Copyright
Jules Verne.

The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

. (page 30 of 31)
Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 30 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


A little before noon a sudden hope too soon to end in dis-
appointment revived the drooping spirits of the colonists.

Sabirie, who had been standing for some time on the highest part
of the islet looking at the sea, suddenly cried

" A boat ! a boat ! "

It was as if an electric shock had suddenly ran through the
group, for all started up and rushed towards the hunter.

The Lieutenant looked at him inquiringly, and the man pointed
to a white vapour on the horizon. Not a word was spoken, but
all watched in breathless silence as the form of a vessel gradually
rose against the sky.

It was indeed a ship, and most likely a whaler. There was no
doubt about it, and at the end of an hour even the keel was
visible.

Unfortunately this vessel appeared on the east of the islet, that
is to say, on the opposite side to that from which the raft had
drifted, so that there could be no hope that it was coming to their
rescue after meeting with the raft, which would have suggested the
fact of fellow-creatures being in danger.

The question now was, would those in this vessel perceive the
islet 1 Would they be able to make out signals on it ? Alas ! in
broad daylight, with a bright sun shining, it was not likely they
would. Had it been night, some of the planks of the remaining
shed might have made a fire large enough to be seen at a considerable
distance, but the boat would probably have disappeared before the
darkness set in ; and, although it seemed of little use, signals were
made, and guns fired on the islet.

The vessel was certainly approaching, and seemed to be a large
three-master, evidently a whaler from New Archangel, which was
on its way to Behring Strait after having doubled the peninsula uf
Alaska. It was to the windward of the islet, and tacking to
starboard with its lower sails, top sails, and top-gallant sails all set.
It was steadily advancing to the north. A sailor would have seen at
a glance that it was not bearing towards the islet, but it might even
yet perceive it, and alter its course.

" If it does see us," whispered Hobson in Long's ear, " it is more
likely to avoid us than to come nearer."

The Lieutenant was right, for there is nothing vessels dread more
in these latitudes than the approach of icebergs and ice-floes ; they
look upon them as floating rocks, against which there is a danger



324 THE FUR COUNTRY.



of striking, especially in the night, and they therefore hasten to
change their course when ice is sighted ; and this vessel would most
likely do the same, if it noticed the islet at all.

The alternations of hope and despair through which the anxious
watchers passed may be imagined, but cannot be described. Until
two o'clock in the afternoon they were able to believe that Heaven
had at last taken pity on them that help was coming that their
safety was assured. The vessel continued to approach in an oblique
Direction, and was presently not more than six miles from the islet.
Signal after signal was tried, gun after gun fired, and some of the
planks of the shed were burnt.

All in vain either they were not seen, or the vessel was anxious
to avoid the islet.

At half-past two it luffed slightly, and bore away to the north-
east.

In another hour a white vapour was all that was visible, and that
soon disappeared.

On this the soldier Kellet burst into a roar of hysterical laughter,
and flinging himself on the ground, rolled over and over like a
madman.

Mrs Barnett turned and looked Madge full in the face, as if to
ask her if she still hoped, and Madge turned away her head.

On this same ill-fated day a crackling noise was heard, and the
greater part of the islet broke off, and plunged into the sea. The
cries of the drowning animals rent the air, and the islet was reduced
to the narrow strip between the site of the engulfed house and Cape
Bathurst. It was now merely a piece of ice.




" Mrs Earnett turned and looked Madge full in the face" Page 324.




CHAPTER XXIII.

ON A PIECE OF ICE.

PIECE of ice, a jagged triangular strip of ice, measuring
one hundred feet at its base, and scarcely five hundred in
its greatest extent ; and on it twenty-one human beings,
some hundred furred animals, a few dogs, and a large bear, which
was at this moment crouching at the very edge !

Yes ! all the luckless colonists were there. Not one had yet
been swallowed up. The last rupture had occurred when they
were all in the shed. Thus far fate had spared them, probably
that they might all perish together.

A silent sleepless night ensued. No one spoke or moved, for the
slightest shake or blow might suffice to break the ice.

No one would touch the salt-meat served round by Mrs Joliffe.
What would be the good of eating ?

Nearly every one remained in the open air, feeling that it would
be better to be drowned in the open sea than in a narrow wooden
shed.

