Seeing that there was nothing more to be done at Chitá in the way of reforms, I gladly accepted the offer to visit the Amúr that same summer of 1863.
The immense domain on the left (northern) bank of the Amúr, and along the Pacific coast as far south as the bay of Peter the Great (Vladivóstok), had been annexed to Russia by Count Muravióff, almost against the will of the St. Petersburg authorities and certainly without much help from them. When he conceived the bold plan of taking possession of the great river whose southern position and fertile lands had for the last two hundred years always attracted the Siberians; and when, on the eve of the opening of Japan to Europe, he decided to take for Russia a strong position on the Pacific coast, and to join bands with; the United States, he had almost everybody against him at St. Petersburg: the ministry of war, which had no men to dispose of; the ministry of finance, which bad no money for annexations; and especially the ministry of foreign affairs, always guided by its preoccupation of avoiding "diplomatic complications." Muravióff had thus to act on his own responsibility, and to rely upon the scanty means which thinly populated Eastern Siberia could afford for this grand enterprise. Moreover, everything had to be done in a hurry, in order to oppose the "accomplished fact" to the protests of the West European diplomatists, which would certainly be raised.
A nominal occupation would have been of no avail, and the idea was to have on the whole length of the great river and of its southern tributary, the Usurí, - full 2500 miles, - a chain of self-supporting settlements, and thus to establish a regular communication between Siberia and the Pacific coast. Men were wanted for these settlements, and as the scanty population of East Siberia could not supply them, Muravioff was forced to unusual measures. Released convicts who, after having served their time, had become serfs to the imperial mines, were freed and organized as Transbaikálian Cossacks, part of whom were settled along the Amúr and the Usurí, forming two new Cossack communities. Then Muravióff obtained the release of a thousand hard-labor convicts (mostly robbers and murderers), who were to be settled as free men on the lower Amúr. He came himself to see them off; and as they were going to leave, addressed them on the beach: "Go, my children, be free there, cultivate the land, make it Russian soil, start a new life," and so on. The Russian peasant women nearly always, of their own free will, follow their husbands, if the latter happen to be sent to hard labor in Siberia, and many of the would-be colonists had thus their families with them. But those who had none ventured to remark to Muravióff: "What is agriculture without a wife! We ought to be married." Whereupon Muravióff ordered the release of all the hard-labor convict women of the place - about a hundred - and offered them their choice of the men. But there was little time to lose; the high water in the river was rapidly going down, the rafts had to start, and Muravióff, asking the people to stand in pairs on the beach, blessed them, saying: "I marry you, children. Be kind to each other; you men, don't ill-treat your wives, - and be happy."
I saw these settlers some six years after that scene. Their villages were poor, the land they had been settled on having had to be cleared from under virgin forests; but, all things considered, their settlements were not a failure and the Muravióff marriages were not less happy than marriages are on the average. That excellent, intelligent man, Innocentus, bishop of the Amúr, afterward recognized these marriages, as well as the children that were born, as quite legal, and had them inscribed on the church registers.
Muravióff was less successful, however, with another batch of men that he added to the population of East Siberia. In his penury of men, he had accepted a couple of thousand soldiers from the punishment battalions. They were incorporated as "adopted sons" in the families of the Cossacks, or were settled in joint households in the villages of the Siberians. But ten or twenty years of barrack life under the horrid discipline of Nicholas I.'s time surely were not a preparation for an agricultural life. The sons deserted their adopted fathers, and constituted the floating population of the towns, living from hand to mouth on occasional jobs, spending chiefly in drink what they earned, and then waiting as care-free as birds for new jobs to turn up.
The motley crowd of Transbaikálian Cossacks, of ex-convicts, and "sons" - all settled in a hurry, and often in a haphazard way, along the banks of the Amúr - certainly did not attain prosperity, especially in the lower parts of the river and on the Usurí, where almost every square yard of land had to be won from a virgin subtropical forest, and where deluges of rain brought by the monsoons in July, inundations on a gigantic scale, millions of migrating birds, and the like, continually destroyed the crops, finally reducing whole populations to sheer despair and apathy.
