Rex Beach goes back to his early love—Alaska. He tells how Flora wanted “cave stuff” and how Marcel, the amazing valet, delivered the goods.
HIS name was Marcel and he was a valet. He came to Nome as Colonel Waldo's “man.” That was the spring after Waldo put over his big Saw Tooth Hydraulic proposition in New York and was in sufficient funds to afford luxuries. As for Marcel, it was the first time he had ever stepped his number seven double A’s off hard pavements; it was his first acquaintance with what he called “the life of the raw.”
This was not a phrase of Marcel’s coining; he got it out of an Alaskan romance he read on the way north. He read several such stories and they caused his eyes to bulge, his heart to flutter. From them he discovered that it was a savage country into which he was going and he wondered if his nerves would endure the constant shooting. He did not like shooting; unexpected noises of any sort startled him and caused him to drop things.
As a matter of fact Marcel had come to Alaska by reason of a geographical misapprehension, for nothing on earth would have induced him to accept a position in the wilds of the uncharted North if he had known what he was doing. When Waldo had offered to engage him he had explained to the Frenchman that the job would entail a trip across the continent and a summer of roughing it, but Marcel had no idea where Alaska was located or what it was like. The names of these American provinces and departments were confusing; they were all barbaric and strange. He had tried to remember this one long enough to look it up in a borrowed encyclopedia and he believed that he had done so. What he read had reassured him:
Population 1900, 1,066,300. Principal cities, Omaha, Lincoln, South Omaha, et cetera. One certain paragraph he had not liked so well. It read thus:
Fauna. The large mammals are almost extinct. The bison does not occur wild. Elk deer and antelope are very rare, but in the western part of Nebraska there are many of the smaller animals such as wildcats, wolves, coyotes and foxes. Twenty-three species of reptiles are found, none poisonous except three species of rattlesnakes.
Marcel had turned from reading this with a shudder only to note something else which caused his eyes to brighten:
eyes Flora. The state is the meetingground for the floras of the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi valley. In all there are more than 2,700 species . . .
That was another matter! With his taste in clothes and over thirty neckties to chose from, Marcel had gaily promised himself that it would be a bad summer for those Rocky Mountain Floras. Enthusiastically he had pictured them: sturdy, fairskinned, broad-hipped, deep-bosomed Amazons. Twentyseven hundred varieties to choose from. Astonishing! But this America! So rich in beauty! “One peepin of a country.” There would be “somethings doing” when
Marcel Labaudie burst upon the delighted vision of those Nebraska ladies.
He took the position.
It was not until he and the Colonel had sailed from Seattle that Marcel discovered his error; then it was that he talked to his fellow travelers, consulted the ship!s library. Then it was that the hideous truth revealed itself. He could have shrieked.
But as he read about the “broad open spaces,” “the sturdy Vikings of the North,” “the fair daughters of the snows,” et cetera, a change came over him. He felt a subdued thrill, the first timid stirrings of an unfamiliar excitement. After all, this was a colossal adventure and every man, even a valet, should experience at least one adventure.
Adventure came promptly. It came to Marcel even before he set foot upon Alaska’s golden strand. The ship wallowed up to her anchorage abreast of Nome at the tail end of a sou’easter. A brisk breeze was still blowing and the distant beach was a milky line of surf. The landing of passengers appeared to be out of the question.
But Colonel Waldo was a restless man. Telegrams were awaiting him; work on the Saw Tooth ditch was under way. He had a talk with the captain and a lifeboat was put over.
Marcel watched the perilous procedure with detached, impersonal interest. The reckless courage of those seamen excited his admiration and caused him momentarily to forget his miserable mal de mer. The boat plunged and thrashed; at one moment it rose almost to the level of the sloping deck where Marcel weakly clung, at the next it fell away into a watery chasm of dizzying depth; it was in constant danger of being smashed against the dripping steel sides of the leviathan. Marcel closed his eyes; it nauseated him to watch it.
“Come along. Grab my dispatch case. We’ve got no time to lose.” It was the Colonel speaking.
Marcel followed his employer, clutched the door jamb of his stateroom for support and inquired:
“Pardon? You were spikking?”
“We’re going ashore in that lifeboat. Can’t wait. Our stuff’ll be off to-morrow.”
“Impossiblel” Marcel exclaimed faintly.
“Right! Impossible—to wait.” The Colonel was an active, ruddy man; he grinned as he inquired: “What’s the matter? Scared?”
“Of a certainty! And I am sissick!”
“All the more reason to get ashore. Hurry up.”
With fingers suddenly grown numb and nerveless Marcel buttoned his overcoat to the chin, set his derby hat more firmly upon his head and took up the dispatch case. He never argued with an employer. It was not done.
UE COULD never recall just how he got into that lifeboat, but for days later he had a horrid, nightmarish memory of clinging to a slippery ladder with nothing beneath him except the boisterous, bottomless sea. At one moment he was suspended at an enormous height above it and he swooned with terror, at the next that frightful ocean rushed upward to engulf him and he swung out, away from the ship, like a plumb-bob. Somewhere beneath him was the boat. He heard Colonel Waldo yell at him to jump; he closed his eyes, released all holds and kicked himself away from the ladder.
He landed with a crash. He was bruised and shaken; cold salt spray was blowing over him. But the dispatch case was still clutched in his hand.
The Nome life-saving crew were on the beach and quite a crowd from Front Street had assembled to see the lifeboat land through the surf. Marcel had assumed that all danger was past, that his great adventure had come, and had passed gloriously; but the thunder of those breakers, those excited onlookers, those men in shiny boots and oilskins rushing back and forth along the shore, caused his heart to stop beating. He could see nothing but destruction ahead. Alas, he had journeyed five thousand miles to die twice in one day! These mad Americans! Life for them was one attempt at suicide after another!
