Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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The Esquimaux looked searchingly at the strangers, and after a
few moments' hesitation they accompanied the Lieutenant, keeping
close together, however.

Arrived at the enceinte, the native woman, seeing the house, of
the existence of which she had had no idea, exclaimed

" House ! snow-house ! "

She asked if it were made of snow, which was a natural question
enough, for the house was all but hidden beneath the white mass
which covered the ground. She was made to understand that it
was built of wood ; she then turned and said a few words to her
companions, who made signs of acquiescence, and they all passed
through the postern, and were taken to the large room in the chief

They removed their hoods, and it became possible to distinguish
sexes. There were two men, about forty or fifty years old, with
yellowish-red complexions, sharp teeth, and projecting cheek-bones,
which gave them something of the appearance of carnivorous animals ;
two women, still young, whose matted hair was adorned with the
teeth and claws of Polar bears ; and two children, about five or six
years old, poor little creatures with intelligent faces, who looked
about them with wide wondering eyes.

" I believe the Esquimaux are always hungry," said Hobson, "so
I don't suppose our guests would object to a slice of venison."

In obedience to the Lieutenant's order, Joliffe brought some
reindeer- venison, which the poor creatures devoured with greedy
avidity ; but the young woman who had answered in English
behaved with greater refinement, and watched Mrs Barnett and the

She ran up to it," fyc. Page 131.


women of the fort without once- removing her eyes from them.
Presently noticing the baby in Mrs Mac-Nab's arms, she rose and
ran up to it, speaking in a soft voice, and caressing it tenderly.
Indeed if not exactly superior, the young girl was certainly more
civilised than her companions, which was especially noticeable when,
being attacked by a slight fit of coughing, she put her hand before
her mouth in the manner enjoined by the first rules of civilised

This significant gesture did not escape any one, and Mrs Barnett,
who chatted for some time with the Esquimaux woman, learned from
her in a few short sentences that she had been for a year in the
service of the Danish governor of Upper Navik, whose wife was
English, and that she had left Greenland to follow her family to
the hunting grounds. The two men were her brothers ; the other
woman was her sister-in-law, married to one of the men, and mother
of the two children. They were all returning from Melbourne Island,
on the eastern coast of English America, and were making for Point
Barrow, on the western coast of Russian America, the home of
their tribe, and were considerably astonished to find a factory
established on Cape Bathurst. Indeed the two men shook their
heads when they spoke of it. Did they disapprove of the con-
struction of a fort at this particular point of the coast? Did they
think the situation ill-chosen 1 In spite of all his endeavours,
Hobson could get no satisfactory reply to these questions, or rather
he could not understand the answers he received.

The name of the young girl was Kalumah, and she seemed to
have taken a great fancy to Mrs Barnett. But sociable as she was,
she appeared to feel no regret at having left the governor of Upper
Navik, and to be sincerely attached to her relations.

After refreshing themselves with the reindeer- venison, and
drinking half a-pint of rum, in which the children had their share,
the Esquimaux took leave of their hosts ; but before saying good-
bye, the young girl invited Mrs Barnett to visit their snow-hut, and
the lady promised to do so the next day, weather permitting.

The next day was fine, and accompanied by Madge, Lieutenant
Hobson, and a few soldiers, well armed in case any bears should be
prowling about, Mrs Barnett set out for " Cape Esquimaux," as they
had named the spot where the little colony had encamped.

Kalumah hastened forward to meet her friend of yesterday, and
pointed to the hut with an air of pride. It was a laro-e cone of


snow, with an opening in the summit, through which the smoke
from the fire inside made its way. These snow-houses, called igloos
in the language of the Esquimaux, are constructed with great
rapidity, and are admirably suited to the climate. In them their
owners can endure a temperature 40 below zero, without fires, and
without suffering much. In the summer the Esquimaux encamp
in tents made of seal and reindeer skins, which are called tupics.

It was no easy matter to get into this hut. The only opening was
a hole close to the ground, and it was necessary to creep through a
kind of passage three or four feet long, which is about the thickness
of the walls of these snow houses. But a traveller by profession, a
laureate of the Royal Society, could not hesitate, and Mrs Paulina
Barnett did not hesitate ! Followed by Madge, she bravely entered
the narrow tunnel in imitation of her guide. Lieutenant Hobson
and his men dispensed with paying their respects inside.

