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Beasts, Men and Gods By Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski Characters: 8930

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

At the dawn of day we started forth, leaving my first place of refuge. Into the bags we packed our personal estate and fastened them on one of the saddles.

"We must go four or five hundred versts," very calmly announced my fellow traveler, who called himself "Ivan," a name that meant nothing to my mind or heart in this land where every second man bore the same.

"We shall travel then for a very long time," I remarked regretfully.

"Not more than one week, perhaps even less," he answered.

That night we spent in the woods under the wide spreading branches of the fir trees. It was my first night in the forest under the open sky. How many like this I was destined to spend in the year and a half of my wanderings! During the day there was very sharp cold. Under the hoofs of the horses the frozen snow crunched and the balls that formed and broke from their hoofs rolled away over the crust with a sound like crackling glass. The heathcock flew from the trees very idly, hares loped slowly down the beds of summer streams. At night the wind began to sigh and whistle as it bent the tops of the trees over our heads; while below it was still and calm. We stopped in a deep ravine bordered by heavy trees, where we found fallen firs, cut them into logs for the fire and, after having boiled our tea, dined.

Ivan dragged in two tree trunks, squared them on one side with his ax, laid one on the other with the squared faces together and then drove in a big wedge at the butt ends which separated them three or four inches. Then we placed live coals in this opening and watched the fire run rapidly the whole length of the squared faces vis-a-vis.

"Now there will be a fire in the morning," he announced. "This is the 'naida' of the gold prospectors. We prospectors wandering in the woods summer and winter always sleep beside this 'naida.' Fine! You shall see for yourself," he continued.

He cut fir branches and made a sloping roof out of them, resting it on two uprights toward the naida. Above our roof of boughs and our naida spread the branches of protecting fir. More branches were brought and spread on the snow under the roof, on these were placed the saddle cloths and together they made a seat for Ivan to rest on and to take off his outer garments down to his blouse. Soon I noticed his forehead was wet with perspiration and that he was wiping it and his neck on his sleeves.

"Now it is good and warm!" he exclaimed.

In a short time I was also forced to take off my overcoat and soon lay down to sleep without any covering at all, while through the branches of the fir trees and our roof glimmered the cold bright stars and just beyond the naida raged a stinging cold, from which we were cosily defended. After this night I was no longer frightened by the cold. Frozen during the days on horseback, I was thoroughly warmed through by the genial naida at night and rested from my heavy overcoat, sitting only in my blouse under the roofs of pine and fir and sipping the ever welcome tea.

During our daily treks Ivan related to me the stories of his wanderings through the mountains and woods of Transbaikalia in the search for gold. These stories were very lively, full of attractive adventure, danger and struggle. Ivan was a type of these prospectors who have discovered in Russia, and perhaps in other countries, the richest gold mines, while they themselves remain beggars. He evaded telling me why he left Transbaikalia to come to the Yenisei. I understood from his manner that he wished to keep his own counsel and so did not press him. However, the blanket of secrecy covering this part of his mysterious life was one day quite fortuitously lifted a bit. We were already at the objective point of our trip. The whole day we had traveled with difficulty through a thick growth of willow, approaching the shore of the big right branch of the Yenisei, the Mana. Everywhere we saw runways packed hard by the feet of the hares living in this bush. These small white denizens of the wood ran to and fro in front of us. Another time we saw the red tail of a fox hiding behind a rock, watching us and the unsuspecting hares at the same time.

Ivan had been silent for a long while. Then he spoke up and told me that not far from there was a small branch of the Mana, at the mouth of which was a hut.

"What do you say? Shall we push on there or spend the night by the naida?"

I suggested going to the hut, because I wan

ted to wash and because it would be agreeable to spend the night under a genuine roof again. Ivan knitted his brows but acceded.

It was growing dark when we approached a hut surrounded by the dense wood and wild raspberry bushes. It contained one small room with two microscopic windows and a gigantic Russian stove. Against the building were the remains of a shed and a cellar. We fired the stove and prepared our modest dinner. Ivan drank from the bottle inherited from the soldiers and in a short time was very eloquent, with brilliant eyes and with hands that coursed frequently and rapidly through his long locks. He began relating to me the story of one of his adventures, but suddenly stopped and, with fear in his eyes, squinted into a dark corner.

"Is it a rat?" he asked.

"I did not see anything," I replied.

He again became silent and reflected with knitted brow. Often we were silent through long hours and consequently I was not astonished. Ivan leaned over near to me and began to whisper.

"I want to tell you an old story. I had a friend in Transbaikalia. He was a banished convict. His name was Gavronsky. Through many woods and over many mountains we traveled in search of gold and we had an agreement to divide all we got into even shares. But Gavronsky suddenly went out to the 'Taiga' on the Yenisei and disappeared. After five years we heard that he had found a very rich gold mine and had become a rich man; then later that he and his wife with him had been murdered. . . ." Ivan was still for a moment and then continued:

"This is their old hut. Here he lived with his wife and somewhere on this river he took out his gold. But he told nobody where. All the peasants around here know that he had a lot of money in the bank and that he had been selling gold to the Government. Here they were murdered."

Ivan stepped to the stove, took out a flaming stick and, bending over, lighted a spot on the floor.

"Do you see these spots on the floor and on the wall? It is their blood, the blood of Gavronsky. They died but they did not disclose the whereabouts of the gold. It was taken out of a deep hole which they had drifted into the bank of the river and was hidden in the cellar under the shed. But Gavronsky gave nothing away. . . . AND LORD HOW I TORTURED THEM! I burned them with fire; I bent back their fingers; I gouged out their eyes; but Gavronsky died in silence."

He thought for a moment, then quickly said to me:

"I have heard all this from the peasants." He threw the log into the stove and flopped down on the bench. "It's time to sleep," he snapped out, and was still.

I listened for a long time to his breathing and his whispering to himself, as he turned from one side to the other and smoked his pipe.

In the morning we left this scene of so much suffering and crime and on the seventh day of our journey we came to the dense cedar wood growing on the foothills of a long chain of mountains.

"From here," Ivan explained to me, "it is eighty versts to the next peasant settlement. The people come to these woods to gather cedar nuts but only in the autumn. Before then you will not meet anyone. Also you will find many birds and beasts and a plentiful supply of nuts, so that it will be possible for you to live here. Do you see this river? When you want to find the peasants, follow along this stream and it will guide you to them."

Ivan helped me build my mud hut. But it was not the genuine mud hut. It was one formed by the tearing out of the roots of a great cedar, that had probably fallen in some wild storm, which made for me the deep hole as the room for my house and flanked this on one side with a wall of mud held fast among the upturned roots. Overhanging ones formed also the framework into which we interlaced the poles and branches to make a roof, finished off with stones for stability and snow for warmth. The front of the hut was ever open but was constantly protected by the guardian naida. In that snow-covered den I spent two months like summer without seeing any other human being and without touch with the outer world where such important events were transpiring. In that grave under the roots of the fallen tree I lived before the face of nature with my trials and my anxiety about my family as my constant companions, and in the hard struggle for my life. Ivan went off the second day, leaving for me a bag of dry bread and a little sugar. I never saw him again.

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