The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XIX.

Behring Sea.

The island, driven by the ice-wall, had then drifted at a great speed into Behring Sea, after crossing the strait without running aground on its shores! It was still hurrying on before the icy barrier, which was in the grasp of a powerful submarine current, hastening onwards on to its inevitable dissolution in the warmer waters of the Pacific, and the boat on which all had depended was useless!

As soon as Mrs Barnett had entirely recovered consciousness, she related in a few words the history of the seventy-four hours spent in the house now in the water. Thomas Black, Madge, and Kalumah had been aroused by the crash of the avalanche, and had rushed to the doors or windows. There was no longer any possibility of getting out, the mass of earth and sand, which was but a moment before Cape Bathurst, completely covered the house, and almost immediately afterwards the prisoners heard the crash of the huge ice-masses which were flung upon the factory.

In another quarter of an hour all felt that the house, whilst resisting the enormous pressure, was sinking through the soil of the island. They knew that the crust of the ice must have given way, and that the house would fill with water!

To seize a few provisions remaining in the pantry, and to take refuge in the loft, was the work of a moment. This the poor creatures did from a dim instinct of self-preservation, but what hope could they really have of being saved! However, the loft seemed likely to resist, and two blocks of ice abutting from the roof saved it from being immediately crushed.

Whilst thus imprisoned the poor creatures could hear the constant falls from the icebergs, whilst the sea was gradually rising through the lower rooms. They must either be crushed or drowned!

But by little short of a miracle, the roof of the house, with its strong framework, resisted the pressure, and after sinking a certain depth the house remained stationary, with the water rather above the floor of the loft. The prisoners were obliged to take refuge amongst the rafters of the roof, and there they remained for many hours. Kalumah devoted herself to the service of the others, and carried food to them through the water. They could make no attempt to save themselves, succour could only come from without.

It was a terrible situation, for breathing was difficult in the vitiated air deficient as it was in oxygen, and charged with a great excess of carbonic acid. . . . A few hours later Hobson would only have found the corpses of his friends!

The horror of the position was increased by the gushing of the water through the lower rooms, which convinced Mrs Barnett that the island was drifting to the south. She had, in fact, guessed the whole truth; she knew that the ice-wall had heeled over and fallen upon the island, and concluded that the boat was destroyed. It was this last fact which gave such terrible significance to her first words when she looked around her after her swoon —

“The sea! the sea!”

Those about her, however, could think of nothing yet but the fact, that they had saved her for whom they would have died, and with her Madge, Kalumah, and Thomas Black. Thus far not one of those who had joined the Lieutenant in his disastrous expedition had succumbed to any of the fearful dangers through which they had passed.

But matters were not yet at their worst, and fresh troubles were soon to hasten the final catastrophe.

Hobson’s first care after Mrs Barnett’s recovery was to take the bearings of the inland. It was listless now to think of quitting it, as the sea was open and their boat destroyed. A few ruins alone remained of the mighty ice-wall, the upper portion of which had crushed Cape Bathurst whilst the submerged base was driving the island to the south.

The instruments and maps belonging to the astronomer were found in the ruins of the house, and were fortunately uninjured. The weather was cloudy, but Hobson succeeded in taking the altitude of the sun with sufficient accuracy for his purpose.

We give the result obtained at noon on the 12th May. Victoria Island was then situated in longitude 168°12’ west of Greenwich, and in latitude 63°37’ N. The exact spot was looked out on the chart, and proved to be in Norton Sound, between Cape Tchaplin on the Asiatic and Cape Stephens on the American coast, but a hundred miles from either.

“We must give up all hope of making the land of the continent then!” said Mrs Barnett.

“Yes, madam,” replied Hobson; “all hope of that is at an end; the current is carrying us with great rapidity out into the offing, and our only chance is, that we may pass within sight of a whaler.”

“Well, but,” added Mrs Barnett, “if we cannot make the land of either continent, might not the current drive us on to one of the islands of Behring Sea?”

