Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 25)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
"What one up yonder?" Hildegarde's voice was as hushed as his own.
"Who is that?"
"The god of the unknown North. Had n't you heard that in all the old lands, from Greece to Mexico, there was always an altar to the unknown god?"
"When men in their foolishness threw down those temples, the old gods fled to the farther countries. Last of all to the world's waste places." He held up one horrible hand, and made a grotesque motion of "Come nearer."
"The greatest of these gods of the unknown--he sat on a throne of ice at the top of the world. The others--they had found no rest from the men of the West. Behind the Great Wall of China we hunted them out. We forced our way to them through Japan ports. We let the garish day into the dim temples of Korea, and the gold terraces of holy Lhasa are trod by alien feet. But the uttermost North was all inviolate till I came. I made the kingdom mine. But now"--he lifted the maimed right hand like one taking oath--"now I abdicate. I will destroy my title-deeds. Fire! a little fire!
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His hands fumbled among the shavings in the blanket, and feverishly he caught up the knife.
"No, no. Let me," she said. "I 'll do it for you. See, I can split the kindling straight down." She strained to make good the boast. "Just a moment! Oh, but this kind of wood is tough! What is it? Not a piece of drift--so flat and smooth?"
"Piece of a broken skee--my snow-shoe." While she forced the sharp blade down, he was calling out, "Ky! D' you hear that fellow laughing at us?"
The dog turned obedient, and both her pointed ears seemed to be pricking at the silence.
"Whenever I begin to hope, I hear the walrus guffaw." Ky's master was listening with all his shrinking soul, and his eyes looked straight through the wall, but he spoke as quietly as before. Hildegarde shivered a little. Death itself could hardly remove him further than he had wandered in those few seconds. "Oh, come back!" she said in her heart, and then aloud, "Tell me, please tell me, how I shall manage about Ky?"
"Ky?" His eyelids fluttered as he obeyed the call.
"Yes, how am I to make her follow me?"
"Give her more of your pilot bread."
"Will she leave you at the last for that?"
"She won't know it 's the last, and she is hungry. Are n't you, Ky?"
Hildegarde laid down the knife an instant, took a fragment from her pocket and held it out to the dog.
"Very doubtfully Ky came nearer. But still she could n't make up her mind to trust the new friend's hand. So Hildegarde laid the coveted morsel down.
When Ky had cautiously snapped it up, she hobbled
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to the bedside and turned her dim eyes to the old familiar bundle.
"Yes, I 've got it save." He circled it with an arm still looking down at the dog.
Would he ever let it go of his own free will? What vain notion was this of a fire!
Now he was muttering absently, as he smoothed the oilskin: "Our harvest, yours and mine. Whatever we went through in the sowing, it was all nothing, was n't it, Ky?--just nothing to bringing the harvest home."
"It was n't possible for coming to be worse than going!"
"Borisoff would have said no. But Borisoff only tried one way. We know--Ky and I." In the pause the eyelids closed over lusterless eyes. It was only while he spoke of the journey that he seemed alive. As she looked again at the face, as blank and cold as a grate without a fire, horror fell upon her lest he should die before Cheviot came back.
Hildegarde's little store of splinters and shavings had grown into a heap. "If I make kindling for the fire, I deserve to be told--things--don't I? Besides, then I can tell her--the face."
"How could you do that?"
She must break it gradually. "Would n't it be possible for me to find her out and tell her?"
He looked at Hildegarde dreamily an instant. "I wonder," he said.
"I 'll do it, if only you 'll go on--go on."
He made a faint "no," with the wild head, smiling dimly. "Any one may have a nightmare. No one has ever told a nightmare, so it did n't sound absurd. It 's
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a thing you can't pass on, fortunately. You can 't recover it even for yourself. Of all those last weeks, only three things stand out clear: one was the day I saw the first fox track in the snow."
"You were glad of that?"
"Glad of the first sign of life?"
"And the second thing?"
"The day when I looked south and saw the sky was yellow."
"What did that mean?"
"Land. All the rest 's a blur. And in the blur two shadows--Ky and I, on the homeward journey--the journey that I knew even then would n't end at home. Ky and I. All our companions dead. The last dog, even our infinitesimal rations of pemmican, gone. Everything gone, but Ky and my title-deeds."
