A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

WINTER QUARTERS

THE course, as Geoff found when he returned to the deck, was being laid to the south; but this was only to search more shores. As Goeff moved among the men he was astonished to see how quickly outward expressions of hostility or antagonism against Latham had ceased. They found that Latham, for reasons which each man might guess for himself, made no longer a protest against the continuance of the search. Indeed, there was no open sign of change. McNeal always had been in command. Formerly it had been understood to be with Latham's approval; now it was known to be with his disapproval; that was all. And no reference was made to any trouble. In such a small party, confined closely in the little ship and facing an Arctic winter, every appearance of agreement must be maintained though agreement itself did not exist.

So McNeal took the Viborg down the shores of new Arctic lands. As the ship crossed a channel and sighted another cape the chart did not even pretend to know of this land. Though the coasts east and west and even those directly north of it were chartered and described, here for two hundred miles only a dotted, hypothetical line on the map recorded the geographers' guess of the coast. Just ten days after McNeal's assuming full charge the Viborg reached that coast. For two days the wind had gone down; the sea was calm and the freeze-up beginning in earnest. Another day down this land and a tiny haven, land-locked except for one narrow entrance from the sea, promised the little Viborg the shelter required for winter quarters. The narrow entrance would block any great iceberg from entering and endangering the ship; the harbour's basin was small but deep. New ice already lay about the edge of it. McNeal, driving the Viborg crashing into this ice, brought his ship into a good position in ten fathoms of water a hundred yards from the shore. There he anchored.

As soon as he was satisfied with his position he stepped overboard on to the ice and led half his company for a sight of the shore. The temperatures now were below freezing for the twenty-four hours; the sun scarcely showed above the horizon at noon. Every one in the party had tried on his skin clothing bought from the Greenland Eskimos; but the weather so far permitted their wearing the woolen clothes of civilisation.

Margaret still wore a woolen blouse and trousers and her wool-lined leather shoes and cap and ulster. Geoff and Latham likewise still were clothed as for a winter tramp through the Maine woods. McNeal and Koehler had changed only partly to Arctic costume; but this day, as they stood on the shore in the drifting snow and looked over the long, endless reaches of barren, drift-streaked rock and the freezing sea edging it, most of them shivered.

"I make this the northeast coast of Victoria Land," McNeal announced as they stood on the shore. "The whole of Victoria Land is a good deal bigger than Britain; and it's all Arctic, with the bulk of it lying below us. I think this coast runs down to Coronation Gulf, which cuts off the south end of this land from the continent. I make our present position about four hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. This land's so big that if Hedon got south of where we've been looking he'd have brought up here. He knew, of course, that some of Amundsen's men in 1904, when they were making the Northwest Passage, found Eskimos a couple of hundred miles below here. He knew Stefansson crossed the southwest end of the island and found more Eskimos; also shot caribou and saw big herds coming from the north. If the beasts have been about here they're moving out now; so if we want fresh meat we can't get after them too quick."

"It's like this farther south?" Latham inquired.

The skipper stooped and pulled some moss from under the snow. It was similar to that which they had seen on Mason Island and other shores which they had searched for cairns.

"There's your turf, underbrush and forests of Victoria Land," McNeal said. "That's about all you'll find from one end of this land to the other. That's what the caribou feed on. No one's been about here to tell us much of the scenery, but probably it's more mountainous toward the interior."

Margaret had been paying only scant attention. The words about Hedon had sent her into an abstraction. "Whoever hunts will remember to look for cairns," she said after a moment.

"Yes," said Koehler. "Two of us should hunt in one direction to-morrow morning, two in another.

"I'm on," offered Geoff.

"I," nodded Latham.

Koehler and McNeal consulted. In case of any accident to the ship while in winter quarters they were to establish a station on the shore. As they were planning the place Margaret moved off. Latham hesitated and then followed her.

Geoff watched them for a few moments as they walked together. They talked at times and then went on in silence. The sight of them together now and their accepted companionship disturbed Geoff in a more positive way than ever before. Of course his sister and Latham had been thrown into much close contact on the ship; but that had seemed forced, inevitable. Their being together on shore meant more; it meant that though Margaret might choose to avoid him Latham now was claiming her companionship as a right—as he later would claim her as his wife. Geoff was unable merely to watch them longer; he hurried to join his sister.

