Bert Wilson, Wireless Operatorñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“Poor old frogs,” said Ralph. “If they knew enough, they’d curse the very name of electricity. Galvani started with them in the early days, and they’ve still got to ‘shake a leg’ in the interest of science.”
“Yes,” murmured Tom, “it’s simply shocking.”
He ducked as Ralph made a playful pass at him.
“There’s been quite a stir caused by it,” went on Bert, calmly ignoring Tom’s awful pun, “and the humane societies are taking it up. The probability is that it will be abolished. It certainly does seem cruel.”
“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “Like many other questions, there are two sides to it. We all agree that no pain should be inflicted upon poor dumb animals, unless there is some great good to be gained by it. But it is a law of life that the lesser must give way to the greater. We use the cow to get vaccine for small-pox, the horse to supply the anti-toxin for diphtheria. Rabbits and mice and guinea-pigs and monkeys we inoculate with the germs of cancer and consumption, in order to study the causes of these various diseases, and, perhaps, find a remedy for them. All this seems barbarous and cruel; but the common sense of mankind agrees that it would be far more cruel to let human beings suffer and die by the thousands, when these experiments may save them. If the twitching of a frog’s leg should save a vessel from shipwreck, we would have to overlook the frog’s natural reluctance to write the message. I hope, though,” he concluded, as he pushed back his chair, “that they’ll soon find something else that will do just as well, and leave the frog in his native puddle.”
When they reached the deck, they found that the breeze had freshened, and, with the wind on her starboard quarter, the Fearless was bowling along in capital style. Her engines were working powerfully and rhythmically, and everything betokened a rapid run to Hawaii, which the captain figured on reaching in about eight days. The more seasoned travelers were wrapped in rugs and stretched out in steamer chairs, but many of the others had already sought the seclusion of their staterooms. It was evident that there would be an abundance of empty seats at the table that evening.
Throughout the rest of the day the messages were few and far between. Before that time next day, they would probably have ceased altogether as far as the land stations were concerned, and from that time on until they reached Hawaii, the chief communications would be from passing ships within the wireless range.
The boys were gathered in the wireless room that night, telling stories and cracking jokes, when suddenly Bert’s ear caught a click. He straightened up and listened eagerly. Then his face went white and his eyes gleamed with excitement. It was the S. O. S. signal, the call of deadly need and peril. A moment more and he leaped to his feet.
“Call the captain, one of you fellows, quick,” he cried.
For this was the message that had winged its way over the dark waste of waters:
“Our ship is on fire.
Latitude 37:12, longitude 126:17. For God’s sake, help.”
The Flaming Ship
The captain came in hurriedly and read the message. He figured out the position.
“She’s all of sixty miles away,” he said, looking up from his calculation, “and even under forced draught we can’t reach her in less than three hours. Tell her we’re coming,” he ordered, and hurried out to give the necessary directions.
The course of the ship was altered at once, the engines were signaled for full speed ahead, and with her furnaces roaring, she rushed through the night to the aid of her sister vessel, sorely beset by the most dreaded peril of the sea.
In the mean time Bert had clicked off the message: “We’ve got you, old man. Ship, Fearless, Captain Manning. Longitude 125:20, latitude 36:54. Will be with you in three hours. Cheer up. If you’re not disabled, steam to meet us.”
Quickly the answer came back: “Thank God. Fighting the fire, but it’s getting beyond us. Hasn’t reached the engine room yet, but may very soon. Hurry.”
In short, jerky sentences came the story of the disaster. The steamer was the Caledonian, a tramp vessel, plying between Singapore and San Francisco. There was a heavy cargo and about forty passengers. A little while since, they had detected fire in the hold, but had concealed the fact from the passengers and had tried to stifle it by their own efforts. It had steadily gained, however, despite their desperate work, until the flames burst through the deck. A wild panic had ensued, but the captain and the mates had kept the upper hand. The crew had behaved well, and the boats were ready for launching if the worst came to the worst. The fire was gaining. “Hurry. Captain says – ”
Then the story ceased. Bert called and called again. No answer. The boys looked at each other.
“The dynamo must have gone out of commission,” said Bert. “I can’t get him. The flames may have driven him out of the wireless room.”
All were in an agony of suspense and fear. It seemed as though they crept, although the ship shook with the vibration of its powerful engines, working as they had never worked before. The Fearless was fairly flying, as though she knew the fearful need of haste.
