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Chapter VI.: THE PATRIOT'S ALTAR. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
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THE PATRIOT'S ALTAR.
All possible pains were taken by the Russian superintendents of the mine to prevent the convicts under their charge from hearing anything of what was going forward in their own country, or even in Russia; and nothing would have been easier than to keep them in utter ignorance, if the Poles in the neighbourhood had all been miners, shut up during the day in the chambers of the earth, and at night in huts at the mouth of the mine. But those of them who were crown peasants were not so easily kept within bounds. Paul visited the hamlets on the shores of the Baïkal, and made acquaintance with every travelling merchant who could speak in his wife's tongue or his own; and Ernest was for ever on the look-out for parties of convicts on their way to Kamtchatka, and contrived to cross the path of several, while professedly out on a hunting expedition. He never failed to procure some information from these meetings, or to communicate it within a short time to his companions in exile. The hours of the night were their own; and there were many nights, even in the very depth of winter, when they could venture abroad to some one of the several places of meeting appointed for such occasions. The miners could sometimes foretell the approach of a procession of prisoners from Europe, by what went on within the works. If there was more diligence used than in common to prepare certain quantities of silver for removal, it was a token that an escort was on the road, which was to be met by the guards of the treasure, in order to exchange their respective charges,—prisoners and precious metal. As often as Owzin was detained longer than usual in the galleries of the mine, or Taddeus was overworked in the smelting-house, Ernest prepared for a long walk across the steppe, or daily mounted the heights in his neighbourhood to watch for indications of a march along the horizon which bounded the vast plain of snow. It was forbidden to all persons whatever, except the armed peasants who formed a part of the escort, to follow the waggons which contained the royal treasure, or dog the heels of the personages in green and red who protected it. Since to follow was impossible, it only remained to precede the train; and this Ernest did, keeping a little in advance, concealing himself in woods, or behind ridges of snow, and looking out from rock or tree for the glittering of sabres when the sun was above the horizon, and the glare of pine-torches after darkness came on. Having thus guided himself towards the point of the two processions meeting, he began his hunting, and managed to fall in with the party of convicts in time to be questioned whether the escort from Nertchinsk might be speedily expected, and to exchange signs and words with any of the prisoners who might be his countrymen.
He found himself aided in his object by the country people, whose compassion for the exiles is as remarkable as the hard-heartedness of the Russian guards. “Have you fallen in with the criminals?” asks a Russian soldier, sent out to reconnoitre. “I passed a company of unfortunates,” is the reply, If bidden to chain two restive prisoners to their iron bar, the peasant obeys unwillingly, and takes the first opportunity of releasing them, and bearing their burden himself. Several such did Ernest fall in with, and interest in his cause; and when he had once learned to pardon their compassionate opposition to all fancies of escape, and to admit with them that the attempt would be insane, he thankfully accepted their good offices on his expeditions, and was grateful for the connivance of the two or three who could have told tales of certain midnight meetings on the shores of the Charmed Sea. Few dared to look abroad at such an hour in such a scene, or doubted that the chaunts they heard, and the red lights they saw flickering on the steep or among the dark pine stems, were connected with the spirits of the deep; but there were a few who could distinguish human forms hovering about the blaze, and shrewdly guess that the lake spirits would not perpetually sing of Warsaw.
