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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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set on a different horizon, and it was impossible that men like
Mac-Nab, Rae, Marbre and others, accustomed to note the signs of
the heavens, could fail to be struck by the change, and understand
its meaning.

To Hobson's great satisfaction, however, the brave soldiers
appeared to notice nothing ; the displacement with regard to the
cardinal points was not, it was true, very considerable, and it was
often too foggy for the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies to
be accurately observed.

Unfortunately the rotation appeared to be accompanied by an
increase of speed. From that date Victoria Island drifted at the
rate of a mile an hour. It advanced farther and farther north,
farther and farther away from all land. Hobson did not even yet
despair, for it was not in his nature to do so, but he felt confused
and astray, and longed for the winter with all his heart.

At last the temperature began to fall still lower. Snow fell plenti-
fully on the 23d and 24th September, and increased the thickness
of the coating of ice on the sea. Gradually the vast ice-field was
formed on every side, the island in its advance continually broke
it up, but each day it became firmer and better able to resist. The
sea succumbed to the petrifying hand of winter, and became frozen
as far as the eye could reach, and on September 27th, when the
bearings were taken, it was found that Victoria Island had not
moved since the day before. It was imprisoned in a vast ice-field,
it was motionless in longitude 177 22', and latitude 77 57'
more than six hundred miles from any continent.




CHAPTER XI.

A COMMUNICATION FROM LIEUTENANT HOBSON.

UGH was the situation. To use Sergeant Long's expression,
the island had " cast anchor," and was as stationary as
when the isthmus connected it with the mainland. But
six hundred miles now separated it from inhabited countries, six
hundred miles which would have to be traversed in sledges across
the solidified surface of the sea, amongst the icebergs which the cold
would build up, in the bitterest months of the Arctic winter.

It would be a fearful undertaking, but hesitation was impossible.
The winter, for which Lieutenant Hobson had so ardently longed,
had come at last, and arrested the fatal march of the island to the
north. It would: throw a bridge six hundred miles long from their
desolate home to the continents on the south, and the new chances
of safety must not be neglected, every effort must be made to restore
the colonists, so long lost in the hyperborean regions, to their
friends.

As Hobson explained to his companions, it would be madness to
linger till the spring should again thaw the ice, which would be to
abandon themselves once more to the capricious Behring currents.
They must wait until the sea was quite firmly frozen over, which at
the most would be in another three or four weeks. Meanwhile the
Lieutenant proposed making frequent excursions on the ice-field
encircling the island, in order to ascertain its thickness, its suita-
bility for the passage of sledges, and the best route to take across
it so as to reach the shores of Asia or America.

" Of course," observed Hobson to Mrs Barnett and Sergeant Long,
" we would all rather make for Russian America than Asia, if a
choice is open to us."

"Kalumah will be very useful to us," said Mrs Barnett, "for as
a native she will be thoroughly acquainted with the whole of
Alaska."

" Yes, indeed," replied Hobson, " her arrival was most fortunate



A COMMUNICATION. 247



for us. Thanks to her, we shall be easily able to get to the settle-
ment of Fort Michael on Norton Sound, perhaps even to New Arch-
angel, a good deal farther south, where we can pass the rest of the
winter."

" Poor Fort Hope ! " exclaimed Mrs Barnett, " it goes to my
heart to think of abandoning it on this island. It has been built
at the cost of so much trouble and fatigue, everything about it has
been so admirably arranged by you, Lieutenant ! , I feel as if my
heart would break when we leave it finally."

" You will not suffer more than I shall, madam," replied Hobson,
" and perhaps not so much. It is the chief work of my life ; I have
devoted all my powers to the foundation of Fort Hope, so unfortu-
nately named, and I shall never cease to regret having to leave it.
And what will the Company say which confided this task to me, for
after all I am but its humble agent."

"It will say/' cried Mrs Barnett with enthusiasm, "it will say
that you have done your duty, that you are not responsible for the
caprices of nature, which is ever more powerful than man. It will
understand that you could not foresee what has happened, for it was
beyond the penetration of the most far-sighted man, and it will know
that it owes the preservation of the whole party to your prudence
and moral courage."

