They must wait until the sea was quite firmly frozen over, which at the most would be in another three or four weeks. Meanwhile the Lieutenant proposed making frequent excursions on the ice-field encircling the island, in order to ascertain its thickness, its suitability for the passage of sledges, and the best route to take across it so as to reach the shores of Asia or America.
“Of course,” observed Hobson to Mrs Barnett and Sergeant Long, “we would all rather make for Russian America than Asia, if a choice is open to us.”
“Kalumah will be very useful to us,” said Mrs Barnett, “for as a native she will be thoroughly acquainted with the whole of Alaska.”
“Yes, indeed,” replied Hobson, “her arrival was most fortunate for us. Thanks to her, we shall be easily able to get to the settlement of Fort Michael on Norton Sound, perhaps even to New Archangel, a good deal farther south, where we can pass the rest of the winter.”
“Poor Fort Hope!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, “it goes to my heart to think of abandoning it on this island. It has been built at the cost of so much trouble and fatigue, everything about it has been so admirably arranged by you, Lieutenant! I feel as if my heart would break when we leave it finally.”
“You will not suffer more than I shall, madam,” replied Hobson, “and perhaps not so much. It is the chief work of my life; I have devoted all my powers to the foundation of Fort Hope, so unfortunately named, and I shall never cease to regret having to leave it. And what will the Company say which confided this task to me, for after all I am` but its humble agent.”
“It will say,” cried Mrs Barnett with enthusiasm, “it will say that you have done your duty, that you are not responsible for the caprices of nature, which is ever more powerful than man. It will understand that you could not foresee what has happened, for it was beyond the penetration of the most far-sighted man, and it will know that it owes the preservation of the whole party to your prudence and moral courage.”
“Thank you, madam,” replied the Lieutenant, pressing Mrs Barnett’s hand, “thank you for your warm-hearted words. But I have had some experience of men, and I know that success is always admired and failure condemned. But the will of Heaven be done!”
Sergeant Long, anxious to turn the Lieutenant from his melancholy thoughts, now began to talk about the preparations for the approaching departure, and asked if it was not time to tell his comrades the truth.
“Let us wait a little longer,” replied Hobson. “We have saved the poor fellows much anxiety and worry already, let us keep silent until the day is fixed for the start, and then we will reveal the whole truth.”
This point being decided, the ordinary occupations of the factory went on for a few weeks longer.
How different was the situation of the colonists a year ago, when they were all looking forward to the future in happy unconsciousness!
A year ago the first symptoms of the cold season were appearing, even as they were now. The “young ice” was gradually forming along the coast. The lagoon, its waters being quieter than those of the sea, was the first to freeze over. The temperature remained about one or two degrees above freezing point in the day, and fell to three or four degrees below in the night. Hobson again made his men assume their winter garments, the linen vests and furs before described. The condensers were again set up inside the house, the air vessel and air-pumps were cleaned, the traps were set round the palisades on different parts of Cape Bathurst, and Marbre and Sabine got plenty of game, and finally the last touches were given to the inner rooms of the principal house.
Although Fort Hope was now about two degrees farther north than at the same time the year before, there was no sensible difference in the state of the temperature. The fact is, the distance between the seventieth and seventy-second parallels is not great enough to affect the mean height of the thermometer, on the contrary, it really seemed to be less cold than at the beginning of the winter before.