Marcel uttered a cry of fright, for the lifeboat’s rush through the surf was halted; it seemed to stop, to be sucked backwards into the maw of a devouring wave, then it was swamped, crushed beneath an avalanche of icy water. After that, chaos! Marcel felt himself drowning and the sensation was much worse than he had believed it. p’or one thing it was much colder. He had been flung out of the boat, into a welter of foam, a maelstrom of oars, of thrashing arms and kicking legs. And he could not swim. The sea picked him up, threw him down, swallowed him entirely, vomited him out. He strangled. He inhaled salt water and sand into his lungs.
He found himself being dragged up the beach finally; huge calloused hands were slapping him on the back, squeezing the brine out of him, kneading him, wringing him out like a wet sock. His fingers were still locked into the strap of Colonel Waldo’s dispatch case. The Colonel was in scarcely better plight than he; other people were working over him, shaking hands with him. Among the latter were several women. The Colonel was laughing loudly, boisterously. He was demented, no doubt. Marcel decided that this hideous escapade had unseated the poor man’s reason. No wonder. He felt certain that most of these strangers were maniacs.
An hour later—Marcel and his employer had found lodgings in a hotel and had thoroughly dried themselves
out—the Colonel eyed his valet shrewdly and said with a grin:
“That water was a trifle cold, wasn’t it?”
Marcel paled and shuddered. “At the least it was ten degrees beneath zero,” he declared.
“Kind of a rough landing for a tenderfoot, I’ll admit. But what do you think of the place, so far?”
With genuine admiration the Frenchman exclaimed: “I am amaze! Every place I look is women and children! To think all those pipple have sweemed in that cold ocean to arrive here. Thousan’s mus’ have perish! Mon dieu! The Floras of those Rocksy Mountains are nothing to the brave wives an’ mothers of Alaska.” That was typical of Marcel’s state of mind. Alaska, its climate, its scenery, its people, its customs, all were so foreign to anything he had experienced that nothing surprised him. Everything was phenomenal. He was a man from Mars and he moved upon a strange planet peopled with unique inhabitants. And he was likewise a phenomenon to them. He was the first valet Alaska had ever seen; each was a revelation to the other. To him the Alaskans were all that the books had described: a race of supermen; to them he was—well, they could not quite classify him. Cooks, longshoremen, roustabouts, bartenders, waiters, all were familiar types and the North accepted them on broad and tolerant terms of equality, for the mere nature of a person’s employment mattered little and no form of honest labor is degrading, but—a valet! The species was new and unfamiliar. Men studied Marcel with the same grave and earnest curiosity they would have examined an interesting beetle.
Atlin Joe Billings, head teamster for the Saw Tooth outfit, summarized pretty accurately the Nome idea of Marcel when he confessed to his fellow employees: “He’s a new bird to me an’ I thought I’d seen ’em all. I’ve seen cow-girls an’ male soprannets, female bank robbers an’ men dressmakers, but I never before seen a housemaid with hair on her chest. He’s a kind of he-hired-girl. Mind you, I don’t kick how a guy earns his pay check—I’ve stirred blankets in a bunkhouse an’ I've dove dishes in a quick-an’-dirty, myself —but there’s some jobs that ain’t of the masculine tense. Foldin’ underclothes an’ handin’ socks to a gentleman that’s strong enough to reach ’em himself is one. No, a bedroom ain’t no workshop for a man. But he ain’t a bad little Frog, at that, an’ I kinda like him.”
EVERYBODY liked Marcel, for he was eager to make friends and his mind was thirsty. He hung with inordinate interest upon every word that was said to him. These brawny, sun-browned men with their boots and their mackinaws, with their robust laughter and their scowling passions, were demi-gods to him; they were conquerors of a land so wild, so hostile that it filled him with awe and apprehension. When a demi-god is worshipped by a mere mortal he treats that mortal kindly.
Atlin Joe Billings was in Marcel’s eyes the ideal type of superman that he had read about. He fascinated the little Frenchman, awoke his deepest respect and his utmost envy. To be a man like that!
Atlin possessed a jocose spirit and finding that no statement was too exaggerated, no lie too outrageous for Marcel to swallow, he fed him upon both.
For example, Marcel suffered from a troublesome corn—he would wear shoes too small for him—and one day when Atlin inquired why he was limping he revealed the cause.
The teamster was instantly all sympathy, and naturally, since he himself had endured such agony from corns as to practically undermine his health. Would Marcel believe him when he said that he had counted at one time over eighty corns upon his poor screaming foot? Marcel would, he did believe anything Atlin told him. But Atlin had cured himself. How? Simply by chilling the corn microbes until they scattered, fled. He had walked from Circle City to Dawson barefooted over the ice and had never known a sick day since. The relief was unbelievable and now his feet were so hardy that he could tread on broken bottles or kick a hole through a board fence in his socks. What was more, he had cured thousands of corns for his friends, and he would cure Marcel.
The Saw Tooth outfit was in camp by this time and in a depression back of the cook-tent was a late snowdrift which the sun had not yet melted. Thither Atlin led Marcel. He took a candle box with him and this he arranged for his friend to sit upon. When the latter had removed shoes and stockings he was told to bury his feet in the wet snow and keep them buried as long as they felt comfortable. A few simple daily treatments like this and Marcel would be surprised.
Atlin offered to fetch him something to read, but when Marcel said that he did not believe he felt like reading the teamster brought some of the other boys and they all sat around and watched the cure. Marcel, by this time, was patting his naked soles upon the snow much as a pipe organist treads the foot keys of his
instrument, so the onlookers told jokes to divert his attention, and although he could not understand them they were very funny jokes, for the men laughed immoderately. They were genial, good-hearted fellows to take such an interest in him.
Marcel followed out this treatment religiously for several days, and, if anything, public interest in it increased. Then he developed chilblains. This caused quite an argument and Atlin finally acknowledged with reluctance that snow did not have the same curative effect upon corns as did ice. Ice, he stoutly maintained, was the death of them, due no doubt to the action of the ice worms.
