CHAPTER XXXV. YURT ON THE TOPOLOFKA - THE VALLEY OF TEMPESTS - RIVER OF THE LOST - STORM BOUND - ESCAPE BY THE ICE-FOOT - A SLEEPLESS NIGHT - LEET REPORTED DEAD - YAMSK AT LAST
"Kennan! Oh, Kennan! Turn out! It's day light!" A sleepy grunt and a still more drowsy "Is it?" from the pile of furs lying on the rough plank floor betrayed no very lively interest on the part of the prostrate figure in the fact announced, while the heavy, long-drawn breathing which soon succeeded this momentary interruption proved that more active measures must be taken to recall him from the land of dreams. "I say! Kennan! Wake up! Breakfast has been ready this half-hour." The magic word "breakfast" appealed to a stronger feeling than drowsiness, and, thrusting my head out from beneath its covering of furs, I took a sleepy, blinking view of the situation, endeavouring in a feeble sort of way to recollect where I was and how I came there. A bright crackling fire of resinous pine boughs was burning on the square log altar in the centre of the hut, radiating a fierce heat to its remotest corner, and causing the perspiration to stand in great beads on its mouldy logs and rough board ceiling. The smoke rose lazily through the square hole in the roof toward the white, solemn-looking stars, which winked soberly at us between the dark overhanging branches of the larches. Mr. Leet, who acted as the Soyer of our campaign, was standing over me with a slice of bacon impaled on a bowie-knife in one hand, and a poker in the other - both of which insignia of office he was brandishing furiously, with the intention of waking me up more effectually. His frantic gesticulations had the desired result. With a vague impression that I had been shipwrecked on the Cannibal Islands and was about to be sacrificed to the tutelary deities, I sprang up and rubbed my eyes until I gathered together my scattered senses. Mr. Leet was in high glee. Our travelling companion, the postilion, had manifested for several days an inclination to shirk work and allow us to do all the road-breaking, while he followed comfortably in our tracks, and by this strategic manoeuvre had incurred Mr. Leet's most implacable hatred. The latter, therefore, had waked the unfortunate man up before he had been asleep five hours, and had deluded him into the belief that the aurora borealis was the first flush of daylight. He had accordingly started off at midnight and was laboriously breaking a road up the steep mountain side through three feet of soft snow, relying upon Mr. Leet's promise that we would be along before sunrise. At five o'clock, when I got up, the voices of the postilion's men could still be heard shouting to their exhausted dogs near the summit of the mountain. We all breakfasted as slowly as possible, in order to give them plenty of time to break a road for us, and did not finally start until after six o'clock.
It was a beautifully clear, still morning when we crossed the mountain above the yurt, and wound around through bare open valleys, among high hills, toward the seacoast. The sun had risen over the eastern hill-tops, and the snow glittered as if strewn with diamonds, while the distant peaks of the Viliga, appeared -
"Bathed in the tenderest purple of distance
Tinted and shadowed by pencils of air" -
as calm and bright in their snowy majesty as if the suspicion of a storm had never attached to their smooth white slopes and sharp pinnacles. The air, although intensely cold, was clear and bracing; and as our dogs bounded at a gallop over the hard, broken road, the exhilarating motion caused the very blood in our veins
" - to dance
Blithe as the sparkling wine of France."
About noon we came out of the mountains upon the sea beach and overtook the postilion, who had stopped to rest his tired dogs. Our own being fresh, we again took the lead, and drew rapidly near to the valley of the Viliga.
I was just mentally congratulating myself upon our good fortune in having clear weather to pass this dreaded point, when my attention was attracted by a curious white cloud or mist, extending from the mouth of the Viliga ravine far out over the black open water of the Okhotsk Sea. Wondering what it could be, I pointed it out to our guide, and inquired if it were fog. His face clouded up with anxiety as he glanced at it, and replied laconically, "Viliga dooreet," or "The mountains are fooling." This oracular response did not enlighten me very much, and I demanded an explanation. I was then told, to my astonishment and dismay, that the curious white mist which I had taken to be fog was a dense driving cloud of snow, hurled out of the mouth of the ravine by a storm, which had apparently just begun in the upper gorges of the Stanavoi range. It would be impossible, our guide said, to cross the valley, and dangerous to attempt it until the wind should subside. I could not see either the impossibility or the danger, and as there was another yurt or shelter-house on the other side of the ravine, I determined to go on and make the attempt at least to cross. Where we were the weather was perfectly calm and still; a candle would have burned in the open air without flickering; and I could not realise the tremendous force of the hurricane which, only a mile ahead, was vomiting snow out of the mouth of that ravine and carrying it four miles to sea. Seeing that Leet and I were determined to cross the valley, our guide shrugged his shoulders expressively, as much as to say, "You will soon regret your haste," and we went on.