CHAPTER XII.

THE SEA-SHORE AND THE ROLLERS.

Blood-stained travellers. — A terrible highway. — South Point. — An unexpected path. — A lava forest. — An adventure with an Octopus. — A family party. — "The Twa Dogs." — Gannet Bay. — The coming of the Wide-awakes. — A good determination of the Sun's Distance. — The Rollers, what are they? — Captain Evans' theory. — Disappearance of the Rollers. — Centipedes in the cheese. — Off for a holiday.

A FEW days after the triple excitement of Mars, the Orontes, and the Mail, two blood-stained travellers arrived at our encampment towards sunset, with torn clothes and limping gait. At first sight of them I felt a thrill of alarm, but was soon relieved by a familiar voice calling out cheerily, "Halloo, Gill, we have not fallen among thieves, only upon the clinker—the horse bolted with us, made too free with the road, and a big bump threw us out on the top of each other."

Here was a thrilling tale wherewith to stir up our quiet life, and after hearing it in full detail I registered an inward vow, never to drive across the clinker with that horse. Our friends, happily, did not seem hurt, beyond a few bruises and some slight cuts about the arms, but these were enough to stain their torn sleeves and give them an air quite touching and heroic.

Of course there was considerable abuse of our thoroughfare, and we now heard for the first time, that the day the Orontes was in harbour, several of her officers, with two lady passengers, had set out with the intention of paying us a visit. But the bumping had been such as to bump a wheel off one cart; and some accident, I forget what, having happened to the other, the whole party was obliged to return to Garrison without having been able to reach our inaccessible retreat. We were sorry both for our intended guests and for ourselves, and began to fear that these repeated accidents would have the effect of deterring all but the most courageous spirits from seeking us out.

It was really a terrible highway,—as liable to rise ,and fall as the Stock Exchange,—cutting short the breath of the unlucky voyager with each sudden descent, and further blinding him with the flying ash, which rose in clouds as the clumsy cart-wheels chased the labouring horse across the lava plains. And yet I preferred this route to Garrison to going there by sea. The outward voyage was still fresh in my memory; and had a landway, as sorely beset with dust, ruts, and rocks as this road to Garrison, led back to England, I would have suffered the dust-staining and the bruising rather than be "rocked in the cradle of the deep."

I once read somewhere of three death-bed regrets of in old sage. "There are three things in my past life that I would recall," he said. "The first, that I ever told a secret to a woman; the second, that I ever let a day go by without bringing some good to pass; the third, that I once took a journey by sea when 1 might have gone by land." And I was fully resolved that my latter days should, at least, not be burdened with this last regret.

But to return from this digression, and à propos of roadways, one cloudy afternoon towards the end of September we discovered, in the course of our evening ramble, that a rough path led across the little tongue of land which I have already described as lying to the south of us. Ever since coming to Mars Bay I had looked at this forest of lava, and wondered whether it might be possible by any means to penetrate it, and so reach the twin bay on the other side. But the needlelike rocks were not encouraging, and it required some practice in clinker walking, before we could make up our minds to attempt it. However, on the afternoon in question we resolved to explore, and set out about 4 o'clock in a spirit of enterprise, and armed with our alpenstocks.

We entered tile rocky forest at what seemed the most accessible point, close to our shore, and then tried to steer eastward. After clambering a few yards, we noticed that in some places the sharp points of the rocks were broken off, and the hollows filled up with them, "just as if it were meant for a road," we remarked, never dreaming that this was other than chance. But as we proceeded, it became clear that a road had actually been made here; shadowy indeed, and we often lost it, but only to find it again at another turn. The, discovery affected us with something of the scared surprise that Robinson Crusoe felt at sight of the foot-prints on the sand.

