Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 23)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
It was after some delay through fogs that, on a clear July morning to Hildegarde for ever memorable, the small whaling vessel Beluga anchored below the cape called Prince of Wales, that looks across the narrow Straight of Bering to the Siberian shore. The girl, with her new friend Reddy at her side, overheard with inattentive ear her father's final instructions. Mar, whose difficulty in getting about was obviously increased in these months of absence, had agreed to remain on board. Cheviot's the task of making the most of the brief span granted by the surly captain for inquiry into the condition of the gold camp two miles across the surf, and two more inland up Polaris Creek.
But if the talk between the men about possible claim-jumpers, treatment of "tailings," increase of water-power, double shifts, and clean-ups--if such matters held but a modified interest for the girl on this golden morning, not so the scene itself. Even in the gray light of yesterday, when toward bedtime, the thicker fog-veils lifted enough to show how far the Beluga had gone out of her course, the girl had thrilled at the misty vision of the Diomede Islands. For one of these showed the fringe of Asia. Hildegarde had reached that place in her journeying where the East had become the West,
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and where to find the farthest limit of the immemorial Orient you must needs look toward the setting sun.
To-day, coming on deck before she broke her fast, something in the girl had cried out greeting at her first glimpse of the coast-line bluffs of extreme northwestern Alaska, drawn in purple against a radiant east, to the south receding a little from the shore and fainting into the blue of the snow-flecked hills having a strip of tundra at their feet.
There, upon that narrow coastwise margin, directly in front of what from the deck of the Beluga seemed the highest point in the background, the sunshine picked out boldly the intense white of the handful of tents that stood for the settlement of Polaris and the port for the Polaris mining-camp.
Hildegarde had won her father's consent, reluctant though it was, that she should go ashore with Cheviot. Gaily she assured him it was little compensation enough to a girl who had foregone the fearful joys of Nome. The visit of the inspection to the Polaris claims would not take long. As the old man looked at his "two children," with the sunshine on their faces, he wondered who would have the heart to steal from them a single one of those early hours of enchantment.
Not Nathaniel Mar.
But neither he nor they had bargained for Reddy's bearing them company. He announced his intention unmistakably, when Cheviot went over the ship's side into the small boat that was to take him and Hildegarde through the surf. Mar tried in vain to quiet the beast. So unnerving were Mr. Reddy's demonstrations, when he saw Hildegarde preparing to follow Cheviot, that
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Mar called out, Hildegarde must wait till the dog could be shut up; the sailors could hardly hold him. But the men below, bobbing about on the rough water, were with difficulty preventing the boat from being battered against the ship's side, and Cheviot was shouting, "No time to worry with the dog!"
At the same moment, Hildegarde, hanging suspended between her two counselors on the swinging ladder, saw a gig wave sweeping askew the boat beneath her. From above her father, and Cheviot from below, called out "Hold tight," while Louis supplemented the vain efforts of the two other men, unable by themselves to steady the clumsy craft in such a sea. But Hildegarde, with a conviction that Reddy, escaping out of a sailor's arms, was in the act of coming down on her head, jumped from the ladder and landed in the boat with the dog and a twisted ankle. Instantly she called up to her horrified father, "I 'm all right, and so is Reddy." Whereupon the boat was swung out into open water. They had gone half a mile before Cheviot discovered something was amiss. "Nothing the least serious," she said, though it would be serious enough for her if she were cheated of the two or three hours' wandering at Louis's side on this heaven-sent morning through the wild, sunshiny land across the surf. Cheviot was for turning round at once and taking her back to the steamer, but that would be to prolong by a mile a sufficiently difficult transit. He would sent her back after the boat had landed him.
"No, no," she pleaded. "If I can't walk, I 'll wait for you on shore."
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But Cheviot was giving the sailors directions about getting her safely back to the Beluga.
