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Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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warmly. " We all know the old claims made by the English in
general, and the Hudson's Bay Company in particular, to these
hunting grounds; but I expect coming events will soon alter this
state of things, and America will be America from the Straits of
Magellan to the North Pole ! "

' I do not agree with you," replied Hobson dryly.

" Well, sir, however that may be," said the Canadian, " let us
suffer this international question to remain in abeyance for the
present. .Whatever rights the Company may arrogate to itself, it is
very clear that in the extreme north of the continent, and especially
on the coast, the territory belongs to whoever occupies it. You
have founded a factory on Cape Bathurst, therefore we will respect
your domain, and you on your side will avoid ours, when the St
Louis fur- traders have established their projected fort at another
point on the northern shore of America."




RIVAL CLAIMANTS. Page 108.



TWO SHOTS. 109



The Lieutenant frowned at this speech, for he well knew what
complications would arise in the future when the Hudson's Bay
Company would be compelled to struggle for supremacy with power-
ful rivals, and that quarrelling and even bloodshed would ensue ; he
could not, however, but acknowledge that this was not the time to
begin the discussion, and he was not sorry when the hunter, whose
manners, to tell the truth, were very polite, placed the dispute on
another footing.

" As for this present matter," said the Canadian, " it is of minor
importance, and we must settle it according to the rules of the chase.
Our guns are of different calibre, and our balls can be easily dis-
tinguished ; let the fox belong to whichever of us really killed
it."

The proposition was a fair one, and the body of the victim was
examined accordingly. One ball had entered at the side, the other
at the heart ; and the latter was from the gun of the Canadian.

" The fox is your property, sir," said Jaspar Hobson, vainly
endeavouring to conceal his chagrin at seeing this valuable spoil
fall into the enemy's hands.

The Canadian took it, but instead of throwing it over his shoulder
and carrying it off, he turned to Mrs Barnett, and said

" Ladies are fond of beautiful furs, and although, perhaps, if they
knew better what dangers and difficulties have to be surmounted in
order to obtain them, they might not care so much about them, they
are not likely to refuse to wear them on that account, and I hope,
madam, you will favour me by accepting this one in remembrance
of our meeting."

Mrs Barnett hesitated for a moment, but the gift was offered
with so much courtesy and kindliness of manner, that it would
have seemed churlish to refuse, and she therefore accepted it with
many thanks.

This little ceremony over, the stranger again bowed politely, and,
followed by his comrades, quickly disappeared behind the rocks,
whilst the Lieutenant and his party returned to Fort Good Hope.
Hobson was very silent and thoughtful all the way ; for he could
not but feel that the existence of a rival company would greatly
compromise the success of his undertaking, and lead to many
future difficulties.




CHAPTER XVII.

THE APPROACH OF WINTER.

was the 21st of September. The sun was then passing
through the autumnal equinox, that is to say, the day and
night were of equal length all over the world. These
successive alternations of light and darkness were hailed with
delight by the inhabitants of the fort. It is easier to sleep in the
absence of the sun, and darkness refreshes arid strengthens the
eyes, weary with the unchanging brightness of several months of
daylight.

We know that during the equinox the tides are generally at
their greatest height ; we have high water or flood, for the sun and
moon being in conjunction, their double influence is brought to bear
upon the waters. It was, therefore, necessary to note carefully the
approaching tide at Cape Bathurst. Jaspar Hobson had made bench
marks some days before, so as to estimate exactly the amount of
vertical displacement of the waters between high and low tide ; he
found, however, that in spite of all the reports of previous observers,
the combined solar and lunar influence was hardly felt in this part
of the Arctic Ocean. There was scarcely any tide at all, and the
statements of navigators on the subject were contradicted.

" There is certainly something unnatural here ! " said Lieutenant
Hobson to himself.

He did not in fact know what to think, but other cares soon
occupied his mind, and he did not long endeavour to get to the
rights of this singular peculiarity.

On the 29th September the state of the atmosphere changed
considerably. The thermometer fell to 41 Fahrenheit, and the sky
became covered with clouds which were soon converted into heavy
rain. The bad season was approaching.

