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All this while, Crouch's brain was active. He may have been inclined to be pig-headed, but he was by no means a fool. For the first time, he found himself wondering whether there was any truth in what Jimmy had told him. He was perfectly convinced that Stork had changed the course of the ship on purpose. The man was not only quite thorough in his work as a rule, but understood his duty, and was hardly likely to have made so serious a mistake through negligence alone.
When the last watch came to deck, the captain's eyes followed Stork as he made his way to the forecastle; and then he, too, went below to his cabin, to snatch a few hours' sleep. He was now quite ready to admit the possibility that he had made a serious mistake, and made up his mind to keep a sharp eye upon Stork throughout the remainder of the voyage.
The next day-when the "Harlech" was steadily ploughing her way, heading for the entrance of the Channel-was an anxious time for Crouch. He knew the full value of the cargo he carried, and its utmost importance to those to whom it was consigned; and he knew also that, at any moment, a torpedo from some lurking, hidden foe might send the ship and all on board to the bottom. A heavy sea fog lay upon the surface of the water. Dawes was in bed, unable to rise; and since the third officer was somewhat young and inexperienced, nearly all the responsible work of the ship devolved upon the captain.
That afternoon, towards sunset, the fog lifted a trifle. Crouch remained upon the bridge, straining his single eye through his long telescope for minutes at a time. Presently, he closed the instrument with a snap, tucked it under his arm, and dived both hands into his trousers pockets.
"Just as I thought!" he exclaimed. "We're a good six points to the south, and on the wrong side of the Scillies. That man's a rogue."
There was no one to hear this remark but the quartermaster at the wheel, and Jimmy Burke, who had just then ascended the bridge steps with a cup of bovril for the captain, who had sent below for something to warm him up.
"My boy," said Crouch, "I may have done you a wrong. Mind, I don't say I have; but, I'm quite ready to confess that there's a chance of it. Come and see me in my cabin, at ten o'clock to-night."
During that evening and the early hours of the night, the "Harlech" rounded the Scilly Islands, and sighted the Cornish coast, where the great, powerful light at the Lizard flashes its message of warning across eighty miles of sea.
Jimmy Burke, filled with anticipation concerning his coming interview with the captain, did not turn into the forecastle, but betook himself to the poop, where he lay down upon a great coil of rope.
Now, those who know anything of the hardships of a sea-faring life are well aware that a coil of rope makes a couch that is far from being uncomfortable-as things go with those whose fate it is to serve before the mast. There is always a great depression in the middle, in which it is possible for the body to sink; and this is exactly what happened to Jimmy Burke.He sank so deeply in the midst of the coils of rope that, in spite of the fact that it was an exceedingly bright moonlit night, his form was completely hidden from any one who might happen to be passing.
He did not fall asleep, because he was particularly anxious to count each sounding of the ship's bells, knowing that at four bells precisely he would have to report himself to Captain Crouch. He was therefore in full possession of his senses and wide awake when a shadowy form ascended the poop steps, and passed to the taffrails at the very stern of the vessel, from which was suspended the rope of the ship's log.
This man Jimmy recognized at once as Rudolf Stork. Even in that light, there was no mistaking his broad, sloping shoulders and his slovenly gait. Stork carried something in his hand; and at first the boy was not able to make out what this was. He was not left long in doubt, however; for, when Stork raised it to the level of the taffrails and began to move up and down a small lever which made a persistent, irregular tapping sound, it became manifest that the man was in possession of a signalling lamp, with which he was sending messages to some unknown point in the darkness that was spread upon the sea.
Jimmy Burke was like one transfixed. He remained motionless and breathless, amazed at the man's audacity. And before he had time to put two and two together, to realize the full import of what was happening, four bells sounded from the forward part of the ship. It was ten o'clock; Jimmy was expected in the captain's cabin.
Swiftly and silently, the boy got to his feet. As he did so, fearing that his presence might be discovered, he kept an eye upon Stork, whose back was turned to him, whose attention was fully occupied with the work he had in hand. On the surface of the water, in the white wake of the ship, Jimmy could see the reflection of the signalling lamp that flashed and flickered with the dots and dashes of the Morse code, as if, in its own poor way, it strove to imitate the magnificent lighthouse that lay but a few miles to the north.
And then, on a sudden, from out of the darkness, like an evil eye in the night, there appeared an answering light-small, far away, and yet marvellously distinct.
