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In the following story fact is blended with fiction. The account of the Battle of the North Sea, in which the "Bl?cher" was sunk, is as historically accurate as is possible with the details at present available. On the other hand, it would be well for the reader to know that the description of the pursuit of the "Dresden" in mid-Atlantic is wholly fictitious. The incident is introduced "for my story's sake," as Robert Louis Stevenson used to say, and also because it is illustrative of the character of the "Sea Affair" in the earlier days of the war.
CHAPTER I-The Admiral's Sixpence
The following incident is well known to those who are acquainted with Naval history, and is mentioned here for the sole benefit of those who are not.
At the time of the Crimean war, and the bombardment of Sebastopol, an officer of the name of Burke commanded H.M.S. "Swiftsure," a ship which at one time approached to within point-blank range of the Russian shore batteries, which it silenced with a series of terrific broadsides. This feat, however, was not accomplished without considerable loss. Several men were struck down on the battery decks in the very act of serving the guns; and the life of the captain-who bellowed his orders from the bridge in a voice that was audible throughout the length and breadth of the ship, despite the roar and thunder of the cannon and the groans of wounded men-was saved as by a miracle.
A round of grape-shot raked the ship from fore to aft as she swung into position; and one of the little leaden pellets struck Burke immediately above the heart. Now, it so happened that he carried, suspended around his neck by a little silver chain, a "lucky" sixpence which he had got from his grandfather, Michael Burke, of the Inner Temple, and which bore the head of His Majesty, King George III.
At the time, Captain Burke was hardly conscious of a wound, which-according to the Fleet Surgeon-came under the official heading of a "severe contusion" not serious in nature. He remained upon the bridge in command of his ship, which he brought safely out of action, to the great credit of himself and the eternal glory of the British Navy.
But his lucky sixpence, which he found that night before he flung himself down upon his bunk, was ever after something of a curiosity-a thing to be talked about and passed from hand to hand in a London club. It was dented so deeply that it was shaped almost like a spoon, and as for the features of His Majesty, the third George, they were so obliterated that he might have been Queen Elizabeth or, for the matter of that, Julius C?sar or the Cham of Tartary. In short, in plain words, it was a narrow squeak; and ever afterwards, both in the Navy and out of it, this officer, who rose to the rank of admiral and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six, was known as "Swiftsure Burke." That he and his kind have lived and moved amongst us since the days of Drake and Hawkins is, after all, the best security we have against the invasion of these island shores.
There is a certain irony in the way things happen.No man can say for sure what destiny awaits those whom he loves and cherishes after he himself is gone. There was once-as a fact that can be proved-a man who sang for pennies in the street, whose ancestor, with the rank of colonel in the Army, headed his regiment as it charged at Blenheim. In the year 1914-which is not so long ago-Jimmy Burke, grandson of this same captain of the "Swiftsure," by a series of unmerited misfortunes, found himself, at the age of seventeen, an orphan and alone, in one of the greatest cities in the world. How that came about can be told in a few words. It was certainly through no fault of his own.
"Swiftsure Burke" had a son, whose name was John, who had neither his father's luck nor iron constitution. John Burke married a fair girl who had been thought the fairest in Dublin-that is to say, in the world. They had one son, a boy-the Jimmy Burke with whom these pages are concerned.
For three short years John Burke was happy-more happy, perhaps, than a man has a right to be. And then his wife died quite suddenly, and his frail health broke like a reed.
He was overcome by grief, and for a time his friends even feared for his state of mind. At last, acting on a famous doctor's advice, he realized all the property he possessed, packed up his worldly goods, and accompanied by his little five-year son, betook himself to the great United States, which was about the last place in the world where he had any right to be.
New York City, with all its flare and rush and hurry, was no place for this poor, broken English gentleman. Unsettled and unnerved, he took to speculation, and fell into the hands of a certain firm of financial brokers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to wit, famous even in New York for their sharp practices and hardness of heart. They had no more mercy on John Burke than on any other of their clients, and when the poor fellow was well-nigh destitute, he fell into a rapid consumption. Then, knowing that his days were numbered, he called his son to his bedside, and gave Jimmy a dying father's advice.
In the first place, he asked the boy's pardon for the wrong that he had done him. He told Jimmy to try to live honourably and well, and never to forget three things: his duty to God, the example of the mother whom the boy could only just remember, and the fact that he was an English gentleman-the grandson of "Swiftsure Burke."
