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On May 29th, for the first time, the sun did not set; it merely touched the horizon and then rose at once; the day was twenty-four hours long. The next day it was surrounded by a magnificent halo, a bright circle with all the colors of the prism; this apparition, which was by no means rare, always attracted the doctor's attention; he never failed to note the date and appearance of the phenomenon; the one he saw on that day was of an elliptic shape, which he had seldom seen before.
Soon the noisy flocks of birds appeared; bustards and wild geese came from Florida or Arkansas, flying northward with inconceivable rapidity and bringing the spring with them. The doctor shot a few, as well as three or four cranes and a single stork. However, the snow was melting everywhere beneath the sun; the salt-water, which overran the ice-field through the crevasses and the seal-holes, hastened the melting; the ice which was mingled with salt-water formed a soft slush. Large pools appeared on the land near the bay, and the exposed soil seemed to be a production of the arctic spring.
The doctor then resumed his planting; he had plenty of seed; besides, he was surprised to see a sort of sorrel growing naturally between the dried rocks, and he wondered at the force of nature which demanded so little in order to manifest itself. He sowed some cresses, of which the young sprouts, three weeks later, were already an inch long.
The heath began to show timidly its little pale, rosy flowers. In fact, the flora of New America is very defective; still, this rare vegetation was agreeable to their eyes; it was all the feeble rays of the sun could nourish, a trace of the Providence which had not completely forgotten these distant countries. At last it became really warm; June 15th the thermometer stood at 57°; the doctor could hardly believe his eyes; the country changed its appearance; numerous noisy cascades fell from the sunny summits of the hills; the ice loosened, and the great question of an open sea would soon be decided. The air was full of the noise of avalanches falling from the hills to the bottom of the ravines, and the cracking of the ice-field produced a deafening sound.
A trip was made to Johnson Island; it was merely an unimportant, arid, barren island; but the old boatswain was no less proud of giving his name to a few desolate rocks. He even wanted to carve it on a high peak. During this excursion, Hatteras had carefully explored these lands, even beyond Cape Washington; the melting of the snow sensibly changed the country; ravines and hillocks appeared here and there, where the snow indicated nothing but monotonous stretches. The house and magazines threatened to melt away, and they had frequently to be repaired; fortunately, a temperature of 57° is rare in these latitudes, and the mean is hardly above the freezing-point.
By the middle of June the launch was far advanced and getting into shape. While Bell and Johnson were working at it, the others had a few successful hunts. Reindeer were shot, although they are hard to approach; but Altamont put in practice a device employed by the Indians of his own country; he crept over the ground with his gun and arms outstretched like the horns of one of these shy animals, and having thus come within easy gunshot, he could not fail.
But the best game, the musk-ox, of which Parry found plenty at Melville Island, appeared not to frequent the shores of Victoria Bay. A distant hunt was determined on, as much to get these valuable animals as to reconnoitre the eastern lands. Hatteras did not propose to reach the Pole by this part of the continent, but the doctor was not sorry to get a general idea of the country. Hence they decided to start to the east of Fort Providence. Altamont intended to hunt; Duke naturally was of the party.
So, Monday, June 17th, a pleasant day, with the thermometer at 41°, and the air quiet and clear, the three hunters, each carrying a double-barrelled gun, a hatchet, a snow-knife, and followed by Duke, left Doctor's House at six o'clock in the morning. They were fitted out for a trip of two or three days, with the requisite amount of provisions. By eight o'clock Hatteras and his two companions had gone eight miles. Not a living thing had tempted a shot, and their hunt threatened to be merely a trip.
This new country exhibited vast plains running out of sight; new streams divided them everywhere, and large, unruffled pools reflected the sun. The layers of melting ice bared the ground to their feet; it belonged to the great division of sedimentary earth, and the result of the action of the water, which is so common on the surface of the globe. Still a few erratic blocks were seen of a singular nature, foreign to the soil where they were found, and whose presence it was hard to explain. Schists and different productions of limestone were found in abundance, as was also a sort of strange, transparent, colorless crystal, which has a refraction peculiar to Iceland spar.
But, although he was not hunting, the doctor had not time to geologize; he had to walk too quickly, in order to keep up with his friends. Still, he observed the land and talked as much as possible, for had he not there would have been total silence in the little band; neither Altamont nor the captain had any desire to talk to one another.
By ten o'clock the hunters had got a dozen miles to the east; the sea was hidden beneath the horizon; the doctor proposed a halt for breakfast. They swallowed it rapidly, and in half an hour they were off again. The ground was sloping gently; a few patches of snow, preserved either by their position or the slope of the rocks, gave it a woolly appearance, like waves in a high wind. The country was still barren, and looking as if no living being had ever set foot in it.
"We have no luck," said Altamont to the doctor; "to be sure, the country doesn't offer much food to animals, but the game here ought not to be over-particular, and ought to show itself."
"Don't let us despair," said the doctor; "the summer has hardly begun; and if Parry met so many animals at Melville Island, we may be as lucky here."
"Still, we are farther north," said Hatteras.
"Certainly, but that is unimportant; it is the pole of cold we ought to consider; that is to say, that icy wilderness in the middle of which we wintered with the Forward; now the farther north we go, the farther we are from the coldest part of the globe; we ought to find, beyond, what Parry, Ross, and others found on the other side."
"Well," said Altamont, with a regretful sigh, "so far we've been travellers rather than hunters."
