WE had bidden farewell to the wild spot that had been our home for three months, but we did not lose sight of Trinidad for upwards of thirty hours.
We had got under way at sunset on February 14th. A slight draught from the hills carried us a mile or so outside North Point, when we were becalmed and made no progress at all for many hours; and when at last the north-east breeze sprang up, it was so very light that at eight on the following morning the island was not more than twelve miles astern of us.
Throughout the day calms and light airs succeeded to each other, and at sunset the high peaks were still visible. The same weather continued during our second night at sea, and at daybreak on February 16th we could just distinguish one faint-blue mountain summit behind us, the rest of the islet being below the horizon. But the wind now freshened and all signs of the land soon disappeared, and once again there was nothing to be seen round us but ocean.
It was evident that we were not to be favoured with the smart voyage I had anticipated. We had fair winds, it is true, and a fair current, but it was rare that we had fresh breezes, while long spells of calm were frequent, so that we did not double Cape St. Roque till February 22nd.
Our best day's run up to this point was on the 19th, when we made 182 miles in the twenty-four hours — nothing much to boast of, seeing that the difference between our distance, according to our dead reckoning, and that calculated by observation of the sun, showed that we had a two-knot current under us all the while.
At 9 a.m. on February 22nd, having passed between Cape St. Roque and the Rocas islets — not sighting either — we altered our course from north-by-east to north-west, so as to sail parallel to the mainland at a distance of about 120 miles from it, and thus benefit by the full strength of the current. Having doubled the cape we encountered, as we had expected, a south-east wind, and were thus able to set our spinnaker.
As we approached the equator we experienced the usual unpleasant weather of this region: the sky was almost always overcast, the calms were only broken by heavy squalls, and no night passed without vivid lightning; but, so far, there was little rain. It was very close in our cabins, and even on deck the men were languid with the oppressive, muggy heat.
We crossed the line on February 26th. We now had a few days of drifting over a calm sea, under a soft, drizzling rain, and we were unable to take any sights of the sun. On March 1st the wind veered round to the north for a change, so that we were close-hauled on the starboard tack. This wind, being in the opposite direction to the regular trades, was caused by some local disturbance, and only lasted for twelve hours. This was our sixteenth day out, and we were still nearly 1,200 miles from our destination, which we might have made by this time had our luck been good.
If we only progressed at this rate, our water could not hold out to Trinidad; and though this was no cause for anxiety, as we could easily sail for one of the ports on the mainland — Cayenne or Surinam, for instance — I was particularly anxious not to call anywhere on the way; so the order was given that all hands should be put on rations of water. Our usual rule was to allow the men to use as much water as they pleased, without waste; though all washing had, of course, to be done with salt water.
This order brought us luck, for not an hour after it had been given the whole sky was covered over with one vast cloud, so dense that, though it was midday, it became as dark on the ocean as when dusk is deepening into night. Then it began to rain. Hitherto there had only been drizzle or short showers, which did not afford an opportunity for collecting water; but now it was very different — it poured steadily down as it only can in the tropics, so that, by merely collecting the water in the hollow of the whale-boat cover, we soon filled up every tank and breaker on board, and had a sufficient supply to have lasted us to Southampton, had we been bound there. The order as to rations was at once countermanded, and even washing with fresh water was permitted on this extravagant day.
Delighted as we had been to get all this water, we soon wearied of such excessively unpleasant weather, for not only did it rain in torrents, but every now and again a violent squall would sweep over the sea, so that "Scandalize the mainsail and down foresail" was a frequent order.
