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Rambles Beyond Railways Part 11

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Sometimes a little interesting indigestion appears among us, by way of change. d.i.c.k Dobbs, for example (who is as bilious as an Indian nabob), is seen to turn yellow at the helm, and to steer with a glazed eye; is asked what is the matter; replies that he has "the boil terrible bad on his stomach;" is instantly treated by Jollins (M.D.) as follows:--Two teaspoonfuls of essence of ginger, two dessert-spoonfuls of brown brandy, two table spoonfuls of strong tea. Pour down patient's throat very hot, and smack his back smartly to promote the operation of the draught. What follows? The cure of d.i.c.k. How simple is medicine, when reduced to its first principles!

Another source of amus.e.m.e.nt is provided by the s.h.i.+ps we meet with.

Whenever we get near enough, we hail the largest merchantmen in the most peremptory manner, as coolly as if we had three decks under us and an admiral on board. The large s.h.i.+ps, for the most part paralysed by our audacity, reply meekly. Sometimes we meet with a foreigner, and get answered by inarticulate yelling or disrespectful grins. But this is a rare case; the general rule is, that we maintain our dignity unimpaired all down the Channel. Then, again, when no s.h.i.+ps are near, there is the constant excitement of consulting our charts and wondering where we are.

Every man of us has a different theory on this subject every time he looks at the chart; but no man rudely thrusts his theory on another, or aspires to govern the ideas of the rest in virtue of his superior obstinacy in backing his own opinion. Did I not a.s.sert a little while since that we were a pure republic? And is not this another and a striking proof of it?

In such pursuits and diversions as I have endeavoured to describe, the time pa.s.ses quickly, happily, and adventurously, until we ultimately succeed, at four in the morning on the sixth day of our cruise, in discovering the light of the Longs.h.i.+p's Lighthouse, which we know to be situated off the Land's End. We are now only some seven-and-twenty miles from the Scilly Islands, and the discovery of the lighthouse enables us to set our course by the compa.s.s cleverly enough. The wind which has thus far always remained against us, falls, on the afternoon of this sixth day, to a dead calm, but springs up again in another and a favourable quarter at eleven o'clock at night. By daybreak we are all on the watch for the Scilly Islands. Not a sign of them. The sun rises; it is a magnificent morning; the favourable breeze still holds; we have been bowling along before it since eleven the previous night; and ought to have sighted the islands long since. But we sight nothing: no land is visible anywhere all round the horizon.



Where are we? Have we overshot Scilly?--and is the next land we are likely to see Ushant or Finisterre? n.o.body knows. The faces of the Brothers Dobbs darken; and they recall to each other how they deprecated from the first this rash venturing into unknown waters. We hail two s.h.i.+ps piteously, to ask our way. The two s.h.i.+ps can't tell us. We unroll the charts, and differ in opinion over them more remarkably than ever.

The Dobbses grimly opine that it is no use looking at charts, when we have not got a pair of parallels to measure by, and are all ignorant of the scientific parts of navigation. Mr. Migott and I manfully cheer the drooping spirits of the crew with Guinness's stout, and put a smiling face upon it. But in our innermost hearts, we think of Columbus, and feel for him.

The last resource is to post a man at the masthead (if so lofty an expression may be allowed in reference to so little a vessel as the Tomt.i.t), to keep a look-out. Up the rigging swarms d.i.c.k the Bilious, in the lowest spirits--strains his eyes over the waters, and suddenly hails the gaping deck with a joyous shout. The runaway islands are caught at last--he sees them a-head of us--he has no objection to make to the course we are steering--nothing particular to say but "Crack on!"--and nothing in the world to do but slide down the rigging again. Contentment beams once more on the faces of Sam, d.i.c.k, and Bob. Mr. Migott and I say nothing; but we look at each other with a smile of triumph. We remember the injurious doubts of the crew when the charts were last unrolled--and think of Columbus again, and feel for him more than ever.

Soon the islands are visible from the deck, and by noon we have run in as near them as we dare without local guidance. They are low-lying, and picturesque in an artistic point of view; but treacherous-looking and full of peril to the wary nautical eye. Horrible jagged rocks, and sinister swirlings and foamings of the sea, seem to forbid the approach to them. The Tomt.i.t is hove to--our ensign is run up half-mast high--and we fire our double-barrelled gun fiercely for a pilot.

