Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter VIII
THE COUNTRY OF THE IAKOUTS.
THE original itinerary, such as it was to be followed from the Behring Strait to the European frontier, had been necessarily modified by the long drift and the subsequent landing at the archipelago of New Siberia.
Crossing Asiatic Russia in its southern part was now out of the question. Besides, the fine season would presently improve the condition of the climate, and there would be no need for the projected winter quarters in a Siberian village. Indeed, it may be said that the issue of the recent events had been as favorable as wonderful.
Now the problem to be studied was the direction to be taken, so as to reach the Ural frontier between Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, in the shortest possible time. And that question Mr. Sergius had determined to solve before leaving the encampment they had just made on the coast.
The weather was cahn and clear. Now that the solistitial period was at its full, daylight lasted for more than eleven hours, and was, in a kind of way, still further prolonged by the twilight, which keeps on for a considerable time in the seventieth parallel.
The little caravan was now composed of ten persons. Kirschef and Ortik having joined it, as has been remarked. Although there was no very intimate sympathy between them and their companions, the two Russian sailors were among the proteges of the Fair Rambler; they had their place around the common table; it was even agreed they should sleep inside the wagon so long as the temperature would not permit them to sleep in the open air.
For the mean temperature still kept within a few degrees below zero,—a fact it was easy to ascertain since the “amiable Chicky-Chicky” had restored the thermometer to its legitimate owner. The ground, as far as the eye could reach, was entirely buried under an immense winding-sheet, and would remain so until the April sun would shine upon it. On this hardened snow, as well as on the grassy plains of the steppes, the team of reindeer would be well able to draw the heavy wagon along.
Thus far the provision of fodder so graciously supplied by the Kotelnoi natives had been amply sufficient for the cattle; henceforth, what with the moss that they root out from under the snow, what with the leaves of the shrubs scattered here and there on the soil of Siberia, they would provide their own food themselves. Nor should we omit to put it on record, that during the trip across the ice-field. the new team had shown great docility, and Clovy had experienced no difficulty in driving them.
The travelers' food was equally assured, thanks to the stock of preserves, flour, grease, rice, tea, biscuits, and brandy, which was still safe in the Fair Rambler. Cornelia had, moreover, at her disposal, a certain quantity of native-made butter, packed in small boxes of birch-wood, which friend Chicky-Chicky had presented to friend Cascabel; all they needed to renew was their provision of paraffine oil, and that could be done at the first village they came to. Besides, fresh game would soon rise on their track, and many a time would Mr. Sergius and John have an opportunity to utilize their skill, to the profit of the kitchen.
The help of the two Russian sailors was also to be taken into account. They had stated that the northern regions of Siberia were partly familiar to them, and there was every appearance of their proving useful guides.
This, indeed, was the subject of the conversation which was held in the encampment at the above date.
“As you have gone through this country before,” said Mr. Sergius to Ortik, “you are going to direct us—”
“It is the least I might do,” hastily replied Ortik; “seeing that it is thanks to Mr. Cascabel we are free men again.”
“Thanks to me?” exclaimed Cascabel. “Not a bit, but thanks to nature enabling my vocal apparatus to take excursion trips up and down my internal organization.”
“Ortik,” continued Mr. Sergius, “what direction do you advise us to take when we leave the bay of the Lena?”
“The shortest cut, if you please, Mr. Sergius. If it is a disadvantage to give a wide berth to the large towns in the more southerly districts, we shall feel at least that we are making straight for the Ural chain. Besides, there are any number of villages on the way in which you can renew your provisions, or even make a stay, if that is necessary.”
“What would be the use of that?” asked Cascabel. “We have no business stopping in villages. The great point is to lose no time and push on ahead as fast as we can. The country is not a dangerous one to go through, I guess?”
“Not at all,” answered Ortik.
“ Besides, we are in sufficient force, and woe betide the wretches who would attack our Fair Rambler! They would have cause to be sorry for it!”
“Be easy about that, Mr. Cascabel,” remarked Kirschef. “There is nothing to be feared.”
