The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter X.

The Kamtchatka Current.

We can readily imagine the reception given to Kalumah by all at the fort. It seemed to them that the communication with the outer world was reopened. Mrs Mac-Nab, Mrs Rae and Mrs Joliffe overwhelmed her with caresses, but Kalumah’s first thought was for the little child, she caught sight of him immediately, and running to him covered him with kisses.

The young native was charmed and touched with the hospitality of her European hosts. A positive fête was held in her honour and every one was delighted that she would have to remain at the fort for the winter, the season being too far advanced for her to get back to the settlements of Russian America before the cold set in.

But if all the settlers were agreeably surprised at the appearance of Kalumah, what must Lieutenant Hobson have thought when he saw her leaning on Mrs Barnett’s arm. A sudden hope flashed across his mind like lightning, and as quickly died away: perhaps in spite of the evidence of his daily observations Victoria Island had run aground somewhere on the continent unnoticed by any of them.

Mrs Barnett read the Lieutenant’s thoughts in his face, and shook her head sadly.

He saw that no change had taken place in their situation, and waited until Mrs Barnett was able to explain Kalumah’s appearance.

A few minutes later he was walking along the beach with the lady, listening with great interest to her account of Kalumah’s adventures.

So he had been right in all his conjectures. The north-east hurricane had driven the island out of the current. The ice-field had approached within a mile at least of the American continent. It had not been a fire on board ship which they had seen, or the cry of a shipwrecked mariner which they had heard. The mainland had been close at hand, and had the north-east wind blown hard for another hour Victoria Island would have struck against the coast of Russian America. And then at this critical moment a fatal, a terrible wind had driven the island away from the mainland back to the open sea, and it was again in the grasp of the irresistible current, and was being carried along with a speed which nothing could check, the mighty south-east wind aiding its headlong course, to that terribly dangerous spot where it would be exposed to contrary attractions, either of which might lead to its destruction and that of all the unfortunate people dragged along with it.

For the hundredth time the Lieutenant and Mrs Barnett discussed all the bearings of the case, and then Hobson inquired if any important changes had taken place in the appearance of the districts between Cape Bathurst and Walruses’ Bay?

Mrs Barnett replied that in some places the level of the coast appeared to be lowered, and that the waves now covered tracts of sand which were formerly out of their reach. She related what had happened at Cape Esquimaux, and the important fracture which had taken place at that part of the coast.

Nothing could have been less satisfactory. It was evident that the ice-field forming the foundation of the island was breaking up. What had happened at Cape Esquimaux might at any moment be reproduced at Cape Bathurst. At any hour of the day or night the houses of the factory might be swallowed up by the deep, and the only thing which could save them was the winter, the bitter winter which was fortunately rapidly approaching.

The next day, September 4th, when Hobson took his bearings, he found that the position of Victoria Island had not sensibly changed since the day before. It had remained motionless between the two contrary currents, which was on the whole the very best thing that could have happened.

“If only the cold would fix us where we are, if the ice wall would shut us in, and the sea become petrified around us,” exclaimed Hobson, “I should feel that our safety was assured. We are but two hundred miles from the coast at this moment, and by venturing across the frozen ice fields we might perhaps reach either Russian America or Kamtchatka. Winter, winter at any price, let the winter set in, no matter how rapidly.”

Meanwhile, according to the Lieutenant’s orders, the preparations for the winter were completed. Enough forage to last the dogs the whole of the Polar night was stored up. They were all in good health, but getting rather fat with having nothing to do. They could not be taken too much care of, as they would have to work terribly hard in the journey across the ice after the abandonment of Fort Hope. It was most important to keep up their strength, and they were fed on raw reindeer venison, plenty of which was easily attainable.

The tame reindeer also prospered, their stable was comfortable, and a good supply of moss was laid by for them in the magazines of the fort. The females provided Mrs Joliffe with plenty of milk for her daily culinary needs.

The Corporal and his little wife had also sown fresh seeds, encouraged by the success of the last in the warm season. The ground had been prepared beforehand for the planting of scurvy-grass and Labrador Tea. It was important that there should be no lack of these valuable anti-scorbutics.

