IN fair weather and with a following wind and sea they sailed south over the Arctic water. When they went north, fighting their way through the fog, with the ice that had floated down from the polar sea ever threatening and withdrawing before the bows of the little boat, Margaret and Geoff had not appreciated the isolation of the island. If Latham had failed to realise that before he gave no sign; but every mile now that they sailed, with the ocean, except for the icebergs, boundless about them, seemed to add greater and greater strength to his doubt of ever finding further trace of Hedon. Margaret saw, too, that the first enthusiasm which had been inspired by finding Eric's record was wearing away from the others as they thought it over.
"It isn't as if Hedon could have stayed on Mason Island, if he wanted to," Latham said to Margaret on the second day that they sailed south. "He had no food to stay. He and Thomas before he died had used almost all the supplies left in the cabin. Hedon couldn't count on getting enough game to see him through another winter; and he wouldn't have had time to reach a game country if he waited till the freeze-up in the fall. He was practically driven to go over the ice when he did, no matter how he found it."
"I have been realising that," Margaret admitted.
"I think after he crossed the island for the last time he shot that bear and saw the ice was in such bad shape that he waited there on the chance that the bear might mean there was enough more game to carry him through. Then he got nothing more; knew that he had to go on, though the ice was getting worse, so built his cairns and went on."
"I think that may be so," she again agreed quietly, and moved away. That afternoon there came into sight the first of the islands which they must search for proof of whether Eric, driven south by hunger over the breaking-up ice, again had reached land. That afternoon began the first of a series of vain journeys ashore to examine headlands, capes and promontories where cairns, if cairns were to be found, surely ought to be. Now the sun disappeared for longer and longer hours each night, and circled closer to the horizon in the shortening periods of light. Snow swirled from over-clouded skies when the gale blew from the north. The Viborg skirted the shores of other islands; the landing parties, which now sometimes included Margaret herself, tramped up and down the rocks in vain. Again and again piles of stones sighted from the ship brought a boat hurrying to the beach; but each time the piles proved natural heaps. Bones found gave no evidence that any man, with a rifle or without, had hunted in any of those lands.
By the chart with which the Aurora party had been provided and by which the Viborg also sailed, there were but two routes which any man travelling south over the ice would have followed or tried to follow. The first, taken by the four who got away from Mason Island early in the spring, had been expressly eliminated by Hedon in his report. There could be no doubt that at the time when he left Mason Island it was the more dangerous of the two. Moreover, if later he had changed his mind and tried it, some sign of his cairns would have been found by the Viborg on the way north. The Viborg now was following the other route; and after leaving Mason Island found absolutely no trace of any man.
Geoff, coming on deck the day after the last land likely to hold hint of Hedon's fate had been searched, found the water freezing as it dashed up on the Viborg's side. Yet the search pressed on. They had worked past the first islands which Hedon must have reached if he got across the sea south of Mason Land, and now they skirted other Arctic shores. The men no longer expressed to Margaret their expectation of finding some cairn or other trace as they left the ship. She could see that all who had had experience in the Arctic—McNeal, Koehler, Brunton, Michaelis, even Linn—had been gradually abandoning any anticipations of finding Hedon; but, strangely, with the decreasing chance of success came a more dogged determination to drive themselves to their task. If they rowed through icy surf to rocky shores and, half soaked, tramped hours on end in their useless search, they did it with even greater cheerfulness the harder and more vain their work grew.
By common consent Margaret and Latham had ceased to discuss chances; yet to her each glance from him now inquired: "Have you given him up?" Each tone of his voice, no matter what the words were, said to her: "You know no one'll ever find him. I've won you now; you have to give up."
And in her tones, though her words did not relate to the matter at all, she said: "Not yet. Not yet. Not yet."
Yet as her soul said that she trembled. It was not because she had given up Eric—she knew now that she never could do that; but it was because she knew that by the terms of her pledge to Price he soon might claim her and she could not deny his right.
The evidence which they had found at Mason Land, which told them Eric had reached there alive and had left there, had become the best proof that he later was lost. Men from the Viborg now had searched every shore he might have reached had he survived the long, lonely journey over the breaking-up ice; and they found no trace of him. Eric's own record of his plan, and his promise to build cairns if he again reached land, certified to his disappearance forever.
