The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter V.

From Fort Reliance to Fort Enterprise.

The first fine days came at last. The green carpet of the hills began to appear here and there where the snow had melted. A few migratory birds from the south-such as swans, bald-headed eagles, &c. — passed through the warmer air. The poplars, birches, and willows began to bud, and the redheaded ducks, of which there are so many species in North America, to skim the surface of the numerous pools formed by the melted snow. Guillemots, puffins, and eider ducks sought colder latitudes; and little shrews no bigger than a hazel-nut ventured from their holes, tracing strange figures on the ground with their tiny-pointed tails. It was intoxicating once more to breathe the fresh air of spring, and to bask in the sunbeams. Nature awoke once more from her heavy sleep in the long winter night, and smiled as she opened her eyes.

The renovation of creation in spring is perhaps more impressive in the Arctic regions than in any other portion of the globe, on account of the greater contrast with what has gone before.

The thaw was not, however, complete. The thermometer, it is true, marked 41° Fahrenheit above zero; but the mean temperature of the nights kept the surface of the snowy plains solid — a good thing for the passage of sledges, of which Jaspar Hobson meant to avail himself before the thaw became complete.

The ice of the lake was still unbroken. During the last month several successful hunting expeditions had been made across the vast smooth plains, which were already frequented by game. Mrs Barnett was astonished at the skill with which the men used their snow-shoes, scudding along at the pace of a horse in full gallop. Following Captain Craventy’s advice, the lady herself practised walking in these contrivances, and she soon became very expert in sliding over the snow.

During the last few days several bands of Indians had arrived at the fort to exchange the spoils of the winter chase for manufactured goods. The season had been bad. There were a good many polecats and sables; but the furs of beavers, otters, lynxes, ermines, and foxes were scarce. It was therefore a wise step for the Company to endeavour to explore a new country, where the wild animals had hitherto escaped the rapacity of man.

On the morning of the 16th April Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson and his party were ready to start. The route across the known districts, between the Slave Lake and that of the Great Bear beyond the Arctic Circle, was already determined. Jaspar Hobson was to make for Fort Confidence, on the northern extremity of the latter lake; and he was to revictual at Fort Enterprise, a station two hundred miles further to the north-west, on the shores of the Snare Lake, By travelling at the rate of fifteen miles a day the Lieutenant hoped to halt there about the beginning of May.

From this point the expedition was to take the shortest route to Cape Bathurst, on the North American coast. It was agreed that in a year Captain Craventy should send a convoy with provisions to Cape Bathurst, and that a detachment of the Lieutenant’s men was to go to meet this convoy, to guide it to the spot where the new fort was to be erected. This plan was a guarantee against any adverse circumstances, and left a means of communication with their fellow-creatures open to the Lieutenant and his voluntary companions in exile.

On the 16th April dogs and sledges were awaiting the travellers at the postern gate. Captain Craventy called the men of the party together and said a few kind words to them. He urged them above all things to stand by one another in the perils they might be called upon to meet; reminded them that the enterprise upon which they were about to enter required self-denial and devotion, and that submission to their officers was an indispensable condition of success. Cheers greeted the Captain’s speech, the adieux were quickly made, and each one took his place in the sledge assigned to him. Jaspar Hobson and Sergeant Long went first; then Mrs Paulina Barnett and Madge, the latter dexterously wielding the long Esquimaux whip, terminating in a stiff thong. Thomas Black and one of the soldiers, the Canadian, Petersen, occupied the third sledge;and the others followed, Corporal and Mrs Joliffe bringing up the rear. According to the orders of Lieutenant Hobson, each driver kept as nearly as possible at the same distance from the preceding sledge, so as to avoid all confusion — a necessary precaution, as a collision between two sledges going at full speed, might have had disastrous results.

On leaving Fort Reliance, Jaspar Hobson at once directed his course towards the north-west. The first thing to be done was to cross the large river connecting Lakes Slave and Wolmsley, which was, however, still frozen so hard as to be undistinguishable from the vast white plains around. A uniform carpet of snow covered the whole country, and the sledges, drawn by their swift teams, sped rapidly over the firm smooth surface.