"Thank you, madam," replied the Lieutenant, pressing Mr?
Barnett's hand, " thank you for your warm-hearted words. But I
have had some experience of men, and I know that success is always
admired and failure condemned. But the will of Heaven be
done ! "

Sergeant Long, anxious to turn the Lieutenant from his melan-
choly thoughts, now began to talk about the preparations for the
approaching departure, and asked if it was not time to tell his
comrades the truth.

" Let us wait a little longer," replied Hobson. " We have saved
the poor fellows much anxiety and worry already, let us keep silent
until the day is fixed for the start, and then we will reveal the
whole truth."

This point being decided, the ordinary occupations of the factory
went on for a few weeks longer.

How different was the situation of the colonists a year ago, when
they were all looking forward to the future in happy unconscious-
ness !



248 THE FUR COUNTRY.



A year ago the first symptoms of the cold season were appearing,
even as they were now. The " young ice " was gradually forming
along the coast. The lagoon, its waters being quieter than those
of the sea, was the first to freeze over. The temperature remained
about one or two degrees above freezing point in the day, and fell
to three or four degrees below in the night. Hobson again made
his men assume their winter garments, the linen vests and furs before
described. The condensers were again set up inside the house, the
air vessel and air-pumps were cleaned, the traps were set round
the palisades on different parts of Cape Bathurst, and Marbre and
Sabine got plenty of game, and finally the last touches were given
to the inner rooms of the principal house.

Although Fort Hope was now about two degrees farther north
than at the same time the year before, there was no sensible
difference in the state of the temperature. The fact is, the distance
between the seventieth and seventy-second parallels is not great
enough to affect the mean height of the thermometer ; on the con-
trary, it really seemed to be less cold than at the beginning of the
winter before. Perhaps, however, that was because the colonists
were now, to a certain extent, acclimatised.

Certainly the winter did not set in so abruptly as last time.
The weather was very damp, and, the atmosphere was always
charged with vapour, which fell now as rain now as snow. In
Lieutenant Hobson's opinion, at least, it was not nearly cold
enough.

The sea froze all round the island, it is true, but not in a regular
or continuous sheet of ice. Large blackish patches here and there
showed that the icicles were not thoroughly cemented together.
Loud resonant noises were constantly heard, produced by the
breaking of the ice-field when the rain melted the imperfectly
welded edges of the blocks composing it. There was no rapid
accumulation of lump upon lump such as is generally seen in
intense cold. Icebergs and hummocks were few and scattered, and
no icerwall as yet shut in the horizon.

" This season would have been just the thing for the explorers of
the North- West Passage, or the seekers of the North Pole," repeated
Sergeant Long again and again, " but it is most unfavourable for us,
and very much against our ever getting back to our own land ! '

This went on throughout October, and Hobson announced that
the mean temperature was no lower than 32 Fahrenheit, and it is




" The wolves came within musket-range" Page 249.



A COMMUNICATION. 249



well known that several days of cold, 7 or 8 below zero, arc re-
quired for the sea to freeze hard.

Had proof- been needed that the ice-field was impassable, a fact
noticed by Mrs Barnett and Hobson would have sufficed.

The animals imprisoned in the island, the furred animals, rein-
deer, wolves, &c., would have left the island had it been possible to
cross the sea, but they continued to gather in large numbers round
the factory, and to seek the vicinity of man. The wolves came
actually within musket-range of the enceinte to devour the martens
and Polar hares, which were their only food. The famished reindeer
having neither moss nor herbs on which to browse, roved about
Cape Bathurst in herds. A solitary bear, no doubt the one to which
Mrs Barnett and Kalumah felt they owed a debt of gratitude, often
passed to and fro amongst the trees of the woods, on the banks of
the lagoon, and the presence of all these animals, especially of the
ruminants, which require an exclusively vegetable diet, proved that
flight was impossible.

We have said that the thermometer remained at freezing point,
and Hobson found on consulting his journal that at the same time
the year before, it had already marked 20 Fahrenheit below zero,
proving how unequally cold is distributed in the capricious Polar
regions.

The colonists therefore did not suffer much, and were not confined
to the house at all. It was, however, very damp indeed, rain
mixed with snow fell constantly, and the falling of the barometer
proved that the atmosphere was charged with vapour.

