A tale of love lost and found amid the perils of the airman s North
COULTER looked again at his hand and said “Three no trumps.” Follansbee shook his head negatively. Retta shrugged her shoulders and Edith Follansbee led the jack of spades. Coulter spread his cards on the table-top and fumbled through the pockets of his windbreaker for tobacco bag and papers, tilting his chair to its back legs while he sat and watched his wife go down two tricks. Retta’s hands were impatient, he thought, when she picked up the cards before her and half-tossed them on the little pile in front of Follansbee.
“Hard luck, old girl,” he said.
“Your spade protection was too thin,” Retta observed. “You ought to have left the third to me.” “Sorry,” said Coulter, and made a mental note of her tone. Retta wouldn’t have criticized him, even so gently, two months ago. But no wonder. What could he expect, bringing her to live in a hole like this? Coulter decided, as he was dealing the next hand, that he would suggest to Retta that it would do her good to get away and spend a few days with her mother. Subsequently, after they had said their good nights to the Follansbees and he was pulling at the lacings of his shoepacks inside the matchboard partitions of their own room, he broached the thought to her: “Honey, why don’t you hop on the sleeper tomorrow night and have a look at the big town?”
“Will you come, too?”
“You know I can’t, dear.”
“Then I’m not going, either.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Just this, Charlie Coulter, and you know it. I made my own bed when I came up here with you and I’m going to lie in it!” Retta whipped her negligee-clad body about to face her husband, and braced against the dressing table, gripping its edges with her hands. “You know perfectly well I won’t go back to Montreal without you. You know perfectly well everyone I know is waiting for me to get bored to death with your Saint Joseph du Lac and come home, so they can be sorry for me. Well, they won’t get the chance.”
“Sweet,” Coulter begged her, half-thinking of partitions, “I’m not asking you to do a go-home-to-mamma.
Go and stay with her, or go to a hotel if you’d rather. You talk as if a shopping trip is the same thing as a girl leaving her husband for life. Why not get Edith or Mary to go with you? You talk like a nut, angel.” And Coulter, to prove his high regard for imbecile angels, clumped across the floor in his unlaced kneeboots and put his arms about her. Retta moved away from his embrace and murmured “Don’t.” Coulter released her and walked to the window, where he professed to be lost in study of the stars and their promise of tomorrow’s flying weather. “Looks as though we’re getting a break,” he said. “Ought to get a chunk of that drill pipe moved into Assinibonka tomorrow.” But Retta’s eyes were closed.
“A man is a fool to think he can make a girl happy in a place like this,” Coulter told Coulter in the darkness, as he waited for sleep . . . “All right for me, I’m busy. But nothing for her to do all day while her husband flies from sun-up to dark, except to sit here and wonder if I’m all right or down somewhere . . . Her mother was right. She had no business marrying a mutt like me who doesn’t get south of railhead twice a year . . . No money except pay. Living in a honky-tonk bush-
town hotel. Just a fine, romantic pioneer . . . ” So thought grumbled in his brain, as he lay waiting for sleep that was slow to come to his puzzled senses, until a hand touched him in the darkness and a voice whispered “Sorry,” and he forgot to think.
In this fashion July passed and August turned to the golden glory of northern September, as misunderstanding flourished in the autumn soil of discontent and the nights when Coulter found it convenient to be caught by weather or approaching darkness in Assinibonka, or at the mining camps on Opemashuan, grew more frequent.
TF YOU will look at the map across the centre * section of the Quebec and Lac du Nord timetable, you will notice a thin straggle of a line that tangents away from the main trunk of the railway at Daigneault Junction. Northward, the branch skirts the western shore of the lake for the eighty miles of its length, until apex and finis are reached at Saint Joseph du Lac, where the Fontaine River flows to join the deep waters of du Nord, a fact celebrated by the erection of a twin-spired church which reaches gilt points and its glittering crucifix toward the sun. At the northern end of the town, just past the church and the presbytère, is
the Chateau Saint Joseph, where mine host, a certain Ducharme, dispenses such hospitality as one may expect of jumping-off towns. The food is passable, if one has no aversion for grease, and there is privacy of a sort to be had behind the matchboard partitions which separate room from room, and room from corridor. Southeast from bedroom windows, toward the confluence of river and lake, the frame buildings of the Air Base hug the water’s edge. In the stream, perhaps, a ship is bobbing gently at its buoy, waiting for northward journeyings aloft. This, then, is the end of steel. This is Saint Joseph du Lac.
