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CHAPTER VII
 

THE TREASURE AND TOLL OF THE FOREST

 

ONE day I was sitting in my car reading the newspaper accounts of further Russian disasters, when Lisvienko entered, saluted and asked:

"May I make a report, sir?"

"Go ahead," I replied.

"Bad news, sir! I feel that I understand now whence come these assaults and constant difficulties with the hunghutzes." He came nearer and continued in a whisper:

"Every day I make the round of all the patrols. This morning, when I was riding along the bank of the Ho Lin to the new cutting, I caught the sound of shod hoofs on stones and in a moment made out a horseman riding rapidly toward the mountains. Though the man wore a Chinese cap and ma-kua-tzu (short jacket), he had below these red trousers and riding boots with spurs and carried a carbine. I am sure he was a Japanese cavalryman."

I jumped to my feet at this news and questioned his statement.

"No, sir," he answered decidedly, "I have too keen sight to have been mistaken. I have decided to follow this matter up to-day, as I remember exactly the direction the Japanese took. There are some small Chinese opium plantations in that section of the mountains and I intend to scout them out."

"Whom will you take with you?"

"Nobody, for I am afraid the young soldiers will babble before the Chinese and thus spoil the game. I shall go alone, as though I were hunting."

I thought a moment and told him that I would go with him, which evidently pleased him very much.

"It will be much more agreeable for me. I thank you humbly, sir."

Soon we crossed the river together and entered the woods. After going some distance we found the hoofprints of a single horse on a marshy road that wound among the bushes.

"If I could only meet him!" Lisvienko mumbled, as he followed the tracks. "He would not escape me, as he did at first, when I was afraid to shoot for fear of frightening the bird. When he gets tame, I shall certainly bag him."

We rode single file, peering into the forest all around and occasionally stopping to listen. Nothing indicated the presence of any human being. Somewhere a thrush sang and from the depths of the forest came the tapping of a woodpecker; a stream gurgled along over its stony path.

After wandering for a long time through the woods we came upon two Chinese houses surrounded with poppy fields, in which two Chinese with their sunflower-like straw hats worked among the ripening seed pods. As we came up to them, Lisvienko asked whether any people had recently passed the settlement. The information he received was evidently very important, for his eyes flashed and he led right off to the other side of the clearing, where we again entered the thick wood before he stopped to translate for me what the Chinese had told him. As we almost at once emerged again into a more open place, where a fire had recently cut a path through the forest, I felt instinctively that I was being watched from somewhere. Following along behind the sergeant, I had had scarcely time to realize my impression and act upon it, when a shot split the silence of the woods and the tenseness of our nerves. Lisvienko went down with a curse, pressing his hand over his hip. I do not remember how I found myself behind a tree, looking out. At some distance away, just beyond the farther edge of the burned-over ground, I caught sight of a Japanese cavalryman in the act of throwing the cartridge from his carbine. He had not time to complete his reloading before my own bullet sent him down. At almost the same instant another shot rang out on the right, where I saw a second horseman riding off at full speed. Though he was far from me, I sent several shots after him from my Henel before he entirely disappeared. When everything had been quiet for a time, I carefully scouted out the place and discovered the saddled horse of the fallen man tied to a tree. I led him to Lisvienko, whom I found sitting up and still pressing his bleeding hip with his hand. A careful inspection of his wound left little doubt but that the bone was smashed. After dressing the injury as well as I could, I succeeded with great difficulty in placing him in the saddle and in conveying him back to my car.

And thus one more victim went from Ho Lin to the Red Cross hospital to complete the fatal trio foretold by Zvon. The sergeant developed blood-poisoning and died in great pain.

After this, Sergeant Shum from Udzimi took command of the Cossacks in Ho Lin. Then, as a result of my report on this incident, a squadron of dragoons were sent us and scouted over the whole of the Kentei Alin, as well as the range of Loye Lin. On their way they fought and dispersed several large bands of hunghutzes, returned to the valley of the Mutan and worked back along its course to Ninguta, but nowhere in their circling movement discovered any Japanese. After this, comparative calm reigned in our little world; the Chinese became obedient and worked well; and nothing indicated the presence of these banditti, who brought really more trouble and disorder than danger into our midst.

