The Season in Alderney
From The Ladies' Companion and Monthly Magazine, 1868. Old-fashioned and full of Latin tags but more fun that you might think. 'For be it remarked here, that the Alderney girls age remarkably fast, and very probably the charmer who is carrying on a conversation with you, and parrying all your flirting and causerie, with all the nerve and steadiness of five-and-twenty, is, after all, only adorned by the petitionary grace of sweet seventeen.'
This article purports to come from the pen of an Oxford undergraduate, who with his friend 'Cloanthus' decides to visit their former fellow student, Barkins, for the Long Vacation. Barkins is now the assistant curate in Alderney and Alderney is just about the cheapest place they can think of to stay the summer. 'Spend the Long there?' cried my friend; 'why don't you know that the place is a mere barren rock, popularly supposed to afford starvation to a few Aborigines what time they are not under water.' Barkins, however, writes that it is 'a glorious little island, healthy air, pleasing society (here the features of Cloanthus assumed the air contemptuous), plenty of sport, deep sea fishing, and the like.' Their voyage to Alderney does not agree with them, and they are both seasick.
'Eight o'clock I awoke [on the boat] to find the brilliant sunshine smiling into the saloon, and a couple of ruffians presenting to me a book to sign, and hinting that one guinea would be very acceptable. This I paid helplessly, quite as readily as I would have parted with the whole of my worldly wealth, so utterly 'played out' did I feel, as the Yankees say. As for Cloanthus, his misery was so great, that when the steward came and suggested breakfast, his eye glared, and I verily believe he would have smitten that caitiff to the earth, had he not been utterly helpless. On deck, however, we crawled, and with a shout gladsome as that of Xenophon's soldiers, or Columbus' mariners, we greeted the fair shore of Guernsey, as they basked in the morning sun, and the grim fortalice of St. Peter towering above the quay, and felt that in a few moments our feet would be on dry soil.
As we neared the quay, a sudden madness seemed to seize every mortal on the packet; such a scene of confusion—struggling for luggage, abusing the steward, each passenger wishing to be the first to land, and the captain almost tearing his hair. Ill as we felt, it was impossible to watch the scene without fits of laughter; and to see the gestures of sundry maniacs with badges on the quay, who turned out to be porters. Now I flatter myself that the Guernsey porter is unique. The first thing he does, when he marks his victim, is to point to him with a weird forefinger, and then he makes a species of mesmeric pastes with his other hand, bawling out his number the while, at the top of his voice. Woe to the man who falls into his hands. I have been flattered by obsequious porters at Oxford, I have been bullied by them on the Great Western, I have been all but torn in fragments by Irish carmen and porters as they carried me into their 'Kyar.' I have been rescued bodily from the opposing faction at Welsh watering places; but never was so near utter destruction as at Guernsey. No sooner had we landed than they rushed upon us, uttering their hideous war-cries of 'Clarence, sir'— 'Fine hotel, gentlemen; Gardner's'—'Don't believe him, M'sieu' nothin' like Jones's Commercial.' Selecting a vehicle that belonged to a villanous old man, and was drawn by two equally villanous horses, we allowed ourselves to be whirled out of the turmoil, and came to anchor at the 'Clarence,' where we were informed we should have to wait till 12 for the Alderney steamer, hight Queen of the Isles, which would take us over to the dim looking rock in the distance, which we were assured was Alderney.
It may be remarked here, that the Channel Islands hate and despise one another quite as heartily as old maids in a country town, and the expression of the Guernsey waiter's face when we told him that we were en route for Alderney, was haughty, but pitying. Meantime, we flaneured about the Guernsey market, and a remarkable pretty sight it was this bright morning. Quite a fashionable promenade are the Arcade and market from nine to twelve. Numbers of the handsome girls for which Guernsey is famed passed and repassed in the most witching costumes, chatting, flirting, laughing, and buying flowers. I am afraid to say how much Cloanthus spent in the latter article alone, while he pursued the pretty Galateas. I know that we went on board the Queen of the Isles, perfectly laden with camellias, and heliotropes, and blush-roses, just as if we were about to take part in some Channel Island Floralia. A decent German band enlivens the scene. And what with music, and pretty girls, and flowers, an Epicurean need not wish to idle away an hour more pleasantly than in the Guernsey market. Sed majora canamus.