The weather was fine, but still very cold. The sun, scarce above the horizon, described a lengthened curve; and its rays, reflected on the snow, gave more light than heat. Fortunately not a breath of air stirred, and this lessened the severity of the cold, although the rapid pace of the sledges through the keen atmosphere must have been trying to any one not inured to the rigour of a Polar climate.

“A good beginning,” said Jaspar Hobson to the Sergeant, who sat motionless beside him as if rooted to his seat; “the journey has commenced favourably. The sky is cloudless; the temperature propitious, our equipages shoot along like express trains, and as long as this fine weather lasts we shall get on capitally. What do you think, Sergeant Long?”

“I agree with you, Lieutenant,” replied the Sergeant, who never differed from his chief.

“Like myself, Sergeant, you are determined to push on as far north as possible — are you not?” resumed Lieutenant Hobson.

“You have but to command to be obeyed, Lieutenant.”

“I know it, Sergeant; I know that with you to bear is to obey. Would that all our men understood as you do the importance of our mission, and would devote themselves body and soul to the interests of the Company! Ah, Sergeant Long, I know if I gave you an impossible order — “

“Lieutenant, there is no such thing as an impossible order.”

“What? Suppose now I ordered you to go to the North Pole?”

“Lieutenant, I should go!”

“And to comeback!” added Jaspar Hobson with a smile.

“I should come back,” replied Sergeant Long simply.

During this colloquy between Lieutenant Hobson and his Sergeant a slight ascent compelled the sledges to slacken speed, and Mrs Barnett and Madge also exchanged a few sentences. These two intrepid women, in their otter-skin caps and white bear-skin mantles, gazed in astonishment upon the rugged scenery around them, and at the white outlines of the huge glaciers standing out against the horizon. They had already left behind them the hills of the northern banks of the Slave Lake, with their summits crowned with the gaunt skeletons of trees. The vast plains stretched before them in apparently endless succession. The rapid flight and cries of a few birds of passage alone broke the monotony of the scene. Now and then a troop of swans, with plumage so white that the keenest sight could not distinguish them from the snow when they settled on the ground, rose into view in the clear blue atmosphere and pursued their journey to the north.

“What an extraordinary country!” exclaimed Mrs Paulina Barnett. “What a difference between these Polar regions and the green prairies of Australia! You remember, Madge, how we suffered from the heat on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria — you remember the cloudless sky and the parching sunbeams?”

My dear,” replied Madge, “I have not the gift of remembering like you. You retain your impressions, I forget mine.”

“What, Madge!” cried Mrs Barnett, “you have forgotten the tropical heat of India arid Australia? You have no recollection of our agonies when water failed us in the desert, when the pitiless sun scorched us to the bone, when even the night brought us no relief from our sufferings!”

“No, Paulina,” replied Madge, wrapping her furs more closely round her, “no, I remember nothing. How could I now recollect the sufferings to which you allude — the heat, the agonies of thirst — when we are surrounded on every side by ice, and I have but to stretch my arm out of this sledge to pick up a handful of snow? You talk to me of heat, when we are freezing beneath our bearskins; you recall the broiling rays of the sun when its April beams cannot melt the icicles on our lips! No, child, no, don’t try to persuade me it’s hot anywhere else; don’t tell me I ever complained of being too warm, for I sha’n’t believe you!”

Mrs Paulina Barnett could not help smiling.

“So, poor Madge,” she said, “you are very cold!”

“Yes, child, I am cold; but I rather like this climate. I’ve no doubt it’s very healthy, and I think North America will agree with me. It’s really a very fine country!”

“Yes, Madge; it is a fine country, and we have as yet seen none of the wonders it contains. But wait until we reach the Arctic Ocean; wait until the winter shuts us in with its gigantic icebergs and thick covering of snow; wait till the northern storms break over us, and the glories of the Aurora Borealis and of the splendid constellations of the Polar skies are spread out above our heads; wait till we have lived through the strange long six months’ night, and then indeed you will understand the infinite variety, the infinite beauty, of our Creator’s handiwork!”

Thus spoke Mrs Paulina Barnett, carried away by her vivid imagination. She could see nothing but beauty in these deserted regions, with their rigorous climate. Her enthusiasm got the better for the time of her judgment. Her sympathy with nature enabled her to read the touching poetry of the ice-bound north-the poetry embodied in the Sagas, and sung by the bards of the time of Ossian. But Madge, more matter of fact than her mistress, disguised from herself neither the dangers of an expedition to the Arctic Ocean, nor the sufferings involved in wintering only thirty degrees at the most from the North Pole.