Considerable supplies of salt, flour, cured meat, and so on had therefore to be shipped every year, to support both the regular troops and the settlements on the lower Amúr, and for that purpose some hundred and fifty barges were yearly built at Chitá and floated with the early spring high water down the Ingodá, the Shílka, and the Amúr. The whole flotilla was divided into detachments of from twenty to thirty barges, which were placed under the orders of a number of Cossack and civil-service officers. Most of these did not know much about navigation, but they could be trusted, at least, not to steal the provisions and then report them as lost. I was nominated assistant to the chief of all that flotilla, - let me name him, - Major Maróvsky.
My first experiences in my new capacity of navigator were not entirely successful. It so happened that I had to proceed with a few barges as rapidly as possible to a certain point on the Amúr, and there to hand over my vessels. For that purpose I had to hire men from among those very "sons" whom I have already mentioned. None of them had ever had any experience in river navigation; nor had I. On the morning of our start my crew had to be collected from the public houses of the place, most of them being so drunk at that early hour that they had to be bathed in the river to bring them back to their senses. When we were afloat, I had to teach them everything that was to be done. Still, things went pretty well during the day; the barges, carried along by a swift current, floated down the river, and my crew, inexperienced though they were, had no interest in throwing their vessels upon the shore: that would have required special exertion. But when dusk came, and it was time to bring our huge, heavily laden barges to the shore and fasten them for the night, one of them, which was far ahead of the one that carried me, was stopped only when it was fast upon a rock, at the foot of a tremendously high, insurmountable cliff. There it stood immovable, while the level of the river, temporarily swollen by rains, was rapidly going down. My ten men evidently could not move it. I rowed down to the next village to ask assistance from the Cossacks, and at the same time dispatched a messenger to a friend, a Cossack officer who was staying some twenty miles away, and who had had experience in such things.
The morning came; a hundred Cossacks men and women had come to my aid, but there was no means whatever of connecting the barge with the shore, in order to unload it, so deep was the water under the cliff. - And, as soon as we attempted to push it off the rock, its bottom was broken in, and the water freely entered, - sweeping away the flour and salt which formed the cargo. To my great horror I perceived numbers of small fish entering through the hole and swimming about in the barge, and I stood there helpless, without knowing what to do next. There is a very simple and effective remedy for such emergencies. A sack of flour is forced into the hole, to the shape of which it soon adapts itself, while the outer crust of paste which is formed in the sack prevents water from penetrating through the flour; but none of us knew this at the time.
Happily for me, a few minutes later a barge was sighted coming down the river towards us. The appearance of the swan which carried Lohengrin was not greeted with more enthusiasm by the despairing EIsa than that clumsy vessel was greeted by me. The haze which covered the beautiful Shilka at that early hour in the morning added even more to the poetry of the vision. It was my friend, the Cossack officer, who had realized by my description that no human force could drag my barge off the rock, - that it was lost - and was bringing an empty barge which by chance was at hand, to take away the cargo of my doomed craft.
Now the hole was stopped, the water was pumped out, the cargo was transferred to the new barge, and next morning I could continue my journey. This little experience was of great profit to me, and I soon reached my destination on the Amúr without further adventures worth mentioning. Every night we found some stretch of steep but relatively low shore where to stop with the barges, and our fires were soon lighted on the bank of the swift and clear river, amidst the most beautiful mountain scenery. In day-time, one could hardly imagine a more pleasant journey than on board a barge, which floats leisurely down, without any of the noise of the steamer; one or two strokes being occasionally given with its immense stern sweep to keep it in the main - current. For the lover of nature, the lower part of the Shílka and the upper part of the Amúr, where one sees a most beautiful, wide, and swift river flowing amidst mountains rising in steep, wooded cliffs a couple of thousand feet above the water, offer some of the most delightful scenes in the world. But these same cliffs make communication along the shore on horseback, by way of a narrow trail, extremely difficult. I learned this that very autumn at my own expense. In East Siberia the seven last stations along the Shílka (about 120 miles) were known as the Seven Mortal Sins. This stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway- if it is ever built - will cost unimaginable sums of money; much more than the stretch of the Canadian Pacific line in the Rocky Mountains, in the cañon of the Fraser River, has cost.
