|Home | Biography | Ranch Album | Writings | Links|
No wonder we called it Endeavour Island. For two weeks we toiled at building a hut. Maud insisted on helping, and I could have wept over her bruised and bleeding hands. And still, I was proud of her because of it. There was something heroic about this gently-bred woman enduring our terrible hardship and with her pittance of strength bending to the tasks of a peasant woman. She gathered many of the stones which I built into the walls of the hut; also, she turned a deaf ear to my entreaties when I begged her to desist. She compromised, however, by taking upon herself the lighter labours of cooking and gathering driftwood and moss for our winter’s supply.
The hut’s walls rose without difficulty, and everything went smoothly until the problem of the roof confronted me. Of what use the four walls without a roof? And of what could a roof be made? There were the spare oars, very true. They would serve as roof-beams; but with what was I to cover them? Moss would never do. Tundra grass was impracticable. We needed the sail for the boat, and the tarpaulin had begun to leak.
“Winters used walrus skins on his hut,” I said.
“There are the seals,” she suggested.
So next day the hunting began. I did not know how to shoot, but I proceeded to learn. And when I had expended some thirty shells for three seals, I decided that the ammunition would be exhausted before I acquired the necessary knowledge. I had used eight shells for lighting fires before I hit upon the device of banking the embers with wet moss, and there remained not over a hundred shells in the box.
“We must club the seals,” I announced, when convinced of my poor marksmanship. “I have heard the sealers talk about clubbing them.”
“They are so pretty,” she objected. “I cannot bear to think of it being done. It is so directly brutal, you know; so different from shooting them.”
“That roof must go on,” I answered grimly. “Winter is almost here. It is our lives against theirs. It is unfortunate we haven’t plenty of ammunition, but I think, anyway, that they suffer less from being clubbed than from being all shot up. Besides, I shall do the clubbing.”
“That’s just it,” she began eagerly, and broke off in sudden confusion.
“Of course,” I began, “if you prefer—”
“But what shall I be doing?” she interrupted, with that softness I knew full well to be insistence.
“Gathering firewood and cooking dinner,” I answered lightly.
She shook her head. “It is too dangerous for you to attempt alone.”
“I know, I know,” she waived my protest. “I am only a weak woman, but just my small assistance may enable you to escape disaster.”
“But the clubbing?” I suggested.
“Of course, you will do that. I shall probably scream. I’ll look away when—”
“The danger is most serious,” I laughed.
“I shall use my judgment when to look and when not to look,” she replied with a grand air.
The upshot of the affair was that she accompanied me next morning. I rowed into the adjoining cove and up to the edge of the beach. There were seals all about us in the water, and the bellowing thousands on the beach compelled us to shout at each other to make ourselves heard.
“I know men club them,” I said, trying to reassure myself, and gazing doubtfully at a large bull, not thirty feet away, upreared on his fore-flippers and regarding me intently. “But the question is, How do they club them?”
“Let us gather tundra grass and thatch the roof,” Maud said.
She was as frightened as I at the prospect, and we had reason to be gazing at close range at the gleaming teeth and dog-like mouths.
“I always thought they were afraid of men,” I said.
“How do I know they are not afraid?” I queried a moment later, after having rowed a few more strokes along the beach. “Perhaps, if I were to step boldly ashore, they would cut for it, and I could not catch up with one.” And still I hesitated.
“I heard of a man, once, who invaded the nesting grounds of wild geese,” Maud said. “They killed him.”
“Yes, the geese. My brother told me about it when I was a little girl.”
“But I know men club them,” I persisted.
“I think the tundra grass will make just as good a roof,” she said.
Far from her intention, her words were maddening me, driving me on. I could not play the coward before her eyes. “Here goes,” I said, backing water with one oar and running the bow ashore.
I stepped out and advanced valiantly upon a long-maned bull in the midst of his wives. I was armed with the regular club with which the boat-pullers killed the wounded seals gaffed aboard by the hunters. It was only a foot and a half long, and in my superb ignorance I never dreamed that the club used ashore when raiding the rookeries measured four to five feet. The cows lumbered out of my way, and the distance between me and the bull decreased. He raised himself on his flippers with an angry movement. We were a dozen feet apart. Still I advanced steadily, looking for him to turn tail at any moment and run.
