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A Voyage on An Ice Block by David Ker

 

The breaking up of the ice in Russia is always a fine sight to look at, even upon a small stream like the Neva at St. Petersburg, which is a mere brook compared with the great rivers of the South. As soon as the spring thaw sets in, all the wooden bridges are removed, and nothing checks the descending ice but the stone piers of the Nikolaievski Bridge, named after its founder, the Czar Nicholas. Every morning, while the show lasts, the balustrades of this bridge are lined with a crowd of eager spectators, looking as intently at the wonderful sight as if they had never seen it before.

And a wonderful sight it is indeed. Far as the eye can reach, the smooth, dark surface of the river is one great procession of floating masses of ice, of all shapes and sizes, moving slowly and steadily downward.

But the place to see this famous sight at its best is the Volga, which, with its two thousand miles of length, brings down ice enough to overwhelm a whole city. At times the force of the current piles it up, sheet over sheet, into huge mounds, the crashing and grinding of which, as they dash against each other, make the very air shake. When the river is "moving," as the Russians call it, he would be a bold man who should attempt to take a boat across it; for, once caught between two of these moving islands, the strongest boat on the Volga would be crushed like an egg-shell.

So, doubtless, think the group of peasants who are standing upon the river-bank, one bright March morning, a mile or two below the great manufacturing town of Saratov, watching the endless procession of ice-blocks sweep past. Strange-looking fellows they are, with their flat sallow faces and thick yellow beards, their high boots smeared with tar instead of blacking, their rough caps pulled down over their eyes, and their heavy sheep-skin frocks with the wool inside. But, queer as they look, they are a merry set, laughing and joking unceasingly, and enjoying the spectacle like a party of youths at a circus.

"Come, now, Meesha [Michael], here's an open course; let us have a race across!"

"All right, Stepka [Stephen]; and as you're a friend of mine, I'll give you a half-minute start."

And then follows a loud laugh, for a little fun goes a long way in Russia.

But a sudden shout from one of the men draws everybody's attention, and he is seen pointing to a huge sheet of ice some distance up the stream. On its smooth white surface lies a dark, shapeless lump, perfectly still; and guesses begin to fly from mouth to mouth as to what this can be.

"A block of wood, I think."

"A dog, more likely."

"Too big—must be a bundle of hay."

A handsome young fellow, lately arrived in that district from the North, presses to the front, and fixing his keen eyes for a moment upon the mysterious object, says, emphatically, "Tchelovek!" (a man).

"A man?" echo two or three of his companions. "He must be frozen, then, for he don't seem to move a bit."

"Feodor [Theodore] has the best eyes among us, though," puts in another. "If he says a man, why, a man it must be."

"And so it is," shouts one who has run a little way up the bank; "and he's alive, too, for I saw him move his head just now."

By this time the ice-block had come near enough to let the strange object upon it be plainly seen. It was the figure of a man in a sheep-skin frock, doubled up in a crouching posture.

"We must help him, lads," cries Feodor; "it won't do to let a man perish before our eyes."

"Ah, my boy," answers an old man beside him, shaking his gray head, "it's easy to say 'help him,' but how are we to do it? Crossing the Volga when it's moving is not like dipping a spoon in a bowl of milk."

"I'll try it, anyhow," says Feodor, resolutely. "God cares for those who care for each other. I'll just run and get out my boat."

But as he was starting off to do so, a shout from the rest made him turn his head, and he saw something that stopped him short.

Just abreast of the spot where they stood three or four small islets, or rather sand-banks, lay close together in the centre of the stream. The huge fragment of ice upon which the man was crouching, turned sideways by the current, had just run upon the end of one of these banks, where it stuck fast.

"Now's the time," shouted Feodor, springing forward; "not a moment to be lost. A rope and a pole—quick!"

He was obeyed at once; for these rough fellows seemed to feel instinctively that he was the man for the occasion, and had a right to take the command. He twisted one end of the rope around his left arm, and running a little way up the bank, threw the other end to those who followed him, grasped the pole in his right hand, and bounded like a deer on to the nearest ice-block, the in-drawn breath of the excited lookers-on sounding like a hiss amid the dead silence.

Had any artist been there to paint the scene, it would have made a very striking picture. The sky had darkened suddenly, and a cheerless gloom brooded over the sullen river with its drifting ice, and the bare sandy ridges on either side, and the helpless figure stranded upon the islet, and the daring man winning his perilous way over the treacherous surface, and the group of anxious watchers on the shore, while the wind moaned drearily through the leafless trees, like a warning of coming evil.

But Feodor was not the man to be frightened by any such fancies, and on he went in gallant style, springing lightly from block to block, while the ice creaked and groaned beneath his weight, and the water splashed up all around him. Twice a cry of dismay burst from his comrades, as the ice upon which he leaped gave way under his feet. Once his way was barred by a gap too broad to be cleared; but with his pole he drew a passing fragment within reach, stepped upon it, and went forward again.

But now came a new peril. The stranded mass of ice for which he was aiming, thus stuck fast in the midst of the stream, formed a kind of breakwater, behind which the smaller lumps began to accumulate; and several of these, driven by the current beneath the great sheet, forced one end of it up, while the other was held fast by the sand-bank. Such a strain was too great to be long endured. Just as Feodor was almost within reach of the helpless man, the ice-floe upon which the latter lay split in two with a deafening crash, and the pent-up masses behind, all breaking loose at once, came down upon Feodor like an avalanche.

"God help him, he's lost!" muttered an old peasant, clasping his hands.

But Feodor was not to be caught so easily. Quick as lightning he planted the end of his pole on the nearest block, and with one bound was safe upon the islet, just as the ice torrent went rushing and roaring past. The next moment his hand was on the shoulder of the prostrate man.

"Up with you, man!" roared he, shaking him violently; "up with you, quick!"

But the man never moved. Either cold or fright, or both together, had plainly rendered him quite helpless.

For an instant Feodor stood perplexed; and then he seemed to have made up his mind what to do. Planting his feet firmly upon the rough ice, he gave a powerful thrust with his pole, which pushed the block clear off the sand-bank; and another shove sent it fairly out into the stream.

"Now, lads," shouted he, to his friends on the bank, who still kept their hold of the connecting rope, "pull with a will."

The men, seeing at once what he meant to do, pulled at the rope with all their might, while Feodor guided the floating mass with his pole. More than once a huge block bore down upon him so swiftly that a fatal collision appeared certain; but the young hero's skillful hand and eye carried him through, and five minutes later the rescued man and his deliverer were both safe on shore.

"Bravo!" cried his companions, crowding eagerly around him.

"Bravo!" echoed a strange voice from behind; and it was then seen that a handsome sleigh had halted beside the group, in which sat a tall, soldier-like man in uniform, at sight of whom the peasants doffed their caps and bowed low.

"What's all this?" asked the new-comer.

The story was soon told, and the stranger's face lighted up with a glow of hearty admiration as he heard it.

"Well done, my brave fellow!" said he, handing Feodor a bank-bill for twenty-five rubles ($19). "It's poor enough pay for such a day's work, after all; but if ever you're in want of money, come to me, and you shall have it, and welcome."

And away went the sleigh before Feodor could recover from his amazement, which was not lessened when half a dozen of his comrades, all speaking at once, informed him that this liberal stranger was no other than the Governor of Saratov himself.