Profiting by these peaceful conditions, several naturalist friends of mine, who were able to secure short leave from their duties in the army, joined me in making excursions into the forest round about. As my companions were not hunters, our expeditions had an entirely peaceful character but were far from devoid of lively interest; for, roaming these Manchurian forests, we found quite a number of curious specimens of the flora and fauna of the region.

On the fringe of a small marsh, where nearly every bush hid a snipe or a yellow-leg, one of my friends stopped and began examining closely a small clump of moss. After inspecting it for a considerable time, he turned to us and said:

"This is a very rare species of moss, supposed to be found only on the north and south slopes of the Himalayas and commonly called 'holy moss,' though its botanical designation is Cassiope tetragona. The Buddhists use it in the manufacture of liturgical candles, twisting it into wicks which they dip in resin or wax, and adding as perfume either sandalwood, vanilla or saffron. When lighted, they burn very slowly, until the last bit of resin or wax has been entirely consumed. The moss is a natural punk."

We dried some of the plant near a fire and experimented with it. The first good spark we could get from striking a knife against a stone lighted this unusual tinder, which continued to burn slowly until it was totally consumed. The next day our botanist, while following through a deep, heavily shaded gorge, with a cry of pleasure bent down and pulled up a plant by the roots. It had long, quite pointed serrate leaves, not unlike those of the white elm. When we had cleaned the root, we found it bore an uncanny resemblance to a human body with the head, neck, trunk, legs and arms clearly defined, and we recognized at once the fabulous root of Asia, called by the Chinese "ginseng," by the Mongolians "fatil" by the Persians "mandragora" and in the Latin "panacea genseng."

We tasted the root and found it sharp, peppery as ginger and pricking to the tongue. We searched through all the gorge and on the adjacent mountain slopes but could not discover a second specimen. After our fruitless quest we realized how difficult the search for this lonely root could be, especially with its attendant possibilities of attack by tigers. The faithful Buddhist or the follower of Lao-tze has before him, when he goes to hunt for the magic root, still one more encounter, that with the evil demon who defends the precious plant.

A few days afterward, during an excursion to the eastern slopes of the Chang-Kuan-Tsai Lan, just before sunset we were making our way along a stony road that was endeavouring to fit itself to the twists and turns of a winding stream. Suddenly a disagreeable odour, like the smell of sweating horses, struck us, growing rapidly heavier and more obnoxious. As though by magic, I was instantly transported back to a journey I had made through the Caucasus along the shores of the Black Sea, during which this same pungent odour had once enveloped me. We then discovered the source of the smell to be a worm of the species Julus, of a milky-pink colour, nearly four inches in length and having its habitat in decaying leaves. When the Julus senses danger, it emits a few drops of fluid having this extremely powerful and disagreeable odour, and serving to frighten off the enemies of the worm, such as birds, moles and snakes. I remember how Dr. N. S. Abaza, with whom I made this journey in the Caucasus, told me that birds will forsake the places defended by these Julus through their ingeniously manufactured poisonous gas. My friend and teacher, Professor Zaleski, also found some of these worms and, after studying the fluid secreted by them, pronounced it to be musk. This fluid, musk, which is a result of physiological activities of certain rodents and of some species of bucks, has, when fresh, a disagreeable odour and only after a long exposure to the air takes on valuable aromatic qualities which have won for it a place in the perfume industry. Professor Zaleski, essentially unique and original in many of his reactions, went so far as to fabricate perfumes from the Julus fluid; and, although no one claimed for them rivalry with the products of Houbigant, Coty and Piver, it is not recorded that they frightened anyone away from the individuals who used them.

Once we were within the protective zone of this Manchurian Julus, we began searching for the worm and finally found him attached to the bark of a young elm. He resembled closely his far-away Caucasian relative but carried on his pinkish-white back several brown spots. Having with us no suitable equipage in which so talented a member of the lowly order of larvæ should travel and fearing that too intimate contact with the frightened worm would make us objects of aversion to everybody, we went away and left in peace this peripatetic factory of perfume and poison gas.