It was mid-winter—a winter which already seemed as if it would never end—when Ernest set forth to seek traces of a party of” unfortunates “in the manner above described, and left directions that as many as wished for tidings from Poland should meet him on the third night from hence, at an appointed spot overhanging the Baikal. He accomplished his object; was perceived from a distance with his rifle pointed, and apparently not regarding the procession— summoned to be questioned, and permitted to make inquiries in return. As usual, he received the oracular assurance, “Order reigns in Warsaw.” As usual, he caught the flashing glance, and marked the compression of lip with which the words were listened to by as many as were within hearing. But the train was not like any which he had before seen cross the desert. The convicts were Poles who had been enrolled as soldiers in the condemned regiments, and who, having shown symptoms of discontent, were being transported to serve as sentinels on the frontiers of China. As there would be no possibility of escape for themselves, it was thought that they would be trustworthy guardians of any exiles of a different class who might attempt it; the supposition going on the principle too commonly acted upon—that privation induces jealousy. All these poor men were objects of deep compassion to Ernest, who thought the lot of the military exile far more painful than his own, or that of his mining companions. The being under incessant supervision, and subjected to military punishments of the most barbarous kind, were evils purely additional to those suffered by other classes of exiles. What this military punishment amounted to in some cases, he had the opportunity of perceiving in the instance of one of the prisoners who was conveyed in a kibitka; the injuries he had received from the knout rendering him incapable of walking.
As it was usual to leave under the care of the peasantry as many of the “unfortunates” as fell sick on the road, or were found unable to travel, Ernest was surprised that this soldier should be proceeding with the rest. He was told that the man himself desired not to be parted from his companions; and had persevered in his journey thus far at the risk of dying before he should reach the frontiers of China. Ernest thought it probable that he would consent to stop and he taken care of, if he could do so among his own countrymen; and he advanced to the vehicle for the purpose of conversing with those within.
“Are you Poles?” he asked in a low voice, and in his own tongue.
The sufferer tore open his clothes, and showed the well-known token,—the Polish eagle, branded upon his breast. He had impressed it there, as he was not allowed to carry the emblem about with him in any form in which it could be taken from him. A few more words communicated all that remained to be told,—in what capacity—civil, not military,—he had served the cause; how he fell under punishment; and, in short, that this was no other than Cyprian.
When he heard whom he was talking to, and how near he was to those whom he loved best, he no longer objected to be left behind on the road. The only fear was lest his eagerness should be too apparent. With a solemn caution, Ernest left him, to say to the escort that he thought the prisoner in a very dangerous state, and that there was a hut a few wersts further on where he could be received and nursed till able to pursue his journey to the frontier. He added that this hut was in the near neighbourhood of Russian soldiers, who would be able to see that the convict did not escape on his recovery. The guard condescended to inquire of Cyprian himself whether he chose to remain; and observed that he must feel himself much worse since he had given over his obstinacy.
Ernest denied himself all further intercourse with the prisoners on the way, and seemed more disposed to divert himself with his rifle than to converse. When within sight of his own hut, he pointed it out very coolly, took charge of Cyprian as if he was merely performing a common act of humanity, and asked for directions as to pursuing the route to the frontiers when the sick man should have become again fit for duty. Nothing could appear simpler, or be more easily managed than the whole affair; and the procession went on its way, without either the guard or the remaining unfortunates having any idea that Cyprian was not left among perfect strangers.
There was but little time for intercourse at first. The hour of appointment was just at hand, and Alexander and Paul were gone to keep it, Ernest supposed, as their huts were empty.
“0, take me with you!” exclaimed Cyprian. “Only give me your arm, and let me try if I cannot walk. To think of their being so near, and I left behind alone! Cannot you take me with you?”
Ernest pronounced it impossible. Cyprian could not survive the fatigue, the exposure, the agitation; and, if he did, how was Sophia to bear the shock? By proving to him that it was only in his character of invalid that he could secure a day's permission to remain, he quieted him.
“And now,” continued Ernest, “give me tidings that I may bear to those who are waiting for me. Briefly,—how fares it with our heritage?”
“Our heritage ! Our patrimony !” exclaimed Cyprian, dwelling on the terms by which the Poles lovingly indicate their country. “Alas ! will it ever be ours? They told you too truly— ‘Order reigns in Warsaw !’”
“But what kind of order? Repose or secret conspiracy? None are so orderly as conspirators while conspiring; and repose is impossible already.”
