Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter V
THERE are, in this part of the Arctic Sea, three archipelagos, designated under the general name of New Siberia, and conaprising Long Islands, Anjou Islands, and Liakhov Islands. The latter, the nearest to the continent of Asia, consist of a group of islands lying between the 73d and the 75th degrees of latitude north, and the 35th and 140th of longitude east, on a surface of some forty thousand square miles. Among the principal ones may be named the isles of Kotelnoi, Blinoi, Maloi, and Belkov.
Barren lands these are; no trees, no product out of the soil; barely some signs of a rudimentary kind of vegetation during the few weeks of summer; nothing but bones of cetacea and of mammoths, accumulated here ever since the period of geological formation; fossil wood in very large quantities; such are the archipelagos of New Siberia.
Liakhov Islands were discovered in the early years of the eighteenth century.
It was on Kotelnoi, the most important and the most southerly of the group, some three hundred miles from the continent, that the staff of the Fair Rambler had landed, after a drift of forty days over a space of six or seven hundred leagues. To the southwest, on the coast of Siberia, lies the vast bay of the Lena, a wide opening through which the river of that name, one of the most important in northern Asia, pours out its waters into the Arctic Sea.
Evidently then, this Liakhov archipelago is the ultima thule of the polar regions in this longitude. Beyond it, right on to the insurmountable barrier of the polar ice, no land has been descried by navigators. Fifteen degrees higher is the North pole.
Our wanderers had therefore been cast ashore at the very world's end, although at a lower latitude than the latitude of Spitzbergen or that of the northern parts of America.
On the whole, granting that the Cascabels had journeyed farther north than they had originally intended to do, still they had constantly drawn nearer and nearer to Russia in Europe. The hundreds of leagues they had covered since leaving Port Clarence had caused them less fatigue than exposure to danger. Drifting away, under these conditions, was so much land journey saved through countries that are almost untravelable during winter. And there would have been, perhaps, no reason for complaining, if, by a last stroke of ill luck, Mr. Sergius and his companions had not fallen into the hands of the natives of Liakhov. Would they obtain their liberty or could they ever recover it by flight? It seemed doubtful. In any case, they would know all about it ere long; and when they were fixed on that point, it would be time enough to adopt a line of action, according to circumstances.
Kotelnoi Island is inhabited by a Finnish tribe, reckoning from three hundred and fifty to four hundred souls, men, women, and children. These repulsive-looking natives are among the least civilized of those who inhabit these parts, be they Tchuktchis, Ioukaghirs, or Samoyedes. Their idolatry is beyond belief, despite the noble efforts of the Moravian Brothers, who have never been able to conquer the superstitious spirit of these Neo-Siberians or their innate thieving and pillaging propensities.
The principal industry of the Liakhov archipelago consists in the catching of cetacea, great numbers of which frequent this part of the Arctic Sea, and likewise in seal hunting, these animals being as plentiful here as in Behring Island during the warm season.
Winter is very severe in this latitude of New Siberia. The natives live, or rather earth themselves, in the depths of dark holes, dug under heaps of snow. These holes are sometimes divided into rooms, where it is not difficult to maintain a pretty high temperature. What they burn is that fossil wood, not unlike peat, of which (as was already said) these islands contain considerable strata, not to mention the bones of cetacea, which are also used as fuel.
An opening, made by these Northern Troglodytes in the ceiling of their caves, supplies a means of exit for the smoke of their very primitive hearths. Hence, at first sight, the soil seems to emit vapors similar to those which come out of sulphur mines.
As to their food, the flesh of the reindeer constitutes its chief basis. These ruminants are parked on the islets and islands of the archipelago in large flocks. Their “table” is, moreover, provisioned with the flesh of the elk and with dried fish, large quantities of which are stored up before winter. It follows therefrom that the Neo-Siberians need have no fears on the score of famine.
