The Galápagos chapter from the author's book. The character called “Dad” is Captain Thomas Levick, alias “Johnson from London.” Neither “Peter” (actually, the author's sister Mabel) nor “Steve” (presumably, a friend) are further identified—JW.
The Galápagos Islands
The ash heap
When Balboa came to Balboa, it is safe to say that no ice-cream awaited him there. Indeed, according to history the place was little more thant a mosquito-infested swamp, and that is where we of the dream ship had the pull over Señor Balboa.
The town is in the Canal Zone, which is United States territory, though cutting clean through the Republic of Panama, and in this particular sample of United States territory, though founded upon a swamp, you will encounter—among other such amazing things as an entire absence of mosquitoes, charming residences set in park-like surroundings, and a well-conducted club free to all—an assortment of ice-cream creations warranted to hypnotize the unitiated.
I have to mention this seemingly trivial detail because our lives at Balboa appeared to consist in rowing ashore to transact important business in Panama, and being waylaid en route and help captive by insidious messes.
Besides, it was over a Something Sundae that I met the man who came very near to shaping our destiny. True, there were pearling islands to the eastward, he informed me; he had fished there himself in the past with varying success, and would like nothing better than to try again aboard the dream ship. He would make inquiries.
The fruits of these were imparted the next day over a Peach Something Else. The group had been done to death, and was “closed” for a term of three years, but—this over an Orange Orang-outang—if we cared to go a little farther afield, and divert our attention from pearl shell to gold, he knew of a spot not far south where the natives were in the habit of washing the stuff out of clods of earth from their backyards, held under the eaves of the houses during a rainstorm. What about it? The answer at the moment, and as far as I can remember, was a Strawberry Slush.
But we had decided to go. Preparations for making the wherewithal we so sorely needed were already afoot when a miracle intervened. On succeeding one afternoon in getting clean past temptation and into the city of Panama, I found a letter awaiting me from a certain magician who dwells in a place called New York. To hide the truth no longer, he had sold a story of mine to the “movies” at a figure that to our starved gaze looked like the war indemnity, and inside of a week the amount, in beautiful, round, twenty-dollar gold pieces, littered the cabin table of the dream ship.
I am aware that in most accounts of travel such sordid details as the finanical difficulties encountered are invariably omitted, either because there were none, or because the writer considers it in the light of bad form to mention them. In our particular case they certainly existed, and personally I am not very strong on form. After all, money is a means to an end—even to the realization of a dream, and I can only say that ours would have evaporated into thin air at Balboa but for the miracle performed by the magician in New York.
On the strength of our sudden affluence, the dream ship received a sleek and well-deserved coat of paint, a new main sheet of good manila, a hundred gallons of kerosene, a fresh supply of provisions, and incidentally a new lease of life.
She sailed in charge of a genial pilot who seemed as pleased as his confrère of the canal at being under sail again, and sighed wistfully on taking his leave at the last fairway buoy. There are many such men engaged in the routine of life, who long to break away and answer the call of the sea and adventure, but who rarely do, either because they cannot or have not the courage of their dreams.
We had been advised that Panama Bay was a promising trolling ground, and for once report spoke true, for we caught a find bonito within an hour of our departure. We were doing about five knots at the time, and it was a fine sight to see a fifteen-pound fish leaping and splashing astern; and a still finer to see sections of him sizzling in the frying-pan.
A very different class of fish visited us a day or two later, but, spurning our spoon bait, gave his attention to the log. A large shark, looking like a sinister shadow in the turmoil of our wake, investigated the twinkling fan with interest. Five times he approached and withdrew, before risking indigestion and swallowing it whole.
As about a week later precisely the same thing occurred to our last remaining fan, from then onward we were bereft of log and “dead reckoning” at one fell swoop. However, as the sun is an almost constant companion in these latitudes, and the chronometer, after a thorough overhauling at Panama, appeared to be behaving itself, the loss was not as serious as might be expected.
Each day now brought us appreciably nearer the Equator, and its presence began to make itself felt in gasping moments at the tiller, a glare from the water that caused blood-shot eyes until Peter the practical produced a pair of smoked glasses, and deck seams running and bubbling marine glue.
