Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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torted into the forms of fabulous monsters. Birds passed overhead
with loud flapping of wings, and in consequence of this optical
illusion the smallest of them appeared as large as a condor or a vul-
ture. In the- midst of the icebergs yawned apparently huge black
tunnels, into which the boldest man would scarcely dare to venture,
and now and then sudden convulsions took place, as the icebergs,
worn away at the base, heeled over with a crash, the sonorous echoes
taking up the sounds and carrying them along. The rapid changes
resembled the transformation scenes of fairyland, and terrible indeed
must all those phenomena have appeared to the luckless colonists
who were about to venture across the ice-field !

In spite of her moral and physical courage Mrs Barnett could not
control an involuntary shudder. Soul and body alike shrunk from
the awful prospect, and she was tempted to shut her eyes and stop
her ears that she might see and hear no more. When the moon
was for a moment veiled behind a heavy cloud, the gloom of the
Polar landscape became still more awe-inspiring, and before her
mind's eye rose a vision of the caravan of men and women
struggling across these vast solitudes in the midst of hurricanes,
snow-storms, avalanches, and in the thick darkness of the Arctic
nipht !

Mrs Barnett, however, forced herself to look ; she wished to accus-
tom her eyes to these scenes, and to teach herself not to shrink from
facing their terrors. But as she gazed a cry suddenly burst from
her lips, and seizing Hobson's hand, she pointed to a huge object,
of ill-defined dimensions, moving about in the uncertain light, scarcely
a hundred paces from where they stood.

It was a white monster of immense size, more than a hundred
feet high. It was pacing slowly along over the broken ice, bound-
ing from, one piece to another, and beating the air with its
huge feet, between which it could have held ten large dogs at least.
It, too, seemed to be seeking a practicable path across the ice it,
too, seemed anxious to fly from the doomed island. The ice gave

" It was a Polar bear." Page 257.


way beneath its weight, and it had often considerable difficulty in
regaining its feet.

The monster made its way thus for about a quarter of a mile
across the ice, and then, its farther progress being barred, it turned
round and advanced towards the spot where Mrs Barnett and the
Lieutenant stood.

Hobson seized the gun which was slung over his shoulder and
presented it at the animal, but almost immediately lowering the
weapon, he said to Mrs Barnett

" A bear, madam, only a bear, the size of which has been greatly
magnified by refraction."

It was, in fact, a Polar bear, and Mrs Barnett drew a long
breath of relief as she understood the optical illusion of which she
had been the victim. Then an idea struck her.

"It is my bear ! " she exclaimed, " the bear with the devotion OL
a Newfoundland dog ! Probably the only one still on the island.
But what is he doing here ? "

" He is trying to get away," replied Hobson, shaking his head.
" He is trying to escape from this doomed island, and he cannot
do so ! He is proving to us that we cannot pass where he has had
to turn back ! "

Hobson was right, the imprisoned animal had tried to leave the
island and to get to the continent, and having failed it was return-
ing to the coast. Shaking its head and growling, it passed some
twenty paces from the two watchers, and, either not seeing them or
disdaining to ^ake any notice of them, it walked heavily on
towards Cape Michael, and soon disappeared behind the rising

Lieutenant Hobson and Mrs Barnett returned sadly and silently
to the fort.

The preparations for departure went on as rapidly, however, as if
it were possible to leave the island. Nothing was neglected to pr>
mote the success of the undertaking, every possible danger had to
be foreseen, and not only had the ordinary difficulties and dangers
of a journey across the ice to be allowed for, but also the sudden
changes of weather peculiar to the Polar regions, which so obstin-
ately resist every attempt to explore them.

The teams of dogs required special attention. They were
allowed to run about near the fort, that they might regain the activity


of which too long a rest had, to some extent, deprived them, and
they were soon in a condition to make a long march.

The sledges were carefully examined and repaired. The rough
surface of the ice-field would give them many violent shocks, and
they were therefore thoroughly overhauled by Mac-Nab and his
men, the inner framework and the curved fronts being carefully
repaired and strengthened.

