Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter IX
RIGHT ON TO THE OBI.
IT is useful to revert to the situation of the two Russians that some evil genius had thrown in the path of the Cascabel family.
It might be thought that, grateful for the welcome they had met with, Ortik and Kirschef had returned to better sentiments. No such thing had come to pass. After the many crimes they had already committed under Karnof, the wretches thought of nothing but fresh atrocities.
Their immediate aim was to get possession of the Fair Rambler and of the money restored by Tchou-Tchouk; then, having re-entered Russian soil under the disguise of showmen, they would resume their horrible life.
Now to carry out these plans, they should first “get rid” of their traveling companions, of the kind-hearted people to whom they were indebted for their liberty; this they would feel no hesitation about. But they would be unable to execute their designs without help; this is why they were making directly for one of the Ural passes frequented by the former accomplices of their evil deeds; there they would find as many lawless recruits as they needed to overpower the entire staff of the Fair Rambler.
Meanwhile, who could have suspected them of harboring such abominable intentions? They showed the utmost readiness to make themselves useful, and not a word of complaint had ever been uttered against them. While inspiring no sympathy, they aroused at least no feeling of mistrust,—save in the mind of Kayette, who could not overcome the first impression they had made upon her. Just for a moment the thought had flashed across her brain that it was on the night when Mr. Sergius had been assaulted on the Alaskan frontier that she had heard Kirschef's voice. But how could she believe that the murderers were the very two sailors they had afterwards found, nearly four thousand miles away from the spot, on one of the islands of the Liakhov Archipelago? So, while watching them closely, Kayette took good care to communicate her suspicions, in appearance so unlikely, to no one.
And now it is not amiss to mention, likewise, that if Ortik and Kirschef were suspicious in the eyes of the young girl, they, too, had their mischief-brooding instincts of curiosity aroused by Mr. Sergius's presence in the caravan. That a traveler, dangerously wounded on the frontier of Alaska, should have been picked up, nursed, and conveyed to Sitka by the Cascabels, was very natural. But, after his recovery, why had he not remained at Sitka? Why had he followed the showman's troupe to Port Clarence? Why was he even now accompanying them right across Siberia? The presence of a Russian in the ranks of itinerant artists was, to say the least, a strange occurrence.
And, one day, Ortik had whispered to Kirschef:
“Say, might not this fellow, Sergius, be trying to get back to Russia unknown to anybody? What do you say? May be there'd be something to be got out of that! I vote we keep our weather eye open on him.”
And without suspecting it. Count Narkine was being spied by Ortik with a view to find his secret out.
On the 23d of April, the travelers left the Iakout district and entered the territory of the Ostiaks. A miserable, half-civilized tribe these are, though this part of Siberia contains several rich tracts,—among others that of Berezov. As they passed through the villages of this region, they could perceive how different they were from the attractive picturesqueness of the lakout hamlets. Repulsive dens, hardly fit for cattle, where it were scarce possible to breathe,—and what an atmosphere!
Where else, indeed, could more loathsome beings be found than these natives, the following description of whom was read by John out of his “General Geography”:
“The Ostiaks of upper Siberia wear a double garment to preserve themselves against the cold: it consists of a thick layer of greasy dirt on their skin and the hide of a reindeer over it.”
As to their food, it is composed almost exclusively of half-raw fish and of meat which never undergoes any cooking process whatever.
Fortunately, the habits of the nomads—whose flocks are, here, also, scattered about over the steppe—do not exist in the same degree among the inhabitants of the chief villages. Thus at Starokhantaskii, our party found a population that was somewhat more presentable, though inhospitable and ill-disposed toward strangers.
The women, tattooed with bluish designs, wore the vakocham, a kind of red veil with blue stripes, a gaudily colored skirt, a lighter-shaded corset, whose defective make deforms their figure, and beneath it a wide belt, ornamented with round bells, which jingle at every movement they make, like the bells on the harness of a Spanish mule.