There was, in fact, a slight possibility that such a thing might happen, and all eagerly clutched at the hope, like a drowning man at a plank. There are plenty of islands in Behring Sea, St Lawrence, St Matthew, Nunivak, St Paul, George island, &c. The wandering island was in fact at that moment not far from St Lawrence, which is of a considerable size, and surrounded with islets; and should it pass it without stopping, there was yet a hope that the cluster of the Aleutian Islands, bounding Behring Sea on the south, might arrest its course.

Yes! St Lawrence might be a harbour of refuge for the colonists, and if it failed them, St Matthew, and the group of islets of which it is the centre, would still be left. It would not do, however, to count upon the Aleutian Islands, which were more than eight hundred miles away, and which they might never reach. Long, long before they got so far, Victoria Island, worn away by the warm sea-waves, and melted by the rays of the sun, which was already in the sign of Gemini, would most likely have sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

There is, however, no fixed point beyond which floating ice does not advance. It approaches nearer to the equator in the southern than in the northern hemisphere. Icebergs have been seen off the Cape of Good Hope, at about thirty-six degrees south latitude, but those which come down from the Arctic Ocean have never passed forty degrees north latitude. The weather conditions, which are of course variable, determine the exact locality where ice will melt; in severe and prolonged winters it remains solid in comparatively low latitudes, and vice versa in early springs.

Now the warm season of 1861 had set in very early, and this would hasten the dissolution of Victoria Island. The waters of Behring Sea had already changed from blue to green, as the great navigator Hudson observed they always do on the approach of icebergs, so that a catastrophe might be expected at any moment.

Hobson determined to do his best to avert the coming misfortune, and ordered a raft to be constructed which would carry the whole colony, and might be guided to the continent somehow or other. There was every chance of meeting vessels now that the whaling season had commenced, and Mac-Nab was commissioned to make a large solid raft which would float when Victoria Island was engulfed.

But first of all, it was necessary to construct some shelter for the homeless inhabitants of the island. The simple plan appeared to be to dig out the old barracks, which had been built on to the principal house, and the walls of which were still standing. Every one set to work with a hearty good-will, and in a few days a shelter was provided from the inclemencies of the fickle weather.

Search was also made in the ruins of the large house, and a good many articles of more or less value were saved from the submerged rooms — tools, arms, furniture, the air pumps, and the air vessel, &c.

On the 13th May all hope of drifting on to the island of St Lawrence had to be abandoned. When the bearings were taken, it was found that they were passing at a considerable distance to the east of that island; and, as Hobson was well aware, currents do not run against natural obstacles, but turn them, so that little hope could be entertained of thus making the land. It is true the network of islands in the Catherine Archipelago, scattered over several degrees of latitude, might stop the island if it ever got so far. But, as we have before stated, that was not probable, although it was advancing at great speed; for this speed must decrease considerably when the ice-wall which was driving it along should be broken away or dissolved, unprotected as it was from the heat of the sun by any covering of earth or sand.

Lieutenant Hobson, Mrs Barnett, Sergeant Long, and the head carpenter often discussed these matters, and came to the conclusion that the island could certainly never reach the Aleutian group with so many chances against it.

On the 14th May, Mac-Nab and his men commenced the construction of a huge raft. It had to be as high as possible above the water, to prevent the waves from breaking over it, so that it was really a formidable undertaking. The blacksmith, Rae, had fortunately found a large number of the iron bolts which had been brought from Fort Reliance, and they were invaluable for firmly fastening together the different portions of the framework of the raft.

We must describe the novel site for the building of the raft suggested by Lieutenant Hobson. Instead of joining the timbers and planks together on the ground, they were joined on the surface of the lake. The different pieces of wood were prepared on the banks, and launched separately. They were then easily fitted together on the water. This mode of proceeding had two advantages:—

1. The carpenter would be able at once to judge of the point of flotation, and the stability which should be given to the raft. 2. When Victoria Island melted, the raft would already be floating, and would not be liable to the shocks it would receive if on land when the inevitable break-up came.

