Fresh scenes. — "The Briars." — St. Helena vegetation. — Sandy Bay. — Diana's Peak. — A nervous ride. — Lot and Lot's wife. — Neglected Cinchona. — Tom Timm. — Halley's Observatory. — Napoleon's tomb. — "Yam stalks." — Longwood. — Relic hunting. — Longwood Farm. — St. Helena farming. — The Friar Rock. — The Mountain Maid and the Friar. — West Lodge. — Hard times in St. Helena. — Plantation House. — Oakbank. — Fate of the "Derelicts." — St. Helena friends. — Good-bye.
BEFORE entering upon the work that we had left England to do, it was a kind chance that took us for a holiday to St. Helena. Tired of anxious preparation and the constant thinking of one thought, it was no real loss of time to turn aside for a rest by the way, and gather fresh strength from fresh scenes and from the most delightful air it is possible to imagine.
During our week's stay we were able to make three excursions on horseback from James Town, and these little peeps into the country showed me so much that was strange and new, that I find it difficult to disentangle one impression from another. So quickly did they follow in succession, that the one partly effaced the other before time had allowed it to harden on the mind, and the picture memory has to show is somewhat blotted and confused.
The sun had been shining some hours on the hill tops, and was just beginning to creep down the dark rocks into the valley when we started for our first excursion. Captain Oliver had kindly offered to be our guide to Diana's Peak, the hill par excellence of St. Helena, and towards it we now wended our way southwards and upwards. A narrow bridle-path, curling itself among aloes and wild geraniums, soon brought us to "The Briars," where Napoleon spent the first month of his imprisonment.
It is a pleasantly situated house, within view of the sea at one point, but on all other sides so shut in by steep rocks that I wondered how we were to proceed. The path, however, gradually opened up as we wound round the hills, and new beauties burst upon us at every turning. Now a sudden bird's-eye view of the little town, looking like a cluster of card houses far below; now a ribbon of clear water breaking into feathery spray as it falls over the steep cliff; here and there a group of goats or shaggy calves giving life to the picture; and on every bit of level ground some pretty white villa with its trim garden relieving the wildness of the scene. Straight-limbed aloes were shaking their feathery blossoms thirty feet overhead, and homelier flowers were creeping humbly round their stems . The snow-white blossoms of the beautiful moon-plant (Brugmansia suaveolens) scented the air. The Hottentot fig (Mesembryanthemum edule) trailed its delicate starry flowers among the dark leaves of the yam. The knarled cabbage-tree (Aster gummiferus), the castor-oil tree, Port Jackson willows and graceful acacias mingled their shades of green with the deep red blossoms of the wild fuchsia and the pale yellow of the rock-rose (Hibiscus arenatus).
Winding along the upward path, we came to a gap in the ridge of hill through which burst upon us a glorious view of the southern coast. For the first time in my life I saw the naked grandeur of volcanic action, undimmed by time, unsoftened by vegetation. Wild grotesque masses of rock, assuming every shape and aspect, were piled up, one above the other, with fantastic irregularity, and tinted like the opal by the noonday sun. Beyond lay the sea, of a deep blue where it bordered the rocks, but gradually becoming softened in colour by the shadow of a great white cloud far away in the horizon. The scene was altogether so unlike anything I had ever conceived to be among the beauties of the world, that I could have imagined myself somewhere in space and looking down on one of those gorgeous, fairy clouds that we sometimes see floating in the summer sky after a thunderstorm—masses of colour, gloriously bright with the brightness of the setting sun, then soft and tender as he bids them farewell, and finally dark and sad-hued, mourning the death of the great painter.
Such is Sandy Bay on the south coast of St. Helena, or rather, such is it as I am able to describe it. A rift in the ridge had shown us this glorious picture; presently the rock towered above us again, and we saw it no more. Indeed I saw little landscape of any kind about this point, for the path had got so ugly that I shut my eyes and ignominiously grasped the pommel of my saddle. To make matters worse, I had been told that the pony I rode was a "buck-jumper," and I could not help wondering what would be the consequence should he take it into his bead to exhibit any of his feats just at this moment. But this bit of nervous riding was short, and fortunately my courage was able to bold out until we came upon a more level road. About a hundred yards below the Peak we tied our ponies to one of the numerous gates that are placed along the pathway to prevent the straying of cattle, and climbed on foot to the top.
