The Meeting With Dersu
Camp in the woods – The night guest – Sleepless night – At dawn
After a rest our detachment once again set out. At this time we were in an area of fallen trees and because of this we made very slow progress. Around four o’clock we came to a peak. Leaving the people and horses below, I climbed up in order to look around once more.
It was necessary to climb a tree myself to be certain where we were. One cannot entrust this to the enlisted men. Here personal observation is necessary. However well and intelligently the enlisted men related what they observed, on the basis of their words it was difficult to orient oneself.
What I saw immediately dispelled my doubts. The dome-shaped mountain at which we had just arrived was the very hub of the mountain system we were searching for. From this mountain a high ridge stretched to the west with steep cliffs along the north side. Along this side of the watershed the general direction of the valleys went to the northwest. Evidently this was the source of the river Lefu.
Climbing down from the tree I rejoined the detachment. The sun was already low on the horizon, and it was necessary to hurry and find water, which both the people and horses needed greatly. The descent from the dome-shaped mountain was gently sloping at first, but then became steep. The horses descended, squatting on their rear legs. The packs slid forward, and, if not for the saddles, would have slid over their heads. We had to make long zigzags through the fallen trees that were scattered about in great numbers, which was a matter far from easy.
After crossing over the mountain we suddenly came into a ravine. The area was extraordinarily interesting. A deep ravine, blocked with uprooted trees, with steams of running water and rocks, all overgrown with moss – it all created an effect that quickly brought back to me memories of a picture of Walpurgis Nacht. It is difficult to imagine a wilder and unfriendlier place than that gorge.
Sometimes it happens that mountains and forest have an attractive and cheerful appearance. It seems as if one could remain among them forever. Sometimes, on the other hand, the mountains seem gloomy and dark. And it is a strange thing: such feelings are not personal and subjective, but they always appeared the same for all of the people in the detachment. Many times I tested this and saw for myself that it was always so. It was the same now. We sensed in our surroundings an atmosphere of some kind of melancholy, something grim and unpleasant, and all of us equally recognized this grimness and melancholy.
“Never mind,” said one of the enlisted men, “we’ll pass the night somehow. We’re not staying here for a year. Tomorrow we’ll find an amusing place.”
I didn’t want to say here, but could do nothing. Dusk approached and it was necessary to hurry. At the bottom of the gorge a torrent made a noise. I headed toward it and, choosing a level space, I ordered the tents to be set up.
The majestic silence of the forest was immediately filled with the sound of axes and the voices of people. The enlisted men began to gather firewood, unsaddle the horses, and prepare supper.
The poor horses. Among the rocks and fallen trees they must remain hungry. But tomorrow, if we succeeded in reaching a farmer’s fanza, we could expect to feed them.
In the woods dusk always comes early. In the west, through the dense branches of the pine trees, in some places a patch of pale sky was still seen, and below, on the land, the shadows already fell. As the campfire began to burn properly it lit up more brightly the shrubs and tree trunks, which appeared out of the darkness. In a rockslide, an awakened pika raised a piercing call, but suddenly, frightened by something, it nimbly hid in a burrow and didn’t appear again.
In our bivouac little by little everything finally calmed down. After tea people became occupied, each with their own thing: one cleaned a rifle, another repaired a saddle or mended torn clothing. There is always much of this kind of work. Finished with their tasks the enlisted men began to go to sleep. They nestled very close to one another and, covering themselves with overcoats, slept like the dead. Not finding forage in the woods, the horses came up to the bivouac and, lowering their heads, sank into drowsiness. Olient’ev and I were the only ones not falling asleep. I noted in the diary the day’s route while he mended his shoes. At about 10 o’clock in the evening I closed the notebook and, wrapping myself up in my felt cloak, lay by the flames. From the flames, rinsing upwards together with the smoke, the branches swayed on the old spruce at the foot of which we were encamped. They first covered, then uncovered, the dark sky studded with stars. The trunks of the trees seemed to be long colonnades, arising from the deeps of the forest and merging imperceptibly with the night’s darkness.
Suddenly the horses lifted their heads and pricked up their ears, then they calmed down again and became drowsy. At first we didn’t turn special attention to this and continued to talk. A few minutes passed. I asked Olent’ev something, and not receiving an answer, turned in his direction. He stood in a waiting posture, and screening with his hands the light of the campfire, looked somewhere to the side.
“What did you hear?” I asked him.
“Something is coming down the mountain,” he answered in a whisper.
We both stood listening, but it was quiet around us, so quiet, as occurs only in the woods on a cold autumn night. Suddenly small stones began to fall from above.
“It’s probably a bear,” said Olent’ev and began to load a rifle.
A voice was heard out of the darkness: “Shooting not necessary! Me people!” And after a few minutes a man came up to our fire.
He was dressed in a jacket fashioned from the skins of deer and so were his trousers. On his head was some kind of scarf, on his feet moccasins, on his back a large pack, and in his hand a prop and a long old berdanka musket.
“Greetings, Captain,” he said, addressing me.
Then he stood his rifle against a tree, took the pack off his back, and, wiping his sweaty face with the sleeve of his shirt, came up to the fire. Now I was better able to examine him. In appearance he was about forty-five years old, of low height, thickset, and apparently possessing great physical strength. His chest was large, hands – strong and muscular, legs a little bowed. His sunburned face was typical for a native: prominent cheekbones, a small nose, eyes with a Mongolian fold in the eyelid, and a wide mouth with sturdy teeth. A small light brown moustache bordered his upper lip and a reddish beard adorned his chin. But most remarkable of all were his eyes. Dark gray, not brown, they looked tranquil and a little naïve. Through them showed decisiveness, straightforwardness of character, and good nature.
The stranger didn’t examine us in the way we examined him. He took out from his breast pocket a tobacco pouch, stuffed his pipe from it, and began to smoke in silence. Without questioning him as to who he was or where he was from, I offered him food. This is how it is politely done in the taiga.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said. “Me want eating very much, me not eating today.”
While he ate I continued to examine him. From his belt hung a hunting knife. Obviously he was a hunter. His hands were calloused and scarred. Similar but even deeper scars lay on his face: one on the lip and another on the cheek near the ear. And I noticed that his head was covered with thick light brown hair that was uncombed and hung down the sides in long strands.
Our guest was taciturn. Finally Olent’ev could not endure it any longer and asked the newcomer directly:
“Who are you?”
“Me a Gold,” he answered simply.
“You must be a hunter?” he tried again.
“Yes,” he answered, “Me always go hunting, no other work; catch fish not understand, only one thing – hunt – understand.”
“And where do you live?” Olent’ev continued to interrogate him.
“Me no have home. Me all the time live in hills. Set fire, put up tent, sleep. All the time go on hunt. How have home?”
Then he told, that today he was hunting for wapiti and had wounded a female, though slightly. Following its trail, he came across our tracks. They brought him into the ravine. When it got dark he saw our fire and came directly to us.
“Me come quietly.” he said, “Think, what people come so far into hills? I look – it is Captain, it is Cossacks. Me then come directly.”
“What is your name?” I asked the stranger.
“Dersu Uzala,” he answered.
This man interested me. Something in him was special, original. He spoke simply, quietly, holding himself modestly, not ingratiatingly. We talked together. He told me many things about his life, and the more that he told me, the more sympathetic I became. I saw before me a primitive hunter, who his whole life had traveled in the taiga and who was free from those vices that the civilization of towns brings. From his words I knew that he obtained his funds to live with his gun and then exchanged the objects of his hunt for tobacco, lead, and powder. And that he had obtained his rifle as a legacy from his father. Then he told me that he was now fifty-three years old, that he had never had a house, that he always lived under the open sky and only in winter put up a temporary shelter of brush or birch bark. The first glimmerings of his childhood memories were: a river, a crude hut and a fire, a father, mother, and little sister.
“Everybody die long ago,” he finished his tale and was lost in thought. He was silent for awhile and then continued again: “Earlier I also had a wife, a son and daughter. Smallpox finish all these people. Now me alone remain…”
His face became sad from the recollection of his sufferings. I tried to comfort him, but what was my consolation to his lonely man, from whom death took his family, his sole consolation in old age? He made no answer to me and only hung his head even more. I wanted somehow to express my sympathy to him, to do something for him, but didn’t know exactly what to do. Finally I thought of something: I offered to him to exchange his old gun for a new one. But he refused, saying that the berdanka was dear to him because of the memory of his father, that he was used to it and that it shoots very well. He reached over to the tree, took up his gun and began to stroke on the stock with his hand.
The stars in the sky had shifted and showed that it was long after midnight. Hours flew beyond hours and we all sat by the campfire and talked. Dersu spoke most and I listened, and listened with pleasure. He told me about his hunting, about how one time he had been captured by bandits but escaped from them. He told me about his encounters with tigers, and said of them that it was not allowed to shoot them because they were gods and that they protected ginseng from men; he talked about evil spirits, about floods, and many other things.
One time a tiger attacked him and he was severely wounded. His wife searched several days in a row for him and came upon his trail, finding him weakened from loss of blood. While he was ill, she went on the hunt.
Then I began to question him about this place where we found ourselves. He said that this was the source of the river Lefu and that tomorrow we would come to the first trapper’s dwelling.
One of the sleeping enlisted men woke up, looked at both of us in surprise, mumbled something to himself, and fell asleep again.
On earth and in the sky it was still dark, only in that direction from which rise all the new stars did we sense the approach of dawn. A heavy dew fell on the ground – a sure sign that the weather would be good tomorrow. Around us reigned a solemn silence. It seemed as if nature rested too.
After an hour the east began to turn red. I looked at the watch; it was six in the morning. It was time to wake up the orderly of the group. I began to shake him by the shoulder. The man sat up and began to stretch. The bright light of the campfire hurt his eyes – he knit his brow. Then noticing Dersu, he smiled and proclaimed:
“Here’s a wonder – a man of some kind !” and began to pull on his boots.
The sky out of black became deep blue, then gray and misty. The shade of the night began to retreat into the shrubs and ravines. Around the bivouac our detachment again came alive; people chatted, the horses awakened from their drowsiness, a pika called from one side. Below it in the ravine another began to echo its call; the call of a woodpecker and the loud ringing music of an oriole were heard. The taiga awoke. With each minute it became even lighter, and suddenly bright shafts of the sun’s light burst from behind the mountains and lit up all the forest. Our bivouac now took on another appearance. In place of the bright campfire lay a pile of ashes, flames almost unseen; on the ground lay scattered about the empty food cans; there, where the tent stood, a single pole stuck up and the grass lay trampled down.