Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 10)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Cheviot found Hildegarde's father practically a prisoner.
His board and lodging had been too welcome a source of revenue to the mission for Christianson to feel called upon to smooth the way for his departure, and Mar had been some time grasping the fact that his plan of hiring a boat and couple of natives to go up the coast for a "look at the country," was hopelessly knocked on the head since his interference in the matter of the Yakutat witch. Not a native in the community who felt safe with him since that episode. The lame man was in league with the powers of darkness.
Mar's pleasure at seeing Cheviot was genuine, but not as unmeasured as you might expect. And when, almost before the first shower of questions and answers had begun to abate, Cheviot flung in information as to when the next ship was leaving St. Michaels, Mar assumed the subject to be of interest only to Cheviot. Pressed further about his own plans, the elder man said evasively they were not very settled, and changed the subject! Cheviot was nonplussed. Was Mar only waiting till they were clear of the Mission House? No, for they were out fishing the whole of the next day, and most of the days following, and still Mar talked of any and everything save of going home. Was he waiting for funds? Surely
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not now that Cheviot was at hand. He seemed inexplicably satisfied to sit all day over a trout pool up the river (despite the pestilential mosquito), or in a boat in the bay fishing for tom-cod; and all the evening playing chess in the bare mission parlor, in the midst of a company sufficiently singular. Shady fellows from the Galena camp above White mountain; prospectors expelled from Cook's Inlet, lousy, filthy-smelling natives come upon one pretext or another, weird missionaries dropped down from places no man but themselves seemed ever to have heard of; a reindeer-herder in the Government service, though a "Scandahoojian," like the majority at the Golovin Mission, and highly welcome albeit hardly on the score of his piety. For "Hjalmar," as Chirstianson called him, was the one who jibed most at the morning and evening prayers, and particularly at the long grace before meat, with its delicate proposals to the Almighty that He should induce those present to save their souls by giving to the Golovin Mission. With the same breath that thanked Him for "dis dy bounty," the Omnipotent was reminded that if this agreeable state of things was to continue, people must pay not only for the meal, but for the Cause.
Mar listened, or did n't listen, with an air of respectful quiescence, and ate his meals unabashed. But he commiserated Cheviot, "How this must make you long for your Valdivia luxuries. Well, when do you go back?"
"Whenever you 're ready."
Mar showed as little gratitude as pleasure.
"You must n't think of waiting for me," he answered shortly.
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Cheviot was profoundly perplexed as to what he ought to do. Mar was not a man that any one could comfortably catechize, but to go away and leave him here with public opinion so against him; for Cheviot to present himself to Hildegarde, knowing he had left her father on this inhospitable shore, to all intents and purposes a prisoner--it was not to be thought of.
Mar's favorite scheme for a good day's fishing was to row across to the river mouth where some Englishmen, several years before, had made a camp.
In the sheltered hollow a little way up the stream they had built a cabin, so well, that although long deserted it still offered refuge from the drenching rain, or from the unshut eye of the sun, and even from the greater torment of mosquitoes. For Mar had learnt the value of the Esquimau use of a "smudge." On the way to the cabin he would gather two handfuls of arctic moss, of straw and some aromatic smelling herb, twist all together in two wisps and set one alight on the flat stone that formed the threshold and the other smoldering in a rusty pan upon the sill of the single window, with the result that the mosquitoes fled. In great comfort Mar and Cheviot would proceed to make tea, and eat their sandwiches--at least, Cheviot ate his. He notice that although his friend never disposed of a third of what he brought, he did not the next time bring any less. Quite suddenly one day it dawned upon Cheviot why. For although the crackers and cheese and sandwiches that were left were always carefully put away in a tin cracker-box, the box on their return was invariably empty.
And Mar never seemed the least surprised.
