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There had been times when Jimmy had thought quite seriously of forcing his way into the captain's cabin, and imploring Crouch to have this chest examined, on the off chance that thereby Stork might be proved the scoundrel he was. That the boy never decided to take a step so irretrievable and final, goes a long way to prove that he was possessed of little of the gambling instinct of his father. He saw from the first that there was a good chance that the sea-chest would contain nothing of an incriminating nature, in which case he would be in a worse plight than before. Throughout all this strange, mysterious business, so much was at stake that Jimmy felt he was not entitled to risk more than he need. And it was well for him that he resolved to be discreet; for, in a manner that was at once surprising and dramatic, Providence, for the first time, came to his aid.
One morning, soon after daybreak, they sighted a British torpedo-boat-destroyer, racing due northward, travelling at a speed of almost thirty knots an hour. The destroyer, evidently wishing to speak to the "Harlech," which was not, of course, equipped with wireless apparatus-drew to within a cable's length of the steamer, when the commander shouted through a megaphone to Captain Crouch, who was on the bridge.
"Have you heard the news?" he asked.
"What news?" asked Crouch. "We've seen no papers since we left New York, more than a week ago."
"Admiral Sturdee has thrashed the German squadron off the Falkland Islands. The 'Gneisenau,' the 'Scharnhorst,' the 'Leipzig,' and the 'Nuremburg' have been sunk; but the 'Dresden' managed to escape, and is believed to have come this way."
"I've seen nothing of her," answered Crouch.
"Do you know what she looks like?" asked the commander.
"Sure enough," said Crouch. "Protected cruiser, of about three thousand five hundred tons. Speed about twenty-four and a half. Two masts and three funnels-a trifle forward. Sister ship to the 'Emden.' Completed in 1908."
"That's her," shouted back the officer. "Sorry you haven't seen her. Good-bye, and good luck. Look out for enemy submarines," he added, "when you get into the Channel."
A moment later, the destroyer was flying on its way, cutting through the water at such a velocity that the spray was sent high into the air, to form a kind of rainbow in the sunshine immediately above her bows.
The news of the defeat of Admiral von Spee's squadron was received with delight by the ship's officers and crew of the "Harlech." That evening, for the first time during the voyage, a banjo made its appearance on the forward well-deck, and there were songs, not unconnected with the fact that England had been in the past, and would continue to be in the future, the sole mistress of the seas. Throughout these quite excusable rejoicings, it was a fact-that passed unnoticed by every one, except by Jimmy Burke-that Rudolf Stork held himself aloof, standing apart from the others, with his bare arms folded and never a smile upon his lips.Jimmy hoped that the man's surly manner would be noticed by the captain, upon whom as a rule little or nothing was lost. But Crouch paced the main-deck, with both hands behind his back, lost in thoughts of his own and a veritable cloud of the black smoke of "Bull's Eye Shag."
It was quite late at night when the forecastle, at last, was still. Six bells had sounded when the banjo was put back into its case and the crew turned in. An hour after that, Rudolf Stork was pacing the lower deck-a silent, shadowy figure in the moonlight, moving in and out among the derricks and the hatches. Jimmy Burke, lying upon his bunk at the entrance of the forecastle, watched the man for a long time, wondering what were the dark thoughts that Rudolf Stork could share with no one; and when, at last, the boy fell asleep, the ship's carpenter was still striding to and fro, like some restless, evil spirit.
The boy was awakened suddenly by the shrill note of the boatswain's whistle. One after the other, close upon each other's heels, the crew tumbled out upon the well-deck. Simultaneously, the voice of Captain Crouch rang out, so loud as to be audible from one end of the ship to the other.
"Every man at his alarm post! Have the boats ready to be lowered; we may have need of them before we are much older. Mr. Dawes, spare every man you can to work in the engine-room like a nigger. If we can manage to squeeze fifteen knots out of the old ship, there'll be just a dog's chance that we escape."
Jimmy waited to hear no more, but, springing from his bunk, hastened out upon the deck.
A group of men was standing upon the main-deck immediately beneath the bridge, many of whom were pointing excitedly towards the east. It was dawn; and although the sun had not yet risen, the first signs of daybreak were clearly visible upon the horizon. The sea itself looked black; in the sky, a few stars still glimmered faintly. Upon the eastern sky-line extended a long belt of silver, in the immediate centre of which there could be seen a thin trail of smoke. Captain Crouch was on the bridge, with a large telescope raised to his only eye.
