Cæsar Cascabel/Part 1/Chapter XI
SITKA, or New Archangel, situated on Baranoff Island, in the middle of the archipelagos of the western coast, is not only the capital of the island, it is likewise the capital of the whole province which had just been ceded to the Federal government. There was no city of greater importance in this region, where the traveler finds but few towns, mere villages indeed, scantily sprinkled at long intervals. It would be even more accurate to designate these villages as settlements or trading stations. For the most part they belong to American companies; a few are the property of the English Hudson Bay Company. It is then easily understood that the means of communication between these stations are very difficult, especially during the bad season, in the midst of all the hardships of the Alaskan winter.
A few years ago, Sitka was still but an unfrequented commercial center, where the Russo-American Company kept its stores of furs and hides.
But thanks to the discoveries made in that province, which is contiguous to the polar regions, Sitka very soon underwent a considerable development; and, under its new administration, it will become an opulent city, worthy of this new State of the Confederacy.
At this time already, Sitka possessed all those edifices which constitute what is called a “town,” a Lutheran church, a very simple edifice whose architectural style does not lack grandeur; a Greek church with one of those cupolas that are so little in harmony with a fog-laden sky, so different from the Eastern skies; a club, the Club Gardens, a sort of Parisian Tivoli where the habitual visitor and the traveler find restaurants, cafes, bars, and amusements of all kinds; a club-house, the doors of which are open to single men only; a school, a hospital, with fine houses, villas, and cottages picturesquely grouped on the surrounding hillocks. This landscape is horizoned by a vast forest of resinous trees which encase it in their eternal verdure, and beyond, a ridge of lofty mountains, the summits of which are lost in the clouds, and, lording it over all of them, Mt. Edgecumb, the giant of Crooze Island, to the north of Baranoff Island, the peak of which rises to a height of eight thousand feet above the level of the sea.
On the whole, if the climate of Sitka is not very severe, if the thermometer hardly ever goes below seven or eight degrees centigrade—although the town be crossed by the fifty-sixth parallel—it would deserve to be called the “watering town” par excellence. In truth, on Baranoff Island, it always rains, you may say, unless it snows. Let it surprise no one, therefore, if after crossing the canal in a ferry with all its household and belongings, the Fair Rambler entered Sitka under a torrent of rain. And still Mr. Cascabel had no thought of complaining, since he had reached the town at the very time of a transaction which enabled him to enter it without a passport. “Many a bit of good luck I have had in my day, but never such luck as this!” he went on repeating. “We were just at the gate, unable to get in, and slambang goes the door, of itself, just in time, before us!”
The treaty of the cession of Alaska had been signed opportunely, indeed, to enable the Fair Rambler to cross the frontier. And on this soil, now American, none of those unmanageable officials, none of those formalities in regard to which the Russian administration shows such severity.
And now it would have been the simplest thing on earth to bring our Russian either to the Sitka hospital where all due care would have been bestowed upon him, or to a hotel where he might have the attendance of a doctor. Still, when Mr. Cascabel proposed the matter to him:
“I feel better, my friend,” he replied, “and if I am not in your way—”
“In our way, sir!” exclaimed Cornelia. “And what do you mean by being in our way?”
“You are at home here,” added Mr. Cascabel, “and if you think—”
“Well, I think it is best for me not to leave those who have picked me up—who have devoted themselves—”
“All right, sir, all right!” answered Cascabel. “Still you must lose no time in seeing a medical man.”
“Might I not see him here?”
“By all means, and I am off, myself, to fetch you the best in the town.”
The Fair Rambler had stopped at the entrance into the town, at one end of an avenue planted with trees which stretches on to the forest. There Doctor Harry, who had been named to Mr. Cascabel, came and visited the Russian.
After a careful examination of the wound the doctor declared it was in no way dangerous, the poniard having glanced off on a rib. No important organ had been touched, and thanks to the cold-water dressing, thanks to the juice of the herbs gathered by the young Indian, the healing process, already commenced, would soon be sufficiently advanced to allow the patient to get up in a few days. He was therefore progressing as favorably as possible, and he might, from now, begin to take some food. But most assuredly, had not Kayette tended him, had not the hemorrhage been stopped by Mrs. Cascabel, he would have been a dead man a few hours after the attack of which he had been the victim.