Peter's watch was a spectacle not to be missed, consisting as it did of pyjamas, smoked glasses, and a parasol! I have often wondered what sort of entertainment we should have provided for a passing steamer on occasion, but as we never sighted one from the beginning to the end of our cruise, I fear I shall never know.
“Tomorrow,” said Steve, afer twelve days of fair though light winds, “we ought to raise Tower Island.”
We were approaching the ash heap of the world. At the time we had no notion that it was an ash heap, but you shall judge. Throughout that night we took our appointed four-hour single-handed watch, slept our four hours as we had come mechanically so to do during the past four months, and went on deck at dawn to see Tower Island.
It was not there.
Steve, who was at the tiller, looked vaguely troubled, but offered no comment. Neither did we, by this time being used to such things. Besides, “Leave a man to his job” had become our watchword throught many vicissitudes. But when night followed day with customary inexorableness, and without producing anything more tangible than the same empty expanse of ocean, Steve was constrained to mutter, a sure preliminary to coherent speech.
“One of three things has happened,” he announced: “the chronometer's got the jim-jams, the chart's wrong, or the blinking island has foundered.”
As skipper of the dream ship, it devolved upon myself to verify these surprising statements, which, after a superhuman struggle, I did. By our respective observations and subsequent calculations the ship's position proved identical. According to instruments we were at that moment plumb in the middle of Tower Island. It was thoughtless of it to have evaporated at the very moment when we so sorely needed it as a landmark. We said so in strong terms. We were still saying something of the sort when a small, high-pitched voice came from aloft:
Peter, in striped white-and-green pyjamas, was astride the jaws of the gaff. Steve and I exchanged relieved glances, and, with a lashed tiller, we all went below for a “swizzle,” the now inevitable accompaniment to a landfull. We had reached the Galápagos Islands.
The south-east “trade” was blowing as steadily as a “trade” knows how, and there was nothing between us and Cristóbal, the only inhabited island of the group; consequently, I slept the sleep of a mind at peace until awakened by a well-known pressure on the arm.
“Come and take a look at this,” whispered Steve so as not to wake Peter in the opposite bunk.
“This” proved to be a solid wall of mist towering over the ship like a precipice. The trade wind had fallen to a stark calm, and the dream ship lay wallowing on an oily swell. A young moon rode clear overhead, and myriads of monstrous stars glared down at us; yet still this ominous grey wall lay fair in our path.
“It ought not to be land,” said Steve, “but I don't like the look of it.”
Neither did I. We stood side by side, straining our eyes into the murk. A soft barking, for all the world like that of a very old dog, sounded somewhere to port. Splashes, as of giant bodies striking the water, accompanied by flashes of phosphorescent light, came at intervals from all sides, and presently the faint lap of water reached our ears.
“Mother of Mike!” breathed Steve. “We're alongside something.”
At that moment, and as though impelled by some silent mechanism, the pall of mist lifted, revealing an inky black wall of rock not fifty yards distant.
My frenzied efforts at the fly-wheel of the motor auxiliary were futile, as I had more than half expected. Who has ever heard of these atrocities answering in an emergency? We had no sweeps. To anchor was a physical impossibility; the lead-line vanished as probably twenty other lead-lines would have vanished after it in those fathomless waters. So we stood, watching the dream ship drift to her doom.
What happened during the next hour is as hard to describe as I have no doubt it will be to believe. The Galápagos Islands are threaded with uncertain currents, and one was setting us now on to the rocky face of an islet cut as clean and sheer to the sea as a slice of cheese. We should have touched but for our fending off. There is no other way of describing our antics than to say that we clawed our way along that rocky wall until at the end of it a faint air caught the jib, the foresail, the mainsail, and we stood away without so much as a scratch.
Sunrise that morning was the weirdest I have ever seen. There are over two thousand volcano cones in the Galápagos Islands, and apparently we were in the midst of them. On all hands and at all distances were rugged peaks one hundred to two thousand feet high, rising sheer from a rose-pink sea into a crimson sky. Sleek-headed seals broke water alongside, peered at us for a space with their fawn-like eyes, barked softly, and were gone. Pelicans soared about our truck, and fell like a stone on their prey. Tiny birds, yellow and red, flitted about the deck or flew through the skylights, and settled on the cabin fittings with the utmost unconcern. And down under, in the crystal-clear depths, vague shapes hovered constantly: sharks, dolphin, turtle, and ghastly devil fish.
