A West Indian Sketch
Redonda is a small island, about mid-channel between Montserrat and Nevis, and in appearance is very much like a haycock, except that its summit is quite green. In fact, though called an island, it is nothing more than an uninhabited rock, about three miles in circumference; and is chiefly remarkable from its being the breeding place of numberless sea-birds, of the pelican species, which, from their extreme stupidity, are called Boobies.
In the month of March, 1857, the brig Lion was at anchor in Plymouth roads, Montserrat, waiting for cargo; but the season having been backward, no cargo had yet arrived. We had done all that we could to pass away the time, and find work for the hands. We had “stripped ship,” mended every bit of canvas that could be mended, and refitted everything that could be refitted; and now there was nothing left to occupy the men’s time but the sailors’ busy idleness — picking oakum and knotting yarns.
It was early morning, and the decks had been washed and holystoned, and everything cleaned and polished. The men were amusing themselves by washing and shaving, scrubbing trousers, patching old dunnage, and such like; while I, weary of turning out and turning in, without any more definite object in view than getting through the day, was lazily lolling on the bulwarks, looking up at the soaring peaks of the mountains which the clouds now enveloped, and now disclosed, giving full scope to the imagination to indulge in visions of grandeur, which would hardly have been realised had the whole been presented to the view.
The prospect before me was in the highest degree interesting, if not positively magnificent. There was the grey town of Plymouth sleeping, as it were, on the margin of the sea; such a lovely sea, too, as in the temperate latitudes is rarely seen, holding the island like a gem in its pure bosom, and mirroring there the vessels at anchor, the moving boats, and the varied shore. Farther on was the high cliff, the old fort jutting out from its side, and the towering hills of the Souffrien in the distance. From the town, upwards, was one gentle acclivity, covered with beautifully cultivated estates, and the most lovely verdure.
A succession of small valleys, covered with cane patches and pasture, intermingled with slight elevations, upon which here and there the planters’ mountain pen could be distinguished; nestling beneath which could be seen clusters of neat looking huts, the Negroes’ villages forming the foreground of the picture; while the original beauty of the landscape was enhanced and diversified by the various hues of the crops just approaching maturity. The bright and gorgeous colours that light up a West Indian landscape have no parallel in the temperate No. 20. zone, and language is poor, too poor to describe them. Fancy the bright yellow tint of the ripening canes, contrasting with the deep green of the Indian corn, which at this season is just beginning to spear, and this again varied by the luxuriant Guinea grass, groves of small trees, and clumps of waving cocoa-nut trees; the prospect being terminated by the lofty mountains, covered with an immense forest, the outlines of which melted into the distant peaks, and these again were lost in the clouds.
I was awakened from my reverie by “eight bells” being struck, and the hands going to breakfast. The trees faded away, the mountains vanished! and in their stead behold rising before me those marine luxuries, soft bread— tack we call it — and new milk.
“What on earth shall we do to get through the day?” I exclaimed, as I was seated at the breakfast table.
“Can’t tell,” replied my friend Carey, who was deep in the mysteries of corned beef and chilies.
“It’s a fine morning for a sail, sir. Shall I tell them to get the long-boat under weigh?” said the boy who was waiting at breakfast.
As the sea-breeze had just set in, and as anything was a change after the monotony of nothing to do and nowhere to go, I said “Yes.” The boy then suggested Redonda. I fancied that there must be a very splendid view from the summit of the rock; and as I wanted, also, to know something of the habits of the innumerable sea-birds that inhabited it, I ordered some provisions to be put into the boat, and with three men, and Tom, the apprentice, we started for Booby Island.
After the eternal sameness of a life on board a ship at anchor, there was something inspiriting in the very motion of the boat, and the rushing of the transparent water past us, as she plunged through it, scattering the foam from her bows as we sped onward.
We bowled along for about half an hour, and I enjoyed it vastly. A light feathery cloud partially obscured the sun, and caused the temperature to be less oppressive than is usual in these latitudes; while the breeze from the Atlantic blew fresh and cool as on a May morning in England. I seemed to have left all the languor and listlessness of the tropics behind me, and, for the time, felt the strength, the spirits, and the elasticity of youth return to me.
We were now fast approaching Redonda, above which was to be seen a cloud of boobies, whitening the sky with their numbers, and filling the air with their wailing cries.
Boobies, as I have before observed, are so called from their remarkable stupidity. They seem to have no sense, not even the instinct of self-preservation, for they will suffer themselves to be killed without moving a peg, and they will see their next neighbours knocked on the head without any sign of fear, or any attempt to preserve themselves from a similar fate. They fly, or rather wheel about in the air, with their necks extended, and their wings almost motionless. Naturalists tell us that they have the power, by means of inflation, of rising without moving their wings; and to all appearance this is the case.
