Cæsar Cascabel/Part 1/Chapter III
THE SIERRA NEVADA.
HOW many people have had dreams, at one time or other, of a journey performed in a movable house, after gypsy fashion! of a journey exempt of all worry concerning hotels, and inns, and unreliable beds, and still more unreliable cooks, when the country to be traversed is no more than besprinkled with hamlets or villages! That which wealthy amateurs do daily on board their pleasure yachts, surrounded by all the comfort of their transplanted home, few are the people who have done it by means of a vehicle ad hoc. And still, is not a carriage a movable house? Why do gypsies enjoy a monopoly of the pleasures of “yachting on terra firma?”
In reality, the showman's wagon constitutes a complete flat, with its various rooms and furniture; it is “home” on wheels; and Cæser Cascabel's was beautifully adapted to the requirements of his gypsy life.
The Fair Rambler was the name they had given it, as though it were a Norman schooner; and that name was justified after so many peregrinations through the length and breadth of the United States. They had bought it three years ago, with the first money they had saved, as a substitute for the old primitive van, just covered over with an awning and unsupported by a single spring, that had nestled them so long. Now, as it was over twenty years since Mr. Cascabel had begun visiting the fairs and markets of the United States, it is needless to say his wagon was of American manufacture.
The Fair Rambler rested on four wheels. Supplied with good steel springs, it combined lightness with strength. Well looked after, scrubbed and washed with soap, it shone in all the glow of its brightly-painted panels on which gold yellow blended harmoniously with cochineal red, and displayed to the public gaze the already famous trade name and mark:
THE CÆSAR CASCABEL FAMILY.
As to length, it would have been a match for those wagons that still ply the prairies of the Far West, in parts where the Great Trunk Railroad has not hitherto pushed its way. It is evident that two horses could only walk with so heavy a vehicle. In truth the load was no light one. Not to speak of its inhabitants, did not the Fair Rambler convey, on its roof, the canvas for the tent, and the poles, and the ropes, and, underneath between the fore and the hind wheels, a swinging board laden with various articles, a large drum and a smaller one, a horn, a trombone and other utensils and accessories, the real tools of the showman? Let us put on record likewise the costumes of a noted pantomine, “The Brigands of the Black Forest,” on the repertory of the Cascabel family.
The internal arrangements were well devised, and we need not add that scrupulous cleanliness, Flemish cleanliness, reigned supreme, thanks to Cornelia, who could stand no trifling in this respect.
In the fore part, closing by means of a sliding glass-door, was the first compartment heated by the cooking-stove. Next came a drawing or dining-room, where the fortune-teller gave her consultations; then a bed-room with bunks, superposed on each other as on board ship, which, with a curtain for a division, afforded sleeping accommodation, on the right to the two brothers, and on the left to their little sister; lastly at the further end, Mr. and Mrs. Cascabel's room. Here, a bed with thick mattresses and a patchwork quilt, near which the famous safe had been deposited. All the recesses were taken up with little boards on hinges, which might be used as tables or toilet-stands, or with narrow cupboards where the costumes, the wigs and the false beards for the pantomine, were put by. The whole was lighted by two paraffine lamps, veritable ship lamps that swung to and fro with the motion of the vehicle when the roads were unlevel; moreover, so as to allow the light of day to penetrate the various compartments, half a dozen little windows, with lead-cased panes, light muslin curtains and colored bands, gave to the Fair Rambler the appearance of the saloon on a Dutch galliot.
Clovy, naturally easy to please, slept in the first compartment, on a hammock that he hung up at night and took down at day-break next morning.
We have yet to mention that the two dogs, Wagram and Marengo, in consequence of their being on night-duty, slept among the baggage under the wagon, where they tolerated the company of John Bull, the ape, in spite of his restlessness and his propensity for playing tricks, and that Jako, the parrot, was housed in a cage hooked on to the ceiling in the second compartment.
As to the horses, Gladiator and Vermont, they were quite free to graze round about the Fair Rambler nor was there any necessity to fetter them. And when they had done cropping the grass of those vast prairies where their table was ever laid, and their bed, or rather their litter ever ready, they had only to pick out a spot whereon to lay themselves to sleep, on the very ground that had supplied them with food.
One thing certain is, that, when night had closed around, what with the guns and the revolvers of its occupants, what with the two dogs that kept watch over it, the Fair Rambler was in perfect safety.
