A NIGHT ON THE CLINKER.
Weary weeks. — What is to be done? — Can we get beyond the Clouds? — I determine to explore. — A typical night. — Walking over "clinker." — Jimmy Ducks. — Light through the cloud. — Midnight on the clinker. — Chasing a Cloud by moon-light. — My clinker cairn. — Return to Garrison. — The decision. — Reconnoitring. — A hopeful spot. — Two "ifs." — Preparations for tent-life. — The first Parallax Determination. — "The man that hesitates is lost."
THUS passed two weary weeks. We pored over dry statistics, hunted up every scrap of weather record, and annoyed everybody with questions about cloud and wind; but to little purpose.
The crew of the Ascension is a changing one, three years being the usual term of service, so that no one was able to give us the benefit of long experience of Ascension weather. The answers to our questions were contradictory and distracting in the extreme, being based on casual observation or general impression. The only thing that everybody seemed to agree about was, that "such cloudy weather had not been known within the memory of the oldest inhabitant; it was altogether exceptional, and by-and-by there would be as clear skies as even we could desire." Yes, "by-and-by" perhaps; but meantime Mars would not wait, and the present was threatening our expedition with disaster.
Oh! those weary weeks. Fearful of losing a single hour of star-light during the night, we watched alternately for moments of break in the cloud, sometimes with partial success, but more frequently with no result but utter disappointment, and the mental and physical, strain, increasing every night, grew almost beyond our strength. What was to be done? There was the Observatory complete, the instruments faultless, and the astronomer idle, for there too was the cloud. Sometimes it "curtained the sky from pole to pole," but more frequently it confined itself to the narrow, snake-like band, stretching across the zenith and showing clear sky to north and south,
Is anything so temper-trying as waiting—anything so heartbreaking as enforced idleness in the midst of work? I bore it badly, or rather I didn't bear it at all, and the peevishness of disappointment was fast giving way to a sullen despair in my mind, when one day David spoke and took away my breath. He said, "Let us prove how far this cloud extends, and find out whether there is any accessible part of the island not covered by it."
This proposal from him startled me, and the idea which had so often floated idly through my brain, now for the first time assumed a practical shape. It gave speech to silent desires which I had been ashamed to utter.
I could not calculate the risks, and therefore I was bold; but now they were well considered, and the result of sober thought agreed with my visionary longings. "Let us explore, and move if need be." It was like the order to attack after the hateful inaction of a siege, and I was eager to be up and doing.
It was now the 30th of July. The sun had set. The after-glow had faded away, and stars were shining everywhere but just where they ought to shine. Green Mountain was, as usual, busy dispatching a. train of cloud over Cross Hill, and right in the path of Mars. It was a typical night, and we determined to act; but how? David could not leave his post in Garrison, lest an opportunity for observations should occur, and, after the fatigue of a hot day's work, we could not ask any of our neighbours to give up the rest of the cool night for us. So I offered myself as pioneer, but my offer was at first rejected with some decision. "Impossible! You have never been beyond Garrison; there is no road; there may be dangerous gullies; and wild cats infest the plains—you would find the walking bad enough by day, and at night impossible." But having a considerable leaven of Luckie Mucklebackit's spirit in me, I meant to try hard for my own way; and after showing how carefully I had been studying the Admiralty chart—studying it till every crater and every watercourse seemed stamped upon my brain, the "impossibles" grew fainter till finally they disappeared. The chart was brought out, not for the first time, and I was proud to show off my knowledge.
For some little way south of Garrison a winding road, or track, was indicated; then open plains of volcanic ashes; while beyond, and everywhere bordering the sea, rose up great lava rocks, or, as they are locally called, "clinker." Now the question seemed to be, does the cloud extend beyond the plain, or does it not? If it does, the case is hopeless, the general character of the "clinker" being, that it is inaccessible to all but goats and adventurous donkeys.
It was 9 P.M., and no time was to be lost. Hill was called upon for his knowledge of the way, and we found it nil, but he thought that Corporal B— knew something of it.
"Then," said my husband, "ask Corporal B— whether he will accompany Mrs. Gill in a walk towards South Point at 10 o'clock, and you will go too with rugs and a luncheon basket." Hill looked rather mystified, as well he might; but the order was one after his own heart, and the old corporal showing a spirit not less adventurous, my guides were ready and waiting for me at the time appointed. My watch was carefully timed with the chronometers, and David and I arranged to make simultaneous observations of the clouds every half-hour till 3 A.M., when I promised to return.
At 10 P.M. we started. My spirits were higher than they had been for many nights, but David looked anxious, and warned me again and again not to run into any danger. I reassured him with boasts of my knowledge of the chart and of the places of the stars. Besides, in an hour the moon ought to rise, and in the tropics she is a brilliant lamp; but in case of the clouds thickening, we provided ourselves with a lanthorn and a bull's-eye, to serve in her stead.
For the first mile I found the road very tiring—soft and yielding, and bestrewn with loose lumps of clinker; moreover I had made the mistake of putting on low shoes. I chose them because they were thicker and stronger than any boots I had, not considering that the sand, or crushed cinder rather, would get inside and chafe my feet. Our next misfortune was the sudden rising of the wind, followed by the total eclipse of our lanthorn. But, happily, we had our bull's-eye to fall back upon, and by this light "dimly burning" we proceeded for the first half-hour.
Now I observed that the cloud, instead of being entirely overhead, just reached our zenith and then dipped northward. This greatly encouraged me, and as my eye got more accustomed to the darkness, I was better able to choose the best of the bad way. It was still very dark—the wind rose higher—the moon gave no notice of her coming, and the weird ghostliness of the little bit of surrounding that fell under the light of the bull's-eye, I shall never forget. A sort of awe, not unpleasant, but the reverse, was stealing over me, and I felt just in the mood for an adventure; when, lo! close to my ear, a shrill uncanny shriek rang out through the stillness. The corporal flashed the bull's-eye in the direction of the sound and disclosed a dim, moving object, undistinguishable in shape or colour. Then I thought of cats—of bullocks turned carnivorous in their hunger, and my heart grew cold.
"It's Jimmy Ducks," said the corporal, in a tone of recognition.
"Who is Jimmy Ducks, and what is the matter with him?" I asked, trying not to shiver.
"Oh, ma'am, Jimmy Ducks is an old mule, blind of an eye. He has been turned out on the clinker to pick up his living, and he is frightened at our light."
Oh dear! how very small I felt! Don Quixote and his windmill were not more absurd than Jimmy Ducks and my silly self; and so disgusted did I feel with my cowardice, that I almost forgot to note the cloud.
For some little way the road had been tending more to east than south, so that we were not advancing much, but only getting nearer to Green Mountain, over which the moon was now struggling with a heavy cloud; not succeeding in piercing it, but just throwing out its awful shades, I never saw such a cloud, and ceased to wonder at the width of its skirts. But now we were not covered by it as at Garrison; our east horizon was indeed entirely obscured, as it had been during the previous half hour, but the south expanse of sky was larger, and I felt all the excitement of running a. race with my enemy.
There was no longer any road, and walking was easier. This may sound contradictory, but we certainly got along the hard weather-beaten plain at a much greater speed than we had done on the heavy road, loosened by traffic to South-west Bay, whence lime and turtle are occasionally brought by cart to Garrison. Because of the road winding so much to eastward, we had lost sight of the sea some time before getting upon the plain, and now that no path marked the way, the bull's-eye, borne in advance by the corporal, began to waver, and so did my confidence. We were losing our bearings, and I thought it wise to turn at once due west to catch sight of the sea again. Then we followed the line of coast southward till, suddenly, the clinker rose up and stopped the way.
It was now midnight. Mars had about 30 deg. altitude, and just skirted the cloud which covered the north and north-east, leaving the other parts of the sky brilliantly bright. Near him shone Saturn, a glorious contrast in colour, and Jupiter blazed over head as I spread my rug on the clinker, and tried by looking hard to make " the darkness visible." The moon was still struggling with the cloud and gave out a fitful light, just sufficient to show the utter barrenness and desolation around me. Here and there to eastward, small craters were tossed over the plain. It was too dark to distinguish their colour or form perfectly, but they all appeared dingy, and of a uniform conical shape. Behind us lay an uninterrupted flat called "Waterloo Plains," and in front rough, needle-like masses of clinker pointed their spires skyward. These continued southward as far as I could see, and down to the shore as well, for I walked, or rather scrambled, in that direction, to try whether I could find any path leading farther south; and I convinced myself that there, there was no break in the rocky wall. To eastward I thought there might be; but as the night was still dark, I feared to miss my way and make my husband anxious by being late. So I sat down on the clinker and had a glass of water and a biscuit, while my guides retired for their refreshment and a smoke.
I wonder what they talked of, and if they thought of me as a mad woman chasing a cloud by moonlight! Doubtless they did. But absurd and aimless as my chase appeared, the object I pursued was a glorious one; and, during the hour I sat on the Ascension plain and watched the clouds, I felt as if it were within my grasp. That is to say, I became convinced that this cloud was partial, that it formed in the east over Green Mountain and took a direction almost due west towards the sea. I had now succeeded in getting alongside of it, and I was nearly certain that all would yet be well if there was any accessible way farther south.
Before starting on our return journey, I got the men to make a cairn of clinker, which we topped by a bottle with a bit of red cotton tied to it, so that David might see where we had been stopped, should he decide to come and explore for himself.
