CHAPTER II: THE "AYESHA"
WE landed at the same place at which we had gone ashore before. Again I ordered all the Englishmen to assemble, and their firearms were taken from them. The German flag was raised on the island, which was declared to be under martial law; every attempt to communicate by signal with any other island, or with the enemy's ships, was forbidden; my officers were given orders to clear the beach for defence, to mount the machine guns, and to prepare to intrench. Should the engagement between the two ships prove to be a short one, I could count with certainty upon the enemy's cruiser running into port here, if for no other reason than to look after the station. It was not my intention, however, to surrender without a blow an island on which the German flag was flying.
The Englishmen on the island were little pleased at the prospect, and begged permission, in case it should come to a battle, to withdraw to one of the other islands. Their request was granted.
Accompanied by two of my signal men, I now took my station on the roof of the highest house to watch the fight between the two cruisers. As a whole, the Englishmen showed little interest in the conflict that was going on but a few thousand meters distant from the island. Other matters seemed to claim their attention. With an ingratiating smile one of them stepped up to our officers, who were head over ears in work down on the beach, and asked:
"Do you play tennis?"
It was an invitation which, under the circumstances, we felt compelled to decline.
By the time I had reached the roof, the fight between the "Emden" and the other cruiser was well under way. I could not identify the enemy's ship, but, judging from her structure, and the amount of water raised by the falling shells, I concluded that it must be one of the two Australian cruisers, the "Sydney" or the "Melbourne." As the columns of water raised by the enemy's shells were much taller than those caused by the "Emden's," I estimated the guns of the enemy to be of 15 centimeter caliber.
The "Sydney," for she it was, as I learned later, was more than a match for the "Emden." Our ship Of 3,600 tons displacement could deliver a broadside of only five 10-1/2 centimeter guns, and had no side armor, whereas the "Sydney," being a vessel Of 5,700 tons displacement, could fire a broadside of five 15.2 centimeter guns, and had armored sides. From the very beginning, the "Emden's" fire reached its mark on the enemy's cruiser, whose guns, it must be said, were aimed pretty badly. The water spouts that were raised by their falling shells were mostly several hundred meters distant from one another. But when one of the volleys did hit, it made havoc on our unarmored vessel.
During the very first of the fight, the forward smoke stack of the "Emden" was shot away and lay directly across the deck. Another shell crashed into the stern aft of the cabin, and started a great blaze, the gray smoke of which was mixed with white steam, showing that the steam pipes had been damaged. The "Emden" now turned sharply about and made a dash for her foe, apparently for the purpose of making a torpedo attack. It cost her her foremast, which was shot away and fell overboard. For the moment it seemed as though the enemy's ship intended to discontinue the fight, for she turned and ran at high speed, followed by the "Emden." Whether the "Sydney" had suffered serious damage which could not be discerned from without, I could not tell. Perhaps it was simply her intention to increase her fighting distance from the "Emden," in order to take advantage of the greater caliber of her guns.
The running fight between the two ships now took a northerly course at an ever increasing distance from the island, and soon the two cruisers, still fighting, were lost to view beyond the horizon.
The point for me to settle now was what to do with the landing squad. So far as our ship was concerned, the damage she had suffered at the hands of a far superior foe was so great that a return to the island, even in the event of a most favorable outcome of the battle, was out of the question. She must run for the nearest port where she could make repairs, bury her dead, and leave her wounded. At the same time I could count with certainty upon the arrival of an English war vessel ere long in Keeling harbor, to learn what had befallen the cable and wireless station. For, had not the telegraphic service to Australia, Batavia and Mauritius been cut off entirely?
With our four machine guns and twenty nine rifles we could, for the time at least, have prevented the English from making a landing on the island, but against the fire of the English cruiser's heavy guns, which would then have been directed against us, we would have had no defence whatever. Taking everything into consideration, therefore, we could do no more than defer the surrender of a position that, from the outset, it had been impossible to hold. Moreover, confinement in an English prison was little to our taste.
Now, fortunately for us, the small white schooner that we had failed to blow up was still riding at anchor in the harbor. It could, and it should help us to escape from our predicament. I decided to leave the island on the little boat. Her name was "Ayesha," ["Ayesha" is not an English but an Arabic name, and is pronounced A-ee-sha. Ayesha is the name of the favorite wife of the Prophet Mohammet.] and at one time she had served to carry copra from Keeling to Batavia two or three times a year, and to bring provisions back with her on her return trip. Now that steamship service had been established between these two points, she lay idle and dismantled in the harbor, and was gradually falling into decay.
Taking no one with me, I got into the steam launch and went out to the schooner to learn whether she was at all seaworthy. The captain and a single sailor were aboard her. Of the former I inquired casually whether he had any ammunition aboard, for I did not wish him to suspect the real purpose of my coming. He said there was none, and a brief inspection of the ship led me to believe that she was still seaworthy. Consequently I sent my officers and men aboard the "Ayesha" to get her into trim for sailing.
There was plenty to do on the little ship. All the sails and rigging had been taken down and stowed away, and had now to be put in place again.
When the Englishmen on the island realized that it was my intention to sail off in the schooner, they warned me with great earnestness against trusting ourselves to her, saying that the "Ayesha" was old and rotten, and could not stand a sea voyage. Furthermore, they informed me that an English man-of-war, the "Minotaur," and a Japanese cruiser were in the vicinity of the island, and that we would surely fall a prey to one of them.
