The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 3
THE Russian village was celebrated in song by the greatest masters of the pen. But were Russia's writers ignorant of their country's village, or have they idealised it, perceiving in its shadows something they desired to see and which was not there, could not be there?
Let us cast a glance on the Russian village, no matter where it is situated, whether near a great city or In a virgin forest, somewhere north of Vologda or on the shores of the Kama. Obviously, the farther from civilisation, the clearer appear its most significant characteristics.
I know well the hamlets and the villages of the provinces of Petrograd, Olonetz, Novgorod, Pskov, as well as the Siberian villages and settlements.
The chief place in these hurriedly patched-up cottages of thatched roofs and rough log walls is occupied by the House of God—an Orthodox church or chapel; sometimes, near by, in a deserted cottage is the village school, Indefinitely attended by the children of peasants. There is a priest, there is a school-teacher, of whom the former seems chiefly occupied with getting contributions from the peasants, the latter with revolutionary propaganda; both add drinking to their daily work.
In close neighbourhood with these leaders of religion and education, near by in some similar room live the wizards, sorcerers, and hags … they are the survival of primordial paganism. Their traditional school has been preserved, and their prescriptions, having lived through centuries, are handed down from generation to generation.
The sorcerers are generally old people who possess the secret science of curing men and animals of diseases, of appeasing the house demon whenever he gets into too great a fury, of stanching blood, freeing insect-infested houses of vermin, cleaning the vapour baths—standing outside the village—of devils, who chose them as their abode, haunting people; of tracking horse thieves; of invoking the souls of the dead; of foretelling the future; of discovering treasures hidden underground and similar black arts. In reality the wizard or the witch has a good knowledge of botany, and through the dark pages of the history of the Russian village runs a sinister trait of the crimes of poisoning.
I will describe some of the wizard practices from my own experience.
In the province of Petrograd, near the station of Weymarn, there is a village called Manuilov. There some ten years ago lived a man called Sokolov, with his numerous family. It was a typical peasant household in a suburban village. The daughter, Helena, served for some time as a maid in the town of Yamburg, but was caught stealing and was sent away. Then she drifted to Petrograd, and being without occupation became a prostitute. Sokolov's two sons were factory hands, but not relishing work, they fell into evil ways and ended by committing murder, whereupon one of them was sent to prison for four years, the other to Siberia. The latter, on his return from exile, became the leader of a band of robbers who for a long time terrorised the neighboring highways, sharing their spoils with the local police. The head of this worthy family enjoyed great fame as a wizard; his reputation was well established over a whole countryside embracing several districts. He was particularly popular on account of his medical practice.
I used to come often to Manuilov, invited to shooting parties by the owner of a local estate, Mr. Pavlovich.
I remember once a number of patients having been brought to Manuilov from the Gdov district, amongst whom were lepers, some sick of typhus and venereous diseases. Then began the cure. The leper was put into a cask, half full of hot water, and covered hermetically with many clouts. Into this the sorcerer threw herbs, muttering incantations in which the words "nostradamus" and "shugana" occurred most frequently. Then he proceeded to fumigate the cask with the smoke of burnt grass and herbs, drawing upon it with pitch some complicated signs.
After an hour the diseased, who had become unconscious, was taken out of the cask; he was red like a boiled lobster; his eyes had a vacant stare. The wounds upon his lips, nose, and arms seemed to be even more horrible than they had been before. While the patient was recovering from his swoon, Sokolov made him drink a large glass of water taken from the cask in which he had spent an hour, and then took his head into both his hands, looked for a long time into his eyes, and said with a grave and commanding voice:
"Go! go away, shugana, chygana of disease! The Black One wants it! The Black One commands you! Go! Go away!"
I do not know if this cure benefited the leper, but I heard that the Government was obliged to establish a hospital owing to the rapid spread of leprosy in the districts of Yamburg and Gdov.
The same Sokolov treated the typhus patients in an equally original manner. The sick, raving with fever, shivering with alternate heat and cold, was first laid down upon the snow for a few minutes, then wrapped into new raw linen and tied up with a strong cord.
