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THE works of "Fenton Ash" are highly prized among bibliophile collectors of classic sci-fi and fantasy. At the time of writing (October 2016) a copy of the rare novel The Radium Seekers, for example, was being offered at AbeBooks at a price of over 1,200 US dollars.
The present novel—In Polar Seas; A Romance of Adventure in the Frozen North—appears here for the first time in book form. Serialised in 1915-1916 in The Nelson Lee Library, a British pulp weekly targeted mainly at juvenile readers but billed as being "for readers of all ages," it describes the adventures of a team of British explorers who discover a lost Viking civilisation in a hitherto unknown temperate zone near the North Pole.
This RGL first edition was prepared from image files of the novel as it was printed in The Nelson Lee Library. The section headers of the serial version, which in some cases do not accurately reflect the actual contents of the section to which they refer, have been retained. Chapter numbers have been added. Footnotes have been added to explain obscure terms.
—Roy Glashan, October 2016
On Greenland's icy shore—Suspicious neighbours—A raid on the camp.
The raid renewed—How it was met—Three to one—a startling collapse.
A great find!
Trouble with Grimstock—The skipper and his men—ruxton's forebodings.
Ruxton is amused.
The first motor-sledge—Eskimo dogs disapprove running amok—a plucky rescue.
Ruxton's warning—Amaki's strange request—A midnight assassin.
The assassin—Who was he?
Left to die in the white wilderness.
Val tells Hugh some plain facts.
An unexpected sight—Mirage or reality—Hope for the castaways.
"Is it a mirage?"
A night in a snow-drift—The motor-sledge abandoned—The last of the food—A surprise.
A land of fire—A sail across the ice—Shot off a glacier.
In a new land—A gruesome find—Illuminated caverns—Attacked by strange monsters.
A terrible fight.
A wild fight with weird foes—A night attack in force.
Defending the cave.
Besieged by the yellow-haired monsters—A tough struggle—Hugh loses his temper.
Matters become serious.
"Caliban's" peace offering—Mike's discomfiture—a startling apparition.
The banner of Odin and the war-song of the Vikings—Dr. Fenwick's theory—prisoners!
The Vikings of old.
Hugh's defiance—A duel with a Viking.
The Vikings' home—Osth the Hard and Hertseg the Fighter—Hugh loses his temper again.
A free fight—Arrayed in armour.
The great wrestling match.
The struggle in the cage—A mysterious warning—A double duel—The alarm.
Preparing for the battle—The spell of the "Berserkers."
The "Berserker"—How the chums captured a
war galley, and what followed—A new mystery.
Friends to the rescue!
Chained to the oar—A mysterious friend—The Vikings give chase.
The last fighT—Father and son—Conclusion.
"NOW I wonder who those fellows are down yonder, and what their little game is in pitching their camp so close to ours? By the noise they're making they seem to be a pretty rowdy lot! We must keep an eye on 'em. I don't like either their looks—what I've been able to see of them—or their voices. Mike, lad, wake up! Put some more wood on those fires! What are you pulling such a long face about?"
The scene was a desolate strip of snow-covered shore in the far North. The wide stretch of ice in front of it was a part of the great frozen sea; while the frowning crags, and giant, snowy peaks, which formed a forbidding background, were offshoots of "Greenland's Icy Mountains."
Upon that dreary shore, which looked more dreary than ever in the cold moonlight—the short Arctic day had closed in a couple of hours before—there was an unusual sight—no less than three separate encampments.
For most of the year this snowy waste, known by the native name of Amanstok, is the undisturbed playground of seals and walruses, of bears and blue foxes, and of myriads of Arctic birds.
Once or twice a year a wandering band of Eskimos choose it as their halting-place on their way to or from the great hunting grounds beyond.
This, again, is what had happened now; for Hugh Arnold, the young fellow who had uttered the words which have just been quoted, belonged to a band of Arctic explorers just out from England; and their ship, the Petrel, lay at anchor some half dozen miles away. This, then, accounts for camp No. 2.
But the people at No. 3 camp were what mathematicians would designate by the letter A, being, at present, an unknown quantity.
The most likely supposition would be that they were a hunting party sent out to forage for fresh food from some whaling ship not in sight. The crews of such vessels are frequently a lot of desperadoes, the maritime scourings of many nations. They are not usually, therefore, much to be desired as close neighbours, especially when, as was evidently the case here, they are out by themselves, and so are beyond the reach of the iron discipline which alone keeps them on their good behaviour while on board ship.
These particular men, to judge by their proceedings, were of this kidney. They had been for some time yelling out ribald songs and choruses; and just lately sounds had been heard suggestive of drunken brawls.
The No. 2 camp—situated mid-way between the others—consisted of half a dozen tents, two or three sledges, and a number of packages, which had been brought over the ice from the ship and hastily dumped down just before nightfall.
Then most of the landing party had gone off to No. 3 camp to foregather with the natives, leaving at first only Hugh in charge. He, however, had been joined, just before, by an Irish sailor, one Mike O'Grady, who, tiring of the native style of entertaining guests, had returned to camp alone. There he had seated himself in silence, smoking stolidly at his pipe, and looking particularly glum and unhappy.
As to Hugh himself, he was a very tall young fellow, far above the ordinary height, and even the thick clothing in which he was enveloped could not conceal the fact that he owned a frame that was massive and muscular beyond the average.
This fact was revealed less by the outline and general shape of his figure, than by the peculiar, easy grace of his movements as he strode to and fro, the light springiness of his step, and his general carriage. He bore himself as does the lion, with that indescribable swing of the limbs which betokens so unerringly a store of conscious strength and latent energy. In fact, he was known amongst his fellow travellers by the sobriquet of "Strong Hugh."
"I've been wonderin', Misther Hugh," answered Mike, as he stretched his great figure—for he, too, was a big man—and made a move, towards some piles of wood, "whin we moight be goin' to get t' this green land as I've heerd so much talk about."
"Why, you great nincompoop, this is Greenland. I thought you knew that."
Mike stopped suddenly in the act of picking up his wood, and appeared so startled that he nearly dropped it again.
"Whoy—whoy!" he exclaimed, with a look around of comical dismay. "Wheer be the green? It's meself as can see nothing' but white. I thought for sure as Greenland must be further on."
"No, my friend, you'll meet with no greener land than this. There will be some green here later on—when the season is a bit further advanced—but we sha'n't get much of that."
"Begorrah! Divil a Bit, thin, wad I 'ave come on this precious thrip, sorr, iv I'd bin tould that same before. They said t' me, 'Will ye come on a thrip to find the North Pole?' an' I said, 'Which way did 'e go?' an' they said, 'By way av green land.' 'If theer's a way through a noice green land,' sez Oi, 'thin, bedad, Oi'm the bhoy for ye! I always thought it was oice an' snow ye had to go through out theer.' Thin the bhoys laughed an' said, 'Oh, no: we're goin' to a green land roight enough.' An' now I sees that it's decavin' me they was—the merry divils! Oi'll be even wid some av thim over this!"
"Never mind, Mike. It'll be a fresh experience for you. You've been pretty well all over the world, I've been told—"
"Thrue for you, sorr. I have indade!"
"Except in the Arctic. Now you'll be able to say you've been there, too: and to the very Pole itself, if we get there, as I hope we shall, and then you'll share in all our honour and glory."
"Will we iver get back, sorr? That's the question as concarns me most. Sure, Oi'd go back on the next ship, now, iv there was one goin', an' Oi'd be afther lavin' ye me share av the honour an' glory, free an' for nothing'."
Hugh laughed again, a free, easy, good-humoured laugh, and turned his glance in the direction of the Eskimo camp, from which also came sounds of singing, and a rough kind of music.
"Ah!" he said, in a tone of satisfaction. "Here are some of our chaps coming at last! I wonder why they've been staying all this time, and what's going on there? Humph! It's only Mr. Ruxton and Bob Cable after all. What are the others waiting there for?"
"It's a bit of faystin' an' merry-makin' goin' on theer to-night. The pure haythins don't ofthen get our sort here, t' giv' thim little presents; an' they're returnin' the compliment by givin' a fayste."
"Yes, I understand that. You didn't stay there long, by the way, Mike. You seem to have grown tired of it sooner than these others have."
"Toired? No, it wasn't so much toired I was, as sick, sorr. Sure, the haythin's idea av a fayste is a good fat taller-candle, wi' a drink av train oil t' wash it down. It's meself as couldn't stand anny more av it!"
"You'll get used to that sort of thing out here, Mike. Hallo, Val! Here you are at last! What's kept you so long? Where are the others?"
This query was addressed to the one the speaker had spoken of as Mr. Huston. He had now come within earshot.
"Left 'em down there with the oil-bibbers," said the newcomer, crossly.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"Couldn't get 'em away. They're in a frolicsome mood—effect of getting ashore and feasting on too much whale blubber, I suppose, after being cooped up so long on board ship. They're making friends with some of the Eskimo beauties, and having a dance now; and the fun seemed to be getting fast and furious. So Bob and I—Bob's the only sensible one among the lot—cleared out and left 'em to it."
"I say! You should have made 'em come with you! There'll be trouble over this in the morning. Grimstock will fume and rave nicely about it if he hears of it—and he's pretty sure to."
"Can't help it—he'll have to fume. They simply won't listen to me."
"We'll have to go back there together and make 'em listen."
"Wouldn't go if I were you, old chap. They've got some drink into 'em, and are in a nasty humour. Best let 'em have their fling and come back their own way. Besides—"
"Well," said Ruxton, in a low lone. "I've come back here now partly because I wanted to have a word or two privately with you while Grimstock's out of the way. We don't often have a chance for a quiet chat without any fear of being overheard. Certainly, there wasn't one so long as we were on board ship."
"If that's the case, of course it's another matter," replied Hugh wonderingly, and evidently impressed by the grave tone in which the other spoke. "Only, I'm afraid trouble will come of it."
"Trouble will come of it—it's sure to—either way, so it may just as well come one way as another," was the answer, delivered with an indifferent air. "Come for a short stroll with me. Hallo! What's that row?"
"Those fellows yonder suddenly appeared from nowhere, just after you had gone, swarmed along here, and plumped themselves down where you aee them. They seem a rough lot. They started on a carouse, and now comes the usual sequel—quarrelling—with fighting, I expect, to follow. Just listen to 'em now! But who are they? White men, do you think?"
"White men? Mm! Pretty low-class whites. I guess, if there are any: and us for the others, they're likely to be of all colours—brown, black, red, and yellow—and there would be blue and green, if such people existed. Some whaler's crew, I reckon, with a skipper who's drunk one half his time, and a raging, bullying maniac the other half. The farther we can keep away from 'em the better."
"Just my view, and I'm glad you've come back, because there's no knowing what a drunken lot like that might take it into their heads to do. They might take a fancy to divide up some of our stores, and, if so, there an only two of us here to deal with the crowd. By the way, what was it you wanted to say?"
Ruxton did not reply at once, but putting a hand on the other's arm led him away a hundred yards or so. No. 2 camp had been pitched upon an elevation forming a sort of terrace, which extended for some distance. Ruxton walked nearly to the end of it, and then stood looking thoughtfully down at the sealskin tents of the Eskimos, which could now be seen more plainly on the shore below.
He was a fine-looking man this Val Ruxton, not quite so tall as his companion, but sturdily and heavily-built, with keen eyes, and a firm, determined face. He was evidently the older of the two by a few years. He was the darker, too, and his face was more tanned, the face of one who had travelled far and often, and seen much of the world.
"Look here," he said, at last, with sudden decision, as though he had been pondering what to say. "I don't think much of this Grimstock crowd we've come out with. I never did think much of 'em, but something's happened which has sent my opinion down lower still. You and I are strangers to one another, except that we've cottoned together a bit on the voyage out, and, frankly, I like you, and feel a sort of interest in you. See?"
Hugh laughed quizzically.
"Shure, an' it's a noice, iligant gintleman ye are, Misther Ruxton," he said, imitating Mike's familiar brogue. "Shure, it's meself—"
"No, no; I'm not joking," Ruxton interrupted, with a seriousness that had an instant effect on his companion. "I'm going to ask you a straight question. What made you join this show?"
"I might ask you the same question."
"You might—and you may—and I would answer at once. I do answer at once. It was a question of money with me—money, pure and simple. I was just about stony when Grimstock came across me. He wanted another man; we had a talk; he soon learned that I had been out here before and knew the ropes, could speak the native lingo, and so on. So he made me an offer; I closed with it, and here I am. And I'm beginning to wish I wasn't."
"Why? What's upset you?"
"Never mind that for the moment. You haven't replied to my question, though I've answered yours."
"Well," said Hugh slowly. "I can only give you a somewhat similar reason."
"No! I don't think it was a matter of money with you," Ruxton declared, with quiet insistence. "I heard that you sought Grimstock out and brought letters of introduction."
"How do you know that?"
"Never mind that just now. It is true, isn't it?"
"Why, yes; that's right enough. The fact is, I've long had a wish to come out here. It's been a—well, a sort of passion with me, ever since I was a kid. I made up my mind I would get out here some day by hook or by crook, and I prepared myself for it in every way I could think of—by travelling in Norway, and Lapland, and Ireland, and so on. But I hadn't money enough to fit out a regular expedition of my own to come so far north, so I had to join in with someone else. I heard that Grimstock was preparing one, and I offered myself. As you say, I brought letters of introduction to him, though how you knew of that, of what it has to do with—"
"It has a good deal to do with what I wish to speak about, as you will see directly. You are known to us as Hugh Arnold—"
"Well? Don't you like the name?" Hugh asked, chaffingly.
"My dear fellow, I don't care a brass dollar what your name may be. As I've told you, I like what I've seen of you since we first met, and I should like you just as much under any other name—John Smith, or Clifford Vere de Vere, or Obadiah Macandlestick. I just wish to give you a hint that if Hugh Arnold is not your true name, and you are hugging to yourself the idea that you have concealed the fact from Grimstock, I fancy you will find one day that he knows more than you think for."
Here, the listener started, and seemed about to utter a protest, but the speaker waved his hand and went on rapidly.
"Don't say anything! Don't tell me! I don't want to know! I'm not the sort of chap to want to pry into any man's private affairs. I only give you the hint for what it may be worth, and, of course, it may be worth nothing at all. Well, then, there is another thing. To-day, talking to old man Amaki, one of the Eskimos, down at their camp yonder, he asked me if any tidings had ever been heard of a certain traveller, an Arctic explorer, whose name is pretty well-known in the scientific world. He went north a good many years ago, and neither he nor any of those with him was ever heard of again. Well, old Amaki knew him, it seems—and so indeed did all his tribe—or those of them who are old enough to remember him, and they spoke of him with feelings of evident affection and devotion. I declare that tears were in the old beggar's eyes. Hallo! What's up now?"
Hugh had started again at the latter part of Ruxton's speech, and looked hard at him, but now he had turned, and was gazing back at the camp they had just quitted. It was but a hundred yards or so away, but the tents on one side hid the men they had left in charge from view.
"There's something going on there," said Hugh, quickly. "I expect it's some of those scalliwags come up to make a row. I half expected this! Why aren't our chaps here to guard the stores, instead of fooling down yonder?"
While speaking, he had been walking sharply back to camp, and Ruxton walked beside him.
Turning round by the end tent they came suddenly upon a strange scene.
Half a dozen men from No. 3 camp had come up to the terrace on which the No. 2 camp stood, and two of them were engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle with the two sailors who had been left in charge, thus keeping them at bay, whilst their four companions were coolly walking off with some of the packages.
One glance was enough for the two who had returned, and who saw the goods of which they were in charge being thus impudently carried off. Taking in the situation, they made a rush for the thieves. A blow for each in turn was sufficient to knock them over. Loaded as they were, taken by surprise, half-drunk into the bargain, they were not in a position favourable for preserving an upright position.
So down they went, and there they lay for a space, wondering where the earthquake had come from, by what time those who had brought them low were busy carrying back the stolen property. After a minute or two, however, the snow into which the raiders had fallen, exercised a reviving effect upon their beclouded brains. They began to aee and understand a little more clearly. Then they rose up, wrathful and revengeful, and swearing in various languages, they went for the two who had so roughly toppled them over, and caused their mouths and nostrils to be filled with disagreeably icy snow.
Meantime, Hugh and Ruxton, having put down their rescued goods, had gone to the assistance of the sailors, who were still struggling manfully with two burly assailants.
Just then it was that the other four marauders, having recovered themselves came on at a run, and for the next two or three minutes, the space in front of the tents was peopled with a tussling crowd, a mix-up of whirling arms and legs and panting bodies.
Blows were freely given and received, and a good many kicks, too: there were gasps and growls, snarls and guttural roars that sounded more like a wild-beast fight than a trial of strength between human beings.
It did not last very long. Neither Hugh nor Ruxton was in a mood to stand any nonsense, and one by one all the intruders were expelled. This time they had the misfortune to be hurled off the terrace into a snowdrift just below, which, as it turned out, was so deep that they disappeared completely from sight.
Then the victors were able to enjoy a hard-earned breathing time. But it was not likely, they knew, to last long. The noise of the conflict had been heard at No. 3 camp, and from it a reinforcement quickly started forth to the aid of their discomfited comrades.
"END of first round! 'Vantage to us!" said Hugh, with a short laugh.
"Yes," Ruxton assented. "But that was a pretty soft job. The real tug is yet to come. We shall have double the number on to us next time!"
"And our men are down yonder philandering with those native beauties!" exclaimed Hugh bitterly. "We'll have to talk to those gentlemen in the morning."
"Grimstock will talk to 'em, you may be sure, and to us as well. That's the worst of it. We're likely to get all the hard knocks to-night and more than our share of hard words afterwards, or I'm no prophet."
"Oh, well, hard words don't break bones," returned Hugh cheerfully. "And as to hard knocks—why, I felt just in the humour for a jolly good rough-and-tumble to-night. So let 'em all come! It'll help to circulate the blood and keep, you warm."
"H'm, I've no objection! But now, while we've got a minute or two, we'd better move those packages to a place where they'll be more out of the way; and safer, too, than lying out here."
"Right you are. Where shall we put 'em?
"I'll show you," and picking one up, Ruxton led the way towards the tents.
Of these there were six, which had been pitched in two rows, a little distance apart, and Ruxton soberly deposited his burden in the midst of them—that is to say, behind the first row, but in front of the second. His companion brought further loads, which Ruxton then arranged in what struck Hugh as rather an eccentric fashion.
"What's the good of putting them down there?" he asked. "For my part, I should have thought it would have been better to put everything in the tents out of sight."
"Not at all!" Ruxton declared coolly. "You'll aee, by-and-by, that its best not to put them out of sight."
Hugh could not at all understand his friend's reasoning, but he said no more, and, all the moving having been accomplished, he went back to join the sailors who had been left on the watch.
Ruxton remained for two or three minutes more, apparently shifting packages here and there to get them exactly to his satisfaction. When he finally joined his companions, he was carrying a brace of revolvers and offered one to Hugh, who, however, at first declined it.
"Thanks, but I'd rather trust to my fists." he remarked. "Besides, I hope it won't come to shooting, whatever happens."
"Quite right, and I hope so, too. In fact. I don't think these chaps would be foolish enough to begin it, as they must know that any shooting would he heard on board our ship, and would bring a party about their ears pretty sharp. It's their knives you'll have to look out for. These beggars are apt to get murderous when their blood is up. So it's as well to keep the barkers handy, in case we're hard pressed."
"Oh, very well," said Hugh, nonchalantly slipping a "barker" into a side-pocket. "Anything for a quiet life."
There was a quiet chuckling from the two sailors. The last words were rather a favourite expression with the speaker, and he sometimes used them under odd circumstances. More than once, on the voyage out, "Strong Hugh" had brought his fists into play in a very pretty fashion in the interests of discipline. It had sounded a little quaint on such occasions to hear him, while giving some brawny, mutinous ruffian a hammering which made him sore all over for the next four weeks, calmly remark:
"I hate to do this, you know, but still, anything for a quiet life."
Just then, Mike who had been routing about amongst the wood pile, turned up with his arms full.
"Shure," said he, "if anny av you gints wants a shillelah, it's some handy bits av rods I've found."
As a matter of fact the "bits av rods" were whacking great chunks of wood.
"To be sure! The very thing!" cried Hugh, pouncing on one of the biggest—a heavy, massive affair that would have made a likely club for Hercules himself. "Mike, lad, ye're a broth av a bhoy! I'll recommend ye for promotion. Ye shall have an extra ration av train oil for breakfast."
Mike grinned appreciatively, and their preparations being completed, they all turned their attention to watching the movements of their enemies.
As to these, the new men—six in number—who had sallied forth to the assistance of their pals, had been compelled to restrain their martial ardour, and delay the intended assault, in order to dig the latter out of the snowdrift into which they had vanished.
Four or five great white masses had by now been routed out from its icy depths, and propped up on their somewhat shaky legs. At first they looked like big, roughly-manufactured snow men, but after undergoing a sufficient amount of shaking and brushing-down they had gradually resolved themselves into dark, skin-clad human beings, who spluttered out mouthfuls of snow and curses, mingled together in about equal parts.
This preliminary accomplished, they held a short conference in low muttered tones, and were then on the point of arranging themselves in military order—or something as near thereto as their obfuscated intellects could figure out—when some stifled cries and groans, mingled, of course, with the proper seasoning, from out another part of the snowdrift, once more interrupted operations. A rush in the direction of the sounds, and some wild scrambling and burrowing in the snow, resulted in the recovery of another snowman. This was, as a matter of fact, none other than their redoubtable leader himself, though it was some minutes before his identity was established, for the reason that he was hauled out legs first. These, his rescuers, with well-meaning wrongheadedness, persisted in holding up in the air, evidently under the impression that they were thus supporting his head.
The more the unfortunate wight struggled and kicked, the more obstinately they held on to his legs. The more he tried to shout and explain matters, the more they forced his mouth down into the snow and choked his utterance.
How he managed to escape being suffocated was something of a marvel. Ruxton, however, afterwards declared that it was due to his sultry language, which eventually thawed the snow round his head and so enabled him to make his voice heard.
Anyway, he somehow got free, bounded up like a jack-in-the-box, and began hitting out all round, sending his zealous rescuers spinning, and letting fly such a string of oaths as left them in no further doubt as to who it was they had so perseveringly kept buried in the snow.
Suddenly, his flow of ornamental language was cut short by a well-aimed missile from above; which caught him full in the mouth. It was nothing more nor less than a snowball, and it was thrown by Hugh, who, inspired by a sense of humour, thus contemptuously showed his opinion of the swearer.
The defenders had been watching the proceedings with great interest, almost shaking with laughter the while. Then Hugh had suddenly bent down, rolled up a good handful of snow, and flung it at the raving ringleader.
In an instant the other defenders caught at the idea, and, joining in the fun, they bombarded the enemy with snowballs as fast as they could make them.
Now, though this had been done without premeditation on Hugh's part, in what Mike would love characterised as a fit of pure "divilment," it turned out to be a really clever bit of strategy.
For here, below, were a dozen men in reckless mood, their passions inflamed by drink, and their cupidity excited by the knowledge that just above them were all sorts of good things—tobacco, doubtless, for one thing, to say nothing of plenty of drink—freshly brought out from England. There were only four men to defend all those desirable luxuries, and yet those four had the impudence and audacity to insult the twelve by snowballing them as though they had been but a parcel of schoolboys!
So exasperated did the twelve feel at this unexpected treatment, that they threw all discretion to the winds. Instead of taking counsel together and forming some definite plan of attack, they simply turned and rushed blindly, madly up the slope.
The slope formed the only direct way of reaching the terrace at that part, but it was not a good way, for it consisted of hard-frozen snow, with impassable drifts of loose soft snow on each side of it. There was only room on the slope for three or four men abreast, and it was certainly none too favourable ground for the excited rush of an angry crowd, such as those who now charged up its slippery surface.
On they came, a disorderly mob, three or four deep, the back rows helping to push the front ones on and prevent them from sliding back. Struggling to keep their feet, and half-blinded by the snowballs with which the defenders continued to pelt them, they nevertheless managed to scramble to the top, or very near it.
Several of the men had drawn their knives, and the shining blades glittered with a cold gleam in the moonlight. Hugh noted this, and his face grew stern as he pointed them out to Ruxton.
"You see those beggars, Val," he said. "We'll go for those cowardly brutes first! You take the right hand men, and I will deal with the others to the left."
Just as the leaders of the assailants had all but reached the top, they received an extra instalment of the snowy fusillade, and ere they could clear it from their eyes the defenders made their rush.
Whirling their formidable clubs in the air, they brought them down, first on the arms and hands that carried the knives, then upon the heads and the shoulders of their owners.
Blow followed blow, crash upon crash. So fierce and determined was the counter-attack that the front rank recoiled upon the next. Two men slipped and fell, causing others to trip over them.
Then, judicious prods with the heavy clubs, driven home with all the strength and weight of the men behind them, sent the reeling "corner men" toppling off into the drifts at the sides, where they sank out of sight as others had done before them.
The defenders paused, and once more could not refrain from laughing, as they saw the predicament their foes were in. The rear ranks were still on their feet, and they were brandishing various weapons, cursing, swearing, and threatening all kinds of horrible things. But between them and the defenders was a tangled group of fallen warriors, likewise swearing and spluttering, striving vainly to recover their footing on the treacherous slope, and meantime blocking the way against their own infuriated friends.
"If we'd only got something to shove down on 'em," cried Hugh laughingly, "we could—"
At that moment, as he was casting his eyes around for a likely menus of carrying out an idea that had occurred to him, one of the enemy—it was the ringleader himself—recovered his feet and darted upon him, knife in hand
A warning shout made him turn only just in time. A hand, bearing a naked blade, had already been raised aloft, and in another second would have fallen, when Hugh seized the wrist and closed with the ruffian. Then followed a short but strenuous wrestling bout. The leader of the raiders, exasperated by his previous failures and all that had happened since, had worked himself up into a state of almost maniacal fury.
He was a great hulking ruffian, as big as Hugh himself, and doubtless, he expected to easily master him.
But in this he was mistaken. His brute strength was no match for the hardy young Britisher. The struggle was a desperate one while it lasted, but it was soon over. With a mighty effort Hugh threw him from him, and hurled him off the terrace, and once more he vanished from sight in the soft bed of snow below.
Panting, but still smiling, Hugh then turned to the sailors.
"Mike!" he cried. "Bring one of those sledges over here. The first one will do. And be tarnation quick about it! Lend a hand, Bob, sharp!"
Scarcely sooner said than done. Both sailors ran for the nearest of the sledges which were lying on one side, and rushed it across the snow to where their leaders stood.
"Good business!" exclaimed Ruxton, catching Hugh's idea at once. "Swing her round, lads! Broadside! So! That's the ticket!"
"Now, boys! All together!"
The heavy sledge was swung round so that it lay across the top of (he slope. Then, all four, putting their backs into the work, pushed it over sideways in such a manner that, it went hurtling down, broadside on, driving before it, with irresistible force, all in its way.
Downwards it swept, and downwards, in front of it, like shavings before a broom, went the assailants, those who had so far kept their feet striving vainly to resist its descent.
They might as well have tried to stop an avalanche. A second or two later they were all lying at the foot of the slope, plunging about, kicking, fighting one with another, with the sledge almost on top of them.
The defenders had been very near to sliding down too, for they had pushed at the sledge with such energy that it almost carried them with it, and they, had only let go just in time to draw back.
But the marauders were not vanquished even yet, and this time they recovered themselves more quickly than one would have expected.
The last experience bad a distinctly sobering effect, and some of them promptly set to work to pick up their fellows and prepare for another assault.
Their leader was once more dug out, and this lime was set on his legs at the first attempt. Raging and furious, he pointed to another slope further along, where there was greater width, and the ascent to the terrace was more gradual.
"H'm! They're going to have another try," said Ruxton, "and it looks as if there's a little more method in their madness. They're warming up to their work and getting the drink out of their brains a bit. We shall have a harder task this lime. They'll be able to come on all at once."
"WELL, we'll fight 'em, all the same," said Hugh, through his set teeth. "And if I get my hands again upon that treacherous, murderous scoundrel who tried to knife me, I won't let him off so easily."
"We must try another way, I'm thinking," returned Ruxton, thoughtfully. He looked across at the tents. "It's those stores they're really after, you know—not us. If—"
"Why! Surely," exclaimed Hugh, in astonishment, "you don't propose to surrender—"
Ruxton smiled; then, stepping up close, whispered a few words in the other's ear.
Hugh stared, looked at the tents, and laughed.
"Think it could be done?" he asked.
"We can but try it. I think it will work all right. I thought of it before, and I've already prepared the way a bit." Hugh laughed again.
"Right-oh! I'm game to try it," he said.
Ruxton gave some instructions in a low tone to the two sailors, and then they all set to work to move the other sledges to the top of the slope. There they arranged them in such a manner as to form an obstacle to any further attack at that place, and then turned to watch their adversaries, who were already moving in a small crowd to the spot they had selected for the next attack. But they were not all going that way. Three were seen limping off in the opposite direction—i.e., back to their own camp.
"Those three chaps have had enough of it," Hugh observed. "Three the less for us to deal with, at any rate. Come, that only leaves about two to one. I think we ought to be able to manage that, eh?"
"Oh, they're likely to keep us on the move all night at this rate," said Ruxton testily. "For my part, I want to get some sleep before Grimstock turns up here in the morning. I think you'll find my plan's the best."
They left one man—Mike—in charge of the sledges, with instructions to keep out of sight and only show himself in case of any flank movement. Then they strolled along the terrace to the place where they expected the next attack would be made.
They had not long to wait. The enemy came up at a run, determined to rush the position and sweep aside all resistance this time, and the conditions were so much more favourable that they certainly looked like succeeding.
It even seemed as though the three defenders thought so, too, and had decided to give up the contest; for instead of boldly meeting the rush, as had been expected, they suddenly turned tail and ran off!
With a great roar of derision and triumph the raiders swept on after them, and followed so close that the fugitives were hard put to it to escape. In their panic they tried to hide by diving in amongst the tents, and the pursuers darted in after them.
They were not quite quick enough to catch them, but they found something else which, after all, was what they had really come for. These were the packages they had so coveted; what was more, some of them were ready opened for them, and what was still more, it was seen that two of them, at least, were filled with tobacco.
What a find! What a windfall! Here was treasure indeed! As to the miserable, cowardly runaways, who was going to trouble to chase them while this treasure remained awaiting the first comer?
In a trice the two open cases were set upon by the leaders. A moment later their followers, realising what was afoot, swarmed in amongst them, and began jostling, pushing, wrestling, each fiercely determined that he was not going to be done out of his share.
Suddenly a whistle was heard, and simultaneously the six tents tumbled over like so many houses of cards, burying the struggling crowd under their ample folds.
AS Hugh came out on the terrace he was set upon by a couple of the raiders, who, perhaps more wary than the others, and suspecting some kind of trap, had remained in front of the tents. While he was engaged in a bout of fisticuffs with these two, Mike came running up to his aid from the sledges near which he had been concealed, but Hugh would have none of it.
"Leave 'em to me, Mike," he called out, "and get some rope ready to tie 'em up with."
As he spoke, one of the intruders went down under a sledge-hammer blow which rolled him over like a rabbit. The other one thereupon rushed in, and the two closed.
Mike would have liked well enough to stand aside and watch the play, for the man on the ground lay quiet enough. But in obedience to orders, he promptly produced a piece of cord, and knelt grinning beside the fallen foe.
"Sure, ye're a nice spalpeen t' come thavin' round here, kapin' honest men out av their beds loike this," he remarked, as he deftly slipped his rope round the man's body and tied his arms to his sides. "Lie theer till ye're ready t' listen t' raison."
He finished his work, and was in the act of rising to his feet to see how things were progressing with his leader, when he was bowled over and laid flat, and his head bumped on the frozen ground, by a heavy body which came hurtling through the air right on top of him.
He struggled out from under it, and found that it was Hugh's antagonist, whom that muscular young Britisher had picked up and flung down, very much as though he had been a bale of cloth.
"Faith, an' it's a bit careless, ye are, Misther Hugh, as t' wheer ye throw yer lavins," said Mike, as he rubbed his head.
"Hallo! I forgot you were there, Mike! Hurry up with some more rope for that chap. I must go and help the others. Come to us as soon as you're finished." And with that Hugh darted off to the place were Ruxton and Bob were busy among the fallen tents.
