Children of the Frost - Jack London - ebook

Children of the Frost ebook

Jack London

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The protagonist of the story – the old Imber from the White Fish tribe can cause conflicting feelings among readers – he killed many white people without much reason, at first glance. He does not hide from justice, but he himself comes to the city of Yukon and admits everything he has done. What prompted him to such an act? And does the reason that prompted Imber to kill, deserve understanding?

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Liczba stron: 252

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Contents

IN THE FORESTS OF THE NORTH

THE LAW OF LIFE

NAM-BOK THE UNVERACIOUS

THE MASTER OF MYSTERY

THE SUNLANDERS

THE SICKNESS OF LONE CHIEF

KEESH, THE SON OF KEESH

THE DEATH OF LIGOUN

LI WAN, THE FAIR

THE LEAGUE OF THE OLD MEN

IN THE FORESTS OF THE NORTH

A weary journey beyond the last scrub timber and straggling copses, into the heart of the Barrens where the niggard North is supposed to deny the Earth, are to be found great sweeps of forests and stretches of smiling land. But this the world is just beginning to know. The world’s explorers have known it, from time to time, but hitherto they have never returned to tell the world.

The Barrens–well, they are the Barrens, the bad lands of the Arctic, the deserts of the Circle, the bleak and bitter home of the musk-ox and the lean plains wolf. So Avery Van Brunt found them, treeless and cheerless, sparsely clothed with moss and lichens, and altogether uninviting. At least so he found them till he penetrated to the white blank spaces on the map, and came upon undreamed-of rich spruce forests and unrecorded Eskimo tribes. It had been his intention, (and his bid for fame), to break up these white blank spaces and diversify them with the black markings of mountain-chains, sinks and basins, and sinuous river courses; and it was with added delight that he came to speculate upon the possibilities of timber belts and native villages.

Avery Van Brunt, or, in full distinction, Professor A. Van Brunt of the Geological Survey, was second in command of the expedition, and first in command of the sub-expedition which he had led on a side tour of some half a thousand miles up one of the branches of the Thelon and which he was now leading into one of his unrecorded villages. At his back plodded eight men, two of them French-Canadian voyageurs, and the remainder strapping Crees from Manitoba-way. He, alone, was full-blooded Saxon, and his blood was pounding fiercely through his veins to the traditions of his race. Clive and Hastings, Drake and Raleigh, Hengest and Horsa, walked with him. First of all men of his breed was he to enter this lone Northland village, and at the thought an exultancy came upon him, an exaltation, and his followers noted that his leg-weariness fell from him and that he insensibly quickened the pace.

The village emptied itself, and a motley crowd trooped out to meet him, men in the forefront, with bows and spears clutched menacingly, and women and children faltering timidly in the rear. Van Brunt lifted his right arm and made the universal peace sign, a sign which all peoples know, and the villagers answered in peace. But to his chagrin, a skin-clad man ran forward and thrust out his hand with a familiar “Hello.” He was a bearded man, with cheeks and brow bronzed to copper-brown, and in him Van Brunt knew his kind.

“Who are you?” he asked, gripping the extended hand. “Andrée?”

“Who’s Andrée?” the man asked back.

Van Brunt looked at him more sharply. “By George, you’ve been here some time.”

“Five years,” the man answered, a dim flicker of pride in his eyes. “But come on, let’s talk.”

“Let them camp alongside of me,” he answered Van Brunt’s glance at his party. “Old Tantlatch will take care of them. Come on.”

He swung off in a long stride, Van Brunt following at his heels through the village. In irregular fashion, wherever the ground favored, the lodges of moose hide were pitched. Van Brunt ran his practised eye over them and calculated.

“Two hundred, not counting the young ones,” he summed up.

The man nodded. “Pretty close to it. But here’s where I live, out of the thick of it, you know–more privacy and all that. Sit down. I’ll eat with you when your men get something cooked up. I’ve forgotten what tea tastes like... Five years and never a taste or smell... Any tobacco?... Ah, thanks, and a pipe? Good. Now for a fire-stick and we’ll see if the weed has lost its cunning.”

He scratched the match with the painstaking care of the woodsman, cherished its young flame as though there were never another in all the world, and drew in the first mouthful of smoke. This he retained meditatively for a time, and blew out through his pursed lips slowly and caressingly. Then his face seemed to soften as he leaned back, and a soft blur to film his eyes. He sighed heavily, happily, with immeasurable content, and then said suddenly:

“God! But that tastes good!”

Van Brunt nodded sympathetically. “Five years, you say?”

