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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXX. - Afloat again


ON leaving South Africa, our number was raised from four to five by our second boy, born at Cape Town. We had our choice between returning by a sailing ship, or by a Union liner as we went out. I preferred the sailing ship because I hoped the longer voyage would be good for my health. The barque "Chatham," Captain Thurtle, which had been doing transport of troops work in India, was lying in the bay repairing some damage it had suffered in a storm off Cape Agulhas. I went on board to see what kind of quarters we should have in it. It's poop cabins were comfortable, and the stern one, with two broad windows, which my wife and I were to have, was a nice square room in which a bed was set up for my wife and the baby, while I slept on the bulkhead under the two windows. My bed was comfortable, except on stormy nights, when I was liable, with blankets and mattress, to be thrown out on the floor, which was only a foot below the bulkhead. Having settled our few small affairs, and sold our house furniture at a heavy loss, we embarked, bag and baggage, when the captain thought we would sail in two days, as his Admiralty case concerning the damages suffered in the storm was concluded. But he was deceived. Some hitch occurred, and the decision was postponed for a fort- night. We did not much grudge the delay ; for we amused ourselves by fishing from the deck. It was the high time for the mosquito nuisance on shore, and the little plagues did not venture out on the bay. I discovered that I could, while stretched on my mattress reading a book, fish in a lazy way by sending my lines out through the stern windows. I had a pail beside me in which to throw the caught fish, some of which were of the sardine kind, and others of a much larger sort. The snook, a fish of salmon size and shape, did not come often further than the breakwater, where it was in shoals, but stray specimens of the species paid us visits, and escaped capture because we were not looking for them.

We sailed at last, and in starting lost an anchor, which loss the captain took quite philosophically, although he was apt to lose his temper about trifles. There were but two passengers besides ourselves, Dr Burlinson, from Mauritius, and young Mr Scarborough from the Oliphant River Valley, whose stepfather had been striving to carry out a vast scheme of agricultural improvement, and showing the Boers what they might do if they took to soil cultivation. He did not, unfortunately, reap the reward he deserved, and the Boers stuck to their old easy-going pastoral ways. We left Table Bay in fair weather, but got into a rough gale before we parted company with the sea birds, or lost sight of the Lion's Head and Table Mountain. We scudded before that gale for several days on our way to St Helena, but did not suffer from sea sickness as we would certainly have done in a steamer. Barring loss of time and risks from storm, one enjoys the sea far more in a sailing ship than in the most up-to- date and luxurious liner, with its moving hotel company.

On coming out on deck one morning, after a rainy night, I saw that we were sailing close to the rough, abrupt, and barren cliffs of St Helena, which looked as sooty black as if they had in the long ago been crowded stacks of chimneys for Vulcan's under- ground furnaces. There is plenty of lava and scoriae scattered about on the surface of St Helena, and plenty evidence of extinct volcanoes, but the sooty cliffs owe their forbidding colour to their own basaltic substance. We passed one narrow valley and then came to another, at the mouth of which is Jamestown, the capital of the island. In front of it is the roadstead, where, among the other shipping, we cast anchor. The roadstead has good anchorage, which is fortunate, for the island has no harbour, and even here the landing on the stairs is not easy when the Atlantic rollers are being driven by wind. From the sea, St Helena has the appearance of having been intended to be a towering mountain like Ascension, and to having stopped in elevation at half the intended height, with a tableland top. I would not think it, in my Highland walking years, a long journey to go round its circumference of little more than thirty miles in one sun-lit day.

Almost as soon as we anchored, the Governor sent notice that the "Chatham" was wanted for Government service, and must await orders. The captain was delighted, and neither Dr Burlinson nor we were sorry about the fortnight's stay. The service required was to take home old artillery guns, with shells, round shot, and chain-shot, old muskets, and other obsolete military and naval accoutrements which had been sent out when George the Third was king. In the fortnight of detention we had ample time for exploring the little island, with its hot, tropical, narrow valleys, and its pleasant tableland. Here plants and trees of temperate and hot countries flourish well together. We happened to arrive at the end of the early rain, and when vegetation was reviving. The early St Helena rain comes in January and February, and the late one in July or August. I never saw a hay-stack at the Cape, but on the tableland of St Helena there were not a few of them, and the grazing fields were like English ones. So were the homes of the farmers, and the villas of the traders, who wanted to breathe cooler air than they had in Jamestown. This island is, notwithstanding its small size and its tropical position between the African Coast and Brazil, wonderfully well watered all the year round, thanks to the rain clouds which so often visit and bedew it.

