Northwest Passages [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Barbara Roden
eBook Category: Horror
eBook Description: Be careful what you wish for. Young men in search of adventure... explorers driven to investigate the ends of the earth... a girl trying to find the perfect hiding place... a curiosity-seeker drawn to an abandoned amusement park. All of them are looking for something - and unfortunately, they usually find it. For the very unlucky, it sometimes finds them! In these ten spellbinding stories by World Fantasy Award winner Barbara Roden, very little is as innocent as it seems; but much is haunting, enigmatic, and terrifying. Where the Twilight Zone ends, the Northwest Passages begin.
eBook Publisher: Prime Books/Prime Books, Published: 2009, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2010
4 Reader Ratings:
"With NORTHWEST PASSAGES, Barbara Roden has placed herself among the ranks of the most telling, most effective, most readable living writers of the strange and fantastic tale."--Peter Straub
There are three qualities to Barbara Roden's Northwest Passages that any reader is sure to notice: the sheer variety of its ten stories, the clarity and assurance of the prose, and the theme of madness, of people gradually surrendering to a fever-dream that destroys, or justifies, their lives.
Roden most obviously reveals her mastery by setting her unsettling stories in a wide range of locales: a used bookstore, the Antarctic, a Vancouver hotel, a cabin in the Canadian woods, an abandoned amusement park, a modern hospital, a large Victorian household. There are, moreover, seemingly no limits to her imaginative sympathies, as these stories convincingly present elderly widows and widowers, abused children, contemporary young people, nineteenth century visionaries, serial killers, and even a world-weary vampire. Roden also possesses an accomplished talent for pastiche: she brilliantly mimics nineteenth century scientific tracts, the diary of an early Antarctic explorer, and the old-fashioned diction of the polite and diabolical Mr. Hobbes. When Roden cites passages from Kenneth Turnbull's We Did Not All Come Back: Polar Explorers, 1818--1909, both book and extracts sound absolutely authentic. She's that good.
Besides these gifts, one other aspect to Roden's imagination should be underscored. Along with a flair for creating atmosphere and feelings of increasing apprehension, her work is consistently pervaded by a quiet sadness about the human condition. Monsters and murderers, the innocent and the guilty, are all presented with real sympathy and understanding. There but for the grace of God, Roden would seem to say, go you or I.
Because all her stories, whatever their plots or backgrounds, are distinctly Rodenesque in that mix of pathos and uneasiness, they don't fit readily into any of the classic genre pigeonholes. Roden draws, as needed, on fantasy and horror, classic ghost story and dark psychological thriller. In this respect, she's in the tradition of the more subtle masters of the supernatural tale: Walter de la Mare, for instance, and Elizabeth Bowen. As the longtime editor of All Hallows, the journal of The Ghost Story Society, Roden has certainly read more dark fantasy and horror than most of us ever will, and you might expect her to produce tales in the manner of M. R. James. Yet her literary taste is far more extensive. She knows the corpus of Victorian fiction, especially Dickens (see, for instance, "The Appointed Time"), as well as the Sherlock Holmes canon (Roden is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars), the literature of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, a good deal of modern literature, and, seemingly, every film ever made.
In particular, Roden deeply admires The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, and that book may be a key to her imagination. In its pages, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall re-create, from journals and other evidence, how Crowhurst, attempting to sail alone around the world, gradually loses his grip on reality and succumbs to madness, then suicide. Its influence--along with that of Poe--can be most strongly detected in "The Brink of Eternity". Still other Roden stories glancingly recall Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Captain of the Pole-Star", Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo", Ray Bradbury's tales of haunted or demonic carnivals, the urban horrors of Ramsey Campbell and the early Peter Straub. The last story in Northwest Passages, "After", is a double homage: to both the strange Constance Kent murder case and to James Hogg's chilling, and still underappreciated, Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
Of these ten stories, "Northwest Passage" is probably the best known, having been nominated for the World Fantasy Award. "The Palace", a real marvel, offers a highly original explanation for why its victim should be haunted by just these three revenants. Indeed, the psychology of her characters interests Roden as much as the working out of a plot. The two stories about young girls--"The Hiding Place" and "After"--frighten by the convincingness of the girls' inner lives. A personal favourite, if only because of its wintry melancholy, is "Endless Night"--a tale that blends the mythology of undying vampires, the Wandering Jew, and Frankenstein's abused monster. It also makes brilliant use of that unnerving phenomenon mentioned by T. S. Eliot in one of his notes for The Waste Land: "It was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted."
Northwest Passages is Barbara Roden's first collection, all but one of the stories having been written during the last three or four years. Yet, as I've emphasised, the collection avoids even the least hint of sameyness. One looks forward to each successive story with eagerness, never quite sure what to expect. Yet they all fit unobtrusively together as ten facets of a single and singularly elegant imagination.
Any reader of Northwest Passages will be eager for more Barbara Roden. Happily, there are a number of as yet uncollected stories out there--for instance, "Association Copy" in Bound for Evil, edited by Tom English--and new ones should be appearing soon in various anthologies. Lately, there have even been rumors about a possible novel. Be that as it may, Barbara Roden's Northwest Passages is an altogether masterly collection, proof that a writer with truly scary talent is at work in Ashcroft, British Columbia.
* * * *
The Appointed Time
It is night in Lincoln's Inn--perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day--and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o'clock, has ceased its doleful clangor about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge.
Henry Anderson looked up from his book with a start. A noise had caught his ear; something outside the normal range of sounds that he had, after more than thirty years in the shop, come to know and expect and even, at times--especially lately--welcome. It was a thin, dusty sound, almost a sigh, and Henry glanced behind him, half-expecting to see a figure standing over his shoulder. Impossible; there had not been a customer in the shop for at least an hour, and he was all too aware that the apartment behind was painfully empty.
He kept his head up for another moment, listening. Around him stood row upon row of books, which seemed to be listening, too; holding their collective breath, watching, waiting, as if in anticipation of something which was hovering just outside Henry's vision. As indeed it was, had Henry but known; had he, as he gazed about him, been able to see beyond the front wall, into the street, where a figure stood, wrapped in evening shadows, its whole attention fixed on the dim light spilling out of the door of the shop.
In the ordinary course of things, Henry would have had the shop closed and locked now, the lights extinguished; but he had become engrossed in his book, and lost track of time. This was by no means unusual with Henry, and on most evenings no harm would have come of it. But this was an evening unlike any other in his life, although he did not yet know it. And so, after assuring himself that all was well inside the shop, his head dipped irresistibly back down towards his book, and the light continued to shine out into the damp streets, a lone beacon in an otherwise dark stretch of shops. And outside, the figure, after a moment of hesitation, drew nearer.
This was not the figure's usual habitat; it was used to more garish surroundings, louder streets. Chance had taken it further afield than usual, and in this unaccustomed environment it was cautious, wary. But cold and hunger and other, darker needs spurred it on, drawing it inexorably, inevitably closer to Henry and his quiet, tidy world.
It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business.
The noise again, louder this time. Henry's head jerked up, and he cocked it on one side, trying to determine what the sound was and where it came from. It had definitely sounded like a sigh; no mistaking it. It was followed by a silence which sounded expectant, as if awaiting some action on his part at which he could not guess.
Perhaps, thought Henry, it was time to start thinking about selling up and moving on. He had thought about it before; he and Mary had discussed it before she died, but lightly, as something that would not happen for a good many years yet. Then for some time he had not thought about very much of anything, selling the shop least of all. He had kept it going because not keeping it going had seemed unthinkable, another blow to the fabric of his life which would have been unbearable. Mary and the shop had been part of him for so long that to lose both would have been to lose every reason he had for getting up in the morning.