North there is nothing for more than a hundred miles, and not much then in the way of refinements. Soon the rim of civilization thins into infinity as the voyager rides high above the rocky, racing shallows of the Fontaine’s upper reaches to Stengel Lake. Thence your
pilot will strike due north, until you have crossed the Height of Land and the thin ribbon of the fhiguap flows beneath wings and pontoons as it tumble toward Assinibonka and Opemashuan and, ultimate)’» to the
bleak coastline of James Bay. Soon you will see the gleaming body of Assinibonka ahead and, spiralling down to meet it, will race in spray across the breast of the lake until hands reach to catch your tie-rope from the home dock of The Adventurers’ Syndicate, where there is the rattle of diamond drills to make man wonder how such human industry can be born a hundred and twenty miles beyond Nowhere.
Coulter’s plane thrummed across the water to this haven late one afternoon in September. “We’re on your hands for the night, I guess, Cardigan,” offered its pilot as he reached foot toward pontoon, coming ashore. “Too mucky up the Chiguap for me, this time o’ day.”
“Fine,” sang the engineer in reply, and, as Coulter stepped ashore: “After chow let’s look over that bunch of invoices, what say?” . . . “That’s great with me, Legree.”
Invoices considered and put aside, they chatted desultorily of drill core assays. Then Cardigan’s supply list was marshalled across the mines office table in its lengthy column of route. “Make a note of gas, will you, Charlie? And something’d better be done about smoked meats . . .” Coulter thumbed the wall
calendar and thought they could count on another eight weeks before the lakes began to close. Cardigan, meanwhile, fiddled with the valves of the acetylene lamp suspended over the centre of the room. How could he open up on Coulter and talk things out with him? If he did open up, what would Coulter say? Was it worth being told to mind his own business, just to try driving sense into this youngster’s head? . . . The engineer dropped again into his home-made armchair beside the table, half-turned toward the pilot, and rapped tabletop with knuckles. At last he blurted his question:
“Anything wrong between you and your wife, Charlie?” Cardigan is not one of those who qualify for the diplomat’s toga. Coulter seemed lost in study of the wall. When he spoke, it was to counter question with question: “What on earth makes you ask that?”
“I know. I know. And if there is anything the matter, whose business
is it? Don’t take the bit in your teeth, youngster. I asked because you and I are supposed to be friends. But it’s none of my business, if you want it that way ...”
Coulter picked his tin mug off the table and drained it. Bringing sack from pocket he dusted tobacco along a strip of rice paper, rolled the result between thumb and forefinger, licked its edge, kindled a cigarette, and exhaled the first long intake of smoke. Then he said: “No. I guess I don’t want it that way . . . ”
Silence again . . . The engineer poured a new tot while Coulter twirled another cigarette, spilling tobacco on the dressed-lumber floor . . . “You’ve been married a long time, George. Maybe it took you a while to get adjusted, but you and Mary soon had youngsters to help you” . . . “And they help,” said Cardigan.
Slowly, in the embarrassed phrases of a man who finds it difficult to speak of private affairs—particularly when the partner in those affairs is his wife—Coulter spoke, until one by one the barriers of human reserve began to topple and go down. It was nobody’s fault; his own, if anyone’s. He wanted Cardigan to realize that. Any man who figured he could take a girl away from a twenty-five-t,housand-a-year home in Westmount and make her happy in a jerk town like Saint Jo eph ought to see an alienist. But they had been hopelessly in love with each other, and what could you do? Retta’s folks had bucked it hard enough, God knew. At least her mother had. The old lady was one of those charming people who looked at you through a lorgnette and, after you had gone, would say: “Who are his people? Not the Halifax Coulters, by any chance?” knowing very well that they weren’t. Cardigan must know the kind.
