On the Northern Ice


THE winter nights up at Sault Ste. Marie are as white and luminous as the Milky Way. The silence which rests upon the solitude appears to be white also. Even sound has been included in Nature's arrestment, for, indeed, save the still white frost, all things seem to be obliterated. The stars have a poignant brightness, but they belong to heaven and not to earth, and between their immeasurable height and the still ice rolls the ebon ether in vast, liquid billows.

In such a place it is difficult to believe that the world is actually peopled. It seems as if it might be the dark of the day after Cain killed Abel, and as if all of humanity's remainder was huddled in affright away from the awful spaciousness of Creation.

The night Ralph Hagadorn started out for Echo Bay -- bent on a pleasant duty -- he laughed to himself, and said that he did not at all object to being the only man in the world, so long as the world remained as unspeakably beautiful as it was when he buckled on his skates and shot away into the solitude. He was bent on reaching his best friend in time to act as groomsman, and business had delayed him till time was at its briefest. So he journeyed by night and journeyed alone, and when the tang of the frost got at his blood, he felt as a spirited horse feels when it gets free of bit and bridle. The ice was as glass, his skates were keen, his frame fit, and his venture to his taste! So he laughed, and cut through the air as a sharp stone cleaves the water. He could hear the whistling of the air as he cleft it.

As he went on and on in the black stillness, he began to have fancies. He imagined himself enormously tall -- a great Viking of the Northland, hastening over icy fiords to his love. And that reminded him that he had a love -- though, indeed, that thought was always present with him as a background for other thoughts. To be sure, he had not told her that she was his love, for he had seen her only a few times, and the auspicious occasion had not yet presented itself. She lived at Echo Bay also, and was to be the maid of honor to his friend's bride -- which was one more reason why he skated almost as swiftly as the wind, and why, now and then, he let out a shout of exultation.

The one cloud that crossed Hagadorn's sun of expectancy was the knowledge that Marie Beaujeu's father had money, and that Marie lived in a house with two stories to it, and wore otter skin about her throat and little satin-lined mink boots on her feet when she went sledding. Moreover, in the locket in which she treasured a bit of her dead mother's hair, there was a black pearl as big as a pea. These things made it difficult -- perhaps impossible -- for Ralph Hagadorn to say more than, "I love you." But that much he meant to say though he were scourged with chagrin for his temerity.

This determination grew upon him as he swept along the ice under the starlight. Venus made a glowing path toward the west and seemed eager to reassure him. He was sorry he could not skim down that avenue of light which flowed from the love-star, but he was forced to turn his back upon it and face the black northeast.

It came to him with a shock that he was not alone. His eyelashes were frosted and his eyeballs blurred with the cold, so at first he thought it might be an illusion. But when he had rubbed his eyes hard, he made sure that not very far in front of him was a long white skater in fluttering garments who sped over the ice as fast as ever werewolf went.

He called aloud, but there was no answer. He shaped his hands and trumpeted through them, but the silence was as before -- it was complete. So then he gave chase, setting his teeth hard and putting a tension on his firm young muscles. But go however he would, the white skater went faster. After a time, as he glanced at the cold gleam of the north star, he perceived that he was being led from his direct path. For a moment he hesitated, wondering if he would not better keep to his road, but his weird companion seemed to draw him on irresistibly, and finding it sweet to follow, he followed.

Of course it came to him more than once in that strange pursuit, that the white skater was no earthly guide. Up in those latitudes men see curious things when the hoar frost is on the earth. Hagadorn's own father -- to hark no further than that for an instance! -- who lived up there with the Lake Superior Indians, and worked in the copper mines, had welcomed a woman at his hut one bitter night, who was gone by morning, leaving wolf tracks on the snow! Yes, it was so, and John Fontanelle, the half-breed, could tell you about it any day -- if he were alive. (Alack, the snow where the wolf tracks were, is melted now!)

Well, Hagadorn followed the white skater all the night, and when the ice flushed pink at dawn, and arrows of lovely light shot up into the cold heavens, she was gone, and Hagadorn was at his destination. The sun climbed arrogantly up to his place above all other things, and as Hagadorn took off his skates and glanced carelessly lakeward, he beheld a great wind-rift in the ice, and the waves showing blue and hungry between white fields. Had he rushed along his intended path, watching the stars to guide him, his glance turned upward, all his body at magnificent momentum, he must certainly have gone into that cold grave.

How wonderful that it had been sweet to follow the white skater, and that he followed!

His heart beat hard as he hurried to his friend's house. But he encountered no wedding furore. His friend met him as men meet in houses of mourning.

"Is this your wedding face?" cried Hagadorn. Why, man, starved as I am, I look more like a bridegroom than you!"

"There's no wedding to-day!"

"No wedding! Why, you're not --"

"Marie Beaujeu died last night --"

"Marie --"

"Died last night. She had been skating in the afternoon, and she came home chilled and wandering in her mind, as if the frost had got in it somehow. She grew worse and worse, and all the time she talked of you."

"Of me?"

"We wondered what it meant. No one knew you were lovers."

"I didn't know it myself; more's the pity. At least, I didn't know --"

"She said you were on the ice, and that you didn't know about the big breaking-up, and she cried to us that the wind was off shore and the rift widening. She cried over and over again that you could come in by the old French creek if you only knew --"

"I came in that way."

"But how did you come to do that? It's out of the path. We thought perhaps --"

But Hagadorn broke in with his story and told him all as it had come to pass.

That day they watched beside the maiden, who lay with tapers at her head and at her feet, and in the little church the bride who might have been at her wedding said prayers for her friend. They buried Marie Beaujeu in her bridesmaid white, and Hagadorn was before the altar with her, as he had intended from the first! Then at midnight the lovers who were to wed whispered their vows in the gloom of the cold church, and walked together through the snow to lay their bridal wreaths upon a grave.

Three nights later, Hagadorn skated back again to his home. They wanted him to go by sunlight, but he had his way, and went when Venus made her bright path on the ice.

The truth was, he had hoped for the companionship of the white skater. But he did not have it. His only companion was the wind. The only voice he heard was the baying of a wolf on the north shore. The world was as empty and as white as if God had just created it, and the sun had not yet colored nor man defiled it.


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