The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic
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The watches forward had been doubled and in the crow’s nest two men had been stationed. But that was customary in a fog. Suddenly, as Jack stood there, his wireless alarm, – he had perfected the device and had made application for a patent on the same, – began to clamor loudly.
Jack hurried to his post. It was the Westerland, a hundred and fifty miles east and considerably to the south, calling.
“Dense fog clearing here,” so the message ran, “but many large icebergs in vicinity. If in fog, use great caution. Please repeat warning.
Jack’s heart gave a bound.
So it was fear of the white terrors of the north that kept the captain chained to the bridge with that anxious look on his weather-beaten face.
When he reached the bridge with this all-important despatch, Jack found the captain in consultation with his officers. Tests of the temperature of the water were being made, and the skipper was listening attentively to the roaring of the siren.
If there was ice in the vicinity, the echo of the great whistle would be flung back and serve as a warning.
“Well, boy?” the captain turned impatiently on Jack.
“A message, sir. I think it’s important,” said the boy deferentially.
The captain glanced through it and whistled.
“Important! I should think it is. Just what I thought. Confound this ocean!”
He hastened over to his officers and showed them the despatch. A lively consultation followed, which Jack wished he could have overheard. He would have liked to know what further steps could be taken to avert the dangers amid which they were crawling forward.
As a matter of fact, all that could be done had been done. Humanly speaking, the Ajax was as safe as she could be rendered in the midst of the invisible dangers that, like white specters, might be swarming about her even now.
Jack was ordered back to the wireless room and told to stand by for any further information. The captain evidently placed great reliance on getting further word of the location of the ice-fields and bergs.
But, although Jack worked ceaselessly, sending out his crackling, sparkling calls, no reply came back out of the blinding fog. Clearly the ship that had sent the wireless that was so all-important had passed out of his zone, or else the “atmospherics” were arrayed against communication.
It was a thrilling and not altogether a comfortable thought to consider that at any moment there might loom above them, out of the choking mist, a mountainous white form that might well spell annihilation for the sturdy tanker.
Raynor, whose hand was now quite well, poked his head in at the door. He was grimy and soot-covered but cheerful, and was going off watch.
“Hello, Jack,” he cried, “what do you think of this? Burning soft coal in heaven, I guess! Isn’t it a smother, for fair?”
“It sure is,” rejoined Jack, “but the fog isn’t the worst of it.”
Raynor looked surprised.
“What are you driving at? They’ve had us on double watches since it started, stopping and starting up the engines till they must think they’re being run by a gang of crazy engineers.”
“It’s icebergs, old fellow,” said Jack in an awed tone.
“Icebergs! At this time of year, that’s unusual,” said Raynor.
“I don’t know about that, but I got a message from the Westerland telling about them.”
“The dickens, you say! No wonder the old man is worried out of his socks.Say, Jack,” went on the young engineer.
“What a fine chance we’d stand down below there, if we ever hit anything, eh?”
And young Raynor, whistling cheerily, passed on to his room to wash up and change.
Jack gave a shudder. “If they hit anything.” Well did he know what a small chance the men in the grimy, sooty regions of the fire-room and engine-space would stand in such a contingency. It would be their duty to keep up the fires till the rising water put them out, and then – every man for himself!
Woo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo! boomed the siren.
“Ugh! You sound as cheerful as a funeral,” shuddered Jack; and, to divert his mind into a more cheerful channel, he fell to running the wireless scale, in the hope that he might find himself in tune with some other ship with fresh news of the white monsters of the northern polar cap.
But the white silences were broken by no winged messages; and so the afternoon waned to twilight, and night descended once more about the fog-bound ship.
The strain of it all began to tell on the young wireless man. He made hourly reports to the shrouded figures on the bridge that looked like exaggerated ghosts in the smother of fog. The lights on the ship shone through the obscurity like big, dim eyes, and the constant booming and shrieking of the siren grew nerve-racking.
Vigilance was the order of the night. Bridge, deck and engine-room were all alike keyed up to the highest pitch of watchfulness. At any moment a message of terror might come clanging from the bridge to the engineers’ region.
The suspense made Jack, strong-nerved as he was, feel like crying out. If only something would happen, he felt that he would not care so much, but this silent creeping through the ghostly fog was telling on him.
Half dozing at times, Jack sat nodding at his key. All at once, without the slightest warning what all hands had been waiting for with keyed-up nerves happened.
From somewhere dead ahead the shriek of the siren was hurled back through the fog in a volley of echoes.
