WE EXPLORE THE RAVINE
AS we stood on the Col, the steep wall of the Sugarloaf rising to the left of us, the view over South-west Bay was exceedingly fine. The bay is of semicircular form, with a distance of about a mile and a half from point to point. Broad sands, with green downs behind them, border the central portion but it is bounded by steep bare mountains on either side: on the east side by Noah's Ark, the Sugarloaf, and the peaks beyond; and on the west side by the rugged promontories and islands which divide it from South Bay. In contrast to the savage cliffs that shut them in the sands and downs in the middle of the bay present a very pleasing and fertile appearance, especially when seen from the sea, conveying the idea that this is a far more agreeable spot to live on than proves to be the case after a closer examination.
From the Col we could look right down on the bay, and, as the water was very clear, we were able to distinguish all the dangers below the surface, as well as those above. It was, no doubt, from here that the pirate captain made his survey.
We saw that an islet, unmarked on any chart, but which I have indicated on my plan, rose in the middle of the bay, while a reef of rocks, apparently coral, extended right round the bay, parallel to the beach and at a short distance from it. Some of these rocks were above the surface of the water, some just below, and others — the most dangerous — farther down, so that it was only occasionally that the sea broke upon them. The pirate in his confession had spoken of a channel he had discovered through this reef, situated under the Sugarloaf, at the eastern extremity of the bay. We now saw that it existed there exactly as he had described it — a broad opening in the line of rocks, through which a boat could be pulled and beached on the sands.
But, still, it was an awkward place, and it would be impossible to land there on such a day as this was, for immense rollers were sweeping up the shore which would have almost certainly dashed any boat to pieces that ventured among them. We were, however, very satisfied with the success of our expedition so far. We had discovered and taken bearings of the channel, and we knew how to pilot a boat through it, when the weather should be favourable. Our next duty was to descend into the bay and identify the place where the treasure was supposed to be hidden.
It was not long before we had discovered what we considered to be the right spot.
The pirate had described a small gully in the middle of this bay, at the foot of which he and his men had erected three cairns, which should serve as landmarks to those who had the clue, and point the way to the treasure.
Mr. P—, and, after him, Mr. A—, had found this gully and the three cairns, just as they had been described. Mr. A—, either for the purpose of putting others off the scent, or in order to discover if anything had been concealed beneath them, blew up these cairns with gunpowder and dug into them, so that now we could only see traces of one of them. He had, however, communicated to me what he understood to be their signification, and how he had been led by them to the first bend in the ravine, at which spot the plunder had been buried under a hollow rock.
We walked up the ravine till we came to a bend and here, as we had expected, we saw what appeared to be a landslip of red earth, filling up the corner of it, blocking up the mouth of any cave that might exist there, even as Mr. P— and Mr. A— had described. And here before us lay a small trench, with a broken earthenware water-jar and the remains of a wheelbarrow lying in it — all that remained to show where Mr. A— had carried on his not very extensive works.
This, therefore, was the spot we had crossed the Atlantic to find. We stood and looked at it in silence for a while. "What do you think of it?" asked the doctor at last.
It was not an easy question to reply to, for I did not quite know myself what to think of it. I had pictured to myself a very different place. I saw that our work would in one respect be more difficult than I had anticipated, in another respect far more easy. For this landslip was not nearly so extensive as I had understood it to be, and the slopes of the ravine were not of such a character as to render our operations dangerous, or to necessitate any timbering of our shafts or trenches. But, on the other hand, there was a want of definiteness that was disappointing. There were no really sharp bends in the ravine, and there were several landslips. It was impossible to be quite certain of what was meant by "the first bend"; for there were bends of so insignificant a character that they might easily be overlooked, and we had no knowledge of the number of paces from the cairns to the cavern. Therefore, should we fail to kind the treasure at the spot where Mr. A— commenced to dig, it would be necessary for us to clear the landslip off the face of the cliff for some considerable distance.
