THE ADVENTURES OF THE SHORE-PARTY
THE doctor and his companions had plenty to tell. They had dug a great deal and had cleared away the landslip, till they had arrived at what appeared to be the original rocky bottom of the ravine. They had found no signs of the treasure, and they had evidently come to the conclusion that there was but little chance of finding it; but they had not lost heart, and were of opinion that it would be advisable to dig for a few weeks more, in the likely parts of the ravine, before abandoning the search for good.
The doctor told me that the surf had been exceedingly heavy recently, and that a storm had completely changed the character of the beach, a sandbank having been formed at some distance from the shore, deep water intervening. He explained to me that this bank was only just awash at low water, and that the sea always broke upon it, ploughing it up, so that sand and water were rolled up together, forming a boiling surf dangerous for the boat to cross.
The adventures of the shore-party during our absence, the visit of the man-of-war, and the marvellous escape from drowning of several of our men, were very interesting to hear. Mr. Pursell, as being one of those on shore, can tell the story better than I can, and he has kindly written for me the following account of all that occurred whilst the yacht was away. His narrative commences with our separation on December 30th.
After parting with our comrades on the Alerte, we made haste to get ashore again, as the weather looked threatening and there was every prospect of a rough landing. As soon as we had turned the corner of Treasure Bay we found that the wind was blowing hard right on shore, and that the sea had begun to break heavily on the beach, throwing dense masses of spray into the air, which glistened like silver in the sunshine — a magnificent sight, but one which portended a good ducking for us. However, there was no help for it; we had to make the best of it and get ashore somehow.
We waited for a comparative calm. We allowed three big waves to pass and spend their fury on the beach; the word was given, and we dashed on toward the land with all the force we could put into our oars. On we flew, crossing one sandbank on the summit of a curling wave that broke with a sound of thunder on the next bank. On we pulled with set teeth and straining muscles. "Hurrah!" cried the doctor, "one more stroke and we have done it!"— when suddenly we were in the backwash — the water seemed to shrink from under us into the wave that followed — the stem of the boat ploughed into a sandbank, while a huge wall of water rose up behind us, lifting the stern high in the air till the boat stood end on, and the next moment oars, tins, boat, and men were rolled over and over each other in the boiling foam
Our first thought, on struggling to our feet, was naturally for the boat. We found her turned right over and thrown almost on dry land. We hastened to right her, bale her out, and drag her up out of harm's way; then, having collected the oars, stretchers, rudder, etc., which were floating about, we set to work to rescue our provisions. For two hours we dived about in the surf, picking up tins of meat, Swiss milk, and oatmeal, a bag of biscuit utterly spoiled, another of flour reduced to paste, a couple of rifles, and one or two boxes of cartridges. Our two happy-dispositioned coloured men had great fun with the ruined flour, pelting each other with it until their shining black bodies were almost covered with the white paste, and roaring with laughter at each successful hit.
Though we did not abandon the search until nothing else could be found, an inspection showed us that we had lost a good half of the stores we had brought off in the boat. Having rescued all we could the doctor ordered all hands up to the camp for a tot of rum, which, I need hardly say, we were very glad to get. The most important loss, of course, was that of the biscuit and flour: for it was quite possible that the yacht might be away for several weeks, on her voyage to and from Bahia, and we had only a small supply of these articles on shore; so we had to go on short rations, so far as they were concerned.
Cloete-Smith, Powell, and myself had now been on shore for about five weeks, working steadily all the time, and we were beginning to feel the effects of it — in trainer's language, we were getting horribly stale. The doctor, therefore, decided that we should take holidays on the following two days—Saturday and Sunday — and recommence work on the Monday.