A sudden brightening overhead caused us to change our intention of crossing South Point this afternoon; so by-and-by we turned southward towards the sea, hoping to catch a breeze as we climbed homeward along the coast from South Pyramid. There, in the stony forest, high rocks on every side kept off the wind, and now reflected the heat of the sun to a painful degree. This made them the reverse of pleasant travelling companions; nevertheless, they were very beautiful. Wonderful too, they were beyond description, and I so longed to know something of their story that I was almost cross because they gave me no "testimony."

The monotonous cinder-heap on which our encampment was pitched roused no admiration, and but little wonder. It was plainly volcanic refuse, dull and dead; but here, where we now stood, all the grandeur of Vulcan's monuments was around us, fresh as the day he moulded them, and fantastic as the dreams of any fire-worshipper. Here and there towered aloft great red masses of lava, soft and crumbling to the touch, and of whatever form the wilful fancy of the time had shaped them. Partly covering some of the harder rocks was a soft snowy substance—of what nature I know not. Closer to the shore these colours and all sharp, points disappeared, and the dark basaltic rocks stood alone in well-rounded outline.

One could see that they were swept at times to the very top by the restless waves, which were now dashing against their slippery sides with such violence as to send a shower of spray over us where we stood, some distance off, watching the grand contest between sea and land. Through some parts of the resisting wall the waves had cut passages for themselves, and came roaring under the rocky arches with a noise that made one wonder how the peaceful limpets and crayfish could put up with it.

For the first time I saw beauty in Ascension. Grim and joyless, but grand and majestic, were these gloomy rocks, trimmed round the base with delicately-tinted coral, their sternness veiled in feathery foam Millions of shell-fish covered the lower rocks, among which lurked lucid pools, lined with the wonderfully-constructed homes of their habitants.

While poking at a lovely shelf of pink coralline in one of these grottos, trying to dislodge it, I felt my stick suddenly pulled from my grasp. Thinking it must have got fixed among the stones in some way, I was about to put down my hand to disengage it, when to my horror I saw some ugly slimy tentacles wind themselves round my trusty staff, which was now the prey of a cuttle-fish. There was not the slightest occasion for it, of course; nevertheless, I screamed. This was no devil-fish of Victor Hugo dimensions; but so hideous was the creature, that disgust, not terror, possessed me. David, who was at a little distance exploring on his own account, concluded that I had at last sprained my ankle—an accident he had been threatening me with for some time—and ran quickly to my assistance.

"Only an octopus! We have seen many of these before."

"Yes, but only baby ones, who looked innocent enough to be gorged with crabs; this is a monster—a fiend!"

We stood watching him. Clearly my stick was not to his liking, for by-and-by he gradually unwound himself from it and sank sullenly down among the coral, looking, as before, like a tuft of harmless sea-weed. How I congratulated myself on not having trusted my hand under water! Had I done so, and had I been alone, I doubt not that this monster of ugliness would have cost me at least a limb, for I fear I should have lacked the strength and presence of mind to fling him off at once, before the "suckers" had seized firm hold—the only chance, I believe, of freeing one's self without hurt. David wished to secure our big octopus for future contemplation, and aimed at him a strong blow, hoping by chance to touch his vital part, but he only touched his spleen. Immediately on finding himself attacked, the creature emitted an inky fluid, which turned the clear pool dark as Styx, and under cover of this he made his escape, much to David's disappointment, and to my relief.

It was so fresh and cool and beautiful here by the sea, that we would fain have prolonged our stroll; but the sun was getting low, and it would have been a serious matter indeed to lose the daylight, with such an uncertain path before us, and so much starlight work to be done. No one that has not lived for many weeks in a lonely corner of the earth, with no variation in its dismal landscape but cloud and sunshine, daylight and darkness, can imagine my enjoyment of this new scene; and, notwithstanding aching feet, cut shoes, and tattered skirts, I felt eager to explore further another day, and to, follow the rough road to its end.

The nights succeeding "Opposition" had been wonderful, and each one filled many pages with Heliometer measures. All fear of failure having quite passed away, I felt it no treason to long for a cloudy afternoon, that we might with comfort extend our exploration into the unknown country.

