CHANGE AND CHECK.
Rooted up. — A strange procession. — "Sister Anne! Sister Anne! do you see anybody coming?" — Good news. — Mars Bay. — The Heliometer and the Kroomen. — All's well that ends well. — A solitary palm. — My first sight of Mars Bay. — Clinker flooring. — Roller fever. — At work again. — Sam and Fetish. — My second coming to Mars Bay.
AT daybreak on the 1st of August, David was hard at work with the men, dismantling the snug little Observatory. Again the sound of tools was heard outside Commodore's Cottage, but not, it seemed to me, with the same pleasant ring, and I longed to run away somewhere beyond the noise. However, I had fortunately little time to indulge in fancies. Camp gear, stores, earthenware, glass, kitchen utensils, everything must be packed before 3 P.M., and stowed on board the steam-launch in readiness to sail at 6 o'clock the following morning.
I often wonder how we got it done. I think it must have been, not only by the zealous assistance of officers and men, but by the stimulus we ourselves received from the invigorating atmosphere of sympathy and good will which surrounded us. At all events, before sunset, Commodore's Cottage was ruthlessly plundered of such of its contents as would fit our camp, and the croquet ground again stood empty as we had found it. I felt "rooted up" and miserable; but without a doubt that we were on the right way. So, to cover my nervousness and restlessness, I went to bed.
Next morning, as the sun rose, a rare procession passed down the coast. A steam-launch, with Captain Phillimore and David on board, towed along two well-laden lighters and a sailing pinnace, and carried, moreover, quite a tail of little surf-boats, or "dingeys." The busy trade-wind had sunk almost into a dead calm, the sea seemed still asleep, everything was in favour of an easy landing, and I felt hopeful, though anxiety made the hours seem long while I waited for news. I could neither read nor write, nor did idle musing soothe me, so I made believe to mend a pair of gloves, and ever after, when I wore them, I was wont to trace the anxious thoughts sewn in with every stitch. I take some pride in glove mending, but this pair shows many weak stitches, and sad botching, just where I threw them down in disgust, and, bidding patience good-bye, put on my hat and walked into the noon-day sun.
"Sister Anne! Sister Anne! do you see anybody coming?" "No!" That movement far off among the clinker is only the rising of the heated air, trembling over the burning stones. That grating sound is not of wheels, nor is it the crack of a distant whip. It is only the morning gossip among these chattering grasshoppers. But at last, and sooner than I had any right to expect it, there was really the sound of wheels, and good news was brought to me. Everything had been landed without a scratch, the foundation of the Heliometer House was already laid, and the new harbour thus established, had been christened by Captain Phillimore "Mars Bay."
On the following morning another procession wended its way from Garrison to Mars Bay—this time by land. It consisted of sixteen Kroomen, bearing the Heliometer-tube, Transit and other instruments. The Heliometer box was lashed to a mast and set out oil its perilous journey, borne on the shoulders of eight Kroomen—four in front and four behind. The other eight carried the lighter boxes and acted as a reserve. Strong stalwart fellows they were, looking like so many pillars sculptured in black marble; and we saw them start with something like confidence.
Soon my husband followed in the vehicle (which by this time I had discovered it was legitimate to call a cart), but what was his horror, on overtaking the procession, to find that these faithless bearers had unswung the box, and were coolly carrying it on their heads. This mode of transport looked most unsafe, and he remonstrated, but to no purpose. "Krooboy must carry thing on him head—he no can carry with pole—get tired." And so the trembling astronomer was fain to be content for the first part of the way, but when the plain was past and the clinker appeared, his patience gave way; he could bear it no longer. The box was accordingly lashed to the mast again, amid some grumbling at first, but it soon passed off, and a few kind words made the shining black faces as genial as ever. Then, with slow and careful steps, and with much laughing and chattering, the precious thing was borne over the rocks in safety, and when at last Mars Bay was reached, its tired guardian sighed out in his relief, "All's well that ends well."
Two busy days followed. On the third all the labour of construction was over, and our marines were able to enjoy their Saturday half-holiday in Garrison.
Only three days to pull down, transport, and re-erect an Observatory, in the face of every difficulty that land and water could offer! The seemingly impossible had been accomplished, and yet no observing weather had been lost; for during the three nights that the Heliometer had lain in its case tile sky had been cloudy at Garrison; while, still further to increase our satisfaction, the men at Mars Bay reported clear skies at the New Station.
