The north wind is keening overhead. It minds me of the howl of a wolf-dog under the Arctic stars. Sitting alone by the glow of the great peat fire I can hear it high up in the braeside firs. It is the voice, inexorably scornful, of the Great White Land.
Oh, I hate it, I hate it! Why cannot a man be allowed to forget? It is near ten years since I joined the Eager Army. I have travelled: I have been a pilgrim to the shrines of beauty; I have pursued the phantom of happiness even to the ends of the earth. Still it is always the same—I cannot forget.
Why should a man be ever shadowed by the vampire wing of his past? Have I not a right to be happy? Money, estate, name, are mine, all that means an open sesame to the magic door. Others go in, but I beat against its flinty portals with hands that bleed. No! I have no right to be happy. The ways of the world are open; the banquet of life is spread; the wonder-workers plan their pageants of beauty and joy, and yet there is no praise in my heart. I have seen, I have tasted, I have tried. Ashes and dust and bitterness are all my gain. I will try no more. It is the shadow of the vampire wing.
So I sit in the glow of the great peat fire, tired and sad beyond belief. Thank God! at least I am home. Everything is so little changed. The fire lights the oak-panelled hall; the crossed claymores gleam; the eyes in the mounted deer-heads shine glassily; rugs of fur cover the polished floor; all is comfort, home and the haunting atmosphere of my boyhood. Sometimes I fancy it has been a dream, the Great White Silence, the lure of the gold-spell, the delirium of the struggle; a dream, and I will awake to hear Garry calling me to shoot over the moor, to see dear little Mother with her meek, sensitive mouth, and her cheeks as delicately tinted as the leaves of a briar rose. But no! The hall is silent. Mother has gone to her long rest. Garry sleeps under the snow. Silence everywhere; I am alone, alone.
So I sit in the big, oak-carved chair of my forefathers, before the great peat fire, a peak-faced drooping figure of a man with hair untimely grey. My crutch lies on the floor by my side. My old nurse comes up quietly to look at the fire. Her rosy, wrinkled face smiles cheerfully, but I can see the anxiety in her blue eyes. She is afraid for me. Maybe the doctor has told her—something.
No doubt my days are numbered, so I am minded to tell of it all: of the Big Stampede, of the Treasure Trail, of the Gold-born City; of those who followed the gold-lure into the Great White Land, of the evil that befell them, of Garry and of Berna. Perhaps it will comfort me to tell of these things. To-morrow I will begin; to-night, leave me to my memories.
Berna! I spoke of her last. She rises before me now with her spirit-pale face and her great troubleful grey eyes, a little tragic figure, ineffably pitiful. Where are you now, little one? I have searched the world for you. I have scanned a million faces. Day and night have I sought, always hoping, always baffled, for, God help me, dear, I love you. Among that mad, lusting horde you were so weak, so helpless, yet so hungry for love.
With the aid of my crutch I unlatch one of the long windows, and step out onto the terrace. From the cavernous dark the snowflakes sting my face. Yet as I stand there, once more I have a sense of another land, of imperious vastitudes, of a silent empire, unfathomably lonely.
Ghosts! They are all around me. The darkness teems with them, Garry, my brother, among them. Then they all fade and give way to one face....
Berna, I love you always. Out of the night I cry to you, Berna, the cry of a broken heart. Is it your little, pitiful ghost that comes down to me? Oh, I am waiting, waiting! Here will I wait, Berna, till we meet once more. For meet we will, beyond the mists, beyond the dreaming, at last, dear love, at last.
CONTENTS BOOK I PAGE The Road to Anywhere BOOK II The Trail BOOK III The Camp BOOK IV The Vortex
ILLUSTRATIONS We were in a caldron of fire. The roar of doom was in our ears (page 143) FACING PAGE "No," she said firmly, "you can't see the girl" Then, as I hung half in, half out of the window, he clutched me by the throat "Garry," I said, "this is—this is Berna"
This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:"Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane....