CHAPTER V: AN UNEASY DAY
NOT always, however, did the days pass as uneventfully as the one just described. Often we had to struggle against high gales and thundergusts. In fact, they had to be reckoned with both morning and evening of every day. As welcome as the thunderstorms were for the supply of fresh water they brought us, we yet looked forward to them with dread also, because of the strain on ship and rigging. In the tropics the coming of a thunderstorm can be seen from afar, and the time of its arrival quite accurately timed.
The approach of one of these storms was usually heralded by a few dark clouds near the horizon, the falling rain showing as a long, broad streak reaching from sky to ocean. As the clouds rose toward the zenith, the columns of rain came visibly nearer. When the storm was within a thousand meters of us, the sails were furled as far as necessary, and we rode out the gale. We "laid to" then, with close reefed sails, the ship's head close to the wind, until the gale, which was always accompanied by a downpour of rain so heavy that we could see nothing except what was immediately in front of us, was over.
One day we had an especially heavy thunderstorm. The clouds hung so low that it seemed as though we could grasp them with our hands. The wind set in more quickly than we had expected, and just as we had begun to shorten our light sails, the tempest was upon us. It seized the mizzen-topsail, and whipped it furiously through the air. The men on deck could not hold it against the strain, it flew over the mizzengaff, caught fast on it, and hung there. To secure it at the time was impossible, because of the heavy rolling of the ship. For a while, the flapping of the sail endangered the whole mizzen-topmast, but more especially the slender upper part of the mast, which is always only lightly stayed. Its violent motion filled us with anxiety. Moreover, we were now in the worst of the gale, and had all we could do to attend to the other sails. Nevertheless, we finally succeeded in furling all the sails with the exception of a few bits of canvas that had to be left out to give the ship steerage way.
The clouds were so heavy that it was almost as dark as night. Unceasingly the lightning flashed about us, followed instantly by a heavy clap of thunder. So near and so vivid were the flashes of lightning, that they blinded us for the moment, and for seconds at a time we could see nothing at all. It was a genuine little cyclone that was sweeping over us.
Then the violent wind suddenly ceased as the center of the storm reached us, and the air about us grew absolutely still. The high seas and swells continued, however. The ship, suddenly robbed of its support by the almost instant falling away of the wind, rolled so heavily from side to side, that we feared the masts would go overboard without our being able to do anything to prevent it. The atmosphere was filled with electricity; on each of our mast-heads burned St. Elmo fires, a foot high.
Slowly the thunderstorm passed over. After a few more brief but violent gusts of the recurring gale, the wind died down and blew more steadily and quietly. Soon nothing remained but a few distant flashes of lightning to remind us of the anxious hours we had but just passed. One after the other the sails were set, and we proceeded on our way. But soon afterward, the wind died away entirely.
The times when we were becalmed were perhaps even more unpleasant than when the wind paid us an over-amount of attention, for, with the high and never-ceasing ocean swells, our ship rolled very heavily whenever there was no breeze to drive her. Then the sails, no longer filled by the wind, flapped from side to side, and when the heavy booms went over, the whole ship shivered, and the masts trembled. At such times we often thought it best to furl all sails, and so avoid any possible danger to ship and rigging.
On account of the violent and jerking motion of the ship on such days, life aboard her was extremely unpleasant and very fatiguing. To remain aboard the ship at all, we had to hold on to some support continuously with both hands, or else wedge ourselves firmly into a secure corner.
On this particular day, we were again obliged to furl all sails. While we were thus in the worst of the rolling, and were swearing vigorously at the ship's eccentricities, suddenly a cloud of smoke was reported in sight on the port bow forward. As we were wholly outside of any course ordinarily followed by steamers, we concluded that the vessel sighted must, like ourselves, have reason to avoid the usual routes of steamship travel. At first we thought it might, perhaps, be one of our coaling ships, either the "Exford" or the "Buresk," which, just before the fight off Keeling, had been dismissed by the "Emden" to await her at certain designated points. Having neither heard nor seen anything of the "Emden," they might now be running into Padang, hoping there to learn what had happened. On the other hand, it might quite as well be a hostile cruiser that had run into Keeling after the fight, and, having heard of our departure, was now looking for us.
There were, in fact, but three courses for us to choose from while making our escape from Keeling, - to run to Padang, to Batavia, or to Africa. Of these the most probable ones were to Batavia, or to Padang. For a fast cruiser it would be an easy matter to search for us on both of these routes, and so make sure of finding us. Knowing that we were wholly dependent upon the wind for our progress, our pursuers could easily picture to themselves the course we had taken, and where they would most likely find us.
Naturally, we made every effort to discover the character of the unknown vessel. But even from the mast-heads we could see no more than the smoke she was leaving behind her. To elude her by changing our course was quite out of the question with the "Ayesha," becalmed as we were, and drifting idly. But, after giving us a few anxious hours, the smoke on the horizon vanished.
Meanwhile, the regular evening breeze had set in, and with it came the usual torrents of rain. We were now in the region where the Southeast and Northwest Monsoons meet and struggle for the mastery. The wind changed every few moments. First, a gust would strike the ship from forward, and the next minute it would be blowing a gale from aft, a condition of affairs that afforded opportunity for some expert and ingenious sailing manoeuvres. After we had practised close hauling the sails a number of times, we were suddenly confronted with a task that well nigh proved too much for us. A violent gust of wind from the northwest was sweeping down upon the ship from forward at the same time that one from the south was approaching from aft. We were therefore obliged to tack by close hauling the foresail, while, at the same time, the mainsail had to be set for wind from astern. The two shower baths that the two gusts brought us could not have been better managed in an up-to-date sanitarium, where alternating hot and cold showers are a feature of the baths. The gust from the northwest brought a torrent of rain so icy cold that most of us got below decks as fast as we could, whereas the one from the south, which overtook us a few minutes later, showered us with water that was more than lukewarm.