The steam era had already partly put an end to St Helena's old importance as a place of call, but in 1867 it was a rendezvous for the Americans who prosecuted the Antarctic whale fishing, and also for the squadron which watched the African Coast for putting down the slave trade; and it had then, and for years afterwards, a small British garrison to man its strong fortifications. Its resident population were of many races and shades of colour, but there was no mistake in this lone isle of the ocean about British supremacy. Like all visitors to St Helena, we went to see Napoleon's empty grave, and Longwood, where he lived and died, the doctor and captain on horseback, and my wife and I in a small phaeton drawn by smart little ponies. How refreshing it felt after the stifling heat of the narrow valley to breathe the upland air and to look out on the surrounding ocean and hear the thunder of its huge waves dashing themselves high against the black, barren, frowning cliffs! Napoleon III. was on the throne of France, and naturally cherished the memory of his uncle. The Crimean war brought him into close alliance with our country, and it pleased him to be allowed to guard Longwood and the empty tomb, whence years before Louis Philippe had, to his own dynastic detriment, transported Napoleon's body to Paris, "to repose on the banks of the Seine among the people he had loved so well." So we found Longwood and the valley, or depression of the tomb, guarded as sacred by courteous French soldiers.

The valley of the tomb was a lovely place to be buried in. The willow under which Napoleon used, when alive, to stop and meditate was close to the tomb, and vigorously flourishing. Canary birds were flitting among the samphire bushes, and we started on our way a covey of partridges. Longwood has a delightful situation. The house is very like many residences of small farming proprietors or yeomen in England, comfortable, with good rooms, and of no great size. The room in which Napoleon died had been put back into precisely the same state in which it was when he breathed his last there on the 5th of May, 1821. Longwood might well have been an ideal residence for a modern philosopher, or for a brotherhood of mediaeval monks who cultivated the fruitful soil and served future generations by writing annals and transcribing precious ancient manuscripts. To the restless greatest leader of hosts the world had ever seen, Longwood was a prison, and the whole island a cage against whose bars the captured eagle was perpetually Happing its wings, and tearing with beak and talons in impotent rage. It was shabby on the part of the Allies to refuse him the title of Emperor. Russia, Austria, and France again under the Bourbons sent representatives to St Helena to see to it that he was kept by Britain in safe custody. Well was it for the prisoner of Europe that he had not been placed in the hands of any one of the other three Powers, and that his captivity was in no worse place than St Helena. But, excusably, he and his devoted partisans were constantly plotting a repetition of the escape from Elba, and Napoleon personally got some amusement out of the nervous anxiety in which he kept Governor Sir Hudson Lowe. Could Napoleon have seen himself as after ages see him, he would surely not have acted like a lion changed into a cat, which tormented a caught mouse by playing with it before dispatching it.

Before descending to Jamestown we dined the four of us in the cool of the evening, in the Rose and Crown Inn, which is at the top of the steep ascent, and in the neatly kept lawn of which there were camellias that grew to the size of small trees. I have a camellia walking stick and a little twig from Napoleon's tomb as St Helena memorials to this day. A chief item of the well-cooked dinner was the delicate fish called bullseye. St Helena is well furnished with many kinds of fine, and less good, eatable fish, and the names by which the various sorts have got ticketed, such as bullseyes, old wives, soldiers, five fingers, hogs-in -armour, are even more curious than the fish themselves. The large conger eels, so ugly to the eyes, are splendid to eat. The rocks and stones in or on the edge of the sea are covered with active black crabs which scuttle out of sight when people approaches. Boys in boats come out with ground bait to fish among the shipping. Bonita, a fish nice to look at and poor to eat, was a frequent capture of theirs. We had aldermanic turtle soup on board the "Chatham" one or more days. The fishermen had just caught some turtles, one of which was excessively big, which had floated in with a gale from Ascension, and Captain Thurtle bethought him of giving us a treat. He always kept a good board, but at St Helena he was doing a profitable business, and was extra liberal.

