Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 22 page 440
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ATE the next evening, standing with Louis and Captain Gillies on the bridge, Hildegarde saw ships on the western horizon. The fleet at last! anchored two miles off from Nome. It was bedtime, but quite impossible to sleep, though there would be no landing till next day. They said "Good-night" to the captain, and found their way to a corner of the deck, where alone together they might see the belated sun setting, and watch a pale-gold moon of enormous size riding portentously the clear-colored sky, too bright for stars. Hand in hand, hidden among the freight, they talked of the young, as though they two had been gods seated on Olympus. And as they talked the faint flush over yonder turned the purest rose, then deepened as each beautiful moment sped, till the sun, gone but now, hastened back like one who abandons a projected journey, and on the heels of his good-by comes shamefaced home. What would it be like, this day that he was bringing? What was waiting over yonder in that mysterious land, still in shadow, that skirts the hills of Nome? Just a little longer the weary passengers hung about the decks, while the blood-red sun peered at them over a violet sea, ready, when the shadow-curtain lifted, to clothe the naked truth of Nome with a final splendor. Whatever might come
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after, in this first actual vision of the place people had fared so far to find, it was to wear the hues of heaven. For the "boat-load" of failure," the dream they had called "Nome" was to die in a glory of gold and fire.
The decks that had swarmed with excited people were falling silent. Men and women, whose whole lives hung upon what they should find waiting for them yonder, must be in bed betimes, that they might be ready to go ashore in the first boat. Soon only Hildegarde and Cheviot remained. But they were silent, watching all those white sails turn pink against the purple distance--sea and sky alike dyed deep, and still the honey-colored moon hanging there, immense, unreal. Whichever way they looked, this northern world was like something seen in a dream, spectral, uncanny, fitly ushered in by the sunrise in the night.
To Hildegarde, as though given in that hour some gift of prophecy, it seemed that after all her journeying the land she looked on was still beyond the reach of sober day, fated to be for ever outside the experience of waking hours.
Yet this incredible country for two years had been her father's home!
Louis would go ashore in the first boat and prepare Nathaniel Mar for his daughter's coming.
"If I were alone I should be imagining he might be dead." Even as she said "if," an inward dread clutched at her.
"If you were alone I should be imagining things worse than death." They drew together. As he held her, looking down into her eyes, a new gravity came into his own. "Are you sure at last?" he said.
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"You know I am. But I don't scold you for asking. It's the more beautiful of you to have quite realized and yet--yet not despise me for all that romantic feeling about some one I've never seen."
"Your mother once helped me there."
"My mother! What does she know about--"
"More than you might think. When I'd lost patience one day, she told me the only difference between you and other girls was that you were honester and stubborner than most."
"I can hear her saying 'stubborner.'"
"Yes, but it was curious to hear her saying few women, if they remember their youth, can truthfully say it went by without some such--well--she called it names--"
"I know one of them. Some such silly 'infatuation.'" Hildegarde smiled, but not he. "I wonder if my mother ever-- Oh, it's a wild idea!"
"I don't know. She said it was usually either a great soldier or a clergyman, often an actor, sometimes a poet, or 'even a bachelor statesman.' And she said that last with such an edge in her voice I wondered at the time what American statesman was still unmarried when Mrs. Mar was in her 'teens." And their own cloud was dispersed in smiling at another's.
Hildegarde, coming on deck at six o'clock, found sunshine whitening all the thousand tents of Nome. Frame dwellings, too, the eye found out--one standing boldly forth with flag flying. That, Blumpitty said, was the hospital. Was her father there? Courage! Louis was at her side, with confident looks and shining eyes that saw no shadow save the purple splotch in the sea to the
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left--"Sledge Island." Had she noticed the snow-seamed hills? She must take his glass and look at that higher lift in the low, undulant line; could she see a queer knob "Anvil Rock!" But the main impression up the beach, and down the beach, and away over the tundra, was tents, tents. And between the Los Angeles and the surf-whitened shore, sails, sails! Ships of every size and kind. Big steamers from Seattle, from San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver, smart sailing vessels, lumbering freight boats, whalers, and among them--darting back and forth like a flock of brown sparrows under the gleaming wings of seagulls--were myriads of little skiffs, dories, lighters, canoes, and here and there a steam launch, bobbing, swarming, surrounding "the last boat in," and ready to take all and sundry to Nome for dazzling sums.