“Know?” The engineer was chuckling as he asked it. “Know? Carry on, sergeant. I had a mother-in-law once myself.”
All her friends had told Retta she wouldn’t last long in a dump like Saint Joseph, Coulter continued .. .What did she know about the other women in the place? Oh, engineers’ wives and pilots’ wives, were they? Of course, Charlie liked them. He would. But not quite the Saint David’s Club crowd. Coulter’s lip curled as he halfmimicked these debutante-and-dowager viewpoints. Naturally Retta, bored stiff, had gone Saint David’s on him, he intimated. But he was the fool, not Retta. He ought to have known she would.
“That’s right, talk like a louse,” Cardigan snapped. “Retta never put on any dog with Mary or me, and you know it! No wonder she’s sick of living with a mind like yours!”
The pilot’s eyes brooded between shame and anger, but shame gained the victory before Cardigan had completed his fury-bred patrol of stove, door and office safe . . . "You may be right, Cardigan. Is that the kind of a swine I am inside?”
The engineer stuffed pipe bowl with tobacco, considered the question, smiled and said he didn’t think so. So far as he had ever been able to see, most people who weren’t flying too high with their wives were like that— touchy and hunting for trouble. “Coulter,” he said, “listen to me for a minute. Don’t make an ass of yourself. Retta is a real fine woman for any man to have, and you know it. But you’ve got to give her a chance used the kind of life she has to
live with you. You can’t take a girl away from pink teas, trips to Europe, Saint Andrews-bythe-Sea and the Junior League, and expect her to think Saint Joseph du Lac is a swell place, once the novelty of being licensed to live with you has worn off. What can she do with herself, man? Sleep in, every morning, because there’s no point getting up to do nothing. Then she can come downstairs in time to eat a hunk of meat that Ducharme thinks is roast beef, hoping you’ll be home for dinner. In the afternoon, for special excitement, she can walk down to the Base and brew a pot of tea for the boys when they come home. Or she can knit, if she likes knitting” the engineer aped a fatuous grin as he thought of the joys of this pursuit—“or look at the same magazine she looked at yesterday, or polish her finger nails again, just as she did at the same time yesterday. At night, if you’re back, she can play cards with Follansbee and his wife and you, or, if you’re not back, make a fourth with some of the others who did get home. And it’s like that every day. The first year Mary was with me she used to make me put on a clean shirt every morning, so’s she could have the fun of washing out yesterday’s, just for something to do.” Cardigan paused to chuckle in reminiscence.
“I know,” said Coulter. “It’s a rotten life for a girl.”
“That’s what you say now.” Cardigan was warming to his subject. “But what, do you do to help, huh? All you can do is go round like a shiny hypocrite, looking hurt. You been flying around the north how long, five years? Then
you fall for Retta and bring her to Saint Joseph to live. Soon as she begins to get sick of it, you begin to wish you could break out with the boys once in a while, but feel virtuous as the devil because you’re too much of a gentleman to do it. Instead, you begin staying up here at this erd as many nights as you can. Take tonight. You could have gone through when you left here, and you know it. Bradley left here two minutes ahead of you and he kept on going, didn’t he? Don’t you suppose your wife is wise to that?”
Anger smoldered in Coulter, but he gave no answer. Instead he stood up as Cardigan paused to find new words, stretched his arms high, and yawned as he remarked he guessed he’d have a look at his ship and turn in. But next morning he drew his friend aside while the load of gas empties was being stacked in the cabin. “About last night, George,” he said, “you’re right. It’s going to be different from now on.” Cardigan slapped him across the shoulders and mumbled
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something about “Good boy!” and “Forget it!” Cardigan, cooled by sleep, felt half-embarrassed and half-ashamed for not attending to his own affairs.