Now that the yacht had sailed we were quite cut off from the outer world, and began to feel very much like shipwrecked sailors, with the exception that we had many more comforts than usually fall to their lot. I suppose it is only in novels that those convenient hulks drift ashore containing just the very things the benighted mariners are in want of, for, though we kept a careful look-out, nothing of the kind came our way. Powell, I believe, though naturally a most kind-hearted fellow, would have cheerfully sacrificed a vessel for a few hundred Turkish cigarettes, and we should all have been glad of a change of literature. The library we had brought with us was well thumbed and well read, even to the advertisements. We had a motley assortment. We all became Shakespearian scholars; Bret Harte's poems and the "Bab Ballads" we almost knew bv heart; and we came to look upon, as very old friends, characters of all sorts and conditions, among others Othmar, Quilp, Adam Bede, Lord Fauntleroy, the Modern Circe, and Mrs. Gamp.
On Monday we resumed our digging with renewed vigour after our two days' rest, and worked steadily at the landslip. After we had thoroughly excavated under the big rock which had been discovered when the skipper was on shore, without result, Powell and myself were sent to examine two or three likely-looking places higher up the ravine, so as not to leave any chance untried; while the others still worked away at the old trench.
On the Wednesday morning our work was stopped for a time by the heaviest storm of rain I have ever witnessed. After the first few minutes the tents were no protection from the water, which quickly swamped them, so we armed ourself with soap and, going out into the open, enjoyed a glorious fresh-water bath. At the same time we had a view of a splendid waterfall. The rain beating on to the windward side of the Sugarloaf gathered in a deep gully on its summit, and, rushing down, struck a projecting rock and leaped headlong into the sea, seven hundred feet below. The effect was very fine, and, later on, when the clouds lightened a little and the morning sun shone through the rain, the whole island appeared to be covered with a transparent veil of prismatic colour.
On the following Sunday the doctor and I set off for an expedition into the mountains. On a previous occasion we had noticed a steep landslip of red earth mixed with cinders that looked very much as if they had been thrown up from a volcano; so we made up our minds to go to the top and see if we could find a crater. Slowly and carefully we crawled on hands and knees up the steep slide, clinging like cats to the side of the mountain, whose loose, charred soil crumbled away beneath us. We reached the summit of the red landslip, and found ourselves on a projecting spur of the mountain where the rocks had fallen away, leaving a great obelisk, seventy feet in height, standing on a narrow ridge, its base crumbling away with every storm, so that it looked as though a push would send the whole mass crashing down on to our camp far below. We could see no signs of a crater. Leaving this ridge we ascended the mountain behind, and when wee reached the top we sat down to rest and get cool under the shadow of a big rock.
From here the view was a grand one. To our right, nearly a thousand feet above us, rose the highest peak on the island. At our feet was Treasure Bay, our camp looking like a tiny white speck; even the great obelisk of rock we had just left appeared insignificant from this elevation, while the sea seemed smooth and innocent as the Serpentine, and the roar of the breakers sounded like a gentle murmur.
Away at sea two vessels were in sight — one a full-rigged ship, not far from the island; the other a barque, just breaking the horizon, with her white sails gleaming in the sunshine. Suddenly, as I watched the nearer vessel, I saw her royals taken in, and, looking to windward, perceived a large black cloud hurrying towards her, the water being churned up under it as it came along. The next moment the vessel was hidden from our sight by the squall of wind and rain, though all the while the sun was shining brightly on our island and not a drop of rain fell near us. The cloud passed by, the brave ship seemed to shake herself after the struggle, the sun shone once more on her dripping canvas, and by the time she had set her royals again and resumed her course the squall had passed away below the horizon.
About this time we caught plenty of turtle, which formed a very welcome addition to our larder, and they also enabled us to husband our other stores which were beginning to get low. Biscuit was entirely exhausted, and of flour we had but little, and, though Joe managed to make a very eatable cake out of preserved potatoes, the absence of bread-food was a serious inconvenience. The wild beans that grow on the island were now of great use.