For the first five hours of that memorable day, the excitement that prevailed on board the "Harlech" was intense. Every one went about his work in breathless haste. Mr. Dawes shouted his orders like a madman. From time to time, the chief engineer appeared on deck to report progress from the engine-room. Every pound of coal that it was possible to throw into the furnaces would tend to increase the ship's speed, if-as Captain Crouch believed-the trail of smoke upon the far horizon came from the funnels of the "Dresden."
By eight o'clock, there was no doubt whatsoever that it was the German cruiser herself that they had sighted. A little after, it was evident that the "Dresden" was giving chase. From the well-decks only her smoke was visible, but this was rapidly growing more and more distinct. Crouch remained upon the bridge, his telescope glued to his eye; and from that altitude no doubt the hull of the German warship was visible.
Presently, from the direction of the enemy, there came a dull booming sound that died away across the great expanse of water, like the rolling sound of a monster drum. It had hardly ceased before there became audible a shrill, piercing hoot, not unlike a human shriek, that became louder and louder with alarming rapidity.
There was no need for one of the crew who had taken part in the South African War to cry out that a shell was coming. Every one on board knew what that sound meant. Following a not unnatural curiosity, every man rushed to the taffrails, to see what would be the result. There was a loud, and almost unanimous, shout of "There she goes!" as the shell plunged into the water about two hundred yards from the starboard side of the ship, sending a great savage fountain high into the air.
By then, the "Harlech" was steaming almost due south. Her course had been changed at daybreak, when the "Dresden" had been sighted immediately ahead. The first shell, which was marvellously accurate as far as direction was concerned, must have passed immediately over the mast-head of the merchant ship.
This augured ill for the remainder of the day. There seemed little or no chance that the "Harlech" would escape, though she burnt every ton of coal she carried in her bunkers. The British destroyer had gone due north. Nowhere else, except in the direction of the "Dresden," was there a ship in sight. The "Harlech" – as we have already pointed out-was not equipped with wireless, and had no means of calling for assistance.
For the next two hours, the utmost confusion and consternation prevailed on board. A shell struck the forecastle-peak, and tore away a great piece of the ship, as a bull-dog might rend the clothes of a tramp. Another broke its way through the superstructure under the bridge; and a third, fourth and fifth, pierced the ship's sides above the water-line.
Throughout all this, Captain Crouch remained perfectly calm and collected, from time to time taking his pipe from his mouth to knock out the ash on the heel of his boot, refill it and light it with the utmost care. The "Dresden" was now well in sight, bearing straight down upon them, as a tiger might rush upon its prey. It seemed, indeed, that they were doomed.
It was about mid-day when the German cruiser signalled to them to surrender; and though there could be no question that a refusal would lead to the destruction of them all, Crouch flatly refused to acknowledge that the game was up. His only answer was to hoist the Union Jack to the mast-head and run up the Red Ensign on the poop.
The appearance of the British flag upon the high seas upon that calm, sunlit winter's morning was a hint to the captain of the German cruiser to open fire with shrapnel.
From this time onward, the decks were highly dangerous. The German gunners got the range to an inch, and managed to keep it, in spite of the fact that every minute brought them nearer and nearer to their prey. These shells exploded one after the other, in quick succession, each one with a white puff, in the very midst of the rigging; whilst the round, leaden bullets descended in a shower, to bury themselves in the teak decks or crash through the glass of the skylights.
No one faced this, with the exception of Captain Crouch; and how he managed to live in the midst of it all must ever remain a mystery. He never lost his head for a moment, but continued to give orders which, because of the constant noise of bursting shells, he was obliged to shout through a megaphone.
A ship's quartermaster, clambering up from one of the forward holds, dashed up the ladder to the bridge, which was all twisted like a corkscrew, and reported to the captain that the ship had been struck below the water-line, and was sinking by the bows. Just then there was a lull in the firing; and Crouch called the crew together, and addressed them in the following words-
"If I haul down that flag," he cried, pointing to the Union Jack, "we may live to regret it, to tell those who come after us how we surrendered like a pack of curs. I'll save you that at any rate. If we must die, we'll die like men and Britons. Come, tell me, have I spoken square and honest?"