Almost immediately Latham left, and brother and sister walked up and down together. The snowstorm had ceased, and only light powder from the drifts blew up and whirled into their faces as the wind circled capriciously.

They went on without speaking over the rocky barrens, which undulated a little so that now and then the two sank out of sight of the others on the shore and out of sight also of the ship. The short Arctic day was almost done; the light was grey and nowhere was there any colour. The land had nonę, being black where the wind had blown off the snow; the rest was white. The sea was the cruel grey of ice, and there was no colour in the sky. The clothes of both man and girl were grey or dark.

"Look at me, Meg," Geoff said suddenly. His sister turned. "If it wasn't for your eyes and your lips," he said gallantly, "I'd say I'd gone colour-blind. But they're blue as ever, and red."

She smiled with pleasure, but her blue eyes looked quickly away. "Thank you, Geoffie," she said. "But don't again, at least just now. That's the kind of thing Eric used to say to me sometimes."

"And Price doesn't?"

"No," she replied. "No, not that kind." She stopped and stood a moment, looking about.

"What are you thinking of?" he demanded.

"Eric."

"Of course. But what about him?"

"Of his reaching this coast at last and finding this land, this terrible, bare shore, a goal to struggle toward and spend all his strength to gain. Think of him coming here alone, without a ship or companions, perhaps not even with his dogs. And if he got here alone he was alone all the way from Mason Land."

Geoff said nothing for a moment. Then: "You love him, don't you?"

"Love him!" Margaret drew in a breath and could not speak more.

"Then if we find him you won't keep that bargain with Price?"

"Geoff, I made it."

He knew her, and knew that was her answer.

"But Price won't hold you to it," he tried to persuade himself rather than her.

His sister seized his sleeve suddenly. "Geoff, don't make anything harder for me."

"You mean he'll hold you?"

"Geoff, you've seen how hard this sort of life, what he's had to do, has been for him. Do you think the passion that would drive him to that will allow him to let me off? Why, sometimes I've thought if we found Eric at Mason Land he wouldn't let me go."

Geoff stamped his foot. "Meg, how could you have done it?"

"I'd do it again," she cried.

"But——"

"Geoff, before we started didn't you know that I must have made some such bargain?"

"Yes; but then I thought it was all right if he got you and——"

"Oh, brother, I'm not blaming you in any way. I promised what I did to get what I got. I've had it now and I'll pay for it. Let's not talk about it any more."

"But if we should find Eric now?" Geoff persisted.

"Come, let's run!" She sprang suddenly ahead of him, and he followed her up a little slope to a height which let them look south over miles of bare, low-lying land. They gazed up and down over the barren rocks. Nothing was in sight but the bare basalt, the snow and the ice of the sea.

"If caribou ever come into this country," Geoff said grimly, as he stared about, "certainly any sensible animal must be getting out of here now. If we're going to hunt 'em, McNeal is right—we can't get after them too soon."

"What was that sound?" his sister asked.

Geoff spun round and saw half a dozen dark spots running wildly about. "Oh, the dogs. Brunton's brought them ashore. They don't seem to have any quarrel with the land, do they?"

"Good fellows!" Margaret patted those that ran to her. "Good old fellows!"

"That must give you some relief—to get them off the ship, Meg," Geoff said as they turned back.

"Why, I haven't been thinking about that," she said, almost with surprise. They went on nearer to the ship.

"What are they doing there?"

A couple of men were coming ashore, tugging at something.

"Oh, a light anchor," Geoff made it out.

The men brought it ashore and made it fast there; then one ran a heavy line from the middle of the mast to the anchor, and it was braced and pulled taut. A pulley block ran on the line and carried casks and boxes for the station on shore and then was drawn back for another load.

Geoff came up to help.

"I'd rather you got to putting the engine-room and stores in shape," McNeal directed him. "I've just sent Latham to work there." His tone hinted that there had been trouble.

