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Chapter 26

Rezanov disembarked from the Juno at Okhotsk during the first days of October. Had it not been for a touch of fever that had returned in the filth and warm dampness of Sitka, he would have felt almost as buoyant in mind and body as in those days when California had gone to his head. The Juno had touched at Kadiak, Oonalaska, and others of the more important settlements, and he had found his schools and libraries in good condition, seals and otters rapidly increasing, in their immunity from indiscriminate slaughter, new and stronger forts threatening the nefarious Bostonian and Briton. At Okhotsk he learned that the embassy of Count Golofkin to China had failed as signally as his own, and this alone would have put him in the best of tempers even had he not found his armament and caravan awaiting him, facilitating his immediate departure. He wrote a gay letter to Concha, giving her the painful story of the naturalist attached to the Golofkin embassy, Dr. Redovsky, who had remained in the East animated by the same scientific enthusiasm as that of his colleague, the good Langsdorff; parted some time since from his too exacting master. Rezanov had written Concha many letters during his detention in Sitka, and left them with Baranhov to send at the first opportunity. The Chief-Manager, deeply interested in the romance of the mighty Chamberlain with whom he alone dared to take a liberty, vowed to guard all that came to his care and sooner or later to send them to California. Rezanov had also written comprehensively to the Tsar and the directors of the Russian-American Company, adroitly placing his marriage in the light of a diplomatic maneuver, and painting California in colors the more vivid and enticing for the sullen clouds and roaring winds, the dripping forests and eternal snows of that derelict corner of Earth where he had been stranded so long. He had also, when Langsdorff announced his intention to start upon a difficult journey in the interest of science, provided him not only with letters of recommendation, but with all the comforts procurable in a land where the word comfort was the stock in trade of the local satirist. But Langsdorff, although punctiliously acknowledging the favors, never quite forgave the indifference of a mere ambassador and chamberlain, rejoicing in the dignity of an honorary membership in the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, to the supreme division of natural history.

The first stage of the journey--from Okhotsk to Yakutsk--was about six hundred and fifty English miles, not as the crow flew, but over the Stanovoi mountains in a southwesterly direction to the Maya, by this river's wavering course to the Youdoma, then northwest to the Aldan, and south beside the Lena. The beaten track lay entirely alongside the rivers at this season, upon their surface in winter; and in addition to these great streams there were many too unimportant for the map, but as erratic in course and as irresistible in energy after the first rains of autumn.

Captain D'Wolf had proved himself capable and faithful, and a caravan of forty horses had been in Okhotsk a week; twenty for immediate use, twenty for relief, or substitutes in almost certain emergency. As there were but one or two stations of any importance between Okhotsk and Yakutsk, and as a week might pass without the shelter of so much as a hut, it was necessary to take tents and bearskin beds for the Chamberlain, his Cossack guard, valet-de-chambre, cook and other servants, one set of fine blankets and linen, cooking utensils, axes, arms, tinder-boxes, provisions for the entire trip, besides a great quantity of personal luggage.

Rezanov lost no time. He had changed his original plan and dispatched Davidov on the Avos from Oonalaska. Guns and provisions awaited the Juno at Okhotsk, and in less than a week after his arrival Rezanov was able to start on his long journey with a mind at rest. Although the almost extravagant delight that his body had taken in the comforts of his manager's home, after ten weeks on the Juno, warned him that he might be in a better condition to begin a journey of ten thousand versts, he hearkened neither to the hint nor to the insistence of his host. His impatient energy and stern will, combined with the passionate wish to accomplish the double object of his journey, returning in the least possible time to California with his treaty and the consent of the Pope and King to his marriage, would have carried him out of Okhotsk in forty-eight hours had disease declared itself. Nor were there any inducements aside from a comfortable bed and refined fare, in the flat, unhealthy town with its everlasting rattle of chains, and the hideous physiognomies of criminals always at work to the rumbling accompaniment of Cossack oaths.

