A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

THE STONE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS

GEOFF often wondered what the others thought; for though they might not once speak of it, they must be thinking. To Geoff himself the cause of the fire was plain. It had broken out just where the heat of a lamp or spontaneous combustion from the oil of cleaning rags would have ignited gasoline leaking from the tanks which McNeal had ordered Latham to examine, and which Latham had said were all right when Geoff reminded him of them after their quarrel the evening before.

All day they worked, building the shelter of stones and wood and walling it up with such boxes and cans of their supplies as they had saved. Later in the winter, in an extremity, they might become Eskimos in the plan of their shelters; but now, building from the material of the ship, they divided their hut into two rooms for temporary occupation. With not enough dogs for two teams, with McNeal helpless and Brunton and Michaelis in bad shape, thought of transport to another position was impossible for the present. Hopeless as the land looked, they must stay there for the present and do their best to live off the country. That day for the first time there was actual suffering in the party. As they gathered for meals—McNeal, who was unable to sit up, was fed by Koehler or Margaret—for the first time the food had become rations, dealt out no longer without stint and in amounts up to inclination or appetite, but in measured portions estimated by Koehler as each one's proper allowance. And there were no more generous scraps and leavings to throw to the dogs, but these were fed as carefully from the supplies set aside for them.

Joking about measured portions was better than silence in pretended disregard of the new situation; but the jests, though made lightly, brought up always a vision of the few counted weeks in which food was sure. The jokes became forced and soon ceased. That night, as the wind howled without, it blew the snow no longer against the stout sides of a ship, but through the crevices and cracks in the walls and roof of an unsteady hut; and Geoff at least shivered as he lay at the end of the row of the seven in the larger room. Of what was his sister thinking alone in her little room just beyond?

Definitely that day she had identified herself with Latham. By her attitude now she made it impossible for any one, even her brother, to take her part against Price. Geoff remembered his speculation of just twenty-four hours before as to how Latham would face real hardship. Well, apparently that was about to be tried out.

The next morning he and Price, as the most active of the party, took the best two rifles and set out on the hunt. The temperature was well down toward zero, but with the day the wind again had gone down. As the two tramped over the snow-covered ground the day was not distinctly colder or in itself more uncomfortable than some when these two had hunted together for moose in the woods of New Brunswick or of Maine. There they had spent many days as vainly, in respect to getting game, as the days during which they hunted here; but there was no sport in this hunting. In place of the missing sense of sport Geoff felt a thrill and stir at the thought of the needs of the party looking to his rifle for food supply; but this did not in the same way seem to seize Latham. Geoff could not tell how Price might have acted if they had found game; for day after day they went out, separated, and each hunted alone farther and farther from the camp, but returned always after darkness with nothing or almost nothing.

"Saw some funny little whitish things like calcimined prairie dogs to-day," Geoff reported as he returned weary after a long day which had taken him many miles from the hut.

"Good. Next time you see them bring them in," Koehler directed.

"What are they?"

"Lemmings."

"What're they?"

"If you must know, a sort of ground rat; but call 'em lemmings. It sounds better and we may be eating them."

The partly crippled men had set hooks through holes in the ice. They got some fish, but only a few. There were no signs of seals and, therefore, no bears on that part of the coast. On certain days Koehler substituted for either Geoff or Latham in the hunt. He had no better luck except in the matter of bringing in lemmings.

Each day the hunters kept a lookout for cairns; and each night, as they returned, Margaret questioned them whether they had seen any heaps of stones or sign that any man had passed. She never forgot this; but asked now merely in the manner of a loyal friend deeply concerned. Geoff, watching Latham, saw that her thought of Eric now stirred Latham as never before. The fact that Margaret had promised herself to Price and had shown in her attitude that she considered herself cut off from Hedon, though they found him, seemed only to increase Latham's jealousy.

