THE TRAIL OF '98
A Northland Romance
ROBERT W. SERVICE
Author of "The Spell of the Yukon" and "Ballads of a Cheechako"
With illustrations by Maynard Dixon
New York Dodd, Mead and Company 1911
Copyright, 1910, by Dodd, Mead and Company
Entered at Stationers' Hall
The Quinn & Boden Co. Press Rahway, N. J.
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.
BOOK I The Road to Anywhere 1
BOOK II The Trail 49
BOOK III The Camp 169
BOOK IV The Vortex 321
We were in a caldron of fire. The roar of doom was in our ears (p. 143) Frontispiece
"No," she said firmly, "you can't see the girl" 116
Then, as I hung half in, half out of the window, he clutched me by the throat 316
"Garry," I said, "this is—this is Berna" 476
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. Strong for the red rage of battle; sane, for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat, Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons; Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat; But the others—the misfits, the failures—I trample under my feet."
—"Songs of a Sourdough."
THE ROAD TO ANYWHERE
Can you recall, dear comrade, when we tramped God's land together, And we sang the old, old Earth-Song, for our youth was very sweet; When we drank and fought and lusted, as we mocked at tie and tether, Along the road to Anywhere, the wide world at our feet.
Along the road to Anywhere, when each day had its story; When time was yet our vassal, and life's jest was still unstale; When peace unfathomed filled our hearts as, bathed in amber glory, Along the road to Anywhere we watched the sunsets pale.
Alas! the road to Anywhere is pitfalled with disaster; There's hunger, want, and weariness, yet O we loved it so! As on we tramped exultantly, and no man was our master, And no man guessed what dreams were ours, as swinging heel and toe, We tramped the road to Anywhere, the magic road to Anywhere, The tragic road to Anywhere such dear, dim years ago.
—"Songs of a Sourdough."
As far back as I can remember I have faithfully followed the banner of Romance. It has given colour to my life, made me a dreamer of dreams, a player of parts. As a boy, roaming alone the wild heather hills, I have heard the glad shouts of the football players on the green, yet never ettled to join them. Mine was the richer, rarer joy. Still can I see myself in those days, a little shy-mannered lad in kilts, bareheaded to the hill breezes, with health-bright cheeks, and a soul happed up in dreams.
And, indeed, I lived in an enchanted land, a land of griffins and kelpies, of princesses and gleaming knights. From each black tarn I looked to see a scaly reptile rise, from every fearsome cave a corby emerge. There were green spaces among the heather where the fairies danced, and every scaur and linn had its own familiar spirit. I peopled the good green wood with the wild creatures of my thought, nymph and faun, naiad and dryad, and would have been in nowise surprised to meet in the leafy coolness the great god Pan himself.
It was at night, however, that my dreams were most compelling. I strove against the tyranny of sleep. Lying in my small bed, I revelled in delectable imaginings. Night after night I fought battles, devised pageants, partitioned empires. I gloried in details. My rugged war-lords were very real to me, and my adventures sounded many periods of history. I was a solitary caveman with an axe of stone; I was a Roman soldier of fortune; I was a Highland outlaw of the Rebellion. Always I fought for a lost cause, and always my sympathies were with the rebel. I feasted with Robin Hood on the King's venison; I fared forth with Dick Turpin on the gibbet-haunted heath; I followed Morgan, the Buccaneer, into strange and exotic lands of trial and treasure. It was a wonderful gift of visioning that was mine in those days. It was the bird-like flight of the pure child-mind to whom the unreal is yet the real.
Then, suddenly, I arrived at a second phase of my mental growth in which fancy usurped the place of imagination. The modern equivalents of Romance attracted me, and, with my increasing grasp of reality, my gift of vision faded. As I had hitherto dreamed of knight-errants, of corsairs and of outlaws, I now dreamed of cowboys, of gold-seekers, of beach-combers. Fancy painted scenes in which I, too, should play a rousing part. I read avidly all I could find dealing with the Far West, and ever my wistful gaze roved over the grey sea. The spirit of Romance beaconed to me. I, too, would adventure in the stranger lands, and face their perils and brave their dangers. The joy of the thought exulted in my veins, and scarce could I bide the day when the roads of chance and change would be open to my feet.
It is strange that in all these years I confided in no one. Garry, who was my brother and my dearest friend, would have laughed at me in that affectionate way of his. You would never have taken us for brothers. We were so different in temperament and appearance that we were almost the reverse of each other. He was the handsomest boy I have ever seen, frank, fair-skinned and winning, while I was dark, dour and none too well favoured. He was the best runner and swimmer in the parish, and the idol of the village lads. I cared nothing for games, and would be found somewhere among the heather hills, always by my lone self, and nearly always with a story book in my pocket. He was clever, practical and ambitious, excelling in all his studies; whereas, except in those which appealed to my imagination, I was a dullard and a dreamer.
Yet we loved each others as few brothers do. Oh, how I admired him! He was my ideal, and too often the hero of my romances. Garry would have laughed at my hero-worship; he was so matter-of-fact, effective and practical. Yet he understood me, my Celtic ideality, and that shy reserve which is the armour of a sensitive soul. Garry in his fine clever way knew me and shielded me and cheered me. He was so buoyant and charming he heartened you like Spring sunshine, and braced you like a morning wind on the mountain top. Yes, not excepting Mother, Garry knew me better than any one has ever done, and I loved him for it. It seems overfond to say this, but he did not have a fault: tenderness, humour, enthusiasm, sympathy and the beauty of a young god—all that was manfully endearing was expressed in this brother of mine.
So we grew to manhood there in that West Highland country, and surely our lives were pure and simple and sweet. I had never been further from home than the little market town where we sold our sheep. Mother managed the estate till Garry was old enough, when he took hold with a vigour and grasp that delighted every one. I think our little Mother stood rather in awe of my keen, capable, energetic brother. There was in her a certain dreamy, wistful idealism that made her beautiful in my eyes, and to look on she was as fair as any picture. Specially do I remember the delicate colouring of her face and her eyes, blue like deep corn-flowers. She was not overstrong, and took much comfort from religion. Her lips, which were fine and sensitive, had a particularly sweet expression, and I wish to record of her that never once did I see her cross, always sweet, gentle, smiling.
Thus our home was an ideal one; Garry, tall, fair and winsome; myself, dark, dreamy, reticent; and between us, linking all three in a perfect bond of love and sympathy, our gentle, delicate Mother.
So in serenity and sunshine the days of my youth went past. I still maintained my character as a drone and a dreamer. I used my time tramping the moorland with a gun, whipping the foamy pools of the burn for trout, or reading voraciously in the library. Mostly I read books of travel, and especially did I relish the literature of Vagabondia. I had come under the spell of Stevenson. His name spelled Romance to me, and my fancy etched him in his lonely exile. Forthright I determined I too would seek these ultimate islands, and from that moment I was a changed being. I nursed the thought with joyous enthusiasm. I would be a frontiersman, a trail-breaker, a treasure-seeker. The virgin prairies called to me; the susurrus of the giant pines echoed in my heart; but most of all, I felt the spell of those gentle islands where care is a stranger, and all is sunshine, song and the glowing bloom of eternal summer.
About this time Mother must have worried a good deal over my future. Garry was now the young Laird, and I was but an idler, a burden on the estate. At last I told her I wanted to go abroad, and then it seemed as if a great difficulty was solved. We remembered of a cousin who was sheep-ranching in the Saskatchewan valley and had done well. It was arranged that I should join him as a pupil, then, when I had learned enough, buy a place of my own. It may be imagined that while I apparently acquiesced in this arrangement, I had already determined that as soon as I reached the new land I would take my destiny into my own hands.
I will never forget the damp journey to Glasgow and the misty landscape viewed through the streaming window pane of a railway carriage. I was in a wondrous state of elation. When we reached the great smoky city I was lost in amazement not unmixed with fear. Never had I imagined such crowds, such houses, such hurry. The three of us, Mother, Garry and I, wandered and wondered for three days. Folks gazed at us curiously, sometimes admiringly, for our cheeks were bright with Highland health, and our eyes candid as the June skies. Garry in particular, tall, fair and handsome, seemed to call forth glances of interest wherever he went. Then as the hour of my departure drew near a shadow fell on us.
I will not dwell on our leave-taking. If I broke down in unmanly grief, it must be remembered I had never before been from home. I was but a lad, and these two were all in all to me. Mother gave up trying to be brave, and mingled her tears with mine. Garry alone contrived to make some show of cheerfulness. Alas! all my elation had gone. In its place was a sense of guilt, of desertion, of unconquerable gloom. I had an inkling then of the tragedy of motherhood, the tender love that would hold yet cannot, the world-call and the ruthless, estranging years, all the memories of clinging love given only to be taken away.
"Don't cry, sweetheart Mother," I said; "I'll be back again in three years."
"Mind you do, my boy, mind you do."
She looked at me woefully sad, and I had a queer, heartrending prevision I would never see her more. Garry was supporting her, and she seemed to have suddenly grown very frail. He was pale and quiet, but I could see he was vastly moved.
"Athol," said he, "if ever you need me just send for me. I'll come, no matter how long or how hard the way."
I can see them to this day standing there in the drenching rain, Garry fine and manly, Mother small and drooping. I can see her with her delicate rose colour, her eyes like wood violets drowned in tears, her tender, sensitive lips quivering with emotion.
"Good-bye, laddie, good-bye."
I forced myself away, and stumbled on board. When I looked back again they were gone, but through the grey shadows there seemed to come back to me a cry of heartache and irremediable loss.
It was on a day of early Autumn when I stood knee-deep in the heather of Glengyle, and looked wistfully over the grey sea. 'Twas but a month later when, homeless and friendless, I stood on the beach by the Cliff House of San Francisco, and gazed over the fretful waters of another ocean. Such is the romance of destiny.
