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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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rime,' a dense vapour which remains in a state of complete con-
gelation."

But whether a fog or a frozen mist this phenomenon was none
the less to be regretted, for it rose a hundred feet at least above the
level of the sea, and it was so opaque that the colonists could not
see each other when only two or three paces apart.

Every one's disappointment was very great. Nature really seemed
determined to try them to the uttermost. When the break up of
the ice had come at last, when the wandering island was to leave
the spot in which it had so long been imprisoned, and its movements
ought to be watched with the greatest care, this fog prevented all
observations.

This state of things continued for four days. The frost-rime did
not disappear until the 15th April, but on the morning of that date
a strong wind from the south rent it open and dispersed it.

The sun shone brightly once more, and Hobson eagerly seized
his instruments. He took the altitude, and found that the exact
position of Victoria Island was then : Latitude, 69 57' ; longitude,
179 33'.

Kalumah was right, Victoria Island, in the grasp of the Behring
Current, was drifting towards the south.




" He took the altitude^ Page 288.




CHAPTER XVIT.

THE A VALANCHE.

1HE colonists were then at last approaching the more
frequented latitudes of Behring Sea. There was no longer
any danger that they would be drifted to the north, and
all they had to do was to watch the displacement of the island, and
to estimate the speed of its motion, which would probably be very
unequal, on account of the obstacles in its path. Hobson most
carefully noted every incident, taking alternately solar and stellar
altitudes, and the next day, April 16th, after ascertaining the
bearings, he calculated that if its present speed were maintained,
Victoria Island would reach the Arctic Circle, from which it was now
separated at the most by four degrees of latitude, towards the
beginning of May.

It was probable that, when the island reached the narrowest
portion of the strait, it would remain stationary until the thaw broke
it up, the boat would then be launched, and the colonists would
set sail for the American continent.

Everything was ready for an immediate embarkation, and the
inhabitants of the island waited with greater patience and confidence
than ever. They felt, poor things, that the end of their trials was
surely near at last, and that nothing could prevent their landing on
one side or the other of the strait in a few days.

This prospect cheered them up wonderfully, and the gaiety-
natural to them all, which they had lost in the terrible anxiety
they had so long endured, was restored. The common meals were
quite festal, as there was no need for economising the stores under
present circumstances. The influence of the spring became more
and more sensibly felt, and every one enjoyed the balmy air, and
breathed more freely than before.

During the next few days, several excursions were made to the
interior of the island and along the coast. Everywhere the furred
nriimals, &c., still abounded, for even now they could not cross to

T



THE FUR COUNTRY.



the continent, the connection between it and the ice-field being
broken, and their continued presence was a fresh proof that the
island was no longer stationary.

No change had taken place on the island at Cape Esquimaux,
Cape Michael, along the coast, or on the wooded heights of the
interior, and the banks of the lagoon. The large gulf which had
opened near Cape Michael during the storm had closed in the
winter, and there was no other fissure on the surface of the
soil.

During these excursions, bands of wolves were seen scudding
across parts of the island. Of all the animals these fierce carni-
vorous beasts were the only ones which the feeling of a common
danger had not tamed.

Kalumah's preserver was seen several times. This worthy bear
paced to and fro on the deserted plains in melancholy mood, pausing
in his walk as the explorers passed, and sometimes following them
to the fort, knowing well thut he had nothing to fear from them.

On the 20th April Lieutenant Hobson ascertained that the
wandering island was still drifting to the south. All that remained
of the ice-wall, that is to say, the southern portion of the icebergs,
followed it, but as there were no bench marks, the changes of position
could only be estimated by astronomical observations.

Hobson took several soundings in different parts of the ground,
especially at the foot of Cape Bathurst, and on the shores of the
lagoon. He was anxious to ascertain the thickness of the layer
of ice supporting the earth and sand, and found that it had
not increased during the winter, and that the general level of the
island did not appear to have risen higher above that of the sea.
The conclusion he drew from these facts was, that no time should
be lost in getting away from the fragile island, which would rapidly
break up and dissolve in the warmer waters of the Pacific.

