A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

SUCCOUR FROM THE STONE AGE

REALISATION of her position came to Margaret then; but the immediate emergencies of the party at least prevented her dwelling upon it. Though Eric had brought word that the Eskimos farther down the coast were in want, their condition was not so desperate as that of the whites. The eight from the Viborg had fuel for barely another day and full rations for less than a week. Seals were the only animals that might be got at that time of the year, and they furnished both food and oil. But the Eskimos had told Eric that the shore upon which kabluna had encamped was absolutely devoid of seals, and this had been shown to be true. The Eskimos had built their snow village on the ice of the best bay for seals, which was some thirty miles to the south.

Preparations were made at once, therefore, to push on to that bay; and immediately after moonrise twelve hours later the party started south. McNeal insisted on walking for a while, though the sledges now were very light. Eric had regained enough strength to hold the slow pace of the sledges.

He had lain in the larger of the two shelters, where Latham also slept. Margaret had not seen him alone again, and now on the march there was no time to talk, but she did not need to have him tell her how he felt. She had told him that she considered herself bound in honour to Latham; and he would do nothing and would take no attitude toward her which demanded breaking her bond. But he avoided Latham, as Latham too avoided him. She could see that Eric at times tried to conceal before the others his repulsion for Latham; but he did not succeed.

It was another moon day of great cold, but there was no wind. The march took the trail of Eric's tracks the day before, and the party came upon the marks of the Eskimo who had turned back with the sledge. They camped where Eric and the Eskimo had slept the second night before and moved on with the next rising of the moon. The trail took them out now over the sea and round a point beyond which lay a long bay. On account of the protection of the high shores on three sides, the water seemed to have frozen more smoothly there than elsewhere. Little rough ice appeared and few ridges, and all was covered deep with snow. As the nine white people turned into this bay, far ahead over the smooth snow showed a score or more of tiny snow roofs, and scattered away from these in every direction were dark spots—the Eskimo seal hunters watching for seal to spear for food for their hungry people.

The nearest of these figures sat, each upon a block of ice or snow; each held a spear in hand and bent with eyes fixed upon the ice in front of him where he was watching a hole to which a seal might rise to breathe. Apparently the Eskimo who had accompanied Eric almost to the camp of the kabluna had warned the hunters of the possible approach of strangers or at all times even in that remote and lonely desolation the Eskimos kept a sharp lookout; for as Eric led into the bay, alarm ran from man to man scattered over the ice till some thirty figures swiftly gathered, men armed with spear and bow and long knife, and standing, watching, silent and wary, the advance of the strangers.

"In this bay are just so many seals—enough, the Eskimos hope, to give them food to scrape through the winter," Eric said quietly as his party halted. "They don't know where other seals may be got; and they look upon those here as their own, as we would a herd of cattle. I'll go forward to meet the hunters; they know me. Some one else ought to go with me as a sample of the rest of us."

"Unarmed?" objected Latham, as he watched Hedon put down his rifle.

"Koehler or Brunton or you, Geoff, you'll go?" Eric disregarded Price.

The surgeon had already stepped forward; so he and Eric advanced slowly, their empty hands held out away from their bodies. Three Eskimos, in similar posture, advanced to meet them. Would the savages, themselves starving, take in nine strangers to share with them what they had? If they would not—but the parley seemed progressing favourably. The Eskimos, assured that neither of the strangers had knives concealed, approached and talked. Hedon stayed with them while Koehler came back.

"They aren't taking enough seals each day to feed themselves; they're living now on the last of the caribou meat they got in the fall," the doctor reported. "But they'll share with us while it lasts."

Hedon now motioned his party forward, and at the same moment the main body of hunters moved to meet them. Flanked on both sides by gaunt, swarthy savages bearing seal spears and long knives, the nine white strangers entered the Eskimo village.

