It was in the old Alta-Inyo Club – a warm night for San Francisco – and through the open windows, hushed and far, came the brawl of the streets. The talk had led on from the Graft Prosecution and the latest signs that the town was to be run wide open, down through all the grotesque sordidness and rottenness of man-hate and man-meanness, until the name of O’Brien was mentioned – O’Brien, the promising young pugilist who had been killed in the prize-ring the night before. At once the air had seemed to freshen. O’Brien had been a clean-living young man with ideals. He neither drank, smoked, nor swore, and his had been the body of a beautiful young god. He had even carried his prayer-book to the ringside. They found it in his coat pocket in the dressing-room… afterward.
Here was Youth, clean and wholesome, unsullied – the thing of glory and wonder for men to conjure with… after it has been lost to them and they have turned middle-aged. And so well did we conjure, that Romance came and for an hour led us far from the man-city and its snarling roar. Bardwell, in a way, started it by quoting from Thoreau; but it was old Trefethan, bald-headed and dewlapped, who took up the quotation and for the hour to come was romance incarnate. At first we wondered how many Scotches he had consumed since dinner, but very soon all that was forgotten.
“It was in 1898 – I was thirty-five then,” he said. “Yes, I know you are adding it up. You’re right. I’m forty-seven now; look ten years more; and the doctors say – damn the doctors anyway!”
He lifted the long glass to his lips and sipped it slowly to soothe away his irritation.
“But I was young… once. I was young twelve years ago, and I had hair on top of my head, and my stomach was lean as a runner’s, and the longest day was none too long for me. I was a husky back there in ‘98. You remember me, Milner. You knew me then. Wasn’t I a pretty good bit of all right?”
Milner nodded and agreed. Like Trefethan, he was another mining engineer who had cleaned up a fortune in the Klondike.
“You certainly were, old man,” Milner said. “I’ll never forget when you cleaned out those lumberjacks in the M. & M. that night that little newspaper man started the row. Slavin was in the country at the time,” – this to us – “and his manager wanted to get up a match with Trefethan.”
“Well, look at me now,” Trefethan commanded angrily. “That’s what the Goldstead did to me – God knows how many millions, but nothing left in my soul… nor in my veins. The good red blood is gone. I am a jellyfish, a huge, gross mass of oscillating protoplasm, a – a…”
But language failed him, and he drew solace from the long glass.
“Women looked at me then; and turned their heads to look a second time. Strange that I never married. But the girl. That’s what I started to tell you about. I met her a thousand miles from anywhere, and then some. And she quoted to me those very words of Thoreau that Bardwell quoted a moment ago – the ones about the day-born gods and the night-born.”
“It was after I had made my locations on Goldstead – and didn’t know what a treasure-pot that that trip creek was going to prove – that I made that trip east over the Rockies, angling across to the Great Up North there the Rockies are something more than a back-bone. They are a boundary, a dividing line, a wall impregnable and unscalable. There is no intercourse across them, though, on occasion, from the early days, wandering trappers have crossed them, though more were lost by the way than ever came through. And that was precisely why I tackled the job. It was a traverse any man would be proud to make. I am prouder of it right now than anything else I have ever done.
“It is an unknown land. Great stretches of it have never been explored. There are big valleys there where the white man has never set foot, and Indian tribes as primitive as ten thousand years… almost, for they have had some contact with the whites. Parties of them come out once in a while to trade, and that is all. Even the Hudson Bay Company failed to find them and farm them.
“And now the girl. I was coming up a stream – you’d call it a river in California – uncharted – and unnamed. It was a noble valley, now shut in by high canyon walls, and again opening out into beautiful stretches, wide and long, with pasture shoulder-high in the bottoms, meadows dotted with flowers, and with clumps of timberspruce – virgin and magnificent. The dogs were packing on their backs, and were sore-footed and played out; while I was looking for any bunch of Indians to get sleds and drivers from and go on with the first snow. It was late fall, but the way those flowers persisted surprised me. I was supposed to be in sub-arctic America, and high up among the buttresses of the Rockies, and yet there was that everlasting spread of flowers. Some day the white settlers will be in there and growing wheat down all that valley.
“And then I lifted a smoke, and heard the barking of the dogs – Indian dogs – and came into camp. There must have been five hundred of them, proper Indians at that, and I could see by the jerking-frames that the fall hunting had been good. And then I met her – Lucy. That was her name. Sign language – that was all we could talk with, till they led me to a big fly – you know, half a tent, open on the one side where a campfire burned. It was all of moose-skins, this fly – moose-skins, smoke-cured, hand-rubbed, and golden-brown. Under it everything was neat and orderly as no Indian camp ever was. The bed was laid on fresh spruce boughs. There were furs galore, and on top of all was a robe of swanskins – white swan-skins – I have never seen anything like that robe. And on top of it, sitting cross-legged, was Lucy. She was nut-brown. I have called her a girl. But she was not. She was a woman, a nut-brown woman, an Amazon, a full-blooded, full-bodied woman, and royal ripe. And her eyes were blue.