T) ETTA was standing on the dock, arm at wave, when Coulter raced up across current to moor. Surprise was in him as he saw her, surprise that kindled to longing, sweetening the remorse that had been in his thoughts as he had booted homeward before a gentle tailwind through the new-born day.
“Had breakfast, Ret?” he sang to her from his perch on a pontoon, as he caught the rope that would haul him gently to dockside.
“No, I waited for you,” she smiled in reply, moving her lips to his as he stepped to the barge. And, as they were driving Che mile of road to Ducharme’s Château: “I was a worried girl, all night, honey. Brad said you were coming right behind him and that he could see you, just before the Height of Land. It worried me a lot when you didn’t come. What happened? Did you land and spend the night in the Ranger’s cabin?”
“No, sweet,” he answered. “I turned back. It was getting pretty dark and dirty over the Chiguap, so I went back and slept with Cardigan. Can’t take chances like these bachelors, honey.” Cardigan sneered inwardly at himself as he spoke his alibi lie, his only consolation the self-promise that this would be the last of its series. Now it was good-by to all that, said thought.
They were lovers again in the days and nights that followed. In fair weather Coulter flew at dawn, often returning to lunch with his wife in Saint Joseph, always landing on the river from his final flight by the time the tea kettle purred on the outhouse stove at the Base. Problems difficult of solution were facing him now, for new copper discoveries in Assinibonka had brought their miniature rush of prospectors, equipment and supplies to be moved into the north prior to freezeup, in addition to the maintenance of service for the regular operators in the camps. Here, too, was help in their recovered happiness, as Retta spurred him on when his pride as senior pilot of the Saint Joseph Division forbade a request to Girton in Montreal for extra equipment to aid in the movement of the added burden of freight. But soon silence grew in him, silence born of fatigue and worry, and he would be lost in thought as they walked together in the cool of night, returning from conference with Beaulieu, the station agent, about the new shipments which came to fill the spaces in the sheds vacated by the day’s plane loads.
Long days and short nights were beginning to take their toll in patience. Let McKee, the top mechanic, venture the obvious fact that the disabling of one of the machines would tie everything up, and Coulter, responding like dry tinder to spark, would be at him: “What ails you chicken hearts, anyway? For lord’s sake quit fussing, Mac, and keep ’em in shape.”
He had turned curt with Retta again, too. If her worry for the fatigue of him and the nervousness in him brought the suggestion that perhaps he ought to ask for one more ship, back would snap the retort: “Why not leave my job to me? You’ve been listening to the faint hearts.” And he began to tell himself that he was henpecked and nagged at, and that he didn’t propose to be. In Retta, too, were new quirks of almost ire as she fought against his irritability, or against the boredom of a life which brought him rushing to the hotel for supper, to be gone again in twenty minutes to attend to the repair and tuning of an ill-tempered engine until well on midnight. If she
waited up for him, perhaps to warm a brew of cocoa, he would chide her for losing her sleep and, likely as not, would ; reach for the whisky bottle and, pouring a stiff jolt, would down it raw. If she retired and feigned sleep as he opened their door, she would hear his voice cursing bed corners and chairs as he moved against them in the darkness, swearing aloud that he wished he had a room of his own where he might turn the lights on and bang around as he pleased. And so they came to the night when they told each other that this was the end of their road, that this was finis, that they must go their several ■ways. That was the fourteenth of October. Retta informed : him that she would leave Saint Joseph du i Lac on the night of the seventeenth, thereafter to trouble him no more. “I’ll see you get the necessary information to take to the Senate,” said husband. “And I’ll be glad to get it,” said wife. It was not an edifying discussion.
f^OULTER did not come home on the fifteenth. Great cloudbanks hung in the north toward Stengel, as he warmed his engine in the grey of an October dawn. “Better wait, Charlie,” McClintock said; “it looks pretty dirty.” Coulter replied tersely that there was no reason to wait. If he couldn’t get through he’d be back. If he didn’t show up within the hour, Mac and Bradley could figure it was all right and follow him through. With which staccato adieu he yelled to Furness, his mechanic, to come in off the pontoon and shut that cursed door, letting his engine in with a roar to taxi out to the wind for take-off. “The ruddy fool,” Bradley j grunted. “He’s got the blasted megrims again, that’s what! Well, you don’t catch me flying through pea soup just because Mister Coulter thinks it’s swell !”
