The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 2/Chapter 2

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The smallest bark on life's tumultuous ocean
Will leave a track behind for evermore;
The slightest wave of influence set in motion
Extends and widens to the eternal shore.

I STARTED from Liverpool on a bleak morning in January with many a "God-speed," and in possession of many aids to enjoyment, youth, health, strength, and the society of a dearly loved husband, whose companionship is a boon not often bestowed upon mortals in this nether world.

After the inevitable wettings from spray, and the rope which gets wrong, and the hat which blows over, and the usual amount of hilarity—as if it were a new thing—at the dishevelled head of one's fellow-creature, we set foot on board the African steamship Spartan at 1 p.m. We had still two hours in the Mersey, so we formed a little knot on deck, and those who knew Richard gathered around us. There was much joking as to the dirty weather we should meet outside (how dirty we of the land little guessed), and as to Admiral Fitzroy's "biggest storm that was ever known," as duly announced in the Times, for the 30th, which we were to meet in "the Bay of Biscay, O!" There were pleasant speculations as to how I should enjoy my dinner, whether ham and eggs would become my favourite nourishment, and so forth. At 2.30 p.m. we nearly ran into a large brig; the steamer was in the pilot's charge, but our captain coming on deck saved us with a close shave. We should certainly have got the worst of it in two seconds more. Of course it was the brig's fault; she didn't answer her helm; and, to use the captain's phrase, the pilot and mate were a little "agitated" when his calm "Put the helm down" made us only slightly graze each other and glide off again. We put on full speed and out to sea, as six bells (three o'clock) told on my landlubber ears. Before four o'clock (dining hour) I had faintly asked the stewardess to help me to shake myself down in my berth, and unpack the few articles I might want during the voyage. I did not dine.

Sunday, 25th, 1 a.m.—It blew a whole gale, with tremendous sea; ship labouring heavily, and shipping very heavy seas on deck; pumps at work. We were making little or no way down Channel, when we suddenly shipped a heavy sea, washing overboard a quartermaster, and sending our captain into the lee scuppers with a sprained wrist. We stopped, and reversed engines, but could not see the poor fellow; and to lower a boat in such a sea was impossible. He was a married man, and had left his wife at Liverpool.

I shall never forget the horrors of that night. Every berth was full; so much so that our captain, with a chivalry and forgetfulness of self which deserves recording in letters of gold, gave up his own cabin to Richard and myself, that we might not be separated an hour sooner than necessity compelled us to be, and encountered the fatigue of his long duties on deck, and the discomforts and anxieties of ten days' bad weather, with no shelter but a chance berth or the saloon sofa. During that night one tremendous sea stove in the doors of the main cabin, filling the saloon and berths with water. The lights were extinguished; things came unshipped; all the little comforts and treasures were floating at the top, leaving few dry garments out of the "hold," which would not be opened till our arrival at Madeira. There arose on that confused night a Babel of sounds; strong language from the men-sufferers, conjuring the steward to bring lights, and the weaker sex calling for their protectors, and endeavouring to find them in the dark. One young and pretty little woman, almost a child, recently married, in her fright rushed into the saloon in her nightdress, calling for her husband. A brutal voice answered her in the chaos that she need never hope to see him again, for he had "fallen overboard" and was "clinging on outside." The poor little creature (she was only sixteen) believed the voice, and, with the energy of despair, forced the door of her husband's cabin, and there she remained with him, and ere long had an epileptic fit, and also another during the first ten days, doubtless accelerated by this act of brutality. I regret to say it was committed by a naval officer who was tipsy. Another sonorous voice bid us "die like Christians"; but I don't think that was any sentiment of the speaker's. Ever and anon the dismal scene was interlarded with "short and crisp" sentences, not comforting, such as, "We can't live long in such a sea as this"; "We're going to the bad"; "Won't the captain put into Holyhead?" "There go the pumps—we've seven feet of water in the hold" (when we stopped and reversed, to try and rescue the quartermaster); "The water has got into our engines, and we can't go on"; "There's the carpenter hammering—the captain's cabin is stove in," etc., etc. A rich lady gave the stewardess £5 to hold her hand all night, so the rest of us poorer ones had to do without that matron's ministrations.