Consigned, so to speak, to my cousin the sheep-raiser of the Saskatchewan, I found myself setting foot on the strange land with but little heart for my new vocation. My mind, cramful of book notions, craved for the larger life. I was valiantly mad for adventure; to fare forth haphazardly; to come upon naked danger; to feel the bludgeonings of mischance; to tramp, to starve, to sleep under the stars. It was the callow boy-idea perpetuated in the man, and it was to lead me a sorry dance. But I could not overbear it. Strong in me was the spirit of the gypsy. The joy of youth and health was brawling in my veins. A few thistledown years, said I, would not matter. And there was Stevenson and his glamorous islands winning me on.
So it came about I stood solitary on the beach by the seal rocks, with a thousand memories confusing in my head. There was the long train ride with its strange pictures: the crude farms, the glooming forests, the gleaming lakes that would drown my whole country, the aching plains, the mountains that rip-sawed the sky, the fear-made-eternal of the desert. Lastly, a sudden, sunlit paradise, California.
I had lived through a week of wizardry such as I had never dreamed of, and here was I at the very throne of Western empire. And what a place it was, and what a people—with the imperious mood of the West softened by the spell of the Orient and mellowed by the glamour of Old Spain. San Francisco! A score of tongues clamoured in her streets and in her byways a score of races lurked austerely. She suckled at her breast the children of the old grey nations and gave them of her spirit, that swift purposeful spirit so proud of past achievement and so convinced of glorious destiny.
I marvelled at the rush of affairs and the zest of amusement. Every one seemed to be making money easily and spending it eagerly. Every one was happy, sanguine, strenuous. At night Market Street was a dazzling alley of light, where stalwart men and handsome women jostled in and out of the glittering restaurants. Yet amid this eager, passionate life I felt a dreary sense of outsideness. At times my heart fairly ached with loneliness, and I wandered the pathways of the park, or sat forlornly in Portsmouth Square as remote from it all as a gazer on his mountain top beneath the stars.
I became a dreamer of the water front, for the notion of the South Seas was ever in my head. I loafed in the sunshine, sitting on the pier-edge, with eyes fixed on the lazy shipping. These were care-free, irresponsible days, and not, I am now convinced, entirely misspent. I came to know the worthies of the wharfside, and plunged into an under-world of fascinating repellency. Crimpdom eyed and tempted me, but it was always with whales or seals, and never with pearls or copra. I rubbed shoulders with eager necessity, scrambled for free lunches in frowsy bar-rooms, and amid the scum and debris of the waterside found much food for sober thought. Yet at times I blamed myself for thus misusing my days, and memories of Glengyle and Mother and Garry loomed up with reproachful vividness.
I was, too, a seeker of curious experience, and this was to prove my undoing. The night-side of the city was unveiled to me. With the assurance of innocence I wandered everywhere. I penetrated the warrens of underground Chinatown, wondering why white women lived there, and why they hid at sight of me. Alone I poked my way into the opium joints and the gambling dens. Vice, amazingly unabashed, flaunted itself in my face. I wondered what my grim, Covenanting ancestors would have made of it all. I never thought to have seen the like, and in my inexperience it was like a shock to me.
My nocturnal explorations came to a sudden end. One foggy midnight, coming up Pacific Street with its glut of saloons, I was clouted shrewdly from behind and dropped most neatly in the gutter. When I came to, very sick and dizzy in a side alley, I found I had been robbed of my pocketbook with nearly all my money therein. Fortunately I had left my watch in the hotel safe, and by selling it was not entirely destitute; but the situation forced me from my citadel of pleasant dreams, and confronted me with the grimmer realities of life.
I became a habitue of the ten-cent restaurant. I was amazed to find how excellent a meal I could have for ten cents. Oh for the uncaptious appetite of these haphazard days! With some thirty-odd dollars standing between me and starvation, it was obvious I must become a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, and to this end I haunted the employment offices. They were bare, sordid rooms, crowded by men who chewed, swapped stories, yawned and studied the blackboards where the day's wants were set forth. Only driven to labour by dire necessity, their lives, I found, held three phases—looking for work, working, spending the proceeds. They were the Great Unskilled, face to face with the necessary evil of toil.
One morning, on seeking my favourite labour bureau, I found an unusual flutter among the bench-warmers. A big contractor wanted fifty men immediately. No experience was required, and the wages were to be two dollars a day. With a number of others I pressed forward, was interviewed and accepted. The same day we were marched in a body to the railway depot and herded into a fourth-class car.
Where we were going I knew not; of what we were going to do I had no inkling. I only knew we were southbound, and at long last I might fairly consider myself to be the shuttlecock of fortune.
I left San Francisco blanketed in grey fog and besomed by a roaring wind; when I opened my eyes I was in a land of spacious sky and broad, clean sunshine. Orange groves rushed to welcome us; orchards of almond and olive twinkled joyfully in the limpid air; tall, gaunt and ragged, the scaly eucalyptus fluttered at us a morning greeting, while snowy houses, wallowing in greenery, flashed a smile as we rumbled past. It seemed like a land of promise, of song and sunshine, and silent and apart I sat to admire and to enjoy.
"Looks pretty swell, don't it?"
I will call him the Prodigal. He was about my own age, thin, but sun-browned and healthy. His hair was darkly red and silky, his teeth white and even as young corn. His eyes twinkled with a humorsome light, but his face was shrewd, alert and aggressive.
"Yes," I said soberly, for I have always been backward with strangers.
"Pretty good line. The banana belt. Old Sol working overtime. Blossom and fruit cavorting on the same tree. Eternal summer. Land of the manana, the festive frijole, the never-chilly chili. Ever been here before?"
"Neither have I. Glad I came, even if it's to do the horny-handed son of toil stunt. Got the makings?"
"No, I'm sorry; I don't smoke."
"All right, guess I got enough."
He pulled forth a limp sack of powdery tobacco, and spilled some grains into a brown cigarette paper, twisting it deftly and bending over the ends. Then he smoked with such enjoyment that I envied him.
"Where are we going, have you any idea?" I asked.
"Search me," he said, inhaling deeply; "the guy in charge isn't exactly a free information bureau. When it comes to peddling the bull con he's there, but when you try to pry off a few slabs of cold hard fact it's his Sunday off."
"But," I persisted, "have you no idea?"
"Well, one thing you can bank on, they'll work the Judas out of us. The gentle grafter nestles in our midst. This here's a cinch game and we are the fall guys. The contractors are a bum outfit. They'll squeeze us at every turn. There was two plunks to the employment man; they got half. Twenty for railway fare; they come in on that. Stop at certain hotels: a rake-off there. Stage fare: more graft. Five dollars a week for board: costs them two-fifty, and they will be stomach robbers at that. Then they'll ring in twice as many men as they need, and lay us off half the time, so that we just about even up on our board bill. Oh, I'm onto their curves all right."
"Then," I said, "if you know so much why did you come with us?"
"Well, if I know so much you just bet I know some more. I'll go one better. You watch my smoke."
He talked on with a wonderful vivid manner and an outpouring knowledge of life, so that I was hugely interested. Yet ever and anon an allusion of taste would betray him, and at no time did I fail to see that his roughness was only a veneer. As it turned out he was better educated by far than I, a Yale boy taking a post-graduate course in the University of Hard Luck.
My reserve once thawed, I told him much of my simple life. He listened, intently sympathetic.
"Say," said he earnestly when I had finished, "I'm rough-and-ready in my ways. Life to me's a game, sort of masquerade, and I'm the worst masquerader in the bunch. But I know how to handle myself, and I can jolly my way along pretty well. Now, you're green, if you'll excuse me saying it, and maybe I can help you some. Likewise you're the only one in all the gang of hoboes that's my kind. Come on, let's be partners."
I felt greatly drawn to him and agreed gladly.
"Now," said he, "I must go and jolly along the other boys. Aren't they a fierce bunch? Coloured gentlemen, Slavonians, Polaks, Dagoes, Swedes—well, I'll go prospecting, and see what I can strike."
He went among them with a jabber of strange terms, a bright smile and ready banter, and I could see that he was to be a quick favourite. I envied him for his ease of manner, a thing I could never compass. Presently he returned to me.
"Say, partner, got any money?"
There was something frank and compelling in his manner, so that I produced the few dollars I had left, and spread them before him.
"That's all my wealth," I said smilingly.
He divided it into two equal portions and returned one to me. He took a note of the other, saying:
"All right, I'll settle up with you later on."
He went off with my money. He seemed to take it for granted I would not object, and on my part I cared little, being only too eager to show I trusted him. A few minutes later behold him seated at a card-table with three rough-necked, hard-bitten-looking men. They were playing poker, and, thinks I: "Here's good-bye to my money." It minded me of wolves and a lamb. I felt sorry for my new friend, and I was only glad he had so little to lose.
We were drawing in to Los Angeles when he rejoined me. To my surprise he emptied his pockets of wrinkled notes and winking silver to the tune of twenty dollars, and dividing it equally, handed half to me.
"Here," says he, "plant that in your dip."
"No," I said, "just give me back what you borrowed; that's all I want."
"Oh, forget it! You staked me, and it's well won. These guinneys took me for a jay. Thought I was easy, but I've forgotten more than they ever knew, and I haven't forgotten so much either."
"No, you keep it, please. I don't want it."
"Oh, come! put your Scotch scruples in your pocket. Take the money."
"No," I said obstinately.
"Look here, this partnership of ours is based on financial equality. If you don't like my gate, you don't need to swing on it."
"All right," said I tartly, "I don't want to."
Then I turned on my heel.
On either side of us were swift hills mottled with green and gold, ahead a curdle of snow-capped mountains, above a sky of robin's-egg blue. The morning was lyric and set our hearts piping as we climbed the canyon. We breathed deeply of the heady air, exclaimed at sight of a big bee ranch, shouted as a mule team with jingling bells came swinging down the trail. With cries of delight we forded the little crystal stream wherever the trail plunged knee-deep through it. Higher and higher we climbed, mile after mile, our packs on our shoulders, our hearts very merry. I was as happy as a holiday schoolboy, willing this should go on for ever, dreading to think of the grim-visaged toil that awaited us.