While the more enterprising of the Los Angeles' contingent (swallowing their resentment at the captain's failure to set them instantly ashore) bargained with the owners of the small craft, a rumor ran about the ship that not even a millionaire might leave till certain formalities had been complied with. But Cheviot had in some way got a special permit to go ashore with one of the officers.
While Hildegarde waited after breakfast for his return, she tried to deaden fear of the news he might bring back, listening to the scraps of talk between the touting boatmen and the passengers longingly suspended over the Los Angeles' side.
Some old acquaintance called out "Howdy" to the bean-feaster, and after hearing what the Commission had settled in far away Washington, screamed back
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Nome news in return. They were "havin' a red hot roarin' boom," and Jolly Haley had made a million. One of the great steamers was spoken as she moved majestically by. Others, besides the Los Angeles, were overdue, the captain of the Akron said. Those haggard wrecks down there toward Cape Nome--they were only two, but the Bering Sea was full of ships disabled or gone down in these last days. Gillies asked for news of freinds and rivals. The Congress had put into Dutch Harbor "for repairs," he was told, and the men exchanged grim smiles. The Santa Ana was burned to within two feet of the water. The passengers on the Chiquita had all but starved to death, and the St. John had made escape from the ice-pack only to go to pieces on the rocks. Then, like some sentient thing exulting in her enviable fate, the Akron steamed away in the sunshine.
Popular interest shifted to starboard when the whaler Beluga drew 'longside. Her captain, a hard-looking customer, came on board the Los Angeles to talk to Gillies. O'Gorman discovered a man he knew on board the whaler. "Going to Nome?" he asked him. "No, better than that. Gettin' out." Where was the ex-Nomite off to? "Up the coast." The Beluga was to meet some south-bound whalers up in Grantley Harbor in a day or two--might come south herself afterward, or might go still farther north to Kotzebue. O'Gorman's friend didn't care where, just so it wasn't Nome. The people of the Los Angeles only laughed. Clear that fellow was a hoodoo. The more luck in Nome, since he was leaving it!
"He might be able to give you news about your
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father," O'Gorman said aside to Miss Mar. But before she answered he saw, from the sudden fear in the girl's face, that she couldn't risk having bawled at her in public tidings that more and more she dreaded.
"He--Mr. Cheviot will soon be back," she said.
"Has he been in Nome all winter?--your Beluga friend?" Mrs. Locke asked O'Gorman.
"Yes, I guess so."
"I'd like to inquire about my firm, Dixon and Blumenstein." O'Gorman called out the question for her.
"Lots o' folks inquirin' 'bout Dixon and Blumenstein," the man on the whaler roared back.
"Oh, Mrs. Locke, what shall you do?" While Hildegarde, vaguely aware of the unusual sound of a dog howling distractedly, stood beside the woman who in those seconds had seen her hoped-for home, her very bread swept from her, Louis's voice was audible over the girl's shoulder. Hildegarde turned to find herself in her father's arms. She did not notice how wet he was with sea-water. "Oh, you are ill!" she faltered.
"My child! My child!" he kept repeating, and then: "What a journey!"
"But you see I've got to Nome all right."
"To Nome! God forbid!"
"But God hasn't forbidden," said the girl, swallow-
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ing the sob that sight of the haggard face had brought into her throat. She was conscious, too, that her fellow-travelers were eagerly listening to the colloquy.
"I've been telling Cheviot I can't think how he could allow you--" Mr. Mar caught himself up and laid his hand affectionately on the young man's shoulder. "Of course Louis didn't really know. The Nome he left was bad enough, but that Nome has passed away. To-day it isn't a place for a girl to stay in an hour."
