LAST DAYS AT MARS BAY.
Passing ships. — H.M.S. Beacon. — Graydon home-sick. — "Rover" bequeathed. — A new assistant. — "Melpomene." — Bad weather. — Disappointment. — Delightful orders. — Scarcity of lucifer matches. — Attempts in Taxidermy. — Our feathered friends. — Sterna leucocapilla. — Packing. — The Ways of The Service. — My ignorance. — The work is done. — Pulling down our altars.
SOME weeks now passed by pleasantly and busily, but so entirely devoid of incident, that I fear my readers would find in a daily chronicle of them only monotonous repetition.
Sometimes a pretty little donkey would peep over the rocks at us and scamper off again ; sometimes a wild cat would mistake my larder for public property, and bring involuntary fasts into the camp. Almost daily a ship of some kind passed us ; sometimes so far off as to seem a mere white speck on the horizon, at other times so close that we could easily read her signals without the help of a glass. "What news of the East?" "Is England at war?" "When is the mail due?" were invariable questions ; and often, when outward-bound vessels found that a mail was expected soon, they would send letters ashore at Garrison, so that Ascension has still good claim to its old name, "The Sailor's Post Office."
About the middle of November H.M.S. Beacon, homeward-bound from China, put into harbour for coals and provisions, and her coming made another break in our little community, for at sight of her Graydon grew home-sick. Having exceeded his term of service on the West Coast by two years, he might have gone home with the Orontes in September ; and David could not find it in his heart to oppose him now, much as we were likely to suffer by a change.
So Graydon applied to the Captain for relief, and was ordered to report himself on board the Beacon the following morning. Meantime another blue-jacket had been appointed to take his place at Mars Bay.
Poor Graydon! he was glad to go home, and yet we had quite a scene at parting. It was in a voice suspiciously husky that Rover was bequeathed to me, while David made a miserable attempt to whistle and look unconcerned when I begged him to decide whether or not I should accept the gift. I could not conveniently bring Rover home with me, and was afraid that Graydon might not like my having to leave him behind, but he was far too much excited to calculate for the future.
"I don't care where you leave him, ma'am. I am sure somebody will be good to the poor little chap, and I would like to leave him with you," said Graydon.
So Rover remained, and howled many days and nights for his master, refusing to be comforted. It was very doleful ; but by-and-by the faithless doggie forgot, and became quite friendly and happy with "Captain," an English terrier which accompanied Brackley, Graydon's successor at the Observatory.
We had now reached the 21st November. Fine evenings up to the 9th had allowed David to finish what was absolutely necessary of the Mars triangulation, and since then hardly a star had been visible.
On the 12th he had intended to commence observations of "Melpomene," and by a similar process confirm the result of the Mars observations. Melpomene (the "Muse of Sadness") is a tiny planet between 8th and 9th magnitude, and is almost lost in the multitude of minor planets that have been discovered within the last thirty years. But now she had been selected to help in the great work of fixing the sun's distance ; because it so happened that for some weeks about the 2nd of December, she would come a little nearer to the earth than the sun, and her small disc, undistinguishable from that of a star, would permit observations of extreme accuracy.
David had already completed a similar work, under less favourable circumstances, with the planet Juno at Mauritius in 1874, which, as a first experiment, had been entirely successful. It was with much interest, therefore, that we looked forward to the present occasion as likely to afford a determination of the Parallax little inferior to that to be obtained by Mars. Not that Melpomene was so near to us as Mars—indeed, she was fully two and a-half times as distant—but the observations were likely to be two and a-half times as accurate, because the measurement of the distance between two minute points is capable of so much greater precision than that of the distance between a minute star and a large bright planet such as Mars.
The experience which my husband had had in the case of Juno led him to feel confidence in the method—a very satisfactory thing when the result of a year's labour in observation and calculation lies hid till the last step of the process. We therefore left Mars to retreat unmolested for a season, and turned in pursuit of Melpomene, who now, on the 21st of November, was threatening to escape us under cover of many cloudy nights.
Before the 2nd of December, the night of Opposition, a few good evening observations were obtained, but not a single complete morning set. Ever since the second week of October, the sky had invariably, become overcast soon after midnight, and so remained until sunrise, rendering any evening observations for parallax useless for want of corresponding morning ones.
Well, we dared not grumble, so thankful were we for the fine nights of August and September. Every year, two or three of these minor planets would come into opposition under circumstances favourable for the purpose in question, but never again would Mars appear so glorious to our eyes on this earth ; and, having secured the main, nay, sole object of the expedition, we could the more easily bear this comparatively trivial disappointment.