Here we could command at a glance the entire length and breadth of the little island, as well as the unbroken circle of sea surrounding it. To the north lay James Town, bidden in its narrow valley; to the south, Sandy Bay with its chaos of wonderful rocks throwing out their grand outlines against sea and sky. One of these detached rocks is no less than 1,444 feet in height. It is an upright precipitous mass of greenish grey phonolite, known by the name of "Lot," and "Lot's Wife" stands near him, a fit mate in size and beauty. To the eastward we looked down on a gentler bit of landscape. Here lies the only large tract of cultivated land on St. Helena; and the square green fields, farmhouses, and little church perched on a wooded knoll in the background, took us in fancy back to England.
It was towards this side of the island that we began our descent from the Peak, through fuchsias, blackberries and ferns of all kinds—from the gigantic tree-fern to the tiny Acrostichum bifurcatum, creeping shyly into nooks, as if it were ashamed of the big name which botanists have given to it. In one or two places we noticed the curious grass-like Polypodium marginellum growing parasitically on the tree-fern, and here too, choked, alas! and laid waste, are still to be seen some plants of cinchona, which our Government began to cultivate on St. Helena by the advice of Sir Joseph Hooker. The plants flourished well while care was given to them; but this is no longer done—a neglect much to be deplored.
The downward road was more level and less fatiguing than the path we had followed in coming up. Nevertheless we were glad to dismount for rest and refreshment at the "Rose and Crown," the only house of entertainment on the island, except, of course, the hotels of James Town; and, together with its landlord, it was by no means the least curious thing we had met with in our day's ride. Tom Timm, his dusky face aglow with heat, and the extraordinary excitement of three guests all in one day, rushed out, napkin on arm, with the welcome greeting that luncheon was ready. A long, uncarpeted, unceiled room was the salle-à-manger, with bunches of stags'-moss adorning the bare rafters, and on the walls were many works of art, dark and mysterious-looking enough to be "Old Masters."
But Tom himself was bright and by no means mysterious. He most good-naturedly entertained me with his stock of local gossip, while Captain Oliver and David strolled along to "Halley's Mount" to search for the site of the Observatory where Halley, in 1677, made his catalogue of Southern stars and observed the Transit of Mercury. We did not know whether any record of this work remained in stone and lime, and it was a pleasant surprise to find, on the spot that an astronomer's eye at once picked out as the most favourable, a bit of low wall, duly oriented, and overrun with wild pepper (Cluytia pulchella). This had been the Observatory, without doubt; and near to it is a quarry from which the stones for its erection had evidently been taken. So charmed was my husband with this interesting record of the work of 200 years ago, that his investigations and surmises regarding it left us short time to linger in the little hollow lying near the foot of Halley's Mount.
Napoleon's tomb is here. It is a lovely spot that the great General chose for his last resting-place, close by the clear spring that used so often to refresh him after his walk from Longwood, over a mile distant. We found the place under charge of a French sergeant, and almost over-trim in its exquisite neatness. A plain iron railing encloses a plot of mossy grass, shaded by cypress, willow and other sombre trees, and an inner rail, round which climb bright geraniums, protects the tomb itself. An ancient-looking, leafless willow hangs over it, but this is not the original willow as I had fondly hoped. That has been ruthlessly hacked to pieces long since by relic-hunters, and this lineal descendant, though better protected, already looks tattered and forlorn, and will, no doubt, soon die the death of its predecessor. With a view to this fate indeed, a younger willow has been planted close by to take the place of honour when the present tree falls.
