It already covers half the plain, and the waves, still comparatively warm, are eating away our island above and below at the same time! If the cold does not stop it very soon, the sea will shortly join the lake, and we shall lose our lagoon as we lost our river and our port!”
“Well, if that should happen it will indeed be an irreparable misfortune!” exclaimed Madge.
“Why?” asked Mrs Barnett, looking inquiringly at her companion.
“Because we shall have no more fresh water,” replied Madge.
“Oh, we shall not want for fresh water, Madge,” said Mrs Barnett; “the rain, the snow, the ice, the icebergs of the ocean, the very ice-field on which we float, will supply us with that; no, no, that is not our danger.”
About ten o’clock Mrs Barnett and Madge had readied the rising ground above Cape Esquimaux, but at least two miles inland, for they had found it impossible to follow the coast, worn away as it was by the sea. Being rather tired with the many détours they had had to make, they decided to rest a few minutes before setting off on their return to Fort Hope. A little hill crowned by a clump of birch trees and a few shrubs afforded a pleasant shelter, and a bank covered with yellow moss, from which the snow had melted, served them as a seat. The little wallet was opened, and they shared their simple repast like sisters.
Half an hour later, Mrs Barnett proposed that they should climb along the promontory to the sea, and find out the exact state of Cape Esquimaux. She was anxious to know if the point of it had resisted the storm, and Madge declared herself ready to follow “her dear girl” wherever she went, but at the same time reminded her that they were eight or nine miles from Cape Bathurst already, and that they must not make Lieutenant Hobson uneasy by too long an absence.
But some presentiment made Mrs Barnett insist upon doing as she proposed, and she was right, as the event proved. It would only delay them half an hour after all.
They had not gone a quarter of a mile before Mrs Barnett stopped suddenly, and pointed to some clear and regular impressions upon the snow. These marks must have been made within the last nine or ten hours, or the last fall of snow would have covered them over.
“What animal has passed along here, I wonder?” said Madge.
“It was not an animal,” said Mrs Barnett, bending down to examine the marks more closely, “not a quadruped certainly, for its four feet would have left impressions very different from these. Look, Madge, they are the footprints of a human person!”
“But who could have been here?” inquired Madge; “none of the soldiers or women have left the fort, and we are on an island, remember. You must be mistaken, my dear; but we will follow the marks, and see where they lead us.”
They did so, and fifty paces farther on both again paused.
“Look, Madge, look!” cried Mrs Barnett, seizing her companion’s arm, “and then say if I am mistaken.”
Near the footprints there were marks of a heavy body having been dragged along the snow, and the impression of a hand.
“It is the hand of a woman or a child!” cried Madge.
“Yes!” replied Mrs Barnett; “a woman or a child has fallen here exhausted, and risen again to stumble farther on; look, the footprints again, and father on more falls!”
“Who, who could it have been?” exclaimed Madge.
“How can I tell?” replied Mrs Barnett. “Some unfortunate creature imprisoned like ourselves for three or four months perhaps. Or some shipwrecked wretch flung upon the coast in the storm. You remember the fire and the cry of which Sergeant Long and Lieutenant Hobson spoke. Come, come, Madge, there may be some one in danger for us to save!
And Mrs Barnett, dragging Madge with her, ran along following the traces, and further on found that they were stained with blood.
The brave, tender-hearted woman, had spoken of saving some one in danger; had she then forgotten that there was no safety for any upon the island, doomed sooner or later to be swallowed up by the ocean?
The impressions on the ground led towards Cape Esquimaux.