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What her first message was may safely be left to the imagination. She must have signalled to the effect that the tramp was an enemy, flying for safety, with the German submarine in hot pursuit. The commander of the U93 had realized that his prey was fast slipping through his fingers, that the "Mondavia" was making good her escape by means of her superior speed and the ability of her commander.
Hence, the U93 needed assistance, and fortunately for her, powerful support was close at hand. She sent her wireless signal to the "Bl?cher," the nearest of the four German battle-cruisers; and presently, in quick succession, the great guns were thudding forth their messages of destruction.
Luckily for Captain Crouch and all those on board the tramp, the range was still too long for accurate shooting. The "Mondavia" had completed a semicircle, and was now steaming back upon her own track. For all that, if the chase was continued, the battle-cruisers must soon come within decisive range, when no power on earth could serve to save the ship.
Captain Whisker had been carried below unconscious. Cookson was in his own cabin, where, with the help of the ship's steward, he was endeavouring to bandage his hurt shoulder. As neither one nor the other had the slightest knowledge of first-aid dressing, the thing was clumsily done; and besides, the captain had lost so much blood already that he was very nearly in a fainting condition, and in no fit state to return to his post on the bridge.
Fortunately, in Captain Crouch, there was one on board capable of dealing with the situation, who saw at once that desperate measures were necessary, and was resolved to take them.
It was impossible to suppose that the "Mondavia" could live for long under fire from the guns of such monster ships as the German battle-cruisers. One well-placed shell-as we have said-would be sufficient to complete the business. Still, inasmuch as Captain Crouch was fleeing from the men-of-war with all the speed he could, the chances were that the fatal moment would be delayed. The German ships were steaming ahead at the rate of about twenty-five knots an hour, with the result that the "Mondavia" was being rapidly overhauled. Even now, the great shells were falling in dangerous proximity to the ship.
The commander of the U93 saw his danger in a trice. No doubt he had thought it quite improbable that the "Mondavia" would turn and make back upon her own wake. Had Crouch not been a man of iron, he would have endeavoured to escape towards the coast. As it was, he headed straight for the submarine with all the engine power that the old tramp had at her disposal.
The "Bl?cher's" shells were falling thick and fast, when quite suddenly the battle-cruiser ceased firing, so that the silence that fell upon the sea seemed strange and deathlike after the colossal uproar of the guns. The truth was that the commander of the submarine and Rudolf Stork himself, both of whom were still together in the conning-tower, had been the first to recognize that the U93 was in danger of destruction from the "Bl?cher's" shells, since the submarine and the steamer were drawing closer and closer together.Accordingly, another wireless message was despatched, asking the "Bl?cher" to hold back her fire.
In warfare, it often happens that deeds are accomplished so daring that even those who witness them cannot believe them true. So was it now with the commander of the U93, who could not at first bring himself to believe that it was Crouch's deliberate intention to run him down.
A torpedo, fired from the submarine, passed through the water like a flash of light, and missed the "Mondavia's" bows by a matter of inches. Captain Crouch, upon the bridge, threw back his head and laughed; but it was the laugh of one who was quite beside himself with intense excitement and the savage exhilaration of the moment.
Jimmy Burke could not refrain from laughing, too. The moment was one of ecstasy. They were flying onward through the water straight for what looked like sudden death; the living shells no longer plunged into the sea on either side of the ship, but the small quick-firing guns of the submarine had re-opened with a deadly accuracy. Indeed, the range was so decisive that it was almost impossible to miss so large a target.
The canvas screens, which guarded the bridge upon which Crouch and Jimmy Burke were standing, were torn to rags and tatters. The funnel was so riddled with shot that it was like a sieve. The teak decks were splintered right and left, and in some places the taffrails were so twisted by the sheer force of exploding shells that they resembled corkscrews.
As they drew nearer to the submarine, the danger they were in became more imminent. The noise was deafening. The surface of the sea both to port and starboard was lashed by showers of shrapnel bullets, so that it was just as if hailstones were falling from the leaden skies.
At this supreme moment, Jimmy Burke could not take his eyes from Captain Crouch, who was like a man transfigured. In his very attitude there was something heroic. He now stood motionless, still and silent as a statue cut in stone. He no longer laughed. He looked neither to the right nor left, but straight ahead, his great, square chin protruding more than ever, his single eye fixed and yet ablaze.
He himself was at the helm. The quartermaster, whose place he had taken, lay face downward in the welter of his blood, struck stone dead in the fulfilment of his duty.
