MARS BAY WITHOUT A COOK.
Triangulation of Mars stars. — Our piteous case. — A new galley slave. — Cooking under difficulties. — Sam's method. — A Marine to the rescue. — Sam and his child-book. — My pupil. — Daily work. — H.M.S. Boxer. — Sea-sick guests. — A boat upset. — Surf navigation.
FORTUNATELY the clouds did not follow us, and the triangulation of the Mars stars now advanced apace. A week of lovely evenings, and fresh strength to use them—what more could the heart of astronomer desire? Alas! this was Mars Bay, and not Arcadia! I cannot think why the poet says,
"Man wants but little here below."
It seems to me that man, and woman too, wants a very great deal; and the beauty of the universe and the contemplation of the glory of far-off worlds, what consolation do they give, when the kitchen-chimney smokes, when a tooth aches or a new shoe pinches?
"Is life worth living?" asks one of our modern philosophers, and another answers, "That depends on the liver." True, oh Punch. Then why should we sneer if a man fears indigestion as a mortal foe, and the heart of woman fails when a good cook falls sick in the desert where there is none to replace him?
Such piteous case was ours! Hill fell a victim to severe rheumatism at this time, and woe is me! I had never attended cooking classes at South Kensington.
Although we did not know it at the time, our cook had been originally invalided here for this very malady, caught, like every evil thing, on the Gold Coast; and the damp air of the Mountain had unfortunately brought on a relapse. He struggled with it bravely for some days, hoping that the dry atmosphere of Mars Bay would undo the mischief. But it was of no use; the pain grew worse and worse, and within a fortnight after our return from Green Mountain he was in hospital. We were sorry for Hill, and sorry too for ourselves—there was no other cook on the island, and I was doomed to the "galley."
I have before explained somewhere, that "galley" is the nautical equivalent for "kitchen;" but our galley bore about as much resemblance to a bright, pan-bedecked kitchen, as a rubbish heap bears to a trimly kept garden; and my appetite was not improved by frequent visits to it.
I have often wondered whether a certain amount of dust and untidiness be conducive to good cooking, and on the whole I am inclined to think that they are. At least, on the few occasions that I have had a man-cook, the messes have been more satisfactory than when a female sovereign held sway o'er pots and pans, but then I preferred not to see the process nor the sphere of action, as that materially affected my enjoyment of the result.
And, besides good dinners and dirty pans, there is another fact that I have observed in connection with male cooks—and it is that dinner is always ready and does not suffer from delay. The unexpected arrival of the hungry master, or his unpunctual return from work, was wont to throw my tidy little Scotch cook into a fever of excitement. The result was dire! stony-hearted potatoes, or potatoes of pulp half-dissolved with weeping over their unhappy doom! But to these untidy, careless ones, things seem more accommodating, and I am puzzled to find the reason. I should have been right glad to know it when my cook at Mars Bay fell ill, and I found myself suddenly called upon to make turtle-soup and condensed milk puddings—two branches of culinary art which had been omitted in my education. Nor had I learned how to keep my temper over a cooking-stove with a tropical sun overhead, while centipedes and cockroaches disported themselves in pots and pans, and the lively breeze kept up a playful game with the clinker dust among my cups and plates. Faugh! I felt half tempted to condemn my poor husband to "Crosse and Blackwell" for the rest of our stay. But anything is better than failure, and by Sam's help I got over the prime difficulties of the first days, at the expense of considerable loss of temper perhaps, but that I try to consider as so much capital invested in the good cause of sympathy with irascible cooks in the future!
Unfortunately for astronomy but fortunately for gastronomy, some days of cloudy weather soon set in, and the galley became more tolerable for the poor slaves. Sam grew quite elate at the trust reposed in him, and if his efficiency did not equal his zeal on all occasions, the merriment caused by his mistakes prevented our digestion from suffering by them.
One habit he had of which I found it very difficult to cure him. I would say after breakfast, "Now, Sam, this joint will require about two hours in the oven.''
"Vera good, ma'," says Sam; and when I go into the kitchen, perhaps an hour afterwards, I find the meat slowly cooling on the table, and Sam stretched peacefully on the floor, with his head enveloped in a red pocket-handkerchief.
"Put him in little while—take him out—put him in 'gin now," is the answer to my remonstrances, Sam being fully persuaded that if the meat be done, the time of "doing" is immaterial, or, if there is an advantage, it is in being done by instalments!
Well, Sam and I did our best; but three days a-week he had to go to Garrison for fresh provisions, leaving me on these occasions maid-of-all-work, and I was, very thankful indeed when a private of marines undertook to come and "do roast and boil" for us. Then we got on smoothly, as I had no longer to stand over the kitchen fire, but could prepare puddings or tarts in the dining-tent coolly and comfortably. And one very good result was brought about by this contretemps in the galley.
I have said that Sam's favourite position was lying stretched on the dusty floor with his head wrapped in a handkerchief, but on one occasion I found his head lacking its wrapper, and Sam busily engaged with a book. I was rather surprised, but had a suspicion that Master Sam was acting a little part and trying to pass for a "scholar," as his countrymen are so fond of doing. But, watching him quietly as I rolled out the bread, I began to see that he was really engrossed in his task, and evidently puzzled by it.
"What are you reading so busily, Sam? " I asked.
"Child book, ma'—me want to learn."