Here was a wild scene of flapping canvas, which was bobbing up and down in great waves, reminding one of the imitation sea they sometimes have at the theatre. From the midst of it, too, proceeded a hoarse roaring which was not unlike the sound of imitation breakers.
At intervals a head or a leg would wriggle from out the jumble, only, however, to be pounced upon as soon as it appeared, and to have a noose slipped over it by one or other of the watchful victors.
Two figures were already lying on one side, trussed up like fowls. Two more were being operated on as Hugh joined them.
He glanced about and made a rapid calculation.
"Good! I see you've accounted for four—and two are six," said he. "So there must be three more underneath the wreck."
"Only three, sir?" quoth Bob. "Ratlines an' bobstays! They be makin' noise enuff fur a baker's dozen."
Plenty of short coils of rope had been provided by the foresight of the planners of the coup, after they had loosened all the outside guys of the tents, and opened some of the packages of tobacco by way of baiting the trap. It had been Ruxton's idea. It had occurred to him when he had gone to get the pistols, and he had begun the good work then, thinking the scheme might come in handy if they failed in repulsing the first rush. The final arrangements had been completed in the interval between the two last attacks.
Mike came to the assistance of the binders, and helped to drag out and secure the last of the prisoners. It was not all accomplished, of course, without some scuffles, and the captors received some fierce kicks, and even one or two slashes from the knives with which the trapped ruffians were trying to cut their way out. But hampered as the latter were by the folds of stout canvas which had fallen on them—in some cases two or three deep—they could not make much of a fight.
In due time they were all bound, and then they were carried out and laid on the terrace in a row. There they were left while the victors proceeded to re-erect the tents.
This finished, they held a council.
"What's to be done with 'em now?" asked Hugh. "We can't leave 'em lying here all night. They'd freeze to death."
"We must put the beggars into sleeping bags, I suppose," said Ruxton.
"But how? Where are they to come from? We've only got what we'll want ourselves, and—"
"We'll have to go down to their camp and fetch their own for 'em," Ruxton advised. "There can only be five or six of the gentry, at the outside, left there now, and we know that three of 'em are hors de combat. I don't suppose they'll show fight again. But whether they do or not, we'll have to get the bags all the same. They're a lot of rotters, but as you say, we can't let any of 'em freeze to death."
"Right-ho! That's a good idea. We'll leave Mike here, in charge, to see that none of 'em wriggles free. Three of us'll be enough to deal with their pals."
They had first, however, to clear away the barricade at the top of the slope, and had just begun to shift the sledges, when Hugh cast a glance in the direction of the camp they were about to visit.
"Jupiter!" he exclaimed. "There's something going on down there! Why, there's a sledge—and—yes, I do believe it's Grimstock's sledge with the ponies! Must have just arrived!"
The other two stared incredulously. But when they looked at No. 3 camp, there, sure enough, they saw a sledge drawn by ponies, and a group of people standing about as if newly arrived.
"I fancy I can see Grimstock himself," Ruxton muttered. "Now what does this mean? He must have come across from the ship pretty quietly for us to know nothing about it."
"We've been otherwise engaged," Hugh reminded him.
"Yes; but still, it's funny we shouldn't have seen him crossing the ice. And what brings him here at all at this time of night?"
"You can ask him that when we get there—if you care to," Hugh returned tersely. "Come on! Let's get down and see what's going on."
They set out forthwith, and as they drew near the camp, the man they had been speaking of—the actual leader of the expedition—came forward to meet them.
A somewhat curious character, or, rather, mixture of characters, was Mr. Bernard Grimstock. That he was an experienced traveller and explorer, and that he had some repute in scientific circles, was certain. It was known that this was the fourth expedition in search of the elusive North Pole, in which he had been engaged, and it was also known that he had made journeys into other previously unexplored regions, portions of the Congo territory, and other parts of Africa, among them. He had read papers before learned societies, and had lectured to geographical associations, both in England and abroad, and he had made something of a name for himself as an authority in such matters.
Also, it was generally allowed that he was bold and determined, and personally well-fitted for such work. Of commanding physique, indomitable will, hard as nails, well able to bear privation and exposure, he had survived hardships and dangers that had killed off many of his companions and followers in the expeditions in which he had taken part. Yet, with all this in his favour, it cannot exactly be said that he was held in general esteem. Rumours and whispers had been heard as to certain dubious occurrences in which he had been mixed up, and in which, it was hinted, he had played a part that would not be to his credit had the true facts gained publicity
From one ill-fated Arctic journey he had come back almost the only survivor, and his account of the disasters that had overtaken his companions was not everywhere received without suspicion.
As to the rest, it was admitted that he was a capable leader, if somewhat of a martinet, and that he had that kind of talent which seems to be the special gift of such men—the faculty of choosing people to serve under him who possessed just those qualifications best suited to his purpose.
As he looked at the three who were now approaching his face was hard-set and lowering, and there was a flash in his keen eyes as his glance fell upon his two lieutenants, Hugh and Ruxton.
"WELL, gentlemen," began Grimstock, and his voice was harsh and grating. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Of what?" asked Ruxton, who felt himself more particularly singled out.
"Of what? You ask me? I am told that you have ill-treated these men here. That they came to our camp, of which you were in charge, wishing to know if we had a little tobacco to barter or sell, and that you set upon them, and ruthlessly assaulted, not only them, but others as well, who went out from here to the assistance of their comrades."
Ruxton gave a gasp, while Hugh muttered something under his breath which might have been, "Good gracious!"—only, it wasn't.
"They said that, did they—just that?" Ruxton asked.
"Come, sir, don't beat about the bush," said Grimstock, with ominous coldness. "I want to know what it all means. Why have you behaved in a manner which, as you must know, is likely to get us a bad name amongst those people, and turn those who might have been useful allies into possible enemies?"
"I can answer that question," Hugh burst in.
"I didn't ask you, Mr. Arnold. I asked Mr. Ruxton. I suppose he can answer for himself."
"I've no doubt he can—and will—but he's not going to answer for me," said Hugh hotly. He was stung by his leader's tone, and indignant at the manner in which Ruxton was being dealt with. "I am as much in this thing as he is," he went on, "and I wish to say at once that you seem to have been told a pack of lies. These men are no such milk-and-watery innocents as you appear to think. They're, a lot of half-drunken rowdies, who made a descent on the camp while our backs were turned, and—"
"How do you know that, if your backs were turned? And why were they turned? I left you in charge. Why did you leave the camp unguarded?"
"We did not, Mr. Grimstock," Ruxton put in quietly, though he had some difficulty in restraining himself. "We were both there at the time; we were merely walking up and down. It is true that, as Mr. Arnold puts it, our backs were turned for the moment. When we looked round we saw two of these peaceful would-be traders, as you seem to consider them, attacking our two men, and four others walking off with sundry packages under their arms. Of course, we interfered—"
"What do you mean by 'our two men'?" interrupted Grimstock. "You were quite a dozen altogether. It doesn't seem very likely that two or three strangers would attack a camp guarded by a dozen people."
"The others were down yonder, at the Eskimo camp, and there they stuck, and, for the matter of that, there they are now, so there were only two with us at the moment the thieving rascals put in an appearance."
"Ah! Now we're getting at it. And why, pray, did you allow your men to be absent at the Eskimo camp, instead of attending to their duties with you, and looking after my property?"
"Because I couldn't get 'em away," returned Ruxton. "You know what men are, Mr. Grimstock, when they first get ashore after a long bout on board ship. I could do nothing with the beggars, and I almost doubt if you could, either, if you had been there," he added doggedly.
"That's a nice confession to make, Mr. Ruxton," commented the leader, still in the same cold steely tones. "I should be rather ashamed of it if I were in your place. It's as much as to admit that you are not a fit person to be placed in charge of men."
Ruxton started and flushed, and was evidently about to make some warm rejoinder, when Hugh again intervened.
"One moment, Mr. Grimstock," he said, forcing himself to speak calmly. "The important question at this moment is not how these things came about, but what you are going to do with the rioters. Whether we have been to blame is a matter we can discuss afterwards. The thing, just now is that, rightly or wrongly, we thought we were defending your goods, and I may say our goods, for some of 'em, at any rate, as you know, are my property as much as yours, and in doing so, we have had to fight almost for our lives. Fortunately, we came out on top; and if you'll take the trouble to go up to our camp, you'll fine nine of 'em laid out there, tied hand and foot. The question is what are you going to do with them? While we're standing arguing here they may be getting frost-bitten. We came to see if we could get their sleeping bags to put them in for the night. If you choose to let them loose instead, you can do so, but situated as we were—only four of us—we dared not do it."
Grimstock, who had hitherto kept his gaze fixed chiefly on Ruxton, turned it sharply on Hugh in very evident surprise. There was that in the young fellow's manner, to say nothing of the firm, resolute tones in which he had spoken, which was altogether new to him. Up to this time, Hugh had never shown such an independent spirit, but had always seemed to defer to him as the undisputed leader and master of the expedition.
But whatever his real thoughts may have been, Grimstock gave no indication of them, beyond that one quick glance. He seemed to reflect for a moment or two, and then, as though getting the better of his momentary ill-humour, he said:
"Well, if that be the case, we must, as you say, Mr. Arnold, see to them at once. And if you really had to fight a rowdy gang with the odds of a dozen to four against you, I don't see that you can be blamed much if you used them rather roughly. Certainly, I'm not here to champion the cause of a lot of drunken ruffians, if that's what they were. Only, you see, these chaps here preached a very different tale to me—showed me their bruises, and all that; one fellow swears you pushed a sledge on top of him and broke his arm. But it isn't what I think about it; it's what their skipper will think if they preach the same tale to him. It seems to me it will be a question of their word against yours. Well, now—"
"What's all that row?" asked Ruxton suddenly.
A noise of barking dogs, mingled with shouts and the cracking of whips, had become audible. Faintly borne at first on the clear, keen air, it was rapidly growing louder.
"Somebody coming," said Hugh, after listening for a moment. "Dogs—sledge. More natives, I suppose."
"No: they're driving too fast for Eskimos," Ruxton declared.
"Besides, those are not natives' shouts, nor," he added, with a short laugh, "native curses. Nobody but a dare-devil white man, one three sheets in the wind, probably, would drive like that by night."
"Then it must be McClinter!" said Grimstock. "At least—er—I heard the men here say they were expecting their skipper, and that is his name."
Ruxton and Hugh both opened their eyes. It was passing strange that their leader should have the name so pat, and they made mental note of the fact, and also of the rather lame manner in which he tried to account for his knowledge.
A few minutes later the sledge arrived, drawn by a team of large Eskimo dogs. It was driven at a reckless speed by a skin-clad figure, flourishing a long whip, which he kept cracking to an accompaniment of shouts, oaths, and snatches of song.
He pulled up suddenly—so suddenly, that another skin-clad figure beside him, who seemed to have been dozing, swung forward and rolled off his seat into the snow.
As the driver threw the reins loose, the dogs started on again, and would have pulled the heavy sledge over the fallen man, if Hugh had not dashed forward and dragged him clear.
"Hallo, Grimstock!" roared out the driver to Hugh. "Mon, I know I'm behind time. Dinna ye fash yersel' about yon sleepy chiel. A mickle bumping'll help t' wake up. Eh? What? Who the deil are you, mon?"
He had suddenly found out that he had been mistaking a stranger for Grimstock. The latter now came up.
"Come this way," he said, taking him by the arm, and leading him out of earshot.
Meantime, Hugh and Ruxton helped to put "the sleepy chiel" on his legs. He turned out, as they afterwards knew, to be McClinter's mate, a rough, surly fellow, who had the appearance of one who had not quite slept off his last debauch.
His first act, when he was completely roused, was to catch up the long whip the skipper had dropped, and set about an Eskimo attendant who had been seated at the back. He blamed him, with much fierce language, poured forth in broken English, for not having been quick enough in going to take charge of the dogs.
Hugh and Ruxton looked at one another and drew back in disgust.
"Nice company we've drifted into," muttered Ruxton, in a low tone. "Skipper and crew are evidently much of a kidney. That doesn't surprise me—I expected it. But what does surprise me is the clear evidence we have here that Grimstock is on friendly terms with such gentry."
"Yes; the skipper had his name as pat as Grimstock had his," returned Hugh, in tones equally guarded. "I confess I don't understand it."
"You will—later on—or I'm a Dutchman," was the enigmatic reply, and just then their leader and his companion came back.
"Our friend here will accompany us to the camp and set his men free himself," Grimstock explained.
"Ye're comin' wi' us, ye ken, Landshutt," said the skipper to his mate, "and bring ma' whip wi' ye—an' yer ain, too."
"He's going to set 'em free himself, is he?" Ruxton whispered to Hugh. "Yes, and in his own fashion, too, I reckon. Well! The beggars deserve no mercy. They'd have smashed us up in their drunken fury if we hadn't been too much for 'em. I, for one, sha'n't feel any sympathy for 'em if they get it hot."
And, as a matter of fact, they did get it pretty hot. McClinter and his mate cut their bonds and set them on their feet, one after the other, and then laid their whips about them in no playful fashion. The men, on their part, made neither resistance nor remonstrance, but accepted it all as though it had been an ordinary part of the day's routine, and slunk back to their camp like whipped hounds.
Then, Grimstock went off to the Eskimo camp to round up his own recalcitrant followers, and the skipper and his man accompanied him there also. Whether the whips were used there, in like manner, neither Hugh nor Ruxton knew, for they remained at their own camp, putting things straight, and making preparations for a night's rest.
Presently, the missing men came dropping in by twos and threes, some looking sheepish, some roaring out in noisy chorus, most of them walking unsteadily. They stumbled into the tents set apart for them, scrambled somehow into their sleeping bags, and lay down.
"I'm going back to the ship," said Grimstock, shortly, when he had seen them all into their quarters. "I shall expect to see you two gentlemen there an hour or so before sunrise, so as to get everything ready for landing more stores as soon as it's light enough."
And with that he and his two strange companions went off together.
Hugh and Ruxton had a tent to themselves, and they were not long before they turned in.
"Well," said the latter, before going to sleep, "this is our first night ashore on the little trip that was to bring everybody engaged in it fame, and honours, and so on. What do you think of it?"
"I don't know what to think. I'm both surprised and puzzled. Putting aside, the scrimmage, who are these people? Who is McClinter? What's he doing here? How came Grimstock to know he was here? And why did he come to meet him in this queer, clandestine sort of way?"
But Ruxton did not attempt to answer these questions. He only gave a short, grim laugh.
"I fancy you'll meet with a good deal more that will both surprise and puzzle you before we're many weeks older, or I'm a Dutchman," he said. And with that he turned over and fell asleep.
AFTER a few hours' sleep, Hugh and Ruxton woke up, scrambled out of their sleeping bags, and called the two sailors. These, in turn, roused up the other men, who, still sleepy and half-dazed after the "feasting" in which they had indulged overnight, turned out in ill-humour, grumbling and discontented at being called so soon.
The moon had disappeared, and it would have been very dark had it not been that the sky was lighted up by the Northern Lights, which threw a weird, lurid, fitful sort of twilight over the desolate landscape.
Bob Cable and a couple of men went off to the Eskimo camp to bring back the teams of dogs, which had been taken there the previous evening to be fed and spend the night.
Presently, a noise of much barking, cracking of whips, and shouts in a strange tongue announced that they were on the move, and a little later the teams appeared. They were in charge of a dozen Eskimos, who proceeded to harness them to the sledges which had come in so handy for purposes of defence in the early part of the night.
Then, the whole party, save a couple of men who were left in charge of the tents, moved off through the strange, dim light, and proceeded across the ice to the distant ship.
There they found Grimstock already at work with the crew of his vessel, and the new-comers joined in the necessary preparations for landing further stores.
The morning was fine, and when the sun made its tardy appearance, it rose in an almost cloudless sky, shining cheerfully upon a busy scene. There were the sounds of the clanking capstans and rattling chains, the chanting songs of the sailors, the noise and bustle of shifting heavy cargo and hoisting it into the steam pinnace lying alongside. This travelled to and fro between the ship and the landing place, puffing and coughing, churning up the dark waters, and bumping its way through masses of floating ice.
The stores included half a dozen large motor-sledges—novelties which excited no small amount of curiosity and astonishment among the aborigines, who had never in their wildest dreams imagined such a method of travelling over their snowy land.
They were, indeed, almost as much a novelty to the white men themselves as to the natives, for though similar machines had been tried with success amid the snows of Norway, this was the first time they had been seen on the ice-fields of the Far North. Much curiosity, therefore, was felt as to how the experiment was likely to turn out.
"It's evident the dogs don't approve of 'em," laughed Hugh. "Just see how disgusted they look! It offends their dignity to have to play second fiddle to such un-doglike monstrosities."
Not only the dogs, but their native masters, looked askance at this newfangled method of travelling. Dog-sledges had been good enough for them and for their ancestors from time immemorial. But as to these queer contrivances, which went by themselves and required neither whips to urge them, nor "pemmican," or other food to eat, they knew not what to think. They regarded them with mingled awe and fear, and forthwith dubbed them by a name which was the naive equivalent for "devil-sled."
Now, Val Ruxton had been trained as an engineer, and Grimstock had consulted him at the time the expedition was being organised, as to the advisability of adopting these new devices. He had assisted at their trial tests before leaving England, hence, he felt a special interest in them now, and had arranged to drive the first one himself.
As the dogs had so unmistakably evinced their disapproval of the new arrivals, it was deemed better to let them go on first with their own drivers.
As soon, therefore, as a couple of dog-sledges had loaded up, they drove off, and a little later, Ruxton, with Hugh beside him, took his seat on one of the motor-sledges and started in their wake.
The motor, besides carrying a heavy load of its own, was towing two loaded dog-sledges, in charge of Mike and Bob. These two sailors, it should be mentioned, had been picked out by Grimstock's lieutenants to attend specially on them. Hence, their present post of honour, which made them the envy of the rest of the crew, who, with Grimstock himself, were watching the performance of the machine.
The start-off was a splendid success. The motor quickly showed that it thought nothing of its loads, and was not afraid of the slippery ice. Away it went, drawing with ease the smaller sleds behind it. Panting, whirring, amid a chorus of cheers, it glided over the frozen surface at a rate which showed at once that it would very quickly overtake the teams of dogs in front of it.
Gradually the speed increased, but with it the humming increased also, till it grew into a loud, unearthly wail. Soon this reached the ears of the dogs, and inspired them with a desire to stop and turn round to see what kind of monster it was that was pressing them.
"I say! Isn't this glorious!" cried Val. "It's a bit of an eye-opener, you know! Why, we shall be able to reach the Pole in no time if we can travel there, in this style!"
"Yes, if our stock of petrol doesn't give out," Hugh assented. "But how about those johnnies in front of us? I'm afraid we're scaring those dogs out of their lives. Perhaps we'd better stop for a few minutes, and give the drivers a chance to get their teams in hand."
Ruxton saw the force of this and drew up; but not without a protest.
"Humph! We sha'n't gain much, after all, if we're going to have all this fuss every time," he grumbled. "Why don't the stupid drivers clear off to one side, and give us a chance to get on ahead?"
"They seem to have come to the conclusion that that is their best plan," observed Hugh. "I can see that they're trying to do it."
Amid much shouting and cracking of whips, the Eskimos effected this manoeuvre, and managed to drive their unruly animals off to the right, leaving the track clear for the motor.
"Thank goodness for that," muttered Ruxton. "Now we'll go past in style, and show 'em what we can do!"
Forgetting the sleds he was towing, he started forward too quickly. There was a jerk, the towing-line snapped, and the motor-sledge flew forward at full speed. Then, with that erratic freakishness which motors so often exhibit as part of their nature, it suddenly became unmanageable, and dashed off to the right towards the barking dogs, as though determined to punish them for their impertinence.
Another moment and it would have been amongst them; but the panic-stricken animals, now completely out of hand, started off in their turn, and galloped for their lives, heading straight for a wide lead in the ice.
The driver of one team somehow succeeded in turning his pack, and raced past the end of the fissure; but the second one was less skilful or less lucky, and the whole plunged into the water, the sledge carrying its unfortunate driver with it.
Ruxton, meantime, had managed to bring the motor to its senses—and a standstill; and springing down he and Hugh ran forward to the edge of the water.
There they saw the dogs swimming about, doing their best to keep their heads above water, but still held by the harness to the submerged sledge; which fact showed that it could not be very deep there. Of the driver nothing could be seen.
Without a moment's hesitation Hugh dived into the ice-cold water. It was even shallower than he expected, and the first thing he did was to dash his head against the sledge which was lying on the bottom. The knock was a nasty one; but paying no attention to it he began groping about till he grasped the man he was after; only, however, to find that he was pinned down under the sledge.
Rising to the surface for a fresh gasp of air, he turned over like a porpoise, and plunged downward again in such a way as to get his feet on the bottom. Then he got both hands under one side of the sledge, and with a mighty effort, raised the whole affair sufficiently to enable him to get the driver clear. A moment later he regained the surface with him.
Here he found himself in fresh difficulties. He came up in the midst of the crowd of struggling dogs, and some of them resented his intrusion amongst them and began to attack him viciously.
Hampered as he was by the dead weight of the one he had rescued—the man was unconscious—Hugh found himself in a very tight corner. He could not hold up the man and fight off the dogs as well; but he was not going to let go. Then an idea occurred to him.
He seized one of the dogs nearest to him from behind by the harness in such a way as to make him, whether he wished to or not, assist him in supporting his burden with one arm, and while doing that he beat off the rest of the dogs as well as he could with the other.
There was a whizzing sound, something hurtled through the air, and a noose fell over his head. It was a rope which Ruxton had thrown, and Hugh slipped an arm through it.
Then there came a tug on the line, and he was drawn towards the edge of the ice. As the dogs were tethered to the sledge they were quickly left behind, and he released his hold of the one he had seized. A moment or two later he and his burden were hauled onto the ice.
Eskimos are pretty well used to an occasional plunge into the icy water of their seas. They meet with many such little incidents in the course of the hunts after seal and walrus, and this one soon came to and seemed none the worse for the experience.
Hugh himself was nearly exhausted, but after a pull at a flask which his friend produced, he began to pick up.
The whole adventure had been witnessed from the ship, and a party, consisting partly of sailors and partly of natives, presently arrived, and set to work to recover first the dogs and then the sunken sledge.
Meantime, the rescued Eskimo, a rather good-looking man for one of his race, was volubly pouring out his thanks, though, as he spoke in his native tongue, Hugh did not understand a word he said. Ruxton, however, who had been amongst these people before, and could speak the language a little, was able to interpret.
"He is telling you how grateful he is," he explained. "He is telling you his name, and a good part of his family history. He is called Lybendo, and he is particularly anxious that you should remember the fact. I suppose he is someone of importance amongst his own people. He also is filled with wonder and admiration at the prowess you displayed. He declares it would have taken two ordinary men to have lifted the loaded sledge up and pull him from under it even on dry land—to say nothing of doing it at the bottom of eight or nine feet of water."
Hugh laughed in his usual easy, good-humoured fashion. "Say something nice to him, Val, by way of acknowledging the compliment," he said. "And then, if you've no objection. I'd like to resume our interrupted journey. The sooner we can get to some place where I can get a change the better I shall be pleased. I'm already frozen stiff all over. These Eskimo johnnies may be used to that sort of thing; but to me as yet it feels jolly uncomfortable."
WHEN the motor-sledge reached the camp, those in charge of it found, to their satisfaction, that their rowdy neighbours of the previous night had cleared off, bag and baggage.
"That's a good riddance!" cried Hugh. "Let's hope we've seen the last of 'em."
His friend Val did not share the agreeable expectation which this wish implied, and later on they found that he was right.
During the rest of the day many more journeys were made, all being successfully and quickly carried out. The motor-sledges were on their best behaviour, and accomplished even more than had been hoped from them.
"Ah!" said Hugh, "you did well, Val, in advising Grimstock to bring them. As they cost a lot of money, it's jolly satisfactory to think that it's been so well laid out. With such an equipment as we've now got, and our splendid lot of stores, what is there—bar accidents—to prevent our reaching the Pole?"
"Yes; our outfit's all right enough. It's the human element which is the doubtful part," returned Ruxton. With which somewhat dark saying he turned from the subject in a way which showed he did not wish to pursue it further.
After one of these trips they returned to the Petrel to find a surprise awaiting them.
A strange vessel was seen in the distance heading in their direction. In due time she ran in and lay-to a short distance off, and it became known that she was a whaler called the Hawk.
A boat was lowered and rowed towards the Petrel. In the stern sat McClinter, and the men rowing were recognised by the two friends as some of the gang who had attacked the camp the night before.
Val looked at Hugh, and as their eyes met he gave a low whistle.
"What did I tell you?" he muttered.
McClinter climbed on board and was taken by Grimstock down into his cabin, where the two remained in close talk.
Hugh, meantime, started off with a motor-load by himself to the camp, where he remained sorting and arranging the stores. Thus it happened that it was not until the evening, when the day's work was at an end, that the two had another chance to compare notes.
"Well! Let's hope we shall have a quieter time than we had last night," Hugh observed, as he lighted his pipe after their supper. "What's your idea of things now? Have you learned anything fresh?"
"I've kept my eyes and ears open," was the answer. "Also I had a few words with Grimstock, and with that precious beauty the skipper of the Hawk."
"A few words!" repealed Hugh. "Do you mean that there was another row?"
"Oh, no. They were both as civil as sand-boys. Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, bless you! McClinter actually apologised, after a fashion of his own, for the behaviour of his men. Said we'd given 'em something to remember us by, and he was glad of it. They deserved it—and so on. And Grimstock cried ditto. But I'm not to be taken in that way. I saw through their blarney—as I did last night."
Hugh laughed; but on this occasion there was evidently not much mirth in his laughter. He had rather the air of one trying to appear more indifferent than he really felt.
"What a suspicious, unbelieving beggar you are, Ruxton!" he said.
The other glanced keenly at him, but remained silent for a space, as though turning something over in his mind. Then he spoke again.
"I told you last night that I had no wish to seem to pry into your affairs; and I haven't now. But you said something to Grimstock which surprised me pretty considerably."
Hugh gave another uneasy laugh.
"I think I can guess what it is you're driving at," he replied. "I suppose it's what I said about the stores being partly mine?"
"You've hit it. You said they were as much yours as Grimstock's—or words to that effect. I needn't ask you if it is true. You wouldn't have said it if it hadn't been, and most certainly Grimstock would not have let it pass without denial. But he did not deny it—I noticed that. Also, your blurting it out didn't at all please him, for he shot a most evil glance at you—I noticed that, too. Yet the next moment he threw off his insolent, bullying tone, and cooed as gently as any sucking dove. I noticed that, too. Now, what does it all mean?"
"Well, what I said was true enough, Ruxton, though I felt sorry directly after that I had—as you put it—blurted it out. You've used just the right word, though—it was blurted out on the impulse of the moment, because I felt savage and indignant at his manner. I paid a large share of the cost of fitting out this expedition."
"Humph! Are you then a millionaire in disguise?" Hugh shook his head.
"No more than yourself," he declared gravely. "The amount I paid represents practically all I and my mother—who is a widow with only myself to support her—had to live on. Unless this journey turns out a success in one way or another, I and she will be practically beggars,"
"But—Whatever then made you—No, old chap; I beg your pardon! I said I didn't want to pry into your affairs; and here, hang me if I'm not doing it! I don't want to know any more until—if ever that time should come—you wish to tell me of your own accord. I couldn't help seeing, however, that Grimstock was pretty riled at your saying it."
"Why, yes; and he has some reason to be, because it was expressly arranged that that part of the affair was to be regarded as private and confidential. And now—confound it!—I've referred to it before you, and in doing so have broken the promise I made him."
"Humph! I don't see, all the same, that he need have looked so evilly at you over it. For the matter of that, he's only himself to thank for it. Besides—what harm have you done? It won't go any farther; I shall regard it as 'private and confidential' as you call it."
"Thank you. Yes; I felt I could rely on you as to that, or else I should have felt more concerned about it than I have done."
"I wish that were all there is to trouble about," muttered Ruxton, rather as though to himself than to his companion.
"Why—what other burden have you lying heavily on your soul?"
Ruxton looked very straight at his friend, and said slowly:
"I am not going to tell you all that is in my mind. I think perhaps it is better not to—at present. But I'm going to give you a warning—you can pay attention to it or not, as you think proper. It is this: Don't trust Grimstock, or that skipper fellow. They're a good pair to run in double harness, these two—and don't you forget it! Keep your eyes skinned, and keep on the safe side with those johnnies. There, now! I've got it out! And if you don't profit by what I've said it will be your own fault, not mine. Hullo! Here comes one of the—Why, it's the old Eskimo, Amaki, himself. I wonder what he wants? By the way, you haven't seen him yet, have you?"
"No; I remember hearing the name. You spoke of him last night."
"Yes; well, he's a most interesting old joker, once you get used to the atmosphere of cart-wheel grease and stale fish-glue which he carries about with him."
Turning to the one he had been talking of, who had now come within speaking distance, Ruxton said something in the Eskimo tongue.
The new-comer replied, and there was some talk between the two, which Ruxton interpreted.
"Amaki has made a rather funny request," he explained. "He says, so far as I can make out, that some more people have come to his camp, and there is not much room. Will we allow him to sleep here to-night? That's the gist of what he says; but I confess I don't quite understand it. They must be precious crowded if they can't find room for the old chap, especially as he is a sort of chief, or patriarch, or whatever it is amongst them. However, his reasons don't concern us. I think the old joker is all right. So I guess we can let him squeeze in amongst our people, eh?"
"Oh, yes; if he wants to, I suppose. Well, my dainty, tallow-eating friend, what the dickens are you staring at me like, that for?"
This polite inquiry was addressed to the Eskimo, who had fixes his eager glance on the speaker, as though he were trying to read his very thoughts.
"You—you—English—English man?" he said, in curious broken English.
"I suppose so—some animal of that species," returned Hugh, highly amused. "What's up, old greaser?"
The Eskimo seemed somehow greatly moved. He worked his arms about, shook his head, muttered to himself, and ended by producing something from under his clothes, gabbling volubly to Ruxton the while.
"Hullo! Now this is very curious—and interesting, exclaimed Val.
"It seems that Lybendo, the chap von fished out of the water to-day, is this old joker's son. I told you I thought he was someone of importance among his own folk. Amaki is very, very grateful to you, he says; and as a slight mark of his gratitude he has brought you a little present which he begs you will accept."
As he spoke Ruxton put out a hand to take the proffered present, but the Eskimo snatched it back, and offered it again politely to Hugh.
The latter, on his part, started, and seemed scarcely less moved than the Eskimo himself.
"Why—what—I mean—how the dickens did you come by that?"
It was an ivory narwhal tusk, not a very large one, but very thick for the length. The curious thing about it was that it was carved in a really clever manner with figures of animals—the reindeer, seal, bears, musk-ox, and other creatures, which the Eskimos hunt
"Hallo! Do you recognise it, Hugh? And yet—how can that be?" Ruxton asked in great surprise.
"Yes—no—that is—" said Hugh, very much confused, "I've seen one so much like it that I thought at first sight it must be the same. But of course that can't be, for the one I am thinking of is in England. Ask him how he came by this, Val."
Val began to question the man in his own language, and then interpreted:
"From what he says I gather that there is a history attaching, to it. He carved one like this years ago and sold it to a white man, who took it away with him. Afterwards, the white man paid another visit here, and asked him to let him have another like it to make a pair. The white man in question is the one I have already told you of who went away and never returned, and whom these simple-minded people hold in such affectionate remembrance. Now, as that man never came back to claim it, Amaki wants to give it to you."
HUGH knew that the tusk was the sort of curio that some people would pay a good deal of money for, and therefore scarcely liked to accept it as a present. But Amaki refused to take anything in exchange except a little tobacco; and so persistent was he that, rather than offend the old fellow, Hugh at last gave in.
As the whole party were about worn out with their day's arduous work they turned in early. The Eskimo found a place to bestow himself in one of the tents amongst the men, and ere long the camp became silent and slept peacefully in the moonlight.
In due time the moon went down, and then it was, in the darkness which followed, that a dim shadow appeared on the terrace, and sought out the tent, under which the two leaders lay.
Creeping noiselessly beside it, the figure raised the canvas, and his head and shoulders disappeared beneath it.
Now, as there had been no reason to suspect the presence of enemies in the neighbourhood, it had not been thought worth while to arrange for anyone to remain on watch. Yet someone must have been on the look-out, for as the first shadow had crept up to the tent, another shadow left one of the tents, farther along and stealthily followed it.
