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The Blue Ice
By Hammond Innes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1948 Hammond Innes
All rights reserved.
A lump of rock stands on my desk. It is a dull, grey lump of metallic rock no bigger than my fist, and it rests on the blueprints of a great new enterprise. Beside it is a newspaper cutting, with the picture of a grave and a little Norwegian church in the background. The blueprints belong to the future. The lump of rock and the newspaper cutting belong to the past. Past and future are a part of George Farnell, for his story is like a fine thread binding together the events which made this project possible. What he dreamed is taking shape out there by the frozen lake. If I switch off my table lamp and pull back the curtains, I can see the half-constructed buildings humped under their canopy of snow. Beyond them, towering white in the cold night, is the Jökulen. And on the glacial flank of the mountain, the Blaaisen – the Blue Ice – catches the moonlight in its icy jaws and grins. It is a wild and terrible place. And yet just below my window the lines of the railway that came through here in 1908 gleam like twin swords of achievement. Put back the curtain, switch on the light, and all is comfort and warmth again, proving that man's will to conquer is invincible. The nights are long now, and I have time to write of the events that led up to this new enterprise and of as much of George Farnell's story as we have been able to piece together. For this is his monument of achievement. And I want the world to know that it is his.
I came into it because of my knowledge of metals. But I wasn't thinking about metals at the time. I was thinking about stores and storm sails and diesel oil and all the other paraphernalia of sailing. I was doing the thing I'd always wanted to do. I was going foreign in my own ship.
I can remember that morning so clearly. It was early April and a cold wind whipped the muddy water of the Thames into little angry whitecaps. Across the river the stone battlements of the Tower stood out very white against a sky of driven scud. Above us Tower Bridge rumbled with heavy dock traffic. Little groups of city workers crowded the parapet, gazing down at us as we bent on a new mainsail. The air was full of the thick smell of malt. The gulls wheeled and screamed incessantly. And all about us was the urgent movement of ships.
It's not easy to describe the feeling of exhilaration and impatience that possessed me. The gulls seemed screaming at us to hurry. There was an urgent note in the wind's rattling of the rigging and in the chatter of the wavelets against our newly painted hull. The tugs hooted impatiently. The long search for the right boat, the months of stripping and refitting, the days spent scrounging stores – all now seemed condensed into this one day. This was the period of waiting. Tomorrow, before it was properly light, we should be slipping down-river with the outgoing tide – outward bound for the Mediterranean.
A month ago this moment had seemed no more than a dream. Shortages of materials and labour, export targets, foreign markets, man-management – that had been my life. Production manager of B.M. & I. – Base Metals and Industries – that was the job I'd been doing. I'd climbed to that big office in the concrete block outside Birmingham by drive and energy, and because I'd discovered and developed a nickel mine in Canada. All through the war I'd held that job. And I'd enjoyed it. Not because I like war. But because I wielded an industrial weapon and used the last ounce of energy that was in it to get guns and tanks rolling across the deserts of Africa and the fields of Normandy. But now I was through with all that. You'll say at thirty-six I'd no business to get out, the country being in the mess it was then. Well, I'm half Canadian and a scrapper by nature. But I like to know what I'm fighting. You can't fight controls and restrictions. The war gave free rein to my initiative. The peace cribbed it.
Dick Everard's an example of what I mean. He represents the best that Britain produces – tall, freckled, with a shock of fair hair and an honesty and strength of purpose that is a legacy of naval discipline. At twenty he was a naval rating. At twenty-four he was a lieutenant in charge of a corvette, with men and equipment worth the better part of a million under his command and untold responsibility. And now, at twenty-eight, he's regarded as of no more value than a machine-minder. All that training thrown away! The other two members of the crew, Wilson and Carter, are different. They're paid yacht hands. It's their job. But Dick has no job. He's coming for the hell of it – because he's got nothing better to do and wants to look over the possibilities of other countries.