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Was it that he could not bring himself to abandon the poor wretch he had rescued; could that be at the root of his delay? But why did he not take Cheviot into his confidence and get the girl out of the country if she were in hiding hereabouts? Was it conceivable that Mar--
Cheviot got little further in his speculations till the morning when Mar, in the act of making a cast, said under his breath and without moving a muscle, "There's that fellow again!"
Cheviot turned just in time to see Björk's head disappear behind a bunch of tall reeds that grew in the hollow by the little fresh water stream below the cabin.
"What 's he lurking about like that for?"
"I 'm afraid he 's on the track of a poor, wretched girl," and Mar told the story of the Yakutat witch, but with additions not creditable to Mr. Björk.
"It 's usually an old woman, here as elsewhere, that 's accused and set upon, but this girl can't be above seventeen, for she had n't been long out of the Bride's House."
"Oh, the horrible igloo where they confine the marriageable girls for half a year. They stay in there, in the dark all that time, never seeing the face of man; and they come out cowed, and fat, and pallid; and then they're for sale as wives. Those that no man takes are looked down upon, and left to shift for themselves and must earn their own living. The Yakutat girl was pounced on instantly by a man she hated for some reason. He took her off, but she escaped and made her way to the mission. Nobody was at home at the time but Björk and me. I saw her come in, and I saw her come flying out of the mission parlor wilder even than she 'd entered it,
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and go tearing down to the village. She found shelter there, for a while, with the woman who had brought her up. But public opinion was all against her; and when it was found that the reason her 'husband,' Peddykowchee, did n't come and get her, was that he was ill, they said she had bewitched him. His younger brother said she 'd done the same to him, and then a miserable little baby--oh, it was a ghastly business. 'Sh--" and Mar fished in silence for a full hour, with occasional sharp glances through the alder thicket behind him, down among the reeds by the deserted cabin.
The next day the store left in the cracker-box was found to be untouched.
"She 's seen Björk!" said Mar under his breath. "She 's afraid to come any more."
"Why don't you help her to get out of the country?" Cheviot asked, setting alight the smudge on the window-sill.
"I was planning that when you came, but I don't want to mix you up in any such ticklish business."
"It 's no more ticklish for me that for you."
"Oh, I 'm blown upon already. The people here have been red hot about it. They have n't cooled down yet."
"They never will," said Cheviot."
"No," agreed Mar, "But I 've made the cause mine, you see. After you 're gone--"
"I 'm not going till you do."
"That 's nonsense."
"If you like," said Cheviot.
"It 's on account of that letter of Hildegarde's?"
"Whatever the reason is, I 'm going to stay if you are, and you may as well let me in for my share of the fun."
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"Your 'share!'" repeated Mar reflectively, and stroked his long gray mustache.
"I was arranging to get the girl away," he went on presently, "when you came. I had bought this boat and made a habit of being out all day."
"Exactly! All we need is provisions."
"No, I sent Christianson to St. Michaels for provisions. They 're at the mission now."
"Of course, we brought them up with us! Then we 've nothing to do but to get the stuff into the boat."
"Without exciting suspicion."
"And pick the girl up somewhere on the coast."
"--before they realize we 're gone for good."
"Surely you and I could start off on an excursion together without suspicion. Why, you told them when you first came, you were going up the coast, 'to have a look at the country,'" he added, remembering Christianson's phrase.
Mar studied him an instant with uncommon intentness.
"What is it?" laughed Cheviot. "You look as if you could n't make up your mind to trust me."
"No, I 'm making up my mind I will." Again he paused for a moment, and then, "I am too old to do the thing alone," he said.
"Well, I can manage the boat, anyhow."
"Oh, the girl can row as well as a man, but I must have a partner." And sitting there in the deserted cabin Nathaniel Mar, for the last time, told how a hundred and odd miles further up the coast he had panned out gold with a dead man's help when he himself was young.
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And when he had said it, that thing befell him that overtook any enthusiast in talking to Louis Cheviot. Mar saw his story on a sudden in a comic light. Clear now, its relationship to twenty "tall stories," fit matter for a twitch of the humorous lip, a hitch of the judicial shoulder.
