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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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" You don't know these animals, madam. They are famished
with hunger, and will not go until we make them ! "

" Are you anxious, then 1 "

" Yes and no," replied the Lieutenant. " I don't think the bears
will get in ; but neither do I see how we can get out, should it
become necessary for us to do so."

With these words Hobson turned to the window, and Mrs Barnett
joined the other women, who had gathered round the Sergeant, and
were listening to what he had to say about the bears. He spoke
like a man well up in his subject, for he had had many an encounter
with these formidable carnivorous creatures, which are often met
with even towards the south, where, however, they can be safely
attacked, whilst here the siege would be a regular blockade, for the
cold would quite prevent any attempt at a sortie.

Throughout the whole day the movements of the bears were
attentively watched. Every now and then one of them would lay his
great head against the window-pane and an ominous growl was heard.

The Lieutenant and the Sergeant took counsel together, and it
was agreed that if their enemies showed no sign of beating a retreat,
they would drill a few loopholes in the walls of the house, and fire
at them. But it was decided to put off this desperate measure for
a day or two, as it was desirable to avoid giving access to the outer
air, the inside temperature being already far too low. The walrus-
oil to be burnt was frozen so hard that it had to be broken up with
hatchets.

The day passed without any incident. The bears went and came,
prowling round the house, but attempting no direct attack. Watch
was kept all night, and at four o'clock in the morning they seemed
to have left the court at any rate, they were nowhere to be seen.

But about seven o'clock Marbre went up to the loft to fetch
some provisions, and on his return announced that the bears were
walking about on the roof.

Hobson, the Sergeant, Mac-Nab, and two or three soldiers seized
their arms, and rushed to the ladder in the passage, which com-
municated with the loft by a trap-door. The cold was, however, so




The bears were walking about on the roof," tyc. Page 142.



THE LARGE POLAR BEARS. 1 43

intense in the loft that the men could not hold the barrels of their
guns, and their breath froze as it left their lips and floated about
them as snow.

Marbre was right ; the bears were all on the roof, and the sound
of their feet and their growls could be distinctly heard. Their
great claws caught in the laths of the roof beneath the ice, and there
was some danger that they might have sufficient strength to tear
away the woodwork.

The Lieutenant and his men, becoming giddy and faint from the
intense cold, were soon obliged to go down, and Hobson announced
the state of affairs in as hopeful a tone as he could assume.

" The bears," he said, " are now upon the roof. We ourselves
have nothing to fear, as they can't get into our rooms ; but they
may force an entrance to the loft, and devour the furs stowed away
there. Now these furs belong to the Company, and it is our duty to
preserve them from injury. I ask you then, my friends, to aid me
in removing them to a place of safety."

All eagerly volunteered, and relieving each other in parties of
two or three, for none could have supported the intense severity of
the cold for long at a time, they managed to carry all the furs into
the large room in about an hour.

Whilst the work was proceeding, the bears continued their efforts
to get in, and tried to lift up the rafters of the roof. In some
places the laths became broken by their weight, and poor Mac-Nab
was in despair; he had not reckoned upon such a contingency when
he constructed the roof, and expected to see it give way every
moment.

The day passed, however, without any change in the situation.
The bears did not get in ; but a no less formidable enemy, the cold,
gradually penetrated into every room. The fires in the stoves
burnt low ; the fuel in reserve was almost exhausted ; and before
twelve o'clock, the last piece of wood would be burnt, and the
genial warmth of the stove would no longer cheer the unhappy colo-
nists.

Death would then await them death in its most fearful form,
from cold. The poor creatures, huddled together round the stove,
felt that their own vital heat must soon become exhausted, but
not a word of complaint passed their lips. The women bore their
sufferings with the greatest heroism, and Mrs Mac-Nab pressed her
baby convulsively to her ice-cold breast. Some" of the soldiers



144 THE FUR COUNTRY.



slept, or rather were wrapped in a heavy torpor, which could scarcely
be called sleep.

At three o'clock in the morning, Hobson consulted the thermo-
meter hanging in the large room, about ten feet from the stove.

It marked 4 Fahrenheit below zero.

The Lieutenant pressed his hand to his forehead, and looked
mournfully at his silent companions without a word. His half -con-
densed breath shrouded his face in a white cloud, and he was stand-
ing rooted to the spot when a hand was laid upon his shoulder.
He started, and looked round to see Mrs Barnett beside him.

