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Journey to the Pole
By Peter Lerangis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Peter Lerangis
All rights reserved.
Colin Winslow ran through the canyon streets of lower Manhattan. He ran even though his chest hurt and the rain pelted him and his feet slipped on the wet pavement. He ran because on May 8, 1909, at a little past 5:20 in the afternoon, his world had ended for the second time.
His stepmother was dead. It happened while he and Andrew were watching, while they held her hands in the hospital room. She woke from a sleep, called Father's name, and closed her eyes. Just like that, the pneumonia took her, and Colin felt his heart squeeze, exactly the way it had when his mother had died. Suddenly the hospital walls couldn't hold enough air for him, so he ran.
He had to find Father.
Father was downtown with the Fat Man. Colin didn't know where the office was, so he ran home to find out. People on the street yelled at him, and the old ones tsk-tsked, but he didn't care.
You weren't supposed to run in New York. You were supposed to walk, tip your hat to the ladies, cross at corners. Cities had rules, and Colin had always liked that, the way they gave order to chaos. You could feel safe and small, folded in among the grim, purposeful faces; the buildings framing low, soot-gray skies; the faint, familiar stink of fish and horse dung and tannery hides. In his old home in Alaska, the sea and the snow and the cruel, killing waters had reminded him of his mother. Here in New York he'd thought he could bury the pain.
Now he knew he'd been wrong. Wrong about it all. He'd been living in a dream, and only now, at the age of sixteen, did he finally realize the truth: The bad things always found you, and the streets of New York were stone and brick, as gray and flat and ugly as Harwinton, Alaska. In New York you died the way you lived, not by an accident on the sea like the one that had taken his mother, but by something passed quietly in a crowd, a tiny germ that ate away at you until your lungs flooded and then collapsed.
Colin stepped off the curb to cross. He heard a screech to his right, and an automobile skidded, just avoiding him.
"Hey, you overgrown coolie! Aren't your eyes big enough to see where you're going?" From a leather seat the driver glared down at Colin. The man's back was ramrod straight, his whiskers drooping in the rain.
Colin kept going, and so the man said what men like him usually said: Yellow-skin, slant-eye Eskimo, go back where you belong. You got used to it here, if you didn't look like the People Who Owned Things, the light-skinned ones like Father. Colin resembled the People Who Did Things—caught the fish, sailed the seas, built the houses. He was six feet tall like a Winslow but small-necked and broad-shouldered like his mother's family, like an Inuit, with massive hands and a lumbering, rocking gait.
He didn't turn back, he didn't feel like answering or throttling the guy. He felt nothing.
Just past the blacksmith Colin turned left onto Bond Street. Number 37 was in the middle of the block, and he leaped up the stoop to open the front door.
The darkness swallowed his call. He raced past the parlor entry and yanked open the door to his father's study
It smelled of cherry pipe tobacco and hair tonic. Father's worn leather chair was angled back from the desk. The drawers had been pulled open and papers were piled helter-skelter. A fan blew in from the open window, causing the stuffed Arctic tern to swing lazily from the ceiling on its string. The moose head stared from the fireplace.
Colin ran to the desk to look for a clue, a note, anything that might hint where Father was.
Samuel Breen, Shipwright, Bill for Labor Pursuant to Construction of Barquentine Mystery ... United States Government Topographical Map and Report on Antarctic Continent ... Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, "The Mad Race to Conquer the South Pole" ... April 21, 1909, List of Able Seamen and Officers, Port of New York ...
The papers blurred. Colin blinked away tears and swept his arm across the desk. The contents flew onto the polar bearskin rug. He wanted to burn it all, the rug, the maps, the bills, the stuffed animals. All the reminders of polar travel past and future. Of Antarctica, the obsession that had consumed Father's energy and kept him from home, kept him from the deathbed of his own wife.
As Colin's eyes focused, he saw a note on top of all the others:
HORACE J. PUTNEY ENTERPRISES, LTD. 176 FRANKLIN STREET NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Franklin Street. That was in the Red Light District.
Colin had never been there. You never went there after dark if you valued your life. What did the Fat Man do for a living anyway?
Colin ran out of the house and barreled down Broadway. It was a long run, at least a mile, and as he crossed Canal Street the sun set behind the tenements and the smell of decay rushed up from the pavement. Fire escapes creaked as if craning to watch him. Figures slithered and turned in the doorway shadows, and a cry exploded from above, strangled and anguished, growing to a shrill laugh. A shapeless blob hurtled to the street from a third-story window and exploded on the cobblestones, a mass of rotted food and rank liquid that oozed into the gutter, from which two animal eyes peered upward, green and greedy.
Corner to corner, Colin told himself. Eyes front.
As he turned onto Franklin, the storefronts advertised goods in languages he didn't recognize, and broken carts stood chained to hitching posts. The distant din of angry voices grew closer.
Colin strained to see numbers above the doors—119 ... 121....