So he had clung to the shop, finding a kind of solace in the ordered ranks of books in their neatly labelled sections. It had not always been thus. When he had first bought the shop it had been little better than a junk-heap, a dispirited shambles of discarded, unwanted books, and he had had to spend a good deal of time patiently weeding out the multiple copies of battered paperbacks, their broken spines and chipped covers an affront to his notion of what books should be. Slowly he had built up a quietly successful bookstore, filled with the sorts of books he liked reading, all lovingly tended, neatly shelved, easily accessible. The shop itself attracted a loyal group of regular and semi-regular customers, who found a safe and companionable haven amongst the shelves and racks, a friendly and knowledgeable proprietor in Henry. "It's Mary's cookies people come for, really," he would say with a smile, and it was true that the plate of cookies put out every morning by the coffee machine had always been empty by day's end, the crushed cushions on the comfortable armchairs bearing silent witness to those who had found a home there. The cookies were from a box now, but the customers still came.
Outside the rain continued to drizzle, stretching damp fingers along the sidewalk. The figure in the shadows shivered, and gazed greedily at the light from the shop. It drew nearer still, eyes fixed on the door. The sound of a car in a nearby street caused it to hesitate, and draw back from the light momentarily; and that pause bought Henry Anderson a few more moments of life.
"It is a tainting sort of weather," says Mr Snagsby; "and I find it sinking to the spirits."
"By George! I find it gives me the horrors," returns Mr Weevle.
"Then, you see, you live in a lonesome way, and in a lonesome room, with a black circumstance hanging over it," says Mr Snagsby, looking in past the other's shoulder along the dark passage, and then falling back a step to look up at the house. "I couldn't live in that room alone, as you do, sir. I should get so fidgetty and worried of an evening, sometimes, that I should be driven to come to the door, and stand here, sooner than sit there."
The sound had become louder, as if uttered by someone--or something--that was gaining strength, rallying for one supreme effort. The cry--for it was a cry, no doubt of it--startled Henry so much that he pulled himself out of his chair with a suddenness that made the bones and joints in his legs and back protest at the effort. He walked around the desk and peered into the depths of the shop, while his mind tried and failed to analyse and define the exact nature of the sound. He was forced back to his first, instinctive thought: a cry, and of pain, too. No; not pain, exactly: the expectation of pain, as of someone who cried out in anticipation of a cruel blow.
He shook his head. Definitely time to start thinking seriously about selling up, moving out, going somewhere warmer and drier. He was getting too old to manage the shop on his own, and the trade was changing too fast for him to keep up. Every day, it seemed, people asked him when he was going to take his stock on-line, and he would shake his head and say ruefully, "Ah, well, you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Now, standing in the familiar quiet of the shop, he shook his head again. "Old dog?" he muttered under his breath. "Old dinosaur, more like. Hearing things, too. What would Mary say?"
And yet the thought of leaving the shop, turning it over to another person, closing the door behind him forever, was one that he persisted in putting off. There were too many memories bound up within the four walls, jostling for space on the shelves, surrounding every bookcase, each piece of furniture. The armchairs, now; they were not the height of fashion, never had been--"But Mary, they're comfortable," he had said when he brought them back, and she had surveyed them with a look half-tolerant, half-exasperated. She had had the same look on her face every time Henry, faced with a need to create more space, had brought back another bookcase, discovered at a sale or in the dusty recesses of a used furniture shop. "If your goal was to not have any two bookcases in the shop matching, Henry," she had said once, "then you've certainly succeeded." But there was a smile on her face as she said it.
Henry smiled at the memory. Yes, the shop was full of memories, and he could laugh at most of them. "If these walls--no, if these books could speak," he thought, "they would certainly tell a tale or two!"
He glanced out the front window, vaguely surprised to see how dark it was. Time to close up for the night; more than time, in fact. Lock the doors, turn out the lights, then go and make some dinner, listen to the news, read for a time. A night like any other. But this was not to be a night like any other.
Had he gone to the door even then, he might have been in time, for the figure outside was still hesitating in the shadows, and the sight of Henry at the door, pulling down the blinds, turning the lock, would have been enough to send it scuttling back into the darkness. But he paused, and stretched, trying to relieve the ache in his back; and he was lost.
"Seems a Fate in it, don't there?" suggests the stationer.
"Just so," observes the stationer, with his confirmatory cough. "Quite a Fate in it. Quite a Fate."
At the sound of the door opening and shutting, Henry turned so quickly that his back gave a more violent spasm than before, causing him to draw his breath in sharply. A swift glance took in the--no, not customer, this was no customer come late, this was Trouble with a capital T, right here in his shop. Be calm, think, think, think....
"Yes? What can I do for you?" He tried to make his voice sound curt, no-nonsense, but Henry was not used to being curt, and his voice wavered slightly. The figure moved forward, and Henry could see it more clearly. A youngish man, unruly dark hair framing a sullen face, a cheap imitation leather jacket zipped up to his chin, one hand visible, the other balled up in a pocket, clutching--what? Henry realised he did not want to know.
"What can you do for me? What can you do?" said the other, as if seriously pondering the question. "I'll tell you what you can do, old man--you can give me any money you've got, and quick, too, 'cause I don't like having to ask for things more than once."
Henry thought quickly, weighing his options. What options? said a voice in his head. Don't try to be a hero. Give him what he wants and maybe he'll leave. "All right, yes, money, by all means," he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. "I don't have much, but you can take it all, yes..." He moved to walk around the desk, and the other man stepped forward, closing the distance between them so suddenly that Henry pulled back.
"No tricks, old man," whispered the intruder. "See? I don't like tricks, and neither does my friend." He withdrew the hand that had been in his pocket, and Henry saw the gleam of a knife blade as it caught a ray of light from overhead. "Just move nice and slow."
Henry nodded. "The cash--I keep it there." He gestured towards the desk.
"Get it, then." The intruder's eyes left Henry for a moment and swept around the shop. "Anyone else here?"
"No. No one. I live by myself," said Henry, profoundly grateful--I'm sorry, Mary--that this was true.
"Great. Get the money, then."
"Yes." Henry moved behind the desk to the cash register and fumbled at the keys with fingers which seemed to have grown stiff and useless. How does this thing open...please, please...let it be all right, oh, let it be all right...
"Come on, old man, stop jerking me around. I don't have all day."
"No...yes, yes, I'm trying...just be a minute..."
"I don't have a minute!" the other exploded, thrusting himself across the desk so that he was inches away from Henry's trembling frame. "Aren't you listening?" He moved his hand so that the knife was between them. "I want that money now, old man, or I'll use this!" He grabbed Henry's shirt, pulling him halfway across the desk; and Henry, feeling himself losing his balance, flailed his arms, trying to stop himself from falling. One of his hands caught the intruder's arm; not a blow, not by any stretch, but unexpected, and feeling himself threatened the intruder lashed out, sending Henry reeling backwards, hands to his throat, staring uncomprehendingly at the redness which was covering them, covering his shirt, covering everything, even his eyes, which were straining into darkness, straining, trying to see, trying--and then there was silence, and Henry Anderson saw and heard no more.
Both sit silent, listening to the metal voices, near and distant, resounding from towers of various heights, in tones more various than their situations. When these at length cease, all seems more mysterious and quiet than before. One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound--strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet, that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow.
The intruder stood stock-still on his side of the desk, his chest heaving as with some great physical effort. He could see part of Henry's body, lying on its side where it had fallen, and he watched it for any movement, any sign of life. There was none. The job had been done well. The knife was still in his hand, and he gazed at it dispassionately. A box of tissues stood on a corner of the desk, and he took out a handful and wiped the blade off before placing the knife back in his pocket. He looked at the body again, his mind working as his breath came more easily and he found that he could think with something approaching clarity.