It happened, fortunately for Captain Thurtle, that when he anchored in the roadstead, the islanders had exhausted their supply of sugar, and that he had Mauritian sugar, intended for England when he bought it, to sell to them, and that, at the same time, the St Helena Government had a cargo of old war stores to give him for taking home. Sugar went and the old war stores came in, and our "old man" was in the best of humours. He, therefore, made no objection to fit out and man one of his boats for conveying himself, the doctor, and me, with a band of the island officials, for whom there was no room in their own boat, on a fishing excursion to guano rock-islets some nine miles away from the anchorage. Provisions, solid and liquid, for luncheon on the rocks were stowed in our boat, and on the other boat likewise, yet when far on and passing nearly away from the other corner of St Helena, it was discovered that there was not a frying-pan in either; but, with difficulty, our sailors managed to guide the boat through the surf near enough for the revenue man stationed there to let a frying-pan down upon us. On our return in the evening the sea was calmer, and the frying-pan was landed with less trouble than it had been embarked. On approaching our destination, we saw a Scotch vessel from Aberdeen, I think moored close to the biggest rock of the group, and its crew busily engaged in lading it with guano. The stuff they gathered seemed too white and new to be of the best quality, but had no doubt a good manurial market value. Although the greater number of the birds must then have been out at sea foraging for their daily food, a screeching cloud of them fluttered in a disturbed state about the rocks, in no thankful mood of mind regarding the intruding humans who, for their own ends, were scraping and cleaning their polluted residence. We took our boats to a rock which had been cleaned out previously, and round it many sorts of fish were swimming, ready to swallow, or suck any bait. We had fishing there to our hearts' content. Our rock had a hollow in the middle of it, and in this hollow our black cook and his assistants built a fire, placed the borrowed frying-pan over it on an improvised tripod, and cooked to perfection, for our sumptuous luncheon, as many as could be consumed of the fish freshly landed. The heat was excessive, but we came prepared for it, and also for the coolness that would come with the evening breeze and the setting sun. When we left the guano islets, we turned in to the false bay or snip in the St Helena coast, where we had to land the frying-pan. Here we had such a catch of big conger-eels that we did not leave until night closed in around us.

Anchored a little away from us on the Jamestown roadstead was quite a large squadron of wooden sailing vessels some small and some of large size which had been condemned, and were in process of being broken up, because of the way in which strength and safety had been stealthily eaten out of them by white ants. They were vessels which had been employed in the trade of the West African coast. I am not sure, yet I think I was told that the white ants were not indigenous pests of St Helena, but were imported there by the West Coast trading ships. At any rate they had got by 1867 a strong hold on the capital of St Helena, and spread beyond. On going to the public library one day, I saw that both it and the other buildings near were being gutted, because every bit of timber in them had been hollowed and ruined by these wretched pests, which conceal their ravages by hiding them- selves in the heart of the beams or posts, or anything else that is wooden, on which they prey, leaving the outside untouched. In the gutted and re-roofed buildings at Jamestown they were putting in iron instead of the eaten-out wooden beams.

But I am lingering too long over the pleasant time we stayed at St Helena. Let us now be off to England. After hoisting sail, and setting off, we had a favouring breeze and quick passage to Ascension, the conical mountain island, which lifts its tall bully's head to the sky, and has little more than its turtle beds to recommend it. The scorched, dark grey, barren rocks of the base of this mighty hill made it by contrast refreshing to think of Ben Lawers covered with snow. But I was told that the top of Ascension was pretty cool, and well watered in the dry season by catching the passing clouds, and that on it lived in peace and comfort a small colony of pensioned naval and military veterans, who raised crops and garden vegetables and fruits. Ascension was placed under the British flag, as an outpost to St Helena, the year before Napoleon had been sent there. Although of small area and small account, in the event of war, these lonely islands might turn out to be possessions of much value to the British Empire. At the Ascension sea birds, which were numerous and divided into companies, we shot with ball from small bore rifles. The many that were frightened suddenly dived, while the two or three which were killed floated away on the surface of the sea.

