In Labrador

by


In Labrador was anthologized in The Literary World Seventh Reader, John Calvin Metcalf, editor (1919).

I

Trafford and Marjorie were in Labrador to spend the winter. It was a queer idea for a noted vscientist and rich and successful business man to cut himself loose from the world of London and go out into the Arctic storm and darkness of one of the bleakest quarters of the globe. But Trafford had fallen into a discontent with living, a weariness of the round of work and pleasure, and it was in the hope of winning back his lost zest and happiness that he had made up his mind to try the cure of the wilderness. Marjorie had insisted, like a good wife, on leaving children and home and comfort and accompanying him into the frozen wilds.

The voyage across the sea and the march inland into Labrador were uneventful. Trafford chose his winter-quarters on the side of a low razor-hacked, rocky mountain ridge, about fifty feet above a little river. Not a dozen miles away from them, they reckoned, was the Height of Land, the low watershed between the waters that go to the Atlantic and those that go to Hudson’s Bay. North and north-east of them the country rose to a line of low crests, with here and there a yellowing patch of last year’s snow, and across the valley were slopes covered in places by woods of stunted pine. It had an empty spaciousness of effect; the one continually living thing seemed to be the river, hurrying headlong, noisily, perpetually, in an eternal flight from this high desolation.

For nearly four weeks indeed they were occupied very closely in fixing their cabin and making their other preparations, and crept into their bunks at night as tired as wholesome animals who drop to sleep. At any time the weather might break; already there had been two overcast days and a frowning conference of clouds in the north. When at last storms began, they knew there would be nothing for it but to keep in the hut until the world froze up.

The weather broke at last. One might say it smashed itself over their heads. There came an afternoon darkness swift and sudden, a wild gale, and an icy sleet that gave place in the night to snow, so that Trafford looked out next morning to see a maddening chaos of small white flakes, incredibly swift, against something that was neither darkness nor light. Even with the door but partly ajar, a cruelty of cold put its claw within, set everything that was movable swaying and clattering, and made Marjorie hasten shuddering to heap fresh logs upon the fire. Once or twice Trafford went out to inspect tent and roof and store-shed; several times, wrapped to the nose, he battled his way for fresh wood, and for the rest of the blizzard they kept to the hut. It was slumberously stuffy, but comfortingly full of flavors of tobacco and food. There were two days of intermission and a day of gusts and icy sleet again, turning with one extraordinary clap of thunder to a wild downpour of dancing lumps of ice, and then a night when it seemed all Labrador, earth and sky together, was in hysterical protest against inconceivable wrongs.

And then the break was over; the annual freezing-up accomplished; winter had established itself; the snowfall moderated and ceased, and an ice-bound world shone white and sunlit under a cloudless sky.

One morning Trafford found the footmarks of some catlike creature in the snow near the bushes where he was accustomed to get firewood; they led away very plainly up the hill, and after breakfast he took his knife and rifle and snowshoes and went after the lynx—for that he decided the animal must be. There was no urgent reason why he should want to kill a lynx, unless perhaps that killing it made the store-shed a trifle safer; but it was the first trail of any living thing for many days; it promised excitement; some vprimitive instinct perhaps urged him.

The morning was a little overcast, and very cold between the gleams of wintry sunshine. “Good-by, dear wife!” he said, and then as she remembered afterward came back a dozen yards to kiss her. “I’ll not be long,” he said. “The beast’s prowling, and if it doesn’t get wind of me, I ought to find it in an hour.” He hesitated for a moment. “I’ll not be long,” he repeated, and she had an instant’s wonder whether he hid from her the same dread of loneliness that she concealed. Up among the tumbled rocks he turned, and she was still watching him. “Good-by!” he cried and waved, and the willow thickets closed about him.

She forced herself to the petty duties of the day, made up the fire from the pile he had left for her, set water to boil, put the hut in order, brought out sheets and blankets to air, and set herself to wash up. She wished she had been able to go with him. The sky cleared presently, and the low December sun lit all the world about her, but it left her spirit desolate.

She did not expect him to return until midday, and she sat herself down on a log before the fire to darn a pair of socks as well as she could. For a time this unusual occupation held her attention and then her hands became slow and at last inactive, and she fell into reverie. Thoughts came quick and fast of her children in England so far away.

