"THIS," said Meredith gravely, "is most interesting. Quite a remarkable discovery, in fact. It points to the confirmation of poor Saxon's story. If you will permit me—"
"Oh, shut up!" Gaskell growled. "Shove the confounded thing in your pocket and let us press on. Funny thing that you never use two words when three will do. Look at the sky, man, and the dogs. They are pretty well fagged out, and we're fifteen miles from the ship. If we do get a downfall—well, I don't like to think of it."
"The atmospheric conditions," Meredith said complacently, "according to recent observations—"
The third man, Ottaway, rapped out something like an oath and whipped up the dogs. Meredith was a good fellow and an ardent scientist, but he was a bit of an ass all the same. He could see no danger beyond those tinted spectacles of his. The trio had left the Far North in the ice early in the day, to make some observations round the bend of Cape Ressan—the farthest point reached by any Polar expedition up to date.
It was bitterly cold, and a thin, cutting wind had commenced to blow. It had been sunny and fine enough when the little party started, and two at least of them began to wish they had stayed on the ship. Fifteen miles was no great distance to travel over hard snow with a team of good dogs, but anything like a further fall would have spelt disaster. Gaskell muttered to himself as he glanced at the sky.
"Really this is very interesting," Meredith went on. "I mean this medal, which I have just found. It was struck by James Montgomery, of Greenock, to celebrate his discovery of the North Pole. James Montgomery was a millionaire, you remember."
"No, he wasn't," Gaskell growled. "He was a swindler with a craze for notoriety. After his disappearance he was found to have embezzled trust money on a huge scale. He fitted out a Polar expedition, hoping to get a C.B., or a baronetcy, or something of that kind. I had the offer to skipper the Research, It was never heard of again."
"Aren't you wrong?" Meredith suggested mildly. "A man named Saxon came back. The poor fellow was quite mad; had been living for some time with the Esquimaux, when a whaler brought him home. He told some rambling story as to the way in which Montgomery got the whole of his crew on the ice and sailed off in the Research alone. Said that Montgomery was suffering from chronic delirium tremens, Montgomery was always a crank—nobody but a crank would have had those medals struck. Now, it strikes me as a remarkable thing that I should have just picked up one of those medals."
Meredith babbled on, but the others did not appear to be listening. The sun had disappeared in a red haze, with a curtain of lace whirling before it, the wind grew colder and more cutting. Ottaway, snugging down in his furs, declared that he would cheerfully sacrifice ten years of his pay for a sight of the Far North. From the set expression in his eyes Gaskell seemed fully to realise the danger. Yet when they had set out, the glass was high, with every specious promise of a fine day. The dogs were fretting and whining, too, as if they realised what was before them. Ottaway steered off the ice, and under the shadow of one of the desolate hills they moved a little faster when out of the full swell of that cutting wind. A high crag stood up a mile away, with a black crag on the top, where the white sheet had been torn off it. Suddenly the crag was blotted out as if by the fall of a curtain, instantly a wall of whirling flakes shut in the sledge. Before the occupants had time to draw breath, the white terror was upon them.
It appeared as if all the world had been swept away, that the universe had been dissolved into a grey powder. The snow was overpowering, there was no getting away from it. The dogs clustered together with cry and whimper; they refused to go any further, nor had Ottaway the power to force them on. He could only drop the guiding-reins and bow his head to the storm. Very soon the sledge and its burden was no more than a hummock on the swept plain.
After all, it was only a matter of muscle. All this had happened in the space that it takes to tell the story. Apparently there was nothing to be done but to wait patiently to the end. At the first onrush of the snow fury the sledge had tilted on one side, so that it offered a slight obstacle to the furious charge of the white brigade, and yet affording a slight protection for those inside. The snow curled over them like wave swept in from the sea, and froze as it fell. The men were huddled up in warm furs; they were recently fed and well nourished, so that hope was not altogether abandoned yet. When the reeking fury had passed, there would be an exploring-party sent from the ship, but over those millions of white, gleaming acres it would be as the needle in the proverbial rick of hay.