Two large waggon sledges were built, one for the transport of
provisions, the other for the peltries. These were to be drawn by
the tamed reindeer, which had been well trained for the service.
The peltries or furs were articles of luxury with which it was not
perhaps quite prudent to burden the travellers, but Hobson was
anxious to consider the interests of the Company as much as possible,
although he was resolved to abandon them, en route, if they harassed
or impeded his march. No fresh risk was run of injury of the furs,
for of course they would have been lost if left at the factory.

[t was of course quite another matter with the provisions, of
which a good and plentiful supply was absolutely necessary. It
was of no use to count on the product of the chase this time. As
soon as the passage of the ice-field became practicable, all the edible
game would get on ahead and reach the mainland before the
caravan. One waggon sledge was therefore packed with salt meat,
corned beef, hare pate's, dried fish, biscuits the stock of which was
unfortunately getting low and an ample reserve of sorrel, scurvy-
grass, rum, spirits of wine, for making warm drinks, &c. &c.
Hobson would have been glad to take some fuel with him, as he
would not meet with a tree, a shrub, or a bit of moss throughout
the inarch of six hundred miles, nor could he hope for pieces of
wreck or timber cast up by the sea, but he did not dare to overload
his sledges with wood. Fortunately there was no lack of warm
comfortable garments, and in case of need they could draw upon
the reserve of peltries in the waggon.

Thomas Black, who since his misfortune had altogether retired
from the world, shunning his companions, taking part in none of
the consultations, and remaining shut up in his own room, re-
appeared as soon as the day of departure was definitely fixed. But
even then he attended to nothing but the sledge wliich was to carry
his person, his instruments, and his registers. Always very silent, it
was now impossible to get a word out of him. He had forgotten
everything, even that lie was a scientific man, and since he had

" Two large wagon sledges were built." Page 258.


been deceived about the eclipse, since the solution of the problem
of the red prominences of the moon had escaped him, he had taken
no notice of any of the peculiar phenomena of the high latitudes,
such as the Aurora Borealis, halos, parhelia, &c.

During the last few days every one worked so hard that all was
ready for the start on the morning of the 18th November.

But, alas ! the ice-field was still impassable. Although the ther-
mometer had fallen slightly, the cold had not been severe enough
to freeze the surface of the sea with any uniformity, and the snow
which fell was fine and intermittent. Hobson, Marbre, and Sabine
went along the coast every day from Cape Michael to what was
once the corner of the old Walruses' Bay. They evert ventured out
about a mile and a half upon the ice-field, but were compelled to
admit that it was broken by rents, crevasses, and fissures in every
direction. Not only would it be impossible for sledges to cross it,
it was dangerous for unencumbered pedestrians. Hobson and his
two men underwent the greatest fatigue in these- short excursions,
and more than once they ran a risk of being unable to get back
to Victoria Island across the ever-changing, ever-moving blocks of

Really all nature seemed to be in league against the luckless

Oh the 18th and 19th November, the thermometer rose, whilst
the barometer fell. Fatal results were to be feared from this
change in the state of the atmosphere. Whilst the cold decreased
the sky became covered with clouds, which presently resolved
themselves into heavy rain instead of the sadly-needed snow, the
column of mercury standing at 34 Fahrenheit. These showers
of comparatively warm water melted the snow and ice in many
places, and the result can easily be imagined. It really seemed as
if a thaw were setting in, and there were symptoms of a general
breaking up of the ice-field. In spite of the dreadful weather,
however, Hobson went to the south of the island every day, and
every day returned more disheartened than before.

On the 20th, a tempest resembling in violence that of the month
before, broke upon the gloomy Arctic solitudes, compelling the
colonists to give up going out, and to remain shut up in Fort
Hope for two days.


last, on the 22d of November, the weather moderated. In
a few hours the storm suddenly ceased. The wind veered
round to the north, and the thermometer fell several
degrees. A few birds capable of a long-sustained flight took^wiiig
and disappeared. There really seemed to be a likelihood that the
temperature was at last going to become what it ought to be at this
time of the year in such an elevated latitude. The colonists might
well regret that it was not now what it had been during the last
cold season, when the column of mercury fell to 72 Fahrenheit
below zero.

