Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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bergs, and they did not therefore go far along their base. That this
prudence was necessary was proved by the falling of a huge block,
at two o'clock, at the entrance to a kind of valley which they were
about to cross. It must have weighed more than a hundred tons,
and it was dashed upon the ice-field with a fearful crash, bursting
like a bomb-shell. Fortunately no one was hurt by the splinters.

From two to five o'clock the explorers followed a narrow winding
path leading down amongst the icebergs ; they were anxious to know
if it led right through them, but could not at once ascertain. In
this valley, as it might be called, they were able t., examine the
internal structure of the icy barrier. The blocks of which it was
built up were here arranged with greater symmetry than outside. In
some places trunks of trees were seen embedded in the ice, all, how-
ever, of Tropical not Polar species, which had evidently been brought
to Arctic regions by the Gulf Stream, and would be taken back to


the ocean when the thaw should have converted into water the ice
which now held them in its chill embrace.

At five o'clock it became too dark to go any further. The travel-
lers had not gone more than about two miles in the valley, but it
was so sinuous, that it was impossible to estimate exactly the dis-
tance traversed.

The signal to halt was given by the Lieutenant, and Marbre and
Sabine quickly dug out a grotto in the ice with their chisels, into
which the whole party crept, and after a good supper all were soon

Every one was up at eight o'clock the next morning, and Hobson
decided to follow the valley for another mile, in the hope of finding
out whether it went right through the ice-wall. The direction of
the pass, judging from the position of the sun, had now changed from
north to south-east, and as early as eleven o'clock the party came out
on the opposite side of the chain of icebergs. The passage was
therefore proved t run completely through the barrier.

The aspect of the ice-field on the eastern side was exactly
similar to that on the west. The same confusion of ice-masses, the
same accumulation of hummocks and icebergs, as far as the eye could
reach, with occasional alternations of smooth surfaces of small extent,
intersected by numerous crevasses, the edges of which were already
melting fast. The same complete solitude, the same desertion, not
a bird, not an animal to be seen.

Mrs Barnett climbed to the top of a hummock, and there
remained for an hour, gazing upon the sad and desolate Polar
landscape before her. Her thoughts involuntarily flew back to the
miserable attempt to escape that had been made five montLs before.
Once more she saw the men and women of the hapless caravan
encamped in the darkness of these frozen solitudes, or struggling
against insurmountable difficulties to reach the mainland.

At last the Lieutenant broke in upon her reverie, and said

" Madam, it is more than twenty-four hours since we left
the fort. We now know the thickness of the ice-wall, and as we
promised not to be away longer than forty-eight hours, I think it
is time to retrace our steps."

Mrs Barnett saw the justice of the Lieutenant's remark. They
had ascertained that the barrier of ice was of moderate thickness, that
it would melt away quickly enough to allow of the passage of Mac-
Nab's boat after the thaw, and it would therefore be well to hasten

" I think it is time to retrace our steps." Page 278.


back lest a snow-storm or change in the weather of any kind should
render return through the winding valley difficult.

The party breakfasted and set out on the return journey about
one o'clock P.M.

The night was passed as before in an ice- cavern, and the route
resumed at eight o'clock the next morning, March 9th.

The travellers now turned their backs upon the sun, as they were
making for the west, but the weather was fine, and the orb of day,
already high in the heavens, flung some of its rays across the valley
and lit up the glittering ice-walls on either side.

Mrs Barnett and Kalumah were a little behind the rest of the
party chatting together, and looking about them as they wound
through the narrow passages pointed out by Marbre and Sabine.
They expected to get out of the valley quickly, and be back at the
fort before sunset, as they had only two or three miles cf the island
to cross after leaving the ice. This would be a few hours after the
time fixed, but not long enough to cause any serious anxiety to their
friends at home.

They made their calculation without allowing for an incident
which no human perspicacity could possibly have foreseen.

It was about ten o'clock when Marbre and Sabine, who were
some twenty paces in advance of the rest, suddenly stopped and
appeared to be debating some point. When the others came up,
Sabine was holding out his compass to Marbre, who was staring at
it with an expression of the utmost astonishment.

