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CHAPTER IX
 

STALKED AND STALKING

 

CONDITIONS and events in Manchuria did not permit me to remain idle for long, though I was still very lame and had unfortunately become a subtle barometer for the registration of every change in the weather. An approaching storm, the rise and fall in the atmospheric pressure, any sudden change in temperature, rain or cold wind—all these occasioned more or less severe pains in my injured hip. However, war has her exigencies, which in this case forced me to discontinue my cure sooner than the medical art could possibly sanction.

A few days after the defeat at Liaoyang I received orders to institute a search for coal in the neighbourhood of Harbin, and to make careful analyses of any deposits found to ascertain whether they would be suitable for locomotive use. The cause of the urgency of the orders was the fact that, through the defeats at Liaoyang and on the Liaotung Peninsula, Russia had lost a number of good coal mines, especially the very productive and valuable one at Fushun. Two skilled miners, specialists in drilling, a good drill and thirty Chinese workers were immediately put at my disposal. A small steamer loaded all my expedition and its belongings, consisting of our food supplies, pumps, tools, pyroxylin and a quantity of timber, as it was very difficult along the river above Harbin to secure adequate lumber supplies at short notice.

As rapidly as possible I completed my liquidation of the Udzimi works by turning over to the young engineer who had been appointed to succeed me all the records and directions for carrying on the operations. Then I received from the doctor minute instructions, as he gave me powders and salves, grumbling all the time that I was going out only to lose my foot, because, according to him, there was a chronic inflammation of the wrenched joint threatening.

Our first search for coal began about fifteen miles from Harbin, at a place where some low, bare hillocks came down to the river, as I had an entry in my notebook that coal had been secured from there during the building of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Going to reconnoitre with my technical helpers, I soon found in deep gorges among the hills outcrops of thin layers of coal. We wandered about for a long time, until the sun had already begun to sink behind the hills, when we came upon a deep gulch dividing the whole range into two chains. Though the purple shadows already claimed the gulch, I decided to enter it and investigate, even though only superficially, its steeply sloping sides to find the place from which the coal had been taken some years before. As we crossed the gulch, an ever-thickening twilight began to envelop us, and from some unseen hiding-place crawled out spectres, serpentine-like creatures of hazy mist, which massed together to form a floating curtain that shut off the ravine from our view. Suddenly, in the distance, a tiny light gleamed, and after a moment a sound like a stifled cry reached our ears.

"There must be a fang-tzu in the gulch," observed one of the miners; and placing his hands to his mouth, he shouted, "Eh-ho! Man-tzu, come here!"

Only the echo answered his call. We carried on and soon discovered traces of a fire, where small pieces of coal were still smouldering but the larger lumps were cold and wet from the water very recently poured over them to put out the fire.

"Somebody has put the fire out in a hurry," whispered one of the miners. "Evidently they were not anxious to receive unexpected guests."

We listened very attentively, but not the slightest sound came to us to betray the presence of any human beings.

"They have hidden themselves well," remarked Rusoff, one of the miners, with a laugh.

As the light was rapidly fading, we decided to turn back; and, on emerging from the gulch, heard the dismal creaking of a Chinese cart, this unusual vehicle whose great wooden axle turns with the wheels and carries on two points of contact the whole weight of the load. We set our course by the sound and soon discovered a Chinese unmercifully lashing his team of four ponies that were struggling to pull an immense load of kaoliang stalks through the ruts and holes of a typically impossible Manchurian highway. When we asked the inhuman carter about the coal, he promised, for a good price, to show us on the following morning the remains of former shafts in the hills. We consequently decided to spend the night in the near-by village, whither the Chinese was bound with his kaoliang stalks, and to go with him at dawn to the abandoned shafts.

Our guide lodged us in his house on the inevitable k'ang, where the fleas at once began their assault upon us, but this time for our salvation. Turning on this bed of torture, I could not sleep at all, though my miners, long inured to this feature of Manchurian life, dozed soundly. On the end of the k'ang our host snored away, harmoniously accompanied by all his relatives. I did not know what time it was, when the watchdog barked and then immediately became silent. In a moment the door opened softly and three Chinese entered in crouching attitudes. I recognized at once that they were hunghutzes, as they were armed with carbines and with knives, carried, in keeping with the Mongolian custom, under their belts at the back. Stealthily they went along the k'ang, looking into the face of each of the sleepers, and making signs to one another with their hands. By the reddish glare of the smoking oil lamp I had a good look at them and could see clearly that they were elderly men with dark, threatening faces.