First he moved to the door, locking it and pulling down the blind, unconsciously carrying out the very actions which would have saved Henry's life. Then he returned to the desk and stood looking round the shop thoughtfully. Various bays formed by the arrangement of bookshelves stretched down both walls, all neatly labelled with signs hanging above them describing the books to be found therein. In the middle of the shop were a few armchairs, surrounding a small table which contained a coffee maker and a plate of cookies. The intruder helped himself to a handful of cookies and made a more thorough survey of the shop.
A door at the back caught his eye, and he made his way towards it, alert and cautious. The old man had said there was no one else there, but you never knew...He opened the door carefully, and saw a short hallway leading to what appeared to be a kitchen. A staircase, its upper reaches in darkness, led to the next floor.
He remembered Henry's words. I live by myself. The old man must have an apartment behind the shop, then! This was getting better and better. He'd be able to get the cash out of the register, have a good look round the apartment--there must be stuff worth taking from there, too--fix himself something to eat and drink, maybe even wait out the rain, before being on his way long before anyone discovered something wrong. What a stroke of luck!
A sound behind him in the shop made him jump, and he whirled around, knife at the ready.
He moved swiftly back towards the desk and looked at Henry. The body had not moved. The intruder turned his attention to the cash register, and in a matter of seconds had it open. He cleared out the contents, stuffing the money into his pockets, then looked to see if there was anything else worth having.
A book lay open on the desk. He flicked it shut and looked at the cover. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The old man wouldn't be reading that again anytime soon.
Another noise disturbed him; this one came from the back of the shop, and for a moment he thought that someone had come through the door from the apartment, for a shadow seemed to pass lightly into one of the bays. He moved along the shop and peered between the shelves. There was no one there.
More sound; this time from the front of the shop. The intruder whirled around, and again thought he saw a shadow pass into one of the bays, this one near the window. He narrowed his eyes, peering through the gloomy shop. Was it his imagination, or were the lights getting dimmer?
"As to dead men, Tony," proceeds Mr Guppy, evading this proposal, "there have been dead men in most rooms."
"I know there have; but in most rooms you let them alone, and--and they let you alone," Tony answers.
Of course there was no one there when he reached the front of the shop. The door was locked tight, and no one could have come in through the door at the back without being seen. The intruder shrugged his shoulders and tried to laugh. Crazy. Imagining things. That's what it was. All these books, lined up, watching him, waiting...
Waiting! That was good. Waiting for what? He shook his head, then went back to the plate of cookies for another handful, as if to prove that he wasn't afraid, there was nothing to be afraid of, just a dead guy behind the desk and he wasn't going anywhere, wasn't going to be calling for any help, there wasn't even anyone to call except a load of books, and what help could they be? As if to prove his point he moved to the desk (although he was careful not to look too closely at Henry's body) and picked up the copy of Bleak House, gazing at it with contempt for a moment before flinging it to the back of the shop, where it fell with a flutter and crash.
And, mingled with these sounds, a cry, as of pain.
The intruder's head swivelled round, trying to locate the source of the cry. It sounded as if--this was crazy--as if it had come from the book. He moved through the shop towards the book, which was lying face up on the floor. He moved closer, almost against his will, looking to see if perhaps the book had hit something--a pet of some kind, was there an animal in the shop?--and touched the book gingerly, almost delicately, with his foot. It was just a book.
Mr Guppy takes the light. They go down, more dead than alive, and holding one another, push open the door of the back shop. The cat has retreated close to it, and stands snarling--not at them; at something on the ground, before the fire.
Another sound, behind him. He whirled around, eyes trying to adjust to the dimness--there must be something wrong with the lights--as a figure moved in front of the door and disappeared behind a bookshelf in a curious gliding motion. The intruder stared, heart pounding. The old man had said he was alone. How could anyone else be there? It wasn't possible. There was no one else in the shop; just him and a dead man, and a load of old books. No one else.
A murmur came from behind him, halfway along the shop, in a bay labelled--he could barely make out the sign, so dark had it become--Literature. There was an answering murmur--or so it seemed to the intruder--from a bay on the other side of the shop, this one labelled Children's. A dim memory stirred within him, and he was reminded of a time, impossibly long ago in what seemed another life, when he had played hide-and-seek, and had tried to track down those hiding by listening for the tell-tale signs of giggles and whispers. He could almost imagine people hiding behind the bookshelves, breath held, trying not to give themselves away, watching him to see what he would do.
"Who's there?" he called out roughly. "Come on out, where I can see you. Come on!"
No answer. But there was movement. He could sense it, rather than see it, as if shadows were massing behind the shelves, dark clouds of movement, full of purpose. His head swivelled from side to side, trying to pin down the danger, define it, attack it. His hand clenched the knife, poised in front of him, ready to strike.
A small sigh behind him, at the back of the shop. He twisted round, every nerve alert, ready to face whoever--whatever--had come in.
They advance slowly, looking at all these things. The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground, before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light?
It was a boy. The intruder could see little of him, apart from the fact that he looked thin and pale. He was holding something; a funny sort of broom. The old man's grandkid, come downstairs to see what's up. A wave of relief washed over him. A kid with a broom: pathetic. He could deal with this, no problem. He put the hand with the knife behind his back and adopted a sickly, wheedling tone.
"Hey, kid, sorry you were bothered, okay? Me and your granddad were just talking about business; you know, business--nothing for you to worry about, so why don't you just..."
The boy wasn't listening to him; wasn't even looking at him. He was looking at something else, something behind him. The intruder turned around, and stared in disbelief at the figures moving towards him. It couldn't be...it wasn't possible...it was just him and a dead man and a load of old books, for Christ's sake...nothing else...
There was something wrong with them; something which his brain tried to comprehend even as he moved backwards, unaware of the figures advancing towards him from the rear of the shop, led by the child with the broom. The clothing--they looked like figures from old movies, or from pictures in books.
Help, help, help! come into this house, for Heaven's sake!
Plenty will come in, but none can help.
* * * *
"Thank you so much for speaking with me. And for these journals, which have never seen the light of day. I'm honoured that you'd entrust them to me."
"That's quite all right." Emily Edwards smiled; a delighted smile, like a child surveying an unexpected and particularly wonderful present. "I don't receive very many visitors; and old people do like speaking about the past. No"--she held up a hand to stop him--"I am old; not elderly, not 'getting on', nor any of the other euphemisms people use these days. When one has passed one's centenary, 'old' is the only word which applies."
"Well, your stories were fascinating, Miss Edwards. As I said, there are so few people alive now who remember these men."
Another smile, gentle this time. "One of the unfortunate things about living to my age is that all the people one knew in any meaningful or intimate way have died; there is no one left with whom I can share these things. Perhaps that is why I have so enjoyed this talk. It brings them all back to me. Sir Ernest; such a charismatic man, even when he was obviously in ill-health and worried about money. I used to thrill to his stories; to hear him talk of that desperate crossing of South Georgia Island to Stromness, of how they heard the whistle at the whaling station and knew that they were so very close to being saved, and then deciding to take a treacherous route down the slope to save themselves a five-mile hike when they were near exhaustion. He would drop his voice then, and say to me 'Miss Emily'--he always called me Miss Emily, which was the name of his wife, as you know; it made me feel very grown-up, even though I was only eleven--'Miss Emily, I do not know how we did it. Yet afterwards we all said the same thing, those three of us who made that crossing: that there had been another with us, a secret one, who guided our steps and brought us to safety.' I used to think it a very comforting story, when I was a child, but now--I am not as sure."
For a moment he thought that she had not heard. Her eyes, which until that moment had been sharp and blue as Antarctic ice, dimmed, reflecting each of her hundred-and-one years as she gazed at her father's photograph on the wall opposite. He had an idea that she was not even with him in her comfortable room, that she was instead back in the parlour of her parents' home in north London ninety years earlier, listening to Ernest Shackleton talk of his miraculous escape after the sinking of the Endurance, or her father's no less amazing tales of his own Antarctic travels. He was about to get up and start putting away his recording equipment when she spoke.