What was that? She flashed to her feet.

It seemed to her she had heard the sound of a shot, and a quick, brief wake of echoes. She looked across the icy waste of the river, and then up the tangled slopes of the mountain. Her heart was beating fast. It must have been up there, and no doubt Trafford had killed his beast. Some shadow of doubt she would not admit crossed that obvious suggestion. The wilderness was making her as nervously responsive as a creature of the wild.

There came a second shot; this time there was no doubt of it. Then the desolate silence closed about her again.

Marjorie stood for a long time, staring at the shrubby slopes that rose to the barren rock wilderness of the purple mountain crest. She sighed deeply at last, and set herself to make up the fire and prepare for the midday meal. Once, far away across the river, she heard the howl of a wolf.

Time seemed to pass very slowly that day. Marjorie found herself going repeatedly to the space between the day tent and the sleeping hut from which she could see the stunted wood that had swallowed her husband up, and after what seemed a long hour her watch told her it was still only half-past twelve. And the fourth or fifth time that she went to look out she was set a-tremble again by the sound of a third shot. And then at regular intervals out of that distant brown-purple jumble of thickets against the snow came two more shots. “Something has happened,” she said, “something has happened,” and stood rigid. Then she became active, seized the rifle that was always at hand when she was alone, fired into the sky, and stood listening.

Prompt came an answering shot.

“He wants me,” said Marjorie. “Something—perhaps he has killed something too big to bring!”

She was for starting at once, and then remembered this was not the way of the wilderness.

She thought and moved very rapidly. Her mind catalogued possible requirements,—rifle, hunting knife, the oilskin bag with matches, and some chunks of dry paper, the vrucksack. Besides, he would be hungry. She took a saucepan and a huge chunk of cheese and biscuit. Then a brandy flask is sometimes handy—one never knows,—though nothing was wrong, of course. Needles and stout thread, and some cord. Snowshoes. A waterproof cloak could be easily carried. Her light hatchet for wood. She cast about to see if there was anything else. She had almost forgotten cartridges—and a revolver. Nothing more. She kicked a stray brand or so into the fire, put on some more wood, damped the fire with an armful of snow to make it last longer, and set out toward the willows into which he had vanished.

There was a rustling and snapping of branches as she pushed her way through the bushes, a little stir that died insensibly into quiet again; and then the camping place became very still.

Trafford’s trail led Marjorie through the thicket of dwarf willows and down to the gully of the rivulet which they had called Marjorie Trickle; it had long since become a trough of snow-covered, rotten ice. The trail crossed this and, turning sharply uphill, went on until it was clear of shrubs and trees, and, in the windy open of the upper slopes, it crossed a ridge and came over the lip of a large desolate valley with slopes of ice and icy snow. Here Marjorie spent some time in following his loops back on the homeward trail before she saw what was manifestly the final trail running far away out across the snow, with the vspoor of the lynx, a lightly-dotted line, to the right of it. She followed this suggestion of the trail, put on her snowshoes, and shuffled her way across this valley, which opened as she proceeded. She hoped that over the ridge she would find Trafford, and scanned the sky for the faintest discoloration of a fire, but there was none. That seemed odd to her, but the wind was in her face, and perhaps it beat the smoke down. Then as her eyes scanned the hummocky ridge ahead, she saw something, something very intent and still, that brought her heart into her mouth. It was a big gray wolf, standing with back haunched and head down, watching and scenting something beyond.

Marjorie had an instinctive fear of wild animals, and it still seemed dreadful to her that they should go at large, uncaged. She suddenly wanted Trafford violently, wanted him by her side. Also, she thought of leaving the trail, going back to the bushes. But presently her nerve returned. In the wastes one did not fear wild beasts, one had no fear of them. But why not fire a shot to let him know she was near?

The beast flashed round with an animal’s instantaneous change of pose, and looked at her. For a couple of seconds, perhaps, woman and brute regarded one another across a quarter of a mile of snowy desolation.

Suppose it came toward her!

She would fire—and she would fire at it. Marjorie made a guess at the range and aimed very carefully. She saw the snow fly two yards ahead of the grisly shape, and then in an instant the beast had vanished over the crest.