"'Sh! father! You'll scare my friends. This is Mrs. Blumpitty. She thinks very highly of Nome. And this is Mr. Blumpitty. Mother put me under their care, and they've been so kind. They've brought a big party up again this year. We've all come believing great things of the new camp."
The moment the handshaking was over, "This way," Cheviot said, and while the talk buzzed, and the dog somewhere down yonder among the swarming rowboats howled dismally, and questions showered on the man from Nome, Louis was leading Mr. Mar toward the companionway.
"Oh, yes, said Hildegarde, "my suit-case and things. But father needn't trouble to come below. I've had everything packed and ready for hours!" She smiled at Cheviot across the halting figure. "What kept you so, Louis? Couldn't you find him?"
"You can't get along very fast over there," Cheviot answered.
"Nobody can. There's a wall of stuff piled higgledy-piggledy for a mile along the shore."
"Dingleys and McKeowns, and--"
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"Yes, and grub. Tons of it. Hundreds of barrels of whiskey. Thousands of bags of flour and beans piled higher than my head. Lumber--acres of it. Furniture and bedding, engines and boilers, mixed up with sides of bacon and blankets, and a sprinkling of centrifugal pumps and Klondike thawers. How they'll ever sort that chaos--"
"The next high tide will save them the trouble," said Nathaniel Mar.
"Well, it's a queer sight. Hundreds and hundreds of people, Hildegarde, sitting on top of their worldly goods, looking as if they'd never stir again. Like so many Robinson Crusoes, each one on his own desert island, among the wreck of his possessions." Hildegarde smiled. Louis was only pointing out that Nome justified his prophecy. A form of "I told you so." But he was speaking to her father. "And the faces! You're used to them, but I--" He caught Hildegarde's significant little smile and deliberately changed the tune. "Of course there's a lot of hustling, too," he ended, stopping by the smoking-room door.
"Yes, the old story," said Hildegarde's father, wearily. "All land there free and equal from the common life of the ships. Twenty minutes, and some are masters and others are slaves."
"I thought there'd be no one here!" Cheviot said with satisfaction, as he held open the door.
"Isn't the boat ready to take us back?" Hildegarde asked.
"I suppose," said her father, leaning heavily on his stick and looking at her from under his bushy eyebrows, "you think we've got hotels over yonder."
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"There isn't even a boarding-house--"
"Mrs. L'Estrange will be glad! She's going to set up the very thing, and make her everlasting fortune."
"Well, I'm glad"--Mar dropped into the nearest seat--"very glad you're a sensible girl and take it like that."
Imagine his thinking she'd come expecting a hotel and all the comforts of home! That was why he seemed so harassed. "Poor father!" She put an arm about his crooked shoulders. It had been hard for him to make his way over the chaos of the beach, and he had got so wet coming out. How thoughtful of that dear Louis to bring him in here to rest before undertaking the return trip.
The old man crossed his wrinkled hands on the knob of his heavy stick and slowly shook his head. "No, Nome wasn't Paradise before, but since the invasion it's a hell upon earth."
"Well, think of it! Something like forty thousand homeless people stranded over yonder on the beach."
"I'm glad you haven't been one of the homeless ones," she said gently.
"I don't know how glad you'd be if you saw my one-roomed tent on the boggy tundra."
"Dearest." She took off his big soft hat that impeached his dignity with an absurd operatic air, and she stroked the whitened hair. "It's well I"--she looked across at her lover--"we've come to look after you."
"Oh, I'm one of the fortunate Nomites! I tell you a man with any sort of shelter over his head is in luck.
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Hundreds are sleeping on the beach in the cold and rain."
"Sillly people not to buy a tent."
"Most of them did, and can't get it landed or can't find it in the hurly-burly."
"Oh, I hope mine won't get lost!"