After I had delivered my barges, I made about a thousand miles down the Amúr in one of the post boats which are used on the river. The stern of the boat was covered in, and in the bow was a box filled with earth upon which a fire was kept to cook the food. My crew consisted of three men. We had to make haste, and therefore used to row in turns all day long, while at night the boat was left to float with the current, and I kept the watch for three or four hours to maintain the boat in the middle of the river, and to prevent it from being drawn into some side channel. These watches - the full moon shining above and the dark hills reflectcd in the river - were beautiful beyond description. My rowers were taken from the aforementioned sons; they were three tramps, who had the reputation of being incorrigible thieves and robbers, - and I carried with me a heavy sack full of banknotes, silver, and copper. In Western Europe such a journey, on a lonely river, would have been considered risky; not so in East Siberia. I made it without even having so much as an old pistol, and I found my three tramps excellent company. Only, as we approached Blagovéschensk, they became restless. "Khánshina" (the Chinese brandy) "is cheap there," they reasoned, with deep sighs. "We are sure to get into trouble! It's cheap, and it knocks you over in no time, from want of being used to it!" I offered to leave the money which was due to them with a friend who would see them off with the first steamer. "That would not help us," they replied mournfully. "Somebody will offer a glass, - it's cheap, and a glass knocks you over!" they persisted in saying. They were really perplexed, and when, a few months later, I returned through the town, I learned that one of "my sons," as people called them in town, had really got into trouble. When he had sold the last pair of boots to get the poisonous drink, he had committed some theft and had been locked up. My friend finally obtained his release and shipped him back.
Only those who have seen the Amúr, or know the Mississippi or the Yang-tze-kiang, can imagine what an immense river the Amúr becomes after it has joined the Sungarí, and can realize what tremendous waves roll over its bed if the weather is stormy. When the rainy season, due to the monsoons, comes in July, the Sungarí, the Usurí, and the Amúr are swollen by unimaginable quantities of water; thousands of low islands usually covered with willow thickets are inundated or washed away, and the width of the river attains in places two, three, and even five miles; water rushes into the side channels and the lakes which spread in the low lands along the main channel; and when a fresh wind blows from an easterly quarter, against the current, tremendous waves, even higher than those which one sees in the estuary of the St. Lawrence, roll up both the main river and the side channels. Still worse is it when a typhoon blows from the Chinese Sea and spreads over the Amúr region.
We experienced such a typhoon. I was then on board a large decked boat, with Major Maróvsky, whom I joined at Blagovéschensk. He had rigged his boat so that she would sail close to the wind, and when the storm began we managed to bring our boat to the sheltered side of the river, and to find refuge in a small tributary. There we stayed for two days, while the storm raged with such fury that, when I ventured for a few hundred yards into the surrounding forest, I had to retreat on account of the number of immense trees which the wind was blowing down around me. We began to feel very uneasy for our barges. It was evident that if they had been afloat that morning, they never would have been able to reach the sheltered side of the river, but must have been driven by the storm to the bank exposed to the full rage of the wind, and there destroyed. A disaster was almost certain.
We sailed out as soon as the fury of the storm had abated. We knew that we ought soon to overtake two detachments of barges; but we sailed one day, two days, and found no trace of them. My friend Maróvsky lost both sleep and appetite, and looked as if he had just had a serious illness. He sat whole days on the deck, motionless, murmuring : "All is lost, all is lost." The villages are few and far between on this part of the Amúr, and nobody could give us any information. A new storm came on, and finally, reaching a village at daybreak, we learned that no barges had passed, but that quantities of wreckage had been seen floating down the river during the previous day. I was evident that at least forty barges, which carried a cargo of about two thousand tons, must have been lost. It meant a certain famine next spring on the lower Amúr if no supplies were brought in time, for it was late in the season, navigation would soon come to a close, and there was then no telegraph along the river.
We held a council, and decided that Maróvsky should sail as quickly as possible to the mouth of the Amúr. Some purchases of grain might perhaps be made in Japan before the close of navigation. Meanwhile I was to go with all possible speed up the river, to determine the losses, and do my best to cover the two thousand miles up the Amúr and the Shílka, in boats, on horseback, or on board steamer if I met one. The sooner I could warn the Chitá authorities, and dispatch any amount of provisions available, the better it would be. Perhaps part of them would this same autumn reach the upper Amúr whence it would be easier to ship them in the early spring to the low lands. If only a few weeks or even days could be saved, it might make an immense difference in case of a famine.
