CHAPTER XXIII.

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS.

A hot New Year's Day. — A rifle match. — Rueful knights. — Bravo the Ascension! — A domestic excitement — "Too many cooks spoil the broth." — Fish waiting for Soup. — The party behind the chairs. — In quest of Turtle. — A lovely night. — No success. — Another attempt. — South-west Bay. — Poor Pussy. — Lost on the Clinker. — Tired and Turtleless. — Boatswain Bird Island. — Among the birds. — A noisy reception. — A painful greeting. — Collecting specimens. — A cloud of birds. — No guano.

NEW YEAR'S DAY, 1878, was a hot day in Ascension, and we tried hard to keep cool by recalling former New Year's Days spent in Scotland, much to the disadvantage of the present one.

What a burden life becomes when its chief end is to war against heat! Life, did I say? It is only existence in such latitudes, and with brain half-awake you speculate dreamily about life, with its hurry and feverish bustle, as a thing far off and beyond you ; and if sometimes you try to grasp it, nerves and spirit fail, you miss it, and, worn out with the effort, sink back into a deeper lethargy than before. That is to say, if you do not wear some gre-gre strong enough, to defy the evil power of indolence—a Fetish too evil and too powerful in these climes to be easily overcome. But English pluck and Scotch endurance can do it. Stay at home, or hang these gre-gres round your neck.

In Ascension each man wore one ; and at six o'clock this New Year's morning my husband and two of the island officers were hard at work, practising for a rifle match that they were to shoot the same afternoon against three officers of H.M.S. Sea-gull, then in harbour.

David was sadly out of practice ; neither did the scoring of his allies, in this preliminary canter, give much promise of success, especially as their opponents had a high reputation as marksmen. The fear that the island should be beaten by the strangers, was strong enough to get up an excitement among us positively alarming in such weather ; and the spirit of "buckling on the armour" showed itself to be still alive in wifely bosoms.

At four P.M., the tourney commenced, and from the door of Commodore's Cottage I had full view of the range. I could see the marker's flags as they rose and fell—yellow, outer—blue, centre—red and white "bull's-eye;" but this became monotonous, when I could not see who fired the shots. So by-and-by two other ladies and I walked across to a tent, that had been placed near the range for onlookers. There we watched each shot with great interest, but the buckling-on-the-armour spirit, as well as every other sentiment, of the fine old times of chivalry and romance, fled at sight of white flannel suits and braided uniforms covered from top to toe with the Gregory's-powder-coloured dust of the country. What rueful figures our knights presented! They, shot very badly too, but fortunately the "Seagulls" shot worse, and H.M.S. Ascension came off victorious by nineteen points. Bravo, the Ascension!

On the day following I had another excitement, more peculiarly my own. With a ménage consisting of a blue-jacket and a Krooman, we were bold enough to give a dinner-party—or at least to invite four guests, and trust to the chef of the Island Bakery to furnish a suitable repast. But my trust was not strong, having already had experience of his skill in small details ; and, notwithstanding the re-assuring fact that on one occasion be had been curry-maker to the Duke of Edinburgh, I awaited the coming of our little fête-day with a certain amount of nervousness.

What a day of bustle it was! One would have thought the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of London were about to be entertained ; and such was the fuss, that I began to feel as if my party must be growing every hour.

But if the commotion was great during the day, by night it had swelled into a panic. Silver entrée-dishes from the officers' mess were seen borne aloft on the sable head of a Krooman, giving him quite a kingly air ; the more so, that he was the only one of the flying messengers that had not lost his dignity and stately pace. Presently a little dark-eyed St. Helena boy rushes past with six champagne glasses in danger of their fragile lives. Then, across their path, bursts, like a meteor, a red-faced, white-aproned cook, with a stewpan from the mess galley. A heap of plates and a cold tongue arrive from an opposite direction—canteen-ways. Viands approach from the four points of the compass, and gradually the bustle increases until a climax is reached at the door of the Bakery.