The unconscious Cheviot had choked off many a confidence just by that look of cool amusement.
"I've always said," Mar wound up, preparing hastily to withdraw again into his shell, "I 've always said it would 'keep,' and it has kept close on thirty years."
"Well, it won't keep much longer," said Cheviot briskly.
"Why not?" A tremor shot through the man with the secret.
"Why? Because it 's in the air."
Mar clasped and unclasped his big walking-stick as if about to rise.
"Before another year," Cheviot went on, "the whole of Alaska will swarm with prospectors."
"Do you think so?"
"Sure. Why, it 's begun. I don't believe there 's a single Yukon tributary where there is n't a man wandering about this minute with a shovel and a pan."
"The Yukon! Well, that 's a good way to the south!"
"Those men that stopped at the mission last night--they were miners."
"They--they were after galena!" said Mar, almost angrily. "They knew that fairly good ore had been brought down Fish River off and on since '81."
Cheviot laughed. "Well, if you imagine they won't so much as look for gold, let 's smuggle your witch to
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St. Michaels and take the first steamer home. I've had enough of the North."
"You say that because you don't really believe I ve discovered a second Klondike."
"Why should n't I believe it. And have n't I turned my back on the Klondike we all know exists?"
"Those men that came to the mission yesterday," Mar said hurriedly, "they--they were going to Fish River, were 'n't they? Not--not up the coast?"
"No, no, that 's all right," Cheviot reassured him. "All I meant was that somebody hereabouts had only to whisper 'Gold!' for this whole country to swarm."
"I know--I know. But we 'll have the start, Cheviot."
Mar pulled himself up by the aid of his stick, and dragged the rude soap box table out of its shady corner, into the light nearer the window, a light but little obscured by the faint smoke wreaths that curled about the pan and sent abroad a slightly pungent breath, agreeably acrid, except to the summer pest. Mar's excitement found little expression in his face, but, so to speak, came out at his finger tips. He could hardly hold the piece of paper he had pulled from his pocket. Up to ten minutes ago he had felt almost as far from his ancient purpose as though he still sat on the high stool in the inner room of the Valdivia bank. Now, and within the last few seconds more especially, fulfilment seemed breathlessly near. Sitting on one side of the soap box, with Cheviot opposite, Mar traced on the back of an envelop the land-locked inner Bay of Golovin, the outer bay, and from Rocky Point a broken line on up the coast.
"This," he said, shading a little strip bordering the
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shore, "this is the sand-spit where I found the Esquimau camp. Here 's the crooked river, with its mouth full of wood. Only six or seven miles to the north is the anvil-shaped mountain."
The two men, bending low over the soiled envelop, were too absorbed to notice the glitter just above the window-sill; eyes narrowed to evade the smoke; two mere points of light to the right of the rusty pan with its haze of smoldering incense.
Mar's pencil whispered over the paper in the silence.
Then he spoke. "From this broken range on the north three or four streams come trickling down to the coast. The one on the west here winds round from the north side of the Anvil, and it was just at this point, as I remember--just here," and the pencil shook as if in doubt, or refusing to commit itself, till Mar planted the point so firmly on the paper it made a dent as well as a mark. "Just here I found the gold."
When finally Cheviot raised his eyes the glitter was gone from the sill.
WHILE the two in the cabin laid their plans and made a list of provisions and requirements, a man was creeping on hands and knees, through willow scrub and reeds, down to the boat that lay moored in the cove below the cabin.
Christianson sat talking to Hjalmar the herder, of the Government project of introducing reindeer among the Alaskan natives, when the door of the private office was flung wide. They looked round and saw Björk standing there.
On the sallow mask a strange light shining. The hard
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lips twitched in a recurrent rictus, showing a dog-like gleam of sharp eye-tooth, while the rest of the mouth held rigid. If the tremendous force that locked the lean jaws was lost upon the onlooker, it must have been the insane light in Björk's eyes that made the reindeer-herder whisper, "He 's got a fit."
