WHAT ASCENSION LOOKED LIKE.
Clarence Bay. — The "Abomination of Desolation." — Is that Ascension? — Rollers. — Can we land? — An uninviting dingey. — A slippery footing on Ascension. — A kindly welcome. — "The Thing." — The beauty of perfect ugliness. — The Captain's Cottage. — Between hammer and anvil. — Commodore's Cottage. — A bare larder. — Shopping in Ascension. — Threatened starvation. — A novel Croquet lawn. — Site for the Observatory. — Glorious skies.
THREE days brought us within sight of Ascension. What a sight it was! The sun had been up some hours when we anchored in Clarence Bay on the 13th of July, and the "Abomination of Desolation " seemed to be before our eyes as we looked eagerly at the land.
A few scattered buildings lay among reddish-brown cinders near the shore—a sugar-loaf hill of the same colour rose up behind and bounded the view. We looked about in a sort of hopeless way for "Green Mountain," but it was nowhere to be seen, and we set it down as a fable—a mere myth. "Nothing green," we said, "exists, or could exist here." Stones, stones, everywhere stones, that have been tried in the fire and are now heaped about in dire confusion, or beaten into dust which we see dancing in pillars before the wind. Dust, sunshine, and cinders, and low yellow houses frizzling in it all!
Is that Ascension?
Well, not quite; its coast presented a livelier scene, though one that we would gladly have dispensed with. A black perpendicular wall of rock jutted out into the bay, and on either side of it a stretch of white glistening sand swept to north and south. It is on this rock that the "Tartar Stairs" are cut, and here we must land. But how? For this morning beautiful waves are dashing and crashing and splashing against the landing-place, or rushing past it in sportive fury to break into feathery foam on the pretty beach, which looks like a dainty white ribbon trampled under foot of these mad sea-monsters.
"The rollers are in!" "What lovely waves!" "What a hideous place!" were the ejaculatory remarks we heard drop from the ladies leaning over the ship's side. My heart grew heavy. But seeing H.M.SS. Cygnet and Industry in the harbour, I took courage, knowing that we should at least find refuge on board one of these vessels, and that we should not have to be carried on to Madeira,—a misfortune which has more than once happened to passengers roller-stayed at Ascension.
There were besides several little heaving boats in the bay, and one could not but wonder at their audacity in playing so unconcernedly with the mighty giants that tossed them about, each in turn, as one after one rushed headlong to the shore. While watching this scene, we saw a gig put off from the Cygnet, and pull towards us. "An offer of hospitality," we thought, as we recognised the blue-jacketed oarsmen and their commander, whose acquaintance we had made at St. Helena.
"Can we land?" was our greeting to Capt. Hammick, as he came on board. "Well, the flags denoting 'Double-rollers and Dangerous' are up on the pierhead, but the sea is going down, and I have permission for you to try it, if you don't mind wet feet." We didn't; so it was decided that I and the heavy baggage should be sent on shore at once, while the chronometers and more precious goods! should wait for quieter times on board the Industry, where the Captain, in the kindest manner, had prepared his cabin for us in anticipation of our not being able to land.
I don't know how the heavy baggage liked it, but I certainly wished myself a chronometer more than once, when I saw, rising up behind us, a long wall of threatening water, and before us, the steep, dark, rock, wet with spray. This feeling increased when we were within a few yards of the shore, and I found that we must get out of the strong trustworthy-looking gig, Manned by its stout crew of English sailors, and trust ourselves to a little rickety cockle-shell, which was at that moment being baled out by two ebony-coloured boatmen. I thought, just then, they looked fiendish, and that I could see the baleful eye of a shark, certain of his prey, gleaming triumphantly through the green waves. But since then I have come to the conclusion that our boatmen were very benign, gentle-faced Africans, and my shark—a jelly-fish!
"You may trust yourself with every confidence to these men," Capt. Hammick said to me; "they understand the rollers better than anybody else; they will not take you into danger, only you must be careful not to attempt landing until they give you the word."
For some minutes we kept dodging about, and once or twice were close under the steps; but we got no sign to stir, and were again and again driven back.
At last, there came suddenly a perfectly calm moment, immediately after an unusually heavy roller had tossed our little boat over its head, and we were again sculled under the rock in the twinkling of an eye. A rope was let down from above; David at once laid hold of it, and at the word "Now!" he jumped from the boat. I instantly followed his example, and thus gained a slippery footing on Ascension, with a somewhat palpitating heart and eyes smarting with salt spray.
Among a little group of officers and men on the wharf, we found Capt. Phillimore (the naval officer in command) waiting to welcome us. He very kindly offered us the hospitality of his house until our own cottage should be made comfortable; so, while David braved the rollers a second time to make sure that all his goods were off the steamer, I gladly accompanied the Captain in a curious two-wheeled vehicle—which my conscience would not allow me to call a carriage, and which I was afraid to call a cart, lest by so doing I might commit some breach of etiquette. Not knowing the manners and customs of the natives, I felt the safer plan might be to call our means of locomotion "the thing," in faithful imitation of Miss O'Dowd's coachman of comic memory.
