My Brazilian Adventure

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My Brazilian Adventure is an seafaring adventure story published in McRoberts' collection, Rounding Cape Horn and Other Sea Stories (1895).
An illustration for the story My Brazilian Adventure by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story My Brazilian Adventure by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story My Brazilian Adventure by the author Walter McRoberts

Alice and I were seated at the breakfast-table in our rambling old house on the outskirts of the French quarter in New Orleans. She was glancing over the Picayune, while I was wrapped in deep thought concerning the most vivid and remarkable dream I had ever had,—the strangest part being that it was about a place I had never seen or even heard of. My sister, who had never married, was ten years my junior, and after my wife’s death, Alice had accepted my invitation to take charge of my household. We lived a retired life, with no one else in the big house but a maid-servant and old black Bilbo, a trusted domestic, who had been a slave in our family during the halcyon days before the war. “Alice,” said I, suddenly, “I have concluded to take Dr. Antoine’s advice, and go off on a sea voyage. You remember the last time he prescribed for me, he said my poor health was simply the result of overwork and too close attention to business, and that a long voyage would benefit me more than anything else.”

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, My Brazilian Adventure, convict islandMy sister laid aside her paper, both surprised and pleased.

The usual preparation for rounding the Horn had been made. The old patc “How glad I am, George, that you at last see the necessity of it. Where shall you go?”

“Well, according to my dream of the last two nights, my destination will be latitude 3° 50′ 30″ South, longitude 32° 24′ 30″ West.”

Alice stared at me as though she doubted my sanity, while I folded my arms, nodded my head, and tried not to look foolish.

I waited a moment, thinking she would speak, and then continued: “Yes, I know you will say that a man forty-three years old ought to know better, especially so prosaic a one as you often say I am. But let me tell you my vision, and then ridicule it if you can.

“Night before last I slept unusually well, and was conscious of nothing until I heard a clock somewhere strike four. I dozed off soon after, and had this dream:

“I was seated alone in the stern of a little boat, that floated on a calm and gently-heaving moonlit sea; while close on my right hand was a small, densely wooded island, with phosphorescent waves breaking upon its sandy beach. Behind it, and belonging seemingly to another body of land, a lofty peak towered into the air.

“The silvery white light fell upon a stately palm that grew near a large rock on the islet, and upon two figures, one of whom, in military uniform, leaned against the trunk, while the other carefully smoothed over the ground at the base of the tree. Then the former glided to the rock and wrote or scratched something upon it, but though I looked and looked, I saw no words, nor could I get even the smallest view of the faces of the two men, although their figures were perfectly plain.

“While striving to see their features, I became sensible of a veil of mist enveloping both land and sea, and when it passed, island and peak were gone. In their stead was a gigantic blackboard rising out of the ocean, with these characters upon it, in figures and letters so large that they terrified me:

3° 50′ 30″ S.
32° 24′ 30″ W.

“As I looked, the great object seemed to advance upon me—I should be annihilated! I tried to grasp an oar in the bottom of the boat, but could not move a muscle. On it came, rapidly, noiselessly. At the instant it was upon me, I made a frantic lunge and found myself sitting up in bed, drenched in perspiration, and my heart beating so I could hardly breathe.

“On realizing where I was, I got up, struck a match, and looked at my watch. A quarter past four! All that had happened since I heard the clock strike fifteen minutes before.

“I said nothing to you yesterday, Alice, but now you know why I have been so preoccupied. Again last night I had the same dream.”

My sister said little, except to advise me to dismiss the whole subject from my mind, but I could see that it had made more of an impression on her than she chose to admit.

I had already consulted the atlas in regard to the spot of which I had dreamed, and found it to be an island with an unpronouncable name, lying near the coast of Brazil.

That night I wrote to my nephew Ralph at New York, telling him that I had decided to take a sea voyage, and asking him what was the best way of getting to Fernando de Noronha, for that was the name of the island. He was master, and one-third owner of the brig Sea Witch, and I knew his advice was to be depended on.

I was very busy for several days following, arranging my business affairs and giving certain necessary directions to my partner, Simon LaForte. Each night I retired fully expecting a repetition of the dream, but my expectations were not realized.

Ralph’s answer came Saturday. Here it is:

“Dear Uncle George,—

“Yours of the 9th received. I am glad you’ve concluded to go to sea, but what possesses you to steer for Fernando de Noronha? It’s a Brazilian convict island one hundred miles from the coast, where all the life prisoners are confined, and except the government transports, not a vessel stops at the place for months together. There is absolutely nothing there but a fertile island of about twenty square miles, inhabited only by convicts, soldiers, and a governor.

