Fiction

MRS. TIBBETT’S GLACIER

A theodolite measures the movement of glacier — what instrument of science can a young scientist use to measure a lady’s heart?

COREY FORD March 15 1949
Fiction

MRS. TIBBETT’S GLACIER

A theodolite measures the movement of glacier — what instrument of science can a young scientist use to measure a lady’s heart?

COREY FORD March 15 1949

MRS. TIBBETT’S GLACIER

COREY FORD

Fiction

THERE are certain natural phenomena with which a young man is pleased to be compared. He will welcome being described as a whirl-

wind. He will smirk contentedly when likened to a ball of fire. But he will be a little depressed if he is called a glacier, particularly by a young lady of whom he happens to be fond. “You remind me of that glacier,” Janet Tibbett had said. “As cold as ice.”

“Really, now, Miss Tibbett . . .”

“Ice,” she had insisted. “The only difference is a glacier’s face sometimes cracks.”

Dr. Victor Morley lowered his razor and inspected his face critically in the mirror above his washstand. Even to an impartial observer—and Vic prided himself on possessing a calm and detached mind, free from emotional bias— its physical resemblance to a glacier was not apparent. It was a rather pleasant-looking face; a bit on the serious side, perhaps, with an intent pucker between the eyes and a long lean nose on which a pair of shellrimmed glasses perched academically when he was lecturing his class in geology at Harvard. But, in all fairness, pleasant.

His puzzled eye moved to the bedroom window and he gazed through its cracked pane at the huge wall of ice, towering directly above him. The Tibbett Glacier seemed to be suspended in mid-air like a frozen waterfall, its serrated front glinting an ominous blue in the bright Alaska sunlight, each icy point a sword of Damocles poised overhead. At any moment the whole ponderous mass threatened to move forward and crush the little roadhouse that cowered at its very foot. “What I cannot understand,” Vic had pointed out to Janet Tibbett, “is why you choose to remain in such a precarious location.”

“It’s Gram’s house,” she had said. “We can’t leave Gram.”

“But, good Lord!” he had exploded, “can’t she live somewhere else than right in front of a glacier—”

“It’s Gram’s Glacier . . .”

Vic shook his head and resumed shaving. He was shaving faster than usual, he realized; once his hand slipped and he almost nicked his ear. The shadow of the great glacier lay heavy around him. He could feel a sort of tension in the air. He had sensed it the moment he had alighted from the Fairbanks-Valdez bus last evening, suitcase in hand, and read the disturbing sign: “Mrs. Tibbett’s Roadhouse. Dine in the Shadow of Death.” Mrs. Tibbett’s son, behind the desk, had watched dubiously as he inscribed his name in the guest register.

“I’ll give you a room in back,” Orie Tibbett said, “with a view of the glacier.”

“That would be very nice,” said Vic politely. “You can sort of keep an eye on it,” Orie added, “just, in case . . .” He let the sentence trail and banged the bell on the counter. “Take these things up to Eleven, Lem,” he told the elderly hired man.

“Just put them anywhere,” Vic said carelessly. “I’ll unpack later.”

The hired man and Orie exchanged glances. “I wouldn’t do that, Dr. Morley,” Orie said. “I wouldn’t unpack if I were you.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Vic.

“I’d leave your things right in your grip,” said Orie, “so you could grab them in a hurry . . .”

Once more his voice trailed and he inclined his head significantly.

“Look here,” Vic said incredulously, “you don’t mean—”

Orie and the hired man glanced at each other again. “I ain’t unpacked my own suitcase,” Lem volunteered, “and I been working here ten years.” “I don’t even take off my clothes at night,” said Orie, “except my boots.”

“I don’t even take off my boots,” said Lem, picking up the suitcase and starting gloomily upstairs.

