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   Chapter 6 6

The Eternal Maiden By T. Everett Harre Characters: 22358

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"_As he looked upon the descending wraiths, Koolotah saw they had the spirit-semblance of gleaming faces, and that their eyes burned, through the enveloping cloud-veils, like fire . . . 'The dead-the dead . . .' he said, 'we have come into a land of the dead.' . . .

"Then the glacial mountainside to which he clung trembled . . . the silver-swimming world of white dust-driven fire became suddenly black-and the earth seemed removed from under him . . ._"

Leaving the low-lying shore, Ootah's path led up through a narrow gorge between two great cliffs. Since he had returned from the mountains the path had been covered by many successive falls of snow. At places the path sloped abruptly downward at a terrible angle, and the ice cracked and slid beneath the hardy hunters' feet. With the agility of cats, the dogs fastened their claws into the ice and climbed upward.

Constantly the two men had to hold to the jagged rocks to their right, otherwise, time after time, they would have slipped into the perilous abyss below. Through the chasm the moon poured its liquid rays. At certain points towering crags shut off the light-then Ootah and his companion had to feel their way slowly upward in the dark. Finally Ootah's dogs, with a loud chorus of barking, leaped ahead. Seizing an overhanging ledge of rock Ootah lifted himself to the top of the precipice. Koolotah's team followed.

For interminable miles a vast icy plateau stretched before them-a plain glistening with snow and reflecting like a burnished mirror the misty silveriness of the moon. Over the glacial expanse an eerily greenish phosphorescence, which palpitated and shifted at times with vivid splashes of opal and deeper tones of burning blue, hung low.

The upland was split with thousands of canyons that writhed over the white expanse like snakes in tortuous convulsions. From these bottomless abysses arose a luminous amethystine vapor. In the depths jutting icicles took fire and glowed through the lustrous mists like burning eyes. Where the chasms joined with others or widened, ominous shapes, swathed in wind-blown blackish-purple robes, with extended arms, took form. As Ootah and Koolotah dashed forward, great spaces of clear ice palpitated on all sides of them with interior opaline fires.

Neither spoke. Holding the rear framework of their sleds, they trusted to the instinct of their dogs. Mile after mile swept under their feet. Their road often lay along the very edges of purple-black abysses. The echoes of their sharp gliding sleds cutting the ice, of the very patter of their dogs' feet, were magnified in volume in the clear air, and it seemed as though, in the hollow depths on every side, ghostly teams were following. Koolotah was white with fear. But Ootah encouraged him onward.

They paced off twenty miles. They reached an altitude of more than a thousand feet above the sea.

The great moon slowly circled about the sky; the scurrying clouds contorted like grotesque living things.

The two hunters made precipitous descents over unexpected frozen slopes-at times it seemed as though they were about to be hurled to instantaneous death. Yet Ootah steeled his heart. His teeth chattered but he gritted them firmly.

"Annadoah needeth food," he murmured, "and--"

His eyes shone, a new pity not unmingled with a taint of bitterness filled his heart. Annadoah must live; she must have food. For a strange thing, he observed, had come upon her. Her inexplicable moods, her brief moments of tenderness, her riotous griefs, and other prefigurements of maternity-these made her dearer to Ootah. So he vigorously cracked his whip and urged the dogs.

The chasms twisted with lifelike motion all around him. Behind, as in a dream, Ootah heard the whip of Koolotah, and the barking of Koolotah's dogs. For hours his feet moved swiftly and mechanically under him. Once his foot slipped. He swerved to the right. A vast black mouth yawned hungrily to receive him; then it closed behind him. The leaping team of dogs had pulled him forward. Luckily he maintained a tenacious hold to the rear upstander of his sled.

