The Great Secret/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII.

ON THE STERILE CLIFFS.

Morning, grim, grey and dreary, yet decidedly in tone with the general surroundings, broke over this land of sterile grandness and desolation, this barrier land, which stood like a gate to that mysterious south—the home of perpetual ice and snow.

Dr Fernandez and his five friends had lain all through the hours of darkness in a state of fatigue and misery which banished sleep. They were cold, wet and wretched in the extreme, while every bone ached with the battering they had received in the ship and amongst the surf. They had seen the glare of the explosion and felt the rock tremble under them, but they had been too exhausted to lift their heads and look around them. Now, however, the dread reality of their position had to be faced.

The three titled female Anarchists were piteous objects, divested of their paint and powder, with their draggled tresses and saturated robes; yet although they might be capricious and fanciful when plenty reigned, they had too often endured hardships to become dead loads on the hands of their comrades. This was well for them, for, with the exception of the reckless and gallant Anatole, the other two were proof against any such weakness as forbearance towards the softer sex. These two men would only tolerate women if they made themselves useful, Dr Fernandez being a callous monster and Dennis MacBride a primitive savage of the lowest order, who would as likely become a cannibal as not if necessity drove him to that point; he was troubled with no compunction, no remorse, and no memory for the evil he had committed.

Two instincts or cravings roused them at daybreak from their long stupor, the desire to eat and the desire for heat. They were cold and hungry.

To get warmth they would have to move about and make the blood circulate, since they had not the wherewithal to make a fire. To eat they would have to go forth and seek it. In fact, they were reduced to the condition of the original savage man, without having the advantage of his education, for beyond their pocket-knives they had no weapons of defence or offence. They were stranded and beggared Anarchists, without a single weapon of destruction, and no society to war against; therefore they were just like ordinary mortals who have lost their occupation, ordinary mortals out of work, or snakes with their fangs drawn.

It was a gloomy outlook indeed, and this they all felt as they rose stiffly to their feet and glanced blankly round them and into each other's wan faces. They regretted exceedingly the destruction of that fine steamship with all that it contained. Captain Nelson could not have regretted it more. They mourned also for their lost comrades, not out of affection or pity, but rather that it would not have seemed so dreary if more of them had been together. Six people seemed a miserable company to start the world afresh; two would have been almost as bad as one.

Dr Fernandez, with a preliminary shrug of his lean shoulders, and a shiver over his thin body, was the first to recover the use of his reasoning faculties and begin the examination of his surroundings.

He stepped to the outer edge of the shelf, and, folding his arms, looked towards the sea with a sombre expression in his jetty eyes.

Long breakers were rolling round him and dashing themselves almost as furiously as they had done the night before against the cliffs. He saw that devil's blow-hole under his feet, with its upward long jets of foam, and shuddered again as he thought of its possibilities of destruction; but the corpses had long since been knocked to pieces and washed away, therefore he did not see them.

The snow had ceased to fall, but the sky was heavy and clouded. It was daylight, but cold and uniform in its dullness and density. The sea reflected the sky in deeper tones of slate colour, a monotony of chilly grey, broken up only by the dark sides of the advancing rollers and the white surf on their ridges. Of the wreck there appeared no traces.

He noted the cliffs with their heavy edges of snow, in all their serrated roughnesses and fissures, with a more hopeful glance, for it seemed possible for an active Alpine climber, as he had been, to climb them. The rope, also dangling idly over the ledge and leading to the surf, below would be of great use.

After a long pause at the entrance he turned to examine the cave. Where it lead to, it was yet impossible to say, and dangerous to explore without lights, and these they had not. It was of vast dimensions at the entrance, and reached far into the rocks, for the roaring of the surf below re-echoed rumblingly in its interior. The birds had left their shelter, and only the bats remained, hanging heads downward in the darkened places.

"We cannot explore this cavern now, comrades," he said calmly, "therefore we must make an effort to get to the top of the cliffs."

"The rope which I brought last night is still here, doctor," answered Anatole humbly, a feeling of guilt still on him for his fatal mistake, which had involved them all in this catastrophe. It would be some time before he recovered his former assurance. "Let me attempt the ascent, and take the rope with me; this will help the others up."