Jimmy drew back in horror. For all that, he remained sufficiently master of himself to keep absolutely silent. Without a sound, he glided down the companion-ladder to the well-deck, reached the main-deck, and burst into the captain's cabin.
He had not troubled to knock; and his abrupt entrance caused Crouch to look up from a volume of sailing instructions he had been in the act of reading.
"My lad," said he, "we're not over particular here in regard to manners; but, it's customary to ask permission to enter the captain's cabin."
Then he saw that the boy's face was ashen white, and shaped his lips as if about to whistle.
"What's up?" said he. "What's up?"
"For mercy's sake," cried Jimmy, "come with me! That villain is signalling from the poop to a German submarine."
Crouch straightened like a man struck. For fully a minute, he stared at Jimmy in amazement. There was that in the expression of the boy's face that left no room for doubt. No one-and Captain Crouch less than any one-could fail to see that he had spoken what he honestly believed to be the truth.
"A German submarine!" repeated Crouch.
"What else could it be?" cried Jimmy. "No cruiser, gunboat or destroyer would dare to show up so far from home. It's a submarine, sir, sure enough. And the rascal's signalling with a shuttered lantern in the Morse code, and they have answered back."
Crouch moved quickly to the doorway, and then, coming back into the room, flung open a drawer in his writing-desk, and took out a small, nickel-plated revolver that glittered in the lamplight.
"We'll put a stop to this," he cried. "It may not be too late to save the ship." Followed by the boy, he dashed out upon the deck.
There are scenes in the lives of us all which impress us so vividly at the time that we carry them with us always in our memory, as clearly and as permanently as an impression can be made upon a photographic plate.
Jimmy Burke will never forget the moonlit scene that was presented to his view from the doorway of Captain Crouch's cabin, that was at once beautiful and terrible. On the starboard side of the ship the rocks of Cornwall arose from out of the sea in a long, dark, rugged line, in the centre of which the Lizard light flashed like a brilliant star. A full moon hung low in the heavens, tracing a broad, silvery pathway across the broken surface of the sea. The "Harlech" was moving cumbrously through the water, on a course almost due east, when, on a sudden, in the full light of the moon, there rose out of the water, like some hideous monster of the under-sea, the periscope and conning-tower of an enormous submarine, upon the side of which was just discernible the ominous and dreaded letters-U93.
CHAPTER XIII-To the Boats!
Even in broad daylight there is something about a submarine that is uncanny. The capacity to float half-submerged, the peculiar shape and the dull slatey colour of this latest triumph of naval science, remind one of some weird antediluvian animal-one of those strange, gigantic monsters that are known to have inhabited the world long before man made his appearance. On this fateful night the bright moonshine, scintillating on the broken surface of the water, made the German submarine seem ghost-like and supernatural. Its sudden and unexpected appearance had the effect upon Jimmy Burke of a douche of ice-cold water. For several seconds he remained standing quite motionless and breathless, staring in stupefied amazement at the dark outline of the enemy.
Crouch, on the other hand, wasted not as much as the fraction of a second. A man who has spent a great part of his life in shooting wild and savage beasts is not easily taken by surprise. He was used to shocks. He saw at once that the peril in which the "Harlech" stood was both extreme and immediate. At such a moment it was not his business to ask himself why this calamity had come to pass. He was concerned only with the ship that he commanded, which it was his duty to save at every cost.
As quick as thought he turned, and dashing up the bridge steps, thrust the quartermaster aside and seized the spokes of the wheel.
The "Harlech" was travelling at full speed ahead-that is to say, she was making a poor seven knots an hour. The U93 lay on the starboard quarter; and Crouch, without a moment's hesitation, put the helm hard aport, with the result that the bows of the ship swung round on an angle of forty-five degrees, until she was heading straight for the submarine.
The moment was one of such intense excitement that Jimmy could think of nothing else but the extreme danger in which he found himself; he had forgotten completely all about Rudolf Stork. Crouch had sent below the quartermaster on duty, with orders for the boatswain to summon the crew; and in less than a minute every one-with the exception of those who were at work in the engine-room and stokeholds-was on deck.
