The Trail of ’98
Robert W. Service
Author of “The Songs of a Sourdough” and “Ballads of a Cheechakc "
Regln'ered In accordance «i' h the Copyright Act by Robert W. Service. Canadian serial rights owned by The MacLean Publishing Co.J
CHAPTER XII. (Continued).
WE entered the Fifty-mile River; we were in a giant valley; tier after tier of benchland rose to sentinel mountains of austerest grandeur. There at the bottom the little river twisted like a silver wire, and down it rolled the eager army. They shattered the silence into wildest echo, they roused the bears out of their frozen sleep; the forest flamed from their careless fires.
The river was our beast of burden no\ a tireless, gentle beast. Serenely an smoothly it bore us onward, yet there WÍ a note of menace in its song. They ha told us of the canyon and of the rapid and as we pulled at the oars and battle with the mosquitoes, we wondered whe the danger was coming, how we woul fare through it when it came.
Then one evening as we were sweepin down the placid river, the current sudder l.v quickened. The banks were slidin Past at a strange speed. Swiftly we swer aiound a bend, and there we were rigl on top of the dreadful canyon. Straigt ahead was what seemed to be a solid wa of rock. The river looked to have no oir let; hut as we drew nearer we saw the there was a narrow chasm in the ston ace, and at this the water was rearin0an charging with an angry roar.
The current was gripping us angril now; there was no chance to draw back At his post stood the Jam-wagon with th veen alert look of the man who loves dan
ger. A thrill of excitement ran through us all. With set faces we prepared for the fight.
I was in the bow. All at once I saw directly in front a scow struggling to make the shore. In her there were three people, two women and a man. I saw the man jump out with a rope and try to snub the scow to a tree. Three times he failed, running along the bank and shouting frantically. I saw one of the 'women jump for the shore. Then at the same instant the rope parted, and the scow, with the remaining woman, went swirling on into the canyon.
All this I saw, and so fascinated was T that I forgot our own peril. I heard a shrill scream of fear; I saw the solitary woman crouch down in the bottom of the scow, burying her face in her hands; I saw the scow rise, hover, and then plunge downward into the angry maw of the canvon.
The river hurried us on helplessly. We were in the canyon now. The air grew dark. On each side, so close it seemed we could almost touch them with our oars, ^ were black, ancient walls, towering up dizzily. _ The river seemed to leap and buck, its middle arching four feet higher than its sides, a veritable hog-back of water. It bounded on in great billows, green, hillocky and terribly swift, like a liquid toboggan slide. We plunged forward, heaved aloft, and the black, moss-stained walls brindled past us.
About midway in the canyon is a huge basin, like the old crater of a volcano, sloping upwards to the pine-fringed skyline. Here was a giant eddy, and here, circling round and round, was the runaway scow. The forsaken woman was still crouching on it. The light was quite wan, and we were half blinded by the fiying spray, but I clung to my place at the bow and watched intently.
“Keep clear of that scow,” I heard some one shout. “Avoid the eddy.”
. It was almost too late. The ill-fated scow spun round and swooped down on us. In a moment we would have been struck and overturned, but I saw Jim and the Jain-wagon give a desperate strain at the oars. I saw the scow swirling past, just two feet from us. I looked again— then with a wild panic of horror I saw that the crouching figure was that of Berna.
I remember jumping—it must have been five feet—and I landed half in, half out of the water. I remember clinging a moment, then pulling myself aboard. I heard shouts from the others as the current swept them into the canyon. I remember looking round and cursing because both sweeps had been lost overboard, and lastly I remember bending over Berna and shouting in her ear:
“All right, I’m with you!”
If an angel had dropped from high heaven to her rescue I don’t believe the girl could have been more impressed. For a moment she stared at me unbelievingly. I was kneeling by her and she put her hands on my shoulders as if to prove to herself that I was real. Then, with a halfsob, half-cry of joy, she clasped her arms tightly around me. Something in the girl’s look, something in the touch of her slender, clinging form made my heart exult. Once again I shouted in her ear.
“It’s all right, don’t be frightened. We’ll pull through, all right.”
Once more we had whirled off into the main current; once more we were in that roaring torrent, with its fearsome dips and rises, its columned walls corroded with age and filled with the gloom of eternal twilight. The water smashed and battered us, whirled us along relentlessly, lashed us in heavy sprays; yet with closed eyes and thudding hearts we waited. Then suddenly the light grew strong again. The pri-
maeval walls were gone. We were sweeping along smoothly, and on either side of us the valley sloped in green plateaus up to the smiling sky.
I unlocked my. arms and peered down to where her face lay half hidden on my breast.
“Thank God, I was able to reach you !”
“Yes, thank God!” she answered faintly. “Oh, I thought it was all over. I nearly died with fear. It was terrible. Thank God for you!”
But she had scarce spoken when I realized, with a vast shock, that the danger was far from over. We were hurrying along helplessly in that fierce Current, and already I heard the roar of the Squaw Rapids. Ahead, I could see them dancing, boiling, foaming, blood-red in the sunset glow.
“Be brave, Berna,” I had to shout again ; “we’ll be all right. Trust me, dear !”
She, too, was staring ahead with dilated eyes of fear. Yet at my words she became wonderfully calm, and in her face there was a great, glad look that made my heart rejoice. She nestled to my side. Once more she waited.
We took the rapids broadside on, but the scow was light and very strong. Like a cork in a mill-stream we tossed and spun around. The vicious, mauling wolf-pack of the river heaved us into the air, and worried us as we fell. Drenched, deafened, stunned with fierce nerve-shattering blows, every moment we thought to go under. We were in a caldron of fire. The roar of doom was in our ears. Giant hands with'claws of foam were clutching, buffeting us. Shrieks of fury assailed us, as demon tossed us to demon. Was there no end to it? Thud, crash, roar, sickening us to our hearts; lurching, leaping, beaten, battered . . . then all at once came a calm ; we must be past ; we opened our eyes.
We were again sweeping round a bend in the river in the shadow of a high bluff. If we could only make the bank—but, no! The current hurled us along once more. I saw it sweep under a rocky face of the hillside, and then I knew that the worst was coming. For there, about two hundred yards away, were the dreaded Whitehorse Rapids.
