It was on the 19th of March, 185- that I took a first-class ticket by the five P.M. express train from Waterloo station to Southampton. It was evident at a glance that this was not an ordinary passenger train. Great are the packing-cases and wonderful the bandboxes which mortal men and women will lug about with them on all occasions for the shortest journeys; but even bandboxes have limits, and no trainful of ladies or ladies’ maids could have been so loaded with luggage as was the Southampton express on the evening referred to, although the passengers were for the most part of the sex and age most removed from bandbox and heavy packing-case temptation—for they were masculine, and young. But a glance at the addresses on most of these multitudinous packages was sufficient to account for their quantity. The black leathern trunks, the peculiar leathern bags, the occasional heavy sea-chests, the wooden boxes—the shako-cases—the sword-cases—bore not the usual modest card which distinguishes the effects of inland travellers, but, painted in broad white letters, the significant name of some far distant destination—Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, or Hong Kong. Here and there, indeed, a Southampton resident going back to his house or his shop might be seen flitting about with the carpet-bag of common life, wondering into what strange company he had got, and feeling himself already an Orientalist by the contagion of the names round him; already does he form a half fancy that he has very nearly been to India; the accident of his having travelled down to Southampton on the 19th of the month will cause him to take some interest in India for the rest of his life,—on such slight associations do our interests hang. But it was evident that the great majority of passengers were bound in the same direction as myself; that for them, as well as for me, that quiet sliding down the South-Western rails at the rate of thirty miles an hour, was but the short and easy first stage of a long, arduous, and, to some at least, perilous journey. The train started. Those who had been too much occupied hitherto by the incessant stir of English life to realize their approaching exile, began now, as they wound their way over the murky houses of Lambeth—as they looked for the last time on the shining Thames, on the towers of Westminster, on the distant yet visible dome of St. Paul’s,—as the train, with the stern self-denial of business, rushed indifferently by the small pleasure branches to Richmond and Hampton Court, and hastened on to the open country,—to feel that London was indeed left behind them, and they were now held to England by only a slender tie. It was quite dark, a cold, damp, drizzly night, when we reached Southampton.
‘Are you for the Indus, sir?’ was the first question put to me by a porter as I alighted; ‘better put our luggage, such as you want, on board at once, sir,’ was the advice which followed on my replying in the affirmative. So I trudged down behind the porter over a waste nondescript border-land between the station and the quay, saw with somewhat a failing heart the great funnels of the Indus looming through the darkness, and her high masts towering over those of all the neighbouring craft; saw my packages deposited on the deck, and then bent my steps to the hotel. I felt as one reprieved while returning from the sea and the ship, which had brought the voyage so near to me, to what, notwithstanding the fashionable criticism and Parisian mania of the present day, I shall still venture to call the substantial comfort of an English inn. I know that many of my readers who were at the Paris Exhibition last summer will sneer at my untravelled simplicity and ignorance of the world, and assert, in newly learnt and awkwardly delivered phraseology, that in all the science of living we are a century behind our new allies. They will enumerate with voluble enthusiasm and truly Cockney pronunciation the restaurants where they dined, the cafés where they devoured ices; but for my part I will not descend into such lists; I will not vindicate myself from the charge of inexperience. I will only record once more my gratitude for that cheerful, well-lighted room—that clean chamber, that neat well-cooked dinner—that sparkling ale—that prompt and courteous attendance, which constitute what our untravelled fathers were not ashamed to boast of, the solid comfort of our English inns. Dinner came to an end, and as I drank the last glass of port which I was likely to taste for some years to come, to the health of all friends at home, the shadows of parting once more descended on me, and I felt that my English life, for the present at least, was over. The next morning came; happy next morning, if only for this, that by it the nerves are braced to bear what in the more depressing evening season would be double pain-— that it brings its cares and active duties, which drown thought, and makes a man no more the sorrowful leave-taker, but the sanguine traveller. It was Sunday morning, and the ship was to sail at nine o’clock. I was on board by eight, and as I noted the quiet aspect of things around me, concluded that we should not in reality be off till the afternoon. The steam was up, it is true, but the unpractised eye could observe no other sign of preparation. No officers were visible; the deck seemed a mere promenade for passengers and their friends, who at the sound of a bugle playing ‘Sich a gettin’ up stairs,’ all went below to breakfast. I who had breakfasted at the hotel remained on deck, and still the mystery of inaction continued. I saw the mail boxes which had just come on board heaped up in deep ranks on one side of the deck. ‘That looks like starting,’ I thought; and yet there the vessel lay, wedged in by the pier, as quiet and still as if her voyage was to begin in a month instead of five minutes later. Presently a bell rings; there is a rush of shore-going friends from the saloon—friends who with a natural suicidal tenderness would prolong their pangs to the uttermost, by coming down with their dear voyagers to Southampton to see the last of them. Then follows a scene of parting on which I will not dwell; that painful struggle for the last look—that desperate resolution which induces the earnest gazer to turn away and submit to parting pain no longer; the waving of handkerchiefs by hands scarcely identified from that receding steamer;—for already we are off. Mysteriously that inert mass has glided into motion; officers have emerged in official costume from under greatcoats and other mufti disguises, sailors have gathered noiselessly to the wheel and the look-out stations; the pier-head is passed, the revolving paddles proclaim, in tones no longer suppressed, our actual departure; the ship is under weigh—the Overland Mail is on its way to India.