It appears that the baker had pressed into his service all willing hands, and had invaded every galley where talent was to be found, no doubt with a good purpose ; but when I sniffed from afar this hurrying to and fro, I trembled for the consequences, and bethought me of a certain Scotch proverb, which says, "Too many cooks spoil the broth."

Our guests arrive punctually at 7 P.M., and I meekly ask a bright lad who is engaged as a waiter, if dinner is ready.

"Well, ma'am, the fish has been here half-an-hour, and everything has come except the soup," is the answer of this "enfant terrible."

Some idea of beginning at the wrong end flits across my mind, but I give it up, and resolve to wait for the soup.

All my housewifely sisters, who know what the preprandial ten minutes are to their nerves under ordinary circumstances, will pity me, left thus to the mercy of many cooks, and the agonies of fish waiting for soup. However, old Father Time, who carries off so many happy moments in his flight, is also kind enough to sweep away in their turn such trying moments as these, and at 7.15 the soup arrived.

It says much for the pleasant conversation of our friends, that no sooner had we sat down to table than I forgot my troubles, and was only sensible of everything being fairly good and of a gradual increase of waiters as the dinner proceeded. Black waiters and white elbowed each other, and there was a good deal of knocking about in passing plates, accompanied by such stage whispers as "Get along, Jim." "Where's your 'ead?" "Ongtrys, quick!" On the whole, the party behind the chairs seemed to me to enjoy the proceedings thoroughly, and I only hope that the seated guests were as happy in their way.

The day after this domestic event was a very tiresome one. It was the 3rd of January, and had the latest news from the Cape been correct, in all probability the Mail would be in Clarence Bay before night. Under these circumstances we were tied all the day to Garrison, with corded boxes and an unpleasant feeling of expectation. But no mail appeared. Our vigilance and our boxes were slacked, and as the hours passed on, we began to hatch plans for new excursions.

The turtle season had just commenced, but was, as yet, unproductive—indeed, the watchers had not been sent out ; and David and I were stimulated by an ambition to turn the first turtle of the season. So, armed with the Captain's permission, and a noose for the fins of our expected captives, we set out for Dead Man's Beach, accompanied by Brackley, about an hour after sunset on Saturday evening.

On this beach no regular watchers are stationed, and it is the perquisite of the Kroomen to turn all the turtles that come ashore here ; a penalty of 5l. being inflicted on any person or persons found turning turtle without a licence.

Some yards above high-water mark, we came upon the little wooden hut used by the Kroomen in their watches, but as yet it was untenanted ; and, while my husband and Brackley walked softly backwards and forwards along the water's edge, I spread out my rug here and lay watching the stars.

It was a lovely night. A pile of heavy, dark clouds lay in the east, and every now and again a single flake, detaching itself from the mass, would float overhead and sully for a moment the pure blue sky, that was glittering with hosts of stars. The moon was young, and as she gently glided towards the west, her crescent horn was reflected in a lake of silver on the dark waters of the ocean. When she had sunk to rest, then Venus lit up the sea. Never had I seen the Planet of Love so brilliant ; she seemed to have cast off her own pale beauty, and glowed with the ruddier light of Mars. I watched her growing redder and, redder as she sank lower and lower into the west, till at last Ocean, enamoured of her beauty, embraced her in his cold arms, and lo ! the sky was dark.

The noise of the water had been growing fainter and more distant in my ears, and I am not certain if the dreams that followed were altogether waking ones. I know I started unmistakeably when a voice whispered close to my ear, "It is ten o'clock, and there is no appearance of turtle. I think of taking you home, and then I shall walk out to South-west Bay to try our luck there."

Ten o'clock! then I must have been asleep. The air was blowing so softly that I felt loth to exchange my star-lit couch for the stuffy bedroom at Commodore's Cottage. But I could not spend the night here alone, and not having inclination for a longer walk I had no choice but to trot meekly home—serve my lord and master with a substantial supper, and go to bed ; while he and Brackley again set out, after having securely locked me up with the dogs. The poor little beasts howled piteously at being left behind. The air was stifling, and I did not sleep nearly so well as I had done on Dead Man's Beach. I should have fared worse, however, had I attempted to accompany the hunting party to South-west Bay.

