"At last, with a cry of satisfaction, he made an entrance of sorts among the packing crates. He turned to us, holding a gravedigger’s lantern and said: ‘The most wondrous sight on earth.’
I followed Bletchley, who was for once totally quiet, into an enclosed space which was entirely floored with large blocks of cut ice. The captain hung his lantern on a beam nail and immediately we saw the spectacle he had led us to. Across the bed of ice, a giant white bear had been laid out. It was a vast animal, two or three feet high at the waist, and sloping in a thick hide of matted fur towards a head that was the size of several blacksmith’s anvils.
‘Christ!’ Bletchley exclaimed.
‘Your first bear?’ the captain asked, his eyes glinting happily.
‘Yes. Yes, absolutely.’
One after the other, Sykes and Talbot crawled into the space, and uttered amazement when they saw what was there.
‘She came to the ships in January, during the night,’ Bray said, proudly. ‘I believe she was starving. She moaned on the ice below us and scratched at the hull. It was a quite terrible sound to listen to, and a dreadful sight. She was like a ghost down there – if you looked directly at her, then she vanished, she was as grey as bone, as was the ice. All you could see were her eyes, for they are as black as Whitby jet. On your departure, you might see the marks where her claws worked the wood. They’re deep, gentlemen – make no mistake how soft her claws would find the human body, if she were to pay you one of her affections.’
‘Who shot her?’ I asked.
‘I had the pleasure myself,’ the captain replied, squinting an eye and pulling a trigger finger, once more, at his victim. ‘But I was careful not to aim for the head, so it took a few bullets to finish her off. Her keel is full of lead ballast!’
‘Why didn’t you aim for the head?’ Talbot asked.
‘Because this, men, is a fortune you are looking at. I shall sell this white beast to a fat country squire who wants to scare his guests at Christmas by placing her in the entrance hall of his manor. When she’s stuffed she will be worth several dozen barrels of finest spermaceti. With her I’ll be able to fix much of the Jester.’
‘Why haven’t you skinned her?’ Sykes asked.
‘An Esquimaux boy was going to perform it for me, but an intact body is far more valuable. Without the bones and flesh the English taxidermist has very little accuracy in reconstructing its true size. They stuff ’em like settees, gentlemen, and then they’re worthless.’
The neck lay stiff as a wooden bough, but the aspect of her expression was that of a sleeping animal. The weight of the jaw had created a slight dish to the ice below it, and the bear nestled into this hollow, as if at peace. Fortunately, I was positioned directly by the head, so I was able to crouch down to make an examination. She had a dark-lipped mouth, open enough for me to see the points of several teeth. With the stem of my tobacco pipe I parted the lips, gradually, though there was much resistance, until a fang the length of an index finger was revealed. Behind it, I saw a livid tongue vanishing into the deep shadow of her throat, and beyond that was the cruel wild interior of the animal. I wondered if this beast had killed a man. He would have had a similar view into this terrible aperture, just before his death. But now, on the bed of ice, the ferocity and malice of the bear had gone, especially as the tip of my pipe gave an almost comical look, as if she was going to smoke with us.
‘You must shake hands with her,’ the captain suggested, pushing one of the paws towards us with his boot.
Bletchley tried first, lifting the great paw with both of his hands until it was just clear of the ice. He passed it to me. The weight of the bear’s fist, and her arm, was considerable. The fur was so deep and dense my fingers disappeared far into it, yet still my hands were unable to reach either side of the paw. I felt the abrasive surfaces of the pads, as rough as tree bark, and the curve of several claws that had the smooth hard feel of carpenter’s nails.
‘It had a young with it,’ Bray said, somewhat wistfully. ‘It fled across the ice when we fired the guns,’ he continued, his theatrical ringmaster tone returning. ‘And you have shaken hands with its mother, now. That cub will smell her scent on you, gentlemen, beware.’
I realised his joke was not all humour. He looked back at me with a small-eyed stare, midway between amusement and something more diabolical, and I thought, it is you, Captain Bray, it is you who have the eyes as dark as Whitby jet."
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