As I leaned on the boom, watching his deft fingers securing the peak of the sail to the main gaff, I couldn't help thinking what a loss men like him were to the country. So many were getting out. His eyes met mine and he grinned. 'Okay, Bill,' he said. 'Hoist away.'
With Carter on the peak halyard and myself on the throat we ran the mainsail up. The canvas was snowy white against the dark background of the warehouses. It slatted back and forth in the wind. We manned the peak and throat purchases. 'She's going to set nicely,' Dick said.
I looked along the deck. Everything was neatly coiled down. The deck planking was scrubbed white. Brasswork gleamed in the dull light. She was a lovely boat. She was a gaff-rigged ketch of fifty tons and she'd been built in the days when ships were expected to go anywhere. I'd had her stripped out inside and refitted to my own design. A new mainmast had been stepped. The rigging was all new, so were the sails and I'd had her auxiliary replaced by a big ex-naval engine. For the first time since the war ended I felt the world at my feet. I'd stores and fuel and a crew – there was no place in the world Diviner wouldn't take me.
Dick sensed my thoughts. 'With a fair wind we'll be in the sun in a week's time,' he said, squinting up at the grey clouds scudding past our burgee.
I looked up at the envious faces lining Tower Bridge. 'Yes,' I said. 'Algiers. Naples, the Piraeus. Port Said ...'
And then I saw Sir Clinton Mann coming across the wharf, Sir Clinton is chairman of B.M. & I. – a tall man with stooping shoulders and an abrupt manner. He'd come into the business by way of the City. He represented money and statistics. He was as remote as a cabinet minister from the sweat and toil of production. He looked strangely incongruous in his City hat as he climbed down on to the deck.
'Good-morning, Sir Clinton,' I said, wondering why he had come. His eyes regarded me coldly as I went forward to meet him. I was conscious of my dirty jersey and corduroys. I'd never met him anywhere outside of a board-room. 'Would you care to look over the ship?' I asked.
'No,' he said. 'I'm here on business, Gansert.' I took him down to the saloon. 'When do you sail?' he asked.
'Tomorrow,' I said. 'On the morning tide.'
'For the Mediterranean?'
'I want you to change your plans, Gansert,' he said. 'I want you to go to Norway instead.'
'Why?' I asked, puzzled at his suggestions. And then, quickly, in case he should take that as an indication that I would: 'I'm sorry, Sir Clinton. But I'm leaving tomorrow for —'
He held up his hand. 'Listen to me first, Gansert,' he said. 'You're no longer connected with B.M. & I. – I know that. But you can't give eight years of your life to a concern without something of it sticking to you. Those thorite alloys, for instance. You started that. They were developed as a result of your efforts. And if we could get into full production —'
'That's a pipe dream,' I told him. 'And you know it. Thorite costs dollars. And even if you'd got all the dollars in the world, there just isn't enough of the stuff. American output is negligible, and that's the only known source.'
'Is it?' He fished a small wooden box from the pocket of his overcoat and pushed it across the table at me. 'Then what's this?' he asked.
I lifted the lid. Inside, resting on cotton wool, was a lump of metallic-looking ore. I lifted it out and with sudden excitement took it over to the window. 'Where did you get this?' I asked.
'First, what is it?' he asked.
'I can't be certain until tests have been made,' I told him. 'But I'd say it's thorite.'
He nodded. 'It is thorite,' he said. 'We've been through all the tests.'
I looked out of the window at the smoke and dirt of London's river. I was thinking of long assembly lines pouring out thorite alloy equipment, stronger than steel, lighter than aluminium, rustless and bright. If we could mine thorite in quantity then Britain would no longer lose ground to America. 'Where was this mined?' I asked.
He sat back in his chair again. 'That's what I don't know,' he said.
'But surely,' I said, 'you know where it came from?'
He nodded. 'Yes, I know where it came from.' His voice was dry and unemotional. 'A fishmonger in Hartlepool sent it to me.'