Their cry is something between that of a goose and a raven, and is of a peculiarly wailing, melancholy description; and this, with the solitude of the rocks and rugged nature of the scenery that presented itself to my view as we approached the island, seemed to impress me with a sad sort of presentiment. I could not get rid of this feeling; and, though I thought at the time it was exceedingly foolish, yet I am willing to confess that afterwards I had reason to think differently.
The view of Redonda from the windward side was magnificent; but at the same time it was the magnificence of desolation, of chaos. At the base large masses of rock, piled one on the other in the grandest disorder, jutted out from the main island, against which the long swell of the Atlantic beats with tremendous violence, and, then thundering against the cliff, sent the spray clean over it.
We sailed round the island, and then lay to to leeward of the rock, seeking for a place to land in safety. I should think no one previous to our ascent had ever taken the trouble to reach the summit of this rock, for, to all appearance, there was no path whereby we could ascend; the cliff seemed to me to be nothing but an abrupt precipice perfectly inaccessible to man. However, sailors are not the sort of fellows to be disheartened by difficulties or dangers, and so after a more careful survey I found a place where I thought we could ascend; but how to land without injury to the boat was the next thing that puzzled me. The swell from seaward rose and fell in long undulating masses, and as they swept back, disclosed a quantity of sunken rocks, which threatened instant destruction to the boat if she touched on them.
I anchored clear of the rocks, and then sent a hand on shore with a line; and by hauling on this, and at the same time veering out cable, we were enabled to get the boat alongside a ledge of rocks; but even then our landing was attended with considerable danger. The swell coming round from both sides of the island met just at the point chosen for our debarkation, and rushing along the side of the cliff took the boat on its calm but treacherous bosom, and would have dashed her into pieces against the rocky cliff if we had not held on at these moments by the cable. As it was we had to watch our opportunity, and jump on shore in a smooth; but even then it required care and judgment, for if we had jumped on a receding wave we should have certainly missed our footing and been violently dashed against the rocks by the next recurrent wave.
It required us to jump with the rising of the sea while our body had an upward motion, and as soon as we landed we had to scramble up to the next ledge to prevent our being carried back again by the underdraught of the following sea. It may be imagined from this that none but sailors would have succeeded in effecting a landing: and after we had landed, it occurred to me that it was not safe to leave the boat without some one to take care of her, and I ordered the boy back into her. I shall never forget the poor lad’s countenance when he was told he was not to go with us; and if I could consistently with our safety have left the boat untenanted, I would have taken him. As it was, however, although evidently much chagrined, his sense of duty would not let him show it, and he jumped into the boat with alacrity. Slacking off the spring, and hauling on the cable, the boat was once more got into deep water.
And now came the ascent. If any one can imagine a nearly precipitous cliff with no other means of preserving ourselves from falling among the rocks than an occasional ledge on which we could rest, after having, cat-like, dragged ourselves up to them by sheer muscular strength, he will be able to form some idea of the dangers we had to encounter in our zig-zag ascent.
By the time we reached the top we were all quite exhausted, and sat down to get breath. What a view lay before us! The spot where we sat was the easternmost headland, a sort of promontory jutting out into the sea, and before us was the mighty ocean — its blue interminable vista glittering in the sunbeams — roughened by a stiff tropical breeze; while the swell from the offing came tumbling in towards us in long blue undulations, which, breaking against the rocks with the greatest impetuosity, cast their spray within a few feet of us, and caused a noise as though subterraneous thunder, pent up in the bowels of the earth, was seeking to burst its bonds; but, stay, the voice of the mighty ocean thundering upon a rocky coast must be heard, seen, nay, felt, to be understood — it cannot be adequately described.
Turning from this to the naked, storm-scathed, and sun-baked island, my old feeling of despondency returned to me. I never saw anything so barren and naked, the short stunted grass only making its barrenness more noticeable. How my heart rose within me as on again turning I saw the bright array of beautiful islands which lay dotted before me: Montserrat, with its grassy slopes descending to the edge of the sea, looking like an emerald in the midst of the blue waves, the white beach fringed with magnificent palms, whose feathery plumage falling from their tall stems could just be discovered with the naked eye; Nevis rising pyramidically from the sea, its summit just piercing the white cloud that everlastingly rests there; St. Kitt’s rising behind it, with its Mountain of Misery towering above everything; Antigua, ramparted by its magnificent cliff, standing midway between; and far away in the distance Guadaloupe, with its broad, irregular eminences looming indistinctly like a great continent.