Dr. Harry then added that, in his opinion, the murder must have been the deed of some members of Karnof's gang, if not that of Karnof himself, whose presence had been reported in the eastern part of the province. This Karnof was a criminal, of Russian or rather Siberian origin, who had under his orders a gang of those deserters from the Czar's army, so numerous in the Russian possessions of Asia and America. In vain had the police sent its best “ferrets” after him. In vain had rewards been offered for the capture of the band. These ruffians, as dreaded as they deserved to be, had hitherto escaped punishment. And still, frequent crimes, thefts, and murders had spread terror around, especially in the southern portion of the territory. The safety of the travelers, the traders, the agents of fur companies, was in continual jeopardy; and undoubtedly this new crime should be attributed to Karnof's gang.
On withdrawing. Dr. Harry left the family quite free from anxiety concerning their guest.
Whilst on his way to Sitka, Mr. Cascabel had always intended taking a few days' rest there, a rest his troupe was well entitled to, after a journey of almost two thousand one hundred miles since the time of leaving the Sierra Nevada. Besides he expected to increase his exchequer by two or three good performances in this town.
“Lads, we are no longer in England here,” he would say, “we are in America, and before Americans we are quite at liberty to work!”
Mr. Cascabel felt sure, moreover, that the name of his family was a household word among the Alaskan population, and that the cry was going round Sitka:
“The Cascabels are within our walls!”
However, after a conversation which took place a couple of days after between the Russian and his host, these plans were slightly modified, except in so far as they concerned the few days' rest, an absolute necessity after the hardships of the journey. This Russian—in Cornelia's mind he could be no other than a prince—now knew what the good people were who had saved him, poor itinerant artists traveling through America. All the members of the family had been presented to him, including the young Indian to whom he was indebted for his being now alive.
One evening, as they were all sitting round together, he told them his history, or at least such portion of it as interested them. He spoke French very fluently, as if that language had been his own, with the only peculiarity that he rolled his r's a little, which gives to the Muscovite tongue an inflexion at the same time soft and manly in which the ear finds a great charm.
Besides, what he related was extremely simple. Nothing very adventurous, nothing romantic either.
His name was Sergius Wassiliowitch—and from that day, with his permission, he went by no other name than “Mr. Sergius” among the Cascabels. Of all his relatives, his father alone was still alive, and resided on a domain situated in the Government of Perm, within a short distance of the town of that name. Mr. Sergius, actuated by his traveling instincts, and his taste for geographical discoveries and researches, had left Russia three years before. He had visited the Hudson Bay territories and was preparing an exploring tour through Alaska, from the course of the Yukon to the Arctic Sea, when he was attacked under the following circumstances:
His servant Ivan and he had just settled their little encampment on the frontier, on the evening of the 4th of June, when they were suddenly fallen upon, during their first sleep. Two men were upon them. They awoke, stood up, and meant to defend themselves. It was useless: almost instantly poor Ivan fell dead, struck by a bullet through his head.
“He was a brave fellow, a faithful servant!” said Mr. Sergius. “We had lived together for ten years! He would have done anything for me; I mourn him not as a servant, but a friend!”
And so saying, Mr. Sergius made no effort to conceal his emotion, and every time he spoke of Ivan, his tearful eye showed how sincere was his grief for his loss.
Then he added that, being stabbed in the chest himself, he had lost consciousness, and no longer remembered anything, until, coming back to life but unable to express his gratitude, he had understood that he was with kind-hearted people who were nursing him.
When Mr. Cascabel told him that the deed was attributed to Karnof or to some of his accomplices, Mr. Sergius did not feel surprised, for he had been informed that the gang was haunting the frontier.
“You see,” said he, in the end, “my history is not very entertaining, yours must be more so. My campaign was to end with the exploration of Alaska. Thence, I was to return to Russia, go home to my father, and leave him no more. Now let us talk about you, and first, let me ask how and why French people, like you, find themselves so far away from home in this part of America?”
“Do not showmen ramble the wide world over, Mr. Sergius?” Cascabel replied.
“Quite so, but none the less I may feel somewhat surprised to see you at such a distance from France.”
“John,” said Mr. Cascabel, turning to his eldest son, “tell Mr. Sergius how it is that we are here, and by what route we are returning to Europe.”
John related everything that had happened the occupants of the Fair Rambler since they had left Sacramento, and, so as to be understood by Kayette, he told his tale in English, Mr. Sergius giving supplementary explanations in the Chinook dialect. The young Indian woman listened with the greatest attention. In this way she learnt what was this Cascabel family to which she had become so fondly attached. She heard how the show people had been robbed of all they possessed as they were crossing the pass of the Sierra Nevada on their way to the coast of the Atlantic, and how, for want of money, compelled to alter their plans, they had attempted by a westward road what they were unable to do by the east. After having faced their house on wheels toward the setting sun, they had traversed the State of California, Oregon, Washington Territory, Columbia, and had stopped on the frontier of Alaska. There they had found it impossible to move farther, thanks to the strict orders of the Muscovite administration—a fortunate draw-back, after all, since it had given them an opportunity to come to Mr. Sergius's help. And that was how a troupe of artists, French by birth, and Norman by their leader, were now in Sitka, the annexation of Alaska to the United States having opened wide, for them, the gates of the new American possession.
Mr. Sergius had listened to the young man's story with the keenest interest, and when he heard that Mr. Cascabel intended reaching Europe through Siberia, a little movement of surprise escaped him which, indeed, no one could have understood at the time.
“And so, my friends,” said he, when John had finished, “your intention, on leaving Sitka, is to make for Behring Strait?”
“It is, Mr. Sergius,” replied John, “and to ride over the strait when it will be frozen.”
“The journey you undertake there is a long and laborious one, Mr. Cascabel.”
“A long one, it is, Mr. Sergius! A laborious one, it shall be, no doubt. But what can be done? We have no choice in the matter. Besides, itinerant artists trouble themselves but little about the labor, and we have got accustomed to roving.”
“I suppose that, under these conditions, you have no expectation of reaching Russia this year?”
“No,” said John, “for the strait will not be frozen over before the beginning of October.”
“In any case,” repeated Mr. Sergius, “it is a bold and venturous scheme.”
“That may be,” replied Mr. Cascabel, “but there is no other way out of the difficulty. Mr. Sergius, we are homesick! We long to go back to France, and go home we must! And since we shall be going through Perm and Nijni at the time of the fairs,—well, the Cascabel family will do its best not to disgrace itself.”
“Very well, but what are your resources?”
“A little money we made, coming along, and the takings of two or three performances that I propose to give in Sitka. As it happens, there are public rejoicings over the annexation, and I imagine the Sitkans will take an interest in the exercises of the Cascabel family.”
“My friends,” said Mr. Sergius, “how pleased I should have been to share my purse with you, if I had not been robbed.”
“Why, you have not been robbed, Mr. Sergius,” exclaimed Cornelia.
“Not to the extent of half a rouble!” added Cascabel.
And he brought the belt in which Mr. Sergius's money had remained untouched.
“Then, my friends, you will be good enough to accept—”
“No such thing, Mr. Sergius!” answered Mr. Cascabel. “I'll not have you run the risk of getting into difficulties by trying to get us out of our own.”
“You decline to share with me?”
“Well, well, those French people!” said Mr. Sergius, stretching his hand to him.
“Long live Russia!” cried out young Sander.
“And long live France!” responded Mr. Sergius.
It was the first time, no doubt, that those cries were interchanged in those distant lands of America!
“And now, that's enough talking for once, Mr. Sergius,” said Cornelia. “The doctor has recommended that you should keep very quiet, and patients must always obey their medical advisers.”
“Your obedient servant then, Madame Cascabel,” replied Mr. Sergius. “Still, I have one more question to ask you, or rather a request to make.”
