The Trial of Strength
ICE. . . . Ice peaked, twisted, jostled, massed in pressure ridges, ground to crystals — chaotic wastes of it, storm-tossed, endless. High above, the plane, whining, circling, dropped in an even, narrowing spiral to the open lead of black water. With a rush it swept the surface; but a floating pinnacle of ice, much higher than it had looked from above, caught the wing. There was a crash, a powdered splintering; the plane lurched heavily, one wing careening beneath the water, the other wrenched back and sagging.
Slowly, in the bitter wind, it drifted to the edge of the lead. Two men dropped off in the dense rubble of the pack and looked about grimly at the barren white hummocks and toothed spurs which hemmed them in.
‘Damned lucky you spotted this open lead, Hank. We’d have been smashed to pulp in the ice.’ It was the Captain who spoke, his voice raised harshly to drown the roar of the engines, still pounding in his ears.
Sergeant Phinney,a big hulking man, swung the plane around so as to bring the damaged wing close in over the ice.
‘She’s done for, all right,’the Captain muttered.
‘Looks like it. How far back to the base would you make it, sir?’
‘Six hundred miles.’
‘Some hop! And the Pole?’
‘About a hundred and twenty. I’ll take an observation. We may be a bit off the course.’
As they stepped back, a third furclad figure crawled out and lowered himself gingerly, favoring one leg.
‘You’re hurt, Mason!’
‘Knee’s wrenched a bit, sir — when the wing struck. Nothing to count.’
But the Captain glanced critically at the young mechanic. ‘Take it easy,’he said, ‘while the Sergeant and I get up the tent.'
They climbed to the top of a pressure ridge, and looked about. Ice — a continent of it, rigid, ghastly, stretching away in bleak furrowed wastes. Through the débris of smaller scattered stuff, great blocks of old ice reared up, jagged and blue; and over the scarred, contorted plain the sun, poised a hand’s breadth above the horizon, cast its pale, merciless light.
The Captain swept the floes with his binoculars. ‘We’re up against it, right enough. With Mason lamed, we’ll have to camp here by the lead and wait.'
Kit and provisions were shifted to the ice and carried to a sheltered spot between the ridges, where the men put up their small tent. There was tinned and concentrated food for a month — tea, pemmican, biscuits, chocolate, condensed milk — and ample fuel for the stove and the small heater.
While a meal was being prepared, the Captain picked his way over to the wrecked plane. Bitterly he contemplated it. What cursed luck! The senior officers had backed him, but it had been his venture, this — a dash by plane to the Pole. For two years he had planned it, weighed its feasibility from every angle, tested planes and instruments, made nonstop flights of equivalent length under almost similar atmospheric conditions. Any one of those flights would have carried him to the Pole and back. But now, in the real test — disaster. That mad search for a landing place when the controls had begun to loosen. They had swung low over that desolate, mangled world. To land would be annihilation. But, as they lifted again, the Sergeant had spied, a few miles ahead, the open lead. There they could put things to rights and tune up. And then — that cursed piece of floating ice. A foot more and they’d have cleared it.
The base was six hundred miles to the south. And Mason hurt. No hope of lighting their way out on foot. They’d have to stick here by the lead, where the rescuing plane could land. On the sixth day it would start. But to find them in that featureless wilderness, with the compass undependable! Well, there was just a chance.
Gloomily he returned to the tent. Mason was stretched out on the sleeping bags, while the Sergeant, easy and deft in spite of his bulk, crouched by the stove. Hot tea, pressed meat, and biscuits. They ate and lay down to sleep. But the Captain dozed restlessly. Every hour he crawled out into the pale glare and prowled about.
It had been a hazardous, a sporting proposition, this hopping off into the unknown. But he’d had faith in his luck, his star. Faith. What man ever scrutinized the consequences of disaster until disaster was upon him, had become the actuality! It was the other fellow whose luck would fail, not his; it was the other fellow who stopped the bullet, died of cancer. But for him, a special providence.
By the edge of the lead lay the wrecked plane. And to the north, a hundred miles, the Pole. That strange lure. There was no gold to be found, no claim to stake out; scientific data, of interest to scientists. Greeley, Amundsen, Peary, Scott. It was adventure that drew them. The trial of strength.
As he threw back the flap of the tent, the Sergeant stirred in his sleeping bag and rolled over, like a great shaggy seal. Bit of luck to have the Sergeant with him. Adequate fellow, the Sergeant. Adequate. Mason might not stand the racket. He must see that the man kept quiet and gave his knee a chance.
Day followed day, hours indistinguishable one from another in that harsh, uncanny light. Above a fixed point in the horizon the sun never lifted. East, south, west, north, it crept stealthily about the rim of that pitted desolation, like an inflamed, ironic eye. It was there when they lay down to sleep; when they awoke it glowered at them from behind another ice hummock.
They would be getting anxious at the base. They’d wait the allotted time, another twenty-four hours. Still the lead held open. Through the pack about it great crag-like blocks of ice moved slowly, — a cosmic, shrouded dance of dissolution, — while they, with jealous eye, watched the narrow stretch of open water, their hostage against fate. Hourly they paced its length, nursed it, moored at one side the floating fragments.
And they watched. The Captain tensely, the Sergeant undisturbed, as the days passed. He took things in his stride, the Sergeant, joked or swore with the same solid calm. Adequate. When off watch he smoked, cooked, dried and repaired their clothes, and paced the lead, his hoarse rumbling voice the only sound in that frozen silence. Often he shared the lookout with the Captain, his eyes, clear as a gull’s in his heavy stubbly face, strained toward the south.
It was the nineteenth day. ‘How about it, sir? Still a chance?’
‘Sure. But if they can make it, why are n’t they here? The spare planes may be out of commission, for all we know, or smashed up.’
