launched into the busy commercial world of the great and rising emporium of
It was true that the immediate profits of the concern were necessarily diminished by the action thus imposed upon it, but almost certain ruin was averted thereby. And when, about a year after his arrival, a crash carne, and one great house after
another was laid low, the bank which he had saved not only kept its head high, but established amid the surrounding ruins a sounder credit and more profitable business than it had ever before enjoyed, or than was possible under the old system.
Noel himself derived considerable interest from noting the fallacy of the notion which he had all his life been accustomed to hear propounded as an indubitable axiom, and which had been applied to himself by Sophia Bevan, and not by her alone. This was the notion that men of imagination and principles are by the very constitution of their minds incapacitated for the conduct of practical life. Noel did not feel quite certain about the truth of this dictum, though he had more faith in Sophia’s penetration than in that of the others who propounded it, but he understood her well enough to be aware that she was quite capable of employing the maxim for the express purpose of taunting him into demonstrating its fallacy by the devotion of himself to a more practical existence. His own idea on this subject was that though the possession of such a character would dispose a man generally to prefer the consideration of largo principles to that of small details, yet, when once any subject came before him worthy to occupy his whole attention, he, the dreamer and theorist, would really be found to be the most practical of men. He was not without a misgiving lest he had undertaken a task for which he was unfit. But having reflected that at least he should be honest, industrious, and single-minded in the conduct of it, and that no man could combine all possible perfections, and having moreover the aid of ample notes of his uncle’s instructions, he had resolved not to shrink from the undertaking.
The months passed rapidly with Noel as he, now, devoted himself to the conduct
of business in the capital of the great gold State; now, made expeditions to the
interior with a view to enlarging and consolidating the commercial relations of
his house, inspecting the proposals or condition of the large mining
associations, whose operations could only be carried on by the employment of a
considerable capital; now taking a voyage to the Sandwich Islands and the
various business centres along the coast – during all of which he never failed
to gratify his love of the picturesque, while carefully attending to the solider
interests at stake. Thus, he did not lose the opportunity of ascending Kileaua, the vast volcanic
had in his early youth been excited by the charming narratives of the American writer, Cheever. He had visited also the wondrous valley of the Yosemite, with its domed peaks: and the vale of the Big Trees, sheltered from wind, and nourished by perpetual mildness and moisture, had kept their life green and fresh for a thousand years, until cut down and carried piecemeal away to fill the Old World with astonishment at the exuberant exaggerations of the New. He had sailed northward to the wild territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver and the Columbia, where, amid the dense forests of pines, he learnt to wonder by what law of their being it was, that the trees which farther south grew like columns planted in the earth, without bulge or curve, there extended their bases into huge umbrella-shaped cones, before shooting upwards their mast-like spires.
A taste also of dangerous adventure fell occasionally to his lot, helping to
prove his nerve and resource in emergencies: as once, when, with a single
companion, a trader from the neighbouring settlement, he went out to shoot
wild-fowl in the swamps of the
Taking a light cart to carry their provisions, blankets, and fuel, with the intention of passing the night on some dry spot which might lie a few inches higher than the rest of the vast lagoon, in order to take advantage of the evening and morning lights of the water-fowl, they had penetrated far in among the pools and reeds. The scene was a novel one to Noel, and vividly suggested to him the character that the world must inevitably have had, had it been a universal dead level, without hill and hollow to divide the land from the water.
For many a mile around, nought was to be seen but a wilderness of rushes, pools and rivulets of water, and narrow streaks of spongy ground, just firm enough to support them, between. Half the year a sea, and half the year a swamp, from the midst of which no horizon is visible save one consisting of the waving tops of the rank rushes, through which moist breezes ever sigh and whistle, – the region overlooked by the rugged and fantastic Buties of the upper valley of the Sacramento is unsurpassed in dreariness by any in the world. Here is the home of millions of wild fowl of every species, from the smallest of the Anatidæ to the majestic swan. But Noel’s love even of sport was inferior to the delight with which, as evening fell, he watched the long streams of birds winging
their noisy way to their home for the night, now forming in dose order, now extending into straight lines, or curves, and now again cleaving the air in sharp wedge-like angles, until at last they settle down in the pools around, with a cluck as of satisfaction at regaining their quarters once more.
