Dartmouth. — Dartmouth shopkeepers. — Dr. Davidson's "Perfect Remedy for Sea-sickness." — Madeira. — Diving boys at Funchal. — Lordly colonists. — Teneriffe. — What the stewardess thought of the Peak. — Our fellow-passengers. — South African Mission Work. — Eaves-dropping. — Arrival at St. Helena. — The Ladder. — Landing. — "Derelicts." — Johnson's Observatory. — Its present uses. — The St. Helena Astronomer. — St. Helena skies. — Tempted to stay.
AT Dartmouth, on the 14th of June, we joined the Balmoral Castle, a beautiful new steamer of the Donald Currie Line, bound for the Cape of Good Hope. She had left the London Docks three days before, having all our goods on board except the chronometers, which we brought with us. None of the outward-bound English mail ships touch at Ascension, so that we were under the necessity of taking our passage to St. Helena, there to wait for a return steamer from the Cape to take us back to Ascension.
After a rapid railway journey, we enjoyed a quiet night in harbour. Next morning we had a stroll through the picturesque little town of Dartmouth; for our ship would not sail until mid-day on the 15th. What a curious old town it is!—with its steep, narrow streets, shaded and cooled by projecting piazzas and gable-ends. Bewitched by the quaintness of the place, one sees the streets again alive with the brave army of Red Cross Knights that sailed from this fair bay so many hundred years ago to do battle against the Saracen, and pictures many a "ladye bright" peeping shyly from the little latticed windows to wave a last adieu to her own true knight.
Then the scene changes, and gay groups of handsome cavaliers lounge in doorways and at street corners, whilst fitful snatches of light song bring dark frowns to the grave faces of the Puritan townsfolk, as the "Merrie Monarch" holds gay court in that uncourtly-looking little mansion in the Butterwalk, where the arms of the second Charles are still to be seen, carved in oak over the fireplace.
Dartmouth is delightfully old-fashioned. It is a little romance in stone, and primitive to a degree. We thought that we had quite finished our shopping in London; but, as always happens, some odds and ends had been forgotten, and we now tried to supply them here, though not very successfully. One tiny shady shop we entered in search of a deck chair, but could find no one to attend to us for ever so long, notwithstanding vigorous stamping and knocking; until at last a neighbour pointed out that I must pull a bell-rope over the door.
This by-and-by fetched the laggard shopkeeper, who seemed to fall into a drowsy state again, while we poked about in his little shop; and, since he made not the slightest attempt to recommend any of his goods, I suppose we cannot blame him that the chair we finally hit upon came to pieces before we reached Madeira.
Again on board, we found everywhere the signs of departure, and I enjoyed watching the bustle. Heavy boxes were being lowered into the hold by strong arms, and now and again Jack stops to refresh himself with a grim joke. "Heave again, Bill! I guess some old fellow must be taking out his gravestone in that 'ere box, it is so precious heavy. Try again. Now easy. Lower away!"
At last all was stowed away, the hatches were closed, the gangway raised, and, punctual as a mail train, we were off at noon.
My husband had been fortunate enough to get an empty cabin on deck for his chronometers, and when the pilot had left the ship and England could be seen no longer, he retired to compare, and I to wind them—a duty I had undertaken during the voyage. But somehow I couldn't find the keyhole; and had the winding of the chronometers been left to me, I fear that they would all have run down before we reached Madeira. Dr. Davidson's "Perfect Remedy for Sea-sickness," with which I had carefully provided myself, was of no use at all; and the first three days of our voyage presented to me little variety and less pleasure.
On the evening of the fourth day we sighted Madeira, and the much-worked screw had an hour's rest, not to speak of the rest to some others, who had been less usefully employed, but were sadly more wearied than this steam-driven giant. Approaching Madeira from the north, she greeted us with a stern inhospitable face, rugged and determined in expression, with a baked, sun-burnt complexion. But as our ship glided slowly along, the coast gradually betrayed a gentler nature, until, turning a sharp headland suddenly, Funchal lay before us in beautiful panorama, filling the bay and stretching upwards to the very top of the steep background in little offshoots of white verandahed villas and green terraced gardens.