She reloaded, and stood for a moment waiting for Trafford’s answer. No answer came. “Queer!” she whispered, “queer!”—and suddenly such a horror of anticipation assailed her that she started running and floundering through the snow to escape it. Twice she called his name, and once she just stopped herself from firing a shot.

Over the ridge she would find him. Surely she would find him over the ridge!

She now trampled among rocks, and there was a beaten place where Trafford must have waited and crouched. Then on and down a slope of tumbled boulders. There came a patch where he had either thrown himself down or fallen; it seemed to her he must have been running.

Suddenly, a hundred feet or so away, she saw a patch of violently disturbed snow—snow stained a dreadful color, a snow of scarlet crystals! Three strides and Trafford was in sight.

She had a swift conviction that he was dead. He was lying in a crumpled attitude on a patch of snow between vconvergent rocks, and the lynx, a mass of blood-smeared, silvery fur, was in some way mixed up with him. She saw as she came nearer that the snow was disturbed round about them, and discolored vcopiously, yellow, and in places bright red, with congealed and frozen blood. She felt no fear now and no emotion; all her mind was engaged with the clear, bleak perception of the fact before her. She did not care to call to him again. His head was hidden by the lynx’s body, as if he was burrowing underneath the creature; his legs were twisted about each other in a queer, unnatural attitude.

Then, as she dropped off a boulder, and came nearer, Trafford moved. A hand came out and gripped the rifle beside him; he suddenly lifted a dreadful face, horribly scarred and torn, and crimson with frozen blood; he pushed the gray beast aside, rose on an elbow, wiped his sleeve across his eyes, stared at her, grunted, and flopped forward. He had fainted.

Marjorie was now as clear-minded and as self-possessed as a woman in a shop. In another moment she was kneeling by his side. She saw, by the position of his knife and the huge rip in the beast’s body, that he had stabbed the lynx to death as it clawed his head; he must have shot and wounded it and then fallen upon it. His knitted cap was torn to ribbons, and hung upon his neck. Also his leg was manifestly injured—how, she could not tell. It was evident that he must freeze if he lay here, and it seemed to her that perhaps he had pulled the dead brute over him to protect his torn skin from the extremity of cold. The lynx was already rigid, its clumsy paws asprawl,—and the torn skin and clot upon Trafford’s face were stiff as she put her hands about his head to raise him. She turned him over on his back—how heavy he seemed?—and forced brandy between his teeth. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she poured a little brandy on his wounds.

She glanced at his leg, which was surely broken, and back at his face. Then she gave him more brandy, and his eyelids flickered. He moved his hand weakly. “The blood,” he said, “kept getting in my eyes.”

She gave him brandy once again, wiped his face, and glanced at his leg. Something ought to be done to that, Marjorie thought. But things must be done in order.

The woman stared up at the darkling sky with its gray promise of snow, and down the slopes of the mountain. Clearly they must stay the night here. They were too high for wood among these rocks, but three or four hundred yards below there were a number of dwarfed fir trees. She had brought an ax, so that a fire was possible. Should she go back to camp and get the tent?

Trafford was trying to speak again. “I got—”

“Yes?”

“Got my leg in that crack.”

Was he able to advise her? She looked at him, and then perceived that she must bind up his head and face. She knelt behind him and raised his head on her knee. She had a thick silk neck muffler, and this she supplemented by a band she cut and tore from her inner vest. She bound this, still warm from her body, about him, and wrapped her dark cloak round his shoulders. The next thing was a fire. Five yards away, perhaps, a great mass of purple vgabbro hung over a patch of nearly snowless moss. A hummock to the westward offered shelter from the bitter wind, the icy draught, that was soughing down the valley. Always in Labrador, if you can, you camp against a rock surface; it shelters you from the wind, guards your back.

“Dear!” she said.

“Awful hole,” said Trafford.

“What?” she cried sharply.

“Put you in an awful hole,” he said. “Eh?”

“Listen,” she said, and shook his shoulder. “Look! I want to get you up against that rock.”

“Won’t make much difference,” replied Trafford, and opened his eyes. “Where?” he asked.

“There.”

He remained quite quiet for a second perhaps. “Listen to me,” he said. “Go back to camp.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Go back to camp. Make a pack of all the strongest food—strenthin’—strengthrin’ food—you know?” He seemed unable to express himself.

“Yes,” she said.

“Down the river. Down—down. Till you meet help.”