Arrival at Alderney
Once more upon the waters, in company with several artillery-men, some women with peculiar Norman headdresses, as old as the time of the white-footed Arlette, and a commercial 'gent,' who volunteered the information that 'Alderney—haw—was unfit for human beings—haw—to live in.' Past Sark, which is the gem of the channel Cyclades, past Herm the shelly, and Jethou the desolate, feeling rather ill, in crossing a stormy bit called the Russel, and desperately indisposed when we were opposite the Casket lighthouses, on which story tells that the bad son of a worse king struck midst wine and wassail, and mingled his death-shriek with the wail of the curlew. Out again into the open, with the coast of Alderney growing more distinct each moment, and, truth to tell, looking rather rocky and bare than otherwise. This was the back of the island, with some magnificent rocks jutting into the sea; one that reminded us strikingly of Una and the Lion, and another very like an old witch peering into the sea. Then came forts, looking mighty and majestic, as we steamed alongside, through a passage called the Swinge, which, Cloanthus remarked, was very like a swing at a fair, as far as concerned the steamer. Our skipper, though, corrected him with majesty, and covered him with shame, 'as with a garment,' by remarking casually that, in French, singe was an ape, and that this was the Passage of the apes. Then came the breakwater, Alderney's shame and pride, with a couple of soldiers fishing at the extreme end; and then we steamed up the noble harbour, and amid a shout of Voila! from Cloanthus, we were alongside the stone-slip.
'Look at the crowd of beauty and fashion,' said my friend, with enthusiasm; 'how beautiful, exceedingly, these ladies of a far countree!'
In another minute we were shaking hands with the Rev. Barkins, who was very brown, and very rough as to his appearance, but very genial as to his welcome, 'No porters here, thank goodness!' was nay grateful cry; but it was a rash word, for 'twas no sooner said than a 'lone widdy woman,' in sad coloured garments, pounced upon our things, and began coolly to place them in her cart, and regarded our remonstrances about as much as she did the plashing of the 'sad sea wave.''It's all right,' remarked the Parson; 'she is the recognized medium.'
Introduction to the island
Old Barkins had got us very good lodgings, overlooking the blue sea, and very comfortable, save only that the landlady was a little deaf, and the 'slavy,' more than a little obtuse; to this, however, lodging-house life at Oxford had very well seasoned us, 'You're rather in luck you fellows,' said Barkins; 'the season is just about to commence, and they are going to give a ball at the Fort yonder next week, just by way of commencement, when you will see the manners and customs of this tight little Island. At present, come out and look at the spot; and see how you like it.' And we went out, and saw the spot, Barkins doing the cicerone business creditably. As it is not my purpose to depict the features of the island much, I cannot be expected to talk of everything we saw. As the lions lie altogether, it doesn't take long to see them. The church evoked quite a shout of pleasure, accustomed as we had been to fine architecture at Oxford, and we didn't discredit its curate's assertion that it was the finest in the Isles. It is a noble gift from a generous man, this church—one of the Le Mesuriers, former governors of the island, having made the island a present of the whole thing so complete, that when the clergy walked in to open it, they found even their surplices ready for them. Then there is a fine hotel, somewhat disproportioned to the size of the island perchance, but affording a goodly tap of beer, as the present writer certifieth. It belongs to the captain of the Queen of the Isles. When I have added Government-House, which is the residence of the commander of the troops for the time being, and which boasts pretty nearly all the trees in the island, I have done with the architecture of the place. And so into the Highstreet, which has one shop worth mentioning, where good Mons. Vallée sells everything that human beings can want, from blacking to the finest Champagne, from turpentine to tobacco, of which latter he must sell a good quantity in the course of the year, as almost every one you meet in Alderney has in his mouth that weed 'which is so passing fair, and smells so sweet.' An obliging man is Monsieur Vallée, and a good-natured, and I wish more power to his arm. If a man wished to write an essay on 'Solitude,' or brood over the vanity of human wishes, or anything of that kind, he might do so with great comfort in the High-street, Alderney. It would be fair to compare it with the Sahara, if there were only an occasional camel; for the latter useful beast read cow, and the comparison is complete—'Not very lively, as you say,' remarked the curate; 'but wait till you know the people.'
