The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XXIII.

The Eclipse of the 18th July 1860.

The mists did not disperse. The sun shone feebly through thick curtains of fog, and the astronomer began to have a great dread lest the eclipse should not be visible after all. Sometimes the fog was so dense that the summit of the cape could not be seen from the court of the fort.

Hobson got more and more uneasy. He had no longer any doubt that the convoy had gone astray in the strange land; moreover, vague apprehensions and sad forebodings increased his depression. He could not look into the future with any confidence — why, he would have found it impossible to explain. Everything apparently combined to reassure him. In spite of the great rigour of the winter, his little colony was in excellent health. No quarrels had arisen amongst the colonists, and their zeal and enthusiasm was still unabated. The surrounding districts were well stocked with game, the harvest of furs had surpassed his expectations, and the Company might well be satisfied with the result of the enterprise. Even if no fresh supply of provisions arrived, the resources of the country were such that the prospect of a second winter need awake no misgivings. Why, then, was Lieutenant Hobson losing hope and confidence?

He and Mrs Barnett had many a talk on the subject; and the latter did all she could to raise the drooping spirits of the commanding officer, urging upon him all the considerations enumerated above; and one day walking with him along the beach, she pleaded the cause of Cape Bathurst and the factory, built at the cost of-so much suffering, with more than usual eloquence.

“Yes, yes, madam, you are right,” replied Hobson; “but we can’t help our presentiments. I am no visionary. Twenty times in my soldier’s life I have been in critical circumstances, and have never lost presence of mind for one instant; and now for the first time in my life I am uneasy about the future. If I had to face a positive danger, I should have no fear; but a vague uncertain peril of which I have only a presentiment “

“What danger do you mean?” inquired Mrs Barnett; “a danger from men, from animals, or the elements?”

“Of animals I have no dread whatever, madam; it is for them to tremble before the hunters of Cape Bathurst, nor do I fear men; these districts are frequented by none but Esquimaux, and the Indians seldom venture so far north.”

“Besides, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett, “the Canadians, whose arrival you so much feared in the fine season, have never appeared.”

“I am very sorry for it, madam.”

“What! you regret the absence of the rivals who are so evidently hostile to your Company?”

“Madam, I am both glad and sorry that they have not come; that will of course puzzle you. But observe that the expected convoy from Fort Reliance has not arrived. It is the same with. the agents of the St Louis Fur Company; they might have come, and they have not done so. Not a single Esquimaux has visited this part of the coast during the summer either”—

“And what do you conclude from all this?” inquired Mrs Barnett.

“I conclude that it is not so easy to get to Cape Bathurst or to Fort Hope as we could wish.”

The lady looked into the Lieutenant’s anxious face, struck with the melancholy and significant intonation of the word easy.

“Lieutenant Hobson,” she said earnestly, “if you fear neither men nor animals, I must conclude that your anxiety has reference to the elements.”

“Madam,” he replied, “I do not know if my spirit be broken, or if my presentiments blind me, but there seems to me to be something uncanny about this district. If I had known it better I should not have settled down in it. I have already called your attention to certain peculiarities, which to me appear inexplicable; the total absence of stones everywhere, and the clear-cut line of the coast. I can’t make out about the primitive formation of this end of the continent. I know that the vicinity of a volcano may cause some phenomena; but you remember what I said to you on the subject of the tides?”

“Oh yes, perfectly.”

“Where the sea ought according to the observations of explorers in these latitudes, to have risen fifteen or twenty feet, it has scarcely risen one!”

“Yes; but that you accounted for by the irregular distribution of land and the narrowness of the straits.”

“I tried to account for it, that is all,” replied Hobson; “but the day before yesterday I noticed a still more extraordinary phenomenon, which I cannot even try to explain, and I doubt if the greatest savants could do so either.”

Mrs Barnett looked inquiringly at Hobson.

“What has happened?” she exclaimed.

“Well, the day before yesterday, madam, when the moon was full, and according to the almanac the tide ought to have been very high, the sea did not even rise one foot, as it did before-it did not rise at all.”