Such was this family coach. How many a mile it had rambled along for the past three years through the States, from New York to Albany, from Niagara to Buffalo, to St. Louis, to Philadelphia, to Boston, to Washington, down the Mississippi to New Orleans, all along the Great Trunk, up to the Rocky Mountains, to the Mormon district, to the furthermost ends of California! A healthy mode of traveling, if ever there was one, seeing that not one member of the little troupe had ever been ill, save and except John Bull, whose fits of indigestion were anything but few, his instinctive knavery making it easy for him to satisfy his inconceivable gluttony.
And how glad they would be to bring back the Fair Rambler to Europe, to drive it along on the highways of the old continent! What sympathetic curiosity it would awaken as it went through France, through the village homesteads of Normandy! Ah! seeing France again, “seeing his Normandie once more” as in Berat's well-known song, such was the aim of all Cæsar Cascabel's thoughts, the goal of all his aspirations.
Once in New York, the wagon was to be taken to pieces, packed up and put on board ship for Havre, where it would only need to be set up on its wheels again, to ramble away toward the French capital.
How Mr. Cascabel, his wife and children, longed to be off! and so, doubtless, did their companions, their four-footed friends we might say. That is why, at day-break, on the 15th of February, they left Circus Place in Sacramento, some on foot, others riding, each one to his fancy.
The temperature was very cool still, but it was fine weather. It may be surmised the anchor was not weighed without a due supply of biscuits on board, or if you like, without various preserves of meat and vegetables. As to that, it was an easy matter to renew the stocks in the towns and villages. And then, was not the country swarming with game, buffaloes, deer, hares and partridges? And would John be sparing of his gun or his shot when shooting was subject to no restriction, when no European gun license was demanded in those boundless wilds of the Far West? And a dead shot was John, I tell you; and Wagram, the spaniel, showed hunting qualities of no mean standard, if Marengo the poodle was deficient in that respect.
On leaving Sacramento, the Fair Rambler took a north-east course. The object was to reach the frontier by the shortest road, and to cross the Sierra Nevada, say, to travel a distance of about six hundred miles to the Sonora Pass, which opens on to the endless plains of the East.
This was not the Far West, properly so-called, yet, where villages are only to be found at long intervals; it was not the prairie with its far-distant horizon, its immense waste, its wandering Indians gradually driven back toward the less frequented parts of North America. Almost as soon as you were out of Sacramento, the land already began to rise. You already perceived the ramifications of the Sierra which so nobly enclasps old California within the dark frame of its pine-covered mountains, overtopped here and there with peaks 15,000 feet high. It is a barrier of verdure thrown up by nature around that country on which she had lavished such wealth of gold, now carried away by the rapacity of man.
Along the road followed by the Fair Rambler there was no lack of important towns: Jackson, Mokelumne, Placerville, the world-known outposts of the Eldorado, and the Calaveras. But Mr. Cascabel halted in these places barely long enough to make a few purchases, or to have a specially good night's rest, when needed. He longed to get to the other side of the Nevada, the Great Salt Lake district, and the huge rampart of the Rocky Mountains, where his horses would have many a hard tug to give. Then as far as the Erie or Ontario region, all they need do would be to follow, through the prairies, the trails already beaten by the feet of the horses and furrowed by the wagons of preceding caravans.
Still, progress was slow through these hilly districts. Unavoidable detours increased the length of the journey. And again, although the country lay in the thirty-eighth parallel, which, in Europe, is the latitude of Sicily and Spain, the last lingering chill of winter had lost none of its sting. In consequence, as the reader knows, of the deviation of the Gulf Stream—that warm current which, when leaving the Gulf of Mexico, winds obliquely toward Europe,—the climate of North America is much colder, on the same latitudes, than that of the old Continent. But, a few weeks more, and once again California would be the land exuberant among all others, that fruitful land, where cereals multiply a hundredfold, where the most varied productions, both of the tropics and of the temperate zone, luxuriate side by side, sugar cane, rice, tobacco, oranges, lemons, olives, pineapples, bananas. The wealth of the Californian soil is not the gold it contains, it is the marvelous vegetation it brings forth.
“We shall be sorry to leave this country,” said Cornelia, who did not look with an indifferent eye on the good things of the table.
“You glutton!” her husband would answer.
“Oh, it is not for myself I speak, it is for the children!”