"As I told you, my father would gladly speak about his time in Antarctica with the Mawson and Shackleton expeditions, but of the James Wentworth expedition aboard the Fortitude in 1910 he rarely talked. He used to become quite angry with me if I mentioned it, and I learned not to raise the subject. I will always remember one thing he did say of it: 'It was hard to know how many people were there. I sometimes felt that there were too many of us.' And it would be frightening to think, in that place where so few people are, that there was another with you who should not be."
The statement did not appear to require an answer, for which the thin man in jeans and rumpled sweater was glad. Instead he said, "If you remember anything else, or if, by chance, you should come across those journals from the 1910 expedition, please do contact me, Miss Edwards."
"Yes, I have your card." Emily nodded towards the table beside her, where a crisp white card lay beside a small ceramic tabby cat, crouched as if eyeing a mouse in its hole. Her gaze rested on it for a moment before she picked it up.
"I had this when I was a child; I carried it with me everywhere. It's really a wonder that it has survived this long." She gazed at it for a moment, a half-smile on her lips. "Sir Ernest said that it put him in mind of Mrs. Chippy, the ship's cat." Her smile faded. "He was always very sorry, you know, about what he had to do, and sorry that it caused an estrangement between him and Mr. McNish; he felt that the carpenter never forgave him for having Mrs. Chippy and the pups shot before they embarked on their journey in the boats."
"It was rather cruel, though, wasn't it? A cat, after all; what harm could there have been in taking it with them?"
"Ah, well." Emily set it carefully back down on the table. "I thought that, too, when I was young; but now I see that Sir Ernest was quite right. There was no room for sentimentality, or personal feeling; his task was to ensure that his men survived. Sometimes, to achieve that, hard decisions must be made. One must put one's own feelings and inclinations aside, and act for the greater good."
He sensed a closing, as of something else she might have said but had decided against. No matter; it had been a most productive afternoon. At the door Emily smiled as she shook his hand.
"I look forward to reading your book when it comes out."
"Well"--he paused, somewhat embarrassed--"it won't be out for a couple of years yet. These things take time, and I'm still at an early stage in my researches."
Emily laughed; a lovely sound, like bells chiming. "Oh, I do not plan on going anywhere just yet. You must bring me a copy when it is published, and let me read again about those long ago days. The past, where everything has already happened and there can be no surprises, can be a very comforting place when one is old."
It was past six o'clock when the writer left, but Emily was not hungry. She made a pot of tea, then took her cup and saucer into the main room and placed it on the table by her chair, beside the ceramic cat. She looked at it for a moment, and ran a finger down its back as if stroking it; then she picked up the card and considered it for a few moments.
"I think that I was right not to show him," she said, as if speaking to someone else present in the room. "I doubt that he would have understood. It is for the best."
Thus reminded, however, she could not easily forget. She crossed the room to a small rosewood writing desk in one corner, unlocked it, and pulled down the front panel, revealing tidily arranged cubbyholes and drawers of various sizes. With another key she unlocked the largest of the drawers, and withdrew from it a notebook bound in leather, much battered and weathered, as with long use in difficult conditions. She returned with it to her armchair, but it was some minutes before she opened it, and when she did it was with an air almost of sadness. She ran her fingers over the faded ink of the words on the first page.
Robert James Edwards
"No," she said aloud, as if continuing her last conversation, "there can be no surprises about the past; everything there has happened. One would like to think it happened for the best; but we can never be sure. And that is not comforting at all." Then she opened the journal and began to read from it, even though the story was an old one which she knew by heart.
20 November 1910: A relief to be here in Hobart, on the brink of starting the final leg of our sea voyage. The endless days of fundraising, organisation, and meetings in London are well behind us, and the Guvnor is in high spirits, and as usual has infected everyone with his enthusiasm. He called us all together this morning, and said that of the hundreds upon hundreds of men who had applied to take part in the expedition when it was announced in England, we had been hand-picked, and that everything he has seen on the journey thus far has reinforced the rightness of his choices; but that the true test is still to come--in the journey across the great Southern Ocean and along the uncharted coast of Antarctica. We shall be seeing sights that no human has yet viewed and will, if all goes to plan, be in a position to furnish exact information which will be of inestimable value to those who come after us. Chief among this information will be noting locations where future parties can establish camps, so that they might use these as bases for exploring the great heart of this unknown land, and perhaps even establishing a preliminary base for Mawson's push, rumoured to be taking place in a year's time. We are not tasked with doing much in the way of exploring ourselves, save in the vicinity of any base we do establish, but we have the dogs and sledges to enable us at least to make brief sorties into that mysterious continent, and I think that all the men are as eager as I to set foot where no man has ever trodden.
Of course, we all realise the dangers inherent in this voyage; none more so than the Guvnor, who today enjoined anyone who had the least doubt to say so now, while there was still an opportunity to leave. Needless to say, no one spoke, until Richards gave a cry of "Three cheers for the Fortitude, and all who sail in her!"; a cheer which echoed to the very skies, and set the dogs barking on the deck, so furiously that the Guvnor singled out Castleton and called good-naturedly, "Castleton, quiet your dogs down, there's a good chap, or we shall have the neighbours complaining!", which elicited a hearty laugh from all.
22 November: Such a tumultuous forty-eight hours we have not seen on this voyage, and I earnestly hope that the worst is now behind us. Two days ago the Guvnor was praising his hand-picked crew, and I, too, was thinking how our party had pulled together on the trip from Plymouth, which boded well, I thought, for the trials which surely face us; and now we have said farewell to one of our number, and made room for another. Chadwick, whose excellent meals brightened the early part of our voyage, is to be left in Hobart following a freakish accident which none could have foreseen, he having been knocked down in the street by a runaway horse and cart. His injuries are not, thank Heaven, life threatening, but are sufficient to make it impossible for him to continue as part of the expedition.
It is undoubtedly a very serious blow to the fabric of our party; but help has arrived in the form of Charles De Vere, who was actually present when the accident occurred, and was apparently instrumental in removing the injured man to a place of safety following the incident. He came by the ship the next day, to enquire after Chadwick, and was invited aboard; upon meeting with the Guvnor he disclosed that he has, himself, worked as a ship's cook, having reached Hobart in that capacity. The long and the short of it is that after much discussion, the Guvnor has offered him Chadwick's place on the expedition, and De Vere has accepted.
"Needs must when the devil drives," the Guvnor said to me, somewhat ruefully, when De Vere had left to collect his things. "We can't do without a cook. Ah well, we have a few days more here in Hobart, and shall see how this De Vere works out."
What the Guvnor did not add--but was, I know, uppermost in his mind--is that a few days on board a ship at dockside is a very different proposition to what we shall be facing once we depart. We must all hope for the best.
28 November: We are set to leave tomorrow; the last of the supplies have been loaded, the last visiting dignitary has toured the ship and departed--glad, no doubt, to be going home safe to down pillows and a comfortable bed--and the men have written their last letters home, to be posted when the Fortitude has left. They are the final words we shall be able to send our loved ones before our return, whenever that will be, and a thin thread of melancholy pervades the ship tonight. I have written to Mary, and enclosed a message for sweet little Emily; by the time I return home she will have changed greatly from the little girl--scarcely more than a babe in arms--whom I left. She will not remember her father; but she and Mary are never far from my mind, and their photographs gaze down at me from the tiny shelf in my cabin, keeping watch over me as I sleep.
