A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 1
A WILD-GOOSE CHASE
THE FLIGHT OF THE WILD GOOSE
THE crack of the hard ball against the smooth, echoing concrete walls of the racket court, the resound of the rapid volley, then the scorer's shout and the rattle of applause, carried into the club dressing rooms and told that a fast and interesting game was going on. "Who's playing?" Geoffrey Sherwood called from his dressing booth to the masseur who was waiting in the locker room outside.
"Mr. Latham, sir, against Evans."
"I see. Mr. Latham leading?"
"I should say so, sir."
Sherwood completed his change to light athletic shirt, flannel trousers and rubber-soled shoes, and went out to the lockers to unscrew his racket from the press.
"I'll tell Mr. Latham you're ready, sir?" the attendant then inquired. "He said he'd take on Evans only till you came." Evans was the club professional.
"No, not yet," Sherwood forbade. The echoing rattle of another fast volley came from the court and loud and appreciative applause again broke out. "There's quite a gallery there. I'll watch the match for a while."
He climbed the stairs to the spectators' seats set over the back wall of the court. Evans, the professional, was just returning viciously. The ball flew like a bullet against the front wall; as it came back the amateur leaped, met it and struck it back with his racket. Evans dipped for it desperately; it ricocheted past him to the rear wall. The professional made one more trial to get the ball as it bounded back from behind him; but it bounced again on the floor, once, twice, and Latham had won.
The row of spectators rose in a clamour of congratulation.
"Hello, Geoff!" Latham hailed carelessly. "Want to begin now?"
Several of the men looked at their watches and started for the stairs.
"No, I'll see you do it once more," Sherwood decided. The men put back their watches and settled into their seats. The new game rushed on. Geoff Sherwood leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, following the triumph of his friend with the envy which a boy, just at his majority, holds toward a man ten years older who can beat him at almost any game.
There were few men of any age, either amateur or professional, who consistently could conquer Price Latham in any gentleman's sport, whether it was rackets in the downtown club in winter, polo in summer, or yacht racing or aeroplaning. Geoff had no need to envy his friend's lithe, strong and symmetrical figure; but Latham's perfect command of himself, his easy, effortless expenditure of strength—as now at this moment when suddenly he took his opponent entirely off guard and scored a brilliant "ace"—was Geoff's despair. So, as in worship he watched his hero, Geoff wondered again what in the world was wrong with his sister that she still clung to the memory of a man to whom she'd merely been engaged four years before, and who had been missing so long that he surely must be dead, when Price Latham wanted to marry her.
"Mr. Sherwood! Telephone call for Mr. Sherwood!" a bellboy announced.
Geoff went down to the booth. His sister was on the wire; she had been trying to find him all afternoon and just had learned he had come to the club. He answered her irritably as she told her news before he sensed the unusual excitement in her voice.
"What?" he asked. "Say that again; and please say it slower. What? What? . . . You're crazy, Margaret! . . . Oh, dear, you know I didn't mean that—I meant don't fool yourself again. . . . What? . . . Oh, all right; of course I'll come right away, and I'll be awfully glad for your sake if it's so."
He jerked open the booth door and went back to the racket court and waited beside the door to the players' floor till the cannonading inside ceased. Another game was over. Geoff opened the door. The professional, beaten again, stood puffing apologetically. Latham turned, his dark hair hardly damp.
"Let me see you a minute, please, Price."
They crossed into the dressing rooms. "Margaret just called me up," the boy explained. "She thinks she's got some word or trace or something of Eric Hedon, Price."
"What—word of Hedon?"
"She couldn't, of course, but she's all worked up. Something's made her think he may be safe or was safe. She couldn't say much over the telephone. She wanted us to come out as soon as we could."
"Us?" Latham repeated doubtfully. "She asked for me?"
"I think so," Geoff assured vaguely. "Anyway, you'll come with me, won't you?"
Eric Hedon's name for almost two years had been written on the records of those who had given their lives for the mysteries of the North. He had been engineer and ethnologist with the Aurora expedition under Ian Thomas, which had gone north four years before to explore and map the last lands toward the Pole and to study the people of those most northern icebound islands not yet known to civilised men.
