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The Cyclone







From: When The World Shook

We enjoyed our voyage exceedingly. In Egypt, a land I was glad to
revisit, we only stopped a week while the Star of the South, which we
rejoined at Suez, coaled and went through the Canal. This, however, gave
us time to spend a few days in Cairo, visit the Pyramids and Sakkara
which Bastin and Bickley had never seen before, and inspect the great
Museum. The journey up the Nile was postponed until our return. It was
a pleasant break and gave Bickley, a most omnivorous reader who was well
acquainted with Egyptian history and theology, the opportunity of trying
to prove to Bastin that Christianity was a mere development of the
ancient Egyptian faith. The arguments that ensued may be imagined.
It never seemed to occur to either of them that all faiths may be and
indeed probably are progressive; in short, different rays of light
thrown from the various facets of the same crystal, as in turn these are
shone upon by the sun of Truth.

Our passage down the Red Sea was cool and agreeable. Thence we shaped
our course for Ceylon. Here again we stopped a little while to run up
to Kandy and to visit the ruined city of Anarajapura with its great
Buddhist topes that once again gave rise to religious argument between
my two friends. Leaving Ceylon we struck across the Indian Ocean for
Perth in Western Australia.

It was a long voyage, since to save our coal we made most of it
under canvas. However, we were not dull as Captain Astley was a good
companion, and even out of the melancholy Dane, Jacobsen, we had
entertainment. He insisted on holding seances in the cabin, at which the
usual phenomena occurred. The table twisted about, voices were heard and
Jacobsen's accordion wailed out tunes above our heads. These happenings
drove Bickley to a kind of madness, for here were events which he could
not explain. He was convinced that someone was playing tricks upon him,
and devised the most elaborate snares to detect the rogue, entirely
without result.

First he accused Jacobsen, who was very indignant, and then me, who
laughed. In the end Jacobsen and I left the "circle" and the cabin,
which was locked behind us; only Bastin and Bickley remaining there in
the dark. Presently we heard sounds of altercation, and Bickley emerged
looking very red in the face, followed by Bastin, who was saying:

"Can I help it if something pulled your nose and snatched off your
eyeglasses, which anyhow are quite useless to you when there is no
light? Again, is it possible for me, sitting on the other side of that
table, to have placed the concertina on your head and made it play the
National Anthem, a thing that I have not the slightest idea how to do?"

"Please do not try to explain," snapped Bickley. "I am perfectly aware
that you deceived me somehow, which no doubt you think a good joke."

"My dear fellow," I interrupted, "is it possible to imagine old Basil
deceiving anyone?"

"Why not," snorted Bickley, "seeing that he deceives himself from one
year's end to the other?"

"I think," said Bastin, "that this is an unholy business and that we are
both deceived by the devil. I will have no more to do with it," and he
departed to his cabin, probably to say some appropriate prayers.

After this the seances were given up but Jacobsen produced an instrument
called a planchette and with difficulty persuaded Bickley to try it,
which he did after many precautions. The thing, a heart-shaped piece
of wood mounted on wheels and with a pencil stuck at its narrow end,
cantered about the sheet of paper on which it was placed, Bickley, whose
hands rested upon it, staring at the roof of the cabin. Then it began to
scribble and after a while stopped still.

"Will the Doctor look?" said Jacobsen. "Perhaps the spirits have told
him something."

"Oh! curse all this silly talk about spirits," exclaimed Bickley, as he
arranged his eyeglasses and held up the paper to the light, for it was
after dinner.

He stared, then with an exclamation which I will not repeat, and a
glance of savage suspicion at the poor Dane and the rest of us, threw
it down and left the cabin. I picked it up and next moment was screaming
with laughter. There on the top of the sheet was a rough but entirely
recognizable portrait of Bickley with the accordion on his head, and
underneath, written in a delicate, Italian female hand, absolutely
different from his own, were these words taken from one of St. Paul's
Epistles--"Oppositions of science falsely so called." Underneath them
again in a scrawling, schoolboy fist, very like Bastin's, was inscribed,
"Tell us how this is done, you silly doctor, who think yourself so
clever."

