“I don’t think so,” rejoined Clawbonny. “It is more likely that they waited till the cessation of the tempest, and were on their way down to the bay, intending to catch seals, when they scented us.”
“Well, we can easily find out if they come tonight,” said Altamont.
“By effacing all the marks in a given place, and if to-morrow, we find fresh ones, it will be evident that Fort Providence is the goal for which the bears are bound.”
“Very good, at any rate we shall know, then, what we have to expect.”
The three hunters set to work, and scraped the snow over till all the footprints were obliterated for a considerable distance.
“It is singular, though,” said Bell, “that bears could scent us all that way off; we have not been burning anything fat which might have attracted them.”
“Oh!” replied the Doctor, “bears are endowed with a wonderfully keen sense of smell, and a piercing sight; and, more than that, they are extremely intelligent, almost more so than any other animal. They have smelt something unusual; and, besides, who can tell whether they have not even found their way as far as our plateau during the tempest?”
“But then, why did they stop here last night?” asked Altamont.
“Well, that’s a question I can’t answer, but there is no doubt they will continue narrowing their circles, till they reach Fort Providence.”
“We shall soon see,” said Altamont.
“And, meantime, we had best go on,” added the Doctor, “and keep a sharp look out.”
But not a sign of anything living was visible, and after a time they returned to the snow-house.
Hatteras and Johnson were informed how matters stood, and it was resolved to maintain a vigilant watch. Night came, but nothing disturbed its calm splendour—nothing was heard to indicate approaching danger.
Next morning at early dawn, Hatteras and his companions, well armed, went out to reconnoitre the state of the snow. They found the same identical footmarks, but somewhat nearer. Evidently the enemy was bent on the siege of Fort Providence.
“But where can the bears be?” said Bell.
“Behind the icebergs watching us,” replied the Doctor. “Don’t let us expose ourselves imprudently.”
“What about going hunting, then?” asked Altamont.
“We must put it off for a day or two, I think, and rub out the marks again, and see if they are renewed to-morrow.”
The Doctor’s advice was followed, and they entrenched themselves for the present in the fort. The lighthouse was taken down, as it was not of actual use meantime, and might help to attract the bears. Each took it in turn to keep watch on the upper plateau.
The day passed without a sign of the enemy’s existence, and next morning, when they hurried eagerly out to examine the snow, judge their astonishment to find it wholly untouched!
“Capital!” exclaimed Altamont. “The bears are put off the scent; they have no perseverance, and have grown tired waiting for us. They are off, and a good riddance. Now let us start for a day’s hunting.”
“Softly, softly,” said the Doctor; “I’m not so sure they have gone. I think we had better wait one day more. It is evident the bears have not been here last night, at least on this side; but still—”
“Well, let us go right round the plateau, and see how things stand,” said the impatient Altamont.
“All right,” said Clawbonny. “Come along.”
Away they went, but it was impossible to scrutinize carefully a track of two miles, and no trace of the enemy was discoverable.
“Now, then, can’t we go hunting?” said Altamont.
“Wait till to-morrow,” urged the Doctor again.
His friend was very unwilling to delay, but yielded the point at last, and returned to the fort.
As on the preceding night, each man took his hour’s watch on the upper plateau. When it came to Altamont’s turn, and he had gone out to relieve Bell, Hatteras called his old companions round him. The Doctor left his desk and Johnson his cooking, and hastened to their captain’s side, supposing he wanted to talk over their perilous situation; but Hatteras never gave it a thought.