ON THE SALVAGES
AS soon as dinner was over the whale-boat was put into the water, and I pulled off to the landing-place with two of my companions.
The men on shore were still employed in carrying the barrels up to the cavern, but when we approached they ceased working, and stood gazing at us with a not unnatural curiosity. We found the landing-place to be a queer one. A little channel clove the rocks for sixty or seventy feet inland. This islet was so narrow that there was scarce room within it to work a boat with oars, and, as the ocean swell entered it with sufficient force to render a collision with the rocks dangerous for any boat, an ingenious arrangement had been placed there to facilitate the landing. Just outside the entrance of the inlet a barrel floated, which was moored to a big stone or anchor at the bottom; a stout grass rope was attached to this barrel, and the other end of it was made fast to a rock on shore at the head of the inlet. By hauling along this rope, which was sufficiently taut for the purpose, the boat was kept well in the centre of the channel and all risk of getting foul of the rocks on either side was avoided. At the end of the inlet was a rocky shelf, on to which we jumped, having first made our boat fast to the rope in such a way that she could not bump against the shore.
Then there came down to us a very brown and amiable-looking old gentleman, whose dress consisted solely of a short, ragged shirt, which had once, I think, been of a vivid green, but which had now been toned down to a more aesthetic tint with age and dirt. He welcomed us to the island by silently shaking each of us by the hand very cordially.
I addressed him in Spanish, but he shook his head and commenced to speak in a language which I recognized as a Portuguese patois of some description. But we soon contrived to understand each other fairly well. He told me that he was the padron of the wild crew, who stood round listening to our conversation with grave faces — a sort of governor of the islet, and chief owner of the barrels of wealth which lay before us. He was also captain of the schooner.
Then he beckoned to us to follow him, and he led us into one of the stone huts, the furniture of which consisted of barrels like those that were being landed from the schooner, an open hogshead of black grapes and a demijohn. The good old man pulled out a pannikin from between the stones of the wall and proceeded to serve out to each of us a tot of excellent aguardiente from the demijohn.
One of the half-naked men happened to be bringing another of the mysterious barrels into the hut; so, without showing any impolite curiosity, I contrived to hint that I should like to know what it contained. The padron forthwith dipped the pannikin into a barrel that had been already broached, and poured the contents into my hand. It was, as I had expected, not pirate treasure, but coarse salt.
Then he explained to me that he and his companions were natives of Madeira, that they were in the habit of coming here with their schooner at this season of the year, and that they made this bay their head-quarters for salting down the fish which they caught, but that for the remainder of the year there were no human beings on these islands. He further said that the Salvages were claimed by the Portuguese, and not by the Spanish. On being asked whether there was any fresh water on the island, he said there was a small fountain in a hollow on the summit and that all the water they used had to be brought down from there in small breakers on the heads of his men. They were nimble enough in scrambling down the cliffs under their burdens, as we saw later on; but all Madeirans are excellent mountaineers.
Then the padron, looking rather sly, inquired in his turn: "What have you Englishmen come here for? It is rare that vessels come by here."
"It is on our way to Teneriffe," I replied, "and as this is a pleasure yacht we are not bound to time."
"Once before an Englishman came here. I thought you might have come for the same reason as he."
"And why did he come?"
"To look for hidden money."
This was very interesting, but we tried to assume a look of innocent surprise, as if we had heard nothing of this before.
"There is a great treasure hidden on this island somewhere," he continued, "and the English know of it. Some years ago this milord came with his yacht, a bigger one than yours, a steamer with three masts, and they dug for the treasure. Oh! it is a great treasure, more than a thousand English pounds they say; but the Englishmen did not find it."
"Where did they dig?" I asked.
"I do not know. I was not on the island at the time. It was several years ago."
That was all he seemed to know; we could elicit no further information on the subject from him; but it was evident that the Alerte was not the first yacht that had come to the Salvages in search of the hidden chests of dollars.
We then set forth to explore the island. We climbed the narrow path that zigzagged up the bare cliffs, and in the construction of which a considerable amount of labour must have been expended, a proof in itself that the rare visitors to the island were Portuguese, for these people alone take the trouble to make roads on desert islands. They seem to love for its own sake the arduous work of cutting paths up difficult precipices, and very cleverly they do it too. We came across the remains of excellent Portuguese roads even among the apparently inaccessible crags of Trinidad.
