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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XIV. — Excursion to the west Channel - Discovery of an Ancient Encampment - Shipwrecks

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Chapter XIV.
Excursion to the west Channel - Discovery of an Ancient Encampment - Shipwrecks.

WE have nearly reached the shortest days of the year. The sun does not rise before half-past eight, and it sets between three and four in the afternoon.

So for some weeks our habits have undergone a gradual modification. Instead of rising, as we did at first, about six o'clock to collect a supply of firewood before breakfast, we lie asleep until half-past seven. Except that the one whose turn it is to take the week's household work rises before the others, to light the fire and make breakfast ready.

"Monday, June 11 — The cold is very severe, the morning beautiful, the sea tolerably calm."

Alick, waking at five o'clock — that is, much earlier than usual — rose and went outside to see what kind of weather was brewing. Then, having thrown a few logs upon the hearth to rekindle the flickering fire, he called Musgrave, and informed him of the propitious condition of the atmosphere, which rendered feasible an excursion on the bay.

This going and coming, the fire crackling joyously on the hearth and throwing off a thousand sparks, the flame with a roar mounting up the chimney, the voices of our two companions — all these sounds hastened our réveil.

"Come, my lads," cried Musgrave, who had risen and assured himself of the state of the weather, "up, and off! It is a fine day, and a favourable opportunity for launching our boat. We will go to the West Channel, where we shall have the best chance of a successful hunt, and of renewing our provisions. You know it is time we attended to this, if we do not wish to be put upon short rations."

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To leap out of our beds of moss, to throw on our clothes, to make our toilet at the brook, and swallow a little soup warmed up by handy Alick, was the affair of only a few minutes, after which we descended to the shore.

Alick and George carried the great iron pot full of red-hot embers, on which we had placed a few burning brands. Having deposited it in the boat, they went in search of a sheet of sail-cloth to serve as a tent, in case we were forced to pass a second night away from our habitation.

To Musgrave is due the credit of having thought of the portable fire. The morning was very cold, and we derived much comfort from it.

A light northerly breeze began to blow; it was welcome: it enabled us to hoist our sail and lay aside our oars.

At daybreak we disembarked on Mask Island, in the hope of finding a seal. But we vainly traversed it in every direction. It was absolutely desolate. We were forced to re-embark, and hoist our sail anew.

It was morning. We sailed through the narrow creek separating the island from the mainland; then, after doubling a kind of peninsular promontory, we entered the West Channel.

Soon, at about two cables' length from the point we had just doubled, while skirting the northern shore, we discovered a little inlet, into which we immediately steered. As the wind issuing from this gulf was dead against us, we lowered our sail and took to our oars. In about ten minutes' time we arrived in a charming little cove, sheltered on every side, and just large enough to receive two or three ships in safety.

At the entrance the depth of water was seven fathoms, with a bottom of mud and sand; then it diminished gradually to three fathoms near the end of the bay, where a couple of limpid brooks poured out their tributes.

We disembarked, we hauled the boat ashore, and there we found, directly opposite the mouth of the cove, a clearing of some extent strewn with the stems and trunks of trees which had been cut down very close to the earth. It was evident that the axe alone could have accomplished such levelling work, and that men had been before us. We scaled the trunks, and discovered in the centre of the enclosure the remains of two huts, shattered, worm-eaten, and rotting through damp. They seemed of earlier date than those on the Eighth Island.

Having regained the shore, we walked along it as far as the mouth of one of the streams. No traces of seals, however, could we detect; but we started a small covey of birds: they resembled divers, except in the bill, which is like that of the cormorant. A discharge brought down four of them: we were sure of breakfast.

While Alick went to the boat for a lighted brand in order to kindle a fire page 130and roast the game, which George was busy getting ready, Musgrave and I ascended the water-course.

We had made but a few steps along its bank before Musgrave tripped, and nearly fell. The obstacle which had caught his foot was a whitish something, half-buried in the peat; on examining it more closely we recognised — a brick! A little further on, and a small pile of bricks lay on the ground, at the foot of a large tree, but so well concealed by peat and leaves that but for Musgrave's accident we should not have discovered it. These bricks probably had been left by voyagers who had encamped in the neighbouring wood, and established there a furnace for melting the fat of the seals. As they might, some time or other, prove useful to us, we carried them off.