Narrow chasms constantly cut their trail. With sharp howls the dogs leaped over these, the sleds passed safely, and by instinct Ootah would bound forward. Narrower than a man's stride in width, Ootah knew these slits in the glacial ice were hundreds of feet in depth, that a slip of the foot might plunge him to immediate death. Now and then he lost his footing on the uneven ice; his heart leaped for fear, but he held grimly to the sledge and the lithe, lean but strong dog-bodies carried him to safety. These faithful animals bounded over the glimmering ice field with amazing speed. They snapped and barked with the joy of the race. In the white moonlight the vapor of their breathing enveloped them like a silvery cloud.

For hours the hunters continued the trail. Their mighty purpose fought off fatigue. The moon passed behind cumulous mountains of clouds along the horizon, and periods of darkness blotted the world from Ootah. Then they traveled in darkness. A chill dampness rising from the gaping abysses that sundered the ice field told them of their danger; then Ootah's heart chilled, his teeth were set chattering; but he thought of Annadoah and the grim need of food, and he gripped the upstander of his sled more determinedly. When the moon again unclosed its pearly sheen over the ice, the serpentine chasms moved their tortuous backs and writhed about them, the icy hummocks billowed, and the glittering ice-peaked horizon swam in a dizzy circle of diamonded light.

As their trail ascended higher the penetrating cold dampness somewhat moderated. In the taut air the sound of their whips was like that of splitting metal. Shuddering and sepulchral echoes answered the barking of their dogs. The faithful ghosts of the dogs of fallen hunters were following their departed masters in the amethystine mists of the canyons about them. Ootah and Koolotah trembled with the thought of the dreadful nearness of the dead. Believing other animals to be ahead, the dogs set up a wilder, shriller howling. Then the echoes came back with more startling and terrifying proximity. Ootah's flesh crept. Finally, with an explosive sound, Koolotah let his whip fall.

"Aulate-halt!" he called.

They came to a dead standstill.

"Pst!" he whispered. He hit the snapping, whining dogs. "Pst!" They crouched to the ground and whined mournfully.

"Dost thou hear?" Koolotah asked in a hushed voice. In the moonlight Ootah saw that the lad's face was as white as the face of the dead, and that in his eyes was a wild fear. From the mountain ridges, which loomed beyond, came an ominous noise-resembling a low wind. Ootah bent his head and listened to the sobbing monotone, then whispered:

"The breathing of the spirits of the hills who sleep."

"Perchance we waken them," Koolotah ventured.

"That would be bad," Ootah replied.

"I have left my mother forever," Koolotah wailed.

"Be brave, lad; they need food; beseech the spirits of those who lived when men's sap was stronger, thy ancestors, for strength. Come!"

Koolotah raised his head-then uttered a low cry of alarm. He drew back, fearfully, pointing with a trembling arm to the mountain pass ahead.

Covered with glacial snow and ice the slopes of the first ridge of the interior mountains gleamed with frosted silver. Over the white expanse, formed by the countless clefts and indentations of the slope, cyclopean shadows took form, and like eldritch figures joining their hands in a wild dance, loomed terrifyingly before the two men. Their trail now ascended through a gorge which abruptly opened immediately before them. Into this rugged chasm the argent moonlight poured, and from unseen caverns in the pass glowered monstrous phosphorescent green and ruby eyes.

From the heights above fragments of clouds descended through the chasm. In the full moonlight they were transformed into tall aerial beings, of unearthly beauty. They were swathed in luminous robes that fluttered gently upon the air, and like the birds they soared, with tremulous wings resembling films of silver. They moved softly, with great majesty. As he looked upon the descending wraiths, Koolotah saw they had the spirit-semblance of gleaming faces, and that their eyes burned, through the enveloping cloud-veils, like fire. He drew back, afraid.

"The dead . . ." he murmured . . . "We have come unto the land of the dead."

Both stood in silence, reverent, awed, half-afraid.

Then Ootah snapped his whip. He called to the dogs.

"Let us go unto them . . . Let us show that men are not afraid. Huk! Huk! Huk! Come!"