“Leave you?”

He nodded his head and winced.

“You’re always plucky,” he said. “Look facts in the face. Children. Thought it over while you were coming.” A tear oozed from his eye. “Don’t be a fool, Madge. Kiss me good-by. Don’t be a fool. I’m done. Children.”

She stared at him and her spirit was a luminous mist of tears. “You old coward,” she said in his ear, and kissed the little patch of rough and bloody cheek beneath his eye. Then she knelt up beside him. “I’m boss now, old man,” she said. “I want to get you to that place there under the rock. If I drag, can you help?”

He answered obstinately: “You’d better go.”

“I’ll make you comfortable first,” she returned.

He made an enormous effort, and then, with her quick help and with his back to her knee, had raised himself on his elbows.

“And afterward?” he asked.

“Build a fire.”

“Wood?”

“Down there.”

“Two bits of wood tied on my leg—splints. Then I can drag myself. See? Like a blessed old walrus.”

He smiled and she kissed his bandaged face again.

“Else it hurts,” he apologized, “more than I can stand.”

She stood up again, put his rifle and knife to his hand, for fear of that lurking wolf, abandoning her own rifle with an effort, and went striding and leaping from rock to rock toward the trees below. She made the chips fly, and was presently towing three venerable pine dwarfs, bumping over rock and crevice, back to Trafford. She flung them down, stood for a moment bright and breathless, then set herself to hack off the splints he needed from the biggest stem. “Now,” she said, coming to him.

“A fool,” he remarked, “would have made the splints down there. You’re—good, Marjorie.”

She lugged his leg out straight, put it into the natural and least painful pose, padded it with moss and her torn handkerchief, and bound it up. As she did so a handful of snowflakes came whirling about them. She was now braced up to every possibility. “It never rains,” she said grimly, “but it pours,” and went on with her bone-setting. He was badly weakened by pain and shock, and once he spoke to her sharply. “Sorry,” he said a moment later.

She rolled him over on his chest, and left him to struggle to the shelter of the rock while she went for more wood.

The sky alarmed her. The mountains up the valley were already hidden by driven rags of slaty snowstorms. This time she found a longer but easier path for dragging her boughs and trees; she determined she would not start the fire until nightfall, nor waste any time in preparing food until then. There were dead boughs for kindling—more than enough. It was snowing quite fast by the time she got up to him with her second load, and a premature twilight already obscured and exaggerated the rocks and mounds about her. She gave some of her cheese to Trafford, and gnawed some herself on her way down to the wood again. She regretted that she had brought neither candles nor lantern, because then she might have kept on until the cold night stopped her, and she reproached herself bitterly because she had brought no tea. She could forgive herself the lantern, for she had never expected to be out after dark, but the tea was inexcusable. She muttered self-reproaches while she worked like two men among the trees, panting puffs of mist that froze upon her lips and iced the knitted wool that covered her chin. “Why don’t they teach a girl to handle an ax?” she cried.

II

When at last the wolfish cold of the Labrador night had come, it found Trafford and Marjorie seated almost warmly on a bed of pine boughs between the sheltering dark rock behind and a big but well-husbanded fire in front, drinking a queer-tasting but not unsavory soup of lynx-flesh, which she had fortified with the remainder of the brandy. Then they tried roast lynx and ate a little, and finished with some scraps of cheese and deep draughts of hot water.

The snowstorm poured incessantly out of the darkness to become flakes of burning fire in the light of the flames, flakes that vanished magically, but it only reached them and wetted them in occasional gusts. What did it matter for the moment if the dim snowheaps rose and rose about them? A glorious fatigue, an immense self-satisfaction, possessed Marjorie; she felt that they had both done well.

“I am not afraid of to-morrow now,” she said at last.

Trafford was smoking his pipe and did not speak for a moment. “Nor I,” he said at last. “Very likely we’ll get through with it.” He added after a pause: “I thought I was done for. A man—loses heart—after a loss of blood.”

“The leg’s better?”

“Hot as fire.” His humor hadn’t left him. “It’s a treat,” he said. “The hottest thing in Labrador.”

