Yule Logs/By Default of the Engineer
"BY DEFAULT OF THE ENGINEER"
By FRANKLIN FOX
LATE CAPTAIN P. & O. CO. SERVICE
“YE'LL hae the gudeness, Mr. Williams, to be vary parteecular in having the coals trimmed in the bunkers. I've nae been doon in yon bunkers mysel', and I hae nae time at this moment to gang there; but I mind hearin' tell that there's something peculiar about the construction of them, so I'll thank ye to gie your attention to the matter, as I maun gang awa' to the office the noo."
Mr. Williams, the second engineer, gave a rather gruff and surly response to the order of his chief, who immediately afterwards turned away and went on shore.
I, who was the third officer of the Serampore, upon the main-deck of which vessel the above colloquy took place, was standing in the main hatchway attending to the stowage of the cargo, and took but little heed of the circumstance at the time, though events which took place subsequently brought it to my mind.
Owing to some derangement of the Company's lines of service in the Red Sea, it had been necessary to bring forward for immediate duty the old Serampore, a side-wheeler, which, in consequence of the recent introduction of screw-steamers into our fleet, was beginning to be classed amongst the obsolete ones. Orders had been given by the agent at Bombay, where the ship was lying, to have the vessel got ready for sea at once and despatched to Aden and Suez, where her services were required to take the place of another ship in the regular line of Eastern communication.
The captain, officers, and engineers had all been hurriedly selected from other vessels and appointed to this ship, the second engineer having been the only officer in charge while she was laid up. He had expected, with much confidence, that he would have been made chief engineer in the event of the ship being wanted again, and, no doubt, felt a considerable soreness at a chief engineer from another ship being put over his head.
At this moment the chief officer called out to me—
"Have you got much more room there, Hardy? There are two more boat-loads of stuff coming along-side now."
"Yes, plenty of room, sir," replied I, and was soon busily engaged in superintending the safe stowage of boxes of tea, cases of indigo, and the other articles that composed our cargo. On the upper deck there was a constant stream of coolies shooting the baskets of coal down into the bunkers on both sides of the deck, through the small round holes which had been made for that purpose, and which were fitted with iron plates for covers let in flush with the deck, when closed.
From the fact that such a ship as the old paddle-steamer Serampore was still available for service, it will be readily understood that the incidents I am about to relate did not happen yesterday. In fact it was before the days when the Suez Canal was opened; and consequently, when it was known in Bombay that an extra P. & O. ship was put upon the berth, several officers and others who had come from up country, and were waiting for the regular mail to start to England, seized this opportunity, with the idea of getting a few more days in Egypt than they would otherwise have been able to secure.
In due time the Serampore was coaled and her cargo all in, so she slipped her moorings at Masagon and took up her berth off the Apollo Bunder, where her passengers were to join her. As it was in the end of the month of July, we anticipated meeting the south-west monsoon in its greatest force, and had prepared for this by sending down all the Serampore's upper spars, lowering the topmasts halfway down the lower masts, the backstays being "snaked" across and across the fore and main rigging on both sides, while the fore and main yards only were kept up aloft, and the trysail gaffs, with their respective sails.
"A quiet smoke."
The Serampore, as it was the fashion with steam-ships of that period, had a goodly show of top hamper when she was all a-taunto, and stripped in the manner which I have just described, she appeared, in my eyes, to present a melancholy aspect, something like a skinned rabbit. But as I had only recently been enjoying sea life as a midshipman in a large sailing-ship, that fact may excuse the comparison in which I indulged as to her appearance.
We were to sail next morning at nine o'clock, and the evening was passed by the chief and second officers and myself in a quiet smoke and a chat about things in general.
"What's the new skipper like, Mr. Urquhart?" said the second officer; "do you know anything of him?"
"Oh yes," replied the chief officer, "I think he's a very nice fellow."
"What's his name, sir?" said I.
"Skeed," replied the chief officer. " He was in the Navy once. I believe his nickname there was 'Donkey Skeed.' "
" 'Donkey' Skeed?" said I, laughing; "what, on account of anything in his appearance?"
"Oh no; not on account of his ears," replied the chief, "but on account of his obstinacy. When he once gets an idea in his head, nothing in the world will ever knock it out of him."
"Where did you hear all this?" said the second mate.
"Oh, I remember hearing about him at home from a naval man I knew who was messmate with him on the West Coast."
"Well," said the second officer, "there isn't much to be obstinate about at present, except fighting the south-west monsoon."
"Exactly," replied Urquhart; "and from what he said to me to-day that's just the very thing he's got in his head. He's got a new idea, he says, which he is going to try."
"What is it?" said the second officer and I simultaneously.
"Well, he thinks that, instead of steering a direct course for Aden right in the teeth of the monsoon, it would be better policy to edge away across the Arabian Sea on a nor'-west course, making the monsoon a leading wind, because he declares it his opinion that on the Arabian coast the monsoon will be either much lighter or have drawn more to the southward."
