CHAPTER XXXVII. OFFICIAL CONFIRMATION OF THE BAD NEWS - THE ENTERPRISE ABANDONED - A VOYAGE TO OKHOTSK - THE AURORA OF THE SEA
On the 15th of July, the Company's bark Onward (which should have been named Backward) arrived at Gizhiga with orders to sell all of our stores that were salable; use the proceeds in the payment of our debts; discharge our native labourers; gather up our men, and return to the United States. The Atlantic cable had proved to be a complete success, and our Company, after sinking about $3,000,000 in the attempt to build an overland line from America to Europe, had finally decided to put up with its loss and abandon the undertaking. Letters from the directors to Major Abaza, stated that they would be willing to go on with the work, in spite of the success of the Atlantic cable, if the Russian Government would agree to complete the line on the Siberian side of Bering Strait; but they did not think they should be required, under the circumstances, to do all the work on the American side and half of that on the Russian.
Major Abaza, hoping that he could prevail upon the Russian Minister of Ways and Communications to take the Asiatic Division off the hands of the American Company, and thus prevent the complete abandonment of the enterprise, decided at once to go to St. Petersburg overland. He therefore sailed in the Onward with me for Okhotsk, intending to disembark there, start for Yakutsk on horseback, and send me back in the ship to pick up our working parties along the coast.
The last of July found us becalmed, about fifty miles off the harbour and river of Okhotsk. I had been playing chess all the evening in the cabin, and it was almost eleven o'clock when the second mate called to me down the companionway to come on deck. Wondering if we had taken a favourable slant of wind, I went up.
It was one of those warm, still, almost tropical nights, so rarely seen on northern waters, when a profound calm reigns in the moonless heavens, and the hush of absolute repose rests upon the tired, storm-vexed sea. There was not the faintest breath of air to stir even the reef-points of the motionless sails, or roughen the dark, polished mirror of water around the ship. A soft, almost imperceptible haze concealed the line of the far horizon, and blended sky and water into one great hollow sphere of twinkling stars. Earth and sea seemed to have passed away, and our motionless ship floated, spell-bound, in vacancy - the only earthly object in an encircling universe of stars and planets. The great luminous band of the Milky Way seemed to sweep around beneath us in a complete circle of white, misty light, and far down under our keel gleamed the three bright stars in the belt of Orion. Only when a fish sprang with a little splash out of one of these submarine constellations and shattered it into trembling fragments of broken light could we realise that it was nothing but a mirrored reflection of the heavens above.
Absorbed in the beauty of the scene, I had forgotten to ask the mate why he had called me on deck, and started with surprise as he touched me on the shoulder and said: "Curious thing, ain't it?"
"Yes," I replied, supposing that he referred to the reflection of the heavens in the water, "it's the most wonderful night I ever saw at sea. I can hardly make myself believe that we are at sea - the ship seems to be hanging in space with a great universe of stars above and below."
"What do you suppose makes it?" he inquired.
"Makes what - the reflection?"
"No, that light. Don't you see it?"
Following the direction of his outstretched arm, I noticed, for the first time, a bank of pale, diffused radiance, five or six degrees in height, stretching along the northern horizon from about N.N.W. to E.N.E. and resembling very closely the radiance of a faint aurora. The horizon line could not be distinguished; but the luminous appearance seemed to rise in the haze that hid it from sight.
"Have you ever seen anything like it before?" I inquired.
"Never," the mate replied; "but it looks like the northern lights on the water."
Wondering what could be the nature of this mysterious light, I climbed into the shrouds, in order to get a better view. As I watched it, it suddenly began to lengthen out at both ends, like a rapidly spreading fire, and drew a long curtain of luminous mist around the whole northern horizon. Another similar light then appeared in the south-east, and although it was not yet connected with the first, it also seemed to be extending itself laterally, and in a moment the two luminous curtains united, forming a great semicircular band of pale, bluish-white radiance around the heavens, like a celestial equator belting a vast universe of stars. I could form, as yet, no conjecture as to the cause or nature of this strange phenomenon which looked and behaved like an aurora, but which seemed to rise out of the water. After watching it five or ten minutes, I went below to call the captain.