" What an extraordinary thing ! " he exclaimed, and added,
turning to the Lieutenant

" Will you tell me, sir, the position of the island with regard to
the ice- wall, is it on the east or west 1 ? "

" On the west," replied Hobson, not a little surprised at the
question, "you kn.w that well enough, Marbre."

" I know it well enough! I know it well enough!" repeated
Marbre, shaking his head, " and if it is on the west, we are going
wrong, and away from the island ! "

" What, away from the island ! " exclaimed the Lieutenant, struck
with the hunter's air of conviction.

" We are indeed, sir," said Marbre ; " look at the compass ; my
name is not Marbre if it does mot show that we are walking towards
the east not the west ! "

" Impossible ! " exclaimed Mrs Barnett.


<( Look, madam," said Sabine.

It was true. The needle pointed in exactly the opposite direction
to that expected. Hobson looked thoughtful and said nothing.

" We must have made a mistake when we left the ice-cavern this
morning," observed Sabine, " we ought to have turned to the left
instead of to the right."

" No, no," said Mrs Harriett, " I am sure we did not make a
mistake ! "

But " said Marbre.

" But, " interrupted Mrs Barnett, "look at the sun. Does it
no longer rise in the east? Now as we turned our backs on it
this morning, and it is still behind us, we must be walking towards
the west, so that when we get out of the valley on the western side
of the chain of icebergs, we must come to the island we left

Marbre, struck dumb by this irrefutable argument, crossed his
arms and said no more.

" Then if so," said Sabine, " the sun and the compass are in
complete contradiction of each other 1 "

"At this moment they are," said Hobson, "and the reason is
simple enough ; in these high northern latitudes, and in latitudes
in t e neighbourhood of the magnetic pole, the compasses are some-
ti les disturbed, and the deviation of their needles is so great as
entirely to mislead travellers."

" All right then," said Marbre, " we have only to go on keeping
our backs to the sun."

" Certainly," replied Lieutenant Hobson, " there can be no
hesitation which to choose, the sun or our compass, nothing disturbs
the sun."

The march was resumed, the sun was still behind them, and
there was really no objection to be made to Hobson's theory,
founded, as it was, upon the position then occupied by the radiant
orb of day.

The little troop marched on, but they did not get out of the
valley as soon as they expected. Hobson had counted on leaving
the ice-wall before noon, and it was past two when they reached
the opening of the narrow pass.

Strange as was this delay, it had not made any one uneasy, and
the astonishment of all can readily be imagined when, on stepping
on to the ice field, at the base of the chain of icebergs, no sign was


to be seen of Victoria Island, which ought to have been opposite to

Yes ! The island, which on this side had been such a
conspicuous object, owing to the height of Cape Michael crowned
with trees, had disappeared. In its place stretched a vast ice-field
lit up by the sunbeams.

All looked around them, and then at each other in amazement.

" The island ought to be there ! " cried Sabine.

" But it is not there," said Marbre. " Oh, sir Lieutenant where
is it ? what has become of it 1 "

But Hobson had not a word to say in reply, and Mrs Barnett
was equally dumfounded.

Kalumah now approached Lieutenant Hobson, and touching his
arm, she said

" We went wrong in the valley, we went up it instead of down
it, we shall only get back to where we were yesterday by crossing
the chain of icebergs. Come, come ! "

Hobson and the others mechanically followed Kalumah, and trust-
ing in the young native's sagacity, retraced their steps. Appear-
ances were, however, certainly against her, for they were now walking
towards the sun in an easterly direction.

Kalumah did not explain her motives, but muttered as she went

" Let us make haste ! "

All were quite exhausted, and could scarcely get along, when
they found themselves on the other side of the ice-wall, after a walk
of three hours. The night had now fallen, and it was too dark to
see if the island was there, but they were not long left in doubt.

At about a hundred paces off, burning torches were moving about,
whilst reports of guns and shouts were heard.

The explorers replied, and were soon joined by Sergeant Long and
others, amongst them Thomas Black, whose anxiety as to the fate of
his friends had at last roused him from his torpor. The poor
fellows left on the island had been in a terrible state of uneasiness,
thinking that Hobson and his party had lost their way. They
were right, but what was it that had made them think so ?