The tale of their misfortunes was comical. After a stiff walk of some three miles across the clinker, they reached the beach without mischance, and there, the first thing they saw was a dark moving object, a few yards in front of them.

Could it be a turtle? No, it was much too small. A wildcat? Yes—a cat at least, but hardly wild ; not even "wildgewordene" (as Dr. Borgen very expressively terms the Ascension cats) ; for pussy advanced shyly towards David, and rubbed herself on his legs ; mewing most pathetically all the while. Then she scampered off for a few paces, came back, and tried all her powers of coaxing to induce them to follow her, which they did, till they came to the door of the turtle-turners' hut, now empty. Here pussy scratched and whined, and, having finally led them to a waterbutt, became very excited.

Poor suffering creature! she had been left behind by the men who usually dig limestone here when it is not the turtle season, and she was almost dying of thirst. David made all haste to get down water for her, which she drank most greedily for several minutes without lifting her bead. Then he filled all the "panikins" he could find and placed them within her reach, so that she might be sure of a plentiful supply, until her careless owners should return to their work.

This done, they kept watch upon the beach for about an hour, but with no result, and then turned homewards, tired and ready for bed. But, alas! there were many slips between South-west Bay and Commodore's Cottage.

It was now a moonless night, with the sky overcast, and they somehow contrived to miss the steep narrow path which leads from the beach up to Waterloo Plains. After some ineffectual attempts to find the lost way, they succeeded in climbing up the face of the rock, at the cost of many bruises and much damage to clothing.

Nor were their troubles to end here ; for, instead of the expected plain, they still found themselves among clinker—everywhere clinker, and wandered painfully over the rough ground for some hours. At last the clouds cleared away and showed the welcome sight of the Great Bear ; and the wanderers, coming at the same time on signs of civilization in the shape of broken beer-bottles, were able to reach Garrison just before daylight—tired and turtleless.

There was only one excursion during these pleasant Christmas holidays that I was not able to take part in ; but I need not omit to chronicle it on that account, because a paper of my husband's, written at the time, enables me to tell probably more of what was to be seen, than if I myself had been an eye-witness. His description of the abode of the birds interested me greatly, and, hoping it may be not without interest to my readers, I close this chapter with a long quotation:—

"I had long wished to visit Boatswain Bird Island, and fortunately an opportunity for doing so occurred during the last week of our stay in Ascension.

"The owners of a schooner that was frequently employed in conveying stores to Ascension had beard that on Boatswain Bird Island there were considerable supplies of guano, which they would be glad to purchase from the Admiralty, or to convey to England for a reasonable freight. To give the Admiralty a satisfactory answer to their questions on the subject, a visit to the island became necessary ; and Captain Phillimore having offered me a place in the steam-launch, we set off one morning before sunrise to visit the abode of the birds.

"Ascension in the early morning certainly looks its best. A glorious sunrise we had, and the rosy sunlight, illuminating the greys and yellows and reds of the strange scenery, clothed it with a beauty seen at no other time—redeemed it from the weird, and transformed it into the beautiful.

"Much we enjoyed our sail as far as North-east Point, but on rounding that, we encountered the long heavy swell from which we had been sheltered in the lee of the island, and our little craft began to knock about in a way more lively than pleasant. The interest in the view of the island began to give way to an uneasy sensation, which all sea-voyagers recognize as a threatening of worse to come ; but before the alarming symptoms had time to develop fully, we were safely anchored in the shelter of the friendly rock we had come to visit.

"Only a furlong distant from the main island, it rises 300 feet sheer out of 30 fathom water ; its entire surface being coloured pale yellow by a thin coating of guano, formed by the birds which occupy every nook and cranny of the steep sides, and cover nearly the whole of the upper surface.

"The dingey was launched, and we pulled under a projecting rock, from which swung a rope-ladder. Climbing up, we reached a narrow ledge, whence, with the assistance of a rope securely anchored above, a good scramble brought us to the top. A perilous job it must have been to climb the rock without this assistance.