At lunch Bradley told Retta that Coulter must have gone through to Opemashuan. Retta considered this a bulletin of no particular interest and returned to the packing of a trunk, telling herself that he could stay in Opemashuan for ever, so far as she was concerned. During the afternoon she walked to the station and conferred with Beaulieu in the matter of Pullman reservations. When Coulter failed to return at dusk, McClintock made it his business to tell Retta casually that her husband must have struck weather and be staying at the other end of the line. Outwardly the pilot’s wife professed concern; inwardly his absence added fuel to the fires of estrangement and she told herself that he was keeping away from her. Subsequently, Bradley, McClintock and Follansbee held council of ways-andmeans, using Bradley’ sroom because it was at the other side of the hotel from Retta’s, and because walls in Saint Joseph have no need of ears. As a result Bradley and McClintock were on the river at daybreak. Bradley took off first and proceeded straight up river until he sat above Great Bear Run, where he waited for McClintock to join him.
At nine o’clock they were down on Manouiche, to the west of the Chiguap, after waiting on Stengel for almost two hours for low clouds to pass over them. Blobs of soft snow which clung to every pane brought them down again on Duck Lake and, later on, another water which has no name and is not mapped. They won through to Opemashuan at noon, unloaded and hopped the thirty miles across country to Cardigan’s camp on Assinibonka. There was no word of Coulter on either lake. He had not reached journey’s end.
Over hurried coffee and conference with Cardigan the two pilots made plans for the return flight. Southward they followed the normal course over the Chiguap and to Stengel, their machines
five miles apart in the air. At Stengel they paid particular attention to the Rangers’ cabin, hunting for signs of an overnight halt, or a note, despite the fact that they had been here only a few hours ago and had conducted similar search. Taking to the air again the two machines separated, McClintock working east as far as the Mistassouan, while Bradley flew down the westward side of the course, following the Fontaine to a point ten miles above Saint Joseph, where he turned east to rendezvous with McClintock over Point Brune. There they washed out further search and legged for home in the encroaching dusk.
Arrived in Saint Joseph the two pilots tossed a coin to ascertain who should carry the news to Coulter’s wife, but cancelled these arrangements to visit the hotel and include Follansbee, odd man. It was Bradley who went to her room to tell her. He said: “Retta, Charlie didn’t reach either Opemashuan or Assinibonka yesterday. Neither Mac nor I could see a sign of him anywhere along the line. Thought I’d better tell you right away.”
Retta fainted, her head almost striking the open face of her half-packed trunk as she fell. Bradley carried her to the bed, revived her and hurried to Follansbee’s room to ask Edith if she would go to her.
nPHREE days passed before Girton A was able to reach Saint Joseph with added search ships from Montreal, despite the fact that he left with four machines on the seventeenth. They could not penetrate beyond Lac la Tortue that day and were held weatherbound. The next night they slept at Mont Saint Eustache, but found sufficient break in the skies on the following afternoon to push through to Saint Joseph. By that time McClintock and Bradley, with Follansbee as relief pilot, had covered the area of normal course again as far as Stengel, while young Busbee had patrolled westward in the two-seater as far as Round Island in the Crevasse River. North of Stengel it had been impossible to go.
Retta visited the station on the morning of the seventeenth with Mary Cardigan— a new Retta, in whose eyes the anguish of suspense already was burned deep—and asked Beaulieu to cancel her ticket and berth to Montreal. Beaulieu looked the sorrow in him, as he answered: “C’est fait, ça, madame. I ’ave done it yesterday.” Retta was sobbing softly as she left the waiting room with Cardigan’s wife.