" Something must be done, Lieutenant Hobson ! " exclaimed the
energetic woman \ " we cannot die like this without an effort to save
ourselves ! "

" Yes," replied the Lieutenant, feeling revived by the moral
courage of his companion " yes, something must be done ! " and
he called together Long, Mac-Nab, and Rae the blacksmith, as tho
bravest men in his party. All, together with Mrs Barnett, hastened
to the window, and having washed the panes with boiling water,
they consulted the thermometer outside.

" Seventy-two degrees ! " cried Hobson. " My friends, two courses
only are open to us, we can risk our lives to get a fresh supply of
fuel, or we can burn the benches, beds, partition walls, and every-
thing in the house to feed our stoves for a few days longer. A
desperate alternative, for the cold may last for some time yet ; there
is no sign of a change in the weather."

" Let us risk our lives to get fuel ! " said Sergeant Long.

All agreed that it would be the best course, and without another
word each one set to work to prepare for the emergency.

The following were the precautions taken to save the lives of
those who were about to risk themselves for the sake of the general
good :

The shed in which the wood was stored was about fifty steps
on the left, behind the principal house. It was decided that one of
the men should try and run to the shed. He was to take one rope
wound round his body, and to carry another in his hand, one end
of which was to be held by one of his comrades. Once at the shed,
he was to load one of the sledges there with fuel, and tie one rope
to the front, and the other to the back of the vehicle, so that it
could be dragged backwards and forwards between the hoiise and
the shed without much danger. A tug violently shaking one or the




Mrs Barnett pressed the brave man's hand" $fc. Page 145.



THE LARGE POLAR BEARS. 145

other cord would be the signal that the sledge was filled with fuel
at the shed, or unloaded at the house.

A very clever plan, certainly ; but two things might defeat it.
The door of the shed might be so blocked up with ice that it would
be very difficult to open it, or the bears might come down from
the roof and prowl about the court. Two risks to be run !

Long, Mac-Nab, and Rae, all three volunteered for the perilous
service \ but the Sergeant reminded the other two that they were
married, and insisted upon being the first to venture.

When the Lieutenant expressed a wish to go himself, Mrs Barnett
said earnestly, " You are our chief ; you have no right to expose
yourself. Let Sergeant Long go."

Hobson could not but realise that his office imposed caution, and
being called upon to decide which of his companions should go, he
chose the Sergeant. Mrs Barnett pressed the brave man's hand
with ill-concealed emotion ; and the rest of the colonists, asleep or
stupefied, knew nothing of the attempt about to be made to save
their lives.

Two long ropes were got ready. The Sergeant wound one round
his body above the warm furs, worth some thousand pounds sterling,
in which he was encased, and tied the other to his belt, on which he
hung a tinder-box and a loaded revolver. Just before starting he
swallowed down half a glass of rum, as he said, " to insure a good
load of wood."

Hobson, Rae, and Mac-Nab accompanied the brave fellow through
the kitchen, where the fire had just gone out, and into the passage.
Rae climbed up to the trap-door of the loft, and peeping through it,
made sure that the bears were still on the roof. The moment for
action had arrived.

One door of the passage was open, and in spite of the thick furs
in which they were wrapped, all felt chilled to the very marrow of
their bones ; and when the second door was pushed open, they re-
coiled for an instant, panting for breath, whilst the moisture held
in suspension in the air of the passage covered the walls and the
floor with fine snow.

The weather outside was extremely dry, and the stars shone with
extraordinary brilliancy. Sergeant Long rushed out without a
moment's hesitation, dragging the cord behind him, one end of which
was held by his companions ; the outer door was pushed to, and
Hobson, Mac-Nab, and Rae went back to the passage and closed

K



146 THE FUR COUNTRY.

the second door, behind which they waited. If Long did not
return in a few minutes, they might conclude that his enterprise had
succeeded, and that, safe in the shed, he was loading the first train
with fuel. Ten minutes at the most ought to suffice for this opera-
tion, if he had been able to get the door open.

When the Sergeant was fairly off, Hobson and Mac-Nab walked
together towards the end of the passage.

