Story type: Literature
In a one-roomed hut, high within the Arctic Circle, and only a little south of the eightieth parallel, six men were sitting–much as they had sat, evening after evening, for months. They had a clock, and by it they divided the hours into day and night. As a matter of fact, it was always night. But the clock said half-past eight, and they called the time evening.
The hut was built of logs, with an inner skin of rough match-boarding, daubed with pitch. It measured seventeen feet by fourteen; but opposite the door four bunks–two above and two below–took a yard off the length, and this made the interior exactly square. Each of these bunks had two doors, with brass latches on the inner side; so that the owner, if he chose, could shut himself up and go to sleep in a sort of cupboard. But as a rule, he closed one of them only–that by his feet. The other swung back, with its brass latch showing. The men kept these latches in a high state of polish.
Across the angle of the wall, to the left of the door, and behind it when it opened, three hammocks were slung, one above another. No one slept in the uppermost.
But the feature of the hut was its fireplace; and this was merely a square hearth-stone, raised slightly above the floor, in the middle of the room. Upon it, and upon a growing mountain of soft grey ash, the fire burned always. It had no chimney, and so the men lost none of its warmth. The smoke ascended steadily and spread itself under the blackened beams and roof-boards in dense blue layers. But about eighteen inches beneath the spring of the roof there ran a line of small trap-doors with sliding panels, to admit the cold air, and below these the room was almost clear of smoke. A newcomer’s eyes might have smarted, but these men stitched their clothes and read in comfort. To keep the up-draught steady they had plugged every chink and crevice in the match-boarding below the trap-doors with moss, and payed the seams with pitch. The fire they fed from a stack of drift and wreck wood piled to the right of the door, and fuel for the fetching strewed the frozen beach outside–whole trees notched into lengths by lumberers’ axes and washed thither from they knew not what continent. But the wreck-wood came from their own ship, the J. R. MacNeill, which had brought them from Dundee.
They were Alexander Williamson, of Dundee, better known as The Gaffer; David Faed, also of Dundee; George Lashman, of Cardiff; Long Ede, of Hayle, in Cornwall; Charles Silchester, otherwise The Snipe, of Ratcliff Highway or thereabouts; and Daniel Cooney, shipped at Tromso six weeks before the wreck, an Irish-American by birth and of no known address.
The Gaffer reclined in his bunk, reading by the light of a smoky and evil-smelling lamp. He had been mate of the J. R. MacNeill, and was now captain as well as patriarch of the party. He possessed three books–the Bible, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and an odd volume of “The Turkish Spy.” Just now he was reading “The Turkish Spy.” The lamplight glinted on the rim of his spectacles and on the silvery hairs in his beard, the slack of which he had tucked under the edge of his blanket. His lips moved as he read, and now and then he broke off to glance mildly at Faed and the Snipe, who were busy beside the fire with a greasy pack of cards; or to listen to the peevish grumbling of Lashman in the bunk below him. Lashman had taken to his bed six weeks before with scurvy, and complained incessantly; and though they hardly knew it, these complaints were wearing his comrades’ nerves to fiddle-strings–doing the mischief that cold and bitter hard work and the cruel loneliness had hitherto failed to do. Long Ede lay stretched by the fire in a bundle of skins, reading in his only book, the Bible, open now at the Song of Solomon. Cooney had finished patching a pair of trousers, and rolled himself in his hammock, whence he stared at the roof and the moonlight streaming up there through the little trap-doors and chivying the layers of smoke. Whenever Lashman broke out into fresh quaverings of self-pity, Cooney’s hands opened and shut again, till the nails dug hard into the palm. He groaned at length, exasperated beyond endurance.
“Oh, stow it, George! Hang it all, man! . . .”
He checked himself, sharp and short: repentant, and rebuked by the silence of the others. They were good seamen all, and tender dealing with a sick shipmate was part of their code.
