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.