And Mrs Barnett soon discovered that the chief difficulty was not
getting into the hut, but remaining in it when there. The room
was heated by a fire, on which the bones of morses were burning ;
and the air was full of the smell of the fetid oil of a lamp, of greasy
garments, and the flesh of the amphibious animals which form the
chief article of an Esquimaux's diet. It was suffocating and sick-
ening ! Madge could not stand it, and hurried out at once, but
Mrs Barnett, rather than hurt the feelings of the young native,
showed superhuman courage, and extended her visit over five long
minutes ! five centuries ! The two children and their mother were
at home, but the men had gone to hunt morses four or five miles
from their camp.

Once out of the hut, Mrs Barnett drew a long sigh of relief, and
the colour returned to her blanched cheeks.

" Well, madam," inquired the Lieutenant, " what do you think of
Esquimaux houses 1 "

" The ventilation leaves something to be desired ! " she replied

The interesting native family remained encamped near Cape
Esquimaux for eight days. The men passed twelve hours out of
every twenty-four hunting morses. With a patience which none
but sportsmen could understand, they would watch for the
amphibious animals near the holes through which they come up to
the surface of the ice-field to breathe. When the morse appears, a,
rope with a running noose is flung round its body a little below the


bead, and it is dragged on to the ice-field, often with considerable
difficulty, and killed with hatchets. It is really more like fishing
than hunting. It is considered a great treat to drink the warm
blood of the walrus, and the Esquimaux often indulge in it to excess.

Kalumah came to the fort every day in spite of the severity of the
weather. She was never tired of going through the different rooms,
and watching Mrs Joliffe at her cooking or sewing. She asked the
English name of everything, and talked for hours together with
Mrs Barnett, if the term " talking " can be applied to an exchange
of words after long deliberation on both sides. When Mrs Barnett
read aloud, Kalumah listened with great attention, although she
probably understood nothing of what she heard.

The young native girl had a sweet voice, and sometimes sang
some strange melancholy rhythmical songs with a peculiar metre,
and, if we may so express it, a frosty ring about them, peculiarly
characteristic of their origin.

Mrs Barnett had the patience to translate one of these Greenland
sagas, which was sung to a sad air, interspersed with long pauses,
and filled with strange intervals, which produced an indescribable
effect. We give an English rendering of Mrs Barnett's translation,
which may give a faint idea of this strange hyperborean poetry ;

Dark is the sky,

The sun sinks wearily ;
My trembling heart, with sorrow filled,

Aches drearily !

My sweet child at my songs is smiling stilL,
While at his tender heart the icicles lie chilL

Child of my dreams !

Thy love doth cheer ine ;
The cruel biting frost I brave

But to be near thee !

Ah me, Ah me, could these hot tears of mine
But inelt the icicles around that heart of thine /

Could we once more

Meet heart to heart,
Thy little hands close clasped in mine,

No more to part.

Then on thy chill heart rays from heaven above
Should fall, and softly melt it with the warmth of love !


On the 20th December the Esquimaux family came to take leave
of the occupants of the fort. Kalumah was sorry to part with
Mrs Barnett, who would gladly have retained her in her service, but
the young native could not be persuaded to leave her own
people; she promised, however, to return to Fort Hope in the

Her farewell was touching. She presented Mrs Barnett with a
copper ring, and received in exchange a necklace of black beads,
which she immediately put on. Hobson gave the poor people a
good stock of provisions, which they packed in their sledge ; and
after a few words of grateful acknowledgment from Kalumah, the
whole party set out towards the west, quickly disappearing in the
thick fogs on the shore.



FEW days of dry calm weather favoured the operations
of the hunters, but they did not venture far from the
fort ; the abundance of game rendered it unnecessary to
do so, and Lieutenant Hobson could justly congratulate himself on
having chosen so favourable a situation for the new settlement. A
great number of furred animals of all kinds were taken in the traps,
and Sabine and Marbre killed a good many Polar hares. Some
twenty starving wolves were shot. Hunger rendered the latter
animals aggressive, and bands of them gathered about the fort, filling
the air with hoarse howls, and amongst the " hummocks " on the ice-
fields sometimes prowled huge bears, whose movements were watched
with great interest.