“Perhaps you may be mistaken observed Mrs Barnett.

“I am not mistaken. I saw it with my own eyes. The day before yesterday, July 4th, there was positively no tide on the coast of Cape Bathurst.”

“And what do you conclude from that?” inquired Mrs Barnett.

“I conclude madam,” replied the Lieutenant, “either that the laws of nature are changed, or that this district is very peculiarly situated . . . or rather . . . I conclude nothing . . . I explain nothing . . . I am puzzled . . . I do not understand it; and therefore . . . therefore I am anxious.”

Mrs Barnett asked no more questions. Evidently the total absence of tides was as unnatural and inexplicable as would be the absence of the sun from the meridian at noon. Unless the earthquake had so modified the conformation of the coast of the Arctic regions as to account for it-but no, such an idea could not be entertained by any one accustomed to note terrestrial phenomena.

As for supposing that the Lieutenant could be mistaken in his observations, that was impossible; and that very day he and Mrs Barnett, by means of beach-marks made on the beach, ascertained beyond all doubt that whereas a year before the sea rose a foot, there was now no tide whatever.

The matter was kept a profound secret, as Hobson was unwilling to render his companions anxious. But he might often be seen standing motionless and silent upon the summit of the cape, gazing across the sea, which was now open, and stretched away as far as the eye could reach.

During the month of July hunting the furred animals was discontinued, as the martens, foxes, and others had already lost their winter beauty. No game was brought down but that required for food, such as caribous, Polar hares, &c., which, strange to say, instead of being scared away by the guns, continued to multiply near the fort. Mrs Barnett did not fail to note this peculiar, and, as the event proved, significant fact.

No change had taken place in the situation on the 15th July. No news from Fort Reliance. The expected convoy did not arrive, and Hobson resolved to execute his project of sending to Captain Craventy, as Captain Craventy did not come to him.

Of course none but Sergeant Long could be appointed to the command of the little troop, although the faithful fellow would rather not have been separated from his Lieutenant. A considerable time must necessarily elapse before he could get back to Fort Hope. He would have to pass the winter at Fort Reliance, and return the next summer. Eight months at least! It is true either Mac-Nab or Rae could have taken the Sergeant’s place; but then they were married, and the one being a master carpenter, and the other the only blacksmith, the colonists could not well have dispensed with their services.

Such were the grounds on which the Lieutenant chose Long, and the Sergeant submitted with military obedience. The four soldiers elected to accompany him were Belcher, Pond, Petersen, and Kellet, who declared their readiness to start.

Four sledges and their teams of dogs were told off for the service. They were to take a good stock of provisions, and the most valuable of the furs. Foxes, ermines, martens, swans, lynxes, musk-rats, gluttons, &c., all contributed to the precious convoy. The start was fixed for the morning of the 19th July, the day after the eclipse. Of course Thomas Black was to accompany the Sergeant, and one sledge was to convoy his precious person and instruments.

The worthy savant endured agonies of suspense in the few days preceding the phenomenon which he awaited with so much impatience. He might well be anxious; for one day it was fine and another wet, now mists obscured the sun, or thick fogs hid it all together; and the wind veered to every point of the horizon with provoking fickleness and uncertainty. What if during the few moments of the eclipse the queen of the night and the great orb of day should be wrapped in an opaque cloud at the critical moment, so that he, the astronomer, Thomas Black, come so far to watch the phenomenon, should be unable to see the luminous corona or the red prominences! How terrible would be the disappointment! How many dangers, how much suffering, how much fatigue, would have been gone through in vain!

“To have come so far to see the moon, and not to see it!” he cried in a comically piteous tone.

No, he could not face the thought and early of an evening he would climb to the summit of the cape and gaze into the heavens. The fair Phoebe was nowhere to be seen; for it being three days before new moon, she was accompanying the sun in his daily course, and her light was quenched in his beams.