Several days were spent journeying along the edge of the forests, through prairies gradually resuming their fresh tint of green. Despite their numbers, the ruminants fed by these prairies are unable to wear out the carpet of grass that nature keeps on renewing for ever under their feet. Too great emphasis could not be laid on the vegetative power of that Californian soil, to which no other can be compared. It is the granary of the Pacific, and the merchant navy, that takes its produce away, cannot exhaust it. The Fair Rambler went on its way, at its usual speed, a daily average of eighteen or twenty miles—not more. It is at this rate it had already conveyed its freight throughout all the States, where the name of the Cascabels was so favorably known, from the mouth of the Mississippi to New England. True, they then stopped in every town of the Confederacy to increase the amount of their takings; while in this journey, from west to east, there was no thought of dazzling the populations. No artistic tour was this; this time, it was the journey home toward old Europe, with the Norman farms away in perspective.
A merry journey it was, too! How many sedentary dwellings would have envied the happiness of this house on wheels? There was laughing, and singing, and joking; and at times the horn, on which young Sander exhibited all his skill, would set the birds to flight, just as noisy a tribe as our frolicsome troupe.
All this was very fine, but days spent traveling need not, of necessity, be schoolboys' holidays.
“My children,” Mr. Cascabel would often say, “we must not get rusty for all this!”
And so, during the halts, if the horses took a rest, the family did not do so. More than once did the Indians eagerly watch John going over his juggling, Napoleona rehearsing a few graceful steps, Sander dislocating himself as though his limbs were India-rubber, Mrs. Cascabel indulging in muscular exercises, and Mr. Cascabel in ventriloquial effects, not to forget Jako prattling in its cage, the two dogs performing together, and John Bull exhausting himself in contortions.
Let it be noticed, however, that John did not neglect his studying by the roadside. Over and over again did he read the few books that made up the little library of the Fair Rambler, a small geography, a small arithmetic, and various volumes of travels; he it was, moreover, who wrote up the log-book, in which were pleasantly recorded the incidents of the cruise.
“You will know too much!” his father sometimes said to him. “Still, if your taste runs that way,—”
And far was it from Mr. Cascabel to thwart the literary instincts of his first-born. As a fact, his wife and himself were very proud to have a “scholar” in the family.
One afternoon, about the 27th of February, the Fair Rambler reached the foot of the Sierra Nevada gorges. For four or five days to come, this rugged pass through the chain would cause them much toil and labor. It would be no light task, for man or beast, to climb half-way up the mountain. The men would have to put their shoulders to the wheels along the narrow paths which skirt the giant's sides. Although the weather continued to grow milder, thanks to the early influence of Californian spring, the climate would still be inclement at certain latitudes. Nothing is to be dreaded more than the floods of rain, the fearful snowdrifts, the bewildering squalls you encounter at the turns of those gorges in which the wind gets imprisoned as in a gulf. Besides, the upper portion of the passes rises above the zone of the permanent snow, and you must ascend to a height of at least six thousand feet before reaching the downward slope toward the Mormon district.
Mr. Cascabel proposed to do as he had already done on similar occasions: he would hire extra horses in the villages or the farms on the mountain, as well as men, Indians or Americans, to drive them. It would be an additional expense, of course, but a necessary one, if they cared not to break down their own horses.
On the evening of the 27th, the entrance into the Sonora Pass was reached. The valleys they had hitherto followed presented but a slight gradient; Vermont and Gladiator had walked them up with comparative ease. But farther up they could not have gone, even with the help of every member of the troupe.
A halt was made within a short distance of a hamlet that lay in a gorge of the Sierra. Just a few houses, and, at a couple of gunshots' distance, a farm to which Mr. Cascabel determined to repair that very evening. There he would engage, for the following morning, some extra horses that Vermont and Gladiator would gladly welcome.
First, the necessary measures had to be taken for spending the night in this spot.
As soon as the camp was organized in the usual manner, the inhabitants of the hamlet were communicated with and readily consented to supply fresh food for the masters, and forage for the horses.
On this evening, the rehearsing of exercises was out of the question. All were worn out with fatigue. It had been a heavy day: for, in order to lighten the load, they had had to go on foot a great part of the journey. Manager Cascabel therefore granted absolute rest on this and every other night while they crossed the Sierra.
After the “master's searching eye” had been cast over the encampment, Cascabel took Clovy, and, leaving the Fair Rambler to the charge of his wife and children, made his way toward the farm over which ringlets of smoke were seen curling up through the trees.
This farm was kept by a Californian and his family by whom the showman was well received. The farmer undertook to supply him with three horses and two drivers. The latter were to pilot the Fair Rambler as far as where the eastward declivity begins, and then return with the extra horses. But, that would cost a deal of money.
