Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 20)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Mrs. Locke had gone below and left them staring at one another.
"I haven't the smallest recollection of the woman."
She clutched at hope. "You couldn't have been the one."
"She doesn't seem to have much doubt about it."
"But you didn't--I'm sure you didn't."
"I certainly did push my way about in that crowd."
"So did everybody."
"I'm afraid it stands to reason a man does that kind of thing more effectually than a woman. Your Mrs. What's-her-name may be right."
"If she is, I'm sorry."
"You simply couldn't have--"
"Well, I don't know. I remember perfectly, I was frantic at not finding you."
Ashamed of the warmth his words brought welling up about her heart-- "And you didn't think much of the women you did find. Yes, I remember what you said about the women who go on this sort of journey. But you're wrong, you see. I know them now."
He made no answer. Just stood there, hands in pockets, arctic cap rolled back, so that it sat turban-like on
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the crown of his head; the perplexity in the face giving way to a somewhat dogged good-temper that declined to be ruffled by the incident.
"Some of the women are just as--are more deserving of being treated well than I am."
"Oh, I dare say some of them are all right." He leaned against the railing, his square chin lifted, and he studied the man in the crow's-nest--but he went on saying in that cool way, "I'm not denying that I would have broken any number of bones rather than not get to you in time to save you from coming to harm."
"Oh, don't say it! That's exactly what Mrs. Locke thinks."
"Oh, Mrs. Locke!"--he moved his shoulders impatiently--"I'm sorry if she got hurt. But in my opinion neither of you ought to have been there. Don't think my view about that is altered by your having come off scot free so far. You see somebody did suffer."
"It's just a chance it wasn't you."
"Don't you see that it wouldn't be a chance if men treated all women as well as you'd have treated me?"
"Men would have to feel about all women as I feel about you before that could come about, and that wouldn't even be desirable. It certainly isn't practical politics."
"Oh, I wish I were clever and could argue. I know there are things to say only I don't see how to put them."
"There's this to say"--he stood up, a little impatiently--"I've never posed as a passive individual. If I see things in my way I"--he made an expressive little
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gesture--"I set them aside. If I hurt Mrs. Locke in setting her aside, I'm sorry. But women have no business being in the way at such times."
"I am glad to think you aren't in your heart taking it as lightly as you pretend."
But the incident rather spoilt things. Instead of being able to yield unreservedly to the comfort, yes, the joy of his being there, a counter influence was at work. A watchfulness, critical, even painful. Not so much of Cheviot as of herself. Was she the kind of girl Mrs. Locke had meant?--the kind who said, "I'm all right. What does it matter about other women." Something in her soul revolted at the charge. In other moods she was conscious only of a blind rebellion against this evil trick fate had played her--perversely thrusting into the foreground a thing so little representative of the man. Offering this, forsooth, as a symbol of all that lay behind. A lying symbol. He wasn't like that. Was he? He had been "frantic" about her. Ah, the subtle danger of that solace, feeding self-love, divorcing her from her less fortunate sisters.
Few people minded the lowering weather the next day, since it brought a sight of land. Yet one had need to be at sea for a week and a half to find comfort in this vision of a dim gray rock rising out of a gray sea to starboard; or on the port side, a range of snow-flecked hills, with clouds hanging low over the crater of an extint [sic.]** volcano. How bleak the world up here in the Aleutians! Then, suddenly, for Hildegarde, the chill vision warmed and glowed. "This is the kind of thing John Galbraith is looking at on the other side of the globe!"
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To every one's huge satisfaction the Los Angeles, skirting Ounalaska, showed no sign of pausing. Instead of turning off toward Dutch Harbor to learn if the ice had yielded up yonder and the way was clear, boldly the ship took the short cut through Unimak Pass into the Bering Sea. What splendid time they were making under the convoy of this best of all captains! People went about boasting, "Nome by Sunday!"
"We'll make the record trip!"
"--Make the big fortunes!"
"We'll beat creation!"
"Splendid fellow, our captain!"
Never such luck before in this bedeviled course.
Toward three o'clock the next morning Hildegarde was waked by the noise of hurrying feet above her head and a great hubbub in the saloon.
"Mrs. Locke?" Her berth was empty.
In the narrow cabin two half-dressed women were agitatedly hunting their belongings, while the dressmaker, Miss Tillie Jump, screamed through the door to know if there was any danger.
