At about four o’clock on the following morning, the sleepers were awakened b_he cold, which had become very intense. The fire had burned down to a fe_mbers, which merely emitted enough light to make darkness visible. Harry, being the most active of the party, was the first to bestir himself. Raisin_imself on his elbow, while his teeth chattered and his limbs trembled wit_old, he cast a woebegone and excessively sleepy glance towards the plac_here the fire had been; then he scratched his head slowly; then he stared a_he fire again; then he languidly glanced at Hamilton’s sleeping visage; an_hen he yawned. The accountant observed all this; for although he appeared t_e buried in the depths of slumber, he was wide awake in reality, and moreove_ntensely cold. The accountant, however, was sly—deep, as he would have sai_imself—and knew that Harry’s active habits would induce him to rise, o_waking, and rekindle the fire,—an event which the accountant earnestl_esired to see accomplished, but which he as earnestly resolved should not b_erformed by _him_. Indeed, it was with this end in view that he had give_ent to the terrific snore which had aroused his young companion a littl_ooner than would have otherwise been the case.
“My eye,” exclaimed Harry, in an undertone, “how precious cold it is!”
His eye making no reply to this remark, he arose, and going down on his hand_nd knees, began to coax the charcoal into a flame. By dint of severe blowing, he soon succeeded; and heaping on a quantity of small twigs, the fitful flam_prang up into a steady blaze. He then threw several heavy logs on the fire, and in a very short space of time restored it almost to its original vigour.
“What an abominable row you are kicking up!” growled the accountant; “why, yo_ould waken the seven sleepers. Oh! mending the fire,” he added, in an altere_one; “ah! I’ll excuse you, my boy, since that’s what you’re at.”
The accountant hereupon got up, along with Hamilton, who was now also awake, and the three spread their hands over the bright fire, and revolved thei_odies before it, until they imbibed a satisfactory amount of heat. They wer_uch too sleepy to converse, however, and contented themselves with a ver_rief inquiry as to the state of Hamilton’s heels, which elicited the sleep_eply, “They feel quite well, thank you.” In a short time, having becom_greeably warm, they gave a simultaneous yawn, and lying down again fell int_ sleep, from which they did not awaken until the red winter sun shot it_arly rays over the arctic scenery.
Once more Harry sprang up, and let his hand fall heavily on Hamilton’_houlder. Thus rudely assailed, that youth also sprang up, giving a shout, a_he same time, that brought the accountant to his feet in an instant; and so, as if by an electric spark, the sleepers were simultaneously roused into _tate of wide-awake activity.
“How excessively hungry I feel! isn’t it strange?” said Hamilton, as h_ssisted in rekindling the fire, while the accountant filled his pipe, an_arry stuffed the tea-kettle full of snow.
“Strange!” cried Harry, as he placed the kettle on the fire—“strange to b_ungry after a five miles’ walk and a night in the snow? I would rather say i_as strange if you were _not_ hungry. Throw on that billet, like a goo_ellow, and spit those grouse, while I cut some pemmican and prepare the tea.”
“How are the heels now, Hamilton?” asked the accountant, who divided hi_ttention between his pipe and his snowshoes, the lines of which required t_e re-adjusted.
“They appear to be as well as if nothing had happened to them,” replie_amilton. “I’ve been looking at them, and there is no mark whatever. They d_ot even feel tender.”
“Lucky for you, old boy, that they were taken in time, else you’d have ha_nother story to tell.”
“Do you mean to say that people’s heels really freeze and fall off?” inquire_he other, with a look of incredulity.
“Soft, very soft, and green,” murmured Harry, in a low voice, while h_ontinued his work of adding fresh snow to the kettle as the process o_elting reduced its bulk.
“I mean to say,” replied the accountant, tapping the ashes out of his pipe, “that not only heels, but hands, feet, noses, and ears frequently freeze, an_ften fall off in this country, as you will find by sad experience if yo_on’t look after yourself a little better than you have done hitherto.”
One of the evil effects of the perpetual jesting that prevailed at York For_as, that “soft” (in other words, straightforward, unsuspecting) youths had t_ndergo a long process of learning-by-experience: first, _believing_verything, and then _doubting_ everything, ere they arrived at that degree o_ophistication which enabled them to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
Having reached the _doubting_ period in his training, Hamilton looked down an_aid nothing, at least with his mouth, though his eyes evidently remarked, “_on’t believe you.” In future years, however, the evidence of these same eye_onvinced him that what the accountant said upon this occasion was but to_rue.
Breakfast was a repetition of the supper of the previous evening. During it_iscussion they planned proceedings for the day.
“My notion is,” said the accountant, interrupting the flow of words ever an_non to chew the morsel with which his mouth was filled—“my notion is, that a_t’s a fine, clear day we should travel five miles through the countr_arallel with North River. I know the ground, and can guide you easily to th_pots where there are lots of willows, and therefore plenty of ptarmigan, seeing that they feed on willow tops; and the snow that fell last night wil_elp us a little.”
“How will the snow help us?” inquired Hamilton.
“By covering up all the old tracks, to be sure, and showing only the ne_nes.”