"What did you say to that?"
"Oh, I said I thought it might be so, but that we should have to traverse considerably more distance; to which he replied that the speed at which the ship would travel under the improved conditions of weather would make up for that."
"I'm not at all sure about it," said the second officer.
"Nor I," said Mr. Urquhart." But I believe he's going to try it this voyage anyhow. Good-night, you fellows; I'm going to turn in."
Early next morning several bunder-boats came along-side. The bunder-boats of Bombay, I may mention, are the most convenient water-carriages possible, and very suitable for the wet and blowy weather prevailing in the monsoon. They are large, roomy boats, with a covered-in cabin in the after-part, capable of holding four or five people comfortably. They are rigged with two short masts and a patémar, or lateen sail, and carry a strong crew. The first passengers to appear were two ladies, two children, and an ayah. These proved to be Mrs. Woodruff, her sister Miss Reed, and her two children, the lady having been ordered home from Allahabad, where her husband's regiment was stationed, on account of her health. A captain and subaltern of the same regiment, invalided; then two officers, Captains Thompson and Shaw, from Poonah, with their wives, going home on furlough; a professor from the university, named Spiller; and two more ladies, wives of civil servants, made up the number. While the fourth officer was busy looking after the baggage, and before he had well got it out of the gangway, the quartermaster of the watch called out—
"Look out, sir; captain's coming alongside."
"Shove that bunder-boat off, out of the way! Clear the gangway there!" and in another minute the Serampore's white gig flashed up alongside, and Captain Skeed sprang up the accommodation ladder.
All of us on deck saluted him, and turning hastily to the chief officer, he asked—
"Have you ordered steam, Mr. Urquhart, for nine o'clock?"
"The ship appears to be down by the stern. Isn't she, Mr. Urquhart?"
"I believe she is, sir, a little. The carpenter hasn't given me the draught this morning."
"She appeared to me, as I pulled off in my gig, to be eight or nine inches at least, if not more."
"I thought she would do better in monsoon weather a little by the stern, but I'd no idea she was as much as that, and there's nothing in the cargo stowage that I'm aware of to account for it," said the chief officer.
"Well, I don't know that it matters very much," rejoined the captain; "at all events, we can't alter it now. See everything ready for slipping from the buoy at nine o'clock. Now we'll have breakfast," added he, as eight bells struck. "Has the purser come off with the ship's papers yet?"
"Not yet, sir; but he's been gone some time. I expect he'll be here every minute," replied Mr. Urquhart, as they entered the saloon together.At the appointed hour the Serampore slipped from her buoy, and steaming away through the shipping at anchor, soon passed the light vessel, and leaving Colaba lighthouse on her quarter, began to breast the heavy seas and face the rain and spray that the fierce monsoon blast
"This is a pleasant prospect."
drove against her. In half-an-hour's time nothing was visible but the white-capped waves pounding against her bows, dimly seen at times through the thick driving rain that enveloped her, as it were, in a dreary and isolated world of her own.
"This is a pleasant prospect," thought I to myself, as I buttoned up my oilskins and ascended the bridge ladder to relieve Mr. Urquhart at eight o'clock.
"Keep her west-sou'-west," said that officer, "and call the captain if there is any change."
"All right, sir," said I. "What's she going?"
"Five and a half," replied the chief officer; "twelve revolutions. Keep a good look-out for ships, Mr. Hardy."
"Ay, ay, sir," said I. "There's one comfort, that we can't change to much worse weather than we've got."
"No," said he with a laugh, as the Serampore buried her broad bows right up to the heel of her bowsprit, over an extra heavy sea.
The chief officer and his satellite, the fourth, who kept watch with him, after divesting themselves of their oilskins, betook themselves to the comfortable and well-lighted saloon, where such of the ladies and gentlemen as had not succumbed to the influences of the weather and the diving of the ship, were endeavouring to get up a show of sociability; though not even Miss Reed, who had struck me at dinner as being a lively, agreeable, and pretty person, had courage enough to attempt a performance on the piano.
"I wonder how many days we're in for of this," thought I to myself, as I paced the bridge, the pitching of the vessel jerking me against the rail at every other step. "Let me see—it's about 1700 miles to Aden, I think. At the rate we're going, we shall have nearly a fortnight of this. It's enough to make one savage;" and to relieve my feelings, I immediately yelled out to the two look-out men who were on the forecastle (Lascars, of course)—
"Koop dek agle" ("Good look out forward").
"Acha, sahib" ("Very well, sir "), came back like a shot from the men on duty, who were getting soused every now and then by the seas that broke over the bows.