Then, for the first time, the girl spoke of the stark discomfort that reigned aboard the whaler, how she longed for a little respite, and how she longed-- But the landward-looking eyes could not, down here in the deep sea furrows, pick out the far-shining tents toward which the lighter was plunging, down the watery dales and up on foamy hills, and down again to shining green deeps that shut out ship and shore--holding the small boat hugged an uneasy instant in the rocking lap of the sea. Yet the girl clung to the memory of that early morning vision from the deck, of violet headlands and snow-filed hollows, and as the boat rode high again on the top of the next big breaker, she drew in rapturous breath, saying softly of the land beckoning her across the furious surf, "The farthest North' that I shall know!" But in the end she owed it to Reddy's companionship that Cheviot let her have her way.
"Oh, what an old-fashioned Turk of a man I shall have to spend my life with!" But she laughed for joy at the prospect.
As Cheviot, sharply scrutinizing the harborless shore, directed the boat above the settlement: "Some better landing-place round the point?" she asked.
"I don't expect a landing-place on this coast, but I don't see even the tumble-down sod hut your father talked about."
The boat shot up out of a boiling hollow, and as it climbed the slippery back of a great wave, Hildegarde called out. "I see it!"
"The hut? Where?"
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"All alone, over yonder. Just beyond those rocks. That 's where you and I will sit down and wait, won't we, Red? Those rocks are farther north than where the tents are shining--'farther north,' do you year, Mr. Red?"
Beyond the chaos of boulders, in a cloud of spray, the boat was not so much beached as daringly run in and her passengers ejected, all in that breathless instant before the turbulent water withdrew, carrying out the clumsy craft as lightly as it would a cork. And now already the toiling sailors were some yards on their way back, disappearing round the point. Hildegarde was safe on a temporary perch, and Reddy much occupied in howling defiance at each thunderous onslaught of the surf. Cheviot, thinking to combine the girl's appeal for "a good observatory" with his own notion of an easy niche safe beyond the tide's reach, went to spy out the land over there where some mighty storm had piled the rocks. At sight of a man skulking among the boulders, Cheviot called out, "Hello!"
With a certain reluctance the bearded figure shuffled into fuller view. "Hello!" he said, without enthusiasm.
"Do you belong here?" he was asked.
"Here? What d' y' expect anybody to do here?"
"Is n't there a camp just over yonder?"
"Up in the hills. Yep, there 's a camp there all right."
"Nothing in it, though?"
"Plenty. Things are boomin' out there. Thought
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you meant here." And he looked past the new arrivals in an unpleasant, shifty fashion.
They exchanged glances. Hildegarde was so sure Louis would n't go away and leave such an individual hanging about that she felt no surprise at hearing him offered money "to come along and show the way."
When the two had agreed on the price of this service, Cheviot said: "I 'll be ready in a minute. I want to find a more comfortable seat for this lady," and off he bolted toward the rocks.
The man eyed Hildegarde askance, and made some observation.
"I can't hear you," she called, above the noise of the surf.
He shuffled nearer. "Ain't you goin', too?"
"Out to the mines? No."
"What y' goin' t' do?" he asked.
The girl laughed. "Oh, just stay here and look at things."
"What things?" The uneasy eye shot out a sudden alert beam.
She only smiled, as her own glance wandered to the wider vision.
"I got some 'things' to see after m'self," he said in a surly tone. "Guess I ain't got time to go to no gulch to-day."
The girl fell a prey to misgiving lest this incident should end in dissuading Louis from leaving her at all. Was her insistence upon coming to result in defeat of the expedition?
The shifty man had drawn a trifle nearer still and lowered his voice. "What made yer land here?"
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"It did n't seem to matter where we landed. There's no harbor."
"But here yer so--" It occurred to Hildegarde, for some inexplicable reason, he was going to add, "so near that hut," instead of what he did say, "So fur from town."
At the obvious suspicion on the man's face, Hildegarde smiled to herself. If this uncouth apparition had inspired distrust in the new arrivals, their appearance had precisely the same effect on him.
