The white rain clouds, rolling as ever like a nervous intruder over the great snow peaks behind the steep hills black with forest that rose like a wall back of the little settlement of Sitka, parted for a moment, and the sun, a coy disdainful guest, flung a glittering mist over what Nature had intended to be one of the most enchanting spots on earth, until, in a fit of ill-temper--with one of the gods, no doubt--she gave it to Niobe as a permanent outlet for her discontent. When it does not rain at Sitka it pours, and when once in a way she draws a deep breath of respite and lifts her grand and glorious face to the sun, in pathetic gratitude for dear infrequent favor, comes a wild flurry of snow or a close white fog from the inland waters; and, like a great beauty condemned to wear a veil through life, she can but stare in dumb resentment through the folds, consoling herself with the knowledge that could the world but see it must surely worship. Perhaps, who knows? she really is a frozen goddess, condemned to the veil for infidelity to him imprisoned in the great volcano across the sound--who sends up a column of light once in a way to dazzle her shrouded eyes, and failing that batters her with rock and stone like any lover of the slums. One day he spat forth a rock like a small hill, and big enough to dominate the strip of lowland at least, standing out on the edge of the island like a guard at the gates, and never a part of the alien surface. Between this lofty rock and the forest was the walled settlement of New Archangel, that Baranhov, the dauntless, had wrested from the bloodthirsty Kolosh but a short time since and purposed to hold in the interest of the Russian-American Company. His log hut, painted like the other buildings with a yellow ochre found in the soil, stood on the rock, and his glass swept the forest as often as the sea.
As Rezanov, on the second of July, thirty-one days after leaving San Francisco, sailed into the harbor with its hundred bits of volcanic woodland weeping as ever, he gave a whimsical sigh in tribute to the gay and ever-changing beauties of the southern land, but was in no mood for sentimental reminiscence. Natives, paddling eagerly out to sea in their bidarkas to be the first to bring in good news or bad, had given him a report covering the period of his absence that filled him with dismay. There had been deaths from scurvy; one of the largest ships belonging to the Company had been wrecked and the entire cargo lost; of a hunting party of three hundred Aleuts in one hundred and forty bidarkas, which had gone from Sitka to Kadiak in November of the preceding year, not one had arrived at its destination, and there was reason to believe that all had been drowned or massacred; and the Russians and Aleuts at Behring's Bay settlement had been exterminated by one of the native tribes.
But the Juno was received with salvos of artillery from the fort, and cheered by the entire population of the settlement, crowded on the beach. Baranhov, looking like a monkey with a mummy's head in which only a pair of incomparably shrewd eyes still lived, his black wig fastened on his bald, red-fringed pate with a silk handkerchief tied under his chin, stood, hands on hips, shaking with excitement and delight. The bearded, long-haired priests, in full canonicals of black and gold, were beside the Chief-Manager, ready to escort the Chamberlain to the chapel at the head of the solitary street, where the bells were pealing and a mass of thanksgiving was to be said for his safe return.
But it was some time before Rezanov could reach the chapel or even exchange salutations with Baranhov. As he stepped on shore he was surrounded, almost hustled by the shouting crowd of Russians,--many of them convicts--Aleuts and Sitkans, who knelt at his feet, endeavored to kiss his hand, his garments, in their hysterical gratitude for the food he had brought them. For the first time he felt reconciled to his departure from California, and Concha's image faded as he looked at the tearful faces of the diseased, ill-nourished wretches who gave their mite of life that he might live as became a great noble of the Russian Empire. But although he tingled with pleasure and was deeply moved, he by no means swelled with vanity, for he was far too clear-sighted to doubt he had done more than his duty, or that his duty was more than begun. He made them a little speech, giving his word they should be properly fed hereafter, that he would make the improvement of their condition as well as that of all the employees of the Company throughout this vast chain of settlements on the Pacific, the chief consideration of his life; and they believed him and followed him to the chapel rejoicing, reconciled for once to their lot.
After the service Rezanov went up to the hut of the Chief-Manager, a habitation that leaked winter and summer, and was equally deficient in light, ventilation and order. But Baranhov in the sixteen years of his exile had forgotten the bare lineaments of comfort, and devoted his days to advancing the interests of the Company, his nights, save when sleep overcame him, to potations that would have buried an ordinary man under Alaskan snows long since. But Baranhov had fourteen years more of good service in him, and rescued the Company from insolvency again and again, nor ever played into the hands of marauding foreigners; with brain on fire he was shrewder than the soberest.