It was a beautiful scene, the sky above us was such a heavenly blue, while the deep green of the sea was thickly speckled with the white crests of the waves, and the tiny sails of the droggers, which skimmed along in the offing, ever and anon disappearing behind one of the islands, only to appear again on the other side, and then fade away in the distance.
What a contrast was the island itself to this! I cannot imagine a more naked or desolate spot in the world, and the melancholy feeling I experienced when I first saw it, now took firm hold of me. I seemed weighed down by some impending calamity, and though I tried, I could not shake it off.
The only thing really noticeable on the island itself was the immense quantity of young boobies. They were crowded so thick on the ground, that in some places we could not pass without kicking or treading on them. They did not evince the slightest fear; they stuck their bills into our legs pretty freely, but move they would not. They were all covered with a beautiful soft white down, and I felt a great inclination to take back a couple with us; but the little wretches pecked us so, that I was obliged to give up the idea.
As there was nothing on the island but boobies, I may as well give a description of them. Boobies, then, are in size somewhat larger than a gull, and are of the same species as the pelican. They are to be met with in great abundance on the solitary rocks and keys in the West Indies. It would be difficult to describe their plumage, as it varies so much that a description of one individual bird would only mislead. However, I may say that they have generally a whitish body, with wing feathers marked, in various manners, with black and brown; the bill is black and yellow, and their legs, which are short, are also yellow.
There being nothing more to be seen on the island, I gave the word to return. As soon, however, as we got within hail of our landing-place, we were startled by a loud hallooing from the boat. Our consternation can be well imagined, when, on reaching the edge of the cliff, we saw that the boat had broken adrift, and was momentarily in danger of being dashed to pieces among the rocks. It appeared that the cable, coming in contact with the sharp points of the rocks, had chafed through, and the boat, as it swung by its fastening on the shore, was in a very perilous position. Every swell that lifted her sent her surging up among the rocks; and now, as the water receded, we could hear her bump on them; her planks rending, and her timber cracking, as she settled down. It was evidently all up with her, and all we could do now was to save our provisions, and get the boy Tom on shore.
Disencumbering ourselves of our clothes, we all as if by instinct plunged in, and swam to the wreck. The swell was sweeping it in nearer to the cliff every moment, and the poor boy on board seemed paralysed with fear, and incapable of doing anything. It was no easy thing to approach the boat, as the sunken rocks were numerous, and a blow from one of them as we sank into the trough of the sea would have put an end to our earthly troubles. However, watching our opportunity, we got within a short distance of the wreck, when a huge swell, larger than any I had yet seen, swept in, and carrying us all within a few feet of the cuff, burst over the boat and launched the poor lad into the abyss of waters. For some seconds we could not see anything of him, and I thought he was lost — dashed violently against the rocks, and sunk to rise no more.
At last, with feelings of joy, we saw him struggling manfully with the raging waters. But now a new peril assailed him — the current which ran by the island was carrying him out to sea, and his destruction seemed inevitable. The current ran so strong, that the stoutest swimmers could not make head against it, and we were all petrified. The poor boy, seeing himself carried away like a cork, called out in the most heart-rending tones for help. I never heard anything so agonising as that cry for help, and we could render none.
Hitherto we had done nothing to aid him, though he was struggling with all his strength against the impetuous tide; but now one of the men, with a noble disregard of self, which I glory to say is the great characteristic of British seamen, dashed boldly after him. The poor boy, though nearly exhausted, no sooner saw him, than hope gave him new strength, and he breasted the tide more vigorously than ever.
Swimming with the current soon brought the man within hail of him, and they then turned, and swam across the tide, and to our great astonishment we now saw them taken by an eddy of the current and carried back towards us as swiftly as they were before carried away from us. Now aiding and now encouraging him, the man brought the gallant boy nearer and nearer to the landing-place. Several times they were whirled round and carried almost to the edge of the current, but the Almighty, who cares for the meanest of his creatures, preserved them from this danger, and the poor boy was landed in safety, but he fainted as soon as he was hauled up on to the landing-place.
Fortunately we had some rum left in our bottle, and I soon restored the youngster to his senses by pouring down his throat a good quantity of the cheering spirit. He was a tall lad of his age, and handsome withal, although slightly made. I could not help noticing his figure as he lay almost in an unconscious state. He had no shoes or stockings on, and his very wide trowsers, which in fact was all the covering he had on, he having thrown off his jacket and shirt when the boat broke adrift, showed a finely-shaped leg, full of sinew and muscle; while his sun-burnt face contrasted finely with his broad chest and beautifully moulded neck and shoulders. His forehead was high, and his form, though muscular, had all the plumpness of a woman.