The sheds were filled with wood up to the very roof. Winter might come as soon as it liked now, and freeze the mercury in the cistern of the thermometer, there was no fear that they would again be reduced to burn their furniture as they had the year before. Mac-Nab and his men had become wise by experience, and the chips left from the boat-building added considerably to their stock of fuel.

About this time a few animals were taken which had already assumed their winter furs, such as martens, polecats, blue foxes, and ermines. Marbre and Sabine had obtained leave from the Lieutenant to set some traps outside the enceinte. He did not like to refuse them this permission, lest they should become discontented, as he had really no reason to assign for putting a stop to the collecting of furs, although he knew full well that the destination of these harmless creatures could do nobody any good. Their flesh was, however, useful for feeding the dogs, and enabled them to economise the reindeer venison.

All was now prepared for the winter, and the soldiers worked with an energy which they would certainly not have shown if they had been told the secret of their situation.

During the next few days the bearings were taken with the greatest care, but no change was noticeable in the situation of Victoria Island; and Hobson, finding that it was motionless, began to have fresh hope. Although there were as yet no symptoms of winter in inorganic nature, the temperature maintaining a mean height of 49° Fahrenheit, some swans flying to the south in search of a warmer climate was a good omen. Other birds capable of a long-sustained flight over vast tracts of the ocean began to desert the island. They knew full well that the continent of America and of Asia, with their less severe climates and their plentiful resources of every kind, were not far off, and that their wings were strong enough to carry them there. A good many of these birds were caught; and by Mrs Barnett’s advice the Lieutenant tied round their necks a stiff cloth ticket, on which was inscribed the position of the wandering island, and the names of its inhabitants. The birds were then set free, and their captors watched them wing their way to the south with envious eyes.

Of course none were in the secret of the sending forth of these messengers, except Mrs Barnett, Madge, Kalumah, Hobson, and Long.

The poor quadrupeds were unable to seek their usual winter refuges in the south. Under ordinary circumstances the reindeer, Polar hares, and even the wolves would have left early in September for the shores of the Great Bear and Slave Lakes, a good many degrees farther south; but now the sea was an insurmountable barrier, and they, too, would have to wait until the winter should render it passable. Led by instinct they had doubtless tried to leave the island, but, turned back by the water, the instinct of self-preservation had brought them to the neighbourhood of Fort Hope, to be near the men who were once their hunters and most formidable enemies, but were now, like themselves, rendered comparatively inoffensive by their imprisonment.

The observations of the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th September, revealed no alteration in the position of Victoria Island. The large eddy between the two currents kept it stationary. Another fifteen days, another three weeks of this state of things, and Hobson felt that they might be saved.

But they were not yet out of danger, and many terrible, almost supernatural, trials still awaited the inhabitants of Fort Hope.

On the 10th of September observations showed a displacement of Victoria Island. Only a slight displacement, but in a northerly direction.

Hobson was in dismay; the island was finally in the grasp of the Kamtchatka Current, and was drifting towards the unknown latitudes where the large icebergs come into being; it was on its way to the vast solitudes of the Arctic Ocean, interdicted to the human race, from which there is no return.

Hobson did not hide this new danger from those who were in the secret of the situation. Mrs Barnett, Madge, Kalumah, and Sergeant Long received this fresh blow with courage and resignation.

“Perhaps,” said Mrs Barnett, “the island may stop even yet. Perhaps it will move slowly. Let us hope on . . . and wait! The winter is not far off, and we are going to meet it. In any case God’s will be done!” “My friends,” said Hobson earnestly, “do you not think I ought now to tell our comrades. You see in what a terrible position we are and all that may await us! Is it not taking too great a responsibility to keep them in ignorance of the peril they are in?”

“I should wait a little longer,” replied Mrs Barnett without hesitation; “I would not give them all over to despair until the last chance is gone.”

“That is my opinion also,” said Long.

Hobson had thought the same, and was glad to find that his companions agreed with him in the matter.

On the 11th and 12th September, the motion towards the north was more noticeable. Victoria Island was drifting at a rate of from twelve to thirteen miles a day, so that each day took them the same distance farther from the land and nearer to the north. They were, in short, following the decided course made by the Kamtchatka Current, and would quickly pass that seventieth degree which once cut across the extremity of Cape Bathurst, and beyond which no land of any kind was to be met with in this part of the Arctic Ocean.

