Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter I.: SONG IN A STRANGE LAND. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter I.: SONG IN A STRANGE LAND. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
SONG IN A STRANGE LAND.
‘These, then, are the mountains,” said a Russian officer to one of a band of armed Siberian peasants, appointed to guard a company of exiles who were on their way, some to the mines of Nertchinsk, and others to be attached to the soil as serfs, wheresoever the governor of Irkutsk should please. “These, then, are the mountains, and here they cross the frontier, to give work to the Emperor's enemies, in digging out their gold and silver.”
“Yes, those are the mountains, and within them lies the Charmed Sea,” replied the peasant, who, however, did not trouble himself so much as even to look up towards the peaks, now beginning to wax dim in the long northern twilight. This man lived in the next hamlet, and traversed this road almost every day, as did his companions; for, though the Russian officer had accompanied the exiles all the way from Poland, the peasant guard was changed from village to village.
“Call the prisoners forward, and make way,” ordered the officer: and the peasants, who had not felt it necessary to trouble themselves much about their charge in a region where escape was next to impossible, now began to look how far off' the prisoners might be, and ran to urge the men on foot to greater speed, and to lash the tired horse of the kibitka in which the women were seated.
At the first glance the men looked all alike, their heads being shaved, and their dress uniform in its sordidness. It required a little observation to discover that some were old and others young; which of them bore the wrinkles of care, and which of years also. A still closer observation was necessary to distinguish the respective rank and quality of those who externally so nearly resembled each other. No Siberian serfs looked so toil-worn and poverty-stricken; but neither did any husbandmen in all the Emperor's dominions display such countenances as those of some of the company appeared, when they could be viewed without reference to the disfigurement of the rest of their persons.
The women in the kibitka appeared alarmed at the signal to make speed; of the men, some ran on, under an impulse of curiosity, as fast as the weight they carried would permit; the rest preserved the slow and steady pace at which they had been walking since they came in sight. Every other man shouldered an iron bar, with a short chain at each end, and all were, at present, marching in silence.
“Make haste!” cried the Russian, shaking his lance impatiently. “You march as if you had still a thousand miles to go; but there, among those mountains, is Nertchinsk, and we are close by the lake, where we are to halt for the governor's orders about some of you.”
“You will not cross the testy sea to-night,” observed one of the peasants. “The spirits let no boat get back safe after dark.”
“That depends on who crosses it,” observed another of the escort. “If some call it the testy sea, others call it the charmed sea. Sometimes it foams and gathers its waters into a heap when not a breath is stirring; but, just as often, it is as smooth as glass while the pines are stooping and shivering on all the hills around. Learn who it is that the spirits favour, and who it is that they hate, and then you will know whether a boat will go straight across, like an eagle flying home, or whether it will turn over and over in the water, like an eider duck shot under the wing.”
“Hold your tongues, slaves,” cried the officer. “Here, you other slaves; let me hear you thank the Emperor for sending you here, where grass grows under your feet, instead of ordering you into Kamtchatka.”
In answer, the exiles uplifted one of the patriotic chaunts, of which the loyal ears of their guard had long been weary:—
“Wretches !” cried the Russian, “how dare you abuse the Emperor's clemency? Will your treason never be silent?”
“Never,” replied a young Pole, “to judge by the look of the place we are coming to. There must be echoes enough among these rocks to tell the tale from eve to morning, and from morning to eve again. In the steppe we have passed, our voices were stifled in space; but among these mountains the plaint of Poland shall never die.”
“I will silence it,” growled the officer.
“Not by threats,” replied Ernest. “The Emperor has wrought his will upon us; we have no more to fear from singing our country's songs, and we will sing them.”
“You carry your bar on your shoulder,” said the Russian. “You shall all be chained to it by the wrists as before, unless you cease to blaspheme the Emperor.”
Ernest, the young Pole, cast a glance behind him, and seeing the exhaustion of his friend Taddeus, who had been lately crippled, and the fatigue of Owzin, the father of Taddeus, and of old Alexander, the feeblest of the party, he had compassion on them, and refrained from answering the tyrant who had it as much in his will as his power to fetter them, though no chance of escape afforded him a pretence for doing so. In order to remind them of their present position in relation to himself, the officer addressed them by the new titles which he had never yet been able to get them to recognize.
“Three ! you will sink in the marsh presently, if you do not keep the line. Halt, there, Seven ! If you get on so fast I will shoot you. Two! no shifting- your bar yet. You have not had your fair share of it.”
His words were wasted. Owzin still straggled from the line. Ernest strode on as fast as ever, and Taddeus persisted in resigning his load to his stronger companion, Paul, who walked by his side. A volley of oaths from the Russian, or rather one indecent oath repeated a dozen times, seemed likely to be succeeded by blows from the attendant peasants, when a woman's voice was heard above the creaking of the kibitka.
“Husband, do try to remember your number, that I and your children may not see you murdered before our faces. Taddeus, my son, if you can bear your load no farther, say so. Is it manly to bring new sufferings on us all by irritating those whom we cannot resist? Ask for relief, since you want it.”
