THE PURPLE CLOUD
[Greek: estai kai Samos ammos, eseitai Daelos adaelos]
About three months ago—that is to say, toward the end of May of this year of 1900—the writer whose name appears on the title-page received as noteworthy a letter, and packet of papers, as it has been his lot to examine. They came from a very good friend of mine, whose name there is no reason that I should now conceal—Dr. Arthur Lister Browne, M.A. (Oxon.), F.R.C.P. It happened that for two years I had been spending most of my time in France, and as Browne had a Norfolk practice, I had not seen him during my visits to London. Moreover, though our friendship was of the most intimate kind, we were both atrocious correspondents: so that only two notes passed between us during those years.
Till, last May, there reached me the letter—and the packet—to which I refer. The packet consisted of four note-books, quite crowded throughout with those giddy shapes of Pitman's shorthand, whose ensemble so resembles startled swarms hovering in flighty poses on the wing. They were scribbled in pencil, with little distinction between thick and thin strokes, few vowels: so that their slow deciphering, I can assure the reader, has been no holiday. The letter also was pencilled in shorthand; and this letter, together with the second of the note-books which I have deciphered (it was marked 'III.'), I now publish.
[I must say, however, that in some five instances there will occur sentences rather crutched by my own guess-work; and in two instances the characters were so impossibly mystical, that I had to abandon the passage with a head-ache. But all this will be found immaterial to the general narrative.]
The following is Browne's letter:
'DEAR OLD SHIEL,—I have just been lying thinking of you, and wishing that you were here to give one a last squeeze of the hand before I—"go": for, by all appearance, "going" I am. Four days ago, I began to feel a soreness in the throat, and passing by old Johnson's surgery at Selbridge, went in and asked him to have a look at me. He muttered something about membranous laryngitis which made me smile, but by the time I reached home I was hoarse, and not smiling: before night I had dyspnoca and laryngeal stridor. I at once telegraphed to London for Morgan, and, between him and Johnson, they have been opening my trachea, and burning my inside with chromic acid and the galvanic cautery. The difficulty as to breathing has subsided, and it is wonderful how little I suffer: but I am much too old a hand not to know what's what: the bronchi are involved—too far involved—and as a matter of absolute fact, there isn't any hope. Morgan is still, I believe, fondly dwelling upon the possibility of adding me to his successful-tracheotomy statistics, but prognosis was always my strong point, and I say No. The very small consolation of my death will be the beating of a specialist in his own line. So we shall see.
'I have been arranging some of my affairs this morning, and remembered these notebooks. I intended letting you have them months ago, but my habit of putting things off, and the fact that the lady was alive from whom I took down the words, prevented me. Now she is dead, and as a literary man, and a student of life, you should be interested, if you can manage to read them. You may even find them valuable.
'I am under a little morphia at present, propped up in a nice little state of languor, and as I am able to write without much effort, I will tell you in the old Pitman's something about her. Her name was Miss Mary Wilson; she was about thirty when I met her, forty-five when she died, and I knew her intimately all those fifteen years. Do you know anything about the philosophy of the hypnotic trance? Well, that was the relation between us—hypnotist and subject. She had been under another man before my time, but no one was ever so successful with her as I. She suffered from tic douloureux of the fifth nerve. She had had most of her teeth drawn before I saw her, and an attempt had been made to wrench out the nerve on the left side by the external scission. But it made no difference: all the clocks in hell tick-tacked in that poor woman's jaw, and it was the mercy of Providence that ever she came across me. My organisation was found to have almost complete, and quite easy, control over hers, and with a few passes I could expel her Legion.
'Well, you never saw anyone so singular in personal appearance as my friend, Miss Wilson. Medicine-man as I am, I could never behold her suddenly without a sensation of shock: she suggested so inevitably what we call "the other world," one detecting about her some odour of the worm, with the feeling that here was rather ghost than woman. And yet I can hardly convey to you the why of this, except by dry details as to the contours of her lofty brow, meagre lips, pointed chin, and ashen cheeks. She was tall and deplorably emaciated, her whole skeleton, except the thigh-bones, being quite visible. Her eyes were of the bluish hue of cigarette smoke, and had in them the strangest, feeble, unearthly gaze; while at thirty-five her paltry wisp of hair was quite white.
'She was well-to-do, and lived alone in old Wooding Manor-house, five miles from Ash Thomas. As you know, I was "beginning" in these parts at the time, and soon took up my residence at the manor. She insisted that I should devote myself to her alone; and that one patient constituted the most lucrative practice which I ever had.
'Well, I quickly found that, in the state of trance, Miss Wilson possessed very remarkable powers: remarkable, I mean, not, of course, because peculiar to herself in kind, but because they were so constant, reliable, exact, and far-reaching, in degree. The veriest fledgling in psychical science will now sit and discourse finically to you about the reporting powers of the mind in its trance state—just as though it was something quite new! This simple fact, I assure you, which the Psychical Research Society, only after endless investigation, admits to be scientific, has been perfectly well known to every old crone since the Middle Ages, and, I assume, long previously. What an unnecessary air of discovery! The certainty that someone in trance in Manchester can tell you what is going on in London, or in Pekin, was not, of course, left to the acumen of an office in Fleet Street; and the society, in establishing the fact beyond doubt for the general public, has not gone one step toward explaining it. They have, in fact, revealed nothing that many of us did not, with absolute assurance, know before.
'But talking of poor Miss Wilson, I say that her powers were remarkable, because, though not exceptional in genre, they were so special in quantity,—so "constant," and "far-reaching." I believe it to be a fact that, in general, the powers of trance manifest themselves more particularly with regard to space, as distinct from time: the spirit roams in the present—it travels over a plain—it does not usually attract the interest of observers by great ascents, or by great descents. I fancy that is so. But Miss Wilson's gift was special to this extent, that she travelled in every direction, and easily in all but one, north and south, up and down, in the past, the present, and the future.
This I discovered, not at once, but gradually. She would emit a stream of sounds in the trance state—I can hardly call it speech, so murmurous, yet guttural, was the utterance, mixed with puffy breath-sounds at the languid lips. This state was accompanied by an intense contraction of the pupils, absence of the knee-jerk, considerable rigor, and a rapt and arrant expression. I got into the habit of sitting long hours at her bed-side, quite fascinated by her, trying to catch the import of that opiate and visionary language which came puffing and fluttering in deliberate monotone from her lips. Gradually, in the course of months, my ear learned to detect the words; "the veil was rent" for me also; and I was able to follow somewhat the course of her musing and wandering spirit.
At the end of six months I heard her one day repeat some words which were familiar to me. They were these: "Such were the arts by which the Romans extended their conquests, and attained the palm of victory; and the concurring testimony of different authors enables us to describe them with precision..." I was startled: they are part of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," which I easily guessed that she had never read.
I said in a stern voice: "Where are you?"
She replied, "Us are in a room, eight hundred and eleven miles above. A man is writing. Us are reading."
I may tell you two things: first, that in trance she never spoke of herself as "I," nor even as "we," but, for some unknown reason, in the objective way, as "us": "us are," she would say—"us will," "us went"; though, of course, she was an educated lady, and I don't think ever lived in the West of England, where they say "us" in that way; secondly, when wandering in the past, she always represented herself as being "above" (the earth?), and higher the further back in time she went; in describing present events she appears to have felt herself on (the earth); while, as regards the future, she invariably declared that "us" were so many miles "within" (the earth).
To her excursions in this last direction, however, there seemed to exist certain fixed limits: I say seemed, for I cannot be sure, and only mean that, in spite of my efforts, she never, in fact, went far in this direction. Three, four thousand "miles" were common figures on her lips in describing her distance "above"; but her distance "within" never got beyond sixty-three. Usually, she would say twenty, twenty-five. She appeared, in relation to the future, to resemble a diver in the deep sea, who, the deeper he strives, finds a more resistant pressure, till, at no great depth, resistance becomes prohibition, and he can no further strive.
'I am afraid I can't go on: though I had a good deal to tell you about this lady. During fifteen years, off and on, I sat listening by her dim bed-side to her murmuring trances! At last my expert ear could detect the sense of her faintest sigh. I heard the "Decline and Fall" from beginning to end. Some of her reports were the most frivolous nonsense: over others I have hung in a horror of interest. Certainly, my friend, I have heard some amazing words proceed from those wan lips of Mary Wilson. Sometimes I could hitch her repeatedly to any scene or subject that I chose by the mere exercise of my will; at others, the flighty waywardness of her spirit eluded and baffled me: she resisted—she disobeyed: otherwise I might have sent you, not four note-books, but twenty, or forty. About the fifth year it struck me that it would be well to jot down her more connected utterances, since I knew shorthand.
The note-book marked "I.,"  which seems to me the most curious, belongs to the seventh year. Its history, like those of the other three, is this: I heard her one afternoon murmuring in the intonation used when reading; the matter interested me; I asked her where she was. She replied: "Us are forty-five miles within: us read, and another writes"; from which I concluded that she was some fifteen to thirty years in the future, perusing an as yet unpublished work. After that, during some weeks, I managed to keep her to the same subject, and finally, I fancy, won pretty well the whole work. I believe you would find it striking, and hope you will be able to read my notes.
'But no more of Mary Wilson now. Rather let us think a little of A.L. Browne, F.R.C.P.!—with a breathing-tube in his trachea, and Eternity under his pillow...' [Dr. Browne's letter then continues on a subject of no interest here.]
