The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XVIII.

The Polar Night.

The long night was ushered in by a violent storm. The cold was perhaps a little less severe, but the air was very damp, and, in spite of every precaution, the humidity penetrated into the house, and the condensers, which were emptied every morning, contained several pounds of ice.

Outside drifts whirled past like waterspouts-the snow seemed no longer to fall horizontally but vertically. The Lieutenant was obliged to insist upon the door being kept shut, for had it been opened the passages would immediately have become blocked up. The explorers were literally prisoners.

The window shutters were hermetically closed, and the lamps were kept burning through the long hours of the sleepless night.

But although darkness reigned without, the noise of the tempest replaced the silence usually so complete in these high latitudes. The roaring of the wind between the house and the cliff never ceased for a moment, the house trembled to its foundations, and had it not been for the solidity of its construction, must have succumbed to the violence of the hurricane. Fortunately the accumulation of snow round the walls broke the force of the squall, and Mac-Nabs only fear was for the chimneys, which were liable to be blown over. However, they remained firm, although they had constantly to be freed from the snow which blocked up the openings.

In the midst of the whistling of the wind, loud reports were heard, of which Mrs Barnett could not conjecture the cause. It was the falling of icebergs in the offing. The echoes caught up the sounds, which were rolled along like the reverberations of thunder. The,,round shook as the ice-fields split open, crushed by the falling of these mighty mountains, and none but those thoroughly inured to the horrors of these wild rugged climates could witness these strange phenomena without a shudder. Lieutenant Hobson and his companions were accustomed to all these things, and Mrs Barnett and Madge were gradually becoming so, and were, besides, not altogether unfamiliar with those terrible winds which move at the rate of forty miles an hour, and overturn twenty-four pounders. Here, however, the darkness and the snow aggravated the dread might of the storm; that which was not crushed was buried and smothered, and, probably twelve hours after the commencement of the tempest, house, kennel, shed, and enceinte would have disappeared beneath a bed of snow of uniform thickness.

The time was not wasted during this long imprisonment. All these good people agreed together perfectly, and neither ill-humour nor ennui marred the contentment of the little party shut up in such a narrow space. They were used to life under similar conditions at Forts Enterprise and Reliance, and there was nothing to excite Mrs Barnett’s surprise in their ready accommodation of themselves to circumstances.

Part of the day was occupied with work, part with reading and games. Garments had to be made and mended, arms to be kept bright and in good repair, boots to be manufactured, and the daily journal to be issued in which Lieutenant Hobson recorded the slightest events of this northern wintering-the weather, the temperature, the direction of the wind, the appearance of meteors so frequent in the Polar regions, &c., &c. Then the house had to be kept in order, the rooms must be swept, and the stores of furs must be visited every day to see if they were free from damp; the fires and stoves, too, required constant superintendence, and perpetual vigilance was necessary to prevent the accumulation of particles of moisture in the corners.

To each one was assigned a task, the duty of each one was laid down in rules fixed up in the large room, so that without being overworked, the occupants of the fort were never without something to do. Thomas Black screwed and unscrewed his instruments, and looked over his astronomical calculations, remaining almost always shut up in his cabin, fretting and funning at the storm which prevented him from making nocturnal observations. The three married women had also plenty to see to: Mrs Mac-Nab busied herself with her baby who got on wonderfully, whilst Mrs Joliffe, assisted by Mrs Rae, and with the Corporal always at her heels, presided in the kitchen.

When work was done the entire party assembled in the large room, spending the whole of Sunday together. Reading was the chief amusement. The Bible and some books of travels were the whole library of the fort; but they were all the good folks required. Mrs Barnett generally read aloud, and her audience listened with delight. The Bible and accounts of adventures received a fresh charm when read out in her clear earnest voice; her gestures were so expressive that imaginary persons seemed to live when she spoke of them, and all were glad when she took up the book. She was, in fact, the life and soul of the little community, eager alike to give and receive instruction; she combined the charm and grace of a woman with the energy of a man, and she consequently became the idol of the rough soldiers, who would have willingly laid down their lives in her service. Mrs Barnett shared everything with her companions, never holding herself aloof or remaining shut up in her cabin, but working zealously amongst the others, drawing out the most reticent by her intelligent questions and warm sympathy. Good humour and good health prevailed throughout the little community, and neither bands nor tongues were idle.

The storm, however, showed no signs of abating. The party had now been confined to the house for three days, and the snow-drifts were as wild and furious as ever. Lieutenant Hobson began to get anxious. It was becoming imperatively necessary to renew the air of the rooms, which was too much charged with carbonic acid. The light of the lamps began to pale in the unhealthy atmosphere, and the air-pumps would not act, the pipes being choked up with ice; they were not, in fact, intended to be used when the house was buried in snow. It was necessary to take counsel; the Lieutenant and Sergeant Long put their heads together, and it was decided on November 23d that, as the wind beat with rather less violence on the front of the house, one of the windows at the end of the passage on that side should be opened.