As to the men, during the winter season—and some of them still wore the winter fashions—they positively look like wild beasts, entirely wrapped up as they are in hides, the hair of which is turned outward. Their heads are covered over with the hood of the maltza and the parka, in which mere slits have been made for the eyes, the mouth, and the ears. Impossible to see one feature of their faces, however easily one might bear the privation.
Several times, along the road, our party met some of those sleds locally styled narkes, and usually drawn by three reindeer which, unencumbered by any other bar than a simple leather trace, which is passed under their chest, and a single rein fastened to their horns, can run on for twenty or twenty-five miles without taking breath.
Such performances were not to be expected from the team of the Fair Rambler; and in truth there was no cause to complain of their services, which were really valuable.
Commenting upon them, Mr. Sergius happened to remark, one day, that it might be prudent, perhaps, to substitute horses for them, as soon as they could get them:
“What, put horses in their place!” answered Mr. Cascabel. “Why so? Do you not think these animals will be able to bring us all the way to Russia?”
“If we were going to the north of Russia,” replied Mr. Sergius, “I should feel no anxiety; bui central Russia is very different. These reindeer support heat with great difficulty; it seems to overwhelm them and to render them unfit for any labor. And, as a proof, about the end of April, you see numerous flocks of them making their way toward the northern territories, and more especially the upper plateaux of the Ural, which are always covered with snow.”
“Well, we shall see when we reach the frontier. My word, it will cost me something to part with them! Just imagine the effect, if I entered the Perm fair with twenty reindeer yoked to the chariot of the Cascabel family! What an impression it would create! What a glowing advertisement!”
“Evidently, it would be splendid,” said Mr. Sergius with a smile.
“Triumphal, sir! Triumphal is the word! and, while we are on the subject, it is quite understood, of course, that Count Narkine is a member of my troupe, and that, an opportunity offering, he will have no objection to perform before the public?”
“Then you must not neglect your legerdemain lessons, Mr. Sergius. As you are supposed to be practising for your own pleasure, neither my children nor the two sailors can feel surprised at it. And, do you know, you are getting on wonderfully quick!”
“How could I help it with such a teacher as I have, friend Cascabel?”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Sergius, but I give you my word you possess very remarkable natural dispositions for the art. With a little practice, you would become a first-class juggler, and make money at it, too!”
On May the 6th, the Ienisei was sighted, some three hundred miles from lake Iege.
The Ienisei is one of the chief rivers of the Siberian continent, and throws itself into the Arctic Sea on the gulf of the same name, under the seventieth parallel.
By this time, not one iceberg was left on the surface of the wide river. A large ferry, for the use of vehicles as well as passengers, from one bank to the other, enabled the little caravan to cross the stream with its full complement of men and cattle, but at the cost of a rather heavy toll.
On the other side, the steppe again with its endless horizons. Not unfrequently, groups of Ostiaks might be seen performing their religious duties. Although most of them have been baptized, the Christian religion seems to have no very strong hold on them, and they still continue to kneel before the heathenish idols of the Shaitans. These are human-faced idols, hewn in large blocks of wood, a small model of which, ornamented with a brass cross, is to be found in every house, nay, in every cabin.
It would appear that the Ostiak priests, the Schamans, as they are called, derive a good living out of this double-sided religion, not to speak of the great influence they wield over these fanatics, at the same time Christians and idolaters. None but an eye-witness could beheve the earnestness with which these unfortunates wriggle and struggle, like people in epileptic fits, in the presence of their idols.
The first time young Sander saw a half-dozen of those possessed beings, he of course proceeded at once to imitate them, walking on his hands, disjointing his hips, bending backward, capering heels over head like a clown, and winding up his performance with a series of frog-leaps.
“I see, my child,” said the father, who had instantly turned his critical eye on the exercises, “that you have lost none of your suppleness. That's right, that's right! We must not get rusty! Think of the Perm fair! The honor of the Cascabel family is at stake!”
