Who’ll be wanting a cub for a pet when we’re like to starve ourselves? How do you think to feed it?”
“We can find some seals,” suggested Leslie.
“Perhaps,” rejoined O’Donovan. “Perhaps not.”
“There’s no harm in trying,” pleaded Leslie. “If it comes to the worst there’s more bear steaks for us.”
He appealed to the Russians. The one who had slipped during the encounter grunted indifferently, while his comrade, who had good cause to complain since his left arm was deeply scratched by the bear’s claws, nodded his head amiably.
“He will also keep us warm,” he said.
“Very well, keep the thing,” exclaimed O’Donovan ungraciously, when Leslie translated the Russian’s reply.
The cub willingly assented to be led into the shelter by its new master, while O’Donovan and the Russians set about skinning the dead bear to obtain the meat which, for the present, was more than enough for their needs.
A fire, which made sad inroads upon their scanty stock of fuel, was kindled, and after a good meal of bear steak, all hands felt much stronger and in better spirits.
Still there were no signs of the returning Polarity, so the Russians volunteered to take the sleigh back to the place where they had left the rest of their comrades.
The snow had now frozen hard, consequently they would be able to proceed far quicker, their idea being to take a supply of bear’s meat to their unfortunate fellow-sufferers and to bring one at least of the injured men back to the hut on the edge of the glacier.
While they were gone on their self-imposed errand, O’Donovan, who was beginning to take an interest in the cub, and was being amused by its antics, volunteered to try to catch a seal.
Lashing his knife to the handle of an ice-spade, he made his way towards the open water, choosing a place where the ice had newly formed. Here he dug a circular hole, and with his improvised spear in hand, awaited the result of his quest.
Before very long the head of a young seal appeared above the water in the hole. For a few minutes the animal sniffed suspiciously, but the Irishmen made no movement. Deceived by the apparent lack of life, the seal drew itself clear of the ice and waddled clumsily towards the still motionless man.
Presently an older seal appeared. Scenting danger, she called to her young one, emitting a short bark resembling that of a dog. The latter turned to flee, but it was too late. Running recklessly on the ice, O’Donovan cut off its retreat, and with one thrust of his knife killed it on the spot.
Leslie’s cub, at all events, would not go short of food.
When at length the two Russians returned, they brought with them one of the two remaining Englishmen of Claude Ranworth’s party, and one of their compatriots. The former, being too weak to walk, was dragged in the sleigh, while the third Russian was able, with occasional assistance, to keep up with his comrades.
The hardy Russians expressed their intention of making another trip as soon as they had eaten and slept, repeating the journey until the whole of the party were brought in. It was possible to sustain life on the glacier, owing to the presence of seals, while fishing might result in a welcome addition to the larder. There would also be less delay should the Polarity put in an appearance.
Day after day passed. The numbers at the shelter by Desolation Inlet increased as the heroic Russians kept to their promise. Yet the long-expected ship did not return, and gradually the hope of rescue in that direction languished.
The masses of the detached ice in the inlet were rapidly dispersing, being carried towards the open sea by the still prevailing northerly wind. So far as the castaways could ascertain, there was nothing to prevent the Polarity’s return if she were still afloat. They could only conclude that she had met with disaster and had foundered with all hands.
The situation was indeed desperate. Without adequate means of protecting themselves against the rigours of an Arctic winter—for in another month or so navigation would be absolutely impossible owing to the formation of the ice—a lingering death by cold and exposure stared them in the face