Seven men had made up the party which had sailed in the Aurora from New York in May, four years before, had taken Eskimos and dogs from Godhaven in Greenland in July, and then had been lost for two years till a Scotch whaler picked up survivors of the expedition near Cape Sabine, Ellesmere Land, where Greely's men had starved to death thirty years before.
McNeal, the sailing master, Brunton, second mate, Koehler, physician and meteorologist, and Linn, the cook, were the four white men who, with three Eskimos, had dragged themselves to the shores of Smith Sound. They told how the Aurora had been crushed in the polar ice pack north and west of Mason Land, and how when the pack had parted the ship had sunk. The seven white men and five Eskimos while making their way back over the ice had been parted by a lead. Mullin, the first mate, and two Eskimos and a sledge team had gone through new ice attempting to cross the lead and were drowned. It was known that Thomas and Hedon, with their dog team and sledge, were upon the young ice of the lead at the same time. They were not seen to break through, as were Mullin and the Eskimos; but it was certain that neither of them crossed that lead. So either they must have returned to the polar pack and starved or been frozen, or in attempting to cross the lead they must have broken through and been drowned. The passing of months and then of years had made their loss a certainty.
Geoff reviewed this certainty again with himself as he finished dressing in the warm room by the baths. He jerked his tie irritably and went out. Margaret was worse than stupid and silly to keep on believing that Eric Hedon might yet be heard of. Geoff went down past the racket and squash courts to the elevator, and got off on the floor where Latham, who lived at the club, had his quarters.
He went into the man's room with the uncertain liberty of one who knows that he is being cultivated less for himself than for the sake of his sister.
"Sit down," Latham called cordially from the bedroom, where he was dressing. "You know where tobacco is. Papers just came in the mail there."
Geoff lounged luxuriously on the window seat and tore off the wrappers of the illustrated London weeklies just delivered. One of them contained an interesting article on the series of international polo matches projected and the possibility of Latham's this year playing by invitation with the American team in England. Latham's life was indeed the ideal one.
The mild April breeze was blowing in the open window and the clear blue sky and warm sunshine reminded one that winter was over. The club was one of those that stand on the lake front of Chicago, and from the windows of the floor where Latham had his rooms one sees only the blue lake to the east. A few white sails of small sporting craft already dotted the water beyond the great, grimy freighters streaming in and out from the harbour.
A flock of wild geese, bound back to the north after their winter flight to the shores of the gulf far below, sped over the lake. The two sportsmen in the club window looked after them, then descended to the street. Latham's roadster had been brought round to the door. They jumped in and drove north along the lake till they came to that part of the Lake Shore Drive, a few miles from the centre of the city, where great, handsome winter homes bound the beach, with here and there an apartment building, taller but no less handsome than the houses. Latham ran his car to the boulevard curb before one of these buildings. The two men went in together and ascended in the electric elevator to the floor where Geoff and his sister dwelt.
The large living room of the apartment, with its sun room overlooking the lake, plainly proclaimed itself as the dwelling of young people with many active interests. There were books, ornaments and pieces of furniture that told of a prosperous, cultured and vigorous older generation; but that generation had passed. It was represented directly only by a pair of quietly framed photographs of a date some three years before. Geoff's father and mother had been lost together in a train wreck; so he and his sister had lived there alone, governing themselves and each other after their own fashion.
The only person who could assert any claim to right of interference with them was then in the apartment. Geoff heard her voice, strident and severe, from the direction of Margaret's room.
"Cousin Clara is here," he commented to Latham.
However, she was concluding her interview, with Margaret. A door opened.
"All I can say of you is that you're mad, more than mad," the stern voice repeated. "But I knew that before. You can make a match that any girl in her senses would have snapped up four years ago, and you—you persist in ——"
Cousin Clara hesitated to gather breath for her parting denunciation and incautiously stepped too far outside the door. The bedroom door quietly but firmly closed—it was not slammed, just closed—and the key quietly turned in the lock.
