Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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" Mrs Barnett read aloud" Page 119.


library of the fort ; but they were all the good folks required. Mrs
Barnett generally read aloud, and her audience listened with delight.
The Bible and accounts of adventures received a fresh charm when
read out in her clear earnest voice ; her gestures were so expressive
that imaginary persons seemed to live when she spoke of them, and
all were glad when she took up the book. She was, in fact, the life
and soul of the little community, eager alike to give and receive
instruction ; she combined the charm and grace of a woman with the
energy of a man, and she consequently became the idol of the rough
soldiers, who would have willingly laid down their lives in her ser-
vice. Mrs Barnett shared everything with her companions, never
holding herself aloof or remaining shut up in her cabin, but working
zealously amongst the others, drawing out the most reticent by her
intelligent questions and warm sympathy. Good humour and good
health prevailed throughout the little community, and neither hands
nor tongues were idle.

The storm, however, showed no signs of abating. The party had
now been confined to the house for three days, and the snow-drifts
were as wild and furious as ever. Lieutenant Hobsou began to get
anxious. It was becoming imperatively necessary to renew the air
of the rooms, which was too much charged with carbonic acid. The
light of the lamps began to pale in the unhealthy atmosphere, and
the air-pumps would not act, the pipes being choked up with ice;
they were not, in fact, intended to be used when the house was
buried in snow. It was necessary to take counsel ; the Lieutenant
and Sergeant Long put their heads together, and it was decided on
November 23d that, as the wind beat with rather less violence on
the front of the house, one of the windows at the end of the passage
on that side should be opened.

This was no light matter. It was easy enough to open the win-
dow from inside, but the shutter outside was encrusted over with thick
lumps of ice, and resisted every effort to move it. It had to be taken
off its hinges, and the hard mass of snow was then attacked with
pickaxe and shovel ; it was at least ten feet thick, and it was not
until a kind of channel had been scooped out that the outer air was

Hobson, the Sergeant, several soldiers, and Mrs Barnett herself
ventured to creep through this tunnel or channel, but not without
considerable difficulty, for the wind rushed in with fearful fury.

What a scene was presented by Cape Bathurst and the surrounding


plain. It was mid-day, and but a few faint twilight rays glimmered
upon the southern horizon. The cold was not so intense as one
would have supposed, and the thermometer marked only 15 Fahren-
heit above zero; but the snow-drifts whirled along with terrific
force, and all would inevitably have been thrown to the ground, had
not the snow in which they were standing up to their waists helped
to sustain them against the gusts of wind. Everything around them
was white, the walls of the enceinte, and the whole of the house
even to the roof were completely covered over, and nothing but a
few blue wreaths of smoke would have betrayed the existence of a
human habitation to a stranger.

Under the circumstances the " promenade " was soon over ; but
Mrs Barnett had made good use of her time, and would never forget
the awful beauty of the Polar regions in a snow-storm, a beauty
upon which few women had been privileged to look.

A few moments sufficed to renew the atmosphere of the house,
and all unhealthy vapours were quickly dispersed by the introduc-
tion of a pure and refreshing current of air.

The Lieutenant and his companions hurried in, and the window
was again closed ; but after that the snow before it was removed
every day for the sake of ventilation.

The entire week passed in a similar manner ; fortunately the
rein-deer and dogs had plenty of food, so that there was no need to
visit them. The eight days during which the occupants of the fort
were imprisoned so closely, could not fail to be somewhat irksome
to strong men, soldiers and hunters, accustomed to plenty of ex-
ercise in the open air ; and we must own that listening to reading
aloud gradually lost its charm, and even cribbage became uninterest-
ing. The last thought at night was a hope that the tempest might
have ceased in the morning, a hope disappointed every day. Fresh
snow constantly accumulated upon the windows, the wind roared,
the icebergs burst with a crash like thunder, the smoke was forced
back into the rooms, and there were no signs of a diminution of the
fury of the storm.

At last, however, on the 28th November the Aneroid barometer
in the large room gave notice of an approaching change in the state
of the atmosphere. It rose rapidly, whilst the thermometer outside
fell almost suddenly to less than four degrees below zero. These were
symptoms which could not be mistaken, and on the 29th November
the silence all around the fort told that the tempest had ceased.


