CHAPTER XX.

CHRISTMAS IN GARRISON.

Five precious Books. — Christmas without Holly. — Roast Beef and Plum Pudding. — A Musical Entertainment. — The Tom-tom. — A motley crew. — The Master of Ceremonies. — No cook and no dinner. — Eggs and bacon. — The Captain's Office. — Exit Tom.

CHRISTMAS morning found us again at Commodore's Cottage, with everything around looking much the same as during our first occupation. Only now there was no Observatory on the croquet lawn, while, lying snugly in a strong box were five books, of manuscript, containing "Observations of the Opposition of Mars at Ascension, A.D. 1877." These differences contributed much to our comfort, and even with the thermometer at 89° F. and not a bit of holly in the land, I was prepared to enjoy my first summer Christmas.

Having fallen asleep with the sound of imaginary "waits" and "Christmas Carols" ringing in my ears, I was awakened at sunrise by a very different sound—the beat of tom-toms, accompanied at intervals by a sort of hoarse monotonous chant, which we were given to understand was intended as a song of rejoicing on the part of the Kroomen.

As we walked down to church in the bright morning, our little Garrison looked quite gay and festal. Flags of various colours and devices were flying over the different mess-rooms, and all the men showed clean and trim in holiday attire. Alas! I fear some of them were less clean and trim before the shades of night had fallen ; but 1 must not make the behaviour of a faulty few, a type of the whole. Generally speaking, the men enjoyed their Christmas rationally, and not a single disturbance annoyed us in Garrison during their three days' idleness.

Our Christmas Day service was very short: advisable, no doubt, on account of the heat, which made it difficult to keep the attention fixed or the mind vigorous for any length of time. After service, and in the heat of the noon-day sun, the men dined on the traditional roast beef and plum-pudding with "trimmings."

I wonder how hot it must be before an Englishman would give up his heavy Christmas dinner? Apparently the temperature of Ascension made no difference to his enjoyment of it, although we could not speak on this matter from experience. But thereby hangs a tale presently to be unfolded.

When we came from church, Tom begged permission to dine with his messmates, which I readily granted him, on condition that he would return at four o'clock to prepare our dinner, for we had declined many kind offers of hospitality for the day. Then Sam, in his turn, longed to help his countrymen at making holiday, so we were left to spend the day with deserted kitchen. Sam was delighted to be off, and told me with much glee that "they going to have great fun down at Krootown," which I suppose they had, for the sound of the tom-tom, accompanied by yells, was borne on the wind all the afternoon, and ultimately we had a special benefit of this unmelodious music.

As the sun went down the horrid din waxed louder ; the distance, which had lent its only enchantment, gradually decreased, until at last our verandah was surrounded by a crowd of Kroomen, dressed in the most extraordinary variety of costumes, yelling, beating the tom-tom, and dancing what they pleased to term a war-dance. When the troop "hove in sight," I was sitting alone on the verandah, trying to catch the first cool breath of the evening breeze, and my nerves were hardly strung to a pitch sufficient to enjoy this musical entertainment in full, so I hastily retreated within, preferring to bear it in the privacy of my chamber. This was not according to the programme, however. An insinuating knock from Sam came to intimate that I was expected to go outside. "They come wish you happy Christmas, ma," he called out ; and if noise has anything to do with good wishes, they were certainly expressed with a will.

"Wah-y-a-wah-wah! Wah-y-a-wah!" in every octave from the shrillest soprano to the deepest bass, greeted me outside, and one little fellow, black as Erebus, was seated on the verandah steps, playing with all his might on their favourite tom-tom. This is a very primitive instrument of simplest construction, and seemed to me to consist of a small barrel with an end knocked out—across the opening a dressed hide was stretched, and this was beaten with the palms of both hands.

The poor things must have been very tired and hot with all this dancing and yelling and beating, to say nothing of the unaccustomed amount of clothing they wore. One dark figure was crowned with the orthodox "tall" hat—the abomination of civilization—and it evidently impressed the wearer with a crushing sense of his importance. Another woolly head was encased in a white muslin "Dolly Varden;" while a pair of large blue spectacles adorned the nose of a third. The whole had the most comical effect, and they all grinned and grimaced and laughed so, that it was quite impossible to be in the least impressed by a great tin sword, which was evidently intended to furnish the warlike element in the performance.

By-and-by David appeared, and then the shouting grew more tumultuous ; partly from good will, let us suppose, but I fear that a new hope of bubbly-water was what chiefly increased the excitement. After we thought that they had made noise enough, we hinted as much, and (saying to his conscience, "Christmas comes but once a year") David produced a bottle of rum, which was promptly taken in charge by the head Krooman, "Chop-Dollar." Dressed in his best blue jacket and white duck trowsers, he seemed to be acting as Master of Ceremonies, and wore an expression of face as solemn as if he were conducting a funeral instead of a holiday frolic.

After the excitement of the war-dance was over, I began to grow anxious about Tom and dinner, and on peeping into the kitchen, what was my dismay to find no Tom—no fire—no beef—no plum-pudding! However, Sam, who had now returned to his duties, comforted me with the information that Tom had carried off our dinner to be cooked in the marines' galley ; and I took no further care about the matter until six o'clock, when the pangs of hunger again urged me to action. Still no sign of cook or dinner, and scouts were now sent out in all directions in search of the "missing," but with no result. Ultimately David went, and his finding of the case was—Tom drunk, galley locked, fire out, and nobody knows nothing about nothing!

Here was a nice state of things on Christmas Day: no dinner, and nothing in the larder ; for in these climes one cannot be fore-stocked in fresh provisions at Christmas time as in frosty England. The best result of my forage was eggs and bacon. It was very hard, and I felt very cross ; while, to make the matter worse, David was so unmanly as to treat the misfortune as a good joke, except in so far as Tom's conduct was concerned. That he felt he must punish as the same fault had occurred several times before ; and only the previous evening, Tom had been warned that the next offence of the kind would be reported.

There is surely no duty in life more disagreeable than that of fault-finding, and the necessity for it in the present case was an unpleasant thought on Christmas Day ; but after making tip our minds, the flavour of it vanished from our bacon and eggs, and we contrived to spend a delightful evening. A cup of tea smoothed my ruffled humour, and we congratulated ourselves on the probability of a more joyful awakening next morning, than if we had dined heavily à la John Bull.

I certainly never expected to see our Christmas joint again, thinking its ashes had gone to swell the great cinder heap on which we lived. But, amazing to relate, it appeared next morning at breakfast—cold and none the worse ; so did our cook—also cold but not in so good condition, poor fellow! David almost changed his mind and would fain have taken no notice, especially, if the truth must be told, because reporting Tom was tantamount to dismissing him, and we must thus punish ourselves by being short-handed during the busy days before leaving.

But remembering the danger of an unfulfilled warning, he stuck to his word, and Tom was taken to the Captain's office—had thirty days' grog stopped, and on my husband's relieving him from duty with us, he was sent to tend the bullocks at the Mountain.

Let us hope he was more active in ministering to their physical needs than he had been to ours. Exit Tom!


Chapter XXI