POLARIS OF THE SNOWS by Charles B Stilson
Chapter 21: America!
“THEY say the wild man is going to live,” said a voice.
“Yes, Doc Clawson says he’ll pull through all right,” said another. “He’s had a close call, if ever a man had. I wonder who and what he is.” “So do I,” rejoined the first voice. “Do you believe that, that he is a wild man?”
“Dunno. What you goin’ to believe?” The first voice became confidential. “I heard Doc tell the mate that he hadn’t spoke an English word in all his sick ravings, except ‘Lady,’ which he might have learned from the girl. Then there’s the knife. Captain’s got that. It ain’t like no metal any one ever saw. There’s letters on it Doc says are Greek, but nobody here can read ‘em. Doc says he believes what the chap jabbers in Greek too.”
“He’s got a queer necklace, too,” chimed in the second voice. “It’s made of the same kind of stuff as the knife is, and strung with red pebbles. Wonder what they’ll do with him?”
“Sh-h-h! Don’t you let your wonderin’ run away with you. Cap’s actin’ queerer and queerer. Did you notice him when he came aft this mornin’—after the talk he had with the doc? I tell you somethin’s gone wrong, all right-”
Scuffling footsteps broke the tenor of the voices, and they faded away to a murmur, and then to silence.
Those scraps of a conversation drifted to the mind of Polaris, where for hours and hours a tiny spark of comprehension had been struggling back into being. They were the first words that his returning consciousness had understood.
He opened his eyes.
Surely that knot in the oaken beam above him was an old friend, the one shaped so like the head of a horse. And that row of iron bolt-heads; how often he had counted them over! He lay in a white-covered berth in a small cabin, in which every seam and stitch and object was strangely familiar, but which his reawakening consciousness refused to recognize. Sunlight was streaming in through a partly opened port, and with it came the sound of the sea.
Slowly, for he found it required considerable effort, he turned over on his side and looked about him. Where was he? Above all, how had he got there? As he moved he felt something at his neck slip, and through the open throat of the linen garment he wore fell the heavy loop of the necklace of Kalin.
Wondering, he stared at the iridescent links of ilium and the dull red stones. Then the spring that held the tight-wound coil of memory snapped, and the past unrolled like an endless ribbon.
He was weak. He had been ill. Yes, now he held the key—that conversation he had just heard. The “wild man” of whom the sailors talked was himself. He smiled. Already his yellow beard had grown long and ragged, and covered his throat. The knife, and the necklace—all of the talk had referred to him.
And they said that in all his delirium he had spoken no word of English! He smiled to himself once more. So even when his conscious self had departed from control of his body and mind, he had held fast to his fanciful resolution. Rose Emer must also have kept her promise. Not a soul but herself guessed who he was.
But that last part of the sailors’ talk? What did that mean? What were they going to do with him?
In an instant he was alert and bitterly suspicious. He was on a ship, a ship at sea. He was in the power of the American captain, the man who had sought and probably found the great and mystic pole; also the man who was the affianced husband of the girl whom Polaris had carried across the snow deserts in his arms. Now he had a duty laid upon him, which he secretly guessed would conflict sorely with the wishes of the captain. While he lived, he would strive to carry out that duty.
BUT why had he lived? At the end of his terrible journey darkness had fallen upon him in the camp; why had it ever lifted? If it had not, he had been freed of his promise, and would have been content.
What had happened since then? Where was Rose Emer? The gossip of the sailors had included no news of her; but so the inference was that all was well with her. Where was Marcus? How long had he been ill?
These questions remained unanswered. He could not know that he had lain heavy and inert on a sledge for days, with only the thickness of their fur parkas separating him from Rose Emer, while Scoland’s men, abandoning all that did not make for speed, had driven dogs to death in their wild dash back to the Felix.
He could not know that he had been given up for dead by the men, and that, even then, that conclusion brought little of regret to the heart of the American commander. Nor could he know that Rose Emer would not have it so, and that, under her entreaties, the supposed corpse had been carried on to the ship, and to the good medical man on it, who found that somewhere in the fastnesses of the silent form stretched before him a tiny flicker of life still abode, and would respond to care.
That care he had received, and in good measure. To Dr. Clawson he most certainly owed his life—twice over. Having saved it once, the integrity of the physician withstood the hint, almost brutally direct, from Scoland, that the man would be better off if he were let to die quietly.
Polaris was the one fly in the ointment of the daring captain of the Felix. His vague suspicions concerning the origin of the stranger and his business in the snow land had become an obsession. From the girl he could obtain no satisfaction, and only food for more suspicion. She would say little of her rescue, and less of her rescuer, taking refuge from anything like investigation in the declaration that the stirring of the memory of those days in the wilderness was too much for her already overwrought nervous system.
Scoland was a man greatly daring; he also was a man who would scruple little to remove, by any means that seemed safe to himself, any obstacle which stood between him and that which he desired. He had striven for a great prize and won. Another prize lay almost within his grasp. Should an obstacle to either intervene, he would do his utmost to sweep it aside.
