IN THE GRIP OF THE MULLAH
“Perim!” shouted Colonel Hubbard, placing his hand to his mouth, and his lips close to the ear of his friend Major Bellamy. “The island of Perim, or I am much mistaken. It lies in the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and has proved the destruction of more than one fine vessel. I can tell you that, on this dark night and with this fierce gale blowing, we are lucky to have caught even a glimpse of the light, and still more fortunate to have slipped by in safety. Now we leave the Red Sea and run into the Gulf of Aden, where we shall feel the full force of the wind and waves. However, what does that matter? Better plenty of water all around, even though it is lashed into a frenzy, than a lee shore close at hand, a dark night, and no bearings to steer by. Halloa, there’s the flash of the light again!”
Clinging with one hand to the rail which ran round the saloon, the speaker pointed eagerly into the darkness. Aided by the faint gleam of the electric lamp which was suspended from the spar deck above their heads, his comrade, Major Bellamy, followed the direction of his finger, and having watched for a few seconds, suddenly exclaimed:
“Yes, colonel, you’re right! I could have sworn that there was nothing but inky blackness over in that direction. But there’s no doubt about the matter. The light is flashing in that quarter, I’ll stake my word upon it. Won’t our skipper be joyful! I heard him saying, an hour or more ago, that our safety depended upon his sighting the island; and there it is, sure enough. Well, it’s a great relief, and now I can turn in with some degree of assurance. I’m not nervous, you know, colonel, but, by Jove, a storm like this, and a pitch dark night such as we are experiencing, make one a little anxious in spite of one’s self. Now, if it were on land, and we were in an enemy’s country, I should feel far more at my ease. I’d double the pickets, of course, so as to give the boys a little more courage, don’t you know; for even a soldier feels queer when posted a couple of hundred yards away from his fellows, especially if he knows that a score or more of niggers are probably crawling around like ghosts, ready to fall upon him at any moment. Yes, I’ve had experience of that, and I well remember how fidgety I was, for we were fighting on the West Coast, and knew well that the natives of Ashantee were as cruel and as cunning as they make ’em. So I’d double the pickets, colonel, and I’d make a point of going round to inspect them, and at the same time to encourage them, every quarter of an hour. Depend upon it, nothing like letting Thomas Atkins know that his officer is at hand, taking an interest in him, and ready to help him at any moment.”
“Just so,” responded the colonel, clinging the while with all his strength to the rail, for the steamer was rolling and plunging heavily. “Quite right, Bellamy; I’d do the same. But what can our poor skipper do? He can’t send out sentries, and if he could they would be useless on a night like this. He must just trust to his eyes, and to his skill as a navigator. But, thank Heaven, we are out of the Red Sea and well on our way for India. Heigho! I’m sleepy, and, like you, want to turn in. Good-night! Let’s hope the sea will have gone down by morning.”
With a nod, they separated, and, still taking advantage of the rail, went along the slippery and deserted deck to their quarters. This was no easy matter, for every now and again their progress was impeded by the plunging of the vessel, which caused them to halt and cling frantically to their support till they saw a favorable opportunity to proceed.
“Good-night!” shouted the major, who reached the companion first, turning to wave his arm to his friend; but his words were caught by the wind and whisked into space. Then he dived below. The colonel never saw him again.
Colonel Hubbard and his friend Major Bellamy were on their way to India to rejoin their regiments, both having for the past two years been engaged in special work in South Africa. At another time the ship would have been full to overflowing with troops, going to the East to replace those who had completed their term of service there, but, owing to the fact that all Indian reliefs had practically been suspended during the South African war, there were only a few other officers on board.
The steamer had sailed from Liverpool ten days before and had made a fine passage to the Suez Canal. But now a change had come over the weather, the glass had fallen with surprising swiftness, and a fierce gale had sprung up. Navigating his vessel with all possible care, the captain had at length the satisfaction of piloting her past the island of Perim and had breathed more freely as he steered a course into the Gulf of Aden, en route for the Indian Ocean.