It was now nearly noon, and the dazzling sun shone with a pitiless glare on everything. I looked about me for some beauty to remark upon. But no! We passed great open sheds, piled roof-high with coals, square unsightly store-houses of various kinds, a creaking windmill painted red like a guillotine, and all thickly coated with a fine yellowish dust, into which our poor horse was sinking, hoof-deep, at every step as he pulled us up the gently rising ground leading from the wharf.
Having surmounted this we came upon a dreary flat, and still dust and ashes everywhere. Here we found facing us a neat little church; to the right the hospitals and marine barracks, with their two stories, interrupted a row of low-roofed, verandahed cottages, one of which I gladly learned was to be our home. Beyond, were a few scattered, undecided-looking houses, with no character to speak of. We drove through these before beginning the ascent of Cross Hill, now rising straight before us, with the Captain's Cottage about half-way up the steep slope. Again dust, ashes, cinders; and paradoxical as it may seem, this was a hill without beauty, except perhaps that beauty which characterizes the fashionable lady's pug-dog—the beauty of perfect ugliness.
Without a tinge of green, without a single rough shoulder to catch the sun and throw a shadow, this was no real hill, but simply 800 feet of smooth coneshaped cinder-heap, surrounded by smaller cinderheaps at irregular distances; and to render the scene still more ghastly, some white grave-stones peered through the cinders by the side of the road.
Very glad indeed was I to leave this miserable prospect, and to get into the pleasant shade of Captain Phillimore's verandah. Here I was met with that warmth of welcome which is without doubt the most effectual rest after the fatigue of a journey; and this, followed by the reviving influences of a cup of tea, fortified me for the depressing information which I now received as to the limited resources of the island.
"Scarcity of food and servants!" Well! that was not very encouraging; but fortunately, just at present, there happened to be on the island two convalescents, fit for work,—one white, the other black,—both invalided from service on the Gold Coast. We seemed to be in luck; but alas! when these "gentlemen helps" came to be interviewed, it appeared that each wished to be master—one had been a ward-room cook, the other a steward—neither would scrub floors nor run messages, so, fearing lest I should be between hammer and anvil with so much talent in the house, I resolved to be my own steward, and engaged only the white cook. He promised to wait at table; and Captain Phillimore kindly undertook to let me have a Krooman to do the "low caste" work.
My ménage thus far arranged, I felt "settling down;" and when David joined us, he brought the further good news that the rollers were "settling down" too, and that probably all our goods would be on shore before sunset. This being the case, we thought it better to lose no time in taking possession, and after an hour or two's chat we returned to George Town, as maps and geography-books call the little settlement. In Ascension itself it is called "Garrison," and we soon knew it by no other name.
I did not find that things improved on closer inspection; for now, in walking down the bill, the hot cinders burned through my thin boots, and I looked eagerly about for the neat square gardens and paved streets seen by Sir Wyville Thomson. But I could make out only a few tortuous paths of concrete leading to the chief buildings, and along the back of a single line of gardenless cottages, one of which had "Commodore" painted in white letters on the verandah gate. It was of this one that we now took possession. On either side of the door were placed the divided halves of a cask, painted green, and containing what ought to have been a green shrub. These floral ornaments were the nearest approach to gardens that I ever saw in "Garrison," and they could never, by any stretch of the imagination, be called "square," though, as ail Ascension lady very wittily suggested, "tubular gardens would not have been amiss."
Of course, I explored every nook of my little home, before attempting to fit myself into it: and though I was delighted with its dimensions, I cannot say so much for its contents. Entering by a glass-door on the north-west, I found on the right, a dining-room and drawing-room, both of good shape and size, and opening into each other. To the left was a tolerably large bed-room, with dressing and bath-rooms beyond. The little kitchen was built behind the dining-room—the only case in which I saw this arrangement in Ascension—the kitchens or "galleys" being as a rule separated from the rest of the house to avoid the heat of the cooking-fire.
Commodore's Cottage stood, like its fellows, facing the sea and the north-west, with green jalousie doors to the back and front of each room, so as to give free course to the refreshing trade wind from the southeast. This was all very well if the wind had not been troublesome as well as refreshing. But how cross it made one, after a severe fit of tidiness, to find newspapers, pamphlets, writing materials, and such like, strewn about the room in wild disorder! Yet it tried the temper more to sit stifled with the glass shut on the "win'ard" doors; so I preferred the jalousies; and notwithstanding that my watch, card-case, and everything available were utilized as weights, it cost me many a chase after stray papers, indoors and out in the verandah which surrounded our Garrison home on all sides.