Throughout October the Lieutenant and Long made many
excursions to ascertain the state of the ice-field in the offing ; one
day they went to Cape Michael, another to the edge of the former
Walruses' Bay, anxious to see if it would be possible to cross to the
continent of America or Asia, or if the start would have to be put
off.

But the surface of the ice-field was covered with puddles of
water, and in some parts riddled with holes, which would certainly
have been impassable for sledges. It seemed as if it would be
scarcely safe for a single traveller to venture across the half-liquid,
half-solid masses. It was easy to see that the cold had been neither
severe nor equally maintained, for the ice consisted of an accumu-
lation of sharp points, crystals, prisms, polyhedrons, and figures of
every variety, like an aggregation of stalactites. It was more like



25O THE FUR COUNTRY.



a glacier than a " field," and even if it had been practicable, walking
on it would have been very tiring.

Hobson and Long managed with great difficulty to scramble over
a mile or two towards the south, but at the expense of a vast
amount of time, so that they were compelled to admit that they
must wait some time yet, and they returned to Fort Hope dis-
appointed and disheartened.

The first days of November came, and the temperature fell a little,
but only a very few degrees, which was not nearly enough. Victoria
Island was wrapped in damp fogs, and the lamps had to be lit during
the day. It was necessary, however, to economise the oil as much as
possible, as the supply was running short. No fresh stores had been
brought by Captain Craventy's promised convoy, and there were
no more walruses to be hunted. Should the dark winter be pro-
longed, the colonists would be compelled to have recourse to the
fat of animals, perhaps even to the resin of the firs, to get a little
light. The days were already very short, and the pale disc of the
sun, yielding no warmth, and deprived of all its brightness, only
appeared above the horizon for a few hours at a time. Yes, winter
had come with its mists, its rain, and its snow, but without the
long-desired cold.

On the llth November something of a fete was held at Fort
Hope. Mrs Joliffe served up a few extras at dinner, for it was the
anniversary of the birth of little Michael Mac-Nab. He was now
a year old, and was the delight of everybody. He had large blue
eyes and fair curly hair, like his father, the head carpenter, who
was very proud of the resemblance. At dessert the baby was
solemnly weighed. It was worth something to see him struggling
in the scales, and to hear his astonished cries ! He actually weighed
thirty-four pounds ! The announcement of this wonderful weight
was greeted with loud cheers, and Mrs Mac-Nab was congratulated
by everybody on her fine boy. Why Corporal Joliffe felt that he
ought to share the compliments it is difficult to imagine, unless it
was as a kind of foster-father or nurse to the baby. He had car-
ried the child about, dandled and rocked him so often, that he felt
he had something to do with his specific weight !

The next day, November 1 2th, the sun did not appear above the
horizon. The long Polar night was beginning nine days sooner
than it had done the year before, in consequence of the difference
in the latitude of Victoria Island then and now.



A COMMUNICATION. 2$l

The disappearance of the sun did not, however, produce any
change in the state of the atmosphere. The temperature was as
changeable as ever. The thermometer fell one day and rose the
next. Eain and snow succeeded each other. The wind was soft,
and did not settle in any quarter, but often veered round to every
point of the compass in the course of a single day. The constant
damp was very unhealthy, and likely to lead to scorbutic affections
amongst the colonists, but fortunately, although the lime juice and
lime lozenges were running short, and no fresh stock had been
obtained, the scurvy-grass and sorrel had yielded a very good
crop, and, by the advice of Lieutenant Hobson, a portion of them
was eaten daily.

Every effort must, however, be made to get away from Fort Hope.
Under the circumstances, three months would scarcely be long
enough for them all to get to the nearest continent. It \\as im-
possible to risk being overtaken by the thaw on the ice-field, and
therefore if they started at all it must be at the end of November.

The journey would have been difficult enough, even if the ice had
been rendered solid everywhere by a severe winter, and in this
uncertain weather it was a most serious matter.

On the 13th November, Hobson, Mrs Barnett, and the Sergeant
met to decide on the day of departure. The Sergeant was of opinion
that they ought to leave the island as soon as possible.

" For/' he said, " we must make allowance for all the possible
delays during a march of six hundred miles. We ought to reach
the continent before March, or we may be surprised by the thaw,
and then we shall be in a worse predicament than we are on our
island."