"Yes, father, I've got a tent and two pairs of Hudson Bay blankets, waterproof boots, stout netting--for the mosquitoes, you know. Oh, I have heard all about those mosquitoes! I've got a canvas knapsack and an oil-stove, and oceans of oil, and a pistol and plenty of chocolates and six weeks' provisions." With a little encouragement she would have told him every item in that six weeks' provision. She was distinctly proud of her list. Many people on the Los Angeles had complimented her upon its judicious selection.
But Nathaniel Mar's face showed no pride--showed something even like horror. I can't think what you were about, Cheviot," he said almost sharply.
Hildegarde was still incredulous that Louis had been able to resist the natural temptation of "telling on her," and saving his own credit. "Doesn't father know--anything?"
"Oh, yes, I told him--about us."
"It's the one redeeming feature in the present situation," said Mr. Mar.
"Father!" She was really wounded by that.
"But as I've told you already"--he turned his melancholy eyes on the young man--"I'd take more comfort in the intelligence if you hadn't brought her up here!"
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"Does he say he brought me?"
"He can't say he prevented you."
"I would come. I was afraid we'd never get you back." She was on the verge of tears.
"Well, well," said Cheviot briskly, "it's no use spilling milk."
"No," agreed the old man. "It might be worse. After all, the ship is going back in a week and I'll make arrangements for you to live on board till then."
Hildegarde withdrew her arm. She came and stood in front of the bowed old man. "You can't mean that while I am here, I'm not to stay with you--or in my own tent near--"
"Your tent!" Mr. Mar lifted one hand, calling heaven to witness his offspring's folly. "As to 'near' me, I'm sleeping in a ghastly lodging-house myself at the moment. We pay ten dollars a night for floor space. Spread a blanket on filthy boards, and try to get some rest in spite of drunken rows and vermin."
"I should think even a tent in the bog was better than that."
"Much. I've lent mine for a few nights to a miserable woman and her daugther, who'd slept a week on the beach. Like Hildegarde here, they 'bought a tent!' It's on that steamer we passed. There are half a dozen ships that can't get unloaded."
"I don't know that I like those other women living in your tent," said Hildegarde, with frank envy.
"Some of us are arranging to get the daughter home."
"Not the mother?"
"She's going to stay?"
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"She's got consumption."
"They came in the steerage. No, the mother won't go home, and won't need my tent long, I think."
Hildegarde stroked his hand. "It was like you, father, to give them shelter."
"It's been pretty much as you saw it this morning"--Mar turned to Louis--"for two weeks now. People are paralyzed. The fall from the height of their anticipations has stunned them. The women sit and wait. For what, they don't know. The men drink and play high, and when they're cleaned out and can't think of anything else to do, they shoot. There were two men killed last night in a fight over a lot. In the last week there have been six suicides. Nobody minds. What's the spilling of a little blood? A thing far more important is the scarcity of water. You buy it by the small bucketful and carry it home yourself. If you don't boil it, you get typhoid. The mayor told somebody that, after all, we lacked only two things here--water and good society. The stranger said: 'It's all the damned lack.'" It was as striking to ears that heard the retort then for the first time as though the saying had not grown hoary. "You'll see," Mar said, as though Cheviot had denied such a possibility, "it'll be worse here than ever Dawson was in the toughest times. We haven't got any such body of men to keep the peace as the mounted police."
"And to think it's all your fault, father."
Mar stared at her.
"Two years ago and nobody cared a pin to go to Nome. You couldn't induce the boys to come. You had to bribe even Louis. Now forty thousand people,
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and all that tangle on the beach." Her eyes were eager. "Nome, at this minute, must be the most wonderful sight in the world."
