The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XIX.

A Neighbourly Visit.

On the 2nd December; the intensity of the cold decreased. The phenomena of the lunar halo and Aurora Borealis were symptoms which a meteorologist would have been at no loss to interpret. They implied the existence of a certain quantity of watery vapour in the atmosphere, and the barometer fell slightly, whilst the thermometer rose to 15° above zero.

Although this temperature would have seemed very cold to the inhabitants of a temperate zone, it was easily endured by the colonists. The absence of wind made a great difference, and Hobson having noticed that the upper layers of snow were becoming softer, ordered his men to clear it away from the outer approaches of the enceinte. Mac-Nab and his subordinates set to work zealously, and completed their task in a few days. The traps were now uncovered and re-set. A good many footprints showed that there were plenty of furred animals about the cape, and as they could not get any other food, it was probable that the bait in the snares would soon attract them. In accordance with the advice of Marbre the hunter, a reindeer trap was constructed iii the Esquimaux style. A trench was dug twelve feet deep, and of a uniform width of ten feet. A see-saw plank, which would rebound when lowered, was laid across it. A bait of herbs was placed at one end of the plank, and any animal venturing to take them, was inevitably flung to the bottom of the pit, and the plank immediately returning to its former position, would allow of the trapping of another animal in the same manner. Once in, there was no getting out. The only difficulty Marbre had to contend with in making his trap, was the extreme hardness of the ground to be dug out, but both he and the Lieutenant were not a little surprised at finding beneath some five feet of earth and sand a bed of snow, as hard as a rock, which appeared to be very thick.

After closely examining the geological structure of the ground, Hobson observed:

“This part of the coast must have been subjected to intense cold for a considerable length of time a great many years ago. Probably the ice rests on a bed of granite, and the earth and sand upon it have accumulated gradually.”

“Well, sir, our trap won’t be any the worse for that, the reindeer will find a slippery wall, which it will be impossible for them to climb.”

Marbre was right, as the event proved.

On the 5th September, he and Sabine were on their way to the trench, when they heard loud growls. They stood still and listened.

“It’s no reindeer making that noise, “said Marbre, “I know well enough what creature has fallen into our pit.”

“A bear?” replied Sabine.

“Yes,” said Marbre, whose eyes glistened with delight.

“Well,” remarked Sabine, “we won’t grumble at that, bears’ steaks are as good as reindeers’, and we get the fur in! Come along.”

The two hunters were armed. They quickly slipped balls into their guns, which were already loaded with lead, and hurried to the trap. The see-saw plank had swung back into its place, but the bait had disappeared, having probably been dragged down, into the trench. The growls became louder and fiercer, and looking down the hunters saw that it was indeed a bear they had taken. A huge mass was huddled together in one corner of the pit, looking in the gloom like a pile of white fur with two glittering eyes. The sides of the trench had been ploughed up by the creature’s sharp claws, and had they been made of earth instead of ice, it would certainly have managed to scramble out, but it could get no hold on the slippery surface, and it had only managed to enlarge its prison, not to escape from it.

Under the circumstances the capture was easy. Two balls carefully aimed put an end to the bear’s life, and the next thing to do was to get it out of the pit. The two hunters returned to the fort for reinforcements, and ten of the soldiers, provided with ropes, returned with them. It was not without considerable difficulty that the body was hauled up. It was a huge creature, six feet long, weighing six hundred pounds, and must have possessed immense strength. It belonged to the sub-order of white bears, and had the flattened head, long neck, short and slightly curved claws, narrow muzzle, and smooth white fur characteristic of the species. The edible portions of this valuable animal were confided to Mrs Joliffe, and b her carefully prepared for the table.

The next week the traps were in full activity. Some twenty martens were taken, in all the beauty of their winter clothing, but only two or three foxes. These cunning creatures divined the snare laid for them, and scratching up the ground near the trap, they often managed to run off with the bait without being caught. This made Sabine beside himself with rage for,” he said, “such a subterfuge was unworthy of a respectable fox.”

About the 10th December, the wind having veered round to the south-west, the snow again began to fall, but not in thick flakes, or in large quantities. The wind being high, however, the cold was severely felt, and it was necessary to settle in-doors again, and resume domestic occupations. Hobson distributed lime lozenges and lime juice to every one as a precaution against the scorbutic affections, which damp cold produces. No symptoms of scurvy had fortunately as yet appeared amongst the occupants of the fort, thanks to the sanitary precautions taken.

The winter solstice was now approaching, when the darkness of the Polar night would be most profound, as the sun would be at the lowest maximum point below the horizon of the northern hemisphere. At midnight the southern edges of the long white plains were touched with a faint glimmer of twilight, that was all, and it would be impossible to imagine anything more melancholy than the gloomy stillness and darkness of the vast expanse.

Hobson felt more secure from the attacks of wild beasts, now that the approaches to the enceinte had been cleared of snow, which was a fortunate circumstance, as ominous growlings were heard, the nature of which no one could mistake.