‘I wonder how many of us will come back again?’ so I heard one old gentleman say, as he looked round philosophically but not unpitying on the suffering crowd of fellow-passengers. He was used to the thing: he was a China merchant who travelled from London to Hong Kong and back once at least in every year. Very different from that poor English maid-servant who, following her mistress to Calcutta, supported only by fidelity, looks upon the black water with a vague dread, knowing she has to travel on and on, but where, or how far, or how long, she does not know, or if told cannot realize; different, too, from the mistress herself, the young Englishwoman returning to her husband, but who has left her children on the pier, and has already begun to count the days which must elapse before that greater meeting in the Punjab can heal the wound of this lesser parting at Southampton. But the remark rang in my ears; and now that some years have passed, and my fellow passengers are scattered I know not where, far beyond my ken, I sometimes try to recall their faces, and wonder with the old gentleman how many have, how many shall look with the glad eye of a home-bound exile on the Southampton Water.
But the great ship has no sentiment—or at least has sentiments of her own; must keep contract time—must be at Gibraltar in six days; and so she steams on, down that pleasant Solent Sea, suggestive of the dignity and the coquetry of English naval strength, embracing the three-deckers of Spithead and the yacht fleet of Cowes;—on by Osborne; the Royal standard is flying there; yet another parting adieu to Royalty—God save the Queen!— on past the favouring shelter of the Needles; on down the English Channel, till the coast of Dorset or the cliffs of Devon, dimly discerned to the right, are all that remain of England. Night falls, morning breaks, the dear old country is well under our lee, the Bay of Biscay is before us.
I do not propose to travel over again the overland route; I have gone it often enough in the flesh to satisfy myself; my readers have probably travelled it often enough in spirit to satisfy them. They have been struck by the first sight of a new quarter of the globe, that bluff African coast, that narrowing sea, that rushing strait, that indomitable fortress, that green spot in a bleak region, that nest of bright grass, and bristling cannon set in the face of the solid rock; they have due homage to time-honoured and geographical associations while making the greatest turn to the East in the world—the turn which leads through the Pillars of Hercules; from the vexed Atlantic to the Middle Sea—from the highway of the modern West to the oldest haunts of civilization. They have landed at Malta, and dined at the bad inns, and done the lions; they have set foot on Egyptian soil at Alexandria, and paid tribute, if not to the Egyptian pacha, at least to the Egyptian donkey boys; they have marked the wonderful contrast by which they passed in five minutes from the Peninsular and Oriental steamer with its English crew, its English stewards, its English system, its English four meals a day, to streets down which was pouring the high tide of Oriental life, marked by Oriental complexion, manners, and language. They have groaned in the Nile boat, rested at Cairo, laughed in the desert, languished in that dreary barrack at Suez, caught their first glimpse of Indian life in the differences between the Calcutta bound steamer, the Oriental, now lying in the roadstead, and that English-fitted Indus which they left at Alexandria; in the punkahs—in the native servants, in the Lascar crew, in the iced water, in the hot curries, they receive a foretaste of their coming life. They have groaned and panted and slept on deck in the Red Sea, and wearied out the hearts of the officers of the ship, by frequent vain imploring, almost indignant, inquiries, ‘When will it be cool?’ They have landed at Aden, galloped to the cantonment, said what a strange-looking place it is, called it the Gibraltar of the East, with some self-complacency at the smartness of the term; and after a weary ten hours spent in debating between the two opposite poles of discomfort, the wretchedness of the coaling on board, and the misery of the hotel ashore, have again committed themselves to the tedium of the sea and sky, the long ten days of the Arabian Sea; have called in, first cards, then dancing, then private theatricals, and a still culminating succession of stimulants, to divert the ennui which is but partially relieved by noting the day’s run, by the porpoises and flying fish. They have gazed with delight on the rich wood-fringed, hill crowned harbour of Galle; and hence doubtless have taken their way, as I have done ere now, giving themselves up to the prospects of their Indian career—home, its pleasures and regrets, faded into the background, a subject not as heretofore for passionate comparison, but for half-pleasing melancholy regret—to Madras or Calcutta.
