CHAPTER XVIII.

WIDE-AWAKE FAIR.

Garrison festivities. — "Wide-awake, Wide-awake!" — Sterna fuliginosa. — Ascension theories about "Wide-awakes." — "The Fair." — Egg-gathering. — A gallant defence. — Large consumers. — The lime-burner's failing appetite. — Ipomaea maritima. — A crusty cook. — His tender feelings. — "Polly's" departure. — Marines and Blue-jackets. — A sensitive creature.

THE Boxer remained with us until the 17th of November.

Some days before she left, David and I set out to Garrison one afternoon, on pleasure bent, and found the croquet ground, the aforetime site of our Observatory, converted into a lawn-tennis ground. Generally speaking, at 4 P.M. Garrison is dead, to all outward appearance—the sail-cloth blinds are still drawn round the verandahs, and nothing of life stirs abroad. But to-day there was life, without doubt, in front of Commodore's Cottage, and it struck fresh and charming upon us, in contrast to the solitude we had left behind.

Captain Alington of the Boxer, who had for the present taken up his quarters at Commodore's Cottage, was the prime mover of this lawn-tennis; the hospitable dispenser of tea to the combatants, and the active promoter of whatever healthful amusement gave pleasure to his junior officers, and to the few young people on board the Ascension. The spirit of dissipation seized upon us, and as a covering of cloud kindly promised to hide our folly from the contemptuous stars, we threw off the "Sun's Parallax" for a night, and gave ourselves up to mirth and revelry. The officers of the Boxer being accomplished players on wind and stringed instruments, we actually succeeded in getting up a dance; a thing unheard of in the annals of the island, and the few ladies did excellent duty to their numerous partners.

Next day David returned to work, while I remained behind, with the intention of joining a Garrison party in a proposed excursion the following afternoon to Wide-awake Fair, which was now at its noisiest.

Wide-awake Fair is a puzzling cognomen, and suggested to me, when I first heard it, a scene very unlike the real one. "Fair" created a mental picture of busy trafficking; puppet shows and penny-a-peeps; "Sweetie-wives" and stalls of ginger-bread; dancing bears and barrel-organs; lads with blue bonnets and Sunday coats, and lassies "blythe and bonnie" carrying off their loads of "fairings" with gay laughter and merry jesting. And "Wide-awake?" Perhaps the trafficking without the jesting, and instead of North-country lads and lasses, keen-eyed, swarthy Jews, intent on their pound of flesh. But not on Ascension could such transactions be possible, and the real "Wide-awake Fair" turned out to be something very different.

"Wide-awake! Wide-awake!" is the response of thousands of baby birdies to the encouraging cry of their mothers—"Come here! Come here!" in the lessons of first flight. The noise they make is certainly "fair" like, hence the names "Wide-awake" (Sterna fuliginosa) and "Wide-awake Fair."

During our short and busy stay at Ascension, it was unfortunately not possible for us to study the habits of these birds. This I regret, the more that the popular stories about them vary, and, as far as I have been able to discover, natural history is provokingly silent on the subject.

Howard Saunders, F.L.S., F.Z.S., &c., in his book on "Sternæ" or "Terns" writes, regarding this particular species, shortly as follows:—

"It is said that at Ascension Island the 'Sooty Terns' or 'Wide-awakes' come every eight months to breed; if true, this is somewhat remarkable. The foot of this species is webbed to the extremity of the toes. The young are dark on the under parts."

But with regard to the time of their coming and going, the general opinion at Ascension is, that it is irregular and uncertain; that the birds always remain on the island until they have a young one ready to fly away with them, and no longer. Each pair look upon it as their duty to rear one child—each hen lays one egg; but if by any means that is destroyed, she lays another, and so on, till she is the happy mother of a chick. Some people think that, if the eggs were judiciously removed in some way, the birds would remain permanently on the island! Certain it is, that when the great flood of 1876 swept away all the eggs from the Fair, the birds began to lay again, and they were never before known to remain so long on the island.

I have said that the Wide-awakes choose their nurseries for the most part among the rocks in the centre of the island. The largest "Fair" which we now visited, lies between Gannet Hill and Riding-school Crater, about three miles from Garrison and two from Mars Bay. Here David, attended by Graydon and Sam, met us, and so did the Wide-awakes with a noisy greeting. Poor little things, how they shrieked in their excitement! To say that there were thousands, conveys no idea of the vast multitude of birds that whirled around and above us—so close that one gentleman caught several, seizing them in his hands as they flew by. One carried in its bill a tiny fish, which we took the liberty of examining, and, much to our surprise, found it to be no habitant of Ascension waters; so that this hungry little Wide-awake—about the size of an ordinary pigeon, only more slender and graceful in form—must have flown many a weary mile in search of its prey. We restored to him his supper and his liberty.

Of course there was competition in egg gathering, at which I was singularly unsuccessful, feeling so confused by the deafening noise and so sickened by the strong smell of guano, that my wits went a-woolgathering instead.

Moreover, I did not much appreciate the delicacy of Wide-awakes' eggs, some of which had been gathered for us a few days before by Tom, our new marine cook. These eggs, I had been told, were exactly like plovers', but except in size and colour I could detect little similarity. The white is certainly clearer and more glutinous than that of a common hen's egg, and the yolk is of a beautiful saffron or pumpkin colour, such as I never saw in any other. We cooked them in every conceivable way—in puddings, omelettes, pancakes—fried, boiled, poached; and concluded that they were most palatable when boiled hard and eaten cold. In puddings I could not get them to "rise," but possibly that was owing to my bad management and no fault of the egg. The thin shell is speckled very much like that of the grouse, and is difficult to detect on the bare stony ground on which the eggs are laid. It is more by the excitement of the birds in the neighbourhood of their treasures, than by anything else, that one discovers them; and so bold are they that the female will hardly leave her post until actually thrust aside.