About midday we reached the end. Gangs of men were everywhere, ripping and tearing at the mountain side. There was a roar of blasting, and rocks hurtled down on us. Bunkhouses of raw lumber sweated in the sun. Everywhere was the feverish activity of a construction camp.
We were assigned to a particular bunkhouse, and there was a great rush for places. It was floorless, doorless and in part roofless. Above the medley of voices I heard that of the Prodigal:
"Say, fellows, let's find the softest side of this board! Strikes me the Company's mighty considerate. All kinds of ventilation. Good chance to study astronomy. Wonder if I couldn't borrow a mattress somewhere? Ha! Good eye! Watch me, fellows!"
We saw him make for a tent nearby where horses were stabled. He reconnoitred carefully, then darted inside to come out in a twinkling, staggering under a bale of hay.
"How's that for rustling? I guess I'm slow—hey, what? Guess this is poor!"
He was wadding his bunk with the hay, while the others looked on rather enviously. Then, as a bell rang, he left off.
"Hash is ready, boys; last call to the dining-car. Come on and see the pigs get their heads in the trough."
We hurried to the cookhouse, where a tin plate, a tin cup, a tin spoon and a cast-iron knife was laid for each of us at a table of unplaned boards. A great mess of hash was ready, and excepting myself every one ate voraciously. I found something more to my taste, a can of honey and some soda crackers, on which I supped gratefully.
When I returned to the bunkhouse I found my bunk had been stuffed with nice soft hay, and my blankets spread on top. I looked over to the Prodigal. He was reading, a limp cigarette between his yellow-stained fingers. I went up to him.
"It's very good of you to do this," I said.
"Oh no! Not at all. Don't mention it," he answered with much politeness, never raising his eyes from the book.
"Well," I said, "I've just got to thank you. And look here, let's make it up. Don't let the business of that wretched money come between us. Can't we be friends anyway?"
He sprang up and gripped my hand.
"Sure! nothing I want more. I'm sorry. Another time I'll make allowance for that shorter-catechism conscience of yours. Now let's go over to that big fire they've made and chew the rag."
So we sat by the crackling blaze of mesquite, sagebrush and live-oak limbs, while over us twinkled the friendly stars, and he told me many a strange story of his roving life.
"You know, the old man's all broke up at me playing the fool like this. He's got a glue factory back in Massachusetts. Guess he stacks up about a million or so. Wanted me to go into the glue factory, begin at the bottom, stay with it. 'Stick to glue, my boy,' he says; 'become the Glue King,' and so on. But not with little Willie. Life's too interesting a proposition to be turned down like that. I'm not repentant. I know the fatted calf's waiting for me, getting fatter every day. One of these days I'll go back and sample it."
It was he I first heard talk of the Great White Land, and it stirred me strangely.
"Every one's crazy about it. They're rushing now in thousands, to get there before the winter begins. Next spring there will be the biggest stampede the world has ever seen. Say, Scotty, I've the greatest notion to try it. Let's go, you and I. I had a partner once, who'd been up there. It's a big, dark, grim land, but there's the gold, shining, shining, and it's calling us to go. Somehow it haunts me, that soft, gleamy, virgin gold there in the solitary rivers with not a soul to pick it up. I don't care one rip for the value of it. I can make all I want out of glue. But the adventure, the excitement, it's that that makes me fit for the foolish house."
He was silent a long time while my imagination conjured up terrible, fascinating pictures of the vast, unawakened land, and a longing came over me to dare its shadows.
As we said good-night, his last words were:
"Remember, Scotty, we're both going to join the Big Stampede, you and I."
I slept but fitfully, for the night air was nipping, and the bunkhouse nigh as open as a cage. A bonny morning it was, and the sun warmed me nicely, so that over breakfast I was in a cheerful humour. Afterwards I watched the gang labouring, and showed such an injudicious interest that that afternoon I too was put to work.
It was very simple. Running into the mountain there was a tunnel, which they were lining with concrete, and it was the task of I and another to push cars of the stuff from the outlet to the scene of operations. My partner was a Swede who had toiled from boyhood, while I had never done a day's work in my life. It was as much as I could do to lift the loaded boxes into the car. Then we left the sunshine behind us, and for a quarter of a mile of darkness we strained in an uphill effort.
From the roof, which we stooped to avoid, sheets of water descended. Every now and then the heavy cars would run off the rails, which were of scantling, worn and frayed by friction. Then my Swede would storm in Berserker rage, and we would lift till the veins throbbed in my head. Never had time seemed so long. A convict working in the salt mines of Siberia did not revolt more against his task than I. The sweat blinded me; a bright steel pain throbbed in my head; my heart seemed to hammer. Never so thankful was I as when we had made our last trip, and sick and dizzy I put on my coat to go home.
It was dark. There was a cable line running from the tunnel to the camp, and down this we shot in buckets two at a clip. The descent gave me a creepy sensation, but it saved a ten minutes' climb down the mountain side, and I was grateful.
Tired, wet and dirty, how I envied the Prodigal lying warm and cosy on his fragrant hay. He was reading a novel. But the thought that I had earned a dollar comforted me. After supper he, with Ginger and Dutchy, played solo till near midnight, while I tossed on my bunk too weary and sore to sleep.
Next day was a repetition of the first, only worse. I ached as if I had been beaten. Stiff and sore I dragged myself to the tunnel again. I lifted, strained, tugged and shoved with a set and tragic face. Five hours of hell passed. It was noon. I nursed my strength for the after effort. Angrily I talked to myself, and once more I pulled through. Weary and slimy with wet mud, I shot down the cable line. Snugly settled in his bunk, the Prodigal had read another two hundred pages of "Les Miserables." Yet—I reflected somewhat sadly—I had made two dollars.
On the third day sheer obstinacy forced me to the tunnel. My self-respect goaded me on. I would not give in. I must hold this job down, I must, I MUST. Then at the noon hour I fainted.
No one saw me, so I gritted my teeth and once more threw my weight against the cars. Once more night found me waiting to descend in the bucket. Then as I stood there was a crash and shouts from below. The cable had snapped. My Swede and another lay among the rocks with sorely broken bones. Poor beggars! how they must have suffered jolting down that boulder-strewn trail to the hospital.
Somehow that destroyed my nerve. I blamed myself indeed. I flogged myself with reproaches, but it was of no avail. I would sooner beg my bread than face that tunnel once again. The world seemed to be divided into two parts, the rest of it and that tunnel. Thank God, I didn't have to go into it again. I was exultantly happy that I didn't. The Prodigal had finished his book, and was starting another. That night he borrowed some of my money to play solo with.
Next day I saw the foreman. I said:
"I want to go. The work up there's too hard for me."
He looked at me kindly.
"All right, sonny," says he, "don't quit. I'll put you in the gravel pit."
So next day I found a more congenial task. There were four of us. We threw the gravel against a screen where the finer stuff that sifted through was used in making concrete.
The work was heart-breaking in its monotony. In the biting cold of the morning we made a start, long before the sun peeped above the wall of mountain.
We watched it crawl, snail-like, over the virgin sky. We panted in its heat. We saw it drop again behind the mountain wall, leaving the sky gorgeously barred with colour from a tawny orange glow to an ice-pale green—a regular pousse cafe of a sunset. Then when the cold and the dark surged back, by the light of the evening star we straightened our weary spines, and throwing aside pick and shovel hurried to supper.
Heigh-ho! what a life it was. Resting, eating, sleeping; negative pleasures became positive ones. Life's great principle of compensation worked on our behalf, and to lie at ease, reading an old paper, seemed an exquisite enjoyment.
I was much troubled about the Prodigal. He complained of muscular rheumatism, and except to crawl to meals was unable to leave his bunk. Every day came the foreman to inquire anxiously if he was fit to go to work, but steadily he grew worse. Yet he bore his suffering with great spirit, and, among that nondescript crew, he was a thing of joy and brightness, a link with that other world which was mine own. They nicknamed him "Happy," his cheerfulness was so invincible. He played cards on every chance, and he must have been unlucky, for he borrowed the last of my small hoard.
One morning I woke about six, and found, pinned to my blanket, a note from my friend.
"I grieve to leave you thus, but the cruel foreman insists on me working off my ten days' board. Racked with pain as I am, there appears to be no alternative but flight. Accordingly I fade away once more into the unknown. Will write you general delivery, Los Angeles. Good luck and good-bye. Yours to a cinder,
There was a hue and cry after him, but he was gone, and a sudden disgust for the place came over me. For two more days I worked, crushed by a gloom that momently intensified. Clamant and imperative in me was the voice of change. I could not become toil-broken, so I saw the foreman.
"Why do you want to go?" he asked reproachfully.
"Well, sir, the work's too monotonous."
"Monotonous! Well, that's the rummest reason I ever heard a man give for quitting. But every man knows his own business best. I'll give you a time-cheque."
While he was making it out I wondered if, indeed, I did know my own business best; but if it had been the greatest folly in the world, I was bound to get out of that canyon.
Treasuring the slip of paper representing my labour, I sought one of the bosses, a sour, stiff man of dyspeptic tendencies. With a smile of malicious sweetness he returned it to me.
"All right, take it to our Oakland office, and you'll get the cash."
Expectantly I had been standing there, thinking to receive my money, the first I had ever earned (and to me so distressfully earned, at that). Now I gazed at him very sick at heart: for was not Oakland several hundred miles away, and I was penniless.
"Couldn't you cash it here?" I faltered at last.
"No!" (very sourly).
"Couldn't you discount it, then?"
"No!" (still more tartly).
I turned away, crestfallen and smarting. When I told the other boys they were indignant, and a good deal alarmed on their own account. I made my case against the Company as damning as I could, then, slinging my blankets on my back, set off once more down the canyon.