"It is your duty, comrade," replied the doctor coldly. He did not reproach Anatole with his folly. If ever they reached civilisation again—that is, Anarchical civilisation—this bungler would be tried and condemned to the traitor's death for his mistake, and he knew it as well as the others did. His life for the present only was reprieved while he could be made useful.

Poor Anatole turned his head away, and smiled bitterly as he drew up the rope, coiling it at his feet sailor-fashion, while the others looked on without speaking. If they were doomed to perish together on this lonely island, it would be the same to him as if they were rescued, yet he resolved to do his duty and help them in all that he could, without expecting or asking for sympathy or pity. When a man begins to mark this course out for himself, be he Anarchist or Christian, he has taken the first lesson in God's philosophy—a hard lesson, yet holding in its own action its reward, not riches that rust, nor treasure that satiates, but condonation for evil, and the "peace which passeth understanding."

Anatole, the reckless and condemned Anarchist, was about half-way up the cliffs, as he stood on the ledge and prepared to go his perilous way, and only just on the first rung of the everlasting ladder, weighed down with the rope he was carrying round his waist, and the burden of crime, which as yet he felt not, on his spirit shoulders. His mistake at present was the only palpable load he felt, and that he carried in his heart.

He was stiff and cold when he began his climb, with muscles all bruised and sore, yet, sailor-like, he took off his boots and stockings, and rolled up his trousers, in spite of the intense cold that fastened on his exposed skin with Arctic keenness. The rocks also, fringed with snow and dripping with icicles, were torture to clutch hold of, and for a time burned and numbed him. Yet, after that first acute agony, he began to glow with his exertion, and feel a pride in his daring and, so far, success. The doctor was paying out the rope from the loose coil, and watching him keenly as he rose step by step, now clinging to a narrow snow-covered edge or crack, now making a desperate leap slantways, yet never losing ground.

He had only about two hundred feet to reach the top, but the rope was a heavy one which he carried, and seemed to drag him backward, and his foot and hand holds were of the narrowest and most uncertain. His heart was now strained with the effort, and at every step the rope became heavier, while his finger-nails were worn to the quick. It was all bare rocks he had to encounter, without a trace of earth or a shrub. This was as well, if the snow and ice had been absent, but with these to clear away and press down before he could take the next clutch and draw his fasting and stiff body up made the duty like the punishment of the rack.

At last his bleeding hands clutched the upper ridge, more than two feet deep with snow, and he hung over this rock-face with the anguish of a crucified criminal; one more great effort was all that was wanted to complete his sacrifice for his comrades, and then they could come up with some degree of comfort.

The effort had to be made, yet it was a mighty one, and he was weary and faint. Biting his fleshy lower lip almost through, he raised himself by his arms alone, feeling for a while vainly with his broken toes for a crevice, and holding himself up while he did so.

Under the snow he plunges his hand for the next grip, as he rests his weight on the curled toes of one foot. This is the hardest end of his task, for the upper surface is flat and smooth, yet, at last, he meets an undulation, rather than a crack, and clutches it. Then he draws up his knee to his breast, and feels with his other foot for a hold. His other hand he spreads out under the snow, and after groping for a while, finds a ridge. He is over, and on the top amongst the snow, blind and dazed with the white glister; but his task is not yet done, for he must find something to fasten his rope to.

Snow and rocks are all round hi no, and not a tree or shrub within reach, and where he lies it is rugged and barren.

He cannot look beyond his own immediate vicinity, for the icy blast is blowing like a hurricane on this exposed place, cutting his burning eyeballs like knives, so that it takes all his strength to keep from being blown over the precipice, where he lies on his stomach, clearing the snow with his hands, while he feels for a projection.

He has got it at last—just enough to fasten securely his rope to a knob of rock like a large button, yet solidly attached to the surface, as he tests before he trusts to it.

Rapidly unrolling the rope from his waist while he has the strength left, he makes a noose and puts it over the knob, drawing it taut. Then, slipping the loose rope from under him, he gives the signal to those below, and, closing his two hands round the rope, lays his chilling body, as a final weight, upon its length on the snow, and swoons straightway off. He has done his duty so far, and gets for a time his reward—surcease.