“We’re safer here, at any rate,” he remarked in tones of satisfaction to the first mate, as the two stood poring over a chart in the deck-house on the bridge. “We’ve our bearings, and can go straight ahead till dawn. But we shall have to be careful to take into account the set of the gale. I reckon that we are making a knot or more to leeward for every five we advance. So keep her helm well up, Farmer, and send to wake me if you have any doubts. If I were at all anxious, I’d keep at my post till morning; but now that we’re in the open sea, there can be nothing to fear. A bright look-out, then, and good-night.”
The captain gave vent to a loud yawn and wearily left the chart-house; for he had resolutely kept at his station on the bridge ever since the ship entered the canal, and was now completely worn out. Groping his way, he descended to the spar deck and disappeared into his cabin. Ten minutes later the gleam of light from his porthole was suddenly cut off, and the deck outside was plunged into darkness.
For three hours the fine ship plunged forward, ploughing deep into the waves and rolling heavily every minute. But no one suspected danger. Why should they indeed? What harm could come to such a powerful vessel in this open sea? Evidently, the mate, as he kept watch upon the bridge, had no qualms, for he even hummed the refrain of a popular London air as he clung to the chart-house table, and pricked off the course run during the night. Danger! Why, not a soul expected such a thing, for if they had, would the passengers have been lying below in their bunks, vainly endeavoring to snatch a few moments’ sleep? Certainly not. They would have been cowering in the open, a prey to terror, expecting every moment to bring some dire catastrophe.
“We’re in the gulf, and safe,” murmured the colonel, thrusting a pillow between his shoulders and the edge of his bunk, so that he might retain his position more easily. “We have a capable skipper and crew, and, so far as I can see, we have nothing to fear. So here’s for a snooze till morning.”
With that he turned on his side, and, covering his head with the clothes, settled himself for slumber.
Crash! The shock threw every sleeper from his bunk and even brought the steersman to the deck. Crash! Suddenly arrested in her onward progress, the ship drew back for a moment, and then hurled herself with awful force against the obstruction. For the space of a few seconds she remained firmly fixed, and then, to the accompaniment of rending iron and timber, and the crash of the waves as they beat against her side, she slid into deep water once more, and wallowed there, as if undecided how to act. But there was no pausing with that sea raging all about her, and with such a gale forcing her onward. Heaving her stern high into the air, she rushed upon the unknown reef for the third time, seeming to leap at it eagerly in the vain hope of surmounting it. A moment later her keel fell upon the rock with a sickening bump, and breaking asunder in the bows, she disappeared in the raging sea.
It was a frightful calamity, and Colonel Hubbard, as he clung to a portion of the wreck, could scarcely believe that he was awake—could hardly realize that this was not some terrible dream, a nightmare for which the storm and its attendant discomforts was to blame.
“Wrecked?” he wondered, shaking his head to clear his eyes of water, and shifting his grasp so as to obtain a more secure position. “Am I awake, or is this only imagination? No; I am wet and shivering. It is all too real.”
At this moment a monstrous wave bore down upon him, and clinging desperately to the tangled seaweed with which the rock was thickly covered, he braced himself to withstand the strain to which he was about to be subjected. Taking a long breath, he had just time to close his eyes when the mass of water was upon him. Clasping him in its cold embrace, it tore him from his hold as if he were weaker than a child, and then, bearing him onward, it hurled him against a piece of floating wreckage, and left him there, breathless, gasping for air, and almost unconscious. But the instinct of self-preservation soon asserted itself, and ere a minute had passed he was astride the floating woodwork, clinging to it with all his strength.
“If this is torn from me,” he gasped, “I shall be washed away and drowned. But it shan’t be, I’ll see to that, for I don’t mean to die yet. Things look black enough, but I won’t give in.”
Clenching his teeth, the gallant colonel clung to the wreckage gamely, and, though frequently submerged beneath the huge masses of green water which rolled and tossed about him, contrived to maintain his hold. Breathless, and shivering—for it was the winter season, and a piercingly cold wind blew through the gulf—he rode his strange steed through the remainder of the night, and just as the dawn was breaking, and the dark clouds in the east were beginning to light up with the rays of the rising sun, he espied a low bank of sand lying directly before him.
Shading his eyes with his hands, he looked long and eagerly and then gave vent to a shout of joy. Yes, though he had lost the best friend he ever had during the night and had to mourn the death of every one of the crew and passengers of the ill-fated liner, yet so strong is the love of life to the average healthy individual, that Colonel Hubbard’s spirits were raised to the highest by this piece of good fortune.