All life seemed confined to water and air; never was dry land so desolate and sinister as those myriads of volcanic cones. Yet one of them was peopled with human beings. Which? We were lost, if ever a ship was lost, in the labyrinths of an ash heap.
All we knew was that Cristóbal was the easternmost of the group. We sailed east, only to be becalmed inside of an hour and to lose by current what we had gained by wind. Close to this same group a sailing vessel had been known to have her insurance paid before she reached port. The calms run in belts of varying widths, and unless a ship can be towed or kedged to one side or the other there is nothing to prevent her remaining in the same spot of six months. Our water would not last that time, and there is none on any of the islands except Cristóbal. We began to think. We continued to think for four mortal days until the fitful south-east “trade” revived us by a miracle, and we were bowling along at a seven-knot clip. What a relief was the blessed motion of air! We hardly dared breathe lest it should drop.
It held, and we made what to took to be Cristóbal. The dinghy was lowered, the ship cleaned up for port, and we began to discuss the possibilities of fresh milk, eggs, and bread. But it was not Cristóbal Island. Neither were three others that we visited, all alike as peas—a chain of ash heaps, an iron-bound coast of volcanic rock broken here and there by a dazzling coral beach.
I admit that to professional seafarers our inability to find Cristóbal must appear ridiculous. For their benefit I would point out that we were not professional seafarers but a party of inconsequent and no doubt over-optimistic landlubbers engaged in the materialization of a dream—to cruise through the South Sea Islands in our own ship; that what navigation we knew had been learnt in three weeks; and that I would invite any one who fancies his bump of locality to test it in the Galápagos Islands.
We had more than half decided to cut out Cristóbal and its five hundred inhabitants, and shape a course for the Society Islands, three thousand miles to the south-west'ard, when Steve gave a yell like a wounded pup.
“I see Dalrymple Rock,” he chanted as one in a trance, with the binocular to his eyes. “I see Wreck Point, and a bay between 'em with houses on the beach. What more do you want?”
How supremely simply it was to recognize each feature by the chart—when there was an unmistakable landmark to go by. What fools we had been to—— But we left further recriminations till a later date. At the present moment it was necessary to enter Wreck Bay through a channel three hundred yards wide without a mark on either side in the teeth of a snorting “trade,” and with a leed tide.
At one time during the series of short tacks that were necessary to get a “slant” for the anchorage we were not more than fifty yards from the giant emerald-green rollers breaking on Lido Point to port with the roar of thunder. To starboard one could see the fangs of the coral reef waiting for us to miss stays to rip the bottom out of us. But the dream ship did not miss stays, and finally we shot throught the channel into Wreck Bay, and anchored in three fathoms off a rickety landing-stage.
While the agony of removing a three weeks' beard was in progess a crowd had assembled on the beach, and presently a boatload of three put off to us. Steve, with his smattering of Spanish, received them at the companion with a newborn elegance that mathced their own. They proved to be the owner of the island, a good-looking youth of about twenty-five; the chief of police (presumably “chief” because there is only one representative of the law in the Galápagos), a swarthy Ecuadorian in a becoming poncho; and a little, wrinkled old man with a finely chiseled face and delicate hands.
The owner of Cristóbal informed us in excellent French (he had been four years in Paris previous to marooning himself on his equatorial possession) that the island was ours, and the fullness thereof; that he also was ours to command, and would we dine with him that evening at the hacienda, it being New Year's eve?
The little old man, whom we soon learnt to call “Dad,” sat mum, with a dazed expression on his face and his head at an angle after the fashion of the deaf. When he spoke, which he presently did with an unexpectedness which was startling, it was in a low, cultural voice, and in English! What about this Dutch war he had heard rumors of during the last year or two? “With Germany, was it? Well, now, and who was winning? Over, eh?-and with the Allies on top? That was good, that was good!” He rubbed his wrinkled hands together and glared round on the assembled company with an air of triumph, but without making any appreciable impression on the owner of Cristóbal or the chief of police.
