A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 2



MARGARET delayed over putting away the articles which reminded her of Eric Hedon. She knew it was not because of what the bird had brought that she believed Eric alive; she never at any time had allowed herself to think of him as dead.

If one has become accustomed to consider a missing person as dead one cannot think of that person's doing things; but if one pictures him as lost but still living, one can always look for word to come from him. No one knew better than Margaret Sherwood that most of the men long missing in the Arctic never return. She knew that theirs were the forms in the hewn graves in the ever-frozen ground with the lonely cairns of stone and the driftwood crosses above them buried by the blizzards of winter; theirs were the bones bleaching on the barrens never reached by another man; theirs were the bodies lying in the deep of the Arctic Ocean, ever to rest beside the thong-tethered teams of dogs and the sledges that broke through the young sea ice with them.

Yet she also knew that many men had remained unreported for a longer time than Ian Thomas and Eric Hedon and still had returned to civilisation safe at last. There were Greely's men, three-fourths of whom starved to death on their barren cape of Ellesmere Land, but seven finally were found alive by a relief ship; scores of others had come back after suffering disasters which it seemed they could not have survived.

Of course the explorers entering the Arctic in the last two years had made inquiry and search for the missing men. Rewards had been offered to whalers for information of the fate of Thomas and Hedon, rewards which Margaret herself had increased up to her means. Though these had brought her no news, the passing of the months still sustained her expectancy; nothing seemed able to destroy her hope.

Faith that Hedon must return to her seemed supplied to her as a need of her life.

When she thought of her dependence upon Eric, sometimes it astonished her, as it always surprised others, to realise the power of her love for him. She never had heard of him till four years before; it was purest chance that they had met at all. Ian Thomas had been a friend of her father's; they had roomed together at a little Eastern college. Margaret went with her father and mother to dinner with Mr. Thomas a week before she was to sail with friends for France and a summer in Brittany. She was a very young girl then, just twenty. Ian Thomas met them in the hall as they arrived at his home.

"I'm keeping a young fellow who called on me this noon. He wants to go with me on the Aurora to the Arctic next month."

"As what?" Margaret's father inquired.

"He's offered to go as cook, seaman, mate or anything; he doesn't care," Mr. Thomas laughed. "And I don't care much either, as long as he goes with me. Come and look at him."

Mr. Thomas led them to his library, which was dark except for the blaze from the log fire flaming on the hearth. He did not turn on the electric light as he entered and he motioned to Margaret and her father and mother to come in quietly as he pointed to the figures on the floor before the fire.

A young man, whose straight shoulders and well poised head made a silhouette before the fire, was sitting on the hearth rug, his back to the door. A little boy of six—one of Ian Thomas's nephews—lay on the rug with his chin in his hands looking up at the young man; another little boy sat on the other side and before the three lay Thomas' collie. The young man was telling a story; and a wholly absorbing story it was to him as well as to his hearers. His voice was low but eager and his hands gestured now as he spoke; and suddenly, breaking from his narration, he sang softly, excitedly a strange, plaintive song—something which made Margaret, though she had just stolen close and had been able to make out hardly a dozen words of the story, see before her a circle of simple, primitive huts in a warm valley of sago and palm with a painted priest droning before the people prostrate in fear before thunder and lightning breaking upon the mountain overhead; then suddenly, the storm was gone, the sun was coming out and the people rising, smiling and happy. For the song ended and with it, the story.

The children stared up at the teller for a moment, still in the spirit and swing of the song; they had not yet come back from the village in the jungle valley; and perhaps the young man himself had not; but the dog before him looked up and past him. The young man turned around and leaped to his feet. The children came to themselves too and caught at him demanding, "Tell us that one again! Oh, that's only the first time you told that; and that song's the best of all! You've got to tell us that again!"

