Jack London.

A Daughter of the Snows online

. (page 14 of 20)
Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 14 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

would, Frona could not call upon her usual sympathy to drive away the
coldness which obtruded intangibly between them. This, in turn, had a
consequent effect on Vance, and gave a certain distance to his manner
which forced him out of touch even with the colonel.

Colonel Trethaway seemed to have thrown twenty years off his erect
shoulders, and the discrepancy in the match which Frona had felt
vanished as she looked at him. "He has lived the years well," she
thought, and prompted mysteriously, almost with vague apprehension she
turned her eyes to Corliss. But if the groom had thrown off twenty
years, Vance was not a whit behind. Since their last meeting he had
sacrificed his brown moustache to the frost, and his smooth face,
smitten with health and vigor, looked uncommonly boyish; and yet,
withal, the naked upper lip advertised a stiffness and resolution
hitherto concealed. Furthermore, his features portrayed a growth, and
his eyes, which had been softly firm, were now firm with the added
harshness or hardness which is bred of coping with things and coping
quickly, - the stamp of executiveness which is pressed upon men who do,
and upon all men who do, whether they drive dogs, buck the sea, or
dictate the policies of empires.

When the simple ceremony was over, Frona kissed Lucile; but Lucile felt
that there was a subtle something wanting, and her eyes filled with
unshed tears. Trethaway, who had felt the aloofness from the start,
caught an opportunity with Frona while Captain Alexander and Corliss
were being pleasant to Mrs. Trethaway.

"What's the matter, Frona?" the colonel demanded, bluntly. "I hope you
did not come under protest. I am sorry, not for you, because lack of
frankness deserves nothing, but for Lucile. It is not fair to her."

"There has been a lack of frankness throughout." Her voice trembled.
"I tried my best, - I thought I could do better, - but I cannot feign
what I do not feel. I am sorry, but I . . . I am disappointed. No, I
cannot explain, and to you least of all."

"Let's be above-board, Frona. St. Vincent's concerned?"

She nodded.

"And I can put my hand right on the spot. First place," he looked to
the side and saw Lucile stealing an anxious glance to him, - "first
place, only the other day she gave you a song about St. Vincent.
Second place, and therefore, you think her heart's not in this present
proposition; that she doesn't care a rap for me; in short, that she's
marrying me for reinstatement and spoils. Isn't that it?"

"And isn't it enough? Oh, I am disappointed, Colonel Trethaway,
grievously, in her, in you, in myself."

"Don't be a fool! I like you too well to see you make yourself one.
The play's been too quick, that is all. Your eye lost it. Listen.
We've kept it quiet, but she's in with the elect on French Hill. Her
claim's prospected the richest of the outfit. Present indication half
a million at least. In her own name, no strings attached. Couldn't
she take that and go anywhere in the world and reinstate herself? And
for that matter, you might presume that I am marrying her for spoils.
Frona, she cares for me, and in your ear, she's too good for me. My
hope is that the future will make up. But never mind that - haven't got
the time now.

"You consider her affection sudden, eh? Let me tell you we've been
growing into each other from the time I came into the country, and with
our eyes open. St. Vincent? Pshaw! I knew it all the time. She got
it into her head that the whole of him wasn't worth a little finger of
you, and she tried to break things up. You'll never know how she
worked with him. I told her she didn't know the Welse, and she said
so, too, after. So there it is; take it or leave it."

"But what do you think about St. Vincent?"

"What I think is neither here nor there; but I'll tell you honestly
that I back her judgment. But that's not the point. What are you
going to do about it? about her? now?"

She did not answer, but went back to the waiting group. Lucile saw her
coming and watched her face.

"He's been telling you - ?"

"That I am a fool," Frona answered. "And I think I am." And with a
smile, "I take it on faith that I am, anyway. I - I can't reason it out
just now, but. . ."

Captain Alexander discovered a prenuptial joke just about then, and led
the way over to the stove to crack it upon the colonel, and Vance went
along to see fair play.

"It's the first time," Lucile was saying, "and it means more to me, so
much more, than to . . . most women. I am afraid. It is a terrible
thing for me to do. But I do love him, I do!" And when the joke had
been duly digested and they came back, she was sobbing, "Dear, dear

It was just the moment, better than he could have chosen; and capped
and mittened, without knocking, Jacob Welse came in.