And after that, John Burke died. The life flickered out of him like a candle in the wind, whilst Jimmy was left kneeling at the bedside, his young frame numbed by a great feeling of weakness that pervaded every limb, and his face all streamed with tears.
The doctor lifted the boy to his feet, and just then something fell from the bed to the floor, which the doctor picked up and gave to Jimmy. It was a little coin-all, indeed, that the boy possessed in the world, all Jimmy Burke's inheritance. It was the "lucky" sixpence of Admiral "Swiftsure Burke."
CHAPTER II-In Defiance of Authority
At the time of his father's death, Jimmy Burke was seventeen years of age. He was a strong lad and tall for his age, fair of complexion, with a direct look in the eyes and a resolute cast of chin that he had got from "Swiftsure Burke."
He had had a hard life, even at that age; and a hard life will either mould a boy or break his heart-more often the latter, unless he be made of the right stuff. But Jimmy came of a fighting race. He soon learnt to hold his own, being in more ways than one far better fitted to succeed in the world than his less robust, unhappy father.
Left alone in a great city like New York, where there are as many rogues as street-cars, and more "toughs" than police, he looked about him for some suitable employment, resolved in spite of everything to earn an honest living. Knowing that good fortune comes only to those that seek it, he presented himself at the offices of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-the very firm, though he never knew it, that had brought about the ruin of his father-and boldly asked to be taken on as a clerk.
Rosencrantz questioned the boy as to his capacities, sounding him in much the same way as a farmer might prod a fat sheep on a market day, and very soon arrived at the conclusion that Jimmy Burke was the very lad he wanted. He engaged him on the spot, as a kind of combined clerk and office boy, and-what suited Rosencrantz most of all-at a starvation salary, which at the time, however, seemed more than enough to Jimmy.
And thereupon the boy entered upon a phase of his existence in which there was little sunshine and much that would have made him miserable and downcast had he been made of weaker stuff.
Rosencrantz was a bald, clean-shaven man, with a hooked nose, a sallow face, and a domineering manner. It was his habit to browbeat his employees; but it was no more possible to crush the spirit, or blot out the personality of the grandson of "Swiftsure Burke" than it would be to curb the cub of a tiger. The boy remained the same: straightforward, frank and honest. He continued to do his work to the best of his ability, taking his employer's hard words for what they were worth, accepting them as part and parcel of his life, a sort of grim necessity.
As for Guildenstern, he seldom appeared at the office; and when he did so, it was quite evident that he had little or no say in the business. He was a small man, very short-sighted, whose gold-rimmed pince-nez would never stay on his nose. He was always perfectly ready to agree to whatever Rosencrantz said, and if he ever made a suggestion of his own-which was seldom enough-he did so with many apologies, as if he was well aware that he had no right to open his mouth.
Both these men were "hyphenated-Americans" of German descent. Neither, however, had ever been to the Fatherland, nor was Rosencrantz able to speak a single word of what should have been his native language. He had been born in Chicago, and on that account it was his custom to refer to himself as a "freeborn citizen of the great United States."
Whatever else he was, he was first a rascal, and secondly a man of business. The sole object of his life was the making of money, in regard to which he was handicapped by no qualms of conscience. Such ambitions are bound to be debasing; and Herr Rosencrantz was quite incapable of any finer feelings. He took not the least personal interest in the orphan boy whom fate had thrown upon his hands. He experienced no feelings of remorse for having brought John Burke to the brink of ruin and the door of death. Jimmy was just a bright lad who could be put to a good use, who was certainly worth four times the salary he received.
In course of time, the boy so disliked and mistrusted his employer that he had serious thoughts of looking for work elsewhere. One thing, and one thing only, prevented him from doing so. His sole friend in these days was a girl, a little older than himself, whose name was Peggy Wade.
Peggy was an orphan, too. Her parents had died when she was quite a child, since when she had been brought up by an aunt who lived at Hoboken-a true woman, who could give, without thought of recompense, and without reluctance, that love and tender care to which the young should be entitled. She was a mother, in all but name, to Peggy Wade; and Peggy, in a girl's way, was a mother to Jimmy Burke.