For another fortnight we dug steadily on, gradually getting worn out with the hard work, and seeing our hopes of fortune diminish, as, one by one, the likely places up the ravine were tried and found wanting, and the big trench grew deeper and wider without giving any promise of yielding up the golden hoard. The life was dreadfully monotonous, not an incident occurring worth the mention to vary the daily drudgery with pick and shovel. We no longer set out on Sundays and half-holidays for those glorious but exhausting climbs over the mountains as we had to cherish all our strength for our work and, after each spell of digging, were glad to rest in our tents, sheltered from the burning sun. However, we kept up our spirits, were cheery enough, and always got on splendidly together.
The yacht had now been away three weeks, and we began to look forward to her return. We kept a good look-out, expecting to see her at any moment turn the corner of Treasure Bay. Just at this time we found considerable difficulty in obtaining fish. The weather had been bad for many days, the wind strong and squally from the north-east, and a heavy surf running on the shore. The effect of this on our sandy beach was completely to change its shape and appearance, and the little pool, in which we used to catch small fish with our wire-netting, entirely disappeared. Moreover, although Powell was energetic, and indeed very often rash, in venturing out on to the rocks with his bamboo rod, the seas now constantly broke right over them, so that another of our food supplies was cut off.
On Sunday, January 19th, we had an unexpected and most welcome visit. As we turned out of our banqueting hall after breakfast, we saw, to our amazement, a large man-of-war standing right into the bay from the south-east. Our camp was instantly a scene of excitement. We got out our glasses and strained our eyes to make out her nationality.
Was it possible that the Brazilian Government had heard of our expedition and had sent a gunboat to wrest our treasure from us and bear us away in chains? As a relief to the monotony of this long expedition we were always chaffing and talking nonsense — a very good plan, too; so we began to discuss the approaching vessel in our usual mock-grave fashion. If she should prove to be an enemy, we said that we would defend our island to the last gasp. Cloete-Smith began to reckon up what forces he had at his disposal. There were the two Englishmen, more or less white: these he called his Light Brigade. He called the two coloured men the Black Watch. There was the monkey, too, who could serve as an irregular force to harass the enemy generally — a sort of "gorilla warfare" as I put it — a remark which called forth a severe reprimand from the commander-in-chief. In the armoury department we had three repeating-rifles, two revolvers, and a case of surgical instruments. Fortunately we were not called upon to fight, for, when the vessel had approached close to Noah's Ark, we were able to make out the glorious old white ensign of England floating over her stern. We greeted it with a wild cheer.
Presently we saw that two boats were lowered and manned. Then the doctor gave the order: "All hands shave and prepare for visitors." We turned to with a will to make ourselves comparatively respectable all the while eagerly watching the proceedings in the bay. We saw the two boats pull close into the shore, and then retire, evidently not liking the look of the tremendous surf. They were then taken in tow by the vessel, which steamed slowly across the bay and disappeared round the west corner, evidently to see if they could effect a landing in the other bay.
In about twenty minutes, just as we had completed our toilet, she came back again, the boats were hoisted on board, and, to our dismay, she steamed away and vanished from our sight round South Point. We were deeply disappointed, and returned to our tents in no amiable frame of mind.
But we had not been deserted, after all; for, three hours later, just as we had finished our midday meal, we perceived four white-helmeted figures making their way down the green slopes at the back of our ravine. We hastened to meet them, greeted them like long-lost brothers, and brought them in triumph to the camp, for glad we were to see fresh friendly faces. As soon as they had refreshed themselves after their long walk, we sat down to hear all the news. Our visitors proved to be the captain, the surgeon, and two of the wardroom officers of H.M.S. Bramble, which vessel was on her way from Ascension Island to her station at Montevideo. They had sighted Trinidad at daybreak, and, standing in close to examine it, had discovered our tents on the shore. Having found the surf too heavy both in South-west Bay and at the pier, they had steamed round to the other side of the island. Here, after having attempted a landing at various places, they had at last succeeded in getting on shore, and after an hour's walk over the mountains had reached our camp.
