Nothing remained to be done but to light this alcoholic lake, and the Corporal, match in hand, awaited the order of his Captain, as if he were about to spring a mine.
“All right, Joliffe !” at last said Captain Craventy.
The light was applied to the bowl, and in a moment the punch was in flames, whilst the guests applauded and clapped their hands. Ten minutes afterwards, full glasses of the delightful beverage were circulating amongst the guests, fresh bidders for them coming forward in endless succession, like speculators on the Stock Exchange.
“Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah! three cheers for Mrs Barnett! A cheer for the Captain.”
In the midst of these joyful shouts cries were heard from outside. Silence immediately fell upon the company assembled.
“Sergeant Long,” said the Captain, “go and see what is the matter.”
And at his chief’s order, the Sergeant, leaving his glass unfinished, left the room.
A SAVANT THAWED.
Sergeant Long hastened to the narrow passage from which opened the outer door of the fort, and heard the cries redoubled, and combined with violent blows on the postern gate, surrounded by high walls, which gave access to the court. The Sergeant pushed open the door, and plunging into the snow, already a foot deep; he waded through it, although half-blinded by the cutting sleet, and nipped by the terrible cold.
“What the devil does any one want at this time of night?” exclaimed the Sergeant to himself, as he mechanically removed the heavy bars of the gate; “none but Esquimaux would dare to brave such a temperature as this!”
“Open! open! open!” they shouted from without.
“I am opening,” replied Sergeant Long, who really seemed to be a long time about it.
At last the door swung open, and the Sergeant was almost upset by a sledge, drawn by six dogs, which dashed past him like a flash of lightning. Worthy Sergeant Long only just escaped being crushed, but he got up without a murmur, closed the gate, and returned to the house at his ordinary pace, that is to say, at the rate of seventy-five strides a minute.
But Captain Craventy, Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson, and Corporal Joliffe were already outside, braving the intense cold, and staring at the sledge, white with snow, which had just drawn up in front of them.
A man completely enveloped in furs now descended from it,
“Fort Reliance?;” he inquired.
“The same,” replied the Captain.
“Behold him! Who are you?”
“A courier of the Company.”
“Are you alone?”
“No, I bring a traveller.”
“A traveller! And what does he want?”
“He is come to see the moon.”
At this reply, Captain Craventy said to himself the man must be a fool. But there was no time to announce this opinion, for the courier had taken an inert mass from the sledge, a kind of bag covered with snow, and was about to carry it into the house, when the Captain inquired
“What is that bag?”
“It is my traveller,” replied the courier.
“Who is this traveller?”
“The astronomer, Thomas Black.”
“But he is frozen.”
“Well, he must be thawed.”
Thomas Black, carried by the Sergeant, the Corporal, and the courier, now made his entrance into the house of the fort, and was taken to a room on the first floor, the temperature of which was bearable, thanks to a glowing stove. He was laid upon a bed, and the Captain took his hand.
It was literally frozen. The wrappers and furred mantles, in which Thomas Black was rolled up like a parcel requiring care, were removed, and revealed a man of about fifty. He was short and stout, his hair was already touched with grey, his beard was untrimmed, his eyes were closed, and his lips pressed together as if glued to one another. If he breathed at all, it was so slightly that the frost-work on the windows would not have been affected by it. Joliffe undressed him, and turned him rapidly on to his face and back again, with the words—
“Come, come, sir, when do you mean to return to consciousness?”
But the visitor who had arrived in so strange a manner showed no signs of returning life, and Corporal Joliffe could think of no better means to restore the lost vital heat than to give him a bath in the bowl of hot punch.