Much to my disappointment we had no time to land; but, immediately we came into harbour, numbers of little boats put off from the shore. The first contained half-a-dozen of the well-known amphibious diving-boys, vociferating in all the English their Portuguese tongues would admit of, "Haiv sare!" "Fare-away sare!" "Dive for a shillin' sare!" and down they plunge, invariably bringing up, either in hand, mouth or toes, the tiniest silver piece that is thrown to them from the ship's side. Copper is scorned by these clever little rascals, and it was amusing to witness their rage when they found that breath and richer harvests had been lost in bringing up a penny. Had Portuguese not been to us an unknown tongue, I fear we should have heard some hard names.
Other boats soon crowded alongside, and, after the necessary formalities with the Health Officer, we were boarded by a motley crew of gipsy-looking men eager to sell us photographs, shawls, feather-flowers and fruit. "Sell you a basket of cherries for six shillin' sare!" "Beautiful photograph—only three shillin'!" and some reckless, heavy-pursed colonist, whose box of presents from England is not quite full, lets himself be robbed in the most lordly fashion by these barnacles, while more patient passengers get plenty of cherries for one shilling when the last bell is ringing.
By the light of a clear soft moon we steamed off again, and I, for one, was sorry to leave this vine-clad isle behind me, and heard with regret the voices of its noisy traffickers melt away in the distance.
Towards sunset on the 20th we sailed through the Canary Islands, passing within twenty miles of Teneriffe. As I sat on deck during dinner I feasted my eyes on the Great Peak. At first it was almost entirely enveloped in mist, which gradually cleared away from the top and the bottom, till at last a single vapoury band cut the mountain in two, producing a wild weird effect. The dark sharp-pointed Peak, looking as if it had nothing to rest upon, seemed to float in the air like a lost world, and from its great height it appeared so close as to be in danger of falling upon us! Gradually the encircling band narrowed, then broke up, and the little clouds floated hither and thither, giving the most charming effects of light and shade as they played on the rugged sides of the great rock. Slowly these lakelets of vapour grew less and less, then altogether vanished, and the Peak stood revealed in its naked grandeur.
It was a splendid transformation scene, and watching it I had forgotten my dinner, till the homely old Scotch stewardess interrupted my reverie with a plate of currant tart. I made some remark to her about the beauty of the scene. "Ay, ay," she said, "it's a big bill, but there's nae scenery in earth or ocean like oor ain Scotland."
However, putting aside the claims of our own crags, Teneriffe is a grateful sight to the water-wearied eye; and it had another interest to us besides that which its natural beauty and grandeur excited. It was here that Professor Piazzi Smyth lived above the clouds and wrote his charming book, "An Astronomer's Experiment." The story had interested me very much when I read it some years ago, the more so that the author was a valued friend, and I had now great pleasure in speculating where Guajara might be, and where the path that the astronomer and his wife had toiled up with their heavy instruments to "Alta Vista," the site of their home and Observatory for the time, 11,000 feet above the sea.
Leaving the Canary Isles behind us we saw no more land, with the exception of a distant glimpse of Cape Verde, until we reached St. Helena. But to compensate for this, the sociability of our floating community had greatly increased, and pleasant conversation, music, chess-playing and such like, made the time pass quickly.
There were on board forty first-class passengers, amongst whom some had a strongly marked individuality, with boldly-outlined, well-coloured lives. Fresh, hopeful young Englishmen, going out to ostrich farming and diamond-digging; old colonists bringing home their daughters from English boarding-schools; a clergyman returning from a holiday won after sixteen years' labour on St. Helena; a young German girl from the Hartz Mountains on her way to a mission station in Riversdale; and two American ladies, also destined for mission work in Natal.
In conversation with these ladies and a life-long colonist, the son of a South African missionary, I learned much of the mission work among the Kaffirs; of its progress, and alas! of its many discouragements and difficulties. It is hard to know how Christ can best be shown, to these dark brothers of ours. So much care is needed in preparing the uncultured soil for the good seed, that the poor missionary must have fear and trembling in dealing with the truth. Careful on the one hand to avoid compromise with its perfect purity, and on the other, fearful of driving back any wavering disciple by making it too hard for him to receive.
