On the gleaming face of the ice floe the two men fought and there was barbaric justice for both in this breeding ground of seals and fears and revenge
A FULL MOON rode above the ice, silhouetting the two motionless ships. Robert Torrance stood bundled in shapeless sealskins, a tall patch of darkness breaking up the play of light and shadow on the “Jean Bright’s” quarter-deck. From the ’tween-decks beneath him the snores of his two hundred men billowed up in a soft wave. The half-dozen of the deck watch leaned drowsily against the forward bulwark. Too tired, all of them, to remember the muttering uneasiness with which they had watched “Kestrel” grind up astern of them through the last long crack in the floe, bringing Tim Mahan and the thoughts that came with him.
It had been a great day’s killing for the sealers. Three thousand Whitecoat pelts bubbled between layers of snow and ice in the holds. Another two thousand lay scattered about the floe in mounds marked by the panflags, ready to be hoisted into the timbered bins of the deck pounds tomorrow.
“Kestrel” too had nearly a day’s killing behind her. She was lying as near to the “Jean Bright” now as she had lain to John Torrance’s “Margaret” a year ago. On that night, too, there would have been the panflags of two ships standing close together on the ice.
Torrance stiffened suddenly at the bulwark; relaxed again with a soft oath. The ice was a breeding ground for fancies as well as seals; a cold, miasmal fairyland where every man’s thoughts walked out of his head and took on strange shapes before him.
There was a soft chunking of steel-cleated rubber boots along the deck, and grizzled old Ernest Johns, his mate, materialized beside him. For a moment the two stood in silence, their eyes on the gloom and glitter of the floe. Johns spoke at last without turning his head. “Ye’ve need o’ sleep. And if it’s Mahan you’re thinking of, let him alone.”
“Because you’re captain of this ship. With two hundred men depending on you.”
“I don’t forget it.”
“And there’s another two hundred in ‘Kestrel.’ Good men—friends and neighbors, half of ’em, to our crew. They’ve no part in what’s between you and Mahan.”
Torrance felt the bitterness welling in him. “And what would that be? You’ve never spoken of it before.”
“I’ve known what’s been in your mind this past year.”
“And what’s been in yours? Did you ever before know John Torrance to leave his ship when he was in the ice?”
“Why should he have done it last year? Why should he have climbed over the side in the middle of the night and gone onto the floe alone?”
“I don’t know.” Johns’ face was still in shadow, averted from him. “Maybe I’ve the same thoughts as you.” He turned suddenly and put a hand on Torrance’s arm, his voice urgent and intense. “But I put ’em from me while we’re in the ice, Robbie. And so should you. They’ll not bring back your father.”
“No. They’ll not.” Torrance swung away with a harsh sigh, made for his cabin and flung himself onto the bunk. He lay wide-eyed in the darkness, nerves and muscles tightening involuntarily with every sharper sound that rose above the groaning murmur of the ice. Under a welter of tense imaginings the aching, year-long chain of speculation clanked on through his mind, ended at last in exhausted sleep.
WHEN he started awake a ray of morning sunlight was creeping along the bulkhead. Ernest Johns stood in the doorway. “First watch gone onto the ice,” he said. “Was going to let you sleep till we got under way. But you’d better come up.”
“Trouble?” Torrance had already buckled on his boots and was reaching for his cap and jacket.
“Aye. Half a dozen panflags been shifted in the night.”
“Ah!” Torrance felt a thrill of exultant certainty
run through him. He was at the doorway in one quick step, but the old man held him there with a hard hand. “Wait a minute!”
“You were waiting for this last night. Hoping for it.”
“Maybe I was.”
“Then wait a bit longer. Deal with Mahan if you like—when you’ve got your men home from the ice. Changing panflags is a bad business. But a fight between ships in the ice could be worse.”
“There’ll be no fight between ships.” Torrance thrust his way past Johns, clattered up the companion ladder and pushed his way through a crowd of angry men. His face was expressionless, and for the first time in a year he was deadly sure of himself. Whether or not he had seen a figure moving on the ice last night, there had been a man there. And there had been a man the year before, who had not got his work done when John Torrance came upon him.