When would Latham announce to Margaret that she could show no proof that Eric lived? When would he demand of her to redeem her word? So she waited, while slowly the Viborg worked its way south in the continuance of its hopeless search. Geoff was alternating with Latham again in the engine room when the ship was proceeding. While the vessel had been anchored, awaiting the return of Latham, Brunton and Koehler from a search on shore, Geoff had been cleaning the cylinders. He came on deck and found a snowstorm blowing up. There was a greater chill and penetration in the north wind than there had been before, and he saw, as he looked at the water, that the snow drifting into it was not immediately melting, but mingling and forming a slush which spread over the surface.
Margaret was below in her cabin and Linn was getting dinner. McNeal and Michaelis were busy together with the stiffening ropes and freezing gear about the mast. The seven remaining dogs were curled up and sleeping comfortably on the ice-clad deck. The boat from the shore came out, struggling and half swamped in the surf. The three on deck watched the three in the boat silently, with ropes ready to aid them as they came alongside. Days before they had stopped shouting for news of any kind.
The men from shore got aboard, and with great difficulty all six together drew up the light sea boat. Latham stamped on the deck beside McNeal. The moment before his clothes had been soaked; now they were stiffening on him.
"The sea's slush!"
"It won't be long," McNeal returned.
"It'll be ice. Wait till the wind goes down. Yon slush is the beginning of sea ice."
"Damn! You mean the freeze-up?"
"The winter freeze-up."
"Then get us out of here," Latham ordered; "and get us out of here quick."
McNeal, stung at the tone, spun upon him belligerently. "Get us out of here?" he returned. "How—by tramcar? You think this is Chicago, with the first cold snap at Christmas just in time for Santa Claus?"
"You're insolent!" Latham returned.
"Insolent?" cried McNeal. Koehler caught him by the shoulder to check him. At that moment Margaret appeared from below, and McNeal's words, which just had begun to flow, were stopped.
Latham turned to her. "McNeal was just saying the freeze-up is coming, so I ordered him to get us as far south as he can before it."
This was not the way, Margaret knew, in which Price had meant to claim her. But as she faced him she was aware that since the matter had come up he was going to put it through. The others—McNeal and the doctor, even Brunton and Michaelis—understood vaguely that the abandoning of further search for Eric involved, in some way, her turning to Latham. She knew that Geoff had guessed much more. And now as she looked quickly to Koehler she saw that more complete comprehension was coming to him; and McNeal, slower witted but with quicker feelings, was clenching his big hands at his sides.
"You mean you are ordering the end of the search?" Margaret asked Latham.
"Do you believe there is any use in keeping it up?"
"A little longer at least," she said tremblingly.
"How far off is the freeze-up?" Latham asked McNeal.
"No one knows," the Scotchman said. "We may get ice to-morrow, if we get a calm and it's colder. It may be a month off if the winter's late."
"Two weeks; some chance of three."
"Of open channels?"
"Or little ice."
Latham closed his lips tightly. "I thought so. With the channels as we found them going up, and no fog now, we can get back to Baffin Bay and Greenland with fair luck."
Margaret seized his sleeve. "But you aren't going to order it yet?"
"Of course I am. I should have done it weeks ago."
"The winter's coming."
"We—I'm prepared for it."
"If necessary, if anything goes wrong, or if there was any use in staying, I'd let you; but as it is I can't."
"You aren't thinking of me," she charged quickly.
"Yes, I am."
For the instant both seemed to forget that others were watching them.
She recoiled from him. "Yes, I know you are, and I know how you're thinking of me," she gasped. "But you can't make me give up Eric yet."
Latham looked from her. "McNeal, do you believe Hedon's alive?" he inquired point-blank.
The Scotchman looked from one to the other and evaded: "I'd no say we'd not find him."
"But you have said so. I've heard you."
"You never heard me say that to you," the skipper charged.
"Then I overheard you. Koehler"—Latham turned—"will you say that Hedon's alive?"
"I'll say nothing about it," the doctor returned.