He listened with deep satisfaction to the Chamberlain's account of his success with the Californians and his glowing pictures of the country, nod- ding every few moments with emphatic approval. But as the story finished his wonderful eyes were two bubbling springs of humor, and Rezanov, who knew him well, recrossed his legs nervously.
"What is it?" he asked. "What have I done now? Remember that you have been in this business for sixteen years, and I one--"
"How many measures of corn did you say you had brought, Excellency?"
"Two hundred and ninety-four," replied Rezanov proudly.
"A provision that exceeds my most sanguine hopes. The only thing that mitigates my satisfaction is that there is not a mill in the settlement to grind it."
Rezanov sprang to his feet with a violent exclamation, his face very red. There was no one whose good opinion he valued as he did that of this brilliant, dissipated, disinterested old genius; and he felt like a schoolboy. But although he started for the door, he recovered half-way, and reseating himself joined in the laughter of the little man who was rocking back and forth on his bench, his weazened leg clasped against his shrunken chest.
"How on earth was I to know all your domestic arrangements?" he said testily. "God knows I found them limited enough last winter, but it never occurred to me there was any mysterious process involved in converting corn into meal. Is it quite useless, then?"
"Oh, no, we can boil or roast it. It will dispose of what teeth we have left, but that will serve the good purpose of reminding us always of your excellency's interest in our welfare."
Rezanov shrugged his shoulders. "Give the corn to the natives. It is farinaceous at all events. And you can have nothing to say against the flour I have brought, and the peas, beans, tallow, butter, barley, salt, and salted meats--in all to the value of twenty-four thousand Spanish dollars."
The Chief-Manager's head nodded with the vigor and rapidity of a mechanical toy. "It is a God-send, a God-send. If you did no more than that you would have earned our everlasting gratitude. It will make us over, give us renewed courage in this cursed existence. Are you not going to get me out of it?"
Rezanov shook his head with a smile. "Literally you are the whole Company. As long as I live here you stay--although when I reach St. Petersburg I shall see that you receive every possible reward and honor."
Baranhov lifted his shoulders to his ears in quizzical resignation. "I suppose it matters little where the last few years left me are spent, and I can hang the medals on the walls to console me when I have rheumatism, and shout my titles from the top of the fort when the Kolosh are yelling at the barricades."
"You must make yourself more comfortable," said Rezanov emphatically. "You are wrong to carry your honesty and enthusiasm to the point of living like the promuschleniki. Take enough of their time to build you a comfortable dwelling, and I will send you, on my own account, far more substantial rewards than orders and titles. Build a big house, for that matter. I shall be here more or less--when I am not in California." And he told Baranhov of his proposed marriage with the daughter of Don Jose Arguello.
The Chief-Manager listened to this confidence with an even livelier satisfaction than to the list of the Juno's cargo.
"We shall have California yet!" he cried, his eyes snapping like live coals under the black thatch of wig. "Absorption or the bayonet. It matters little. Ten years from now and we shall have a line of settlements as far south as San Diego. My plan was to feel my way down the northern coast of California with a colony, which should buy a tract of land from the natives and engage immediately in otter hunting--somewhere between Cape Mendocino and Drake's Bay. The Spanish have no settlements above San Francisco and are too weak to drive us out. They would rage and bluster and do nothing. Then quietly push forward, building forts and ships. But you have taken hold in the grand manner and will accomplish in ten years what would have taken me fifty. Marry this girl, use your advantage over the entire family--whose influence I well know--and that great personal power with which the Almighty has been so lavish, and you will have the whole weakly garrisoned country under your foot before they know where they are, and the Russian settlers pouring in. Spain cannot come to the rescue while this devil Bonaparte is alive, and he is young, and like yourself a favorite of destiny. Those damned Bostonians inherit the grabbing instincts of the too paternal race they have just rejected, but there are thousands of miles of desert between California and their own western outposts, hundreds of savage tribes to exterminate. By the time they are in a position to attempt the occupation of California we shall be so securely entrenched they will either let us alone or send troops that would be half dead by the time they reach us. As to ships, we could soon build enough at Okhotsk and Petropaulovsky for our purpose. For the matter of that, if your gifted tongue impressed the Tsar with the riches of California there would always be war ships on her coast." He leaned forward and caught the strong shoulders above him in hands that looked like a tangle of baked nerves, and shook them vigorously. "You are a great boy!" he said with a sort of quizzical solemnity. "A great boy. This damned, God-forsaken, pestilential, demoralizing, brutalizing factory for enriching a few with the very life blood and vitals of thousands that will suffer and starve and never be heard of" (all his language cannot be recorded), "will make two or three reputations by the way. Mine will be one, although I'll get nothing else. Shelikov is safe; but you will have a monument. Well, God bless you. I grudge you nothing. Not even the happiness you deserve and are bound to have--for when all is said and done, Rezanov, you are a lucky dog, a lucky dog! Any man may see that, even when these infernal snows have left him with but half an eye. To quarrel with a destiny like yours would be as great a waste of time as to protest that California is warm and fertile, while this infernal North is like living in a refrigerator with the deluge to vary the monotony. Now let us get drunk!"