The conditions for the observation of Melpomene being more favourable before than after opposition, David was able to decide by the end of November that he would waste no more evenings in a work he could not perfect ; but would rather make use of any clear weather that might occur, to determine yet more thoroughly the places of the Mars stars of comparison.
It was a fortunate decision. Every morning clouds covered the island, and sometimes heavy rain fell at intervals between 1 A.M. and sunrise. But this cloud and rain, which lost us the Opposition of Melpomene, gave rise to a very important announcement, made on the 4th of December. Brackley had gone to Garrison in the morning, to draw his pay, and on his return brought us the welcome news—"If you please, sir, the Captain's orders are, that from to-day we are on double allowance of water."
Delightful orders! but Tom of the rueful countenance at once reproved our enthusiasm by the correction, "Not double allowance, ma'am, only full allowance ; we were on half before." This depressing logic my feminine mind could not follow, and I persisted in my rejoicings over two gallons of water in the place of one.
Speaking from a domestic point of view, the last days at Mars Bay were famous for full water-casks and a scarcity of lucifer matches! At the canteen the supply of these latter articles had become exhausted, and our stock on hand consisted of but two small boxes. These I guarded jealously, and David suffered great anxiety in getting his cigars alight, until, discovering a box of "Vesuvians" in his despatch box, he was by this treasure trove rendered independent.
The astronomical work of the last days at Mars Bay consisted chiefly in lunar and other observations, for longitude and latitude ; and on the whole, the weather was propitious—much cloud and occasional showers, with opportune bands of clear sky intervening which served a good purpose.
My time was partly occupied in collecting, labelling and packing up specimens of our rocks, shells, sand, &c., in the hope of being able to know them better by subsequent study. We were also anxious to bring home with us some specimens of birds, but hitherto had always failed in our attempts to preserve them. We were without some of the chemicals necessary for the operation, and certain insects of Mars Bay seemed to revel in carbolic acid.
But fortunately, one well skilled in taxidermy came to our assistance at last, and, thanks to him, we were able to bring to England some of our Ascension feathered friends.
The delicate French-grey Boatswain Bird (Phaeton aetherius) with its graceful tail of twin feathers ; the broad-winged Frigate Bird (Tachypetes Aquila), which I at first mistook for an albatross, and was much puzzled by the gay scarlet pouch depending from its breast. This pouch, filled with salt water, serves the purpose of a game bag, in which live fish are brought home by the male parent to feed his dainty young, who evidently do not approve of "high" game nor tinned salmon.
The Gannets (Sula cyanops) and Boobies (Sula leucogastra) are well known, and are by no means so handsome in shape or plumage as the Frigate and Boatswain birds. Of the Wide-awakes, I have already told all that I know, and only one other bird came under our notice at Mars Bay. That happened in this way.
One evening during our last week there, David was sitting at the door of the tent at sunset, on murder bent, and watching for a flight of Wide-awakes. I am glad to say, it is against the game laws of Ascension to shoot these confiding birdies, but we only wanted to secure one or two for scientific purposes, and to this extent we had absolution.
We had heard that Wide-awakes grew grey with years—that the young birds were of a uniformly sooty brown, and only acquired their brilliant white breasts with maturity. Now, having frequently noticed some birds—altogether black, with the exception of a white spot on the head—accompanying the Wide-awakes, and closely resembling them in shape and size, we were curious to know if these were really the same birds in a transition state of colour.
A right and left shot brought down a couple of the white-capped strangers, and then it was discovered that they were no Wide-awakes at all, although belonging to the same family. Mr. Unwin, the naturalist, who had so kindly helped us before, pronounced them to be "Sterna leucocapilla," a very rare species of Tern, hitherto unknown to Ascension.
Of these Mr. Saunders says, "This form is apparently less widely diffused than some of its congeners. Mr. Gould's specimens were obtained at Raine's Islet, Australia, where the bird is said to be very abundant. There is a specimen in the British Museum, from Bristow Island, south coast of New Guinea ; and the United States Exploring Expedition found it breeding at Panmotu Island, where its single egg was deposited upon the bare ground, instead of in a nest. There is no grey about the head or cheeks, but, with the exception of the white crown, the whole plumage is of a sooty brown."
Australia! New Guinea! Panmotu Island! How came the little wanderers so far from their homes? For up to this time Ascension had been no home nor colony of theirs. They had never been known to breed in any part of it, and on no occasion did we observe them to fly inland. They invariably steered their course in one direction—against the wind, and in their flight just skirted our shore.