"Y' might 'a' come and gone before anybuddy in the town knowed we 'd had visitors," he said, with an air indescribably sly.
"Well, you see, our business is n't in the town. We 're nearer the diggings here, are n't we?"
"Guess yer been here afore."
"No, neither of us."
"Then yer better come along with me and him, an' have a look at the gulch."
So he did n't, after all, want to remain behind and murder her for her watch!
"No, I shall stay here, and while you and my friend are gone, I 'll practise shooting at a mark." As she drew her little revolver out of her pocket, and the silver mounting caught the sunlight, she recognized herself for a very astute person. Louis, if no one else, might quiet well need reminding that she was armed.
"Y' won't go?" the man persisted. "Well, I guess I ain't got time fur it neither. I ought to see a man up at the store."
In the act of going forward to meet Cheviot with this
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information, the unaccountable creature paused to say over his shoulder: "Yer sure to git a nugget if yer go to the gulch."
"I'd go quick enough if I could walk."
He faced about. "Y' can't walk!" It seemed somehow to make a difference, but he narrowed his little eyes. "Why can't yer?"
"I've sprained my ankle."
"I 'm afraid so. I 've been told not to put my foot to the ground--or else I 'd hobble to the town and hunt up a man I 've heard lives hereabouts." Ah, that interested the disreputable one quite as much, apparently, as it did Miss Mar. "I wonder if you know him! A queer, hermit sort of person who discovered the--What 's the matter?"
"I knowed all along what ye 'd come fur."
"Oh, we did n't come for that--it was only my idea--but it 's not much good now I 'm crippled."
"What did yer want to see him fur?"
"Oh, just to hear him talk."
"Ye-es. I been told they 's a lot would 'a' liked to hear him talk, only it 's no go. And people gits tired of feedin' a feller with such a parshallity fur keepin' his mouth shut."
Cheviot had come back with, "Put that away!" as he caught sight of the revolver. "I 've made a kind of chair for you, and lined it with an overcoat." He half carried her over to the rocks, while she clung to him, sparing the hurt foot. The man with the long, lank chin-beard, like the last nine inches of a cow's tail, watched proceedings with a critical eye.
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"There now!" Louis had established her to his satisfaction. "And Red 'll take care of you since he 's grown such a gentleman. You hear, Red?" he admonished the cock-eared dog.
"Reddy hears, and Reddy 'll do it, but if I were n't so hopelessly happy I 'd be rather miserable at finding myself a prisoner. This day of all days in the year!" And, in spite of Cheviot's assurance that he was n't going to be long, she looked a little wistfully after her lover.
"It 's all right," his queer guide hung back a moment to assure her. "It don't reely matter as much as you think."
"Oh, it does n't!"
"No, fur he ain't here."
"Yep--feller y' come to see."
She humored him. "You mean the--"
"Come along, Father Christmas," shouted Cheviot, taking the tundra on a run.
"Father Christmas! D' ye hear wot he 's callin' me?"
"Where is he, then? Hildegarde persisted.
"Oh, I 'm disappointed to hear that. You are too young for Father Christmas, but I was beginning to hope you might be the hermit."
She took her disappointment so light-heartedly that the odd creature grinned.
"Golly, don't I wish I was 'the hermit,' " he muttered, as he scrambled up the tundra after Cheviot.
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WHAT nonsense to talk of being a prisoner! Her eyes were free to roam, and her heart was light as a bird's honing across the shining world toward the shining future. She must remember always in the happiness that was coming, how she first had seen it at its vividest from a throne of rocks, sitting between the tundra and the sea. Oh, but she was glad she had come! If it was Cheviot's mission to see how work went on at the gold camp, hers no less to see with her own eyes--to get by heart and keep forever--the aspect of the world up here where you touch the skirts of the uttermost North. Happy, happy chance that vouchsafed the vision on one of those unmatched days of the short arctic summer that she 'd heard about so long ago--a day that made you feel never before have you seen the sunshine showering such glory on the world, never known such color on the sea, never felt the sweet wind bringing influence so magical. You unfurl the banner of your spirit, and you carry the splendid hour like a flag, looking abroad and saying: "This is what it is, then, to be alive. And I--I am still among the living!"