It may have been noticed that this Kirschef spoke but seldom. An unsociable fellow, sullen and taciturn, he usually let his companion “do the talking business.” Ortik was evidently gifted with more intelligence than he, indeed with more real intelligence, as Mr. Sergius had remarked on several occasions.
On the whole, the itinerary proposed by Ortik was such as to suit everybody. Avoiding the important towns, where they might fall in with military posts, was a suggestion which recommended itself to Count Narkine, at the same time as it was particularly agreeable to the two would-be sailors.
The general plan once adopted in principle, they had only to examine the various provinces through which they should strike obliquely, between the Lena and the Urals.
John, therefore, produced the map of Northern Siberia; Mr. Sergius made a careful study of those parts where the Siberian rivers are rather an obstacle than a help to travelers westward; and this is what was agreed upon:
To cross the Iakout district, where villages are few and far between, in a southwesterly direction.
To pass thus from the basin of the Lena to that of the Anabara, and thence to those of the Khatanga, the Ienisei, and the Obi, say a distance of some two thousand two hundred miles.
To journey on through the basin of the Obi to the Ural Mountains, the natural frontier of Russia in Europe, a shorter trip of less than four hundred miles.
Lastly, to continue southwest for another three hundred miles, and thus reach Perm.
This meant, in round numbers, three thousand miles.
Should they experience no delay along the road, should there be no obligatory stay in any of the villages, this distance could be covered under four months. From twenty to twenty-five miles a day was not too much to expect from the team, and under such conditions, the Fair Rambler would be at Perm, and afterwards at Nijni, by the middle of July, just at the time when the famous fair would be at its highest.
“Will you come with us right up to Perm?” asked Mr. Sergius, turning to Ortik.
“It is not likely,” answered the sailor. “After crossing the frontier, my idea would be to strike out for St. Petersburg, and from there make my way to Riga.”
“That's all right,” remarked Mr. Cascabel. “But let us get to the frontier first.”
It had been previously resolved that they would halt for “a good twenty-four hours,” as soon as they set foot on the continent. Such a halt was fully justified by their rapid transit across the ice-field, and so the whole of that day was given to rest.
The Lena throws itself into the gulf of that name through a zig-zag network of mouths, separated by a multitude of channels and creeks.
The waters poured into the Arctic Sea by this beautiful river have been gathered from a number of tributaries over a distance of 4500 miles. Its basin is considered as measuring no less than a hundred and five millions of hectares.
The map having been thoroughly examined, Mr. Sergius deemed it best that they should follow, at first, the coast line of the bay, so as to avoid the many channel-mouths of the Lena. Alihough the waters were still frozen, it would have been unwise to venture in such a maze. A chaos of huge blocks had been accumulated there by winter, and picturesque as were the veritable icebergs with which they were overtopped, they would have been none the less difficult to journey through.
Beyond the bay, on the contrary, lay the boundless steppe, hardly relieved here and there by the merest rise on its surface; here, the journey would be accomplished with ease.
No doubt of it, Ortik and Kirschef must have been frequently through these countries before. Their companions had remarked it more than once since they had left their prison quarters. These two sailors were quite expert hands at organizing an encampment, and at constructing a good ice-hut in case of need. They knew, as well as the native fishermen along the coast, how to cause the absorption of the dampness contained in their clothing by burying them under the snow; they were never at loss to distinguish between the blocks produced by the freezing of salt water and those due to the congealing of soft water; in fine, they seemed to have on their fingers' ends all those “tips and points” familiar to Arctic travelers.
That evening, after supper, the conversation, bearing not unnaturally on the geography of the north of Siberia, led Ortik to relate how himself and Kirschef had come through these parts.
“How is it,” asked Mr. Sergius, “that you sailors should have tramped through this country?”