Dad was a type, if ever there was one, of the educated ne'er-do-well hidden away in the farthest corner of the earth to avoid those things which most of us deem so desireable. He had a split-bamboo house on the beach, a wife who could cook, freedom, and God's sunlight. What more did man desire? He had run away to sea at the age of seventeen, run away from sea two years later at the Galápagos Islands, and remained there ever since. This was the second time he had spoken English in fifty years, so we must excuse his halting diction, but the tales he could tell-the tales!
He was here when the pirates of the South American coast murdered for money, even as they have a knack of doing to this day, and hid the loot at their headquarters in the Galápagos Islands, silver and gold, boatloads of it. He had built a cutter with his own hands, and sailed it in search of this same loot, only to encounter the sole owner, still guarding his ill-gotten gains though reduced to nakedness and hair. At a distance Dad had seen him first, and, mistaking him for a mountain goat, had shot him through the heart. It was the first man he had killed, and he could not stay on the island after that-especially at night.
Afterward, I asked the owner of Cristóbal if one might believe half the old man said, and he answered gravely.
“There is much, also, that he does not say,” he added with a smile.
There is undoubtedly treasure still lying hidden in the Galápagos Islands. Two caches have been unearthed, silver ingots and pieces of eight respectively. The finder of one built himself a handsome hotel in Ecuador, and the other drank himself to death in short order. But there is definite proof there is more.
As a field for the treasure hunter it is doubtful if any place in the world offers better chances of success today than the Galápagos Islands, but-there is always a “but“-the uncertainty of wind and current amongst the islands makes it impossible for a sailing ship to undertake the search, a motor auxiliary is too unreliable, and a small steamer is too large for the creeks and reef channels it would be necessary to negotiate. With a full-powered launch and diving apparatus, and a parent ship in attendance, and unlimited time and patience, and money-but these be dreams beyond the reach of the penniless world-wanderer: dreams, nevertheless, that will assuredly one day be realized.
No one thinks of the Galapagos Islands. Situated a bare six hundred miles from the American coastline in the direct trade route between the South Pacific Islands and the United States of America, this group is seldom visited more than twice a year and then for the most part by Ecuadorean schooners. The veriest atoll in the South Pacific receives more attention, and with not a tithe of the cause. The cause? Well, come with us to the hacienda of the owner of Cristóbal and you shall see.
For this purpose it is necessary to transfer one's activities from the heaving deck of the dream ship to the equally heaving back of a mountain pony, and lope for an hour up a winding, boulder-strewn track through a wilderness of low scrub and volcanic rock. “Still an ash heap,” you think, “nothing but an ash heap.”
Then you surmount a ridge, the last of half a dozen, and rein in to breathe your pony and incidentally to marvel. You remind yourself that you are precisely on the Equator; yet it is positively chilly up here. A green, gently undulating country, dotted with grazing cattle and horses, patches of sugar-cane, coffee bushes, and lime trees, stretches away to a cloud-capped range of mountains.
The soil is a rich red loam, almost stoneless, and scarcely touched with the plough. There are three thousand five hundred head of cattle at present on Cristóbal Island, and it could support fifty thousand with ease. There is no disease and no adverse climatic condition with which to content, and at three years old a steer brings one hundred dollars (gold), live weight, at Guayaquil—when a steamer can be induced to call and take it there.
There are a few hundred acres under cultivation when there ought to be thousands,, and two hundred bone-lazy peons do the work of fifty ordinary farm hands.
Looking down on this fertile valley it is hard to realize that one is standing on the lip of a long-extinct crater, that in reality Cristóbal is a series of these, dour and uninviting to a degree, viewed from outside, but veritable gardens within. And there are four other islands in the Galápagos Group—some smaller, some larger, then Cristóbal—uninhabited and exactly similar in character. Nominally, they belond to Ecuador, which accounts for their tardy development; but here, surely, is a new field for enterprise.
In the midst of the valley, situated on a hillock and surrounded by the peons' grass houses, is the owner's hacienda. Here we met, at a dinner of strange but appetizing dishes, the accountant and the comisario, the former a rotund little gentleman with very long thumb-nails (the insignia of the brain worker), which he clicked together with gusto when excited or amused; the latter a tall, handsome youth and someting of an exquisite, if one may judge by biscuit-coloured socks and an æsthetic tie.