But their uncle switched on the light, took the boys in charge and sent them home. Margaret found herself unable merely to nod in acknowledgment as her host said, "Margaret, this is the new member of the Aurora party, Eric Hedon." Love at first sight—that, at her self-confident age of twenty, she had put down as an impossibility in a discussion with her most intimate friend only a few days earlier; but now, as she stood observing this stranger, a completely irrational in explicable impulse disconcerted her; she was conscious that her heart was pounding, colour was coming to her cheeks and forehead and, as Eric Hedon spoke to her, she offered him her hand and seemed to herself actually to seize his, as she said:

"Will you tell me all of that story and sing that song again with me in the dark before the fire sometime? I mean—I mean—" she stammered as she realised what she had said. "It should be told that way, shouldn't it?"

His fingers in hers did not linger an instant too long or press upon hers differently because she had thus forgotten herself. "It is the storm song of the Suwanese of the mountains of southern Sumatra," he replied to her simply. Not only his words but his tone accepted her attraction as having been solely to the song and not to him at all. And the next moment—after this display of herself which must have made her flee instantly from another man—she was cool and at ease beside Eric Hedon as they all went to dinner.

He was of just the height she liked in a man; he was quite as tall, if not taller, than Price Latham; but she discovered that, while she always was conscious of gazing up when she looked at Price, this man somehow spared her that feeling. At the table, where he was placed beside her, he did not consider it necessary to turn to her with each remark or reply and she took opportunity to study him.

He was not handsome in the definite, striking manner of Price Latham or of other men she often saw; but she wonderfully liked Eric Hedon's looks. He had firm lips, sensitive but with strength, a good nose and chin; his eyes—deep blue and always direct and expressive—particularly delighted her. His face was tanned brown and his hands also; these were excellently formed, well kept, unmanicured. The sun and exposure which had darkened his skin, had bleached his hair, but it was naturally light and bespoke, like his name, a descent from the boldest blood of northern Europe. A shield, a sword and an iron cap, Margaret said to herself, and he'd be a Viking. But for five generations his family had been American.

He told this in reply to a question from Margaret's mother as he also explained that, for most of the last five years, he had been "looking up" little known tribes in the interior of Brazil, in Papua and in Thibet and Nepal as field ethnologist for American societies. His hope in going to the Arctic was chiefly to come upon some settlements of Eskimos still in their primitive state before contact with civilised people.

Working as a field ethnologist—that explanation seemed to mean more to Margaret's parents than to her—evidently was not remunerative. For Margaret now saw that his grey suit, which seemed to look so well when she first saw him, actually was nearly threadbare and bore the marks of many careful mendings. She glanced across the table after she had discovered this and saw that her mother had noted it too. And Margaret realised better now the trend of the inquiries from her people. She had displayed impulsive liking of this stranger upon meeting him and, during dinner, she had shown that her attraction to him was continuing; so her mother was setting herself immediately to the proper task of ascertaining whether he was one who safely might be considered by a young girl. Margaret warmed with indignation when her mother's glance, after failing to find lack in Eric Hedon, seemed to direct Margaret to the faults in his well worn suit.

He, apparently, was completely unconscious of any particular scrutiny; he seemed simply to fear that, in his replies regarding himself, he might have exaggerated his account in the world.

"I don't mean that during all the last five years I've been regularly employed, Mrs. Sherwood. One doing my sort of work has to—and ought to want to—do a great deal of it on his own account. Even the Smithsonian Institution which sent me to Papua, and the American Museum of Natural History, which helped out expenses in Nepal, can't do all they would wish for every one. Usually some such institution or university or society is bequeathed a sum or appropriates a few thousand dollars for study of some primitive people or for exploring some unknown place to find whether people are there and what sort they may be. Then, perhaps, I'm sent for and I'm given the money or the credit which has to cover everything—ship passage, film and photographic supplies, and things of that sort and also expenses of publication of what you bring back with you. So it's pretty much put up to the man in the field to figure how long he can stay at work, if he can't make money for one year keep him for two and let him cover twice the area he hoped to looked at."

"And that is the way you are planning to go into the Arctic?"

"Yes. If I can get myself north, as now it appears I can," Eric smiled to his host, "I'm promised enough to buy dogs and gear and supplies to let me look for the people I want to find and stay with them and study them."