Every one was eager to get out, the confinement had lasted long
enough. The door could not be opened, and all had to get through the
window, and clear away the fresh accumulation of snow ; this time,
however, it was no soft mass they had to remove, but compact blocks
of ice, which required pick -axes to break them up.

It took about half-an-hour to clear a passage, and then every
one in the fort, except Mrs Mac-Nab, who was not yet up,
hastened into the interior court, glad once more to be able to
walk about.

The cold was still intense, but the wind having gone down it was
possible to endure it, although great care was necessary to escape
serious consequences on leaving the heated rooms for the open air,
the difference between the temperature inside and outside being
some fifty-four degrees.

It was eight o'clock in the morning. Myriads of brilliant con-
stellations studded the sky, and at the zenith shone the Pole star.
Although in both hemispheres there are in reality but 5000 fixed
stars visible to the naked eye, their number appeared to the
observers incalculable. Exclamations of admiration burst involun-
tarily from the lips of the delighted astronomer as he gazed into
the cloudless heavens, once more undimmed by mists or vapours.
Never had a more beautiful sky been spread out before the eyes of
an astromoner.

Whilst Thomas Black was raving in ecstasy, dead to all terrestrial
matters, his companions had wandered as far as the enceinte. The
snow was as hard as a rock, and so slippery that there were a good
many tumbles, but no serious injuries.

It is needless to state that the court of the fort was completely
filled up. The roof of the house alone appeared above the white
mass, the surface of which had been worn smooth by the action of
the wind ; of the palisade nothing was visible but the top of the
stakes, and the least nimble of the wild animals they dreaded
could easily have climbed over them. But what was to be done ?
It was no use to think of clearing away a mass of frozen snow ten
feet thick, extending over so large an extent of ground. All they
could attempt would be to dig away the ice inside the enceinte, so
as to form a kind of moat, the counterscarp of which would protect
the palisade. But alas the winter was only beginning, and a fresh
tempest might at any time fill in the ditch a few hours.

Whilst the Lieutenant was examining the works, which could no


more protect his fort than a single sunbeam could melt the solid
layer of snow, Mrs Joliffe suddenly exclaimed :

" And our dogs ! our reindeer ! "

It was indeed time to think about the poor animals. The dog-
house and stable being lower than the house were probably
entirely covered, and the supply of air had perhaps been completely
cut off. Some hurried to the dog-house, others to the reindeer
stable, and all fears were quickly dispelled. The wall of ice, which
connected the northern corner of the house with the cliff, had partly
protected the two buildings, and the snow round them was not
more than four feet thick, so that the apertures left in the walls
had not been closed up. The animals were all well, and when the
door was opened, the dogs rushed out barking with delight.

The cold was so intense, that after an hour's walk every one
began to think of the glowing stove in the large room at home.
There was nothing left to be done outside, the traps buried beneath
ten feet of snow could not be visited, so all returned to the house,
the window was closed, and the party sat down to the dinner
awaiting them with sharpened appetites.

We can readily imagine that the conversation turned on the
intensity of the cold, which had so rapidly converted the soft snow
into a solid mass. It was no light matter, and might to a certain
extent compromise the safety of the little colony.

" But, Lieutenant," said Mrs Barnett, " can we not count upon a
few days' thaw will not all this snow be rapidly converted into
water ? "

" Oh no, madam," replied Hobson, " a thaw at this time of year is
not at all likely. Indeed I expect the thermometer will fall still
lower, and it is very much to be regretted that we were unable to
remove the snow when it was soft."

" What, you think the temperature likely to become much

" I do most certainly, madam, 4 below zero what is that at
this latitude ? "

" What would it be if we were at the Pole itself?"

" The Pole, madam, is probably not the coldest point of the globe,
for most navigators agree that the sea is there open. From
certain peculiarities of its' geographical position it would appear that
a certain spot on the shores of North Georgia, 95 longitude and
78 latitude, has the coldest, mean temperature in the world: 2

" The dogs rushed out" fyc. Page 122.


below zero all the year round. It is, therefore, called the ' pole
of cold.' "

" But," said Mrs Barnett, " we are more than 8 further south
than that famous point."