There was no fear of visits from Indian hunters or Canadians at this time of year, but an incident occurred proving that these districts were not altogether depopulated even in the winter, and which was quite an episode in the long dreary dark months. Some human beings still lingered on the coast hunting morses and camping under the snow. They belonged to the race of Esquimaux, °` or eaters of raw flesh,” which is scattered over the continent of North America, from Baffin’s Bay to Behring Strait, seldom, however, advancing farther south than the Great Slave Lake.

On the morning of the 14th December, or rather nine hours before midday, Sergeant Long, on his return from an excursion along the coast, ended his report to the Lieutenant by saying, that if his eyes had not deceived him, a tribe of nomads were encamped about four miles from the fort, near a little cape jutting out from the coast.

“What do you suppose these nomads are?” inquired Hobson.

“Either men or morses,” replied the Sergeant. “There’s no medium!”

The brave Sergeant would have been considerably surprised if any one had told him that some naturalists admit the existence of the “ medium,” the idea of which he scouted; and certain savants have with some humour classed the Esquimaux as an “ intermediate species “ between roan and the sea-cow.

Lieutenant Hobson, Mrs Barnett, Madge, and a few others at once went to ascertain the truth of the report. Well wrapt up, and on their guard against a sudden chill, their feet cased in furred boots, and guns and hatchets in their hands, they issued from the postern, and made their way over the frozen snow along the coast, strewn with masses of ice.

The moon, already in the last quarter, shed a few faint rays through the mists which shrouded the ice-fields. After marching for about an hour, the Lieutenant began to think that the Sergeant had been mistaken, and that what he had seen were morses, who had returned to their native element through the holes in the ice which they always keep open.

But Long, pointing to a grey wreath of smoke curling out of a conical protuberance on the ice-field some hundred steps off, contented himself with observing quietly —

“The morses are smoking, then!”

As he spoke some living creatures came out of the but dragging themselves along the snow. They were Esquimaux, but whether male or female none but a native could have said, for their costumes were all exactly alike.

Indeed, without in the least sharing the opinion of the naturalist quoted above, any one might have taken the rough shaggy figures for seals or some other amphibious animals. There were six of them-four full-grown, and two children. Although very short, they were broad-chested and muscular. They had the flat noses, long eye-lashes, large mouths, thick lips, long black coarse hair, and beardless chins of their race. Their costume consisted of a round coat made of the skin of the walrus, a hood, boots, trousers, and mittens of the same material. They gazed at the Europeans in silence.

“Does any one understand Esquimaux?” inquired the Lieutenant.

No one was acquainted with that idiom, and every one started when a voice immediately exclaimed in English, “Welcome! welcome!”

It was an Esquimaux, and, as they learned later, a woman, who, approaching Mrs Barnett, held out her hand.

The lady, much surprised, replied in a few words, which the native girl readily understood, and the whole family was invited to follow the Europeans to the fort.

The Esquimaux looked searchingly at the strangers, and after a few moments’ hesitation they accompanied the Lieutenant, keeping close together, however:

Arrived at the enceinte, the native woman, seeing the house, of the existence of which she had had no idea, exclaimed —

“House! snow-house!”

She asked if it were made of snow, which was a natural question enough, for the house was all but hidden beneath the white mass which covered the ground. She was made to understand that it was built of wood; she then turned and said a few words to her companions, who made signs of acquiescence, and they all passed through the postern, and were taken to the large room in the chief building.

They removed their hoods, and it became possible to distinguish sexes. There were two men, about forty or fifty years old, with yellowish-red complexions, sharp teeth, and projecting cheek-bones, which gave them something of the appearance of carnivorous animals; two women, still young whose matted hair was adorned with the teeth and claws of Polar bears; and two children, about five or six years old, poor little creatures with intelligent faces, who looked about them with wide wondering eyes.

“I believe the Esquimaux are always hungry,” said Hobson, “so I don’t suppose our guests would object to a slice of venison.”

In obedience to the Lieutenant’s order, Joliffe brought some reindeer-venison, which the poor creatures devoured with greedy avidity; but the young woman who had answered in English behaved with greater refinement, and watched Mrs Barnett and the women of the fort without once removing her eyes from them. Presently noticing the baby in Mrs Mac-Nabs arms; she rose and ran up to it, speaking to it in a soft voice, and caressing it tenderly.

Indeed if not exactly superior, the young girl was certainly more civilised than her companions, which was especially noticeable when, being attacked by a slight fit of coughing, she put her hand before her mouth in the manner enjoined by the first rules of civilised society.

This significant gesture did not escape any one, and Mrs Barnett, who chatted for some time with the Esquimaux woman, learned from her in a few short sentences that she had been for a year in the service of the Danish governor of Upper Navik, whose wife was English, and that she had left Greenland to follow her family to the hunting grounds. The two men were her brothers; the other woman was her sister-in-law, married to one of the men, and mother of the two children. They were all returning from Melbourne Island, on the eastern coast of English America, and were making for Point Barrow, on the western coast of Russian America, the home of their tribe, and- were considerably astonished to find a factory established on Cape Bathurst. Indeed the two men shook their heads when they spoke of it. Did they disapprove of the construction of a fort at this particular point of the coast? Did they think the situation ill-chosen? In spite of all his endeavours, Hobson could get no satisfactory reply to these questions, or rather he could not understand the answers he received.