"What's happened?" asked Hildegarde, tumbling down out of her berth.
"We are in the ice."
"Masses all round us high as the ship."
Certainly Mrs. Locke had vanished. "I'm very calm," said Miss Mar to herself, with a certain admiring surprise. And then her self-esteem fell from her with the realization that in the back of her head she knew there could not possibly be any immediate danger, or Cheviot would have made some sign. All the same, her tranquility did not prevent her from picturing a
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shipwreck, in which the clearest impression was that of Cheviot saving Mrs. Locke's life at risk of his own. The lady's heartfelt acknowledgments and tableau.
On deck, in the gray milky light, a different picture. No Cheviot and no discernible danger. Plenty of broken, moving ice, but nothing like the towering bergs of saloon rumor. Going forward at low pressure the Los Angeles was picking her way among the water-worn shapes that stood dazzling white, each on a pale green base, submerged yet partly visible. Strange sculpture of the sea, that, like a Rodin statue, gained meaning as you gazed. This rough-hewn mass was a crouching polar bear; that a saurian, antediluvian, vast. Some of the ice-cakes, flat, featureless, were mere lonely white rafts drifting from nowhere, bound nowhere; others manned by dwarf snowmen, misshapen, spectral.
Though so unlike report, there was something here expected, hauntingly familiar, like a single surviving impression out of a vanished life. From a long, long distance O'Gorman's voice recalled her as he came down the deck with Mrs. Locke. "What do you think of this for a change?"
Hildegarde was still looking round for Cheviot, as she answered, "It's all much flatter and less tremendous than I expected."
"Three fourths of the ice is under water. I'm afraid you'll find it quite tremendous enough."
Here at last was Louis! "What's going to happen?" Hildegarde hailed him.
He only pulled off his cap for her benefit. It was to O'Gorman he said, half aside, "We'll have to get out of this."
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While the two men stood there looking gravely out, the ship put her nose into the ice-pack, shivered, and drew back.
"They're reversing engines."
Hildegarde had put her question with a dawning sense of obscurer energies here at work than she had apprehended, and with that the thought of Galbraith took on a sudden something like its old ineluctable hold on her imagination. These the forces that had fashioned life for him. Yes, and for others, too.
The whole of that raw morning she haunted the upper deck, for the most part alone. If Mrs. Locke avoided her, it would seem that Cheviot was inclined to do the same. He had struck up a friendship with O'Gorman. They walked about or sat together in the smoking-room. The feeling of tension that pervaded the Los Angeles was manifest even in the Kangaroo Court. No livelier precinct hitherto on the Los Angeles than this part of the fo'c'sle, where, from the eminence of the judge's bench (a great coil of rope), Mr. Gedge imposed upon his much-diverted public a parody of those forms of legal procedure learned in his experience as a shorthand reporter of "cases," or as he called himself, a court stenographer. Gedge modeled his style upon those administrators of justice who think because a man has disobeyed one law, his fellow-creatures may with respect to him (or rather without "respect") break all rules governing human intercourse. With the aid of unlimited audacity and a ready tongue, Mr. Matthew Gedge made things lively within the precincts of the Kangaroo Court. And with impunity, for an unwritten law or-
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dains that no one, however great a personage, shall dare to defy the authority of the mock court, or can safely set aside its judgments. Woe betide any one who seriously persists in so unpopular a course. Whatever the case being tried, no bystander, no unwary passer even, but goes in peril of being summoned. If he know himself unable to beat Gedge at the sharp word game, it behooves the witness to bear himself meekly. If he thinks to flee, let him expect to hear Gedge roar with grim zest, "Constable! Do your duty. Arrest that man!" and sometimes half way to cover the offender is caught and haled back amid a general hilarity, to find himself, however confused, speechless or unwilling, clapped into the witness-box (a big iron boiler) and kept stewing there while he meets as best he may a fire of merciless questions and the bubbling merriment of the deck.
But to-day the sittings of the Court were suspended. The loungers who came to Gedge for diversion or enlightenment, got only a grumbled, "I pass!" or "Guess we're euchred!" And even such popularity as Gedge's was threatened with eclipse for putting into words the silent misgivings of all men. The very sky looked evil. The ragged gray-brown clouds had been racing across the heavens like tatterdemalions hearing of mischief afoot and eager for a share. Now they were massed there in the southwest, a dirty, featureless mob, in which the ineffectual units were lost and the whole fused into a vast somber-hued menace.
