CHAPTER XVI.

TRIPS FROM GARDEN COTTAGE.

In search of Silver Ore Run. — The Wrong Road. — Empty water-courses. — Jimmy Chivas. — The Mountain Hospital. — The Mountain Cemetery. — The "Ingle Neuk." — Excursion to Weather-Post. — Cricket Valley. — A gorse bush. — Caught in the fog. — Boatswain Bird Island. — Ascension game. — A novel drinking cup. — The end of the holiday. — The wizard-wanded mist. — Mars Bay and work again.

AFTER our curiosity respecting wells, pipes, drips, and tanks, had been pretty well satisfied, the crater-exploring mania seized us again; and one fine afternoon my husband and I, accompanied by Mrs. Phillimore, set out for "Cricket Valley," one of the mysterious basins lying among the plateaux on the eastern part of the island. David had walked there the day before, and had picked up in one of the furrows or runs near the valley, some beautiful specimens of carbonate of iron, the bright sparkle of which has given to the spot where they are found, the name of the "Silver Ore Run."

It was this silver that we now went in search of. Making use of Jimmy Chivas alternately, Mrs. Phillimore and I followed David round the north side of the mountain along what we confidently supposed to be Elliot's Path. But we now found, that when Elliot's Path gets round to the north side of the mountain, it becomes Rupert's Path—in honour of some other admiral, no doubt—and with the effect of needlessly complicating the geography of the little island. However, it is the same narrow mountain way with a new name; and along Rupert's Path we now proceeded towards Cricket Valley, admiring as we went the rock-hewn gulleys sliding from our feet down to the plain below, and hiding in their deep gloom aloes and banana trees.

By-and-by we struck off northward from the main peak, across the shoulder on which stands North-east Cottage. This tiny dwelling, intended for a shepherd, was tenantless, and was by no means so bright and homelike as it had appeared to us in the distance. The broad ridge behind it could no longer, by any stretch of imagination, be called a meadow—still it was grassy almost as much as stony, and that was an advantage not to be despised. On the south side of this ridge two furrows ran eastward. Here I saw our guide look doubtful, and he ended by choosing the wrong path. Before we got within sight of Cricket Valley, a drop of several feet told of a former waterfall, and convinced David of his mistake. It was the other run that contained the "silver," which it was now too late to seek for.

The object of our walk had thus escaped us, nevertheless we enjoyed seeing what we had not come to see—possibly all the more that we could season our enjoyment with a good grumble.

All along the now dry run we were much struck with the evident signs of water in every direction. Not merely passing torrents of heavy tropical rains, but permanent mountain streams, strong and rapid, must have flowed here in former days. At the foot of the water-worn rock, which pointed out our mistaken way, lay a large grey stone, hollowed out in the centre, where the falling water had swirled against it; and along the sides of the smooth-bottomed course, where the bare edges of strata were exposed to view, we saw layer upon layer of disintegrated lava and ash, which had been swept down from the higher ground and converted by the powerful agency of running water into a kind of soft sandstone, or a loosely compacted conglomerate.

How fire and water do vex and disquiet our wavering earth rind; but, like the disturbances of armed Europe, they serve to maintain the balance of power, and keep us from sinking to the dull level of peace and plain!

This baffled excursion was a delightful one. As we again wended our way round the mountain side, the setting sun, shining through a slight haze, showed the hills and valleys between us and the sea in a soft pink light, which varied in intensity as the fog rose or thickened, and gave an air of gentle mystery to the red symmetrical cones, that had looked at mid-day as if they were fresh from a turning-lathe. Almost in darkness we reached our verandah, glad to follow the sun to rest, and to prepare for another day's ramble.

It was now Thursday, the sixth day of our holiday, and we devoted its cool hours to visiting the little hospital which stands on the terrace next below the one occupied by Garden Cottage. Straight down the face of the hill, a short-cut footpath runs between the cottage and the hospital, at an angle of 40°. I did not fancy it, and we chose rather the more easy cart-road by the Ramps, taking Jimmy Chivas to help us to get up again, or if need be, to show us the way; for Jimmy had been forty years on Ascension, and thoroughly understood its geography. Taught by the hard experience of hunger and thirst on the clinker, when a superabundance of horses or a scarcity of food had caused him to be turned out to cater for himself, Jimmy Chivas could find the mountain stable from every crater, gully and precipice on the island; and moreover, to him was accorded the dignity of "oldest inhabitant.''