A woman in silk—a gown that indicated an age at least ten years younger than her obvious fifty years—came down the hallway in a rage attained only by one who, possessing much money, has been defied by one with less. Latham, knowing her as an ally, spoke suddenly and loudly to Geoff to warn her that they were there. Immediately Cousin Clara controlled herself. Latham managed to turn about in surprise to see her.
"I'm very glad that you're here, Price—and you, Geoffrey, if you can help your sister back to her senses."
"What's happened?" asked Geoff.
"More silliness about Hedon. "I'll leave her to tell you. But, Price Latham, I look to you to help me."
Latham bowed. A butler came through the dining room and stood by the front door. Cousin Clara went out. Down the hallway the key turned back the lock in Margaret's door, but the door remained closed. Geoff and Latham gazed at each other.
"Tell Miss Sherwood we're here," Geoff turned to the man.
"No, wait. I guess I'd better get her myself. If you want anything, Price, tell Farley what it is."
"Of course." Latham picked up a magazine and dropped into a chair.
Geoff went down the hall to his sister's room and rapped on the door, calling at the same time: "I say, Meg, it's I."
"Come in, Geoff."
"What the dickens were you getting Cousin Clara on her ear for again! And what is it about Eric Hedon?" he began belligerently as he entered.
Then he checked himself and quietly closed the door behind him.
His sister, as he understood vaguely from the manner of all men toward her, was an extraordinarily beautiful girl. At times Geoff admitted it. "One thing about Meg—I don't have to think anybody's after her for her chance at Cousin Clara's money."
For a girl she was not quite so tall proportionately as Geoff; and of course she was far slighter and more delicately formed. Yet one looking at the brother and sister would have said that the slender girl had at least as much power of endurance and nervous force as the athletic young man. She was not athletic at all; but she had been born with the knack of doing things easily, gracefully and well. One made this appraisal of Margaret Sherwood simultaneously with liking the fairness of her face, her deep, direct blue eyes, the glow of her cheek, the smile ever likely to light her full little lips, and the burnish of gold in the brown hair back from her white brow. She was twenty-four years old the month before.
She was sitting quietly beside her window, which looked over the water; at her feet was a large pasteboard box which, from the labels, had come by parcel post. She had opened it, but the cover was loosely laid on again. On the small table beside her she had pages of paper covered with handwriting, which Geoff recognised as the sheets of Eric Hedon's journal which McNeal and the others had brought back; and she was holding in one hand her best picture of Hedon.
She had not been crying during her interview with her father's cousin or afterward when she was alone; but now, as she turned to her brother, her lips trembled and her eyes filled.
"Geoff, I don't know what to think. Brother, tell me what to think!" she appealed.
"Why, little Meg!" He bent beside her, one arm about her. "What's come?"
"That came!" she said, pointing to the box on the floor. "Just as I was going out this afternoon that came."
Geoff stooped and took off the cover and parted the paper wrappings inside. Below lay a white, soft mass of feathers—it filled the box—a large, white bird with web feet and broad bill, and with the gamy, fishy odour of the wild fowl. He took it from the box and looked at it.
"A goose!" he said wonderingly. "A wild goose!"
"Yes," she said. "That's it—a wild goose!"
"What about it, Margaret?"
"It was shot in Louisiana the day before yesterday."
"An old man shot it—an honest old man I've no doubt—an old negro. He brought it to the old gentleman—one of the fine old Southern gentleman—who had been his master."
"Brought what, Meg?"
"The goose he shot—that goose."
"All right; what about it? Why did it come to you?"
"He sent it."
"Yes, but why?"
"It's an arctic goose, Geoff."
"Yes, the white wild goose of that kind. They're arctic. Eric told me about them once. I was sure I remembered. Besides, I looked it up just now." She motioned toward her shelf of books upon the Arctic. "They breed in summer above the Arctic Circle, Geoff, in the islands in the Arctic Ocean almost to the Pole. When winter comes there they fly south to the Gulf shores. This one was in Louisiana when it was shot."
"I see," said Geoff impatiently.