On the 25th December all excursions had again to be given up.
The wind veered suddenly to the north, and the cold became
exceedingly severe. It was impossible to remain out of doors with-
out being frost-bitten. The Fahrenheit thermometer fell to 18 below
zero, and the gale reared like a volley of musketry. Hobson to^k
care to provide the animals with food enough to last several weeks.

Christmas Day, the day of home-gatherings so dear to the heart
of all Englishmen, was kept with due solemnity. The colonists re-
turned thanks to God for preserving them through so many perils ;
and the workmen, who had a holiday in honour of the day, afterwards
assembled with their masters and the ladies round a well-filled board,
on which figured two huge Christmas puddings.

In the -evening a huge bowl of punch flamed in the centre of the
table ; the lamps were put out, and for a time the room was lighted
only by the livid flames of the spirit, the familiar objects assuming
strange fantastic forms. The spirits of the soldiers rose as they
watched the flickering illumination, and their excitement was not
lessened after imbibing some of the burning liquid.

But now the flames began to pale : bluish tongues still fitfully


licked the plump sides of the national pudding for a few minutes,
and then died away.

Strange to say, although the lamps had not been relit, the room
did not become dark on the extinction of the flames. A bright red
light was streaming through the window, which had passed un-
noticed in the previous illumination.

The revellers started to their feet, and looked at each other in

" A fire ! " cried several.

But unless the house itself were burning, there could not be a
fire anywhere near Cape Bathurst.

The Lieutenant rushed to the window, and at once understood
the cause of the phenomenon. It was an eruption.

Indeed, above the western cliffs beyond Walruses' Bay the horizon
was on tire. The summits of the igneous hills, some miles from
Cape Bathurst, could riot be seen ; but the sheaf of flame shot up
to a considerable height, lighting up the whole country in a weird,
unearthly manner.

"It is more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis ! " exclaimed Mrs

Thomas Black indignantly protested against this assertion. A
terrestrial phenomenon more beautiful than a meteor ! But no one
was disposed to argue with him about it, for all hurried out, in spite
of the bitter gale and biting cold, to watch the glorious spectacle of
the flashing sheaf of flames standing out against the black back-
ground of the night sky.

Had not the mouths and ears of the party been cased in furs,
they would have been able to hear the rumbling noise of the erup-
tion, and to tell each other of the impressions made upon them by
this magnificent sight ; but, as it was, they could neither speak nor
hear. They might well be content, however, with gazing upon such
a glorious scene a scene which once looked upon could never be
forgotten. The glowing sheets of flames contrasted alike with the
gloomy darkness of the heavens and the dazzling whiteness of
the far-stretching carpet of snow, and produced effects of light
and shade which no pen or pencil could adequately portray. The
throbbing reverberations spread beyond the zenith, gradually
quenching the light of all the stars. The white ground became
dashed with golden tints, the hummocks on the ice-field and the
huge icebergs in the background reflecting the glimmering colours

"It is more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis" Page 136.


like so many glowing mirrors. The rays of light, striking on the
edges or surfaces of the ice, became bent and diffracted ; the angles
and varying inclinations on which they fell fretting them into
fringes of colour, and reflecting them back with changed and
heightened beauty. It was like a fairy scene in which ice and snow
combined to add eclat to a melee of rays in which luminous waves
rushed upon each other, breaking into coloured ripples.

But the excessive cold soon drove the admiring spectators back to
their warm dwelling, and many a nose paid dearly for the feast
enjoyed by the eyes.