For the first week the exercise he loved best and the long days in the crisp open air renewed his vigor, and he even looked forward to the four months of what was then the severest traveling in the world, in a boyish spirit of adventure. He reflected that he might as well give his brain a relief from the constant revolving of schemes and plans for the advancement of his country, his company, and himself, and let his thoughts have their carnival of anticipation with the unparalleled happiness and success that awaited him in the future. There was no possible doubt of the acquiescence and assistance of the Tsar, and no man ever looked down a fairer perspective than he, as he galloped over the ugly country, often far ahead of his caravan, splashing through bogs and streams, fording rivers without ferries, camping at night in forests so dense the cold never escaped their embrace, muffled to the eyes in furs as he made his way past valleys whose eternal ice fields chilled the country for miles about; sometimes able to procure a little fresh milk and butter, oftener not; occasionally passing a caravan returning for furs, generally seeing nothing but a stray reindeer for hours together, once meeting the post and finding much for himself that in nowise dampened his spirit.

But on the eighth day the rains began: a fine steady mist, then in torrents as endless. Wrapped in bearskins at night within the shelter of a tent or of some wayside hut, and closely covered by day, Rezanov at first merely cursed the inconvenience of the rain; but while crossing the river Allach Juni, his guides without consulting him having taken him miles out of his way in order to avoid the hamlet of the same name where the small-pox was raging, but where there was a government ferry, his horse lost his footing in the rapid, swollen current and fell. Rezanov managed to retain his seat, and pulled the frightened, plunging beast to its feet while his Cossacks were still shouting their consternation. But he was soaked to the skin, his personal luggage was in the same condition, and they did not reach a hut where a fire could be made until nine hours later. It was then that the seeds of malaria, accumulated during the last three years in unsanitary ports and sown deep by exceptional hardships, but which he believed had taken themselves off during his six weeks in California, stirred more vigorously than in Sitka or Okhotsk. He rode on the next day in a burning fever. Jon, minding Langsdorff's instructions, doctored him--not without difficulty--from the medicine chest, and for a day or two the fever seemed broken. But Jon, sick with apprehension, implored him to turn back. He might as well have implored the sky to turn blue.

"How do you think men accomplish things in this world?" asked Rezanov angrily. "By turning back and going to bed every time they have a migraine?"

"No, Excellency," said the man humbly. "But health is necessary to the accomplishment of everything, and if the body is eaten up with fever--"

"What are drugs for? Give me the whole damned pharmacopeia if you choose, but don't talk to me about turning back."

"Very well, Excellency," said Jon, with a sigh.

The next day he and one of the Cossack guard caught him as he fell from his horse unconscious. A Yakhut hut, miserable as it was, offered in the persistent downpour a better shelter than the tent. They carried him into it, and his bedding at least was almost as luxurious as had he been in St. Petersburg. Jon, at his wits' end, remembered the' practice of Langsdorff in similar cases, and used the lancet, a heroic treatment he would never have accomplished had his master been conscious. The fever ebbed, and in a few days Rezanov was able to continue the journey by shorter stages, although heavy with an intolerable lassitude. But his will sustained him until he reached Yakutsk, not at the end of twenty-two days, but of thirty-three. Here he succumbed immediately, and although his sickbed was in the comfortable home of the agent of the Company, and he had medical attendance of a sort, his fever and convalescence lasted for eight weeks. Then, in spite of the supplications of his friends, chief among whom was his faithful Jon, and the prohibition of the doctor, he began the second stage of his journey.

The road from Yakutsk to Irkutsk, some two thousand six hundred versts, or fifteen hundred and fifty English miles, lay for the most part alternately on and along the river Lena in a southeasterly direction; there being no attempt to cross Siberia at any point in a straight line. By this time the river was frozen, and the only concession Rezanov would make to his enfeebled frame was an arrangement to cover the entire journey by private sledge instead of employing the swifter course of post sledge on the long stretches and horseback on the shorter cuts.

The weather was now intensely cold, the river winding, the delays many, but there were adequate stations for the benefit and accommodation of travelers every hundred versts or less. Rezanov felt so invigorated by the long hours in the open after the barbarous closeness of his sick room, that at the end of a fortnight he was again possessed with all his old ardor of desire to reach the end of his journey. He vowed he was well again, abandoned his comfortable sledge, and pushed on in the common manner. In the wretched post sledges he was often exposed to the full violence of a Siberian winter, and although the horseback exercise stirred his blood and refreshed him for the moment, he suffered in reaction and was several times forced to remain two nights instead of one at a station. But he was muffled in sables to his very eyes, and the road was diverting, often beautiful, with its Gothic mountains, its white plains set with villages and farms, the high thin crosses above the open or swelling domes of the little churches. Sometimes the Lena narrowed until its frozen surface looked like a mass of ice that had ground its way between perpendicular walls or overhanging masses of rock that awaited the next convulsion of nature to close the pass altogether. Then the dogs trotted past caves and grottos, left the abrupt and craggy banks, crossed level plains once more; where herds of cattle grazed in the summertime, now a vast uncheckered expanse of white. The Government and Company agents fawned upon him, the best of horses and beds, food and wine, were eagerly placed at the disposal of the favorite of the Tsar. Rezanov's spirit, always of the finest temper, suffered no eclipse for many days. He reveled in the belief that his sorely tried body was regenerating its old vigors.

