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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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imprisoned on the island, and there was every reason to fear that,
when famished with hunger, all the carnivorous beasts would be
formidable enemies to the occupants of Fort Hope.

Fortunately, however, one race of animals appeared to be quite
unrepresented. Not a single white bear was seen ! Once the
Sergeant thought he saw an enormous white mass moving about on
the other side of a clump of willows, but on close examination
decided that he was mistaken.

The coast near Walruses' Bay was, on the whole, only slightly
elevated above the sea-level, and in the distance the waves broke
into running foam as they do upon a sloping beach. It was to be
feared that the soil had little stability, but there was no means of
judging of the modifications which had taken place since their last
visit, and Hobson much regretted that he had not made bench
marks about Cape Bathurst before he left, that he might judge of
the amount of sinking or depression which took place. He deter-
mined, however, to take this precaution on his return.

It will be understood that, under the circumstances, the party did
not advance very rapidly. A pause was often made to examine
the soil, or to see if there were any sign of an approaching fracture
on the coast, and sometimes the explorers wandered inland for half
a mile. Here and there the Sergeant planted branches of willow
or birch to serve as landmarks for the future, especially wherever
undermining seemed to be going on rapidly and the solidity of
the ground was doubtful. By this means it would be easy to
ascertain the changes which might take place.

They did advance, however, and at three o'clock in the after-
noon they were only three miles from Walruses' Bay, and Hobson
called Mrs Burnett's attention to the important changes which had
been effected by the rupture of the isthmus.

Formerly the south-western horizon was shut in by a long slightly
curved coast-line, formed by the shores of Liverpool Bay. Now a
sea-line bounded the view, the continent having disappeared.
Victoria Island ended in an abrupt angle where it had broken off,
and all felt sure that on turning round that angle the ocean would
be spread out before them, and that its waves would bathe the
whole of -the southern side of the island, which was once the con-
necting-link between Walruses' Bay and Washburn Bay.

Mrs Barnett could not look at the changed aspect of the scene
without emotion. She had expected it, and yet her heart beat


almost audibly. She gazed across the sea for the missing continent,
which was now left several hundred miles behind, and it rushed
upon her mind with a fresh shock that she would never set foot
on America again. Her agitation was indeed excusable, and it was
shared by the Lieutenant and the Sergeant.

All quickened their steps, eager to reach the abrupt angle in the
south. The ground rose slightly as they advanced, and the layers
of earth and sani became thicker ; this of course was explained by
the former proximity of this part of the coast to the true continent.
The thickness of the crust of ice and of the layer of earth at the point
of junction increasing, as it probably did, every century, explained
the long resistance of the isthmus, which nothing but some extra-
ordinary convulsion could have overcome. Such a convulsion
was the earthquake of the 8th January, which, although it had only
affected the continent of North America, had sufficed to break the
connecting-link, and to launch Victoria Island upon the wide

At four o'clock P.M., the angle was reached. Walruses' Bay,
formed by an indentation of the firm ground, had disappeared ! It
had remained behind with the continent.

"By my faith, madam ! " exclaimed the Sergeant, " it's lucky for
you we didn't call it Paulina Barnett Bay ! "

" Yes," replied the lady, " I begin to think I am an unlucky god-
mother for newly-discovered places."



so Hobson had not been mistaken about the point of
rupture. It was the isthmus which had yielded in the
shock of the earthquake. Not a trace was to be seen of
the American continent, not a single cliff, even the volcano on the
west had disappeared. Nothing but the sea everywhere.

The island on this side ended in a cape, coming to an almost
sharp point, and it was evident that the substratum of ice, fretted by
the warmer waters of the current and exposed to all the fury of the
elements, must rapidly dissolve.

