Read CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN - A NOCTURNAL VISITOR. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

And that long night which was on everybody’s lips, and when silent in everybody’s mind, was coming on surely and gradually, but to all on board the Hvalross very fast; for the captain never let the men rest.  After every heavy fall of snow ­and these came at shorter intervals ­the crew were set to work banking it up against the sides of the ship.

“But it will make it so much colder,” Steve protested.

“No, my lad, so much warmer,” said the captain.  “Do you know what is our greatest enemy here that we shall have to fight?”

“Yes, the bears.  They’ll smell the meat ­Johannes said so; and you’re making an extremely easy way up to the deck.”

“Well, yes, if they come.  But if they do, we must be ready for them.  We can keep them off from our fortress, I daresay.  But that was not the enemy I meant.”

“Oh, I see; you mean the cold.”

“Yes, my boy; but in one form.  I mean the wind.  I daresay we could stand thirty degrees below zero without wind better than we could stand zero with wind.  That is the enemy we have to fight against.  The still cold will not affect us like the storms.”

And so it passed, day after day.  The men were out hunting one morning, when it was the coldest by the thermometer they had yet felt; but no one suffered.  The men came back with their beards quite masses of ice, but the exercise in the still air kept them all aglow; while the very next day they had a walk along the lane they had trampled down in the snow as far as the piled-up ice-floe which had shut them up in the peaceful fiord, and coming back they had to face a piercing north wind which carried with it a fine snow-dust which seemed to cut into the skin.

“The coldest day we have had yet,” said the doctor as they stepped on deck; but the captain went at once to the instruments which were placed ready for taking the observations duly entered in a journal, and turned back, shaking his head.

“Twenty degrees warmer than it was yesterday.”

“You amaze me,” said Mr Handscombe.  “I never felt it so cold before.”

“He meant twenty degrees not quite so cold, sir,” said Steve, who was rubbing and beating his half-numbed hands.  “It isn’t warmer.”

The wind dropped at sundown, if it could be called sundown, when that day they had only had some hours of glow over the icy rampart that shut them in.  Then in the darkening sky the stars began to peer out one by one, till, as the sky grew perfectly black, the heavens were one blaze of glittering splendour.

“Why, the stars seem double the size that they are at home,” said Steve, as he stood out on the snow steps for a little while before retiring to rest.  “The sky looks so transparent, too, just as if you were peeping right in amongst them.  Look, look!”

He pointed at that which the others saw as soon as he, for a brilliant meteor suddenly flashed into sight, formed an arc in the sky, and disappeared, leaving a thin line of sparks behind it for a moment or two before they died out.

“What was that?” cried Steve.

“A meteor,” said the captain.  “One of the little bodies which astronomers say burst into light in passing through our atmosphere.  But come; the fireside is the best place on a night like this.”

They retired to the cabin, after carefully tying the points of the canvas down; and, after a walk right forward by the dim light of the lanthorns to see that the men were all comfortable and well, the trio returned to the cabin, where the stove was crackling and roaring, and the hanging lamp, books, papers, and chess-board looked cheery and home-like.

Skene followed them and stood at the door in a deprecating fashion, slowly waving his plume-like tail from side to side, and looking, Steve said, as if he would come in and stay if he were asked.

“Yes, come in,” said the captain.

The dog entered with a bound, and couched instantly at the front of the stove.

“It’s getting intensely cold now,” said the captain, taking up the log-book to make an entry or two.

“I thought so,” said the doctor; “but after my experience of this afternoon I was afraid I might be wrong again.  What do you say, Steve?”

“I think it’s as cold as we’ve had it, sir.  We can see our breath here before this hot fire.”

“Look here!” exclaimed Captain Marsham, as he sat, pen in hand, examining the inkstand.

“What’s the matter?  No ink?”

“Ink?  Yes; but look here ­frozen, and in this cabin!”

There was the fact; the ink-glass was partly full of splinters and scales of ice, while the bottom was like thick, melted black snow.

“Well, we can’t have it any colder than that, can we?” asked Steve; and then he started, for Skene suddenly sprang to his feet, his hair rose about his throat, and he uttered a low growl.

“What does he hear?” said the captain, after placing the ink to thaw.

“I know,” cried Steve, “though I didn’t hear it.  Andra must have got out his pipes, and is playing what he calls a chune.”

“Very likely,” said the captain, turning the ink.

“He doesn’t like it,” continued Steve.  “I wonder any one can bear the noise.”

“Tastes differ, my lad,” said the captain.  “The men seem to like the sounds on these long, dark nights.  I wish we had some one who could play the fiddle, too.”

“Johannes can, and he has one with him,” said Steve eagerly.

“That’s good news, for I want the lads to enjoy themselves, and a little music is the very thing for them.  Quiet, dog, quiet! if you mean to stay here.”

