A NARROW ESCAPE
WE started early on the following morning, November 23rd, and reached the summit of the landslip before the sun had heated the black rocks, and the layer of close air immediately over them, to that high temperature which we had found so insupportable on the previous day.
We managed to ascend the cliff which hangs over the landslip without accident, but it was anxious work, and we experienced a sense of relief when we found ourselves safe once more on the upper plateau.
From here we took a short cut across the groves of tree-ferns towards the head of the cascade ravine and came unexpectedly upon a green valley in the middle of the plateau which we had not seen before, and which is, without doubt, the most beautiful place on the island. At the bottom of it a cool stream flowed through thickly growing ferns and grass. The scenery all round us was of a soft and pleasing character, very strange to us after the dreary barrenness of the mountain slopes beneath this elevated and almost inaccessible garden.
We might have been in some fair vale of Paraguay, instead of on the summit of rugged Trinidad. Here were gently sloping green hills, that shut out all view of the jagged peaks. The vegetation was of a more luxuriant nature than in any other portion of the island; tall grasses, bushes, and plants of various kinds, most of them covered with flowers, carpeted the soft red soil, while the tall and beautiful tree-ferns stood in scattered clumps, casting a pleasant shade with their fronds of darker green. Even the dead trees were not so melancholy in appearance as elsewhere on the island; for from their branches— as well as from those of the older bushes and treeferns — there hung swaying festoons of a parasitic plant something like the Spanish moss that covers the pines and live-oaks of Florida, but more beautiful, for this was of a silvery-white colour.
Besides those tyrants of Trinidad, the birds and land-crabs, mice, flies, ants, earwigs, and big spiders dwelt in this happy valley.
From here we walked to the head of our ravine, where the principal grove of tree-ferns crowns the cliffs, and now we looked down upon the Alerte, seeming very small from this dizzy height, "and yon tall anchoring bark, diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy almost too small for sight." We observed that the wind was blowing rather freshly from an unusual quarter — north-west — making this a lee shore to our vessel, but there were no signs of bad weather in the sky.
While descending the ravine we were shut in by the walls of rock, so that we were unable to see the yacht; but on reaching a point just above the cascade we again commanded a view over the whole roadstead, and lo! we found, to our dismay, that the Alerte was no longer lying at her anchorage, nor was she anywhere in sight.
We stood and stared round the horizon, scarcely believing the evidence of our eyes. Not an hour before we had looked down upon her from the mountain, riding snugly to her anchor, with sails stowed. What possible mischance could have occurred since then?
We proceeded to the pier, on to which we perceived that the sea was breaking much more heavily than when we had landed on it, and from here we were enabled to see farther round the coast to the north-west. Then we caught a glimpse of our vessel just before she rounded, and was hidden by, the first promontory. She was about two miles away, with all plain sail set, beating against the wind towards the northern end of the island.
We surmised that those on board had become anxious about our safety, and were sailing round the island, in order, if possible to discover where we were — a course which they had no right to undertake, seeing that the doctor and myself had not yet been two and a half days away, and were not likely to have lost ourselves. Besides which, I knew that there was no one on board competent to take charge of the vessel on a cruise of this sort. Under these circumstances I was in anything but an amiable temper, more especially as the doctor and myself were now fagged out by our exertions, and had been looking forward to a square meal, and some good red wine with it, on our return on board.
As it appeared that they were bent on sailing round the island, and might not be off the pier again until the following day — for the yacht was evidently progressing very slowly, plunging her nose constantly into the steep head seas — I determined to recall them, if possible. So we hurried back to a slope near the cascade where the grass was growing thickly, and applied a match to it. As I expected, there was soon a great blaze, and a dense volume of smoke arose which must have made itself visible for many miles around. The wind fanned the flames, and the fire crept slowly up the mountain-side wherever the dry grass afforded a track for it; the dead trees, too, began to burn fiercely, and we discovered that we had started a somewhat larger conflagration than we had intended, and had set the whole of this side of the island on fire.
However, it produced the desired effect: we saw the yacht sail clear of the point again, on the starboard tack, bear away and run down the coast towards us. And now, at the suggestion, as I afterwards learnt, of Arthur Cotton, who ought to have known better, but who, as having been here before with me, professed to be well acquainted with the pilotage of Trinidad, the anchor was let go, to my horror, quite close to the edge of the breakers. Our vessel was now in very convenient proximity to the end of the pier, it is true, but in a most perilous position: for no sea-room had been allowed her — a very necessary precaution under these cliffs, where the wind is never steady — and I saw that, when the anchor was weighed again, we should run great risk of being carried on to the rocks by the rollers before we could get the yacht under command.