The pilot arrives in a long, serviceable-looking boat, with a wild, handsome, dark-haired son, and a silent, solemn old man for his crew. He himself is lean, wrinkled, hungry-looking; his eyes are restless with excitement, and his tongue overwhelms us with a torrent of words, spoken in a strange accent, but singularly free from provincialisms and bad grammar. He informs us that we must have been set to the northward in the night by a current, and goes on to acquaint us with so many other things, with such a fidgety sparkling of the eyes and such a ceaseless patter of the tongue, that he fairly drives me to the fore part of the vessel out of his way. Smoothly we glide along, parallel with the jagged rocks and the swirling eddies, till we come to a channel between two islands; and, sailing through that, make for a sandy isthmus, where we see some houses and a little harbour. This is Hugh Town, the chief place in St. Mary's, which is the largest island of the Scilly group. We jump ash.o.r.e in high glee, feeling that we have succeeded in carrying out the purpose of our voyage in defiance of the prognostications of all our prudent friends. At sea or on sh.o.r.e, how sweet is triumph, even in the smallest things!

Bating the one fact of the wind having blown from an unfavourable quarter, unvarying good fortune had, thus far, accompanied our cruise, and our luck did not desert us when we got on sh.o.r.e at St. Mary's. We went, happily for our own comfort, to the hotel kept by the master of the packet plying between Hugh Town and Penzance. By our landlord and his cordial wife and family we were received with such kindness and treated with such care, that we felt really and truly at home before we had been half an hour in the house. And, by way of farther familiarizing us with Scilly at first sight, who should the resident medical man turn out to be but a gentleman whom I knew. These were certainly fortunate auspices under which to begin our short sojourn in one of the remotest and wildest places in the Queen's dominions.

IV.

The Scilly Islands seem, at a rough glance, to form a great irregular circle, enclosing a kind of lagoon of sea, communicating by various channels with the main ocean all around.

The circ.u.mference of the largest of the group is, as we heard, not more than thirteen miles. Five of the islands are inhabited; the rest may be generally described as ma.s.ses of rock, wonderfully varied in shape and size. Inland, in the larger islands, the earth, where it is not planted or sown, is covered with heather and with the most beautiful ferns.

Potatoes used to be the main product of Scilly; but the disease has appeared lately in the island crops, and the potatoes have suffered so severely that when we filled our sack for the return voyage, we were obliged to allow for two-thirds of our supply proving unfit for use. The views inland are chiefly remarkable as natural panoramas of land and sea--the two always presenting themselves intermixed in the loveliest varieties of form and colour. On the coast, the granite rocks, though not notably high, take the most wildly and magnificently picturesque shapes. They are rent into the strangest chasms and piled up in the grandest confusion; and they look down, every here and there, on the loveliest little sandy bays, where the sea, in calm weather, is as tenderly blue and as limpid in its clearness as the Mediterranean itself. The softness and purity of the climate may be imagined, when I state that in the winter none of the freshwater pools are strongly enough frozen to bear being skated on. The balmy sea air blows over each little island as freely as it might blow over the deck of a s.h.i.+p.

The people have the same great merit which I had previously observed among their Cornish neighbours--the merit of good manners. We two strangers were so little stared at as we walked about, that it was almost like being on the Continent. The pilot who had taken us into Hugh Town harbour we found to be a fair specimen, as regarded his excessive talkativeness and the purity of his English, of the islanders generally.

The longest tellers of very long stories, so far as my experience goes, are to be found in Scilly. Ask the people the commonest question, and their answer generally exhausts the whole subject before you can say another word. Their anxiety, whenever we had occasion to inquire our way, to guard us from the remotest chance of missing it, and the honest pride with which they told us all about local sights and marvels, formed a very pleasant trait in the general character. Wherever we went, we found the natural kindness and natural hospitality of the people always ready to welcome us.

Strangely enough, in this softest and healthiest of climates consumption is a prevalent disease. If I may venture on an opinion, after a very short observation of the habits of the people, I should say that distrust of fresh air and unwillingness to take exercise were the chief causes of consumptive maladies among the islanders. I longed to break windows in the main street of Hugh Town as I never longed to break them anywhere else. One lovely afternoon I went out for the purpose of seeing how many of the inhabitants of the place had a notion of airing their bed-rooms. I found two houses with open windows--all the rest were fast closed from top to bottom, as if a pestilence were abroad instead of the softest, purest sea-breeze that ever blew. Then, again, as to walking, the people ask you seriously when you inquire your way on foot, whether you are aware that the destination you want to arrive at is three miles off! As for a pedestrian excursion round the largest island--a circuit of thirteen miles--when we talked of performing that feat in the hearing of a respectable inhabitant, he laughed at the idea as incredulously as if we had proposed a swimming match to the Cornish coast. When people will not give themselves the first great chance of breathing healthily and freely as often as they can, who can wonder that consumption should be common among them?

In addition to our other pieces of good fortune, we were enabled to profit by a very kind invitation from the gentleman to whom the islands belong, to stay with him at his house, built on the site of an ancient abbey, and surrounded by gardens of the most exquisite beauty.