"I don't see how you bore it--how you kept alive."
"I don't know. Later we fed on the small crustaceans in the ice-channels, then the narwhal. But in the strain I think my wits went. Mercifully I can't recover much in that blur of agony till the moment that stands out clear as conflagration in the dark--that moment when I set our course by the shadow my staff cast, and saw--" He dropped his hollow jaw, staring at some horror unspeakable.
"What was it you--"
"I saw that while we were stumbling blindly toward the blessed South--faster still the ice that we were on was drifting north."
"Carrying you back to--"
"Back to the Pole."
Her fingers lost their hold upon the knife.
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He did n't even notice that she was no longer keeping her part of the compact. "Talk of Sisyphus! Talk of torture! Ky and I, like half-frozen flies crawling over the roof of the world, while the greater forces carried us calmly back to the North! It remains burnt into my memory as the final type of hopeless human striving. Each day I would read the message of the shadow on the ice, till I began to say to myself: the penalty for having reached the Pole is that you must stay there. No use to struggle. You are surrounded, captured, brought back. The spirit of the violated place won't allow a man to carry his victory home. It was then I understood." Palm across palm he laid his fumbling hands, but his faint-moving lips brought no sound forth.
"Prayed? Something of the sort. I made a vow. By the unknown god I swore if I were allowed to get back alive no soul should ever know--except just one among all the living. Strange it should be you!"
"Of course you were thinking of little--of--"
"Yes. I 'd tell nobody, I swore, but a girl. I meant a girl with a little doll face--a girl who would n't understand. Our national phrase for any sort of success kept running in my head. I still felt 'd like her to know I had n't failed 'to get there.' Foolishness, of course. What I really wanted was that she should have a share in that vision no man's eyes but mine had seen. I meant to show her these."
It was terrible to see his hands trying to undo the treasure. But while again she hacked at the unyielding wood, Hildegarde followed fascinated each grotesque move the sick man made. At last the tight-drawn knots
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had yielded. Between the four corners of the ancient oilskin, creased and twisted and stained, the harvest of John Galbraith's life lay open in the hollow between his knees. Hildegarde stood up with knife caught in a cleft of the skee, staring. He turned over the little hoard of discolored papers that lay on a flat chart-box, a theodolite, a pocket sextant, and a record cylinder.
"Notes, sketches, tables of temperature and magnetic variation, causal phenomena. Oh, I found out strange secrets! The whole story 's here. I 'd sooner have left my bones up yonder than not bring her back the proofs." He opened out the chart and hung over the grimy, tattered sheet as though it were some work of art triumphant--a perfection of beauty unimagined in the world before. As he sat there hugging the shabby heap between his knees, you would have thought that stained and sea-soaked store must be splendid with color, or resonant with the organ music of the deep and of great winds harping in the waste--fit record of a pilgrimage no soul had made before.
"In my heart," he said, "I hoped, when I took her these, she might, at last, realize--"
A torn and dirty book, with corners worn round and curling, and a look about its tough, discolored pages as though it had come down a thousand years. "My diary." He turned a page. "She could n't have read it, would n't want so much as to touch it. Still, it was for her that even at the last I carried it rather than food."
Opening the other side of the shallow chart-box that was fitted with grooves in which sheets of stout drawing-paper were slipped and firmly held in place, he drew
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what that first glance seemed to reveal as a meaningless smudge of violent color. There it is!" and no sooner had he said the words than nervously he was sheltering the thing behind one knee. "You are sure that old fellow is n't hanging about?"
She glanced out. "Quite sure."
Cautiously he brought the paper up from its moment's hiding, but his low voice dropped to a deeper register, That's what it 's like!"
From the hoarse triumph in the tone she knew that however clear before his actual eyes had been once this picture in his hand, they saw it now no more.
"That's what Borisoff and the rest died to have a glimpse of. This is what I found, instead of the palæo-crystic sea. Here is where the ice-hills rise. There 'd been a storm. The low cloud-masses--they were incredible! Like that! And the zenith clear, except for the banners of light."
