“There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.”
It took three days to get the proper equipment together. Johnny was leaving little to chance.
“If we find Lew and his pal we may have to keep ’em company for months. It won’t be easy to get to the Sick Heart, but it’ll be a darn sight harder to get out. We’ve got to face the chance of a winter in the mountains. Lucky for us the Hares have a huntin’ camp fifty miles up-river. We can dump some of our stuff there and call it our base.”
The first question was that of transport. Water was the easiest until the river became a mountain torrent. The common Indian craft was of moose hides tanned like vellum and stretched on poplar ribs; but Johnny managed to hire from a free-trader a solid oak thirty-foot boat with an outboard motor; and, as subsidiaries, a couple of canoes brought years ago from the south, whose seams had been sewn up with strips of tamarack root and caulked with resin. Two Indians were engaged, little men compared with the big Plains folk, but stalwart for the small-boned Hares. They had the slanting Mongol eyes of the Mackenzie River tribes, and had picked up some English at the Catholic mission school. Something at the back of Leithen’s brain christened them Big Klaus and Little Klaus, but Johnny, who spoke their tongue, had other names for them.
Then the Hudson’s Bay store laid open its resources, and Johnny was no niggardly outfitter. Leithen gave him a free hand, for they had brought nothing with them. There were clothes to be bought for the winter — parkas and fur-lined jerkins, and leather breeches, and lined boots; gloves and flapped caps, blankets and duffel bags. There were dog packs, each meant to carry twenty-five pounds. There was a light tent — only one, for the Hares would fend for themselves at the up-river camp, and Lew and Galliard were no doubt already well provided. There were a couple of shotguns and a couple of rifles and ammunition, and there was a folding tin stove. Last came the provender: bacon and beans and flour, salt and sugar, tea and coffee, and a fancy assortment of tinned stuffs.
“Looks like we was goin’ to start a store,” said Johnny, “but we may need every ounce of it and a deal more. If it’s a winter-long job we’ll sure have to get busy with our guns. Don’t look so scared, mister. We’ve not got to back-pack that junk. The boat’ll carry it easy to the Hares’ camp, and after that we’ll cache the feck of it.”
Leithen’s quarters during these days were in the spare room of the Bay postmaster. Fort Bannerman was a small metropolis, for besides the Bay store it had a Mounted Police post, a hospital run by the Grey Nuns, and an Indian school in charge of the Oblate Brothers. With one of the latter he made friends, finding that he had served in a French battalion which had been on the right of the Guards at Loos. Father Duplessis was from Picardy. Leithen had once been billeted in the shabby flat-chested chateau near Montreuil where his family had dwelt since the days of Henri Quatre. The Fathers had had a medical training and could at need perform straightforward operations, such as that on an appendix, or the amputation of a maimed limb. Leithen sat in his little room at the hospital, which smelt of ether and carbolic, and they talked like two old soldiers.
Once they walked together to where the Big Hare strained to the Mackenzie through an archipelago of sandy islets.
“I have been here seven years,” Father Duplessis told him. “Before that I was three years in the eastern Arctic. That, if you like, was isolation, for there was one ship a year, but here we are in a thoroughfare. All through the winter the planes from the northern mines call weekly, and in summer we have many planes as well as the Hudson’s Bay boats.”
Leithen looked round the wide circle of landscape — the huge drab Mackenzie two miles broad, to the east and south interminable wastes of scrub spruce, to the west a chain of tawny mountains, stained red in parts with iron, and fantastically sculptured.
“Do you never feel crushed by this vastness?” he asked. “This country is out-size.”
“No,” was the answer, “for I live in a little world. I am always busy among little things. I skin a moose, or build a boat, or hammer a house together, or treat a patient, or cobble my boots or patch my coat — all little things. And then I have the offices of the Church, in a blessedly small space, for our chapel is a midget.”
“But outside all that?” said Leithen, “you have an empty world and an empty sky.”
“Not empty,” said Father Duplessis, smiling, “for it is filled with God. I cannot say, like Pascal, ‘le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.’ There is no silence here, for when I straighten my back and go out of doors the world is full of voices. When I was in my Picardy country there were little fields like a parterre, and crowded roads. There, indeed, I knew loneliness — but not here, where man is nothing and God is all.”
They left Fort Bannerman on a clear fresh morning when the sky was a pale Arctic blue, so pale as to be almost colourless, and a small cold wind, so tiny as to be little more than a shudder, blew from the north. The boat chugged laboriously up the last feeble rapids of the Big Hare, and then made good progress through long canal-like stretches in a waste of loess and sand. Here the land was almost desert, for the scrub pines had ceased to clothe the banks. These rose in shelves and mantelpieces to the spurs of the mountains, and one chain of low cliffs made a kind of bib round the edge of the range. There was no sound except the gurgle of the water and an occasional sandpiper’s whistle. A selvedge of dwarf willow made the only green in the landscape, though in distant hollows there were glimpses of poplar and birch. The river was split into a dozen channels, and the Hares kept the boat adroitly in deep water, for there was never a moment when it grounded. It was an ugly country, dull as a lunar landscape, tilted and eroded ridges which were the approach to the granite of the high mountains.
The three days at Fort Bannerman had done Leithen good, and though he found his breathing troublesome and his limbs weak, the hours passed in comparative comfort, since there was no need for exertion. On the Arctic shore and in the journey thence he had realised only that he was in a bleak infinity of space, a natural place in which to await death. But now he was conscious of the details of his environment. He watched the drifting duck and puzzled over their breed, he noted the art with which the Hares kept the boat in slack and deep water, and as the mountains came nearer he felt a feeble admiration for one peak which had the shape of Milan Cathedral. Especially he was aware of his companion. Hitherto there had been little conversation, but now Johnny came into the picture, sitting on the gunwale, one lean finger pressing down the tobacco in his pipe, his far-sighted eyes searching the shelves for game.
Johnny was very ready to talk. He had discovered that Leithen was Scots, and was eager to emphasise the Scottish side of his own ancestry. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a ring set with a small blood stone. He took it off and passed it to Leithen.
“Dad left me that,” he said. “Lew has a bigger and better one. Dad was mighty proud of the rings and he told us to stick to them, for he said they showed we come of good stock.”
Leithen examined it. The stone bore the three cinquefoils of Fraser. Then he remembered that Frizel had been the name for Fraser in the Border parish where he had spent his youth. He remembered Adam Fraser, the blacksmith, the clang of his smithy on summer mornings, the smell of sizzling hooves and hot iron on summer afternoons. The recollection gave Johnny a new meaning for him; he was no longer a shadowy figure in this fantastic world of weakness; he was linked to the vanished world of real things, and thereby acquired a personality.
As they chugged upstream in the crisp afternoon, hourly drawing nearer to the gate of the mountains, Leithen enjoyed something which was almost ease, while Johnny in his slow drawling voice dug into his memory. That night, too, when they made camp at the bottom of a stone-shoot, and, since the weather was mild, kept the driftwood fire alight more for show than for warmth, Johnny expanded further. Since in his experience all sickness was stomachic, he had included invalid foods among the stores, and was surprised when Leithen told him that he need not fuss about his diet. This made him take a more cheerful view of his companion’s health, and he did not trouble to see him early to bed. In his sleeping-bag on a couch of Bay blankets Leithen listened to some chapters of Johnny’s autobiography.
He heard of his childhood on Great Slave Lake and on the Liard, of his father (his mother had died at his birth), of his brother Lew — especially of Lew.
“We was brothers,” said Johnny, “but also we was buddies, which ain’t always according to rule.”
He spoke of his hunting, which had ranged from the Stikine to the Churchill, from the Clearwater to the Liard, and of his trapping, which had been done mostly about the upper waters of the Peace. Johnny as talker had one weak point — he was determined that his auditor should comprehend every detail, and he expounded in minutiæ. He seemed resolved that Leithen should grasp the difference in method between the taking of mink and marten, the pen on the river bank and the trap up in the hills. He elaborated also the technique of the spearing of muskrats, and he was copious on the intricate subject of fox. . . . In every third sentence there was a mention of Lew, his brother, until the picture that emerged for Leithen from the talk was not that of wild animals but of a man.
It was a picture which kept dislimning, so that he could not see it clearly; but it impressed him strangely. Lew came into every phase of Johnny’s recollections. He had said this or that; he had done this or that; he seemed to be taken as the ultimate authority on everything in heaven and earth. But Johnny’s attitude was something more than the admiration for an elder brother, or the respect of one expert for a greater. There was uneasiness in it. He seemed to bring in Lew’s name in a kind of ritual, as if to convince himself that Lew was secure and happy. . . . What was it that he had said on the Arctic shore? He had called Lew mad, meaning that he was possessed by a dream. Now Lew was hot on the trail of that dream, and Johnny was anxious about him. Of that there was no doubt.
Leithen laughed. He looked at Johnny’s bat ears and bullet head. Here was he, one who had seen men and cities and had had a hand in great affairs, with his thoughts concentrated on an unknown brother of an Indian half-breed! Galliard had almost gone out of the picture; to Johnny he was only Lew’s “pal,” the latest of a score or two of temporary employers. Even to Leithen himself the errant New Yorker, the husband of Blenkiron’s niece, the pillar of Ravelstons, seemed a minor figure compared to the masterful guide who was on the quest for a mysterious river. Had Lew inspired Galliard with his fancies? Or was the inspiration perhaps Galliard’s? What crazy obsession would he find if and when he overtook the pair somewhere in that wild world behind which the sun was setting?
That night they made camp at the very doorstep of the mountains, where the river, after a string of box-canyons, emerged from the foothills. It was an eerie place, for the Big Hare, after some miles of rapids, drowsed in a dark lagoon beneath sheer walls of rock. Leithen’s mind, having been back all day in the normal world, now reacted to a mood of black depression. What had seemed impressive a few hours before was now merely grotesque and cruel. His errand was ridiculous — almost certainly futile, and trivial even if it succeeded. What had he to do with the aberrations of American financiers and the whims of half-breeds? Somewhere in those bleak hills he would die — a poor ending for a not undignified life! . . . But had his life been much of a thing after all? He had won a certain amount of repute and made a certain amount of money, but neither had meant much to him. He had had no wife, no child. Had his many friends been more, after all, than companions? In the retrospect his career seemed lonely, self-centred, and barren, and what was this last venture? A piece of dull stoicism at the best — or, more likely, a cheap bravado.
All next morning they smelt their way through the box-canyons, sometimes with the engine shut off and the Hares poling madly. There were two dangerous rapids, but navigation was made simpler by the fact that there were no split channels and no shallows. They were going through the limestone foothills, and the cliffs on either side were at least seven hundred feet high, sheer as a wall where they did not overhang. Johnny had a tale about the place. Once the Hares had been hunted by the Crees — he thought it was the Crees, his own people, but it might have been the Dogribs. At that time the Big Hare River had come out of the mountains underground. The Hare boats were no match for the fleet Cree canoes, and the wretched tribe, fleeing upstream, looked for annihilation when they reached the end of the waterway. But to their amazement they found the mountains open before them and a passage through the canyons to the upper valley where was now the Hares’ hunting camp. When they looked back there were no pursuing Crees, for the mountain wall had closed behind them. But some days later, when the disappointed enemy had gone back to their Athabaska swamps, the passage opened again, and the Hares could return when they pleased to the Mackenzie.
“Big magic,” said Johnny. “I reckon them Hares got the story out of the Bible, when the missionaries had worked a bit on them, for it’s mighty like the children of Israel and old Pharaoh.”
Suddenly the boat shot into a lake, the containing walls fell back, and they were in a valley something less than a mile wide, with high mountains, whose tops were already powdered with snow, ringing it and blocking it to the north. The shores were green with scrub-willow, and the lower slopes were dark with spruce and pine.
At the upper end of the lake, on a half-moon of sward between the woods and the water, was the Hares’ encampment. Big Klaus and Little Klaus set up a howl as they came in sight of it, and they were answered by a furious barking of dogs.
The place was different from Leithen’s expectation. He remembered from old days the birch-bark lodges of eastern Canada; but in this country, where the birches were small, he had looked for something like the tall teepees of the Plains, with their smoke-holes and their covering of skins. Instead he found little oblong cabins thatched with rush-mats or brushwood. They had a new look as if they had recently been got ready for the winter, and a few caribou-skin tents showed what had been the summer quarters. On the highest point of ground stood what looked like a chapel, a building of logs surmounted at one end by a rough cross. Penned near it was an assortment of half-starved dogs who filled the heavens with their clamour.
The place stank foully, and when they landed Leithen felt nausea stealing over him. His legs had cramped with the journey and he had to lean on Johnny’s shoulder. They passed through a circle of silent Indians, and were greeted by their chief, who wore a medal like a soup plate. Then a little old man hobbled up who introduced himself as Father Wentzel, the Oblate who spent the summer here. He was about to return to Fort Bannerman, he said, when his place would be taken for the winter by Father Duplessis. He had a little presbytery behind the chapel, where he invited Leithen to rest while Johnny did his business with the Hares.
The priest opened the door which communicated with the chapel, lit two tapers on the altar, and displayed with pride a riot of barbaric colours. The walls were hung with cloths painted in bedlamite scarlets and purples and oranges — not the rude figures of men and animals common on the teepees, but a geometrical nightmare of interwoven cubes and circles. The altar cloth had the same byzantine exuberance.
“That is the work of our poor people,” said the priest. “Helped by Brother Onesime, who had the artist’s soul. To you, monsieur, it may seem too gaudy, but to our Indians it is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem.”
Leithen sat in the presbytery in a black depression. The smells of the encampment — unclean human flesh, half-dressed skins of animals, gobbets of putrefying food — were bad enough in that mild autumn noon. The stuffy little presbytery was not much better. But the real trouble was that suddenly everything seemed to have become little and common. The mountains were shapeless, mere unfinished bits of earth; the forest of pine and spruce had neither form nor colour; the river, choked with logs and jetsam, had none of the beauty of running water. In coming into the wilderness he had found not the majesty of Nature, but the trivial, the infinitely small — an illiterate half-breed, a rabble of degenerate Indians, a priest with the mind of a child. The pettiness culminated in the chapel, which was as garish as a Noah’s Ark from a cheap toyshop. . . . He felt sick in mind and very sick in body.
Father Wentzel made him a cup of tea, which he could barely swallow. The little priest’s eyes rested on him with commiseration in them, but he was too shy to ask questions. Presently Johnny arrived in a bustle. He would leave certain things, if he were permitted, in the presbytery cellar. He had arranged with the chief about dogs when they were wanted, but that was not yet, for it would be a fortnight at least before snow could be looked for, even in the high valleys, and, since they would travel light, they did not need dogs as pack animals. They would take the boat, for a stage or two was still possible by it; after that they would have the canoes, and he had kept the Hares as canoe-men —“for the portagin’ business would be too much for you, mister.”
He had news of Lew. The two men were not more than a week ahead, for a sudden flood in the Big Hare had delayed them. They had canoes, but no Indians, and had gone in the first instance to Lone Tree Lake. “That’s our road,” said Johnny. “Maybe they’ve made a base camp there. Anyhow, we’ll hit their trail.”