Hobson determined no longer to delay leaving Victoria Island,
and on the morning of the 22d the whole of the little colony was
ready to leave the island, which was now firmly welded to the ice-
field, and by its means connected with the American continent, six
hundred miles away.

At half-past eleven A.M., Hobson gave the signal of departure. x The
sky was grey but clear, and lighted up from the horizon to the
zenith by a magnificent Aurora Borealis. The dogs were harnessed
to the sledges, and three couple of reindeer to the waggon sledges.
Silently they wended their way towards Cape Michael, where they
would quit the island, properly so called, for the ice-field.

The caravan at first skirted along the wooded hill on the east of
Lake Barnett, but as they were rounding the corner all paused to
look round for the last time at Cape Bathurst, which they were
leaving never to return. A few snow-encrusted rafters stood out in
the light of the Aurora Borealis, a few white lines marked the
boundaries of the enceinte of the factory, a white mass here and
there, a few bine wreaths of smoke from the expiring fire never to
be rekindled ; this was all that could be seen of Fort Hope, now


useless and deserted, but erected at the cost of so much labour and
so much anxiety.

" Farewell, farewell, to our poor Arctic home ! " exclaimed Mrs
Barnett, waving her hand for the last time; and all sadly and
silently resumed their journey.

At one o'clock the detachment arrived at Cape Michael, after having
rounded the gulf which the cold had imperfectly frozen over. Thus
far the difficulties of the journey had not been very great, for the
ground of the island was smooth compared to the ice-field, which was
strewn with icebergs, hummocks, and packs, between which, practic-
able passes had to be found at the cost of an immense amount of

Towards the evening of the same day the party had advanced
several miles on the ice-field, and a halt for the night was ordered ;
the encampment was to be formed by hollowing out snow-houses in
the Esquimaux style. The work was quickly accomplished with the
ice-chisels, and at eight o'clock, after a salt meat supper, every one
had crept into the holes, which are much warmer than anybody
would imagine.

Before retiring, however, Mrs Barnett asked the Lieutenant how
far he thought they had come.

" Not more than ten miles, I think," replied Hobson.

"Ten from six hundred ! " exclaimed Mrs Barnett. " At this rate,
it will take us three months to get to the American continent ! "

" Perhaps more, madam," replied Hobson, " for we shall not be
able to get on faster than this. We are not travelling as we were
last year over the frozen plains between Fort Reliance and Cape
Bathurst ; but on a distorted ice-field crushed by the pressure of
the icebergs, across which there is no easy route. I expect to meet
with almost insurmountable difficulties on the way ; may we be
able to conquer them ! It is not of so much importance, however,
to march quickly as to preserve our health, and I shall indeed
think myself fortunate if all my comrades answer to their names in
the roll-call on our arrival at Fort Reliance. Heaven grant we may
have all landed at some point, no matter where, of the American
continent in three months' time ; if so, we shall never be able to
return thanks enough."

The night passed without incident ; but during the long vigil
which he kept, Hobson fancied he noticed certain ill-omened trem-
blings on the spot he had chosen for his encampment, and could


not but fear that the vast ice-field was insufficiently cemented, and'
that there would be numerous rents in the surface which would
greatly impede his progress, and render communication with firm
ground very uncertain. Moreover, before he started, he had
observed that none of the animals had left the vicinity of the fort,
and they would certainly have sought a warmer climate had not their
instinct warned them of obstacles in their way. Yet the Lieutenant
felt that he had only done his duty in making this attempt to restore
his little colony to an inhabited land, before the setting in of the
thaw, and whether he succeeded or had to turn back he would have
no reason to reproach himself.

The next day, November 23d, the detachment could not even
advance ten miles towards the east, so great were the difficulties
met with. The ice-field was fearfully distorted, and here and
there many layers of ice were piled one upon another, doubtless
driven along by the irresistible force of the ice-wall into the vast
funnel of the Arctic Ocean. Hence a confusion of masses of ice,
which looked as if they had been suddenly dropped by a hand
incapable of holding them, and strewn about in every direction.

