A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

THE BARGAIN MARGARET MADE

SHE saw as she entered that they had discussed the matter of the message between them and were prepared to oppose her. Yet for what she had determined to do she must have help; and if she could not get it from them she did not know where help was to be had. Latham rose as she came in and met her pityingly.

"I'd have given a good deal if that could have been prevented." He looked from her to the box which was on the table.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Of course when you offered rewards for information of Hedon and kept on advertising you courted a miserable trick like that. Sooner or later it was bound to come. Perhaps we're lucky that we've had so little of it."

"I see," Margaret met him. "You think that message is all a fraud."

"I think it ingenious, very. The real possibility of the thing being genuine—the plausibility, one almost might say—is what makes it so monstrously villainous."

"The character of the letters, even in perforations that would wear out a little, are like Eric's, Price."

"Who hasn't been supplied with facsimiles of Hedon's writing to imitate in some such way?" Latham returned. "Since the Aurora was lost, every Sunday screamer in the country has been filled with the personal details of the party."

"The address is not the address we have now," Margaret persisted. "You see, the post office forwarded it. Mr. Massey took my address from Eric's message; that was the address at which we lived when the Aurora sailed."

Latham shook his head. "The man who was clever enough to frame up that fraud and use that bird to make a couple of thousand dollars wouldn't have slipped on the detail of your address at the time the Aurora left."

"But he asks for no money, Price. He doesn't even know who I am or what the message is about."

"You mean he pretends not to. I admit it is a mighty good fraud."

"I don't believe it's a fraud, Price!"

"You mean you won't, Margaret!"

"Why should I?"

"You know it." Latham moved nearer her. "Margaret, I would have given anything, I said, if you could have been spared this. It is too monstrous, too brutal. Eric Hedon is dead, and you know in your heart he is."

"No, I don't. That's just it—I know in my heart he's alive!"

Latham recoiled. "Then your head must know better," he corrected. "He's lost. Every man who was north with him is sure of it. Every man has told you so. It's not necessary to question whether or not you would have been happy with Hedon. He is lost. Since you loved him—or believed you did—it was right for you to wait as long as you have. But now to have this fraud start you to hoping and expecting again and waiting—I can't let you."

"I'm not going to wait any longer!"

"What?"

"I'm going to do something now!"

"Margaret!"

"I'm going to send a ship up north with a search party to do nothing else but look for him—for them, for Eric and Mr. Thomas!"

Latham turned from her to Geoff helplessly.

"What in the world are you talking about?" her brother demanded of her.

"I'm going to do what I ought to have done two years ago; and now I won't put it off any longer."

Latham lighted a cigarette. "Surely before even talking over this mad idea any further you're going to prove up on that." He jerked toward the box with the wild bird.

"Of course."

"All right, Geoff. Look up the trains. I'll start south to-night."

"No; please don't, Price," Margaret interposed. "You're awfully good, and I thank you very much; but I'd rather you wouldn't."

"Me, then?" asked Geoff.

"No; you'd be the same as Price."

"What do you mean by that?" Latham demanded.

"You wouldn't go to Louisiana to find out whether or not that message might be genuine. You'd go down there determined to prove it wasn't—both of you."

"You're going, then?"

"No; I'm going to get to my real work right away. I'll have to send some one else."

"Who?"

"Any one you pay for that sort of work."

"Then if it's a fraud—as it is—you surely will pay for it."

"I'd be glad to."

"What are you saying?"

"Price—and you, Geoff—please don't bother about my being fooled or about that message being a fraud. I'm going to try to find out for my own satisfaction whether it is or not; but even if I found a man who admitted writing that message and preparing the trick and sending it to me in that way, still I'd pay him something. For that message, real or not, is going to make me do the only thing that can possibly make me satisfied afterward. I don't know whether Eric wrote that message or not; but I believe he might have. I believe he's alive somewhere up in the Arctic. And I'm not going to give him up till I've got the old Aurora men together again and a ship to send them back to the north, to stay there till they can bring back Eric and Mr. Thomas or bring me back greater certainty that they are dead."

Latham snapped his cigarette impatently.

"How can there be greater certainty that they are dead after four years or after ten than after two?" he said. "If they went through the ice into the sea the way Mullin did—and every one who came back believes that they did—a thousand search parties couldn't bring back more assurance."

"But if they were not lost in the lead; if they got back to the ice pack and went through the winter and then somehow reached the land—Grinnell Land or somewhere—and are waiting for us to try to reach them, believing we wouldn't give them up; suppose that is the case and we made no more effort to reach them."