He had other news. It was the end of the seven years’ cycle, and disease had fallen on the snow-shoe rabbit, upon which in the last resort all wild animals depend. Therefore the winter hunting and trapping of the Hares would be poor, and there might be a shortage of food in their camp. “You tell Father Duplessis that when you get back to Fort Bannerman,” he told the priest. Their own camp, if they were compelled to make one, might run short. “Lucky we brought what we did,” he told Leithen. “If we catch up with Lew we’ll be all right, for he’d get something to eat off an iceberg.”
They passed one night in the presbytery. While Johnny slept the deep, short sleep of the woodsman, Leithen had a word with Father Wentzel.
“The two men who have gone before?” he asked. “One is the brother of my guide, and the other is a friend of my friends. How did they impress you?”
The child-like face of the priest took on a sudden gravity.
“The gentleman, he was of the Faith. He heard mass daily and made confession. He was a strange man. He looked unhappy and hungry and he spoke little. But the other, the guide, he was stranger. He had not our religion, but I think he had a kind of madness. He was in a furious haste, as if vengeance followed him, and he did not sleep much. When I rose before dawn he was lying with staring eyes. For his companion, the gentleman, he seemed to have no care — he was pursuing his own private errand. A strong man, but a difficult. When they left me I did not feel happy about the two messieurs.”
Out of the encumbered river by way of easy rapids the boat ran into reaches which were like a Scottish salmon stream on a big scale, long pools each with a riffle at its head. The valley altered its character, becoming narrower and grassier, with the forest only in patches on infrequent promontories. The weather, too, changed. The nights were colder, and a chill crept into even the noontide sunshine. But it was immensely invigorating, so that Johnny sang snatches of Scots songs instead of sucking his pipe, and Leithen had moments of energy which he knew to be deceptive. The air had a quality which he was unable to describe, and the scents were not less baffling. They were tonic and yet oddly sedative, for they moved the blood rather to quiescence than to action. They were aromatic, but there was nothing lush or exotic in them. They had on the senses the effect of a high violin note on the ear, as of something at the extreme edge of mortal apprehension.
But the biggest change was in Leithen’s outlook. The gloomy apathy of the Oblate’s presbytery disappeared, and its place was taken by a mood which was almost peace. The mountains were no longer untidy rock heaps, but the world which he had loved long ago, that happy upper world of birds and clouds and the last magic of sunset. He picked out ways of ascent by their ridges and gullies, and found himself noting with interest the riot of colour in the woods: the grey splashes of caribou moss, the reds of partridge-berry, cranberry, blueberry, and Saskatoon; the dull green interspaces where an old forest fire had brought forth acres of young spruces; above all the miracle of the hardwood trees. The scrub by the river, red-dog-willow, wolfberry willow, had every shade of yellow, and poplar and birch carried on the pageant of gold and umber far up the mountain sides. Birds were getting infrequent; he saw duck and geese high up in the heavens, but he could not identify them. Sometimes he saw a deer, and on bare places on the hills he thought he detected sheep. Black bears were plentiful, revelling among the berries or wetting their new winter coats in the river’s shallows, and he saw a big grizzly lumbering across a stone shoot.
Three long portages took them out of the Big Hare valley to Lone Tree Lake, which, in shape like a scimitar, lay tucked in a mat of forest under the wall of what seemed to be a divide. They reached it in the twilight, and, since the place was a poor camping-ground, they launched the canoes and paddled half-way up till they found a dry spit, which some ancient conflagration had cleared of timber. The lake was lit from end to end with the fires of sunset, and later in the night the aurora borealis cast its spears across the northern end. The mountains had withdrawn, and only one far snow peak was visible, so that the feeling of confinement, inevitable in the high valleys, was gone, and Leithen had a sense of infinite space around him. He seemed to breathe more freely, and the chill of the night air refreshed him, for frost crisped the lake’s edges. He fell asleep as soon as he got under his blankets.
He awoke after midnight to see above him a wonderful sky of stars, still shot with the vagrant shafts of the aurora. Suddenly he felt acutely his weakness, but with no regret in his mind, and indeed almost with comfort. He had been right in doing as he had done, coming out to meet death in a world where death and life were colleagues and not foes. He felt that in this strange place he was passing, while still in time, inside the bounds of eternity. He was learning to know himself, and with that might come the knowledge of God. A sentence of St. Augustine came into his head as he turned over and went to sleep again: “Deum et animam scire cupio. Nihil ne plus? Nihil omnino.”
He woke to find himself sweating under his blankets. The weather had changed to a stuffy mildness, for a warm chinook wind was blowing from the south-west. Johnny was standing beside him with a grave face.
“Lew’s been here,” he said. “He’s left his mark all right. Eat your breakfast and I’ll show you.”
At the base of the promontory there was a stand of well-grown spruce. A dozen of the trees had been felled, stripped, cut into lengths, and notched at each end. An oblong had been traced on a flat piece of ground, and holes dug for end-posts. A hut had been prospected, begun — and relinquished.
“Lew’s been on this job,” said Johnny. “You can’t mistake his axe-work.”
He stood looking with unquiet eyes at the pile of cut logs.
“Him and his pal put in a day’s work here. And then they quit. What puzzles me is why Lew quit. It ain’t like him.”
“Why shouldn’t he change his mind?” Leithen asked. “He must have decided that this was not the best place for a base camp.”
Johnny shook his head.
“It ain’t like him. He never starts on a job until he has thought all round it and made sure that he’s doin’ right, and then hell fire wouldn’t choke him off it. No, mister. There’s something queer about this, and I don’t like it. Something’s happened to Lew.”
The mild blue eyes were cloudy with anxiety.
“They’ve back-packed their stuff and gone on. They’ve cached their canoe,” and he nodded to where a bulky object was lashed in the lower branches of a tall poplar. “We’ve got to do the same. We’ll cache most of our stuff, for when we catch up with Lew we can send back for it. We’ll take the Indians, for you ain’t fit to carry a load. Their trail won’t be hard to follow. I’ve been over the first bit of it. Lew pushed on ahead, and the other was about fifty yards back of him and limping. Looks like they’ve quarrelled.”
The trail led away from the lake shore up a tributary stream towards what looked like the main wall of the divide. The berry-clad, ferny hillside made easy walking, and since the timber was small there were few troublesome windfalls. Johnny carried his.44 rifle, his axe, and a bag containing his own personal effects and most of Leithen’s; the Hares, Big Klaus and Little Klaus, had the heavy stuff, tent, cooking utensils, portable stove, stores; while Leithen had no more than a light haversack about the weight which he had often carried in the Alps. The pattern of his day was now so familiar that he found it hard to fit into it the astounding novelties in his life — his quest for a man whom he had never seen, in the least-known corner of North America — the fact that presently somewhere in this wilderness he must die.
New also in his experience were the weather and his own weakness. The sun was getting low and the days were shortening; each night frost crisped the edges of the streams, and the first hour of the morning march was through crackling pools and frozen herbage. But by noon the sun was warm and it set daily over their left shoulders in a haze of opal and pearl. The morning and evening chills were keenly felt, but the tonic air seemed to soothe his coughing. It was the very quintessence of air, quickening every sense so that he smelt more keenly, heard more clearly, saw things in sharper outline. He had never used spectacles, and he found that his eyes were fully the equal of Johnny’s when he knew what to look for.
He might have had an appetite, too, had it not been for his fatigue. He was so tired when they made camp for the night that he could scarcely eat, and Johnny had to turn his beans and bacon into a kind of soup before he could swallow them. He would lie in a half-stupor drawing his breath painfully for the better part of an hour, while Johnny and the Hares built the fire. Johnny was merciful, and accommodated his pace to his dragging feet, but the easiest gait was too much for him, and soon he had to have hourly rests. The trail went in and out of the glens, rising slowly to the higher benches, and, but for a few patches of swamp and one laborious passage over a rockfall, it was a road a child could have walked. But except for a very few minutes in the day it was for Leithen one long purgatory.
He started out in the morning with wobbling legs. After a mile or so, when his blood moved more briskly, he had a short spell of comfort. Then his breath began to trouble him, and long before midday he was plodding like a conscientious drunkard. He made it a point of honour to continue until Johnny called a halt, and, though Johnny did this often, he found himself always near the limits of his strength, and would drop like a log when the word was given. He returned unconsciously to an old habit of his mountaineering days, when he had had a long dull course to complete, counting his steps up to a thousand and walking to the rhythm of “Old Soldiers never Die. . . . ”
At the head of a little pass Johnny halted, though the march had only been going for twenty minutes. The Hares, when they came up, set down their packs and broke into a dismal howling, which seemed to be meant for a chant. There was a big jack-pine with the lower branches lopped off, and some fifty feet from the ground a long bundle was lashed to the trunk, something wrapped in caribou skin tanned white.
Johnny removed his disreputable hat. “That’s a chief up there. Good old scout he was — name of Billy Whitefish. . . . Passed out last fall.”
One blue day succeeded another, and each was followed by a colder night. The earth was yawning before it turned to its winter sleep. Leithen, though the days tired him to desperation, yet found the nights tolerable, and could let his thoughts stray from his bodily discomfort. He listened to Johnny’s talk.
Johnny talked much, for he had lost his shyness of Leithen, and this kind of trip was child’s play to him.
“This is a pretty good land,” he said, “to them that knows their way about. I guess a man could starve in the barrens, but not in the woods. Why, there’s forty kinds of berries — and a whole lot of different sorts of mushrooms — and rock-tripe — and bark you can boil to make porridge. And there’s all the animals that Noah had in the Ark. And there’s nothing to hurt a body provided the body’s got sense, and don’t tackle a grizzly up-hill.”
He had strong views on food. “B’ar’s right enough in the fall when he’s fat. A young un’s as good as mutton, but an old un’s plain shoe leather.” He did not care for moose meat, preferring caribou or deer, and he liked best partridge or ptarmigan in half-plumage.
“What’s here? Grizzly, black b’ar, brown b’ar, moose, caribou, three kinds of sheep — everything except goats. The Almighty left goats out when He stocked them mountains.”
It was clearly his purpose to picture the land as an easy place even for a sick man to travel in. “Canadians,” he said (he used the word as the equivalent of strangers, embracing everybody except the men of the North-west), “think we’ve got hell’s own climate up here. They’re wrong. We get milder winters than the Prairies. Besides, winter’s a fine time to travel if you know the ways of it. You’ll be snugger in a hole in the snow at forty below than in an apartment house in Winnipeg, and a darn lot healthier.
“But you’ve got to watch your step in the Northland,” he would add. He would tell experiences of his own to show the cruelty of the wilds, though he was always careful to explain that his misfortunes were due to his own folly. He was a white-water man, though not of Lew’s class, and above all things he hated towing a boat with a long trackline. “The thing’s just waitin’ to murder you,” he said, “trip you over a cliff, or drown you, or get round your neck and saw your head off.. ..”
He had been near starvation. “I can go three days without food and not feel it, and I’ve done it pretty often. I reckon Lew could go five. But there’s never been no reason for it except my own dam’ folly. Once I lost all my kit in a river, including my knife which I had in my teeth, and I had to make shift with flint-flakes to kill and skin. I once lived for a week on berries and one porcupine.”
He had had his accidents, too, as when a pine he was chopping down split with the cold and sent a sliver through his shoulder. He had once walked twenty miles to find a bottle of pain-killer which he had cached, his throat choking with laryngitis. But his worst adventure — he seemed shy in telling it — was when he was caught without snow-shoes in an early fall blizzard, and crossed unknowingly a bottomless half-frozen sphagnum swamp which heaved under his tread and made him vomit up his soul.
He would talk, too, about the secret lore of the woods. He could make the crows speak to him, and the squirrels, but not the whisky-jacks, because they were fools with only a cry and no speech. Lew could make anything talk.
It was always Lew, the mentor, the magician. But he never spoke his brother’s name, or so it seemed to Leithen, without an accent of disquiet. He followed unerringly Lew’s blazing of the trail, and often the blazes were so small that only a skilled woodman could have noticed them. He studied carefully every bivouac. Sometimes in marshy places he found the moccasin tracks still fresh, and then his anxiety seemed to increase.
“Lew’s settin’ a terrible pace,” he said, “and the other’s laggin’. They’re still messin’ together at night, but the other must be getting in pretty late, and he can’t be having much sleep, for each morning they starts together. . . . I don’t like it somehow. I wonder what brother Lew’s aiming at?”
The trail wound intricately along the slopes of deep parallel glens, now and then crossing from one to another by a low pass. Johnny had been over it before, and was puzzled. “Them rivers run down to the Yukon,” he told Leithen. “But Lew swears the Sick Heart don’t do that, and we’re over the divide from the Mackenzie. I reckon it can’t have nothin’ to do with the Peel, so it must disappear into the earth. That’s my guess. Anyhow, this trail ain’t going to get us nowhere except to the Yukon.”
The celestial weather continued, wintry in the small hours of the night, but in the sun as balmy as June. Leithen had fallen into a state which was neither ease nor mal-ease, but something neutral like his bodily condition at the end of a hard term at the Bar, when he was scarcely ill but assuredly not well. He could struggle through the day and have a slender margin for the interests of the road.
There was one new thing — the wild animals were beginning to show themselves, as if they were stretching their legs for the last time before the snows came. One morning he saw the first moose — well up the hillside in a patch of dwarf spruce, showing against the background like elephants.
“Them beasts ain’t happy here,” Johnny said. “They want the hardwood country, for they ain’t like caribou that feed on moss — they likes the juicy underbrush. I guess they’ll come down before the snow to the bottoms and stamp out a ravage so as to get to the shoots. I’ll tell you a queer thing. The moose is pushin’ further north. I mind the day when there wasn’t one north of the Great Slave Lake, and now Lew has seen them on the Arctic shore east of the Mackenzie. I wonder what’s bitin’ them?”
The caribou had not yet appeared, being still on the tundras, but there were birds — ptarmigan and willow grouse — and big Arctic hares just getting into their winter coats. Also there were wolves, both the little grey wolves and the great timber wolves. They did not howl, but Johnny — and Leithen also — could hear them padding at night in the forest. Sometimes dim shapes slipped across a glade among the trees. One night, too, when Leithen could not sleep, he got up and watched the northern heavens where the aurora flickered like a curtain of delicate lace wrought in every tint of the rainbow. It lit up the foreground across which stalked a procession of black forms like some frieze on a Greek urn.
He found Johnny at his side. “That’s the North,” he said solemnly. “The wolves and the Aurory. God send us a kind winter.”
One day the trail took an odd turn, for it left the parallel ridges and bore away to the east to higher ground. Johnny shook his head. “This is new country for me,” he said. “Here’s where Lew has taken the big chance.”
Mountains prematurely snow-covered had been visible from the Hares’ settlement, and Leithen at Lone Tree Camp had seen one sharp white peak in a gap very far off. Ever since then they had been moving among wooded ridges at the most two thousand feet high. But now they suddenly came out on a stony plateau, the trees fell away, and they looked on a new world.
The sedimentary rocks had given place to some kind of igneous formation. In front were cliffs and towers as fantastic as the Dolomites, black and sinister against a background of great snowfields, sweeping upward to ice arêtes and couloirs which reminded Leithen of Dauphiné. In the foreground the land dropped steeply into gorges which seemed to converge in a deep central trough, but they were very unlike the mild glens through which they had been ascending. These were rifts in the black rock, their edges feathered with dwarf pines, and from their inky darkness in the sunlight they must be deep. The rock towers were not white and shining like the gracious pinnacles above Cortina, but as black as if they had been hewn out of coal by a savage Creator.