Taddeus could not bring himself to do this; but he cast a submissive look towards his mother, and took his burden again from Paul, who was not sorry, being eager to run forwards to see as much as Ernest of the pass they were approaching.
Lenore silently descended from the kibitka, charged herself with the load of her crippled son, who was too weak and weary to resist, and sent him to occupy her place beside his sister. The
Russian looked on surprised, but did not interfere with the arrangement.
Of all this miserable group, none, probably,— not even their parents,—were so wretched as the brother and sister, who now sat side by side for the first time since they had left Poland. During the whole of the journey they had avoided each other, though, till of late, no two members of one family had mutually loved more tenderly. But, henceforth, Sophia had a quarrel with her brother, which could, she believed, never be reconciled; and the spirit of Taddeus was grieved as much by his sister's injustice as by his own remorse. Sophia had long been betrothed to Cyprian, a friend of both her brothers; and there had been hope that the marriage might shortly take place in peace, as Cyprian had borne little share in the troubles of the times, and had the character, in his provincial residence, of being a quiet citizen. But this scheme of happiness was unconsciously broken up by Taddeus.
In accordance with the Russian Emperor's new rule, that every family, where there were two sons, should spare one to his majesty's armies, Taddeus, described as an active young rebel, had been drafted into one of the condemned regiments which was to guard the frontiers of Siberia. His brother, Frederick, was a theological student in the university at Wilna, fit for something so much better than being a private soldier, under the severest discipline, in a desert country, that Taddeus generously acquiesced in the lot having fallen on himself, and prepared to go into ignominious exile,—with whatever heart-burnings,—with an appearance of submission. But when, not long after, tidings came that Frederick had passed the frontiers, and was safe in France, the resolution of Taddeus was at once changed. Now that he was sure of not endangering his brother, he felt that it would be easier to him to die than to enter the armies of the ravager of his country; and he did,—what was then no uncommon act,—he crippled himself so as to be unfit for military service. In consideration to his parents, he left it to his enemies to take his life, if they should so choose. He was willing to have it spared as long as that of his father. But it required all his resolution to refrain from laying violent hands on himself when he discovered the result of his manoeuvre. The commissioners whom he had cheated, found it necessary to make up, as rapidly as possible, the 20,000 recruits that were to be brought from Poland, and also to allow no instance of evasion to escape punishment; and, in order to accomplish both these objects at once, and as Frederick was beyond their reach, they seized upon Cyprian, as one who was almost a member of the family. Before the fact could be made known at Warsaw, or, consequently, any measure of prevention or remonstrance could be taken, Cyprian was marching far away in the interior of Russia, and confidence was broken down between the brother and sister for ever. It would have been difficult to say which was the most altered by this event. Sophia, who had always been gay and amiable, and of late made hopeful amidst the woes of her country by the faith which happy love cherishes in the heart, seemed to have suddenly lost the capacity of loving. She hated, or was indifferent. Her indifference was towards her parents, and most who crossed her daily path: her hatred was not only towards the enemies of her country, but towards an individual here and there who could not be conceived to have given her any cause of offence, or to have obtained any great hold on her mind. The passion appeared as capricious as it was vehement. No one could declare that it extended to her brother, for towards him alone her conduct was cautious. Her one object, as far as he was concerned, seemed to be avoidance; and he did not cross her in it, for he felt that he had much reason to be hurt at her conduct, as well as grieved at the consequences of his own. The only point in which they now seemed to agree was in shunning mutual glances and speech. This had been easy from the day when the doom of banishment fell on the whole family, for supposed political offences. During all the days of their weary journey of four thousand miles, they had been able to keep apart; Sophia preferring to walk when she saw that her brother must soon ask a place in the kibitka; and it being the custom of her mother, herself, and a little girl who was under their charge, a daughter of one of the exiles, to appropriate a corner of the post-house where they stopped for the night, apart from the rest of the band of travellers.
Now that they were at length side by side, they proceeded in perfect silence. Taddeus folded his arms, and Sophia looked another way. It was some relief that little Clara was present, and that she talked without ceasing. She was allowed to go on unanswered, till she observed that mamma (for so she called Lenore) must be very tired with having carried the iron bar so long.
“What are you talking about, child? Paul is carrying the one Taddeus had.”
When Clara explained that Lenore had carried it till that moment, Sophia cast a look of indignant contempt upon her brother, who was equally surprised, supposing that his mother had only taken his burden from him to hand it to some one else.
“Have patience, Sophia,” he said, as he let himself down from the carriage. “You will none of you have to bear my burdens long.”
He looked so desperate, that the apprehension crossed Sophia's mind that he meant to rid himself of his life and his miseries altogether, perhaps by means of the very iron bar which was the subject of dispute. Whatever might have been his intention, however, he was prevented from executing it. for he fell in a swoon as soon as he left hold of the carriage, and was replaced in it, as his marching any farther was out of the question that day. As his mother sat, wiping the moisture from his forehead while he rested his head against her knees,—as she looked on her children, and saw that their misfortunes were further embittered by the absence of mutual confidence,—it required all the fortitude of the woman to bear up against the anguish of the mother.
