During the night of the 22d July the tempest suddenly ceased. A strong breeze from the north-east dispelled the last mists upon the horizon. The barometer rose a few degrees, and the weather appeared likely to favour Hobson’s expedition.
He was to be accompanied by Mrs Barnett and Sergeant Long, and expected to be absent a day or two. The little party took some salt meat, biscuits, and a few flasks of rum with them, and there was nothing in their excursion to surprise the rest of the colonists. The days were just then very long, the sun only disappearing below the horizon for a few hours.
There were no wild animals to be feared now. The bears seemed to have fled by instinct from the peninsula whilst it was still connected with the mainland, but to neglect no precaution each of the three explorers was provided with a gun. The Lieutenant and his subordinate also carried hatchets and ice-chisels, which a traveller in the Polar regions should never be without.
During the absence of the Lieutenant and the Sergeant, the command of the fort fell to Corporal Joliffe, or rather to his little wife, and Hobson knew that he could trust her. Thomas Black could not be depended on; he would not even join the exploring party; he promised, however, to watch the northern latitudes very carefully, and to note any change which should take place in the sea or the position of the cape during the absence of the Lieutenant.
Mrs Barnett had endeavoured to reason with the unfortunate astronomer, but he would listen to nothing. He felt that Nature had deceived him, and that he could never forgive her.
After many a hearty farewell, the Lieutenant and his two companions left the fort by the postern gate, and, turning to the west, followed the lengthened curve of the coast between Capes Bathurst and Esquimaux.
It was eight o’clock in the morning; the oblique rays of the sun struck upon the beach, and touched it with many a brilliant tint, the angry billows of the sea were sinking to rest, and the birds, ptarmigans, guillemots, puffins, and petrels, driven away by the storm, were returning by thousands. Troops of ducks were hastening back to Lake Barnett, flying close, although they knew it not, to Mrs Joliffe’s saucepan. Polar hares, martens, musk rats, and ermines rose before the travellers and fled at their approach, but not with any great appearance of haste or terror. The animals evidently felt drawn towards their old enemies by a common danger.
“They know well enough that they are hemmed in by the sea and cannot quit the island,” observed Hobson.
“They are all in the habit of seeking warmer climates in the south in the winter, are they not?” inquired Mrs Barnett.
“Yes, madam, but unless they are presently able to cross the ice-field, they will have to remain prisoners like ourselves, and I am afraid the greater number will die of cold or hunger.
“I hope they will be good enough to supply us with food for a long time,” observed the Sergeant,” and I think it is very fortunate that they had not the sense to run away before the rupture of the isthmus.”
“The birds will, however, leave us?” added Mrs Barnett.
“Oh yes, madam, everything with wings will go, they can traverse long distances without fatigue, and, more fortunate than ourselves, they will regain terra firma.”
“Could we not use them as messengers?” asked Mrs Barnett.
“A good idea, madam, a capital idea,” said Hobson. “We might easily catch some hundreds of these birds, and tie a paper round their necks with our exact situation written upon it. John Ross in 1848 tried similar means to acquaint the survivors of the Franklin expedition with the presence of his ships, the Enterprise and the Investigator in the Polar seas. He caught some hundreds of white foxes in traps, rivetted a copper collar round the neck of each with all the necessary information engraved upon it, and then set them free in every direction.”
“Perhaps some of the messengers may have fallen into the hands of the shipwrecked wanderers.”
“Perhaps so,” replied Hobson; “I know that an old fox was taken by Captain Hatteras during his voyage of discovery, wearing a collar half worn away and hidden beneath his thick white fur.