скачать книгу бесплатно
To all intents and purposes, the ship was already a wreck; and every time she rolled to starboard, she shipped water in her holds; so that in less than an hour she was so low down that both well-decks were flooded, and those who passed along the alleyways were obliged to wade knee-deep in water. It must also be remembered that all her boats had been destroyed. Though the great guns were now silent towards the south, and there could be little question that the British squadron was returning, there was neither a sail nor a smoke-stack in sight, as far as the eye could reach.
And even had there not been a dozen wounded men on board-many of whom were in a critical condition-the situation had been none of the pleasantest. Once again, it looked as if all on board were doomed.
Crouch, seeing that there was no time to waste, gathered together all the men he could find, and set about the construction of a raft. In this task he was aided by the dilapidated condition in which the German battle-cruisers had left the ship. In the ordinary course of events, on such occasions, it is necessary to break up the deck with axes; but here, this work had already been done by the shellfire of the "Bl?cher." The demolished chart-room and the shattered bridge afforded an abundance of material. There was no lack of rope on board, and the buoyancy of the raft was considerably increased by a number of life-buoys and belts.
The raft was constructed on the forward well-deck, where the men, often standing up to their waists in water, worked in feverish haste; and it is astonishing what prodigies of labour can be accomplished in so terrible a situation. Indeed, they worked not only to save, their own lives, but also the lives of those of their comrades who were unable to assist themselves.
One after the other, the wounded were brought down from the main-deck, and laid upon mattresses, spread side by side upon the raft. There was something extraordinarily precarious in the state of these unhappy men, since they had no means of knowing whether the buoyancy of the raft would maintain the weight of them all, when the ship, at last, went down. Crouch had taken every precaution that was possible; practically without exception the lifebuoys and cork lifebelts had been lashed underneath the raft, the better to serve their purpose.
When it became clear that the ship was sinking rapidly, Crouch ordered all hands to the forward well-deck, to be ready for the crisis. Fortunately, the ship was going down on an even keel. It was probable, however, that at the last moment she would dive. If she did so stern foremost, all would be well; but if she shot down into deep water bows first, then the chances were that the foremast would foul the raft, which would either be destroyed piecemeal, dragged under water, or so tilted up that those who had sought safety there would be cast headlong into the sea.
The disaster came about quite gradually, and in the very way that suited them best.They had plenty of warning that the ship was about to go. The raft had been manned by all-except a few who were prepared to swim-when the water rose like ether in a tube from the after well-deck to the poop. And then-of all strange things-the whole ship bobbed forward, like a playful duck in a pond, whilst the sea spread in a long, single wave from the poop to the forecastle-peak, above which the raft shot clear like a ship launched from the slips.
When they found themselves free and floating upon the surface of the water, they marvelled that the whole thing had been so inconceivably simple. They were huddled together like a flock of sheep, and in three minutes they were wet from head to foot in spray and from the water that splashed upward through the gaping holes in the structure of the raft. The last they saw of the "Mondavia" was the top of her shattered funnel, gliding on the surface for the fraction of a second, like the dorsal fin of a shark. Then, even this small black object vanished, and there was nothing to be seen but an infinity of bubbles and hundreds of broken pieces of spar and splintered, painted wood. The "Mondavia" was gone.
Those who, as a wise precaution, had taken to the water, now that it was seen that the raft was safe, scrambled one after the other, drenched and dripping, to this frail, uncertain place of safety. There, crowded together, shivering from the wet and from the cold, they awaited whatsoever fate might be held in store for them, in the midst of the desolation of the sea.
They could not have been more than fifteen miles from the coast, but that, to them, was an infinite distance; they could never hope to gain the security of land. They had neither sail nor mast; there had been no time to make one or the other. Neither had they any means of propelling the raft. They could but drift whither tide and wind and current took them, and this was out to sea.
Moreover, it was now rapidly growing dark. The sun, which had remained hidden throughout the greater part of that memorable day, showed for a few minutes upon the north-western horizon, in a great flood of red and gold, and then dropped down into the sea. At the same time, the squall freshened once again; the wind showed signs of blowing up to a gale; and to make matters worse, a kind of sea fog-dripping wet and cold-drove up from the south, like a great cloud of smoke.
Crouch was a man who had a will of iron and a great heart of gold. He knew that his own life, and the lives of all those who were with him, was in the hands of an Almighty Power. Those poor, lonely castaways were in the care of Providence.