Before the ground should be covered with snow, Mrs Joliffe waa
busy sowing the seeds of Cochlearia (scurvy grass) and sorrel, in
the hope that as they were very hardy, and would be well protected



THE APPROACH OF WIN TEX. Ill

from the rigour of the winter by the snow itself, they would come up
in the spring. Her garden, consisting of several acres hidden behind
the cliff of the cape, had been prepared beforehand, and it was sown
during the last days of September.

Hobson made his companions assume their winter garments
before the great cold set in, and all were soon suitably clothed in
the linen under vests, deerskin cloaks, sealskin pantaloons, fur
bonnets, and waterproof boots with which they were provided.
We may also say that the rooms were suitably dressed ; the wooden
walls were hung with skins, in order to prevent the formation upon
them of coats of ice in sudden falls of temperature. About this
time, Rae set up his condensers for collecting the vapour suspended
in the air, which were to be emptied twice a week. The heat of
the stove was regulated according to the variations of the external
temperature, so as to keep the thermometer of the rooms at 50
Fahrenheit. The house would soon be covered with thick snow,
which would prevent any waste of the internal warmth, and by this
combination of natural and artificial protections they hoped to be
able successfully to contend with their two most formidable enemies,
cold and damp.

On the 2nd October the thermometer fell still lower, and the
first snow storm came on \ there was but little wind, and there
were therefore none of those violent whirlpools of snow called drifts,
but a vast white carpet of uniform thickness soon clothed the cape,
the enceinte of fort, and the coast. The waters of the lake and sea,
not yet petrified by the icy hand of winter, were of a dull, gloomy,
greyish hue, and on the northern horizon the first icebergs stood out
against the misty sky. The blockade had not yet commenced, but
nature was collecting her materials, soon to be cemented by the cold
into an impenetrable barrier.

The " young ice " was rapidly forming on the liquid surfaces of
sea and lake. The lagoon was the first to freeze over ; large
whitish-grey patches appeared here and there, signs of a hard frost
setting in, favoured by the calmness of the atmosphere, and after
a night during which the thermometer had remained at 15 Fahren-
heit, the surface of the lake was smooth and firm enough to satisfy
the most fastidious skaters of the Serpentine. On the verge of the
horizon, the sky assumed that peculiar appearance which whalers
call ice-blink, and which is the result of the glare of light reflected
obliquely from the surface of the ice against the opposite atmos-



12 THE FUR COUNTRY.



phere. Vast tracts of the ocean became gradually solidified, the ice-
fields, formed by the accumulation of icicles, became welded to the
coast, presenting a surface broken and distorted by the action of the
waves, and contrasting strongly with the smooth mirror of the lake.
Here and there floated these long pieces, scarcely cemented together
at the edges, known as " drift ice," and the " hummocks," or pro-
tuberances caused by the squeezing of one piece against another,
were also of frequent occurrence.

In a few days the aspect of Cape Bathurst and the surrounding
districts was completely changed. Mrs Barnett's delight and
enthusiasm knew no bounds ; everything was new to her, and she
would have thought no fatigue or suffering too great to be endured
for the sake of witnessing such a spectacle. She could imagine
nothing more sublime than this invasion of winter with all its
mighty forces, this conquest of the northern regions by the cold.
All trace of the distinctive features of the country had disappeared ;
the land was metamorphosed, a new country was springing into being
before her admiring eyes, a country gifted with a grand and touch-
ing beauty. Details were lost, only the large outlines were given,
scarcely marked out against the misty sky. One transformation
scene followed another with magic rapidity. The ocean, which but
lately lifted up its mighty waves, was hushed and still ; the verdant
soil of various hues was replaced by a carpet of dazzling whiteness ;
the woods of trees of different kinds were converted into groups of
gaunt skeletons draped in hoar-frost ; the radiant orb of day had
become a pale disc, languidly running its allotted course in the
thick fog, and visible but for a few hours a day, whilst the sea-
horizon, no longer clearly cut against the sky, was hidden by an end-
less chain of ice-bergs, broken into countless rugged forms, and
building up that impenetrable ice- wall, which Nature has set up
between the Pole and the bold explorers who endeavour to reach
it.

