He often assured Mrs Barnett, Madge, and Long that he was convinced the island would hold together until the bitter cold of winter should thicken its foundation and arrest its course at one and the same time.
After his journey of discovery, Hobson estimated exactly the area of his new dominions. The island measured more than forty miles round, from which its superficial area[r] would appear to be about one hundred and forty miles at the least. By way of comparison, we may say that Victoria Island was rather larger than St Helena, and its area was about the same as that of Paris within the line of fortifications. If then it should break up into fragments, the separate parts might still be of sufficient size to be habitable for some time.
When Mrs Barnett expressed her surprise that a floating ice-field could be so large, Hobson replied by reminding her of the observations of Arctic navigators. Parry, Penny, and Franklin had met with ice-fields in the Polar seas one hundred miles long and fifty broad. Captain Kellet abandoned his boat on an ice-field measuring at least three hundred square miles, and what was Victoria Island compared to it?
Its size was, however, sufficient to justify a hope that it would resist the action of the warm currents until the cold weather set in. Hobson would not allow himself to doubt; his despair arose rather from the knowledge that the fruit of all his cares, anxieties, and dangers must eventually be swallowed up by the deep, and it was no wonder that he could take no interest in the works that were going on.
Mrs Barnett kept up a good heart through it all; she encouraged her comrades in their work, and took her share in it, as if she had still a future to look forward to. Seeing what an interest Mrs Joliffe took in her plants, she joined her every day in the garden. There was now a fine crop of sorrel and scurvy-grass—thanks to the Corporal’s unwearying exertions to keep off the birds of every kind, which congregated by hundreds.
The taming of the reindeer had been quite successful; there were now a good many young, and little Michael had been partly brought up on the milk of the mothers. There were now some thirty head in the herd which grazed near the fort, and a supply of the herbage on which they feed was dried and laid up for the winter. These useful animals, which are easily domesticated, were already quite familiar with all the colonists, and did not go far from the enceinte. Some of them were used in sledges to carry timber backwards and forwards. A good many reindeer, still wild, now fell into the trap half way between the fort and Port Barnett. It will be remembered that a large bear was once taken in it; but nothing of the kind occurred this season—none fell victims but the reindeer, whose flesh was salted and laid by for future use. Twenty at least were taken, which in the ordinary course of things would have gone down to the south in the winter.
One day, however, the reindeer-trap suddenly became useless in consequence of the conformation of the soil. After visiting it as usual, the hunter Marbre approached Hobson, and said to him in a significant tone——
“I have just paid my daily visit to the reindeer-trap, sir.”
“Well, Marbre, I hope you have been as successful to-day as yesterday, and have caught a couple of reindeer,” replied Hobson.
“No, sir, no,” replied Marbre, with some embarrassment.
“Your trap has not yielded its ordinary contingent then?”
“No, sir; and if any animal had fallen in, it would certainly have been drowned!”
“Drowned!” cried the Lieutenant, looking at the hunter with an anxious expression.
“Yes, sir,” replied Marbre, looking attentively at his superior, “the pit is full of water.”
“Ah!” said Hobson, in the tone of a man who attached no importance to that, “you know your pit was partly hollowed out of ice; its walls have melted with the heat of the sun, and then “——
“Beg pardon for interrupting you, sir,” said Marbre; “but the water cannot have been produced by the melting of ice.”
“Why not, Marbre?” “Because if it came from ice it would be sweet, as you explained to me once before.