"The uninvited guest," was his greeting. "Is it all over? So?" And
he swallowed Lucile up in his huge bearskin. "Colonel, your hand, and
your pardon for my intruding, and your regrets for not giving me the
word. Come, out with them! Hello, Corliss! Captain Alexander, a good

"What have I done?" Frona wailed, received the bear-hug, and managed to
press his hand till it almost hurt.

"Had to back the game," he whispered; and this time his hand did hurt.

"Now, colonel, I don't know what your plans are, and I don't care.
Call them off. I've got a little spread down to the house, and the
only honest case of champagne this side of Circle. Of course, you're
coming, Corliss, and - " His eye roved past Captain Alexander with
hardly a pause.

"Of course," came the answer like a flash, though the Chief Magistrate
of the Northwest had had time to canvass the possible results of such
unofficial action. "Got a hack?"

Jacob Welse laughed and held up a moccasined foot. "Walking
be - chucked!" The captain started impulsively towards the door. "I'll
have the sleds up before you're ready. Three of them, and bells

So Trethaway's forecast was correct, and Dawson vindicated its
agglutinativeness by rubbing its eyes when three sleds, with three
scarlet-tuniced policemen swinging the whips, tore down its main
street; and it rubbed its eyes again when it saw the occupants thereof.

"We shall live quietly," Lucile told Frona. "The Klondike is not all
the world, and the best is yet to come."

But Jacob Welse said otherwise. "We've got to make this thing go," he
said to Captain Alexander, and Captain Alexander said that he was
unaccustomed to backing out.

Mrs. Schoville emitted preliminary thunders, marshalled the other
women, and became chronically seismic and unsafe.

Lucile went nowhere save to Frona's. But Jacob Welse, who rarely went
anywhere, was often to be found by Colonel Trethaway's fireside, and
not only was he to be found there, but he usually brought somebody
along. "Anything on hand this evening?" he was wont to say on casual
meeting. "No? Then come along with me." Sometimes he said it with
lamb-like innocence, sometimes with a challenge brooding under his
bushy brows, and rarely did he fail to get his man. These men had
wives, and thus were the germs of dissolution sown in the ranks of the

Then, again, at Colonel Trethaway's there was something to be found
besides weak tea and small talk; and the correspondents, engineers, and
gentlemen rovers kept the trail well packed in that direction, though
it was the Kings, to a man, who first broke the way. So the Trethaway
cabin became the centre of things, and, backed commercially,
financially, and officially, it could not fail to succeed socially.

The only bad effect of all this was to make the lives of Mrs. Schoville
and divers others of her sex more monotonous, and to cause them to lose
faith in certain hoary and inconsequent maxims. Furthermore, Captain
Alexander, as highest official, was a power in the land, and Jacob
Welse was the Company, and there was a superstition extant concerning
the unwisdom of being on indifferent terms with the Company. And the
time was not long till probably a bare half-dozen remained in outer
cold, and they were considered a warped lot, anyway.


Quite an exodus took place in Dawson in the spring. Men, because they
had made stakes, and other men, because they had made none, bought up
the available dogs and rushed out for Dyea over the last ice.
Incidentally, it was discovered that Dave Harney possessed most of
these dogs.

"Going out?" Jacob Welse asked him on a day when the meridian sun for
the first time felt faintly warm to the naked skin.

"Well, I calkilate not. I'm clearin' three dollars a pair on the
moccasins I cornered, to say nothing but saw wood on the boots. Say,
Welse, not that my nose is out of joint, but you jest cinched me
everlastin' on sugar, didn't you?"

Jacob Welse smiled.

"And by the Jimcracky I'm squared! Got any rubber boots?"

"No; went out of stock early in the winter." Dave snickered slowly.
"And I'm the pertickler party that hocus-pocused 'em."

"Not you. I gave special orders to the clerks. They weren't sold in

"No more they wa'n't. One man to the pair and one pair to the man, and
a couple of hundred of them; but it was my dust they chucked into the
scales an nobody else's. Drink? Don't mind. Easy! Put up your sack.
Call it rebate, for I kin afford it. . . Goin' out? Not this year, I
guess. Wash-up's comin'."

A strike on Henderson the middle of April, which promised to be
sensational, drew St. Vincent to Stewart River. And a little later,
Jacob Welse, interested on Gallagher Gulch and with an eye riveted on
the copper mines of White River, went up into the same district, and
with him went Frona, for it was more vacation than business. In the
mean time, Corliss and Bishop, who had been on trail for a month or
more running over the Mayo and McQuestion Country, rounded up on the
left fork of Henderson, where a block of claims waited to be surveyed.