And indeed the most robust had sometimes succumbed to the fatigues, privations, and mental and bodily agonies endured in this severe climate. Jaspar Hobson had not, it is true, to press on to the very highest latitudes of the globe,; he had not to reach the pole itself, or to follow in the steps of Parry, Ross, Mc’Clure, Kean, Morton, and others. But after once crossing the Arctic Circle, there is little variation in the temperature; it does not increase in coldness in proportion to the elevation reached. Granted that Jaspar Hobson did not think of going beyond the seventieth parallel, we must still remember that Franklin and his unfortunate companions died of cold and hunger before they had penetrated beyond 68° N. lat.

Very different was the talk in the sledge occupied by Mr and Mrs Joliffe. Perhaps the gallant Corporal had too often drunk to the success of the expedition on starting; for, strange to say, he was disputing with his little wife. Yes, he was actually contradicting her, which never happened except under extraordinary circumstances!

“No, Mrs Joliffe,” he was saying, “no, you have nothing to fear. A sledge is not more difficult to guide than a pony-carriage, and the devil take me if I can’t manage a team of dogs!”

“I don’t question your skill,” replied Mrs Joliffe; “I only ask you not to go so fast. You are in front of the whole caravan now, and I hear Lieutenant Hobson calling out to you to resume your proper place behind.”

“Let him call, Mrs Joliffe, let him call.”

And the Corporal, urging on his dogs with a fresh cut of the whip, dashed along at still greater speed.

“Take care, Joliffe,” repeated his little wife; “not so fast, we are going down hill.”

“Down hill, Mrs Joliffe; you call that down hill? why, it’s up hill!”

“I tell you we are going down!” repeated poor Mrs Joliffe.

“And I tell you we are going up; look how the dogs pull!”

Whoever was right, the dogs became uneasy. The ascent was, in fact, pretty steep; the sledge dashed along at a reckless pace, and was already considerably in advance of the rest of the party. Mr and Mrs Joliffe bumped up and down every instant, the surface of the snow became more and more uneven, and the pair, flung first to one side and then to the other, knocked against each other and the sledge, and were horribly bruised and shaken. But the Corporal would listen neither to the advice of his wife nor to the shouts of Lieutenant Hobson. The latter, seeing the danger of this reckless course, urged on his own animals, and the rest of the caravan followed at a rapid pace.

But the Corporal became more and more excited-the speed of his equipage delighted him. He shouted, he gesticulated, and flourished his long whip like an accomplished sportsman.

“Wonderful things these whips!” he cried; “the Esquimaux wield them with unrivalled skill!”

“But you are not an Esquimaux!” cried Mrs Joliffe, trying in vain to arrest the arm of her imprudent husband.

“I have heard tell,” resumed the Corporal —” I’ve heard tell that the Esquimaux can touch any dog they like in any part, that they can even cut out a bit of one of their ears with the stiff thong at the end of the whip. I am going to try.”

“Don’t try, don’t try, Joliffe!” screamed the poor little woman, frightened out of her wits.

“Don’t be afraid, Mrs Joliffe, don’t be afraid; I know what I can do. The fifth dog on the right is misbehaving himself;. I will correct him a little!”

But Corporal Joliffe was evidently not yet enough of an Esquimaux to be able to manage the whip with its thong four feet longer than the sledge; for it unrolled with an ominous hiss, and rebounding, twisted itself round Corporal Joliffe’s own neck, sending his fur cap into the air, perhaps with one of his ears in it.

At this moment the dogs flung themselves on one side, the sledge was overturned, and the pair were flung into the snow. Fortunately it was thick and soft, so that they escaped unhurt. But what a disgrace for the Corporal! how reproachfully his little wife looked at him, and how stern was the reprimand of Lieutenant Hobson!

The sledge was picked up, but it was decided that henceforth the reins of the dogs, like those of the household, were to be in the hands of Mrs Joliffe. The crest-fallen Corporal was obliged to submit, and the interrupted journey was resumed.

No incident worth mentioning occurred during the next fifteen days. The weather continued favourable, the cold was not too severe, and on the 1st May the expedition arrived at Fort Enterprise.

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