Dawn had hardly revealed itself when the fowl were astir. As the report of the first shots rolled over the swamp, a deep surging sound arose and swelled around, until it resembled the noise of a heavy sea beating against a rocky cliff. This was the sound made by the flapping of innumerable wings, as the water-fowl simultaneously rose on their first flight. And presently they passed in shoals so dose and thick over the heads of the sportsmen that for some minutes the loading and firing were incessant.
The flight over, the prey was collected and placed in a heap, ‘one bird, which was so fat as to have burst open in its fall, being selected for breakfast. This was enveloped in a thick coating of clay, and buried in the embers of their fire. When judged to be properly done, the envelope was cracked, and the fowl, cooked in its own savoury juices, taken out. Noel thought it more delicious than anything he had ever eaten in his life, and admired immensely the clean way in which, by the adherence of the akin and feathers to the clay, the meat was left ready for immediate consumption.
As the sun rose high, all became still. Not a bird was to be found, and Noel and his friend were thinking of making for home, when voices were heard at but a short distance from them. Astonished beyond measure at the presence of others in that desolate region, and that particular spot of it, Noel’s companion mounted on the cart, in which their game was already deposited, in order to catch a glimpse of the intruders.
‘They are Indians! who must have come down from the Buttes. Help me to load all the pieces with swan shot at once,’ said the trader, jumping down and getting the arms ready as fast as possible.
‘What do you suppose they want?’ asked Noel.
‘Want? Everything. Wait till I speak to them;’ and hailing them from the bench of the cart, he told them in their own language to be gone.
A yell of delight from the band told the beleaguered sportsmen that they were indeed the objects for which the savages were searching.
‘A precious fix this!’ said the trader, as he busied himself in harnessing the horse, and putting it to the cart; but I’ll circumvent the savages yet. Do you get up and knock over any that come within a too familiar distance.’
Jumping into the cart with alacrity, and ranging the guns so as to be all ready to his hand, Noel asked his companion if he really thought they meant mischief.
‘Not if they can get what they want without. But I never trust an Indian farther than I can swing a bull by the tail with my hands greased. I wish we had some more logs with us.’
‘What for?’ inquired Noel.
‘Why, to cook food in case they keep us here for a day or two. By that time I reckon my people would be getting scared, and be thinking, of coming out to look for us.’
During this colloquy the Indians had halted about seventy yards off, and were talking together. They were about a dozen in number, and occupied a position nearly between the two hunters and the settlement.
‘I don’t like to assume that they mean us any harm,’ said Noel. ‘Suppose we drive straight up to them, and make friends by giving them some of the fowl.’
‘Not a darned duck shall they get, if I know it; besides, it’s the guns they want,’ returned his companion, whom a long residence in the country had made an adept in the ways of the redskins. ‘Besides, if we get close we shall have the whole lot of them on us at once, before we can get a shot. No, no, they must be made to keep their distance.’
‘It will never do, then, to wait here till it is dark. They will creep noiselessly upon us, and –’
‘If we could only light up a good fire when it gets dark,’ interrupted the trader, ‘and hide ourselves near in the reeds, we could pick them off when they come near the horse and cart.’
‘Or if,’ said Noel, ‘we can make them think we are going to camp here all night, we can crawl away and get Nome by going round them.’
‘And leave the traps and the guns?’ said his companion sorrowfully; as the probability of being forced to make such, a sacrifice in order to save themselves broke upon him. ‘I tell you what we will do first, just try their temper. Here, we’ll each take a double gun and drive towards them, waving them off, and if they don’t get out of the way, we’ll shoot.’
