Hatteras and the others followed his example, and Johnson took care to load a gun in case of necessity.
Every minute the sound came nearer, till at last only a thin coating separated them from their assailants.
Presently this gave way with a loud crack, and a huge dark mass rolled over into the room.
Altamont had already swung his hatchet to strike, when he was arrested by a well-known voice, exclaiming—
“For Heaven’s sake, stop!”
“The Doctor! the Doctor!” cried Johnson.
And the Doctor it actually was who had tumbled in among them in such undignified fashion.
“How do ye do, good friends?” he said, picking himself smartly up.
His companions stood stupefied for a moment, but joy soon loosened their tongues, and each rushed eagerly forward to welcome his old comrade with a loving embrace. Hatteras was for once fairly overcome with emotion, and positively hugged him like a child.
“And is it really you, Mr. Clawbonny?” said Johnson.
“Myself and nobody else, my old fellow. I assure you I have been far more uneasy about you than you could have been about me.”
“But how did you know we had been attacked by a troop of bears?” asked Altamont. “What we were most afraid of was that you would come quickly back to Fort Providence, never dreaming of danger.”
“Oh, I saw it all. Your repeated shots gave me the alarm. When you commenced firing I was beside the wreck of the Porpoise, but I climbed up a hummock, and discovered five bears close on your heels. Oh, how anxious I was for you! But when I saw you disappear down the cliff, while the bears stood hesitating on the edge, as if uncertain what to do, I felt sure that you had managed to get safely inside the house and barricade it. I crept cautiously nearer, sometimes going on all-fours, sometimes slipping between great blocks of ice, till I came at last quite close to our fort, and then I found the bears working away like beavers. They were prowling about the snow, and dragging enormous blocks of ice towards the house, piling them up like a wall, evidently intending to bury you alive. It is a lucky thing they did not take it into their heads to dash down the blocks from the summit of the cone, for you must have been crushed inevitably.”
“But what danger you were in, Mr. Clawbonny,” said Bell. “Any moment they might have turned round and attacked you.”
“They never thought of it even. Johnson’s Greenland dogs came in sight several times, but they did not take the trouble to go after them. No, they imagined themselves sure of a more savoury supper!”
“Thanks for the compliment!” said Altamont, laughing.
“Oh, there is nothing to be proud of. When I saw what the bears were up to, I determined to get back to you by some means or other. I waited till night, but as soon as it got dark I glided noiselessly along towards the powder-magazine. I had my reasons for choosing that point from which to work my way hither, and I speedily commenced operations with my snow-knife. A famous tool it is. For three mortal hours I have been hacking and heaving away, but here I am at last tired enough and starving, but still safe here.”
“To share our fate!” said Altamont.
“No, to save you all; but, for any sake, give me a biscuit and a bit of meat, for I feel sinking for want of food.”
A substantial meal was soon before him, but the vivacious little man could talk all the while he was eating, and was quite ready to answer any questions.
“Did you say to save us?” asked Bell.
“Most assuredly!” was the reply.
“Well, certainly, if you found your way in, we can find our way out by the same road.”
“A likely story, and leave the field clear for the whole pack to come in and find out our stores. Pretty havoc they would make!”
“No, we must stay here,” said Hatteras.
“Of course we must,” replied Clawbonny, “but we’ll get rid of the bears for all that.”
“I told you so,” said Johnson, rubbing his hands. “I knew nothing was hopeless if Mr. Clawbonny was here; he has always some expedient in his wise head.”
“My poor head is very empty, I fear, but by dint of rummaging perhaps I——”
“Doctor,” interrupted Altamont, “I suppose there is no fear of the bears getting in by the passage you have made?”
“No, I took care to stop up the opening thoroughly, and now we can reach the powder-magazine without letting them see us.”
“All right; and now will you let us have your plan of getting rid of these comical assailants?”
“My plan is quite simple, and part of the work is done already.”
“What do you mean?”
“You shall see.