Under the straining arms of four oarsmen the little boat moved briskly out of its perilous position. Jammed between two sailors, the boy sat staring back at the men gathering on the promenade. The flashing of many rifles kept a constant streak of light along a considerable section of the deck. Bullets seemed to whine within an inch of his ears. The dinghy appeared to be retreating at a snail's pace, and the frightened boy gripped furiously at the gunwale in an absurd effort to speed it up. He twisted about, trying to keep his shoulders in a line with the flashing rifles so as to offer the thinnest target. A man in the stern of the dinghy groaned, and slumped down into the bottom.
Just then a searchlight leaped into play from the top deck of the ship. Its long ray shot out in a trembling cone through the darkness. It switched here and there with appalling swiftness. The crew in the little boat stared at it, holding their breaths. When that leaping ray fell on the dinghy it would be followed by a rain of steel.
The firing on the promenade deck ceased, Waiting for the searchlight to direct their aim. Just then the beam fell on the Vulcan with dazzling brilliance. The tug stood out sharply against the night, and she proved to be much closer than Leonard had fancied. The little rowboat had been traveling faster than he thought.
Then the brilliant circle left the tug and, began crawling carefully over the water toward the dinghy.
The crew stared at the approaching light as stricken birds in a snake's cage. Just then Caradoc said in a low tone. "Let every man slide into the water and swim for the Vulcan."
The men in the stern slipped into the sea first with muffled splashes. The men amidship climbed over the side and went in headfirst. The oarsmen shipped their oars and took the water. Madden made a long dive over the side and shot well away from the little boat. When he came up, he looked around. The fringe of light was just playing on the bow when Caradoc leaped. According to English traditions, he was the last man to leave his vessel, even though it were only a dinghy.
An instant later, a queer metallic ripping sound broke out in the mother ship. Madden looked back quickly. From the top deck there was a jet of fire, as if someone were turning a hose of flame in the direction of the small boat. Leonard looked back at the dinghy. It appeared as if the ray of light were beating the little vessel into splinters. It seemed to crumble into itself, to wither, to go to dust, and the water beneath it beat up in a froth through its shattered hull.
A head bobbed up near Madden, and Caradoc's voice observed collectedly.
"They're chewing it up with a machine gun. You'd better dive again—travel most of the way to the tug under water. They'll be picking us up, one at a time, in a moment, with the same stream of steel."
NERVE VERSUS GUNPOWDER
Fifteen minutes later a dozen men were kicking exhaustedly in the water on the port side of the Vulcan, shouting in urgent voices for ropes. A few were already clambering up the bobstays. There was no reply from the utterly terrorized men on the tug, then came the whiz of missiles thrown through the air.
"Hogan! Mulcher! Galton! Ropes! Give us your ladder!" bawled Madden at the top of his authority.
"Is—is that you, Misther Madden?" chattered Hogan.
"Yes, yes, ropes, before we drown!"
"Was that you shootin' at us over there?"
"They were shooting at us! They hit two or three of us! Hurry!"
"And who's all that wid ye? Faith, the wather's alive wid min!"
"We're the crew of th' Vukan!" "Throw down ropes!" "Shut up and throw down ropes, ye bloody Irishman!" howled an angry chorus.
"Th' crew o' th' Vulcan, and thim all dead, these weeks ago! Sure if it's a lot o' ghosts——"
But others of the crew summoned enough courage to fling down aid to their old comrades, and soon the men came crawling up the dark sides of the tug and dropped limply inboard.
The utmost excitement played over the crew of the dock when they identified the former crew of the Vulcan. The air was full of excited questions and tired answers, but presently the word got out. It was "War." The news passed from mouth to mouth and grew in portentousness. War! Nations were at war! These men had escaped from a German warship!
It was unbelievable. It was stunning. Presently Caradoc shouted out in the darkness for Malone, Mate Malone. The cockney answered.
"Put your firemen at the furnace! Set your engineers to work on the engines. We must have steam up and be away in an hour!"
