Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter VII
A GOOD TRICK OF MR. CASCABEL'S.
TERRIBLE indeed was the beginning of February, a month when the mercury frequently freezes in the thermometer. Of course, it was nothing yet like the temperature of the interstellar space, like those two hundred and seventy-three degrees below zero, which immobilize the molecules of bodies and constitute the absolute solid state.
Still, one might readily have imagined that the molecules in the air no longer glided over each other, that the atmosphere was solidified: the air they breathed burnt like fire. The fall of the thermometrical column was such that the occupants of the Fair Rambler were compelled to remain indoors permanently. The sky was spotless; so bright and clear the constellations shone, it seemed as though the eye pierced through the farthest depths of the celestial canopy. As to the light of day, about noon-time it was but a palish mingling of the morning and the evening twilight.
This notwithstanding, the natives still braved the weather in the open air. But what precautions they took to save their feet, their hands, their noses, from sudden freezing! They were veritable perambulating bundles of furs. And what necessity drove them out of their dens under such climatic conditions? The will of their sovereign. Was it not imperative to see that the prisoners, who could not now pay him their daily visit, did not leave his domain?
To any ordinary creature this would have seemed altogether superfluous in such weather.
“Good-evening to you, you amphibious brutes!” Mr. Cascabel would say to them, as he looked at them through his little panes of glass, after removing the icicles from their internal surface. Then he would add: “Really, those things must have walrus blood in their veins!.... Why, there they come and go where respectable people would be frozen stark and stiff in five minutes!”
Within the Fair Rambler, which was hermetically closed, the temperature was maintained at a bearable degree. The heat from the kitchen stove,—in which they burnt fossil wood, so as to spare their stock of paraffine oil—permeated all the little rooms. These, indeed, had to be ventilated from time to time. But scarcely was the front door opened when every liquid substance inside the wagon froze instantaneously. There was not less than forty degrees' difference between the inside and the outside temperature,—a fact that Mr. Sergius could have ascertained, had not the thermometers been stolen by the natives.
By the end of the second week in February the temperature showed a slight tendency to rise. The wind having turned to the south, the snow again began to drift over this part of New Siberia with unequaled fury. Had not the Fair Rambler been sheltered by high mounds, it could not have withstood the squall; buried, however, as it was, deeper than the height of its wheels in the snow, it was now in perfect safety.
True, there were a few fitful returns of cold, which caused sudden changes in the state of the atmosphere; still, about the middle of the month the average thermometric record had gone up to some twenty degrees below zero centigrade.
Mr. Sergius, Mr. Cascabel, John, Sander and Clovy ventured accordingly to take a little outing, while using the utmost caution to anticipate the evil effects of too abrupt a transition. From the hygienic point of view, this was the greatest danger they were exposed to.
All the surroundings of the encampment had entirely disappeared under one uniform white carpet, and it was impossible to recognize any of the inequalities of the ground; nor was this for want of light, for, during two hours, the southern horizon was brightened up with a kind of pale light which was, henceforth, going to increase as the spring solstice would draw nearer. It then became possible to enjoy a few walks, and from the very first, by special command of Tchou-Tchouk, a visit had to be paid him.
There was no change in the intentions of the stubborn native. On the contrary, the prisoners were now warned that they should procure a ransom of three thousand roubles within the shortest possible delay, or Tchou-Tchouk would see what was best to be done.
“You abominable wretch!” said Cascabel to him in that pure French vernacular that his majesty did not understand. “You treble brute!—You king of fools!”
All these epithets, however applicable to the sovereign of the Liakhovs, did not improve the state of things. And a very serious feature in the case was that Tchou-Tchouk now threatened vigorous measures.
It was at this time that, under the sway of pent-up rage, Mr. Cascabel was struck with a truly splendid idea.
“By all the walruses of the Liakhovs!” he exclaimed, one fine morning, “if that trick, that jolly old trick, could only succeed!—and why wouldn't it?—with such fools!”
But although these words had escaped his lips, Mr. Cascabel deemed it advisable to keep his secret to himself. Not a word of it did he tell anybody, not even Mr. Sergius, not even Cornelia.