But not to India was I bound on this occasion, but to China, and accordingly left the Oriental at Ceylon, and became a passenger on the screw steam ship Borneo, bound for Singapore and Hong Kong. Still the sea was smooth, and day after day we noted our course at noon, and had become so used to the steamer, to clear skies, and to quiet seas, that the latter seemed to us matters of course, and we scarcely counted the days which yet lay between us and the date of our arrival. But when we had left Singapore, we were reminded that the season was advanced, that May was nearly over, and the monsoon had set in. Still we did not mind; all except the most desperate landsmen of the party had become sufficient sailors to endure a certain amount of tossing; and the Borneo was a good sea-boat, able to laugh at any ordinarily rough weather. But never shall I forget the depression which the spirits of us all underwent, as marked as that of the quicksilver in the barometer, when, at the end of a blowing day, the wind increased so that it almost seemed to have changed its very nature; it was no longer a strong wind, or a gale; hurricane was not a sufficient term to describe it; we had steered right into the centre of a cycloon.
I have crouched down on the top of Helvellyn in a gale of wind; I have ridden out a storm in the Bay of Biscay; I remember the hurricane of 6th and 7th January, 1839, when woods were laid low en masse, and half the coast shipping of the British Islands was stranded; but never before had I experienced anything of a kindred genus to the furious gusts which now blew the sea over the ship, blew everything moveable off the deck, and forced all those whom duty kept above board to hold on with their whole force for life. Suddenly the hurricane subsided, and for about twenty minutes we enjoyed a comparative lull. We enjoyed with the security of ignorance, but those who knew the nature of a cycloon were well aware that the lull did but prove that we were in the very centre of the furious storm cloud; that the partial calm was only a proof of the greatness of our danger. Suddenly a clamour as of the heavens broken loose, and with one awful bound the cycloon, tearing and lashing the sea, burst upon us in waves of spray. That first shock nearly took away the breath of every man; when it passed the funnel was no longer visible, it had been carried clean away by the screeching blast, and flames were springing up from the engine room. All hands were immediately employed to put out the fires, a task in which they were happily aided by the heavy sea which continually broke over the ship; our machinery was useless; for all practical purposes the Borneo was no longer a steamer. The cycloon passed over, but the wind of the monsoon still blew furiously, and it was thought impossible for the steamer in her damaged state to reach Hong Kong. It was determined therefore to try back. Sails were set, and we shaped our backward course to Singapore.