'A fishmonger in Hartlepool?' I stared at him. I thought he was joking.
'Yes,' he said. 'He found it in a case of whale meat.'
'You mean it came from the stomach of a whale?' I was thinking of untold mineral wealth that was supposed to be hidden under the Antarctic ice.
'No,' he replied. 'The whale meat came from Norway. And that lump of ore hadn't been absorbed into the digestive organs of a whale. It had been placed in a fold of the meat when it was packed.' He paused, and then said, 'We've checked up as far as we can from this end. The meat was part of a consignment dispatched to Newcastle by one of the Norwegian coastal stations.' He leaned forward. 'Gansert, I want your opinion. Who's the best man for us on Norway?'
'You mean for metals?' I asked.
I didn't have to stop and think. I knew them all. Most of them were friends of mine. 'There's Pritchard,' I said. 'Einar Jacobsen's good, and there's that Swedish fellow, Kults. Oh, and Williamson. But for our purpose, I'd say Pritchard.'
'That's no good,' he said. 'We're not the only people who know about this. Det Norske Staalselskab are on to it, too. Jorgensen's over here now, purchasing equipment. He's also angling for a tie-up with either ourselves or Castlet Steel. He says he possesses all the necessary information, but he's asking us to go into it blind. I've told him that's impossible and he threatens to approach the Americans. We've no time to waste sending Pritchard out there. He could search for months and find nothing. What we need is somebody who could advise us out of his own knowledge.'
'There's only one man who could do that,' I said. 'And he's probably dead by now. But if he weren't he could give you the answers you want. He knows Norway —' I stopped then and shrugged my shoulders. 'That was the trouble,' I added. 'He spent too much time in Norway – his own time and other people's money.'
Sir Clinton's gaze was fixed on me and there was almost a glint of excitement in his eyes. 'You mean George Farnell, don't you?' he said.
I nodded. 'But it's ten years since he disappeared.'
'I know.' Sir Clinton's fingers drummed a tattoo on the leather surface of his brief case. 'Two weeks ago our representative in Norway cabled from Oslo that there were rumours of new mineral discoveries in the central part of the country. Ever since then I've been trying to trace George Farnell. His mother and father are both dead. He seems to have had no relatives and no friends. Those who knew him before his conviction haven't heard from him since he disappeared. I had a detective agency on the job. No luck. Then I put an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.'
'Any luck there?' I asked as he paused.
'Yes. I had several replies – including the fishmonger. Apparently fishmongers now read The Times.'
'But what made him connect that lump of ore with your advertisement?'
'This.' Sir Clinton produced a filthy slip of paper. It was stained and stiffened with the congealed blood of the whale meat and had split along the folds. Through the dark bloodstains spidery writing showed in a vague blur. Two lines of what looked like poetry – and then a signature.
Ten years! It seemed incredible. 'I suppose it is his signature?' I asked.
'Yes.' Sir Clinton passed a slip of paper across to me. 'That's a specimen,' he said.
I compared the two. There was no doubt about it. Blurred and half obliterated by the blood, the signature on the scrap of paper had the same flourishing characteristics as the specimen. I sat back, thinking of George Farnell – how he'd flung himself out of an express train and had then completely vanished. He'd worked with me once on some concessions in Southern Rhodesia. He'd been a small, dark man with tremendous vitality – a bundle of nerves behind horn-rimmed glasses. He was an authority on base metals and he'd been obsessed with the idea of untold mineral wealth in the great mountain mass of Central Norway. 'This means that he's alive, and in Norway,' I said slowly.
'I wish you were right,' Sir Clinton answered. He produced a newspaper cutting from his brief case. 'Farnell's dead. This was published a fortnight ago. I didn't see it at the time. My attention was drawn to it later. There's a picture of the grave. And I've checked with the Norwegian military authorities that he did, in fact, join the Kompani Linge under the name of Bernt Olsen.'
