The Wreck at Juan Fernandez, Part 3
Generally speaking, I had very good luck with my fern cargoes. Two lots I sent to my father arrived at Kington in perfect order, and took to their new home in splendid fashion; but I had rotten hard lines with those consigned for King Edward and for Kew. I spent extra pains, had them specially packed, and most carefully stowed away in the hold of the schooner. They arrived at Vina del Mar in fine condition, and were then taken charge of by Lutges. The latter gave strict orders to his gardeners to let them have very special attention, and there is no doubt his orders were implicitly obeyed. When I called on Sharp, the popular manager of the Pacific Steam Navigation Co., he asked me whether I meant to send the ferns carriage forward to England, or pay the freightage myself. I inquired what the charges would amount to. “Something like £35,” he replied. “In that case,” I said, “they had better go ‘carriage forward.’” “Where to?” was his next question. I told him. “Marlborough House!” he exclaimed. “Then we couldn’t dream of making any charge whatever. The whole ship is at His Royal Highness’s disposal.” Sharp, like the good fellow he was, made special arrangements for the housing of the ferns aboard ship, so that they should not be subjected to sudden variations of temperature, etc., and detailed a man to look after them till they reached the end of their voyage. But unfortunately, when nearing Finisterre, the vessel encountered very rough weather. The sea raged mountains high, flooding the engine-room near to which the precious cargo was located, and pretty well drowning the life out of the ferns. When they reached England my father’s head gardener, Sheppard, and his assistants, did their utmost to resuscitate them, but, alas! their efforts were of no avail. After all the precautions I had taken, this was a sad blow to me, for I had counted on their arriving in extra good fettle. There is one peculiarity about these ferns I should mention. When transplanted to foreign soil they flourish especially well for five years or so, and then rapidly deteriorate.
Most of my lobster and fern trips proved uneventful. On two occasions, however, I was nearly wrecked. Once we were taking 500 lobsters and 115 tree ferns to the mainland. The lobsters cost Fonck and me 2½ cents each, and we looked to make at least sixpence profit on every one we landed in good condition.
On our first trip we had got 3s. and 4s. apiece for them, in the Valparaiso and Santiago shops; but, subsequently, found it more advantageous to dispose of them to dealers, who came to the ship for them. We should have done fairly well but for the great mortality among the crustaceans. Rarely more than 60 per cent. arrived in marketable condition. The tree ferns were for the Cousino Palace at Santiago. Four days out from Juan Fernandez we ran into very heavy weather. A terrible wind lashed the waves till they raged horribly. I kept asking Larson, the skipper, when he was going to heave to. He always replied, “Oh, I think we’ll hold on just a little longer.” “Very well, my good fellow,” I observed, “ but it looks to me as if you may hold on too long, if you don’t watch it.” All of a sudden an enormous wave struck us amidships. As our little craft heeled right over on her side, Larson shouted—
“Oh, my God! We’re gorners.”
“Rats! ” I cried. “Come and give me a hand, and help heave this over.” So saying, I bashed in the head of a 63-gallon cask of shark oil with an axe I had picked up on the cabin step.
“Whatever will Fonck say?” ejaculated Larson.
“Go to Putney!” I said. “Isn’t your life, and Martin’s and Charlie’s and mine, worth more than a spot of oil?”
“Oh, well,” he agreed, “I suppose you’re right. Anyway, half the oil belongs to you.”
Without further parley, we set about dumping the stuff overboard. And not a moment too soon, for another wallop would have made our vessel turn turtle completely. The effect was simply marvellous! Directly the oil touched the face of the raging waters, it seemed to break the waves down; so that in a very short space of time the sea, for a considerable distance round, was as smooth as a duck pond. Our immediate danger was over, we had to see about righting the ship. This was a lob attended with not a little danger, for our cargo had shifted. Everything was pretty well upside down, and the cook’s galley and our solitary boat had been swept away astern. All the ferns had to be sacrificed, but what went even more against the grain was having to part with our two goats. Most of our provisions had to go; in fact, when we took stock, we found we had to subsist on a few loaves of bread, a small bag of split peas, some tins of beef, and a dozen or two lobsters until we reached port.
Larson and Co. doffed their hats to me, for thinking of the oil, saying I had undoubtedly saved their lives. I told them it was not so; but only a merciful Providence that had put the idea into my head, while they themselves stood gaping around. I could not resist quoting Cowper’s beautiful words—
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Fortunately our two casks of fresh water were spared to us, so we were able to make up the peas into soup. On this meagre fare, eked out with two tins of beef, we subsisted eleven days, during six of which we were hove to. Still we didn’t do too badly, for Larson and I had each a couple of bottles of whisky, and two dozen Apollinaris water, while Martin and Charlie had four bottles of rum between them. Larson and I only indulged in two drinks a day, hence our liquor lasted out well. but Charlie soon put paid to his rum. I think what we missed most was our store of condensed milk and sugar. Whilst we were hove to, we found great benefit from the oil. At my suggestion, Larson trailed two bags instead of one. When the storm abated on the seventh day, we found we were 243 miles off our track, and about 120 miles north of Coquimbo!