This was no light matter. It was easy enough to open the window from inside, but the shutter outside was encrusted over with thick lumps of ice, and resisted every effort to move it. It had to be taken off its hinges, and the hard mass of snow was then attacked with pickaxe and shovel; it was at least ten feet thick, and it was not until a kind of channel bad been scooped out that the outer air was admitted.

Hobson, the Sergeant, several soldiers, and Mrs Barnett herself ventured to creep through this tunnel or channel, but not without considerable difficulty, for the wind rushed in with fearful fury.

What a scene was presented by Cape Bathurst and the surrounding plain. It was mid-day, and but a few faint twilight rays glimmered upon the southern horizon. The cold was not so intense as one would have supposed, and the thermometer marked only 15° Fahrenheit above zero; but the snow-drifts whirled along with terrific force, and all would inevitably have been thrown to the ground, had not the snow in which they were standing up to their waists helped to sustain them against the gusts of wind. Everything around them was white, the walls of the enceinte, and the whole of the house even to the roof were completely covered over, and nothing but a few blue wreaths of smoke would have betrayed the existence of a human habitation to a stranger.

Under the circumstances the “ promenade “ was soon over; but Mrs Barnett bad made good use of her time, and would never forget the awful beauty of the Polar regions in a snow-storm, a beauty upon which few women had been privileged to look.

A few moments sufficed to renew the atmosphere of the house, and all unhealthy vapours were quickly dispersed by the introduction of a pure and refreshing current of air.

The Lieutenant and his companions hurried in, and the window was again closed; but after that the snow before it was removed every day for the sake of ventilation.

The entire week passed in a similar manner; fortunately the rein-deer and dogs had plenty of food, so that there was no need to visit them. The eight days during which the occupants of the fort were imprisoned so closely, could not fail to be somewhat irksome to strong men, soldiers and hunters, accustomed to plenty of exercise in the open air; and we must own that listening to reading aloud gradually lost its charm, and even cribbage became uninteresting. The last thought at night was a hope that the tempest might have ceased in the morning, a hope disappointed every day. Fresh snow constantly accumulated upon the windows, the wind roared, the icebergs burst with a crash like thunder, the smoke was forced back into the rooms, and there were no signs of a diminution of the fury of the storm.

At last, however, on the 28th November the Aneroid barometer in the large room gave notice of an approaching change in the state of the atmosphere. It rose rapidly, whilst the thermometer outside fell almost suddenly to less than four degrees below zero. These were symptoms which could not be mistaken, and on the 29th November the silence all around the fort told that the tempest had ceased.

Every one was eager to get out, tine confinement had lasted long enough. The door could not be opened, and all had to get through the window, and clear away the fresh accumulation of snow; this time, however, it was no soft mass they had to remove, but compact blocks of ice, which required pick-axes to break them up.

It took about half-an-hour to clear a passage, and then every one in the fort, except Mrs Mac-Nab, who was not yet up, hastened into the interior court, glad once more to be able to walk about.

The cold was still intense, but the wind having gone down it was possible to endure it, although great care was necessary to escape serious consequences on leaving the heated rooms for the open air, the difference between the temperature inside and outside being some fifty-four degrees.

It was eight o’clock in the morning. Myriads of brilliant constellations studded the sky, and at the zenith shone the Pole star. Although in both hemispheres there are in reality but 5000 fixed stars visible to the naked eye, their number appeared to the observers incalculable. Exclamations of admiration burst involuntarily from the lips of the delighted astronomer as he gazed into the cloudless heavens, once more undimmed by mists or vapours. Never had a more beautiful sky been spread out before the eyes of an astronomer.

Whilst Thomas Black was raving in ecstasy, dead to all terrestrial matters, his companions had wandered as far as the enceinte. The snow was as bard as a rock, And so slippery that there were a good many tumbles, but no serious injuries.

It is needless to state that the court of the fort was completely filled up. The roof of the house alone appeared above the white mass, the surface of which had been worn smooth by the action of the wind; of the palisade nothing was visible but the top of the stakes, and the least nimble of the wild animals they dreaded could easily have climbed over them. But what was to be done? It was no use to think of clearing away a mass of frozen snow ten feet thick, extending over so large an extent of ground. All they could attempt would be to dig away the ice inside the enceinte, so as to form a kind of moat, the counterscarp of which would protect the palisade. But alas the winter was only beginning, and a fresh tempest might at any time fill in the ditch a few hours.

Whilst the Lieutenant was examining the works, which could no more protect his fort than a single sunbeam could melt the solid layer of snow,-Mrs Joliffe suddenly exclaimed:

“And our dogs! our reindeer!”

It was indeed time to think about the poor animals. The dog house and stable being lower than the house were probably entirely covered, and the supply of air had perhaps been completely cut off. Some hurried to the dog-house, others to the reindeer stable, and all fears were quickly dispelled. The wall of ice, which connected the northern corner of the house with the cliff, had partly protected the two buildings, and the snow round them was not more than four feet thick, so that the apertures left in the walls had not been closed up. The animals were all well, and when the door was opened, the dogs rushed out barking with delight.