“Close your eyes, Berna!” I cried. “Lie
down on the bottom. Pray as you never prayed before.”
yVe were on them now. The rocky banks close in till they nearly meet. They form a narrow gateway oí rock, and through those close-set jaws the raging river has to pass. Leaping, crashing over its boulder-strewn bed, gaining in terrible impetus at every leap, it gathers speed for its last desperate burst for freedom. Then with a great roar it charges the gap.
But there, right in the way, is a giant boulder. Water meets rock in a crash of terrific onset. The river is beaten, broken, thrown back on itself, and with a baffled roar rises high in the air in a raging hell of spume and tempest. For a moment the chasm is a battleground of the elements, a fierce, titanic struggle. Then the river, wrenching free, falls into the basin below.
“Lie down, Berna, and hold on to me!”
We both dropped down in the bottom of the scow, and she clasped me so tightly I marvelled at the strength of her. 1 felt her wet cheek pressed to mine, her lips clinging to my lips.
“Now, dear, just a moment and it will all be over.”
Once again the angry thunder of the waters. The scow took them nose on, riding gallantly. Again we were tossed like a feather in a whirlwind, pitchforked from wrath to wrath. Once more, swinging, swerving, straining, we pelted on. Orí pinnacles of terror our hearts poised nakedly. The waters danced a fiery saraband ; each wave was a demon lashing at us as we passed; or again they were like fearmaddened horses with whipping manes of llame. We clutched each other convulsively. Would it never, never end . . . then . . . then . . .
It seemed the last had come. Up, up we went. We seemed to hover uncertainly, tilted, hair-poised over a yawning gulf. Were we going to upset? But, no! We righted. Dizzily we dipped over; steeply we plunged down. Oh, it was terrible!
Then, swamped from bow to stern, half turned over, wrecked and broken, we swept into the peaceful basin of the river below.
On the flats around the White Horse Rapids was a great largess of wild flowers. The shooting stars gladdened the glade
with gold; the bluebells brimmed the woodland hollow with amethyst; the fireweed splashed the hills with the pink of coral. Daintily swinging, like clustered pearls, were the petals of the orchid. In glorious profusion were begonias, violets, and Iceland poppies, and all was in a setting of the keenest emerald. But over the others dominated the wild rose, dancing everywhere and flinging perfume to the joyful breeze.
Boats and scows were lined up for miles along the river shore. On the banks water-soaked outfits lay drying in the sun. We, too, had shipped much water in our passage, and a few days would be needed to dry out again. So it was that I found some hours of idleness and was able to see a good deal of Berna.
Madam Winklestein I found surprisingly gracious. She smiled on me, and in her teeth, like white quartz, the creviced gold gleamed. She had a smooth, flattering way with her that disarmed enmity. Winklestein, too, had conveniently forgotten our last interview, and extended to me the paw of spurious friendship. I was free to see Berna as much as I chose.
Thus it came about that we rambled among the woods and hills, picking wild flowers and glad almost with the joy of children. In these few days I noted a vast change in the girl. Her cheeks, pale as the petals of the wild orchid, seemed to steal the tints of the briar-rose, and her eyes beaconed with the radiance of sun-waked skies. It was as if in the poor child a long-stifled capacity for joy was glowing into being.
One golden day, with her cheeks softly flushed, her eyes shining, she turned to me.
“Oh, I could be so happy if I only Lad a chance, if I only had the chance other girls have. It would take so little to make me the happiest girl in the world—-just to have a home, a plain, simple home where all was sunshine and peace, just to. have the commonest comforts, to love and be loved. That woula be enough.” She sighed and went on:
“Then if I might have books, a little music, flowers—oh, it seems like a dream of heaven; as well might I sigh for a palace.”
“No palace could be too fair for you, Berna, no prince too noble. Some day,
yóur prince will come, and you will give him that great love I told you of once.” Swiftly a shadow came into the bright eyes, the sweet mouth curved pathetically.
“Not even a beggar will seek me, a poor nameless girl travelling in the train
of dishonor . . . and again, I will never love.”
“Yes, you will indeed, girl—infinitely, supremely. I know you, Berna; you^ll love as few women do. Your dearest will be all your world, his smile your heaven, his frown your death. Love was at the fashioning of you, dear, and kissed your lips and sent you ^ forth, saying, ‘There goeth my handmaiden.’ ”
I thought for a while ere I went on.
“You cared for your grandfather; you gave him your whole heart, a love full of self-sacrifice, of renunciation. Now he is gone, you will love again, but the next will be to the last, as wine is to water. And the day will come when you will love
grandly. Yours will be a great, consuming passion that knows no limit, no assuagement. It will be your glory and your shame. For him will your friends be foes, your light darkness. You will go through fire and water for your beloved’s sake ; your parched lips wifi call his name, your frail hands cling to him in the shadow of death. Oh, I know, I know. Love has set you apart. You will immolate yourself on his altars. You will dare, defy
and die for him. I’m sorry for you,
Berna.” . ,
Her face hung down, her lips quivered. As for me, I was surprised at my words and scarce knew what I was saying.
At last she spoke.
‘Tf ever I loved like that, the man I loved must be a king among men, a hero, almost a god.”
“Perhaps, Berna, perhaps; but not needfully. He may be a grim man with a face of power and passion, a virile, dominant brute, but—well, I think he will be more of a god. Let’s change the subject.”
I found she had all the sad sophistication of the lowly-born, yet with it an invincible sense of purity, a delicate horror of the physical phases of love. She was a finely motived creature with impossible ideals, but out of her stark knowledge of life she was naively outspoken.
Once I asked of her:
“Berna, if you had to choose between death and dishonor, which would you prefer?”
“Death, of course,” she answered promptly.
“Death’s a pretty hard proposition,” I commented.
“No, it’s easy; physical death, compared with the other, compared with moral death.”
She was very emphatic and angry with me for my hazarded demur. In an atmosphere of disillusionment and moral miasma she clung undauntedly to her ideals. Never was such a brave spirit, so determined in goodness, so upright in purity, and I blessed her for her unfaltering words. “May such sentiments as yours,” I prayed, “be ever mine. In doubt, despair, defeat, oh Life, take not away from me my faith in the pure heart of woman !”
Often I watched her thoughtfully, her slim, well-poised figure, her grey eyes that were fuller of soul than any eyes I have ever seen, her brown hair wherein the sunshine loved to pick out threads of gold, her delicate features with their fine patrician quality. We were dreamers twain, but while my outlook was gay with hope, hers was dark with despair. Since the episode of the sco\v I had never ventured to kiss her, but had treated her with a curious reserve, respect and courtesy.
