Cæsar Cascabel/Part 1/Chapter XII
FROM SITKA TO FORT YUKON.
ON the 26th of June, at daybreak, the “Cascabel chariot raised anchor,” to use one of the favorite metaphors of the captain. It remained to be seen,—in order to complete the metaphor with the immortal Prudhomme's figure of speech,—if the skiff was not going to cruise on a volcano. There was nothing impossible in that—figuratively, first, for the difficulties of the journey would not be trifling,—physically, moreover, for there is no lack of volcanoes, extinct or otherwise, on the northern coast of Behring Sea.
The Fair Rambler, then, left the Alaskan capital, in the midst of the many and noisy good wishes for a safe journey that accompanied its departure. They came from the numerous friends whose applause and roubles the Cascabels had received during the few days they had spent at the gates of Sitka.
The word “gates” is more accurate than might be thought. For the town is surrounded with a palisade of stout build and with very few openings, which it would be hard to get over by force.
The reason of it is that the Russian authorities had had occasion to protect themselves against the influx of Kalosch Indians, who usually come and squat between the Stekine and the Chilcat rivers in the vicinity of New Archangel. There stand scattered their very primitive-looking huts; a low door opens into a circular room, sometimes divided into two compartments; and one hole, made overhead, allows the light to come in and the smoke of the fire to go out. The aggregation of these huts constitutes a suburb, a suburb extra muros, to the town of Sitka. After sunset, no Indian may remain in the town; a restriction not without a just motive, one necessitated, indeed, by the frequently unpleasant relations existing between the redskins and the palefaces.
Beyond Sitka, the Fair Rambler had at first to cross a number of narrow passes, by means of ferries ad hoc, so as to reach the furthest extremity of a sinuous gulf, terminated in a point, called Lynn canal.
Thenceforth, the road lay on terra firma.
The plan of the journey, or rather the itinerary, had been carefully studied by Mr. Sergius and John on large scale maps which they had easily procured at the Gardens Club. Kayette's knowledge of the country had been called into requisition in this circumstance; and her bright intelligence had enabled her to understand the indications of the map that was laid under her eyes. She expressed herself half in Indian, half in Russian, and her remarks were very useful in the discussion. The question was to find, if not the shortest, at least the easiest road to Port Clarence, situated on the east shore of the strait. It was therefore agreed that the Fair Rambler should make straight for the great Yukon River, at the height of the fort that has taken its name from this important stream. This was a point about midway along the itinerary, say seven hundred and fifty miles from Sitka. They would thereby avoid the difficulties that would be encountered along the coast line where not a few mountains are to be met. On the contrary, the Yukon valley stretches, wide and clear, between the intricate chains of the West and the Rocky mountains, which separate Alaska from the valley of the Mackenzie and the territory of New Britain.
It follows, therefore, that a few days after setting out, the Cascabels had seen, away to the southwest, the last outline of the uneven coast over which stand, at an immense height. Mount Fairweather and Mount Elias.
The carefully preconcerted division of time, for labor and for rest, was strictly adhered to. There was no occasion for increased speed toward Behring Strait, and it was better to go piano in order to be sure to go sano. The important point was to spare the horses, who could not be replaced, except by reindeer, if ever they broke down, an eventuality that should be warded off at any cost. Accordingly, each morning the start was made about six o'clock, then a two hours' halt at noon, another spur onward till six, and then rest for the whole night; which gave an average of fifteen or eighteen miles per day.
Had it been necessary to travel at night, nothing could have been easier, for, according to Mr. Cascabel's way of putting it, the Alaskan sun was not overfond of his bed.
“He has hardly gone to bed when he gets up again!” he used to say. “Twenty-three hours' continuous light, and no extra charge!”
Sure enough, at this time of the year, that is, about the summer solstice, and in this high latitude, the sun disappeared at seventeen minutes past eleven at night and reappeared at forty-nine minutes past eleven—let us say after thirty-two minutes' eclipse beneath the horizon. And the twilight that was left after its disappearance blended its light tints, without a break, with those of the succeeding dawn.