The cold was so intense, that after an hour’s walk every one began to think of the glowing stove in the large room at home. There was nothing left to be done outside, the traps buried beneath ten feet of snow could not be visited, so all returned to the house, the window, was closed, and the party sat down to the dinner awaiting them with sharpened appetites.

W e can readily imagine that the conversation turned on the intensity of the cold, which had so rapidly converted the soft snow into a solid mass. It was no light matter, and might to a certain extent compromise the safety of the little colony.

“But, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett, “can we not count upon a few days’ thaw-will not all this snow be rapidly converted into water?”

“Oh no, madam,” replied Hobson, “a thaw at this time of year is not at all likely. Indeed I expect the thermometer will fall still lower, and it is very much to be regretted that we were unable to remove the snow when it was soft.”

What, you think the temperature likely to become much colder?”

“I do most certainly, madam, 4° below zero-what is that at this latitude?”

“What would it be if we were at the Pole itself?”

“The Pole, madam, is probably not the coldest point of the globe, for most navigators agree that the sea is there open. From certain peculiarities of its geographical position it would appear that a certain spot on the shores of North Georgia, 95° longitude and 78° latitude, has the coldest mean temperature in the world: 2° below zero all the year round. It is, therefore, called the ‘pole of cold.’ “

“But,” said Mrs Barnett, “we are more than 8° further south than that famous point.”

“Well, I don’t suppose we shall suffer as much at Cape Bathurst as we might have done in North Georgia. I only tell you of the ‘pole of cold,’ that you may not confound it with the Pole properly so-called when the lowness of the temperature is discussed. Great cold has besides been experienced on other points of the globe. The difference is, that the low temperature is not there maintained.”

“To what places do you allude?” inquired Mrs Barnett; “I assure you I take the greatest interest in this matter of degrees of cold.”

“As far as I can remember, madam,” replied the Lieutenant, Arctic explorers state that at Melville Island the temperature fell to 61° below zero, and at Port Felix to 65°.”

“But Melville Island and Port Felix are some degrees farther north latitude than Cape Bathurst, are they not?”

“Yes, madam, but in a certain sense we may say that their latitude proves nothing. A combination of different atmospheric conditions is requisite to produce intense cold. Local and other causes largely modify climate. If I remember rightly in 1845 . . . Sergeant Long, you were at Fort Reliance at that date?

“Yes, sir,” replied Long.

“Well, was it not in January of that year that the cold was so excessive?”

“Yes it was, I remember only too well that the thermometer marked 70° below zero.”

“What!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, “at Fort Reliance, on the Great Slave Lake?”

“Yes, madam,” replied the Lieutenant, “and that was at 65° north latitude only, which is the same parallel as that of Christiania and St Petersburg.”

“Then we must be prepared for everything.”

“Yes, indeed, we must when we winter in Arctic countries.”

During the 29th and 30th November, the cold did not decrease, and it was necessary to keep up huge fires to prevent the freezing in all the corners of the house of the moisture in the atmosphere. Fortunately there was plenty of fuel, and it was not spared. A mean temperature of 52° Fahrenheit was maintained indoors in spite of the intensity of the cold without.

Thomas Black was so anxious to take stellar observations, now that the sky was so clear, that he braved the rigour of the outside temperature, hoping to be able to examine some of the magnificent constellations twinkling on the zenith. But he was compelled to desist-his instruments “burnt” his hands!”Burnt “ is the only word to express the sensation produced by touching a metallic body subjected to the influence of intense cold. Exactly similar results are produced by the sudden introduction of heat into an animate body, and the sudden withdrawal of the same from it, as the astronomer found to his cost when he left the skin of his fingers on his instruments. He had to give up taking observations.

However, the heavens made him the best amends in their power by displaying the most beautiful and indescribable phenomena of a lunar halo and an Aurora Borealis.

The lunar halo was a white corona with a pale red edge encircling the moon. This luminous meteor was about forty-five degrees in diameter, and was the result of the diffraction of the lunar rays through the small prismatic ice-crystals floating in the atmosphere. The queen of the night shone with renewed splendour and heightened beauty from the centre of the luminous ring, the colour and consistency of which resembled the milky transparent lunar rainbows which have been so often described by astronomers.

Fifteen hours later the heavens were lit up by a magnificent Aurora Borealis, the arch of which extended over more than a hundred geographical degrees. The vertex of this arch was situated in the magnetic meridian, and, as is often the case, the rays darted by the luminous meteor were of all the colours of the rainbow, red predominating. Here and there. the stars seemed to be floating in blood Glowing lines of throbbing colour spread from the dark segment on the horizon, some of them passing the zenith and quenching the light of the moon in their electric waves, which oscillated and trembled as if swept by a current of air.

No description could give an adequate idea of the glory which flushed the northern sky, converting it into a vast dome of fire, but after the magnificent spectacle had been enjoyed for about half an hour, it suddenly disappeared-not fading gradually away after concentration of its rays, or a diminution of its splendour, but dying abruptly, as if an invisible hand had cut off the supply of electricity which gave it life.

It was time it was over, for the sake of Thomas Black, for in another five minutes he would have been frozen where he stood!

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