About the 25th April the bearing of the island was again changed,
the whole ice-field had moved round from east to west twelve
points, so that Cape Bathurst pointed to the north-west. The last
remains of the ice-wall now shut in the northern horizon, so that
there could be no doubt that the ice-field was moving freely in the
strait, and that it nowhere touched any land.

The fatal moment was approaching. Diurnal or nocturnal
observations gave the exact position of the island, and consequently
of the ice-field. On the 30th of April, both were together drifting



THE AVALANCHE. 2QI



across Kotzebue Sound, a large triangular gulf running some
distance inland on the American coast, and bounded on the south
by Cape Prince of Wales, which might, perhaps, arrest the course of
the island if it should deviate in the very least from the middle of
the narrow pass.

The weather was now pretty fine, and the column of mercury
often marked 50 Fahrenheit. The colonists had left off their
winter garments some weeks before, and held themselves in
constant readiness to leave the island. Thomas Black had already
transported his instruments and books into the boat, which was
waiting on the beach. A good many provisions had also been
embarked and some of the most valuable furs.

On the 2d of May a very carefully taken observation showed
that Victoria Island had a tendency to drift towards the east, and
consequently to reach the American continent. This was fortunate,
as they were now out of danger of being taken any farther by the
Kamtchatka Current, which, as is well known, runs along the coast
of Asia. At last the tide was turning in favour of the colonists !

"I think our bad fortune is at last at an end," observed
Sergeant Long to Mrs Barnetti, "and that our misfortunes are
really over ; I don't suppose there are any more dangers to be
feared now."

" I quite agree with you," replied Mrs Barnett, " and it is very
fortunate that we had to give up our journey across the ice-field a
few months ago ; we ought to be very thankful that it was impas-
sible!"

Mrs Barnett was certainly justified in speaking as she did, for
what fearful fatigues and sufferings they would all have had to
undergo in crossing five hundred miles of ice in the darkness of the
Polar night !

On the 5th May, Hobson announced that Victoria Island had
just crossed the Arctic Circle. It had at last re-entered that zone of
the terrestrial sphere in which at one period of the year the sun
does not set. The poor people all felt that they were returning to
the inhabited globe.

The event of crossing the Arctic Circle was celebrated in much
the same way as crossing the Equator for the first time would be
on board ship, and many a glass of spirits was drank in honour
of the eve nt.

There was now nothing left to do but to wait till the broken and



THE FUR COUNTRY.



half-melted ice should allow of the passage of the boat, which was
to bear the whole colony to the land.

During the 7th May the island turned round to the extent of
another quarter of its circumference. Cape Bathurst now pointed
due north, and those masses of the old chain of icebergs which still
remained standing were now above it, so that it occupied much the
same position as that assigned to it in maps when it was united to
the American continent. The island had gradually turned com-
pletely round, and the sun had risen successively on every point of
its shores.

The observations of the 8th May showed that the island had
become stationary near the middle of the passage, at least forty
miles from Cape Prince of Wales, so that land was now at a com-
paratively short distance from it, and the safety of all seemed to be
secured.

In the evening a good supper was served in the large room,
and the healths of Mrs Barnett and of Lieutenant Hobson were
proposed.

The same night the Lieutenant determined to go and see if any
changes had taken place in the ice-field on the south, hoping that a
practicable passage might have been opened.

Mrs Barnett was anxious to accompany him, but he persuaded
her to rest a little instead, and started off, accompanied only by
Sergeant Long.

Mrs Barnett, Madge, and Kalumah returned to the principal house
after seeing them off, and the soldiers and women had already gone
to bed in the different apartments assigned to them.

It was a fine night, there was no moon, but the stars shone very
brightly, and as the ice-field vividly reflected their light, it was
possible to see for a considerable distance.

It was nine o'clock when the, two explorers left the fort and
turned towards that part of the coast between Port Barnett and
Cape Michael. They followed the beach for about two miles, and
found the ice-field in a state of positive chaos. The sea was one
vast aggregation of crystals of every size, it looked as if it had
been petrified suddenly when tossing in a tempest, and, alas, there
was even now no free passage between the ice-masses it would be
impossible for a boat to pass yet.

Hobson and Long remained on the ice-field talking and looking
about them until midnight, and then seeing that there was still




" When an unexpected noise" fyc. Page 293.