But it was not the foreground that held the eye, but the immense airy sweep of the snow-fields and ice pinnacles up to a central point, where a tall peak soared into the blue. Leithen had seen many snow mountains in his time, but this was something new to him — new to the world. The icefield was gigantic, the descending glaciers were on the grand scale, the central mountain must compete with the chief summits of the southern Rockies. But unlike the Rockies the scene was composed as if by a great artist — nothing untidy and shapeless, but everything harmonised into an exquisite unity of line and colour.
His eyes dropped from the skyline to the foreground and the middle distance. He shivered. Somewhere down in that labyrinth was Galliard. Somewhere down there he would leave his own bones.
Johnny was staring at the scene without speaking a word, without even an exclamation. At last he drew a long breath.
“God!” he said. “Them’s the biggest mountains in the Northland and only you and me and Lew and his pal has seen ’em, and some Indians that don’t count. But it’s going to be a blasted country to travel. See that black gash? I reckon that’s where the Sick Heart River flows, and it’ll be hell’s own job to get down to it.”
“D’you think Lew and Galliard are there?” Leithen asked.
“Sure. I got their trail a piece back on the sand of that little pond we passed. We’ll pick it up soon on them shale slides.”
“Is the road possible?”
“Lew thinks it is. I told you he’d seen the Sick Heart once but couldn’t get down the precipices. It couldn’t have been this place or he wouldn’t have gone on, for he don’t try impossibilities. He sure knows there’s a way down.”
Leithen, sitting on the mountain gravel, had a sudden sharp pang of hopelessness, almost of fear. He realised that this spectacle of a new mountain-land would once have sent him wild with excitement, the excitement both of the geographer and the mountaineer. But now he could only look at it with despair. It might have been a Pisgah-sight of a promised land; but now it was only a cruel reminder of his frailty. He had still to find Galliard, but Galliard had gone into this perilous labyrinth. Could he follow? Could he reach him? . . . But did it matter after all? The finding of Galliard was a task he had set himself, thinking less of success than of the task. It was to tide away the time manfully before his end so that he could die standing. A comforting phrase of Walt Whitman’s came back to him, “the delicious near-by assurance of death.”
Sometimes lately he had been surprised at himself. He had not thought that he possessed this one-idea’d stoicism which enabled him to climb the bleak staircase of his duty with scarcely a look behind. . . . But perhaps this was the way in which most men faced death. Had his health lasted he would be doing the same thing a dozen or a score of years ahead. Soon his friends would be doing it — Hannay and Lamancha and Clanroyden — if they were fated to end in their beds. It was the lot of everyone sooner or later to reach the bleak bag’s-end of life into which they must creep to die.
They soon picked up the tracks of their forerunners in the long spouts of gravel, and as they slowly zigzagged downhill to the tree line the weather changed. The cold blue sky beyond the mountains dulled to a colder grey and all light went out of the landscape. It was like the coming of the Polar Night of which he had read, the inexorable drawing down of a curtain upon the glory of the world. The snow began to fall in big flakes, not driven by any wind, but like the gentle emptying of a giant celestial bin. Soon there was nothing but white round them, except the tops of the little gnarled firs.
Luckily they had reached the tree line before the snow began, for otherwise they might have lost the trail. As it was, Johnny soon picked it up from the blazes on the diminutive trunks. It led them down a slope so steep that it was marvellous that any roots could cling to it. They had to ford many ice-cold streams, and before they reached flat ground in the evening Leithen was tottering on the very outside edge of his strength. He scarcely heard Johnny’s mutter, “Looks like Lew has lost his pal. Here’s where he camped and there’s just the one set of tracks.” He was repeating to himself Whitman’s words like a prayer.
Johnny saw his weariness and mercifully said no more, contenting himself with making camp and cooking supper. Leithen fell asleep as soon as he had finished his meal, and did not wake until he heard the crackling of the breakfast fire. The air was mild and most of the snow had gone, for the wind had shifted to the south-west. Every limb ached after the long march of yesterday, but his chest was easier and there seemed more pith in his bones.
Johnny wore an anxious face. “We’ve made up on ’em,” he said. “I reckon Lew’s not two days ahead.”
Leithen asked how he knew this, but Johnny said he knew but could not explain — it would take too long and a stranger to the wilds would not understand.
“He’s gone on alone,” he repeated. “This was his camping-ground three nights back, and the other wasn’t here. They parted company some time that day, for we had the trail of both of ’em on the shale slides. What in God’s name has happened? Lew has shook off his pal, and that pal is somewhere around here, and, being new to the job, he’ll die. Maybe he’s dead already.”
“Has Lew gone on?”
“Lew’s gone on. I’ve been over a bit of his trail. He’s not wastin’ time.”
“But the other — my friend — won’t he have followed Lew’s blazes?”
“He wouldn’t notice ’em, being raw. Lew’s blazed a trail for his use on the way back, not for any pal to follow.”
So this was journey’s end for him — to have traced Galliard to the uttermost parts of the earth only to find him dead. Remembrance of his errand and his original purpose awoke exasperation, and exasperation stirred the dying embers of his vitality.
“Our job is to find Mr. Galliard,” he said. “We stay here until we get him, dead or alive.”
Johnny nodded. “I guess that’s right, but I’m mighty anxious about brother Lew. Looks like he’s gone haywire.”
The snow was the trouble, Johnny said. It was disappearing fast under sun and wind, and its melting would obliterate all tracks on soft ground, almost as completely as if it still covered them. He thought that the Hares were better trackers than himself and they might find what he missed. He proposed that Leithen should lie up in camp while he and the Indians went back on yesterday’s trail in the hope of finding the place where the two men had parted.
Johnny packed some food and in half an hour he and the Hares were climbing the steep side of the glen. Leithen carried his blankets out to a patch which the sun had already dried, and basked in the thin winter sunshine. Oddly enough, Johnny’s news had not made him restless, though it threatened disaster to his journey. He had wanted that journey to succeed, but the mere finding of Galliard would not spell success, or the loss of him failure. Success lay in his own spirit. A slight increase of bodily comfort had given him also a certain spiritual ease. This sun was good, though soon for him it would not rise again.
The search-party did not return until the brief twilight. Johnny, as he entered the tent, shook his head dolefully.
“No good, mister. We’ve found where the other feller quit the trail — them Hares are demons at that game. Just what I expected — up on the barrens where there ain’t no trees to blaze and brother Lew had got out of sight. But after that we couldn’t pick up no trail. He might have gone left or he might have gone right, but anyhow he must have gone down into the woods. So we started to beat out the woods, each of us takin’ a line, but we’ve struck nothin’. Tomorrow we’ll have another try. I reckon he can’t have gone far, for he’s dead lame. He must be lyin’ up somewhere and starvin’.”
Johnny counted on his fingers.
“Say, look! He’s been three days quit of Lew — he’s dead lame, and I reckon he wasn’t carryin’ more’n his own weight — if he didn’t catch up with Lew at night he didn’t have no food — maybe he wasn’t able to make fire — maybe he didn’t carry more’n one blanket — if he’s alive he’s mighty cold and mighty hungry.”
He was silent until he went to bed, a certain proof of anxiety.
“This sure is one hell of a business,” he said as he turned in. “Lew kind of mad and streakin’ off into space, and his pal aimin’ to be a corpse. It’s enough to put a man off his feed.”
Johnny and the Hares were off at dawn next morning. The weather was mild, almost stuffy, and there had been little frost in the night. Leithen sat outside the tent, but there was no sun to warm him, only a grey misty sky which bent low on the hills. He was feeling his weakness again, and with it came a deep depression of spirit. The wilds were brutal, inhuman, the abode of horrid cruelty. They had driven one man mad and would be the death of another. Not much comfort for Felicity Galliard in his report — “Discovered where your man had gone. Followed him and found him dead.” That report would be carried by Johnny some time down into the civilised places, and cabled to New York, signed with the name of Leithen. But he would not see Felicity’s grief, for long before then he would be out of the world.
In the afternoon the weather changed. The heavens darkened and suddenly burst into a lace-work of lightning. It was almost like the aurora, only it covered the whole expanse of sky. From far away there was a kind of muttering, but there were no loud thunder peals. After an hour it ceased and a little cold wind came out of the west. This was followed by a torrential rain, the heaviest Leithen had ever seen, which fell not in sheets but with the solid three dimensions of a cataract. In five minutes the hillside was running with water and the floor of the tent was a bog. In half an hour the brook below was a raving torrent. The downpour ceased and was followed by a burst of sunshine from a pale lemon sky, and a sudden sharpening of the air. Johnny had spoken of this; he had said that the winter would not properly be on them until they had the father and mother of a thunderstorm and the last rains.
Leithen pulled on his gum-boots and went out for a breath of air. The hill was melting under him, and only by walking in the thicker patches of fern and berries could he find decent foothold. Somehow his depression had lifted with the passing of the storm, and in the sharp air his breath came easier. It was arduous work walking in that tangle. “I had better not go far,” he told himself, “or I’ll never get home. Not much chance for Johnny and the Indians after such a downpour.”
He turned to look back. . . . There seemed to be a lumbering body at the door of the tent trying to crawl inside. A bear, no doubt. If the brute got at the food there would be trouble. Leithen started to slither along the hillside, falling often, and feeling his breath run short.
The thing was inside. He had closed the door-flap before leaving, and now he tore it back to let in the light. The beast was there, crouching on its knees on the muddy floor. It was a sick beast, for it seemed to nuzzle the ground and emit feeble groans and gasps of pain. A bear! Its hinder parts were one clot of mud, but something like a ragged blanket seemed to be round its middle. The head! The head looked like black fur, and then he saw that this was a cap and that beneath it was shaggy human hair.
The thing moaned, and then from it came a sound which, though made by dry lips, was articulate speech.
“Frizelle!” it said. “Oh, Frizelle! . . . pour l’amour de Dieu!”
It took all Leithen’s strength to move Galliard from the floor to his bed. He folded a blanket and put it under his head. Then he undid the muffler at his throat and unbuttoned the shirt. The man’s lips were blue and sore, and his cheeks were shrunk with hunger and fatigue. He seemed to be in pain, for as he lay on his back he moaned and screwed up his eyes. His wits were dulled in a stupor, and, apart from his first muttered words, he seemed to be unconscious of his environment.
Leithen mixed a little brandy and tinned milk and forced it between his lips. It was swallowed and immediately vomited. So he lit the stove and put on the kettle to boil, fetching water from the nearby spring. The moaning continued as if the man were in pain, and he remembered that Johnny had guessed at a wounded foot. The sight of another mortal suffering seemed to give Leithen a certain access of strength. He found himself able to undo Galliard’s boots, and it was no light task, for they were crusted thick with mud. The left one had been sliced open like a gouty man’s shoe, to give ease to a wound in his shin, a raw, ragged gash which looked like an axe cut. Before the boot could be removed the moaning had several times changed to a gasp of pain. Leithen made an attempt to wash the wound, and bound it up with a handkerchief, which was all he had in the way of a bandage. That seemed to give Galliard relief, and the moaning ceased.
The kettle was boiling and he made tea. Galliard tried to take the pannikin, but his hands were shaking so that Leithen had to feed him like a child. He swallowed all that he did not spill and seemed to want more. So Leithen tried him again with brandy and milk, the milk this time thinned and heated. Now two brown eyes were staring at him, eyes in which consciousness was slowly dawning. The milk was drunk and Galliard lay for a little blinking at the tent wall. Then his eyes closed and he slept.
Leithen laid himself down on Johnny’s mattress and looked at the shapeless heap which had been the object of his quest. There was the tawny beard which he had come to expect, but for the rest — it was unfamiliar wreckage. Little in common had it with the gracious portrait in the Park Avenue hall, or the Nattier, or the Aubusson carpet, or Felicity’s rose-and-silver drawing-room. This man had chosen the wilderness, and now the wilderness had taken him and tossed him up like the jetsam of a flood.
There was no satisfaction for Leithen in the fact that he had been successful in his search. By an amazing piece of luck he had found Galliard and in so doing had achieved his purpose. But now the purpose seemed trivial. Was this derelict of so great importance after all? The unaccustomed bending in his handling of Galliard had given him a pain in his back, and the smell of the retched brandy and milk sickened him. He felt a desperate emptiness in his body, in his soul, and in the world.
It was almost dark when Johnny and the Hares returned. Leithen jerked his thumb towards the sleeping Galliard. Johnny nodded.
“I sort of suspicioned he’d be here. We got his tracks, but lost them in the mud. The whole darned hill is a mud-slide.” He spoke slowly and flatly, as if he were very tired.
But his return set the little camp going, and Leithen realised what a blundering amateur he was compared with Johnny and the Indians. In a few minutes a fire was crackling before the tent door. Galliard, still in a coma, was lifted and partly unclothed, and his damaged leg was washed and rebandaged by Johnny with the neatness of a hospital nurse. The tent was tidied up and supper was set cooking — coffee on the stove and caribou steaks on the fire. Johnny concocted a dish of his own for the sick man, for he made a kind of chicken broth from a brace of willow grouse he had shot.
“You’d better eat,” he said. “We’ll feed the soup to that feller when he wakes. Best let him sleep a little longer. How you feelin’ yourself? When I come in you looked mighty bad.”
“I found Galliard more than I could manage; but never mind me. What about him?”
Johnny’s bat’s ears seemed to prick up as he bent over the sleeping figure. He was like a gnome in a fairy-tale; but he was human enough when he turned to Leithen, and the glow of the fire showed his troubled blue eyes.
“He’ll come through a’ right,” he said. “He’s been a healthy man and he ain’t bottomed his strength yet. But he’s plumb weary. He can’t have fed proper for three days, and I reckon he can’t have slept proper for a week.”
“Nasty cut he’s got, and he’ll have to watch his self if he don’t want to go lame all his days. He can’t move for a good spell.”
“Ten days — a fortnight — maybe more.”
Leithen had the appetite of a bird, but Johnny was ordinarily a good trencherman. Tonight, however, he ate little, though he emptied the coffee-pot. His mind was clearly on his brother, but Leithen asked no questions. At last, after half an hour’s sucking at his pipe, he spoke.
“I figure that him”— and he nodded towards Galliard —“and brother Lew has been agreein’ about as well as a carcajou and a sick b’ar. Lew’d gotten into a bad mood and this poor soul didn’t know what the matter was, and got no answer when he asked questions. But he was bound to hang on to Lew or get lost and perish. Pretty nasty time he’s been havin’. Lew’s been actin’ mighty mean, I’d say. But you can’t just blame Lew, for, as I figure it, he don’t know what he’s doin’. He ain’t seein’ his pal, he ain’t seein’ nothin’ except the trail he’s blazin’ and somethin’ at the end of it.”
“The old Sick Heart River.”
“Then he’s gone mad?”
“You might say so. And yet Lew for ordinar’ is as sane as you, mister, and a darn lot saner than me. He’s gotten a vision and he’s bound to go after it.”
“What’s to be done?”
“Our first job is to get this feller right. That was the reason you come down North, wasn’t it? Every man’s got to skin his own skunk. But I don’t mind tellin’ you I’m worried to death about brother Lew.”
