From the 17th to the 20th August the weather continued fine, and the temperature moderate. The mists on the horizon were not resolved into clouds, and altogether the weather was exceptionally beautiful for such an elevated position. It will be readily understood, however, that Hobson could take no pleasure in the fineness of the climate.
On the 21st August, however, the barometer gave notice of an approaching change. The column of mercury suddenly fell considerably, the sun was completely hidden at the moment of culmination, and Hobson was unable to take his bearings.
The next day the wind changed and blew strongly from the north-west, torrents of rain falling at intervals. Meanwhile, however, the temperature did not change to any sensible extent, the thermometer remaining at 54° Fahrenheit.
Fortunately the proposed works were now all finished, and MacNab had completed the carcass of his boat, which was planked and ribbed. Hunting might now be neglected a little, as the stores were complete, which was fortunate, for the weather became very bad. The wind was high, the rain incessant, and thick fogs rendered it impossible to go beyond the enceinte of the fort.
“What do you think of this change in the weather, Lieutenant?” inquired Mrs Barnett on the morning of the 27th August; “might it not be in our favour?”
“I should not like to be sure of it, madam,” replied Hobson; “but anything is better for us than the magnificent weather we have lately had, during which the sun made the waters warmer and warmer. Then, too, the wind from the north-west is so very strong that it may perhaps drive us nearer to the American continent.”
“Unfortunately,” observed Long, “we can’t take our bearings every day now. It’s impossible to see either sun, moon, or stars in this fog. Fancy attempting to take an altitude now!”
“We shall see well enough to recognise America, if we get anywhere near it,” said Mrs Barnett. “Whatever land we approach will be welcome. It will most likely be some part of Russian America — probably Western Alaska.”
“You are right, madam,” said Hobson; “for, unfortunately, in the whole Arctic Ocean there is not an island, an islet, or even a rock to which we could fasten our vessel!”
“Well,” rejoined Mrs Barnett, “why should not our conveyance take us straight to the coasts of Asia? Might not the currents carry us past the opening of Bearing Strait and land us on the shores of Siberia?”
“No, madam, no,” replied Hobson; “our ice-field would soon meet the Kamtchatka current, and be carried by it to the northwest. It is more likely, however, that this wind will drive us towards the shores of Russian America.”
“We must keep watch, then,” said Mrs Barnett, “and ascertain our position as soon as possible.”
“We shall indeed keep watch,” replied Hobson, “although this fog is very much against us If we should be driven on to the coast, the shock will be felt even if we cannot see. Let’s hope the island will not fall to pieces in this storm! That is at present our principal danger. Well, when it comes we shall see what there is to be done, and meanwhile we must wait patiently.”
Of course this conversation was not held in the public room, where the soldiers and women worked together. It was in her own room, with the window looking out on the court, that Mrs Barnett received visitors. It was almost impossible to see indoors even in the daytime, and the wind could be heard rushing by outside like an avalanche. Fortunately, Cape Bathurst protected the house from the north-east winds, but the sand and earth from its summit were hurled down upon the roof with a noise like the pattering of hail. Mac Nab began to feel fresh uneasiness about his chimneys, which it was absolutely necessary to keep in good order. With the roaring of the wind was mingled that of the sea, as its huge waves broke upon the beach. The storm had become a hurricane.
In spite of the fury of the gale, Hobson determined on the morning of the 28th of August to climb to the summit of Cape Bathurst, in order to examine the state of the horizon, the sea, and the sky. He therefore wrapped himself up, taking care to have nothing about him likely to give hold the wind, and set out.
He got to the foot of the cape without much difficulty. The sand and earth blinded him, it is true, but protected by the cliff he had not as yet actually faced the wind. The fatigue began when he attempted to climb the almost perpendicular sides of the promontory; but by clutching at the tufts of herbs with which they were covered, he managed to get to the top, but there the fury of the gale was such that he could neither remain standing nor seated; he was therefore forced to fling himself upon his face behind the little coppice and cling to some shrubs, only raising his head and shoulders above the ground.
The appearance of sea and sky was indeed terrible. The spray dashed over the Lieutenant’s head, and half-a-mile from the cape water and clouds were confounded together in a thick mist. Low jagged rain-clouds were chased along the heavens with giddy rapidity, and heavy masses of vapour were piled upon the zenith. Every now and then an awful stillness fell upon the land, and the only sounds were the breaking of the surf upon the beach and the roaring of the angry billows; but then the tempest recommenced with redoubled fury, and Hobson felt the cape tremble to its foundations. Sometimes the rain poured down with such violence that it resembled grape-shot.
It was indeed a terrible hurricane from the very worst quarter of the heavens. This north-east wind might blow for a long time and cause all manner of havoc. Yet Hobson, who would generally have grieved over the destruction around him, did not complain — on the contrary, he rejoiced; for if, as he hoped, the island held together, it must be driven to the south-west by this wind, so much more powerful than the currents. And the south-west meant land — hope — safety! Yes, for his own sake, and for that of all with him, he hoped that the hurricane would last until it had flung them upon the laud, no matter where. That which would have been fatal to a ship was the best thing that could happen to the floating island.
For a quarter of an hour Hobson remained crouching upon the ground, clutching at the shrubs like a drowning man at a spar, lashed by the wind, drenched by the rain and the spray, struggling to estimate all the chances of safety the storm might afford him. At the end of that time he let himself slide down the cape, and fought his way to Fort Hope.
Hobson’s first care was to tell his comrades that the hurricane was not yet at its height, and that it would probably last a long time yet. He announced these tidings with the manner of one bringing good news, and every one looked at him in astonishment. Their chief officer really seemed to take a delight in the fury of the elements.