During the following days the cold became doubly severe. The
"mercurial thermometer was of course no longer of any use for mark-
ing degrees, and an alcohol thermometer had to be used. On the
night of the 28th to the 29th December the column fell to 32
below zero. ,

The stoves were piled up with fuel, but the temperature in
the house could not be maintained above 20 degrees. The bed-
rooms were exceedingly cold, and ten feet from the stove, in the
large room, its heat could not be felt at all. The little baby had
the warmest corner, and its cradle was rocked in turn by those who
came to the fire. Opening doors or windows was strictly forbidden,
as the vapour in the rooms would immediately have been converted
into snow, and in the passage the breathing of the inmates already
produced that result. Every now and then dull reports were heard,
which startled those unaccustomed to living in such high latitudes.
They were caused by the cracking of the trunks of trees, of which
the walls were composed, under the influence of the intense cold.
The stock of rum and gin stowed away in the garret had to be
brought down into the sitting-room, as the alcohol was freezing and
sinking to the bottom of the bottles. The spruce-beer made from a
decoction of young h'r-branchlets burst the barrels in which it was,
kept as it froze, whilst all solid bodies resisted the introduction of
heat as if they were petrified. Wood burnt very slowly, and Hobson
was obliged to sacrifice some of the walrus-oil to quicken its com-
bustion. Fortunately the chimneys drew well, so that there was no
disagreeable smell inside, although for a long distance outside the
air was impregnated with the fetid odour of the smoke from Fort
Hope, which a casual observer might therefore have pronounced an
unhealthy building.

One symptom we must notice was the great thirst from which


every one suffered. To relieve it, different liquids hud to be melted
at the fire, for it would have been dangerous to eat ice. Another
effect of the cold was intense drowsiness, which Hobson earnestly
entreated his companions to resist. Some appeared unable to do so ;
but Mrs Barnett was invaluable in setting an example of constant
activity : always brave, she kept herself awake, and encouraged others
by her kindness, brightness, and sympathy. Sometimes she read
aloud accounts of travels, or sang some old familiar English song,
in the chorus of which all joined. These joyous strains roused up
the sleepers whether they would or no, and their voices soon swelled
the chorus. The long days of imprisonment passed wearily by, and
the Lieutenant, consulting the outside thermometer through the win-
dows, announced that the cold was still on the increase. On the
31st December, the mercury was all frozen hard in the cistern of
the instrument, so that the temperature was 44 below freezing-

The next day, 1st January 1860, Lieutenant Hobson wished
Mrs Barnett a happy new year, and complimented her on the
courage and good temper with which she endured the miseries
of this northern winter. The astronomer was not forgotten in the
universal interchange of good wishes amongst the members of the
little colony ; but his only thought on entering another year
was, that it was the beginning of that in which the great eclipse
was to take place. Fortunately the general health still remained
good, and any symptoms jof scurvy were promptly checked by the
use of lime-juice and iinie-lozenges.

It would not do, however, to rejoice too soon. The winter had
stiii to last three months. The sun would doubtless reappear above
the horizon in due time ; but there was n:, reason to think that the
cold had reached its maximum intensity, especially as in most
northern countries February is the month during which the tem-
perature fails lowest. However that might be, there was no decrease
in the severity .;f the weather during the first days of the new year,
and on the 8th January the alcohol thermometer placed outside the
window of the passage marked 66 below zero. A few degrees
more and the minimum temperature at Fort Reliance in 1835 would
be reached !

Jaspar Hobson grew more and more uneasy at the continued
severity >f the cold. He began to fear that the furred animals
would have to seek a less rigorous climate further south, which


would of course thwart all his plans for hunting in the early spring.
Moreover, he sometimes heard subterranean rumblings, which were
evidently connected with the volcanic eruption. The western
horizon still glowed with the reflection of the burning lava, and it
was evident that some great convulsion was going on in the bowels
of the earth. Might not the close vicinity of an active volcano
be dangerous to the new fort 1 Such was the question which the
subterranean rumblings forced upon the mind of the Lieutenant,
but he kept his vague apprehensions to himself.

Of course under these circumstances no one dreamt of leaving
the house. The animals were well provided for, and being accus-
tomed to long fasts in the winter, required no attention from their
masters, so that there really was no necessity for any exposure
out of doors. It was difficult enough to endure the inside tempera-
ture, even with the help of a plentiful combustion of wood and oil ;
for, in spite of every precaution, damp crept into the ill-ventilated
rooms, and layers of ice, increasing in thickness every day, were
formed upon the beams. The condensers were choked up, and one
of them burst from the pressure of the ice.