“Five years.” The man sighed again. “And you, I presume, wish to know about it, being naturally curious, and this a sufficiently strange situation, and all that. But it’s not much. I came in from Edmonton after musk-ox, and like Pike and the rest of them, had my mischances, only I lost my party and outfit. Starvation, hardship, the regular tale, you know, sole survivor and all that, till I crawled into Tantlatch’s, here, on hand and knee.”

“Five years,” Van Brunt murmured retrospectively, as though turning things over in his mind.

“Five years on February last. I crossed the Great Slave early in May–”

“And you are... Fairfax?” Van Brunt interjected.

The man nodded.

“Let me see... John, I think it is, John Fairfax.”

“How did you know?” Fairfax queried lazily, half-absorbed in curling smoke-spirals upward in the quiet air.

“The papers were full of it at the time. Prevanche–”

“Prevanche!” Fairfax sat up, suddenly alert. “He was lost in the Smoke Mountains.”

“Yes, but he pulled through and came out.”

Fairfax settled back again and resumed his smoke-spirals. “I am glad to hear it,” he remarked reflectively. “Prevanche was a bully fellow if he did have ideas about head-straps, the beggar. And he pulled through? Well, I’m glad.”

Five years... the phrase drifted recurrently through Van Brunt’s thought, and somehow the face of Emily Southwaithe seemed to rise up and take form before him. Five years... A wedge of wild-fowl honked low overhead and at sight of the encampment veered swiftly to the north into the smouldering sun. Van Brunt could not follow them. He pulled out his watch. It was an hour past midnight. The northward clouds flushed bloodily, and rays of sombre-red shot southward, firing the gloomy woods with a lurid radiance. The air was in breathless calm, not a needle quivered, and the least sounds of the camp were distinct and clear as trumpet calls. The Crees and voyageurs felt the spirit of it and mumbled in dreamy undertones, and the cook unconsciously subdued the clatter of pot and pan. Somewhere a child was crying, and from the depths of the forest, like a silver thread, rose a woman’s voice in mournful chant: “O-o-o-o-o-o-a-haa-ha-a-ha-aa-a-a, O-o-o-o-o-o-a-ha-a-ha-a.”

Van Brunt shivered and rubbed the backs of his hands briskly.

“And they gave me up for dead?” his companion asked slowly.

“Well, you never came back, so your friends–”

“Promptly forgot.” Fairfax laughed harshly, defiantly.

“Why didn’t you come out?”

“Partly disinclination, I suppose, and partly because of circumstances over which I had no control. You see, Tantlatch, here, was down with a broken leg when I made his acquaintance,–a nasty fracture,–and I set it for him and got him into shape. I stayed some time, getting my strength back. I was the first white man he had seen, and of course I seemed very wise and showed his people no end of things. Coached them up in military tactics, among other things, so that they conquered the four other tribal villages, (which you have not yet seen), and came to rule the land. And they naturally grew to think a good deal of me, so much so that when I was ready to go they wouldn’t hear of it. Were most hospitable, in fact. Put a couple of guards over me and watched me day and night. And then Tantlatch offered me inducements,–in a sense, inducements,–so to say, and as it didn’t matter much one way or the other, I reconciled myself to remaining.”

“I knew your brother at Freiburg. I am Van Brunt.”

Fairfax reached forward impulsively and shook his hand. “You were Billy’s friend, eh? Poor Billy! He spoke of you often.”

“Rum meeting place, though,” he added, casting an embracing glance over the primordial landscape and listening for a moment to the woman’s mournful notes. “Her man was clawed by a bear, and she’s taking it hard.”

“Beastly life!” Van Brunt grimaced his disgust. “I suppose, after five years of it, civilization will be sweet? What do you say?”

Fairfax’s face took on a stolid expression. “Oh, I don’t know. At least they’re honest folk and live according to their lights. And then they are amazingly simple. No complexity about them, no thousand and one subtle ramifications to every single emotion they experience. They love, fear, hate, are angered, or made happy, in common, ordinary, and unmistakable terms. It may be a beastly life, but at least it is easy to live. No philandering, no dallying. If a woman likes you, she’ll not be backward in telling you so. If she hates you, she’ll tell you so, and then, if you feel inclined, you can beat her, but the thing is, she knows precisely what you mean, and you know precisely what she means. No mistakes, no misunderstandings. It has its charm, after civilization’s fitful fever. Comprehend?”

“No, it’s a pretty good life,” he continued, after a pause; “good enough for me, and I intend to stay with it.”

Van Brunt lowered his head in a musing manner, and an imperceptible smile played on his mouth. No philandering, no dallying, no misunderstanding. Fairfax also was taking it hard, he thought, just because Emily Southwaithe had been mistakenly clawed by a bear. And not a bad sort of a bear, either, was Carlton Southwaithe.