One chief was at this time reigning over the Liakhov group. His name was Tchou-Tchouk, and he wielded an uncontested authority over his subjects. In their abject submission to the regime of absolute monarchy, these natives are the very antithesis of the Eskimos of Russian America, who live in a kind of republican equality. And with respect to social well-being, they differ even more from them, thanks to their savage manners and inhospitable ways, which are the source of frequent complaints on the part of whalers. Alas for the good-hearted natives of Port Clarence! How they would be regretted, ere long!
Certain it is that the Cascabels could not have fared worse! After the catastrophe in Behring Strait, coming to land just on the Liakhov archipelago, and falling among such unsociable creatures, was indeed outstripping all the bounds of ill luck.
Nor did Mr. Cascabel conceal his disappointment when he saw himself surrounded with some hundred natives, howling, gesticulating, and threatening the castaways whom the vicissitudes of this luckless journey had thrown into their power.
“Well, well, who are these apes after?” he exclaimed, after pushing away those who were closing too near him.
“After us, father!” said John.
“A funny way they have of bidding visitors welcome! Are they thinking of eating us up?”
“No, but very probably they intend keeping us prisoners on their island!”
“Yes, as they have done already with two sailors who arrived here before us.”
John had no opportunity to give more complete details. The new-comers had just been seized by a dozen natives, and, whether they willed it or not, they had of necessity to follow their captors to Tourkef village, the capital of the archipelago.
Meanwhile, a score of other savages started in the direction of the “Fair Rambler”, which could be perceived away in the east, thanks to the little streak of smoke issuing from its funnel.
A quarter of an hour later the prisoners had reached Tourkef, and were led into a pretty large cave dug under the snow.
“This is the jail of the locality, no doubt!” remarked Mr. Cascabel, as soon as they were left alone around a fire, lighted in the center of the hovel.
But first of all John and Kayette had to tell the tale of their adventures.
The block of ice on which they were had followed a westerly course after it had been lost to sight behind the drifting bergs. John held the young girl in his arms lest she should be knocked off by the continual shocks they received. They had no provisions; they were fated to be without a shelter for long hours to come; but at least they were together. Keeping close against each other, they would not feel hungry or cold, perhaps.
Night came on. Even though they could not see, they could hear each other. The hours passed on in the midst of continual anguish and with the never-ceasing dread of being thrown into the abyss beneath them. At last the pale rays of dawn appeared, and just then their float was locked to the ice-field.
Away John and Kayette ventured over the immense waste; they walked on and on, and at last reached Kolelnoi Island, where they naturally fell into the hands of the natives.
“And you say, John, that there are other shipwrecked prisoners?” inquired Mr. Sergius.
“There are, sir.”
“You have seen them?”
“Mr. Sergius,” said Kayette, “I have been able to understand these people, for they talk Russian; and they spoke of two sailors who are kept prisoners in the village.”
As a matter of fact, the language of the northern tribes of Siberia closely resembles Russian, and Mr. Sergius would be in a position to explain himself with the inhabitants of these isles. But what was there to expect from these plunderers who, driven away from the more populous provinces near the mouths of the rivers, have sought in the far away archipelagos of New Siberia a den of safety, where they have nothing to fear from the Russian authorities.
However, Mr. Cascabel's ill temper knew no bounds since he had been denied the liberty of going and coming where he willed. He repeated to himself, and not without good grounds, that the Fair Rambler would be descried, pillaged, destroyed, perhaps, by these ruffians. In truth, it was not worth while having escaped out of the cataclysm in the Strait of Behring, to come headlong into the claws of this “polar vermin.”
“Come, Cæsar,” Cornelia would say to him, “compose yourself. What use is there in flying into a passion! After all, much worse than all this might have befallen us!”
“Why, of course, Cæsar! What would you say if we had not found John and Kayette? Well, there they are, both of them, and we are alive, all of us! Just think of the dangers we have run, and escaped! Why, it is nothing short of a miracle, and my opinion is that instead of raving like a madman, you ought to be thanking Providence—”
“So I do, Cornelia, thank Providence from the bottom of my heart. All the same, surely it's no harm if I curse the devil for having pitchforked us into the clutches of those monsters! Why, they are more like brutes than like human creatures!”