We reached the green downs on the summit. The sky was cloudless and a fresh breeze was blowing over the sea, so the tramp was very enjoyable to us after the cramped life on board a small vessel.
On every portion of these downs we found walls roughly put together of piled-up stones, which in some places formed long parallel lines, in others square enclosures. The object of these had probably been to prevent the soil from being washed into the sea; but whatever cultivation had formerly been carried on here had evidently been abandoned long since, in consequence, no doubt, of the insufficiency of the water supply. The fishermen appeared to be entirely ignorant of the history of these old walls. In one place there were traces of an ancient vineyard. Wherever the ground was not too stony a coarse grass grew luxuriantly over the downs. There were also wild tomatoes in profusion and alkaline sea-plants of various species.
We saw many rabbits dodging among the rocks, and gulls and cormorants in quantities. The cormorants dwelt with their families in fine stone houses which they had constructed with great ingenuity. Some of the stones were large and heavy; it would be interesting to observe how the birds set to work to move these and how they put their roofs on. I have been told that they rake up a mound of stones with their powerful wings in such a way that by removing some of those underneath they leave the roof above them. The gulls are not such good architects as the cormorants, and for the most part live in the natural crevices of the rocks, or in holes which they steal from the rabbits. We, however, saw one conscientious gull in the act of making his own house. He had selected a large stone lying on soft soil, and was burrowing a deep cavern underneath it.
We walked round the downs, looking over the cliffs into every bay; but we could see no extensive sandy beach such as that described by Captain Robinson. There were small patches of sand here and there, and that was all. The shore was formed of rock and shingle. It is probable that many changes have taken place on this exposed islet since the visit of the Prometheus; the sands may have been washed away, and there is no doubt that rocks and rocky landslips are constantly falling from above.
We saw clearly that it would be useless for us to dig in any of these bays; for none of them corresponded with the description given by the Spanish sailor; so we came to the conclusion that our search must be undertaken, if anywhere, on the middle island and not on the Great Salvage.
When on the summit of the island we looked out towards the south for the famous Peak of Teneriffe, which is said to be sometimes visible at a distance of one hundred and fifty miles. We were not much more than eighty miles from it here and the day was quite clear, but we could see no signs of it; neither was it visible while we were on the Great Piton, which is eight miles nearer. I have been at sea in the neighbourhood of Teneriffe on several occasions but have never yet had a view of the great mountain so either I am very unlucky or it must be rare indeed that it is to be distinguished at anything like the distance alleged.
Having explored the islet we proceeded to hunt rabbits. We had brought no guns with us, so tried to kill them with stones, but failed completely; we were all out of practice at this sort of sport. We then descended the path to the huts, where the padron gave us a smiling welcome, and, inviting us again into the hut, produced for our benefit an unwonted luxury, a bottle of rough Madeira. We purchased some grapes from him and a bottle of aguardiente, and, having bade farewell to our Portuguese friends, we pulled off to the yacht and recounted our adventures to the others.
When we tasted the aguardiente we discovered that the monarch of the desert island understood how to trade in quite a civilised fashion; it was horrible stuff, not at all up to the excellent sample he had treated us to on our landing.
Shortly before sunset the schooner, having discharged all her salt, weighed anchor and set sail for Madeira, leaving about six men behind on the island.
As some of my companions seemed rather keen on taking their guns on shore and having a few hours' rabbit-shooting, I decided that the yacht should remain at anchor where she was during the following forenoon, so as to enable them to enjoy their sport and stock our larder with fresh meat — a very acceptable luxury — while I would sail with a few hands in the whale-boat at daybreak to the Great Piton, effect a landing there if possible, and discover whether there was any bay which answered to the Spanish sailor's description. In the afternoon the yacht was to get under way and rejoin me at the other island.
So at 4 o'clock the next morning, September 14th, we had coffee, put some provisions and two breakers of water into the boat, together with a few picks and shovels, a compass and other necessaries, and then sailed away.
I left the first mate in charge of the yacht, having first arranged a short code of signals with him, so that I could communicate from the shore when the yacht appeared off the Great Piton.
I took one of the signal code flags with me, which when flying from a perpendicular staff was to signify "All Right"; two waves of the flag indicated that we were coming off to the yacht in the boat, four waves was an order to the mate to send the dinghy off to us, and eight or more waves meant that we had found a likely-looking place and that I had decided to carry on digging operations. We were to indicate the best anchorage by pointing the flag in the direction we wished the yacht to be steered.
It was still dark when we got under way in the whale-boat, so the binnacle light was lit, and we shaped our course by compass towards the still invisible island, which was about nine miles distant.
I had with me the doctor, the second mate, and one of the paid hands — Arthur Cotton. When we got clear of the protecting island we found that a fresh wind was blowing nearly right aft; so we set the two spritsails and ran fast across a tumbling sea the Atlantic swell looking formidable when our little boat was in the deep hollows between the lofty crests.
By and by a faint light appeared in the east, and a red, rather stormy-looking dawn broadened across the dark sky.
Shortly after sunrise, the mists clearing from the islet, we perceived the Great Piton right ahead of us; but we only caught sight of it when we were on the summits of the waves, losing it again when we were in the deep valleys between.
We scudded on, and as we approached nearer, the sea became more confused and a little water tumbled on board occasionally. Outlying rocks showed their black heads above the water here and there, while curling breakers indicated the presence of other invisible dangers.
We lowered our sails and inspected the island from a safe distance before venturing to land: for if proper precautions are not exercised it is a very easy matter to lose one's boat in a moment while beaching on any of these small oceanic islets.
We saw that the Great Piton was much lower than the Great Salvage, the shore was rocky and indented, and there was a good deal of surf in places. Above the shore was a green, undulating plain, while towards the middle of it rose a steep dome with dark rocks at the summit.
The average of the plain above the sea seemed to be about twenty feet, and the central hill, according to the charts, is only 140 feet high. We observed that there were sandy beaches in many of the little coves, and some of these tallied well with the spot described by the Spaniard.
The Great Piton is a long narrow island extending from north-east to south-west magnetic; therefore the whole side facing the south-east could be accurately described as the south side. It was somewhere on this shore that the mutineers must have landed with the chests.
Picking our way through the outer shoals we made for what appeared to be the best landing-place, a snug little cove at the eastern extremity of this south side. Here we landed without any difficulty; but, finding it impossible to haul our heavy boat up the beach, we moored her safely in the bay and waded on shore with our stores.
On a sandy slope above the rocks we found the ruined walls of a stone hut. By placing our sails over these we made a snug little house. "And now," cried our medical adviser, "I suggest that, before doing anything else, we have breakfast." Our early morning sail on the ocean had given us all a hearty appetite, so a fire was lit, cocoa made, and the ship biscuits and tinned beef were duly appreciated. Then we enjoyed our pipes, and leaving Arthur behind to make the camp as comfortable as he could we set forth to explore the island. Our first discovery was that the corner on which we had landed became a separate islet at high water, for it was divided from the bulk of the Great Piton by a broad depression, across which at about three-quarters flood the sea rushed with a violent current. This depression was of rock and lava, and it had been worn into a smooth and level floor by the action of innumerable tides. At low water it was several feet above the sea, so that one could then walk across dry-shod.
We walked along the whole southern shore of the island, and it appeared to us that there were at least three coves to which the Spaniard's description could apply equally well. We found no inhabitants, but there were frequent signs of the Portuguese fishermen who occasionally visit the islet. We saw many footprints on the sands, showing that some men had been here very recently. We came across their rough stone huts full of fleas, some of their fishing-tackle, mounds of coarse salt, the ashes of their fires, and in one cavern there were stored the large iron pots in which they cooked their food.