Lashman’s voice, more querulous than ever, cut into the silence like a knife–
“That’s it. You’ve thought it for weeks, and now you say it. I’ve knowed it all along. I’m just an encumbrance, and the sooner you’re shut of me the better, says you. You needn’t to fret. I’ll be soon out of it; out of it–out there, alongside of Bill–“
“Easy there, matey.” The Snipe glanced over his shoulder and laid his cards face downward. “Here, let me give the bed a shake up. It’ll ease yer.”
“It’ll make me quiet, you mean. Plucky deal you care about easin’ me, any of yer!”
“Get out with yer nonsense! Dan didn’ mean it.” The Snipe slipped an arm under the invalid’s head and rearranged the pillow of skins and gunny-bags.
“He didn’t, didn’t he? Let him say it then . . .”
The Gaffer read on, his lips moving silently. Heaven knows how he had acquired this strayed and stained and filthy little demi-octavo with the arms of Saumarez on its book-plate–“The Sixth Volume of Letters writ by a Turkish Spy, who liv’d Five-and-Forty Years Undiscovered at Paris: Giving an Impartial Account to the Divan at Constantinople of the most remarkable Transactions of Europe, And discovering several Intrigues and Secrets of the Christian Courts (especially of that of France),” etc., etc. “Written originally in Arabick. Translated into Italian, and from thence into English by the Translator of the First Volume. The Eleventh Edition. London: Printed for G. Strahan, S. Ballard”–and a score of booksellers–“MDCCXLI.” Heavens knows why he read it; since he understood about one-half, and admired less than one-tenth. The Oriental reflections struck him as mainly blasphemous. But the Gaffer’s religious belief marked down nine-tenths of mankind for perdition: which perhaps made him tolerant. At any rate, he read on gravely between the puffs of his short clay–
“On the 19th of this Moon, the King and the whole Court were present at a Ballet, representing the grandeur of the French monarchy. About the Middle of the Entertainment, there was an Antique Dance perform d by twelve Masqueraders, in the suppos’d form of Daemons. But before they had advanc’d far in their Dance, they found an Interloper amongst ’em, who by encreasing the Number to thirteen, put them quite out of their Measure: For they practise every Step and Motion beforehand, till they are perfect. Being abash’d therefore at the unavoidable Blunders the thirteenth Antique made them commit, they stood still like Fools, gazing at one another: None daring to unmask, or speak a Word; for that would have put all the Spectators into a Disorder and Confusion. Cardinal Mazarini (who was the chief Contriver of these Entertainments, to divert the King from more serious Thoughts) stood close by the young Monarch, with the Scheme of the Ballet in his Hand. Knowing therefore that this Dance was to consist but of twelve Antiques, and taking notice that there were actually thirteen, he at first imputed it to some Mistake. But, afterwards, when he perceived the Confusion of the Dancers, he made a more narrow Enquiry into the Cause of this Disorder. To be brief, they convinced the Cardinal that it could be no Error of theirs, by a kind of Demonstration, in that they had but twelve Antique Dresses of that sort, which were made on purpose for this particular Ballet. That which made it seem the greater Mystery was, that when they came behind the Scenes to uncase, and examine the Matter, they found but twelve Antiques, whereas on the Stage there were thirteen . . .”
“Let him say it. Let him say he didn’t mean it, the rotten Irishman!”
Cooney flung a leg wearily over the side of his hammock, jerked himself out, and shuffled across to the sick man’s berth.
“Av coorse I didn’ mane it. It just took me, ye see, lyin’ up yondher and huggin’ me thoughts in this–wilderness. I swear to ye, George: and ye’ll just wet your throat to show there’s no bad blood, and that ye belave me.” He took up a pannikin from the floor beside the bunk, pulled a hot iron from the fire, and stirred the frozen drink. The invalid turned his shoulder pettishly. “I didn’t mane it,” Cooney repeated. He set down the pannikin, and shuffled wearily back to his hammock.