At the end of the wall of shadows, a crowd had gathered in front of a tavern. A man lay across the pavement, his face bloodied, while a group of burly men pulled off an angry attacker. Two mounted constables rode up, brandishing billy clubs, followed by an ambulance.
Just beyond them, where Franklin Street met Varick and West Broadway, a small, pristine brick building stood on the corner. Its light shone through stained-glass windows protected by steel bars. It was clean and jewel-like, completely out of place in this wretched neighborhood.
It had to be Putney's office.
Colin took a wide berth around the drunken brawl and crossed the street.CHAPTER 2
Putney was the money man.
It was that simple.
To go to Antarctica you needed a ship. One with a hull thick enough to withstand the pressure of the ice. A prow even thicker to batter icebergs without cracking. A steam engine and at least three masts, one or two of them full-rigged. Also a science lab, living quarters for up to thirty men, a kitchen, a cargo hold for a year's worth of provisions, and enough kennel space and food for three dozen or so large dogs.
Jack Winslow would provide the leadership, the vision. But someone had to pay.
His old Harvard friends wouldn't. They were rich enough now, but they hadn't taken Ol' Good Time Jack seriously. They never had.
After months of failure and mounting debts, Jack had turned to Putney as a last resort. Putney was a crook by all accounts. He'd made his fortune in the tenements, crowding people who didn't speak English into buildings that couldn't hold them. His expensive lawyers had protected him in the courts, but even Putney couldn't buy the thing he wanted most: a good reputation.
Jack offered it. Putney would share the glory. The newspapers would make him a national hero, the financier of the greatest American voyage ever made—the greatest voyage ever made, period.
The deal had been quick and easy. Strictly business.
Jack dreaded having to break it.
"Cigar?" Horace Putney pushed a gilded box across his desk. Above him, a lazy ceiling fan made eddies of the dust and smoke, which were tinted by the stained-glass windows that blocked sight of the squalid streets from inside his countinghouse. "Havana. The best."
"I'll pass," Jack said with an impatient smile. "To the point, then—Iphigenia has pneumonia. She's taken a turn for the worse."
Putney leaned forward, his chair groaning with the weight. His starched white shirt settled against the desk, like an iceberg against the hull of a ship. "If there's anything I can do ..."
"I'm afraid, Horace, that I must call off the trip."
There. Cards on the table.
"Well." Putney's brows creased upward. "Jack, I understand how upset you must be. Whatever care she requires, I'll make sure she has it—the best doctors, help for the house—you can prepare the voyage while you're with her."
"Horace, this may take a while."
"Fine. A week, a month, two months, whatever it takes. Hire a good captain and delegate responsibility to him—"
"There is no time. Shackleton came so close—and Scott can taste success. He's gathering a crew already. I wouldn't doubt that Amundsen is doing the same. If the trip is to be done, it must be done now, heart and soul. And I simply can't. What if she doesn't pull through, Horace? I flee to the South Pole, leaving my sons alone? What kind of man would do that?"
"Have they no relatives to stay with while you're gone—your in-laws in Boston, perhaps?"
"We haven't spoken to them for years. They cut off contact—"
"I'll find them for you. I have ways."
"That isn't the point—"
"Then what is? You've been a man possessed, Jack. The ultimate frontier, the greatest moment of glory in American history—what happened to all that? Not important anymore?"
"The point is family, Horace. The point is loving someone more than yourself."
The man wouldn't understand, of course. He was unmarried, childless, obsessed with wealth. He had never loved anyone more than Horace Putney.
Putney raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I must say, I hadn't prepared for this."
"I'm sorry, Horace. I understand it is a bitter disappointment to you—"
"Not to me, Jack. I'll survive. But you? There are practical matters to think of. Samuel Breen, for one."
Jack had been expecting this.
His life had been about Breen these days—stalling him, telling him the money was on its way. Breen was the finest, shipbuilder in the Northeast. Though Jack had no cash, Breen had put up a fortune of his own money to buy a sturdy barquentine from a Norwegian company—and another fortune to refit it to Jack's specifications. It would be called the Mystery, and it would "sail through granite." But Jack hadn't repaid a penny yet, and Breen was already threatening to sue.
"Cover Breen's costs, Horace," Jack said. "You won't lose money. He can sell the ship and split the proceeds with me. I will pay you back every cent."
"We had an agreement, Jack. No trip, no money." Putney gave a heavy shrug. "I can recommend a good bankruptcy lawyer ... if you can afford him."
"And if I can't?" Jack said, rising to his feet.
"Your choice," Putney replied. "I hear conditions in the poorhouse are conducive neither to good health nor to the proper upbringing of young men."
Jack lunged across the desk. But a pair of strong arms grabbed him from behind—Putney's butler, ever prepared for emergencies.
Obviously Putney was no stranger to personal attacks.
"You are a viper," Jack said through clenched teeth.
