It was the end. Subienkow had travelled a long trail of bitterness
and horror homing like a dove for the capitals of Europe and here
farther away than ever in Russian America the trail ceased. He sat
in the snow arms tied behind him waiting the torture. He stared
curiously before him at a huge Cossack prone in the snow moaning in
his pain. The men had finished handling the giant and turned him
over to the women. That they exceeded the fiendishness of the men
the man's cries attested.
Subienkow looked on and shuddered. He was not afraid to die. He
had carried his life too long in his hands on that weary trail from
Warsaw to Nulato to shudder at mere dying. But he objected to the
torture. It offended his soul. And this offence in turn was not
due to the mere pain he must endure but to the sorry spectacle the
pain would make of him. He knew that he would pray and beg and
entreat even as Big Ivan and the others that had gone before. This
would not be nice. To pass out bravely and cleanly with a smile and
a jest--ah! that would have been the way. But to lose control to
have his soul upset by the pangs of the flesh to screech and gibber
like an ape to become the veriest beast--ah that was what was so
There had been no chance to escape. From the beginning when he
dreamed the fiery dream of Poland's independence he had become a
puppet in the hands of Fate. From the beginning at Warsaw at St.
Petersburg in the Siberian mines in Kamtchatka on the crazy boats
of the fur-thieves Fate had been driving him to this end. Without
doubt in the foundations of the world was graved this end for him--
for him who was so fine and sensitive whose nerves scarcely
sheltered under his skin who was a dreamer and a poet and an
artist. Before he was dreamed of it had been determined that the
quivering bundle of sensitiveness that constituted him should be
doomed to live in raw and howling savagery and to die in this far
land of night in this dark place beyond the last boundaries of the
He sighed. So that thing before him was Big Ivan--Big Ivan the
giant the man without nerves the man of iron the Cossack turned
freebooter of the seas who was as phlegmatic as an ox with a
nervous system so low that what was pain to ordinary men was scarcely
a tickle to him. Well well trust these Nulato Indians to find Big
Ivan's nerves and trace them to the roots of his quivering soul.
They were certainly doing it. It was inconceivable that a man could
suffer so much and yet live. Big Ivan was paying for his low order
of nerves. Already he had lasted twice as long as any of the others.
Subienkow felt that he could not stand the Cossack's sufferings much
longer. Why didn't Ivan die? He would go mad if that screaming did
not cease. But when it did cease his turn would come. And there
was Yakaga awaiting him too grinning at him even now in
anticipation--Yakaga whom only last week he had kicked out of the
fort and upon whose face he had laid the lash of his dog-whip.
Yakaga would attend to him. Doubtlessly Yakaga was saving for him
more refined tortures more exquisite nerve-racking. Ah! that must
have been a good one from the way Ivan screamed. The squaws bending
over him stepped back with laughter and clapping of hands. Subienkow
saw the monstrous thing that had been perpetrated and began to laugh
hysterically. The Indians looked at him in wonderment that he should
laugh. But Subienkow could not stop.
This would never do. He controlled himself the spasmodic twitchings
slowly dying away. He strove to think of other things and began
reading back in his own life. He remembered his mother and his
father and the little spotted pony and the French tutor who had
taught him dancing and sneaked him an old worn copy of Voltaire.
Once more he saw Paris and dreary London and gay Vienna and Rome.
And once more he saw that wild group of youths who had dreamed even
as he the dream of an independent Poland with a king of Poland on
the throne at Warsaw. Ah there it was that the long trail began.
Well he had lasted longest. One by one beginning with the two
executed at St. Petersburg he took up the count of the passing of
those brave spirits. Here one had been beaten to death by a jailer
and there on that bloodstained highway of the exiles where they had
marched for endless months beaten and maltreated by their Cossack
guards another had dropped by the way. Always it had been savagery-
-brutal bestial savagery. They had died--of fever in the mines
under the knout. The last two had died after the escape in the
battle with the Cossacks and he alone had won to Kamtchatka with the
stolen papers and the money of a traveller he had left lying in the
It had been nothing but savagery. All the years with his heart in
studios and theatres and courts he had been hemmed in by savagery.