Having served out a good caulker of old ram, we next proceeded to look after the boat. It was now about half-past four, and I could see that the tide was falling fast, and that in a short time the boat would be high and dry. The swell too was subsiding, the breeze having decreased as evening approached, and we had every prospect of saving our provisions, as well as getting the masts and sails to make a tent. At length the tide had so far ebbed that we could reach the boat. I found her bilged, and nearly full of water, and that she was firmly embedded between two rocks. It was therefore no use thinking of making her serviceable. Happily for us, she had been got ready for a drogging expedition, and was well supplied with necessaries.
Besides a quantity of provisions, which for the most part were dry, we found a couple of tarpaulins and a lot of old sails, a quantity of coals, and a cooking-stove and iron pot. My first care was to get all these safe on the top; and we then with a small crow-bar, which we found in her bows, and a stout shovel, broke up the boat, and took her materials up to our perch among the boobies. I do not think we lost anything, for the boy’s jacket and shirt were found hanging to one of the rocks, the shirt actually dried ready to put on. It is a very easy thing to say we got all these things up; but it may be imagined that if we found it difficult to ascend in the morning when we had nothing to encumber us, we found it much more so now. But give sailors a line, a spar, and a block, and they will soon rig themselves a purchase by means of which they could overcome greater difficulties than we had to surmount.
Having got our stores together, we went to work to make ourselves a tent. The day was waning fast, and it would not do to be very particular, so we dug a hole and stuck the mainmast on end, with the halyards rove; and then lashing the fore and main lugs together, and making the halyards fast in mid-ships, we pegged the foot down to the ground, and then hauled the halyard taut; and behold, we had a first-rate tent, though open at both ends. This was soon obviated by making one of the spare sails fast to one end; and covering the ground with the tarpaulins, and then laying down the old sails, we had a house that was not to be sneezed at.
While we had been thus engaged, the boy Tom, now perfectly recovered from his sousing, had got a fire under weigh, and had made some coffee; salt junk and hard biscuits were also placed before us, and we commenced operations with great zeal and determination. The biscuits vanished by dozens, and the huge mahogany-like junks of beef disappeared as if they had been the tenderest chickens. I am sure that none of us ever made a better or more comfortable meal, and when we wound up with a stiffish glass of grog and a pipe I felt quite exhilarated.
It would have been an interesting sight to have seen us seated on the top of this barren rock surrounded by the debris of our boat, and environed by boobies in all stages of maturity. The old ones were quietly nestling on their eggs, but the young ones were squabbling wofully because some one had intruded on their premises. The fact was, that we had dislodged a great number to erect our tent, and there was a perfect skirmish for places.
I make no doubt the old ones were greatly surprised at having their domains invaded in such an unceremonious fashion, for they kept flying over our heads, passing and repassing, and looking at us in a most impertinent manner; now sailing past us in a smooth, noiseless flight, coming so near that the motion of the eye and every feather could be seen, the bird being all the time motionless, except a slight inclination of the head when opposite you. Then, as some new-comers arrived from seaward, the whole fraternity would rise in a cloud, and kick up such a row as would have frightened all the old women in Christendom into fits if they could have heard it.
And now the sun reached the horizon, and its purple glory spread like a carpet over both sea and land; even the scanty grass which grew on the island, tinged with its rich colouring, looked like a velvet mantle, clothing its barren carcase with beauty. All nature seemed hushed. A bank of clouds hung away to the southward, their edges gilded by the declining sun, towering upward and spanning, as it were, the highest arch of the blue empyrean; while the whole mass, like a gloomy canopy, crept slowly on and on, till suddenly the western horizon assumed a dusky purple hue, the sun set, and darkness was upon us.
In the darkness — which to us was more intense from its suddenness — the fire glanced bright and red, and as we sat by it we looked doubtless more like a band of pirates than a company of honest men. Hitherto we had borne all our misfortunes with the greatest equanimity; but now our comfort was threatened by a swarm of sandflies and mosquitoes entering our tent and attacking us with great fury. All we could do we could not protect ourselves from these blood-sucking rascals. If any one, not a subject of their attack, could have seen us he would have grinned rarely at our insane attempts to rid ourselves of these pigmy enemies.
Our blood had been heated and the perspiration still clung to our skin; consequently the bite of these wretches was doubly poisonous, and in half-an-hour our own mothers could not have recognised us. It was thwack! whack! every second; but as to killing them it was out of the question, and our only resource was to smoke them out — which, happily, answered our expectations.
And now the clouds, driven by the usual current of the trade-winds, gradually rose like a curtain, and the blue vault of heaven was disclosed to us, spangled with innumerable stars. Slowly, as though the liquid splendour of the moon would dazzle our vision, the dark curtain lifted, and the pale crystal light of her beams sparkling on the waters made a bright track on the now tranquil sea. The extreme clearness of the heavens, the soft serenity of the air, the buzzing of innumerable insects, and the delightful sensation produced by a pipe of fragrant tobacco, contributed in a great degree to tranquillise my feelings, which had been sadly disturbed by the mosquitoes.