The event which I have described took place about one in the afternoon. For the remainder of that day things went on quietly and much as usual. We missed, but could hardly be said to regret, the grinding and thumping of the screw, and with that facility of adapting ourselves to circumstances which travellers soon learn, had become quite reconciled by sunset to our altered position. The officers had got the sun at noon, and our course was supposed to be known with sufficient accuracy. One obstacle only lay between us and Singapore—the Madagong reef—to which, however, it was calculated, our present course would give a wide berth, not less than five-and-twenty miles; so the dress bugle sounded as usual at half-past three, and the dinner bugle at four, and we sat down to the usual assemblage of roast and boiled turkeys, and roast and boiled mutton, roast and boiled fowls: there was more than usual animation at table, for it was Thursday, a champagne day, and passengers discussed with energy the event of the morning, and what they should do at Singapore; while some sea lawyers speculated on the amount of damage to which they were entitled from the Company for detention and loss of time, the officers defending their owners with that zeal and esprit de corps which is honourably characteristic of the Peninsular and Oriental Service. Dinner passed; the usual deck promenades, it is true, were somewhat curtailed, for the sea was still very rough, and it takes more than one overland voyage to establish a man on his sea legs. But our party mustered again to tea at seven, and when the day’s proceedings were wound up by the appearance of the grog and biscuits at half-past eight, the same rubber parties which had been formed in the Bay of Biscay by the China passengers, were pursuing their nightly avocation, with the usual self-vindications and mutual recriminations about A’s having finessed his knave at a too critical moment, or B’s having refused to put on his high card at second hand; or, worse offence still, C’s having trumped his partner’s best club: in a word, the passengers of the good ship Borneo ate, drank, and made merry, while the good ship herself, without a funnel, was rushing away in the dark angry sea under moderate sail, the officers casting anxious looks ahead and aloft, for they knew that a steamer without a funnel was in a far from satisfactory condition.
The clock stood at half-past ten, five bells were struck, lights were extinguished, and the passengers laid down to sleep as usual.
It is history and not romance which makes me select as my next date that very witching hour of night—1 A.M. It was indeed just at that epoch of profound repose that I was startled from my sleep by a violent cry of ‘White water—white water!’ I started up, still only half conscious. But as I rubbed my eyes, and doubted, and half resolved to get up and go on deck, and half to lie down and believe that nothing had happened, I felt suddenly a cruel, crushing, grinding crash, and heard confused shouts, cries, and lamentations from the deck. I hastened up, dimly conscious of the presence of the whole ship’s company, collected on a similar sad errand of fearful inquiry as to what was the matter; and then I saw the crippled steamer, with the waves breaking furiously over her bows, and looking round discerned for more than a mile a treacherous and deadly circle of white glimmering water. There was no mistake about the matter, the twenty-five miles on which we had reckoned at noon had been more than counterbalanced by a strong current; we had gone ashore on the Madagong reef, three hundred miles from Singapore, one hundred and twenty from the nearest land; the Borneo was wrecked.
There may be men—if the novelists are to be depended on, there certainly are—capable in such an hour of divesting themselves of all gross and terrestrial feelings, and making calm observations on human nature, as set forth in the faces, the words and deeds of their less philosophical, their agonized companions. For my part, I am an Englishman, but no philosopher. I recollect that my first feeling was a wish that I might be able to behave decently; for I concluded immediately that we were all dead men. I have thought since what never occurred to me at the time, how superior, how far more noble must have been the thoughts which passed through the minds of the officers of the ship.
My courage, such as it was, was the passive virtue of resignation. I endeavoured to make up my mind to suffer with firmness. But the grand thing about these officers was, that they had evidently not made up their minds to suffer at all; their idea was, not how to die decently, but how to beat the waves and winds, and rocks and breakers, and get the Borneo off. They were gathered in a cluster forward. The ship was just in the position described in that noble shipwreck chapter in the Acts of the Apostles: the fore part stuck fast and remained immovable, but the hinder part was not indeed broken, but heaved up and tossed down, and shaken furiously with the violence of the waves. Every succeeding swell sent her more and more hopelessly aground. Meanwhile, as I have said, the officers were gathered in consultation; the sails were set a-back, and it was decided to cut away the foremast; but all was of no avail; we had gone aground at high water, and there appeared little hope of our ever getting off again. Those who know with what ardent eagerness every word which falls from captain or officer of a ship is gathered up, and retailed, and dwelt upon by passengers, even under the most ordinary circumstances, will readily conceive with what intense interest every word and act of theirs was now regarded. The poor passengers, they certainly (I say it, though I was one) behaved very well, considering both the awfulness and the novelty of their situation. Their position was more trying than that of the officers; they had nothing to do; and besides, omne ignotum pro terribile; they could not estimate, and were therefore sure to exaggerate, the violence of each gust, the danger of each wave.
