Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins (Chapter 21)
Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
In those last hours the great body of the floe had swung away to westward. It was the very rear-guard of the outgoing ice that had assisted at the concert. By this unfailing daylight you could see, an hour after midnight, the shining stretch of smooth water that lay between the Los Angeles and the invisible mainland. People hung over the ship's side to watch the flood-tide swirl and churn under the propeller, while the "old sea tramp," mustering every pound of energy, struggled to get free. Yes, it was exciting enough, but to the tall girl bending her hatless head over the railing at Cheviot's side, not half as exciting as certain discoveries she was making without the aid of steam. Not alone in Norton Sound was the tide at flood. She drew closer to her companion with a mingled joy and shyness. Just that little nearer drawing, how strange that it should be the stuff of which so great happiness is made! Was he feeling it, too? Was he realizing? Or was all his soul down there in the turgid water foaming under the propeller's beat. She remembered enviously how Louis's little nephew would pat you on the arm if you grew abstracted, and remind you: "I 'm here." She longed to do the same. She even did it in a less direct fashion with the words: "I should think, by the feel of the air, there must be more icebergs on their way down."
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"Hard work," he said, all his sympathies with the propeller.
"Brrr!" remarked Hildegarde.
"Nearly as much mud as water," he went on, with equal irrelevance.
"It certainly is a great deal colder," she persisted, as though he had denied that fact.
"Less than two fathoms at low tide--"
Ah, that had brought him back. From the overcoat he was wearing he hurriedly unbuttoned the tweed cape, and when he got it off put it round Hildegarde's shoulders.
"Are you sure you won't miss it?" she asked.
"It won't keep you warm if it is n't buttoned." With a droll preoccupied air and a pursed lip, less like a lover paying graceful attentions to his lady than like a clumsy nurse with a small child to look after, Cheviot laboriously buttoned up the cape. Only, a nurse, however little skilled, would not have begun at the bottom, nor, having at last buttoned her way to the top, would she have so nearly buttoned in her charge's chin. Hildegarde laughed, and considering she 'd been so short a time in the cape, grew miraculously warm. To avoid looking at Cheviot she looked down to see how the propeller might be getting on.
"You must be still just half a minute, you know," he admonished her, and they found themselves laughing into each other's eyes.
"I ought to go and get my own things," she said. "Brrr!"
He took off his arctic cap and dropped it on the blonde head. " Now will you be good!" he said.
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They seemed to be the only people on the Los Angeles to know a moment's intermission in the stark suspense of hanging over the ship's side waiting for the blessed moment that should see them, by aid of flood and steam, floated off the bar.
At last! the throbbing modified by a new motion. Slowly the ship swayed fore and aft with a faint seesawing effect. A great cheer, "She 's off!" was cut short by the excitement of watching how the boast was being made good. Ten seconds' breathless waiting for that final pull out of the mud-trap, while idle muscles grew taught as though to help the ship in her labor, and then slowly, unwillingly, relaxed. Despair fell upon the crowd as the Los Angeles grounded again more firmly than before. In vain her engines pulled and throbbed, breathing into the delicate dawn-flushed air inky bursts of smoke.
Some one called out, "She 's canted to starboard," and another described the dilemma as "a righteous judgment for the overloading."
If we 're stuck here because there 's so many of us aboard, we can get off for the same reason." Gedge's "brilliant idear" was that the people should be massed for'ard, and then, upon a signal, should tear as hard as legs could carry them to the other end of the ship. The sudden shifting of "ballast" would work the keel free. The game was entered into with immense spirit. Any one who, from a balloon, could have looked down on the scampering horde would have taken the scene for one of frenetic lunacy. Whether by such an effect as Gedge anticipated, or by some other agency, just once the tall mast swayed like some strong-rooted pine in a passing
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breeze. The people shrieked with triumph, and tore madly back again from stem to stern. But they and the engines and the foaming water might rage as they would. "The keel's grown fast to the bottom of the ocean," Hildegarde whispered.
Louis turned and looked into the face that was so close to his own. "Never mind--" he began.
"I am never-minding." She smiled back into his grave eyes.
But he seemed to feel that, nevertheless, she must need reassuring. "We'll get off all right somehow."