The snow was piled high over them now; there was warmth with the three human bodies and the pack of dogs all huddled together. It was not sufficiently light to see, but at length Gaskell contrived to get his hand to his watch and press the slide of his repeater.
"Been here nearly an hour," he said. "Wonder if it is snowing still? An hour of this is as good as a week's fall at home. Let's scrape a hole under the side of the sledge."
It was something to do, at any rate, so they went for it with a will. The deeper down they dug, the warmer it became, what with the dogs and the rugs and the reek of their own steaming bodies. But though they were safe for the present, the danger was by no means done. All the old, familiar trails to and from the Far North made by them for months past would be filled up by the new fall. Some of those deep tracks would not be safe for an exploring-party for days. And meanwhile they would have to lie there and slowly starve.
The hours went by and the snow ceased at last. Ottaway burrowed a hole in the side of the drift and crept out, followed by the others, into the open. The whirling, grey desolation had ceased now; the sky was like steel, covered with a powder of brilliant stars. So far us the adventurers could see, they were in the crater of a snow volcano. If the frost held, they would be able to creep out in a day or two, otherwise they were in a prison-house. It was freezing hard enough now, which was one consolation. They crept back again and blocked up the passage once more. There was nothing for it but to huddle together and sleep.
Morning came at length, a dull, opaque light piercing the snow wall. The dogs whined and shivered, with their dark eyes turned on the men, mutely seeking for food. There was a raging pain at the pit of Gaskell's stomach as he came back to consciousness. A born Ishmaelite, he knew quite well what the feeling meant. He had been ravenously hungry before. The others sat up presently and looked about them. Even Meredith was retrospective and absent-minded no longer. It was be who suggested that they should go out and prospect.
It was an utterly dreary prospect at the best —nothing but a deep pit of snow, with high, dazzling walls towering on all sides. They were only fifteen miles from the ship, and yet they might as well have been a million. There were no natives on that thick coast, no chance of food, and they had positively none of their own.
"It's a fine prospect, boy," Gaskell said with a grim irony. "They will send to look for us, of course, but it's like to be a slow job. They may hit npon us right away; they may take a week. And if they do take a week "
"'Subsequent proceedings interest us no more,'" Ottaway quoted. "Still, we've got plenty of baccy, which is one comfort. Talk about Robinson Crusoe, why—"
"He's here!" Meredith shouted. "Robinson and his man Friday! Look for yourselves."
The other two glanced uneasily at each other. Meredith was not an imaginative man, and his nerves were no part of his daily conviction. Nerves and fancies would come surely enough, as Gaskell very well knew, but they were not due for a day or two yet.
"What are you talking about?" he growled. "It seems to me that—Good Heavens!"
It was no chimera of a disordered imagination. There on the snow, close by the impromptu hut, was the track of a small, delicate, human foot.
"'Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream!'" Ottaway yelled. "We are three utterly sane men—as yet—" Meredith could imagine nothing, even patent facts must be proved to him.—"Therefore I am prepared to swear that those are footprints—six, seven, eight, nine, ten dainty little footprints made by a lady's boot. We are a million miles from civilisation, an eternity from an educated woman, and yet there she has been within recent memory, evidently as much at home as she would be in Hyde Park."
"It's stunning!" Gaskell muttered; "nothing less than stunning! What does it mean?"
It certainly was a most amazing discovery. The Far North was further north than any vessel of discovery had been yet, and the crew of the Far North were proud of the fact. The sledge-party were in grievous danger of their lives, they were in desperate need of food, and yet close by somewhere was a woman, evidently a lady by her footgear, who walked about, as Ottaway put it, much as if she were strolling in the Park.
There could be no doubt about it whatever—there was the shape of the foot, clean-cut as a cameo on the frozen snow—a small foot, in a stout boot with nails on the heels. There were seven footmarks in all, then the print disappeared suddenly, as if a slide of snow had obliterated them. It was nothing more nor less than a miracle; had the sky fallen on them, the pioneers would have been not a whit more astonished.