The dogs howled, the traces tightened, the sleds sped forward. They entered the defile. The trail twisted up the side of the abyss. Less than three feet wide for long stretches, the dogs had to slacken and pass upward in line, one by one. Covered with new ice it was dangerously slippery, and in climbing the men had to hold to jutting icicles for support.

Ootah was ahead. At times sheer walls of ice confronted him. At certain places there had been drifts, at others glacial fragments had slipped from the mountain above. Before these almost insuperable walls Ootah would pause and with his axe hew steps in the hard ice.

They slowly toiled ahead for an hour. Then a blank sloping ice wall, twice the height of Ootah, blocked the path. He grasped his axe and began hewing a series of ascending steps. He breathed with difficulty; the air in the high altitude made respiration difficult. He was soon bathed in perspiration. The moisture of his breath and beads of sweat froze about his face, covering him with an icy mask. His eyelashes froze together. He had to pause to melt the quickly congealing tears. He suffered unendurably. Finally his axe split; the ice was harder than his steel. He uttered an impatient exclamation.

"Thy axe!" he called to Koolotah.

Koolotah swung his axe in the air and over the dog team separating them. Ootah leaped from his feet and caught the axe as it soared above him. In a half hour the step-like trail was cut, and he clambered over the wall. Digging their nails into the indentations, the dogs followed. Then Koolotah and his team scaled the obstruction.

Koolotah felt his heart choking him as it seemed to enlarge within; Ootah, in truth, was not entirely unafraid. Both knew that a slip of the foot would plunge them to instant death. As they ascended the trail, the gathering clouds surrounded them. They could no longer see their dogs. They could not even perceive the blackness of the chasm to their right. Above and below they were enveloped in a silver mist. Only the reflected glitter of the moonlight on jutting icicles on the opposite indicated the depths so perilously near. Through the mist Koolotah saw the green and crimson eyes of baleful creatures that might, at any moment, spring upon him.

When they reached the inland valley they were both spent in strength. In sheer relief from the agonized suspense of the journey they sank on their sledges and lay palpitating for an hour

or more. But the cold froze their perspiring garments and they had to rise and exercise so as not to freeze to death. Ootah knew that no time could be lost. In the interior mountains the breathing of the hill spirits was becoming more uneasy. And Ootah noted with anxiety the increasing moderation of the atmosphere. That was not well. When the cold relented the hill spirits released the glaciers.

With frantic eagerness they explored the valley. The green grass whereon Ootah had seen the splendid animals grazing months before was covered with ice. There was no sign of the ahmingmah. Ootah's heart sank. He felt very much like weeping.

Suddenly the dogs began to sniff the air and bark hungrily.

"Ahmingmah!" Koolotah cried, joyfully.

Ootah released the team-the dogs made a misty black streak in their dash over the ice. The men followed.

In the shelter of a cave they found five musk oxen. They were huddled together and half numb with cold. They roared dully as the howling dogs assaulted them, and rushed lumberingly from the cave into the moonlight. Five great black hulks, with mighty manes of coarse hair, they ambled over the ice for a space of five hundred feet and then, surrounded by the dogs, assembled in a circle, their backs together, their heads facing the howling dogs. Thus they were prepared to protect themselves from attack.

The dogs, frantic with hunger, made fierce rushes at the animals. Now and then, as the dogs dashed forward, one of the great beasts would charge, its head lowered, and the dogs would leap backward into the air and scatter. Then turning, the animal would rush back to its companions as fast as its numbed legs could carry it.

Through the white vapor of their breath, which half hid their great horned heads, Ootah could see the eyes of the musk-oxen-they were greenish and phosphorescent. Occasionally the creatures roared sullenly, but the fight was less exciting than it would have been had they been less torpid from hunger and cold.

Ootah called away the dogs, and raised his gun, one which Olafaksoah, in payment for the five sledloads of walrus blubber which he confiscated after Ootah's flight to the mountains, had left with a generous supply of ammunition with a companion. Ootah now realized the value of the payment which he had scorned.

