A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 11
THE SIGNAL TO THE SHIP
ON the Viborg, off the south cape of the black, barren island, Margaret Sherwood had waited for three days and now through the morning of the fourth for news to come from the cabin on the shore of the polar sea. With but three men left on the ship after the shore party had gone it had not been possible for her to land. She knew that she had done the best thing in staying on the ship. Only in case of the party's finding the missing men at the cabin in dying condition could she have helped in any way by going. And she knew that that chance was very, very remote. The shore party either would find that the missing men had never reached the island or that they had come there and gone on or attempted to go on; and in this case the men alone would find the record more quickly and return to the ship more rapidly without her.
So she argued with herself again and again during the long hours of the days. Yet as she gazed on that land, bare, black and lifeless, a thousand times she pictured the party finding the two men there—or their bodies. Would this last be worse than never to know, never to know?
Margaret recollected herself. If they found no trace of Eric here or elsewhere, and if they never found his body, she now was committed to acknowledge him as dead. So a dazed stupor sometimes seized her as she looked over the ice-choked channel to the grim heights of the shore. If they found Eric dead and brought his body to her, or if they returned to take her to his grave, then she later could carry out her promise to Latham. If she should see Eric once again, though he were dead, or if she had found his grave, she would not have sold herself to Price for nothing. But suppose the shore party brought back no news! That would be proof to the rest that Eric was lost; and she must accept it as proof of his death and give up Eric and marry Price, though Eric somehow, somewhere, still might survive and return to seek her.
So on the fourth day she stood at the bow of the little Viborg, looking for the dots that would be men marching over the rocks. How would they appear, two together or four abreast, walking five paces apart? Or would six men, instead of four, show on the shore, or five? No, she knew that was almost impossible; but it was not impossible that the four should come in sight separated and abreast in the signal that Eric and his comrade had reached this land safely. And if they brought back that word, she would rejoice that she had not gone with them, though she would not have learned the news for two days after they knew it. For they would reach the ship the quicker without her; and, with the winter now fast approaching, every hour counted. If the four brought from the cabin an indication of where Eric and Thomas might be found they could not follow on that course too soon.
She moved about the deck and tried not to stare too long, then returned to the bow and stood, eyes fixed on the shore. The sun shone clearly now at noon; but the rocks made a bad background for men darkly clad. Yet at last Margaret made out one speck and then another moving, then two more following over a ridge.
"There they come!" Her cry brought McNeal to her side. "They're neither walking together nor separated."
"They're no trying to signal us yet," McNeal said simply. "They'd no think we could see them."
The girl and the man stood together in silence. Below Linn was about his cooking. Michaelis, who had been busy, came up quietly, and stood a little away.
"Now they must know we see them," the girl said when the men were plainly in sight.
"Then they've no news," McNeal asserted.
"That would be bad news, and they'd signal it. They promised."
"Dip our colours and raise them again," McNeal commanded the mate. Michaelis obeyed.
"Ah, there they signal now!"
The four figures, far away on the shore, separated and walked at even distances apart.
"Good news!" Margaret cried. "Good news!"
McNeal raised his glasses to his eyes and put them down. "What do you make of that?" he complained.
The four figures which had been advancing separated and abreast now joined in twos and walked together; but again they spread out separately.
"Good news and bad, they must mean." The girl trembled. "They bring both."
There was no doubt about it. Once again, in the same way, the four men on the shore signalled. They came on more rapidly and now reached their boat left on the beach. They launched it and slowly and cautiously brought it out between the lumps of ice now rising and falling uglily with the sea swell.
The four on the deck of the Viborg—Linn had joined the others—stood silent, watching the boat draw nearer, with the oarsmen turning at times to see if they were near enough to shout. Margaret made out that her brother and Latham were rowing the bow oars. Geoff, ceasing to row, swung about and shouted twice; but his voice came merely as a sound without articulation. Then: "Hedon! Hedon!" The echo of the word reached.
What were the syllables lost afterward? Was she unable to hear them because they told her that Eric was dead? But at least they had found some word; they had learned something. She strained forward.
"Hedon! Hedon!"—the words came again—"reached land safe!"
She caught at the rail to steady herself as she trembled. McNeal put his hand upon hers. She looked to him and saw that he had understood the same.
"Thomas!" he shouted back to the men in the boat. "What of him? What about Thomas?"
"Both reached the cabin safe. Thomas died there. Hedon buried him and went on alone!"
"They got to the cabin," McNeal was repeating incredulously to himself. "They got to the cabin; and Thomas—poor Ian—died there."