"To-morrow?" she asked, quite without eagerness.
"I don't know about to-morrow." He looked past his companion at harassed, disappointed faces. "It's a plain case for a little patience."
"Do I strike you as impatient?"
"You strike me as--" He seemed to pull himself up, and yet he allowed himself to say it slowly: "You were splendid to-night."
She glowed inwardly. "Louis!"
"Yes." They were leaning far over the railing again, shoulder to shoulder.
"Well. You got that far before. What comes next?"
"I let you say all that about my not needing you. But if you knew how I've been blessing you for--for your forbearance with my stubbornness about coming--for your forgiveness--"
"Don't talk nonsense."
"You are far too good--to me."
He seemed not to feel the prick of any point in her emphasis. "I can't have you talking of goodness as be-
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tween you and me--it's foolishness," he said lightly. Then as she opened her lips, "I forbid you even to think of it."
"I think of nothing else," she answered gently.
Instead of giving her proper credit for that, Louis sent a wandering eye over his shoulder. Actually, he was making an excuse of listening to that blatant Gedge bellowing about the "damnable delay."
She looked at Cheviot with a frank perplexity that before she knew it had gone over into longing. Is he going to decline to make the least little bit of love to me because I'm away from home? Is that the "sort o' watchman" he's going to be? Oh, dear!
"Do you know what time it is?" The watchman pulled out his watch.
"I don't care the very least in the world what time it is."
"That 's just what always happens when the sun shines at night. It's very demoralizing."
Demoralizing! That after all those hours of strain in the foul atmosphere below, that she should be willing to stand here awhile in the crisp and radiant morning talking to him; talking more gratefully than ever she had done in her life--"demoralizing!" He was n't even now attending to her. "Why do you allow Gedge to bother you so? It is n't like you," she said. Still he wore that tantalizing air of listening to the orator on the rope coil. "What difference can it make to you anything a man like that may say?"
"It might make a difference to more than me--if he was n't looked after. I believe I 'll go and do it. Goodnight, Good Girl!"
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The couple of hours of chill sunshine after breakfast showed a waveless sea. Far off against the eastern horizon were single icebergs, that looked like the white tents pitched on the glassy surface of the sound.
To the passengers on the grounded ship the calm weather was only a goad to rage. The rest of the Nome fleet-- they were profiting by open water and absence of head winds! But as for us of the Los Angeles, we've left our families, sold our farms, risked all we have on earth for the pleasure of sitting on a sand-bank a hundred and fifty miles from the gold-fields!
From hour to hour the disaffection spread. Every one on board had a remedy for the disaster. Where it had been thought were miners, attorneys, doctors, politicians, it turned out they were navigators to a man.
No glimpse of Cheviot till an hour after breakfast. Even then only a nod and "Good-morning," as he went by deep in talk with the chief engineer. Toward ten o'clock a little wind sprang out of the northeast and brought down a thin veil of fog. The air took on a keener edge, yet no one left the deck or even seemed to feel the cold, for a rumor had run about the ship like fire over dry stubble: "The captain says we 'll never get off this--bar till we unload."
"Unload! Unload what?"
Pat the answer: "First, the coal."
"Throw away coal!"
Such a counsel of despair struck grave enough on the ears of men who knew that fabulous sums paid in Nome for fuel. But not the coal, it was the little word "first" that presented the keenest barb to each man's consciousness. Just as though the immense sacrifice of the coal
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were not fit and sufficient climax to the misadventure! "First!" What possible second? Why, after the coal, overboard with McKeown and Dingley and the rest of the heavy stuff!
"Just let the Cap'n lay a finger on my Dingley," warned a bystander, black as thunder.
That 's what he's figurin' on," Gedge assured the irate one. "And after the machinery"--people crowded aghast to hear--"if we ain't light enough by then, why, overboard with every darn thing we got!"
"If he tries throwin' out our stuff he'll have a riot on his hands--that's all!"
Things began to look black for the captain.
But if he were aware of the fact, it had no effect on his policy. Hardly ten minutes later Gedge was obliged to interrupt the indignation meeting by calling out to a couple of blue China boys, struggling to get some of the lighter baggage out of the hold: "Hi, you! Drop it, I say, or I 'll knock the stuffin' out o' you!"