As my predecessor in command of the "Ayesha" was leaving her, he wished us Godspeed, and concluded with the comforting remark, "But the ship's bottom is worn through."
When, in spite of all these warnings, we remained firm in our purpose, and continued the work of getting the "Ayesha" ready for sea, the sporting side of the situation began to appeal to the Englishmen, and they almost ran their legs off in their eagerness to help us. Could it have been gratitude that impelled them to lend us their aid? It is a question I have never been able to answer to my satisfaction, although, to be sure, several of them did express a feeling of relief at the thought that now the fatiguing telegraph service with its many hours of overwork, and its lack of diversion, was a thing of the past. They showed us where the provisions and water were kept, and urgently advised us to take provisions from the one side, where they were new and fresh, rather than from the other, where they were stale. They fetched out cooking utensils, water, barrels of petroleum, old clothes, blankets, and the like, and themselves loaded them on trucks and brought them to us. From every side invitations to dinner poured down upon us; my men were supplied with pipes and tobacco; in short, the Englishmen did all they could to help us out.
Nor were they sparing with advice as to the course we ought to take, and time proved that all they told us of wind and weather, of currents, etc., was in every way trustworthy. As the last of our boats left the shore, the Englishmen gave us three hearty cheers, wished us a safe journey, and expressed their gratitude for the "moderation" which we had shown in the discharge of our duty, wherein all of our men had behaved "generously," they said. Then, cameras in hand, they still swarmed about the "Ayesha," taking pictures of her.
Meanwhile the lookout on our ship reported that the two battling cruisers had come into sight again. From the top of the "Ayesha's" mast I could at first see only the thick cloud of black smoke that the "Sydney's" smoke stack was belching forth, but soon the masts, smoke stacks and upper deck came in sight. Of the "Emden" I could see only one smoke stack and one mast; the rest of the ship was below the horizon. Both cruisers were steering an easterly course, and both were still firing their guns.
Suddenly, at full speed, the "Sydney" made a dash at the "Emden." "Now," thought I, "the 'Emden's' last gun has been silenced, and the 'Sydney' is running at her to deal her her death blow." But then, in the black smoke of the English ship, between the foremast and the nearest smoke stack, a tall column of water shot up, which could only be the result of a serious explosion. We supposed that it was caused by a well-aimed torpedo shot from the "Emden." The "Sydney," which was still running at a speed of twenty nautical miles, now made a quick turn to starboard, changed her course entirely, and steamed slowly westward. The "Emden" continued to steer an easterly course. Both ships were still firing at each other, but the distance between them grew greater and greater, until finally they were beyond the reach of each other's guns. The fight was over. In the approaching darkness both vessels were soon lost to sight beyond the horizon. That was the last we saw of them. The conflict, which had begun at about 8:30 in the morning, ended at six o'clock in the evening. The report, published in all the English newspapers, that it was only a "sixty minutes' running fight" is therefore to be classed with the many similarly false reports made by the English.
The oncoming darkness now warned me to make my way as speedily as possible out of the harbor, for the dangers of the coral reefs render it unsafe for navigation after nightfall. In the meantime we had taken aboard water enough for four weeks, and provisions for eight. The sails had been bent on as best they could be. I made a short speech, and with three cheers for the Emperor, first in command, the war flag and pennant fluttered up to the masthead of his Majesty's latest ship, the schooner Ayesha. "Slowly the steam launch took us in tow. I climbed to the top of the foremast, as from there I could best discern where lay the reefs and the shoals, for of charts we had none. With the boatswain's whistle I gave the launch orders to steer to starboard or to port, according to the lay of the reefs. The "Emden's" two cutters we carried in tow.
Our departure was much too slow to suit us.
The sun was setting, and in these latitudes, so near the equator, there is no twilight. No sooner has the sun disappeared below the horizon than the blackness of midnight reigns. We had not passed quite through the danger zone of the reefs before it grew so dark that, from my position on the foremast, I could not see ahead sufficiently far to direct our course. In order to be able to see anything at all, I climbed down into the port fore channels close by the water, and gave my orders from there.
just as we were passing the last reef that might prove dangerous to us, we spent some anxious moments. Suddenly, in spite of the darkness, I could see every pebble, every bit of seaweed on the bottom, an unmistakable evidence that we were in very shallow water. Our lucky star guided us over this shoal also, however, and we did not run aground.
Meanwhile we had set some sail, and had thus lightened the work of the steam launch, which still had us in tow. Before long we were free of the sheltering islands, and the long, heavy swells of the ocean put some motion into our new ship.
When we were far enough out at sea to sail our boat without danger of running into the surf to leeward, I called the steam launch back to the ship, so as to take off the crew. The heavy swell made this manoeuvre no light task. Again and again the little steamboat was dashed against the side of the "Ayesha," and, although the future of the launch was of little interest to me, this unexpected encounter between my old ship and my new one gave me serious concern. I had no confidence in the "Ayesha's" ability to endure with safety such vigorous demonstrations of friendship. Finally, however, we succeeded in ridding ourselves of the steam launch in this way: the last man aboard her started her engine again with the little steam that was left in the boiler. Then, from aboard the "Ayesha," we reached over with a boat hook, and turned the rudder of the steam launch to port. Courtesying elegantly, the little boat drew away from us, and soon vanished in the darkness. Whither it went, I do not know. In all likelihood it found a grave in the surf that beat wildly only a few hundred meters away. Perhaps, however, it is still beating about the ocean, raiding on its own account.