The explorers resumed their march, following the course of the
fracture, which ran from west to east in an almost straight line.
Its edges were not jagged or broken, but clear cut, as if the division
had been made with a sharp instrument, and here and there the
conformation of the soil could be easily examined. The banks
half ice, half sand and earth rose some ten feet from the water.
They were perfectly perpendicular, without the slightest slope, and
in some places there were traces of recent landslips. Sergeant
Long pointed to several small blocks of ice floating in the offing,
and rapidly melting, which had evidently been broken off from their
island. The action of the warm surf would, of course, soon eat
away the new coast-line, which time had not yet clothed with a
kind of cement of snow and sand, such as covered the rest of the
beach, and altogether the state of things was very far from re-

Before taking any rest, Mrs Barnett, Hobson, and Long, were
anxious to finish their examination of the southern edge of the
island. There would be plenty of daylight, for the sun would not
set until eleven o'clock P.M. The briliant orb of day was slowly
advancing along the western horizon, and its oblique rays cast
long shadows of themselves before the explorers, who conversed at


intervals after long silent pauses, during which they gazed at the
sea and thought of the dark future before them.

Hobson intended to encamp for the night at Washburn Bay.
When there eighteen miles would have been traversed, and, if he
were not mistaken, half his circular journey would be accomplished.
After a few hours' repose he meant to return to Fort Hope along
the western coast.

No fresh incident marked the exploration of the short distance
between Walruses' Bay and Washburn Bay, and at seven o'clock in
the evening the spot chosen for the encampment was reached. A
similar change had taken place here. Of Washburn Bay, nothing
remained but the curve formed by the coast-line of the island, and
which was once its northern boundary. It stretched away without
a break for seven miles to the cape they had named Cape Michael.
This side of the island did not appear to have suffered at all in
consequence of the rupture. The thickets of pine and birch, massed
a little behind the cape, were in their fullest beauty at this time of
year, and a good many furred animals were disporting themselves
on the plain.

A halt was made at Washburn Bay, and the explorers were able
to enjoy an extended view on the south, although they could not
see any great distance on the north. The sun was so low on the
horizon, that its rays were intercepted by the rising ground on the
west, and did not reach the little bay. It was not, however, yet
night, nor could it be called twilight, as the sun had not set.

" Lieutenant," said Long, " if by some miracle a bell were now
to ring, what do you suppose it would mean ? "

" That it was supper- time," replied Hobson. " Don't you agree
with me, Mrs Barnett 1 "

11 Indeed I do," replied the lady addressed, " and as our cloth is
spread for us, let us sit down. This moss, although slightly worn,
will suit us admirably, and was evidently intended for us by

The bag of provisions was opened ; some salt meat, a hare pate
from Mrs Joliffe's larder, with a few biscuits, formed their frugal

The meal was quickly over, and Hobson returned to the south-
west angle of the island, whilst Mrs Barnett rested at the foot of
a low fir tree, and Sergeant Long made ready the night quarters.

The Lieutenant was anxious to examine the piece of ice which

"He was able to took closely at the steep wall," fyc. Page 193.


formed the island, to ascertain, if possible, something of its structure.
A little bank, produced by a landslip, enabled him to step down to
the level of the sea, and from there ,he was able to look closely at
the steep wall which formed the coast. Where he stood the soil rose
scarcely three feet above the water. The upper part consisted of a
thin layer of earth and sand mixed with crushed shells ; and the
lower of hard, compact, and, if we may so express it, " metallic" ice,
strong enough to support the upper soil of the island.

This layer of ice was not more than one foot above the sea- level.
In consequence of the recent fracture, it was easy to see the regular
disposition of the sheets of ice piled up horizontally, and which had
evidently been produced by successive frosts in comparatively
quieter waters.

We know that freezing commences on the surface of liquids, and
as the cold increases, the thickness of the crust becomes greater, the
solidification proceeding from the top downwards. That at least is
the case in waters that are at rest ; it has, however, been observed
that the very reverse is the case in running waters the ice forming
at the bottom, and subsequently rising to the surface.

It was evident, then, that the floe which formed the foundation"
of Victoria Island had bee,n formed in calm waters on the shores
of the North American continent. The freezing had evidently
commenced on the surface, and the thaw would begin at the bottom,
according to a well-known law; so that the ice-field would gradually
decrease in weight as it became thawed by the warmer waters
through which it was passing, and the general level of the island
would sink in proportion.

This was the great danger.