THE A VALANCHR. > 293

nothing to do but to wait, they decided to go back to Fort Hope
and rest for a few hours.

They had gone some hundred paces, and had reached the dried-
up bed of Paulina River, when an unexpected noise arrested them.
It was a distant rumbling from the northern part of the ice-field,
and it became louder and louder until it was almost deafening.
Something dreadful was going on in the quarter from which it came,
and Hobson fancied he felt the ice beneath his feet trembling, which
was certainly far from reassuring.

"The noise comes from the chain of icebergs," exclaimed Long,
" what can be going on there ? "

Hobson did not answer, but feeling dreadfully anxious he rushed
towards the fort dragging his companion after him.

" To the fort ! to the fort," he cried at last, " the ice may have
opened, we may be able to launch our boat on the sea ! "

And the two ran as fast as ever they could towards Fort Hope by
the shortest way.

A thousand conjectures crowded upon them. From what new
phenomenon did the unexpected noise proceed ? Did the sleeping
inhabitants of the fort know what was going on ? They must cer-
tainly have heard the noise, for, in vulgar language, it was loud
enough to wake the dead.

Hobson and Long crossed the two miles between them and Fort
Hope in twenty minutes, but before they reached the enceinte they
saw the men and women they had left asleep hurrying away in
terrified disorder, uttering cries of despair.

The carpenter Mac-Nab, seeing the Lieutenant, ran towards him
with his little boy in his arms.

" Look, sir, look ! " he cried, drawing his master towards a little
hill which rose a few yards behind the fort.

Hobson obeyed, and saw that part of the ice-wall, which, when he
left, was two or three miles off in the offing, had fallen upon the coast
of the island. Cape Bathurst no longer existed, the mass of earth and
sand of which it was composed had been swept away by the icebergs
and scattered over the palisades. The principal house and all the
buildings connected with it on the north were buried beneath the
avalanche. Masses of ice were crowding upon each other and
tumbling over with an awful crash, crushing everything beneath
them. It was like an army of icebergs taking possession of the
island.



2Q4 THE FUR COUNTRY.



The boat which had been built at the foot of the cape was
completely destroyed. The last hope of the unfortunate colonists
was gone !

As they stood watching the awful scene, the buildings, formerly
occupied by the soldiers and women, and from which they had
escaped in time, gave way beneath an immense block of ice which
fell upon them. A cry of despair burst from the lips of the house-
less outcasts.

"And the others, where are they?" cried the Lieutenant in
heart-rending tones.

" There ! " replied Mac-Nab, pointing to the heap of sand, earth,
and ice, beneath which the principal house had entirely disappeared.

Yes, the illustrious lady traveller, Madge, Kalumah, and Thomas
Black, were buried beneath the avalanche which had surprised them
in their sleep !




" It was like an army of icebergs." Page 293.




CHAPTER XVIII.

ALL AT WORK.

FEARFUL catastrophe had occurred. The ice-wall had
been flung upon the wandering island, the volume below
the water being five times that of the projecting part, it
had come under the influence of the submarine currents, and, open-
ing a way for itself between the broken ice-masses, it had fallen
bodily upon Victoria Island, which, driven along by this mighty
propelling force, was drifting rapidly to the south.

Mac-Nab and his companions, aroused by the noise of the ava-
lanche dashing down upon the dog-house, stable, and principal house p
had been able to escape in time, but now the work of destruction
was complete. Not a trace remained of the buildings in which they
had slept, and the island was bearing all its inhabitants with it to
the unfathomable depths of the ocean ! Perhaps, however. Mrs
Barnett, Madge, Kalumah, and the astronomer, were still living !
Dead or alive they must be dug out.

At this thought Hobson recovered his composure and shouted

" Get shovels and pickaxes ! The house is strong ! it may have
held together ! Let us set to work ! "

There were plenty of tools and pickaxes, but it was really impos-
sible to approach the enceinte. The masses of ice were rolling down
from the summits of the icebergs, and some parts of the ice-wall
still towered amongst the ruins two hundred feet above the island.
The force with which the tossing masses, which seemed to be surg-
ing all along the northern horizon, were overthrown can be imagined ;
the whole coast between the former Cape Bathurst and Cape Esqui-
maux was not only hemmed in, .but literally invaded by these
moving mountains, which, impelled by a force they could not resist,
had already advanced more than a quarter of a mile inland.