David had meantime taken up his abode at the new Observatory, but as yet I had seen nothing of it; so, when Captain Phillimore kindly invited me to drive there with him this Saturday afternoon, I gladly accepted his invitation. I was burning with curiosity, and, as David intended to spend Sunday in the wilderness, I was anxious to see what comfort he could have. Little enough, 1 knew; but with the comfort of clear skies he would not much miss any other comfort.
It was a dazzling, dusty afternoon, and the sun was yet shining in full strength when we left Garrison for Mars Bay. I now saw by the light of day the road I had followed on the night of my expedition, and I thought the darkness had covered much that might have cooled my courage. It was an ugly road, and yet well-favoured compared to what was to follow.
One object along our route I must mention, for it struck me pleasurably with a sense of freshness after a month's residence on Ascension. Actually a tree! A single palm stood erect in solitary dignity on a rocky ridge by the sea, and its grand outline was bold against the sky. A type, it seemed, of life in the midst of death, and the sight of this monarch of the East reigning alone, here on the parched desert, without a peer, without a subject even, filled me with wonder and pity. I wondered how he had sprung into life on this barren shore, and I pitied him, as Moore pities the "Last Rose of Summer." Truly this old palm was left blooming alone, and no future summer was likely to give new life to his dead companions.
No other sign of vegetation was to be seen along this road of ruts, but I espied, as an object of interest, the cairn of clinker which marked the termination of my voyage of discovery, and it showed plainly that, by keeping too close to the sea, I had run into the clinker sooner than I need have done. Captain Phillimore directed our course slightly eastward, and, amid a blinding shower of yellow dust, we drove between Saddle Crater and Round Hill, two red cinder heaps, each about 150 feet high. We then tied the horse to the first outlier of clinker and proceeded on foot. But instead of following the winding watercourse, where precipitous masses of clinker cut off every breath of wind, we took a short cut across the rocks, which, Eke most short cuts, proved to be longer than the orthodox way. After a mile (I thought it was three) of climbing, leaping, stumbling, scrambling, I reached the Observatory, hot and breathless, with torn shoes and skirts, and a considerably ruffled temper.
We found David, who was surprised to see us, adjusting his Heliometer, and he hoped to have it ready for use that night. This was cheering so far, but the surroundings were the reverse. I am at a loss how to convey to anyone who has not seen it, an idea of what sort of flooring clinker makes. Imagine the neighbourhood of a great iron foundry strewn with the accumulated slag of years—some of it in rough compact masses of various sizes—some reduced by the action of time into a fine powder, ready to be stirred into a cloud with every breath of wind.
Such was the ground-work upon which one had to make things comfortable at Mars Bay, and I felt very miserable to think that my husband must spend Sunday in such a place, without even the consolation of a companion to share his discomfort. However, he did not consider companionship a consolation under the circumstances, and would not allow me to stay with him, much as I wished it. So I seized upon Sam, to help me to do what little could be done to straighten matters in the short time that Captain Phillimore could remain.
There was no hope of improving the condition of the tents, floorless and curtainless as they were. The bed, chairs, boxes, &c., inclined at all angles among the rocks, in vain attempts to reach their proper level; and it seemed to me that the less unpacking done, the better for the goods and chattels, because of the fine dust which settled thick upon everything. So, after Sam had swept out the Transit Hut (which had a wooden flooring) with the stiff straw case of a claret bottle, we decided that here the bedroom must be, notwithstanding an unsightly brick pillar in the centre, newly built and smelling of mortar. It made by no means a dainty bower when our best was done, but the intending occupant was charmed with it.
After many injunctions to Sam, who was as yet the only member of the household staff here, I had to return to my drawing-room in Garrison, feeling like a Dresden China figure, and content myself with the promise that I should be allowed to come and take up my permanent abode at Mars Bay when the tents were floored and properly pegged to the ground.
I spent a too comfortable Sunday at Commodore's Cottage, and was not lonely, thanks to the kindness of my neighbours; but I had many anxious thoughts about the success of the new settlement. I feared lest in escaping one trouble we had fallen upon a worse—I doubted whether our health would bear this gipsy life under such a sun, and I felt how useless cloudless skies would be to a sick astronomer.
On Monday morning David came to breakfast with me at Commodore's Cottage, bringing good news of the skies, but a miserable tale of domestic experiences. He was ill, I could see, but perhaps only from fatigue; for he had worked almost uninterruptedly for three days and three nights, and, instead of being able to rest during Sunday, he had suffered from a plague of flies, which left him not a moment's peace. His food was so plentifully seasoned with clinker dust, that be could hardly touch it; and the condensed water, from standing in the sun, tasted flat and unrefreshing. An old sprain in the knee too, felt hot and uncomfortable; and all this made him fear that, consistent with health, life at Mars Bay was impossible. Rather than risk it, he would undergo the fatigue of a journey across the clinker every day, so as to have the comfort of a flyless rest and a dustless meal in Garrison.