Later Marjorie slept, but on a spring as it were, lest the fire should fall. She replenished it with boughs, tucked in the half-burnt logs, and went to sleep again. Then it seemed to her that some invisible hand was pouring a thin spirit on the flames that made them leap and crackle and spread north and south until they filled the heavens with a gorgeous glow. The snowstorm was overpast, leaving the sky clear and all the westward heaven alight with the trailing, crackling, leaping curtains of the vaurora, brighter than she had ever seen them before. Quite clearly visible beyond the smolder of the fire, a wintry waste of rock and snow, boulder beyond boulder, passed into a vdun obscurity. The mountain to the right of them lay long and white and stiff, a shrouded death. All earth was dead and waste, and the sky alive and coldly marvelous, signalling and astir. She watched the changing, shifting colors, and they made her think of the gathering banners of inhuman hosts, the stir and marshaling of icy giants for ends stupendous and indifferent to all the trivial impertinence of man’s existence! Marjorie felt a passionate desire to pray.

The bleak, slow dawn found Marjorie intently busy. She had made up the fire, boiled water and washed and dressed Trafford’s wounds, and made another soup of lynx. But Trafford had weakened in the night; the soup nauseated him; he refused it and tried to smoke and was sick, and then sat back rather despairfully after a second attempt to persuade her to leave him there to die. This failure of his spirit distressed her and a little astonished her, but it only made her more resolute to go through with her work. She had awakened cold, stiff and weary, but her fatigue vanished with movement; she toiled for an hour replenishing her pile of fuel, made up the fire, put his gun ready to his hand, kissed him, abused him lovingly for the trouble he gave her until his poor torn face lit in response, and then parting on a note of cheerful confidence, set out to return to the hut. She found the way not altogether easy to make out; wind and snow had left scarcely a trace of their tracks, and her mind was full of the stores she must bring and the possibility of moving Trafford nearer to the hut. She was startled to see by the fresh, deep spoor along the ridge how near the wolf had dared approach them in the darkness.

Ever and again Marjorie had to halt and look back to get her direction right. As it was, she came through the willow scrub nearly half a mile above the hut, and had to follow the steep bank of the frozen river. Once she nearly slipped upon an icy slope of rock.

One possibility she did not dare to think of during that time—a blizzard now would cut her off absolutely from any return to Trafford. Short of that, she believed she could get through.

Her quick mind was full of all she had to do. At first she had thought chiefly of Trafford’s immediate necessities, of food and some sort of shelter. She had got a list of things in her head—meat extract, bandages, vcorrosive sublimate by way of antiseptic, brandy, a tin of beef, some bread, and so forth; she went over it several times to be sure of it, and then for a time she puzzled about a tent. She thought she could manage a bale of blankets on her back, and that she could rig a sleeping tent for herself and Trafford out of them and some bent sticks. The big tent would be too much to strike and shift. And then her mind went on to a bolder enterprise, which was to get him home. The nearer she could bring him to the log hut, the nearer they would be to supplies.

She cast about for some sort of sledge. The snow was too soft and broken for runners, especially among the trees, but if she could get a flat of smooth wood, she thought she might be able to drag him. She decided to try the side of her bunk, which she could easily get off. She would have, of course, to run it edgewise through the thickets and across the ravine, but after that she would have almost clear going up to the steep place of broken rocks within two hundred yards of him. The idea of a sledge grew upon her, and she planned to nail a rope along the edge and make a kind of harness for herself.

Marjorie found the camping-place piled high with drifted snow, which had invaded tent and hut, and that some beast, a wolverine she guessed, had been into the hut, devoured every candle-end and the uppers of Trafford’s well-greased second boots, and had then gone to the corner of the store-shed and clambered up to the stores. She took no account of its vdepredations there, but set herself to make a sledge and get her supplies together. There was a gleam of sunshine, though she did not like the look of the sky and she was horribly afraid of what might be happening to Trafford. She carried her stuff through the wood and across the ravine, and returned for her improvised sledge. She was still struggling with that among the trees when it began to snow again.

It was hard then not to be frantic in her efforts. As it was, she packed her stuff so loosely on the planking that she had to repack it, and she started without putting on her snowshoes, and floundered fifty yards before she discovered that omission. The snow was now falling fast, darkling the sky and hiding everything but objects close at hand, and she had to use all of her wits to determine her direction: she knew she must go down a long slope and then up to the ridge, and it came to her as a happy inspiration that if she bore to the left she might strike some recognizable vestige of her morning’s trail. She had read of people walking in circles when they have no light or guidance, and that troubled her until she bethought herself of the little compass on her watch chain. By that she kept her direction. She wished very much she had timed herself across the waste, so that she could tell when she approached the ridge.