Putney rose and met Jack's glance. "Perhaps, Jack, you are not seeing all the possibilities. You could, for instance, take the boys with you."
"They're sixteen and fifteen," Jack said. "They're in school. They have no experience."
"They're healthy, smart, capable young men," Putney replied. "And besides, they'll have Philip to look after them."
"My sister's boy. Twenty-one or so. An able sailor, I hear tell. They live in England, and she's sending him here—supposedly to benefit from my example. I believe he'd profit more on your ship, as would you."
"The selection of crew is my prerogative—"
"And make sure none of the men know the real destination until you reach your first port of call in South America. I want no leaks, no word getting out to Scott so he can try to hurry his voyage to beat you."
"That's ludicrous. The men need to know where they're going—"
"One other thing—I reserve all film and photographic rights. After all this, I think I deserve to make a bit of a profit, don't you think?"
A sudden smack on the front door made all three men turn.
The door flew open, letting in a blast of cold air and a familiar broad silhouette.
"Colin?" Jack said.
"Father," Colin blurted out. "I have bad news...."CHAPTER 3
May 22, 1909
"Name?" Andrew asked.
"Berle," the man answered.
Andrew began writing. "That's B-E-R-L—?"
"Not Berle" the man shot back. "B-O-Y-L-E—Berle!"
A few of the other men snickered.
"Any experience working on a three-masted ship?" Andrew pressed on.
Boyle nodded. "Soitenly."
The front room exploded with guffaws and catcalls.
Andrew didn't mind. They could talk with their strange accents, sing sea chanteys, drag their muddy boots across the Persian rugs, reek of un-bathed flesh. Only nineteen would be kept out of the hundreds who had answered Jack's posting for positions on the Mystery.
Number 20 would be a photographer, to be chosen tomorrow. Numbers 21 and 22 were Andrew and Colin. They were going to the South Pole.
Andrew still had to pinch himself, just to be sure he hadn't dreamed this up. Every day he'd expected his stepfather, Jack, to come to his senses. To break the news that the trip was canceled, or that Colin and Andrew would be staying in Boston with Grandmother and Grandfather.
But this morning, on Andrew's sixteenth birthday, Jack had told the boys' teachers they'd be gone for a year and arranged for the appropriate books to be loaded onto the ship. Everything was full steam ahead.
Andrew knew why this was happening. Surely it was Mother's plan. She had wanted the trip to happen. She must have spoken to Jack before she died, insisted that he shake off his grief, hold fast to his dream—and take along his sons.
By now Andrew had read seven nautical manuals, a boat-building book, and every word Jack London had ever written. He would be as good a sailor as any of the men in this room.
They were the last interviewees today. Jack's posting had been nothing spectacular. "Good wages, New York to Buenos Aires." No word about Antarctica. That part was to be secret. And yet in three days Jack would have seen 467 of them. They'd come from as far as San Francisco. Many would be spending the night in Central Park.
If the truth had been out, the men would be lined up to the Hudson River.
Antarctica was on everyone's tongue these days. The men were talking about Shackleton now. Shack had just returned from his second attempt on the South Pole. He'd come within 112 miles, the closest anyone ever had. Some were saying he was all show, no grit. Others claimed he had come within 100 yards and lost courage.
Fools. Shack was good, one of the best. Andrew knew about them all, each man and milestone—first sighting (Cook, Briton, 1774); first Antarctic islands discovered (Bellinghausen, Russian, 1819–21); first landing (Davis, American, 1821); first ship trapped in ice (de Gerlache, Belgian, 1897); first failed attempt on the South Pole (Scott and Shackleton, 1907).
He was aching to explode the men's mistakes, to tell the men the truth about the voyage and watch the looks on their faces. But he had an agreement with Jack. The destination was secret.
"Gentlemen, please keep the noise down—an interview is going on in the parlor." Andrew pointed to the next man, the only one he hadn't yet signed in. "Name?"
"Orailoglu," the man muttered.
This time Andrew estimated the spelling. "Thank you. Kennedy will be next!"
Kennedy sat up straight and smoothed his suit jacket. He had a gaunt face with thick red hair and hands that looked too big for his body. He seemed a decent sort, a Southern boy, and he had excellent credentials as ship's carpenter. "So who are you, sonny, the captain's son?" he asked.
"My stepfather is the expedition leader," Andrew explained. "He will choose a captain. I am junior officer."
"Ah," Kennedy said.
"Didn't know they had nurseries on these ships," Boyle muttered.
Andrew quietly wrote a dark NO next to Boyle's name.
The last of them left at 6:50. Jack stood against the jamb of the parlor entrance, his eyes red and droopy. "Happy birthday. Sorry you had to work so hard."
"One hundred forty-three men today," Andrew announced. "Kennedy, I thought, showed promise—"
Excerpted from Antarctica by Peter Lerangis. Copyright © 2000 Peter Lerangis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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