"In boxes." — Waiting for the Mail. — Dead Man's Beach. — Garrison Cemetery. — The music of the waves. — A coral strand. — The "Blow-hole." — The Rollers again. — The Heliometer in danger. — Its fortunate escape. — Volcanic scenery. — Comfortless Cove. — Lonely graves. — A vision of the past.
BUT the Kroomen have betrayed me into a long digression, and it is now absolutely necessary that I return to Commodore's Cottage and its inmates.
We had hoped to spend our Christmas holidays at Green Mountain, but having no authentic information as to when the Mail would arrive, we dared not venture far from harbour. Counting from the departure of the previous Mail, she was due on the 10th of January ; but the captain of a barque which arrived from the Cape on Christmas Eve, brought word from the agents there, that the steamer calling next at Ascension would leave Cape Town on Christmas Day. In this case we must expect her on the 3rd or 4th of January. It was very annoying to be "in boxes," and in a state of uncertainty about our departure for ten days, but it would have been infinitely more annoying to be left behind. Accordingly, we gave up the idea of removing our household to the Mountain, and contented ourselves with making short excursions from Garrison instead.
It was now Ascension mid-summer, and there was light enough for a good walk after five o'clock. Our first spare afternoon was devoted to "Dead Man's Beach," which I have already described as lying south of Pierhead, and which, notwithstanding its gloomy name, is bright and life-like, as the blue waves dance in the sunlight, and break in quick succession on the glistening sand. But about 100 yards from the sea, where this pretty white sand runs into the black clinker, the name is justified, for here lies the Garrison Cemetery, very full of graves and very dismal.
Not that the one condition is the necessary consequence of the other. It was not the graves that made it dismal, but the crumbling headstones covered with black dust ; the wall, broken down in many parts by the last heavy rains, half-burying some gravestones in its ruins ; one or two open graves, and tools lying about for making others ; the perfect barrenness everywhere, for not the tiniest flower bloomed within or without. It was indeed a picture of death and decay, and the sea sang a constant dirge for the lost lives of the many brave sailors that lie buried here, within sound of her mourning voice.
After leaving the Cemetery, we continued our walk close to the water's edge, enjoying the fresh breeze, and looking out for a curious beach phenomenon somewhere about, called "The Blow-hole." Not knowing exactly what to expect, I fancied that a disturbed pool, which we now chanced upon, was the object of our search. Here the waves were surging through an underground passage, sending forth a cloud of spray from among the rocks, accompanied by a rich, low musical sound. The music had a metallic character, and something very like it we had often heard and wondered about at Mars Bay. There, it was audible only at certain spots and at certain times. In the Transit Hut it was nearly always to be heard, but when the rollers were in, we could hear it also in the Heliometer House, and in the open air.
We often puzzled over it, and concluded that it must be caused by the percussion of the waves against the rocks, which, in many cases, were of such a nature as to ring like a piece of metal when struck.
While we stood watching the waves and listening to their music, one of the hospital patients (who was strolling about idly, poor man, with a broken arm) came up to us, and, in answer to our inquiries, he told us that the Blow-hole was still some little distance off.
Ten minutes' walking brought us to it. At the extreme end of the sandy beach, or more poetically and more truthfully speaking-the "coral strand," we found a curious natural fountain playing.
"Not a fountain," said my husband, "but a champagne bottle uncorked !"
From a little hole, not a foot in diameter, in the flat-surfaced rock, a stream of water suddenly gushed forth ; and, rushing up twenty or thirty feet, broke into spray ; then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving the narrow vent quiet till the next surge of the waves, when again the fountain leapt forth like a thing of life and sudden death. It was pleasant to watch it—with its fitful activity, so unlike the steady, constant motion of the waves, which were coming and going with the dull monotonous sound that makes one sad or sleepy according to the mood.
To-day there was none of the sharp crash that the rollers bring with them—the bay was calm, and we regretted it, because the Blow-hole takes much additional life from the rollers. Those inconvenient, disobliging, unaccommodating rollers! They declined to satisfy our desire for a "spectacle" this afternoon, but next day they created one, undesired, and almost caused us a terrible misfortune.
With a view to being prepared for the arrival of the Mail on the 3rd of January, my husband returned to Mars Bay on the 27th of December, along with a party of blue-jackets and marines, intending to dismount the instruments and bring them back with him in the steam-launch, as he had now more confidence in the safety of the landing. Meantime, a lighter was moored in the bay, waiting to be loaded once more with our baggage.
When they got to Mars Bay at 9 A.M., rollers were threatening, and my husband thought it advisable to send off the most precious and delicate part of his cargo first. So the Heliometer-tube was quickly dismounted, fitted carefully into its case and carried by four men down to the beach, where it was placed on the seats of a dingey to be sculled out to the lighter.
But this dingey was aged and frail ; indeed so often had it been repaired, that current gossip reported a structure of tea-lead and brown paper to have taken the place of the original dingey. Be this as it may, the little boat was unfortunately caught in a Scylla and Charybdis condition by a mischievous roller, and cast on the top of a rock in mid-channel. The men got her off almost immediately, and the shock was not a severe one, but unhappily severe enough to knock a hole in the bottom of the fragile dingey, which at once began to fill. They sculled out with all haste, but by the time they got along-side the lighter, the boat was filled nearly to the thwarts, and the Heliometer was saved from damp only by having been placed upon the seats. By dint of baling (the dingey being lightened of the Heliometer, which was now safely on board the lighter), they got her back to shore, but she gave no hope of being of any further use in taking off the other things.