Outside of the wireless room, none of the passengers knew of the disaster. Most of them had retired, and, if the few who were still up and about sensed anything unusual, the discipline of the ship kept questions unspoken. All the officers and the crew, however, were on the alert and tingling with the strain, and every eye was turned toward the distant horizon, to catch the first glimpse of the burning vessel.
Out into the night, Bert sent his call desperately, hoping to raise some other ship nearer to the doomed steamer than the Fearless, but in vain. He caught a collier, three hundred miles away, and a United States gunboat, one hundred and sixty miles distant, but, try as he would, there was nothing nearer. Nobody but themselves could attempt the rescue. Of course, there was the chance that some sailing vessel, not equipped with wireless, might come upon the scene, but this was so remote that it could be dismissed from consideration.
More than half the distance had been covered when Dick, who had stepped outside, came running in.
“Come on out, fellows,” he cried, excitedly. “We can see a light in the sky that we think must come from the fire.”
They followed him on the run. There, sure enough, on the distant horizon, was a deep reddish glow, that seemed to grow brighter with every passing moment. At times, it waned a trifle, probably obscured by smoke, only to reappear more crimson than ever, as the vessel drew nearer.
“How far off do you suppose it is now?” asked Tom.
“Not more than fifteen miles, I should think,” answered Bert. “We’ll be there in less than an hour now, if we can keep up this pace.”
The Fearless flew on, steadily cutting down the distance, and now the sky was the color of blood. Everything had been gotten in readiness for the work of rescue. The boats had been cleared and hung in their davits, ready to be lowered in a trice. Lines of hose were prepared, not so much with the hope of putting out the fire as to protect their own vessel from the flying brands. Every man of the crew was at his appointed place. Since the wireless could no longer be used to send messages of encouragement, rockets were sent up at intervals to tell the unfortunates that help was coming.
“Look!” cried Tom. “That was an actual flash I saw that time.”
Gradually these became more frequent, and now the upper part of the vessel came into view, wreathed in smoke and flame. Soon the hull appeared, and then they could get a clear idea of the catastrophe.
The whole forward part of the vessel was a seething mass of fire. The engines had been put out of commission, and the hull wallowed helplessly at the mercy of the waves. The officers and crew, fighting to the last, had been crowded aft, and the stern was black with passengers huddled despairingly together. The supply of boats had been insufficient, and two of these had been smashed in lowering. Two others, packed to the guards, had been pushed away from the vessel, so as not to be set on fire by the brands that fell in showers all around. Near the stern, some of the sailors were hastily trying to improvise a raft with spars and casks. They were working with superhuman energy, but, hampered as they were by the frantic passengers, could make but little progress. And all the time the pitiless flames were coming nearer and nearer, greedily licking up everything that disputed their advance. It was a scene of anguish and of panic such as had never been dreamed of by the breathless spectators who crowded the bow of the Fearless, as it swiftly swept into the zone of light and prepared to lower its boats.
Suddenly there was a great commotion visible on the flaming ship. They had seen their rescuers. Men shouted and pointed wildly; women screamed and fell on their knees in thanksgiving. The boats already in the water gave way and made for the Fearless. The sailors stopped work upon the raft, now no longer needed, and turned to with the officers who were striving desperately to keep the more frenzied passengers from plunging headlong into the sea and swimming to the steamer. Their last refuge in the stern had grown pitifully small now, and the flames, gathering volume as they advanced, rushed toward them as though determined not to be balked of the prey that had seemed so surely in their grasp.
It was a moment for quick action, and Captain Manning rose to the occasion. In obedience to his sharp word of command, the sailors tumbled into the boats, and these were dropped so smartly that they seemed to hit the water together. Out went the oars and away they pulled with all the strength and practised skill of their sinewy arms. Bert and Dick were permitted to go as volunteers in the boat of Mr. Collins, the first mate, who had given his consent with some reluctance, as he had little faith in any but regular sailors in cases of this kind; and his boat was the first to reach the vessel and round to under the stern.