Indeed, I was diagnosing my case, won-
dering if I loved her, affirming, doubting on a very see-saw of indétermination. When with her I felt for her an intense fondness and at times an almost irresponsible tenderness.. My eyes rested longingly on her, noting with tremulous joy the curves and shading of her face, and finding in its very defects, beauties.
When I was away from her—oh, the easeless longing that was almost pain, the fanciful elaboration of our last talk, the hint of her graces in bird and flower and tree ! I wanted her wildly, and the thought of a world empty of her was monstrous. I wondered how in the past we had both existed and how I had lived, careless, happy and serenely indifferent. I tried to think of a time when she should no longer have power to make my heart quicken with joy or contract with fear— and the thought of such a state was insufferable pain. Was I in love? Poor, fatuous fool! I wanted her more than everything else in all the world, yet I hesitated and asked myself the question;
Hundreds of boats and scows were running the rapids, and we watched them with an untiring fascination. That, was the most exciting spectacle in the whole world. The issue was life or death, ruin or salvation, and from dawn till dark, and with every few minutes of the day, was the breathless climax repeated. The faces of the actors were sick with dread and anxiety. It was curious to study the various expressions of the human countenance unmasked and confronted with gibbering fear. Yes, it was a vivid drama, a drama of cheers and tears, always thrilling and often tragic. Every day were bodies dragged ashore. The rapids demanded their tribute. The men of the trail must pay the toll. Sullen and bloated the river disgorged its prey, and the dead, without prayer or pause, were thrown into nameless graves.
On our first day at the rapids we met the halfbreed. He was on the point of starting down-stream. Where was the bank clerk? Oh, yes ; they had upset comr ing through ; when last he had seen little Pinklove he was struggling in the water. However, they expected to get the body every hour. He had paid two men to find and bury it. He had no time to wait.
We did not blame him. In those wilei days of headstrong hurry and gold-delir-
ium human life meant little. “Another floater,” one would say, and carelessly turn away. A callousness to death that was almost mediaeval was in the air, and the friends of the dead hurried on, the richer by a partner’s outfit. It was all new, strange, sinister to me, this unveiling of life’s naked selfishness and lust.
Next morning they found the body, a poor, shapeless, sodden thing with such a crumpled skull. My thoughts went back to the sweet-faced girl who had wept so bitterly at his going. Even then, maybe, she was thinking of him, fondly dreaming of his return, seeing the glow of triumph in his boyish eyes. She would wait and hope; then she would wait and despair; then there would be another whitefaced woman saying. “He went to the Klondyke and never came back. We don’t know what became of him.”
Verily, the way of the gold-trail was cruel.
Berna was with me when they buried him.
“Poor boy, poor boy!” she repeated.
“Yes, poor little beggar! He was so quiet and gentle. He was no man for the trail. It’s a funny world.”
The coffin was a box of unplaned boards loosely nailed together, and the men were for putting him into a grave on top of another coffin. I protested, so sullenly they proceeded to dig a new grave. Berna looked very unhappy, and when she saw that crude, shapeless pine coffin she broke oown and cried bitterly.
At last she dried her tears and with a happier look in her eyes bade me wait a little until she returned. Soon again she came back, carrying some folds of black sateen over her arm. As she ripped at this with a pair of scissors, I noticed there was a deep frilling to it. Also a bright blush came into her cheek at the curious alance I gave to the somewhat skimpy lines of her skirt. But the next instant she was busy stretching and tacking the black material over the coffin.
The men had completed the new grave. It was only three feet deep, but the water coming in had prevented them from digging further. As we laid the coffin in the hole it looked quite decent now in its black covering. It floated on the water, but after some clods had been thrown down, it sank with many gurglings. It
was as if the dead man protested against his bitter burial. We watched the gravediggers throw a few more shovelsful of earth over the place, then go off whistling. Poor little Berna! she cried steadily. At last she said:
“Let’s get some flowers.”
So out of briar-roses she fashioned a cross and a wreath, and we laid them reverently on the muddy heap that marked the bank clerk’s grave.
Oh, the pitiful mockery of it!
S0011 I knew that Berna and I must part and but two nights later it came. It was near midnight, yet in no ways dark, and everywhere the camp was astir. We were sitting by the river, I remember, a little way from the boats. Where the sun had set, the sky was a luminous veil of ravishing green, and in the elusive light her face seemed wTanly sweet and dreamlike.
A sad spirit rustled amid the shivering willows and a great sadness had come over the girl. All the happiness of the past few days seemed to have ebbed away from her and left her empty of hope. As she sat there, silent and with hands clasped, it was as if the shadows that for a little had lifted, now enshrouded her with a greater gloom.
“Tell me your trouble, Berna.”
She shook her head, her eyes wide as if trying to read the future.
Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Yes, there is, I know. Tell me, won’t you?”
Again she shook her head.
“What’s the matter, little chum?”
“It’s nothing; it’s only my foolishness.” “If I tell you, it wouldn’t help me any. And then—it doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t care. Why should you care?” She turned away from me and seemed absorbed in bitter thought.
“Care! why, yes, I would care; I do care. You know I would do anything in the world to help you. You know I would be unhappy if you were unhappy. You know—”
“Then it would only worry you.”
She was regarding me anxiously.
“Now you must tell me, Berna. It will worry me indeed if you don’t.”
Once more she refused. I pleaded with
her gently. I coaxed, I entreated. She was very reluctant, yet at last she yielded.
“Well, if I must,” she said; “but it’s all so sordid, so mean, I hate myself; I despise myself that I should have to tell it.”
She kneaded a tiny handkerchief nervously in her fingers.
“You know how nice Madam Winklestein’s been to me lately—bought me new clothes, given me trinkets. Well, there’s a reason—she’s got her eye on a man for me.”
I gave an exclamation of surprise.
“Yes; you know she’s let us go together —it’s all to draw him on. Oh, couldn’t you see it? Didn’t you suspect something? You don’t know how bitterly they hate you.”
I bit my lip.
“Who’s the man?”
“Have you heard of him?” she asked. “He’s got a million-dollar claim on Bonanza.”
Had I heard of him? Who had not heard of Black Jack, his spectacular poker plays, his meteoric rise, his theatric display?