Ice worms! Marcel had never heard of such a thing, but forthwith the teamster enlightened him. Marcel had surely noticed the thin, threadlike lines and microscopic perforations in certain chunks of ice? They were bored by ice worms. Nature had made the ice worm transparent, Atlin explained, in order to protect it from its enemies. They made nourishing soup, if properly prepared, and had much the flavor of snails. But it was all in the cooking. Atlin had learned the secret from the Indians and one winter when his bacon went bad he had lived exclusively on ice worms. One boiled the ice in which the worms were imbedded until they fell out, then strained off the liquid. But one couldn’t boil it too long or of course the ice would melt.
Many odd and valuable things like this the eager Frenchman learned from his friend. He learned, for instance, that the aurora borealis is visible only on Friday nights, and that the reason a sidehill gouger has two short legs on its left side and long legs on its right side is so that it can graze in comfort on steep mountain slopes. If Marcel should ever have the misfortune to meet one of these monsters he was warned never to try and escape by fleeing from left to right along the hillside. No, he must run right to left. Then, of course, the animal would be unable to pursue him. On level ground the gouger is likewise practically helpless, for its deformity compels it to run in circles.
He was informed, too, that Eskimo babies are reared on whale’s milk and that Uncle Sam supplies submarine milkers from the Mare Island Navy Yard to keep the little dears in food.
Much of Atlin’s humor was good natured, but not all of it. He was a hard teamster and sometimes he whipped his horses unnecessarily. Sometimes, also, he took a cruel delight in causing Marcel unnecessary humiliation and even pain. Marcel, having had no acquaintance with practical jokes, never for a moment blamed his big friend, but Colonel Waldo, who was wise in the ways of the North, warned Atlin privately, but with firmness, that the pranks would have to stop. As a result Marcel had a much pleasanter time of it— until the Dahlgren girl arrived.
OLD MAN DAHLGREN, her father, was the storekeeper and, being a thrifty soul, he got a job for his daughter waiting on table for the office force. Atlin brought her out from town and Marcel experienced an electric thrill at his first sight of her, for she was a sturdy, fair-skinned, broad-hipped, deep-bosomed Amazon. Her hair was like corn-silk, her eyes were as blue as the sea; she had a wide mouth and when she smiled two deep dimples magically appeared in her cheeks. She smiled too often, by the way; nevertheless it was a friendly smile and well calculated to work havoc in a construction camp. She turned it upon dapper little Marcel, even while Atlin, with jealous and exaggerated courtesy, was helping her down off the freight wagon, and Marcel was profoundly moved. His back stiffened, his chest swelled, he twirled into sharper points his tiny, pomaded mustache, and when she had disappeared into the store, he inquired breathlessly:
“M’sieu’ Atlin! Who is those beautiful lady?” “Mushoo Marcel!” the teamster mimicked. “She’s Dahlgren’s daughter, Flora.”
Flora! Her name was Flora! “Some bebe!” Ecstatically Marcel plucked a kiss from his lips and snapped
it after her. “I am ravish’ wit’ her! She is--”
“The hell you are!” Atlin scowled at the speaker. “Looka here, Mercy Beaukoo, her an’ me decided on the way out to ball up thicker’n a lot of angleworms—
that is, I decided--” Atlin’s face slowly cleared.
“You spoke it! I mean to say she is some baby! An’ she’s bound to take a great interest in you, Marcel. I bet she never seen a real, live, high-class val ay before. Her an’ you are goin’ to run together just like so much axle-grease an’ water.”
After the team had unloaded Marcel strolled into the store and there found Miss Dahlgren waiting for her father to finish checking off the newly arrived provisions. With a flourish he introduced himself to the new arrival and bade her welcome.
Miss Dahlgren flushed and dimpled. It was gratifying to be so cordially received by an important official of the company. Mr. Labaudie certainly dressed well, and had charming manners, but he was an awful cut-up. Fancy kissing a girl’s hand five minutes after meeting her! But foreigners were, like that; you never knew what they’d try next. He had nice eyes and she was glad he adored blondes—it would render her work that much easier. But such a way as he had with him! Not exactly fresh—no, he was too sincere for that. Personally Flora liked fiery people, so long as they were sincere, and it was a relief to meet a gentleman in a white shirt and a derby hat. after all these roustabouts. There was no doubt about Mr. Labaudie’s sincerity, for he kissed her hand a second time and pressed it. Of course he could call her Flora—everybody called her Flora. My, but he got on fast! You had to watch men with mustaches like his.
When Old Man Dahlgren had 'finished with his work and Marcel had bade her a graceful but passionate adieu until supper time, Flora asked her father just who it was that she had been talking with.
“Who? Him? That’s Marcel, Colonel Waldo’s ‘gentleman’s gentleman.’ ”
“What’s a ‘gentleman’s gentleman,’ pa?” the girl inquired.
“Why, it’s a val ay. He darns the boss’s socks and keeps his pants pressed and carries hot water for his bathtub—you know—kind of a buck chambermaid.”
“Well, I declare!” exclaimed Miss Dahlgren. After a moment she added, “He’s a nice little fellow, at that.”
Her father nodded. “Sure! We like him fine. That’s the funny part of it.”
Marcel returned to his living quarters, changed into his best suit and selected the most becoming of his thirty neckties. With a pair of sharp scissors he trimmed his mustache—a delicate operation—and clipped his eyebrows. Then he steamed his face with hot cloths and rubbed in a lilac-scented cream. When a man is in love, when he has met the adorable queen of all the Rocksy Mountain Floras, he owes it to her to make himself as attractive as possible. As a finishing touch to his toilet he doused himself with perfume. Too bad he was denied the privilege of sitting at the boss’s table and taking food from her white hands—the ditch men with whom he ate always commented in coarse language whenever he used scents—but to-night this perfume would be a tribute to her. Incense upon the altar of a goddess. And anyhow she would smell him later.
Unfortunately Miss Dahlgren did not have the pleasure of inhaling the permeating odor of musk which Marcel gave off, either at supper time or later. The men smelled it, to be sure, and one of them tore up a floor board declaring there must be a skunk’s nest under the mess tent, but when the dishes were washed the new queen enthroned herself upon the steps of the store with Atlin Joe Billings and several others at her feet and Marcel could not get within speaking distance of her.