It was a relief to all when they at length arrived at their halting-place, on the banks of that extraordinary lake on which no stranger can look without being awed or charmed. As the procession emerged from a rocky pass, upon the very brink of the waters, the peasants carelessly took off their caps, and immediately resumed them, being too much accustomed to the prospect before them to be much affected by it, except when their terrors were excited by storms, or by any Other of the phenomena of the charmed sea which they were wont to ascribe to the presence of spirits. Now, this vast lake, extending to the length of 360 miles, and more than 40 miles broad, lay dark in the bosom of the surrounding mountains, except where a gleam of grey light fell here and there from their openings upon its motionless surface. Not a movement was seen through the whole circuit of the vast panorama, and not a sound was heard. If there were bears in the stunted pine woods on the mountain side, or aquatic birds on the opposite margin, or eagles among the piled rocks that jutted into the waves, they were now hidden and still. If there were ever boats plying on the lake, they were now withdrawn into the coves and creeks of the shore. If there were human beings whose superstition was not too strong to permit them to live beside the very haunt of the invisible powers, their courage upheld them only while the sun was above the horizon. As soon as the shadows of twilight began to settle clown, they hastened homewards, and avoided looking abroad till they heard the inferior animals moving, in sign, as it was supposed, of the spirits having retired. Neither man, woman, nor child was to be seen, therefore, at this moment, and it was difficult to imagine any, so perfect a solitude did the place appear. As soon as the peasants perceived this, they began to quake, and gathered round the Russian, with whispered entreaties to be allowed to return homewards instantly. This being angrily refused till a shelter should have been found for the whole party, the poor creatures, divided between their fear of an officer of the Emperor and of invisible spirits, prepared themselves for a somewhat unusual method of march. They took off their caps again, crossed themselves every moment, and walked with their backs to the lake, carefully shunning any appearance of a glance over either shoulder. Their consternation was at its height when their prisoners broke the silence by singing, as before,—
Before the last echo had died away, a gurgling, rushing sound came from a distance, and those who gazed upon the expanse of waters saw ‘a prodigious swell approaching from the northeast, and rolling majestically towards them, slowly enough to afford the strange spectacle of half the lake in a state of storm, and the other half as smooth as glass. Presently, the whole was surging, tossing, foaming, roaring, while not a breath of air was at first felt by those on the shore. Next followed a flapping of wings overhead, for the eagles were roused; and a prodigious cackling and hurry-scurry in the marshes on either hand, for the wild-fowl were alarmed; and a crashing of boughs among the firs in the background, whether by a rising wind, or by wild beasts, could not be known. Then the clouds were parted, and the stars seemed to scud behind them; the fogs were swept away in puffs, and the opposite shores appeared to advance or recede, according to the comparative clearness of the medium through which they were seen. By this time the peasant guards were muttering their prayers with their hands before their eyes, the officer, astounded, sat motionless in his saddle, and the Poles burst into a shout, as if they had partaken of the superstition of the country. Louder than ever arose
And it was not till the commotion had subsided, nearly as rapidly as it had arisen, that either threats or persuasions could induce them to stir a step from the station they had taken up on the brink. They all wished that it might be the lot of their whole party to remain near this mighty waste of waters. Those who were destined for the mines of Nertchinsk, that is, Owzin and his family, and Andreas, the father of little Clara, were within easy reach of the Baikal lake: but where the others, Ernest, Paul, and old Alexander, might be located as serfs, no one could guess, till the will of the governor of Irkutsk should be revealed.
Nothing was heard or seen of the invisible powers through the thick darkness which surrounded their halting-place during the whole night. How different was the face of things when that darkness fled away! By sun-rise, the officer having received his directions from Irkutsk, the whole party were on the lake in boats managed by the neighbouring fishermen, who had come forth from hidden dwellings here and there among the rocks. The snowy peaks, on the western side, looked of a glittering whiteness in the morning light, while the fir-clad mountains opposite seemed of a deeper blackness from the contrast. The waters were of all hues of green, in proportion as their depth varied from twenty to more than two hundred fathoms. In the shallower parts it might be seen that their bed was a rocky basin, with no mud, and scarcely any sand to injure the transparency of the waters, even after the most searching storm. Pillars of granite shoot up from this rocky foundation, and in sunshine show like points of light amidst the emerald waves. The only circumstance which the boatmen could find it difficult to account for was, why fish were permitted to exist in this lake; neither did it live in the memory of man when permission was given to mortals to catch them: but some pretty traditionary stories were current respecting the last question; and as to the former, perhaps it might be an amusement to the lake-spirits to chase a finny prey among the pillars and recesses of their green-roofed sea-halls, as it is to kindred beings to follow the wild-ass among the hills, or the roebuck over the plain.