The members of the crew crowded along the taffrails on the starboard side of the ship, where they shouted to one another and pointed excitedly in the direction of the submarine. Jimmy found himself in the midst of a crowd of half-clad, panic-stricken men, who jostled one another, and whose voices were inarticulate and hoarse. It is a significant fact that these men, who had sustained unflinchingly the fire of the "Dresden's" guns, who had behaved like heroes throughout, were now as senseless and as frightened as a flock of sheep in a field with a savage dog. The reason of this is not so far to seek: the submarine is not only as deadly a weapon as has ever been contrived, but, so far, no adequate means have been invented to counteract its subtle powers of aggression. Submarine is useless against submarine; destroyers are not able to account for under-water craft without having luck on their side-an auxiliary to warfare that is seldom absent, and yet which can hardly be relied upon. Neither are wire nets wholly adequate, since these can be utilized with effect only in certain localities where the seas are narrow and not deep.
None the less, though the crew of the "Harlech" were excited and apprehensive, they could not fail to see that it was Crouch's object to run the submarine down. One and all, they had supreme confidence in Crouch, and knew-now that the captain himself was at the wheel-that their lives could not be entrusted to safer hands.
They heard the tinkling of the engine-room bell when Crouch rang down to tell the chief engineer to let her go. The captain's teeth were set; he held the wheel at arm's length in an attitude of tension, his one eye staring straight before him, over the peak of the vessel, to the point where the U93 lay upon the surface of the water, her conning-tower and superstructure showing like the back of a whale.
It seemed at first that they would succeed, that the submarine would be rammed, cut in half and sent to the bottom like a stone. There could not have been fifty feet between the bows of the "Harlech" and her little venomous enemy when the U93 began to move, gaining almost at once sufficient velocity to cause the water to part about her forward ventilators in a long feathery wave, arrow-shaped and snow-white in the moonshine.
For ten minutes the chase continued; and those were moments of breathless and intense excitement. Once, at least, a torpedo was fired, which missed the ship by a matter of yards, passing on the port side, leaving a trail in the moonlight that was like the sheen on the scales of a fish. It caused each man on board who saw it firstly to shudder, and secondly to lift a silent prayer of thanksgiving to the great God above.
Had Crouch not turned the ship head-on to the submarine, had the "Harlech" presented a broadside target, there is small doubt the torpedo would have found its mark, and all on board would have perished. Afterwards, no one was able to testify that more than a single torpedo had been fired.
It now became clear that the submarine commander had decided to gain his ends by swift manoeuvring. Crouch himself was the first to recognize that the "Harlech" stood no chance of overhauling its enemy. The U93 could apparently travel on the surface at the rate of not less than fifteen knots; and even had the "Harlech" not been so sadly disabled, she could hardly have overtaken her quarry.
The submarine drew away some distance ahead, and then made a half circle to the left, returning on a parallel course, until she was level with the steamer. The "Harlech" was then not more than a mile away from the Cornish coast, where the dark, rugged outline of the hills was clearly visible in the moonlight.
Suddenly the hatch in the conning-tower of the U93 was seen to open, and two men made their appearance, one of whom shouted through a megaphone. He spoke good English. In the stillness of the night every word he said was audible.
"Ahoy, there!" he cried. "Slow down at once, and stop; or we send you to the bottom."
"Who are you?" asked Crouch, more with the idea of wasting time than of gleaning any definite information.
"His Imperial Majesty's submarine U93," came the answer. "Heave to, at once!"
Crouch saw that he had no alternative but to surrender. The "Harlech" was now broadside on to the submarine, which was not a hundred and fifty yards away. A torpedo, if discharged, could no more fail to strike its target than send the merchant ship to the bottom in the space of a few moments. It was a bitter pill to swallow; and as he paced to and fro upon the bridge, the little wizened master-mariner thought of Jason, Junior, sitting in his spacious offices in the midst of the hurry and commotion of New York.
He looked again at the submarine, which had now turned round and was following its victim as a cat plays with a mouse-except that, in this case, the mouse was huge and cumbrous, the cat quite small and fragile. In something that was very like a fit of rage Crouch grasped the handle of the telegraph, and rang down to the engine-room to "Stop."
The submarine drew even closer, until at last the German commander was able to make himself heard without the use of his megaphone.
"Are you the 'Harlech'?" he demanded.
"How do you know that?" said Crouch.
This seemed to anger the German, for he shouted even louder than before.
"I am not here to answer questions, but to ask them. Please understand that I am master of the situation: I have but to give the order, and a torpedo puts an end to you all."
"Do what you like," said Crouch. "We've no means of self-defence, as you can see."
"You have contraband goods on board," said the other.
"That may, or may not, be."
The German laughed.