"It seems that the devil really can quote Scripture," was Bastin's only
comment, while Jacobsen stared before him and smiled.

Bickley never alluded to the matter, but for days afterwards I saw him
experimenting with paper and chemicals, evidently trying to discover
a form of invisible ink which would appear upon the application of the
hand. As he never said anything about it, I fear that he failed.

This planchette business had a somewhat curious ending. A few nights
later Jacobsen was working it and asked me to put a question. To oblige
him I inquired on what day we should reach Fremantle, the port of Perth.
It wrote an answer which, I may remark, subsequently proved to be quite
correct.

"That is not a good question," said Jacobsen, "since as a sailor I might
guess the reply. Try again, Mr. Arbuthnot."

"Will anything remarkable happen on our voyage to the South Seas?" I
inquired casually.

The planchette hesitated a while then wrote rapidly and stopped.
Jacobsen took up the paper and began to read the answer aloud--"To A,
B the D, and B the C, the most remarkable things will happen that have
happened to men living in the world."

"That must mean me, Bickley the doctor and Bastin the clergyman," I
said, laughing.

Jacobsen paid no attention, for he was reading what followed. As he did
so I saw his face turn white and his eyes begin to start from his head.
Then suddenly he tore the paper in pieces which he thrust into his
pocket. Lifting his great fist he uttered some Danish oath and with a
single blow smashed the planchette to fragments, after which he strode
away, leaving me astonished and somewhat disturbed. When I met him the
next morning I asked him what was on the paper.

"Oh!" he said quietly, "something I should not like you too-proper
English gentlemens to see. Something not nice. You understand. Those
spirits not always good; they do that kind of thing sometimes. That's
why I broke up this planchette."

Then he began to talk of something else and there the matter ended.

I should have said that, principally with a view to putting themselves
in a position to confute each other, ever since we had started from
Marseilles both Bastin and Bickley spent a number of hours each day in
assiduous study of the language of the South Sea Islands. It became a
kind of competition between them as to which could learn the most.
Now Bastin, although simple and even stupid in some ways, was a good
scholar, and as I knew at college, had quite a faculty for acquiring
languages in which he had taken high marks at examinations. Bickley,
too, was an extraordinarily able person with an excellent memory,
especially when he was on his mettle. The result was that before we
ever reached a South Sea island they had a good working knowledge of the
local tongues.

As it chanced, too, at Perth we picked up a Samoan and his wife who,
under some of the "white Australia" regulations, were not allowed to
remain in the country and offered to work as servants in return for a
passage to Apia where we proposed to call some time or other. With these
people Bastin and Bickley talked all day long till really they became
fairly proficient in their soft and beautiful dialect. They wished me to
learn also, but I said that with two such excellent interpreters and the
natives while they remained with us, it seemed quite unnecessary. Still,
I picked up a good deal in a quiet way, as much as they did perhaps.

At length, travelling on and on as a voyager to the planet Mars might
do, we sighted the low shores of Australia and that same evening were
towed, for our coal was quite exhausted, to the wharf at Fremantle.
Here we spent a few days exploring the beautiful town of Perth and its
neighbourhood where it was very hot just then, and eating peaches
and grapes till we made ourselves ill, as a visitor often does who is
unaware that fruit should not be taken in quantity in Australia while
the sun is high. Then we departed for Melbourne almost before our
arrival was generally known, since I did not wish to advertise our
presence or the object of our journey.

We crossed the Great Australian Bight, of evil reputation, in the most
perfect weather; indeed it might have been a mill pond, and after a
short stay at Melbourne, went on to Sydney, where we coaled again and
laid in supplies.