But Rezanov laughingly extricated himself, and sending a message to Davidov and Khostov to come to him immediately, walked toward the tent he had ordered erected on the edge of the settlement; only the worst of weather drove him indoors in these half-civilized communities.
As he was passing the chapel, followed again by the employees of the Company, to whom he had granted a holiday, he suddenly found his hand taken possession of, and looked up to see himself confronted by a dissipated-looking person in plain clothes. His hand became so limp that it was dropped as if it had put forth a sting, and he narrowed his eyes and demanded with a bend of his mouth that brought the blood to the face of the intruder:
"And who are you, may I ask?"
The man threw back his head defiantly. "I am Lieutenant Sookin of the Imperial Navy of Russia," he said in a loud, defiant tone.
"And I am Chamberlain of the Russian Court and Commander of all America," replied Rezanov coolly. "Now go to your quarters, dress yourself in your uniform, and present your report to me an hour hence."
The officer, concentrating in his injected eyes all the lively hatred and jealousy of his service for the Russian-American Company in this region where it reigned supreme and cared no more for the Admiralty than for some native chieftain covered with shells and warpaint, glared at its plenipotentiary as if calling upon his deeper resources of insolence; but the steady, contemptuous gaze of the man who had dealt with his kind often and successfully overcame his sodden spirit, and he turned sulkily and slouched off to his quarters to console himself with more brandy. Rezanov shrugged his shoulders and went on to his tent.
There was no furniture in it as yet, and he was obliged to receive Davidov and Khostov standing, but this he preferred. They followed him almost immediately, apprehensive and nervous, and before speaking he looked at them for a moment with his strong, penetrating gaze. He well knew the power of his own personality, and that it was immeasurably enhanced by the fact that of all with whom he had to do in these benighted regions his will alone was never weakened by liquor. These young men, clever, high-bred, with an honorable record not only in Russia, but in England and America, looked upon a hilarious night as the just reward of work well done by day. Brandy was debited to their account by the "bucket" (a bucket being a trifle less than two gallons), and they found little fault with life. But the profligacy gave a commanding spirit like Rezanov's an advantage which they did not underestimate for a moment; and they alternately hated and worshiped him.
"I think you have an inkling of what I am going to ask you to do." The Chamberlain brought out the euphemism with the utmost suavity. "I have made up my mind not to ignore the indignity to which Russia was subjected last year by Japan, but to inflict upon it such punishment as I find it in my power to compass. It was my intention to build a flotilla here, but owing to the diseased condition and reduced numbers of the employees, that was impossible, and I shall be obliged to content myself with the Juno and the Avos, whose keel, as you know, was laid in November, and is no doubt finished long since. These I shall fit with armaments in Okhotsk. I shall place the enterprise I have spoken of in your charge, sailing with you from Sitka five days hence. From Okhotsk I desire that you proceed to the Japanese settlements in the lower Kurile Islands, take possession of them and bring all stores and as many of the inhabitants as the vessels will accommodate, to Sitka, where Baranhov will see that they are comfortably established on that large island in the harbor--which we shall call Japonsky--and converted into good servants of the Company. The excuse for this enterprise is that those islands were formally taken possession of by Shelikov; and although abandoned later, the fact remains that the Russian flag was the first to float over them. The stores captured may not be worth much and the islands are of no particular use to us, but it is wise that Japan should have a taste of Russian power; and the consequences may be salutary in more ways than one. I hope you will do me this great favor, for there is no one of your tried probity and skill to whom I can trust so delicate an enterprise. I am doing it wholly upon my own responsibility, for although I wrote tentatively to the Tsar on this subject before I sailed for California, it is not yet time for a reply. However, I take the consequences upon my own shoulders. You shall not suffer in any way, for your orders are to obey mine while you remain in these waters."
