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THE VIRGINS OF THE VALHALLAH.
The largest lake in Asiatic Russia is situated in the southern part of the province of Irkutsk, and is called by the inhabitants, the Baikal. This immense reservoir, no less than one hundred and fifty miles in length, and of unfathomable depth, is bordered on every side by ranges of rugged mountains, inhabited only by monsters of the forest that roam in their native solitudes unmolested by man. The outlet of this inland-sea which is fed by many considerable streams, is the river Enissey, that discharges its waters into the Arctic ocean, and on the banks of which, not many miles from its source in the Baikal, stands the city of Irkutsk, capital of the province of the same name.
It is in cousequence of the seclusion of this city, and the loneliness of those inhospitable regions of untrodden wilderness which surround it, rather than any accidental circumstance, that the czars of Muscovy, from the time of Peter the Great, have selected this spot as the place of exile for those unfortunate individuals who chance to incur the displeasure or suspi. cion of the emperor.
Peter, the hermit of the Baikal, was one of those ill-fated victims of despotic power, distinguished from the rest more by his birth and education, his intellectual and moral endowments, his love of truth and his practice of virtue, than by any extraordinary severity in the circumstances of his banishment. He was permitted to pursue any mode of life as his taste might direct him, with the single limitation that he must never return to his na. tive country, nor even quit the province of Irkutsk, on penalty of instant death.
A small portion of the avails of his confiscated estates had been allotted to him for the purpose of sustaining existence in the barren region of his exile, without the necessity of labourfor he was totally unacquainted with all the arts of life, having been educated in the very palace of the czar. With this little income, which was transmitted to him annually from St. Petersburgh, he contrived by the aid of economy to purchase food and raiment, and moreover to provide himself with a small boat, a fowling-piece, and other implements necessary for hunting in the mountains and fishing upon the lake. Thus furnished, and supplied with provisions for a longer voyage than had ever before been attempted on the dark waters of the the Baikal, he left the city early in the month of June of the year preceding the destruction of the armies of Napoleon by the fires and the snows of Russia. And yet the exiled hunter was so remote from the scenes of his childhood, that he had never heard, when he launched his little boat on the waters of the lonely lake, that the ancient capital of the empire had been consigned to the flames by the well-judged patriotism of the self-immortalized Rothtopschin, governor of Moscow. He was not wholly unacquainted with the navigation of the lake in the neighbourhood of Irkutsk, for he had made one or two short excursions with an old fisherman along its rocky shores, and had learned the method of taking several species of excellent fish that abounded in its waters. But to launch a frail skiff on the boisterous Baikal, with the rash design of seeking his solitary fortunes along its unknown shores, far from the abodes of men, was an undertaking suited only to the feelings of a being of cultivated intellect, stimulated to utter recklessness by the cruelty of his fellow-man.
It was only when the sky was serene and the surface of the lake in comparative repose, that he found in the scenery around him a painful contrast to his own mental condition, as be plied the slender oars that were urging him onward to the scene of some untried adventure; but when the breath of the tempest came down from the summits of the mountains, to dash the tumultuous waves into the deep caverns of the shore--when the sun was darkened by storms, and the responsive thunders talked together angrily in the clouds—then it was that the wandering exile felt a sympathy with nature, while his bounding bark rocked him to repose amid the foam of the billows.
During eight days and nights had he pursued his perilous voyage along the northern shore of the lake, without discovering a solitary spot where he could moor his skiff and effect a landing. One unbroken front of perpendicular rock, not less than three hundred feet in elevation in the lowest parts, and frequently rising to five hundred and a thousand, presented an obstacle that no animal but the feathered tribes could sarmount. Sometimes he rested on his oars, for the purpose of shooting the large birds of various curious species that flew in thousands around his boat; sometimes he amused himself with his fishing-line, and found no difficulty in supplying himself in this manner with abundance of food in the absence of vegetables and fruits, which he always preferred to every form of animal sustenance ; sometimes, when the weather was calm, he wrapped himself in his blanket, in the night season, and indulged himself in the luxury of a few hours' sleep on the bottom of his boat; but at all other times he plied his oars to the
utmost of his strength, as if to remove himself as far as possible from the habitations of men.
Towards evening on the eighth day of his pilgrimage, a bright sun revealed to him, a little ahead of his boat, one of those remarkable freaks of nature which render the Baikal so interesting an object to the man of science, and a place of superstitious dread to the unlettered vulgar.
Near the summit of the cliff that overhangs the margin of the lake, he discovered two human heads of gigantic dimensions, formed from the solid rock, having all the prominent features of the human countenance, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and even hair. The two images differ considerably in magnitude, but agree in this one particular, that among all the rocky forma. tions of our globe there is not known to exist elsewhere, in any country, so striking a natural resemblance to the head and face of man.
When the exile first discovered this twin prodigy of nature, he withdrew his oars from the water, placed them by his side in the boat, and rose upon his feet to gaze upon what he thought a supernatural phenomenon.