It appears, however, that one of the conditions essential to the success of his project was his being able to speak distinctly the Russian dialect used by the tribes of northern Siberia. So that, while Kayette was improving her acquaintance with French under the teaching of her friend John, Mr. Cascabel suddenly undertook to improve his smattering of Russian under the direction of his friend Sergius. And where could he have found a more devoted teacher?
And so, on the 16th of February, whilst taking an airing round the Fair Rambler, he acquainted the latter with his desire to learn the language more thoroughly.
“You see,” he said, “as we are going to Russia, it may be very useful to me to speak Russian; and I shall feel quite at home while we stay at Perm and Nijni.”
“Quite so, my dear Cascabel,” replied Mr. Sergius. “Still, with what you already know of our language, you could almost get along, even now.”
“No, Mr. Sergius, not at all. If I manage to make out what is said to me at present, I am utterly unable to make myself understood, and that is just what I should like to get at.”
“As you like.”
“And, besides, Mr. Sergius, it will kill time for you.”
On the whole, there was nothing to wonder at in Cascabel's proposal, and no one did wonder at it.
And behold him plowing away at his Russian with Mr. Sergius, keeping at it several hours a day, less, it would seem, with regard to the grammar of the language than its pronunciation. This was apparently what he specially aimed at.
Now, if Russians learn to speak French with great ease, and without keeping any of their own accent, it is much harder for French people to speak the Russian language. Hence it were difficult to realize all the care Mr. Cascabel bestowed on his study, all the efforts of articulation he made, and the powerful utterances with which he made the Fair Rambler resound, in order to acquire a perfect pronunciation of every word he learnt.
And really, thanks to his natural aptitude for languages, he made such remarkable progress as to astonish even his staff.
When the lesson was over, away he went on the beach, and there, where he was sure not to be heard by anybody, he practised a certain number of sentences in a stentorian tone of voice, uttering them on different keys, and rolling his r's after Russian style. And God knows if, in the course of his nomadic career, he had got into the habit of this full-mouthed oratory.
Sometimes he would meet Ortik and Kirschef, and as neither of them knew a word of French, he conversed with them in their own tongue, thus ascertaining that he was beginning to make himself understood.
These men now came to the Fair Rambler more frequently; and Kayette, who was always startled by the sound of Kirschef's voice, sought in vain to recollect on what occasion she could have heard it.
Between Ortik and Mr. Sergius the conversation, which Cascabel was now able to join, turned invariably on the possibility of leaving the island, and nothing practical could be devised.
“There may be one opportunity that we have not thought of yet, and that may present itself,” said Ortik one day.
“What is it?” inquired Mr. Sergius.
“When the polar sea opens again,” said the sailor, “it sometimes happens that whalers pass within sight of the Liakhov archipelago. If such luck happened us, might we not make signals to them and induce them to come along shore?”
“That would be exposing the crew to become Tchou-Tchouk's prisoners, like ourselves, and would not in any way help us to escape,” answered Mr. Sergius; “for the crew would not be numerous enough and would certainly fall a prey to the natives.”
“Besides,” added Cascabel, “the sea will not be free for three or four months more, and I'll never have patience till then!”
Then he added, after a moment's thought:
“And again, if ever we could get on board a whaler, even with that good old Tchou-Tchouk's consent, we should leave the Fair Rambler behind.”
“That is a parting we shall probably find it difficult to avoid,” observed Mr. Sergius.
“Probably?” said Cascabel. “Nonsense!”
“Could it be you have found something?”
And Mr. Cascabel said no more. But what a smile wandered on his lips! What a flash of light brightened up his countenance!
Cornelia no sooner heard of her husband's enigmatic reply than she said:
“Cæsar has undoubtedly made out something. What it is I don't know. But I am sure he has. After all, from such a man, it is no wonder!”
“Father has got more brains than Mr. Tchou-Tchouk!” added little Napoleona.
“Did you notice,” observed Sander, “that father has lately got into the habit of calling him ‘good old fellow’? Quite a little pet name—”
“Unless it be just the opposite!” suggested Clovy.