[The present writer may add that Dr. Browne's prognosis of his own case proved correct, for he passed away two days after writing the above. My transcription of the shorthand book marked 'III.' I now proceed to give without comment, merely reminding the reader that the words form the substance of a book or document to be written, or to be motived (according to Miss Wilson) in that Future, which, no less than the Past, substantively exists in the Present—though, like the Past, we see it not. I need only add that the title, division into paragraphs, &c., have been arbitrarily contrived by myself for the sake of form and convenience.]
[Footnote 1: This I intend to publish under the title of 'The Last Miracle; 'II.' will bear that of 'The Lord of the Sea'; the present book is marked 'III.' The perusal of 'IV.' I have yet finished, but so far do not consider it suitable for publication.]
(Here begins the note-book marked 'III.')
THE PURPLE CLOUD
Well, the memory seems to be getting rather impaired now, rather weak. What, for instance, was the name of that parson who preached, just before the Boreal set out, about the wickedness of any further attempt to reach the North Pole? I have forgotten! Yet four years ago it was familiar to me as my own name.
Things which took place before the voyage seem to be getting a little cloudy in the memory now. I have sat here, in the loggia of this Cornish villa, to write down some sort of account of what has happened—God knows why, since no eye can ever read it—and at the very beginning I cannot remember the parson's name.
He was a strange sort of man surely, a Scotchman from Ayrshire, big and gaunt, with tawny hair. He used to go about London streets in shough and rough-spun clothes, a plaid flung from one shoulder. Once I saw him in Holborn with his rather wild stalk, frowning and muttering to himself. He had no sooner come to London, and opened chapel (I think in Fetter Lane), than the little room began to be crowded; and when, some years afterwards, he moved to a big establishment in Kensington, all sorts of men, even from America and Australia, flocked to hear the thunderstorms that he talked, though certainly it was not an age apt to fly into enthusiasms over that species of pulpit prophets and prophecies. But this particular man undoubtedly did wake the strong dark feelings that sleep in the heart; his eyes were very singular and powerful; his voice from a whisper ran gathering, like snow-balls, and crashed, as I have heard the pack-ice in commotion far yonder in the North; while his gestures were as uncouth and gawky as some wild man's of the primitive ages.
Well, this man—what was his name?—Macintosh? Mackay? I think—yes, that was it! Mackay. Mackay saw fit to take offence at the new attempt to reach the Pole in the Boreal; and for three Sundays, when the preparations were nearing completion, stormed against it at Kensington.
The excitement of the world with regard to the North Pole had at this date reached a pitch which can only be described as fevered, though that word hardly expresses the strange ecstasy and unrest which prevailed: for the abstract interest which mankind, in mere desire for knowledge, had always felt in this unknown region, was now, suddenly, a thousand and a thousand times intensified by a new, concrete interest—a tremendous money interest.
And the new zeal had ceased to be healthy in its tone as the old zeal was: for now the fierce demon Mammon was making his voice heard in this matter.
Within the ten years preceding the Boreal expedition, no less than twenty-seven expeditions had set out, and failed.
The secret of this new rage lay in the last will and testament of Mr. Charles P. Stickney of Chicago, that king of faddists, supposed to be the richest individual who ever lived: he, just ten years before the Boreal undertaking, had died, bequeathing 175 million dollars to the man, of whatever nationality, who first reached the Pole.
Such was the actual wording of the will—'the man who first reached': and from this loose method of designating the person intended had immediately burst forth a prolonged heat of controversy in Europe and America as to whether or no the testator meant the Chief of the first expedition which reached: but it was finally decided, on the highest legal authority, that, in any case, the actual wording of the document held good: and that it was the individual, whatever his station in the expedition, whose foot first reached the 90th degree of north latitude, who would have title to the fortune.
At all events, the public ferment had risen, as I say, to a pitch of positive fever; and as to the Boreal in particular, the daily progress of her preparations was minutely discussed in the newspapers, everyone was an authority on her fitting, and she was in every mouth a bet, a hope, a jest, or a sneer: for now, at last, it was felt that success was probable. So this Mackay had an acutely interested audience, if a somewhat startled, and a somewhat cynical, one.
A truly lion-hearted man this must have been, after all, to dare proclaim a point-of-view so at variance with the spirit of his age! One against four hundred millions, they bent one way, he the opposite, saying that they were wrong, all wrong! People used to call him 'John the Baptist Redivivus': and without doubt he did suggest something of that sort. I suppose that at the time when he had the face to denounce the Boreal there was not a sovereign on any throne in Europe who, but for shame, would have been glad of a subordinate post on board.
On the third Sunday night of his denunciation I was there in that Kensington chapel, and I heard him. And the wild talk he talked! He seemed like a man delirious with inspiration.
The people sat quite spell-bound, while Mackay's prophesying voice ranged up and down through all the modulations of thunder, from the hurrying mutter to the reverberant shock and climax: and those who came to scoff remained to wonder.
Put simply, what he said was this: That there was undoubtedly some sort of Fate, or Doom, connected with the Poles of the earth in reference to the human race: that man's continued failure, in spite of continual efforts, to reach them, abundantly and super-abundantly proved this; and that this failure constituted a lesson—and a warning—which the race disregarded at its peril.
The North Pole, he said, was not so very far away, and the difficulties in the way of reaching it were not, on the face of them, so very great: human ingenuity had achieved a thousand things a thousand times more difficult; yet in spite of over half-a-dozen well-planned efforts in the nineteenth century, and thirty-one in the twentieth, man had never reached: always he had been baulked, baulked, by some seeming chance—some restraining Hand: and herein lay the lesson—herein the warning. Wonderfully—really wonderfully—like the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, he said, was that Pole: all the rest of earth lying open and offered to man—but That persistently veiled and 'forbidden.' It was as when a father lays a hand upon his son, with: 'Not here, my child; wheresoever you will—but not here.'
But human beings, he said, were free agents, with power to stop their ears, and turn a callous consciousness to the whispers and warning indications of Heaven; and he believed, he said, that the time was now come when man would find it absolutely in his power to stand on that 90th of latitude, and plant an impious right foot on the head of the earth—just as it had been given into the absolute power of Adam to stretch an impious right hand, and pluck of the Fruit of Knowledge; but, said he—his voice pealing now into one long proclamation of awful augury—just as the abuse of that power had been followed in the one case by catastrophe swift and universal, so, in the other, he warned the entire race to look out thenceforth for nothing from God but a lowering sky, and thundery weather.
The man's frantic earnestness, authoritative voice, and savage gestures, could not but have their effect upon all; as for me, I declare, I sat as though a messenger from Heaven addressed me. But I believe that I had not yet reached home, when the whole impression of the discourse had passed from me like water from a duck's back. The Prophet in the twentieth century was not a success. John Baptist himself, camel-skin and all, would, have met with only tolerant shrugs. I dismissed Mackay from my mind with the thought: 'He is behind his age, I suppose.'
But haven't I thought differently of Mackay since, my God...?
* * * * *
Three weeks—it was about that—before that Sunday night discourse, I was visited by Clark, the chief of the coming expedition—a mere visit of friendship. I had then been established about a year at No. II, Harley Street, and, though under twenty-five, had, I suppose, as elite a practice as any doctor in Europe.
Elite—but small. I was able to maintain my state, and move among the great: but now and again I would feel the secret pinch of moneylessness. Just about that time, in fact, I was only saved from considerable embarrassment by the success of my book, 'Applications of Science to the Arts.'
In the course of conversation that afternoon, Clark said to me in his light hap-hazard way:
'Do you know what I dreamed about you last night, Adam Jeffson? I dreamed that you were with us on the expedition.'
I think he must have seen my start: on the same night I had myself dreamed the same thing; but not a word said I about it now. There was a stammer in my tongue when I answered:
'Who? I?—on the expedition?—I would not go, if I were asked.'
'Oh, you would.'
'I wouldn't. You forget that I am about to be married.'
'Well, we need not discuss the point, as Peters is not going to die,' said he. 'Still, if anything did happen to him, you know, it is you I should come straight to, Adam Jeffson.'
'Clark, you jest,' I said: 'I know really very little of astronomy, or magnetic phenomena. Besides, I am about to be married....'
'But what about your botany, my friend? There's what we should be wanting from you: and as for nautical astronomy, poh, a man with your scientific habit would pick all that up in no time.'
'You discuss the matter as gravely as though it were a possibility, Clark,' I said, smiling. 'Such a thought would never enter my head: there is, first of all, my fiancee——'
'Ah, the all-important Countess, eh?—Well, but she, as far as I know the lady, would be the first to force you to go. The chance of stamping one's foot on the North Pole does not occur to a man every day, my son.'
'Do talk of something else!' I said. 'There is Peters....'
'Well, of course, there is Peters. But believe me, the dream I had was so clear——'
'Let me alone with your dreams, and your Poles!' I laughed.
Yes, I remember: I pretended to laugh loud! But my secret heart knew, even then, that one of those crises was occurring in my life which, from my youth, has made it the most extraordinary which any creature of earth ever lived. And I knew that this was so, firstly, because of the two dreams, and secondly, because, when Clark was gone, and I was drawing on my gloves to go to see my fiancee, I heard distinctly the old two Voices talk within me: and One said: 'Go not to see her now!' and the Other: 'Yes, go, go!'
