CHAPTER XIX. THE SNOW-DRIFT COMPASS - MARRIAGE BY CAPTURE - AN INTOXICATING FUNGUS - MONOTONY OF KORAK LIFE

On the following morning at daybreak we continued our journey, and rode until four hours after dark, over a boundless level steppe, without a single guiding landmark to point the way. I was surprised to see how accurately our drivers could determine the points of the compass and shape their course by simply looking at the snow. The heavy north-east winds which prevail in this locality throughout the winter sweep the snow into long wave-like ridges called sastrugi (sas-troo'-gee), which are always perpendicular to the course of the wind, and which almost invariably run in a north-west and south-east direction. They are sometimes hidden for a few days by fresh-fallen snow; but an experienced Korak can always tell by removing the upper layer which way is north, and he travels to his destination by night or day in a nearly straight line.

We reached the third encampment about six o'clock, and upon entering the largest tent were surprised to find it crowded with natives, as if in expectation of some ceremony or entertainment. Inquiry through our interpreter elicited the interesting fact that the ceremony of marriage was about to be performed for, or rather by, two members of the band; and instead of taking up our quarters, as we at first intended, in another less crowded tent, we determined to remain and see in what manner this rite would be solemnised by a wholly uncivilised and barbarous people.

The marriage ceremony of the Koraks is especially remarkable for its entire originality, and for the indifference which it manifests to the sensibilities of the bridegroom. In no other country does there exist such a curious mixture of sense and absurdity as that which is dignified in the social life of the Koraks with the name of marriage; and among no other people, let us charitably hope, is the unfortunate bridegroom subjected to such humiliating indignities. The contemplation of marriage is, or ought to be, a very serious thing to every young man; but to a Korak of average sensibility it must be absolutely appalling. No other proof of bravery need ever be exhibited than a certificate of marriage (if the Koraks have such documents), and the bravery rises into positive heroism when a man marries two or three times. I once knew a Korak in Kamchatka who had four wives, and I felt as much respect for his heroic bravery as if he had charged with the Six Hundred at Balaklava.

The ceremony, I believe, has never been described; and inadequate as a description may be to convey an idea of the reality, it will perhaps enable American lovers to realise what a calamity they escaped when they were born in America and not in Kamchatka. The young Korak's troubles begin when he first falls in love; this, like Achilles' wrath, is "the direful spring of woes unnumbered." If his intentions are serious, he calls upon the damsel's father and makes formal proposals for her hand, ascertains the amount of her dower in reindeer, and learns her estimated value. He is probably told that he must work for his wife two or three years - a rather severe trial of any young man's affection. He then seeks an interview with the young lady herself, and performs the agreeable or disagreeable duty which corresponds in Korak to the civilised custom of "popping the question." We had hoped to get some valuable hints from the Koraks as to the best method which their experience suggested for the successful accomplishment of this delicate task; but we could learn nothing that would be applicable to the more artificial relations of civilised society. If the young man's sentiments are reciprocated, and he obtains a positive promise of marriage, he goes cheerfully to work, like Ferdinand in The Tempest for Miranda's father, and spends two or three years in cutting and drawing wood, watching reindeer, making sledges, and contributing generally to the interests of his prospective father-in-law. At the end of this probationary period comes the grand "experimentum crucis," which is to decide his fate and prove the success or the uselessness of his long labour.