Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter X
FROM THE OBI TO THE URAL MOUNTAINS.
THE Obi, fed by the waters of the Ural on the west, and by numerous tributaries on the east, spreads over a distance of 4500 kilometers, and its basin does not contain less than 330,000,000 hectares.
Geographically speaking, this river might have served as a natural boundary line between Asia and Europe, if the Urals had not stood a little to the west of its course. From the sixtieth degree of latitude the river and the mountain run almost parallel. And whilst the Obi goes and throws itself into the vast gulf of that name, the extreme ramifications of the Ural are sunk deep beneath the Sea of Kara.
Mr. Sergius and his companions, standing on its right bank, contemplated the course of the river and the many willow-tufted islets with which it is dotted. Close to the river bank, aquatic plants waved to and fro their sharp-edged blades, now bright with fresh blooms. Up and down the stream, numbers of vessels glided along the cool and limpid waters, purified by their passage through the filter of the mountains, where they have their springs.
The boat service was regularly organized on this important artery, and, in consequence, the Fair Rambler was able to reach Mouji village, on the opposite bank, easily.
It is, in truth, but a small village, and as such was safe for Count Narkine, not being used as a military post. It was, however, becoming urgent to obtain duly legalized documents; for, the foot of the mountains was now within short distance, and the Russian authorities insisted on seeing the papers of every traveler who presented himself at the frontier. Mr. Cascabel, accordingly, resolved to get his papers duly “regularized” by the Mayor of Mouji: This formality having been fulfilled, Mr. Sergius, being comprised among the artists of the troupe, would succeed in entering the territory of the Russian empire without arousing the suspicions of the police.
Why should a deplorable misadventure have compromised a plan that seemed so easy of execution? Why were Ortik and Kirschef there, determined to mar its success? Why were they on the eve of bringing the Fair Rambler through one of the most dangerous passes of the Ural, where they would surely fall in with whole bands of malefactors?
And, meanwhile, Mr. Cascabel, who little dreamt of such a denouement, and could not therefore do anything to prevent it, congratulated himself on the successful prospects of his bold undertaking. After making his way through Western America and the whole of Northern Asia, here he was within 300 miles of the European frontier! His wife and his children, in perfect health, showed no signs of the fatigues of so long a journey. True, he had felt his courage fail at the time of the catastrophe in Behring Strait and during the drift on the Polar Sea; but he had proved himself more than a match for the “fools” on Liakhov Islands, and had made them enable the Fair Rambler to continue its journey through the continent.
“Verily, God does well what he does!” he would often say to himself.
A stay of twenty-four hours in this village of Mouji had been agreed upon. The inhabitants gave a cordial greeting to the new-comers, and Mr. Cascabel received, in its time, the visit of the gorodintschy, or mayor of the locality.
This official personage, somewhat distrustful of strangers, deemed it his duty to ask a few questions of the head of the family. The latter at once produced his “census paper,” on which Mr. Sergius was entered as one of the troupe.
The worthy mayor was not without a little feeling of surprise at seeing a countryman of his among French performers; for he had not failed to remark that Mr. Sergius was a Russian, and he drew Cascabel's attention to the fact.
The latter begged of him to observe that if there was a Russian among them, there was likewise an American in the person of Clovy, and an Indian in the person of Kayette. He was never concerned with the nationality of his artists; the all-important question with him was their talents. And he immediately added that the said artists would be but too happy if His Worship the Mayor,—this sounded better on Cæser Cascabel's lips than gorodintschy,—His Worship the Mayor would kindly permit them to perform in his presence!
His Worship was highly gratified by the proposal, which he straightway accepted, and promised to sign the papers after the performance.
As to Ortik and Kirschef, as they were entered on the list as shipwrecked Russian sailors on their way home, no difficulty was made about them.
Accordingly, in the course of the same evening, the whole troupe repaired to the residence of the gorodintschy.
It was a pretty large house, with a fine coat of yellow paint, in remembrance of Alexander I, who was particularly fond of that color. On the wall of the drawing-room hung an image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by the portraits of some Russian saints, looking their best in their silvered frames. Benches and stools had been placed in readiness for the mayor, his wife, and his three daughters. Half a dozen notables of the locality had been invited to share the enjoyment of this soiree, while the simple ratepayers of Mouji, huddled around the house, had the privilege of peeping in through the windows.