She was employed by Rosencrantz as a shorthand-typist; and thus it was that she and Jimmy, constituting the whole office staff, were thrown much in each other's way, and before long they had become inseparable friends. Often, when they were obliged to work long after business hours, smuggling into the office various unwholesome edibles, such as pork-pies, sardines and cakes, they would make cocoa on the stove and revel in what they termed a "picnic."
They would spend their Saturdays together in Central Park, or else go even so far afield as Coney Island, provided one or the other had sufficient money to spend upon the roundabouts and swings. And in the evenings they would return to Hoboken, where Peggy's aunt, with the sweet smile of a loving woman, to whom the happiness of others is a great reward, would listen in patient satisfaction to the whole tale of their adventures. That was how things were during the winter and the early spring of the year 1914-which is a date that will stand forth in scarlet lettering in the History of the World.
It was during the month of April that Rosencrantz began to receive visits from a certain distinguished-looking gentleman, whom Peggy recognized at once by his portrait which had appeared more than once in the New York papers. He was a certain Baron von Essling, a military attach? of the German Embassy in Washington, though never by any chance did he think fit to give his name. He always asked for Rosencrantz, and was admitted without delay, when the two men would remain closeted together sometimes even for hours.
In more ways than one, there was an atmosphere of secrecy about these interviews, which even Jimmy could not fail to observe. In the first place, the Baron's visits invariably took place after dark, when most of the business houses were closed. Rosencrantz, too, never failed to lock his office door after the Baron had entered. He also became more fussy than ever, and more impatient and nervous. He had just discovered that Peggy and Jimmy were in the habit of entering his room after he had left it, for the purpose of converting his office stove into a kitchen range.
This he strictly forbade. He admitted that it was necessary for both of them to have access into the inner office, but cooking he would certainly not permit. There can be small doubt that in his own boyhood (if he had ever had one) the joys of a "picnic" had been quite unknown.
It was also about this time that he purchased a peculiar leather box-which he called his "attach?-case" – of which he himself possessed the only key, and in which he kept certain documents which no one but himself, and apparently the Baron von Essling, was ever permitted to see.
Now, one of the man's peculiarities was that he liked to see his office tidy, whereas he himself was one of the most slovenly people in the world. And as Jimmy was not particularly methodical in such matters, the result was that Peggy was the only one of the three who ever knew where anything was. It was this, as it turned out, that brought about something in the nature of a great calamity, as we shall see.
Von Essling, when he called, was sometimes accompanied by a short, thick-set fellow, who went by the name of Rudolf Stork. Stork was a strange-looking man, with an exceedingly wrinkled face, and a sinister cast of countenance. Peggy, with the unfailing instinct of her sex, mistrusted him from the start.
Stork was evidently a sailor, for he wore a pea-jacket, walked with a rolling gait, and was eternally chewing tobacco, and expectorating with a considerable degree of skill. If Rosencrantz was a scoundrel, Rudolf Stork was something worse. There was that about him that suggested the jail-bird, the man who knows what it means to wear a convict's clothes, to be labelled with a number and pace a prison yard. One evening, Rosencrantz left the office earlier than usual. There had been a sudden bout of cold weather, when it had seemed that the spring was at hand. A bitter wind was blowing through the New York streets, that picked up the dust and drove it in eddies between the great, square-cut, towering buildings. It was wholly characteristic of Rosencrantz that he grudged his clerks a fire, though the stove in his own room had been burning all that day. Peggy and Jimmy had been left at their desks with orders to make up certain arrears of work. The boy sat before an opened ledger; the girl was busy at her typewriter with a sheaf of shorthand notes at her elbow.
Suddenly, she got to her feet, unrolled the last quarto, and placed the cover over the machine.
"I've done," she said, looking across at Jimmy.
The boy, who was still poring over the ledger, ran his fingers through his hair.
"I wish I had," he answered, in a tired voice. "If I can't balance these accounts, I shall hear all about it to-morrow. Say, Peggy," he continued, swinging round in his chair, "what do you say to a picnic?"
Peggy straightened, and shaped her lips as if about to whistle.
"Just fine!" she exclaimed. "But, Jimmy, dare we risk it?"
The boy's face altered; for a moment he looked quite serious.
"No," said he. "It's not good enough. I don't mind for myself, but I'm not going to get you into a row."
"Oh, I don't care," she answered.
"It's not allowed," said Jimmy.