"Be patient," answered the doctor; "the country is changing gradually, and I should be astonished if we don't find game enough in the ravines where vegetation has had a chance to sprout."
"It must be said," continued Altamont, "that we are going through an uninhabited and uninhabitable country."
"O, uninhabitable is a strong word!" answered the doctor; "I can't believe any land uninhabitable; man, by many sacrifices, and for generations using all the resources of science, might finally fertilize such a country."
"Do you think so?" asked Altamont.
"Without doubt! If you were to go to the celebrated countries of the world, to Thebes, Nineveh, or Babylon, in the fertile valleys of our ancestors, it would seem impossible that men should ever have lived there; the air itself has grown bad since the disappearance of human beings. It is the general law of nature which makes those countries in which we do not live unhealthy and sterile, like those out of which life has died. In fact, man himself makes his own country by his presence, his habits, his industry, and, I might add, by his breath; he gradually modifies the exhalations of the soil and the atmospheric conditions, and he makes the air he breathes wholesome. So there are uninhabited lands, I grant, but none uninhabitable."
Talking in this way, the hunters, who had become naturalists, pushed on and reached a sort of valley, fully exposed, at the bottom of which a river, nearly free of ice, was flowing; its southern exposure had brought forth a certain amount of vegetation. The earth showed a strong desire to grow fertile; with a few inches of rich soil it would have produced a good deal. The doctor called their attention to these indications.
"See," he said, "a few hardy colonists might settle in this ravine. With industry and perseverance they could do a great deal; not as much as is seen in the temperate zones, but a respectable show. If I am not mistaken, there are some four-footed animals! They know the good spots."
"They are Arctic hares," shouted Altamont, cocking his gun.
"Wait a moment," cried the doctor,—"wait a moment, you hasty fellow. They don't think of running away! See, they'll come to us!"
And, in fact, three or four young hares, springing about in the heath and young moss, ran boldly towards the three men; they were so cunning that even Altamont was softened.
Soon they were between the doctor's legs; he caressed them with his hand, saying,—
"Why shoot these little animals which come to be petted? We need not kill them."
"You are right, Doctor," answered Hatteras; "we'll let them live."
"And these ptarmigan, too, which are flying towards us!" cried Altamont; "and these long-legged water-fowl!"
A whole flock of birds passed over the hunters, not suspecting the peril from which the doctor's presence saved them. Even Duke was compelled to admire them.
They were a curious and touching sight, flying about without fear, resting on Clawbonny's shoulders, lying at his feet, offering themselves to his caresses, seeming to do their best to welcome their new guests; they called one another joyously, flying from the most distant points; the doctor seemed to be a real bird-charmer. The hunters continued their march up the moist banks of the brook, followed by the familiar band, and turning from the valley they perceived a troop of eight or ten reindeer browsing on a few lichens half buried beneath the snow; they were graceful, quiet animals, with their branching antlers, which the female carried as well as the male; their wool-like fur was already losing its winter whiteness in favor of the summer brown and gray; they seemed no more timid than the hares and birds of the country. Such were the relations of the first men to the first animals in the early ages of the world.
"They were a curious and touching sight, flying about without fear, resting on Clawbonny's shoulders," etc.
The hunters reached the middle of the band without any one flying; this time the doctor found it hard to restrain the instincts of Altamont, who could not calmly look on this game without a thirst for blood rising in his brain. Hatteras looked mildly at these gentle beasts, who rubbed their noses against the doctor's clothes; he was the friend of all the animals.
"But," said Altamont, "didn't we come here to shoot?"
"To shoot musk-ox," answered Clawbonny, "and nothing else! We should have no need of this game; we have food enough, so let us enjoy the sight of man walking thus among these animals, without alarming them."
"That proves they have never seen one before," said Hatteras.
"Evidently," answered the doctor; "and so we can be sure that these animals are not of American origin."
"And why so?" said Altamont.
"If they were born on the continent of North America, they would know what to think of men, and they would have fled at the sight of us. No; they probably came from the north, from those unknown lands where our kind has never set foot, and they have crossed the continents near the Pole. So, Altamont, you can't claim them as your fellow-countrymen."
"O," answered Altamont, "a hunter does not scrutinize so closely, and the game belongs to the land where it was shot!"
"Well, calm yourself, my Nimrod! As for me, I would rather never fire a gun in my life than alarm this timid population. See, even Duke fraternizes with the charming beasts! Come, we'll be kind when we can! Kindness is a force!"
"Well, well," answered Altamont, who sympathized but slightly with this sensitiveness; "but I should be amused to see you armed with this kindness alone among a flock of bears or wolves!"
"O, I don't pretend to charm wild beasts!" answered the doctor; "I have little faith in the enchantment of Orpheus; besides, bears and wolves wouldn't come up to us like the hares, partridges, and reindeer."
"Why not," answered Altamont, "if they have never seen men?"
"Because they are naturally ferocious, and ferocity, like maliciousness, begets suspicion; a remark which is true of man as well as of animals. A wicked man is distrustful, and fear is commonly found in those who are able to inspire it."
This little lesson in natural philosophy ended the conversation.
The whole day was passed in this Northern Arcadia, as the doctor named the valley, with the consent of his companions; and that evening, after a supper which had not cost the life of a single inhabitant of the country, the three hunters went to sleep in a cleft of a rock which was admirably adapted for a shelter.
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