From Wercholensk to Katschuk the journey was so winding by river that it consumed more than twice the time of the land route, which although only thirty versts in extent was one of the most difficult in Siberia. Rezanov chose the latter without hesitation, and would listen to no discussion from the Commissary of the little town or from his distracted Jon: the journey from Yakutsk had now lasted five weeks and the servant's watchful eye noted signs of exhaustion.

The hills were very high and very steep, the roads but a name in summer. Had not the snow been soft and thin, the horses could not have made the ascent at all; and, as it was, the riders were forced to walk the greater part of the way and drag their unwilling steeds behind them. They were twelve hours covering the thirty versts, and at Katschuk Rezanov succumbed for two days, while Jon scoured the country in search of a telega; as sometimes happened there was a long stretch of country without snow, and sledges, by far the most comfortable method of travel in Siberia, could not be used. The rest of the journey, but one hundred and ninety-six versts, must be made by land. Rezanov admitted that he was too weary to ride, and refused to travel in the post carriage. On the third day the servant managed to hire a telega from a superior farmer and they started immediately, the heavy luggage having been consigned to a merchant vessel at Yakutsk.

Rezanov stood the telega exactly half a day. Little larger than an armchair and far lighter, it was drawn by horses that galloped up and down hill and across the intervening valleys with no change of gait, and over a road so rough that the little vehicle seemed to be propelled by a succession of earthquakes. Rezanov, in a fever which he attributed to rage, dismissed the telega at a village and awaited the coming of Jon, who followed on horseback with the personal luggage.

It was a village of wooden houses built in the Russian fashion, and inhabited by a dignified tribe wearing long white garments bordered with fur. They spoke Russian, a language little heard farther north and east in Siberia, and when Rezanov declined their hospitality they dispatched a courier at once to the Governor-General of Irkutsk acquainting him with the condition of the Chamberlain and of his imminent arrival. In consequence, when Rezanov drew rein two days later and looked down upon the city of Irkutsk with its pleasant squares and great stone buildings beside the shining river, the gilded domes and crosses of its thirty churches and convents glittering in the sun, the whole picture beckoning to the delirious brain of the traveler like some mirage of the desert, his appearance was the signal for a salute from the fort; and the Governor-General, privy counselor and senator de Pestel, accompanied by the civil governor, the commandant, the archbishop, and a military escort, sallied forth and led the guest, with the formality of officials and the compassionate tenderness of men, into the capital.

For three weeks longer Rezanov lay in the palace of the Governor. Between fever and lassitude, his iron will seemed alternately to melt in the fiery furnace of his body, then, a cooling but still viscous and formless mass, sink to the utmost depths of his being. But here he had the best of nursing and attendance, rallied finally and insisted upon continuing his journey. His doctor made the less demur as the traveling was far smoother now, in the early days of March, than it would be a month hence, when the snow was thinner and the sledges were no longer possible. Nevertheless, he announced his intention to accompany him as far as Krasnoiarsk, where the Chamberlain could lodge in the house of the principal magistrate of the place, Counselor Keller, and, if necessary, be able to command fair nursing and medical attendance; and to this Rezanov indifferently assented.

The prospect of continuing his journey and the bustle of preparation raised the spirits of the invalid and gave him a fictitious energy. He had fought depression and despair in all his conscious moments, never admitted that the devastation in his body was mortal. With but a remnant of his former superb strength, and emaciated beyond recognition, he attended a banquet on the night preceding his departure, and on the following morning stood up in his sledge and acknowledged the Godspeed of the population of Irkutsk assembled in the square before the palace of the Governor. All his life he had excited interest wherever he went, but never to such a degree as on that last journey when he made his desperate fight for life and happiness.


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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