"Never heard of any hermit up this way, have you?" Ottaway asked grimly. "No family party taken a furnished house here for the sake of the pure air and the fishing? Never heard of anything in the way of a convent in this delightful sylvan glade?"
The others laughed in a constrained kind of way. There was something pathetic as well as startling in this stupendous discovery; the footprints reminded them all of home. But it was not good to dwell upon that kind of thing just then. Gaskell bit his lip.
"Some fine old reindeer reading the fashion plates," he said, with a wild attempt at frivolity that he was far from feeling. "What an ass I am, to be sure! Heaven knows how that woman reached this cursed spot; but here she is! And quite at home, too—there's no sign of hesitation about those footprints. Let's follow them up."
It was quite easy to follow the footsteps as far as they went. It was obvious also that there was some way out of the snow-crater in which the sledge lay, as the owner of the boots could not have vanished so swiftly and mysteriously.
"Can't be natives, I suppose?" Meredith suggested. "Looking at the thing from a matter-of-fact point of—"
"You can't, you fool!" Gaskell cried. "How can there be anything matter-of-fact about a discovery like this? It is an amazing romance, as puzzling to me as the mystery of Creation. And you know there are no natives within a thousand miles."
"So far as we can go by exact scientific data," Meredith began, "we are forced to—"
"Oh, shut up, you idiot!" Ottaway said savagely. "What's scientific data to do with this?"
"It is just possible," Meredith continued, quite unabashed, " that the Research—"
The others laughed a little boisterously. The Research had been lost utterly in the Polar Seas three years before, and only one man, and he an idiot, had lived to tell the tale. Those footprints had another meaning than that.
"Let's track her little footsteps in the snow as far as they go," Ottaway suggested, as he proceeded to suit the action to the word. "Not that one has much to go by... It seems to me that the snow has shifted slightly just at this point. One thing is certain— there must be some way out of this crater. Stand by to give me a hand in case I disappear."
But Ottaway did not disappear. He mounted up the slope, feeling his way as he went, till he had nearly reached the top. Here and there were little, jutting crags of rock which offered a good foothold, and presently he stood on the top of the crater.
"It must have been a tremendous fall of snow!" he shouted. "All our familiar landmarks have utterly disappeared. If I could smell food, I should not know where to go for it. Come up and have a good look for yourselves."
Ottaway stood there, a figure black and clean-cut against the dazzling background. He looked strangely large as he stood there, a statue in the silence. It was deadly silent there—so quiet that the others could hear the blood humming in their ears, all the more intensified by the fierce hunger that was beginning to assail them. Suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp, whiplike crack, and Ottaway jumped in the air with a yell of pain. Then he fell headlong down, till he was brought up sharply at Gaskell's feet.
"In the name of Fortune, what was that?" the latter asked.
"A rifle," Ottaway groaned. "Never saw where it came from, but it's got me through the fleshy part of my arm. It stings like blazes. Doctor, come and have a look at it." Meredith stripped the arm in the shelter of the improvised hut. Sure enough, a bullet had passed clean through the deltoid muscle, leaving a hole a little bigger than a pin-point, so that there was practically no loss of blood. The bullet itself had lodged against a silver tobacco-box, and Meredith examined it eagerly.
"No harm done," he said; "but, on the whole, a lucky escape for you. And as I am a living soul, this is nothing else than a Mauser bullet! Some luxurious individual in these parts has a place of his own here, where everything seems to be quite up-to-date. The hermit of the snowy glen shoots his game with the very latest pattern of small arms."
"And a proper murderous ruffian he must be!" Gaskell exclaimed.
"My dear fellow, are you quite sure that it is a he?" Meredith went on in his crisp, matter-of-fact way. "You don't suggest that we have a colony of educated people here. Is it not just possible that the sharp-shooter who nearly wiped Ottaway's number out might chance to be the lady whose footsteps I found in the snow?"