" Well, I don't suppose we shall suffer as much at Cape Bathurst
as we might have done in North Georgia. I only tell you of the
' pole of cold,' that you may not confound it with the Pole properly
so-called when the lowness of the temperature is discussed.
Great cold has besides been experienced on other points of the
globe. The difference is, that the low temperature is not there

" To what places do you allude ? " inquired Mrs Barnett ; " I
assure you I take the greatest interest in this matter of degrees of

"As far as I can remember, madam," replied the Lieutenant,
" Arctic explorers state that at Melville Island the temperature fell
to 61 below zero, and at Port Felix to 65."

" But Melville Island and Port Felix are some degrees farther
north latitude than Cape Bathurst, are they not 1 "

"Yes, madam, but in a certain sense we may say that their
latitude proves nothing. A combination of different atmospheric
conditions is requisite to produce intense cold. Local and other
causes largely modify climate. If I remember rightly in 1845 . . .
Sergeant Long, you were at Fort Reliance at that date ?

" Yes, sir/' replied Long.

" Well, was it not in January of that year that the cold was so
excessive 1 "

"Yes it was, I remember only too well that the thermometer
marked 70 below zero."

"What!" exclaimed Mrs Barnett, "at Fort Reliance, on the
Great Slave Lake?"

"Yes, madam," replied the Lieutenant, "and that was at 65
north latitude only, which is the same parallel as that of Christiania
and St Petersburg."

" Then we must be prepared for everything."

"Yes, indeed, we must when we winter in Arctic countries."

During the 29th and 30th November, the cold did not decrease,
and it was necessary to keep up huge fires to prevent the freez-
ing in all the corners of the house of the moisture in the


atmosphere. Fortunately there was plenty of fuel, and it was not
spared. A mean temperature of 5'2 Fahrenheit was maintained in-
doors in spite of the intensity of the cold without.

Thomas Black was so anxious to take stellar observations, now
that the sky was so clear, that he braved the rigour of the outside
temperature, hoping to be able to examine some of the magnifi-
cent constellations twinkling on the zenith. But he was compelled
to desist his instruments "burnt" his hands! "Burnt" is the
only word to express the sensation produced by touching a metallic
body subjected to the influence of intense cold. Exactly similar
results are produced by the sudden introduction of heat into an
animate body, and the sudden withdrawal of the same from it, as
the astronomer found to his cost when he left the skin of his fingers
on his instruments. He had to give up taking observations.

However, the heavens made him the best amends in their power
by displaying the most beautiful and indescribable phenomena of
a lunar halo and an Aurora Borealis.

The lunar halo was a white corona with a pale red edge encir-
cling the moon. This luminous meteor was about forty-five degrees
in diameter, and was the result of the diffraction of the lunar rays
through the small prismatic ice-crystals floating in the atmosphere.
The queen of the night shone with renewed splendour and heightened
beauty from the centre of the luminous ring, the colour and
consistency of which resembled the milky transparent lunar rain-
bows which have been so often described by astronomers.

Fifteen hours later the heavens were lit up by a magnificent
Aurora Borealis, the arch of which extended over more than a
hundred geographical degrees. The vertex of this arch was situated
in the magnetic meridian, and, as is often the case, the rays darted
by the luminous meteor were of all the colours of the rainbow, red
predominating. Here and there the stars seemed to be floating in
blood. Glowing lines of throbbing colour spread from the dark
segment on the horizon, some of them passing the zenith and
quenching the light of the moon in their electric waves, which
oscillated and trembled as if swept by a current of air.

No description could give an adequate idea of the glory which
flushed the northern sky, converting it into a vast dome of fire, but
after the magnificent spectacle had been enjoyed for about half an
hour, it suddenly disappeared not fading gradually away after a


concentration of its rays, or a diminution of its splendour, but dying
abruptly, as if an invisible hand had cut off the supply of electricity
which gave it life.