Crouch gripped the handles of the wheel so tightly that the knuckles on his sunburnt hands showed white beneath the taut skin. The man was evidently wrought up to the very highest pitch, his iron nerves strained to the utmost. When the shells burst about his ears, he never flinched, nor moved the fraction of an inch. He kept his eyes glued to the German submarine ahead, and moved the wheel, first this way and then that, so that the bows of the "Mondavia" were ever directed straight for the U93.
The commander of the submarine saw his danger just too late. He put his helm hard a-starboard, hoping to escape across the steamer's bows, and get a broadside target for his last torpedo. The movement was fatal, for Crouch's eye was quick to see, as his hands were quick to act. The "Mondavia" swung in upon her victim, as a half-blind rhinoceros charges when brought to bay.
Jimmy Burke, forgetful of his own great danger and the extreme peril in which all on board lay, dashed down the bridge steps, crossed the forward well-deck, and raced to the forecastle-peak.
He reached this point of vantage in time to behold the consummation of this tragedy, or epic-or whatever it may be. He looked down upon the submarine, rocking on the swell, and saw a torpedo shoot into the sea and flash into nothing in the distance. He could see those of the crew who were on deck-the men who had worked the guns. They were so close he could even distinguish the whites of their staring eyes. And there, standing at the elbow of the round-faced, young commander, was Rudolf Stork-the paid servant of the Wilhelmstrasse, the man who had served the Fatherland for gold.
Rage seized him when Stork saw his danger and recognized the boy who had tracked him, half by pluck and half by chance, from the close-packed streets of New York City to the sombre desolation of the Dogger Bank. And then, fury gave place to terror-the last emotion that seizes all men who find themselves confronted by inevitable death.
There is nothing strange in that. Whatever faith we have in God, the only Over-Lord of Victory, death, standing on the threshold, must seem terrible by reason of the darkness and the mystery of the grave. All men have sinned, and this poor, desperate hireling more than most; and perhaps, at that grave, anxious moment, he saw the evil of his life take living shape and rise before him from the depths to taunt, threaten and condemn.
Be that as it may, he clasped his hands, and looked upward to the sky, as if seeking mercy there. And then, the iron bows of the steamer crashed into the U93. There was a loud bursting sound-a kind of wrench-and simultaneously a shout-human voices uplifted in anguish and dismay. And the U93 crumpled-just crumpled like a paper cap-and vanished in a thin, hissing cloud of steam, leaving upon the surface a great, glassy pool of floating oil.
CHAPTER XXVI-The Titans
The U93 went to the bottom like a stone. On the surface of the water a modern submarine is as vulnerable as she is deadly underneath it. These boats, when compared to ocean-going steamers, have but little stability and strength. They are the vipers of the sea-venomous snakes whose backs may be broken with the lash of a whip, whose heads can be crushed with a stone.
No sign of the submarine remained upon the surface, except the pool of oil and the struggling forms of three men, who had somehow escaped destruction at the moment of the collision. To save the lives of these was a duty that devolved upon Captain Crouch, by dint of the fact that, though he loathed the German nation from the Kaiser downward, he was still a British seaman who could not stand by in idleness and witness the needless death even of those who had betrayed him.
Lifebuoys were cast overboard, and with a promptness which says much for the discipline on board the "Mondavia," a boat was lowered, into which the three drenched, exhausted men were hauled neck and crop.
They were found to be three simple sailors; and though, because they were subordinates, they cannot be held entirely free from blame, it must be confessed that Captain Crouch was not filled with a great remorse that the irony of fate had not decreed that he should save the life of Rudolf Stork. In such a war as this personal animosity cannot be altogether absent. It was from the very beginning a war to the knife; and by methods of warfare hitherto undreamed of by the people of civilized nations, by abuse of the Red Cross and the enemy's uniform, and the introduction of poisonous gases and bullets reversed in their cartridge cases, Germany has decreed that it shall remain a war to the knife to the very end. Humanity, chivalry, even gallantry-these are the virtues that belonged to the heroes of the past: the paladins, the Crusaders, Wellington's soldiers, Nelson's sailors and the old Guard at Waterloo. Nor can the honest nations be held to blame to-day if the common enemy chooses to cast aside all that tends to make glorious and noble the terrors and the fearful sacrifices of war.
