The Lieutenant and the Sergeant spent the evening in the large room of the fort, where all were assembled except the astronomer, who still remained shut up in his cabin. The men were busy over their various occupations, some cleaning their arms, others mending or sharpening their tools. The women were stitching away industriously, and Mrs Paulina Barnett was reading aloud; but she was often interrupted not only by the noise of the wind, which shook the walls of the house like a battering-ram, but by the cries of the baby. Corporal Joliffe, who had undertaken to amuse him, had enough to do. The young gentleman had ridden upon his playmate’s knees until they were worn out, and the Corporal at last put the indefatigable little cavalier on the large table, where he rolled about to his heart’s content until he fell asleep.
At eight o’clock prayers were read as usual, the lamps were extinguished, and all retired to rest.
When every one was asleep, Hobson and Long crept cautiously across the large room and gained the passage, where they found Mrs Barnett, who wished to press their hands once more.
“Till to-morrow,” she said to the Lieutenant.
“Yes,” replied Hobson, “to-morrow, madam, without fail.”
“But if you are delayed?”
“You must wait patiently for us,” replied the Lieutenant, “for if in examining the southern horizon we should see a fire, which is not unlikely this dark night, we should know that we were near the coasts of New Georgia, and then it would be desirable for me to ascertain our position by daylight. In fact, we may be away forty eight hours. If, however, we can get to Cape Michael before midnight, we shall be back at the fort to-morrow evening. So wait patiently, madam, and believe that we shall incur no unnecessary risk.”
“But,” added the lady, “suppose you don’t get back to morrow, suppose you are away more than two days?”
“Then we shall not return at all,” replied Hobson simply.
The door was opened, Mrs Barnett closed it behind the Lieutenant and his companion and went back to her own room, where Madge awaited her, feeling anxious and thoughtful.
Hobson and Long made their way across the inner court through a whirlwind which nearly knocked them down; but clinging to each other, and leaning on their iron-bound staffs, they reached the postern gates, and set out [beween] between the hills and the eastern bank of the lagoon.
A faint twilight enabled them to see their way. The moon, which was new the night before, would not appear above the horizon, and there was nothing to lessen the gloom of the darkness, which would, however, last but a few hours longer.
The wind and rain were as violent as ever. The Lieutenant and his companion wore impervious boots and water-proof cloaks well pulled in at the waist, and the hood completely covering their heads. Thus protected they got along at a rapid pace, for the wind was behind them, and sometimes drove them on rather faster than they cared to go. Talking was quite out of the question, and they did not attempt it, for they were deafened by the hurricane, and out of breath with the buffeting they received.
Hobson did not mean to follow the coast, the windings of which would have taken him a long way round, and have brought him face to face with the wind, which swept over the sea with nothing to break its fury. His idea was to cut across in a straight line from Cape Bathurst to Cape Michael, and he was provided with a pocket compass with which to ascertain his bearings. He hoped by this means to cross the ten or eleven miles between him and his goal, just before the twilight faded and gave place to the two hours of real darkness.
Bent almost double, with rounded shoulders and stooping heads, the two pressed on. As long as they kept near the lake they did not meet the gale full face, the little hills crowned with trees afforded them some protection, the wind howled fearfully as it bent and distorted the branches, almost tearing the trunks up by the roots; but it partly exhausted its strength, and even the rain when it reached the explorers was converted into impalpable mist, so that for about four miles they did not suffer half as much as they expected to.
But when they reached the southern skirts of the wood, where the hills disappeared, and there were neither trees nor rising ground, the wind swept along with awful force, and involuntarily they paused for a moment. They were still six miles from Cape Michael.
“We are going to have a bad time of it,” shouted Lieutenant Hobson in the Sergeant’s ear.
“Yes, the wind and rain will conspire to give us a good beating,” answered Long.
“I am afraid that now and then we shall have hail as well,” added Hobson.
“It won’t be as deadly as grape-shot,” replied Long coolly, “and we have both been through that, and so forwards!”
“Forwards, my brave comrade!”
It was then ten o’clock. The twilight was fading away, dying as if drowned in the mists or quenched by the wind and the rain. There was still, however, some light, and the Lieutenant struck his flint, and consulted his compass, passing a piece of burning touchwood over it, and then, drawing his cloak more closely around him, he plunged after the Sergeant across the unprotected plain.
At the first step, both were flung violently to the ground, but they managed to scramble up, and clinging to each other with their backs bent like two old crippled peasants, they struck into a kind of ambling trot.
There was a kind of awful grandeur in the storm to which neither was insensible. Jagged masses of mist and ragged rain-clouds swept along the ground. The loose earth and sand were whirled into the air and flung down again like grape-shot, and the lips of Hobson and his companion were wet with salt spray, although the sea was two or three miles distant at least.
During the rare brief pauses in the gale, they stopped and took breath, whilst the Lieutenant ascertained their position as accurately as possible.
