The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter VIII.

Mrs. Paulina Barnett’s Excursion.

The whole morning Hobson and Sergeant Long wandered about the coast. The weather was much improved, the rain had ceased, and the wind had veered round to the south-east with extraordinary suddenness, without unfortunately decreasing in violence, causing fresh anxiety to the Lieutenant, who could no longer hope to reach the mainland.

The south-east wind would drive the wandering island farther from the continent, and fling it into the dangerous currents, which must drift it to the north of the Arctic Ocean.

How could they even be sure that they had really approached the coast during the awful night just over. Might it not have been merely a fancy of the Lieutenant’s? The air was now clear, and they could look round a radius of several miles; yet there was nothing in the least resembling land within sight. Might they not adopt the Sergeant’s suggestion, that a ship had passed the island during the night, that the fire and cry were alike signals of sailors in distress? And if it had been a vessel, must it not have foundered in such a storm?

Whatever the explanation there was no sign of a wreck to be seen either in the offing or on the beach, and the waves, now driven along by the wind from the land, were large enough to have overwhelmed any vessel.

“Well, Lieutenant,” said Sergeant Long, “what is to be done?’“

“We must remain upon our island,” replied the Lieutenant, pressing his hand to his brow; “we must remain on our island and wait for winter; it alone can save us.”

It was now mid-day, and Hobson, anxious to get back to Fort Hope before the evening, at once turned towards Cape Bathurst.

The wind, being now on their backs, helped them along as it had done before. They could not help feeling very uneasy, as they were naturally afraid that the island might have separated into two parts in the storm. The gulf observed the night before might have spread farther, and if so they would be cut off from their friends.

They soon reached the wood they had crossed the night before. Numbers of trees were lying on the ground, some with broken stems, others torn up by the roots from the soft soil, which had not afforded them sufficient support. The few which remained erect were stripped of their leaves, and their naked branches creaked and moaned as the south-east wind swept over them.

Two miles beyond this desolated forest the wanderers arrived at the edge of the gulf they had seen the night before without being able to judge of its extent. They examined it carefully, and found that it was about fifty feet wide, cutting the coast line straight across near Cape Michael and what was formerly Fort Barnett, forming a kind of estuary running more than a mile and a half inland. If the sea should again become rough in a fresh storm, this gulf would widen more and more.

Just as Hobson approached the beach, he saw a large piece of ice separate from the island and float away!

“Ah!” murmured Long, “that is the danger!”

Both then turned hurriedly to the west, and walked as fast as they could round the huge gulf, making direct for Fort Hope.

They noticed no other changes by the way, and towards four o’clock they crossed the court and found all their comrades at their usual occupations.

Hobson told his men that he had wished once more before the winter to see if there were any signs of the approach of Captain Craventy’s convoy, and that his expedition had been fruitless.

“Then, sir,” observed Marbre, “I suppose we must give up all idea of seeing our comrades from Fort Reliance for this year at least?”

“I think you must,” replied Hobson simply, re-entering the public room.

Mrs Barnett and Madge were told of the two chief events of the exploration: the fire and the cry. Hobson was quite sure that neither lib nor the Sergeant were mistaken. The fire had really been seen, the cry had really been heard; and after a long consultation every one came to the conclusion that a ship in distress had passed within sight during the night, and that the island had not approached the American coast.

The south-east wind quickly chased away the clouds and mists, so that Hobson hoped to be able to take his bearings the next day. The night was colder and a fine snow fell, which quickly covered the ground. This first sign of winter was hailed with delight by all who knew of the peril of their situation.

On the 2nd September the sky gradually became free from vapours of all kinds, and the sun again appeared. Patiently the Lieutenant awaited its culmination; at noon he took the latitude, and two hours later a calculation of hour-angles gave him the longitude.

The following were the results obtained: Latitude, 70° 57’; longitude, 170° 30’.

So that, in spite of the violence of the hurricane, the island had remained in much the same latitude, although it had been drifted somewhat farther west. They were now abreast of Behring Strait, but four hundred miles at least north of Capes East and Prince of Wales, which jut out on either side at the narrowest part of the passage.

