So I Have Mild Face!
The author of "Trail of '98" and "Songs of a Sourdough" looks backward along the trail of a rolling stone
ROBERT W. SERVICE
HIS FACE,” a Canadian newspaper reporter wrote recently, “is mild to the point of disbelief.” The reporter was writing about me. I don’t know exactly what he thought I ought to look like, but I rather suspect he’d hoped for at least one small heel mark somewhere on my benign features—a memento of a Yukon saloon brawl perhaps.
However, the reporter is right. My face is much too mild for one who has been a hobo, “sourdough poet,” war correspondent and soldier. Perhaps if he’d thought of me as a bank clerk, elocutionist, amateur musician and health addict, he’d not have been so disappointed. But my reputation as the perpetrator of that rip-roaring ballad, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” dies hard. It should never have been written by a face like mine. I sometimes wonder if it should ever have been written at all. It’s only when I think of my royalty cheques that I’m consctied.
If, around the turn of the century, I’d confessed to being essentially a “timid soul,” my publishers would have thrown up their hands in horror. Jack London had captured the public’s imagination with his tough, realistic romances; and adventure writers of the period were expected to be at least twice as hard-boiled as the men they wrote about. This was a lot to ask of a versifying bank clerk.
It was not that I didn’t want to be an adventurer. Like most boys, I wanted to do things out of the ordinary, and wasted my full share of years in pursuit of romance. I tried really hard to make the grade. But because I doubtless realized it was all “vanity and vexation of spirit,” I didn’t have much success. You see in me that most frustrated of creatures—a youth who failed to become a cowboy.
Bravest thing I ever did was quit a job. About fifty years ago I was leaning on the counter of a bank in Glasgow, Scotland. I worked there. The manager was the type of Scotsman who thought so highly of banking that I’d rather have asked for a raise than tell him I wanted to leave. It took a lot of nerve to enter his office and warn him he must look elsewhere for a junior clerk.
All he said was: “What do you expect to do, Service?” And before I realized the folly of telling him the truth, I blurted out my absurd ambition.
“Go to Canada and be a cowboy, sir,” I replied.
“Go with you if I were your age,” he said.
So I sailed for Canada steerage; loafed my way across the country, and wound up in Victoria with $5 in my pocket. Only the Pacific Ocean prevented me from going farther west.
GETTING work on a ranch was easy. In no time at all I was riding herd on a turnip field My job was to pick up rocks and deposit them in neat mounds. If I’d stayed at it long enough I might have been permitted to punch a few cattle. This consisted of driving them to pasture in the morning and bringing them in at night. Vancouver Island, I soon discovered, was on the wrong side of the Rockies for a would-be rider of the range.
Two years later I decided I’d picked up my last stone. There was very little future in it, and the financial return was small. I decided to invade the United States.
May I say here and now that my career is no model for struggling youth. I’ve always disliked hard work, and,,in those days, tried to get along by doing as little of it as possible. Rambling around California I got jobs on the streets, the railways, once in a water tunnel, occasionally in orange groves. When the first pay day came around, I invariably resigned. Then I lived in idleness as long as my money lasted. I soon discovered those places where one could get a room for a quarter and a meal for a dime.
Whenever a job failed to turn up, I panhandled from door to door. Back in Scotland I used to do a good deal of amateur acting. The training stood me in good stead. Few could resist the restrained performance I put on. I was not, of course, a very good citizen. But during my youth I seemed utterly cut off from the world and reality. I liked to be alone, drifting from place to place. These were not particularly happy years, although my health was never better.
My conscience must have caught up with me around this period. I decided to become a doctor. Back in Vancouver with a few dollars saved up during a spell of storekeeping, I worked night and day for months to pass the entrance examinations. I got through by the skin of my teeth. Then my money ran out, and I gave up.
I was living on the proceeds of a pawned watch when my big chance in life arrived. A friend introduced me to a bank inspector. In no time at all I was safe and secure behind the very sort of counter I’d quit so gallantly in Scotland. Imagine the disillusionment of my old manager in Glasgow had he known. He’d wanted to be a cowboy too !
This should have seen the end of my adventures. I was well into my twenties. I’d had my share of hunger and hardship. I’d pursued adventure and found it foolish and a waste of time. With the promise—to myself—that never again would I take great risks wherein my bed and board were concerned, I settled down to earn my $50 a month counting the cash and coin of hardier souls.
All would have been well but for an unfortunate hobby. I liked to recite. Yes, I was one of the most necessary adornments of the genteel society of the day—an elocutionist. Worse than that, I had, in the past, contributed verse to the Glasgow weekly papers. Need I say more? And yet, safe and respectable as these accomplishments may sound, they were to precipitate me into a life of adventure such as I would not have wished upon Tarzan himself.