It was Captain Braceworth himself who jumped to the engine-room telegraph and signaled:
“Full speed astern!”
At the same instant a voice boomed out from the fore-peak:
“Something dead ahead, sir!”
And then the next moment a heart-chilling hail from the crow’s nest:
“Ice ahead! A big berg right under our bow!”
Jack leaped from his instruments, a nameless dread clutching at his heart. There had been no impact as yet, but he did not know at what instant there might come a crashing blow that would tear the stout steel plates of the tanker open as if they had been so much cardboard.
For a moment wild panic had him in its cold grasp. Then, heartily ashamed of the cold sweat that had broken out on him and the wild impulse he had had to cry out, he clenched his hands and regained control of himself.
The whole fabric of the ship quivered as the mighty engines flew round in the opposite direction to that in which they had been rotating. At the instant Captain Braceworth’s order had been given it had been obeyed.
For a breath there was killing suspense; and then suddenly there came the shock of an impact. It was not a violent one, but just a grating, jarring shock.
“Great Scott! We’ve struck!” exclaimed Jack, as the next instant there came a second and more violent contact.
He was thrown bodily from his feet. Forward there came a babel of cries.
The ship listed heavily to port and then slowly, like a wounded creature, she righted. Then came a sound of thunder as the masses of ice, dislodged from the berg by the collision, toppled and slid from her fore-decks.
Jack knew that what the skipper had dreaded had come to pass. In spite of ceaseless, sleepless vigilance and the exercise of every caution a man could use, the Ajax had rammed an iceberg.
Above the yells and shouts of the seamen came the captain’s calm, authoritative voice.
His orders rang out like pistol shots. Accustomed to obey, the seamen stopped their panic and fell to their work. The mates were down among them, silencing the more obstreperous in no very gentle manner.
A squad of men came running aft to the boats. For an instant Jack thought that, in their panic, they were about to lower away and make off. But he speedily saw, to his immense relief, that they were in charge of cool-headed little Mr. Brown; they had been sent aft merely to stand by the boats and tackle in case it became necessary to abandon the ship.
Jack jumped to his key. If the ship was sinking, he would show them that he could live up to best wireless traditions.
Out into the black, fog-bound night went thundering and volleying the stricken ship’s appeal for aid. But the boy did not send out the S.O.S.; that could only be done by the captain’s orders. His intent was to inform any ship within his zone of their plight, so that they might stand by to render assistance if it should be necessary.
But no answer came to the wireless appeal that the boy flung broadcast through space. Time and again he tried to summon help, but none answered his call.
The captain himself came aft, leaving things forward to the first officer. The second officer and the carpenters were sounding the ship to discover if her wound were mortal or if she could make port somehow.
Somewhere off in the fog Jack could hear the swells breaking as if on a rocky coast. He knew they were beating against the iceberg that the ship had crashed against!
Jack looked up as the captain entered the wireless room. Never had he admired the man as he did in that instant. Pale, but stern and resolute, Captain Braceworth looked the man of the minute, a fit person to cope with the dire emergency that had befallen them.
“Any ships in our zone, Ready?” he asked calmly.
“No, sir, I’ve been trying to raise some and – ”
“Very well. Keep on. If you get into communication, report to me at once.”
“Yes, sir. Are – are we badly hurt, sir?”
“It is impossible to say. We are trying to find out now. I need not tell you it is your duty to stay at that key till the last boat leaves the ship.”
“You need not tell me that, sir,” said Jack, flushing proudly. “I’d go down with her if it would do any good.”
The captain looked oddly at the boy a moment and then slapped him hard upon the back.
“You’ve the right stuff in you, Ready,” he said and hurried off again.
The ship was still slowly backing. Presently Jack heard the mate’s big voice booming out from forward.
“She’s flooded to the bow bulkhead, sir, but so far as I can see, there’s no immediate danger. When daylight comes, we may be able to patch her up.”
This was hopeful news, and a cheer arose from the men as they heard it. But mingled with the cheer came another sound – a muffled roar like that of wild animals or of an enraged mob.
What it meant flashed across Jack in a jiffy.
The firemen, The Black Squad, as they were called! They had mutinied against being penned in the fire-room on a sinking ship and were rushing to the deck.
Without knowing just what he was doing, the boy took his revolver out of the drawer where he kept it and rushed outside. The first thing he saw under the glow of the lights was the figure of Raynor.
The young engineer’s head was bleeding from a cut and in his hand he had a big spanner. Pressing upward behind him as he backed out of the fire-room companionway were the Black Squad, wild with panic. In their hands they carried slice-bars, shovels, any weapon that came handy.