Twenty-four hours before, the immense ice-field and the island
had turned half round, and in consequence of this displacement
they were no longer on the west, but on the east of the ice-wall !



!WO hours later all had returned to Fort Hope, and the next
day the sun for the first time shone upon that part of the
coast which was formerly on the west of the island.
Kalumah, to whom this phenomenon was familiar, had been right,
and if the sun had not been the guilty party neither had the
compass !

The position of Victoria Island with regard to the cardinal
points was again completely changed. Since it had broken loose
from the mainland the island and not only the island, but the vast
ice-field in which it was enclosed had turned half round. This
displacement proved that the ice-field was not connected with the
continent, and that the thaw would soon set in.

" Well, Lieutenant," said Mrs Barnett, " this change of front is
certainly in our favour. Cape Bathurst and Fort Hope are now
turned towards the north-east, in other words towards the point
nearest to the continent, and the ice- wall, through which our boat
could only have made its way by a difficult and dangerous passage,
is no longer between us and America. And so all is for the best, is
it not 1 " added Mrs Barnett with a smile.

" Indeed it is," replied Hobson, who fully realised all that was
involved in this change of the position of Victoria Island.

No incident occurred between the 10th and 21st March, but
there were indications of the approaching change of season. The
temperature varied from 43 to 50 Fahrenheit, and it appeared
likely that the breaking up of the ice would commence suddenly.
Fresh crevasses opened, and the unfrozen water flooded the surface
of the ice. As the whalers poetically express it, the " wounds of
the ice-field bled copiously," and the opening of these "wounds"
was accompanied by a sound like the roar of artillery. A warm
rain fell for several hours, and accelerated the dissolution of the
solid coating of the ocean.


The birds, ptarmigans, puffins, ducks, <kc., which had deserted
the island in the beginning of the winter, now returned in large
numbers. Marbre and Sabine killed a few of them, and on some
were found the tickets tied round their necks by the Lieutenant
several months before. Flocks of white trumpeter swans also
reappeared, and filled the air with their loud clarion tones ; whilst
the quadrupeds, rodents, and carnivora alike continued to frequent
the vicinity of the fort like tame domestic animals.

Whenever the state of the sky permitted, which was almost every
day, Hobson took the altitude of the sun. Sometimes Mrs Barnett,
who had become quite expert in handling the sextant, assisted him,
or took the observation in his stead. It was :.ow most important
to note the very slightest changes in the latitude and longitude of
the island. It was still doubtful to which current it would be
subject after the thaw, and the question whether it would be drifted
north or south was the chief subject of the discussions between the
Lieutenant and Mrs Barnett.

The brave lady had always given proof of an energy superior to
that of most of her sex, and now she was to be seen every day
braving fatigue, and venturing on to the half decomposed, or
'* pancake " ice, in all weathers, through snow or rain, and on her
return to the factory ready to cheer and help everybody, and to
superintend all that was going on. We must add that her efforts
were ably seconded by the faithful Madge.

Mrs Barnett had compelled herself to look the future firmly in
the face, and although she could not fail to fear for the safety of all,
and sad presentiments haunted her, she never allowed herself to
betray any uneasiness. Her courage and confidence never seemed
to waver, she was as ever the kind encouraging friend of each and
all, and none could have dreamt of the conflict of spirit going on
beneath her quiet exterior demeanour. Lieutenant Hobson's
admiration of her character was unbounded, and he had also entire
confidence in Kalumah, often trusting to her natural instinct as
implicitly as a hunter to that of his dog.

The young Esquimaux was, in fact, very intelligent, and familiar
from babyhood with the phenomena of the Polar regions. On board
a whaler she might have advantageously replaced many an ice-
master or pilot, whose business it is to guide a boat amongst the

Every day Kalumah went to examine the state of the ice-field.