“Alas ! it is neither. There is order, because the disorderly, as the Emperor calls them, are removed day by day. There is no conspiracy, because all who could organize one are in chains like you, or badged like me;” and Cyprian tore with his teeth the black eagle which marked his uniform. Ernest observed, with a melancholy smile, that not even this climate would blanch the Russian eagle.
“Therefore,” continued he, “we have each-a Polish eagle, caught at midnight, (when the superstitions of our enemies have blinded them;) slaughtered with patriotic rites; and preserved in secret.” And, after making sure that no prying eyes were looking in, he drew out from a recess behind the screen, a large white eagle, stuffed with great care into a resemblance of the beloved Polish standard. Cyprian clasped his hands, as if about to worship it. Its presence was some consolation to him for Ernest's departure.
“But how,” asked the latter, “are the brave conveyed away from Warsaw? On biers or in chains?”
“No one knows,” replied Cyprian. “They who informed me can tell no more than that our friends are seen to enter their own Louses at night, and in the morning they are gone. Some few are known to have been called to their doors, or into the streets, on slight pretences, and to have returned to their expecting households no more. Then there is silent weeping during the hours of darkness; and if grief is clamorous, it is shut into the inner chambers whence none may hear it. Thus order reigns in Warsaw.”
“And is this all the comfort I may carry?” asked Ernest, hoarsely.
“No: there is yet more. Tell any who may be fathers that there is no danger of their children growing up traitors like themselves. The Emperor takes them under his paternal care, and teaches them, among other things,—loyalty.”
“And the mothers—”
“Are called upon to rejoice that the children will never be exposed to their fathers' perils. There is much wonder at their ingratitude when they follow, with lamentations, the waggons in which their young sons are carried away to be put under a better training than that of parents.”
Ernest asked no more. These were tidings enough for one night. He strode on over the frozen snow, the fires which burned within him seeming to himself sufficient to convert this expanse of snow around him into a parched and droughty desert. There was, however, something in the aspect of a Siberian mid-winter night which never failed to calm the passions of this ardent patriot, or, at least, to give them a new and less painful direction. Ernest was of that temperament to which belongs the least debasing and most influential kind of superstition. He had not been superstitious in the days when there was full scope for all his faculties and all his energies in the realities of social life; but now, the deprivation of his accustomed objects of action, and the impression, at striking seasons, of unwonted sights and sounds, subjected him to emotions of which he could not, in his former circumstances, have framed a conception. Though he this night quitted his hut as if in desperate haste, he did not long proceed as if he feared being too late for his appointment. He lingered in the pine wood to listen to the moaning and wailing which came from afar through the motionless forests, like the music of a vast Eolian harp. He knew that it was caused by the motion of the winds pent under the icy surface of the Charmed Sea; but he listened breathlessly, as if they came from some conscious agents, whose mission was to himself. So it was also when the silent action of the frost in fissures of the rock at length loosened masses of stone, and sent them toppling down the steep, while the crash reverberated, and the startled eagle rushed forth into the night air, and added her screanining; to the commotion. Then Ernest was wont to watch eagerly in what direction the bird would wing her flight, and regard as an omen for his country whether she once more cowered in darkness, or flew abroad to prevent the roused echoes from sleeping again.
When strong gusts of an icy sharpness swept suddenly through the clefts of the mountains to the north, carrying up the white canopy of the woods in whirling clouds which sparkled in the moonlight, and creating a sudden turmoil among the blackened pine tops, he watched whether they stooped and raised themselves again, or were snapped off and laid low; and involuntarily made them the interpreters of his doubts about the next struggle into which he and his countrymen might enter.