Then our real journey began. The plan we laid out was to sail to Suva
in Fiji, about 1,700 miles away, and after a stay there, on to Hawaii
or the Sandwich Islands, stopping perhaps at the Phoenix Islands and the
Central Polynesian Sporades, such as Christmas and Fanning Isles. Then
we proposed to turn south again through the Marshall Archipelago and
the Caroline Islands, and so on to New Guinea and the Coral Sea.
Particularly did we wish to visit Easter Island on account of
its marvelous sculptures that are supposed to be the relics of a
pre-historic race. In truth, however, we had no fixed plan except to go
wherever circumstance and chance might take us. Chance, I may add, or
something else, took full advantage of its opportunities.

We came to Suva in safety and spent a while in exploring the beautiful
Fiji Isles where both Bastin and Bickley made full inquiries about
the work of the missionaries, each of them drawing exactly opposite
conclusions from the same set of admitted facts. Thence we steamed to
Samoa and put our two natives ashore at Apia, where we procured some
coal. We did not stay long enough in these islands to investigate them,
however, because persons of experience there assured us from certain
familiar signs that one of the terrible hurricanes with which they are
afflicted, was due to arrive shortly and that we should do well to put
ourselves beyond its reach. So having coaled and watered we departed in
a hurry.

Up to this time I should state we had met with the most wonderful good
fortune in the matter of weather, so good indeed that never on one
occasion since we left Marseilles, had we been obliged to put the
fiddles on the tables. With the superstition of a sailor Captain Astley,
when I alluded to the matter, shook his head saying that doubtless we
should pay for it later on, since "luck never goes all the way" and
cyclones were reported to be about.

Here I must tell that after we were clear of Apia, it was discovered
that the Danish mate who was believed to be in his cabin unwell from
something he had eaten, was missing. The question arose whether we
should put back to find him, as we supposed that he had made a trip
inland and met with an accident, or been otherwise delayed. I was
in favour of doing so though the captain, thinking of the threatened
hurricane, shook his head and said that Jacobsen was a queer fellow who
might just as well have gone overboard as anywhere else, if he thought
he heard "the spirits, of whom he was so fond," calling him. While the
matter was still in suspense I happened to go into my own stateroom
and there, stuck in the looking-glass, saw an envelope in the Dane's
handwriting addressed to myself. On opening it I found another sealed
letter, unaddressed, also a note that ran as follows:

"Honoured Sir,

"You will think very badly of me for leaving you, but the enclosed which
I implore you not to open until you have seen the last of the Star of
the South, will explain my reason and I hope clear my reputation.
I thank you again and again for all your kindness and pray that the
Spirits who rule the world may bless and preserve you, also the Doctor
and Mr. Bastin."


This letter, which left the fate of Jacobsen quite unsolved, for it
might mean either that he had deserted or drowned himself, I put away
with the enclosure in my pocket. Of course there was no obligation on me
to refrain from opening the letter, but I shrank from doing so both from
some kind of sense of honour and, to tell the truth, for fear of what
it might contain. I felt that this would be disagreeable; also, although
there was nothing to connect them together, I bethought me of the scene
when Jacobsen had smashed the planchette.

On my return to the deck I said nothing whatsoever about the discovery
of the letter, but only remarked that on reflection I had changed my
mind and agreed with the captain that it would be unwise to attempt
to return in order to look for Jacobsen. So the boatswain, a capable
individual who had seen better days, was promoted to take his watches
and we went on as before. How curiously things come about in the world!
For nautical reasons that were explained to me, but which I will not
trouble to set down, if indeed I could remember them, I believe that
if we had returned to Apia we should have missed the great gale and
subsequent cyclone, and with these much else. But it was not so fated.

It was on the fourth day, when we were roughly seven hundred miles or
more north of Samoa, that we met the edge of this gale about sundown.
The captain put on steam in the hope of pushing through it, but that
night we dined for the first time with the fiddles on, and by eleven
o'clock it was as much as one could do to stand in the cabin, while the
water was washing freely over the deck. Fortunately, however, the
wind veered more aft of us, so that by putting about her head a little
(seamen must forgive me if I talk of these matters as a landlubber) we
ran almost before the wind, though not quite in the direction that we
wished to go.