On hearing of this dismal state of things, Captain Phillimore, with his usual kindness, gave orders that one of the donkeys, which were loose on the clinker, should be caught for my husband's use, and undertook in the meantime to drive him to and from his work, as far as the horse and cart could go. This again made things smooth, and I confess to having felt an intense relief in the prospect of remaining in the cottage. Not that I feared the discomfort of the tents, but I feared the sun, the water, and my cook. Hill had worn the expression of a martyr ever since this move was contemplated, and, having undertaken the journey on foot once, vowed flatly that he would never do it again. I had seen rebellion armed to the teeth, and desertion threatening in the distance, so I felt helped out of a, difficulty, and "thanked my stars."
But my stars were not long propitious. On Tuesday morning, when the cart from Mars Bay came in sight, there was no David, only Graydon in his place. I felt cold and sick, for I knew well what had happened before I heard the miserable words, "Mr. Gill is very unwell, ma'am, and his knee is bad." A pencil note told me that he was only very much exhausted, and would come round with the turtle boat in the evening for a few days' rest, as be did not feel able for work. But the idea of his remaining in that wretched place till evening was intolerable to me, especially as my cross-examination of Graydon brought out the fact that during the night he had fallen off his observing chair, from giddiness and faintness.
In my distress, I went to ask the doctor to drive out with me at once; but be proposed, as a better plan, to send one of his assistants alone, assuring me, that some carpenters, at work at Mars Bay that day, would carry my husband across the clinker without delay, and he could be brought back in the cart much more comfortably if I remained behind. I knew be was right, yet it was a struggle to give in, and I don't think I ever spent a more anxious morning. I was -full of self-reproach. Knowing well my husband's zeal and utter disregard of his health when work was to be done, I had not urged him to rest. I began to see that over-anxiety about the "Opposition of Mars" had blinded us both, and for me there was the less excuse, as I ought to have been attending to more sublunary matters. I also bitterly regretted having been persuaded to stay in Garrison during Sunday, while David was being deprived of the rest he so much needed, from causes that I could, in some measure at least, have obviated, had I been with him.
It was indeed a miserable morning. The workman sick from over-work, and the work yet to be done! With this load on his mind I feared recovery would be slow, and I felt mentally and physically unfit to nurse him. Sympathy has its disadvantages, and too much of it between nurse and patient I hold to be a misfortune. However, I did my best to be cheerful when my husband at last arrived, and tried not to show how much I feared that his illness at this critical time would be fatal to the success of the work. The doctor's visit was a great relief. On examination, the aching knee was found to be swollen and inflamed, but not dislocated as I had feared; and the sickness was pronounced to be a slight local fever called "The Rollers," brought on, in this case, by over-fatigue and exposure to the sun. The news that a few days of perfect rest was all that was required gave me good heart, and everybody's kindness helped us through these dreary days, when, for the first time we rejoiced in cloudy nights, and there is little doubt that they contributed much to my patient's speedy recovery.
On the fourth day he was fit for work, and only one clear night had been lost. But the continued lameness obliged us to abandon the idea of his making the daily journey to and from the work, and we now saw that it would be necessary to live at Mars Bay, at least for a time.
Consequently, on the 10th of August, David, accompanied by Hill and Graydon, set sail once more for Mars Bay, and this time he took with him such things as his short, but unfortunate, experience had taught him were necessaries of life on the clinker. A supply of mosquito net and a water-filter he had found to be essential; and fortunately the canteen was able to furnish the former, and the hospital the latter.
It so happened that I was not able to leave Garrison that day, so I retained Sam as watch-dog, hoping he would give me the protection of his presence in the deserted Commodore's Cottage. "Oh yes, me take care of you, ma," said Sam, boldly; but alas! his courage sank with the sun, and, when darkness came on, he begged to be allowed to go to Krootown (as the Kroo quarters are called), because, "me 'fraid Fetish, ma," and so my valiant guard fled with all the speed a pair of bare heels was capable of; leaving me all night to the tender mercies of "Fetish." I remained undisturbed, however, and next morning we journeyed along the rough road that I had climbed before, to join the rest of the household; but instead of Faith and Hope, I had, this time, Fear and Trembling for travelling companions.