I could not get up resolution to turn in, the night was so transcendently beautiful ; the whole of the heavenly bodies shone out with a peculiar radiance, and the planets hung like globes of liquid fire, gem-like, in the firmament. The moonbeams, too, were so bright that I almost think, had I possessed a book, I could have read it by her light.
Sleep to me being apparently out of the question, I lighted another pipe, and covering myself with my dread-nought coat I lay down to enjoy the coolness of the evening breeze which had just set in. I tried several times to compose myself to sleep, but the fellows snored so I could not accomplish it. At last, I suppose I did; but I had such strange fancies, or rather dreams, that it was worse than no sleep at all. At one time I fancied the whole island had been swept away by the current, and I was in the greatest trepidation lest it should topple over, and we should all be drowned in our sleep. Then I was tossing about among the breakers, and whirling in eddies, and fancied I saw huge black bodies coming towards me, and that I was struggling to avoid contact with them; at another time I heard some one as distinctly as possible hailing me, and I awoke with so violent a start that I nearly broke my head.
I felt as though my mind had been wandering, but I could not rouse myself sufficiently to get rid of these fancies.
I must have been asleep some hours when I awoke — or rather thought so — and was surprised to see a man of lofty stature standing in the opening of the tent. I started and cried:
“Hillo! who are you, my friend?”
But the fellow did not answer; he only held up his finger as if to enjoin silence.
At this moment I felt convinced I heard the most piercing shrieks for help, and, rising, I attempted to push past the fellow, but he was gone, and the next instant I had missed my footing, and was falling from the top of the cliff. The moment I touched the water I shouted loudly for help. A rough hand was placed on my shoulder, and a voice called out:
“Hillo, sir! hillo! what’s the matter?”
I rubbed my eyes and looked about me.
“Confound the nightmare!” quoth I, and turned over and went to sleep again.
It was early morning when I really did awake, for the boobies made such a noise that I could not sleep any longer. When I arose I was startled by the extraordinary appearance of the morning. During the night a cloud or sort of luminous fog had settled on the top of the island, and the effect of this was, that while over-head and on the island all was in shadow, at the base of the cliff and out at sea the sun shone brightly. As the sun got power the thick white mantle seemed to be suddenly rent in twain, and the clear blue heavens and the sparkling waters were disclosed to our view.
As soon as we had finished our breakfast I set to work and erected a flag-staff, and hoisted the ensign, union down, in the hope of attracting some of the coasters as they passed.
The day was hot — blazing hot; not a cloud was to be seen; the ocean was like one vast polished mirror wherein the sun’s burning rays were reflected, giving back bright, blinding flashes which dazzled the eyes and made the head swim. A sort of misty blue haze hung over the shadowy islands, whose outline seemed almost blended with the sky. There was no horizon, for the sky and the sea were so much alike you could not tell the one from the other.
In vain I looked towards Montserrat in the hope of succour from the brig. Several times I fancied I could hear the noise of oars moving regularly in the row-locks, and jumped up, hoping to see a boat in the offing; but, though we saw several white specks lying lazily under the lee of the island, nothing came within sight of our signal.
About noon everything was still — deadly still — even the very boobies were still, and their clamour had entirely ceased. The usual sea-breeze had not set in, and the vertical sun poured its rays with such an intensity on the island that it seemed to send up a thin smoke from the extreme violence of the heat. Mid-day had long passed, and no sign of any assistance. Our water was getting short. I did not, however, feel uneasy on that point, as I felt sure from the first that there was some to be found on the island; and so it turned out; for, on sending out two hands to search for it, they soon returned with intelligence that they had found a large pond of fresh water within a quarter of a mile of the tent.
It must not be imagined that because the course of events had prevented me from dwelling on our anything but enviable condition, that it had not been a subject of great uneasiness to me. During the whole of that day — and it appeared awfully long — we had been on the look-out for assistance from the brig. I had kept my glass almost constantly to my eye in the hope of seeing some one out in search of us. At last, towards afternoon, I saw a dark speck which rounded the western extremity of Montserrat, and for some time I thought it was coming towards us.
It eventually turned out to be a boat. I was on tip-toe of excitement, and we tried all sorts of devices to make the colours fly, so as to attract their attention. At last they got so near that I could make out that it was the brig’s pinnace, and that she was constantly cruising about in search of us, and we shouted with all our might; but it was a most ridiculous thing, for the boat was at least five miles from us, and therefore we were only shouting to the winds.