Life in the Saw Tooth camp had been pleasant and harmonious up to the arrival of Flora Dahlgren, but she proved to be an apple of discord. Her ready smile induced several of the boys to make reckless advances to her, with the result that Atlin clouded up and poured all over them. He announced one day, as he bound up his bruised knuckles with wet chewing tobacco, that he was the only out-and-out ladies’ man on the company’s payroll and he proposed to maintain that distinction. There was nobody left who cared to argue the matter with him.
DESPITE Marcel’s open worship of the camp divinity, Atlin could not bring himself to be actually jealous of the little man, for he told himself that no full-blooded two-fisted dame like Flora would fall for a valet. Nevertheless, he did go so far as to warn the latter that he was particular what sort of people his girls associated with and that if he ever caught one talking to a Frenchman he, Atlin Joe Billings, would make that Frenchman hunt a gopher hole.
Marcel made inquiry and learned what a gopher hole is, then he laughed at Atlin’s absurd figure of speech. Why, for instance, should he waste time searching for a gopher’s residence? Surely not for a hiding-place in which to escape the teamster’s wrath, for a grown man could not possibly penetrate into the burrow of a groundsquirrel! No! The American language was beset with bewildering idioms.
Inasmuch as Atlin’s duties took him away from camp during the day, Marcel managed to see a good deal of Flora, but in spite of all he could do his courtship did not prosper.
It was through her that he became aware at last of the odium that attached to his occupation and of the unspoken prejudice against him. He was incredulous, rather than hurt.
“But why? The Colonel will tell you that of all the valets he has engage’ I render the mos’ perfect service. I am his jewel.”
Flora tried to explain just what she meant, but as a democratic Alaskan she found it difficult to define nice social distinctions, and the more she talked, the less certain she was that she made herself plain. “I can’t exactly put it in words, Marcel, except that being a valet somehow ain’t a man’s sized job. A valet is a—a servant and you know there ain’t any servants in this country.”
“Are not all these pipple servants of Colonel Waldo?” Marcel inquired.
“Huh! I should say not. I’m not a servant.” Miss Dahlgren turned up her nose. “And say! You better not let Atlin hear you call him a servant. Oh, boy!”
“But I am possess’ of such stupidy,” confessed the man. “You wait behind the table; you rastle those grub for the boss, as Atlin says, and shoot the biscuit! I feex him up his clothes. What difference, eh? All right! I mak’ the Colonel’s bed; Atlin mak’ bed for the Colonel’s hosses. I swip his tent; Atlin clean him up the stable. For that he is fine gentleman and I’m servant! What you goin’ say now?”
Continued on page 53
Continued from page 13
“I ain’t going to say anything. It’s kind of foolish when you think of it, but there’s lots of foolish things in this world and anyhow that’s the way we look at it. If you was a regular hired man and did a man’s work I’d—it would be different. But—why, for instance, a girl couldn’t marry a valet.”
“Certainly not. Not unless she was a servant-girl.”
It took quite a while for Marcel to grasp this peculiar attitude of mind and although he could see no reason for it he became thoroughly unhappy nevertheless. Flora, as nearly as he could understand her, admired only big, brave men; men who took orders for eight hours a day, but who acknowledged no master thereafter. None but the reckless, primitive, forceful type of man could win her, and Marcel acknowledged ruefully that those qualities did not fit him. It was just as the books had said: none but the cave-men returned with the bacon. He admired and envied the husky teamster too sincerely to experience jealousy; instead a somber, brooding hopelessness settled upon him and he began to avoid people.
One day he borrowed the Colonel’s twenty-two-calibre rifle and asked the latter to show him how to load and to fire it.
At first he could hit nothing, for he had never before aimed a rifle, but he practised assiduously and he learned to take careful, unhurried sight at his targets and to hold his weapon steady. When he finally killed a bird he became very proud. It was the first blood he had ever shed, except with a safety razor, and he told himself that he was becoming a genuine “out of the doors man,” after the American style.
Meanwhile, odd to relate, Atlin’s love affair had fallen out of joint. The blonde Flora no longer appeared to derive complete satisfaction from his exclusive society and his wit awoke no response from her beyond an occasional fretful complaint that he was about as funny as a child’s crutch.
Atlin pondered the significance of this change. There was a nigger in the woodpile somewhere—or a Frenchman. He could scarcely credit the latter suspicion, but all the same he commenced a systematic persecution of the valet. He did not show his dislike to the world; on the contrary, he openly voiced his friendship and Marcel believed him. But those were unhappy days for the little man. He was made ridiculous, made to suffer in every possible way. He endured it all with a patient smile, a look of pained bewilderment; it was the American way. Inwardly he bled.
Once he ev¿n allowed himself to be inveigled into a boxing exhibition with Atlin. He protested that he knew nothing about “the rules of the box,” as practised here; in the “gymnase” at home boxers used their feet instead of their hands. They kicked each other. This statement provoked a shout of laughter.
Atlin promised not to hurt his little friend and playmate and literally he kept his word. All he did was to toy with him, side-step his rushes, feint him into knots, rub the gloves in his face, flick his nose with them. It was a side-splitting performance, but when it was over and Marcel was alone he burst into tears of mortification. If only the rules of the American box permitted the kick of the feet! But no. He had made a fool of himself, as usual, and Flora had looked on.
He was not angry at Atlin, he merely despised Marcel Labaudie, the valet, the spineless, inept, incompetent servant. Oh, to be a cave-man!
ONE day word came to camp that over on Dog Salmon Creek a miner had been mauled by a huge brown bear and Colonel Waldo phoned into Nome inviting some of his friends to join him on a hunt. His invitation was eagerly accepted, for the great Alaskan brown bear, an overgrown cousin of the Rocky Mountain grizzly, is not common in the Nome section and is a trophy eagerly sought after. There were five of these guests, business men who welcomed this opportunity for a week’s recreation.