I was gaining in experience, and as I hurried down the canyon and the morning burgeoned like a rose, my spirits mounted invincibly. It was the joy of the open road and the care-free heart. Like some hideous nightmare was the memory of the tunnel and the gravel pit. The bright blood in me rejoiced; my muscles tensed with pride in their toughness; I gazed insolently at the world.
So, as I made speed to get the sooner to the orange groves, I almost set heel on a large blue envelope which lay face up on the trail. I examined it and, finding it contained plans and specifications of the work we had been at, I put it in my pocket.
Presently came a rider, who reined up by me.
"Say, young man, you haven't seen a blue envelope, have you?"
Something in the man's manner aroused in me instant resentment. I was the toiler in mud-stiffened overalls, he arrogant and supercilious in broadcloth and linen.
"No," I said sourly, and, going on my way, heard him clattering up the canyon.
It was about evening when I came onto a fine large plain. Behind me was the canyon, gloomy like the lair of some evil beast, while before me the sun was setting, and made the valley like a sea of golden glaze. I stood, knight-errant-wise, on the verge of one of those enchanted lands of precious memory, seeking the princess of my dreams; but all I saw was a man coming up the trail. He was reeling homeward, with under one arm a live turkey, and swinging from the other a demijohn of claret.
He would have me drink. He represented the Christmas spirit, and his accent was Scotch, so I up-tilted his demijohn gladly enough. Then, for he was very merry, he would have it that we sing "Auld Lang Syne." So there, on the heath, in the golden dance of the light, we linked our hands and lifted our voices like two daft folk. Yet, for that it was Christmas Eve, it seemed not to be so mad after all.
There was my first orange grove. I ran to it eagerly, and pulled four of the largest fruit I could see. They were green-like of rind and bitter sour, but I heeded not, eating the last before I was satisfied. Then I went on my way.
As I entered the town my spirits fell. I remembered I was quite without money and had not yet learned to be gracefully penniless. However, I bethought me of the time-cheque, and entering a saloon asked the proprietor if he would cash it. He was a German of jovial face that seemed to say: "Welcome, my friend," and cold, beady eyes that queried: "How much can I get of your wad?" It was his eyes I noticed.
"No, I don'd touch dot. I haf before been schvindled. Himmel, no! You take him avay."
I sank into a chair. Catching a glimpse of my face in a bar mirror, I wondered if that hollow-cheeked, weary-looking lad was I. The place was crowded with revellers of the Christmastide, and geese were being diced for. There were three that pattered over the floor, while in the corner the stage-driver and a red-haired man were playing freeze-out for one of them.
I drowsed quietly. Wafts of bar-front conversation came to me. "Envelope ... lost plans ... great delay." Suddenly I sat up, remembering the package I had found.
"Were you looking for some lost plans?" I asked.
"Yes," said one man eagerly, "did you find them?"
"I didn't say I did, but if I could get them for you, would you cash this time-cheque for me?"
"Sure," he says, "one good turn deserves another. Deliver the goods and I'll cash your time-cheque."
His face was frank and jovial. I drew out the envelope and handed it over. He hurriedly ran through the contents and saw that all were there.
"Ha! That saves a trip to 'Frisco," he said, gay with relief.
He turned to the bar and ordered a round of drinks. They all had a drink on him, while he seemed to forget about me. I waited a little, then pressed forward with my time-cheque.
"Oh that," said he, "I won't cash that. I was only joshing."
A feeling of bitter anger welled up within me. I trembled like a leaf.
"You won't go back on your word?" I said.
He became flustered.
"Well, I can't do it anyway. I've got no loose cash."
What I would have said or done I know not, for I was nigh desperate; but at this moment the stage-driver, flushed with his victory at freeze-out, snatched the paper from my hand.
"Here, I'll discount that for you. I'll only give you five dollars for it, though."
It called for fourteen, but by this time I was so discouraged I gladly accepted the five-dollar goldpiece he held out to tempt me.
Thus were my fortunes restored. It was near midnight and I asked the German for a room. He replied that he was full up, but as I had my blankets there was a nice dry shed at the back. Alas! it was also used by his chickens. They roosted just over my head, and I lay on the filthy floor at the mercy of innumerable fleas. To complete my misery the green oranges I had eaten gave me agonizing cramps. Glad, indeed, was I when day dawned, and once more I got afoot, with my face turned towards Los Angeles.
Los Angeles will always be written in golden letters in the archives of my memory. Crawling, sore and sullen, from the clutch of toil, I revelled in a lotus life of ease and idleness. There was infinite sunshine, and the quiet of a public library through whose open windows came the fragrance of magnolias. Living was incredibly cheap. For seventy-five cents a week I had a little sunlit attic, and for ten cents I could dine abundantly. There was soup, fish, meat, vegetables, salad, pudding and a bottle of wine. So reading, dreaming and roaming the streets, I spent my days in a state of beatitude.
But even five dollars will not last for ever, and the time came when once more the grim face of toil confronted me. I must own that I had now little stomach for hard labour, yet I made several efforts to obtain it. However, I had a bad manner, being both proud and shy, and one rebuff in a day always was enough. I lacked that self-confidence that readily finds employment, and again I found myself mixing with the spineless residuum of the employment bureau.
At last the morning came when twenty-five cents was all that remained to me in the world. I had just been seeking a position as a dish-washer, and had been rather sourly rejected. Sitting solitary on the bench in that dreary place, I soliloquized:
"And so it has come to this, that I, Athol Meldrum, of gentle birth and Highland breeding, must sue in vain to understudy a scullion in a third-rate hash joint. I am, indeed, fallen. What mad folly is this that sets me lower than a menial? Here I might be snug in the Northwest raising my own fat sheep. A letter home would bring me instant help. Yet what would it mean? To own defeat; to lose my self-esteem; to call myself a failure. No, I won't. Come what may, I will play the game."
At that moment the clerk wrote:—
"Man Wanted to Carry Banner."
"How much do you want for that job?" I asked.
"Oh, two bits will hold you," he said carelessly.
"Any experience required?" I asked again.
"No, I guess even you'll do for that," he answered cuttingly.
So I parted with my last quarter and was sent to a Sheeny store in Broadway. Here I was given a vociferous banner announcing:
"Great retiring sale," and so forth.
With this hoisted I sallied forth, at first very conscious and not a little ashamed. Yet by and by this feeling wore off, and I wandered up and down with no sense of my employment, which, after all, was one adapted to philosophic thought. I might have gone through the day in this blissful coma of indifference had not a casual glance at my banner thrilled me with horror. There it was in hideous, naked letters of red:
I reeled under the shock. I did not mind packing a banner, but a misspelt one....
I hurried back to the store, resolved to throw up my position. Luckily the day was well advanced, and as I had served my purpose I was given a silver dollar.
On this dollar I lived for a month. Not every one has done that, yet it is easy to do. This is how I managed.
In the first place I told the old lady who rented me my room that I could not pay her until I got work, and I gave her my blankets as security. There remained only the problem of food. This I solved by buying every day or so five cents' worth of stale bread, which I ate in my room, washing it down with pure spring water. A little imagination and lo! my bread was beef, my water wine. Thus breakfast and dinner. For supper there was the Pacific Gospel Hall, where we gathered nightly one hundred strong, bawled hymns, listened to sundry good people and presently were given mugs of coffee and chunks of bread. How good the fragrant coffee tasted and how sweet the fresh bread!
At the end of the third week I got work as an orange-picker. It was a matter of swinging long ladders into fruit-flaunting trees, of sunshiny days and fluttering leaves, of golden branches plundered, and boxes filled from sagging sacks. There is no more ideal occupation. I revelled in it. The others were Mexicans; I was "El Gringo." But on an average I only made fifty cents a day. On one day, when the fruit was unusually large, I made seventy cents.
Possibly I would have gone on, contentedly enough, perched on a ladder, high up in the sunlit sway of treetops, had not the work come to an end. I had been something of a financier on a picayune scale, and when I counted my savings and found that I had four hundred and ninety-five cents, such a feeling of affluence came over me that I resolved to gratify my taste for travel. Accordingly I purchased a ticket for San Diego, and once more found myself southward bound.
A few days in San Diego reduced my small capital to the vanishing point, yet it was with a light heart I turned north again and took the All-Tie route for Los Angeles. If one of the alluring conditions of a walking tour is not to be overburdened with cash surely I fulfilled it, for I was absolutely penniless. The Lord looks after his children, said I, and when I became too inexorably hungry I asked for bread, emphasising my willingness to do a stunt on the woodpile. Perhaps it was because I was young and notably a novice in vagrancy, but people were very good to me.
The railway track skirts the ocean side for many a sonorous league. The mile-long waves roll in majestically, as straight as if drawn with a ruler, and crash in thunder on the sandy beach. There were glorious sunsets and weird storms, with underhanded lightning stabs at the sky. I built little huts of discarded railway ties, and lit camp-fires, for I was fearful of the crawling things I saw by day. The coyote called from the hills. Uneasy rustlings came from the sagebrush. My teeth, a-chatter with cold, kept me awake, till I cinched a handkerchief around my chin. Yet, drenched with night-dews, half-starved and travel-worn, I seemed to grow every day stronger and more fit. Between bondage and vagabondage I did not hesitate to choose.
Leaving the sea, I came to a country of grass and she-oaks very pretty to see, like an English park. I passed horrible tule swamps, and reached a cattle land with corrals and solitary cowboys. There was a quaint old Spanish Mission that lingers in my memory, then once again I came into the land of the orange-groves and the irrigating ditch. Here I fell in with two of the hobo fraternity, and we walked many miles together. One night we slept in a refrigerator car, where I felt as if icicles were forming on my spine. But walking was not much in their line, so next morning they jumped a train and we separated. I was very thankful, as they did not look over-clean, and I had a wholesome horror of "seam-squirrels."