From the bulwark he could see the 50 men of “Jean Bright’s” first hunting watch. They were milling around among the panflags a mile away, and with them was the first watch from “Kestrel.” A hundred men, broken into six angry groups, each about a mound of pelts. All of them had started onto the ice in high good humor, eager to begin laying about them with their steel-headed gaffs among the bawling Whitecoats. By now both watches should have been far into the floe, racing each other across the treacherous, yielding pans, trading jovial insults as they ripped the steaming, fat-laden pelts from the little 70-pound carcasses, threaded the pelts onto their towropes and hauled them to the panflags set up by the watchmasters. Instead, they were shuffling with cocked fists and an air of furious mystification about the mounds they had left last night. Even from a mile away the dangerous electricity could be felt, and it had already communicated itself to the men of the other three watches crowding the deck.
Charles Hardy, master of the first watch, came panting across the ice to the ship’s side, looked up at Torrance with a hard, set face. “Ye’d better come out here. There’s ‘Kestrel’ flags been set on six of our piles. Near a thousand pelts stolen.”
Torrance had been studying the groups about the panflags. Mahan was not on the ice. “What do the ‘Kestrel’ lads say?”
“Say they know nothing about it. And they’ll not give up a pelt under their flags.”
“No more would you. And there’s no proving anything now.”
Hardy’s anger flamed up. “You know who’s done it! And so do I.” He gestured furiously in the direction of “Kestrel.” “It’s happened before to ships lying near him.”
“I say there’s no proving it. Leave all as it is, set up new flags and get on with the killing.” “The men’ll not go!”
“You’ll tell ’em it’s my orders. And you’ll see that they go.”
Hardy gave him a long, baffled stare, shook his head and turned back across the ice. Torrance watched the groups about the panflags come
together, surge with debate, and then divide into files streaming away across the ice, separate and sullen. He swung round to Ernest Johns, standing silently beside him. “Get under way.”
THE engines groaned under an easy head of steam, and the ship bumped through jagged lanes of ice to drop the three remaining watches one by one. As the last men cleared the bulwark, surly and muttering, the ship wore round to commence hoisting pells on board. The other ship’s fourth watch was also away, and both ships were down to a skeleton crew of ship-handlers and loaders. Torrance selected a gaff from a rack against the bulkhead and turned to Johns. “Wear up near to Mahan and drop me. You’ll take over the ship for a while.”
The old man stiffened, hesitated as though he were going to protest, then turned and gave the order to the helmsman. He turned back and stood for a moment in silence, his eyes on the hunters receding into the floe. “Ye’ve acted like a captain so far,” he said harshly. “Now you’re a fool again.” “Is he to go on with it forever?”
“We’re in a rich patch. A few pelts either way is no matter. And it’s not the pelts you’re thinking of.”
The ship’s side grated against the ice, a quarter of a mile from “Kestrel.” Torrance swung over the bulwark, dropped to the floe, and stood for a moment studying the sky. “Get on with the loading. If the wind works round to the northwest we’ll be in for thick weather. Don’t wait, too long to call the men in.”
“I won’t.” Johns’ voice was curt. Torrance felt the old man’s eyes on him with sombre reproach as he turned and started deliberately toward “Kestrel,” feeling out with his gaff the treacherous sish which looked like solid ice but lay, a yielding film, above open water. The sun still cast a dazzling glare on the floe, but the mood of the day was changing. He could
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feel the uneasiness of the weather and smell snow riding far off in the wind.
He had come to within 100 yards of “Kestrel” when he looked up and came to a sudden stop. A tall figure was separating from the loom of the ship s side. Mahan had seen him coming, and slipped onto the ice. But not to meet him. Gaff in hand, moving with elaborate casualness, he was heading off into the floe, away from the hunting watches.
It would be better this way. Torrance waited till Mahan had put about a quarter of a mile between them, then began to follow, matching the other’s air of unconcern. Sooner or later one of the hummocks where the ice had rafted would hide the two captains from their crews.
Mahan headed deliberately and leisurely toward the foot of a broad, jagged ridge where wind and swell had lifted the pans one on top of another to a height of nearly 30 feet. He climbed the ridge and disappeared down the other side. As Torrance reached the top and started down he knew that this would be the place, and he did not like the look of it.
