It was clear that in consequence of the direction of the currents the influence of the masses of permanent ice in the north had not here been felt, and Hobson and his comrades soon found that this ice-field was intersected with wide and deep crevasses not yet frozen over. The temperature here was comparatively warm, and the thermometer maintained a mean height of more than 34° Fahrenheit. Salt water, as is well known, does not freeze so readily as fresh, but requires several degrees of cold below freezing point before it becomes solidified, and the sea was therefore still liquid. All the icebergs and floes here had come from latitudes farther north, and, if we may so express it, lived upon the cold they had brought with them. The whole of the southern portion of the Arctic Ocean was most imperfectly frozen, and a warm rain was falling, which hastened the dissolution of what ice there was.
On the 24th November the advance of the travellers was absolutely arrested by a crevasse full of rough water strewn with small icicles—a crevasse not more than a hundred feet wide, it is true, but probably many miles long.
For two whole hours the party skirted along the western edge of this gap, in the hope of coming to the end of it and getting to the other side, so as to resume their march to the east, but it was all in vain, they were obliged to give it up and encamp on the wrong side.
Hobson and Long, however, proceeded for another quarter of a mile along the interminable crevasse, mentally cursing the mildness of the winter which had brought them into such a strait.
“We must pass somehow,” said Long, “for we can’t stay where we are.”
“Yes, yes,” replied the Lieutenant, “and we shall pass it, either by going up to the north, or down to the south, it must end somewhere. But after we have got round this we shall come to others, and so it will go on perhaps for hundred of miles, as long as this uncertain and most unfortunate weather continues!”
“Well, Lieutenant, we must ascertain the truth once for all before we resume our journey,” said the Sergeant.
“We must indeed, Sergeant,” replied Hobson firmly, “or we shall run a risk of not having crossed half the distance between us and America after travelling five or six hundred miles out of our way. Yes, before going farther, I must make quite sure of the state of the ice-field, and that is what I am about to do.”
And without another word Hobson stripped himself, plunged into the half-frozen water, and being a powerful swimmer a few strokes soon brought him to the other side of the crevasse, when he disappeared amongst the icebergs.
A few hours later the Lieutenant reached the encampment, to which Long had already returned, in an exhausted condition. He took Mrs Barnett and the Sergeant aside, and told them that the ice-field was impracticable, adding—
“Perhaps one man on foot without a sledge or any encumbrances might get across, but for a caravan it is impossible. The crevasses increase towards the east, and a boat would really be of more use than a sledge if we wish to reach the American coast”
“Well,” said Long, “if one man could cross, ought not one of us to attempt it, and go and seek assistance for the rest.”
“I thought of trying it myself,” replied Hobson.
“You, sir!” cried Mrs Barnett and Long in one breath.
These two exclamations showed Hobson how unexpected and inopportune his proposal appeared. How could he, the chief of the expedition, think of deserting those confided to him, even although it was in their interests and at great risk to himself. It was quite impossible, and the Lieutenant did not insist upon it.
“Yes,” he said, “I understand how it appears to you, my friends, and I will not abandon you. It would, indeed, be quite useless for any one to attempt the passage; he would not succeed, he would fall by the way, and find a watery grave when the thaw sets in. And even suppose he reached New Archangel, how could he come to our rescue? Would he charter a vessel to seek for us? Suppose he did, it could not start until after the thaw.