The night was dark as well as thick. The wind howled shrilly through the Serampore's rigging, giving me a melancholy accompaniment to my march backwards and forwards across the bridge platform. I kept a bright look-out for any ships that might be about, as we were just now in the track of vessels bound up to Kurrachee or the Persian Gulf, and I knew that there would be scanty time to do anything to avoid a collision should we chance to meet one. Nothing, however, happened to disturb the dull monotony of what sailors would describe as a regular pile-driving business.
At eight bells (midnight) I was glad to deliver up my charge to Mr. Sinclair, the second officer, and betake myself to my comfortable cabin and repose, which not even the staggering and pitching of the Serampore, nor the dash of the spray and rain against my cabin, which was on deck, could disturb.
The next day the weather seemed to be, if possible, worse than it was when we started. The seas were heavier and more irregular, and the wind seemed to blow even harder than it had done. During my forenoon watch the log only showed five knots an hour, and the sky was so thick with rain and mist that we got no sights. Some of the passengers made their appearance on deck, and tried to take constitutionals, pacing fore and aft the raised quarter-deck, but soon gave the attempt up as hopeless, and went below to amuse themselves with books or chess, cards or conversation.
My night watch was only a repetition of previous experience, and I fear it would tire my readers if I favoured them with a longer description of the wind, the sea, and the weather. It is necessary to make a voyage in the south-west monsoon before any one can quite realise what it means. The best description of it I can give in a few words is, a lengthened duration of a south-west gale in the English Channel, with thick weather and a temperature of about seventy-five or eighty degrees.
On the fourth day out, I was keeping the forenoon watch as usual, and had left the bridge for a moment or two to compare the standard with the binnacle compasses, and as I passed the saloon companion, which had a hood over it facing aft, I saw Miss Reed with one of her sister's little girls standing at the top of the ladder. Of course I lifted my cap and wished her good-morning.
"Do you think we shall have any better weather soon, Mr. Hardy?" she asked. "I've been watching those great seas shoot up under the stern of the ship, and they do look so cruel and savage that it positively frightens one."
"I'm afraid there's not much chance of any real improvement till we get to Aden," said I; "but there's nothing that you need be frightened about, for the old ship is as sound as a bell, and is fighting her way on as well as we could expect under the circumstances."
"My sister's a very poor sailor," said she, "and I don't believe she'd have come if she had thought it was going to be anything like this."I had taken a step aft towards the binnacle, remembering that I was in charge of the deck, and that talking to passengers on duty was not exactly in harmony with the Company's regulations, when the Serampore, after making a moderate dive, encountered an unusually heavy sea, which threw her nose up into the air, as it were, and Miss Reed, having for the moment relaxed her hold upon the companion-rail, was, with the child, shot out upon the deck as if she had been flung by a gigantic catapult. The child was rolling towards the rail, where there was only a slight netting, which, if it parted, as being old it very likely might with her weight, would leave nothing between
"Caught a firm grip of her dress."
In a minute she recovered herself, and seizing the child in her arms, she gave me a grateful look, and murmuring her thanks, allowed me to hand her down the companion.
I had scarcely done this when Captain Skeed popped his head out of his cabin door.
"Send for the chief officer and chief engineer, if you please, Mr. Hardy."
"Ay, ay, sir. Quartermaster, tell Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Stewart that they are wanted by the captain."
In a few minutes both those officers were closeted with Captain Skeed.
As I resumed my walk on the bridge, I confess I felt some curiosity to know what the subject of the colloquy going on in the captain's cabin might be, for I was sure that something or other of importance must be under discussion. I had not long to wait for one result, at all events, of the deliberations. Directly we made it twelve o'clock, and the second officer had handed in to the captain the ship's position by dead reckoning, for we had seen neither sun, moon, nor stars since we left Bombay, I received orders to alter the course.
"Keep her away to west-north-west, Mr. Hardy," shouted the captain from the quarter-deck; "and set the fore and aft sails with a single reef in them."
"Port four points, quartermaster," said I; "keep her west-north-west. Serang, sub adimee seeah carro seede mar" ("Boatswain, pipe all hands make sail").
In a few minutes the trysails were opened out, the reef points tied, and the sails set, together with the fore topmast staysail. The monsoon was blowing from about south-west by south, so that with the sheets hauled flat aft they were just clean full, the luffs only lifting a little as the ship dived over the heavy seas. The alteration in the course brought the sea much broader on the Serampore's bow, some of the waves, in fact, coming nearer her beam than her bow, but the canvas steadied her greatly. She only shipped half the quantity of water that she had been doing, and although her progress was not greatly accelerated, she went along much more steadily and comfortably than she had done hitherto. As soon as the sails were set and the men piped to dinner, Sinclair came up on the bridge to relieve me.
"What was the council of war about? Did Urquhart tell you?" asked I.
"Oh yes," replied Sinclair; "the captain's determined to try his plan of making the Arabian coast where the wind will help him, and then steaming up along the land to Aden. From what Urquhart said, he wanted to be sure about the coals, as we shall have a considerably longer distance to cover by the new route."