Colonel Waldo ordered an outfit put together from the commissary stores and directed Atlin to accompany the expedition as guide and packer, a commission that delighted the latter. To Marcel he confided:
“Say, Beaukoo, this dude wranglin’ is my dish. You savvy why they’re takin’ me along, don’t you?” Marcel did not savvy. “Why, to do their killin’ for ’em! There ain’t a man in the party could hit a mule in the rump with a spade.” “You are then such a skillful marksman? What?”
“Oh, I ain’t absolutely unerrin’!” Atlin modestly confessed. “Of course I ain’t never missed nothin’ I ever shot at yet, but you never know. If ever I do miss a bear I promise you one thing: I’ll ear him down an’ ride him into camp.” “You can perform those feat?” Marcel was indeed astonished.
“Sure! A bear is scared of his shadder. All you gotta do is be firm.”
“But—what the Colonel means when he say that feller is ‘maul’ by a bear? ‘Maul!’ She’s new word wit’ me.”
"That’s what I done to you when we was boxin’, Frenchy. Bears is natural boxers. They like to dance, too. You’ve heard of dancin’ bears? They got ’em in circuses. Why, I knew a feller up in Forty Mile one time that got tied in with an old she bear with cubs an’ she started to waltz with him. He like to starved to death before he got shet of her. They danced for more’n a week.”
“How extraordinary! Mon dieu! I would adore to be a members of this party,” Marcel breathed.
An hour later and he found that he was a member of the party, for at the last minute Waldo drafted him as cook.
That expedition into the hills was an experience for the valet. It was his first sight of the real wilderness. The trackless, open valleys broken by occasional thickets of willow and alder, the treeless mountains brilliant here with acres of wild flowers, scarred there by steep, naked slides where avalanches had hurled themselves headlong from the heights; the peaceful meadows, belly-deep to a horse in lush grasses; the brawling streams and
foaming cataracts; all were new and amazing to Marcel.
And the rough life of the camp: it was full of delights. That is, it would have been full of delights if he had been allowed time in which to enjoy them, but he was kept on the jump from dawn until dark. Colonel Waldo had provided the best for his guests and they proceeded to enjoy it all to the full. It was “Marcel, do this,” “Marcel, do that,” “Where’s that leaping frog, Marcel?” “Marcel, fetch a bucket of water,” “Hurry up with those dishes, Marcel, and make my bed,” “Marcel, dry out my boots.”
Nobody turned a hand to help with the work, for what is a valet for? Certainly valets have no feelings and require no sleep. The little man worked until he was ready to drop. It was torture for him to ride a horse, but that was about the onl> rest he got. Once he fell asleep and tumbled out of his saddle, which deeply embarrassed him. He uttered no complaint, however; this was that free and invigorating “life of the raw” about which he had heard so much. He knew now why they called it “raw.” Bear tracks were plentiful on Dog Salmon Creek and permanent camp was pitched there. But the hunters had little success. They rode out morning and afternoon, but were always back in time for their meals. Even Atlin Joe had tobe waited upon.
It was decided one morning to split up the party and go in opposite directions and Atlin suggested that Marcel go along with him and his two companions to hold their horses in case they saw game. This the Colonel agreed to.
“He can take my extra gun——” “Hey, there!” one of the sportsmen protested. “I don’t want to be shot in the back by a chattering Frenchman.”
“Oh, Marcel can use a rifle! I taught him to shoot my twenty-two. I’d laugh if he got a crack at a bear and you fellows didn’t. Marcel, if you get a shot, take it. Take your time and drop your bear if you can.”
“Oui, Monsieur!” The speaker smiled deprecatingly. “But I am no huntsman.” Privately, he decided that nothing whatever would induce him to fire at a bear and risk arousing in it a desire to dance with him.
IT WAS not yet noon when Atlin halted his party and, with a whistle of astonishment, pointed down at an indentation in the wet moss.
“Yonder’s what I mean to call a bear track!” The hunters stared and nodded. “He ain’t far ahead of us and he’ll be layin’ down when it gets hot. We don’t want to jump him.”
“I never seen these grizzlebear,” Marcel ventured. “What she’s look like?” Atlin winked at his companions. “ ’Bout the size of a dog, only greenish. You’ll know one if you see him.”
“And meanwhile don’t load that gun of yours,” one of the others said nervously. “You might tremble it off.”
The party rode on for an hour or more. It was stupid sport. Marcel decided. They stopped after a while and told him to hold the horses while they went on afoot, and he was only too glad to get out of the saddle. He wajted interminably; it was early afternoon when Atlin returned, with the announcement: “Well, we got him.”
“No! I don’t hear no shootin’. You took him by the ear, eh?”
“We ain’t killed him yet, but we got him all surrounded up. He’s hidin’! Come on; we got a job for you.”
Marcel followed his long-legged friend for perhaps half a mile until they came to a steep, bare hillside overlooking a tangle of alders in the valley below. Then Atlin explained;
“He’s in them bushes, but it’s too thick to see to shoot. Mr. Thompson’s over there on the other side an’ Hillker’s down by them big boulders. We got the place ringed around, so all you gotta do is go in there quiet an’ scare him out. We’ll get him, sure; he ain’t got a chance.” “You jokin’ wit’ me?” Marcel inquired suspiciously.
“Who? Me? He’s in there, honest! Them alders is all loused up with tracks.” “I don’t know--! Those grizzlebear is wild animal--!” The speaker was uneasy.