In that same hour, a few yards from where Hildegarde sat waiting, a man was saying farewell to sun and sea and all the shining ways of all the world; and this man, dying in the peat hut at the tundra's edge, was that one of all who heap up riches having most to leave behind.
There was nothing about the solitary hovel that specially arrested the girl's attention. She had seen several such on the way, during the delay at Grantley Harbor--rude makeshift shelters, deserted in favor of the booming camp at Nome. But Reddy found the sod hut somehow interesting, even suspicious. He had gone away to
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snuff at the threshold. He tore back to Hildegarde to report, then off again. Now he had set his sharp nose against the door, and now he howled softly. In the momentary lull of surf drawn seaward, to Hildegarde's surprise, a responsive whine came weakly forth from the hut. Whereat Red's excitement was so great that the girl forgot her ankle and stood up to quiet him. Why, the ankle hardly hurt at all! She might have gone--could she, even now, catch up with Louis? She picked her way across the rocks with scarce a twinge of pain, and she climbed upon the thick moss carpet of the tundra. Of course she could have gone! But Louis was out of sight. To say sooth, she was in a mood too happy to be cat down. For, as she had just been feeling, it was one of those hours when all life seems to be waiting for one to come and claim it, when a girl feels she has just this little time for pausing at the gate, to give the glad eyes full possession before she enters in. She takes the sunshine on her face, and all her being melts to gold, and has its little share in making the wide earth shine. Even her secret dreams are dissolved in the universal sea. Instead of hoping, fearing, her heart floats like an idle boat in that shifting iridescence. In the air, instead of trumpet-call and battle-cry only a long, low singing on the beach. No; one thing beside--a faint whining from within a deserted hovel. Again, from without, the beat before the desolate threshold woke the hill-born echoes with his howling. Surely a stray dog had got in there and been unable to get out. She would open the door barely wide enough to throw him some of the pilot bread she 'd brought in her pocket for luncheon. She lifted a hand to the rude latch, but, instead of open-
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ing the door outright, sheer habit, with nothing in it of reflection, made her first of all knock. "Come in," said a voice. She started back, and held her breath. Again that low: "Come in."
It seemed to her that she must run, and at the same time even more that she must obey the voice. Oh, why had she come? Taking uncertain hold of her courage she pushed the door ajar. Red flung it wide by bounding in before her. She had time only to see that a man, half-sitting up on a camp bed, with a gray army blanket over his knees, was whittling away at a long, narrow bit of flat wood. She hardly noticed at the moment, though she remembered later, that when he saw a stranger at his door, he dropped his knife and made an automatic action to lay protecting hands on a dingy bundle, half out, half under the low bed. Hildegarde's attention was of necessity centered in the dogs; his, shaking and half-blind, conducting defense from the foot of the bed. The girl laid hold on Red's collar and dragged him back, although it was plain now she had done so, that he considered the decrepit animal, half muffled in the blanket, as vanquished already and quite unworthy of more consideration than could be conveyed in a final volley of scornful howls. After which relief to his feelings, Hildegarde's fellow-intruder pointedly turned his back and went sniffing about the forlorn little room.
"I am sorry we disturbed you," the girl said to the hollow-eyed, unkempted being on the bed. There were curious scars on the wasted face set in its frame of wild, tawny hair and wilder, tawnier beard. No scattering of silver here and there, but just at the temples the hair was white as wool. As she saw plainer now, being used
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to the dimness, the face, striking as it was, impressed her chiefly through that quality of special ghastliness produced by a pallor that shows clay-like under tan. "I thought," she said, winding up her apology--"I thought the dog was shut up here alone--forgotten."
