Having little knowledge of rhetorical art, and possessing but a limited imagination, it is only a strong sense of the duty I owe to Science and the progressive minds of the age, that induces me to come before the public in the character of an author. True, I have only a simple narration of facts to deal with, and am, therefore, not expected to present artistic effects, and poetical imagery, nor any of those flights of imagination that are the trial and test of genius.
Yet my task is not a light one. I may fail to satisfy my own mind that the true merits of the wonderful and mysterious people I discovered, have been justly described. I may fail to interest the public; which is the one difficulty most likely to occur, and most to be regretted — not for my own sake, but theirs. It is so hard to get human nature out of the ruts it has moved in for ages. To tear away their present faith, is like undermining their existence. Yet others who come after me will be more aggressive than I. I have this consolation: whatever reception may be given my narrative by the public, I know that it has been written solely for its good. That wonderful civilization I met with in Mizora, I may not be able to more than faintly shadow forth here, yet from it, the present age may form some idea of that grand, that ideal life that is possible for our remote posterity. Again and again has religious enthusiasm pictured a life to be eliminated from the grossness and imperfections of our material existence. The Spirit — the Mind — that mental gift, by or through which we think, reason, and suffer, is by one tragic and awful struggle to free itself from temporal blemishes and difficulties, and become spiritual and perfect. Yet, who, sweeping the limitless fields of space with a telescope, glancing at myriads of worlds that a lifetime could not count, or gazing through a microscope at a tiny world in a drop of water, has dreamed that patient Science and practice could evolve for the living human race, the ideal life of exalted knowledge: the life that I found in Mizora; that Science had made real and practicable. The duty that I owe to truth compels me to acknowledge that I have not been solicited to write this narrative by my friends; nor has it been the pastime of my leisure hours; nor written to amuse an invalid; nor, in fact, for any of those reasons which have prompted so many men and women to write a book. It is, on the contrary, the result of hours of laborious work, undertaken for the sole purpose of benefiting Science and giving encouragement to those progressive minds who have already added their mite of knowledge to the coming future of the race. “We owe a duty to posterity,” says Junius in his famous letter to the king. A declaration that ought to be a motto for every schoolroom, and graven above every legislative hall in the world. It should be taught to the child as soon as reason has begun to dawn, and be its guide until age has become its master.
It is my desire not to make this story a personal matter; and for that unavoidable prominence which is given one’s own identity in relating personal experiences, an indulgence is craved from whomsoever may peruse these pages.
In order to explain how and why I came to venture upon a journey no other of my sex has ever attempted, I am compelled to make a slight mention of my family and nationality.
I am a Russian: born to a family of nobility, wealth, and political power. Had the natural expectations for my birth and condition been fulfilled, I should have lived, loved, married and died a Russian aristocrat, and been unknown to the next generation — and this narrative would not have been written.
There are some people who seem to have been born for the sole purpose of becoming the playthings of Fate — who are tossed from one condition of life to another without wish or will of their own. Of this class I am an illustration. Had I started out with a resolve to discover the North Pole, I should never have succeeded. But all my hopes, affections, thoughts, and desires were centered in another direction, hence — but my narrative will explain the rest.
The tongue of woman has long been celebrated as an unruly member, and perhaps, in some of the domestic affairs of life, it has been unnecessarily active; yet no one who gives this narrative a perusal, can justly deny that it was the primal cause of the grandest discovery of the age.
I was educated in Paris, where my vacations were frequently spent with an American family who resided there, and with whom my father had formed an intimate friendship. Their house, being in a fashionable quarter of the city and patriotically hospitable, was the frequent resort of many of their countrymen. I unconsciously acquired a knowledge and admiration for their form of government, and some revolutionary opinions in regard to my own.
Had I been guided by policy, I should have kept the latter a secret, but on returning home, at the expiration of my school days, I imprudently gave expression to them in connection with some of the political movements of the Russian Government — and secured its suspicion at once, which, like the virus of some fatal disease, once in the system, would lose its vitality only with my destruction.
While at school, I had become attached to a young and lovely Polish orphan, whose father had been killed at the battle of Grochow when she was an infant in her mother’s arms. My love for my friend, and sympathy for her oppressed people, finally drew me into serious trouble and caused my exile from my native land.
I married at the age of twenty the son of my father’s dearest friend. Alexis and I were truly attached to each other, and when I gave to my infant the name of my father and witnessed his pride and delight, I thought to my cup of earthly happiness, not one more drop could be added.
A desire to feel the cheering air of a milder climate induced me to pay my Polish friend a visit. During my sojourn with her occurred the anniversary of the tragedy of Grochow, when, according to custom, all who had lost friends in the two dreadful battles that had been fought there, met to offer prayers for their souls. At her request, I accompanied my friend to witness the ceremonies. To me, a silent and sympathizing spectator, they were impressive and solemn in the extreme. Not less than thirty thousand people were there, weeping and praying on ground hallowed by patriot blood. After the prayers were said, the voice of the multitude rose in a mournful and pathetic chant. It was rudely broken by the appearance of the Russian soldiers.
A scene ensued which memory refuses to forget, and justice forbids me to deny. I saw my friend, with the song of sorrow still trembling on her innocent lips, fall bleeding, dying from the bayonet thrust of a Russian soldier. I clasped the lifeless body in my arms, and in my grief and excitement, poured forth upbraidings against the government of my country which it would never forgive nor condone. I was arrested, tried, and condemned to the mines of Siberia for life.