When they had inspected everybody and everything in the room, they began to undress, placing their carbines in the corner opposite me and taking off their long outer coats, so that they had on only the regular blue Chinese trousers and short jackets. Then they sat down on a log of wood that was lying near the door and began whispering among themselves. I watched our unexpected guests very carefully, although they were really not dangerous for the three of us with our excellent Mausers and Nagan revolvers. But one had to be cautious; and, after the assault in Ho Lin, I not only had no sympathy for their ilk but also wanted to capture them and hand them over to the Cossack escort guarding our steamer.

I felt sure that this would not be possible without some shooting and, consequently, began to elaborate a plan of assault. Just at this point events took quite an unexpected turn and altered all of my strategic plans. In the middle of the k'ang there was a small box, belonging to one of the miners, Gorloff, and containing three cups, spoons, a carton of sugar and a glass jar with tea. We had taken tea in the evening and had left the open box standing there on the k'ang. One of the hunghutzes, in scouting about, discovered the sugar and put his dirty hand down into it. In a flash I seized my boot, that was lying at my feet, shied it with all my force at the fellow and shouted at the same time:

"Out of there, you thief! Wake up, wake up!"

My companions jumped to their feet, not understanding what the trouble was but pulling out their guns to be ready for anything. At this sudden turn of affairs the hunghutzes were caught off their guard, ran out into the yard and made off amid the barking of the dogs without even trying to come back and salvage their equipment. Through this we gained three carbines, three cartridge belts, three knives and as many Chinese long coats with their girdles of ordinary black cloth. We gave the knives and the gowns to our host and, armed with the carbines, started out at dawn under his leadership for the ravine.

The Chinese took us directly to the mouth of an abandoned shaft, partially closed with earth and stones that had slid down into it. Finding so quickly what we were searching for, I immediately despatched Rusoff to the village to secure a horse and hurry to the steamer to bring back the men, the tools and the pyroxylin needed to blow up the rocks that had choked the entrance to the working. Meanwhile, we two went farther along, and the Chinese showed us several entrances to old shafts, the examination of which tended to prove to me conclusively that work had been carried on here simultaneously in several places. We found in some of the gradually descending galleries remnants of plank and beam timbering. With our geologist's hammer and a small pick we took out a few samples and found, on bringing them to the light, that externally they indicated the coal to be a lignite, or brown coal, very similar to the deposits I had seen in the Ussurian country.

We had already spent some hours in the gulch, when suddenly the Chinese, who had been wandering around the hillsides, ran to us and reported in an excited manner that he had seen smoke issuing from one of the shaft openings farther along. I took it for granted that the coal was probably burning and was very much annoyed over this possibility, as it would make working operations dangerous and, perhaps, even impossible.

As we approached the shaft and saw a thin stream of smoke issuing from it, I realized, just as soon as I smelled it, that it was not coal smoke but that of wood, and jumped at once to the conclusion that there must be someone within the gallery. Recalling the traces of the hastily extinguished fire we had discovered the evening before, I felt that the matter invited further investigation. Prompted by this thought, we entered the gallery and found that it was high enough to permit us to walk in it, if we bent our heads slightly. Soon the darkness shut us in and, as we continued our advance by striking matches, calling to one another to keep in touch, suddenly a deafening roar pulled us up. Reverberation swelled it into thunder, as it was repeated a second, third and even a fourth time.

"Shooting!" cried Gorloff, as the Chinese ran howling to the entrance. I ordered Gorloff to call out in both Russian and Chinese that whoever was there should stop shooting and come to meet us. To this the only answer was another volley, which, however, did us no damage. Evidently the denizens of the mine were shooting somewhere in a side gallery to frighten us and were afraid to expose themselves in the main shaft.

"Are they hunghutzes?" Gorloff asked the Chinese, when we had reassembled at the entrance.

"No, Captain," answered the Chinese with conviction. "Whatever hunghutzes appear in our neighbourhood come in from a long distance, roam about and depart. None of them would be bold enough to try to live in this cavern, which is inhabited by bad spirits and the ta lung (great dragon). These must be mao-tze … foreigners," he corrected himself, using the polite word instead of this other uncomplimentary term so common in northern Manchuria, at the same time watching us with fear to see whether we had taken offence at his slip.

"We shall wait for the arrival of Rusoff and the men," I interpolated to the miner. "We must unravel this riddle and smoke these badgers out."

While we were awaiting our reinforcements, we posted ourselves near the mouth of the shaft, at the same time keeping close guard over it to prevent the bad spirits and the dragon from leaving their nests. After a little, more volleys were fired from tlie depths of the shaft, the bullets coming whistling out of the mouth and warning us that our captives wanted to emerge. When we answered with a few shots, again things quieted down without any one appearing where we could see them in the sloping gallery.