Having inspected the scene of Mr. A—'s operations we set out to explore the ravine carefully, and, bearing in mind what we knew of the pirate's original instructions, we endeavoured to reason out whether this or some other neighbouring bend was the most likely spot. The treasure was lying, or had been lying, very close to us somewhere; of that I felt confident at the time, and I have had no reason for altering my opinion since.
First, we went down the ravine again, and when we reached the bottom of it, where it opens out upon the back of the beach, we observed what had escaped our notice at first, an extensive excavation in the hard soil — which is not so encumbered with boulders here as it is higher up — a cutting so regular in form and with such perpendicular sides that it was difficult to imagine that it had not been the work of men's hands. This was certainly not one of Mr. A—'s trenches; for to have removed such a quantity of earth and stones would have occupied such a party as he had with him for six months at least.
Was it possible that the American, or some other adventurer, had been here before us and carried away the treasure? We could find no marks of tools or other traces of man in or near this trench, so it was impossible to decide whether it was artificial or natural. Some of us afterwards came to the conclusion that it was most probably the latter, for we came across other cuttings, somewhat similar to this in other portions of the ravine, which had evidently been produced by the action of water.
Next we went up the gully beyond Mr. A—'s trench, in the hopes of finding water, of which we were beginning to feel the want. There was no running stream here, though it was evident from its formation that the ravine was swept by a mighty torrent after heavy rains. The water that drained into it from the overhanging mountain was soaked up by the loose red soil that lay between the boulders.
But at last we came to a little hollow at the foot of a rocky step, where was a tiny pool of tepid and muddy water. However, this was all we required, for we could now afford time to survey the scene of our operations more thoroughly, instead of hurrying back, driven by thirst, to our distant watercourse.
Between the hills and the beach, close to the mouth of the ravines there is a sort of plateau of sand and stones, and it was evidently on this that Mr. A— had pitched his camp, for here we came across his tent poles, the remains of wheelbarrows, and some empty meat-tins.
We walked down to the eastern beach, where the landing was, opposite the channel between the coral rocks. The sands here sloped steeply into deepish water; it was, apparently, an excellent place for beaching a boat when the state of the weather should allow. Though it was a windless day the ocean swell was high, and it was a grand sight to see the great green rollers sweep majestically up till they were close to the beach, and then curl over and break in showers of sparkling spray. While we stood there admiring the scene we saw a curious sight. A roller was travelling towards us, rearing its arched neck high up, so that the light of the sun shining through it made it transparent, and in the middle of the clear green mass we saw a long dark body suspended, borne along helplessly. It was a large shark that, venturing too near the beach, had been carried up by the breaker; he floated there a moment, erect on his tail, his fins beating impotently, when the roller broke and he was dashed with a loud thud on the beach; then the recoil of the surf swept him seawards and we saw no more of him.
Having carried out the object of our journey we filled our bottle with water and set forth on our return march. We recrossed Sugarloaf Col and tramped along the sands. There was no wind and the day was terribly hot. The sands reflected the burning sun into our faces, and we felt as if we w ere literally roasting. Now and then we lay down, clothes and all, in the salt-water pools, to cool ourselves, and we rolled handkerchiefs round our heads, which we kept constantly wet. As my hat had disappeared over a precipice on the previous day, this was a very necessary precaution against sunstroke, so far as I was concerned.
When we were not far from our previous night's camp we saw what appeared to be an easier way up the mountains than the one by which we had come down. The precipitous step at the top of the landslip had been difficult enough to descend, and on account of the rottenness of its substance we felt that the ascent might be impossible.
Whether this new way of ours would have led us to the plateau of tree-ferns high above us, I cannot tell; but I doubt it. At any rate we abandoned it before we had satisfied ourselves as to whether it was a practicable route or not, for a most excellent reason on Trinidad — the want of water. We had exhausted our bottle, and were clambering up difficult declivities on hands and knees, with the fierce sun blazing down upon our backs. As there was no wind, the air that lay on the roasting rocks was so oppressive that we had to rest frequently, and lie on our backs panting for breath.