The Cascabel family was greeted with much sympathy. The exercises were commenced, and no one would have thought that the performers had neglected their rehearsals for several weeks. Young Sander's dislocations were highly appreciated, as was Napoleona's gracefulness; she had no tight rope at her disposal, and executed a step de circonstance, to the delight of the spectators. With his bottle juggling, his plates, his rings, and his balls, John astonished the beholders. After which, Mr. Cascabel's exhibition of muscular power proved him the worthy husband of Cornelia, who, on this occasion, carried two of the Mouji notables on her outstretched arms.
As to Mr. Sergius, he very cleverly went through several legerdemain tricks which his eminent professor had taught him,—not uselessly, as it now appeared. No doubt could now exist in His Worship's mind regarding the genuineness of this Russian's engagement in the itinerant troupe.
Jams, currant cakes, and excellent tea were then served all round. Then, the soirée having come to an end, the mayor signed without hesitation all the papers that Cascabel presented to him. The Fair Rambler was now legally in a position to face the Russian authorities.
It is worthy of notice, moreover, that the good mayor, a man in easy circumstances, felt bound to offer Mr. Cascabel a score of roubles in return for his performance.
Mr. Cascabel felt inclined, at first, to decline any renumeration; but, on the part of an itinerant showman, this might have seemed a strange proceeding.
“After all,” he said to himself, “twenty roubles is twenty roubles!”
And with a “world of thanks” he pocketed the sum.
The following day was devoted to rest. There were a few purchases to make, of flour, rice, butter, and various drinks, which Cornelia was able to obtain at reasonable prices. She would not think of renewing her stock of preserves in this poor village; but game was likely to be plentiful between the Obi and the European frontier.
By twelve o'clock, all the “shopping” had been done. Dinner-time came, and around the festive board there were two very sad hearts. Did not John and Kayette see the time draw near when they should part?
What would Mr. Sergius do when he had seen his father, Prince Narkine? It being impossible for him to remain in Russia, would he set out again for America, or would he stay in Europe? All this, it may be surmised, gave Cascabel great food for reflection. He would fain have his mind fixed on the subject, and accordingly, that same day after dinner, he asked Mr. Sergius if he would care to “come out for a stroll.”
The latter, feeling that his friend wished to have a private talk with him, readily acceded to the proposal.
Just then the two sailors were bidding good-by to the family, intending, they said, to wind up the day at some tavern or another in the village.
And so, Mr. Sergius and Mr. Cascabel left the Fair Rambler, walked a few hundred paces out of the village and sat down by the edge of a small wood.
“Mr. Sergius,” said Cæser, “if I have asked you to take a little ramble, it is because I would like to have a few words with you, by ourselves, concerning your situation—”
“My situation, my friend!”
“Or rather what your situation will compel you to do when you are in Russia.”
“Well, I am not wrong,—am I?—in reckoning that we shall be on the other side of the Urals in about ten days, and that we shall reach Perm in a week's time after that.”
“That's very probable, if there is no obstacle in the way.”
“Obstacles! Not one obstacle will there be!” replied Cascabel. “You will cross the frontier without the shadow of a difficulty! Our papers are in due form, you belong to my troupe, and who would ever dream that Count Narkine is one of my artists?”
“Nobody, of course, since the secret has been told to no living soul but Mrs. Cascabel and yourself, and that it has been kept—”
“As sacred as if she and I had carried it to our graves,” interrupted the showman, with much genuine dignity. “And now, Mr. Sergius, would it be an indiscretion on my part to ask you what you propose doing when the Fair Rambler halts in the streets of Perm?”
“I shall make all haste to the chateau of Walska, to see my father!” burst from the lips of Mr. Sergius. “It will be a great joy for him, a very unexpected joy, for it is now thirteen months since he has heard from me; thirteen long months since I had my last opportunity of writing to him! What must be his thoughts!”
“Do you intend making a pretty long stay with Prince Narkine?”
“That depends on circumstances that I cannot foresee. If my presence at home is suspected, I may see myself compelled to leave my father!—And still,—at his age—”
“Mr. Sergius, it is not for me to give you any advice. Better than any one else you know how you should act. But, let me beg of you to observe that you will be exposed to very great dangers if you remain in Russia! Should you ever be discovered, your very life would be at stake!”
“I know that, friend, just as I know the dangers that would threaten you and yours if ever the police came to know that you have aided my return on Russian soil!”
“As to that, my folks and myself are out of consideration in this matter.”
“Not at all, my dear Cascabel, and I shall never forget what all of you have done for me!”
“That is all right and square, Mr. Sergius; we did not come here to exchange protestations of friendship. Come! We must have an understanding about what you mean to do at Perm.”
“Nothing simpler! Since I am one of your troupe, I shall stay with you so as to arouse no suspicion.”