It is not easy for me to express the joy we experienced as the boat seemed to near us; but it will be still less easy to depict our consternation when we saw her suddenly bear up and return to Montserrat. Gradually she vanished from our sight, and the feeling we experienced as we saw her disappear was dreadful. Not that we were in any danger of starvation, or any of those extreme miseries which shipwrecked mariners often are exposed to, for we had plenty of water, and we could always make a meal of boobies, though their flesh is rather tough and fishy, or, following the tactics of the frigate-bird, make them disgorge as soon as they land, and thereby get a good meal of fish.
But it was the suspense and inconvenience. In short, no one who had not been placed in a similar situation could have any idea of the fretful inquietude I experienced when I saw what, to us, appeared our last chance vanishing from our view. The shades of evening again closed around us; not a craft of any description had passed the island during the day. When night came, and no assistance was to be expected, a thought struck me which I instantly acted on. Collecting all the debris of the boat. I set fire to it in the hope that it might attract attention and bring us succour.
The wood being well-seasoned and saturated with pitch and tar blazed up into such a huge volume of flame that I felt sure it could not only be seen at Montserrat, but also at Guadaloupe. The higher the flames rose, the higher rose our spirits, and I only wondered none of us had thought of this device before. I walked about on the brow of the cliff in the greatest perturbation of mind, listening for any sound that would indicate succour; but none came, and we all sat down to our frugal suppers with feelings of great despondency.
Just as we were thinking of turning in for the night, and as the last expiring embers of the fire were slowly dying out, we heard — or rather thought we heard — a shout; at first faint, as it were the booming of the sea, but which momentarily became louder and nearer. And then, to our joy and satisfaction, there suddenly shot up a bright blue flame, in the glare of which we could perceive two boats coming to our rescue. Any one who has seen a blue light burnt at sea can imagine the unearthly appearance which objects have when seen in its blue spectral flare. Simultaneously, as if it had been one man, we sent forth such a shout of welcome as made the vaults of heaven resound with its echo. And very soon after the hail of “Lions, ahoy!” greeted us.
To descend from our exalted position, without the aid of daylight, was no easy matter. Indeed, the descent was at any time worse than the ascent, for one false step would have been instant death; but this to us, under the circumstances, was not a subject of a moment’s consideration, therefore striking our tent, and taking with us all that we thought useful, and having made ourselves a guy fast to the top to steady our bodies, we began the descent. I was the last to go down, and found the line of the greatest aid.
A sailor always feels safe if he has a rope in his hand, no matter how small it may be; it was so with me, and perhaps it was this very confidence that caused me to trust too much to the line. I had got nearly half way down, just about where the cliff commenced to tumble home, when I set my foot on a projection of rock, which being suddenly detached, I came down several feet by the run; and when I recovered my hold, I found myself hanging in mid-air full fifty feet from the base.
The line by which I hung suspended was but a small one, and not well calculated to sustain my weight. My best, and perhaps only chance, was to swing myself on to a ledge which lay some three fathoms from me. To do this, however, it was necessary to get a foot-hold to give myself an impetus, and get a turn of the rope round my hand to prevent it slipping.
During this time the party below became aware that something was wrong, and lit up another blue-light. The grey rock looked livid with its sickly glare, and I could see distinctly my danger. Below me were large masses of broken rock on which I must in all probability be dashed to pieces, if I fell. I was just preparing myself for a final effort to reach some place of safety, when a new danger menaced me.
As I was putting my foot against the rock to give my body a lateral motion, I felt a sort of vibration in the rope, which told me that the sharp projections of the rock were cutting the line in two, and that one strand, if not two had parted above. A film came across my eyes, and all the actions of my life, long forgotten, flashed across my mind, and then I felt I was descending into an unfathomable depth, and all was blank and dark.
How long I remained in an unconscious state I cannot tell; but, when I came to myself, I was lying on a broad luxurious bed, set at the farther end of a large sleeping apartment, and near to the window, at the other end of the room, was seated a young girl of exquisite mould and feature. She was sitting with her face bent down, and her rich hair hung in a cluster from her finely shaped head. Her face was pale and her forehead high; and as she sat motionless, with one hand placed gracefully forward, I could see that she had a beautifully rounded arm, and her skin was as clear as alabaster. I gazed for some seconds on this apparently delusive scene, for to me it was too lovely to be real; and it was not until I could see the heaving of her bosom that I could bring myself to think her a being of this world.
I tried to raise myself, but in doing so I found that my left arm was powerless; and, falling back, I asked, faintly, where I was. The sound of my voice startled her, and rising hastily, she came to the bed-side, and holding up her finger, said, in a low voice which thrilled through my whole body: “Hush! the doctor says you are not to speak; but, as you are now awake, I will send for him.” And she left the room for a few seconds. When she returned she gave me a tumbler of cool refreshing drink.