I said that the men had written their last letters home; but there was one exception. De Vere had no letters to give me, and while I made no comment he obviously noted my surprise, for he gave a wintry smile. "I said my goodbyes long ago," was all he said, and I did not press him, for there is something about his manner that discourages chatter. Not that he is standoffish, or unfriendly; rather, there is an air about him, as of a person who has spent a good deal of time alone, and has thus become a solitude unto himself. The Guvnor is pleased with him, though, and I must say that the man's cooking is superb. He spends most of his time in the tiny galley; to acquaint himself with his new domain, he told me. The results coming from it indicate that he is putting his time to good use, although I hope he will not have many occasions to favour us with seal consomme or Penguin a la Emperor.
Castleton had the largest batch of letters to send. I found him on the deck as usual, near the kennels of his charges. He is as protective of his dogs as a mother is of her children, and with good cause, for on these half-wild creatures the sledge teams shall depend. His control over them is quite wonderful. Some of the men are inclined to distrust the animals, which seem as akin to the domesticated dogs we all know as tigers are to tabby cats; none more so than De Vere who, I notice, gives them a wide berth on the rare occasions when he is on the deck. This wariness appears to be mutual; Castleton says that it is because the dogs scent food on De Vere's clothing.
29 November: At last we are under way, and all crowded to the ship's rail as the Fortitude departed from Hobart, to take a last look at civilisation. Even De Vere emerged into the sunlight, sheltering his sage eyes with his hand as we watched the shore recede and then vanish. I think it fair to say that despite the mingled wonder and excitement we all share about the expedition, the feelings of the men at thus seeing the known world slip away from us were mixed; all save De Vere, whose expression was one of relief before he retreated once more to his sanctum. I know that the Guvnor--whose judgement of character is second to none--is satisfied with the man, and with what he was able to find out about him at such short notice, but I cannot help but wonder if there is something which makes De Vere anxious to be away from Hobart.
20 December: The Southern Ocean has not been kind to us; the storms of the last three weeks have left us longing for the occasional glimpse of blue sky. We had some idea of what to expect, but as the Guvnor reminds us, we are charting new territory every day, and must be prepared for any eventuality. We have repaired most of the damage done to the bridge and superstructure by the heavy seas of a fortnight ago, taking advantage of a rare spell of relative calm yesterday to accomplish the task and working well into the night, so as to be ready should the wind and water resume their attack.
The strain is showing on all the men, and I am thankful that the cessation of the tumultuous seas has enabled De Vere to provide hot food once more; the days of cold rations, when the pitching of the ship made the galley unusable, told on all of us. The cook's complexion, which has always been pale, has assumed a truly startling pallor, and his face looks lined and haggard. He spent most of yesterday supplying hot food and a seemingly endless stream of strong coffee for all of us, and then came and helped with the work on deck, which continued well into the long Antarctic summer night. I had wondered if he was in a fit state to do such heavy labour, but he set to with a will, and proved he was the equal of any aboard.
22 December: Yet another accident has claimed one of our party; but this one with graver consequences than the one which injured Chadwick. The spell of calmer weather which enabled us to carry out the much-needed repairs to the ship was all too short, and it was not long after we had completed our work that the storm resumed with even more fury than before, and there was a very real possibility that the sea waves would breach our supply of fresh water, which would very seriously endanger the fate of the expedition. As it was, those of us who had managed to drop off into some kind of sleep awoke to find several inches of icy water around our feet; and the dogs were in a general state of uproar, having been deluged by waves. I stumbled on to the deck and began helping Castleton and one or two others who were removing the dogs to a more sheltered location--a difficult task given the rolling of the ship and the state of the frantic animals. I was busy concentrating on the task at hand, and thus did not see one of the kennels come loose from its moorings on the deck; but we all heard the terrible cry of agony which followed.
When we rushed to investigate we found young Walker crushed between the heavy wooden kennel and the rail. De Vere had reached the spot before us and, in a fit of energy which can only be described as superhuman, managed single-handedly to shift the kennel out of the way and free Walker, who was writhing and moaning in pain. Beddoes was instantly summoned, and a quick look at the doctor's face showed the gravity of the situation. Walker was taken below, and it was some time before Beddoes emerged, looking graver than before, an equally grim-faced Guvnor with him. The report is that Walker's leg is badly broken, and there is a possibility of internal injuries. The best that can be done is to make the injured man as comfortable as possible, and hope that the injuries are not as severe as they appear.
25 December: A sombre Christmas Day. De Vere, in an attempt to lighten the mood, produced a truly sumptuous Christmas dinner for us all, which did go some way towards brightening our spirits, and afterwards the Guvnor conducted a short but moving Christmas Day service for all the men save Walker, who cannot be moved, and De Vere, who volunteered to sit with the injured man. One thing for which we give thanks is that the storms which have dogged our journey thus far seem to have abated; we have had no further blasts such as the one which did so much damage, and the Guvnor is hopeful that it will not be very much longer before we may hope to see the coast of Antarctica.
28 December: De Vere has been spending a great deal of time with Walker, who is, alas, no better; Beddoes's worried face tells us all that we need know on that score. He has sunk into a restless, feverish sleep which does nothing to refresh him, and seems to have wasted away to a mere shell of his former self in a shockingly brief period of time. De Vere, conversely, appears to have shaken off the adverse effects which the rough weather had on him; I had occasion to visit the galley earlier in the day, and was pleased to see that our cook's visage has assumed a ruddy hue, and the haggard look has disappeared.
De Vere's attendance on the injured man has gone some way to mitigating his standing as the expedition's "odd man out". Several of the men have worked with others here on various voyages, and are old Antarctic hands, while the others were all selected by the Guvnor after careful consideration: not only of their own qualities, but with an eye to how they would work as part of the larger group. He did not, of course, have this luxury with De Vere, whose air of solitude has had the effect of making others keep their distance. Add to this the fact that he spends most of his time in the galley, and is thus excused from taking part in much of the daily routine of the ship, and it is perhaps not surprising that he remains something of a cipher.
31 December: A melancholy farewell to the old year. Walker is no better, and Beddoes merely shakes his head when asked about him. Our progress is slower than we anticipated, for we are plagued with a never-dissipating fog which wreathes the ship, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Brash ice chokes the sea: millions of pieces of it, which grind against the ship in a never-ceasing cacophony. We are making little more than three knots, for we dare not go any faster, and risk running the Fortitude against a larger piece which could pierce the hull; on the other hand, we must maintain speed, lest we become mired in a fast-freezing mass. It is delicate work, and Mr. Andrews is maintaining a near-constant watch, for as captain he bears ultimate responsibility for the ship and her crew, and is determined to keep us safe.
I hope that 1911 begins more happily than 1910 looks set to end.
3 January 1911: Sad news today. Walker succumbed to his injuries in the middle of last night. The Guvnor gathered us all together this morning to inform us. De Vere was with Walker at the end, so the man did not die alone, a fact for which we are all grateful. I think we all knew that there was little hope of recovery; I was with him briefly only yesterday, and was shocked by how pale and gaunt he looked.
There was a brief discussion as to whether or not we should bury Walker at sea, or wait until we made land and bury him ashore. However, we do not know when--or even if--we shall make landfall, and it was decided by us all to wait until the water around the ship is sufficiently clear of ice and bury him at sea.
5 January: A welcome break in the fog today, enabling us to obtain a clear view of our surroundings for the first time in many days. We all knew that we were sailing into these waters at the most treacherous time of the southern summer, when the ice breaking up in the Ross Sea would be swept across our path, but we could not wait until later when the way would be clearer, or we would risk being frozen in the ice before we completed our work. As it is, the prospect which greeted us was not heartening; the way south is choked, as far as the eye can see, with vast bergs of ice; one, which was directly in front of us, stretched more than a mile in length, and was pitted along its base by caves, in which the water boomed and echoed.
Though the icebergs separate us from our goal, it must be admitted that they are beautiful. When I tell people at home of them, they are always surprised to hear that the bergs and massive floes are not pure white, but rather contain a multitude of colours: shades of lilac and mauve and blue and green, while pieces which have turned over display the brilliant hues of the algae which live in these waters. Their majesty, however, is every bit as awesome as has been depicted, in words and in art; Coleridge's inspired vision in his "Ancient Mariner" being a case in point.