The Birth of Sam McGee
ASERIES of transfers found me in Whitehorse, the Yukon town south of Dawson on the Trail of ’98. With a gold rush in full swing one might have thought an ex-adventurer like myself would have caught the fever. But I was playing safe with life. I was so fed up with the open road that a career of banking, writing and reciting seemed good enough for me.
One night I heard a sourdough tell of the cremating of Sam McGee. I wrote a ballad about it. I even went so far as to recite the ballad. Rather curiously, my audience liked it; said my verse reminded them of Rudyard Kipling. They weren’t wrong. I was frankly an admirer of Kipling, although the only thing we’ve had in common is that no other modem “poets” ever made quite so much money— unless it’s been Edgar Guest.
In due course I wrote “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Parson’s Son,” “The Law of the Yukon,” and a bunch of others. What’s more, I recited them. They were gathering dust in my drawer in the bank when someone—I think it was the manager’s wife—suggested I have them published.
Naturally I looked about for an angel. One gentleman in Whitehorse seemed a likely patron. He had money.
“Would you,” I asked him, “like to invest in a book?”
He looked interested, and said: “A
I said: “No. Verse.”
He said: “No money in verse.” The deal was off.
At this time, however, the bank came through with a $100 bonus for Christmas. I decided publication would be my final folly. A book of verse would be the tombstone of all my literary illusions. I sent my stuif off to the publishers—along with my $100—and asked them to do me as good a book as they could. They didn’t do badly.
I’ve often thought my first book would have remained nothing more than a personal handout “from the poet”—a sort of elaborate Christmas card—if my publishers had not employed an enthusiastic elocutionist as a salesman. My ballads were the answer to an elocutionist’s prayer. The salesman travelled from customer to customer, and to each recited “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—with gestures. Other chronic reciters heard him. Doubtless their eyes gleamed as they took up the chant. Their lust to recite something “meaty”—with gestures—proved a gold mine to me. First and last “Songs of a Sourdough” sold around a million copies. I made a fortune.
You can imagine how embarrassing all this would be for a humble bank clerk. Cheques seemed to pop out of nowhere. As they came in, I deposited them to my account and went on working. It seemed like a pipe dream. One day the manager came over to my desk and said: “All this money you’re getting, Service — just verse?” I said I guessed so. We were both bankers; both equally bewildered. “It’s a strange world,” he said. I agreed with him.
After office hours I settled down and wrote another book. My publishers refused some of the stuff; said it was too strong. I had to tone down quite a few ballads, but this book sold a lot of copies too. Within a year I’d made so much money that it seemed rather silly to stay on at the bank. Then, and only then, did I depart.
“In No Time At AU I Was Famous”
rT'HAT winter I wrote a novel. For this -*■ purpose I did something I’ve heard many writers promise themselves they were going to do—I holed up in a cabin. My new home was near Dawson and, according to latest reports, it’s still there. I wrote in longhand and found it easy. The last 15.000 words were written at a sitting. When, at last, I got up to throw myself on the bed, the floor was ankle-deep in paper. The book was called “Trail of ’98.” It, too, was a success. And years later it was made into a movie.
The film people, incidentally, have been very good to me. They made “Poison Paradise,” “The Roughneck,” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” twice. I’ve sold them some more things, but never heard whether they were produced.
In no time at all I was so famous, clergymen were even preaching sermons about me. One of these, I remember, called me a “blind fatalist.” Others built me up as a rough, but great-hearted diamond, whose occasional lapses from literary virtue should be excused on the grounds that I had “doubtless lived a hard life.” The truth of the matter was that, though I aimed much of my verse at the boys in the back room, I neither smoked nor drank. I was. in fact, an unsociable sort of chap who liked nothing better than a brisk walk in the woods for an evening’s fun.
They still tell a story up north about
the time I went to a hanging. Even now I don’t care to go into details. Before the ghastly show was over, I was moving hell-for-leather to the nearest saloon, where I downed one of the rare shots of liquor I’ve just denied taking at all.
After finishing my first novel, I “went outside.” I made a trip to Cuba, around the States, then back to Alberta, where my mother and brother lived. During this trip I was continually being introduced to people as the author of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” A lot of them looked me over as if they didn’t believe it. It was that mild face of mine, I expect. Also, people were always asking me embarrassing questions about “life in the frozen north.” I decided I’d better have a good look around the north country before showing my face in civilization again. My reputation as the “Kipling of the Yukon” was growing fast. I had to live up to it.
Early in the spring I embarked in a canoe at Athabaska Landing and paddled until I overtook a Hudson’s Bay brigade. It was making in the same general direction in fiatboats. I travelled with them to Fort McMurray, then across Lake Athabaska to the Great Slave River, from the river into Great Slave Lake, across the Mackenzie to the mouth of the Peel River. Then I followed the Peel to Fort McPherson and went on up the Rat. I crossed the Rockies until I got into the Bell at the Divide. From there I dropped over into the Porcupine, and from the Porcupine went on up the Yukon River to Dawson. You can rhyme all this geography off in less than a minute, but it’s still around 3,000 miles. The things writers will do for their public !