Gaskell gave a long, low whistle. The point had not occurred to him before. It might turn out exactly as Meredith had suggested. But then that theory only deepened the maddening mystery. Still, whoever the miscreant might be, he or she was plentifully supplied with all the modern of equipment, and food assuredly formed part of it.
"I'll get to the bottom of this, if it costs me my life," Gaskell said between his teeth. "We may as well die fighting as die of hunger. Let us lie low here till it gets dark, and then go and prospect for ourselves. We are three desperate men, and we know the way out of our cage now. Come and lie low, lest worse befall us."
There was nothing else to do but to fall in with this suggestion. The slow, torturing hours crept by, relieved from time to time by the judicious application of tobacco. But even that was partaken of sparingly, for the supply was limited. They were talkative at first, as befits the opening of a remarkable discovery, but they grew cross and moody as the day progressed. Meredith would have talked—he would have talked on his way to the scaffold, as Gaskell rudely reminded him—but the others drove him to silence by snarling epithets. Finally the scientist dropped into an uneasy slumber, with a dog on either side of him, and the others dozed, too.
It was Gaskell who aroused the rest as the darkness commenced to fall. There was a fierce light in his eyes and a sting of colour in his cheeks. He was going to do or die this time. It was freezing hard as the little party stepped into the open; there was a faint light in the sky that just served to pick out the way that Ottaway had tried in the afternoon. They were all at the summit at last and picking their way cautiously down the other side.
"Go easy," Gaskell whispered, as the snow whistled and crunched underfoot. "It isn't as if we had not plenty of time before us. Hallo! unless my eyes deceive me, here are more of those footprints, leading to that queer-looking hummock yonder. Here's a seal-hole, too. We must have found our way on to the water again. What's that?"
A quick, crisp, rippling sound in the near distance, a roll of melody. Ottaway stopped and checked a wild desire to burst into hysterical laughter.
"Don't you recognise it?" he cried. "May I live on bread and water for the rest of my days, if it isn't one of Chopin's Impromptus in F, played on a grand piano!"
GASKELL and Ottaway regarded each other uneasily. They had both heard of that strange form of madness that comes from the solitary contemplation of the snow. It seemed to Gaskell that somebody had told him that this form of delusion often occurred to several men at the same time. But a piano up there! The thing was too utterly absurd. Yet they had both assumed to hear it, and even the practical and matter-of-fact Meredith had followed suit. Ottaway repressed the strong desire to laugh that possessed him.
"A piano, sure enough," Meredith said, much as a scientist would speak if he had stumbled upon a rare fossil. "A grand piano, I should say, with one of the notes in the minor very much out of tune. Still, to look for Queen's Hall form up here!"
Ottaway broke out into a cackle of laughter suddenly. It was a relief to Gaskell's feelings to take his friend by the shoulders and shake him vigorously.
"You fool!" he panted. "We're not going out to afternoon tea. There's danger here, as that shot this morning should have told you."
"Upon my soul, I simply couldn't help it," Ottaway whispered contritely. "There is something so ghastly comical about it, if you understand me. There is a girl I know who plays that Impromptu in F, and I was thinking of her mother's drawing-room.... The warmth and the lights, you know, and the firm flesh-tints."
"Oh, Heavens! I understand!" Gaskell groaned. "And we poor wretches here doomed to starvation! Yes, I understand. But for Heaven's sake don't laugh like that again!"
"What are you fellows maundering about?" the practical Meredith asked. "It is a very strange thing, but there is the piano. I dare say the explanation is a perfectly simple one. Where pianos are found, food and light are found also. The sound seems to me to proceed from the centre of the hummock of snow on which we are standing."
"Bless the man! even he has his uses," Ottaway said in a saner tone of voice. "We had better proceed to investigate; only it's a case of festina lente, lest the first hospitable opening take the form of a rifle-bullet. Let us search."
But the search produced nothing, though the music still continued. The air changed presently to Handel's Largo and slid from that into the grand impressiveness of Liszt's Étude in F, but the explorers got no nearer to the mysterious musician.
