ROUND ABOUT GARRISON.
Erecting the Observatory. — A busy day. — The Turtle-ponds. — Doomed turtles. — Captain Brandreth's Story. — Turtle-nests. — Turtle turning. — Happy turtles. — St. Mary's Church. — The Chaplain's protest. — Change of weather. — Green Mountain clouds. — Our troubles begin.
OUR first work was, of course, the Observatory, for observations ought to begin on the 17th of July, and it was necessary that no time should be lost in getting ready.
Our twenty tons of baggage had been landed on the evening of our arrival. At 6 o'clock on the following morning, carts were busy bringing up the numerous cases from the pierhead, and marines were at work unscrewing box-lids and unsoldering tin-lined cases. The sound of hammer and saw woke an echo in the still morning, and by breakfast time the croquet ground was littered with extraordinary heaps of queer-shaped materials.
In the south-west corner, masons were laying down a level bed of cement for the sleepers of the circular railway on which the Heliometer House revolves; for, as stars had to be observed in all parts of the heavens, the opening of the Observatory must necessarily be arranged to view any part of the sky. This was managed as follows.
A strong octagonal frame was mounted on flanged wheels rolling on the railway, and this frame carried a structure of iron gas-pipes, screwed together and stiffened by cross ties of iron wire—the whole forming a species of cage. To make this a good water-tight house, it was necessary then to cover it with canvas, previously shaped and fitted with means of attachment to the frame. My husband was no stranger to the details of this portable Observatory, which he had already used in Lord Lindsay's Transit of Venus Expedition at Mauritius; and the naval artificers of Ascension proved willing and intelligent workmen.
Before night the iron cage was revolving sweetly on its well-oiled wheels, and a couple of blue-jackets were lashing on the canvas cover. The process of fixing the canvas was very like that of reefing a sail, so Jack was quite at home; and then the rolling dome was so like the revolving turret of an ironclad, that in this novel combination of sea-machine and sea-work ashore the sailors took great delight.
In the north-east corner, some marine carpenters were busy putting up the Transit Hut. This Observatory has also a history. It had been constructed at Greenwich for the British Transit of Venus Expedition in 1874. It had been in Egypt, mounted on the Mokattam Heights above Cairo; and probably many a Pacha had smoked his cigarette under its cover when visiting Captain Orde Brown at the Venus station there.
Like everything emanating from our National Observatory, it bore the stamp of the order and method which characterize our Astronomer Royal. Every screw and every plank of it were so marked and numbered, that, almost without instruction, the marine carpenters could fit it together, after David had laid down the lines of its position.
This Observatory, unlike the Heliometer House, was fixed, and its shutter opened due north and south, so that the Transit Instrument inside might be capable of being directed to any celestial object as it crossed the meridian.
It was indeed a busy day for my husband, for morning and evening "sights" had to be taken with the reflecting-circle to determine the error and rates of his chronometers. The shadow of a plumb line had to be laid at noon, to give the line of direction for the foundation of the Transit Hut; and all day long he toiled in shirt-sleeves, unpacking the more delicate parts of the instruments, and trying to be everywhere at once, so as to keep all going.
That evening there was, to all appearance, a complete Observatory on the croquet lawn; but much had still to be done. The Transit Hut was outwardly finished, but the piers inside had yet to be built, and the instrument mounted thereon and adjusted exactly in the meridian. With regard to the Heliometer Observatory, though the heavier parts of the instrument were in situ, the tube and more delicate parts remained to be attached, and the whole had to be afterwards adjusted accurately by observations of stars.
However, the third day of steady hard work, by night and by day, saw all in order, and an Observatory established, as complete as the heart of travelling astronomer could desire. Our Observatory staff was also completed by the addition of an intelligent blue-jacket, by name "Graydon," installed as night-watch and lamp-bearer.
The anxiety of Observatory building being off David's mind, and the chief difficulties of the commissariat department off mine, we began to look outside ourselves a little, and, after the fatigue of so much change and so many new sensations, to enjoy the rest of one day repeating itself in the next.
We began to think of little excursions when the sun drew near the west horizon, and our first walk had for its object a visit to the famous Turtle Ponds. These lie close to the sea, at the north end of Garrison, just where Long Beach terminates in rock under the fort; and are simply two large stone-built enclosures, into which the sea flows freely through narrow sluices. Here I saw more than a hundred huge creatures, looking like monsters of a bygone age. At first sight these dark masses, just showing above water, might be mistaken for slimy, seaweed-covered rocks, till one of them slowly moves—places a finny foot on the top of the "black thing" next to it, and rears aloft an ungainly head, showing a breast of leathery, shrivelled skin, speckled and streaked with a motley of yellow, green, brown and red. The small head and the slow, undulatory movement of the neck, betray a member of the reptile family, but here the serpentine character ends. Everybody is familiar with the shape of what Wordsworth calls—
"A shell of ample size, and light
As the pearly car of Amphitrite,
That sportive dolphins drew."