On arriving in Los Angeles I went to the Post Office. There was a letter from the Prodigal dated New York, and inclosing fourteen dollars, the amount he owed me. He said:
"I returned to the paternal roof, weary of my role. The fatted calf awaited me. Nevertheless, I am sick again for the unhallowed swine-husks. Meet me in 'Frisco about the end of February, and I will a glorious proposition unfold. Don't fail. I must have a partner and I want you. Look for a letter in the General Delivery."
There was no time to lose, as February was nearly over. I took a steerage passage to San Francisco, resolving that I would mend my fortunes. It is so easy to drift. I was already in the social slough, a hobo and an outcast. I saw that as long as I remained friendless and unknown nothing but degraded toil was open to me. Surely I could climb up, but was it worth while? A snug farm in the Northwest awaited me. I would work my way back there, and arrive decently clad. Then none would know of my humiliation. I had been wayward and foolish, but I had learned something.
The men who toiled, endured and suffered were kind and helpful, their masters mean and rapacious. Everywhere was the same sordid grasping for the dollar. With my ideals and training nothing but discouragement and defeat would be my portion. Oh, it is so easy to drift!
I was sick of the whole business.
What with steamer fare and a few small debts to settle, I found when I landed in San Francisco that once more I was flatly broke. I was arrestively seedy, literally on my uppers, for owing to my long tramp my boots were barely holding together. There was no letter for me, and perhaps it was on account of my disappointment, perhaps on account of my extreme shabbiness, but I found I had quite lost heart. Looking as I did, I would not ask any one for work. So I tightened my belt and sat in Portsmouth Square, cursing myself for the many nickels I had squandered in riotous living.
Two days later I was still drawing in my belt. All I had eaten was one meal, which I had earned by peeling half a sack of potatoes for a restaurant. I slept beneath the floor of an empty house out the Presidio way.
On this day I was drowsing on my bench when some one addressed me.
"Say, young fellow, you look pretty well used up."
I saw an elderly, grey-haired man.
"Oh no!" I said, "I'm not. That's just my acting. I'm a millionaire in disguise, studying sociology."
He came and sat by me.
"Come, buck up, kid, you're pretty near down and out. I've been studyin' you them two days."
"Two days," I echoed drearily. "It seems like two years." Then, with sudden fierceness:
"Sir, I am a stranger to you. Never in my life before have I tried to borrow money. It is asking a great deal of you to trust me, but it will be a most Christian act. I am starving. If you have ten cents that isn't working lend it to me for the love of God. I'll pay you back if it takes me ten years."
"All right, son," he said cheerfully; "let's go and feed."
He took me to a restaurant where he ordered a dinner that made my head swim. I felt near to fainting, but after I had had some brandy, I was able to go on with the business of eating. By the time I got to the coffee I was as much excited by the food as if I had been drinking wine. I now took an opportunity to regard my benefactor.
He was rather under medium height, but so square and solid you felt he was a man to be reckoned with. His skin was as brown as an Indian's, his eyes light-blue and brightly cheerful, as from some inner light. His mouth was firm and his chin resolute. Altogether his face was a curious blend of benevolence and ruthless determination.
Now he was regarding me in a manner entirely benevolent.
"Feel better, son? Well, go ahead an' tell me as much of your story as you want to."
I gave an account of all that had happened to me since I had set foot on the new land.
"Huh!" he ejaculated when I had finished. "That's the worst of your old-country boys. You haven't got the get-up an' nerve to rustle a job. You go to a boss an' tell him: 'You've no experience, but you'll do your best.' An American boy says: 'I can do anything. Give me the job an' I'll just show you.' Who's goin' to be hired? Well, I think I can get you a job helpin' a gardener out Alameda way."
I expressed my gratitude.
"That's all right," he said; "I'm glad by the grace of God I've been the means of givin' you a hand-up. Better come to my room an' stop with me till somethin' turns up. I'm goin' North in three days."
I asked if he was going to the Yukon.
"Yes, I'm goin' to join this crazy rush to the Klondike. I've been minin' for twenty years, Arizona, Colorado, all over, an' now I am a-goin' to see if the North hasn't got a stake for me."
Up in his room he told me of his life.
"I'm saved by the grace of God, but I've been a Bad Man. I've been everything from a city marshal to boss gambler. I have gone heeled for two years, thinking to get my pass to Hell at any moment."
"Ever killed any one?" I queried.
He was beginning to pace up and down the room.
"Glory to God, I haven't, but I've shot.... There was a time when I could draw a gun an' drive a nail in the wall. I was quick, but there was lots that could give me cards and spades. Quiet men, too, you would never think it of 'em. The quiet ones was the worst. Meek, friendly, decent men, to see them drinkin' at a bar, but they didn't know Fear, an' every one of 'em had a dozen notches on his gun. I know lots of them, chummed with them, an' princes they were, the finest in the land, would give the shirts off their backs for a friend. You'd like them—but Lord be praised, I'm a saved man."
I was deeply interested.
"I know I'm talking as I shouldn't. It's all over now, an' I've seen the evil of my ways, but I've got to talk once in a while. I'm Jim Hubbard, known as 'Salvation Jim,' an' I know minin' from Genesis to Revelation. Once I used to gamble an' drink the limit. One morning I got up from the card-table after sitting there thirty-six hours. I'd lost five thousand dollars. I knew they'd handed me out 'cold turkey,' but I took my medicine.
"Right then I said I'd be a crook too. I learned to play with marked cards. I could tell every card in the deck. I ran a stud-poker game, with a Jap an' a Chinaman for partners. They were quicker than white men, an' less likely to lose their nerve. It was easy money, like taking candy from a kid. Often I would play on the square. No man can bluff strong without showing it. Maybe it's just a quiver of the eyelash, maybe a shuffle of the foot. I've studied a man for a month till I found the sign that gave him away. Then I've raised an' raised him till the sweat pricked through his brow. He was my meat. I went after the men that robbed me, an' I went one better. Here, shuffle this deck."
He produced a pack of cards from a drawer.
"I'll never go back to the old trade. I'm saved. I trust in God, but just for diversion I keep my hand in."
Talking to me, he shuffled the pack a few times.
"Here, I'm dealing; what do you want? Three kings?"
He dealt four hands. In mine there were three kings.
Taking up another he showed me three aces.
"I'm out of practice," he said apologetically. "My hands are calloused. I used to keep them as soft as velvet."
He showed me some false shuffles, dealing from under the deck, and other tricks.
"Yes, I got even with the ones that got my money. It was eat or be eaten. I went after the suckers. There was never a man did me dirt but I paid him with interest. Of course, it's different now. The Good Book says: 'Do good unto them that harm you.' I guess I would, but I wouldn't recommend no one to try and harm me. I might forget."
The heavy, aggressive jaw shot forward; the eyes gleamed with a fearless ferocity, and for a moment the man took on an air that was almost tigerish. I could scarce believe my sight; yet the next instant it was the same cheerful, benevolent face, and I thought my eyes must have played me some trick.
Perhaps it was that sedate Puritan strain in me that appealed to him, but we became great friends. We talked of many things, and most of all I loved to get him to tell of his early life. It was just like a story: thrown on the world while yet a child; a shoeblack in New York, fighting for his stand; a lumber-jack in the woods of Michigan; lastly a miner in Arizona. He told me of long months on the desert with only his pipe for company, talking to himself over the fire at night, and trying not to go crazy. He told me of the girl he married and worshipped, and of the man who broke up his home. Once more I saw that flitting tiger-look appear on his face and vanish immediately. He told me of his wild days.
"I was always a fighter, an' I never knew what fear meant. I never saw the man that could beat me in a rough-an'-tumble scrap. I was uncommon husky an' as quick as a cat, but it was my fierceness that won out for me. Get a man down an' give him the leather. I've kicked a man's face to a jelly. It was kick, bite an' gouge in them days—anything went.
"Yes, I never knew fear. I've gone up unarmed to a man I knew was heeled to shoot me on sight, an' I've dared him to do it. Just by the power of the eye I've made him take water. He thought I had a gun an' could draw quicker'n him. Then, as the drink got hold of me, I got worse and worse. Time was when I would have robbed a bank an' shot the man that tried to stop me. Glory to God! I've seen the evil of my ways."
"Are you sure you'll never backslide?" I asked.
"Never! I'm born again. I don't smoke, drink or gamble, an' I'm as happy as the day's long. There was the drink. I would go on the water-wagon for three months at a stretch, but day and night, wherever I went, the glass of whisky was there right between my eyes. Sooner or later it got the better of me. Then one night I went half-sober into a Gospel Hall. The glass was there, an' I was in agony tryin' to resist it. The speaker was callin' sinners to come forward. I thought I'd try the thing anyway, so I went to the penitents' bench. When I got up the glass was gone. Of course it came back, but I got rid of it again in the same way. Well, I had many a struggle an' many a defeat, but in the end I won. It's a divine miracle."
I wish I could paint or act the man for you. Words cannot express his curious character. I came to have a great fondness for him, and certainly owed him a huge debt of gratitude.
One day I was paying my usual visit to the Post Office, when some one gripped me by the arm.
"Hullo, Scotty! By all that's wonderful. I was just going to mail you a letter."
It was the Prodigal, very well dressed and spruce-looking.
"Say, I'm so tickled I got you; we're going to start in two days."
"Start! Where?" I asked.
"Why, for the Golden North, for the land of the Midnight Sun, for the treasure-troves of the Klondike Valley."
"You maybe," I said soberly; "but I can't."
"Yes you can, and you are, old sport. I fixed all that. Come on, I want to talk to you. I went home and did the returned prodigal stunt. The old man was mighty decent when I told him it was no good, I couldn't go into the glue factory yet awhile. Told him I had the gold-bug awful bad and nothing but a trip up there would cure me. He was rather tickled with the idea. Staked me handsomely, and gave me a year to make good. So here I am, and you're in with me. I'm going to grubstake you. Mind, it's a business proposition. I've got to have some one, and when you make the big strike you've got to divvy up."