A little to the right of him, Mahan was resting on his haunches at the edge of a small lake of black water. Running out from the edge was a narrow neck of ice, joining with a pan 40 or 50 feet square in the middle of the lake. The big pan must have drifted in through a channel which was now closed, and riding on it had come a pair of Hoods, the warrior seals, aloof and dangerous. A cool, warning tremor ran through him. Mahan had known the Hoods were here, and had chosen this place deliberately.
As Torrance came to the water’s edge, Mahan rose. The big form moved toward him over the jagged footing of ice with its familiar, lithe grace. The cap on his head was pushed far back as always, a lock of black hair curling beneath the peak. He was a little mad, and there was no doubt about it. The madness flickered in his black eyes; it showed in the restless lift and turn of his head. No crew sailed twice with him.
“Well Robbie?” Mahan’s voice was as soft and catlike as his movements. He had come to a stop 10 feet away. “I think you wanted a word with me.” “I did. I wanted to tell you that you’ve changed your last panflag.”
“So? And who says I’ve done such a thing?”
“You’ll come back with me this instant, before the loaders get to ’em, and take down the flags you shifted last night. Or we settle our business here and now.”
Mahan seemed hardly to hear the words. In the intent watchfulness of his face, in the very way he held his gaff, there was a hint of something like triumph. “Our business, Robbie? I’ve been curious about that. There’s been something troubling you this year past. Ida mind to hear it where we’re alone.”
The hate and bitterness rose in Torrance like a flood, sweeping away the dykes of his caution. “You’ve no need to hear it. You know. You went on the ice to shift some panflags last year. My father was onto you before you got fairly started. You let him have it with a gaff or a knife, and you shoved his body into a crack in the floe and crawled back in the dark to your ship.”
Mahan’s eyes were on the lake. He was looking out toward the ice-pan where the dog-Hood, the iron-hard,
balloon-like shield • on its hear tended with excitement, was gro at the scent of man. “So that’s wh been on your mind,” he said, still the queer, soft note in his voice, was rash of ye to tell me—out 'ïö$ e
where if one of us comes back bleeding and one does not come back, it can all be blamed on the Hood.”
The flash of the gaff head seemed to streak from beneath Mahan’s arm before the rippling movement of his turn. The shaft whistled within an inch of Torrance’s side, and he heard it shudder and sing as the point dug into the ice six feet behind him. Mahan was scrambling toward him, off balance, pulled forward by the throw. Torrance drew back his arm, the gaff level across his shoulder; and suddenly was overwhelmed by the one thing he had never bargained for. He could not make himself drive that steel-headed spear into the shape lunging toward him. It quivered in his grasp for a second; and in that second Mahan was upon him.
The gaff rattled to the ice. Torrance felt a jolt come, padded like a mallet, through jacket and sweaters to crush his ribs. Mahan’s elbow ground into his eye as his head snapped back; then fists were beating into his face, rocking him from side to side. He gave way, half blinded. Mahan’s knee came up and he doubled with agony from a blow in the groin. He slipped to his knees, Mahan’s open hand crashed down on his neck.
He locked his arms and clung savagely to Mahan, while blows beat at his head, his shoulders, his neck. The knees gave, and Mahan toppled beneath him. But they struck at the edge of the ice, and as Mahan kicked and squirmed in his grasp the two of them balanced precariously over a rim of black water. He wrenched back, trying to roll Mahan with him; but the other doubled himself like a jackknife and drove both feet into Torrance’s stomach to send him skidding on his back away from the water. He struggled upward and was swaying on his knees as Mahan, already erect, bent over a loose block of ice. He started gr°ggily to his feet, slipped, and was on his knees again. The ice block was high in Mahan’s arms, raised to crash down on his skull, and that would be the end.
But Mahan’s towering form and bloody face were darkened by a shadow looming behind him. The shout jerked from Torrance’s throat stopped the other in his tracks and made him turn. The Hood, peering and sniffing, had come across the neck of ice. He was lifted high on his back flippers, his nostrils were dilating angrily, and his fore-flippers were beating the air not 10 feet from Mahan’s shoulder blades.