And in the mean time, Mr. Cascabel—like Demosthenes haranguing the Grecian billows—trained his vocal organs against the roar of the elements on the shore of the frozen sea.
During the second fortnight in February the temperature continued to rise uniformly; the wind kept in the south; the currents spreading through the atmosphere were sensibly less cold. There was therefore no time to be lost.
After having to battle with the breaking up of the Behring ice-field, thanks to the late coming of winter, it would be incredible ill-luck to be now exposed to similar dangers through the early advent of spring.
In a word, if Cascabel had made a hit, if he did induce Tchou-Tchouk to let him go with his staff and material, this should take place while the ice-field was still one solid mass between the archipelago and the coast of Siberia. The ice-field being crossed, the Fair Rambler could then, with a good team of reindeer, cover the first part of her journey with comparative ease, and no possible breaking up of frozen seas would now trouble the travelers.
“Say, my dear Cascabel,” Mr. Sergius asked, one day. “you really do hope that your old rascally Tchou-Tchouk will supply you with the reindeer you need to draw the wagon to the continent?”
“Mr. Sergius,” said Cascabel with a very serious look, “Tchou-Tchouk is not an old rascal! He is, in truth, a good fellow, an excellent fellow. Now, if he allows us to depart, he will permit us to take the Fair Rambler with us, and if he shows us such kindness, he cannot do less than offering us a score of reindeer, fifty, a hundred, a thousand reindeer, if I demand them!”
“You have a hold of him, then?”
“Have I?—Just as if I held the tip of his nose between my fingers, Mr. Sergius! And when I catch hold, I catch hold, I do!”
Cæser's attitude was that of a man who is sure of himself, his smile that of self-satisfaction. On this occasion, he even went so far as placing the tip of his right hand to his lips and sending a flying kiss in the direction of Tchou-Tchouk's residence. But, feeling that he wished to keep his own counsels in this matter, Mr. Sergius had sufficient tact and good taste not to inquire further.
And now, owing to the return of a milder temperature, Tchou-Tchouk's subjects were resuming their habitual occupations, their bird catching and seal hunting. At the same time, the religious ceremonies, momentarily suspended during the period of intense cold, brought back the faithful to the grotto of the idols.
It was on the Friday in each week that the tribe assembled in largest number and with greatest pomp. Friday, it seems, is the Neo-Siberian Sunday. Now, on this Friday, the 29th,—1868 was leap-year,—a general procession of all the natives was to take place.
The previous evening, at bed-time, Mr. Cascabel simply said:
“To-morrow, let everybody be ready for the Vorspük ceremony; we shall all accompany our friend Tchou-Tchouk.”
“What, Cæsar,” said Cornelia, “you want us to—”
What could be the meaning of so imperative a recommendation? Did Cascabel hope to win the good graces of the sovereign of these isles by taking part in his superstitious worship? No doubt Tchou-Tchouk would have been pleased to see his prisoners paying their homage to the divinities of the country. But adoring them, embracing the religion of the natives, was quite another thing, and it was most unlikely that Mr. Cascabel would go the length of apostacy for the sake of alluring His Neo-Siberian Majesty. Fie on the very thought!
Be that as it might, next morning at break of day the whole tribe was on foot. Glorious weather; a temperature marking barely ten degrees below zero; and as much as four to five hours' daylight in perspective, with a little foretaste of sunlight peeping yonder over the horizon.
The inhabitants had come out of their mole-hills. Men, women, children, old people had put on their Friday-best sealskin cloaks and reindeer palsks. They presented an unequaled show of white and black furs, of hats embroidered with imitation pearls, of variegated breastplates, of leather strips fastened tight around their heads, ear-rings, bracelets, walrus-bone jewels hanging from their noses, etc.
Nor had all this appeared sufficient for so solemn an occasion. For some of the notables of the tribe had thought fit to adorn themselves with greater splendor still, i.e. with the various objects stolen out of the Fair Rambler.
