Read CHAPTER TEN - URSA MAJOR AT HOME. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

Those were exciting moments, as in the perfect silence which reigned the sharp clicking of the gun-locks sounded loud and strange.  Directly after a low whine was uttered by the dog, which lay as if half stunned, what seemed like a light pat from the bear having been a tremendous blow.  In answer, as it were, began a chorus of wailing cries, screams, and snapping sounds from the birds which came now wheeling round, a few at a time, till there was a perfect cloud.

The captain, doctor, and Steve held their pieces ready waiting to fire, but the two former hesitated, thinking that they could get a better opportunity; while Steve wondered whether he would be able to hold the heavy double gun steady, for it was visibly describing all kinds of figures with the muzzle, and felt moment by moment more weighty.  The two Norsemen stood ready with their great spears levelled; and the bear, there in front, remained watching them, its head lowered and swung up and down, from side to side, with its nose at times almost touching the ground.

“Take care, Steve,” said the captain, without taking his eye from the bear.  “Be ready to get behind one of the rocks.  You, Johannes, stay by him.”

“Yes,” said the Norseman in a low tone.

“Shall we fire?” said the doctor huskily, as the bear stayed in its place, swinging its head about, making no sign of either attack or retreat.

“Not yet,” replied the captain.  “Wait till we can get a shot at the shoulder; a head shot is bad.”

But the bear did not seem disposed to offer the side for the purpose of being shot, and turned first one eye and then the other to them ­strange reddish-looking eyes, which looked them over in a furtive way, as the regular swinging motion of the head was kept up.

“Will it charge, Johannes?” said the captain.

“Don’t know.  I think it will begin to run.  Be ready.  It is sure to charge when it is wounded.  We’ll take it then on the spears.”

At that moment there was a diversion, and the bear raised its head a little to look beyond them.

Steve glanced sharply round to see what the animal was looking at, and became aware of the fact that Andrew McByle was stealing away on tip-toe.  This raised Steve’s ire, for the thought flashed through his brain that if anybody had a right to run it was he, the boy of the party; and he wanted to make off very badly, but, paradoxical as it may sound, he at the same time did not want to run, but to help shoot the bear.

“Here! hi!  Stop!” he shouted angrily; “don’t run off with that gun!”

“Ahm only going to tak’ oop a fresh poseetion ahint the stanes,” said Andrew hurriedly.

No more was said, for the bear now shook itself, making the beautiful thick hair stand out, and giving the huge animal the appearance of growing rapidly in size.  It uttered a low, fierce growl now, and its eyes flashed in the sunshine.

“You’ll have to fire, Handscombe,” said the captain in a low voice; “it’s going to charge.  No, stop!”

For just then the bear swung its head round to the right and glanced toward the ice, as if looking out for a way of retreat.

“It’s going to run,” said Jakobsen.

Hardly had the words left his lips than the bear made a rush right at the centre of their line.

Bang ­bang ­bang!  Three shots were fired almost simultaneously, but they did not have the slightest effect, the bear rushing on, and the next minute the doctor was gathering himself up, and the bear was shuffling along the shore, apparently in pursuit of Andrew McByle, who ran on yelling, and fired twice in the air, as if sending the charges of the gun he carried right ahead, where he wished to be.

“Hurt?” cried the captain anxiously, as he held out his hand to the doctor.

“Only the wind knocked out of me,” was the panting reply.  “Come on.”

They re-loaded as they followed the bear at a trot, and to Steve’s great delight, there was a sharp barking, for Skene leaped up as the bear passed him, and, apparently without much the matter, followed the great beast.

“I don’t think we touched him,” cried the captain.

“Yes,” said Johannes simply, as he ran by Steve’s side with his spear at the trail.  “Blood.”

He pointed to the ground, but Steve said nothing as, full of excitement now, he kept pace with the others in the pursuit.

“Quick!” cried the captain; “fire anywhere now, or the brute will overtake that man.”

“Serve him right for being such a coward,” muttered the doctor.

The bear was some fifty yards before them, and Andrew McByle another fifty, but with the bear gaining upon him fast, it being astonishing how rapidly the great unwieldy animal could shuffle over the rough ground.

Just then Andrew looked back over his shoulder at his pursuer, uttered a wild yell, threw away the rifle, and with his hands in the air ran on faster.

“I can’t fire for fear of hitting the man,” panted the captain; and then he uttered a cry of satisfaction, for, in his alarm, Andrew had made for broken ground, tripped over a rock, and fell heavily, whilst the bear uttered a fierce roar.

“Halt!” shouted the captain, bending on one knee, as Andrew disappeared, having plumped himself behind a huge block of stone.

Steve followed his leader’s example, and fired directly after, aiming as carefully as possible at the running beast.

“Missed!” muttered Steve.