The Gaffer blew a long cloud and stared at the fire; at the smoke mounting and the grey ash dropping; at David Faed dealing the cards and licking his thumb between each. Long Ede shifted from one cramped elbow to another and pushed his Bible nearer the blaze, murmuring, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil our vines.”
“Full hand,” the Snipe announced.
“Ay.” David Faed rolled the quid in his cheek. The cards were so thumbed and tattered that by the backs of them each player guessed pretty shrewdly what the other held. Yet they went on playing night after night; the Snipe shrilly blessing or cursing his luck, the Scotsman phlegmatic as a bolster.
“Play away, man. What ails ye?” he asked.
The Snipe had dropped both hands to his thighs and sat up, stiff and listening.
“Whist! Outside the door. . . .”
All listened. “I hear nothing,” said David, after ten seconds.
“Hush, man–listen! There, again . . .”
They heard now. Cooney slipped down from his hammock, stole to the door and listened, crouching, with his ear close to the jamb. The sound resembled breathing–or so he thought for a moment. Then it seemed rather as if some creature were softly feeling about the door–fumbling its coating of ice and frozen snow.
Cooney listened. They all listened. Usually, as soon as they stirred from the scorching circle of the fire, their breath came from them in clouds. It trickled from them now in thin wisps of vapour. They could almost hear the soft grey ash dropping on the hearth.
A log spluttered. Then the invalid’s voice clattered in–
“It’s the bears–the bears! They’ve come after Bill, and next it’ll be my turn. I warned you–I told you he wasn’t deep enough. O Lord, have mercy . . . mercy . . . !” He pattered off into a prayer, his voice and teeth chattering.
“Hush!” commanded the Gaffer gently; and Lashman choked on a sob.
“It ain’t bears,” Cooney reported, still with his ear to the door. “Leastways . . . we’ve had bears before. The foxes, maybe . . . let me listen.”
Long Ede murmured: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . .”
“I believe you’re right,” the Gaffer announced cheerfully. “A bear would sniff louder–though there’s no telling. The snow was falling an hour back, and I dessay ’tis pretty thick outside. If ’tis a bear, we don’t want him fooling on the roof, and I misdoubt the drift by the north corner is pretty tall by this time. Is he there still?”
“I felt something then . . . through the chink, here . . . like a warm breath. It’s gone now. Come here, Snipe, and listen.”
“‘Breath,’ eh? Did it smell like bear?”
“I don’t know . . . I didn’t smell nothing, to notice. Here, put your head down, close.”
The Snipe bent his head. And at that moment the door shook gently. All stared; and saw the latch move up, up . . . and falteringly descend on the staple. They heard the click of it.
The door was secured within by two stout bars. Against these there had been no pressure. The men waited in a silence that ached. But the latch was not lifted again.
The Snipe, kneeling, looked up at Cooney. Cooney shivered and looked at David Faed. Long Ede, with his back to the fire, softly shook his feet free of the rugs. His eyes searched for the Gaffer’s face. But the old man had drawn back into the gloom of his bunk, and the lamplight shone only on a grey fringe of beard. He saw Long Ede’s look, though, and answered it quietly as ever.
“Take a brace of guns aloft, and fetch us a look round. Wait, if there’s a chance of a shot. The trap works. I tried it this afternoon with the small chisel.”
Long Ede lit his pipe tied down the ear-pieces of his cap, lifted a light ladder off its staples, and set it against a roof-beam: then, with the guns under his arm, quietly mounted. His head and shoulders wavered and grew vague to sight in the smoke-wreaths. “Heard anything more?” he asked. “Nothing since,” answered the Snipe. With his shoulder Long Ede pushed up the trap. They saw his head framed in a panel of moonlight, with one frosty star above it. He was wriggling through. “Pitch him up a sleeping-bag, somebody,” the Gaffer ordered, and Cooney ran with one. “Thank ‘ee, mate,” said Long Ede, and closed the trap.