The homeward road seemed very long, now that the excitement of inquiry was over; and though I did not feel tired, my feet ached with the sand and small stones that kept getting into my shoes. I was truly glad when, after five hours' absence, I met my husband looking out for me about half a mile from Garrison. He seemed relieved that I had returned in safety; but congratulations were cut short by his anxiety for my report, and I was equally anxious for his, for I could not really know whether my expedition had done any good till we had compared notes.
This we did the moment we got inside Commodore's Cottage, and with the result of convincing David that the cloud was systematic. This determined him to move the Observatory to the extreme south of the island at all hazards, providing Captain Phillimore's consent could be obtained,
I was almost frightened at his decision, and, coward-like, looked back after having put my hand to the plough. For the first time difficulties presented themselves to my mind in such legion that I could scarcely think. I remembered how we had been told at first that Garrison was the only habitable part of the island, except the cloud-capped mountain. I remembered the ruts and the rocks, and thought of the Heliometer. I remembered the want of water, the absence of all local habitation under a tropical sun; and had it not been for very shame, I should now have cried out "Impossible." But I kept silence and looked on.
My husband had already spoken to Captain Phillimore about the advisability of some change, and the morning after my excursion, or rather the same morning, at 7 A.M. they set out in the, strong cart to look for my cairn, and to try and penetrate south of it.
In some hours they returned with the news that my landmark had been discovered about four miles south, and that it showed our "track" to have been, as I imagined, too close to the shore. More to eastward the plain ran farther south, and they were able to drive between two little hills (Saddle Crater and Round Hill), both of which, it seems, I had kept to landward. At this point the clinker showed ominously ahead, so they tied the horse to a big stone and climbed the shoulder of Gannet Hill, now immediately on their left, in order to reconnoitre. Nothing but clinker to be seen; and that too of such formidable character as to form an apparently insurmountable barrier to the passage of the Heliometer.
An iron-bound coast indeed; and on the south it stretched into a narrow promontory (South Point) bristling with clinker, erect and sharp as the quills on a porcupine's back. On the lee (or north-west) shore of South Point, there nestled a little bay; and running into it from the plain was an empty watercourse, which seemed, with its more rounded stones, to afford some possibility of reaching the sea. A rough and rugged road it proved, however, when Captain Phillimore and my husband tried it; and certainly not available for the transport of heavy and delicate instruments. Oh! for an hour of Prince Houssain's magic carpet, to bear the Observatory through the air! for here is the very place for it, high upon the rocks above this little bay. Green Mountain and its cloud's well to northward, nothing but this strip of barren rock to the south, and Mars-can be seen to set, and almost to rise, over the sea. Here there can be no systematic cloud, only what the trade-wind brings, and we could fare no better even by getting into the sea. It was very tempting, and the explorers looked at land and sea, and at sea and land. Both routes seemed dangerous—the land route indeed impossible, while the surf and rollers which beset the Ascension coast gave little hope of the sea. No landing had ever been made at this bay, but as there was a tiny bit of sandy beach, Captain Phillimore thought it might be attempted, should my husband make up his mind to run the risk.
Such was the exciting news brought home to me; and the multitude of questions, fears, and anxieties it stirred up in my brain made me feel quite giddy, and very thankful that I was not called upon to decide.
Oh! the sickening responsibility of making up one's mind, and choosing between two evils. I had no word to say, and could only share the weight of anxiety without being able to lighten it. Either way looked gloomy. On the one hand, my husband felt—"If I stay here and fail, I shall have failed also in my duty, not having done my utmost. On the other hand, every night is now of importance, and a week is lost certainly if I pull down the Observatory, while the slightest accident to an instrument here, with no one to repair it, will be fatal to the expedition."
Yes! both "ifs" were unpleasant, but the first was intolerable, and after a day of anxious thought, David made up his mind that an attempt to reach South Point must be made. After coming to this decision, -our great aim of course was to carry it out with as little delay as possible, and to this end Captain Phillimore kindly promised every assistance in his power. Water should be condensed for us at once ; tents, lime, bricks, cement, coals, cooking-stove, &c., looked out from the naval stores, and a party of marines should accompany the goods to South Point and see everything in order before returning to Garrison.
Without knowing the limited resources of the island, and the amount of regular work to be gone through every day, one cannot realise the exceeding energy and good will embodied in this offer. I always feel a lump rise in my throat when I look back upon this time, and remember how difficulties were removed from our path, not only by Captain Phillimore, but by every officer under him, as well as by the officers of the ships then in harbour. Indeed, our kind friend Captain Hammick of the Cygnet levelled the last mountain by offering to send his Kroomen to carry the Heliometer-tube and the more delicate instruments over the clinker by hand.
It was on the 31st of July that the important decision was made, and, strange to say, that same night in Garrison, my husband was able to make his first complete determination of the parallax of Mars. The sky was cloudless from sun-set to sun-rise, and I wavered, wondering, as many others did, whether the new hope would shake the new decision; but when I questioned, the answer was, "The man that hesitates is lost."