He was then fed forcibly with hot, soft, black bread mixed with the powder of dried and pulverised bugs, and on his belly one after another thirteen bricks, covered with secret signs and warmed to a considerable temperature, were laid amidst mysterious incantations.
It was said that this treatment usually effected a speedy cure; in the particular case I witnessed, however, one of the sick died of peritonitis, and a member of the Petrograd Academy of Medicine, Dr. Abramychev, who happened to be one of the shooting party, brought Sokolov before the Court.
But the protocol which was taken down on the spot was lost in the offices of the country police, who, as it transpired, frequently availed themselves of the "advice" of the wizard.
The venereous patients were put for three to five days into a heap of horse-dung freshly brought out from the stables. Into that heap he planted seven little sticks of various lengths with rags attached to each, bearing certain signs and unintelligible words, such as "prys," "tachny," "habdyk."
Cattle are usually cured by being fumigated with smoke of burning grass, mixed with ashes of burnt hair, dried frogs or bats; animal wounds are treated with the molten fat of the badger or rat. All this is enacted to the accompaniment of incomprehensible words or phrases, sometimes muttered or shouted aloud.
In the province of Pskov, in the district of Ostrov, I witnessed the treatment of a strange disease which had broken out among horses and women. The tails and manes of horses as well as the tresses of women became sometimes so entangled that it was impossible to comb them out in any way. Medical science knows that this symptom follows the infection with a peculiar serous bacillus and that the disease occurs in marshy localities. The wizard, however, diagnosed it differently in his own way. He gave it out that the "house demon at nightfall plaits the women's tresses and the horses' manes, twisting and jumbling them because he was angry." To placate the demon a sacrifice must be offered.
A forsaken cottage is chosen and the stove is lit, behind which are put rags and old fur coats so as to make it a comfortable place for the demon, who likes to lie softly.
Then, with the blood of a black cock, a circle is drawn upon the floor, and inside the circle is put milk, honey, barley gruel and salt—a feast for the demon.
This done, before the clock strikes midnight, a young girl with her hair down and her hands tied up is introduced into the heated and sultry room. The demon must devote his time to the victim's hair in the meantime and leave all the others alone. According to the belief of the villager, the demon is appeased; but frequently the poor girl becomes hysterical or goes mad with fright and horror. By way of compensation she is highly esteemed throughout the neighbourhood as one who "has seen the demon" and feasted with him and has been treated by her uncanny host with brandy, a bottle of which was placed beside her.
The wizards practise even in large cities, in Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Charkov. It is true that their clients belong as a rule to the poor and humble classes, but sometimes quite unexpectedly they appear even in the palaces of the rich.
I remember a case that happened In 1897, when I was coaching the children of a high official who lived in the beautiful palace of Prince Leuchtenberg, a relative of the Imperial family. One day my pupil came to me saying that the kitchen and the dining-room had become infested with bugs to such an extent that a "wizard" was called in to drive them out. We went to see the performance.
The wizard, a little, rugged old man, had just caught a bug; he examined it carefully, lifted it close to his lips and began to whisper something to the insect, repeating frequently the word "ygh."
He next drew a piece of chalk out of his pocket, wrote a sign upon its back, and let it go free.
The bug immediately disappeared in a chink of the dresser, the man received his rouble and went home. Next day, as my pupil told me, the cook protested on oath to having seen with her own eyes how the marked bug went round from one hole to the other, collected all his fellows into a big party, and marched them out of the palace.
"Did they take their luggage and forage with them?" I asked the boy.
He laughed and said:
"We shall ask the cook about it … yes, we must ask her—she's seen it"
Going through Siberia in 1920, I happened to stay a night in a village. I was fatigued with long riding and covered with dust from head to foot, and I accepted eagerly my host's proposal to have a vapour bath.
"I say," said the host to his wife, "don't let our guest go to the bath by himself. Send the boy for Maxim, that he may accompany him."
"But I shall be able to manage without assistance," I protested vigorously.
"No, sir, it can't be. Something evil may happen to you if you go without our wizard," gravely said mine host.
