TENT LIFE IN
RACY, clear, fall of humour and full of incident, this little book is as pleasant a narrative of two years in the life of an explorer as it has ever been our good fortune to read. The narrator is blest with the happy gift, accorded to so few travellers, of telling his tale to the public as he would tell it at his own fireside. We hold our breath as he details some hairbreadth escape, and burst into fits of irresistible laughter over incidents full of humour.
It was in December, 1864, that Mr. Kennan offered himself as
explorer in an enterprise then about to be undertaken under the name of the Russo-American Telegraph Company, or Western Union Extension. The laying of the Atlantic Cable had for the moment proved a failure, and "it was proposed to unite the telegraphic systems of America and Russia by a line through British Columbia, Russian America, and North-Eastern Siberia, meeting the Russian lines at the mouth of the Amoor River on the Asiatic coast, and thus form one continuous girdle of wire nearly round the globe." Surely no ignoble enter- prise, and while touching upon it, we may briefly add, it was when the difficulties of the task had been met, and in a great measure overcome, when the whole route from the Amoor River to Behring's Straits had been explored, when the Company had prepared " altogether about 15,000 telegraph poles, built between forty and fifty station-houses and magazines, cut nearly fifty miles of road through the forests of Gamsk and Okhotsk, and accomplished a great deal of preparatory work along the whole extent of the line," that news arrived of the complete success of the Atlantic Cable. The project was, of course, at once abandoned, not without regret, for with infinite pains and labour ample resources, both in men and material, had been got together ; but it was useless to enter into competition with the Cable, and probably there were not wanting those in that hardy band of enterprising men who felt as if they had thrown away three years of their lives. And yet it was not so, things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.' They were not without recompense ; and Mr. Kennan, at least, may congratulate himself that the public will not hold his time lost, if it yielded nothing more than the amusing narrative he has given us.
The party which sailed in the Olga from San Francisco for Kamschatka and the mouth of the Amoor consisted of Major Abaza, a Russian gentleman, who was appointed superintendent
of the works ; James A. Mahood, civil engineer ; R. T. Bush, and our author, who gives a most amusing description of the survey made by himself and Bush of the ship's capacities before trusting themselves to her, and of the subsequent ten days of misery in which he speculates vainly if any one has ever done his sea-sick reveries literary justice. We come during those early days to know so well the quick-tempered, clear-headed Major, the under- current of whose mind is always running on his work, and about all other incidents observes always reflectively "It is a c-u-r-ious thing." Even when, convulsed with laughter, he watches Bush's frantic efforts to dress in the lurching vessel, and sees him "finally brought up a total wreck in the corner of the room," he can only ejaculate, "It is a curious thing how she rolls!" The wonderful monotony of those forty days of sea, in which every conceivable topic of conversation had been used up, and for sixteen days they had discussed only the use of a whale's blow-holes. The captain, too, who has an old Dutch history of the world in twenty-six folio volumes, to which he appeals as final authority on every question, and who comes down with wither- ing denunciations on all who question its veracity as " wrong- headed sceptics who won't even believe what is printed," is all real to the very life ; but the dreariest voyage comes to an end, and we certainly share the surprise with which our travellers gazed on the land they expected to see so barren and inhospitable. As they entered Avatcha Bay, on which is situated the village of Petropavlovski, the scenery, says Mr. Kennan, more than equalled our highest anticipations, and proceeds to describe " green grass. valleys stretching away from openings in the rocky coast till they • Tent Life in Siberia, By George Korman. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston. 1870. were lost in the distant mountains ;" and Bush's joyous shout as he thinks he sees clover, and clover in truth it was, and the valleys were white with it, while even the rocks were covered " with wild roses and columbine, which had taken root in their clefts, as if nature strove with a garment of flowers to hide the evidences of past convulsions." The description of the Kamschatkan village of Petropavlovski is well worthy of notice, and we are glad Mr. Kennan is able to bear witness that he has seen natives of Kams- chatka as pleasantly situated, and enjoying as much comfort and almost as many luxuries as nine-tenths of the settlers upon the frontiers of the Western States. We certainly were not prepared for the supper spread before them in the little village which, on account of its unpronounceable name, Mr. Kennan thought proper to rechristen as " Jerusalem," and which consisted of cold roast duck, broiled reindeers' tongues, black bread and fresh butter, blueberries and cream, and wild rose petals crushed with sugar into a delicious jam. After making up their minds to an unvarying diet of blubber, tallow candles, and train oil, their surprise was certainly not an unpleasant one. Mr. Kennan offers the recipe for wild-rose preserve as a contribution from the despised Kamschatkans to gastronomical science. But it must not be inferred that our author's narrative is all couleur de rose. They had reached Kamschatka in the summer, and the difficulties of the road lay all before them ; but on their way they had first to pass through the valley of Genul, and we cannot forbear, before following Mr. Kennan into all the dreariness of boundless steppes, giving this picture of Genul to our readers:—
"it is about thirty miles in length, and averages three in breadth, and is bounded on both sides by chains of high snow-covered mountains, which stretch away from Malqua in a long vista of white ragged peaks and sharp cliffs, almost to the head waters of the Kamschatka River. A small stream runs in a tortuous course through the valley, fringed with long wild grass four or five feet in height, and shaded here and there by clumps of birches, willows, and alders. The foliage was beginning already to assume the brilliant colours of early autumn, and broad stripes of crimson, yellow, and green ran horizontally along the mountain sides, marking on a splendid chromatic scale the successive zones of vegetation as they rose in regular gradation from the level of the valley to the pure glittering snows of the higher peaks. As we approached the middle of the valley just before noon, the scenery assumed a vividness of colour and grandeur of outline which drew forth the most enthusiastic exclamations of delight from our little party. For twenty-five miles in each direction lay the sunny valley through which the Genul River was stretched like a tangled chain of silver, linking together the scattered clumps of birch and thickets of alder, which at intervals diversified its banks. Like the Happy Valley of Rasselas, it seemed to be shut out from the rest of the world by impass- able mountains, whose snowy peaks and pinnacles rivalled in picturesque beauty, in variety and singularity of form, the wildest dream of Eastern architect. Half down their sides was a broad horizontal belt of dark- green pines, thrown into strong and beautiful contrast with the pure white snow of the higher summits and the rich crimson of the mountain ash which flamed below. Here and there the mountains had been cleft asunder by some Titanic power, leaving deep narrow gorges and wild ravines where the sunlight could hardly penetrate, and the eye was lost in soft purple haze. Imagine with all this, a warm fragrant atmosphere and a deep blue sky in which floated a few clouds, too ethereal even to cast shadows, and you will perhaps have a faint idea of one of the most beautiful landscapes in all Kamschatka. The Sierra Nevadas may afford views of more savage wildness, but nowhere in California or Nevada have I ever seen the distinctive features of both winter and summer—snow and roses, bare granite and brilliantly-coloured foliage —blended into so harmonious a picture as that presented by the Gennl valley on a sunshiny day in early autumn."
Our author's description of the volcanic mountains is, if any- thing, better than this. We do not find a trace of any tendency to exaggeration in his narrative, and can fully comprehend the kind of influence these wildly beautiful mountains, dipped in sun- light, had upon him when they forced him to quote into the ears of the unsympathetic Dodd,-
, "rm not romantic, but upon my word,
There are some moments when one can't help feeling As if his heart's chords were so strongly stirred By things around him, that 'tie vain concealing, A little music in his soul still lingers, Whene'er the keys are touched by Nature's fingers."