I was standing at the rail this evening, listening to the ice as it prowled restlessly about the hull, gazing out upon the larger floes and bergs surrounding us and thinking along these lines, when I became aware of someone standing at my elbow. It was De Vere, who had come up beside me as soundlessly as a cat. We stood in not uncompanionable silence for some moments; then, as if he were reading my thoughts, he said quietly, "Coleridge was correct, was he not? How does he put it:
'The ice was here, the ice was there
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!'
"Quite extraordinary, for a man who was never here. And Dore's illustrations for the work are likewise inspired. Of course, he made a rather dreadful faux pas with his polar bears climbing up the floes, although it does make a fine illustration. He was not at all apologetic when his mistake was pointed out to him. 'If I wish to place polar bears on the southern ice I shall.' Well, we must allow as great an artist as Dore some licence."
I admitted that I had been thinking much the same thing, at least about Coleridge. De Vere smiled.
"Truly one of our greatest and most inspired poets. We must forever deplore that visitor from Porlock who disturbed him in the midst of 'Kubla Khan'. And 'Christabel'; what might that poem have become had Coleridge finished it? That is the common cry; yet Coleridge's fate was always to have a vision so vast that in writing of it he could never truly 'finish', in the conventional sense. In that he must surely echo life. Nothing is ever 'finished', not really, save in death, and it is this last point which plays such a central role in 'Christabel'. Is the Lady Geraldine truly alive, or is she undead? He would never confirm it, but I always suspected that Coleridge was inspired, in part, to write 'Christabel' because of his earlier creation, the Nightmare Life-in-Death, who 'thicks men's blood with cold'. When she wins the Mariner in her game of dice with Death, does he join her in a deathless state, to roam the world forever? It is a terrible fate to contemplate."
"Surely not," I replied; "only imagine all that one could see and do were one given eternal life. More than one man has sought it."
De Vere, whose eyes had focussed on the ice around us, turned and fixed me with a steady gaze. The summer night was upon us, and it was sufficiently dark that I could not see his face distinctly; yet his grey eyes were dark pools, which displayed a grief without a pang, one so old that the original sting had turned to dull, unvarying sorrow.
"Eternal life," he repeated, and I heard bitterness underlying his words. "I do not think that those who seek it have truly considered it in all its consequences."
I did not know how to respond to this statement. Instead I remarked on his apparent familiarity with the works of Dore and Coleridge. De Vere nodded.
"I have made something of a study of the literature of the undead, if literature it is. Varney the Vampyre; certainly not literature, yet possessed of a crude power, although not to be mentioned in the same breath as works such as Mr. Poe's 'Berenice' or the Irishman Le Fanu's sublime 'Carmilla'."
I consider myself to be a well-read man, but not in this field, as I have never had an inclination for bogey stories. I made a reference to the only work with which I was familiar that seemed relevant, and my companion shook his head.
"Stoker's novel is certainly powerful; but he makes of the central character too romantic a figure. Lord Byron has much for which to answer. And such a jumble of legends and traditions and lore, picked up here and there and then adapted to suit the needs of the novelist! Stoker never seems to consider the logical results of the depredations of the Count; if he were as bloodthirsty as depicted, and leaving behind such a trail of victims who become, in time, like him, then our world would be overrun." He shook his head. "One thing that the author depicted well was the essential isolation of his creation. Stoker does not tell us how long it was before the Count realised how alone he was, even in the midst of bustling London. Not long, I suspect."
It was an odd conversation to be having at such a time, and in such a place. De Vere must have realised this, for he gave an apologetic smile.
"I am sorry for leading the conversation in such melancholy channels, especially in light of what has happened. Did you know Walker very well?"
"No," I replied; "I did not meet him until shortly before we sailed from England. This was his first Antarctic voyage. He hoped, if the Guvnor gave him a good report at the end of it, to sign on with Mawson's next expedition, or even with Shackleton or Scott. Good Antarctic hands are in short supply. I know that the Guvnor, who has never lost a man on any of his expeditions, appreciates the time that you spent with Walker, so that he did not die alone. We all do."
"Being alone is a terrible thing," said De Vere, in so soft a voice that I could scarce hear him. "I only wish that..." He stopped. "I wish that it could have been avoided, that I could have prevented it. I had hoped..." He stopped once more.
"But what could you have done?" I asked in some surprise, when he showed no sign, this time, of breaking the silence. "You did more than enough. As I said, we are all grateful."
He appeared not to hear my last words. "More than enough," he repeated, in a voice of such emptiness that I could make no reply; and before long the cook excused himself to tend his duties before retiring for the night. I stayed on deck for a little time after, smoking a pipe and reflecting on our strange conversation. That De Vere is a man of education and intelligence I had already guessed, from his voice and manner and speech; he is clearly not a common sailor or sea-cook. What had brought him to Australia, however, and in such a capacity, I do not know. Perhaps he is one of those men, ill-suited to the rank and expectations of his birth, who seeks to test himself in places and situations which he would not otherwise encounter; or one of the restless souls who finds himself constrained by the demands of society.
It was, by this time, quite late; the only souls stirring on deck were the men of the watch, whom it was easy to identify: Richards with his yellow scarf, about which he has taken some good-natured ribbing; Wellington, the shortest man in our crew but with the strength and tenacity of a bulldog; and McAllister, with his ferocious red beard. All eyes would, I knew, be on the ice, for an accident here would mean the end.
The dogs were agitated; I could hear whining and a few low growls from their kennels. I glanced in that direction, and was startled to see a man, or so I thought, standing in the shadows beside them. There was no one on the watch near that spot, I knew, and while it was not unthinkable that some insomniac had come up on deck, what startled me was the resemblance the figure bore to Walker: the thin, eager face, the manner in which he held himself, even the clothing called to mind our fallen comrade. I shook my head, to clear it, and when I looked again the figure was gone.
This is, I fear, what comes of talks such as the one which I had with De Vere earlier. I must banish these thoughts from my head, as having no place on this voyage.
7 January: There was a sufficient clearing of the ice around the ship today to enable us to commit Walker's body to the deep. The service was brief, but very moving, and the faces of the men were solemn; none more so than De Vere, who still seems somewhat distraught, and who lingered at the rail's edge for some time, watching the spot where Walker's remains slipped beneath the water.
The ice which is keeping us from the coastline is as thick as ever; yet we are noting that many of the massive chunks around us are embedded with rocky debris, which would seem to indicate the presence of land nearby. We all hope this is a sign that, before long, we will sight that elusive coastline which hovers just outside our view.
17 January: We have reached our El Dorado at last! Early this morning the watch wakened the Guvnor and Mr. Andrews to announce that they had sighted a rocky beach which looked suitable for a base camp. This news, coming as it does on the heels of all that we have seen and charted in the last few days, has inspired a celebration amongst the expedition members that equals that which we displayed when leaving Plymouth to begin our voyage. The glad news spread quickly, and within minutes everyone was on deck--some of the men only half-dressed--to catch a glimpse of the spot, on a sheltered bay where the Fortitude will be able to anchor safely. There was an excited babble of voices, and even some impromptu dancing, as the prospect of setting foot in this unknown land took hold; I suspect that we will be broaching some of the twenty or so cases of champagne which we have brought with us.
And yet I found myself scanning the faces on deck, and counting, for ever since the evening of that conversation with De Vere I have half-convinced myself that there are more men on board the ship than there should be. Quite how and why this idea has taken hold I cannot say, and it is not something which I can discuss with anyone else aboard; but I cannot shake the conviction that this shadowy other is Walker. If I believed in ghosts I could think that our late crewmate has returned to haunt the scene of his hopes and dreams; but I do not believe, and even to mention the idea would lead to serious concerns regarding my sanity. De Vere's talk has obviously played on my mind. Bogeys indeed!