“I think that touched him!” cried the captain, hurriedly opening the breech of his piece and thrusting in another cartridge.

“Yes, that stopped him,” said the doctor, as the bear swung round and bit viciously at a spot somewhere about the centre of its back.

Then the doctor fired, but his shot had no effect save to draw the animal’s attention to its pursuers, and it came at them at once, showing its teeth now viciously, while the two Norsemen placed themselves on either side of the little party ready for the attack.

The captain took careful aim now, and fired, making the bear jerk its head; but the bullet had made little impression, for the brute came on till Skene made a dash at its nose, when the animal swung round just as the captain was re-loading.

“Fire, both of you ­now!” cried the captain excitedly; but only the doctor drew trigger, hitting their quarry somewhere about the hip.  Steve did not fire; he could not have told why, but knelt on one knee with his piece ready, and conscious of the fact that one of the big Norsemen was at his right shoulder with the great lance held presented over his head.

Skene kept on harassing the bear and taking off its attention; but a bullet now struck it in so sharp a way that it ignored the dog, and came rushing toward its enemies open-mouthed, blood and foam making its white teeth look horrible, and in spite of another shot came close up, rose on its hind legs, towering above the kneeling men, with its paws separated to strike, when almost together both barrels of Steve’s piece were fired right into the animal’s chest, and as it uttered a savage roar the lances of the two Norsemen were driven into it and rapidly withdrawn.

The effect was instantaneous:  the monster threw itself over and lay upon its back, tearing at the air for a few moments, and then subsided slowly on to one side ­dead, Skene leaping upon the carcass to give vent to a triumphant burst of barking, while the captain shook hands with the doctor, and then clapped Steve on the shoulder.

“Well done!  Bravo!” he cried.  “Splendid shots, just at the right moment; couldn’t have been better.”

“Couldn’t it?” said Steve, speaking feebly, for he felt rather ashamed of the praise, and at the same time a kind of regret for having played so prominent a part in the death of the animal.

He must have shown this in his face, for the captain said: 

“It’s quite right, my lad.  These bears are dangerous, destructive beasts, and would have given us no mercy.  Besides, we must get a cargo to take back.”

A hail brought up the sailors, who were sent back in the boat for the other two Norsemen, while Johannes and Jakobsen, after carefully cleaning the blades of their lances, laid them against a rock, took off their jackets, rolled up their sleeves, and then, taking out their knives, began to skin the great bear.

At this time Andrew came up limping.

“Well, brave man!” said the doctor; “wounded?”

“Ah, she can be brave eneuch when there’s ony occasion, sir,” said Andrew.  “But she never war grand at fechting bear, and she thocht she’d get oot o’ the way o’ the shooting.”

“And you did,” said the captain contemptuously.  “There, go and fetch that piece you threw away.”

“Nay, it slippit oot o’ my fingers, sir.  It was after she’d fired it, though.”

“The least said the soonest mended, McByle,” said the captain coldly.  “You had better hold your tongue, and go and find that rifle.  I may as well tell you, though, that my opinion of your bravery is not very high.”

“Nay, sir, dinna be hard upon a puir mon.  Ye dinna ken a’ aboot me the yet.”

“I know enough.  Don’t talk, man; go and find the rifle, and then come and help the skinning here.”

“She will, sir; but, doctor, is her leg brukkit?”

“Eh?  Bah! no.  A bit sprained at the ankle joint.  When you fell, I suppose?”

“Ay, sir.  Ye see she had to try so hard to save her head, she couldna attend to her legs and feet,” said Andrew, with a cunning look at the doctor, as he limped off in search of the rifle, leaving the rest examining the magnificent animal lying motionless among the stones.

It was an enormous beast, with a coat of long, silky, cream-coloured fur, which hung down from its sides, and hid the claws when its feet were spread out.

“No wonder he could stand the polar winters with a great-coat like that, eh, Steve?” cried the doctor.  “Why, my lad, you must have that skin carefully dressed, and use it as an ornament for your drawing-room when you have one.”

I?” cried the boy.

“To be sure; it was your shot that brought him down, eh, Marsham?”

“Certainly,” replied the captain; “he gave the finishing stroke.”

The conversation was getting so personal that Steve walked away to where Skene crouched in a soft, sandy place, his ears cocked up and his eyes intent upon the actions of the two Norsemen, who were working away at the skinning; and as every now and then their tugging at the tough hide gave a slight movement to the left fore leg of the bear, the dog kept jumping up, uttering a fierce growl, ruffling up the hair about his neck, and showing his teeth as if about to attack.

“Down, Skeny! down, boy!” cried Steve, as the dog made one of these demonstrations.  “Let’s have a look at you.  Where are you hurt?”

He knelt down by the dog, patted him, and then took hold of one of his legs; but Skene threw up his muzzle and made so piteous a cry that the leg was immediately released and laid a short distance farther away by its owner.