The two crews fell into silence, and Malone ordered his men below. Some of the dock's crew hurried off with the others to cut down coal in the bunkers. Another gang fell to work; pulling in the sea anchor. But over all their various activities hovered the vast consternation of war.
Caradoc had climbed to the bridge of the Vulcan and stood staring silently at the bulk of the mother ship that was barely discernible through the night. The searchlight had been switched off. Neither ship showed a signal. From below came the muffled sounds of men working at the furnace, and in five or ten minutes a film of smoke trickled out of the Vulcan's great funnel.
Madden climbed up on the bridge beside Caradoc.
"How long before the submarine will be out?" he asked in a low tone.
"Small boats will come first," replied Smith. "That's why they shunted off the searchlight—to surprise us."
"Will they try to board us?"
"Certainly. We'll have to defend ourselves with anything we can pick up, sticks, knives, hand spikes—"
At that moment Malone appeared from the other end of the bridge.
"We'll have steam up in an hour," he announced, glancing up at the funnel.
"An hour?" thought Madden. "That's time enough for us all to be killed."
Caradoc said to the mate: "Go forward and tell the men to arm themselves, then take position along the rail to repel boarders. Tell them to look sharp for grappling hooks and throw them down."
"And what will they arm with, sir?"
"Use anything you can find, hand spikes, knives, sticks. They might throw lumps of coal. A cricket player ought to give a good account with a lump of coal."
"Very well, sir," grunted Malone and he hurried down on deck.
A few minutes later the men were scurrying around to their positions. One or two men had gone down for a sack of coal, a queer ammunition that might possibly effect something. On the other hand, Leonard knew the attacking force would come armed with mausers, rapid fire guns, grappling hooks, swords. A onesided fight was brewing.
The American looked anxiously at the funnel; a ribbon of black smoke filtered out into the air.
"Madden," said Caradoc, "they will make the hardest fight around the anchor ports and amidships. Which position do you prefer to defend?"
"I believe I'll take the forecastle."
"Good, I wish you luck."
"Same to you."
As Madden moved down the ladder to the deck, he heard, above the murmur of the busy men, the strong measured beat of a ship's cutter approaching the tug with deliberate swiftness.
There were some good men stationed to defend the forecastle, Hogan, Mulcher, Greer and two or three of the Vulcan's former crew whom Madden did not know. As the American approached in the gloom, two men came up, laden with sacks, and poured out a pile of coal on deck. Every lump was about the size of a baseball.
Hogan recognized Madden in the darkness. He was exuberant now that he had learned his enemies were human beings and not ghouls.
"Do ye think those Dutchmen will be able to put up a daycent foight, Misther Madden?" he inquired hopefully.
"They have plenty of arms, Hogan."
"Sure, that'll hilp 'em some. But Oi'm going to knock th' head off the spalpeen that firrust sticks his mug over that rail."
"Your chance is coming," said Madden soberly, as he listened to the increasing noise of the oars.
"Now, men," directed the American, "lie flat down behind the rail and use your sticks and hand pikes to prize off grapnels. They will shoot your hands."
"Very well, sor," breathed several voices.
The noise of the oars grew louder until it sounded immediately beneath the defenders. Hogan stood up suddenly, leaned over the rail with a lump of coal in each hand, and threw down viciously. There was a whack as one lump hit the boat, and a grunt as the other struck some man. In return came a terrific crash of rifles, and bullets spattered the iron plates of the Vulcan. Fortunately Hogan had flopped down on deck in time.
At that instant, the searchlight of the mother ship swept the Vulcan's deck with startling brilliance. The first volley had perhaps been the signal, and the fight was on.
There came a clanging of grapnels on the rail over the crouching defenders. Madden flung down the one nearest him, but others came flying through the air to take its place. The prostrate men worked busily dislodging the flukes. The fusillade from below prevented their getting on their knees, and they were forced to lie on their backs as they worked at the hooks. It seemed some sort of queer game: the attackers flinging up scaling irons, the defenders flipping them down. Madden had dislodged two or three, when Mulcher cried out for help.