“At your service, sir.”
“Indeed it is a favor I am expecting at your hands.”
“Since you are bent on going to Behring Strait, will you permit me to accompany you thus far?”
“Yes! this will complete my exploration of Alaska in the West.”
“And our answer to that request is: With the greatest pleasure, Mr. Sergius!” exclaimed Cascabel.
“On one condition,” added Cornelia.
“That you wall do everything that will be necessary to your recovery,—without a single word.”
“And on condition, too, that as I am your fellow-traveler I shall contribute toward the expenses of the journey?”
“That's as you like, Mr. Sergius!” answered Cascabel.
Everything was now settled to the satisfaction of all parties. However, the “manager” of the troupe did not think he should give up his idea of having two or three performances on the principal square in Sitka—performances from which he was to derive both glory and profit. Fetes were held throughout the province anent the annexation, and the Fair Rambler could not have appeared on the scene at a more opportune moment.
Of course Mr. Cascabel had communicated to the authorities the murderous attack of which his guest had been the victim, and orders had been issued for a more active chase after Karnof's band along the Alaskan frontier.
On the 17th of June, Mr. Sergius was able to go into the open air for the first time. He felt much better, and his wound was quite healed, thanks to Dr. Harry's attentions.
It was then he made acquaintance with the animal portion of the troupe: the two dogs came and rubbed against his legs, Jako greeted him with a “You're better, Mr. Sergius?” that Sander had taught him, and John Bull presented him with his choicest grimaces. The two good old horses themselves, Vermont and Gladiator, joyfully neighed their thanks to him for the lumps of sugar he gave them. Mr. Sergius was now a member of the family, just as Kayette was. He had already noticed that serious turn of mind, that love of study, that yearning upwards which characterized the eldest son. Sander and Napoleona charmed him with their graceful playfulness. Clovy amused him with his harmless nonsense. As to Mr. and Mrs. Cascabel, he had, long since, appreciated their domestic virtues.
Truly noble-hearted people were those among whom he had fallen.
However, they were actively pushing on the preparations for their forthcoming departure. Nothing was to be omitted that could insure the success of those fifteen hundred miles of a journey from Sitka to Behring Strait. This almost unknown country did not threaten them with any great dangers, it is true, either on the part of wild beasts, or at the hands of the Indians, whether wandering or sedentary; and nothing would be easier than to halt at the trading stations occupied by the agents of fur companies. What was of importance, was to minister to the daily necessities of life in a country whose resources, with the exception of the game, were likely to be null.
It followed, therefore, that all these questions had to be discussed with Mr. Sergius.
“First of all,” said Cascabel, “we must take this into consideration, that we shall not have to travel during the bad season.”
“That is fortunate,” answered Mr. Sergius, “for they are indeed cruel, those Alaskan winters on the verge of the polar circle.”
“And then, we shall not grope along like blind people,” added John. “Mr. Sergius must be a learned geographer.”
“Oh,” replied Mr. Sergius, “in a country that he is not acquainted with, a geographer is often puzzled to find out his road. But, with his maps, my friend John has been able to make his way hitherto, and if we put our two heads together I am in hopes we shall get on all right. Besides, I have an idea, which I shall tell you about one day.”
If Mr. Sergius had an idea, it could not fail being an excellent one, and so they allowed him all the time necessary to ripen it before carrying it into execution.
There being no lack of money, Mr. Cascabel renewed his stock of flour, grease, rice, tobacco, and especially tea, a very large consumption of which is made throughout Alaska; he likewise took in hams, corned beef, biscuits, and a certain quantity of preserved ptarmigan from the Russo-American Company's store. They would not run short of water along the affluents of the Yukon, but the water could not but be improved by the addition of a little sugar and cognac, or rather “vodka,” a sort of brandy highly appreciated by the Russians; and accordingly a purchase was made of sufficient quantities of sugar and vodka. As to the fuel, although the forests might be depended upon, the Fair Rambler stowed in a ton of good Vancouver coal, a ton and no more, for the wagon should not be loaded to excess.