“The Sea Witch has been chartered to load for Pernambuco, and from there will come back to New York. Now uncle, take my advice and go along. The only way to see the ocean as it really is, is on a sailing vessel, and we shall probably sight this island of yours either going or returning, which ought to satisfy you. You would have a good time as a passenger, but as you’ve always been such a worker, it might not suit you to loaf, and in that case you could ship before the mast. We’ll show you how to make sennit, mouse blocks, overhaul buntlines, tie a reef-point, and do other things you never heard of.

“The brig is repairing at Poillon’s yard. We had a rough passage from Tampico, and the little hooker had a couple of sticks jerked out in a blow off Hatteras.

“If you’re in New York in three weeks it will be time enough. I must run over to South Street now, so good-bye. Love to yourself and Aunt Alice.

“Ralph.”

This epistle I read aloud, and we both laughed over Ralph’s joke about my shipping before the mast, but that part of the letter referring to the sticks being jerked out of the brig made me feel rather dubious. I consoled myself, however, by reflecting that such things probably did not occur often, and after long deliberation decided to go, and wrote Ralph to that effect.

It was the afternoon of July 2 that the tug Charm pulled the brig out from Pier 1, East River, and took her in tow for Sandy Hook. It is a long tow, and the stars were shining when the pilot went over the side, the tug’s hawser was cast off, and we were left to shift for ourselves.

Everyone aboard was so busy that I did not get a chance to say half a dozen words to Ralph that night. He and the mate were roaring out orders; the yards were being hoisted to the accompaniment of the wild sailors’ chant, which begins “From South Street slip to ’Frisco Bay,” and I finally turned in and slept sounder than I had for months, in spite of the racket on deck. Next morning was beautiful, and we were spinning along at a great rate when I came on deck. I felt fine, but somehow couldn’t walk very well. Ralph told me the names of the sails and some of the ropes, and was surprised that I hadn’t been sick.

Before we sailed, I had told him my dream, which he ridiculed until I spoke of the lofty peak, when he became serious.

“There is just such a peak at one end of the island,” he had said. “It is eight hundred feet high, and the observatory at its summit overlooks the island, and the ocean for sixty miles in every direction.”

This was enough for me to know; I was now determined at any cost to get ashore on that island and try and find the scene pictured in my vision, for that such a scene existed I no longer doubted.

Three weeks passed, and we had made good progress since leaving port. I soon found my sea legs, as Ralph expressed it, and often climbed the rigging as far as the tops. I went out on the jibboom and caught bonitas—a deep-sea fish of a steely blue color which preys remorselessly upon the flying-fish; I read; I learned to make nautical knots of various kinds, and actually felt ten years younger than I had in New Orleans. There was nothing to bother or irritate me; no telephones, no whistles blowing, no mail to open, no newspapers to read; in a word, I was in a new world altogether, and began to get so fat that Seth Hawkins, the mate, one day told me that I should have to shake a reef or two out of my clothes by the time I got back to New York.

After a particularly fine day’s run, I said to Ralph, who had just marked it on the chart, “I had no idea that sailing vessels could go fast. As this rate we shall soon be across the Equator. You say we are only 8° North this noon.”

“Don’t crow, uncle, till we’re through the Doldrums,” he replied. I had heard a little about this bugbear, but had a rather vague idea as to what sort of a place it was. I was soon to know, for upon going on deck next morning, I found a dead calm. There was not even enough wind to steer by. The atmosphere was hot and muggy, while great masses of wet-looking clouds were piled up all along the horizon. The sails flapped against the masts and rigging with loud reports each time the brig rolled, and when I saluted Seth Hawkins, he said: “Well, Mr. Spencer, how do you like the Doldrums?”

During the forenoon a violent rain squall struck us from due South, and we tore along at a nine-knot rate, while such torrents of rain I never saw before. Barrels were put in position to catch the water, but before noon the rain ceased suddenly and the wind with it. Thus it was all that day, all the next day, and for a whole week,—nothing but calms, rain-squalls, and variable winds (usually from the wrong direction), until I was nearly beside myself. Some days we made less than thirty miles in the twenty-four hours, and it was no unusual occurrence to tack ship three, and even four times a day, which put Ralph and the mate in a horrible humor.

But there is an end to all things, and on the twenty-ninth day out we crossed the line with a fair wind, and when Ralph figured out our position the next noon, he announced that we should probably be in Pernambuco inside of three days.