This second creeping figure reached the other one just as the head and shoulders had disappeared beneath the canvas, and seizing the man's legs, drew him suddenly backwards.
The intruder sprang to his foot with a savage snarl. In his hand he carried a naked knife. There were fierce cries, and curses, as the two grappled, and the stranger, finding that the camp was being roused, and that he could not get away, struck fiercely and brutally at the one who held him. Then he turned and vanished in the darkness.
Hugh and Val, rushing out a moment or two later, saw nothing but a still figure lying on the ground with a crimson stream flowing from it, and staining the white snow around.
Ruxton turned the figure over and peered at it while his friend fetched a lamp from the tent.
"Why!" exclaimed Hugh, as his light fell on an upturned face, "it's Amaki! What is he doing here?"
"He's been wounded, badly hurt, I fear," said Ruxton in a low tone. "Someone's been here on some low-down game, and the poor old chap must have twigged it. Lend me a hand. We'd better take him into our tent."
Their followers had meantime turned out, and some aided to lift the injured man and carry him tenderly inside, while others went off on a chase after the cowardly assailant.
Half an hour later the two friends came out again, carrying a lantern.
"I think he'll do," said Ruxton. "He's had a near squeak of getting his death-wound; but thanks to his tough skin clothing the knife didn't go deep enough. Now let's look round. Ah! There you are, see!"
He pointed to the side of the tent.
"Someone has loosened the canvas, and was trying to creep underneath. You can see that. Here are the marks of his body in the snow. It's on the side you were lying, too. Curious that, eh?"
"Why—what on earth does it mean?" cried Hugh in horrified tones.
"It means, my friend, that but for that Eskimo you would now have been a dead man, and I, too, I suppose, for that matter. Very likely it was intended to murder us both."
"But why? What for? Why in the name of all that's horrible should anyone wish to do such a thing?"
"I cannot tell you. But perhaps now you will begin to believe in the warning I gave you. All the same, I must confess I did not expect this sort of thing exactly. Query: had Amaki any reason to suspect it? Was that the reason of his strange request to be allowed to sleep here to-night? These natives," Ruxton went on, in a dreamy way, "sometimes have strange insights into things that escape us wiser folk, as we think ourselves. Can it be possible that he had some premonition that danger threatened you, and came here to-night to try to protect the man who had saved his son's life?"
But to this question there was no answer—neither then, nor for some time after. For though, in the course of the next few days, the old Eskimo recovered sufficiently to get about again, he never opened his lips on the subject. As to the scoundrelly assailant, he had made good his escape in the darkness, and remained undiscovered. If Amaki could have pointed him out—and somehow Ruxton had a notion he could have done so if he had pleased—he did not do it. He resolutely kept his own counsel, and gave not sign.
"IT'S no good going farther. We've come upon a fool's errand. I thought so all along." It was Val Ruxton who spoke. The date was some weeks after the events recorded in the last chapter. During that time the expedition had moved out from its base and travelled far into the great white wilderness which lay between it and the object of its search.
For a while all had gone well, save as to two or three minor matters. Game had at first been plentiful, and the hunting parties sent out from time to time had had fine sport.
Hugh and Ruxton had shown themselves to be "mighty hunters." The "bags" they had brought into camp, as the result of little excursions off the main route, included reindeer, musk-oxen, white hares, and also a number of birds—for some of the open water they had skirted had been alive with guillemots, eider-ducks, little auks, and other feathered game, all of which made good eating for the white men of the party. In addition, there had been seals, walrus, foxes, and other creatures, which, whatever the white men's opinion of them might be as food, were certainly not despised by their Eskimo allies.
Lastly, there had been bears and wolves, the pursuit of which had led to some highly exciting adventures and hair-breadth escapes.
The musk-ox, too, is a determined fighter; and some of those brought in had only been secured after contests which would have delighted the audience at a Spanish bull-fight.
In these encounters the two who had been thrown together under such curious circumstances, had played a foremost part, and shone conspicuously. And as was to be expected, they had become very firm friends and close chums in consequence. There were very good reasons for this. Both of them had been in the very pink of condition when they came out. Each had been specially fitted by previous experience and training for the part he had to play. Both could boast of frames far above the average in strength and muscle; and they had both revelled in the opportunities which had been afforded of putting their prowess to the test.
So far, the experiences they had gone through had left them very little the worse. Some men of the party, men who were supposed to be thoroughly inured to the terrible hardships of the climate, had broken down and been sent back. Others had become enfeebled and dispirited. One or two were showing signs of disease. But Hugh Arnold and Val Ruxton had thus far borne the awful cold, the exhausting labour and exertion, the searching blizzards, in a manner that amazed the older members of the party. They seemed to be invulnerable, so far as physical dangers were concerned. There had, however, been "flies in the ointment." For one thing, there had been accidents—a good many of them—certainly more than might have been expected. And it was curious—this also was probably one of the accidents—that more than their fair share had fallen to the two chums and those who were most closely associated with them.
More than one of the narrow escapes referred to had been in connection with such accidents—some of them of a very odd character, due, as it seemed, to stupid carelessness on the part of other members of the expedition. Nor had the two escaped altogether scatheless. Each had something to show in the shape of healed-up wounds and scars, not to mention injuries that had gone and left no trace.
Another of the flies in the ointment consisted of the character of the men Grimstock had engaged to serve them.
Those originally brought out from England had been quite bad enough. It has been related how that by the time they had begun to land the stores, Ruxton—who had had some experience of that kind of thing—was disgusted with the lot.
Amongst the whole of the crew there had been only two men whom he and Hugh felt they could really trust—the two, namely, who have been already known as Mike, the Irishman, and Bob Cable. They had taken to those men, and the men, in turn, had become devoted to them, quite as a natural thing—as being, so to speak, "birds of a feather."
Since then matters had been rendered worse by the fact that Grimstock had enrolled the services of McClinter and his crew—the men who had raided the camp and fought with such ruffianism the very first night of their arrival.
Between the two friends and these people there was naturally "no love lost." There had been constant friction, and a smouldering animosity, which only awaited some chance spark to make it burst into a flame.
However, there had been no actual outburst. The party, as a whole, had managed to rub along one with another. Grimstock and McClinter were both rigid disciplinarians, and between them they kept their crowd well in hand.
Thus all had gone fairly well, and good progress had been made, so long as there had been game to be had for the hunting. When, however, they had passed beyond the region of living things, matters altered. With the cessation of hunting, the men had less to occupy their minds, less to lake their attention off the hardships they had to undergo.
Notwithstanding that the weeks that had gone by had brought them so much the nearer to summer, and the days had grown so much longer that they had not to endure the cold long, cheerless nights, things were noticeably less cheerful than before. Gloomy looks, and a greater tendency to quarrelsomeness about trifles took the place of former cheerfulness.
Then men grumbled, too, at what they considered unnecessary work which Grimstock put upon them. Often, on the plea that he wished to make geographical observations, parties were sent out to the right and to the left to "spy out the land," and bring in reports of what they saw.
Sometimes Grimstock took these parties out himself, sometimes he them under the charge of the chums, sometimes under McClinter.
Frequently they would be away for a night or two. But such trips nearly always ended in the same thing. Nothing to report, no life or vegetation, no mountains or other notable features discovered, the only net result being a great deal of extra grumbling, and additional discontent, on the part of the men detailed for this special service.
Now, two days before, Grimstock had called a general halt. He was going, he said, to make a big cache, and place in it a great part of his stores. This would take three or four days to construct, and would give the men a bit of a rest.
After that McClinter and his men were going to return, in order to continue their whale fishing. Also, they would take back with them one or two who had fallen in bad health.
He desired to take advantage of the halt to discover whether there were mountains some distance to the west of him, and Hugh and Ruxton were deputed to make an excursion in that direction.
Though Ruxton was evidently strongly averse to going, there was no valid excuse which could be given for refusing. He and Hugh had made similar trips before—found nothing—and returned.
No doubt it would be the same thing over again. Still, Grimstock was the chief; and the two chums had no choice but to obey orders.
So they started out, travelling in a motor-sledge, towing a couple of the other sledges behind containing spare stores. The little party that went out with them consisted of the two sailors, Mike and Bob, and four Eskimos, including Amaki and Lybendo—for these two natives had accompanied the expedition, and had somehow—like the two sailors—managed to attach themselves more particularly to the two friends.
The weather had been threatening when they had started, and had afterwards turned so bad that their task had been carried out under very trying conditions. And now, after being away a day and a night, they were returning with absolutely nothing to show for what they had gone through.
No sign had they seen of life in any form, not so much as a bush, a blade of grass, or a dead tree. Nor was there anything to be seen of the mountains Grimstock had sent them out to discover.
So there was nothing for it but to retrace their steps, and make their way back as quickly as they could to the place where they had left the rest of the expedition.
This of itself was not an easy thing to do. It had snowed frequently and heavily since they set out, and now, on the way back, it snowed worse than before. The track they had made on their way out was obliterated, and as a consequence their progress was slow.
Ruxton, who had seemed unusually depressed from the time of their quitting the main body, now showed himself moody and abstracted.
It was all in vain that Hugh, whose good spirits were hard to repress, joked and rallied him. He paid but slight attention to anything that was said, but went along like one with some weighty apprehension on his mind.
His glance seemed ever to be cast ahead, as though he expected to see something, which, however, never appeared. And by his looks one would have said it was something he dreaded rather than hoped for.
At last the time came when, after an absence of two days and nights, they drew near the spot they had started from—the halting place where Grimstock was going to build his big cache.
There was nothing to be seen there. There was no cache, no sign of the party themselves! And what was worst of all, absolutely no tracks—no indication to show which way they had gone. The snow that had fallen had covered everything. So completely was this the case that Hugh at first refused to believe they had reached the right place.
"It must be farther on," he declared, bewildered. "Or we've got too far to the north, or to the south!"
But Ruxton shook his head and laughed. It was a hard, harsh, grating laugh, horrible to hear. So unlike was it to his own kindly usual laugh that Hugh begun to fear his brain had given way and he was going mad.
"I knew it!" said Ruxton, in a voice that sounded as strange and hollow as his laugh. "I have known it all along! I suspected it when Grimstock gave us his orders, and told that plausible lie about building a cache here to put a lot of his stores in. And when he went on to tell that other infernal lie about sending McClinter and his hounds back with the sick men, I felt sure of it. I saw it in the man's eye, and I am sorry now I didn't fly at him and choke the lie in his throat!"
"You knew?" exclaimed Hugh aghast. "How could that be? If you knew, why did you allow us—"
"Tut, tut! I only felt it in my own mind. What proof had I? What reason could we have given for refusing to obey orders? You yourself would not have believed me. You would have laughed—as you have laughed before when I warned you to be on your guard! I have warned you not once, nor twice, nor three times; but half a dozen at least. And what good has it done? Can you say that you ever paid the slightest attention to my warnings, or really believed I had ground for them?"
"WOULD you have believed me in this case, if I had come to you and advised you not to start on this fool's errand, if I had given as a reason merely that I believed these fiends in human form intended to desert us and leave us to die in the snow? Now, would you have believed me, I say?"
Hugh stared at his friend in dismay. He was as much surprised at his sudden vehemence and bitter words as he was horrified at the diabolical things he was suggesting. For as yet Hugh could not bring himself to believe in the reality of the other's seemingly wild assertions.
"If," he answered, "I should not have believed you it would have been for the same reason that I believe even now that you are wrong. There is some mistake somewhere. We've come wrong! I could not have believed then—I positively refuse to believe now—that any man or men could plan to carry out anything so infamous—"
Hugh glanced at the faces of their followers and read only too easily what was written there. They were ghastly and terrible to see. In the stern, hard-set expression of the sailors, in the frightened, helpless looks of the natives, there was one look in common—a dumb, hopeless despair; the awful conviction that they were doomed.
"But still," cried Hugh, "we can follow them."
"Follow?" repeated his chum scornfully. "How far are you going to follow? And how? On foot? Because you know well enough that our supply of petrol won't last more than a day or two at the outside, and they have got two days' start of us. What are you going to live on when what we have with us is gone? We can neither follow—supposing that we knew he has gone forward—nor return."
Hugh gave a groan.
"Ah, of course! I forgot! That petrol!" he murmured.
"Grimstock didn't forget it! When he sent us out with the motor-sledge he knew well enough what he was doing. Do you remember I asked to have a dog-sledge this time, instead?"
"I do," said Hugh. "And I wondered—because—"
"I knew—I knew—that if we'd taken a team of dogs there was a chance—just a bare possibility—that with the aid of our Eskimos we might have got back. We might have lived on the dogs till we came to the places where there is game to be got. I say we might. Heaven knows the chance would have been meagre enough! But no! Grimstock was not going to give us even that little hope of escape! For some reason he had doomed you to death long ago."
"Doomed me to death? Long ago? Why, Val, you're mad!"
"Not I. Long ago, I say—and later on he doomed us, too—we others—because we stuck to you—and for fear, if he spared us, that we should ask awkward questions, and set inconvenient inquiries on foot when we got back to England."
Hugh seemed overwhelmed at Ruxton's words. For a while he said nothing. Then suddenly asked, in a different tone:
"Tell me, Val! Speak out! Tell me what is in your mind, for I confess I am in a miserable fog."
"I will. Come this way."
Ruxton put a hand on the other's arm, and led him away a little distance. Then turned and faced him:
"I warned you," he said, as he looked him hard in the face, "and you would not be warned. I gave you hints, and you would not take them. I invited your confidence, and you would not give it. And now see what has come of it!"
"Still, I can't see—"
"Can't you? This is not time for beating about the bush! Is it not the case that you are Hugh Fenwick, son of the Dr. Fenwick who came out here with Grimstock years ago?"
Hugh started and hesitated. Then replied slowly;
"That is true. My reason—"
"Your reason is plain enough! Fenwick and Grimstock, and a party, started out together into the white wilderness, and Grimstock alone returned. No one came back with him save a couple of Eskimos—who don't count. As to what really became of Dr. Fenwick, no one knows. People only had Grimstock's version, and that was not looked upon as satisfactory. Ugly rumours somehow got about; but they died down.
"I infer that in time, you, Dr. Fenwick's son, grew up, possessed with the idea that you would try to find out the truth about those rumours, and as to what your father's fate actually was. Is that right?"
"Y-yes. Except that—"
"I don't blame you, so far. Your desire was right enough—praiseworthy and all that—but you went the wrong way to work. You suspected Grimstock, yet you trusted him sufficiently to place yourself in his power. You—"
"He did not know who I was."
"Pooh! What nonsense! He has known—well, I was going to say, all along. I know it—discovered it just when we began landing the stores. You suspect Grimstock, yet, with childish innocence, you place yourself at his mercy."
"I've been a fool," muttered Hugh gloomily. "I see it now."
"Well, you gained your end in one way," his chum went on, with the same bitter, sarcastic note in his voice. "You suspected Grimstock of having murdered your father."
Again Hugh started.
"Scarcely that," he objected.
"Oh, yes, you did. Let us call things by their right names, and have no more false sentiment. I say you suspected Grimstock of having murdered your father, or done away with him—deserted him, and left him to die in some base way."
"That is more like what was in my mind."
"Well, now you have the satisfaction of having proved it."
"How do you mean?"
"Can't you see? He determined to murder you, the son. Why should he do that except that he is guilty, and was afraid you would somehow find it out. In leaving us here to die he has shown that he has been a murderer before."
"Yes," said Hugh, sadly. "I see that, too. I have, as you say, gained my end. I've made him declare himself guilty. I now know that he must have done away with my father. But it comes too late!"
Ruxton laughed bitterly.
"Too late, or too soon, it matters little now. The knowledge will never be of any use, so far as punishing your father's murderer is concerned."
HUGH knew not what reply to make to his chum's assertions. He could not say that his reasoning was false, and there was no resisting the conclusion to which it pointed. He gazed gloomily around at the landscape. It was terrible to think that there was no living thing besides themselves in all that white desert.
They had left the region where game was to be found hundreds of miles behind them; and grim starvation stared them in the face. As Ruxton had said, if they had only had a dog team instead of that unlucky motor-sledge—so it seemed to them just then—they might have had a chance—just a chance, and no more. As things were, they had not even that.
Meanwhile, the clouds had lifted and almost passed away. A few only were left, sailing across a sky in which the sun was now shining brilliantly, and it had grown quite hot.
The air had become so clear that one could see for an immense distance in every direction, and as Hugh gazed across the expanse of ice and snow, the sunlight and the clouds played fantastic tricks. The clouds threw wandering shadows, that came and went, and as they and the sunbeams alternately fell on the scene, the ice took on wonderful hues. Now it would be a deep purple, then a dark green, anon a dazzling gold, and yet again a medley of opalescent tints.
The whole landscape had suddenly become a veritable fairyland of gorgeous colouring. It was hard indeed just then to realise the truth—grasp the fact that that scene, now glittering in such unearthly splendour, was the white shroud that would shortly cover them over and hide them for ever!
"Is there, then, no hope for us?" Hugh murmured.
"What hope can there be, Hugh?" returned Val, in gentler tones. The strange beauty that had fallen over the landscape had evidently had a softening effect upon his thoughts. "You know very well that Grimstock has not built the series of caches for stores which explorers in these regions usually take care to provide. The reason he gave was that he intended to return by another route. But we can see that that was a mere excuse; we now know only too well what his real reason was. Had he done so, we might have been able to find our way back."
"But it's a risky game for him to play, anyhow—leaving us here like this. What about his people? Are they all in it? I can scarcely believe that."
"I dare say he has some tale ready. It may be that some of McClinter's men have really gone back with the sick men. If so, it's easy to make up a yarn about our having gone with them. They, on the other hand, will naturally suppose that we've gone on with the rest. All the same it is, as you say, a bit risky. I can quite believe that he would have preferred the other way, had it only come off."
"What other way?"
"The 'accident' business."
"I'm blessed if I understand you."
"And I'm blessed if I can understand anyone being such an innocent-headed chunk! Why, hasn't your life—and mine, too, for the matter of that—been attempted half a dozen times at least? First, what about that night when Amaki saved us from a midnight murderer?"
"That was no accident."
"No; it was intended murder, pure and simple. But perhaps they afterwards saw that it was a mistake—or, maybe, someone had got out of hand, and tried it on his own. Next time, it was a clumsy shot—the bullet that went through your sleeve instead of hitting the bear that was charging somebody else. A pretty bad shot that, seeing where the man stood who fired it."
"Ah, you had a dim suspicion? And what about that time when you and I were lifting the sledge across the crevasse, and the rope broke and sent us both down into it? Was that accident? I looked at that rope afterwards, and I'll swear it had been cut—it did not break of itself. And how about that petrol-tank that exploded—at the wrong moment, it is true, for, as luck would have it, we had both gone away for a minute. You and I know that if it had happened a minute sooner—or later—we should have been dead men, or next door to it. Pish! What's the use of continuing the list?"
Hugh could only nod his head as his chum recalled these things. Looked at by the light of what had now happened, they had an ugly significance. Yet, at the time, they had seemed to him to be pure accidents.
"Yes," continued Val in a musing undertone, "I can quite understand that Grimstock would have preferred to get rid of you—and of me also, since we cottoned together—by some plausible 'accident.' But as, somehow, these mishaps refused to come off, he had been driven to fall back on the one thing that was sure. What I am wondering about is why he should decide to do it here, now, instead of later on. I can think of twenty ways in which he might have managed it later, far easier and more safely—so why the hurry?"
Then, to Ruxton's surprise, Hugh answered:
"I believe I can tell you. And if I am right, the fact offers us just a chance of escaping the fate this fiend had, as you say, doomed us to. Look over yonder, into the far distance—towards the east. Do you notice what an immense way you can see—how much farther than we could before we set out from here? I can see something we did not see then. What is over yonder? Are they not distant mountains?"
Ruxton turned and gazed, then shook his head.
"It may be so," he observed, "though I think it most likely it is only one of those deceptive mirages of which we have seen so many."
"I do not believe it is a mirage!" exclaimed Hugh, almost fiercely. "I believe they are mountains; and that is where Grimstock has gone. He knew they were there—to the east—and purposely sent us off on a wild-goose chase to the west. He had intended to turn aside to the east here; and it did not suit his purpose that we should go with him any further."
Ruxton opened his eyes more than ever at this.
"You are speaking in riddles," he said curtly. "I don't see how you could know all this. If it's a guess, it doesn't seem to me a very likely one. Please explain."
"See here, Val," cried Hugh. He had been looking fixedly at the distant view, and as he continued to gaze upon it he had grown more and more excited. "I tell you that is no mirage! They are mountains! Not only that, but there is green upon them. I can discern it quite plainly, even with the naked eye. And I can tell you what it means—it is an oasis! A land with a milder climate, where life exists—perhaps people—shut off from the rest of the world for ages by these frozen wastes."
"MY poor Hugh, you've gone barmy," exclaimed Val, real concern in his tones. "And," he added, as though to himself, "who can wonder at it in our awful situation?"
"I'm nothing of the sort," insisted Hugh irritably. "I was expecting this—or something like it. At some other time I'll tell you about it. I'll show you some papers, too, which, you will find, go far to prove what I say. But I won't tell you here. Come with me! Let us climb that rock, and go as high as possible to get the best outlook we can. The view may vanish at any moment—a mist may come up, and we may not see it again for days or weeks. We'll get the field-glasses from the sledge and hurry up there."
"Very well, if you're so bent on it," Ruxton assented, but evidently unconvinced. "In that case we'd better let the other chaps come, too, so as to have their opinion. If you mean that we are to try to reach that delectable land, they'd better see for themselves what it is we're going in for."
It was more than half an hour's stiff climb to the top of the rock Hugh had indicated. All the way, as they mounted higher, the mysterious scene grew continually more vivid, more real—wonderful, incredible, as such an idea had at first sight seemed.
It is a fact that in the Arctic regions travellers continually meet with the most extraordinary mirages. Nowhere else in the world, perhaps—not even in the hot, sandy desert—are these strange effects seen so frequently. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that in the present instance the dispirited wanderers hardly dared to trust the evidence of their own eyes.
Yet, there, seemingly not so very far away, lay a land with smiling woods, and green slopes, and towering cliffs, bathed in the sunshine. The sun's rays glistened, too, upon some silvery threads which, seen through the field-glasses, looked like cascades of falling water.
Such was the wondrous view that the amazed adventurers gazed upon, such the heavenly vision that opened out before their despairing eyes. What wonder that they knew not what to think—that they talked, and argued, and differed one from another. They were utterly unable to make up their minds whether they were gazing on actual land, or only at another mirage more wonderful than any they had yet seen?
But as time passed—an hour or more slipped away almost without their knowing it, so enraptured were they by the sight—they could detect no change. The magic scene did not alter, or become blurred, or melt away, as mirages do. And so at last, even against their own judgment, so to speak, a conviction slowly grew up in their minds that what they saw was really some undreamed-of oasis, in that vast region of eternal ice and snow! A smiling land which offered to their hungry, wondering eyes the chance of saving their lives if they could but reach it!
"Whoy," cried Mike, "sure it's roight enough, it is. It's as rale as plum puddin' on Christmas Day! An' doan't ye see, Misther Ruxton, darlint, as this must be the green land afther all as they said wus the way to the North Pole?"
"Jupiter! I begin to think you're right, Mike," returned Ruxton laughingly. And this conclusion acted like magic upon the whole party. Hope entered once more into their breasts, their spirits rose, and they set to work without more ado to make such little preparations as were needed for a start
After a short conference it was decided to travel onwards just as they had been doing while their supply of petrol held out. When that was gone they must abandon the motor-sledge, and drag the other two themselves as long as human endurance, and their small stock of food, held out. If by that time they had reached the desired haven, well and good. If not, they could but starve and die there, as they certainly would do if they remained where they were.
They carefully took the exact bearings of this wonderful Land of Promise, and set out on the march that was to decide whether they were to live or die.
WELL it was for the castaways that they had caught sight of the mysterious mountain range when they did, for two days passed ere they set eyes on it again. They were long, miserable days, which not only taxed their physical endurance to the utmost, but put a heart-breaking strain on their hopefulness and determination as well. Weary days of gloom and mist and snowstorms, through which they had to make their way as best they could, with nothing to guide them save the bearings they had taken.
The motor-sledge ploughed along slowly and heavily, and their limited store of petrol grew ominously smaller and smaller. In order to economise with it as much as possible, they constructed a cache, in which they deposited one of the dog-sledges, and all such items of their store as they thought they could dispense with.
They also constructed a rope harness, and equipped in their skis, formed themselves into a team, by which means they were able to assist their progress over difficult places. As a result they lay down to rest each night dog-tired, and there was little time or inclination for discussion.
The third night—that is to say at the end of the second day—was the worst time of all, for there came a blizzard. The wind threatened to carry their tents bodily away, and when the two leaders tried to crawl out in the morning, they found themselves buried in snow, and had to force a way out. Looking round they saw that the tent in which the two sailors lay was still standing, though snowed up as their own had been. But of the one in which their four native followers had gone to sleep no trace was to be seen.
Hugh looked blankly at his chum, who, however, laughed cheerily.
"Oh, I expect they're all right—down below there somewhere!" he said. "We'll rouse up the sailors and set 'em to work to find the others and dig 'em out. Look over yonder; what do you say to that?"
Hugh gazed in the direction indicated, and then the reason for Val's good spirits became apparent.
The weather had changed again. Once more the sky was cloudless, and the sun was shining brightly. Once more its rays felt warm and pleasant, and the air was clear—and there, ahead of them, was again the welcome, heartening sight of the mountains.
There they were, looking soft and inviting in the morning sunlight, seeming to smile a welcome and beckon them on.
They were still many long, dreary, white leagues away, that was obvious. But they were far nearer than when last seen, and there was no longer the smallest room for doubt that they were an actual, positive, wonderful reality.
There were the green slopes, the woods, the streams of falling water, and the massive, rugged cliffs of grey and brown. Only the peaks above, the soaring mountain tops, were snow-covered.
It was truly an extraordinary scene to witness in that wilderness of ice and snow, and the two gazed upon it fascinated.
But they regarded it with different expressions; Hugh's face was beaming, delighted, triumphant, while Ruxton was puzzled and perplexed, and he shook his head.
"It seems impossible," he muttered. "I don't understand it."
"I do," exclaimed Hugh, his eyes glistening with an unusual light. "And so will you when I explain. This confirms my ill-fated father's theories. This is the land which he believed to exist, and which he and Grimstock set out to find years ago. There were those who knew of his theories who deemed him a bit mad. But now, I know that he was right after all!"
Ruxton stared at him in no little astonishment.
"This is the first I have ever heard of such an idea," he said. "I wish you would explain."
"So I will—by-and-by. You shall know all—at least, all I can tell you. But it's too long a story to tell just now."
"Ay, and we've something else to do, too," observed Val. "We've got to dig out our friends here, and then we had better take stock of our resources, and consider what can be done. Our petrol is near its end, and our stock of food ditto. How are we going to reach yonder delectable land? How are we going to live till we get there—and afterwards if ever we do? Those are problems to which I can see at present no answer."
"We must solve them nevertheless, and we shall, too; you will see," cried Hugh, with enthusiasm.
"Well, there's breakfast to be got ready first. You and I can see to that while our sleepy friends are being dug out. Here, Mike! Bob! Set to work and rouse up the natives."
"Yes, sorr. Certainly, sorr," said Mike cheerily. "An wheer will they be?"
"Oh, they're snoring away somewhere under the snow. Hurry up, and tell 'em we're getting breakfast ready." Mike looked blankly around.
"Divil a bit av a tint can I see, begorrah!" he murmured. "It's a sthrangc lot they are iv they're slapin' sound an' paceful under all that."
"Whales an' periwinkles, man!" exclaimed Cable. "Don't ye unnerstan'? The snow's only a nice, white sheet t' them galoots! It comes nat'ral to 'em."
They both set to work with a will, and after a while came upon the wrecked tent. But the men were certainly not there.
Hugh, called upon to advise, hunted around in his turn, but with no more success.
"I expect," he pondered, "that when the tent was blown down they must have crept into the sledges. They would naturally say—as I should—'anywhere for a quiet night.' Now, where are the sledges?"
There was no sign of the sledges any more than there had been of the tent. Ruxton came up to assist, but the search was vain till he suddenly pointed out some holes in the snow.
"See that? Those are their blow-holes. You'll find them under there somewhere."
Once more the sailors set to work, and after considerable burrowing, sure enough, they discovered the sledges with the four natives in them, packed away in their sleeping bags. They were still sound asleep, and seemingly as snug and comfortable as though they were lying in the depths of a big, soft feather bed. So sound was their slumber that the searchers had some difficulty in waking them up.
"Now thin, gints, wake up!" cried Mike, as he shook first one and then the other. "Yer shavin' wather's gittin' cold, an' the toast an' kidneys'll be burnt to a cinder. Wake up, Misther Lie-a-bed-o!"
Three of them began to show signs of consciousness but Lybendo, the one Mike had specially taken in hand, still made no sign.
"Phwat will I do now?" muttered the Irishman, scratching his head, or rather, the outside of his fur cap. "It's very bad, he is, I'm thinking'. Bob! Phwat will we do?"
"Here, give him a pull at this," returned Cable, producing a flask from a pocket. Mike took the flask and looked at it meditatively.
"Sure now, Bob darling," he remonstrated, "can't we find some other manes than wastin' a dhrink av the crayther on the gint, whin we've got be little av it, too?"
"Crayther? What are you talkin' about, ye galoot? D'ye think this be whisky? D'ye think I'd waste good whisky on the likes o' them?"
"Faith, that's me idea, an', thinks Oi—"
"No fear! It's whale an' seal oil—a partic'lar old blend wot I keeps special for 'em. Just you sprinkle a little about Lie-a-bed-o's chops, an' see how he'll lick it in!"
Mike shook the wicker-covered flask, uncorked it, and smelt it. Then he gave such a jump that he nearly let go of it.
"Saints deliver us!" he gasped. "As ye say, Bob, that's not a drap o' the crayther, for sure! Faith! Did iver mortal man sniff sich a unholy smell! Take it, take it, Bob darlint, or it's afther drappin' it I'll be. It's feelin' a bit bad, I am, meself. I'd loike to go an' lay down."
"Poor! Ye're too mighty 'tickler, ye be! A fine Arctic traveller ye make! Let me 'andle it! I'll show ye!"
Bob's treatment, as carried out by that experienced sailor, proved marvellously effective. Lybendo opened his eyes at once, and they said as plainly and expressively as eyes could speak, "More! More!" His lips said nothing, being otherwise engaged.
"It's wonnerful!" Mike declared, as he saw the result. "But, bejabers, how it do hum!"
"Ye'll get used to it, Mike, if ever ye're redooced t' living on it, as I've 'ad to do," he laughed.
"Hiven defend us from that same!" ejaculated Mike piously.
After a spare meal—for rations were already running short—the leaders took stock of their meagre stores. One of their greatest troubles lay in the fact that they had very little ammunition. Ruxton and Hugh had each his own rifle and revolver and a few cartridges, and that was all. The reason of this was that when they had started on their "wild goose chase" to the west, they were, as has been already stated, beyond the regions where animal life existed. As they knew that there would be nothing for them to shoot at, therefore, it had seemed useless to encumber themselves with firearms and the like.
"And," said Ruxton, as Hugh dwelt regretfully on the fact, "we shouldn't have had what we have if I hadn't insisted upon bringing them at the last moment. You know you were going to leave them behind. I must say it's a pretty poor outlook!"
It certainly was. For even supposing, as he said, they could exist on their slender supply of food till they reached the "green mountains," and supposing again they had found any living animals there, how were they to capture them without firearms?
"We'll have to bring our hunting instincts into play, and turn trappers," said Hugh hopefully. "Surely, if we find any wild animals there we shall be able to circumvent the beggars somehow?"
"It doesn't sound very hopeful," muttered his friend, "Eight hungry men to provide for, and nothing to go out hunting with—not so much as a primitive bow and arrow amongst the lot of us! As to the few cartridges we've got, we'll have to hang on to 'em as if they were diamonds—we must guard them carefully as a reserve against emergencies."
This, indeed, summed up the situation, and there was nothing to be gained by discussing it further. So they packed up, and once more moved forward.
About noon, the petrol gave out, and as the motor-sledge was too heavy to think of attempting to drag it themselves, they constructed another cache and left it behind, together with one of their tents.