" But/' said Mrs Barnett, " is the sea firm enough for us to cross
it?"

" I think it is," said Long, " and the ice gets thicker every day.
The barometer, too, is gradually rising, and by the time our prepara-
tions are completed, which will be in about another week, I think,
I hope that the really cold weather will have set in."

" The winter has begun very badly," said Hobson, " in fact every-
thing seems to combine against us. Strange seasons have often
been experienced on these seas ; I have heard of whalers being able
to navigate in places where, even in the summer at another time
they would riot have had an inch of water beneath their keels.
In my opinion there is not a day to be lost, and I cannot sufficiently



252 THE FUR CO UN TR Y.



regret that the ordinary temperature of these regions does not assist
us."

" It will later," said Mrs Barnett, " and we must be ready to
take advantage of every chance in our favour. When do you pro-
pose starting, Lieutenant ? "

" At the end of November at the latest," replied Hobson, " but
if in a week hence our preparations are finished, and the route
appears practicable, we will start then."

"Very well," said Long, "we will get ready, without losing an
instant."

" Then," said Mrs Barnett, " you will now tell our companions
of the situation in which they are placed 1 "

" Yes, madam, the moment to speak and the time for action have
alike arrived/'

" And when do you propose enlightening them ? "

"At once. Sergeant Long," he added, turning to his subordinate,
who at once drew himself up in a military attitude, u call all your
men together in the large room to receive a communication."

Sergeant Long touched his cap, and turning on his heel left the
room without a word.

For some minutes Mrs Barnett and Hobson were left alone, but
neither of them spoke.

The Sergeant quickly returned, and told Hobson that his orders
were executed.

The Lieutenant and the lady at once went into the large room.
All the members of the colony, men and women, were assembled in
the dimly lighted room.

Hobson came forward, and standing in the centre of the group
said very gravely

" My friends, until to-day I have felt it my dulby, in order to
spare you useless anxiety, to conceal from you the situation of our
fort. An earthquake separated us from the continent. Cape
Bathurst has broken away from the mainland. Our peninsula is but
an island of ice, a wandering island "

At this moment Marbre stepped forward, and said quietly,

" We knew it, sir ! "




" We knew it, sir ! " Page 252.




CHAPTER XH.

A CHANCE TO BE TXIED.

brave fellows knew it then ! And that they might not
add to the cares of their chief, they had pretended to know
nothing, and had worked away at the preparations for the
winter with the same zeal as the year before.

Tears of emotion stood in Hobson's eyes, and he made no attempt
to conceal them, but seizing Marbre's outstretched hand, he pressed
it in his own.

Yes, the soldiers all knew it, for Marbre had guessed it long ago.
The filling of the reindeer trap with salt water, the non-arrival of
the detachment from Fort Reliance, the observations of latitude and
longitude taken every day, which would have been useless on firm
ground, the precautions observed by Hobson to prevent any one
seeing him take the bearings, the fact of the animals remaining on
the island after winter had set in, and the change in the position of
the cardinal points during the last few days, which they had noticed
at once, had all been tokens easily interpreted by the inhabitants of
Fort Hope. The arrival of Kalumah had puzzled them, but they
had concluded that she had been thrown, upon the island in. the
storm, and they were right, as we are aware.

Marbre, upon whom the truth had first dawned, confided his
suspicions to Mac-Nab the carpenter and Rae the blacksmith. All
three faced the situation calmly enough, and agreed that they ought
to tell their comrades and wives, but decided to let the Lieutenant
think they knew nothing, and to obey him without question as
before.

" You are indeed brave fellows, my friends," exclaimed Mrs
Barnett, who was much touched by this delicate feeling, " you are
true soldiers ! "

" Our Lieutenant may depend upon us," said Mac-Nab, " he has
done his duty, and we will do ours."



254 THE FUR COUNTRY.



"I know vou will, dear comrades," said Hobson, "and if only
Heaven will help and not forsake us, we will help ourselves.''