As to the temperature, it was hot, at times stifling. Under such conditions, it would have been more than imprudent not to suspend work during the heat of noontide. Both man and beast suffered intensely from this excessively high temperature. Who could believe that, on the edge of the polar circle, the thermometer registers thirty degrees centigrade above zero? Still, such is the simple truth!
Nevertheless, if the journey was progressing safely and without any great difficulties, Cornelia, severely tried by the unbearable temperature, complained not without cause.
“You will soon regret what you now think so hard to bear!” said Mr. Sergius to her one day.
“Regret such heat? Never!” she replied.
“Quite so, mother,” added John; “you will suffer very differently from the cold, the other side of Behring Strait, when we shall be going through the steppes of Siberia.”
“I believe you, Mr. Sergius,” Cascabel would answer. “But if there is no help against the heat, you can fight against the cold with the aid of fire.”
“No doubt, my friend, that is what you will have to do in a few months, for the cold will be terrific, bear it in mind!”
Meanwhile, by the 3d of July, after meandering through the narrow gorges, the canons, whimsically carved among hillocks of medium height, the Fair Rambler saw nothing on its road but a perspective of ever-lengthening plains between the scanty woods of this territory.
On that day, they had to follow the bank of a little lake, from which sprang the Rio Lewis, one of the chief tributaries of the lower Yukon.
Kayette recognized it and said:
“Yes, that is the Cargut, that flows into our big river!”
She had told John that in the Alaskan dialect this word “cargut” was the very word for “little river.”
And, during this journey, free from obstacles and exempt of fatigue, did the artists of the Cascabel troupe neglect rehearsing their exercises, keeping up the strength of their muscles, the suppleness of their limbs, the agility of their fingers? No, assuredly; and unless the heat would forbid it, each evening the camping ground was transformed into an arena whose only spectators were Mr. Sergius and Kayette. Both admired the achievements of the hard-working people—the Indian girl, not without some astonishment; Mr. Sergius with kindly interest.
One after the other, Mr. and Mrs. Cascabel lifted heavy weights with outstretched arms and juggled with dumb-bells; Sander practised the dislocations and contortions that were his specialty; Napoleona ventured on a rope stretched between two trestles and showed her dancing skill and grace, while Clovy went through his parade buffoonery before a purely imaginary public.
Surely, John would have preferred remaining with his books, improving himself by conversing with Mr. Sergius, and giving lessons to Kayette, who, thanks to him, was rapidly getting acquainted with the French language; but his father insisted on his losing nothing of his remarkable skill as an equilibrist, and, for obedience sake, he twirled through the air his glasses, his rings, his balls, his knives, and his sticks—with his mind engaged on very different thoughts, poor lad!
One thing that had given him great satisfaction, was that his father had had to abandon his idea of making an “artist” of Kayette. From the day when she had been adopted by Mr. Sergius, a wealthy, educated man, who belonged to the best society, her future prospects had been assured, and that, under the most favorable conditions. Yes, he felt happy to think of it, good honest John did, although he experienced a pang of real sorrow at the thought that Kayette would leave them when they reached Behring Strait. And leave them she would not have had to, if she had joined the troupe as a dancer!
For all that, John felt too genuine a friendship for her, not to rejoice at the fact that she was the adopted child of Mr. Sergius. Did he not long most ardently, himself, to change his position? Under the impulse of his loftier instincts, he felt himself unfit for the showman's life he led, and how many a time, on the public square, he had felt ashamed of the applause lavished on him for his uncommonly clever performances!
One evening, walking alone with Mr. Sergius, he opened his heart to him, laid bare before him his intimate yearnings and regrets, told him what he fain would have been, what he thought he might fairly aspire to. Perhaps by dint of roaming the world over, exhibiting themselves before popular gatherings, keeping up their calling as gymnasts and acrobats, securing the aid of jugglers and clowns, his parents might, in the end, reach a certain ease and comfort, he himself might eventually acquire a little fortune. But, it would be too late, then, to engage in a more honorable career.
“I do not feel ashamed of my father and mother, sir,” he added. “By no means! I should be an ungrateful son, if I did! Within the limits of their ability, they have done everything! They have been good indeed to their children! Still, I feel I have in me the making of a man, and I am fated to be but a poor showman!”