The name of the young girl was Kalumah, and she seemed to have taken a great fancy to Mrs Barnett. But sociable as she was, she appeared to feel no regret at having left the governor of Upper Navik, and to be sincerely attached to her relations.

After refreshing themselves with the reindeer-venison, and drinking half-a-pint of rum, in which the children had their share, the Esquimaux took leave of their hosts; but before saying goodbye, the young girl invited Mrs Barnett to visit their snow-hut, and the lady promised to do so the next day, weather permitting.

The next day was fine, and accompanied by Madge, Lieutenant Hobson, and a few soldiers, well armed in case any bears should be prowling about, Mrs Barnett set out for “ Cape Esquimaux,” as they had named the spot where the little colony had encamped.

Kalumah hastened forward to meet her friend of yesterday, and pointed to the but with an, air of pride. It was a large cone of snow, with an opening in the summit, through which the smoke from the fire inside made its way. These snow-houses, called igloos in the language of the Esquimaux, are constructed with great rapidity, and are admirably suited to the climate. In them their owners can endure a temperature 40° below zero, without fires, and without suffering much. In the summer the Esquimaux encamp in tents made of seal and reindeer skins, which are called tupics.

It was no easy matter to get into this hut. The only opening was a hole close to the ground, and it was necessary to creep through a kind of passage three or four feet long, which is about the thickness of the walls of these snow-houses. But a traveller by profession, a laureate of the Royal Society, could not hesitate, and Mrs Paulina Barnett did not hesitate! Followed by Madge, she bravely entered the narrow tunnel in imitation of her guide. Lieutenant Hobson and his men dispensed with paying their respects inside.

And Mrs Barnett soon discovered that the chief difficulty was not getting into the but, but remaining in it when there. The room was heated by a fire, on which the bones of morses were burning; and the air was full of the smell of the fetid oil of a lamp, of greasy garments, and the flesh of the amphibious animals which form the chief article of an Esquimaux’s diet. It was suffocating and sickening! Madge could not stand it, and hurried out at once, but Mrs Barnett, rather than hurt the feelings of the young native, showed superhuman courage, and extended her visit over five long minutes!-five centuries! The two children and their mother were at home, but the men had gone to hunt morses four or five miles from their camp.

Once out of the hut, Mrs Barnett drew a long sigh of relief, and the colour returned to her blanched cheeks.

“Well, madam,” inquired the Lieutenant, “what do you think of Esquimaux houses?”

“The ventilation leaves something to be desired!” she replied simply.

The interesting native family remained encamped near Cape Esquimaux for eight days. The men passed twelve hours out of every twenty-four hunting morses. With a patience which none but sportsmen could understand, they would watch for the amphibious animals near the holes through which they come up to the surface of the ice-field to breathe. When the morse appears, a rope with a running noose is flung round its body a little below the head, and it is dragged on to the ice-field, often with considerable difficulty, and killed with hatchets. It is really more like fishing than bunting. It is considered a great treat to drink the warm blood of the walrus, and the Esquimaux often indulge in it to excess.

Kalumah came to the fort every day in spite of the severity of the weather. She was never tired of going through the different rooms, and watching Mrs Joliffe at her cooking or sewing. She asked the English name of everything, and talked for hours together with Mrs Barnett, if the term “talking” can be applied to an exchange of words after long deliberation on both sides. When Mrs Barnett read aloud, Kalumah listened with great attention, although she probably understood nothing of what she heard.

The young native girl had a sweet voice, and sometimes sang some strange melancholy rhythmical songs with a peculiar metre, and, if we may so express it, a frosty ring about them, peculiarly characteristic of their origin.

Mrs Barnett had the patience to translate one of these Greenland sagas, which was sung to a sad air, interspersed with long pauses, and filled with strange intervals, which produced an indescribable effect. We give an English rendering of Mrs Barnett’s translation, which may give a faint idea of this strange hyperborean poetry.

    GREENLAND SONG

Dark Is the sky,
The sun sinks wearily;
My trembling heart, with sorrow filled,
Aches drearily!
My sweet child at my songs is smiling still,
While at his tender heart the icicles lie chill.
Child of my dreams I
Thy love doth cheer me;
The cruel biting frost I brave
But to be near thee!
Ah me, Ah me, could these hot tears of mine
But melt the icicles around that heart of thine!
Could we once more
Meet heart to heart,
Thy little hands close clasped in mine,
No more to part.
Then on thy chill heart rays from heaven above
Should fall, and softly melt it with the warmth of love!

On the 20th December the Esquimaux family came to take leave of the occupants of the fort. Kalumah was sorry to part with Mrs Barnett, who would gladly have retained her in her service, but the young native could not be persuaded to leave her own people; she promised, however, to return to Fort Hope in the summer.

Her farewell was touching. She presented Mrs Barnett with a copper ring, and received in exchange a necklace of black beads, which she immediately put on. Hobson gave the poor people a good stock of provisions, which they packed in their sledge; and after a few words of grateful acknowledgment from Kalumah, the whole party set out towards the west, quickly disappearing in the thick fogs on the shore.

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