Baby Sylvester, by Bret Harte

(The writer has taken up temporary quarters in the cabin of his friend
Sylvester, a California miner).

I do not remember how long I slept. I must have been conscious, however, during my slumber, of my inability to keep myself covered by the serape, [Footnote: Serape: a blanket or shawl commonly worn by the Mexicans.] for I awoke once or twice clutching it with a despairing hand as it was disappearing over the foot of the couch. Then I became suddenly aroused to the fact that my efforts to retain it were resisted by some equally persistent force, and letting it go, I was horrified at seeing it swiftly drawn under the couch. At this point I sat up, completely awake; for immediately after, what seemed to be an exaggerated muff began to emerge from under the couch. Presently it appeared fully, dragging the serape after it. There was no mistaking it now—it was a baby bear. A mere suckling, it was true—a helpless roll of fat and fur—but unmistakably, a grizzly cub!

I cannot recall anything more irresistibly ludicrous than its aspect as it slowly raised its small wondering eyes to mine. It was so much taller in its haunches than its shoulders—its fore legs were so disproportionately small—that in walking, its hind feet invariably took precedence. It was perpetually pitching forward over its pointed, inoffensive nose, and recovering itself always, after these involuntary somersaults, with the gravest astonishment. To add to its preposterous appearance, one of its hind feet was adorned by a shoe of Sylvester's, [Footnote: Sylvester: the author's friend in whose cabin he was staying at the time of the story.] into which it had accidentally and inextricably [Footnote: Inextricably: in a hopelessly involved manner.] stepped. As this somewhat impeded its first impulse to fly, it turned to me; and then, possibly recognizing in the stranger, the same species as its master, it paused. Presently, it slowly raised itself on its hind legs, and vaguely and deprecatingly [Footnote: Deprecatingly: regretfully, entreatingly.] waved a baby paw, fringed with little hooks of steel. I took the paw, and shook it gravely. From that moment we were friends. The little affair of the serape was forgotten.

Nevertheless, I was wise enough to cement our friendship by an act of delicate courtesy. Following the direction of his eyes, I had no difficulty in finding, on a shelf near the ridge-pole, the sugar box and the square lumps of white sugar that even the poorest miner is never without. While he was eating them I had time to examine him more closely. His body was a silky, dark, but exquisitely modulated gray, deepening to black in his paws and muzzle. His fur was excessively long, thick, and soft as eider-down, the cushions of flesh beneath perfectly infantine in their texture and contour. He was so very young that the palms of his half-human feet were still tender as a baby's. Except for the bright blue, steely hooks, half sheathed in his little toes, there was not a single harsh outline or detail in his plump figure. He was as free from angles as one of Leda's [Footnote: Leda: the maiden who was wooed by Jupiter in the form of a swan.] offspring. Your caressing hand sank away in his fur with dreamy languor. To look at him long was an intoxication of the senses; to pat him was a wild delirium; to embrace him, an utter demoralization of the intellectual faculties.

When he had finished the sugar he rolled out of the door with a half-diffident, half-inviting look in his eye, as if he expected me to follow. I did so, but the sniffing and snorting of the keen-scented Pomposo [Footnote: Pomposo: the writer's horse.] in the hollow, not only revealed the cause of his former terror, but decided me to take another direction. After a moment's hesitation he concluded to go with me, although I am satisfied, from a certain impish look in his eye, that he fully understood and rather enjoyed the fright of Pomposo. As he rolled along at my side, with a gait not unlike a drunken sailor, I discovered that his long hair concealed a leather collar around his neck, which bore for its legend the single word, "Baby!" I recalled the mysterious suggestion of the two miners. This, then was the "baby" with whom I was to "play."

How we "played"; how Baby allowed me to roll him downhill, crawling and puffing up again each time, with perfect good humor; how he climbed a young sapling after my Panama hat, which I had "shied" into one of the topmost branches; how after getting it he refused to descend until it suited his pleasure; how when he did come down he persisted in walking about on three legs, carrying my hat, a crushed and shapeless mass, clasped to his breast with the remaining one; how I missed him at last, and finally discovered him seated on a table in one of the tenantless cabins, with a bottle of syrup between his paws, vainly endeavoring to extract its contents—these and other details of that eventful day I shall not weary the reader with now. Enough, that when Dick Sylvester returned, I was pretty well fagged out, and the baby was rolled up, an immense bolster at the foot of the couch, asleep.

—BRET HARTE (adapted).

[Footnote: Why had the miners chosen the name "Baby Sylvester" for the bear cub? Read the story and explain the author's surprise at the appearance of the "Baby." Does the author describe the bear sympathetically and lovingly or as a naturalist? Illustrate. What qualities had the cub that endeared it to the author? Which of the senses predominates in the description? Illustrate. Would you consider "Baby Sylvester" capable of training? Why? Read the entire story and tell what becomes of the "Baby."]

Louise de la Ramee