"But why?" I asked in stupefaction.
"Well, you see, sir, the devils have chosen our vapour bath as their dwelling-place and frighten people," explained the peasant in his slow way. "The other day they threw an old woman off the bench—she fell into the boiler and was scalded to death."
I was not allowed to go all alone, but had to wait till Maxim came, a giant with a veritable mane of tousled grey hair and the white beard of a patriarch.
When we approached the tiny bath-shed standing at the other end of the kitchen garden, Maxim halted and exclaimed:
"Fiend, satan, black devil, small or large, angry or merry, it's I, it's I!"
The bath was hot, sultry, close with the exhalation of charcoal. We lighted the fire under the pot, whereupon out of the darkness I saw projecting the dim shapes of various objects. The immense mass of a Russian stove, two rough benches, tubs with hot and cold water, a heap of stones, black and glowing, which served for creating vapour by having water poured over them.
The faint, flickering flame of the fire was playing restlessly upon the floor, the walls, the ceiling, lighting up sometimes the bubbling surface of the water in the tubs.
After a long while Maxim stripped off his clothes, picked up a little broom made of dry grass, dipped it in hot water, and seated himself in the darkest corner of the room. He commenced a conversation with someone invisible, intermingling his speech with interjections: "A kysh! A kysh!" and beating lightly with his little broom as if striking at somebody.
The corner was of course crowded with black and grey and sometimes transparent creatures. It was to them that the old wizard was talking; he was whipping them gently; he would not see or understand that they were nothing but the fleeting shadows of the flickering light which darted about, flashing and vanishing away.
"Now they won't come!" said the old man at last in a tone of thorough conviction.
Of course they did not come and I had an excellent bath.
The passion for horse-stealing is characteristic of the Russian nation. It is undoubtedly an atavistic remnant inheritant from their forefathers, the Mongol nomads and Finnish pagans. Even the criminal law was of very doubtful application in the Russian Courts in cases of horse-stealing. This is an interesting racial peculiarity. All nomads, even the God-fearing, honest Mongols of Khalcki are accomplished horse-lifters. Galloping off with your neighbours' cattle is in their eyes a chivalrous adventure, a proof of courage and skill, for on such an expedition the galloper is thrown on his own resources, whilst he is laying himself open to serious penalties.
The Mongolian prairie law, transplanted into the plains of the Volga like that of Red Indians, lays down clearly enough that horse-theft is a great felony, but the law is honored in the breach rather than in the observance, and allows the wronged to get his horse back any way he can and to punish the thief at will.
The culprit, if caught, is cruelly lynched, and the State Court winks benevolently at the execution of the unwritten law.
The Russian peasant, if he was unable to track the thief, would consult a wizard, who had made this his special department. The latter, having listened to the tale of theft, advised the owner to come again during night-time and to bring the bridle of the horse, some dung from the stables, and a bushel of oats.
I witnessed such a performance in the district of Walday, in the province of Novgorod.
We called at about ten in the evening with the Injured peasant on the sorcerer. We knocked at the door. He told the peasant to throw a handful of oats in each of the four corners of the cottage and to strike with the bridle at the single window in the easterly wall. This done, the window was lighted and we were allowed to enter.
The small, low room was hot and close. By the stove there was burning a piece of resinous wood which had been thrust into a cleft in the cracked stones and emitted a cloud of smoke. In the purple shine of the fire I beheld bridles hanging down from the ceiling, horsetails and skins, tufts of grass and herbs and little bags blackened with smoke.
In front of the stove sat a little grey-haired man with conspiciously squinting eyes, open-mouthed, showing two rows of black teeth, and wearing a look of inquisitive fear.
He took the bridle, examined it carefully, smelled it, tried its hardness with his teeth, and then all of a sudden he burst into a terrific yell:
"The horse was led away … driven far away … very far … it's a good horse … all foaming … neighing … breaking away for home. … Turn … here's good oats for you … ta … ta … ta … little horse … come … come here!"
During the invocation he cast upon the coals handfuls of oats, gazing intently into the leaping tongues of fire.