"What fools we are!" Meredith exclaimed. "Let's put one of the dogs on the trail."
Strange that nobody had thought of it before. One of the dogs were brought up, held by the collar to a trace. The stiff, stocky little creature could smell food, evidently, for he whined and commenced to scratch at what looked like a wall of snow. Something black appeared at length, and the black thing revolved itself into what at one time had been a cabin door.
"Good boy!" Gaskell said approvingly. "Take him back and give him a biscuit, Meredith. We will now proceed to do a little burglary. Civilisation in the Arctic region is progressing! Be as quiet as you can there."
The door was not fastened in any way—it opened with a thong and strap. Inside was a dark tunnel, with a suggestion of dubious warmth breathing from it. It was like the fragrant breath of a beautiful girl on the cheek of an intoxicated lover. There were other odours—more prosaic, perhaps, but equally reeking of Araby the Blest.
"Food!" Ottaway said exultingly. "Hot soup! the magical savour of vegetables! We've struck the back door to the Garden of Eden. I never realised how ravenously hungry I was till this very moment. Let us make a rush for it."
The mouths of the others were literally watering. It was only the cool sanity of Gaskell that held them back now. They fumbled their way noiselessly along the tunnel until Meredith nearly betrayed their presence by stumbling down a ladder, a companion-way, as the three of them versed in the way of ships could tea even in the dark.
"It's a ship bound in the snow," Gaskell whispered; "though what ship it can be. why—"
"The one I told you of," Meredith muttered, rubbing his shin. "It's the Research, for a million. Now we shall be able to see what we are about."
He stood at the foot of the ladder, looking towards the saloon. There were lights now and a fairly good view of everything. Silently Meredith pointed to a lifebuoy that lay on the floor. On it, in white letters, was painted the legend "S.S. Research 1901." The story of the poor, mad sailor who had found his way back to Greenock was true.
The music in the saloon suddenly ceased, and a cabin door opposite flew open. A woman's voice called out that everything was ready.
"So are we," Ottaway groaned. "Good Heavens! so are we. My dear lady, if you only knew how ready we are!... Pretty voice, too!"
It was a very pretty, sweetly modulated voice, evidently the voice of a lady. Then a figure stood out against the light in the cabin. The hungry eyes of the watchers saw a nice-looking girl, partly clad in furs. A certain youthfulness was given to her appearance owing to the fact that she wore her hair in a neat plait down her back. After a year or more in those white solitudes, the sight of a woman at all was in itself a thrilling episode.
"Are you not coming. May?" the girl called. "Everything is quite ready."
May responded from the distance that she was coming at once. There was a crashing chord on the piano, and then the patter of other footsteps. In the distance somebody laughed in a hard, staccato voice that seemed strangely out of harmony. The girl in the cabin started, and a little cry escaped her. There was a shrinking motion about her.
"Oh, May! is he bad again to-night?" she asked, as the other girl came along. "What have we done, to be punished like this? A hideous prison, with the prospect of starvation coming nearer and nearer day by day. My dear child—"
Gaskell stepped forward. At the sound the girls turned round. They were singularly alike, dressed in the same way, both with clear skins and blue eyes. Their eyes were dilated, Gaskell noticed, as with a certain chronic terror. The girl called May would have screamed, only the other one pressed a hand upon her lips.
"Don't be afraid," Gaskell whispered. "We've—we've come to help you, you know. I dare say that you have seen something of the Far Norths
Evidently the Far North was no more than an abstract name to the girls. They clung together as slaves might do who had changed their masters. In any case, the figures of Gaskell and his companions were not exactly calculated to induce confidence.
"We have heard something about you," Gaskell went on hoarsely. "One of the sailors of the Research managed to reach a native settlement. His sufferings deprived him of his senses. People did not believe the story of James Montgomery, and the strange way that he abandoned his crew for—"
"It is as true as Gospel," one of the girls said. "He is coming. If you are not armed—"
The intruders were not armed, save with clasp-knives. Gaskell looked at the girls.