But to return to the interior, as I found it on the night of our arrival. I have said that I was not delighted with the contents, but in one sense I was. I have always thought how very tame and uninteresting it must be to take possession of a house where the upholsterer has done everything; where every detail is perfect, and every nook filled, even the book-shelves in the library. I should feel tempted to turn back at the threshold, fearing to disturb, even by a restless thought, this "faultily faultless" establishment. So it was, that I gloried here over bare walls, bare floors and bare tables; till I was disturbed in the delightful occupation of mentally putting my house in order by Hill, our brisk cook, who came to remind me that the larder was bare too.
Then I gave up my castle-building, and accompanied Hill to buy and lay in provisions. But this was by no means so simple a process as I had expected. No butcher! no dairy ! no greengrocer! no fishmonger! only this wretched canteen, more full of flies than of anything else. I got quite tired and hot with the frequent, "No, madam, we don't keep it," or "Very sorry, but we are just sold out." My demands were modest, but they had to become yet more humble before accommodating themselves to the limited resources of the "Royal Naval Canteen." Finally, however, I succeeded in getting some sustenance for the body.
I then turned to the open door with "Island Bakery" written over it—where a pallid baker stood at the threshold wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Evidently he made his bread by the sweat of his brow! "Can I have some bread?" I asked boldly, thinking there could be no difficulty here. "All served out for the night, ma'am." "Oh dear! and when do you bake more?" "The day after to-morrow!" and my heart was sinking, when the good-natured baker added "But I can make you a loaf now, if you like." Then I revived.
Now about milk—which David and I were wont to consider a necessary of life. I was told, "a mule brings that down every morning from Green Mountain, when there is any. A bell rings at 7 o'clock and everybody runs for a gill, except when there are many sick in hospital, then they get it all." This was lively! "And vegetables?" "There are only sweet potatoes to be had, and none will be 'served out' until next Friday."
Then came the most important question of all. "Where shall I find the butcher?" "Oh!" said Hill, with a grin, "there ain't any butcher. One of the marines kills sheep twice a week, and on Saturdays a bullock, which is 'rationed' out, so much to each man, and our rations are very small just now, for the sheep and bullocks are starving for food and water. Hardly any are killed that have not fainted first!"
I thought that I should faint too; and I could only gasp despairingly, "But surely there is plenty of fish?" "Generally, ma'am, but not when the rollers are in." Utter collapse!
I hastened home sadly from my foraging expedition with a tale of want and woe; but so strongly did the comic element prevail in the recital, that David and I broke into peal after peal of laughter, and that was almost as good as a meal. "Never mind the larder just now," said he in his man-like way, "come and see the croquet ground."
"Croquet ground!" I repeated, as a thought of Nebuchadnezzar and his way of living crossed my mind. "Can we eat grass?" But I might have spared myself the question. Here was no soft inviting turf for noiseless balls to glide over, no pretty green carpet to deck with puzzling white hoops, no waving boughs to shade the heated combatants and cool the temper of the vanquished. Oh, no! The imagination must paint no such picture as this. The croquet ground behind Commodore's Cottage meant a level piece of glaring white concrete, about thirty yards long and fifteen broad, with a close paling on the further side, probably to keep off the dust and cinders, while oil the side nearest to the cottage a few withered aloes, with tattered dust-stained leaves, struggled for bare life. Such was the croquet lawn that I was led in triumph to admire.
"Croquet here?" "No, of course not: but don't see it is the very place for the Observatory? So level and stable for the piers; so near the house and as Cross Hill only cuts off 10 degrees of horizon, it will not be in the way of Mars." "To be sure!" I said; "just as if it had been made on purpose." In our satisfaction at this happy discovery, we quite forgot the bare state of the larder, which, I must not forget to add, became strangely metamorphosed by the time we felt in want of a meal. I have never quite learned how, I only know that the effect produced on our larder by the thoughtful kindness of Ascension neighbours was the reverse of what happened to the cupboard of Old Mother Hubbard.
Somehow it all came right; and sitting that first evening after sunset in the verandah which looked upon our novel croquet lawn, we could speak of nothing, think of nothing, but the beauty of the heavens. Though Ascension was barren, desolate, formless, flowerless, yet with such a sky she could never be unlovely. The stars shone forth boldly, each like a living fire. Mars was yet behind Cross Hill, but Jupiter literally blazed in the intense blue sky now guiltless of cloud from horizon to zenith; and, thrown across in graceful splendour, the Milky Way seemed like a great streaming veil woven of golden threads and sparkling with gems. The Southern Cross—a poem in the heavens—shone out a bright welcome to us, while our old friend the Great Bear still kept faithful watch in the north over our wanderings. How strengthening and restful after fatigue and petty worry, is such an hour! One forgets to be careful and troubled about many things, and the soul trembles with its load of love and gratitude to Him who "made the stars also."