He jumped up, tore from the celling a bundle of grass and threw it on the coals. … The dry stalks and leaves twisted, stretched like snakes and burst into flame. Next the old man threw into the stove horse-dung, and as the smoke rose up, he bent over the coals and said in a whisper:
"The horse … the horse. … A broad road … a highway … three cottages … a burnt fir-tree … a meadow with a blackened haystack. … A tall lean man leads a horse … a shaven head, a scar upon his forehead, and he limps,"
"I know him! I know him!" shouted the peasant "It's Kuzma! The gipsy from Neshetilov. He won't escape me this time!"
With these words he rushed out of the room, I went home, and a few days afterwards I learned that the peasant, with the assistance of his two sons and his son-in-law, surprised the gipsy, bound him to his own horse and dragged him back into the village.
Here the crowd set on him, beat him, bruised his legs and arms, tore his hair, ordering him to say at once where the horse was hidden. The poor fellow swore by all the saints that he had not seen the horse, that he knew nothing about it, but the crowd would not believe him. Like mad, they beat him again, trampled upon him, until one of the frenzied lynchers finally finished him with a pitchfork.
The body was buried in a waste field, and a pale planted on the grave by way of memorial.
This is the emblem of the ancient law of the Golden Horde, which ordains that the captured horse-thief should be impaled. Such an execution, however, requiring too many preparations, it is easier for the crowd to beat the culprit to death, and afterwards to impale the dead body within its grave.
The demon-worship or shamanism is quite comprehensible in the vast desert of the North, where Nature unlooses a veritable inferno of multifarious and terrifying voices; where the hurricanes, blowing from the Arctic Ocean, claim death; where the quagmires breathe plague, emit pestilence; where savage men and beasts run wild, carrying death in their despondent, hunger-glowing eyes; where the earth and the air are overcloyed with the blood, the groans, and the curses of those whom the Tsars and their intelligent bureaucracy cast into the bottomless pit of solitary torture and death, solely because they strove for freedom, giving them the freedom of the boundless desert of snow in which, like stones in the depths of an unfathomable sea, were lost without trail hundreds and thousands of tombs of martyrs!
In those God-forsaken regions shamanism appears a natural phenomenon amongst the savage tribes of nomads.
Still, even in Russia proper, even near the capital, its existence is revealed.
I knew two instances.
I was a student at that time spending my holidays with a doctor, a friend of mine, in the Kola peninsula. We were travelling in the province of Olonetz, and before reaching the town of Petrozavodsk we had to stay the night in a large village a few miles from the town. We went to the local inn, the usual den, not too clean, damp, and pervaded with the fumes of alcohol.
After the evening meal, we retired into our room to load cartridges for our sporting guns, as we had expended our ammunition on the way.
We were just beginning operations when there was a cautious knock on the door. A pale, emaciated little fellow came in; he was dressed in a long black coat, like a monastic servant. But the face of the man glowed with its huge, burning, and piercing eyes.
I remember well the fear that crept upon me involuntarily under their gaze.
"What do you want?" asked the doctor, throwing a measure of powder into the husk without raising his eyes.
"I came to invoke the spirits for you," replied the visitor gravely.
The measure fell from my friend's fingers as he lifted his amazed look upon the newcomer.
"Spirits? he asked, shrugging his shoulders.
"Yes, spirits," said our guest gently.
"Who are you?" asked the doctor again.
"I am a 'coldun,' a shaman!" was the indifferent reply. "I brought this science from the Tundra of Malaya Zyemla, where the nomading tribes possess the secret of intercourse with the dead and the spirits."
"How very interesting!" interjected the doctor. "But you cannot invoke the souls of the dead or the spirits here."
"Yes, I can. I can do it here right away," smiled the shaman. "It will cost you three roubles, gentlemen!"
His voice was imploring and betrayed the fear that we might refuse his offer.
"I shall pay three roubles," agreed the doctor. "Please begin at once!"
"Immediately!" said the shaman with joy, while greedily pocketing the money. "Please sit down at the other end of the room and put the light out."