This bay we named Camp Cove.

After doing justice to the divers, which appeared to us delectable, we set sail once more, and navigated the West Channel. Hitherto we had not encountered a single seal, but shortly before arriving at Monumental Island we caught sight of one, swimming close in to the shore of Adam Island, some few hundreds of yards from the creek.

He was an old male, nearly as venerable as Royal Tom. We understood, from his evolutions, that he was seeking a favourable spot for landing. In all haste, lest we should frighten him, we lowered our sail, and checked the impulse of our canoe by backing water with our oars.

The animal emerged from the water, glided gently between two rocks, and made towards the tall grass which lined the wood, and indicated the extreme limit of high tides. The shore was rugged and rocky; he seemed fatigued, and halted to recover his breath. Suddenly, raising his head and looking over a large stone, he perceived us; he made a slight retrograde movement: would he return to the sea, and so escape us?

I had noiselessly loaded my gun, and now covered the sea-lion. Expectation and anxiety were depicted on the countenance of my companions. The seal seemed undecided; now turning his head towards the shore, whither prudence counselled him to return; now eying the tall rank herbage, which invited him to repose.

"Do not be in a hurry: give yourself time to take aim!" It was Musgrave who murmured these words of caution in my ear.

Should I fire? The distance was so great! But if I waited, the prey might escape me. I fired. The seal was hit, but not killed: his jaw was broken, and he was stunned — it was sufficient to give us time to disembark.

A few vigorous strokes carried us ashore near the spot where the animalv page 131
Sea-Lion and Young

Sea-Lion and Young

page 132lay prostrate. We leaped on the beach, pounced upon him, and before he had recovered his senses, terminated his existence with our cudgels.

All four of us then dragged him to the boat, and it was as much as we could do. I am sure he did not weigh less than five or six hundredweight.

We were unwilling to quit this place without once more contemplating, from the summit of the cliff, the magnificent scene of the creek and bay which I have already described. On our way down again we fell in with a water-hen, which George adroitly killed with a stone. On the shore, another treasure-trove: a portion of a yard, and a ship's rudder made of fir. Whence came these waifs and strays? They had been quite recently brought here by the tide, for on the occasion of our first visit we did not see them.

Perhaps a misfortune had happened here. Under this supposition we were induced to light a large fire, whose clouds of heavy smoke soon mounted towards the sky: were there any shipwrecked men in the neighbourhood they could not but see them. As for firing our gun, we knew that would be labour lost — the roar of the waves, and their reverberations in the cavernous cliffs, would overpower the discharge. We explored the neighbourhood in every direction, but met with no one.

As the day was rapidly advancing, we could not, without imprudence, delay any longer. We set out, therefore, but with all our diligence we did not arrive at Epigwait until four hours after nightfall.

Whence came the fragments we had seen upon the shore? Came they from some vessel which had suffered injuries in a storm, or from a shipwreck, as we had first imagined? This we never knew. What is certain is, that misfortunes are frequent in these parts, the numerous ships sailing from Australia to Europe passing nearly always in sight of the Aucklands, which lie on their line of route.

I cannot help observing here how important it is that those islands, situated in a zone of the globe peculiarly exposed to tempests, should not be completely abandoned to the furious elements, but that a light-house should be erected on them, and a station, visited at intervals, where unfortunate castaways might find immediate succour. I wish I might have the good fortune to direct the attention to this point of the British Government, which is always so attentive to the interests of commerce and the safety of its subjects.

May our example, joined to that of the Invercauld and the General Grant, which, as well as the Grafton, have in the last few years been lost on the coasts of these desert islands, conduce to this happy result!

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What a consolation for those who have suffered, and even for those still suffering, if they were able to say that their calamities had not been barren, but had borne beneficent fruit, which for other sufferers would prove an inestimable boon! If such were the case, I think, indeed, that one would rejoice in one's miseries.