Now the water in our pit is salt!”
Master of himself as he was, Hobson could not help changing countenance slightly, and he had not a word to say.
“Besides,” added Marbre, “I wanted to sound the trench, to see how deep the water was, and to my great surprise, I can tell you, I could not find the bottom.”
“Well, Marbre,” replied Hobson hastily, “there is nothing so wonderful in that. Some fracture of the soil has established a communication between the sea and the trap. So don’t be uneasy about it, my brave fellow, but leave the trap alone for the present, and be content with setting snares near the fort.”
Marbre touched his cap respectfully, and turned on his heel, but not before he had given his chief a searching glance.
Hobson remained very thoughtful for a few moments. Marbre’s tidings were of grave importance. It was evident that the bottom of the trench, gradually melted by the warm waters of the sea, had given way.
Hobson at once called the Sergeant, and having acquainted him with the incident, they went together, unnoticed by their companions, to the beach at the foot of Cape Bathurst, where they had made the bench-marks.
They examined them carefully, and found that since they last did so, the floating island had sunk six inches.
“We are sinking gradually,” murmured Sergeant Long. “The ice is wearing away.”
“Oh for the winter! the winter!” cried Hobson, stamping his foot upon the ground.
But as yet, alas! there was no sign of the approach of the cold season. The thermometer maintained a mean height of 59° Fahrenheit, and during the few hours of the night the column of mercury scarcely went down three degrees.
Preparations for the approaching winter went on apace, and there was really nothing wanting to Fort Hope, although it had not been revictualled by Captain Craventy’s detachment. The long hours of the Arctic night might be awaited in perfect security. The stores were of course carefully husbanded. There still remained plenty of spirits, only small quantities having been consumed; and there was a good stock of biscuits, which, once gone, could not be replaced. Fresh venison and salt meat were to be had in abundance, and with some antiscorbutic vegetables, the diet was most healthy; and all the members of the little colony were well.
A good deal of timber was cut in the woods clothing the eastern slopes of Lake Barnett. Many were the birch-trees, pines, and firs which fell beneath the axe of Mac-Nab, and were dragged to the house by the tamed reindeer. The carpenter did not spare the little forest, although he cut his wood judiciously; for he never dreamt that timber might fail him, imagining, as he did, Victoria Island to be a peninsula, and knowing the districts near Cape Michael to be rich in different species of trees.
Many a time did the unconscious carpenter congratulate his Lieutenant on having chosen a spot so favoured by Heaven. Woods, game, furred animals, a lagoon teeming with fish, plenty of herbs for the animals, and, as Corporal Joliffe would have added, double pay for the men. Was not Cape Bathurst a corner of a privileged land, the like of which was not to be found in the whole Arctic regions? Truly Hobson was a favourite of Heaven, and ought to return thanks to Providence every day for the discovery of this unique spot.
Ah, Mac-Nab, you little knew how you wrung the heart of your master when you talked in that strain!
The manufacture of winter garments was not neglected in the factory. Mrs Barnett, Madge, Mrs Mac-Nab, Mrs Rae, and Mrs Joliffe—when she could leave her fires—were alike indefatigable. Mrs Barnett knew that they would all have to leave the fort in the depth of winter, and was determined that every one should be warmly clothed. They would have to face the bitterest cold for a good many days during the Polar night, if Victoria Island should halt far from the continent. Boots and clothes ought indeed to be strong and well made, for crossing some hundreds of miles under such circumstances. Mrs Barnett and Madge devoted all their energies to the matter in hand, and the furs, which they knew it would be impossible to save, were turned to good account.