At such an hour, they were not likely to forget the God Who had given them birth, Who had first opened their eyes to all the beauties of the earth, and held them wonderstruck, time and time again, at the immensity of the eternal sea. As one man, they offered up silent, breathless prayers. Nor were these prayers that they might live, such as might issue from a coward's lips, but prayers for ever-lasting grace, for forgiveness and courage to the last.
Crouch drew near to Jimmy. The raft was now so strained and lifted by the broken surface of the water that she groaned and fretted as in pain.
"I fear one thing," said he, "and one thing only; if the wind holds she'll break. She can't bear the strain much longer. She was knocked together like a Canton flower-boat, or an Irish fence."
"There's still hope," said Jimmy Burke.
He spoke in a monotone, in a voice without expression, as if his words meant nothing. Indeed, he himself hardly understood them. In his heart he saw no cause to hope; there was no reason why they should be saved. He was wet to the skin and well-nigh frozen, so numbed in all his limbs that he could scarcely move. And it is only natural, when the body is reduced to this condition, that the mind should cease to work; it becomes a mere machine; and words are spoken in much the same way as a monkey jabbers or a parrot talks, without regard to their meaning.
They waited in patience, in silence and a fortitude that was something more than heroic. They waited for nearly another hour. By then, it was almost dark. The raft still held together, though those on board of her were almost perished. The sea fog had evidently driven past, for a few stars were visible above them.
And then it was that H.M.S. "Cockroach" hove in sight, steaming due north-westward at the rate of thirty knots an hour.
As one man, they lifted their voices in a great shout that went out upon the loneliness of the black, rolling waters, to reach the ears of men in comparative security, who stood bewildered and amazed in the very hour of their triumph and elation.
His Majesty's ship "Cockroach," but newly come from the thunder of the Dogger Bank, changed her course on the instant, and veered round to the south. And a little after, those castaways were saved.
They were well cared for by the seamen on board the torpedo-boat-destroyer, who could talk of nothing but victory and the sinking of the "Bl?cher." The survivors of the tramp steamer were given food and warm drinks; and the lights of Tynemouth were in sight when Jimmy Burke went on deck with Crouch and the Lieutenant-commander. The night had cleared. Above them was a whole canopy of stars. A new moon, too, had risen-a moon that heralded another month of the World War, of carnage, victory and repulse. And this moon had traced upon the surface of the sea a narrow, glittering silver pathway, which was like a road that led from out of all these scenes of horror and destruction to a far-off land of happy dreams. And on a sudden, into this silver pathway, there hove the shadows of two mighty giants. They heard the engines of a great ship groaning, as the strong screws churned the water; and then they saw the dark, colossal outline of one of the monarchs of the sea, with an even greater ship in tow.
Both were men-of-war that moved forward slowly, cumbrously, as if in pain. It was the wounded "Lion," crawling back to port-broken, bleeding, but invincible to the very end. On that calm, moonlit night, the "Lion" stood forth as a symbol of all England: hard hit and heavy of heart, but resolute, defiant and unconquerable.
There is romance in all things. No one will dispute, for instance, there is romance in war; but, it is not everyone that realizes that there is just as much that is romantic in a coalfield, a factory or a dockyard.
The traveller who journeys by night through one of the great industrial centres of England cannot fail to be impressed by the enormous strides that civilization has made during the last century, at the vast wealth of modern nations and the organization of industry. In a night scene, where great chimneys and the head-gears of coal-pits tower against the starlight, and the sky is red with the reflection of thousands of flaming furnaces and ovens, and white-hot rubbish is tossed here and there like hay in a new-mown field, there is much to marvel at, and not a little of romance.
Modern industry has grown like a mushroom. The invention of the steam-engine was the first step in the great march of science that led to the conquest of nature, and placed into the hands of man the illimitable resources of the earth. Mineral wealth is the capital of a country, a source of income that is almost inexhaustible.
In all busy England, there is no greater centre of activity than the mouth of the river Tyne. Here we have, clustered together within a comparatively small area, a score of flourishing towns-Shields, Tynemouth, Jarrow, Wallsend and Newcastle. Each of these is another Sheffield in itself, where working men labour for long hours, live well, grumble much, and find little time to wash. The men of Tyneside are the toughest breed in England-the toughest and, perhaps, the roughest, too.
