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
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 alongside
"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 half-way
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.
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
"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
"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
"Well," said the second officer, "there isn't much to
be obstinate about at present, except fighting the south-west
"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
"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 alongside.
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
her and the raging sea beneath, when I made a desperate
bound forward and caught a firm grip of her dress. At
the same time swinging myself round, I was able with my
left arm to arrest the headlong rush of Miss Reed against
the corner of the skylight, towards which she was helplessly
thrown. But the impetus with which she was flung
was so great that I could only save myself from falling
by pressing my back against the skylight.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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,
"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
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
"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
"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?"
"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
"We'll make for that spur that sticks out seawards half-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
"Now, I think," said Rivers, "as we haven't met
with anything of interest during our walk, we'd better
go and see if there really is a village there, and what
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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."