"Poor Mr. Thomas," the girl reiterated. "But they said Eric was safe. He went on?"
"Listen," said McNeal gently. "They're telling us more."
"Hedon left here alone a year ago last June to try for the south over the sea ice!"
Then the boat was alongside, and Geoff, with the messages, jumped up and was pulled upon the Viborg's deck. Margaret seized the sheets of Hedon's record and stood staring at them, tears in her eyes at first making her unable to read, able only to know that the pages in her hand bore Eric's writing. She lifted the sheets to her lips and kissed them; and, as Latham came and stood beside her, she met his eyes.
"You see he's alive!" she said to him, half in the humbleness of grateful joy, yet half too in defiance. "You see he's alive. I knew he must be alive."
"He was alive," Latham said quietly, with something of the tone of a correction.
She seemed not to hear him. In triumph, tempered by sorrow as she came to the report of the leader's death, she read aloud the record as Koehler had read it to the three others in the cabin.
"Now what else?" she cried, hugging the sheets to her when she had finished.
They told her all—of first finding the skeleton of the bear shot through the head, the cairn with the lost message, the cabin with the rude, lonely cross above the grave on the shore of the polar sea.
"You did right not to try to bring back Mr. Thomas' body," Margaret agreed with them. "I know that Mrs. Thomas and his friends and those who were proud of him will like to think of him buried where he left his work."
Koehler told her then of their search after leaving the cabin. The cairn on the south shore, which had contained the destroyed message, probably was built to tell some change in Hedon's plan. They had looked in every probable place for any other cairn that might have preserved a message or for any other trace of Hedon's course after leaving the cabin; but had found nothing. The girl again unfolded the sheets from the report in the cabin.
"But this is perfectly clear," she said. "He went over the ice to the south a year ago last June."
"Exactly," said Latham, "a year ago last June."
"And would have built cairns on the shores south of here."
"You've seen, of course, by the date of that record that the message from the wild goose was what I said it must be, a fraud?"
"But you've seen what I knew all along—that Eric Hedon is not dead. He is not dead!"
Latham turned without a word from the land and looked back over the sea to the south. The morning was clear and sunny, and as far as the eye reached only open water stretched; and all knew that for mile after mile beyond the grim, green horizon was water where the ice must have broken up early and treacherously in the spring of the year before—the ice over which Eric Hedon alone must have tried to travel.
"If he reached land again south of here," Latham said quietly, "we will find his cairns. He was very definite about that in his report."
"So let's follow him as fast as we can," Margaret cried.
McNeal looked at Latham, who nodded. They pulled up the boat and lashed it again to the deck. The wind was blowing from the north and the sea beginning to surge higher. There was a breath of winter in the air.
"Did you build our cairns on the shore, Otto?" the skipper called to Koehler.
The doctor looked up.
"What cairns?" Margaret asked.
"The Viborg expedition cairns, of course," McNeal said shortly, "as Koehler arranged with the Arctic Society in New York. Our cairns are to be two, about fifteen feet apart, in a line east and west, the larger to the east and to contain the message."
"For those who may come to look for us," the Scotchman said simply. "Did you remember, Otto?"
"I didn't build cairns, but left a record at the depot," the doctor replied.
"What did you leave?" Margaret asked.
The doctor gave her his copy sheet, and she read aloud.
"'The Viborg expedition, under direction of Price Latham and consisting of Jeremiah McNeal, sailing master, Jules Brunton and Olaf Michaelis, mates, Geoffrey Sherwood, Sherwood and Latham acting as engineers, Otto Koehler, physician, and Hugo Linn, cook, and accompanied by Margaret Sherwood—purpose, the relief of or finding records of Ian Thomas and Eric Hedon, missing from Aurora expedition of four years previous—arriving off the southern cape of this island August sixteenth'"—there followed the year. "'On same day, Latham, G. Sherwood, Brunton and Koehler landed and found on shore bones of bear shot by rifle near cairns of Aurora type containing indecipherable message. These were not there when McNeal, Brunton, Linn and Koehler crossed island on retreat from Aurora wreck. Party crossing island reached this spot on the seventeenth, discovering grave of Ian Thomas and report of Eric Hedon telling of Thomas' death at this point and Hedon's plan of travel south. Copied his report, leaving copy and taking original. All in good health, returning to ship, and doubtless will endeavour to follow Hedon's projected course as closely as possible.'"
"That'll do." McNeal glanced over this after her. "Then let's be on Hedon's course as quick as we can."