"You mean, Mr. Hedon, you are going to give the next two years, while the Aurora will be in the Arctic, just for the cost of Eskimo dogs and supplies there?"

"Mr. Thomas has been given only his ship and expenses and pay for the crew, hasn't he?"

"Of course; but he—" Margaret's mother checked herself but she could not prevent her glance from referring to the comfortable furnishings of the room and then returning to Eric's coat. Margaret's hand moved toward his on the table.

"I think your work is perfectly splendid, Mr. Hedon!" she cried. "I would rather do your work and work in your way than do anything else I know!"

She brought the blood hot to his cheeks by that as hers warmed too when he turned to her in gratitude. And from that impulsive approval and defence of Eric, she never was shaken.

She met plenty of opposition. Her mother saw it would be a mistake to refuse to invite Eric to her house; on the contrary, she invited him cordially. She believed that Margaret, by seeing him often, would soon appreciate that, while nothing could be said against Eric, he was not situated to become more than an interesting acquaintance. He indeed was almost penniless. He was the son of a medical missionary, stationed at Samoa when Eric was born and later in the interior of China. Eric's mother died there. After the American occupation of the Philippines his father was sent as deputy administrator of a difficult, dangerous portion of a province in the mountains of Mindanao. There were seldom any white people in the district but Eric and his father who was held responsible for the good health and conduct of twenty-five thousand Moros. Eric's father had the knack of making friends with all sorts of people and he and Eric travelled safely through the mountains, stopping at the villages as the guests of the native chiefs. Eric alone happened to be visiting one of the most powerful chiefs when a scientific party of importance, under the escort of soldiers, came into the district. The natives surrounded the expedition and began an attack; Eric had the confidence of the chief sufficiently so that he was able to halt the attack; and after the truce, the soldiers returned unharmed to the coast and the scientists remained in the mountains for a month under the protection of the chief and as his guests until they had completed their work.

Eric described that month as the greatest of his life. He had been fascinated, during his stay in the native villages, by the customs he observed, the legends and lore and superstitions told him and by the ideas and strange philosophies of life which controlled the primitive people. He had spent much time making notes of such things; but he had not imagined that this interest could lead him into work of account until now he found famous and honoured men come to those mountains to see what he had been viewing in the life of the villages and to learn from the people what they had begun to confide to him. The ethnologist of the party spent a good deal of time explaining to him the meaning and value of the incidents and characteristics which Eric had noted. The scientists invited him to accompany them when their work in the vicinity was over. They finally brought Eric to Washington where he prepared, with help of men at the Smithsonian Institution, for the work he had been doing ever since.

This never had involved him in a wish for money for himself till now. So dismay surprised him with the realisation of his position as their friendship became more and more important to Margaret and to him. For the first few days, he sought her at every opportunity and she let him see that she offered the opportunities as often as she could; then he knew that mere friendship could not continue between them and suddenly one evening, instead of his appearance at the house or his voice over the telephone, there came a short note—which in its very brevity betrayed much—saying good-bye to her. He had been called away for a few days on an important matter and he would not return to Mr. Thomas' or to the city until after she had left for Europe. He could not well express his appreciation of her companionship.

He sent with the note a flower pot containing a tulip from Sumatra—the extraordinarily beautiful and sweet-smelling flower of which he had once told her; he had found a bulb among his things.

That day Margaret decided finally that she was not going away. She did not try to deceive herself or her mother as to why she determined to stay. Her mother accused her, "Margaret! You are refusing to go away on account of Eric Hedon!"

She admitted quietly, "Yes, Mother; I care more about being with him than about anything else." And she would not go. So, when Eric returned to the Thomases, he found her; and he could not again pretend reason for going away.

It was more than a fortnight later that Eric left for the Aurora at New York. Margaret did not see him or hear from him in the morning of the last day or in the afternoon till she stole over late "to say good-bye to Mr. Thomas."

