CHAPTER VIII: THE PASSING OF THE "AYESHA"
WHILE we were being towed by the "Choising," we began to unrig the good old "Ayesha." It saddened us to think that we would have to sink her, as there was no port to which we could take her. There was danger that she would be restored to her former owner if we took her to a Dutch port. This we wanted to prevent under any circumstances. All the provisions we still had on hand were placed on the upper deck, and our arms were taken there also. Trunks there were none to pack. The "Ayesha's" figure-head, which represented the favorite wife of the prophet, was taken down, and the rudder wheel unscrewed; both were to be carried with us aboard the "Choising," and kept as souvenirs.
Soon we had reached the shelter of the small islands, the swell ceased, and it was possible to bring the "Ayesha" alongside the steamer. Meanwhile, the "Ayesha's" shrouds, the ropes which hold the masts, were cut, and all other ends and stays were either removed, or cut through. At the same time two holes were bored into the hold, and through these the ship began slowly to fill.
Towards four o'clock in the afternoon the "Choising's" engine was started up, and the "Ayesha" was cut adrift. It appeared as though the little ship were loth to part from us, for, although our steamer was moving on, and no hawser was holding the "Ayesha" to us, she kept alongside the "Choising" for some time. And then, at last, as though she had found her own strength insufficient to keep up with us, the "Ayesha" caught on to our ship, just behind the gangway ladder, carrying a part of it with her.
I wanted to stay by the "Ayesha" as long as she was afloat, so our steamer was stopped, and we lay to at a distance of three hundred to four hundred meters off from her. The loss of the brave little ship touched us deeply. Although our life on board had been anything but comfortable, we nevertheless all realized fully that it was to the "Ayesha" we owed our liberty. For nearly a month and a half she had been our home. In that time she had carried us 1709 nautical miles. We all stood aft at the stern railing of the "Choising," and watched the "Ayesha's" last battle with the waves. Gradually, and very slowly, she sank lower and lower in the water. Soon it washed her upper deck. Then suddenly a shudder passed over the whole ship; she seemed to draw a long breath; the bow rose out of the water for a last time, only to plunge into it again the more deeply. The iron ballast rolled forward; standing on end, her rudder up, her masts flat on the water, the "Ayesha" shot like a stone into the deep, never to be seen again. Three cheers for her rang out above her ocean grave.
The day was the sixteenth of December, 1914, and the hour, fifty-eight minutes after four o'clock in the afternoon.
Aboard the "Choising," the first thing to be done was to order a course to the west, and the next, to see what provision could be made for my men. A place had already been prepared for them in a part of the ship ordinarily used for the storing of coal. It had been cleaned up, and mattresses, blankets, etc., sufficient for all, were in readiness, so that, in comparison with the days spent on the "Ayesha," a life of luxury was before us.
An ocean greyhound my new ship surely was not. When in the best of trim, she went at the rate of seven and one half miles, but there were times when we had to content ourselves with four. This was due, in part, to poor coal. The "Choising" was a ship that had originally been intended for use as a coaling steamer for the "Emden," and in this capacity had waited long for her at the appointed place. But, as the British Admiralty had been so obliging as to provide the "Emden" most generously and considerately with the best of Welsh coal, although its intended destination was Hong Kong, there had been no reason why the "Emden" should take on any of the poor quality of coal from India and Australia, which the "Choising" had aboard for her. While waiting for the "Emden" the "Choising's" cargo of coal had got on fire, and we were now using what was left of this half-burned coal.
On the "Choising" we had news which was of importance to us. At the time that we left Padang in the "Ayesha," we found it a most difficult problem to decide where to go. My earliest plan, to try to reach Tsing-tao, had to be abandoned when, at Padang, we learned of the fall of that colony. My next intention was to join his Majesty's ship "Konigsberg," of whose whereabouts we knew nothing more than that she was somewhere in the Indian Ocean. In case she was no longer there (I had hoped to get news of her from the "Choising"), my next plan was to sail to German East Africa. We knew that there had been some severe fighting there between our colonial troops and the English, and, upon reflection, I abandoned this project also, as being an absolutely hopeless one. With only fifty men, whose clothing outfit was an entirely inadequate one, and who were wholly unprovided with any of the many things necessary to troops on land, with neither surgeon nor medicines, no knowledge of the language, no guide, and no maps, it would be next to impossible, in a district as large as the fighting area of Southeast Africa, to locate and make connection with troops numbering not more than a few thousands themselves. For the present, therefore, there was but one course left open to us, - to make our way homeward by following the route around Africa. How to provision our ship for so long a journey was a problem which suggested many difficulties, however.
But at last we found in one of the newspapers the report of a battle between Turkish and British troops at Sheikh Said, near Perim, an island in the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (Gate of Tears). This gave us reason to believe that Turkey also had now entered the war. Our diligent search for confirmation of this surmise was finally rewarded by finding in one of the papers the announcement that war between the Turkish and British Empires had begun. The new situation thus created suggested a landing in Arabia as our nearest and most hopeful prospect. The course which appeared to be even more reasonable, viz., to join the "Konigsberg," was abandoned, in the first place, because the "Choising" had brought word that the "Konigsberg" had been sunk in battle somewhere to the north of Australia, and in the second place, because of news that she was bottled up in the Rufiji River. If she had been sunk, our search for her would be to no purpose, and if she was shut in by a blockade, she would neither have coal, nor could she use any that we might bring her. The fifty men whom we should add to her numbers would only make so many more mouths to feed.
The "Choising" was therefore started on a southerly course, in the first place, to avoid the principal steamer routes, and secondly, to keep out of the region in which the tropical cyclones are most frequent, for the "Choising" was not equal to such a tempest. A sharp lookout was kept, so that we might catch sight of an enemy's ship before we ourselves were discovered. On account of our ship's remarkable speed, the only chance of escape we had, in case we came in contact with a hostile man-of-war, lay in a game of bluff.
The "Choising" was still painted like all Lloyd steamships, viz., black hull, white bulwarks, and ochre brown trimmings. Of course, we could not in safety continue like that. So we gave our ship a coat of paint that made her look like a Dutchman. But on second thought, we concluded that this was hardly safe, as we were likely to meet a number of vessels in the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, and that some of them might ask us the question, "Who are you?" which already had proved so embarrassing to us. We had no record of seagoing ships on board, except an English list, at the end of which we found the names of a number of English vessels that had been sold by the English to foreign countries. Among these there was one steamship, the "Shenir," that had been sold to a Genoa firm, and that was a vessel of 1700 tons. As this was the exact size of the "Choising," we decided to adopt the "Shenir" as sponsor for our ship, and ere long the legend, "Shenir, Genoa, in large white letters, adorned our stern.
This discovery we had made in the English shipping list was especially welcome to me, as I preferred to pass for an Italian. In view of Italy's attitude of vacillation, I had reason to believe that even an English warship would hesitate unnecessarily to harass an Italian vessel.
The "Shenir," from Genoa, would naturally be expected to fly the Italian flag. But this was an article which, unfortunately, was not numbered among the possessions of the "Choising." Nor was there any green bunting on board. A green window curtain was discovered by some one, however, and to it we sewed a strip of red, and a strip of white bunting. A committee was then selected from among the men who had artistic ability, and they were soon hard at work painting Italy's coat of arms upon the white strip. The green of the curtain was not of the right shade, however, so we added some yellow paint to a pot of blue, which we happened to have on board, until the desired shade of green was produced, and then dipped the green part of the flag into it.
“Walk as on the borders of the invisible world.”
–Robert Hawker Poor Man's Morning and Evening Portions, July 17