Several, perhaps the greatest number, all the women, joined a clergyman, who happened to be on board, in religions exercises; others safe by themselves, mute, fixed, waiting their fate in resigned, patient silence. So passed the first two hours on the wreck, from one to three. At the latter hour, marked as usual by the ship’s six bells, one of those passengers whom I had observed sitting alone, exclaimed that he saw a light. In a moment every man’s eyes were fixed in the same direction. Was it a light, or only a star? Some said the latter; but most, even of the sailors, thought the former; and for three quarters of an hour we were engaged in this awful controversy, the most faint-hearted declaring it to be only a star, with a confidence founded on their half-belief and earnest hope that they were wrong—but they were not wrong. The pale morning broke over the grey, troubled sea, and the treacherous star disappeared from the horizon. At daylight our position was obvious to all: we were hopelessly wrecked on a desert reef in the middle of the ocean.
A council was again summoned. What was to be done? ‘Let all hands join to make rafts’ was the first decision, for the Borneo had not boat accommodation for half our number; but then again the idea occurred, ‘Why leave a ship which, though wrecked, is still sound and water-tight, and is moreover full of provision, for the dangerous navigation and scanty supplies which could be carried on rafts?’
‘I’ll tell you a better idea,’ said the chief officer of the ship, whom I will call Mr. Barlow, addressing the captain, ‘do you stay here with all the passengers, and I will man the jolly- boat and go for help.’
We all looked at the jolly-boat; there she was hanging in the davits, looking so small; and there was the monsoon-troubled sea, looking so rough, and Singapore was three hundred miles off, and the nearest land one hundred and twenty, and the chance seemed indeed a poor one. And yet it was the only chance; the jolly-boat was the best and largest of those which were in a seaworthy state, and Mr. Barlow had the voice, the eye, and the heart of a sailor. In a word, the plan which was suggested at eleven o’clock on the third of June, was adopted by twelve, and ripe for execution by three in the afternoon. Sails, oars, blankets, provisions, water, a compass, a small watch chronometer, were put into the jolly boat, Mr. Barlow’s volunteer companions had taken their places, the third officer of the ship, Mr. Wallace, an English quartermaster, and the Sarang or Lascar boatswain, and myself, whose knowledge of the Chinese language might, it was thought, enable me to be of use as an interpreter; lastly, Mr. Barlow himself touched his cap to the commander, reported himself ready to depart, and after a hearty shake of the hand, took his seat in his little vessel.
No sooner did we leave the lee of the Borneo—no sooner had the sound of the three melancholy cheers which greeted us and bade us good speed died away, than the peril of our enterprise, as the little boat rocked and tossed and buried herself in spray, became sufficiently obvious. It blew hard all that night, and for the first few hours I, who knew less than my companions what a good boat could stand and what she could not, expected to be swamped by every wave. Gradually I became used to my situation, and when I saw a roller approaching as if it would swallow us up, expected, quite as a matter of course, that the brave little jolly-boat would ride triumphantly over it.
The two officers treated me as a first-class passenger just as much as if I was still on board the Borneo. They would not hear of my taking a watch at night to assist in baling the boat, but begged that I would make myself comfortable, and go to sleep. It was the advice of philosophers, which however it required a philosopher to follow. I did wrap myself up in a blanket in the driest place I could find, but no part of the boat was exempt from the drenching spray which pretty well destroyed comfort, and as to sleeping, it was out of the question.
The inky sky, the white, rolling, angry sea, were causes of anxiety too powerful to be defeated by sleep; but what the body could not do, the mind did; and though I could not escape from the terrible present by means of sleep, I could by the power of imagination. I could see the Borneo, her anxious passengers counting the hours till our return might become possible; I could again enjoy the smooth sea and sunny sky which we had left behind us; far off I could see busy England, its railway trains running, its business speeding, its quiet homes—and one home above all—among the lakes, and woods, and streams, and mountains, where fond hearts thought of one that was absent, but little thought of him as being tossed up and down amid storm and darkness, in a jolly-boat on the China seas.
Morning—the terror of the guilty, the friend of the innocent, the comforter of the unhappy—morning came at last. Our first look was for land, but none was visible. On leaving the ship, it had been determined to make in the first instance for the nearest land, about one hundred and twenty miles distant, to a place called Maican, and there endeavour to obtain assistance from the natives. If we failed, as it was most likely we should, it would cost us about fifty extra miles as taken out of our direct course, to Singapore; but if we succeeded, the Borneo would be relieved in two days instead of having to wait seven or eight. At about ten o’clock on the fourth of June we sighted the low inhospitable coast, and at half-past eleven fell in with two or three junks, containing probably the greater part of the local population. My task now commenced, and I soon found that negotiation was hopeless. The men seemed perfectly indifferent to all offers of money; they asked with a suspicious interest after the exact position of the ship, but, with a few protestations of helplessness, absolutely refused all assistance. It was with a heavy heart that I heard Mr. Harlow exclaim in a cheerful tone, as if the result was nothing more than he expected —
‘Well, then, we must make the best of our way to Singapore.’