The attention of both was suddenly diverted to Galliard, who had woke up, turned on his side, and was looking at them with wide-awake eyes — pained eyes, too, as if he had awakened to suffering. Johnny took the pannikin of soup which had been heating on the stove, and began to feed the sick man, feeding him far more skilfully than Leithen had done, so that little was spilt. The food seemed to revive him and ease his discomfort. He lay back for a little, staring upward, and then he spoke.
His voice was hoarse, little above a croak. Johnny bent over him to catch his words. He shook his head.
“It’s French, but Godamighty knows what he means. It don’t sound sense to me.”
Leithen dragged himself nearer. The man was repeating some form of words like a litany, repeating it again and again, so that the same phrase kept recurring. To his amazement he recognised it as a quotation from Chateaubriand, which had impressed him long ago and which had stuck to his fly-paper memory.
“S’il est parmi les anges,” the voice said, “comme parmi des hommes, des campagnes habitées et des lieux déserts.”
There was a pause. Certain phrases followed, “Solitudes de la terre”—“Solitudes célestes.” Then the first sentence was repeated. Galliard spoke the words in the slurred patois of Quebec, sounding harshly the final consonants.
“He is quoting a French writer who lived a century ago,” Leithen told Johnny. “It’s nonsense. Something about the solitary places of heaven.”
Galliard was speaking again. It was a torrent of habitant French and his voice rose to a pitch which was almost a scream. The man was under a sudden terror, and he held out imploring hands which Johnny grasped. The latter could follow the babble better than Leithen, but there was no need of an interpreter, for the pain and fear in the voice told their own tale. Then the fit passed, the eyes closed, and Galliard seemed to be asleep again.
Johnny shook his head. “Haywire,” he said. “Daft — and I reckon I know the kind of daftness. He’s mortal scared of them woods. You might say the North’s gotten on his mind.”
“But it was a craze for the North that dragged him here.”
“Yep, but having gotten here he’s scared of it. His mind’s screwed right round. It’s a queer thing, the North, and you need to watch your step for fear it does you down. This feller was crazy for it till he poked his head a wee bit inside, and now he’s scared out of his life, and would give his soul to quit. I’ve known it happen before. Folks come down here thinking the North’s a pretty lady, and find that she can be a cruel, bloody-minded old bitch, and they scurry away from her like jack-rabbits from a forest fire. I’ve seen them as had had a taste of her ugly side, and ever after the stink of smoke-dried Indian moccasins, and even the smell of burning logs, would turn out their insides. . . . I reckon this feller’s had a pretty purifyin’ taste of it. Ever been lost?”
“Well, it ain’t nice, and it tests a man’s guts.”
The air sharpened in the night and the little tent with its three occupants was not too stuffy. Galliard never stirred. Johnny had the short sound slumbers of a woodman, waking and rising before dawn; but Leithen slept badly. He had found his man, but he was a lunatic — for the time being. His task now was to piece together the broken wits. It seemed to him a formidable and unwelcome business. Could a dying man minister to a mind diseased? He would have preferred his old job — to go on spending his bodily strength till he had reached the end of it. That would, at any rate, have given him peace to make his soul.
Johnny set the camp stirring and was everywhere at once, like a good housewife. Galliard was washed and fed and his wound dressed. Leithen found that he had more power in his legs, and was able to make a short promenade of the shelf on which the camp stood, breathing air which was chilly as ice and scented with a thousand miles of pines. Johnny and the Hares were busy with measurements.
Leithen, huddled in the lee of the fire, watched the men at work. They were laying out the ground plan of a hut. It was to be built against the hillside, the gravel of which, when cut away, would make its back wall, and it seemed to be about twenty feet square. The Hares did the levelling of the shelf, and presently came the sound of Johnny’s axe from the woods. In a couple of hours the four corner posts were cut, trimmed, and set up, and until the midday meal all three were busy felling well-grown spruce and pine.
Johnny’s heavy preoccupation lightened a little as they ate.
“We need a hut whatever happens,” he said. “The feller”— that was how he referred to Galliard —“will want something snugger than a tent when the cold sets in, for he ain’t goin’ to get well fast. Then there’s you, a mighty sick man. And, please God, there’ll be brother Lew.”
“Is there no way of getting back to the Hares’ camp?”
“For Lew and me — not for you and the feller. We got to plan to spend the winter here, or hereabouts. We can send the Indians back for stores and dog teams, and maybe we could get out in February when the good snows come. But we got to plan for the winter. I can fix up a tidy hut, and when we get the joints nicely chinked up with mud, and plenty of moss and sods on the roof, we’ll be as snug as an old b’ar in its hole. I’m aimin’ to fix a proper fireplace inside, for there’s the right kind of clay in the creek for puddlin’.”
“Let me help.”
“You can’t do nothin’ yet, so long as we’re on the heavy jobs, but I’ll be glad of you when it comes to the inside fixin’. You get into the tent beside the feller and sleep a bit. I’m all right if I wasn’t worried about Lew.”
Johnny was attending to the bodily needs of the sick man like a hospital nurse, feeding him gruel and chicken broth and weak tea. Galliard slept most of the time, and even his waking hours were a sort of coma. He was asleep when Leithen entered the tent, and presently, to the accompaniment of Johnny’s axe in the woods, Leithen himself drowsed off, for by this time of the day he was very weary. But sleep was for him the thinnest of films over the waking world and presently he was roused by Galliard’s voice. This time it sounded familiar, something he had heard before, and not the animal croak of yesterday.
Two dull brown eyes were staring at him, eyes in which there was only the faintest spark of intelligence. They moved over his person, lingering some time at his boots, and then fastened on his face. There was bewilderment in them, but also curiosity. Their owner seemed to struggle for words, and he passed his tongue over his dry lips several times before he spoke.
“You are — what?”
He spoke in English, but his hold on the language seemed to slip away, for when Leithen replied in the same tongue the opaque eyes showed no comprehension.
“I am a friend of your friends,” he said. “We have come to help you. I have the brother of Lew Frizel with me.”
After a pause he repeated the last sentence in French. Some word in it caught Galliard’s attention. His face suddenly became twisted with anxiety, and he tried to raise himself on his bed. Words poured from him, words tumbling over each other, the French of Quebec. He seemed to be imploring someone to wait for him — to let him rest a little and then he would go on — an appeal couched in queer childish language, much of which Leithen could not understand. And always, like the keynote of a threnody, came the word Rivière — and Rivière again — and once Rivière du Cœur Malade.
The partner of Ravelstons had suffered a strange transformation. Leithen realised that it would be idle to try to link this man’s memory with his New York life. He had gone back into a very old world, the world of his childhood and his ancestors, and though it might terrify him, it was for the moment his only world.
The babbling continued. As Leithen listened to it the word that seemed to emerge from the confusion was Lew’s name. It was on Lew that Galliard’s world was now centred. If he was to be brought back to his normal self Lew must be the chief instrument. . . . And Lew was mad himself, raving mad, far away in the mountains on a crazy hunt for a mystic river! A sudden sense of the lunatic inconsequence of the whole business came over Leithen and forced from him a bitter laugh. That laugh had an odd effect upon Galliard, for it seemed to frighten him into silence. It was as if he had got an answer to his appeals, an answer which slammed the door.
Next day the cold was again extreme, but the sun was out for six hours, and the shelf in the forest was not uncomfortable. Johnny, after sniffing the air, pronounced on the weather. The first snow had fallen; there would be three days of heavy frost; then for maybe ten days there would be a mild, bright spell; then a few weeks before Christmas would come the big snows and the fierce cold. The fine spell would enable him to finish the hut. A little drove of snow-buntings had passed yesterday; that meant, he said, since the birds were late in migrating, that winter would be late.
“You call it the Indian Summer?”
“The Hares call it the White Goose Summer. It ends when the last white goose has started south.”
That day Leithen made an experiment. Galliard was mending well, the wound in the leg was healing, he could eat better, only his mind was still sick. It was important to find out whether the time had come to link his memory up with his recent past, to get him on the first stage on the road back to the sphere to which he belonged.
He chose the afternoon, when his own fatigue compelled him to rest, and Galliard was likely to be wakeful after the bustle of the midday meal. He had reached certain conclusions. Galliard had lost all touch with his recent life. He had reverted to the traditions of his family, and now worshipped at ancestral shrines, and he had been mortally scared by the sight of the goddess. These fears did not impel him to mere flight, for he did not know where to flee to. It drove him to seek a refuge, and that refuge was Lew. He was as much under the spell of Lew as Lew was under the spell of his crazy river. Could this spell be lifted?
So far Galliard had been a mere automaton. He had spoken like a waxwork managed by a ventriloquist. It was hardly possible to recognise a personality in that vacant face, muffled in a shaggy beard, and unlit by the expressionless eyes. Yet the man was regaining his health, his wound was healing fast, his cheeks had lost their famished leanness. As Leithen looked at him he found it hard to refrain from bitterness. He was giving the poor remnants of his strength to the service of a healthy animal with years of vigour before him.
He crushed the thought down and set himself to draw Galliard out of his cave. But the man’s wits seemed to be still wandering. Leithen plied him with discreet questions but got an answer to neither French nor English. He refrained from speaking his wife’s name, and the names of his American friends, even of Ravelstons itself, woke no response. He tried to link up with Chateau–Gaillard, and Clairefontaine — with Father Paradis — with Uncle Augustin — with the Gaillards, Aristide and Paul Louis, who had died on the Arctic shores. But he might have been shouting at a cenotaph, for the man never answered, nor did any gleam of recognition show in his face. It was only when Leithen spoke again of Lew that there was a flicker of interest; more than a flicker, indeed, for the name seemed to stir some secret fear; the pupils of the opaque eyes narrowed, the lean cheeks twitched, and Galliard whimpered like a lost dog.
Leithen felt wretchedly ill all that day, but after supper, according to the strange fashion of his disease, he had a sudden access of strength. He found that he could think clearly ahead and take stock of the position. Johnny, who was labouring hard all day, should have tumbled into bed after supper and slept the sleep of the just. But it was plain that there was too much on his mind for easy slumber. He sucked at his pipe, kept his eyes on the fire outside the open door, and spoke scarcely a word.
“How is he getting on?” Leithen asked.
“Him? The feller? Fine, I guess. He’s a mighty tough body, for he ha’n’t taken no scaith, barrin’ the loss of weight. He’ll be a’ right.”
“But his mind is gone. He remembers nothing but what happened in the last weeks. A shutter has come down between him and his past life. He’s a child again.”
“Aye. I’ve known it happen. You see he was scared out of his skin by something — it may have been Lew, or it may have been jest loneliness. He’s got no sense in him and it’s goin’ to take quite a time to get it back. That’s why I’m fixin’ this hut. He wants nursin’ and quiet, and a sort of feel that he’s safe, and for that you need four walls, even though they’re only raw lumber. If you was to take him out in the woods you’d have him plumb ravin’ and maybe he’d never get better. I’ve seen the like before. It don’t do to play tricks with them wild places.”
“I don’t understand,” said Leithen. “Lew goes mad and terrifies Galliard and lets him lag behind so that he nearly perishes. Galliard has the horror of the wilds on him, but no horror of Lew. He seems to be crying for him like a child for his nurse.”
“That’s so. That’s the way it works. The feller don’t know that his troubles was all Lew’s doin’. He’s gotten scared of loneliness in this darned great wild country, and he claws on to anything human. The only human thing near at hand is brother Lew. But that ain’t all. If it was all you and me might take Lew’s place, for I guess we’re human enough. But, as I figure it, Lew has let him in on his Sick Heart daftness, and kind of enthused him about it, and, the feller bein’ sick anyhow, it has got possession of his mind. You told me back in Quebec that he’d a notion, which runs in his family, of pushing north, and we seen the two graves at Ghost River.”
“Still I don’t understand,” said Leithen. “He’s frightened of the wilds and yet he hankers to get deeper into them, right to a place where nobody’s ever been.”
Johnny shook out his pipe.
“He’s not thinkin’ of the Sick Heart as part of the woods. He’s thinkin’ of it the same as Lew, as a sort of Noo Jerusalem — the kind of place where everything’ll be a’ right. He and Lew ain’t thinkin’ of it with sane minds, and if Lew’s there now he won’t be lookin’ at it with sane eyes. Sick Heart is a mighty good name for it.”
“What sort of place do you think it is?”
“An ordinary creek, I guess. It’s hard to get near, and that’s maybe why Lew’s crazy about it. My father used to have a sayin’ that he got out of Scotland, ‘Faraway hills is always shiny.’”
“Then how is Galliard to be cured of this madness?”
“We’ve got to get Lew back to him — and Lew in his right mind. At least, that’s how I figure it. I mind once I was huntin’ with the Caribou–Eaters in the Thelon, east of Great Slave Lake. There was an Indian boy — Two-sticks, his name was — and he come under the spell of my Chipewyan hunter, him they called White Partridge. Well, the trip came to an end and we all went home, but next year I heard that Two-sticks had been queer all winter. He wasn’t cured until they fetched old White Partridge to him. And that meant a three-hundred-mile trip from Nelson Forks to the Snowdrift River.”
“How can we get Lew back?”
“Godamighty knows! If I was here on my own I’d be on his trail like a timber wolf. Maybe he’s sick in body as well as in mind. Anyhow, he’s alone, and it ain’t good to be alone down North, and he’s all that’s left to me in the family line. But I can’t leave here. I took on a job with you and I’ve got to go through with it. There’s the feller, too, to nurse, and he’ll want a tidy bit o’ nursin’. And there’s you, mister. You’re a pretty sick man.”
“Go after Lew and fetch him back and I’ll stay here.”
Johnny shook his head.
“Nothin’ doin’. You can’t finish this hut. The Hares are willin’ enough, but they’ve got to be told what to do. And soon there’ll be need of huntin’ for fresh supplies, for so far we’ve been living mostly on what we back-packed in. And we’ve got to send out to the Hares’ camp for some things. Besides, you ain’t used to the woods, and what’s easy for me would be one big trouble for you. But most of all you’re sick — godawful sick — a whole lot sicker than the feller. So I say Nothin’ doin’, though I’m sure obliged to you. We’ve got to carry on with our job and trust to God to keep an eye on brother Lew.”
Leithen did not reply. There was a stubborn sagacious dutifulness in that bullet head, that kindly Scots face, and those steadfast blue eyes which was beyond argument.
He spent a restless night, for he felt that the situation was slipping out of his control. He had come here to expend the last remnants of his bodily strength in a task on which his mind could dwell, and so escape the morbidity of passively awaiting death. He had fulfilled part of that task, but he was as yet a long way from success. Galliard’s mind had still to be restored to its normal groove. This could only be done — at least so Johnny said — by fetching and restoring to sanity the man who was the key to its vagaries. Johnny could not be spared, so why should he not go himself on Lew’s trail, with one of the Hares to help him? It was misery to hang about this camp, feeling his strength ebbing and getting no further on with his job. That would be dying like a rat in a hole. If it had to be, far better to have found a hole among the comforts of home. If he followed Lew, he would at any rate die in his boots, and whether he succeeded or failed, the end would come while he was fighting.