Relic-hunters are the Goths of the age, and something of their savage nature must be in me, for there was no resisting the impulse to gather a few leaves from the geraniums which wreath the empty tomb. St. Helena is so rich in associations of Napoleon the Great, that one breathes them in with the air, and infected for the time with the insanity of hero-worship, we can hardly escape the relic mania.
Another day we visited Longwood Old House, where the term of Napoleon's imprisonment was spent, and where he died. The house stands in the interior of the island, on a somewhat bleak and treeless plateau, 2000 feet above the sea. To reach it, we followed the carriage-road which winds up the eastern slope of James Town Valley. Now north, now south, this corkscrew road led us, now facing the sea, then turning to the land—so that I lost all idea of direction. But I had confidence in our ten-year-old guide, who kept pace with us by twisting his hand into my pony's tail and so pulling himself along,—a universal practice, which says much for the ingenuity of the "Yam Stalks" (St. Helena natives), and for the good temper of their horses.
Arrived at Longwood, we left the ponies under charge of our guide, and opening a little wicket, we walked through a short garden-path to the door of the low rambling house, where a sad-faced woman received us politely and conducted us over the different rooms, telling us what had been the use of each. The English and French flags are crossed over the fireplace in the entrance hall or "salon à fumer,'' and the room contains nothing besides. Immediately beyond is the room where Napoleon died, its only ornament being a laurel-crowned marble bust, standing on the spot where he breathed his last. All the rooms are in good repair, but unfurnished, and smelling of disuse.
The woman in charge told us that formerly all French sailors visiting St. Helena used to be marched up to Longwood House, but the place so excited their quick imaginations that they became quite wild, and they have now been prohibited from visiting it. They exhibited their enthusiasm chiefly by chipping pieces from the door-posts and stripping the paper from the walls. Nor have English travellers been guiltless of aiding in this work of destruction.
Mellis says, "A remarkable instance occurred of this bad habit of relic-stealing being turned to good account. It was wished that the rooms might be made to look as much as possible like what they had been when occupied by Napoleon; but a great difficulty arose about the wall-papers. Not a scrap nor a vestige of them remained, and no clue could be obtained as to their design or colour. This difficulty reached the ears of an English officer who had visited Longwood thirty years before and carried off a scrap of paper from each room. These specimens, which had been carefully preserved, he at once placed at the disposal of the French engineer in charge of the work, who sent them to Paris, where new papers exactly resembling the originals were manufactured and sent out to St. Helena."
Close by Longwood Old House stands Longwood New House, built for Napoleon, but never occupied by him. It was not completed until shortly before his death, and he refused to move into it, notwithstanding its superior accommodation. In the same cluster of buildings there is also the cottage which was occupied by Marshal Bertrand during his attendance on Napoleon. It now serves as the dwelling-house of Longwood Farm, which we had already admired from Diana's Peak. Having previously received a kind intimation that the farmer would gladly show whatever might be of interest to us, we now took advantage of this proffer to ride across the fields with him, and see the different agricultural operations that were going on. From this and the neighbouring farm, "Teutonic Hall," come the chief supplies of James Town. This is due to the energy and skill of two English farmers, who, with their families, have turned to good account the rich soil of decomposed lava, which is ready and willing to yield food for man and beast.
But farming in St. Helena, as well as farming at home, has many drawbacks to contend against. The last crop of potatoes had been entirely lost through want of rain, not enough having been saved for seed, which had to be brought from England at great cost. Then, worst of all, is the want of a market for cattle. Since Christmas, fat cattle had been ready at Longwood Farm for shipment, and no ship had come to take them. All this must be taken into account as well as the very high price of labour; 2s. 6d. a day being the usual hire of a farm labourer, and the "Yam Stalks" do not work with the energy of Englishmen. But they are obedient, and, once set a going, go steadily on like machines. In Scotland we should characterize them as "eident"—untranslateable into English; but "slowly and surely industrious" gives some idea of the meaning.