“Of course he’s married,” she went on, “but that doesn’t matter up here. There’s such a thing as a Klondyke marriage, and they say he behaves weil to his discarded mis—”
“Berna !” angry and aghast, I had stopped her. “Never let me hear you utter that word. Even to say it seems pollution.”
She laughed harshly, bitterly.
What’s this whole life but pollution? • • • • Well, anyway, he wants me.”
But you wouldn’t, surelv vou wouldn’t?”
She turned on me fiercely.
What do you take me for? Surely you know me better than that. Oh, you' almost make me hate you.”
Suddenly she pressed the little handkerchief to her eyes. She fell to sobbing convulsively. Vainly I tried to soothe her whispering : ’
“Oh, my dear, tell me all about it. I’m sorry, girl, I’m sorry.”
She ceased crying, fierce, excited way.
She went on in
“He came to the restaurant in Bennett. He used to watch me a lot. His eyes were always following me. I was afraid. I trembled when I served him. He liked to see me tremble, it gave him a feeling of power. Then he took to giving me presents, a diamond ring, a heart-shaped locket, costly gifts. I wanted to return them, but she wouldn’t let me, took them from me, put them away. Then he and she had long talks. I know it was all about me. That was why I came to you that night and begged you to marry me—to save me from him. Now it’s gone from bad to worse. The net’s closing round me in spite of my flutterings.”
“But he can’t get you against your will,” I cried.
“No ! No ! but he’ll never give up. He’ll try so long as I resist him. I’m nice to him just to humor him and gain time. I can’t tell you how much I fear him. They say he always gets his way with women. He’s masterly and relentless. There’s a cold, sneering command in his smile. You hate him but you obey him.”
“He’s an immoral monster, Berna. He spares neither time nor monev to gratify his whims where a woman is concerned. And he has no pity.”
“I know, I know.”
“He’s intensely masculine, handsome in a vivid, gipsy sort of way ; big, strong and compelling, but a callous libertine.”
“Yes, he’s all that. And can you wonder then my heart is full of fear, that I am distracted, that I asked you what I did. He is relentless and of ail women he wants me. He would break me on the wheel of dishonour. Oh, God !”
Her face grew almost tragic in its despair.
“And everything’s against me; they’re all helping him. I haven’t a single friend, not one to stand by me, to aid me. Once I thought of you, and you failed me. Can you wonder I’m nearly crazy with the terror of it? Can you wonder I was desperate enough to ask you to save me? I m all alone, friendless, a poor weak girl. No, I’m wrong. I’ve one friend—death :• and I’ll die, I’ll die, I swear it, before. I let him get me.”
Her words came forth in a torrent, half choked by sobs. It was hard to get her calmed. Never had I thought her capable
of such force, such passion. I was terribly distressed and at a loss how to comfort her.
“Hush, Berna,” I pleaded, “please don’t say such things. Remember you have a friend in me, one that would do anything in his power to help you.”
She looked at me a moment.
“How can you help me?”
I held both of her hands firmly, looking into her eyes.
“By marrying you. Will you marry me, dear? Will you be my wife?”
I started. “Berna !”
“No ! I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man left in the world,” she cried vehemently.
“Why?” I tried to be calm.
“Why! why, you don’t love me; you don’t care for me.”
“Yes, I do, Berna. I do indeed, girl. Care for you! Well, I care so much that —I beg you to marry me.”
“Yes, yes, but you don’t love me right, not in your great, grand way. Not in the way you told me of. Oh, I know ; its part pity, part friendship. It would be different if I cared in the same way, if—if I didn’t care so very much more.”
“You do, Berna; you love me like that?”
“How do I know? How can I tell? How can any of us tell?”
“No, dear,” I said, “love has no limits, no bounds, it is always holding something in reserve. There are yet heights beyond the heights, that mock our climbing, never perfection; no great love but might have been eclipsed by a greater. There’s a master key to every heart, and we poor fools delude ourselves with the idea we are opening all the doors. We are on sufferance, we are only understudies in the love drama, but fortunately the star seldom appears on the scene. However, this I
I rose to my feet.
“Since the moment I set eyes on you, I loved you. Long before I ever met you, I loved you. I was just waiting for you, waiting. At first I could not understand, I did not know what it meant, but now I do, beyond the peradventure of a doubt ; there never was any but you, never will be any but you. Since the beginning of time it was all planned that I should love you. And you, how do you care?”
She stood up to hear my words. She would not let me touch her, but there was a great light in her eyes. Then she spoke and her voice was vibrant with passion, all indifference gone from it.
“Oh, you blind! you coward! Couldn’t you see? Couldn’t you feel? That day on the scow it came to me—Love. It was such as I had never dreamed of, rapture, ecstasy, anguish. Do you know what I wished as we went through the rapids? I wished that it might be the end, that in such a supreme moment we might go down clinging together, and that in death I might hold you in my arms. Oh, if you’d only been like that afterwards, met love open-armed with love. But no! you slipped back to friendship. I feel as if there were a barrier of ice between us now. I will try never to care for you any more. Now leave me, leave me, for I never want to see you again.”
“Yes, you will, you must, you must, Berna. I’d sell my immortal soul to win that love from you, my dearest, my dearest; I’d crawl around the world to kiss your shadow. If you called to me I would come from the ends of the earth, through storm and darkness, to your side. I love you so, I love you so.”
I crushed her to me, I kissed her madly, yet she was cold.
.“Have you nothing more to say than fine words?” she asked.
“Marry me, marry me,” I repeated.
Now! I hesitated again. The suddenness of it was like a cold douche. God knows, I burned for the girl, yet somehow convention clamped me.
“Now if you-wish,” I faltered; “but better when we get to Dawson. Better when I’ve made good up there. Give me one year, Berna, one year and then-”
“One year!” .
The sudden gleam of hope vanished from her eyes. , For the third time I was failing her, yet my cursed prudence overrode me.
“Oh, it will pass swiftly, dear. You will be quite safe. I will be near you and watch over you.”
I reassured her, anxiously explaining how much better it would be if we waited a little.
“One year!” she repeated, and it seemed to me her voice was toneless. Then she
turned to inc in a sudden spate of passion, her face pleading, furrowed, wretchedly sad.