But a still more distinguished mule than Jimmy toiled daily up the steep Ramps in the mountain team—a historical animal—the mule on which Sir Garnet Wolseley rode into Coomassie. When he was pointed out to me, I regarded the hero pityingly, as one that had seen better days and ought, if every one had his due, to enjoy perpetual clover and an unharnessed old age.

During that Ashantee war in which our mule played such an honourable part, the mountain hospital had had its twenty iron bedsteads fully occupied; but at the time we visited it, the wards, both officers' and men's, were empty; and I almost said, "What a pity!" Not that I wished the healthy sick, only that those who were sick might have had the benefit of such a large airy room as this, with everything fresh and sweet-smelling around, a constant temperate climate, and the perfect quiet ensured by the isolated situation.

On a hill, apart and alone—with no dwelling near it save the quiet dwelling of the dead—the hospital is surrounded by its prettily laid out garden, now much burnt up, and principally dependent on Port Jackson willows and Madagascar rose-bushes for its verdure. Dotted here and there about the verandahs are a few green tubs from which tiny mignonette leaves were peeping up; and in front of the principal door two handsome aloes reared their stately stems, protected at the base by a goodly forest of brilliant prickly-edged leaves.

Having inspected the hospital and its surroundings with much interest, we then visited the cemetery which lay close by, hidden in a thicket of willows. Most of the graves were simply square, stone-built mounds bearing no inscription; but five of them had black wooden memorials at their heads, telling the sad tale of young manly lives cut off in their prime by yellow fever. A small white marble cross marked an infant's resting-place; and another larger cross, formed of the island lime-stone and resting on a roughly-hewn block of lava, bore a name well-known and loved in Ascension.

I had not thought so sweet a spot as this willow-shaded rock could have been found for the dead in the dusty, windy, sun-baked island; and, had the graves been turf-covered instead of stone-covered, and the paths been strewn with daisies instead of cinders, one might have been content to sleep the last sleep thus far from home.

The other cemetery, near Garrison, we had not visited, but I retained a painful recollection of the ghastly white tombstones on the slope of Cross Hill, and they certainly contributed in no small degree to form my dismal first impression of Ascension. "Well, what does it matter? As well there as here," say Philosophy and Common Sense; and Sentiment meekly bows her head to the wisdom she cannot controvert, biding in her heart the while a longing for a sheltered grave, and whispering a prayer to mother Earth to, deck the dead with her choicest flowers.

Much to our regret, so far as exploring was concerned, Friday was a lost day. The fog was persistent, entirely shutting out all view, and occasional showers drenched the long grass and brushwood along the edges of the narrow mountain paths. So we had to give up our intended excursion to the Riding-school Crater, and content ourselves by the "ingle neuk," where a nice at-home feeling took possession of us, giving extra relish to books and work.

David had gone to Garrison the night before, to see his two months' packet of letters safely off to England, and I was very much relieved when he returned at mid-day with the news that the Mail had gone—this time with our home letters snug in her post-bag. His other news was not so cheering. While enjoying a swim in the large salt-water bath at Garrison, the unaccustomed motion had again strained his weak knee, which was now slightly inflamed, and needed rest.

This accident unhappily deprived him of a share in our next day's excursion to Weather Post—the culminating point of the high ground to eastward,—where we hoped to be able to see Boatswain Bird Island, as well as the little bit of coast not discernible from the Peak. It was very disappointing, but this being positively our last day (except Sunday), and not altogether foggy, we could not afford to spend it by the fireside. So Mrs. Phillimore and I decided to undertake the expedition by our selves, and set out, under favour of a cloudy sky, guided by the Sergeant, and again assisted by Jimmy Chivas.

The first part of our journey was what I have already described in telling of our search for Silver Ore Run, round the north side of the mountain by Rupert's Path, across to North-east Cottage, then along the ridge behind it, this time keeping Cricket Valley well on the right. Looking at it from the Peak, I had flattered myself that this high ground, which is not very much lower than Weather Post itself, continued the whole way; but a closer inspection showed me that the ridge behind North-east Cottage sweeps down into a deep valley at the foot of Weather Post, and before we could ascend, into this we must first descend, at an angle of 30°, with loose stones following at our heels.