“Women and children first,” the unwritten law of the sea, was strictly enforced, and they were lowered one by one, until the boat sat so low in the water that Mr. Collins ordered his crew to back away and let the next one take its place. Just as it got under way, a woman holding a baby in her arms, frantic with fright as she saw the boat leaving, broke away from the restraining hand of a sailor, and leaped from the stern. She missed the gig, which was fortunate, as she would certainly have capsized it, heavily laden as it already was, and fell into the water. In an instant Bert, who could swim like a fish, had plunged in and grabbed her as she rose to the surface. A few strokes of the oars and they were hauled aboard, and the boat made for the ship. Collins, a taciturn man, looked his approval but said nothing at the time, although, in a talk with the captain afterwards, he went so far as to revise his opinion of volunteers and to admit that an able seaman could have done no better.
The rest of the passengers were quickly taken off and then came the turn of the officers and crew. The captain was the last to leave the devoted vessel, and it was with a warm grasp of sympathy and understanding that Captain Manning greeted him as he came over the side. He was worn with the strain and shaken with emotion. He had done all that a man could do to save his ship, but fate had been too strong for him and he had to bow to the inevitable. He refused to go below and take some refreshment, but stood with knitted brows and folded arms watching the burning steamer that had carried his hopes and fortunes. They respected his grief and left him alone for a time, while they made arrangements for the homeless passengers and crew.
These were forlorn enough. They had saved practically no baggage and only the most cherished of their personal belongings. Some had been badly burned in their efforts to subdue the flames, and all were at the breaking point from excitement and fatigue. The doctors of both ships were taxed to the utmost, administering sedatives and tonics and dressing the wounds of the injured. By this time the passengers of the Fearless had, of course, been roused by the tumult, and men and women alike vied with each other in aiding the unfortunates. Cabins and staterooms were prepared for the passengers, while quarters in the forecastle were provided for the crew who, with the proverbial stolidity and fatalism of their kind, soon made themselves at home, taking the whole thing as a matter of course. They had just been at hand-grips with death; but this had occurred to them so often that they regarded it simply as an incident of their calling.
There was no thought of sleep for Bert that night. The sounder crashed and the blue flames leaped for hours in the wireless room. The operator of the Caledonian volunteered to help him, but Bert wouldn’t hear of it and sent him to his bunk, where, after the terrific strain, he was soon in the sleep of utter exhaustion.
Then Bert called up the San Francisco station and told his story. The owners of the ship were notified that the vessel and cargo were a total loss, but that all the passengers had been saved. They sent their thanks to Captain Manning and then wirelessed for details. Mr. Quinby, of course, was called into the conference. Now that it was settled that no lives had been lost, the most important question was as to the disposition of passengers and crew. They had been making for San Francisco, but naturally it was out of the question for the Fearless to relinquish her voyage and take them into port.
Three courses were open. They could go to Hawaii, the first stopping place, and there take the first steamer leaving for San Francisco. Or they could depend on the chance of meeting some vessel homeward bound, to which they could transship before reaching Honolulu. Or Bert could send his call abroad through his wireless zone and perhaps arrange for some ship coming toward them to sail along a certain course, meet them at a given location and there take charge of the Caledonian’s people. In that case, the owners, of course, would expect to recompense them handsomely for their time and trouble.
As the survivors were desperately anxious to reach home and friends at the earliest possible moment, Bert was instructed to follow the latter course and do his utmost to raise some approaching vessel. For a long time his efforts were fruitless. His call flew over the ocean wastes but awoke no answering echo. At last, however, well toward morning, his eager ear caught a responsive click. It came from the Nippon, one of the trans-Pacific liners plying between Yokohama and San Francisco. She was less than four hundred miles away and coming on a line slightly east of the Fearless. The situation was explained, and after the captains of the two steamers had carried on a long conversation, it was agreed that the Nippon should take charge of the survivors. They would probably meet late that afternoon, and arrangements were made to keep each other informed hourly of pace and direction, until they should come in sight.
Bert breathed a huge sigh of relief when that question was settled. But his work was not yet done. He must notify the United States Government of the presence of the derelict as a menace to navigation. The Caledonian had lost all its upper works and part of the hull had been consumed. But the waves breaking over it as it lurched from side to side had kept it from burning to the water’s edge, and it now tossed about, a helpless hulk right in the lane of ships. So many vessels have been lost by coming in collision with such floating wrecks at night, that the Government maintains a special line of gunboats, whose one duty is to search them out and blow them up with dynamite. Bert gave the exact latitude and longitude to the San Francisco operator, who promised to forward it at once to the Navy Department at Washington.