In the meantime, an additional bunk had been fitted into the second compartment, which Mr. Sergius declared quite sufficient for him, and which was comfortably supplied with bedding. Blankets were not forgotten, nor yet those hareskins so generally used by the Indians during winter. Finally, in the event of their having to make any purchases along the road, Mr. Sergius supplied himself with those glass trinkets, strips of cotton stuff, cheap knives and scissors, that constitute the usual currency between traders and natives.
As game might be relied upon, both large and small, since the deer and the hares, heathcocks, geese, and partridges abound in those parts, a proportionate stock of powder and shot was bought. Mr. Sergius even succeeded in finding two guns and a carbine, which completed the arsenal of the Fair Rambler. He was a good shot, and would delight in going out in search of game with his friend John.
It was not to be forgotten, either, that Karnof's gang might be roaming about Sitka perhaps, that they should be on the watch for a possible attack on their part, and, should the opportunity present itself, receive them as they deserved.
“Now,” remarked Mr. Cascabel, “to the requests of such intruders I know of no better answer than a bullet, fair in the chest.”
“Unless it be one fair in the head!” added Clovy, not unreasonably.
In a word, thanks to the trade carried on by the capital of Alaska with the various towns in Columbia and the ports of the Pacific, Mr. Sergius and his companions were able to purchase, without paying exorbitant prices, all that they thought necessary for their long journey through a desert country.
These arrangements were not completed before the last week but one in June, and it was decided they should start on the 26th. As they could not dream of crossing Behring Strait before it was completely frozen, they had ample time before them. Still, possible delays, unforeseen obstacles, were to be taken into account, and it would be better to arrive too soon than too late. At Port Clarence, on the very coast of the strait, they should rest and await the right moment for crossing over to the Asiatic shore.
Meanwhile, what was the young Indian girl doing? Nothing but what was very simple. She aided Mrs. Cascabel, with a deal of intelligence, in all the preparations for the journey. The good woman loved her with a mother's love: she loved her as she did Napoleona, and every day she grew more and more attached to her second daughter. Every one, indeed, was really fond of Kayette, and, no doubt, the poor girl enjoyed a happiness she had never tasted among the nomadic tribes, under the tents of the Indians. Sad did each one feel at the thought that the time was drawing near when Kayette would part with the family. But, alone as she now was in the world, should she not remain in Sitka, since she had left her people for the very purpose of coming here and entering service, even though under wretched conditions perhaps?
“Still and all,” Mr. Cascabel would sometimes Say, “if that pretty Kayette—my little Kayette, I was going to say—had a taste for dancing, who knows but we might make her an offer? What a handsome dancer she would make, eh? And what a graceful rider, if she cared to make her début in a circus! I bet you, she would ride like a centaur!”
It was one of Mr. Cascabel's articles of faith that the centaurs were excellent riders, and it would have been dangerous to cross words with him on this subject.
Seeing how John shook his head, when his father spoke thus, Mr. Sergius understood plainly that the steady, reserved lad was far from sharing the paternal view of acrobatic performances or of the other practices of an itinerant artist's life.
In short, a great deal of thinking was bestowed on Kayette, on what would become of her, on the life that was awaiting her at Sitka,—and that thinking was not of the pleasantest kind,—when, the day before the departure, Mr. Sergius took her by the hand and presented her to the whole assembled family, saying:
“My friends, I had no daughter; now I have one, an adopted daughter! Kayette agrees to look upon me as her father, and I ask you for a little room for her in the Fair Rambler!”
Cries of joy greeted Mr. Sergius, and the fondest of caresses were lavished on “little Kayette.” The happiness with which she, on her side, had accepted the proposal, is not to be told.
“You are a good heart, Mr. Sergius!” cried out Cascabel, not without emotion.
“Why so, my friend? Have you forgotten what Kayette has done for me? Is it not natural she should become my child, when I owe my life to her?”
“Well then, let us have a share!” said Cascabel. “Since you are her father, Mr. Sergius, I want to be her uncle!”