“Stand back, I tell you,” commanded Raynor, as Jack approached him.
“Stand back nothing,” bellowed a giant of a stoker. “Think we’re going to the bottom on this rotten hooker? Stand back, yourself. Come on, boys! The boats! We’ll get away while there’s time.”
“You’ll stay plumb where you are or be drilled as full of holes as porous plasters!”
It was little Mr. Brown who spoke. Almost before he knew it, Jack was at the doughty little officer’s side and stood with Raynor and Mr. Brown facing that howling mob from the black regions below.
QUELLING THE MUTINY
“So you will have it, eh?”
The leader of the Black Squad, a huge hulk of a fellow, stripped to the waist and smeared hideously with coal-dust, sprang forward. Above his head he brandished a heavy slice-bar.
He came straight for Jack and was raising his formidable weapon to strike the boy down when something happened.
There was the report of a pistol and the fellow fell headlong. But it was not Jack’s pistol that had exploded. The boy could not have brought himself even in that moment to fire on a fellow being.
It was Mr. Brown’s weapon that had spoken.
“Any one else want the same medicine?” demanded the fearless little man, indicating the form of the wounded fireman.
The men murmured sullenly. Their leader was gone, and without him they wavered and hesitated. The captain came running aft.
“What in the mischief is going on here?” he shouted.
“Fire-room crew. Mutiny, sir!” said Raynor. “We held ’em as long as we could, but the scoundrels overpowered us. The first is lying below wounded, sir. That fellow Mr. Brown shot felled him with a slice-bar.”
The captain’s brow grew black as night.
“Back to your posts, you mutinous dogs!” he roared. “Back, I tell you, or some of you will feel cold lead!”
He advanced toward them, driving them before him by sheer force of character as if they had been a flock of sheep.
“You cowards!” he went on. “There is no danger, but at the first shock of a small collision you leave your posts like the curs you are! Down to the fire-room with you!”
Completely demoralized, the men shuffled below again. Certain men were told off to attend to the wounded chief engineer, whose injuries were found to be slight. As for the man Mr. Brown had shot, he turned out not to have been injured at all. The chicken-hearted giant of a fellow had simply dropped at the report of the pistol and lain there till the trouble blew over. He was placed in irons and confined in the forecastle to await trial in port on charges of mutiny.
And thus, by prompt action, the mutiny was quelled almost in its inception. The thoroughly cowed firemen took up their work and nothing more was heard of refusal to do duty. It had been a good object lesson to Jack who, in ranging himself by the side of Mr. Brown and the young engineer, had acted more on instinct than anything else.
Secretly he was glad it had ended as it had, without bloodshed, for, as he knew, discipline on a ship must be upheld at any cost. He realized that neither the captain nor Mr. Brown would have hesitated for an instant to hold the men back with firearms, had they persisted in their bull-headed rush.
“Well, we are all right for the time being,” said the captain to Mr. Brown. “No need to keep these men by the boats.”
“Then we are not hurt as badly as you thought, sir?”
“No, the report is that the bow bulkhead is holding, although our forward plates are stove in. Thank goodness, we didn’t hit harder!”
“Yes, indeed, sir.”
“When daylight comes we’ll start to patch up. I hope this witches’ broth of a fog will have held up by then.”
“I’m glad that it was no worse, sir.”
“And so, indeed, am I, although, if it comes on to blow, there may yet be a different yarn to spin.”
The captain and the officer went forward, and Jack was left alone.
He took the opportunity to snatch a nap, adjusting the “wireless alarm” so that any ship that came within the zone would awaken him instantly.
Twice during the long night he tried to raise some other craft, but each time failed.
“I guess they’ve called in all the ships on the ocean,” said the boy to himself as, after the second attempt, he desisted from his efforts for the time being.
When daylight came, the big tanker presented a forlorn picture. Of the berg that had almost sent her to the bottom, there was no sign, although the fog had lifted quite a little.
The stout steel bow was twisted and crumpled like a bit of tin-foil. There was a yawning cavity in it, too, through which the water washed and gurgled with an ominous sound. When Jack came on deck, huge canvas screens were being rigged over it to keep out the water as much as possible. The steamer was proceeding slowly ahead through the fog wreaths, but, compared with her usual speed, she appeared hardly to have momentum.
Besides the protection of the crumpled bow by the canvas screens, another portion of the crew was sent below to strengthen the bulkhead from within by heavy timbers. There was a space between the front end of the tanks and the bulkhead, and in this they labored, bracing the steel partition as firmly as possible.
