The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XII.

A Chance to Be Tried.

The brave fellows knew it then! And that they might not add to the cares of their chief, they had pretended to know nothing, and had worked away at the preparations for the winter with the same zeal as the year before.

Tears of emotion stood in Hobson’s eyes, and he made no attempt to conceal them, but seizing Marbre’s outstretched hand, he pressed it in his own.

Yes, the soldiers all knew it, for Marbre had guessed it long ago. The filling of the reindeer trap with salt water, the non-arrival of the detachment from Fort Reliance, the observations of latitude and longitude taken every day, which would have been useless on firm ground, the precautions observed by Hobson to prevent any one seeing him take the bearings, the fact of the animals remaining on the island after winter had set in, and the change in the position of the cardinal points during the last few days, which they had noticed at once, had all been tokens easily interpreted by the inhabitants of Fort Hope. The arrival of Kalumah had puzzled them, but they had concluded that she had been thrown upon the island in the storm, and they were right, as we are aware.

Marbre, upon whom the truth had first dawned, confided his suspicions to Mac-Nab the carpenter and Rae the blacksmith. All three faced the situation calmly enough, and agreed that they ought to tell their comrades and wives, but decided to let the Lieutenant think they knew nothing, and to obey him without question as before.

“You are indeed brave fellows, my friends,” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, who was much touched by this delicate feeling, “you are true soldiers!”

“Our Lieutenant may depend upon us,” said Mac-Nab, “he has done his duty, and we will do ours.”

“I know you will, dear comrades,” said Hobson, “and if only Heaven will help and not forsake us, we will help ourselves.”

The Lieutenant then related all that had happened since the time when the earthquake broke the isthmus, and converted the districts round Cape Bathurst into an island. He told how, when the sea became free from ice in the spring, the new island had been drifted more than two hundred miles away from the coast by an unknown current, how the hurricane had driven it back within sight of land, how it had again been carried away in the night of the 31st August, and, lastly, how Kalumah had bravely risked her life to come to the aid of her European friends. Then he enumerated the changes the island had undergone, explaining how the warmer waters had worn it away, and his fear that it might be carried to the Pacific, or seized by the Kamtchatka Current, concluding his narrative by stating that the wandering island had finally stopped on the 27th of last September.

The chart of the Arctic seas was then brought, and Hobson pointed out the position occupied by the island — six hundred miles from all land.

He ended by saying that the situation was extremely dangerous, that the island would inevitably be crushed when the ice broke up, and that, before having recourse to the boat — which could not be used until the next summer — they must try to get back to the American continent by crossing the ice-field.

“We shall have six hundred miles to go in the cold and darkness of the Polar night. It will be hard work, my friends, but you know as well as I do that there can be no shrinking from the task.”

“When you give the signal to start, Lieutenant, we will follow you,” said Mac-Nab.

All being of one mind, the preparations for departure were from that date rapidly pushed forward. The men bravely faced the fact that they would have six hundred miles to travel under very trying circumstances. Sergeant Long superintended the works, whilst Hobson, the two hunters, and Mrs Barnett, often went to test the firmness of the ice-field. Kalumah frequently accompanied them, and her remarks, founded on experience, might possibly be of great use to the Lieutenant. Unless they were prevented they were to start on the 20th November, and there was not a moment to lose.

As Hobson had foreseen, the wind having risen, the temperature fell slightly, and the column of mercury marked 24° Fahrenheit.

Snow, which soon became hardened, replaced the rain of the preceding days. A few more days of such cold and sledges could be used. The little bay hollowed out of the cliffs of Cape Michael was partly filled with ice and snow; but it must not be forgotten that its calmer waters froze more quickly than those of the open sea, which were not yet in a satisfactory condition.

The wind continued to blow almost incessantly, and with considerable violence, but the motion of waves interfered with the regular formation and consolidation of the ice. Large pools of water occurred here and there between the pieces of ice, and it was impossible to attempt to cross it.

“The weather is certainly getting colder,” observed Mrs Barnett to Lieutenant Hobson, as they were exploring the south of the island together on the 10th November, “the temperature is becoming lower and lower, and these liquid spaces will soon freeze over.”

