Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 24)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Silent the girl sat there. But senses less alert than the hermit's would have felt the passion of wonder that held her motionless. For all the world of difference between these two, the same light was shining in each face.
"How does the time go?" He made a movement toward his pocket, and then dropped his hand. "Curious how I still forget--I left it--" Again the motion. "Will you put your watch where I can see it?"
"Oh, go on; go on!" she urged. "My companion won't go back without me."
"Yes, you have plenty of time. But for me there'll be barely enough," and the face that he turned an instant toward the ship-- Oh, beyond doubting, his time was short!
Out of her cow-boy hat she drew a long pin, and going to the foot of the bed she thrust the hatpin several inches into the peat wall above where the dog lay. But her near presence was so resented by the great explorer, Ky, that before the watch could be hung upon the pin, Hildegarde must needs retreat. She remembered the luncheon in her pocket, and offered Ky a share. No; Ky wanted nothing of a stranger.
"Throw it down by the door," said her master, and it was done. When Hildegarde had retired, the dog came
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down, and when he turned his blind eye about again, lo a shining thing upon the wall.
"So!" the sick man sank back satisfied. "Now to get you to help me about Ky, I must put twenty years into an hour. More than twenty, for I can't remember when I began to think about finding the Pole. I played as it all my boyhood. I've worked at it ever since." An instant Hildegarde dropped her shrinking eyes. For he was putting out that maimed hand for the cup. She heard the grate of rusty tin on the cracker-box, as his cleared voice went on, "I began by going in a revenue cutter to Port Barrow; and I had been in two arctic expeditions before the one I'm telling you about. But on both of those others I was the one man who wasn't going for the Pole. I was going for experience. I never believed my chiefs would go there, but I always believed I would--later. I had theories."
"Oh, I wish you had known a friend of ours--"
"I had a friend of my own. The year after I got back from the second voyage, I met one night, at a club in New York, a young Russian-American who was nearly as keen about polar problems as I was. We talked arctic exploration all that winter of '95 and '96. We both believed tremendously in Nansen."
"So did he-- our friend."
"We agreed we'd have given ten years of life to have had the honor of going along with the Norwegian. But he had been away now nearly three years. How far had he got? What had happened? Even experts began to say: 'Another expedition crushed in the arctic ice.' But neither my Russian nor I believed that Nansen was dead, and we began privately to discuss a rescue-party. We
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agreed that if we carried out our idea, and if we found Nansen unsuccessful, we 'd offer him our ship to come home in and we-- we 'd push straight on. Ours shouldn't be any trumpeted 'dash for the Pole'--how we loathed the cheap gallantry of the phrase!" The voice that had flared up an instant fell again as he said: "We knew something, even then, of the snail's pace of that laboring on; that doing battle for every yard; that nightmare of crawling forward inch by inch--only so, we knew, might a man make his 'dash for the Pole.' But the plan of setting off without saying to any one what it was we were hoping to do supplied my Russian and me with our first condition for making the attempt."
Was it indeed only water in the cup, that after another draught of it he should seem to throw off weakness as you might a burdensome cloak? "My friend had money, so had I. No need of a public appeal. No need to beat the big drum and talk tall. Both of us had felt the irony of each explorer's coming back to assure the world that he had never meant to find the Pole. What he had gone for was exploration of the ice-fields this side. Ha! Ha!" It was strange that such a feeble little laugh could give out such a world of irony. "Or else, what he'd gone for was to ascertain the salinity of the polar seas, or to determine the trend of arctic currents. Or to explain"--again that hardly audible laughter--"how the Jeanette's oilskin breeches got to the Greenland coast; anything under heaven, except reaching the paltry Pole. So as we knew we were made of no better stuff, if as good, as our predecessors, we said that we, too, if we came back with only some deep sea dredgings, a few photographs of ice-pressure effects--sketches of
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Aurora Borealis, and a store of polar bearskins and walrus tusks, we, too, would find ourselves pointing to these as the treasures we 'd staked life and reputation for. So hard it is to suffer the extremity and still have to say 'I failed'!"
He lay silent so long that Hildegarde quoted Cheviot. "They say it 's harder for an American."
