The huge ice-masses were flung against each other, and fell with a roar like that of thunder. The ice on the north was compressed and piled up on the shores of the island. There really seemed to be a danger that the cape itself-which was but a kind of iceberg capped with earth and sand-would be flung down.
Some large pieces of ice, in spite of their weight, were driven to the very foot of the palisaded enceinte; but fortunately for the factory the cape retained its position; had it given way all the buildings must inevitably have been crushed beneath it.
It will be easily understood that the position of Victoria Island, at the opening of a narrow strait about which the ice accumulated in large quantities, was extremely perilous, for it might at any time be swept by a horizontal avalanche, or crushed beneath the huge blocks of ice driven inland from the offing, and so become engulfed before the thaw. This was a new danger to be added to all the others already threatening the little band. Mrs Barnett, seeing the awful power of the pressure in the offing, and the violence with which the moving masses of ice crushed upon each other, realised the full magnitude of the peril they would all be in when the thaw commenced. She often mentioned her fears to the Lieutenant, and he shook his head like a man who had no reply to make.
Early in March the squall ceased, and the full extent of the transformation of the ice-field was revealed. It seemed as if by a kind of glissade the chain of icebergs had drawn nearer to the island. In some parts it was not two miles distant, and it advanced like a glacier on the move, with the difference that the latter has a descending and the ice-wall a horizontal motion. Between the lofty chain of ice-mountains the ice-field was fearfully distorted: strewn with hummocks, broken obelisks, shattered blocks, overturned pyramids, it resembled a tempest-tossed sea or a ruined town, in which not a building or a monument had remained standing, and above it all the mighty icebergs reared their snowy crests, standing out against the sky with their pointed peaks, their rugged cones, and solid buttresses, forming a fitting frame for the weird fantastic landscape at their feet.
At this date the little vessel was quite finished. This boat was rather heavy in shape, as might have been expected, but she did credit to Mac-Nab, and shaped as she was like a barge at the bows, she ought the better to withstand the shocks of the floating ice. She might have been taken for one of those Dutch boats which venture upon the northern waters. Her rig, which was completed, consisted, like that of a cutter, of a mainsail and a jib carried on a single mast. The tent canvass of the factory had been made use of for sailcloth.
This boat would carry the whole colony, and if, as the Lieutenant hoped, the island were drifted to Behring Strait, the vessel would easily make her way to land, even from the widest part of the passage. There was then nothing to be done but wait for the thaw.
Hobson now decided to make a long excursion to the south to ascertain the state of the ice-field, to see whether there were any signs of its breaking up, to examine the chain of icebergs by which it was hemmed in, to make sure, in short, whether it would really be useless to attempt to cross to the American continent. Many incidents might occur, many fresh dangers might arise before the thaw, and it would therefore be but prudent to make a reconnaissance on the ice-field.
The expedition was organised and the start fixed for March 7th. Hobson, Mrs Barnett, Kalumah, Marbre, and Sabine were to go, and, if the route should be practicable, they would try and find a passage across the chain of icebergs. In any case, however, they were not to be absent for more than forty-eight hours.
A good stock of provisions was prepared, and, well provided for every contingency, the little party left Fort Hope on the morning of the 7th March aid turned towards Cape Michael.
The thermometer then marked 32° Fahrenheit. The atmosphere was misty, but the weather was perfectly calm.