“I think you are right, madam,” replied Hobson, “but the way in which they will freeze over will not be very favourable to our plans. The pieces of ice are small, and their jagged edges will stick up all over the surface, making it very rough, so that if our sledges get over it at all, it will only be with very great difficulty.”

“But,” resumed Mrs Barnett, “if I am not mistaken, a heavy fall of snow, lasting a few days or even a few hours, would suffice to level the entire surface!”

“Yes, yes,” replied Hobson, “but if snow should fall, it will be because the temperature has risen; and if it rises, the ice-field will break up again, so that either contingency will be against us!”

“It really would be a strange freak of fortune if we should experience a temperate instead of an Arctic winter in the midst of the Polar Sea!” observed Mrs Barnett.

“It has happened before, madam, it has happened before. Let me remind you of the great severity of last cold season; now it has been noticed that two long bitter winters seldom succeed each other, and the whalers of the northern seas know it well. A bitter winter when we should have been glad of a mild one, and a mild one when we so sorely need the reverse. It must be owned, we have been strangely unfortunate thus far! And when I think of six hundred miles to cross with women and a child!” . . .

And Hobson pointed to the vast white plain, with strange irregular markings like guipure work, stretching away into the infinite

“I know you will, dear comrades,” said Hobson, “and if only Heaven will help and not forsake us, we will help ourselves.”

The Lieutenant then related all that had happened since the time when the earthquake broke the isthmus, and converted the districts round Cape Bathurst into an island. He told how, when the sea became free from ice in the spring, the new island had been drifted more than two hundred miles away from the coast by an unknown current, how the hurricane had driven it luck within sight of land, how it had again been carried away in the night of the 31st August, and, lastly, how Kalumah had bravely risked her life to come to the aid of her European friends. Then he enumerated the changes the island had undergone, explaining how the warmer waters had worn it away, and his fear that it might be carried to the Pacific, or seized by the Kamtchatka Current, concluding his narrative by stating that the wandering island had finally stopped on the 27th of last September.

The chart of the Arctic seas was then brought, and Hobson pointed out the position occupied by the island — six hundred miles from all land.

He ended by saying that the situation was extremely dangerous, that the island would inevitably be crushed when the ice broke up, and that, before having recourse to the boat — which could not be used until the next summer — they must try to get back to the American continent by crossing the ice-field.

“We shall have six hundred miles to go in the cold and darkness of the Polar night. It will be hard work, my friends but you know as well as I do that there can be no shirking from the task” “When you give the signal to start, Lieutenant, we will follow you,” said Mac-Nab.

All being of one mind, the preparations for departure were from that date rapidly pushed forward. The men bravely faced the fact that they would have six hundred miles to travel under very trying circumstances. Sergeant Long superintended the works, whilst Hobson, the two hunters, and Mrs Barnett, often went to test the firmness of the ice-field Kalumah frequently accompanied them, and her remarks, founded on experience, might possibly be of great use to the Lieutenant. Unless they were prevented they were to start on the 20th November, and there was not a moment to lose.

As Hobson had foreseen, the wind having risen, the temperature fell slightly, and the column of mercury marked 24° Fahrenheit.

Snow, which soon became hardened, replaced the rain of the preceding days. A few more days of such cold and sledges could be used The little bay hollowed out of the cliffs of Cape Michael was partly filled with ice and snow, but it must not be forgotten that its calmer waters froze more quickly than those of the open sea, which were not yet in a satisfactory condition.

The wind continued to blow almost incessantly, and with considerable violence, but the motion of waves interfered with the regular formation and consolidation of the ice. Large pools of water occurred here and there between the pieces of ice, and it was impossible to attempt to cross it.

“The weather is certainly getting colder,” observed Mrs Barnett to Lieutenant Hobson, as they were exploring the south of the island together on the 10th November, “the temperature is becoming lower and lower, and these liquid spaces will soon freeze over.”

“I think you are right, madam,” replied Hobson, “but the way in which they will freeze over will not be very favourable to our plans. The pieces of ice are small, and their jagged edges will stick up all over the surface, making it very rough, so that if our sledges get over it at all, it will only be with very great difficulty.”

“But,” resumed Mrs Barnett, “if I am not mistaken, a heavy fall of snow, lasting a few days or even a few hours, would suffice to level the entire surface!”

