“They could riot find a suitable spot,” replied the Lieutenant, with a melancholy shake of the head.
“Why not?” inquired Mrs Barnett with some surprise.
“Because they only congregate where the slope of the beach is gradual enough to allow of their creeping up easily from the sea. Now Cape Bathurst rises abruptly, like a perpendicular wall, from water three hundred fathoms deep. It is probable that ages ago portion of the continent was rent away in some violent volcanic convulsion, and flung into the Arctic Ocean. Hence the absence of morses on the beach of our cape.”
The first half of September passed rapidly away. Had Fort Hope been situated at the Pole itself, that is to say, twenty degrees farther north, the polar night would have set in on the 21st of that month But under the seventieth parallel the sun would be visible above the horizon for another month. Nevertheless, the temperature was already decidedly colder, the thermometer fell during the night to 31° Fahrenheit; and thin coatings of ice appeared here and there, to be dissolved again in the day-time.
But the settlers were able to await the coming of winter without alarm; they had a more than sufficient store of provisions, their supply of dried venison had largely increased, another score of morses had been killed, the tame rein-deer were warmly and comfortably housed, and a huge wooden shed behind the house was filled with fuel. In short, everything was prepared for the Polar night.
And now all the wants of the inhabitants of the fort being provided for, it was time to think of the interests of the Company. The Arctic creatures had now assumed their winter furs, and were therefore of the greatest value, and Hobson organised shooting parties for the remainder of the fine weather, intending to set traps when the snow should prevent further excursions.
They would have plenty to do to satisfy the requirements of the Company, for so far north it was of no use to depend on the Indians, who are generally the purveyors of the factories.
The first expedition was to the haunt of a family of beavers, long since noted by the watchful Lieutenant, on a tributary of the stream already referred to. It is true, the fur of the beaver is not now as valuable as when it was used for hats, and fetched £16 per kilogramme (rather more than 2 lb.); but it still commands a high price as the animal is becoming very scarce, in consequence of the reckless way in which it has been hunted.
When the party reached their destination, the Lieutenant called Mrs Barnett’s attention to the great ingenuity displayed by beavers in the construction of their submarine city. There were some hundred animals in the little colony now to be invaded, and they lived together in pairs in the “holes” or “vaults” they had hollowed out near the stream. They had already commenced their preparations for the winter, and were hard at work constructing their dams and laying up their piles of wood. A dam of admirable structure had already been built across the stream, which was deep and rapid enough not to freeze far below the surface, even in the severest weather. This dam, which was convex towards the current, consisted of a collection of upright stakes interlaced with branches and roots, the whole being cemented together and rendered watertight with the clayey mud of the river, previously pounded by the animals’ feet. The beavers use their tails-which are large and flat, with scales instead of hair at the root-for plastering over their buildings and beating the clay into shape.
“The object of this dam,” said the Lieutenant to Mrs Barnett, “is to secure to the beavers a sufficient depth of water at all seasons of the year, and to enable the engineers of the tribe to build the round buts .called houses or lodges, the tops of which you can just see. They are extremely solid structures, and the walls made of stick, clay, roots, &c., are two feet thick., They can only be entered from below the water, and their owners have therefore to dive when they go home-an admirable arrangement for their protection.