Though Geoff knew that Eric recently had visited these people and found them not only friendly but hospitable, and though Koehler now had reported their offer to welcome the whites and give what aid they could, Geoff watched the Eskimos wonderingly as he halted with his companions in the snow village. The little, rounded dwellings, some score in number, stood in a rough crescent; before them the women and children of the hunters were grouped—silent, staring but smiling as the strangers approached and were proclaimed by the escort as visitors of good intentions about to become guests. Half famished and dying dogs skulked about and bristled at the smell of the visitors and their foreign dog teams. This was one of the tribes that had never seen kabluna till Eric Hedon came on them; but they had heard of the whites from other tribes.

Kabluna, in the reports of these people, were strange men with ways of their own. Sometimes they appeared in possession of monstrous wealth and in large ships well supplied, and then they gave to the Eskimos only in barter—a needle for a fox skin, another for a seal. But at other times the kabluna, starving and with empty seldges, sought out the Eskimos for fuel and skins. This was one of those times now; so, as other tribes had done before, the Palugmiut offered the hospitality of the village. Some of the hunters, putting down their seal spears, at once sent for their snow-knives; others who had armed themselves with bows and arrows at the first sight of the strange party now came from their igloos wearing building mittens. An old man, who seemed to possess authority or at least to be entrusted by the others with the direction of the housing of the strangers, discussed with Eric and Koehler where the dwellings for the kabluna should be erected. Meanwhile other Eskimos who had been in the escort to the village spoke to their women; these advanced now, smiling and curious, to closer, friendly inspection of the strangers and then retreated to their houses where cooking was commenced.

The Eskimo who had been talking with Eric and Koehler chose a spot at one end of the crescent of the village where the builders began cutting blocks for the new igloos. Eric returned to the others of his party.

"They will not let us help with the building," he said. "They will put up two houses for us; and they have invited us to go to the houses where meat is now cooking for dinner. They have been apologising for having little fresh meat; they have been depending recently upon the last of the frozen caribou meat saved after the fall hunting; but some of them have caught seals this morning." He turned to Margaret. "After our houses are finished, we will probably prepare our own food as we've been doing. Shall I make some excuse for you so you won't have to eat now?"

She shook her head simply and, as one of the Eskimos motioned, she moved off with Geoff. Latham followed her. The others went with different hosts.

Always themselves accompanied by their women in their travels and having no knowledge of any other people, the Eskimos showed no greater surprise or curiosity over the presence of Margaret than over the appearance of the men; indeed their expectation, as well as Geoff could make it out, seemed to be that so large a party of strangers would prove to include several women. Geoff went on hands and knees into the snow hut after his host; Margaret followed; Latham came afterwards. As Geoff entered and stood up, crouched a little—the snow-block dome was not quite high enough to permit him to stand erect—he gasped in spite of himself.

The snow house was snug and warm within—much warmer than the rudey improvised shelter which for the last weeks had served to protect the Viborg's people. Well built of evenly cut and closely fitted blocks, the inner walls had become lined with a layer of ice as the heat from the stone lamp, suspended from the dome, had started to melt the snow. Above the burning lamp, a pot was held by a thong; the pot was boiling; it was full of seal meat. But even the hot odour of this fresh meat cooking could not remove from Geoff his first shock as he entered the igloo.

Although he had known, since hearing Eric's account, that the Eskimos themselves were in want and although he had himself seen the condition of Eskimos in Greenland, still the recent struggle to reach some Eskimo village—the constant counting upon the gaining of such a village as a sanctuary promising at least temporary security—had made him picture an Eskimo house as a more definite improvement upon the rudimental shelters which he had shared during the retreat from the Viborg. But except for the tight, well built walls of snow which made this igloo really warm and except for the fresh meat boiling over the lamp, this Eskimo home could offer nothing. It was slightly oval—six or seven feet in one diameter and eight or nine in the other—and had on one side a low bank or shelf a couple of feet high and covered with caribou and musk-ox skins. This, the sleeping-shelf, was the only arrangement which might be called furniture unless one so considered the spears and spare bows stored overhead, the racks from which drying clothing hung and the pots and stone and beaten copper utensils for cutting up and cooking meat.