I crawled to my cabin, and, as I lay there trembling and sea-sick, something tumbled against the door, rolled in, and sank on the floor. It was the tipsy naval officer. I could not rise, I could not shut the door, I could not tug him out; so I lay there. When Richard, who was lending a hand at the pumps, had finished his work, he crawled along the decks till he got to the cabin, where the sea had swamped through the open door pretty considerably. "Hullo! What's that?" he said. I managed faintly to ejaculate, "The tipsy naval officer." He picked him up by the scruff of the neck, and, regardless of consequences, he propelled him with a good kick behind all down the deck, and shut the door. He said, "The captain says we can't live more than two hours in such a sea as this." At first I had been frightened that I should die, but now I was only frightened that I shouldn't, and I uttered feebly, "Oh, thank God it will be over so soon!" I shall never forget how angry he was with me because I was not frightened, and gave me quite a sermon.

On Thursday, the 29th, we skirted the Bay of Biscay, and the ship rolled heavily. I was very much impressed by the grandeur of the gigantic billows of the Atlantic while skirting the Bay, not short, chopping waves, such as I had seen in the Channel and Mediterranean, but more like the undulations of a prairie, a high rising ground surrounding you at a distance, and, while you are in its depression, shutting out all from your view, until the next long roller makes you reverse the position, and feel "monarch of all you survey," or, rather, liken yourself to a midge in a walnut shell—so deeply are you impressed by the size and force of the waves, the smallness of yourself and ship, and the magnitude of the Almighty power. About four o'clock the sea grew more and more inky, and it was evidently brewing up for Admiral Fitzroy's storm, which soon came and lasted us till Saturday; and those who had ventured to raise their heads from their sea-sick pillows had to lay them down again.

Saturday, 31st.—We had been a week at sea, and for the first time it began to get fine and enjoyable. We were due this day at Madeira; but on account of the gales delaying us, it was not possible that we should land before Monday. The next day, Sunday, was truly pleasant. Our passengers were a curious mixture. Out of the seven ladies on board, two were wives of Protestant missionaries, excellent men, who had done good service of their kind at Sierra Leone and Abeokuta, and were returning with young and pretty wives. The thirty-two men passengers were of all kinds—military, naval, official, clergymen, invalids, five black people, and "Coast Lambs," as the palm-oil merchants are ironically termed. We formed a little knot of a picked half-dozen at the top of the table, and "feeding time" was the principal event of the day.

A laughable incident occurred one day on board at dinner. There was a very simple-minded Quaker, with a large hat, who had evidently been browsing on the heather in the north all his life, and on this occasion a fine plum-pudding, swimming in lighted brandy, was put upon the table at second course. The poor Quaker had never seen this dish before, and in a great state of excitement he exclaimed, "Oh, my God! the pudding's on fire!" and clapped his large hat over the pudding, and put it out, amidst roars of laughter, which had to be explained to him when his fright was over. After dinner we formed whist parties. In fine weather cushions and railway-rugs covered the deck, and knots of loungers gathered under gigantic umbrellas, reading or talking or working, and also in the evening moonlight, when the missionaries chanted hymns. On Sunday there was Protestant service in the saloon, and those of other faiths did their private devotions on deck.

Monday morning, February 2.—We dropped our anchor a quarter of a mile from the town of Funchal. We rose at six, had a cup of coffee, packed up our water-proof bags, and went on deck to get a first glimpse of Madeira. A glorious sight presented itself, producing a magical effect upon the cold, wet, dirty, sea-sick passenger who had emerged from his atrocious native climate but ten days before. Picture to yourself a deep blue sky, delicately tinted at the horizon, not a cloud to be seen, the ocean as blue as the Mediterranean. There was a warm sun, and a soft and sweet-smelling breeze from the land, as of aromatic herbs. Arising out of the bosom of the ocean in splendour, a quarter of a mile off, but looking infinitely less distant, were dark mountain masses with fantastic peaks and wild, rugged sides, sharply defined against the sky and streaked with snow, making them resemble the fanciful castles and peaks we can imagine in the clouds. The coast to the sea is thick with brilliant vegetation; dark soil—basalt and red tufa are its colours—with the variegated green of fir, chestnut, dark pine forests, and the gaudy sugar-cane. Here and there a belt of firs runs up a mountain, winding like a serpent, and is its only ornament. Wild geraniums, and other flowers which only grow in a hothouse in England, and badly too, are in wild luxuriance here. The island appears to be dotted everywhere with churches, villas, and hamlets—little gardens and patches of trees intermingled with them. There are three immense ravines, deep and dark; and these with all the pleasant additions of birds, butterflies, and flowers of every sort and colour, a picturesque, good-humoured peasantry busy on the beach, and a little fleet of fishing-boats, with their large white lagoon sails, like big white butterflies on the blue water. Most of the capes are immense precipices of rock.

