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The wind could not have been more favourable for their purpose. They were able to hold a straight course, and under full sail to bear right down upon their quarry.
It was not long before the "Marigold" appeared to guess that she was being followed, for her skipper hoisted all the sail the smack could carry, and changed his course a little to the north. By that time the "Kitty McQuaire" was about two miles in rear. The other ships had been left far to the south, with the exception of a large tramp steamer, with a funnel so aft as to appear to proceed from the poop, which was steadily ploughing her way northward, bound possibly for Leith or Inverness.
Though the "Marigold" strained every stitch of sail to widen the distance between herself and her pursuer, it was very soon apparent that she had little chance of escaping. The "Kitty McQuaire" was overtaking her quarry, inch by inch, gaining a yard or so with every gust of wind.
Captain Crouch from the bows of the smack regarded the "Marigold" through a long telescope that belonged to Captain Whisker, and upon which was emblazoned in blood-red letters the name of every ship upon which he had ever sailed. Crouch had already examined the tramp steamer to learn that she was the "Mondavia" – by a strange chance one of the fleet of Jason, Stileman and May, the very house to which Crouch himself belonged.
Suddenly, with a loud cry of triumph, he thrust the telescope into the hands of Jimmy Burke.
"Look there!" he cried. "There's Rudolf Stork, or else I never yet set eyes upon the man! He's got his eyes glued on us through a pair of glasses! There are not more than five men on board, so far as I can see; and there's a strange sort of arrangement aft, which might be anything from a cucumber-frame to a coffin! If we can overtake her before it's dark we'll have the whole gang at the Old Bailey under a week!"
He was wildly excited, as, indeed, he had some cause to be. By all the laws of chance Stork was as good as captured. It was plain the "Marigold" could not escape, for it still wanted two hours to sunset, and she was making no better headway. It appeared that certain success was well within their grasp. And it was just at this junction that there happened an incident which was at once disastrous and unexpected. The "Marigold" opened fire!
To be fired upon without warning on the high seas by an ordinary fishing-smack is not an event that one might look for; and neither are effective counter-measures possible when one is both unarmed and unprepared. The first shot struck the water ten yards from the "Kitty's" bows, whereas the next whistled high overhead, to plunge into the sea a long way astern. It was apparent that the suspicious arrangement which Crouch had noticed on the deck of the "Marigold" was one of those old-fashioned high-angle muzzle-loading guns which go by the name of mortars. As far as Jimmy Burke could make out with the aid of the telescope, the mortar was covered over with fishing-nets and tackle of all kinds, and Rudolf Stork was directing its fire.
Now the appearance of this new factor in the situation cast at once a very different hue upon the prospects of all concerned.In the first place, these weapons may be of no more use than pea-shooters when brought to bear upon a man-of-war; but one shot below the water-line of the "Kitty McQuaire" would suffice to send her to the bottom. Secondly, though Crouch, Jimmy and Whisker were all armed with revolvers, they had no weapon that was of the slightest value at a range beyond a hundred yards.
None the less, Crouch stoutly refused to give up the chase. He loudly protested that he would overtake the "Marigold" or go down to Davy Jones.
The "Mondavia" was then about four miles to the west, between the "Marigold" and the coast. They had no means of signalling to the steamer, since there was not a flag on board, and though there was a signalling lamp, this was quite useless whilst the daylight lasted.
At length, at the end of about ten minutes, the "Kitty McQuaire" was hit. One of the round projectiles from the mortar struck the mainsail obliquely, so that it tore a great rent that flapped open in the wind. Crouch clenched both fists, and stamped upon the deck.
"Are we to go ahead?" he cried to Jimmy. "Are we to go on with it, or give up the chase?"
"Go on!" cried the boy, who was quite beside himself with excitement. "I don't care what happens. It's too late to go back now."
They were then almost within revolver range of the "Marigold." Crouch went to the bows, and fired three shots in quick succession at the fugitives.
"Heave to, you curs!" he shouted at the full power of his lungs.
It was the voice of Stork that answered.
"Come and take us," he cried in loud derision.
"Do you think we dare not?" answered Jimmy.
Before Stork could answer, Crouch broke in again, telling Stork to blaze away with what he called his "pop-gun" which was not capable of knocking a hole through an empty rain-barrel. These words, in spite of the fact that they were never spoken seriously, were uttered at a most inopportune moment; for, hardly had they left the little captain's lips than a shot struck the starboard quarter of the "Kitty McQuaire" about a foot below the water-line.