On the 30th Hobson again braved the tempest, not this time climbing the cape, but going down to the beach. What was his joy at noticing some long weeds floating on the top of the waves, of a kind which did not grow on Victoria Island. Christopher Columbus’ delight was not greater when he saw the sea-weed which told him of the proximity of land.
The Lieutenant hurried back to the fort, and told Mrs Barnett and Sergeant Long of his discovery. He had a good mind to tell every one the whole truth now, but a strange presentiment kept him silent.
The occupants of the fort had plenty to amuse them in the long days of compulsory confinement. They went on improving the inside of the various buildings, and dug trenches in the court to carry away the rain-water. Mac-Nab, a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other, was always busy at a job in some corner or another, and nobody took much note of the tempest outside in the daytime; but at night it was impossible to sleep, the wind beat upon the buildings like a battering-ram; between the house and the cape sometimes whirled a huge waterspout of extraordinary dimensions; the planks cracked, the beams seemed about to separate, and there was danger of the whole structure tumbling down. Mac-Nab and his men lived in a state of perpetual dread, and had to be continually on the watch.
Meanwhile, Hobson was uneasy about the stability of the island itself, rather than that of the house upon it. The tempest became so violent, and the sea so rough, that there was really a danger of the dislocation of the ice-field. It seemed impossible for it to resist much longer, diminished as it was in thickness and subject to the perpetual action of the waves. It is true that its inhabitants did not feel any motion, on account of its vast extent, but it suffered from it none the less. The point at issue was simply:— Would the island last until it was flung upon the coast, or would it fall to pieces before it touched firm ground?
There could be no doubt that thus far it had resisted. As the Lieutenant explained to Mrs Barnett, had it already been broken, had the ice-field already divided into a number of islets, the occupants of the fort must have noticed it, for the different pieces would have been small enough to be affected by the motion of the sea, and the people on any one of them would have been pitched about like passengers on a boat. This was not the case, and in his daily observations Lieutenant Hobson had noticed no movement whatever, not so much as a trembling of the island, which appeared as firm and motionless as when it was still connected by its isthmus with the mainland.
But the breaking up, which had not yet taken place, might happen at any minute.
Hobson was most anxious to ascertain whether Victoria Island, driven by the north-west wind out of the current, had approached the continent. Everything, in fact, depended upon this, which was their last chance of safety. But without sun, moon, or stars, instruments were of course useless, as no observations could be taken, and the exact position of the island could not be determined. If, then, they were approaching the land, they would only know it when the land came in sight, and Hobson’s only means of ascertaining anything in time to be of any service, was to get to the south of his dangerous dominions. The position of Victoria Island with regard to the cardinal points had not sensibly altered all the time. Cape Bathurst still pointed to the north, as it did when it was the advanced post of North America. It was, therefore, evident that if Victoria Island should come alongside of the continent, it would touch it with its southern side — the communication would, in a word, be re-established by means of the broken isthmus; it was, therefore, imperative to ascertain what was going on in that direction.
Hobson determined to go to Cape Michael, however terrible the storm might be, but he meant to keep the real motive of his reconnaissance a secret from his companions. Sergeant Long was to accompany him.
About four o’clock P.M., on the 31st August, Hobson sent for the Sergeant in his own room, that they might arrange together for all eventualities.
“Sergeant Long,” he began, “it is necessary that we should, without delay, ascertain the position of Victoria Island, and above all whether this wind has, as I hope, driven it near to the American continent.”
“I quite agree with you, sir,” replied Long, “and the sooner we find out the better”
“But it will necessitate our going down to the south of the island.”
“I am ready, sir.”
“I know, Sergeant, that you are always ready to do your duty, but you will not go alone. Two of us ought to go, that we may be able to let our comrades know if any land is in sight; and besides I must see for myself . . . we will go together.”
“When you like, Lieutenant, just when you think best.”
“We will start this evening at nine o’clock, when everybody else has gone to bed”
“Yes, they would all want to come with us,” said Long, “and they must not know why we go so far from the factory.”
“No, they must not know,” replied Hobson, “and if I can, I will keep the knowledge of our awful situation from them until the end.”
“It is agreed then, sir?”
“Yes. You will take a tinder-box and some touchwood [Footnote: A fungus used as tinder (Polyporous igniarius).] with you, so that we can make a signal if necessary — if land is in sight in the south, for instance”
“We shall have a rough journey, Sergeant.”
“What does that matter, sir, but by the way — the lady?”
“I don’t think I shall tell her. She would want to go with us.”
“And she could not,” said the Sergeant, “a woman could not battle with such a gale. Just see how its fury is increasing at this moment!”
Indeed the house was rocking to such an extent that it seemed likely to be torn from its foundations.
“No,” said Hobson, “courageous as she is, she could not, she ought not to accompany us. But on second thought, it will be best to tell her of our project. She ought to know in case any accident should befall us”
“Yes,” replied Long, “we ought not to keep anything from her, and if we do not come back”. . . .
“At nine o’clock then, Sergeant.”
“At nine o’clock.”
And with a military salute Sergeant Long retired.
A few minutes later Hobson was telling Mrs Barnett of his scheme. As he expected the brave woman insisted on accompanying him, and was quite ready to face the tempest. Hobson did not dissuade her by dwelling on the dangers of the expedition, he merely said that her presence was necessary at the fort during his absence, and that her remaining would set his mind at ease. If any accident happened to him it would be a comfort to know that she would take his place.
Mrs Barnett understood and said no more about going; but only urged Hobson not to risk himself unnecessarily. To remember that he was the chief officer, that his life was not his own, but necessary to the safety of all. The Lieutenant promised to be as prudent as possible; but added that the examination of the south of the island must be made at once, and he would make it. The next day Mrs Barnett merely told her companions that the Lieutenant and the Sergeant had gone to make a final reconnaissance before the winter set in.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55