"I hope he hasn't made a mistake," said I; and leaving Mr. Sinclair in charge, I went off to work up the day's reckoning and have my lunch.
For the next five or six days the Serampore was kept on the same course with the same canvas set; and it certainly appeared that the captain's theory was an accurate one, for as we approached the coast of Arabia the monsoon blew rather less fiercely, and favoured our progress a little more, so that the Serampore had been making six and six and a half knots by the log, instead of five and five and a half as she had been making before the course was altered.
On the forenoon of the tenth day from our leaving Bombay the weather cleared up a little just before noon, as it frequently does, and gazing intently ahead, I fancied that I could see through the haze of rain that still remained, a darker appearance ahead than there would be with mere mist. At this moment the captain came up on the bridge. I pointed this out to him at once, exclaiming—
"That looks remarkably like the land to me, sir."
"So it does, Mr. Hardy," said the captain. "Unless I'm very much out in my reckoning, we ought to make Gebel Camar, or the Mountains of the Moon, as they are called, very soon, and probably what you see is really the land."
At this moment Mr. Stewart, the chief engineer, came up the bridge ladder in an excited and hasty manner. A glance at his face told me, before he opened his lips, that something was wrong.
"Captain Skeed, I've just made the discovery that the large pockets in both the foremost bunkers are empty, and we haena got more than a few hours' steaming in the ship."
"Good heavens! Why you told me the other day that we had eight or ten days' full steaming in the ship."
"I know I did, sir, but I reckoned upon fifty tons in the twa pockets. It appears now that that fellow Williams, who, I may say, has behaved more like a deevil than a mon all the voyage, never fashed himsel' to see the coals trimmed into the pockets, as I gave him orders to do in Bombay."
"What does he say about it?" said the captain.
"He actually tells me that it was no his business, and I ought to hae seen to it mysel'."
"I never heard of pockets in bunkers before," said the captain.
"Nor anybody else," said Mr. Stewart. "They're just bunkers within the bunkers. Ye can't get to them frae the deck, and to fill 'em with coal it has to be passed in by the trimmers through a hole that's cut in the bulkhead."
"Confound such contrivances!" exclaimed the captain, stamping his foot on the bridge. "Well, Mr. Stewart, we must make a sailing-ship of her, that's all. There's the land, and we shall have to keep clear of it under canvas. How long will it take you to disconnect?"
"I dinna ken, sir, that ye can disconnect the paddle-wheels at all; and anyhow, if it's possible to do it, the gear will be set as fast as a rock, for I doubt if they've been disconnected since she was built."
"If you can't disconnect, then, can you take the floats off?"
"There's muckle sea on for a job o' that sort; but maybe by lifting the paddle-flaps at the top we could take the upper ones off."
"Then keep enough steam so as to move the wheels as required, and set all your engineers to work to unscrew the bolts and take the floats off."
"Vera weel, sir," said the engineer, and in a few minutes the four engineers and the boiler maker with all the firemen mounted the paddle-boxes with spanners and hammers, and set to work unscrewing the nuts and removing the floats as fast as they could, the engines in the meantime having been stopped.
The chief officer was then summoned by the captain to commence immediately re-rigging the ship. As the top-masts had to be swayed up and fidded, topsail-yards crossed, and top-gallant mast sent up, besides all the sails being bent to the yards, every soul of the ship's company was fully occupied for the rest of the day.
During all this time the Serampore was gradually drifting towards the land, which became more distinct as we approached it.
By sunset the engineers had succeeded in getting off all the floats, the engines having been turned gently to move the wheels as required, and the sailor part of the ship's company had got matters so far advanced that we were able to set reefed topsails and courses upon the ship. The captain then summoned all of us officers to his cabin.
I could see that he had not even yet recovered from the exasperation caused him by what had taken place.
"I have sent for you all," he said, "to ask your opinions on the situation. It's no use to attempt to work the ship to Aden under canvas. I propose, therefore, to heave-to till daylight, and then run into one of the bays on the coast to leeward of us. I see there is one marked on the chart between Seger and Kalfat, near the town of Doan, and if I can make that without running up against any rocks I shall anchor the ship there. Has any one anything better to propose?"
We all said no, and the council broke up.
In accordance with the decision arrived at, the Serampore was hove-to for the night. At daylight next morning all sail was made on her, and with wind abaft the beam she ran in for the spot which Captain Skeed had indicated as suitable for his purpose.
The coast stood out barren and rocky, but there was a break in it visible right ahead. With the lead going, and a sharp look-out for rocks, we sailed into a small bight or bay under the lee of Seger Point, and let go her anchor in thirteen fathoms. As the cable was veered out she swung round head to wind and sea with her stern inland; but as she tautened her cable a crash sounded from aft, and we felt her stern bump upon a sunken rock.