After this excursion my friends spent several days more with me, during the last of which the hunghutzes once again reminded us of their existence, when a Chinese, who had come from Harbin to pay the workers, was captured on his way to the barracks and disappeared forever, without leaving a single trace. At the same time a labourer's barracks out in one of the distant corners of the concession was attacked by a band that wounded the Cossack on guard and took all the savings of the Chinese workmen. Immediately following upon this about two hundred of the men asked to be released, and I was obliged to go to Harbin to find new workers and to ask again for an increase in our patrol.

On my arrival I noticed a great deal of nervous unrest in the official and civilian circles of the town. The previous hopeful attitude and the confidence in ultimate victory had undergone a marked change. The Russian colony at this great centre, having faith in the power of their State, had accepted quietly and calmly the blows dealt by the Japanese to the bottled fleet at Port Arthur and had retained their belief that the army would achieve success on the land. Even when the Japanese torpedoed and sank the cruiser Petropavlovsk right under the forts and thus took the life of the brave Admiral Makaroff, not only held in high esteem by his countrymen as a talented and bold seaman but also well known as an Arctic explorer, the patriotic public still remained calm. However, after the defeat of the Russian forces at Chiu Lien Ch'eng on the Yalu and the continuous northward retreat of both flanks of the long Russian line in southern Manchuria, the confidence of the public began to weaken. In Chinchou on the Liaotung Peninsula the Japanese captured strong positions from the Russians and began the pressing movement that forced the army of General Fok to retreat to Port Arthur, which had already been cut off from contact with the forces of General Kuropatkin that were now being concentrated at Liaoyang. Even though the Russian Press and the orders of General Kuropatkin still carried a proud and confident tone, the public awaited with great uncertainty and no little concern the first great battle with the three Japanese armies which were advancing on Liaoyang under the commands of Generals Oku, Nodzu and Kuroki.

I had reached Harbin after the battle of Wa Fang Kou, where the Japanese stopped the corps of General Count Stackelberg, who was endeavouring to break through and carry aid to Port Arthur. One heard the indignant comment everywhere that General Stackelberg had his wife with him at the front and also a special car with a cow, and that on hot days he did not leave his headquarters car, which he kept cool and comfortable by having soldiers continually deluge it with buckets of cold water. Of course it was useless to look for great victories from such a leader. When the Japanese, as was to be expected, stopped and dispersed his force, the Count escaped with difficulty and joined the army of Kuropatkin.

After this calamity the Russian civil population in the east was much depressed, but the newspapers and the Staff continued to deceive and mislead the public, so that a very large element of it did not know the real truth about the events in the war area. Fresh troops were daily arriving in Manchuria to augment the forces of Kuropatkin. As a sad welcome to these, I found in Harbin that all the hospitals were filled with sick and wounded and that the Staff was constantly opening new ones, even closing schools and commandeering their buildings for this purpose.

After having completed my business in town, I returned to Udzimi and found everything as I had left it, save that Sergeant Shum confidentially informed me that numerous bands of hunghutzes had again appeared in the neighbourhood and that it had been learned that disguised Japanese soldiers were among them. With this warning in mind, I decided not to venture away from the immediate territory of our operations, the more so because I had now no shooting companion.

On my return I was greatly pleased with the appearance of our establishment, for it was already a real factory, employing about one thousand men. Two railroads transported the supplies of wood, while the staff houses, labourers' barracks, stores and shops made up a whole town that had sprung up here in the forest near the quite unknown village of Ho Lin, which had low come to be a suburb of my charcoal town.

But it was not ordained of Fate that I was long to enjoy the pleasurable contemplation of my new city. No man knows what the morrow will bring him—a fact which seems to me to be the best justification for optimism and altruism and which is really the great attraction of life, which thus always remains a riddle. In this connection I never shall forget the words of a fellow- prisoner, when we were serving sentences, mine for revolution and his for burning the house of an enemy:

"To-morrow is never like to-day. If life is difficult to-day, it will be easier to live to-morrow. If to-morrow be worse, then to-day one is already a little accustomed to difficulty and will not suffer so much from the change for the worse. If to-morrow be successful, it will seem a magnificent day."

Then this philosophy of life, held and pronounced by a man sentenced to long years of prison, seemed repellent to me; but now I feel that he was quite right.