Meanwhile Rae had been watching the bears and the loft. It was
so dark that all hoped Long's movements would escape the notice of
the hungry animals.

Ten minutes elapsed, and the three watchers went back to the
narrow space between the two doors, waiting for the signal to be
given to drag in the sledge.

Five minutes more. The cord remained motionless in their
hands ! Their anxiety can be imagined. It was a quarter of an hour
since the Sergeant had started, plenty of time for all he had to do,
and he had given no signal.

Hobson waited a few minutes longer, and then tightening his hold
of the end of the rope, he made a sign to his companions to pull with
\ him. If the load of wood were not quite ready, the Sergeant could
easily stop it from being dragged away.

The rope was pulled vigorously. A heavy object seemed to slide
along the snow. In a few moments it reached the outer door.

It was the body of the Sergeant, with the rope round his waist.
Poor Long had never reached the shed. He had fallen fainting to
the ground, and after twenty minutes' exposure to such a tempera-
ture there was little hope that he would revive.

A cry of grief and despair burst from the lips of Mac-Nab and Rae.
They lifted their unhappy comrade from the ground, and carried
him into the passage ; but as the Lieutenant was closing the outer
door, something pushed violently against it, and a horrible growl was
heard.

" Help ! " cried Hobson.

Mac- Nab and Rae rushed to their officer's assistance ; but Mrs
Barnett had been beforehand with them, and was struggling with
all her strength to help Hobson to close the door. In vain ; the
monstrous brute, throwing the whole weight of its body against it,
would force its way into the passage in another moment.

Mrs Barnett, whose presence of mind did not forsake her now,
seized one of the pistols in the Lieutenant's belt, and waiting quietly




Mrs Barnett discharged the contents" $rc. Page 147.



THE LARGE POLAR BEARS.



until the animal shoved its head between the door and the wall,
discharged the contents into its open mouth.

The bear fell backwards, mortally wounded no doubt, and the
door was shut and securely fastened.

The body of the Sergeant was then carried into the large room.
But, alas ! the fire was dying out. How was it possible to restore
the vital heat with no means of obtaining warmth ?

" I will go I will go and fetch some wood ! " cried the blacksmith
Rae.

" Yes, Rae, we will go together ! " exclaimed Mrs Barnett, whose
courage was unabated.

" No, my friends, no ! " cried Hobson ; " you would fall victims
to the cold, or the bears, or both. Let us burn all there is to burn
in the house, and leave the rest to God ! "

And the poor half-frozen settlers rose and laid about them with
their hatchets like madmen. Benches, tables, and partition walls
were thrown down, broken up, crushed to pieces, and piled up in the
stove of the large room and kitchen furnace. Very soon good tires
were burning, on which a few drops of walrus-oil were poured, so
that the temperature of the rooms quickly rose a dozen degrees.

Every effort was made to restore the Sergeant. He was rubbed
with warm rum, and gradually the circulation of his blood was
restored. The white blotches with which parts of his body were
covered began to disappear but he had suffered dreadfully, and
several hours elapsed before he could articulate a word. He was laid
in a warm bed, and Mrs Barnett and Madge watched by him until
the next morning.

Meanwhile Hobson, Mac-Nab, and Rae consulted how best to
escape from their terrible situation. It was impossible to shut their
eyes to the fact that in two days this fresh supply of fuel would be
exhausted, and then, if the cold continued, what would become of
them all ? The new moon had risen forty-eight hours ago, and there
was no sign of a change in the weather ! The north wind still
swept the face of the country with its icy breath ; the barometer
remained at " fine dry weather ; " and there was not a vapour to be
seen above the endless succession of ice-fields. There was reason to
fear that the intense cold would last a long time yet, but what was
to be done 1 Would it do to try once more to get to the wood- shed,
when the bears had been roused by the shot, and rendered doubly
dangerous ? Would it be possible to attack these dreadful creatures



I 48 THE FUR COUNTRY.

in the open air ? No, it would be madness, and certain death for
all!

Fortunately the temperature of the rooms had now become more
bearable, and in the morning Mrs Joliffe served up a breakfast of
hot meat and tea. Hot grog was served out, and the brave Ser-
geant was able to take his share. The heat from the stoves warmed
the bodies and reanimated the drooping courage of the poor colonists,
who were now ready to attack the bears at a word from Hobson.
But the Lieutenant, thinking the forces unequally matched, would
not risk the attempt ; and it appeared likely that the day would
pass without any incident worthy of note, when at about three o'clock
in the afternoon a great noise was heard on the top of the house.