"My God!" exclaimed Captain Skeed, "the ship is lost," and he fell upon the deck insensible. We carried him into his cabin, and the doctor was immediately summoned, but all his efforts to restore animation were unavailing. Captain Skeed was dead.
Although the position taken up by the Serampore was somewhat sheltered from the force of the monsoon by a projecting point of land, still there was a heavy swell in the little bight or bay where she was, which broke upon the rocky and barren shores around her with an incessant roar and clouds of spray. The swell lifted her stern again and again, causing her to strike heavily as each succeeding wave swept under her. At last with a final heavy bumping crash which carried away her after spars, she settled down upon the rocks, which were afterwards found to be the end of a reef stretching out from the land, partially visible above water at certain times of the tide.
The sudden and untimely death of Captain Skeed spread a feeling of consternation and horror through the ship, and aggravated the anxiety which the passengers felt at their situation.
Mr. Urquhart, of course, had to take the direction of affairs, and when he met the passengers at dinner he had a difficult task before him.
The ship appeared to be now fixed firmly upon the rocks at her stern, and her anchor kept her from moving in any direction. The water could be heard rushing in through the damaged plates at the stern, and in order to prevent her sinking altogether when the water filled her forward, Mr. Urquhart caused the after part of the ship to be blocked up with an old sail against the leaky places, and spare iron plates and boards wedged against it to keep the water back.
Mr. Urquhart had not been in the saloon a minute before he was assailed with questions.
"Can you tell us whereabouts we are, Mr. Urquhart? What part of the coast are we upon?" asked Professor Spiller.
"The ship is about one hundred and fifty miles south of the Kuria-Muria Islands in one direction, and between four and five hundred in the other from Aden."
"What in the name of Heaven did the captain anchor here for?" asked Captain Shaw.
"His idea was, that lying here in smoother water, he might be able to remove the ironwork of the paddle-wheels, which would render the ship unmanageable under canvas, and then he intended, I believe, either to sail her back to Bombay, or to wait until the monsoon broke, and try to reach Aden."
"Poor fellow, poor Captain Skeed, I'm sure he would have done the best thing possible," exclaimed Mrs. Woodruff.
"No doubt he was a good officer," said the professor. "But what's to be done now?"
"Of course," said Mr. Urquhart, "that plan is knocked on the head now. The ship is, to all intents and purposes, a wreck."
"What chance is there of our being seen and picked up?" asked the professor.
"Not a very encouraging one, I am afraid; there is no regular trade along this coast," replied Mr. Urquhart.
"But vessels pass this way occasionally, don't they?" said Captain Shaw.
"Sometimes country vessels, as they are called—ships that go trading about to all sorts of coast ports, in the employ of native merchants—may pass this way, bound to or from the Persian Gulf, but I can't say I know anything at all about them."
"And how about the natives?" said the professor; "are they likely to be friendly or hostile to us, do you suppose?"
"There, again, I am sorry I can give you no information; but I shall make it my business to see that we are prepared to give them as warm a reception as we can, should they attempt to molest us."
"And what is your idea that we should do eventually?" asked Captain Thompson.
"I'm afraid that we can do nothing at all at present. Fortunately we have plenty of provisions and water to last for a considerable time, and all the boats are in good condition, if the weather would permit us to make use of them. We can only prepare ourselves to resist any attack that the natives, should they be hostile, may make upon us, and keep a good look-out for any vessel that may be passing. If any of you, gentlemen, can suggest anything, else, I shall be quite pleased to adopt it."
The next day Captain Skeed's body was taken on shore to be buried. Mr. Urquhart had caused a grave to be dug in the sand, near a remarkable mass of rock about some five hundred yards from the beach. Several of the passengers, and all the ship's company, attended the funeral, all the ship's boats being lowered when the time came; and after the funeral service had been read by the purser, a heap of stones of all sizes, collected by the crew, was piled upon the grave.
I cast my eyes around me as I watched this melancholy performance, but I could see nothing in the distance in the shape of a living creature. It was all a trackless waste of sand and rocks.
After we returned on board, Mr. Urquhart sent for the chief engineer, and told him to bring Mr. Williams, the second engineer, on the quarter-deck. When he appeared, Mr. Urquhart said—
"It was Captain Skeed's intention to have disrated you from your position as second engineer, in consequence of your gross neglect in omitting to see the ship's bunkers properly filled with coal, and for your insubordinate conduct to the chief engineer."
"It was just as much Mr. Stewart's business to see to the coaling as mine," replied Williams.
"Silence if you please, sir. Under the present circumstances I do not propose to carry out the intention of the late captain; but I must tell you that entries relating to your conduct have been made in the official log-book of this ship, and that any further steps in the matter will be left to the decision of the managing directors of the Company when we are able to get away from this place. I hope, if you have an opportunity, you will endeavour to redeem your past misconduct, which has entailed such terrible consequences upon the Serampore, and everybody on board of her."