"To accept defeat. Harder for us than for the others."
"Why do you say that?"
"I've heard it because we make such a fetish of success." Still he lay there silent. It was as if the oil in the lamp had failed. "Yes, yours was a good plan," she said. "Even those others, the Old-World people, that they say are soberer than we--" She saw that he turned his hollow eyes toward her, listening. "If even they made excuses, and shirked saying they 'd failed--yours was the best-- Oh, it was a splendid plan!"
"Are you saying we 're a nation of boasters?"
Good! that had roused him. "Do you say we are not?"
"We are everything under the sun: most vain and braggart; most discreet and self-effacing; most childish and obvious; most subtle and complex. The extreme of anything, good or evil, that 's the American." His eyes found out the tiny watch face on the peat wall. Ah, that was the tonic that was acting like a cordial mix with magic. Right or wrong, he was under the dominion of a terror that this last flickering up of energy would fail before he had turned it to account. Even to remember
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that small shining disk seemed to nerve him anew. Each look a lash. It whipped him on.
"As I 've said, my Tatar and I laid our heads together and agreed. 'For fear we fall into the old snare, we won't say we 're going at all,' not even to find Nansen, for fear we should promise too much. We would make the great attempt under the guise of a whaling expedition. My Russian had already sent out two, and had once gone along with one of them. I had spent a winter with the Samoyedes."
"What! You did that?" His eyes though not his mind, took in the girl's breathless agitation. He pause, but his thoughts were too far away. "I thought only one man had ever--" began the girl trembling, and then: "Go on; go on!"
"We were both still young. Yes, six years ago I was young; and hard as a husky. But not so hard as a man need be who goes exploring in the mild climate of the drawing-room."
Hildegarde bent toward him, with wildly beating heart.
"We were just on the point of chartering our ship, when on evening--" He looked through the pat wall a thousand leagues.
"I saw a face. A girl's soft face, but it cut the cables of my ship and set her afloat--drifting, derelict, for all I cared. A little doll's face. But it shut out everything else under the skies!"
Oh, Bella, Bella, was it yours--that face? "Go on," breathed the girl at the door.
"When her people said she should never marry a man
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who might any day go off on one of these protracted voyages, I looked at the face, and I said I would never explore again." The glazed eyes turned to Hildegarde, but it was the old bright vision they saw, not this newer, softer presence, with wet cheeks, by the door.
"I told my Russian to draw on me for half the funds, and to find another fellow-traveler. But she was too young to marry, they said. We must wait a year. I said I would wait. When the year was half gone, I was in London--because the face was there." Still looking through the wall he groped for the cup. Hildegarde rose, and put it in his hands. Oh poor, poor hands! No need to turn shuddering away. They were softly wrapped from her sight in a mist of pitiful tears.
He gave her back the cup. "We had been to a skating party," he said. Something grotesque conjured by the contrast of that light phrase wafted out of a butterfly world to fall in such a place at such an hour made for the unreality, not of far-off London, nor of parties where pretty ladies play at being in a world of ice--the conjuration merely lifted the dim hut and its wild occupant into the realm of the phantasmagoric. The girl saw all in a wavering dimness, shot dazzlingly with splinters of sunshine. But the man went on in that level tone: "I remember her saying it was the first party given in London on artificial ice--an absurd affair. But she said: 'Was n't it nice of me to get you an invitation, too? It will seem quite like going to your horrid North Pole.'"
How plain Bella's voice sounded in the room. That was why he was smiling. Bella could always bring that look into the eyes of men.
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"I said, 'quite like the North Pole.' And I want and skated with her. Afterward, at the door, I had just seen her and her mother into the carriage, when my eye fell on the orange-colored bill of the 'Pall Mall Gazette.' And three words printed there blared out like trumpets.
'NEWS FROM NANSEN.'