There was a yellow flash in the moonlight-a mighty roar went up. The dogs, with a cyclonic dash, swooped upon the fallen monster, snapping viciously at it as it roared in its death agony. Frightened, the other four scattered-one rushed into the shelter of the cave, the other three, dispersing, soon became diminishing black specks in the moonlight. The dogs would have followed, but Ootah called them back. One animal was even more than they could manage.

With quick despatch they fell upon the animal with their knives. Neither spoke-they worked breathlessly. With marvellous skill they peeled off the heavy skin, and with amazing dexterity carved great masses of bleeding meat clean from the bones. When they had finished, only a great skeleton remained. Outside the cave, eager, whining, the starving dogs obediently crouched. When they had completed the task of dressing, Ootah lifted his hand and the canines, with howling avidity, fell upon the steaming mass of entrails.

Upon the two sledges the hunters loaded and lashed securely their treasure of meat. In the moonlight the hot steam rose from the tremulous masses and Ootah's nostrils dilated with eager, anticipatory delight. The blood dripped upon the snow and Ootah's stomach ached. He had not dared to think of eating until now. Their hands shaking with nervous hunger, the two fell upon the remaining meat. They feasted with that savage hungry joy known only to human creatures who have faced starvation. When they started on the return journey there was a new vibrant elasticity in their steps.

Ootah snapped his whip and sang.

And his heart sang, too, of Annadoah.

Looking at the clouds, as they drifted through the valley, Ootah imagined he saw Annadoah lying upon her couch asleep, and in the faint light of an oil lamp he saw upon her face a pleased smile.

"Of what doth Annadoah dream?" Ootah asked the winds.

"Of springtime when the flowers bloom," the winds replied.

"And Annadoah will move to a new skin tent with Ootah!" he said, joyously, exultantly. "Ootah will bring food unto Annadoah and she will reward him with her love."

"Foolish Ootah," moaned the wind, "love cannot be won with food, neither with ahmingmah meat nor walrus blubber." Ootah felt his heart sink; a vague and heavy misgiving filled him. Being very simple, he had always thought that by securing wealth, in dogs and food, in guns and ammunition, and by achieving pre-eminence on the hunt, he should win Annadoah's confidence and love. But now, upon the breath of the winds, by the voices of nature, doubt came into his heart. The mistake of many men the world over, and of many wiser than he, he could not understand just why this was-this thing the winds said, and which his own heart correspondingly whispered. With food he might possibly win Annadoah's consent to be his wife, yes, he knew that; but Annadoah's love-that was another thing. Surely, he now realized, as he strode along, that by simply giving her food he could not expect to stir in her heart a response to that which throbbed in his. But why? Singularly he never thought of the bravery of his seeking food on this perilous adventure, an act which, had he known it, had indeed touched the heart of the beautiful maiden.

With the quick atmospheric change of the arctic-a phenomenon common to zones of extreme temperature-the wind steadily increased in velocity and warmth. The shallow moon-shot clouds on the ice thickened and swept softly under the two travellers' feet. Above their waists the air was clear-they saw each other distinctly in the moonlight. Yet their dogs, hidden in the low-lying vapor, were invisible. Great masses of clouds slowly piled along the horizon and the moon was often obscured. Then the two walked in a darkness so thick it seemed palpable.

"Hark!" Ootah called, during one of these spells. "What is that?" A shuddering sound split the air; the ice field on which they travelled vibrated with an ominous jar. The echoes of splitting ice came like distant explosions.

"Have we disturbed the spirits of the hills?" asked Koolotah, in a whisper.

"No, no," answered Ootah, anxiously. "Huk! Huk!" He snapped his whip and urged the dogs. They had not gone twenty paces when from the interior heights of Greenland came a series of muffled explosions. Undoubtedly the hill spirits had wakened, and, angry, were hurling their terrible weapons.