It was not long before such a day arrived; and as Mars Bay was so fortunate as to have a lady visitor at this time, we made a pleasant little party on our second excursion. Only Sam was left behind; and Hill and Graydon, bearing between them a pickaxe and a basket for booty, were followed by Beauty and Rover—two important members of our household, whom I feel ashamed of never having mentioned before.

Poor Beauty was a sorry dog, with a coat lanky, stubbly, and grey; a rather imbecile expression of countenance, and a pathetic limp on a hind foot. She was affectionately attached to Hill, and so gentle-mannered, that we loved her soberly, and felt indignation against the facetious wit who had named the poor old thing Beauty. I doubt her personal attractions even in youth. But possibly she may have been a beauty in her day, just as every exceptionally ugly old woman reports herself to have been; and, perchance, she was once lithe and nimble, like old Argus in his youth.

Such was our Beauty; and I bring her before the curtain first, not so much with the idea of "Place aux dames," but for fear, lest, once fascinated in the enumeration of Rover's charms, I might have forgotten her.

Pretty little Rover! To you belongs the honour of being my first love in dogs. Not that I was the happy possessor of this fascinating poodle, but I took a great interest in his education, and shared the excitement of his washing-day with Graydon, who was his lawful master. Altogether he was too delicate a "beastie" for clinker life, and it cost us much trouble to keep him from rolling his silky snow-white coat in the black dust. This was especially annoying just after he had been washed, and there was great difficulty in finding a place where he would allow himself to dry cleanly.

At last we hit upon the roof of the Transit Hut, and there dear little Rover used to be perched aloft, whining and shivering, the picture of pathos and despair. Once indeed this plan had serious consequences. All the ceremony of washing and "hanging up" had been gone through one fine morning, and Rover was growing dryly content in his airy situation, when the astronomer bethought himself that a star must be observed. For this purpose he proceeded to the Transit Hut, threw open the roof with a jerk, and down slid poor Rover on the clinker, fortunately unhurt, but it was a great shock! and hereafter the master of the house had to be warned of the washing-days, and cautioned against a rash use of the drying-ground.

This account of Rover will show how unfit he was for our rough walk, and I strongly objected to his society oil the occasion. However Graydon undertook to carry him in the basket when he felt tired, and we all set out together, leaving no one to guard the Observatory but Sam and Polly—a most uninteresting parrot, belonging to Hill, whose days were spent entirely in eating and screaming.

We were able to find the path again with some trouble, and now followed it right across South Point to the bay oil the other side, where it terminated. Here we discovered, hidden among the black rocks, a lovely white coral-strewn beach, larger than we could boast of at Mars Bay; but being on the windward shore it formed no harbour. This the chart showed us was Gannet Bay, and we concluded that turtle must have come ashore here at some time, and that the path had been made to facilitate their transport to Garrison; but on afterwards talking the matter over with Captain Phillimore, he told us that the path had more probably been made while the island was being surveyed in the beginning of the century.

Upon the rocks within high-water mark we noticed a quantity of curious dark-green seaweed. This we afterwards learned was available for dyeing purposes ; but not being aware of its properties at the time, we did not press it into our booty basket; contenting ourselves with a variety of the delicately-tinted shells with which the beach was strewn, and some lovely corals. Indeed, on the homeward journey the basket became so full that poor Rover could find no nest in it.

"This is just the sort of ground they find diamonds in," David kept on saying as he plied the pickaxe; but all that our good fortune brought us was some curiosities in lava, ironstone, pumice, and one or two wonderful specimens of basalt, exactly like logs of charred wood without the bark. These, mixed with the bright coral, afterwards made a pretty rock-work at the door of our tent, besides giving me food for no end of speculation and wonder. For my Geology was only in its infancy, while my husband's was rusty from disuse; and we too often failed to make our imperfect book knowledge explain the teaching of our "Schools and Schoolmasters."