She did not telegraph to her people. For some reason obscure to her it did not seem possible that they would be interested in the adventures of this husband for whom they found so little favor. After the news of Coulter’s disappearance had been published in the press, however, she received a telegram over her father’s signature which read: “Have just learned Charles missing stop All here feel keenly for you stop Mother urges you return immediately love Father.” Retta answered: “Sure everything will be all right stop Impossible to come home stop Suggest mother come here.” An answering message, again signed “Father,” spoke of mother’s deep engagement with the affairs of the Daughters of Something-or-other, but that Retta’s sister, Ann, would join her if Retta insisted in remaining in Saint Joseph. To this Retta merely replied: “Tell Ann not to come—Retta.”
Through late October, skies remained in ill temper. Today, snow or low-hanging clouds ruled search almost beyond possibility. Tomorrow, valleys were shrouded in mist that obscured hilltops, leaving patrols to hop almost blind from lake to lake in constant peril of hurling themselves to death against mountains, unseen in the blur of haze. After a week of this, now clouds, now rain, now fog, now snow, Girton’s reinforcements were joined by a flight of machines sent by the Government, while two Trans-Canada
planes, released by oncoming winter from a photographic assignment east of Lac du Nord, were sent by their owners to aid in the search. New hope was born with every new dawn. Surely today would bring news. But as day wore on and eyes grew weary of constant peering down to the marge of lake for the flash of an orange wingtip on the shore, hope would fade, to revive again by night as searchers lined the long table in the outhouse to peer at maps and mark Girton’s selection of tomorrow’s hunting-ground.
Each morning at daybreak Retta appeared at the Base to wave farewell to those flying away to search for her man and his partner in duress, Furness. There, with Mary Cardigan or Edith Follansbee for company, she would remain through the day, leaving for lunch only if all machines were home from the morning patrols. Ann, her sister, appearing in Saint Joseph in the rôle of family adviser, regarded the search—which she spoke of as„frantic—with what sympathy her professionally blasé mind could muster, and went her way to prepare for marriage to a vice-president of the Commercial Bank, leaving Retta to the filing of her daily cablegrams to Furness’s mother in Scotland, messages which flung aloft the banners of hope, no matter what anguish might be in their sender.
November came, while twenty machines flew across the length and breadth of the untapped wilderness without avail. Now Girton faced the superhuman task not only of searching for his missing man, but of provisioning the mining camps of Assinibonka and Opemashuan, where the dea h’s-head of hunger would loom during the long weeks of freeze-up if flying forces failed to carry through the needed loads of supplies. Perpetual ill-weather north of the Height of Land, coupled with the hurling of every available flying unit into the search, had halted forward movement of freight by air in the weeks following Coulter’s disappearance. Thus, under constant rowelling from company offices in Montreal and Toronto, Girton had flung himself out to civilization for a day, returning with the news that he had chartered a quartette of t.ri-motored machines from Atlantic Western to crouch on the river and wait for brief clemency of sky to permit the northward rush of foodstuffs that alone could save the camps from famine and hardship.
