CHAPTER XXXVI. BRIGHT ANTICIPATIONS - A WHALE-SHIP SIGNALLED - THE BARK SEA BREEZE - NEWS FROM THE ATLANTIC CABLE - REPORTED ABANDONMENT OF THE OVERLAND LINE

When, in the latter part of March, Major Abaza returned to Yakutsk to complete the organisation and equipment of our Yakut labourers, and I to Gizhiga to await once more the arrival of vessels from America, the future of the Russian-American Telegraph Company looked much brighter. We had explored and located the whole route of the line, from the Amur River to Bering Sea; we had half a dozen working-parties in the field, and expected to reinforce them soon with six or eight hundred hardy native labourers from Yakutsk; we had cut and prepared fifteen or twenty thousand telegraph poles, and were bringing six hundred Siberian ponies from Yakutsk to distribute them; we had all the wire and insulators for the Asiatic Division on the ground, as well as an abundant supply of tools and provisions; and we felt more than hopeful that we should be able to put our part of the overland line to St. Petersburg in working order before the beginning of 1870. So confident, indeed, were some of our men, that, in the pole-cutting camps, they were singing in chorus every night, to the air of a well known war-song.

  "In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight 
  Hurrah! Hurrah! 
  In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight 
  Hurrah! Hurrah! 
  In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, 
  The cable will be in a miserable state, 
  And we'll all feel gay 
  When they use it to fish for whales.

  "In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine 
  Hurrah! Hurrah! 
  In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine 
  Hurrah! Hurrah! 
  In eighteen hundred and sixty-nine 
  We're going to finish this overland line; 
  And we'll all feel gay 
  When it brings us good news from home."

But it was fated that our next news from home should not be brought by the overland line, and should not be of such a nature as to make any of us "feel gay."

On the evening of May 31, 1867, as I sat trying to draw a topographical map in the little one-story log house which served as the headquarters of the Asiatic Division, I was interrupted by the sudden and hasty entrance of my friend and comrade Mr. Lewis, who rushed into the room crying excitedly: "O Mr. Kennan! Did you hear the cannon?" I had not heard it, but I understood instantly the significance of the inquiry. A cannon-shot meant that there was a ship in sight from the beacon-tower at the mouth of the river. We were accustomed, every spring, to get our earliest news from the civilised world through American whaling vessels, which resort at that season of the year to the Okhotsk Sea. About the middle of May, therefore, we generally sent a couple of Cossacks to the harbour at the mouth of the river, with instructions to keep a sharp lookout from the log beacon-tower on the bluff, and fire three cannon-shots the moment they should see a whaler or other vessel cruising in the Gulf.

In less than ten minutes, the news that there was a vessel in sight from the beacon-tower had reached every house in the village, and a little group of Cossacks gathered at the landing-place, where a boat was being prepared to take Lewis, Robinson, and me to the sea-coast. Half an hour later we were gliding swiftly down the river in one of the light skiffs known in that part of Siberia as "lodkas." We had a faint hope that the ship which had been signalled would prove to be one of our own vessels; but even if she should turn out to be a whaler, she would at least bring us late news from the outside world, and we felt a burning curiosity to know what had been the result of the second attempt to lay the Atlantic cable. Had our competitors beaten us, or was there still a fighting chance that we might beat them?

We reached the mouth of the river late in the evening, and were met at the landing by one of the Cossacks from the beacon-tower.

"What ship is it?" I inquired.

"We don't know," he replied. "We saw dark smoke, like the smoke of a steamer, off Matuga Island just before we fired the cannon, but in a little while it blew away and we have seen nothing since."

"If it's a whaler trying out oil," said Robinson, "we'll find her there in the morning."

Leaving the Cossack to take our baggage out of the lodka, we all climbed up to the beacon-tower, with the hope that, as it was still fairly light, we might be able to see with a glass the vessel that had made the smoke; but from the high black cliffs of Matuga Island on one side of the Gulf, to the steep slope of Cape Catherine on the other, there was nothing to break the horizon line except here and there a field of drifting ice. Returning to the Cossack barrack, we spread our bearskins and blankets down on the rough plank floor and went disconsolate to bed.