The next day, June 5th, the sun shone brightly down upon the
heads of the doomed band of wanderers. All were still silent, and
seemed anxious to avoid each other. Many gazed with troubled
anxious eyes at the perfect circle of the horizon, of which the
miserable little strip of ice formed the centre. But the sea was
absolutely deserted not a sail, not an ice-floe, not an islet ! Their
own piece of ice was probably the very last floating on the Behring
Sea.

The temperature continued to rise. . The wind had gone down,
and a terrible calm had set in, a gentle swell heaved the surface of
the sea, and the morsel of earth and ice, which was all that was left
of Victoria Island, rose and sank without change of position, like a
wreck and what was it but a wreck ?

But a wreck, a piece of woodwork, a broken mast, or a few
planks, remain floating ; they offer some resistance to the waves, they



326 THE FUR COUNTRY.



will not melt ; but this bit of ice, this solidified water, must dissolve
with the heat of the sun !

This piece of ice had formed the thickest part of the island, and
this will explain its having lasted so long. A layer of earth and
plenty of vegetation covered it, and the base of ice must have been
of considerable thickness. The long bitter Polar winters must
have "fed it with fresh ice," in the countless centuries during
which it was connected with the mainland. Even now its mean
height was five or six feet above the sea level, and its base was
probably of about the same thickness. Although in these quiet
waters it was not likely to be broken, it could not fail gradually
to melt, and the rapid dissolution could actually be watched at the
edges, for as the long waves licked the sides, piece after piece of
ground with its verdant covering sank to rise no more.

On this 5th June a fall of this nature occurred at about one
o'clock P.M., on the site of the shed itself, which was very near the
edge of the ice. There was fortunately no one in it at the time,
and all that was saved was a few planks, and two or three of the
timbers of the roofs. Most of the cooking utensils and all the
astronomical instruments were lost. The colonists were now
obliged to take refuge on the highest part of the islet, where nothing
protected them from the weather, but fortunately a few tools had
been left there, with the air pumps and the air-vessel, which Hobson
had employed for catching a little of the rain-water for drinking
purposes, as he no longer dared to draw for a supply upon the ice,
every atom of which was of value.

At about four o'clock P.M., the soldier Kellet, the same who had
already given signs of insanity, came to Mrs Barnett and said
quietly

" I am going to drown myself, ma'am."

"What, Kellet?" exclaimed the lady.

" I tell you I am going to drown myself," replied the soldier.
" I have thought the matter well over : there is no escape for us, and
I prefer dying at once to waiting to be killed."

" Kellet ! " said Mrs Barnett, taking the man's hand and looking
into his face, which was strangely composed, " you will not do
that?"

" Yes, I will, ma'am ; and as you have always been very good to
us all, I wanted to wish you good-bye. Good-bye, ma'am ! "

And Kellet turned towards the sea. Mrs Barnett, terrified at his



ON A PIECE OF ICE.



manner, threw herself upon him and held him back. Her cries
brought Hobson and Long to her assistance, and they did all in their
power to dissuade the unhappy man from carrying out his purpose,
but he was not to be moved, and merely shook his head.

His mind was evidently disordered, and it was useless to reason
with him. It was a terrible moment, as his example might lead
some of his comrades to commit suicide also. At all hazards he
must be prevented from doing as he threatened.

" Kellet," said Mrs Barnett gently, with a half smile, " we have
always been very good friends, have we not ? "

" Yes, ma'am," replied Kellet calmly.

" Well, Kellet, if you like we will die together, but not to-day."

" What, ma'am ? "

" No, my brave fellow, I am not ready ; but to-morrow, to-morrow
if you like."

The soldier looked more fixedly than ever at the courageous
woman, and seemed to hesitate an instant ; then he cast a glance of
fierce longing at the sea, and passing his hand over his eyes, said

" To-morrow ! "

And without another word he quietly turned away and went
back to his comrades.

" Poor fellow ! " murmured Mrs Barnett ; " I have asked him to
wait till to-morrow, and who can say whether we shall not all be
drowned by that time ! "

Throughout that night Hobson remained motionless upon the
beach, pondering whether there might not yet be some means to
check the dissolution of the islet if it might not yet be possible
to preserve it until they came in sight of land of some sort.

Mrs Barnett and Madge did not leave each other for an instant.
Kalumah crouched like a dog at the feet of her mistress, and tried
to keep her warm. Mrs Mac-Nab wrapped in a few furs, the
remains of the rich stores of Fort Hope, had fallen into a kind of
torpor, with her baby clasped in her arms.