“Land, land!” he shouted excitedly, sitting up upon the baulk of timber to obtain a better view. “I reckon it is two hundred yards away, and getting closer every minute. I’m a bit done, or I’d make nothing of the swim. But I mustn’t forget that the gulf has a reputation for its sharks; they are said to swarm everywhere and to be only too ready to snap up everything that comes within their reach. Ugh, I won’t give ’em a chance!”
Shivering at the thought, the colonel turned once more to the land and watched it closely as the light of the dawning day disclosed its various features.
“Along rolling sandbank,” he said thoughtfully, “with blue hills in the distance, and scarcely a patch of vegetation to be seen. Now, what shore can it be? The gale has been from the northeast, and therefore it must be the northern coast of Africa, and, I fear, a desolate, uninhabited region altogether. But I mustn’t begin to grumble when Providence has watched over me so carefully. I must just make the best of matters, and be thankful that my life is saved.”
Cheering himself with these thoughts, and with the reflection that, once ashore, the greater part of his troubles would be ended, the colonel began to paddle with his hands and kick out with his feet. By now, too, he had the satisfaction of finding that he was in smooth water, though a line of hissing surf in front of him, and the dull boom of breakers falling upon the sand told him clearly that he had still some danger to contend with. But what was it, after all, when compared with the storm he had outlived that night? He asked himself the question, and for answer prepared to leave the piece of wreckage which had proved his salvation, and strike out for the shore.
“I should be a fool to stick to it longer,” he said. “Once in those breakers it would be twisted and turned in every direction, and if it did not stun me by a blow upon the head, it might very well roll over me and crush the life out of my body. So here goes!”
Slipping gently into the water, he struck out for the shore, firmly determined to do battle with the breakers. Almost before he thought it possible he reached the broad white line and was engulfed in a moment. And now, indeed, his powers of endurance were put to the test, for whereas a green wave had frequently covered him for the space of a minute whilst in the open sea, now the seething water bubbled and frothed about his mouth and ears continually. Then, too, caught by the fierce wind which was blowing, a sheet of spray covered the tops of the breakers, making breathing almost an impossibility. But the colonel was no chicken, and now that he had come through so much danger, was determined to reach the shore alive. Undaunted, therefore, and with never a pause, he struggled manfully onward.
At length, worn out with his exertions, he reached shallow water, and though the receding waves did their utmost to drag him backwards, he contrived to escape their fatal embrace and to reach a belt of dry and glistening sand upon which he threw himself at full length, for he was utterly exhausted. A quarter of an hour later he sprang to his feet, and, turning from the sea, set out for the interior.
“I shall starve if I stay here,” he said, “for there’s not a living soul in sight, and not a tree or green bush to be seen. I’m done, and I want food and drink badly. Perhaps I shall find both over that line of sandhills, and in any case, by climbing to the top I shall have a better opportunity of looking about me to see how the land lies. Perhaps I shall see a village in the distance or a shepherd’s hut, and if so I’ll go straight on and give myself into the hands of the inhabitants. It’ll be risky, I know, but I must just chance it.”
Trudging onward through the sand, which often rose above his ankles, he at length reached the summit of a low range of dunes which the wind, during centuries of ceaseless energy, had blown into position.
“Ah!” No wonder the colonel gave vent to an exclamation of astonishment, for when he reached the top he saw immediately before him a native camp. It was composed of numerous shelters of coarse linen or tattered camel-hide, which were dotted about the sand in regular order. Farther off were herds of sheep and goats and of camels, browsing upon the grass which here cropped out in every direction. There were also many horses, and natives were standing about, watching the animals as they fed.
But what attracted his attention most and filled him with a feeling of dismay, was the sight of some thirty or forty armed men who sat on horseback in the midst of the camp. They were wild-looking natives, swarthy of feature, tall, and not ungainly, and clad from head to foot in flowing robes of white. Some were armed with guns, while a few carried long spears and shields, which they waved frantically above their heads. Then, at a shout from one of them who had suddenly caught sight of the colonel, they set their horses in motion and came galloping at a headlong pace towards him. In a few moments, he was surrounded, and very soon he was bound hand and foot, a prisoner of these fierce warriors of Somaliland.
