The astronomer had no doubt about the misfortune of which he was the victim. Not having, like the Lieutenant, noticed the peculiarities of the district, he did not look beyond the one fact in which he was interested: on the day fixed, at the time named, the moon had not completely eclipsed the sun. And what could he conclude but that, to the disgrace of observatories, the almanacs were false, and that the long desired eclipse, his own eclipse, Thomas Black’s, which he had come so far and through so many dangers to see, had not been “total” for this particular district under the seventieth parallel! No, no, it was impossible to believe it; he could not face the terrible certainty, and he was overwhelmed with disappointment. He was soon to learn the truth, however.
Meanwhile Hobson let his men imagine that the failure of the eclipse could only interest himself and the astronomer, and they returned to their ordinary occupations; but as they were leaving, Corporal Joliffe stopped suddenly and said, touching his cap—
“May I ask you one question, sir?”
“Of course, Corporal; say on,” replied the Lieutenant, who wondered what was coming.
But Joliffe hesitated, and his little wife nudged his elbow.
“Well, Lieutenant,” resumed the Corporal, “it’s just about the seventieth degree of latitude—if we are not where we thought we were.”
The Lieutenant frowned.
“Well,” he replied evasively, “we made a mistake in our reckoning, ... our first observation was wrong; ... but what does that concern you?”
“Please, sir, it’s because of the pay,” replied Joliffe with a scowl. “You know well enough that the Company promised us double pay.”
Hobson drew a sigh of relief. It will be remembered that the men had been promised higher pay if they succeeded in settling on or above the seventieth degree north latitude, and Joliffe, who always had an eye to the main chance, had looked upon the whole matter from a monetary point of view, and was afraid the bounty would be withheld.
“You needn’t be afraid,” said Hobson with a smile; “and you can tell your brave comrades that our mistake, which is really inexplicable, will not in the least prejudice your interests. We are not below, but above the seventieth parallel, and so you will get your double pay.”
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” replied Joliffe with a beaming face. “It isn’t that we think much about money, but that the money sticks to us.”
And with this sage remark the men drew off, little dreaming what a strange and fearful change had taken place in the position of the country.
Sergeant Long was about to follow the others when Hobson stopped him with the words—
“Remain here, Sergeant Long.”
The subordinate officer turned on his heel and waited for the Lieutenant to address him.
All had now left the cape except Mrs Barnett, Madge, Thomas Black, and the two officers.
Since the eclipse Mrs Barnett had not uttered a word. She looked inquiringly at Hobson, who tried to avoid meeting her eyes.
For some time not another word was spoken. All involuntarily turned towards the south, where the broken isthmus was situated; but from their position they could only see the sea horizon on the north. Had Cape Bathurst been situated a few hundred feet more above the level of the ocean, they would have been able at a glance to ascertain the limits of their island home.
All were deeply moved at the sight of Fort Hope and all its occupants borne away from all solid ground, and floating at the mercy of winds and waves.
“Then, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett at last, “all the strange phenomena you observed are now explained!”
“Yes, madam,” he replied, “everything is explained. The peninsula of Victoria, now an island, which we thought firm ground with an immovable foundation, is nothing more than a vast sheet of ice welded for centuries to the American continent. Gradually the wind has strewn it with earth and sand, and scattered over them the seeds from which have sprung the trees and mosses with which it is clothed. Rain-water filled the lagoon, and produced the little river; vegetation transformed the appearance of the ground; but beneath the lake, beneath the soil of earth and sand—in a word, beneath our feet is a foundation of ice, which floats upon the water by reason of its being specifically lighter than it.