Nestling at the foot of this mountain amphitheatre, and washed by the bay, straggling lengthways and up and down, is Funchal, with its brilliant white houses and green facings glittering in the sun. You almost wonder whether your last unpleasant three months in England and your ten days' voyage had been reality; whether you had not been supping upon cold fish, and had just awakened from a clammy nightmare to a day such as the Almighty meant our days to be, such was one's sense of vitality and immense power of enjoyment at the change.

The landing was great fun, the running of the boats upon the beach being very difficult in a heavy surge. Richard and I managed to land, however, without a wetting, and went to the hotel.

When we had unpacked, eaten, and bathed, and had begun to shake off the désagrémens of our bad voyage, we had time to enjoy a pleasant, lazy day, lounging about, and luxuriating in our happy change from England and the ship. Later on in the day there was a little mist over the mountains, like the soft muslin veil thrown over a beautiful bride, shading her brilliant beauty, greatly to her advantage, leaving a little of it to the imagination. I beg a bride's pardon. How could there be a bride without a Brussels lace veil? Shall I change the simile to that of a first communicant, and compare the belt of white thin cloud below the mountains, and that delicate mist, which throws such enchanting shadows on the mountain-sides and precipices, to the "dim religious light" of the sunset hour, when the lamp is replenished? For the sun is setting, and bathes the sea and coast in a glorious light, deepens the shade of the ravines, and shows off the dark, luxuriant foliage.

I can only venture upon describing a few of the excursions we were able to make during our stay at Madeira.

We started one fine morning in a boat with four oars and rowed from Funchal, coasting along near the cliff to Machico, which is twelve miles. Our men were chatty and communicative, and informed us that the devil came there at night when they were out fishing (I suppose originally the ingenious device of a smuggler); and their superstition was genuine. We had two hours of rough walking, when we arrived at Machico, and marched through the town with a hundred followers, all clamouring for money. We rejoined our boat at 4 p.m., in the greatest clatter of talk and laugh I ever heard. Our sailors, elated by two shillings'-worth of bad wine, were very chatty and vocal. We put up a sail, but there was not breeze enough to fill it. We chatted and read alternately; watched the beautiful hour that struggles between day and night—beautiful to the happy, and much to be dreaded to the desolate. The setting sun bathed the dark basalt and red tufa cliffs in his red and purple glory. The straggling white town glittered in the clear and brilliant light, with its dark green background. The mountain-edges were sharp against the clear, soft sky. That indescribable atmosphere which blackens the ravines and softens all the other beauties came over the island. The evening star was as large and brilliant as the Koh-i-noor; and the full moon, rising gradually from behind Cape Garajāo, poured its beams down the mountain, and threw its track upon the sea. As we neared Funchal the aromatic smell of the land was wafted toward us, and with it a sound of the tinkling of bells; and a procession of torches wound like a serpent out of a church on a rock overhanging the sea. It was the Blessed Sacrament being carried to a dying man.

Our second boat excursion was to Cape Giram, a cliff some two thousand feet high, with the appearance of having been originally a high hill, cut in two by some convulsion of Nature. There was a lovely waterfall, and its silvery foam absolutely looked artificial, like the cascade of a theatre, as it streamed incessantly down a bed of long grass of a very pretty green, which it seemed to have made for itself to course down. I had no idea of the height; but having suddenly exclaimed to Richard, who was my maître-d'armes, "I wish I had brought my pistols with me, I should like to pick off those two gulls," to my horror, our boatman hailed somebody, and a small voice echoed back. The "gulls" were two Portuguese peasants gathering herbs for their cow.

Our last expedition, and best, was to Pico Arriere, the second highest point in the island. We had wished very much to ascend the highest, but that involved the six days' excursion, which we could not do; so we resolved to try the second, faute de mieux, which could be done without sleeping out. With the usual horses and guides we started from Funchal, and proceeded to ascend.