“Mr. Sergius,” he replied, “two years ago, Kirschef. half a score of sailors, and myself, were at Arkhangel, waiting to get aboard some whaler, when we were hired to go to the relief of a ship that was in distress among the icebergs, north of the mouth of the Lena. Well, it is on our way from Arkhangel to this bay that we followed the northern coast of Siberia. When we reached the Seraski, we managed to set her afloat again, and we remained aboard for the fishing season. But, as I told you, she was wrecked that same season, and out of the whole crew, Kirschef and I were the only survivors. It was then we were driven by the storm on to the Liakhov Islands, where you found us.”
“And you were never in the Alaskan provinces?” inquired Kayette, who, it will be remembered, spoke and understood Russian.
“Alaska?” said Ortik. “That's a country in America, isn't it?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Sergius. “It lies in the northwest of the New World, it is Kayette's native country. Did your fishing excursions ever take you in that direction?”
“Don't know that part at all,” replied Ortik, in the most natural tone of voice.
“We never went beyond the Strait of Behring,” added Kirschef.
Once again the latter's voice produced its usual effect on the young woman, though she was utterly unable to recollect where she could have heard it. In any case, it could only have been in Alaska, since she had never been out of the country before.
However, after so explicit a reply from Ortik and Kirschef, Kayette, with that reserve natural to those of her race, asked no other question. But none the less, a prejudice—nay, an instinctive mistrust, toward the two sailors—remained fixed in her mind.
During this twenty-four hours' halt, the reindeer had been able to take all the rest they needed. Fettered though they were, they could go about, in the neighborhood of the encampment, and had been busy nibbling the shrubs and unearthing the mosses.
On the 20th of March, the little caravan set out at eight o'clock in the morning. The weather was bright and clear, the wind blowing from the northeast. The reindeer had been yoked four abreast, by means of a well-devised system of traces. They thus proceeded in four rows, guided on one side by Ortik and on the other by Clovy.
For six days they journeyed on without any occurrence worthy of mention. The most of the time, Mr. Sergius and Cascabel, John and Sander, went on foot throughout the whole day, and, now and then, Cornelia, Napoleona, and Kayette joined them, when no home duty kept them indoors.
Each forenoon, the Fair Rambler covered a koes, a Siberian measure of distance equivalent to twenty versts, say about eight miles. In the afternoon, its record was about the same, which made up five good leagues per day.
The 29th, after crossing on the ice the little river Olenck, Mr. Sergius and his companions reached the village of Maksimova, forty-two leagues southwest of the gulf of Lena.
There was no harm in Mr. Sergius stopping in this village, away in the extreme corner of the northern steppe. There was no Captain-Governor, no military post occupied by Cossacks; no cause of fear for Count Narkine's safety.
They were in the heart of the Iakout country, and the Cascabel party met with a kindly welcome at the hands of the inhabitants of Maksimova.
This country, hilly and wooded in the east and south. offers in the north nothing but vast level plains, enlivened here and there by a few clumps of trees, whose green foliage would soon be developed by the warm season. The plains produce an enormous quantity of hay, this being due to the fact that, while winter is very cold in hyperborean Siberia, the temperature is excessive during the summer months.
Here thrives a population of a hundred thousand Iakouts, who keep up the practices of the Russian rite. A religious, hospitable, moral people, they are grateful to Providence for the gifts they receive from her, and full of resignation when her hand weighs heavy upon them.
Along the road from Lena Bay to this village, a certain number of Siberian nomads had been met. They were strongly built men, of average height, flat-faced, dark-eyed, with thick heads of hair and no beard. The same types were found at Maksimova; their intelligence, their peaceful, sociable habits, and their industry, struck the visitors.
Those of the Iakouts who lead a nomadic life, always on horseback and always fully armed, are the owners of the numerous flocks scattered over the steppe. Those who live in the sedentary homes of the hamlets and villages are particularly given to fishing, and “make a living” out of the well-stocked waters of the thousand streams that the big river absorbs on its way to the sea.
However, gifted though they be with so many public and private virtues, they are too ready, it must be confessed, to make an excessive use of tobacco, and—what is of more consequence—of brandy and other spirituous liquors.
“To a certain extent they are excusable,” observed John. “For three whole months they have nothing but water to drink, and the bark of the pine tree to eat.”