The agitated Celestials would have abandoned their task, but for O'Gorman's: "Say! They're only getting your stuff up into a safe place so they can reach the coal-bunkers. Here, put your gentleman's box over by mine."
In a couple of hours the deck was piled high with miscellaneous baggage, and a derrick, hurriedly rigged, was hauling up the heavier things out of the bowels of the ship. As they came swinging out of the darkness into the chill gray light, people recognized their belongings with an anxiety hardly allayed by the temporary stowage of their all upon the deck--too palpably a possible half-way station to the bottom of the sea.
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Gedge's following was now so great as to be unwieldy. They blocked the narrow gangway, they settled like flies on the freight. He drew off a chosen few, and retired out of the bitter wind to the shelter of the smoke-stack to hold a private session.
"If that fellow had some education," said Governor Reinhart, "he'd be helping to guide the ship of state at Washington."
"He seems likely to guide this ship into trouble enough," Cheviot answered crisply.
"What is he doing now?" Hildegarde asked.
"He 's--" Reinhart began and hesitated.
Under his breath O'Gorman finished the sentence. "Trying to incite a lot of fools to mutiny."
"What does he want them to do?"
"Put the captain in irons."
"And turn the ship over to the pilot and first officer--that fellow coming off the bridge now."
Hildegarde followed Louis's eyes and saw they were fixed not on the dapper officer descending, but were on the square figure of the captain standing motionless on the bridge, looking down at the coolies busy as ants about the hold. But he looked, not as if he saw them. The hard face was read and angry. Hildegarde, with her genius for sympathy, divined something in it infinitely miserable, too. "How lonely the man looks," she said aside to Cheviot.
"You can't be at the head of things and not be lonely."
The words deepened her sense of commiseration. "You don't think he knows about Gedge's wild talk?"
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"I wish he could be reminded he has friends among us as well as enemies."
"I was just going up," Louis said.
Do you think I might come? Just for a moment?"
"Well, if he fires you out you aren't to complain."
"Complain? No. But I shall still believe it's a pity that men think whoever is to know the truth about a danger or a difficulty, it must n't be a woman. Don't you see it would be a gain to both sides that we should know?"
"Nonsense. It would scare most women and bore the rest. Besides, they 'd be in the way."
"If that's so it's only because they've been kept so ignorant. Louis"--the voice dropped softly--"do you know what I've been thinking about often and often?"
He waited a moment before he said: "Since we got into the ice?"
"I suppose I do." But he said it so stonily she stopped half-way up the companionway and looked back at him. "I've been thinking I should never have known you if I had n't come on this journey."
"Oh, found me out, have you?"
Hearing Cheviot's short laugh, Gillies jerked his head angrily over his shoulder. Hildegarde hesitated at the top of the companionway. "It looks like a dreadful breach of discipline," she said, "but it is n't. You told me I might come again."
"In here, then," said Gillies gruffly, and took them to his room. He was shaking like one in an ague, but he seemed not so ill pleased to see some one from the world
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below. He gave the girl a chair. "It 's all right," he said. "Only it 's no good for others to see you up here." He fell into the remaining seat with a heavy thud, and his bullet head hung forward. "Well?" he demanded, with a forced laugh, turning bloodshot eyes on Cheviot. Hildegarde saw plainer now what an unnatural color Gillies was. Did the shivering and the purple and scarlet stains mean a sickening for fever, or only a horrible anxiety and an all-night watch in the cold?
"I 'm afraid you did n't get much sleep," she began.
"Not for two nights now," he said, and then looking at Cheviot: "This 'll be all over the coast, from Nome to 'Frisco." As he spoke the hard face twitched.
"What will?" Cheviot answered. "That the floods have made a new bar in Norton Sound this spring?"
The captain uttered an inarticulate sound, something between a grunt and a groan. "First trip, too! Ship full of damned newspaper people. Land rats, starving for a story." He choked, and stood up stamping his cold feet, and while he did so, through the port he forced the sleep-defrauded eyes to reconnoiter the sharp, white outline of the distant icebergs.
"There are people on board who 'll get the story right," said Hildegarde.