'He 's found it' I said to myself--'Nansen 's found the Pole!' and I could have flung up my hat and cried hurrah in the sober street. As I called to the newsboy I was ashamed of my voice. I thought people would notice how it shook. When I pulled my hand out of my pocket it trembled so I dropped the coin and it rolled away into the street. The boy ran after it, and I damned him for his pains. 'Never mind! Give me a paper!' I called out. But the boy ran on. As I stood there waiting for him to disentangle himself from the traffic and come back, I seemed to live a lifetime. How had he done it, that splendid fellow, Nansen? What had it been like? Well, soon I should know. The knowledge that had cost so much, soon I should have it in my hand--for a penny! The awful majesty of the upper regions fell away."
With a growing excitement painfully the sick man lifted himself up. "It was then," he said, "then--a queer thing happened." He seemed to wait for something. Turning to the girl, "You see, this was the moment I'd bee living for in a way."
"Of course; of course."
"And yet, now that it had come, my spirit had gone
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down like the sounding lead on a deep-sea bottom. I stood there in the street with a sense of unmitigable loss. Something so sudden and acute that I did n't myself understand at first what was going on in me. For it was something quite apart from any feeling that I 'd like to have been the one to do the thing. There had been for months no question of that. No. It was just a poignant realization that almost the last of the jealous old world's secrets had been forced out of her keeping. This thing that men had dreamed about before ever they 'd girdled the globe--it was no more the stuff of dreams. The thought of Captain Cook and Franklin flashed across my mind, and I remembered the men unborn that I measured the full extent of the disaster. The generations to come would never know what it had stood for--this goal the Norwegian had won. They would n't have to spend even a penny to hear all about it. It would be thrust at them, this shining and terrible thing men had died to gain--one leaden fact that the more, conned in a heavy book, stripped to the lean dimensions of a date! Discovery of American, discovery of the Pole--who thrills over these things when they are done? And now the newsboy was coming slowly back, rubbing the mud off my half-crown. In a second I should be reading how the last great stronghold of wonder was destroyed. 'Well, the world 's grown poorer!' I said to myself, and I counted my change, thinking less of Nansen's news than of those men of the future. He had taken from them the finest playground ever found for the imagination--the last great field for grim adventuring.
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"I opened the paper and read that Nansen had turned back before reaching the eighty-seventh parallel.
"The Pole was still to be found."
AH, Bella, when you saw that look go traveling so far, so far, you must have known that he would follow. Poor little Bella!
Under those vision-filled eyes, the crippled dog, still sleeping, made a muffled sound. "Ky is dreaming," said the sick man, absently, "that she hears a seal crying 'Ho-o-o,' with his nose above the ice. Or she thinks she hears the 'Kah! kah! sah! sah!' of the auks. So do I, sometimes."
But you promised 'the face' you would n't think of the arctic any more."
"Yes," and weakness of the flesh or weight of memory held him a moment after silent. "She always said that if the Norwegian had been successful she and I would never have quarreled. She wrote that in every letter after I left her. I don't know She was very young. She never understood"--he glanced at Hildegarde--"never understood what was the most interesting place on the map. She thought it was Paris." He smiled. "Maybe she was right. I don't know. All I do know is"--and a subtle animation invaded voice and air--"a few weeks after I read Nansen's news in the London street, Borisoff came across from Christiana to talk things over. All this time that I had been looking at the face he had been building a ship as good, he said, as the Fram. No man would dare say more. He had made agreements with a crew and company of picked men, some of them his old whaling people. He had news that the Finlander
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we 'd sent the year before to Siberia, after Olenek dogs would be waiting with the pack up there on that bleak shore, between Chelyuskin and the Kara Sea--'waiting for you and me,' said Borisoff." The sick man's eyes were shining. "Borisoff was a trememdous fellow! I never knew but one person who did n't believe in Borisoff. You could n't expect a girl--" he broke off. "But the great bond between him and me was that we both had that passion for the North, that is like nothing else on earth in the way of land love. Talk of the South! A man loves the South as he loves a soft bed and the warm corner by the fire. But he loves the North and he loves his prey." He brought one hand away from his beard and he fastened it afresh in the knotted oilskin at his side, with an air of one about to rise up and continue his journey. "Well, one day I said to Borisoff, 'Of course we can't do the damned thing if Nansen could 'n't--so come along, and let's try!'
"We sailed from Tromsö that July.