The stars shone with extraordinary brilliancy, and no sounds
broke the stillness of the night but the rippling of the waves and
the splash of pieces of ice as they fell into the sea. The colonists,
stretched upon the ground in scattered groups, were as motionless
as corpses on an abandoned wreck.

Sometimes Sergeant Long rose and peered into the night-mists,
but seeing nothing, he resumed his horiz9ntal position. The bear,



328 THE FUR COUNTRY.

looking like a great white snowball, cowered motionless at the very
edge of the strip of ice.

This night also passed away without any incident to modify the
situation. The grey morning dawned in the east, and the sun rose
and dispersed the shadows of the night.

The Lieutenant's first care, as soon as it was light, was to examine
uhe piece of ice. Its perimeter was still more reduced, and, alas !
its mean height above the sea level had sensibly diminished. The
waves, quiet as they were, washed over the greater part of it ; the
summit of the little hill alone was still beyond their reach. .

Long, too, saw the changes which had taken place during the
night, and felt that all hope was gone.

Mrs Barnett joined Lieutenant Hobson, and said to him

" It will be to-day then 1 "

" Yes, madam, and you will keep your promise to Kellet I "

" Lieutenant Hobson," said the lady solemnly, " have we done
all in our power 1 "

" We have, madam."

" Then God's will be done ! "

One last attempt was, however, made during the day. A strong
breeze set in from the offing, that is to say, a wind bearing to
the south-east, the direction in which were situated the nearest of
the Aleutian Islands. How far off no one could say, as without
instruments the bearings of the island could not be taken. It was
not likely to have drifted far, however, unless under the influence of
the current, as it gave no hold to the wind.

Still it was just possible that they might be nearer land than they
thought. If only a current, .the direction of which it was im-
possible to ascertain, had taken them nearer to the much-longed-
for Aleutian Islands, then, as the wind was bearing down upon
those very islands, it might drive the strip of ice .before it if a sail
of some kind could be concocted. The ice had still several hours
to float, and in several hours the land might come in sight, or, if
not the land, some coasting or fishing vessel.

A forlorn hope truly, but it suggested an idea to the Lieutenant
which he resolved to carry out. Gould not a sail be contrived on
the islet as on an ordinary raft 1 There could be no difficulty in
that ; and when Hobson suggested it to Mac-Nab, he exclaimed

" You are quite right, sir ; " adding to his men, " bring out all
the canvas there is ! "




"A beam .... was sunk deep in.tn the earth," fyr,. Piio^e 329.



ON A PIECE OF ICE. 329

Every one was quite revived by this plan, slight as was the chance
it afforded, and all lent a helping hand, even Kellet, who had not
yet reminded Mrs Barnett of her promise.

A beam, which had once formed part of the roof of the barracks,
was sunk deep into 'the earth and sand of which the little hill was
composed, and firmly fixed with ropes arranged like shrouds and a
stay. A sail made of all the clothes and coverlets still remaining,
fastened on to a strong pole for a yard, was hoisted on the mast.
This sail, or rather collection of sails, suitably set, swelled in the
breeze, and by the wake it left, it was evident that the strip of
ice was rapidly moving towards the south-east.

It was a success, and every one was cheered with newly- awakened
hope. They were no longer stationary ; they were advancing slowly,
it was true, but still they were advancing. The carpenter was
particularly elated ; all eagerly scanned the horizon, and had they
been told that no land could be sighted, they would have refused
to believe it.

So it appeared, however ; for the strip of ice floated along on the
waves for three hours in the centre of an absolutely circular and
unbroken horizon. The poor colonists still hoped on.

Towards three o'clock, the Lieutenant took the Sergeant aside,
and said to him

" We are advancing at the cost of the solidity and duration of
our islet."

" What do you mean, sir ? "

" I mean that the ice is being rapidly fretted away as it moves
along. Its speed is hastening its dissolution, and since we set sail
it has diminished one-third."

"Are you quite sure ? "

" Absolutely certain. The ice is longer and flatter. Look, the sea
is not more than ten feet from the hill ! "

It was true, and the result was what might naturally have been
expected from the motion of the ice.

" Sergeant," resumed Hobson, " do you think we ought to take
down our sail ? "

" I think," replied Long, after a moment's reflection, " that we
should consult our comrades. We ought all to share the respon-
sibility of a decision now."