“Then you are hurt, old chap.  Shall I fetch the doctor?”

The dog yelped.

“What does that mean, Johannes, yes or no?”

“Only his way of saying thank you, sir,” replied the Norseman.  “He’s hurt, but not badly; because, as you saw, he could run at the bear.  He’s a good deal bruised, and he’ll be a bit sore for days; but animals soon get well again.  They lick themselves right when they are hurt.”

“But oughtn’t he to be examined?”

“I did look at him, sir.  He’s only hurt in the shoulder and ribs, where the bear struck him.  There isn’t a trace of blood.  Let him lie, sir; he’ll curl up when we get him on board.”

As the dog appeared to be in no pain and was intent upon the skinning process, he was left alone; and the little party followed the dog’s example, till Johannes suddenly looked up.

“I don’t know, gentlemen,” he said; “it’s hardly likely, but I’d post somebody to keep a look-out.  The bear’s mate might come to look after him, and they are savage brutes at times.”

“I’ll get on that stone and keep the look-out myself,” said the captain.  “No; here comes McByle with the gun.  He shall go up on the rock and keep watch.  He doesn’t seem to limp much now.”

This was the case, and a few minutes after Andrew was perched up on a pile of rocks some twenty feet above the ground.  He accepted the duty most willingly, for the top of the rock seemed to be a particularly safe place; and as soon as he heard the object of his task he scrambled up so rapidly that the captain laughed.

“We need not fidget about McByle’s hurts,” he said; and then he shouted:  “Keep a sharp look to the northward, McByle!”

“Ay, ay, sir, she will,” replied the man; and they saw him gaze intently toward the spot where the other bear had disappeared.

Then all attention was directed to the prize, which by rough measurement was nearly three yards in length, and as ponderous-looking as some huge bull, while another rough measurement showed that it had been a long way on toward five feet in height as it stood.

The boat soon after returned from the ship, with the other two Norwegians, who set to work at once to help, and by their united efforts the great, heavy skin was stripped off and carried by one of the men to the shore.

The head was cut off by means of an axe, so that it might be preserved with its large, grinning, ivory teeth; and then the men busied themselves over the rather disgusting operation of cleaning off all the fat from the body, genuine bear’s grease being a valuable commodity.  This, too, was borne to the boat for rendering down in the caldron fixed in the fore part of the ship, in connection with a steam-pipe from the engine-boiler.  In the course of the proceeding the bear was opened, and the sight that presented itself went a long way toward satisfying Steve that the slaying of a polar bear was not so unnecessary a work after all.

“Much better for the seals of the neighbourhood,” said the captain grimly, as Johannes pointed out the fact that their quarry must have killed and eaten a good-sized seal that day, the unfortunate animal having been chopped into big fragments by the bear’s tremendous teeth, the food they had seen it searching for being probably taken just as an amusement ­pour passer lé temps.

The huge piles of muscle laid bare upon the neck and shoulders of the animal told of such great strength that the wonder was that the dog had not been killed; but there he crouched so little the worse, that all of a sudden he made a dash by Johannes, stuck his teeth in the still warm flesh, and gave it an angry shake ­that is to say, held on and shook his own head and neck, for the ponderous mass of flesh was pretty well immovable.

The piles of fat had all been cleverly removed and sent on board, and as no one evinced any desire to partake of bear-steaks or sirloin, the sailors announced their work as done just as Andrew uttered a shout of warning ­“Look out!”

“What is it?” cried the captain, who had been vainly trying to get a shot at a bird or two tempting enough for supper.

“The bear coming.”

“Where away?”

“Three points on the port bow, sir!” cried Andrew, who treated his rocky look-out place as a ship.

The captain took out his little binocular glass and swept the shore, to make out the second bear away in the distance, walking slowly along on the top of the ice-floe which shut them in to the north.  It was raising its head on high, and evidently on the look-out for its mate.

“What do you say, Handscombe?” said the captain; “shall we tackle it?  There is a good chance if we can approach the animal unobserved.”

“For my part, I say no,” replied the doctor, as the Norwegians, who had been ridding themselves of the traces of their unpleasant task, picked up their spears.  “I have had enough bear for one day, and should like some beef.  It’s past twelve.”

“Oh, it must be later than that!” cried Steve.  “Why, we’ve been hours and hours ashore.  I should have thought it was six o’clock.”

“No,” said the doctor, smiling.  “My watch keeps good time.  I say a quarter to twelve.”

“Then we’ll go on board,” said the captain.  “I, too, had no idea it was so late.”

“Early?” suggested Steve.

“Why, Steve!” cried the captain, clapping him on the shoulder, “don’t you know where we are?  This is the land of the midnight sun.”

