The White Trail, by Stewart Edward White

from The Silent Places

For the space of nearly ten weeks these people travelled thus in the region of the Kabinikagam. Sometimes they made long marches; sometimes they camped for the hunting; sometimes the great, fierce storms of the north drove them to shelter, snowed them under, and passed on shrieking. The wind opposed them. At first of little account, its very insistence gave it value. Always the stinging snow whirling into the face; always the eyes watering and smarting; always the unyielding opposition against which to bend the head; always the rush of sound in the ears,—a distraction against which the senses had to struggle before they could take their needed cognisance of trail and of game. An uneasiness was abroad with the wind, an uneasiness that infected the men, the dogs, the forest creatures, the very insentient trees themselves. It racked the nerves. In it the inimical Spirit of the North seemed to find its plainest symbol; though many difficulties she cast in the way were greater to be overcome.

Ever the days grew shorter. The sun swung above the horizon, low to the south, and dipped back as though pulled by some invisible string. Slanting through the trees it gave little cheer and no warmth. Early in the afternoon it sank, silhouetting the pointed firs, casting across the snow long, crimson shadows, which faded into gray. It was replaced by a moon, chill and remote, dead as the white world on which it looked.

In the great frost continually the trees were splitting with loud, sudden reports. The cold had long since squeezed the last drops of moisture from the atmosphere. It was metallic, clear, hard as ice, brilliant as the stars, compressed with the freezing. The moon, the stars, the earth, the very heavens glistened like polished steel. Frost lay on the land thick as a coverlid. It hid the east like clouds of smoke. Snow remained unmelted two feet from the camp-fire.

And the fire alone saved these people from the enemy. If Sam stooped for a moment to adjust his snow-shoe strap, he straightened his back with a certain reluctance,—already the benumbing preliminary to freezing had begun. If Dick, flipping his mitten from his hand to light his pipe, did not catch the fire at the second tug, he had to resume the mitten and beat the circulation into his hand before renewing the attempt, lest the ends of his fingers become frosted. Movement, always and incessantly, movement alone could keep going the vital forces on these few coldest days until the fire had been built to fight back the white death.

It was the land of ghosts. Except for the few hours at midday these people moved in the gloom and shadow of a nether world. The long twilight was succeeded by longer night, with its burnished stars, its dead moon, its unearthly aurora. On the fresh snow were the tracks of creatures, but in the flesh they glided almost invisible. The ptarmigan's [Footnote: Ptarmigan: a species of grouse that is brown in summer but turns white, or nearly white, in winter.] bead eye alone betrayed him, he had no outline. The ermine's black tip was the only indication of his presence. Even the larger animals—the caribou, the moose—had either turned a dull gray, or were so rimed by the frost as to have lost all appearance of solidity. It was ever a surprise to find these phantoms red, to discover that their flesh would resist the knife. During the strife of the heavy northwest storms one side of each tree had become more or less plastered with snow, so that even their dark trunks flashed mysteriously into and out of view. In the entire world of the great white silence the only solid, enduring, palpable reality was the tiny sledge train crawling with infinite patience across its vastness.

White space, a feeling of littleness and impotence, twilight gloom, burnished night, bitter cold, unreality, phantasmagoria, [Footnote: Phantasmagoria: illusive images.] ghosts like those which surged about Aeneas, [Footnote: Ghosts about Aeneas: referring to the descent of Aeneas into Hades as told in Virgil's "Aeneid."] and finally clogging, white silence,—these were the simple but dreadful elements of that journey which lasted, without event, from the middle of November until the latter part of January.

—STEWART EDWARD WHITE.

[Footnote: What is the effect of the repeated use of "always" in the first paragraph? Cite the passages that help most in giving you a clear picture of the scene. What effect is produced by the absence of color in the description? Why does the author use almost entirely the short sentences? What possibilities of tragedy are hinted at in the narrative? How is the sense of silence and isolation conveyed?]

Louise de la Ramee