"But we did n't call ourselves arctic explorers, and we never once said Pole--not even after we reached the edge of the ice-pack, north of Sannikof Island. It was n't till we got into north latitude 78º that we called a council of war. By that time we knew our men and they knew us. We were sure of six, but we put it to the other four as well. We engaged to extricate the ship from the floe and send her home, if any man of them wanted to turn back. What were Borisoff and I going to do? one of the doubtful four asked. Well, we had our famous steel launch, and--we had--an idea we 'd like to see what it was like-- farther on. I 've always believed our not
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saying anything about 'a dash,' or so much as naming the great goal, gave Borisoff's words their most compelling eloquence. If we 'd said then that we wanted to try for the Pole, some would have felt himself obliged to object and talk prudence. As it was, we twelve sat there as one man in the little saloon of the Narwhal, with the loose ice grinding against the ship's sides. And no one said, but every one was thinking, 'We 'll find the Pole.' Borisoff was a born leader. Not a soul on the ship but believed Borisoff would do anything he set out to do. They all knew by now how extraordinarily well equipped we were. Borisoff showed again and again how we should profit by the failure of our forerunners. Well, that was in September. We were frozen in, and we drifted with the ice all that winter and following summer--drifted in the dark, with bears prowling round the ice-shrouded ship--drifted in the midnight sun with guillemots and fulmars circling about our rigging."
He sat there some seconds staring through the peat wall, never seeing the open watch, forgetting the irrevocable hour. As though she, too, shared in some chill vision, the dog shivered.
To bring the master back, "Ky is cold," said Hildegarde, and would have thrown over her a trailing end of blanket.
"No, no, she 's not cold here," the sick man answered, but in a voice so faint and far Hildegarde wondered if he would ever speak again.
To mask her creeping fear and bridge the silence, "Why does she shiver, if she 's not cold?"
His absent eyes came slowly back to where the dog was uneasily dozing. "Thinks we 're crossing the ice-
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moraines, thinks she can't go on, then remembers the whip. The whip that flies out when you least expect it, eh, Ky?--and bits the hair off clean." He bent forward, and gently laid his distorted hands on the scarred and trembling hide. The dog was quiet again.
"That first winter," he went on, "one of our men was killed by a bear, and one died from a natural cause. He would have died at home. Early in the summer came the day when the ice gripped us. Our tough ship might have been and egg-shell. But we were ready."
You had to abandon her?"
He gave a short not. "Sledges out on the ice away from the pressure area, packed, and kyack-loaded. We had kept the dogs in condition by short journeys, and we knew they were as splendid animals for work as they were terrible for fighting. We could n't prevent them from tearing each other to pieces, but between whiles they carried us on. Eh, Ky? You carried us on, for you carried our means of life. Or maybe we carried you, with our whips and clubs and curses. It 's horrible to look back, that 's why I do it, to save Ky any more--" His eyes implored the dumb creature's pardon. "Those days and months of forcing the swindled pack over the pressure ridges!--and when the patient beasts stopped from sheer exhaustion, shouting at them till our own voices tore our nerves and burst our very ear-drums, hardening our hearts, beating the splendid animals, till they lay down one by one on those desolate ice-plains and died again,--"the dogs had the best of it. We blood-marked many a mile of the polar ice, we stumbled from floe to floe, we stormed the pressure ridges, and
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when the teams had dwindled and the ice opened in long reaches, we took the remaining dogs into our canvas boats and along the water lanes we sailed and sailed."
"To the Pole? You did find the--"
"Lord!" he interrupted, "finding the Pole is n't a patch on hunting for it! That 's what the men of the future will never know. You can read the kind of thing we went through in any arctic book. You can read it all, and then know nothing about it. We did impossible things--things any man will say he can't do. And then he does them because he must, and because human endurance is the one miracle left in the world."
An instant he stopped for breath. "Good men, all our fellows. But their bones are up yonder. Good dogs, too. Ky 's the one's that's left."
There was a long silence in the dim little room.
"But you reached the Pole, Borisoff and you!"
Slowly he shook his wild head. "Not Borisoff." There was silence for awhile.