"It looks like breakers ahead, sir," sang out Ted in the afternoon, and we quite suddenly entered into a tract of very disturbed water. The swell was unaccountably high, and the seas were curling over each other and breaking all round us just as if we were in a tide-race or overfall. The water, too, which had up till now been of the usual dark deep-ocean tint, became yellowish brown, and when a bucket of it was brought up on deck it was found to be full of a fine powder, like the seed of some grass. As we had not been able to take any sights for some days, I thought we might be somewhat nearer the shoals on the coast than I supposed; so hove-to and took soundings, but found no bottom. On tasting the water it was quite salt, so that these phenomena could scarcely have been caused by the violent stream of the Amazon, which often makes itself felt and sweetens the water far out to sea. It is possible that all this commotion was produced by some volcanic eruption at the bottom of the ocean far beneath us — not an uncommon event in this portion of the South Atlantic. As we sailed through this confused water we found that the vessel steered wildly, as if eddies and contrary currents were driving her first in one direction, then in another, while the tops of the steep waves kept tumbling down upon our decks, compelling us to keep all skylights closed; this made still more objectionable the atmosphere of our already unpleasantly reeking cabins, where the wet clothes which we had no means of drying had been accumulating for days. The oppressive closeness of this equatorial climate is spoken of with horror even by those who go to sea on big ships; but it is far worse on a little fore-and-after.
Another peculiarity of this tract of broken water — out of which we soon emerged as quickly as we had got into it — was that it swarmed with fish and other forms of life. Shoals of small fish were dashing about merrily in the spray, while fleets of large pink Portuguese men-of-war — as the sailors call the nautilus — were floating on the surface. Until we had got into this curious portion of the ocean we had seen very few fish.
After some days of similar uncomfortable weather we drifted or sailed — when the squalls allowed — into a respectable climate again, and ran before the trade wind at a fair pace. Our best day's run was on March 6th, when we made 192 miles. On this day we got into soundings, the colour of the deep ocean changing to the dark green of comparatively shallow water; for we were nearing the coast, so as to make the entrance of the Gulf of Paria. We sighted the mountains of Trinidad right ahead of us at daybreak on March 8th, about two leagues distant. We ran, before a light wind, between Galeota Point and Baja Point. The sun now blazed down out of a cloudless sky, the morning mists lifted and disclosed the scenery around us, which was of a very different nature from that we had left on the desert Trinidad.
We were no longer tumbling about on the great transparent green rollers that perpetually break upon the coasts of our Treasure Island, but sailing on the smooth, muddy water of a shallow inland sea. On our left were the low shores of Venezuela—a long line of dreary mangrove swamps that form the delta of the Orinoco; the peculiar, and, I should say, somewhat malarious, odour of the steaming mud being plainly perceptible for leagues out to sea.
On our right were the shores of Trinidad — one of the fairest islands of the Caribbean Sea. The sandy beaches were fringed with coconut palms, and behind rose gently swelling mountains, covered with fine forests, the lordly palmistes towering above all the lesser foliage — forests in which the trees were of various forms and tints, presenting a beautiful appearance, the feathery bamboos and the scarlet and purple blossoms of bougainvillea and other flowering trees relieving the dark-green slopes of dense vegetation. On the plains that lay under the mountains, and in the broad valleys that clove them, could be seen the pale-green spreads of the sugar-cane plantations, with the tall chimneys of the boiling-houses rising above them, and the darker clumps of the cacao-groves.
When we were near Point Icacos we saw a school of whales, but, not having the whale-boat or gun ready, we did not go in chase.
We passed through the narrow Serpent's Mouth and were inside the Gulf of Paria; from here we coasted along the shores of Trinidad by many a landmark familiar to myself, and still more so to our two coloured men, who became quite excited when they once more beheld their native islands after an absence of two years and more. We sailed by Cedros Point; by the curious row of rocks that are known as the Serpent's Teeth; by the village of Brea, off which several vessels were lying at anchor, loading with the bitumen that is dug out of the famous Pitch Lake about a mile in shore.
We did not reach Port of Spain this day, for the wind fell away, and we had to come to an anchor off St. Fernando for the night; but on the following day, March 9th, we completed our voyage, and let go our anchor off Port of Spain early in the afternoon, having been twenty-two days out from our desert island.
We were anchored at about two-thirds of a mile from the jetty, and there was only eight feet of water under us at low tide. As the draught of the Alerte is ten feet, she then sank two feet into the mud. This is quite the proper way to do things at Port of Spain. Sailing-vessels bound here with timber are in the habit of running as high up as they can into the mud knowing that when they have discharged their cargo they will easily float off again. The mud deposited in the Gulf of Paria by the outflow of the Orinoco and its tributaries is the softest possible, and is very deep so that a vessel can suffer no injury by lying in it, even when the sea is rough. So shallow is the water in this roadstead that at a mile and a half from the shore the depth is only three fathoms, while a ship's boat cannot approach the end of the jetty at low water.
I had visited Trinidad before, and had many friends here, so was at once at home on shore, as, too, were very soon my companions. We were made honorary members of the pleasant Port of Spain Club, and were treated everywhere with that hearty hospitality for which the West Indies have always been noted.
Our voyage was now over, and though most of my companions were anxious to sail away with me in search of any other treasure we might hear of on West Indian cays — or to turn our vessel's head southward again, and make for Demerara, to travel inland to the gold districts of Upper Guiana on the Venezuelan frontier — or, in short, set sail for any part of the world that promised adventure and possible profit (I believe they would have turned filibusters if the chance had presented itself) — and though I had four paid hands on board also willing to have gone anywhere we should choose to lead them — still, I could not see my way to extending the voyage any further for the present, and decided to lay up the Alerte at Port of Spain.
It was with reluctance that I made up my mind to do this; for the men we did not want had been weeded out, and I had round me a compact crew of seven, tested and trained by their seven months' travels and hardships, and I also had the right vessel for any adventure. I had several reasons for laying up the yacht in the West Indies, instead of sailing her home. I had no use for her in England, and should I undertake another voyage similar to the last, Port of Spain would be a most convenient place to start from; besides, stores are cheap there, and an excellent coloured crew, well adapted for work in the unhealthy tropics, can be readily procured. Moreover, if I decided to sell the yacht, I was certain to get a better price for her in the West Indies, or on the Spanish Main, where there is a demand for this sort of craft, than at home, where the market is glutted with second-hand yachts.
Before leaving Trinidad — that cosmopolitan island of Britons, Frenchmen, Spaniards, East Indiamen, Chinamen, and negroes — we undertook several pleasant little voyages with the yacht in the neighbourhood of Port of Spain, taking with us several friends from the shore. One of these voyages took place in the Easter holidays, which are properly observed on this island. We had a merry party on board, and visited several of the beautiful bays on the islands that divide the Bocas, or northern entrances to the Gulf of Paria. Our crew had by that time been reduced to myself, Mr. Pursell, and John Wright: for my companions took opportunities of returning home as they occurred.
When the old vessel was dismantled and laid up, we last remaining three took passage on the Royal Mail steamer Dee, which, being an extra-cargo boat, was bound on a sort of roving commission round the West Indies in search of bags of cacao to complete her cargo. This was a most enjoyable voyage, thanks to the officers of the Dee. Pursell and myself were the only passengers. We visited several of the Windward Islands — old friends of mine, most of them — before sailing across the Atlantic to Havre, and thence to London Docks.
Thus ended our treasure-hunting expedition — a vain search; but, as I have already said, my companions bore their disappointment well. It was amusing to hear them argue, like the grape-loving fox in the fable, but in a more good-natured way, that we were far better off without the treasure. I remember one favourite argument to this effect. It had been decided that, if the treasure was found, we should not return to England in the yacht, but insure our wealth and go home in the biggest mail steamer we could find. That was our great difficulty — how to find a suitable vessel. As we were now, we cared not much what sort of a craft we sailed in; but, once wealthy, how terribly valuable would our lives become! In anticipation even of it we became nervous. Would any vessel be large and safe enough for us then when we were millionaires? Well, indeed, was it for us that we had not found the pirates' gold; for we seemed happy enough as we were, and if possessed of this hoard our lives would of a certainty have become a burden to us. We should be too precious to be comfortable. We should degenerate into miserable, fearsome hypochondriacs, careful of our means of transit, dreadfully anxious about what we ate or drank, miserably cautious about everything. "Better far, no doubt," exclaimed these cheerful philosophers, "to remain the careless, happy paupers that we are."
"Do you still believe in the existence of the treasure?" is a question that has been often put to me since my return. Knowing all I do, I have very little doubt that the story of the Russian Finn is substantially true — that the treasures of Lima were hidden on Trinidad, but whether they have been taken away, or whether they are still there and we failed to kind them because we were not in possession of one link in the directions, I am unable to say.