Introduction to society
Next day we accordingly went to see the people, and very jolly and affable we found they were to us: whether they were so to themselves is quite another thing. They showed us no slight hospitality, offering to take us out in yachts, suggesting croquet, and the male kind hinting that there was a decent cricket-ground, and a billiard-table handy. In a few hours we were at our ease. Cloanthus made himself very agreeable, and retailed his little budget of jokes; and I discoursed the elders, being a 'discreet man;' and all this, on a place we had been led to expect a rock, and nothing else. We did no reading though. Day after day passed, and still the stern volumes of the 'infernal Chitty,' as Praed calls him, glared reproachfully upon us, and Blackstone's cheerful Commentaries, and Burn's Justice, frowned to remind us of lost time, and still the example of the good Doctor's 'busy bee' was not in the least emulated till at last we determined to throw reading to the dogs; we would have none of it. The first thing to do was to get a bird's-eye view of society here, and a most amusing study we found it.
First among the natives, there was Monsieur le Juge, very fat and very pompous, and very hospitable, with a most exalted idea of his own judicial prerogative, and a great authority on the curious laws of the island, though wicked Fame reported that this Socrates had his Xanthippe. Monsieur le Juge looks down upon the Procureur, who, in his turn, snubs the Greffier, who takes it out of the policeman, I suppose. It is needless for me to say that these officials all hated one another, with a good hearty official hatred, and never met in public or at the 'Chief Pleas' of the island, without bullying one another terribly.
Then there was the society non-official, of which the Church and the Doctor and some private people formed the ingredients; these seemed to agree passing well—that is, they did not quarrel and say bitter things of one another oftener than once-a-month.
The third element in the society was the military, who occupied decidedly the best position of all, for they struck neither on the Scylla of the official, nor the Charybdis of the mixed party, but kept 'the even tenor of their way,' showing often at the croquet parties, and looming good-naturedly with their gorgeous shirt-fronts, and bored expression at 'evenings,' when there was a little music, a little whist, and a great deal of conversation, amatory and otherwise. A good many of the warriors, though, had pursuits that kept them a good deal to themselves. One man, for instance, shot all the sea-birds, and stuffed the carcases, till the barrack-room looked like a section of the British Museum, and many a beautiful gull's breast, which had rested lightly on the blue waters of the Channel, curled afterwards round the fair tresses of beauty. Another went in for 'securing the shadow ere the substance fled,' and by means of a good photographic apparatus handed down to an admiring posterity croquet groups and family circles, in the which each individual person tried his best to look unconcerned, as the custom is. A few of these 'warriors so bold,' contented themselves with shutting themselves into their quarters, and cursing Alderney by their gods, and, like Mariana, declared that they were 'a-weary a-weary,' and would that they were dead. But these were a kind of men who saw beauty, neither in the heavens above, nor in the earth beneath, nor in the ocean with its grand old song and varying face; who simply kept themselves alive by regretful dreams of Jersey quarters, 'their life in Egypt, the dalliance and the wit,' the Sunday afternoon balls, the picnics (and the witching faces of the Jersey dames).
So much for the island society; now for their amusements. Summer, of course, is the time for enjoyment in this place, for in the winter time, when the 'stormy winds do blow,' indifferent boisterously, they have to keep in-doors. In most places Sunday is a little dull, insomuch that the brave Belgians compared London on a Sunday to a city of the dead. No taffy, no music, no gaiety—a sombre pall in everything. A country town on the seventh day is appalling in its melancholy. A rainy Sunday once, in a Scotch town, very nearly turned my ambrosial locks grey; and if I had not by kind Providence met an elder of the Kirk, who made merry with me on much whisky, I should have gone clean mad. But in Alderney the ease is different: there festus agitur dies, and at the church porch everybody meets everybody, and there is a very pleasant talkee-talkee, and Miss Florinda's new bonnet, which has just arrived from Guernsey, is much criticised, and the last funny thing said at the croquet party is generally retailed. And then those Sunday evening walks from Government House square to the rocky promontory of Clonque, with the young May moon beaming placidly down upon the many couples, and the sea singing its old, old song. It is very amusing to see the manner in which the young people pair off in these walks. There is a dash made, and the not unwilling maiden is rescued from under the maternal wing, and soon in regular boarding-school file, the 'spooning' party streams off, leaving the old people to follow as best they may: their hearts are young and green though, perchance, and they remind them of their ain lang cooitin lang syne. And who shall say the mischief that is done in these twilight rambles— the'Delight of happy laughter, The delight of low replies?'
