We are, therefore, nearer to geographical knowledge of the equatorial countries than of the Polar districts.”
“Do you think that the Pole itself will ever be reached by man?” inquired Mrs Paulina Barnett.
“Certainly,” replied Hobson, adding with a smile, “by man or woman. But I think other means must be tried of reaching this point, where all the meridians of the globe cross each other, than those hitherto adopted by travellers. We hear of the open sea, of which certain explorers are said to have caught a glimpse. But if such a sea, free from ice, really exist, it is very difficult to get at, and no one can say positively whether it extends to the North Pole. For my part, I think an open sea would increase rather than lessen the difficulties of explorers. As for me, I would rather count upon firm footing, whether on ice or rock, all the way. Then I would organise successive expeditions, establishing depôts of provisions and fuel nearer and nearer to the Pole; and so, with plenty of time, plenty of money, and perhaps the sacrifice of a good many lives, I should in the end solve the great scientific problem. I should, I think, at last reach the hitherto inaccessible goal !”
“I think you are right, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett; “and if ever you try the experiment, I should not be afraid to join you, and would gladly go to set up the Union Jack at the North Pole. But that is not our present object.”
“Not our immediate object, madam,” replied Hobson; “but when once the projects of the Company are realised, when the new fort has been erected on the confines of the American continent, it may become the natural starting-point of all expeditions to the north. Besides, should the fur-yielding animals, too zealously hunted, take refuge at the Pole, we should have to follow them.”
“Unless costly furs should go out of fashion,” replied Mrs Barnett.
“O madam,” cried the Lieutenant, “there will always be some pretty woman whose wish for a sable muff or an ermine tippet must be gratified !”
“I am afraid so,” said Mrs Barnett, laughing; “and probably the first discoverer of the Pole will have been led thither in pursuit of a sable or a silver fox.”
“That is my conviction,” replied Hobson. “ Such is human nature, and greed of gain will always carry a man further than zeal for science.”
“What! do you utter such sentiments?” exclaimed Mrs Barnett.
“Well, madam, what am I but an employé of the Hudson’s Bay Company? and does the Company risk its capital and agents with any other hope than an increase of profits?”
“Lieutenant Hobson,” said Mrs Barnett, “I think I know you well enough to assert that on occasion you would be ready to devote body and soul to science. If a purely geographical question called you to the Pole, I feel sure you would not hesitate to go. But,” she added, with a smile, “the solution of this great problem is still far distant. We have but just reached the verge of the Arctic Circle, but I hope we may cross it without any very great difficulty.”
“That I fear is doubtful,” said the Lieutenant, who had been attentively examining the sky during their conversation. “The weather has looked threatening for the last few days. Look at the uniformly grey hue of the heavens. That mist will presently resolve itself into snow; and if the wind should rise ever so little, we shall have to battle with a fearful storm. I wish we were at the Great Bear Lake !”
“Do not let us lose any time, then,” said Mrs Barnett, rising; “give the signal to start at once.”
The Lieutenant needed no urging. Had he been alone, or accompanied by a few men as energetic as himself, he would have pressed on day and night; but he was obliged to make allowance for the fatigue of others, although he never spared himself. He therefore granted a few hours of rest to his little party, and it was not until three in the afternoon that they again set out.
Jaspar Hobson was not mistaken in prophesying a change in the weather. It came very soon. During the afternoon of the same day the mist became thicker, and assumed a yellowish and threatening hue.