But Jack, when he made his report, heard Mr. Brown, who had the watch, remarking cheerfully to the second officer that the barometer had risen and that the prospects were for good weather.
“Well, we deserve a little luck,” was the response.
About noon the captain reappeared on the bridge. He was as much refreshed by his brief rest as most men would have been by a night’s sleep.
He had not been there ten minutes, when Jack, his face full of excitement, came hurrying up with a message.
“Important, sir!” he said.
The captain glanced the message over and then burst into an angry exclamation.
“They are asking for assistance, you say?”
“Yes, sir. But all I could catch is on that message there.”
“Great guns! Mr. Brown, sir, disasters always appear to come in bunches.”
“What’s the matter, sir?” asked the sympathetic officer.
“Why, young Ready, here, has just caught a message from the air. A ship is in distress somewhere.”
“Any details, sir?”
The captain shook his head.
“None. This is all the wireless caught. ‘S.O.E.,’ and then a few seconds later, ‘No hope of controlling it.’”
“Sounds like fire to me, sir,” said Mr. Brown.
“So it does to me. Hustle to your key, Ready, and get what more you can. If we can help them, we will, though Lord knows we’re in bad enough shape ourselves!”
A CALL FOR HELP
Jack’s fingers shook with excitement and suspense as he took his seat again at the instrument and began searching the air for a clue to the mysterious sender of the frantic summons.
Every fiber of the adventurous strain in his being responded to this call for succor from the unknown. Impatiently he waited for more to come beating at the drums of his receivers. But for a long time he heard nothing.
Then, faintly and hesitatingly, there volleyed through the air some figures. Latitude and longitude, Jack guessed them to be, but they were so feebly sent and so jumbled, that in themselves they argued eloquently the stress of the sender.
Then came a frantic appeal that set Jack’s pulses to throbbing:
Then silence shut down again. The captain appeared in the doorway.
“Well?” he said interrogatively. “Anything more?”
“Yes, sir,” said Jack, handing him the figures he had jotted down; “he’s been trying to send us his latitude and longitude, I think. Can you make this out?”
The commander scanned the figures and then gave an impatient snort.
“Confound that wireless lunatic!”
“What is it, sir? Are the figures no good?”
“Good! I should think not. This latitude and longitude would put that ship somewhere up near Albany!”
The captain was irritated. His long vigil on the bridge had told upon him.
“Confound it all,” he broke out testily, “if that fellow wants us to come after him, why the dickens can’t he send some plain facts?”
“His current is very weak, sir. I can hardly hear the messages,” volunteered Jack.
“Well, stand by, my boy, and report to me the instant you get anything more,” said the captain. “It’s just like the luck. Here we are stove in like an old egg-shell, and there’s not another ship they can pick on for help but us.”
Under the circumstances the captain’s irritation was perhaps natural. The Ajax had already been delayed by the fog, and she was owned by a corporation that expected its ships to run on time. Furthermore, her injuries would cause her to limp along at a snail’s pace; and now, on the top of all this, had come an appeal for help that could not be disregarded, but which gave no facts or figures whatever!
“Who are you? – Who are – you? – Who are you?”
This was the message that went crashing out from the sender of the Ajax.
The aerials took up the question and spread it abroad to all the winds of heaven, but not the faintest whisper came back from the ether to tell that the words had been caught.
Then, with the suddenness of lightning, came another startling appeal.
“Fire is spreading. Ship being abandoned. Help!”
It was maddening to sit there and listen to these futile prayers for succor without being able to do a thing to reply to them.
“Why, oh why, won’t he send his position?” sighed Jack; and again he sent a frantic query volleying along the air waves.
But the receiver remained as silent as the void itself. Not the faintest scratching of an invalid fly’s footsteps came to reward Jack’s vigilance.
Before he could report his failure to the captain that dignitary was back again. He was fairly bubbling with impatience.
“It’s enough to drive a man mad,” he growled. “They must be a crew of lunatics on that ship. I never heard of anything like it. Oh, I’d like to drum some sense into their fool heads!”
“Hullo! Wait a jiffy!” cried Jack, startled out of his customary deference. “By the great horn spoon, here comes something now!”
The captain’s burly form bent over the slim body of the young operator as Jack’s nimble fingers flew over the receiving pad. He was excited and made no effort to hide it, although his long years at sea had taught him that nothing was too wildly improbable to occur on the great deep.
But that he should have collided with an iceberg and another ship within his wireless zone should be simultaneously on fire appeared to be almost without the pale of possibilities.
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