And Cascabel was right, but Cornelia was not wrong. Not one of the guests of the Fair Rambler was missing. Such as they had left Port Clarence, such they had met together again in this Tourkef village.
“Yes, we are all together again, inside a mole-hill, or a polecat's hole, if you choose,” grumbled Cascabel; “a den that an ill-licked bear would not consent to lie in!”
“By Jove!—What about Clovy?” exclaimed Sander.
And, forsooth, what had become of the poor fellow who had been left in charge of the wagon? Had he, at the risk of his life, attempted to defend his master's property? Was he now in the power of the savages?
And now that Sander had recalled Clovy to the members of the family then present:
“And what about Jako!” said Cornelia.
“And John Bull!” said Napoleona.
“And our dogs!” added John.
Needless to say that all the sympathy was for Clovy, The ape, the parrot, Wagram and Marengo were, of course, a question of very secondary consideration.
At this moment a loud noise was heard outside. There was a veritable storm of indignant recriminations, and to the general confusion was superadded the barking of the two dogs. Almost immediately, the orifice used to gain access to the den was flung open; in bounded Wagram and Marengo, and after them appeared Clovy.
“Here I am, boss!” cried the poor fellow, “unless, maybe, it's not myself! For I really don't know what's become of me!”
“That's exactly how we feel, too!” replied the boss, as he stretched out his hand to him.
“And our Fair Rambler?” inquired Cornelia tremblingly.
“The Fair Rambler?” answered Clovy. “Why, those gentlemen outside ferreted it out under the snow; they yoked themselves to it like so many heads of cattle and brought it here to this village.”
“And Jako?” said Cornelia.
“And Jako, too.”
“And John Bull?” added Napoleona.
“And John Bull, likewise.”
Everything considered, since the Cascabels were detained at Tourkef, it was better their wagon should be there too. although running the risk of being ransacked.
Meanwhile hunger began to make itself felt, and there was no visible sign of the natives concerning themselves about the feeding of their prisoners. Very fortunately, the prudent Clovy had taken the precaution of cramming his pockets, and out of their depths he drew several tins of preserves, which would be sufficient for the first meals. Then, all wrapped themselves up in their furs and slept as well as they could in an atmosphere rendered almost unbreathable by the smoke from the peat fire.
Next morning, the 4th of December, Mr. Sergius and his companions were led out of their hovel; and with unspeakable relief they slowly inhaled the outer air, although the cold was intense and keen.
They were brought to the presence of Tchou-Tchouk.
This cunning-faced personage, whose general appearance was the reverse of attractive, occupied a sort of subterraneous dwelling, larger and more comfortable than the dens of his subjects. It had been dug at the foot of a huge, gloomy, snow-capped rock, the summit of which was not unlike the head of a bear.
Tchou-Tchouk might have been fifty years of age. His smooth face, lit with a pair of small eyes which glistened like live coals, was animalized, if I may apply the word to the facial aspect of the lower animals, by the sharp tusks that came out between his lips. Seated on a heap of furs, clad in reindeer skins, his legs buried in sealskin bouts and his “upper end” duly protected by a fur hood, he lazily nodded his head backward and forward.
“What an astute old scoundrel he looks!” murmured Mr. Cascabel.
By his side stood two or three notables of the tribe. Outside lounged a half hundred natives, clad much in the same way as their chief; whether men or women the prisoners could not tell, Neo-Siberian fashion in dress being no “respecter” of sexes.
And first of all, Tchou-Tchouk, addressing Mr, Sergius, whose nationality he doubtless had guessed, said to him in very intelligible Russian:
“Who are you?”
“A subject of the Czar!” replied Mr. Sergius, thinking that the imperial title might perchance awe this petty sovereign of an archipelago.
“And those?” continued Tchou-Tchouk, pointing to the members of the Cascabel family.
“French?” repeated the chief.
And it seemed as though he had never heard of a people or a tribe of that name.
“Why, of course, French!—French people from France, you old wretch!” exclaimed Mr. Cascabel.
But this was said in the most vernacular French, and with all the freedom of speech of a man who feels sure and certain that he will not be understood.