" There they are ! " cried two or three soldiers, hastily arming
themselves with hatchets and pistols.

It was evident that the bears had torn away one of the rafters of
the roof, and got into the loft.

" Let every one remain where he is ! '' cried the Lieutenant. " Rae,
the trap ! "

The blacksmith rushed into the passage, scaled the ladder, and
shut and securely fastened the trap-door.

A dreadful noise was now heard growling, stamping of feet, and
tearing of claws. It was doubtful whether the danger of the anxious
listeners was increased, or the reverse. Some were of opinion that if
all the bears were in the loft, it would be easier to attack them.
They would be less formidable in a narrow space, and there would
not be the same risk of suffocation from cold. Of course a conflict
with such fierce creatures must still be very perilous, but it no longer
appeared so desperate as before.

It was now debated whether it would be better to go and attack
the ( besiegers, or to remain on the defensive. Only one soldier
could get through the narrow trap-door at a time, and this made
Hobson hesitate, and finally resolve to wait. The Sergeant and
others, whose bravery none could doubt, agreed that he was in the
right, and it might be possible that some new incident would occur
to modify the situation. It was almost impossible for the bears to
break through the beams of the ceiling, as they had the rafters of
the roof, so that there was little fear that they would get on to the
ground-floor.

The day passed by in anxious expectation, and at night no one
could sleep for the uproar made by the furious beasts.




Mingled howls and screams were /teard." Page 149.



THE LARGE POLAR BEARS. 149

The next day, about nine o'clock, a fresh complication compelled
Hobson to take active steps.

He knew that the pipes of the stove and kitchen furnace ran all
along the loft, and being made of lime-bricks but imperfectly cemented
together, they could not resist great pressure for any length of time.
Now some of the bears scratched at the masonry, whilst others leant
against the pipes for the sake of the warmth from the stove ; so that
the bricks began to give way, and soon the stoves and furnace ceased
to draw.

This really was an irreparable misfortune, which would have dis-
heartened less energetic men. But things were not yet at their worst.
Whilst the fire became lower and lower, a thick, nauseous, acrid
smoke filled the house ; the pipes were broken, and the smoke soon
became so thick that the lamps went out. Hobson now saw that
he must leave the house if he wished to escape suffocation, but to
leave the house would be to perish with cold. At this fresh misfor-
tune some of the women screamed ; and Hobson, seizing a hatchet,
shouted in a loud voice

" To the bears ! to the bears, my friends ! "

It was the forlorn-hope. These terrible creatures must be
destroyed. All rushed into the passage and made for the ladder,
Hobson leading the way. The trap-door was opened, and a few
shots were fired into the black whirlpool of smoke. Mingled howls
and screams were heard, and blood began to flow on both sides ; but
the fearful conflict was waged in profound darkness.

In the midst of the melee a terrible rumbling sound suddenly
drowned the tumult, the ground became violently agitated, and the
house rocked as if it were being torn up from its foundations. The
beams of the walls separated, and through the openings Hobson and
his companions saw the terrified bears rushing away into the dark-
ness, howling with rage and fright.




CHAPTER XXIL

FIVE MONTHS MORE.

VIOLENT earthquake had shaken Cape Bathurst. Such
convulsions were probably frequent in this volcanic region,
and the connection between them and eruptions was once
more demonstrated.

Hobson well understood the significance of what had occurred,
and waited in anxious suspense. He knew that the earth might
open and swallow up the little colony ; but only one shock was felt,
and that was rather a rebound than a vertical upheaval, which made
the house lean over towards the lake, and burst open its walls.
Immediately after this one shock, the ground again became firm and
motionless.

The house, although damaged, was still habitable ; the breaches in
the walls were quickly repaired, and the pipes of the chimneys were
patched together again somehow.

Fortunately the wounds the soldiers had received in their struggle
with the bears were slight, and merely required dressing.

