Shaking its head and growling, it passed some twenty paces from the two watchers, and, either not seeing them or disdaining to take any notice of them, it walked heavily on towards Cape Michael, and soon disappeared behind the rising ground.
Lieutenant Hobson and Mrs Barnett returned sadly and silently to the fort.
The preparations for departure went on as rapidly, however, as if it were possible to leave the island. Nothing was neglected to promote the success of the undertaking, every possible danger had to be foreseen, and not only had the ordinary difficulties and dangers of a journey across the ice to be allowed for, but also the sudden changes of weather peculiar to the Polar regions, which so obstinately resist every attempt to explore them.
The teams of dogs required special attention. They were allowed to run about near the fort, that they might regain the activity of which too long a rest had, to some extent, deprived them, and they were soon in a condition to make a long march.
The sledges were carefully examined and repaired. The rough surface of the ice-field would give them many violent shocks, and they were therefore thoroughly overhauled by Mac-Nab and his men, the inner framework and the curved fronts being carefully repaired and strengthened.
Two large waggon sledges were built, one for the transport of provisions, the other for the peltries. These were to be drawn by the tamed reindeer, which had been well trained for the service. The peltries or furs were articles of luxury with which it was not perhaps quite prudent to burden the travellers, but Hobson was anxious to consider the interests of the Company as much as possible, although he was resolved to abandon them, en route, if they harassed or impeded his march. No fresh risk was run of injury of the furs, for of course they would have been lost if left at the factory.
It was of course quite another matter with the provisions, of which a good and plentiful supply was absolutely necessary. It was of no use to count on the product of the chase this time. As soon as the passage of the ice-field became practicable, all the edible game would get on ahead and reach the mainland before the caravan. One waggon sledge was therefore packed with salt meat, corned beef, hare patès, dried fish, biscuits—the stock of which was unfortunately getting low—and an ample reserve of sorrel, scurvy-grass, rum, spirits of wine, for making warm drinks, &c. &c. Hobson would have been glad to take some fuel with him, as he would not meet with a tree, a shrub, or a bit of moss throughout the march of six hundred miles, nor could he hope for pieces of wreck or timber cast up by the sea, but he did not dare to overload his sledges with wood. Fortunately there was no lack of warm comfortable garments, and in case of need they could draw upon the reserve of peltries in the waggon.
Thomas Black, who since his misfortune had altogether retired from the world, shunning his companions, taking part in none of the consultations, and remaining shut up in his own room, reappeared as soon as the day of departure was definitely fixed. But even then he attended to nothing but the sledge which was to carry his person, his instruments, and his registers. Always very silent, it was now impossible to get a word out of him. He had forgotten everything, even that he was a scientific man, and since he had been deceived about the eclipse, since the solution of the problem of the red prominences of the moon had escaped him, he had taken no notice of any of the peculiar phenomena of the high latitudes, such as the Aurora Borealis, halos, parhelia, &c.
During the last few days every one worked so hard that all was ready for the start on the morning of the 18th November.
But, alas! the ice-field was still impassable. Although the thermometer had fallen slightly, the cold had not been severe enough to freeze the surface of the sea, with any uniformity, and the snow which fell was fine and intermittent. Hobson, Marbre, and Sabine went along the coast every day from Cape Michael to what was once the corner of the old Walruses’ Bay.