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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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Rain heavy enough to penetrate to the ice-crust fell in large
quantities during this storm, and melted it in many places. On the
slopes of some of the hills the earth was washed away, leaving the
white foundations bare. These ravines were hastily filled up with
soil to protect the ice from the action of the warm air and rain, and
but for this precaution the soil would have been everywhere per-
forated.

Great havoc was caused amongst the woods by this storm ; the
earth and sand were washed away from the roots of the trees, which
fell in large numbers. In a single night the aspect of the country
between the lake and the former Port Barnett was completely
changed. A few groups of birch trees and thickets of firs alone
remained a fact significant of approaching decomposition, which
no human skill could prevent ! Every one knew and felt that
the ephemeral island was gradually succumbing every one, except
perhaps Thomas Black, who was still gloomily indifferent to all that
was going on.

On the 23d of May, during the storm, the hunter Sabine left the
house in the thick fog, and was nearly drowned in a large hole which
had opened during the night on the site formerly occupied by the
principal house of the factory.

Hitherto, as we are aware, the house, three-quarters submerged,
and buried beneath a mass of earth and sand, had remained fixed in
the ice-crust beneath the island ; but now the sea had evidently



3 1 2 THE FUR COUNTR Y.

enlarged the crevasse, and the house with all it contained had sunk
to rise no more. Earth and sand were pouring through this fissure,
at the bottom of which surged the tempest-tossed waves.

Sabine's comrades, hearing his cries, rushed to his assistance, and
were just in time to save him as he was still clinging to the slippery
walls of the abyss. He escaped with a ducking which might have
had tragic consequences.

A little later the beams and planks of the house, which had slid
under the island, were seen floating about in the offing like the
spars of a wrecked vessel. This was the worst evil the storm had
wrought, and would compromise the solidity of the island yet more,
as the waves would now eat away the ice all round the crevasse.

In the course of the 25th May, the wind veered to the north-east,
and although it blew strongly, it was no longer a hurricane ;
the rain ceased, and the sea became calmer. After a quiet night
the sun rose upon the desolate scene, the Lieutenant was able
to take the bearings accurately, and obtained the following
result :

At noon on the 25th May, Victoria Island was in latitude 56 13',
and longitude 170 23' k

It had therefore advanced at great speed, having drifted nearly
eight hundred miles since the breaking up of the ice set it free in
Behring Strait two months before.

This great speed made the Lieutenant once more entertain a
slight hope. He pointed out the Aleutian Islands on the map to his.
comrades, and said

" Look at these islands ; they are not now two hundred miles
from us, and we may reach them in eight days."

" Eight days ! " repeated Long, shaking his head ; " eight days is a
long time."

" I must add," continued Hobson, " that if our island had fol-
lowed the hundred and sixty-eighth meridian, it would already have
reached the parallel of these islands, but in consequence of a
deviation of the Behring current, it is bearing in a south-westerly
direction."

The Lieutenant was right, the current seemed likely to drag the
island away from all land, even out of sight of the Aleutian Islands,
which only extend as far as the hundred and seventieth meridian.

Mrs Barnett examined the map in silence. She saw the pencil-
mark which denoted the exact spot then occupied by the island.




"He escaped with a ducking." Page 312.



IN THE OFFING. 313



The map was made on a large scale, and the point representing the
island looked but a speck upon the vast expanse of the Behring Sea.
She traced back the route by which the island had come to its pre-
sent position, marvelling at the fatality, or rather the immutable
law, by which the currents which had borne it along had avoided
all land, sheering clear of islands, and never touching either con-
tinent j and she saw the boundless Pacific Ocean, towards which she
and all with her were hurrying.

She mused long upon this melancholy subject, and at last
exclaimed suddenly

" Could not the course of the island be controlled 1 Eight days
at this pace would bring us to the last island of the Aleutian
group."

** Those eight days are in the hands of God," replied Lieutenant
Hobson gravely ; " we can exercise no control upon them. Help
can only come to us from above ; there is nothing left for us to

try."

" I know, I know ! " said Mrs Barnett ; " but Heaven helps those
who help themselves. Is there really nothing we can do?"

