But what chiefly struck Lieutenant Hobson was the strange arrangement of these impressions. They were evidently made by a human foot, a shod foot; but, strange to say, the ball alone appeared to have touched the ground! The marks were very numerous, close together, often crossing one another, but confined to a very small circle.
Jaspar Hobson called the attention of the rest of the party to this singular circumstance.
“These were not made by a person walking,” he said.
“Nor by a person jumping,” added Mrs Barnett; “for there is no mark of a heel.”
“No,” said Mrs Joliffe; “these footprints were left by a dancer.”
She was right, as further examination proved. They were the marks left by a dancer, and a dancer engaged in some light and graceful exercise, for they were neither clumsy nor deep.
But who could the light-hearted individual be who had been impelled to dance in this sprightly fashion some degrees above the Arctic Circle?
“It was certainly not an Esquimaux,” said the Lieutenant.
“Nor an Indian,” cried Corporal Joliffe.
“No, it was a Frenchman,” said Sergeant Long quietly.
And all agreed that none but a Frenchman could have been capable of dancing on such a spot.
THE MIDNIGHT SUN.
Sergeant Long’s assertion must appear to have been founded on insufficient evidence. That there had been dancing no one could deny, but that the dancer was a Frenchman, however probable, could not be considered proved.
However, the Lieutenant shared the opinion of his subordinate, which did not appear too positive to any of the party, who all agreed in feeling sure that some travellers, with at least one compatriot of Vestris amongst them, had recently encamped on this spot.
Of course Lieutenant Hobson was by no means pleased at this he was afraid of having been preceded by rivals in the north-western districts of English America; and secret as the Company had kept its scheme, it had doubtless been divulged in the commercial centres of Canada and the United States.
The Lieutenant resumed his interrupted march; but he was full of care and anxiety, although he would not now have dreamed of retracing his steps.
“Frenchmen are then sometimes met with in these high latitudes?” was Mrs Barnett’s natural question after this incident.
“Yes, madam,” replied the Lieutenant; “or if not exactly Frenchmen, the descendants of the masters of Canada when it belonged to France, which comes to much the same thing. These men are in fact our most formidable rivals.”
“But I thought,” resumed Mrs Barnett, “that after the absorption by the Hudson’s Bay Company of the old North-West Company, that it had no longer any rivals on the American continent.”
“Although there is no longer any important association for trading in furs except our own, there are a good many perfectly independent private companies, mostly American, which have retained French agents or their descendants in their employ.”
“Are these agents then held in such high esteem?” asked Mrs Barnett.
“Yes, madam, and with good reason. During the ninety-four years of French supremacy in Canada, French agents always proved themselves superior to ours. We must be just even to our rivals.”
“Especially to our rivals,” added Mrs Barnett.
“Yes, especially. . . At that time French hunters, starting from Montreal, their headquarters, pressed on to the north with greater hardihood than any others. They lived for years with the Indian tribes, sometimes intermarrying with them. The natives called them the ‘Canadian travellers,’ and were on the most intimate terms with them. They were bold, clever fellows, expert at navigating streams, light-hearted and merry, adapting themselves to circumstances with the easy flexibility of their race, and always ready to sing or dance.”
“And do you suppose that hunting is the only object of the party whose traces we have just discovered?”
“I don’t think any other hypotheses at all likely,” replied Hobson. “They are sure to be seeking new hunting grounds. But as we cannot possibly stop them, we must make haste to begin our own operations, and compete boldly with all rivals.”
Lieutenant Hobson was now prepared for the competition he could not prevent, and he urged on the march of his party as much as possible, hoping that his rivals might not follow him beyond the seventieth parallel.