“But you are coming along with me,” Van Brunt said deliberately.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Life’s too easy here, I tell you.” Fairfax spoke with decision. “I understand everything, and I am understood. Summer and winter alternate like the sun flashing through the palings of a fence, the seasons are a blur of light and shade, and time slips by, and life slips by, and then... a wailing in the forest, and the dark. Listen!”

He held up his hand, and the silver thread of the woman’s sorrow rose through the silence and the calm. Fairfax joined in softly.

“O-o-o-o-o-o-a-haa-ha-a-ha-aa-a-a, O-o-o-o-o-o-a-ha-a-ha-a,” he sang. “Can’t you hear it? Can’t you see it? The women mourning? the funeral chant? my hair white-locked and patriarchal? my skins wrapped in rude splendor about me? my hunting-spear by my side? And who shall say it is not well?”

Van Brunt looked at him coolly. “Fairfax, you are a damned fool. Five years of this is enough to knock any man, and you are in an unhealthy, morbid condition. Further, Carlton Southwaithe is dead.”

Van Brunt filled his pipe and lighted it, the while watching slyly and with almost professional interest. Fairfax’s eyes flashed on the instant, his fists clenched, he half rose up, then his muscles relaxed and he seemed to brood. Michael, the cook, signalled that the meal was ready, but Van Brunt motioned back to delay. The silence hung heavy, and he fell to analyzing the forest scents, the odors of mould and rotting vegetation, the resiny smells of pine cones and needles, the aromatic savors of many camp-smokes. Twice Fairfax looked up, but said nothing, and then:

“And... Emily...?”

“Three years a widow; still a widow.”

Another long silence settled down, to be broken by Fairfax finally with a naïve smile. “I guess you’re right, Van Brunt. I’ll go along.”

“I knew you would.” Van Brunt laid his hand on Fairfax’s shoulder. “Of course, one cannot know, but I imagine–for one in her position–she has had offers–”

“When do you start?” Fairfax interrupted.

“After the men have had some sleep. Which reminds me, Michael is getting angry, so come and eat.”

After supper, when the Crees and voyageurs had rolled into their blankets, snoring, the two men lingered by the dying fire. There was much to talk about,–wars and politics and explorations, the doings of men and the happening of things, mutual friends, marriages, deaths,–five years of history for which Fairfax clamored.

“So the Spanish fleet was bottled up in Santiago,” Van Brunt was saying, when a young woman stepped lightly before him and stood by Fairfax’s side. She looked swiftly into his face, then turned a troubled gaze upon Van Brunt.

“Chief Tantlatch’s daughter, sort of princess,” Fairfax explained, with an honest flush. “One of the inducements, in short, to make me stay. Thom, this is Van Brunt, friend of mine.”

Van Brunt held out his hand, but the woman maintained a rigid repose quite in keeping with her general appearance. Not a line of her face softened, not a feature unbent. She looked him straight in the eyes, her own piercing, questioning, searching.

“Precious lot she understands,” Fairfax laughed. “Her first introduction, you know. But as you were saying, with the Spanish fleet bottled up in Santiago?”

Thom crouched down by her husband’s side, motionless as a bronze statue, only her eyes flashing from face to face in ceaseless search. And Avery Van Brunt, as he talked on and on, felt a nervousness under the dumb gaze. In the midst of his most graphic battle descriptions, he would become suddenly conscious of the black eyes burning into him, and would stumble and flounder till he could catch the gait and go again. Fairfax, hands clasped round knees, pipe out, absorbed, spurred him on when he lagged, and repictured the world he thought he had forgotten.

One hour passed, and two, and Fairfax rose reluctantly to his feet. “And Cronje was cornered, eh? Well, just wait a moment till I run over to Tantlatch. He’ll be expecting you, and I’ll arrange for you to see him after breakfast. That will be all right, won’t it?”

He went off between the pines, and Van Brunt found himself staring into Thom’s warm eyes. Five years, he mused, and she can’t be more than twenty now. A most remarkable creature. Being Eskimo, she should have a little flat excuse for a nose, and lo, it is neither broad nor flat, but aquiline, with nostrils delicately and sensitively formed as any fine lady’s of a whiter breed–the Indian strain somewhere, be assured, Avery Van Brunt. And, Avery Van Brunt, don’t be nervous, she won’t eat you; she’s only a woman, and not a bad-looking one at that. Oriental rather than aborigine. Eyes large and fairly wide apart, with just the faintest hint of Mongol obliquity. Thom, you’re an anomaly. You’re out of place here among these Eskimos, even if your father is one. Where did your mother come from? or your grandmother? And Thom, my dear, you’re a beauty, a frigid, frozen little beauty with Alaskan lava in your blood, and please don’t look at me that way.

