CHAPTER XXIII. DOG-SLEDGE TRAVEL - ARCTIC MIRAGES - CAMP AT NIGHT - A HOWLING CHORUS - NORTHERN LIGHTS
We were up on the following morning long before daylight; and, after a hasty breakfast of black-bread, dried fish, and tea, we harnessed our dogs, wet down our sledge-runners with water from the teakettle to cover them with a coating of ice, packed up our camp equipage, and, leaving the shelter of the tamarack forest around the yurt, drove out upon the great snowy Sahara which lies between the Malmofka River and Penzhinsk Gulf. It was a land of desolation. A great level steppe, as boundless to the weary eye as the ocean itself, stretched away in every direction to the far horizon, without a single tree or bush to relieve its white, snowy surface. Nowhere did we see any sign of animal or vegetable life, any suggestion of summer or flowers or warm sunshine, to brighten the dreary waste of storm-drifted snow.
White, cold, and silent, it lay before us like a vast frozen ocean, lighted up faintly by the slender crescent of the waning moon in the east, and the weird blue streamers of the aurora, which went racing swiftly back and forth along the northern horizon. Even when the sun rose, huge and fiery, in a haze of frozen moisture at the south, it did not seem to infuse any warmth or life into the bleak wintry landscape. It only drowned, in a dull red glare, the blue, tremulous streamers of the aurora and the white radiance of the moon and stars, tinged the snow with a faint colour like a stormy sunset, and lighted up a splendid mirage in the north-west which startled us with its solemn mockery of familiar scenes. The wand of the Northern Enchanter touched the barren snowy steppe, and it suddenly became a blue tropical lake, upon whose distant shore rose the walls, domes, and slender minarets of a vast oriental city. Masses of luxuriant foliage seemed to overhang the clear blue water, and to be reflected in its depths, while the white walls above just caught the first flush of the rising sun. Never was the illusion of summer in winter, of life in death, more palpable or more perfect. One almost instinctively glanced around to assure himself, by the sight of familiar objects, that it was not a dream; but as his eyes turned again to the north-west across the dim blue lake, the vast tremulous outlines of the mirage still confronted him in their unearthly beauty, and the "cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces" seemed, by their mysterious solemnity, to rebuke the doubt which would ascribe them to a dream. The bright apparition faded, glowed, and faded again into indistinctness, and from its ruins rose two colossal pillars sculptured from rose quartz, which gradually united their capitals and formed a titanic arch like the grand portal of heaven. This, in turn, melted into an extensive fortress, with, massive bastions and buttresses, flanking towers and deep embrasures, and salient and re-entering angles whose shadows and perspective were as natural as reality itself. Nor was it only at a distance that these deceptive mirages seemed to be formed. A crow, standing upon the snow at a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, was exaggerated and distorted beyond recognition; and once, having lingered a little behind the rest of the party, I was startled at seeing a long line of shadowy dog-sledges moving swiftly through the air a short distance ahead, at a height of eight or ten feet from the ground. The mock sledges were inverted in position, and the mock dogs trotted along with their feet in the air; but their outlines were almost as clear as those of the real sledges and real dogs underneath. This curious phenomenon lasted only a moment, but it was succeeded by others equally strange, until at last we lost faith in our eyesight entirely, and would not believe in the existence of anything unless we could touch it with our hands. Every bare hillock or dark object on the snow was a nucleus around which were formed the most deceptive images, and two or three times we started out with our rifles in pursuit of wolves or black foxes, which proved, upon closer inspection, to be nothing but crows. I had never before known the light and atmosphere to be so favourable to refraction, and had never been so deceived in the size, shape, and distance of objects on the snow.