A cheer came from the men-a cheer that was cut short by a great explosion on the poop, that carried away the round-house and a great iron bollard that had been held to the deck by four cast-iron rivets, each one as thick as a strong man's wrist. Crouch paid no heed to this, but continued, waving his pipe in his hand.
"Well spoken, lads," he cried. "Though we've got no guns of our own, we'll stick to the Flag to the last; and maybe they'll hear of it in England. And now, pay no heed to the shells, but all hands to the pumps."
The men obeyed with that business-like promptitude that is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race. They were not disposed to argue that, after all, life was possibly worth living, and there is no more terrible death than to be drowned in calm water when the sun is shining in the midst of an illimitable sea. It was enough for them that their captain had spoken words that moved them to the depths of their rugged hearts: they were resolved to die like men.
For half-an-hour they worked in a kind of frenzy at the pumps, striving to keep the stricken ship afloat. It seemed that their efforts were successful; for, though the "Harlech" had taken on a marked list to port, and her stern was lifted a good six feet in the water, she seemed to be still seaworthy and as yet showed no signs of settling down. The "Dresden" was now not much more than four miles in the wake of the fugitive ship, which did little more than crawl.
At such a range shrapnel is at its worst and deadliest. Shell after shell burst upon the "Harlech," until the masts were splintered, the decks riddled, and the rigging cut and torn in a thousand places. The top of one of the funnels had been blown away; the glass windows of the chart-house had been driven in.
Presently the shell fire became so severe, and there had been so many casualties among the crew, that it became impossible to continue to work the pumps. No one could live upon the deck; and something in the nature of a stampede was made to the saloon, whither the wounded had been carried.
Jimmy, who had been working at the pumps, had been one of the last to leave. His courage had not passed unnoticed by Captain Crouch, who found himself at a loss to reconcile two facts: firstly, that Jimmy had displayed a supreme contempt for danger, and secondly, that the boy was presumed to be a German spy.
As a great shell struck the mainmast, and brought down a spar upon the deck to which was attached the tattered shreds of what had once been the flag of England, the boy sought safety in the forecastle. There, one of the first things that met his eyes was a sea-chest, the lid of which had been broken open by the force of the concussion by which it had been hurled across the deck. Upon one of the broken pieces of this box were inscribed in black lettering the two words: RUDOLF STORK.
This was no time upon which to stand upon ceremony. There is no such thing as private property in time of war-as, during the long months of this colossal combat, Europe has learnt to her cost. Jimmy Burke had suspicions of his own, which he had cause to know were well grounded. Chance had brought an opportunity to hand which he was not slow to take. In a second he was down on all fours, turning out the contents of Stork's sea-chest, which appeared to have been filled with nothing but documents and papers, the majority of which were in the handwriting of Rosencrantz, the tool of the Baron von Essling.
What these papers were Jimmy was given no opportunity of finding out; for, hardly had he picked up the first to examine it more closely, than he was suddenly seized from behind by the scruff of the neck.
With a quick movement he managed to free himself, escaping to the windlass, which is in the very peak of the ship. There he found himself cut off by Rudolf Stork, who stood immediately before him, so that there was no means of exit from the forecastle.
Stork was like a madman. He wore nothing but a shirt and a pair of trousers. Upon his left shoulder there was a patch of blood where he had been struck by a shrapnel bullet. Even in the semi-darkness of that place, Jimmy could see that the man was in such an insensate fit of fury that his eyes were gleaming like coals of fire.
With a loud oath, hurled through his teeth in the direction of the boy, he gathered his papers together in an armful, and hurled them through a port-hole into the sea.
"And now," he cried, "you infernal young dog, I'll do for you!"
Suddenly, as he picked up a marlinspike that happened to be lying close at hand upon the deck, with an expression stamped upon every feature of his face that could mean nothing short of murder, a loud British cheer came from somewhere amidships that was clearly audible in spite of the bursting shells and the incessant thunder of the "Dresden's" guns. Stork paused in the very act of raising his weapon to strike.
"What's that?" he cried.
No sooner had the words left his lips than the cheer was raised a second time, louder than before. And then the voice of Captain Crouch rang out, in which there was a clear note of triumph.
"Back to the pumps!" he shouted. "Boys, we'll save her yet."
CHAPTER X-The Mysterious Message
No doubt we should always be prepared for the unexpected, but the fact remains that we very seldom are. In this case, the voice of Captain Crouch carried from one end of the ship to the other, bringing a sudden ray of hope into the heart of every man that heard it, that was like a flash of light in a darkened room.