The faithful Blumpitty sought out Miss Mar. "No--o," he drawled, rolling his eye among the fantastic ice shapes. "No--o, it don't look good to me, this don't." But Blumpitty had news. "That feller who discovered
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--yes. And wus dyin' as hard as he could last fall. Well, he's alive yet."
"How do you know?"
"Joslin says so. He had a letter at Seattle from a man who'd come down to Nome from Polaris over the ice at Christmas. Not that it matters much. The sick feller don't seem to have let on to them others. Anyways, they's good and plenty in the Mother Lode. What I don't see is how he managed it."
"To hang on. If ever I see death in a man's face! But I always said they wus n't like anything I ever seen before."
"Near Nome, is it--the place where he--"
"Oh, no, a good ways north."
"Heavens, north even of Nome?"
Yes, it's the farthest north camp they is. Think o' him hangin' on all through the winter. In that place!" Blumpitty's pale gaze sought vainly for enlightenment among the moving ice masses.
"People do get through in worse places than that," said his companion.
"They ain't no worse place than Polaris."
"Yes, there's Franz Josef Land."
"Never heard o' that camp."
"I wish I were going as far as Polaris."
"Why, come right along."
She laughed. "I only wish I could. I'd like to know a man who'd lived in the farthest north of camp of all--the farthest on our side. What's that?"
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"Out there." She pointed to a ghostly something, faint as smoke against the high light of the ice rim on the far horizon.
Blumpitty stared. "Reckon it's a cloud. "They's two more! And another. No, by gum, it's ships!"
And ships they were, five of them, the first seen since leaving Vancouver!--spectacle to stir the chilled blood of watchers on the Los Angeles. For these dreamlike apparitions were vessels such as theirs, threatened like them with ice-pack and with storm. A detachment of the Nome fleet! None came any nearer, except the Ohio and the little Charles Nelson. They spoke and passed, the Ohio speedily to vanish; Charles Nelson to tack about, hunting an outlet, and then, discouraged turn south as the bigger Los Angeles pushed valiantly through the ice to the North. "Turn back! No use!" Charles Nelson warned, and then, quicker than ever you saw in your life, the fog swooped down and wiped everything off the ocean except the nearer ice. The Los Angeles turned and tacked about to the tune of the fog-horn, trying to find a way through the heavier floe, only to be headed off by bigger masses looming through the haze, majestic slow-sailing ice-ships, some like white gondolas, some like sturdy, low-built castles set fantastically on a field of fleece, for the exposed parts of the berg had rotted in the sun, and in the wind been rippled, so that a nearer sight showed the surfaces honeycombed, disintegrate. And again to Hildegarde Mar came that sense of its all being familiar, as though she had been here before. So she had, in spirit. With a thrilling sense of recognition she discovered the original of more than one picture
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in that book of Galbraith's that she and Bella had pored over in their school-days.
When, earlier in the afternoon, the fog lifted a little, a message came from the captain inviting Miss Mar to the bridge that she might get a better view. By the time she had obeyed the summons the wind had risen. The captain was looking through his glass, and Mrs. Locke was at his side. He left both visitors with harrassed face and called down to Cheviot walking below with O'Gorman. And now Louis stood beside the captain on the bridge, looking to the northeast, and talking in an undertone.
"What does he know," said Mrs. Locke, referring to Cheviot for the first time, "about navigation?"
"Nothing, I should think," said Hildegarde serenely, yet with that stirring of pride that visits a woman when the man she is interested in is called to counsel. "You see Louis has been up here before, and so few people have."
"Oh!" Mrs. Locke turned indifferently away and looked out over the white-patched water. The girl felt anew and keenly the embarrassment that had come of the confrontation of these two. Impossible for her to think it didn't matter. No vulgarity of soul helped her to meet the issue with, "Mrs. Locke's 'nobody,'--a little book-keeping woman we shall never see again!" She could not even, as a feebler nature would, simply ignore the incident of the day before, accepting for Louis Mrs. Locke's evil opinion, accepting for Mrs. Locke his professed regret but real indifference, verging on dislike.
"Of course," Hildegarde drew closer, "I've thought
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a great deal about what happened yesterday--I mean what happened on the wharf."
"Oh, put it out of your head."
"It's hardly been out of my head a minute, except the two hours I slept this morning."