"Oh, I don't care! Let 'em say what they like--if only the wind doesn't bring the floe down on us again." Cheviot made a move as if to go. "The trouble is," said Gillies, "I 'm short of hands. However hard they keep at it those China boys can't shift five hundred tons of coal before the tide's flood."
"Well, you 've got a lot of white men on board--"
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"Yes," growled the captain, "and a lot of help I 'll get out of them."
"What I came up for"--Cheviot drew nearer--"was really to tell you there are men on board this ship who propose to stand by you."
Gillies, leaning against the locker, neither said nor looked a syllable of thanks. Never even took his blood-shot eyes off the ice line. But the hard face twitched again. A sense of the devouring anxiety he was obviously laboring under made the girl quick to relieve him of any added strain or restraint that he might feel in an unfamiliar presence at such a crisis. Even Louis might be thinking "a woman was in the way." She stood up, murmuring an excuse for going.
The captain, unheeding, went on in that hoarse, muffled voice: "I 've just sent an officer below to see if I can get some volunteers."
"What officer?" said Cheviot. "Not the first?"
"Why not? Yes, the first." And there was a silence so significant that Hildegarde was glad she had not waited for that to tell her she should leave the men to themselves. But at the threshold she had to stand back an instant to let the cabin-boy pass. As he was in the act of darting in with some food, the wind whisked a paper napkin off the tray. He stooped in the doorway, clutched after the elusive object with skinny, yellow fingers, and as he did so the soup slid off the tray and cascaded over the threshold.
The captain swore, and the China boy gabbled as he mopped wildly with the ineffectual paper napkin. "God forgive me if ever I go to sea again with a lot of damned Chinamen. I 'd have tried kedging before this, if I had
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a crew that could understand anything but routine orders. As it is I 'll be lucky if I get the coal out in time."
"I can't promise you sailors, but say the word, and I 'll get you some sort of volunteers. How many?"
"Well, just to get the coal overboard we'll need two or three shifts. And if I have to kedge, after all--it 's no fun!--but with eight good men I could do it."
"I 'll undertake to get you the best twenty on the ship, and you can hold a dozen in reserve."
As the girl, at last able to get out dryshod, was going down the companionway, a bird's-eye view of the upper deck gave fresh meaning to the scrap of conversation she had just heard. Out of the black square of the hold the blue-cotton coolies crawled up the ladder with vast burdens to add to the chaos of trunks, crates, and machinery, piled already so perilously high about the deck, and leaving so narrow a gangway for people to crowd through that the able-bodied swarmed over the obstructions.
There was Mrs. Locke reading in a sheltered nook, walled in by towering crates, and just the other side, to leeward of the smoke-stack, Gedge, in close conclave with his body-guard.
When Hildegarde, with some difficulty, reached Mrs. Locke, that lady held up her hand for silence, but, behold, she wasn't reading at all. As the girl sank quietly down, Gedge's voice reached her clear, although it was lifted with more than common caution. For ten, fifteen, twenty minutes he must have gone on airing his seditious notions; when Mrs. Locke, half-rising, whispered, "If there 's nobody else I think I must go round and talk to those men myself."
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Just then a sound of some one flying over the crates on the wings of haste, and Cheviot's voice: "Gedge, are you there?"
"You bet I 'm here," was the surly answer. "And not likely to get away in a hurry, so far 's I see."
"Well, that 's in our own hands."
"Just what I 've been tellin' the boys." But there was a challenge in the voice.
"Your head 's level," said Cheviot.
"Oh, you 're gettin' tired, too! Comin' round, are you?"
"I 've had about enough of this sitting on the bar, if that's what you mean."
"Then why don't we do something?"
"Just what I was going to propose," said Cheviot briskly. "Trouble is there are n't enough hands to get the coal out before--"
Oh, yes, we know that's his excuse."
"His? It 's yours and mine. And a pretty lame excuse, too."
"Was it you," demanded Gedge truculently, "that put it into his empty cocoanut to ask us to lend a hand at pitch'n our own stuff overboard?"
"At present it 's a question of pitching out other fellows' coal." Then lower: "See here, Gedge, I want two words with you."