Jimmy Chivas was unburdened, and, with our guide, led the van, while Mrs. Phillimore and I followed at two points slightly apart, neither of us wishing to send a rain of stones upon the other. These stones were mostly detached pieces of trachyte, many of which were covered with a beautiful saffron-coloured lichen,—the only vegetation to be seen, until we came into the lap of the valley. There we found a few plants of the thistle-like Mexican Poppy (Argemone mexicana), and one or two bunches of Polypodium trichomanoides, hiding among the larger stones.

At the bottom of the ravine we were still high above Cricket Valley, which now lay directly below us on the south; and we were glad indeed to have our curiosity regarding it somewhat satisfied, without the ordeal of a further descent and semi-suffocation among its sun-baked rocks.

Darwin says, "The longer axis of Cricket Valley is connected with a north-east and south-west line of fissure, and is three-fifths of a nautical mile in length.''

Its sides appeared to us nearly perpendicular, and at least 400 feet in height, except at one point where descent is possible—easy, I was told—but this I would rather not assert without the authority of experience. Not a scrap of verdure clothes the barren slopes of this deep-lipped basin. Some patches of wild tomatoes grow on the flat ground at the bottom, which is so level and so roomy that one might suppose Cricket Valley to have received its name from its natural adaptability to the exercise of our favourite English game. But it is due to another characteristic of the place—one that is readily discovered by anyone who has walked though it in the noonday, and listened to the noisy chirping of its myriads of crickets.

Scrambling up the side of Weather Post, we met with no sign of vegetation, except some specimens of the curious club-moss (Psilotum triquetrum), until we came very near to the top. Then my eyes were gladdened by the sight of a magnificent gorse bush in full bloom, and I proposed to rest under it, until the Sergeant should return for me with Jimmy, after having taken Mrs. Phillimore to the top. But I saw the fog coming, and soon followed on foot. Too late however! it was on the top of Weather Post before me. This was annoying, and we could do nothing but sit down and wait, with what patience we might, for the chance of a peep.

The Weather Post, about 1,000 feet lower than the Peak, is of a peculiar form, somewhat resembling that of a saddle—indented in the middle and elevated at both ends. I did not enjoy my seat at all. The fog was so thick that "you might have cut it with a knife," as we say in Scotland, and our hats and gowns were soon drenched. More than this, the feeling of being so utterly shut out from all that was bright and sunny made me "eerie." But just as we had decided to go, fearing the danger of sitting longer in this vapour bath, the white coast-line glimmered in sunshine, and the little hills and valleys suddenly shook off their thick covering. Yet I looked in vain for Boatswain Bird Island. It was still invisible.

When the mist cleared, we found that we had taken up our position in the seat of the saddle, with the raised ends to right and left of us; so I climbed some little way through scrub, and loose stones to the northern and higher elevation, and then the mysterious bit of coast was revealed. Here was Boatswain Bird Island at last, about a furlong from the mainland, with the sunlight streaming white upon it, while we were still in gloom—a bright picture set in a dingy frame. A miniature islet indeed—a rock, and nothing more, treeless and flowerless, but I cannot say lifeless, for the thousands of Boatswain Birds and other sea-fowl which hover about it, whirling and screaming, give a semblance of life to the whole mass.

As we stood enjoying the strange scene, the fog suddenly blotted it out, and, fearing to lose our way should the cloud grow denser, we hurried down, so as to get over the worst part of the road as quickly as possible. By careful choosing we found it easier than when outward bound, and, with the help of Jimmy and our alpenstocks, we soon reached once more the ridge behind North-east Cottage.

Here, for the first time, I saw Ascension guinea-fowl. These are now very scarce, although at one time, it is said, as many as 1,500 have been shot in a season. Indeed, notwithstanding much care, Ascension can hardly be said to be famous for its game. Some goat stalking there is—nearly as arduous a sport as chamois hunting, with much less reward; rabbits too, are to be found occasionally; and wild cats, which I believe do not come under the game laws! A short time before our arrival partridge shooting commenced, but some lucky man having shot a brace, this was more than the preserves could stand, so the shooting was closed, and my husband's gun lay unused in its case. Had he been here now, it would have provided a dainty dish to set before a couple of famishing ramblers. How hungry I was! and thirsty! So thirsty, that the Sergeant fetched me, from the tank at North-east Cottage, a grateful draught of water in an earthenware jug, which bore the rather startling inscription, "Brigg's Dipping Composition, measure for ten sheep!" but I shut my eyes and drank. In strange countries one had best have no prejudices.