They reached, in due course, the top of a mountain ridge down part of the glassy slopes of which they had to make their way to the entrance of the cleft in which the trail they had so laboriously hewn lay. The gorge yawned blackly some five hundred feet below. In anticipation of their return with loaded sledges, Ootah, on the last reach of their upland climb, had chopped on the smooth snows of the mountainside a narrow path that ran backward and forward in the fashion of a gently inclining elongated spiral. The mountain sloped at an angle of eighty degrees, but by descending cautiously along this circuitous trail a safe descent was possible.

While Ootah and his companion stood on the peak, the moon passed behind a veil of clouds and Ootah felt two soft wraith-like hands pass over his face-cloud-hands which his simple mind believed were sentient things. His heart for the moment seemed to stop. Thus the kind spirits warn men of danger.

At that instant a stinging sound smote the air. The glacial side of the mountain trembled, and as the moon reappeared, on the icy slopes Ootah saw narrow black cracks zigzagging in various directions. A cataclysmic rumbling sounded deep in the earth.

When the echoes died away he turned to Koolotah.

"Be brave of heart. Let us go-there is no time to lose."

"Huk! Huk! Huk!" They urged the dogs gently. Arranging themselves instinctively in single file, the traces slackening, the wonderful dogs, with feline caution, crept ahead. Lowering their bodies, each behind his sledge, Ootah and Koolotah began moving stealthily downward. With one hand each clung to the rough icy projections of the slope; with the other they held the rear upstander of their sleds to prevent them from sliding, with their precious loads of meat, down the mountainside.

Half way down, Ootah uttered a cry.

His quick ear detected a faint splitting noise, like the crack of young ice in forming, under his feet. In an instant he realized their danger.

At the time he had reached a hollow in the perilous slope. The dogs ahead, with quick instinct, retreated and crouched at his feet in the sheltering cradle.

Ootah saw Koolotah turn and look inquiringly upward. The next moment, driven downward by the wind, a mass of clouds, glittering with bleached moonfire, rolled over the slopes and hid Koolotah. Ootah only heard his voice.

Then the glacial mountainside to which he clung trembled. A terrific crash, like that of cannon, followed. The very mountain seemed to shake. For a brief awful spell everything was still-then, with an appalling thunder, the ice split and began to move. The moon reappeared and Ootah-in a tense moment-saw chasms widening about him on the glistening slope. He heard the deafening echoing explosions of splitting ice in the distance . . . With fierce ferocity he instinctively fastened one bleeding hand to an icy projection above him, with the other he held with grimly desperate determination to the sled . . . In the next dizzy instant he felt the icy floor beneath him lurch itself forward and downward . . . before his very eyes he saw Koolotah and his team-not twenty feet below-wiped from existence by the descending glacier to which he clung and in the hollow crevice of which he found security . . . In a second's space he caught a clear vision of tremendous masses of green and purple glaciers being ground to fine powder in their swift descent on all sides of him, . . . he saw the feathery ice fragments catch fire in the moonlight, . . . he heard the elemental roar and grinding crash of ice mountains sundering in a titanic convulsion . . . then he lost hearing . . . In that same sick bewildering moment of preternatural consciousness he thought wildly of Annadoah . . . he saw her appealing wan face amid the blur of white moonlight . . . he knew she needed food . . . and he felt an ache at his heart . . . he called upon the spirits of his ancestors. Then the silvery swimming world of white dust-driven fire became suddenly black-and the earth seemed removed from under him.

In the village the natives were awakened from their lethargic sleep by the far-away crash of the avalanche. Their faces blanched as they thought of the hunters. "The hill spirits have smitten! Ioh! Ioh!" they moaned. In her igloo Annadoah, who had waited with sleepless anxiety, wept alone. Of all in the village only the heart of one, Maisanguaq, was glad.

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