‘Very good,’ said Noel, and they proceeded to take up a threatening position in their moveable fortress, the cart.
Their advance was met by another yell accompanied by menacing demonstrations,
and a flight of arrows. The trader fired, and slightly wounded two of them;
‘They won’t attack us by daylight,’ said he, ‘or they’d have done it now while their blood is up. But it won’t do for us to go any farther in this direction, or the cart will be swamped.’
‘Is there anything too deep for us to wade through between this and the settlement?’ asked Noel.
‘No, but it’s impossible to see which way to go on foot, and we should go travelling round and round without getting a hundred rods from the spot if we tried it.’
‘I think that difficulty can be got over,’ returned Noel. ‘Pray which way by the compass does the town lie?’
‘Due south. But what’s the use of a compass in the dark?’
‘Do you think that if we camp here to-night they will attack us early or late?’
If we had a fire they would wait till it was burnt low, and then creep up thinking we were both asleep.’
‘And if we stay till it is dark without a fire?’
‘They will be upon us as soon as it is dark. For they know we can’t see their
dusky hides at night. I believe that’s what
‘Well, then,’ said Noel, cheerfully, ‘it’s all easy enough. We’ll give them the slip as soon as it grows dark, and I will steer you straight home.’ And he communicated his plan to his companion, who agreed to it, though with some reluctance, as it involved the loss of the cart.
In pursuance of Noel’s scheme they first took from their post of elevation careful observations of the positions both of the settlement and of the Indians. Then they made as if they intended to pass the night there, by rearing a blanket tent-wise, with one of the cart-shafts for pole. Then the horse was led to a spot a little way off to the right, and there picketed out, the Indians; and the town being somewhat to their left. The game was then tied together and placed pear the horse, ready for slinging on its back. All there movements were invisible to the Indiana, who could see only the tent. It remained only to make a good fire as evening fell, and this was to be done by
breaking up the cart, and piling up the pieces so as to make a blaze which would be an index to the position, and deepen the gloom of the surrounding swamp. For it was calculated that the savages would not begin to follow them until they had gained such a start as to make pursuit hopeless. Noel did not doubt of finding his way by the stars, and all that was wanted to ensure the success of his scheme was a certainty of regaining the horse, and making with it such a detour as to pass round the lurking foe unperceived.
‘Suppose it turns cloudy?’ asked the trader; ‘and no stars are to be seen?’
Noel thought that some would be visible in almost any case. At any rate, so long as they kept the glow of the fire behind them after once getting a start, they would be going right.
‘We’ll risk it anyhow. But, halloo, it’s raining already! What do you think of the chance now? If it comes on heavy we shall have neither stars nor fire. And if it lasts –– Why, what do those red rascals mean now? Look!’
During this conversation they were mounted on the cart, and they could now see the whole of the savage band making straight for the Buttes as fast as they could go; the wounded ones limping vigorously along as if pressed by some dreaded enemy.
While they were thus watching with perplexity the sudden retreat of their foes, the rain increased, and a sharp flash of lightning revealed a heavy thunder-storm, a rare phenomenon in that region, going on in the neighbouring ranges of the Sierra.
‘I have it!’ shouted the trader. ‘We must look alive. Do you put everything in the cart while I fetch up the horse; or we may have to swim for it yet.’
In a very few moments they were urging their horse homewards through the swamp as fast as he could go, while the rain came down apace, and the dry patches became fewer and smaller, and the point at which they aimed was invisible; and it was only by watching their wake through the reeds that they could keep a tolerably straight course. One remark of the trader’s showed the nature and extent of their danger.
‘Tisn’t the rain that falls here that I’m afraid of, but the flood that will soon be down from the hills. Those cunning redskins saw it coming before I did; and it’s that that made them make tracks so quick. We shall be out of danger in another hour. Precious lucky shower for us. It has saved the cart!’