Only Wordsworth, I think, could have found anything so pretty to say about the turtle shell, which entirely encases the unshapely creature. Those we saw were certainly of ample size, each animal weighing from five to six hundred weight; but they take a long time to acquire this weight, and the full-grown ones are said to be a hundred years old.
I do not know how this conclusion is arrived at, for the young turtle are seldom, if ever, seen from the time that they make their way into the water, straight from the egg, until they return again to land, at full growth and maturity, to deposit their eggs; but they are certainly slow-moving, slow-living, slow-growing animals.
The marine cooper in Garrison had, with great difficulty, reared a turtle from the egg until it was six months old. At that age it could easily be covered by the hand, and as the baby turtle, newly hatched, is about the size of a Dorking chick, at this rate of growth it must needs take a long time to develope into a gigantic animal of six hundred weight. Some have been known to weigh as much as eight hundredweight, for this species of turtle (Chelone Mydas) is quite a giant compared to the little turtle of the West Indies. The latter, however, is the more delicate for table use, and is the favourite in the London market.
The green turtle of Ascension, being not only less delicate in flavour but more delicate in constitution, is very difficult to convey to England alive, especially in winter. Many are the pathetic stories told of poor doomed turtles, lying on their backs on shipboard and sobbing their lives away, thereby causing the expectant recipient to turn homeward from the London Docks a sorrowing and soup-disappointed man.
Captain Brandreth, R.E., who visited the island officially some forty years ago, says, — "In 1830, the commandant freighted the transport with sixty of the finest flappers that the season had produced. They were destined for some of the most distinguished individuals in England, and the largest and finest was for His Majesty, with instructions, if but one survived, it should be considered as so appropriated; the commandant acting as nearly as possible upon the principle that the king never dies. And the precaution was by no means unnecessary, as, in fact, only one did survive. To prevent intrigues in favour of particular patrons or friends, each turtle was marked, on his fair white belly-shell, with the name of the owner, and the sailor in charge of the party duly reported each morning their state and condition, as thus:—'Please, your honour, the Duke of Wellington died last night,' or, 'I don't like the looks of Lord Melville this morning, sir.' Then followed certain interesting questions:—'How is the Lord Chancellor?' 'Why he looks pretty lively, sir,' and so, forth."
One of the many curious facts connected with the turtle is, that no males are ever seen. The females are captured when they come to lay their eggs on the little sandy beaches that run here and there into the rocky coast of Ascension. At North-east Bay, South-west Bay, Dead Man's Beach, &c., there are men stationed during the turtle season, from Christmas to Midsummer, to watch for the unwary turtle as she scrambles up, about a hundred yards above high-water mark, to deposit her eggs: Here she digs three or four nests for herself, one after the other, eight or ten feet across by about two feet deep. In these she lays often three hundred eggs in a season; forty or fifty in each; and leaving them to incubate in the hot sand, a two months' process, she makes for the water again.
The men are forbidden to capture the turtles until after they have deposited their eggs, but as the cautious mothers often perform an unsatisfactory manœuvre, called "making a horse-shoe" (that is, they come ashore, and not finding a place to their liking, simply describe a semicircle on the beach, and return to the water without making a nest at all), the men are eager to seize the poor things as soon as they appear, for the sake of the half-crown awarded for each turtle.
For turtle-hunting it is necessary to be armed with stout stick and a noose of rope. The noose has to be slipped over a back and fore fin, which, by this means, are drawn together, and the rope is wound up on the stick till it touches the turtle's upper shell; this forms a lever by which the creature is turned over. Once on her back the unhappy turtle is perfectly helpless, and in this way an average of 300 turtles are now collected every year from the various breeding-places, and transferred to the ponds on Long Beach, there to wait the evil day of soup-making.
Formerly the number was much greater, so many as 2,500 turtles having been turned in one year; and it is said that in the "good old times" of Ascension any ship's crew landing here might have turned fifty in a night. Connoisseurs say that the turtles fresh from the sea are better fare than those kept long in reserve; so if any remain when the new stock arrives, they are restored to liberty. But, by the less fastidious, turtle is eaten with equal relish after the animal has lain in the ponds for a year without diet of any kind. They live on "nothing a-year"—happy turtles! Of course wise men tell you that they feed upon sea-weed, and the crustaceans and molluscs which are washed into the ponds with the salt-water, but surely these can be to them but the veriest bon-bons, and I prefer to believe that they dine but once a-year! Then I can also believe in their great age, and look upon the finny monsters with awe, as the last survivors of the antediluvian age, when life was lived slowly, and ninety years were but as the childhood of a man.