Geoff went out to the ship and down into the engine-room. Latham was not there, so Geoff set to work himself. He heard McNeal come aboard, and later some sort of quarrel on the deck. Listening he learned that it was between Latham and McNeal, and the skipper won it. Latham, half flung by McNeal, descended the steps into the engine-room.

Geoff bent close to his work and pretended that he had noticed nothing; but Latham knew, better. Now and then, as other business brought McNeal to the ship, he looked into the engine-room. With work to do, it was not so hard for Geoff to be with Latham as it was later when they were in the cabin. The thermometer had taken a sudden drop and it was clammy as well as sharply cold.

"It's the confounded lunacy of this whole business that gets on my nerves," Latham broke out. He opened a drawer under his bunk and took out a revolver.

"What's that for?" Geoff asked, as he watched from the upper bunk.

"I'll give McNeal one more warning; then if he tries anything on me again I'll give him his," Latham threatened.

"No, you won't," said Geoff.

"Why not?"

"McNeal's right and you know it."

"Right?"

"Some one's got to be in command; the rest have to obey him."

Latham made no effort to discuss the right of McNeal to direct. "I won't be run like the cabin boy of a whaler."

"You won't have to if you do your part."

"You mean I haven't been doing it, damn you!" Latham burst out.

"Exactly!" said Geoff, and dropped down in his bunk, listening without rejoinder to the rest of Latham's remarks. At last the man threw himself into his bunk and put out the lantern.

Geoff, as on the night after his sister had declared herself before him, was unable to sleep in spite of his exhaustion. He lay awake with the ship now still and motionless, already firmly locked in ice.

The rigging and gear above creaked and hummed in the wind, and he could sense, or imagine that he sensed, the snow drifting up against the ship's side over the ice. Otherwise there was silence through the little vessel.

The cessation of action, of movement, brought to him more keenly than before the utter isolation of these seven men and one woman in the wastes of the North. For a moment fear, fear that made him shudder and clasp his covers with his hands, conquered him, and he realised the terror of trouble between members of this little company, so few and so weak even if united and in harmony.

And trouble already more than threatened. Since the mutiny there was no way except for McNeal to be in control and for Latham to obey. McNeal's manner toward Latham was caused, not so much by Latham's slowness to obey, but by the contempt which the Scotchman felt for him. Latham knew that; and that was the basis of the trouble.

So far they had met nothing like hardship in the sense that men who go into the North understand hardship. Their hunt of the next day, for which Latham had enlisted, would be only an autumn jaunt to an Arctic traveller. In addition, it had none of the worry of necessity for bringing in the meat; for there was no real need of provisions for men or dogs. Fresh meat now was desired only as a delicacy. The plan of the expedition of course counted upon securing a certain number of food animals—bear or seals, if not caribou, and perhaps a musk ox or two; but the securing of this food would not for many months become a life-and-death matter.

Suppose real difficulties and privations were to be endured? How would Latham act then? Price still took pains to hide his temper and to appear to what advantage he might before Margaret; but, as if he no longer needed Geoff's help, or as if he recognised that his former ally had turned against him and defied Geoff to harm him with Margaret, Latham now had ceased to play a part before his cabin mate. But if Latham had forgotten how essential it was to keep up appearances in such a party, Geoff must remember.

He waited and listened till he heard Latham turn over as one awake and then he leaned over the edge of his bunk.

"Price," he called down quietly.

"What do you want?"

"I was a fool," Geoff apologised.

"I know it."

Geowff waited a moment to control himself and then forced it out: "Forgive me."

"Oh—all right."

Geoff turned back, less satisfied rather than more. His blood tingled hotly as he thought of this man having the power he now held over Margaret, and he, her brother, though she did not blame him, still was in some way to blame. He would never sleep if he thought of that; so he drove his mind back to reviewing the work he had been doing. An uncertainty came to him and he sat up.

"What's the matter now?" Latham asked sharply.

"I say, did you look over the rest of the tanks in the hold?"

After Latham had almost finished his work, McNeal had told him to empty gasoline from a leaking tank into a whole one; and later had directed that all the tanks which might have been damaged by moving about boxes in the hold be examined.

"I looked at them," Latham said, irritated at the recollection.

"All right?"

"Of course they were all right."

Geoff subsided and sank back, and after a while went to sleep.