After much persuasion, I induced him to promise to stop at Fernando de Noronha on the way back long enough for me to go ashore, for the wind we now had would carry us a long way inside the island, and we should not even sight it. Three days later the first half of our journey was completed, and we were safely in port after a good passage of thirty-four days.

I found much to interest me in Pernambuco. The harbor was crowded with shipping, amongst which the British and Norwegian flags predominated; but my eyes were gladdened quite frequently by the sight of the stars and stripes. The head stevedore, who had charge of loading the brig, was a half-breed named Pedro. He spoke very fair English, and during one of our frequent talks, I casually mentioned Fernando de Noronha.

“Ah, Diabalo!” he exclaimed, his black eyes glittering, “My brother—poor Manuel—he is there!”

“Why, is he a prisoner?” I asked in surprise.

“What for else should he be there?” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Santa Maria! he will never come back.”

Then he related the story of Manuel, after which, by a little questioning, I found that Pedro knew several things about the island of interest to me. He said that occasionally, when vessels were becalmed there, a boat was sent ashore for melons, which grew in great abundance on a very small island near the larger one. A suit of clothes or a sack of flour would buy more melons than would go in the boat.

We were thirty-one days in Pernambuco discharging and reloading, but at last the stores were on board and everything ready, and the day before sailing, I accompanied Ralph to the Custom House to “clear the brig.”

We put to sea on Monday afternoon, and at daybreak next morning the convict island should be in sight, if the wind held at northwest. I was much excited, now that my hopes were so near fruition, for that something of value was concealed at the foot of the palm tree I did not doubt; else why had I dreamed of this out-of-the-way spot, of which I had never even heard?

That night we consulted together, and carefully matured our plans, for Ralph had come to take nearly as much interest in the outcome of the affair as I. He refused to go ashore himself, saying that it was against all custom for a captain ever to leave his vessel while she was on a voyage, but that Seth Hawkins and two of the crew should go in the boat with us.

“And now, Uncle,” said Ralph, “please realize one thing. In putting off a boat, I shall be doing something I’d do for no one but you, as it is the duty of a captain to take his vessel from one port to another without any unnecessary delay. So don’t lose any time on the island, for I shall feel guilty as it is.”

I grasped his hand warmly, and whispered: “Ralph, if I am any richer to-morrow night than I am now, you shall profit by it.”

He smiled, and said: “By the way, I shall have to let Hawkins into the affair to a limited extent, for he knows very well I’d not send ashore simply to get melons. He’s been with me two years, and can be trusted.”

Eight bells struck; the second dog-watch was over, and Ralph went below to turn in, while Seth Hawkins and I paced the deck together,—he telling me some interesting reminiscences of his life in Hong Kong, where he had once kept a sailors’ boarding house.

I rose very early next morning; in fact, it was but little past sunrise, and the crew had not finished “washing down.”

The mate was standing by the starboard taffrail, and after the usual “Good morning,” he was about to speak, when I exclaimed, pointing to the east, “Look! what great lighthouse is that?”

I had just seen it,—a distant outline clearly defined against the rosy eastern sky.

“That’s no lighthouse, though it does look like one. That’s the peak on your island.”

The last words were spoken with so peculiar an emphasis that I knew Ralph had told him our plans. He went forward, and I continued to devour that majestic peak, that gradually lost its shadowy appearance and assumed definite form.

The wind was light, and we raised it slowly. As I looked, a feeling of bewilderment stole over me. There was the peak of my dream to a certainty, and yet something was lacking. There should have been an island in front of it.

At two bells in the forenoon watch we could distinguish objects on shore. For some time past I had noticed a small islet near the main one, and as we continued to sail on, we gradually brought it between us and the peak on Fernando de Noronha. Then I recognized it all.

Ralph spoke to me, but I was speechless with emotion.

“Rouse yourself,” I at last heard him say; “In half an hour it will be time to launch the boat.”

Those words restored me, and I went below to make my preparations.

The boat was hoisted into the air by means of a bowline rigged over the fore yard-arm, and was then lowered over the side. Hawkins, a couple of hands, and myself entered it.

I noticed that instead of heading for Wood Island, as Ralph called it, we were making for Fernando de Noronha itself. “Where are we going, Mr. Hawkins?” I asked.

“We’ve got to get permission of the Governor, Mr. Spencer, before we can carry off any melons, or even land on that island,” he replied.