The two Voices of my life! An ordinary person reading my words would undoubtedly imagine that I mean only two ordinary contradictory impulses—or else that I rave: for what modern man could comprehend how real-seeming were those voices, how loud, and how, ever and again, I heard them contend within me, with a nearness 'nearer than breathing,' as it says in the poem, and 'closer than hands and feet.'
About the age of seven it happened first to me. I was playing one summer evening in a pine-wood of my father's; half a mile away was a quarry-cliff; and as I played, it suddenly seemed as if someone said to me, inside of me: 'Just take a walk toward the cliff'; and as if someone else said: 'Don't go that way at all'—mere whispers then, which gradually, as I grew up, seemed to swell into cries of wrathful contention! I did go toward the cliff: it was steep, thirty feet high, and I fell. Some weeks later, on recovering speech, I told my astonished mother that 'someone had pushed me' over the edge, and that someone else 'had caught me' at the bottom!
One night, soon after my eleventh birthday, lying in bed, the thought struck me that my life must be of great importance to some thing or things which I could not see; that two Powers, which hated each other, must be continually after me, one wishing for some reason to kill me, and the other for some reason to keep me alive, one wishing me to do so and so, and the other to do the opposite; that I was not a boy like other boys, but a creature separate, special, marked for—something. Already I had notions, touches of mood, passing instincts, as occult and primitive, I verily believe, as those of the first man that stepped; so that such Biblical expressions as 'The Lord spake to So-and-so, saying' have hardly ever suggested any question in my mind as to how the Voice was heard: I did not find it so very difficult to comprehend that originally man had more ears than two; nor should have been surprised to know that I, in these latter days, more or less resembled those primeval ones.
But not a creature, except perhaps my mother, has ever dreamed me what I here state that I was. I seemed the ordinary youth of my time, bow in my 'Varsity eight, cramming for exams., dawdling in clubs. When I had to decide as to a profession, who could have suspected the conflict that transacted itself in my soul, while my brain was indifferent to the matter—that agony of strife with which the brawling voices shouted, the one: 'Be a scientist—a doctor,' and the other: 'Be a lawyer, an engineer, an artist—be anything but a doctor!'
A doctor I became, and went to what had grown into the greatest of medical schools—Cambridge; and there it was that I came across a man, named Scotland, who had a rather odd view of the world. He had rooms, I remember, in the New Court at Trinity, and a set of us were generally there. He was always talking about certain 'Black' and 'White Powers, till it became absurd, and the men used to call him 'black-and-white-mystery-man,' because, one day, when someone said something about 'the black mystery of the universe,' Scotland interrupted him with the words: 'the black-and-white mystery.'
Quite well I remember Scotland now—the sweetest, gentle soul he was, with a passion for cats, and Sappho, and the Anthology, very short in stature, with a Roman nose, continually making the effort to keep his neck straight, and draw his paunch in. He used to say that the universe was being frantically contended for by two Powers: a White and a Black; that the White was the stronger, but did not find the conditions on our particular planet very favourable to his success; that he had got the best of it up to the Middle Ages in Europe, but since then had been slowly and stubbornly giving way before the Black; and that finally the Black would win—not everywhere perhaps, but here—and would carry off, if no other earth, at least this one, for his prize.
This was Scotland's doctrine, which he never tired of repeating; and while others heard him with mere toleration, little could they divine with what agony of inward interest, I, cynically smiling there, drank in his words. Most profound, most profound, was the impression they made upon me.
* * * * *
But I was saying that when Clark left me, I was drawing on my gloves to go to see my fiancee, the Countess Clodagh, when I heard the two voices most clearly.
Sometimes the urgency of one or other impulse is so overpowering, that there is no resisting it: and it was so then with the one that bid me go.
I had to traverse the distance between Harley Street and Hanover Square, and all the time it was as though something shouted at my physical ear: 'Since you go, breathe no word of the Boreal, and Clark's visit'; and another shout: 'Tell, tell, hide nothing!'
It seemed to last a month: yet it was only some minutes before I was in Hanover Square, and Clodagh in my arms.
She was, in my opinion, the most superb of creatures, Clodagh—that haughty neck which seemed always scorning something just behind her left shoulder. Superb! but ah—I know it now—a godless woman, Clodagh, a bitter heart.
Clodagh once confessed to me that her favourite character in history was Lucrezia Borgia, and when she saw my horror, immediately added: 'Well, no, I am only joking!' Such was her duplicity: for I see now that she lived in the constant effort to hide her heinous heart from me. Yet, now I think of it, how completely did Clodagh enthral me!
Our proposed marriage was opposed by both my family and hers: by mine, because her father and grandfather had died in lunatic asylums; and by hers, because, forsooth, I was neither a rich nor a noble match. A sister of hers, much older than herself, had married a common country doctor, Peters of Taunton, and this so-called mesalliance made the so-called mesalliance with me doubly detestable in the eyes of her relatives. But Clodagh's extraordinary passion for me was to be stemmed neither by their threats nor prayers. What a flame, after all, was Clodagh! Sometimes she frightened me.
She was at this date no longer young, being by five years my senior, as also, by five years, the senior of her nephew, born from the marriage of her sister with Peters of Taunton. This nephew was Peter Peters, who was to accompany the Boreal expedition as doctor, botanist, and meteorological assistant.
On that day of Clark's visit to me I had not been seated five minutes with Clodagh, when I said:
'Dr. Clark—ha! ha! ha!—has been talking to me about the Expedition. He says that if anything happened to Peters, I should be the first man he would run to. He has had an absurd dream...'
The consciousness that filled me as I uttered these words was the wickedness of me—the crooked wickedness. But I could no more help it than I could fly.
Clodagh was standing at a window holding a rose at her face. For quite a minute she made no reply. I saw her sharp-cut, florid face in profile, steadily bent and smelling. She said presently in her cold, rapid way:
'The man who first plants his foot on the North Pole will certainly be ennobled. I say nothing of the many millions... I only wish that I was a man!'
'I don't know that I have any special ambition that way,' I rejoined. 'I am very happy in my warm Eden with my Clodagh. I don't like the outer Cold.'
'Don't let me think little of you!' she answered pettishly.
'Why should you, Clodagh? I am not bound to desire to go to the North Pole, am I?'
'But you would go, I suppose, if you could?'
'I might—I—doubt it. There is our marriage....'
'Marriage indeed! It is the one thing to transform our marriage from a sneaking difficulty to a ten times triumphant event.'
'You mean if I personally were the first to stand at the Pole. But there are many in an expedition. It is very unlikely that I, personally—'
'For me you will, Adam—' she began.
'"Will," Clodagh?' I cried. 'You say "will"? there is not even the slightest shadow of a probability—!'
'But why? There are still three weeks before the start. They say...'
She stopped, she stopped.
'They say what?'
Her voice dropped:
'That Peter takes atropine.'
Ah, I started then. She moved from the window, sat in a rocking-chair, and turned the leaves of a book, without reading. We were silent, she and I; I standing, looking at her, she drawing the thumb across the leaf-edges, and beginning again, contemplatively. Then she laughed dryly a little—a dry, mad laugh.
'Why did you start when I said that?' she asked, reading now at random.
'I! I did not start, Clodagh! What made you think that I started? I did not start! Who told you, Clodagh, that Peters takes atropine?'
'He is my nephew: I should know. But don't look dumbfoundered in that absurd fashion: I have no intention of poisoning him in order to see you a multimillionaire, and a Peer of the Realm....'
'My dearest Clodagh!'
'I easily might, however. He will be here presently. He is bringing Mr. Wilson for the evening.' (Wilson was going as electrician of the expedition.)
'Clodagh.' I said, 'believe me, you jest in a manner which does not please me.'
'Do I really?' she answered with that haughty, stiff half-turn of her throat: 'then I must be more exquisite. But, thank Heaven, it is only a jest. Women are no longer admired for doing such things.'
'Ha! ha! ha!—no—no logger admired, Clodagh! Oh, my good Lord! let us change this talk....'
But now she could talk of nothing else. She got from me that afternoon the history of all the Polar expeditions of late years, how far they reached, by what aids, and why they failed. Her eyes shone; she listened eagerly. Before this time, indeed, she had been interested in the Boreal, knew the details of her outfitting, and was acquainted with several members of the expedition. But now, suddenly, her mind seemed wholly possessed, my mention of Clark's visit apparently setting her well a-burn with the Pole-fever.
The passion of her kiss as I tore myself from her embrace that day I shall not forget. I went home with a pretty heavy heart.
The house of Dr. Peter Peters was three doors from mine, on the opposite side of the street. Toward one that night, his footman ran to knock me up with the news that Peters was very ill. I hurried to his bed-side, and knew by the first glance at his deliriums and his staring pupils that he was poisoned with atropine. Wilson, the electrician, who had passed the evening with him at Clodagh's in Hanover Square, was there.
'What on earth is the matter?' he said to me.
'Poisoned,' I answered.
'Good God! what with?'
'Don't be frightened: I think he will recover.'
'Is that certain?'
'Yes, I think—that is, if he leaves off taking the drug, Wilson.'
'What! it is he who has poisoned himself?'
I hesitated, I hesitated. But I said:
'He is in the habit of taking atropine, Wilson.'
Three hours I remained there, and, God knows, toiled hard for his life: and when I left him in the dark of the fore-day, my mind was at rest: he would recover.
I slept till 11 A.M., and then hurried over again to Peters. In the room were my two nurses, and Clodagh.