It was time it was over, for the sake of Thomas Black, for in
another five minutes he would have been frozen where he stood !



the 2nd December, the intensity of the cold decreased.
The phenomena of the lunar halo and Aurora Borealis were
symptoms which a meteorologist would have been at no
loss to interpret. They implied the existence of a certain quantity
of watery vapour in the atmosphere, and the barometer fell slightly,
whilst the thermometer rose to 15 above zero.

Although this temperature would have seemed very cold to the in-
habitants of a temperate zone, it was easily endured by the colonists.
The absence of wind made a great difference, and Hobson having
noticed that the upper layers of snow were becoming softer, ordered
his men to clear it away from the outer approaches of the enceinte.
Mac-Nab and his subordinates set to work zealously, and completed
their task in a few days. The traps were now uncovered and re-set.
A good many footprints showed that there were plenty of furred
animals about the cape, and as they could not get any other food,
it was probable that the bait in the snares would soon attract them.
In accordance with the advice of Marbre the hunter, a reindeer trap
was constructed in the Esquimaux style. A trench was dug twelve
feet deep, and of a uniform width of ten feet. A see-saw plank,
which would rebound when lowered, was laid across it. A bait of
herbs was placed at one end of the plank, and any animal venturing
to take them, was inevitably flung to the bottom of the pit, and
the plank immediately returning to its former position, would allow
of the trapping of another animal in the same manner. Once in,
there was no getting out. The only difficulty Marbre had to contend
with in making his trap, was the extreme hardness of the ground
to be dug out, but both he and the Lieutenant were not a little
surprised at finding beneath some five feet of earth and sand a bed
of snow, as hard as a rock, which appeared to be very thick.

After closely examining the geological structure of the ground,
Hobson observed :

" The body was hauled up." Page 127.


" This part of the coast must have been subjected to intense cold
for a considerable length of time a great many years ago. Probably
the ice rests on a bed of granite, and the earth and sand upon it
have accumulated gradually."

"Well, sir, our trap won't be any the worse for that, the reindeer
will find a slippery wall, which it will be impossible for them to

Marbre was right, as the event proved.

On the 5th September, he and Sabine were on their way to the
trench, when they heard loud growls. They stood still and

" It 's no reindeer making that noise, " said Marbre, " I know
well enough what creature has fallen into our pit."

" A bear ? " replied Sabine.

" Yes," said Marbre, whose eyes glistened with delight.

"Well," remarked Sabine, "we won't grumble at that, bears'
steaks are as good as reindeers', and we get the fur in ! Come

The two hunters were armed. They quickly slipped balls into
their guns, which were already loaded with lead, and hurried to the
trap. The see-saw plank had swung back into its place, but the
bait had disappeared, having probably been dragged down into the
trench. The growls became louder and fiercer, and looking down
the hunters saw that it was indeed a bear they had taken. A huge
mass was huddled together in one corner of the pit, looking in the
gloom like a pile of white fur with two glittering eyes. The sides
of the trench had been ploughed up by the creature's sharp claws, and
had they been made of earth instead of ice, it would certainly have
managed to scramble out, but it could get no hold on the slippery
surface, and it had only managed to enlarge its prison, not to escape
from it.

Under the circumstances the capture was easy. Two balls
carefully aimed put an end to the bear's life, and the next thing to
do was to get it out of the pit. The two hunters returned to the
fort for reinforcements, and ten of the soldiers, provided with ropes,
returned with them. It was not without considerable difficulty
that the body was hauled up. It was a huge creature, six feet long,
weighing six hundred pounds, and must have possessed immense
strength. It belonged to the sub-order of white bears, and had the
flattened head, long neck, short and slightly curved claws, narrow


muzzle, and smooth white fur characteristic of the species. The
edible portions of this valuable animal were confided to Mrs Joliffe,
and by her carefully prepared for the table.

The next week the traps were in full activity. Some twenty
martens were taken, in all the beauty of their winter clothing, but
only two or three foxes. These cunning creatures divined the snare
laid for them, and scratching up the ground near the trap, they
often managed to run off with the bait without being caught. This
made Sabine beside himself with rage ; " for," he said, " such a
subterfuge was unworthy of a respectable fox."