A number of soldiers were gathered about the rude quay, evidently much surprised to see a vessel stop at the island. When the mate and I stepped ashore, a distinguished looking man whom we had not seen before came forward and said something in Spanish, which I did not understand. Hawkins did, and bowed with a grace which I had never suspected him of possessing; and I knew that this was the Governor.

The mate possessed some knowledge of Spanish, and finally managed to make himself understood. The Governor evidently took him for the master of the brig, as the two addressed each other respectively as “Senor El Capitan” and “Excellenza,” which was all I could understand.

At a signal from the mate, one of our men brought a sack of flour from the boat, and we prepared to embark. Two of the soldiers advanced to the boat with us, and I saw them exchange glances of surprise. “They’ve seen that spade and pick-axe, the rascals!” said Seth, aside to me. “I’ve got leave to get all the melons we want,” he continued, as the men pulled away for the landing, “but that smirking Governor was a sight too polite and inquisitive to suit me.”

Wood Island is separated from Fernando de Noronha by a narrow channel, but Hawkins ordered his men to row around a point of land, to be out of sight from the quay, which was then something over a mile distant.

After grounding on the beach, a little wave carried us further up, and we all leaped out. Seth dispatched the two men towards the north end of the islet after melons, and as soon as they were out of the way, we grasped our tools and commenced the search for the rock, which ought to be near the shore.

We followed the beach all along that side of the islet, Seth eying me curiously, and occasionally admonishing me to “Look out for centipedes.”

Near the southern extremity, I came to a palm that seemed to me identical with the one of my dream, but not a solitary rock was there near it. After considerably more than an hour had elapsed, the mate ventured the remark that our prolonged stay on the island might arouse suspicion in the Governor’s mind, especially if the soldiers told him of the spade and pick-axe in the boat.

I had seated myself on the decaying trunk of a fallen tree to rest a moment, and wonder if my expedition was to result in failure, but at Hawkins’ words I started up.

I advanced towards a mango tree to refresh myself with some of the ripe fruit, when, through an opening in the underbrush, I saw it—the rock of my dream at last!

There could be no doubt of it. I breathlessly approached, and touched it with the spade.

This is what was scratched on the broad surface, in characters quite fresh and distinct: “Mas distante occidente.”

“Further west,” said Hawkins, behind me.

“Is that what it means in English?”

He nodded, and I turned to find the palm, which should be only a short way to the left.

Could this be it—this blasted trunk, looking as though lightning had struck it? Judging from its position it must be, and making a sign to Seth, we fell to with pick and spade.

We worked until I thought my back would break, and must have dug down more than three feet in the rich soil, when the spade struck an obstruction, and we heard the muffled grating of metal. Then the top of what seemed a small zinc box was uncovered.

Silently we toiled away, and within ten minutes more were able to drag forth the box from its resting place.

It was perhaps a foot square, and weighed so much that Seth and I took turns in lugging it along the beach towards the boat. Upon arriving there, I wrapped the box in a piece of tarpaulin, that the men might not see what it was, and placed it in the boat.

We saw nothing of our crew, but the sight of nearly a dozen immense water-melons laid on the beach proved that they had not been idle.

“Great Scott! I s’pose they’d bring melons for a week if I didn’t yell ‘Belay!’” ejaculated Seth; “how many do they think the boat can hold? I’ve got to hunt them up, for Captain Spencer wants no time wasted.”

He disappeared, and I occupied myself in devouring the box with my eyes, and speculating as to its contents. What fabulous wealth in gold and jewels was hidden away in that dull casket? Millions, possibly. In what century had it been buried? Through what scores and scores of years had this little islet been the hiding-place of the ancient box I now looked on? All other eyes that had beheld it must have long since mouldered into dust.

While absorbed in these reflections relating to the past, I was rudely recalled to the present by a crashing in the underbrush, and Seth Hawkins, with our men, appeared, running towards the boat.

“Lay aboard lively there, Mr. Spencer!” cried the mate.

Much alarmed, I tumbled in, and he followed a moment later. The men, a Scandinavian and a negro, were about to put some of the melons into the boat, when Seth cried, “Drop ’em, and pile in here, you sons of sea-cooks!”

They obeyed, and shoved off the boat, though greatly bewildered at leaving the island without the very fruit we had ostensibly come after. The oars were plied vigorously, and when about a ship’s length from the beach, I espied a catamaran [79] coming around the north end of the islet.

The truth burst upon us. “We are followed!” I exclaimed. Seth nodded.

“Why? Did the Governor not give us permission to land?”