Sure! They're awful wild. The minute he hears you he'll come chargin' out, hell bent. You ain't-scared, are you? You ain't scared of a little ol' bear? Well, 1 swan!" "I go!" said Marcel. Of course Atlin knew everything was all right; just the same Marcel confessed to himself that this undertaking was not altogether to his liking. When he drew near the thicket he loaded the Colonel's rifle. The shells were amazingly large; they would undoubtedly make a deafen ing roar if they were fired and the weapon itself was as heavy as a cannon. He wondered if it would not be a good idea to fire the gun now. But no, Atliri had instructed him to go quietly. No doubt the bear suspected that enemies were about and any loud noise would merely cause it to hide itself so thoroughly that no amount of searching would discover t and thus defeat the object of the entire expedition. One had to use the guile of an aborigine in this hunting sport. On hands and knees he crept into the covert. The alders, flattened by the weight of heavy winter snows, made going difficult, for they grew along the ground, their trunks were, twisted and their branches were interlaced. Marcel pa~ tiently crawled through, between, over and under them. In spite of himself he felt his heart beating rapidly. Alas, there was no stuff in him; his was the soul of a valet and it quaked at imaginary perils! He paused after he had gone perhaps fifty yards and listened. A queer sound came to his ears, a subdued growling and snarling, the rustle of a bod3l moving among the leaves and twigs. So, he had alarmed the bear and it wgs in precipitate flight. But no! The disturbance con tinued in the same place; he saw a stir, an oscillation of the branches ahead of him, then he realized that there was neither fright nor menace in those inutterings. Rather they suggested playfulness. His face lighted. Voila! Baby bears! Baby bears at play! What luck. With redoubled caution he pushed farther ahead until the sounds were close at hand. Marcel parted the leaves and craned his neck; what he saw alarmed yet fascinated him. He was looking into a glade, an open space a few yards in diameter, and in it three animals were disporting themselves. But such animals! They were fat and shapeless and clothed in rippling brown fur of amazing richness. That which held the observer spellbound was their size. Manifestly, they were not grizzlebears for they were five times as large as any dog. Neither were they sidehill gougers for Marcel remembered that gougers have long tails with red and yellow rings. These creatures had no tails at all, or practically none. Whatever they might be, they were in a pleasant mood and totally unaware of his presence. They rolled over each other, they wrestled gravely, they sat up in a ludicrous manner and pawed and struck at each other for all the world as if they were boxing after the absurd American fashion. Marcel decided they must indeed be bears, but what to do next he did not know. After a while he turned around and cautiously crept back out of the thicket. En route he did some thinking; for the first time he began to doubt the entire sincerity of Atlin's friendship.
T HE teamster was poised expectantly upon the hillside, his gun in readiness; he was surprised when Marcel emerged from the alders and stood up. The latter gesticulated excitedly, pointed back at the thicket and in vigorous pantomime tried to convey the intelligence that he had encountered an extraordinary adven ture and wished further advice. Atlin approached down the slope, walking carefully and with lowered eyes as if looking for something. Marcel danced, he grimaced elaborately in an effort to convey by silent speech the fact that in yonder he had discovered not one but three bears-or what he believed to be bears-but Atlin was not skilled in lip reading. He proved, however, that he was proficient in another accomplishment. He found what he was lOoking for; he stooped, picked up a rock and threw it at the man below with surprising accuracy and amazing violence. Marcel dodged. He could scarcely believe his senses. The teamster armed himself with a
second missile and stood poised, frowning: with a gesture impossible to misinterpret he motioned to his friend to crawl back into the brush or take the consequences.
Of a sudden Marcel became very angry. Was he indeed a servant, subject even to the commands of Colonel Waldo’s mule-skinner? Or was he a man? He remembered what the Colonel had said that morning and he was seized with a grim, a malicious determination. He would go back in yonder, but he would not frighten those bears out for the amusement of Atlin and his friends; he would shoot one himself. He would shoot two, all three of them, if they did not secrete themselves without delay. He would show no mercy. He re-entered the copse and Atlin scrambled back to his post.
The little man followed the marks of his going and his coming until again he heard the bears snarling and gamboling, but it was difficult to obtain a position from which to fire with accuracy because the leaves were thick and the branches clutched at his gun-barrel like so many fingers.
Through the canopy of twigs over his head he could make out Atlin on the slope above and his attention was arrested by the latter’s extraordinary actions. He was lifting, straining at a huge slab of rock and even as Marcel watched him he managed to dislodge it. With a shove the teamster sent it rolling down the hillside. It came in leaps and bounds, gaining momentum rapidly; onward it rushed until with a crash it flung itself into the thicket.
Then occurred an amazing phenomenon, something which froze the valet’s blood in his veins. Close at hand and where he least expected it he heard a roar, a deep, rumbling rush of breath and sound impossible to describe, and simultaneously the underbrush oscillated to the movements of a gigantic body; it parted and there before his bulging eyes an apparition upraised itself more dreadful than anything he had ever dreamed about. It was a bear, but a bear cast in an enormous mold. It was infinitely larger than those other bears. It was mountainous.
No doubt its astonishment at seeing Marcel equalled his at seeing it, but the bear recovered more quickly. The fur along its back rose, its muzzle wrinkled, curled back into a terrifying snarl, its little red, piggy eyes gleamed wickedly. With surprising ease, considering its stupendous bulk, it reared itself upon its hind legs and came striding, wallowing through the brush towards the Frenchman. Alder trunks as thick as a man’s leg parted before it like so many grass stalks.
Marcel was aware of but one emotion —a soul-stirring amazement at the size of the monster aad its apparent lack of fear. It was not in the least running away. Then he realized the truth; it intended to dance with him!
These thoughts must have flashed through his mind like lighting, for the bear was not forty feet away from him when he first saw it. He must have acted with almost the same celerity. He cocked his rifle and raised it. Colonel Waldo had warned him to take time! He aimed as deliberately as he was accustomed to aim at the bright, beadlike eye of a ptarmigan, then he pulled the trigger.
Sacre! What an explosion! The recoil of the rifle knocked Marcel off balance and he found himself sitting in the mud. Quickly he scrambled to his feet and ejected the spent shell.
The bear was no longer striding towards him, its towering head level with the alder tops. It had lain down. It was quaking, twitching with terror at the sound of that firearm. No wonder! Marcel started, for another bear, a second bear—evidently one of the playful trio—crashed into view, paused beside the one that had lain down and smelled of it. This was a small bear, but it was large enough. It espied Marcel as he lifted his gun-barrel and slowly took aim and it emitted a loud snort. Even as the man pulled the trigger he sensed rather than actually saw its two playmates moving through the leafy background.