But by May, spring was so far advanced that travel on the creeks became
perilous, and on the last of the thawing ice the miners travelled down
to the bunch of islands below the mouth of the Stewart, where they went
into temporary quarters or crowded the hospitality of those who
possessed cabins. Corliss and Bishop located on Split-up Island (so
called through the habit parties from the Outside had of dividing there
and going several ways), where Tommy McPherson was comfortably
situated. A couple of days later, Jacob Welse and Frona arrived from a
hazardous trip out of White River, and pitched tent on the high ground
at the upper end of Split-up. A few _chechaquos_, the first of the
spring rush, strung in exhausted and went into camp against the
breaking of the river. Also, there were still men going out who,
barred by the rotten ice, came ashore to build poling-boats and await
the break-up or to negotiate with the residents for canoes. Notably
among these was the Baron Courbertin.

"Ah! Excruciating! Magnificent! Is it not?"

So Frona first ran across him on the following day. "What?" she asked,
giving him her hand.

"You! You!" doffing his cap. "It is a delight!"

"I am sure - " she began.

"No! No!" He shook his curly mop warmly. "It is not you. See!" He
turned to a Peterborough, for which McPherson had just mulcted him of
thrice its value. "The canoe! Is it not - not - what you Yankees
call - a bute?"

"Oh, the canoe," she repeated, with a falling inflection of chagrin.

"No! No! Pardon!" He stamped angrily upon the ground. "It is not
so. It is not you. It is not the canoe. It is - ah! I have it now!
It is your promise. One day, do you not remember, at Madame
Schoville's, we talked of the canoe, and of my ignorance, which was
sad, and you promised, you said - "

"I would give you your first lesson?"

"And is it not delightful? Listen! Do you not hear? The
rippling - ah! the rippling! - deep down at the heart of things! Soon
will the water run free. Here is the canoe! Here we meet! The first
lesson! Delightful! Delightful!"

The next island below Split-up was known as Roubeau's Island, and was
separated from the former by a narrow back-channel. Here, when the
bottom had about dropped out of the trail, and with the dogs swimming
as often as not, arrived St. Vincent - the last man to travel the winter
trail. He went into the cabin of John Borg, a taciturn, gloomy
individual, prone to segregate himself from his kind. It was the
mischance of St. Vincent's life that of all cabins he chose Borg's for
an abiding-place against the break-up.

"All right," the man said, when questioned by him. "Throw your
blankets into the corner. Bella'll clear the litter out of the spare

Not till evening did he speak again, and then, "You're big enough to do
your own cooking. When the woman's done with the stove you can fire

The woman, or Bella, was a comely Indian girl, young, and the prettiest
St. Vincent had run across. Instead of the customary greased
swarthiness of the race, her skin was clear and of a light-bronze tone,
and her features less harsh, more felicitously curved, than those
common to the blood.

After supper, Borg, both elbows on table and huge misshapen hands
supporting chin and jaws, sat puffing stinking Siwash tobacco and
staring straight before him. It would have seemed ruminative, the
stare, had his eyes been softer or had he blinked; as it was, his face
was set and trance-like.

"Have you been in the country long?" St. Vincent asked, endeavoring to
make conversation.

Borg turned his sullen-black eyes upon him, and seemed to look into him
and through him and beyond him, and, still regarding him, to have
forgotten all about him. It was as though he pondered some great and
weighty matter - probably his sins, the correspondent mused nervously,
rolling himself a cigarette. When the yellow cube had dissipated
itself in curling fragrance, and he was deliberating about rolling a
second, Borg suddenly spoke.

"Fifteen years," he said, and returned to his tremendous cogitation.

Thereat, and for half an hour thereafter, St. Vincent, fascinated,
studied his inscrutable countenance. To begin with, it was a massive
head, abnormal and top-heavy, and its only excuse for being was the
huge bull-throat which supported it. It had been cast in a mould of
elemental generousness, and everything about it partook of the
asymmetrical crudeness of the elemental. The hair, rank of growth,
thick and unkempt, matted itself here and there into curious splotches
of gray; and again, grinning at age, twisted itself into curling locks
of lustreless black - locks of unusual thickness, like crooked fingers,
heavy and solid. The shaggy whiskers, almost bare in places, and in
others massing into bunchgrass-like clumps, were plentifully splashed
with gray. They rioted monstrously over his face and fell raggedly to
his chest, but failed to hide the great hollowed cheeks or the twisted
mouth. The latter was thin-lipped and cruel, but cruel only in a
passionless sort of way. But the forehead was the anomaly, - the
anomaly required to complete the irregularity of the face. For it was
a perfect forehead, full and broad, and rising superbly strong to its
high dome. It was as the seat and bulwark of some vast intelligence;
omniscience might have brooded there.