As we have just stated, Hobson noticed that the solid ice, the ice-
field properly so called, was only about one foot above the sea-level !
We know that four-fifths of a floating mass of ice are always sub-
merged. For one foot of an iceberg or ice-field above the water,
there are four below it. It must, however, be remarked that the
density, or rather specific weight of floating ice, varies considerably
according to its mode of formation or origin. The ice-masses which
proceed from- sea water, porous, opaque, and tinged with blue or
green, according as they are struck by the rays of the sun, are
lighter than ice formed from fresh water. All things considered,
arid making due allowance for the weight of the mineral and
vegetable layer above the ice, Hobson concluded it to be about four



or five feet thick below the sea-level. The different declivities of
the island, the little hills and rising ground, would of course only
affect the upper soil, and it might reasonably be supposed that the
wandering island was not immersed more than five feet.

This made Hobson very anxious. Only five feet ! Setting aside
the causes of dissolution to which the ice-field might be subjected,
would not the slightest shock cause a rupture of the surface 1 Might
not a rough sea or a gale of wind cause a dislocation of the ice-field,
which would lead to its breaking up into small portions, and to its
final decomposition ? Oh for the speedy arrival of the winter, with
its bitter cold ! Would that the column of mercury were frozen in
its cistern ! Nothing but the rigour of an Arctic winter could con-
solidate and thicken the foundation of their island, and establish a
means of communication between it and the continent.

Hobson returned to the halting-place little cheered by his dis-
coveries, and found Long busy making arrangements for the night ;
for he had no idea of sleeping beneath the open sky, although Mrs
Barnett declared herself quite ready to do so. He told the Lieu-
tenant that he intended to dig a hole in the ice big enough to hold
three persons in fact to make a kind of snow-hut, in which they
would be protected from the cold night air.

" In the land of the Esquimaux," he said, " nothing is wiser than
to do as the Esquimaux do."

Hobson approved, but advised the Sergeant not to dig too deeply,
as the ice was not more than five feet thick.

Long set to work. With the aid of his hatchet and ice-chisel he
had soon cleared away the earth, and hollowed out a kind of pas-
sage sloping gently down to the crust of ice.

He next attacked the brittle mass, which had been covered over
with sand and earth for so many centuries. It would not take
more than an hour to hollow out a subterranean retreat, or rather a
burrow with walls of ice, which would keep in the heat, and there-
fore serve well for a resting-place during the short night.

Whilst Long was working away like a white ant, Hobson com-
municated the result of his observations to Mrs Barnett. He did
not disguise from her that the construction of Victoria Island ren-
dered him very uneasy. He felt sure that the thinness of the ice
would lead to the opening of ravines on the surface before long ;
where, it would be impossible to foresee, and of course it would be
equally impossible to prevent them. The wandering island might

"Keep hold" Page 195.


at any moment settle down in consequence of a change in its speci-
fic gravity, or break up into more or less numerous islets, the duration
of which must necessarily be ephemeral. He judged, therefore, that
it would be best for the members of the colony to keep together as
much as possible, and not to leave the fort, that they might all
share the same chances.

Hobson was proceeding further to unfold his views when cries
for help were heard.

Mrs Barnett started to her feet, and both looked round in every
direction, but nothing was to be seen.

The cries were now redoubled, and Hobson exclaimed

"The Sergeant ! the Sergeant ! "

And followed by Mrs Barnett, he rushed towards the burrow, and
he had scarcely reached the opening of the snow-house before he
saw Sergeant Long clutching with both hands at his knife, which
he had stuck in the wall of ice, and calling out loudly, although
with the most perfect self-possession.

His head and arms alone were visible. Whilst he was digging,
the ice had given way suddenly beneath him, and he was plunged
into water up to his waist.

Hobson merely said

" Keep hold ! "

And creeping through the passage, he was soon at the edge of the
hole. The poor Sergeant seized his hand, and he was soon rescued
from his perilous position.

" Good God ! Sergeant ! ;J exclaimed Mrs Barnett ; " what has
happened 1 "

"Nothing," replied Long, shaking himself like a wet spaniel,
" except that the ice gave way under me, and I took a compulsory

" You forgot what I told you about not digging too deeply, then,'
said Hobson.

