Wrecked on a Reef
Chapter XVI. — The Peak of The Cavern-We are Surprised in a Thick Mist-Visit to the Central Harbour-The Currants-an Impracticable Idea
The Peak of The Cavern-We are Surprised in a Thick Mist-Visit to the Central Harbour-The Currants-an Impracticable Idea.
Three days of severe frost, then three days of continual storms — of hurricanes blowing successively from every quarter of the sky, with awful violence, to the serious injury of the poor trees on the coast: thus may I sum up the history of the past week.
This morning (August 9), the weather having cleared and the wind subsided, Alick and I resolved on attempting the ascent of the mountain situated behind our hut — an ascent which our comrades had made, but in which neither he nor I had been able to take part.
Having, with infinite difficulty, reached the summit of the mountain, we enjoyed the splendid spectacle of which Musgrave had given us a description. It was a prodigious chaos of summits, peaks, abrupt rocks, interesting ravines, valleys, and precipices, everywhere surrounded by the tranquil immensity of Ocean.
Opposite to us, and at a short distance, rose a peak, in which a black cavern was sunken deep. Our companions had not had time to visit it. We gained it after a tolerably long and dangerous march along a slender ridge of the mountain.
When seen close at hand, the cavern appeared to be an ancient crater, one of whose sides had fallen in: the other, remaining erect, hung over it, like half an arch above a gulf. The ground round about was covered with scoriæ; and on the lower side might be distinguished the bed of a lava torrent, which abutted on a deep valley, situated at the foot of the slope, opposite to that which faces Port Carnley.
Descending into the interior of the cavern, we examined it at leisure. The page 143vitrified character of its walls left no doubt upon our minds of its volcanic origin.
Up to this point we had incurred no real danger, and we congratulated each other on having undertaken the excursion. But our homeward journey was far from being so fortunate. We had quitted the cavern, and accomplished nearly half the way between it and the first peak, when all at once a dense mist surrounded us. We found ourselves engulfed, so to speak, in a cloud. Our position was very critical. We durst not move a step, for the mountain-ridge was narrow, and the slightest error would have precipitated us into an abyss. On the other hand, so severe was the cold, that to remain motionless was as painful as it was dangerous. If the chill numbness we had begun to feel had paralysed us — if we had fallen into that fatal sleep, which every effort of the will is powerless to resist — we had been lost; we must have perished on that desert summit. Our companions would certainly have searched for us, and eventually have found us. But when? The next day, probably, when it would have been too late.
We remained for about an hour in the white obscurity of this compact vapour, a prey to the cruellest apprehensions, and deploring our imprudence. Alick was seated close beside me. I held his frozen hand, which I began to lose all feeling of. At length a south-west wind arose, and in a few moments swept away the cloud which had enshrouded us.
It was terribly cold, terribly keen, that breeze; but with what joy did we feel its sharp edge upon our face, when we saw it at the same time rend into fragments and carry afar the mists which had held us prisoners! As soon as we could see clearly, we resumed our march with an energy which soon restored warmth and suppleness to our limbs. The descent of the mountain was accomplished without accident; but it was night before we gained the hut, where supper awaited us.
The day after the next (for on the next it had rained incessantly), we put to sea in our little boat, to visit the Middle Harbour, which we had not yet examined.
It is the smallest of the three arms of the sea, which are so many ramifications, as it were, of Port Carnley. The water there is as deep as in the two others, except at its extremity, where the bay takes a southward bend. A fleet of ships could anchor safely in seven fathoms, with a bottom of muddy sand, mixed with the debris of shells.
After we had landed, and hauled up our boat, we began to explore the coast. My companions were in front, and I was following a few paces behind, when a red berry, on the edge of the coppice, in a quiet, leafy hollow or gap, arrested my glance. I went towards it. Judge of my surprise when I found there a bush, about four feet high, completely covered with small, red fruit, apparently ripe. Its leaves — hard, close, and very small — resembled those of the box tree.,
I was astonished to see fruit, and ripe fruit, in the middle of winter. I ate some — one berry at first, then several. They were delicious. They were nearly of the size, shape, and taste of the currant. But instead of hanging together in clusters, each berry was fixed to a short stem in the angle of the branch and the leaf. They were so abundant that, from afar, the bush had all the appearance of a large red ball, besprinkled with spots of dark green.
Eager to announce my discovery to my comrades, and to invite them to share in my banquet, I hurried after them, calling them by name. But I moderated my pace and subdued my voice, not to disturb the scene which was passing at a short distance from the place where I was.