Then, after seeing everything dismantled and carried to the beach, David set off to Garrison to beg for another boat. He arrived shortly after noon very hot and tired, and his unexpected appearance gave me quite a shock. Are the difficulties of the Mars expedition never to be at an end? 1 thought. But how thankful I felt not to have seen the Heliometer being sculled out to sea in a sinking boat. The excitement would have been more intense than pleasurable. And how I wished the "uncanny" instrument safe at home!
It seemed as if Mars Bay claimed a right to it, and resented our carrying off her raison d'être. But we could not afford to leave such a precious souvenir ; and the same evening another dingey took everything on board the lighter, which was at once towed round to the Pierhead, there to await the arrival of the Mail.
For the next few days my husband was busy packing. I too, had some of that work to do on a smaller scale, and there being no one to cook for us except a blue-jacket, who was strange to the art, the days at Commodore's Cottage were hot and fatiguing this Christmas-tide.
We always found time and inclination, however, for our evening walk, and one day some friends joined us in an excursion to Comfortless Cove. The distance from Garrison is not great—about two miles, I should think ; but all Ascension miles must be multiplied at least by three, in order to reduce them to the fatigue unit of the English mile ; and, despite the assistance given by my never-failing friend Jimmy Chivas, some of us found the way long and tiring. One or two other mules were at our disposal ; but unfortunately the Ascension had only one side-saddle on board, so three ladies had to make alternate use of Jimmy) and trust to their alpenstocks for the rest.
This time our road lay in exactly the opposite direction to that we had taken in seeking for the Blow-hole. We now turned our steps towards Long Beach, past the turtle ponds. At first we skirt the foot of Cross Hill, whose steep sides of red cinders keep off all view and all coolness ; but, these past, the breeze again rushes down upon us, the country opens up, the "Three Sisters" rise gracefully from the plains, and away in the distance "Green Mountain" and its floating clouds fill the cast horizon with a beautiful mystery.
Beyond Long Beach, a point of rocky ground runs out into the sea, very much like South Point, and this we had to cross in order to reach Comfortless Cove, in the same way as South Point is crossed in going from Mars Bay to Gannet Bay. But here the rock is more disintegrated, easier to get over, and less picturesque. The white colour is mostly absent, and the prevailing tint is a deep red, changing through purplish slate into brown.
It was here ugly, dusty, and temper-trying ; but looking up through the quiet hills, a sense of beauty was borne upon one unknowingly—that beauty which seems to belong so entirely to volcanic scenery—the beauty of calm after storm, of peace after tumult ; the beauty of the seamed, fire-furrowed face of a quiet crater, which, like the beauty of wrinkled faces that have passed through the toil and fire of life, demands from the heart a greater tribute than mere admiration, and gives it in return a feeling of rest and thankfulness that the hot fight is over.
After passing over this dusty point, where the sea was for the most part hidden by the high rocks that edge the shore, it was a pleasant surprise to catch all at once the blue gleam of the water running into a tiny beach of white sand, which narrowed into the gully that had appeared, in the distance, but as a crack in our rough road. On the other side of this gully the ground rises perpendicularly, and forms a table-land, on which paths have been traced and broad level spaces cleared of ashes and clinker. Altogether, the place presented to us just such an appearance as, no doubt, Mars Bay presents, now that our tents are gone, to any stranger wandering on the southern shore of Ascension.
But here there was something besides. As we looked over the edge of the sea-sawn gorge, we saw a little cluster of white-washed graves lying in its bosom. Here there were no broken, crumbling walls ; for the island shore had thrown itself around the sacred spot, sheltering it in faithful arms, strong and sure as its own existence ; and the sleepless sea kept watch.
We did not go down into the valley, but rested on its rocky side ; and here a waking dream stole over me, born of the sad scene and of the words of our guide—"A ship in quarantine for yellow fever landed her sick here, and many of them died."
Strong men are busy pitching tents in nervous haste for wives and comrades are sickening in the sun, and there is none to help—no friendly neighbour to offer a cup of cold water to parched lips, no kindly hand to smooth a fever-tossed pillow. They are alone with God and with their sorrow, and some of them are sick unto death.
Now I can see a sad company of men, bearing living, dying burdens up the steep shores from where the plague-stricken ship lies anchored ; but not a sound breaks the stillness, save an occasional mean which the toilers are too sad to answer, for they are bearing the future—the heaviest burden of the human soul—perhaps are envying those whose sufferings are passing away, and fearing, "Shall there be no man left to bury us?"
Again and again I see sad, silent processions wending their way down into this sheltered nook, growing smaller, more sad and more silent each time that another and another member of the doomed company is borne to his last resting-place, until at last my eyes grow so dim with tears, that past and present are blotted from my sight.
How many died I know not, but it seemed to me as if all must have suffered equally—the survivors as much as those that are left behind in the little valley—struggling with Death in this dreary solitude, living in close communication with him, watching his ravages, and waiting for his coming. Did any go mad, or did Christian faith and the courage of noble souls soften this awful experience into a gentle memory, refining the heart? God knoweth and God judgeth. "Let the earth rejoice."