“Oh, niv dear, my dear, I love you better than the whole world, but I hoped you would care enough for me to marry me now. It would have been best, believe me. I thought you would rise to the occasion, but you’ve failed me. Well, be it so, we’ll wait one year.”
“Yes, believe me, trust me, dear; it will be all right. I’ll work for you, slave for you, think only of you, and in twelve short months—I’ll give my whole life to make you happy.”
“Will you, dear? Well, it doesn’t matter now . . . I’ve loved you.” *******
All that night I wrestled with myself. I felt like I ought to marry her at once to shield her from the dangers that encompassed her. She was like a lamb among a pack of wolves. I juggled with my conscience. I was young and marriage to me seemed such a terribly all-important step.
Yet in the end my better nature triumphed, and ere the camp was astir I arose. I was going to marry Berna that day. A feeling of relief came over me. How had it ever seemed possible to delay. I was elated beyond measure.
I hurried to tell her, I pictured her joy. I was almost breathless. Love words trembled on my tongue tip. It seemed to me I could not bear to wait a moment.
Then as I reached the place where they had rested I gazed unbelievingly. A sickening sense of loss and failure crushed me.
For the scow was gone.
It was three days before we made a start again, and to me each day was like a year. I chafed bitterly at the delay. Would those sacks of flour never dry? Longingly I gazed down the big. blue Yukon and cursed the current that was every moment carrying her further from me. Why her sudden departure? I had no doubt it was enforced. I dreaded danger. Then in a while I grew calmer. I was foolish to worry. She was safe enough. Wb would meet in Dawson.
At last we were under way. Once more we sped down the devious river, now swirling under the shadow of a steep bank,
now steering around a sandpit. The scenery was hideous to me, bluffs of clay with pines peeping over their rims, willowfringed flats, swamps of niggerhead, ugly drab hills in endless monotony.
How full of kinks and hooks was the river! How vicious with snags! How treacherous with eddies ! It was beginning to bulk in my thought almost like an obsession. Then one day Lake Labarge burst on my delighted eyes. The trail was nearing its end.
Once more with swelling sail we drove before the wind. Once more we were in a fleet of Argonaut boats, and now, with the goal in sight, each man redoubled his efforts. Perhaps the rich ground would be all gone ere we reached the valley. Maddening thought after what we had endured ! We must get on.
There was not a man in all that fleet but imagined that fortune awaited him with open arms. They talked exultantly. Their eyes shone with the gold-lust. They strained at sweep and oar. To be beaten at the last ! Oh, it was inconceivable ! A tigerish eagerness filled them; a panic of fear and cupidity spured them on.
Labarge was a dream lake, mirroring noble mountains in its depths (for soon after we made it, a dead calm fell). But we had no eyes for its beauty. The golden magnet was drawing us too strongly now. We cursed that exquisite serenity that made us sweat at the oars we sursed the wind that never would arise ; the currents that always were against us. In that breathless tranquility myriads of mosquitoes assailed us, blinded us, covered our food as we ate, made our lives a perfect hell of misery. Yet the trail was nearing its finish.
What a relief it was when a sudden storm came up ! White-caps tossed around us, and the wind drove us on a precipitous shore, so that we nearly came to a sorry end. But it was over at last, and we swept on into the Thirty-mile River.
A furious, hurling stream was this, that matched our mad, impatient mood ; but it was staked with hidden dangers. We gripped our weary oars. Keenly alert we had to be, steering and watching for rocks that would have ripped us from bow to stern. There was a famously terrible one on which scows smashed like egg
shells under a hammer, and we missed it by a bare handsbreadth. I felt sick to think of our bitterness had we piled up on it. That was an evil, ugly river, full of capricious turns and eddies, and the bluffs were high and steep.
Hottalinqua, Big Salmon, Little Salmon, these are names to me now. All I can remember is long days of toil at the oar, fighting the growing obsession of mosquitoes, ever pressing on to the golden valley. The ceaseless strain was beginning to tell on us. We suffered from rheumatism, we barked with cold. Oh, we were weary, weary, yet the trail was nearing its end.
One sunlit Sabbath evening I remember well. We were drifting along and we came on a lovely glade where a creek joined the river. It was a green, velvety, sparkling place, and by the creek were two men whipsawing lumber. We hailed them jauntily and asked them if they had found prospects. Were they getting out lumber for sluice-boxes?
One of the men came forward. He was very tired, very quiet, very solemn. “No,” he said, “we are sawing out a coffin for our dead.”
Then we saw a limp shape in their boat and we hurried on, awed and abashed.
The river was mud color now, swirling in great eddies or convulsed from below with sudden upheavals. Drifting on that oily current one seemed to be quite motionless, and only the gliding banks assured us of progress. The country seemed terrible to me, sinister, guilty, God-forsaken. At the horizon, jagged mountains stabbed viciously at the skv.
The river overwhelmed me. Sometimes it was a stream of blood, running into the eye of the setting sun, beautiful, yet weird and menacing. It broadened, deepened, and every day, countless streams swelled its volume. Islands waded in it greenly. Always we heard it singing, a seething, hissing noise supposed to be the pebbles shuffling on the bottom.
The days were insufferably hot and mosquito-curst; the nights chilly, damp and mosquito-haunted. I suffered agonies from neuralgia. Never mind, it would soon be over. We were on our last lap. The trail was near its end.
Yes, it was indeed the homestretch.
Suddenly sweeping round a bend we raised a shout of joy. There was that great livid scar on the moutain face — the “Slide,” and clustered below it like shells on the seashore, an army of tents. It was the gold-born city.
Trembling with eagerness we pulled ashore. Our troubles were over. At last we had gained our Eldorado, thank God, thank God!
A number of loafers were coming to meet ILS. They were strangely calm.
“How about the gold?” said the Prodigal; “lots of ground left to stake?”
One of them looked at us contemptuously. He chewed a moment ere he spoke.
“You Cheechakers better git right home. There ain’t a foot of ground to stake. Everything in sight was staked last Fall. The rest is all mud. There’s nothing doin’ an’ there’s ten men for every job! The whole thing’s a fake. You Cheechakers better git right home.”