I had time enough to notice that he took from his pocket a tiny, flat piece of wood which he put to his lips.
We were sitting in darkness and silence. From the neighboring cottage entered through the window the scanty light of a petrol lamp. Still we were able to see the shaman's black figure standing immovably near the door. All of a sudden a faint, scarcely audible sound was heard like the buzzing of a fly entangled in a spider's net.
The sound became gradually louder till it seemed to fill the whole space of the room. It split into tens, hundreds of tunes, which reverberated against the panes of the window, the papered ceiling, the walls; the sounds, trembling, squeaking, roaring, raced in a mad whirl through the whole room, approached my very ears and vanished again in the distance, far away until they seemed almost smothered. I was seized with a strange restlessness; incomprehensible, morbid forebodings began to torment my soul.
The black figure of the shaman, hardly visible in the gloom, reeled, slowly at first, methodically, then with quicker passion, till his movements changed imperceptibly into swift jumps, twists, leaps. Standing on one leg, he started to turn round with ever increasing speed, till after a few minutes he fell to the ground exhausted and breathless, shouting with piercing accents: "They have come! … They have come! …"
Immense multitudes of echoing sounds seemed to chase each other through the dark room, changing into a whirlwind, storm, and chaos, which one could feel with almost a physical pain. Blasts of wind waves rushed through the room. It made my flesh creep to see it lifting the papers lying upon the table. I do not know how long it all lasted. I only know that my hands became icy cold and that my brow was covered with sweat. My eyes seemed to become extraordinarily sharp. I could see quite clearly the prostrate figure of the shaman. I could distinguish his pale, almost shining face and his wide-opened, glowing eyes. He had the same little piece of wood in his hand and with his lips called forth the various sounds.
Suddenly, in the darkness, at many spots, for the twinkling of an eye, there blazed out greenish, phosphoric flames. Then again they came and vanished. The sounds abruptly died away. A sudden blast made tongues of flame flicker up near the ceiling, and then all was dark and silent as if a heavy black curtain was drawn. The shaman remained lifeless and did not answer the doctor's repeated questions if he might light the lamp.
He did so at last and approached the prostrate figure. The shaman was lying with closed eyes and compressed lips, a thin streak of blood issuing from his nostrils and deep furrows round his mouth.
We lifted him up and put him on a chair. He opened his eyes heavily and whispered: "Brandy!"
The doctor poured out a cup from his hunters' flagon. The shaman gulped it down, his teeth chattering upon the glass, stretched his limbs, and rose from the chair.
"It didn't come off to-day. … They came, but kept at a distance … and refused to approach."
After a while he left.
My friend the doctor patted my shoulder and said:
"It is better to shoot wild ducks and grouse than to invoke spirits. Set your mind at rest, my boy! This is no wizardry. Monotonous sounds and movements are all excellent devices of hypnotism. But we must hurry up with the cartridges. Open the bag with hailshot No. 3."
This was my first encounter with a shaman-koldun.
The second took place years afterwards on the shores of the Pacific.
It was at the outset of my scientific career, when I was studying the origin of the coal deposits of the Far East The scene was on the River Tudagou in the Ussuri country.
We pitched our tents in an oak and hazel forest, and in the innocence of our hearts we were making preparations for a prolonged stay, when unexpectedly arrived two mounted Orochons. They announced that we could not remain where we were as it was an Orochon cemetery. When they saw my amazement, the natives led me to a small glade and pointed to the tree-tops. I noticed longish, black objects hanging down from the highest branches.
These were the bodies of the dead. The Orochons wrap them round with buck-skins, which are covered oak-tree bark, tied up strongly with leather straps and hanged up on the branches high above the earth.
Seeing me unwilling to leave my camp, the Orochons claimed a gift of brandy, in return for which they offered to bring a shaman, whose invocation would procure for us from the souls of the dead the permission to remain within the border of their realm.
The necromancer came towards evening. He was a young peasant, his face blackened and disfigured by smallpox. His coat was made of multi-coloured rags with straps of red and yellow painted leather hanging down to the ground. He carried a gigantic drum and a long pole with little bells, from which a fife made of buckhom was suspended.