A Rolling Stone Rolls On
BACK in my Dawson cabin I turned out “Rhymes of a Rolling Stone.” This was a subject I really knew something about, although from this point on I was firmly resolved to roll through the rest of my life on a well-cushioned Pullman seat. It was with this end in view that I moved down to New York, to live—like Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”—off the fat of the land. I almost forgot the world had labelled me an adventurer.
Long before I even had time to experiment with a life of leisure, war broke out between Bulgaria and Turkey. I was only vaguely interested, little knowing that up in Canada a newspaper publisher sat plotting my fate. Can’t you just imagine liim announcing his great idea to his staff? “We’ll send Robert W. Service to the Balkans. You can see from every line the
man writes that he has dedicated himself to danger.” Perhaps the preacher was right. Like the “blind fatalist” he’d labelled me, I packed up my bags and went sorrowfully off to war.
I had a pleasant time for a while at a cholera camp in San Stefano. From time to time there was a bit of fighting going on here and there. Then I was sent to Istanbul to pay for some stores. I deserted to Constanza, and proceeded by way of Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna, to Paris. In Paris no one seemed to know or care that I’d written “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—although by this time my writings had been translated into French, Italian, Dutch and Swedish. I decided to stay on. There was just about time enough for me to get married before the last World War broke out. I became an ambulance driver with the French Army and wrote “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.”
There is nothing quite so anonymous as a professional adventurer in wartime. Millions of men—women and children too —are so close to sudden death and the gnawing pangs of hunger, that those who flirt with death for a living become mere ciphers in the scheme of things. I spent a brief period as a war correspondent—when I was briefly mistaken for a German spy— then retired gratefully into the comparative seclusion of the Canadian Intelligence.
High light of my wartime experiences came at Lille, just after the German evacuation. One day I entered the city by the Cambrai Gate. Without warning I was surrounded by perhaps 1,000 women, most of whom proceeded to kiss me. For a terrifying moment I thought perhaps they’d got hold of a French translation of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” and had turned out to bid me welcome. But I was wrong. They were greeting the first Allied soldier to enter their city since the German occupation.
“A Cheerful Idiocy Is To Be Prized”
THE war over, I returned to Paris. During the next few years I did a bit of writing, was sued for libel, and went into retirement. That word “libel” has an ugly sound, but it’s one of the risks all writers have to take. The facts, briefly, are these: I’d described one of my characters as a hereditary drunkard. Unfortunately, and quite unintentionally, I gave a brother of the character (incidentally mentioned) a nickname shared by an Englishman of some prominence. He threatened to sue, and I paid. For some years no royalties came my way. It rather sickened me of writing for a living.
I retired with a vengeance. In fact, I was told recently that when an English newspaperman referred to me in the present tense, he received a number of letters insisting I was dead. The same writer quoted me as saying: “I think infre-
quently, and I don’t believe in it. I work hardest at cultivating my ignorance and in trying to develop a childlike insouciance. I believe that a certain mental dullness leads to a long life—and, in fact, a cheerful idiocy is to be prized.” It’s hard to believe I ever said that. But perhaps I did.
For ten years before the present war broke out, I spent most of my time between Nice and Brittany. During this time I composed and published some thirty songs—mostly humorous. They had no sale. I learned to play half a dozen instruments in an amateur sort of way, and became a crank on the subject of health. 1 wrote a book—my favorite— called ‘‘Why Not Grow Young?” I grew to be sixty-six years old, and sat in the midday sun.
When war broke out, I was touring Russia. I made my way to Warsaw. The Germans bombed the city. Some friends
were killed. I escaped to Riga, and eventually reached my shrimping shack in Brittany. When France was invaded, I had to leave the country that had been my home for twenty-eight years. With my wife and daughter I managed to get on board one of the last ships leaving France. I left my car on the dock. We lay down on piles of ammunition among a gory mess of wounded. We were attacked as we sailed to safety . . .
All this may fail to explain why my mug is “mild to the point of disbelief.” And I may confess that hidden behind this disarming exterior is a personality even more mild. The Canadian reporter’s observation in no way surprised me. But it did cause my French-born daughter to look at me with renewed interest, and ask : “What have you done in Canada to deserve another kind of face?” To which I could only reply: “It’s because of some verse I once wrote.”
I am now in my sixty-eighth year, and some day may be tempted to write my autobiography. But I will wait until I am eighty, when something really interesting may have happened, and when most of those who are in a position to bawl me out may have beat me to the boneyard.