Many a time did Thomas Black relieve his over-burdened heart by pouring out his troubles to Mrs Barnett. The good lady felt sincerely sorry for him, and one day, anxious to reassure him, she told him that the barometer showed a certain tendency to rise, and reminded him that they were in the fine season.

The fine season!” cried the poor astronomer” shrugging his shoulders. “Who can speak of a fine season in such a country as this?”

“Well, but, Mr Black,” said Mrs Barnett, “suppose, for the sake of argument, that you miss this eclipse by any unlucky chance, I suppose there will be another some day. The eclipse of July 18th will not be the last of this century.”

“No, madam, no,” returned Black; “there will be five more total eclipses of the sun before 1900. One on the 31st December 1861, which will be total for the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Sahara Desert; a second on the 22d December 1870, total for the Azores, the south of Spain, Algeria, Sicily, and Turkey; a third on the 19th August 1887, total for the north-east of Germany, the south of Russia, and Central Asia; a fourth on the 9th April 1896, visible in Greenland, Lapland, and Siberia; and lastly, a fifth on the 28th May 1900, which will be total for the United States, Spain, Algeria, and

Egypt.”

“Well, Mr Black,” resumed Mrs Barnett, “if you lose the eclipse of the 18th July 1860, you can console yourself by looking forward to that of the 31st December 1861. It will only be seventeen months!”

“I can console myself, madam,” said the astronomer gravely, “by looking forward to that of 1896. I shall have to wait not seventeen months but thirty-six years!”

“May I ask why?”

“Because of all the eclipses, it alone-that of 9th August 1896-will be total for places in high latitudes, such as Lapland, Siberia, or Greenland.”

“But what is the special interest of an observation taken in these elevated latitudes?”

“What special interest?” cried Thomas Black; why, a scientific interest of the highest importance. Eclipses have very rarely been watched near the Pole, where the sun, being very little above the horizon, is considerably increased in size. The disc of the moon which is to intervene between us and the sun is subject to a similar apparent extension, and therefore it may be that the red prominences and the luminous corona can be more thoroughly examined This, madam, is why I have travelled all this distance to watch the eclipse above the seventieth parallel. A similar opportunity will not occur until 1896, and who can tell if I shall be alive then?”

To this burst of enthusiasm there was no reply to be made; and the astronomer’s anxiety and depression increased, for the inconstant weather seemed more and more disposed to play him some ill-natured trick.

It was very fine on the 16th July, but the next day it was cloudy and misty and Thomas Black became really ill. The feverish state he had been in for so long seemed likely to result in a serious illness. Mrs Barnett and Hobson tried in vain to soothe him, and Sergeant Long and the others could not understand how it was possible to be so unhappy for love of the moon.”

At last the great day-the 18th July-dawned. According to the calculations of astronomers, the total eclipse was to last four minutes thirty-seven seconds-that is to say, from forty-three minutes fifteen seconds past eleven to forty-seven minutes fifty-seven seconds past eleven A.M.

“What do I ask? what do I ask?” moaned the astronomer, tearing his hair. “Only one little corner of the sky free from clouds! only the small space in which the eclipse is to take place I And for how long? For four short minutes! After that, let it snow, let it thunder, let the elements break loose in fury, I should care no more for it all than a snail for a chronometer.”

It is not to be denied that Thomas Black had some grounds for his fears. It really seemed likely that observations would be impossible. At daybreak the horizon was shrouded in mists Heavy clouds were coming up from the south, and covering the very portion of the sky in which the eclipse was to take place. But doubtless the patron saint of astronomers had pity on poor Black, for towards eight o’clock a slight wind arose and swept tire mists and clouds from the sky, leaving it bright and clear!

A cry of gratitude burst from the lips of the astronomer, and his heart beat high with newly-awakened hope. The sun shone brightly, and the moon, so soon to darken it, was as yet invisible in its glorious beams.

Thomas Black’s instruments were already carefully placed on the promontory, and having pointed them towards the southern horizon, he awaited the event with calmness restored, and the coolness necessary for taking his observation. What was there left to fear?