It may be imagined what was my condition of mind when I realized all this, and the doctor was naturally as savage as myself. We stood on the pier and watched the men as they lowered the sails and then launched the whale-boat in order to fetch us off. Powell, Pursell, and two of the paid hands manned the boat. The sea was now so high that they could not approach very near to the shore. The waves were dashing high up the sides of the pier, and, in recoiling, rushed across the end of it in the form of a cascade.
Seeing that we must swim for it, we took off our coats and placed them in a hole at the top of the rocks. I shouted to those in the boat to keep some distance off, and throw a life-buoy with a line attached to it towards the pier, so that we could jump in and be hauled off by it. This was done. Choosing my time I leapt in, held on to the line, the boat was pulled seaward out of reach of the breakers and I clambered on board. Then we returned for the doctor. He stood on the pier, waiting for his opportunity, but one much higher roller than the rest came up and swept him off into the sea. Luckily, he was not dashed against any of the rocks, but managed to swim out clear of the recoil, while we backed towards him and took him on board.
Once safe on the deck of the Alerte I listened to an explanation of the extraordinary manoeuvres which had been taking place.
It seemed that either the yacht had dragged her anchor or it was supposed that she had dragged her anchor — for the opinions on the matter were at variance — so the anchor was weighed, and, of course as the chain got short, the yacht, even if she had not done so before, began to drag at a merry pace. Then sail was hoisted. By this time she had drifted very close to the rocks, but, as far as I understand, she was filling and would soon have been in safety again, when, for some reason or other, down went the anchor and she lay rolling about close under the rocky Ness and the dangerous islets that lie off it. Up came the anchor once more, and this time the yacht drove so very near to the rocks that every one on board gave her up as lost, and some were looking out for the safest spot on shore to swim to. A high sea was breaking over the cliffs — one touch and she would have broken up. And now, as by a miracle — for I don't know how it happened, and no one on board seems to have known — the vessel got way on her and forged ahead, so that she became manageable, and was steered out to sea, clear of danger.
That she had been very nearly wrecked there can be no doubt, and that this had been due to very awkward handling was also certain. I was myself much to blame for the serious risk the poor old vessel had incurred. Had I left the doctor in charge on board, in his capacity of mate, while I was exploring the island, he would, no doubt, have extricated the yacht from her difficulty as soon as she began to drag — an easy task. I did not consider that there was any one else among the volunteers capable of undertaking the responsibility of command, but I was under the impression — wrongly it seems — that the five paid hands on board would have had the common sense to give her more chain when they perceived that the wind was freshening. Ted, for instance, was bos'n, and might have taken it upon himself to do this, as was indeed his understood duty when no officers were on board.
For the first and only time during the cruise these men lost their heads, and having no recognized leader to direct them, each volunteered his own opinion as to what should be done, or as to whether the vessel was dragging at all; but, as far as I can make out, with one man giving one order at one end of the vessel, and another man giving a contradictory order at the other end, nothing at all was done until it was almost too late.
I made up my mind never from this time to leave the vessel, even for a short time, without putting someone definitely in charge, even if he were an incompetent person.
But the danger was not all over yet. The vessel was now tumbling about in the high swell at the edge of the breakers, the wind had dropped, and to have weighed the anchor would have been to have run great risk of being carried on to the rocks by the rollers. So, as she was safe where she was for the time, I saw it was advisable to wait until the conditions should be more favourable before shifting our anchorage. The doctor and myself enjoyed our square meal to which we had been looking forward, and then I turned in to sleep, giving orders that I should be called at four in the afternoon.
At four the sea had gone down a good deal and there was a moderate breeze, so I decided to move to a safer berth. We hoisted the sails and, while we were getting the anchor up, I took the precaution, seeing what little sea-room we had, of putting the whale-boat in the water, with a long line fastened to the yacht's bows, ready to pull her head round and tow her seawards should she not cant in the right direction.
We got away safely, and the anchor was let go in nineteen fathoms close to where we had brought up on our arrival.
The night was fine, but the surf was still roaring on the beach. The mountains now presented a curious appearance, for our fire had spread up the various arms of the ravine almost to the summit, and there were clusters of lights, as of villages, in all directions, while here and there what appeared to be bonfires were blazing, possibly at spots where several dead trees had fallen together. We began to fear lest the illumination, which must have been visible for leagues out to sea, might attract the attention of passing vessels. A captain would naturally conclude that these fires were the signals of a shipwrecked crew, and therefore go out of his course to render assistance. Luckily this did not happen.