On the whole, the journey had proceeded without too much fatigue since the Fair Rambler had left the mouth of the Lena. Sometimes a detour had to be made round thick forests of pines and birch trees, which varied the monotony of the plains, but through which there was no beaten track.
Indeed, the country was almost desert. Miles of ground were traversed without meeting a hamlet or even a farm. The population is extremely scarce, and the Berezov district, which is the richest, does not contain more than 15,000 inhabitants on an area of 3000 kilometers. By way of compensation, and probably for that very reason, the region swarms with game.
Mr. Sergius and John could, therefore, indulge their sporting tastes to their hearts' content, at the same time as they stocked up Mrs. Cascabel's larder. Most part of the time they were accompanied by Ortik, who gave proofs of remarkable skill. It is by thousands that the hares scour the plains, not to mention the feathered tribe, the numbers of which are countless. Elks, too, there were, and deer and wild reindeer, and even huge-sized boars, formidable brutes, which our gunmen prudently abstained from disturbing.
As to birds, there were ducks and plungeons, geese, thrushes, heath-hens and hazel-hens, storks, and white partridges. Quite a variety, as may be seen! Hence, whenever a shot had been wasted on a slightly inferior game, Cornelia did not hesitate to throw it to the dogs, who gladly received their mistress's gift.
This abundance of fresh game naturally resulted in good living; such good living indeed that Mr. Cascabel was inclined to preach sobriety to his artists.
“Children, take care you don't get fat,” he would repeat to them. “Fat is the ruin of your joints. It is the bane of the acrobat! You eat too much! Come, moderate your appetite! Sander, I do believe you are getting stout! Stout at your age, for shame!”
“Father, I assure you!”
“None of your protestations. I have a great mind to measure you around the body every evening, and if I find any sign of embonpoint, I'll take the fat out of you!—It's just like that fellow Clovy! A blind man would see the fat accumulating on him!”
“On me, boss?”
“Yes, on you! And a clown has no business to get fat, especially when he rejoices in the name of Clovy! Why, in no time you'll be as round as a beer-barrel!”
“Unless, in my old days, I turn to a plantation pole!” replied Clovy, as he tightened his belt one hole higher.
The Fair Rambler had soon to get over the Taz, which pours out its waters into the gulf of Ienisei, just about the point where our itinerary cut the Arctic polar circle to enter the temperate zone. It may be seen thereby how obliquely it had leaned to the southwest since the Liakhov Islands had been left behind.
In this connection, Mr. Sergius, who always found an appreciative audience, thought it right to explain what this polar circle was, beyond which, during summer, the sun never rises more than twenty-three degrees above the horizon.
John, who already possessed certain notions of cosmography, understood the explanation. But despite all the efforts of his intellectual powers, Mr. Cascabel was unable to get that polar circle into his brain.
“In the way of circles,” he said, “those I know best are the hoops that the riders jump through, round the ring! After all, that is no reason why we should not drink the very good health of this one!”
And accordingly, the toast of the polar circle was honored with a good bottle of brandy-wine, just as the line is feted when ships cross from one hemisphere to the other.
The Taz was not crossed without some difficulty. No ferry plied across this little river and a fordable spot had to be found,—which required several hours. Again did the two Russians display the greatest zeal; and on several occasions, the wheels of the wagon having sunk into the soft bed of the stream, they readily set to work, with water up to their waist.
Less trouble was experienced, on the 16th of May, to get to the other bank of the Pour, a narrow river with a shallow bed and a slow current.
By the beginning of June the heat had become excessive, a fact which always seems anomalous in countries belonging to so high a latitude. During the last fortnight of the month, the thermometer marked from twenty-five to thirty degrees. As there was no shade whatever along the steppe. Mr. Sergius and his companions were severely taxed by this temperature. Even the night did not temper the sultriness of the day, for, at that period, the sun hardly disappeared beneath the horizon of these immense plains. After a slight dip to the north, its disk, like a ball of iron at white heat, at once rises again to resume its daily course.