"No you don't. None of us did n't come up here for 'words.' No, nor to try and patch up the captain's mistakes by turnin' ourselves into beasts o' burden." Cheviot lowered his voice and argued a moment or two, Gedge bursting in with remarks intended to assure his satellites that he was n't being "got at." But Cheviot pressed him hard.
"Coolies crawled up the ladder with vast burdens."
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"Well, I 'll tell you what we'll do. If we ain't goin' to get out of this fix without we turn to and help that fool captain--tell you what we'll do, boys. If we got to work, we 'll work for Nome wages. Hey, boys? Ten dollars an hour."
"Oh, see here!" said Cheviot, "the captain can't play up to that lead."
"Any feller," shouted Gedge, "that works for a penny less 'n ten dollars an hour is lowerin' the market. He 's an enemy to society. He 's a--"
"He 's simply a fellow with a notion he 'd like to get to Nome. I thought you were a pretty sharp customer, Gedge, but you're just an everyday sort of ass after all." With which Cheviot climbed back over the crates whistling, as though his momentary concern were at an end.
"Hello!" O'Gorman called out. Cheviot turned aside, when he caught sight of the giant towering over the nook where the two women sat out of the wind.
"What luck?" said O'Gorman, under his breath.
"Four. And you?"
"Only two." O'Gorman motioned with his head toward the smoke-stack, and lowered his voice to a whisper: "He 's got hold of an awful lot of the men."
Cheviot nodded. "Yes. We 're up against that fellow everywhere we turn."
"Always two leaders in every crowd," O'Gorman said. "One to lead up, t' other to lead down. I 'm ready to bet on you!"
They talked in undertones. Only Gedge could be heard distinctly. He was growing hoarse. His increasing audience was taking on the proportions of a mass meeting. But the voice of the popular leader was show-
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ing wear. He ended his oration with some abruptness. "Come along, Joslin. Let's go and licker up."
"Now! Nail him now!" whispered Cheviot, and vaulting over a prodigious pile of machinery he disappeared with Blumpitty and several others into the hold, while O'Gorman darted out in the opposite direction just in time to intercept Gedge and Joslin.
"There's got to be two shifts. You fellows comin' to help?"
"Help!" Gedge rolled out a brace of handsome oaths. "Help! that--captain?"
"No, help us, help yourselves out of this fix." Then, before Gedge could get a word of disclaimer over his lips: "I hear you are worrying about wages. But this is n't a question of money. Lives are at stake. See that ice over yonder? And look here, I 've got more on board this ship than any other one man. Fifteen thousand dollars is what the freight alone has cost me. But to save your life"--he took hold of Gedge's arm--"to save your life, every ounce of mine may go overboard, and I 'll help shift it at nothing an hour."
Gedge looked round rather sheepishly, as if he didn't know the answer to this. But suddenly one occurred to him. "I 'm from Missoura," he said. "You've got to show me. That other feller, too, the one that was givin' me such a lot of hot air little while ago, why ain't you an' him--"
"You come along with me. I 'll 'show' you." O'Gorman carried the ringleader and Joslin down into the hold. Two hours later Hildegarde, peering over the edge of the square pit, saw among the group engaged in shoveling coal, Gedge, with the face of a blackamoor and
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the sweat pouring down. His surplus energy was at last being utilized.
Three hundred and fifty tons were flung overboard before the tide was flood; and again at midnight the muddy water was set boiling, and the big yellow stack belched out clouds of smoke. The stranded ship moved a little, heavily, grudgingly, like a monster half awakened, and then settled down to finish a second night on the bar.
The captain was not the only man who didn't sleep. More than one "sort o' watchman" showed signs of strain the next morning. For the fog was thicker than the day before, the wind veering and no assurance how far away the ice. It was partly the fever of anxiety that found vent in sneers, hardly to be called covert, when it was known the captain meant to take steps to free the ship that afternoon.
"That glass-eyed idiot don't even yet know there ain't but one tide in this part of the world, and that one's near midnight!" was the discarded pilot's contribution. That Gillies was prepared for the eccentricities of northern tides was credited by few.
Open jeers followed his putting off in a small boat, with the second officer, to sound for deep water. "What 's the good of deeper water a hundred yards from the ship?"
