CHAPTER XXIV. DISMAL SHELTER - ARRIVAL OF A COSSACK COURIER AMERICANS ON THE ANADYR - ARCTIC FIREWOOD A SIBERIAN BLIZZARD LOST ON THE STEPPE
Our short stay at Shestakova, while waiting for the Penzhina sledges, was dismal and lonesome beyond expression. It began to storm furiously about noon on the 20th, and the violent wind swept up such tremendous clouds of snow from the great steppe north of the village, that the whole earth was darkened as if by an eclipse, and the atmosphere, to a height of a hundred feet from the ground, was literally packed with a driving mist of white snowflakes. I ventured to the top of the chimney hole once, but I was nearly blown over the edge of the yurt, and, blinded and choked by snow, I hastily retreated down the chimney, congratulating myself that I was not obliged to lie out all day on some desolate plain, exposed to the fury of such a storm. To keep out the snow, we were obliged to extinguish the fire and shut up the chimney hole with a sort of wooden trap-door, so that we were left to total darkness and a freezing atmosphere. We lighted candles and stuck them against the black smoky logs above our heads with melted grease, so that we could see to read; but the cold was so intense that we were finally compelled to give up the idea of literary amusement, and putting on fur coats and hoods, we crawled into our bags to try to sleep away the day. Shut up in a dark half-underground dungeon, with a temperature ten degrees below the freezing-point, we had no other resource.
It is a mystery to me how human beings with any feeling at all can be satisfied to live in such abominable, detestable houses as those of the Settled Koraks. They have not one solitary redeeming feature. They are entered through the chimney, lighted by the chimney, and ventilated by the chimney; the sunshine falls into them only once a year - in June; they are cold in winter, close and uncomfortable in summer, and smoky all the time. They are pervaded by a smell of rancid oil and decaying fish; their logs are black as jet and greasy with smoke, and their earthen floors are an indescribable mixture of reindeer hairs and filth dried and trodden hard. They have no furniture except wooden bowls of seal oil, in which burn fragments of moss, and black wooden troughs which are alternately used as dishes and as seats. Sad is the lot of children born in such a place. Until they are old enough to climb up the chimney pole they never see the outside world.
The weather on the day after our arrival at Shestakova was much better, and our Cossack Meranef, who was on his way back to Tigil, bade us good-bye, and started with two or three natives for Kamenoi. Dodd and I managed to pass away the day by drinking tea eight or ten times simply as an amusement, reading an odd volume of Cooper's novels which we had picked up at Gizhiga, and strolling along the high bluffs over the gulf with our rifles in search of foxes. Soon after dark, just as we were drinking tea in final desperation for the seventh time, our dogs who were tied around the yurt set up a general howl, and Yagor came sliding down the chimney in the most reckless and disorderly manner, with the news that a Russian Cossack had just arrived from Petropavlovsk, bringing letters for the Major. Dodd sprang up in great excitement, kicked over the teakettle, dropped his cup and saucer, and made a frantic rush for the chimney pole; but before he could reach it we saw somebody's legs coming down into the yurt, and in a moment a tall man in a spotted reindeerskin coat appeared, crossed himself carefully two or three times, as if in gratitude for his safe arrival, and then turned to us with the Russian salutation, "Zdrastvuitia." - "At kooda?" - "Where from?" demanded Dodd, quickly. "From Petropavlovsk with letters for the Maiur," (mai-oor'), was the reply; "three telegraph ships have been there, and I am sent with important letters from the American nachalnik [Footnote: Commander.]; I have been thirty-nine days and nights on the road from Petropavlovsk." This was important news. Colonel Bulkley had evidently touched at the southern end of Kamchatka on his return from Bering Sea, and the letters brought by the courier would undoubtedly explain why he had not landed the party at the mouth of the Anadyr River, as he had intended. I felt a strong temptation to open the letters; but not thinking that they could have any bearing upon my movements, I finally concluded to send them on without a moment's delay to Gizhiga, in the faint hope that the Major had not yet left there for Okhotsk. In twenty minutes the Cossack was gone, and we were left to form all sorts of wild conjectures as to the contents of the letters, and the movements of the parties which Colonel Bulkley had carried up to Bering Strait. I regretted a hundred times that I had not opened the letters, and found out to a certainty that the Anadyr River party had not been landed. But it was too late now, and we could only hope that the courier would overtake the Major before he had started from Gizhiga, and that the latter would send somebody to us at Anadyrsk with the news.