"He found this bound to its leg!" She held a hand toward her brother, but with fingers still firmly closed over the treasure they concealed. "You can see on the right leg there where it was bound. It looks as if it had been bound there when the bird was alive, doesn't it, Geoff; as if it had been there a long time while the bird was alive?"
He looked at the bird's leg to please her. There were marks upon it, indeed, as though something had been bound about the leg; but for how long he could not tell.
"Yes," he assured her. "Of course."
"This was there!" She unclenched her fist and showed him a tiny scrap of something which looked like oiled silk. He took it and saw that there was a series of perforations through it, making tiny letters which spelled words; and, feeling in his hands the tingle which one feels when fancying he sees another long supposed to be dead, he held the scrap to the light and read the characters.
"Send to Margaret Sherwood," he read. Then followed the address at which Margaret had been four years before. "Both reached Mason Land. Safe. Eric Hedon."
It was dated in August of the summer before. Geoff looked up at his sister, still tingling.
"What came with that?"
"That's oiled silk, you see, pricked through with a needle or pin or something. They took that material to cover records which might get wet. It was wound up and tied to the bird's leg. It could have come down from the Arctic so; I know it could."
"What came with it?" Geoff repeated.
"Oh, this. It came by post this morning; the box with the bird came this afternoon. Of course I couldn't make anything out of it till the box came, then I tried to telephone you all over town. But I couldn't find you till you went to the club."
Geoff took the letter which she extended. It was a square, ordinary envelope bearing the postmark, dated two days before, of a small Louisiana town near the Gulf. It was addressed in the careful, courtly characters of an old man. Geoff took out the inclosure and read:
"Miss (or Mrs.) Margaret Sherwood.
"Dear Madam: A darky of mine, Sam Negus, went goose shooting in the marshes about here to-day and brought back fourteen geese of two varieties. When he was showing them to me I noted an unusual appendage attached to the leg of one.
"Though I cannot judge of the matter, I have acted upon the possibility that the message upon the bird might be of concern to you, and accordingly I rewrapped it as nearly in the manner in which I found it as I was able to recollect.
"I take pleasure in forwarding to you, separately, the bird as brought to me.
"Sincerely your servant,
Geoff turned the letter over slowly. His sister bent toward him tensely; then he looked up at her and for a moment she met his eyes. She looked away from him and, gazing out her window, suddenly she put her hand on her brother's shoulder and seized him.
"Before you say anything, look out there!" she pointed. "Look out there!"
He followed her direction in wonder. The blue, smooth expanse of the great lake lay warming in the spring sun after the winter's cold; a faint, irridescent film of evaporation shimmered up from the surface. An intake crib for the city's water supply, with the lighthouse above it, a few steamers and one or two of the tiny sail boats dotted the blue of the water; but it was none of these toward which Margaret stared.
Then he saw what it was—a long, faint V-shaped series of dots in the air, sweeping swiftly, steadily, evenly up from the south, passing over the ships below them as though the vessels were anchored and as motionless as the crib, flying on easily, exhaustlessly, altering the shape of their V to the cross of an X and shifting in formation back to V again—before, in barely a hundred breaths, the wild geese from the Gulf far away in the south slipped out of sight on their swing back to their summer breeding places on the shores of the arctic islands about the North Pole.
"What are distance and open water in the Arctic to them?" the girl asked. "In two days, or three at most, they may reach the last lands of the north; and we know that some of them do, and swing south again and then back in the summer to their tundra. They fly each year by thousands, by tens and hundred of thousands, up to the islands almost to the pole. A few might have been netted there or snared and then let go; and this one, at least, might have been shot in the south."
She looked down again to the wild bird in the box.
Her brother shook his head. "It is not possible!" he convinced himself. "No, it's not."
"You mean no one can tell! You can't! It's all so wonderful you don't know yourself what to think."
Geoff gathered up the box and carefully took the little scrap of waterproof silk and the letter.
"Price is here," he explained. "He came with me. He's got good sense. Let's talk it over with him."
"I'll come in a minute," Margaret said; and her brother went out.