I took the cutting. It was headlined – ESCAPED CONVICT IN HERO'S GRAVE. The letters of the name – Bernt Olsen – stood out black against the plain white cross in the picture. In the background was a small wooden church. The story recalled how Farnell had been convicted of forging the name of his partner Vincent Clegg and swindling him out of nearly £10,000, how he had escaped from the lavatory window of a train while being transferred to Parkhurst and had then completely vanished. That was in August, 1939. Apparently Farnell, trading on his knowledge of Norwegian, had then enlisted in the Norwegian Forces under the name Bernt Olsen. He had joined the Kompani Linge and had gone on the Malöy raid in December, 1941. He was reported missing from this operation. There followed a paragraph marked with blue pencil:
Recently the body of a man, later identified as Bernt Olsen, was discovered on the Boya Brae. He had attempted a lone crossing of the Jostedal, Europe's largest glacier. Presumably he had lost his way in a snowstorm. He must have fallen over a thousand feet on to the Boya Brae, a tributary of the main glacier above Fjaerland. He had with him divining rods and other metallurgical instruments. Papers found on the body proved the connection between Bernt Olsen, the hero, and George Farnell, the convict.
The story finished sententiously: And so another of Britain's sons has found glory in the hour of his country's greatest need.
I handed the story back to Sir Clinton. 'That happened a month ago?' I asked.
He nodded. 'Yes. That's been checked. The body was found on March 10th. The grave is at Fjaerland, which is at the head of the fjord running right up under the Jostedal. Have you read the lines above the signature on that piece of paper?'
I looked at the bloodied scrap again. The lines were too blurred.
'I've had it deciphered by experts,' Sir Clinton went on. 'It reads: If I should die, think only this of me ...'
'This presumably being the sample of thorite?' I said. 'How does it go? If I should die, think only this of me – That there's some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England.' An open invitation? But the fool hadn't said which corner. 'Who was this addressed to?' I asked.
'That's the trouble,' Sir Clinton replied. 'The fishmonger destroyed the wrapping. He said it was sodden with blood and quite unreadable 'anyway.'
'Pity,' I said. 'If we'd known that ...' I was thinking of all the people who'd like to get their hands on deposits of thorite. B.M. & I. wasn't the only concern that had produced new alloys based on thorite.
'It's almost as though he had some premonition,' Sir Clinton murmured. 'Why else should he quote those lines of Rupert Brooke?'
'Why, indeed?' I said. 'And why go and die on the Jostedal?' That was what really puzzled me. Most of his life Farnell had spent in the mountains of Norway. He'd gone there as a boy on walking tours. By the time he was twenty he knew the mountains better than most Norwegians. All through that hot summer in Southern Rhodesia he'd talked of little else. Norway was his El Dorado. He lived for nothing else but the discovery of minerals in the ice-capped fastnesses of Scandinavia. It was to finance prospecting expeditions to Norway that he had swindled his partner. That had come out at the trial. I turned to Sir Clinton. 'Isn't there something strange,' I said, 'about a man who survives a jump from an express train, goes through the Malöy raid, does resistance work – all things he's never done before – and then gets himself killed in the one place in which he's really at home?'
Sir Clinton smiled and got to his feet. 'He's dead,' he said. 'And that's all there is to it. But before he died he discovered something. When he went to the Jostedal he knew his life was in danger – hence the thorite sample and the note. Somewhere in England there's somebody who's expecting that sample.' He folded the newspaper cutting and thrust the wooden box with the thorite sample back into the pocket of his coat. 'What we need to know is what he had discovered before he died.' He paused. 'See – today's Monday. I'll have Ulvik – that's our Norwegian representative – up at Fjaerland from Friday onwards. Find out all you can about how Farnell died – why he was on the Jostedal – and above all where that thorite sample came from. Needless to say, you'll find our representative has authority to meet all expenses you may incur in Norway. And we shan't forget that you'll be acting for the company as a freelance in this matter.'
Excerpted from The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes. Copyright © 1948 Hammond Innes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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