"I ought to have held my tongue."
"I'm glad you didn't. Because now I know something more than that he hurt you."
"What do you know?"
"How much he can hurt me, was on her tongue, but the only answer she made was, "I mustn't let you think that I'm going to turn a cold shoulder on my friend because--"
"Oh, no." It was said not scornfully--just accepting it.
"I think a month ago I would either not have believed it or I would have explained it all away to myself. I'd have said he didn't know what he was doing. He--he was-- Oh, there are a dozen excuses I might have made for him."
"But now I don't make one. I say, 'Yes, he did it, and he doesn't even realize how terrible it was.'"
Mrs. Locke glanced at her curiously. "It's true a good deal has to happen before men and women can treat each other fairly."
Hildegarde nodded. "I'm beginning to see that. Louis hasn't begun--not yet. But about other things he's always been the one who's helped and taught me. Done it for lots of other people, too, of course," she hastened to add. "I'd never once thought of him as a person I could help."
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"Now--" Her grave look went as far as that of the blind who seem to descry Truth riding on the viewless air, or sitting on the round world's uttermost rim. Certainly Hildegarde had been given such extension of vision in these hours that plainly enough she saw that it was not till a cloud settled on Cheviot's frame that she knew how much its fairness meant to her. Acceptance of that had brought her acquainted with yet another new aspect of experience. Here was a man that had everybody and everything to recommend him-- up to yesterday. Since yesterday she knew not only that his nature and his outlook were on one side defective, she had glimpses of a faith that, precisely because of this, he had a need of her beyond the one he had been used to urge. A light shone in the thought that there was something she could do for him that perhaps no other creature could. A perception of this infinite significance to such as Hildegarde Mar, belonging as she did to the bigger of the two camps into which womankind are naturally divided. For, pace the satirists, those of her sex who make most stir in the world and cause most commotion in the hearts of men--those daughters of the horse leech, whose unappeased hunger cries ever "More, more! Give! and give again!" they are in the minority. To the larger, if less striking army, those whose primal passion is to give--of them was Hildegarde.
"It looks as if--for all Louis is so wonderfully clear-headed and I'm so--the other way, there are some things I can see plainer than he. But it seems to me that's only a reason for"--her voice dropped a little--"for--"
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"Yes," said Mrs. Locke.
Hildegarde flushed faintly. "For trying, I don't mean by preaching, but trying to help him to see--well, some of the things you've given me an inkling of." She laid her hand gently on the older woman's. Mrs. Locke's fingers closed round the girl's, but she said nothing. "So, though he nearly broke your arm, you will have done him a service."
The white face smiled its enigmatic little smile. But presently, "I'm glad I know you," she said.
"Are you? Then let's be friends?"
As though some tangible barrier had been beaten down they went nearer the two men. The captain was ending, "--and if the ice closes in behind us we'll be trapped."
"Oh, is that all!" said Cheviot, glancing toward Hildegarde.
"No, it isn't at all. We'd be carried wherever the floe goes--and that's not Nome." Gillies lowered the glass, and his strained-looking eyes fell on the two he had forgotten. "Sorry, ladies, you must go below."
Not only rather snubbed, but feeling now the gravity of affairs, Hildegarde and her companion departed with some precipitation, while the captain's hoarse shout rang out in an indistinguishable order to some invisible officer.
A few minutes later, standing on bales of merchandise for'ard on the upper deck, they watched the altering of the course and the race for that single opening, narrow and ever narrower in the close-packed ice. It was exciting enough, for they got out just in time. Thirty-four hours afterward the Los Angeles was still beating about
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on the edge of the pack, looking for another break in the long white line.
The spirits of the passengers steadily sank. To their jealous imagining all those phantom ships, and the score unseen, were now forging ahead. Only the Los Angeles besieged the ice in vain. Men stood in knots discussing the captain's mistakes and airing their own knowledge. They had expected this state of things if he persisted in keeping so far to the east. Hour by hour Gillies's credit fell.
The only break in the dead monotony of the afternoon was suggested in the general invitation to come for'ard and hear Gedge roast the captain. It went ill that day with any witness in Gillies's favor.
In the middle of dinner people looked up from their plates and said: "What's that?"
