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Still, there was not much time to spare when the four boats were rowed round to the foot of the gangway steps, down which filed the crew, the ship's officers and engineers, each one with a bundle under his arm, in which he carried his most prized possessions.
Grim resolution, smothered anger, and deep sullen dejection-these were the sentiments that were imprinted on the face of every man. They were helpless, and they knew it. The German had spoken truly; the submarine, fragile, slender and evil-looking, was the absolute master of the situation. The will of the submarine commander was the law, immutable and rigid. They had no option but to obey, without question and in haste.
Crouch remained on deck until-as he thought-every man had descended to the boats. Then he himself took his place on the stern seat of the last boat to leave the ship. One after the other, they rowed away in the darkness, the rhythmic plashing of the oars growing fainter and fainter in the distance, and seeming to strike upon the silence of the night a note of sadness that was not out of keeping with the scene: the gentle moonshine on the water, the distant, rugged hills, and the ship-forsaken, listless, doomed. Some such thought may have entered into the mind of the German officer himself, standing on the conning-tower of the boat that he commanded, miles away from the Fatherland he loved and the lighted caf?s of Berlin.
However that may be, he had evidently no intention of failing in what he conceived to be his duty. The submarine drew slowly alongside the gangway steps. The commander ascended to the main-deck, followed by a seaman who carried in his hand a great egg-shaped thing, from the top of which protruded the head of a fuse. It was a bomb, timed to explode precisely two minutes after the lighting of the fuse. Of a certainty, the "Harlech," of the house of Jason, Stileman and May, was doomed, sentenced to be destroyed.
None the less, the German officer was in no haste. Leaving the sailor at the head of the companion-ladder, he entered the captain's cabin, overhauled the ship's papers, and even helped himself to a box of cigars which had been given to Crouch by Mr. Jason, Junior, on the day he left New York.
At the very moment this was happening, Captain Crouch himself, holding the tiller ropes in his hands, sat in the stern seat of the last boat like a man who is in a dream. Stern and hard as he was, accustomed to rule both circumstance and men by sheer force of will, he found this great calamity by no means easy to bear. It was no simple matter to realize the full extent of what had happened. He had been specially chosen to carry out a difficult and dangerous mission; and he had failed. It was not in his nature to think of what excuse he should make; he was prepared to take the blame. He knew now that he had made an irreparable mistake, that he had been deceived. And that brought back his mind to Rudolf Stork.
From Stork his thoughts turned naturally to Jimmy Burke; and then it was that he remembered, with the suddenness of an electric shock, that he had not seen the boy go on board any one of the boats.He thought it over quickly. Jimmy could not be in the dinghy, for he had caught sight of the boy on the main-deck after the dinghy had been launched. He was also equally certain that Jimmy had not descended the gangway when the crew manned the boats.
For once in his life-probably the only time on record-Captain Crouch was alarmed. He knew now that he had wronged the stowaway, and in the deep dejection of the moment was inclined to be unjust to himself, forgetting that, from the first, the circumstantial evidence had been all against the boy.
As he sat silent, motionless and downcast, he turned, and looked back at the dark outline of the forsaken, stricken ship. And little did he dream of the deed of unexampled heroism, of the scene of such vital and dramatic interest that even then was being enacted on board.
As the German officer tested Crouch's best cigars, lifting one after the other to his ear to see that they were dry, a face appeared at the porthole on the port side of the ship. It was the face of Jimmy Burke-a white, scared face, upon which, however, was the cast of resolution.
The German went out on to the main-deck on the starboard side, where he took the bomb from the sailor's hands. Thence he passed down the companion-ladder, along the alley-way to the engine-room, where he descended the trellised stairway, step by step.
On the floor of the engine-room, in the very base of the ship, he deposited his bomb, and then, stooping, struck a match and lit the end of the fuse.
At that, he ran up the steps, dashed out upon the forward well-deck, and hastened down the gangway. And at the very moment he set foot on board his submarine, Jimmy Burke appeared suddenly in the alley-way, from the direction of the engineers' mess-room, where he had been hiding. Thence, he ran to the engine-room, and at the top of the steps paused a moment to look down.
In the midst of the vast machinery, now idle and seemingly inert, but still droning from the effect of compressed, wasted steam, upon the black, oily floor, lay the egg-shaped German bomb. A little spurt of blue smoke was issuing in coils from the burning fuse, of which not more than two inches now remained.