Two hours later the camp was struck, and the natives began to march into the interior, driving their herds before them. The colonel’s legs were freed, and he was ordered by signs to rise and follow his captors. To attempt to disobey was useless, and therefore, with downcast head and spirits at the lowest, he trudged onward beside the horsemen, a native with particularly brutal countenance riding close behind him. The colonel noted at a glance the long double-handed sword with which this ruffian was armed, and straightway he banished from his mind all thoughts of resistance or escape. For a week the caravan pushed onward, accomplishing, however, only short marches each day, for the pace was, of course, regulated by that of the herds which accompanied them.
On the seventh day, they reached their home, which consisted of a collection of mud hovels, and thereafter settled down to enjoy the loot which they had taken from the tribes inhabiting the coast. Colonel Hubbard was handed over to the wife of the Sheik, as the headman of the tribe was known, and at once became hewer of wood and drawer of water, hateful and laborious employment for a man who had fought so well for his country, and who had commanded one of His Majesty’s smart regiments.
Of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated ship which had come to grief in the Gulf of Aden not another soul escaped. The colonel, who was thus carried off into captivity, was the only survivor.
“Come in, my lad,” said the headmaster of a large school situated in the Midlands, turning in his chair, as a knock sounded on his door. “Ah, come in and sit down there, Hubbard. I’m grieved, my boy, terribly grieved at this sad news. If only we knew for certain what had happened, it would make this trouble easier to bear; but the doubt, the hope that one dare not indulge in, is most trying. But you’ve come to see me. Have you any more news?”
As he spoke he sprang to his feet and crossed the floor to meet the youth, who was no other than the son of the officer whose fortune we have been following. Like his father, the lad was tall, and by no means devoid of good looks. His features, indeed, had a close resemblance to the colonels. There was the same square chin, the same open, steady look, and a similar air of resolution.
“News, sir,” responded James Hubbard, eagerly, declining the proffered chair in his excitement, “yes, I have; look at that!”
Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he produced a yellow envelope and offered it to his master with trembling fingers.
“Good news, sir,” he cried; “here is a telegram from my uncle which gives me more hope. After all, father may not have gone down with the ship. He may have been washed ashore. He may have had the good fortune to secure a life-belt, which would have kept him afloat. Why should this news not refer to him?”
Snatching the telegram from him with equal eagerness, the headmaster dragged the paper from the envelope and scanned the contents.
“More news to hand,” ran the telegram. “A native arrived last week at Aden, having come from the Somali coast, and reports that on the morning following the night upon which the station at Perim sighted a steamer passing east, a white man was cast upon the coast fifty miles east of Berbera. He was at once pounced upon by a marauding band of Somali warriors, despatched to the coast by the Mullah for the purpose of obtaining loot and prisoners. This is the only news, except that pieces of wreckage have been washed up close to Aden, while a homeward-bound steamer picked up a portion of a stern rail bearing the name of the ill-fated vessel.”
“Hum, it is certainly news,” said the headmaster, doubtfully. “This telegram proves beyond doubt that the ship upon which your father sailed met with a catastrophe. But, my dear lad, anxious as I am to give you hope, I feel bound to tell you that you must not jump to conclusions. This man who was cast upon the coast, and who fell into the hands of that fanatic known as the Mullah, may have been a stoker, a greaser, or an able seaman aboard the ship. I do not wish to discourage you, of course. God knows, if it were only possible, and certain news had been received that it was your father and no one else who reached the shore, I would rejoice with you, and do my utmost to aid you in obtaining further information. But it is hopeless. Whoever it was who lived through that night and safely reached the African shore, would have been far happier, far more fortunate, had he perished like the rest.”
The headmaster paused for a few moments and stood looking at the young fellow before him. There was no doubt that he was full of sympathy for his loss and anxious to help him. But what could he do? To advise the lad to hope on would have been cruel in the circumstances. Better, far better, to put the facts plainly before him, even though in doing so he should cause him bitter grief. Yes, that was the best course to pursue, for to hold out the hope that his father still lived, simply upon the strength of this news just received, would have been madness—indeed, the greatest unkindness possible. Why the man who fell into the hands of the Mullah was more surely dead than all those others who had sunk to the depths of the ocean.