They had now but the one dog-sledge, in which were stowed two tents and their stock of food, and the rest of their now slender outfit.
To add to their troubles the route became more and more difficult. They were entering the confines of a mountainous country, and it was very different from the ice-plains they had been traversing.
The track became hilly, and in places resembled a switchback on a large scale. They climbed one ascent with infinite toil, hauling their sledge with them, and descended the other side, only to find another and perhaps still longer ascent before them.
The ascents were, in fact, always steeper and longer than the descents, so that they were ever mounting upwards. Their view of the "Green Land" was shut up by steep, intervening, rocky ridges; their way was strewn with boulders and masses of ice which had fallen from precipitous cliffs to right and to left. That night, they were fortunate enough to find a cave, in which they took shelter and divided up their dwindling rations.
The next day was the same as regards the travelling. They struggled on blindly, steering as well as they could by the sun, and still mounting higher.
Then three of their natives began to show signs of breakdown. They were not gifted with the splendid stamina of their leaders, and the strain was becoming too much for them. One only was still in fair condition, and he was, in reality, an Icelander, though he had lived for some years, it seemed, with his Eskimo, friends.
When the declining sun warned them that the day was drawing to its close, they were still some distance from the top of the ridge which they knew they must surmount ere they could hope to attain another view of those green slopes which, will-o'-the-wisp-like, seemed ever to elude them.
Finally, at this point, as if to crown their miseries, old man Amaki, slipped and hurt his ankle so badly that he could no longer walk.
A halt was called in the midst of a wild ravine shut in by rocky walls which rose on each side of them. Here, the leaders, worn out with their day of toil, during which they had acted the part of dray horses, and done nearly as much work, sat disconsolately down on the side of the sledge and stared at each other.
"I think we're done for," muttered Ruxton. "We can't do it! We've tried our best, but we shall never be able to hold out!"
Hugh gloomily took stock of their food supply, ere serving out their supper, and found that they had only enough left for two more meals—one that night, and one next morning. Then he sent the two sailors to see if they could find a cave in which to sleep. Since discovering the cave in which they had slept the night before, they had seen many more as they came along. Caves and caverns seemed indeed to be a peculiar characteristic of the rocky regions in which they now found themselves, and the sailors were not long before they returned and reported that they had come upon quite a large cavern on the slope to the left.
The dispirited travellers dragged themselves and the disabled Eskimo into it, and were glad to throw themselves down on the stony floor within its hospitable shelter.
Fagged out, they crept into their sleeping bags and were soon all fast asleep, save Hugh, who, dead tired though he was, found it impossible to rest.
Presently, he became aware that it was unusually light outside. This had, indeed, been the case for the past two or three nights, but it had not been so noticeable as now.
The light even came in at the open mouth of the cave, and looking out, he could see the snow and rocks on the other side of the ravine as well as if it had been bright moonlight, but he knew there was no moon.
At last, restless and somewhat puzzled, he rose, crept out of his sleeping bag, and went quietly out into the ravine.
"Evidently a very fine display of aurora," he muttered. "It's almost as light as day! I've a mind to go on a bit further and find out what there is to be seen over the ridge just beyond. It seems to me as though one ought to be able to get a good view from there."
He acted on the impulse, and after a quarter of an hour's sharp climbing, reached the top of the dividing ridge. Here he came suddenly in sight of a view beyond, which filled him with wonder and astonishment.
IT was, indeed, a marvellous scene upon which Hugh looked out. The ridge he had gained stood on the edge of what had the appearance of a vast frozen lake.
On the other side of it lay the "Green Land," and a very extraordinary land it now looked. At first view, it seemed to have turned to a land of fire, for, not only was the sky above it lit up with the most glorious display of the aurora borealis he had ever seen, but the very mountains themselves seemed to be on fire.
Great streams of light—for the most part red and lurid, but mingled with all the other colours of the rainbow—were rising from their heights, and ascending into the air high above, where they mingled with the aurora. Not only that, but the waterfalls which he had seen from a distance, looking like silver threads in the sunlight, had now the likeness of tumbling cascades of fire, sparkling, glowing, iridescent. These fell into streams, which, in their turn, ran winding through fertile valleys like rivers of molten gold.
Most wonderful of all was the snow, which was confined to the upper parts of the mountains. Not only did it catch and reflect the various tints surrounding it, but the fiery streamers seemed to rise from its very surface, as though passing through it from beneath.
The whole landscape seemed unearthly, fantastic, unreal, more like the imaginings of a fevered dream than solid fact. Hugh gazed as one entranced. Not merely was he lost in admiration at the transcendent beauty of the scene, but his mind became once more filled with emotions of relief and hope.
"Surely we are saved!" he murmured. "Surely there is life yonder! There must be fish in those streams, even if there is nothing else. But I can see trees—heaps of 'em—and grassy meadows, and there must be game to be snared, even if we can't shoot it! Yes! I think we ought to be able to pick up a living there somehow. We have but to get across this stretch of flat ice; surely we shall be able to manage that, and then our immediate troubles ought to be over!
"I must go back and tell Ruxton and bring him here. It's a sight that will do his heart good and compensate him for waking him out of his dreams. I'll wager he's not dreaming anything so glorious as this!"
Half an hour later, he stood on the same spot again with his chum beside him, enjoying his amazement and delight.
"It's a wonderful, awe-inspiring scene," was Ruxton's comment, as he stood drinking it all in. "The most wonderful sight I ever saw in my life!"
"I confess I scarcely understand it," said Hugh. "What is the meaning of all those flames going up from the mountains and rocks into the sky?"
"I can only guess that they are magnetic streamers—not actual flames," Val returned thoughtfully. "Can it be that we have arrived at the real Magnetic Pole? The actual part of the top of the world, where all the Northern Lights—as we call them—spring from?"
"Why," said Hugh, "if that be so, it confirms another of my father's scientific theories. He has recorded it in his writings."
"Then you have more reason than ever to feel proud of your father," Ruxton rejoined.
"Yes; he has put it on record as his conviction that if ever we should be able to reach the source of those lights, we should find that they furnished an example of what scientists have been seeking for for ages—a means of obtaining light without heat."
"Well, evidently, he was right. Here you have proof of it upon a grand scale. Hitherto, the only examples known have been on a small scale, such as small phosphorescent creatures and substances—the firefly and glow-worm and so on. Here you have the incredible marvel—the wonderful paradox—or light and flames apparently rising right up out of the snow, and yet, not melting it! Did ever mortal man dream of such a thing?"
"I believe my father did. Would that he were here to witness it with us." said Hugh, with a sigh. "However, we must think about our own plight. How are we going to travel to that wonderful land? We are still leagues and leagues away from it. There is this frozen desert between us; how are we going to cross it?"
Ruxton, the practical engineer, reflected.
"I think," he said, after a pause, "that if the wind will only hold in its present direction we might sail there."
"Sail!" cried Hugh. "What are you talking about?"
"Why not? Nansen, in his records of his journey across Greenland, tells how he and his little party sailed across places like this with a sledge. We have no proper sail, certainly, but we can rig up part of a tent so as to make it answer the purpose. But it has to be arranged in rather a peculiar manner. A sledge is not an ice-boat, you know. You can't sit in the sledge and sail along, because you can't guide it that way."
"How do you manage, then?"
"He states that they fastened tent rods or poles to the side of the sledge, so as to project fore and aft. Then one of the party, wearing his skis, took his station in front, between the poles, and was pushed along by the sledge, guiding it by means of his iron-pointed alpenstock. Another man took his station behind, and was dragged along, assisting the steering in the same way."
"It sounds a funny way!"
"It does, but it seems to have answered all right; he declares they went along before a good wind at a tremendous speed."
"That's the ticket for us, then! Just what we want! If we can only do the same we shall be across in a few hours."
"Well, we'll have a try, anyway. The chief difficulty at present is how we are going to drag the sledge and its load, including our injured man, up this last steep bit from the cave to where we now stand?"
"Yes; it'll be a stiff piece of work," Hugh agreed. "But we'll manage it somehow!"
They started before sunrise, having first eaten their last bit of food, and, after almost superhuman exertions, succeeded in their task. Hugh, himself, carried Amaki up the last and worst part; or, rather, climbed it with him in his arms, while the others hauled up the sledge, almost carrying that, too, in places. Only men of extraordinary strength and determination could have done it. The sun was hot, and the toil tremendous, but they ended by at last placing the sledge on the ice, and putting the injured Eskimo comfortably into it.
Then they set to work to prepare the sledge for the new kind of journey it had to accomplish.
Some considerable time was thus spent in preparation, and a little more in false starts, for the guiding business was one that could not be learned in a moment, and then, at last, a start was made in real earnest.
At first, the progress was rather slow, for not only was there the sledge with its load, but the rest of the party were hauled along in the rear, holding on by the rope that, before-time, had been used for hauling.
As soon, however, as they got away from the shelter of the ridge they were leaving, the wind came with more force, and it increased as they reached the more open part of the ice.
Soon they were flying along at a fine pace. Val, in front, had all his work cut out to steer a way clear of occasional hummocks, while Hugh found it as much as he could do to watch his chum and keep his end going properly. In this he was considerably hampered by the trail of men behind him, whose swaying weight swung the sledge now this way and now that.
The wind freshened yet more, and they raced over the ice faster and faster. And as they flew along their spirits rose in proportion, for were they not nearing, more rapidly than they had dared to hope, the Land of Green on the other side?
Still the wind increased, and with it their speed, and then came a curious development. The ice began to slope downwards, gently at first, but more steeply as they proceeded. Rocks rose up on each side and seemed to approach them. Soon they were gliding down what looked like a river of ice, at present broad and straight, and sloping at a moderate angle. But as they proceeded it gradually narrowed, and presently began to wind, becoming, too, not only less smooth, but less free from dangerous obstructions.
Then the truth suddenly dawned upon the leaders. What they had taken for a frozen lake had been the head of a glacier! And it was down that glacier they were now flying at a rate that became every moment more terrific!
To turn aside in their course would only be to dash into the rugged, jagged rocks which bordered the ice. They could only keep on down the frozen channel which, every few hundred yards, became more narrow and more tortuous.
Ruxton could, perhaps, if he had been so minded, have freed himself from the sledge and left it to its fate. But that meant sending the poor old crippled Eskimo to certain death, and not for a moment did any thought of it enter his head.
Down, ever down, they tore, now at mad, headlong speed. Great ugly crags appeared before them, were avoided by a hair's breadth, and passed astern so quickly that they seemed as though they were themselves flying the other way.
Cracks and fissures, too, there were, and these Ruxton leaped with a warning shout to those behind him, who did the same in their turn. The first of these they met were not wide, and the sledge was long enough to pass over them. But the cracks became wider as they descended, and none knew better than the travellers themselves that lower down yawning gulfs were awaiting them, wide enough to swallow the whole party, sledge as well.
Ruxton, looking ahead with wild, despairing eyes, and teeth hard set, suddenly perceived a gap in the cruel, craggy walls which hemmed them in, and he realised that this offered a desperate chance.
He saw, indeed, only the edge of the ice, and knew nothing of what lay beyond it. It might be the edge of a precipice, but he must risk it. He gave another warning cry for those behind—he dared not look round—and then, with great difficulty, turned the sledge, and headed it for the gap.
What happened next neither he nor any there could ever afterwards exactly remember. All they knew at the time was that they suddenly left the ice at the edge of the gap, and shot out into space.
HUGH was the first to come to himself. When he opened his eyes, and, dazed and shaken, tried to sit up, he found himself lying in a shallow depression some distance down a green slope.
Near him was the sledge, completely wrecked, and scattered about were several motionless figures. He attempted to get on his feet, but one of his legs hurt him so much that he sat down again and looked helplessly about him.
Behind, and above him, was the gap from which they had been launched into the empty air. Below, the slope went down into a green valley lying hundreds of feet beneath.
So steep was it, that only the fact that just at that place there happened to be a hollowed spur or knoll, had saved them from being hurled down into the rocky bed of a rushing torrent at the foot of the slope.
Hugh heard his name called, and, glancing to one side, saw Ruxton sitting up, much as he himself was.
"Thank Heaven, you're alive, Val!" he cried fervently, "Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so. Are you, old chap?" came back the answer.
"I—I scarcely know. My right leg seemed pretty bad when I tried to get up just now."
"Let me have a look at it."
"No, no. I'm all right except for that, and it can wait. If you're really not hurt, see to the others. I'm afraid they may have come off worse than I have."
Ruxton scrambled to his feet and complied. One by one he roused their companions, one by one they recovered consciousness and counted up their injuries. When all had been accounted for it was found that, while they had received some pretty hard knocks, no bones were broken. Even old man Amaki, though he had been shot out of the damaged sledge, seemed no worse off than before.
And this, as it turned out, applied also to Hugh's leg.
"It was a narrow escape," Ruxton commented, when he had looked at it. "It's bruised and cut, too, but nothing worse. You must have caught the edge of a sharp rock which cut clean through the clothes. The best thing is to bathe it, then I'll put something on it." At this Hugh laughed.
"You think it sounds sarcastic," Ruxton remarked, "but I'm quite serious. There is a stream over there—a bee-u-ti-ful, clear, ice-cold stream. Just the very thing you want, and, for the matter of that, what we all want, to get a delicious drink from. Come along! I'll help you to reach it."
Hugh looked in the direction indicated, and there, sure enough, was a small stream of water rushing down the slope in a little bed of its own. It was fed by melting ice and snow from the glacier above.
The other members of the party were already hurrying towards it, eager for a draught of the tempting-looking liquid. It was many a day since they had had a drink from a running stream!
Hugh drank his fill and then acted on Ruxton's advice, and felt all the better for it. He was soon able to walk without assistance.
Then they were faced with the question what they were to do for food. Having satisfied their thirst, they became the more conscious that they were all terribly hungry. A preliminary hunt through the debris of the wrecked sledge, in the hope that some scraps of food might have been overlooked, produced nothing more than a few small pieces of biscuit.
Incidentally, they came upon the two rifles and revolvers, which had only been saved from injury by the care with which they had been packed in the canvas of one of the tents.
"We'd better take these with us," said Ruxton, thoughtfully. "We're in a strange land, and goodness only knows what we may meet with. It is understood, though, that they are only to be used in case of extreme emergency?"
"I quite agree with you," Hugh returned. "Surely, there ought to be some fish in the river below us? Let's get down there and see."
"We will, and you and I can go prospecting a bit, while our friends try their hands at fishing. They'll get some if there are any to be had, you may always trust an Eskimo for that. We will look out for a cave, and if we find a likely one, we will make it our habitation, remove our few belongings to it, and set up housekeeping."
This programme was followed out, and a little later the whole party assembled on the bank of the river, which the Eskimos at once declared looked a likely place for fish. They set to work in their own fashion to put the question to a practical test, while the others strolled off to look about.
It was a very wild, picturesque valley they found themselves in. They could see, high above them, the glacier down which they had made their terrific voyage. It was not by any means the highest point. Behind, it rose a great mountain mass covered with snow and ice. But below it, there was no snow, but slopes thickly covered, in places, with dark pine woods and diversified with open grass land.
Below these again, were woods of other trees, and at the bottom, near the river, everything was green and fertile. Numerous streams and cascades rushed down the slopes and joined the main river. In other directions more mountains were seen, shutting in the valley on all sides, some of them rising sheer from it in the form of perpendicular cliffs. Of life, however, they could see, so far, no indications.
"It doesn't look much as if there were any inhabitants here," muttered Ruxton. "But, of course, we have only arrived at what one may term the outskirts. From the look of these mountains I reckon the country is a pretty extensive one. This is but one of its valleys, and I should judge, probably one of the smallest."
Suddenly, there came as outcry from their natives. Looking round, the two saw them running hastily towards them, as though they were being pursued, and Ruxton and Hugh pulled out their revolvers.
Behind the runners a white mass rose up high in the air, with a loud, vicious hissing noise, while from it a large white cloud drifted away in the slight breeze.
The two chums were at first almost as much startled as the natives. But a second glance showed them what it was.
"It is a geyser—a hot spring," said Ruxton. "Ho, ho! That, then, may explain the mystery a little! If there are many of that sort here, it may account for the mild climate, especially in summer time, as it is now. A number of hot springs flowing into the streams, and sending rivers of warm water flowing through the land, would have the effect, of course, of making the climate milder."
"Just what my father said!" cried Hugh, with enthusiasm. "That was his theory! And now we've found it to be actual fact!"
Ruxton looked at him in surprise.
"You've never told me that story of yours yet," he said.
"No, but I will; when we get a bit settled you shall know all about it. And then you will have to admit—as others shall, if ever we live to get back to England again—what a wonderfully clever scientist he was."
The natives, having, like their leaders, now recognised the true nature of the phenomenon that had at first so alarmed them, went back to their fishing, taking up, this time, a position farther up the stream.
The friends strolled on, looking for a likely cave in which to take up their abode. They found so many that Ruxton was surprised.
"Why," he said, "there seems to be no end to them! These rocks and cliffs must be honeycombed with them!"
They were mostly, however, small, and Hugh showed himself fastidious. They entered several, but he objected to each in turn, either on the ground that they were not large enough, or because he detected an ancient and fish-like "smell."
"I should almost be inclined to think, if there are or have been inhabitants here," he muttered, "that they lived in these caves and were fish-eaters. Perhaps, if we were to make a search in some of the caves we should find they have left traces behind 'em."
"H'M! We've not time to do that now," returned Val, somewhat testily. "We'll have to make up our minds to appropriate one of 'em. Ha! Look over there, at that orifice in the side of yonder cliff! How will that suit your high-and-mightiness? Looks new, and—er—so to speak, as if it had been done up—I mean, done down."
He pointed to a precipitous rock, evidently a spur of one of the great mountains. It had an appearance as though a portion of the cliff had fallen outwards, disclosing a hole, which probably had been previously closed up.
"Now you can see that the front door is quite new," Val went on, "and it's very likely we shall find the interior new also, so far, at any rate, as previous inhabitants are concerned. We may even find that some enterprising house-agent has had it specially re-decorated in anticipation of our arrival. Hallo, Mike! What have you got there?"
The two sailors had come running up, each carrying something in his hand. While their leaders had been searching for a likely cave, they had been foraging around on the off-chance of coming across some kind of game. With this idea, they had entered some of the thickets and woods, and now they had evidently made a discovery.
"Why—I declare—eh? Yes—no—yes, I declare they've got some hares! Good biz, you chaps! How did ye manage t' catch the craytures, Mike, darlint?"
But Mike did not respond to the banter. Nor did Cable. Instead of seeming pleased and proud at their hunting skill, they were looking, as Hugh expressed it, as sober as judges, and twice as scared.
"It's meself as don't unnerstan' it," cried Mike. "An' I don't loike it at all, at all! It's witches—or warlocks—theer be about. My grand'ther used to tell me as witches caught hares an' sarved 'em loike this."
"Theer be some queer varmints about, an' that's a fact, sir," Cable joined in, very seriously. "We found these things—we ain't killed 'em—look 'ow they've been killed!"
Impressed by their manner, the two friends took the hares—there were three of them—and examined them. The first noticeable thing was that they were not white, as Arctic hares usually are. The other, and more important thing, was the way they had been killed. Their necks had been wrung as one might wring a chicken's, but evidently with great strength and ferocity, so much so, that two of them had been torn almost off. On one, there were, in addition, wounds as though some wolf-like creature had savagely bitten pieces out. There was something particularly gruesome and revolting about the manner in which they had been killed. It suggested intense ferocity and savage, ungovernable fury.
"I see what you mean," he muttered gravely. "Evidently, there are here not only hares, but larger creatures which live on them."
"Yes, but what sort of creatures?" Hugh asked.
"That be jist it, sir," cried Bob. "It ain't no sort o' cat, like, or anythin' o' that kind, d'ye see? It must be somethin' as 'ad hands, an precious strong hands, too!"
"It's certainly very curious," Ruxton agreed. "At the same time, I don't see that you need look so straight down your nose, Bob! Providence has sent us something good to eat; the best thing to do is to accept it thankfully, and proceed to cook it. We'll be along there presently—by the time you've got it ready—to sample your cooking."
The men went off, looking anything but comfortable or satisfied, while Hugh and Ruxton went on to the hole in the rock.
This hole was some six or seven feet above the level of the ground outside, but there were two or three rocky ledges which enabled them to get up to it without much difficulty.
"Steps up to the front door, too!" said Ruxton. "What more would you have? Now let's see what the inside looks like. You don't insist on wall paper, I suppose? I'm afraid it will be rather dark, but perhaps we can get the gas laid on after we've moved in."
They passed through the hole, which was not unlike a window without frame or sash, and stepped down a foot or two on the other side. Then, to their surprise, they found themselves on the floor of a roomy, lofty cavern.
Their surprise increased when they discovered that it was but the first of several similar chambers communicating with each other by small openings, in size, very much the same as the one by which they had entered.
"Ha! I said the rocks here seemed to be honeycombed!" cried Val. "I wonder how far you can walk from one to another in this way?"
"But what a queer thing!" exclaimed Hugh. "It's not dark in here! Do you notice what a strange sort of light there is? What does it mean?"
Whatever it might mean, or whatever might be the cause, it was certain that there was a curious, almost uncanny, soft twilight, even in the farthest cave they had reached. It certainly did not travel from the entrance they had come in by, for that was quite out of sight.
"The very walls themselves seem to me to be slightly luminous," Hugh went on. Then he remembered what they had seen the night before. "We thought the whole country seemed to be in a magnetic glow," he reminded Ruxton. "It must be the case here."
"Magnetic light laid on," laughed Val. "What more could you wish for? Say, shall we take the place on a—h'm—weekly tenancy, and have our handsome suites of furniture brought in?"
"I think it ought to suit us literally down to the ground," assented Hugh, laughing back. "But I'm jolly hungry. Let's go and see if they've, caught any fish, and whether they've got those hares cooked. They looked to me all right, and I don't see why—Hallo! Something's up! Come on, Val!"
They had, while talking, walked back to the outer cavern, and were nearing the entrance, when a loud outcry caused them first to stop to listen, then make a rush to the "window." Hugh sprang on to it and leaped out. Ruxton came almost tumbling on top of him.
They looked round, and forthwith started to run as hard as they could go.
For there, a few hundred yards away, they saw the two sailors fighting for their lives against some of the strangest-looking monsters they had ever seen or dreamed of.
Whether they were ape-like men, or some new and unknown species of men-like apes, it was impossible at a first glance to say. All that could be made out, while running towards them, was that they were horribly ugly, ogre-like beings, covered with long, shaggy, yellow hair, and that they were uttering screams, snarls, and hoarse roars, such as made the blood run cold to listen to.
In a few seconds the two chums were amongst them, and then began one of the fiercest fights they had ever engaged in.
WHATEVER the precise place in nature the strange creatures might be supposed to occupy, there could be no question as to either their ferocious hostility or their formidable strength. At first there had been two of them, and as Hugh and Val ran up, they left the men they had attacked and turned on the new-comers. But ere the sailors had time to take breath, wild howls and screams were heard from a thicket near, and two more rushed out and joined in the fight.
And terrible fighters they were. Though not nearly so tall as the men they had attacked, their length of arm and width of shoulders were extraordinary. Heavy, misshapen monsters though they appeared, their quickness and agility were something marvellous. They had long, talon-like nails, both on hands and feet, and immense tusks for teeth, all of which they made free use as weapons.
Perhaps, however, the most noticeable parts about them were their faces—so, at least, Hugh afterwards declared, and the others agreed with him. There was something positively fascinating in their unutterable ugliness, something almost maddening in the diabolical glare of their eyes—eyes that in colour matched the horrible, tangled, yellow hair which covered them from head to foot. There was some leering peculiarity in that horrible glare, which seemed to inspire those they attacked with a sort of reflection of their own fiendish rage.
Against these beings the four men fought as best they could, each following his own tactics. Hugh found that his sledge-hammer blows answered best for a while. They kept his antagonist at arm's length, though they seemed to have little permanent effect upon its anatomy. This puzzled him not a little.
Ruxton, meantime, was rolling on the ground, engaged in what he afterwards described as the most deadly, hideous, wrestling bout he had ever had in his life. Vainly he strove to crush his foe, vainly he gripped its throat and thumped its head on the ground. Each time it wriggled itself free, and sprang up and flew at him again, livelier and more savage than ever.
In the midst of the contest the sun, which had for some time been behind the clouds, came out, and its rays poured down, hot and dazzling, upon the wrestling, writhing, struggling combatants. At once, a change was noticeable. The uncouth monsters evidently disliked the bright sunbeams, and tried to avoid them. Hugh noticed this. The one he was struggling with blinked, for the first time, its baleful eyes, and turned its head away, and the young fellow was quick to take advantage of it. As they fought, he forced the creature round, again and again, in such a manner as to get the sun in its eyes, and each time it shrank back as if in pain. Finally, it gave a wild scream, as of mingled rage and pain, broke away, and bolted for the wood.
Seeing this, the others followed suit, and the four men were left to themselves, panting and breathless, and wondering not a little at the sudden cessation of the struggle.
"What brutes!" exclaimed Val.
"Sure, an' phwat did I say, Misther Ruxton? It's warlocks they are—may the divil fly away with 'em!"
Every one of the four had scratched and bleeding faces and torn clothes. As Cable said, it seemed a mercy they had escaped having their eyes scratched out.
"Did ever mortal man see such divils!" cried Mike, disgustedly. "It's like a wild cat, an' ape, an' a wolf, they are, rolled into wan, disperite body!"
"Well, I confess I'm not sorry they've hoofed it, though what was the precise reason for their going I'm blessed if I understand," said Ruxton. "Somehow, I can't flatter myself that we'd beaten 'em yet. It wanted more than we had time to give 'em to really beat 'em, and somehow I don't think they were frightened. They don't seem to know what fear is!"
"They don't like the sunlight," he said. "It was cloudy and gloomy when they first rushed out of yonder dark wood, and when, afterwards, the sun came out and got in their eyes, they didn't seem to like it; in fact, they evidently couldn't stand it."
Val nodded his head.
"I dare say you're right," he said. "I reckon they're used to living in semi-darkness. They prefer the long winter, with its night lasting for months, and the summer sun upsets them."
"Just so. It's a good thing it happens that way—only—"
"Why," said Hugh thoughtfully, "I was wondering how we should have fared if it had been night, and if, say, there had been more of 'em? Somehow, I fancy we haven't done with 'em yet. I shouldn't be surprised if they attacked us again in the night, and brought more of their kind to help 'em."
Ruxton looked disturbed.
"Jupiter! A deuced unpleasant supposition of yours, Hugh, but I'm not prepared to say it's wide of the mark. If so, it's the more reason why we should move into our habitation to pass the night. And by way of making sure, we'll barricade it against the brutes. We don't want any more of this sort of fighting, and we can't afford to waste any cartridges on the beasts."
"This sort of exercise makes one hungrier than ever," observed Hugh. "Now, where did you find those hares, you chaps?"
"In the wood, sir. They were lying just outside a dark cave," Cable answered.
Hugh looked at Ruxton.
"Do you see?" he queried. "That confirms my idea. The brutes live in a dark cave, in the midst of a dark pine wood. You chaps stole some of their food which they had left outside. They came out to look for it, missed it, tracked you, saw you carrying off their property, and were so enraged that—the day being comparatively dark at the time—they rushed out to try to recover it."
"Yes, sorr, an' they've got it, too," cried Mike ruefully. "I nivcr thought about the hares at all at all, an' sure it's gone they are!"
So they had, and there was a general laugh at the discovery. Even in their hurry to get away out of the sun's rays, which dazzled and half-blinded them, the creatures had been astute enough to seize upon the hares which, in the struggle, the sailors had dropped, and had borne them off in triumph.
"Well, let's go and see how the fishing is progressing," suggested Ruxton. "That seems to be our only chance of a meal at present."
To their great satisfaction, they found that the natives had been very successful. They had landed quite a quantity of fish, and some of it was already being cooked at a fire they had made of wood cut from trees at hand.
So they all sat down to it and were filled.
Then the Eskimos, who knew nothing of what had occurred, led their leaders down to a shallow place in the river, and showed them a number of strange foot-marks in the soft, wet sand at the edge. These marks were repeated on the farther side, and there could not be much doubt as to what they were.
class="first">"THEY are the footprints of those brutes!" exclaimed Hugh, staring in dismay at his friend. "This is their ford by which they go to and fro across the river. But what a lot of the fiends there must be!"
Ruxton nodded and looked very grave as he gazed at the marks. Even allowing for their having passed backward and forward more than once, there were evidently a great many more of them than was pleasant to think of.
"Gadzooks! If we're likely to have such a swarm of the beggars about our ears as there must have been here, it will take us all our time to beat 'em off without firearms," he muttered.
"And to think my spare rifles, and all my stock of ammunition, have been carried off by that thief, Grimstock," said Hugh, between his teeth, as the two walked away together.
The mention of Grimstock brought to their minds the question, what had become of him?
"Do you think it possible that he made for this place?" Val asked.
"I am sure he did. I have my own reasons for believing it, and I know they are good ones."
"If so, I reckon he must have arrived before us—that means, that he must be somewhere in the country now."
"Yes, very likely he got here by some other route, though, of course, the falls of snow we have had would account for our not seeing his tracks even if we had followed the same route."
"Then," said Val, "we shall have him and his gang to contend with by-and-by—we are pretty sure to happen on them somewhere. In our defenceless state that will be awkward."
"Yes; we must e'er tread warily, and keep a sharp look-out. If we do come across them we'll have to trust to our wits. Forewarned, however, is forearmed! This time we'll meet cunning with cunning, and try what strategy can do."
"I confess I don't quite follow your idea," Ruxton returned gloomily. "But I'm with you, heart and soul, in any plan that can be schemed out to defeat that arch-villain!"
Then, for the time being, they dismissed the subject from their thoughts and turned to the food question once more. The rest of the day was devoted to foraging for supplies and storing all they could get together, with their belongings, in the cavern they had selected.
A further examination of the place showed that there was a stream of water running through one of the inside chambers. There were also some big boulders which might be used for blocking up the entrance. Finally, they gathered as much wood as time allowed, and stored it within, and as night came on, they built and lighted fires both inside and out.
Bob Cable took first watch, and the others, thoroughly tired out, lay down on the rocky floor and were speedily asleep.
But their slumbers did not last very long. In less than a couple of hours, Hugh was awoke by the sailor, who whispered to him to come and look out.
They had blocked up the entrance as well as they could with a heavy mass of rock, but there were crevices through which a limited view of the valley outside could be obtained.
Peering through one of these spaces, Hugh saw a sight which almost made him jump. There, by the same unearthly kind of twilight of which he had had experience the previous night, he could see that the space immediately in front of the entrance was crowded with a whole troop of the grisly-looking, yellow-haired horrors!
"Snakes, alive!" he muttered. "This means an attack in force! Bob, rouse up Mr. Ruxton and the others! Wake 'em quietly, but be quick about it, all the same. There is no time to lose!"
AS Cable went off to obey orders, Ruxton, who had already woke up, crept to his chum's side.
"Holy Moses! What a lot of grisly nightmares!" he muttered as he peeped out. "Surely we've found the long-sought missing-link at last."
"Looks like it, but I wonder what they're going to do?" Hugh queried, speaking in low, cautious tones. "They're precious quiet."
"They don't like the fire, I reckon. I thought they wouldn't. But it's burning low. Why's that? Wood damp, I wonder! It ought to have lasted through the night."
"Think they're waiting for it to go out?"
"I reckon that's their idea. Seems as if our first line of defence will shortly fail us. More reason to look after our second. I'll go and see how it's getting on."
Cable had by this time returned with Mike and one of their native followers. Ruxton beckoned to him, and they went away together.
The "second line of defence" meant some fires they had made in the inner caverns. They had found that while the first cave had a rather low roof, those next to it had very high ones—so high that the smoke went right up and gave no trouble. Possibly it found an outlet for itself through some crevice in the mountain above.
So, having got together an ample supply of wood, they had lighted several fires, and Cable had kept them going. They had also cut a number of long poles, which were stacked in a corner.
Amaki and his people had occupied one of those inner chambers, while the two leaders had remained in the outer one. Clad as they still were in their skin dresses, they had found themselves quite warm enough without either fires or sleeping-bags—the first time that such a thing had happened since their landing on the Arctic shore.
Ruxton glanced round and nodded approvingly as he noted that all the fires were burning merrily.
"Pop 'em in, sharp," he ordered, referring to the poles; and some of them were pushed end first into the fires, and left there.