I began my two thousand miles journey in a row-boat, changing rowers at each village, every twenty miles or so. It was very slow progress, but there might be no steamer coming up the river for a fortnight, and in the meantime I could reach the places where the barges were wrecked, and see if any of the provisions had been saved. Then, at the mouth of the Usurí (Khabaróvsk) I might secure a steamer. The boats which I found at the villages were miserable, and the weather was very stormy. We kept along the shore, of course, but we had to cross some branches of the Amúr, of considerable width, and the waves driven by the high wind continually threatened to swamp our little craft. One day we had to cross a branch of the river nearly half a mile wide. Choppy waves rose like mountains as they rolled up that branch. My rowers, two peasants, were seized with terror; their faces were white as paper; their blue lips trembled; they murmured prayers. But a boy of fifteen, who held the rudder, calmly kept a watchful eye upon the waves. He glided between them as they seemed to sink around us for a moment, but when he saw them rising to a menacing height in front of us, he gave a slight turn to the boat and steadied it across the waves. The boat shipped water from each wave, and I bailed it out with an old ladle, noting at times that it accumulated more rapidly than I could throw it out. There was a moment, when the boat shipped two such big waves, that at a sign from one of the trembling rowers I unfastened the heavy sack, full of copper and silver, that I carried across my shoulder. . .For several days in succession we had such crossings. I never forced the men to cross, but they themselves, knowing why I had to hurry, would decide at a given moment that an attempt must be made. "There are not seven deaths in one's life, and one cannot be avoided," they would say, and, signing themselves with the cross, they would seize the oars and pull over.
I soon reached the place where the main destruction of our barges had taken place. Forty-four of them had been wrecked by the storm. Unloading had been impossible, and very little of the cargo had been saved. Two thousand tons of flour had been destroyed. With this news I continued my journey.
A few days later, a steamer slowly creeping up the river overtook me, and when I boarded her, the passengers told me that the captain had drunk himself into a delirium and jumped overboard. He was saved, however, and was now lying ill in his cabin. They asked me to take command of the steamer, and I had to consent; but soon I found to my great astonishment that everything went on by itself in such an excellent routine way that, though I paraded all day on the bridge, I had almost nothing to do. Apart from a few minutes of real responsibility, when the steamer had to be brought to the landing-places, where we took wood for fuel, and saying a word or two now and then to encourage the stokers to start as soon as the dawn permitted us faintly to distinguish the outlines of the shores, matters took care of themselves. A pilot who would have been able to interpret the map would have managed as well.
Traveling by steamer and a great deal on horseback, I reached at last Transbaikália The idea of a famine that might break out next spring on the lower Amúr oppressed me all the time. I found that on the Shílka the small steamer did not progress up the swift river rapidly enough; - so I abandoned it and rode with a Cossack a couple of hundred miles up the Argúñ, along one of the wildest mountain tracks in Siberia, never stopping to light our camp-fire until midnight had overtaken us in the woods. Even the ten or twenty hours that I might gain by this exertion were not to be despised, for every day brought nearer the close of navigation; ice was already forming on the river at night. At last I - sent the Governor of Transbaikália and my friend Colonel Fadashénko on the Shílka, at the convict settlement of Kará, and the latter took in hand the care of shipping immediately all available provisions. As for me, I left immediately to report all about the matter at Irkútsk.
People at Irkútsk wondered that I had managed to make this long journey so rapidly; but I was quite worn out. However, I recuperated by sleeping, for a week's time, such a number of hours every day that I should be ashamed to mention it now. "Have you taken enough rest- the governor-general asked me, a week or so after my arrival. "Could you start to-morrow for St. Petersburg, as a courier, to report there yourself upon the loss of the barges?"