Then we, in our turn, explained to them who we were and what we were doing here; and took them up to see our diggings, in which they seemed highly interested, though somewhat amused at our method of searching for fortune.
The officers asked us to go off and mess with them on the Bramble — an invitation we gladly accepted. We accordingly set out with them across the mountains, leaving our two black men in charge of the island during our absence. We found that their jolly-boat was in South-west Bay, with five men in her. They had dropped their anchor near a coral reef running out at right angles to the shore, and now they allowed the boat to back near enough to it for one of us to scramble on board at a time, seizing, ot course, the most favourable opportunity when the sea was comparatively steady, and hauling the boat off after each attempt, for, had she touched the rock, not much of her would have been left in a couple of minutes.
We pulled off to the vessel, which was lying at about half a mile from the shore. As soon as we were on board the captain gave the order to get under way, and we steamed at half-speed into Treasure Bay, and the vessel was anchored for the night near the Noah's Ark mountain, in twenty fathoms of water. Then someone suggested cocktails — a most unwonted luxury for us — and we adjourned below for a chat. We found the officers of the Bramble most pleasant fellows, and they treated us with the greatest hospitality. They ransacked their private stores for our delectation, and promised to give us a supply of biscuit, some flour, books, and tobacco to take ashore with us on the following morning. They even said, jokingly, that they were sure the Alerte had gone to the bottom, and that, if we were tired of digging on the island, they would give us a passage to Montevideo as distressed British subjects. They appeared greatly interested in the story we told of the origin of the treasure, and the account of our voyage and subsequent adventures. In return, they gave us all the latest news. We learnt that there had been a revolution in Brazil, which had broken out on the day after we had sailed from Bahia, and we speculated as to whether it would cause any delay to our shipmates who had gone to Brazil marketing. We also heard that Lord Salisbury had dispatched a fleet to demonstrate on the west coast of Africa. We were told that the Bramble was to form part of the expedition sent to observe the eclipse of the sun. They had, in short, plenty of news to impart, and it was so long since we had had any opportunity of hearing what was going on in the world that we talked like a vestry meeting till dinner-time.
All our shore-going clothes were on board the yacht, and we were clad in our rough working clothes, with only one coat between us; so I fancy our appearance at mess was a source of great amusement to the wardroom servants. Indeed, all the time we were on board we were evidently objects of considerable interest to the crew; the men seemed hardly to know what to make of us, and to wonder what manner of people we could be who chose for a residence this desolate spot.
After dinner we went on deck, and Captain Langdon produced some excellent cigars, which we thoroughly enjoyed while listening to a selection of music performed for our benefit by the ship's volunteer fife-and-drum band — a capital one.
We slept on board the vessel, and the next morning our hrst thought was about landing; we went on deck to have a look at the shore. We saw that the surf was breaking very heavily, and that it would be impossible to beach a boat without running considerable risk of smashing her up. However, get on shore we must, as the Bramble could not delay any longer, and had to be off.
So after breakfast the books, flour, and other things were handed up in a cask and lowered into a boat, together with a tin of biscuit, and, having bidden good-bye to our generous hosts, we started off under the command of Captain Langdon. As soon as we were near the breakers it was seen that to beach the boat was impossible, so after a little consultation Powell determined to try and swim ashore with the end of a rope. We pulled in as close as we could with safety, and then he jumped overboard, with the end of a grass line fastened to his arm, and made for the shore. He got on all right at first, though the strong current had a tendency to set him on the dangerous rocks on the left of the open channel. As soon as he got into the breaking rollers it was evident that he could not take the rope on shore. He struggled bravely on, being dashed on the beach by each wave, and then sucked back into the next wave by the irresistible backwash.