Lieutenant Hobson did not spare his fuel ; he was, in fact, rather
lavish of it in his anxiety to raise the temperature, which, when the
fires got low as of course sometimes happened fell to 15
Fahrenheit. The men on guard, who relieved each other every
hour, had strict orders to keep up the fires, and great was the
dismay of the Lieutenant when Sergeant Long said to him one

" We shall be out of wood soon ! "

" Out of wood ! " exclaimed Hobson.

" I mean our stock is getting low, and we must lay in fresh stores
soon. Of course I know, though, that it will be at the risk of his
life that any one goes out in this cold ! "

" Yes," replied Hobson. " It was a mistake not to build the
wooden shed close to the house, and to make no direct communica-
tion with it. I see that now it is too late. I ought not to have
forgotten that we were going to winter beyond the seventieth
parallel. But what 's done can't be undone. How long will the
wood last 1 "

" There is enough to feed the furnace and stove for another two
or three days," replied the Sergeant.

" Let us hope by that time that the severity of the cold may


have decreased, and that we may venture across the court of the
fort without danger/'

" I doubt it, sir," replied Long, shaking his head. " The atmo-
sphere is very clear, the wind is still in the north, and I shall not
be surprised if this temperature is maintained for another fifteen
days until the new moon, in fact."

" Well, my brave fellow," said the Lieutenant, " we won't die of
cold if we can help it, and the day we have to brave the outside

" We will brave it, sir," said Long.

Hobson pressed his subordinate's hand, well knowing the poor
fellow's devotion.

We might fancy that Hobson and the Sergeant were exaggerating
when they alluded to fatal results from sudden exposure to the
open air, but they spoke from experience, gained from long resi-
dence in the rigorous Polar regions. They had seen strong men fall
fainting on the ice under similar circumstances ; their breath failed
them, and they were taken up in a state of suffocation. Incredible
as such facts may appear, they have been of frequent occurrence
amongst those who have wintered in the extreme north. In their
journey along the shores of Hudson's Bay in 1746, Moor and Smith
saw many incidents of this kind. some of their companions
were killed, struck down by the cold, and there can be no doubt that
sudden death may result from braving a temperature in which
mercury freezes.

Such was the distressing state of things at Fort Hope, when a
new danger arose to aggravate the sufferings of the colonists.


I HE only one of the four windows through which it was
possible to look into the court of the fort was that opening
at the end of the entrance passage. The outside shutters
had not been closed ; but before it could be seen through it had to
be washed with boiling water, as the panes were covered with a
thick coating of ice. This was done several times a day by the
Lieutenant's orders, when the districts surrounding the fort were
carefully examined, and the state of the sky, and of the alcohol
thermometer placed outside, were accurately noted.

On the 6th January, towards eleven o'clock in the morning, Kellet,
whose turn it was to look out, suddenly called the Sergeant, and
pointed to some moving masses indistinctly visible in the gloom.
Long, approaching the window observed quietly

" They are bears ! "

In fact half-a-dozen of these formidable animals had succeeded
in getting over the palisades, and, attracted by the smoke from the
chimneys, were advancing upon the house.

On hearing of the approach of the bears, Hobson at once ordered
the window of the passage to be barricaded inside ; it was the only
unprotected opening in the house, and when it was secured it
appeared impossible for the bears to effect an entrance. The window
was, therefore, quickly closed up with bars, which the carpenter
Mac-Nab wedged firmly in, leaving a narrow slit through which to
watch the movements of the unwelcome visitors.

" Now," observed the head carpenter, " these gentlemen can't get
in without our permission, and we have time to hold a council of

" Well, Lieutenant," exclaimed Mrs Barnett, " nothing has been
wanting to our northern winter ! After the cold come the bears."

"Not after/' replied the Lieutenant, "but, which is a serious
matter, with the cold, and a cold so intense that we cannot venture


outside ! I really don't know how we shall get rid of these
tiresome brutes."

" I suppose they will soon get tired of prowling about," said the
lady, " and return as they came."

Hobson shook his head as if he had his doubts.

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 13 of 31)