“And she?” inquired the monarch, turning to Kayette; for it had not escaped his notice that the young girl should be of a different race.
“An Indian,” answered Mr. Sergius.
Whereupon a somewhat lively conversation ensued between him and Tchou-Tchouk, the principal passages of which he translated for his friends.
The outcome of the whole discussion was that the party should consider themselves prisoners, and that they should remain on Kotelnoi Island so long as they would not have paid down, in good Russian money, a ransom of 3000 roubles.
“And where does this son of Ursa Major think we shall get them?” cried Cascabel. “No doubt, by this time his ruffians have stolen what remained of your money, Mr. Sergius!”
The king made a sign, and the prisoners were shown out. They were allowed to go about in the village on condition that they would not leave it; and, from the very first day, they could notice they were closely watched. At this season, indeed, in the heart of winter, it would have been impossible for them to run away with a view to reach the continent.
Straightway the whole troupe had made for the Fair Rambler. A great number of natives had crowded around it, in ecstasy before John Bull, who gratified them with his choicest grimaces. They had never seen an ape before, and imagined, very probably, that this red-haired quadruman belonged to the human species.
“Why, they belong to it themselves!” remarked Cornelia.
“They do, but they are a disgrace to it,” added her husband.
Then, on second thought:
“And, my word!” said he, “I made a big mistake in calling those savages ‘apes’! They are not up to them in any respect, and I offer you my best apologies for what I said, my little John Bull!”
And by way of answering, John Bull turned heels over head. But, one of the natives having tried to get hold of his hand, he bit his finger so deep as to make the blood flow.
“That's it, John Bull! Bite them! Bite them hard!” called Sander.
This, however, might have ended unpleasantly for the little ape, and he might have paid a dear price for his bite, if the attention of the natives had not been drawn away by the apparition of Jako; his cage had just been opened, and he was coming out for a walk with the leisurely strut of an Eastern potentate.
Parrots were not known any more than monkeys in these archipelagos of New Siberia. No one had ever seen a bird of this kind, with such bright colors on its feathers, with two round eyes that looked like the glasses of a pair of specticles, and a beak curved round like a hook.
But who will describe the sensation Jako created when out of its beak came forth clearly articulated words! One followed another until the whole repertory of the loquacious bird had been poured out, to the utter amazement of the natives. A bird that spoke! And the superstitious creatures would throw themselves on the ground as if words had been uttered by the mouths of their divinities. Nor did Mr. Cascabel fail to excite his parrot the more:
“Go on, Jako!” he would say, teasing him the while. “Go on! Say all you like to them! Tell the fools to go to Jericho!”
And Jako would bid them “Go to Jericho,” one of his favorite expressions. And the bidding came out with such trumpet-like sound that the natives took to their heels, with all the outward signs of the greatest terror.
And, in spite of all their anxiety, the ill-fated troupe enjoyed “a hearty old chuckle,” as their illustrious head would have put it.
“Well, well,” he said, as he recovered a little of his old good temper, “it will be the very devil, surely, if we can't manage to get the better of this flock of two-footed cattle!”
The prisoners were left to themselves; and as it appeared that Tchou-Tchouk allowed the Fair Rambler to remain at their disposal, they had nothing better to do than re-enter their old home. No doubt the Neo-Siberians thought it inferior to their holes under the snow.
Truth to say, the wagon had been stripped only of a few unimportant articles, but what remained of Mr. Sergius's money had been taken away. This, however, Cæsar Cascabel had quite made up his mind that he would not leave behind, not even as a ransom.
Meanwhile, it was a stroke of good fortune that they should be once more in their little parlor, their dining-room, the little compartments inside the Fair Rambler, rather than live in the loathsome dens of Tourkef. There was scarcely anything missing. The bedding, the utensils, the tins of preserves had apparently failed to “tickle the fancy of the ladies and gentlemen of the locality.” And so, if they had to wait for months, watching their opportunity to escape from Kotelnoi Island,—well, they would winter where they were.