“That’s what took me off my feet – her eyes – blue, not China blue, but deep blue, like the sea and sky all melted into one, and very wise. More than that, they had laughter in them – warm laughter, sun-warm and human, very human, and… shall I say feminine? They were. They were a woman’s eyes, a proper woman’s eyes. You know what that means. Can I say more? Also, in those blue eyes were, at the same time, a wild unrest, a wistful yearning, and a repose, an absolute repose, a sort of all-wise and philosophical calm.”
Trefethan broke off abruptly.
“You fellows think I am screwed. I’m not. This is only my fifth since dinner. I am dead sober. I am solemn. I sit here now side by side with my sacred youth. It is not I – ‘old’ Trefethan – that talks; it is my youth, and it is my youth that says those were the most wonderful eyes I have ever seen – so very calm, so very restless; so very wise, so very curious; so very old, so very young; so satisfied and yet yearning so wistfully. Boys, I can’t describe them. When I have told you about her, you may know better for yourselves.”
“She did not stand up. But she put out her hand.”
“‘Stranger,’ she said, ‘I’m real glad to see you.’
“I leave it to you – that sharp, frontier, Western tang of speech. Picture my sensations. It was a woman, a white woman, but that tang! It was amazing that it should be a white woman, here, beyond the last boundary of the world – but the tang. I tell you, it hurt. It was like the stab of a flatted note. And yet, let me tell you, that woman was a poet. You shall see.”
“She dismissed the Indians. And, by Jove, they went. They took her orders and followed her blind. She was hi-yu skookam chief. She told the bucks to make a camp for me and to take care of my dogs. And they did, too. And they knew enough not to get away with as much as a moccasin-lace of my outfit. She was a regular She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and I want to tell you it chilled me to the marrow, sent those little thrills Marathoning up and down my spinal column, meeting a white woman out there at the head of a tribe of savages a thousand miles the other side of No Man’s Land.
“‘Stranger,” she said, ‘I reckon you’re sure the first white that ever set foot in this valley. Set down an’ talk a spell, and then we’ll have a bite to eat. Which way might you be comin’?’
“There it was, that tang again. But from now to the end of the yarn I want you to forget it. I tell you I forgot it, sitting there on the edge of that swan-skin robe and listening and looking at the most wonderful woman that ever stepped out of the pages of Thoreau or of any other man’s book.
“I stayed on there a week. It was on her invitation. She promised to fit me out with dogs and sleds and with Indians that would put me across the best pass of the Rockies in five hundred miles. Her fly was pitched apart from the others, on the high bank by the river, and a couple of Indian girls did her cooking for her and the camp work. And so we talked and talked, while the first snow fell and continued to fall and make a surface for my sleds. And this was her story.
“She was frontier-born, of poor settlers, and you know what that means – work, work, always work, work in plenty and without end.
“‘I never seen the glory of the world,’ she said. ‘I had no time. I knew it was right out there, anywhere, all around the cabin, but there was always the bread to set, the scrubbin’ and the washin’ and the work that was never done. I used to be plumb sick at times, jes’ to get out into it all, especially in the spring when the songs of the birds drove me most clean crazy. I wanted to run out through the long pasture grass, wetting my legs with the dew of it, and to climb the rail fence, and keep on through the timber and up and up over the divide so as to get a look around. Oh, I had all kinds of hankerings – to follow up the canyon beds and slosh around from pool to pool, making friends with the water-dogs and the speckly trout; to peep on the sly and watch the squirrels and rabbits and small furry things and see what they was doing and learn the secrets of their ways. Seemed to me, if I had time, I could crawl among the flowers, and, if I was good and quiet, catch them whispering with themselves, telling all kinds of wise things that mere humans never know.’”
Trefethan paused to see that his glass had been refilled.
“Another time she said: ‘I wanted to run nights like a wild thing, just to run through the moonshine and under the stars, to run white and naked in the darkness that I knew must feel like cool velvet, and to run and run and keep on running. One evening, plumb tuckered out – it had been a dreadful hard hot day, and the bread wouldn’t raise and the churning had gone wrong, and I was all irritated and jerky – well, that evening I made mention to dad of this wanting to run of mine. He looked at me curious-some and a bit scared. And then he gave me two pills to take. Said to go to bed and get a good sleep and I’d be all hunky-dory in the morning. So I never mentioned my hankerings to him, or any one any more.’
“The mountain home broke up – starved out, I imagine – and the family came to Seattle to live. There she worked in a factory – long hours, you know, and all the rest, deadly work. And after a year of that she became waitress in a cheap restaurant – hash-slinger, she called it. She said to me once, ‘Romance I guess was what I wanted. But there wan’t no romance floating around in dishpans and washtubs, or in factories and hash-joints.’