With a loud cry that he was not able to suppress, the boy dashed down the stairs.
CHAPTER XV-The Penitence of Captain Crouch
It can scarcely be denied that danger, and even death itself, are more terrible from a distance than when they actually stare us in the face. The truth is that, in moments of intense nervous strain, there is little time for the imagination to run riot; and-as the greatest of all poets has told us-it is imagination, more than anything else, that causes fear and panic. A time of emergency is a time for action, when it is better to do than to think. And always is it wiser and more manful to strive for success than to pause to consider, even for a single instant, the possibilities of failure.
Jimmy Burke, as he hastened down the engine-room steps, was concerned with one thing only: to reach the bomb before it was timed to explode. Had he waited to consider what would happen should he be too late, it is more than probable that he would have failed; he would never have lived to tell the tale. As it was, breathless and expectant, with a cold perspiration broken out upon his forehead, and his heart thumping violently against his ribs, he reached the infernal machine in the very nick of time. Seizing the burning end of the fuse between a thumb and finger, he crushed it out: and thus was the "Harlech" saved.
None the less, to make doubly sure of success, he carried the bomb up the staircase to the alley-way, where he threw it down an ash-shoot into the sea.
In the meantime Captain Crouch, seated on the stern seat of the last boat to leave the ship, found himself-as the saying goes-between the hammer and the anvil, between Scylla and Charybdis. He was anxious to make amends for the fatal mistake that he had made; to save, if possible, the life of the boy who was still upon the ship. And on that account, he found himself in something of a dilemma.
If he put back to the "Harlech," he imperilled the lives of every man in the boat; and he felt some doubt as to whether he was justified in doing that. He thought over the matter quickly, and then resolved to speak the truth.
"My lads," said he to his men, "all the voyage through I've done a great injustice to that boy of ours. He was a stowaway, right enough, but as loyal as I am. Even to-night, he did his utmost to warn me of danger ahead-he played the part of a man. Now, I ask you a fair question, and I want a straight answer, such as a sailor has a right to expect. For some reason or other, the boy has been left behind; and the ship-as you know-is doomed. She may have another minute to live; but the chances are that in a few seconds she'll be sent sky-high, blown to smithereens. Now, here's the point: are we to go back, and try to save the lad, or shall we row ahead for the shore? Yes, or no? There's no betwixt and between in a matter such as this."
The men in the boat did not take long to make up their minds. They were all British born-men whose forbears for generation after generation had earned their bread upon the sea. And nowhere else is the spirit of self-sacrifice and honest heroism more dearly fostered, nowhere else is a finer school for courage, than upon the broad waters of the ocean where young and old, from the forecastle to the galley, from the North Sea trawler to the Atlantic liner, take their fortunes in their hands and run the danger of their lives amid the wild typhoons of the southern seas, the blizzards of the Horn, and the icebergs of the Arctic. As one man, they offered to return to the stricken ship, to endeavour to save the stowaway.
Turning the boat round, they rowed in desperation, for their own lives also were at stake. The moonlight now seemed brighter than before; the few clouds had shifted; a light wind had sprung up from the west which formed endless ripples upon the surface of the sea, that glistened everywhere like myriads of spangles.
They could see the dark hull of the doomed ship, looming large against the sky-line. She lay there in the midst of the night, helpless and silent, like the great carcase of some stranded mammoth beast. And though these men rowed in a kind of frenzy, straining every nerve and muscle to the utmost, there was little hope in their hearts.
By now, the submarine had drawn away from the "Harlech." Lying upon the surface of the water, she was like a spider that watches its prey from the centre of its web. The hatch of her conning-tower was closed. The "Harlech," the U93 and the boat in which was Captain Crouch, stood to one another in the relation of the corners of an equilateral triangle. Waves were breaking against the superstructure of the submarine-waves that were white as silver in the bright light of the moon.
Suddenly, Crouch let out a cry, and pointed excitedly towards the east.
"Look there!" he shouted. "A destroyer!"
Every man turned his eyes in the direction indicated; and there, sure enough, standing out upon the sky-line, clearly silhouetted and looking like the teeth of a broken comb, were the four funnels of a torpedo-boat-destroyer, from which proceeded a long, black trail of smoke that lay low and almost parallel to the surface of the sea.
The destroyer rushed through the water as an arrow comes singing through the air. Even as they looked, she grew larger and more distinct; until, presently, they could hear the throbbing of her engines and see the churned water lashed by the revolutions of her screws.