They heard his feet stealthily crunching the frozen stuff across the roof. He was working towards the eaves over-lapping the door. Their breath tightened. They waited for the explosion of his gun. None came. The crunching began again: it was heard down by the very edge of the eaves. It mounted to the blunt ridge overhead; then it ceased.
“He will not have seen aught,” David Faed muttered.
“Listen, you. Listen by the door again.” They talked in whispers. Nothing; there was nothing to be heard. They crept back to the fire, and stood there warming themselves, keeping their eyes on the latch. It did not move. After a while Cooney slipped off to his hammock; Faed to his bunk, alongside Lashman’s. The Gaffer had picked up his book again. The Snipe laid a couple of logs on the blaze, and remained beside it, cowering, with his arms stretched out as if to embrace it. His shapeless shadow wavered up and down on the bunks behind him; and, across the fire, he still stared at the latch.
Suddenly the sick man’s voice quavered out–
“It’s not him they want–it’s Bill! They’re after Bill, out there! That was Bill trying to get in. . . . Why didn’t yer open? It was Bill, I tell yer!”
At the first word the Snipe had wheeled right-about-face, and stood now, pointing, and shaking like a man with ague.
“Matey . . . for the love of God . . .”
“I won’t hush. There’s something wrong here to-night. I can’t sleep. It’s Bill, I tell yer. See his poor hammock up there shaking. . . .”
Cooney tumbled out with an oath and a thud. “Hush it, you white-livered swine! Hush it, or by–” His hand went behind him to his knife-sheath.
“Dan Cooney”–the Gaffer closed his book and leaned out–“go back to your bed.”
“I won’t, Sir. Not unless–“
“Flesh and blood–“
“Go back.” And for the third time that night Cooney went back.
The Gaffer leaned a little farther over the ledge, and addressed the sick man.
“George, I went to Bill’s grave not six hours agone. The snow on it wasn’t even disturbed. Neither beast nor man, but only God, can break up the hard earth he lies under. I tell you that, and you may lay to it. Now go to sleep.”
Long Ede crouched on the frozen ridge of the hut, with his feet in the sleeping-bag, his knees drawn up, and the two guns laid across them. The creature, whatever its name, that had tried the door, was nowhere to be seen; but he decided to wait a few minutes on the chance of a shot; that is, until the cold should drive him below. For the moment the clear tingling air was doing him good. The truth was Long Ede had begun to be afraid of himself, and the way his mind had been running for the last forty-eight hours upon green fields and visions of spring. As he put it to himself, something inside his head was melting. Biblical texts chattered within him like running brooks, and as they fleeted he could almost smell the blown meadow-scent. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . . for our vines have tender grapes . . . A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon . . . Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south . . . blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out . . .” He was light-headed, and he knew it. He must hold out. They were all going mad; were, in fact, three parts crazed already, all except the Gaffer. And the Gaffer relied on him as his right-hand man. One glimpse of the returning sun–one glimpse only–might save them yet.
He gazed out over the frozen hills, and northward across the ice-pack. A few streaks of pale violet–the ghost of the Aurora–fronted the moon. He could see for miles. Bear or fox, no living creature was in sight. But who could tell what might be hiding behind any one of a thousand hummocks? He listened. He heard the slow grinding of the ice-pack off the beach: only that. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes. . .”
This would never do. He must climb down and walk briskly, or return to the hut. Maybe there was a bear, after all, behind one of the hummocks, and a shot, or the chance of one, would scatter his head clear of these tom-fooling notions. He would have a search round.
What was that, moving . . . on a hummock, not five hundred yards away? He leaned forward to gaze.
Nothing now: but he had seen something. He lowered himself to the eaves by the north corner, and from the eaves to the drift piled there. The drift was frozen solid, but for a treacherous crust of fresh snow. His foot slipped upon this, and down he slid of a heap.
Luckily he had been careful to sling the guns tightly at his back. He picked himself up, and unstrapping one, took a step into the bright moon-light to examine the nipples; took two steps: and stood stock-still.