“Yes, yes,” replied Hobson, “but if snow should fall, it will be because the temperature has risen; and if it rises, the ice-field will break up again, so that either contingency will be against us!”

“It really would be a strange freak of fortune if we should experience a temperate instead of an Arctic winter in the midst of the Polar Sea!” observed Mrs Barnett.

“It has happened before, madam, it has happened before. Let me remind you of the great severity of last cold season; now it has been noticed that two long bitter winters seldom succeed each other, and the whalers of the northern seas know it well. A bitter winter when we should have been glad of a mild one, and a mild one when we so sorely need the reverse. It must be owned, we have been strangely unfortunate thus far! And when I think of six hundred miles to cross with women and a child!” . . .

And Hobson pointed to the vast white plain, with strange irregular markings like guipure work, stretching away into the infinite distance. Sad and desolate enough it looked, the imperfectly frozen surface cracking every now and then with an ominous sound. A pale moon, its light half quenched in the damp mists, rose but a few degrees above the gloomy horizon and shot a few faint beams upon the melancholy scene. The half-darkness and the refraction combined doubled the size of every object. Icebergs of moderate height assumed gigantic proportions, and were in some cases distorted into the forms of fabulous monsters. Birds passed overhead with loud flapping of wings, and in consequence of this optical illusion the smallest of them appeared as large as a condor or a vulture. In the midst of the icebergs yawned apparently huge black tunnels, into which the boldest man would scarcely dare to venture, and now and then sudden convulsions took place, as the icebergs, worn away at the base, heeled over with a crash, the sonorous echoes taking up the sounds and carrying them along. The rapid changes resembled the transformation scenes of fairyland, and terrible indeed must all those phenomena have appeared to the luckless colonists who were about to venture across the ice-field!

In spite of her moral and physical courage Mrs Barnett could not control an involuntary shudder. Soul and body alike shrunk from the awful prospect, and she was tempted to shut her eyes and stop her ears that she might see and hear no more. When the moon was for a moment veiled behind a heavy cloud, the gloom of the Polar landscape became still more awe-inspiring, and before her mind’s eye rose a vision of the caravan of men and women struggling across these vast solitudes in the midst of hurricanes, snow-storms, avalanches, and in the thick darkness of the Arctic night!

Mrs Barnett, however, forced herself to look; she wished to accustom her eyes to these scenes, and to teach herself not to shrink from facing their terrors. But as she gazed a cry suddenly burst from her lips, and seizing Hobson’s hand, she pointed to a huge object, of ill-defined dimensions, moving about in the uncertain light, scarcely a hundred paces from where they stood.

It was a white monster of immense size, more than a hundred feet high. It was pacing slowly along over the broken ice, bounding from one piece to another, and beating the air with its huge feet, between which it could have held ten large dogs at least. It, too, seemed to be seeking a practicable path across the ice — it, too, seemed anxious to fly from the doomed island. The ice gave way beneath its weight, and it had often considerable difficulty in regaining its feet.

The monster made its way thus for about a quarter of a mile across the ice, and then, its farther progress being barred, it turned round and advanced towards the spot where Mrs Barnett and the Lieutenant stood.

Hobson seized the gun which was slung over his shoulder and presented it at the animal, but almost immediately lowering the weapon, he said to Mrs Barnett —

“A bear, madam, only a bear, the size of which has been greatly magnified by refraction.”

It was, in fact, a Polar bear, and Mrs Barnett drew a long breath of relief as she understood the optical illusion of which she had been the victim. Then an idea struck her.

“It is my bear!” she exclaimed, “the bear with the devotion of a Newfoundland dog! Probably the only one still on the island. But what is he doing here?”

“He is trying to get away,” replied Hobson, shaking his head. “He is trying to escape from this doomed island, and he cannot do so! He is proving to us that we cannot pass where he has had to turn back!”

Hobson was right, the imprisoned animal had tried to leave the island and to get to the continent, and having failed it was returning to the coast. Shaking its head and growling, it passed some twenty paces from the two watchers, and, either not seeing them or disdaining to take any notice of them, it walked heavily on towards Cape Michael, and soon disappeared behind the rising ground.

Lieutenant Hobson and Mrs Barnett returned sadly and silently to the fort.