Bella, washing the dishes and placing them away on the shelf behind
Borg's back, dropped a heavy tin cup. The cabin was very still, and
the sharp rattle came without warning. On the instant, with a brute
roar, the chair was overturned and Borg was on his feet, eyes blazing
and face convulsed. Bella gave an inarticulate, animal-like cry of
fear and cowered at his feet. St. Vincent felt his hair bristling, and
an uncanny chill, like a jet of cold air, played up and down his spine.
Then Borg righted the chair and sank back into his old position, chin
on hands and brooding ponderously. Not a word was spoken, and Bella
went on unconcernedly with the dishes, while St. Vincent rolled, a
shaky cigarette and wondered if it had been a dream.

Jacob Welse laughed when the correspondent told him. "Just his way,"
he said; "for his ways are like his looks, - unusual. He's an
unsociable beast. Been in the country more years than he can number
acquaintances. Truth to say, I don't think he has a friend in all
Alaska, not even among the Indians, and he's chummed thick with them
off and on. 'Johnny Sorehead,' they call him, but it might as well be
'Johnny Break-um-head,' for he's got a quick temper and a rough hand.
Temper! Some little misunderstanding popped up between him and the
agent at Arctic City. He was in the right, too, - agent's mistake, - but
he tabooed the Company on the spot and lived on straight meat for a
year. Then I happened to run across him at Tanana Station, and after
due explanations he consented to buy from us again."

"Got the girl from up the head-waters of the White," Bill Brown told
St. Vincent. "Welse thinks he's pioneering in that direction, but Borg
could give him cards and spades on it and then win out. He's been over
the ground years ago. Yes, strange sort of a chap. Wouldn't hanker to
be bunk-mates with him."

But St. Vincent did not mind the eccentricities of the man, for he
spent most of his time on Split-up Island with Frona and the Baron.
One day, however, and innocently, he ran foul of him. Two Swedes,
hunting tree-squirrels from the other end of Roubeau Island, had
stopped to ask for matches and to yarn a while in the warm sunshine of
the clearing. St. Vincent and Borg were accommodating them, the latter
for the most part in meditative monosyllables. Just to the rear, by
the cabin-door, Bella was washing clothes. The tub was a cumbersome
home-made affair, and half-full of water, was more than a fair match
for an ordinary woman. The correspondent noticed her struggling with
it, and stepped back quickly to her aid.

With the tub between them, they proceeded to carry it to one side in
order to dump it where the ground drained from the cabin. St. Vincent
slipped in the thawing snow and the soapy water splashed up. Then
Bella slipped, and then they both slipped. Bella giggled and laughed,
and St. Vincent laughed back. The spring was in the air and in their
blood, and it was very good to be alive. Only a wintry heart could
deny a smile on such a day. Bella slipped again, tried to recover,
slipped with the other foot, and sat down abruptly. Laughing
gleefully, both of them, the correspondent caught her hands to pull her
to her feet. With a bound and a bellow, Borg was upon them. Their
hands were torn apart and St. Vincent thrust heavily backward. He
staggered for a couple of yards and almost fell. Then the scene of the
cabin was repeated. Bella cowered and grovelled in the muck, and her
lord towered wrathfully over her.

"Look you," he said in stifled gutturals, turning to St. Vincent. "You
sleep in my cabin and you cook. That is enough. Let my woman alone."

Things went on after that as though nothing had happened; St. Vincent
gave Bella a wide berth and seemed to have forgotten her existence.
But the Swedes went back to their end of the island, laughing at the
trivial happening which was destined to be significant.