Every living soul on board-including the ship's carpenter himself-had already given himself up for lost. The "Harlech" was apparently in a sinking condition, and under the continual and merciless fire of the enemy cruiser. They were miles from anywhere, in the very midst of the ocean; and it had seemed as if nothing could save them from a watery grave, or, at least, captivity. And suddenly, the intelligence was burst upon them that the ship might yet be saved. The crew had been ordered to return to the pumps. The unexpected had occurred.
Now, curiosity is a very natural sentiment that at times overcomes even the strongest impulse. For the moment, Stork forgot that he was on the point of committing murder; Jimmy Burke, that his life was in the greatest peril. Without a thought for one another, both rushed out upon the well-deck, to learn what had happened.
The "Harlech" still listed so much that the decks sloped at an angle of almost twenty degrees. It was then afternoon, though the sun was still high. The "Dresden" lay to the north-east, her great guns sounding in quick succession, like peal after peal of thunder immediately overhead. Though the shells still shrieked through the rigging, or burst their way through the fragile sides of the ship, all eyes were turned towards the south, in which quarter Captain Crouch upon the bridge was directing his enormous telescope. Jimmy, regardless of his danger, dashed up the steps that led to the forecastle-peak, and shading his eyes against the glare of the sun, looked in the same direction.
It was some moments before he was able to make out anything at all; and then, suddenly, he discerned quite clearly the funnels-from each of which proceeded a thin trail of smoke-of three separate ships that appeared to be advancing in line, steaming forward with rapidity and making straight for the "Dresden."
Suddenly, Captain Crouch tucked his telescope under his arm, and shouted to Stork, who was still upon the well-deck, to take charge of the party that was again working at the pumps. And hardly had the words left his lips than from the south there came a heavy thudding sound that was like a thunder-clap in the distance, and a few seconds later, a great shell screamed immediately overhead, to send up a fountain of water several feet into the air, not more than forty yards from the "Dresden's" bows.
A loud cheer was lifted by the crew of the "Harlech" – the men who saw on a sudden, as if newly awakened from a nightmare, that deliverance was, indeed, at hand. For yonder, bearing straight in their direction, the tolling of the great guns echoing across the sea, were three ships of the British Navy, racing towards the enemy like as many joyful greyhounds loosed together from the leash.
They were indeed three greyhounds of the sea: the "Glasgow," the 27-knot cruiser that had escaped from the fatal fight off Coronel, when the "Monmouth" and the "Good Hope" went down before the weight of the German guns; the "Kent," which had run down and sunk the "Leipzig"; and the "Invincible," the splendid armoured cruiser-the first of its kind-whose twelve-inch guns had sent to the bottom the "Scharnhorst" and the "Gneisenau," to avenge the death of Cradock. These were ships that had been tempered in the stern forge of warfare, that had been tried and not found wanting; even then, they had come from a great victory in the south. As they swept down upon the foe, there was something in the outline of their dark and threatening hulls, in the very smoke that issued from their funnels, that made them appear, in very truth, invincible and ruthless.
One after the other, in quick succession, their great guns opened fire, until the sound was deafening, and it was as if the broad waters were alive. Everywhere were great living fountains in the sea, and around each one the water was churned white as snow.
The "Dresden," which was completed in the year 1907, had been built with the idea of speed, and was but lightly armed. She carried only ten four-inch guns and two torpedo-tubes, and with these she could not hope to put up a fight against such a powerful adversary as the "Invincible." In an old, time-worn phrase, she questioned not the order of her going, but, putting her helm about, fled like a startled roe at very sight of those who had marked her down.
It is impossible to describe the feelings of the men on board the "Harlech." They had been rescued, at the eleventh hour, from the very jaws of death; and the sudden knowledge that they, at last, were safe, combined with a sense of relief that the living shells were no longer hooting and shrieking about their ears, had a singular effect not only on every member of the crew, but even upon Captain Crouch himself.
One and all, they worked at the pumps in a kind of frenzied joy, and as they worked, they cheered. It soon became manifest that the "Harlech" would be saved. She had been struck upon the water-line; the forward holds had filled; and had the sea been rough, there is no doubt she would have gone down with all hands on board. As it was, she shipped no water that the pumps were not able to eject. Even as the men worked, her bows rose, inch by inch, to their normal level above the surface of the sea.
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