AN EPISODE OF THE RED SEA.
By Winston Spencer Churchill.
It was a little after half-past nine when the man fell overboard. The
mail steamer was hurrying through the Red Sea in the hope of making up
the time which the currents of the Indian Ocean had stolen. The night
was clear, though the moon was hidden behind clouds. The warm air was
laden with moisture. The still surface of the waters was only broken by
the movement of the great ship, from whose quarter the long, slanting
undulations struck out, like the feathers from an arrow shaft, and in
whose wake the froth and air bubbles churned up by the propeller
trailed in a narrowing line to the darkness of the horizon.
"THE RAILING GAVE WAY, AND HE FELL BACKWARDS INTO THE
SEA WITH A SPLASH."
There was a concert on board. All the passengers were glad to break the
monotony of the voyage, and gathered around the piano in the
companion-house. The decks were deserted. The man had been listening to
the music and joining in the songs. But the room was hot, and he came
out to smoke a cigarette and enjoy a breath of the wind which the
speedy passage of the liner created. It was the only wind in the Red
Sea that night.
The accommodation-ladder had not been unshipped since leaving Aden, and
the man walked out on to the platform, as on to a balcony. He leaned
his back against the rail and blew a puff of smoke into the air
reflectively. The piano struck up a lively tune, and a voice began to
sing the first verse of "The Rowdy Dowdy Boys." The measured pulsations
of the screw were a subdued but additional accompaniment. The man knew
the song. It had been the rage at all the music halls, when he had
started for India seven years before. It reminded him of the brilliant
and busy streets he had not seen
for so long, but was soon to see
again. He was just going to join in the chorus, when the railing, which
had been insecurely fastened, gave way suddenly with a snap, and he
fell backwards into the warm water of the sea amid a great splash.
"THE LIGHT OF THE SHIP GOT SMALLER AND SMALLER AS HE
THREW UP HIS HANDS AND SANK."
For a moment he was physically too much astonished to think. Then he
realised that he must shout. He began to do this even before he rose to
the surface. He achieved a hoarse, inarticulate, half-choked scream. A
startled brain suggested the word "Help!" and he bawled this out
lustily and with frantic effort six or seven times without stopping.
Then he listened.
"Hi! hi! clear the way
For the Rowdy Dowdy Boys."
The chorus floated back to him across the smooth water, for the ship
had already passed completely by. And as he heard the music a long stab
of terror drove through his heart. The possibility that he would not be
picked up dawned for the first time on his consciousness. The chorus
Who's for a jolly spree?
Who'll have a drink with me?"
"Help! help! help!" shrieked the man, in desperate fear.
"Fond of a glass now and then,
Fond of a row or noise;
Hi! hi! clear the way
For the Rowdy Dowdy Boys!"
The last words drawled out faint and fainter. The vessel was steaming
fast. The beginning of the second verse was confused and broken by the
ever-growing distance. The dark outline of the great hull was getting
blurred. The stern light dwindled.
Then he set out to swim after it with furious energy, pausing every
dozen strokes to shout long wild shouts. The disturbed waters of the
sea began to settle again to their rest. The widening undulations
became ripples. The aŽrated confusion of the screw fizzed itself
upwards and out. The noise of motion and the sounds of life and music
The liner was but a single fading light on the blackness of the waters
and a dark shadow against the paler sky.
At length full realisation came to the man, and he stopped swimming. He
was alone—abandoned. With the understanding his brain reeled. He began
again to swim, only now instead of shouting he prayed—mad, incoherent
prayers, the words stumbling into one another.
Suddenly a distant light seemed to flicker and brighten. A surge of joy
and hope rushed through his mind. They were going to stop—to turn the
ship and come back. And with the hope came gratitude. His prayer was
answered. Broken words of thanksgiving rose to his lips. He stopped
and stared after the light—his soul in his eyes. As he watched it, it
grew gradually but steadily smaller. Then the man knew that his fate
was certain. Despair succeeded hope. Gratitude gave place to curses.
Beating the water with his arms, he raved impotently. Foul oaths burst
from him, as broken as his prayers—and as unheeded.
The fit of passion passed, hurried by increasing fatigue. He became
silent—silent as was the sea, for even the ripples were subsiding into
the glassy smoothness of the surface. He swam on mechanically along the
track of the ship, sobbing quietly to himself, in the misery of fear.
And the stern light became a tiny speck, yellower but scarcely bigger
than some of the stars, which here and there shone between the clouds.
Nearly twenty minutes passed, and the man's fatigue began to change to
exhaustion. The overpowering sense of the inevitable pressed upon him.
With the weariness came a strange comfort. He need not swim all the
long way to Suez. There was another course. He would die. He would
resign his existence since he was thus abandoned. He threw up his hands
impulsively and sank. Down, down he went through the warm water. The
physical death took hold of him and he began to drown. The pain of that
savage grip recalled his anger. He fought with it furiously. Striking
out with arms and legs he sought to get back to the air. It was a hard
struggle, but he escaped victorious and gasping to the surface. Despair
awaited him. Feebly splashing with his hands he moaned in bitter
"I can't—I must. O God! let me die."
The moon, then in her third quarter, pushed out from behind the
concealing clouds and shed a pale, soft glitter upon the sea. Upright
in the water, fifty yards away, was a black triangular object. It was a
fin. It approached him slowly.
His last appeal had been heard.
"UPRIGHT IN THE WATER, FIFTY YARDS AWAY, WAS A BLACK
TRIANGULAR OBJECT—A FIN."