Spring, smiting with soft, warm hands, had come like a miracle, and now
lingered for a dreamy spell before bursting into full-blown summer.
The snow had left the bottoms and valleys and nestled only on the north
slopes of the ice-scarred ridges. The glacial drip was already in
evidence, and every creek in roaring spate. Each day the sun rose
earlier and stayed later. It was now chill day by three o'clock and
mellow twilight at nine. Soon a golden circle would be drawn around
the sky, and deep midnight become bright as high noon. The willows and
aspens had long since budded, and were now decking themselves in
liveries of fresh young green, and the sap was rising in the pines.

Mother nature had heaved her waking sigh and gone about her brief
business. Crickets sang of nights in the stilly cabins, and in the
sunshine mosquitoes crept from out hollow logs and snug crevices among
the rocks, - big, noisy, harmless fellows, that had procreated the year
gone, lain frozen through the winter, and were now rejuvenated to buzz
through swift senility to second death. All sorts of creeping,
crawling, fluttering life came forth from the warming earth and
hastened to mature, reproduce, and cease. Just a breath of balmy air,
and then the long cold frost again - ah! they knew it well and lost no
time. Sand martins were driving their ancient tunnels into the soft
clay banks, and robins singing on the spruce-garbed islands. Overhead
the woodpecker knocked insistently, and in the forest depths the
partridge boom-boomed and strutted in virile glory.

But in all this nervous haste the Yukon took no part. For many a
thousand miles it lay cold, unsmiling, dead. Wild fowl, driving up
from the south in wind-jamming wedges, halted, looked vainly for open
water, and quested dauntlessly on into the north. From bank to bank
stretched the savage ice. Here and there the water burst through and
flooded over, but in the chill nights froze solidly as ever. Tradition
has it that of old time the Yukon lay unbroken through three long
summers, and on the face of it there be traditions less easy of belief.

So summer waited for open water, and the tardy Yukon took to stretching
of days and cracking its stiff joints. Now an air-hole ate into the
ice, and ate and ate; or a fissure formed, and grew, and failed to
freeze again. Then the ice ripped from the shore and uprose bodily a
yard. But still the river was loth to loose its grip. It was a slow
travail, and man, used to nursing nature with pigmy skill, able to
burst waterspouts and harness waterfalls, could avail nothing against
the billions of frigid tons which refused to run down the hill to
Bering Sea.

On Split-up Island all were ready for the break-up. Waterways have
ever been first highways, and the Yukon was the sole highway in all the
land. So those bound up-river pitched their poling-boats and shod
their poles with iron, and those bound down caulked their scows and
barges and shaped spare sweeps with axe and drawing-knife. Jacob Welse
loafed and joyed in the utter cessation from work, and Frona joyed with
him in that it was good. But Baron Courbertin was in a fever at the
delay. His hot blood grew riotous after the long hibernation, and the
warm sunshine dazzled him with warmer fancies.

"Oh! Oh! It will never break! Never!" And he stood gazing at the
surly ice and raining politely phrased anathema upon it. "It is a
conspiracy, poor La Bijou, a conspiracy!" He caressed La Bijou like it
were a horse, for so he had christened the glistening Peterborough

Frona and St. Vincent laughed and preached him the gospel of patience,
which he proceeded to tuck away into the deepest abysses of perdition
till interrupted by Jacob Welse.

"Look, Courbertin! Over there, south of the bluff. Do you make out
anything? Moving?"

"Yes; a dog."

"It moves too slowly for a dog. Frona, get the glasses."

Courbertin and St. Vincent sprang after them, but the latter knew their
abiding-place and returned triumphant. Jacob Welse put the binoculars
to his eyes and gazed steadily across the river. It was a sheer mile
from the island to the farther bank, and the sunglare on the ice was a
sore task to the vision.

"It is a man." He passed the glasses to the Baron and strained
absently with his naked eyes. "And something is up."

"He creeps!" the baron exclaimed. "The man creeps, he crawls, on hand
and knee! Look! See!" He thrust the glasses tremblingly into Frona's

Looking across the void of shimmering white, it was difficult to
discern a dark object of such size when dimly outlined against an
equally dark background of brush and earth. But Frona could make the
man out with fair distinctness; and as she grew accustomed to the
strain she could distinguish each movement, and especially so when he
came to a wind-thrown pine. Sue watched painfully. Twice, after
tortuous effort, squirming and twisting, he failed in breasting the big
trunk, and on the third attempt, after infinite exertion, he cleared it
only to topple helplessly forward and fall on his face in the tangled

"It is a man." She turned the glasses over to St. Vincent. "And he is
crawling feebly. He fell just then this side of the log."

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 14 of 20)