“My friend,” Mr. Sergius said to him, “I understand you. But let me tell you that, whatever a man's trade may be, it is no trifle to have carried it on honestly! Are you acquainted with more respectable people than your father and mother?”
“I am not, Mr. Sergius!”
“Well, continue to esteem them as I esteem them myself. Your desire to rise out of your present sphere is evidence of noble instincts. Who knows what the future may have in store for you? Be brave-hearted, my child, and rely on me to help you. I shall never forget what your people have done for me, no, I never shall! And some day, if I can—”
And as he spoke, John observed that his brow darkened, that his voice faltered. He seemed to look anxiously to the future. A momentary silence followed, which the lad interrupted, saying:
“When we are at Port Clarence, Mr. Sergius, why would you not continue the journey with us? Since your intention is to return to Russia, to your father—”
“That is out of the question, John,” replied Mr. Sergius. “I have not completed the work of exploration I began in the territories of West America.”
“And Kayette will remain with you?” inquired John, almost in a whisper.
There was so much sadness in the whispered inquiry, that Mr. Sergius could not hear it without being deeply moved.
“Must she not come with me,” he replied, “now that I have taken her into my charge?”
“She would not leave you, then, sir; and when in your country—”
“My child,” was the answer, “my plans are not definitely settled yet. That is all I can say to you for the present. When we are at Port Clarence, we shall see. Perhaps I may then make a certain proposal to your father, and on his answer will depend, no doubt,—”
John noticed once more the hesitation he had already observed in his companion's way of speaking. This time he refrained from further comment, feeling that an extreme reserve was a duty for him. But, ever since this conversation, there was a more intimate sympathy between them. Mr. Sergius had ascertained all that there was of good, of trustworthy, of noble in that young man so upright, so openhearted. He therefore applied himself to instruct him, to guide him in those studies for which he was inclined. As to Mr. and Mrs. Cascabel, it was with a grateful heart they watched what their guest was doing for their son.
Nor did John neglect his duties as purveyor. Very fond of hunting, Mr. Sergius accompanied him most of the time, and, between two shots, how many things can be said! Indeed there was an abundance of game in these plains. Of hares there were enough to feed a whole caravan. And it was not as eatables only that they proved useful.
“Those things you see skipping about here are not only dainty bits and ragouts, they are cloaks too, and muffs, and boas, and blankets!” said Mr. Cascabel one day.
“You are right, friend,” Mr. Sergius made answer, “and after they have appeared in one character, in your meat safe, they will play quite as useful a part in your wardrobe. We could not be too plentifully supplied against the hardships of the Siberian climate!”
And accordingly they gathered quite a stock of the skins, and spared the preserved meat for such time as winter would drive the game away from the polar regions.
As for that, if perchance the sportsmen brought home neither partridge nor hare, Cornelia did not disdain putting a raven or a crow into the pot, after Indian fashion, and the soup was none the less excellent.
At other times, it might happen that Mr. Sergius and John drew forth from their bag a magnificent heathcock, and the reader will readily imagine how well the roasted bird looked on the table.
There was no fear of starvation, in fine, on board the Fair Rambler; true it is, she still was in the smoothest part of her adventurous voyage.
One annoyance, it must be said,—indeed, a source of pain and suffering,—was the continual worrying of the mosquitoes. Now that Mr. Cascabel was no longer on British soil, he found them unpleasant. Doubtless, they would have increased and multiplied beyond measure, had not the swallows made an extraordinary consumption of them. But, yet a little while, and the swallows would migrate toward the south; for, short indeed is their lingering about the limit of the polar circle!
On the 9th of July, the Fair Rambler reached the confluence of two streams, the one a tributary to the other. It was the Lewis River, flowing into the Yukon through a large widening of its left bank. As Kayette remarked, this river, in the upper portion of its course, also bears the name of Pelly River. From the mouth of the Lewis it takes a direction due northwest, and then curves to the west to go and pour its waters into a vast estuary of the sea of Behring.