I shall never forget the exquisite sensation which crept over me as that beautiful girl moved noiselessly about the room, bathing my temples and adjusting my pillows. I thought she must be an angel sent specially for my comfort, and I was afraid if I moved or spoke that the vision would be rudely dispelled.
A peculiar languor overspread my whole frame; a deliciously cool feeling, as though cold water was issuing from a fountain in my heart and permeating through all my veins. And then how sweetly came the softened light through the partly closed windows, beyond which could be seen the cool, green, umbrageous trees, whose branches were waving gently in the morning breeze; and then the gentle moaning of that breeze among their branches, and the lulling buzz of insects, with occasionally the merry voices of Negroes; all had a delightful effect on my shattered nerves.
But, during all this time, I felt particularly hungry, and I wished the angel would give me something to eat; but I refrained from asking for it, for I should have been ashamed to have asked an angel for anything so grossly material, knowing, as I did, that angels subsisted entirely on love. Now, although I felt that love was a most exquisite thing; and that, having such a charming object on which I could concentrate mine, life without it would hare been a chaos, or blank; yet the idea of roast-beef and mutton, soft tack and fresh butter, cold lamb and salad, and such like material substances, would, spite of the spiritual essence which seemed to have entered into my organisation since the angelic vision first presented itself to me — would, I say, obtrude itself into my mind. And to make a clean breast of it, I must confess that the idea of living on love appeared to me to be the most contemptible one that ever issued from the brain of a human creature; and such was my craving for food, that I would have given every mortal thing I possessed — angelic vision and all — for a cut off a roast leg of mutton.
At last the little Scotch doctor from Plymouth entered the room, and the angelic vision took him on one side, and they whispered together. I knew that the fellow was married, and I thought it was very bad taste of him to be whispering to a young and innocent girl in that fashion, when he had got a wife and three children at home. Just at this moment a very handsome woman, about forty, entered the room; she was rather tall and finely formed, and from the striking likeness between them was evidently the mother of the angelic vision.
The little doctor came to the bed-side, and felt my pulse.
“Pray, doctor,” I began—
“All in good time, my dear sir. No questions now ; you shall know all about it when your head is better.”
“My head! Zounds, what’s the matter with my head?” I said, as I raised my hand to it, and found it tied up like a Christmas pudding. I was about to utter an exclamation, when the angel, with a roguish smile on her countenance, placed over my mouth, the smallest, softest, whitest hand that I ever saw, or wish to see.
“Not another word, my dear sir. Give him his medicine, Nancy,” the doctor said, turning to a mulatto woman who was busying herself in the back ground, “and call me if he appears worse.”
“But, doctor! I’m hungry!” I cried. “I want something to eat!”
“A capital sign, my dear sir, but you must not excite yourself:” then turning to Nancy, he said, “you can give him some strong gruel, with a little sherry, and keep him as quiet as you can.”
“All right, massa; me quite mum, no answer question:” and the old wretch grinned hugely.
And now they all left the room, except Nancy, and I was alone — yes, alone, for in my eyes Nancy Potts stood for nobody. Nancy Potts! Fancy Nancy Potts, with a face as sallow as a guinea, instead of the angelic vision! What a revulsion of feeling I experienced, as that beautiful girl, with a sunny smile and a parting glance, which to my mind seemed to say, “I’ll come again soon,” vanished from my view. But after all, I began to feel a sort of veneration for Nancy Potts, for she brought me some excellent gruel; and so, having swallowed that and my medicine, I fell into a balmy sleep.
I dreamt that I was descending into cool caverns, and underground vaults; and had a variety of delicious sensations: and, finally, I dreamt that I was on the top of a high mountain, with the angelic vision by my side, and a refreshing breeze blowing in my face, and that I was in the greatest distress because we had nothing to eat. In the midst of my distress I was awoke by Nancy Potts pushing her black eyes, yellow face, and white teeth through the curtains, with—
“How you do dis maa-n-ing, massa? O, my la-ad, how pale you look! Gee! gee! gee! What a white little buckra it is! But I brought you some brokefast, massa; leetle coffee, and bread and butter, and toast — you like it, massa?”
“O! ha! yes!” I exclaimed, opening my eyes and attempting to rise, “that’s your sort, Nancy;” but I had rather miscalculated my strength, and I found that the shortest way was to take the longest time, and not be in a hurry. However, I soon got myself in trim, and fell-to cheerily. The breakfast was ample, and I soon consumed the whole lot; and what was more, could have managed the allowance, had it been doubled.
“Massa much better dis moaning, I tink?” said Nancy, as I finished my breakfast.
