She was ready to lay down her life for “Paulina,” but what good could that do now. She knew, however, that Mrs Barnett was not a woman to sink under her misfortunes, and indeed at present there was really no need for any one to despair.
There was no immediate danger to be dreaded, and a catastrophe might even yet be avoided. This Hobson carefully explained to his companions.
Two dangers threatened the island floating along the coast of North America, only two.
It would be drawn by the currents of the open sea to the high Polar latitudes, from which there is no return.
Or the current would take it to the south, perhaps through the Behring Strait into the Pacific Ocean.
In the former contingency, the colonists, shut in by ice and surrounded by impassable icebergs, would have no means of communication with their fellow-creatures, and would die of cold and hunger in the solitudes of the north.
In the latter contingency, Victoria Island, driven by the currents to the western waters of the Pacific, would gradually melt and go to pieces beneath the feet of its inhabitants.
In either case death would await the Lieutenant and his companions, and the fort, erected at the cost of so much labour and suffering, would be destroyed.
But it was scarcely probable that either of these events would happen. The season was already considerably advanced, and in less than three months the sea would again be rendered motion less by the icy hand of the Polar winter. The ocean would again be converted into an ice-field, and by means of sledges they might get to the nearest land—the coast of Russian America if the island remained in the east, or the coast of Asia if it were driven to the west.
“For,” added Hobson, “we have absolutely no control over our floating island. Having no sail to hoist, as in a boat, we cannot guide it in the least. Where it takes us we must go.”
All that Hobson said was clear, concise, and to the point. There could be no doubt that the bitter cold of winter would solder Victoria Island to the vast ice-field, and it was highly probable that it would drift neither too far north nor too far eouth. To have to cross a few hundred miles of ice was no such terrible prospect for brave and resolute men accustomed to long excursions in the Arctic regions. It would be necessary, it was true, to abandon Fort Hope—the object of so many hopes, and to lose the benefit of all their exertions, but what of that? The factory, built upon a shifting soil, could be of no further use to the Company. Sooner or later it would be swallowed up by the ocean, and what was the good of useless regrets? It must, therefore, be deserted as soon as circumstances should permit.
The only thing against the safety of the colonists was—and the Lieutenant dwelt long on this point—that during the eight or nine weeks which must elapse before the solidification of the Arctic Ocean, Victoria Island might be dragged too far north or south.
Arctic explorers had often told of pieces of ice being drifted an immense distance without any possibility of stopping them.
Everything then depended on the force and direction of the currents from the opening of Behring Strait; and it would be necessary carefully to ascertain all that a chart of the Arctic Ocean could tell. Hobson had such a chart, and invited all who were with him on the cape to come to his room and look at it; but before going down to the fort he once more urged upon them the necessity of keeping their situation a secret.
“It is not yet desperate,” he said, “and it is therefore quite unnecessary to damp the spirits of our comrades, who will perhaps not be able to understand, as we do, all the chances in our favour.”
“Would it not be prudent to build a boat large enough to hold us all, and strong enough to carry us a few hundred miles over the sea?” observed Mrs Barnett.
“It would be prudent certainly,” said Hobson, “and we will do it. I must think of some pretext for beginning the work at once, and give the necessary orders to the head carpenter. But taking to a boat can only be a forlorn hope when everything else has failed.