A favouring breeze sent us out of sight of Ascension, at our highest rate of steed ten or twelve knots an hour. When it deserted us, a few days afterwards, we found ourselves becalmed in the Doldrums, that space about the Equator where there is a gap, sometimes wide, and sometimes narrow, between the two trade-winds. It happened to be wide when we fell into it, and was a perfect trap for sailing vessels. We found one vessel held up before us, and more came up as the detention was prolonged, until we were seven, all so close together, that a project of mutual visits and entertainments was just about to be carried out when a sudden breeze dispersed us as if by a magician's wand. Water-spouts, porpoises, and flying fish are in this equatorial, middle of the Atlantic region, but we saw no birds but a few Mother Carey chickens. It is certainly a lonesome place to be held up in. Like "painted ships upon a painted ocean," the seven were kept there for upwards of a week, drifting a little forward and backward with the turns of the tide, and always coming back to their old positions. The rising of the sun out of the sea in the morning, and its sinking into it at night, was a grand sight. At noon, when it was right overhead, it seemed small, and glittering down on us like an evil eye. But under covering the heat was not so excessive as it is occasionally felt in the height of summer at Cape Town, because of the effect on the city of the bare cliffs of Table Mountain, which keeps its own head cool by the table- cloth of morning mist.

When we left Table Bay I forthwith began to write a story called "Uncle George." The plot which I had in mind to begin with was never fully developed but merely indicated, for the thing became a gallery of character sketches mingled with various speculations. The writing of it made the time fly, and caused forgetfulness of the pain of my knee, which, although never absent, was less on board than it was on land, both before and afterwards. Most of the story was written on deck, but on stormy days I lay on my bulkhead bunk and contentedly scribbled on. The only time when I stopped was when the dead lights were on the stern cabin windows. My scanty supply of what I called civilised copy paper gave out long before the story could be wound up, however abruptly, and the end of it was written OH the backs of old ship papers which the captain kindly rummaged out for me. This story was first published in the South African Magazine, a shilling monthly brought out by Mr William Foster, M.P. for Namaqualand, who succeeded me as editor of the Standard. After appearing in the magazine, it was brought out as a separate volume of upwards of 600 octavo pages. Mr Foster threw up a good commercial situation to launch out in newspaper and literary undertakings, in. which I think he might have succeeded if his business methods had been more careful and his views less sanguine. I got .46 out of the story. Before I left Cape Town Mr Foster engaged me to act on reaching England as a monthly home correspondent of the Standard; which meant that I should send out monthly a summary, with comments, of British and Continental events, that would form a sort of European supplement to the Standard. I did so for years, until the Standard was amalgamated with another Cape newspaper. I liked Mr Foster very much, for he was a cultured gentleman with high ideals, but always disposed to expend money on things which were more showy than profitable or absolutely necessary. The Standard had a good circulation, and made on the face of its books a good income. But it cost, in days of mail cart and other slow travelling, a big sum to collect accounts over the whole colony. It was not a small item of expenditure to keep a boat for boarding every ship that came into the bay, and to pay my friend the imaum, for interpreting and reporting services connected with Malay evidence in the Supreme Court. Mr Foster, who was the son of King Leopold's steward at Claremont, did not study the small economies, and the consequence of this was that, after a gallant fight, he ultimately came to financial grief, and his paper passed into other hands.