True, I had not expected success, but after all, failure is not the less painful because it has been anticipated. We stood out to sea under more favourable auspices than those under which we had quitted the ship the previous day. The weather was fine, even the heat of the sun was to my mind preferable to the gloom of the storm-cloud; there was breeze enough to send our little craft gaily through the water, but the violence of the wind had subsided, and the sea had gone and was still going down. By five in the evening we had lost the land, when, to our surprise and no great satisfaction, we saw one of the junks with which we had had an interview in the morning, coming up after us, going two feet to our one. She soon overhauled us, and I resumed my post of interpreter.
My first impression was that her crew had relented and were about to offer to accept my highest terms and go to the wreck, but one junk would have been of little use, nor indeed had the owners of this one junk the slightest intention of going. All the rogues wanted was money, which they asked for without preface or scruple of any kind. The character of our neighbours was becoming so suspicious that I advised the officers and men to look to their arms, which they instantly did. The other party saw the movement, and broke forth into protestations: they were not pirates, only poor men come to beg money. I offered them double what I had in the morning offered, if they would go with efficient assistance to the Borneo; they still asked for money; this I refused to give, and begged them to go about their business. The poor men, however, followed in our wake with unpleasant tenacity.
At this time the wind was nearly due south, so that we, in steering a south-westerly course, just had our sails full, and struggled against leeway by keeping an oar going on the starboard side.
At six the junk suddenly left us, like a discomfited beggarman, and, running northwards, was, by seven o’clock only indistinctly visible. The remaining daylight, however, enabled us to detect three junks instead of one. It was now evident that our sturdy beggars were nothing less than pirates; that they had intended to engage us single-handed, but their hearts failing them at the last, had dropped astern to wait for, or by signals which we could not observe, to summon assistance; and that having joined forces, they would soon be after us again in numbers which we could not resist.
Our commanding officer’s decision was instantly formed. We tacked, so as to bring the boat’s head in a south-easterly direction, exactly the opposite to that in which our proper course lay; and after an hour’s sail, during which time the darkness had quite concealed the junks from our view, were obliged by the rising moon to haul down our sail, that we might not be seen by the pirates, and continue to toil at the oars. At eleven o’clock we got in the oars, made sail, and resumed our course. The manoeuvre had completely succeeded, the junks had lost the scent, and we and the poor men saw no more of each other.
But as one anxiety was relieved, another took its place. On the following Sunday morning the appearance of the weather had again become unfavourable; the sun rose angrily; the sea got up without apparent cause, the wind seeming to come later: all through the day we had occasional squalls and showers of rain. Night fell; we had made a poor day’s work, and the sea was rising so fast as to threaten momentarily to swamp the boat. It was at this crisis—at this renewal of danger when it was thought to have gone by—this fresh tax on resources and energies already much exhausted, that I, feeling, I confess, my own spirits much depressed, and beginning to despair of ever getting safe to land, admired the noble manner in which the four sailors, officers and men, exhibited the traditional calmness, courage, and fertility of invention of brave seamen. I do not think that I ever heard the chances of safety discussed. The idea of being lost could not have been absent from the mind of any of those men, but it was never once alluded to; and yet there was nothing forced or unnatural in such silence; it was evident that the prominent idea in each man’s mind was to make Singapore: the leading question, not—‘shall we be saved or lost?’ but—‘What is the beat thing to do next?’ To this last question, under the circumstances which had now arrived, the answer did appear to a landsman quite hopeless. To run before such a sea as was now foaming round us was out of the question; almost equally so was it to lie-to against it. I can scarcely hope to give a correct technical description of the manoeuvre which was adopted, but I will try and make the unprofessional reader understand it; the professional man will be able to correct faults by his own knowledge. In the first place all the blankets were collected, hauled as taut as possible, and nailed down over the boat. Under this extempore deck three of us were ordered to lie down, while of the others, one steered and one baled. The boat was put head to wind, and a floating anchor thrown out, composed of a grating which had been brought away from the ship and such other heavy articles as could be spared. In this way we rode out the gale. For my part I was so wearied, and found the protection of the blanket penthouse so comfortable, that, with, the exception of my two hours’ turn at baling, I slept almost the whole night. Next day the sea was more moderate, and we were able to make some little progress: but it was now two days since we had seen the sun, and our reckoning was becoming obscure.