Soon her back and shoulders were aching violently, and the rope across her chest was tugging like some evil-tempered thing. But she did not dare to rest. The snow was now falling thick and fast; the flakes traced white spirals and made her head spin, so that she was constantly falling away to the southwestward and then correcting herself by the compass. She tried to think how this zig-zagging might affect her course, but the snow whirls confused her mind and a growing anxiety would not let her pause to think.

Marjorie felt blinded; it seemed to be snowing inside her eyes so that she wanted to rub them. Soon the ground must rise to the ridge, she told herself; it must surely rise. Then the sledge came bumping at her heels and she perceived that she was going down hill. She consulted the compass and found she was facing south. She turned sharply to the right again. The snowfall became a noiseless, pitiless torture to sight and mind.

The sledge behind her struggled to hold her back, and the snow balled under her snowshoes. She wanted to stop and rest, take thought, sit for a moment. She struggled with herself and kept on. She tried walking with shut eyes, and tripped and came near sprawling. “Oh God!” she cried, “Oh God!” too stupefied for more varticulate prayers. She was leaden with fatigue.

Would the rise of the ground to the ribs of rock never come?

A figure, black and erect, stood in front of her suddenly, and beyond appeared a group of black, straight antagonists. She staggered on toward them, gripping her rifle with some muddled idea of defense, and in another moment she was brushing against the branches of a stunted fir, which shed thick lumps of snow upon her feet. What trees were these? Had she ever passed any trees? No! There were no trees on her way to Trafford.

At that Marjorie began whimpering like a tormented child. But even as she wept, she turned her sledge about to follow the edge of the wood. She was too much downhill, she thought, and must bear up again.

She left the trees behind, made an angle uphill to the right, and was presently among trees again. Again she left them and again came back to them. She screamed with anger and twitched her sledge along. She wiped at the snowstorm with her arm as though to wipe it away; she wanted to stamp on the universe.

And she ached, she ached.

Suddenly something caught her eye ahead, something that gleamed; it was exactly like a long, bare, rather pinkish bone standing erect on the ground. Just because it was strange and queer she ran forward to it. As she came nearer, she perceived that it was a streak of barked trunk; a branch had been torn off a pine tree and the bark stripped down to the root. And then came another, poking its pinkish wounds above the snow. And there were chips! This filled her with wonder. Some one had been cutting wood! There must be Indians or trappers near, she thought, and of a sudden realized that the wood-cutter could be none other than herself.

She turned to the right and saw the rocks rising steeply, close at hand. “Oh Ragg!” she cried, and fired her rifle in the air.

Ten seconds, twenty seconds, and then so loud and near it amazed her, came his answering shot.

In another moment Marjorie had discovered the trail she had made overnight and that morning by dragging firewood. It was now a shallow, soft white trench. Instantly her despair and fatigue had gone from her. Should she take a load of wood with her? she asked herself, in addition to the weight behind her, and immediately had a better idea. She would unload and pile her stuff here, and bring him down on the sledge closer to the wood. The woman looked about and saw two rocks that diverged, with a space between. She flashed schemes. She would trample the snow hard and flat, put her sledge on it, pile boughs and make a canopy of blanket overhead and behind. Finally there would be a fine, roaring fire in front.

She tossed her provisions down and ran up the broad windings of her pine-tree trail to Trafford, with the sledge bumping behind her. Marjorie ran as lightly as though she had done nothing that day.

She found Trafford markedly recovered, weak and quiet, with snow drifting over his feet, his rifle across his knees, and his pipe alight. “Back already”—

He hesitated. “No grub?”

The wife knelt over him, gave his rough, unshaven cheek a swift kiss, and rapidly explained her plan.

Marjorie carried it out with all of the will-power that was hers. In three days’ time, in spite of the snow, in spite of every other obstacle, they were back in the hut, and Trafford was comfortably settled in bed. The icy vastness of Labrador still lay around them to infinite distances on every side, but the two might laugh at storm and darkness now in their cosy hut, with plenty of fuel and food and light.


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