The Lieutenant bent his head in assent, and the two returned to
their old position on the little hilL



33 THE FUR COUNTRY.



Hobson put the case before the whole party.

" The speed we have given to the ice," he said, " is causing it to
wear away rapidly, and will perhaps hasten the inevitable catastrophe
by a few hours. My friends, you must decide whether we shall
still go on."

" Forwards ! " cried all with one voice.

So it was decided, and, as it turned out, the decision was fraught
with consequences of incalculable importance.

At six o'clock P.M. Madge rose, arid pointing to a point on the
south-east, cried

" Land ! "

Every one started up as if struck by lightning. Land there was
indeed, on the south-east, twelve miles from the island.

" More sail ! more sail ! " shouted Hobson.

He was understood, and fresh materials were hastily brought.
On the shrouds a sort of studding sail was rigged up of clothes, furs,
everything, in short, that could give hold to the wind.

The speed increased as the wind freshened, but the ice was melt-
ing everywhere ; it trembled beneath the feet of the anxious watchers,
and might open at any moment. But they would not think of that ;
they were buoyed up with hope ; safety was at hand, on the land
they were rapidly Hearing. They shouted they made signals they
were in a delirium of excitement.

At half-past seven the ice was much nearer the land, but it was
visibly melting, and sinking rapidly ; water was gushing from it, and
the waves were washing over it, sweeping off the terrified quad-
rupeds before the eyes of the colonists. Every instant they expected
the whole mass to be engulfed, and it was necessary to lighten it
like a sinking vessel. Every means was tried to check the dissolu-
tion ; the earth and sand were carefully spread about, especially at
the edges .of the ice, to protect it from the direct influence of the
sunbeams ; and furs were laid here and there, as being bad conductors
of heat. But it was all of no avail ; the lower portion of the ice
began to crack, and several fissures opened in the surface. It was
now but a question of moments !

Night set in, and there was nothing left for the poor colonists to
do to quicken the speed of the islet. Some of them tried to paddle
about on planks. The coast was still four miles to windward.

It was a dark gloomy night, without any moon, and Hobson,
whose heroic courage did not even now fail him, shouted



ON A PIECE OF ICE. 33!



" A signal, my friends ! a signal ! <?

A pile was made of all the remaining combustibles two or three
planks and a beam. It was set fire to, and bright flames soon shot
up ; but the strip of ice continued to melt and sink. Presently the
little hill alone remained above water, and on it the despairing
wretches, with the few animals left alive, huddled together, the bear
growling fiercely.

The water was still rising, and there was no sign that any one on
land had seen the signal. In less than a quarter of an hour they
must all be swallowed up.

Could nothing be done to make the ice last longer 1 In three
hours, three short hours, they might reach the land, which was now
but three miles to windward.

" Oh ! " cried Hobson, " if only I could stop the ice from melting !
I would give my life to know how ! Yes, I would give my life ! "

" There is one way," suddenly replied a voice.

'It was Thomas Black who spoke, the astronomer, who had not
opened his lips for so long, and who had long since appeared dead
to all that was going on.

" Yes," he continued, " there is one way of checking the dissolu-
tion of the ice there is one way of saving us all."

All gathered eagerly round the speaker, and looked at him inquir-
ingly. They thought they must have misheard what he said.

" Well ? " asked Hobson, " what way do you mean?"

" To the pumps ! " replied Black simply.

Was he mad ? Did he take the ice for a sinking vessel, with
ten feet of water in the hold 1

The air pumps were at hand, together with the air vessel, which
Hobson had been using as a reservoir for drinking water, but of
what use could they be ? Could they harden the ice, which was
melting all over ?

" He is mad ! " exclaimed Long.

"To the pumps!" repeated the astronomer; "fill the reservoir
with air ! "

" Do as he tells you ! n cried Mrs Barnett.

The pumps were attached to the reservoir, the cover of which
was closed and bolted. The pumps were then at once set to work,
and the air was condensed under the pressure of several atmos-
pheres. Then Black, taking one of the leather pipes connected with



33 2 THE FUR COUNTRY.

the reservoir, and opening the cock, let the condensed air escape,
walking round the ice wherever it was melting.

Every one was astonished at the effect produced. Wherever the
air was projected by the astronomer, the fissures filled up, and the
surface re-froze.