We can well understand to how many discussions and conversa-
tions the altered appearance of the country gave rise. Thomas
Black was the only one who remained indifferent to the sublime
beauty of the scene. But what could one expect of an astronomer
so wrapped up in his one idea, that he might be said to be present
in the little colony in the body, but absent in spirit ? He lived in
the contemplation of the heavenly bodies, passing from the examina-
tion of one constellation to that of another, roving in imagination




"A new country u?as springing into being" fyc. Page 112.



THE APPROACH OF WINTER.



through the vast realms of space, peopled by countless radiant orbs,
and fuming with rage when fogs or clouds hid the objects of his
devotion from his sight. Hobson consoled him by promising him
fine cold nights admirably suited to astronomical observations, when
he could watch the beautiful Aurora Borealis, the lunar halos, and
other phenomena of Polar countries worthy even of his admira-
tion.

The cold was not at this time too intense - there was no wind, and
it is the wind which makes the cold so sharp and biting. Hunting
was vigorously carried on for some days. The magazines became
stocked with new furs, and fresh stores of provisions were laid up.
Partridges and ptarmigans on their way to the south passed over
the fort in great numbers, and supplied fresh and wholesome meat.
Polar or Arctic hares were plentiful, and had already assumed their
white winter robes. About a hundred of these rodents formed a
valuable addition to the reserves of the colony.

There were also large flocks of the whistling swan or hooper, one of
the finest species of North America. The hunters killed several couples
of them, handsome birds, four or five feet in entire length, with white
plumage, touched with copper colour on the head and upper part of
neck. They were on their way to a more hospitable zone, where
they could find the aquatic plants and insects they required for
food, and they sped through the air at a rapid pace, for it is as
much their native element as water. Trumpeter swans, with a cry
like the shrill tone of a clarion, which are about the same size as the
hoopers, but have black feet and beaks, also passed in great numbers,
but neither Marbre nor Sabine were fortunate enough to bring down
any of them. However, they shouted out " au revoir" in significant
tones, for they knew that they would return with the first breezes of
spring, and that they could then be easily caught. Their skin,
plumage, and down, are all of great value, and they are therefore
eagerly hunted. In some favourable years tens of thousands of
them have been exported, fetching half a guinea a piece.

During these excursions, which only lasted for a few hours, and
were often interrupted by bad weather, packs of wolves were often
met with. There was no need to go far to find them, for, rendered
bold by hunger, they already ventured close to the factory. Their
scent is very keen, and they were attracted by the smell from the
kitchen. During the night they could be heard howling in a threat-
ening manner. Although not dangerous individually, these carnivo-

H



I 14 THE FUR COUNTRY.



rous beasts are formidable in packs, and the hunters therefore took
care to be well armed when they went beyond the enceinte of the fort.

The bears were still more aggressive. Not a day passed without
several of these animals being seen. At night they would come close
up to the enclosure, arid some were even wounded with shot, but got
off, staining the snow with their blood, so that up to October 10th
not one had left its warm and valuable fur in the hands of the
hunters. Hobson would not have them molested, rightly judging
that with such formidable creatures it was best to remain on the
defensive, and it was not improbable that, urged on by hunger, they
might attack Fort Hope before very long. Then the little colony
could defend itself, and provision its stores at the same time.

For a few days the weather continued dry and cold, the surface
of the snow was firm and suitable for walking, so that a few
excursions were made without difficulty along the coast on the
south of the fort. The Lieutenant was anxious to ascertain if the
agents of the St Louis Fur Company had left the country. No
traces were, however, found of their return march, and it was
therefore concluded that they had gone down to some southern fort
to pass the winter by another route.

The few fine days were soon over, and in the first week of
November the wind veered round to the south, making the tem-
perature warmer, it is true, but also bringing heavy snow-storms.
The ground was soon covered with a soft cushion several feet thick,
which had to be cleared away round the house every day, whilst a
lane was made through it to the postern, the shed, and the stable of
the dogs and rein-deer. Excursions became more and more rare,
and it was impossible to walk without snow-shoes.

When the snow has become hardened by frost, it easily sustains
the weight of a man ; but when it is soft and yielding, and the
unfortunate pedestrian sinks into it up to his knees, the snow-shoes
used by Indians are invaluable.