The boy stared at him in astonishment, then due north at the sun, which was shining with a softer and less piercing light than usual, while the captain and his friend the doctor exchanged glances and looked amused at the boy’s confusion.

He now looked round him, toward the ship and the ice; and then, as if struck by a happy thought, he thrust his hand into his pocket and took out a little compass, which he carefully placed level on a block of stone, watching it till the needle had ceased to vibrate.

“Well?” said the captain, smiling.

“That’s the north,” said Steve, with his forehead wrinkled.

“Of course; we knew that before.”

“And the sun looks as if it were just going to set in the wrong place, sir.”

“Yes, my lad; but it is not going to set.  In another quarter of an hour it will be at its lowest point, and then begin to rise higher and travel apparently eastward to the south.  You wanted to see the midnight sun.  There it is; but I hope you’ll see it to greater perfection when we get farther north.”

“Yes; but won’t it set at all?” cried Steve.

“No; we shall have what will seem like endless day for the rest of the summer.”

“And shan’t want lamps?”

“No, not for a long time to come.”

“But, then, shan’t we want to go to bed and sleep?”

“Oh yes,” said the doctor, laughing; “and I shall be very glad to get my dinner ­supper, I mean ­and then go.  So let’s get back on board.”

But Steve did not move for a minute or two.  He stood staring at the sun, beneath which the ice was glittering, while the snow upon the mountains flashed and looked more beautiful than ever.  At last he shouldered his gun.

“I’m very stupid, I suppose,” he said at last, as he looked from one to the other.  “I learned all about it at school, and I suppose I knew all this; but now I’m right amongst it everything seems puzzling.  I can’t understand how this can be night; but it will all come right by-and-by.”

“Of course,” said the captain, smiling; “but it looks as if the dog understands what puzzles you.”

Steve looked round.

“Why, he’s asleep.”

“Yes; and look about you.  Where are the birds?  I don’t see one on the wing.”

“There are thousands up yonder on the ledges,” said Steve, pointing to the lines of black-backed and white-breasted puffins and grey gulls.

“Yes, my lad; but they’re all roosting,” said the captain.  “All ready, my lads?  Now, then, for the boat.”

“Here, Skeny, wake up, old chap!” cried Steve, forcing a laugh.  “Sorry to disturb you in the middle of the night, but you’ll be able to see.”

The dog did not stir till his master bent down and touched him, when he started into wakefulness, got up stiffly, shook himself and made his ears rattle, and then yawned in a very human way.

“Come along, then,” cried Steve, starting to follow the rest, and the dog wagged his tail and began to trot to his side, but in a lame, stiff fashion.

Just then, though, he caught sight of the great carcass of the bear.  Up went the hair about his throat and neck; he gave a fierce growl, forgot his lameness, and dashed at the bear’s throat, stuck his teeth into it, and tried to give it a shake; then, loosening his hold reluctantly, he followed his master to the boat, which soon after reached the side of the Hvalross, where the cook announced the meal to be in perfect readiness, and to it tremendous justice was done.

“Seems nonsense to go to bed now, doesn’t it?” said Steve, as they returned on deck to see the island beginning to grow distant as the vessel steamed slowly north-north-east, about a mile away from the solid blue-and-silver wall of ice on their left.

“Yes,” said the doctor quietly; “but we must have rest.  All this has come upon you so suddenly, because we have been shut up so long in that terrible fog.”

“But we’re leaving Jan Mayen for good, then?”

“Yes; there was nothing to stay for.”

“And if we keep right on like this, where shall we go to next?”

“Come, come,” said the doctor playfully; “you ought to know the chart.  I can tell you that.”

“I know I ought to be able to say,” replied Steve, with his brow wrinkled again; “but I’m puzzled, sir.  I don’t seem to have grasped it yet.  Where are we making for?”

“Well, if the ice would let us get up there, we are going pretty straight for the North Pole; but I expect this great wall will keep us more to the east, and before long, if the weather keeps fine, we shall be sighting the land of peaks and mountains.”

“Spitzbergen?” cried Steve.

“Well done; you have not forgotten everything.”

“No, not quite.  And we shall be amongst the walrus, seals, and reindeer, and ­”

“To-morrow morning, boy!” cried the doctor.  “It’s rather soon after a heavy supper.”

“But isn’t it to-morrow morning to-day ­I mean to-night ­I mean ?”

“Bed, Steve, bed!” cried the doctor.  “Come along, and I’ll set you the example.  Your head will be clearer after a good rest, and you won’t be so ready to make bulls.”

“Very well,” said the boy, “I’ll go; but I’m sure I shan’t sleep a wink.  It’s impossible, with the sun shining so bright and clear.”

But it was not, for in a quarter of an hour he was soundly off, breathing heavily, and too thoroughly tired out to dream about the encounter with the bear.