"But you have said something about it." Latham glanced to the others and turned back. "There's no use asking them in your presence what they think, Margaret," he said. "But they know what they believe, and I know it and so do you; and it's what you also believe. They're all weak enough before you to fill you with more hopes and keep you here through the winter night, but I'll not. McNeal, we start now full speed, without halt, to get to Greenland."
The Scotch skipper met his eyes fairly. "Do we?" he asked.
"I've said so. We do."
McNeal shot a glance at his mates. "Do we, Otto?" he referred. "Brunton? Michaelis? Do we?"
"What do you mean by asking them?" Latham demanded hotly.
"Aren't they men?" returned the skipper.
"But I pay them and I pay you." Latham lost control of himself as he was defied. "You do as I say."
"Do we?" repeated McNeal again. "Geoff Sherwood, do we?" He did not wait for the boy's reply. "We don't."
"We don't give up Eric Hedon as long as any one wants to look for him." The Scotchman paused, and then, to anticipate the other's reply, went on: "With your pay or without it."
Latham, stiff in his struggle for restraint, stared about the party.
"What are you talking about? Do you know what you're saying?"
"Cut off our pay," the Scotchman defied. "Forget it. Do you suppose any man on this ship ever came into the Arctic for pay—but yourself?"
"What do you mean by that?" Latham advanced.
"You make it plain that you know." McNeal stood his ground. "Stop our pay that's running on in your mind, Price Latham. You've given us none of it. Charge it all back to yourself. But if Eric Hedon's alive we'll cheat you of your pay yet." And he looked at Margaret. Latham retreated.
"You—you won't obey?" he stammered.
"Hit on the head!" McNeal jeered. "You've guessed it."
Latham looked about to the rest. Koehler, quiet, calm, observant, moved a little nearer to McNeal; Brunton and Michaelis were more puzzled, but as Latham looked to them he saw that they too sided with the skipper. Geoff also had drawn away; he was beside his sister and holding her arm. Margaret alone of the five did not meet his eyes as Latham looked toward her. Latham stared at her an instant, then back to the others, and turned and walked away.
"This much more before you go," McNeal called to him commandingly, and Latham stopped: "Since I no longer do what you say, you're to do what I say, whatever it is. Understand that!"
Latham, without making reply, moved on and disappeared down the companionway to his cabin. The six left on the deck looked into each other's faces.
"Wasn't that right?" McNeal questioned directly of each of the others, and got the direct reply from each till he came to the girl. She gazed at him an instant as he questioned her, and then without answering at all turned away. She went down the companionway which led to her cabin as well as to that shared by Latham and her brother. The men looked after her; then Geoff, with an abrupt word to the rest, followed her.
He found when he came to her cabin that she had not gone in there. The door stood open. She had gone into his cabin, and he heard her voice and Latham's.
"I see," he heard Latham saying to her bitterly; "you counted on something like this. You couldn't lose. If you found him, all right—good-bye to me. If you didn't find him—why, put me off again. You never meant to give him up."
"I don't give him up," Margaret's voice replied. "I don't know that I can ever give him up. In that, perhaps, you're right."
"I thought so."
"But wrong in this," her voice went on steadily. "I'll keep my word. I'll pay you."
"My bargain with you was that we were to find Eric or proof that he was alive, or you could claim me. We've found what most people would say was proof that he must be dead; so I acknowledge your right now."
"You have carried out your agreement. You have made the search and we haven't found him. So I will keep my word. I'll marry you when we get home."
Geoff beat upon the door, then opened it and burst in.
"What's this, Margaret?" he cried.
His sister turned to him calmly. She extended her hand to Latham. He took it, gazing at her dazedly.
"Geoffie," she said to her brother, "I want you to witness this. I promised to marry this man if he carried out certain conditions which now are complete. I give him my word that, no matter what we find in any later search which is forced on him, I will marry him, according to our agreement, when we return home."
"I'll witness no such thing!" Geoff cried, and struck their hands apart. "So that was the way of it, was it?" He faced Latham.
The man made no reply.
"Price," Margaret said, "I think we now understand each other. You had my word before. I've acknowledged your conditions fulfilled."
She went out and shut the door. Geoff stood dumb in the cabin with Latham. A shout from above summoned him up:
"To the engine room, one of you! We're getting under way."