He told Johnny of his decision and at first was derided. He would not last two days; a Hare might be a good enough tracker, but he wanted a white man to guide him, one who was no novice. The road to the Sick Heart was admittedly difficult and could only be traversed, if at all, by a fit man; there might be storms and the mountains made impassable. Moreover, what would he say to Lew, to whom he was a stranger? If Lew was found he would for certain resent any intrusion in his lair. This was the point to which Johnny always returned.
“You’ve heard of mad trappers and the trouble they give the Mounties. If Lew’s mad he’ll shoot, and he don’t miss.”
“I know all that,” said Leithen, “and I’ve made my book for it. You must understand that anyhow I am going to die pretty soon. If I hurry on my death a little in an honest way, I won’t be the loser. That’s how I look at it. If I never get to Lew, and perish on the road, why, that’s that. If I find Lew and his gun finds me, well, that’s that. There is just the odd chance that I may persuade him to be reasonable and bring him back here, and that is a chance I’m bound to take. Don’t you worry about me, for I tell you I’m taking the easiest way. Since I’ve got to die, I want to die standing.”
Johnny held out his hand. “You got me beat, mister. Lew and myself ain’t reckoned timid folk, but for real sand there’s not your like on this darned continent.”
Leithen found the ascent of the first ridge from the valley bottom a stern business, for Lew had not zigzagged for ease, but had cut his blazes in the straight line of a crow’s flight. But once at the top the road led westerly along a crest, the trees thinned out, and he had a prospect over an immense shining world.
The taller of the Hares, the one he called Big Klaus, was his companion. He himself travelled light, carrying little except a blanket and extra clothing, but the Indian had a monstrous pack which seemed in no way to incommode him. He had the light tent (the hut being now far enough advanced to move Galliard into it), a rifle and shot-gun, axes, billy-can, kamiks to replace moccasins, and two pairs of snow-shoes. The last were of a type new to Leithen — not the round “bear-paws” of eastern Canada made for the deep snow of the woods, but long, narrow things, very light, constructed of two separate rods joined by a toe-piece, and raised in front at a sharp angle. The centres were of coarse babiche with a large mesh, so as to pick up the least amount of snow, and since the meshing entered the frame by holes and was not whipped round it, the wooden surface was as smooth as skis. On such shoes, Johnny said, an active man could travel forty miles in a day.
Once the ridge had been gained, Leithen found that his breath came a little more easily. He seemed to have entered a world where the purity of the air was a positive thing, not the mere absence of impure matter, but the quintessence of all that was vital in Nature. The Indian Summer forecast by Johnny had begun. There was a shuddering undercurrent of cold, but the sun shone, and though it gave light rather than warmth, it took much of the bleakness out of the landscape. Also there was no wind. The huge amphitheatre, from the icy summit of the central peak to the gullies deep-cut in the black volcanic rock, was as quiet as a summer millpond. Yet there was nothing kindly in this peace; it seemed unnatural, as if the place were destined for strife. On the scarps the little spruces were bent and ragged with the winds, and the many bald patches were bleached by storms. This cold, raw hilltop world was not made for peace; its temporary gentleness was a trap to lure the unwary into its toils.
It was not difficult to follow Lew’s blazes, and in a little swamp they found his tracks. He must be a bigger man than Johnny, Leithen thought, or else heavily laden, for the footprints went deep.
The Hare plodded steadily on with his queer intoed stride. He could talk some English, and would answer questions, but he never opened a conversation. He was a merciful man, and kept turning in his tracks to look at Leithen, and when he thought he seemed weary, promptly dropped his pack and squatted on the ground. His methods of cooking and camping were not Johnny’s, but in their way they were efficient. At the midday and evening meals he had a fire going at miraculous speed with his flint and steel and punk-box, and he could make a good bed even of comfortless spruce boughs. His weapon was a cheap breech-loader obtained from some trader, and with it he managed to shoot an occasional partridge or ptarmigan, so that Leithen had his bowl of soup. The second night out he made a kind of Dutch oven and roasted a porcupine, after parboiling it, and he cooked ash-cakes which were nearly as palatable as the pease-meal bannocks which Leithen had eaten in his youth.
That second night he talked. It had been a melancholy summer, for it had been foretold that many of the Hare people would presently die, and the whole tribe had fasted and prepared for their end. The manner of death had not been predicted — it might be famine, or disaster, or a stupendous storm. They had been scolded for this notion by Father Duplessis at Fort Bannerman and by Father Wentzel at the mountain camp, and before the end of the summer the spirits of the tribe had risen, and most believed that the danger had passed. But not all; some wise men thought that bad trouble was coming in the winter.
“It is not good to wait too long on death,” said Big Klaus. “Better that it should come suddenly when it is not expected.” He looked reflectively at Leithen as if he knew that here was one who was in the same case as the Hares.
For three days they followed the network of ridges according to Lew’s blazing. They seemed rarely to lose elevation, for they passed gullies and glens by the scarps at their head waters. But nevertheless they had been steadily descending, for the great rift where the Sick Heart was believed to flow was no longer in the prospect, and the hanging glaciers, the ice couloirs and arêtes, and the poised avalanches of the central peak now overhung and dominated the landscape.
It was a strange world through which Leithen stumbled, conserving his strength greedily and doling it out like a miser. There was sun, light, no great cold, no wind; but with all these things there was no kindness. Something had gone out of the air and that something was hope. Night was closing down, a long night from which there would be a slow awakening. Scarcely a bird could be seen, and there were no small innocent frightened beasts to scurry into hiding. Everything that could move had gone to sanctuary against the coming wrath. The tattered pines, the bald, blanched pastures, were no more a home for life than the pinnacles of intense ice that glittered in mid-heaven. Dawn came punctually, and noon, and nightfall, and yet the feeling was of a perpetual twilight.
In these last weeks Leithen’s memory seemed to have become a closed book. He never thought of his past, and no pictures from it came to cheer or torture him.
He might have been like the Hare, knowing no other world than this of laborious days and leaden nights. A new discomfort scarcely added to his misery, and food and fine weather did not lighten it. Every hour he was looking at marvels of natural beauty and magnificence, but they did not affect him. Life now awoke no response in him, and he remembered that some wise man had thus defined death. The thought gave him a queer comfort. He was already dead; there only remained the simple snapping of the physical cord.
They came on it suddenly in the afternoon of the third day. The scraggy forest of jack-pines, which seemed to stretch to the very edge of the snows, suddenly gave place to empty air, and Leithen found himself staring breathlessly not up, but down — down into a chasm nearly a mile wide and two thousand feet deep. From his feet the ground fell away in screes to a horizontal rib of dark rock, below which, in a blue mist very far down, were the links of a river. Beyond it were meadows and woods, and the woods were not of scrub pine, but of tall timber — from one or two trees in scattered clumps he judged them to be a hundred feet high. Beyond them again the opposite wall rose sheer to fantastic aiguilles of dark rock. He was looking at some mighty volcanic rift which made a moat to the impregnable castle of the snows.
The strength seemed to go from his limbs, and he collapsed among the crowberries and pine cones. He fumbled in a pocket to find his single Zeiss glass, but gave up the search when he realised the weakness of his hands. This sudden vision had drained the power from his body by its intense quickening of his senses and mind. It seemed to him that he was looking at the most marvellous spectacle ever vouchsafed to man. The elements were commonplace — stone and wood, water and earth — but so had been the pigments of a Raphael. The celestial Demiurge had combined them into a masterpiece.
He lay full in the pale sun and the air was mild and mellow. As his eyes thirstily drank in the detail he saw that there was little colour in the scene. Nearly all was subfusc, monochrome, and yet so exquisite was the modelling that there was nothing bleak in it; the impression rather was of a chaste, docile luxuriance. The valley bottom, so far as he could see it, seemed to be as orderly as a garden. The Sick Heart was like a Highland salmon river, looping itself among pools and streams with wide beaches of pebbles, beaches not black like the enclosing cliffs, but shining white. Along its course, and between the woods, were meadows of wild hay, now a pale russet against the ripple of the stream and the evergreen of the trees . . . . Something from his past awoke in Leithen. He was far up in the Arctic north; winter had begun, and even in this false summer the undercurrent of cold was stinging his fingers through his mitts. But it was not loneliness or savagery that was the keynote of this valley. Pastoral breathed from it; it was comforting and habitable. He could picture it in its summer pride, a symphony of mild airs and singing waters. Stripped and blanched as it was, it had a preposterous suggestion of green meadows and Herrick and sheep.
“We’ll camp here,” he told Big Klaus. “There’s nothing to show us the road down. It’ll take some finding.”
He found the Zeiss glass at last and tried to make out further details. There must be hot springs, he thought, natural in a volcanic country; that would explain the richness of the herbage. The place, too, was cunningly sheltered from the prevailing winds, and probably most of the river that he could see never froze. That would mean wildfowl and fish, even in the depths of winter. . . . He pocketed his glass, for he did not want to learn more. He was content with what he saw. No wonder the valley had cast its spell on the old Indian chief and on Lew Frizel. It was one of those sacred places on which Nature had so lavished her art that it had the magic of a shrine.
Big Klaus made camp in a little half-moon of shingle on the verge of the cliffs, with trees to shelter it on north and east. He built an enormous fire on a basis of split wood, piled like a little wigwam, and felled two spruces so that they met in the centre of the heap, and as their ends burned away would slip further down and keep alight without tending until morning.
“It will be very cold,” said the Hare, sniffing towards the north like a pointer dog.
Leithen ate little at supper, for his mind was in a fever. He had won a kind of success as he was nearing the brink of death, for he had found something which other men had longed to find and about which the world knew nothing. Some day there would be books of travel and guide-books, and inevitably it would be written that among the discoverers of the secret valley was one Edward Leithen, who had once been His Majesty’s Attorney–General in England, and who had died soon afterwards. . . . This unexpected feat obscured the fact that he had also found Galliard, for, setting out on one task he had incidentally accomplished a greater, like Saul the son of Kish who, seeking his father’s asses, stumbled upon a kingdom.
The big fire roared and crackled at the mouth of the little tent, and beyond it was a blue immensity, sapphire in the mid-heaven, but of a milky turquoise above the mountains where the moon was rising.
He fell asleep early, and awoke after midnight to a changing world. The fire had sunk, but it was still fierce around the point where the spruce trunks intersected. The moon had set and the sky was hung with stars and planets — not inlaid, but hung, for the globes of sheer light were patently suspended in the heavens, and it seemed as if the eye could see behind them into aboriginal darkness. The air had suddenly become bitterly cold, cold almost beyond bearing. The shudder which had for some days lurked behind the sunlight had sharpened to an icy rigour. Frost like a black concrete was settling over everything, gumming the eyes and lips together. He buried his head under his blankets but could not get warm again . . . .
Some time towards dawn he fell into an uneasy sleep. When he awoke Big Klaus was tending the fire, white as an icicle and bent double against the fury of a northwest wind. Snow was drifting in flakes like pigeons’ eggs. With a bound winter had come upon them.
Movement was impossible, and the two men lay all day in the tent, Leithen half in a stupor, for the sudden onrush of cold seemed to have drained the remnants of his strength. With the snow the first rigour abated, and presently the wind sank, and the smoke of the fire no longer choked the tent. The Hare split wood and rose every hour or so to tend the fire; for the rest he dozed, but he had a clock in his brain and he was never behindhand in his stoking. There was no fresh meat, so he cooked bacon and camp biscuit for luncheon, and for supper made a wonderful stew of tinned bully-beef and beans.
At twilight the snow ceased, and with the dark the cold deepened. The silence deepened, too, except for trees cracking in the fierce stricture of the frost. Leithen had regained some vitality during the day, enough to let him plan ahead. It was his business to get down into the valley where, beyond question, Lew had preceded him. It would be hard to find Lew’s route, for there were no trees to blaze, and the weather of the past week would have obliterated his trail. To a mountaineer’s eye it seemed an ugly place to descend, for the rock did not fissure well into foot-holds and handgrips. But the snow might solve the problem. The wind from the north-west had plastered it against the eastern side of the valley, the side on which they had made camp. It must have filled the couloirs and made it possible to get down by step-cutting or glissade. He had only two fears — whether his body was not too feeble, and whether the Hare was sufficient of a mountaineer for the attempt.
Morning brought no fresh snow, and the extreme cold seemed to slacken. Leithen thought that it could not be more than ten degrees below zero. Having an immediate practical task before him, he found himself possessed of a certain energy. He ate his meagre breakfast almost with relish, and immediately after was on his feet. There must be no delay in getting down into the valley.
With Big Klaus he explored the rim of the cliffs, following the valley downward, as he was certain Lew had done. Mercifully it was easy going, for with the trees withdrawn from the scarp there was no tangle of undergrowth, and what normally might have been loose screes was now firm snow.
For a little the cliffs overhung or fell sheer. Then came fissures by which, in open weather, a trained mountaineer might have descended, but which now were ice-choked and impossible. Leithen had walked more than a mile and come very near the limit of his strength before he found what he sought. The rocks fell back into a V-shaped bay, and down the bay to the valley floor swept a great wave of snow, narrow at the top and spreading out fanwise beneath. The angle was not more than thirty or thirty-five degrees. This must have been Lew’s route, and no doubt he had had to face awkward rock falls and overhangs which now were obliterated in one great smooth white swirl. Leithen got out his glass and searched the lower slopes. No, there seemed to be no snags there; a good skier would tackle the descent without a thought.
“We must shift our stuff here,” he told the Hare. “But first make a fire or I will freeze.”
He cowered beside the blaze until Big Klaus had brought up the camp baggage. They cooked the midday meal, and then ransacked the stores. There was rope, but not enough of it. First they must pack their kit so that it would be kept together in the descent, for Leithen knew what a sepulchre snowdrifts could be for a man’s belongings. Then he would have liked another hundred feet of rope for the Hare and himself. He meant to go down slowly and carefully, feeling his way and humouring his wretched body.
The baggage took up every inch of rope. Leithen had the gun and rifle lashed on his own back, and the rest made up a huge bundle which was attached to Big Klaus and himself by short lengths of cord. It was the best he could do, but it was an unwieldy contraption, and he prayed that there might be no boulders or pockets in the imperfectly seen lower reaches, for it would be impossible to steer a course. The Hare was sent into the wood to cut two long poles. He did not seem to realise the purpose until he returned and Leithen explained what must be done.
“The snow is firm enough,” he said. “It will give good foot-holds. One step at a time, remember, and we must never move together. I stand still when you move. For God’s sake keep your balance. If you slip, turn on your face and dig in your hands and feet. Don’t let the kit pull you out of your steps. You understand?”
He repeated the instructions several times, but Big Klaus stared at him dully. When at last he realised that it was proposed to descend the shoot, he shook his head violently. He patted his stomach and made the motions of one about to be sick. Twice he went to the edge and peered down, and each time there was something like panic in his heavy eyes.
“Come on! There’s no time to be lost. Even if we roll all the way it won’t kill us.”
Leithen took two steps down, leaning inward as he moved.
“Come on, you fool!”
The Hare put out a foot, like a timid bather in cold water. He was a brave man, for, though he was mortally afraid, he kept his eyes away from the void and imitated Leithen in hugging the slope.
At first all went well. The grade was steeper than had appeared above, but not much, and, though the baggage wobbled and swayed, they managed to keep their balance.