“Well, captain,” said Harry, as he raised a can of tea to his lips, and nodde_o Hamilton as if drinking his health, “go on with your proposals for the day.
Five miles up the river to begin with, then—”
“Then we’ll pull up,” continued the accountant; “make a fire, rest a bit, an_at a mouthful of pemmican; after which we’ll strike across country for th_outhern woodcutter’s track, and so home.”
“And how much will that be?”
“About fifteen miles.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Harry; “pass the kettle, please. Thanks.—Do you think you’r_p to that, Hammy?”
“I will try what I can do,” replied Hamilton. “If the snow-shoes don’t caus_e to fall often, I think I shall stand the fatigue very well.”
“That’s right,” said the accountant; “‘faint heart,’ etcetera, you know. I_ou go on as you’ve begun, you’ll be chosen to head the next expedition to th_orth pole.”
“Well,” replied Hamilton good-humouredly, “pray head the present expedition, and let us be gone.”
“Right!” ejaculated the accountant, rising. “I’ll just put my odds and end_ut of the reach of the foxes, and then we shall be off.”
In a few minutes everything was placed in security, guns loaded, snow-shoe_ut on, and the winter camp deserted. At first the walking was fatiguing, an_oor Hamilton more than once took a sudden and eccentric plunge; but afte_etting beyond the wooded country, they found the snow much more compact, an_heir march, therefore, much more agreeable. On coming to the place where i_as probable that they might fall in with ptarmigan, Hamilton became rathe_xcited, and apt to imagine that little lumps of snow which hung upon th_ushes here and there were birds.
“There, now,” he cried, in an energetic and slightly positive tone, as anothe_f these masses of snow suddenly met his eager eye—“that’s one, I’m _quite_ure.”
The accountant and Harry both stopped short on hearing this, and looked in th_irection indicated.
“Fire away, then, Hammy,” said the former, endeavouring to suppress a smile.
“But do you think it _really_ is one?” asked Hamilton anxiously.
“Well, I don’t _see_ it exactly, but then, you know, I’m near-sighted.”
“Don’t give him a chance of escape,” cried Harry, seeing that his friend wa_ndecided. “If you really do see a bird, you’d better shoot it, for they’v_ot a strong propensity to take wing when disturbed.”
Thus admonished, Hamilton raised his gun and took aim. Suddenly he lowered hi_iece again, and looking round at Harry, said in a low whisper—
“Oh, I should like _so_ much to shoot it while flying! Would it not be bette_o set it up first?”
“By no means,” answered the accountant. “‘A bird in the hand,’ etcetera. Tak_im as you find him—look sharp; he’ll be off in a second.”
Again the gun was pointed, and, after some difficulty in taking aim, fired.
“Ah, what a pity you’ve missed him!” shouted Harry. “But see, he’s not of_et; how tame he is, to be sure! Give him the other barrel, Hammy.”
This piece of advice proved to be unnecessary. In his anxiety to get the bird, Hamilton had cocked both barrels, and while gazing, half in disappointment, half in surprise, at the supposed bird, his finger unintentionally pressed th_econd trigger. In a moment the piece exploded. Being accidentally aimed i_he right direction, it blew the lump of snow to atoms, and at the same time, hitting its owner on the chest with the butt, knocked him over flat upon hi_ack.
“What a gun it is, to be sure!” said Harry, with a roguish laugh, as h_ssisted the discomfited sportsman to rise; “it knocks over game with butt an_uzzle at once.”
“Quite a rare instance of one butt knocking another down,” added th_ccountant.
At this moment a large flock of ptarmigan, startled by the double report, ros_ith a loud, whirring noise about a hundred yards in advance, and after flyin_ short distance alighted.
“There’s real game at last, though,” cried the accountant, as he hurried afte_he birds, followed closely by his young friends.
They soon reached the spot where the flock had alighted, and after followin_p the tracks for a few yards further, set them up again. As the birds ros_he accountant fired, and brought down two; Harry shot one and missed another; Hamilton being so nervously interested in the success of his comrades that h_orgot to fire at all.
“How stupid of me!” he exclaimed, while the others loaded their guns.
“Never mind; better luck next time,” said Harry, as they resumed their walk.
“I saw the flock settle down about half a mile in advance of us; so step out.”
Another short walk brought the sportsmen again within range.
“Go to the front, Hammy,” said the accountant, “and take the first shot thi_ime.”
Hamilton obeyed. He had scarcely made ten steps in advance, when a singl_ird, that seemed to have been separated from the others, ran suddenly ou_rom under a bush, and stood stock-still, at a distance of a few yards, wit_ts neck stretched out and its black eye wide open, as if in astonishment.
“Now, then, you can’t miss _that_.”
Hamilton was quite taken aback by the suddenness of this necessity fo_nstantaneous action. Instead, therefore, of taking aim leisurely (seeing tha_e had abundant time to do so), he flew entirely to the opposite extreme—too_o aim at all, and fired off both barrels at once, without putting the gun t_is shoulder. The result of this was that the affrighted bird flew awa_nharmed, while Harry and the accountant burst spontaneously into fits o_aughter.
“How very provoking!” said the poor youth, with a dejected look.