At six feet the panicky thought rushed into my mind, What if he will not run? Why, then I shall club him, came the answer. In my fear I had forgotten that I was there to get the bull instead of to make him run. And just then he gave a snort and a snarl and rushed at me. His eyes were blazing, his mouth was wide open; the teeth gleamed cruelly white. Without shame, I confess that it was I who turned and footed it. He ran awkwardly, but he ran well. He was but two paces behind when I tumbled into the boat, and as I shoved off with an oar his teeth crunched down upon the blade. The stout wood was crushed like an egg-shell. Maud and I were astounded. A moment later he had dived under the boat, seized the keel in his mouth, and was shaking the boat violently.
“My!” said Maud. “Let’s go back.”
I shook my head. “I can do what other men have done, and I know that other men have clubbed seals. But I think I’ll leave the bulls alone next time.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” she said.
“Now don’t say, ‘Please, please,’” I cried, half angrily, I do believe.
She made no reply, and I knew my tone must have hurt her.
“I beg your pardon,” I said, or shouted, rather, in order to make myself heard above the roar of the rookery. “If you say so, I’ll turn and go back; but honestly, I’d rather stay.”
“Now don’t say that this is what you get for bringing a woman along,” she said. She smiled at me whimsically, gloriously, and I knew there was no need for forgiveness.
I rowed a couple of hundred feet along the beach so as to recover my nerves, and then stepped ashore again.
“Do be cautious,” she called after me.
I nodded my head and proceeded to make a flank attack on the nearest harem. All went well until I aimed a blow at an outlying cowls head and fell short. She snorted and tried to scramble away. I ran in close and struck another blow, hitting the shoulder instead of the head.
“Watch out!” I heard Maud scream.
In my excitement I had not been taking notice of other things, and I looked up to see the lord of the harem charging down upon me. Again I fled to the boat, hotly pursued; but this time Maud made no suggestion of turning back.
“It would be better, I imagine, if you let harems alone and devoted your attention to lonely and inoffensive-looking seals,” was what she said. “I think I have read something about them. Dr. Jordan’s book, I believe. They are the young bulls, not old enough to have harems of their own. He called them the holluschickie, or something like that. It seems to me if we find where they haul out—”
“It seems to me that your fighting instinct is aroused,” I laughed.
She flushed quickly and prettily. “I’ll admit I don’t like defeat any more than you do, or any more than I like the idea of killing such pretty, inoffensive creatures.”
“Pretty!” I sniffed. “I failed to mark anything pre-eminently pretty about those foamy-mouthed beasts that raced me.”
“Your point of view,” she laughed. “You lacked perspective. Now if you did not have to get so close to the subject—”
“The very thing!” I cried. “What I need is a longer club. And there’s that broken oar ready to hand.”
“It just comes to me,” she said, “that Captain Larsen was telling me how the men raided the rookeries. They drive the seals, in small herds, a short distance inland before they kill them.”
“I don’t care to undertake the herding of one of those harems,” I objected.
“But there are the holluschickie,” she said. “The holluschickie haul out by themselves, and Dr. Jordan says that paths are left between the harems, and that as long as the holluschickie keep strictly to the path they are unmolested by the masters of the harem.”
“There’s one now,” I said, pointing to a young bull in the water. “Let’s watch him, and follow him if he hauls out.”
He swam directly to the beach and clambered out into a small opening between two harems, the masters of which made warning noises but did not attack him. We watched him travel slowly inward, threading about among the harems along what must have been the path.
“Here goes,” I said, stepping out; but I confess my heart was in my mouth as I thought of going through the heart of that monstrous herd.
“It would be wise to make the boat fast,” Maud said.
She had stepped out beside me, and I regarded her with wonderment.
She nodded her head determinedly. “Yes, I’m going with you, so you may as well secure the boat and arm me with a club.”
“Let’s go back,” I said dejectedly. “I think tundra grass, will do, after all.”
“You know it won’t,” was her reply. “Shall I lead?”