They had emerged from the throat of the couloir, and were out on the fan of the lower and easier slopes when disaster overtook them. The Hare miscalculated a foot-hold at a place where there was glazed ice on the snow, and shot downward on his back. He, and the weight of the baggage, plucked Leithen from his stance, and the next second the whole outfit had started a mad glissade. The rope round Leithen’s middle choked the breath out of him. He cannoned into the baggage and ricochetted off; he cannoned into Big Klaus; his mouth and eyes were choked with snow; some rib of rock or ice caught his thigh and hurt him. . . . Once, climbing at Courmayeur alone, he had slipped on a snowfield and been whirled to what he believed to be his end in a bergschrund (which happened to be nearly full of snow into which he had dropped comfortably). Now once again, before his senses left him, he had the same certainty of death and the same apathy. . . .
He recovered consciousness to find the Hare attempting a kind of rough massage of his chest. For a minute or two he lay comatose, breathing heavily, but not suffering pain except for his bruised thigh. Slowly, with immense difficulty, he tested his body for damage. There seemed to be little — no concussion — the bruise — the breath knocked out of him but returning under the Hare’s ministrations. It was not until he tried to get to his feet that he realised how much the glissade had taken toll of his strength.
The valley bottom was like a new creation, for the whole flavour of the landscape was changed. It was no longer the roof of the world where the mind and eye were inured to far horizons, but a place enclosed, muffled, defended by great rock bastions from the bleak upper air. Against the eastern wall the snow lay piled in big drifts, but there was no snow on the western side and very little in the intervening meadows. In these same meadows there was what looked like frozen pools, but the rigour of the frost had not touched the whole river, for below one of the patches of forest there was a gleam of running water. There was not a breath of wind, the slanting sunlight gilded the russet grasses and snow patches, the air was unbelievably mild. Here in this fantastic sanctuary was nothing of North America. Apart from the sheer containing walls, the scene might have been a Northumbrian pasture in an English December.
But all the pith had gone out of him. It seemed as if the strain of the descent had damaged some nerve control, for his weakness was worse than pain. He struggled to his feet and clutched at the Hare to keep himself from falling. The latter had got the baggage straightened out and was restrapping the guns. He nodded down the valley —
“He has gone that way,” he said. But how he had guessed Lew’s route he did not tell, nor did the other inquire.
For to Leithen it looked as if in this strange place he had got very near his journey’s end. He toiled in the wake of the Hare for something less than a mile, counting each step, utterly oblivious of anything but the dun herbage under foot. He tried to step in the Indian’s prints, but found them too long for his enfeebled legs. He who had once had the stride of a mountaineer now teetered like an affected woman. He made little bets with himself — how many steps until he fell? — would Big Klaus turn back, see his distress, and stop of his own accord? . . . The latter guess was right. The Indian, turning, saw a face like death, and promptly flung down his pack and announced that he would make camp.
There was a patch of gravel where the stream made a sharp bend, and there, in the lee of a tall coppice, a fire was lit. The Hare had to loosen the light pack from Leithen’s shoulders, for he had lost all muscular power. His fingers seemed to bend back on him if he tried to lift a blanket. Also his breath was so troublesome that in that open place he panted like a man suffocating in a hole. The fit passed and by the time the tent was up and the beds laid his main trouble was his desperate weakness. Big Klaus fed him for supper with gruel and strong tea, but he was able to swallow little. His throat was as impotent as his hands and legs.
But his mind was no longer wholly apathetic, for he had stumbled on a queer corner of recollection. He had been conscious of the apathy of his memory, for, had he been able to choose, he would have been glad in those evil days to “count his mercies,” to remember with a wry satisfaction the many pleasant things in his life. No present misery could kill his gratitude for past joys. But the past had remained a closed book to him, and he had had no thoughts except for the moment.
Now suddenly, with blinding clearness, he saw a picture. Outside his bedroom door in a passage on the upper floor of the old Scots country house of his boyhood, there had hung a print. It was a Munich photogravure called Die Toten–Insel, and showed an island of tall cliffs, and within their angle a grove of cypresses, while a barge full of bent and shrouded figures approached this home of the dead. The place was Sick Heart Valley — the same sheer cliffs, the same dark, evergreen trees; the Hare and he, bowed and muffled figures, were approaching the graveyard. . . . As a boy he had been puzzled by the thing, but had rather liked it. As he dashed out on a spring morning its sombreness had pleased him by its contrast with his own sunlit world. . . . Now, though he saw the picture of those April days, he could not recapture the faintest flavour of that spring rapture. He saw only the dark photogravure on the distempered passage wall, and his interest was faintly touched by its likeness to his present environment. . . . Surely he was already dead, for he had ceased to react to life!
Through the open tent door he could see the northern heavens ablaze with the aurora. The frost was closing down again, for the Dancers seemed to give out a crackling sound as if the sky were the back-cloth of a stage with the painted canvas strained to cracking — point. The spectacle did not stir his apathy. This blanched world was rioting in colour, but it was still blanched and bleached, the enemy of all life.
As he lay wakeful, scarcely conscious of the dull pain in his chest or of the spasms in his breathing, but desperately aware of his weakness, he felt the shadow of eternity deepening over him. Like Job, the last calamities had come on him. Thank Heaven he was free from loquacious friends. Like Job he bowed his head and had no impulse to rebel. The majesty of God filled his universe. He was coming face to face with his religion.
He had always been in his own way a religious man. Brought up under the Calvinistic shadow, he had accepted a simple evangel which, as he grew older, had mellowed and broadened. At Oxford he had rationalised it in his philosophical studies, but he had never troubled to make it a self-sufficing logical creed. Certain facts were the buttresses of his faith, and the chief of them was the omnipotence and omnipresence of God. He had always detested the glib little humanism of most of his contemporaries.
But his creed had remained something aloof from his life. He had no communion with the omnipotent God and no craving for it. It rarely impinged on his daily experience. When things went well he felt a dim gratitude to Omnipotence; when badly, it was a comfort to tell himself that it was God’s will and to take misfortune cheerfully. In the War it had been different. Then he felt a relation so close as to be almost communion — that he was not only under God’s ultimate command, but under His direct care. That was why his nerves had been so steady. It was foolish to worry about what was preordained.
Then had come long years of spiritual sloth. The world had been too much with him. But certain habits had continued. Still in his heart he had praised God for the pleasures of life, and had taken disappointments with meekness, as part of a divine plan. Always, when he reflected, he had been conscious of being a puppet in Almighty hands. So he had never been much cast down or much puffed up. He had passed as a modest man — a pose, some said; a congenital habit, said others. His friends had told him that if he had only pushed himself he might have been Prime Minister. Foolish! These things were ordained.
Now his castles had been tumbled down. Pleasant things they had been, even if made of paste-board; in his heart he had always known that they were pasteboard. Here was no continuing city. God had seen fit to change the sunlight for a very dark shadow. Well, under the shadow he must not quail but keep his head high, not in revolt or in defiance, but because He, who had made him in His image, expected such courage. “Though Thou slay me, yet will I trust in Thee.”
There was no shade of grievance in Leithen’s mind, still less self-pity. There was almost a grim kind of gratitude. He was now alone with God. In these bleak immensities the world of man had fallen away to an infinite distance, and the chill of eternity was already on him. He had no views about an after-life. That was for God’s providence to decree. He was an atom in infinite space, the humblest of slaves waiting on the command of an august master.
He remembered a phrase of Cromwell’s about putting his mouth in the dust. That was his mood now, for he felt above everything his abjectness. In his old bustling world there were the works of man’s hands all around to give a false impression of man’s power. But here the hand of God had blotted out life for millions of miles and made a great tract of the inconsiderable ball which was the earth, like the infinite interstellar spaces which had never heard of man.
He woke to a cold which seemed to sear that part of his face which the blanket left exposed. There was a great rosy light all about the tent which the frost particles turned into a sparkling mist.
The Hare stood above him.
“There is a man,” he said, “beyond the river under the rocks. I have seen a smoke.”
The news gave Leithen the extra incentive that made it possible for him to rise. He hung on to the Hare’s shoulder, and it was in that posture that he drank some strong tea and swallowed a mouthful of biscuit. The smoke, he was told, was perhaps a mile distant in a nook of the cliffs. The long pool of the river was frozen hard, and beyond it was open ground.
Leithen’s strength seemed suddenly to wax. A fever had taken him, a fever to be up and doing, to finish off his business once for all. His weakness was almost a physical anguish, and there was a horrid background of nausea. . . . But what did it all matter? He was very near his journey’s end. One way or another in a few hours he would be quit of his misery.
The Hare guided him — indeed, half carried him — over the frozen hummocks of the pool. Beyond was a slight rise, and from that a thin spire of smoke could be seen in an angle of the cliffs. In the shelter of the rise Leithen halted.
“You must stay here,” he told the Indian, “and see what happens to me. If I am killed you will go back to where we came from and tell my friend what has happened. He may want to come here, and in that case you will show him the road. If I do not die now you will make camp for yourself a little way off and at dawn tomorrow you will come where the smoke is. If I am alive you may help me. If I am dead you must return to my friend. Do you understand?”
The Hare shook his head. The orders seemed to be unacceptable, and Leithen had to repeat them again before he nodded in acquiescence.
“Good-bye,” he said. “God bless you for an honest man.”
The turf was frozen hard, but it was as level as a croquet lawn and made easy walking. All Leithen’s attention was concentrated on his crazy legs. They wobbled and shambled and sprawled, and each step was a separate movement which had to be artfully engineered. He took to counting them — ten, twenty, thirty, one hundred. He seemed to have made no progress. Two hundred, three hundred — here he had to scramble in and out of a small watercourse — four hundred, five hundred.
A cry made him lift his eyes, and he saw a man perhaps two hundred yards distant.
The man was shouting, but he could not hear what he said. A horrid nausea was beginning to afflict him — the overpowering sickness which comes to men who reach the extreme limits of their strength. Then there was a sound which was not the human voice, and something sang not far from his left shoulder. He had taken perhaps six further steps when the same something passed somewhere on his right.
His dulled brain told him the meaning of it. “He must be bracketing,” he said to himself. “The third shot will get me in the heart or the head, and then all will be over.” He found himself longing for it as a sick man longs for the morning. But it did not come. Instead came the nausea and the extremity of weakness. The world swam in a black mist, and strength fled from his limbs, like air from a slit bladder.
When Leithen’s weakness overpowered him he might lose consciousness, but when he regained it there was no half-way house of dim perception to return to. He alternated between a prospect of acid clarity and no prospect at all. . . . Now he took in every detail of the scene, though he was puzzled at first to interpret them.
At first he thought that it was night and that he was lying out of doors, for he seemed to be looking up to a dark sky. Then a splash of light on his left side caught his attention, and he saw that it outlined some kind of ceiling. But it was a ceiling which lacked at least one supporting wall, for there was a great blue vagueness pricked out with points of light, and ruddy in the centre with what looked like flames. It took him some time to piece together the puzzle. . . . He was in a cave, and towards the left he was looking to the open where a big fire was burning.
There was another light, another fire it seemed. This was directly in front of him, but he could not see the flames, only the glow on floor and roof, so that it must be burning beyond a projecting rib of rock. There must be a natural flue there, he thought, an opening in the roof, for there was no smoke to make his eyes smart.
He was lying on a pile of spruce boughs covered with a Hudson’s Bay blanket. There was a bitter taste on his lips as he passed his tongue over them — brandy or whisky it seemed; anyhow some kind of spirit. Somebody, too, had been attending to him, for the collar of his dicky had been loosened, and he was wearing an extra sweater which was not his own. Also his moccasins had been removed and his feet rolled snugly in a fold of the blanket. . . .
Presently a man came into the light of the inner fire. The sight of him awoke Leithen to memory of the past days. This could only be Lew Frizel, whom he had come to find — a man who had gone mad, according to his brother’s view, for he had left Galliard to perish; one who a few hours back had beyond doubt shot at himself. Then he had marched forward without a tremor, expecting a third bullet to find his heart, for it would have been a joyful release. Now, freed from the extreme misery of weakness, he found himself nervous about this brother of Johnny’s — why, he did not know, for his own fate was beyond caring about. Lew’s madness, whatever it was, could not be wholly malevolent, for he had taken some pains to make comfortable the man he had shot at. Besides, he was the key to Galliard’s sanity, and Galliard was the purpose of his quest.
He was a far bigger man than Johnny, not less, it appeared, than six feet two; a lean man, and made leaner by his dress, which was deerskin breeches, a tanned caribou shirt worn above a jersey, and a lumberman’s laced boots. His hair, as flaxen as a girl’s, had been self-cut into a bunch and left a ridiculous fringe on his forehead. It was only the figure he saw, a figure apparently of immense power and activity, for every movement was like the releasing of a spring.
The man glanced towards him and saw that he was awake. He lit a lantern with a splinter from the fire, and came forward so that Leithen could see his face. Plainly he was Johnny’s brother, for there was the same shape of head and the same bat’s ears. But his eyes were a world apart. Johnny’s were honest, featureless pools of that indistinct colour which is commonly called blue or grey, but Lew’s were as brilliant as jewels, pale, but with the pallor of intense delicate colour, the hue of a turquoise, but clear as a sapphire, and with an adamantine brilliance. They were masterful, compelling eyes, wild, but to Leithen not mad — at least it was the madness of a poet and not of a maniac.
He bent his big shoulders and peered into Leithen’s face. There was nothing of the Indian in him, except the round head and the bat’s ears. The man was more Viking, with his great high-bridged nose, his straight, bushy eyebrows, his long upper lip, and his iron chin. He was clean-shaven, too, unlike his brother, who was as shaggy as a bear. The eyes devoured Leithen, puzzled, in a way contemptuous, but not hostile.
“Who are you? Where do you come from?”
The voice was the next surprise. It was of exceptional beauty, soft, rich, and musical, and the accent was not Johnny’s lingua franca of all North America. It was a gentle, soothing Scots, like the speech of a Border shepherd.
“I came with Johnny — your brother. He’s in camp three days’ journey back. We’ve found Galliard, the man who was with you. He was pretty sick and wanted nursing.”
“Galliard!” The man rubbed his eyes. “I lost him — he lost himself. Come to think of it, he wasn’t much of a pal. Too darned slow. I had to hurry on.”
He lowered his blazing splinter and scanned Leithen’s thin face and hollow eyes and temples. He looked at the almost transparent wrist. He lifted the blanket and put his head close to his chest so that he could hear his breathing.
“What brought you here?” he asked fiercely. “You haven’t got no right here.”
“I came to find you. Galliard needs you. And Johnny.”
“You took a big risk.”
“I’m a dying man, so risk doesn’t matter.”
“You’re over Jordan now. The Sick Heart is where you come to when you’re at the end of your road. . . . I had a notion it was the River of the Water of Life, same as in Revelation.”
The man’s eyes seemed to have lost their glitter and become pools of melancholy.
“Well, it ain’t. It’s the River of the Water of Death. The Indians know that and they only come here to die. Some, at least; but it isn’t many that gets here, it being a damn rough road.”
He took Leithen’s hand in his gigantic paw.
“You’re sick. Terrible sick. You’ve got what the Hares call tfitsiki and white folk T.B. We don’t suffer from it anything to signify, but it’s terrible bad among the Indians. It’s poor feeding with them; but that’s not what’s hunting you. Where d’you come from? Edmonton way, or New York like the man Galliard?”