To while away the time as we waited, Gorloff took it upon himself to explain to the Chinese at some length that our trapped game could not be bad spirits and dragons.

"Listen, you son of Han," he started, waving his immense red hand before the nose of the Chinese, "these are no bad spirits or other fabulous creatures of yours; for, if spirits had possessed carbines, we should already three thousand years ago have had no Chinese on this earth. They would all have been exterminated by the evil spirits! Do you understand?"

In evident appreciation of this dissertation and of the facts behind it the Chinese showed a fine set of immense yellow teeth and nodded his head in pleasure. He apparently preferred to deal with men armed with carbines than with unassailable and always treacherous spirits.

It was not until a little before noon that we heard the voices of approaching people and among these recognized the deep bass tones of Rusoff's laugh. He soon appeared with two Cossacks and ten of the Chinese workmen, carrying the pyroxylin, spades, pumps and picks.

"We must take food before the battle!" insisted Gorloff. "The sun is already high in the heavens."

We finished quickly our meal of tea, bread and conserve, as we were all anxious to see the solution of the mystery in the shaft. Leaving the Chinese in a safe place under the charge of one of the older workmen, we five foreigners again approached the mouth of the shaft. Rusoff first crawled into the gallery, and, in his resounding bass, summoned the unknown garrison of the subterranean fortress to surrender, promising them liberty and assuring them that we sought entrance into their fastness only for the purpose of studying the coal and not for pursuing them. After repeating his proposals once more in Chinese, he crawled back out of the shaft and concealed himself behind a heap of stones at the mouth. For some minutes after this silence reigned in the cavern, only to be broken by another carbine volley and the cries of several men, as our elves made bold for an attack. In answer we began shooting into the shaft and kept it up for a considerable time. We could tell that our intangible enemy was in retreat, as the voices now sounded from a greater distance down the shaft.

"What shall we do with these gentlemen?" asked Rusoff. "How long shall we wait for them to come out?"

"Not very long," I answered. "Tell them that if they do not leave their arms inside and come promptly out, I shall blow up the shaft and give them a magnificent and noisy burial."

Laughing and greatly pleased with his commission, Rusoff shouted in the new warning, which simply drew a new volley out of the depths.

"Gorloff, take the smallest charge of pyroxylin, fasten a detonator and a Bickford fuse to it for a quick explosion, and throw the whole thing into the shaft as an initial warning to these mountain spirits."

As the skilful miner quickly executed my command, the pyroxylin exploded with a deafening roar and threw from the shaft opening, as though it were the muzzle of a great cannon, clouds of dust, vapour and gas intermingled with small stones and earth.

"That is only a start," thundered Rusoff. "Come out or in five minutes we shall destroy the entrance to the gallery. Be quick, you badgers!"

Our strategy proved successful, for soon we heard a voice from the gallery and negotiations began.

"Who are you?" was the first word from our invisible cliff dwellers.

"We are for the moment ourselves. You first tell who you are," Rusoff roared back at them.

"We are Georgians," was the unexpected and astonishing reply.

"Why do you stay in a hole like badgers?" returned Rusoff.

"Well, it has pleased us so to do," answered the voice from below; and I perceived in it the hidden laugh which never leaves a man born in the mountains of the Caucasus.

"Will you come out or are we to bury you, because it pleases us so to do?" I queried.

After a short interval of silence the voice sounded nearer.

"Will you allow us to go free or will you arrest us? If you seek to arrest us, we shall ourselves blow up the mine."

"Evidently you have deserved prison," I observed.

"No-o-o," drawled he, "but there have been misunderstandings"; and again I detected the note of mirth in the voice of the Georgian.

"If you will leave your arms in the gallery and will not make trouble, you can go to the four winds, so far as we are concerned."

"Then we shall come out."

"I know that a Georgian can be true to his word," I shouted back to him, "and consequently I shall trust you."

We held our rifles in readiness and waited. After several minutes there appeared from a hole among the rocks a head in a little, black sheep-skin cap, surveyed us from its piercing eyes and bobbed back again.

"Why are you carrying carbines?" came from the retiring head.

"Come out, or I shall blow up the shaft," I replied sharply.

"You are a peppery individual," answered the Georgian. "Well, we have no choice. Perhaps you will be true to your promise."

One after another seven men emerged from the mouth of the gallery. Tall, thin, dressed in tight-fitting black coats with leather belts ornamented in silver, they made a striking spectacle, that was enhanced by the boldness of their expressions. The Cossacks quickly searched them, but the Georgians had kept their word and brought out no arms.