Lieutenant Hobson and his companions were quite accustomed to
walk in them, and could glide about over the snow as rapidly as
skaters on ice ; Mrs Barnett had early practised wearing them, and
was quite as expert in their use as the rest of the party. The
frozen lake as well as the coast was scoured by these indefatigable
explorers, who were even able to advance several miles from
the shore on the solid surface of the ocean now covered with ice
several feet thick. It was, however, very tiring work, for the ice



THE APPROACH OF WINTER. 115

fields were rugged and uneven, strewn with piled-up ridges of ice
and hummocks which had to be turned. Further out a chain of
icebergs, some five hundred feet high, barred their progress. These
mighty icebergs, broken into fantastic and picturesque forms, were
a truly magnificent spectacle. Here they looked like the whitened
ruins of a town with curtains battered in, and monuments and
columns overthrown ; there like some volcanic land torn and
convulsed by earthquakes and eruptions ; a confusion of glaciers
and glittering ice peaks with snowy ramparts and buttresses,
valleys, and crevasses, mountains and hillocks, tossed and distorted
like the famous Alps of Switzerland. A few scattered birds,
petrels, guillemots, and puffins, lingering behind their fellows, still
enlivened the vast solitude with their piercing cries ; huge white
bears roamed about amongst the hummocks, their dazzling coats
scarcely distinguishable from the shining ice truly there was
enough to interest and excite our adventurous lady traveller, and
even Madge, the faithful Madge, shared the enthusiasm of her
mistress. How far, how very far, were both from the tropic zones of
India or Australia !

The frozen ocean was firm enough to have allowed of the passage
of a park of artillery, or the erection of a monument, and many
were the excursions on its surface until the sudden lowering of the
temperature rendered all exertion so exhausting that they had to be
discontinued. The pedestrians were out of breath after taking a
few steps, and the dazzling whiteness of the glittering snow could
not be endured by the naked eye ; indeed, the reverberation or
flickering glare of the undulatory reflection of the light from the
surface of the snow, has been known to cause several cases of blind-
ness amongst the Esquimaux.

A singular phenomenon due to the refraction of rays of light was
now observed : Distances, depths, and heights lost their true pro-
portions, five or six yards of ice looked like two, and many were
the falls and ludicrous results of this optical illusion.

On October 14th the thermometer marked 3 Fahrenheit below
zero, a severe temperature to endure, especially when the north
wind blows strongly. The air seemed to be made of needles,
and those who ventured out of the house were in great danger
of being frost-bitten, when death or mortification would ensue
if the suspended circulation of the blood were not restored by
immediate friction with snow. Garry, Belcher, Hope, and other



Il6 THE FUR COUNTRY.

members of the little community were attacked by frost-bite, but
the parts affected being rubbed in time they escaped without serious
injury.

It will readily be understood that all manual labour had now
become impossible. The days were extremely short, the sun was
only above the horizon for a few hours and the actual winter, imply-
ing entire confinement within doors, was about to commence. The
last Arctic birds forsook the gloomy shores of the Polar Sea, only a
few pairs of those speckled quails remained which the Indians
appropriately call " winter birds," because they wait in the Arctic
regions until the commencement of the Polar night, but they too
were soon to take their departure.

Lieutenant Hobson, therefore, urged on the setting of the traps
and snares which were to remain in different parts of Cape Bathurst
throughout the winter.

These traps consisted merely of rough joists supported on a square,
formed of three pieces of wood so balanced as to fall on the least
touch in fact, the same sort of trap as that used for snaring birds
in fields on a large scale. The end of the horizontal piece of wood
was baited with venison, and every animal of a moderate height,
a fox or a marten, for instance, which touched it with its paw, could
not fail to be crushed. Such were the traps set in the winter over
a space of several miles by the famous hunters whose adventurous
life has been so poetically described by Cooper. Some thirty of
these snares were set round Fort Hope, and were to be visited at
pretty frequent intervals.

On the 12th November a new member was born to the little
colony. Mrs Mac-Nub was safely confined of a fine healthy boy, of
whom the head carpenter was extremely proud. Mrs Barnett stood
god-mother to the child, which received the name of Michael Hope.
The ceremony of baptism was performed with considerable
solemnity, and a kind of fete was held in honour of the little
creature which had just come into the world beyond the 70th
degree N. Lat.