The Captain’s eyes burned with watching, with staring over that livid welter of ice. It was as if they had landed on some lifeless, glacial planet lost in space. It was like the prophecy of ultimate death. As if, in the brief term of those nineteen days, a hundred million years had lapsed, chilling the sun, while layer after layer the ice encroached, and they, like sinking embers, the last flickering sparks of life, waited for inexorable extinction.
A few rods away stood the tent, the sole oasis in that inverted hell. Mason was trying to warm himself by hobbling up and down, while the Sergeant dried the sleeping bags. What did they think of things, of him? He’d got them into this. They were hairy and leaner; their brows and tense, bloodshot eyes showed the strain. Had they three been born and reared and trained and brought together to the end that they perish slowly of hunger amid the ice fields? Damn funny!
The Sergeant was waving. Midday. Rations had been cut down to two scant meals, one at noon, the second at midnight, when the sun swung around over the northern horizon.
They ate, and the Captain took up the cards. ‘Well, boys,’ he said, ‘let’s have our game.’
They played mechanically, one of them getting up at every deal to search the sky. There was no wind, no crackling in the floes, no sound in that chill, empty stillness save the patter of the cards and now and then a word. Suddenly Mason threw up his head. With a hoarse cry he flung down the cards, and was running jerkily along the ice.
The Sergeant started up.
‘He is n’t —’
A faint droning hum, intermittent yet definite.
They sprang for the lookout. Southward, and well up, a dark speck showed clear against the sky. It swam nearer; and with a deafening, choking roar the plane passed overhead and a man leaned out and waved. It circled twice and swept down into the water.
‘It’s Lieutenant Ridden and Mac!’ cried the Captain, as they ran over to the lead.
‘The small plane!’
‘Yes. It’s the small plane.’
They stood silent while it drifted in, and Lieutenant Ridden dropped off and saluted. ‘A bit late, I’m afraid.’
The Captain smiled.
‘We ’ve combed the ice from here to the base,’ the Lieutenant went on hurriedly. ‘The big plane is out of commission, and I was held up four days by a gale of wind, and again by fog.’
As the two officers moved aside, the Captain described his own mischance, and together they examined the wrecked plane.
‘Can’t do anything with her,’ muttered the Lieutenant. ‘How long a straightaway does the lead give you?’
‘Four hundred and ten yards. I’ve paced it every hour. The small plane could n’t lift out with the five of us.’
‘We can strip her and try it.’
‘Try it? Not much. Four, maybe,— with luck, — but not five. I ’ll stay behind and, if all goes well, you can come back.’
‘That’s just it,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘Not so easy to pick up this spot again, even with the horizon we get in the air. You know what the compass is in these parts, and fog may shut in. We’ve only this plane to depend on now. Let’s chance it with the five of us.’
Grimly the Captain scanned the open water. ‘It’s not good enough, Ridden,’ he said. ‘If you should n’t lift, and crashed into the ice over there, we’d all be done for. With four you may make it. It’s a legitimate risk, anyway. I’ll just have a word with the Sergeant and Mason.’
Slowly the Captain made his way toward the tent, and beckoned to his two companions.
‘You’re first, Mason,’ he said. ‘Light as you can, mind. No extra kit. Report to the Lieutenant.’
Collecting his flying garments, Mason limped off. The Captain and the Sergeant were alone.
‘Sir, that plane can’t lift with the five of us. You know that better than me.’
‘Stripped, she’ll lift four.’
‘The Lieutenant will come back for me.’
‘The Lieutenant’ll come back for you, will he? Does he think he can pick up this point again?’
‘He can try it.’
The Sergeant spat. ‘Sir, I’m not going.’
For a moment the Captain was silent. ‘Hank, you’re a thundering good fellow, but this is my show. Go help them strip the plane.’
Sergeant Phinney stood stolid.
‘Look here, Hank! I appreciate this. But we’re only delaying things. Get a move on. We’re still in the Service, you know. Come! Shake hands and beat it.’
A gleam flickered in the Sergeant’s eye as he thrust forward his great arm. But instead of grasping the Captain’s outstretched hand he caught his
wrist; with a quick, dexterous twist, bent it back. There was a snap.
The Captain sprang away. ‘What the devil!’
‘You’ve got to go now, sir. Disabled men first. Military regulation.’
‘Damn you, Hank!’
Unperturbed, the Sergeant reached for the medicine kit. ‘I’ll just bind it up,’ he said. ‘Learned that trick from a Jap in the Canal Zone. There’s only one bone broken.’
No word passed while the bandage was applied.
‘Had to do it, sir,’ said the Sergeant finally.
‘Had to do it, eh?’ The bandage was in place. ‘Get out, and report in ten minutes.’
Clumsily the Captain filled his pipe and struck a match. Disabled? He was scarcely disabled. But what if Ridden could n’t get back? It was possible. Maybe an even chance. By the edge of the lead the four dark figures moved about the plane. They’d have her ready in a minute. From the tank of the wrecked plane the Sergeant was bringing tins of gasoline. At one side, a box of provisions — to be left behind. The Sergeant drew Ridden a little apart. No doubt he was explaining the situation — what he’d done. Curse the Sergeant! Why could n’t the man obey orders, disposing of things on his own, as if he were God!
Up and down the Captain paced.
Up and down. Grinding under his feet the cards they had cast aside at the first alarm. The ice. . . . That vast white arena. It had got a good many audacious spirits. Through the immensity of snow-covered upheaval, dark seams and fissures showed like purple veins in lumpy, leprous flesh. To the south, the nebulous graying skyline. Beyond that bleak horizon, trees and flowers grew and men lay in the grass. The South. Life. Life. . . .