Mahan gave a sudden roar and let the ice-block fly at the seal. The block glanced harmlessly off the armoured head, but it transformed irritation to rage. The yapping bark gurgled low in the beast’s throat, the jowls drew back from the long tusks; and, moving on the ice with twice the speed of a man, the seal lashed out with one ot its flippers to open a long, ugly gash in Mahan’s cheek. Mahan reeled back, his head bobbing drunkenly from the blow, and as he did so the other flipper swept in with full force, knocking him to the ice.
Without taking time to get to his feet, Torrance sent himself slithering across to Mahan’s gaff, wrenched it from the ice and flung it with all the strength he had, low at the belly of the seal. It struck and penetrated. The Hood gave a hoarse, bubbling whinny and turned away from Mahan with the gaff handle quivering in its front. There was time for Torrance to scramble to
,his own gaff now; and from his knees he drove it at the seal’s eye.
Ho leaped clear; then lunged in again, dodging the last, convulsive twitches, to drag out the gaff. The dead seal’s mate had left tire ice pan in the middle of the lake. She was erect, shambling in with deceptive awkwardness. He ran to catch her at the edge of the water before she was thoroughly roused. The gaff plunged, but she was even quicker than her mate. He felt the shoulder of his jacket go, and then pain screamed through his body as her flipper tore away the flesh of his arm. He wrenched out the gaff and plunged it into her again and again. She quivered, settled on the ice with a throaty, half-human moan, and it was over. Between the streaming bodies of the seals Mahan lay still unconscious. Torrance sank to his knees, deathly sick, clutching at his torn arm.
AT LAST he raised his head. The day had changed about him. He was hearing the warning sirens of the ships, and he realized that if had been a sound instinctively registered in his mind through all the light.
Ho stumbled over to Mahan, dragged him half erect, let him slump back again as his own knees buckled to a Wave of nausea.
Grateful for the lightning flashes of pain which cleared his head, he clawed his way to the top of a ridge, dragging Mahan after him. There was a steady trickle of fresh blood along the caked mass of his left arm. As he made the top of the ridge, heaved Mahan to his shoulders again and stumbled toward the downward slope, he knew’ he was near his limit. The distant sound of the sirens was fading in his ears. At the brow of the slope he let Mahan slip to the ice, shaded his eyes and peered ahead of him, swaying on his feet. From the west, far out "beyond the masts and funnels of the two ships, there was a towering grey ridge topped with light. The fog bank was sweeping in on them.
Mahan stirred, sat up, glaring at Torrance with blank, foolish bewilderment, got up. Then knocking drunkenly against each other, they stumbled across the floe as men came running toward them. Torrance was dimly conscious of arms reaching for him as he fell forward.
He woke in his bunk and his fingers felt his wounds throbbing beneath clean bandages. Overhead, familiar sounds came to him with the eerie,
muffled quality which all life takes on in the midst of fog.
Ernest Johns was standing in the cabin, his face shadowed and sombre in the light of the dim oil lamp. The old man’s pipe sucked noisily as he drew on it. Outside, the ice noises and the distant bawfling of the seals were a muted background, against which t he creaking of the ship and the thump and clatter of men stowing pelts on deck were a nearer play of shadow sound. Everything ship and crew, the animal voices and the moaning ice - seemed trapped at the centre of a vast, malign silence which was swallowing the earth.
Johns took his pipe from his mouth as Torrance stirred. “Ye’ve a bad gash in the shoulder,” he said, “but it’s clean now.”
Torrance groaned and struggled to sit up, flinching beneath the heavy, wordless reproof in the old man’s voice. The pipe gurgled again on a strained silence, and its smoke mingled with the smells of coal and seal oil which filled the ship to suffocation. “Either ye should not have gone,” Johns said quietly at last, “or ye should have finished him.”
Torrance sat silent, his knees hunched up under his chin, his face averted.
“Tomorrow if the fog clears,” Johns went on, “we should clear out. Leave the pelts we haven’t picked up. Holds are full and the deck pounds near full. Couldn’t take more’n another thousand anyway.”
Torrance looked up and studied the hard, serious face. This was more than advice. Johns was urgent, sure. He had talked it over with the masters of the watches. “What about the men?” he asked. “When we run away from our pelts?”