“That nasty sun!” Cornelia went on repeating, as she wiped the perspiration from her face. “What an oven we are in! If we only could have had this in winter!”
“Then, winter would have been summer,” remarked Mr. Sergius.
“Just so!” said Cascabel. “But what strikes me as bad management is, that we have not one single lump of ice to cool ourselves with, after having had considerably more than we needed, for whole months together.”
“Come, friend Cascabel, if we had ice, it would be a sign that the weather was cold, and if it was cold—”
“It would not be hot! You are always right, Mr. Sergius!”
“Unless it was half and half!” Clovy deemed it right to add.
“That would be better still!” continued Mr. Cascabel “All the same, it's powerfully hot!”
It must not be supposed that the sportsmen had laid up their guns, for all that. The only difference was that they started very early in the morning, and a capital plan they found it. Indeed, they were rewarded, one day, with a splendid capture, all the honor of which fell to John. So large was this game that they had some trouble to fetch it home. Its coat was short; in the front part of the body, the hair was reddish and looked as if it had been gray during the winter months; along its back ran a yellow streak; its long horns curved gracefully over its head.
“What a beautiful reindeer!” exclaimed Sander.
“Oh, John!” said Napoleona, with a tinge of reproach in her voice, “why did you kill a reindeer?”
“To eat it, my little pet.”
“And I am so fond of them.”
“Why,” rejoined Sander, “since you are so fond of them you can eat as much of this one as you like; there will be enough for everybody!”
“Don't fret about it, my darling,” said Mr. Sergius. “That animal is not a reindeer!”
“What is it, then?” asked the child.
“It is an argali.”
Mr. Sergius spoke true. These animals, which inhabit the mountains during winter and the plains in summer, are, strictly speaking, overgrown sheep.
“Very well,” observed Mr. Cascabel, “since it is a sheep, Cornelia, we shall have mutton chops on the gridiron, if you please.”
And it was done accordingly. And as the flesh of the argali is extremely savory, it is probable that the manager of the troupe may have acquired, on that day, a little more embonpoint than was in accordance with the exigencies of his profession.
From this point forward, the track of the Fair Rambler toward the Obi lay through an almost barren country. The Ostiak villages became scarcer and scarcer; seldom did they meet, here and there, a few groups of nomads migrating toward the Eastern provinces. Nor was it without good reasons that Mr. Sergius sought in preference the least populated parts of this district; and it was important to avoid the large town of Berezov, situated a little beyond the Obi. Incased within a magnificent forest of cedars spread out in terrace fashion on the flank of a steep hill, surmounted by the steeple of its two churches, watered by the Sosva, on which incessantly ply the numerous vessels of the trading community, this city, with its two hundred houses, is the center of a largely frequented market, to which are conveyed the products of northern Siberia.
It was evident that the arrival of the Fair Rambler at Berezov would of necessity attract the curiosity of the public, and the police would not have failed to scrutinize rather closely the individual members of the Cascabel family. Better keep away from Berezov and even from the district of that name. Policemen are policemen; and, especially when they are Cossacks, it is more prudent to have no dealings with them.
This disinclination, however, on the part of Mr. Sergius, to pass by Berezov did not escape the notice of Ortik and Kirschef, and confirmed their suspicions that he was a Russian trying to re-enter Russia secretly.
The first week of the month of June had gone by when a slight modification was made in the itinerary, in order to cut to the north of Berezov. It was, at most, a detour of some thirty miles; and, on the 16th of the month, after having for some time followed the stream of a large river, the little caravan encamped on its right bank.
This river was the Obi.
The Fair Rambler had covered close on five hundred and fifty miles since it had left the basin of the Pour. A distance of barely three hundred miles now separated it from the European frontier. The chain of the Urals, the partition line between these two parts of the world, would soon terminate the horizon.