SUPPER had been a hasty repast; everything was put on the table at once and most of the food was served right out of the can. It reminded Vic of army rations on a forced march. He bolted his lonely meal as rapidly as possible, while Orie’s wife hovered at his elbow ready to snatch the dishes as soon as he was through. Mrs. Lessie Tibbett had a long sad face and, so she informed Vic in her second sentence, a bad back and headaches all the time and strange shooting pains. “I don’t know what it is, I ache all over and I get these dizzys spells, it might be blood pressure or else my kidneys." I thought maybe you being a doctor . . .”

“I’m not that kind of a doctor,” Vic apologized. “I’m a scientist.”

“Oh,” said Lessie, disappointed. “I thought maybe you could tell me what to do. I really ought to go to bed.”

“Why don’t you?” Vic said sympathetically. “How could I go to bed?” Mrs. Tibbett snorted. “I got to be up and on my toes,” nodding her head significantly toward the window, “in case that thing starts coming.” She slid a slice of pie onto his plate. “I brought your dessert to save time.” Vic gulped the last of his coffee and fairly sprang from the table. He had eaten so fast that he had a touch of indigestion and he lit a cigarette and strolled into the lobby, trying to calm himself. The lobby, like the dining room, was bare and deserted, the rugs rolled up and the chairs piled near the door. Lem shuffled past him, carrying an armload of wood. “Getting ready for the tourist season?” Vic asked, indicating the stacked furniture.

“Nope,” said Lem shortly, “just got things handy in case we have to move in a hurry.”

Vic’s self-control began fraying. “But if you all feel that way, why do you want to stay here?” “I don’t want to stay here. I got some gold claims, I’d leave in a minute to work ’em,” Lem grumbled, “only I don’t dast. None of us dassent leave Gram.” He shook his head gloomily. “You never can tell about glaciers . . .”

Vic lit a second cigarette from the stub of the first. He noticed that his hand was trembling a little. There was a small souvenir stand beside the desk and he strolled toward it and inspected the contents absently while he sought to steady his nerves. It was not a reassuring display: some bits of jagged rock, a panoramic picture of the roadhouse with the glacier looming in the background (“At any moment a million tons of cruel ice threaten to wipe out this pleasant spot forever”) and several assorted pennants and streamers labeled “We Flirted With Fate” or “Our Narrow Escape: Alaska, 1948.” He picked up a booklet from the pile in front of him: the cover was a photograph of a girl, in parka and mukluks, standing on a pinnacle of ice. “Janet Tibbett,” he read, “The Glacier Girl. Personally Conducted Tours . . .” “Can I help you?” inquired a voice at his elbow.

He turned with a start. The Glacier Girl, complete to parka and mukluks, was standing behind him. Her photograph did not do

A theodolite measures the movement of glacier — what instrument of science can a young scientist use to measure a lady’s heart?

her justice, he decided immediately. The parka hood framed a pert and very pretty face, tanned a healthy russet-brown; the stray wisps of sandcolored hair poking out from beneath the hood were almost silver against her dark skin. She was smiling at him, a fixed professional smile.

“Perhaps you would be interested in one of our illustrated pamphlets,” she suggested, “giving the complete history of Alaska’s greatest natural wonder. The Tibbett Glacier,” she recited mechanically, “is probably the world’s fastest moving mass of ice. It is unique among glaciers—”

“If I may offer a correction, Miss Tibbett,” he interrupted, “the only unusual thing about this glacier is its phenomenal speed, otherwise it is the common or piedmont type, characteristic of all Alaska and the Northwest.”

There was a little pause. “Oh,” she said. She began again in a singsong voice: “Crouched in

its mountain lair, this icy Juggernaut is poised ready to hurtle its mammoth hulk—”

“Pardon me, Miss Tibbett,” he broke in politely, “but ice never moves as one block. It yields gradually under pressure of its own weight by means of cracking and regelation. Because of its rigidity,” he explained, “the shearing of one layer upon another produces foliation within the mass.” She opened her mouth and shut it again. “I see,” she said. She attempted once more: “No

one can tell when this frigid behemoth may choose to spring—”

“On the contrary,” he pointed out, “its rate of motion depends on several easily determined factors, such as the weather, the amount of snow in the catchment areas, the general smoothness of the valley floor and the slope of the upper surface of the ice.”