Whisker was the first to recognize the danger, and ordered all on board to stand by the hand-pump, which was the only means they had of bailing the ship.
"And even that won't save us," he added in a doleful voice. "She'll fill for a certainty. She'll not take ten minutes to settle down."
The alarming truth of this was at once wholly apparent. Within the space of a few minutes, the "Kitty McQuaire" took on a decided list. At the same time, she slowed down; every second, the "Marigold" widened the distance between herself and her pursuer. As they lowered the sails, they heard Stork's loud, boisterous laugh, as the man looked back upon the sinking ship upon the deck of which his victims stood in silence, side by side.
Indeed, Crouch and his companions were face to face with inevitable destruction. Though the storm had subsided, the sea was still too rough to launch the only small boat the "Kitty" carried. This was a small dinghy used for harbour work, which could neither carry all who were on board nor live for two minutes in such a sea without being swamped.
The "Kitty McQuaire" was sinking slowly by the bows, turning over quite gently-like a tired beast that lies down to sleep. The deck was now so much aslant that they were obliged to hold fast to the masts and rigging, to prevent themselves slipping down, one after the other, into the cold, hungry sea.
The sun, at last, was setting. Darkness was spreading from the east; and at the same time, a lowering mass of cloud was drifting forward on the wind which presently would shut out the starlight and the moon.
There is no situation more terrible, there is nothing that requires greater fortitude to bear, than to find oneself doomed and deserted upon the unutterable loneliness of the sea, as the sun sinks in the sky and the mists of twilight glide upon the surface of the waters. There was no help for it; they knew that they must die. At such an hour, it was but human nature that their thoughts should turn to the God Who had given them life. Each man closed his eyes; and standing together, clinging to the last of the sinking ship, one and all prayed silently and swiftly that death might be easy, and that the wrong they had done in their lives should be forgiven.
And then, as if to make their lot more hard, the cruelty of their end more bitter, within a hundred feet of the fishing-smack, silhouetted against the red glow of a winter's sunset, there arose from out of the water, the shark-like, threatening form of the U93.
CHAPTER XXIII-The Loss of the "Kitty McQuaire"
The submarine had made its appearance quite suddenly, rising in silence to the surface of the water, where the waves broke against the superstructure, which was presently the centre of a white circle of foam. A little afterwards, the figures of two men appeared upon the conning-tower, one of whom Jimmy Burke recognized immediately as the German officer who had hailed the "Harlech," and whom he had followed to the engine-room of the deserted ship.
There was something almost uncanny in the thought that this dreaded submarine monster had travelled northward all the way from the Lizard, evading the Allied destroyers which thronged the Channel and the Straits of Dover, steering amid the shoals and shallows of the Goodwin Sands, passing under water in all probability often within a stone's throw of His Majesty's ships guarding the shores of England.
Of all craft that put to sea, the modern submarine is the most formidable, inasmuch as it seems gifted with an intelligence of its own. It is an invention so highly organized and delicately equipped, its capabilities are so marvellous, its possibilities so great, that it is not difficult to imagine it even possessed of a kind of consciousness of its own. As a matter of fact, it is no more than a perfectly complete machine which-after the manner of all machinery-answers to the will of its commander. When that commander is ruthless and pitiless, when his orders are to wage war upon innocent men, women and children, to show neither gallantry nor clemency to whomsoever may fall into his clutches, then a submarine-such as the U93-becomes the shark, the ship of prey, among the navies of the world.
The "Kitty McQuaire" was sinking fast by the bows. In the red sunset-the last of a dying day-she had not ten minutes in which to live; and yet, faced with such a tragedy, with the spectacle of so many men so indubitably doomed, the commander of the U93 threw back his head, and laughed.
His voice sounded false and fiendish amid the soft, rhythmic washing of the waves. It was the laugh of a coward in his hour of triumph; for there can be no true courage which does not go hand in hand with clemency and generosity. Assuredly, the kindness of the seas, the sense of gallantry that led Nelson's sailors to risk their lives so often in saving their drowning foes, does not extend to all. The German Navy is a thing of yesterday; and it had been better for the honour of the Fatherland had German naval officers and seamen learnt something more of the glorious traditions that British sailors honour and respect. It was not enough to copy the latest type of British super-Dreadnought or battle-cruiser. There is no such thing as a seaman without a sailor's heart.
