The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter IX.

A Storm on the Lake.

The old sailor was impatiently awaiting the return of the travellers; for during the last hour the weather had changed, and the appearance of the sky was calculated to render any one accustomed to read the signs of the clouds uneasy. The sun was obscured by a thick mist, the wind had fallen, but - an ominous moaning was heard from the south of the lake. These symptoms of an approaching change of temperature were developed with all the rapidity peculiar to these elevated latitudes.

“Let us be off, sir! let us be off!” cried old Norman, looking anxiously at the fog above his head. “ Let us start without losing an instant. There are terrible signs in the air!”

“Indeed,” exclaimed the Lieutenant, “the appearance of the sky is quite changed, and we never noticed it, Mrs Barnett!”

“Are you afraid of a storm?” inquired the lady of old Norman.

“Yes, madam,” replied the old sailor; “and the storms on the Great Bear Lake are often terrible. The hurricane rages as if upon the open Atlantic Ocean. This sudden fog bodes us no good; but the tempest may hold back for three or four hours, and by that time we shall be at Fort Confidence. Let us then start without a moment’s delay, for the boat would not be safe near these rocks.”

The Lieutenant, feeling that the old man, accustomed as he was to navigate these waters, was better able to judge than himself, decided to follow his advice, and embarked at once with Mrs Barnett.

But just as they were pushing off, old Norman, as if possessed by some sudden presentiment, murmured —

“Perhaps it would be better to wait.”

Lieutenant Hobson overheard these words, and looked inquiringly at the old boatman, already seated at the helm. Had he been alone he would not have hesitated to start, but as Mrs Barnett was with him caution was necessary. The lady at once saw and understood his hesitation.

“Never mind about me, Lieutenant,” she said; “act as if I were not present. Let us start immediately, as our brave guide suggests.”

“We are off, then,” cried Norman, letting go the moorings, “to the fort by the shortest route.”

For about an hour the bark made little head. The sail, scarcely filled by the fitful breeze, flapped against the mast. The fog became thicker. The waves began to rise and the boat to rock considerably; for the approaching hurricane affected the water sooner than the atmosphere itself. The two travellers sat still and silent, whilst the old sailor peered into the darkness with bloodshot eyes. Prepared for all contingencies, he awaited the shock of the wind, ready to pay out rapidly should the attack be very violent. The conflict of the elements had not, however, as yet commenced; and all would have been well if they bad been able to advance, but after an hour’s sail they were still only about two hours’ distance from the Indian encampment. A few gusts of wind from the shore drove them out of their course, and the dense fog rendered it impossible for them to make out the coast-line. Should the wind settle in the north it would probably go hard with the light boat, which, unable to hold its own course, would be drifted out into the lake no one knew where.

“We are scarcely advancing at all,” said the Lieutenant to old Norman.

“No, sir,” replied Norman; “the wind is not strong enough to fill the sail, and if it were, I fear it comes from the wrong quarter. If so,” he added, pointing to the south, “we may see Fort Franklin before Fort Confidence.”

“Well,” said Mrs Barnett cheerfully, “our trip will have been all the more complete. This is a magnificent lake, well worth exploring from north to south. I suppose, Norman, one might get back even from Fort Franklin?”

“Yes, madam, if we ever reach it,” replied the old man. “But tempests lasting fifteen days are by no means rare on this lake; and if our bad luck should drive us to the south, it may be a month before Lieutenant Hobson again sees Fort Confidence.”

“Let us be careful, then,” said the Lieutenant; “for such a delay, would hinder our projects very much. Do the best you can under the circumstances, and if you think it would be prudent, go back to the north. I don’t suppose Mrs Barnett would mind a walk of twenty or twenty-five miles.”

I should be glad enough to go back to the north, Lieutenant,” replied Norman, “if it were still possible. But look, the wind seems likely to settle against us. All I can attempt is to get to the cape on the north-east, and if it doesn’t blow too hard, I hope to succeed.”

But at about half-past four the storm broke. The shrill whistling of the wind was heard far above their heads, but the state of the atmosphere prevented it from as yet descending upon the lake; this was, however, only delayed for a brief space of time. The cries of frightened birds flying through the fog mingled with the noise of the wind. Suddenly the mist was torn open, and revealed low jagged masses of rain-cloud chased towards the south. The fears of the old sailor were realised. The wind blew from the north, and it was not long before the travellers learned the meaning of a squall upon the lake.

“Look out!” cried old Norman, tightening sail so as to get his boat ahead of the wind, whilst keeping her under control of the helm.

The squall came. It caught the boat upon the flank, and it was turned over on its side; but recovering itself, it was flung upon the crest of a wave. The billows surged as if upon an open sea. The waters of the lake not being very deep, struck against the bottom and rebounded to an immense height.