Her voice became suddenly natural. “You seem to know a lot about glaciers.”

“After all,” modestly, “I’ve been studying the

subject for a good many years.”

“I guess one glacier is very much like another to you.”

He shrugged. “There are certain minor variations, to be sure, depending on the terrain and the granular structure of the ice.”

“I don’t suppose you ever felt that a glacier might have . . . well, a character of its own? Like different people, I mean?”

“Really,” he smiled, “I’d scarcely go so far as to say—”

“Well, I do,” she said indignantly. “I’ve lived beside this glacier practically all my life and I’ve never seen it twice the same. Sometimes at night it’s

black and sort of frightening, like an animal waiting out there in the dark, and then other times, when the sun is shining on it, the ice sparkles like a diamond as big as the whole world.”

“Miss Tibbett,” he said in amusement, “don’t you think you’re being just a trifle romantic?’^ “And why not?” she had demanded. Her eyes, he had noticed irrelevantly, were a deeper blue when she was angry. “Just because you’re so cold and scientific and . . . and right. Do you know what you remind me of? . .

HER WORDS still echoed in Vic’s ears as he completed his shaving, soused his face in the bowl of icy water and hurried down to breakfast. Unconsciously he took the stairs two steps at a time; it was hard to overcome that feeling of tension around him. He had thought he was an early riser, but Orie was already in his accustomed spot behind the desk. Vic wondered fleetiugly whether he had gone to bed at all. He acknowledged Vic’s cheerful “good morning” with a morose nod and resumed his moody contemplation of the glacier. The dining room was a little more cheerful; a fire was burning briskly in the hearth and an easy chair was pulled up in front of it, heaped with blankets. Vic

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started past it toward the table.

“Good morning, young man,” the heap of blankets said.

“I beg your pardon,” said Vic, halting in confusion. A tiny old lady straightened in the chair and craned her thin neck like a fledgling peering out of a nest. She twisted her head around toward him and blinked through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. It seemed to Vic that her gaze was hostile.

“My granddaughter tells me you’re a scientist,” she said. It was an accusation.

“Yes, madam,” he said, “I’ve come here to make a study of your famous glacier.”

“Well, there’s no use bothering,” Gram Tibbett said flatly. “A couple of other scientific fellows were here last year; they found out it was moving fast enough as it is without your finding out any worse.”

“I’ve read their reports,” said Vic, “but with due respect to my esteemed confreres, their findings were somewhat sketchy. It is my purpose to make an exact recording of its rate of movement.”

“I don’t see what good it’ll do,” Gram said, “except to worry everybody even more.” She added casually, “How do you propose going about this, young man?”

“The most precise method,” Vic explained patiently, “is by means of a geodetic theodolite, mounted on a concrete column poured directly on the rough bedrock surface. This graphs the glacial movement in seconds of arc and a simple calculation gives the advance of the ice.”

“Hmph,” she sniffed sceptically.

“Pending the arrival of my full equipment, however,” Vic added, “I thought I’d run a few preliminary checks this morning by setting some iron spikes along the frontal edge and measuring the distance at regular intervals on the adjacent exposed bedrock.”

“That’s just how those other young fellows did,” the old lady said. “What’s

the earthly use of doing it all over again? Can’t you leave bad enough alone?”

Vic bit his lip. “Perhaps you can set it down to a pardonable scientific vanity,” he said stiffly and walked past her to the table.He ate his breakfast in uncomfortable silence, conscious of a pair of steely eyes boring steadily into the back of his neck. He stole another glance at Gram as he left the room: the blankets were piled high about her head, but he caught the glint of a pair of spectacles. They were distinctly belligerent.