My beloved put her forefinger to her lips, whispering:
'Sh-h-h! he is asleep....'
She came closer to my ear, saying:
'I heard the news early. I am come to stay with him, till—the last....'
We looked at each other some time—eye to eye, steadily, she and I: but mine dropped before Clodagh's. A word was on my mouth to say, but I said nothing.
The recovery of Peters was not so steady as I had expected. At the end of the first week he was still prostrate. It was then that I said to Clodagh:
'Clodagh, your presence at the bed-side here somehow does not please me. It is so unnecessary.'
'Unnecessary certainly,' she replied: 'but I always had a genius for nursing, and a passion for watching the battles of the body. Since no one objects, why should you?'
'Ah!... I don't know. This is a case that I dislike. I have half a mind to throw it to the devil.'
'Then do so.'
'And you, too—go home, go home, Clodagh!'
'But why?—if one does no harm. In these days of "the corruption of the upper classes," and Roman decadence of everything, shouldn't every innocent whim be encouraged by you upright ones who strive against the tide? Whims are the brakes of crimes: and this is mine. I find a sensuous pleasure, almost a sensual, in dabbling in delicate drugs—like Helen, for that matter, and Medea, and Calypso, and the great antique women, who were all excellent chymists. To study the human ship in a gale, and the slow drama of its foundering—isn't that a quite thrilling distraction? And I want you to get into the habit at once of letting me have my little way——'
Now she touched my hair with a lofty playfulness that soothed me: but even then I looked upon the rumpled bed, and saw that the man there was really very sick.
I have still a nausea to write about it! Lucrezia Borgia in her own age may have been heroic: but Lucrezia in this late century! One could retch up the heart...
The man grew sick on that bed, I say. The second week passed, and only ten days remained before the start of the expedition.
At the end of that second week, Wilson, the electrician, was one evening sitting by Peter's bedside when I entered.
At the moment, Clodagh was about to administer a dose to Peters; but seeing me, she put down the medicine-glass on the night table, and came toward me; and as she came, I saw a sight which stabbed me: for Wilson took up the deposited medicine-glass, elevated it, looked at it, smelled into it: and he did it with a kind of hurried, light-fingered stealth; and he did it with an under-look, and a meaningness of expression which, I thought, proved mistrust....
Meantime, Clark came each day. He had himself a medical degree, and about this time I called him in professionally, together with Alleyne of Cavendish Square, to consultation over Peters. The patient lay in a semi-coma broken by passionate vomitings, and his condition puzzled us all. I formally stated that he took atropine—had been originally poisoned by atropine: but we saw that his present symptoms were not atropine symptoms, but, it almost seemed, of some other vegetable poison, which we could not precisely name.
'Mysterious thing,' said Clark to me, when we were alone.
'I don't understand it,' I said.
'Who are the two nurses?'
'Oh, highly recommended people of my own.'
'At any rate, my dream about you comes true, Jeffson. It is clear that Peters is out of the running now.'
'I now formally invite you to join the expedition,' said Clark: 'do you consent?'
I shrugged again.
'Well, if that means consent,' he said, 'let me remind you that you have only eight days, and all the world to do in them.'
This conversation occurred in the dining-room of Peters' house: and as we passed through the door, I saw Clodagh gliding down the passage outside—rapidly—away from us.
Not a word I said to her that day about Clark's invitation. Yet I asked myself repeatedly: Did she not know of it? Had she not listened, and heard?
However that was, about midnight, to my great surprise, Peters opened his eyes, and smiled. By noon the next day, his fine vitality, which so fitted him for an Arctic expedition, had re-asserted itself. He was then leaning on an elbow, talking to Wilson, and except his pallor, and strong stomach-pains, there was now hardly a trace of his late approach to death. For the pains I prescribed some quarter-grain tablets of sulphate of morphia, and went away.
Now, David Wilson and I never greatly loved each other, and that very day he brought about a painful situation as between Peters and me, by telling Peters that I had taken his place in the expedition. Peters, a touchy fellow, at once dictated a letter of protest to Clark; and Clark sent Peters' letter to me, marked with a big note of interrogation in blue pencil.
Now, all Peters' preparations were made, mine not; and he had six days in which to recover himself. I therefore wrote to Clark, saying that the changed circumstances of course annulled my acceptance of his offer, though I had already incurred the inconvenience of negotiating with a locum tenens.
This decided it: Peters was to go, I stay. The fifth day before the departure dawned. It was a Friday, the 15th June. Peters was now in an arm-chair. He was cheerful, but with a fevered pulse, and still the stomach-pains. I was giving him three quarter-grains of morphia a day. That Friday night, at 11 P.M., I visited him, and found Clodagh there, talking to him. Peters was smoking a cigar.
'Ah,' Clodagh said, 'I was waiting for you, Adam. I didn't know whether I was to inject anything to-night. Is it Yes or No?'
'What do you think, Peters?' I said: 'any more pains?'
'Well, perhaps you had better give us another quarter,' he answered: 'there's still some trouble in the tummy off and on.'
'A quarter-grain, then, Clodagh, 'I said.
As she opened the syringe-box, she remarked with a pout:
'Our patient has been naughty! He has taken some more atropine.'
I became angry at once.
'Peters,' I cried, 'you know you have no right to be doing things like that without consulting me! Do that once more, and I swear I have nothing further to do with you!'
'Rubbish,' said Peters: 'why all this unnecessary heat? It was a mere flea-bite. I felt that I needed it.'
'He injected it with his own hand...' remarked Clodagh.
She was now standing at the mantel-piece, having lifted the syringe-box from the night-table, taken from its velvet lining both the syringe and the vial containing the morphia tablets, and gone to the mantel-piece to melt one of the tablets in a little of the distilled water there. Her back was turned upon us, and she was a long time. I was standing; Peters in his arm-chair, smoking. Clodagh then began to talk about a Charity Bazaar which she had visited that afternoon.
She was long, she was long. The crazy thought passed through some dim region of my soul: 'Why is she so long?'
'Ah, that was a pain!' went Peters: 'never mind the bazaar, aunt—think of the morphia.'
Suddenly an irresistible impulse seized me—to rush upon her, to dash syringe, tabloids, glass, and all, from her hands. I must have obeyed it—I was on the tip-top point of obeying—my body already leant prone: but at that instant a voice at the opened door behind me said:
'Well, how is everything?'
It was Wilson, the electrician, who stood there. With lightning swiftness I remembered an under-look of mistrust which I had once seen on his face. Oh, well, I would not, and could not!—she was my love—I stood like marble...
Clodagh went to meet Wilson with frank right hand, in the left being the fragile glass containing the injection. My eyes were fastened on her face: it was full of reassurance, of free innocence. I said to myself: 'I must surely be mad!'
An ordinary chat began, while Clodagh turned up Peters' sleeve, and, kneeling there, injected his fore-arm. As she rose, laughing at something said by Wilson, the drug-glass dropped from her hand, and her heel, by an apparent accident, trod on it. She put the syringe among a number of others on the mantel-piece.
'Your friend has been naughty, Mr. Wilson,' she said again with that same pout: 'he has been taking more atropine.'
'Not really?' said Wilson.
'Let me alone, the whole of you,' answered Peters: 'I ain't a child.'
These were the last intelligible words he ever spoke. He died shortly before 1 A.M. He had been poisoned by a powerful dose of atropine.
From that moment to the moment when the Boreal bore me down the Thames, all the world was a mere tumbling nightmare to me, of which hardly any detail remains in my memory. Only I remember the inquest, and how I was called upon to prove that Peters had himself injected himself with atropine. This was corroborated by Wilson, and by Clodagh: and the verdict was in accordance.
And in all that chaotic hurry of preparation, three other things only, but those with clear distinctness now, I remember.
The first—and chief—is that tempest of words which I heard at Kensington from that big-mouthed Mackay on the Sunday night. What was it that led me, busy as I was, to that chapel that night? Well, perhaps I know.
There I sat, and heard him: and most strangely have those words of his peroration planted themselves in my brain, when, rising to a passion of prophecy, he shouted: 'And as in the one case, transgression was followed by catastrophe swift and universal, so, in the other, I warn the entire race to look out thenceforth for nothing from God but a lowering sky, and thundery weather.'
And this second thing I remember: that on reaching home, I walked into my disordered library (for I had had to hunt out some books), where I met my housekeeper in the act of rearranging things. She had apparently lifted an old Bible by the front cover to fling it on the table, for as I threw myself into a chair my eye fell upon the open print near the beginning. The print was very large, and a shaded lamp cast a light upon it. I had been hearing Mackay's wild comparison of the Pole with the tree of Eden, and that no doubt was the reason why such a start convulsed me: for my listless eyes had chanced to rest upon some words.
'The woman gave me of the tree, and I did eat....'
And a third thing I remember in all that turmoil of doubt and flurry: that as the ship moved down with the afternoon tide a telegram was put into my hand; it was a last word from Clodagh; and she said only this:
'Be first—for Me.'
* * * * *
The Boreal left St. Katherine's Docks in beautiful weather on the afternoon of the 19th June, full of good hope, bound for the Pole.
All about the docks was one region of heads stretched far in innumerable vagueness, and down the river to Woolwich a continuous dull roar and murmur of bees droned from both banks to cheer our departure.