"It might come to be like that," he said, and paused an instant, as if for breath. When he spoke again it was less to his visitor than as if to soothe the ruffled feelings of the miserable beast at his feet. "It won't be my fault, though," he said. "I 'll forget most things before I forget you, shan't I, Ky?
"That is how his master feels about this dog, too, though he 's nothing but a mongrel," Hildegarde said. She was thinking, "The man is very ill."
"His master--some one prospecting hereabouts?"
Briefly Hildegarde explained. As she moved toward the door, she caught an expression on the sunken face so arresting that straightway she said to herself: "What is a starving dog more than a dying man, that I should come to help the one and flee the other?"
"I am afraid you are very ill."
"Yes," he answered quietly.
"There's some one at the settlement who looks after you?"
He smiled faintly. "They 've given me up as a bad investment."
"Oh!" broke from the girl's lips, as she leaned forward and then caught herself up. Was the hermit not dead after all! Was she face to face at last with the discoverer of the Mother Lode? If so, she must n't seem to know. "Is n't there any doctor here?" she added hurriedly.
"There 's a fellow they call 'doctor.' "
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"Then let me go for him."
"He 's off prospecting."
"When will he be back?"
"After I 'm gone, I guess."
"Oh, you are leaving here?" and the moment she said it she felt the cruelty of the question.
But he only answered "Yes," and left her to miss or to divine his meaning. Looking in his face she forgot his character of hermit, and fell to wondering whom he had in the world to care about his leaving it. Instinctively she knew that a man with such a spirit looking out of eyes like those--for a man like this to die, meant to some one far away the worst that could befall. And suddenly she felt that she was enviable, being there, if in some way she could help him. What was there she might do?
He glanced at the foot of the bed, where the old dog lay at his feet. "When did you say you were going back to your ship?"
"Not for an hour or so," she said. "More than long enough for me to--when did you eat last?"
"If you 'd give me a little water," he spoke huskily.
She went to a zinc bucket that stood in the corner. "I 'm afraid this is n't fresh," she said.
"Yes. An old fellow brought it only a hour ago. There 's the cup."
She followed his eyes to a rust condensed-milk can, which she filled and rinsed, saying cheerfully: "Then some one does look after you?"
"No, it is n't after me the old scoundrel looks." With great eyes darkening, he lowered his voice: "Is he hanging about still? A sort of tramp with--"
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"No, the man I think you mean has gone out to the gulch."
"H 'm! Tired of waiting! We saw that in his face when he brought in the water, did n't we, Ky?" The dog raised her head. "Yes, he was n't anything like as afraid of you, Ky, as he used to be. Time 's short." He pulled himself up and fell to work with a knife upon the piece of wood that lay on the gray blanket.
Suspiciousness has made him brain-sick, thought the girl. She dried the dripping can on her handkerchief as she looked over at the dog. "Poor Ky. What happened to her eye?"
"Left it up yonder." He glanced through the open door to the white surf curling up above the tundra, and with his wild head he made a little motion to the north. But not even long enough to drink did he stop his feverish whittling. As she put the cup on a tin cracker-box, set within his reach, she saw there was a little heap of shavings and splinters in the hollow of the blanket between the man's gaunt knees, and she noticed that he held his knife with grotesque awkwardness. Then, with an inward shrinking, saw that to every finger but two, the final joint or more was lacking. "How dreadfully you 've been hurt."
He looked up and then followed the direction of her glance. "Yes, I got a good deal mauled" --only half-articulate the iterated burden-- "up yonder."
His voice made her heart ache for pity of such utter weakness. The task he had set himself looked as painful as impossible. Yet remembering the solace whittling seems to be to certain backwoodsmen: "Do you do that for amusement?" she asked diffidently.
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"If that 's what it is, I shan't lack entertainment."
She looked wonderingly in his face.
"I was weeks before cutting up a little wood. But somebody stole it. Scarcer than gold up here."
Oh, yes, the discoverer of the Mother Lode had stores of the precious metal hidden away somewhere. The skulker among the rocks-- he knew!