IT WAS dark when he returned to the roadhouse. He approached at full gallop, his hobnails sending spurts of gravel from the driveway as he ran. He banged open the door and leaned against the jamb for a moment, trying to catch his breath. “I’ve got news!” he panted, “about the glacier . . .” Orie sprang to his feet, his face white. Lem stopped sweeping and gripped his broom by the handle, ready for action. Only Gram remained calm: she sat

motionless in her rocking chair, gazing at Vic.

“I’ve just taken careful méasurements,” he continued, “and I’ve found out—”

“Oh, I knew it!” Lessie Tibbett wailed, standing in the dining room doorway and wiping her hands on her apron. “We got to hurry. It’s coming!”

“On the contrary,” said Vic, “it’s going away.”

There was a stunned silence.

“I checked it twice today to be sure,” he announced to the lobby triumphantly. “My first measurement . . .” He took a notebook from his pocket “ . . .was at 10.13 a.m. The distance to stake number one was 66% inches. At 2.03 p.m., three hours and fifty minutes later, the distance was 66% inches, or a net loss of one eighth inch ...”

Janet Tibbett had halted at the head of the stairs, listening.

“At 12.37 p.m.,” he read, “the distance to stake number two measured

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28% inches. At 5.13 p.m., a total elapsed time of four hours and thirtysix minutes, the distance was only 28% inches. It is perhaps interesting to note in this connection,” he pointed out academically, “that a glacial movement is increasingly greater from the side to the middle of the most advanced part of the frontal lobe . . .”

“Go on,” Orie prompted in a hoarse whisper. -

“In short,” Vic concluded, “my computations show that the Tibbett Glacier is not only receding; it is going backward at such a rate of speed that in a short time you’ll have to move the roadhouse to keep up with it.”

Lem’s broom hit the floor with a crash. He gave a yelp of joy and rushed out into the night. Orie was shaking his head in slow comprehension, a grin spreading over his face. Lessie Tibbett had collapsed in the doorway, wiping her eyes with her apron. “Oh, I can’t believe it,” she wept in relief. “We’re safe!”

Vic beamed complacently. “And now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I must write out a preliminary report to send up on the morning bus. Tomorrow after breakfast I’ll check my measurements once more and compute the exact rate of recession. In the meantime,” he bowed to Gram, who returned his gaze stonily, “I trust you’ll all sleep more easily tonight.”

Janet Tibbett fell back a step as he mounted the stairs toward her. Her voice was barely audible: “It isn’t

“I assure you, Miss Tibbett, there is no possible doubt,” he smiled at her. “It’s a dead glacier.”

“Dead . . .” Suddenly her eyes welled with tears. “My glacier’s dead.” Vic had the dizzy sensation of a knight who has slain a fiery dragon and rescued the beautiful princess, only to find it was her pet dragon. “But there’s nothing to be upset about,” he faltered. “The danger’s all over. I don’t understand . .

“Of course you don’t. You’re a scientist, it’s just another problem in geology to you. You couldn’t understand how a thing like a glacier can get to be personal and real, like an old friend. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved this glacier . . . And now ...” Her voice wavered unsteadily “ . . . now you’ve killed it!” She turned and ran sobbing down the hall.

VIC WALKED down to breakfast next morning with a slow and deliberate step. The former feeling of tension was gone from the air and the roadhouse seemed strangely quiet. The lobby was deserted, he noted in surprise; Orie was not in his usual place behind the desk and Lem’s broom still lay where it had fallen beside the door. The dining room was equally barren of life. There was no fire burning in the hearth and his place at the table had not been set. He halted, puzzled. A faint sound of activity came from the kitchen and he pushed open the door. Janet Tibbett was standing beside the sink, mixing a bowl of sour-dough batter.

“Good morning,” he said after a moment.

She did not answer.

“I was just wondering about breakfast,” he said politely. “Is your mother . . .?”