Here for the first time we saw the light-coloured island partridges flying over the garden-like fields, which are separated from each other by hedges of cacti and scarlet geraniums. How gay it was! The bright sunshine, the bright flowers and fields, the golden-winged canaries flitting hither and thither, darting in and out of the hedgerows, their sweet notes almost drowned in the husky whirr of the grass-hoppers.
Our third excursion was made, as the first had been under guidance of Captain Oliver, and with the pleasant addition of another artillery officer and his wife. This time our guide led us into the western and most beautiful part of the island. Another cork-screw road drew us. slowly to the top of Ladder Hill, and then we cantered pleasantly along by Friar's Valley—so called from a curious rock of dark basalt here, which is supposed to resemble a cloaked and hooded friar, who suffered as a renegade on the spot where it stands.
The legend tells us that: "The place where the Friar Rock now stands was once the site of a church, adjoining which was the residence of the officiating priest, who was looked upon as a model of Christian piety, passing his life in acts of charity and benevolence. Blessing and blessed, this man of God pursued his way, until he allowed himself to be enthralled by the wonderful beauty of a mountain girl who dwelt near his home. It was in one of his rambles on some charitable mission, that the ill-fated friar first saw this lovely shepherdess tending her father's goats on the adjacent hill, now called 'Goat Pound Ridge.' They had strayed so far that she had vainly tried to collect them and was returning home, tired and sad, when she met the monk, to whom she told her tale and begged his assistance. It was given, and the scattered flocks soon collected, but more evil than good was done. It would have been well for the good friar if this meeting had been the last, but fate ordained it otherwise.
"Again and again he sought the mountain hut with a tale of love, and finally besought the maiden to be his bride. She promised, but on one condition—he must renounce his creed and become of her faith. The struggle was a strong and fearful one in the heart of the monk, but—
'Love must still be lord of all.'
"He forsook the faith of his fathers, broke his vows and became a renegade. In the course of time the wedding-day arrived; the bride, accompanied by her attendant maidens, had approached the altar, the ceremony was proceeding, and just as the bridegroom was clasping the hand of his beloved, a fearful crash resounded, the rock was rent asunder, and every vestige of the chapel and of those within it disappeared for ever, leaving in its place the gaunt figure of the grim friar. A warning, says the moral, to those who suffer passion to stifle conscience."
Such is the story of the unhappy monk—I wonder what geologists think of it!
The surface of this part of the island reminded me somewhat of a honey-comb, into the cells of which we now and again descended, finding always at the bottom some pretty villa, nestling among acacias, or a white farmhouse standing in fields black with rich mould washed from the encircling hills. Sometimes our road left the cells below and wound along their turf-covered ridges, thus allowing us to obtain a fairly good idea of the general topography of the country.
I have the vaguest notion of how many miles we might have ridden along this zig-zag, up-hill-and-down-dale road. I only know that after three or four hours of it, I did not object to halt at West Lodge for our pic-nic luncheon, which Captain Oliver, with kind forethought had despatched, donkey-borne, early in the morning.
A gloomy, half-ruined and haunted house is West Lodge, but all around it is bright, and smiling vistas of wooded knolls and flower-clad dales stretch far away among the hills. Beautiful ferns embellish every nook of the half-wild garden, and here and there along the paths are stationed great camellia trees with a stately burden of crimson and white flowers.
But this was only one of the many pretty country residences which we observed tenantless and in a state of ruin. Naturally these signs of a decreasing population made us look about for an explanation, and several reasons presented themselves.
Formerly almost all vessels coming from the East called at St. Helena for fresh provisions, &c., and it might be reckoned that a thousand ships a year, in former times, cast anchor in James Bay. But now they make swifter passages, and can easily accomplish a voyage from the East to Europe without an intermediate stoppage. This, with the opening of the Suez Canal, has reduced the number of ships calling at St. Helena by nearly one-half.