The second shot set the marksman back in the mud again, but he recovered himself as quickly as possible. Alas, These bears were impossible to hit. The brush bending and threshing as an avalanche of brown rushed through it —two avalanches! He fired at the nearest without further effect than to evoke a hoarse growl, then he turned and fired at a brown rump as it disappeared.
By now it seemed to him that the thicket was alive with lunging monsters, that he could hear them crashing, smashing through the undergrowth on every side. Then he was startled nearly out of his skin by a fusillade of shots from the mountain above, followed by wild yells from Atlin.
Marcel would have turned and bolted, but it was impossible to run through the thicket, and besides he was too terrified to move. He could plainly see the first bear he had shot at crouching in the brush ready and waiting for him to turn his back. Its eyes were fixed upon his in an unblinking stare. The hair upon his head stirred, he could feel it rise. He forgot the gun in his hand. Coldly the monster glared at him through the alder trunks. Marcel grew faint.
BYE and bye his gaze, hypnotically fixed upon the menace, wavered, was drawn to something beyond. He changed his position, stretched his neck; he could not believe his eyes. Yonder were two bears! Lying side by side! They were dead! They must be dead. Miracle of miracles, he had killed two grizzle-bears: he, Marcel Labaudie, the valet! He was sure they were dead, for when he spoke to them they did not answer; nevertheless he was not sufficiently sure they were dead to approach them. He was unfamiliar with the habits of wild animals, perhaps they were merely “playing raccoon” as the local saying went.
His attention after a while was attracted to another quarter and he investigated cautiously, timidly. What he discovered convinced him that he was indeed quite out of his mind, for he beheld still a third bear lying upon its side and breathing its last. By this time nothing had the power to deepen his astonishment.
He heard loud halloas finally, heard his name shouted and he answered. There was great relief in the tones of the Nome sportsmen when he made them understand that all was well with him but that he needed assistance.
After a while they and Atlin came to him, crawling, fighting their way through the brush; breathlessly they asked what had happened.
“Did you see him, Marcel?”
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Oh, yes, I seen him!” Marcel told them quietly. “I show him to you—all free of him.” He pointed, and his companions stared; they swore weakly, eloquently. Cautiously _ they pushed forward and examined first one, then another of the fallen giants. They were speechless, incoherent. Three huge Alaska browns; an old she bear that would stretch eleven feet as she lay, and a pair of two-year old cubs weighing six hundred pounds apiece! Shot by a French valet, in an alder thicket! There was no language suitable for the occasion nor for the emotions the hunters experienced at thought of their own parts in the exploit.
They told Marcel after a while that immediately following his shot's a be?.r had bolted out of the thicket and had nearly run over Atlin. Atlin had fired five times at it, but it had escaped. They had supposed, of course, that it was the aimai which Marcel had started.
“I hit him, all right,” Atlin asserted. “He was limpin’ some when I let up.” These were practically the first words the big teamster had uttered.
It was Hillker who said: “Atlin, you’re a dam’ liar! I saw him when he broke cover and he was limping then. You emptied your gun and never touched him.’ Marcel stared at Atlin Joe silently for a moment or two and in his eyes was much the same expression that still lurked in the glazing eyes of that mother bear. To him had come a new understanding of Alaskan men, at least men of this type, and he tried to put it into words.
“I got somepin to tell you fellers. This long time Marcel Labaudie is funny joke for you. He’s valet. He’s servant man. You mak’ him wait on you, cook your grub, wash your dish. You call him ‘Frog.’ You brave huntsmen—oh, yes!— but you awful ’fraid of grizzlebear, so you pick nice place for runnin’ away, then you send for Marcel and say, ‘Marcel, go chase him out! He’s little feller, no bigger as dog!’ You lie to Marcel. Then you t’row rock on him.” The speaker had grown very white, his eyes were blazing. “Now Marcel goin’ tell you what he t’ink ’bout
you. He t’ink you Free gret big lazy, lousy bums! He don’t do nothin’ more for you.”
With these words the speaker turned, made his way out of the alders and, without a look behind him, trudged back to his horse, mounted it and rode off.
THERE was genuine excitement at the Saw Tooth camp. The hunters had returned bringing with them three magnificent pelts and the amazing story of Marcel Labaudie’s feat, but Marcel himself was not one of the party and nobody knew what had become of him. He had turned his back upon his companions and ridden away; the wilderness had swallowed him up.
Colonel Waldo had listened with an ominous lack of comment to the story told him when Atlin and his two sportsmen came in and he had ordered camp broken the next morning. He could well understand Marcel’s anger—his was no less—and he had supposed, of course, that he would find the latter at headquarters when he arrived there. He was concerned to learn upon reaching home that nothing had been seen of him. When the second night passed without word of the missing man, he took steps to send out searching parties.
Now nothing very serious had happened to Marcel. He had ridden away from his companions boiling with resentment—resentment so all-inclusive that it took in even Colonel Waldo—and he had struck back in the direction of the main outfit, but it was late when he started and he spent that night in the open, without a fire. He was cold and miserable and in constant terror of being devoured by gougers. It was a horrid experience. All the next day he drifted about aimlessly, with nothing to eat except blueberries, and not until the late Arctic twilight was darkening into night did he see the first sign of a human habitation. Then he stumbled upon a prospector’s camp.
He spent the night there. He ate much, slept much, learned much. He and the prospector talked about bears, and sidehill gougers, and ice worms, and submarine milkers and men like Atlin Joe Billings. His new-found friend had no sense of humor; he saw nothing funny, for instance, about rolling a boulder into a bear’s nest. He told the wanderer a good many things of which the latter was ignorant and when Marcel left he was athirst for vengeance. His very soul was outraged and he was all the angrier because of his present plight. It was a fine Gallic gesture to denounce those men who had imposed upon him and then to stride away in dignity. But he had ruined it all by getting lost. Marcel could have wept scalding tears at thought of this, for again he had made himself a “laughter stock.” It was not the old Marcel Labaudie who rode into_ the Saw Tooth camp that afternoon. His neat blue serge suit was torn and muddy, his little derby hat was dented and out of shape, his linen was a disgrace. He was grimy, sweatstained ; his face was overgrown with a blue stubble of beard and around his mouth was the deep discoloration that only huckleberry juice can impart. But his black eyes shone like jet buttons and his mustache was still twisted into the likeness of two tiny rapier points.