“But Prince Narkine—?”
“Walska is but six versts out of town, and each evening, when the performance is over, I can easily make my way there, without being noticed. Our servants would let themselves be killed before they would betray or compromise their master. Thus I can spend a few hours with my father and return to Perm before daybreak.”
“That's settled, Mr. Sergius, and so long as we stay in Perm things will get on smoothly, I hope. But when the fair comes to a close, and when the Fair Rambler will depart for Nijni, and then for France—”
That, evidently, was the knotty point. What would Count Narkine determine to do after the Cascabels had left Perm? Would he remain concealed at the chateau of Walska? Would he still keep on Russian territory, at the risk of being discovered? Mr. Cascabel's inquiry was definite.
“My dear friend,” replied Mr. Sergius to him, “many a time and oft have I asked myself that question: ‘What shall I do?’ and to this day I am utterly unable to answer it; that is all I can say to you. My conduct will be dictated by circumstances.”
“Well then,” continued Mr. Cascabel, “suppose you were obliged to leave Walska, suppose you could not remain in Russia, where your liberty, your very life would be in danger, do let me ask you, Mr. Sergius, if you would think of returning to America.”
“I have formed no plan whatever in that direction,” was the count's reply.
“Pray, Mr. Sergius, excuse me if I insist. Why might you not come to France with us? By continuing in my troupe, you could pass the western frontier without danger. Would not this be the safest plan? And then, in that way. we would have you a little longer with us, and our dear little Kayette, too!—Not that I would take her from you. the poor child! She is, and she will be, your adopted daughter, sir; and that is rather better than being a sister to John, Sander, and Napoleona, the children of a showman!”
“My friend,” replied Mr. Sergius, “let us not speak of what the future may have in store for us. Who knows if it will not grant to each of us the wish of his own heart? Let us now see to the present, that is the essential point! What I can say to you with certainty—but pray breathe not a word of it to any one—is, that in the event of my being compelled to leave Russia, I should be very happy to retire to France, and there wait until some political event might, perchance, alter my position. And then, as it is home you are now going—”
“That's it! That's it! You'll come home with me!” burst out Cæsar Cascabel, and he had clutched the exile's hand, and hugged it, and pressed it, as though he would fain rivet it to his own.
At length they returned to the encampment, where the two sailors did not put in an appearance till the next day.
Off went the team at early morn and struck for the west.
For the several days that followed, the heat was very great. Already the first undulations of the Ural chain began to be felt, and the gradual rising of the ground told severely on the reindeer, already oppressed by the temperature.
On the 28th of June, over two hundred miles from the Obi, the Fair Rambler entered the little village of Verniky. Here a peremptory demand for the papers was followed by their immediate production, to the complete satisfaction of the authorities. Then the wagon resumed its course toward the chain of the Ural, two peaks of which, the Telpoes and the Nintchour, rose over yonder horizon to a height of from four to five thousand feet.
No great speed was made; yet there was no time to be lost, so as to be in Perm for the best part of the fair.
In view, indeed, of the performances to be given there, Mr. Cascabel now insisted on everybody rehearsing his exercises. It was their duty to keep intact the fame of French acrobats, artists, gymnasts, equilibrists, and clowns in general and the reputation of the Cascabel family in particular. And hence, the artists had now to get into training during the evening halts. Mr. Sergius himself toiled and moiled toward perfection in those card-tricks and sleights of hand for which his teacher had discovered in him such a wonderful natural aptitude.
“What an artist you would have made!” he would continually say to him.
On the 3d of July, the troupe encamped in a clearing encircled with birch trees, pines, and larch trees, overtopped by the alpine-like crests of the Ural.
It was on the following day that they were to venture into one of the passes of the chain under the guidance of Ortik and Kirschef, and they foresaw if not serious fatigues at least very uphill work, in more senses than one, until the highest level of the gorge had been attained.
As this part of the frontier, usually frequented by smugglers and deserters, was not very safe, they would do well to keep continually on the defensive; and certain measures were adopted with an eye thereto.
In the course of the evening the conversation fell on the difficulties that might have to be encountered during the crossing of the mountain. Ortik loudly stated that the pass he had indicated, a pass named the Petchora, was one of the most practicable along the whole chain. He knew it for having gone through it when Kirschef and he were on their way from Arkhangel to the Baltic Sea, going to the relief of the Seraski.
While Mr. Sergius and Ortik were engaged on this subject, Cornelia, Napoleona, and Kayette were busy with the supper. An appetizing quarter of a deer was roasting before a fire that had been lit under the trees, and a rice pudding was acquiring its due golden-brown tint in a tin laid on a heap of live coals.