Hobson shook his head doubtfully. His only hope was in the
raft, and he was undecided whether to embark every one on it at
once, contrive some sort of a sail with clothes, &c., and try to reach
the nearest land, or to wait yet a little longer.

He consulted Sergeant Long, Mac-Nab, Rae, Marbre, and Sabine,
in whom he had great confidence, and all agreed that it would be
unwise to abandon the island before they were obliged. The raft,
constantly swept as it would be by the waves, could only be a last
resource, and would not move at half the pace of the island, still
driven towards the south by the remains of the ice- wall. The wind
generally blew from the east, and would be likely to drift the raft
out into the offing away from all land.

They must still wait then, always wait ; for the island was drift-
ing rapidly towards the Aleutians. When they really approached the
group they would be able to see what it would be best to do.

This was certainly the wisest course to take. In eight days, if
the present speed were maintained, the island would either stop at
the southern boundary of Behring Sea, or be dragged to the south-
west to the waters of the Pacific Ocean, where certain destruction
awaited it.

But the adverse fate which seemed all along to have followed the



314 THE FUR COUNTRY.



hapless colonists had yet another blow in store for them : the
speed on which they counted was now to fail them, as everything
else had done.

During the night of the 26th May, the orientation of the island
changed once more ; and this time the results of the displacement
were extremely serious. The island turned half round, and the
icebergs still remaining of the huge ice-wall, which had shut in the
northern horizon, were now on the south.

In the morning the shipwrecked travellers v?hat name could be
more appropriate ? saw the sun rise above Cape Esquimaux instead
of above Port Barnett.

Hardly a hundred yards off rose the icebergs, rapidly melting, but
still of a considerable size, which till then had driven the island
before them. The southern horizon was now partly shut in by
them.

What would be the consequences of this fresh change of position 1
Would not the icebergs now float away from the island, with which
they were no longer connected ?

All were oppressed with a presentiment of some new misfor-
tune, and understood only too well what Kellet meant when he
exclaimed

" This evening we shall have lost our * screw ! ' ''
By this Kellet meant that the icebergs, being before instead of
behind the island, would soon leave it, and as it was they which
imparted to it its rapid motion, in consequence of their very great
draught of water their volume being six or seven feet below the
sea level for every one above they would now go on without it,
impelled by the submarine current, whilst Victoria Island, not
deep enough in the water to come under the influence of the current,
would be left floating helplessly on the waves.

Yes ! Kellet was right ; the island would then be like a vessel with
disabled masts and a broken screw.

No one answered the soldier's remark, and a quarter of an hour
had not elapsed before a loud cracking sound was heard. The
summits of the icebergs trembled, large masses broke away, and
the icebergs, irresistibly drawn along by the submarine current,
drifted rapidly to the south.




CHAPTER XXI.

THE ISLAND BECOMES AN ISLET*

HREE hours later the last relics of the ice-wall had disap-
P eare( l, proving that the island now remained stationary,
and that all the force of the current was deep down below
the waves, not on the surface of the sea.

The bearings were taken at noon with the greatest care, and
twenty-four hours later it was found that Victoria Island had not
advanced one mile.

The only remaining hope was that some vessel should sight the
poor shipwrecked creatures, either whilst still on the island, or after
they had taken to their raft.

The island was now in 54 33' latitude, and 177 19' longitude,
several hundred miles from the nearest land, namely, the Aleutian
Islands.

Hobson once more called his comrades together, and asked them
what they thought it would be best to do.

All agreed that they should remain on the island until it broke
up, as it was too large to be affected by the state of the sea, and only
take to the raft when the dissolution actually commenced. Once on
the frail vessel, they must wait.

Still wait !

The raft was now finished. Mac-Nab had made one large shed
or cabin big enough to hold every one, and to afford some little
shelter from the weather. A mast had been prepared, which could
be put up if necessary, and the sails intended for the boat had long
been ready. The whole structure was strong, although clumsy ; and
if the wind were favourable, and the sea not too rough, this rude
assortment of planks and timbers might save the lives of the whole
party.

"Nothing." observed Mrs Barnett, " nothing is impossible to
Him who rules the winds and waves."



3 1 6 THE FUR CO UNTR Y.