Yes, after all our travail, all our torment, we had better go right home. Already many were preparing to do so. Yet what of that great oncoming horde of which we were but the vanguard? What of the eager army, the host of the Cheechakos? For hundreds of miles were lake and river white with their grotesque boats. Beyond them again were thousands and thousands of others struggling on through mosquito-curst morasses, bent under their inexorable burdens. Reckless, indomitable, hope-inspired, they climbed the passes and shot the rapids; they drowned in the rivers, they rotted in the swamps. Nothing could stay them. The golden magnet was drawing them on; the spell of the gold-lust was in their hearts.
And this was the end. For this they had mortgaged homes and broken hearts. For this they had faced danger and borne suffering: to be told to return.
The land was choosing its own. All along it had weeded out the weaklings. Now let the faint-hearted go back. This land was only for the Strong.
Yet it was sad, so much weariness, and at the end disenchantment and failure.
Verily the ways of the gold-trail were cruel.
End of Book II.
For once you’ve panned the speckled sand and seen the bonny dust,
Its peerless brightness blinds you like a spell ;
It’s little else you care about ; you go because you must,
And you feel that you could follow it to hell.
You’d follow it in hunger, and you’d follow it in cold ;
You’d follow it in solitude and pain ;
And when you’re stiff and battened down let some one whisper “Gold,”
You’re lief to rise and follow it again.
I will always remember my first day in the gold-camp. We were well in front of the Argonaut army, but already thousands were in advance of us. The flat at the^mouth of Bonanza was a congestion of cabins ; shacks and tents clustered the hillside, scattered on the heights and massed again on the slope sweeping down to the Klondike. An intense ! vitality charged the air. _ The camp was alive, ahum, vibrant with fierce, dynamic energy.
In effect the town was but one street stretching alongside the waterfront. It was amazingly packed with men from side to side, from end to end. They lounged in the doorways of oddly assorted buildings, and jostled each other on the dislocated sidewalks. Stores of all kinds, saloons, gambling joints flourished without uumber, and in one block alone there were half a dozen dance-halls. Yet all seemed plethorically prosperous.
Many of the business houses were installed in tents. That huge canvas erection was a mining exchange; that great log barn a dancé-hall. Dwarfish log cabins impudently nestled up to pretentions three-storev hotels. The effect was oddly staccato. All was grotesque, make-shift, haphazard. Back of the main street lay the red-light quarter, and behind it again a swamp of niggerheads. the breedingplace of fever and mosquito.
The crowd that vitalized the street was strikingly cosmopolitan. Mostly bi^ bearded fellows they were, with here thé full-blooded face of the saloon man, and here the quick, pallid mask of the gambler. Y omen, too, I saw in plenty, bold, free, predacious creatures, a rustle of silk
and a reek of perfume. Till midnight I wandered up and down the long street; but there was no darkness, no lull in its clamorous life.
I was looking for Berna. My heart hungered for her; my eyes ached for her; my mina was so fuli of her there seemed no room for another single thought. But it was like looking for a needle in a strawstack to find her in that seething multitude. I knew no one, and it seemed futile to inquire regarding her. These keeneyed men with eager talk of claims and pay-dirt could not help me. There seemed to be nothing for it but to wait. So with spirits steadily sinking zerowards I waited.
We found, indeed, that there was little ground left to stake. The mining laws were in some confusion, and were often changing. Several creeks were closed to location, but always new strikes were being made and stampedes started. So, after a session of debate, we decided to reserve our rights to stake till a good chance offered. It was a bitter awakening. Like all the rest we had expected to get ground that was gold from the grassroots down. But there was work to be had, and we would not let ourselves be disheartened.
The Jam-wagon had already deserted us. He was off up on Eldorado somewhere, shovelling dirt into a sluice box for ten dollars a day. I made up my mind I would follow him. Jim also would go to work, while the Prodigal, we agreed, would look after all our interests, and stake or buy a good claim.
Thus we planned, sitting in our little tent near the beach. We were in a congeries of tents. The beach was fast whitening with them. If one was in a hurry it was hard to avoid tripping over ropes and pegs. As each succeeding party arrived they had to go further afield to find camping-ground. And they were arriving in thousands daily. The shore for a mile was lined five deep with boats. Scows had been hauled high and dry on the gravel, and there the owners were living. A thousand stoves were eloquent of beans and bacon. I met a man taking home à prize, a porterhouse steak. He was carrying it over his arm like a towel, paper was so scarce. The camp was a hive of energy, a hum of occupation.
But how many, after they had parad-
ed that mile-long street with its mud, its seething foam of life, its blare of gramophones and its blaze of dance-halls, ached for their southland homes again? You could read the disappointment in their sun-tanned faces. Yet they were the .eager navigators of the lakes, the reckless amateurs of the rivers. This was a something different from the trail. It was as if, after all their efforts, they had butted up against a stone wall. There was “nothing doing,” no ground left, and only hard work, the hardest on earth.
. Moreover, the country was at the mercy of a gang of corrupt officials who were using the public offices for their own enrichment. Franchises were being given to the favorites of those in power, concessions sold, liquor permits granted, and abuses of every kind practised on the free miner. All was veniality, injustice and exaction.
“Go home,” said the Man in the Street; “the mining laws are rotten. All kinds of ground is tied up. Even if you get hold of something good, them dam-robber government sharks will flim-flam you out of it. There’s no square deal here. They tax you to mine; they tax you to cut a tree; they tax you to sell a fish; pretty soon they’ll be taxing you to breathe. Go home !”
And many went, many of the trail’s most indomitable. They could face hardship and danger, the blizzards, the rapids, nature savage and ravening; but when it came to craft, graft and the duplicity of their fellow men they were discouraged, discomfited.
“Say, boys, I guess I’ve done a slick piece of work,” said the Prodigal, with some satisfaction, as he entered the tent. “I’ve bought three whole outfits on the beach. Got them for twenty-five per cent, less than the cost price in Seattle. I’ll pull out a hundred per cent, on the deal. Now’s the time to get in and buy from the quitters. They so soured at the whole frame-up they’re ready to pull their freights at any moment. All they want’s to get away. They want to put a few thousand miles between them and this garbage dump of creation. They never want to hear the name of Yukon again except as a cuss-word. I’m going to keep on buying outfits. You boys see if I don’t clean up a bunch of money.”
“It’s too bad to take advantage of them,” I suggested.
“Too bad nothing! That’s business; your necessity, my opportunity. Oh, you’d never make a money-getter, my boy, this side of the millennium—and you Scotch, too.”