Two miserable days ensued, during which the woodwork of the
beds and the planks of the partition walls were burnt, and the most
pressing repairs executed by Mac-Nab and his men. The piles,
well driven into the earth, had not yielded ; but it was evident that
the earthquake had caused a sinking of the level of the coast on
which the fort was built, which might seriously compromise the
safety of the building. Hobson was most anxious to ascertain the
extent of the alteration of elevation, but the pitiless cold prevented
him from venturing outside.

But at last there were symptoms of an approaching change in the
weather. The stars shone with rather less brilliancy, and on the
llth January the barometer fell slightly; hazy vapours floated in
the air, the condensation of which would raise the temperature ; and
on the 12th January the wind veered to the south-west, and snow
fell at irregular intervals.




" Just look at our house now / " Page 152.



FIVE MONTHS MORE.



The thermometer outside suddenly rose to 15 above zero, and
to the frozen colonists it was like the beginning of spring.

At eleven o'clock the same morning all were out of doors. They
were like a band of captives unexpectedly set free. They were,
however, absolutely forbidden to go beyond the enceinte of the fort,
in case of awkward meetings.

The sun had not yet reappeared above the horizon, but it
approached it nearly enough to produce a long twilight, during
which objects could be distinctly seen to a distance of two miles ;
and Hobson's first thought was to ascertain what difference the
earthquake had produced in the appearance of the surrounding
districts.

Certain changes had been effected. The crest of the promontory
of Cape Bathurst had been broken off, and large pieces of the cliff
had been flung upon the beach. The whole mass of the cape
seemed to have been bent towards the lake, altering the elevation
of the plateau on which the fort was built. The soil on the west
appeared to have been depressed, whilst that on the east had been
elevated. One of the results of this change of level would unfor-
tunately be, that when the thaw set in, the waters of the lake and
of Paulina river, in obedience to the law requiring liquids to main-
tain their level, would inundate a portion of the western coast.
The stream would probably scoop out another bed, and the natural
harbour at its mouth would be destroyed. The hills on the eastern
bank seemed to be considerably depressed, but the cliffs on the west
were too far off for any accurate observations to be made. The
important alteration produced by the earthquake may, in fact, be
summed up in a very few words : the horizontal character of the
ground was replaced by a slope from east to west.

" Well, Lieutenant," said Mrs Barnett, laughing, " you were good
enough to give my name to the port and river, and now there will
be neither Paulina river nor Port Barnett. I must say I have been
hardly used."

"Well, madam," replied Hobson, "although the river is gone, the
lake remains, and we will call it Lake Barnett. I hope that it
at least will remain true to you."

Mr and Mrs Joliffe, on leaving the house, had hurried, one to the
doghouse, the other to the reindeer-stable. The dogs had not
suffered much from their long confinement, and rushed into the



152 THE FUR COUNTRY.



court barking with delight. One reindeer had died, but the others,,
though thin, appeared to be in good health.

" Well, madam," said the Lieutenant, ' ; we have got through our
troubles better than we could have expected."

l< I never despaired," replied the lady. " The miseries of an
Arctic winter would not conquer men like you and your com-
panions."

" To own the truth, madam," replied Hobson, " I never experi-
enced such intense cold before, in all the years I have spent in the
north ; and if it had lasted many days longer we should all have
been lost.

" The earthquake came in the nick of time then, not only to
drive away the bears, but also to modify the extremity of the
cold ? "

" Perhaps so, madam. All natural phenomena influence each
other to a certain extent. But the volcanic structure of the soil
makes me rather uneasy. I cannot but regret the close vicinity of
this active volcano. If the lava from it cannot reach us, the
earthquakes connected with it can. Just look at our house now ! "

" Oh, all that can be put right when the fine weather comes, and
you will make it all the stronger for the painful experience you have
gained."

" Of course we shall, but meanwhile I am afraid you won't find
it very comfortable."

" Are you speaking to me, Lieutenant ? to an old traveller like
me ? I shall imagine myself one of the crew of a small vessel, and
now that it does not pitch and toss, I shall have no fear of being
sea-sick."

" What you say does not surprise me/' replied Hobson ; " we all
know your grandeur of character, your moral courage and imper-
turbable good temper. You have done much to help us all to bear
our troubles, and I thank you in my own name and that of my
men."

" You flatter me, Lieutenant ; you flatter me."

" No, no ; I only say what every one thinks. But may I ask you
one question. You know that next June, Captain Craventy is to



Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 14 of 31)