"Let me help." She went closer with outstretched hand. But he started and dropped the clumsily held wood. It all happened in an instant. Hildegarde, following the look on the wild face he was bending down, saw that his concern was not for the precious and sole piece of timber in the hut, but for the oilskin bundle under the bed, which her dog was in the act of investigating. The half-blind beast on the blanket saw, too. She made one bound and fell upon Hildegarde's companion with a fury that filled the narrow space with noise of battle. The sick man called off his dog, while Hildegarde reviled hers and tugged at his collar.
When peace was again restored, "I must take him away," said his mistress. "He's behaving very badly."
"No, it will be all right if I--" The sick man leaned still further over the side of the narrow bed, and fastened the hand Hildegarde couldn't bear to look at under the knotted oilskin.
As she saw him feebly straining to loft it: "Oh, let me," she said, and bent to help him.
Again his dog flew to the rescue, while the man himself, with a desperate final effort, almost snatched the bundle from under her fingers. "I--I beg your pardon," he said panting, and again he made his dog lie down.
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But Hildegarde's feelings were a little hurt. The normal miner, she had always understood, showed people his gold--even trusted them to handle it.
"Poor old Ky," the sick man went on apologetically; "she has got so used to guarding this" --he was himself positively hugging the unsavory bundle-- "she can't see any other creature coming near it without--"
"You 're quite as bad," Hildegarde said to herself, but a glance at the face, with the look of doom in the eyes, made her set down his excitement, and the failure in fairly judging her, to the darkening of all things in the gathering shadow.
"I suppose you think I have something very valuable here?" he said suspiciously.
"It would n't be the first time in Alaska that something valuable has been wrapped in rags and left lying in a corner."
"Something like what I 've got here?" he asked, as he took tighter hold on the oilskin.
He should not think she was curious about his gold dust and nuggets. She looked at Ky climbing with difficulty back to her place at the foot of the bed, and pointedly changed the subject. "Your dog is very lame."
He nodded. "Got one of her paws crushed."
To distract him from his brain-sick anxiety about the bundle, "How was that?" Hildegarde asked. No answer this time, only that same northward motion. "She must be very old," Hildegarde pursued.
"Your dog, I mean. Surely she is old."
"No. She got like that--up--"
To Illustration, facing page 474
"'I suppose you think I have something very valuable here?'"
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He still clutched the oilskin with such anxious hands that Hildegarde felt it mere humanity to win him to forget his fears. So she looked away from the gaunt figure, over the threshold and over the surf to where the white sails of the Beluga shone.
"I 've been 'up yonder,' too," she said.
"Yes, I 've seen the North Siberian shore quite plain. I 've been as far as the Bering Straits."
"Oh, the Bering Straits!" he echoed, as one inwardly amused at a traveler who should boast of getting as far as the adjoining county.
"Yes, and--and I'd like to go further still."
"Better not--better not."
"But, of course, I would!" She put her hand in the pocket of her long cloak and drew out the "latest map" of extreme northwestern Alaska. "I 'm like the rest. The more I see up here, the more I want to see." She sat down on the earthen floor just inside the threshold, and spread out the yard square tinted paper. As she bent over it, "What part of the map lures you most?" she asked, wondering if she would hear where was the home of this curious being dying up here alone.
As he did not answer at once, she looked up, laying her hand on the paper and saying, "This for me."
She saw him take surer hold on the packet he was guarding, and he leaned across it to see precisely what portion of the earth's surface her hand was covering.
"You want to know the name of the most interesting country in the world?" she asked smiling.
"Well, what do you say?" He seemed to humor her.
"The name of the most interesting country on the face
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of the globe is under my hand." She lifted it. He peered down. She pushed the rustling paper across the uneven floor, till leaning over he could read, in big black letters, the word "UNEXPLORED."