Plain he had no guess that the colored crayon was both marred and bettered; that the picture he had set down, with some fair skill, had been less moving, less poetic, even less true than this, that chance had wrought with a blind but faithful artistry. For as Hildegarde stared at the prismatic haze, a kind of wild meaning dawned there upon the paper. Yes, surely, chance had craftier hands than any but the greatest among the sons of men. For the picture brought that almost religious conviction of the truth that great art gives. Just so, and no otherwise, must the thing have been. The dome of the sky up yonder was an inverted bowl of brass. And in the heavenward hollow of it a giant brood of serpents flamed and writhed above a wild white waste,
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warmed here with violet, cooled there with silver and pearl.
"And that," she said, only to have assurance of his voice again, "that 's what the world is like up there?"
"Do you think men go so far, and walk through hell, to bring home a lie?"
Looking no longer at the orgy of color on the paper, but at the reflection of the actual scene in the dying face, "It was like the Day of Judgment," said the girl.
"You can see that!" The craftsman's pleasure in his handiwork brought out a gleam, and then, with a sudden passion, he tore the paper across and across, while Hildegarde cried out:
"Ah, don't! Let me take it to--her!"
"Take it to the fire!--and leave the great legacy unencumbered. Fire, fire!" He was gathering up the splinters and shavings that he had whittled from the skee in the hours before Hildegarde's coming. "Here! Here!"
A sense of impotency shackled her spirit as well as lamed her tongue. Blindly she took the fragments over to the embrasure of some blackened stones, just inside and to winward of the threshold.
"No one is about?"
"This is to start it, then." He held out something. "This will catch easiest."
"I have some thin paper here." She twisted a wisp of her own map of the North, with a vague instinct of putting off an evil hour.
"But the sick man followed with eager eyes the laying of every crosswise stick, his gaunt frame huddled over
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his treasure while he watched the making of the sacrificial fire that should devour it. If his eyes left Hildegarde's hands a moment, it was only that they might guard the door against surprise.
Once again, "Look out," he said, "and see--"
"There 's no one. But would n't you like somebody to come in? Some face out of the past--"
To come now!"
"Some one who could bring you news of--that girl you--"
"Remember wood 's worth more than gold up here! Keep a little back."
"Keep some back?"
"Paper like this burns slow. As you say some one might interrupt--" No hospitality in the look he sent to the door. "Before you light it, have everything over there, ready to feed the fire." His thin arms gathered up the store. Ky growled uneasily as Hildegarde drew near, the girl wondering what was best for Galbraith's peace, what was of any avail.
He made a motion to give her all he held, but what he actually handed over was the torn crayon, and even in the act of giving up that he set one fragment against another, looking his last.
"Oh, keep it--let me keep it--for her. Could you bear to hear--"
But that mysterious arctic current, about which the greatest geographers are not agreed, it had carried him back again to the Pole! With vacant eyes on the colored paper, "We left him a feather for his ice-cap, did n't we, Ky?"
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"Or a ribbon. Did n't you see?"
"This. You did n't notice we planted the stars and stripes there?"
"Oh-h. You see I thought you said no one was ever to know--"
"--and I carved a B. on the flagstaff. It was Borisoff's snow-shoe staff. But the B.--it did n't stand for Borisoff."
"No. The bamboo stood up there so light and slender--" Again the look that only one rembrance could bring into his eyes.
"It must have seemed like Bella upholding our country's flag."
His whole face warmed into smiling. The death shadows fled for that moment of his saying, "Had I told you her name? Yes, I brought the record cylinder away, and left there only something that would perish."
"You make a fetish of that oath you swore!"
"It is n't because of the oath. Why should I take an empty fame out of the world with me? Should I rest the better?"
"You think only of yourself. But there 's the gain to science. What right have you to deprive the world of that?
He smiled. "You speak like a green girl, or like a newspaper. Forgive me! But you don't realize. The gain to science is the by-product. The true gain is to the human soul. You don't believe me? Read the most inspiring books every written about the arctic."
"Perhaps I have. Who wrote them?"