To the firm and benevolent rule of the present proprietor of Scilly, the islanders are indebted for the prosperity which they now enjoy. It was not the least pleasant part of a very delightful visit, to observe for ourselves, under our host's guidance, all that he had done, and was doing, for the welfare and the happiness of the people committed to his charge. From what we had heard, and from what we had previously observed for ourselves, we had formed the most agreeable impressions of the social condition of the islanders; and we now found the best of these impressions more than confirmed. When the present proprietor first came among his tenantry he found them living miserably and ignorantly. He has succoured, reformed, and taught them; and there is now, probably, no place in England where the direr hards.h.i.+ps of poverty are so little known as in the Scilly Islands.

I might write more particularly on this topic; but I am unwilling to run the risk of saying more on the subject of these good deeds than the good-doer himself would sanction. And besides, I must remember that the object of this narrative is to record a holiday-cruise, and not to enter into details on the subject of Scilly; details which have already been put into print by previous travellers. Let me only add then, that our sojourn in the islands terminated with the close of our stay in the house of our kind entertainer. It had been blowing a gale of wind for two days before our departure; and we put to sea with a doubled-reefed mainsail, and with more doubts than we liked to confess to each other, about the prospects of the return voyage.

However, lucky we had been hitherto, and lucky we were to continue to the end. Before we had been long at sea, the wind began to get capricious; then to diminish almost to a calm; then, towards evening, to blow again, steadily and strongly, from the very quarter of all others most favourable to our return voyage. "If this holds," was the sentiment of the Brothers Dobbs, as we were making things snug for the night, "we shall be back again at Mangerton before we have had time to get half through our victuals and drink."

The wind did hold, and more than hold: and the Tomt.i.t flew, in consequence, as if she was going to give up the sea altogether, and take to the sky for a change. Our homeward run was the most perfect contrast to our outward voyage. No tacking, no need to study the charts, no laggard luxurious dining on the cabin hatch. It was too rough for anything but picnicking in the c.o.c.kpit, jammed into a corner, with our plates on our knees. I had to make the grog with one hand, and clutch at the nearest rope with the other--Mr. Migott holding the bowl while I mixed, and the man at the helm holding Mr. Migott. As for reading, it was hopeless to try it; for there was breeze enough to blow the leaves out of the book--and singing was not to be so much as thought of; for the moment you opened your mouth the wind rushed in, and s.n.a.t.c.hed away the song immediately. The nearer we got to Mangerton, the faster we flew. My last recollection of the sea, dates at the ghostly time of midnight. The wind had been increasing and increasing, since sunset, till it contemptuously blew out our fire in the cabin, as if the stove with its artful revolving chimney had been nothing but a farthing rushlight. When I climbed on deck, we were already in the Bristol Channel.

That last view at sea was the grandest view of the voyage. Ragged black clouds were flying like spectres all over the sky; the moonlight streaming fitful behind them. One great s.h.i.+p, shadowy and mysterious, was pitching heavily towards us from the land. Backward out at sea, streamed the red gleam from the lighthouse on Lundy Island; and marching after us magnificently, to the music of the howling wind, came the great rollers from the Atlantic, rus.h.i.+ng in between Hartland Point and Lundy, turning over and over in long black hills of water, with the seething spray at their tops sparkling in the moons.h.i.+ne. It was a fine breathless sensation to feel our st.u.r.dy little vessel tearing along through this heavy sea--jumping stern up, as the great waves caught her--das.h.i.+ng the water gaily from her bows, at the return dip--and holding on her way as bravely and surely as the largest yacht that ever was built. After a long look at the sublime view around us, my friend and I went below again; and in spite of the noise of wind and sea, managed to fall asleep. The next event was a call from deck at half-past six in the morning, informing us that we were entering Mangerton Bay. By seven o'clock we were alongside the jetty again, after a run of only forty-three hours from the Scilly Islands.

Thus our cruise ended; and thus we falsified the predictions of our prudent friends, and came back with our right side uppermost. "Here's luck to you, gentlemen!"--was the toast which our honest sailor-brothers proposed, when we met together later in the day, and pledged each other in a parting cup. "Here's luck," we answered, on our side--"luck to the Brothers Dobbs; and thanks besides for hearty companions.h.i.+p and faithful service." And here, in the last gla.s.s with one cheer more,--here's luck to the vessel that carried us, our lively little Tomt.i.t! Tiny home of joyous days, may thy sea-fortunes be happy, and thy trim sails be set prosperously for many a year still, to the favouring breeze!

With those good wishes, our holiday trip closed at the time--as the record of it closes here. With those last words, the book is shut up; the reader is released; and the writer drops his pen.

THE END.

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