The man's laugh died away in the distance, as the submarine raced after the "Marigold," which was now almost a mile ahead. The U93 had made her intentions perfectly clear in the brutal laugh of her commander. She was in no way disposed to hold out a helping hand to enemies in distress. Captain Crouch and his friends on board the sinking fishing-boat could be safely left to drown like rats. Their lives had been a menace to the German Empire; Crouch, in his own small way, was one of those who had stood between Germany and the sun. It was as well that they should be thrown upon the mercy of the sea, to swim at random, desperate, until great fatigue and a sense of their own helplessness should weigh them down, to sink, one by one. The U93 followed in the wake of the "Marigold," which had heaved-to, and from which a signalling lamp was now throwing out its dots and dashes in the twilight.
Crouch turned to Captain Whisker. They were clinging, side by side, to an iron bollard fastened to the deck; for the smack was leaning over so that her deck sloped like the roof of a house.
"How long do you give her?" he asked.
"Three minutes more, perhaps. She may dive on a sudden, or she may settle down quite quietly. They sometimes do, as you know as well as I."
They remained silent for some moments, both staring hard at a certain fixed point in the midst of the gathering darkness. Here, like a small star, a red light suddenly shone out; and as they looked, a white light appeared, higher up and in front of the red one, and then higher still, another, so that all three together formed an isosceles triangle.
"There's the 'Mondavia'!" said Crouch. "I know the skipper well-a man called Cookson, who once sailed with me to Melbourne. As a last hope, I'll try to pick her up."
He asked for the signalling lamp, lit up, and raised and closed the shutter to see that it was in working order. Whilst Crouch was so employed, Captain Whisker gave his final instructions. Every man was ordered to put on his lifebelt; several spars were loosened, and left upon the deck, so that when the boat went down they would float. As soon as the "Kitty" foundered, the men were to take to the sea, where they could cling to the floating spars. They were warned, however, to avoid the dinghy, which would prove nothing but a death-trap.
Seeing that their chances of ultimate salvation were very small, all these instructions and precautions must appear somewhat unnecessary and useless. It is, however, a natural instinct for men to cling to life. Life is held to be so precious, and death so gloomy and uncertain, that no sane man of his own free will can bring himself to take the first step that leads to the Great Unknown. These rough seamen of the Yorkshire coast thought of the wives and children that they would leave behind in Hull and Grimsby, and such thoughts are enough in themselves to lend strength and courage to the last. In grim silence, they set to work following the skipper's instructions, fastening their lifebelts around their waists, still clinging to the ship that was now in such desperate plight that the forward part was almost entirely under water.
Captain Crouch, holding with one hand to the tiller, used the other to work the signalling lamp, the face of which was directed towards the "Mondavia." Darkness had now set in; neither the "Marigold" nor the U93 was to be seen, and of the tramp steamer nothing was visible but the two masthead lights and the red light on the port quarter.
Suddenly, Jimmy Burke-who had never left the side of his good friend, Captain Crouch-let out a loud cry, and pointed excitedly towards the Jason steamer.
"Look there!" he exclaimed. "She has seen our light. She's swinging round."
All eyes were turned towards the west. In the half-light, the men were just able to discern the faces of their comrades, and everywhere were the same emotions legible: hopelessness, pity for those who would be left without support, bitterness at the harshness of their fate, and a set determination to die like British seamen. They looked in the direction indicated with hungry, sorrowful eyes, as if each knew only too well in his heart that help was so far away that it was sheer folly to think of it at all.
None the less, they could not dispute the evidence of what they saw. Even as they looked, the lights of the steamer swung round, so that the two white lights appeared in the same vertical plane, the one above the other. The red light also grew smaller and less distinct, and at the same time a green light appeared on the same level as the red.
To anyone who had the smallest knowledge of the sea, there can be no mistaking signs so manifest. The "Mondavia," which hitherto had shown her port light to the east, had now changed her course, and was making straight for the sinking boat. Though there was no necessity to explain to sea-faring men exactly what had happened, Captain Whisker seized the opportunity to speak words of courage to his men.
"Bear up, my lads," he cried. "She has sighted us; you may be sure of that."
"She'll reach us in time?" asked Jimmy.
"There's no chance of it," answered the burly captain. Then on a sudden, his voice became much louder, as he struck a note of alarm. "She's going, now!" he cried. "Take to the water, lads; and each man for himself!"