“The men know better. They’ve more’n an inkling of the truth of the business. But here’s not the place to settle it, Robbie. They want to get back with the fat we have.”
There was a sudden commotion on deck. Many feet were crowding over toward the port bulwark. Out of a surging murmur of voices one or two shouts rose. Torrance lifted his head. “Fog cleared?”
Johns was listening too, alertly, anxiously. “Gave no sign of it 10 minutes ago.”
Shouts rose again, louder. Johns plunged through the cabin doorway, and Torrance dragged himself painfully from the bunk to follow.
“Jean Bright” lay with her starboard side just off the edge of the floe. The
men were crowded along (he port bulwark, looking out toward open water, and their voices were raised in anxious debate. The loudest were insisting that they had seen something off amid the fog to port. “ ’’['was a light, sor!” one of them shouted as lie saw Robert. “I seen a masthead light hard by!” Another raised his hand and bellowed, “Listen!” and a sudden silence fell over the deck.
I here was a sound in the water out beyond them, near. Then came other sounds. They were hearing a ship’s engines and the crash of a sealer’s armoured bow as she smashed her way over cakes of loose ice.
A man’s voice snapped out with tense anger. “ ‘Kestrel!’ They’re mad, all oƒ em, this trip. Moving off in fog. ’Twill lie the death of her!”
And a good t’ing.” Another grizzled ou (port man ground his pipestem between his teeth. “Sarve her right. Sarve Tim Mahan right, and the fools ' hat sailed wit’ him. -linker, lie is.” Suddenly the mutterings of the men forward changed to a hoarse scream. ](, was followed by an echoing roar from tlie whole crew. Immense, vague, a giant ship in the magnifying particles of the fog bank, “Kestrel” was bearing down on them. Every voice in the ship screamed warning, Johns had already set ( lie siren bellowing, but the great shape came on unwaveringly. Its hugeness lessened as it drew near, narrowed to a looming wedge crawling forward with deadly menace. There was not hing to do, no possible way of avoiding the blow.
Kestrel s” iron-clad bow crashed into “Jean Bright” amidships; rode up high, grating along her double-timbered bulwarks, then slid off sidewise as they splintered but stood fast. Struggling to his feet among a sprawling, yelling tangle of men knocked flat by the impact, Torrance was dimly aware that the same sounds of panic were coming from “Kestrel.” But as he fought his way toward the port bulwark he heard the roaring of steam again and fell back, his arms before his face. “Kestrel’s” bow crashed into their side once more; and this time it did not sheer off, but ground forward.
He felt the port side lifting with the thrust, heard men screaming and grabbing at each other as they slid to starboard along tilting planks. “Jean Bright,” loaded high with tons of pelts on deck, was heeling drunkenly. She shivered, made as if to come upright, and then the timbers of the deck pounds gave. The splintering crash and the rubbery gurgle of sliding pelts was followed by a tearing of bulkheads in the holds below as irresistible weight surged against them. The whole tonnage of fat was shifting.
The ship fell over to starboard, taking on a sagging deadness as water climbed across the bulwark. Jagged sticks of timber, loose mounds of pelts, and men slithering in a helpless, tangled mass down the canting deck, added to the weight of the water. As the crew surged over the side among the washing pans of ice, the starboard bulwark went under. Men who gained the solid edge of the floe turned to watch, helpless and sickened, as fires flared briefly on board and were smothered by engulfing water. They heard the dull rush of
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the last pelts released from the breaking pounds, and (hen a low, gurgling roar as the boilers exploded. The mastpeaks swept downward, cutting a great, slow aie through the fog. They came level with the ice, rested for a moment quivering on its edge. Then they broke through, and amid a lashing hail of ice fragments and flying wood the “Jean Bright” turned over and sank A hundred yards back from the lip of ice where the ship had gone under,
I orra nee looked at the men who stood in the gloom about him. Names— 15 or 20 of them were passing quietly
from lip to lip; of those who had gone in the ship or the churning water around it. The rest stood helpless, without food or gear; everything they had come for gone, and everything that might take them home with their lives.