The U93 dived like a startled duck. In a few seconds she was gone.
The destroyer, which was originally heading straight for the "Harlech," now changed her course, and began to move round in circles, steaming at topmost speed, in her movements for all the world like a joyful dog on a lawn.
When the ship's boat was not more than a hundred yards from the "Harlech," the destroyer drew to within speaking distance, and the lieutenant-commander upon the bridge shouted to Captain Crouch.
"Have you seen the U93?" he asked.
"Seen her!" cried Crouch. "Why, she's not a cable's length from where you are. We have been turned out of our berths, and given five minutes in which to leave the ship; and there's a bomb on board which should have exploded before now."
At that, the British commander appeared vastly excited, raising his voice even louder.
"Then, man alive, keep your distance!" he bellowed. "If the explosion takes place, that boat of yours is as likely as not to be scuttled by a falling spar. You're heading the wrong way, man! Put about, get your distance, and stand clear while the trouble's on."
"I'm going back," calmly answered Crouch, whose men had never ceased to row. "I'm going back to the ship, to save a boy who has been left on board."
At that, the officer gave vent to an exclamation of surprise, and then, raising his night glasses, vowed that he could see some one on the forecastle-peak, waving his arms about him wildly, like one who calls for assistance.
"Row ahead!" Crouch shouted to his men. "Row for all you're worth! That bomb has misfired, or I'm a Prussian. We'll save the stowaway yet."
A few more strong strokes of the oars, and the boat drew alongside the foot of the gangway steps. Crouch, agile as a panther, sprang on to the footboard, and racing to the main-deck, came on a sudden face to face with Jimmy.
"Come off!" he cried. "There's no time to spare."
Jimmy Burke could not refrain from smiling.
"It's all right," said he in a quiet voice. "It's all right; the ship's saved. There is no danger any longer."
Crouch, catching his breath, stared at the boy in amazement.
"Saved!" he repeated.
"Yes. The bomb has been thrown overboard. I stayed on board to do it."
For at least a minute, Captain Crouch uttered never a word. Then, quietly, without any show of haste, he took his pipe from his pocket, filled it, struck a match and lit it, and puffed a cloud of smoke into the air.
"I've known many men," said he at last, "and I've seen most parts of the world. I was first introduced to danger-if I might call it so-when I was little more than a lad, and we've kept up a nodding acquaintance ever since. I've known different kinds of danger, too-all the family relations, so to speak: jungle fever, malaria, cholera and Black Jack; lions, tigers, rogue-elephants and buffalo, and the last's an ugly customer when he's wounded-you may take my word for that; I've seen war, shipwreck, cannibals, pygmies and sudden death; and I've known men who could hold their own in the midst of the whole boiling lot. But I've never seen, or heard, or read of, a finer thing, my boy, than you have done to-night. I say that because I mean it; and there's a hand to shake."
And Captain Crouch held out a hand which Jimmy took, to find himself held fast as in a grip of iron.
"I ask your pardon, lad," said Captain Crouch. "I did you a monstrous wrong. The evidence was against you, that's true enough. None the less, I might have found out the truth before now. But I didn't. So it's up to you to forgive."
Jimmy Burke knew not what to say. Indeed, he felt a little awkward. He was undemonstrative by nature, and Crouch still held his hand.
"I ask your pardon, lad," said the captain again. "I shan't feel happy till you've told me I'm forgiven."
"Of course, sir," said Jimmy, "I forgive. And after all, it was only natural you should think as you did; the evidence was very black against me."
Crouch let go the boy's hand, and walked quickly to the head of the gangway. There he told the men in the boat below that the ship had been saved, and ordered them to ascend at once to the main-deck. After which, the captain himself hastened to the bridge, and there let loose the siren.
The loud shriek of the ship's hooter broke upon the silence of the night, to be echoed back from the Cornish hills, and to die away in the distance upon the moonlit sea. It was the signal for the other boats to return.
Time and again, Crouch sent out his message; and in between the hootings of the siren, the little, wizened sea-captain paced to and fro upon the bridge of the "Harlech" with quick and eager steps, his hands folded behind his back and his head enveloped in the cloud of smoke that issued from the bowl of his pipe. And in the meantime, His Majesty's ship "Cockroach" – a destroyer with a displacement of over nine hundred tons and a designed speed of thirty knots an hour, burning oil fuel only and armed with three four-inch guns and four torpedo-tubes-was flying hither and thither in the darkness like a mad dog in a storm.