Thus he lingered this night, and was therefore the last of the little company appointed to assemble at their midnight altar. This altar was one of the mysterious sculptured or inscribed rocks which appear at rare intervals in these deserts, the records, it is supposed, of ancient superstitions. The one chosen by the Poles foy their point of rendezvous, bore figures of animals rudely carved on a misshapen pedestal; and on a natural pillar which sprang from it were characters which no one within the memory of man had been found able to read. From this pedestal, the snow was duly swept before the exiles gathered round it to sing their patriotic hymns, or celebrate worship according to the customs of their country; and little Clara engaged that when the snow was gone, no creeping mosses should he allowed to deform the face of the altar. As for living things, they were too scarce and too welcome to be considered unclean, and the wild pigeons were as welcome to perch on this resting-place, after a weary flight over the Charmed Sea, as the swallow to build in the tabernacle of old. It was on the verge of the steep, where it plunged abrupt and fathoms deep into the green waters, that this altar stood; a conspicuous point which would have been dangerous but for the superstitions of all who lived within sight, since the blaze of the exiles' fire gleamed like a beacon on the height, and flickered unions: the pine stems behind, and shone from the polished black ice beneath.
As Ernest approached, unperceived, he first drew near to Sophia, who sat with folded arms on the verge of the rock, watching the white gleams of the northern lights, which shot up into the midheaven from behind the ridge of the opposite mountains, dimming the stars in that quarter, and contrasting strongly with the red glow of the fire which behind sent up wreaths of dim smoke among the rocks. Sophia's mood was less quiet than it should have been to accord with the scenery she was apparently contemplating. Neither superstition, nor any other influence seemed to have the power of soothing her. She was speaking, from time to time, in a querulous or an indifferent tone to some one who leaned against the altar on its shadowy side. It was Taddeus's voice which was heard occasionally in reply. The other Poles were collected round the fire; and their own voices, and the crackling and snapping of the burning wood, prevented their hearing that which it grieved Ernest's heart to listen to.
“Well, I do not know what you would have,” said Sophia; “I came out this freezing night, instead of going to my warm bed, just because my mother looks so miserable whenever I wish to stay behind. I neither wish to worship, nor to be patriotic, nor to see you all degrading yourselves with your superstitions. It was for my mother's sake that I came, and what more would you have?”
“It is not that, Sophia. You know it is not that.”
“O, you want me to bear about gravity in my looks, and to seem wrought upon by what passes: but that is going a step too far for my sincerity. There is no gravity in anything; and I cannot look as if I thought there was; and it is not my fault if my mother makes herself uneasy abort my feeling so.”
“No solemnity in anything! Not in those quivering lights, shot forth from the brow of Silence?”
“No. I used to think that there was in the lightning, and shrank from the flash lest it should destroy me. But we see no lightning here; and these fires do not scorch. They are idle, aimless things;—like all other things.”
“Are your words aimless, Sophia, when they wound my mother and me? It is well that my father does not hear them all.”
“They are aimless,” returned Sophia. “I have no object in anything I say or do. I thought we grew tired of that in our childhood, Taddeus. We were for ever planning and scheming; and what has it all come to? The arbour that we built,—and the many professions that we chose for Frederick and you,——Pshaw! What childish nonsense it was!”
“And the protection I was to give to you, Sophia, if troubles arose; and your dependence upon me,—was this childish dreaming?”
“Was it not, Taddeus? What has your protection been to me? and how am I dependent on you, or any one? My happiness, indeed, seems to have depended on you more than any power but fate would have allowed. See what has come of that too!”
“O, Sophia! if I innocently destroyed your happiness, did not my own go with it? Have 1 not ——”
“O, I have no doubt of all that; and I never thought of blaming anybody. It only proves how lightly and strangely things befall; and after this, you want me to see order and gravity in the march of events, and to march gravely with them. No! I have tried that too long; so I shall sit where I am while they sing yonder. You had better go. Go, if you think it does you any good.”
But Taddeus still lingered, while his sister kept her eyes fixed on the shooting lights.
“Sister!” he began, but seeing her writhe under the word, he added, in a low voice, “There is something in that word which touches you, however.”