Mr. Williams made no reply, but turned and went below. After he had gone, Mr. Stewart remarked
"He's nae such a bad chiel, I'm thinking, at bottom, but he was mad because he didna get the berth himsel'."
After these occurrences the days began to pass by with a dreary monotony. Every morning when I got up, it was with the expectation that something or other would happen soon, and every night when I turned in, it was with the same uneasy feeling of anticipation or dread hanging about me. Mr. Urquhart ordered the watches to be kept regularly, as if we were at sea, and during the day a look-out man was kept at the mast-head to watch for a passing sail. The mizzen-mast, with most of its gear, and the main-top mast had been carried away by the successive shocks of the ship bumping on the rocks, but everything stood forward.
The second officer was ordered to get up and examine what quantity of powder and ammunition there was in the ship. We had a stand containing a dozen muskets and also a few cutlasses, together with a dozen boarding-pikes. These were all the small-arms belonging to the ship, and there were two nine-pounder guns for signalling purposes mounted on the quarter-deck.
"Don't you think," said I, " 'twould be a good plan to have some cartridges made, in case of anything happening?"
"Happy thought, Hardy," said Sinclair. "We'll get the powder up on the saloon table, and perhaps the ladies will help us. Hold on a bit, how about the bullets?"
"Ah, lucky thing you thought of that. We must get old Stewart to put his men on to cast some for us, if we can find any lead."
I ran off immediately to hunt up the carpenter, who fortunately found a big roll of lead in the bottom of his storeroom, which was soon in the course of being transformed into bullets by some of the firemen.
I remembered also that a couple of kegs of powder for our agent at Aden had been shipped with the cargo, and these were soon got out and the contents utilised for large and small cartridges. After all this had been done, time hung heavy on our hands. Nobody seemed to be in good spirits enough to start any amusement, and a week of the most depressing inaction passed away. All this time not the vestige of a native had been seen anywhere in the vicinity of the ship.
The military men on board seemed to feel the situation almost unbearable.
"I'll tell you what it is," said Rivers, the subaltern of Colonel Woodruff's corps, to the other military passengers one morning, "I can't stand this sort of thing any longer. Let's make up a party and try and ascend that mountain there."
"I don't mind," said Captain Thompson.
"We might find something to shoot," said Captain Shaw. "We've all got our rifles with us, haven't we?"
"Yes," said Thompson; "or we might get shot at instead of shooting something."
"What are you talking of doing?" asked the professor, coming up at this moment.
"Oh! we're thinking of doing a kind of picnic up the mountain yonder. Will you join us, professor? You might be able to enrich science with specimens of the flora and fauna of this howling wilderness," said Rivers.
"I doubt if there's any great surprise for science hidden about here; but I shall be very pleased to join the party. When is it to be?" said the professor.
"Oh! shall we start to-morrow?"
"Yes, let it be to-morrow. What do you say, Thompson?" said Shaw.
"Agreed!" cried the rest.
"Very well, then," said Rivers. "You fellows get your rifles all ready, and revolvers if you've got any, and I'll go and interview the purser for a hamper of prog. And look here, Thompson, just ask Urquhart to let young Hardy come with us, and half-a-dozen Lascars."
"To carry the game, eh, Rivers?"
"Just so; we may find them useful."
"Don't you want some of the ladies to go too?" asked Shaw.
"I've no objection, I'm sure," said Thompson.
"I think you'd better leave the women out of it," said Captain Staveley; "I shouldn't like to have the responsibility on my mind if anything did happen, you know, and I fancy we're going to make rather a leap in the dark."
"All right," rejoined Rivers. "Then we'll start at daylight to-morrow. What do you say, you chaps?"
Everybody agreed to this proposal; and I shortly had a message telling me that the chief wanted me.
"There's a sporting party going out to-morrow, Hardy. You take six hands with you, armed with cutlasses, and go with the party. You must use your own discretion and act according to circumstances."
Next morning we all set off at the appointed hour, having been landed on some rocks at a little distance from the ship. The Lascars appeared to enjoy the chance of stretching their legs, and followed in the steps of the party led by Mr. Rivers, chattering like schoolboys out for a holiday.
"We'll make for that spur that sticks out seawards way up the mountain," said Rivers. "I've got a compass on my watch-chain, and it bears just a little to the west of south from us, so we shall know the opposite bearing will take us back to the ship."
"That's a very sensible precaution of yours," said the professor. "How many miles do you reckon we are from the foot of the mountain?"
"Five or six miles," was the reply.
"Come on then, step out; we shall have the sun directly, and climbing will be no joke then," said Shaw.
So we all trudged along at a round pace. I had taken the precaution to bring a revolver with me that Mr. Urquhart lent me, and a fowling-piece and a pocketful of cartridges of my own.