“Help! help!” cried old Norman, hurriedly struggling to haul down his sail.

Mrs Barnett and Hobson endeavoured to come to his assistance, but without success, for they knew noticing of the management of a boat. Norman, unable to leave the helm, and the halliards being entangled at the top of the mast, could not take in the sail. Every moment the boat threatened to capsize, and heavy seas broke over its sides. The sky became blacker and blacker, cold rain mingled with snow fell in torrents, whilst the squall redoubled its fury, lashing the crests of the waves into foam.

“Cut it! cut it!” screamed Norman above the roaring of the storm.

The Lieutenant, his cap blown away and his eyes blinded by the spray, seized Norman’s knife and cut the halliard like a harp-string; but the wet cordage no longer acted in the grooves of the pulleys, and the yard remained attached to the top of the mast.

Norman, totally unable to make head against the wind, now resolved to tack about for the south, dangerous as it would be to have the boat before the wind, pursued by waves advancing at double its speed. Yes, to tack, although this course would probably bring them all to the southern shores of the lake, far away from their destination.

The Lieutenant and his brave companion were well aware of the danger which threatened them. The frail boat could not long resist the blows of the waves, it would either be crushed or capsized; the lives of those within it were in the hands of God.

But neither yielded to despair; clinging to the sides of the boat, wet to the skin, chilled to the bone by the cutting blast, they strove to gaze through the thick mist and fog. All trace of the land had disappeared, and so great was the obscurity that at a cable’s length from the boat clouds and waves could not be distinguished from each other. Now and then the two travellers looked inquiringly into old Norman’s face, who, with teeth set and hands clutching the tiller; tried to keep his boat as much as possible under wind.

But the violence of the squall became such that the boat could not long maintain this course. The waves which struck its bow would soon have inevitably crushed it; the front planks were already beginning to separate, and when its whole weight was flung into the hollows of the waves it seemed as if it could rise no more.

“We must tack, we must tack, whatever happens!” murmured the old sailor.

And pushing the tiller and paying out sail, he turned the head of the boat to the south. The sail, stretched to the utmost, brought the boat round with giddy rapidity, and the immense waves, chased by the wind, threatened to engulf the little bark. This was the great danger of shifting with the wind right aft. The billows hurled themselves in rapid succession upon the boat, which could not evade them. It filled rapidly, and the water bad to be baled out without a moment’s pause, or it must have foundered. As they got nearer and nearer to the middle of the lake the waves became rougher. Nothing there broke the fury of the wind; no clumps of trees, no hills, checked for a moment the headlong course of the hurricane. Now and then momentary glimpses were obtained through the fog of icebergs dancing like buoys upon the waves, and driven towards the south of the lake.

It was half-past five. Neither Norman nor the Lieutenant had any idea of where they were, or whither they were going. They had lost all control over the boat, and were at the mercy of the winds and waves.

And now at about a hundred feet behind the boat a huge wave upreared its foam-crowned crest, whilst in front a black whirlpool was formed by the sudden sinking of the water. All surface agitation, crushed by the wind, had disappeared around this awful gulf, which, growing deeper and blacker every moment, drew the devoted little vessel towards its fatal embrace. Ever nearer came the mighty wave, all lesser billows sinking into insignificance before it. It gained upon the boat, another moment and it would crush it to atoms. Norman, looking round, saw its approach; and Mrs Barnett and the Lieutenant, with eyes fixed and staring, awaited in fearful suspense the blow from which there was no escape. The wave broke over them with the noise of thunder; it enveloped the stern of the boat in foam, a fearful crash was heard, and a cry burst from the lips of the Lieutenant and his companion, smothered beneath the liquid mass.

They thought that all was over, and that the boat had sunk; but no, it rose once more, although more than half filled with water.

The Lieutenant uttered a cry of despair. Where was Norman? The poor old sailor had disappeared!

Mrs Paulina Barnett looked inquiringly at Hobson.

“Norman!” he repeated, pointing to his empty place.

“Unhappy man!” murmured Mrs Barnett; and at the risk of being flung from the boat rocking on the waves, the two started to their feet and looked around them. But they could see and hear nothing. No cry for help broke upon their ears. No dead body floated in the white foam. The old sailor had met his death in the element he loved so well.

Mrs Barnett and Hobson sank back upon their seats. They were now alone, and must see to their own safety; but neither of them knew anything of the management of a boat, and even an experienced hand could scarcely have controlled it now. They were at the mercy of the waves, and the bark, with distended sail, swept along in mad career. What could the Lieutenant do to check or direct its course?

What a terrible situation for our travellers, to be thus overtaken by a tempest in a frail bark which they could not manage!

“We are lost!” said the Lieutenant.

