The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XV.

Fifteen Miles from Cape Bathurst.

September had now commenced, and as upon the most favourable calculation only three more weeks would intervene before the bad season set in and interrupted the labours of the explorers, the greatest haste was necessary in completing the new buildings, and Mae-Nab and his workmen surpassed themselves in industry. The dog-house was on the eve of being finished, and very little remained to be done to the palisading which was, to encircle the fort. An inner court had been constructed, in the shape of a half-moon, fenced with tall pointed stakes, fifteen feet high, to which a postern gave entrance. Jaspar Hobson favoured the system of an unbroken enclosure with detached forts (a great improvement upon the tactics of Vauban and Cormontaigne), and knew that to make his defence complete the summit of Cape Bathurst, which was the key of the position, must be fortified; until that could be done, however, he thought the palisading would be a sufficient protection, at least against quadrupeds.

The next thing was to lay in a supply of oil and lights, and accordingly an expedition was organised to a spot about fifteen miles distant where seals were plentiful, Mrs Paulina Barnett being invited to accompany the sportsmen, not indeed for the sake of watching the poor creatures slaughtered, but to satisfy her curiosity with regard to the country around Cape Bathurst, and to see some cliff’s on that part of the coast which were worthy of notice. The Lieutenant chose as his other companions, Sergeant Long, and the soldiers Petersen, Hope, and Kellet, and the party set off at eight o’clock in the morning in two sledges, each drawn by six dogs, on which the bodies of the seals were to be brought back. The weather was fine, but the fog which lay low along the horizon veiled the rays of the sun, whose yellow disk was now beginning to disappear for some hours during the night, a circumstance which attracted the Lieutenant’s attention, for reasons which we will explain.

That part of the shore to the west of Cape Bathurst rises but a few inches above the level of the sea, and the tides are-or are said to be-very high in the Arctic Ocean-many navigators, such as Parry, Franklin, the two Rosses, M’Clure, and M’Clintock, having observed that when the sun and moon were in conjunction the waters were sometimes twenty-five feet above the ordinary level. How then was it to be explained that the sea did not at high tide inundate Cape Bathurst, which possessed no natural defences such as cliffs or downs? What was it, in fact, which prevented the entire submersion of the whole district, and the meeting of the waters of the lake with those of the Arctic Ocean?

Jaspar Hobson could not refrain from remarking on this peculiarity to Mrs Barnett, who replied somewhat hastily that she supposed that there were-in spite of all that had been said to the contrary-no tides in the Arctic Ocean.

“On the contrary, madam,” said Hobson, “all navigators agree that the ebb and flow of Polar seas are very distinctly marked, and it is impossible to believe that they can have been mistaken on such a subject.”

“How is it, then,” inquired Mrs Barnett, “that this land is not flooded when it is scarcely ten feet above the sea level at low tide?”

“That is just what puzzles me,” said Hobson; “for I have been attentively watching the tides all through this month, and during that time they have not varied more than a foot, and I feel certain, that even during the September equinox, they will not rise more than a foot and a half all along the shores of Cape Bathurst.”

“Can you not explain this phenomenon?” inquired Mrs Barnett.

“Well, madam,” replied the Lieutenant, “two conclusions are open to us, either of which I find it difficult to believe; such men as Franklin, Parry, Ross, and others, are mistaken, and there are no tides on this part of the American coast; or, as in the Mediterranean, to which the waters of the Atlantic have not free ingress, the straits are too narrow to be affected by the ocean currents.”

“The latter would appear to be the more reasonable hypothesis, Mr Hobson.”

“It is riot, however, thoroughly satisfactory,” said the Lieutenant, “and I feel sure that if we could but find it, there is some simple and natural explanation of the phenomenon.”

After a monotonous journey along a flat and sandy shore, the party reached their destination, and, having unharnessed the teams, they were left behind lest they should startle the seals.