I said something about having secured employment as an under-gardener.
"Pshaw! you'll soon be digging gold-nuggets instead of potatoes. Why, man, it's the chance of a lifetime, and anybody else would jump at it. Of course, if you're afraid of the hardships and so on——"
"No," I said quickly, "I'll go."
"Ha!" he laughed, "you're too much of a coward to be afraid. Well, we're going to be blighted Argonauts, but we've got to get busy over our outfits. We haven't got any too much time."
So we hustled around. It seemed as if half of San Francisco was Klondike-crazy. On every hand was there speculation and excitement. All the merchants had their outfitting departments, and wild and vague were their notions as to what was required. We did not do so badly, though like every one else we bought much that was worthless and foolish. Suddenly I bethought me of Salvation Jim, and I told the Prodigal of my new friend.
"He's an awfully good sort," I said; "white all through; all kinds of experience, and he's going alone."
"Why," said the Prodigal, "that's just the man we want. We'll ask him to join us."
I brought the two together, and it was arranged. So it came about that we three left San Francisco on the fourth day of March to seek our fortunes in the Frozen North.
Gold! We leaped from our benches. Gold! We sprang from our stools. Gold! We wheeled in the furrow, fired with the faith of fools. Fearless, unfound, unfitted, far from the night and the cold, Heard we the clarion summons, followed the master-lure—Gold!
"Say! you're looking mighty blue. Cheer up, darn you! What's the matter?" said the Prodigal affectionately.
And indeed there was matter enough, for had I not just received letters from home, one from Garry and one from Mother? Garry's was gravely censorious, almost remonstrant. Mother, he said, was poorly, and greatly put out over my escapade. He pointed out that I was in a fair way of being a rolling stone, and hoped that I would at once give up my mad notion of the South Seas and soberly proceed to the Northwest.
Mother's letter was reproachful, in parts almost distressful. She was failing, she said, and she begged me to be a good son, give up my wanderings and join my cousin at once. Also she enclosed post-office orders for forty pounds. Her letter, written in a fine faltering hand and so full of gentle affection, brought the tears to my eyes; so that it was very bleakly I leaned against the ship's rail and watched the bustle of departure. Poor Mother! Dear old Garry! With what tender longing I thought of those two in far-away Glengyle, the Scotch mist silvering the heather and the wind blowing caller from the sea. Oh, for the clean, keen breath of it! Yet alas, every day was the memory fading, and every day was I fitting more snugly into the new life.
"I've just heard from the folks," I said, "and I feel like going back on you."
"Oh, beat it," he cried; "you can't renig now. You've got to see the thing through. Mothers are all like that when you cut loose from their apron-strings. Ma's scared stiff about me, thinks the devil's got an option on my future sure. They get wised up pretty soon. What you want to do is to get busy and make yourself acquainted. Here I've been snooping round for the last two hours, and got a line on nearly every one on board. Say! Of all the locoed outfits this here aggregation has got everything else skinned to a hard-boiled finish. Most of them are indoor men, ink-slingers and calico snippers; haven't done a day's hard work in their lives, and don't know a pick from a mattock. They've got a notion they've just got to get up there and pick big nuggets out of the water like cherries out of a cocktail. It's the limit."
"Tell me about them," I said.
"Well, see that young fellow standing near us?"
I looked. He was slim, with gentle, refined features and an unnaturally fresh complexion.
"That fellow was a pen-pusher in a mazuma emporium—I mean a bank clerk. Pinklove's his name. He wanted to get hitched to some girl, but the directors wouldn't stand for it. Now he's chucked his job and staked his savings on this trip. There's his girl in the crowd."
Bedded in that mosaic of human faces I saw one that was all sweetness, yet shamelessly tear-stained.
"Lucky beggar," I said, "to have some one who cares so much about his going."
"Unlucky, you mean, lad. You don't want to have any strings on you when you play this game."
He pointed to a long-haired young man in a flowing-end tie.
"See that pale-faced, artistic-looking guy alongside him. That's his partner. Ineffectual, moony sort of a mut. He's a wood-carver; they call him Globstock; told me his knowledge of wood-carving would come in handy when we came to make boats at Lake Bennett. Then there's a third. See that little fellow shooting off his face?"
I saw a weazened, narrow-chested mannikin, with an aggressive certainty of feature.
"He's a professor, plumb-full of book dope on the Yukon. He's Mister Wise Mike. He knows it all. Hear his monologue on 'How It Should Be Done.' He's going to live on deck to inure himself to the rigours of the Arctic climate. Works with a pair of spring dumb-bells to get up his muscle so's he can shovel out the nuggets."
Our eyes roved round from group to group, picking out characteristic figures.
"See that big bleached-blond Englishman? Came over with me on the Pullman from New York. 'Awfully bored, don't you know.' When we got to 'Frisco, he says to me: 'Thank God, old chappie, the worst part of the journey's over.' Then there's Romulus and Remus, the twins, strapping young fellows. Only way I know them apart is one laces his boots tight, the other slack. They think the world of each other."
He swung around to where Salvation Jim was talking to two men.
"There's a pair of winners. I put my money on them. Nothing on earth can stop those fellows, native-born Americans, all grit and get-up. See that tall one smoking a cigar and looking at the women? He's an athlete. Name's Mervin; all whipcord and whalebone; springy as a bent bow. He's a type of the Swift. He's bound to get there. See the other. Hewson's his name; solid as a tower; muscled like a bear; built from the ground up. He represents the Strong. Look at the grim, determined face of him. You can't down a man like that."
He indicated another group.
"Now there's three birds of prey. Bullhammer, Marks and Mosher. The big, pig-eyed heavy-jowled one is Bullhammer. He's in the saloon business. The middle-sized one in the plug hat is Marks. See his oily, yellow face dotted with pimples. He's a phoney piece of work; calls himself a mining broker. The third's Jake Mosher. He's an out-and-out gambler, a sure-thing man, once was a parson."
I looked again. Mosher had just taken off his hat. His high-domed head was of monumental baldness, his eyes close-set and crafty, his nose negligible. The rest of his face was mostly beard. It grew black as the Pit to near the bulge of his stomach, and seemed to have drained his scalp in its rank luxuriance. Across the deck came the rich, oily tones of his voice.
"A bad-looking bunch," I said.
"Yes, there's heaps like them on board. There's a crowd of dance-hall girls going up, and the usual following of parasites. Look at that Halfbreed. There's a man for the country now, part Scotch, part Indian; the quietest man on the boat; light, but tough as wire nails."
I saw a lean, bright-eyed brown man with flat features, smoking a cigarette.
"Say! Just get next to those two Jews, Mike and Rebecca Winklestein. They're going to open up a sporty restaurant."
The man was a small bandy-legged creature, with eyes that squinted, a complexion like ham fat and waxed moustaches. But it was the woman who seized my attention. Never did I see such a strapping Amazon, six foot if an inch, and massive in proportion. She was handsome too, in a swarthy way, though near at hand her face was sensuous and bold. Yet she had a suave, flattering manner and a coarse wit that captured the crowd. Dangerous, unscrupulous and cruel, I thought; a man-woman, a shrew, a termagant!
But I was growing weary of the crowd and longed to go below. I was no longer interested, yet the voice of the Prodigal droned in my ear.
"There's an old man and his granddaughter, relatives of the Winklesteins, I believe. I think the old fellow's got a screw loose. Handsome old boy, though; looks like a Hebrew prophet out of a job. Comes from Poland. Speaks Yiddish or some such jargon; Only English he knows is 'Klondike, Klondike.' The girl looks heartbroken, poor little beggar."
"Poor little beggar!" I heard the words indeed, but my mind was far away. To the devil with Polish Jews and their granddaughters. I wished the Prodigal would leave me to my own thoughts, thoughts of my Highland home and my dear ones. But no! he persisted:
"You're not listening to what I'm saying. Look, why don't you!"
So, to please him, I turned full round and looked. An old man, patriarchal in aspect, crouched on the deck. Erect by his side, with her hand on his shoulder, stood a slim figure in black, the figure of a girl. Indifferently my eyes travelled from her feet to her face. There they rested. I drew a deep breath. I forgot everything else. Then for the first time I saw—Berna.
I will not try to depict the girl. Pen descriptions are so futile. I will only say that her face was very pale, and that she had large pathetic grey eyes. For the rest, her cheeks were woefully pinched and her lips drooped wistfully. 'Twas the face, I thought, of a virgin martyr with a fear-haunted look hard to forget. All this I saw, but most of all I saw those great, grey eyes gazing unseeingly over the crowd, ever so sadly fixed on that far-away East of her dreams and memories.
"Poor little beggar!"
Then I cursed myself for a sentimental impressionist and I went below. Stateroom forty-seven was mine. We three had been separated in the shuffle, and I knew not who was to be my room-mate. Feeling very downhearted, I stretched myself on the upper berth, and yielded to a mood of penitential sadness. I heard the last gang-plank thrown off, the great crowd cheer, the measured throb of the engines, yet still I sounded the depths of reverie. There was a bustle outside and growing darkness. Then, as I lay, there came voices to my door, guttural tones blended with liquid ones; lastly a timid knock. Quickly I answered it.
"Is this room number forty-seven?" a soft voice asked.
Even ere she spoke I divined it was the Jewish girl of the grey eyes, and now I saw her hair was like a fair cloud, and her face fragile as a flower.
"Yes," I answered her.
She led forward the old man.
"This is my grandfather. The Steward told us this was his room."
"Oh, all right; he'd better take the lower berth."
"Thank you, indeed; he's an old man and not very strong."
Her voice was clear and sweet, and there was an infinite tenderness in the tone.
"You must come in," I said. "I'll leave you with him for a while so that you can make him comfortable."
"Thank you again," she responded gratefully.
So I withdrew, and when I returned she was gone; but the old man slept peacefully.