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"Franklin, Greely, and De Long--the three who failed. Here 's to them!" He lifted up the cup, emptied it, and dropped it with a ringing of rusty tin, an eye cleared and preternaturally bright. "In the past it was all different, you know. Enough and to spare in the physical world to be conquered. But the things to be conquered in the future, do you know what they are?"
Voiceless she shook her head.
"Moral weakness and physical self-indulgence. In America we are all so comfortable we are all like to be damned!"
She could have wept aloud to hear the half-whimsical, half-delirious tone of the wreck upon the camp-bed deprecating comfort.
"If Borisoff had lived--I don't know. But Borisoof is sleeping in the lee of that great shaft of Siberian pine, and I--if I know anything in the hereafter, I shall be glad that I left the hope behind me for other men."
"Left it for some new Norse Viking maybe, or some sea-faring Briton. And America will never know--"
"'Sh. I 'm not sure whether I 'm more sorry that America should n't know she was first at the goal, or whether I 'm more proud that it should be an American who wins the race and refrains from making the world resound with it. That it should be an American, after all, to do just that. One, too,"--he smiled with a curious sweetness,--"one as guilty of boasting as his brothers are. So you see I keep some spark of vanity to light me--out. Here! He gathered the hoard in his arms an instant, and held it half-hidden under his beard.
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But it seemed as hard for him to loose his arms from about his treasure as for a mother to part from her child.
Hildegarde made a tender, half-unconscious motion of protecting both the broken man and the toys his dying hands still clung to. But he, not comprehending, said faintly: "I 've carried this little bundle of papers across the crown of the world to--to give it to a strange woman at last!"
"No, no." She fell on her knees by the bed. "I am not strange! I am Hildegarde."
His blazing eyes looked over her bowed head at the little heap among the blackened stones. "Here!" he whispered.
"What 's this?"
"A wind-match. Careful! there 's only one more."
She rose unsteadily, with a sense of the utter uselessness of any help now for this man who had been Jack Galbraith. But as she struck the match, and the fire caught among the sticks, once more the life leaped up in the man. He sat erect, exultant, horrible to look upon, tearing the leaves of a book, holding them up in sheaves, and crying out: "Here, take the rest! I keep my word. I give the Kingdom back to the oldest of the gods!" And with that he fell together and lay with eyes hidden, breathing hoarsely.
When she saw that the last pages, not even smoldering any more, lay charred among the stones, she turned again to the bedside. Was he dead? A long time she stood there. What sound was that above the surf? Again the long shrilling note. She went to the door. Again! Of course; the steam whistle of the Beluga, calling the travelers back. And this other traveler, had he
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heard a call? Was he, too, gone home? With trembling knees she made her way back to the low bed. Again the strident sound. It set the nerves a-shake. Painfully the gaunt figure moved. It lifted up its face. It sent little-seeing eyes to the stony altar. The seemed to search among the ashes.
Again the wind bore over the water that harsh summons to be gone. "Everything is burned," said the girl, and with a little strangled cry of "Bella! Bella!" Hildegarde buried her face in her hands, sobbing: "Oh, I think I was mad to help you. I 'm sorry. I 'm sorry."
"I 'm glad."
She dropped her hands.
"Glad . . . have n't spoiled . . . finest game in the world . . . the men who come after. Don't know--what they 'll do--when they 've found it--but--hunting the Pole--will last them . . . good while yet. Ky--won't tell!"
Again the Beluga's piercing call.
It carried Hildegarde to the door. Where was any counsel? Where was Cheviot? Ah, yes! From the heights behind the hut, he must have made the signal agreed on before leaving the Beluga. Hildegarde could see the small boat putting off now from the whaler. What was she to do? If, after Cheviot's promise, there were delay, who could doubt the choleric captain would not scruple to leave his undesired passengers behind. Or if there were only threat of that--her father's bewilderment and misery. What to do! As she turned her eyes away from the shining world without the door, her dazzled vision found only shadows in the hut. She had dreamed it all! No; that voice again: "--Still heels four
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degrees to starboard! One point? No; only a motion of the floe in azimuth. I tell you we 're locked fast."
"Please listen. I 'm Bella's friend. I--oh, come back a moment."