Every day Hobson looked out their position on the map, and saw only too clearly to what awful solitudes the wandering island was drifting.

The only hope left consisted, as Mrs Barnett had said, in the fact that they were going to meet the winter. In thus drifting towards the north they would soon encounter those ice-cold waters, which would consolidate and strengthen the foundations of the island. But if the danger of being swallowed up by the waves was decreased, would not the unfortunate colonists have an immense distance to traverse to get back from these remote northern regions? Had the boat been finished, Lieutenant Hobson would not have hesitated to embark the whole party in it, but in spite of the zealous efforts of the carpenter it was not nearly ready, and indeed it taxed Mac-Nab’s powers to the uttermost to construct a vessel on which to trust the lives of twenty persons in such a dangerous sea

By the 16th September Victoria Island was between seventy-three and eighty miles north of the spot where its course had been arrested for a few days between the Behring and Kamtchatka Cur rents There were now, however, many signs of the approach of winter Snow fell frequently and in large flakes The column of mercury fell gradually The mean temperature was still 44° Fahrenheit during the day, but at night it fell to 32°. The sun described an extremely lengthened curve above the horizon, not rising more than a few degrees even at noon, and disappearing for eleven hours out of every twenty four.

At last, on the night of the 16th September, the first signs of ice appeared upon the sea in the shape of small isolated crystals like snow, which stained the clear surface of the water As was noticed by the famous explorer Scoresby, these crystals immediately calmed the waves, like the oil which sailors pour upon the sea to produce a momentary cessation of its agitation These crystals showed a tendency to weld themselves together, but they were broken and separated by the motion of the water as soon as they had combined to any extent.

Hobson watched the appearance of the “young ice” with extreme attention. He knew that twenty four hours would suffice to make the ice-crust two or three inches thick, strong enough in fact to bear the weight of a man He therefore expected that Victoria Island would shortly be arrested in its course to the north.

But the day ended the work of the night, and if the speed of the island slackened during the darkness in consequence of the obstacles in its path, they were removed in the next twelve hours, and the island was carried rapidly along again by the powerful current.

The distance from the northern regions became daily less, and nothing could be done to lessen the evil.

At the autumnal equinox on the 21st of September, the day and night were of equal length, and from that date the night gradually became longer and longer. The winter was coming at last, but it did not set in rapidly or with any rigour Victoria Island was now nearly a degree farther north than the seventieth parallel, and on this 21st September, a rotating motion was for the first time noticed, a motion estimated by Hobson at about a quarter of the circumference.

Imagine the anxiety of the unfortunate Lieutenant. The secret he had so long carefully kept was now about to be betrayed by nature to the least clear sighted. Of course the rotation altered the cardinal points of the island. Cape Bathurst no longer pointed to the north, but to the east. The sun, moon, and stars rose and set on a different horizon, and it was impossible that men like Mac-Nab, Rae, Marbre and others, accustomed to note the signs of the heavens, could fail to be struck by the change, and understand its meaning.

To Hobson’s great satisfaction, however, the brave soldiers appeared to notice nothing, the displacement with regard to the cardinal points was not, it was true, very considerable, and it was often too foggy for the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies to be accurately observed.

Unfortunately the rotation appeared to be accompanied by an increase of speed. From that date Victoria Island drifted at the rate of a mile an hour. It advanced farther and farther north, farther and farther away from all land. Hobson did not even yet despair, for it was not in his nature to do so, but he felt confused and astray, and longed for the winter with all his heart.

At last the temperature began to fall still lower. Snow fell plentifully on the 23d and 24th September, and increased the thickness of the coating of ice on the sea. Gradually the vast ice-field was formed on every side, the island in its advance continually broke it up, but each day it became firmer and better able to resist. The sea succumbed to the petrifying hand of winter, and became frozen as far as the eye could reach, and on September 27th, when the bearings were taken, it was found that Victoria Island had not moved since the day before. It was imprisoned in a vast ice-field, it was motionless in longitude 177° 22’, and latitude 77° 57’— more than six hundred miles from any continent.

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