Girls and parties
I only know that Cloanthus raved in a manner that made me shy a boot at his head, after these walks of some flava Naeara of the Isles, eucomos kallisfyra,1 who, had she been old enough, he would have asked to share his heart and home. For be it remarked here, that the Alderney girls age remarkably fast, and very probably the charmer who is carrying on a conversation with you, and parrying all your flirting and causerie, with all the nerve and steadiness of five-and-twenty, is, after all, only adorned by the petitionary grace of sweet seventeen. I hope they do not settle down into science and scandal, old women at thirty, like the American ladies. An invitation from Fort Albert apprised us that the ball which Barkins had mentioned was coming off. It was to be a great affair for the island, and threw all our fair young friends into a tremor of mingled hope and despair, inasmuch that the thoughts of handsome partners from Guernsey and Jersey stirred the pracordia of their little hearts, while they feared the beauty of the Jersey 'hookers.'2 How we were to get to Fort Albert was the question, for the island boasted but few public vehicles; one of the artillery officers had a dogcart, which on its first arrival must have created as mud surprise amongst the natives as the first cannon amongst the Indians. Good Mons. Vallée, though, kept a covered cart, and there was a chariot-like vehicle belonging to the harbour works. Into Vallée's cart that evening were crammed six fortunate beings, Cloanthus and I, and some visions of beauty and tulle, from whom we got the promises of many dances, which they religiously forgot daring the night. On the road we passed the other vehicles, and indulged ourselves in pleasing chaff with the drivers, which I hope their fairs did not comprehend. When we did arrive at the Fort, the tout ensemble, as they say in the papers, was truly magnificent. The military had certainly contrived to turn their mess-room into a Paradise, saving that, instead of cherubs, two remarkably ill-favoured soldiers guarded the entrance. The colouring was especially good; the artillery undress (than which nothing can be more beautiful) contrasting with the scarlet undress of the line, and a few ravens in the shape of civilians, lending a sober touch to the whole thing. And then the excitement when the Jersey ladies came, and the remarks on their beauty, which was admirable, and their dress, which was 'neat but not gaudy.'
Leaving Cloanthus to 'tread the mazy,' I laid myself out to watch the folk and their doings. I hate dancing. I cannot galop: to waits I am ashamed. I consider the Lancers like the University boat race, a clear five years off one's life; I cannot stand the haughty expression of my partner's face, when I forget the intricate figure known as Cavalier Seul. So while Cloanthus' black figure and serious face, I should say agonized, whirled in and out of the uniforms and ball dresses, I leant in a Lara-like attitude, and watched the people. I was vastly amused by the manoeuvres of the chaperones. The ball-room was the neutral ground on which the foes met. In the four corners of the room the factions had ensconced themselves, and favoured each other with slaughter-dealing glances, when they were not too busy in sheltering their daughters under their maternal fling. The unhappy fathers meanwhile, loomed hazily about the room, with a melancholy stare, regarded Florence or Clara whirling along to the 'Harum Scarum,' and then fled to the refreshments, and 'put themselves outside' a goodly amount of liquid.
Cloanthus had been amusing himself with a little raw ensign from Jersey. He had led the unfortunate boy up to the dance programme, and was commenting on the airs.
'Very pretty dance, The Hilda,' said the man-of-war.
'Very,' assented Cloanthus; 'but the Da Capo [pointing to the end of the card] is a very jolly waltz.'
'I daresay it is,' smiled the luckless boy, 'though I have never heard it.'
On with the dance into the small hours of the morning, till the daylight peeped in; and, inside, the ladies look a little ghastly, and the musicians began to play in curious time. Perhaps they were tired; perchance it was liquor, and then one goodly 'Sir Roger' to finish, and Mr. Vallée's cart 'stopping the way,' and a hazy recollection of brandy and soda, and cigars with the officers; and of hearing oneself addressed in endearing terms, and invited to stay a year—'S'long as y'like, old fella' at Jersey. And so home in the bright morning, catching the fine breath of the sea as we drive to our lodgings; meeting the labourers on their way to work on the breakwater, and Cloanthus humming, like an idiot, 'Beloved eye, be—loved star!'—meaning, I suppose, the orb of the lady in mauve. And then to bathe our heated limbs in the exquisitely blue waters of Plat Saline Bay; mounting over the crested waves, and revelling in the cool spray that lapped us round till it was easy to understand how Byron exulted in sea-swimming.