Was this strange wanderer an obstacle? Could he be one of a party who had penetrated the fastnesses of the snows, to wrest from jaws of berg and glacier the secret of the pole?
Captain Scoland had heard of no such party. When he thought of how the man came, proofless, he smiled at his own suspicions. And yet—might not others have waited for the return of this man, as the crew of the Felix had waited for himself?
Then there was the strange demeanour of the girl, her reticence and her almost rapt interest in the man. Even now she might have been haunting .the sick man’s cabin, but that Scoland had persuaded her that his mind was gone, and that he was well enough off as far as the needs of the body were concerned.
To do the captain justice, the attitude of the girl, her interest in the strange man, were the minor considerations. Everything must step aside for his glory as the discoverer of the pole. Already the press of two hemispheres was heralding his successful return, and the savants of the nations were awaiting his proofs. There must be no cloud on his title, no question of his right. He would make that sure.
An unsuspected cunning in dealings with other men had been awakened in the breast of Polaris. Suddenly awake to the full consciousness of his mental powers, he was swayed by his suspicion, by the warnings his father had given him long ago, his oft repeated advice as to the intentions and possible actions of the first white men he was apt to meet.
He was awake from delirium, and his head was clear. To all appearances his mind still wandered. A little observation taught him when a sailor brought him food from the cook’s galley, and when to expect the visits of the doctor. They soon found him changed in one respect. He accepted food, and once or twice they surprised him floundering weakly about the little cabin. But he showed them no brightness of mind. His glances were vacant, his manners those of an imbecile almost.
He bided his time.
His strength came back to him slowly, although he concealed that fact. They were far up the coast, not two weeks journey from New York, when he first came to a realization of being, after his long siege of brain fever and weakness. In those two weeks he took every measure to prepare himself against their landing on American soil.
He knew not at all what he should face, but he wished to be ready for it with all his old-time strength and agility. Not entirely could he disassociate his mind from the idea that opposition and trouble must be answered with the strength of one’s body.
The man who brought the food and the physician who tended him came only in the day time. Therefore Polaris spent most of his days supinely in his berth. At night he was supremely active. Up and down the narrow confines he paced. He leaped lightly. He stretched and strained each limb and muscle.
Hour after hour he endured the severest “calisthenics”—not those taught in the gymnasium, but anything and everything in the line of the motion to which his surroundings lent themselves.
AT LENGTH the Felix lay in Quarantine. The next day they would dock. Scoland would meet and accept the homage of a nation which had gone temporarily wild over his exploits. Before that landing he would dispose of the living problem which lay and gibbered in the berth in the cabin that had been Burleson’s. Privately Scoland made arrangements with the authorities at a big institution for the care of the insane up the river. They were to send for the man. The captain explained that the patient was a member of his crew who had lost the balance of his mind due to the hardships he had endured.
That night Polaris checkmated all the captain’s carefully made preparations. Tense with excitement, the son of the snows had realized that they lay near the land. Then he had seen it from the port. Snatches of talk of the sailors told him that it was New York at last—the city of his dreams. One scrap of conversation focused all his long nursed doubts.
They had sailed to Quarantine through an almost continual blare of every kind of noisemaking instrument on the decks of every ship they passed or met. With his head at the port Polaris caught, in a sudden interval of quiet, a few words from the deck above him. He recognized the voice of Captain Scoland, talking to the mate.
“They’ll come for him in a launch at Quarantine,” he said. “It’s all arranged. Here’s the cabin key. Better take a couple of the boys to help the keepers. He might try to make trouble.”
That was all—and enough!
Soon after his return to consciousness Polaris had learned that the door to the cabin where he lay was kept locked always. It had been one of his earliest causes for suspicion. Sometime after midnight that night he set his powerful shoulder to that door, and pressed his weight against it. Minutes he stood there, gradually increasing the pressure, until the lock sprung, in its wards with a slight snap, and the knob yielded in his twisting fingers.
The man who had brought the food had left in the cabin a few rough garments such as the sailors wore. Polaris had donned them as he occasionally left the berth in the day time. He wore them now. Had any one met him, he scarcely would have been recognized as the “madman.” He had found a razor in Burleson’s cabin, and had shift to shave himself cleanly. He had hacked off the most of his long hair with the same instrument, and had disposed of the evidences of his tonsorial efforts by throwing all through the port into the harbour. Around his neck he wore the necklace of Kalin.
Only a half-defined notion of what he was about to do was in his mind, but there was no fear.
He stole along the silent corridor, and gained the deck and the rail, without being observed by the lone sailor on watch near the wheel-house. Ready to his hand, it seemed, were a short length of plank and a trailing rope, attached firmly to some part of the ship, but long enough and loose enough to serve him.
With the plank under one arm he clambered over the rail and let himself down with the rope. He could not swim a stroke, but he reached the water, and with one arm over the stout bit of plank, he struck out fearlessly for the glittering skyline of the great city that lay ahead.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK