|Orjatsaari Laatokassa. Lappeenrannan museot, |
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
After some fifteen or twenty miles from the island, we approached the rocky archipelago in which the lake terminates at its northern end,—a gradual transition from water to land. Masses of gray granite, wooded wherever the hardy Northern firs could strike root, rose on all sides, divided by deep and narrow channels. "This is the scheer," said our captain, using a word which recalled to my mind, at once, the Swedish skär, and the English skerry, used alike to denote a coast-group of rocky islets. The rock encroached more and more as we advanced; and finally, as if sure of its victory over the lake, gave place, here and there, to levels of turf, gardens, and cottages. Then followed a calm, land-locked basin, surrounded with harvest-fields, and the spire of Serdopol arose before us.
Of this town I may report that it is called, in Finnish, Sordovala, and was founded about the year 1640. Its history has no doubt been very important to its inhabitants, but I do not presume that it would be interesting to the world, and therefore spare myself a great deal of laborious research. Small as it is, and so secluded that Ladoga seems a world's highway in comparison with its quiet harbor, it nevertheless holds three races and three languages in its modest bounds. The government and its tongue are Russian; the people are mostly Finnish, with a very thin upper-crust of Swedish tradition, whence the latter language is cultivated as a sign of aristocracy.
We landed on a broad wooden pier, and entered the town through a crowd which was composed of all these elements. There was to be a fair on the morrow, and from the northern shore of the lake, as well as the wild inland region towards the Saïma, the people had collected for trade, gossip, and festivity. Children in ragged garments of hemp, bleached upon their bodies, impudently begged for pocket-money; women in scarlet kerchiefs curiously scrutinized us; peasants carried bundles of freshly mown grass to the horses which were exposed for sale; ladies with Hungarian hats crushed their crinolines into queer old cabriolets; gentlemen with business-faces and an aspect of wealth smoked paper cigars; and numbers of hucksters offered baskets of biscuit and cakes, of a disagreeable yellow color and great apparent toughness. It was a repetition, with slight variations, of a village-fair anywhere else, or an election-day in America.
Passing through the roughly paved and somewhat dirty streets, past shops full of primitive hardware, groceries which emitted powerful whiffs of salt fish or new leather, bakeries with crisp padlocks of bread in the windows, drinking-houses plentifully supplied with qvass and vodki, and, finally, the one watch-maker, and the vender of paper, pens, and Finnish almanacs, we reached a broad suburban street, whose substantial houses, with their courts and gardens, hinted at the aristocracy of Serdopol. The inn, with its Swedish sign, was large and comfortable, and a peep into the open windows disclosed as pleasant quarters as a traveller could wish. A little farther the town ceased, and we found ourselves upon a rough, sloping common, at the top of which stood the church with its neighboring belfry. It was unmistakably Lutheran in appearance,—very plain and massive and sober in color, with a steep roof for shedding snow. The only attempt at ornament was a fanciful shingle-mosaic, but in pattern only, not in color. Across the common ran a double row of small booths, which had just been erected for the coming fair; and sturdy young fellows from the country, with their rough carts and shaggy ponies, were gathering along the highway, to skirmish a little in advance of their bargains.
The road enticed us onward, into the country. On our left, a long slope descended to an upper arm of the harbor, the head of which we saw to be near at hand. The opposite shore was fairly laid out in grain-fields, through which cropped out, here and there, long walls of granite, rising higher and higher towards the west, until they culminated in the round, hard forehead of a lofty hill. There was no other point within easy reach which promised much of a view; so, rounding the head of the bay, we addressed ourselves to climbing the rocks, somewhat to the surprise of the herd-boys, as they drove their cows into the town to be milked.
Once off the cultivated land, we found the hill a very garden of wild blooms. Every step and shelf of the rocks was cushioned with tricolored violets, white anemones, and a succulent, moss-like plant with a golden flower. Higher up there were sheets of fire-red pinks, and on the summit an unbroken carpet of the dwarf whortleberry, with its waxen bells. Light exhalations seemed to rise from the damp hollows, and drift towards us; but they resolved themselves into swarms of mosquitoes, and would have made the hill-top untenable, had they not been dispersed by a sudden breeze. We sat down upon a rock and contemplated the widespread panorama. It was nine o'clock, and the sun, near his setting, cast long gleams of pale light through the clouds, softening the green of the fields and forests where they fell, and turning the moist evening haze into lustrous pearl. Inlets of the lake here and there crept in between the rocky hills; broad stretches of gently undulating grain-land were dotted with the houses, barns, and clustered stables of the Finnish farmers; in the distance arose the smokes of two villages; and beyond all, as we looked inland, ran the sombre ridges of the fir-clad hills. Below us, on the right, the yellow houses of the town shone in the subdued light,—the only bright spot in the landscape, which elsewhere seemed to be overlaid with a tint of dark, transparent gray. It was wonderfully silent. Not a bird twittered; no bleat of sheep or low of cattle was heard from the grassy fields; no shout of children, or evening hail from the returning boats of the fishers. Over all the land brooded an atmosphere of sleep, of serene, perpetual peace. To sit and look upon it was in itself a refreshment like that of healthy slumber. The restless devil which lurks in the human brain was quieted for the time, and we dreamed—knowing all the while the vanity of the dream—of a pastoral life in some such spot, among as ignorant and simple-hearted a people, ourselves as untroubled by the agitations of the world.
We had scarce inhaled—or, rather, insuded, to coin a paradoxical word for a sensation which seems to enter at every pore—the profound quiet and its suggestive fancies for the space of half an hour, when the wind fell at the going down of the sun, and the humming mist of mosquitoes arose again. Returning to the town, we halted at the top of the common to watch the farmers of the neighborhood at their horse-dealing. Very hard, keen, weather-browned faces had they, eyes tight-set for the main chance, mouths worn thin by biting farthings, and hands whose hard fingers crooked with holding fast what they had earned. Faces almost of the Yankee type, many of them, but relieved by the twinkling of a humorous faculty or the wild gleam of imagination. The shaggy little horses, of a dun or dull tan-color, seemed to understand that their best performance was required, and rushed up and down the road with an amazing exhibition of mettle. I could understand nothing of the Finnish tongue except its music; but it was easy to perceive that the remarks of the crowd were shrewd, intelligent, and racy. One young fellow, less observant, accosted us in the hope that we might be purchasers. The boys, suspecting that we were as green as we were evidently foreign, held out their hands for alms, with a very unsuccessful air of distress, but readily succumbed to the Russian interjection "proch" (be off!) the repetition of which, they understood, was a reproach.
That night we slept on the velvet couches of the cabin, having the spacious apartment to ourselves. The bright young officer had left for the copper mines, the pilgrims were at Valaam, and our stout, benignant captain looked upon us as his only faithful passengers. The stewards, indeed, carried their kindness beyond reasonable anticipations. They brought us real pillows and other conveniences, bolted the doors against nightly intruders, and in the morning conducted us into the pantry, to wash our faces in the basin sacred to dishes. After I had completed my ablutions, I turned dumbly, with dripping face and extended hands, for a towel. My steward understood the silent appeal, and, taking a napkin from a plate of bread, presented it with alacrity. I made use of it, I confess, but hastened out of the pantry, lest I should happen to see it restored to its former place. How not to observe is a faculty as necessary to the traveller as its reverse. I was reminded of this truth at dinner, when I saw the same steward take a napkin (probably my towel!) from under his arm, to wipe both his face and a plate which he carried. To speak mildly, these people on Lake Ladoga are not sensitive in regard to the contact of individualities. But the main point is to avoid seeing what you don't like.