A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

"NOTHING'S THE MATTER"

THE plan of proceeding, until Mason Land was reached, was simple. West of Northwest Greenland lies a great island best known as Ellesmere Land. West of this the next great arctic island is called Heiberg Land, and beyond this a small archipelago of frozen islands rings the polar sea and takes the landward crush of the great polar ice pack.

One of these islands, known as Mason Land, had been used as a base by the Aurora expedition, and upon its northern shore the Aurora men had built a shack and left there a large depot of food, fuel and supplies in case accident happened to their ship in the polar ice and retreat was forced. The four men who returned from the Aurora reached this depot and waited there two months, sending back search parties to look for Thomas and Hedon. No trace was found; so the four white men with the three Eskimos provisioned themselves from the station and managed to reach Smith Sound, where they were taken off by a whaling ship.

If Thomas and Hedon, or either of them, had not been lost in the lead but had regained the ice pack and somehow had got through the winter there, it was certain that they would make every effort to reach this spot on Mason Island. Indeed, if it was found that neither of them ever did reach this depot, it would be practical proof that both must have been lost; whereas, if either got to the station on Mason Land, he undoubtedly would either remain there or leave a message stating his subsequent plans and the direction of his travel to guide any relief party.

Mason Island, therefore, was the first objective of the Viborg. It was the land mentioned in the message sent by Robert Massey. If there were no message at Mason Island and no other indication that either man had reached the station, the plans of the expedition would be governed by circumstances. Of course the finding of any message would control the later movements of the relief party.

In the year in which the Aurora went up ice conditions were such as to give fair channels; but during the later seasons the whalers who had been attracted by rewards for finding Thomas or Hedon had met impassable barriers of ice two hundred miles short of the island and had turned back

The smallness of the Viborg, however, promised it favours from the ice such as the little Aurora had found in fighting its way up through narrow, closing channels. And those handling the Viborg were men to get a ship through where any hull could squeeze.

The ship's people, besides the three in the forward cabins, were five. In the first cabin aft now was Captain Jeremiah McNeal, bluff, able, stubborn, sincere, forty years old and without wife or bairn. He had shipped before the mast of a Scotch whaler at the age of eighteen, and had spent just sixteen of the intervening twenty-two years of his life within the Arctic Circle. He was a short, square, stocky man, smooth shaven as are most who live long in the North. No danger of the seas or ice, of cold or starvation ever had affected him. Geoff remembered him at the time he came to Chicago to report to Margaret his belief of the loss of Hedon. The skipper who had led his party on less than an inch of new ice, crackling at every step, over two miles of the Arctic Ocean, held back before plunging into the traffic on the city streets. He was miserable in the crowds of civilised places.

Cabined with him was Dr. Otto Koehler, a Bavarian and McNeal's best friend. Koehler was a year or two younger than McNeal, but with Arctic experience scarcely shorter. The men had met when the Scotchman, as master of the whaler Cabot, had rescued the survivors of a lost German expedition from the ice near Franz Josef Land. McNeal had taken Koehler to his cabin, and cursed him while he cared for him because the doctor was nearly dead from having given his ration of food to another.

Koehler, in contrast to McNeal, was tall, thin, almost gaunt, taciturn but always cheerful. His few words invariably expressed optimism. Besides being surgeon and meteorologist, he had the knack of languages. He understood Eskimos and made the Eskimos understand him.

Jules Brunton, first mate, was ten years younger than these two, and had been skipper of a Cape Breton fishing smack till he entered under McNeal in the Aurora. He was a big, powerful man, friendly and smiling; and he possessed a fine barytone voice in which he sang French ballads. Appearing in the morning, he had a word for every man and dog in sight; and he could be heard humming to himself in the night when he stood his lonely watch at the wheel.

Olaf Michaelis, "the melancholy Dane," matched Brunton in size and endurance. He had been a stranger to the others till they took the Viborg at Copenhagen. Michaelis' Arctic experience had been entirely on that vessel; he had been in the crew on both of its earlier voyages into the Arctic. He was a quiet man with a reputation for sticking to his post in trouble. Given an order, he obeyed implicitly.

Hugo Linn, the cook, was the fourth of the present crew who had been on the Aurora. He had been in Thomas' pay and accompanied Thomas more out of fidelity than out of any spirit of adventure; but once having been north, the lure of the Arctic caught him. He was about thirty-five and a little inclined to be fat. Under Thomas' tutoring he had developed an interest in zoology, and blew, without breaking, the shells of eggs of eider duck brought him to fry, and preserved also the skeletons of any unusual fish that he cooked.