Dr Fernandez feels the signal vibrating along the rope, and prepares to ascend. He has no consciousness of any duty beyond his own self-preservation. With any other except Anatole he might have tried one of the others before he risked his own precious life first on that rope; but Anatole, with all his boasting, was a staunch comrade, and, in the matter of securing a rope, beyond suspicion. As it stood at present, the rope might break if tried too often, therefore the next up would be the safest. So he prepared to ascend.

He took his boots off, as Anatole had done, and hung them about his neck; then he went up, hand over hand, with great effort necessarily, but without the risks of the first climber, and in time stood on the top beside the senseless body of his comrade, on which he looked curiously.

"Poor devil! he is a bad Anarchist, but a good comrade," he murmured, as he sat on the senseless body for greater comfort, and, after giving the signal, began to put on his boots.

The women came next, drawing themselves wearily up, yet clinging like cats to the rope and to the rock face. Women, when they make the effort, can climb better than men; they are feline by nature, and all felines can climb. To the honour of the savage Dennis, he came last, blowing like a porpoise with his exertions, as he came to the surface.

"Poor Anatole! what a journey he must have had!" said the countess, as she knelt beside the captain, and lifted his cold head upon her almost as cold bosom.

Still, the action was a tender one, and some warmth must have come from her jaded heart, for soon he opened his eyes, and, sitting up, began also to cover his feet.

Anatole was the handsomest and youngest man of the three left on this ice-cold hell, and the countess must attach herself to some man while she had life.

"Poor Anatole! yes, he has done his duty; and now we must do ours, if we don't want to starve. I suppose you are all as hungry as I am," said the doctor, as he rose to his feet, shading his black eyes with his slender hand, while he bent himself against the blast, and looked about him.

"Desperately hungry and cold, doctor," cried the women in a chorus.

"Well, I see the indications of a fjord to the north, with the coast line trending towards it. If my scientific calculations are correct, and we can get down to that fjord strand, I fancy we may be able to secure some of the packages from the wreck. The wind and tide act that way, and it is our only present chance of a meal."

There were inland mountains, six and seven thousand feet high, snow and ice covered, with jagged peaks, also steep valleys at the base, covered with a dark kind of vegetation, but no trees of any description met the eye; it was a dismal land altogether. But there seemed no scarcity of fresh water, for waterfalls and streams rushed over the rugged mountain sides, and bold rocks started up, with land-locked harbourage and wide fjords reaching from the ocean inland. It was a wild and picturesque country, like the northern parts of Scotland or Norway, promising fish in the sea, with seals, sea-lions, sea-leopards and other war-like game, with birds in plenty. All the savage required to exist here were weapons, skill and fuel. Perhaps that might be found also with the cultivated science of the doctor, the brute strength of Dennis, the vitality of Anatole, and the tigerish unrest of those hitherto society women. They were vicious and depraved in their tastes, but, as women mostly are, in spite of their affectations, they were healthy animals, and fitter for hardship than even the men, and likely to be longer lived.

A woman can exist on less than a man; her digestion is better under control. She is soft in texture, yet she can fast longer and endure more in reality than man, although she must pretend to be more easily tired—that is her affectation. In a savage state she becomes without an effort the beast of burden; even in a civilised state she can endure more nerve fag than three men. The horse is a powerful animal for a short pull, but he requires frequent rests and steady feeding. The ass can do much more on less fodder, with a little encouragement. Man is the horse, and woman is the ass, patient and enduring in spite of her caprices and pretences, longer lived and not so docile unless humoured, yet as brainful if of a less humorous character. She is humorous also. The ass is the most humorous of animals, and the most instructive, only, like woman, it keeps its humour to itself and will not utilise it for the sake of others. The horse knows what is expected and does it, as far as it can. The ass does the reverse, and glories in her perverseness. Yet both horse and ass are keenly accessable able to flattery, only the ass can exist where the horse cannot. Meat and drink are not with her a necessity; they are only casual indulgencies which she is much better without.

Had there been any soft young men about, the princess, the baroness and the countess would have aired their stale graces and made these young men miserable; but as there were none, they buckled to without a murmur, endured the cutting Antarctic breezes, restrained their appetites, and followed in the trail of the men with the docility and naturalism of primitive women.