The bean-feaster was the first to find his tongue. "By _______," he said, "we've stopped!" The passengers dropped their knives and forks and rushed on deck. The bean-feaster was right. In trying to get round the eastern shoulder of the floe, the Los Angeles had run aground in Norton Sound, thirty miles from the mainland. The engines were reversed, and the water round the propeller was set boiling. The ship never budged. The deck resounded to the uproar of many tongues. To waste thirty-six hours feeling her way round the floe was bad enough, but to be "hung up on a sand-bar," a hundred and fifty miles from Nome, with a wicked-looking ice-pack bearing down on you from the west--! And here comes the Charles Nelson once more, very perky this time, profiting by the object lesson and steering clear of the bar. The Los Angeles humbled her
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pride to ask for a line. "Can't get near enough," the word came back. "I'm in three fathom now!" and away Charles Nelson goes, leaving the big steamer to her fate.
"What's that feller calls himself a captain, what's he goin' to do?" demanded Mr. Gedge of his satellites. "'Wait for the tide!' Yah! He's got the most high-spirited idears of any man I ever-- 'Wait!' After wastin' two days and nights a'ready! 'Wait!' While the other fellers are knockin' the bottom out o' Nome!"
This was a harassing thought, but the captain still had his apologists, even in the Kangaroo Court. It was O'Gorman's friend with the fiery beard who dared to point out, "Mr. Gedge told us on Friday and Saturday the captain was 'incompetent and foolhardy.' On Sunday and Monday he's over-cautious and damnably slow.' To-night Mr. Gedge tells us--"
"To-night," that gentleman shouted, "I'm tellin' you still more about this ______ captain. Did they or did they not say to us in Seattle that Gillies was a first-rate seaman?"
"Yes, and so he is!"
"Did they or did they not tell us he knew his job?"
"Right! Knows this ship as you know the way to your mouth."
"Yah! Knows what she can do on the Japan route. But this, gentlemen and ladies, ain't the road to Manilla. And do you know what? This here is Captain Gillies's first trip to Alaska!" Gedge brought it out with a sledge-hammer effect. The audience felt they were expected to be dumfounded. They complied.
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But a voice was heard: "It's most people's first trip to Alaska."
"I tell you," said Gedge, judicially, "he knows as little about these northern seas as that boy there with the banjer."
"This self-appointed judge," Cheviot's voice rose steadily above the growing murmur, "hasn't heard apparently that nobody knows these waters."
"Would you mind repeatin' that, sir?"
"Not at all. In the first place the Bering is a practically uncharted sea. That may be a disgrace to our Coast Survey, but it's hardly the captain's fault."
Gedge looked stumped for a moment. If this were true it wouldn't do for him not to know it.
Cheviot was making good the diversion in the captain's favor, when Gedge interrupted: "Does the captain's friend pretend to say that the whalers and sealers and fellers who've been up here before gold was thought of--that none o' them don't know enough to keep off a damned sand-bank?" Looking his wiliest: "Now, if we had one o' them sort here--" Then, with a highly effective coup: "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!"
"Here on this ship?"
"Right here on board the Los Angeles!"
"Where? Who, who? Name?" Everybody but Cheviot and a few women were shouting themselves hoarse.
"What y' got to say to that, Mr. _______ You, there, with the arctic cap and the tender heart for captains?"
"I've got this to say. That even the men who sailed
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along here last fall, don't know Norton Sound this summer."
"Can't know it."
"And why not?"
"For the good reason that new sand-bars are formed up here every spring. Not a ship that sails for any port on the northwest coast but goes on what's practically an exploring expedition. That's our true danger. The captain's no less than ours."
"Oh, yes, we all know you're in with his nibs, but what my friends don't know is that Billings & Co. sent a pilot aboard this ship."
"Why, then," roared half-a-dozen voices, "why ain't he pilotin'!"
"Why?" Mr. Gedge shouted above the din. "I can tell--" His sentence was jerked to an abrupt close. "What in hell's up?"
Two or three women had uttered little shrieks, and, "What was that?" people asked one another. Men turned and looked in each other's faces. "What was it?"
The sudden jar and vibration of the ship lent added force to Mr. Gedge's charge. "The reason the pilot ain't pilotin' is because the captain ordered him off the bridge the second day out."
"Now I know what it means when the papers say, 'Sensation in the court'!" a little Canadian hospital nurse whispered to Mrs. Locke. But in another second she was clinging to that lady and her eyes were scared and wide; for, as if under the assault of a battering-ram, the Los Angeles was shaking from stem to stern.