It was a cheerful occasion, followed by the best coffee I have ever tasted and songs to a guitar accompaniment.
Out in the compound, under the stars, the peons also indulged in a New Year's fiesta; so that by midnight the place was blur of tobacco smoke, oil flares, thrumming guitars; gyrating, brightly-hued ponchos, with their owners somewhere inside them; dogs, chickens, and children.
Everyone seemed thoroughly happy and contented. And after all, what else matters? That is the Ecuadorean point of view, and who shall say it is a bad one?
A starlit ride to the beach, a few strokes of the oars that carve deep caverns of phosphorescent light in the inky waters, and we are again aboard. And herein lies one of the manifold joys of one's own ship. One may travel at will over the highway of the earth, carrying his home and his banal but treasured belongings with him. Like the hermit-crab, he may emerge where and when he will, take a glimpse at life thereabouts, and return to the comfort of accustomed surroundings—a pipe-rack ready to hand, a favourite book or picture placed just so.
Sheltered by a coral reef that broke the force of the Pacific rollers, and with holding-ground of firm white sand, we made up arrears of sleep last night, and scattered after breakfast to explore the beach.
There was a lagoon swarming with duck, not half a mile inland, that attracted Steve and his new twelve-bore gun like a magnet. Peter interviewed the lighthouse-keeper's wife anent cooking for us during our stay, and I—I lazed; it gives one time to notice things that escape the attention of the industrious.
A steam-engine was chugging somewhere behind the belt of stunted trees that fringed the beach, and I found it to be a coffee-grinder fuelled, if you please, with sawed lengths of lignum-vitæ—a furnace of wood at something like five dollars a stick in most countries! I should have liked to see the face of a blockmaker of my acquaintance at such vandalism. But here it is nothing of the sort. Little else in the way of indigenous scrub grows on Cristóbal.
Mechanically gravitating toward Dad's split-bamboo abode, I came upon him seated on a log, staring meditatively at the crumbling skeleton of what had been, or was at one time going to be a ship.
“Why didn't you finish her?” I shouted into his “best” ear.
He stared at me in a daze, then burst forth in Spanish, until I succeeded in convincing him that he might as well talk double Dutch.
“Of course, of course,” he muttered. “I forgot; Lord, how I forgot! It's queer to me that I can speak English at all after all these years; but I can; that's something, isn't it?“
“Sure thing,” I yelled; “keep it up. Tell me why you didn't finish your ship.”
He pondered the matter; then spoke slowly:
“I told you of the other I built—and why. Well, I ran her on a reef—splinters in five minutes. Took the heart out of me for a bit, that did. Then I began to think of that loot again. I still do, for that matter: can't help it. You see, I think I know where it is. So I started on this one.” He nodded toward the hulk, silhouetted against the crimsoning sky.
“I'd got to the planking when it occurred to me that I'd want a partner for the job, at my age; and who could I trust? They'd slit your throat for ten dollars in those days. They murdered the present owner's father in cold blood. I wouldn't put it beyond 'em to do the same to this one if it wasn't that he's a smart lad and carries the only firearms on the island.
“No one's come here since, no one that I'd trust … Then, too, what if I found the stuff? What good would it do me—now?” He spread out his delicately shaped hands in a deprecating gesture. “I should die in a month if I left here. Finest climate on earth, this is. … ” Suddenly he laughed—a low, reminiscent cackle of mirth.
“But that wasn't all that decided me. I'd got to the planking, Guayaquil oak it was, and I was steaming it on when a nail drew, and the plank caught me in the chest, knocked me six yards, and broke a rib. It's broken yet, I guess; there was no one to mend it. Well, that finished it. I wasn't meant to build that ship.”
He stopped abruptly and stared down at his battered rawhide shoes.
The inference was obvious.
“Well, what about it?” I suggested.
He looked up at that.
“I've been thinking about it ever since you came here,” he confessed. “I'll go with you; but mind this, you mustn't curse me if nothing comes of it. I don't promise anything. All I say is I think I know where the stuff is, if someone hasn't got it.”