We found no rabbits on the island, and very few birds. The sole creatures on shore were beetles, flies, and fleas. The latter lively insects were a great plague to us at night — it was unwise of us to pitch our camp in the hut of Portuguese fisherman. On the beach were great numbers of very active little crabs. There was no fresh water on the island. We ascended the peak, which is named Hart Hill on the chart. Its top is formed of rugged masses of coal-black rock, evidently of volcanic formation, and this is studded with large black crystals, like plums in a plum-pudding. These crystals attracted our attention at once. We chipped off some and found them hard and heavy. We began to speculate on the nature of this substance, and as none of us knew much of mineralogy we of course at once decided, in our usual sanguine way, that this must be an oxide of antimony, or manganese, or some other valuable product. There were thousands of tons of this stuff on the island, so we clearly saw our way to another vast fortune of different description to that we were seeking. It was settled that we would obtain a concession from the Portuguese before the value of our find leaked out, then we would sell our rights to an English company or syndicate for an immense sum. We sat there on the top of our crystalline treasure and arranged it all. "It might be worth while," suggested one humdrum individual, " in the first place to send a specimen home to be assayed, so that we may form some approximate idea of the extent of our fortunes; but we must send it to some person whom we can rely upon not to breathe a word of the secret and so stop our chances of making an advantageous bargain with the Portuguese."
Later on, when we reached Teneriffe, we did send some of the crystals home, and when we arrived at Bahia we were informed by letter of the result of the assay and of the exact market value per ton of the stuff.
But I will not keep any of my friends who may read this book in suspense. They need not apply to me for an early allotment of shares in the great syndicate. We have not made our fortunes just yet. I will anticipate by giving the essayist's report. It ran thus: "Volcanic hornblende. Commercial value — nil."
But we did not waste much time in building our castles in the air, and returned to business.
Looking from the summit of our hornblende peak the whole island lay stretched out before us like a map, and we could easily distinguish all the features of the Little Piton, which seemed to be about two miles away. On the Admiralty chart the coast and shoals of the Great Salvage are correctly drawn; but this cannot be said of the plan of the Great Piton: this is utterly unreliable. The survey does not profess to be more than a superficial one, but great changes must have occurred here since it was made. There are not wanting signs that the sea has encroached a great deal on the land, and that it is still doing so. In the first place the island is not three miles long, as shown on the chart, its length cannot exceed one mile and a half. The shores, again, are far more irregular in shape, the outer islands and shoals more numerous, than the chart indicates. Perhaps these last have been cut off the island by the sea since the survey. We perceived that the sea was breaking all round the island on far projecting promontories and shallow reefs; but, strangely enough, where the chart does mark one well-defined continuous reef joining the Great Piton to the Little Piton, there appeared to be a broad open channel of deep water.
We saw one likely-looking bay to the southward of our camp, so, while we were waiting for the yacht, the three of us set to with our shovels, and dug parallel trenches in the sand at right angles to the shore, working upwards from a short distance above high-water mark. We did not dig these trenches to a greater depth than three feet, for we then came to a hard soil which to all appearance had never been disturbed. We found it pretty hard work under that fiery subtropical sun, unaccustomed as we were to the use of pick and shovel.
In the afternoon the yacht appeared off the island, so we signalled to her with the flag in the preconcerted manner: "Come to an anchor." "We will pass the night on shore"; and, whereas eight or more waves of the flag were to signify that we had found a likely place for the hidden treasure, we waved most energetically for quite two minutes — a sanguine signal that must have led my companions on board to conclude that we had at least discovered the first of the chests of dollars.
The yacht came to an anchor off the bay at which we had hrst landed. The mate came off to us in the dinghy, and I told him our plans and instructed him to send other hands off to us in the morning, together with all necessary stores. He then returned to the yacht, while we passed the night in our hut in the company of the innumerable sleepless fleas.
Early on the following morning, September 15 th, the boat came off with hve more of my companions which raised our shore party to nine.
We then shifted our camp from the torture hut of fleas to a sandy spot farther to the southward under Hart Hill, and here we pitched the two emigrant tents which had been brought for Trinidad. The boat returned to the yacht for the stores, and brought back to us all the picks, shovels, and crowbars, a forty gallon tank of water, and plenty of provisions, including a savoury stew of Salvagee rabbits, for our sportsman had had good luck on the previous day.
After the camp had been put in order the whole party set forth to survey the southern shore, and each, having read the Spaniard's narrative, gave his opinion as to the most likely spot.