“That’s true; but those dark-skinned devils that saw the spade and pick-axe like enough told him, and he’s bound to see what we’re up to. If they overhaul this boat, and see that box of yours, and find we’ve got no melons, there’ll be trouble. I’d have brought off a few, but they’d weigh the boat down too much. These Brazilians have no use for Americans, anyhow.”

Our situation was certainly unpleasant. We were nearly a mile from the brig, and the catamaran was not over half that distance astern of us, and running dead before the wind, which was freshening. I was beginning to wonder what Ralph could be doing, for he actually seemed to be going away from us, when the mate cried out: “Look! the brig’s in stays! the Captain’s putting her about, so as to fetch us on the starboard tack. Hurray!”

Five minutes later, the Sea Witch, with the wind abeam, was running down to us at nearly right angles, evidently aiming to go between us and our pursuers, who were now hardly a quarter of a mile astern. We easily made out five people on the catamaran, two of whom Seth thought were convicts, while one of the others he took for the Governor himself. The latter was waving something in a hostile manner, but as the brig was going six feet to the catamaran’s one, we no longer felt alarm unless our pursuers should use fire-arms.

The brig’s helm was now put down, and she shot up into the wind, thus checking her progress; when halyards were let go, and the light sails came fluttering in. We were only a couple of cable lengths away, and soon had the boat alongside, and my newly acquired property aboard.

The catamaran had given up the pursuit, and was on her way back to the island, those on board indulging in violent gesticulations as long as we could distinguish them.

Some time later, we were closeted in Ralph’s room (which was much larger than mine) with the box between us. It was necessary to bring tools from the carpenter shop to open it, and the first discovery we made was that the zinc was simply the covering for a wooden box, which my nephew said was made of teak, one of the rarest and most durable of woods. It was lined with sailcloth, and upon drawing this aside we saw a small crucifix. Beneath this was a folded paper, and then—a golden vision!

For one moment we stared at it in silence, when I stretched out my hand and took up a coin, half expecting to see it melt away. It bore the embossed head of Dom Pedro, and the date 1885, besides an inscription.

“Ha, this is modern!” I exclaimed, much surprised at the recent date.

“Wait,” said Ralph, as I prepared to turn out the contents of the box, “let me read this paper; it is in Spanish.

“This 34,000 M. is the property of Leon da Costa, Commander of His Imperial Majesty’s troops at Pernambuco, by whom it was here concealed September 16, 1889, pending the settlement of the dissentions which are now rending our unhappy country, and which make it unsafe for one enjoying the favor of the noble Dom Pedro to own property in Brazil.

“Invoking the blessing of the church, and the protection of Holy Mary, I here commit my all to Mother Earth.”

Neither of us spoke for a minute. I felt awed, as though a voice from another world had spoken.

“Ralph,” I said, slowly, “if I had known this treasure had been here but two years, and belonged to a man who is probably still living, I should never have taken it. As it is, I shall keep it until inquiries are made, but it shall not be used except in the event of this man’s death.”

Ralph bowed his head in acquiescence.

The milreis is the standard coin of Brazil, as I learned at Pernambuco, and is worth about fifty-five cents in our money, so that the box contained nearly $18,700, some of which was in currency.

“This Da Costa,” said Ralph, “evidently had the duty of conducting the convicts from Pernambuco to the island; and it was doubtless on one of these trips that he buried his money, though why he has let it remain so long puzzles me. And as for ‘Mas distante occidente,’ which you say was traced on the rock, the words were probably written as a guide to the location of the tree.”

The convict island faded away in the distance, the great peak being visible for several hours after all other parts had vanished; and that evening, long after the damp night-wind had stiffened the sails, and a drenching dew lay heavy on the bulwarks, I stood watching the glorious phosphorescent display in the brig’s wake, and marvelling over the strange fulfillment of my dream.

The inquiries which we instituted upon my return home resulted in the discovery that Leon Da Costa had died of yellow fever in 1890 at Santos, one of the chief ports of Brazil, and at the same time about the most pestilential and unsanitary place on the face of the earth. I had no further scruples about using the money, $5,000 of which I sent to Ralph, without whose assistance I should have accomplished nothing. He now owns two-thirds of the brig Sea Witch, of which vessel Seth Hawkins is still mate.

Occupying a prominent place in our parlor is a peculiar motto—the work of Alice. The figures are white, on a background of black, like this:

3° 50′ 30″ S.
32° 24′ 30″ W.

It never fails to attract the attention of visitors, many of whom inquire what it signifies. We tell them it is a marine puzzle.


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