“No gravity,—no solemnity,” she replied, laughing bitterly. “It carries no meaning but what old prejudice has put into it.”
“No thoughts of the arbour we built? No remembrance of the days when you put a sword into my boyish hands, and a helmet on my head, and said you would nurse my infirmities and soothe my banishment, if either should befall me for freedom's sake?”
“You came out of the battle without a wound,” replied Sophia, hastily.
“But not the less am I maimed for freedom's sake. O, Sophia! what would you have had me do? Think of the oath! Think of the twenty-five years of vowed service——”
Sophia started up, and with a struggle repressed a fierce cry which had began to burst from her lips. She turned her eyes upon her brother with a look of unutterable hatred, and walked away down a winding path, in an opposite direction from the group behind the altar.
Ernest drew near to the despairing Taddeus, aud was about to communicate his marvellous news; but the brother could not for a moment cease pouring out his boiling thoughts to one who understood their misery.
“To be so hated,—to be so wronged! And to he able to offer no excuse that does not pierce her heart, and make her passion more bitter than ever! And to think how more unhappy she is than even I——”
“We must lead her to embrace your consolation, and mine, and that of all of us. Come to our worship. Let it compose you, and perhaps she may return and listen. Perhaps she may find in it something——”
“Let it go on,” said Taddeus. “The more wretched we are, the more need for prayer. My mother, too, listens for her children's voices, and she shall not have to mourn for all.”
So saying, the two friends summoned their companions, and there, in a few moments, might be heard the mingled voices, ringing clear from the steep through the still midnight air, as they chaunted their prayer:—
“Who,” said Ernest, emphatically, when the service was ended—” who will assist me to secure another white eagle?”
All understood at once that a countryman had joined their company. No further preparation was necessary for the story which Ernest had to tell; and in a few moments, the hardier men of the party were scaling the slippery rocks in search of their prey, while Lenore was looking for the path by which her daughter had descended, that she might join her and communicate the intelligence.
“Mother!” cried a gentle voice to her, as she was about to go down. She turned round, and saw Sophia leaning against a tree where she must have heard all. “Mother,” repeated Sophia, scarcely audibly, “is this true?‘” and at the sight of Lenore's faint but genuine smile, the poor girl laid her head on the shoulder which was formerly the resting-place of her troubles, and, once more,—after a long and dreary interval of estrangement,—wept without control.
Lenore gently led her towards the altar, on which they both leaned.
“My child,” she said, “before we go to him, answer me what I ask. You do not, you say, believe that yon constellation is guided in its glittering round. You do not believe that the storm-bird, buffeted in its flight, is guided to its nest at last. Do you believe that Cyprian has been guided hither, or is it one of the events in which there is no seriousness, no import, that you are thus brought together in the heart of the desert?”
Sophia answered only by sinking down on her knees, and bowing her head upon the pedestal; but her sobs had ceased. When she looked up, it was Taddeus that supported her. S'he did not now start from his touch, but regarded him with a long gaze, like that with which she had parted from him when he went out to battle for Poland. It melted him into something more like self-reproach than all her past conduct had excited.
“You forgive me at last!” he cried. “Say you forgive me, Sophia!”
“Forgive yon!” she exclaimed. “You who have fought; you who have suffered; you who have forborne!—And what have I forborne? I have——”
“You have been wounded in spirit. You have suffered more than any of us, and therefore far be it from us to remember anything against you, Sophia. Now, your worst suffering is at an end, and you will be a comfort again to my mother,—to all of us.”
Lenore did not join her children when she saw them hurrying away together in the direction of Ernest's dwelling. She followed them with her eyes as long as she could distinguish them between the trees of the wood, and then turned, strong in a new trust, to feed the fire, and await the appearance of her companions. It was not long before the screaming echoes told her that they had succeeded in their search; and presently after, the red embers died out upon the steep, and none were left to heed how the northern aurora silently sported with the night on the expanse of the Charmed Sea.