In the mean time, since they were left quite free to come and go as they chose, Mr. Sergius and his companions resolved to put themselves in communication with the two sailors who,—it was probable,—had been shipwrecked and cast on this island. They might, perhaps, act in concert with them and devise some plan to cheat Tchou-Tchouk's watchfulness and make their escape when circumstances would be favorable.
The remainder of the day was spent setting things in order inside the little home. No light task was it, either! And how Cornelia grumbled, she who was so very careful in her household work. It kept Kayette, Napoleona, and Clovy as busy as bees right away till bedtime.
It should be recorded, by the way, that from the time he had determined to play some huge trick on His Majesty Tchou-Tchouk, Mr. Cascabel seemed to have recovered from the recent blows he had received. “Richard was himself again.”
The following day Mr. Sergius and he went in search of the two sailors, who were very likely to enjoy the same liberty as they did. Sure enough, they were not kept in a prison; the meeting took place at the door of the den which they occupied at the other end of the village, and no objection whatever was made on the part of the native warders.
These sailors were of Russian origin; one was thirty-five years of age, the other forty. Cold, want, and hunger had furrowed their long-drawn cheeks; their sailors' clothes were covered with rags of fur; under their thick head of hair and their overgrown beard, their features could scarce be distinguished. They were the very picture of misery. Still, they were strongly built, muscular fellows, who would be well able to give a helping hand, should an opportunity present itself. For all that, it did not seem as though they were very desirous of getting intimate with these strangers, whose arrival on the island had already been announced to them.
The identity of their position, a common desire to get out of it by aiding each other, ought surely to have drawn the two parties together.
Mr. Sergius questioned the two men in Russian. The elder gave his name as Ortik, the younger as Kirschef; and, not without a certain amount of hesitation, they consented to tell their history.
“We are sailors belonging to the port of Riga,” said Ortik. “A year ago we embarked on board the whaler Seraski, for a season in the Arctic Sea. When it was over, we were unlucky enough not to reach Behring Strait in time; our boat was caught between icebergs, north of the Liakhov Islands, and was crushed to pieces. All the crew perished except Kirschef and myself. We set out together in a small boat; a storm drove us on to these islands, and we fell into the hands of the natives.”
“When was that?” asked Mr. Sergius.
“Two months ago.”
“How did they receive you here?”
“Like yourselves, most likely,” replied Ortik. “We are Tchou-Tchouk's prisoners; and let us off he won't, except for a ransom.”
“Where shall we get it?” interrupted Kirschef.
“Unless,” continued the other, in a blurting sort of a way, “unless, may be, you have money for yourselves and for us; for we are countrymen, I think—”
“We are,” answered Mr. Sergius; “but the money we possessed has been stolen by the natives, and we are quite as destitute as you can possibly be yourselves.”
“Worse luck!” growled Ortik.
Both, then, gave a few details on the way they lived. It was that narrow, dark cave they used for a dwelling-place; and, while watching them continually, their captors allowed them a certain degree of liberty. Their clothes were in rags, they had nothing to eat but the usual food of the natives, and that in barely sufficient quantity. They thought, moreover, that when the fine season drew near, they would be more closely guarded, and all attempt at an evasion would become impossible.
“Seeing that all we'd have to do would be to get hold of a fishing canoe, to get across to the continent, you may be sure that the natives will look after us, and perhaps shut us up!”
“But the mild season will not return for four or five months,” said Mr. Sergius, “and, remaining prisoners until then—”
“Why, you have a way to get off, then?” asked Ortik, interrupting him.
“We have not, at present. Meanwhile, it is quite natural that we should try and help each other mutually. You seem to have suffered a great deal, my friends, and if we can be of any assistance to you—”
The two sailors thanked Mr. Sergius, but there was a visible lack of candor in their thanks. If, from time to time, he would procure them some better food than what they had, they would feel grateful to him. That is all they cared for, unless he could, perhaps, oblige them with some covering. As to living together, they would rather not. They preferred staying in their hole, but promised to call on their visitors.
Mr. Sergius and Cascabel, the latter of whom had understood a few words of this conversation, took leave of the two sailors.