With a shrug of the shoulders, but with the warmest admiration and pride at heart for this woman, I equipped her with the broken oar and took another for myself. It was with nervous trepidation that we made the first few rods of the journey. Once Maud screamed in terror as a cow thrust an inquisitive nose toward her foot, and several times I quickened my pace for the same reason. But, beyond warning coughs from either side, there were no signs of hostility. It was a rookery which had never been raided by the hunters, and in consequence the seals were mild-tempered and at the same time unafraid.
In the very heart of the herd the din was terrific. It was almost dizzying in its effect. I paused and smiled reassuringly at Maud, for I had recovered my equanimity sooner than she. I could see that she was still badly frightened. She came close to me and shouted:
“I’m dreadfully afraid!”
And I was not. Though the novelty had not yet worn off, the peaceful comportment of the seals had quieted my alarm. Maud was trembling.
“I’m afraid, and I’m not afraid,” she chattered with shaking jaws. “It’s my miserable body, not I.”
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I reassured her, my arm passing instinctively and protectingly around her.
I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious I became of my manhood. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred. I felt myself masculine, the protector of the weak, the fighting male. And, best of all, I felt myself the protector of my loved one. She leaned against me, so light and lily-frail, and as her trembling eased away it seemed as though I became aware of prodigious strength. I felt myself a match for the most ferocious bull in the herd, and I know, had such a bull charged upon me, that I should have met it unflinchingly and quite coolly, and I know that I should have killed it.
“I am all right now,” she said, looking up at me gratefully. “Let us go on.”
And that the strength in me had quieted her and given her confidence, filled me with an exultant joy. The youth of the race seemed burgeoning in me, over-civilized man that I was, and I lived for myself the old hunting days and forest nights of my remote and forgotten ancestry. I had much for which to thank Wolf Larsen, was my thought as we went along the path between the jostling harems.
A quarter of a mile inland we came upon the holluschickie—sleek young bulls, living out the loneliness of their bachelorhood and gathering strength against the day when they would fight their way into the ranks of the Benedicts.
Everything now went smoothly. I seemed to know just what to do and how to do it. Shouting, making threatening gestures with my club, and even prodding the lazy ones, I quickly cut out a score of the young bachelors from their companions. Whenever one made an attempt to break back toward the water, I headed it off. Maud took an active part in the drive, and with her cries and flourishings of the broken oar was of considerable assistance. I noticed, though, that whenever one looked tired and lagged, she let it slip past. But I noticed, also, whenever one, with a show of fight, tried to break past, that her eyes glinted and showed bright, and she rapped it smartly with her club.
“My, it’s exciting!” she cried, pausing from sheer weakness. “I think I’ll sit down.”
I drove the little herd (a dozen strong, now, what of the escapes she had permitted) a hundred yards farther on; and by the time she joined me I had finished the slaughter and was beginning to skin. An hour later we went proudly back along the path between the harems. And twice again we came down the path burdened with skins, till I thought we had enough to roof the hut. I set the sail, laid one tack out of the cove, and on the other tack made our own little inner cove.
“It’s just like home-coming,” Maud said, as I ran the boat ashore.
I heard her words with a responsive thrill, it was all so dearly intimate and natural, and I said:
“It seems as though I have lived this life always. The world of books and bookish folk is very vague, more like a dream memory than an actuality. I surely have hunted and forayed and fought all the days of my life. And you, too, seem a part of it. You are—” I was on the verge of saying, “my woman, my mate,” but glibly changed it to—“standing the hardship well.”
But her ear had caught the flaw. She recognized a flight that midmost broke. She gave me a quick look.
“Not that. You were saying—?”
“That the American Mrs. Meynell was living the life of a savage and living it quite successfully,” I said easily.
“Oh,” was all she replied; but I could have sworn there was a note of disappointment in her voice.
But “my woman, my mate” kept ringing in my head for the rest of the day and for many days. Yet never did it ring more loudly than that night, as I watched her draw back the blanket of moss from the coals, blow up the fire, and cook the evening meal. It must have been latent savagery stirring in me, for the old words, so bound up with the roots of the race, to grip me and thrill me. And grip and thrill they did, till I fell asleep, murmuring them to myself over and over again.
|Home | Biography | Ranch Album | Writings | Links|