The possible good appeared upon the captain's return. The anchor that the small boat was to carry back (with buoys to mark the place selected) looked big enough to landsmen's eyes, till they saw the lowering of the one to be lashed underneath the long boat. This mighty two-and-a-half-ton iron-grappler, so the rumor ran, was to be used to "kedge" the steamer off the bar.
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But where were the sailors coming from to man a boat of this size, let alone to carry out successfully so ticklish an affair?
"It's all right," Cheviot had said.
Just how it had been made "right" didn't appear. There was no oratory, no public appeal. But three times as many as the captain wanted were offering to go out in the fog and plant the great anchor in the choppy sea.
"I-- me. You haf bromise I shall go! Not?" A great muscular German was squeezing his way to Cheviot's side.
"All right. No hurry. They'll be a while yet, getting those buoys right."
The general attention was riveted to the second boat hanging high over the monster anchor that was destined to be bound lengthwise along the keel. How was any craft to make her way mounted in so strange a fashion? How could anybody hope it wouldn't sink?
"No, the weight will be too well distributed," Cheviot had said.
"Yes, till you start layin' the anchor out yonder," the pilot commented darkly.
Hildegarde made a sign to Cheviot. He came to her across the chain barrier, newly established to keep back the crowd.
Before the girl could speak, "Those heavy ropes," said Mrs. Locke, "that are to lash the big anchor along the bottom of the boat, how will you ever get them undone out there in the choppy water?"
"Cut them," answered Cheviot shortly. "What did you want, Hildegarde?"
She looked at him appealingly, and then, as though
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abandoning some quite different point, "My Blumpitty is very sore that you are taking the big German instead of him."
"Can't help that."
"Why didn't you want Blumpitty?"
"Why, he's only forty something."
"We've got to have young men for this job."
Then you think it's very--"
"No." Cheviot cut her short. "Not if the right men are doing it--a mere matter of precision," and he was going back.
But Mrs. Locke kept him yet a moment. "I've just heard if one of those ropes is cut the fraction of a second before the others the boat'll be dragged under?"
"It's got to be done simultaneously, of course, on a signal," he answered quietly. "I've just been explaining to Hildegarde it isn't a job for bunglers."
"They say it oughtn't to be attempted unless by a disciplined crew."
But there isn't any disciplined crew,"--he was in the act of stepping across the chain--"and there isn't any other way of getting off the bar."
"There are other men," said Mrs. Locke, quite low.
"Oh, plenty," and he was on the other side. But so was Hildegarde.
"You aren't allowed over here," Cheviot said. She was looking up at the captain and making him a little signal for permission. He nodded and without a word to Cheviot she went up to Gillies on the bridge. In a few minutes she came down again, but instead of joining the passengers on the side of the chain, she made
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her way to where, a little apart from the group of volunteers, Cheviot stood watching the small boat which, manned by the first officer, O'Gorman, and two others, was bobbing about dimly on the roughened water.
Just as Louis caught sight of her one of the volunteers stepped between them. "What makes those fellows so devilish slow?"
"Doing the best they can," said Cheviot, with an air of not meaning to notice the girl.
"No, they aren't doing the best they can. They aren't even getting our boat lowered."
"They've had to knock off work a minute. The wind's playing the mischief with the head-sails."
"Yes, and if we don't look sharp the wind'll play the mischief with more than the head sails."
The volunteer looked across Cheviot's shoulder an instant into the thicker fog. Through that veil no man might yet discover if the ice were being driven back against the bar, but all could feel that the need for quick action might be greater than the fog would let them see.
The instant the volunteer went back to the waiting group, Hildegarde drew close to the solitary figure at the railing. "Louis!"
Whether at something new in the girl's low voice, or at a simultaneous shrill dissonance in the thick, chill, air, Cheviot started and looked round. "Oh, it's those Chinamen!" he said, his eyes on the blue-cotton crew hauling at a rope with a kind of wicked hilarity as they sang their barbaric, disquieting chant.
But it was a new experience to find that anything could get on Louis's nerves!
"Is it true you've been up all night?" Hildegarde
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said hurriedly, scanning his face. He nodded, and turned seaward again to watch the little boat planting out bright-colored buoys in the mist.