"Now take Amaki out of it, and all you others come with me."
Amaki thereupon hobbled off into another cavern out of sight; and the rest went back to the entrance.
There were low guttural muttering, growls, and other signs of restlessness going on outside.
"I don't think it will be long now before they make a move," Val whispered to his chum.
They all stood in silence awaiting developments, while the confused sounds grew louder and more threatening.
Each man was armed with a pole of extra size and weight, with the heavy ends cut into flat points in such a manner as to act as wedges when thrust under the great boulder which blocked the entrance.
They had not much longer to wait. Evidently their foes were afraid of fire, for they had made no move so long as the one outside retained a flicker of flame. Soon it subsided into a smoking boulder, and then, as Cable put it, the circus began.
The first signs of coming action took the form of growls and grunts, which gradually grew louder and louder as though—as Hugh said—the creatures were working themselves up into a suitable stage of rage and fury.
Quickly now the threatening sounds increased. The growls and snarls became hoarser and more vicious; then one or two of the creatures would give vent to sudden howls, which the others took up in chorus. These turned to screams and shrieks, and they in turn grew in volume and intensity till the din became horrible to listen to.
"Saints deliver us!" muttered Mike. "Be the powers, 'tis Satan an' all his imps we've got t' deal with. 'This a priest we'll be whantin' to exorcise the fiends."
"It's five shillin's worth of Guy Fawkes squibs an' crackers we want," said Cable. "That would be the very thing t' treat 'em to, I'm thinkin'."
Just then the clamour burst out into a roar; there was a rush at the entrance, and the boulder which blocked it began to rock.
The two leaders, aided by three others, were pushing against it with all their strength. They used their thick, heavy poles as levers; and when the rock was pushed bodily forwards by a sudden dash they levered it back.
But if the screaming, howling mob without were not exactly the uncanny imps Mike almost believed they must be, they were certainly perfect demons for strength. It had become a sort of pushing match, and those inside found it difficult to keep their feet on the smooth, rocky floor.
Once, Hugh slipped and fell; and as a consequence, the big stone was forced bodily back. A long arm with great, talon-like claws, appeared for a moment inside. Then there was an extra shriek of pain as Hugh recovered himself and aided to push the stone back, jamming the intruding arm.
"Get the other poles!" cried Ruxton to Cable. "We can hold on if you're quick."
The sailor had been previously instructed, and understood the order. With the three natives he ran off, leaving only the two leaders and Mike to hold the entrance meantime.
The perspiration ran off their faces, and they pushed and levered with all their might. The rock was steadily forced in, all the same; and this time, two long, horrible, hairy arms appeared inside. One of these came groping round and seized on Hugh's shoulder.
Other arms came round the other side, and one outstretched claw gripped Ruxton's pole.
Just then Cable and his assistants rushed up, bearing the other poles. The ends were red hot and flaming, and they were thrust through the openings each side of the rock.
Horrible yells of pain and rage followed, the intruding arms were hurriedly withdrawn, and the stone went back with a jerk into its place.
Then there was a pause; and the defenders were able to take a brief rest.
"That was a near thing!" exclaimed Hugh. "Another moment and they would have burst in! Take those poles back and shove 'em into the fire again, lads, and stay there till I whistle. Then run like thunder with 'em here again;" and the men disappeared. "What do you say—shall we waste two or three cartridges amongst 'em? It might scare 'em," he asked his chum.
Ruxton shook his head.
"I doubt if it would have much real effect," he returned. "Better preserve 'em as a last resource. All the same, I shall keep my barker ready in case we're very hard pressed."
Cable and his men came up bearing some flaming brands.
"Why not throw these 'ere out at the galoots, sir?" he cried. "It'll be a sort o' hint like as we've got more inside."
"Good idea, Bob," Hugh returned. "We'll pull the stone back and give you room."
This manoeuvre was duly carried out, and a sudden uproar without, followed by comparative quiet, told that the "moral effect" had been considerable; at any rate for the moment.
Hugh, meanwhile, had been thinking hard, and the result of his cogitations was the suggestion that they should get a pile of wood near the entrance and fire it.
"I'm afraid they're bound to get in sooner or later," he reasoned. "I don't think we can hope to keep 'em out."
"I'm afraid so, too," returned Ruxton. "They're getting mad and reckless. You can tell that by the infernal din they're making again. Perhaps we'd better make ready to retreat behind our second line."
It was not a pleasant idea, the thought of abandoning the outer cavern and letting these fiends have the run of it. True, it was very doubtful whether they would break through the line of fires in the second cavern. But the question was, would they in that case draw off at daylight? If not and if they remained in possession of the outer cavern and refused to vacate it, then the travellers would be in sorry case indeed. They would be "bottled up" in the interior caverns, and only safe from attacks so long so long as their stock of wood lasted.
"No," Ruxton argued, "we mustn't let 'em in here unless we're absolutely driven out. If we can keep 'em out till daylight we know they'll draw off, but once inside they may stay, and we shall be done for. All the same, there's no harm in lighting a fire here. The smoke may frighten 'em a bit, and if it gets too much to bear ourselves why we must trample it out."
So some wood was hastily fetched, and a pile of it was lighted with brands from those inside. Then the defenders braced themselves up for another struggle, which, they could tell by the growing turmoil, was imminent.
Once more there was a rush at the big rock, which began to rock and sway, and give beneath the pressure.
The smoke from the newly-lighted fire, however, curled upwards, and spread out through the crevices, where it surprised the enemy and caused them to hesitate; as was evident by the fact that the attack slackened.
Unfortunately, it also caused discomfort to the defenders, who began to sneeze and cough.
Hugh felt vexed, and angry, too. The idea had cost him some thought, and as it seemed at first to succeed so well, his spirits had risen. Now, when it appeared likely that they must either put the fire out or themselves be driven away by the smoke, he felt sorely disappointed.
He was something more than disappointed, however; he was becoming impatient. He was tiring of keeping on the defensive, and his spirits longed for a fair and square fight. For two pins—so he felt—and if he had not known that it would have been mere useless folly, he would have liked to sally forth, like a knight of old from his fastness, brandishing a mighty war-mace and inflict fitting punishment on these ruthless disturbers of the peace.
In this mood, grumbling to himself, and growing every moment more wrathful against their hideous foes, he saw the stone suddenly pushed inwards so far that not only an arm, but the shoulder came into view, with the horrible face and glaring eyes of the owner behind them.
Now it has been said that there was something in the uncanny glare of the eyes of these creatures, which seemed to arouse rage as well as loathing in the breasts of those they attacked. In the peculiar mood Hugh was in at that moment the effect was instant and extraordinary. He had been about to hurl his whole weight against the stone to push it back and shut the intruder out.
But instead of doing that he suddenly made a grab at the creature itself, and, with irresistible fury, drew it into the cave.
"You want a fight, do you?" he growled between his teeth. "You want to get at me, eh? Well, you shall have your wish. Anything for a quiet life! Here I am, you handsome, yellow-haired beauty! And now I've got you I'm not going to let you go till I've pounded you into a yellow-hued jelly!
"Push the stone back! Keep the other beggars out! But don't let any of the lads interfere with me," he called out to Val. "Let us two settle this matter between us."
And Ruxton, despite the seriousness of their position, could scarcely hold the rock back properly for laughing. He knew that Hugh's aid would be badly missed, but he determined to give his chum the chance he had asked for; at least, so long as it might be humanly possible to do it.
So, calling to the others to take Hugh's place, and instructing them not to interfere, he kept to his post in the gathering smoke; and at the same time had the satisfaction of looking on at as desperate a fight as he had ever seen or ever read of.
It was an extraordinary fight, as well as a desperate one, in which Hugh had engaged. But he did not trouble himself just then about anything beyond his wish to punish the intruder.
He felt, in a savagely determined way, that he meant to give at least one of these ugly monsters a hearty good drubbing, and teach it that an ordinary mortal could equal it in strength, in tenacity, and in other good fighting qualities—ay, and for the matter of that, in brute ferocity and fury to boot.
So he fought the demon-like creature hand to hand, face to face. He had thrown aside his pole, disdaining all weapons, resolved to meet the brute and conquer it in its own fashion.
When it rushed at him, he met it half-way; when it tried to grip him and wrestle, he gripped it and wrestled. When it tried to hug him and crush the life out of him, he hugged it in return, and did his best to crush its breath out.
When it hissed and roared, he hissed and roared back: and when it tried to throw him, he rolled over and over on the hard floor with it, as readily as though he had been practising a friendly bout at a gymnasium at home.
In fact, he enjoyed himself immensely, so he afterwards declared, and he certainly appeared to the others to be having a good time. They therefore made no attempt either to help him or to interfere in any way.
Meantime, the smoke was spreading fast. This had one good effect in that it disconcerted the enemy outside. So much indeed was this the case that the defenders were able to relax their vigilance, and give their attention to the spectacle offered, "free gratis," by the two combatants. It was certainly an interesting display, and it was plain that all were enjoying it.
ON the other hand, as the smoke grew thicker, it caused increased discomfort to those inside. Also, it presently began to interfere with the spectators' view of the struggle. The combatants became, at times, just barely visible, or grew shadowy and unreal, according as they happened to swerve a little nearer of a little further away.
At last, just when Ruxton was beginning to think it time for someone else to take a hand, he heard his friend's voice singing out cheerily:
"Hi! Bob, or some of you fellows! Bring me a rope to tie this chap up with! Look sharp! I've got him on toast—but there's a lot of fight left in him yet, and he's a devil to struggle!"
Bob promptly produced a cord, and ran into the smoke in the direction of the voice. There, to his surprise, he found Hugh standing, looking with a puzzled air at his captive. The latter was not struggling at all. On the contrary, it was standing glancing at its captor with eyes from which all ferocity or rage had completely vanished.
In place of the demoniacal frenzy which it had previously exhibited, there was now a look of dumb, patient submission, that had in it also a little surprise or perplexity, and the sort of shame a dog shows when detected by its master in some delinquency.
Hugh had released his iron grip, and was merely resting his hand on the creature's shoulder, as a precautionary against any treacherous surprise. But Bob, glancing at it cautiously, could see no cause for suspicion.
"Why, sir," said he, with an appreciative grin, "you've tamed him proper!"
"So it seems, Bob," returned Hugh, still with that puzzled look on his face. "But that has only come about during the last half-minute. At the time I called out to you it was still struggling and kicking, and trying to scratch, like a wild-cat. It was all I could do to hold it. I am as much surprised at this sudden change as I can see you are."
"Well, sir, I'd better tie the varmint up t' make sure like. Else p'r'aps he be waitin' fur a chance to slip off—or fly at ye agen sudden."
"I—d—don't—think—so—Bob," Hugh answered slowly, still staring at his captive. One thing that puzzled him was that every time he spoke the creature glanced up and made as if to come nearer, just as a dog does that wishes to make friends but has some doubt how its overtures will be received.
As to Hugh himself, he carried on his person very clear evidence that the contest had been a hard-fought one in every sense of the word. His face and hands were covered with blood, which had also run over his clothes, and these in turn were practically in tatters. His formidable foe had, as Bob expressed it, "made a rag doll of him."
Yet little trace was there now left in the vanquished monster of the ungovernable, diabolic ferocity of a few minutes before. A flash of it came back, however, when Bob tried to put a cord round it. Then its rage returned with such sudden intensity as to make the sailor jump—and almost Hugh, too.
"Ugh! The spitfire! He bain't tamed yet." quoth Bob.
"He doesn't like you to touch him, Bob. You see, you're a sort of stranger to him. Not an old acquaintance, like myself. Let me have the cord and see how he takes it."
With another grin, Bob handed over the rope, and Hugh passed it round his prisoner's body, fastening it so as to merely keep his arms close to its sides, and leave a long piece loose, like a leash. To this it submitted quite placidly.
"There!" said Hugh. "I think that will suffice. You see he's quiet enough with me, at any rate."
"I wouldn't trust the critter, sir, all the same, if I was you," remarked Bob suspiciously.
Hugh, however, took no notice, but led his captive over to where Ruxton stood at the entrance.
"Here's my capture, Val," he laughed. "A real missing-link! What do you think of it?"
"As ugly an imp as I ever set eyes on," was his chum's blunt comment. "What are you going to do with it?"
That was a question Hugh could not answer off-hand. He was turning it over it his own mind.
"I think I'll keep it, at all events for the present as a sort of hostage," he answered. "Hallo! They're at it again! Going to begin all over again?"
This referred to the captive's friends outside, who were now showing signs of renewed activity.
"We'll have to decide what we're going to do," said Ruxton. "I can't stand this smoke much longer. Which is it to he—put some more on the fire and retreat to our second line, or put it out and continue our endeavour to keep the beasts out?"
There suddenly arose another threatening chorus of yells and screams, and a rush was made once more at the rock.
"All hands to keep 'em out!" shouted Val; and the others darted to the places they had temporarily left.
But it seemed as though they were to pay dearly for their lack of vigilance. Ere they could bring their strength to bear upon the big stone it was pushed partly on one side, and two of their hideous foes, roaring and hissing with savage frenzy, their eyes glowing with insensate hate and ferocity, pushed themselves almost inside.
Behind them came others, those behind pushing on their fellows in front with a determination that promised to carry all before it.
Ruxton saw that it was too late to hope to stay them any longer.
"Run, you chaps!" he shouted. "Run for it, sharp! Then turn on 'em with the burning wood!"
But at that moment, high above the fiendish yelling of the horrible rout, there rang out a strange, and piercing cry. So different was it from all other sounds that it was heard, distinctly, by attackers and defenders alike.
And as it echoed back from the rocky roof and sides the rush was stayed, and a great and wonderful hush fell upon the scene.
Again that strange cry rang out, the effect this time being equally marked—in some respects it was more wonderful still.
The attackers turned and sullenly retreated!
The adventurers could hardly believe their eyes, as they saw their terrible enemies, who had been so near to overwhelming them, turn and begin to slink off like a pack of hounds at the crack of the huntsman's whip.
And what had caused this sudden change? Who had uttered the strange cry which this band of maddened, ruthless monsters had so instantly obeyed? Whom had the hard-pressed travellers to thank for their deliverance from the awful peril that had seemed so close?
It was Hugh's captive! The creature he had fought and mastered! The captive standing beside its vanquisher with the cord around it—indeed, of which Hugh still held one end—but making no sort of attempt to get away or to follow its friends!
Ruxton stared at Hugh, Mike stared at Bob, and the rest stared at one another, in mute amazement. They were too much astonished to speak—or, maybe, they had a dim idea that it might be wiser not to do so. It was just possible that the sound of their voices might be mistaken by these queer, incomprehensible creatures for a fresh challenge, and bring them trooping back in madder rage than ever.
And that was a possibility which it were certainly better to keep clear of; so all there held their peace, and waited, in wondering silence, to see what was to happen next.
IT was some time before anyone spoke, and, meanwhile, the boulder that had blocked the entrance had been standing where it had been pushed aside by the assailants. Through the open space thus left a slight breeze entered, which cleared away the smoke.
All were listening keenly, doubtful whether the besiegers had really gone for good, half suspecting that their seeming departure might be but a cunning ruse to draw the defenders out into the open.
But such sounds as the retreating foe still made gradually died away into the distance: and at last Ruxton drew a long breath.
"I'm blessed if I can understand it! What does it mean?" he muttered helplessly.
"It's as strange and unreal as the events in a nightmarish dream," muttered Hugh. "I confess I can't explain it any more than you can."
"Well, I suppose we can now do without this fire, at any rate," said Ruxton. "Here, you chaps, clear it away! I want to get the smoke out of my eyes!" Then, turning again to his chum, he asked: "What are you going to do with this missing link? Do you propose to let your precious pet go—or what?"
"The beggar's no pet of mine," laughed Hugh. "It's a jolly sight too hideous to make a pet of. And yet," he added, as his glance fell again on the queer-looking creature, and noted the curious look in its eyes—half submissive and cringing, half puzzled and wondering—"I suppose we ought not to speak disrespectfully of it. The beast has certainly, in some strange way, done us a very good turn."
"It's the queerest go I ever saw or heard of," Val declared. "Why not turn it loose and let it follow its friends?"
"I certainly propose to do so—presently. But, don't you think it may be safer to keep it here with us for a while—say, till daylight—in case the others might alter their minds and return?"
"All right; just as you please," answered Val, laughing. "If I were you I should go and have a swill. You look pretty gruesome."
"H'm, yes; I guess you're right. I forgot all about that. I want some new clothes, too; though I don't see where they are to come from."
"We all want a new rig-out. We can't wear furs in this place. We'll have to be like your pet, I reckon—go without any."
Hugh went off to the little stream in the inside caverns, where he washed and bathed his face and hands. His captive followed him about like a dog, and showed that it felt at home by drinking at the stream. This gave Hugh an idea; he offered it some fish, which it ate ravenously in its raw state, to the great amusement of the party.
As it was then within an hour of sunrise, and the dawn was already appearing outside, Hugh finally untied the cord and set it free; and it went out through the entrance and disappeared.
"Well, let's hope we've done now with your 'Caliban,' and all his tribe," said Ruxton. "We'll quit this place when it gets light, and go on a voyage of discovery. We must try to find some part of the country where we can sleep in peace at nights, without fear of any more attacks of this sort."
"Somehow, I don't think we should be attacked again, even if we stayed here," returned Hugh. "But I agree with you that we must explore the country, and find out what sort of a place it is we've come to live in."
They had quite a merry time at their breakfast that morning. The events of the night took on a different appearance now that all cause for immediate anxiety was removed.
"We had better go fishing for a bit before we make a start," Ruxton advised. "Then we shall have something to carry with us, and we shall be sure of our next meal."
A little later there came a fresh surprise. Going outside to take a look round, Val ran hastily in again crying: "Why, here's your 'Caliban' coming back, bringing two of his kind with him—even uglier than himself! And I'm blest if they're not carrying something! They're regularly loaded up! What's their game now?"
It was, in fact, "game" that these extraordinary creatures had brought. The "something" with which they were loaded turned out to be dead animals freshly killed—a number of hares, with a few lemmings, and a blue fox. These they solemnly laid down at Hugh's feet, then at once went off, and vanished into the nearest wood.
"Well, I'm sugared!" exclaimed Ruxton, who had followed him out. "If this don't beat cock-fighting!" The others had come out, too, and they were no less astonished. Mike was particularly impressed.
"Sure, an' the craythers isn't sich a bad lot, afther all," was his verdict. "It's a feine, sportin' sperrit they have. Misther Hugh bate that one fair and square, an' they all 'spects him for it."
As to the two leaders, they discussed this new development, and, indeed, the whole affair, over and over again, till they had exhausted every phase of it, without arriving at any explanation which satisfied them. So in the end they gave it up, and philosophically took possession of the "game," which was really a very useful acquisition just then, since it saved them from the necessity of going a-fishing.
Then they packed up such of their belongings as they could conveniently carry, and sallied forth on their travels.
During that and two or three days following, they wandered on, from one valley to another, without seeing any sign of human inhabitants, sleeping at night in caves—of which there were everywhere plenty.
Their progress was slow, on account of the necessity of adapting their pace to that of Amaki, who, though able to walk, could not go fast, or travel far.
They saw everywhere numbers of geysers and hot springs, and even the river they were following, though it gradually grew broader and deeper, was quite warm. They had indeed, more than one welcome bath in its tepid waters. Fish, too, was plentiful, and the Eskimos found no difficulty in catching a good supply.
During these days they grew accustomed to their new surroundings, and met with some minor adventures; but their most curious experience consisted in the fact that "Caliban"—as Ruxton persisted in calling the creature Hugh had captured and set free—still followed them about, and brought presents of "game."
Every day, at early morning or late evening, no matter where they had wandered to, the creature would find them out, and bring some freshly-killed animals. Sometimes it came alone, at others, as before, it was attended by some of its kind.
In return, Hugh offered them fish, which they gladly accepted, devouring some of it on the spot, and carrying the rest away with them. Evidently they were not able to catch fish for themselves. This odd kind of "exchange and barter" exactly suited the travellers' requirements, for having no suitable weapons, they found animals very difficult to capture; whereas capturing fish was easy work for the Eskimos.
Though, however, the travellers themselves became quite used to these strange visits, it cannot be said that their queer visitors became any the more friendly, save as regards Hugh himself. With him, "Caliban" was docility itself; but with the rest of the party he and his fellows remained on terms of latent hostility.
They always laid their offerings at Hugh's feet; and would allow no one else to touch them. Nor would they suffer the slightest approach at familiarity on the part of the other travellers. They were in fact, quite as savage and uncouth as ever in their behaviour towards them, just as ready as ever to fly out on the smallest excuse. But they were no longer aggressive, and only showed fight if touched or interfered with. Even then a command from Hugh—the mere sound of his voice, even—would reduce them to instant submission, just as though they had been well-trained dogs.
All this naturally was a standing riddle to the adventurers themselves. Hugh was not less puzzled than he had been at first, for the days went by without bringing any explanation of the wonder.
Mike thought it over, and finally decided that there could be no other reason than the one he had first thought of—that Hugh had vanquished one of them in fair fight, and thus won its "respect and obedience."
"An' so iv ye wants t' make the funny divils obey ye, same as Misther Hugh," he said confidentially to Bob, "all ye've got to do is t' foight wan an' give him a batin' same as he did. Thry it, Bob darlint, an' ye'll see it's roight I am."
"Not me," Cable returned. "Why doan't ye try it yerself, if ye're so anxious t' know?"
"I know Oi'm roight," Mike went on meditatively. "An' it's a grand thing t' know. A foine, aisy koind av animal-taming, it is."
"Ye'll get a tannin' yerself if ye doan't take care," jeered Cable. "I'd as soon tackle a tiger, meself as one o' them demons."
Now, it so happened that the very next morning Mike went forth very early, ostensibly to try his hand at catching some fish for breakfast. Shortly after, Hugh, strolling about to breathe the morning air, heard a terrible racket going on in a thicket close by. He ran up, pistol in hand, under the impression that one of the party had been attacked by some new enemy, and was only just in time to save Mike from what threatened to be a terrible fate at "Caliban's" hands—or, rather, claws.
The Irishman was in a very sorry state when rescued; and complained bitterly that the monster had set upon him without cause. As "Caliban" could not give his version of the affair, it remained a mystery. Cable had his own doubts about the matter; but said nothing. So whether it was that Mike had really attempted to put his theory to the test of practical experience, or whether the encounter had been a mere coincidence, was never revealed.
Val Ruxton was another who felt greatly puzzled as to what could be the reason of Hugh's strange influence with these savage creatures. He, however, shrewdly concluded that the secret lay in some peculiarity of voice. He recalled all the circumstances of the desperate conflict in the cavern, followed as it was by the sudden and seemingly inexplicable submission of the erstwhile demon-like being. And he remembered that this unexpected submission happened directly after Hugh had made his voice heard in its natural cheery tones, calling upon Cable to bring him a rope.
"It seems a very wonderful thing, but I reckon that it was your voice: which tamed that fiend," he finally declared to his chum, "not the pounding you gave it. Is it not the case that the very moment it heard you call out to Cable it ceased its struggles?"
"Yes; that's so. But I don't see that it explains anything," Hugh made answer. "It merely suggests a fresh riddle. Why should my voice have that effect any more than yours, for instance, or anybody else's?
"True; yet, that's not quite all. I've noticed in the eyes, both of 'Caliban,' and the others who come with him to us, an odd, questioning sort of look, as though, you were almost as much of a puzzle to them as they are to us. Funny, isn't it?"
"Oh, that's carrying it too far," Hugh returned lightly. "But what's the good of bothering about it? There is the fact—it's been a useful chance to us, and I don't see the use of worrying further about it."
And, indeed, as it turned out, they had very little time to "bother" or "worry" further about it. Though they little thought it just then, they were on the eve of events which speedily threw their previous adventures into the shade, and made them appear tame and commonplace by comparison.
Later on, that same day when this talk had taken place, they met with a disagreeable surprise. They reached, in the course of their wanderings, a place where the river they had been following emptied itself into an extensive lake. So large was this sheet of water that the mountains on the farther side appeared quite a long way off. One of those near at hand, however, came sheer down into the water, and barred their further progress.
If, therefore, they wished to continue their exploration in that, direction, it would be necessary for them to get to the other side of the river. This, in turn, presented difficulties, since the stream had become too deep and broad to cross without something to float them over.
"H'm! This seems a poser," muttered Ruxton. "I see only three things we can do. First, we might scale this mountain to the left, which looks a toughish job; secondly, we might build a raft or a canoe, and trust ourselves on the water, or thirdly, we can retrace our steps to where we started from, cross by the ford there, and come back along the other side of the river. Now, which shall we do?"
"We'll think about it/" said Hugh, with a cheery laugh. "We're in no hurry. Let's find one of our usual caves and make ourselves as comfortable as we can for the night. Then we shall have time to consider which will be the least of those three evils."
Ruxton had nothing better to recommend, so the suggestion was duly carried out. A cave was chosen, and after supper, that night, the two friends strolled out to have a quiet chat by themselves.
The twilight had gone, but the landscape was illuminated by the strange light to which they had by this time become used. In addition, to-night, there was a half-moon which peeped out now and again between slow-moving clouds. But over the waters of the lake, and some of the lower cliffs, there was a drifting mist which obscured the view in that direction, and made the scene appear, in places, weird and ghostly. Suddenly, Ruxton stopped and laid a hand on his companion's arm, as a warning to be silent.
"I heard something!" he whispered. "I declare it sounded to me uncommonly like oars—and voices, too, I thought!"
Hugh listened, and sure enough, sounds came across the lake as of the stroke of long, heavy oars, and of the swish made as they took the water.
"Come this way—quick! We'd better hide ourselves," Val whispered.
They moved softly into the shadow of a dense thicket of pine-trees behind them, and there, concealed amongst some bushes, they waited and watched.
The sounds grew gradually louder, and then, upon the slight breeze, there came to their ears the sound of song, accompanied by the notes of some unknown instrument.
There were more voices than one—hoarse, deep voices raised in a wild, chanting chorus, unlike anything the listeners had ever heard before.
"Snakes alive!" muttered Ruxton. "I thought it must be Grimstock and his gang, and that they must have built themselves a canoe and were coming round here on an exploring jaunt. But they wouldn't be singing like that! What on earth's in the wind now?"
"Look! Look!" exclaimed Hugh, in low, awe-struck tones. "See what's coming out of the mist!"
Scarcely could they believe their senses! There, looming, at first dimly, like a mere shadow, but every moment growing more defined, was an ancient-looking vessel of such extraordinary form that they involuntarily rubbed their eyes, thinking, surely, it must be some fantastic freak of the imagination.
THE wonderful apparition at which the two astonished friends were gazing might have stepped out bodily, so to speak, from some large picture of a war-galley of the Vikings of other days.
The strange craft was dark and sombre-looking, as though its solid timbers were blackened with extreme age. Its solid, heavy frame, and quaint design, suggested that it must have been built long ages ago, and had somehow lived through the centuries, defying not only "the battle and the breeze," but even the mighty, destroying hand of Time itself.
The prow rose high in the air, in the fashion with which prints and pictures of the ships of the old sea kings have made most of us familiar, and was finished off with a figure-head representing some fantastic monster with open jaws.
There was a mast, but in place of a sail, it carried a huge banner, and the craft depended, as a means of progression, upon heavy sweeps of oars, of which there were a dozen each side.
This vessel appeared to be crowded with men, whose voices, as already stated, were raised in a sonorous chorus. But their figures could at first be only dimly seen. Between the mist and the curious light illuminating the scene, everything about the mysterious craft had an unearthly, uncanny appearance. Only the regular splash of the oars and the ringing voices seemed to be real.
As to the song they chanted, that, too, appeared to exercise some weird, occult influence on those who heard it. As the concealed spectators listened to it they felt that it was utterly unlike anything they had over heard before.
The words could not be distinguished, yet the listeners could tell what it was about almost as well if they had understood them. It was a song which set the pulse bounding, and the blood surging through the veins, a lay that fired the imagination, and filled the thoughts with vague longings and new ambitions.
No one who heard that stirring melody could doubt that he was listening to some wild war-song of the Sea Rovers. It told, without words, of the battle and the storm, of the howling wind, the raging sea, and the strife of armed men; one heard in it alike the shriek of the gale, the rush of the foaming waves, the clash of steel, and shout of the battle-cry.
Suddenly, the moon came out between the passing clouds, and its cold light played upon the gliding craft. Then, what had at first been mere dim shadows stood out more plainly. The moon's silvery rays fell upon shining helmets with curious wing-like appendages; they glinted upon swords and spears and burnished armour, and were flashed back from shields that shone like mirrors.
They lighted up the device emblazoned upon the banner, which could now be seen to be in the form of some black, bird-like creature, and revealed the bearded faces of the stern-looking warriors whose hoarse, sonorous notes had so thrilled the wondering spectators.
Then, as the clouds above drifted on and the moon again became hidden, the glittering swords and armour and those who bore them faded once more into shadows. The vessel swept slowly round and passed back into the mist, and so vanished from sight. But the sound of the singing and the weird wail of the unknown instrument that accompanied it were still heard for a while, till they died away in the distance.
It was some time before either of the witnesses of this scene ventured to break the silence that ensued. At last Ruxton spoke:
"Well!" he exclaimed under his breath. "We've met with some novel experiences this trip, but this last business beats everything that's gone before. Was it real? Did we actually see something, or was it a—er—a sort of vision? To that, I'm afraid, there's no answer. 'Tis something, I reckon, that neither you nor I can explain!"
To his surprise, his chum burst out with:
"There you're wrong! I can explain it!"
Ruxton stared at him as though he thought he must be a bit mad—and this idea was almost confirmed as he saw that Hugh's face was glowing with excitement, and his eyes were sparkling as with a new light.
"Explain it, then, O Wise One."
"This," returned Hugh, speaking evidently under the influence of strong emotion, "this shows that my father was no foolish dreamer, as some people thought! Oh, that he were here with us, now, to see this wonderful confirmation of his theory!"
"What theory was that?"
"Tell me first—did you hear what they were singing?"
"I couldn't make out the words—"
"Nor could I—yet, I heard enough to tell me that it was some war-song of the ancient Norsemen—"
"How on earth can that be?"
"—also, did you see the banner, and what was worked upon it?
"Some big black bird—a crow, maybe—"
"No, no! A raven."
"Well, say a raven. There's not much difference."
"Oh, yes, there is. That is the banner of Odin, the Scandinavian deity. The raven is his emblem."
"You seem to be pretty well up in all this ancient lore."
"Yes, and for a very good reason; it is all connected with my father's theory.
"Listen! You, like myself, have travelled in Iceland and have picked up the language!"
"You've evidently learned a great deal more of it than I ever did. I only picked up enough to be able to talk to people. You seem to have made a study of it. I have several times noticed that, and wondered why.
"I will now tell you why. In the opinion of the best authorities the Icelandic language of to-day is believed to be almost exactly the language of the Norsemen, as spoken by them nearly two thousand years ago."
"I don't see that the fact—if fact it is—helps us at all."
"It means a lot. For one thing, though I could not properly catch the words of the song just now, so as to follow it, I heard a word here and there which I understood. I am nearly certain that if those people were to talk to us, both you and I would understand them."
"They? Who? The ghosts?"
"They are not ghosts."
"I DON'T suppose those people were really ghosts," said Ruxton. "But they'd have to be, if they are the ancient Norsemen you talk of, with their banner of Odin, and all that."
"Not at all," replied Hugh. "You don't understand! My father was very learned in languages and ancient manuscripts. He searched all the old archives and relics he could get hold of in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and so on, and he found frequent references to some colony which had been established near the 'Top of the World,' as the ancient astronomers used to call it—that is, in the far north, near the North Pole—somewhere about the place we are in now."
"Oho! I begin to smell a—h'm—mouse. It is a very little one, though, at present—a shrew, perhaps."
"Then, it is a fact that some of the wild legends which are current amongst the hardy fisher folk of those countries, even at the present day, refer to the existence, once upon a time, of such a colony."
"I see. My shrew is growing. It is now as big as a harvest mouse."
"Don't be absurd! Be serious, or I won't go on! Further, as I have briefly mentioned to you before, my father studied the geography of Iceland, and formed a theory that there might be a great cluster of geysers and hot springs in some district in the far north. These, he thought, might so mitigate the Arctic climate of that region as to make it habitable. Do you understand?"
"Certainly. The mouse has become a full-sized one."
