Cæsar Cascabel/Part 1/Chapter VI

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Cæsar Cascabel by Jules Verne, translated by A. Estoclet
Part 1, Chapter VI


FOR the first time, Mr. Cascabel, the natural, the implacable enemy of England, was about setting his foot on an English possession. For the first time the sole of his shoe would tread on British soil and be defiled with Anglo-Saxon dust. Let the reader forgive us such very strong language; most undoubtedly such was the somewhat ludicrous form of expression under which the thought presented itself to our showman's mind, so tenacious in its now unjustifiable patriotic hatred.

And still, Columbia was not in Europe. It was no portion of that group formed by England, Scotland and Wales and bearing the special name of Great Britain. But it was none the less British, just as India, Australia, New Zealand; and, as such, it was repulsive to Cæsar Cascabel.

British Columbia is a part of New Britain, one of the most important colonies of the United Kingdom, comprising as it does Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada, as well as the immense territories ceded to the Hudson Bay Company. In width, it stretches from one ocean to the other, from the coasts of the Pacific to those of the Atlantic. To the south it is bounded by the frontier of the United States, a line running from Washington Territory to the coast in the State of Maine.

Columbia was therefore, on all counts, English soil, and the necessities of the journey left our travelers no chance of avoiding it. When all was added up, it was only a matter of six hundred miles to the southern extremity of Alaska, that is to say to the Russian possessions in Western America. Still, a trip of six hundred miles on “that hated soil,” although a mere nothing for the Fair Rambler with its record of untold mileage, was six hundred times too much, and Mr. Cascabel was determined to clear that distance in the shortest possible time.

Henceforth, no halting save for meals. No exercising for the equilibrist or the gymnast, no more dancing, no more wrestling. The Anglo-Saxons would have to go without it. The Cascabels felt nothing but contempt for any coin bearing the effigy of the queen. Better a paper dollar than a silver crown or a gold sovereign!

Under these conditions, it will be understood that the Fair Rambler carefully kept away from the villages and gave a wide berth to the towns. If the game by the roadside could supply the wants of the troupe, it would save them from aiding the home trade of this abominable country.

Let it not be imagined that this attitude was but a kind of theatrical pose on the part of Mr. Cascabel. No! It was natural with him. This same philosopher, who had so stoically borne the blow of his late misfortune, who had so quickly recovered his usual merry temper after the robbery in the Sierra Nevada, became gloomy and speechless as soon as he stepped into New Britain. He trudged along with downcast eyes and a scowling look, his cap drawn down to his ears; and wicked were the glances he cast on the inoffensive travelers who happened to cross his path. That he was in no mood for jokes was plainly shown one day when Sander drew on himself a severe rebuke for his ill-timed mirth.

That day, sure enough, behold the youngster taking it into his head to walk a good quarter of a mile, backwards, in front of the horses, with a thousand and one contortions and grimaces.

On his father's inquiring the reason of this mode of locomotion, which should be, to say the least, very fatiguing:

“Why, father! Aren't we going home backwards?” he replied with a wink of his eye.

And all burst out with laughter—even Clovy, who thought the answer was very funny,—unless it should turn out to be very silly.

“Sander,” said Mr. Cascabel angrily, and with his stagey air, “if ever again you indulge in such frolic at a time when we are so little inclined to merriment, I'll pull your ears for you, and stretch them to your very heels!”

“Well now, father—”

“Silence under arms! I forbid you to laugh in this Englishmen's land!”

And no one now thought of smiling or showing his teeth in the presence of the terrible boss, although his anti-Saxon ideas were far from being shared to that extent.

That portion of British Columbia which lies next to the coast of the Pacific is very uneven. It is enclosed, to the east, by the Rocky Mountains, which almost stretch to the polar region; and the deep indentations of the Bute coast, to the west, give it the appearance of a Norwegian coast with its numerous fiords over which a range of mountains raises its picturesque summits. There stand peaks unparalleled in Europe, even in the middle of the Alpine region, glaciers the depth and extent of which surpass all the glories of Switzerland. Such are Mt. Hooker, with an altitude of seventeen thousand four hundred feet,—say three thousand feet higher than the loftiest plateau on Mt. Blanc—and Mt. Brown, higher likewise than the giant of the Alps.

