A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 5



THE Arctic continent of Greenland stretches down from Peary Land, which is the most northerly land known to exist, more than sixteen hundred miles to the south to Cape Farewell, which has been known to white men longer than any other land in the western half of the world.

More than a thousand years ago—the exact date is 872—King Harold, The Fairhair, of Norway, fought in the fiord of Hafurs one of the great decisive naval battles. He fought the jarls, or independent princes of his land, in a battle of viking against viking, at a time when the flaxen-haired men of the North were the mightiest warriors of Europe, when they harried at will the coasts of France, England and the Baltic and held broad duchies and kingdoms under tribute, and when they sailed their shield-sided ships into the Mediterranean and crushed with their axes the helmets of Magyar and Saracen.

These jarls and vikings were not men to submit when they were beaten. So, when Harold Fairhair conquered, they spread to find new lands of their own over the sea. Some conquered and occupied counties of England; some established themselves in Gaul; some at Dublin and Limerick; others overran Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetlands, and some sailed on to Iceland. Picked men these were, the strongest and most daring of the boldest stock of Europe.

Now, in the records of those vikings who reached and occupied Iceland it is written that in 876 a sailor named Gunnbiorn was driven by foul weather to a land still farther west, where his ship was caught in ice. He and his men managed to survive till the summer freed them and they returned to Iceland and told of the new land. But a hundred years passed before any one proved the story. Then in Norway one Eric the Red killed a man in a quarrel and ran to refuge in Iceland. Quarrelling again with his neighbours, he killed several and took his ship and his followers and fled to find Gunnbiorn's land in the West. He rounded that southern cape now called Farewell, and as it was summer he found the grass green and the land sunny and smiling. He settled and sent for more bold men, who came with their families and household goods and their cattle and founded the colony of Brattahlid on the west coast of Greenland which looks toward Baffin Land. Four hundred miles further north they established another settlement. The ships of these men were the first to find the shores of the continent of America. In the year 986, one Bjarni sailed from Greenland to Iceland to spend the Yuletide with his father; but his father had gone to Greenland. Bjarni, returning, found foggy weather and when he sighted land it was a wooded shore well to the west and south of his home. In the year 1000 Leif, the son of Eric the Red, sailed to that wooded coast and returned to Greenland with a cargo of timber. Seven years later the Greenland colony was strong enough to send four ships bearing one hundred and sixty men, many women and a cargo of cattle to colonise the newer coast; these stayed in America four years before the Indians became too strong for them. Two years after their return, another party sailed in two ships from Brattahlid and made a second attempt to settle the wooded land; quarrels destroyed this settlement, and it was abandoned. But the colonies in Greenland continued to thrive and to prosper for more than four hundred years. In their two settlements, the people numbered more than five thousand, one colony containing one hundred and ninety farmsteads and one cathedral and eleven smaller churches, two villages and four monasteries. The colonies became a separate diocese of the church and were sent bishops from Rome, and they paid to the pope their tithes in ox-hides, sealskins and walrus ivory and contributed to the Crusades. There was some culture as well as security in these colonies; a Brattahlid poet composed and bards sang a poem yet known in Iceland. Fifteen generations of Europeans lived and died on the west coast of Greenland before serious troubles came. Hostilities began with the Eskimos; and, with wars and difficulties in Europe, few ships sailed for the distant settlement; those which set out were wrecked and when after many years another ship came to Greenland, the fiords were deserted; the stone houses, churches, cattle barns and sheep pens stood echoing empty. The first men to tempt the Arctic had disappeared into it. Thousands of the sons of the boldest blood of Europe with their flocks and herds and horses had vanished; and no man remained to say how or where they had gone.

A few straggling Eskimos came to the coasts to fish and spear seals. Danes, who now claimed the land, arrived and married Eskimos. They left the old ruins of the Norsemen and built their own dwellings. These people form the present population of Southern Greenland, who kill the eider duck and prepare the skins, try out the seal and whale oil and take the polar bear and fox pelts which bring each summer to the settlements the ships of the Royal Danish Trading Company.

One of these vessels, flying the crimson and white-crossed flag of Denmark, was steering up the West Greenland coast from Cape Farewell when a steam yacht with the pennant of the New York Yacht Club at its peak appeared from the southwest.

The yacht—the Inca, owned by Howard Bradley of New York—was known in as many harbours of the world as any other ship sailing purely for pleasure. Her owner and his wife had taken the vessel to visit at least one port of every country with a sea coast; her keel had scraped the bars of a hundred tropical rivers, and a score of times she had scurried for shelter into the basins of equatorial atolls.

Lands to the north too were known to her—the Faroes, Iceland, Tromso; and she had come to this same Greenland coast four years before, when Bradley and his wife had been hosts to half the Aurora party as far as Julianehaab, as now they were entertaining on board four of those who were to go into the Arctic on the newly chartered Viborg.

These four—Margaret Sherwood and her brother, with Price Latham and Dr. Otto Koehler—now stood with their hosts at the bow of the yacht while Bradley pointed out the little islets and the fiords of the rugged, mountainous coast which they were nearing. The sun was high and warm in a clear sky; and as it was July the ice was cleared from the shore. The snow, save for a few protected patches, was gone; and the green of the grass, which had won for the land its name, brightened great patches of the hillsides. Three of the guests, Margaret and Geoff and Latham, gazed upon this land for the first time. Koehler, who had been surgeon on the Aurora, had been one of Bradley's guests on the Inca before.