For some days we had noticed great flights of small dark-winged birds pass inland from the sea, and as we were returning from our excursion to Gannet Bay about sun-set, the sky was dark with them. Their cries were loud and continuous, reminding one strongly of the cawing of rooks.

"The Wide-awakes are coming back," said the men, and we were pleased to hear it, being anxious to see their renowned Fair before leaving Ascension. These "Wide-awakes" or "Tropical swallows," we had been told, come here in thousands, at irregular intervals, to deposit their eggs on some rocks near the centre of the island; and the noise and bustle they make in their nurseries at these times have given rise to the name "Wide-awake Fair."

Since our arrival in Ascension these pretty birds had been absent, and we now rejoiced to see them winging their flight back once more. Many hundred miles of ocean had the brave little travellers crossed, and, wondering whether they had found the sea-voyage as wearying as I had done, I longed to throw them a word of welcome to land. Every day they continued to come in great numbers until the 5th of October, and I daresay afterwards; but on that day we left our sea-side residence for a week's holiday on Green Mountain.

It was now a month since the Opposition of Mars, and he was fast receding from us, but not before satisfactory observations had been secured on thirty-two different evenings and twenty-five mornings,—enough to give a good determination of the sun's distance when all were fully and properly reduced. It now only remained to complete the triangulation (or rigid connection by measure) of the relative distances of the stars of comparison. That this could be accomplished easily we had no fear, because the process, being entirely independent of Mars and of the altitude at which the observations might be made, could be continued even till the month of February if required.

During the critical part of the work we had not been sensible of the amount of bodily fatigue undergone; but now that the nervous strain was relaxing, I could see how much my husband needed rest. As for me, I had been longing to go to the Mountain ever since I had seen a bunch of damp green ferns which had been gathered there, and so I hailed the holiday morning with a light heart.

We were obliged to take with us a good deal of household baggage, as the little mountain cottage we were to occupy was not very fully equipped, and I began to fear lest the rollers should prevent the boat from coming to our assistance.

During the five previous days they had been persistent, and for the first twelve hours their grandeur and power exceeded anything I had ever conceived. I thought I had seen rollers at their worst on the day we landed at Ascension, and again on the night of the eclipse, but these I now found were but baby rollers after all., The full-grown giants shook our little encampment like an earthquake, and the noise of their thunder deafened us. What a sight it was! My pen is quite powerless to describe it.

They fascinate one too, these mysterious rollers, and, watching them, we enjoyed our evening stroll along the shore even more than usual. Yet, each time that a great wave rose up twenty or thirty feet high, and came thundering along to dash itself to pieces on the beach, I shrank back with a sort of involuntary desire to flee the sight of the suicide.

Probably the mysterious nature of the rollers accounts in some degree for their fascination. They are still a puzzle to science; they still afford food for speculative theory; and it is a relief sometimes to be able to wonder and admire without being required to understand. This is treason to Science, I am told, and the ignoble escape of a weak mind from the School of Knowledge to the Playground of Imagination!

This may be, still I loved the rollers all the more that they kept their parentage and birthplace secret, fancying I could see in them a dash of saucy defiance as they sprang up, the one after the other, from the mysterious sea.

Many theories have, of course, been set forth with regard to them by men who endeavour to arrive at first causes. Some have attributed them to the effects of the moon—

"Whom Ocean feels through all his countless waves,
  And owns her power on every shore he laves;"         

some to distant gales of wind; some to tides; others to earthquakes; but the most ingenious theory I have heard is that of Capt. Evans, Hydrographer of the Navy.

In the antarctic regions near the South Pole, there are formed in the winter huge masses of ice,—not mere icebergs, but continents of ice, following a coast-line of some hundreds of miles. In the summer these become loosened by the heat of the sun, and doubtless detach themselves in enormous masses, the length of which is measured by many miles. Such masses, falling into the sea, displace enormous volumes of water, and thus a great submarine wave is created. This wave propagates itself northward, invisible on the surface, till, encountering a sloping obstacle, like that of the submarine side of Ascension or St. Helena, it rushes up the face of the land and causes a breaker to rise from the calm sea, having all the characteristics of the roller.