“I'll let you know tomorrow,” said I, and left him sitting there.
Was the man senile? There was nothing to make one think so. Was he a liar? There was equally nothing to prove it. At least half his story was a matter of island history.
We of the dream ship held a board meeting on the subject of loot that evening. We discussed it from every angle, and came to the conclusion that with the present atrocity called a motor auxiliary and the weather conditions of the group, we might take three days over the business and we might take three months; that the chances of finding something were outweighed by the risk of losing the ship, and that we were in pursuit of something visionary, anyway, so we had better get on with it.
The voting went two to one against, and I leave you to decide whose was the deciding voice.
I give this interview with Dad for what it is worth, and simply because I see no prospect of undertaking the search as it should be undertaken. I am aware that it reads like the purest romance, but it is true in every particular, as anyone will soon discover on visiting Wreck Bay, Cristóbal Island, in the Galápagos group.
The old man still waits there on the beach for a ship and someone he can trust; but judging by his frail appearance (he is seventy-seven), he will not wait much longer.
Often during the days that followed I found myself standing at the dream ship's rail, looking seaward to a dim outline of mountains against the blue, and wondering. … But only the ash heap knows.
The Marquesas Islands
The real South Seas—Big-game shooting extraordinary—A case of thwarted ambition
We of the dream ship were “watering,” or rather transferring, three hundred gallons of a doubtful-looking fluid from the beach reservoir of Cristóbal to the ship's tanks by means of kerosene tins, a rickety landing-stage swarming with sand-flies, and an equally rickety dinghy.
We were, in fact, enjoying a spell, to the accompaniment of vast quantities of cocoanut milk, before setting sail for the Marquesas, three thousand miles distant, and were in no mood for an interruption, which is probably why it came. A pigmy figure on the landing was apparently dancing a hornpipe and emitting strange cries.
“Who is it, and that the —— does he want?” I queried with customary amiablity.
“It's the comisario,” said Steve, with binocular upheld in one hand and a brimming cocoanut shell in the other, “and he's probably found that we need a bill of health of clearance of something.”
I believe I sighed. I have a notion that Steve swore, and I am quite sure that we rowed ashore and interviewed the comisario, the handsome youth whose silk socks and passionate tie contrasted strangely with his surroundings. He still danced.
“He says it is necessary that he should accompany us,” Steve translated.
“To the Marquesas?”
“Really? And where does the necessity come from?”
After still further variations of the hornpipe and a prodigious outflow of Ecuadorean Spanish, the following was evolved: They were after him—a trifling indiscretion in the matter of issuing grog licenses to the peons. The Ecuadorean Government was to blame. They expected an official to live on twenty dollars a month and nothing else! How was it possible? Moreover, the President himself, elected on a wage basis of forty-dollars-a-month-and-bring-your-own-blankets, would be getting the boot in a short three months, and with him went everyone—everyone!
What was then to happen to the officials he had placed in power? More important still, what was to happen to this particular official? He must accompany us. It was the only possible solution. He would work. Caramba, how he would work! and for nothing more but his passage to anywhere—anywhere!
Steve and I exchanged glances. The entire crew of the dream ship was, as I think I have mentioned, exceedingly tired of cooking. The comisario seized on our silence.
Maybe we thought he could not work?
With a dramatic gesture he tore from his neck the passionate tie, from his feet the silk socks, from his back a virulently striped shirt, and stood revealed in a natty line of undervests.
“Poor devil!” said I, thinking of the dream ship's fo'c's'le in a seaway.
“Poor nothing!” said Steve. “He wants work; let him have it.”
And that was how Señor ——, hereafter known as Bill, came to join the dream ship.
We sailed, and continued to sail before a steady south-east “trade” for twenty-two days, during which the comisario suffered alternately from seasickness, homesickness, and sheer inability to do anything but smoke cigarettes and sleep; our water tanks, under the magic wand of the Galápagos beach reservoir, transformed themselves into aquariums of energetic animalcules; and our entire biscuit supply crumbled to dust under the onslaughts of a particularly virulent red ant.
But these be incidentals to life aboard dream ships, and at the sight of Nukuhiva they faded to little more than amusing memories.