The preparations for departure went on as rapidly, however, as if it were possible to leave the island. Nothing was neglected to promote the success of the undertaking, every possible danger had to be foreseen, and not only had the ordinary difficulties and dangers of a journey across the ice to be allowed for, but also the sudden changes of weather peculiar to the Polar regions, which so obstinately resist every attempt to explore them.

The teams of dogs required special attention. They were allowed to run about near the fort, that they might regain the activity of which too long a rest had, to some extent, deprived them, and they were soon in a condition to make a long march.

The sledges were carefully examined and repaired. The rough surface of the ice-field would give them many violent shocks, and they were therefore thoroughly overhauled by Mac-Nab and his men, the inner framework and the curved fronts being carefully repaired and strengthened.

Two large waggon sledges were built, one for the transport of provisions, the other for the peltries. These were to be drawn by the tamed reindeer, which had been well trained for the service. The peltries or furs were articles of luxury with which it was not perhaps quite prudent to burden the travellers, but Hobson was anxious to consider the interests of the Company as much as possible, although he was resolved to abandon them, en route, if they harassed or impeded his march. No fresh risk was run of injury of the furs, for of course they would have been lost if left at the factory.

It was of course quite another matter with the provisions, of which a good and plentiful supply was absolutely necessary. It was of no use to count on the product of the chase this time. As soon as the passage of the ice-field became practicable, all the edible game would get on ahead and reach the mainland before the caravan. One waggon sledge was therefore packed with salt meat, corned beef, hare patès, dried fish, biscuits — the stock of which was unfortunately getting low — and an ample reserve of sorrel, scurvy-grass, rum, spirits of wine, for making warm drinks, &c. &c. Hobson would have been glad to take some fuel with him, as he would not meet with a tree, a shrub, or a bit of moss throughout the march of six hundred miles, nor could he hope for pieces of wreck or timber cast up by the sea, but he did not dare to overload his sledges with wood. Fortunately there was no lack of warm comfortable garments, and in case of need they could draw upon the reserve of peltries in the waggon.

Thomas Black, who since his misfortune had altogether retired from the world, shunning his companions, taking part in none of the consultations, and remaining shut up in his own room, reappeared as soon as the day of departure was definitely fixed. But even then he attended to nothing but the sledge which was to carry his person, his instruments, and his registers. Always very silent, it was now impossible to get a word out of him. He had forgotten everything, even that he was a scientific man, and since he had been deceived about the eclipse, since the solution of the problem of the red prominences of the moon had escaped him, he had taken no notice of any of the peculiar phenomena of the high latitudes, such as the Aurora Borealis, halos, parhelia, &c.

During the last few days every one worked so hard that all was ready for the start on the morning of the 18th November.

But, alas! the ice-field was still impassable. Although the thermometer had fallen slightly, the cold had not been severe enough to freeze the surface of the sea, with any uniformity, and the snow which fell was fine and intermittent. Hobson, Marbre, and Sabine went along the coast every day from Cape Michael to what was once the corner of the old Walruses’ Bay. They even ventured out about a mile and a half upon the ice-field, but were compelled to admit that it was broken by rents, crevasses, and fissures in every direction. Not only would it be impossible for sledges to cross it, it was dangerous for unencumbered pedestrians. Hobson and his two men underwent the greatest fatigue in these short excursions, and more than once they ran a risk of being unable to get back to Victoria Island across the ever-changing, ever-moving blocks of ice.

Really all nature seemed to be in league against the luckless colonists.

On the 18th and 19th November, the thermometer rose, whilst the barometer fell. Fatal results were to be feared from this change in the state of the atmosphere. Whilst the cold decreased the sky became covered with clouds, which presently resolved themselves into heavy rain instead of the sadly-needed snow, the column of mercury standing at 34° Fahrenheit. These showers of comparatively warm water melted the snow and ice in many places, and the result can easily be imagined. It really seemed as if a thaw were setting in, and there were symptoms of a general breaking up of the ice-field. In spite of the dreadful weather, however, Hobson went to the south of the island every day, and every day returned more disheartened than before.

On the 20th, a tempest resembling in violence that of the month before, broke upon the gloomy Arctic solitudes, compelling the colonists to give up going out, and to remain shut up in Fort Hope for two days.

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