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During a single navigation season, the Georgy Sedov was to make two trips that fifteen years before would have required more than one year each.
The first trip, which included visits to numerous islands, ended at Bleak Island. There the ship was to recoal and take on passengers and cargo.
Boris Yefimovich, the captain, sighed whenever he thought of the necessity of lying at anchor in port, of loading cargo, and of talks with the port authorities. It was not until he was back on the bridge that he regained his calm and became once more a skilful navigator who had long before substituted prudence for fear.
Out of narrowed eyes he was peering at the distant coiast of the island to be visited next. Heavy billows broke on the shore there. He had been stubbornly waiting for more than twenty-four hours, hoping for a change in weather. He would under no circumstances risk the kungases and expose his sailors to danger.
We waited in vain for better weather, and sailed on to the neighboring archipelago. There the ice had tamed the seas and we took on cargo, then ran back to the inhospitable island.
The surf was dying down. But the captain was still biding his time. Netayev asked his permission to steer the launch and tow the kungases to the shore.
But the permission was given to the second mate. The swell was still too heavy. The captain did not part with his binoculars for a moment.
"He's a bungler, that's what he is!" he shouted suddenly.
Netayev and I looked through our binoculars.
"That isn't the way to put about!" said Boris Yefimovich angrily. "There's the kungas on its side now and the waves washing over it."
He ran into the wireless cabin, and when he came back he was furious.
"They're soaked to the skin," he said. "They've gone to the polar station to dry. The launch is coming back. I'll give him a nice welcome, I will!" He turned to Netayev. "Ivan Vasilyevich, you will take charge of the launch. Go and change."
The young mate rushed to his cabin.
Netayev steered the launch. The Petushok had in tow the second kungas loaded with provisions and wireless equipment that had to be kept dry at all costs.
"I like that young mate," the captain said to me that evening, "he didn't let the kungas capsize. He's a chap you can trust."
I was glad for my friend.
The captain began to read a radiogram he had just received. His face, usually good-humoured, changed at once.
"Fine business. I took care of them the whole season and now I'm told to hand 'em over!"
He had received orders to sail to Estuary and there turn over his kungases to a hapless captain who had lost his boats in a gale.
The Sedov was nearing the end of her trip. At Bleak Island she was to be supplied with fresh kungases.
Grumbling and sighing, the captain headed for Estuary. Early next morning we were eagerly viewing the mainland.
The kungases were handed over.
"Tell them we're sailing north," the captain said to Netayev. "It won't be so easy to deliver kungases again from up there."
Netayev passed the message on word for word. He said the luckless captain's first mate had not been very happy to hear it.
The Sedov made for Bleak Island.
In the familiar bay we saw the forbidding rocky island strewn with stones. On it stood a few two-storey houses, a wind motor with vanes revolving busily, and a sky-high mast.
On the mainland, to our left, there were more two-storey houses built in a semicircle. Ships lay at the moorings. We could not make out their names. Boris Yefimovich cast anchor in the roads in the best style. A berth had been assigned to the Sedov in harbour, but some other ship had smuggled herself in, Boris Yefimovich assured us, and taken up the berth.
He was sitting in his cabin. In port, where the pitch and roll ceased and he no longer heard the crunching of icefloes against the ship's side, he would change beyond recognition. Helplessly he told his first mate to "see to things in port." He himself was working at his report on the trip, consulting me every now and again on the wording of some sentence or other.
Then, attired in full dress, he went ashore to pay formal visits to the port authorities.
The other captains had managed to get berths and loading facilities, but our captain came back with nothing to show for his efforts.
"He needs someone to do that for him," the first mate whispered in my ear. He was a young man and had served on warships until recently.
He came back, having settled everything, much to the satisfaction of Boris Yefimovich, who flatly refused to go ashore again.
On Bleak Island I came upon the old-timer Panchenko, a hoary polarnik who had once been a sailor. He took me to the polar station and showed me an old ledger containing the autographs of many travellers.
"There are remarkable entries here," he told me proudly. "This one, for example, was made in Norwegian in 1918. It says: 'I am confident that dozens of ships will lie in the roads in this excellent bay. Roald Amundsen.' He was a well-known polarnik. He discovered the South Pole, but he couldn't sail through the Northern Passage. His Maud sailed along the Northern Sea Route for three years. He had to winter twice. 'Radiograms' used to go on foot in those days. To give notice of his whereabouts he had to send two sailors to Bleak Island. One of them died. The other nearly got here, but froze to death, too. His grave is at the port, close by the new houses. But Nansen — he said outright that 'the Northern Sea Route is an illusion that has enticed explorers for centuries.' An 'illusion,' indeed! Why, captains have to fight for berths at Bleak Island because there are so many ships call here!"
He pointed angrily to a map on the wall.
"An illusion of foreign seafarers, that's what it was. The Russians never wasted their time on illusions here. And it's a pity all those non-Russian names are still on 'the map. Take Franz Josef Land, for one. Austrians ran into it by chance when their ship froze hopelessly into drifting ice. But its existence was mentioned, long before they came, by the Russian scientist Kropotkin. The same applies to many other lands. Look." Panchenko led me to the window. "See? That's the Nord, a hydrographic ship. I'm going to tell you about a discovery they made on board her."
He told me an engrossing story.
A man was walking across the tundra.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he did not stoop under the weight of his rucksack, nor did he seem to feel the burden of the rifle slung over his right shoulder barrel downwards, so that he could get it ready more easily.
He wore a quilted jacket and trousers of the same kind, tucked into footwear whose leather takes the shape of your feet as it dries. In footwear like that you can walk hundreds of miles without ever getting sore feet.
The man scanned the tundra. His attention was drawn to those hillocks whose northern slopes were still covered with snow. He would closely examine the white patches of snow, sometimes digging in it. He took a particular interest in the withered vegetation of the previous year. But as soon as he had made sure that it was no more than grass, he walked on indifferently.
Whenever he sighted reindeer he turned off in their direction. He apparently wanted to meet people.
The Nentsi were interested in the solitary wayfarer.
"Looking for gold, are you?" they would ask him.
"No," he would answer. "Tell me, did you ever hear — did anybody ever discover here huge animals frozen into the ground? You come, say, across a hummock on which the snow has melted away a bit and below it you see a queer sort of grass, fibrous and long. That's the hair of those animals. They lived on the earth long ago, but they've all died out."
"What's the use of an old animal? We can give you a reindeer."
The young scientist would shake his head. Taking off his fur cap, he would brush back his long tow hair with a habitual sweep of his hand and ask more questions about the mysterious ancient animals.
This made the Nentsi wonder.
"What a queer man! He isn't a hunter. No, of course not. He isn't a geologist, either. A geologist looks for stones. What do you want a dead animal for?"
There were old men who remembered huge carcasses found in the permafrost stratum.
"Foxes ate them. We had a famine and we ate that meat, too. It was eatable enough. But reindeer meat is better."
But that had been a long time before. Nothing was left of the carcasses unearthed.
The young scientist walked on across the tundra.
One day an old Nenets, so wrinkled that even his narrow eyes looked like two wrinkles, said to him:
"Go to Icy Island. There's a ship anchored nearby, she'll take you there. On Icy Island you'll see some sort of carcass in the ice. I saw it myself. Don't know what it is, though."
The scientist at once went to the bay, where a hydrographic ship lay at anchor, and introduced himself to the captain.
"Alexander Lvovich Nizovsky, Academy of Science postgraduate. I've set myself the task of unearthing a mammoth preserved in the permafrost layer. The carcass of a mammoth, I mean," he corrected himself. "
The captain stroked his well-groomed black beard. He liked the young scientist and thought that there would be no harm in taking him to Icy Island.
The island turned out to be a "young" one. Less than a thousand years old, it was covered with ice over which an earth crust had formed.
On the south side the island was thawing, laying bare the old continental ice.
The captain supplied Nizovsky with a boat and sent several sailors with him.
A month later Nizovsky appeared on Bleak Island. He was unusually excited and offered to give the polarniks a talk on the discovery he had made on Icy Island.
All those who were off duty gathered in the dining-hall of the polar station. Workmen arrived by launch from the harbour. The hall was packed so full that Nizovsky barely made his way to the front.
He told them how they had rowed up to a greenish ice wall, with a sandy bluff above it. The audience listened with rapt attention.
"It was ice exposed by the thaw," he said. "The sea gnawed and sapped it.
"I was the first to catch sight of an ice cave with an overhanging vault close by the water, and pointed it out to the sailors.
"The surf broke inside the cave, filling it with foam and spray.
"Had the breakers been stronger, we'd never have made our way into the cave or seen anything in it. Luckily for us, it was comparatively calm weather with bright sunshine.
"We carefully steered the boat into the cave. The sun shone through the ice and the vault seemed to shine, too.
"As the old Nenets had told me, a dark spot did appear through the thick sunlit layer of ice. I asked to be brought near it.
" 'There's something white sticking out,' said one of the sailors, pointing it out to me.
"A curved white shaft jutted out of the ice. Was it by chance a fin?
"We rowed as close to it as we could.
"At last I got hold of the shaft and was thrilled with excitement. There was no doubt about it — it was a tusk, a yellowish, curved mammoth tusk with a slightly cracked coating. "The dark spot could be nothing but the preserved carcass of the mammoth whose tusk I saw before me.
"A mammoth on Icy Island, an island which did not even exist a few hundred years ago! Why, this refutes all the hypotheses about the time when mammoths died out!
"I'm now carrying this sensational report.
"I cannot but disclose to you a hope I cherish. Just now I feel I'm nearer than ever before to seeing it fulfilled.
"During the past few centuries there have been no changes in Siberia that should have hastened the disappearance of mammoths. If there were mammoths there a few hundred years ago, why shouldn't there be any now?"
A gasp swept over the hall. Some people rose from their seats to get a better view of the bold scientist.
"Yes, I mean it," Nizovsky went on, throwing back his hair and remaining with upraised hand. "North Siberia hasn't yet been explored properly. There's tundra — and mountain ridges, too — where man has never set foot. It's there that we must look for living mammoths. And I'm sure we shall find them. I can already foresee the establishment of a mammoth preserve in the North. Measures will be taken to increase the number of the mammoths —"
The speaker was interrupted by applause.
"We'll meet again next year," he continued, slightly dilating his shining grey eyes. "I'll come back with a special expedition on board a refrigerator ship suitable for transporting a mammoth's carcass. We'll dig the mammoth out of the ice on Icy Island and — and set out in search of other mammoths, living ones. And we'll find them!"
The talk was an unprecedented success. Many polarniks volunteered to accompany Nizovsky on the planned expedition.
Seamen from a ship that lay in the roads heard Nizovsky's talk and related it to the others; the ship made a slight detour to run to Icy Island. The seamen visited the cave so vividly described by Nizovsky and saw with their own eyes the tusk jutting out of the ice. As to the dark spot, they could not see it because the sky was overcast.
In the following summer the Nord cast anchor in Bleak Island Bay. On board was Nizovsky who dreamed of a refrigerator ship to transport the mammoth's carcass.
With him was Academician Bondarev.
Afanasy Vasilyevich Bondarev was old, short of stature, with grey hair and a face framed with a short grey beard. He was a peevish man. Nizovsky had a grudge against Kim because he would not hear of fitting out a refrigerator ship.
"You don't trust me!" he said indignantly.
"That mammoth — if it is one, which I doubt — can lie in the ice another year," replied the academician. "We must first make sure that it is a mammoth."
Nizovsky felt like walking out of the old man's study and banging the door. Instead he bowed his head and said in a low voice, "I'll be happy to accompany you, Afanasy Va-silyevich."
"As to accompanying me, you can certainly not get away from it, my dear fellow."
The academician had known Nizovsky's father, who had died during the blockade of Leningrad, and thought highly of him. His manner towards Nizovsky himself was austere but benevolent. He did not share the other's bold hypotheses on living mammoths; moreover, he disapproved of Nizovsky's public utterances on the subject.
One task assigned to the Nord was to call at Icy Island.
She cast anchor south of the island. The captain scanned the shore through his binoculars.
"Can't make it by boat," he said. "The breakers are too heavy."
Nizovsky paced the deck.
He was vexed by the captain's sluggish prudence and the peevish calm of the academician who had started a game of chess with the captain. Playing chess when the ship lay at anchor off an island with an intact mammoth in it!
"The mammoth doubtless came to the island in winter, when the sea was ice-bound," he mused. "And as it could find no food there it perished. Its carcass was covered up by snow that didn't melt during the cold summer. More snow piled up the following winter. Under the pressure of the upper layers and owing to the summer thaw, the caked snow gradually turned into ice that grew thicker and thicker."
He pictured himself reporting to the Academy of Science in session.
In his opinion, the mammoth's carcass had frozen into the ice.
Islands sink or rise periodically in Arctic seas. Covered with ice, the island had sunk; the sea had washed sand on to the ice-crust and thus prevented it from melting.
During the last years the island had risen again above sea-level. The waves had washed off the sand covering the ice. Owing to a general warming of the Arctic the ice had begun to melt. That was how the spot with the dead mammoth had emerged into view.
Nizovsky went to his small cabin and made notes in feverish haste. Before the year was over he would defend his thesis for the title of Candidate, he thought. On subsequent expeditions he would be able to do without the tutelage of the peevish old man who refused to believe in obvious things.
He fancied himself exploring some mountain range in the North. In a valley sheltered on all sides there lived huge shaggy beasts that looked like elephants and fed on the scant northern vegetation. An observation post equipped with telescopes would be set up on a cliff. Tourists coming by plane to a mountain airfield would have the opportunity to watch the life of the wild prehistoric animals. It might even be possible to transport a specimen to the Moscow Zoo.
He read in his mind's eye a plate with the inscription: "Mammoth. Formerly considered an extinct prehistoric animal. Delivered to the Zoological Garden from Nizovsky Valley."
The young scientist went out on deck and peered at the dreary outline of the island. In the light its ice wall looked grey, not emerald-green as it had appeared before. Below he saw the white fringe of the surf.
He cursed the breakers.
The Nord had to ride at anchor off Icy Island for a whole week. The captain was already hinting at the necessity of sailing elsewhere and calling at the island again on the way back. Nizovsky was in despair. Luckily for him, the academician would not hear of it. While refusing to believe that there was a mammoth on Icy Island, he was loath to leave.
On the following day the breakers subsided.
The two scientists, the workmen accompanying them, and the seamen who had volunteered to help them, set out for the ice cave in a launch and two boats.
The academician and Nizovsky went in the launch. They were the first to reach the ice bluff.
"Such a pity there's no sunshine," said Nizovsky in a distressed voice. "I fear we may not see the dark spot, that is, the mammoth's carcass."
"But that tusk — I hope we'll be able to see that even without sunshine," grumbled the academician.
"Of course," replied Nizovsky. Turning to the second mate, who was at the rudder, he commanded, "Keep to the right-hand wall. Slow down. Go easy."
It was murky in the cave. Nizovsky peered excitedly into the half-dark. What if the tusk had disappeared? Impossible! It was safely embedded in the ice. But then during the past year the water might have melted the ice. Why had he not tried, when he first came to the island, to cut that tusk out of the ice? What an unpardonable blunder! but then he had been so eager to dig up the whole mammoth, without severing from it so much as a tusk.
"There it is!" shouted a sailor from the bow. "I can see it."
The motor was thumping away. Nizovsky could have thought it was his heart beating.
The motor died down. Now the launch hardly made any headway, its side crunching against the ice.
"The tusk!" Nizovsky exclaimed triumphantly.
"The tusk?" echoed the academician, rising to his full height.
He reached out to the white shaft sticking out of the ice and felt it. Then he examined it on all sides.
"It's a tusk, sure enough," he muttered, puzzled. "How strange."
"I reported to you, Afanasy Vasilyevich, that —" began Nizovsky, but the old man silenced him with a wave of his hand.
It was quiet inside the cave. You could hear the soft ripple of the water and distant voices that came from the boats drawing near the ice grotto.
"Fossil ivory," concluded the academician. "How strange. It's impossible!"
"But there it is, isn't it?" said Nizovsky.
The ice cave lighted up.
"The sun!" cried Nizovsky. "How lucky! Look here. Do you see the dark spot?"
Seamen, workmen and scientists alike stared at the ice block.
A dark blurred spot was clearly visible. Imagination gave it the most fantastic shapes.
"It must be lying on its side," a sailor remarked.
"Sure," said a workman. "It wouldn't lie down with its paws sticking up, would it?"
"Well, what are you waiting for?" the academician hastened to ask. "Hurry up, cut off the ice, get that tusk out! Where are the picks and crow-bars? I'm going to help you."
Nizovsky snatched up a crow-bar, but instead of handing it to the old man, began to strike crushing blows at the ice wall. Chips of ice hit against the side of the launch. Several men hacked away furiously ,at the century-old ice.
"See you don't damage the tusk," the academician commanded, bustling among the working men and getting in their way. "Leave an ice coating around it."
"It's moving, the tusk's moving," said one of the workmen.
"What do you mean — moving?" queried Nizovsky, almost terrified.
"If you shake it," explained the workman.
The academician got hold of the end of the tusk and rocked it. The tusk yielded. A few more crow-bar blows....
"Push this way, come on! Now pull. Pull towards you!" commanded the old man, carried away by enthusiasm.
A minute Later the huge curved tusk lay on the bottom of the launch, where there was barely room enough for it.
"What a pity we had to sever it from the carcass," said Nizovsky sorrowfully.
"Now we'll take a good look at it. Cut off the ice, go on, cut it off!"
The two boats left behind came up. On Nizovsky's instructions the workmen started to widen and deepen the hole from which the tusk had been extracted.
"Strange, very strange indeed," mumbled the academician, examining the giant bone. "No doubt about it, it's fossil ivory. But why is it filed off so carefully?"
"Filed off?" said Nizovsky, taken aback.
"Yes, won't you have a look?"
Nizovsky bent over the bone which the men were gradually clearing of ice. When the ice was removed from the end of the tusk everybody was able to see for himself that the tusk had been filed off.
"I can't make head or tail of it," whispered the young scientist.
"It's very, very interesting," muttered the old man as he bent over the tusk. "The more so, young man, as your mammoth appears to have been tame. It didn't mind its tusks being carved. Just look at this."
Utterly put out with amazement, Nizovsky stared at the tusk near the filed base of which carvings were to be seen. An intricate pattern was clearly discernible on it.
Nizovsky rose from his knees, breathing heavily, and sat down on a bench.
"What is it then? Just what is it?" he asked the old man.
"It's very, very interesting!" said the other.
"Let's go on digging," suggested Nizovsky. "We must unveil the mystery of the dark spot. If it isn't a mammoth, what is it?"
"Well, yes, that would be interesting," agreed the academician. He said it rather reluctantly, still examining the figure on the tusk. "It was fastened to something, you know. Look, there are even grooves on it."
"But what could it have been fastened to?" asked Nizovsky in surprise.
"Well, to the bow of a boat, let us say."
"To the bow of a boat?"
The find was taken on board.
For forty-eight hours men were busy cutting their way to the mysterious dark spot.
Nizovsky did not leave the cave for a moment.
The academician did not go ashore any more but sat in the captain's cabin, playing chess with him; the hapless tusk lay on the floor.
The mate on watch knocked at the door.
"Come in," said the captain, stroking his luxuriant beard.
"Launch coming from shore."
"It's a bit early," remarked the captain.
"That is why I am reporting."
The academician left the game unfinished and walked out on deck.
The launch came alongside, with Nizovsky standing in it. He was shouting something to the academician, but his words could not be made out.
At last he climbed aboard by the storm-ladder.
"Afanasy Vasilyevich!" he cried as soon as his head was above deck. "It turned out to be the carcass of —"
"A whale?" asked the old man, bending over the railing.
"How do you know?"
"Of course it's the carcass of a whale," said the old man and went back to the cabin to finish his game. "I knew it was the carcass of a whale," he told the captain. "Check. Your King's done for now. I think the Nord may sail on."
"I beg your pardon, Afanasy Vasilyevich, it's my move now," said the captain. "But how do you account for that tusk on the island?"
"Whalers. Ancient whalers. They apparently decorated the bow of their ship or boat with that tusk."
"I give up," said the captain. "I'll go and order the anchor aweigh."
In passing by Nizovsky he stroked his beard with a smile and said, unable to restrain himself, "There's your living mammoth for you!"
He complained of a headache to lock himself up in his cabin. The captain knocked at his door, but he would not open. He did not come out even when he heard a hubbub overhead; he thought it was just the ship weighing anchor to leave Icy Island.
Actually the hubbub was caused by the arrival of the sailors and workmen from the island. They said they had discovered a log cabin behind the whale's carcass.
The academician forgot about everything on earth, including the existence of his young assistant. He hurried down into the launch and demanded to be taken to the cave as quickly as possible.
As it often happens to young people, Nizovsky fell asleep with disappointment.
At dawn someone drummed on his door. He jumped out of his berth in surprise and opened.
"Sleeping, are you, young man?" began the academician in a menacing tone.
Nizovsky leapt back into his berth and covered himself with the blanket.
"Wouldn't you like to feast your eyes on what you've found, post-graduate Nizovsky?" the academician went on in the same menacing voice.
The alarmed Nizovsky saw him solemnly put down on his blanket a quiver and arrows.
He rubbed his eyes.
"They've unearthed a log cabin," said the old man with a smile. "You see, there was a cabin behind the whale's carcass," he added as if confidentially, and suddenly cried, "Now see this! Just look at it!" He narrowed his eyes at Nizovsky. After a moment's pause he put in the other's palm a few shapeless bits of metal. "Looks as if they were cut out with a chisel, doesn't it?" he demanded. "What's that? Yes. Cut out is the word. And that explains their name, 'ruble.' These are genuine ruble pieces!"
"Rubles?" Nizovsky exclaimed. He jumped out of his berth and snatched up the quiver and arrows which nearly fell down. "Rubles, you say? And what time do they date from?"
"Dmitry Donskoi's time, my friend. That was the fourteenth century. Remember the Battle of Kulikovo?"
"Then this is far more valuable than a living mammoth!" cried the young man in excitement.
This story prompted me to visit the Nord..
I saw both Academician Bondarev and Nizovsky. They showed me the marvellous find; I held in my hands the ancient Russian coins found on the Arctic island.
Stroking his beard, the academician said with a sideway look at his young assistant, "Nizovsky has made a discovery of particular value on Icy Island. His find shows that the Russians discovered the Arctic many hundreds of years ago. They whaled and traded here, having something like trading stations. The polar regions were discovered by our own people." He glanced through the round port-hole at the low shore and the forbidding, leaden sea, and added, "Discovered and explored."
I said good-bye to the two scientists.
"And what's going to become of the mammoths?" I asked Nizovsky softly.
"I mean to search for them just the same," he answered just as softly.
But the old man had a keen ear.
"He'll find them, he certainly will," he said smiling. "That is why he's going to join you aboard the Sedov. He wants to try and look up some loafer of a mammoth that may have strayed into the Arctic."
The two men saw me to the ladder.