In sinking one of the most famous of the U-boats within range of the great guns of four of the most powerful of the German battle-cruisers, Captain Crouch accomplished a feat which was as much to his own credit as it was of service to his country. Still, he could never have succeeded had he not been cast in a most heroic mould. Three separate times did the U93 attempt to torpedo the ship, and on each occasion the "Mondavia" escaped by a matter of a few feet, which is little enough when we come to consider the illimitable magnitude of the sea. Moreover, the merchant ship had been riddled fore, aft and amidships by the submarine's quick-firing guns, and it was sheer good luck that not one of these shells had struck a vital part of the ship. Two or three below the water-line would have been enough to cause the "Mondavia" to sink. Had the ship's steam steering-gear been damaged, or her engines rendered useless, Crouch could never have rammed the submarine and sent her to the bottom. On this occasion, as so often happens, fortune had favoured the brave. The boldest course had proved the safest after all.
However, the "Mondavia" was far from being out of danger, as those on board were soon to learn. The battle-cruisers had by now drawn so close to the British steamer that, in all probability, the loss of the submarine had been witnessed through the captain's telescope from the "Bl?cher's" bridge. At all events, five minutes had not elapsed after the three German seamen had been rescued from the water before once again the great guns of the "Bl?cher" opened fire.
This time, by reason of the fact that the range was more decisive, the "Mondavia" was in far more deadly peril. Every shell, as it came whistling and shrieking through the air, seemed to cry out aloud for vengeance for those who had perished on the U93.
To make matters worse, the "Moltke" took up the quarrel-if such it can be called, when on one side there is a giant and on the other a pigmy-and pounded the steamer till the sea on either side was white with beaten foam.
The battle-cruisers were still steaming due north-westward. For miles the horizon was streaked black with rolling smoke. Crouch could scarcely hope to make good his escape by heading straight for the coast. The "Mondavia" was far out to sea, and if she changed her course to the westward would be travelling in an oblique line across the front of the German cruisers, and of a certainty would be overhauled and sunk before she had gone a mile.
Crouch's only chance lay in holding to the same course as the enemy ships. Before long the "Mondavia" must be overtaken and destroyed. However, for the time being, Crouch could strive to delay the inevitable moment.
It was then a little after seven o'clock. The atmosphere was clear though the sky was cloudy. The sun, which had appeared for a few moments at daybreak, was now masked and invisible, except for a patch of brightness above the eastern sky-line. There were no ships in sight, save for a few trawlers veering towards the north. On that fateful morning the neighbourhood of the Dogger Bank-swarming as a rule with fishing craft of every kind and description-was unusually deserted.
The German battle-cruisers were now close enough for their hulls to be distinguishable. The outline of each ship stood forth, clear-cut and black, against the sky-line. Each was rushing forward at its topmost speed, bearing down with inevitable precision upon the defenceless cargo ship, which, like an exhausted, hunted animal, strained every bolt, bar and rivet to save herself from unutterable disaster. Suddenly, it became apparent that, in addition to the Dreadnought cruisers, the sea was alive with a host of smaller craft-light cruisers and torpedo-boat-destroyers. There were in all-so far as they could see-six light cruisers and a number of destroyers, which were spread out on all sides like a ring of skirmishers or scouts.
In less than five minutes, the "Mondavia" was reduced to a floating wreck. She was so riddled with shell, so battered, torn and damaged, that she was no more than a sheer hulk, lying idle on the waves. Her funnel had been struck low down, and hurled piecemeal overboard, taking with it the greater part of the boat-deck and the upper davits. Both masts had been shot away, the main-mast falling forward, so that all the superstructure on the main-deck, from the companion-way to the chartroom, had been reduced to ruins. In the sides of the ship there were, at least, half-a-dozen gaping holes, each one large enough to admit the body of a man. One shell had burst in the engine-room, killing the chief engineer and wounding three of his assistants, and leaving the engines no more than a mass of scrap-iron.
How Crouch and Jimmy Burke lived in the midst of this, it is not possible to say. The dogs of war, ferocious though they be, are sometimes kind and sometimes pitifully cruel. One man will be killed by a spent bullet the very moment he comes within the sound of guns; whereas another, time and again, will live in the midst of mad, raging carnage, and come forth unscathed and still alive.
Crouch's clothes were in rags and tatters. He had been hurled to the forward well-deck when the bridge had given way, and had found himself buried beneath a heap of splintered wood and twisted brass and iron. He was bruised from head to foot, and had been, at first, a little stunned; for a moment he had not been able to remember where he was.
And Jimmy Burke was in no better plight. Indeed, he looked as if he had received a mortal wound, for he was all sprinkled with the blood of a man who had been killed quite near to him-a poor fellow who had been literally blown to pieces by an 11-inch shell that burst at his very feet.
