A SUNDAY SCENE.
Disturbance in the Galley. — Reading the Riot Act. — A Fight. — Contrition. — Change in the Galley. — Sam the Second. — A revelation. — The government of King Rum. — A practical joke. — By the sea. — The "Orontes." — No turtle boat.
AFTER having dwelt at Mars Bay for three weeks in perfect peace and harmony, we were beginning to fancy ourselves a model happy family, when one Sunday morning we had a rude awakening from our dream. While quietly reading after breakfast in the dining tent, Sam's black face suddenly appeared at the door without its accustomed grin, and wearing an expression altogether new.
"Graydon beat me—he say he kill me," were the only coherent phrases in poor Sam's excited, broken English; and he really looked so savage and so unlike himself that I felt afraid of him. David was perplexed, and went at once to seek an explanation in the kitchen.
After a short time he came back, satisfied that he had read the Riot Act to good purpose. Sam had been teazing Graydon, who had lost his temper and threatened to strike him, but the little quarrel seemed to have passed over, and we thought we should hear no more of it. Judge then of my dismay when, an hour or two afterwards, I saw Graydon and Sam engaged in a hand to hand fight on the clinker! We both rushed out instinctively, to separate the combatants, who desisted immediately we appeared; but by this time they were bleeding profusely, and looked shamefully disreputable. Each, of course, blamed the other, but both were so excited, that it was impossible to arrive at any clear understanding of the matter. Hill's account also was contradictory; but he was emphatically decided in saying, that if one of these two did not go, he would, for be couldn't possibly live in the same tent-with them, they were so violent. And, indeed, I had good proof of their violence in the broken cooking-stove, the door of which was split in two by a blow from Graydon's foot, aimed at Sam.
Here was a nice Sunday morning's work! We were extremely annoyed and distressed, and somewhat at a loss how to act. Each servant was good individually, and, until now, we had thought they were in amity; but on cross-examination, it appeared that there had been a smouldering fire for some time, and now it had burst into a flame, very destructive to our peace. I must say that, as soon as their passion had died out, both men were repentant, and very much ashamed of themselves. Graydon's contrition was quite painful, and he seemed overwhelmingly distressed by the thought that "Mrs. Gill must think him a blackguard;" while Sam wandered about, with the most woe-begone expression of face, looking like a restless spirit of darkness.
As one may suppose, we spent a very unpleasant Sunday, and all our little congregation were absent from prayers that evening—Hill excusing himself on the plea that if he came, "They two might be agoin' it again!"
Something, of course, must be done, but as the men were really contrite and sorry for their fault, we were willing to spare them all punishment. After some thought, my husband decided simply to ask Captain Phillimore to exchange our Krooman, on the ground that he and the others did not get on well together; adding that, for our own part, we should be sorry to lose him. We agreed to say nothing whatever about the Sunday fight—that would have been a grave offence indeed, judged on the quarter-deck of the Ascension.
Two reasons guided us to this decision. The first was a purely selfish one. It would have been a very serious inconvenience for David to lose Graydon, who was now well trained to the work, just as "Opposition" was approaching: and in the second place, I now discovered for the first time that Master Sam had become very unmanageable with Hill, invariably refusing to do anything not quite agreeable to himself, and making quite sure of "Da-da's" and "Ma-ma's" support in his rebellion. Indeed, I fear we had spoiled Sam by making a sort of pet and plaything of him, so there was no help for it—he must go; but not in disgrace, for we all shared the blame, and I really felt quite miserable about it. Captain Phillimore very good-naturedly asked no questions, but took back Sam again to work at the pier-head, and gave us another Sam in his place.
Sam the second had a care-worn, reproachful cast of countenance, painfully different from his predecessor's normal grin; and I did not get to feel the same interest in him for some time, but he proved a faithful servant, and our domestic life again flowed evenly.
We often puzzled over this sudden outburst of temper on the part of our two usually quiet, well-conducted servants, but some little time afterwards I discovered the secret from Hill. In a sudden burst of confidence, he told me that on the previous night their week's allowance of rum had arrived, and they had drank it all at once.
Such a misfortune as this could happen only under exceptional circumstances,, as it is now a rule in the Navy that the daily allowance of rum must be mixed with water when served, so as to prevent the men selling it to each other, or saving it up for the pleasure of getting drunk once a week. This wise law is by no means appreciated however, and even the poor women deplore what is for the good of their lords. One loyal wife was heard to say, "Ah! Ascension is not the fine place it used to be; once on a time my good-man could save his grog all the week, and make hisself quite comfortable of a Saturday night!"
With a view still further to guard against this "comfortable" state of things, no intoxicating spirits are allowed to be sold on the island; one bottle of beer a-day may be purchased by each man—that is all, and although it costs 1s., few of the marines are able to deny themselves the luxury.
At Mars Bay a daily serving out of rum was, of course, impossible, so it was sent weekly in a pure state; hence our trouble. He is a thirsty animal, the British tar, and in Ascension, when you ask whether he will have a glass of ruin or half-a-crown, the invariable answer is, "Well! sir, money ain't no use to me on this island." Truly, gold and silver had lost their sovereignty here, and King Rum was all-powerful. For a glass of grog what was there that Jack could not or would not do? And with the Kroomen, "Bubbly-water" (rum) was equally potent. This tempts people to pay the men in the coin they like best, and we must plead guilty to having done so many a time. Indeed, it would move a heart of stone to see a poor fellow, who has been toiling cheerily for you under a burning sun, come up and instead of asking for payment, meekly insinuate that he was very thirsty. My husband, I know, passed a very troublesome time with his conscience, during the erection and re-erection of the Observatory, and it was only when the evil came under our immediate notice, that we fully recognized the necessity of strictness in this matter of rum-giving. Then we strongly resolved, henceforth, to be "cruel only to be kind," and did what we could to prevent a repetition of the Sunday fight.