"Ah!" he said softly, with as great a light in his face as if those letters had indeed spelled home. "You feel that? I did n't know that women--" He broke off, and absently took a fresh hold on the bundle, as though anticipating some adroit attempt upon his treasure.
His foolishness about that packet had got upon Hildegarde's nerves. "People who don't know them think Chinamen are all alike. Men who know little of women thing the same of us."
He smiled. "Do you mean you realize how precious those blank spaces are?" Again he craned weakly over the bundle and stared down at the map. The thought again occurred to her that his look was like the look a wanderer turns home. Wondering about him she hardly listened to the words he was saying, how the kingdom of the unknown shrinks and shrinks and soon shall vanish from the maps--worse still, own no dominion any more over the minds of men.
Whether he was indulging some fantasy of fever she could not tell, but the scarred face wore a look so high and sorrowful that she found herself saying, "Surely the only value of the empty space is that some man may one day set a name there."
He threw her a pitying look. And he stroked the oilskin as a child might caress a kitten.
"I see," she said, trying in self-defense to be a little superior. "you don't, after all, sympathize with the explorer spirit."
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At which the strange eyes rewarded her with sudden smiling. "If you mean you do," he said, "think for a moment what a power the unknown has been in history. Think what it 's done for people. ??A mere empty space upon the map--"
"Yes," she threw in, "it has made heroes."
"It has made men." But for all the restrained quietness of tone his look evoked a glorious company.
"Yes," she agreed. "It made Columbus, and it made Cortez. It made Magellan, Drake, and Cook, Livingstone and--"
"And all the millions more," he interrupted, still on that quiet note, "who only planned or dreamed." But while he spoke his maimed fingers wandered over the oilskin--a brain-sick miser guarding his gold. And though she listened to what he said her eyes, against her will, kept surreptitiously revisiting the uncouth bundle he was fondling with abhorrent hands.
"I feel like a son of that land" --one hand left the bundle an instant and pointed down at the map-- "The Unexplored. Like a man who sees his mother country filched from him bit by bit, parceled out and brought under subjection. Yes"--he raised his voice suddenly to such a note as set the girl's nerves unaccountably to thrilling--"yes, I resent the partition of that empire. It is the oldest on the earth. I am glad I shall not see its passing." He leaned back and a grayness gathered on his face as he ended: "Many a man will be without a country, many a soul will be homeless when the last province of that kingdom yields."
She only nodded, but he suddenly began afresh, as though she had contributed something convincing. "I
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have never talked of these things to a woman, but since you seem to feel the significance of--" He broke of, and then slowly. "It might be you could help me," he said.
"How could I--"
Still clinging feverishly to the knotted oilskin, he dragged himself with difficulty to an upright posture and craned forward to stare through the open door. Not this time northward solely, but down the beach as well as up.
"What are you looking for?" asked the girl.
As he sat there huddled, silent, she became conscious that he was listening--listening with that sort of strained intentness that almost creates sound, does create it to the sense accessible to hypnotic influence.
"Who is that outside?" he said very low.
"No one," she answered, though it seemed to her, too, there must be some one there.
"Look out and see."
"As she got up to obey him, "But you won't go away," he said suddenly.
"No, only as far as--"
"Don't go out of sight!" There was an excitement in his voice that gave her a moment's fear of him. Out of the dank little hut his voice followed her into the sunshine: "Is he there again?"
"No one," she answered, "no one at all! Except--"
To the south, on the edge of the tiny settlement, a group of Esquimaux. It must have been their voices his quick ear had caught now and then above the surf.
Northward, up the curving beach, two men calking a boat. But though they stood out vivid in that wonderful
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light, Hildegarde knew they must be half a mile away; and so she told him.
"Is that all?"
Nothing more. Not a creature on the treeless hill rising behind the hove. In front of where the girl stood no soul nearer than where the bark Beluga set her transfigured sails against the western limit of the world. Between her and that sole link with her own life, only the long barrier of the battling surf. From within, the feeble voice saying indistinguishable words that yet conveyed some feverish purpose. A sudden temptation seized the girl to call her dog and run.