And, sure enough, not to speak of the showman's tinsel trumpery that they had decked themselves with, of the clown's hats and the dime-museum helmets they had put on their heads, some wore on a string slung over their shoulders the steel rings used for juggling exercises, others had hung on their belts a row of wooden balls and dumb-bells, finally the great chief Tchou-Tchouk displayed a barometer on his chest as though it were the insignia of a new order, created by the sovereigns of New Siberia.
Needless to say the full orchestra of the troupe was there, the horn vying with the trombone, the tambourine endeavoring to drown the big drum, all mingling in frightful discord.
Cornelia was no less enraged than her children at the deafening concert of these artists, to whom “walruses could have given points,” as Clovy said.
Well, incredible as it may seem, Mr. Cascabel positively smiled at the barbarians; he complimented them, hurrahed and clapped his hands, shouted “Bravo! bravo!” and would keep on repeating:
“Really, these people surprise me! They are particularly gifted for music! If they'll only accept engagements in my troupe I guarantee them enormous success at the Perm fair and at St. Cloud afterwards.”
Meanwhile, in the middle of this tumult, the procession was going through the village on its way to the sacred place, where the idols awaited the homage of their faithful ones. Tchou-Tchouk walked at their head. Immediately behind him came Mr. Sergius and Mr. Cascabel, then the latter's family and the two Russian sailors, escorted by the whole population of Tourkef.
The cortege soon stopped before the rocky den in which stood the gods, wrapped up in gorgeous furs and adorned with paintings that had been newly “touched up” for the occasion.
Then Tchou-Tchouk entered the Vorspük, his hands raised heavenward, and after bowing his head three times, he squatted on a carpet of reindeer skins, spread on the ground. Such was the way to kneel down in that country.
Mr. Sergius and his companions hastened to imitate the sovereign, and the whole crowd fell to the ground behind them.
After all had become silent, Tchou-Tchouk drawled out a few words half chanted, half spoken, to the three idols.
Suddenly a voice is heard in answer to his invocation, a distinct, powerful voice, coming from the inner part of the cavern.
Wonder of wonders! The voice comes out of the beak of one of the divinities, and this is what it says in Russian:
“Ani sviati, êti innostrantzi, katori ote zapada prichli! Zatchéme ti ikhe podirjaïche?”
“These strangers, who have come from the West, are sacred! Why do you detain them?”
At these words, distinctly heard by all the worshipers, there was general stupefaction.
It was the first time that the gods of New Siberia condescended to speak to their faithful.
Then, a second voice, in a tone of command, issues from the beak of the idol on the left, and thunders out:
“Ja tibié prikajou élote arrestantof otpoustite. Tvoïe narode doljne dlia ikhe same balchoïe vajestvo imiète i nime addate vcié vieschtchi katori ou ikhe bouili vziati. Ja tibié prikajou ou siberskoïé beregou ikhe lioksché vosvratitcia.”
Three sentences addressed to Tchou-Tchouk, and which may be translated:
“You are commanded to set these prisoners free! Your subjects are commanded to show them every kindness and to restore to them all the objects that have been stolen from them. All are ordered to help them to reach the coast of Siberia!”
This time the stupefaction of the audience turned to terror. Tchou-Tchouk had half-risen on his trembling knees, his eyes gazing fixedly before him, his mouth gaping, the fingers of his hands stretched widely apart, in a paroxysm of fright. The natives, who had also assumed a semi-standing position, hesitated between kissing mother earth once more and taking to their heels.
At last, the third divinity, who stood in the middle, begins to speak in its turn. But lo, how terrible, how wrathful and threatening is its voice!
Its words also are aimed directly at His Neo-Siberian Majesty:
“Jesle ti take niè sdièlèle élote toje same diène, kakda èti sviati tchéloviéki boudoute jelaïte tchorte s'tvoié oblacte!”
That is to say:
“If this be not done on the day when these sacred people will desire it, let your tribe be vowed to celestial wrath!”
By this time, both the king and his subjects were panting with affright, and lay almost motionless on the soil, while Mr. Cascabel, raising his two arms toward the idols in token of gratitude, thanked them loudly for their divine intervention on his behalf.