Embroidery work kept my wife as fully employed as I was with my scribbling. Mr Barry gave me a goat at Cape Town which furnished our two children and the cabin tea with milk. Kate milked the goat twice a day, and she and, indeed, all the sailors had to watch our elder boy, whose ambition was to climb the poop deck, whence a roll of the ship would have thrown him into the sea. One day he was lost sight of. An alarm was raised, but the supposed lost one came out of the captain's cabin with a banana in his hand, quite unconscious of the com- motion he had raised. Our Afrikander baby, who was beginning to feel that feet were for standing and walking, spent his days mainly in trying to pull himself up to the brass capstan by the loose end of its cable, and took all his falls, when the ship rolled, like a small philosopher. But he made up for the capstan's good behaviour by having a noisy fight with his mother about being put to bed before he felt inclined. The whole of us on board the "Chatham" formed a fair approach to a happy family. Captain Thurtle could, I believe, have been as promptly energetic as Captain Kettle himself in a dire emergency. He was of the old school of skippers, while the mate, Mr Marsden, was of the new. The cook was an Irishman, and the rest of the crew were English, except three shipwrecked foreigners who were working their passage home from the Far East. One of them, Mr Lyons, was a quiet Dutchman, who acted as second mate, and thought much about his wife and children in Holland. The second was a small Breton French- man of fiery mein and temper, whom the Dutchman kept under stern control. The third was a big, good-natured Dane, who always went about his work with a smile on his face and top-boots on his legs. He and his boots were so inseparable that Dr Burlinson would wish us to believe that he slept in them.

When we got out of the Doldrums, Captain Thurtle had to mark our course on a new chart section, and by a careless matching of the old with the new section, about which he was afterwards very angry with himself, he began his fresh markings on a wrong degree of longitude. We, therefore, to the captain's surprise and vexation, found ourselves, one rather stormy morning, in the Sargasso Sea, sailing among large and small heaving islands of weeds, by which, as far as we could see, the water around us was all covered. The channels between these islands were often closing, and new ones were often opening, so that it was impossible to keep the ship clear of the clogging masses of mysterious weeds. A lunar observation told us where we were, and then the charts were overhauled and the cause of our wandering into the Sargasso Sea was discovered. We had rough weather among the weeds, and then such calm weather that when we neared Flores, the doctor and I persuaded the captain to call there and let us have a run ashore, while he did trading with the islanders. But an hour later, a high gale set in, and before daylight the "Chatham" swept far past Flores, and was going down into valleys, between mountain waves, and rising like a duck out of what looked like a pit of destruction. The storm was a long continued one, and the ship was so strained that pumping was never afterwards wholly neglected.

As we were swept past Flores in the dark by the gale, which developed into a prolonged storm that caused many vessels to be lost on the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese coasts, we saw no land between Ascension and the mouth of the Channel; and what we first saw there was not laud but St Mary's lighthouse in the Scilly Isles. The sea was still heaving with the after-swell of the recent storm, and the little islands lay so low amidst the high waves that the lighthouse appeared to stand on the sea, and almost to be swaying like a floating edifice. It was not quite dark when we passed the Eddystone lighthouse, and got among the crossing and passing-out and coming-in ships. Further up the Channel we found ourselves in a dead calm, and for three or four days could not get out of sight of the Ventnor cliff and its flagstaff. We sent letters ashore, and waited impatiently for a breeze. At last it came, dispersed the fog, and one wet morning we passed Dover and Margate, and ere mid-day reached the mouth of the Thames, and cast anchor at Sheerness. There I and mine landed, and took train to London. But before leaving the old "Chatham," for which we had contracted a sort of home affection, the Captain gave us a parting dinner, for which his last fattened goose had been killed and cooked to perfection.

My father-in-law, Mr George Aspinall, one of the kindest and best of the sons of men, met us in London and took care of us all. His little namesake, the Africkander boy, found his feet in Mrs Cordeau's quiet hotel. A steady floor suited him better than the rolling deck and the capstan cable. Our elder boy, John, three years, had become absurdly nautical. He called the banks of deep railway cuttings shores; when we stopped at a station asked where were the boats, and when taken upstairs to be put to bed, called it going up-a-deck. We were two or three days in London, and it \vas on one of these days that a riotous mob pulled down the Hyde Park railings. My troublesome knee swelled for the first time when we were becalmed in the Channel. I could still walk, and perhaps I walked about more than was good for me in London. At any rate there was no doubt about its having got worse then, and of my being nearly disabled for walking when we reached Bradford, and were welcomed and sheltered by my wife's father and mother. In my journey through life I have met with kindness from all sorts of people, but theirs exceeded all, and it was heartily shown in time of need, when I was more helpless than I had ever been before, or ever have been since. Little did I think in that time of trial that I should live to eighty years and upwards, and do my full man's share of work in the journalistic vocation, into which I had happened to drift.


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