The situation was, therefore, more dangerous than ever, as the island was daily getting nearer to the dangerous Kamtchatka Current, which, if it once seized it in its rapid waters, might carry it far away to the north. Its fate would now soon be decided. It would either stop where the two currents met, and there be shut in by the ice of the approaching winter, or it would be drifted away and lost in the solitudes of the remote hyperborean regions.

Hobson was painfully moved on ascertaining the true state of things, and being anxious to conceal his emotion, he shut himself up in his own room and did not appear again that day. With his chart before him, he racked his brains to find some way out of the difficulties with which be was beset.

The temperature fell some degrees farther the same day, and the mists, which had collected above the south-eastern horizon the day before, resolved themselves into snow during the night, so that the next day the white carpet was two inches thick. Winter was coming at last.

On September 3rd Mrs Barnett resolved to go a few miles along the coast towards Cape Esquimaux. She wished to see for herself the changes lately produced. If she had mentioned her project to the Lieutenant, he would certainly have offered to accompany her; but she did not wish to disturb him, and decided to go without him, taking Madge with her. There was really nothing to fear, the only formidable animals, the bears, seemed to have quite deserted the island after the earthquake; and two women might, without danger, venture on a walk of a few hours without an escort.

Madge agreed at once to Mrs Barnett’s proposal, and without a word to any one they set out at eight o’clock A.M., provided with an ice-chisel, a flask of spirits, and a wallet of provisions.

After leaving Cape Bathurst they turned to the west. The sun was already dragging its slow course along the horizon, for at this time of year it would only be a few degrees above it at its culmination. But its oblique rays were clear and powerful, and the snow was already melting here and there beneath their influence.

The coast was alive with flocks of birds of many kinds; ptarmigans, guillemots, puffins, wild geese, and ducks of every variety fluttered about, uttering their various cries, skimming the surface of the sea or of the lagoon, according as their tastes led them to prefer salt or fresh water.

Mrs Barnett had now a capital opportunity of seeing how many furred animals haunted the neighbourhood of Fort Hope. Martens, ermines, musk-rats, and foxes were numerous, and the magazines of the factory might easily have been filled with their skins, but what good would that be now? The inoffensive creatures, knowing that hunting was suspended, went and came fearlessly, venturing close up to the palisade, and becoming tamer every day. Their instinct doubtless told them that they and their old enemies were alike prisoners on the island, and a common danger bound them together. It struck Mrs Barnett as strange that the two enthusiastic hunters — Marbre and Sabine — should obey the Lieutenant’s orders to spare the furred animals without remonstrance or complaint, and appeared not even to wish to shoot the valuable game around them. It was true the foxes and others had not yet assumed their winter robes, but this was not enough to explain the strange indifference of the two hunters.

Whilst walking at a good pace and talking over their strange situation, Mrs Barnett and Madge carefully noted the peculiarities of the sandy coast. The ravages recently made by the sea were distinctly visible. Fresh landslips enabled them to see new fractures in the ice distinctly. The strand, fretted away in many places, had sunk to an enormous extent, and the waves washed along a level beach when the perpendicular shores had once checked their advance. It was evident that parts of the island were now only on a level with the ocean.

“O Madge!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, pointing to the long smooth tracts on which the curling waves broke in rapid succession, “our situation has indeed become aggravated by the awful storm! It is evident that the level of the whole island is gradually becoming lower. It is now only a question of time. Will the winter come soon enough to save us? Everything depends upon that.”

“The winter will come, my dear girl,” replied Madge with her usual unshaken confidence. “We have already had two falls of snow. Ice is [begininng] beginning to accumulate, and God will send it us in time, I feel sure.”

“You are right. Madge, we must have faith!” said Mrs Barnett. “We women who do not trouble ourselves about the scientific reasons for physical phenomena can hope, when men who are better informed, perhaps, despair. That is one of our blessings, which our Lieutenant unfortunately does not share. He sees the significance of facts, he reflects, he calculates, he reckons up the time still remaining to us, and I see that he is beginning to lose all hope.”

“He is a brave, energetic man, for all that,” replied Madge.

“Yes,” added Mrs Barnett, “and if it be in the power of man to save us, he will do it.”