I remember, as though it were only yesterday, July 20th, 1905, when the application of the above dictum came in my own life. It was half-past four in the morning when someone knocked at the door of my car, which my orderly opened. Just after I had looked at my watch and was trying to catch the conversation, the man came in and reported:

"A Chinese has arrived, breathless from running, and wants to see you at once, sir."

"Let him come in."

A labourer came in and, in broken Russian, began telling me excitedly about an accident which had occurred at one of the ovens.

"As we started taking out the coal, your assistant, Chief, with two labourers was on the top of the oven, when suddenly it caved in and let the men down into the fire. Come, Chief, come quickly, because everyone has lost his head!"

Such terror and despair were pictured in the face of the Chinese that I realized something dreadful had occurred. I jumped up, and, after directing the orderly to telephone to Udzimi for a doctor and nurses, I ran from the car without a coat and without arms, following closely upon the heels of the Chinese. In the village everything was still. As we passed one of the Cossacks on guard near the stores of charcoal, I shouted directions to him to send the sergeant and the remaining Cossacks to the place of the accident. I was wearing high boots over my trousers and a white shirt, in the left breastpocket of which I was carrying a small but rather thick notebook. When we had run for about half a mile and had rounded a curve which took us out of sight of the little town, we came upon two Chinese seated near the track. Just as we drew abreast of them they rose and asked my guide something which I did not understand. Immediately he answered them, they jumped up and started to run along beside us. Then, suddenly and without the least warning, the two men grabbed my arms and tried to throw me. They gave no heed to my command to let go but only tightened their grips in silence and tried the harder to bring me down. All this time I had no idea what they were up to until I saw my Chinese labourer-guide swing round and make for me wdth a knife in his hand. With my arms held down so that I could not defend myself, I could only watch as he thrust at me but fortunately struck the notebook, which took enough of the weight of the blow so that only the point of the blade entered my breast. I gave a tremendous lunge, that pulled me out of the clutches of the two men, but in the meantime was struck again by the labourer in my left hand and wounded rather badly. But my jerk had been successful, although the two men had so entangled their feet with mine that only my upper body was free. As I hammered them in my further efforts to extricate myself, their hold on my feet lessened; but I had then immediately to turn back against the labourer, who was once more making at me with his knife. With all my force I kicked him in the upper part of the belly so hard that I sent him down with a cry of pain. In falling, he dropped his knife, struck the rail and rolled down the ballast embankment. Though the two men in the interval had regained control and were trying to pin my arms once more, I succeeded a second time in freeing my right hand and struck one of them under the chin, overturning him in a dazed condition but falling myself from the force of my effort and landing across him.

Fortunately for me, my third assailant, seeing the fate of his two companions and suffering himself from the lesser attentions I had bestowed upon his facial target, ran off without attempting to give further assistance to his associate. What made it so really unfortunate for me was the fact that, in falling, I had caught my foot under the rail and had twisted my leg so badly that I fainted. It was afterwards ascertained that I had seriously wrenched the hip joint.

It was probably only a few minutes before Shum and the Cossacks found me and restored me to consciousness with the cold water from the ditch. Then two of the soldiers placed me on their carbines and carried me back to my car, a very different-looking object from the hurrying form that had left it so shortly before. After roping the two men near me, Shum started off with his other Cossacks in search of the third fellow, whom they located in the bushes by the tracks he had made on leaving the railway embankment.

I had little thought, when ordering the doctor and nurses for the victims of the trumped-up accident, that I was arranging for myself. Soon the injured hip was bandaged, the wounds in my breast and hand dressed and I lay still, waiting for Shum to return and give directions to my assistants, as the doctor had announced that he would take me this same day to Harbin for proper treatment. Shum soon came back and reported to me:

"The Chinese who lay on the track is dead with a smashed jaw and some teeth out. The second one, who rolled off the track, cannot sit up, and I put him, together with the man we caught in the bushes, under guard in the barracks. I have already sent for the Chinese official, directing that he bring an executioner with him."

These were Shum's arrangements; but it turned out that the executioner had only to deal with one individual, as the other died in the course of the day from his injuries.

And in this way my work in Udzimi came to an end. I returned there no more, for I remained in bed at Harbin for some weeks. Even after getting up I was forced to use a crutch and was in constant pain; and the effects of my fight with the hunghutzes stayed by me for a long time in the form of rheumatism in my injured leg and hip.