Along the itinerary of the Fair Rambler between the eastern and the western ranges, lay a wide and fertile valley with a succession of open plains and magnificent forests. The water-course of this valley gave passage to the Fraser, an important stream, which, after a run of some three hundred miles from south to north, flows into a narrow arm of the sea, bounded by the coast of Bute, Vancouver's Island, and the archipelago it commands.

This Vancouver's Island is two hundred and fifty miles long and seventy-three wide. Originally purchased by the Portuguese, it was seized upon by tho Spaniards, and passed into their hands in 1789. Three times recognized by Vancouver at a time when it was still called Noutka, it bore both the name of the English navigator and that of Captain Quadra, and eventually became the property of Great Britain toward the end of the eighteenth century.

Its present capital is Victoria, its chief town Nanaimo. Its rich coal mines, at first worked by agents of the Hudson Bay Company, constituted one of the most active branches of the trade of San Francisco with the various ports along the western coast.

A little to the north of Vancouver, the mainland is sheltered by Queen Charlotte Island, the most important of the archipelago of that name, and the last of the British possessions in this part of the Pacific.

It will be readily guessed that Mr. Cascabel had no more a thought of visiting this capital than he dreamt of calling at Adelaide or Melbourne in Australia, at Madras or Calcutta in India. His only care was going up the valley of the Fraser as swiftly as his horses could go, holding intercourse, meanwhile, with none but Indian natives.

Indeed on their journey northward through the valley, our travelers easily found the game necessary to their sustenance. There was an abundance of deer, hares and partridges, and “on this occasion at least,” Mr. Cascabel would say, “it was respectable people were fed by the game so surely and safely brought down by the gun of his eldest son. That game had no Anglo-Saxon blood in its veins; a Frenchman might partake of it without remorse!”

After passing Fort Langley, the wagon had already sunk deeply in the valley of the Fraser. It had been vain to look for a carriage road on this soil which man seemed to leave almost entirely to itself. Along the right bank of the river, stretched out wide pasture lands extending to the forests in the west, and enclosed far away with a horizon of mountains the summits of which stood out in bold relief on an ever gray sky.

It should be mentioned that, near Westminster, one of the chief towns along the coast of Bute, almost at the mouth of the Fraser, John had taken care to bring the Fair Rambler across the river, on the ferry that plies there between the two banks. And an excellent precaution it was; now, after going up the river to its spring, the party would only have to bear somewhat to the west. It was the shortest, the most practical way to reach that portion of Alaska which is adjacent to the Columbian frontier.

Over and above this, Mr. Cascabel had had the good luck to meet with an Indian who had offered to guide him to the Russian possessions, and the trust he had placed in this native was not to prove unmerited. Of course this was additional expense; but it was best not to look at a few dollars more or less, when the security of the travelers and the rapidity of the journey were in question.

This guide was called Ro-No. He belonged to one of those tribes whose tyhis, or chiefs, have frequent intercourse with Europeans. These Indians are in every way different from the Chilicots, a deceitful, cunning, savage tribe, against whom travelers should be on their guard in the northwest of America. A few years before, in 1864, these savages had had their share in the slaughter of a whole company of men who had been sent to the coast of Bute for the laying down of a road. Was it not under their blows that Engineer Waddington had fallen, whose death was so universally regretted throughout the colony? Was it not said that, at that very time, these Chilicots had torn out the heart of one of their victims, and had devoured it, like so many Australian cannibals?

John, who had read the tale of this frightful tragedy in Frederick Whymper's travels through North America, had thought it his duty to warn his father of the danger of an encounter with the Chilicots; but naturally no mention of it had been made to the other members of the family, whom it was needless to frighten. Indeed, since this shocking event, these redskins had kept prudently out of the way, awed as they had been by the hanging of a few of their number, who had been more directly implicated in the affair. This belief was corroborated by guide Ro-No, who impressed it on the travelers that they had no cause for anxiety while going through British Columbia.

The weather continued to keep fair. Already indeed the heat began to be severely felt for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. The buds commenced to expand along the branches swollen with sap; leaves and flowers soon blended their vernal tints.

The country presented that aspect so characteristic of northern zones. The valley of the Fraser was encased in the midst of forests abounding with the scented trees of the north, cedars and firs, and likewise those Douglas pines whose trunks measure forty-five feet in circumference and whose tops rise to a height of over a hundred feet above the ground. Both the woods and the valley were plentifully stocked with game, and, without going much out of his way, John easily supplied the daily requirements of the kitchen.