“I do hope there will be no complaints about the bill of fare to-night!” said the good housewife.
“Unless the roast and the pudding get burnt!” Clovy felt bound to suggest.
“And why should they get burnt, Mr. Clovy?” asked Cornelia, “if you only take care to keep on turning the spit of the one and stirring the tin of the other!”
Clovy took the hint, and began mounting his guard. Wagram and Marengo kept him company by the fire, and John Bull, too, squatted hard by, licking his lips in anticipation of his share of the banquet.
In due time supper was laid and gave rise to a veritable concert of praise, which Cornelia and her help received with genuine satisfaction.
When bedtime came, as the temperature had risen still higher, Mr. Sergius, Cæsar Cascabel and his two sons, Clovy and the two sailors said they would sleep out in the clearing under shelter of the trees. It would, besides, be easier for them to watch over the Fair Rambler.
Cornelia, Kayette, and Napoleona alone sought the comfort of their little couches indoors.
With a July twilight, the duration of which seems indefinite in this seventieth parallel, it was after eleven o'clock when the night had about fallen,—a moonless night, besprinkled with stars, drowned, so to say, in the mists of the upper zones.
Stretched on the grass, and wrapped up in blankets, Mr. Sergius and his companions felt their eyelids close in their first sleep when the two dogs began to give various tokens of agitation. They would sniff the air repeatedly, and would growl in that peculiar way so expressive of extreme uneasiness.
John stood up first and cast a look around the clearing.
The fire was dying away and profound darkness reigned under the thick canopy of the trees. John made a closer survey and thought he saw luminous dots moving about, like so many red coals, in the dark. Wagram and Marengo were now barking loudly.
“Danger!” cried out John. “Danger!”
In a moment the sleepers were on their feet.
“What is it?” asked his father.
“Look there, father!” said John, pointing to the shining spots, now still and motionless in the dark background of the thicket.
“What can those be?”
“Yes, they are wolves!” said Ortik.
“And a whole band of them!” added Mr. Sergius.
“By Jove!” exclaimed Mr. Cascabel.
“By Jove!” was an inadequate expression to convey the full gravity of the situation. There might be hundreds of wolves all around the clearing; and these animals are truly formidable when they are in large numbers.
Just then Cornelia, Kayette, and Napoleona appeared at the door of the Fair Rambler.
“Well, father?” inquired the little girl.
“It's nothing, only wolves having a little stroll by moonlight! Stay where you are, and just hand us our guns to keep them at a safe distance.”
Immediately guns and revolvers were cocked.
“Call back the dogs!” said Mr. Sergius.
Wagram and Marengo, who had ventured toward the edge of the wood, came back at John's bidding, a prey tea terror which it was hard to control.
A general volley was fired in the direction of the luminous points, and frightful howls showed that most of the shots had hit their marks.
But the number of wolves must have been considerable, for the circle seemed to close around, and a half hundred of them invaded the clearing.
“Quick! Back to the wagon!” exclaimed Mr. Sergius.
“They are coming down upon us! There alone can we defend ourselves!”
“What about the reindeer?” remarked John.
“We can do nothing to save them!”
And sure enough, it was now too late. Already some of the animals, had been devoured, whilst the others had broken their fetters and run away into the depths of the wood.
On Mr. Sergius's order, all retired inside the Fair Rambler with the two dogs, and the front door was closed.
It was high time! In the glimmer of the twilight the wolves could be seen bounding against the vehicle and leaping up to the height of the windows.
“What will become of us now, without a team?” Cornelia could not help saying.
“Let us get rid of this legion, first!” replied Mr. Sergius.
“Surely we'll manage to do that, somehow; come!” exclaimed her husband.
“Yes, if there are not too many of them,” remarked Ortik.
“And suppose we don't run short of powder,” added Kirschef.
“In the mean time, fire!” ordered Mr. Sergius.
And a murderous discharge flew through the half-opened windows. By the light of the shots fired from the two sides and the back of the wagon, they saw a score of wolves lying on the ground, either mortally or grievously wounded. But nothing seemed to check the rage of the brutes; their number appeared in no way lessened, and several hundreds of them by this time crowded the clearing, now alive with their restless silhouettes.
Some had crept under the wagon and endeavored to claw the panels out. Others had leaped on the front platform and would have burst the door open, had it not been barricaded from the inside just in time. Others again had even climbed on to the roof, leaned over the ledge down to the windows, struck at them with their paws, and persisted in their mad attempt until a bullet brought them to the ground.