“I come from England. I’m Scots, same as you.”
“That’s mighty queer. You’ve come down north to look for Galliard? He’s a sick man, too, sick in his mind, but he’ll cure. You’re another matter. You’ve a long hill to climb and I doubt if you’ll win to the top of it.”
“I know. I’m dying. I made my book for that before I left England.”
“And you’re facing up to it! There’s guts left in the old land. What’s your name? Leithen! That’s south country. We Frizels come from the north.”
“I’ve seen Johnny’s ring with the Frazer arms.”
“What’s brother John thinking about me?”
“He’s badly scared. He had to stay to attend to Galliard, and it’s partly to ease his mind that I pushed on here.”
“I guess his mind wanted some easing. Johnny’s thinking about mad trappers. Well, maybe he’s right. I was as mad as a loon until this morning. . . . I’ve been looking for the Sick Heart River since I was a halfling, and Galliard come along and gave me my chance at last. God knows what HE was looking for, but he fell in with me all right, and I treated him mighty selfish. I was mad and I don’t mind telling you. That’s the way the Sick Heart takes people. I thought when I found it I’d find a New Jerusalem with all my sins washed away, and the angels waiting for me. . . . Then you come along. I shot at you, not to kill, but to halt you — when I shoot to kill I reckon I don’t miss. And you came on quite regardless, and that shook me. Here, I says, is someone set on the Sick Heart, and he’s going to get there. And then you tumbled down in a heap, and I reckoned you were going to die anyway.”
Lew was speaking more quietly and the light had gone from his eyes.
“Something sort of clicked inside my head,” he went on, “and I began to look differently at things. The sight of you cleared my mind. One thing I know — this is the River of the Water of Death. You can’t live in this valley. There’s no life here. Not a bird or beast, not a squirrel in the woods, not a rabbit in the grass, let alone bear or deer.”
“There are warm springs,” Leithen said. “There must be duck there.”
“Devil a duck! I looked to find the sedges full of them, geese and ducks that the Eskimos and Indians had hurt and that couldn’t move south. Devil a feather! And devil a fish in the river! When God made this place He wasn’t figuring on humans taking up lots in it. . . . I got a little provender, but if you and I don’t shift we’ll be dead in a week.”
“What have you got?”
“A hindquarter of caribou — lean, stringy meat — a couple of bags of flour — maybe five pounds of tea.”
“There’s an Indian with me,” said Leithen. “He’s gone to earth a mile or so back. I told him to wait and see what happened to me. He’ll be hanging about tomorrow morning, and he’s got some food.”
Lew rapped out a dozen questions, directed to identifying the Hare. Finally he settled who he was and gave him a name.
“What’s he got?” he demanded.
“Flour and oatmeal and bacon and tea, and some stuff in tins. Enough for a week or so.”
“That’s no good,” said Lew bitterly. “We’ got to winter here or perish. Man, d’you not see we’re in a trap? Nothing that hasn’t wings could get out of this valley.”
“How did you get in?”
Lew smiled grimly. “God knows! I was mad, as I told you. I found a kind of crack in the rocks and crawled down it like a squirrel, helping myself with tree roots and creepers. The snow hadn’t come yet. I fell the last forty feet, but by God’s mercy it was into a clump of scrub cedar. I lost nothing except half my kit and the skin of my face. But now the snow is here and that door is shut.”
“The Hare and I came down by the snow, and it’s the snow that’s going to help us out again.”
Lew looked at him with unbelief in his eyes.
“You’re a sick man — sick in the head, too. Likewise you’re tireder than a flightin’ woodcock. You’ve got to sleep. I’m goin’ to shift your bed further out. Frost won’t be bad tonight, and you want the air round you. See, I’ll give you another blanket.”
Leithen saw that Lew was robbing his own bed, but he was too feeble to protest. He dropped straight away into the fathomless depths of exhausted sleep.
When he woke, with rime on his blankets and sunlight in his eyes, he saw that the Hare had been retrieved and was now attending to the breakfast fire. For a little he lay motionless, puzzling over what had happened to him. As always now at the start of a day, he felt wretchedly ill, and this morning had been no exception. But his eyes were seeing things differently. . . . Hitherto the world had seemed to him an etching without colour, a flat two-dimensioned thing which stirred no feeling in his mind of either repulsion or liking. He had ceased to respond to life. A landscape was a map to him which his mind grasped, but which left his interest untouched. . . .
Now he suddenly saw the valley of the Sick Heart as a marvellous thing. This gash in the earth, full of cold, pure sunlight, was a secret devised by the great Artificer and revealed to him and to him only. There was no place for life in it — there could not be- but neither was there room for death. This peace was beyond living and dying. He had a sudden vision of it under a summer sun — green lawns, green forests, a blue singing stream, and cliffs of serrated darkness. A classic loveliness, Tempe, Phæacic. But no bird wing or bird song, no ripple of fish, no beast in the thicket — a silence rather of the world as God first created it, before He permitted the coarse welter of life.
Lew boiled water, gave Leithen his breakfast, and helped him to wash and dress.
“You lie there in the sun,” he said. “It’s good for you. And listen to what I’ve got to say. How you feeling?”
Lew shook his head. “But I’ve seen a sicker man get better.”
“I’ve had the best advice in the world, so I don’t delude myself. I haven’t got the shadow of a chance.”
Lew strode up and down before the cave like a sentry.
“You haven’t a chance down here, living in a stuffy hole and eating the sweepings of a store. You want strong air, it don’t matter how cold, and you want fresh-killed meat cooked rare. I’ve seen that work miracles with your complaint. But God help you! there’s no hope for you here. You’re in your grave already — and so are all of us. The Hare knows. He’s squatting down by the water and starting on the dirges of his tribe.”
Then he took himself off, apparently on some futile foraging errand, and Leithen, half in the sun, half in the glow of the fire, felt his weakness changing to an apathy which was almost ease. This was the place to die in-to slip quietly away with no last convulsive attempt to live. He had reacted for a moment to life, but only to the afterglow of it. The thought of further effort frightened him, for there could be no misery like the struggle against such weakness as his. It looked as if the fates which had given him so much, and had also robbed him so harshly, had relented and would permit a quiet end. Whitman’s phrase was like a sweetmeat on his tongue: “the delicious nearby assurance of death.”
Lew and the Indian spent a day of furious activity. They cut huge quantities of wood and kept both fires blazing. Fire-tending seemed to give Lew some comfort, as if it spelled life in a dead place. He wandered round the outer fire like a gigantic pixie, then, as the evening drew on, he carried Leithen into the cave, and, having arranged a couch for him, stood over him like an angry schoolmaster.
“D’you believe in God?” he demanded.
“I believe in God.”
“I was brought up that way too. My father was bed-rock Presbyterian, and I took after him — not like brother Johnny, who was always light-minded. There was times when my sins fair bowed me down, and I was like old Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress — I’d have gone through fire and water to get quit of ’em. Then I got the notion of this Sick Heart as the kind of place where there was no more trouble, a bit of the Garden of Eden that God had kept private for them as could find it. I’d been thinking about it for years, and suddenly I saw a chance of gettin’ to it and findin’ peace for evermore. Not dying — I wasn’t thinking of dying — but living happily ever after, as the story books say. That was my aim, fool that I was!”
His voice rose to a shout.
“I was mad! It was the temptation of the Devil and not a promise of God. The Sick Heart is not the Land-of-Beulah but the Byroad-to-Hell, same as in Bunyan. It don’t rise like a proper river out of little springs — it comes full-born out of the rock and slinks back into it like a ghost. I tell you the place is no’ canny. You’d say it had the best grazing in all America, and yet there’s nothing can live here. There’s a curse on this valley when I thought there was a blessing. So there’s just the one thing to do if we’re to save our souls, and that’s to get out of it though we break our necks in the job.”
The man’s voice had become shrill with passion, and even in the shadow Leithen could see the fire in his eyes.
“You’re maybe thinking different,” he went on. “You think you’re dying and that this is a nice quiet place to die in. But you’ll be damned for it. There’s a chance of salvation for you if you pass out up on the cold tops, but there’s none if your end comes in this cursed hole.”
Leithen turned wearily on his side to face the speaker.
“You’d better count me out. I’m finished. I’d only be a burden to you. A couple of days here should see me through, and then you can do what you like.”
“By God I won’t! I can’t leave you — I’d never hold up my head again if I did. And I can’t stay here with Hell waitin’ to grab me. Me and the Hare will help you along, for our kit will be light. Besides, you could show us the road out. The Hare says you know how to get along on steep snow.
“Have you any rope?” Leithen asked.
Lew’s wild face sobered. “It’s about all I have. I’ve got two hundred feet of light rope. Brought it along with the notion it might come in handy and I can make some more out of caribou skin.”
Leithen had asked the question involuntarily, for the thing did not interest him. The deep fatigue which commonly ended his day had dropped on him like a mountain of lead. Death was very near, and where could he meet it better than in this gentle place, remote alike from the turmoil of Nature and of man?
But after his meagre supper, as he watched Lew and the Indian repack their kit, the power of thought returned to him. This was the last lap in the race; was he to fail in it? Why had he come here when at home he might have had a cushioned death-bed among friends? Was it not to die standing, to go out in his boots? And that meant that he must have a purpose to fill his mind, and let that purpose exclude foolish meditations on death. Well, he had half-finished his job — he had found Galliard; but before he could get Galliard back to his old world he must bring to him the strange man who had obsessed his mind and who, having been mad, was now sane. Therefore he must get Lew out of the Sick Heart valley. He did not believe that Lew could find his way out alone. The long spout of snow was ice in parts, and Lew knew nothing of step-cutting. Leithen remembered the terror of the Hare in the descent. Mountaineering to men like Lew was a desperate venture. Could he guide them up the spout? It would have been child’s play in the old days, but now! . . . He bent his knees and elbows. Great God! his limbs were as flaccid as indiarubber. What kind of a figure would he cut on an ice slope?
And yet what was the alternative? To lie here dying by inches — by feet and yards, perhaps, but still slowly — with Lew in a panic and restrained from leaving him only by the iron camaraderie of the North. His own utter weakness made him crave for immobility, but something at the back of his mind cried out against it. Why had he left England if he was to cower in a ditch and not stride on to the end? That had always been his philosophy. He remembered that long ago in his youth he had written bad verses on the subject, demanding that he meet death “with the wind in his teeth and the rain in his face.” It was no false stoicism, but the creed of a lifetime.
By and by he fell asleep, and — a rare thing for one whose slumbers seemed drugged — woke in the small hours. Lew could be heard snoring, but he must have been recently awake, for he had stoked both fires. A queer impulse seized Leithen to get up. With some difficulty he crawled out of his sleeping-bag and stumbled to his feet, wrapping a blanket round him . . . .
It was a marvellous night, cold, but not bitterly cold, and the flames of the outer fire were crimson against a sky of burnished gold. Moonshine filled the valley and brimmed over the edge of the cliffs. Those cliffs caught no reflection of light, but were more dark and jagged than by day; except that on the eastern side, where lay the snowdrifts, there was a wave of misty saffron.
Moonlight is a soothing thing, softening the raw corners of the world, but suddenly to Leithen this moonlight seemed monstrous and unearthly. The valley was a great golden mausoleum with ebony walls, a mausoleum, not a kindly grave for a common mortal. Kings might die here and lie here, but not Edward Leithen. There was a tremor in his steady nerves, a fluttering in his sober brain. He knew now what Lew meant. . . . With difficulty he got back into his sleeping-bag and covered his head so that he could not see the moon. He must get out of this damned place though he used the last pennyweight of his strength.
Lew and the Indian had Leithen between them, steadying himself with a hand on each of their huge back-packs. The Hare’s rope had gone to the cording of the dunnage, and Lew’s was in a coil on Leithen’s shoulder. The journey to the snow shoot was made in many short stages, across a frozen pool of the river, and then in the snow-sprinkled herbage below the eastern crags. The weather was changing, for a yellow film was creeping from the north over the sky.
“There’ll be big snow on the tops,” said Lew, “and maybe a god-awful wind.”
It was midday before they reached the foot of the couloir. The lower slopes, down which Leithen and the Hare had rolled, were set at a gentle angle, and the firm snow made easy going; it was up in the narrows of the cleft that it changed to a ribbon of ice. The problem before him stirred some forgotten chord in Leithen’s mind, and he found himself ready to take command. First he sent Lew and the Hare with the kit up to the edge of the ice, and bade them anchor the packs there to poles driven into the last soft snow. That done he made the two men virtually carry him up the easy slopes. He had a meagre remnant of bodily strength, and he would need it all for the task before him.
In an hour’s time the three were at the foot of the sunless narrows where the snow was hard ice. There he gave Lew his orders.
“I will cut steps, deep ones with plenty of standing room. Keep looking before you, and not down. I’ll rope, so that if I fall you can hold me. If I get to the top I’ll try to make the rope fast, and the Hare must follow in the steps. He will haul up the kit after him; then he will drop the rope for you, and you must tie it on. If you slip he will be able to hold you.”
Leithen chose the Hare to go second, for the Indian seemed less likely than Lew to suffer from vertigo. He had come up the lower slopes impassively while Lew had had the face of one in torment.
Lew’s hatchet was a poor substitute for an ice axe. Leithen’s old technique of step-cutting had to be abandoned, and the notches he hacked would have disgusted a Swiss guide. He had to make them deep and sloping inward for the sake of Lew’s big moccasined feet. Also he had often to cut hand-holds for himself so that he could rest plastered flat against the ice when his knees shook and his wrists ached and his head swam with weariness.
It was a mortal slow business, and one long agony. Presently he was past the throat of the gully and in snow again, soft snow with a hard crust, but easier to work than the ice of the narrows. Here the wind, which Lew had foretold, swirled down from the summit, and he almost fell. The last stage was a black nightmare. Soon it would be all over, he told himself — soon, soon, there would be the blessed sleep of death.
He reached the top with a dozen feet of rope to spare, and straightway tumbled into deep snow. There he might have perished, drifting into a sleep from which there would be no awakening, had not tugs on the rope from Lew beneath forced him back into consciousness. With infinite labour he untied the rope from his middle. With frail, fumbling, chilled hands he made the end fast to a jack-pine which grew conveniently near the brink. He gave the rope the three jerks which was the agreed signal that he was at the summit and anchored. Then a red mist of giddiness overtook him, and he dropped limply into the snow at the tree roots.
When Leithen came to his senses he found it hard to link the present with the past. His last strong sensation had been that of extreme cold; now it was as warm as if he were in bed at home, and he found that his outer garments had been removed and that he was wearing only underclothes and a jersey. It was night, and he was looking up at a sky of dark velvet, hung with stars like great coloured lamps. By and by, as his eyes took in the foreground, he found that he was in a kind of pit scooped in deep snow with a high rampart of snow around it. The floor was spread with spruce boughs, but a space had been left in the middle for a fire, which had for its fuel the butt-ends of two trees which met in the middle and slipped down as they smouldered.
He did not stay long awake, but in those minutes he was aware of something new in his condition. The fit of utter apathy had passed. He was conscious of the strangeness of this cache in the snow, this mid-winter refuge in a world inimical to man. The bitter diamond air, like some harsh acid, had stung him back to a kind of life — at any rate to a feeble response to life.