Every moment the trembling of the ground and a loud report



2Q6 THE FUR COUNTRY.

gave notice that another of these masses had rolled over, and there
was a danger that the island would sink beneath the weight thrown
upon it. A very apparent lowering of the level had taken place
all along that part of the coast near Cape Bathurst, it was evidently
gradually sinking down, and the sea had already encroached nearly
as far as the lagoon.

The situation of the colonists was truly terrible, unable as they
were to attempt to save their companions, and driven from the
enceinte by the crashing avalanches, over which they had no power
whatever. They could only wait, a prey to the most awful fore-
bodings.

Day dawned at last, and how fearful a scene was presented by
the districts around Cape Bathurst ! The horizon was shut in on
every side by ice- masses, but their advance appeared to be checked
for the moment at least. The ruins of the ice-wall were at rest,
and it was only now and then that a few blocks rolled down from
the still tottering crests of the remaining icebergs. But the whole
mass a great part of its volume being sunk beneath the surface
of the sea was in the grasp of a powerful current, and was driving
the island along with it to the south, that is to say, to the ocean,
in the depths of which they would alike be engulfed.

Those who were thus borne along upon the island were not fully
conscious of the peril in which they stood. They had their comrades
to save, and amongst them the brave woman who had so won all
their hearts, and for whom they would gladly have laid down their
lives. The time for action had come, they could again approach the
palisades, and there was not a moment to lose, as the poor creatures
had already been buried beneath the avalanche for six hours.

We have already said that Cape Bathurst no longer existed.
Struck by a huge iceberg it had fallen bodily upon the factory,
breaking the boat and crushing the dog-house and stable with the
poor creatures in them. The principal house next disappeared
beneath the masses of earth and sand, upon which rolled blocks of
ice to a height of fifty or sixty feet. The court of the fort was filled
up, of the palisade not a post was to be seen, and it was from
beneath this accumulation of earth, sand, and ice, that the victims
we're to be dug out.

Before beginning to work Hobson called the head carpenter to
him, a. d asked if he thought the house could bear the weight of
the avalanche.



ALL AT WORK.



" I think so, sir," replied Mac-Nab ; " in fact. I may almost say I
am sure of it. You remember how we strengthened it, it has been
' casemated,' and the vertical beams between the ceilings and floors
must have offered great resistance ; moreover, the layer of earth and
sand with which the roof was first covered must have broken the
shock of the fall of the blocks of ice from the icebergs."

" God grant you may be right, Mac-Nab," replied Hobson, " and
that we may be spared the great grief of losing our friends ! "

The Lieutenant then sent for Mrs Joliffe, and asked her if plenty
of provisions had been left in the house.

" Oh, yes," replied Mrs Joliffe, " there was plenty to eat in the
pantry and kitchen."

" And any water ? "

" Yes, water and rum too."

" All right, then," said Hobson, " they will not be starved but
how about air ? "

To this question Mac-Nab could make no reply, and if, as he
hoped, the house had not given way, the want of air would be the
chief danger of the four victims. By prompt measures, however,
they might yet be saved, and the first thing to be done was to open
a communication with the outer air.

All set to work zealously, men and women alike seizing shovels
and pickaxes. The masses of ice, sand, and earth, were vigorously
attacked at the risk of provoking fresh downfalls ; but the proceed-
ings were ably directed by Mac-Nab.

It appeared to him best to begin at the top of the accumulated
masses, so as to roll down loose blocks on the side of the lagoon.
The smaller pieces were easily dealt with, with pick and crowbar, but
the large blocks had to be broken up. Some of great size were melted
with the aid of a large fire of resinous wood, and every means
was tried to destroy or get rid of the ice in the shortest possible
time.

