The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XVI.

Two Shots.

The first half of September passed rapidly away. Had Fort Hope been situated at the Pole itself, that is to say, twenty degrees farther north, the polar night would have set in on the 21st of that month But under the seventieth parallel the sun would be visible above the horizon for another month. Nevertheless, the temperature was already decidedly colder, the thermometer fell during the night to 31° Fahrenheit; and thin coatings of ice appeared here and there, to be dissolved again in the day-time.

But the settlers were able to await the coming of winter without alarm; they had a more than sufficient store of provisions, their supply of dried venison had largely increased, another score of morses had been killed, the tame rein-deer were warmly and comfortably housed, and a huge wooden shed behind the house was filled with fuel. In short, everything was prepared for the Polar night.

And now all the wants of the inhabitants of the fort being provided for, it was time to think of the interests of the Company. The Arctic creatures had now assumed their winter furs, and were therefore of the greatest value, and Hobson organised shooting parties for the remainder of the fine weather, intending to set traps when the snow should prevent further excursions.

They would have plenty to do to satisfy the requirements of the Company, for so far north it was of no use to depend on the Indians, who are generally the purveyors of the factories.

The first expedition was to the haunt of a family of beavers, long since noted by the watchful Lieutenant, on a tributary of the stream already referred to. It is true, the fur of the beaver is not now as valuable as when it was used for hats, and fetched £16 per kilogramme (rather more than 2 lb.); but it still commands a high price as the animal is becoming very scarce, in consequence of the reckless way in which it has been hunted.

When the party reached their destination, the Lieutenant called Mrs Barnett’s attention to the great ingenuity displayed by beavers in the construction of their submarine city. There were some hundred animals in the little colony now to be invaded, and they lived together in pairs in the “holes” or “vaults” they had hollowed out near the stream. They had already commenced their preparations for the winter, and were hard at work constructing their dams and laying up their piles of wood. A dam of admirable structure had already been built across the stream, which was deep and rapid enough not to freeze far below the surface, even in the severest weather. This dam, which was convex towards the current, consisted of a collection of upright stakes interlaced with branches and roots, the whole being cemented together and rendered watertight with the clayey mud of the river, previously pounded by the animals’ feet. The beavers use their tails-which are large and flat, with scales instead of hair at the root-for plastering over their buildings and beating the clay into shape.

“The object of this dam,” said the Lieutenant to Mrs Barnett, “is to secure to the beavers a sufficient depth of water at all seasons of the year, and to enable the engineers of the tribe to build the round buts .called houses or lodges, the tops of which you can just see. They are extremely solid structures, and the walls made of stick, clay, roots, &c., are two feet thick., They can only be entered from below the water, and their owners have therefore to dive when they go home-an admirable arrangement for their protection. Each lodge contains two stories; in the lower the winter stock of branches, bark, and roots, is laid up, and the upper is the residence of the householder and his family.”

“There is, however, not a beaver in sight,” said Mrs Barnett; “is this a deserted village?”

“Oh no,” replied the Lieutenant, “the inhabitants are now all asleep and resting; they only work in the night, and we mean to surprise them in their holes.”

This was, in fact, easily done, and in an hour’s time about a hundred of the ill-fated rodents had been captured, twenty of which were of very great value, their fur being black, and therefore especially esteemed. That of the others was also long, glossy, and silky, but of a reddish hue mixed with chestnut brown. Beneath the long fur, the beavers have a second coat of close short hair of a greyish-white colour.

The hunters returned to the fort much delighted with the result of their expedition. The beavers’ skins were warehoused and labelled as “parchments” or “young beavers,” according to their value.

Excursions of a similar kind were carried on throughout the month of September, and during the first half of October, with equally happy results.

A few badgers were taken, the skin being used as an ornament for the collars of draught horses, and the hair for making brushes of every variety. These carnivorous creatures belong to the bear family, and the specimens obtained by Hobson were of the genus peculiar to North America, sometimes called the Taxel badger.

Another animal of the rodent family, nearly as industrious as the beaver, largely contributed to the stores of the Company. This was the musk-rat or musquash. Its head and body are about a foot long and its tail ten inches. Its fur is in considerable demand. These creatures, like the rest of their family, multiply with extreme rapidity, and a great number were easily unearthed.