He set to his task at once. First he began to beat the drum for all he was worth, then he blew the fife and made the little bells peal. Soon nothing was heard but the fife as he jumped and turned kicking his heels. The thin tunes of the fife were ever broken with the shrill yells and groans of the shaman. He whirled round madly, his face was swollen, his lips wide open, his eyes flushed with blood, and foam appeared on his lips.
He fell to the ground at last and quivered long as if in agony. Although he uttered no more sounds, the drum still roared in the air, the little bells still pealed, the fife shrieked and piercing groans were heard, repeated by the echo of the forest in the deep silence of the warm, dreamy and overwhelming July night.
When the shaman rose from the ground, we asked him if we might remain. He said yes, and taking a little salt and meat cast it to the four quarters of the world, offering sacrifice to the souls hospitable to us of the deceased Orochons.
The art of fortune-telling plays an important part in the life of Russian peasants. I can truly say that I have not in the home of divination, Thibet and Mongolia, met such a widespread and general practice. In Russia fortune-telling Is a "black" science, supposed to be the work of the evil spirits, while in Mongolia it has the character of a religious cult. Amongst the former it hides in solitary cottages, coming forth only in dark and stormy nights when all kinds of "evil forces" haunt the earth, and peep into the hovels of inhabitants whose souls are wrapped in even deeper gloom.
No other people attach so much importance to sorcery as the Russians, It is not only the uncouth, illiterate villager, but also the working classes, whom their leaders have taught false culture; the bourgeoisie and even the upper classes of Russian society have had recourse to fortune-tellers, often in the most serious emergencies of their lives.
The gipsy science of fortune-telling from cards, from seven or thirteen little stones, from horse beans or bones, was very much in vogue and had many highly skilled practitioners. In a village every old woman, every old man knew this science, nay, and practised with more or less success. The same held good for the towns, and it may be said without exaggeration that in cities like Moscow or Petersburg there was not a street without a fortune-teller of either sex, who had a numerous clientele and a steady and considerable Income. There were besides specialists who had a reputation of immense skill, in whose houses, furnished with rich oriental carpets and adorned as might be expected from the dens of wizards and alchemists with stuffed owls and lizards, dried bats, frogs, and vipers, were met some common woman, a fat bourgeois butcher, a demi-mondaine, a Minister or a Grand Duchess.
It was a mania, a disease, which had its roots deep in the nature of the people.
Arabian wisdom read in coffee-grounds had also many disciples. Before the fall of the dynasty, this science was assiduously cultivated in the palace of Count Kleintnichel by a devoted crowd of those whose prosperity and magnificence depended on the grace of the throne, and who endeavoured to divine the fortunes of the "adored" Romanovs on the surface of black sediments. Once I witnessed this kind of soothsaying in the house of a high official, whose wife, a titled lady, was a devout believer in the secret arts and invited a sorceress of reputation, Irma Galesco.
In the darkened boudoir, scantily lit by a shaded lamp, the Roumanian gazed for a long time on the coffee-grounds which were served in three cups. She examined it from above, then against the light, rippling the surface with a puff of her breath or touching it with a swift and professional move of a long black feather. The main items of the proceedings were the constant murmurings of an incomprehensible incantation. After a prolonged inspection of the contents of the cups, the sorceress poured it all into a shallow white vase, added a pinch of herbs, and continued stirring it with her breath and a touch of the feather.
At last she began to speak as if beholding something on the dark surface or reading some secret writing inscribed upon it. I looked attentively into the vase, but I could not see anything, and I was certain that in all these proceedings the cunning charlatan was adapting herself to the character of the house and flattering the wishes of her lady customer.
The commonest forms of soothsaying among Russian people are those which have descended from the age of heathenism. These are the auguries from blood and from water. I have seen all such forms of fortune-telling in the province of Pskov, the most backward of all the provinces of Russia. There they thrive among the marshy wastes, in the thick forests, or the sandy shores of the River Wyelika and the banks of the Pskov Sea, the embodiment of heathen superstitions.