The nature of the noise produced by the breaking of the icebergs in
the distance was enough to tell her how far the decomposition had
advanced. No foot was surer than hers upon the ice, no one could
spring more lightly forwards than she when her instinct told her
that the smooth surface was rotten underneath, and she would scud
across an ice-field riddled with fissures without a moment's hesita-

From the 20th to the 30th March, the thaw made rapid progress.
Rain fell abundantly and accelerated the dissolution of the ice. It
was to be hoped that the ice-field would soon open right across, and
that in about fifteen days Hobson would be able to steer his boat into
the open sea. He was determined to lose no time, as he did not
know but that the Kamtchatka Current might sweep the island to
the north before it could come under the influence of the Behring

u But," Kalumah repeated again and again, " there is no fear of
that, the breaking up of the ice does not proceed upwards but
downwards. The danger is there ! " she added, pointing to the
south in the direction of the vast Pacific Ocean.

The young girl's confidence on this point reassured Hobson, for
he had no reason now to dread the falling to pieces of the island in
the warm waters of the Pacific. He meant everybody to be on
board the boat before that could happen, and they would not
have far to go to get to one or the other continent, as the strait is
in reality a kind of funnel through which the waters flow between
Cape East on the Asiatic side and Cape Prince of Wales on the

This will explain the eager attention with which the slightest
change in the position of the island was noticed. The bearings
were taken every day, and everything was prepared for an approach-
ing and perhaps sudden and hurried embarkation.

Of course all the ordinary avocations of the factory were now
discontinued. There was no hunting or setting of traps. The
magazines were already piled up with furs, most of which would be
lost. The hunters and trappers had literally nothing to do ; but
Mac-Nab and his men, having finished their boat, employed their
leisure time in strengthening the principal house of the fort, which
would probably be subjected to considerable pressure from the
accumulation of ice on the coast during the further progress of the
thaw, unless indeed Cape Bathurst should prove a sufficient protec-

" It is a frost -rime" Page 288.


tion. Strong struts were fixed against the outside walls, vertical
props were placed inside the rooms to afford additional support to
the beams of the ceiling, and the roof was strengthened so that it
could bear a considerable weight. These various works were com-
pleted early in April, and their utility, or rather their vital import-
ance, was very soon manifested.

Each day brought fresh symptoms of returning spring, which
seemed likely to set in early after this strangely mild Polar winter.
A few tender shoots appeared upon the trees, and the newly-thawed
sap swelled the bark of beeches, willows, and arbutus. Tiny mosses
tinged with pale green the slopes under the direct influence of the
sunbeams ; but they were not likely to spread much, as the greedy
rodents collected about the fort pounced upon and devoured them
almost before they were above the ground.

Great were the sufferings of Corporal Joliffe at this time. We
know that he had undertaken to protect the plot of ground culti-
vated by his wife. Under ordinary circumstances he would merely
have had to drive away feathered pilferers, such as guillemots or
puffins, from his sorrel and scurvy-grass. A scarecrow would have
been enough to get rid of them, still more the Corporal in person.
But now all the rodents and ruminants of the Arctic fauna con-
bined to lay siege to his territory ; reindeer, Polar hares, musk-rats,
shrews, martens, <fec., braved all the threatening gestures of the Cor-
poral, and the poor man was in despair, for whilst he was defending
one end of his field the enemy was preying upon the other.

It would certainly have been wiser to let the poor creatures enjoy
unmolested the crops which could be of no use to the colonists, as
the fort was to be so soon abandoned, and Mrs Barnett tried to per-
suade the angry Corporal to do so, when he came to her twenty
times a day with the same wearisome tale, but he would not listen
to her :

" To lose the fruit of all our trouble ! " he repeated; " to leave an
establishment which was prospering so well ! To give up the plants
Mrs Joliffe and I sowed so carefully ! . . . O madam, sometimes
I feel disposed to let you all go, and stay here with my wife ! I
am sure the Company would give up all claim on the island to

Mrs Barnett could not help laughing at this absurd speech, and
sent the Corporal to his little wife, who had long ago resigned herself
to the loss of her sorrel, scurvy-grass, and other medicinal herbs.


