A gloomy Home-coming. — A wet Sunday. — Our tents. — "Sam again." — Mail-day. — Setting the House in order. — "Hard-backs." — Watchful Nights and Weary Days. — Sam versus Graydon. — Scarcity of Water. — Good Samaritans. — An Eclipse of the Moon. — Our Cooking-tent by Night. — Guests at Mars Bay.
IT was a gloomy home-coming. I was tired and cross, and the skies were angry too. Clouds were thicker and heavier than I had ever seen them in Garrison; and not even the news of a complete measurement of Mars on the previous night, could remove the heavy weight of fog that had settled on me and Mars Bay. My bright vision of a land where skies were always blue was bidding me farewell, and the parting was grievous. To be sure the tents were much improved since my former visit, and altogether there was now a good foundation on which to build comfort; but I looked at everything through the fog, having, unfortunately, lost my couleur-de-rose spectacles for the time, and I felt that I should not find them until I had seen Mars.
No observations were possible that night, and next day—Sunday, it rained heavily. This was the first wet day we had experienced in Ascension, and the first we had ever spent under canvas. Our tent doors of course -faced windward, and a tepid shower-bath roused us early in the morning.
The bedroom-tent was now floored with undressed planks. The ropes were well secured to the ground by iron pegs, driven into the clinker, the usual wooden pegs having no hold here. An ample mosquito net protected the bed; and a military chest of drawers, an iron wash-stand, a bath, and a couple of wicker chairs completed the furnishing. Not quite, by-the-bye. I have forgotten to mention the little foot-square mirror, set in the remnants of a mahogany frame, and the glass of which was certainly not an optical plane. This exasperating piece of furniture was hung on the tent pole, rather high for my convenience; and what with having to keep out of the rain, and stand a-tiptoe to catch an occasional glimpse of a distorted image, who shall blame me if my toilet this morning was somewhat awry?
A walk of thirty yards over the rocks and under an umbrella, brought me to the dining-room in search of breakfast. The last time I was here, a large uncurtained marquee did duty for salle-à-manger, but now a bell-tent had been pitched beneath it, forming a double tent with a verandah between, the inner and outer tents, and protecting us on this wet Sunday from the rain, as it did from the sun on many hot days to come. Here there were no planks to walk upon; only concrete, not yet dry, and coming off sticky on my skirts. Breakfast was laid on a deal table covered by a very damp tablecloth, and there was a sort of chilliness, even in the heat, which made the cooking-tent the pleasantest part of the establishment this morning. It also had a concrete floor, which the heat of the little stove had somewhat hardened and made pleasant to walk upon.
Sam had spent the night curled up in a packing-box, very close to the stove, poor fellow! Hill also had slept near the scene of his future labours, and Graydon's hammock swung in the Heliometer House. Rather to my surprise, and very much to my relief, I found the men contented and cheerful. All Hill's incipient rebellion had disappeared, and he was now busy preparing breakfast with his usual skill and deftness.
Let those who find long wet Sundays depressing in Scotland, pity us on this wet Sunday in Ascension, with no cosy chimney nook to take refuge in, and with all the restlessness of disappointment and expectation upon us. Lava rocks may be more comfortable to walk upon under leaden skies, and tents cooler when rain-soaked, but the sun does much to lessen the loneliness of barren nature, and I think one never feels so utterly and so miserably shut out from the warmth and geniality of the world, as when a crawling mist draws itself slowly round the horizon—narrowing, ever narrowing, till you seem to feel it creep into your flesh, and stifle you with its heavy breath. To-day it was the world of Mars that we grieved most at being shut .out from; nevertheless we rejoiced that since cloud and mist did come, they brought rain with them, and we hoped soon to hear of a rise in the water-tanks.
In the evening my husband read prayers to our little household in the Heliometer House. By this time the rain had ceased, but the mist still bung low in the east, and the setting sun, now free from cloud, threw a strong red light on the lava rocks immediately around, bringing out their rugged lines in sharp contrast to the distant mist-covered mountain. The sea dashed against the land at our feet with a surly growl, and dark-winged birds whirled overhead, uttering shrill cries. Altogether it was a melancholy, chilling scene, and made one, without knowing why, think longingly and lovingly of home, with its bright firesides, and restful church-going Sundays.