I was in the worse condition of the two, in consequence of the loss of my hat, for, when the thin handkerchief I had wrapped round my head was dry it was altogether insufficient for protection, and I ran some risk of being struck down by sunstroke or heat-apoplexy.
Accordingly, as we saw no signs of water above us, and as it was more than likely that this way would lead us to inaccessible precipices which would drive us back again, we thought it prudent to retrace our steps before we were quite exhausted, and make our way to the stream we knew of. We could rest by it until the sun had dipped below the mountain-tops, and then resume our climb in the shade.
We descended to the beach, and walked along the sands until we came to the rock under which we had camped on the previous night, and then, being opposite to our ravine, we struck out inland towards it across the down of beans. We must have turned rather to the right of the track we had followed on the previous day, for we suddenly came to a terrace ot stones which we had not seen before, and which had evidently formed part of the Portuguese settlement. We clambered up this, and then perceived, still farther to the right, the ruins of several huts and walls, built of unhewn stones and overgrown with the creeping beans. Most of the huts were built at the edge of a deep steep gully. As soon as we saw this, the same idea struck both of us: the Portuguese would most certainly have chosen the vicinity of a stream for their settlement, and in all probability there was running water at the bottom of that gully.
As it would not take us much out of our way to satisfy our curiosity, we climbed over the bean-covered rocks until we came to the edge of the gully, and, looking over, saw, to our delight and astonishment, not a tiny issue trickling drop by drop, like most of the streams of these ravines, but a regular little river of sparkling water, rushing down with a merry noise over the stones.
We drank our fill, and found the water cool and delicious, but slightly fishy in flavour, for the large white gannets thronged the hills above. This is the most considerable stream on the island, and the only one that reaches the weather shore, all the others, as I have explained, being sucked up high above by the slopes of debris. This drains an extensive area, and several ravines meet at the head of the gully, each contributing its share of water. Among others was one of the ravines we had attempted to descend on the previous day, and which had led us to the brink of the precipice. From below we could now see the whole face of that precipice — a fearful wall of black rock, with a thin thread of water falling over it.
We walked down the gully, and found that the stream not only crossed the down, but flowed right across the sands into the sea, the volume of water being too great to allow of its being all swallowed up by the thirsty soil on the way. We should have been more comfortable in our camp on the night before had we known there was a stream so near us, and would have drunk our fill, instead of doling out to each other thimblefuls of water with a grudging hand. It was strange, too, that I had not discovered this river when I was here before. I had then on descending from the mountains, turned to the right, even as we had done on the previous day, and suffered much from want of water; whereas, had I turned to the left, I should have come upon this generous supply after a few minutes' walk.
This was, indeed, a most valuable discovery for us, for now, should the supply of water fail in Southwest Bay, our working party would merely have to cross the Sugarloaf Col and follow the sands to this river — no very arduous journey.
The heat had been so intense this day that our recent vain climb up the mountain-side had somewhat exhausted us, and we did not feel prepared to accomplish the whole of the long journey to the pier before dark; moreover, the position of the sun showed us that it was long past noon, and we should have had to hurry along without pause, in order to save our daylight.
So we decided to take it easily, and select a camp for the night close to water, on the weather slopes of the mountains. We should have liked to remain where we were, by the river, in the midst of the old Portuguese settlement, but, knowing the difficulties of the homeward journey, we felt that it would be advisable to proceed some way farther on our road before camping, and so leave a shorter distance to travel on the morrow.
We accordingly left the river-side and struck across the downs to the foot of the ravine by which we had descended on the previous day. On our way we gathered a quantity of beans for our supper.
We soon found the ravine, and began to ascend it. The foul white birds again attacked us as we climbed from rock to rock, and the ugly crabs waved their pincers at us with menacing gestures. Then we came to the lowest point on the hill-side where water is found. This was at a much greater distance from the beach than it had seemed to be while we were descending on the day before; for the stream disappears in the soil at a spot at least 600 feet above the level of the sea, and to attain it from below involves a pretty stiff climb.