Then, at last, Bert leaned back in his chair and relaxed. The strain upon heart and nerve and brain had been tremendous. But he had “stood the gaff.” The first great test had been nobly met. Cool, clever, self-reliant, he had not flinched or wavered under the load of responsibility. The emergency had challenged him and he had mastered it. In this work, so new to him, he had kept his courage and borne himself as a veteran of the key.
He patted the key affectionately. Good old wireless! How many parts it had played that night and how well! Telling first of pain and terror and begging for help; then cheerily sending hope and comfort and promise of salvation. Without it, the dawn would now be breaking on two small boats and a flimsy raft, crowded with miserable refugees and tossing up and down on the gray waves that threatened to engulf. Now they were safe, thank God, warm and snug and secure, soon to be called to the abundant breakfast, whose savory odors already assailed his nostrils. And now the whole world knew of the disaster and the rescue; and the machinery of the Government was moving with reference to that abandoned hulk; and a great ship was bounding toward them over the trackless waste to meet at a given place and time and take the survivors back to country and home and friends and love and life. It was wonderful, mysterious, unbelievable —
A touch upon his shoulder roused him from his reverie, and he looked up, to see the captain standing beside him.
“You’ve done great work this night, Wilson,” he said, smiling gravely, “and I’ll see that the owners hear of it. But now you must be dead tired, and I want you to get your breakfast and turn in for a while. I’ll get Howland, the wireless man of the Caledonian, to hold things down for a few hours, while you get a rest. I’ve told the cook to get a bite ready for you and then I want you to tumble in.”
The “bite” resolved itself into a capacious meal of steak and eggs, reinforced by fragrant coffee, after which, obeying orders, he rolled into his bunk and at once fell into deep and dreamless sleep.
Meanwhile, the ship awoke to the life of a new day. The sun streamed down from cloudless skies and a spanking breeze blew over the quarter. The air was like wine and to breathe it was an inspiration. The sea smiled and dimpled as its myriad waves reflected back the glorious light. The Fearless slipped through the long swells as swiftly as a water sprite, “footing it featly” on her road to Hawaii, the Paradise of the Pacific. Everything spoke of life and buoyancy, and the terrible events of the night before might well have been a frightful nightmare from which they had happily awakened.
There were grim reminders, however, that it had been more than a dream in the hurrying doctors, the bandaged hands and faces, the haggard features of the men and the semi-hysterical condition of some of the women. But there had been no death or mortal injury. The Red Death had gazed upon them with its flaming eyes and scorched them with its baleful breath, but they had not been consumed. There were property losses, but no wife had been snatched from her husband, no mother wailed for her child. Under the comforting influence of a hot breakfast, the heartfelt sympathy of the passengers and the invigorating air and sunshine, they gradually grew more cheerful. After all, they were alive, snatched by a miracle from a hideous death; and how could or dared they complain of minor ills? The tension relaxed as the hours wore on, and by the time that Bert, after a most refreshing sleep, appeared again on deck the scene was one of animation and almost gaiety.
Straight to the wireless room he went, to be met on the threshold by Dick and Tom and Ralph, who gathered around him in tumultuous greeting.
“Bully for you, old man,” cried Dick. “We hear that you did yourself proud last night.”
“Yes,” chimed in Ralph. “I wouldn’t dare to tell you what Father says in a message I’ve just received, or you’d have a swelled head, sure.”
“Nonsense,” answered Bert. “I simply did what it was up to me to do. Good morning, Mr. Howland,” he said, as the young fellow seated at the key rose to greet him. “How are things going?”
“Just jogging along,” answered Howland. “I guess you cleaned up about everything before you turned in. We’re getting beyond the shore range, but I’ve been keeping in touch every hour with the Nippon. The captain figures that we’ll get together at about four this afternoon.”
The former operator of the Caledonian was a well set-up, clear-eyed young fellow, about the age of Bert and his chums, and a liking sprang up between them at once. With the recuperative power of youth he had almost entirely recovered from the events of the night before, although his singed hair and eyebrows bore eloquent testimony to the perils he had faced and so narrowly escaped. He had stuck to his post until the blistering heat had made life impossible in the wireless room, and then had done yeoman’s work in aiding the officers and crew to fight the fire and maintain order among the passengers. The boys listened with keenest interest, while he went over in graphic style his personal experiences.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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