By nine o’clock the two women had walked four miles. They were often obliged to go inland for some little distance, to avoid parts of the coast already invaded by the sea. Here and there the waves had encroached half-a-mile beyond the former high-water line, and the thickness of the ice-field had been considerably reduced. There was danger that it would soon yield in many places, and that new bays would be formed all along the coast.

As they got farther from the fort Mrs Barnett noticed that the number of furred animals decreased considerably. The poor creatures evidently felt more secure near a human habitation. The only formidable animals which had not been led by instinct to escape in time from the dangerous island were a few wolves, savage beasts which even a common danger did not conciliate. Mrs Barnett and Madge saw several wandering about on the plains, but they did not approach, and soon disappeared behind the hills on the south of the lagoon.

“What will become of all these imprisoned animals,” said Madge, “when all food fails them, and they are famished with hunger in the winter?”

“They will not be famished in a hurry, Madge,” replied Mrs Barnett, “and we shall have nothing to fear from them; all the martens, ermines, and Polar hares, which we spare will fall an easy prey to them. That is not our danger; the brittle ground beneath our feet, which may at any moment give way, is our real peril. Only look how the sea is advancing here. It already covers half the plain, and the waves, still comparatively warm, are eating away our island above and below at the same time! If the cold does not stop it very soon, the sea will shortly join the lake, and we shall lose our lagoon as we lost our river and our port!”

“Well, if that should happen it will indeed be an irreparable misfortune!” exclaimed Madge.

“Why?” asked Mrs Barnett, looking inquiringly at her companion.

“Because we shall have no more fresh water,” replied Madge.

“Oh, we shall not want for fresh water, Madge,” said Mrs Barnett; “the rain, the snow, the ice, the icebergs of the ocean, the very ice-field on which we float, will supply us with that; no, no, that is not our danger.”

About ten o’clock Mrs Barnett and Madge had readied the rising ground above Cape Esquimaux, but at least two miles inland, for they had found it impossible to follow the coast, worn away as it was by the sea. Being rather tired with the many détours they had had to make, they decided to rest a few minutes before setting off on their return to Fort Hope. A little hill crowned by a clump of birch trees and a few shrubs afforded a pleasant shelter, and a bank covered with yellow moss, from which the snow had melted, served them as a seat. The little wallet was opened, and they shared their simple repast like sisters.

Half an hour later, Mrs Barnett proposed that they should climb along the promontory to the sea, and find out the exact state of Cape Esquimaux. She was anxious to know if the point of it had resisted the storm, and Madge declared herself ready to follow “her dear girl” wherever she went, but at the same time reminded her that they were eight or nine miles from Cape Bathurst already, and that they must not make Lieutenant Hobson uneasy by too long an absence.

But some presentiment made Mrs Barnett insist upon doing as she proposed, and she was right, as the event proved. It would only delay them half an hour after all.

They had not gone a quarter of a mile before Mrs Barnett stopped suddenly, and pointed to some clear and regular impressions upon the snow. These marks must have been made within the last nine or ten hours, or the last fall of snow would have covered them over.

“What animal has passed along here, I wonder?” said Madge.

“It was not an animal,” said Mrs Barnett, bending down to examine the marks more closely, “not a quadruped certainly, for its four feet would have left impressions very different from these. Look, Madge, they are the footprints of a human person!”

“But who could have been here?” inquired Madge; “none of the soldiers or women have left the fort, and we are on an island, remember. You must be mistaken, my dear; but we will follow the marks, and see where they lead us.”

They did so, and fifty paces farther on both again paused.

“Look, Madge, look!” cried Mrs Barnett, seizing her companion’s arm, “and then say if I am mistaken.”

Near the footprints there were marks of a heavy body having been dragged along the snow, and the impression of a hand.

“It is the hand of a woman or a child!” cried Madge.

“Yes!” replied Mrs Barnett; “a woman or a child has fallen here exhausted, and risen again to stumble farther on; look, the footprints again, and father on more falls!”

“Who, who could it have been?” exclaimed Madge.

“How can I tell?” replied Mrs Barnett. “Some unfortunate creature imprisoned like ourselves for three or four months perhaps. Or some shipwrecked wretch flung upon the coast in the storm. You remember the fire and the cry of which Sergeant Long and Lieutenant Hobson spoke. Come, come, Madge, there may be some one in danger for us to save!