The enemy had succeeded in catching a fluke on the rail, and putting so much weight on it that the cockney could not prize it off. Immediately Hogan and another defender crawled to Mulcher's aid like big lizards. They thrust in sticks and spikes and prized vigorously, while the bullets were drumming on the plates outside.
It stuck and Leonard started to their aid, when a hook in his own territory demanded his attention. Just then a head came up over the rail just above Hogan and Mulcher. The German had turned his automatic on the defenders when Hogan's shillalah caught him on the temple. He reeled backwards, his pistol spitting into the air. He knocked down the whole line of men below him amid crashings, shoutings and splashings in the water below. The moment the weight was off, Mulcher loosed the grapnel and flung it down into the confusion.
The hail of bullets was immediately renewed, and more hooks came flying over. The iron rails rang like a boiler shop, and the steel missiles glanced off whining like enormous mosquitoes. Madden whirled his head for a glance aft.
The same sort of drama was taking place amidship, boarders were climbing over the rail and arms, sticks, and iron spikes snapped out of the inky shadows and smote them. The invaders fired blindly into the darkness that rimmed the deck. As to whether they were killing or maiming Caradoc's crew, Madden could not tell.
One thing, however, he did observe, that aroused an anxious hope in the boy's heart. A heavy column of smoke ascended from the tug's funnel, and a tongue of steam played in its edge.
A frenzy of impatience seized Madden. If the Vulcan could only get under way and escape the fight! Why didn't they start at once! In the vivid light, he saw the steering wheel turning, apparently of its own accord, and he knew that someone was manipulating the hand grips from the bottom side.
From those slight signs of preparation, Madden's attention was suddenly whipped back to his business, by the sight of two figures climbing on over the prow of the Vulcan. These men had no doubt caught a hook in the anchor port and had climbed up without opposition.
The invaders stood clearly limned by the searchlight, trying to pick out a target for their fire, when Madden reached for the coal pile. The American had once been pitcher for his college team, and the lump of coal crashed under the first man's jaw and he dropped backwards as if hit by a piece of shrapnel. The second gunman banged at the shadow where Madden was hid. The bullets sang about the American's ears, when Deschaillon's ostrich-like kick flashed through the light and caught the sailor in the pit of the stomach. The automatic dropped from his hand, and he crimped up like a stuck grubworm.
But while the defenders were occupied with this little flank attack, half a dozen hooks were firmly lodged on the rail, and at least eight men were mounting swiftly. At their head came an officer waving a sword. The firing from below suddenly ceased, lest they hit their own men. In the silence that followed, Madden heard the hiss of rising steam, and from somewhere the tinkle of a bell.
Suddenly out of the shadows, the whole force of the defenders leaped at the Germans and attacked them as they strode over the rail. There was a clattering of revolvers, a thwacking of sticks and iron pins, and the smashing of thrown coal.
Then the combatants grappled hand to hand on the rail of the tug, swinging eerily in and out like wrestlers, a strange sight in the beating searchlight.
Madden closed with the officer, and by good fortune caught his right wrist, so the fellow could not shorten his sword and stab him. The American kept trying to twist the German's arm and make him drop his blade, but the fellow had thrust his left hand under Madden's arm pit and reached up and caught him about the forehead. The result was a back half nelson, and put Madden's neck under a terrific strain.
In return he choked his adversary, but Madden's mastoid muscles slowly gave way before the German's punishing hold. His head bent back, while he clung desperately to the sword hand and crushed in the fellow's gullet. There was a roaring in Madden's ears that was not from the fighting men. His neck and back slowly curved backward under the strain. Had it not been for the menace of the sword, he could have wriggled out with a wrestler's shift, but if he loosed the right hand... Madden wondered if he could fall backwards and still maintain his hold on the sword. If he could ever get down without being stunned by his fall, his strangle hold would give him an immediate advantage. He swung backwards, but the fellow did not go with him, but began a furious struggle to loose his weapon. Madden clung grimly. His whole body dripped with sweat, as he held away the sword and tried to choke the fat neck of his antagonist. He shoved the fellow's throat with all his power, trying to break the nelson, but the pressure jammed his own head back till a hot pain streaked through the base of his skull.