But so great was the accumulation, that although all worked
without pause, except when they snatched a little food, there was no
sensible diminution in its amount when the sun disappeared below
the horizon. It was not, however, really of quite so great a height
as before, and it was determined to go on working from above through
the night, and when there was no longer any danger of fresh falls
Mac-Nab hoped to be able to sink a vertical shaft in the compact
mass, so as to admit the outer air to the house as soon as possible.



.298 THE FUR COUNTRY.



All night long the party worked at the excavation, attacking the
masses with iron and heat, as the one or the other seemed more
likely to be effective. The men wielded the pickaxe whilst the
women kept up the fires ; but all were animated by one purpose
the saving of the lives of Mrs Barnett, Madge, Kalumah, and the
astronomer.

When morning dawned the poor creatures had been buried for
thirty hours in air necessarily very impure under so thick a
cover.

The progress made in the night had been so great that Mac-Nab
prepared to sink his shaft, which he meant to go straight down to the
top of the house ; and which, according to his calculation, would not
have to be more than fifty feet deep. It would be easy enough to
sink this shaft through the twenty feet of ice ; but great difficulty
would be experienced when the earth and sand were reached, as,
being very brittle, they would of course constantly fill in the shaft,
and its sides would therefore have to be lined. Long pieces of
wood were prepared for this purpose, and the boring proceeded.
Only three men could work at it together, and the soldiers relieved
each other constantly, so that the excavation seemed likely to pro-
ceed rapidly.

As might be supposed the poor fellows alternated between hope
and fear when some obstacle delayed them. When a sudden fall
undid their work they felt discouraged, and nothing but Mac-Nab's
s'teady voice could have rallied them. As the men toiled in turn at
their weary task the women stood watching them from the foot of a
hill, saying little, but often praying silently. They had now nothing
to do but to prepare the food, which the men devoured in their
short intervals of repose.

The boring proceeded without any very great difficulty, but the
ice was so hard that the progress was but slow. At the end of the
second day Mac-Nab had nearly reached the layer of earth and
sand, and could not hope t<* qet to the top of the house before the
end of the next day.

Night fell, but the work was continued by the light of torches.
A " snow-house " was hastily dug out in one of the hummocks on
the shore as a temporary shelter for the women and the little boy.
The wind had veered to the south-west, and a cold rain began to fall,
accompanied with occasional squalls ; but neither the Lieutenant
nor his men dreamt of leaving off work.



ALL AT WORK. 299



Now began the worst part of the task. It was really impossible
to bore in the shifting masses of sand and earth, and it became
necessary to prop up the sides of the shaft with wood, the loose
earth being drawn to the surface in a bucket hung on a rope. Of
course under the circumstances the work could not proceed rapidly,
falls might occur at any moment, and the miners were in danger of
being buried in their turn.

Mac-Nab was generally the one to remain at the bottom of the
narrow shaft, directing the excavation, and frequently sounding with
a long pick, but as it met with no resistance, it was evident that it
did not reach the roof of the house.

When the morning once more dawned, only ten feet had been
excavated in the mass of earth and sand, so that twenty remained
to be bored through before the roof of the house could be reached,
that is to say, if it had not given way, and still occupied the position
it did before the fall of the avalanche.

It was now fifty-four hours since Mrs Barnett and her com-
panions were buried ! ,

Mac-Nab and the Lieutenant often wondered if they on their side
had made any effort to open a communication with the outer air.
They felt sure that with her usual courage, Mrs Barnett would have
tried to find some way out if her movements were free. Some
tools had been left in the house, and Kellet, one of the carpenter's
men, remembered leaving his pickaxe in the kitchen. The prisoners
might have broken open one of the doors and begun to pierce a gallery
across the layer of earth. But such a gallery could only be driven
in a horizontal direction, and would be a much longer business than
the sinking of a shaft from above, for the masses flung down by
the avalanche, although only sixty feet deep, covered a space more
than five hundred feet in diameter. Of course the prisoners could
not be aware of this fact, and if they should succeed in boring their
horizontal gallery, it would be eight days at least before they could
cut through the last layer of ice, and by that time they would be
totally deprived of air, if not of food.

Nevertheless the Lieutenant carefully went over every portion of
the accumulation himself, and listened intently for any sounds of
subterranean digging, but he heard nothing.

On the return of day the men toiled with fresh energy, bucket



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