" Beg pardon, sir ; I hadn't cut through fifteen inches of the ice ;
and I expect there was a kind of cavern where I was working the
ice did not touch the water. It was 'just like going through a
ceiling. If I hadn't been able to hang on by iny knife, I should
have slipped under the island like a fool, and that would have been
a pity, wouldn't it, madam ? "

" A very great pity, my brave fellow/' said Mrs Barnett, pressing
his hand.


Long's explanation was correct ; for some reason or another
most likely from an accumulation of air the ice had formed a kind
of vault above the water, and of course it soon gave way under the
weight of the Sergeant and the blows of his chisel.

The same thing might happen in other parts of the island, which
was anything but reassuring. Where could they be certain of
treading on firm ground ? Might not the earth give way beneath
their feet at any minute ? What heart, however brave, would not
have sunk at the thought of the thin partition between them and
the awful gulf of the ocean ?

Sergeant Long, however, thought but little of his bath, and was
ready to begin mining in some other place. This Mrs Barnett
would not allow. A night in the open air would do her no harm ',
the shelter of the coppice near would be protection enough for them
all ; and Sergeant Long was obliged to submit.

The camp was, therefore, moved back some thirty yards from the
beach, to a rising ground on which grew a few clumps of pines and
willows which could scarcely be called a wood. Towards ten
o'clock the disc of the sun began to dip below the horizon, and
before it disappeared for the few hours of the night a crackling
fire of dead branches was blazing at the camp.

Long had now a fine opportunity of drying his legs, of which he
gladly availed himself. He and Hobson talked together earnestly
until twilight set in, and Mrs Barnett occasionally joined in the-
conversation, doing the best she could to cheer the disheartened
Lieutenant. The sky was bright with stars, and the holy influence
of the night could not fail to calm his troubled spirit. The wind
murmured softly amongst the pines ; even the sea appeared to be
wrapt in slumber, its bosom slightly heaving with the swell, which
died away upon the beach with a faint rippling sound. All creation
was hushed, not even the wail of a sea-bird broke upon the ear ; the
crisp crackling of the dead branches was exchanged for a steady
flame, and nothing but the voices of the wanderers broke the sub-
lime, the awful silence of the night.

" Who would imagine," -said Mrs Barnett, "that we were floating
on the surface of the ocean ! It really requires an effort to realise
it, for the sea which is carrying us along in its fatal grasp appears
to be absolutely motionless ! "

" Yes, madam/' replied Hobson ; " and if the floor of our carriage
were solid, if I did not know that sooner or later the keel of our


boat will be missing, that some day its hull will burst open, and
finally, if I knew where we are going, I should rather enjoy floating
on the ocean like this."

" Well, Lieutenant," rejoined Mrs Barnett, " could there be a
pleasanter mode of travelling than ours? We feel no motion.
Our island has exactly the same speed as the current which is bear-
ing it away. Is it not like a balloon voyage in the air 1 What
could be more delightful than advancing with one's house, garden,
park, &c. ? A wandering island, with a solid insubmersible founda-
tion, would really be the most comfortable and wonderful conveyance
that could possibly be imagined. I have heard of hanging gardens.
Perhaps some day floating parks will be invented which will carry
us all over the globe ! Their size will render them insensible to the
action of the waves, they will have nothing to fear from storms,
and perhaps with a favourable wind they might be guided by
means of immense sails ! What marvels of vegetation would be
spread before the eyes of the passengers when they passed from
temperate to torrid zones ! With skilful pilots, well acquainted
with the currents, it might be possible to remain in one latitude,
and enjoy a perpetual spring."

Hobson could riot help smiling at Mrs Barnett's fancies. The
brave woman ran on with such an easy flow of words, she talked
with as little effort as Victoria Island moved. And was she not
right 1 It would have been a very pleasant mode of travelling it
there had been no danger of their conveyance melting and being
swallowed up by the sea.

The night passed on, and the explorers slept a few hours. At
daybreak they breakfasted, and thoroughly enjoyed their meal.
The warmth and rest had refreshed them, and they resumed their
journey at about six o'clock A.M.