He had purchased his life with blood. Everybody had killed. He had
killed that traveller for his passports. He had proved that he was a
man of parts by duelling with two Russian officers on a single day.
He had had to prove himself in order to win to a place among the fur-
thieves. He had had to win to that place. Behind him lay the
thousand-years-long road across all Siberia and Russia. He could not
escape that way. The only way was ahead across the dark and icy sea
of Bering to Alaska. The way had led from savagery to deeper
savagery. On the scurvy-rotten ships of the fur-thieves out of food
and out of water buffeted by the interminable storms of that stormy
sea men had become animals. Thrice he had sailed east from
Kamtchatka. And thrice after all manner of hardship and suffering
the survivors had come back to Kamtchatka. There had been no outlet
for escape and he could not go back the way he had come for the
mines and the knout awaited him.
Again the fourth and last time he had sailed east. He had been
with those who first found the fabled Seal Islands; but he had not
returned with them to share the wealth of furs in the mad orgies of
Kamtchatka. He had sworn never to go back. He knew that to win to
those dear capitals of Europe he must go on. So he had changed ships
and remained in the dark new land. His comrades were Slavonian
hunters and Russian adventurers Mongols and Tartars and Siberian
aborigines; and through the savages of the new world they had cut a
path of blood. They had massacred whole villages that refused to
furnish the fur-tribute; and they in turn had been massacred by
ships' companies. He with one Finn had been the sole survivor of
such a company. They had spent a winter of solitude and starvation
on a lonely Aleutian isle and their rescue in the spring by another
fur-ship had been one chance in a thousand.
But always the terrible savagery had hemmed him in. Passing from
ship to ship and ever refusing to return he had come to the ship
that explored south. All down the Alaska coast they had encountered
nothing but hosts of savages. Every anchorage among the beetling
islands or under the frowning cliffs of the mainland had meant a
battle or a storm. Either the gales blew threatening destruction
or the war canoes came off manned by howling natives with the war-
paint on their faces who came to learn the bloody virtues of the
sea-rovers' gunpowder. South south they had coasted clear to the
myth-land of California. Here it was said were Spanish adventurers
who had fought their way up from Mexico. He had had hopes of those
Spanish adventurers. Escaping to them the rest would have been
easy--a year or two what did it matter more or less--and he would
win to Mexico then a ship and Europe would be his. But they had
met no Spaniards. Only had they encountered the same impregnable
wall of savagery. The denizens of the confines of the world painted
for war had driven them back from the shores. At last when one
boat was cut off and every man killed the commander had abandoned
the quest and sailed back to the north.
The years had passed. He had served under Tebenkoff when
Michaelovski Redoubt was built. He had spent two years in the
Kuskokwim country. Two summers in the month of June he had managed
to be at the head of Kotzebue Sound. Here at this time the tribes
assembled for barter; here were to be found spotted deerskins from
Siberia ivory from the Diomedes walrus skins from the shores of the
Arctic strange stone lamps passing in trade from tribe to tribe no
one knew whence and once a hunting-knife of English make; and
here Subienkow knew was the school in which to learn geography.
For he met Eskimos from Norton Sound from King Island and St.
Lawrence Island from Cape Prince of Wales and Point Barrow. Such
places had other names and their distances were measured in days.
It was a vast region these trading savages came from and a vaster
region from which by repeated trade their stone lamps and that
steel knife had come. Subienkow bullied and cajoled and bribed.
Every far-journeyer or strange tribesman was brought before him.
Perils unaccountable and unthinkable were mentioned as well as wild
beasts hostile tribes impenetrable forests and mighty mountain
ranges; but always from beyond came the rumour and the tale of white-
skinned men blue of eye and fair of hair who fought like devils and
who sought always for furs. They were to the east--far far to the
east. No one had seen them. It was the word that had been passed
It was a hard school. One could not learn geography very well
through the medium of strange dialects from dark minds that mingled
fact and fable and that measured distances by "sleeps" that varied
according to the difficulty of the going. But at last came the
whisper that gave Subienkow courage. In the east lay a great river
where were these blue-eyed men. The river was called the Yukon.