While the nomads inhabit “yourts,” a kind of cone-shaped tent, made of some white woven stuff, the sedentary tribes occupy wooden houses, constructed according to the taste and the requirements of each one. These houses are kept with care; the slope of the roofs is very steep, and thus aids the melting of the snow under the rays of the April sun.
Hence, this village of Maksimova has quite a smiling appearance. The men are of a pleasant type; their countenance is open, they look straight in one's eyes, and their physiognomy is not devoid of a certain air of pride. The women seem graceful and rather pretty, though tattooed. Very reserved in their ways and habits, they would never let themselves be seen bareheaded or barefooted.
The party was cordially received by the Iakout chiefs, the kinoes, as they are styled, and by the elders, or starsynas, that is, the notables of the place. Each of them would fain have given the newcomers free board and lodging; but, while thanking them for their kindness, Cornelia would hear of no other than money transactions, and among other things she gladly purchased a provision of oil, her stock of which was no longer equal to the possible demands of her culinary department.
On this occasion, of course, as on every other, the Fair Rambler had produced its usual effect. Never had a showman's wagon been seen in this country. Many were the visits paid to it by natives of both sexes, and there was no cause to regret having granted them the privilege. In this province, indeed, thieving is very uncommon, even from strangers. And should it occur, immediate punishment overtakes the offender. As soon as convicted, he is scourged before the public; then after the physical chastisement comes the moral punishment; branded for the remainder of his life with the stain of his guilt, the culprit is deprived of all civil rights and can never again recover the title of “honest man.”
On the 3d of April, our travelers stood on the banks of the Oden, a small river which throws itself into the Gulf of Anabara after a course of a hundred and fifty miles.
The weather, hitherto very favorable, began to show signs of a change. Presently, a heavy fall of rain occurred. The first effect of which was to begin the melting of the snow. It lasted for a whole week, during which the wagon had to sludge its way through mire and dangerous swamps whenever it had to pass through marshy localities. Thus did spring herald itself in this high latitude, with a temperature averaging two or three degrees above zero.
This stage occasioned great fatigue to our wayfarers. But they had every reason to congratulate themselves on the co-operation of the two Russian sailors, who proved as devoted as truly useful.
On the 8th following, the Fair Rambler had reached the right bank of the river Anabara, some forty leagues from Maksimova.
They were still in time to cross the stream on the ice, although the field had commenced to break lower down. They could even from this place hear the noise of the blocks rumbling away toward the gulf; one week later, they would have had to seek a practicable ford,—which would have been no easy task, for the waters rise very rapidly with the melting of the snows.
Already the steppe, grown green once more, was getting carpeted with a crop of fresh grass very welcome to the team. The shrubs were budding. Before three weeks, the first leaflets would have burst out of their little cradles, along the stems. Nature was restoring new life, too, to the poor skeletons of the trees, that had been reduced to the state of dried wood by the cold of winter. Here and there, a few groves of birches and larch trees bowed their heads more readily under the softened breath of the breeze. All this hyperborean vegetation was reviving in the heat of the sun.
The provinces of Siberia in Asia are all the less desert, according as they are farther removed from the coast. Sometimes our troupe would meet a collector, on his way to gather the tax from village to village. They would stop and exchange a few words with the itinerant government official. He generally was not slow to accept the glass of vodka that was offered him; and then, with a hearty “safe home!” each party would go on its way.
One particular day the Fair Rambler fell in with a “convoy” of prisoners. The unfortunate wretches, sentenced to the salt-boiling establishments, were being led to the eastern confines of Siberia, and their Cossack escort spared them no evil treatment. Needless to say that Mr. Sergius's presence gave rise to no comment on the part of the commander of the escort; but Kayette, always suspicious of the Russian sailors, thought she noticed that they were anxious not to attract the attention of the Cossacks.