"A dangerous criminal lunatic," one of them said. "We go in terror of our lives. The only wonder is that he has not killed us both long ago. If he sees you—"
A trembling, snarling laugh came from the end of the passage leading to the bows of the great steam-yacht. Though they were not aware of the fact, Gaskell and his companions were standing under the lamp suspended from the roof, and full in the stream of light flung on them through the open cabin door. The queer laugh was repeated, followed by the crack of a rifle and the scream of a bullet. There was a crash of glass and a patter of warm oil on the floor. If the would-be assassin were mad, his aim was true enough, for the lamp overturned and was smashed into fragments.
"How now, you secret, black, and midnight hogs!" the thin, reedy voice screamed. "So the devil has come for me at last. Two years I have fought him—two years, day by day. But I am an old gentleman, and there has been madness in my family for generations."
"Put that rifle down," Gaskell said, with a hard ring in his voice.
The madman laughed aloud. Evidently his moods were subject to lightning changes. The pathetic, personal touch had vanished like a flash.
"James Montgomery!" he yelled, "of Greenock, millionaire—the man who used people's money for his own ends. The benefactor of man, the great explorer. And then to come back and stand in the dock! No, no, no... And then they were all on the ice, with their party and that; and only I and the two engineers, with the captain's children, aboard. It was only a matter of two shots, and the Research was mine. The beautiful engines spoke and laughed with me, and they cursed me from the shore with the white loneliness of the snow coming up behind them. I was free, I tell you—free, free, free, and none left to tell the tale. Till you came. Curse you! take this."
Then came a series of whiplike cracks, followed by the soft splash of bullets on the side of the companion-way. Evidently the maniac had armed himself with a repeating rifle. There was no help for it now; the only chance was to rush for the cabin and close the door behind. Meredith was conscious of a hot, singeing sensation along his scalp. Gaskell was more concerned for the girls. Had the light been less dim, it would have been impossible to say how the story had ended, but by great, good fortune nobody was hurt.
"Well, of all the adventures!" Ottaway gasped. "I'll never disbelieve anything I see in print again, not even in a halfpenny paper. Truth is stranger than fiction."
"Fiction is a prosaic old dowager," Gaskell said, as he removed his outer furs. "Let me introduce myself and my friends, ladies... Your names are?"
"Irene and May Broxwood," the girl who had first appeared said. "We came here with the ship at our own earnest request— you see, we had no mother. My father was the captain of the ship. He was in the Royal Navy at one time—Captain Ernest Broxwood."
"I knew him slightly," Gaskell said. "I was in the service myself; Ottaway, here, is still. But it seems incredible that the story just told by James Montgomery—"
"Is absolutely true," May Broxwood said. "We knew that he was eccentric and very moody, and all that kind of thing. There were frequent quarrels. But nobody ever expected that— The men stood on the beach, with the snow coming up behind them, and my father was with them. I can see the grey light on his face now as he implored that for our sakes—"
Something rose in the throat of the pretty speaker and checked further utterance. A shot splintered the door and spattered the wall like a molten star on the far side of the cabin. There was an oak table in the centre, devoid of a cloth, but the silver on it was beautifully clean. A large tureen of soup smoked on the table; there was meat and hot, tinned vegetables at the other end; the whole place was filled with the delicious perfume of it.
"Oh!" Ottaway muttered, "I can't stand this any longer! The mere sight of that food seems to deprive me of all my manhood. Ladies, if you don't mind "
"We have had nothing since early this morning," Gaskell explained . "We got caught in a snow-storm and lost our bearings. We should have starved and died if Providence had not brought us here. Really—"
Gaskell stood at a loss for further words. He felt dazed, like a man who walks in his sleep; he had eyes only for the table.
"Oh, forgive us!" May cried in deep distress. "We could not possibly know. We imagined, naturally, that your ship was close by. Quick, quick! the danger is not over yet."
The girl pointed to the roof of the cabin, which was partly of glass. Two of the slides had been removed, for the atmosphere of the stove was stuffy, even in that climate. It was easy enough to take in the danger at a glance. If the madman recollected, he would station himself on that coign of vantage and shoot the occupants of the cabin down like dogs.
