THE ALERTE IS FITTED OUT
SUCH is the story of the Trinidad treasure, a story that seemed to me to bear the stamp of truth, and it was difficult to conceive that — allowing Captain P—'s narrative to be correct, and there is every reason to believe it as such — so many coincidences could have collected round a mere fabrication.
It is highly improbable that the foreign quartermaster evolved the whole matter from an imaginative brain, especially on his death-bed, when he was professing to confide a valuable secret to a friend as a token of his gratitude; neither can his statements be considered as being the ravings of a sick man, for they were far too circumstantial and compatible with facts.
In the first place, his carefully prepared plan of the island, the minute directions he gave as to the best landing, and his description of the features of the bay on whose shores the treasure was concealed, prove beyond doubt to myself and others who know Trinidad that he, or if not himself some informant of his, had landed on this so rarely visited islet; and not only landed, but passed some time on it, and carefully surveyed the approaches to the bay, so as to be able to point out the dangers and show the safest passage through the reefs. This information could not have been obtained from any pilot-book. The landing recommended by previous visitors is at the other side of the island. This bay is described by them as inaccessible, and the indications on the Admiralty chart are completely erroneous.
And, beyond this, the quartermaster must have been acquainted with what was taking place in two other distant portions of the world during the vear of his professed landing on the desert island. He knew of the escape of pirates with the cathedral plate of Lima. He was also aware that, shortly afterwards there were hanged in Cuba the crew of a vessel that had committed acts of piracy on the Peruvian coast. It is scarcely credible that an ordinary seaman — even allowing that he was superior in education to the average of his fellows — could have pieced these facts together so ingeniously into this plausible story.
It is needless to say that one like myself — who knew Trinidad, and who had personally sifted the evidence, and was constantly coming across numbers of incidents not mentioned here, trifling in themselves, but, taken together, strongly corroborative — would be more impressed by the coincidences, and consequently be more inclined to give credence to the story than one who merely reads the narrative in the pages of this book.
Hence the result of my interview with Mr. A— was that I decided to sail to Trinidad and search for the treasure. I knew, of course, that the chances were greatly against my finding anything. I was quite prepared for complete failure; but I considered that there was a sufficient possibility of success to make the venture worth the undertaking.
I, of course, saw that the great impediment was the landslip, which might have covered the landmarks, and so altered the features of the ravine as to render recognition of the exact spot extremely difficult; for it is quite possible that young Mr. P— was somewhat over-sanguine, and that the grounds for his so readily identifying the pirate's hiding-place were inadequate.
The former adventurers seem to have considered that the difficulties of landing constituted almost as great an obstacle to success as the landslip itself; but I was confident that these difficulties were anything but insuperable, and that, by taking proper precautions, it would be quite possible to land a working party with all necessary stores and tools, and even, if necessary, heavy machinery as well. I had myself, nine years previously, landed at three different points of the island and had passed several days on shore, so I quite realized what was before me.
There is no doubt that the former adventurers failed from precipitancy. Patience is a necessary quality for those w ho wish to land on Trinidad. One must not expect to sail there and forthwith disembark with one's baggage as if it were on Southsea Pier. It appears, too, that the captains of the square-rigged vessels which carried the expeditions to the island were largely responsible for the failure of the former quests; they would not approach the islands within several miles; they became anxious as to the safety of their boats and men, were fidgety to sail away again to the safety of the broad ocean, and hurried the adventurers off the shore when they had scarcely had time to look around them. The captains, no doubt, were quite right from their point of view; but it is also certain that the treasure could never be recovered by this way of going to work. To dig away the landslip would involve many months of labour, and during that time the captain of the vessel must be prepared to stand off and on, or heave-to off the island — for to remain at anchor for any length of time would be dangerous. And again, there must be no hurry in landing: the working party may have to remain on board the vessel for weeks at a stretch, gazing at that wild shore, before it be possible for them to attain it. I have seen the great rollers dashing on the beach with a dreadful roar for days together, and the surf — as the South Atlantic Directory observes without any exaggeration — "is often incredibly great, and has been seen to break over a bluff which is two hundred feet high."
Notwithstanding this, if one is patient and bides one's opportunity, there are days when landing can be accomplished without any difficulty whatever.
When I visited Trinidad with the Falcon I discovered one especially safe landing-place on the lee side of the island, where a natural pier of coral projects into the sea beyond the breakers. I knew that it was possible to effect a landing here ten times to once that this could be done on the more exposed beach of the bay under the Sugarloaf where the Aurea party landed. A considerable and, I believe, perennial stream of water runs down as a cascade into the sea close to my landing-place, and I knew that it would be easy to disembark here a quantity of provisions, and establish a depot to which the working party in Sugarloaf Bay could repair in the case of their stores falling short and their communication with the vessel being cut off by bad weather. I had myself crossed the lofty mountains which separate this landing-place from the bay under the Sugarloaf, and knew that, though difficult, they were not inaccessible.