After an hour and a half we come to a little eminence, and the rough work is going to commence. The air begins to change wonderfully. The horizon now assumes the punch-bowl shape; and I, standing on one side of the imaginary basin, but not quite so high as the rim, describe my impressions. Behind and above us were the peaks, around us the mountains clad with forests; a fine, bold shore, with its high basalt and tufa cliffs; a long way below us the quintas, gardens, farms, thatched huts, little patches of sugar-cane of an enchanting green, fields looking very small, dwarf plains, watercourses, cascades, channels, and deep, abrupt ravines; the beautiful little town at the bottom of the basin, and the roadstead; the open sea, with white sails glittering on the blue water, appears to be running up the other side; the Desertas seemingly hanging midway between heaven and earth; and crowned by a glorious sky, warm sun, pure air, and sea-breeze. I feel so glad, I could shout Hallelujah for joy. The horses have breathed while I made these mental notes, and now we start again on the hard and broken road, which seems interminable. The horses don't like the cold, nor the men either. We do! (We have been some time in the snow, which descends to the unusual depth of three thousand feet.) The horses make a stand, and we dismount and walk (it appeared an immense way) till the road ceases and the actual mountain ascent begins. One guide wraps his head up in a red silk handkerchief, and will go no farther; the other sulks, and says it is dangerous—the path is lost, and we shall fall into drifts; but finding us resolved, Sulks consents to go, and Red Cap stops, shivering, with the horses, which are rearing and kicking, for the cold makes them playful.

So, pike in hand, Richard and I and Sulks begin the ascent, which lasts about one hour and a half—through two feet of snow, with several falls on my part, and sometimes crawling on hands and knees—during which, however, we could see Sta. Anna and the sea at the other side, and many of the mountains and gorges. When nearly at the top, we saw, with horror, thick black clouds rolling up to envelop us, travelling fast, and looking like a snowstorm. At last, when we were 5,593 feet high, only 300 feet below the summit of the Pico, which is 5,893 feet, there came a mighty wind. We threw ourselves down to prevent being blown off, and then the clouds rolled in upon us, and shut off all view of the Pico and our way, so that it was difficult to proceed without incurring danger of accidents. We scrambled to a projection of rock (the only thing we could see), and sat on it; and from our canteen, which had been slung to Sulks, we ate our lunch, and iced our claret; and when we had finished we agreed to grope our way slowly down. We managed it (often in a sitting position), occasionally making some false step for want of being able to see; we had no feeling in our hands and feet. We found Red Cap eventually, who had moved down to warmer latitudes, and was sulking and shivering, more so because, as he declined going, he forfeited his lunch, drink, and cigarette. We walked back until at some distance above the Mount church (feeling warmer and drier every moment as we descended), where we mounted and resumed those delightful baskets. The excursion occupied about seven and a half hours.

The time came all too soon for us to leave Madeira, and on March 4 we embarked for Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, whence alarming reports of yellow fever had reached our ears. By the same boat on which we had embarked came letters and papers from home. My news from home was very sad. My dear mother, who, though in weak health, had come down to Liverpool to see us off, and who bore up bravely till the last, had just time, after wishing us good-bye, to get back to Garswood (Uncle Gerard's), when the attack of paralysis, so long threatened, came upon her. Fortunately there was no immediate danger, but the news was a great shock to me. I spent the day apart from the rest, who were merry unto noisiness; and I was right glad when tea-time rang all hands below, and I occupied a quiet corner on deck, where I could shed my tears unseen, and enjoy my favourite twilight hour.

The sky was clear, with a rough sea, over which the white horses predominated. Men-of-war and fishing-boats were at anchor around us. The sun had just set; the evening star's pale light was stealing over us. Presently the full moon rose behind Cape Garajāo. I bade good-bye to Madeira and every object with regret, straining my eyes from right to left, up and down, and all around, not from any silly sentiment, but because I always feel a species of gratitude to a place where I have been happy. The black and red cliffs, the straggling town, the sugar-canes, gardens, forests, flowers, the mountain-peaks and ravines—each separate, well-known object received its adieu.

I knew when I saw Madeira again it would be under far less happy circumstances. I should be alone, on my way back to England, and my beloved Richard at deadly Fernando Po. This fading, fairy panorama of Madeira, which had once made me so happy, now saddened me; and the last track of moonlight, as it poured its beams down the mountains on the water, saw some useless tears.

  1. The chapters on Madeira and Teneriffe are compiled from manuscripts which Lady Burton wrote on her return from Teneriffe in 1863, but which her husband would not allow her to publish.