Do what I would to keep my thoughts from wandering, a certain little Scotch strath would rise up before my eyes, blotting out with its gentle loveliness the wild, lonely, lava hills around us. I was no longer in a canvas-covered tent, but surrounded by our dear ones at home, in an old grey church, standing in its quiet God's acre. The mental journey was very pleasant, and I fear my wandering thoughts were brought, back to reality not by any effort of their own.
A check was given to their wool-gathering by a rapid movement of Sam's right foot in a hasty attempt to, crush some offending or unoffending insect, that had incautiously come under his notice. The intent wag arrested, however, by a severe glance from Hill, and Sam relapsed into solemnity.
Poor Sam! I ever look back on him as a cheerful element in our Ascension life. His oddities and droll sayings furnished us with continual amusement; and when we heard peals of laughter issuing from the kitchen-tent in the quiet evenings, we used to say to ourselves, "Sam again."
Most unexpectedly the sky cleared after sunset on Sunday evening, and a good set of observations was obtained; so the night was brighter to us than the day had been, in every sense of the word.
On Monday a crushing sense of neglected correspondence came upon us, and we could no longer yield to procrastination. As yet, no English mail had gone from, or come to Ascension since our arrival, nearly five weeks ago. Indeed, we had brought the last news from England with us on the 15th of June; but now the August mail day was imminent, and I had made no preparation as to letters. Not one had I written, less from want of time than from want of will;, for, though not exactly like an American lady of my acquaintance, who only writes when she is in good spirits, I was loth to send letters full of uncertainty and worry to friends at home, who, I knew, would open them full of anxiety for good news. I could not bear to disappoint them, so I put off writing in the hope of being able to write more cheerfully, and thus I overburdened the last days before the mail.
I rather think too, that David had got into a like mess with his correspondence. At all events, pens, ink, and paper were in great request with us for three long, hot—very hot afternoons; and much as I longed for the mail to bring us English news, I was somewhat lazy to give it our Ascension news in return. However, we wrote busily, and on Wednesday the 15th, our letter-bag went off with a report to the Astronomical Society of four complete determinations of the Parallax of Mars. Not by any means such a favourable account of our work as we should have liked to send, but better than at one time we had dared to hope for; and now that the best in our power had been done, we were more patient to wait for the future, and almost satisfied with the present.
On the morning after our letters had been dispatched, David was busy with hammer and saw, making me a work-table out of some odds and ends of undressed planks, and I was toiling, hot and awkward, "getting up" the first week's wash, when Hill interrupted our labours with the welcome news, "Please, sir, the mail." Down went hammer and saw; down went the flat-iron and burned a hole in my pet collar.
Those unhappy people, who have the misfortune to hear the postman's daily knock, will not be able to realise the intense excitement and delight of mail-day after a newsless lapse of two months. It was really worth waiting for; every little item had gathered interest from every salt wave it had crossed, and each home name had won a sweeter tone from each hour of silence. How often I read these letters I know not, nor should I like to tell how much time I devoted to the perusal of the newspapers.
All the male population was aglow for war news, and I tried to be interested, but could feel little sympathy with Turk or Russian, while the tales told of both were so horrible, that I sickened as I read, and felt thankful that the din of battle came across the sea to us with a muffled sound.
After the excitement of mail-day was over, I set about putting my house in order in right good earnest, having been able hitherto to do so only by snatches. Outside, great improvement had already been made by our servants and a party of Kroomen. The difficulty of getting from one tent to another over loose clinker stones was at first very great, and my shoes were sadly cut and torn in the process. But now, Hill and Graydon had removed many of these stones and established a branch system of little paths running from door to door, which the Kroomen filled up with beautiful white sand from the beach. The benefits of this work were manifold. It saved shoes and feet, showed a safe path at night, and, best of all, laid the dust to some extent; for wh at I have called sand is not really so, but minute fragments of shells and other disintegrated marine matter, worn very fine by the action of the waves, and too heavy to be stirred by the wind; hence the advantage of burying our dust in it.