"Louis, the captain says I may speak to you. Only five minutes, so we must n't waste time pretending. It's dangerous what you mean to do. Oh, don't be afraid! I'm not going to try to prevent your going. Only, if you don't come back, Louis"--her voice fell--"I shan't know how to go on living."
For a moment he made no answer, and then, with his eyes still on the dim boat dancing in the mist: "You're only rather frightened," he said. "Wait till all this has gone by."
"Ah, can't you see? Why is it so hard for you to believe?"
"Because," he said very low, "I know if I did, it would be the signal for the old barrier to rise up again."
"What barrier? You aren't thinking--"
"I'm thinking this isn't the place for you to--" He checked himself.
"For me to do what?"
"To get rid of your old--" Again he stopped, and then, with an effect of rather bitter patience, "Of course for you he's the dominating thought up here among the ice."
"Do you mean to say he hasn't been in your mind a hundred times?" Continually?"
"Not continually, because--"
"Well, a hundred remembrances would satisfy most men," he said.
"Would it satisfy you, Louis?"
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"No, I should want all, and I know there's no chance of getting all here."
"I suppose this isn't the time for me to tell you--"
He turned on her almost roughly. "You can't suppose I need to be told what was in your mind when we got caught in the ice? And when that first ship showed on the horizon--" He stopped again, and turned away as one who has said all.
"You"--the mere suggestion took away her breath--"you didn't think it might be--"
"No, no. I knew, dead or alive, he was on the other side of the world. Or, at nearest, in California."
"I don't tempt him by being sure." The rigid line of his lips looked less like firmness than an effort at control. "If I were to be sure again, especially here, the fog there would open and a ship come sailing through. And it would be his ship. And in a moment your ship, too."
"Don't you know for him to be up here is physically impossible, even if he's alive?"
Cheviot shook his head. "There are some men--even their ghosts can fight their battles. His did, once before."
"I could never have believed you were superstitious."
"Mayn't I have even that much imagination?"
"You've forgotten it was all just a dream of mine. Why"--she couldn't help giving out a little miserable laugh--"you've forgotten, just as I used to, that I've never seen him?"
"I remember I used to wish you had."
"Well, there's one thing you can't remember, because you never knew it. And that is that I had never
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seen you in the Valdivia days. It was partly my fault, but not altogether. Men's lives are so hidden from girls. How is it possible for us to know them? We never see them doing things that are worth while. We haven't a notion what they're like when the're at work. Only about one man's work I used to think I knew. Of course I didn't, but just to imagine it was something. I was the kind of girl who isn't ambitious for herself. But for the man she-- The reason that old 'obsession,' as you called it, took such hold of me, was that there was a man who was 'doing things'! I 'd heard all my life about the things he'd done and the things he meant to do. They seemed already made immortal in a book. But now I've seen it isn't only he--"
The contrast in achievement cut too cruelly. Cheviot struck the damp railing with his open palm, and laughed out loud.
Though his action dashed her into trembling she drew closer, she pressed against his arm. "Besides, I've come at last to care for some one in the only true way--quite apart from anything he may do. I--I love you, Louis."
The look he turned upon her was very beautiful to the girl. As his hand moved toward her along the railing, under cover of the cape, her own slipped into it.
The wild chant of the Chinamen abruptly ended, and now that nearer, more intelligible sound, the creaking of the falls as the long boat sank from the davits to the sea.
Cheviot, with an effort, turned his eyes away from the girl's face. Together they watched the boat floated over the great anchor that was suspended lengthwise a little
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under the surface of the water; together saw the binding fast of the anchor to the boat. And now the two made one were ready. Cheviot took off his overcoat and flung it over the railing. "Will you have an eye to that?"
Her heart was beating painfully. "Do you think I 'll have an eye to spare?"
"Well, keep this in your pocket then." He took off his watch. "And here's this." He put a little leather case in her hand, smiling and saying hurriedly, under his breath: "With all my worldly goods I thee endow." Then facing about he signaled to his volunteers.