Our colonial friend, a man of culture and common sense, seemed to think that many of our most zealous missionaries fail from a want of true knowledge of the mind and nature of the savage. They would have the slaves of ignorance and superstition accept eagerly the freedom offered in the Gospel, forgetting that the soul must first be strained to the note before it can vibrate to the sound of the glad tidings. It must be a work of time. To forge a single link in the golden chain that is being formed to draw the poor heathen to the feet of his Maker, is surely a work large enough for life—a work complete enough for death.
I was so much interested in hearing the experience of one who had seen so much of heathen life and Christian teaching, and in being told of the hopes and plans of those who had left home and friends to make this life better and this teaching more perfect, that I was sadly rebellious when, after a truce of three days, my old foe again forced me to beat a retreat to my cabin. There I had generally nothing more lively to listen to than the irritating thud of rope-quoits and shovel-board.
But sometimes I was better amused. Stray threads of conversation, grave and gay, floated through my little window at intervals as the passengers paced the deck, and in the lovely moonlight evenings, a young couple, thinking no doubt that they had got away into a nice quiet corner all by themselves, used to coo their tender speeches unreservedly, close to my cabin door. It was mean to listen, I grant, but ennui was threatening me, and during these enervating days, when a damp monsoon blew off the coast of Africa, I was so nearly reduced to a pulp, that I had hardly energy left to make my presence known.
Then, for the first time, I thought kindly of our east winds, which I believe have done much to make England a great nation. How I should now have enjoyed a biting blast from Scotland! Wearied of inaction, I often caught myself counting off the days and hours like a home-sick schoolgirl; and yet there was no delay to chafe the most impatient voyager. On and on, the great ship rushed through the waters; the bells struck the passing hours, and every noon the answer to the anxious question, "What's the run?" told of nearly 300 miles further on our way. At last on the 1st of July, at 4 A.M., the screw suddenly stopped, and I knew and rejoiced that we were in the Bay of James Town.
At the first peep of dawn I hurried on deck and saw, so close to the ship as to make me start, dark sterile rocks rising almost perpendicularly from the sea, and partly enclosing the bright blue bay in which we were anchored. At the bottom of a strange cleft in these fierce, fortress-looking crags, a quiet little town nestled close to the sea, filling up the lap of a valley scarce 200 yards wide.
Here was the landing-stage, and just beyond, a row of dark Peepul trees fringed the shore, shading and cooling the cluster of low, white houses that we were so blithe to see. Besides these, little or no vegetation appeared. The great towering rocks were cold and bare. A long ladder of 600 steps sprang from the town up the steep western side, called Ladder Hill, and at the top I thought I could descry some forts and the grim mouths of cannon.
St. Helena can hardly be mentioned, much less looked upon, without memories of Napoleon crowding upon us, and I wondered, as I suppose everybody does on seeing the island, how the first sight of these grim prison walls had affected the man who seemed to find the world too small for him?
But this was no time to speculate on questions of by-gone history. The present was urgent, and suddenly remembering the terrible chaos in my cabin, and boxes still unpacked, I gave up dreaming and set to work. How very easy it is to pull things out of a box, and how difficult to get them into it again, especially in a space 7 feet long by 3 broad!
The Governor's Secretary was already on board, having kindly come off thus early to advise David about landing and stowing away his numerous cases. At Lord Lindsay's kind instigation, Lord Carnarvon had previously sent despatches, requesting assistance for him in this and other matters; and for the timely help thus given we were most grateful.
That lovely Sunday morning the bay was smooth and bright as a mirror, without a trace of the dreaded rollers, so that we and all our delicate impedimenta came safely and easily to shore. The Governor's pony carriage was on the wharf, and while David counted and sorted out his goods, I was driven up a short incline to the Castle, where I waited for him comfortably in the large cool rooms.