He laughed and stood up. Her insistent stare disconcerted him. A dog was prowling among the grub-sacks. He would drive it away and place them into safety against Fairfax’s return. But Thom stretched out a detaining hand and stood up, facing him.

“You?” she said, in the Arctic tongue which differs little from Greenland to Point Barrow. “You?”

And the swift expression of her face demanded all for which “you” stood, his reason for existence, his presence there, his relation to her husband–everything.

“Brother,” he answered in the same tongue, with a sweeping gesture to the south. “Brothers we be, your man and I.”

She shook her head. “It is not good that you be here.”

“After one sleep I go.”

“And my man?” she demanded, with tremulous eagerness.

Van Brunt shrugged his shoulders. He was aware of a certain secret shame, of an impersonal sort of shame, and an anger against Fairfax. And he felt the warm blood in his face as he regarded the young savage. She was just a woman. That was all–a woman. The whole sordid story over again, over and over again, as old as Eve and young as the last new love-light.

“My man! My man! My man!” she was reiterating vehemently, her face passionately dark, and the ruthless tenderness of the Eternal Woman, the Mate-Woman, looking out at him from her eyes.

“Thom,” he said gravely, in English, “you were born in the Northland forest, and you have eaten fish and meat, and fought with frost and famine, and lived simply all the days of your life. And there are many things, indeed not simple, which you do not know and cannot come to understand. You do not know what it is to long for the fleshpots afar, you cannot understand what it is to yearn for a fair woman’s face. And the woman is fair, Thom, the woman is nobly fair. You have been woman to this man, and you have been your all, but your all is very little, very simple. Too little and too simple, and he is an alien man. Him you have never known, you can never know. It is so ordained. You held him in your arms, but you never held his heart, this man with his blurring seasons and his dreams of a barbaric end. Dreams and dream-dust, that is what he has been to you. You clutched at form and gripped shadow, gave yourself to a man and bedded with the wraith of a man. In such manner, of old, did the daughters of men whom the gods found fair. And, Thom, Thom, I should not like to be John Fairfax in the night-watches of the years to come, in the night-watches, when his eyes shall see, not the sun-gloried hair of the woman by his side, but the dark tresses of a mate forsaken in the forests of the North.”

Though she did not understand, she had listened with intense attention, as though life hung on his speech. But she caught at her husband’s name and cried out in Eskimo:–

“Yes! Yes! Fairfax! My man!”

“Poor little fool, how could he be your man?”

But she could not understand his English tongue, and deemed that she was being trifled with. The dumb, insensate anger of the Mate-Woman flamed in her face, and it almost seemed to the man as though she crouched panther-like for the spring.

He cursed softly to himself and watched the fire fade from her face and the soft luminous glow of the appealing woman spring up, of the appealing woman who foregoes strength and panoplies herself wisely in her weakness.

“He is my man,” she said gently. “Never have I known other. It cannot be that I should ever know other. Nor can it be that he should go from me.”

“Who has said he shall go from thee?” he demanded sharply, half in exasperation, half in impotence.

“It is for thee to say he shall not go from me,” she answered softly, a half-sob in her throat.

Van Brunt kicked the embers of the fire savagely and sat down.

“It is for thee to say. He is my man. Before all women he is my man. Thou art big, thou art strong, and behold, I am very weak. See, I am at thy feet. It is for thee to deal with me. It is for thee.”

“Get up!” He jerked her roughly erect and stood up himself. “Thou art a woman. Wherefore the dirt is no place for thee, nor the feet of any man.”

“He is my man.”

“Then Jesus forgive all men!” Van Brunt cried out passionately.

“He is my man,” she repeated monotonously, beseechingly.

“He is my brother,” he answered.

“My father is Chief Tantlatch. He is a power over five villages. I will see that the five villages be searched for thy choice of all maidens, that thou mayest stay here by thy brother, and dwell in comfort.”

“After one sleep I go.”

“And my man?”

“Thy man comes now. Behold!”

From among the gloomy spruces came the light carolling of Fairfax’s voice.

As the day is quenched by a sea of fog, so his song smote the light out of her face. “It is the tongue of his own people,” she said; “the tongue of his own people.”

She turned, with the free movement of a lithe young animal, and made off into the forest.

“It’s all fixed,” Fairfax called as he came up. “His regal highness will receive you after breakfast.”

“Have you told him?” Van Brunt asked.

“No. Nor shall I tell him till we’re ready to pull out.”

Van Brunt looked with moody affection over the sleeping forms of his men.

“I shall be glad when we are a hundred leagues upon our way,” he said.

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