But, if the Eskimos possessed less than Geoff had expected, they offered to share what they had in no smaller spirit than that related of them. The woman who watched the pot boiling over the lamp smiled at each of her guests as they entered and, after nodding and staring about, seated themselves on the edge of the sleeping shelf. Two children who seemed to belong in the house crept in; and the hostess, removing the pot from the flame, passed portions of the meat about. The food was fresh, well cooked and generously given. So that dinner was supplied to the kabluna as guests of the Palugmiut; afterwards, as long as the strangers remained, they would have the right to share in each day's catch as members of the Eskimo community.

Koehler explained this when the new igloos were finished and the party of nine gathered in the larger one. A native stone lamp with animal oil burning in it hung from the roof, replacing the more wasteful oil stoves saved from the ship; the snow house was warm and tight.

"The Eskimos will include us, for a time at least, in their daily distribution of food. Every one who catches a seal will send some meat to us, as they do to others in the village who make no catch. When the fresh meat is insufficient, they will distribute to us, as to themselves, some of the stored caribou meat. Of course we are expected at once to try to provide for ourselves. And of course if we happen to have luck we must share with them; but we'll probably not get anything like our portion at first. We may learn. Shall we start now our watches at the seal holes?"

So on that day upon which they reached the Palugmiut upon the bay of seals, Geoff with Eric and Latham and Koeher and the other men from the Viborg joined in the watch for seal. At that season the seal, of course, were living under the sea ice. As this ice had frozen over the bay the seals had gnawed holes in it for air, and as the freezing continued had kept these holes open by gnawing. These holes were now hidden under the snow, and the Eskimo dogs were used to smell them out. Beside each hole thus located a hunter stationed himself, sitting silent on a block of snow, spear in hand, ready to stab instantly when an animal rose. If the blow missed, the seal disappeared; if it struck home, the hunter had to hold the killed seal with his spear, while with ice-axe or knife he chipped the breathing hole large enough to pull the seal through.

Day after day, in the manner of the Eskimos, the eight white men sat, each on his block of snow, seal spear poised. Seal hunting offered their only hope of obtaining food, their only way of keeping alive. The feeling of incredulity that such a desperate necessity could be real now no longer came to Geoff, and he sould see also that no longer it came to Price Latham. Instead of this seeming some strange, impossible, outlandish dream of slow starvation, which one could banish merely by shaking oneself awake, now it was established as the only actual condition of existence.

As Geoff thought of his life at the club and at home, that life sometimes seemed not six months but six thousand years away, and not in the past but somehow far in the future. Among men of the stone age—living or dying according as to whether they were able to stab a spear through the brain of a seal as the animal rose for breath and before he dived again—Geoff and the rest had become as men of that age, with civilisation thousands of years ahead. They were not just a few weeks' journey north of the cities of America and Europe. They were living in Britain and France in the ice age when the glaciers crept down and filled the valleys, driving before them the men of the ice and snow—the Cave Men of a time so long ago that it was called by the name of a geological era. The bones of the musk-sheep lie in a trail across Europe following the prehistoric camps of the Cave Men, and the skins of the musk-ox now helped to furnish the sleeping shelf of snow on which Geoff lay. The stone arrowheads, the sewing-needles, the amulets and necklaces of carved teeth and the horn daggers, shown in museums as relics of the Cave Men of milleniums ago, were merely the ornaments and weapons of the families in the igloos there on the bay ice; the rude sketches of bears and foxes found on the old paleolithic tusks seemed simply the sketches of these Eskimos scratched on their walrus ivory.

The moon waned and was gone; and in the endless darkness of the arctic night, with only the aurora to light the sky, the hunters shivered and froze their faces, hands and feet as they sat at their seal holes. Each hunter, Eskimo or white, stayed out in the terrible cold as long as he dared; but all together brought back not enough meat to feed the village; and the few seals that were procured were nearly all caught by the Eskimos. The dogs, except a few spared to find out fresh seal holes, now were let die unfed; the people stared at each other from sunken eyes and their children cried with hunger. Yet the Eskimos shared alike with each other and with their white visitors.

The moon came back; but though the Eskimos moved their village once and then again to try different parts of the bay, the seal hunters found little success. The cold more quickly numbed men not half fed. The white hunters stubbornly stayed out through the moonlit period; then they retreated into their igloos, which the Eskimos' seal oil kept warm.