He paused a moment, and then suddenly smiled into the unresponsive faces before him. He held out his hand and shook their limp ones warmly.
"Let me thank you here for all your inestimable services in the past, and particularly during our late hazardous voyages. Be sure that whether you succeed in this enterprise or not, your rewards shall be no less for what you have already done. I shall make it a personal matter with the Tsar. You shall have promotion and a substantial increase in pay, besides the orders and Imperial thanks you so richly deserve. Lest anything happen to me on my homeward journey, I shall write to St. Petersburg before I leave."
The lieutenants, overcome as ever when he chose to put forth his full powers, assured him of their fidelity and, if with misgivings, vowed to mete out vengeance to the Japanese. And although their misgivings were not unfounded, and they paid a high price in suffering and mortification, they accomplished their object and in due course received the rewards the Chamberlain had promised them.
They did not retire, and Rezanov, noting their sudden hesitation and embarrassment, felt an instant thrill of apprehension.
"What is it?" he demanded. "What has happened?"
"Life has moved slowly in Sitka during your absence, Excellency," replied Davidov. "There has been little work done on the Avos. It will not be finished for a month or six weeks."
Then, had the young men been possessed by a not infrequent mood, they would have glowed with a sense of just satisfaction. Rezanov felt himself turn so white that he wheeled about and left the tent. A month or six weeks! And the speed and safety of his journey across Siberia depended upon his making the greater part of it before the heavy autumn rains swelled the rivers and flooded the swamps. Winter or summer the journey from Okhotsk to St. Petersburg might be made in four months; with the wealth and influence at his command, possibly in less; but in the deluge between he was liable to detentions lasting nearly as long again, to say nothing of illness caused by inevitable exposure.
He stood staring at the palisades for many minutes. The separation must be long enough, the dangers numerous enough if he started within the week, but at least he had in a measure accustomed himself to the idea of not seeing Concha again for "the best part of two years," and the sanguineness of his temperament had led him to hope that the time might be reduced to eighteen months. If he delayed too long, only by means of an unprecedented run of good fortune would he reach St. Petersburg but a month behind his calculations. And the chances were in favor of four, or three at the best! Never since the morning that the real nature of his feeling for Concha had declared itself had he yearned toward her as at that moment; never since the dictum of what she called their "tribunal" had he so rebelled against the long delay. And yet he hesitated. To leave Japan unpunished for the senseless humiliations to which it had subjected Russia in his person was not to be thought of, and yet did he leave without seeing the Avos finished, the two boats supplied with armaments at Okhotsk, and under way before he started across Siberia, he knew it was doubtful if the expedition took place before his return; in that case might never take place, for these two young men might have drifted elsewhere, and he knew no one else to whom he could entrust such a commission. In spite of their idiosyncrasies he could rely upon them implicitly--up to a certain point. That point involved keeping them in sight until exactly the right moment and leaving nothing to their executive which could be certainly accomplished by himself alone. Did he sail five days hence on the Juno one of the officers would be exposed for an indeterminate time to the temptations of Okhotsk, the ship, perhaps, at the mercy of some sudden requirement of the Company. His authority was absolute when enforced in person, but it was a proverb west of the Ural: "God reigns and the Tsar is far away." If the Juno were wanted the manager of Okhotsk would argue that two years was a period in which an ardent servant of the Company would find many an excuse to justify its seizure.
And here in Sitka it was doubtful if the work on the Avos proceeded at all. Baranhov was not in sympathy with the enterprise against the Japanese, fearing the consequences to himself in the event of the Tsar's disapproval, and resenting the impressment of the promuschleniki into a service that deprived him of their legitimate work. Moreover, although he loved Rezanov personally, he had enjoyed supreme power in the wilderness too long not to chafe under even the temporary assumption of authority by his high-handed superior. With the best of intentions Davidov could make little headway against the passive resistance of the Chief Manager, and those intentions would be weakened by the consolidations the Company so generously afforded.
The result was hardly open to doubt. If he left Sitka before the completion of the Avos, Russia would go unavenged for the present. Or himself? Rezanov, sanguine and imaginative as he was, even to the point of creating premises to rhyme with ends, was very honest fundamentally. He turned abruptly on his heel, and calling to the officers that he would announce his decision on the morrow, ordered the sentry to open the gate and passed out of the enclosure.