At that moment a tremor ran through the tug, and there came a chough-choughing in her stack. Immediately followed a great shouting and a frantic pelting of grapnels from the sea below. Madden knew that the Vulcan had at last got under steam, and would probably escape. This came to him dimly as his left hand, which had been struggling to fend off the sword, gradually lost its grip on the German's sweaty slippery wrist.
Along up and down the rail, he knew that the men battled with varying results. Came dimly to his roaring ears shouts, groans and blows. In another minute the sword would split his ribs.
A breeze sprang up. The Vulcan was gathering headway.
He was bracing his last efforts against the force that was bending him double, when a long-legged figure rushed from amidship, seized the swordsman around the waist, and with a mighty heave, flung the fellow upward and outward into the sea, falling end over end—a grotesque gyrating figure in the searchlight, still waving his sword.
"Down! Down! Everybody!" yelled Caradoc, as he waded up the rail, overthrowing the last of the boarders.
Madden and the defenders fell prone on the deck, and it was not too soon. The moment the boarding party was definitely repulsed, there broke out a crashing volley from the long boat, and their bullets played a ringing tattoo over the ironwork. Then the tug drew steadily away from their assailants.
The searchlight played over the steamer for several minutes in order to afford a target for the small boats, but the crew lay close, only trusting an eye over the sheer strake now and then for a glimpse of the enemy. Up on the bridge, Leonard could see the steering wheel still turning of its own accord this way and that as the Vulcan gathered speed.
Presently the searchlight was switched off, leaving the deck in utter darkness. The cutters had given up the chase. Leonard sat up on deck and wriggled his sore neck this way and that. He could see nothing now save the stream of sparks that leaped out of the funnel and flowed aft into the black sea.
"Men!" cried Caradoc's voice, "is anyone hurt?"
"A few of us 'ave 'oles punched in us, sor!" came a reply.
"All the wounded will report to Captain Black in the main cabin!" called Smith.
There was a shuffling of feet on deck, as the men passed aft through the darkness.
At that moment, out of the mother ship there flared another bright light that wavered about the horizon for a moment and finally settled on the Vulcan. The wounded men dodged below the rail again, but no bullets came.
This light was not stationary. It crept down through the inky sea toward the fugitives and grew larger and brighter in their eyes.
"W'ot is that?" cried several apprehensive voices.
Caradoc stood erect by the rail, watching this new development.
"Malone," he called to the man hidden on the bridge, "what speed can this boat make?"
"Hi've got as 'igh as eighteen knots out of 'er, sir."
"Signal 'full speed ahead' and call down to the firemen for all the steam we can carry."
"Very well, sir."
Caradoc looked at the light for a minute or two longer and then remarked to Madden.
"They couldn't have repaired that submarine for several hours longer. They must have had two."
CHASED BY A SUBMARINE
Wheezing, coughing, shaking in every plate, vomiting into the sky a trail of smoke that extended clear to the eastern horizon, the Vulcan shouldered her way at top speed across the mazy lanes of the Sargasso. The tug had come a queer crooked path across that sea, and the lay of her smoke trail down the pearly glow of dawn still marked her tortuous course.
Not a breath of air stirred, but the speed of the vessel sent a breeze whipping over the poop of the steamer where a group of battered men stared fixedly over the long frothing path of the screw. Several of the group wore bandages, two, unable to stand, sat in steamer chairs, all had the pale faces of all-night watchers, but every eye in the crowd scanned with feverish intensity the spangled ocean over which they fled.
The wind snatched at the clothes and bandages of the intent men. Masses of seaweed swept like gray blurs down the sheer of the tug's wake. Just beneath them the propeller rushed with watery thunder.
"Yonder she rises!" cried one of the watchers, pointing at two wireless masts that rose like the fins of a racing shark above the green surface of the Sargasso.
"Yonder she rises!" repeated a voice amidship, and more faintly still came the repetition from the bridge, "Yonder she rises—hard a-port!"