“Never mind—never say die—try again,” said the accountant, on recovering hi_ravity. Having reloaded, they continued the pursuit.
“Dear me!” exclaimed Harry suddenly, “here are three dead birds.—I veril_elieve, Hamilton, that you have killed them all at one shot by accident.”
“Can it be possible?” exclaimed his friend, as with a look of amazement h_egarded the birds.
There was no doubt about the fact. There they lay, plump and still warm, wit_ne or two drops of bright red blood upon their white plumage. Ptarmigan ar_lmost pure white, so that it requires a practised eye to detect them, even a_ distance of a few yards; and it would be almost impossible to hunt the_ithout dogs, but for the tell-tale snow, in which their tracks are distinctl_arked, enabling the sportsman to follow them up with unerring certainty. Whe_amilton made his bad shot, neither he nor his companions observed a group o_tarmigan not more than fifty yards before them, their attention being rivete_t the time on the solitary bird; and the gun happening to be directed toward_hem when it was fired, three were instantly and unwittingly placed _hors d_ombat_ , while the others ran away. This the survivors frequently do whe_ery tame, instead of taking wing. Thus it was that Hamilton, to his immens_elight, made such a successful shot without being aware of it.
Having bagged their game, the party proceeded on their way. Several larg_locks of birds were raised, and the gamebags nearly filled, before reachin_he spot where they intended to turn and bend their steps homewards. Thi_nduced them to give up the idea of going further; and it was fortunate the_ame to this resolution, for a storm was brewing, which in the eagerness o_ursuit after game they had not noticed.
Dark masses of leaden-coloured clouds were gathering in the sky overhead, an_aint sighs of wind came, ever and anon, in fitful gusts from the north-west.
Hurrying forward as quickly as possible, they now pursued their course in _irection which would enable them to cross the woodcutters’ track. This the_oon reached, and finding it pretty well beaten, were enabled to make mor_apid progress. Fortunately the wind was blowing on their backs, otherwis_hey would have had to contend not only with its violence, but also with th_now-drift, which now whirled in bitter fury among the trees, or scoured lik_riving clouds over the plain. Under this aspect, the flat country over whic_hey travelled seemed the perfection of bleak desolation. Their way, however, did not lie in a direct line. The track was somewhat tortuous, and graduall_dged towards the north, until the wind blew nearly in their teeth. At thi_oint, too, they came to the stretch of open ground which they had crossed a_ point some miles further to the north ward in their night march. Here th_torm raged in all its fury, and as they looked out upon the plain, befor_uitting the shelter of the wood, they paused to tighten their belts an_eadjust their snow-shoe lines. The gale was so violent that the whole plai_eemed tossed about like billows of the sea, as the drift rose and fell, curled, eddied, and dashed along, so that it was impossible to see more tha_alf a dozen yards in advance.
“Heaven preserve us from ever being caught in an exposed place on such a nigh_s this!” said the accountant, as he surveyed the prospect before him.
“Luckily, the open country here is not more than a quarter of a mile broad, and even that little bit will try our wind somewhat.”
Hamilton and Harry seemed by their looks to say, “We could easily face even _tiffer breeze than that, if need be.”
“What should we do,” inquired the former, “if the plain were five or six mile_road?”
“Do? why, we should have to camp in the woods till it blew over, that’s all,” replied the accountant; “but seeing that we are not reduced to such _ecessity just now, and that the day is drawing to a close, let us face it a_nce. I’ll lead the way; and see that you follow close at my heels. Don’t los_ight of me for a moment, and if you do by chance, give a shout; d’ye hear?”
The two lads replied in the affirmative, and then bracing themselves up as i_or a great effort, stepped vigorously out upon the plain, and were instantl_wallowed up in clouds of snow. For half an hour or more they battled slowl_gainst the howling storm, pressing forward for some minutes with heads down, as if _boring_ through it, then turning their backs to the blast for a fe_econds’ relief, but always keeping as close to each other as possible. A_ength the woods were gained; on entering which it was discovered tha_amilton was missing.
“Hollo! where’s Hamilton?” exclaimed Harry; “I saw him beside me not fiv_inutes ago.”
The accountant gave a loud shout, but there was no reply. Indeed, nothin_hort of his own stentorian voice could have been heard at all amid the storm.
“There’s nothing for it,” said Harry, “but to search at once, else he’l_ander about and get lost.” Saying this, he began to retrace his steps, jus_s a brief lull in the gale took place.
“Hollo! don’t you hear a cry, Harry?”
At this moment there was another lull; the drift fell, and for an instan_leared away, revealing the bewildered Hamilton, not twenty yards off, standing like a pillar of snow, in mute despair.
Profiting by the glimpse, Harry rushed forward, caught him by the arm, and le_im into the partial shelter of the forest.
Nothing further befell them after this. Their route lay in shelter all the wa_o the fort. Poor Hamilton, it is true, took one or two of his occasiona_lunges by the way, but without any serious result—not even to the extent o_tuffing his nose, ears, neck, mittens, pockets, gun-barrels, and everythin_lse with snow, because, these being quite full and hard packed already, ther_as no room left for the addition of another particle.