"We must risk it," Ottaway said between his teeth. "I am like a veritable infant for the want of food. It is no time for ceremony."
They fell to eagerly, wolfishly. They had been saved by a marvellous intervention of Providence; there was a curious feeling amongst them that they could come to no harm now. As they ate of the delicious soup and vegetables, the strength and vigour of manhood came back to them. It was only a matter of moments, for the horrible singing and cackling was going on outside, and presently the madman moved afar off. The men in the cabin grew suddenly grave.
"His cunning brain has taken up the idea," Irene Broxwood said. "Oh, we are well used to scenes like this—they are the portion of our daily life. Thank God it has been no worse! We might have been kitchenmaids, for all the notice James Montgomery has taken of us. There, did I not tell you? I can hear him overhead."
A footstep clanged over the skylight, and the gleam of a rifle-barrel was seen. Ottaway whipped the clasp-knife from his pocket and flung it with all his force at the hanging lamp. The aim was true, for the globe and chimney were shattered; there was a puff of black smoke, and the cabin was in pitchy darkness.
A yell of rage came from the skylight, and the leaden hail began again, accompanied by oaths and curses and snatches of song. They were all down now, by Gaskell's order, against the door. He whispered to Ottaway to open it quietly. Whilst the din from above went on, Ottaway did so, and the four fugitives crept into security.
"Now's our chance," Gaskell said between his teeth. "One of you pretend to be hit. Roll about the floor, and toss your coat inside as if you were in agony. Miss Broxwood, I am going to ask you to attempt a task of some danger. As you know the ship well, I want you to guide me quietly to the place where that murderous old rascal is standing. With this row going on, I shall have no difficulty in securing him. If you are afraid—"
"I am not afraid," the girl said quietly. "I am afraid of nothing that will end a life like this."
They slipped away together into the darkness. For the next few minutes the fusillade into the cabin went on; then there was a yell, wilder and fiercer than any that had come before, followed by a noise of falling bodies, and silence... Gaskell whistled softly.
"Bring some rope," he said. "It's all right. I'm sitting on his head."
Ropes were procured, and irons as well, and presently the madman was secured in a small cabin, where he seemed sullenly resigned to his fate. The lights of the Research were restored; there was smiling content in the warm cabin, where supper had been laid.
"We can finish our supper in peace," Ottaway suggested. "My dear young ladies, what a really dreadful time you must have had! Your story—"
"Is almost incredible," May Broxwood said with a shudder. "Fancy seeing a whole crew of men abandoned to their fate in that cruel way, and we able to do nothing! Then there was the solitude of it—those dreadful outbursts of madness, for James Montgomery is mad indeed. Of course, we had plenty of coal and oil and provisions to last for years, seeing that there were only three of us; and everything we had was of the very best and latest. But think of the monotony of it, and the certainty that, sooner or later, the food and fuel would become exhausted, and that we should have to sit down and die! Can you imagine a worse fate for young girls like us?"
"It beggars imagination," Gaskell said. "Naturally everybody regarded the Research as one of the ill-fated Polar expeditions. But there is going to be an end of this before long. We are quite safe here till the Far North sends out an expedition in search of us. We know that they are only fifteen miles away. It may be a week or two—"
"Not if the Research carries anything in the way of a big gun," the practical Meredith suggested.
"What should we do without our Meredith?" Gaskell smiled. "We will fire a shot or two from the big gun, and that will soon settle matters."
"I cannot understand how you contrived to find us?" Irene Broxwood asked.
Gaskell proceeded to explain all about the footprints in the snow, and the shot which very nearly ended in the unexpected demolition of Ottaway. He noted the change that had come over the girls in the last half-hour; the change was still more noticeable at breakfast the next morning. And when at length the long, black string that formed the search party from the Far North came in sight, even the practical Meredith was bound to volunteer the statement that the Broxwoods were the prettiest girls that he had ever seen.