^NN THE twelfth of November, Sedgeworth of the Air Force failed to return from a patrol northwest of the Chiguap. On the fourteenth the two Trans-Canada planes, searching beyond the Mistassouan, were written into the roster of the missing. Newspapers now added hysteria to the tempo of the hunt, smearing front pages with the boldest types in their cases and with maps on which arrows were etched, tips pointing to vast areas in explanation of such legends as “Air Force fliers believed down here.” Saint Joseph’s placid, tatterdemalion street echoed to the voices of young men called Slotnik, or some such, as they cried “Hey, give us another shot at that, Mrs. Coulter,” from behind their cameras. Other young men, more sophisticate of manner, went about in horn-rimmed glasses asking each other if there were any direct quotes from Girton, or Quartermain of the Air Force, or the .girl today. In Montreal, Retta’s mother, glancing at her daughter’s portrait on the front page of her evening paper, felt something of the contacts of heroism stirring in her, but quickly lost its healthy stimulus by asking Ann if she didn’t think Retta looked just ever-so-little common in a garment which neither woman recognized as a man’s mackinaw, certainly not as Coulter’s. Retta, with the advent of the press, had taken herself bag and baggage to live with Mary Cardigan, for there were goings-on behind the matchboard partitions o’ nights that were not conducive to rest, particularly when sleep is an agony of nightmare more
difficult to deny than the horrors of wakeful suspense. Girton had fumed: “If you sell these fellows any more of your blasted cariboo, Ducharme, I’ll move my men out of your rotten hovel, lock, stock and barrel !” But thirst is thirst, and tedium is tedium, and there were always idlers to say where a bottle of Saint Pierre alcohol could be found to fuse with red wine in the punch-laden liquor of the north. So Girton, still muttering, gave up the quest of community morals.
C^\N THE eighteenth of November, Crombie of Trans-Canada flew into Saint Joseph, four days after his name had been written down with that of Haslington as missing. “Where were you? Where’s Haslington?” the crowd on the dock cried as the Trans-Canada veteran taxied alongside, while evening paper men rushed off to the telegraph station to flash the news of one ship’s return, to their desks hundreds of miles away. “We were on Reindeer Lake,” grinned Crombie, “and Mrs. Ilaslington’s son Gordon is still on Reindeer Lake, I having pinched the rest of his gas to put with mine to get here.”
“Reindeer Lake?” Girton frowned. “Where in blazes is Reindeer Lake? Never heard of it!”
“Course you didn’t, old thing. We only named it. Reindeer Lake after we landed on it—because there wasn’t a reindeer to be seen.”
Girton snapped an oath under his breath. Then he laughed. This job must be getting to his nerves if he couldn’t get a laugh out of idiocy any more, he thought. Next day they flew gas to Haslington and brought him home. Three days later Sedgeworth’s plane was found by Girton’s own patrol among the trees ¡ on the shore of a small lake fifty miles j west of the Chiguap. Forced down by j snow the Air Force pilot’s landing had been without mishap, but subsequent efforts to take off on the short run afforded by the length of his refuge had culminated in disaster. Girton brought the marooned men out, making two flights in the two-seater. Sedgeworth’s wings still sit among the trees as landmark, and pilots call the spot Sedgeworth Lake, but it is not marked on any maps that I know of.
Clearer weather enabled the chartered freighters to carry forward the essentials of life to the camps between the fifteenth and twentieth of November, but on their second day into Assinibonka pilots reported all small lakes in the north closed in ice, while Cardigan advised Girton by j letter that one cold, breezeless night would close Assinibonka, the water being j at freezing temperature. Girton there-1 upon announced to reporters and camera ! men—most of whom were on the point j of departure, now that three missing j planes had been recovered and the famine j aspect had disappeared from their story— that he would close the Coulter search within two or three days, on account of freezing conditions which rendered further pontoon flying unsafe. Once skis could be used, the search would be renewed, he added, trying to put optimism in his voice that he could not find in his heart. The newspapermen went home. The photographers disappeared. Though search went on in southerly areas not yet encased in winter’s coffin, a haggard Girton was bound to admit that he could see little hope beyond the thin gleam that Coulter and Furness might have made contact with an Indian party in the bush. But McClintock shook his head. “If it were you or me, Gir,” he said, “we would have set fire to so much of northern Canada long ago that you could see and smell the smoke for a couple of hundred miles.” Girton only shrugged his shoulders as he turned to plans for refitting for the oncoming winter’s work. And so the last grains of the sands of hope filtered through their time glass into the vessel of despair.