“Mother’s in bed,” Janet replied shortly. “She has a headache and her back hurts and she’s not going to get up today.”

“Oh.” He looked around the empty kitchen. “Where’s Lem?”

“Lem’s quit his job. He’s gone to work some gold claims.”

“And your father?”

“Father,” she said briefly, “is drunk.”

There was another uncomfortable silence. Janet stirred the batter briskly, poured a spoonful into a skillet and watched it sputter and begin to brown. Vic shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“I’m sorry about last night, Miss Tibbett . . . Janet,” he attempted.

She did not object. He felt encouraged.

“Janet,” he repeated more confidently. For a moment he even debated patting her arm, but decided against it. “I’m sorry my information affected you as it did.”

Janet slid a spatula under the edge of the hot cake and flapped it over in the pan.

“After all, I was only reporting the facts,” he pointed out in all fairness. “The measurements show conclusively that the Tibbett Glacier is soft and melting fast. You wouldn’t expect me to ignore the facts,” he asked, “just because of some little sentiment . . .”

“Oh, no,” bitterly, “I wouldn’t expect you to do that.” Her eyes were a deep blue. “A fact is more important to you than anything else in the world. You haven’t any room for sentiment.” She slid the hot cake onto a plate. “You’re solid ice right to your heart. You’d never get soft. You couldn’t melt if you tried.”

She shoved the plate into his hands.

“Here,” she said unevenly, “you better eat this before it gets cold, too.”

He stood holding the plate, his jaw sagging. The kitchen door slammed.

VIC PICKED his way cautiously along the frontal edge of the glacier in the direction of the first stake. It was uneven going: a morning mist

hung low over the ice and the cracks and ridges were difficult to see until he was almost on them. The main body of the glacier was hidden entirely. Once or twice Vic paused and glanced above him uneasily; somehow he had the feeling that the glacier was watching him through the mist, sad-eyed and reproachful. He frowned at this sign of weakness and increased his pace.

He nearly stumbled over the first stake before he saw it.

Quickly he pulled off his gloves, kneeled beside it and took a careful measurement. He glanced at his watch and recorded the data in his notebook: 8.03 a.m., 109 inches. His eye moved automatically to the entry he had made last evening. “6.42 p.m.,” he read, “24¼ inches.”

Vic leapt violently as though he had been stung by a hornet. He crouched beside the iron stake and measured it again with trembling fingers. There was no mistake. In the space of ten hours the glacier had advanced seven feet two and three quarter inches.

He sank on a ridge of ice and tried to collect himself. The morning was cold, but his face was beaded with

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perspiration. He licked his moist lips. Perhaps he had set the stake carelessly last night in the dark. Perhaps he had jotted down the wrong figures. At least, he told himself, stake number two should correct the error.

Vic ran along the jagged ice toward his second stake. Even at a distance it looked suspiciously out of line. He knelt beside it, sensing the worst. The measurement was 437 inches. He took a deep breath and checked the previous entry in his notebook: 33 inches, or a net gain of thirty-three feet six inches. The evidence was irrefutable. The Tibbett Glacier had reversed its field during the night and was moving forward again with the approximate speed of a wild stallion.

He took out a cigarette and struck a match shakily. The match halted in mid-air. A few rods away, in the vicinity of the third stake, his ears detected the faint but persistent sound of chopping.

He whipped out the match and crept cautiously forward toward a higher ridge of ice. He raised himself to his full height and peered over the top. A diminutive figure in parka and mukluks was crouching in front of him, hacking a hole in the ice with a small hatchet. As he watched she picked up an iron spike lying beside her, set it in the hole she had just made and began packing the ice chips firmly around its base.

‘T beg your pardon,” said Vic.

The intruder dropped the hatchet with a little gasp and rose to face him. Beneath the parka hood Vic’s amazed eyes caught the familiar glint of a pair of spectacles. He stared incredulously.

“May I ask, Mrs. Tibbett,” he enquired after a moment, “what you are doing?”