The mountain path was tiring, especially with the, depressing atmosphere of fog which was now worse than ever, and we thoroughly enjoyed a lazy after noon, chatting over our morning's excursion and retailing all its little incidents to David. He had been busy, in our absence, putting the Barracks' clock to rights; and, being much relieved of the pain in his knee, felt rewarded for his self-denial in the matter of crater-climbing.

Another Sunday, and our last day at the Mountain. Foggy too, and showery, so that we were not able to go to the summer-house, where, with our books, we had purposed to spend the afternoon and enjoy a fresh view. On such a day as this, every place was alike viewless, and the preference was certainly in favour of one that could be reached with dry feet; so we remained constant to the verandah of Garden Cottage.

Much was left undone and unseen, but such rest and pleasure had this one week of change afforded us, that I hoped another gap might be found somewhere in the work before its completion. I hoped this, yet I did not lean very heavily on my hope, knowing how slight was its foundation. Could the Heliometer have been transplanted to the Mountain, that would have been indeed delightful! But better to have left it behind in our dear misty Scotland than to take it tip among the clouds of Ascension; and, remembering the happiness and satisfaction that Mars Bay had given to us, my feelings of gratitude revived, and reconciled me to return.

Green Mountain was the "bon camarade" who laughed and jested with us in our hours of idleness and mirth. Mars Bay was the tried friend who was with us in work and anxiety, and whose bright skies had helped us to the happy haven of "Something Done." Back, then, to the good friend, and without regret, only hoping for another frolic among the clouds at another time.

On Monday morning we started homeward under a pouring rain. The mountain team preceded us with our luggage which was protected from the wet by a tarpaulin, and on the top of it lay quite a little garden of radishes and turnip-tops. They were still drinking in moisture, in an honest endeavour to keep fresh until they should relieve the vegetable-starved Garrison with the first green food they had tasted for many months—green turtle of course excepted!

We followed in comic procession. David mounted on "Lucky," a handsome grey donkey; while I, with my big umbrella and numerous shawls waving in the wind, made poor Jimmy Chivas look as if a balloon were preparing to rise into the air with him! He evidently did not like the situation, for his antics in going down the Ramps slightly heated me. Nevertheless, the ride was an enjoyable one, especially when the rain ceased, which it did soon after we started, and the low clouds played all sorts of fantastic games with the little red hills below.

During this visit to Green Mountain, we had never ceased to wonder at and admire the marvellous effect produced, when objects at a distance are viewed under a strong light, while all immediately around lies in subdued shade. To some extent we had seen this in the Highlands of Scotland; but there the sun is so much less powerful, that the force of contrast is not so strong and the mist-clouded landscape is less weird. But everywhere when such a scene presents itself, the same thought strikes one—how tame and uninteresting would all scenery grow, without the fitful, wizard-wanded mist! How tired would the eye become of the most beautiful landscape lying in perpetual sunshine, with a horizon ever well defined! But let the veil-like mist come, and all is changed. What was plain before, is now bewildering and bewitching—what was prose, is now poetry; the hard outlines become soft and mysterious, distance is felt and the landscape is enriched by atmospheric effects.

So it seemed to us during our morning ride down the steep side of Green Mountain. In coming up, we had seen a sharply-cut sea-coast edging a barren plain, which lay dull and tame under monotonous grey clouds. Now the scene was changed. Sea, sky and plain were lost in each other—changeful in form and colour. At one time the thin mist, floating in detached masses over the sea, flecked the blue water with fleecy clouds, making it seem as if sea were sky; and the horizon line losing itself on the mist-chequered land, made the little ships in Clarence Bay appear to sail, phantomlike, among the clouds.

By the time we had descended to level ground our fairy pictures were fading fast under the light of a glaring sun, and, before we reached Garrison, whirling dust and parching thirst chased away the romance of the morning. But only for the time—she followed us with fairy footsteps to Mars Bay, and was with us in our tents that night, banishing fatigue and giving new zest to work.


Chapter XVII