"I know it," said he. "And now, I give you fair warning: you and your men have precisely five minutes in which to leave the ship. If you are not gone by the end of that time, you will pay the penalty of death, for the ship goes to the bottom."
Captain Crouch knit his brows in a frown. This was the first time in the life of the little man that he had met with anything in the shape of failure. As we have already pointed out, he was one who had made a success of most things. He had risen from extreme poverty and small beginnings to be a man of note-one whose name was well known in the four quarters of the globe. Just now, he felt as if he would never be able to hold up his head again, to look in the face the old friends who had followed him through thick and thin, who had always thought so highly of their leader.
Still, if he felt all this, he showed it neither in the expression of his face nor in the tones of his voice. In much the same manner as he would have given an everyday and simple order, he raised a hand to his mouth, and shouted at the full power of his lungs-
"All hands to the boats!"
CHAPTER XIV-The Doomed Ship
"All hands to the boats!"
There was no need for the order to be repeated a second time. The men, who knew quite well what was coming, were only waiting for the word. Indeed, in one part of the ship, the captain's orders had been anticipated by no less a person than Rudolf Stork.
There is little doubt that-had the submarine not appeared when it did-the days of Rudolf Stork had been numbered, then and there. Had Captain Crouch found Stork upon the poop, signalling to the enemy, he would have shot him like a dog, without a moment's hesitation. But, during the brief space of time whilst Jimmy was in the captain's cabin, the submarine had drawn quite close to the "Harlech"; and in the immediate presence of this new and more certain peril Crouch-and Jimmy also-forgot all about the ship's carpenter who had betrayed all on board.
There is every reason to suppose that Stork knew well enough the plans of the German commander. Possibly, he had known all along that the "Harlech" was doomed. He understood that the so-called submarine blockade was to be carried out with ruthless energy and perseverance, and that the lives of neutrals, even of women and children, were not likely to be held of much account.
He was therefore in the greater haste to get quit of the ship; and for this his position on the poop-the stern part of the vessel-offered him an opportunity which he was not likely to refuse.
Hoisted alongside the demolished round-house, where most of the ship's stores were kept, was a small gig, not much larger than a dinghy, used as a rule for harbour work. It so happened that when all hands were called on deck by the shrill note of the boatswain's whistle, the cook and the cook's mate had hastened from the galley to the poop; and it was these two men that Stork summoned to his assistance.
Without much difficulty, they lowered the dinghy, and had even launched it in the water, before Crouch had given the order for the boats to be manned. To lower a rope was the work of a minute; and before any one was aware that the ship's carpenter had left the ship, Stork and the two cooks were rowing frantically for the shore. There was no question but that they would reach the coast in safety. The dinghy was quite seaworthy; the damage done to the ship's boats during the bombardment from the "Dresden" had been repaired upon the voyage. The night was clear, the sea perfectly calm, and the shore-as we have said-not far away.
In the meantime, the German commander continued to issue his orders. Crouch still remained upon the bridge.
"Lower a gangway!" cried the German.
"A gangway!" echoed Crouch in open derision. "Do you think that we're a pack of school-girls that can't swarm down a rope? For why should we want a gangway?"
For some reason or other this seemed to infuriate the German.
"Do as you are told," he roared; "and don't argue the point with me. Lower a gangway at once. Do you imagine I intend to waste one of our finest Krupp torpedoes on a cargo ship of not five thousand tons! No, sir, we are not such fools in Germany. As soon as you and your crew are off, it will be short work, with such a cargo as you carry, to send her sky high with a bomb."
Crouch said nothing more, but came down from the bridge like a beaten man. It was when he gained the main-deck that he remembered Rudolf Stork, and went aft, with a set look upon his face and a loaded revolver in his hand.
When he reached the poop, he was furious when he saw what had happened. Not only was the dinghy gone, but the rope-by means of which Stork and the two cooks had managed to escape-was dangling at the ship's side.
"The rascal!" Crouch hissed between his teeth. Then, thrusting his revolver into a coat pocket, he clenched his fist, and shook it at the stars.
"If ever I get the chance," he muttered, "I'll be even with that rogue. I've been a blind fool, all along."
He returned to the main-deck, and supervised the lowering of the boats, in which there was ample accommodation for the crew. This work was carried out in the utmost haste; all on board knew well enough that the submarine commander would hold to his word, that they had five minutes-and not a second longer-in which to make good their escape.
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