By this time the two black men on shore had seen him, and they rushed into the water to render assistance. Then Powell, almost exhausted, handed them the rope and just managed to struggle ashore, and lay down on the sand for a while, dead beat. But we were by no means out of the wood yet. The two men to whom Powell had given the rope were themselves carried off their feet by the big breakers and were washed out to sea. They both let go the rope and tried in vain to get on shore again, for they were much impeded by their clothes. At last Theodosius managed to cling to a rock and hold on to it till a recoiling wave had passed him; then he made a rush for it and succeeded in reaching the land. But Joe could make no way and was carried farther out. He was for some time in great danger of drowning, and his cries for help were piteous. But we could not with safety take the boat any nearer to him than we were, for she would have been stove in by the sunken rocks; and, as we could not make him understand that his proper course was, instead of attempting to land through the breakers in his exhausted condition, to turn and swim out to us, the doctor and myself went out to him and towed him to the boat on a barrel.
We were now no better off than when we had started, for we still had three of our party in the boat and two on shore. It was clear that it was more than a man could do to swim to land with a rope, so we decided to go to the western end of the bay, where a large rock, on which Powell sometimes fishes, stood out some way into the sea, and endeavour to throw a line on to it. So we pulled off there, the two men on the shore following us over the rocks. Powell and the coloured man clambered on to this natural pier, and, after several attempts, I managed to throw to them the end of a light line to which a bolt had been attached; we then bent the end of the grass rope on to this and they hauled it on shore.
But now we found that the sea was breaking with such great violence that it would be extremely perilous for a man to attempt to get on shore by hauling himself along the rope; he would most probably be beaten to death on the coral rocks. We, therefore, attempted to work the line to the eastward for a distance of about half a mile, to where the sandy beach afforded a safer landing-place Powell and Theodosius carried their end of the rope along the shore, while we pulled in a direction parallel to theirs with our end. We progressed but gradually, having to stop frequently to jerk the bight of the rope over the rocks in which it caught.
After about three-quarters of an hour of this work we had nearly got to our journey's end and were beginning to think that our troubles were over, when the rope got foul of a sharp piece of coral and parted in the middle like a bit of packthread. Captain Langdon used no bad language when this happened, but he looked all sorts of imprecations at this inaccessible home of ours. It was now one o'clock, and we had been trying in vain to land for four hours, and, moreover, had lost a kedge anchor and the greater portion of the grass rope; so Captain Langdon decided to return to the Bramble to change the boat's crew and get a fresh supply of rope.
We had some lunch and then set off again with two boats, another kedge and grass rope, a light cod-line and a large rocket. We pulled in till we were near the breakers, then one boat let go her anchor, and, the other boat having her painter fast to her, the first was backed in towards the shore until she was right on the top of the rollers, just before they broke. Then the cod-line was fixed on to the rocket, and, as there was no proper rocket apparatus on board, the rocket was held in the hand, while the gunner, who had come with us, applied a match to it. In consequence of some accident the rocket, instead of flying on shore and taking the cod-line with it, fizzed away in the boat, burning off the gunner's moustache and beard before he had time to move his head aside, and then dropped overboard and expended its force in the water. So we had failed again.
The wind, however, had changed by this time, and for a couple of hours had been blowing oil shore instead of on shore, from the south, so that the violence of the sea had abated considerably, and Cloete-Smith decided to have one more try at swimming ashore. He very nearly succeeded in doing so; but the current caught him, and swept him down on the rocks, so he had to return. Then I made another attempt, but with no better success, and we were at our wits' end and were getting worn out with our efforts, when we saw Powell preparing to swim off to us with the end of that portion of the broken grass rope which had remained on shore.
He waited for his opportunity, then dashed into the surf, dived through the breakers, and managed to get out into the deep water safely. We swam on to meet him with the end of another rope, bent them together and swam back to the boat. The rest was easy. We had now got a connection with the shore; for the farther end of the rope was safely secured to a rock. One by one wee made our way along the rope to dry land, then hauled the stores off with another light line, and, making the shore end of the grass rope fast to a turtle we had caught two days before, we sent it oil as a present to the Bramble.