He and Koehler also were able seamen as well as the others. With so small a crew, a storm meant all hands on deck except the man who might remain below at the engine.

The dogs, now twenty-six in number, overran everything, slept on the hatches and quarrelled and fought over the cases and boxes piled below the swinging boom. They left no peaceful spot on deck in which to lounge when the Viborg was sailing through smooth and unobstructed waters.

The woman of the party alone had no definite duty assigned to her, but found each day a hundred things to do. She learned from Koehler how to make meteorological observations and keep records of air and water temperatures, wind directions and velocities and magnetic variations. When she would be in the way on the deck, patiently for days on end she kept herself in her stuffy cabin.

As the Viborg buffeted its way against hard seas and slipped and squeezed between the icebergs of choken channels, Margaret constantly was studying the men about her. She noted with a thrill of admiration how the men accustomed to the Arctic steadied to their work and seemed to welcome, indeed invite, difficulties and obstacles for the triumph of overcoming them. They were more cheerful in exhaustion as more and more endurance was required of them; they loved the dangers that made them dare more, they gloried in the constant challenge of the elements.

Margaret saw with pride that her brother already was catching some of the sense of this challenge and was responding to it. A storm which had kept all hands above for thirty hours blew out; and Geoff, staggering with exhaustion, passed her on the way down to his bunk. Within half an hour, as the gale was blowing up again, he had to be called. She liked the way he came up on deck, with hands clenched, teeth set and smiling grimly.

Latham also came back on deck with Geoff. He had been on duty as long; he was almost as exhausted as the boy, and he was returning without complaint to his work. But it was plain to Margaret, as she met him, that Latham was driving himself to his tasks in a different spirit from the others. The Arctic work—hardship and privation, obstacles ever to be overcome—in itself did not appeal to Price Latham at all; and such work never would. He was forcing himself with his will power to endure exhaustion that he hated and that made him keep tight control over his temper in order to get the work through with, that he might demand his pay for it.

Margaret, of course, knew the pay he expected to require. As she faced him at such a moment as this, suddenly it frightened her to realise how firm was his determination to possess her if he would drive himself thus to gain her.

"Like this?" she asked him.

"You know I don't," he returned to her.

"I'm sorry."

He put his hand upon her and seized her. "I'd do more for you!" he said almost savagely.

"You mean to get me," she corrected calmly.

He released her and went on. She saw then, as she had realised many times before, that Latham had not the least idea that they might find Eric Hedon. The expedition meant to him merely a necessary hardship, a labour of Hercules, to be endured before he could claim her. What would Price do when Eric was found? For Margaret never for an instant let herself believe anything but that they must find Eric Hedon.

So far Latham had kept his irritation under control in her presence; but Margaret more than guessed that Price was not so careful before her brother. Geoff, alternating with Latham in the engine room, indeed seldom saw him except for a few moments. They were in their cabin together only on those rare occasions when, with the sea somewhat free from ice and with a favouring wind, the engine was stopped to save fuel as the sails alone promised progress.

"What would you give for a shower-bath, hot, and a rub at the club afterward?" Geoff suggested incautiously on one of these occasions.

"You idiot!" Latham burst out at him almost savagely. "Got that carbon cut out of the first cylinder?"

"Pretty well. I say, Price, what's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter. Look here, young fellow, you be mighty careful not to say anything's the matter. Do you understand?"

"Oh; I understand," Geoff said queerly. He was worn out, but just then he preferred the deck to the cabin. He had been understanding for himself for some time that there were infinite differences between racing a two-hundred-horsepower boat one hundred miles in three hours over smooth water, and then turning the craft over to mechanicians for cleaning, carbon scraping, overhauling and repairs while you lunched triumphantly at a club, and running a twenty-horsepower engine an indefinite number of days at four miles an hour, cleaning and chiseling carbon yourself, and then dropping, unbathed and unmassaged, into a clammy bunk.

Geoff met his sister carrying down toward their cabin a pail of coffee and some hot food.

"Thanks, Meg." He took them from her. He saw that she had heard at least the tone of Latham's last threat and that she was worried. "Oh, everything's all right between us," he assured her hastily. "My fault, I guess. I'll see it doesn't happen again."