It was to the Tyneside that the wounded "Lion" crawled home. It was to the mouth of this turbid, close-packed river, to the smoke-stained atmosphere of thousands of factories and workshops, that H.M.S. "Cockroach" brought the crew of the "Mondavia."
Many were wounded; some were even at the door of death; and all had looked Eternity in the face. They had come through unheard-of dangers; they had waited for destruction, counting the seconds to the end; and they had been saved, as by a miracle, from out of the midst of the sea.
Perhaps one of the most singular and amazing contrasts in the universe lies in the transformation of a battlefield into a hospital ward. In one, we find such uproar and confusion, such thunder, fire, imprecations and groans of agony, as can only be compared to the nether regions. In the other, all is stillness, cleanliness, solicitude and care. It is a strange thing for a man who is but newly come from a scene of noisy and indescribable carnage, to look into the smiling eyes and red-cheeked, morning face of an English girl. It is not easy for him to comprehend that the same world can contain such vastly different aspects.
Upon a certain jetty above the mud-dyed water of the Tyne, a dozen of such women were waiting for the torpedo-boat-destroyer as she neared the shore. They were members of the Women's Emergency Corps, dressed as hospital nurses, who had come prepared for anything, but most of all to welcome back to Tyneside those who had helped to keep the flag of England flying on the seas.
Arrangements had been made for the casualties sustained by the Navy, but no one had reckoned upon the arrival of a score of seriously injured men of the crew of a small tramp steamer. However, there was one there-a lady in some position of authority-who took the matter into her own hands, with a degree of common-sense and promptitude that stands much to her honour.
"They must go to the American hospital," said she. "They have plenty of accommodation there, and are simply crying out for patients."
Accordingly, it was to this American hospital that the crew of the "Mondavia" were conducted, some on stretchers and some of the more seriously wounded-such as Captain Whisker-in motor ambulances which had been sent down to meet them.
It was a sad procession that passed through the streets that famous evening, when men could do nothing else but talk of the North Sea fight, and no one showed the smallest inclination to go to bed. When it became known what the fate of the well-known cargo ship had been, the eyes of these slow-thinking, stubborn people were opened at last to the full meaning of the war. That a powerful battle-cruiser like the "Bl?cher" should deign to direct her guns upon a defenceless merchant ship, proved only too clearly once again that the German Empire, thwarted in her senseless ambition, was prepared to stick at nothing.
It was conduct such as this that had turned the sympathies of the whole world towards the Allies; and it was by means of field hospitals and various Red Cross institutions that a large section of the American public had been able to give practical expression to their feelings.
Crouch, accompanied by the medical officer himself, who had come down to the jetty, was the first to reach the hospital. The little sea-captain was so accustomed to hardships, and possessed of such great vitality, that the terrible ordeal through which he had passed did not seem to have had the slightest effect upon either his physical strength or his nerves. He walked briskly, though with his usual limp, carrying on an animated and somewhat one-sided conversation with the doctor.
It was hardly possible to mistake the American hospital-by reason of the enormous "Stars and Stripes," which, day and night, floated from above the portal. Within was everything that human ingenuity, modern science and the generosity of a great and charitable nation could devise. Captain Crouch was not the least surprised at that; but, what caused him to stop stone-dead, like a man struck, and stand gaping like a yokel at a fair, was the slim figure of a young girl, dressed in the white cap and apron of a trained nurse, who was the first person he set eyes upon the moment he entered the door.
Captain Crouch had a good memory. Besides, not so many weeks had elapsed since he had had his little confidential chat with Peggy Wade in the New York offices of Jason, Stileman and May. He remembered nearly everything Peggy had told him, even the story of the lucky sixpence that had once belonged to Admiral "Swiftsure Burke." He remembered, as well, the strange coincidence that had come to light in the "Goat and Compasses" hotel, on the night when he and Jimmy had deciphered the mysterious message.
"My lass," said he, holding out a hand, "my lass, we've met before."
Peggy must be excused if she could not at first recollect. Though Crouch's heart was the same as ever and his was the same indomitable will, he bore more than one mark of the recent conflict: his clothes were in rags, his face was cut and bruised, and he had been drenched to the skin in the salt water of the sea.
"Forgive me," said Peggy; "but, I can't remember."
And then, she saw Crouch's strange glass eye that always stared in front of him, and remembered on a sudden.