The expedition was partly a national affair, subvented by Government: and if ever ship was well-found it was the Boreal. She had a frame tougher far than any battle-ship's, capable of ramming some ten yards of drift-ice; and she was stuffed with sufficient pemmican, codroe, fish-meal, and so on, to last us not less than six years.
We were seventeen, all told, the five Heads (so to speak) of the undertaking being Clark (our Chief), John Mew (commander), Aubrey Maitland (meteorologist), Wilson (electrician), and myself (doctor, botanist, and assistant meteorologist).
The idea was to get as far east as the 100 deg., or the 120 deg., of longitude; to catch there the northern current; to push and drift our way northward; and when the ship could no further penetrate, to leave her (either three, or else four, of us, on ski), and with sledges drawn by dogs and reindeer make a dash for the Pole.
This had also been the plan of the last expedition—that of the Nix—and of several others. The Boreal only differed from the Nix, and others, in that she was a thing of nicer design, and of more exquisite forethought.
Our voyage was without incident up to the end of July, when we encountered a drift of ice-floes. On the 1st August we were at Kabarova, where we met our coal-ship, and took in a little coal for emergency, liquid air being our proper motor; also forty-three dogs, four reindeer, and a quantity of reindeer-moss; and two days later we turned our bows finally northward and eastward, passing through heavy 'slack' ice under sail and liquid air in crisp weather, till, on the 27th August, we lay moored to a floe off the desolate island of Taimur.
The first thing which we saw here was a bear on the shore, watching for young white-fish: and promptly Clark, Mew, and Lamburn (engineer) went on shore in the launch, I and Maitland following in the pram, each party with three dogs.
It was while climbing away inland that Maitland said to me:
'When Clark leaves the ship for the dash to the Pole, it is three, not two, of us, after all, that he is going to take with him, making a party of four.'
I: 'Is that so? Who knows?'
Maitland: 'Wilson does. Clark has let it out in conversation with Wilson.'
I: 'Well, the more the merrier. Who will be the three?'
Maitland: 'Wilson is sure to be in it, and there may be Mew, making the third. As to the fourth, I suppose I shall get left out in the cold.'
I: 'More likely I.'
Maitland: 'Well, the race is between us four: Wilson, Mew, you and I. It is a question of physical fitness combined with special knowledge. You are too lucky a dog to get left out, Jeffson.'
I: 'Well, what does it matter, so long as the expedition as a whole is successful? That is the main thing.'
Maitland: 'Oh yes, that's all very fine talk, Jeffson! But is it quite sincere? Isn't it rather a pose to affect to despise $175,000,000? I want to be in at the death, and I mean to be, if I can. We are all more or less self-interested.'
'Look,' I whispered—'a bear.'
It was a mother and cub: and with determined trudge she came wagging her low head, having no doubt smelled the dogs. We separated on the instant, doubling different ways behind ice-boulders, wanting her to go on nearer the shore, before killing; but, passing close, she spied, and bore down at a trot upon me. I fired into her neck, and at once, with a roar, she turned tail, making now straight in Maitland's direction. I saw him run out from cover some hundred yards away, aiming his long-gun: but no report followed: and in half a minute he was under her fore-paws, she striking out slaps at the barking, shrinking dogs. Maitland roared for my help: and at that moment, I, poor wretch, in far worse plight than he, stood shivering in ague: for suddenly one of those wrangles of the voices of my destiny was filling my bosom with loud commotion, one urging me to fly to Maitland's aid, one passionately commanding me be still. But it lasted, I believe, some seconds only: I ran and got a shot into the bear's brain, and Maitland leapt up with a rent down his face.
But singular destiny! Whatever I did—if I did evil, if I did good—the result was the same: tragedy dark and sinister! Poor Maitland was doomed that voyage, and my rescue of his life was the means employed to make his death the more certain.
I think that I have already written, some pages back, about a man called Scotland, whom I met at Cambridge. He was always talking about certain 'Black' and 'White' beings, and their contention for the earth. We others used to call him the black-and-white mystery-man, because, one day—but that is no matter now. Well, with regard to all that, I have a fancy, a whim of the mind—quite wide of the truth, no doubt—but I have it here in my brain, and I will write it down now. It is this: that there may have been some sort of arrangement, or understanding, between Black and White, as in the case of Adam and the fruit, that, should mankind force his way to the Pole and the old forbidden secret biding there, then some mishap should not fail to overtake the race of man; that the White, being kindly disposed to mankind, did not wish this to occur, and intended, for the sake of the race, to destroy our entire expedition before it reached; and that the Black, knowing that the White meant to do this, and by what means, used me—me!—to outwit this design, first of all working that I should be one of the party of four to leave the ship on ski.
But the childish attempt, my God, to read the immense riddle of the world! I could laugh loud at myself, and at poor Black-and-White Scotland, too. The thing can't be so simple.
Well, we left Taimur the same day, and good-bye now to both land and open sea. Till we passed the latitude of Cape Chelyuskin (which we did not sight), it was one succession of ice-belts, with Mew in the crow's-nest tormenting the electric bell to the engine-room, the anchor hanging ready to drop, and Clark taking soundings. Progress was slow, and the Polar night gathered round us apace, as we stole still onward and onward into that blue and glimmering land of eternal frore. We now left off bed-coverings of reindeer-skin and took to sleeping-bags. Eight of the dogs had died by the 25th September, when we were experiencing 19 deg. of frost. In the darkest part of our night, the Northern Light spread its silent solemn banner over us, quivering round the heavens in a million fickle gauds.
The relations between the members of our little crew were excellent—with one exception: David Wilson and I were not good friends.
There was a something—a tone—in the evidence which he had given at the inquest on Peters, which made me mad every time I thought of it. He had heard Peters admit just before death that he, Peters, had administered atropine to himself: and he had had to give evidence of that fact. But he had given it in a most half-hearted way, so much so, that the coroner had asked him: 'What, sir, are you hiding from me?' Wilson had replied: 'Nothing. I have nothing to tell.'
And from that day he and I had hardly exchanged ten words, in spite of our constant companionship in the vessel; and one day, standing alone on a floe, I found myself hissing with clenched fist: 'If he dared suspect Clodagh of poisoning Peters, I could kill him!'
Up to 78 deg. of latitude the weather had been superb, but on the night of the 7th October—well I remember it—we experienced a great storm. Our tub of a ship rolled like a swing, drenching the whimpering dogs at every lurch, and hurling everything on board into confusion. The petroleum-launch was washed from the davits; down at one time to 40 deg. below zero sank the thermometer; while a high aurora was whiffed into a dishevelled chaos of hues, resembling the smeared palette of some turbulent painter of the skies, or mixed battle of long-robed seraphim, and looking the very symbol of tribulation, tempest, wreck, and distraction. I, for the first time, was sick.
It was with a dizzy brain, therefore, that I went off watch to my bunk. Soon, indeed, I fell asleep: but the rolls and shocks of the ship, combined with the heavy Greenland anorak which I had on, and the state of my body, together produced a fearful nightmare, in which I was conscious of a vain struggle to move, a vain fight for breath, for the sleeping-bag turned to an iceberg on my bosom. Of Clodagh was my gasping dream. I dreamed that she let fall, drop by drop, a liquid, coloured like pomegranate-seeds, into a glass of water; and she presented the glass to Peters. The draught, I knew, was poisonous as death: and in a last effort to break the bands of that dark slumber, I was conscious, as I jerked myself upright, of screaming aloud:
'Clodagh! Clodagh! Spare the man...!'
My eyes, starting with horror, opened to waking; the electric light was shining in the cabin; and there stood David Wilson looking at me.
Wilson was a big man, with a massively-built, long face, made longer by a beard, and he had little nervous contractions of the flesh at the cheek-bones, and plenty of big freckles. His clinging pose, his smile of disgust, his whole air, as he stood crouching and lurching there, I can shut my eyes, and see now.
What he was doing in my cabin I did not know. To think, my good God, that he should have been led there just then! This was one of the four-men starboard berths: his was a-port: yet there he was! But he explained at once.
'Sorry to interrupt your innocent dreams, says he: 'the mercury in Maitland's thermometer is frozen, and he asked me to hand him his spirits-of-wine one from his bunk...'
I did not answer. A hatred was in my heart against this man.
The next day the storm died away, and either three or four days later the slush-ice between the floes froze definitely. The Boreal's way was thus blocked. We warped her with ice-anchors and the capstan into the position in which she should lay up for her winter's drift. This was in about 79 deg. 20' N. The sun had now totally vanished from our bleak sky, not to reappear till the following year.
Well, there was sledging with the dogs, and bear-hunting among the hummocks, as the months, one by one, went by. One day Wilson, by far our best shot, got a walrus-bull; Clark followed the traditional pursuit of a Chief, examining Crustacea; Maitland and I were in a relation of close friendship, and I assisted his meteorological observations in a snow-hut built near the ship. Often, through the twenty-four hours, a clear blue moon, very spectral, very fair, suffused all our dim and livid clime.
It was five days before Christmas that Clark made the great announcement: he had determined, he said, if our splendid northward drift continued, to leave the ship about the middle of next March for the dash to the Pole. He would take with him the four reindeer, all the dogs, four sledges, four kayaks, and three companions. The companions whom he had decided to invite were: Wilson, Mew, and Maitland.
He said it at dinner; and as he said it, David Wilson glanced at my wan face with a smile of pleased malice: for I was left out.