"Tell Borisoff--can't hear with this infernal shrieking of the boulders. By the Lord!" --he raised himself on an elbow-- "ten yards of this living, moving ice would hold Goliath back. And it 's sixty miles to the sea!"
She turned her wet face to the door again. The tossing boat out yonder seemed to go down before her eyes.
"Don't let any one in!"
"No, no." There it was again, like a toy boat dancing wildly before destruction.
"What I mind most," the faint voice whispered, "is not holding out till--I got across to Alaska. All those months--all that sacrifice--all that suffering--and fail in such a little thing!"
"Why, interrupted the girl, "why did you want to get to Alaska?"
"Why? I--I don't seem to remember. There was a reason. But it 's too far."
"You don't mean--"
"I shall never get there now. Do you hear the music, Ky?"
"Screaming of the ptarmigan. Music to us, was n't it?" In a changed voice, rational, but weak: "I can't see you, Ky."
"She 's here, with me, at the door."
"Then she 's dim as she used to be when she plodded on in front, wrapped in her cloud of frost-smoke."
"Please try to listen. I--see the sailors bringing the little boat through the surf."
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"That's easy. Let 'em try the ice!"
"They 're coming for me."
"You don't remember."
"Yes, I do."
"Ky's friend. Thank you." Feebly he put out his hand. But he would have drawn it back, if hers had not closed trembling over it.
"Oh, Jack! Jack!" she cried to herself, conscious of an anguished impulse to hide the marred hands in her breast to see if pity might not heal them!
"I think whatever comes of it," she said brokenly, "I must n't go."
The glazed eyes looked at her in faint wonder.
"Because I am Hildegarde."
"That wasn't her name."
"No, no. I am Hildegarde Mar."
"A nice name."
"But you 've heard it before."
"Hildegarde--?" The faintest motion of the wild head making "No."
"Yes, yes." She was on her knees by the bed. "My father was your friend. My father is Nathaniel Mar."
He said nothing for a moment. She thought he was trying to coördinate the memories her words recalled. But when he spoke it was to say, "No one must know but Bella--only Bella in all the world."
"Only Bella," said the girl, and rose upright. But through her tears she saw that his lips still moved.
"Will you--" he whispered. She bent down again to catch the words. "Will you stand at the door--till the boat is beached?"
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Hoping, with a catch at the heart, that old association dimly stirred by the name Mar had brought him some warmth of her presence in this chill hour, she tried to find a voice to ask why he wanted her to wait those few poor minutes at the door. But she had no need to put the question. His eyes made answer, trying to follow Ky, as the dog left the threshold and went with her slow, halting gait, aimless, half across the little strip of tundra to the sea.
"Don't say--anything to me. And don't" --the wild face twitched with pain-- "don't look at me. Just--stand there, with Ky--till the boat's ready. And when you go--don't speak." Again the dimming eyes sought on the tundra for that vague shadow that was his fellow-explorer and his friend. "I shall watch you, Ky--till the whaler--takes you--South."
As Hildegarde, bending lower, tried to form speech with her quivering lips, "No," he whispered. "You 've done--all--you--can. All, but this last thing. I 'd like--to see her as long as ever--But don't speak, and-- don't--look--back."
His eyes went past the girl, went straining after the dog, as though Ky were in truth as dim to-day as on that gray morning when he saw her first, standing in front of the pack, wrapped in mist, nose to the north, waiting for him "up yonder" by the Kara shore.
Out there, on the tundra edge again, the great explorer, Ky, stood like some old coastguard reading the signs of the sea.
Behind, at the door of the hut, Hildegarde Mar. But though the girl, too, looked straight across the surf, toward the islands named for those in the Adriatic after
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the Argive king, what she saw was not the nearer Diomede and not the little boat fighting its way through the surf; not even her lover running along the shore and looking among the high-piled rocks; not John Galbraith, dying behind her there in the shadow. Clearer than if she 'd held it in her hand, she saw the colored crayon sketch that lay charred among the ashes. So it was like that!--the terrible, beautiful place that would still go luring men with its lying legend on all the maps, crying out in every tongue in Europe--
U N E X P L O R E D R E G I O N !
COME AND FIND ME!
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