The man himself seems to have regretted his speech that night. He spends most of his time in the galley, only venturing out on deck in the late evening, but he has restricted his comments to commonplaces about the weather, or the day's discoveries. The dogs are as uncomfortable with him as ever, but De Vere appears to be trying to accustom them to his presence, for he is often near them, speaking with Castleton. The dog master spends most of his time when not on watch, or asleep, with his charges, ensuring that they are kept healthy for when we need them for the sledging parties, a task which we are all well content to leave him to. "If he doesn't stop spending so much time alone with those brutes he'll soon forget how to talk, and start barking instead," said Richards one evening.
The dogs may be robust, but Castleton himself is not looking well; he appears pale, and more tired than usual. It cannot be attributed to anything lacking in our diet, for the Guvnor has ensured that our provisions are excellent, and should the need arise we can augment our supplies with seal meat, which has proven such an excellent staple for travellers in the north polar regions. It could be that some illness is doing the rounds, for De Vere was once again looking pale some days ago, but seems to have improved. I saw him only a few minutes ago on the deck, looking the picture of health. While the rest of us have focussed our gazes landward, the cook was looking back the way we had come, as if keeping watch for something he expected to see behind us.
20 January: It has been a Herculean task, landing all the supplies, but at last it is finished. The men who have remained on the beach, constructing the hut, have done yeomans' work and, when the Fortitude departs tomorrow to continue along the coast on its charting mission, we shall have a secure roof over our heads. That it shall also be warm is thanks to the work of De Vere. When we went to assemble the stove we found that a box of vital parts was missing. McAllister recalled seeing a box fall from the motor launch during one of its landings, and when we crowded to the water's edge we did indeed see the box lying approximately seven feet down, in a bed of the kelp which grows along the coast. As we debated how best to grapple it to the surface, De Vere quietly and calmly removed his outer clothing and boots and plunged into the icy water. He had to surface three times for great gulps of air before diving down once more to tear the remaining kelp away from the box and then carry it to the surface. It was a heroic act, but he deflected all attempts at praise. "It needed to be done," he said simply.
I have erected a small shed for my scientific equipment, at a little distance from the main hut. The dogs are tethered at about the same distance in the other direction, and we are anticipating making some sledging runs soon, although Castleton advises that the animals will be difficult to handle at first, which means that only those with some previous skill in that area will go on the initial journeys. It is debatable whether Castleton himself will be in a fit state to be one of these men, for he is still suffering from some illness which is leaving him in a weakened state; it is all he can do to manage his tasks with the dogs, and De Vere has had to help him.
And still--I hesitate to confess it--I cannot shake myself of this feeling of someone with us who should not be here. With all the bustle of transferring the supplies and erecting the camp it has been impossible for me to keep track of everyone, but I am sure that I have seen movement beyond the science hut when there should be no one there. If these delusions--for such they must be--continue, then I shall have to consider treatment when we return to England, or risk being unable to take part in future expeditions. I am conscious it is hallucination, but it is a phantasm frozen in place, at once too fixed to dislodge and too damaging to confess to another. We have but seven weeks--eight at most--before the ship returns to take us back to Hobart, in advance of the Antarctic winter; I pray that all will be well until then.
24 January: Our first sledging mission has been a success; two parties of three men each ascended the pathway that we have carved from the beach to the plateau above and behind us, and from there we travelled about four miles inland, attaining an altitude of 1500 feet. The feelings of us all as we topped the final rise and saw inland across that vast featureless plateau are indescribable. We were all conscious that we were gazing upon land that no human eye has ever seen, as we gazed southwards to where the ice seemed to dissolve into a white, impenetrable haze. The enormity of the landscape, and our own insignificance within it, struck us all, for it was a subdued party that made its way back to the camp before the night began to draw in to make travel impossible; there are crevasses--some hidden, some not--all about, which will make travel in anything other than daylight impossible. We were prepared to spend the night on the plateau should the need arise, but we were all glad to be back in the icicled hut with our fellows.
The mood there was subdued also. Castleton assisted, this morning, in harnessing the dogs to the sledges, but a task of which he would have made short work only a month ago seemed almost beyond him; and the look in his eyes as he watched us leave, on a mission of which he was to have been a part, tore at the soul. De Vere's health contrasted starkly with the wan face of the man beside him, yet the cook had looked almost as stricken as the dog master as we left the camp.
1 February: I did not think that I would find myself writing these words, but the Fortitude cannot return too quickly. It is not only Castleton's health that is worrisome; it is the growing conviction that there is something wrong with me. The fancy that someone else abides here grows stronger by the day and, despite my best efforts, I cannot rid myself of it. I have tried, as delicately as possible, to raise the question with some of the others, but their laughter indicates that no one else is suffering. "Get better snow goggles, old man," was Richards's response. The only person who did not laugh was De Vere, whose look of concern told me that he senses my anxiety.
6 February: The end has come, and while it is difficult to write this, I feel I must; as if setting it down on paper will go some way to exorcising it from my mind. I know, however, that the scenes of the last two days will be with me until the grave.
Two nights ago I saw Walker again, as plainly as could be. It was shortly before dark, and I was returning from the hut which shelters my scientific equipment. The wind, which howls down from the icy plateau above us, had ceased for a time, and I took advantage of the relative calm to light my pipe.
All was quiet, save for a subdued noise from the men in the hut, and the growling of one or two of the dogs. I stood for a moment, gazing about me, marvelling at the sheer immensity of where I was. Save for the Fortitude and her crew, and Scott's party--wherever they may be--there are no people within 1200 miles of us, and we are as isolated from the rest of the world and her bustle as if we were on the moon. Once again the notion of our own insignificance in this uninhabited land struck me, and I shivered, knocked the ashes out of my pipe, and prepared to go to the main hut.
A movement caught my eye, behind the shed containing my equipment; it appeared to be the figure of a man, thrown into relief against the backdrop of ice. I called out sharply "Who's there?" and, not receiving an answer, took a few steps in the direction of the movement; but moments later stopped short when the other figure in turn took a step towards me, and I saw that it was Walker.
And yet that does not convey the extra horror of what I saw. It was not Walker as I remembered him, either from the early part of the voyage or in the period just before his death; then he had looked ghastly enough, but it was nothing as to how he appeared before me now. He was painfully thin, the colour of the ice and snow behind him, and in his eyes was a terrible light; they seemed to glow like twin lucifers. His nose was eaten away, and his lips, purple and swollen, were drawn back from his gleaming teeth in a terrible parody of a smile; yet there was nothing of mirth in the look which was directed towards me. I felt that I was frozen where I stood, unable to move, and I wondered what I would do if the figure advanced any further.
It was De Vere who saved me. A cry must have escaped my lips, and the cook heard it, for I was aware that he was standing beside me. He said something in a low voice, words that I was unable to distinguish, and then he was helping me--not towards the main hut, thank God, for I was in no state to present myself before the others, but to the science hut. He pulled open the door and we stumbled inside, and De Vere lit the lantern which was hanging from the ceiling. For a moment, as the match flared, his own eyes seemed to glow; then the lamp was sending its comforting light, and all was as it should be.
He was obviously concerned; I could see that in his drawn brow, in the anxious expression of his eyes. I found myself telling him what I had seen, but if I thought that he would immediately laugh and tell me I was imagining things I was much mistaken. He again said some words in a low voice; guttural and harsh, in a language I did not understand. When he looked at me his grey eyes were filled with such pain that I recoiled slightly. He shook his head.
"I am sorry," he said in a quiet voice. "Sorry that you have seen what you did, and...for other things. I had hoped..."
His voice trailed off. When he spoke again it was more to himself than to me; he seemed almost to have forgotten my presence.