The tempest increased as the night advanced, the air and water seemed to be absolutely confounded together, and low down on the horizon was formed one of those fearful waterspouts which can overthrow houses, tear up forests, and which the vessels whose safety they threaten attack with artillery. It really seemed as if the ocean itself was being torn from its bed and flung over the devoted little island.
Hobson could not help wondering how it was that the ice-field which supported it was not broken in a hundred places in this violent convulsion of the sea, the roaring of which could be distinctly heard where he stood. Presently Long, who was a few steps in advance, stopped suddenly, and turning round managed to make the Lieutenant hear the broken words —
“Not that way!”
“What, the sea! We cannot possibly have got to the southeast coast!”
“Look, look, Lieutenant!”
It was true, a vast sheet of water was indistinctly visible before them, and large waves were rolling up and breaking at the Lieutenant’s feet.
Hobson again had recourse to his flint, and with the aid of some lighted touchwood consulted the needle of his compass very carefully.
“No,” he said, “the sea is farther to the left, we have not yet passed the wood between us and Cape Michael.”
“Then it is”——
“It is a fracture of the island!” cried Hobson, as both were compelled to fling themselves to the ground before the wind, “either a large portion of our land has been broken off and drifted away, or a gulf has been made, which we can go round. Forwards!”
They struggled to their feet and turned to the right towards the centre of the island. For about ten minutes they pressed on in silence, fearing, not without reason, that all communication with the south of the island would be found to be cut off. Presently, however, they no longer heard the noise of the breakers.
“It is only a gulf.” screamed Hobson in the Sergeant’s ear. “Let us turn round.”
And they resumed their original direction towards the south, but both knew only too well that they had a fearful danger to face, for that portion of the island on which they were was evidently cracked for a long distance, and might at any moment separate entirely; should it do so under the influence of the waves, they would inevitably be drifted away, whither they knew not. Yet they did not hesitate, but plunged into the mist, not even pausing to wonder if they should ever get back.
What anxious forebodings must, however, have pressed upon the heart of the Lieutenant. Could he now hope that the island would hold together until the winter? had not the inevitable breaking up already commenced? If the wind should not drive them on to the coast, were they not doomed to perish very soon, to be swallowed up by the deep, leaving no trace behind them? What a fearful prospect for all the unconscious inhabitants of the fort!
But through it all the two men, upheld by the consciousness of a duty to perform, bravely struggled on against the gale, which nearly tore them to pieces, along the new beach, the foam sometimes bathing their feet, and presently gained the large wood which shut in Cape Michael. This they would have to cross to get to the coast by the shortest route, and they entered it in complete darkness, the wind thundering among the branches over their heads. Everything seemed to be breaking to pieces around them, the dislocated branches intercepted their passage, and every moment they ran a risk of being crushed beneath a falling tree, or they stumbled over a stump they had not been able to see in the gloom. The noise of the waves on the other side of the wood was a sufficient guide to their steps, and sometimes the furious breakers shook the weakened ground beneath their feet. Holding each other’s hands lest they should lose each other, supporting each other, and the one helping the other up when he fell over some obstacle, they at last reached the point for which they were bound.
But the instant they quitted the shelter of the wood a perfect whirlwind tore them asunder, and flung them upon the ground.
“Sergeant, Sergeant! Where are you?” cried Hobson with all the strength of his lungs.
“Here, here!” roared Long in reply.
And creeping on the ground they struggled to reach each other; but it seemed as if a powerful hand rivetted them to the spot on which they had fallen, and it was only after many futile efforts that they managed to reach each other. Having done so, they tied their belts together to prevent another separation, and crept along the sand to a little rising ground crowned by a small clump of pines. Once there they were a little more protected, and they proceeded to dig themselves a hole, in which they crouched in a state of absolute exhaustion and prostration.
It was half-past eleven o’clock P.M.
For some minutes neither spoke. With eyes half closed they lay in a kind of torpor, whilst the trees above them bent beneath the wind, and their branches rattled like the bones of a skeleton. But yet again they roused themselves from this fatal lethargy, and a few mouthfuls of rum from the Sergeant’s flask revived them.
“Let us hope these trees will hold,” at last observed Hobson.
“And that our hole will not blow away with them,” added the Sergeant, crouching in the soft sand.
“Well!” said Hobson, “here we are at last, a few feet from Cape Michael, and as we came to make observations, let us make them. I have a presentiment, Sergeant, only a presentiment, remember, that we are not far from firm ground!”
Had the southern horizon been visible the two adventurers would have been able to see two-thirds of it from their position; but it was too dark to make out anything, and if the hurricane had indeed driven them within sight of land, they would not be able to see it until daylight, unless a fire should be lighted on the continent.