At the first glance around them, all were equally struck with the contrast between the appearance of this district and that of Cape Bathurst.

Here the coast line was broken and fretted, showing manifest traces of its igneous origin; whereas the site of the fort was of sedimentary formation and aqueous origin. Stone, so conspicuously absent at the cape, was here plentiful; the black sand and porous lava were strewn with huge boulders deeply imbedded in the soil, and there were large quantities of the aluminium, silica, and felspar pebbles peculiar to the crystalline strata of one class of igneous rocks. Glittering Labrador stones, and many other kinds of felspar, red, green, and blue, were sprinkled on the unfrequented beach, with grey and yellow pummice-stone, and lustrous variegated obsidian. Tall cliffs, rising some two hundred feet above the sea, frowned down upon the bay; and the Lieutenant resolved to climb them, and obtain a good view of the eastern side of the country. For this there was plenty of time, as but few of the creatures they had come to seek were as yet to be seen, and the proper time for the attack would be when they assembled for the afternoon siesta in which the. amphibious mammalia always indulge. The Lieutenant, however, quickly discovered that the animals frequenting this coast were not, as he had been led to suppose, true seals, although they belonged to the Phocidæ family, but morses or walruses, sometimes called sea-cows. They resemble the seals in general form, but the canine teeth of the upper jaw curved down-wards are much more largely developed.

Following the coast line, which curved considerably, and to which they gave the name of “ Walruses’ Bay,” the party soon reached the foot of the cliff, and Petersen, Hope, and Kellet, took up their position as sentinels on the little promontory, whilst Mrs Barnett, Hobson, and Long, after promising not to lose sight of their comrades, and to be on the look-out for their signal, proceeded to climb the cliff, the summit of which they reached in about a quarter of an hour. From this position they were able to survey the whole surrounding country; at their feet lay the vast sea, stretching northwards as far as the eye .could reach, its expanse so entirely unbroken by islands or icebergs that the travellers came to the conclusion, that this portion of the Arctic waters was navigable as far as Behring Straits, and that during the summer season the North-West Passage to Cape Bathurst would, be open to the Company’s ships. On the west, the aspect of the country explained the presence of the volcanic débris on the shore; for at a distance of about ten miles was a chain of granitic hills, of conical form, with blunted crests, looking as if their summits had been cut off, and with jagged tremulous outlines standing out against the sky. They bad hitherto escaped the notice of our party, as they were concealed by the cliffs on the Cape Bathurst side, and Jaspar Hobson examined them in silence, but with great attention, before he proceeded to stud the eastern side, which consisted of a long strip of perfectly level coast-line stretching away to Cape Bathurst. Any one provided with a good field-glass would have been able to distinguish the fort of Good Hope, and perhaps even the cloud of blue smoke, which was no doubt at that very moment issuing from Mrs Joliffe’s kitchen chimney.

The country behind them seemed to possess two entirely distinct characters; to the east and south the cape was bounded by a vast plain, many hundreds of square miles in extent, while behind the cliff, from “Walruses’ Bay” to the mountains mentioned above, the country had undergone terrible convulsions, showing clearly that it owed its origin to volcanic eruptions. The Lieutenant was much struck with this marked contrast, and Sergeant Long asked him whether he thought the mountains on the western horizon were volcanoes.

“Undoubtedly,” said Hobson; “all these pumice-stones and pebbles have been discharged by them to this distance, and if we were to go two or three miles farther, we should find ourselves treading upon nothing but lava and ashes.”

“Do you suppose,” inquired the Sergeant, “that all these volcanoes are still active?”

“That I cannot tell you yet.”

“But there is no smoke issuing from any of them,” added the Sergeant.

“That proves nothing; your pipe is not always in your mouth, and it is just the same with volcanoes, they are not always smoking.”

“I see,” said the Sergeant; “but it is a great puzzle to me how volcanoes can exist at all. on Polar continents.”

“Well, there are riot many of them!” said Mrs Barnett.