For Skene had gone excitedly to the closed door, placed his nose to the crack at the bottom, and growled fiercely.

“It isn’t the pipes,” said Steve, springing up.  “He hears something.  What is it, Skene?”

“R-rr-rr-ra!” growled the dog in low, menacing tones.

“Now, doctor,” said the captain, setting the example of taking his double gun from the rack and slinging his cartridge-bag over his shoulder.

The doctor followed the captain’s lead, and Steve stepped to the slings on the other side for his.

“Coats on,” said the captain; “it’s bitter out on the deck.  Keep him quiet, Steve!”

Steve patted and whistled to the dog, who gave his tail a slow sweep from side to side, and then stood ready for action, while coats and caps were donned, and cartridges slipped into the breeches of the pieces.  The captain laid his hand upon the door and was about to open it, when there was a gentle tap, and the light shone full upon the face of Johannes.

“What’s the matter?” asked the captain sharply.  “A bear, I think, sir,” said the Norseman in a low voice.  “The scent of these animals is very fine, and the smell of the cooking has brought him perhaps.  But it is very dark, and I’m not sure, sir.  I hope it is not a false alarm.  You heard it, then?” he said, as it seemed only then to strike him that the party had risen to go out on deck.

“Skeny heard something and growled!” cried Steve.  “Then there is one, gentlemen,” said the man quietly.  “Will you come round and listen?”

A word or two given in an impressive whisper to the dog silenced him, and he followed as if knowing his business exactly ­that is, to steal up to the quarry and wait patiently until the fighting began and his pent-up excitement could have full play.

Johannes led, and they all walked slowly along the port side of the deck, which looked dark and impressive with only one lanthorn burning close to the galley door.  The canvas sides of the long, tent-like awning bulged in here and there as they passed some shroud or stay, and the roof hung low in places where the snow lay particularly heavy, while the cold that struck to them now in leaving the warm cabin was terrible.  Every breath Steve drew felt as if it were charged with tiny needles, which tingled in his nostrils.  A thick mist formed about them, and when they paused close to the lanthorn to listen for a minute the vapour of their breath rose and then fell down again in soft specks which the lad did not understand for the moment, and then saw to be tiny flakes of snow.  But all was still save a murmur which came up from the closely shut engine-room hatch, where the men had collected about the glowing fire kept up without stint.

Johannes went on round by the bows, and all followed, Steve shivering with cold and excitement; but they passed along, going aft now, close by the canvas wall, till they reached the cabin door again without a sound being heard.

“False alarm, Johannes?” whispered the captain.

The man smiled, and pointed to the dog, whose ears were twitching, and now standing up, bent forward, now lowered down, while his tail was waving slowly, and his muzzle was in the air with the nostrils distended.

“Skeny says there’s a bear or something about,” said Steve softly.

The dog turned to his master sharply upon hearing his name.

“Where is it, Skeny?” whispered the boy, dropping on one knee with his arm on the dog’s neck.

There was a low growl, and the dog ran back a dozen steps, and stood listening and twitching his ears as he gazed at one part of the canvas wall.  They followed, and stood beside him, but all was perfectly quiet, the silence being strangely impressive in that intense misty cold.  Then all at once there was a sound like a deep sigh, followed by a snuffling noise, and directly after the canvas wall was pressed in just above the bulwark.  It was exactly as if some man of gigantic size was feeling over the canvas for a way in, his nails now scratching against it heavily.  But the tough canvas did not tear, for it was thickly coated with ice caused by the condensation of breath, and moisture from without, freezing into a hard, thick mass.  But it cracked and snapped and bent in, so that at any moment there was the possibility of its giving way.

“Lanthorn, quick!” said the captain; and as Johannes brought it the captain’s and doctor’s pieces clicked; while, as soon as the light was held well up, they calculated as nearly as they could where the bear’s breast would be and fired together.

A savage roar followed the reports, there was a scrambling rush, and then a great rustling; and as the men came running up excitedly the dog seemed to consider that he was free, and set up a furious barking as he ran to the tied-up canvas door by the gangway, and stood gazing at his master, waiting to be let out.

“Hit, and scared away,” said the captain, re-loading.  “Shall we go out and see?” said the doctor.  “No, not till daylight,” replied the captain; “it is too risky to go out in the darkness.  We can track it through the snow in the morning.  Quiet the dog, Steve, my lad.  There, go below, my lads; the cold here is terrible.  Good-night.”

Talking eagerly about this interruption the men hurried below, and as soon as the hatch was closed sounds arose which made Skene whine and Steve stop his ears as he hurried into the warm cabin; for Andrew had taken his pipes, and was making them skirl and drone in honour of the victory.