CHAPTER XXIII. DOG-SLEDGE TRAVEL - ARCTIC MIRAGES - CAMP AT NIGHT - A HOWLING CHORUS - NORTHERN LIGHTS
A camp in the middle of a clear, dark winter's night presents a strange, wild appearance. I was awakened, soon after midnight, by cold feet, and, raising myself upon one elbow, I pushed my head out of my frosty fur bag to see by the stars what time it was. The fire had died away to a red heap of smouldering embers. There was just light enough to distinguish the dark outlines of the loaded sledges, the fur-clad forms of our men, lying here and there in groups about the fire, and the frosty dogs, curled up into a hundred little hairy balls upon the snow. Away beyond the limits of the camp stretched the desolate steppe in a series of long snowy undulations, which blended gradually into one great white frozen ocean, and were lost in the distance and darkness of night. High overhead, in a sky which was almost black, sparkled the bright constellations of Orion and the Pleiades - the celestial clocks which marked the long, weary hours between sunrise and sunset. The blue mysterious streamers of the aurora trembled in the north, now shooting up in clear bright lines to the zenith, then waving back and forth in great majestic curves over the silent camp, as if warning back the adventurous traveller from the unknown regions around the Pole. The silence was profound, oppressive. Nothing but the pulsating of the blood in my ears, and the heavy breathing of the sleeping men at my feet, broke the universal lull. Suddenly there rose upon the still night air a long, faint> wailing cry like that of a human being in the last extremity of suffering. Gradually it swelled and deepened until it seemed to fill the whole atmosphere with its volume of mournful sound, dying away at last into a low, despairing moan. It was the signal-howl of a Siberian dog; but so wild and unearthly did it seem in the stillness of the arctic midnight, that it sent the startled blood bounding through my veins to my very finger-ends. In a moment the mournful cry was taken up by another dog, upon a higher key - two or three more joined in, then ten, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, until the whole pack of a hundred dogs howled one infernal chorus together, making the air fairly tremble with sound, as if from the heavy bass of a great organ. For fully a minute heaven and earth seemed to be filled with yelling, shrieking fiends. Then one by one they began gradually to drop off, the unearthly tumult grew momentarily fainter and fainter, until at last it ended as it began, in one long, inexpressibly melancholy wail, and all was still. One or two of our men moved restlessly in their sleep, as if the mournful howls had blended unpleasantly with their dreams; but no one awoke, and a death-like silence again pervaded heaven and earth. Suddenly the aurora shone out with increased brilliancy, and its waving swords swept back and forth in great semicircles across the dark starry sky, and lighted up the snowy steppe with transitory flashes of coloured radiance, as if the gates of heaven were opening and closing upon the dazzling brightness of the celestial city. Presently it faded away again to a faint diffused glow in the north, and one pale-green streamer, slender and bright as the spear of Ithuriel, pushed slowly up toward the zenith until it touched with its translucent point the jewelled belt of Orion; then it, too, faded and vanished, and nothing but a bank of pale white mist on the northern horizon showed the location of the celestial armory whence the arctic spirits drew the gleaming swords and lances which they shook and brandished nightly over the lonely Siberian steppes. Crawling back into my bag as the aurora disappeared, I fell asleep, and did not wake until near morning. With the first streak of dawn the camp began to show signs of animation. The dogs crawled out of the deep holes which their warm bodies had melted in the snow; the Cossacks poked their heads out of their frosty fur coats, and whipped off with little sticks the mass of frost which had accumulated around their breathing-holes; a fire was built, tea boiled, and we crawled out of our sleeping-bags to shiver around the fire and eat a hasty breakfast of rye-bread, dried fish, and tea. In twenty minutes the dogs were harnessed, sledges packed, and runners covered with ice, and one after another we drove away at a brisk trot from the smoking fire, and began another day's journey across the barren steppe.
In this monotonous routine of riding, camping, and sleeping on the snow, day after day slowly passed until, on December 20th, we arrived at the Settled Korak village of Shestakova, near the head of Penzhinsk Gulf. From this point our Gizhiga Cossacks were to return, and here we were to wait until the expected sledges from Penzhina should arrive. We lowered our bedding, pillows, camp-equipage, and provisions down through the chimney hole of the largest yurt in the small village, arranged them as tastefully as possible on the wide wooden platform which extended out from the wall on one side, and made ourselves as comfortable as darkness, smoke, cold, and dirt would permit.