"It's the dump-heap of the nations! I'll tell you what happened a week ago." Mr. Mar was almost voluble in his anxiety to convince his daughter of the unfitness of Nome as a subject of feminine curiosity. "I'd been to the A. C. store and got a small draft cashed. Then I went up to Penny River and was gone all day. As I came back, behind the big Music Hall tent, I was held up. Two men turned out my pockets and made off with my thirty dollars. It was no use reporting the robbery. I was very tired, and I went to bed. I was waked up by some one rummaging about. But before I realized what was happeining inside, I saw there were holes cut in the off wall of my tent, and two pairs of eyes were watching me. A little lower down the bores of a couple of pistols were sticking through. I lay perfectly still, and presently the man inside, who'd been going through my grip-sack, threw it down. 'Where do you keep your stuff, anyhow?' he said, and then I recognized him. 'You're not in luck. You've got hold of the same person twice,' I said. 'Think we didn't know that?' he said. 'We made such a devilish poor haul we thought we'd give you another chance. Come along,' he said, 'where do you keep the rest?' And when he found there wasn't anything in the tent but a match and a pistol--well, he was good enough to tell me his opinion of me."
"I don't understand--isn't it daylight all night?"
Yes, but some of the honest people try to sleep, and then the crooks take over the town. The place is full of
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the professional criminal class. And if it weren't, Nome, as it is to-day, would breed them. My next-door nightbor says if he owned all the Nome district and owned hell, he'd sell Nome and live in hell."
"But the thing that brought everbody here--the gold!"
"The sour-doughs are getting some out of the creeks. But there aren't any more windfalls for late comers, since the beach was worked out."
"I did see one or two cheechalkers rocking in a hole here and there," said Cheviot.
"Go back to-morrow; you won't see the same faces. 'Poor man's country!'--where bread costs more than luxuries anywhere else on earth! Any business that's done in Nome to-day is buying and selling and brokerage precisely as it is in Wall Street. For the moneyless mass there isn't only disappointment, there isn't only hardship; there's acute suffering down on the beach. I don't know, for my part, where it's going to end."
"I don't mind not staying long," said Miss Mar obligingly, "in a place where you wake up to find pistols and eyes peering in at you; but I wouldn't, for all the world, I wouldn't miss just seeing it."
Mr. Mar moved his stick impatiently.
"I'd be willing enough to miss seeing it," said Cheviot, "and I'm not squeamish either. But, Lord! some of those faces!"
The old man nodded. "I keep away from the water front as much as I can. Can't stand it. I've never seen such despair in human eyes. If there are lost souls on the earth, I've seen them on the beach at Nome."
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"Well, I dare say a little of it will go a long way with me, too."
"Hildegarde, you're growing very like your mother."
"Thank you, father," said the girl, imperturbably.
"The trouble is if you insisted on having 'a little' of Nome, you might have to take a great deal," Cheviot said.
"Why might I?"
He exchanged a look with Mr. Mar. "Come out here, Hildegarde, and I'll show you."
As she followed to the ship's side, "What makes the dog howl so?" she asked. "Look! he'll be out of that little boat in a minute--he'll be drowned."
Cheviot leaned over. "Shut up!" he called down. "Say, Red! D' you hear? Shut up, I tell you!"
The dog looked critically at Cheviot, ears cocked, nose pointed, forefeet on the gunwale of the lighter, which was bobbing about at the foot of the Los Angeles' ladder.
"Louis, is that father's Reddy? Oh, I do so want to make friends with him! Red! Red! how d' you do? Be a good dog, we're coming down in a minute."
"I'll get one of the sailors to bring him up. Here"--Cheviot adjusted his glass for her--"now look off there to the right--farther, beyond the wreck of the Pioneer. Do you see that big tent with the flag?"
"Can you see what flag it is?"
"It isn't Stars and Stripes. It looks all yellow."
"Who are the people who have a yellow flag?"
"The people who have smallpox. That's the pest-house."
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On their way back they met Blumpitty asking, sadder than ever, if anybody knew how soon quarantine was going to be declared. "Pretty rough on the people who get shut out," murmured Blumpitty.
"Rougher on those who get shut in," said Cheviot.
Joslin was furious at either prospect. "Damned nonsense," he said, "spoilin' the finest boom since '49, all on account of a little smallpox."