"So his theory amounted to this, that at some former time—fifteen hundred or two thousand years ago—the Norsemen discovered such a tract and founded a colony there."
"Yes; I follow you. Mousey is growing still—I almost fancy I smell a rat."
"Then, as you also know, my father was a great Arctic traveller. He has visited places and mixed with Eskimos and other tribes of the northern latitudes, as no other man has ever done before or since. From some of these people he heard, again and again, rumours of a mysterious country declared to exist 'at the top of the world,' whose inhabitants can manufacture metal-work—swords and spears, and so on—a thing, as you know, which Eskimos certainly cannot do. There were also stories of the existence, in the same region, of a race of hidden[*] monsters, very savage and ferocious, neither exactly men nor monkeys—a sort of missing-link. Well, to continue, my father found these Eskimo tales so circumstantial, and so persistent, that at last he came to the conclusion there must be some foundation for them. He connected them with the legends I have spoken of, and, finally, came to the conclusion that, somewhere in the far north, there existed, at the present day, unsuspected by the rest of the world, a country with a comparatively mild climate, whose inhabitants are descendants of the Vikings of old. And you now see that he was right all through. Right as to the existence of a race of the 'missing-link,' and right as to the survival of people probably descended from the Norsemen. There! Now, do you understand?"
[* Sic. Possibly a typographical error for "hideous."]
"I do. And I must say it was a very wonderful idea. So, then, I suppose, your father set off to try to find this mysterious land?"
"Ay—to his sorrow—and to ours. And he took Grimstock with him—who alone returned."
Ruxton was silent for a space. Then he said thoughtfully:
"But tell me—was it generally known that they went out to seek for this country?"
"Why, no. The fact is that amongst the few intimate friends to whom my father mentioned his theory, he was looked upon as a bit cracked. Naturally, that hurt him, and he dropped talking about it. When he eventually started, he let it be understood that his object was to get as near to the Pole as he could, in the ordinary way. Only Grimstock and two or three others knew anything more."
"I see. And I suppose, then, that Grimstock's hope was to discover this country himself, and claim the whole credit of it?"
"So I suspected. My idea was this: Grimstock had all the information my father had got together, and he would be able to set out to find this place on his own account, with an up-to-date equipment such as my father never had the chance of getting together. If Grimstock made the discovery, he would, as you say, claim it entirely as his own, and declare that my father had nothing to do with it—that the place he had been looking for lay in quite a different direction—or something of that sort. So I managed to join him, under the name of Arnold, in order, firstly, to see if I could find out what had really befallen my father; secondly, whether, if Grimstock discovered any strange country, it was the same as that believed in by my father; and thirdly, to take care, in that case, that Grimstock did not keep all the glory of it to himself when he returned, but told the truth, and ascribed to my father whatever share in it he was justly entitled to."
"Yes. I've got the hang of it all now. It's all clear enough. Dr. Fenwick, your father, must have been a wonderfully shrewd and clever man to have been able to deduce all this from evidence which other men laughed at. For that's what it amounts to. It is a pity you did not go to work differently. You ought to have had someone you could rely on with you—not have trusted yourself with Grimstock alone.
"However, to come to the practical question of the moment—what's going to happen to us when we come in contact with these ancient Norse johnnies—if that's what they are? Will they receive us with open arms as friends, or will they look upon us as intruders—as I believe is usually the fashion with these very exclusive communities—and punish us for venturing here?"
"Why—surely—they will be glad to see us? Think how much we shall have to tell that will amaze and interest them about the great world outside!"
"Humph! That remains to be seen," muttered Ruxton dubiously. "If we were only well armed, and had plenty of ammunition, we might be all right, but as things are, 'I hae ma doots,' as the Scotch say."
The question was to be put to the test much sooner than either of them thought.
The next morning, shortly after dawn, they had begun the construction of a raft to enable them to cross the river, when an exclamation from Cable drew their attention to something he had caught sight of far out on the lake.
"Whales an' periwinkles!" he cried. "If there bain't a boat on the water yonder! An' she be comin' this way, too!"
Hugh and Ruxton turned and gazed in the direction indicated. Then their eyes met. Though the boat was as yet but a dark speck in the distance, they knew it for the galley they had seen the previous night. They had said no word about it to their followers, thinking that to do so might only arouse unnecessary fears.
"Now comes the critical moment," said Hugh, in a low aside to his chum. "It's best to stay here and face it out—besides, I expect they will be friendly, and pleased to see us. Don't you?"
"I wish to goodness I knew, Hugh. If they're not, we shall be in precious sorry case. But we can't defend ourselves—that's certain. Nor is it much use running away; there is nothing for it but, as you say, to face the music."
There was naturally great excitement among their followers, and as the strange craft came nearer, and they saw that she was filled with armed men, they were more than half inclined to run away. But Hugh pointed out the uselessness of such a course and advised them to remain, and they obeyed him—with, however, very dubious reluctance.
Meantime, the galley had drawn close in shore, so close that the people on board could be clearly distinguished.
Hard-visaged, wild-eyed, bearded men were they, and they made a strange picture indeed with their curious "winged" helmets and old-worn armour, their swords, and spears, and shields, and their great banner floating out proudly over their heads.
There was nothing, however, unfortunately, in their bearing or manner to raise hopes of friendly intercourse, no shouts of greeting, scarcely, indeed, any look of interest other than slight curiosity.
They evidently knew the place well, for they made for a ledge of rock nearly level with the lake, where there must have been deep water alongside, for they ran their large craft beside it without hesitation, and some of them stepped ashore.
A fine-looking lot of men they certainly were. Not tall exactly, but well-built, and of a war-like carriage. One man, evidently the officer in command, who was dressed in a fine suit of armour, marched first, followed by another officer and a dozen or so of rank and file, and as they drew near to the travellers, the leader addressed them:
"Who are ye, and what are ye doing here in our land?" he demanded gruffly.
Most of those he addressed understood him without difficulty, for the language in which he spoke was, as Hugh had forecasted, very similar to that spoken in Iceland to-day.
"We are travellers from afar," Hugh answered. "We lost our way in the great white wilderness, and wandered here by chance. We come in peace and trust that you will so receive us."
The man gave a harsh laugh.
"We want no strangers here," he returned, "and since ye have thrust yourselves upon us, ye must abide the consequences."
"And what may they be, sir?" Hugh inquired.
"That is not for me to say. It will be decided by our chief, before whom I shall take ye. Meantime, ye are my prisoners."
Then, turning to his followers, he said curtly:
"Bind these men and put them on board! Then search round for what they have with them, and bring it hither, that we may take it back with us."
ONE of the men in armour, carrying a spear in one hand and a coil of some kind of rope in the other, advanced towards Hugh, who sprang back, his face aflame with indignation.
"What is this?" he cried. "What do you mean by ordering us to be bound like common malefactors? I have told you that we come in peace. We have done no harm, either to you or to your property! We are willing to go before your chief—whoever he may be—as free visitors. But as bound prisoners—no!"
The officer gave another harsh laugh:
"Thou art my prisoner," he said, rudely. "And thou wilt come with me as I choose, not as thou choosest. Bind him!"
Hugh was armed with nothing but his iron-shod alpenstock, and truly, in his ragged furs, hanging about him almost in shreds, and with his unkempt hair and face, he did not look a particularly imposing figure, or one calculated, at first sight, to inspire admiration.
But if the strangers thought that on that account they had a weak, easily-managed subject to deal with, they were quickly undeceived.
As the man in armour advanced towards him, Hugh, with his staff knocked the spear aside, and rushing suddenly upon the astonished soldier, wrested it from him, at the same time, striking him a blow that sent him down like a ninepin.
Swinging the spear round as another soldier came up, sword in hand, he knocked that weapon from his grasp, and pouncing upon it, sprang back and handed the spear to Ruxton.
"Good!" exclaimed Val, seizing it and poising it in his hand. "We'll show 'em whether we're going to submit tamely to be led with ropes like a lot of cattle."
His words were a signal for a rush on the part of the other soldiers, but the two sailors and a couple of the natives came to the aid of their leaders. Though they had nothing but their alpenstocks, they made such good play with them that the astonished men in armour actually drew back.
"Seize upon that man!" ordered their leader, pointing to Hugh. Then, to his own officer, he said sneeringly; "Art thou afraid, Kern, of a band of ragged thralls like these?"
"We are not thralls!" cried Hugh. "We are free men and mean to remain so! It is easy to order thy men to seize me, O valiant one," he added tauntingly to the leader. "But I notice thou hast not offered to take me thyself—though thou hast armour and I have none."
"Thou art an insolent churl!" exclaimed the leader. "Dost think I would soil my sword with such as thou? Thou shouldst be well pleased that I paid thee so high a compliment as to tell one of my officers to take thee. Now, wilt thou yield?"
"Never, except thou promise us a safe pass to come and go free."
"That I have already told thee I cannot do. It rests with our chief. And I shall take thee to him how I choose."
"No, thou wilt not. We will fight you all first. I warn thee that we can kill thee if we choose, boaster, though thou and thy men are as two or three to one. I thought you were a band of brave men, descendants of a race renowned in history for deeds of daring and valour—men who would have scorned to make war on a band of harmless travellers. I doubt if thy chief will hear thee out in this. I have not seen him—but unless you are all degenerates from your ancestors, I have a better opinion of him!"
"What knowest thou about our history or our ancestors?" the man asked, evidently somewhat impressed. "Who art thou to talk thus?"
"One who is thy equal in rank, at any rate. One who is not to be roped, and bound, and led before thy chief like a common thrall."
"Well, see here, O stranger," said the other, after a moment's thought. "I will give thee this chance. If thou are not a thrall or a landless man, but a man of the sword, let us see thee prove it by defending thyself against my officer. Thou shalt have fair play."
"But 'tis scarce fair; he has no armour," the one called Kern pointed out.
"I want none!" cried Hugh, whose blood was now thoroughly up. "I can fight without it; let us see if thou canst fight as well with it! Only put down thy shield—or lend me one."
"Then the consequences be on thy own head, foolish one," answered Kern. And so saying, he tossed his shield to a soldier, and advanced, sword in hand.
Hugh wasted no more breath over useless words, but with the sword he had gained possession of, attacked the other so fiercely that he had to stand on the defensive, and thus began one of the strangest fights ever seen.
True to his promise, the leader of the armed band restrained his followers from any interference. Ruxton, on his part, did the same with his own people. Each side formed a line, with a space of twenty or thirty yards between, and stood and watched the conflict, though with very different feelings.
The strangers seemed no more than indolently interested. They evidently considered their man was bound to win, and they, therefore, regarded the whole affair as rather a waste of time than anything else. They did not even expect to get any excitement or amusement out of so one-sided a duel.
Hugh's companions, on the other hand, looked on with bated breath. They knew that to them the issue meant much—everything, perhaps. At the same time, it must be confessed that their hopes did not run very high. For, so far as they knew, Hugh had no special knowledge of this kind of fighting—and pitted, as he was, against one who was supposed to be a trained fighter, one clad in armour to boot, his—Hugh's—chance seemed but a very poor one.
But Hugh surprised his foes, and electrified his friends by quickly showing both sides that they were altogether wrong. To their utter astonishment he simply played round the man in armour and did as he liked with him. His opponent never had a chance—never got in so much as a stroke, save once, when Hugh, through over-confidence perhaps, or, it may be, to purposely lead his foe on, laid himself open. The other seized the chance, and aimed a blow, which, had it got home, might well have lopped Hugh's arm off at the shoulder—only he was not there when it fell—he had leaped aside.
It soon became obvious that he was merely tiring his man out. In fact the leader of the strangers saw it so plainly that he at last decided to put an end to what had become, from his point of view, so sorry an exhibition. Hugh perceived this, and resolved to end it first himself. He made a feint, and again seemed to lay himself open; his adversary aimed a quick, slashing cut, only to find himself standing, with outstretched arm and hand extended, with nothing in it. Hugh had struck the sword from his grasp, and it fell clattering to the ground.
Hugh stooped, picked it up, and with a courteous bow offered it back to his crestfallen opponent.
"Try again, sir," he said laughingly. "But hold thy weapon more tightly next time."
"No, no," the leader interposed. "We have had enough of this. We have no more time to waste thus. Thou hast proved sufficient for my purpose, O stranger. I can see that thy manner of fighting is different from ours, and I think that that gave to thee an advantage."
"Ay!" growled Kern. "I will fight with him again another time, and then I promise him the result shall be different."
"Whenever it pleases thee," returned Hugh, easily. "Anything for a quiet life."
"Thou needst not look for a quiet life with us," warned his foe. "They will put thee to work in the mines, as they do with all who venture here."
This certainly did not sound cheerful, and Hugh glanced at Val.
"Say," he said in English, "shall we go with 'em and chance it, or shall we fight 'em? I believe we could lick the lot! I don't think much of their fighting powers. They seem to me to be out of practice."
Ruxton laughed, and his laugh brought scowls to the faces of the strangers.
"I expect we'll have to go," he advised. "They would only send stronger parties and hunt us out of the country."
"Very well; so be it." Then, turning to the leader of the strangers, he said in their tongue: "We are ready, most honourable sir, to accompany thee to thy chief, provided we go, as I at first claimed, as free men, not as thralls."
"It shall be so; thou hast proved thyself worthy in thine own cause, and I accept thy word on behalf of thy companions." was the reply. "And now tell me what property have you brought with you?"
"Precious little good, sir—hardly more than what thou now seest. We lost everything else on the way. Come with me and I will show thee."
Hugh led them to the cave in which they had passed the night, where he pointed to their cooking pans and other little odds and ends—all they now had left beyond their rifles. As to the latter, the stranger looked curiously at them, and appeared puzzled and interested. But he evidently did not understand the use of them, and to the delight of the chums, he did not attempt to take them away.
Then they embarked on board the galley, which was pushed off; the rowers dipped their great oars, and the travellers started on their voyage, wondering not a little what new adventures awaited them upon the other side of the lake.
"WHY, Hugh," said Ruxton, as the two friends talked apart in their own language. "I had no idea you could show such pretty play with the sword. Where did you pick it up? You must have had some jolly good instructors!"
Hugh smiled, and coloured at his friend's praise.
"I've picked it up in many schools," he said modestly. "The fact is, Val, I seized every opportunity that offered, wherever I have travelled, of learning all I could that might fit one for this sort of thing."
"This sort of thing! You couldn't possibly have foreseen—"
"No—no; I didn't exactly foresee it—yet I had some idea of it in my mind. I was always a bit of a dreamer, I think, as I suppose my father was before me. His ideas—for he believed thoroughly in all that has here come to pass—fired my imagination also, while I was still a youngster. Something seemed to whisper to me that, some day, all that he had dreamed about would turn out to be true, and that I should be in the midst of it. So I tried to fit myself for it. My mother, too, let me have my way in this, and did the best she could to help. She provided me with instructors in every kind of athletic exercise. As for sword-play, I have studied and practised it not only in England, but in France and Germany. I was at Heidelberg for two years as a student, and fought in many a students' duel there."
"Oho! That explains the milk in the coconut! Bravo! It will come in jolly handy here, or I'm a Dutchman. By the way, do you notice what a sharp lookout these people keep? They seem quite nervous—as though they were fearing an attack from some quarter. And, for the matter of that, what means this 'panoply of war'—this sailing to and fro of men armed to the teeth, in an isolated country like this? One would think if there's any country in the whole world where the inhabitants ought to feel themselves safe from attack, this would surely be the place!"
It was one of their own party who presently explained this riddle. It has been stated that amongst their four "native" followers was one who was really an Icelander, though he had lived with the Eskimos for so many years that he had become almost like one of their tribe.
His name was Melka, and he had now been busy doing his best to ingratiate himself with the rank and file amongst their captors. As he could, of course, speak their language even better than his leaders, he quickly made himself at home. He asked all manner of questions, and now came up with a fund of information to impart.
The country—he told them—was called Thorbergen. Its people were actually descended from the Vikings of old, and had preserved not only their language but their manners, customs, and traditions.
For many long years there had been peace in the land; but just lately a feud had broken out, and they were now divided into two hostile camps, under rival chiefs, named, respectively, Osth and Gerwulf. The party into whose hands they had fallen were some of Osth's adherents; and the leader of it was a jarl[*] named Rudlaff.
[* Jarl. Nobleman. Strictly speaking a Scandinavian noble ranking immediately below the king.]
"So, sirs," concluded Melka, "you perceive that there is now civil war in the land, and all the jarls and höldas[*] and the common people are doing their best to make themselves into soldiers, and taking part on one side or the other."
"Oho! I see!" laughed Ruxton. "So, then, I suppose that they have brought out all the old, rusty armour, and swords and shields, and the rest of it, that had been stacked away in museums? They've been furbishing them up, and are bringing them into use, eh?"
"I doubt not, sir, that something of that sort has happened."
At this Hugh laughed heartily.
"Didn't I say that that chap I fenced with seemed to be out of practice?" And Val joined in the laugh.
In fact, this view of the matter struck them both as so amusing, and they laughed so merrily over it, that the leader of the party came over to them, and with a scowl demanded to know what they had found to laugh at in that way.
"I do not think ye will be so merry when ye stand before Osth, our chief," he muttered. "Ye will find that he is not one to be played with. Ye will not laugh, either, when he sends ye off to the mines to get our black fuel."
"That's why we laugh, O jarl," Hugh answered.
The man stared at this.
"How so?" he demanded gruffly.
"Why," rejoined Hugh, "it seems such a funny idea to be talking of sending men like we are to work in your mines, at a time when you want the help of every man of thew and muscle that knows how to handle a sword."
"It sounds too absurd," Ruxton joined in. "Now I will have a wager with thee, O jarl, that the chief will instead find my friend here a post as instructor in swordsmanship."
But Rudlaff did not respond to the offer of a wager. He looked the two up and down in some perplexity, as though unable to decide whether they were serious or were only making fun of him.
Then he shrugged his shoulders.
"Hark ye, sirrah," he said, in a rather more friendly tone. "I like your spirit! I always admire good fighters, and men, as ye say, of thew and muscle. We all do here. So I will offer ye a word of advice. Be not over-bold. It might be as you suggest that ye might be more useful to us where there is fighting to be done than picking out the black fuel and dragging it from the mines. But our chief is a hard man—he is known as 'Osth the Hard.' Ye would have to prove yourselves fully ere he would listen to any such offer from strangers. And the tests are hard. Few can pass them."
And with that he turned on his heel and left them.
"So," said Hugh, "they have mines of 'black fuel' here, eh? He means coal, I suppose?"
"Markham and other explorers have recorded that they found coal in the extreme north," observed Ruxton; "lots of it, they said."
"Ay, I know. I don't want to be set to work as a coal-miner, though—as it seems is their playful and hospitable way with strangers who visit them."
They had now passed far out on the waters of the lake, and could see before them on the left shore, some precipitous cliffs which rose abruptly almost from the water's edge.
Here Melka's gossip came in again:
"Yonder is the dwelling place of these people," he stated. "There is a great labyrinth of immense caverns in those rocks, and they live in them entirely during the winter, and only come out in summer time. Gerwulf, the other chief, and his people live in another place of a similar kind amongst these mountains you can see on the opposite side of the lake."
Presently, as they drew nearer to their destination, one or two other vessels came out to meet them. Others, again, were lying at anchor. A few of those they saw were ancient-looking craft like the one they were in, though not so large; but most of them had evidently been built much more recently. They were, too, of different construction, being altogether lighter, and had the appearance of having been designed for pleasure vessels rather than for war purposes.
"It looks to me," commented Ruxton thoughtfully, "as though these very odd-looking galleys are really the original ships in which these people's tough old ancestors fought their way here through the ice floes of the Arctic seas, and that they've been laid up here ever since. And now they've been brought out again for use in the old fashion."
"Can such a thing be possible?" exclaimed Hugh, looking at them with a new interest.
"I think it may be just barely possible—having regard to the peculiar climate of these regions."
Soon afterwards they ran alongside a landing-place, and then were marched through lines of wondering spectators to the place where Osth, the chief, was holding a sort of open-air court, surrounded by his officers and nobles.
There was a certain amount of barbaric pomp and show in their dresses and general arrangements. "Osth the Hard," himself a man of moderate height and somewhat heavy figure, sat upon a quaintly-fashioned chair or throne, with arms and back carved in the shape of heads of some nondescript, but decidedly hideous animals.
His hair and beard were iron-grey, and he had beetling, bushy eyebrows, and a fierce-looking moustache, which gave him a scowling and semi-savage appearance.
He looked at Rudlaff and then at the new arrivals, and then back at Rudlaff.
"How now, Rudlaff," he said, in a loud, sonorous voice. "What have we here—strangers?"
"'Tis so, O chief. We found them on the shore of the lake. I have brought them here that thou mightest deal with them."
"Ay, ay! A poor, sorry lot of churls they seem to be. Thralls escaped from their liege lords, doubtless. Yet some of them look like men of muscle and bone. None the worse for that"—with a loud, mocking laugh. "They will be all the better for the work we shall put them to."
He looked at Hugh with a critical eye, very much as though he were "sizing" up the good and bad points of some animal offered for sale. Then, turning to an officer in a rich suit of armour beside him, he said:
"Go thou, Hartseg, whom men call the Fighter, and tell me what thou thinkest of yon churl. Is he as strong and sinewy as he looks from here?"
The one addressed was perhaps the tallest man there—one evidently in the prime of life. By his swaggering air, and his title of "Fighter," it was easy to guess that he was looked upon as a kind of champion.
He had a hard, impressive face, and heavy jaw, with dark, steely eyes. He sauntered superciliously towards Hugh, and looked him over with a cool, insolent air. Then he began to feel his arms, and punch his chest—again, much as a farmer might feel the "points" of a steer offered for sale.
Now Hugh had intended to be very cautious and discreet. He had remembered Rudlaff's advice—which, though roughly given, had, he believed, been well meant—and had made a bargain with himself that he would keep his temper.
But he had not then expected this sort of treatment, and under it his temper quickly rose. As Hartseg pushed him, so he pushed back at Hartseg, whereupon that lordly person laughed, and dealt him a light box on the ear. It was not exactly a blow, so much as an insult.
The next moment the insolent jarl went down under one of the sledgehammer strokes for which Hugh was famous amongst those who knew him. And then arose a terrible uproar, jarls and höldas, and Osth himself, springing to their feet, amid a thunder of execration and threats.
During the continuance of the uproar, and before the chief could intervene, "Hartseg the Fighter" sprang to his feet and rushed at Hugh; only, however, to be again knocked down.
As he was scrambling up for the second time, one, whom they afterwards knew as "Berdrok the Fierce," drew his sword, and made for Hugh, evidently intending to cut him down. And as the young fellow could not look two ways at once, that would have been his fate if Ruxton had not intercepted the new assailant.
Val here repeated the tactics which Hugh had adopted with the officer Kern. He beat up the fellow's sword with his alpenstock, struck it from his hand, took possession of it, and finally, with a mighty blow of his fist, rolled its owner over.
Others came to the help of the two Vikings; whereupon Mike and Cable joined in the fray. Like their leaders they had only their alpenstocks, but these they used like quarter-staves, and to such purpose that they quickly cleared a space round their leaders.
Mike, in particular, greatly distinguished himself on this occasion. To him it was just the kind of free fight in which he and his countrymen delight; and he entered into it with great gusto. Whirling his staff about till it looked like a windmill in full swing, he skipped, and hopped, and shouted, and hurrahed in such a wild fashion that he seemed to be in two or three places at once. He certainly continued to make noise enough for half a dozen; and enjoyed himself immensely.
In the confusion which ensued, even Osth's thunderous tones—and it was commonly said that he had a voice like a bull—were scarcely heard. By the time he succeeded in restoring order three of his people were rolling on the ground; while the four daring strangers were seen to be all armed with either swords or spears captured from their assailants.
At last there came a pause, Osth commanding his people to restrain their rage while he questioned the strangers. Then he addressed himself to Hugh:
"By Thor's hammer!" said he, "thou art a smart youth, but a trifle
quick-tempered, methinks! I wanted to know—"
"Yonder man treated me like a dog!" exclaimed Hugh. "He insulted me—he pinched me and nipped me as though I were a bull he was thinking of buying! Why should I endure his insults? Let him fight me if he will; I have not yet punished him as he deserves!"
"PERHAPS," resumed Osth, "perhaps I may grant thee thy wish, and then, perhaps"—with a laugh—"thou mayest be sorry for having challenged him."
"Wilt thou give me that chance, O chief?" cried Hugh eagerly.
"We will see. But first ye must all yield up the weapons ye have taken from the hands of my people."
Hugh glanced at his chum, and they conferred together in a whisper, and as a result the arms were silently handed over.
"Now," continued Osth, "I must know what manner of men ye claim to be. My nobles cannot fight with thralls or serfs."
"Thralls!" repeated Hugh scornfully. "Who talks of thralls? Know O chief, that we are neither thralls nor serfs, but free men; and I and my friend," pointing to Ruxton, "claim to be the equals of any of those who surround thee."
"H'm. And those others with thee?"
"They are our followers—our servitors."
"So! Now we know how we stand. Still, at any other time, it would be my duty to send ye to work in our mines, whatever your rank may be in your own land. Such is our usage in the case of all strangers who intrude themselves in our country. But just now it so happens"—and here Osth spoke with some hesitation, and glanced doubtfully round at the frowning faces and flashing eyes of his people—"it so happens, I say, that in the case of men of strength and courage, able to use sword and spear, methinks we could perhaps make some better use of them. Eh, friends? What say ye?"
And again the speaker glanced round, evidently in doubt as to the reception this suggestion might meet with.
So far as Hugh and Ruxton were concerned it need not be said that they were ready to welcome such a proposal with gladness. It was exactly what they had been hoping for—what they had hinted at to Rudlaff.
But Osth's own people received it by no means cordially. They were enraged at the rough treatment some of their number had already received at the hands of the strangers. For this they were bent on taking their revenge, either on the spot, or by condemning the offenders to be bound and carried off to the mines.
So Osth's tentative suggestion seemed likely to be rejected. Cries hostile to the strangers rent the air.
"To the mines with them!"
"Let them be whipped for their insolence!"
"They are nithings!"[*]
[* Nithing. A villain, dastard, or coward.]
"Hand them over to us; we will punish them in our own way!"
Such was the burden of the shouts that were heard.
Things certainly looked black for them; and their fate hung in the balance. Osth was evidently wavering; it was pretty clear that, whatever his own judgment might advise, he hesitated to act against the wishes of his nobles.
Just then there stepped forward the young officer called Kern, the one with whom Hugh had fought. He intimated that he had something to say on the subject, whereupon Osth called for silence; and after a while succeeded in obtaining it.
"Well, my worthy Kern, what hast thou to say?" he demanded.
"This, O chief! I had to-day some experience of this stranger's fighting, and I can answer for it that, whatever or whoever he may be, he is certainly a sturdy swordsman. He did disarm me—I am chagrined to have to make the admission, but it is true—and I am perplexed in my mind about it. I have been asking myself whether it was that I was careless or over-confident, or whether it might be that, coming from a strange land and having learned in a different school, he may have been taught some tricks that at a time like this it might profit us to know. For this reason, O chief, I ask that, whatever thou doest with him afterwards—whether he be sent to the mines or not—thou shouldst order that he shall first fight with me again. If I prevail, so much the better; but I shall have avenged myself, and I shall be satisfied."
"And if thou prevailest not, good Kern?" Osth asked, with a grim laugh.
"Then thou wilt see that there is some very good reason for it."
"Humph! By Odin! Thy proposal pleases me! After what thou hast said I must see for myself what sort of fighter this stranger is."
"There is one more request I wish to make, my lord!"
"It is that he may be given arms and armour the same as mine, so that we meet on equal terms. By his behaviour to me to-day at the time of his success over me—though I felt too sore just then to pay heed to it—I judge him to be of gentle birth, a perfect knight, and quite worthy to wear armour similar to my own."
"Thou speakest well, Kern," returned Osth, after a moment's reflection. "It is a good plan—but it does not go far enough, and methinks I have a better. There are four of these people who seem to be lusty fighters. Garb them as thou sayest, according to their rank, and we will choose other three to join with thee against them. Then shall we see the mettle they are made of."
There were murmurs and mutterings of dissent and dissatisfaction among the nobles at this decision; and some of the dissentients jeered at the young officer and called him a "nithing" for his pains. But others—some of his own friends in particular, and many of the older men present—applauded him. So, as there were evidently too many against them to resist further, the objectors sullenly acquiesced.
Kern and Rudlaff signed to the strangers to follow, and led them towards a wall of rock that towered up into the air some few hundred yards away. Here they entered a cavern, which was evidently one of those Melka had referred to as having been appropriated as the regular dwelling-places of these people.
The friends looked round in surprise, for they found themselves in what had all the appearance of a beautifully-built stone hall, well lighted with hanging lamps, and fitted up very much as though it had been the main hall of some ancient castle.
The rocky sides had been elaborately carved and sculptured, and in some places pictures or frescoes had been painted on them in masterly style. These represented, usually, scenes of war or hunting, and had all the appearance of being the work of men long past dead and gone; though the colouring was still vivid and well preserved.
There were many passages and galleries leading from the great hall in various directions, and, choosing one of these, their conductors ushered them into another chamber of considerable extent, which they saw at once was a kind of armoury. Here the officers called for "thralls," and forthwith half a dozen serving-men rushed forward obsequiously to attend their orders.
These men were dressed in very rough attire, and wore metal collars round their necks.
Rudlaff saw Hugh and his chum glance at these collars, and laughed coarsely.
"That is the sort of badge ye will be wearing soon if Osth sends thee to the mines," he said. "And once we put that badge on a man's neck it is there for life. It is never taken off."
Neither of the two to whom this was said could repress a slight shudder at the ideas the words suggested. Kern, who had also noted their glance, turned the subject.
"Well, well; that is on the knees of the gods," said he. "It concerns the future. And we have other matters to think of just now. It is our part, sirs, to fit you with armour. Do ye wish to choose for yourselves, or will ye rest content with what we shall consider best for the occasion?"
"Oh, we'll leave it to you, sir," laughed Hugh. "The fact is," he said to Ruxton in English, "I know no more about such things than the man in the moon. The nearest approach to anything of the kind I ever donned was the ridiculous padding worn in the famous students' duels at Heidelberg. And I don't suppose you know much more—eh?"
"Not I," Val answered. "They'll have to buckle the things on me themselves. If I were to attempt it myself I expect I should put them on hind-part-before—or some such foolishness."
However, as it turned out, Kern was a young man who did not do things of this sort by halves. Having himself proposed that they should be on an equality with himself in the matter of armour and weapons, he conscientiously carried it out to the best of his ability. One of his difficulties was to find suits of armour large enough—and he had to hunt through their stores till he discovered a couple which had belonged to two bygone warriors who had been looked upon almost as giants.
The final result was, however, that in little more than half an hour the chums were transformed from ragged, unkempt vagabonds into knights in glistening armour—and a very fine and gallant show they then made.
The two sailors were also fitted out after the fashion of the rank and file, and the change was proportionately successful in improving their appearance.
Cable looked admiringly at Mike, and Mike grinned appreciatively at Cable.
"Sure, ye looks a broth av a bhoy now, Bob darlint," he chuckled. "Phwat a sinsation we'd make in these things if we wore thim at the Lord Mayor's Show in London Town!"
"I'd rayther a good honest cutlass than this old-fashioned blade though," Bob declared, a little doubtfully. "An' these contraptions"—indicating the wing-like attachments to his helmet—"doan't seem t' ballast proper like. Don't ye think, now, a feather on the top would set it off better than them things at the sides?"
"Sure, it's very discontinted ye are. Bob. Ye must lave sich ornimints as feathers t' yer betthers. It's kid gloves an' a powder-puff ye'll be whantin' next."
Kern, too, announced his approval when he had finished:
"'Tis well, O stranger," he said, to Hugh. "Thou doest credit to my handiwork. And I shall feel that in vanquishing thee I shall have to do with one worthy of my steel."
"Of a truth," returned Hugh, "thou hast shown thyself a most honourable foeman. I would that we could be friends instead of enemies. I like not the idea of fighting one who has behaved towards me as thou hast."
But the words, instead of pleasing the young Viking, had an opposite effect.
"What!" he cried, coldly and sternly. "Is it possible that thou dost shrink from the combat? Art thou, then, but a nithing churl, after all?"
"Enough said!" returned Hugh, with quiet dignity. "We will resume this talk after our fight is finished. I am now ready as soon as it pleases thee."
