Chapter Twenty-Eight

The next morning was the third day. There was no delay in getting started. All Dick had to do was to roll his blanket. He whirled on, still with his impetuous, fictitious vigour unimpaired. The girl staggered after him ten feet, then pitched forward. He turned uncertainly. She reached out to touch him. Her eyes said a farewell. It was the end.

Dick stood a moment, his eyes vague. Then mechanically he put his head down, mechanically he looked for the Trail, mechanically he shot away alone, alone except for the faithful, gaunt hound, the only thing that remained to him out of a whole world of living beings.

To his fevered vision the Trail was becoming fresher. Every step he took gave him the impression of so much gained, as though the man he was in pursuit of was standing still waiting to be taken. For the first time in months the conviction of absolute success took possession of him. His sight cleared, his heart beat strong, his whole being quivered with vigour. The illusion of the North faded away like a mist. The world was a flat plain of snow, with here and there a stunted spruce, knee-high, protruding above it, and with here and there an inequality of hidden bowlders and rounded knolls. Far off was the horizon, partially hidden in the normal snow-fog of this time of year. All objects were stationary, solid, permanent. Even the mock suns were only what was to be expected in so high a latitude. Dick was conscious of arguing these things to himself with extraordinary accuracy of logic. He proved a glow of happiness in the clarity of his brain, in the ease of his body, in the certainty of his success. The candle flared clear before its expiration.

For some moments he enjoyed this feeling of well-being, then a disturbing element insinuated itself. At first it was merely an uneasiness, which he could not place, a vague and nebulous irritation, a single crumpled rose-leaf. Then it grew to the proportions of a menace which banked his horizon with thunder, though the sun still shone overhead. Finally it became a terror, clutching him at the throat. He seemed to feel the need of identifying it. By an effort he recognised it as a lack. Something was missing without which there was for him no success, no happiness, no well-being, no strength, no existence. That something he must find. In the search his soul descended again to the region of dread, the regions of phantasmagoria. The earth heaved and rocked and swam in a sea of cold and glaring light. Strange creatures, momentarily changing shape and size, glided monstrous across the middle distance. The mock suns danced in the heavens.

Twice he stopped short and listened. In his brain the lack was defining itself as the lack of a sound. It was something he had always been used to. Now it had been taken away. The world was silent in its deprivation, and the silence stifled him. It had been something so usual that he had never noticed it; its absence called it to his attention for the first time. So far in the circle his mind ran; then swung back. He beat his forehead. Great as were the sufferings of his body, they were as nothing compared with these unreal torturings of his maddened brain.

For the third time he stopped, his head sidewise in the attitude of listening. At once easily, without effort, he knew. All these months behind him had sounded the crunch of snow-shoes. All these months about him, wrapping him so softly that he had never been conscious of it, had been the worship of a great devotion. Now they were taken away, he missed them. His spirit, great to withstand the hardships of the body, strong to deny itself, so that even at the last he had resisted the temptation of hunger and divided with his dog, in its weakened condition could not stand the exposure to the loneliness, to the barren winds of a peopleless world.

A long minute he stood, listening, demanding against all reason to hear the crunch, crunch, crunch that should tell him he was not alone. Then, without a glance at the Trail he had followed so long, he turned back.