Crouch, followed by Jimmy, dragged himself to the forecastle, which was the only point of vantage left on the demolished, shattered ship. Save these two, no one was to be seen upon the deck, in which great holes yawned like chasms. Here and there, in horrid attitudes, lay those who had given up their lives, who had been murdered-for it was nothing else but murder-under the Naval Ensign of the German Empire, for the vile cause of the Fatherland and Kultur.
The great shells still rained in fierce and venomous profusion. Sooner or later, the unhappy ship must be struck below the water-line, when nothing could save the lives of those on board; for, not one of the ship's boats remained, and they could hope for little mercy from German seamen.
Captain Crouch looked about him like a man who finds himself, upon a sudden, on the horns of a dilemma. In spite of his dishevelled and tattered garments, he appeared quite unconcerned. He took not the least notice of either the great shells or the deafening explosions which every few seconds rent the air. He stood with his legs wide parted, and both hands thrust into his trousers pockets.
"I don't know how it is we're still alive," said he; "or how the old ship isn't lying on her beam ends, at the bottom of the sea. It's a mystery that no one will ever solve. It would stump Solomon himself, or my name was never Crouch."
"It can't last," said Jimmy, with his eyes fixed upon the gigantic shadow of the "Bl?cher."
"You're right, my boy," said Crouch; "it can't last; that's sure. We've run our course; we've hove in sight of the harbour lights where all men some day come to port. There's no need to signal for a pilot."
Even as he spoke, a shell came rushing past their ears, so close that the hot air in their faces was like the blast from an oven. It plunged into the sea, not twenty yards from the "Mondavia's" bows; and both Crouch and his young companion were wetted from head to foot with spray.
"Another one like that," said Crouch, "and there's an end to you and me, and the poor old ship as well."
For the next five minutes, these two stood side by side, waiting in heroic patience for the end, which seemed so long in coming. And then, on a sudden, like the sharp bark of an angry dog, a gun spoke-from the north.
Crouch had lost his telescope; but, bringing the open palm of a hand to his brow, he strained his eye ahead.
"Look there!" he cried. "Look there!"
"What is it?" asked Jimmy, breathless with instant hope and the terror of the moment. "What is it?"
"I may be wrong," said Crouch; "but, unless I'm much mistaken, that's one of the British light cruisers of the 'Arethusa' class, in all probability the 'Arethusa' herself, or else the 'Aurora.'"
A few minutes sufficed to prove Captain Crouch in the right. The "Aurora" – for it was she-had opened fire upon the leading enemy light cruiser, which lay some distance to the east. And presently, two other British ships appeared, which Crouch identified as the "Southampton" and the "Arethusa."
The appearance of the British men-of-war meant the saving of the "Mondavia"; since, the very moment the light-cruiser squadron hove in sight, the German Dreadnoughts left the merchant vessel to her fate, and directed their fire upon an enemy who was capable of answering back.
For all that, it was still a rank unequal fight; and Captain Crouch was even more perturbed as to what would be the fate of the light cruisers under the heavy gun-fire of the "Moltke," the "Derfflinger," the "Bl?cher" and the "Seydlitz," than he had been anxious about himself and the ship that he commanded.
"By thunder!" he exclaimed. "They're as game as bantams. I never saw the like of it! They've speed enough, it's true; but if it comes to a square fight, they won't be able to keep above water for half-an-hour at the most."
It seemed, indeed, that the light-cruiser squadron was purposely courting death. Seven ships were now in sight: the "Southampton," "Nottingham," "Birmingham," "Lowestoft," "Arethusa," "Aurora" and "Undaunted," besides Commodore Tyrwhitt's destroyer flotillas. These ships would have proved far more than a match for the lighter German men-of-war, but the presence of the four "Dreadnoughts" put a very different aspect on the situation. And yet, the "Arethusa" and her sisters tore onward, at full steam ahead, making straight into the very jaws of a formidable and powerful foe
"I'm thinking," said Captain Crouch to Jimmy, "I'm thinking the 'Arethusa' must have something up her sleeve."
She had. She knew that she was backed up by some of the finest ships that were ever launched, the monarchs of the sea. And presently, from the north, the sudden report of a great gun smote the desolation of the Dogger Bank with a mighty thunder-clap which was like the bursting of the skies. And a little after, there hove into sight upon the northern sky-line, the "Tiger" and the "Lion," and, in their wake, the "Princess Royal," the "Indomitable" and the "New Zealand." The Titans were come to pick up the gauntlet thrown by the Giants.
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