Hobson carefully looked over the stores of provisions. The
reserves had been much damaged by the avalanche, but there were
plenty of animals still on the island, and the abundant shrubs and
mosses supplied them with food. A few reindeer and hares were
slaughtered by the hunters, and their flesh salted for future
needs.

The health of the colonists was on the whole good. They had
suffered little in the preceding mild winter, and all the mental trials
they had gone through had not affected their physical well-being.
They were, however, looking forward with something of a shrink-
ing horror to the moment when they would have to abandon
their island home, or, to speak more correctly, when it abandoned
them. It was no wonder that they did not like the thought of
floating on the ocean in a rude structure of wood subject to all the
caprices of winds and waves. Even in tolerably fine weather seas
would be shipped and every one constantly drenched with salt-
water. Moreover, it must be remembered that the men were none of
them sailors, accustomed to navigation, and ready to risk their lives
on a few planks, but soldiers, trained for service on land. Their
island was fragile, it is true, and rested on a thin crust of ice ; but
then it was covered with a productive soil, trees and shrubs flourished
upon it, its huge bulk rendered it insensible to the motion of the
waves, and it might have been supposed to be stationary. They
had, in fact, become attached to Victoria Island, on which they had
lived nearly two years ; every inch of the ground had become fami-
liar to them ; they had tilled the soil, and had come safely through
so many perils in their wandering home, that in leaving it they
felt as if they were parting from an old and sorely-tried friend.

Hobson fully sympathised with the feelings of his men, and under-
stood their repugnance to embarking on the raft ; but then he also
knew that the catastrophe could not now be deferred much longer,
and ominous symptoms already gave warning of its rapid approach.

We will now describe this raft. It was thirty feet square, and
its deck rose two feet above the water. Its bulwarks would there-
fore keep out the small but not the large waves. In the centre the
carpenter had built a regular deck-house, which would hold some
twenty people. Round it were large lockers for 'the provisions and
water- casks, all firmly fixed to the deck with iron bolts. The mast,
thirty feet high, was fastened to the deck-house, and strengthened
with stays attached to the corners of the raft. This mast was to



' THE ISLAND BECOMES AN ISLET. 317

have a square sail, which would only be useful when the wind was
aft. A sort of rudder was fixed to this rough structure, the fittings
of which were necessarily incomplete.

Such was the raft constructed by the head carpenter, on which
twenty-one persons were to embark. It was floating peacefully "on
the little lake, strongly moored to the shore.

It was certainly constructed with more care than if it had been
put together in haste on a vessel at sea doomed to immediate
destruction. It was stronger and better fitted up ; but, after all, it
was but a raft.

On the 1st June a new incident occurred. Hope, one of the
soldiers, went to fetch some water from the lake for culinary
purposes, and when Mrs Joliffe tasted it, she found that it \vas
salt. She called Hope, and said she wanted fresh, not salt
water.

The man replied that he had brought it from the lake as usual,
and as he and Mrs Joliffe were disputing about it, the Lieutenant
happened to come in. Hearing Hope's repeated asertions that he
had fetched the water from the lake, he turned pale and hurried
to the lagoon.

The waters were quite salt ; the bottom of the lake had evidently
given way, and the sea had flowed in.

The fact quickly became known, and every one was seized with a
terrible dread.

" No more fresh water ! " exclaimed all the poor creatures
together.

Lake Barnett had in fact disappeared, as Paulina River had done
before.

Lieutenant Hobson hastened to reassure his comrades about
drinkable water.

"There will be plenty of ice, my friends," he said. "We can
always melt a piece of our island, and," he added, with a ghastly
attempt at a smile, " I don't suppose we shall drink it all."

It is, in fact, well known that salt separates from sea- water in
freezing and evaporation. A few blocks of ice were therefore
"disinterred," if we may so express it, and melted for daily use,
and to fill the casks on board the raft.

It would not do, however, to neglect this fresh warning given by
nature. The invasion of the lake by the sea proved that the base
of the island was rapidly melting. At any moment the ground



3 1 8 THE FUR CO UN TR Y.

might give way, and Hobson forbade his men to leave the factory, as
they might be drifted away before they were aware of it.