Next day he started out in a state of abject decrepitude. Lew put snow-shoes on him, but he found that he had lost the trick of them, and kept on tangling up his feet and stumbling. The snow lay deep, and under the stricture of the frost was as dry and powdery as sand, so that his feet sank into it. Lew went first to break the trail, but all his efforts did not make a firm track, so that the stages had to be short, and by the midday meal Leithen was at the end of his tether. The glow of a fire and some ptarmigan broth slightly revived him, but his fatigue was such that Lew made camp an hour before nightfall.
That night, in his hole in the snow, Leithen’s thoughts took a new turn. For long his mind had been sluggish, cognisant of walls but of no windows. Now suddenly it began to move and he saw things. . . .
Lew was taking shape in his thoughts as a man and not as a portent. At first he had been a mystery figure, an inexplicable Providence which dominated Johnny’s mind, and which had loomed big on Leithen’s own horizon. Then he had changed to a disturbing force which had mastered Galliard and seemed to be an incarnation of the secret madness of the North. And then in the Sick Heart valley he had become a Saul whose crazy fit was passing, a man who was seeking something that he had lost and had reached his desired goal only to find that it was not there. Lew and Galliard were in the same boat, sufferers from the same spell.
But Lew had returned by way of panic to normal life. For a moment this strong child of Nature had been pathetic, begging help and drawing courage from Leithen himself, a dying man. The splendid being had been a suppliant to one whose body was in decay. The irony of it induced in Leithen a flicker of affection. He seemed, too, to draw a transitory vigour from a creature so instinct with life. His numb stoicism was shot with a momentary warmth and colour. Lew on the trail, shouting oddments of Scots songs in his rich voice, and verses of the metrical Psalms of his youth, engaged in thunderous discourse with the Hare in his own tongue, seemed to dominate the snowdrifts and the blizzards and the spells of paralysing cold. Leithen found that he had won a faint warmth of spirit from the proximity of Lew’s gusto. And the man was as gentle as a woman. His eyes were never off Leithen; he arranged the halts to suit his feebleness, and at each of them tended him like a mother. At night he made his bed and fed him with the care of a hospital nurse.
“This ain’t the food for you,” he declared. “You want fresh meat. It’s time we were at Johnny’s camp where I can get it for you.”
Half a gale was blowing. He detected the scepticism in Leithen’s eye and laughed.
“It don’t look good for hunting weather, says you. Maybe not, but I’ll get you what you need. We’re not in the barrens to depend on wandering caribou. There’s beasts in these mountains all the year round, and I reckon I know where to find ’em. There’s caribou, the big woods kind, and there’s more moose than anyone kens, except the Hares. They’ll have stamped out their yards and we’ve got to look for ’em.”
“Stamping the snow to get at the shoots. Yards they call ’em down east. But the Hares call ’em ravages. Got the name from the French missionaries.”
Next day the stages were short and difficult. There was a cruel north-east wind, and the snow was like kitchen salt and refused to pack. The Hare broke the trail, but Leithen, who followed, often sank to his knees in spite of his snow-shoes. (“We need bear-paws like they use down East,” Lew proclaimed. “These northern kind are too narrow to spread the weight.”) An hour’s march brought him to utter exhaustion, and there were moments when he thought that that day would be his last.
At the midday meal he heard what stung his sense of irony into life. Lew had placed him in the lee of a low-growing spruce which broke the wind, and had forgotten his presence, for while he and the Indian collected wood for the fire they talked loudly, shouting against the blast. The Hare chose to speak English, in which he liked to practise himself.
“Him lung sick,” he said. There could be no doubt about his reference.
“Yeah,” Lew grunted.
“Him soon die, like my brother and my uncles.”
The reply was an angry shout.
“No, by God, he won’t! You chew on that, you bloody-minded heathen. He’s going to cheat old man Death and get well.”
Leithen smiled wryly. It was Uncle Toby’s oath, but Uncle Toby’s efforts had failed, and so would Lew’s.
That night, since the day’s journey had been short, his fatigue was a little less than usual, and after supper, instead of falling at once into a heavy sleep, he found himself watching Lew, who, wrapped in his blankets, was smoking his short pipe, and now and then stirring the logs with the spruce pole which he used as a poker. His eyes were half-closed, and he seemed to be in a not unpleasant reverie. Leithen — to his surprise, for he had resolved that his mind was dead to all mundane interests — found his curiosity roused. This was one of the most famous guides in the North. The country fitted him as a bearskin fitted the bear. Never, surely, was man better adapted to his environment. What had shaken him loose from his normal life and sent him on a crazy pilgrimage to a legendary river? It could not have been only a craving to explore, to find out what lay far away over the hills. There had been an almost mystical exaltation in the quest, for it had caused him to forget all his traditions, and desert Galliard, and this exaltation had ended in a panicky rebound. When he had met him he had found a strong man in terror, shrinking from something which he could not name. It must have been a strange dream which resulted in so cruel an awakening.
He asked Lew the question point-blank. The man came out of his absorption and turned his bright eyes on the questioner.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” he said. “All my life since I was a callant I’ve been looking for things and never findin’ ’em.”
He stopped in some embarrassment.
“I don’t know that I can rightly explain, for you see I’m not used to talking. When I was about eighteen I got kinda sick of my life, and wanted to get away south, to the cities. Johnny was never that way, nor Dad neither. But I reckon there were Frizels far back that had been restless too. Anyway, I was mighty restless. Then Dad died, and I had to take on some of his jobs, and before I knew I was deep in the business of guiding and feeling good about it. I wanted nothing except to know more about pelts than any trapper, and more about training than any Indian, and to keep my body as hard as whinstone, and my hearing like a timber wolf’s, and my eyesight like a fishhawk’s.”
“That was before the War?”
Lew nodded. “Before the War. The War came and Johnny and me went overseas. We made a bit of a name as snipers, Johnny pretty useful and me a wee bit better. I enjoyed it right enough, and barring my feet, for I wasn’t used to wearing army boots, I was never sick or sorry. But I was god-awful homesick, and when I smelt a muskeg again and saw the pointed sticks I could have grat with pleasure.”
Lew shook out his pipe.
“But the man that came back wasn’t the same as him that crossed the sea. I was daft about the North, and never wanted to leave it, but I got a notion that the North was full of things that I didn’t know nothing about — and that it was up to me to find ’em. I took to talking a lot with Indians and listening to their stories. And then I heard about the Sick Heart and couldn’t forget it.”
Lew’s embarrassment had returned. His words came slowly, and he kept his eyes on the hot ashes.
“It happened that I’d a lot of travelling to do by my lone — one trail took three months when I was looking for some lost gold-diggers. For two years I hadn’t much guiding.”
“You were with Mr. Walter Derwent, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. Mr. Derwent’s a fine little man and my very good friend. But mostly I was alone and I was thinkin’ a lot. Dad brought us up well, for he was mighty religious, and I got to puzzling about my soul. I had always lived decent, but I reckoned decent living wasn’t enough. Out in the bush you feel a pretty small thing in the hands of God. There was a book of Dad’s I had a fancy for, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and I got to thinking of myself as the Pilgrim, and looking for the same kind of thing to happen to me. I can see now it wasn’t sense, but at the time it seemed to me I was looking at a map of my own road. At the end there was the River for the Pilgrim to cross, and I got to imagining that the River was the Sick Heart. I guess I was a bit loony, but I thought I was the only sensible man, for what did it matter what the other folks were doing, running about and making money, and marrying and breeding, when there was this big business of saving your soul?
“Then Mr. Galliard got hold of me. He was likewise a bit loony, but his daftness and mine was different, for he was looking for something in this world and, strictly speaking, I was looking for something outside the world. He didn’t know what I wanted, and I didn’t worry about him. But as it fell out he gave me the chance I’d been looking for, and we took the trail together. I behaved darned badly, for I wasn’t sane, and by the mercy of God you and Johnny found the man I deserted. . . . I pushed on like a madman and found the Sick Heart, and then, praise God, my daftness left me.
“I don’t know what I’d expected. A land flowing with milk and honey, and angels to pass the time of day! What opened my eyes was when I found there was no living thing in that valley. That was uncanny, and gave me the horrors. And then I considered that that great hole in the earth was a grave, a place to die in but not to live in, and not a place either for an honest man to die in. I’m like you, I’m sworn to die on my feet.”
Lew checked himself with a glance of apology.
“I had to get out,” he said, “and I had to get you out, for there’s no road to Heaven from the Sick Heart. What did I call it? — a by-road to Hell!”
“You are cured?” Leithen asked.
“Sure I am. I’m like a man getting better of a fever. I see things in their proper shape and size now, and not big as mountains and dancing in the air. I’ve got to save my soul, and that’s to be done by a sane man, and not by a loony, and in a man’s job. I’m the opposite to King David, for God’s goodness to me has been to get me away from yon green pastures and still waters, back among the rocks and the jack-pines.”
In two days, said Lew, they should make Johnny’s camp and Galliard. But he would not talk about Galliard. He left that problem to the Omnipotence who had solved his own.
The man was having a curious effect on Leithen, the same effect on his spirit that food had on his body, nourishing it and waking it to a faint semblance of life. The blizzard died away, and there followed days of sun, when a rosy haze lay on the hills, and the air sparkled with frost crystals. That night Leithen was aware that another thought had stabbed his dull mind into wakefulness.
When he left England he had reasoned himself into a grim resignation. Life had been very good to him, and, now that it was ending, he made no complaint. But he could only show his gratitude to life by maintaining a stout front to death. He was content to be a pawn in the hands of the Almighty, but he was also a man, and, as Lew put it, must die standing. So he had assumed a task which interested him not at all, but which would keep him on his feet. That task he must conscientiously pursue, but success in it mattered little, provided always he relaxed no effort.
Looking back over the past months, he realised that his interest in it, which at first had been a question of mere self-coercion, was now a real thing. He wanted to succeed, partly because of his liking for a completed job, and partly because the human element had asserted itself. Galliard was no longer a mathematical symbol, a cipher in a game, but a human being and Felicity’s husband, and Lew was something more, a benefactor, a friend.
It was the remembrance of Lew that convinced Leithen that a change had come over his world of thought. He had welcomed the North because it matched his dull stoicism. Here in this iron and icy world man was a pigmy and God was all in all. Like Job, he was abashed by the divine majesty and could put his face in the dust. It was the temper in which he wished to pass out of life. He asked for nothing —“nut in the husk, nor dawn in the dusk, nor life beyond death.” He had already much more than his deserts! and what Omnipotence proposed to do with him was the business of Omnipotence; he was too sick and weary to dream or hope. He lay passive in all-potent hands.
Now there suddenly broke in on him like a sunrise a sense of God’s mercy — deeper than the fore-ordination of things, like a great mercifulness. . . . Out of the cruel North most of the birds had flown south from ancient instinct, and would return to keep the wheel of life moving. Merciful! But some remained, snatching safety by cunning ways from the winter of death. Merciful! Under the fetters of ice and snow there were little animals lying snug in holes, and fish under the frozen streams, and bears asleep in their lie-ups, and moose stamping out their yards, and caribou rooting for their grey moss. Merciful! And human beings, men, women, and children, fending off winter and sustaining life by an instinct old as that of the migrating birds. Lew nursing like a child one whom he had known less than a week — the Hares stolidly doing their jobs, as well fitted as Lew for this harsh world — Johnny tormented by anxiety for his brother, but uncomplainingly sticking to the main road of his duty. . . . Surely, surely, behind the reign of law and the coercion of power there was a deep purpose of mercy.
The thought induced in Leithen a tenderness to which he had been long a stranger. He had put life away from him, and it had come back to him in a final reconciliation. He had always hoped to die in April weather when the surge of returning life would be a kind of earnest of immortality. Now, when presently death came to him, it would be like dying in the spring.
That night he spoke of plans. The laborious days had brought his bodily strength very low, but some dregs of energy had been stirring in his mind. His breath troubled him sorely, and his voice had failed, so that Lew had to come close to hear him.
“I cannot live long,” he said.
Lew received the news with a stony poker face.
“Something must be settled about Galliard,” he went on. “You know I came here to find him. I know his wife and his friends, and I wanted a job to carry me on to the end. . . . We must get him back to his own people.”
“And who might they be?” Lew asked.
“His wife. . . . His business associates. He has made a big place for himself in New York.”
“He didn’t talk like that. I never heard him mention ’em. He hasn’t been thinkin’ much of anythin’ except his old-time French forbears, especially them as went North.”
“You went to Clairefontaine with him?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t supposed to tell, but you’ve been there and you’ve guessed it. It was like coming home for him, and yet not comin’ home. We went to a nice place up the stream and he sat down and grat. Looked like it had once been his home, but that his home had shifted and he’d still to find it. After that he was in a kind of fever — all the way to the Arctic and then on here. He found that his brother and his uncle had died up there by the Ghost River.”
“I know. I saw the graves.”
Lew’s eyes opened. “You and Johnny went there? You stuck mighty close to our trail. . . . Well, up to then Galliard had been the daft one. I could get no sense out of him, and most of the time he’d sit dreaming like an old squaw by the fire. After Fort Bannerman it was my turn. I don’t rightly remember anything he said after that, for I wasn’t worryin’ about him, only about myself and that damned Sick Heart. . . . What was he like when you found him?”
“He was an ill man, but his body was mending. His mind — well, he’d been lost for three days and had the horrors on him. But I won’t say he was cured. You can have the terror of the North on you and still be under its spell.”
“That’s so. It’s the worst kind.”
“He kept crying out for you. It looks as though you were the only one that could release him. Your madness mastered his, and now that you are sane again he might catch the infection of your sanity.”
Lew pondered. “It might be,” he said shortly.
“Well, I’m going out, and it’s for you to finish the job. You must get him down country and back to his friends. I’ve written out the details and left them with Johnny. You must promise, so that I can die with an easy mind.”
For a little Lew did not speak.
“You’re not going to die,” he said fiercely.
“The best authorities in the world have told me that I haven’t the ghost of a chance.”
“They’re wrong, and by God we’ll prove them wrong!” The blue eyes had a frosty sternness.
“Promise me, anyhow. Promise that you’ll see Galliard back among his friends. You could get him out, even in winter?”
“Yeah. We can get a dog-team from the Hares’ camp if he isn’t fit for the trail. And once at Fort Bannerman we can send word to Edmonton for a plane. . . . If it’s to do you any good I promise to plant the feller back where he belongs. But you’ve got to take count of one thing. He must be cured right here in the bush. If he isn’t cured before he goes out he’ll never be cured. It’s only the North can mend what the North breaks.”
Next day Leithen collapsed utterly, for the strength went from his legs, and his difficult breathing became almost suffocation. The business of filling the lungs with air, to a healthy man an unconscious function, had become for him a desperate enterprise where every moment brought the terror of failure. He felt every part of his decrepit frame involved, not lungs and larynx only, but every muscle and nerve from his brain to his feet. The combined effort of all that was left of him to feed the dying fires of life. A rough sledge was made and Lew and the Hare dragged him laboriously through the drifts. Fortunately they had reached the wind-swept ridges, where the going was easier. Twenty-four hours later there was delivered at Johnny’s camp a man who looked to be in the very article of death.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50