Napoleona, greatly frightened, could not be kept from crying aloud. The fear of the wolf, so intense among children, was, in her case, but too fully justified in the present instance. Kayette, who was cool and composed, in vain endeavored to calm her little friend. Nor did Mrs. Cascabel herself, it must be confessed, feel very sanguine on the issue of this veritable battle.
As a matter of fact, should the assault continue much longer, the situation would become more and more dangerous. How could the Fair Rambler withstand the efforts of these numberless wolves? And, should it ever be upset, would not the horrible mangling of all its occupants be the inevitable consequence? Now the “engagement” had lasted for about half an hour when Kirschef suddenly growled:
“There'll be no more ammunition, presently!”
Some twenty cartridges were all that remained for the supply of the rifles and the revolvers.
“We must not fire, now,” said Mr. Cascabel, “except when we are sure of our mark.”
Sure of their mark?.... Did not every shot hit its mark in this mass of assailants? Unfortunately the wolves were far more numerous than the bullets; their numbers kept on increasing while the firearms would soon be reduced to silence. What would be done then? Wait for daylight? And what if the light of day did not put the wolves to flight?
It was then that Mr. Cascabel, brandishing his revolver, so soon fated to be useless, cried out:
“I have an idea!”
“An idea?” inquired Mr. Sergius.
“Yes, and a good one! The only thing is to capture one or two of those devils.”
“How will you do that?” asked Cornelia.
“We shall just half-open the door with great caution and seize on the first two that will try to force their way in.”
“Do you really mean it, Cascabel?”
“What risk do we run, Mr. Sergius? A few bites? Well, I'd rather be bitten than torn to pieces.”
“Very well; then let it be done quickly!” said Mr. Sergius, though he did not exactly know what Cascabel was about.
The latter, with Ortik, Clovy and Kirschef behind him, posted himself in the first compartment while John and Sander kept back the dogs in the innermost one, where the women had been ordered to stay.
The articles of furniture, used to bar the door, were removed, and Mr. Cascabel opened it in such a way as to be able to shut it again quickly.
At that very moment a dozen wolves, crowding the platform and hanging on to the steps, were positively storming the forepart of the wagon.
No sooner was the door ajar than one of them rushed in headlong. Kirschef closed it again immediately.
In a trice Mr. Cascabel had overpowered the animal, with Ortik's help, and thrown over his head a piece of cloth he had provided himself with, and which he fastened tightly round its neck.
The door was opened a second time; and a second wolf underwent the same treatment as the first.
It needed the united efforts of Clovy, Ortik, and Kirschef to keep the raging brutes under control.
“Above all, don't kill them,” Mr. Cascabel would say to them; “and hold them tight!”
Not kill them?.... What on earth did he mean to do with them? Give them an engagement in his troupe for the Perm fair?
What he meant to do, what he did do with them, his companions were not long to know.
The next moment a flame of fire lit up the compartment, which was filled, at the same time, with frantic howls of pain; one of the windows was thrown wide open, and away the two wolves were hurled through the air.
The effect produced by their appearance among the besiegers could be seen all the better as the clearing now gradually filled with moving torches.
Cascabel had thoroughly soaked the two wolves with paraffine and then set them ablaze; and it was in that state they had joined their companions.
Well, that idea of Mr. Cascabel's had been a grand idea, like all those that came out of his wonderful head. The wolves, maddened with terror, were all taking to flight. away from the two burning animals. And what yells they uttered now, far more terrible than those which had been heard at the beginning of the attack! In vain did the two paraffined brutes struggle to extinguish their blazing fur, blinded as they were by the hood tied over their heads. In vain they rolled themselves on the ground and leaped about in the middle of the band; the fire was unquenchable.
At last, the whole panic-stricken legion quitted the encampment, rushed out of the clearing, and disappeared in the depths of the wood.
The howls became fewer, and finally silence reigned all round the Fair Rambler.
By way of precaution, Mr. Sergius recommended his friends to wait till daylight before venturing forth to reconnoiter. But, in reality, no new attack was to be dreaded. The enemy had dispersed, and was fleeing as fast as their legs could run.
“Ah, Cæsar!” sobbed Cornelia, as she threw herself in her husband's arms.
“Ah, my friend!” said Mr. Sergius.
“Ah, father!” exclaimed the children.
“Ah, boss!” blubbered Clovy.
“Well, well, what's it all about?” quietly replied Cascabel. “If a man had no more brains than wolves, what would be the use of being a man?”