For they too had lighted on a treasure. Just as I quitted them to enter the copse, and they, not catching the sound of my footsteps, turned to see if I were following them, they caught sight of a sea-lion fresh from the waves, who had approached our boat, and was examining its interior with much attention. When he had satisfied his curiosity, not thinking himself safe, probably, in such a vicinity, he turned aside, sniffing the air fiercely, and with a leap plunged again into the sea.
Meanwhile Musgrave, stooping, and creeping almost on the ground, had slowly advanced towards the boat. When from the border of the forest I looked out upon the scene, he was crouching behind the canoe, with my gun up to his shoulder, and ready to fire as soon as the seal gave him an opportunity.
But the latter, instead of approaching the shore, seemed desirous of keeping away from it. His evolutions were very singular. He swam to and fro, made several tacks in front of the canoe, as if he left it with regret. We could see him even, from time to time, raising his head and shoulders above the shallow water, by supporting himself on his fore-paws, so that he might look again and again at the extraordinary object.
A second afterwards, we were all four in the boat, rowing vigorously. A large reddish spot on the surface of the sea indicated the place where the bleeding seal was lying. As the depth did not exceed three or four feet, we speedily fished him up; and being unable to take so heavy a cargo on board without some preparation, we towed the body ashore.
This expedition terminated, I conducted my companions to the copse, and pointed out my currants, which had an immense success. They feasted themselves to their hearts' content. Numerous similar bushes, which we discovered in the neighbourhood, were in a few minutes completely stripped. We had never made so luxurious a dessert.
I carried away a few seeds of this plant, to present, if ever I had the happiness of revisiting my country, to the Société d' Acclimatation(Acclimatization Society) or the Jardin des Plantes(Botanical Garden). It seems to me that, with a little careful culture, it would not fail to prove a welcome addition to the useful and agreeable plants already at our disposal.
As we returned to the shore, Harry knocked down a young albatross, which we added to our booty. In great glee we re-entered our house, after a most successful expedition.
During the following weeks the same alternations occurred of want and comparative abundance, and, consequently, of despondency and hope. The month of September passed in the same manner. The incidents of hunting and fishing which occupied it differed but in detail from those which already I have had such frequent occasion to record. This last-named month, however, was rendered exceedingly long and wearisome to us by the bad weather, which kept us almost continually prisoners indoors. The gales, the rain, the hail, the fog — all the demons of the atmosphere met together in high saturnalia at this season of the equinox, and in these inhospitable regions.
At length October came, to reinvigorate to some extent our courage. The worst of the winter was over. It was the time when there might, and when there should, be sent from Sydney a vessel in search of us, whether the succour came from our associates or the government.
Our expectation grew painfully keen. Musgrave even proposed to station a watch on the peninsula named after him. As soon as he caught sight of the ship entering the harbour, it would be his duty to light a signal fire already prepared on the most conspicuous point. The fire would attract the attention of the crew; a boat would immediately be lowered to pick up the sentinel; and he would then steer the vessel for Camp Cove, where she page 148would anchor in safety. After which, he would hasten to Epigwait, to warn his comrades, who would embark on board the ship; and we should all bid adieu — an eternal adieu — to the Auckland Islands.
On the 4th of November, our minds full of this project, or rather of this dream, we set out in our canoe to fix upon a spot where one of us might conveniently establish himself. After doubling the peninsula, and assuring ourselves that our signal was still in existence, we sailed along the rocky coast which faces the mouth of the port. Then, after following up the windings of a little creek, we arrived at a cliff projecting far into the bay. The situation was admirable. We ascended the cliff, from whose summit we could see, not only Port Carnley, but beyond, between the two promontories which guarded its entrance — the sea.
The place was found; but now that we had to carry out our project, we were confronted by insurmountable difficulties, of which, in our first ardour, we had taken no account. It was far away from Epigwait; provisions must frequently be brought to him whose turn it was to act as look-out man. One of us being necessarily kept at home to attend to our various domestic cares, three only would be left to go in search of food, and to carry provisions to our sentinel. This would never suffice. And when the bad weather rendered navigation impossible, what then?
Moreover, it would be necessary to erect a cabin, or some kind of hut, as a shelter for our companion; and we knew, by experience, the difficulty of such a task, and the length of time it occupied. We should have to come here — here, so far away from our camp — every day for many weeks! And how provide for our subsistence, when every moment, in that season of scarcity, scarcely sufficed to enable us to meet our wants?
Decidedly the plan was impracticable. It was a chimera, conceived in a moment of illusion. We would abandon it.
Our return was gloomy. Our confidence in things and in men was shaken. Suppose that no ship came to our relief! Suppose that we were destined to remain on our desolate isle, forgotten by all, for long — perhaps for ever, or, at least, until famine and despair had done their worst upon five poor wretches, who every day felt less strength and less courage for the struggle with such foes!