The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 10

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The Lords of the Sea

THE life of the Eastern borderland of Russia has brought forth other still more sinister, more wildly romantic characters: buccaneers. Five and thirty years ago piracy was carried on by foreigners and Russians, who subsequently became opulent traders and proprietors of immense urban areas within some of the larger cities.

Now they have vanished and their traces have gone. A few died, others left for strange lands. They were men familiar with the sea. Having built stout and swift sailing brigs, they manned them with criminals picked out of the refuse of the ports, and cleared off for action.

This action consisted In running down Japanese, American, and Chinese sailors in the Caribbean, the Chinese Sea, and in the open Pacific, in killing off the crew and finally scuttling the vessel.

The spoils of conquest were sold as merchandise in the shabby shops of the seacoast towns. The profits were enormous, and became the basis of future fortunes and honours. The practical adventures of these buccaneers in the Far East live still in memory and legend. Theirs was an International league of genuine conquistadors, composed of Russians, a Finn, a Dutchman, a Swede, a few Germans, and a Jew.

All over the Pacific the brigantines of these terrible bandits were familiar, setting upon the foreign merchantmen on the high seas, raiding the colonies of Russian settlers which were then being established near the seacoast.

Commander Islands, round which remained numerous herds of seals under the protection of the Petersburg Government, were often the scene of armed conflicts between the pirates and the handfuls of soldiers detached for guard. The pirates were usually victorious, and destroyed without pity hundreds of these animals, which became increasingly rare, their skins being sold to America or Germany.

On the seas of Okhotsk and Bering the bands surprised, pillaged, and killed the unprotected settlers from Japan and Alaska, who carried on barter trade with the natives of Kamtchatka, Anadir, and the Chukotsk peninsula.

The waters of the seas hid for ever the victims of the terrible tragedies, the principal actors of which were members of the bandit association. After cleaning the coast of foreigners, they usually penetrated deeper into the interior of the country and rifled the Mongolian nomads of gold, furs, precious stones, and everything else of value.

In the little gulf north of Vladivostok they had their headquarters. Here the spoils were divided, packed, and transported to Vladivostok to be sold to foreign, mainly German, ships, which maintained regular business relations with them.

The Russian Administration and Vladivostok port authorities knew of the activities of the association, which had, however, a long purse, and could afford to pay the police a high percentage of the profits.

Everybody knew of it, and many reports went up to Petersburg, whereupon the higher officials were eventually removed from their posts; they did not, however, leave the city, where they had acquired land and houses and led a festive life.

Vladivostok was most conveniently situated for the mediæval practice of buccaneering.

It was a frontier city of military type exposed to Japan, and it was gradually fortified. Some thirty years ago the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok took three months, and the town then seemed a hopeless hole. The civil and military officers were frequently men with a past of an enterprising and occasionally criminal character. The life of the town was curious. Its most aristocratic body was the "Association of Lancepups." I am ignorant of the origin of the word, but I know well the aims and objects of the society.

To be quite exact, it was a society of hopeless drunkards, fortunately an "exclusive" club, numbering not more than fifty members. The usual drink was either pure alcohol or the strongest arrack, which was served in large glasses like tea. The drinking proceeded automatically on signals given by an alarm clock wound up every five minutes by a Chink boy. Between the rounds of drink bits of dry bread were consumed.

Sometimes it was resolved to drink after every barking of a dog, after every rattle of a passing carriage, after every sound which penetrated from the street, and as the club was situated in the only street of the city, the Svetlanka, there were frequent and easy signals. Needless to say, the club ended in madness, delirium tremens, complete bestiality, suicide.

Such were the exciting pastimes of pirates, who, as time went on, became veritable "lords of the sea."

When at last the courts in the Far East were reformed and real judges and officials were appointed, the danger of energetic prosecution threatened for a time these vikings, who thought it wise to give up their profession, and they became very active citizens in various border towns.

The public prosecutor of the Vladivostok Court, Bushayev, opened an investigation of the case of the pirates. He collected all the evidence of their numerous crimes, he set about writing the case for the prosecution and preparing the summonses to be issued against the culprits, amongst whom anxious rumors circulated in Vladivostok as well as in other towns.

Then one day, Bushayev, who was a passionate hunter, was invited by the local sporting society to take part in a deer hunt. It was held on the Island of Askold, situated thirty miles off Vladivostok, in the gulf of "Peter the Great."

The hunt proved a great success and thirty-two stags were killed. The bugle was blown to call the hunters back to the steamer. When the company assembled on deck, all were there except the public prosecutor. He was found with a bullet in his head. He paid with his life for his zeal.