It was so hot during the day, that we, in common with our neighbours, preferred to shut ourselves up within jalousies as much as possible. Thus it happened that the first time I peeped abroad in full sunlight was to go to church, and the tinkle, tinkle of the little bell gave me strongly the feeling of home. There was something exquisitely soothing and comforting too, in the quiet worship of God in this isolated tabernacle, surrounded as we were by the bowed heads of so many of our brave sailors.
St. Mary's, at Ascension, shares, with the other buildings in Garrison, the monotonous level that lies between the foot of Cross Hill and the roadstead. There is little of the ecclesiastical in its exterior, except it be the primitive belfry, containing a single unmelodious bell which is rung in rather a primitive way by pulling the clapper. The outside walls are of an ochre yellow, flecked with green jalousies, which shade the glassless windows. Through these the cooling breeze steals in and just stirs the leaves of the open prayer-books, then, with a hushed whisper, softly escapes, as if afraid of having touched too rudely some holy thing.
Within, near the door, stands a tiny baptismal font of the soft grey limestone of Ascension, and as you pass along the aisle, you note the many loving tributes to the memory of dead comrades, which, with their simple inscriptions, give a pathetic interest to- the plain rough walls.
As to ornament the little church has not much to boast of, except it be that of many low deal pews filled to overflowing with earnest-faced men, each one the very picture of cleanliness and order in his fresh Sunday jacket, innocent of stain or crease. What a splendid dress is that wide-throated blue jacket, and how well it suits these frank fearless faces, where the bright, intelligent eyes tell that training and discipline have not made the machine and unmade the man!
Hardly a treble note softens the rough, hearty voices which fill the church with well-declared praise. David, in his civilian coat, is quite as exceptional as the Chaplain in his surplice; so that it was not difficult to imagine one's-self on board some ship at sea, and I almost expected to hear the sound of waves dashing against the outside walls.
Not only in outward seeming but in inward desire did we differ somewhat from our neighbours here, for now a great longing for rain was abroad—a longing not unnatural after a drought of fourteen months, with only one poor condenser on board, capable of providing no more than twelve tons of water per week for nearly two hundred souls and many thirsty brutes. This seemed improvident on the part of the powers that be, and our Chaplain so resented it on behalf of his flock, that he flatly refused to pray for rain, saying it was England's duty to supply the "Flora Tender" as well as the other ships of her navy, with proper condensers.
We shared this opinion, having come many miles to escape from clouds and rain; and when the weather conversation was afloat, we alone were silent and rejoicing. But alas! before very long it seemed as if our rejoicing was to be turned into mourning, for not only clouds, but rain came to damp our selfish joy. During the nights of the 25th and 26th Jul some showers fell in Garrison from the heavy masses of cloud that had for many nights previous, rolled over Cross Hill from Green Mountain, sadly interfering with astronomical work.
On the 17th the Observatory had been ready for duty; but no sooner were the instruments adjusted and some preliminary observations made, than the face of the heavens darkened and we began to fear. For five nights no work was done, and on many nights following only interrupted observations could be snatched from between the clouds. It was a treacherous sky, and I wasted much time in watching it. After shining upon us with unremitting fury for twelve burning hours, the sun would set over the sea in a wealth of flame, leaving the cloudless heavens flushed with a proud memory of his departed glory.
This pink after-glow is quickly succeeded by the sudden night of the "gloamingless" tropics, and as the blue-black vault o'erspanning us begins to sparkle with lesser suns, we long impatiently for Mars to rise over the crest of Cross Hill. But alas! from the birth-place of Mars a tiny white cloud arises no bigger than a man's hand. It looks soft and harmless enough at first, but while you watch, the snow-white mass gets streaked with grey as it lengthens across the sky, like some serpent monster gathering strength and darkness, in its course.
And Mars? We know he is behind that envious cloud, and. we watch for a rift. It comes: the sky seems cleansed by the trail of the serpent, so pure is it; and in the twinkling of an eye the telescope is turned on the planet. But to no purpose, for again a fleecy cloudlet peeps over Cross Hill, and, rushing swiftly onwards towards Mars, soon wraps him in a soft grey mantle, and again he is lost to us.
These "rifts in the clouds" were for me moments of intense excitement, and, knowing how many minutes were required for each measure, I watched sky and chronometer with aching eyes, dreading lest the advancing cloud should give too little time for any work, as it chased its predecessor across the sky. They were very beautiful too, these streaks of blue—so bright and pure—with Mars brighter and purer in their midst—like some noble river rolling between. snowclad mountains and wearing a diamond on her bosom.
Yet this lovely, changing sky I could not love, for empty pages, where figures should have been, lay open by the Heliometer; and my husband looked weary, while Graydon and I yawned in concert. Many hours, indeed whole nights, this went on, and sometimes the clouds followed each other so rapidly that no measures could be secured at all. Then I was seized with an insane desire to get beyond this nest of clouds. But it is not so easy to pick up a Heliometer and walk over a hill with it; and there really seemed nothing to be done, but to fold our hands in idleness and wait for the silver lining.