" Hurrah ! hurrah ! " shouted all with one voice.

It was tiring enough to work the pumps, but there were plenty
of volunteers. The edges of the ice were again solidified, as if
under the influence of intense cold.

" You have saved us, Mr Black," said Lieutenant Hobson.

" Nothing could be more natural/' replied the astronomer
quietly.

Nothing, in fact, could have been more natural ; and the physical
effect produced may be described as follows :

There were two reasons for the relegation: First, under the
pressure of the air, the water vaporised on the surface of the ice
produced intense cold, and the compressed air in expanding
abstracted the heat from the thawed surface, which immediately
re-froze. Wherever the ice was opening the cold cemented the edges,
so that it gradually regained its original solidity.

This went on for several hours, and the colonists, buoyed up by
hope, toiled on with unwearying zeal.

They were nearing the coast, and when they were about a
quarter of a mile from it, the bear plunged into the sea, and
swimming to the shore, soon disappeared.

A few minutes afterwards the ice ran aground upon a beach, and
the few animals still upon it hurried away in the darkness. The
colonists " disembarked," and falling on their knees, returned thanks
to God for their miraculous deliverance. *




The colonists, falling on their knees, returned thanks to God." Page 332.




CHAPTER XXIV.

CONCLUSION.

was on the island of Blejinic, the last of the Aleutian group,
at the extreme south of Behring Sea, that all the colonists of
Fort Hope at last landed, after having traversed eighteen
hundred miles since the breaking-up of the ice. They were hospit-
ably received by some Aleutian fishermen who had hurried to their
assistance, and were soon able to communicate with some English
agents of the Hudson's Bay Company.

After all the details we have given, it is needless to dwell on the
courage and energy of the brave little band, which had proved itself
worthy of its noble leader. We know how all struggled with their
misfortunes, and how patiently they had submitted to the will of
God. We have seen Mrs Barnett cheering every one by her example
and sympathy ; and we know that neither she nor those with her
yielded to despair when the peninsula on which Fort Hope had
been built was converted into a wandering island, when that island
became an islet, and the islet a strip of ice, nor even when that
strip of ice was melting ber^at.h the combined influence of sun and
waves. If the scheme of the Company was a failure, if the new
fort had perished, no one could possibly blame Hobson or his com-
panions, who had gone through such extraordinary and unexpected
trials. Of the nineteen persons under the Lieutenant's charge, not
one was missing, and he had even two new members in his little
colony, Kalumah arid Mrs Barnett's godson, Michael Mac-Nab.

Six days after their rescue the shipwrecked mariners arrived at
New Archangel, the capital of Russian America,

Here the friends, bound together by so many dangers shared, must
part, probably for ever ! Hobson and his men were to return to
Fort Reliance across English America, whilst Mrs Barnett, accom-
panied by Kalumah, who would not leave her, Madge, and Thomas
Black, intended to go back to Europe vid San Francisco and the
United States.



334



THE FVR COUNTRY.



But whilst they were still altogether, the Lieutenant, addressing
Mrs Barnett, said with considerable emotion

" God bless you, madam, for all you have been to us. You have
been our comforter, our consoler, the very soul of our little would;
and I thank you in the name of all."

Three cheers for Mrs Barnett greeted this speech, and each
soldier begged to shake her by the hand, whilst the women embraced
her affectionately.

The Lieutenant himself had conceived so warm an affection for
the lady who had so long been his friend and counsellor, that he
could not bid her good-bye without great emotion.

*' Can it be that we shall never meet again ? " he exclaimed.

" No, Lieutenant/' replied Mrs Barnett ; " we must, we shall
meet again. If you do not come and see me in Europe, I will
come back to you at Fort Reliance, or to the new factory you will
found some day yet."

On hearing this, Thomas Black, who had regained the use of his
tongue since he had landed on terra firma, came forward and said,
with an air of the greatest conviction

" Yes, we shall meet again in thirty-six years. My friends, I
missed the eclipse of 1860, but I will not miss that which will
take place under exactly similar conditions in the same latitudes in
1896. And therefore I appoint a meeting with you, Lieutenant,
and with you, my dear madam, on the confines of the Arctic Ocean
thirty-six years hence."




14 DAY TISF



14 DAY USE

RETURN TO DESK FROM WHICH BORROWED

LOAN DEPT.

This book is due on the last date stamped below,



Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 30 of 31)