"It wouldn't be half such fun if it was," observed Peggy, with a world of truth. "Besides, he won't come back again to-night. He told me I was to leave the most important letters till to-morrow morning."
Jimmy was on his feet in an instant; the ledger was slammed down upon a shelf.
"Come on," he cried. "We'll have the feast of our lives."
Their cooking utensils consisted of a cheap kettle, a frying-pan, and a few knives, forks and spoons. These Peggy had hidden in a large cupboard in Rosencrantz's room, which was used as a receptacle for old account books and ledgers and all kinds of rubbish, and where their employer never by any chance happened to look. As they rescued these priceless possessions from behind a collection of office brooms and dust-pans, Jimmy noticed that the mysterious leather box-which Rosencrantz called his "attach?-case" – had been placed on the floor of the cupboard.
The recognized preliminary to an office "picnic" was that they should club their money. On this occasion Peggy produced two dollars fifty, whereas Jimmy could contribute no more than seventy cents. When Peggy had filled the kettle, it was arranged that Jimmy should remain in charge, whilst the girl went out to purchase supplies which, it was decided, should include sausages, in regard to the cooking of which Peggy was an acknowledged expert.
Now, an escapade of this sort loses much of its zest when the bold adventurer finds himself alone; and no sooner had Peggy set out upon her errand than Jimmy became conscious of feeling a trifle nervous. Though he was never willing to admit it to himself, he held Rosencrantz in considerable dread; and he did not like to think what the result would be should he and Peggy be caught. In consequence, for the first time in his life, he was really alarmed when suddenly he heard the clashing sound of the brass doors of the elevator, followed by footsteps in the corridor.
Shuffling the knives and forks into his coat pocket, with the kettle in one hand and the frying-pan in the other, he sprang to his feet and stood for a moment irresolute, not knowing what to do. He could not go back to the clerks' office, since there he would meet Rosencrantz, whose voice was audible through the half-opened sliding door in the wall.
It did not take Jimmy long to come to the conclusion that, on such an occasion as this, discretion is the better part of valour. Without a moment's thought, he dashed into the cupboard; tripped over the leather box, so that some of the half-boiling water was spilled from the spout of the kettle, and then closed the door.
He did so only in the nick of time; for, a second later, Rosencrantz himself entered the room, followed by the Baron von Essling and Rudolf Stork.
CHAPTER III-The World Plot
The office door was closed and Jimmy heard the key turn in the lock. Rosencrantz offered his guests chairs, and then apparently seated himself at his writing-desk. Of the conversation that ensued Jimmy could hear every word, for the cupboard door was thin and von Essling, who did most of the talking, had a deep, resounding voice.
The plot that was unfolded, word by word, was amazing and colossal. It was so cold-blooded and terrible, and was intended to be so far-reaching in its results, that the boy could hardly bring himself to believe the evidence of his ears. Time and again, he had to pinch himself, to make sure that the whole thing was not a nightmare from which he would presently awaken.
It must be remembered that at that time the tragedy of Serajevo had not taken place. Europe and, indeed, the whole world-was at peace. Official Germany was even then talking of friendly relations with England.
And yet, it appeared, from what the Baron had to say, that Germany intended to plunge the whole of Europe into war. By the first of August, the German legions would be on the march, crossing the frontiers of France on the very day that they swept down upon Paris in 1870-forty-four years ago.
France was to be crushed, and would be crushed-according to von Essling-after six weeks of war. Russia would take time to concentrate her forces; and after Paris had fallen, the German armies could be transferred to the east, where the fall of Warsaw would checkmate the Russian armies till the conclusion of the campaign. When peace had been declared, and the German Empire extended to the North Sea and the great port of Antwerp, a fitting moment was to be seized to throttle England and break up the British Empire, once and for all.
This-as the Baron explained-was the main policy of all true Pan-Germans. Not until Great Britain had crumbled to the dust, could Germany realize to the full her dreams of World-Power and World-Dominion. England stood between Germany and the sun.
"I tell you, my friends," von Essling almost shouted; "I tell you, the blow will fall with alarming suddenness. The declaration of war will come like a thunderbolt. We are ready; France and Russia are unprepared; it is impossible that England will dare to interfere."
"That is good," cried Rudolf Stork. "I have no love for the English, who encumber the face of the earth like a plague of flies. None the less, I fail to see why a plain sea-faring man like myself should be taken into your confidence."
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