One great evil that we had to contend against in our efforts to keep the men happy and friendly with each other, was their having so little to do. However, I was pleased to find, when I tried the experiment of getting books from the Seamen's Library, that both Hill and Graydon enjoyed reading. This did much to lessen the monotony of the day for them; and David's happy thought of providing an unlimited supply of fishing tackle, and showing a keen interest ill the basket, did still more for the peace and unity of our domestic circle.
On one occasion this fishing mania gave opportunity for a cruel practical joke at my expense. I had just spent a Sunday in Garrison; and when. I returned on Monday, hot and hungry from the clinker, a dish of delicious filletted fish was set before me. This I concluded to be rock-cod, to which my exceeding hunger was giving all unusual relish. More than once I expressed my appreciation of this dainty dish, testifying to it still more strongly by making an excellent meal. David kept on saying how glad he was that I liked the fish, and then, as if a sudden thought had struck him, he turned to Hill and asked, "What sort of fish is it?"
"Conger eel, sir!" said Hill, in a tone of suppressed amusement.
"Eels!" I exclaimed in disgust; and threw down the fork which was conveying a choice morsel to my lips.
I had all the prejudice of a Scotchwoman against the nasty things, and nothing would induce me to have them at table, so my ingenious husband had recourse to this cruel experiment, hoping thereby to cure me of my fancy' But who would give up a pet prejudice or a pet superstition without a struggle in this age of logic and hard facts? I was not going to yield to the first assault, so I at once declared that I felt sick and altogether much too ill to watch for Mars that night. "Revenge is sweet, especially to women."
Besides this horrid conger—which, strange to say, is considered quite a delicacy in Ascension—our little bay swarmed with fish of every shape and size, from the monster shark, that cost us much in the way of lost lilies and hooks, to a lovely nimble wee fish, vulgarly called "five fingers," striped with changeful greens, and glistening like a rainbow with every restless motion. The white-fleshed cavalhoe and the savoury rock-cod were the staple food of our breakfast and dinner-table; but, numerous as they were, it required no small skill to catch them, owing to the larger number and greater greed of the hideous black "old maids," with their double row of dog-like teeth. If the rock-cod did not look sharp, these ravenous creatures got hooked in their stead, much to our disgust, for they were unfit for table use.
Beautiful opal-coloured mackerel darted about in the clear pools, and it became quite a sport with David to spear them, for bait, with his iron-pointed alpen-stock. Prickly sea-urchins lay curled up like balls of miniature bayonets among the coral, and the lovely sea anemones bloomed fair in our marine garden at Mars Bay. Numbers of little crabs crawled everywhere above and about the rocks, where myriads of "natives" lived and died ; and from under many a weed-grown stone a slimy cuttle-fish would stretch out a hideous arm for a passing crab.
These salt pools, left by the receding waves among the rocks, were beautiful natural aquariums, in whose inhabitants we had great interest; and our daily sunset walk invariably took the shape of a scramble along the beach in search of "fairlies."
Sometimes, instead of pools we found little islands of white salt lying among the black rocks, testifying to the rapid evaporation, due in great measure to the constant trade-wind. We did enjoy these scrambles, when, after the beat of the day, our parched lungs were refreshed with a draught of fresh cool air; and, if too great curiosity regarding some sea-creature cost us a wetting, that but added to the pleasing excitement of the excursion.
During this hour at the sea-side the subject of Mars was prohibited in our conversation, and my husband endeavoured to fortify himself for the coming anxious nights, by banishing the cause of anxiety from his mind for a season. But the success of his efforts was doubtful, and I have a suspicion that many more of our wettings were caused by upward glances towards the clouds, than by downward seekings into the pools. As Opposition (5th Sept.) drew near, our anxiety increased; and although we had by this time secured a pretty large number of observations, yet for some nights previous to the important 5th little had been done, and the decisive battle had still to be fought.
The night of the 4th was very exhausting and unsatisfactory. Observations had been obtained in the evening, but in the morning heavy cloud, with hopeful though too short intervals of brightness, had kept us on the qui vive until 5 A.M., all to no purpose. Then, just as we were hoping for a little rest, Graydon sighted a huge steamer, which we fancied might be the mail (due on the 7th), so we had to give up all hope of repose for this night and hastily finish our letters. But it was a false alarm. As she came nearer we could see that this was even a larger ship than any of Donald Currie's floating castles, and that her decks were aglow with red-coats. A troop-ship, of course; and we were soon able, by the help of a glass, to make out Orontes on her stern. What a monster she looked as she sailed slowly by to Clarence Bay! I have no, doubt our little white encampment raised much speculation on board; but the Orontes did not deign to dip her flag to us, as did some other vessels, more polite; nor did she call at our little harbour, which, considering her size, was not remarkable.
We thought what a busy day they would have in Garrison sending home convalescents, and men whose reliefs had come, unshipping horses, mules, &c., and, we were not surprised that our turtle boat failed to put in her usual appearance, although her non-arrival considerably upset our domestic arrangements, and had a fatal consequence with regard to our letters. But this sad tale must be told hereafter in its own proper place.