"I have lived a long time, Mr. Edwards, and travelled a great deal; all my years, in fact, from place to place, never staying long in one location. At length I arrived in Australia, travelling ever further south, away from civilisation, until I found myself in Hobart, and believed it was the end. Then the Fortitude arrived, bound on its mission even further south, to a land where for several months of the year it is always night. Paradise indeed, I thought." His smile was twisted. "I should have remembered the words of Blake: 'Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to endless night.' It is not a Paradise at all."
I tried to speak, but he silenced me with a gesture of his hand and a look from those haunted eyes. "If I needed something from you, would you help me?" he asked abruptly. I nodded, and he thought for a moment. "There are no sledge trips tomorrow; am I correct?"
"Yes," I replied, somewhat bewildered by the sudden change in the direction of the conversation. "The Guvnor feels that the men need a day of rest, so no trips are planned. Why?"
"Can you arrange that a single trip should be made, and that it shall be only you and I who travel?"
"It would be highly irregular; usually there are three men to a sledge, because of the difficulty of..."
"Yes, yes, I understand that. But it is important that it should be just the two of us. Can it be managed?"
"If it is important enough, then yes, I should think so."
"It is more important than you know." He gave a small smile, and some of the pain seemed gone from his eyes. "Far more important. Tomorrow night this will be over. I promise you."
I had little sleep that night, and next day was up far earlier than necessary, preparing the sled and ensuring that all was in order. There had been some surprise when I announced that De Vere and I would be off, taking one of the sledges ourselves, but I explained it by saying that the cook merely wanted an opportunity to obtain a glimpse of that vast land for himself, and that we would not be travelling far. When De Vere came out to the sledge he was carrying a small bag. It was surprisingly heavy, but I found a place for it, and moments later the dogs strained into their harnesses, and we were away.
The journey up to the plateau passed uneventfully under the leaden sun, and we made good time on the trail, which was by now well established. When we topped the final rise I stopped the sledge, so that we could both look out across that vast wasteland of ice and snow, stretching away to the South Pole hundreds and hundreds of miles distant. De Vere meditated upon it for some minutes, then turned to me.
"Thank you for bringing me here," he said in his quiet voice. "We are about four miles from camp, I think you said?" When I concurred, he continued, "That is a distance which you can travel by yourself, is it not?"
"Yes, of course," I replied, somewhat puzzled.
"I thought as much, or I would not have brought you all this way. And I did want to see this"--he gestured at the silent heart of the continent behind us--"just once. Such a terrible beauty on the surface, and underneath, treachery. You say here there are crevasses?"
"Yes," I said. "We must be careful when breaking new trails, lest a snow bridge collapse under us. Three days ago a large crevasse opened up to our right"--I pointed--"and there was a very real fear that one of the sledges was going to be carried down into it. It was only some quick work on the part of McAllister that kept it from plunging through."
"Could you find the spot again?"
"Easily. We are not far."
"Good." He turned to the sledge, ignoring the movement and barking of the dogs; they had not been much trouble when there had been work to do, but now, stopped, they appeared restless, even nervous. De Vere rustled around among the items stowed on the sledge, and pulled out the bag he had given me. He hesitated for a moment; then he walked to where I stood waiting and passed it to me.
"I would like you to open that," he said, and when I did so I found a small, ornate box made of mahogany, secured with a stout brass hasp. "Open the box, and remove what is inside."
I had no idea what to expect; but any words I might have said failed me when I undid the hasp, opened the lid, and found inside the box a revolver. I looked up at De Vere, who wore a mirthless smile.
"It belonged to a man who thought to use it on me, some years ago," he said simply. "That man died. I think you will find, if you look, that it is loaded."
I opened the chamber, and saw that it was so. I am by no means an expert with firearms, but the bullets seemed to be almost tarnished, as with great age. I closed the chamber, and glanced at De Vere.
"Now we are going to go over to the edge of the crevasse, and you are going to shoot me." The words were said matter-of-factly, and what followed was in the same dispassionate tone, as if he were speaking of the weather, or what he planned to serve for dinner that evening. "Stand close, so as not to miss. When you return to camp you will tell them that we came too near to the edge of the crevasse, that a mass of snow collapsed under me, and that there was nothing you could do. I doubt that any blame or stigma will attach to you--not with your reputation--and while it may be difficult for you for a time, you will perhaps take solace in the fact that you will not see Walker again, and that Castleton's health will soon improve." He paused. "I am sorry about them both; more than I can say." Then he added some words in an undertone, which I did not quite catch; one word sounded like "hungry", and another like "tired", but in truth I was so overwhelmed that I was barely in a position to make sense of anything. One monstrous fact alone stood out hard and clear, and I struggled to accept it.
"Are you...are you ill, then?" I asked at last, trying to find some explanation at which my mind did not rebel. "Some disease that will claim you?"
"If you want to put it that way, yes; a disease. If that makes it easier for you." He reached out and put a hand on my arm. "You have been friendly, and I have not had many that I could call a friend. I thank you, and ask you to do this one thing for me; and, in the end, for all of you."
I looked into his eyes, dark as thunderclouds, and recalled our conversation on board the ship following Walker's death, and for a moment had a vision of something dark and terrible. I thought of the look on Walker's face--or the thing that I had thought was Walker--when I had seen it the night before. "Will you end up like him?" I asked suddenly, and De Vere seemed to know to what I referred, for he shook his head.
"No, but if you do not do this then others will," he said simply. I knew then how I must act. He obviously saw the look of resolution in my face, for he said again, quietly, "Thank you," then turned and began walking towards the crevasse in the ice.
I cannot write in detail of what followed in the next few minutes. I remained beside the crevasse, staring blankly down into the depths which now held him, and it was only with considerable effort that I finally roused myself enough to stumble back to the dogs, which had at last quietened. The trip back to camp was a blur of white, and I have no doubt that, when I stumbled down the final stretch of the path, I appeared sufficiently wild-eyed and distraught that my story was accepted without question.
The Guvnor had a long talk with me this morning when I woke, unrefreshed, from a troubled sleep. He appears satisfied with my answers, and while he did upbraid me slightly for failing to take a third person with us--as is standard on these trips--he agreed that the presence of another would probably have done nothing to help save De Vere.
Pray God he never finds out the truth.
15 February: More than a week since De Vere's death, and I have not seen Walker in that time. Castleton, too, is much improved, and appears well on the way to regaining his full health.
Subsequent sledge parties have inspected the crevasse, and agree that it was a terrible accident, but one that could not have been avoided. I have not been up on the plateau since my trip with De Vere. My thoughts continually turn to the man whom I left there, and I recall what Cook wrote more than one hundred years ago. He was speaking of this place; but the words could, I think, equally be applied to De Vere: "Doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun's rays, but to be buried in everlasting snow and ice."
A soft flutter of leaves whispered like a sigh as Emily finished reading. The last traces of day had vanished, leaving behind shadows which pooled at the corners of the room. She sat in silence for some time, her eyes far away; then she closed the journal gently, almost with reverence, and placed it on the table beside her. The writer's card stared up at her, and she considered it.
"He would not understand," she said at last. "And they are all dead; they can neither explain nor defend themselves or their actions." She looked at her father's photograph, now blurred in the gathering darkness. "Yet you did not destroy this." She touched the journal with fingers delicate as a snowflake. "You left it for me to decide, keeping this a secret even from my mother. You must have thought that I would know what to do."
Pray God he never finds out the truth.
She remained in her chair for some moments longer. Then, with an effort, Emily rose from her chair and, picking up the journal, crossed once more to the rosewood desk and its shadows. She placed the journal in its drawer, where it rested beside a pipe which had lain unsmoked for decades. The ceramic cat watched with blank eyes as she turned out the light. In so doing she knocked the card to the floor, where it lay undisturbed.