It was late before I turned in. I went on deck for a time. We were cleaving through blue-black night, and on our right I could dimly discern the coast festooned by twinkling lights. Every one had gone below, I thought, and the loneliness pleased me. I was very quiet, thinking how good it all was, the balmy wind, the velvet vault of the night frescoed with wistful stars, the freedom-song of the sea; how restful, how sane, how loving!
Suddenly I heard a sound of sobbing, the merciless sobbing of a woman's breast. Distinct above the hollow breathing of the sea it assailed me, poignant and insistent. Wonderingly I looked around. Then, in a shadow of the upper deck, I made out a slight girl-figure, crouching all alone. It was Grey Eyes, crying fit to break her heart.
"Poor little beggar!" I muttered.
"Gr-r-r—you little brat! If you open your face to him I'll kill you, kill you, see!"
The voice was Madam Winklestein's, and the words, hissed in a whisper of incredible malignity, arrested me as if I had been struck by a live wire. I listened. Behind the stateroom door there followed a silence, grimly intense; then a dull pounding; then the same savage undertone.
"See here, Berna, we're next to you two—we're onto your curves. We know the old man's got the stuff in his gold-belt, two thousand in bills. Now, my dear, my sweet little angel what thinks she's too good to mix with the likes o' us, we need the mon, see!" (Knock, knock.) "And we're goin' to have it, see!" (Knock, knock.) "That's where you come in, honey, you're goin' to get it for us. Ain't you now, darlin'!" (Knock, knock, knock.)
Faintly, very faintly, I heard a voice:
If it be possible to scream in a whisper, the woman did it.
"You will! you will! Oh! oh! oh! There's the cursed mule spirit of your mother in you. She'd never tell us the name of the man that was the ruin of 'er, blast 'er."
"Don't speak of my mother, you vile woman!"
The voice of the virago contracted to an intensity of venom I have never heard the equal of.
"Vile woman! Vile woman! You, you to call me a vile woman, me that's been three times jined in holy wedlock.... Oh, you bastard brat! You whelp of sin! You misbegotten scum! Oh, I'll fix you for that, if I've got to swing for it."
Her scalding words were capped with an oath too foul to repeat, and once more came the horrible pounding, like a head striking the woodwork. Unable to bear it any longer, I rapped sharply on the door.
Silence, a long, panting silence; then the sound of a falling body; then the door opened a little and the twitching face of Madam appeared.
"Is there somebody sick?" I asked. "I'm sorry to trouble you, but I was thinking I heard groans and—I might be able to do something."
Piercingly she looked at me. Her eyes narrowed to slits and stabbed me with their spite. Her dark face grew turgid with impotent anger. As I stood there she was like to have killed me. Then like a flash her expression changed. With a dirty bejewelled hand she smoothed her tousled hair. Her coarse white teeth gleamed in a gold-capped smile. There was honey in her tone.
"Why, no! my niece in here's got a toothache, but I guess we can fix it between us. We don't need no help, thanks, young feller."
"Oh, that's all right," I said. "If you should, you know, I'll be nearby."
Then I moved away, conscious that her eyes followed me malevolently.
The business worried me sorely. The poor girl was being woefully abused, that was plain. I felt indignant, angry and, last of all, anxious. Mingled with my feelings was a sense of irritation that I should have been elected to overhear the affair. I had no desire just then to champion distressed damsels, least of all to get mixed up in the family brawls of unknown Jewesses. Confound her, anyway! I almost hated her. Yet I felt constrained to watch and wait, and even at the cost of my own ease and comfort to prevent further violence.
For that matter there were all kinds of strange doings on board, drinking, gambling, nightly orgies and hourly brawls. It seemed as if we had shipped all the human dregs of the San Francisco deadline. Never, I believe, in those times when almost daily the Argonaut-laden boats were sailing for the Golden North, was there one in which the sporting element was so dominant. The social hall reeked with patchouli and stale whiskey. From the staterooms came shrill outbursts of popular melody, punctuated with the popping of champagne corks. Dance-hall girls, babbling incoherently, reeled in the passageways, danced on the cabin table, and were only held back from licentiousness by the restraint of their bullies. The day was one long round of revelry, and the night was pregnant with sinister sound.
Already among the better element a moral secession was apparent. Convention they had left behind with their boiled shirts and their store clothes, and crazed with the idea of speedy fortune, they were even now straining at the leash of decency. It was a howling mob, elately riotous, and already infected by the virus of the goldophobia.
Oh, it was good to get on deck of a night, away from this saturnalia, to watch the beacon stars strewn vastly in the skyey uplift, to listen to the ancient threnody of the outcast sea. Blue and silver the nights were, and crystal clear, with a keen wind that painted the cheek and kindled the eye. And as I sat in silent thought there came to me Salvation Jim. His face was grim, his eyes brooding. From the brilliantly lit social hall came a blare of music-hall melody.
"I don't like the way of things a bit," he said; "I don't like it. Look here now, lad, I've lived round mining camps for twenty years, I've followed the roughest callings on earth, I've tramped the States all over, yet never have I seen the beat of this. Mind you, I ain't prejudiced, though I've seen the error of my ways, glory to God! I can make allowance once in a while for the boys gettin' on a jamboree, but by Christmas! Say! There's enough evil on this boat to stake a sub-section in Hell. There's men should be at home with their dinky little mothers an' their lovin' wives an' children, down there right now in that cabin buyin' wine for them painted Jezebels.
"There's doctors an' lawyers an' deacons in the church back in old Ohio, that never made a bad break in their lives, an' now they're rowin' like barroom bullies for the kisses of a baggage. In the bay-window of their souls the devil lolls an' grins an' God is freezin' in the attic. You mark my words, boy; there's a curse on this northern gold. The Yukon's a-goin' to take its toll. You mark my words."
"Oh, Jim," I said, "you're superstitious."
"No, I ain't. I've just got a hunch. Here we are a bit of floatin' iniquity glidin' through the mystery of them strange seas, an' the very officers on dooty sashed to the neck an' reekin' from the arms of the scented hussies below. It'll be God's mercy if we don't crash on a rock, an' go down good an' all to the bitter bottom. But it don't matter. Sooner or later there's goin' to be a reckonin'. There's many a one shoutin' an' singin' to-night'll leave his bones to bleach up in that bleak wild land."
"No, Jim," I protested, "they will be all right once they get ashore."
"Right nothin'! They're a pack of fools. They think they've got a bulge on fortune. Hear them a-howlin' now. They're all millionaires in their minds. There's no doubt with them. It's a cinch. They're spendin' it right now. You mark my words, young feller, for I'll never live to see them fulfilled—there's ninety in a hundred of all them fellers that's goin' to this here Klondike will never make good, an' of the other ten, nine won't do no good."
"One per cent. that will keep their stakes—that's absurd, Jim."
"Well, you'll see. An' as for me, I feel as sure as God's above us guidin' us through the mazes of the night, I'll never live to make the trip back. I've got a hunch. Old Jim's on his last stampede."
He sighed, then said sharply:
"Did you see that feller that passed us?"
It was Mosher, the gambler and ex-preacher.
"That man's a skunk, a renegade sky-pilot. I'm keepin' tabs on that man. Maybe him an' me's got a score to settle one of them days. Maybe."
He went off abruptly, leaving me to ponder long over his gloomy words.
We were now three days out. The weather was fine, and nearly every one was on deck in the sunshine. Even Bullhammer, Marks and Mosher had deserted the card-room for a time. The Bank clerk and the Wood-carver talked earnestly, planned and dreamed. The Professor was busy expounding a theory of the gold origin to a party of young men from Minnesota. Silent and watchful the athletic Mervin smoked his big cigar, while, patient and imperturbable, the iron Hewson chewed stolidly. The twins were playing checkers. The Winklesteins were making themselves solid with the music-hall clique. In and out among the different groups darted the Prodigal, as volatile as a society reporter at a church bazaar. And besides these, always alone, austerely aloof as if framed in a picture by themselves, a picture of dignity and sweetness, were the Jewish maid and her aged grandfather.
Although he was my room-mate I had seen but little of him. He was abed before I retired and I was up and out ere he awoke. For the rest I avoided the two because of their obvious connection with the Winklesteins. Surely, thought I, she cannot be mixed up with those two and be everything that's all right. Yet there was something in the girl's clear eyes, and in the old man's fine face, that reproached me for my doubt.
It was while I was thus debating, and covertly studying the pair, that something occurred.
Bullhammer and Marks were standing by me, and across the deck came the acridly nasal tones of the dance-hall girls. I saw the libertine eyes of Bullhammer rove incontinently from one unlovely demirep to another, till at last they rested on the slender girl standing by the side of her white-haired grandfather. Appreciatively he licked his lips.
"Say, Monkey, who's the kid with old Whiskers there?"
"Search me, Pete," said Marks; "want a knockdown?"
"Betcher! Seems kind-a standoffish, though, don't she?"
"Standoffish be darned! Never yet saw the little bit of all right that could stand off Sam Marks. I'm a winner, I am, an' don' you forget it. Just watch my splash."
I must say the man was expensively dressed in a flashy way. His oily, pimple-garnished face wreathed itself in a smirk of patronising familiarity, and with the bow of a dancing master he advanced. I saw her give a quick start, bite her lip and shrink back. "Good for you, little girl," I thought. But the man was in no way put out.
"Say, Sis, it's all right. Just want to interdooce you to a gentleman fren' o' mine."
The girl gazed at him, and her dilated eyes were eloquent of fear and distrust. It minded me of the panic of a fawn run down by the hunter, so that I found myself trembling in sympathy. A startled moment she gazed; then swiftly she turned her back.
This was too much for Marks. He flushed angrily.
"Say! what's the matter with you? Come off the perch there. Ain't we good enough to associate with you? Who the devil are you, anyhow?"
His face was growing red and aggressive. He closed in on her. He laid a rough hand on her shoulder. Thinking the thing had gone far enough I stepped forward to interfere, when the unexpected happened.