It meant to cover in twenty days - not one day more -another distance of 3200 miles between Irkútsk and Níjni Nóvgorod, where I could take the railway to St. Petersburg; to gallop day and night in post carts, which had to be changed at every station, because no carriage would stand such a journey full speed over the frozen roads. But to see my brother Alexander was too great an attraction for me not to accept the offer, and I started the next night. When I reached the low lands of West Siberia and the Urals, the journey really became a torture. There were days when the wheels of the carts would be broken in the frozen ruts at every successive station. The rivers were freezing, and I had to cross the Ob in a boat amidst floating ice, which threatened at every moment to crush our small craft. When I reached the Tom River, on which the floating ice had just frozen together during the preceding night, the peasants refused for some time to take me over, asking me to give them "a receipt."
"What sort of receipt do you want ?"
"Well, you write on a paper: 'I, the undersigned, hereby testify that I was drowned by the will of God, and through no fault of the peasants,' and you give us that paper."
"With pleasure - on the other shore."
At last they took me over. A boy - a brave, bright boy whom I had selected in the crowd - headed the procession, testing the strength of the ice with a pole; I followed him, carrying my dispatch box on my shoulders, and we two were attached to long lines, which five peasants held, following us at a distance, - one of them carrying a bundle of straw, to be thrown on the ice where it did not seem strong enough.
Finally I reached Moscow, where my brother met me at the station, and thence we proceeded at once to St. Peterburg.
Youth is a grand thing. After such a journey, which lasted twenty-four days and nights, arriving early in the morning at St. Petersburg, I went the same day to deliver my dispatches, and did not fail also to call upon an aunt, or rather upon a cousin of mine. She was radiant. "We have a dancing: party to-night. Will you come?" she said. Of course I would! And not only come, but dance until an early hour of the morning.
When I reached St. Petersburg and saw the authorities, I understood why I bad been sent to make the report. Nobody would believe the possibility of such a destruction of the barges. "Have you been on the spot ?" "Did you see the destruction with your own eyes ?" "Are you perfectly sure that 'they' have not simply stolen the provisions, and shown you the wreck of some barges?" Such were the questions I had to answer.
The high functionaries who stood at the head of Siberian affairs at St. Petersburg were simply charming in their innocent ignorance of Siberia. "Mais, mon cher," one of them said to me, - he always spoke French, - "how is it possible that forty barges should be destroyed on the Nevá without any one rushing to save them ?" "The Nevá!" I exclaimed, "put three - four Nevá's side by side and you will have the lower Amúr!"
"Is it really as big as that?" And two minutes later he was chatting, in excellent French, about all sorts of things. "When did you last see Schwartz, the painter? Is not his 'Ivan the Terrible' a wonderful picture? Do you know why they were going to arrest Kúkel?" and he told me all about a letter that had been addressed to him, asking his support for the Polish insurrection. "Do you know that Chernyshévsky has been arrested? He is now in the fortress."
"What for? What has he done?" I asked.
"Nothing in particular, nothing! But, mon cher, you know, - State considerations! . . . Such a clever man, awfully clever! And such an influence he has upon the youth. You understand that a government cannot tolerate that: that 's impossible! intolérable, mon cher, dans un Etat bien ordonné!"
Count Ignátieff asked no such questions: he knew the Amúr very well, - and he knew St. Petersburg, too. Amidst all sorts of jokes and witty remarks about Siberia, which he made with an astounding vivacity, he said to me, "It is a very lucky thing that you were there on the spot and saw the wrecks. And 'they' were clever to send you with the report. Well done! At first nobody wanted to believe about the barges. 'Some new swindling,' it was thought. But now people say that you were well known as a page, and you have only been a few months in Siberia; so you would not shelter the people there, if it were swindling; they trust in you."
The Minister of War, Dmítri Milútin, was the only man high in the administration at St. Petersburg who took the matter seriously. He asked me many questions: all to the point. He mastered the subject at once, and all our conversation went on in short sentences, without hurry, but without any waste of words. "The coast settlements to be supplied from the sea, you mean? The remainder only from Chitá? Quite right. But if a storm happens next year, - will there be the same destruction once more?" "No, if there are two small tugs to convoy the barges." "Will it do?" "Yes; with one tug the loss would not have been half so heavy." "Very probably. Write to me, please; state all you have said; quite plainly - no formalities."