The animals seemed more keenly alive than ever to approaching
danger \ they gathered yet more closely round the firmer part, and
after the disappearance of the fresh-water lake, they came to lick
the blocks of ice. They were all uneasy, and some seemed to be
seized with madness, especially the wolves, who rushed wildly
towards the factory, and dashed away again howling piteously. The
furred animals remained huddled together round the large well
where the principal house had formerly stood. There were several
hundreds of them, of different species, and the solitary bear roamed
backwards and forwards, showing no more hostility to the quad-
rupeds than to men.

The number of birds, which had hitherto been considerable, now
decreased. During the last few days all those capable of long-
sustained flight such as swans, &c., migrated towards the Aleutian
Islands in the south, where they would find a sure refuge. This
significant and ominous fact was, noticed by Mrs Barnett and Madge,
who were walking together on the beach.

"There is plenty of food for these birds on the island." observed
Mrs Barnett, " and yet they leave it they have a good reason, no
doubt."

" Yes," replied Madge ; " their instinct of self-preservation makes
them take flight, and they give us a warning by which we ought
to profit. The animals also appear more uneasy than usual."

Hobson now decided to take the greater part of the provisions
and all the camping apparatus on board the raft, and when that was
done, to embark with the whole party.

The sea was, however, very rough, and the waters of the former
lake now a kind of Mediterranean in miniature were greatly
agitated. The waves, confined in the narrow space, dashed moun-
tains high, and broke violently upon the steep banks. The raft
tossed up and down, and shipped sea after sea. The embarkation
of provisions, &c., had to be put off.

Every one wished to pass one more quiet night on land, and
Hobson yielded against his better judgment, determined, if it were
calmer the next day, to proceed with the embarkation.

The night was more peaceful than had been expected ; the wind
went down, and the sea became calmer ; it had but been swept by
one of those sudden and brief hurricanes peculiar to these latitudes.




The embarkation of provisions, $"c., had to be put off." Page 318.



THE ISLAND BECOMES AN ISLET. 319

At eight o'clock in the evening the tumult ceased, and a slight
surface agitation of the waters of lake and sea alone remained.

It was some slight comfort that the island would not now be
broken up suddenly, as it must have done had the storm continued.
Its dissolution was, of course, still close at hand, but would not, it
was hoped, be sudden and abrupt.

The storm was succeeded by a slight fog, which seemed likely to
thicken during the night. It came from the north, and owing to
the changed position of the island, would probably cover the greater
part of it.

Before going to bed, Hobson went down and examined the moor-
ings of the raft, which were fastened to some strong birch-trees. To
make security doubly sure, he tightened them, and the worst that
could now happen would be, that the raft would drift out on to the
lagoon, which was not large enough to be lost upon it.




CHAPTER XXII.

THE FOUR FOLLOWING DAYS.

SHE night was calm, and in the morning the Lieutenant re-
solved to order the embarkation of everything and every-
body that very day. He, therefore, went down to the lake
to look at the raft.

The fog was still thick, but the sunbeams were beginning to
struggle through it. The clouds had been swept away by the
hurricane of the preceding day, and it seemed likely to be hot.

When Hobson reached the banks of the lake, the fog was still too
dense for him to make out anything on its surface, and he was
waiting for it to clear away, when he was joined by Mrs Barnett,
Madge, and several others.

The fog gradually cleared off, drawing back to the end of the
lake, but the raft was nowhere to be seen.

Presently a gust of wind completely swept away the fog.

The raft was gone ! There was no longer a lake ! The boundless
ocean stretched away before the astonished colonists !

Hobson could not check a cry of despair ; arid when he and his
companions turned round and saw the sea on every side, they
realised with a shock of horror that their island was now nothing
more than an islet !

During the night six-sevenths of the district once belonging to
Cape Bathurst had silently floated away, without producing a shock
of any kind, so completely had the ice been worn away by the con-
stant action of the waves, the raft had drifted out into the offing,
and those whose last hope it had been could not see a sign of it on
the desolate sea.

The unfortunate colonists were now overwhelmed with despair ;
their last hope gone, they were hanging above an awful abyss ready
to swallow them up; and some of the soldiers in a fit of madness
were about to throw themselves into the sea, when Mrs Barnett




" He tightened them" frc. Page 319.