It was clear that a caravan of sledges, drawn by dogs and rein-
deer, could not possibly get over these blocks ; and it was equally
clear that a path could not be cut through them with the hatchet or
ice-chisel. Some of the icebergs assumed extraordinary forms, and
there were groups which looked like towns falling into ruins. Some
towered three or four hundred feet above the level of the ice-field,
and were capped with tottering masses of debris, which the slightest
shake or shock or gust of wind would bring down in avalanches.

The greatest precautions were, therefore, necessary in rounding
these ice-mountains, and orders were given not to speak above a
whisper, and not to excite the dogs by cracking the whips in these
dangerous passes.

But an immense amount of time was lost in looking for practicable
passages, arid the travellers were worn out with fatigue, often going
ten miles round before they could advance one in the required direc-
tion towards the east. The only comfort was that the ground still
remained firm beneath their feet.

On the 24th November, however, fresh obstacles arose, which
Hobson really feared, with considerable reason, would be insurmount-

After getting over one wall of ice which rose some twenty miles-

Some of the icebergs assumed extraordinary forms " Page 262.


from* Victoria Island, the party found themselves on a much less
undulating ice-field, the different portions of which had evidently
not been subjected to any great pressure. It was clear that in con-
sequence of the direction of the currents the influence of the masses
of permanent ice in the north had not here been felt, and Hobson
and his comrades soon found that this ice-field was intersected
with wide and deep crevasses not yet frozen over. The temperature
here was comparatively warm, and the thermometer maintained a
mean height of more than 34 Fahrenheit. Salt water, as is
well known, does not freeze so readily as fresh, but requires several
degrees of cold below freezing point before it becomes solidified, and
the sea was therefore still liquid. All the icebergs and floes here had
come from latitudes farther north, and, if we may so express it,
lived upon the cold they had brought with them. The whole of
the southern portion of the Arctic Ocean was most imperfectly
frozen, and a warm rain was falling, which hastened the dissolution
of what ice there was.

On the 24th November the advance of the travellers was abso-
lutely arrested by a crevasse full of rough water strewn with small
icicles a crevasse not more than a hundred feet wide, it is true, but
probably many miles long.

For two whole hours the party skirted along the western edge of
this gap, in the hope of coming to the end of it and getting to the
other side, so as to resume their march to the east, but it was
all in vain, they were obliged to give it up and encamp on the wrong

Hobson and Long, however, proceeded for another quarter of a
mile along the interminable crevasse, mentally cursing the mildness
of the winter which had brought them into such a strait.

" We must pass somehow," said Long, " for we can't stay where
we are."

" Yes, yes," replied the Lieutenant, " and we shall pass it, either by
going up to the north, or down to the south, it must end somewhere.
But after we have got round this we shall come to others, and so
it will go on perhaps for hundred of miles, as long as this uncertain
and most unfortunate weather continues ! "

" Well, Lieutenant, we must ascertain the truth once for all before
we resume our journey," said the Sergeant.

" We must indeed, Sergeant," replied Hobson firmly, " or w~
shall run a risk of not having crossed half the distance b tween u


and America after travelling five or six hundred miles out qf our
way. Yes, before going farther, I must make quite sure of the
state of the ice-field, and that is what I am about to do."

And without another word Hobson stripped himself, plunged
into the half-frozen water, and being a powerful swimmer a few
strokes soon brought him to the other side of the crevasse, when he
disappeared amongst the icebergs.

A few hours later the Lieutenant reached the encampment, to
which Long had already returned, in an exhausted condition. He
took Mrs Barnett and the Sergeant aside, and told them that the
ice-field was impracticable, adding

" Perhaps one man on foot without a sledge or any encumbrances
might get across, but for a caravan it is impossible. The
crevasses increase towards the east, and a boat would really be
of more use than a sledge if we wish to reach the American

"Well," said Long, "if one man could cross, ought not one of
us to attempt it, and go and seek assistance for the rest."

" I thought of trying it myself," replied Hobson.

" You, Lieutenant ! "

" You, sir ! " cried Mrs Barnett and Long in one breath.

