CHAPTER XXXIII. ARRIVAL OF BARK "PALMETTO" - DRIVEN ASHORE BY GALE - DISCHARGING CARGO UNDER DIFFICULTIES - NEGRO CREW MUTINIES - LONELY TRIP TO ANADYRSK - STUPID KORAKS - EXPLOSIVE PROVISIONS
My new drivers were the ugliest, most villainous-looking Koraks that it would have been possible to select in all the Penzhinsk Gulf settlements, and their obstinacy and sullen stupidity kept me in a chronic state of ill-humour from the time we left Kuil until we reached Penzhina. Only by threatening them periodically with a revolver could I make them go at all. The art of camping out comfortably in bad weather they knew nothing whatever about, and in vain did I try to teach them. In spite of all my instructions and illustrations, they would persist night after night in digging a deep narrow hole in the snow for a fire, and squatting around the top of it like frogs around the edge of a well, while I made a camp for myself. Of the art of cooking they were equally ignorant, and the mystery of canned provisions they could never fathom. Why the contents of one can should be boiled, while the contents of another precisely similar can should be fried - why one turned into soup and another into a cake - were questions which they gravely discussed night after night, but about which they could never agree. Astounding were the experiments which they occasionally tried upon the contents of these incomprehensible tin boxes. Tomatoes they brought to me fried into cakes with butter, peaches they mixed with canned beef and boiled for soup, green corn they sweetened, and desiccated vegetables they broke into lumps with stones. Never by any accident did they hit upon the right combination, unless I stood over them constantly and superintended personally the preparation of my own supper. Ignorant as they were, however, of the nature of these strange American eatables, they always manifested a great curiosity to taste them, and their experiments in this way were sometimes very amusing. One evening, soon after we left Shestakova, they happened to see me eating a pickled cucumber, and as this was something which had never come within the range of their limited gastronomical experience, they asked me for a piece to taste. Knowing well what the result would be, I gave the whole cucumber to the dirtiest, worst-looking vagabond in the party, and motioned to him to take a good bite. As he put it to his lips his comrades watched him with breathless curiosity to see how he liked it. For a moment his face wore an expression of blended surprise, wonder, and disgust, which was irresistibly ludicrous, and he seemed disposed to spit the disagreeable morsel out; but with a strong effort he controlled himself, forced his features into a ghastly imitation of satisfaction, smacked his lips, declared it was "akhmel nemelkhin" - very good, - and handed the pickle to his next neighbour. The latter was equally astonished and disgusted with its unexpected sourness, but, rather than admit his disappointment and be laughed at by the others, he also pretended that it was delicious, and passed it along. Six men in succession went through with this transparent farce with the greatest solemnity; but when they had all tasted it, and all been victimised, they burst out into a simultaneous "ty-e-e-e" of astonishment, and gave free expression to their long-suppressed emotions of disgust. The vehement spitting, coughing, and washing out of mouths with snow, which succeeded this outburst, proved that the taste for pickles is an acquired one, and that man in his aboriginal state does not possess it. What particularly amused me, however, was the way in which they imposed on one another. Each individual Korak, as soon as he found that he had been victimised, saw at once the necessity of getting even by victimising the next man, and not one of them would admit that there was anything bad about the pickle until they had all tasted it. "Misery loves company," and human nature is the same all the world over. Dissatisfied as they were with the result of this experiment, they were not at all daunted, but still continued to ask me for samples of every tin can I opened. Just before we reached Penzhina, however, a catastrophe occurred which relieved me from their importunity, and inspired them with a superstitious reverence for tin cans which no subsequent familiarity could ever overcome. We were accustomed, when we came into camp at night, to set our cans into a bed of hot ashes and embers to thaw out, and I had cautioned my drivers repeatedly not to do this until after the cans had been opened. I could not of course explain to them that the accumulation of steam would cause the cans to burst; but I did tell them that it would be "atkin" - bad - if they did not make a hole in the cover before putting the can on the fire. One evening, however, they forgot or neglected to take this precaution, and while they were all squatting in a circle around the fire, absorbed in meditation, one of the cans suddenly blew up with a tremendous explosion, set free an immense cloud of steam, and scattered fragments of boiling hot mutton in every direction. Had a volcano opened suddenly under the camp-fire, the Koraks could not have been more dismayed. They had not time to get up and run away, so they rolled over backward with their heels in the air, shouted "Kammuk!" - "The Devil!" - and gave themselves up for lost. My hearty laughter finally reassured them, and made them a little ashamed of their momentary panic; but from that time forward they handled tin cans as if they were loaded percussion shells, and could never again be induced to taste a morsel of their contents.