In the pursuit of lynxes and wolverines or gluttons, fire-arms bad to be used. The lynx has all the suppleness and agility of the feline tribe to which it belongs, and is formidable even to the rein-deer; Marbre and Sabine were, however, well up to their work, and succeeded in killing more than sixty of them. A few wolverines or gluttons were also despatched, their fur is reddish-brown, and that of the lynx, light-red with black spots; both are of considerable value.

Very few ermines or stoats were seen, and Jaspar Hobson ordered his men to spare any which happened to cross their path until the winter, when they should have assumed their beautiful snow-white coats with the one black spot at the tip of the tail. At present the upper fur was reddish-brown and the under yellowish white, so that, as Sabine expressed it, it was desirable to let them “ ripen,” or, in other words,-to wait for the cold to bleach them.

Their cousins, the polecats, however, which emit so disagreeable an odour, fell victims in great numbers to the hunters, who either tracked them to their homes in hollow trees, or shot them as they glided through the branches.

Martens, properly so-called, were hunted with great zeal. Their fur is in considerable demand, although not so valuable as that of the sable, which becomes a dark lustrous brown in the winter. The latter did not, however, come in the way of our hunters, as it only frequents the north of Europe and Asia as far as Kamtchatka, and is chiefly hunted by the inhabitants of Siberia. They had to be cone tent with the polecats and pine-martens, called “ Canada- martens,” which frequent the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

All the weasels and martens are very difficult to catch; they wriggle their long supple bodies through the smallest apertures with great ease, and thus elude their pursuers. In the winter, however, they are easily taken in traps, and Marbre and Sabine looked forward to make up for lost time then, when, said they, “there shall be plenty of their furs in the Company’s stores.”

We have now only to mention the Arctic or blue and silver foxes, to complete the list of animals which swelled the profits of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The furs of these foxes are esteemed in the Russian and English markets above all others, and that of the blue fox is the most valuable of all. This pretty creature has a black muzzle, and the fur is not as one would suppose blue, but whitish-brown; its great price-six times that of any other kind-arises from its superior softness, thickness, and length. A cloak belonging to the Emperor of Russia, composed entirely of fur from the neck of the blue fox (the fur from the neck is considered better than that from any other part), was shown at the London Exhibition of 1851, and valued at £3400 sterling.

Several of these foxes were sighted at Cape Bathurst, but all escaped the hunters; whilst only about a dozen silver foxes fell into their hands. The fur of the latter-of a lustrous black dotted with white-is much sought after in England and Russia, although it does not command so high a price as that of the foxes mentioned above.

One of the silver foxes captured was a splendid creature, with a coal-black fur tipped with white at the extreme end of the tail, and with a dash of the same on the forehead. The circumstances attending its death deserve relation in detail, as they proved that Hobson was right in the precautions he had taken

On the morning of the 24th September, two sledges conveyed Mrs Barnett, the Lieutenant, Sergeant Long. Marbre, and Sabine, to Walruses’ Bay. Some traces of foxes had been noticed the evening before, amongst some rocks clothed with scanty herbage and the direction taken by the animals was very clearly indicated. The hunters followed up the trail of a large animal, and were rewarded by bringing down a very fine silver fox.

Several other animals of the same species were sighted, and the hunters divided into two parties-Marbre and Sabine going after one foe, and Mrs Barnett, Hobson, and the Sergeant, trying to cut off the retreat of another fine animal hiding behind some rocks.

Great caution and some artifice was necessary to deal with this crafty animal, which took care not to expose itself to a shot. The pursuit lasted for half-an-hour without success; but at last the poor creature, with the sea on one side and its three enemies on the other, had recourse in its desperation to a flying leap, thinking thus to escape with its life. But Hobson was too quick for it; and as it bounded by like a flash of lightning, it was struck by a shot, and to every one’s surprise, the report of the Lieutenant’s gun was succeeded by that of another, and a second ball entered the body of the fox, which fell to the ground mortally wounded.

“Hurrah! hurrah!” cried Hobson, “it is mine!”

“And mine!” said another voice, and a stranger stept forward and placed his foot upon the fox just as the Lieutenant was about to raise it.

Hobson drew back in astonishment. He thought the second ball had been fired by the Sergeant, and found himself face to face with a stranger whose gun was still smoking.

The rivals gazed at each other in silence.

The rest of the party now approached, and the stranger was quickly joined by twelve comrades, four of whom were like himself “ Canadian travellers,” and eight Chippeway Indians.