About the 10th December, the wind having veered round to the
south-west, the snow again began to fall, but not in thick flakes, or
in large quantities. The wind being high, however, the cold was
severely felt, and it was necessary to settle in-doors again, and resume
domestic occupations. Hobson distributed lime lozenges and lime
juice to every one as a precaution against the scorbutic affections,
which damp cold produces. No symptoms of scurvy had fortunately
as yet appeared amongst the occupants of the fort, thanks to the
sanitary precautions taken.

The winter solstice was now approaching, when the darkness of
the Polar night would be most profound, as the sun would be at the
lowest maximum point below the horizon of the northern hemi-
sphere. At midnight the southern edges of the long white plains
were touched with a faint glimmer of twilight, that was all, and it
would be impossible to imagine anything more melancholy than the
gloomy stillness and darkness of the vast expanse.

Hobson felt more secure from the attacks of wild beasts, now that
the approaches to the enceinte had been cleared of snow, which was
a fortunate circumstance, as ominous growlings were heard, the
nature of which no one could mistake.

There was no fear of visits from Indian hunters or Canadians at
this time of year, but an incident occurred proving that these dis-
tricts were not altogether depopulated even in the winter, and which
was quite an episode in the long dreary dark months. Some human
beings still lingered on the coast hunting morses and camping under
the snow. They belonged to the race of Esquimaux, " or eaters of
raw flesh," which is scattered over the continent of North America,
from Baffin's Bay to Behring Strait, seldom, however, advancing
farther south than the Great Slave Lake.

On the morning of the 14th December, or rather nine hours

"Some living creatures came out of the hut." Page 129.


before midday, Sergeant Long, on his return from an excursion along
the coast, ended his report to the Lieutenant by saying, that if his
eyes had not deceived him, a tribe of nomads were encamped about
four miles from the fort, near a little cape jutting out from the

" What do you suppose these nomads are? " inquired Hobson.

' Either men or morses," replied the Sergeant. " There 's no
medium ! "

The brave Sergeant would have been considerably -surprised if
any one had told him that some naturalists admit the existence of
the u medium," the idea of which he scouted; and certain savants
have with some humour classed the Esquimaux as an " intermediate
species " between man and the sea-cow.

Lieutenant Hobson, Mrs Barnett, Madge, and a few others at once
went to ascertain the truth of the report. Well wrapt up, and on
their guard against a sudden chill, their feet cased in furred boots,
and guns and hatchets in their hands, they issued from the postern,
\nd made their way over the frozen snow along the coast, strewn
with masses of ice.

The moon, already in the last quarter, shed a few faint rays through
the mists which shrouded the ice-fields. After marching for about
an hour, the Lieutenant began to think that the Sergeant had been
mistaken, and that what he had seen were morses, who had returned
to their native element through the holes in the ice which they
always keep open.

But Long, pointing to a grey wreath of smoke curling out of a
conical protuberance on the ice-field some hundred steps off, con-
tented himself with observing quietly

" The morses are smoking, then ! "

As he spoke some living creatures came out of the hut dragging
themselves along the snow. They were Esquimaux, but whether
male or female none but a native could have said, for their costumes
were all exactly alike.

Indeed, without in the least sharing the opinion of the naturalist
quoted above, any one might have taken the rough shaggy figures
for seals or some other amphibious animals. There were six of them
four full-grown, and two children. Although very short, they
were broad-chested and muscular. They tad the flat noses, long
eye-lashes, large mouths, thick lips, long black coarse hair, and
beardless chins of their race. Their costume consisted of a round


coat made of the skin of the walrus, a hood, boots, trousers, and
mittens of the same material. They gazed at the Europeans in

"Does any one understand Esquimaux'?" inquired the Lieu-

No one was acquainted with that idiom, and every one started
when a voice immediately exclaimed in English, " Welcome ! wel-
come ! "

It was an Esquimaux, and, as they learned later, a woman, who,
approaching Mrs Barnett, held out her hand.

The lady, much surprised, replied in a few words, which the native
girl readily understood, and the whole family was invited to follow
the Europeans to the fort.

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 12 of 31)