But no cairn and no sign of any man's passing was discovered except once. Geoff and Koehler had been hunting all day together. Mile after mile they had marched over the barrens down the coast without sign on sea or shore of any life or of anything that stirred except the snow as the wind circled and sucked it up. They had chosen a direction of travel not taken by either of them before, but along the coast where Latham had hunted alone.

"He's right about this shore." Geoff referred to Latham, speaking to Koehler. "It's the most God-forsaken bit I've dreamed of; and since coming up here I've added considerably to my material for God-forsaken dreams."

Koehler smiled. "I don't think any animal, much less any people, ever could exist here."

Koehler led on quietly. The coast there was deeply indented, with rises of rock on the capes making bold headlands to be seen from far off. The doctor pointed to a cape ahead.

"Take your glasses," he directed, "and see what's on that point. No, I don't mean to look for any moving thing," he said, as Geoff whipped out his binoculars. "Is that a cairn there or what?"

"A pile of stones certainly!" said Geoff, handing the glasses over; "but not exactly like a cairn. Do you make it out?"

"No," said Koehler, screwing down the glasses and swiftly leading the way toward the object.

A heap of stones it certainly was, and an artificial heap; but also it was not a cairn. The snow had drifted up about it so as to cover two sides; then, coming close and allowing for the shape of the pile under the snow, Geoff saw what the object was.

"A stone house!" he cried in astonishment to Koehler.

The doctor nodded and went up to examine it. A stone house indeed it was, standing all by itself on that grim, rocky point. It was about ten feet square, with a dome-shaped top and a door that was drifted full of snow. Plainly it was old, very old, and had not been occupied—or at least it had not been restored or rebuilt—for many decades; or, since time works changes slowly in the Arctic, that stone house might have stood in that condition for a century as well as for a decade. If it had been there a century, so also might it have looked over that Arctic ice a thousand years ago. There was absolutely nothing to denote its age or when last it had been inhabited. There it stood alone on that dreary grey coast; and as far as the eye could see in either direction there was not another structure or sign of habitation. The utter loneliness and desertion of it in that white waste brought Geoff's shoulders up in a shudder.

"What is it?" he appealed to Koehler. "An old Eskimo house?"

The doctor shook his head. "No Eskimos ever built that or lived in it. You've seen their summer tents in North Greenland; and you know in winter they live in snow igloos."

"Then who built it?"

"The Eskimos say spirits."

"Spirits?"

"Yes. What does it remind you of?"

"Remind me?"

"Yes; think of Greeland."

The mention of Greenland brought recollections. The stone house was in some features very like some dwellings that had interested him. Now he knew.

"Doctor, that's the sort of house the old Norsemen built in Greenland. That's the way the lost people of Greenland built on the hills behind Julianehaab!"

"Exactly," Koehler said. "I wanted to know if you'd see it. It's been commented on before."

"About this house?"

"As far as I know no one's ever seen this house before. Of course, I mean white people, modern white people. But there are other single, lonely stone houses like this in other places in the North. Amundsen saw one; Stefansson passed one south of here; others have reported them. They all agree that these aren't Eskimo houses; and the Eskimos who see them say the same. And, more than that, you can't get an Eskimo to go near them.

"The Eskimos call these the stone houses of the spirits and say that powerful spirits, the tunrak, built them before human beings came."

Geoff stooped and broke with his hand through the drift in the doorway. He felt down through the snow to the ground and found some objects there. He wrenched something free and brought it up. It was a stone and he dropped it and felt under the snow again. He brought up another stone and then he found something different. It was frozen so hard into the ground that he broke it as he jerked it away. He brushed the snow and dirt away from it, staring as he tried to make out what it could have been. It was a queer little implement of copper and wood, a round wooden bit about two inches long with a wheel of copper at one end.

For a moment Koehler and Geoff studied if with bewilderment, trying to identify the little implement with some use that it might have had in the hands of the builders of the lonely stone house. Then Koehler took it and holding it in his hands pointed out its use.

"Geoff, it's half an empty spool of a film camera!"

"What?"