In the undisciplined fashion of her sex, Hildegarde, forgetting to go back behind the barrier, stood at gaze. Cheviot, carrying with him something quick and quivering out of the heart of the girl (something that kept her linked to him not by eye and mind alone, but as by a bond that established oneness of the very flesh, faithfully reporting effort and transmitting feeling), he disappeared over the ship's side after the officer, followed by the six volunteers. With steady eyes the girl watched the buffeting of the heavy-weighted boat, and watched the fog blur it till it looked like something seen in a dream. Cheviot at the bow, by the uniformed figure, less distinct both of them than the big German with his black-and-yellow cap at the stern.
Now the "kedgers" were passing the small boat, and now they had gained the buoys. Hildegarde saw the officer turn, and knew he was giving some direction. Now they were trying to steady the pitching boat directly over the selected site, shown by a buoy faintly vermilion, bobbing to right and to left.
No easy affair to keep the boat there long enough to
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plant the great anchor. The officer stood up, and in a sudden lurch all but capsized, steadied himself and seemed to wait. There was a shipping of oars, the picture danced and then dissolved.
No, no, there it was! But what had happened, why did it look so strange? The men! there wasn't one in the boat. And so many dim buoys--no, heads! Lord, Lord, have mercy! The boat was turned completely over and drowning men were clinging to the keel. Were they all there! Which was Louis? One couldn't even count, for the waves would wash over a man and wipe him out. A moment, and there he was again! That, that was Louis! Could he keep hold on the plunging keel? (Lord God, be kind!) But he seemed not to have been washed away. He was swimming to the place where a man had been and was no more. Now Louis had hold of him. And there was the other boat--the little one, as though she'd dropped from the skies, or risen from the bed of the ocean; and she was taking a man on board! Not Louis, but the one who had once gone down--the huge German. Two men! Three were hauled in. Not one of them Louis! He kept a hand on the gunwale of the overcrowded little boat, and swam with it toward the buoys. Why was he and those others still struggling in the water, what were they trying to do? To right the long boat? Oh, let it alone and come back!
After endless moments, Louis and the rest, with the help of the men in the small boat, had got the other right side up again. Now both crews were coming back.
When at last in a shower of cheers, Cheviot, the last of the volunteers, climbed the swinging ladder and smiled up at the face bending over--not till then did
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it seem to Hildegarde that the something he had taken away was restored to her, and her body and her soul made whole again.
The people broke through the barrier and pressed round the dripping figures, hurrahing too loud at first to hear how everything was "all right now." They'd got the anchor where they wanted it, and they hadn't lost an inch of cable, and had got a ducking only because a few strands of the confounded rope hung up the falling anchor a fraction of a second longer on one side than on the other.
Very quickly Cheviot seemed to have enough of public enthusiasm. "You might just let us by, so we can get into dry things." But the horde pressed closer. How was this, and how was that? And how the onlookers felt in that awful moment when the boat capsized. In vain Cheviot assured them, "Nobody's a penny the worse, and the kedging can begin as soon as the tide comes in." Nobody's the worse? Yes, one man was. Since he couldn't get away, Cheviot created a diversion by laughing at the wet and angry German, who stood outside the press, oblivious of other people's excitement, his own face working with emotion, stretching out his arms and apostrophizing his black-and-yellow cap that floated like some gay sea-bird on the troubled waters. He appealed to the officer to let him go back in the small boat and rescue the precious object.
"You'd better go and get dry, Guggenheim, for the sake of your family," Cheviot called out, and then to those nearest, "You talk about grit. I tell you we had one hero in our crew and one fool, and both together made one large-sized Dutchman."
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"Guggenheim. What do you think? That fellow volunteered without being able to swim!"
There was a roar of laughing amazement.
"Yes, and when we were out there, and the waves were playing battledore with our boat, the fellow says, quiet [ sic.]** calmly, 'Oh, ve go opsot you fellows yoost most safe me.' 'Save yourself?' says the officer. 'I not can svim,' says the volunteer, and then he told us quite firmly, 'You shall safe me for dat I haf a vife and four childs wid a baby. You vill know me,' he says, 'from my cap.'"
As Cheviot at last pushed his way out of the crush, Hildegarde, close in his wake, still carrying the overcoat, followed him down the companionway. Near the deserted music-room door she slipped her hand in his.
"I'm too wet for you to come near." But his eyes said nothing of the sort, and dripping as he was, he had her in his arms.
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