Sea, swimming, and rocks; the wreck of the Carioca3
Apropos of swimming though, no one should bathe at Alderney unless he is a tolerably fair swimmer; for the currents are strong, the holes numerous, and frequently not a boat, or a living creature present to help in time of need. So strong, indeed, are the tides that sailing is very dangerous, unless one employs one of the old fishermen, and there is a very black list of the unfortunate drowned. After the ball, a little natural curiosity occurred to divert us, and this was a three days' gale, which raged and stormed with such terrible fury that nothing could leave or approach our 'tight little island.' And when the storm subsided we witnessed the grandest sight which human eyes could see, and that was the whole of the long breakwater covered with foam. And, ever and anon, with a sound like a park of artillery, a majestic column of foam would rise into the air about one hundred feet, poise for an instant, and then fall over the end of the breakwater. Anything more beautiful than the majestic rocket-like ascent of the columns of spray it is impossible to conceive. It seemed as though the wraiths of those who had perished 'mid the waters were rising from their unquiet graves. And then the sun would break out as with sound of trumpet, and produce wonderful prismatic effects in the pillars of foam; many a rainbow glittering with sapphire, and emerald, and amethyst ere it dissolved into numberless atoms of foam—into showers of sparkling diamonds, fairer than ever rested on the bosom of beauty. But in the midst of our admiration of this beauteous scene there comes the dread thought that sad tidings of shipwreck and disaster will follow. Not that wrecks are of such very frequent occurrence on the coast. Two years ago the old fisherman (a great character in his way, who spoke marvellous English and still more marvellous French) told us that a Portuguese ship, called the Carioca, struck upon a reef of rocks near the fort of Chateau l'Etoc, and pretty well made the fortune of the islanders with her assorted cargo, of which guns formed an important item, and now every man in the island carries a fowling-piece, and hunts to the death the solitary snipe or the wary woodcock; and you may be sure that the deathdealing bullet comes from a Carioca gun; whistles, too, and scent, and rosaries, and sticks with silver knobs that a grandee need not despise formed the cargo of the ill-fated Carioca; and the Alderney people have been known to go to the length of christening their children John and Mary Carioca.
Huntin' and fishin'
Talking of guns leads me to chat about the sport of the island. The 'covers' most affected are those of an island in conspectu notissima called Burrhou, which is uninhabited now, though a house and garden seem to hint at some Crusoe in times of yore. This little island the artillery officers looked at with the greatest affection, and spent a great deal of their life upon it, shooting gulls and sea-pies and barbalutes for stuffing, and an occasional rabbit for the mess-table. A very jolly night we spent over there once, rowing over in the afternoon, and patrolling the island till nightfall, " monarchs of all we surveyed;" and when the shadows fell, then we adjourned to the house and made very merry over our slender stock of provisions, and passed the joke and trolled the merry roundelay as only youth and strength and light spirits can. It is true we had to spend the night in a dismantled hovel, without the pretence even of a shake-down, while full in sight in the moonlight lay Alderney and warm quarters and a snug bed; but what recked we youngsters? I never recollect passing a merrier night; and pity it is that no North was there, to chronicle that Nox Ambrosiana; the puns alone would have started a comic paper. Sleep was entirely out of the question. In the first place we had to 'watch about' and look to the safety of the Venture, and, secondly, some evil spirit of mischief seemed to possess the skipper of the said boat, for he would allow no man to close his eyes. As soon as he saw symptoms of sleep he would jump into the middle of the floor and dance a great 'breakdown,' to the melody of some French chanson, or tell some wondrous adventure in the Spanish main, to chain our attention. He told us that the house had been inhabited by a man who fled to this place from the world and his fellow-creatures, and actually tried to exist amongst the gulls and rabbits. But he was nearly starved, and lost his servants, who were drowned as they tried to cross over to Alderney; and the end of it was that this modern Timon was rescued after many days' sustenance on brandy and opium, and feeling very poorly by consequence. Pleasant Burrhou, 'Dear are thy memories to me!' Scene of many a picnic—of many a quiet flirtation amid thy ferns and blue-bells! Ofttimes have I mixed the choice salad, and quaffed the foaming vintage of Champagne under the shadow of thy rocks, and ofttimes have I fished for the bream off thy coast, and felt exceedingly ill at the same time.