And meanwhile his companions made all possible efforts to refrain from bursting out with laughter.
A simple trick of ventriloquism was the means devised by our genius, our truly unsurpassed artist, to bring his “good, honest fellow” Tchou-Tchouk, to reason.
What more was needed to dupe the superstitious natives?
“The strangers who have come from the West,”—(what a happy expression Mr. Cascabel had hit upon),—“the strangers who have come from the West are sacred! Why does Tchou-Tchouk detain them?”
He surely would do so no longer! He would let them go as soon as they liked, and the natives would show all sorts of kindness to travelers so visibly protected by heaven!
And while Ortik and Kirschef, who knew nothing of Mr. Cascabel's talents as a ventriloquist, did not conceal their real bewilderment, Clovy repeated:
“What a genius my boss is! What brains he has got! What a man, unless—”
“Unless he be a god!” exclaimed Cornelia, bowing low before her husband.
The trick had been played, and it proved a thorough success, thanks to the unheard-of credulity of the Neo-Siberian tribes. This credulity had been judiciously observed by Cascabel, and that was what had suggested to him the thought of turning his ventriloquial powers to profit for the general cause.
It is useless to add that his companions and he were all led back to their encampment with all the honors due to “sacred” men. Tchou-Tchouk, half through fear, half through respect, was at a loss to know what salutations to make to them, what compliments to pay them. The Cascabels and the Kotelnoi idols were well-nigh being merged into one in his mind.
And, in truth, how could these Tourkef people, sunk in such ignorance as they were, have imagined they were the dupes of a juggler? Not a doubt of it, it was the divinities in the Vorspük that had sent forth those dreadful utterances.
It was out of their beaks, hitherto silent, that those injunctions in very plain Russian had come. And, besides, had there not been a precedent? Had not Jako, the parrot, spoken too? Had not the natives heard in amazement the words that escaped from his beak? Well, what a bird had done, why might not bird-headed gods do it also?
From this day forward, Mr. Sergius, Cæsar Cascabel, and his family, not to forget the two sailors who were claimed as countrymen, could consider themselves as free. The winter season was now far advanced and the temperature was gradually becoming bearable. It was therefore resolved that no time should be lost in leaving the Liakhov Islands. Not that there was any reason to fear a change in the intentions of the natives. They were too thoroughly “bewitched” for that.
Mr. Cascabel was now on the best terms with his “friend Chicky-Chicky,” who would willingly have blacked his boots for him, if he had been asked. Of course “the good honest fellow” had seen to the immediate restitution of all the things stolen out of the Fair Rambler. He himself, on bended knees, had returned to Cæsar Cascabel the barometer he wore around his neck, and the “sacred man” had vouched to hold his hand for the religious kiss that Tchou-Tchouk deposited on it. Did he not consider that hand capable of hurling forth thunder and lightning and letting loose the billows and the winds?
In short, by the 8th of March, the preparations for the departure of the whilom prisoners were completed. Mr. Cascabel having asked for twenty reindeer, Tchou-Tchouk had straightway offered him a hundred, which his new friend declined with thanks, while adhering to his first request. All he asked for, in addition, was a stock of fodder sufficient for his team until they had crossed the ice-field.
Early on that day, the “sacred people” took leave of the natives of Tourkef. The whole tribe had collected to be present at their departure and wish them a safe journey.
“Dear Chicky-Chicky” was there, in the foremost rank, trembling with genuine excitement. Mr. Cascabel advanced toward him and giving him a gentle tap on his chest, simply said to him in French:
“Ta-ta, old brute!”
That familiar tap was destined to raise His Majesty still higher in the estimation of his subjects.
Ten days later, on the 18th of March, after journeying without danger or fatigue over the ice-field which joined Liakhov Archipelago to the Siberian coast, the occupants of the Fair Rambler reached the continent, at the mouth of the Lena.
After so many incidents and accidents, so many dangers and adventures since their departure from Port Clarence, Mr. Sergius and his friends had at last set foot on the mainland of Asia.