I like this theory, and am glad to say that I have not yet heard it explained away.

Another writer on Ascension rollers describes their appearance in language so truthful and forcible that I take the liberty of quoting his words. Mr. Webster says,—"One of the most interesting phenomena that the island affords is that of the rollers, in other words a heavy swell, producing a high surf on the leeward shore of the island, occurring without any apparent cause. All is tranquil in the distance, the sea breeze scarcely ruffles the surface of the water, when a high swelling wave is suddenly observed rolling towards the island. At first it appears to move slowly forward, till at length it breaks on the outer reefs. The swell then increases, wave urges on wave until it reaches the beach, where it bursts with tremendous fury. The rollers now set in and augment in violence until they attain a terrific and awful grandeur, affording a magnificent sight to the spectator, and one which I have witnessed with mingled emotions of terror and delight—a towering sea rolls forward on the island like a vast ridge of waters, threatening, as it were, to, envelope it, pile on pile succeeds with resistless force, until, meeting with the rushing offset from the shore beneath, they rise like a wall and are dashed with impetuous fury on the long line of the coast, producing a stunning noise. The beach is now mantled over with foam, the mighty waters sweep over the plain, and the very houses at the town are shaken by the fury of the waves. But the principal beauty of the scene consists in the continuous ridge of water crested on its summit with foam and spray; for as the wind blows off the shore the over-arching top of the wave meets resistance and is carried as it were back against the curl of the swell; and thus it plays elegantly above it, as it rolls furiously onward, graceful as a bending plume; while to add more to its beauty, the sunbeams are reflected from it in all the varied tints of the rainbow. Amid the tranquillity which prevails around, it is a matter of speculation to account for this commotion of the waters, as great as if the most awful tempest or the wildest hurricane had swept the bosom of the deep. It occurs in situations where no such swell would be expected, in sheltered bays, and where the wind never reaches the shore. The strong and well-built jetty of the town has once been washed away by the rollers, which sometimes make a complete breach over it, although it is twenty feet above high watermark. On these occasions the crane at its extremity is washed round in various directions, as the weathercock is turned by the wind. Such are the rollers of Ascension, and like unto them are those of St. Helena and Fernando Noronha."

Some Ascension observers undertake to say that the rollers are heaviest when the sun is in the northern hemisphere, and when storms and gales are reported in the South Atlantic in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn. I am not able to say whether this be so, but from notes we made at Mars Bay, it is evident that the rollers come up from the south, and we were able to warn the people in Garrison some hours before they made their appearance in the harbour.

We fancied that with rollers we generally had clear weather, so that as a rule we hailed their appearance with joy. But on this, the occasion of our holiday, we were willing to dispense with them, and after having packed the bulk of our goods over-night, to be ready for the boat in the morning, it was a relief when I awoke to hear on the soft murmuring of the lapping tide. Whither had they gone? Even in anxious watching for the turtle-boat, again and again I caught myself inventing fables, and forgetting to decide how many forks and spoons should go to the Mountain, and whether or not we ought to take preserved milk and cheese.

The question of the cheese, I may remark, by the way, settled itself at the last moment, without any trouble on my part. Indecision fled at the sound of "Please, ma'am, the centipedes have made a nest in the cheese!" So the wild cats had a tasty crumb thrown to them to console them for our absence, and no cheese went to the Mountain.

Long before the boat arrived, the sea was so calm that delicate china or even a Heliometer-tube, might have been taken off in the dingey without much excitement on the part of anxious owners; and our rough consignment of household gear was soon on board, with Hill and Sam in charge, en route for Garrison. We ourselves remained until the cool of the evening and then walked across the clinker to meet the appointed cart, leaving Graydon, Rover, and Polly, for the time, monarchs of all they surveyed.


Chapter XIII