“When she was eighteen she married – a man who was going up to Juneau to start a restaurant. He had a few dollars saved, and appeared prosperous. She didn’t love him – she was emphatic about that, but she was all tired out, and she wanted to get away from the unending drudgery. Besides, Juneau was in Alaska, and her yearning took the form of a desire to see that wonderland. But little she saw of it. He started the restaurant, a little cheap one, and she quickly learned what he had married her for… to save paying wages. She came pretty close to running the joint and doing all the work from waiting to dishwashing. She cooked most of the time as well. And she had four years of it.
“Can’t you picture her, this wild woods creature, quick with every old primitive instinct, yearning for the free open, and mowed up in a vile little hash-joint and toiling and moiling for four mortal years?
“‘There was no meaning in anything,’ she said. ‘What was it all about! Why was I born! Was that all the meaning of life – just to work and work and be always tired! – to go to bed tired and to wake up tired, with every day like every other day unless it was harder?’ She had heard talk of immortal life from the gospel sharps, she said, but she could not reckon that what she was doin’ was a likely preparation for her immortality.
“But she still had her dreams, though more rarely. She had read a few books – what, it is pretty hard to imagine, Seaside Library novels most likely; yet they had been food for fancy. ‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘when I was that dizzy from the heat of the cooking that if I didn’t take a breath of fresh air I’d faint, I’d stick my head out of the kitchen window, and close my eyes and see most wonderful things. All of a sudden I’d be traveling down a country road, and everything clean and quiet, no dust, no dirt; just streams ripplin’ down sweet meadows, and lambs playing, breezes blowing the breath of flowers, and soft sunshine over everything; and lovely cows lazying knee-deep in quiet pools, and young girls bathing in a curve of stream all white and slim and natural – and I’d know I was in Arcady. I’d read about that country once, in a book. And maybe knights, all flashing in the sun, would come riding around a bend in the road, or a lady on a milk-white mare, and in the distance I could see the towers of a castle rising, or I just knew, on the next turn, that I’d come upon some palace, all white and airy and fairy-like, with fountains playing, and flowers all over everything, and peacocks on the lawn… and then I’d open my eyes, and the heat of the cooking range would strike on me, and I’d hear Jake sayin’ – he was my husband – I’d hear Jake sayin’, “Why ain’t you served them beans? Think I can wait here all day!” Romance! – I reckon the nearest I ever come to it was when a drunken Armenian cook got the snakes and tried to cut my throat with a potato knife and I got my arm burned on the stove before I could lay him out with the potato stomper.
“‘I wanted easy ways, and lovely things, and Romance and all that; but it just seemed I had no luck nohow and was only and expressly born for cooking and dishwashing. There was a wild crowd in Juneau them days, but I looked at the other women, and their way of life didn’t excite me. I reckon I wanted to be clean. I don’t know why; I just wanted to, I guess; and I reckoned I might as well die dishwashing as die their way.”
Trefethan halted in his tale for a moment, completing to himself some thread of thought.
“And this is the woman I met up there in the Arctic, running a tribe of wild Indians and a few thousand square miles of hunting territory. And it happened, simply enough, though, for that matter, she might have lived and died among the pots and pans. But ‘Came the whisper, came the vision.’ That was all she needed, and she got it.
“‘I woke up one day,’ she said. ‘Just happened on it in a scrap of newspaper. I remember every word of it, and I can give it to you.’ And then she quoted Thoreau’s Cry of the Human:
“‘The young pines springing up, in the corn field from year to year are to me a refreshing fact. We talk of civilizing the Indian, but that is not the name for his improvement. By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with nature. He has glances of starry recognition, to which our saloons are strangers. The steady illumination of his qenius, dim only because distant, is like the faint but satisfying light of the stars compared with the dazzling but ineffectual and short-lived blaze of candles. The Society Islanders had their day-born gods, but they were not supposed to be of equal antiquity with the… night-born gods.’
“That’s what she did, repeated it word for word, and I forgot the tang, for it was solemn, a declaration of religion – pagan, if you will; and clothed in the living garmenture of herself.
“‘And the rest of it was torn away,’ she added, a great emptiness in her voice. ‘It was only a scrap of newspaper. But that Thoreau was a wise man. I wish I knew more about him.’ She stopped a moment, and I swear her face was ineffably holy as she said, ‘I could have made him a good wife.’
“And then she went on. ‘I knew right away, as soon as I read that, what was the matter with me. I was a night-born. I, who had lived all my life with the day-born, was a night-born. That was why I had never been satisfied with cooking and dishwashing; that was why I had hankered to run naked in the moonlight. And I knew that this dirty little Juneau hash-joint was no place for me. And right there and then I said, “I quit.” I packed up my few rags of clothes, and started. Jake saw me and tried to stop me.
“‘What you doing?” he says.
“‘Divorcin’ you and me,’ I says. ‘I’m headin’ for tall timber and where I belong.’”
“‘No you don’t,’ he says, reaching for me to stop me. ‘The cooking has got on your head. You listen to me talk before you up and do anything brash.’
“But I pulled a gun-a little Colt’s forty-four – and says, ‘This does my talkin’ for me.’
“And I left.”