"And who, jarl, is to be my partner in this tournament?" Ruxton asked of Rudlaff. "Is it thou?"
"I know not, O stranger," was the answer. "But I am quite ready to try a bout with thee if thou dost so desire—and if our chief will permit. And now, since ye are all prepared, follow me."
As they were marching out of the armoury, Hugh and Ruxton managed to regain possession of their revolvers, which they had temporarily given into the charge of their Eskimo followers. The latter were also carrying the two rifles, which, being enclosed in thick leather cases, had fortunately attracted little notice. Only once had there been any reference to them—Rudlaff had asked what they were, and had been informed that they were fishing-rods used by the strangers' "thralls."
The Eskimos themselves were contemptuously left to wear their own attire, their leaders declaring that they were merely serving-men and not fighters.
"I wonder, then, that you do not compel them to wear iron collars as our thralls do," was the Viking's comment; and with that he dismissed the matter as not worth further attention.
A little later the whole party stood once more before Osth, and there a fresh surprise waited them.
The return of Hugh and Ruxton and their little band caused something in the nature of a sensation. And well it might, considering the difference in the appearance of the leaders and their two principal henchmen.
They had left the place literally in rags and tatters, looking but the veriest vagabonds. They had returned "in armour clad," four splendid, stalwart figures, making such a gallant show as to draw involuntary expressions of surprise and approval even from the assembled Vikings.
The two leaders, in particular, attracted the gaze of all present, and muffled cries of astonishment arose here and there from men who recognised the armour which they were wearing.
"By Thor! See what they have on?"
"That armour belonged to Hyborga and Sigurd, our most celebrated warriors."
"Surely it cannot be!"
"No one has worn those suits for hundreds of years!"
"How can this thing be? They did not look big enough when they first came before us!"
"One would have thought they must have grown during the last half-hour."
Such were a few of the wondering comments which went the round. Some of the spectators, indeed, could scarcely believe their own eyes, and argued that these men must be absolutely new arrivals, and that the ones they had seen, who had gone away looking so disreputable, had not yet returned.
Osth himself was obviously as much surprised as his followers. One could see him looking at the two chums, and then at some of the most stalwart of those by whom he was surrounded. He was evidently comparing them, and he was fain to make the grudging admission in his own mind that these strangers were two of the tallest and finest specimens of manhood there.
As to the two who had already come in contact with them and tasted a little of their prowess—those known as Hertseg the Fighter and Berdrok the Fierce—these things only served to excite still further their ill-humour, and increase their spleen against the strangers.
It would never do, from their point of view, to allow these upstart intruders to make themselves popular in this way, so they began to sneer and gibe.
"By Odin's twelve companions!" quoth Osth. "They make a gallant-looking pair!"
"Tush! It's looks and nothing else, I'll wager," sneered Hertseg. "Kern hath overdone the thing. He hath decked them out in borrowed plumes he had no right to lend to such men. Thou wilt see presently that it is the armour that makes the show, not the men inside it!"
"Of a truth, yes, thou art right, Hertseg!" cried Berdrok. "Make them prove their strength, Osth, ere we trouble to fight with them! I'll wager they cannot perform some of the feats that I and Hertseg and others here have accomplished."
"We will try them," said Osth, with his grim, mocking smile. "Choose ye the tasks, and let us see what they can do."
So the intended duel with Kern was postponed till later; and meanwhile the two friends were invited to show their prowess in other ways.
One of these was something similar to the feat of swordsmanship we know as "Cleaving the Turk's Head." Wooden blocks, about the size of men's heads, were brought in, and Hertseg and Berdrok each cut through one with his sword.
Hugh and Ruxton each did the same.
"But all this is child's play," cried Hugh at last. "In my country one sees these things done at every small gathering where such sports are held. Have ye not something that will really tax our powers and prove whether we be men of real strength?"
"We'll try thy strength presently in a form thou wilt not care about," jeered Hertseg. "Thou art but an empty boaster—"
"Pish ! It is not seemly in one who calls himself a warrior to keep vaunting and threatening in that way," returned Hugh contemptuously. "Give me something to bind these things with"—and he kicked a couple of the wooden blocks towards the sailors. "Here! One of you tie a couple together."
"Shure, an' it's a foine sinse av fun ye have, Misther Hugh," exclaimed Mike, who at once "tumbled" to the idea. "Show 'em phwat ye can do."
Cable meantime had produced a piece of cord from somewhere, and with it he tied two of the blocks together.
"Now," said Hugh to Hertseg and Berdrok, "now, you two boasters, will you cut through the two of them at one stroke?"
"No! Nor canst thou, sirrah," cried Hertseg.
"We shall see," muttered Hugh. He took his sword in both hands, and poised it high in the air for two or three seconds. Then there was a loud "whiz," and a half-circle of gleaming light, as the blade whirled through the air. So sudden and marvellously quick was the blow that few there actually saw it. But all heard the sound as it crashed through the blocks. It had cut clean through the two!
There were loud exclamations of astonishment at this from the spectators, and a few even called out "Skoal—skoal!" which was their equivalent for "Bravo!" or "Hurrah!"
"Canst match that, Hertseg?" Osth asked.
"We will see," said the Fighter, through his teeth. "I doubt not there is some trick in it?"
Hertseg muttered something—doubtless some Soath—and ordered two blocks to be bound together in the same way. Then he raised his sword with a great flourish, poised it in the air even longer than Hugh had done, made a mighty slash—and missed the blocks altogether. His foot had slipped at the critical moment, and over he went.
There was, of course, a titter, and the valiant Fighter began to grow wrathful.
He repeated the effort, and this time hit the top block all right, cutting clean through it; but his sword lodged in the second one.
Again he tried it, and so did Berdrok; but they both failed.
And then, in similar fashion, Hugh cut through two bars of iron instead of one, and the Vikings tried it and failed. Then he showed them two or three feats of his own, and challenged the strongest there to perform them, and they all failed ignominiously.
By this time the two who had thrust themselves the most forward—Hertseg and Berdrok—were seething with rage and spite.
"Canst thou wrestle?" Hertseg asked suddenly, during a pause.
"I am ready to wrestle with thee, or anyone thou pleasest," returned Hugh.
HERTSEG went up to Osth and whispered to him, whereupon the chief burst into a guffaw of sinister laughter, and nodded his head.
"Listen, stranger," said Hertseg. "We have, near at hand, one who is reputed to be the strongest wrestler in our country. He is not here at the moment, but I can send for him. Art thou willing to try a wrestling bout with him without arms of any kind?"
"Quite ready and willing," said Hugh quietly.
"Then I have our chief's permission to send for him. He will be here shortly. And, meantime, thou hast a breathing space. Make the most of it, for I warn thee thou wilt want all thy breath."
Wondering a little as to who this redoubtable wrestler could be, Hugh turned to Ruxton, and they chatted apart for a while.
Then was heard the rumble of heavy wheels, and a great cage, drawn by over a dozen "thralls," was seen approaching.
From it came screams and shrieks and roars of frantic rage and demoniacal fury, and the two chums turned and stared at it in no little surprise.
"Why," exclaimed Val, "it's one of our yellow-haired friends—a missing-link! Now, what on earth does this mean?"
"It's a rum go," murmured Hugh. "I suppose it must be one they have caught and caged as we at home might cage a baboon."
"But this is not fair—it is nothing but a low-down trick," exclaimed Val. "That trickster Hertseg asked if you would wrestle with one not then present. Of course we thought he meant a man. Now it turns out that he meant this beast. It's not fair! If I were you I should protest."
"Oh! What's the good? You know it would be of no use. Besides, I vanquished 'Caliban,' so I suppose I can manage this one."
"But they must have got here the biggest one of the lot—it appears to me to be a larger and more formidable specimen than any we've seen. I'm afraid they've set you a terrible task."
Hugh stared at the creature thoughtfully. "Well, now, Val," he said slowly, "now, it seems to me, is the time to put your theory to the test. You thought it was my voice that subdued the one you called Caliban. I wonder if it will have any effect here?"
"By Jove! That's a good thought!" exclaimed Val. "See here! If I were you I should try the effect in some way without letting these johnnies into the secret. If you find that 'the oracle works,' keep it dark, if you can; and let them ascribe it all to your mighty strength. See?"
Hugh agreed with this suggestion; and it was also deemed politic to seem to demur to the task thus placed upon him.
"My lord," he said, addressing Osth, "it seemeth to me that I have been unfairly tricked here. When I was asked if I were willing to wrestle with one who was not then present I naturally supposed that one of your subjects was intended—"
"This is one of my subjects; he liveth in the land. Oh, oh, oh!" cried Osth, with another guffaw. "How now? By Thor's hammer it seemeth to me that thou dost wish to shuffle out of this trial of thy boasted strength."
"It scarcely seemeth to me fair—"
"He is afraid. I thought we should find something he was afraid of," cried Hertseg insultingly.
Hugh turned on him scornfully.
"I am not afraid of thee, jarl, at all events," he cried, drawing himself up. "But it seemeth that thou art afraid of me, and that is why thou desirest that I should enter yonder cage. If I am torn to pieces by that monster thou wilt be rid of me. Thou wilt not then have to fight with me."
"Now out on thee for an insolent churl—" Hertseg begun; but Hugh interrupted him.
"Never mind about that, but answer this question: If I enter yonder cage and fight with the monster within, wilt thou afterwards fight me in fair and open combat?"
"Yea—if thou comest out alive—or art then able to fight," jeered Hertseg.
"What sayest thou, my lord?" queried Hugh, turning to Osth. "Wilt thou keep him to that?"
"By Odin's hammer, yes—if thou art in any condition to care about another fight," Osth declared, with another brutal laugh.
"It is clear that they expect you will be killed," Val whispered. "If things go wrong I shall put a bullet through the monster, and one each through the monsters over there—Osth and Hertseg."
Hugh pressed his friend's hand, and walked steadily to the door of the cage. The creature within—which, by the way, they afterwards found was called a "borghen"—was all this time clinging to the bars and shaking them with rage. With its glaring eyes, its long claws, its bristling, yellow hair, and its awful, blood-curdling cries, it seemed more like a demon from the lower regions than any creature of ordinary flesh and blood. And as Hugh drew near, and saw it more plainly he perceived that it was, as Val had said, bigger than any of those by which they had been attacked.
"I'm afraid it's a fight to the death here," Hugh muttered to himself. "This one doesn't look the sort of creature to give in as the other one did. I must be cautious. Much will depend here, I'm thinking, upon how I receive the brute at the first rush."
The cage door was opened for him by one man, while others drew off the attention of the raging occupant at the other end. As the door was slammed to behind Hugh, the creature heard it and turned, paused one moment in surprise, and then flew at the intruder like a veritable fiend.
HUGH had been allowed no weapon with which to meet the borghen. His sword and dagger had both been taken from him, on the pretended plea that it was a wrestling match in which he was about to engage. It was as clear to his mind as anything could well be that Hertseg had proposed this as a means of getting rid of him. The jarl thought he was sending the stranger to certain death, and had laughed in his beard at Hugh's challenge to fight him afterwards.
"I'll make him fight me, though," Hugh said to himself. "Let me get out of this, and I will teach him what a proper fight is really like—or a proper wrestling match, either, if he prefers it."
But now he had this business to settle first; and he realised that he had his work cut out if he was to come out of it alive.
The creature literally leaped upon him, throwing itself at him like a wild-cat. Hugh, however, profiting by his former encounters with these monsters, gripped it at once in such a manner as to prevent it from making use of its terrible claws.
But the strength of this particular specimen far exceeded anything he had previously had to do with. And though he succeeded in holding it for a space at arm's length, so to speak, in such a position that it could do no immediate mischief, he felt he could not long maintain that position, unless the foe itself should tire—and of that there was no sign.
For a few moments Hugh forgot about the plan he and Ruxton had suggested. The baleful eyes that glared into his, the hot, steaming, sickening breath, the gnashing fangs that hungered to bury themselves in his throat, put all such thought out of his head. And when it recurred to him the idea appeared but a hopeless fancy. It seemed mere folly to suppose that the sound of his voice could have any effect upon such an awful enemy as he had here to deal with.
But try it he must—he could not hold it at bay much longer.
"Come, come!" he cried to make his tones as much like his ordinary speech as possible, "come, this won't do! Down, sir, down!"—this as though he had been speaking to an unruly dog—"Down, I say! Lie down, you brute!"
And lo! At once he felt the creature's muscles relax! The fiendish glow in its eyes died away and turned to the same curious expression he had seen in those of its fellows. Hugh noted the change, and continued to talk to it; and gradually matters followed much the same course as they had taken in the case of the other he had fought with. This furious, raging monster, that had been ready to tear him to pieces, was conquered; had become as docile as a lap-dog!
There was a great outburst of astonishment from the spectators. They had watched the encounter with breathless interest, deeming Hugh, indeed, to be a doomed man, and the strange result so amazed them that they now made the place ring with their shouts. And amongst them were again, many cries of "Skoal," their term of admiration and approval.
As to Hugh, he was, in his own mind, as much astonished as any one. He could scarcely believe the evidence of his own senses. And while he was standing gazing round, now at the crowd, now at the creature crouching so submissively before him, he heard a low voice behind him:
"Thou hast performed a wonder; but be warned!" said the voice. "Do not look round to see who speaks, but give heed to his words. Trust not Osth the Hard; believe him not when he speaks thee fair, nor Hertseg, nor Berdrok. Thou art young and brave and strong; but that will avail thee little. Be on thy guard, and look not for either mercy or justice or fair dealing in the land of the Thorbergen."
These words, spoken in low, clear tones, reached his ears in the midst of the confused shouts of the crowd. He listened to them like one in a dream; yet, when he turned, he saw no one there with whom he might connect them. Many persons had crowded up to the bars of the cage and were staring in curiously and wonderingly, chattering the while; but not one of them looked at him in any specially friendly manner.
Ruxton was there and the rest of his party. The eyes of the chums met, and Val laughed:
"So the charm worked?" he said.
"So it seems—but it's a greater puzzle to me than ever! I can scarcely believe it."
That was all that was said between them then. Hugh opened the door of the cage and stepped out, leaving his late foe—which would evidently have liked to follow him—behind.
He strode off, with his friends beside him, and once more they stood before Osth. But Hugh's manner had changed. No longer was he the good-natured, easy-going stranger they had seen before. His brow was lowered, his voice stern and hard, and his eyes flashed.
"My lord," he said to Osth, "I have done thy bidding; now I claim the fulfilment of thy promise! I call upon the jarl, Hertseg, to meet me as was arranged. I challenge him to fight with me!"
"And I," exclaimed Ruxton, taking his cue from Hugh, "I challenge the hölda, Berdrok."
"'Tis well!" cried a number of voices. "A challenge! A challenge! Skoal to the strangers! They have done well, and shown themselves to be strong men and brave fighters. Let their challenges be accepted."
There were signs that the two thus called upon would have backed out if they could; and Osth was inclined to find some excuse for forbidding the acceptance of the defiance. Kern, too, put in his plea. He was entitled, he urged, to be first.
But, on the other side, there were ominous signs that the rest of the jarls and höldas were looking forward to the spectacle of a good stand-up fight, and did not intend to be baulked of it. So, in the end, Osth gave way, Kern's claim was postponed, and the two nobler—the one a jarl and the other a hölda—had to agree, whether they wished it or not.
While some preliminaries were being arranged, Ruxton slipped his revolver in Cable's hand, who, in turn, concealed it in his tunic.
"Do nothing rash," he whispered, "but be on the look-out for treachery! I distrust the good faith of these two, and shall not be surprised if they try on some foul trick against Mr. Arnold or myself. If so, make use of the pistol—but be sure you only use it in the case I have said."
"Ay, ay, air, I unnerstan's. Ye can trust t' me," was Bob's answer.
The two Vikings, after a conference apart, claimed the universal law in the case of those who are challenged—the choice of weapons. And this being conceded, they declared for battle-axes and swords, and no daggers. Hugh and Ruxton had no other course open to them than to consent; though they had expected that the double duel would have been fought with swords alone.
Battle-axes were therefore served out, each combatant gave up his dagger, and retained his sword.
The four paraded, two and two, before Osth and the rest of the spectators; loud blasts sounded upon some horn; and the fight began.
And then the attention of the whole assembly was concentrated upon the combatants. A great hush fell upon the scene, broken, at the beginning, only by the ring of metal and the clash of steel. But soon these sounds became intermingled with exclamations, at first low and half-smothered, then gradually becoming louder as the excitement increased.
For a while the double duel raged without obvious advantage to either side. Neither Hugh nor his chum had been used to this kind of fighting; and they saw that it was wiser to stand on the defensive with a view to wearing their men down. But as they gained confidence, and saw opportunities here and there, they took advantage of them; and so, by degrees, the conflict waxed warmer and more exciting.
Each combatant, in turn, had narrow escapes; each had marks upon his armour; and there were slight wounds. As for the shields which had to bear the brunt of the fighting—for they received most of the blows—they were soon well-nigh hacked to pieces.
Suddenly a great shout went up. Hugh, seeing his chance, had dealt a terrible blow and caught the handle of his adversary's axe. The head flew off, and Hertseg, with a snarl like an enraged tiger, sprang back, threw the piece away and drew his sword.
At once Hugh sprang back, threw away his own axe, and drew his sword likewise.
A great clamour went up on all sides; and there were many cries of "Skoal! Skoal to the stranger!"
So now they fought with swords; and here Hugh felt himself on safer ground. Hertseg was a better swordsman than Kern, and a more formidable antagonist in every way; but Hugh proved to be as good a match for him with the sword as he had been with the battle-axe.
Meanwhile Ruxton had held his own with "Berdrok the Fierce," and, stimulated by Hugh's example, was watching for a similar chance. It was not long in offering itself; he dealt a tremendous stroke at Berdrok's head which the Viking caught, indeed, upon his shield, but with the result that it was shivered to pieces.
Without his shield the Viking was at a disadvantage. Therefore said Val to him:
"Throw away thine axe, and I will throw away both axe and shield. Then we shall be equal again, and can fight with our swords."
FOR a moment or two the Viking seemed suspicious that this offer was a trick and hesitated. Then as Ruxton threw his shield away, the other did the same with his axe, Ruxton then followed suit with his and drew his sword, and thus were they placed on equal terms once more.
By this time it had become clear to the spectators that Hertseg was weakening. Hugh's splendid strength, and his seemingly tireless right arm, were wearing him down, even as they had worn down Kern.
Presently, after each had received another slight wound or two, the end came quite suddenly. Hugh, with a mighty cut, sent the Viking's sword flying out of his hand.
"Now yield thee, insolent jarl!" cried Hugh, holding his sword's point at the Viking's throat. "Yield, and beg my pardon for the insults thou hast put upon me, or, by the gods thou believest in, thou hast fought thy last fight!"
"I yield thee best, stranger," said the jarl, in tones so low that they were only just audible amidst the shouting and tumult that this unexpected ending of the fight had aroused.
Hugh lowered his sword and turned his head to see how his chum was faring. As he did so, Hertseg rushed at him, and got within his guard and grappled with him. In one hand he swung aloft a naked dagger, though it had been agreed that no daggers were to be used, and Hugh's had been taken from him.
Another moment and the treacherous jarl would have struck home, but just then a pistol shot rang out, the dagger was struck from the hand which held it, and which fell to the man's side covered with blood.
It was Cable who had fired the shot. As instructed by Ruxton, he had watched every phase of the double duel, and well had he now carried out his trust.
In the midst of the confusion that ensued a messenger came rushing in with news:
"My lord, our enemies are coming!" he cried. "Their war galleys are even now drawing nigh to the shore!"
This put an end to all thoughts of proceeding further with the duel still in progress. Berdrok hastened to his master's side to confer with him, while Hertseg hurried off to bind up his wounded hand.
Hugh sought out Rudlaff and Kern.
"Let us join with you," he said. "We offer you the services of ourselves and our followers!"
Rudlaff did not accept Hugh's offer at once. "I must first consult the chief," was his answer. "Tarry ye here while I try to get speech with him."
With which he went away and became lost to view in the crowd of notables by whom Osth was surrounded, and who seemed to be all talking at once.
When he returned he seemed uneasy and unsettled in his mind, and he glanced doubtfully at the strangers as he addressed them.
"My orders are that ye may come with me," he said, "but our lord Osth will make no promise as to what your ultimate fate shall be. If ye show yourselves to be good fighters against our enemies that may count for much, but he promises nothing. On the other hand, if ye should attempt to desert us, or to act the part of spies or cowards, I am to order my men to put ye to death at once on the spot. So now ye have fair warning."
"We are not likely to act any such part as thou hast hinted," returned Hugh, disdainfully. "We are honourable men."
"All the same, ye would have done better to have kept away from our land," Rudlaff declared, darkly. "Remember, I promise you nothing. Moreover, there is another matter—"
"What may that be, jarl?" Ruxton put in, as the jarl hesitated.
"Why, news has just reached us that other strangers have arrived in our land—a more numerous band than ye have with you—and that they are taking part with our enemies against us. Very likely they are your friends, and ye may strive to join yourselves with them. Now, therefore, I warn you that should you attempt to do so, my men will fall upon you at once."
The two chums looked at each other.
"Grimstock and his gang!" muttered Hugh. "So, then, they have arrived here! And they have taken sides with the other party! This is a queer outcome of it all!"
"It's Fate!" Val declared. "Let's hope we shall come across them—it may give us a chance to pay back a little of what we owe them—the murdering hounds!"
"I cry ditto to that!" Hugh returned, with enthusiasm. Then a smile crossed his face. "But it's rather a funny suggestion that of our friend here. He is afraid we may look for an opportunity of rushing over to these countrymen of ours, in order, I suppose, to fall upon their necks and greet them as long-lost brothers!"
This idea struck them as so comical that they both laughed aloud.
"It is no matter for laughter," growled Rudlaff, frowning.
"We laugh, jarl," Hugh explained, "at the idea of our wishing to join ourselves to these other strangers of whom thou hast made mention. Be it known then to thee that they are our bitter enemies. They desired to murder us, to which end they deserted us in brutal and cowardly fashion and left us to die in the great White Wilderness. They went off, carrying with them even our stores of food and clothes and weapons. That is how it came about that we arrived here in the sad plight in which thou didst find us—without food or arms, and clad in rags, like common churls. Judge, then, for thyself, whether we are likely to desire to go over to them. So far from that, nothing will please us better than to fight them alongside thee and thy people. We have a score against them which we shall be only too glad to pay off."
"I hope thou wilt help us to do so, jarl," said Ruxton, very earnestly. "'Twas a base trick these men played us—a most shameful, scurvy trick. 'Twas what thou wouldst call, in thy language, a nithing deed, and they deserve no mercy either at thy hands or ours."
"So, so! I am glad to know this," answered the jarl. "We may be able to assist thee in paying off thy score!"
A little later, when the friends were able to get a word together, Ruxton said:
"This is rather serious news, though, about Grimstock and his band! They have plenty of firearms and ammunition—"
"Yes, thanks to what they stole from me; they were paid for with my money!" exclaimed Hugh bitterly.
"It's a wicked business—but I'm very much afraid they've got the whip hand of us. They'll probably be able to drive our side before them like so many sheep. As soon as Osth's men hear the rifles popping, find the bullets singing about their ears, and see men falling mysteriously, there will be a panic, they'll turn tail—and the tremendous civil war will be over."
"I don't know," returned Hugh thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure they'll have it so much their own way as all that. The armour these people wear will turn many a bullet, and if we can put heart into them and stay the panic, and we can get to close quarters, we may still have a chance. At any rate, I mean to try."
"Right-ho! I'm with you there. If we can get some of our own back it will be better than nothing. Otherwise—so far as gratitude from Osth and his crowd is concerned—I am very much afraid—"
"Ah! that reminds me," exclaimed Hugh. "While I was in that cage—just after the yellow-haired beauty gave in so unexpectedly—someone behind me breathed into my ears a warning against Osth."
And he told Ruxton what had been said.
"And you have no idea who it was?" Val commented.
"Haven't the slightest notion. By the time I looked about, several people had crowded round the cage, and though I searched their faces for some sign which would indicate which one had spoken, I could make nothing of it."
"It must have been someone who has no cause to love Osth," muttered Ruxton. "And I dare say," he went on gloomily, "he knew what he was talking about. I fear he was about right—if so, it is of little use for us to hope for anything from that johnny. It's a bright outlook, certainly. On the one hand, if Osth's people are victorious, we have nothing to hope for in the way of gratitude for helping him. On the other hand, if his enemies gain the day, we run a good chance of falling into the clutches of Grimstock and his gang as prisoners of war, and I don't think we can look for much gratitude—or mercy either—there!
"Well, we must do our best," cried Hugh cheerily, "and leave the rest to Providence. After all, we shall have some fun—fancy taking part in an old-world fight between these Viking chaps, rigged out just as their ancestors were a thousand years ago, and in their funny old galleys, too—a Viking sea-fight! Jupiter! I know some chaps at home who would give almost all they have in the world to have such an experience."
"That's true enough," rejoined Ruxton, laughing. "Yes, you're right—it will be a wonderful experience, and we are certain to get some fun out of it if nothing else."
And then their talk ceased, for they had reached the landing-place, where they saw a crowd of armed men scrambling on board their vessels. A few minutes later they found themselves on board the galley again, where they noticed several sails ready for hoisting, and sailors standing beside them waiting for the signal to start.
Looking out across the lake the friends were surprised to see that a great change had taken place. A stiff breeze had sprung up, and the water, which had before been so placid, was now broken, and appeared to be momentarily becoming rougher.
There, in the extreme distance, a number of galleys could be seen coming on under both sails and oars. These were the vessels of the rival chief, Gerwulf, and they were advancing in three lines.
Meantime, amongst Osth's men, there was a good deal of confusion. They were getting their galleys out and hoisting their sails, in eager haste, the result being, in many cases, an illustration of the old proverb "the more haste the less speed."
However, though Osth seemed to have been taken by surprise to some extent—or he would not have been amusing himself with jousts and duels at the very time his enemies were sailing against him—he had evidently made all due preparation for an attack. After the first burst of excitement had passed things settled down, something like order was restored, and the vessels got under way.
The Cedric, as the galley in which the strangers sailed was called, was one of the first to be put off. As a consequence, she had to lie off-and-on, in order to give others time to come into line, and this afforded the chums an opportunity of seeing how Rudlaff and his men managed their sails in the wind that was blowing.
"I think I could teach 'em a wrinkle or two," Ruxton commented, "if this is a specimen of their seamanship."
"I agree with you," laughed Hugh. "Here, again, I think one can see that they are a bit out of practice."
"But only as regards these old war-galleys, Hugh," Ruxton added. "Look over yonder at those smaller craft! They are being handled in really clever style!"
Gradually, but far more quickly than had at one time seemed possible, the whole fleet ranged up in the same formation as that of their adversaries—in three lines—and then went forward, amid much shouting and singing of war-songs.
And now, once again, Hugh and Ruxton found themselves strangely influenced by the stirring strains of the melodies that were chanted forth in ringing, sonorous notes by the men around them.
They began to feel the same curious sensations as they had been conscious of the previous night, when they had first heard these songs. The blood was again sent surging and dancing through their veins as though they had drunk some fiery elixir, but now the vague images and undefined longings which were awakening seemed to take definite form, and they knew the feeling for what it really was.
It was the lust of battle. The first beginnings of that old-world "berserker" rage, by which, if we are to believe the ancient records, the old-world Vikings were possessed when they went forth to battle. According to the old historians, it accounted, in many cases, for the unexpected victories which these sea-rovers so often gained over vastly superior numbers.
In each vessel was a scald—or, as we should call him, a minstrel—with a curious kind of harp, which would send forth the weirdest and most extraordinary sounds as his practised hand swept the strings. He led the singing, and the eerie music his instrument sent forth was reinforced by other instruments scarcely less weird. These joined in at intervals with great clashes that sounded discordant enough, judged by our ideas of music, and yet, had a wild, fantastic harmony of their own.
These scalds and their assistants exhibited great skill in their art. At first, the soldiers and crews of the vessels, who joined in with their deep, hoarse voices, sang on in what was for them a comparatively quiet manner. There was a dreamy, swinging rhythm that kept time with the rise and fall of the oars. After a while, it began to grow in volume and intensity; the time quickening again and again, and so it rose and fell till it at last swelled out into grand cadences such as no written description can possibly do justice to.
By the time the two fleets drew near to each other, the songs, so melodiously begun, had developed into fierce, frenzied outbursts that carried with them once again the scream of the gale and the tempest's roar, and told, as with a savage glee, of deadly strife and ferocious combat, of "battle, murder, and sudden death."
Hugh and Ruxton were both conscious of these things as they gazed at the men round them, listened to their singing, and noted the change in their appearance as they roared out the chorus—noted the sombre fire lighting up their flashing eyes, and the strained, eager look on their flushed faces.
And then, it was borne in upon the two friends that they were themselves falling under the influence of this "berserker" spell. Somehow—almost before they knew what they were doing—they found themselves joining their own voices to those of the singers.
THEIR eyes, too—though this they knew not—were glistening as they had never glistened before, while their faces became suffused with a red glow of hectic fever.
Then, as the two officers, Rudlaff and Kern, drew their swords and waved them frantically in the air, in time to the barbaric music, Hugh and Ruxton drew theirs and waved them with no less energy—and even Mike and Cable and Melka followed suit.
They were all, indeed, by this time, behaving like men who had "looked upon the wine when it was red"—men who had drunk so deeply that they "saw red."
As had been said, it was the "berserker" that had taken possession of them, the mysterious, irresistible fury and lust of battle of the ancient sea-wolves; the passing madness, which, we are told, made the weak strong, turned cowards into momentarily brave men, and men who were already both brave and strong, into god-like heroes, capable of feats of seemingly impossible prowess.
The Vikings were now all under the influence of this "berserker"—even to the strangers within their gates—or rather, on board their vessels.
And now, the two fleets had drawn so near to each other that the bowmen began to send their arrows hissing through the air, and the slingers their showers of stones.
To ward off these missiles, the shields were brought into play, and as they were turned this way and that, they flashed like thousands of brilliant points of light.
Soon, again, as the vessels drew closer still, other and heavier missiles were brought into play. Javelins and spears were hurled with such force as often to plough their way through both shield and armour behind it. Then was heard the death-cry, that rose even above all the frenzied clamour of the shouting throngs, and told that the soul of some stricken one had gone to the Vikings' "Stormland."
Such was the scene, such were the sounds that were heard as the opposing vessels began to crash into one another, and the fight commenced in grim, deadly, earnest!
It was a stirring and exciting spectacle that was presented, or would have been presented—had there been any eye-witnesses aloft, say, in an airship, to look down upon it—as the two fleets came into action.
The sun was shining brightly, and it sparkled not only upon the dancing, foaming waves, but upon the thousands of pieces of polished metal worn by the armed men who crowded the opposite craft.
It shone, too, upon gorgeous banners of various designs, which swung aloft beside or above the bellying sails and the creaking cordage. They were the banners of the Vikings of old, and the devices emblazoned on them in glowing colours were representative of Odin or other Scandinavian deities.
It was around these banners that the fight always waxed hottest. Wherever any of the rival vessels became locked together and boarders from one crowded onto another, there was no pause in the struggle that ensued until the banner flying overhead had been hauled down. This once done, however, the effect was almost magical; the beaten side submitted at once, and yielded themselves prisoners.
The first of the enemy's fleet with which the Cedric came in contact was a large war-galley called the Colbrand. She flew the proud banner of Colbrand, the celebrated giant of Scandinavian mythology. She was commanded by a big, heavily-built Viking, named Osric, himself almost a giant, who was the son of Gerwulf, the rival chieftain.
The Colbrand was a larger craft than the Cedric, and came crashing down upon her with a terrible force, amid a perfect hail of arrows and other missiles.
There was a great shock as the two came together, and ere there was time to realise what had happened, Osric had sprung on board near the bow, at the head of a party of boarders. Evidently, the officer in charge of the Cedric was known to him, for he singled him out by name.
"Now, yield ye, Rudlaff!" he cried, as he rushed forward. "Yield ye, or by Colbrand, our patron, thou diest, here and now—thou and all the crowd of nithings thou hast around thee!"
In his haste to get at Rudlaff, the boastful warrior actually tried to sweep past Hugh, as though he had been brushing aside some churl, too insignificant even to cut down.
Now, Hugh was not in any mood to relish being thus treated. Had the man's manner been different, he might have given way; for, of course, Rudlaff had the first right in such a case. But Hugh's blood was up, and this swaggering warrior was so insolent that Hugh did not stay to reason.