Here I occupied myself in watching for the return of four gentlemen, our fellow-passengers, who had set out soon after daybreak for Napoleon's tomb, in the interior of the island. They were still missing, although the Balmoral Castle was getting up steam; and the Captain, kind as he was, would be off the moment the ship was ready to sail. That moment arrived; and just as the ship's bows were disappearing round the rocky headland, a single figure rushed frantically upon the pier, and next minute a white handkerchief was floating from an oar. Would the good ship see this flag of distress and put back? Yes. With the help of a telescope, I was watching events from an upper window in the Castle, and rejoiced when this "derelict" was saved.
But there were still three unlucky ones to be sorry for. And, as first the bows, gradually the long white hull, and finally the Union Jack on the stern disappeared, I felt that their case was hopeless; and so it proved. By-and-by other hurrying figures were seen to pull off in pursuit, but only to return disappointed, doomed to five weeks' captivity on St. Helena. We sympathized deeply with them, especially after we had seen the "Imperial Arms," where they must take up their abode, and noted the dull, dead-looking street which forms James Town. A street of rickety, blistered houses and of dusty ant-eaten shops, with untidy and untempting goods therein displayed, and closed in, almost to suffocation, by rocks on either side.
The ground rises quickly from the shore, and as we drove slowly along, a curious mixture of faces crowded at the open doors and windows. All shades were there, from the woolly, jet-black Hottentot to the fair-complexioned English sailor, leaning against the doorpost of the "Royal Banner," with "H.M.S. Cygnet" on the ribbon round his cap. After a short stiff pull, we left this motley crew behind, and a shady lane soon led us into a lovely garden where palm and pomegranate trees shaded the rich luxuriance of sweet-smelling roses and scarlet geraniums. A low-roofed verandahed cottage formed the centre of this little Eden, and here we found a comfortable home during our stay.
No sooner was our baggage safely landed, than David began to make inquiries about the Observatory on Ladder Hill and the best mode of access to it. It was in this Observatory that Johnson, about fifty years ago, made his catalogue of southern stars; and as its longitude had been determined with considerable accuracy by that astronomer, my husband was anxious to connect it by means of his chronometers with Ascension, and thus strengthen the results for the longitude, which he might get at Ascension, from observations of the moon. For this purpose it was necessary that the chronometers should be conveyed to the Observatory, that local time should be determined there morning and evening by observations with the reflecting circle, and that careful comparison of the chronometers should be made every day.
Ladder Hill rises about 600 feet above sea level and forms the western side of the valley in which James Town lies. There are two ways of getting to the top—the one by means of the ladder I have already mentioned, the other by a very zig-zag carriage road, which winds along the side of the hill. It was by the latter way that the instruments were conveyed by some gunners, through the kindness of Captain Oliver, R.A.; and David's next business was to hire a strong little Cape horse to carry him up the same road every morning and evening on his visits to the Observatory.
I say Observatory—alas! it is so no longer. Fallen from its high estate, it is now the artillery mess-room, and in the recesses formed for the shutters of the openings through which Johnson's transit used to peep, they stow wineglasses and decanters, and under the dome they play billiards! It may appear ungrateful to speak so of a change which was productive of so much kindness and hospitality to us; I do not grudge the hospitable St. Helena Mess their mess-room, but I do regret that so fine a site for an Observatory is vacant.
Another kind friend and sympathizer in his work, my husband found in the Governor, Mr. Janisch. An enthusiastic amateur in astronomy, a descendant of the great astronomer Encke, born on the island and spending his whole life there, he had never before met an astronomer, and the welcome he gave was warm and cordial.
Indeed Mr. Janisch had so much to urge in favour of St. Helena as an observing station for Mars, that he had almost tempted us to remain; and when we saw the clear cloudless sky, night after night begemmed with stars, there did creep into our minds a doubt of meteorological Statistics, and a fear lest in going further we might fare worse. But the risk must not be run. Had all succeeded here, well and good, and probably my husband would have been congratulated on his change of plan, but had bad weather come and failure resulted, there would always have remained the reflection—"Why didn't I go to Ascension?"