Then we arranged a methodical plan of action and his portion of work was allotted to each man. We dug trenches in parallel lines in some places, in others we drew them in A shapes, gold prospector's fashion, generally working in a sandy earth, but sometimes through shingle.
The surface of the island has, no doubt, undergone many changes since 1804, the year in which it is alleged that the treasure was buried. It was therefore often difficult to decide to what depth the trenches should be dug; for we came to a hard, darker soil, which some of us considered to be of ancient formation, undisturbed for centuries, while others were of opinion that loose sand mixing with vegetable matter could easily have consolidated into this in the course of eighty years. When we had dug the trenches as far down as we intended we sounded the earth to a still greater depth by driving in the crowbars at short intervals. At one time some excitement was caused by the discovery of bones, but our doctor pronounced them to be the bones of a whale and not of a human being.
By dinner-time we had dug a goodly array of trenches, for we were working energetically despite the burning sun.
While we were enjoying an interval of rest after the midday meal and smoking our pipes, I took those of the working party who had not yet seen the black crystals to the summit of Hart Hill, and asked their opinion of the mineral. None of them had seen a rock of like formation before, and they thought this might prove a valuable discovery. Our sportsman took in the value of the hill at a glance. "Well," he said, "I don't think so much of this as of the other treasures. However, it may be worth a quarter of a million or so to us. I will put my share of it on 'X' for the Derby." I may mention that the horse he selected did not turn out to be the year's Derby winner.
We worked steadily through the afternoon, also for the whole of the next day, September 16th. On this day the mate reported that the remainder of our salt beef, some 400 pounds, was spoiled. It had, accordingly, to be thrown overboard.
It was just possible that the treasure had been hidden on the Little Piton and not on the island on which we were working. The Little Piton might be described as the middle island, for it lies between the Great Piton and another small islet or rock, apparently not marked in the chart; while the Great Salvage is as often as not invisible from here.
So on the morning of September I7th, leaving the other hands to continue the trenches, I sailed in the whale-boat with two of my companions to the Little Piton. We found that this islet also had a sandy down in its centre; but after several trials we saw that it was impossible to effect a landing on any part of it. There was no snug little cove, such as the one described by Cruise. The sea was breaking in an ugly way along the rocky coast, and the water round the islet was so thickly studded with rocks and reefs that it was dangerous to approach it.
After inspecting the shore as closely as we dared we abandoned the attempt and, setting sail, hurried back to the Great Piton; for the sky looked stormy to windward, and a heavy rain-squall came up which for a time hid all land from our sight — not desirable weather for cruising about the Atlantic in an open boat, for should a strong wind rise we should be unable to make any way against it, and might easily be blown away from the islets out to sea.
We landed again safely on the Great Piton, and after digging for some more hours, we sat together in council, and upon a little discussion it was unanimously decided that it was not worth our while to carry on any further operations on the Salvages. We had already dug hard for four days and might easily dig for forty more without having explored more than a small fraction of the sandy beaches on the south side of the island. Besides this there existed a considerable doubt whether this was the right island at all. The information was of far too vague a nature, our chance of success far too remote to encourage us to stay longer. Moreover, the anchorage was a very unsafe one should it come on to blow, and even now the glass was falling rapidly and the sky looked ominous.
I had originally intended to sail for St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands, and had indeed directed letters to be forwarded to us there; but this island was still a thousand miles distant, and, seeing that we had lost all our salt beef and had consumed a good deal of our water — the digging on the island under the sun had, of course, produced great thirst — it became almost necessary to call for provisions at some nearer port than St. Vincent.
I accordingly decided to sail for Santa Cruz on Teneriffe, which is less than a day's sail from the Great Piton, if one has any luck in one's winds.
So we broke up our camp, struck the tents, carried everybody and everything on board in two journeys of the boat, then got both boats on board and made all ready for sea.
With the exception of the Salvages, I had before visited every place at which we called with the Alerte; and even the Salvages were not entirely new to me, for I had seen them from the deck of the steam-yacht Sans Peur in 1881, when she was on her way from Madeira to Teneriffe.
This cruise consequently was not quite so fresh and interesting to me as to my companions, and would have seemed almost a dull one had it not been for the excitement of treasure-hunting.