Suddenly the old man had risen to his feet, and it was a surprise to me how tall he was. Into his face there had come the ghost of ancient power and command. His eyes blazed with wrath, and his clenched fist was raised high in anathema. Then it came swiftly down on the head of Marks, crushing his stiff hat tightly over his eyes.
The climax was ludicrous in a way. There was a roar of laughter, and hearing it Marks spluttered as he freed himself. With a curse of rage he would have rushed the old man, but a great hand seized him by the shoulder. It was the grim, taciturn Hewson, and judging by the way his captive squirmed, his grip must have been peculiarly vise-like. The old man was pale as death, the girl crying, the passengers crowding round. Every one was gabbling and curious, so feeling I could do no good, I went below.
What was there about this slip of a girl that interested me so? Ever and anon I found myself thinking of her. Was it the conversation I had overheard? Was it the mystery that seemed to surround her? Was it the irrepressible instinct of my heart for the romance of life? With the old man, despite our stateroom propinquity, I had made no advances. With the girl I had passed no further words.
But the Gods of destiny act in whimsical ways. Doubtless the voyage would have finished without the betterment of our acquaintance; doubtless our paths would have parted, nevermore to cross; doubtless our lives would have been lived out to their fulness and this story never have been told—had it not been for the luckless fatality of the Box of Grapes.
Puget Sound was behind us and we had entered on that great sea that stretched northward to the Arctic barrens. Misty and wet was the wind, and cold with the kiss of many icebergs. Under a grey sky, glooming to purple, the gelid water writhed nakedly. Spectral islands elbowed each other, to peer at us as we flitted past. Still more wraithlike the mainland, fringed to the sea foam with saturnine pine, faded away into fastnesses of impregnable desolation. There was a sense of deathlike passivity in the land, of overwhelming vastitude, of unconquerable loneliness. It was as if I had felt for the first time the Spirit of the Wild; the Wild where God broods amid His silence; the Wild, His infinite solace and His sanctuary.
As we forged through the vague sea lanes, we were like a glittering trinket on the bosom of the night. Our mad merriment scarce ever abated. We were a blare of revelry and a blaze of light. Excitement mounted to fever heat. In the midst of it the women with the enamelled cheeks reaped a bountiful harvest. I marvel now that, with all the besotted recklessness of those that were our pilots, we met with no serious mishap.
"Don't mind you much of a Sunday-school picnic, does it?" commented the Prodigal. "It's fierce the way the girls are prying some of these crazy jays loose from their wads. They're all plumb batty. I'm tired trying to wise them up. 'Go and chase yourself,' they say; 'we're all right. Don't matter if we do loosen up a bit now, there's all kinds of easy money waiting for us up there.' Then they talk of what they're going to do when they've got the dough. One gazebo wants to buy a castle in the old country; another wants a racing stable; another a steam yacht. Oh, they're a hot bunch of sports. They're all planning to have a purple time in the sweet by-and-bye. I don't hear any of them speak of endowing a home for decrepit wash-ladies or pensioning off their aged grandmothers. They make me sick. There's a cold juicy awakening coming."
He was right. In their visionary leaps to affluence they soared to giddy heights. They strutted and bragged as if the millions were already theirs. To hear them, you would think they had an exclusive option on the treasure-troves of the Klondike. Yet, before and behind us, were dozens of similar vessels, bearing just as eager a mob of fortune-hunters, all drawn irresistibly northward by the Golden Magnet.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to be affected by the prevailing spirit of optimism. For myself the gold had but little attraction, but the adventure was very dear to my heart. Once more the clarion call of Romance rang in my ears, and I leapt to its summons. And indeed, I reflected, it was a wonderful kaleidoscope of a world, wherein I, but a half-year back cooling my heels in a highland burn, should be now part and parcel of this great Argonaut army. Already my native uncouthness was a thing of the past, and the quaint mannerisms of my Scots tongue were yielding to the racy slang of the frontier. More to the purpose, too, I was growing in strength and wiry endurance. As I looked around me I realised that there were many less fitted for the trail than I, and there was none with such a store of glowing health. You may picture me at this time, a tallish young man, with a fine colour in my cheeks, black hair that curled crisply, and dark eyes that were either alight with eagerness or agloom with dreams.
I have said that we were all more or less in a ferment of excitement, but to this I must make a reservation. One there was who, amid all our unrest, remained cold, distant and alien—the Jewish girl, Berna. Even in the old man the gold fever betrayed itself in a visionary eye and a tremor of the lips; but the girl was a statue of patient resignation, a living reproof to our febrile and purblind imaginings.
The more I studied her, the more out of place she seemed in my picture, and, almost unconsciously, I found myself weaving about her a fabric of romance. I endowed her with a mystery that piqued and fascinated me, yet without it I have no doubt I would have been attracted to her. I longed to know her uncommon well, to win her regard, to do something for her that should make her eyes rest very kindly on me. In short, as is the way of young men, I was beginning to grope blindly for that affection and sympathy which are the forerunners of passion and love.
The land was wintry and the wind shrilled so that the attendant gulls flapped their wings hard in the face of it. The wolf-pack of the sea were snarling whitely as they ran. The decks were deserted, and so many of the brawlers were sick and lay like dead folk that it almost seemed as if a Sabbath quiet lay on the ship. That day I had missed the old man, and on going below, found him lying as one sore stricken. A withered hand lay on his brow, and from his lips, which were almost purple, thin moans issued.
"Poor old beggar," I thought; "I wonder if I cannot do anything for him." And while I was thus debating, a timid knock came to the door. I opened it, and there was the girl, Berna.
There was a nervous anxiety in her manner, and a mute interrogation in her grey eyes.
"I'm afraid he's a little sick to-day," I said gently; "but come in, won't you, and see him?"
"Thank you." Pity, tenderness and love seemed to struggle in her face as she softly brushed past me. With some words of endearment, she fell on her knees beside him, and her small white hand sought his thin gnarled one. As if galvanised into life, the old man turned gratefully to her.
"Maybe he would care for some coffee," I said. "I think I could rustle him some."
She gave me a queer, sad look of thanks.
"If you could," she answered.
When I returned she had the old man propped up with pillows. She took the coffee from me, and held the cup to his lips; but after a few sips he turned away wearily.
"I'm afraid he doesn't care for that," I said.
"No, I'm afraid he won't take it."
She was like an anxious nurse hovering over a patient. She thought a while.
"Oh, if I only had some fruit!"
Then it was I bethought me of the box of grapes. I had bought them just before leaving, thinking they would be a grateful surprise to my companions. Obviously I had been inspired, and now I produced them in triumph, big, plump, glossy fellows, buried in the fragrant cedar dust. I shook clear a large bunch, and once more we tried the old man. It seemed as if we had hit on the one thing needful, for he ate eagerly. She watched him for a while with a growing sense of relief, and when he had finished and was resting quietly, she turned to me.
"I don't know how I can thank you, sir, for your kindness."
"Very easily," I said quickly; "if you will yourself accept some of the fruit, I shall be more than repaid."
She gave me a dubious look; then such a bright, merry light flashed into her eyes that she was radiant in my sight. It was as if half a dozen years had fallen from her, revealing a heart capable of infinite joy and happiness.
"If you will share them with me," she said simply.
So, for the lack of chairs, we squatted on the narrow stateroom floor, under the old man's kindly eye. The fruit minded us of sunlit vines, and the careless rapture of the South. To me the situation was one of rare charm. She ate daintily, and as we talked, I studied her face as if I would etch it on my memory forever.
In particular I noticed the wistful contour of her cheek, her sensitive mouth, and the fine modelling of her chin. She had clear, candid eyes and sweeping lashes, too. Her ears were shell-like, and her hair soft, wavy and warm. These things I marked minutely, thinking she was more than beautiful—she was even pretty. I was in a state of extraordinary elation, like a man that has found a jewel in the mire.
It must be remembered, lest I appear to be taking a too eager interest in the girl, that up till now the world of woman had been terra incognita to me; that I had lived a singularly cloistered life, and that first and last I was an idealist. This girl had distinction, mystery and charm, and it is not to be wondered at that I found a joy in her presence. I proved myself a perfect artesian well of conversation, talking freely of the ship, of our fellow-passengers and of the chances of the venture. I found her wonderfully quick in the uptake. Her mind seemed nimbly to outrun mine, and she divined my words ere I had them uttered. Yet she never spoke of herself, and when I left them together I was full of uneasy questioning.
Next day the old man was still abed, and again the girl came to visit him. This time I noticed that much of her timid manner was gone, and in its stead was a shy friendliness. Once more the box of grapes proved a mediator between us, and once more I found in her a reticent but sympathetic audience—so much so that I was frank in telling her of myself, my home and my kinsfolk. I thought that maybe my talk would weary her, but she listened with a bright-eyed regard, nodding her head eagerly at times. Yet she spoke no word of her own affairs, so that when again I left them together I was as much in the dark as ever.
It was on the third day I found the old man up and dressed, and Berna with him. She looked brighter and happier than I had yet seen her, and she greeted me with a smiling face. Then, after a little, she said:
"My grandfather plays the violin. Would you mind if he played over some of our old-country songs? It would comfort him."
"No, go ahead," I said; "I wish he would."
So she got an ancient violin, and the old man cuddled it lovingly and played soft, weird melodies, songs of the Czech race, that made me think of Romance, of love and hate, and passion and despair. Piece after piece he played, as if pouring out the sadness and heart-hunger of a burdened people, until my own heart ached in sympathy.
The wild music throbbed with passionate sweetness and despair. Unobserved, the pale twilight stole into the little cabin. The ruggedly fine face of the old man was like one inspired, and with clasped hands, the girl sat, very white-faced and motionless. Then I saw a gleam on her cheek, the soft falling of tears. Somehow, at that moment, I felt drawn very near to those two, the music, the tears, the fervent sadness of their faces. I felt as if I had been allowed to share with them a few moments consecrated to their sorrow, and that they knew I understood.