The leader was a tall man-a fine specimen of his class-those Canadian trappers described in the romances of Washington Irving, whose competition Hobson had dreaded with such good reason. He wore the traditional costume ascribed to his fellow-hunters by the great American writer; a blanket loosely arranged about his person, a striped cotton shirt, wide cloth trousers, leather gaiters, deerskin mocassins, and a sash of checked woollen stuff round the waist, from which were suspended his knife, tobacco-pouch, pipe, and a few useful tools.

Hobson was right. The man before him was a Frenchman, or at least a descendant of the French Canadians, perhaps an agent of the American Company come to act as a spy on the settlers in the fort. The other four Canadians wore a costume resembling that of their leader, but of coarser materials.

The Frenchman bowed politely to Mrs Barnett, and the Lieutenant was the first to break the silence, during which he had not removed his eyes from his rival’s face.

“This fox is mine, sir,” he said quietly.

“It is if you killed it!” replied the other in good English, but with a slightly foreign accent.

“Excuse me, sir,” replied Hobson rather sharply, “it is mine in any case.”

The stranger smiled. scornfully at this lofty reply, so exactly what be expected from an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which claims supremacy over all the northern districts, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“Do you mean to say,” he said at last, gracefully toying with his gun, “that you consider the Hudson’s Bay Company mistress of the whole of North America?”

“Of course I do,” said Hobson; “and if, as I imagine, you belong to an American company —

“To the St Louis Fur Company,” replied the stranger with a bow.

“I think,” added the Lieutenant, “that you will find it difficult to show the grants entitling you to any privileges here.”

“Grants! privileges!” cried the Canadian scornfully, “old world terms which are out of place in America!”

“You are not now on American but on English ground,” replied the Lieutenant proudly.

“This is no time for such a discussion,” said the hunter rather warmly. “We all know the old claims made by the English in general, and the Hudson’s Bay Company in particular, to these hunting grounds; but I expect coming events will soon alter this state of things, and America will be America from the Straits of Magellan to the North Pole!”

“I do not agree with you,” replied Hobson dryly.

“Well, sir, however that may be,” said the Canadian, “let us suffer this international question to remain in abeyance for the present. Whatever rights the Company may arrogate to itself, it is very clear that in the extreme north of the continent, and especially on the coast, the territory belongs to whoever occupies it. You have founded a factory on Cape Bathurst, therefore we will respect your domain, and you on your side will avoid ours, when the St Louis fur-traders have established their projected fort at another point on the northern shore of America.”

The Lieutenant frowned at this speech, for he well knew what complications would arise in the future when the Hudson’s Bay Company would be compelled to struggle for supremacy with powerful rivals, and that quarrelling and even bloodshed would ensue; he could not, however, but acknowledge that this was not the time to begin the discussion, and he was not sorry when the hunter, whose manners, to tell the truth, were very polite, placed the dispute on another footing.

“As for this present matter,” said the Canadian, “it is of minor importance, and we must settle it according to the rules of the chase. Our guns are of different calibre, and our balls can be easily distinguished; let the fox belong to whichever of us really killed it.”

The proposition was a fair one, and the body of the victim was examined accordingly. One ball had entered at the side, the other at the heart; and the latter was from the gun of the Canadian.

“The fox is your property, sir,” said Jaspar Hobson, vainly endeavouring to conceal his chagrin at seeing this valuable spoil fall into the enemy’s hands.

The Canadian took it, but instead of throwing it over his shoulder and carrying it off, he turned to Mrs Barnett, and said “ Ladies are fond of beautiful furs, and although, perhaps, if they knew better what dangers and difficulties have to be surmounted in order to obtain them, they might not care so much about them, they are not likely to refuse to wear them on that account, and I hope, madam, you will favour me by accepting this one in remembrance of our meeting.”

Mrs Barnett hesitated for a moment, but the gift was offered with so much courtesy and kindliness of manner, that it would have seemed churlish to refuse, and she therefore accepted it with many thanks.

This little ceremony over, the stranger again bowed politely, and, followed by his comrades, quickly disappeared behind the rocks, whilst the Lieutenant and his party returned to Fort Good Hope. Hobson was very silent and thoughtful all the way; for he could not but feel that the existence of a rival company would greatly compromise the success of his undertaking, and lead to many future difficulties.

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