“Yes,” I replied, pushing away the tray, “I think after that there cannot be much the matter with me:” but nevertheless I was as weak as an infant, for the exertion of eating threw me into so violent a perspiration, that I nearly fainted. However, I did not care much for that, for, although weak, I had no feverish symptoms.
Of course I was anxious to know where I was, and how I got there; and above all, if the truth must be told, I wanted to know something about the beautiful girl who had been so kind to me on the previous day.
“Nancy,” said I, in a persuasive tone, “would you kindly tell me how I came here?”
“Massa musn’t bodder hisself with talking. Massa Wilson presently tell all about it.”
“But, Nancy!” I said, finding I must come to the point at once, “who was the young lady who was here yesterday?”
“Oat’s my young missee.”
Now I could have guessed as much, and I therefore tried again, but it was no use; everything I asked her was answered by her singing a n** song, and talking to some inanimate object, thus—
“What’s the young lady’s name, Nancy?” asked I.
No answer, but a sort of trumpet solo from Nancy, thus—
“Toot-tee—toot-tec—toot-tee—ta-a dee. — Drat de needle! What for you go and broke yourself for? Oh me, boog-ee—laa-lee!” takes a fresh needle, and begins to thread it.
“What’s your young mistress’s name ?” I asked again, but the only reply I got was—
“What shall I do wid me good oldda-a-dy? Oh me, boog-ee—laa-lee. Chee-chee. What for you tumble you self down for, you massa collar? Sit in de corner, yam potatee. Oh me, boog-ee— laa-lee. Boog-ee, boog-ee, boog-ee—laa-lee.”
“Confound your boog-ee—laa-lee,” said I; “can’t you answer my question?”
“If massa no like de song, I no sing him.”
Finding I could do nothing with her, I turned round and fell asleep; but it was a sort of cat’s sleep — one eye open — for a light footstep aroused me, and I listened.
“How is he this morning, Nancy?” asked a soft voice.
“Good deal better, Miss, de Laad be prase! He eat all him brokefast, and den him asked such a lot ob questions; but I no answer him.”
“What did he say?”
“He wanted to know who de beautiful young lady was dat tended him so sweetly.”
“Hush!” cried the soft voice, “perhaps he is awake.”
“No, him snore just now.”
That was a flat lie. I never snored: but I confess I breathed rather harder than usual, and shut my eyes, as I felt that she was gazing on me. But the rest of the conversation being carried on in a whisper, I thought it was no use feigning sleep any longer, and so I said, in a languid tone,
“Nancy, have I been asleep?”
“Ess, massa sleep nicely, long time.”
Just then the doctor came in, and, after sundry questions, he pronounced me in a fair way of recovery. I fancied I saw the angel’s eyes brighten at the news, but it might have been fancy: at any rate, the idea was consolatory, and I treasured it accordingly.
But why linger over this part of my narrative? Softly! I was in love; and those who have experienced the beautiful dreams and the strange inquietude of that all-absorbing passion, can understand how the memory clings to those scenes, and how the mind wanders back to them, cherishing in the most sacred region of the heart the words and the actions of the beloved object. Phoo! what am I talking about? Love! what is love, hey? Well, it’s something very funny and delightful —something that sets the blood coursing through the veins at the bare thought of the time when that sacred flame was first kindled in the bosom.
I was not long in discovering the how, the why, and the wherefore of the whole affair. It appeared that I had, thanks to the lateral motion of my body, descended almost clear of the rocks; and the first intimation those in the boat had of my disaster was hearing me plunge into the sea. I was picked up and conveyed to Old Roads Estate, it being the nearest habitation I could be conveyed to; and there, thanks to the kindness of Mrs. Semper and her daughter, I had been carefully attended through a most serious fever.
I recovered slowly, in fact I think I lingered longer than was absolutely necessary. I liked the tender, soothing care which was bestowed upon me as an invalid. I was never tired of being in the society of this beautiful young creature, whose very soul seemed to well up kindly feeling and poetry of thought; and who listened with wrapped attention to my marvellous yarns, chiding me in the gentlest tones when they were too strong for even her credulous ear. It was to me a season of the deepest enjoyment, and I dreaded to break the spell.
Walking in the cool of the evening, I somehow told her of my love. How I did it, or what I said, I have no very distinct notion. What I do know is, that, after a few tears of joy, and some very delicious kisses, it was all right.
Some one who has just looked over my shoulder says it is not fair to tell tales, and therefore I, “as in duty bound, desist without further comment. But I will say, and she cannot deny it, that we have no reason to regret, in spite of my broken head and arm, my visit to Redonda, the Isle of Boobies.
T. E. Southee. November 1859