When the light came it was blowing very hard indeed, and the sky was
utterly overcast, so that we got no glimpse of the sun, or of the
stars on the following night. Unfortunately, there was no moon visible;
indeed, if there had been I do not suppose that it would have helped us
because of the thick pall of clouds. For quite seventy-two hours we
ran on beneath bare poles before that gale. The little vessel behaved
splendidly, riding the seas like a duck, but I could see that Captain
Astley was growing alarmed. When I said something complimentary to him
about the conduct of the Star of the South, he replied that she was
forging ahead all right, but the question was--where to? He had been
unable to take an observation of any sort since we left Samoa; both
his patent logs had been carried away, so that now only the compass
remained, and he had not the slightest idea where we were in that great
ocean studded with atolls and islands.

I asked him whether we could not steam back to our proper course, but
he answered that to do so he would have to travel dead in the eye of the
gale, and he doubted whether the engines would stand it. Also there was
the question of coal to be considered. However, he had kept the fires
going and would do what he could if the weather moderated.

That night during dinner which now consisted of tinned foods and whisky
and water, for the seas had got to the galley fire, suddenly the gale
dropped, whereat we rejoiced exceedingly. The captain came down into the
saloon very white and shaken, I thought, and I asked him to have a nip
of whisky to warm him up, and to celebrate our good fortune in having
run out of the wind. He took the bottle and, to my alarm, poured out
a full half tumbler of spirit, which he swallowed undiluted in two or
three gulps.

"That's better!" he said with a hoarse laugh. "But man, what is it you
are saying about having run out of the wind? Look at the glass!"

"We have," said Bastin, "and it is wonderfully steady. About 29 degrees
or a little over, which it has been for the last three days."

Again Astley laughed in a mirthless fashion, as he answered:

"Oh, that thing! That's the passengers' glass. I told the steward to put
it out of gear so that you might not be frightened; it is an old trick.
Look at this," and he produced one of the portable variety out of his
pocket.

We looked, and it stood somewhere between 27 degrees and 28 degrees.

"That's the lowest glass I ever saw in the Polynesian or any other seas
during thirty years. It's right, too, for I have tested it by three
others," he said.

"What does it mean?" I asked rather anxiously.

"South Sea cyclone of the worst breed," he replied. "That cursed Dane
knew it was coming and that's why he left the ship. Pray as you never
prayed before," and again he stretched out his hand towards the whisky
bottle. But I stepped between him and it, shaking my head. Thereon he
laughed for the third time and left the cabin. Though I saw him once
or twice afterwards, these were really the last words of intelligible
conversation that I ever had with Captain Astley.

"It seems that we are in some danger," said Bastin, in an unmoved kind
of way. "I think that was a good idea of the captain's, to put up a
petition, I mean, but as Bickley will scarcely care to join in it I will
go into the cabin and do so myself."

Bickley snorted, then said:

"Confound that captain! Why did he play such a trick upon us about the
barometer? Humphrey, I believe he had been drinking."

"So do I," I said, looking at the whisky bottle. "Otherwise, after
taking those precautions to keep us in the dark, he would not have let
on like that."

"Well," said Bickley, "he can't get to the liquor, except through this
saloon, as it is locked up forward with the other stores."

"That's nothing," I replied, "as doubtless he has a supply of his own;
rum, I expect. We must take our chance."

Bickley nodded, and suggested that we should go on deck to see what was
happening. So we went. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and even the
sea seemed to be settling down a little. At least, so we judged from
the motion, for we could not see either it or the sky; everything was as
black as pitch. We heard the sailors, however, engaged in rigging guide
ropes fore and aft, and battening down the hatches with extra tarpaulins
by the light of lanterns. Also they were putting ropes round the boats
and doing something to the spars and topmasts.