I remember well: the aurora that night was in the sky, and at its edge floated a moon surrounded by a ring, with two mock-moons. But all shone very vaguely and far, and a fog, which had already lasted some days, made the ship's bows indistinct to me, as I paced the bridge on my watch, two hours after Clark's announcement.
For a long time all was very still, save for the occasional whine of a dog. I was alone, and it grew toward the end of my watch, when Maitland would succeed me. My slow tread tolled like a passing-bell, and the mountainous ice lay vague and white around me, its sheeted ghastliness not less dreadfully silent than eternity itself.
Presently, several of the dogs began barking together, left off, and began again.
I said to myself; 'There is a bear about somewhere.'
And after some five minutes I saw—I thought that I saw—it. The fog had, if anything thickened; and it was now very near the end of my watch.
It had entered the ship, I concluded, by the boards which slanted from an opening in the port bulwarks down to the ice. Once before, in November, a bear, having smelled the dogs, had ventured on board at midnight: but then there had resulted a perfect hubbub among the dogs. Now, even in the midst of my excitement, I wondered at their quietness, though some whimpered—with fear, I thought. I saw the creature steal forward from the hatchway toward the kennels a-port; and I ran noiselessly, and seized the watch-gun which stood always loaded by the companionway.
By this time, the form had passed the kennels, reached the bows, and now was making toward me on the starboard side. I took aim. Never, I thought, had I seen so huge a bear—though I made allowance for the magnifying effect of the fog.
My finger was on the trigger: and at that moment a deathly shivering sickness took me, the wrangling voices shouted at me, with 'Shoot!' 'Shoot not!' 'Shoot!' Ah well, that latter shout was irresistible. I drew the trigger. The report hooted through the Polar night.
The creature dropped; both Wilson and Clark were up at once: and we three hurried to the spot.
But the very first near glance showed a singular kind of bear. Wilson put his hand to the head, and a lax skin came away at his touch.... It was Aubrey Maitland who was underneath it, and I had shot him dead.
For the past few days he had been cleaning skins, among them the skin of the bear from which I had saved him at Taimur. Now, Maitland was a born pantomimist, continually inventing practical jokes; and perhaps to startle me with a false alarm in the very skin of the old Bruin which had so nearly done for him, he had thrown it round him on finishing its cleaning, and so, in mere wanton fun, had crept on deck at the hour of his watch. The head of the bear-skin, and the fog, must have prevented him from seeing me taking aim.
This tragedy made me ill for weeks. I saw that the hand of Fate was upon me. When I rose from bed, poor Maitland was lying in the ice behind the great camel-shaped hummock near us.
By the end of January we had drifted to 80 deg. 55'; and it was then that Clark, in the presence of Wilson, asked me if I would make the fourth man, in the place of poor Maitland, for the dash in the spring. As I said 'Yes, I am willing,' David Wilson spat with a disgusted emphasis. A minute later he sighed, with 'Ah, poor Maitland...' and drew in his breath with a tut! tut!
God knows, I had an impulse to spring then and there at his throat, and strangle him: but I curbed myself.
There remained now hardly a month before the dash, and all hands set to work with a will, measuring the dogs, making harness and seal-skin shoes for them, overhauling sledges and kayaks, and cutting every possible ounce of weight. But we were not destined, after all, to set out that year. About the 20th February, the ice began to pack, and the ship was subjected to an appalling pressure. We found it necessary to make trumpets of our hands to shout into one another's ears, for the whole ice-continent was crashing, popping, thundering everywhere in terrific upheaval. Expecting every moment to see the Boreal crushed to splinters, we had to set about unpacking provisions, and placing sledges, kayaks, dogs and everything in a position for instant flight. It lasted five days, and was accompanied by a tempest from the north, which, by the end of February, had driven us back south into latitude 79 deg. 40'. Clark, of course, then abandoned the thought of the Pole for that summer.
And immediately afterwards we made a startling discovery: our stock of reindeer-moss was found to be somehow ridiculously small. Egan, our second mate, was blamed; but that did not help matters: the sad fact remained. Clark was advised to kill one or two of the deer, but he pig-headedly refused: and by the beginning of summer they were all dead.
Well, our northward drift recommenced. Toward the middle of February we saw a mirage of the coming sun above the horizon; there were flights of Arctic petrels and snow-buntings; and spring was with us. In an ice-pack of big hummocks and narrow lanes we made good progress all the summer.
When the last of the deer died, my heart sank; and when the dogs killed two of their number, and a bear crushed a third, I was fully expecting what actually came; it was this: Clark announced that he could now take only two companions with him in the spring: and they were Wilson and Mew. So once more I saw David Wilson's pleased smile of malice.
We settled into our second winter-quarters. Again came December, and all our drear sunless gloom, made worse by the fact that the windmill would not work, leaving us without the electric light.
Ah me, none but those who have felt it could dream of one half the mental depression of that long Arctic night; how the soul takes on the hue of the world; and without and within is nothing but gloom, gloom, and the reign of the Power of Darkness.
Not one of us but was in a melancholic, dismal and dire mood; and on the 13th December Lamburn, the engineer, stabbed Cartwright, the old harpooner, in the arm.
Three days before Christmas a bear came close to the ship, and then turned tail. Mew, Wilson, I and Meredith (a general hand) set out in pursuit. After a pretty long chase we lost him, and then scattered different ways. It was very dim, and after yet an hour's search, I was returning weary and disgusted to the ship, when I saw some shadow like a bear sailing away on my left, and at the same time sighted a man—I did not know whom—running like a handicapped ghost some little distance to the right. So I shouted out:
'There he is—come on! This way!'
The man quickly joined me, but as soon as ever he recognised me, stopped dead. The devil must have suddenly got into him, for he said:
'No, thanks, Jeffson: alone with you I am in danger of my life....'
It was Wilson. And I, too, forgetting at once all about the bear, stopped and faced him.
'I see,' said I. 'But, Wilson, you are going to explain to me now what you mean, you hear? What do you mean, Wilson?'
'What I say,' he answered deliberately, eyeing me up and down: 'alone with you I am in danger of my life. Just as poor Maitland was, and just as poor Peters was. Certainly, you are a deadly beast.'
Fury leapt, my God, in my heart. Black as the tenebrous Arctic night was my soul.
'Do you mean,' said I, 'that I want to put you out of the way in order to go in your place to the Pole? Is that your meaning, man?'
'That's about my meaning, Jeffson,' says he: 'you are a deadly beast, you know.'
'Stop!' I said, with blazing eye. 'I am going to kill you, Wilson—as sure as God lives: but I want to hear first. Who told you that I killed Peters?'
'Your lover killed him—with your collusion. Why, I heard you, man, in your beastly sleep, calling the whole thing out. And I was pretty sure of it before, only I had no proofs. By God, I should enjoy putting a bullet into you, Jeffson!'
'You wrong me—you, you wrong me!' I shrieked, my eyes staring with ravenous lust for his blood; 'and now I am going to pay you well for it. Look out, you!'
I aimed my gun for his heart, and I touched the trigger. He held up his left hand.
'Stop,' he said, 'stop.' (He was one of the coolest of men ordinarily.) 'There is no gallows on the Boreal, but Clark could easily rig one for you. I want to kill you, too, because there are no criminal courts up here, and it would be doing a good action for my country. But not here—not now. Listen to me—don't shoot. Later we can meet, when all is ready, so that no one may be the wiser, and fight it all out.'
As he spoke I let the gun drop. It was better so. I knew that he was much the best shot on the ship, and I an indifferent one: but I did not care, I did not care, if I was killed.
It is a dim, inclement land, God knows: and the spirit of darkness and distraction is there.
Twenty hours later we met behind the great saddle-shaped hummock, some six miles to the S.E. of the ship. We had set out at different times, so that no one might suspect. And each brought a ship's-lantern.
Wilson had dug an ice-grave near the hummock, leaving at its edge a heap of brash-ice and snow to fill it. We stood separated by an interval of perhaps seventy yards, the grave between us, each with a lantern at his feet.
Even so we were mere shadowy apparitions one to the other. The air glowered very drearily, and present in my inmost soul were the frills of cold. A chill moon, a mere abstraction of light, seemed to hang far outside the universe. The temperature was at 55 deg. below zero, so that we had on wind-clothes over our anoraks, and heavy foot-bandages under our Lap boots. Nothing but a weird morgue seemed the world, haunted with despondent madness; and exactly like that world about us were the minds of us two poor men, full of macabre, bleak, and funereal feelings.
Between us yawned an early grave for one or other of our bodies.
I heard Wilson cry out:
'Are you ready, Jeffson?'
'Aye, Wilson!' cried I.
'Then here goes!' cries he.
Even as he spoke, he fired. Surely, the man was in deadly earnest to kill me.
But his shot passed harmlessly by me: as indeed was only likely: we were mere shadows one to the other.
I fired perhaps ten seconds later than he: but in those ten seconds he stood perfectly revealed to me in clear, lavender light.
An Arctic fire-ball had traversed the sky, showering abroad, a sulphurous glamour over the snow-landscape. Before the intenser blue of its momentary shine had passed away, I saw Wilson stagger forward, and drop. And him and his lantern I buried deep there under the rubble ice.
* * * * *
On the 13th March, nearly three months later, Clark, Mew and I left the Boreal in latitude 85 deg. 15'.