Eric was in the library with the others, listing up the supplies already aboard the Aurora and the remainder still to be expected. Margaret joined them and for a few moments worked with them over the lists; then she and Eric were alone. Mrs. Thomas had disappeared and her husband had vanished with her, and the doors were closed. Margaret and Eric stood side by side at the table over which were strewed the accounts, bills and invoices of the supplies for the Arctic. Eric had in his hand an invoice which he had been checking up and Margaret had been comparing with another. A moment before, his hand had been steady; he had even been able to meet her eyes once and again. Now the sheet he held trembled so that the figures were illegible though both pretended to study them.

She was the first to move. She took hold of the sheet as though to stop its shaking, then her fingers touched his. The paper dropped and he seized her hand.

"Yes, Eric," she looked at him now, "why do we pretend?"

He released her fingers and stood away in his dismay. "Margaret; I love you! Oh, I love you! And you know it!"

"Yes. I love you! You know that too!"

"But you should not!"

"Should not?"

"Margaret, you must not!"

"Love you, dear? I cannot help it."

"But nothing can come of it!"

"Of our love, anything can come, Eric!"

It brought him to his knees, frightened before her. He seized her hands and held them to his cheeks. "I have tried to think it out, Margaret. Over and over again, I have tried to think it out. I don't know of anything I could do at which I could expect to make money."

"To make money!" she cried. "Look at me, Eric! Look at me or I will kneel down too! There! Now what were you saying? What were you saying to me?"

"A man who loves and has love from a girl has to have money, dear. I haven't thought I had to have much money; Margaret, I know you well enough for that. But if we must love, we must marry and live. And if I give up my work to do something just to make money—"

"You wouldn't be you, dear, and I wouldn't marry you. If you did that and I let you do it to be married, we'd never be happy together."

"Then," he appealed to her; "then, Margaret, what is there for us?"

"We haven't got to know now, dear! At least, I haven't! You love me and I love you. Isn't that more than enough for us now? . . . To-morrow you're going into the Arctic to be gone a long time—at least two years, Eric! You ought to go; I want you to go, for it is about your work. So all we need to know to-night, dear, is just that we love; and now we've said it. So I know that you'll be going away only to come back to me; and you will know that no matter how long you are gone or whatever happens or whoever else comes or whatever any one says or does while you are away, I will be waiting for you!"

"You will be waiting for me!"

"For you, always, forever! . . . So kiss me now, Eric; Put your arms about me . . . Dear! Dear! Oh, Eric, how far away you're going and how long it will be! But—but you'll come back to me, won't you? For however long it is, you'll find me waiting for you!"

So she had given herself to Eric Hedon that evening. Later that night, he started away for the Aurora and she heard from him by letter only a few times before the Arctic engulfed him.

She told her father and mother the next morning what she had promised to do. They received the announcement complacently. Eric would be gone two years; long before that time she would come to her senses; Price Latham or some one like Price would bring her into her right mind.

Mrs. Chandler, upon whom had devolved the responsibility of Margaret's future, after the death of her parents, simply refused to discuss any possibility of Margaret's marrying Hedon, should he ever return. Geoff, too, was openly against her; and Price always seemed confident that he needed only a little more patience with her to make her completely forget her foolish infatuation.

Yet during four years, Margaret had refused to forget. She made no display of loyalty to Eric; only in her room she preserved the keepsakes and trifles connected with Eric which, now after Geoff was gone, she took up tenderly and put away. The blood red, tropical tulip which he had given her was blooming in its pot on her windowsill; it had a deep, sweet odour. She had found it flowering the morning after he went away and it had blossomed during every spring since. She stooped and smelled the flower with her eyes closed. The odour always associated itself with the feeling of her parting with Eric.

It brought back the sound of his voice as he spoke seriously to her, then his laugh and the light in his eyes. For an instant she seemed to feel the strength of his arm about her and now the final wild warmth of his lips against hers.

Gently she touched the blossom with her cheek; then she straightened. Bathing her eyes, she went from her room and down the hall to the living room, where her brother and Price were waiting for her.