"It must have been very horrible for you when he--"
"Yes," said the sick man, and Hildegarde saw the mouth se harder yet under the tawny cloud. "The day he died we came upon a great piece of timber frozen slant in the ice. Borisoff had been queer, wandering all those last days. But that great shaft that had come from some land where the trees grow glorious and tall, one sight of it excited him so that it cleared his head. He said it was Siberian spruce, and had come from his own forests of the Yenisei. And he talked about the currents that had carried it so far--talked rationally. We found initials carved on one end: 'F.N.--H." If ever there had been one more the record was frayed out of
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existence by the timber catapulting against the ice. 'I 'll rest here,' Borisoff had said, and"--a long time seemed to go by--"I 've no doubt he rests well. Splendid fellow, Borisoff.
"The next day I cut his name on the great log, and I went on alone."
"You and Ky!"
He nodded. "Ky and the dogs that were left, fighting out way over the ice-moraines in a hard, fierce light, that seemed to come from every point of the compass at once. I remember a curious optical delusion overtook me. I lost all faculty of seeing the snow-covered ice I walked on. I could feel it, of course, at every step. I could see my snow-shoes sharp as if they 'd been silhouettes poised in air. But the terrible white light that bathed the universe seemed to be flooding up from under my feet as well as beating on my head. Round that white bossed shield of the frozen sea the sun moved in his shrunken circle, with no uprising and no setting, abhorring shadow. Like that, day and night, night and day."
"For how long?"
"For a thousand years. A dog killed to feed the rest, and still on, 'for miles on miles of desolation--leagues on leagues on leagues--without a change.' In a world as dead and white as leprosy." He closed his eyes, as if the midnight glare still dazzled him.
In her sleep again the dog had been moving and moaning.
"Ky is in pain," said the girl, very softly, hardly daring to whisper.
The sick man opened his eyes and faintly shook his
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head. "Only dreaming. I do the same myself. Wake in the dark, and think the pressure has sent the ice towering above us. And while we try to get across the broken blocks, suddenly they begin to grind and growl and to writhe and thunder, as if moved to hatred of us. Ky lost a yoke-fellow in such a place, crushed between the shrieking boulders. Quiet, Ky! The exploring 's all done. At least"--he looked up--"I'd like to think--"
"Thank you," said the sick man.
"Yes, Ky," Hildegarde spoke with a little break in her voice. "The exploring 's all done." As if the dog had heard and comprehended, and so been delivered from evil dreams, she got up, came shakily down from the bed, and stood for a moment at the door, looking out.
"What 's ahead of us, Ky?" he asked dreamily. "An ice sky or a water sky?"
"How was it you could tell?"
"Oh, you learn. The filed-ice reflection is the brightest, a little yellow; drift ice, purer white; new ice, gray. And where there 's open water the 'blink' is slatey, is n't it, Ky? Or blue, like the skies of California."
"But the Pole?" The word brought a startled look into his face, and his eyes guarded the threshold so fiercely she sunk her voice to meet his humor. "What was it like?" she whispered.
"Ky knows," he answered, warily. "Ky got there."
With a supreme humility, or was it a high indifference on her part, the great explorer crossed the threshold and sat outside in the sun.
"I 've wondered about it a good deal, as I 've lain here," said the sick man. "It almost seems as if nothing
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in the world-scheme were so precious as suffering. Men feel that when they recall their early hardships. Dimly they see that nothing they've found later was of such value to them. Yes, yes, beside, the days of the struggle the days of the harvest are dull. And it 's this"--he crouched over the oilskin, and dropped his voice--"this incentive to the greatest struggle that men can embark upon--this is the Great Legacy I shall leave behind!"
"But what," she pointed to the think he was hugging between gaunt arms, "what is in that?"
"The proofs," he whispered, and started when the word was out. It seemed to Hildegarde that he held the weather-beaten bundle tighter still, and still he put off telling what she wanted most to know. As if he could n't bring himself, after all, to yield the secret up. "Think," he whispered. "We could set the world ringing with it, Ky. Only we must n't."
"Yes, yes, but you must!" Hildegarde half started to her feet.
"No. Not after-- I swore an oath, you see."
That motion of the wild head: "The One up yonder."
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