They found Mr. Mar in the smoking-room, in the same weary attitude, head hung over his wide breast, hat hung on the sound knee, wooden leg stiffly slanting, eyes among the cigar ashes on the floor.
"Whatever else I do, father, I can't go home without you."
"Oh, I'll take you home, my dear," said Mar, with alacrity. "I've nothing to keep me here now, except my claims at Polaris."
"Oh, said the girl, losing some of her gloom, "have you got a share in the Mother Lode?"
He smiled faintly at miners' superstition on his daughter's lips. "I've got something worth looking after," he said, "though, as I told Louis, I wish my good luck wasn't always so inaccessible. Only two boats touched Polaris last year. I don't know how it will be this summer. I wasn't able to go in either of those that have set off so far. But I sent up a man to do the assessment work."
"I'll find a way of seeing what he's made of his job." Cheviot seemed to ratify some arrangement. Then turning to Hildegarde: "And I'll follow you in the first ship."
"Follow?" Can't you go and get back in a week?"
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"I might, if there should happen to be a boat." He was touchingly pleased at Hildegarde's unwillingness to go home without him.
Quite suddenly she remembered O'Gorman's loud-voiced friend of the whaler. "I've got an inspiration," she said gaily. "Why shouldn't we all three go up to Polaris in the bark Beluga? Yes, yes, that whaler alongside is going north in a day or two. Now, don't say it's impossible till you see." Quickly she outlined a delightful plan. They could all come back in one of the boats wating about in Grantley Harbor. Or why shouldn't they (after they'd attended to the Mother Lode), why shouldn't they go in the Beluga as far as Kotzebue? Nobody realized in the very least, she said, her immense interest in all theis queer northern world. And after what she'd gond through to get here, they wanted to forbid her Nome! Adroitly she spoke, as though their success were still a matter of doubt. If she didn't see Nome, oh, how she'd be laughed at in Valdiva! But if she didn't, why shouldn't she be a little compensated for so huge a disappointment? But that wasn't the main consideration. How could anybody expect her to go away in this very sam horrible boat that had brought her, and go without Louis? Was her father grown so hard-hearted up here as to expect to part them when they'd only just found each other? Half-smiling, but serious enough in reality, as Mar could see, she pleaded for her plan. Loius was plainly a convert, though he did say in a feeble and highly unconvinced fashion, that if he hadn't used up all his credit with her on the subject of travel, he'd point out that accommodation on board these coasting vessels--
"Oh, don't be so careful of me--you two!" she
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wailed. "The reasons why I mustn't see Nome surely don't apply to Polaris. Why mayn't I have a look at that miraculous Mother Lode? Besides, Polaris! why, that's where Blumpitty's hermit lives! Dearest father, I've been dying to see the hermit. Was it he who told you, too, where to get claims?"
"Certainly not. I wouldn't go near the imposter! Living on people's greedy hopes. That'll come to an end, too, some fine day!"
"Well, if it hasn't come to an end yet, you won't mind my seeing him, will you, dearest? It isn't just idle curiosity. You really ought to sympathize a little. I must have got it from you--all this interest in the North, that we used to think was left out of the rest of the family. Don't you remember, I nver wondered at the hold it had on you? Even when I was quite little--" She pulled herself up suddenly, with an anxious glance at Cheviot's averted face. But he turned briskly at that first pause and said: "I'll leave you to butter the parsnips, Hildegarde, while I tackle the captain."
When Cheviot had gone, "What's the news?" said Mar.
"Oh, they're all well, and the boys are getting on splendidly. Mother sends you--"
"Nothing yet from Jack Galbraith?"
"Nothing up to the day I left. Father, it bores Louis dreadfully, hearing about--arctic exploration. We won't talk about Jack Galbraith before Louis. But I've often thought, while I'm crawling up this side of the round world, Jack is probably sliding down the other."
"It's one of the reasons for going him," said the old man, thinking aloud.
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