My negotiations with Mr. A— terminated in his furnishing me with the bearings of the hidden treasure, and handing over to me the copy of the pirate's plan of the island, which the Aurea people had taken with them. This plan merely indicated the safest landing-place in the bay.
Mr. A—'s account of his own experiences were of great service to me in fitting out this expedition. He told me that there was no constant stream of fresh water on the shores of this bay, or anywhere near it, but that a little water ot an inferior quality could be collected after rain. There was, however, according to him, an abundance of dead wood on the hill-sides, which served admirably as fuel; so I took I note that a condensing apparatus would be an indispensable addition to our stores. He told me that I should find the Aurea tools lying on the beach, which, if not too corroded, might be of use to us. We did eventually find some of these, and employed them in our operations: I have now in my possession an Aurea pick which I brought away with me. I have to thank Mr. A— for a variety of valuable hints which I did not neglect.
Having decided to go, the first thing to be done was to find a vessel, a fore-and-after which could accommodate thirteen or fourteen men on an ocean voyage, and which could yet be easily handled by two or three while hove-to off the island.
I went down to my old head-quarters, Southampton, and explained what I was in search of to Mr. Picket, of West Quay, who had been my shipwright from my earliest yachting days, and who fitted out the old Falcon for her long voyage. With his assistance I soon discovered a very suitable vessel, the cutter-yacht Alerte, of fifty-six tons yacht measurement, and thirty-three tons register. This was, therefore, a considerably larger vessel than the Falcon, with which I had made my first voyage to Trinidad, for she was twenty-four feet shorter than the Alerte, and was only of fifteen tons register.
The dimensions of the Alerte are as follows: length, 64.3 feet; beam, 14.5 feet; depth, 9 feet. She was built by Ratsey of Cowes in 1864, so she is rather an ancient vessel, but she was constructed, in a much stronger fashion than is usual in these days, of thoroughly seasoned teak. There had been no scamping of work in her case, and now, after twenty years of service, she is as sound as on the day she left the stocks; there is not a weak spot in her, and she is in fact a far more reliable craft than a newer vessel would have proved, for even as a human life is more secure after it has safely passed through the period of infantile disorders, so a vessel, if she does not develop dry-rot within a few years of her launching, is not likely to do so afterwards. She has proved herself to have been honestly put together of seasoned timber, and not of sappy rubbish.
The Alerte moreover, was of the good old-fashioned build, with ample beam, and not of the modern plank-on-end style. She had only two tons of lead outside, the remainder of her ballast was in her hold — a great advantage for real cruising; for a vessel with a lead-mine on her keel cannot but train herself in heavy weather with the violent jerkiness of her action, instead of rolling about with a leisurely motion on the top of the water as if she were quite at home there, like a vessel of the comfortable Alerte type.
This was not the first ocean cruise the gallant old cutter had undertaken, for she once accomplished the voyage from Southampton to Sydney in 103 days, which is very creditable work.
She was provided; I found, with new sails by Lapthorn, and an excellent inventory throughout so little was required besides making the alterations necessary for the particular object of our cruise. I accordingly purchased the vessel, very pleased at having without delay discovered a craft so suitable, and put her into Mr. Picket's hands to be got ready for sea. While this was being done I let it be widely known that I was organizing a treasure-hunting expedition and was in search of volunteers. Numbers applied, and I gradually selected my crew, some of whom made themselves of use in assisting me to fit out at Southampton.
A cruise of this description involves a good deal of preparation. In the first place, seeing that the Alerte was a somewhat heavily sparred vessel, I resolved to convert her into a yawl. So the main boom and gaff were shortened, the area of the mainsail considerably reduced, and a mizzen-mast was stepped in the counter, on which we set a snug jib-headed sail. No other alterations of importance were required on deck.
Below we had to find room for, and construct, extra bunks, and extra water-tanks occupied all available room. A condensing apparatus intended for use on the island was made for me by Mr. Hornsey of Southampton. The boiler was a strong twenty-gallon drum, and a forty-gallon tank contained the worm. At sea these two were disconnected and lashed in the saloon, serving as water-tanks. We carried in all 600 gallons of water. The precious fluid was, of course, never used for washing purposes at sea. Salt-water-soap and the Atlantic had to content us for our ablutions, and, where possible, sea-water was employed for cooking purposes as well.
The Allerte carried two boats, a dinghy and a gig. We condemned the gig, as being quite unfit for our work, and left her behind. As a capacious life-boat was necessary for landing men and stores on the island, Mr. White of Cowes built one for us — a light yet strong mahogany boat, double-ended, with water-tight compartments at either end. She was easy to pull, considering her size, and sailed fairly well under two spritsails. We carried this boat on deck on the starboard side, as she was too heavy for our davits. The dinghy, on the other hand, was always swung on the port davits.