We must here remark, that the health of all the colonists remained
good, they had at least escaped illness ; the baby, too, was now quite
well again, and throve admirably in the mild weather of the early

The thaw continued to proceed rapidly from the 2nd to the 5th
April. The weather was warm but cloudy, and rain fell frequently
in large drop's. The wind blew from the south-west, and was laden
with the heated dust of the continent. Unfortunately the sky was
so hazy, that it was quite impossible to take observations, neither
sun, moon, nor stars could be seen through the heavy mists, and
this was the more provoking, as it was of the greatest importance to
note the slightest movements of the island.

It was on the night of the 7th April that the actual breaking up
of the ice commenced. In the morning the Lieutenant, Mrs Bar-
nett, Kalumah, and Sergeant Long, had climbed to the summit of
Cape Bathurst, and saw that a great change had taken place in the
chain of icebergs. The huge barrier had parted nearly in the
middle, and now formed two separate masses, the larger of which
seemed to be moving northwards.

Was it the Kamtchatka Current which produced this motion ?
Would the floating island take the same direction ? The intense
anxiety of the Lieutenant and his companions can easily' be
imagined. Their fate might now be decided in a few hours, and if
they should be drifted some hundred miles to the north, it would
be very difficult to reach the continent in a vessel so small as

Unfortunately it was impossible to ascertain the nature or extent
of the displacement which was going on. One thing was, however,
evident, the island was not yet moving, at least not in the same
direction as the ice-wall. It therefore seemed probable that
whilst part of the ice-field was floating to the north, that portion
immediately surrounding the island still remained stationary.

This displacement of the icebergs did not in the least alter the
opinion of the young Esquimaux. Kalumah still maintained that
the thaw would proceed from north to south, and that the ice- wall
would shortly feel the influence of the Behring Current. To make
herself more easily understood, she traced the direction of the
current on the sand with a little piece of wood, and made signs
that in following it the island must approach the American con-
tinent. No argument could shake her conviction on this point, and


it was almost impossible not to feel reassured when listening to the
confident expressions of the intelligent native girl.

The events of the 8th, 9th, and 10th April, seemed, however, to
prove Kalumah to be in the wrong. The northern portion of the chain
of icebergs drifted farther and farther north. The breaking up of
the ice proceeded rapidly and with a great noise, and the ice-field
opened all round the island with a deafening crash. Out of doors
it was impossible to hear one's self speak, a ceaseless roar like that
of artillery drowned every other sound.

About half a mile from the coast on that part of the island over-
looked by Cape Bathurst, the blocks of ice were already beginning
to crowd together, and to pile themselves upon each other. The
ice- wall had broken up into numerous separate icebergs, which were
drifting towards the north. At least it seemed as if they were mov-
ing in that direction. Hobson became more and more uneasy, and
nothing that Kalumah could say reassured him. He replied by
counter-arguments, which could not shake her faith in her own

At last, on the morning of the 1 1th April, Hobson showed Kalumah
the last icebergs disappearing in the north, and again endeavoured
to prove to her that facts were against her.

"No, no !" replied Kalumah, with an air of greater conviction
than ever, " no, the icebergs are not going to the north, but our
island is going to the south ! "

She might perhaps be right after all, and Hobson was much
struck by this last reply. It was really possible that the motion of
the icebergs towards the north was only apparent, and that Victoria
Island, dragged along with the ice-field, was drifting towards the
strait. But it was impossible to ascertain whether this were really
the case, as neither the latitude nor longitude could be taken.

The situation was aggravated by a phenomenon peculiar to the
Polar regions, which rendered it still darker and more impossible to
take observations of any kind.

At the very time of the breaking up of the ice, the tempera-
ture fell several degrees. A dense mist presently enveloped the
Arctic latitudes, but not an ordinary mist. The soil was covered
with a white crust, totally distinct from hoar-frost it was, in fact,
a watery vapour which congeals on its precipitation. The minute
particles of which this mist was composed formed a thick layer on
trees, shrubs, the walls of the fort, and any projecting surfaces


which bristled with pyramidal or prismatic crystals, the apexes of
which pointed to the wind.

Hobson at once understood the nature of this atmospheric
phenomenon, which whalers and explorers have often noticed in
the spring in the Polar regions.

"It is not a mist or fog," he said to his companions, "it is a 'frost-

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 26 of 31)