It was very amusing on one occasion. Just as we had scared a little hen from her solitary egg, her lord and master swooped down to defend it, and stood over the treasure screaming and flapping his wings in a fury, and threatening to attack any one that dared approach him. I admired his courage so much that, had not this been my first find, I certainly would not have robbed him.

We gathered a good many dozens, but the eggs were by no means so numerous as I had been led to expect. I had been told that it was customary, on going to the Fair for plunder, to mark off and clear a space of ground, and then to sit down at some little distance and smoke a cigar till the birds should lay afresh. From the word "clear" I had conceived an absurd idea of the ground being so covered with eggs that it would require careful stepping not to crush them! This is decidedly not so, and, as I succeeded in finding only fifteen eggs, I should prefer to say that they are scarce. But "Honesty is the best policy," and I must confess that the St. Helena boys, who cater for the officers' mess and for the few private families in Garrison, sometimes carry off as many as two hundred dozen in a morning.

The marines too, are large consumers, and we were struck with amazement at the pathetic anxiety of a stout lime-burner, who told us "I fear some'at must be wrong with me; last season I could eat as many as four dozen o' them Wide-awake eggs at a sittin'—but now I can only manage a matter o' two."

Poor plundered birdies! no wonder they shrieked.

Close by the Fair is to be found, in the shade of some high rocks, a tea equipage with an iron tripod on which to hang the kettle. It looked tempting, but we had no firewood, no tea, no water, and no time wherewith to take advantage of this considerate arrangement. Moreover, we were warned of the approach of night by the sudden disappearance of the sun behind Gannet Hill.

Just at the foot of the hill here there appeared to us the strange phenomenon of a brilliantly green flat, of about an acre in extent, looking like fresh spring-grass in the distance, and presenting a most striking contrast to the colourless barrenness everywhere around. On nearer inspection this oasis was found to be formed by a gigantic creeper (Ipomæa maritima), with large, bright green leaves, somewhat resembling those of the bay, but of a lighter shade, and bearing a purple convolvulus-like flower. One of the long tendrils, chosen at random, we followed up, and found it to measure seventy-two feet.

At Gannet Hill we parted from our friends: they going north to Garrison, and we southward to Mars Bay. We reached our tents shortly after sunset, to find Tom very cross at our having kept dinner waiting. Or perhaps it was my return that had upset his precarious temper, for Tom could not be made to recognize female authority, and resented any faultfinding on my part, although to the master he was obedience itself.

But on board ship what else could one expect? There, "Woman's Rights" are unknown!

I had offended Tom too, very soon after his arrival, and I think a little soreness remained to the end.

One hot morning he had gathered, and presented to me, some dozens of Wide-awakes' eggs, with many impressive observations about the dust, and the drought, of the journey. In a weak moment I rewarded him with a glass of grog—as much as I thought advisable; but no doubt my ideas on the subject of grog are narrow, for the droughty marine felt insulted at the meagre draught and deliberately poured it upon the ground, with a cutting remark to the effect that, "Such a drop as that wouldn't wet his tongue."

I naturally felt indignant, and it was not until I began to study the comic side of my cook, that I found him interesting and forgave him. But it is wonderful how one is depressed by bad temper, even in the kitchen; and Tom's surly greeting made me look back with regret on the bright welcome that Hill used to meet me with.

Poor Hill! he got no better, and had to be sent home by mail steamer. David went to see him in hospital before he sailed, and we both felt quite sad when his hammock and screaming "Polly" were carried off from Mars Bay.

Our community was so small, that each person and thing became an intimate friend and a part of our life. Thus our servants occupied a larger place in our home circle than they would nave done in England, and this is my apology for writing of them so much. They too, were separated from their fellows, which of course was a much greater privation for them than for us. We had a definite object, an absorbing interest, at Mars Bay. We had numerous resources within ourselves, such as study, light-reading, and a large home correspondence. Moreover, we were two, and it is no marriage if husband and wife are not each other's best society.

Under these circumstances, we were naturally anxious to include our servants in our life, and to keep them amused as much as possible; but now it became more difficult than at first. Hill and Graydon had been great allies, but the proverbial antipathy between marines and blue-jackets had no exception in the case of Graydon and Tom. They did not quarrel exactly, but they did not "chum up," as our colonists say, and I fear I laid this to the charge of Tom.

He was one of those "I told-you-so" characters, never in the wrong, and with tender feelings. It was these feelings I hurt, when I gave him too little grog; and the remotest hint of his having done anything wrong was followed by a resigned expression of countenance, and an air of injured innocence, which was very ludicrous, after my feelings had ceased to be aggravated by it. For Tom was only one of a class—one of those sensitive creatures that look sadly around them, thinking how much better mankind would be if it could better appreciate them—making themselves the centre of their little world, the sun of their little and crying aloud if they are rudely pushed against and their centreship ignored.


† I think what follows of our story will explain my reason for giving a fictitious name here.

‡ I afterwards ascertained that we had visited the Fair before it came to its height; a month later the eggs were very much more numerous.


Chapter XIX