It was a relief to find ourselves all safe on shore at last. We went up to the tents in a fairly exhausted condition for a much-needed tot of rum. The boats pulled back to the ship and were hoisted up; "Wish you good luck" was run up to the peak; we gave her a parting volley from our rifles, and then the gallant vessel steamed away — as it turned out, to take part in another revolution in Buenos Aires — and we were alone once more.
On the following day we settled down to work again, cheered and refreshed. We had now got a supply of biscuit and flour which we hoped would last us until the return of the yacht, so we were much more comfortable in our minds than before the arrival of the Bramble. We resumed our life of monotonous digging, and the only event of importance about this time was an accident which nearly proved fatal to Powell. He was fishing one afternoon on the big rock mentioned above, when one of the large waves which sometimes roll in unexpectedly here washed him off his perch into the sea. He was dashed violently on the rocks, and it was only by a piece of wonderful luck that he managed to clamber up again before he was stunned. He was much bruised, and lost his rod, his pipe, and hat — everything, in fact, except his life.
Day by day the work went on, and, as each morning broke, we hoped it would bring our missing vessel; but when another week went by and still she had not appeared, things began to look serious. She had now been away nearly five weeks, and we feared that some mischance had befallen her. Our stores were getting exhausted, and the weather seemed to have broken up, for there was now always so much surf that the turtle could not come up the sands, and fishing was generally impossible.
Our stores would not last much longer, so the doctor had two days' provisions and a breaker of water put aside, and decided that, if the yacht did not return within a few days, we would put to sea in the whale-boat and stand out into the track of passing vessels, in the hope of being picked up. Friday and Saturday passed and no yacht arrived. We spent Sunday in getting the boat ready for sea. Monday morning broke with half a gale of wind blowing and a terrific surf on the beach, so that it would have been impossible to launch the whale-boat, and about midday, just as we had given up all hope of seeing her again, the good old Alerte came round the corner, rolling and pitching in the heavy sea under a close-reefed mainsail, small jib, and reefed foresail.
Next morning we ran the boat down to the water's edge and tried to launch her. Two of us got into her and made ready to pull, while the others shoved her off. Then the others jumped in and we pulled five or six strokes, when a huge breaker caught her, lifted her up and turned her right over, rolling us all in a heap on to the beach. We tried again, with the same result, and then gave the attempt up, and went back to our morning's dig, hoping for better luck in the afternoon.
Day after day we tried and always failed. It seemed as if the sea would never go down. Our stores were now all but exhausted and we lived chiefly on the wild sea-birds. Every morning we would climb to a ravine where the birds are in great quantities, and pluck the young, unfledged ones from their nests, their mothers circling around us, striking at us with beaks and wings, uttering hoarse cries, and even spitting morsels of fish at us in their fury. We then took our victims down to the camp, cooked and ate them. The old birds are inedible, and even the flesh of the young ones is, without exception, the most horrible kind of food I have ever tasted.
At last, on February 5th, after a week of this sort of thing, we could stand it no longer, and determined to get off somehow. Three times we tried, and each time were swamped and driven back; the fourth time we waited for a lull, ran the boat out, jumped in and pulled away with all our strength. A huge breaker rolled up. The boat stood up on end, hesitated for an instant; one mighty tug at the oars, she righted, and before another wave could catch us we were out of danger, soon reached the Alerte, and our imprisonment was at an end.
I cannot close this account of our life on the island without saying a word in praise of the two coloured seamen who were left with us. Always willing to work hard and always cheerful and obliging, they tried to make our life as comfortable for us as possible. When the provisions ran short, they would have lived, had we allowed them, on nothing but a few handfuls of rice or cassava, saying: "You gentlemen eat the meat; me and George, we used to anything, even starving — you gentlemen not. We don't want meat — you do." In saying this, I do not wish it to be thought that I am making any invidious comparison between these two men and the two white sailors whom Knight had with him on board at this time. They also were good men and capable sailors and had they been ashore with us would, I know have done their duty well and willingly. They deserved thoroughly the good discharge which Knight gave them on parting.