A few days afterwards, on' November 20th, the sun sunk below
the horizon not to appear again for two months. The Polar night
had commenced !




" A kind of fete was held," fyc. Page 116.




CHAPTER XVIII.

THE POLAR NIGHT.

'HE long night was ushered in by a violent storm. The cold
was perhaps a little less severe, but the air was very damp,
and, in spite of every precaution, the humidity penetrated
into the house, and the condensers, which were emptied every morn-
ing, contained several pounds of ice.

Outside drifts whirled past like waterspouts the snow seemed
no longer to fall horizontally but vertically. The Lieutenant was
obliged to insist upon the door being kept shut, for had it been
opened the passages would immediately have become blocked up.
The explorers were literally prisoners.

The window shutters were hermetically closed, and the lamps
were kept burning through the long hours of the sleepless night.

But although darkness reigned without, the noise of the tempest
replaced the silence usually so complete in these high latitudes. The
roaring of the wind between the house and the cliff never ceased
for a moment, the house trembled to its foundations, and had it
not been for the solidity of its construction, must have succumbed
to the violence of the hurricane. Fortunately the accumulation of
snow round the walls broke the force of the squall, and Mac-Nab's
only fear was for the chimneys, which were liable to be blown over.
However, they remained firm, although they had constantly to
be freed from the snow which blocked up the openings.

In the midst of the whistling of the wind, loud reports were heard,
of which Mrs Barnett could not conjecture the cause. It was the
falling of icebergs in the offing. The echoes caught up the sounds,
which were rolled along like the reverberations of thunder. The
ground shook as the ice-fields split open, crushed by the falling of
these mighty mountains, and none but those thoroughly inured to
the horrors of these wild rugged climates could witness these strange
phenomena without a shudder. Lieutenant Hobson and his com-
panions were accustomed to all these things, and Mrs Barnett and
Madge were gradually becoming so, and were, besides, not altogether



Il8 THE FUR COUNTRY.



unfamiliar with those terrible winds which move at the rate of forty
miles an hour, and overturn twenty-four pounders. Here, however,
the darkness and the snow aggravated the dread might of the
storm ; that which was not crushed was buried and smothered, and,
probably twelve hours after the commencement of the tempest,
house, kennel, shed, and enceinte would have disappeared beneath
a bed of snow of uniform thickness.

The time was not wasted during this long imprisonment. All
these good people agreed together perfectly, and neither ill-humour
nor ennui marred the contentment of the little party shut up in such
a> narrow space. They were used to life under similar conditions
at Forts Enterprise and Reliance, and there was nothing to excite
Mrs Barnett's surprise in their ready accommodation of themselves to
circumstances.

Part of the day was occupied with work, part with reading and
games. Garments had to be made and mended, arms to be kept
bright and in good repair, boots to be manufactured, and the daily
journal to be issued in which Lieutenant Hobson recorded the
slightest events of this northern wintering the weather, the tempera-
ture, the direction of the wind, the appearance of meteors so fre-
quent in the Polar regions, &c., &c. Then the house had to be kept
in order, the rooms must be swept, and the stores of furs must be
visited every day to see if they were free from damp : the fires and
stoves, too, required constant superintendence, and perpetual vigil-
ance was necessary to prevent the accumulation of particles of mois-
ture in the corners.

To each one was assigned a task, the duty of each one was laid
down in rules fixed up in the large room, so that without being
overworked, the occupants of the fort were never without something
to do. Thomas Black screwed and unscrewed his instruments, and
looked over his astronomical calculations, remaining almost always
shut up in his cabin, fretting and fuming at the storm which pre-
vented him from making nocturnal observations. The three married
women had also plenty to see to : Mrs Mac-Nab busied herself with
her baby who got on wonderfully, whilst Mrs Joliffe, assisted by
Mrs Rae, and with the Corporal always at her heels, presided in the
kitchen .

When work was done the entire party assembled in the large
room, spending the whole of Sunday together. Reading was the chief
amusement. The Bible and some books of travels were the whole



Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 11 of 31)