We went still higher up the ravine, until we were close to the place where the stream issues from the ground, a short distance below the foot of the great landslip of black rocks. Here we found an admirable site for our camp. This gully, as I have explained, falls towards the shore at a very steep angle, the rocks, as it were, forming a gigantic flight of steps. We were now on one of these steps, a flat surface about ten feet across, covered with red sand. The stream fell on to this from the step above, forming a little cascade some twelve feet in height, and, after crossing one side of the flat, fell over another wall of rock on to the step below.
The scene around us was strangely picturesque. Our step was simply a small ledge in this wilderness of broken black rocks; above us and below us were precipices and landslips. It was an excellent situation for an eagle's nest, but not an over-secure spot for a camp of men. Our narrow bed would not do for a restless sleeper: to slip off the edge of it would ensure a broken neck. A coarse grass grew here and there between the rocks by the water-side, but there was no other vegetation on the bleak crags, though, of course, the mysterious dead trees, as everywhere else on this island, were lying thickly all around. The foul birds and the land-crabs were the sole inhabitants of this solitude.
We now proceeded to make ourselves at home for the night. I collected the branches and trunks of the dead trees and built up a goodly pile of firewood, while the doctor prepared our supper. We had no saucepan with us, so the pannikin had to do duty for one. In this the doctor concocted a stew, the ingredients of which were charki, biscuits, figs, and Trinidad beans. It turned out to be a far more tasty dish than one would have supposed.
After dinner the saucepan was cleaned out and grog was served out in it — the last of our supply of rum. We had just lit our pipes and were settling ourselves down to a comfortable half-hour's smoke and chat before turning in (to whom is a pipe so sweet as to one camping out under the stars, after the day's work?) when suddenly the doctor cried out, "Hullo, look at our beds!" I looked, and lo! to my dismay, those luxurious couches were under water.
I must explain that we had pulled up a quantity of grass and strewed it over the sand, so as to make a snug soft sleeping-place for the night. While we were enjoying our dinner the river, unobserved by us, had risen considerably, and was now flowing over that portion of the step whereon we had made up our beds. There had been no rain to account for this, so I suppose that the sun, blazing down on the rocks, causes a great evaporation of water during the day, and that, consequently, the volume of the streams is greater after sunset. So we had now to put aside our pipes and grog for a few moments and undertake some necessary engineering operations: we cleared away a channel through the natural dam of grass, stones, and sand at the lower edge of the step, and so gave a free passage to the swollen stream. The flood subsided at once, and our beds were above water again. The doctor, then, acting in his medical capacity, suggested that damp mattresses were unhealthy; so we threw a few handfuls of grass on the top of the sodden mass, and our beds were what we were pleased to call dry again.
We lit a fire of the dead wood and kept it alight all night, so that we could occasionally warm ourselves by it; for a wind had sprung up at sunset, which swept up the ravine from the sea, making us feel uncomfortably chilly, thinly clad as we were and having no blankets to cover us.
We soon found that it would be impossible for us both to sleep at the same time, for the land-crabs had smelt us out and swarmed down upon us from all sides. We kept watch and watch; while one slept the other tended the fire and killed the land-crabs, as they approached, with sticks and stones. The other crabs, as usual, fed on the dead. I have, in the Cruise of the "Falcon," described the peculiarly uncanny way in which a land-crab eats his food. I saw this night, as I kept watch, at least twenty of them at a time devouring the carcasses of their slain friends. Each stood quite still, looking me straight in the face with his fixed outstarting eyes, and with an expression absolutely diabolical he pulled the food to pieces with his two front claws, and then, with deliberate motion, brought the fragments of flesh to his mouth with one claw, and chewed them up with a slow automatic action, but still those horrible eyes never moved, but stared steadily into mine.
As we had no means of judging the time it was difficult to divide the night into watches of even length, so we had to portion it out between us the best way we could.