He crossed the clearing and entered the forest. The warlike tribes themselves had trodden paths through the dense undergrowth of young trees and ferns. Rezanov, despite Baranhov's warning, had tramped the forest many times. It was the one thing that reconciled him to Sitka, for there are few woods more beautiful. In spite or because of the incessant rains, it is pervaded by a rich golden gloom, the result of the constant rotting of the brown and yellow bark, not only of the prostrate trees, but of the many killed by crowding and unable to seek the earth with the natural instinct of death. And above, the green of hemlock and spruce was perennially fresh and young, glistening and fragrant. Here and there was a small clearing where the clans had erected their ingenious and hideous totem poles, out of place in the ancient beauty of the wood.
The ferns brushed his waist, the roar of the river came to his ears, the forest had never looked more primeval, more wooing to a man burdened with civilization, but Rezanov gave it less heed than usual, although he had turned to it instinctively. He was occupied with a question to which nature would turn an aloof disdainful ear. Was his own wounded vanity at the root of his desire to humiliate Japan? Russia was too powerful, too occupied, for the present at least, greatly to care that her overtures and presents had been scorned. Upon her ambassador had fallen the full brunt of that wearisome and incomparably mortifying experience, and unfortunately the ambassador happened to be one of the proudest and most autocratic men in her empire. No man of Rezanov's caliber but accommodates that sort of personal vanity that tenaciously resents a blow to the pride of which it is a part, to the love of power it feeds. As well expect a lover without passion, a state without corruption. Rezanov finally shrugged his shoulders and admitted the impeachment, but at the same time he recognized that the desire for vengeance still held, and that the tenacity of his nature, a tenacity that had been no mean factor in the remodeling of himself from a voluptuous young sprig of nobility into one of the most successful business men and subjugator of other men that the Russian Empire could show, was not likely to weaken when its very roots had been stiff with purpose for fifteen months. Power had been Rezanov's ruling passion for many years before he met Concha Arguello, and, although it might mate very comfortably with love, it was not to be expected that it would remain submerged beyond the first enthusiasm, nor even assume the position of the "party of the second part." Rezanov was Rezanov. He was also in that interval between youth and age when the brain rules if it is ever to rule at all. That the ardor of his nature had awakened refreshed after a long sleep was but just proved, as well as the revival of his early ideals and capacity for genuine love; but the complexities, the manifold interests and desires of the ego had been growing and developing these many years; and no mere mortal that has given up his life for a considerable period to the thirst for dominance can ever, save in a brief exaltation, sacrifice it to anything so normal as the demands of sex and spirit. For good or ill, the man who has burned with ambition, exulted in the exercise of power, bitterly resented the temporary victories of rivals and enemies, fought with all the resources of brain and character against failure, is in a class apart from humanity in the mass. Rezanov loved Concha Arguello to the very depths of his soul, but he had lived beyond the time when even she could engage successfully with the ruthless forces that had molded into immutable shape the Rezanov she knew. Her place was second, and it is probable that she would have loved him less had it been otherwise; she, in spite of her fine intellect and strong will, being all woman, as he, despite his depth of intuition, was all man. Equality is possible in no relation or condition of life. When woman subjugates man the conquered will enjoy a sense of revenge proportionate to the meanness of his state.
It is possible that had Concha awaited Rezanov in St. Petersburg her attraction would have focused his desires irresistibly; but his mind had resigned itself to the prospect of separation for a definite period, and while it had not relegated her image to the background, her part in his life had been settled there among many future possibilities, and all the foreground was crowded with the impatient symbols of the intervening time. Moreover, he well knew that the savor would be gone from his happiness with the woman were the taste of another failure acrid in his mouth.
As he realized that the die was cast, the sanguineness of his temperament rushed to do battle against apprehension and self-accusing. After all, he was rarely balked of his way, accustomed to ride down obstacles, to the amiable cooperation of fate. He could arrive in Okhotsk late in September or early in October. Captain D'Wolf, who had been detained at Sitka during his absence by the same indifference that had operated against the completion of the Avos, would precede him and order that all be in readiness at Okhotsk both for the ships and his journey to Yakutsk. He could proceed at once; and, no doubt, with twice the number or horses needed, would make the first and most difficult stage of the journey in the usual time, and with no great embarrassment from the rains. From Yakutsk to Irkutsk the greater part of the travel was by water in any case, and after that the land was flat for the most part and bridges were more numerous. The governor of every town in Siberia would be his obsequious servant, the entire resources of the country would be at his disposal. He was sound in health again, as resistant against hardships as when he had sailed from Kronstadt. And God knew, he thought with a sigh, his will and purpose had never been stronger.
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