The Purple Cloud Part 5

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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 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!_

G.o.d 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 s.h.i.+p 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 cras.h.i.+ng, 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 lat.i.tude 79 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 s.h.i.+p, 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 s.h.i.+p, 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 G.o.d, 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 G.o.d 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 G.o.d, I should enjoy putting a bullet into you, Jeffson!'

'You wrong me--you, you wrong me!' I shrieked, my eyes staring with ravenous l.u.s.t 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 s.h.i.+p, and I an indifferent one: but I did not care, I did not care, if I was killed.

It is a dim, inclement land, G.o.d 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 s.h.i.+p. We had set out at different times, so that no one might suspect. And each brought a s.h.i.+p'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 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 pa.s.sed 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 s.h.i.+ne had pa.s.sed 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 lat.i.tude 85 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 s.h.i.+p, 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-gra.s.s 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-alt.i.tude observation, and found that we were only in lat.i.tude 86 45'; but the next day we pa.s.sed beyond the furthest point yet reached by man, viz. 86 53', attained by the _Nix_ explorers four years previously.

Our one secret thought now was food, food--our day-long l.u.s.t 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, G.o.d knows.

The Purple Cloud Part 5

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The Purple Cloud Part 5 summary

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