CHAPTER XXIII. DOG-SLEDGE TRAVEL - ARCTIC MIRAGES - CAMP AT NIGHT - A HOWLING CHORUS - NORTHERN LIGHTS

The morning of December 13th dawned clear, cold, and still, with a temperature of thirty-one degrees below zero; but as the sun did not rise until half-past ten, it was nearly noon before we could get our drivers together, and our dogs harnessed for a start. Our little party of ten men presented quite a novel and picturesque appearance in their gaily embroidered fur coats, red sashes, and yellow foxskin hoods, as they assembled in a body before our house to bid good-bye to the ispravnik and the Major. Eight heavily loaded sledges were ranged in a line in front of the door, and almost a hundred dogs were springing frantically against their harnesses, and raising deafening howls of impatience, as we came out of the house into the still, frosty atmosphere. We bade everybody good-bye, received a hearty "God bless you, boys!" from the Major, and were off in a cloud of flying snow, which stung our faces like burning sparks of fire. Old Paderin, the chief of the Gizhiga Cossacks, with white frosty hair and beard, stood out in front of his little red log house as we passed, and waved us a last good-bye with his fur hood as we swept out upon the great level steppe behind the town.

It was just midday; but the sun, although at its greatest altitude, glowed like a red ball of fire low down in the southern horizon, and a peculiar gloomy twilight hung over the white wintry landscape. I could not overcome the impression that the sun was just rising and that it would soon be broad day. A white ptarmigan now and then flew up with a loud whir before us, uttered a harsh "querk, querk, querk" of affright, and sailing a few rods away, settled upon the snow and suddenly became invisible. A few magpies sat motionless in the thickets of trailing-pine as we passed, but their feathers were ruffled up around their heads, and they seemed chilled and stupefied by the intense cold. The distant blue belt of timber along the Gizhiga River wavered and trembled in its outlines as if seen through currents of heated air, and the white ghost-like mountains thirty miles away to the southward were thrown up and distorted by refraction into a thousand airy, fantastic shapes which melted imperceptibly one into another, like a series of dissolving views. Every feature of the scenery was strange, weird, arctic. The red sun rolled slowly along the southern horizon, until it seemed to rest on a white snowy peak far away in the south-west, and then, while we were yet expecting day, it suddenly disappeared and the gloomy twilight deepened gradually into night. Only three hours had elapsed since sunrise, and yet stars of the first magnitude could already be plainly distinguished.

We stopped for the night at the house of a Russian peasant who lived on the bank of the Gizhiga River, about fifteen versts east of the settlement. While we were drinking tea a special messenger arrived from the village, bringing two frozen blueberry pies as a parting token of regard from the Major, and a last souvenir of civilisation. Pretending to fear that something might happen to these delicacies if we should attempt to carry them with us, Dodd, as a precautionary measure, ate one of them up to the last blueberry; and rather than have him sacrifice himself to a mistaken idea of duty by trying to eat the other, I attended to its preservation myself and put it for ever beyond the reach of accidental contingencies.

On the following day we reached the little log yurt on the Malmofka, where we had spent one night on our way to Gizhiga; and as the cold was still intense we were glad to avail ourselves again of its shelter, and huddle around the warm fire which Yagor kindled on a sort of clay altar in the middle of the room. There was not space enough on the rough plank floor to accommodate all our party, and our men built a huge fire of tamarack logs outside, hung over their teakettles, thawed out their frosty beards, ate dry fish, sang jolly Russian songs, and made themselves so boisterously happy, that we were tempted to give up the luxury of a roof for the sake of sharing in their out-door amusements and merriment. Our thermometers, however, marked 35 deg. below zero, and we did not venture out of doors except when an unusually loud burst of laughter announced some stupendous Siberian joke which we thought would be worth hearing. The atmosphere outside seemed to be just cool enough to exert an inspiriting influence upon our lively Cossacks, but it was altogether too bracing for unaccustomed American constitutions. With a good fire, however, and plenty of hot tea, we succeeded in making ourselves very comfortable inside the yurt, and passed away the long evening in smoking Circassian tobacco and pine bark, singing American songs, telling stories, and quizzing our good-natured but unsophisticated Cossack Meranef.

It was quite late when we finally crawled into our fur bags to sleep; but long afterward we could hear the songs, jokes, and laughter of our drivers as they sat around the camp-fire, and told funny stories of Siberian travel.