"Why, yes!" she cried, holding out both hands. "Of course, I remember now."
A few quick questions from either side were answered no less briefly. The waters of remembrance-even of quite little things-are very sweet indeed; and it was pure joy to them to speak of the Admiral's lucky sixpence.
It was that that brought back Crouch's mind to Jimmy, whom a strange fate was bringing to the very hospital where he would be cared for by the best friend and sole companion of other far-off days.
The ship's officers and crew of the "Mondavia" came to this quiet haven of rest like broken men-men who had been broken upon the relentless wheel of war. Jimmy Burke was well able to walk; for all that, he was so bruised and aching in his limbs that he did so like an old man, limping painfully and leaning heavily upon a stick.
His surprise and amazement can better be imagined than described when, arrived at the hospital, he found himself confronted by Peggy Wade. It was, indeed, a strange thing that, in so short a space of time, and after so many vicissitudes and dangers, these two should be brought together again. All the way across the Atlantic-more especially when they were off the coast of Ireland and pursued by a German submarine-the girl's thoughts had been of Jimmy, the friend and companion from whom she had parted in New York. Two days after the boy had gone, she had been offered a post with an American hospital which was about to be established in the north of England, prior to leaving for the scene of operations in France. And three days after her arrival in England, a strange "chance" brought him-hurt, broken and weary-to the very hospital where the girl herself was employed.
Jimmy's case was not very different from that of the majority of his companions. Though he had sustained no serious bodily injury, he had passed through an ordeal that had been enough to shatter the nerves of the strongest men. Long hours of peril, followed by sleepless nights, during which the greatest hardships have to be endured, will sap the strength and vital energy no less surely than the most dangerous wounds. It was necessary for all these men to rest, to be given nourishing food and to be allowed to sleep. As for those who were wounded-like the two merchant captains, Cookson and the burly Whisker-they received skilful treatment and the tenderest care; so that, though more than one was brought to the hospital more dead than alive, not one succumbed to his injuries.
In two days' time, when Jimmy Burke was quite restored to health, though still sore, a party of three people travelled to London by train. And these three were Captain Crouch, Peggy Wade (who had obtained a few days' leave) and Jimmy Burke himself.
Peggy and Jimmy had many things to speak of. The boy was delighted to hear that Aunt Marion was in England, too. As for Peggy, she listened in rapt attention to the whole story: of how Jimmy had discovered Stork on board the "Harlech," and how the villainous ship's carpenter had accused the boy of being a German spy. Crouch related his experiences at the top of his voice, working himself up into such a state of excitement that he waved his arms about him like a maniac, and from time to time laid hold of Jimmy by the shoulders and shook the boy violently, as if he desired to satisfy himself that the whole thing was not a dream.
He described the attack of the "Dresden," and the havoc that had been wrought by the guns of the German cruiser. He produced a note-book and pencil, and wrote out the mysterious message-the riddle that Jimmy had solved. And then, he told the girl how the ship had been sighted by the U93; and when he spoke of Jimmy's gallantry in saving the "Harlech" from destruction, Peggy felt a thrill of pride that she counted as her best and truest friend one who had rendered such signal service to his country. Somehow or other, in the stuffy New York office, she had never looked upon Jimmy Burke in the light of a hero; he had been just a boy, with whom she had been wont to revel in the joys of forbidden office "picnics," making cocoa and cooking sausages upon the stove.
Hitherto, the girl's life had been somewhat circumscribed; and Crouch's story seemed to her too wonderful to be true. If the saving of the "Harlech" was an incident that caused her pulses to throb and the blood to fly to her face, all that had happened at the empty flat in the Edgware Road was fantastic and mysterious. It resembled an episode from the "New Arabian Nights."
She listened in breathless eagerness to the description of the "Marigold," and to how the "Kitty McQuaire" had sighted the enemy's battle-cruiser squadron, steaming north-westward for the Tyne. The sinking of the fishing-smack, the crew rescued by the "Mondavia" at the eleventh hour, the re-appearance of the dreaded U93, and the hurricane of shells hurled from the "Bl?cher's" guns-all this was the very essence of adventure. And then Crouch, with becoming modesty, told how he had rammed the submarine, and sent her to the bottom, speaking of the whole episode in much the same manner as he mentioned the loss of his favourite pipe.
скачать книгу бесплатно