Outside our bell dining-tent, and within the shade of the larger marquee, I had the vacant space covered with this sand, and, when bordered on either side by pretty pink and white shells, it made quite a grotto-like verandah. Here too, we swung our hammock—a thoughtful gift from the officers of the Cygnet—and, after having learned the art of getting into and out of it without disaster, this nest became to me the happy scene of—shall I confess it? I am afraid; for it is almost as great a crime in the eyes of our lords and masters (except when they indulge in it themselves), as "five o'clock tea," and it is almost as tempting and bewitching. Have you ever tried in the tropics, O æsthetic friend, an afternoon siesta?
With this sand-covered verandah for protection, I now ventured to get out books, cushions, chintz table-covers, and other signs of civilization, and, when the concrete floor "set," our verdict on the dining-room at Mars Bay was, "Why! it is the nicest, coolest little resting nook in the world, and we mean to be very happy in it."
A white sanded path now led to the kitchen, which stood to the north of the dining-tent, and sufficiently near for Hill to hear me clap my hands when I wished to call him. To south-east stood the Transit Hut; on a rocky knoll a little farther in the same direction, the Heliometer House, and just below it, our bedroom; all within a radius of thirty yards.
On pretty high ground, intersected with our smooth white paths, and placed as we were close to the sea, our encampment must have been an object of some interest and curiosity to passing ships. No one else saw us except the wild goats and donkeys looking down from Green Mountain. It was pleasant work improving our little kingdom, although I knew we never could make it look very pretty; still it grew in comfort if not in beauty, and we soon ceased to regret Garrison.
The first thing, that conduced greatly to our comfort, was a wholesale slaughter of insects with carbolic acid. Not that we, by any means, extirpated them, for the ugly little "hardbacks" still dropped from the tent roof upon our heads and crawled over cups and plates unharmed and defiant of us; but they were quite harmless, and we had no stinging pests. I did not see In ore than half-a-dozen musquitoes during the whole time we stayed here—thanks to the drought; and the numerous many-legged creatures that we called centipedes did not bite like members of the real family—of these only one was ever encountered, and that was before my arrival. Wherever they found a quiet shelter flies did much abound; but the Heliometer House, standing high and full in the wind, was comparatively free from them; so there we made our study, by day as well as by night, and if the skies had been less uncertain, we should now have been perfectly contented with our lot.
But watchful nights made weary days, and it was hard work to keep energy and hope alive. My husband had the first watch each night; then I took his place in the morning, to call him on the least appearance of blue sky; and in this way I do not think that a single opportunity of observation was lost. It was really no hardship to be abroad during these lovely nights. The stillness of the earth charmed the soul into a priceless peace, while "From the door of a tent the only splendour came from the mysterious, inaccessible stars." The cool air was delightful in its freshness, and I used to feel less sleepy here by night than when the fierce sun of noonday shone -upon us with all his stupefying power.
Properly speaking, Graydon was our night watch, and he did his best to keep awake, poor fellow; but failure on one or two occasions weakened our faith. Sleep is a tyrant not to be conquered in every case by anxiety about the sun's parallax.
Sam's great fear was, lest he should be told off for night duty, and Graydon, who was rather given to teazing him, used to threaten him with a watch sometimes. But Sam began to see the joke, and fairly turned the tables upon his tormentor. "Well then I watch for Da-da, and you go Garrison to catch beef!" said Sam one day with a grin, knowing well a sailor's disrelish for a long land tramp.
Indeed, not many would have liked Sam's walk three times a-week, across the clinker, to fetch our fresh meat and bread; no light load, for he brought the men's rations, and all sorts of little commissions besides. But Sam had no notion of such things as time, weight and distance. He got up with the sun, went to bed with the sun; when the sun was hottest he ate his "pepper soup" and stale fish, and troubled himself about nought beside.