“That’s nothing,” said Jim; “wait till I tell you of the deal I made to-day. You recollect I packed a flat-iron among my stuff, and you boys joshed me about it, said I was bughouse. But I figured outthere’s camp-meetin’s and socials up there, an’ a nice, dinky, white shirt once in a way goes pretty good. Anyway, thinks I, if there ain’t no one else to dress for in that wilderness, I’ll dress for the Almighty. So I sticks to my flat-iron.”
He looked at us with a twinkle in his eye and then went on.
“'Well, it seems there’s only three more flat-irons in camp, an’ all the hot sports wantin’ boiled shirts done up, an’ all the painted jezebels hollerin’ to have their lingery fixed, an’ the wash-ladies just goin’ round crazy for flat-irons. Well, I didn’t want to sell mine, but the old colored lady that runs the Bong Tong Laundry (an’ a sister in the Lord) came to me with tears in her eyes, an’ at last I was prevailed on to separate from it.”
“How much, Jim?”
“Well, I didn’t want to be too hard on the old girl, so I let her down easy.”
“Well, you see, there’s only three or four of them flat-irons in camp, so I asked a hundred an’ fifty dollars, and quick’s a flash, she took me into a store an’ paid me in gold-dust.”
He flourished a little poke of dust in our laughing faces.
“That’s pretty good,” I said; “everything seems topsy-turvy up here. Why, to-day I saw a man come in with a box of apples which the crowd begged him to open. He was selling those apples at a dollar apiece, and the folks were just fighting to get them.”
It was so with everything. Extraordinary prices ruled. Eggs and candles had been sold for a dollar each, and potatoes for a dollar a pound; while on the trail in ’97 horse-shoe nails were selling at a dollar a nail.
Once more I roamed the long street
with that awful restless agony in my heart. Where was she, my girl, so precious now it seemed I had lost her? Why does love mean so much to some, so little to others? Perhaps I am the victim of an intensity of temperament, but I craved for her; I visioned evils befalling her; I pierced my heart with dagger-thrusts of fear for her. Oh, if I only knew she was safe and well! Every slim woman I saw in the distance looked to be her, and made my heart leap with emotion. Yet always I chewed on the rind of disappointment. There was never a sign of Berna.
In the agitation and unrest of my mind T climbed the hill that overshadows the gold-born city. The Dome they call it, and the face of it is vastly scarred, blanched as by a cosmic blow. There on its topmost height by a cairn of stone I stood at gaze, greatly awestruck.
The view was a spacious one, and of an overwhelming grandeur. Below me lav the mighty Yukon, here like a silken ribbon, there broadening out to a pool of quicksilver. It seemed motionless, dead, like a piece of tinfoil lying on a sable shroud.
The great valley was preternaturallv still, and pall-like as if steeped in the colors of the long, long night. The land so vast, so silent, so lifeless, was round in its contours, full of fat creases and bold curves. The mountains were like sleeping giants; here was the swell of a woman’s breast, there the sweep of a man’s thigh. And beyond that huddle of sprawling Titans, far, far, beyond, as if it were an enclosing stockade, was the jagged outline of the Rockies.
Quite suddenly they seemed to stand up against the blazing sky, monstrous, horrific, smiting the senses like a blow. Their primordial faces were hacked and hewed fantastically, and there they posed in their immemorial isolation, virgin neaks, inviolate vallevs, impregnably desolate and savagely sublime.
And bevond their stormy crests, surely a world was consuming in the kilm of chaos. Was ever anvthing .«0 insufferably bright as the incandescent glow that brimmed those jagged clefts? That fierce crimson, was it not the hue of a cooling crucible, that deep vermillion the rich'glorv of a rose s heart? Did not that tawny
orange mind you of ripe wheat-fields and the exquisite intrusion of poppies? That pure, clear gold, was it not a bank of primroses new washed in April rain? What was that luminous opal but a lagoon, a pearly lagoon with floating in it islands of amber, their beaches crisped with ruby foam? And over all the riot of color that shimmering Chrysoprase so tenderly luminous—might it not fitly veil the splendors of paradise?
I looked to where gulped the mouth of Bonanza, caverntmsly wide and filled with the purple smoke of many fires. There was the golden valley, silent for centuries, now strident with human cries, vehement with human strife. There was the timbered basin of the Klondike bleakly rising to mountains eloquent of death. It was dominating, appalling, this vastness without end, this unappeasable loneliness. Glad was I to turn again to where; like white pebbles on a beach, gleamed the tents of the gold-born city.
Somewhere amid that confusion of canvas, that muddle of cabins, was Berna, maybe lying in some wide-eyed vigil of fear, maybe staining with hopeless tears her restless pillow. Somewhere down there —Oh, I must find her!
I returned to the town. I was tramping its long street once more, that street with its hundreds of canvas signs. It was a city of signs. Every place of business seemed to have its fluttering 'banner, and beneath these banners moved the everrestless throng. There were men from the mines in their flannel shirts and corduroys, their Stetsons and high boots. There were men from the trail in sweaters and mackinaws, German socks and caps with ear-flaps. But all were bronzed and bearded, fleshless and clean-limbed. I marvelled at the seriousness of their face, till I remembered that here was no problem of a languorous sunland, but one of grim emergency. It was a man’s game up here in the North, a man’s game in a man’s land, where the sunlight of the long, long day is ever haunted by the shadow of the long, long night.
Oh, if I could only find her! The land was a great symphony ; she the haunting theme of it.
I bought a copy of the “Nugget” and went into the Sourdough Restaurant, to
read it. As I lingered there sipping my coffee and perusing the paper indifferently, a paragraph caught my eye and made my heart glow with sudden hope.
CHAPTER II Here was the item:
Jack Locasto loses $19,000.
“One of the largest gambling plays that ever occurred in Dawson came off last night in the Malamute Saloon. Jack Locasto, of Eldorado, well known as one of the Klondike’s wealthiest claim-owners, Claude Terry and Charlie Haw were the chief actors in the game which cost the first-named the sum of $19,000.
“Locasto came to Dawson from his claim yesterday. It is said that before leaving the Forks he lost a sum ranging in the neighborhood of $5,000. Last night he began playing in the Malamute with Haw and Terry in an effort, it is supposed, to recoup his losses at the Forks. The play continued nearly all night, and at the wind-up, Locasto, as stated above, was loser to the amount of $19,000. This is probably the largest individual loss ever sustained at one sitting in the history of Klondike poker playing.”