Whilst these works were going on, Hobson would wander about on the beach, either alone or with Mrs Barnett, examining the state of the sea, and the ever-changing windings of the coast-line, worn by the constant action of the waves. He would gaze upon the vast deserted ocean, from which the very icebergs had now disappeared, watching, ever watching, like a shipwrecked mariner, for the vessel which never came. The ocean solitudes were only frequented by cetacea, which came to feed upon the microscopic anima[l]culae which form their principal food, and abound in the green waters. Now and then floating trees of different kinds, which had been brought by the great ocean currents from warm latitudes, passed the island on their way to the north.

On the 16th May, Mrs Barnett and Madge were walking together on that part of the island between the former Cape Bathurst and Port Barnett. It was a fine warm day, and there had been no traces of snow on the ground for some time; all that recalled the bitter cold of the Polar regions were the relics left by the ice-wall on the northern part of the island; but even these were rapidly melting, and every day fresh waterfalls poured from their summits and bathed their sides. Very soon the sun would have completely dissolved every atom of ice.

Strange indeed was the aspect of Victoria Island. But for their terrible anxiety, the colonists must have gazed at it with eager interest. The ground was more prolific than it could have been in any former spring, transferred as it was to milder latitudes. The little mosses and tender flowers grew rapidly, and Mrs Joliffe’s garden was wonderfully successful. The vegetation of every kind, hitherto checked by the rigour of the Arctic winter, was not only more abundant, but more brilliantly coloured. The hues of leaves and flowers were no longer pale and watery, but warm and glowing, like the sunbeams which called them forth. The arbutus, willow, birch, fir, and pine trees were clothed with dark verdure; the sap — sometimes heated in a temperature of 68° Fahrenheit — burst open the young buds; in a word, the Arctic landscape was completely transformed, for the island was now beneath the same parallel of latitude as Christiania or Stockholm, that is to say, in one of the finest districts of the temperate zones.

But Mrs Barnett had now no eyes for these wonderful phenomena of nature. The shadow of the coming doom clouded her spirit. She shared the feeling of depression manifested by the hundreds of animals now collected round the factory. The foxes, martens, ermines, lynxes, beavers, musk-rats, gluttons, and even the wolves, rendered less savage by their instinctive knowledge of a common danger, approached nearer and nearer to their old enemy man, as if man could save them. It was a tacit, a touching acknowledgment of human superiority, under circumstances in which that superiority could be of absolutely no avail.

No! Mrs Barnett cared no longer for the beauties of nature, and gazed without ceasing upon the boundless, pitiless, infinite ocean with its unbroken horizon.

“Poor Madge!” she said at last to her faithful companion; “it was I who brought you to this terrible pass — you who have followed me everywhere, and whose fidelity deserved a far different recompense! Can you forgive me?”

“There is but one thing I could never have forgiven you,” replied Madge — ”a death I did not share!”

“Ah, Madge!” cried Mrs Barnett, “if my death could save the lives of all these poor people, how gladly would I die!”

“My dear girl,” replied Madge, “have you lost all hope at last?”

“I have indeed,” murmured Mrs Barnett, hiding her face on Madge’s shoulder.

The strong masculine nature had given way at last, and Mrs Barnett was for a moment a feeble woman. Was not her emotion excusable in so awful a situation?

Mrs Barnett sobbed aloud, and large tears rolled down her cheeks.

Madge kissed and caressed her, and tried all she could to reassure her; and presently, raising her head, her poor mistress said —

“Do not tell them, Madge, how I have given way — do not betray that I have wept.”

“Of course not,” said Madge, “and they would not believe me if I did. It was but a moment’s weakness. Be yourself, dear girl; cheer up, and take fresh courage.”

“Do you mean to say you still hope yourself!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, looking anxiously into her companion’s face.

“I still hope!” said Madge simply.

But a few days afterwards, every chance of safety seemed to be indeed gone, when the wandering island passed outside the St Matthew group, and drifted away from the last land in Behring Sea!

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