"Settlements of the Julianehaab district—Eskimo, mixed Danish—are ahead there," the host pointed. "The trading ship seems to be making for them too." The Danish vessel was a little ahead. "The Eskimos have seen us from shore, of course. Here come the kayaks!"

Rising and falling with the sweep of the easy shore swell a line of tiny forms appeared within the green water. They dashed nearer and showed themselves to be long, sharp-pointed skin boats, only as wide as the waist of the boatman and driven swiftly by two-bladed paddles, plunged into the sea first to right and then to left by strong, skilful arms. A few of the kayaks turned to accompany the Danish trading ship; but most of them raced on toward the yacht, as it was the stranger and more curious visitor. Laughing and shouting, the Eskimos paddled up. They spun their boats about, and overturned and righted themselves unharmed for the applause that greeted them. The yacht slowed to the speed of the tiny skin craft and, guided by the Eskimos' cries and directions, steered cautiously toward the fiord.

"Ask them if the Viborg has been sighted," Margaret requested, and Koehler shouted down in the Danish-Eskimo dialect.

No. The Eskimos were familiar with the ship but did not know it was expected back. Doubtless the visitors wished to buy dogs?

The Danish ship reached protection and came to anchor. Already it was beset by clamouring natives. The Inca brought up its bevy of boats; the yacht's turbines stopped; the anchor slipped down.

A strip of civilisation three hundred and thirty feet long had been suddenly inserted into an Eskimo community. The people on that strip were still living as if in the most modern city, surrounded by servants, with bedrooms and dressing rooms and baths in suite, library and drawing-rooms. They dressed for dinner, as at home, and sat about a mahogany table laden with food that was cooked by a French chef and served by English stewards.

As Margaret and her brother looked over the rail at the sod and stone huts and tents on the shore and at the swarthy, semibarbarous seal hunters in their kayaks or on the shore, and then glanced back to the yacht, they knew that the journey into the North had not yet begun. Though in mere distance travelled more than half the journey was behind, the difficulties, the dangers, even all the discomforts, still were ahead. They had not left civilisation or any of its important luxuries; they merely had brought them a few thousand miles with them. Their expedition really would start with the arrival of the Viborg at that point.

The trading ship dropped a boat and brought to the yacht the Danish captain, who was familiar with the Inca's errand. His ship, the Laeso, had left Copenhagen after the Viborg had started, but had passed the smaller craft at sea two days before.

The Arctic vessel might be expected that night or by morning. All were well aboard. The Laeso was to take on at that point those of the Viborg's crew who were not going into the Arctic. Also the Laeso carried stores, mostly gasoline, for the little vessel. Hosts and guests from the Inca immediately went ashore. Latham and Margaret together went through the tiny settlement.

"This is Fifth Avenue or Michigan Boulevard of Greenland," he impressed upon her, as they passed the dwellings. A family feasted bloodily on the blubber and flesh of a fresh-killed seal. An Eskimo woman was chewing off the fat from the skin of eider duck, and then working the skin in her mouth to soften it by more chewing. "When men come back from the Arctic they thank Heaven to get to such a village."

"I thought it would be more primitive than it is," Margaret replied simply.

"But surely you aren't thinking now of going any farther?"

"Price, we agreed before we left home upon what we were to do."

"I don't mean I want to call off our agreement," Latham said hurriedly. "But——" he hesitated, uncertain.

Margaret looked at him and he glanced away. They had passed through the village and were at the foot of the hills beyond it.

Sometimes, since they had made their bargain together, it had seemed to Margaret that Latham welcomed her condition that she must be upon the ship. He appeared to look forward to their being forced close together by hardship, perhaps by more than privation. At other times the condition he had accepted seemed to frighten him; and the present was one of those times. He spoke no longer on the subject. They walked on together past the settlement and came to hillsides at the very head of the fiord where the slope looked out south over the sea and where the green grass was thickly growing about the ruins of stone buildings—the ancient homesteads of the Norsemen who had crossed the Atlantic and lived on that arctic edge of the new world half a millennium before Columbus sailed his ships from Spain.

Geoff and Doctor Koehler and one or two of the sailors from the ship were there ahead of them, moving about among the ruins. The stone walls of the old viking houses still stood and the foundations of the churches—the churches which in the eleventh century sent across the sea of darkness walrus ivory as tithes to Rome. The ancient byres and pens for the cattle and sheep and horses lay traced upon the ground beside the ruins of the barns, drying houses and larders. There had lived in that district something over one thousand people. Behind, the mountains rose bleak, bare, cheerless; in front was the sea, green and white, blotched with great icebergs drifting by. From the high hillside they could see the ships down in the fiord.

Geoff came up close beside his sister. "How many ships these stones have seen go by to the north," he said, caught for a moment by the drama of the spot.

Latham looked quickly about. "And how few return to the south," he said.

"To-morrow, likely enough, old boy"—Geoff addressed the stone tower which his hand touched—"you'll see the Viborg come in sight down there where you first saw Frobisher, Baffin, Davis and the rest of the fellows who wanted to see what's up there in the ice. You ought to know by this time who's coming back. Are we coming back or not?"

"Shut up!" Latham stopped him. "You're not only foolish; you're dismal"; and he pointed toward Margaret.

She laughed. "I was thinking about the same thing," she said. "If these stones could tell the stories of the ships they've seen pass by! If they could tell only the story of the old Norsemen who lived here and then disappeared!"

"They're flying some signal on the Inca," Latham said, his glasses to his eyes.

"The recall to dinner." Geoff looked at his watch. "Let's beat it back. Evening dress, Meg, to-night for the last time and champagne and anchovy and a steward behind your chair."