There, before him, on the frozen coat of snow, was a footprint. No: two, three, four–many footprints: prints of a naked human foot: right foot, left foot, both naked, and blood in each print–a little smear.
It had come, then. He was mad for certain. He saw them: he put his fingers in them; touched the frozen blood. The snow before the door was trodden thick with them–some going, some returning.
“The latch . . . lifted . . .” Suddenly he recalled the figure he had seen moving upon the hummock, and with a groan he set his face northward and gave chase. Oh, he was mad for certain! He ran like a madman– floundering, slipping, plunging in his clumsy moccasins. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . . My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him . . . I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . I charge you . . . I charge you . . .”
He ran thus for three hundred yards maybe, and then stopped as suddenly as he had started.
His mates–they must not see these footprints, or they would go mad too: mad as he. No, he must cover them up, all within sight of the hut. And to-morrow he would come alone, and cover those farther afield. Slowly he retraced his steps. The footprints–those which pointed towards the hut and those which pointed away from it–lay close together; and he knelt before each, breaking fresh snow over the hollows and carefully hiding the blood. And now a great happiness filled his heart; interrupted once or twice as he worked by a feeling that someone was following and watching him. Once he turned northwards and gazed, making a telescope of his hands. He saw nothing, and fell again to his long task.
Within the hut the sick man cried softly to himself. Faed, the Snipe, and Cooney slept uneasily, and muttered in their dreams. The Gaffer lay awake, thinking. After Bill, George Lashman; and after George? . . . Who next? And who would be the last–the unburied one? The men were weakening fast; their wits and courage coming down at the end with a rush. Faed and Long Ede were the only two to be depended on for a day. The Gaffer liked Long Ede, who was a religious man. Indeed he had a growing suspicion that Long Ede, in spite of some amiable laxities of belief, was numbered among the Elect: or might be, if interceded for. The Gaffer began to intercede for him silently; but experience had taught him that such “wrestlings,” to be effective, must be noisy, and he dropped off to sleep with a sense of failure . . .
The Snipe stretched himself, yawned, and awoke. It was seven in the morning: time to prepare a cup of tea. He tossed an armful of logs on the fire, and the noise awoke the Gaffer, who at once inquired for Long Ede. He had not returned. “Go you up to the roof. The lad must be frozen.” The Snipe climbed the ladder, pushed open the trap, and came back, reporting that Long Ede was nowhere to be seen. The old man slipped a jumper over his suits of clothing–already three deep–reached for a gun, and moved to the door. “Take a cup of something warm to fortify,” the Snipe advised. “The kettle won’t be five minutes boiling.” But the Gaffer pushed up the heavy bolts and dragged the door open.
“What in the! . . .Here, bear a hand, lads!”
Long Ede lay prone before the threshold, his out-stretched hands almost touching it, his moccasins already covered out of sight by the powdery snow which ran and trickled incessantly–trickled between his long, dishevelled locks, and over the back of his gloves, and ran in a thin stream past the Gaffer’s feet.
They carried him in and laid him on a heap of skins by the fire. They forced rum between his clenched teeth and beat his hands and feet, and kneaded and rubbed him. A sigh fluttered on his lips: something between a sigh and a smile, half seen, half heard. His eyes opened, and his comrades saw that it was really a smile.
“Wot cheer, mate?” It was the Snipe who asked.
“I–I seen . . .” The voice broke off, but he was smiling still.
What had he seen? Not the sun, surely! By the Gaffer’s reckoning the sun would not be due for a week or two yet: how many weeks he could not say precisely, and sometimes he was glad enough that he did not know.