A word about bream-fishing, since we are under the head of sport. Bream-fishing is very good fun while it lasts, and very satisfactory, as some half-dozen lines will catch half-a-hundred good-sized fish. It has its drawbacks though: one must anchor in a bobbing sea, and I have offered a handsome sum of money to any man who would throw me overboard, and have thrown my ownself overboard by instalments. One must fish at night, and what is night without a pipe of tobacco, to keep off the cold! Cloanthus one night tried a cutty full of honeydew, and very shortly, to use the words of Mrs. Gamp, 'His 'owls was horgins.' One soon gets accustomed to the sensation though, and then bream-fishing, with the chance of an occasional conger, is very great sport. Crabs and lobsters they catch in pots, and other fish in trammels, the pulling up of which is also very good fun. Food for powder there is not much in the island; for it seems rather useless cruelty to slay the gulls, and certainly hideous cruelty to half-kill them and let them be torn in pieces by the other birds. The soldiers, who don't spend their leisure-time in maddening themselves with bad brandy, fish, in a contemplative way, off the breakwater with 'young masts' of rods, and are very happy if they catch a stray rock-fish or so.
So much for the sports. In the way of athletics there is cricket, and, as military-men are, as it rule, very decent bats, we had much play during the season. There was a little boat-racing, too, in the harbour in which the Isis crew was cruelly vanquished, and a ladies' race which was gallantly contested by the fair crews. For pedestrians there was the 'regular tour' round the island—a walk of four hours, starting from the Artillery Fort of Tourgis, past the isolated little fort of Clonque, which looks for all the world like Turner's Castle of Ischia, in the gorgeous sunset; up and down the lovely valleys brilliant with their carpets of heather and golden furze; round by the Sister Rocks and the Garden Rocks, so on to Fort Essex, where story runs that the lord of that ilk intended to keep Elizabeth; and where, if he had succeeded, the Lion-Queen would have had sorry quarters; hard by is Madame Robilliard's Nose, or La Roche Pendant, a strange rock hanging over the sea like Bardolph's Nose, along the sea-board by Rat Island, or Race Island, with the coast of La belle France, and the lighthouse of La Hogue in the distance, passing the lonely Cunard, and Corblets with its nook of yellow sands whereon Titania might lead the fairy dance under the yellow moon, and modern fairies, in looped dresses and tantalising bottines, play croquet, and bathe; then by Chateau l'Etoc, where the wreck was, and round Fort Albert, from the top of whose battlements there is a lovely view of land and sea; across the sands of Brave Harbour, and threading one's way amongst the trucks of quarry-stones about the breakwater, along by Fort Grosnez, where the Alderney Militia practise with shot and shell; subject of intense scorn to the Royal Artillery; thence to Doyle, and across the open country of Plat Saline, where the cricketers, in their white flannels, are busy at work, and the pretty cows with large placid eyes pimxictg indeed criticise the game, and here we are at Tourgis again, just in time to see the Hospital Guard tramp up from relieving guard.
Many other things might I say about dear old Alderney; but 'tis oure lang a tale to tell, iod the ghostly mists come creeping up from the sea: and the cows are being led home for the night, and see! the steamer Queen of the Isles is signalled on her return from Cherbourg. To-morrow she will be bearing us back to England, half-regretful, fully pleased with our sojourn, and quite ready to endorse friend Cloanthus's classic regret—'Hunc olim meminisse juvabit.'
1 'Lovely-haired with beautiful ankles.'
2 Here is the writer's earlier definiton of 'hooker': 'Cloanthus had managed to get into pleasing converse with a young and lovely lady from Jersey—one of those whom the irreverent men call 'hookers,' because they entrap the unwary youth in the meshes of their yellow hair, which a butterfly skewered by a couple of golden pins surmounts, in lieu of a bonnet.'
3 The French ship Carioca struck the rocks under Hermitage Rock Battery in late December 1865. Gunner James Moore of the Royal Artillery in Alderney rescued 17 men of the crew; he was later awarded an RNLI Silver Medal.