After we had tramped along for about an hour over the sandy plain, and lost sight of the ship, which was hidden by projecting rocks, we reached the foot of the mountain, and found a sort of track which led us into a narrow gorge overhung by rocks on each side. We penetrated through this for about a quarter of a mile. At the end of it there were two tracks visible, one leading up the side of the mountain, and the other, branching to the left, seemed to lead to habitations of some kind, for the road was a beaten track, and the professor declared that he could see smoke in the air at a distance.
"Here's a parting of the ways," said Rivers. "Shall we start to ascend the mountain? Shall we follow the road, which may lead us to some habitations? or shall we sit down and have our tiffin?"
Rivers' proposals being put to the vote, that for tiffin was carried unanimously; so finding the softest stones for seats, we very soon disposed of the provender in our hamper, the Lascars refreshing themselves in their own fashion."Now, I think," said Rivers, "as we haven't met with anything of interest during our walk, we'd better
"Uttering a wild yell, rushed off towards the nearest hut."
Accordingly we set off upon the track leading to the left, and after a quarter of an hour's walk, turning an abrupt corner formed by a huge boulder, we came upon a number of huts clustered together. There were some palm-trees growing in the midst. No doubt this was one of the oases that are said to be dotted about the country. We had not made many more steps in the direction of the village, when a wild-looking figure, half naked, his long reddish-coloured hair standing upright on his head, darted out from behind a boulder ahead of us, and uttering a wild yell, rushed off towards the nearest hut.
"Gentlemen, let me advise all of you to look to your arms, and see they are ready for use," said Rivers, "for we shall soon know now whether we have fallen amongst friends or foes."
We all halted for a moment and examined our rifles and guns, and I called to the Lascars to keep close to us and be prepared to use their cutlasses at a moment's notice. A few more steps brought us amongst the huts of the village, from which men, women, and children stared at us with looks of wonder. The fellow who had first descried us still ran on ahead, and we followed him until we were in the centre of what appeared to be a considerably large settlement. He had never ceased uttering his hideous yell as he went along, and on entering an open square, which had a hut bigger than the rest on one side of it, probably the abode of the chief, a crowd of at least fifty natives, similar in appearance to the one we had first seen, but all armed with spears and matchlocks of a very ancient construction, leapt as it were from the ground, and stood in a compact body before us in front of the large hut.
As we neared them some handled their spears and some their matchlocks, and I thought that the critical moment had come when we should have to fight for our lives.
"Halt," said Rivers to our party. "Form double line," and the twelve of us drew ourselves up.
"Now, professor, you speak Arabic, don't you? Try them with a little soft sawder first, will you. We don't want to fight unless we're obliged. There isn't much to be gained by it."
The professor immediately stepped three paces in front, and calling out, "Salaam, Aleikum," addressed a sentence in Arabic to the group.
The only answer to this was a wild yell and a chatter of gibberish.
"What was it you said?" asked Rivers.
"We are friends, and want to see the chief," answered the professor. "But I can't understand a word of their talk. I fancy these people of the Seger region have a distinct dialect of their own."
"Try 'em in English," said Thompson. "Where's your chief, you silly beggars, you?"
The only response to this was another wild yell and another shower of gibberish, accompanied by a flourish of the spears.
At this instant a noise was heard from the hut in the rear of the rows of natives drawn up in front, and the line opened in the middle, when a tall grey-bearded Arab, with a long camel-hair burnoose over his shoulders, and a polished wooden spear in his hand, stepped forward a few paces.
The professor immediately addressed him with the ordinary Eastern salutation, of which the chief took but little notice, making a remark which the professor understood to mean that our presence was not welcome. Unwilling to leave matters in this unsatisfactory position, the professor harangued the chief in Arabic, uttering the most friendly sentiments, and expressing a desire to purchase dates or any commodities that his highness the sheik might have to dispose of.
I was unable to gather whether the sheik understood this speech or no. I am disposed to think that he did; but the only answer he vouchsafed to it was to extend his spear in the direction whence we had come, and to utter three words in such an unmistakable tone of wrath and contempt that we all understood it to mean, as the professor afterwards said it did, "Infidel dogs, begone!"
After this there was nothing for it but to retreat in as good order as possible. Rivers gave the word to march, telling us to look behind us at every other step. Before we had taken three steps the sheik uttered a loud command, and the natives vanished from the square in the same rapid manner in which they had presented themselves.
As we passed by their huts we were greeted with shrill cries of derision by the women and children standing in the entrances.
From a hasty glance I threw at them the women appeared not by any means bad-looking, but very similar in character to those you may see in the native town at Aden, light copper colour, with a profusion of dark hair and large dark eyes.
As we entered the narrow defile or gorge by which we had reached the village, Rivers, who was bringing up the rear, called out to us, "Look out now, and be steady. If they're going to molest us it will be here."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the hideous yells, now familiar to us, arose on either side.