Although these men's appearance was all but sympathetic, this was no reason for refusing to help them. Shipwrecked people owe aid and assistance to each other. They would come to the relief of the sailors, therefore, within the limits of their means; and, should a chance of escaping offer itself, Mr. Sergius would not forget them. They were countrymen of his, after all; and they were men like him.
A fortnight elapsed, and they gradually fell in with the shortcomings of their new situation. Each morning they were compelled to appear before the native sovereign and to listen to his pressing demands about their ransom. He flew into fits of passion, would use threats and swear by his idols! It was not for himself, it was for them he claimed the tribute of deliverance.
“You old swindler!” Mr. Cascabel would say. “Commence by giving us back our money! We shall see afterwards!”
On the whole, future prospects were anything but bright with hopes. There was cause to fear that from one day to another Tchou-Tchouk might carry his threats into effect.
And day after day, Cascabel puzzled his brains to find out some means of playing “Cheek-cheek” a trick worthy of him. It was all to no purpose; and the poor artist began to wonder if his bag of tricks was not empty, and by his bag of tricks he meant his brain-box. Indeed, the man who had indulged that grand idea,—as bold as it was now to be regretted,—of returning from America to Europe by way of Asia, seemed but too fully justified in saying to himself that he was nothing more than a “regular fool.”
“No, Cæsar, you are not a fool!” Cornelia would say. “You will hit upon something choice in the end! It will strike you when you think of it least!”
“You think so, wifey?”
“I am sure of it!”
Was it not touching to see Cornelia's unshakable confidence in the genius of her husband, in spite of the unlucky plan he had conceived with regard to this journey?
Of course Mr. Sergius was ever there, ready to encourage everybody. And yet, the efforts he made to induce Tchou-Tchouk to give up his claims were absolutely fruitless. And even though the savage chief had consented to restore them their liberty, the Cascabels could not have left Kotelnoi Island in the middle of winter, with a temperature wavering between thirty and forty degrees below zero.
The 25th of December being at hand, Cornelia decided that Christmas should be celebrated with some éclat. The said éclat would simply consist in offering her guests a more carefully prepared dinner, one more plentiful than usual, although its various courses would be composed exclusively of preserves. Moreover as there was no lack of flour, rice, and sugar, the good housewife displayed all her skill in the making of a gigantic cake, the success of which was, beforehand, a certainty.
The two Russian sailors were invited to this meal, and accepted the invitation. It was the first time they had ever come inside the Fair Rambler.
No sooner had one of them,—the younger, called Kirschef,—opened is lips than the sound of his voice struck Kayette. She seemed to think that voice was not unknown to her; but where she could have heard it, she was unable to guess.
In truth, neither Cornelia, her little daughter, or even Clovy, felt any sympathetic attraction toward these two men, who seemed ill at ease in the presence of their own fellow-creatures.
As the banquet was drawing to an end, Mr. Sergius, at Ortik's request, was led to relate the adventures of the Cascabels in the province of Alaska. He added how he had been picked up half dead by them, after an attempt at murder committed on his person by some of Karkof's men.
Had their faces been fully in the light, these two men might have been seen exchanging a singular glance when the crime came to be mentioned. But this passed off unnoticed, and after taking their good share of the cake, which had been liberally soaked with vodka, Ortik and Kirschef left the Fair Rambler.
They were scarce outside when one of them said:
“There is a meeting that wasn't on the card! Why, that's the Russian we attacked just at the frontier; and that Indian is the cursed girl that prevented us finishing him off!”
“And clearing out his belt!” added the other.
“Yes! Those thousands of roubles would not be in Tchou-Tchouk's clutches now!”
And so, these two would-be sailors were really outlaws belonging to that Karkof gang, whose deeds had spread terror over western America. After their unsuccessful assault on Mr. Sergius, whose features they had been unable to notice in the darkness, they had succeeded in making their way to Port Clarence. There, a few days later, they had stolen a boat and had endeavored to cross Behring Strait; but, dragged away by the currents and a hundred times well-nigh hurled into the jaws of death, they had ultimately been cast on the chief island of the Liakhov Archipelago, where they had been made prisoners by the natives.