On August 16, 1913, I received an unexpected visit. Standing outside my front door was a gaunt, slightly stooping man leaning on a stick. His bald head was encircled by a fringe of gray hair badly in need of a trim.
“Yes, what do you want?” I asked the elderly stranger, whose whole appearance made a neglected, almost down the at-heel impression.
“You’re looking well, Arthur,” he remarked.
Although his voice sounded vaguely familiar, I couldn’t, with the best will in the world, recognize who was standing on my doorstep. To spare myself the further embarrassment, I said, “With whom am I speaking?”
“Oh!” the man exclaimed, momentarily taken aback. “It is I, Malcolm,” he said. “Malcolm Hurd.” “Malcolm! But of course!” I said. “You must forgive me, my eyes have been suffering a bit from overwork.”
I invited him in. On closer inspection, the only thing reminiscent of my former friend and a fellow student was his sharp and prominent nose, which jutted from his sunken features like an oriel. Malcolm Hurd and I had graduated from the medical program in Edinburgh almost thirty years earlier. We had last met at a congress twelve years ago, but he now looked less like someone in his mid-fifties than an elderly man of at least seventy. I strove to conceal my dismay at his appearance and showed him into the drawing-room. With extreme care and a loud sigh, he lowered himself into a wing chair. “It’s my back,” he explained. “I had an accident a few years ago, and I’m afraid it hasn’t healed to my entire satisfaction.”
“Sorry to hear that.” I offered him a glass of sherry, but he declined with a weary smile. “I’m an abstainer, more or less, at least where alcohol is concerned.”
He cocked his head, apparently listening
“My family is away visiting relatives,” I said in explanation of the unusual silence in the house. We’re on our own.
My old friend nodded as if that suited him perfectly. “In that case, Arthur, I’ll come straight to the point: Could you get away for a while? Three weeks or so?”. “I’d have to know a bit more before I answered that, old boy,” I said, my curiosity piqued. “Where would we be going?”
Malcolm Hurd leaned forward and gazed at me. His blue eyes were bright and piercing, as if unaffected by the progressive decline besetting the rest of his body. Looking into them, I recognized the young, energetic Malcolm, whose fresh ideas and persistent questions had put many a university lecturer on the spot.
“Prins Karls Forland, an island off the west coast of the Svalbard archipelago.” He waited tensely for my reaction.
The Svalbard archipelago was a group of islands north of Norway. What in God’s name would we be doing there?
Impatiently, I pressed Malcolm for further details, but his explanations were not wholly enlightening.
“Three days from now, a freighter will be sailing to the island from the Sunderland harbor on government orders,” he began. “There was a research station on Prins Karls Forland. The crew’s principal task was to locate its supposedly abundant mineral resources with a view to their subsequent extraction.”
“One moment,” I cut in. “You said there was a research station there. Doesn’t it exist anymore?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “a four-man team is still holding out there. The original crew members have been withdrawn.” He paused for a moment. “Those of them that survived.”
I took a big pull at my sherry. My interest aroused, I impatiently gestured to him to go on.