We had with us thirty-two dogs, three sledges, three kayaks, human provisions for 112 days, and dog provisions for 40. Being now about 340 miles from the Pole, we hoped to reach it in 43 days, then, turning south, and feeding living dogs with dead, make either Franz Josef Land or Spitzbergen, at which latter place we should very likely come up with a whaler.
Well, during the first days, progress was very slow, the ice being rough and laney, and the dogs behaving most badly, stopping dead at every difficulty, and leaping over the traces. Clark had had the excellent idea of attaching a gold-beater's-skin balloon, with a lifting power of 35 pounds, to each sledge, and we had with us a supply of zinc and sulphuric-acid to repair the hydrogen-waste from the bags; but on the third day Mew over-filled and burst his balloon, and I and Clark had to cut ours loose in order to equalise weights, for we could neither leave him behind, turn back to the ship, nor mend the bag. So it happened that at the end of the fourth day out, we had made only nineteen miles, and could still from a hummock discern afar the leaning masts of the old Boreal. Clark led on ski, captaining a sledge with 400 lbs. of instruments, ammunition, pemmican, aleuronate bread; Mew followed, his sledge containing provisions only; and last came I, with a mixed freight. But on the third day Clark had an attack of snow-blindness, and Mew took his place.
Pretty soon our sufferings commenced, and they were bitter enough. The sun, though constantly visible day and night, gave no heat. Our sleeping-bags (Clark and Mew slept together in one, I in another) were soaking wet all the night, being thawed by our warmth; and our fingers, under wrappings of senne-grass and wolf-skin, were always bleeding. Sometimes our frail bamboo-cane kayaks, lying across the sledges, would crash perilously against an ice-ridge—and they were our one hope of reaching land. But the dogs were the great difficulty: we lost six mortal hours a day in harnessing and tending them. On the twelfth day Clark took a single-altitude observation, and found that we were only in latitude 86 deg. 45'; but the next day we passed beyond the furthest point yet reached by man, viz. 86 deg. 53', attained by the Nix explorers four years previously.
* * * * *
Our one secret thought now was food, food—our day-long lust for the eating-time. Mew suffered from 'Arctic thirst.
* * * * *
Under these conditions, man becomes in a few days, not a savage only, but a mere beast, hardly a grade above the bear and walrus. Ah, the ice! A long and sordid nightmare was that, God knows.
On we pressed, crawling our little way across the Vast, upon whose hoar silence, from Eternity until then, Bootes only, and that Great Bear, had watched.
* * * * *
After the eleventh day our rate of march improved: all lanes disappeared, and ridges became much less frequent. By the fifteenth day I was leaving behind the ice-grave of David Wilson at the rate of ten to thirteen miles a day.
Yet, as it were, his arm reached out and touched me, even there.
His disappearance had been explained by a hundred different guesses on the ship—all plausible enough. I had no idea that anyone connected me in any way with his death.
But on our twenty-second day of march, 140 miles from our goal, he caused a conflagration of rage and hate to break out among us three.
It was at the end of a march, when our stomachs were hollow, our frames ready to drop, and our mood ravenous and inflamed. One of Mew's dogs was sick: it was necessary to kill it: he asked me to do it.
'Oh,' said I, 'you kill your own dog, of course.'
'Well, I don't know,' he replied, catching fire at once, 'you ought to be used to killing, Jeffson.'
'How do you mean, Mew?' said I with a mad start, for madness and the flames of Hell were instant and uppermost in us all: 'you mean because my profession——'
'Profession! damn it, no,' he snarled like a dog: 'go and dig up David Wilson—I dare say you know where to find him—and he will tell you my meaning, right enough.'
I rushed at once to Clark, who was stooping among the dogs, unharnessing: and savagely pushing his shoulder, I exclaimed:
'That beast accuses me of murdering David Wilson!'
'Well?' said Clark.
'I'd split his skull as clean——!'
'Go away, Adam Jeffson, and let me be!' snarled Clark.
'Is that all you've got to say about it, then—you?'
'To the devil with you, man, say I, and let me be!' cried he: 'you know your own conscience best, I suppose.'
Before this insult I stood with grinding teeth, but impotent. However, from that moment a deeper mood of brooding malice occupied my spirit. Indeed the humour of us all was one of dangerous, even murderous, fierceness. In that pursuit of riches into that region of cold, we had become almost like the beasts that perish.
* * * * *
On the 10th April we passed the 89th parallel of latitude, and though sick to death, both in spirit and body, pressed still on. Like the lower animals, we were stricken now with dumbness, and hardly once in a week spoke a word one to the other, but in selfish brutishness on through a real hell of cold we moved. It is a cursed region—beyond doubt cursed—not meant to be penetrated by man: and rapid and awful was the degeneration of our souls. As for me, never could I have conceived that savagery so heinous could brood in a human bosom as now I felt it brood in mine. If men could enter into a country specially set apart for the habitation of devils, and there become possessed of evil, as we were so would they be.
* * * * *
As we advanced, the ice every day became smoother; so that, from four miles a day, our rate increased to fifteen, and finally (as the sledges lightened) to twenty.
It was now that we began to encounter a succession of strange-looking objects lying scattered over the ice, whose number continually increased as we proceeded. They had the appearance of rocks, or pieces of iron, incrusted with glass-fragments of various colours, and they were of every size. Their incrustations we soon determined to be diamonds, and other precious stones. On our first twenty-mile day Mew picked up a diamond-crystal as large as a child's foot, and such objects soon became common. We thus found the riches which we sought, beyond all dream; but as the bear and the walrus find them: for ourselves we had lost; and it was a loss of riches barren as ashes, for for all those millions we would not have given an ounce of fish-meal. Clark grumbled something about their being meteor-stones, whose ferruginous substance had been lured by the magnetic Pole, and kept from frictional burning in their fall by the frigidity of the air: and they quickly ceased to interest our sluggish minds, except in so far as they obstructed our way.
* * * * *
We had all along had good weather: till, suddenly, on the morning of the 13th April, we were overtaken by a tempest from the S.W., of such mighty and solemn volume that the heart quailed beneath it. It lasted in its full power only an hour, but during that time snatched two of our sledges long distances, and compelled us to lie face-downward. We had travelled all the sun-lit night, and were gasping with fatigue; so as soon as the wind allowed us to huddle together our scattered things, we crawled into the sleeping-bags, and instantly slept.
We knew that the ice was in awful upheaval around us; we heard, as our eyelids sweetly closed, the slow booming of distant guns, and brittle cracklings of artillery. This may have been a result of the tempest stirring up the ocean beneath the ice. Whatever it was, we did not care: we slept deep.
We were within ten miles of the Pole.
* * * * *
In my sleep it was as though someone suddenly shook my shoulder with urgent 'Up! up!' It was neither Clark nor Mew, but a dream merely: for Clark and Mew, when I started up, I saw lying still in their sleeping-bag.
I suppose it must have been about noon. I sat staring a minute, and my first numb thought was somehow this: that the Countess Clodagh had prayed me 'Be first'—for her. Wondrous little now cared I for the Countess Clodagh in her far unreal world of warmth—precious little for the fortune which she coveted: millions on millions of fortunes lay unregarded around me. But that thought, Be first! was deeply suggested in my brain, as if whispered there. Instinctively, brutishly, as the Gadarean swine rushed down a steep place, I, rubbing my daft eyes, arose.
The first thing which my mind opened to perceive was that, while the tempest was less strong, the ice was now in extraordinary agitation. I looked abroad upon a vast plain, stretched out to a circular, but waving horizon, and varied by many hillocks, boulders, and sparkling meteor-stones that everywhere tinselled the blinding white, some big as houses, most small as limbs. And this great plain was now rearranging itself in a widespread drama of havoc, withdrawing in ravines like mutual backing curtsies, then surging to clap together in passionate mountain-peaks, else jostling like the Symplegades, fluent and inconstant as billows of the sea, grinding itself, piling itself, pouring itself in cataracts of powdered ice, while here and there I saw the meteor-stones leap spasmodically, in dusts and heaps, like geysers or spurting froths in a steamer's wake, a tremendous uproar, meantime, filling all the air. As I stood, I plunged and staggered, and I found the dogs sprawling, with whimperings, on the heaving floor.
I did not care. Instinctively, daftly, brutishly, I harnessed ten of them to my sledge; put on Canadian snow-shoes: and was away northward—alone.
The sun shone with a clear, benign, but heatless shining: a ghostly, remote, yet quite limpid light, which seemed designed for the lighting of other planets and systems, and to strike here by happy chance. A great wind from the S.W., meantime, sent thin snow-sweepings flying northward past me.
The odometer which I had with me had not yet measured four miles, when I began to notice two things: first that the jewelled meteor-stones were now accumulating beyond all limit, filling my range of vision to the northern horizon with a dazzling glister: in mounds, and parterres, and scattered disconnection they lay, like largesse of autumn leaves, spread out over those Elysian fields and fairy uplands of wealth, trillions of billions, so that I had need to steer my twining way among them. Now, too, I noticed that, but for these stones, all roughness had disappeared, not a trace of the upheaval going on a little further south being here, for the ice lay positively as smooth as a table before me. It is my belief that this stretch of smooth ice has never, never felt one shock, or stir, or throe, and reaches right down to the bottom of the deep.
* * * * *
And now with a wild hilarity I flew. Gradually, a dizziness, a lunacy, had seized upon me, till finally, up-buoyed on air, and dancing mad, I sped, I spun, with grinning teeth that chattered and gibbered, and eyeballs of distraction: for a Fear, too—most cold and dreadful—had its hand of ice upon my heart, I being so alone in that place, face to face with the Ineffable: but still with a giddy levity, and a fatal joy, and a blind hilarity, on I sped, I spun.