"I can't suppose that," Latham returned coldly. "Nor can any one else. How are you going to get your ship?" he inquired.

"I can raise the money."

"Where?"

"I can promise my income to some one who'll give me what I need!"

"No, you can't," Latham denied. "You must excuse me, Margaret, but I've got to be plain and sensible to stop you from this foolishness. I know your circumstances, of course. You've a good income, you and Geoff; but it's an income which your father left in trust, as I understand it, as an income. You can't touch a penny of the principal, either of you; you can't assign it or borrow money on it any way. No note you'd give assigning an income from it to any one would be legal. Those are the conditions of the trust. It's almost as if your father foresaw some such plan as you propose, and was determined to prevent it. You can't borrow even a fraction of the money you would need to fit out an Arctic expedition."

"And you've already struck Cousin Clara, haven't you?" Geoff guessed. "I wager she gave you an answer!"

The girl admitted it by her silence. "Still I'll find some one who'll send a ship, and if I don't I'll never give up Eric—never, never!"

Latham came closer to her and met her eyes directly. "I believe you," he said. "I believe you. So I'll send a ship, Margaret!"

"Price!" she cried.

Geoff turned toward Latham in his astonishment.

"Go into the billiard room a minute, will you, Geoff?" Latham requested. "I want to say something to Margaret."

The brother looked at the two silently and went out.

"What is it, Price?" Margaret appealed. "You said you'd send a ship!"

"I will—for your sake and my own."

"For yours too?"

"Margaret!" He came to her and took her hands and gazed down at her, his eyes opposite hers. "You know that what's for your sake is also for my own. I love you; I've loved you for years. You know that. I must continue to love you. If you won't give up Hedon till a ship goes up into the Arctic for him, I'll send that ship. I'll go on it myself."

He could feel her wrists becoming tense in his grasp. The fire in her eyes burned deeper and her lips trembled, but she still met him directly.

"Go on!" she said. "I heard that. You said you'd take up a ship to search for Eric. Go on; under what conditions?"

"Under the simple conditions that if the expedition reaches and searches the lands which he must have reached if he and Thomas are alive, and then does not find him or discover proof that he is alive, he becomes to you what he is—dead."

"You mean more than that!" Margaret faced him. "You mean that if you do not find him I shall marry you!"

"Yes." He held her close before him. "I do mean that."

"And if I agree to that there will be no delay? The ship will be ordered at once and will start in time to be sure to get into the Arctic this summer?"

"I'll wire to-night to charter any ship you say."

"Price! You understand I don't love you!"

"I'm doing this because I know as soon as you get Eric Hedon out of your mind you will love me!"

She fought herself free from his grasp and, turning from him, looked down intently. Before her she saw Eric and his companion in the north—two men alone on a barren land, starving, desolate, dying, one of them at least still smiling, cheerful, looking day after day for signs of a ship coming up from the south.

She turned back. "I accept," she said quietly to Latham.

"You mean you promise?"

"But I, too, have one condition, Price!"

"Condition?"

"That I am the one to be satisfied, fairly, that Eric is dead. If I am to give myself for this ship into the north, I must go on it; and I must be sure that Eric is lost—if we don't find him. You are sure he is dead already."

"You go upon the ship, Margaret?"

"I must."

"Into the Arctic?"

"Wherever Eric may be."

Latham gazed at her. Again he put his hands out and this time seized her shoulders and held her.

"Then it's a bargain?" he asked her almost fiercely.

"If I go upon the ship, yes."

"All right!" He drew his breath in deeply. "I'll take you!"

Geoff, in the billiard room, was knocking the balls about viciously, and in the process jammed off the tips from two cues before Latham joined him.

"I'm going to send a ship up to look for Thomas and Hedon," the man said as he came in.

"The devil you are!"

"And I'm going on it, Geoff."

"What?"

Latham repeated his statement as he chalked a cue deliberately.

Geoff gasped. "And give up your polo in England? Price, the Graphic says you're the first player in your position in the country. And I thought I was going with you too!"

"You can go with me if you want into the Arctic—in fact, I believe you're rather counted on."

"No!"

"Yes, for you sister's going."

Geoff stared. "Meg?"

"You might go see her."

Geoff rushed from the room.

"Good Lord!" Dazedly he joined Price a quarter of an hour later.

"Well—going?" asked Latham.

"Going? Sure I'm going. Entirely aside from the requirements of the position—decencies and all that—I've got to go. Sister going up into the Arctic while brother stays at the golf club. I witness myself surviving that. They'd cartoon me in curls. Confound girls anyway! Price, why the devil are you doing it for her anyway?"