Nor did the district in any way bear the look of a desert. Here and there were villages in which the Indians seemed to live in comparative amity with the Anglo-Saxon administration. Up and down the river glided little flotillas of canoes made of cedar wood, borne down by the current itself, or propelled against it with paddle and sail.

Frequently, too, they fell in with bands of redskins, on the tramp southward. Wrapped in their white woolen cloaks, they would exchange a few words with Mr. Cascabel, who managed, somehow, to make out something of what they said; for they used a singular dialect, the Chinook, a mixture of French, English, and the native language.

“There!” he would exclaim, “who would have thought I knew Chinook! Another language I can talk without ever having learnt it!”

Chinook is, indeed,—so Ro-No said,—the name given to that language throughout Western America, and it is used by the various tribes in those parts, right into the Alaskan provinces.

By this time, the warm season having thus far advanced, it is needless to say that the snows of winter had completely disappeared, although they sometimes keep on to the last days of April. And so the journey was progressing under favorable circumstances.

Short of overtiring them, Mr. Cascabel urged on his horses as much as he prudently could, so desirous was he of leaving Columbian territory. The temperature was rising gradually, a fact that would have been evident, were it but by the number of mosquitoes, which soon became unbearable. It was very hard to keep them out of the Fair Rambler, even with the precautionary measure of having no lights after darkness had fallen.

“You villainous creatures!” cried Mr. Cascabel one day, after an unsuccessful chase with these exasperating insects.

“I should like to know what use are those horrible flies?” asked Sander.

“They are of use,—to eat us up,” replied Clovy.

“And especially to eat the English residents of Columbia,” added Mr. Cascabel. “So, children, I positively forbid you to kill a single one of them! There will never be too many for my English lords, and that's a consolation for me!”

During this portion of the journey our marksman's gun was more productive than ever. The game often “rose” of themselves, and more especially the deer, which came from the forests to the plain to quench their thirst in the cool waters of the Fraser. With Wagram forever at his heels, John was able to bring down a few without having to go farther out of his road than might have been prudent,—which would have been a source of anxiety to his mother. Sander would sometimes go with him, happy to try his first shots under his big brother; and it would not have been easy to tell which was the fleeter or the longer-winded runner, the young hunter or his spaniel.

However, John had had but a few deer on his record, when he was lucky enough, one day, to kill a bison. On that occasion, it is true, he ran real danger; for the animal, merely wounded by his first shot, made a dart toward him, and he barely had time to spot him with a second bullet in the head, ere he himself would have been knocked to the ground and torn to pieces by the brute. As may be imagined, he refrained from giving any details of this adventure. But the exploit having been accomplished within a few hundred paces of the Fraser, the horses had to be taken down to the spot, to drag home the enormous buffalo, whose bushy mane gave it the appearance of a lion.

The reader knows how useful this ruminant is to the prairie Indian, who never hesitates to attack it with his spear or his arrows. His hide is the bed of the wigwam, the clothing of the family; some of those “garments” there are which will fetch twenty piastres. As to the flesh, the natives dry it in the sun and then cut it in long slices: a precious reserve for times of famine.

If, generally speaking, Europeans eat only the tongue of the bison,—and, in truth, it is an exquisite tid-bit,—the staff of the little troupe exhibited much less epicurean taste. Nothing was thought fit to be despised for those young digestive organs. Besides, served up in Cornelia's happy style, the bison's flesh, whether toasted, roasted, or boiled, was pronounced excellent, and was sufficient for a number of meals. Of the animal's tongue, each one could have but a small morsel, and it was unanimously agreed nothing choicer had ever been tasted.

During the first fortnight of the journey through Columbia no other incident worthy of notice occurred. However, there were signs of a coming change in the weather, and the time was not far distant when downpours of torrents of rain would, if not check, at least delay, any advance northward.

There was also to be dreaded a possibility of the swollen Fraser overflowing its banks. Now, such an overflow would have placed the Fair Rambler in the greatest dilemma, not to say the greatest danger.

Fortunately, although, when the rain fell, the Fraser did swell with great rapidity, it only rose to the level of its banks. Thus the plains escaped being flooded right to the edge of the forests that begin rising, in terrace fashion, from the first upheaving of the valley. Of course, the wagon proceeded now but very slowly, its wheels sinking into the softened ground, but under its strong and taut roof, the Cascabels continued to find that safe shelter it had already afforded them so often against the gale and the storm.