Ernest Johns stood there beside Torrance as the sound of “Kestrel’s” engines died away in the fog. Words came at last as though they were not his own, as though he were reading them in some cold book of doom. “It was Mahan alone,” he said. “Tim Mahan that ordered up the steam and came in on us in the fog and rammed
us Tim Mahan giving the steering orders, and no man else in the ship knowing what he was about.”
The mist stirred to a chill breath; swirled upward in lightening wreaths. Johns looked at the sky and sniffed the wind. “Changing,” he said to J orrance. “Veering to the nor’west.” ™.|volce had grown gentle, almost childlike, as though he knew what was to be; as though he knew that the God in whom he believed would not let such a thing be done without retribution, and as though he saw the shape of the retribution at hand.
For at the break of the bitter morning the wind was blowing sharp from the northwest, and the outward channels of the floe had closed in iron-hard. “Kestrel” lay not a mile away, already locked in from open water.
“Kestrel’s” men were on the floe fore and aft of her and to leeward with axes and ice chisels and dynamite, but their frantic efforts were useless there. The trap had closed on her to windward, and on the windward side no man could live amid the ice blocks charging in with flying chips and
powdering snow. If the driving pans rose above the bulwarks or stove them in, funnels and masts would snap and the ship would be a dead thing, buried in the heart of t he floe.
Torrance swung his arms against his sides, beat his blood into circulation again. It stirred the aching numbness of body and mind, and he felt his guilt like a stone within him. But the thing he had not done was still to do.
He passed among the “Kestrel” men working on the ice, and without looking he felt them draw apart to leave a lane for him. Their faces, he knew, like
those behind him. would wear a look of stony assent. He climbed over the lee bulwark of the ship with his own men swarming after him, and beyond them the circle of “Kestrel’s” men quietly closing in from the ice.
Standing apart from his crew, Mahan saw Torrance as he came over the side. ’There was a gaff in Mahan’s hand and a knife at his belt; and he came down the listing deck toward 'Torrance with quick, careful steps. No man of either crew stirred a foot to come between them. Instead, the nearest men shuffled back, pushing against
those crowding from behind, to cle the open space between the lee bulwa and the pound.
The two in the cleared space circl each ot her as the ice thundered agair the ship and the wind howled alo the deck. Suddenly Mahan lung« driving his gaff before him like a spet and Torrance swung his club to break from his hand and break the wrist wi it. Mahan’s right arm dropped to I side but he plunged on with his 1« hand clutching for the knife in his be 'The knife slipped from his fumbli fingers; and he turned from a vain di after it to tear off his cap, fling it 'Torrance’s eye's and follow if in.
'Torrance swung the club again, tl time at the charging knees; but with t cap in his eyes he stumbled. Mahar left, hand was at his throat, bendi, him backward. He gasped and gropiP for Mahan’s shat tered wrist, found
t wisted with all the strength he h; left. Mahan gave a strangled screa of pain, and 'Torrance wrenched fro his loosened grip to scramble despt ately along the deck after the clu He turned, swinging low with the clu h'lt. the crash of breaking wood aí breaking bones. 'Then, as Mahar I runk crumpled onto the shattered leg he raised the stump of wood for tl last time and brought, if. down with : the hate that was in him on the blue head.
As he bent over the smashed thii quivering on the deck before him, k eyes cleared. He saw the white lit of the neck beneath the jacket colla A shaggy curl of dark hair twisted dov over the young flesh. He had tl strange feeling, in that passing secón that he was standing once again in tl schoolyard where they had first play«, and first fought. Suddenly a terrib; haste possessed him. Fie lifted the bod in his arms, staggered up the de«; through an opened lane of men, ad with a great, sobbing heave flung ; over the windward bulwark. He the groaning, tortured mass of tb receive its offering; and then the dering pans came driving inwgrind it among them and cover sight.
The haggard, comprehending Ernest Johns found him as he re.
Johns’ hand was on his arm limped across the deck in the 1. of those thronging judges. He rats, his head to l«)ok about him, over a the men of the two crews, crowding tk deck from bulwark to bulwark. Thej was no accusal in those eyes; only solemn understanding. Hands an voices reached out to him in sob« approval, sharing the weight of whf had been. He felt a d«?ep, sure linkin of all these with himself. His feaj melted into the hard, spent calm of th great ice moving with the great currer. on the breast of the greater sea. *