The Lieutenant then related all that had happened since the
time when the earthquake broke the isthmus, and converted the
districts round Cape Bathurst into an island. He told how, when
the sea became free from ice in the spring, the new island had been
drifted more than two hundred miles away from the coast by an
unknown current, how the hurricane had driven it back within
sight of land, how it had again been carried away in the night of the
31st August, and, lastly, how Kalumah had bravely risked her life
to come to the aid of her European friends. Then he enumerated
the changes the island had undergone, explaining how the warmer
waters had worn it away, and his fear that it might be carried to
the Pacific, or seized by the Kamtchatka Current,' concluding his
narrative by stating that the wandering island had finally stopped on
the 27th of last September.

The chart of the Arctic seas was then brought, and Hobson
pointed out the position occupied by the island six hundred miles
from all land.

He ended by saying that the situation was extremely dangerous,
that the island would inevitably be crushed when the ice broke up,
and that, before having recourse to the boat which could not be
used until the next summer they must try to get back to the
American continent by crossing the ice-field.

" We shall have six hundred miles to go in the cold and darkness
of the Polar night. It will be hard work, my friends, but you know
as well as I do that there can be no shrinking from the task."

" When you give the signal to start, Lieutenant, we will follow
you," said Mac-Nab.

All being of one mind, the preparations for departure were from
that date rapidly pushed forward. The men bravely faced the fact
that they would have six hundred miles to travel under very trying
circumstances. Sergeant Long superintended the works, whilst
Hobson, the two hunters, and Mrs Barnett, often went to test the firm-
ness of the ice-field. Kalumah frequently accompanied them, and
her remarks, founded on experience, might possibly be of great use
to the Lieutenant. Unless they were prevented they were to start
on the 20th November, and there was not a moment to lose.

As Hobson had foreseen, the wind having risen, the temperature
fell slightly, and the column of mercury marked 24 Fahrenheit.



A CHANCE TO BE TRIED. 2$$

Snow, which soon became hardened, replaced the rain of the preced-
ing days. A few more days of such cold and sledges could be
used. The little bay hollowed out of the cliffs of Cape Michael was
partly filled with ice and snow ; but it must not be forgotten that
its calmer waters froze more quickly than those of the open sea,
which were not yet in a satisfactory condition.

The wind continued to blow almost incessantly, and with con-
siderable violence, but the motion of waves interfered with the
regular formation and consolidation of the ice. Large pools of water
occurred here and there between the pieces of ice, and it was impos-
sible to attempt to cross it.

"The weather is certainly getting colder,'' observed Mrs Barnett
to Lieutenant Hobson, as they were exploring the south of the
island together on the 10th November, " the temperature is becom-
ing lower and lower, and these liquid spaces will soon freeze over."

" I think you are right, madam," replied Hobson, " but the way
in which they will freeze over will not be very favourable to our
plans. The pieces of ice are small, and their jagged edges will
stick up all over the surface, making it very rough, so that if our
sledges get over it at all, it will only be with very great difficulty."

" But," resumed Mrs Barnett, " if I am not mistaken, a heavy
fall of snow, lasting a few days or even a few hours, would suffice
to level the entire surface ! "

" Yes, yes," replied Hobson, " but if snow should fall, it will
be because the temperature has risen ; and if it rises, the ice-field
will break up again, so that either contingency will be against
us !"

" It really would be a strange freak of fortune if we should
experience a temperate instead of an Arctic winter in the midst of
the Polar Sea ! " observed Mrs Barnett.

" It has happened before, madam, it has happened before. Let
me remind you of the great severity of last cold season ; now it has
been noticed that two long bitter winters seldom succeed each other,
and the whalers of the northern seas know it well. A bitter winter
when we should have been glad of a mild one, and a mild one
when we so sorely need the reverse. It must be owned, we have
<been strangely unfortunate thus far ! And when I think of six
hundred miles to cross with women and a child !"....

And Hobson pointed to the vast white plain, with strange irre-
gular markings like guipure work, stretching away into the infinite



THE FUR COUNTRY.



distance. Sad and desolate enough it looked, the imperfectly frozen
surface cracking every now and then with an ominous sound. A
pale moon, its light half quenched in the damp mists, rose but a few
degrees above the gloomy horizon and shot a few faint beams upon
the melancholy scene. The half-darkness and the refraction com-
bined doubled the size of every object. Icebergs of moderate
height assumed gigantic proportions, and were in some cases dis-



Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 23 of 31)