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Chapter XI THE RED SEA
NINE days after leaving Gibraltar the "Fortuna" glided into the Grand Harbour at Malta, where, having obtained pratique, we remained three days.

Owing to the strong gales and head winds, another fourteen days passed ere we sighted the high light at Port Said, the northern entrance to the Suez Canal. Entering between two long and extremely low concrete breakwaters, we had to pay the necessary tolls and make a number of declarations before authority was given us to proceed. By the company's regulations we were compelled to make the passage through the Canal under power, and if unable to cover the entire length of eighty-seven miles by daylight, we should have to make fast by night, when, except under most urgent circumstances, no traffic is permitted.

It was noon, however, before the tedious journey commenced, and in consequence we had little hopes of arriving at Suez before nightfall.

The bos'n had overhauled the wire hawsers, and had cleared away one of the bow anchors, and had carried the kedge aft, so as to bring the yacht to a standstill in the event of a mishap. The awnings were rigged to mitigate the effects of the blazing sun, and a square of damp canvas was placed over the motor-case to prevent the gritty sand and dust from playing havoc with the engine.

The very monotony of the Canal made the hours drag slowly. Occasionally we passed a steamer, sometimes having to "tie up" to the bank to permit her to pass, but for the best part of the day there was nothing to be seen but a dreary bank of sand on either hand, and a long thread of sluggish water ahead. The heat, too, was terrific, and when, as frequently happened, a sudden squall swept down from the desert, the air was filled with particles of fine sand that made our eyes smart in a most painful manner.

One of these squalls occurred just as a large tramp steamer, high in ballast, was passing us. The "Fortuna," being protected to a certain extent by the bank, escaped with a shower of sand, but the steamer, her high sides offering an enormous surface to the blast, was blown broadside on to the lee shore, where she stopped dead against the bank, her propeller throwing up columns of sand and water till the engines could be stopped, and as long as she remained in sight we could see that the tramp was still aground.

A few miles farther we passed a "gare," or widening of the Canal, where two large vessels could pass, and barely had we gone another mile than there was an ominous dragging of the propeller. The man stationed at the motor immediately stopped the engine, and the anchor was let go. Something had fouled the propeller, and, reversing being futile, we were hung up in a helpless condition.

"It's a case, sir, I'm afraid," said the bos'n. "I think we had better tow her back to the siding and get help."

My father consented; the gig was lowered, and ten men rowed for the bank, paying out a stout hempen hawser as they went. Then, in the broiling sun, the party laid hold of the rope and marched slowly along the bank, their feet sinking deep in the loose, drifting sand.

It took over an hour to tow the "Fortuna" back to the gare, where we made fast and took steps to clear the propeller. Unwilling to unpack the diving-dresses, the bos'n got hold of some Arabs and explained to them in dumb show that something had fouled the propeller. Showing their white teeth in a broad grin that expressed that they had grasped the situation, two of the Arabs threw off their scanty clothing and dived beneath the yacht's counter.

For nearly a minute they remained beneath the surface, but, on reappearing, they made signs that a rope had wound itself round the screw; though, in spite of the bos'n's gesticulations, the Arabs refused to dive again, jabbering away in a language that was, of course, totally unintelligible to us.

At that moment a stout, big-built man, dressed in a blue surcoat and trousers and wearing a scarlet tarbouch, appeared on the scene, riding a small and miserably lean donkey and attended by two barefooted runners. Sliding awkwardly to the ground, he waddled to the edge of the Canal, and, addressing us in French, asked what had gone amiss.

The bos'n began to explain the situation, and at the same time the Arabs appealed to him; with the utmost capacity of their voices.

"It's one of the native officials of the Canal," explained the quartermaster, who had had previous experience of the East.

"Ask him to come aboard," said Uncle Herbert, and, stepping awkwardly into the gig, he was rowed alongside. Puffing and blowing like a grampus, he gained the deck, and after a few words with the Arabs he turned to my father.

"They want to be paid in advance," he explained in French, a language which the pater readily understood. "They are asking a hundred piastres (slightly over one pound) to clear the propeller, as they say the rope is wound round as hard as iron."

"Tell them that they will be paid directly they have finished the job," said my father resolutely, his Cornish determination beginning to assert itself, "or else I'll send our own divers down."

"Offer the old sinner five piastres for himself, sir," said the quartermaster in a stage aside. "He is not above taking baksheesh, I'll allow."

My father took the hint, and the Gippy jumped at the bait, for, seizing a stout stick which one of his attendants carried, he chased the Arabs over the side, belabouring and reviling them with all the energy at his command. This done, he waddled breathlessly to a deck-chair, and, seating himself, demanded the promised guerdon.

In the meantime four of the Arabs, armed with long knives, were working in relays, two at a time, and within half an hour the obstruction was removed and the propeller in working order.

Hardly had this task been completed and the men paid than the sun set, and with remarkable suddenness the daylight gave place to intense darkness, so the "Fortuna" was compelled to remain in the gare till sunrise.