At the confluence of the Lewis stands a military post, Fort Selkirk, less important than Fort Yukon, which is situated some three hundred miles up the river on its right bank.
Since they had left Sitka, the young Indian woman had rendered the little troupe valuable services by guiding them with marvelous accuracy. Once already during her nomadic life, she had traveled these plains watered by the great Alaskan river. Questioned by Mr. Sergius on the way her childhood had been spent, she had related the hardships of her life, when the Ingelete tribes migrated from one point to another in the valley of the Yukon, and how her tribe had been scattered, and how her parents and relatives disappeared. And, again, she told how, left alone in the world, she had seen herself reduced to seek an engagement as a servant to some official or agent in Sitka. More than once had John made her go over her sad history, and each time he had heard it with the same thrill of emotion.
It was in the neighborhood of Fort Selkirk that they fell in with some of those Indians who roam along the banks of the Yukon, and particularly the Birchmen, a tribe whose name was more fully developed in Kayette's language: “the rovers by the birch trees.” As a matter of fact, the birch tree is very common among the firs, the Douglas pines, and the maple trees with which the center of the province of Alaska is besprinkled.
Fort Selkirk, occupied by some agents of the Russo-American Company, is, in reality, but a fur and peltry store where the traders along the coast come and make their purchases at certain seasons of the year.
These agents, delighted with a visit which varied the monotony of their lives, gave a hearty welcome to the occupants of the Fair Rambler. And in consequence Mr. Cascabel decided to take a rest here for twenty-four hours.
However, it was arranged that the wagon would cross the Yukon River at this spot, so as not to have to do so farther on, and perhaps under less favorable circumstances. Sure enough, its bed grew wider and its stream more swift in proportion as it flowed westward.
This advice was given by Mr. Sergius himself after he had studied on the map the course of the Yukon, which cut across their route some six hundred miles ahead of Port Clarence.
The Fair Rambler was therefore ferried to the right bank with the aid of the agents and that of the Indians who encamp round about Fort Selkirk, and seek an easy prey in the waters of the river.
Indeed, the advent of the troupe did not prove useless, and, in return for the services of the natives, they were enabled to render them one, the full importance of which was duly appreciated.
The chief of the tribe was then grievously ill—at least he might have been thought so. Now, he had no other physician or other remedies than the traditional magician and the magical incantations in use among native tribes. Accordingly, for some time past, the chief had lain in the open air, in the center of the village, with a huge fire burning night and day by his side. The Indians gathered around him sang in a chorus an invocation to the great Manitou, whilst the magician tried all his best charms to drive away the evil spirit that had taken up his abode in the body of the sick man. And, the better to succeed, he endeavored to introduce the said spirit into his own person; but the latter, a stubborn spirit, would not move an inch.
Fortunately, Mr. Sergius had a smattering of the medical art, and was able to give the Indian chief such a remedy as his condition required.
On examination, he had no difficulty in finding out the ailment of the august patient; and calling the little pharmacy into requisition, he administered to him a violent emetic, for which all the magician's incantations could not have proved a substitute.
The truth is that the chief suffered from a frightful fit of over-feeding, and the pints of tea he had been swallowing for the past two days were powerless in such a state of things.
And so, the chief did not die, to the great joy of his tribe—which deprived the Cascabels of an opportunity to witness the ceremonies attendant on the burial of a sovereign. Burial is not the right word, perhaps, when Indian funerals are in question. For the corpse is not interred, but suspended in mid-air, a few feet over the ground. There, at the bottom of his coffin, and intended for his use in the other world, are laid his pipe, his bow, his arrows, his snow-shoes, and the more or less valuable furs he wore in winter. And there, as a child in his cradle, he is rocked by the breeze during that sleep from which there is no awakening.
After twenty-four hours spent at Fort Selkirk, the Cascabels took leave of the Indians and the agents, and brought away pleasant recollections of this first halt on the bank of the river. They had to toil up the Pelly River along a somewhat rugged track, which was the cause of no little fatigue to the horses. At length, on the 27th of July, seventeen days after leaving Fort Selkirk, the Fair Rambler arrived at Fort Yukon.