Nothing, unless it was that the sky might fall upon his head! At nine o’clock there was not a cloud, not a vapour left upon the sky from the zenith to the horizon. Never were circumstances more favourable to an astronomical observation.

The whole party were anxious to take part in the observation, and all gathered round the astronomer on Cape Bathurst. Gradually the sun rose above the horizon, describing an extended arc above the vast plain stretching away to the south. No one spoke, but awaited the eclipse in solemn silence.

Towards half-past nine the eclipse commenced The disc of the moon seemed to graze that of the sun. But the moon’s shadow was not to fall completely on the earth, hiding the sun, until between forty three minutes past eleven and forty-seven minutes fifty-seven seconds past eleven. That was the time fixed in the almanacs, and every one knows that no error can creep into them, established, verified, and controlled as they are by the scientific men of all the observatories in the world.

The astronomer had brought a good many glasses with him, and he distributed them amongst his companions, that all might watch the progress of the phenomenon without injury to the eyes.

The brown disc of the moon gradually advanced, and terrestrial objects began to assume a peculiar orange hue, whilst the atmosphere on tire zenith completely changed colour. At a quarter-past ten half the disc of the sun was darkened, and a few dogs which happened to be at liberty showed signs of uneasiness and bowled piteously. The wild ducks, thinking night had come, began to utter sleepy calls -and to seek their nests, and the mothers gathered their little ones under their wings. The hush of eventide fell upon all animated nature.

At eleven o’clock two-thirds of the sun were covered, and all terrestrial objects became a kind of vinous red. A gloomy twilight set in, to be succeeded during the four minutes of totality by absolute darkness. A few planets, amongst t others Mercury and Venus, began to appear, and some constellations — Caplet, [symbol] and [symbol] of Taurus, and [symbol] of Orion. The darkness deepened every moment.

Thomas Black remained motionless with his eye glued to the glass of his instrument, eagerly watching the progress of the phenomenon. At forty-three minutes past eleven the discs of the two luminaries ought to be exactly opposite to each other, that of the moon completely hiding that of the sun.

“Forty-three minutes past eleven,” announced Hobson, who was attentively watching the minute hand of his chronometer.

Thomas Black remained motionless, stooping over his instrument. Half a minute passed, and then the astronomer [astonomer] drew himself up, with eyes distended and eager. Once more he bent over the telescope, and cried in a choked voice —

“She is going! she is going! The moon, the moon is going! She is disappearing, running away!”

True enough the disc of the moon was gliding away from that of the sun without having completely covered it!

The astronomer had fallen backwards, completely overcome. The four minutes were past. The luminous corona had not appeared!

“What is the matter?” inquired Hobson.

“The matter is,” screamed the poor astronomer, “that the eclipse was not total-not total for this portion of the globe! Do you hear? It was not  to-t-a-1! I say not  to-t-a-l!!”

“Then your almanacs are incorrect.”

“Incorrect! Don’t tell that to me, if you please, Lieutenant Hobson!”

“But what then?” said Hobson, suddenly changing countenance.

“Why,” said Black, “we are not after all on the seventieth parallel!”

“Only fancy!” cried Mrs Barnett.

“We can soon prove it,” said the astronomer whose eyes flashed with rage and disappointment. “The sun will pass the meridian in a few minutes. . . . My sextant-quick . . . make haste!”

One of the soldiers rushed to the house and fetched the instrument required.

The astronomer pointed it upon the sun; he watched the orb of day pass the meridian, and rapidly noted down a few calculations.

“What was the situation of Cape Bathurst a year ago when we took the latitude?” he inquired.

“Seventy degrees, forty-four minutes, and thirty-seven seconds,” replied Hobson.

“Well, sir, it is now seventy-three degrees, seven minutes, and twenty seconds! You see we are not under the seventieth parallel!

“Or rather we are no longer there!” muttered Hobson.

A sudden light had broken in upon his mind, all the phenomena hitherto so inexplicable were now explained.

Cape Bathurst had drifted three degrees farther north since the arrival of the Lieutenant and his companions!

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