The tropical heat of the day gave place to a piercing cold, a circumstance that surprised us, and we were glad to turn out our warm clothing, which, soon after leaving Gibraltar, we had discarded, as we had hoped, for months.

Just before turning in I went on deck, and, looking southwards, I noticed a glare in the sky. It turned out to be the searchlight of the P. and O. s.s. "Caledonia," which vessel, being privileged to proceed through the Canal at night, carries a powerful lamp that, with its operator, is suspended in a large cage over the bows.

Slowly the huge liner passed, leaving the darkness intensified by the blinding glare.

"A pretty sight, isn't if?" remarked my uncle, who had joined me on deck and was puffing at a cheroot.

"Rather!" I assented, drawing my coat collar over my ears. "But it's too chilly to stay here, so I think I'll turn in."

"Stay another ten minutes," he continued, pulling out his watch and peering at it by the glow of his cheroot, "and you'll see something that will well repay the trouble of waiting in the cold."

"Now," he added, after a few minutes' interval, "look over there"; and, following the direction of his outstretched arm, I saw nothing but the dim outlines of a break in the sand-hills that fringed the Canal.

Even as I looked, a dazzling red disc appeared to leap above the horizon, and in a moment the desert was flooded with a ruddy light. The moon had risen with all the splendour that is only met with in the rarefied atmosphere of tropic and sub-tropic climes.

In another quarter of an hour it was well above the horizon, bathing the surrounding country in a mellow light and casting long shadows of our spars athwart the opposite bank of the placid Canal.

"Splendid!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," assented my uncle, "and sunrise will be quite as rapid. Now go below and have a good night's rest, and I'm certain you won't turn out till we are nearly clear of this glorified ditch."

Uncle Herbert was right, for I did not awake till nearly noon, to find the cabin sweltering in the midday heat and the "Fortuna" passing through the last of the Bitter Lakes, Isma?lia having been left astern two hours after daybreak.

A short stay at Suez, and the "Fortuna" cleared the southern entrance to the Canal, the town and the basins of Port Ibrahim being lost to view at a distance of three miles.

Before midnight we had emerged from the Gulf of Suez, catching but a short glimpse of the famous Mount Sinai against the western sky.

"You see that mountain just this side of it?" asked my uncle. "That's Jebel Katherina, more than a thousand feet higher and two miles to the west'ard of Sinai—yet almost every passenger on the Oriental liners firmly believes that he has seen the actual mountain mentioned in the Bible; but, as a matter of fact, this is the only position from which we can see it. In less than two minutes Sinai will be hidden by the other mountain. See, they are even now getting into line."

Next day we were in the centre of the Red Sea, keeping to the steamer routes to avoid possible encounters with Arab pirates, for, notwithstanding the complete occupation of Egypt and the Soudan, armed dhows still lurked in the little known harbours of the Arabian coast, and did not hesitate to attack and plunder any small craft likely to offer little or no resistance.

As a necessary precaution, and also for the purpose of exercising the crew in the use of small arms, the rifles were issued out, and seven rounds of ammunition were expended per man, the "Fortuna" being hove-to at a distance of six hundred yards from a floating barrel bearing a large red flag, while the officers observed and directed the firing through their field-glasses.

On the whole the results were remarkably good, taking into consideration the fact that most of the men had not handled a rifle for over a twelve-month.

Then, to the surprise of our crew, who were ignorant of its existence, the three-pounder quick firer was unpacked and mounted on the deck amidships, and the "Fortuna," taking up a position at a distance of a mile from the now waterlogged target, prepared to open fire.

Three men were detailed off as the gun's crew, and it was a sight to watch them as, stripped to their vests and trousers, they flew at the quick-firer, threw open the breech-block, and placed the long metal cylinder in the gun.

The gun-layer bent but for a few seconds over the sights, there was a flash and a sharp deafening report, followed by a slight haze of bluish vapour, and on looking through a telescope towards the target I was just in time to see the flag disappear in a column of spray.

"That's good enough for you, old stick, that is!" exclaimed the gun-layer approvingly, as he withdrew the cartridge-case, talking to the gun as if it were a child.

"Yes, you've done remarkably well, Hinks," remarked my father. "I don't think we need waste more ammunition."

"I pity any niggers that try to work off any of their little tricks on us, sir," replied the seaman, as the gun's crew began to clean the still smoking weapon.

The sight of the quick-firer and the small arms had, however, given rise to considerable speculation on the part of the crew, some hinting amongst themselves that, after all, the "Fortuna" might be intended for a pirate or slaver, and that they had been enticed to ship on board under false pretences. I overheard the quartermaster rating them, explaining that the armoury was simply and solely for defensive purposes, and this explanation apparently allayed the faint suspicions they had of the "Fortuna's" mission.

Soon after two bells in the first dog-watch (5 p.m.) on the second day after leaving Suez, my father called me on deck. Rapidly overhauling us was a large steamer flying the Turkish flag, her decks packed with a curious swarm of humanity. As she passed we could see, but not read, her name in Arabic characters on her stern.

"Lucky we are to windward, sir," remarked the bos'n, indicating the steamship with a contemptuous jerk of the thumb, "or we would nearly be driven below by the stench from her."