From Cape Michael to the former Port Barnett the coast ran in
an almost straight line from south to north for about eleven miles.
There was nothing worthy of note about it ; the shores were low and
pretty even all the way, and seemed to have suffered no alteration
since the breaking of the isthmus. Long, in obedience to the
Lieutenant, made bench-marks along the beach, that any future
change might be easily noted.

Hobson was naturally anxious to get back to Fort Hope the same
day, and Mrs Barnett was also eager to return to her friends. It


was of course desirable under the circumstances that the command-
ing officer should not be long absent from the fort.

All haste was therefore made, and by taking a short cut they
arrived at noon at the little promontory which formerly protected
Port Barnett from the east winds.

It was not more than eight miles from this point to Fort Hope,
and before four o'clock P.M. the shouts of Corporal Joliffe welcomed
their return to the factory.

" Corporal Joliffe was extremely fond of him" Page 199.



OBSON'S first care on his return to the fort, was to make
inquiries of Thomas Black as to the situation of the
little colony. No change had taken place for the last
twenty-four hours ; but, as subsequently appeared, the island had
floated one degree of latitude further south, whilst still retaining
its motion towards the west. It was now at the same distance from
the equator as Icy Cape, a little promontory of western Alaska,
and two hundred miles from the American coast. The speed of the
current seemed to be less here than in the eastern part of the
Arctic Ocean ; but the island continued to advance, and, much to
Hobson's annoyance, towards the dreaded Behring Strait. It was
now only the 24th July, and a current of average speed would
carry it in another month through the strait and into the heated
waves of the Pacific, where it would melt " like a lump of sugar in
a glass of water."

Mrs Barnett acquainted Madge with the result of the exploration
of the island. She explained to her the arrangement of the layers
of earth and ice at the part where the isthmus had been broken off ;
told her that the thickness of the ice below the sea-level was
estimated at five feet ; related the accident to Sergeant Long in
short, she made her fully understand the reasons there were to fear
the breaking up or sinking of the ice-field.

The rest of the colony had, however, no suspicion of the truth ;
a feeling of perfect security prevailed. It never occurred to any of
the brave fellows that Fort Hope was floating above an awful
abyss, and that the lives of all its inhabitants were in danger. All
were in good health, the weather was fine, and the climate pleasant
and bracing. The baby Michael got on wonderfully ; he was
beginning to toddle about between the house and the palisade ; and
Corporal Joliffe, who was extremely fond of him, was already
beginning to teach him to hold a gun, and to understand the first


duties of a soldier. Oh, if Mrs Joliffe would but present him with
such a son ! but, alas ! the blessing of children, for which he and his
wife prayed every day, was as yet denied to them.

Meanwhile the soldiers had plenty to do.

Mac-Nab and his men Petersen, Belcher, Garry, Pond, and
Hope worked zealously at the construction of a boat, a difficult
task, likely . to occupy them for several months. But as their
vessel would be of no use until next year after the thaw, they
neglected none of their duties at the factory on its account. Hob-
son let things go on as if the future of the factory were not com-
promised, and persevered in keeping. the men in ignorance. This
serious question was often discussed by the officer and his " staff,"
and Mrs Barnett and Madge differed from their chief on the sub-
ject. They thought it would be better to tell the whole truth ; the
men were brave and energetic, not likely to yield to despair, and
the shock would not be great if they heard of it now, instead of
only when their situation was so hopeless that it could not be con-
ealed. But in spite of the justice of these remarks, Hobson would
not yield, and he was supported by Sergeant Long. Perhaps, after
all, they were right ; they were both men of long experience, and
knew the temper of their men.

And so the work of provisioning and strengthening the fort pro-
ceeded. The palisaded enceinte was repaired with new stakes, and
made higher in many places, so that it really formed a very strong forti-
fication. Mac-Nab also put into execution, with his chief's approval,
a plan he had long had at heart. At the corners abutting on the
lake he built two little pointed sentry-boxes, which completed the
defences ; and Corporal Joliffe anticipated with delight the time
when he should be sent to relieve guard : he felt that they gave

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 18 of 31)