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Robert William Service

(16 January 1874 - 11 September 1958 / Preston)

While The Bannock Bakes


Light up your pipe again, old chum, and sit awhile with me;
I've got to watch the bannock bake -- how restful is the air!
You'd little think that we were somewhere north of Sixty-three,
Though where I don't exactly know, and don't precisely care.
The man-size mountains palisade us round on every side;
The river is a-flop with fish, and ripples silver-clear;
The midnight sunshine brims yon cleft -- we think it's the Divide;
We'll get there in a month, maybe, or maybe in a year.

It doesn't matter, does it, pal? We're of that breed of men
With whom the world of wine and cards and women disagree;
Your trouble was a roofless game of poker now and then,
And "raising up my elbow", that's what got away with me.
We're merely "Undesirables", artistic more or less;
My horny hands are Chopin-wise; you quote your Browning well;
And yet we're fooling round for gold in this damned wilderness:
The joke is, if we found it, we would both go straight to hell.

Well, maybe we won't find it -- and at least we've got the "life".
We're both as brown as berries, and could wrestle with a bear:
(That bannock's raising nicely, pal; just jab it with your knife.)
Fine specimens of manhood they would reckon us out there.
It's the tracking and the packing and the poling in the sun;
It's the sleeping in the open, it's the rugged, unfaked food;
It's the snow-shoe and the paddle, and the campfire and the gun,
And when I think of what I was, I know that it is good.

Just think of how we've poled all day up this strange little stream;
Since life began no eye of man has seen this place before;
How fearless all the wild things are! the banks with goose-grass gleam,
And there's a bronzy musk-rat sitting sniffing at his door.
A mother duck with brood of ten comes squattering along;
The tawny, white-winged ptarmigan are flying all about;
And in that swirly, golden pool, a restless, gleaming throng,
The trout are waiting till we condescend to take them out.

Ah, yes, it's good! I'll bet that there's no doctor like the Wild:
(Just turn that bannock over there; it's getting nicely brown.)
I might be in my grave by now, forgotten and reviled,
Or rotting like a sickly cur in some far, foreign town.
I might be that vile thing I was, -- it all seems like a dream;
I owed a man a grudge one time that only life could pay;
And yet it's half-forgotten now -- how petty these things seem!
(But that's "another story", pal; I'll tell it you some day.)

How strange two "irresponsibles" should chum away up here!
But round the Arctic Circle friends are few and far between.
We've shared the same camp-fire and tent for nigh on seven year,
And never had a word that wasn't cheering and serene.
We've halved the toil and split the spoil, and borne each other's packs;
By all the Wild's freemasonry we're brothers, tried and true;
We've swept on danger side by side, and fought it back to back,
And you would die for me, old pal, and I would die for you.

Now there was that time I got lost in Rory Bory Land,
(How quick the blizzards sweep on one across that Polar sea!)
You formed a rescue crew of One, and saw a frozen hand
That stuck out of a drift of snow -- and, partner, it was Me.
But I got even, did I not, that day the paddle broke?
White water on the Coppermine -- a rock -- a split canoe --
Two fellows struggling in the foam (one couldn't swim a stroke):
A half-drowned man I dragged ashore . . . and partner, it was You.

* * * * *

In Rory Borealis Land the winter's long and black.
The silence seems a solid thing, shot through with wolfish woe;
And rowelled by the eager stars the skies vault vastly back,
And man seems but a little mite on that weird-lit plateau.
No thing to do but smoke and yarn of wild and misspent lives,
Beside the camp-fire there we sat -- what tales you told to me
Of love and hate, and chance and fate, and temporary wives!
In Rory Borealis Land, beside the Arctic Sea.

One yarn you told me in those days I can remember still;
It seemed as if I visioned it, so sharp you sketched it in;
Bellona was the name, I think; a coast town in Brazil,
Where nobody did anything but serenade and sin.
I saw it all -- the jewelled sea, the golden scythe of sand,
The stately pillars of the palms, the feathery bamboo,
The red-roofed houses and the swart, sun-dominated land,
The people ever children, and the heavens ever blue.

You told me of that girl of yours, that blossom of old Spain,
All glamour, grace and witchery, all passion, verve and glow.
How maddening she must have been! You made me see her plain,
There by our little camp-fire, in the silence and the snow.
You loved her and she loved you. She'd a husband, too, I think,
A doctor chap, you told me, whom she treated like a dog,
A white man living on the beach, a hopeless slave to drink --
(Just turn that bannock over there, that's propped against the log.)

That story seemed to strike me, pal -- it happens every day:
You had to go away awhile, then somehow it befell
The doctor chap discovered, gave her up, and disappeared;
You came back, tired of her in time . . . there's nothing more to tell.
Hist! see those willows silvering where swamp and river meet!
Just reach me up my rifle quick; that's Mister Moose, I know --
There now, I've got him dead to rights . . . but hell! we've lots to eat
I don't believe in taking life -- we'll let the beggar go.

Heigh ho! I'm tired; the bannock's cooked; it's time we both turned in.
The morning mist is coral-kissed, the morning sky is gold.
The camp-fire's a confessional -- what funny yarns we spin!
It sort of made me think a bit, that story that you told.
The fig-leaf belt and Rory Bory are such odd extremes,
Yet after all how very small this old world seems to be . . .
Yes, that was quite a yarn, old pal, and yet to me it seems
You missed the point: the point is that the "doctor chap" . . . was ME. . . .

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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