CHAPTER XVI-At the "Goat and Compasses"
Presently, the regular plashing sound of oars, accompanied by human voices, rapidly becoming louder and more distinct, warned Crouch that the other boats were returning to the ship.
One after the other, they showed up in the darkness like white hovering ghosts, keeping at a safe distance from the "Harlech" until assured that all danger was past.
A few minutes later, Crouch himself mustered all hands upon the main-deck, when it was discovered that the dinghy had not returned, and that the sole absentees were Stork, the ship's cook and his mate.
There was nothing to be gained by further delay. Stork, who had by now probably gained the shore at some desolate spot on the wild Cornish coast, was not likely to pay much attention to the repeated hootings of the siren. He knew well enough that his secret was out; that for some reason or other the plot to destroy the ship had misfired, and that he was likely to receive scant mercy at the hands of Captain Crouch, who, for once in his life, had been fooled to the top of his bent. The so-called ship's carpenter knew when he was safe.
As was afterwards discovered, he experienced no difficulty in playing upon the simple mind of the cook, a chicken-hearted fellow at the best, who had already had more than enough of the merchant service in time of war. As chance had it, both this man and his mate lived at Truro, and ten minutes after the dinghy had been beached, Rudolf Stork was left to his own resources, with a free hand to go whithersoever he wished.
It is as well therefore that Crouch ordered the engine-room watch below, and got the ship under way on a straight course for the Needles, before the steel-blue streak of morning was far spread upon the eastern sky-line.
The U93 was nowhere to be seen. She may have descended to the sea-bed, to lie in hiding like a dog-fox in deep earth, or else made off straight for Wilhelmshaven at her top speed under water-probably the best part of ten knots, in all seas and weathers. As for the "Cockroach," she was more mad than ever, flying here and there with all the superfluous energy of her powerful turbine engines, looking for her stealthy and elusive quarry like a terrier hot on the scent of a rabbit. As the daylight grew, and a blood-red sun arose upon a calm, grey winter's sea, the Lizard light went out; and the coastguards at the trim white-washed signal station (which is what may be called the "booking-office" of the English Channel) watched through their telescopes a large trans-atlantic tramp, steaming eastward-spoken as the "Harlech," bound for Portsmouth-and little dreamed of the tragedy that had been so narrowly averted.
When the same ship reached the Solent, and the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight stood out like a bank of cloud, those on board had passed unscathed through a terrible ordeal, they had run the gauntlet of the seas in time of war, and played their several parts like men. And there was not one among them who did not realize that he had but Divine Providence to thank that he was still alive.
It so happened that it was Sunday; and with all hands assembled on the forward well-deck, Crouch read the service, and there was a meaning in the words of the psalm that went deep into the hearts of those rough, sea-faring men: "If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me." War brings men back to fundamental truths that were known of old in a warlike age when the majestic poetry of the psalms was first conceived: that the heart of man is a heart of sin and savagery, but over all is a God, just, yet full of mercy.
There is in Gosport-as, indeed, in every other port that lies between San Francisco and Yokohama by way of the Manchester Ship Canal-a branch office of the firm of Jason, Stileman and May; and here, to no less a person than the senior partner of the firm (Mr. Jason, Senior, the uncle of the New York agent), Captain Crouch told his story from start to end, and did not hesitate to blame himself. He explained in full how he had been deceived by Rudolf Stork, who had escaped from the ship off the coast of Cornwall. He dwelt at length upon the part that had been played throughout by Jimmy Burke, who-on Crouch's showing-had saved the "Harlech" from complete and inevitable destruction.
Mr. Jason replied that the firm was not likely to forget the valuable services the boy had rendered. Crouch had had a long talk with Jimmy, and knew a certain amount of the boy's past history. Mr. Jason was personally willing to guarantee the boy's future; but, on hearing that Jimmy had no other ambition than to serve his country in her hour of need, he said that he would do what he could to assist the lad to enter the Army or Navy.
In the meantime, Jimmy was handed over to the care of Captain Crouch, who was instructed to look after him as if he were his own son. Crouch, who never had a son of his own, had rather vague ideas on the subject of paternal duties. He betook himself, together with his charge, to a certain small, old-fashioned hotel in a by-street, where he was in the habit of staying whenever his ship was lying in Portsmouth Harbour.
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