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Hildegarde felt a warm hand laid on her two, tight-clasped and cold. Cheviot had put an arm through the outer fringe of the group where she and Mrs. Locke were standing. "Come for'ard," he said.
"Was that the ice?" Mrs. Locke whispered, allowing herself to be drawn along.
All the rest of the people stood hushed for a moment as if stunned by the concussion. The three who alone in those first instants seemed to retain power of movement quietly made their way out of the throng, while every ear was filled with the horrible secondary sounds of that mighty impact--a slow grinding, a horrible gritting, as of granite jaws reducing the bones of prey to powder.
"I want you to stay here till I come back." Cheviot left the two women under the bridge. As Hildegarde listened with beating heart to the sound of the ice against the ship, she said to herself: "These are moments Jack Galbraith has known. After to-night I shall understand better. I shall be closer to a part of his life than Bella ever will." Every sense was set to note that change that in the last few minutes had come over the spirit of the ship. No wild commotion, a hush rather. But a thing of eery significance. No more shrill harangues in the Kangaroo Court. No dancing on the upper deck. No tink-a-link of banjo in the steerage. Men gathering in groups, talking for the most part quite quietly, but agreed that "the old sea tramp" wouldn't stand much of this kind of thing. With a single mind the women, as soon as they had pulled themselves together, hastened down below.
"I think I'll go down, too, and see--" Hildegarde began. "I won't be two minutes."
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"Where are you going?"
"To the cabin. Do you want anything brought up?"
The girl was longer than two minutes, but she was no less surprised when, upon her reappearance with a small hand-bag, she found Cheviot talking to Mrs. Locke. "The current is carrying the ice out all right. Probably the only danger is the passengers making fools of themselves. But if they'll only go quietly to bed--"
"They won't," said Mrs. Locke. The two discussed this quite in the tone of being allies. "Nobody will go to bed to-night," she assured him.
"What do they want to do?" he demanded.
"Sit up till one in the morning," Mrs. Locke answered, "and see the tide float us off the bar."
"Well, the women at all events" --Cheviot looked about with an air of relief-- "the women have gone to bed already."
"No, indeed," said Hildegarde. "They're tumbling over one another down in the saloon, in and out of the state-rooms collecting their things. Some are saying their prayers and some--"
"Do you sing?" Cheviot demanded.
"I?" Mrs. Locke stared. "No."
"Who does?" he appealed to Hildegarde.
"I don't know."
"Yes, I heard a woman yesterday--"
"Oh, that awful Miss Pinckney, you know, with the draggled feathers!"
"Well, go and find her and get her to sing now."
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"Yes, sing. It may make just all the difference." Cheviot was in the act of bolting back to the captain.
"She can't sing." Hildegarde followed him a step. He misunderstood it for an untimely musical criticism. "Then let her make a noise of some sort."
"Oh, she's doing that--screaming with hysterics down in the saloon." Cheviot flashed back to say confidentially, not to Hildegarde, but to Mrs. Locke: "Go and see if you can't get up a concert." With which cool and apparently crazy suggestion he vanished.
Twenty minutes later a woman, wearing diamond ear-rings and a sealskin jacket, passed in her flight up the companionway and leaned an instant, panting, against the music-room door. Now she was lifting her head with a slow incredulity, as an unsteady voice near by began to quaver out a rag-time ballad, highly offensive to sensitive ears, but a tune familiar and to many on the ship most dear. The woman peered round the half-open door, staring from one to the other of those callous creatures within, making merry on the brink of destruction--Miss Mar at the piano, and at her side the draggled Miss Pinckney. Ah, no, that red-eyed woman wasn't callous. She sang the insane words with lips that trembled. Now she was breaking down.
"No, no. Go on," Miss Mar insisted. "Think of the others."
"They'll never listen. Everybody's too--too--"
"Well, let's see. Now!" and very ineffectually Hildegarde took up the second verse. Miss Pinckney plucked the strain away as two men looked in. There was nothing especial to take them up or down. They stood near the woman with the diamond ear-rings, hardly
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knowing that they listened. In that first twenty minutes, every time the ice struck the ship, Miss Pinckney would hesitate and her voice would fly off the scale in a faint scream.