"You are sure"--the weak voice came to meet her as she turned back--"sure that there is n't an old man about--fellow with a hungry face and a long, lank beard?"
"And an hour-glass and a scythe," she filled out the picture to herself. Yes. One like that is lurking here at the door, and no man can bar him out and none refuse to follow at his call. But aloud, "No one," she said.
"Then come in and shut the door." And again she thought of flight, and again put the impulse by. But she said if the door were shut she must go, and made her excuse the need to keep an eye out for her friend. Then she sat down as before, where she could command the beach.
The sick man was obviously ill-pleased and not a little scornful. "You will understand why I don't want to be overheard when when I tell you--" Again he sent the searching glance into that square of the world the driftwood lintel framed, and his voice was half a whisper. "You'll understand when I tell you I have a legacy to leave." He waited.
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"Yes," said Hildegarde.
"How did you know!" he demanded, and the eyes were less friendly.
Oh, I did n't know."
"Well, most people, however poor, have something to leave, however little."
He lifted his hand to silence the platitude, and his whisper reached her clear and sharp: "I am leaving more than ever a man left before."
It was true then about the Mother Lode. She waited, hardly breathing. He had said she could help him. He wanted a letter written or witness to a will, but he had fallen back upon that strained listening. "You have children?" Hildegarde asked.
He made a barely perceptible motion, no.
"Brothers and sister?" She tried to help his memory.
"My legacy 's too great to leave to any individual." Hildegarde's eyes kindled with excitement. All the talk about Nome had given her a sense of living in an atmosphere of mighty enterprise, of giant losses, and of favulous gain. She was primed to hear of lucky millions stumbled on by chance.
"You want to make a bequest to the nation?" Why was he hesitating, she wondered impatiently, as he flung again that same intent look out of doors? She knew he could
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hear nothing but the thunder of their hoof-beats on the beach.
At last he spoke. "They said my trouble was ambition." And still his ears waited for some sound beyond Hildegarde's hearing, and still his eyes saw more than hers.
He was silent so long she adventured in the dark, :Did you leave ambition 'up yonder, too?"
"Yes, up yonder!" But he brought out the words triumphantly, and he paused upon a broken breath still listening. "Ky, he whispered, "the lady likes exploring, but she 's afraid to shut the door. Go out, Ky, and see if that old villain 's hanging about. Ky!"
The beast took her nose out of the blanket, and seemed to implore him to reconsider his command.
"Go out and explore! Go-- once more!" There was a curious gentle note in the weak voice.
"Don't send her out," Hildegarde pleaded. "My dog 's out there now. Poor Ky." She was conscious that her kindness for the maimed beast pleased the owner.
"Have you ever cared about a dog?" he said.
"Well, if I have n't, I know some one who has, and that 's Red's master. Why do you ask me?"
"Because I find myself with all my wealth wanting two things at the last."
"A little fire that I have n't strength to make, and a friend for Ky."
"I'll help you about the fire." She reached out and picked up the fallen pieces of wood.
While she was opening her knife, "I believe," he said,
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"yes, I believe you would help me about Ky--if you knew."
"Help you, how?"
He fastened his eyes on the girl's face. "Ky is one of us," he said very low.
"What do you mean?"
"Only she is better at the game."
Hildegarde leaned nearer to catch the husky words. "No one who ever braved the North, no one who ever grappled with the ice, not one of them all has done it more courageously than Ky." The shadow-ringed eyes sought the girl's again. "Nobody could be quite indifferent to Ky who cared about--who--" He broke off, exhausted by his fruitless effort to sit upright. He dropped forward on his elbows and rested his bearded chin in his hands. The tawny tide poured in streams through his fingers, and hid the horror of them. "Tomorrow," he said, with his eyes on Hildegarde, "tomorrow Ky will be the sole survivor of the only expedition that ever reached the Pole."
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