On Tuesday, June 7th, the sea was again smooth, the sky clear, and the wind fair. But, as one fear left us, another still took its place. The provisioning of our boat had been carelessly performed: the supply of water especially being very deficient. For two days we had been on short allowance; on this day we were reduced to about two wine-glasses of water and a very limited quantity of biscuit; even at this rate we could not subsist more than two days longer. Still our commandant uttered no evil foreboding, but talked only about getting the sun at noon, and finding whereabouts we were. Never shall I forget the anxiety with which we all waited for the result of the officer’s calculation.
Never shall I forget that old quartermaster’s face turned up to catch what he well knew must be a sentence of life or death: so full of eagerness, and yet of strength and resignation. Never shall 1 forget the reaction of delight when we heard that we were only eighty miles from Singapore. The old quartermaster did not indeed say much, but, in his quiet muttering—‘eighty miles,—well, then, we shall do’—was expressed a volume full of heartfelt relief and confidence. All the old feeling of security came back; it was no longer a question of—‘Shall we get back to Singapore?’ but—‘When shall we get there?’ I began mentally reckoning the miles and the hours, as 1 had been accustomed to do on board the steamer.
It was a quiet night, but we were all greatly troubled by the increasing pain of thirst. When day dawned land was in sight, which, on observation, proved us to be still thirty-five miles from our destination. The weather, however, continued fair, and we made slow but steady progress; the danger of our expedition was, comparatively speaking, over; perhaps it was the absence of the danger which had so long excited us, that made the hours of this last day drag so heavily and wearily along. It was two o’clock when our gallant little craft entered the harbour of Singapore. She attracted no attention, and we landed as unobserved as any five individuals might have done after a pleasure-trip some fine afternoon in the Southampton Water. Our chief officer cannot but have felt proud at having accomplished his exploit; having brought such a vessel into port after such a cruise. But, whatever he may have felt, his first words and acts referred not to the perils of the past, but the duties of the present. He went straight away, taking us with him, to the agent of his company, in order to fulfil his errand and procure aid for the Borneo. He was not however so punctilious as to insist upon making his report before relieving the urgent distress of himself and his companions. The first word he said to the agent, who received us with wondering hospitality, was—‘Water.’ The agent was a sensible man; he at once saw, to a certain extent, the nature of the case, and deferring all questions or expressions of surprise, hastened to serve out weak grog all round. Revived by the timely medicine, Mr. Barlow explained in a few words whatever it was necessary for the agent to know with regard to the position of the steamer and our own six days’ voyage. The Levant steamer, which was lying in the harbour, received orders to prepare for sea immediately; at midnight she was ready, and we having been thoroughly re-fitted, both with food and raiment, by the sympathising agent, embarked on board of her, leaving only the third officer to accompany the Africa, a steamer which was expected in next day, and which was, immediately on her arrival, to be despatched to assist in saving the Borneo.