And I actually found the poor fellow struggling with "Jack is a good boy," "Tom is a bad boy," and other brilliant specimens of rhetoric, such as are to be met with in the early stages of learning the English language. He read me a short paragraph, slowly and jerkingly, but without a mistake, and could spell a few words of two letters.
I asked who had taught him. "No one, ma'—me learn meself—me want to learn."
The answer affected me strangely, and humbled me. I felt convicted of such exceeding selfishness—such neglect of those around me—so ashamed of my want of sympathy with this poor negro, whose perseverance and striving after higher things placed him at once on a level with all men who are toiling with him honestly along the highway of knowledge in pursuit of truth. Sam, with his "child book," demanded more of my respect than I can yield to any man, however highly placed in the world, who lets the God-given soil of the mind lie untilled, and knows not that "divine discontent" which stirs the soul to work out its own perfectness, and to strive always onward and upward to the feet of its Divine Creator. In little as in much, the struggle is ever a noble one, and to see it in a neighbour whom you have hitherto looked-upon as an inferior, teaches a rare lesson of universal sympathy and toleration.
In all humility I now took Sam, who had already been my teacher, to be my pupil, and, I would venture to hope, it resulted in our mutual gain and satisfaction. It was uphill work at first, and I found much difficulty in conveying to my pupil any notion of sound.
Sam's idea was that c-a-t might just as well spell "dog" as "cat." His ear could detect no difference, but his eye was more discriminating, and his memory excellent. Moreover, it was a foreign tongue to him, and very often the words, when uttered, conveyed no idea to his mind.
One day I asked him what "word" meant? "Me not know," was the answer. Then I pointed to "sheep," and said, "There, that's a word," and after that Sam always would insist on calling "sheep" "word," or vice versâ. This was partly my fault, but as I improved, Sam improved, and we soon got on rapidly, notwithstanding that some time was necessarily lost by Sam's constant query, "That right, ma'?" and his contortions and exclamations of delight with himself when he found the guess a happy one.
How full the days grew at Mars Bay! Amateur cooking after breakfast, followed by Sam's lesson for an hour; then my own lesson, for David was giving me his help towards learning something of geology. After this there was needlework, ironing, or some needful "tidying" to be done, before our invariable 2 o'clock luncheon of lime juice and biscuits.
In the drowsy afternoons I would read aloud for an hour or two, something lively and interesting—this was our daily bon-bon, and it daily grew sweeter.
Besides this, I had a good deal of copying to do. All the observations had to be written out in duplicate for transmission to the Royal Astronomical Society by the next mail, and it was necessary for me to do part every day so as to keep abreast with the night work. Then the evening walk on the beach, letter and journal writing, my own reading, and occasional visitors filled the short days to overflowing, and very happily. Had it not been that we needed the morning hours to make up the sleep lost in star-gazing, I think we should not have let slip unused the two most charming hours in a tropical day—from 6 to 8 a.m.; but as the summer advanced, an increase of flies and the intense light in the. tents made a noontide siesta no luxury, and we were wont to be sad sluggards in the morning.
Since the departure of the Cygnet late in August, no ship brought fresh faces to cheer us until the arrival of the Boxer, which came into harbour towards the end of October. Then for some weeks we were enlivened, even at Mars Bay, by occasional visits from her officers, whose pleasant society was a delightful variation in our life.
On one occasion a party of them, with one of our island officers, were unfortunately overtaken by rollers on their way to spend a day with us, and landed at Mars Bay with great difficulty, looking strangely white and woe-begone. Was it fear? Impossible! Was it sea-sickness? I dare not say. The doctor confessed to it, to be sure, but with the others it was biliousness—the sun—anything—everything—except sea-sickness. A few hours however on terra firma and the alarming symptoms disappeared; but the rollers continued throughout the day, and our guests were persuaded to return to Garrison by land.
The little bay was in a whirl of unrest, and when the coxswain, who had brought the party ashore in the dingey, was sculling out again to the boat, he had a narrow escape with his life, poor fellow. At least so it seemed to me, although the sailors were less excited by an event of such common occurrence on this surf-beaten shore.
During the income of the rollers, there occur short periods of comparative calm, at intervals of ten minutes or more, which must be taken advantage of skilfully, to escape to the smooth water beyond. But our coxswain, less experienced in "roller-work" than the Kroo boys, was impatient and pushed off a little too soon. The consequence was that a great wave, rearing its curling crest to sea-ward of him, and breaking before it reached the shore, poured itself into the dingey, which was upset in the twinkling of an eye, and the coxswain was washed into the bay.
Graydon, who was standing on the beach, rushed to his rescue, and then for a few moments both disappeared. I became breathless, and thought of sharks with a chilly dread. But it was only the capsized dingey that had got in their way; and presently the men scrambled ashore, none the worse for their adventure, except that Graydon had a pretty severe cut on the shoulder, where the dingey had struck him.
The Boxer had come to us viâ St. Helena, from the Niger Expedition, for provisions and repairs, and to recruit her fever-stricken crew. A short time before, she had been employed in the blockade of Dahomey, while the king was preparing his indemnity of palm-oil for offended England; consequently her sailors knew too much of surf and rollers. During the palm-oil season, 1 am told that the average loss from these causes, on the coast of Dahomey, is a native a day, despite their ingenious surf-boats and the rare skill of their brave crews. How many of our luxuries are truly "lives o' men!"