As he said the words, he threw off his coat, waistcoat, and his long gum-boots, and plunged headforemost into the sea.
The "Kitty McQuaire" had run her course; her days of usefulness were ended. As all honest ships-and, indeed, all honest men-are some day bound to do, she had come to the Parting of the Ways. She had been a good craft in her time, as Captain Whisker himself could testify; and she went down into the depths gently and silently, as if she welcomed an eternity of rest.
And there remained upon the troubled surface of the water, now lifted high upon the crest of rolling waves, now buried in the wide trenches of the sea, the black forms of the heads and shoulders of a dozen struggling men.
The majority of these had gone into the water clinging to the loose spars by means of which they hoped to save themselves from drowning. They were all strong swimmers; and, moreover, with their cork lifebelts, it was hardly possible for them to die until the icy coldness of the water had chilled them to the bone.
As chance had it, Jimmy Burke found himself clinging to the same piece of wreckage as both Captain Crouch and the burly skipper. This was a big iron-ringed boom which-though it floated-was too heavy to rise to the top of the waves that swept over it in quick succession. Hence, it was all that they could do to retain their hold, and neither would they have succeeded in this had it not been that a rope was attached along the entire length of the spar.
How long they remained in this desperate situation not one of them was afterwards able to say. The water was bitterly cold; it was as if they were being frozen to death, and were dying from the feet upwards. Before long they had lost all power of sensation. They did not speak to one another, nor were they so foolish as to try to. Every few seconds a great wave swept over them, and they were buried in the sea, sometimes as much as three fathoms deep. At such times, there was a rushing in their ears-a great sound like a multitude of cataracts; and then, gasping, breathless, with but little of life remaining to them, they emerged once more upon the surface, to behold the dim starlight, a pale, dying moon screened by a mist, and the great rolling sea on every side.
Quite suddenly, the loud siren of the steamer sounded near at hand. It was as if the noise was within their very ears. They had no means of answering; there was not one who had strength enough to shout. They could only wait, half-frozen and altogether desperate, trusting to Providence that they would be discovered in the midst of the illimitable darkness.
It was Providence, indeed, that came to their aid, that brought the "Mondavia" to the very place where they were struggling for their lives; otherwise, they could never have been found. There was no searchlight on board the ship, and the sea was still so rough that, even had it been broad daylight, they would have been hidden by the waves.
The captain of the "Mondavia" had done all that was in his power; he had ordered every cabin and deck lamp to be lighted, so that in the darkness the old sea-going tramp was like a liner, with every porthole shining, brilliantly illumined.
And no sooner did this great blaze of light stand forth before those who were struggling in the sea than, as one man, they threw themselves from the spars to which they had been clinging and struck out towards the ship. The gangway had been lowered, as well as every rope ladder that the "Mondavia" had on board; and it was Jimmy Burke himself who was the first to know that he was saved.
Dripping, aching in every limb, so numbed that he could not stand upright, he crawled to the main-deck, and there fell, speechless and coiled up, with his knees drawn to his chin.
There was no need for him to speak. His very presence there was direct evidence of all that the captain of the steamer wished to know. On the instant, the engine-room bell rang down for the ship to "stop," and then "half-speed astern"; and-as nearly as she could-she remained stationary, rolling on the heavy swell that still moved the sea.
One after the other, those drenched, frozen and half-suffocated men dragged themselves on board; and of them all, Captain Crouch was the only one who had the ability either to move or find his voice. He was a man so inured to hardship and so wiry that it was as if his vitality was endless. He sat up and looked about him, and then slowly counted with a finger the number of the drenched and motionless figures that lay in the lamplight on the deck.
"Bluffed!" he cried. "Bluffed, as by a miracle! There's not a man missing. The cowards might as well have tried to drown a shoal of mackerel." Then, on a sudden, he seized the pockets of his coat.
"Thunder!" he uttered, in tones of mingled mortification and rage. "Thunder, I've lost my favourite pipe!"
Captain Cookson of the "Mondavia" was staring at him in amazement, after the manner of one who beholds a ghost. Then, seizing Crouch by both shoulders, he shook him so violently that the salt water flew from off him as from a dog on a river bank.
"It's Crouch!" he cried. "It's Crouch!"
"The same man," said Captain Crouch, holding out a wet, ice-cold hand. "The same man, Cookson, but without his favourite pipe."
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