* * * * *
The odometer measured nine miles from my start. I was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Pole.
I cannot say when it began, but now I was conscious of a sound in my ears, distinct and near, a steady sound of splashing, or fluttering, resembling the noising of a cascade or brook: and it grew. Forty more steps I took (slide I could not now for the meteorites)—perhaps sixty—perhaps eighty: and now, to my sudden horror, I stood by a circular clean-cut lake.
One minute only, swaying and nodding there, I stood: and then I dropped down flat in swoon.
* * * * *
In a hundred years, I suppose, I should never succeed in analysing why I swooned: but my consciousness still retains the impression of that horrid thrill. I saw nothing distinctly, for my whole being reeled and toppled drunken, like a spinning-top in desperate death-struggle at the moment when it flags, and wobbles dissolutely to fall; but the very instant that my eyes met what was before me, I knew, I knew, that here was the Sanctity of Sanctities, the old eternal inner secret of the Life of this Earth, which it was a most burning shame for a man to see. The lake, I fancy, must be a mile across, and in its middle is a pillar of ice, very low and broad; and I had the clear impression, or dream, or notion, that there was a name, or word, graven all round in the ice of the pillar in characters which I could never read; and under the name a long date; and the fluid of the lake seemed to me to be wheeling with a shivering ecstasy, splashing and fluttering, round the pillar, always from west to east, in the direction of the spinning of the earth; and it was borne in upon me—I can't at all say how—that this fluid was the substance of a living creature; and I had the distinct fancy, as my senses failed, that it was a creature with many dull and anguished eyes, and that, as it wheeled for ever round in fluttering lust, it kept its eyes always turned upon the name and the date graven in the pillar. But this must be my madness....
* * * * *
It must have been not less than an hour before a sense of life returned to me; and when the thought stabbed my brain that a long, long time I had lain there in the presence of those gloomy orbs, my spirit seemed to groan and die within me.
In some minutes, however, I had scrambled to my feet, clutched at a dog's harness, and without one backward glance, was flying from that place.
Half-way to the halting-place, I waited Clark and Mew, being very sick and doddering, and unable to advance. But they did not come.
Later on, when I gathered force to go further, I found that they had perished in the upheaval of the ice. One only of the sledges, half buried, I saw near the spot of our bivouac.
* * * * *
Alone that same day I began my way southward, and for five days made good progress. On the eighth day I noticed, stretched right across the south-eastern horizon, a region of purple vapour which luridly obscured the face of the sun: and day after day I saw it steadily brooding there. But what it could be I did not understand.
* * * * *
Well, onward through the desert ice I continued my lonely way, with a baleful shrinking terror in my heart; for very stupendous, alas! is the burden of that Arctic solitude upon one poor human soul.
Sometimes on a halt I have lain and listened long to the hollow silence, recoiling, crushed by it, hoping that at least one of the dogs might whine. I have even crept shivering from the thawed sleeping-bag to flog a dog, so that I might hear a sound.
I had started from the Pole with a well-filled sledge, and the sixteen dogs left alive from the ice-packing which buried my comrades. This was on the evening of the 13th April. I had saved from the wreck of our things most of the whey-powder, pemmican, &c., as well as the theodolite, compass, chronometer, train-oil lamp for cooking, and other implements: I was therefore in no doubt as to my course, and I had provisions for ninety days. But ten days from the start my supply of dog-food failed, and I had to begin to slaughter my only companions, one by one.
Well, in the third week the ice became horribly rough, and with moil and toil enough to wear a bear to death, I did only five miles a day. After the day's work I would crawl with a dying sigh into the sleeping-bag, clad still in the load of skins which stuck to me a mere filth of grease, to sleep the sleep of a swine, indifferent if I never woke.
Always—day after day—on the south-eastern horizon, brooded sullenly that curious stretched-out region of purple vapour, like the smoke of the conflagration of the world. And I noticed that its length constantly reached out and out, and silently grew.
* * * * *
Once I had a very pleasant dream. I dreamed that I was in a garden—an Arabian paradise—so sweet was the perfume. All the time, however, I had a sub-consciousness of the gale which was actually blowing from the S.E. over the ice, and, at the moment when I awoke, was half-wittedly droning to myself; 'It is a Garden of Peaches; but I am not really in the garden: I am really on the ice; only, the S.E. storm is wafting to me the aroma of this Garden of Peaches.'
I opened my eyes—I started—I sprang to my feet! For, of all the miracles!—I could not doubt—an actual aroma like peach-blossom was in the algid air about me!
Before I could collect my astonished senses, I began to vomit pretty violently, and at the same time saw some of the dogs, mere skeletons as they were, vomiting, too. For a long time I lay very sick in a kind of daze, and, on rising, found two of the dogs dead, and all very queer. The wind had now changed to the north.
Well, on I staggered, fighting every inch of my deplorably weary way. This odour of peach-blossom, my sickness, and the death of the two dogs, remained a wonder to me.
Two days later, to my extreme mystification (and joy), I came across a bear and its cub lying dead at the foot of a hummock. I could not believe my eyes. There she lay on her right side, a spot of dirty-white in a disordered patch of snow, with one little eye open, and her fierce-looking mouth also; and the cub lay across her haunch, biting into her rough fur. I set to work upon her, and allowed the dogs a glorious feed on the blubber, while I myself had a great banquet on the fresh meat. I had to leave the greater part of the two carcasses, and I can feel again now the hankering reluctance—quite unnecessary, as it turned out—with which I trudged onwards. Again and again I found myself asking: 'Now, what could have killed those two bears?'
With brutish stolidness I plodded ever on, almost like a walking machine, sometimes nodding in sleep while I helped the dogs, or manouvred the sledge over an ice-ridge, pushing or pulling. On the 3rd June, a month and a half from my start, I took an observation with the theodolite, and found that I was not yet 400 miles from the Pole, in latitude 84 deg. 50'. It was just as though some Will, some Will, was obstructing and retarding me.
However, the intolerable cold was over, and soon my clothes no longer hung stark on me like armour. Pools began to appear in the ice, and presently, what was worse, my God, long lanes, across which, somehow, I had to get the sledge. But about the same time all fear of starvation passed away: for on the 6th June I came across another dead bear, on the 7th three, and thenceforth, in rapidly growing numbers, I met not bears only, but fulmars, guillemots, snipes, Ross's gulls, little awks—all, all, lying dead on the ice. And never anywhere a living thing, save me, and the two remaining dogs.
If ever a poor man stood shocked before a mystery, it was I now. I had a big fear on my heart.
On the 2nd July the ice began packing dangerously, and soon another storm broke loose upon me from the S.W. I left off my trek, and put up the silk tent on a five-acre square of ice surrounded by lanes: and again—for the second time—as I lay down, I smelled that delightful strange odour of peach-blossom, a mere whiff of it, and presently afterwards was taken sick. However, it passed off this time in a couple of hours.
Now it was all lanes, lanes, alas! yet no open water, and such was the difficulty and woe of my life, that sometimes I would drop flat on the ice, and sob: 'Oh, no more, no more, my God: here let me die.' The crossing of a lane might occupy ten or twelve entire hours, and then, on the other side I might find another one opening right before me. Moreover, on the 8th July, one of the dogs, after a feed on blubber, suddenly died; and there was left me only 'Reinhardt,' a white-haired Siberian dog, with little pert up-sticking ears, like a cat's. Him, too, I had to kill on coming to open water.
This did not happen till the 3rd August, nearly four months from the Pole.
I can't think, my God, that any heart of man ever tholed the appalling nightmare and black abysm of sensations in which, during those four long desert months, I weltered: for though I was as a brute, I had a man's heart to feel. What I had seen, or dreamed, at the Pole followed and followed me; and if I shut my poor weary eyes to sleep, those others yonder seemed to watch me still with their distraught and gloomy gaze, and in my spinning dark dreams spun that eternal ecstasy of the lake.
However, by the 28th July I knew from the look of the sky, and the absence of fresh-water ice, that the sea could not be far; so I set to work, and spent two days in putting to rights the now battered kayak. This done, I had no sooner resumed my way than I sighted far off a streaky haze, which I knew to be the basalt cliffs of Franz Josef Land; and in a craziness of joy I stood there, waving my ski-staff about my head, with the senile cheers of a very old man.
In four days this land was visibly nearer, sheer basaltic cliffs mixed with glacier, forming apparently a great bay, with two small islands in the mid-distance; and at fore-day of the 3rd August I arrived at the definite edge of the pack-ice in moderate weather at about the freezing-point.
I at once, but with great reluctance, shot Reinhardt, and set to work to get the last of the provisions, and the most necessary of the implements, into the kayak, making haste to put out to the toilless luxury of being borne on the water, after all the weary trudge. Within fourteen hours I was coasting, with my little lug-sail spread, along the shore-ice of that land. It was midnight of a calm Sabbath, and low on the horizon smoked the drowsing red sun-ball, as my canvas skiff lightly chopped her little way through this silent sea. Silent, silent: for neither snort of walrus, nor yelp of fox, nor cry of startled kittiwake, did I hear: but all was still as the jet-black shadow of the cliffs and glacier on the tranquil sea: and many bodies of dead things strewed the surface of the water.