And Mrs Barnett, dragging Madge with her, ran along following the traces, and further on found that they were stained with blood.

The brave, tender-hearted woman, had spoken of saving some one in danger; had she then forgotten that there was no safety for any upon the island, doomed sooner or later to be swallowed up by the ocean?

The impressions on the ground led towards Cape Esquimaux. And the two carefully traced them, but the footprints presently disappeared, whilst the blood-stains increased, making an irregular pathway along the snow. It was evident the poor wretch had been unable to walk farther, and had crept along on hands and knees; here and there fragments of torn clothes were scattered about, bits of sealskin and fur.

“Come, come,” cried Mrs Barnett, whose heart beat violently.

Madge followed her, they were only a few yards from Cape Esquimaux, which now rose only a few feet upon the sea-level against the background of the sky, and was quite deserted.

The impressions now led them to the right of the cape, and running along they soon climbed to the top, but there was still nothing, absolutely nothing, to be seen. At the foot of the cape, where the slight ascent began, the traces turned to the right, and led straight to the sea.

Mrs Barnett was turning to the right also, but just as she was stepping on to the beach, Madge, who had been following her and looking about uneasily, caught hold of her hand, and exclaimed —

“Stop! stop!” “No, Madge, no!” cried Mrs Barnett, who was drawn along by a kind of instinct in spite of herself.

“Stop, stop, and look!” cried Madge, tightening her hold on her mistress’s hand.

On the beach, about fifty paces from Cape Esquimaux, a large white mass was moving about and growling angrily.

It was an immense Polar bear, and the two women watched it with beating hearts. It was pacing round and round a bundle of fur on the ground, which it smelt at every now and then, lifting it up and letting it fall again. The bundle of fur looked like the dead body of a walrus.

Mrs Barnett and Madge did not know what to think, whether to advance or to retreat, but presently as the body was moved about a kind of hood fell back from the head, and some long locks of brown hair were thrown over the snow.

“It is a woman! a woman!” cried Mrs Barnett, eager to rush to her assistance and find out if she were dead or alive!

“Stop!” repeated Madge, holding her back; “the bear won’t harm her.”

And, indeed, the formidable creature merely turned the body over, and showed no inclination of tearing it with its dreadful claws. It went away and came back apparently uncertain what to do. It had not yet perceived the two women who were so anxiously watching it.

Suddenly a loud crack was heard. The earth shook, and it seemed as if the whole of Cape Esquimaux were about to be plunged into the sea.

A large piece of the island had broken away, and a huge piece of ice, the centre of gravity of which had been displaced by the alteration in its specific weight, drifted away, carrying with it the bear and the body of the woman.

Mrs Barnett screamed, and would have flung herself upon the broken ice before it floated away, if Madge had not clutched her hand firmly, saying quietly ——

“Stop! stop!”

At the noise produced by the breaking off of the piece of ice, the bear started back with a fearful growl, and, leaving the body, rushed to the side where the fracture had taken place; but he was already some forty feet from the coast, and in his terror he ran round and round the islet, tearing up the ground with his claws, and stamping the sand and snow about him.

Presently he returned to the motionless body, and, to the horror of the two women, seized it by the clothes with his teeth, and carrying it to the edge of the ice, plunged with it into the sea.

Being a powerful swimmer, like the whole race of Arctic bears, he soon gained the shores of the island. With a great exertion of strength he managed to climb up the ice, and having reached the surface of the island he quietly laid down the body he had brought with him.

Mrs Barnett could no longer be held back, and, shaking off Madge’s hold, she rushed to the beach, never thinking of the danger she ran in facing a formidable carnivorous creature.

The bear, seeing her approach, reared upon his hind legs, and came towards her, but at about ten paces off he paused, shook his great head, and turning round with a low growl, quietly walked away towards the centre of the island, without once looking behind him. He, too, was evidently affected by the mysterious fear which had tamed all the wild animals on the island.

Mrs Barnett was soon bending over the body stretched about the snow.

A cry of astonishment burst from her lips:

“Madge, Madge, come!” she exclaimed.

Madge approached and looked long and fixedly at the inanimate body. It was the young Esquimaux girl Kalumah!

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