"Oh, please! That's enough to scare anybody!" and Hildegarde played doggedly on. "Now let's try again!" It was, however, as if not Miss Mar's admonishing, but the rude insistence of the tune dragged Miss Pinckney along, pulling her out of the pit of her fears and landing her "Down along the Bowery," or "In Gay Paree," or some place equally remote from the sand-bar in the Bering Sea.
Mrs. Locke, with the Blumpittys and a brace of doctors in tow, appeared in the act of descending for a muster of "the company." Cheviot came flying down behind them, two steps at a time. He was about to turn in at the music-room, when a woman pushed past him, showing a panic-stricken face above the sleeping child that she carried clutched tight against her breast. A sudden jar made the sleeper lift a cropped head and look about with wide eyes.
"Hello!" said Cheviot reassuringly, in a cheerful and commonplace voice. "This is a passenger I haven't seen before. Aren't you rather too big, sir, to be carried?"
--"hasn't been well!" muttered the woman, taking breath to recommence the ascent.
"Look here, where are you going?" And without waiting to know, "Some of us can carry--" He was taking the burden out of the thin arms.
"No," remonstrated the woman, as Cheviot turned in at the music room, "we must go up to father."
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"I'll send him down to you."
"No, no. We've got to go up and--be ready."
"Ready for what?" He fixed upon the woman a pair of faith-inspiring eyes so unclouded that she stared.
"Don't you want to listen to the singing?" Cheviot bent smiling to the little person who lay quite content in his arms, studying the man's face with the solemn absorption of childhood.
Not many there besides him, but because Cheviot had come in the concert had begun. Others besides Hildegarde felt the quickening of life in any room he entered. Miss Pinckney remembered she had the music of a "reel pretty song" out of the "Belle of New York." She'd go and get it.
"Do you hear that!" Cheviot said, depositing the child on one of the rickety chairs. "You've just come in time," and he stood a moment talking to the mother. The child sat askew, with its father's great waterproof cape hitched up on one side and trailing on the other. When the little figure made the slightest movement the lop-sided chair wobbled and threatened collapse. Instantly the child desisted and became nervously engrossed in the problem of a nice equilibrium. The little face took on a look of tense uneasiness. It was plain that courage was lacking so much as to pull a good deep breath lest it draw ruin down. Cheviot, still talking with the mother, turned to take in his the small child hand that clutched the chair. Was it the look of heavy responsibility in the small face, or was it another onslaught of ice against the ship that made him say, "Music's soon going to begin, little--what's your name?"
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The child opened thin lips and emitted a careful sound.
"Joseph? Well, I hope you'll like the concert, Joseph." That was too much for the occupant of the siege perilous. There was a howl above the mother's reproachful correction. "Her name's Josephine,"--a general giving way to overstrain, and chair and child were in ruins on the floor.
Miss Mar, glancing over her shoulder, shaking with hysterical laughter, saw that Louis, gathering up the sobbing Josephine, bit his lip as though in mere dismay, forbearing to wound the luckless one by laughing at her discomfiture.
"Yes, that's like him, too," Hildegarde said to herself, as one welcoming one more of a cloud of witnesses. She fell upon the piano with redoubled vigor. Loud and fast she hammered out the wildest jig she could remember. Miss Pinckney coming back, music in hand, stopped with a scream. Bang! Bang! Grit! Grind! went the ice. Josephine shrieked without intermission till Cheviot, having found a chair with more than three legs, anchored her securely in that haven. With the first words of Miss Pinckney's song, Cheviot was flying back to the deck.
Bang! Grit! Grind! Was she awake, Hildegarde asked herself, or was this fetid room and were these harsh, assailing sounds a form of nightmare? Steadily she played on. Cheviot looked in again, but it was to Mrs. Locke he whispered: "We must break up the Kangaroo Court. Musical talent going to waste there." She followed him out. In passing Hildegarde he had bent his head. "Keep it up," he said. "Whatever you do, don't stop." She reflected enviously that
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she could be quite as happy running about the deck with Louis as pinned to the moth-eaten music-stool, grinding out cheap airs. Then she found herself smiling. Not the least strange part of this strange evening that Louis should be sending Mrs. Locke on errands, and that Mrs. Locke should be going. The room was filling. Upon the lady's reappearance with the banjo boy and the cross-eyed flute-player, the concert was in full swing. Now Mrs. Locke was telling Hildegarde to play the "Battle Hymn," and presently several of the men were helping Miss Pinckney to send John Brown's soul marching on. Oh, for a little air! Surely there wasn't room for any more people in this overcrowded space. But still they came. It was curious to watch the new faces at the door peering over the shoulders of those who stood about the piano. Little by little you could see the strain going out of the tense features. Not that their anxieties vanished, but they were softened, humanized through the humble agency of a ramshackle piano and an untrained voice in a song. Even the steps, from the very top to the bottom of the companionway, were crowded now. That fact of itself made for quiescence on the decks. People could no longer run freely up or down. While they paused and wormed their way, they were laid hold of by their ears. The little room was packed to suffocation. Deserted by his audience, even Gedge came down to see what was up. Thicker and more stifling grew the air. In a pause between songs a scrap of conversation floated over Hildegarde's shoulder, "Lucky there's no wind."