He planted himself, therefore, right in the fellow's way and aimed at him a blow with his axe, which, however, the man caught, deftly enough, on his shield. At the same moment there was an outcry behind Hugh. Another galley had crashed alongside, and a boarding party were already clambering over the bulwarks at the stern.
Rudlaff had no choice but to turn to deal with this new danger.
"Leave this to me and look ye after the strangers," he cried hastily, to his lieutenant. And Kern, obedient to his orders, thereupon went forward, with some of his men, to support Hugh.
Thus did it come about that the two chums and their followers bore the brunt of the formidable attack led by Osric.
Ruxton, darting to Hugh's side, had been just in time to save him from a sinister blow aimed by one of Osric's lieutenants, one whose name they afterwards found to be Hahrmund, a stalwart, bearded fellow, nearly as big as Osric. This man quickly showed himself to be no mean fighter, and at once took up all Val's attention.
Mike and the others rushed up to aid their leaders by holding back the rest of the boarding party, and they were aided in turn by Kern and his men, and thus did our heroes' first fight that day commence.
As to how it went on, not even they themselves could afterwards have given any coherent account. The "berserker" confuses the senses and spreads a strange kind of mist before the eyes of those under its influence—so 'tis said, and their recollections of this eventful struggle certainly seemed to bear out the statement.
What is certain, is that the boarding party on this side were forced back in the face of the resistless counter-attack led by the two chums. The opposing leaders, both wounded, but still fighting stubbornly, retired sullenly, till they reached their own vessel.
Here they halted, and seemed as though they would have been quite willing to throw off their grappling hooks and sail away in search of some vessel which might prove less difficult to capture.
This, however, Hugh was by no means in the humour to assent to. No sooner had the assailants been driven back on to their vessel, than they found those they had been attacking, tumbling over the bulwarks after them. And so determined was this onslaught that Osric and his men were, for a while, swept back across their own deck.
There they rallied their men and turned to bay, and a fierce and hard-fought fight ensued, in which the two chums contended desperately against a force numbering something like three times their own.
The position at this time was a somewhat curious one. The two vessels were head on to each other, the bows, which overlapped, so to speak, being firmly held together by grapples. In the stern of each a fierce fight was raging, leaving more than half the deck of each free.
This space was occupied only by a few thralls, or other non-combatants, and amongst these were the old man, Amaki, and his two native followers.
Eskimos are not by nature a fighting race, and these particular members of it made no pretence at being an exception—though they could use a rifle well enough when required for shooting game for their larder. As regards this present fight, they had done no more thus far than look on with apparently languid curiosity, displaying only just energy enough to keep out of the way of hard knocks.
Now all was suddenly changed, and there followed some most mysterious proceedings. Old Amaki, after looking cautiously but keenly around, approached one of the thralls and a short but evidently earnest talk ensued. Lybendo was called to assist at the conference, and then, after a few more words, and more cautious glances round, he and two or three others disappeared below.
Scarcely a minute, however, elapsed ere they reappeared, carrying with them some pretty heavy loads. Amaki and his strange thrall friend—a tall, elderly man with grey-bearded face—caught up the loads and assisted to carry them to the bow, and so over the bulwarks onto the deck of the vessel on which Hugh and his men were still desperately fighting.
Lybendo and his companions, after another visit below, quickly followed with more loads, which were placed out of sight under some spare sails. Meantime, the chums had been fighting like the heroes of old against practically overwhelming odds. At first, their impetuous rush had carried everything before them, and many of their enemies had turned tail and sought safety below the deck.
But Osric and Hahrmund, though, as stated, both wounded, were stubborn fighters, and had not only managed to stay the rout, but, after a while, succeeded in rallying their followers and putting fresh heart into them.
The men who had sought safety below were rounded up, and returned to help their leaders, who now, once more, took the offensive and attacked Hugh and his small following with fresh fury.
This time, it was the chums who had to give ground.. It had become obvious that their courage had led them too far and landed them in an untenable position. Of course, they had been hoping and expecting that Rudlaff would follow with his men to their assistance, having no idea that the jarl had as much as he could do to hold his own against a separate attack.
Hugh managed to snatch a moment to look round, and it was as much as he could do to repress an exclamation of dismay as he saw that the grappling irons had somehow been removed or given way, and the two vessels were drifting apart.
THUS their retreat had been cut off, and their situation rendered well-nigh hopeless. They were isolated, there, on the foemen's galley, contending against a force that now outnumbered them by fully three or four to one.
Osric, the opposing leader, saw Hugh glance round, and looked, too, and then he also realised what had happened.
"Now, yield ye, whoever ye are!" he cried, and there was the ring of triumph in his voice. "Yield, at once, ere we put an end to your insolence by cutting you to pieces. Yield—or take the consequences!"
Hugh and Ruxton glanced despairingly this way and that, but no means of escape could they see—nor was there any longer reasonable hope of being able to prevail against such odds. Their foes had taken fresh heart, and their faces were already grinning with malignant triumph.
But yield the chums would not, all the same. They knew, from what they had already heard, what their fate was certain to be if they did, and they preferred death, then and there, to living on as thralls for the rest of their lives.
"Good-bye, Val! Good-bye, all!" cried Hugh. "We can but die once! Don't forget your revolver, though."
He drew his own pistol, and was about to rush recklessly forward once more, when he was arrested by an unexpected and most astonishing sound.
It was neither more nor less than the report of several rifles quite close at hand—just, in fact, behind him.
He saw his foes falling on every side. There were more shots, and more men fell. His first idea was that a vessel must have come alongside containing Grimstock and his band, and that it was they who were firing. But it was his—Hugh's enemies—against whom these deadly bullets were being aimed! What did it all mean?
He looked round, and, to his astonishment, saw Amaki and his two natives with smoking rifles in their hands. They had opened fire in the very nick of time, and once more turned the tide of battle—for their well-aimed bullets had spread panic and confusion amongst their foes, who were already taking to flight.
But Hugh knew that their stock of cartridges was small—indeed, he wondered where those already fired could have come from—so he called out to them to cease firing, in order to economise what ammunition was left.
Instead, however, they coolly continued the fusilade.
Again and again did the three reload and fire, as serenely as though they had at their back a whole arsenal filled with reserve ammunition. And it was not until Hugh came rushing over to compel them to cease firing that they ceased.
"Stop that! That's enough! You'll waste every blessed cartridge we've got!" he cried angrily as he came up.
"No, no. Plenty more," was the surprising answer.
"Plenty more, you idiots! How can there be plenty more, when—? Hullo! What in the name of wonder does this mean?"
Hugh stood and stared like one in a dream. There, with the shouts of battle all around, with the death-shrieks filling the air, the triumphant shouts of victors, the groans of the stricken ones, forgetting all else, staring at the Eskimos.
"Wh—what—does this mean?" he asked slowly. He pointed to the rifles.
Amaki smiled his peculiar smile and quietly offered him his own rifle.
"This one—Mister Huston's," he muttered in his broken English, handing over also Val's rifle. "Him good rifle—shoot well—got plenty bullet-pills," which was his quaint word for cartridges.
Hugh took the two rifles and stared at the other two which he saw in the hands of Amaki's companions. "Where did they come from? How many cartridges have you got?" he asked.
"Heap bullet-pills," was the answer. And Amaki began to produce cartridges from his clothes like a conjuring trick. And Hugh saw that not only had the old man more rifle cartridges than he had any idea of—in spite of his having already used so many—but that he had spare rifles, and a lot of revolver cartridges as well.
Utterly nonplussed though he was, Hugh plumped upon these last and stowed some away in his clothes.
Then the remembrance of the strange situation came back to him, and he began to look about.
First he caught sight of the Cedric, which had drifted away, and he noticed, with a start, that the Raven Banner was no longer flying. This told him that Rudlaff must have been beaten and captured, with his vessel. Still, he was bewildered, and unable to understand what had happened.
"You did this?" he asked Amaki. "You threw off the grappling irons and set us clear just in time to save us from being attacked in the rear by those other johnnies, eh?"
Amaki did not understand the words exactly, but he guessed at their meaning, and he nodded vigorously.
"It's wonderful! Marvellous!" exclaimed Hugh. "It's like a fairy tale! But—where did those rifles—and all this ammunition come from?"
Meantime, Ruxton had been taking practical measures to reap the full advantage of the favourable position which Amaki's unexpected intervention had brought about. He had made the wounded leaders prisoners and taken command of the vessel and all the people on board. The men—soldiers and sailors alike—were thoroughly cowed by what had taken place, while the young officer, Kern, was too astounded and dazed to offer any opposition.
Hugh now came up to his chum, bearing the two rifles and some cartridges, and explained briefly what had occurred, so far as his understanding went—which, as he remarked, "doesn't amount to much."
"I wish, Val," he said, "you would go over and talk to Amaki, and get out of him what it all means. You understand his lingo—which is more than I do—and you may be able to get him to explain this most amazing puzzle. As for me, at present, I scarcely know whether I am on my head or my heels!"
"I'll go if you take my place here," said Val. "We must make up our minds quickly what our next move is to be. We've captured the ship—thanks, as it seems, to Amaki—what are we going to do next? They won't let us alone long, you may be pretty sure."
He went across to Amaki, while Hugh busied himself with the care of the wounded and prisoners. Ruxton remained for some time talking in a low tone with Amaki, and when he at last finished and returned to Hugh, there was an expression on his face stranger and more inscrutable than anything his chum had ever seen there before.
"See here, Hugh!" he cried. "We must 'bout ship and do our best to get out of this, now we've got a vessel to ourselves, by showing 'em a clean pair of heels."
"What?" cried Hugh. "Turn tail and run away, just as we've gained such a signal success? Why! what will they think of us? They'll think we're cowards, indeed!"
"Nonsense, man!" said Ruxton, and in his voice there was a ring of new and unexpected sternness and determination. "What have we to do with the pretty squabbles and quarrels of these people? We have our own safety to think of! Providence has placed in our hands a means of escape—and, by Heaven, we're not going to throw it away!"
HUGH looked wonderingly at his friend. He could not in the least see how the fact that they had captured a vessel and held control of it was going to aid them to escape. How, he asked himself, could they cross the great White Wilderness? If they fled into it again, it would only mean that they would starve to death there, as they had so nearly done before. The very thought of returning there made him shudder.
Yet Ruxton was firm in refusing to answer any questions or give any farther information just then. His manner said plainly: "You must trust me for a while. I cannot tell you at present all I know or suspect."
In the end, Hugh put his curiosity in his pocket, so to speak, and set himself loyally to work to back up his chum in whatever he had made up his mind to do. "Of course," he reflected, "I know I can trust him. He will explain everything when the time comes."
The tide of battle had drifted away from them. Gerwulf's people seemed to be getting the best of the fight, and they were following up their successes and pursuing Osth's men, who were apparently in full retreat towards the land from which they had started. The Cedric was now flying a different banner—a sign that she had been captured— and was being towed off by the victors. They expected that the Colbrand would follow, for the banner of the mythical giant still streamed out in the breeze, and no one outside the vessel knew that she had "changed hands."
It was not till some time later, when she was seen to be making her way with all speed towards the head of the lake, that something wrong was suspected, and pursuers were despatched to inquire into matters and bring her back.
Meanwhile she continued on her course as fast as oars and sails, with a good wind behind them, could send her along. Ruxton marched up and down keeping a sharp look-out on all sides, though at times he seemed to be almost lost in thought. Hugh kept an eye on things in general, speculating all the time as to what was going to happen when they reached the end of the lake.
Then it was that the two sailors, Mike and Cable, came rushing from below, their excited faces showing that they were almost ready to burst with news of some startling discovery.
"They be below, sir!" cried Bob. "I see 'em meself! Nigh all on 'em!"
"Thrue for you, Bob, darlint; it's roight, ye are," Mike put in. "Saints above us! I niver was more surprised in me loife!"
"What are you talking about? Who are you talking about?" Hugh demanded.
"Them theer land pirates. Them murderin' galoots," said Cable.
"Thrue for ye, Bob," Mike confirmed again. "Oh, the wicked divils!"
"For goodness' sake talk sense!" exclaimed Hugh testily. "I'm getting a bit tired of all these mysteries. What on earth is it, now?"
"Grimstock, sir—it's Grimstock, an' his handsome crowd," was Cable's astonishing answer. "They be down below—a toilin' an' a sweatin' away at the oars, chained down to their seats like—like—well, like chained monkeys made t' work."
Investigation proved this to be true. There they were, between decks below, a pitiable sight, chained in their places, with iron collars round their necks, and toiling at their work under the supervision of trained taskmasters armed with whips.
Cable and Mike had been told off by Ruxton to keep an eye on these taskmasters themselves, in case they should attempt to play any tricks. Urged by curiosity, they had wandered in amongst the wretched rowers, and had almost wandered out again without making any discovery—so dark and dismal was the place in which they worked—when a smothered exclamation in English from one of the wretched beings had drawn their closer attention. Then they had looked more carefully into the haggard, half-starved faces; with the result that they had—after some hesitation—recognised Grimstock and the skipper, McClinter.
"Val," said Hugh, aside, to his chum, "I must have that man out so that I can question him. I will now force the truth from him about my father. He shall tell it to me—at last—or I will know the reason why!"
Ruxton nodded. "Ay—ay! I quite understand, Hugh," he said. "But first come up on deck. I want to ask you a question."
Hugh followed impatiently to the poop deck, where Val turned, and, looking at him, said, steadily:
"The question which I wish to ask you is this: 'Have you ever considered the possibility that your father might have struggled on and won through and reached this country alive, even as we did?'"
Hugh looked at his questioner in doubt and surprise. Evidently, no such thought had ever occurred to him, but now that it was suggested, the idea caused him strange sensations.
"Val!" he cried—or rather, almost gasped: "You seem to know something—or you suspect! Oh! It could not be! And yet—stranger things perhaps have been! Val, for pity's sake, if you have anything to tell me, do not keep me in suspense!"
"I know nothing with absolute certainty, Hugh," returned Val, gravely. "All I can tell you is this: A good many years ago—somewhere about the time your father is supposed to have met his death in the White Wilderness, in this direction—a traveller with two or three Eskimo companions found his way, half dead, to this country. They were made prisoners and condemned to work in the mines as thralls. But a few years since they escaped with a small party of companions, and were killed by the borghens—the yellow-haired monsters.
"That is one account. But there is another story which declares that they managed to make friends with the borghens, and have lived on ever since in some of the innumerable caverns and endless underground labyrinths with which the whole of the mountains hereabouts are honeycombed. Not content with that, however, they have—so the story goes—even made reprisals, by way of revenge, for the suffering they underwent while in the mines.
"These borghens, it seems, are greatly feared by the Vikings. They are declared to be a most savage, ferocious, untameable race, and, of late years, they seem to have increased, not only in numbers, but in intelligence. They have made raids and destroyed property, and even carried off some of those who had incurred their displeasure, just as any race of human outlaws might do. And rumour explains this by declaring that they are now ruled and directed by these escaped slaves—one of whom, at any rate, was believed to have been a very clever man.
"I have learned all this from Amaki and Melka, to whom it has been told in some mysterious way by one or other of the thralls they have made friends with. Now, I don't wish to raise what may turn out to be false hopes in your breast, so I merely give you what seem to be the bare facts. What do you think of them? Do they suggest anything to your mind?"
Hugh shook his head helplessly.
"I don't seem able to think properly, Val," he said, almost in a whisper. "This account raises such strange thoughts—suggests such extraordinary possibilities that I feel bewildered! If you have anything in your mind that would bid me hope, I entreat you to tell it to me."
"That's just where the difficulty comes in, my dear friend," returned Val. "You see, on the one hand, this strange man may not be the one we have in our mind at all. On the other—"
"Yes, yes! Go on! On the other—"
"On the other hand, I have had a dim suspicion of something of the sort being possible ever since the night of your encounter with 'Caliban' in the cavern."
"You have?" cried Hugh, reproachfully; "and you never told me—never even hinted it to me!"
"But I did hint it—only, I dared not put it plainly, for fear, as I have said, of raising hopes that might lead only to the most bitter disappointment. It has suggested itself to me when I have seen your strange influence over those ferocious brutes, and noticed the peculiar look of dumb, almost pathetic inquiry in their eyes each time you spoke to them—this has suggested to me, I say, the idea that they have, or had, some master whom they feared and obeyed—perhaps, even loved—who can tell? And that your voice was so like the voice of that master that they knew not what to make of it. When they heard you speak, they recognised the voice of their master and obeyed. Yet, when they looked at you, they saw it was not their master, and they were puzzled. Now, do you understand?"
"I think I do," murmured Hugh, striding restlessly up and down. "You mean that my voice and my father's may be very much alike. But tell me—when will this question be put to the test? When shall I be out of this terrible suspense?"
"This evening—in less than an hour's time, I hope. My only reason for not telling you before was that it seemed such a cruel thing to raise false hopes—if it should so turn out. We are presently to meet this mysterious being, and he has promised Amaki—through another—to help us to escape. He says he has everything needful—arms, stores, sledges. And, as a pledge, he sent, secretly, the rifles and cartridges hidden on board the Cedric by friendly thralls. There! Now you know as much as I do!"
"Ah, but there is something else," exclaimed Hugh. "These cartridges are our own—my own—which Grimstock stole from me! I recognised them—and you, too, know that they are the latest make—how otherwise, then, could they be there? Now, what does that mean? Here is more mystery!"
"Yes; you are right," said Val, after looking carefully at one of the cartridges. "That point did not strike me. Well! The enigma will be explained ere very long now. But don't you think, Hugh, that, in these circumstances, it would be better to postpone questioning Grimstock till we know for certain—whether—" Val paused.
"Whether this man is my father, you mean," Hugh finished for him. "Yes; I do think so. If it should turn out that my father is really alive, then it will be his place to deal with Grimstock—not mine!"
"Exactly. That is what I felt and wished to say, only I scarcely knew how to put it. Now, then, we will leave Grimstock and company where they are, till—as I dare to hope—we can turn them over to someone who has a stronger claim to them than even we have."
Just then, Cable's voice was heard hailing from near the bow.
RUXTON looked round.
"Jimmy! A sail! Yes; there she is! A clipper, too!" he cried. "Coming up hand over hand! They've missed us and are giving chase! We'll have to fight again yet, before we get clear I'm thinking!"
At first the two friends thought it might be possible to reach the head of the lake before the pursuing craft came up with them. But she gained upon the Colbrand so fast that they had soon to abandon that idea.
The appearance, moreover, of two other vessels in the distance, evidently bound on the same errand, complicated matters still further, and convinced them that it would be hopeless to risk a fight on board the galley. All the pursuers were seen to be sailing under the banners of Osth, a fact which caused some surprise.
"Osth must have got the best of it, after all, then," Ruxton commented.
"Perhaps the seeming retreat of his people was but a ruse to draw the others on."
"His victory must have been a pretty decisive one," Hugh speculated, "to allow him time and leisure to come after us like this."
"Well, we can't fight the lot, situated as we are—that's certain," Val decided. "So the only thing I can see for us to do is to run this heavy awkward craft aground, and get out of her. We can wade ashore, and set off for our destination on foot. Once we gain the woods we shall be safe from attack, at any rate, for a while, even if they decide to follow us up."
"But how are we to find our way to—to the one you said you expected to meet?" Hugh asked, doubtfully.
"I must question Amaki and his friends as to that. I expect they know their way."
Amaki was sent for, and with him came a couple of men dressed in homely garb—the two who had aided in carrying the parcels of cartridges from the Cedric on to the Colbrand.
A short conference confirmed Ruxton in his plan, and they set to work at once to carry it out.
The galley was run ashore, and the little band left it in two parties. The first, under Hugh, carried the extra ammunition and some provisions, and some of them set off at once for the nearest wood, while Hugh and Amaki stood on the bank, and, rifles in hand, covered the departure from the galley of Ruxton and the two sailors.
It was not an easy manoeuvre to carry out, for they knew that some treacherous attack was pretty sure to be made on them ere they could reach the bank.
To guard against this, as far as possible, they waded ashore crab-fashion—i.e., sideways. And it was well they did so, for two or three javelins were hurled after them, which, thanks to this precaution, they were able to throw off with their shields. At the same moment, the rifles on the bank rang out, and the treacherous spear-throwers paid the penalty of their murderous intent.
The afternoon was drawing to a close as they all gained the shelter of the wood and disappeared from sight, but though they were all about worn out from the exertions of this eventful day, they had no choice but to hurry on. As Ruxton said, the more space they could put between themselves and Osth's myrmidons, the less likelihood would there be of an immediate attack.
Their two guides, both elderly men, with grim, weather-worn faces that told of lives of exposure and privation, were reserved and uncommunicative, and no information could be extracted from them. Their replies to questions were usually, "I know not," or "We can tell you nothing; you must ask our master."
Night fell and the moon shone out, and found them still tramping along the mountain slopes.
At last their guides called a halt, and announced that they had reached the place appointed. As, however, there was no sign of any one being there to meet them, and they were now all tired out, it was decided to rest at the place till the morning. So far as they could guess, it seemed likely that they had not been followed, but it was only a guess and no more. The last they had seen of their enemies had been a glimpse they had obtained from a rock overlooking the lake, just about sunset. There had then been no less than three other vessels round the stranded Colbrand, and some sort of a fight seemed to be in progress.
But the fugitives had not waited to see how it ended.
The place their guides had brought them to seemed well suited for defence in case of their being attacked by superior numbers. Hugh and Ruxton, having satisfied themselves as to this, and found that there was a cave at hand to sleep in, quickly made their dispositions and lay down to a much needed rest.
At dawn they were astir, and as the one they were expecting was still absent, they decided to wait a few hours longer ere they made another move.
They were on a rocky terrace on the side of a mountain. In the distance was the lake, on which, as the light grew stronger, they could just make out two or three sails. Evidently, therefore, the Vikings were still somewhere about, and it would be necessary to keep a sharp look-out in order to guard against any sudden attack.
Below the terrace was a grassy slope, and below this again another slope thinly covered with trees. Behind them was a high rock flanked on each side by thick wood.
Taking stock of their arms, it was found that there was a rifle for each of the eight able to handle firearms—their two guides knowing nothing about such weapons.
Hugh was restless, anxious, and uneasy. He was deeply disappointed at the fact that the mysterious unknown had seemingly failed to keep his promise. Buxton, too, was perturbed. They had very little in the way of provisions, and save for the fact that they were now well armed, they seemed to be little better off than they had been before encountering the Vikings.
"It seemed to me," Hugh muttered, "that there must have been some misunderstanding. Hadn't you better have another talk with Amaki and question him, to see—"
Just then came a hail from Cable, who had mounted the rock at the back of the terrace as a look-out station.
"Below, ahoy! Are ye there, sir?"
"We're here, Bob," Val called out. "What is it?"
"Them pirates be a comin'—an' theer's a good crowd of 'em, too!"
A moment or two later the sailor had descended to give further particulars.
"I c'd reckernise several o' the galoots," he declared. "The boss o' the show, an' they chaps as you was a fight-in' wi'."
"What?—Osth himself, and Hertseg, and Berdrok?"
"Ay, ay, sir; they be the names. They be all comin'."
"Good news!" cried Hugh through his set teeth. "This is good news indeed! It went sore against the grain to think of leaving here—if, indeed, there is any chance of our getting away—with the score we owe those chaps unpaid! Now there is a chance of not only getting our own back but avenging the awful suffering they have inflicted on others. What glorious news!"
Ruxton laughed at his enthusiasm.
"Well, we'll try to teach them a lesson in good manners, at any rate!" he joined in. "Now then, lads, get the cartridges out, and take your stations. We couldn't have had a better place for defence than this if it had been chosen on purpose."
Then a thought came to him; and he and Hugh looked at each other.
"Perhaps it was chosen on purpose," said Hugh in a low tone.
"Perhaps—yes—who knows?" Ruxton murmured thoughtfully; and then relapsed into silence.
It certainly was a well-chosen position—if chosen it had been. The terrace on which they stood was five or six feet above the grassy slope below, so that, after mounting the slope, a wall of rock of that height had to be scaled before the terrace itself could be reached. And at the edge of the ledge were numerous bushes and stunted tree-trunks, which afforded good cover for the defenders.
They had not long to wait for the attack. Soon the Vikings were heard climbing upward with much blowing of horns and shouting and singing. Then, through the foliage below, gleams of light sparkled here and there, as the rising sun was reflected from armour and shield, from helmet and spear. And shortly afterwards the men themselves came into view in the more open woods at the foot of the grassy slope. And now it could be seen that two or three of them carried banners.
"Mercy on us, if they bain't comin' it strong!" exclaimed Cable admiringly. "This do beat the Lord Mayor's Show."
"Certainly they've paid us the compliment of turning out in style," Ruxton laughed. "Anyone would think they expected to meet a whole army, instead of half a dozen poor unlucky travellers."
Hugh only smiled grimly. He was keeping an eye on Hertseg, whom he could see leading a file of men on the left.
"How many more?" muttered Ruxton, as another lot were seen on the right. "If this goes on we shall have our work cut out to hold our own!"
"We'll do it, though," said Hugh between his teeth. "We'll give 'em a lesson! They want it—have been wanting it a long time—a lesson as to their treatment of unfortunate travellers who stray here by chance. All the same, there are one or two there I would rather meet again in fair fight, man to man, as we did yesterday, than shoot them down. But if they won't meet us so, and prefer to bring all this array to beat us down by brute force—they must take the consequences."
Little more was said. The Vikings, whatever their vices, were certainly not wanting in courage, and they showed it now. Singing their wild, barbaric songs, and accompanied by their scalds and musicians, they followed their leaders up the ascent in fine style.
They were allowed to get as far as the foot of the grassy slope, and then the rifles of the defenders opened fire and sang another sort of song, which carried death and destruction into their midst.
But though the firearms—weapons hitherto altogether unknown to them—frightened many of them at first, they returned again and again to the charge. But their efforts were in vain. Not one reached the top of the slope.
Presently there was a pause, and a warrior was seen coming forward with a white flag. It was "Hertseg the Fighter," and he brought a challenge to the defenders to meet their champions in single combat as had been done the previous day.
"Rubbish!" was Ruxton's practical comment, as he saw Hugh flush under the taunts with which the Viking backed up his challenge. "Don't listen to him. If they got us at a disadvantage they would play some treacherous trick on us, you may be sure."
And with this view Hugh could not but agree; so the challenger went back rebuffed.
Then Osth—who was there in person, but so far had taken no active part in the conflict—grew impatient, and determined to make an end of the affair by rushing the terrace, let the cost be what it might.
There was accordingly much blowing of horns and trumpets, and a fresh outburst of singing and shouting; and then the whole force of the Vikings was marshalled for a rush.
Ruxton's heart fell a little as he saw crowd after crowd come out into view.
"Why, they must have brought the whole fleet across the lake during the night," he growled. "Every blessed ship!—and they have crowded every man-jack they could spare into them! Lads, keep steady, and make every shot tell! If once they get a footing up here we're done for!"
With a great roar of rage and vicious fury the crowd swept upwards. So closely packed were they that the shots which the defenders poured into them seemed to have scarcely any effect. Men fell here, there, everywhere, but the gaps were no sooner made than they disappeared—were filled up. And so, like a huge breaker sweeping upon a tempest-tossed shore, irresistible and overwhelming, the whole armour-clad mass surged upwards, and gained the top of the slope.
There was a momentary pause as the front ranks halted under the shelter of the wall of rock and began to climb it.
Seeing that it was hopeless to remain longer, Ruxton was about to give the order to retreat into the woods at the rear, when, from those same woods—to left and to right—there came such a chorus of sounds as rose even above the triumphant cries of the assailants.
Sounds that were horrible, terrible to listen to; screams and shrieks as of pandemonium itself let loose; yells and howls that curdled the blood, and seemed to come direct from the throats of fiends and devils.
At once the attack ceased, the assailants fell away. Every one there knew what the hideous cries meant, and not one was stout-hearted enough to stay to meet those who made them.
Vainly did Osth himself, and his officers, Hertseg, and Berdrok and others, try to stay the rout. Vainly did they place themselves before their panic-stricken men and try to beat them back with their own swords. They could do nothing; the Vikings would not listen to them.
Ruxton and Hugh stared at each other.
"It's your friends, Caliban and his fellows!" said Val in a low tone. "They have come at a good time. Once more they have done us good service!"
Suddenly, from out of the wood on to the terrace, a strange figure rushed. A tall, thin man, with unkempt, grey beard, and long, streaming hair, wild eyes with a hungry glare in them, as of fever or uncontrollable passion He waved aloft a stout staff, and pointed at Osth and those near him.
"Aha, Osth!" he cried, in ringing, trumpet-like tones that were heard above all the din. "At last thy punishment is at hand! At last thou, and Hertseg, and Berdrok, and all the rest of thy cowardly rabble, have fallen into my hands! This day have ye walked into my trap! At last I shall be avenged for the long years of unspeakable cruelty and suffering I bore at your hands! Cowards! bullies! demons in human form! know that to-morrow I leave your accursed land! The means of deliverance are in my hands; but I would not go and leave you here unpunished!"
Osth and his jarls stared at the speaker, and fear came into their eyes.
"Who will kill yonder madman for me?" the chief cried. "A thousand pieces of gold—"
"Pah! Save thy breath! Thou wilt want it, I promise thee, if thou are going to run away fast enough to escape my hell-hounds. Come forth, my children! Come forth, my avengers! Here is your prey before you. You need not spare them! There is not a man amongst them who deserves mercy!"
He put a whistle to his mouth and blew shrill blasts upon it; and then, from out the woods at hand, rushed the borghens—the hideous, horrible, yellow-haired monsters that Hugh and his friends knew so well. But little had the chums dreamed that the creatures existed in such numbers as now streamed out of the wood! They came out in crowds, and, looking for their orders to the stranger, obeying his slightest signs, even the glance of his flashing eyes, they rushed down the slope like a swarm of avenging demons.
Nor sword nor shield, nor battle-axe nor spear, availed aught against them. Insensible to fear, careless as to what happened to themselves, they crowded round the luckless Vikings and vented upon them their awful rage and fury.
Few were there of the Vikings who reached their ships and escaped; and amongst that few, neither Osth the Hard, nor Hertseg the Fighter, nor Berdrok the Fierce, was to be found when they had re-crossed the lake and came to count up their losses.
As to the extraordinary figure who had brought this thing to pass, after he had watched the scene long enough to make sure that none of those he deemed most guilty had escaped, he turned to the party his arrival had saved from death or capture.
"There is one among you who calls himself Hugh Arnold," said he, in English, "whose full name I believe must be Hugh Arnold Fenwick."
His glance had already, as by instinct rested upon Hugh, who was now gazing at him with staring eyes.
"My name is Fenwick," the stranger continued, "and I have dared to hope—!"
Hugh sprang forward.
"Father!" he cried.
"My son," murmured the old man.
And thus, at last, "after many years," did these two meet.
THERE is not much more of this strange story that needs to be told. Dr. Fenwick, after the first emotions aroused by the meeting with his son had subsided, explained how he had come upon Grimstock's outfit hidden away in a cavern. During the absence of that gentleman and his gang on an exploring trip, Dr. Fenwick, aided by his faithful borghens had carried everything off, sledges, firearms, ammunition, stores of food and furs, tents, and other requisites, and concealed them in caverns farther away, where Grimstock could not trace them.
As a consequence, the latter and his band fell an easy prey to Gerwulf's people, and were seized and made to serve as thralls, just as Dr. Fenwick had been years before.
"That man—Grimstock—basely deserted me and my Eskimo companions," the doctor solemnly declared, "when I was ill with a fever, and left us, as he thought, to die. But we had then reached the very verge of this country; and I grew better, and struggled on, and we arrived here. One day I saw a borghen and shot at it; but repented of the act, and, instead of killing it—it was only badly wounded—I tended the wound, and cured it. That was the beginning of a strange friendship with those creatures. Later on, I and my companions were captured by Hertseg, and taken before Osth, who condemned us to the mines; and there I lived a terrible life for many long years. At last, I, with a few others, escaped, and went back to the wild life in the caverns, with no other company than the strange beings we had made friends with before."
Such, in brief, was Dr. Fenwick's account of what had happened to him.
The next day the whole party started out into the "White Wilderness," and, after a long and arduous journey, reached the shores of Greenland. There they were fortunate enough to meet with a whaling ship, which, later on, brought them back in safety to England.
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