“Don’t think, my lad, that I am lacking in sympathy,” he went on, taking a pace forward, and placing his hand encouragingly on Jim’s shoulder. “I wish to help you to bear this trouble, and I feel that, when I tell you to extinguish all hope, I am giving you the best and the most considerate advice. There, tell me that you will take it in this way. Try to absorb yourself in work, and so forget your loss. Do not let this hideous uncertainty prey upon your mind, but banish it, for that is far the best course to pursue.”
He pressed his hand more firmly upon Jim’s shoulder and looked earnestly into his face as if to help him in coming to a decision. But the young fellow scarcely seemed to be aware of his presence. His eyes were fixed upon some distant object visible through the window, and his thoughts were evidently still farther away. His head was bowed upon his breast, and he looked for the moment as though this trouble, which had come upon him at such an early age, was crushing him. But suddenly his eye brightened, and a more cheerful expression overspread his face. He straightened himself, and, raising his head, looked steadily at his master.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. “I know how kind you are, and that in speaking to me in this way, and in giving me the benefit of your experience and of your advice, you have acted with the sole purpose of assisting me. But I cannot believe that my father is dead; I cannot, indeed. Something tells me that he has survived the wreck and that this white man referred to in the telegram is none other than he. Until I prove this or the contrary, I can never rest, and never settle for my work. I am thankful now that my mother is not alive to feel this grief. I am an only child, and my father is my best and kindest friend. I cannot, and will not, forsake him. I don’t know now how I shall act, but I feel that if the necessity arises, as, indeed, it must, I will willingly make my way into the heart of Somaliland, into the midst of the Mullah’s bands, and there clear up this doubt. If I find that it was not he who has washed ashore and captured by the natives, then I shall be far easier in my mind, and besides, sir, I might have the good fortune at the same time to bring help to this poor captive. If he were only a stoker, it would be sufficient reward to have rescued him from such a horrible fate.”
“But your examination, my lad. Will you permit yourself to miss it altogether?” exclaimed the headmaster. “Think what it means to you. You have now been reading hard for a year, and in two months, if only you are successful, as I fully believe you will be, you will have won a commission in the Army, and will be on the high-road to success, to follow in the footsteps of your worthy father.”
“I will give it up, sir,” replied Jim, emphatically. “Everything must be put aside for the sake of my father. I would rather lose this commission, and spend the remainder of my days upon an office-stool than leave this doubt unsettled. It haunts me, and though I know how hopeless the matter is, I will go through with it till I am sure of my father’s fate. But, in spite of everything, I feel that he still lives, and, perhaps, is even now wondering whether his son will take up his cause and set out for the purpose of rescuing him. There, sir, forgive me for saying that my mind is firmly made up and that I must act contrary to your advice. In any other matter, I would, as you know, have instantly fallen in with your wishes. But here it is different, for my father’s life may be at stake, and both his happiness and mine depend upon my exertions. Therefore, I ask you to let me leave at once and go to my uncle. I will talk the matter over with him, and I feel sure that he will help me in every way.”
Involuntarily Jim’s hand left the pocket in which it had been reposing and went out to meet his master’s. And there together they stood for the space of a minute exchanging a firm and cordial clasp.
“You are a credit to me!” exclaimed the headmaster, enthusiastically. “A credit, I say, and your comrades here will be even prouder of you than I am. I have put the position plainly before you. And, without wishing to discourage you, have endeavored to point out how hopeless it is. You must know as well as I do what dangers and difficulties will have to be faced in this undertaking, for your father and the many books you have read will have given you some idea of life in Africa. Knowing all this, and with full knowledge that if you persevere in your search you must undergo privation and exposure, and may even lose your life, you tell me that you will sail for that country; that you have firmly made up your mind to go through with it all for the sake of your father? Then leave us, my lad, and may Heaven help you, for you are a brave young fellow, and deserve the utmost success. There, go to your room and pack your boxes. A cab will be at the door in half an hour; that will enable you to catch the next train for London. There, leave me now. I wish to think over the matter quietly before I say farewell.”
Once more the two shook hands in silence, and then, turning about, Jim went hurriedly from the room and hastened to prepare for his journey. An hour later he was in the train, and that evening had arrived at his destination, leaving his friends at the school to mourn the loss of as fine and good-hearted a young fellow as had ever entered its portals.
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