Mr. Cascabel bargained like a man who is anxious not to throw his money away, and, eventually, a sum was agreed on, which did not exceed the subsidy allowed on the budget for this portion of the trip.
The next morning, at six o'clock, the two men arrived; their three horses were put to, in front of Vermont and Gladiator, and the Fair Rambler began climbing up a narrow gorge thickly wooded on each side. About eight o'clock, at one of the turnings of the pass, that marvelous land of California, which our travelers were not leaving without a pang, had entirely disappeared behind the Sierra.
The farmer's three steeds were fine animals, which could be relied upon in every way. Could the same be said of the drivers? The thing seemed, to say the least, doubtful.
Both were strong fellows, half-breeds, half Indian, half English. Ah! had Mr. Cascabel known it, how soon he had parted company with them!
Cornelia was anything but prepossessed by their looks on the whole. John held the same views as his mother, and these views were shared by Clovy. It did not seem as though Mr. Cascabel had made a good hit. After all, these men were but two, and they would find their match, should they harbor any evil design.
As to dangerous encounters in the Sierra, they were not to be dreaded. The roads should be safe by this time. The days were gone when Californian miners, the “loafers” and the “rowdies” as they were styled, joined the ranks of the criminals who had thronged here from every quarter of the globe, to become the plague of respectable people. Lynch law had succeeded in bringing them to reason.
However, as a prudent man, Mr. Cascabel determined to keep on the alert.
The men hired at the farm were skillful drivers; that could not be denied. The first day passed by without any accident: that was something to be thankful for, first of all. A wheel giving way, an axle tree in halves, and the occupants of the Fair Rambler, away from all human dwellings, without any means of repairing the damage, would have been in a sorry plight.
The pass now wore the wildest aspect. Nothing but black-looking pine trees, no vegetation but the moss hugging the soil. Here and there, enormous heaps of piled-up rocks necessitated many a detour, especially along one of the affluents of the Walkner, which came out of the lake of that name and bellowed its mad career into the precipices below. Far away, lost in the clouds, Castle Peak pointed to the skies, and looked down on the other spurs picturesquely shot upwards by the Sierra.
About five o'clock, when the shades of evening were already creeping up from the depths of the narrow gorges, they came to a sudden turn of the road. The gradient in this spot was so steep that it was found necessary to unload a portion of the freight and leave behind, for a time, most of the articles laid on the top of the wagon, as well as those underneath it.
Every one worked with a will, and, it must be confessed, the two drivers gave proofs of zeal in this circumstance.
Mr. Cascabel and his people had their first impression of those men slightly modified. Besides, in another couple of days, the highest point of the pass would be attained; their downhill journey would commence; and all that belonged to the farm would return thereto.
When the halting station had been agreed upon, whilst the drivers looked after the horses, Mr. Cascabel, his two sons and Clovy, walked back a few hundred paces for the things that had been left behind.
A good supper terminated the day, and nobody thought of aught else but a sound rest.
The “boss” offered to the drivers to make room for them in one of the compartments of the Fair Rambler; but they declined, assuring him that the shelter of the trees was all that they needed. There, well wrapped in thick rugs, they could watch all the better after their master's horses.
A few moments more, and the encampment was buried in sleep.
The following morning, all were on foot at the first dawn of day.
Mr. Cascabel, John and Clovy, the earliest risers in the Fair Rambler, went to the spot where Vermont and Gladiator had been penned up, the night before.
Both were there, but the three horses of the farmer had disappeared.
As they could not be very far off, John was about telling the drivers to go look for them; neither was to be seen about the camping-ground.
“Where are they?” said he.
“Very likely,” answered his father, “they are running after the horses.”
“Hallo! Hallo!” shouted Clovy in a tone of voice that should be heard a considerable distance away.
No answer came.
New cries were uttered, as loud as the force of human lungs would permit, by Mr. Cascabel and by John, who went a little way down the track.
No sign of the missing drivers.
“Could it be that their appearance only told too plainly what they were?”
“Why would they have run away?” asked John.
“Because they'll have done something wrong.”
“What? Wait a bit!—We shall soon know!”
And, with John and Clovy on his heels, he ran toward the Fair Rambler.
Jumping up the wagon step, opening the door, two strides through the compartments and on to the end room where the precious safe had been laid, all that was the work of an instant, and Mr. Cascabel reappeared, shouting:
“What, the safe?” said Cornelia.
“Yes, stolen by those ruffians!”