Presently Bastin joined us, having, I suppose, finished his devotions.

"Really, it is quite pleasant here," he said. "One never knows how
disagreeable so much wind is until it stops."

I lit my pipe, making no answer, and the match burned quite steadily
there in the open air.

"What is that?" exclaimed Bickley, staring at something which now I saw
for the first time. It looked like a line of white approaching through
the gloom. With it came a hissing sound, and although there was still no
wind, the rigging began to moan mysteriously like a thing in pain. A big
drop of water also fell from the sides into my pipe and put it out. Then
one of the sailors cried in a hoarse voice:

"Get down below, governors, unless you want to go out to sea!"

"Why?" inquired Bastin.

"Why? Becos the 'urricane is coming, that's all. Coming as though the
devil had kicked it out of 'ell."

Bastin seemed inclined to remonstrate at this sort of language, but we
pushed him down the companion and followed, propelling the spaniel Tommy
in front of us. Next moment I heard the sailors battening the hatch with
hurried blows, and when this was done to their satisfaction, heard their
feet also as they ran into shelter.

Another instant and we were all lying in a heap on the cabin floor with
poor Tommy on top of us. The cyclone had struck the ship! Above the wash
of water and the screaming of the gale we heard other mysterious sounds,
which doubtless were caused by the yards hitting the seas, for the yacht
was lying on her side. I thought that all was over, but presently there
came a rending, crashing noise. The masts, or one of them, had gone, and
by degrees we righted.

"Near thing!" said Bickley. "Good heavens, what's that?"

I listened, for the electric light had temporarily gone out, owing, I
suppose, to the dynamo having stopped for a moment. A most unholy and
hollow sound was rising from the cabin floor. It might have been
caused by a bullock with its windpipe cut, trying to get its breath and
groaning. Then the light came on again and we saw Bastin lying at full
length on the carpet.

"He's broken his neck or something," I said.

Bickley crept to him and having looked, sang out:

"It's all right! He's only sea-sick. I thought it would come to that if
he drank so much tea."

"Sea-sick," I said faintly--"sea-sick?"

"That's all," said Bickley. "The nerves of the stomach acting on the
brain or vice-versa--that is, if Bastin has a brain," he added sotto
voce.

"Oh!" groaned the prostrate clergyman. "I wish that I were dead!"

"Don't trouble about that," answered Bickley. "I expect you soon will
be. Here, drink some whisky, you donkey."

Bastin sat up and obeyed, out of the bottle, for it was impossible to
pour anything into a glass, with results too dreadful to narrate.

"I call that a dirty trick," he said presently, in a feeble voice,
glowering at Bickley.

"I expect I shall have to play you a dirtier before long, for you are a
pretty bad case, old fellow."

As a matter of fact he had, for once Bastin had begun really we thought
that he was going to die. Somehow we got him into his cabin, which
opened off the saloon, and as he could drink nothing more, Bickley
managed to inject morphia or some other compound into him, which made
him insensible for a long while.

"He must be in a poor way," he said, "for the needle went more than a
quarter of an inch into him, and he never cried out or stirred. Couldn't
help it in that rolling."

But now I could hear the engines working, and I think that the bow
of the vessel was got head on to the seas, for instead of rolling we
pitched, or rather the ship stood first upon one end and then upon the
other. This continued for a while until the first burst of the cyclone
had gone by. Then suddenly the engines stopped; I suppose that they had
broken down, but I never learned, and we seemed to veer about, nearly
sinking in the process, and to run before the hurricane at terrific
speed.

"I wonder where we are going to?" I said to Bickley. "To the land of
sleep, Humphrey, I imagine," he replied in a more gentle voice than I
had often heard him use, adding: "Good-bye, old boy, we have been real
friends, haven't we, notwithstanding my peculiarities? I only wish that
I could think that there was anything in Bastin's views. But I can't, I
can't. It's good night for us poor creatures!"





Next: Land

Previous: Death And Departure



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