"You can go," I said to the first one who came out, "and do not trouble us in our work. Also you had better not enter any of these shafts again, as they can easily fall in and trap you there."

The young Georgian, with a strong, refined face set with fiery eyes, expanded the nostrils of his aquiline nose, showed with a smile a set of even, white teeth and answered:

"We took shelter here, as we were afraid of the hunghutzes." As he finished, he lowered his eyes and betrayed in his lips the tremble of a hidden laugh.

"Yes, I thoroughly understand! Seven such djighits (a rider or warrior) must, of course, be afraid of the hunghutzes! The Georgians are no warriors."

The young man raised his head and blushed. He seemed about to give a sharp and provoking reply, but, as he caught my eye, he broke out in a laugh. The other Georgians turned away their heads to avoid following the lead of their careless companion.

"Then we may go?"

"I have already said so once."

"Thank you," exclaimed the young Georgian, and quickly advanced to me. "My name is Eristoff, Prince Eristoff."

With those words he extended his hand. I pressed his small, strong palm and gave him my name. Each of his associates came up and repeated this urban ceremony in the midst of these wild surroundings, and then they all turned and filed quietly away.

We started at once to explore the realm of these elves, leaving the Cossacks on guard at the entrance. By the aid of our oil lamps we discovered in a lateral drift a miniature arsenal, two bags of food and a box of cartridges.

This encounter with the Georgians did not particularly astonish me. It was not then unusual to meet representatives of this warlike folk in the towns of the Russian Far East and even in China. "Why is this so?" one naturally asks. There are several reasons for this long journey. The Georgians have always been a liberty-loving people, among whom the oppression of the Russian authorities in the Caucasus has often led to risings and revolution. Following such events the Russian tribunals have banished many of these children of the great mountain ranges, these knights of liberty, to eastern Siberia.

In the opposition parties in Russia, Georgians were always found supporting the most radical doctrines. It is sufficient to recall the names of Prince J. G. Tzeretelli, I. I. Ramishwili and N. S. Cheidze to show what prominent positions Georgians have taken in the revolutionary ranks.

The traditional Eastern law of revenge, summarized in the one word "vendetta," was another cause which augmented the number of Georgian exiles in Siberia. To illustrate the Georgian character in these matters, it is perhaps legitimate to rehearse a story which is said to be authentic. A Georgian accused a neighbour of having offended him. On the day of the trial the plaintiff duly came to the court, but the defendant did not appear. When the judge ordered the court police to summon the accused to come forthwith before the tribunal, the plaintiff, after the police had departed on their errand, shook his head quizzically and protested to the judge:

"The police will accomplish nothing, for he will not come."

"Why not?" queried the indignant judge. "They will compel him to come."

"They will have to bring him," the Georgian mumbled.

"How so?"

"Because I killed him this morning."

And in addition there was still one more cause which helped to people Siberia with unwilling colonists from Georgia—the primordial warlike custom of attacking neighbouring tribes and villages to rob them of horses and cattle and to carry off their women. This practice, looked upon by the djighits in the light of knightly valour, has persisted in the Caucasus from time immemorial.

The Georgians, with their really passionate love of freedom, cannot be kept long in prison or under compulsory labour. Somehow they always manage to escape and hide themselves away in the nooks and corners of towns from which they stage their bold robbing expeditions. During the Russo-Japanese War there sprang up and flourished a special Georgian band, which became a terror not only to the Japanese but also to the Chinese population, even harassing small Russian detachments, particularly those convoying army-supply trains. In every town in the Far East there were restaurants, inns and buffets kept by Georgians in good standing, which were made the hiding-places of their countrymen, wanted by the law and the police, and from which these banditti carried out their operations. As almost all the Georgians came from families belonging to an old knightly nobility, a djighit never lowered himself to be a common thief nor attacked a lone and disarmed man. Every Georgian expedition must be crowned with a battle and with blood. This characteristic naturally left the Russian police with little zest for fighting these courageous "devils of the mountains," and for this reason the Georgian fugitives from the prisons usually enjoyed long spells of liberty, that ended only when some specially unfavourable turn of fortune carried them back behind the bars or when the bullet of a pursuing guard broke the thread of their adventurous life.

I had no doubt that I had dislodged from the cavern some such dangerous individuals, full of knightly phantasy and old traditions so strangely blended with common banditry. My suspicions proved to be entirely well founded, for on my return to Harbin I learned that a gang of seven Georgians had attacked a field post, killed several men and taken a considerable sum of money. The Harbin police, who were traditionally slack during these years, stated that the gang was led by a Prince Eristoff, who had escaped from the prison at Vladivostok and for whom they had long been searching.