My father’s ancient and princely lineage, my husband’s rank, the wealth of both families, all were unavailing in procuring a commutation of my sentence to some less severe punishment. Through bribery, however, the co-operation of one of my jailors was secured, and I escaped in disguise to the frontier.
It was my husband’s desire that I proceed immediately to France, where he would soon join me. But we were compelled to accept whatever means chance offered for my escape, and a whaling vessel bound for the Northern Seas was the only thing I could secure passage upon with safety. The captain promised to transfer me to the first southward bound vessel we should meet.
But none came. The slow, monotonous days found me gliding farther and farther from home and love. In the seclusion of my little cabin, my fate was more endurable than the horrors of Siberia could have been, but it was inexpressibly lonesome. On shipboard I sustained the character of a youth, exiled for a political offense, and of a delicate constitution.
It is not necessary to the interest of this narrative to enter into the details of shipwreck and disaster, which befel us in the Northern Seas. Our vessel was caught between ice floes, and we were compelled to abandon her. The small boats were converted into sleds, but in such shape as would make it easy to re-convert them into boats again, should it ever become necessary. We took our march for the nearest Esquimaux settlement, where we were kindly received and tendered the hospitality of their miserable huts. The captain, who had been ill for some time, grew rapidly worse, and in a few days expired. As soon as the approach of death became apparent, he called the crew about him, and requested them to make their way south as soon as possible, and to do all in their power for my health and comfort. He had, he said, been guaranteed a sum of money for my safe conduct to France, sufficient to place his family in independent circumstances, and he desired that his crew should do all in their power to secure it for them.
The next morning I awoke to find myself deserted, the crew having decamped with nearly everything brought from the ship.
Being blessed with strong nerves, I stared my situation bravely in the face, and resolved to make the best of it. I believed it could be only a matter of time when some European or American whaling vessel should rescue me: and I had the resolution to endure, while hope fed the flame.
I at once proceeded to inure myself to the life of the Esquimaux. I habited myself in a suit of reindeer fur, and ate, with compulsory appetite, the raw flesh and fat that form their principal food. Acclimated by birth to the coldest region of the temperate zone, and naturally of a hardy constitution, I found it not so difficult to endure the rigors of the Arctic temperature as I had supposed.
I soon discovered the necessity of being an assistance to my new friends in procuring food, as their hospitality depends largely upon the state of their larder. A compass and a small trunk of instruments belonging to the Captain had been either over-looked or rejected by the crew in their flight. I secured the esteem of the Esquimaux by using the compass to conduct a hunting party in the right direction when a sudden snow-storm had obscured the landmarks by which they guide their course. I cheerfully assumed a share of their hardships, for with these poor children of the North life is a continual struggle with cold and starvation. The long, rough journeys which we frequently took over ice and ridges of snow in quest of animal food, I found monotonously destitute of everything I had experienced in former traveling, except fatigue. The wail of the winds, and the desolate landscape of ice and snow, never varied. The coruscations of the Aurora Borealis sometimes lighted up the dreary waste around us, and the myriad eyes of the firmament shone out with a brighter lustre, as twilight shrank before the gloom of the long Arctic night.
A description of the winter I spent with the Esquimaux can be of little interest to the readers of this narrative. Language cannot convey to those who have dwelt always in comfort the feeling of isolation, the struggle with despair, that was constantly mine. We were often confined to our ice huts for days while the blinding fury of the wind driven snow without made the earth look like chaos. Sometimes I crept to the narrow entrance and looked toward the South with a feeling of homesickness too intense to describe. Away, over leagues of perilous travel, lay everything that was dear or congenial; and how many dreary months, perhaps years, must pass before I could obtain release from associations more dreadful than solitude. It required all the courage I could command to endure it.
The whale-fishing opens about the first week in August, and continues throughout September. As it drew near, the settlement prepared to move farther north, to a locality where they claimed whales could be found in abundance. I cheerfully assisted in the preparations, for to meet some whaling vessel was my only hope of rescue from surroundings that made existence a living death.
The dogs were harnessed to sleds heavily laden with the equipments of an Esquimaux hut. The woman, as well as the men, were burdened with immense packs; and our journey begun. We halted only to rest and sleep. A few hours work furnished us a new house out of the ever present ice. We feasted on raw meat — sometimes a freshly killed deer; after which our journey was resumed.
As near as I could determine, it was close to the 85° north latitude, where we halted on the shore of an open sea. Wild ducks and game were abundant, also fish of an excellent quality. Here, for the first time in many months, I felt the kindly greeting of a mild breeze as it hailed me from the bosom of the water. Vegetation was not profuse nor brilliant, but to my long famished eyes, its dingy hue was delightfully refreshing.
Across this sea I instantly felt a strong desire to sail. I believed it must contain an island of richer vegetation than the shore we occupied. But no one encouraged me or would agree to be my companion. On the contrary, they intimated that I should never return. I believed that they were trying to frighten me into remaining with them, and declared my intention to go alone. Perhaps I might meet in that milder climate some of my own race. My friend smiled, and pointing to the South, said, as he designated an imaginary boundary:
“Across that no white man’s foot has ever stepped.”
So I was alone. My resolution, however, was not shaken. A boat was constructed, and bidding adieu to my humble companions, I launched into an unknown sea.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52