“I’m changing your stakes,” said Gram calmly.

“So I see,” said Vic. A new thought struck him. “You seem to know just how to go about it. I take it this isn’t your first attempt.”

“Oh, no,” said Gram, “I changed ’em on those other young fellows, too. Every time you scientists come around here trying to make trouble, I have to go out and change ’em again.”

Somehow Vic had the feeling that he was being put on the defensive. He assumed a sterner tone, “And may I ask you why you are tampering with my personal property in this fashion?” “I’ll tell you why, young man,” Gram replied. “I’m changing the stakes so this glacier will head in the right direction.”

“But this is a receding glacier . . .” “I know it is,” she snapped. “I’ve known it for twenty years.”

“And all this time,” Vic accused, “your family has been living here in a state of nervous tension—”

“That’s right,” Gram nodded. “If it wasn’t for their being scared, they wouldn’t have lived here at all. Why do you think this family’s stuck together so long? What do you suppose has kept Lem working here at a decent job instead of winding up broke in the Prospector’s Home at Sitka? What do you suppose has kept Lessie from taking to bed with some of her imaginary complaints? What do you suppose has kept Orie sober all these years?”

“But . . .” Vic felt himself floundering. “You have no right to interfere with the course of science, just to keep a few people happy.”

“Young man,” said Gram, “you may know a lot about science, but what you don’t know about people would fill all the bookshelves at Harvard.” The lenses of her spectacles flashed. “Go ahead now and change your stakes back again. Send in your report. You don’t care about people being happy.

All you care about is being right . . .” She yanked the drawstrings of the parka hood tight beneath her chin, turned on her heel and set off with astonishing agility across the ice. Vic watched her thoughtfully as she disappeared in the eddying fog.

ORIE took another sip of bicarbonate of soda and set the glass on the counter before him. He placed a towelful of cracked ice against his throbbing forehead. “Sorry to see you go, Dr. Morley,” he said!1 “Wish you could stay longer.”

“Thank you,” Vic said, taking a couple of bills from his wallet, “but I’m afraid I’ve done about all I can.”

“It was quite a shock when you brought us the news this morning,” Orie sighed, “but I guess we all make mistakes once in a while.” He rolled his bloodshot eyes. “I was just beginning to celebrate, too.”

Lessie Tibbett drifted down the stairs, her dressing gown trailing. “At least, it’s better to know the worst,” she said. “I’d hate to be caught lying in bed if that thing starts coming.” “Well . . .” Vic glanced at his watch. “I’d better get out to the highway. The bus is due in a few minutes.”

“Here, Doc, don’t you bother with those grips.” Orie banged the bell at his elbow. “Lem,” he said, “the Doc’s leaving.”

Lem picked up the suitcase and led the way to the door. “Don’t blame you,” he grumbled over his shoulder. “Don’t blame anybody for leaving this place. I’d leave myself if I dast.” Vic halted abruptly on the doorstep. Janet was standing in front of him, a curious smile on her face. “Vic.”

“I won’t be causing you any more trouble, Janet,” he said a trifle cheerfully. “I’m about to recede. As soon as the bus arrives, I’ll be extinct.” “Vic,” she said in a low voice. “Don’t leave.”

He was not quite>sure he had heard right. “What?”

“Vic,” she said, moving closer to him. Her parka hood had fallen back against her shoulder and she was looking up into his face. Her eyes were a different blue. “Gram just told me ...”

It seemed a long time later that Vic became aware of somebody shouting at him. “Hey, Doc,” Lem was calling excitedly from the highway, “your bus is coming.”

He lifted his head, still holding Janet tight in his arms. “I’m not taking the bus,” he yelled in reply. “I’m sticking around a while to help look out for Gram. You never can tell about glaciers.”

He thought, as he lowered his lips again to meet Janet’s, that he caught the flash of a pair of spectacles from an upper window of the roadhouse. They did not seem hostile. ★

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