As the Lieutenant had told Mrs Barnett, fishermen often visited that part of North America, which is called New Georgia, and there are a good many small native colonies, the members of which collect the teeth of mammoths, these fossil elephants being very numerous in these latitudes. A few degrees farther south, on the island of Sitka, rises New-Archangel, the principal settlement in Russian America, and the head-quarters of the Russian Fur Company, whose jurisdiction once extended over the whole of the Aleutian Islands. The shores of the Arctic Ocean are, however, the favourite resort of hunters, especially since the Hudson’s Bay Company took a lease of the districts formerly in the hands of the Russians; and Hobson, although he knew nothing of the country, was well acquainted with the habits of those who were likely to visit it at this time of the year, and was justified in thinking that he might meet fellow-countrymen, perhaps even members of his own Company, or, failing them, some native Indians, scouring the coasts.
But could the Lieutenant reasonably hope that Victoria Island had been driven towards the coast?
“Yes, a hundred times yes,” he repeated to the Sergeant again and again. “For seven days a hurricane has been blowing from the northeast, and although I know that the island is very flat, and there is not much for the wind to take hold of, still all these little hills and woods spread out like sails must have felt the influence of the wind to a certain extent. Moreover, the sea which bears us along feels its power, and large waves are certainly running in shore. It is impossible for us to have remained in the current which was dragging us to the west, we must have been driven out of it, and towards the south. Last time we took our bearings we were two hundred miles from the coast, and in seven days “——
“Your reasonings are very just, Lieutenant,” replied the Sergeant, “and I feel that whether the wind helps us or not, God will not forsake us. It cannot be His will that so many unfortunate creatures should perish, and I put my trust in Him!”
The two talked on in broken sentences, making each other hear above the roaring of the storm, and struggling to pierce the gloom which closed them in on every side; but they could see nothing, not a ray of light broke the thick darkness.
About half past one A.M. the hurricane ceased for a few minutes, whilst the fury of the sea seemed to be redoubled, and the large waves, lashed into foam, broke over each other with a roar like thunder.
Suddenly Hobson seizing his companion’s arm shouted —
“Sergeant, do you hear?”
“The noise of the sea?”
“Of course I do, sir,” replied Long, listening more attentively, “and the sound of the breakers seems to me not”——
“Not exactly the same . . . isn’t it Sergeant; listen, listen, it is like the sound of surf! . . . it seems as if the waves were breaking against rocks!”
Hobson and the Sergeant now listened intently, the monotonous sound of the waves dashing against each other in the offing was certainly exchanged for the regular rolling sound produced by the breaking of water against a hard body; they heard the reverberating echoes which told of the neighbourhood of rocks, and they knew that along the whole of the coast of their island there was not a single stone, and nothing more sonorous than the earth and sand of which it was composed!
Could they have been deceived? The Sergeant tried to rise to listen better, but he was immediately flung down by the hurricane, which recommenced with renewed violence. The lull was over, and again the noise of the waves was drowned in the shrill whistling of the wind, and the peculiar echo could no longer be made out.
The anxiety of the two explorers will readily be imagined. They again crouched down in their hole, doubting whether it would not perhaps be prudent to leave even this shelter, for they felt the sand giving way beneath them, and the pines cracking at their very roots. They persevered, however, in gazing towards the south, every nerve strained to the utmost, in the effort to distinguish objects through the darkness.
The first grey twilight of the dawn might soon be expected to appear, and a little before half-past two A.M. Long suddenly exclaimed:
“I see it!”
“Yes, there — over there!”
And he pointed to the south-west. Was he mistaken? No, for Hobson also made out a faint glimmer in the direction indicated.
“Yes!” he cried, “yes, Sergeant, a fire; there is land there!”
“Unless it is a fire on board ship,” replied Long.
“A ship at sea in this weather!” exclaimed Hobson, “impossible! No, no, there is land there, land I tell you, a few miles from us!”
“Well, let us make a signal!”
“Yes, Sergeant, we will reply to the fire on the mainland by a fire on our island!”
Of course neither Hobson nor Long had a torch, but above their heads rose resinous pines distorted by the hurricane.
“Your flint, Sergeant,” said Hobson.
Long at once struck his flint, lighted the touchwood, and creeping along the sand climbed to the foot of the thicket of firs, where he was soon joined by the Lieutenant. There was plenty of deadwood about, and they piled it up at the stems of the trees, set fire to it, and soon, the wind helping them, they had the satisfaction of seeing the whole thicket in a blaze
“Ah!” said Hobson, “as we saw their fire, they will see ours!”
The firs burnt with a lurid glare like a large torch. The dried resin in the old trunks aided the conflagration, and they were rapidly consumed. At last the crackling ceased, the flames died away, and all was darkness.
Hobson and Long looked in vain for an answering fire — nothing was to be seen. For ten minutes they watched, hoping against hope, and were just beginning to despair, when suddenly a cry was heard, a distinct cry for help. It was a human voice, and it came from the sea.
Hobson and Long, wild with eager anxiety, let themselves slide down to the shore.
The cry was not, however, repeated.
The daylight was now gradually beginning to appear, and the violence of the tempest seemed to be decreasing. Soon it was light enough for the horizon to be examined.
But there was no land in sight, sea and sky were still blended in one unbroken circle.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55