"Halt!" said Rivers. "Form two lines back to back facing the sides of the gorge. Make ready, they'll be on us in a minute," and as he spoke, about fifty of them on each side dashed towards us. When they were within five yards of us, Rivers gave the word to fire, and down went four or five of the leading savages on each side. This gave them a momentary check, and Rivers instantly called out, "Give 'em your second barrels, sharp."
This we did promptly, and the natives stopped and seemed as if about to fly, for our volley had done great execution.
"Now, then," said Rivers, "run for it before they recover themselves, but keep together."
As we started to run the natives hurled a shower of spears at us. One grazed Rivers' arm, making the blood come; another pierced the Lascar by my side to the heart, and the poor fellow fell dead; another went through the professor's solar topee, causing him to utter exclamations of rage and despair. But we pushed on as hard as we could go for the ship. The natives, we could see, hung behind us in a cloud, their numbers appearing to have been considerably augmented; they, however, took care to keep out of the range of our guns.
In an hour's time we regained the deck of the Serampore, the natives still following in the distance.
I rushed up to Mr. Urquhart, and in a few words explained to him what had occurred, whereupon he instantly ordered all hands to be called, and got our two nine-pounders aft loaded, and pointed towards the shore opposite the stern of the ship. The ladies behaved with wonderful coolness and courage when they heard that an attack might be expected from the natives, and offered their services as nurses or in any other way in which they might be useful.
In the meantime a great crowd of natives were assembling on the shore opposite the ship, at which their leaders were pointing and uttering wild cries of defiance. Their only means of approach was either by swimming, or by the irregular causeway that the rocks of the reef provided, and that would not admit of a large number walking abreast. After a brief pause, however, they made a forward movement, and with loud cries dashed, some through the water and some on the reef, with the evident idea of boarding the ship. Those who had matchlocks fired them off at us, but without doing any damage. Every man in the ship for whom there was a musket, or who
"Mr. Urquhart tried the effect of the nine-pounders"
possessed a rifle or gun of any description, was employed under the second officer in picking off the men on the reef or those in the water. But as fast as they dropped off the rocks they were replaced by others, and the numbers on shore seemed to be augmented from time to time by men coming in various directions from one knew not where.
After a time Mr. Urquhart tried the effect of the nine-pounders, which did great execution amongst the crowd; but he was obliged to be very careful, on account of the limited number of shot he had, and the not very large supply of powder. The shot we supplemented with small canvas bags of old nails and iron bolts, which made a very good substitute for grape-shot. The fight lasted under these conditions till sunset, not one of the natives having got nearer the ship than to touch her on the outside. The attack then ceased for a time, and we had leisure to refresh ourselves.
When I took my watch I could hear the sound of the multitude on shore, who would no doubt recommence the attack in the morning. The night was calm and still, for the monsoon had broken, and now only blew at intervals in moderate breezes.
I had an opportunity of exchanging a few words with Miss Reed when she came up on deck for a few moments.
"I hope you are not hurt, Mr. Hardy," she said.
"Not at all," said I. "I trust you'll keep your spirits up. I've no doubt we shall settle these fellows in the morning."
"I hope you will; and oh how I pray for a ship to come and take us away from this terrible spot!"
"Perhaps we shall see one sooner than you expect; but keep your courage up, dear Miss Reed, all will be well."
At early daylight, as the enemy was all massed together, Mr. Urquhart loaded both the nine-pounders to the muzzle with his own particular grape, and pointing them carefully into the midst of the crowd, where the leaders were to be seen, discharged both simultaneously with terrible effect, many natives being killed.
At this moment the look-out at the mast-head shouted out at the top of his voice, "Sail O! a ship in sight near the land."
"Take one of the cutters, Mr. Hardy, and pull out to that vessel. Take a flag with you to wave in the boat. Tell them our condition, and beg them to assist us and take the people off the ship."
With what eager delight and anxiety I proceeded to obey this order the reader can well imagine. As the weather was fine, and nearly calm, I succeeded, after a long pull, in getting alongside the vessel. She proved to be a "country" trader on a voyage from Bombay to Zanzibar, whence she was now on her way to Bassora. She was called the Cowasjee Family, and commanded by a smart young officer named Wilkinson, who willingly proffered every assistance that might be required. He brought his ship in as close to the Serampore as he could, and the natives having been demoralised by our fire, we proceeded to embark the passengers and crew of the Serampore on board his ship. He told us that it was quite a chance he was in that locality, but he had been set out of his course by a strong current. Every effort that Captain Wilkinson could make for the comfort of our passengers and crew was made, and in due time we all safely landed at Bassora. Luckily a steamer was starting the next day for Kurrachee and Bombay, in which we all took passage, and where we safely ended our eventful voyage.
It may be of interest to some of my readers to know that since I got my command Miss Reed has changed her name for mine, and that we are very happy.
There was a court of inquiry held at Bombay to ascertain the cause of the loss of the Serampore, and the finding of the court was that Captain Skeed and his officers were exonerated from all blame, the ship having been lost "by default of the engineer."