On the 19th of April, the wagon halted on the right bank of the Khatanga, which throws itself into the gulf of the same name. No more ice-bridge this time, no means of walking dry-footed to the opposite shore. A few drifting blocks were the last remnants of the breaking up of the ice. A fordable spot should needs be found, and a considerable delay might have ensued, had not Ortik discovered one about half a verst up stream. Nor was the river crossed without difficulty, the wagon being sunk into the water up to the axle-trees; this done, however, another stage of some seventy-five miles brought the Fair Rambler to the Lake Iege.
What a contrast, here, with the monotonous aspect of the steppe! It looked like an oasis in the middle of the sands of Sahara. Let a sheet of limpid water be imagined, with a girdle of evergreen trees, of pines and fir trees, clumps of shrubs in all the brightness of their fresh verdure, purple whortleberries, black “camarines,” red currant trees, and briers just crowned by spring with budding flowers.
Under the cover of the thickish underwood, clustering yonder on the east and west of the lake, Wagrani and Marengo will surely be at no loss to raise some game, be it a quadruped or a fowl, if Mr. Cascabel will only let them ferret about for a couple of hours.
And besides, on the surface of the lake, geese, ducks, and swans are swimming in numerous bands. Overhead, couples of cranes and storks swoop through the air, on their way from the central parts of Asia. The beholder would well-nigh clap his hands with delight, at a sight so full of charms.
On the proposal of Mr. Sergius, it was agreed they should make a two days' halt amid this landscape. The encampment was pitched at the head of the lake, under shelter of some tall pine-trees, the tops of which arched over the water's edge.
Then the sportsmen of the troupe, followed by Wagram, “took their guns and away,” after promising not to go too far. A quarter of an hour had scarce elapsed when their gun-shots commenced to be heard.
In the mean time, Mr. Cascabel and Sander, Ortik and Kirschef, resolved to try what a little fishing would bring along the bank of the lake. Their implements consisted merely of a few lines supplied with hooks, which they had bought from the natives at Port Clarence; but what more was required by fishermen worthy of the great art, and endowed with sufficient intelligence to cope with the cunning of a fish, and with patience enough to wait until he condescends to bite at their bait.
In reality, this last accomplishment was hardly necessary on the day in question; scarcely had the hooks reached a suitable depth when the floats at once began to bob at the surface of the water. So abundant was the fish that enough could have been caught in half a day to replace the meat on one's table from one end of Lent to the other. Young Sander was beside himself with delight; so much so, indeed, that when Napoleona came over and asked him to let her have the rod in her turn, he would not grant her request. This led to an argument and subsequently to the intervention of Cornelia. The latter, considering the fishing pastime had lasted long enough, ordered both the children and their father to gather up their tackle, and when Cornelia gave an order no time should be lost in complying with it.
Two hours later, Mr. Sergius and his friend John returned with their dog, who seemed to cast a wistful look of regret behind him at the half-explored thickets.
The sportsmen had not been less fortunate than the fishermen. For several days to come, the bill of fare would be as varied as excellent, what with the fish of Lake Iege and especially the splendid game indigenous to those territories of upper Siberia.
Among others, the sportsmen had brought home a number of those “karallys,” which move about in companies, and a few couples of those silly little birds called “dikoutas,” that are smaller than the wood-hen, but whose flesh is exquisite.
It is easy to imagine what a sumptuous dinner was prepared that day. The table had been laid under the trees, but none of the guests noticed that it was somewhat cool to banquet in the open air. Cornelia had surpassed herself with her grilled fish and roasted game. And as the supply of flour had been renewed at the last village, as well as the provision of lakout butter, no wonder if the cake of former days, with its golden brown crust, made its appearance at dessert-time. Each one had a few good sips of brandy-wine, thanks to certain flasks that the villagers of Maksimova had consented to part with, and the day came to a close without any cloud darkening its restful peace.
One would readily have believed that the period of trials was over, and that the famous journey would be accomplished to the greater honor and profit of the Cascabel family!
Next day was another day of rest, which the reindeer most religiously observed by incessant feeding.
On the 24th of April, at six in the morning. the Fair Rambler was under way again, and four days after, the western confines of the Iakout district had been reached.