“No, Lieutenant,” replied Mrs Barnett; “let us make another effort. Heaven helps those who help themselves!”

Lieutenant Hobson now for the first time realised with how intrepid a woman fate had thrown him.

The first thing to be done was to get rid of the water which weighed down the boat. Another wave shipped would have filled it in a moment, and it must have sunk at once. The vessel lightened, it would have a better chance of rising on the waves; and the two set to work to bale out the water. This was no easy task; for fresh waves constantly broke over them, and the scoop could not be laid aside for an instant. Mrs Barnett was indefatigable, and the Lieutenant, leaving the baling to her, took the helm himself, and did the best he could to guide the boat with the wind right aft.

To add to the danger, night, or rather darkness, for in these latitudes night only lasts a few hours at this time of year, fell upon them. Scarce a ray of light penetrated through the heavy clouds and fog. They could not see two yards before them, and the boat must have been dashed to pieces had it struck a floating iceberg. This danger was indeed imminent, for the loose ice-masses advance with such rapidity that it is impossible to get out of their way.

“You have no control over the helm?” said Mrs Barnett in a slight lull of the storm.

No, madam he replied; “and you must prep are for the worst.”

“I am ready!” replied the courageous woman simply.

As she spoke a loud rippling sound was heard. The sail, torn away by the wind, disappeared like a white cloud. The boat sped rapidly along for a few instants, and then stopped suddenly, the waves buffeting it about like an abandoned wreck. Mrs Barnett and Hobson, flung to the bottom of the boat, bruised, shaken, and torn, felt that all was lost. Not a shred of canvas was left to aid in navigating the craft; and what with the spray, the snow, and the rain, they could scarcely see each other, whilst the uproar drowned their voices. Expecting every moment to perish, they remained for an hour in painful suspense, commending themselves to God, who alone could save them.

Neither of them could have said how long they waited when they were aroused by a violent shock.

The boat had just struck an enormous iceberg, a floating block with rugged, slippery sides, to which it would be impossible to cling.

At this sudden blow, which could not have been parried, the bow of the boat was split open, and the water poured into it in torrents.

“We are sinking! we are sinking!” cried Jasper Hobson.

He was right. The boat was settling down; the water had already reached the seats.

“Madam, madam, I am here! I will not leave you!” added the Lieutenant.

“No, no,” cried Mrs Barnett: “alone, you may save yourself; together, we should perish. Leave me! leave me!”

“Never!” cried Hobson.

But he had scarcely pronounced this word when the boat, struck by another wave, filled and sank.

Both were drawn under water by the eddy caused by the sudden settling down of the boat, but in a few instants they rose to the surface. Hobson was a strong swimmer, and struck out with one arm, supporting his companion with the other. But it was evident that he could not long sustain a conflict with the furious waves, and that he must perish with her he wished to save.

At this moment a strange sound attracted his attention. It was not the cry of a frightened bird, but the shout of a human voice! By one supreme effort Hobson raised himself above the waves and looked around him.

But he could distinguish nothing in the thick fog. And yet he again beard cries, this time nearer to him. Some bold men were coming to his succour! Alas! if it were so, they would arrive too late. Encumbered by his clothes, the Lieutenant felt himself sinking with the unfortunate lady, whose head he could scarcely keep above the water. With a last despairing effort he uttered a heartrending cry and disappeared beneath the waves.

It was, however, no mistake-he had heard voices. Three men, wandering about by the lake, had seen the boat in danger, and put off to its rescue. They were Esquimaux, the only men who could have hoped to weather such a storm, for theirs are the only boats constructed to escape destruction in these fearful tempests.

The Esquimaux boat or kayak is a long pirogue raised at each end, made of a light framework of wood, covered with stretched seal-skins strongly stitched with the sinews of the Walrus. In the upper part of the boat; also covered with skins, is an opening in which the Esquimaux takes his place, fastening his waterproof jacket to the back of his seat; so that he is actually joined to his bark, which riot a drop of water can penetrate. This light, easily-managed kayak, floating as it does, on the crests of the waves, can never be submerged; and if it be sometimes capsized, a blow of the paddle rights it again directly; so that it is able to live and make way in seas in which any other boat would certainly be dashed to pieces.

The three Esquimaux, guided by the Lieutenant’s last despairing cry, arrived at the scene of the wreck joints in time. Hobson and Mrs Barnett, already half drowned, felt themselves drawn up by powerful hands; but in the darkness they were unable to discover who were their deliverers. One of the men took the Lieutenant and laid him across his own boat, another did the sane for Mrs Barnett, and the three kayaks, skilfully managed with the paddles, six feet long, sped rapidly over the white foam.

Half an hour afterwards, the shipwrecked travellers were lying on the sandy beach three miles above Fort Providence.

The old sailor alone was missing!

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