But Christianson had only flung back his long, straight hair, and grasped the rude arms of his big chair.
"Björk," he said, "iss it a visshun?"
"Ye--h--h!" Björk answered through shut teeth. An instant longer he stood silent, with his hairy hands clenched, and a barely perceptible forward and backward swaying of the tense body. Then, with an effort as of forcing steel to part, he opened his welded lips and said rapidly in Swedish, "Have we not fed the hungry?"
"Aye," said Christianson.
"Have we not kept the law?" With each question nearer and nearer Björk brought the black menace of his face.
"Have we not had the faith that moveth mountains? Have we not served in hardship? Have we not waited in poverty till this hour?"
" Till this hour?" said Christianson, getting up slowly out of his chair.
Björk arrested his own dreamlike advance with a suddenness that seemed to wake him. He stopped, looked round, and clutched at the back of a chair.
"Shut the door," he commanded.
His chief obeyed. When Christianson turned round
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again, Björk was staring over the reindeer-herder's head, piercing the infinite depths of space, while he held tight to every-day existence by the back of a chair.
"Brethren," he said, "The angel of the Lord has been with me. He has shown me great riches."
Hjalmar the herder pulled himself together and shook off his growing nervousness. There was nothing uncanny in this after all. A vision of riches was only too common since the Klondike had crazed men's brains. Björk saw that even Christianson looked less moved.
"I tell you," the seer burst out, "this is the answer to all our prayer, the reward of all our work. The angel took me westward up the coast. I see it now!" He unlocked his clutching hands, raised them outstretched on a level with his eyes and with hypnotic slowness moved the right hand east, the left one west.
"A sand-spit," he said, "where the heathen gather. Beyond--a flat country, where no tree grows. But the river mouth is choked with sea-drift. A strange shaped hill. One of old Thor's workshops. Where he hammered the sword of the gods, we shall forge weapons against the ungodly. Weapons of gold. For the river of that country--the angel showed me the sands of it! And the sands, Christianson, the sands were full of gold!"
"The herder looked at Christianson and Christianson looked at the herder. The herder shook his head.
Christianson sat down again in his great chair. "I tell you," said Björk solemnly, "I see that 'promised land' plainer than ever I saw Kwimkuk Plainer"--he raised his voice--than I see you two."
But he saw them very plainly. His look leaped from one face to the other, and rage gathered on his own.
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"You sit there like stone. You are deaf. You are like dead men. I--I--" He looked about the room wildly as if he had forgotten where the door was. "I would go alone, but I must have provisions. I must have help with the boat--help with the--"
"Y--yes, yes," stuttered the old missionary.
"And the angel said, 'Go first to Christianson.'"
"Yes, yes. Of course, I--" "'But tarry not,' said the voice. 'If Christianson receive not the good tidings, go take the news to another.'" He seemed now to locate the door. He made two steps in that direction, saying, "Me--I obey the voice."
"I, too, obey," said Christianson hurriedly. "I will come Saturday."
"Saturday!" Björk's burning impatience blew the end of the week to the end of the world. "I tell you to-morrow will be too late! It must be to-day. It must be this hour."
"Why?" demanded the herder, but he, too, was on his feet.
"Ha! You will ask questions! No wonder the angel comes to me." Again he turned about and rushed at the door. Christainson intercepted him. Björk, with a convulsive movement, flung him off.
"The voice said, 'This is the hour you have prayed for, but if it passes in idleness, pray no more-- pray no more!'" Björks voice rang out with a tragic authority. "'For this is the hour when your feet should be shod with swiftness and your hands be full of cunning.' It was the voice said so." Björk's fingers were on the latch. "Me--I obey." He opened the door.
"Come, Hjalmar," said Christianson.
"'Brethren,' he said, 'the angel of the Lord has been with me. He has shown me great riches'"
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