As his boat glided past before a light breeze, he became convinced that these effigies of his species had been cut in the imperishable rock either by the hand of time or by its eternal Author, for such a work was evidently superior to all the efforts of the human race. On approaching nearer by the aid of his oars, he perceived that the mouth, eyes and ears of each of the images were great caverns in the rock, and that what he had thought the hair, was a covering of forest-trees waving in the wind. The last rays of the setting sun fell warm upon these vast palisades of stone, extending on either hand as far as the eye could range, and enabled the admiring visitor to perceive that the mouth of the larger monster afforded a passage for vast numbers of those large sea-fowls that live upon the fish of the Baikal, in the same manner as the inhabitants of palaces and cities depend for subsistence on the patient labours of the industrious tenantry of the country, and as the idle and useless master battens on the muscles and sinews of his bleeding and starving slave.
These voracious birds were about retiring to rest in the crevices and caverns of the rocks, and had collected in vast numbers along the shore, screaming their hoarse farewell to the departing day. The exile took his gun, loaded it deep with double ball, and discharged it at random into the noisy flock. The effect was soon evident, for a large bird, wounded in the wing, fell near his boat; but it swam off beyond hiş reach before he could re-load his piece. He was, notwithstanding, fully compensated for the loss of his expected game, by discovering at that moment a chasm in the rock at the foot of the statues, which afforded a convenient landing-place for himself, and a safe anchorage for his little bark. This was a rent in the mountain, as if occasioned by an earthquake ; but as these subterraneous convulsions are never known in a region so remote from the ocean, the exile very naturally fancied that it was a miraculous provision for his deliverance by the twin-divinities of the place; or perhaps a separating line between them, to mark the division of their empire. He rowed instantly to the shore, where he found the landing safe and easy ; and while it was yet light, he secured all his provision and apparatus for hunting and fishing in a little cave at the base of the mighty idols-made fast his boat to a fragment of the rock-wrapped himself in his blanket, and sunk almost instantly to repose.
Rarely has it fallen to the lot of mortal to compose himself to sleep, with an equal sense of safety, so far from the abodes of men.
The waves themselves slept silently on the shore, the beast had sunk to his lair, and the bird had settled upon her nest, leaving peace and repose as the happy portion of the hermit of the Baikal. Not a dream disturbed the perfect calmness of his spirit. If the process of thought, as philosophers inform us, was still in action within the mind of the sleeper, it advanced as gently and as unperceived as the current of the blood through the veins and arteries of the animal system, or as the motions of the electric fluid through all parts of nature, which becomes perceptible only when its passage is interrupted.
Sleep on, thou innocent victim of despotic power ! Enjoy in thy lonely and rocky cavern, that balmy rest and that quiet conscience that are denied so justly to the prince that persecutes thee ; and wake with the first beams of the morning to survey thy new and undisputed empire from the summit of the lofty rock.
The matin chorus of the birds awoke the exile from his slumbers just as the sun was gilding with his level beams the mountain tops. A dense white mist lay like a fleecy cloud on the bosom of the Baikal, when he arrived by a steep and rough ascent at the very vortex of the largest of the giant heads. He advanced boldly towards the brow of the image, until he could discover the flinty nose of the sea-god beetling like a huge promontory over the waters. beneath. Millions of sea-birds were on the wing above, around and below him, and he could perceive distinctly that hundreds were constantly entering and leaving the cavern that constituted the mouth of the monster. He felt a strong desire to visit that strange habitation of the feathered tribes, but the thought seemed at first preposterous. The cavern was at least three hundred feet from the surface of the lake, and not less than fifty from the summit of the rock where the vegetation terminated on the brow of the image. But he was searching for adventures, and esteemed ardent and pleasing occupation as one of the indispensable elements of human happiness; and in this he was right, for he who would be perpetually unhappy, should be habitually unemployed. The hermit, therefore, for such we may now call him, projected the bold design of descending by means of a rope of bark, in a wicker basket, all of his own manufacture, to the mouth of the image. This plan required time and patience, both of which he had in abundance to bestow. But he resolved to begin the world aright, and set himself immediately to constructing a comfortable habitation of the loose stones that were scattered around the little cave in which he had passed the night at the base of the giant rocks. The cave itself was his principal apartment, but he built a strong wall at its entrance, and erected a little chimney with a fire-place, for the purpose of cooking his fish and the eggs of the sea-fowl which he found in great abundance.
A few days' labour completed the hermit's dwelling, in which he deposited his little fortune, resolved to make a journey every year to Irkutsk, to receive his annuity and purchase such articles as his mode of life might require. The next undertaking, to which he had looked forward with an eagerness bordering on enthusiasm, such as is ordinarily felt only in the sports of childhood, was to construct his rope and his basket in preparation for his grand descent. And let not those who have mounted in balloons to the upper regions of the clouds, nor those who have soared to still higher elevations on the pinions of buoyant fancy, despise the more humble enterprize of the hermit of the Baikal. It was a daring deed, and richly was he repaid for all his jeopardy, by the bountiful divinities of that consecrated place.
Let it suffice the reader to be told, that after several weeks of untiring industry, he had constructed a rope of ample strength, and a basket capable of accommodating himself, his fowling-piece and provisions for a day. The simplest contri. vances are generally the most useful in the business of life, and surely nothing could have been more simple than his plan of