“No, madam,” replied Jaspar, “but they are not so very rare either; they are to be found in Jan Mayen’s Land, the Aleutian Isles, Kamtchatka, Russian America, and Iceland, as well as in the Antarctic circle, in Tierra del Fuego, and Australasia. They are the chimneys of the great furnace in the centre of the earth, where Nature makes her chemical experiments, and it appears to me that the Creator of all things has taken care to place these safety-valves wherever they were most needed.”

“I suppose so,” replied the Sergeant; “and yet it does seem very strange to find them in this icy climate.”

“Why should they not be here as well as anywhere else, Sergeant? I should say that ventilation holes are likely to be more numerous at the Poles than at the Equator!”

“Why so?” asked the Sergeant in much surprise.

“Because, if these safety-valves are forced open by the pressure of subterranean gases, it will most likely be at the spots where the surface of the earth is thinest, and as the globe is flattened at the poles, it would appear natural that-but Kellet is making signs to us,” added the Lieutenant, breaking off abruptly; “will you join us, Mrs Barnett?”

“No, thank you. I will stay here until we return to the fort. I don’t care to watch the walrus slaughtered!”

“Very well,” replied Hobson, “only don’t forget to join us in an hour’s time, meanwhile you can enjoy the view.”

The beach was soon reached, and some hundred walrus had collected, either waddling about on their clumsy webbed feet, or sleeping in family groups. Some few of the larger males-creatures nearly four feet long, clothed with very short reddish fur-kept guard over the herd.

Great caution was required in approaching these formidable looking animals, and the hunters took advantage of every bit of cover afforded by rocks and inequalities of the ground, so as to get within easy range of them and cut off their retreat to the sea.

On land these creatures are clumsy and awkward, moving in jerks or with creeping motions like huge caterpillars, but in water -their native element — they are nimble and even graceful; indeed their strength is so great, that they have been known to overturn the whalers in pursuit of them.

As the hunters drew near the sentinels took alarm, and raising their heads looked searchingly around them; but before they could warn their companions of danger, Hobson and Kellet rushed upon them from one side, the Sergeant, Petersen, and Hope from the other, and after lodging a ball in each of their bodies, despatched them with their spears, whilst the rest of the herd plunged into the sea.

The victory was an easy one; the five victims were very large and their tusks, though slightly rough, of the best quality. They were chiefly valuable, however, on account of the oil; of which-being in excellent condition-they would yield a large quantity. The bodies were packed in the sledges, and proved no light weight for the dogs.

It was now one o’clock, and Mrs Barnett having joined them, the party set out on foot-the sledges being full-to return to the fort. There were but ten miles to be traversed, but ten miles in a straight line is a weary journey, proving the truth of the adage “It’s a long lane that has no turning.” They beguiled the tediousness of the way by chatting pleasantly, and Mrs Barnett was ready to join in the conversation, or to listen with interest to the accounts the worthy soldiers gave of former adventures; but in spite of the brave struggle against ennui they advanced but slowly, and the poor dogs found it hard work to drag the heavily-laden sledges over the rough ground. Had it been covered with frozen snow the distance would have been accomplished in a couple of hours.

The merciful Lieutenant often ordered a halt to give the teams breathing-time, and the Sergeant remarked that it would be much more convenient for the inhabitants of the fort, if the morses would settle a little nearer Cape Bathurst.

“They could riot find a suitable spot,” replied the Lieutenant, with a melancholy shake of the head.

“Why not?” inquired Mrs Barnett with some surprise.

“Because they only congregate where the slope of the beach is gradual enough to allow of their creeping up easily from the sea. Now Cape Bathurst rises abruptly, like a perpendicular wall, from water three hundred fathoms deep. It is probable that ages ago portion of the continent was rent away in some violent volcanic convulsion, and flung into the Arctic Ocean. Hence the absence of morses on the beach of our cape.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24