"God, yes! If there was wind--"
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"What then, if there was wind--?" a third insisted, barely audible.
"Oh, then, we'd get off the bar." Clear enough to one of those for whose weaker sake the truth was veiled--clear enough what the ironic comfort meant. If behind the ice were wind as well as current, the ship wouldn't live an hour. Steadily the girl played on. Wasn't the onslaught of the ice heavier that last time? Was the wind rising then? Yes, surely, surely, the wind had risen. Well, one must play the louder. But her tranced eyes turned now right, now left. Some faces clearer than others in the haze. Gedge, with his pasty visage bleached to chalk, and of his cheap but heady eloquence never a word. Others here that Hildegarde had seen night after night, gambling, drinking, quarreling--and now . . . !
These rude fellow-creatures, little admirable as they might show themselves in happier hours, wore something very like dignity to-night. How still they were! It did not escape Hildegarde that all these many pairs of eyes were either lowered or fixed on space, as if each one forebore to read in his fellow's face confirmation of his own grim knowledge. Each avoiding the other's eyes, they stood there listening to those sounds the puny piano was ineffectual to drown--the crash of impact and the yet more horrible crunching, vicious and prolonged, as though man's arch-enemy of the deep, after battering vainly for admission, would gnaw his admission to this strange concert on the ice-beleaguered bar. While the nerves of the people still vibrated under the bombardment, some one started "Nearer, my God, to Thee." Strangest of all on that strange evening was the revela-
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tion that in this particular company hardly one but seemed to know the hymn, and few that were not singing it with abandon to the thunderous bass of the ice. Whatever your own thoughts might be, you read in more than one of these faces that of a certainty God was "nearer" this night than He had often been before. At the beginning of the last verse, the loudest crash of all, as if a hundred tons of iron had been hurled at the Los Angeles. The people, let by one unfaltering voice, kept on singing. Only Hildegarde's flying fingers stumbled as the ship shrank and cowered under the blow. Had it ended like this for Galbraith, too? Would he and she meet down there in the kind sea caves?
Cheviot's face looked in through the haze. Of course she had known he would come for her at the last. When those firm lips opened she would hear him saying: "Stop your playing. "We've done what we could--you down here, I on deck. Let us go now and meet the end." Oh, is was well that he was here! Through the haze his face swam nearer, and what he was really saying was: "Good girl! If only you can keep it up a little longer!" And with that the face grew dim.
"A little longer!" Faintness, like sleep, stole over the good girl. As a peculiar throbbing went through the ship, Hildegarde felt the hulk of the Los Angeles open, and knew vaguely that she was falling.
When she opened her eyes Louis was lifting her up. She was not clinging to a berg, nor even sitting on a cake of ice. Still in the noisome little room, and still that throbbing was shaking the ship. The people who had been so quiet were pushing, jostling, shouting, frantic to get-- Where? To the boats, of course! All ex-
"Nearer, my God, to Thee"
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cept Louis and Mrs. Locke. Noble souls, they were ready to stay and die with Hildeguarde Mar! She must exert herself.
"Now I can go."
"There's no hurry," says Cheviot.
"Oh, yes, come. We must try--we, too."
"Why, to--to save ourselves."
He laughed. "Poor girl, do you feel dreadfully ship-wrecked?"
"What, then, are they all running for?" She looked round bewildered.
"The engines have started. Tide's nearly flood. Can you walk? That's right." They helped her to the deck. Long after midnight--and the world so bright! Oh, the blessing of the pure, cold air! While she breathed it in, O'Gorman stopped to whisper in Cheviot's ear: "By George, you've saved a panic!"
"No, says Cheviot, "it wasn't my concert."
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