These two exclamations showed Hobson how unexpected and
inopportune his proposal appeared. How could he, the chief of the
expedition, think of deserting those confided to him, even although
it was in their interests and at great risk to himself. It was quite
impossible, and the Lieutenant did not insist upon it.

" Yes," he said, " I understand how it appears to you, my friends,
and I will not abandon you. It would, indeed, be quite useless
for any one to attempt the passage ; he would not succeed, he^ would
fall by the way, and find a watery grave when the thaw sets in.
And even suppose he reached New Archangel, how could he come
to our rescue 1 Would he charter a vessel to seek for us ? Suppose
he did, it could not start until after the thaw. And who can tell
where the currents will then have taken Victoria Island, either yet
farther north or to the Behring Sea !

" Yes, Lieutenant, you are right," replied Long ; " let us remain
together, and if we are to be saved in a boat, there is Mac-Nab's
on Victoria Island, and for it at least we shall not have to wait ! "

Mrs Barnett had listened without saying a word, but she under-
stood that the ice-field being impassable, they had now nothing to

" We must pass somehow" Page 263.


depend on but the carpenter's boat, and that they would have to wait
bravely for the thaw.

" What are you going to do, then 1 " she inquired at last.

" Return to Victoria Island."

" Let us return then, and God be with us ! "

The rest of the travellers had now gathered round the Lieutenant,
and he laid his plans before them.

At first all were disposed to rebel, the poor creatures had been
counting on getting back to their homes, and felt absolutely crushed
at the disappointment, but they soon recovered their dejection and
declared themselves ready to obey.

Hobson then told them the. results of the examination he had
just made. They learnt that the obstacles in their way on the east
were so numerous that it would be absolutely impossible to pass
with the sledges and their contents, and as the journey would last
several months, the provisions, &c., could not be dispensed with.

" We are now," added the Lieutenant, " cut off from all com-
munication with the mainland, and by going farther towards the
east we run a risk, after enduring great fatigues, of finding it
impossible to get back to the island, now our only refuge. If the
thaw should overtake us on the ice-field, we are lost. I have not
disguised nor have I exaggerated the truth, and I know, my friends,
that I am speaking to men who have found that I am not a man to
turn back from difficulties. But I repeat, the task we have set
ourselves is impossible ! "

The men trusted their chief implicitly. They knew his courage
and energy, and felt as they listened to his words that it was
indeed impossible to cross the ice.

It was decided to start on the return journey to Fort Hope the next
day, and it was accomplished under most distressing circumstances.
The weather was dreadful, squalls swept down upon the ice-field,,
and rain fell in torrents. The difficulty of finding the way in the
darkness through the labyrinth of icebergs can well be imagined !

It took no less than four days and four nights to get back to the
island. Several teams of dogs with their sledges fell into the
crevasses, but thanks to Hobson's skill, prudence, and devotion, he
lost not one of his party. But what terrible dangers and fatigues
they had to go through, and how awful was the prospect of another
winter on the wandering island to the unfortunate colonists !



)HE party did not arrive at Fort Hope until the 28th, after
a most arduous journey. They had now nothing to depend
on but the boat, and that they could not use until the
sea was open, which would not be for six months.

Preparations for another winter were therefore made. The
sledges were unloaded, the provisions put back in the pantry, and
the clothes, arms, furs, &c., in the magazines. The dogs returned
to their dog-house, and the reindeer to their stable.

Great was the despair of Thomas Black at this return to seclu-
sion. The poor astronomer carried his instruments, his books, and
his MSS. back to his room, and more angry than ever with " the
evil fate which pursued him," he held himself aloof from every-
thing which went on in the factory.

All were again settled at their usual winter avocations the day
after their arrival, and the monotonous winter life once more com-
menced. Needlework, mending the clothes, taking care of the furs,
some of which might yet be saved, the observation of the weather,
the examination of the ice-field, and reading aloud, were the daily
occupations. Mrs Barnett was, as before, the leader in everything,
and her influence was everywhere felt. If, as sometimes happened,
now that all were uneasy about the future, a slight disagreement
occurred between any of the soldiers, a few words from Mrs Barnett
soon set matters straight, for she had acquired wonderful power
over the little world in which she moved, and she always used it

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 24 of 31)