"Oh! How's that?"

"A pilgrim ship bound for Jidda, I'll allow. Half of 'em will be down with the plague unless they are particularly lucky."

"Wilkins is quite right in what he has just said," remarked Dr. Conolly, after the bos'n had made his way for'ard. "These ships, taking Mussulman pilgrims between Constantinople and Jidda, the nearest port to Mecca, the holy city of Mohammed, frequently have cases of bubonic plague on board, so that they are a standing menace to the health of Europe. Look! as it is they have left us a legacy."

In the wake of the Turkish ship were several huge sharks, two of which, in the hope of finding better food, devoted their attention to us, following the "Fortuna" at a distance of less than fifty yards.

Although only their black dorsal fins showed above the surface, the transparency of the water enabled the whole of their immense bodies to be distinctly seen. Along the Cornish coast at home, fish termed sharks by courtesy are frequently caught, and, although of the same family, having their mouths in the same position, they rarely exceed three feet in length; but these monsters were twelve or thirteen feet at the very lowest estimate.

"All right; carry on," replied my father to a request from the bos'n, and presently the crew were busily engaged in preparing a hook and line for their natural enemy.

Baiting the strong iron barb with a piece of red bunting, the line was carefully lowered over the taffrail. Directly it touched the water the sharks turned in evident alarm and disappeared, but after a few minutes a larger one swam cautiously towards the bait.

"Look out!—he'll have it!" shouted one of the crew in his excitement.

"Silence!" roared the bos'n, defeating his own object by the sound of his voice, for once more the shark turned and made off. His companion, however, approached the concealed hook, and, sinking beneath the surface, made ready to seize the bait, but, apparently scenting danger, he too sheered off.

"Try 'em with some pork," suggested Lord, the quartermaster, and accordingly Johnston brought us some fat pieces of salt meat, with which the hook was effectually concealed.

A few minutes' play with the new bait was sufficient. The larger shark reappeared, and, heedless of danger, headed straight for the prize. As it turned on its back; I could see its whitish yellow body, and the huge gaping jaws fringed with triple lines of serried teeth. There was a snap, and the stout rope tautened like an iron bar.

"Clap on, all of you!" yelled the bos'n to the men, but the order was unnecessary, as already the eager crew were hard at work; hauling in the line. When sufficient slack had been taken aboard, the free end was led outside everything to the fo'c'sle, and the men were ready to haul their prize on deck.

"Do you think we had better let them do it?" asked my father. "There is hardly room on deck for'ard, and besides, there will be such a filthy mess."

"Yes, let them work off their superfluous energies on it," replied my uncle. "An extra swabbing down of decks won't do much harm."

"Reggie," he added, "stay here and watch the fun, for a blow from a shark's tail can do a lot of damage, I can assure you."

At a word from the bos'n the men, who had armed themselves with axes and sheath-knives, began hauling again, and, in spite of its furious struggles, the monster was slowly but surely brought home, its powerful teeth snapping in impotent fury on the stout iron shank of the hook.

Then came an unexpected difficulty. The rope had been brought on board through a fairlead on the gunwale, and it was evident that no amount of strength could hoist the shark over the side, while with our fore and aft rig it was impossible to utilize the yards as derricks.

"Belay there!" shouted the bos'n, and, taking a few turns round the capstan, the crew stood easy and awaited orders. At a word from the bos'n one of the men swarmed up the fore-stay, taking with him a stropped block. This he bent to the stay at a distance of twenty-five feet from the deck, and, on going aloft the second time, the line was roved through the block and brought down on deck.

"Up with him, my hearties!" was the cry; and by the united efforts of ten of the crew the ponderous body of the shark came slowly over the side and dangled from the fore-stay, its tail slashing furiously in baffled rage.

At that moment, Johnston, the steward, hearing the outcry, appeared up the fore-hatch, holding a large tray of boiled potatoes in both hands. Suddenly, without warning, the strop of the block parted, and the shark fell with a thud on the narrow fo'c'sle. Instantly the men scattered right and left to escape the devastating sweeps of its tail and the huge snapping jaws; but before Johnston could disappear down the hatch a smashing blow of the creature's tail swept the dish of potatoes from his hand and smothered the ship's officers with a shower of sticky potato-meal!

But there was no time to enjoy the ludicrousness of the situation, and with excited shouts the men flew at their natural enemy, raining blows at its writhing carcass with hatchets and cudgels, till the decks were red with blood. At last, by a well-directed stroke, the creature's tail was severed, and the rest of the task became a comparatively easy matter.

Within a quarter of an hour the decks were swabbed down, the shark neatly skinned, and its jaw taken possession of by Dr. Conolly, as a remarkably fine specimen of the Carcharias vulgaris.

During the run down the Red Sea I had frequent opportunities of practising with my rifle on the numerous sharks that followed in the wake of the "Fortuna," and I rapidly became an expert marksman.

Aden was reached in due course; then, without any untoward incident, the "Fortuna" arrived at Point de Galle, in the Island of Ceylon, having been twenty-four days out from Suez.


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