I shall return frequently to that province, distant only a few hours' journey from the capital, as being the most typical of the whole Russian people.
It happened in the village of Zaluzhye, surrounded by a whole net of boggy lakes and rivulets. In the neighbourhood of this village cholera raged, taking a heavy toll of the inhabitants. It was necessary to find out who had carried the pest into that God-forsaken veldt. Only a wizard could do that. An old man, who looked a centenarian, was put into a room in a solitary cottage which stood close to the woods on the banks of a small reed-covered lake. After sunset, a black ram and an old millstone were taken into the cottage.
Before dawn, when the first cocks began to crow, the soothsayer led the ram forth, its horns and neck crowned with grass and herbs. He cut the throat of the ram, poured his blood over the millstone, and lit a fire, alternately murmuring and shouting. When the fire burned brightly and the coal set down, he pulled it out with his fingers and threw it upon the stove. The curdling blood quickly formed black clots, steam and smoke rose from the stone, and the soothsayer, dishevelling his hair and flowing beard and opening wide his eyes, which seemed dead with age, began to shout with a piercing yet broken voice:
"I behold in the blood-red smoke and the scarlet vapours … open graves and terrible pale death. … Men proceed in front of her. … I don't know them, they are not from our country. … They go forward and cast into the water of the rivers and wells, into the stables and barns, seeds of disease which ruins and kills … by blood only can death be defeated. … I can see it. … I behold it in the scarlet, blood-soaked vapours and smoke."
The peasants stood in gloomy silence and profound thought. The soothsayer himself was silent; there was the hissing sound of flames in the hearth, the light crackling of the burnt curdling clots of blood, the quicker breathing of the throng, and the rustle of the rushes in the lake. From afar came the chuckling of wild ducks settling down to sleep, the lowing of a stray cow, and the barking of a dog. The summer night was filled with mystery, which buries crime and every outburst of primitive passion, and it seemed to listen to the unspoken thoughts of this benighted crowd which stood flooded with the crimson glare of the open fire. My mind was involuntarily carried away, back into olden times, when perhaps on the self-same spot was raised the wooden image of the god Perkunas, while the priests, clad in white linen garments, their heads wreathed, shed the blood of consecrated beasts. The fire burning upon the altar then illuminated by its glare, just like now, the terrified crowd which, just like now, resembled a gathering of crimson-bathed phantoms.
Thus proceeded the soothsaying, and a few days afterwards the peasant mob seized the doctor and his assistants who were sent to fight the epidemics, clubbed them to death, and threw their bodies into the boggy river. Police inquiries were instituted, after which new crowds of sullen peasants, whose only crime was spiritual darkness, went to prison or Siberia.
Still another time, near Petersburg, in the town of Gdov, I witnessed fortune-telling by water.
The diviner poured water into a glass basin and asked the client for her wedding ring. She wanted to find out what had happened to her husband, who had left home for a long journey and had failed to "send any news of himself.
The woman handed over her ring, which the soothsayer dropped into the basin, uttering a conjuration and bending over the vessel. Muttering some words, the witch blew on the water, the surface of which quivered and was ruffled. For a long while we could not see anything, till at last I had the impression as if the inside of the ring were a tiny window in a little wall, behind which was a big room. I noticed all the details of the furnishing and the general plan of the room, when all of a sudden an elderly man with a quiet and smiling face entered. I saw clearly every feature of his face and his dress. Suddenly he turned pale, seized his breast, and fell to the ground. A dusk began to settle on his prostrate figure. The ring seemed now like an opening made in the bottom of the basin. The fortune-teller and her client looked pale and agitated. The witch shook her head with a wail of despair and whispered:
"Bad omen, very bad omen! … He will die … no! … He is dead. … There's no doubt! …"
By a strange coincidence the augury proved true. Next day my friend received a telegram saying that her husband had died suddenly of heart failure, after he had successfully settled his affairs and intended to leave for home the same day.
- The Orochons are nomads, hunters of a Mongolian tribe which is almost extinct to-day.