Altamont walked impatiently up and down full of exasperation and excitement at finding himself worsted for once. Hatteras could think of nothing but the Doctor, and of the serious peril which threatened him.
“Oh, if Mr. Clawbonny were only here!” said Johnson.
“What could he do?” asked Altamont.
“Oh, he’d manage to get us out somehow.”
“How, pray?” said the American, crossly.
“If I knew that I should not need him. However, I know what his advice just now would be.”
“To take some food; that can’t hurt us. What do you say, Mr. Altamont?”
“Oh, let’s eat, by all means, if that will please you, though we’re in a ridiculous, not to say humiliating, plight.”
“I’ll bet you we’ll find a way out after dinner.”
No one replied, but they seated themselves round the table.
Johnson, trained in Clawbonny’s school, tried to be brave and unconcerned about the danger, but he could scarcely manage it. His jokes stuck in his throat. Moreover, the whole party began to feel uncomfortable. The atmosphere was getting dense, for every opening was hermetically sealed. The stoves would hardly draw, and it was evident would soon go out altogether for want of oxygen.
Hatteras was the first to see their fresh danger, and he made no attempt to hide it from his companions.
“If that is the case,” said Altamont, “we must get out at all risks.”
“Yes,” replied Hatteras; “but let us wait till night. We will make a hole in the roof, and let in a provision of air, and then one of us can fire out of it on the bears.”
“It is the only thing we can do, I suppose,” said Altamont.
So it was agreed; but waiting was hard work, and Altamont could not refrain from giving vent to his impatience by thundering maledictions on the bears, and abusing the ill fate which had placed them in such an awkward and humbling predicament. “It was beasts versus men,” he said, “and certainly the men cut a pretty figure.”
Night drew on, and the lamp in the sitting-room already began to burn dim for want of oxygen.
At eight o’clock the final arrangements were completed, and all that remained to do was to make an opening in the roof.
They had been working away at this for some minutes, and Bell was showing himself quite an adept in the business, when Johnson, who had been keeping watch in the sleeping room, came hurriedly in to his companions, pulling such a long face, that the captain asked immediately what was the matter?
“Nothing exactly,” said the old sailor, “and yet—”
“Come, out with it!” exclaimed Altamont.
“Hush! don’t you hear a peculiar noise?”
“Here, on this side, on the wall of the room.”
Bell stopped working, and listened attentively like the rest. Johnson was right; a noise there certainly was on the side wall, as if some one were cutting the ice.
“Don’t you hear it?” repeated Johnson.
“Hear it? Yes, plain enough,” replied Altamont.
“Is it the bears?” asked Bell.
“Well; they have changed their tactics,” said old Johnson, “and given up the idea of suffocating us.”
“Or may be they suppose we are suffocated by now,” suggested the American, getting furious at his invisible enemies.
“They are going to attack us,” said Bell.
“Well, what of it?” returned Hatteras.
“We shall have a hand-to-hand struggle, that’s all.”
“And so much the better,” added Altamont; “that’s far more to my taste; I have had enough of invisible foes—let me see my antagonist, and then I can fight him.”
“Ay,” said Johnson; “but not with guns. They would be useless here.”
“With knife and hatchet then,” returned the American.
The noise increased, and it was evident that the point of attack was the angle of the wall formed by its junction with the cliff.
“They are hardly six feet off now,” said the boatswain.
“Right, Johnson!” replied Altamont; “but we have time enough to be ready for them.”
And seizing a hatchet, he placed himself in fighting attitude, planting his right foot firmly forward and throwing himself back.