But the autumn was closing in, and they were not long before they exchanged such scenes as these for weary rides up mountain sides, over horrible passes, where perhaps a horse had fifty times to be made to leap a mountain torrent in an ascent of 2,000 feet. Not a week from the time when they had eaten preserved rose leaves in the sunshine of the valleys, they found themselves late in the afternoon on the bleak bare tableland on the summit of the moun- tains four thousand feet above the sea, not a tree, not a landmark of any kind, the ground a sponge of moss, and themselves drenched to the skin by nine hours' exposure to a blinding snow-storm. Dodd might well deblare, with comical grimace :— " The weather was not what he knew it once,— The nights were terribly damp:
And he never was free from the rheumatiz ; Except when he had the cramp! "
Soon after this, when our travellers had once more readied valleys, and woods, an exciting incident occurred in the shape of a
black bear, on the appearance of which, Mr. Kenman naively
assures us, " I tried to think of some historic precedent which would profit me in climbing a tree ; but my mind was- in a state of such agitation, that I could not avail myself of my extensive historical knowledge." Then followed weeks-
of travel across wild desolate steppes in company with the- wandering Koraks. It is nearly impossibe to spend a week among these people, says our author, without becoming homesick and lonesome. He describes the Korak as a sort of human oyster, living in an absolutely stagnant intellectual atmosphere, removed physically as well as intellectually to an infinite distance from all the interests, ambitions, and excitements of the world, wandering from one post to another surrounded by an eternity of sameness, his one interest his herds of reindeer ; and of these animals Mr.
Kennan writes, " They were not the ideal reindeer of early fancy,- and I felt a vague sense of personal injury and unjustifiable decep- tion at the substitution of these awkward ungainly beasts for the spirited and fleet-footed animals of my boyish imagination." But if life among these wandering tribes was bad, with the settled- tribes it was a great deal worse. We have not space for the- humorous description of a Korak yourt, in which most graphi- cally we have set forth all the miseries of the Korak's social hearth,
and it is almost too bad to spoil Mr. Kennan's story by giving isolated morsels, yet we cannot resist the following bit. The chimney-hole, it must be remembered, is the only means of ingress- and egress :-
"Whenever anyone enters the yourt, you are apprised of the fact by a total eclipse of the chimney-hole and a sudden darkness, and as you, look up through a mist of reindeer hairs, scraped off from the coming man's fur coat, you see a thin pair of legs descending the pole in a cloud. of smoke. The legs of your acquaintances you soon learn to recognize- by some peculiarity of shape and covering ; and their faces, considered, as a means of personal identification, assume a secondary importance. If you see Ivan's legs coming down the chimney, you feel a moral cer- tainty that Ivan's bead is somewhere above in the smoke ; and Nicolai's- boots, appearing in bold relief against the sky through the entrance-hole, afford as satisfactory proof of Nicolai's identity as his head would, pro- vided that part of his body came in first. Legs, therefore, are the most expressive features of a Korak's countenance, when considered from an, interior stand-point. When snow drifts up against the yourt, so as to give the dogs access to the chimney, they take a perfect delight in lying around the hole, peering down into the yourt, and sniffing the odours of boiling fish which arise from the huge kettle underneath. Not mare- quently they get into a grand comprehensive free-fight for the best place of observation ; and just as you are about to take your dinner of boiled- salmon off the fire, down comes a struggling, yelping dog into the, kettle, while his triumphant antagonist looks down through the chimney- hole with all the complacency of gratified vengeance upon his unfortunate victim."
But the dog-sledges, or rather the dog-sledge drivers, were the- great teat of Mr. Kennan's powers of endurance. Happy was it for him that the comic side would present itself so irresistibly ; a less happily constituted mind might have thought it unendurable to be at the mercy of a driver who, at least three times an hour, found it necessary to capsize the pavoska (a sort of hooded coffin, in which the traveller sat), prop it up with his spike stick, and ice- the runners while his unfortunate victim stood on his head. It was- enough, Mr. Kennan says, to make Job curse his grandmother,. and he threatened his remorseless driver with a revolver, but it was- no use. " He didn't know enough to be afraid of a pistol, and couldn't understand my murderous threats. He only just squatted down upon his heels on the snow, puffed his cheeks out with smoke,.
and stared at me in stupid amazement, as if I had been some- singular species of wild animal, which exhibited a strange propen- sity to jabber and gesticulate in the most ridiculous manner-
without any apparent cause."
We follow our traveller's fortunes with the same keen interest to- the end. It is difficult to do justice to the humour which meets- us at almost every page. The narrative throughout never flags, we listen as Mr. Kennan tells his story till we grow familiar wit& the scenes through which he passed, and with his comrades in,
peril ; get excited over Colonel Bulkley's orders, are anxious about the Major's next despatch, are kept in good-humour at the most perplexing moments by the versatile Vushine, and would have- done anything to save poor Leet from his untimely fate.