Then the garrison is greatly reduced, and many of the civil offices have] been abolished, the line of policy pursued by the Home Government towards St. Helena being characterized by a somewhat ruthless economy. Plantation House is the official residence of the Governor, but he finds it more convenient to occupy his private house in James Town, and owing to reduced salaries on all sides, even Plantation House has not quite escaped the infection of general decay. But nothing can rob it of its beautiful surroundings. A square compact mass of building, of no architectural pretensions, it stands facing a beautiful park, dotted with groups of trees of innumerable shapes and shades of colour. Below the park axe the famous gardens, containing fruit trees and tropical and sub-tropical plants in such wonderful variety, that all our time in St. Helena, and more, would have been needed to examine them thoroughly.
On a rising ground behind Plantation House, the little cathedral of the island peeps from amid a grove of magnificent cypress trees, which dwarf its tiny spire, and, with their sombre masses dark against the pale blue sky, form a perfect background to the view as we saw it, riding home from West Lodge in the twilight.
But perhaps the most beautiful of all St. Helena's beautiful homes is Oakbank, the residence of the Bishop. I cannot recall a more lovely spot. Nature seems to have denied nothing to this pet child of hers, and Art has helped her gracefully, controlling without thwarting her. When we were there, the oak trees, from which it takes its name, were leafless, and their naked arms, interlacing with the bright green boughs of neighbour trees which acknowledge no winter, dashed the forest picture with great streaks of grey; and the rustle of withered leaves under our horses' hoofs was a homely, autumnly sound.
Oakbank is the queen of pocket landscapes, but in every gully here, little gems lie bid that would delight a painter's eye, and the variety of scenery within so small a compass is indeed wonderful. Grand rugged rocks, gentle, grassy slopes, tilled fields and hedgerows, gardens of palms and pomegranates, beds of violets and mignonette, clumps of pine trees, waysides of gorse, and everywhere the sea. All this St. Helena showed us in a week. No wonder then that we found it a happy one, and that we brought away with us bright memories to think and talk over among the barren rocks at Ascension.
On Monday the 9th, the Cape steamer was due, and, learning caution from the fate of our laggard fellow-passengers on board the Balmoral Castle, we held ourselves in readiness from daybreak. These unfortunate gentlemen we had met with several times during our ramblings, and they really seemed to bear their misfortunes bravely, making good use of their unexpected time on St. Helena.
We subsequently heard that the one whose business at the Cape was the most pressing had been taken on board a troop-ship, that called shortly after we left. The Captain would not be induced to take the others, owing to the already crowded state of the ship; but one of them, careless of all consequences, surreptitiously stowed himself on board. The third, from feelings of self-respect, decided not to have recourse to this plan, and he probably fared all the better for his decision. Just as the troop-ship was under way, the mail-steamer from the Cape, bringing the various effects of these unfortunates, entered the harbour, and thug missed two of them by a few minutes. The one who had remained behind, no doubt felt his virtue rewarded, and so charmed was he with St. Helena, now that his purse and wardrobe had been restored to him, that he resolved to enjoy himself there for a few weeks longer.
It was the morning of the 10th before the call came for us. At 7 A.M. the Edinburgh Castle was signalled, and some hours later we went on board, accompanied by a large party of the kind friends who had given us such warm welcome to St. Helena, and whose hospitality had added so much to the pleasure of our visit. We were loth to say good-bye. From the Governor we parted with great regret, and we shall always retain the strongest feeling of gratitude for the sympathy and assistance he gave us in our work. Certainly while Mr. Janisch is Governor of St. Helena, any astronomer visiting the island will find a zealous supporter and a kind friend.
With so many St. Helena friends on board we did not feel as if we had quite said "good-bye," till a noisy, impatient bell rang for the third time. Then last handshakings were given, hats and handkerchiefs waved, and as little boats pushed back to the wharf, we steamed into wider waters, gradually losing sight of those "grey beetling crags" which hide so much softness and beauty. No thunderbolts nor lightning shafts, no burning drought nor deadly disease, no savage brute nor noxious reptile, not even a lawyer; surely this St. Helena, now melting away in the distance, must be the "The Island of the Blessed" so fondly believed in and so earnestly sought for by the ancient mariners.