"But the climb was soon forgotten in the strange interest of the place. On the sides we had encountered chiefly the smaller birds, black and white noddies, and I was much interested to find here in great numbers our mysterious friend of Mars Bay, the Sterna leucocapilla.

"An ornithological friend had positively assured me that on his last visit to this rock, a year ago, not a single specimen of this bird was to be found there, but now the face of the rock was covered with them by thousands.

"The beautiful white noddies, which I now saw for the first time, flew about our heads with angry chirps or little screams, and would then look reproach with their mild black eyes as they flapped so close to us that they could be caught by a quickly outstretched hand. No more graceful bird on the wing have I ever seen than this delicate and pure white creature, with its coal-black eyes, bill, and feet.

"Here and there we passed the nests of the beautiful 'Tropic' or 'Boatswain' birds, generally so shy and unapproachable ; but woe betide the unfortunate hand that disturbs them on their nests, unless with precaution and good protection. A peck of that strong red beak will go to the bone, and much amusement was afforded by the repeated defeats of our first attempts to secure some of the birds.

"But, if we were greeted with some noise by the noddies as we ascended the sides, the sound was but as a murmur to the infernal din that greeted our first appearance on the top. I had just put my foot on the level, when a hideous scream behind me, followed by acute pain in the calf of the leg, made me turn round in haste. I found the offender to be a great goggle-eyed yellow-billed gannet ; and when I saw the long sharp bill and. the wicked look of satisfaction at the wild work he was making with my trowsers, a sigh of thankfulness escaped me that I had not invaded Boatswain Bird Island in a kilt. I revenged the damage by knocking him on the head.

"His next-door neighbour, however, did not seem to mind the treatment of his fellow in the least. There he sat glaring, goggling, and screaming with all his might, but not attempting to move, nor did the next, nor the next. There they were in rows, side by side, head to tail, in hundreds, a compact, screaming, goggling, quarrelsome mass.

"A few steps further, and what is this? A big, black, struggling lump with a red sack at one end—What can it be? After a few ineffectual struggles, a head developes out of the mass and rises up, a few struggles more and legs appear, and then with a flop, flop, flop, and half-a-dozen skips, a splendid frigate bird gets on the wing and floats away, the picture of elegance and grace. The great red sack, distended with water, hangs below his head like a grand beard, and sways gently with every turn of the graceful motion—the only speck of colour in his glossy black.

"Further on, there is more flop, flopping of wings, and this time it is not a single bird, but dozens and dozens of them, all swinging their sacks and struggling to rise, and making morning hideous with their screams. More gannets, more frigate birds, more boatswain birds at every step—colony by colony. Many refuse to rise at all ; others, having wheeled round three or four times, alight again, but all this time they never stop screaming—Pandemonium let loose!

"A considerable colony of Wide-awakes had established themselves here, doubtless, being warned by previous experience, to escape plunder of their eggs by the marines and St. Helena boys at the more accessible Fairs. The habits of these rock-dwelling Wideawakes were, however, in every respect identical with those of their brethren on the plains—just as bold in defence of their eggs, just as stupid in coming within reach of capture.

"And now we set about our business ; the Captain to measure the guano, and I to make a collection of the birds and eggs. There was no difficulty in getting birds ; but some trouble in getting a male and female of each species, both young and old, as well as some eggs of each. In this we at last succeeded, and with great care and trouble conveyed the frail eggs down the staircase of rope, and brought them in safety on board the launch.

"Then up with anchor and back to Garrison ; but before we left, the engineer gave a blast of the steam-whistle, and then what a row! A cloud of birds darkened the sky, and we heard their frightened screams till we were a mile off. We returned to Garrison with high spirits and voracious appetites. The birds and eggs were placed in the hands of our kind and enthusiastic friend Mr. Unwin, who prepared the skins for transport to England.

"Our search for guano was not satisfactory ; at least the quantity that could have been obtained seemed not sufficient to warrant the expense of the arrangements necessary for its shipment. There were only two or three inches of pure guano over most parts of the island, and in many places the surface was merely coated.

"How long must the great Guano Islands have been peopled by sea-fowl to yield the enormous supplies that have enriched England?"


Chapter XXIV