December came to greet a girl living in a deserted village. Gone were machines and men. Gone were Biadley and Follansbee and McClintock to the factory with their ships for overhaul. Only Joe the caretaker remained of the Air Base staff; only Mary Cardigan of those who had been beside her through her weeks of waiting “Of waiting for what?” she
asked herself, remembering the last words with her husband, and a half-packed trunk and a reservation that had been cancelled.
Strain that had been bearable while hope could live in wait for news, gave way in her to hope that, knowing no news, must become bleak despair, to nights sans sleep and days of nervous pacing, until there came a night when Cardigan’s wife ploughed through the snowbanks of the street in search of Doctor Lamothe and to beg the old medico to return with her and examine Mrs. Coulter. In Mary’s living room, later, the doctor shook his head and pursed his lips professionally. “Why does she not want her people here?” he asked. The engineer’s wife shrugged her shoulders in gesture of futility: “A marriage of which her family did not approve and a devotion to their own social rigmarole which makes Retta think they don’t care,” she answered. The old man muttered a word below breath, a mention of pigs, and sighed as he pulled fur cap over ears in Mary’s storm porch. “Leave the matter until tomorrow,” he said, “but she is very sick. Some might call it pneumonia, but I think the proper diagnosis is the end of hope. Good night, Madame Cardi-gan.” That was on the eighteenth of December.
^\N THE twentieth, Coulter and Furness stumped into the lobby of the Château Saint Joseph, hollow-eyed, bearded, but seemingly fit. Seized at the desk by Ducharme, the little Scot was voluble in almost hysterical description of the country whence they came: “Ye ken yon big water aboot an hundrid mile up the Mistassouan? Well, we was aboot seeventy mile east o’ yon, again. An’ it’s a fairrr mar-rch for th’ infantry, if ye ask me!” But the pilot, shaking off the hands of friendly tacklers, gave no pause for speech, and was taking the stairs to the first floor, three steps at a time, before his companion began to speak. There he flung open the door of the room where once he had lived with her, searching its every corner with eyes hungry with hope. Her trunk? Gone. Her hand baggage? Gone. All of her, the very perfume of her that had lived here in this room, gone. Coulter’s arms fell limp to his sides. “So that’s what she thought of me,” he whispered and closed the door at his back, to grope along the corridor and make his way downstairs. They were in the dining room, now, grouping themselves about the excited, happy mechanic. Coulter, marching into the room, was seized by the innkeeper but flung him aside and slumped into a chair across from Furness. “Clear these chattering magpies out of here, Ducharme, and get me a drink,” he snapped. Ducharme did.
It was old Joe, the caretaker, who rushed to Mary with the news, and it was Mary, a hatless, coatless, be-aproned Mary, who ran into the Château dining room as Coulter poured the third drink from the bottle proffered by Ducharme.
The engineer’s wife rushed to him with arms outstretched. “Hullo, Mary,” said Coulter, standing up and kissing her on the lips. “How’s Aunt Mary, and the old man?”
Then she saw his eyes, and his eyes and her woman’s mind told her, so that she knew he did not know the truth. “Come back to the house with me, Charlie,” she begged. “I’ve got something to tell you; something you must know right away.” “If it’s about Retta,” he answered* “I don’t want to hear it, thanks.”
Mary said, “Don’t be a fool. She’s here.”
“With me. She never left.”
Coulter looked straight through her eyes for a moment that was almost eternity. Then his head went to the cradle of his arms on the table and he began to sob like a child.
TT WAS the nineteenth of February and they had made two trips into Assinibonka that day. Now four people, two men and two women, were seated about a table in one of Ducharme’s bed-andliving rooms. Coulter looked at his hand again and said “Three no trumps.” Follansbee shook his head, negatively. Retta smiled and Edith Follansbee led the king of hearts. Coulter spread his cards on the table-top and fumbled through pockets for tobacco bag and papers, tilting his chair to its back legs as he watched his wife go down two tricks.
“Hard luck, old girl,” he said. “I ought to have left the third one to you.”
Retta smiled across the table to him. “My fault,” she said. “I let my hearts go too soon.”