Koehler repeated. Geoff still gazed dazedly. With his mind filled with thoughts of the ancient people of Greenland he was slow to recognise his find. His senses came to him and he knew that any bit of wood not left recently must have decayed; he saw the object was what Koehler had said, half of the spool upon which is rolled the film of a hand camera. As he himself exposed a roll of film and prepared his camera for another, he had seen scores of such little wooden and copper spools. And here, lying in this hut was one of them, which must have been manufactured in the state of New York within a few years.

Some one taking a snapshot had used up a film roll there, broken the spool, thrown it away after changing films, and gone on.

Geoff stooped again excitedly as he realised that and struggled through the drifted snow for some other object. He found the other half of the spool, which had been broken off; then nothing more rewarded him.

"Who dropped that, doctor?" he demanded, as he fitted the two halves together. "Who could have dropped that? Eric Hedon? Doc, who if not Eric?"

"That certainly was the size and pattern of the spool that fitted our cameras on the Aurora," Koehler said.

"Then Eric Hedon's been here?"

"And that," the doctor looked at the hut, "is certainly the sort of subject he'd use his films on."

They separated and searched under the snow about the house. In front of the hut, on the edge of a cliff, there seemed to be something under the snow to have caught a drift. Geoff examined and found only some scattered stones; a few feet off another patch of stones. He was leaving them, when all at once he realised the relation of the groups. The patches of stones were not cairns, but they lay in a line north and south, fifteen feet apart, the larger to the north! They were not cairns, but they might have been. If cairns, they had been built in the Aurora arrangement.

Geoff called the doctor's attention to it and together they searched the piles of rock.

"If they ever were cairns," Koehler summed up as they finally ceased to search, "these didn't tumble like that one on Mason Land. These were thrown down."

Geoff met him. "I got that too."

Was all that loneliness playing tricks with them? The spool under the snow told that some white man surely had passed there recently. If it had been Eric, had he built cairns there? Who then had thrown them down, destroying or taking away any message that might have lain there? Latham had hunted many days in that direction. It was strange if he had not seen the hut. If he had seen the hut, why had he not mentioned it?

The same thought was going through both men's minds at that moment; neither had need to suggest it more plainly to the other. And that thought betrayed others. Geoff betrayed one.

"When we were looking for cairns farther north, how much ground did Latham cover that no one else went over?" he asked.

"A good deal," Koehler replied quietly.

What were they thinking of? Could Latham have found Hedon's cairns on the island to the north and destroyed them without reporting? Their present discovery might cut very deep, and again it might all be a mistake. They hurried back to camp and showed the spool they had found. Of the patches of stone Koehler directed that nothing yet be said. Latham had not seen the house; he had not gone that far.

"Then Eric did come this way," Margaret said simply, as Geoff gave her the broken spool. She needed to say no more to make plain that never yet had she thought of Eric as lost. The discovery of the film spool merely meant to her that they were upon the same route that Eric had travelled.

And the next day, if the hours of grey twilight about noon now could be called day, the party broke camp and set out for the south. The complete failure to find game in the vicinity made it certain that any move must bring betterment. McNeal still was in no shape to travel; but now he could bear being drawn on a sledge. Brunton was partially disabled, but he could hold the pace of the sledge travel if not called upon for much help. So the seven dogs were divided, four to one sledge with Michaelis to pull with them, three to a second with Linn to help. Brunton accompanied Linn to guide the sledge in emergency. Koehler, Latham and Geoff, without dogs to aid, made the team for the third sledge, upon which McNeal was taken. Margaret accompanied this sledge to care for the sick man and in tight places give what aid she might.

The amount of provision, fuel and equipment remaining required at the start an extra relay of a sledge. So as the sledges started south over the sea ice along the shore the next morning, on the first trips they bore food and tents. They set up the tents and built snow shelters about them on the site of the new camp; then, returning, the one sledge brought up more supplies and another dragged McNeal to the shelters made ready for him. They travelled with two tents; and after that first day they always left the helpless man in one of the tents till the other was set up and banked with snow at the next point in advance.