Why? And wherefore this sudden appearance in such numbers at Ascension? Did some ocean rock which had been their home, sink suddenly beneath the waves, leaving no rest for the sole of their foot, until a new ark was found? Let wise men answer. Verily the birds of the air have many things to tell us, undreamt of in our philosophy.
Excepting Guinea Fowl and the universal Dorking with variations, the only land bird that we saw on Ascension was a pretty little finch called the Averdavat (Estrelda amaudava), ringed round the body with two shades of grey, and having a red bill and red spots on the breast and under the eyes. It is much valued there, and also in this country, as a cage bird. Indeed, almost the first drawing-room which we entered on returning to London, contained a cage in which were, hopping from perch to perch, two little twitterers that looked strangely familiar, and with the glad feeling of having met with old friends, we exclaimed "Averdavats!"
After the packing of my "clinker" box was satisfactorily accomplished, I set about collecting our household gear, which certainly was not improved by its sojourn in tents. Tom was not so efficient an assistant in such work as Hill had been. He was always bringing forward some remarkable method for doing everything better than anybody else, and although the method generally failed, his confidence in himself was never shaken thereby, because it was always somebody else that had caused the failure. Wonderful indeed were his achievements in his own imagination ; and the way he patronized me, and pardoned all my mistakes because of my ignorance of the Service, was most amusing.
"Ah! you see you don't know the Service as I know it," was the refrain of all Tom's excuses for me, and I certainly doubted my ability ever to know the Service according to Tom. It was so complicated and had so many peculiar traits of character.
I was constantly having such shocks to my memory about this time as,
"How many cups and saucers had you, ma'am?"
"Four," I answer at a venture.
"Well, there are only three now, and one don't count for much, for the saucer is chipped, and the cup leaks ever so."
Or again, "Please, ma'am, how many glasses came out?"
"Six," and this time I am sure.
"Just one now, ma'am."
"That's very awkward," I answer ; "how are we to replace them?"
"Oh!" says Tom, "that don't matter, I've kept the pieces, which will count just the same as if the glasses were whole. It is the way of the Service—so be that you return the articles, ma'am, it don't matter how."
Notwithstanding these wonderfully accommodating ways of "The Service," I still doubted the propriety of presenting the Admiralty with broken glass, and persisted in expressing my intention of replacing the damaged goods, if possible. Whereupon Tom would look upon me with a pitying smile, as he repeated his favourite formula, "If you knew the Service as I know it, you wouldn't think of such a thing, ma'am."
I thought such knowledge must be difficult to acquire, so gave up the attempt, and turned my mind to matters more fitted to my understanding.
We wished, if possible, to have our "flitting" over before Christmas Day, and were most fortunate in being able to manage this. On the 23rd, the last moon occultation for December took place, and as the night was clear David was able, not only to secure this, his last chance for longitude, but also to complete his determination of latitude by observing the transits of stars in the prime vertical.
Then the work was done ; that is, of course, apart from the laborious calculations which must ensue. As I write now, these are still unfinished, but the reductions are sufficiently advanced for me to say, almost with certainty, that our six months of anxiety have been crowned with success.
How glad we were when the Observatory dome was shut for the last time! So grateful too, and ready thoroughly to enjoy a merry Christmas. Early on the 24th, the turtle-boat came for our household goods (the Heliometer being left meanwhile), and our tent life was at an end.
Thankful as I was to have the work finished, yet I had struck some roots in the clinker which could not be pulled up without a wrench, and it was with a lump in my throat and dim eyes that I said good-bye to Mars Bay.
Those are enviable people who retain in larger growth a child-like satisfaction in the novelty of coming and going-who are glad to seek new places, and as glad to leave them behind, thereby ensuring for themselves two pleasures in place of two trials, such as afflict the heart that is wedded to old scenes and old faces. To me, a new home, however pretty, gives no rest until I get to know it ; then I love it, no matter how plain its features. Then it becomes a friend who has shared my joys and sorrows, seen my cares, and carried in its bosom my most sacred treasures. It makes my heart ache when I must leave this well-beloved friend behind, and memory counts with a sigh one more of life's regrets. My life has been so ordered, that I have loved and left many homes ; but I hardly looked upon Mars Bay as one, until I saw it for the last time. Then I knew that I had set up my household gods in those tents as surely as in a costly temple, and that this was another pulling down of their altars.
Boatswain Bird seems to be a sort of general term used by the sailors to denote various sea-birds, but as far as I could gather, the Tropic Bird, or Phaeton aetherius, is the Boatswain Bird proper.