They forced him to drink a couple of spoonfuls of rum, and wrapped him up warmly. Each man contributed some of his own bedding. Then the Gaffer called to morning prayers, and the three sound men dropped on their knees with him. Now, whether by reason of their joy at Long Ede’s recovery, or because the old man was in splendid voice, they felt their hearts uplifted that morning with a cheerfulness they had not known for months. Long Ede lay and listened dreamily while the passion of the Gaffer’s thanksgiving shook the hut. His gaze wandered over their bowed forms–“The Gaffer, David Faed, Dan Cooney, the Snipe, and–and George Lashman in his bunk, of course–and me.” But, then, who was the seventh? He began to count. “There’s myself–Lashman, in his bunk– David Faed, the Gaffer, the Snipe, Dan Cooney . . . One, two, three, four–well, but that made seven. Then who was the seventh? Was it George who had crawled out of bed and was kneeling there? Decidedly there were five kneeling. No: there was George, plain enough, in his berth, and not able to move. Then who was the stranger? Wrong again: there was no stranger. He knew all these men–they were his mates. Was it–Bill? No, Bill was dead and buried: none of these was Bill, or like Bill. Try again–One, two, three, four, five–and us two sick men, seven. The Gaffer, David Faed, Dan Cooney–have I counted Dan twice? No, that’s Dan, yonder to the right, and only one of him. Five men kneeling, and two on their backs: that makes seven every time. Dear God–suppose–“
The Gaffer ceased, and in the act of rising from his knees, caught sight of Long Ede’s face. While the others fetched their breakfast-cans, he stepped over, and bent and whispered–
“Tell me. Ye’ve seen what?”
“Seen?” Long Ede echoed.
“Ay, seen what? Speak low–was it the sun?”
“The s–” But this time the echo died on his lips, and his face grew full of awe uncomprehending. It frightened the Gaffer.
“Ye’ll be the better of a snatch of sleep,” said he; and was turning to go, when Long Ede stirred a hand under the edge of his rugs.
“Seven . . . count . . .” he whispered.
“Lord have mercy upon us!” the Gaffer muttered to his beard as he moved away. “Long Ede; gone crazed!”
And yet, though an hour or two ago this had been the worst that could befall, the Gaffer felt unusually cheerful. As for the others, they were like different men, all that day and through the three days that followed. Even Lashman ceased to complain, and, unless their eyes played them a trick, had taken a turn for the better. “I declare, if I don’t feel like pitching to sing!” the Snipe announced on the second evening, as much to his own wonder as to theirs. “Then why in thunder don’t you strike up?” answered Dan Cooney, and fetched his concertina. The Snipe struck up, then and there–“Villikins and his Dinah”! What is more, the Gaffer looked up from his “Paradise Lost,” and joined in the chorus.
By the end of the second day, Long Ede was up and active again. He went about with a dazed look in his eyes. He was counting, counting to himself, always counting. The Gaffer watched him furtively.
Since his recovery, though his lips moved frequently, Long Ede had scarcely uttered a word. But towards noon on the fourth day he said an extraordinary thing.
“There’s that sleeping-bag I took with me the other night. I wonder if ’tis on the roof still. It will be froze pretty stiff by this. You might nip up and see, Snipe, and”–he paused–“if you find it, stow it up yonder on Bill’s hammock.”
The Gaffer opened his mouth, but shut it again without speaking. The Snipe went up the ladder.
A minute passed; and then they heard a cry from the roof–a cry that fetched them all trembling, choking, weeping, cheering, to the foot of the ladder.
“Boys! boys!–the Sun!”
Months later–it was June, and even George Lashman had recovered his strength–the Snipe came running with news of the whaling fleet. And on the beach, as they watched the vessels come to anchor, Long Ede told the Gaffer his story. “It was a hall–a hallu–what d’ye call it, I reckon. I was crazed, eh?” The Gaffer’s eyes wandered from a brambling hopping about the lichen-covered boulders, and away to the sea-fowl wheeling above the ships: and then came into his mind a tale he had read once in “The Turkish Spy.” “I wouldn’t say just that,” he answered slowly.
“Anyway,” said Long Ede, “I believe the Lord sent a miracle to us to save us all.”
“I wouldn’t say just that, either,” the Gaffer objected. “I doubt it was meant just for you and me, and the rest were presairved, as you might say incidentally.”