THE FOUR FOLLOWING DAYS. 321

flung herself before them, entreating them to desist. They yielded,
some of them weeping like children.

The awful situation of the colonists was indeed manifest enough,
and we may well pity the Lieutenant surrounded by the miserable
despairing creatures. Twenty-one persons on an islet of ice which
must quickly melt beneath their feet ! The wooded hills had disap-
peared with the mass of the island now engulfed ; not a tree
was left. There was no wood remaining but the planks of the
rough lodging, which would not be nearly enough to build a raft
to hold so many. A few days of life were all the colonists could
now hope for; June had set in, the mean temperature exceeded
68 Fahrenheit, and the islet must rapidly melt.

As a forlorn hope, Hobson thought he would make a reconais-
sance of his limited domain, and s6e if any part of it was thicker
than where they were all now encamped. In this excursion he was
accompanied by Mrs Barnett and Madge.

" Do you still hope ? " inquired the lady of her faithful com-
panion.

" I hope ever ! " replied Madge.

Mrs Barnett did not answer, but walked rapidly along the
coast at the Lieutenant's side. No alteration had taken place
between Cape Bathurst and Cape Esquimaux, that is to say, for a
distance of eight miles. It was at Cape Esquimaux that the
fracture had taken place, and running inland, it followed a curved
line as far as the beginning of the lagoon, from which point the
shores of the lake, now bathed by the waves of the sea, formed the
new coast-line. Towards the upper part of the lagoon there was
another fracture, running as far as the coast, between Cape Bathurst
and what was once Port Barnett, so that the islet was merely an
oblong strip, not more than a mile wide anywhere.

Of the hundred and forty square miles which once formed the
total superficial area of the island, only twenty remained.

Hobson most carefully examined the new -conformation of the
islet, and found that its thickest part was still at the site of the
former factory. He decided, therefore, to retain the encampment
where it was, and, strange to say, the instinct of the quadrupeds still
led them to congregate about it.

A great many of the animals had, however, disappeared with the
rest of the island, amongst them many of the dogs which had escaped
the former catastrophe. Most of the quadrupeds remaining were

X



322 THE FUR COUNTRY.



rodents ; and the bear, which seemed terribly puzzled, paced round
and round the islet like a caged animal.

About five o'clock in the evening the three explorers returned to
the camp. The men and women were gathered together in gloomy
silence in the rough shelter still remaining to them, and Mrs Joliffe
was preparing some food. Sabine, who was less overcome than his
comrades, was wandering about in the hope of getting some fresh
venison, and the astronomer was sitting apart from every one, gazing
at the sea in an absent indifferent manner, as if nothing could ever
rouse or astonish him again.

The Lieutenant imparted the results of his excursion to the
whole party. He told them that they were safer where they were
than they would be on any other spot, and he urged them not to
wander about, as there were signs of another approaching fracture
half way between the camp and Cape Esquimaux. The superficial
area of the islet would soon be yet further reduced, and they could
do nothing, absolutely nothing.

The day was really quite hot. The ice which had been " dis-
interred " for drinkable water melted before it was brought near the
fire. Thin pieces of the ice-crust of the steep beach fell off into the
sea, and it was evident that the general level of the islet was-
being lowered by the constant wearing away of its base in the tepid
waters.

No one slept the next night. Who could have closed his eyes
with the knowledge that the abyss beneath might open at any
moment ? who but the little unconscious "child who still smiled in
his mother's arms, and was never for one instant out of them ?

The next morning, June 4th, the sun rose in a cloudless sky. No
change had taken place in the conformation of the islet during the
night.

In the course of this day a "terrified blue fox rushed into the shed,
and could not be induced to leave it. The martens, ermines, polar
hares, musk-rats, and beavers literally swarmed upon the site of
the former factory. The wolves alone were unrepresented, and had
probably all been swallowed up with the rest of the island. The
bear no longer wandered from Cape Bathurst, and the furred ani-
mals seemed quite unconscious of its presence ; nor did the colonists
notice it much, absorbed as they were in the contemplation of the
approaching doom, which had broken down all the ordinary dis-
tinctions of race.



THE FOUR FOLLOWING DAYS. 323



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