There was a great to-do when he was recognized. Men came running; they shoutèd greetings to him, shook his hand, clapped him on the back. They all talked at once so that he could understand little of what they said, but instead of the ridicule he had anticipated they actually appeared overjoyed to see him. Nowhere among them did he descry Atlin and he inquired as to the teamster’s whereabouts.
Atlin, he gathered, had that day been fired and he was at this moment getting his things together. _ Marcel pushed through the crowd and like a bee returning to its hive he made for the bunk tent. He did not walk, he trotted. The men swarmed after him.
Flora Dahlgren had wept all that day, but she heatd the commotion and raised an eager, tear-stained face from her pillow. Hastily she dried her eyes and, still sobbing, ran out of her father’s tent. She caught a glimpse of Marcel as he entered the door of the big bunk tent, much as a wren darts into the knot-hole guarding its nest, and she sped thither.
AN ALTERCATION was under way when she arrived and she paled, clutched at her bosom, for she heard the shrill, vibrating tones of Marcel’s voice
and the angry bass of Atlin Joe’s. They were quarreling. Atlin, the brute, would kill him! Flora moaned in terror. Better that poor, heroic Marcel had fallen a prey to those bears or had perished wretchedly of exposure than that he should excite the teamster’s devastating anger in this manner.
Marcel was hopping in rage; words tumbled from his lips—words like “false friend,” “pig,” “assassin.” French words, too, of obscure meaning but with a dreadful, wrath-provoking sound.
“You got eighty corn on your foots and you froze ’em off, eh? Dog! Eskimo babies got whale for mother! Oh-h—-you devil-devil! Those grizzlebear is scare of his shadow. He’s dance for week wit’ frien’ of yours. Liar! You push off the mountain those rock to destroy poor Marcel. Traitor! Miserable Judas!” “Who’s a Jew?” Atlin cried resentfully. “Beat it, Frog! I lost myself a good job over you an’—shut up! D’you hear?” He rose, scowling, but the other continued to upbraid, to accuse:
“You boil ice worm till he fall out. Ho, ho! You mak’ lesson on the American box. You’re fightin’ man. You chase pipple in gopher house. Dirty swine! Vermin! Cheese bug!”
Atlin appealed to the other employees: “Get him out if you want to save him. Damn, if I’ll stand bullyraggin’ from no
He was interrupted by a loud, stinging slap on the cheek from Marcel’s hand and he uttered a bellow. He made ponderously for the gadfly.
Flora Dahlgren screamed and tried to fight her way into the tent, but she was held back. She did manage, however, to obtain a position from which she could see what transpired next. Her amazement was no greater than that of the other onlookers when she beheld Atlin, livid with rage, swing at the dancing Frenchman, and saw the latter dodge, then with an extraordinary display of agility lift his foot and kick his assailant! In the chest! Marcel turned his body, bent forward swiftly and at the same instant lashed out with his leg. It was a maneuver as unexpected by Atlin as by the others. The teamster uttered a loud grunt and reeled backward.
He recovered himself, but not with sufficient quickness. Marcel with the grace of a dancing master and the swiftness of an acrobat followed, bent himself double for a second time and, to all appearances, disjointed himself at the pelvis. Again he hurled his foot at the antagonist with the force of a flail. This time he kicked Atlin under the right arm and a hollow sound issued from the latter’s lungs. Next Marcel shifted to his other
foot and kicked Atlin in the left armpit.
The larger man was dazed, enraged at this indignity, but there was no breath left in him with which to voice his opinion of this outrageous and unfair method of assault and battery. He rocked upon bis feet; he lunged about; he swung heavily and tried to grapple with his adversary, and meanwhile Marcel kicked him first one side then on the other; on the ribs, on the head, in the stomach. He dropped the big fellow finally. Atlin fell with a crash and crawled under his bunk. He was in great pain and bewilderment; the universe was spinning dizzily about hihead.
Marcel stooped and peered under the bunk at his victim. He was breathing heavily from his exertions as he exclaimed :
“Ho! Me, I chase pipple in gopher house, too. I don’ savvy the American box no more as you savvy la savate. That’s French ways of boxin’. How you like ’em? I kick hole in board fence wit’ my sock feet, jus’ like you. You’re cave-man. eh? Me, too—only I don’ know it biffore.” He straightened himself, filled his chest and glared belligerently about at his spellbound audience. “Well, anybody goin’ mak’ fun on Marcel?” He scowled terribly and tugged at his mustache. “Eh bien! Get out the way. Mak’ passage for Marcel Labaudie.”
Flora was no longer in the crowd. She had fled back to her tent and was trembling there in mingled expectancy and dread. It was perhaps twenty minutes before she heard quick, purposeful footsteps approaching and recognized them as Marcel’s. He did not knock or ask if he might enter; he flung the door wide and strode through it.
Fiercely he stared at the cowering beauty, then he announced harshly: “I have lick this so big Atlin. I have kick him off his dam’ block. Then I have gone to Colonel Waldo an’ t’row up my job. I am valet no longer. No. I am workin’ in the store wit’ your papa. M’sieu’ le Colonel has apologize for the insult I have endure at the fingers of his frien’s. My honor is satisfy. But you! You!” The burning intensity of the speaker’s gaze became almost intolerable. “Well? You goin’ be nice, or mus’ I pull off your hair?”
“Marcel!” quavered the girl. Tears came into her blue eyes, she wrung her strong, capable hands. “I never liked Atlin. Honest, I never——■”
“Humph! We see ’bout that. ‘The puddin’ is proof against eatin’.’ Now mebbe you give me nice kiss.” With these words the speaker seized Miss Dahlgren savagely.
“Marcel!” she cried again. “You— you’re hurting me!” There was a moment of silence, then, “You great, big, splendid —brute!”