Even my recent experience of how suddenly safety may be changed into danger, could not prevent my entertaining once more a feeling of perfect security on finding myself on board a powerful roomy steamer, and looking down on those dark waves, to which, in our little nutshell of a jolly-boat, I had been almost obliged to look up. But though our own personal deliverance seemed accomplished, our anxiety as to our fellow-passengers increased as we drew nearer the scene of the wreck. During our own six days of peril, the position of those on board the wrecked ship had haunted my imagination as one of enviable security; but now that I began to reflect, it seemed as if their situation must have been almost more terrible than ours. They were actually wrecked; they could do nothing: every violent wave, every fresh breeze threatened them with destruction; at any moment the iron plates might give way, and then they would be certainly lost. Or if the ship did hold out for days, or even weeks, might not a still more terrible fate await them? They were out of the course of ships; no vessel would voluntarily come so near a well known reef as to be able to see them. The ship was indeed well stored, and from the first day all hands had prudently been placed on a strict allowance, but the stores could not last for ever; when they were consumed, if the ship was still above water, what was to be done? All their hopes seemed concentrated on one small object, our poor little jolly-boat, tossing up and down in the rough sea, hardly saved from destruction by its blanket-deck and floating anchor-apparatus. It was at three o’clock in the afternoon of the 20th of June, just eight days after the wreck, that the smoke of our approaching steamer was observed from the masthead of the Borneo. I will not attempt to record a scene which I did not witness, but from what one can conceive, and from what I heard, it must have been not a little affecting, when this welcome news circulated like lightning round the decks of the ship. But though it was natural that those who had so long been lying under sentence of death should hold a reprieve as equivalent to deliverance, it was obvious to any seaman, indeed to any dispassionate observer, that this deliverance was still no such easy matter. The first duty of the captain of the Levant was clearly to keep his own ship out of danger. With this object he stood off for the night, to the no small disappointment and unreasonable indignation of the passengers on board the wreck. The next day the weather was unfortunately leas favourable; the Levant had to lie a considerable distance to leeward of the reef, so that the process of transporting the passengers and crew from one ship to another by means of boats, was long, and not altogether free from danger. In the course of the afternoon the Africa joined us, her boats were immediately lowered, and by sunset we had the satisfaction of knowing that not a soul remained on board the Borneo.
The rescue was accomplished just in time. That night it came on again to blow, and both the Levant and the Africa were forced to put to sea. For three days we endured the worst violence of the monsoon, and when at last the weather moderated, and we returned to the reef, the Borneo was gone. The good iron ship, with her engines, cargo, and passengers’ luggage, was lying at the bottom of the sea.
The Levant and Africa had neither coals nor provisions enough to carry us to our proper destination, Hong Kong; once more, therefore, we laid our course for Singapore, and reached it on the third day.
It might be supposed that the one universal feeling of the passengers on placing foot once more on terra firma, would have been that of delight and gratitude. But no! as the gloom of shipwreck wore off each countenance, it was succeeded by the peevish frown of an English traveller, disappointed of reaching the end of his journey and deprived of his luggage. To hear the complaints of our old merchant at having missed a fortnight’s mail, or of our little lawyer at not having received full consideration for his passage-money, or of our dandy captain at having lost his portmanteau, and being obliged to wear for a few days an old coat and a dirty shirt, it would have been thought impossible that these men, so impatient under the minor miseries of life, should have so lately been delivered from imminent peril; or that these grumblers about comparative trifles should have been able to look death in the face for eight anxious days and nights with magnanimous silence and manly fortitude.
However, I believe they all got to Hong Kong sooner or later, somehow or another, though I daresay the good-natured agent’s hair had turned grey before he got quit of the last of them.
For myself, I have done with the East, and am again, I hope for the last time, a passenger on board the homeward mail. I am too old a stager to care to go upstairs with the others to look at Algiers, which we are just now passing; and have preferred to take advantage of these quiet days in the Mediterranean to recall the only romantic adventure of my life. Should the evening of my days be, by Heaven’s blessing, prosperous and calm, the recollection of those six days in a jolly-boat may serve as wholesome salt, keeping the spirit of adventure and energy from absolute decay. And, as I have myself no title to credit in the affair, having been a mere passenger, saved by the skill of others, I may be permitted to express my admiration of the noble conduct of those four brave seamen, my companions. I have heard it lamented that the true spirit of nautical enterprise is dead; that the skill and courage which enabled sailors of Raleigh’s day to cross the Atlantic in vessels of twenty-four tons’ burden, has been crushed by advancing civilization, by large ships, and especially by steam.
Now, certainly, seamen do not cross the Atlantic in ships of twenty tons; as certainly, so long as they can build ships of 200 or 2000 tons, they never will. But when occasion compels they can still do their duty in little craft as well as big ; and when any laudator temporis acti (and I think there never was a greater number of this sort of gentry abroad than just at present) begins talking his fudge about tho inferiority of modern sailors to those of the Elizabethan age, I pay him as little outward attention as is decent, and mentally recall my six days’ voyage in the Victorian age, and those four men who were my companions in the jolly-boat of the Borneo.
W. D. A.