“Jack Locasto ! Why had 1 not thought of him before? Surely if any one knew of the girl’s whereabouts, it would be he. I determined I would ask him at once.
So I hastily finished my coffee and inquired of the waiter where I might find the Klondike King,
“Oh, Black Jack,” he said: “well, at
the Green Bay Tree, or the Tivoli, or the Monte Carlo. But there’s a big poker game on and he’s liable to be in it.” Once more I paraded the seething street. It was long after midnight, but the wondrous glow, still burning in the Northern sky, filled the land with strange enchantment. In spite of the hour the town seemed to be more alive than ever. Parties with pack-laden mules were starting off for the creeks, travelling at night to avoid the heat and mosquitoes. Men with lean brown faces trudged sturdily along carrying extraordinary loads on their stalwart shoulders. A stove, blankets, cooking utensils, axe and shovel usually formed but a part of their varied accoutrement.
Men of the Mounted Police were pa1 trolling the streets. In the drab confusion their scarlet tunics were a piercing note of
color. They walked very stiffly, with grim mouths and eyes sternly vigilant under the brims of their Stetsons. Women were everywhere, smoking cigarettes, laughing, chaffing, strolling in and out of the wide-open saloons. Their cheeks were rouged, their eye-lashes painted, their eyes bright with wine. They gazed at the men like sleek animals, with looks that were wanton and alluring. A libertine spirit was in the air, a madcap freedom, an effluence of disdainful sin.
I found myself by the stockade that surrounded the Police reservation. On every hand I saw traces of the river that had transformed the street into a navigable canal. Now in places there were mudholes in which horses would founder to their bellies. One of the Police constables, a tall, slim Englishman with a refined manner, proved to me a friend in need.
“Yes,” he said, in answer to my query, “I think I can find your man. He’s uptown somewhere with some of the big sporting guns. Come on, we’ll run him to earth.”
As we walked along we compared notes, and he talked of himself in a frank, friendly way.
“You’re not long out from the old country? Thought not. Left there about four years ago myself—I joined the Force in Regina. It’s altogether different down there though, patrol work, a free life on the open prairie. Here they keep one choring round barracks most of the time. I’ve been for six months now on the town station. I’m not sorry, though. It’s all devilish interesting. Wouldn’t have missed it for a farm. When I write the people at home about it they think I’m yarning —stringing them, as they say here. The governor’s a clergyman. Sent me to Harrow, and wanted to make a Bishop out of me. But I’m restless; never could study; don’t seem to fit in, don’t you know.”
I recognized his type, the clean, frank, breezy Englishman that has helped to make an Empire. He went on :
“Yes, how the old dad would stare if I could only have him in Dawson for a day. He’d never be able to get things just in focus any more. He would be knocked clean off his pivot on which he’s revolved these thirty years. Seems to me every one’s travelling on a pivot in the old country. It’s no use trying to hammer it
into their heads there are more points of view than one. If you don’t just see things as they see them, you’re troubled with astigmatism. Come, let’s go in here.”
He pushed his way through a crowded doorway and I followed. It was the ordinary type of combined saloon and gambling-joiiit. In one corner was a very ornate bar, and all around the capacious room were gambling devices of every kind. There were crap-tables, wheel of fortune, the Klondike game, Keno, stud poker, roulette and faro outfits. The place was chock-a-block with rough-looking men, either looking on or playing the games. The men who were running the tables wore shades of green over their eyes, and their strident cries of “Come on, boys” pierced the smoky air.
In a corner presiding over a stud-poker game, I was surprised to see our old friend Mosher. He was dealing with one hand, holding the pack delicately and sending the cards with a dexterous flip to each player. Miners were buying chips from a man at the bar, who with a pair of gold scales was weighing out dust in payment.
My companion pointed to an inner room with a closed door.
“The Klondike Kings are in there, hard at it. They’ve been playing now for twenty-four hours, and goodness knows when they’ll let up.”
At that moment a peremptory bell rang from the room and a waiter hurried up.
“There they are,” said my friend, as the door opened. “There’s Black Jack and Stillwater Willie and Claude Terry and Charlie Haw.”
Eagerly I looked in. The men were wearied, their faces haggard and ghastly pale. Quickly and coolly they fingered the cards, but in their hollow eyes burned the fever of the game, a game where golden eagles were the chips and thousand-dollar jack-pots were unremarkable. No doubt they had lost and won greatly, but they gave no sign. What did it matter? In the dumps waiting to be cleaned up were hundreds of thousands more; while in the ground were millions, millions.
All but Locasto were medium-sized men. Stillwater Willie was in evening-dress. He wore a red tie in which glittered a huge diamond pin, and yellow tan boots covered with mud.
“How did he get his name?” I asked. “Well, you see, they say he was the only one that funked the Whitehorse Rapids. He’s a high flier, all right.” ,
The other two were less striking. Haw was a sandy-haired man with shifty, uneasy eyes ; Terry of a bulldog type, stocky and powerful. But it was Locasto who gripped and riveted my attention.
He was a massive man, heavy of limb and brutal in strength. There was a great spread to his shoulders and a conscious power in his every movement. He had a square, heavy chin, a grim, sneering mouth, a falcon nose, black eyes that were as cold as the water in a deserted shaft. His hair was raven dark, and his skin betrayed the Mexican strain in his blood. Above the others he towered, strikingly masterful, and I felt somehow the power that emanated from the mgq, the brute force, the remorseless purpose;"Then the waiter returned with a tray of drinks and the door was closed.
“Well, you’ve seen him now,” said Chester of the Police. “Your only plan, if you want to speak to him, is to wait till the game breaks up. When poker interferes with your business, to the devil with your business. They won’t be interrupted. Well, old man, if you can’t be good, be careful; and if you want me any time, ring up the town station. Bye, bye.” ^
He sauntered off. For a time I streed from game to game, watching the exp||ssions on the faces of the players, and taking to take an interest in the play. Yet my mind was ever on the closed door and my ear strained to hear the click of chips. I heard the hoarse murmurs of their voices, an occasional oath or a yawn, of fatigue. How I wished they would come out. Women went to the door, peered in cautiously, and beat ahasty retreat to the tune of reverberated curses. The big guns were busy; even the ladies must await their pleasure.
(To be continued.)