Over and above Sam's trips to Garrison' Our commissariat was further supplied by a weekly boat. Every Wednesday the "turtle boat" brought us water, canteen stores, &c.; but we soon found that its punctual arrival must not be depended on, owing to the rollers which so often disturbed our little bay. On the second Wednesday of our stay no boat could land, and my first inquiry was with regard to the state of the water casks. "Only water to last till Saturday," Hill told me; so I had to order all plate and glass washing, and all "swabbing out" to be done rigorously with salt water; the precious fresh fluid to be used only for drinking, and that sparingly.
I had no tea that afternoon, so I remember it as a Black Letter Day, for even Ascension tea is better than none. This supply of water had been condensed for us by the Cygnet, and was tolerably good for all purposes except tea-making; but experience had taught me, that no condensed water ever succeeds in bringing out the subtle "bouquet" of the cheering cup. Hence, at Mars Bay, life was robbed of one' of its choicest joys! Oh, for a Scotch mist! Oh, for a babbling brook or a "brimming river" to fill my tea-pot once again! Thus I apostrophized the Fates, as I waited for the turtle boat with her water-casks. But the rollers continued, and she came not.
Next day, Captain Phillimore paid us a visit by land, to ascertain how long our stores could hold out against the besieging rollers; and he brought more than kind inquiries, for he carried some fresh meat for us across the clinker in case of our utmost need. Capt. Hammick, who accompanied him, brought me two gills of milk in a soda-water bottle. What a recherché luncheon we had, and how we blessed our Samaritan guests! Another day, and again no boat, but we were well provisioned—there was still water to last twenty-four hours, and Captain Phillimore had promised to send a mule with a small cask of water on Saturday, if the rollers continued.
Thus my mind was sufficiently tranquil to enjoy the beauty of the unquiet waters. Fearful and wonderful they looked; and, the more to increase the grandeur of the scene, that night there was a total eclipse of the moon. The sky was not obscured, but flecked here and there with heavy billows of dark cloud, one of which entirely covered Green Mountain, and cast a misty shadow on Gannet Hill. The moon was unclouded and threw a yellow light over the sea, turning the white breakers livid as they lashed the black rocks with a terrible roar.
It was truly a grand sight to look upon, but somehow it made one long for the sound of a human voice, and as David was in the Observatory, I was glad to turn into the kitchen-tent, with the excuse of asking Hill to come and look at the moon. I found him comfortably seated on an upturned cask, reading a very yellow novel by the light of a ship's lanthorn, his little bed neatly covered with a Union Jack. In the background Sam was peacefully sleeping the sleep of the hard-worked, curled up in his packing-case. Altogether it was an "interior" hardly less striking than was the landscape without—illumined then by the dusky light of the eclipsed moon, and could I have used the artist's brush, "Our cooking-tent by night" would have afforded a good subject.
The following day our little bay became less excited, and towards noon we heard the welcome cry, "A boat in sight!" Yes! there she was, tacking boldly against the wind, and by-and-by grappling in the surf for the buoy, which she caught with difficulty. Besides the water-casks, she brought us two officers of the Cygnet, who had come to say good bye, their ship being under orders to sail next day.
Guests at Mars Bay were much appreciated, and to-day we had quite a merry party; none the less so that it was unexpected and knives and forks were rather scarce. Neither did we take it amiss if our guests turned up their plates for critical examination before using them, and wiped out the glasses with their table-napkins. It was simply an act of necessity in this part of the world, and the habit grew so strong on us that we began to be afraid that, on our return to civilization, we might some day, in an absent mood, offend a dainty Scotch housewife by following the Mars Bay fashion at her table.
After a very pleasant day, we went to the beach before sunset to speed our parting guests. They experienced much delay and difficulty in starting, owing to the freaks of a treacherous wave, which, in the first place, lifted the dingey high and dry on the beach, and then, when the passengers got on board, refused to come back to float them off! This necessitated all jumping on shore again, and that was just the very moment the mischievous roller seized upon to bear off the dingey unfreighted. Then there was a rush, with the result of wet feet; and our adieux were mingled, if not with tears, at least with much salt water!