As the stores would put down the vessel a good deal we took out of her a corresponding weight of ballast — about eight tons. Two tiers of lead were removed from under the saloon floor, and in the space thus gained we stowed the greater part of our tools.
Among these was a complete set of boring apparatus constructed for us by Messrs. Tilley, by means of which we should be enabled to explore through earth and rock to the depth of fifty feet. We also carried a Tangye's hydraulic jack, capable of lifting twelve tons, which we found of service when large rocks had to be removed from the trenches. Shovels, picks, crowbars, iron wheelbarrows, carpenter's and other tools; a portable forge and anvil, dogs and other materials for timbering a shaft if necessary, and variety of other useful implements were on board. We took with us two of Messrs. Piggot's large emigrant tents, wire-fencing with which to surround our camp and so keep off the land-crabs, a few gardener's tools, and seeds of quick-growing vegetables for the kitchen-garden which we intended to plant on the island — a horticultural scheme which never came off in consequence of the want of water — taximerdic gear with view to the rare sea-birds that breed on the island, medical stores and surgical instruments, fishing-tackle; and, in short, we were well equipped with all needful things, a full inventory of which would nearly fill this book.
Neither did we omit the precaution of arming ourselves in case any one should choose to molest us, a not altogether improbable event; for there was a talk of rival expeditions starting for the island at the very time we were fitting out; our plans had been fully discussed in the newspapers, despite our attempt to keep secret our destination at least; and I called to mind the Yankee vessel that had endeavoured to anticipate the Andrea. Should some such vessel appear on the scene just as we had come across the treasure, it would be well for us to be prepared to defend it.
Each man, therefore, was provided with a Colt's repeating-rifle, and in addition to these there were other rifles and several revolvers on board, and no lack of ammunition for every weapon. The Duke of Sutherland kindly lent us one of Bland's double-barrelled whaling-guns, which was carried on his Grace's yacht, the Sans Peur, during her foreign cruises. This was a quick-firing and formidable weapon, discharging steel shot, grape, shell, and harpoons, and capable of sending to the bottom any wooden vessel. I think the sight of it inspired some of my crew with ideas almost piratical. I have heard them express the opinion that it was a shame to have such a gun lying idle on board, and that an opportunity ought to be found of testing its powers.
Of the provisioning of the Alerte I need say little, for all foreign-going vessels are provisioned more or less in the same way, but to foresee all that would be necessary for thirteen men for a period of at least six months, and to stow away this great bulk of stores, was not the least troublesome part of our fitting out.
Former experience had taught me that it would not do to rely too much on tinned meats, most especially in the tropics. I am confident that a diet composed principally of these is extremely unwholesome, and to this cause alone can be attributed an illness that attacked the whole crew of the Falcon during the latter months of her South Americas voyage. The old-fashioned sea-food is the best after all. Salt beef and salt pork, even after it has travelled a few times round the world, and is consequently somewhat malodorous, forms a far more sustaining diet than the very best of tinned meats. The instinct of the sailor teaches him this; as a rule he detests the flabby, overcooked stuff out of the cans, and, even if he tolerates it, will always prefer to it the commonest mess beef, which in odour, taste, and appearance would be horrible to a fastidious person. But let this same person have been at sea for a few months and the chances are that he will look forward with pleasure to the days on which the salt junk appears on the ship's bill of fare.
So, though we took on board a large quantity of tinned meats of various kinds, we also had some 600 pounds of beef and pork salted down for us, with which we filled the vessel's harness casks and neat tanks. This meat was of the very best quality, and for this very reason a great deal of it was spoiled and had to be thrown overboard. It had been salted too recently. Barrels of ancient mess beef soaked with saltpetre and hardened into almost the consistency of a deal board, though far from being so tasty as was our meat before it was tainted, would have answered our purpose far better, and would have kept well despite the high temperature of a small vessel in the tropics.
In the same way a short-sighted love of luxury induced us to supply the vessel with barrels of the best cabin biscuit. The result was that our bread, long before the termination of the cruise, was swarming with maggots and an exceedingly unpleasant species of small beetle, and was, in addition to this, attacked by mildew. A commoner quality of ship's bread would not have spoiled so readily, for it is known that insects thrive best and multiply amazingly on this tempting first-class flour.
All sorts of preserved food, jams, vegetables, etc., were of course included in our store-list, as was also the indispensable lime-juice — the vessel was. in short, supplied with a sufficient quantity of necessaries and luxuries.
We got our tobacco out of bond, also our rum, which was the only alcoholic beverage on board; it certainly is the most wholesome spirit for sea use, especially within the tropics.
During the first portion of the voyage small rations of rum were served out daily to each person on board. Later on, when it was clear that none of the gentlemen-adventurers showed any inclination to exceed in this respect at sea, the first mate, Mr. Meredyth, petitioned me to give up the ration system so far as they were concerned, and to allow the bottle of spirit to be put on the saloon table at dinner for their free use. This was done, with no bad result. The paid hands were, of course, always limited to rations of spirit.