A sudden shift of the rudder shook the Vulcan from peak to keelson. Next moment the tug was speeding squarely across a seaweed field, and another crook was added to the smoke mark in the sky. The Vulcan's blunt prow drove through the seaweed at a great rate, while the clammy mass swung back together not sixty yards behind the churning screw.
A strange race had developed between the tug and submarine. When both crafts were on the surface in open water, the submarine had a knot or two advantage of the Vulcan and could have picked her up in four or five hours. But early in the night Caradoc had discovered that the powerful screw of the steamer, designed, as it was, to propel vast loads, could make the higher speed across the algae beds.
On the other hand, if the submarine dived to escape the drag of the weed, she again became the faster craft. But, in this instance, when the submarine dived, the Vulcan would immediately take to the open lanes and do more than preserve her distance. These constant shifts and turns explained the ricocheting course that was marked in smoke across the whitening dawn.
The submarine stood well out of water and skimmed along in the pink gleam like a long, slender missile. Its flat deck, wireless masts and conning tower stood etched in black against the morning light. She was consuming a fairish stretch of open water at a high speed.
"She's game for a long chase," observed Hogan, gently shifting a wounded arm in its sling.
Leonard Madden replied without removing his eyes from the rushing boat, "She has to be. All of Germany's naval plans depend on her destroying us."
"It does—and, faith, may Oi ask why?"
"If we get to Antigua and report this to the British admiralty, how long would this Sargasso reshipping arrangement last?"
"Right you are there, Misther Madden," agreed Hogan at once. "We'd woipe 'em out, wouldn't we? We'll make it, too. If we stood off th' little didapper all night, you know we can all day."
Madden considered the fleet little vessel. "No, I rather think she will capture us."
"And how's that?"
"The Sargasso doesn't extend indefinitely. In fact we are nearing the southern limit. Have you taken a look forward?"
"No, I haven't," said Hogan, taking vague alarm at Madden's tone. "What's wrong?"
"I don't see many more big seaweed fields ahead. If she gets us in open water——"
"Why bad luck to it! Bad luck to it, Oi say!" cried Hogan as the wind whistled about him; "running us out o' the bushes loike a swamp rabbit."
Just then the submarine veered off her straight course somewhat to extend her open water run for two or three miles up the edge of the field. A length view showed her to be a delicate looking craft. Her sharp prow cut the water with hardly a ripple, in sharp contrast to the Vulcan, which shouldered up a waterfall as she lunged forward.
Suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, the submarine porpoised. There was a swash of foam, and she was gone.
The men on the poop stepped around to the side of the tug and stared anxiously southward. Bits of flotsam mottled the blue expanse, but it really appeared as if the saving drift weed were thinning to nothing. Hogan glanced back over the way he had come.
"Sure it'll be a fair field and no favor, sweet Peggy O'Neal!" he hummed nonchalantly under his breath.
At that moment a violent shaking went over the Vulcan, and the short boat swung her prow about with tug-like promptness. It was as if the stout little craft had swung around on her heel.
"Faith and would ye shake a man's arrum off!" shouted Hogan at nobody in particular. "And are ye going back to meet the friendly little wasp?"
That was exactly what Caradoc was doing. He had swung the Vulcan about in less than a hundred yard circle and was plowing straight back the way they had come.
The crowd on the poop held their breath at the daring maneuver. Tug and submarine were now rushing at each other full tilt, only one ran under water, the other on the surface. Suppose the submarine should thrust up a periscope for an instant—a cough of the torpedo tube and the Vulcan would be blown to scrap iron.
The men on the poop ran forward, staring with frightened eyes over the gray-green soggy field through which the Vulcan ripped her way.
It seemed fantastic to think that somewhere under that lifeless weed human beings spun swiftly along, freighted with the most terrific engine of destruction. What strange warfare! Who could have fancied that when savages began to use clubs to maul each other it would end in this diabolical refinement! Weapons, weapons, weapons—the history of man's undying savagery working under new forms of civilization! The war submarine—what a monstrous offspring of genius!
The sun rose like a white-hot ball in the brazen sky and the men held to the rails, mouths open, and stared ahead into the safe open water, expecting every moment for the Vulcan to spatter skyward in a volcano of fire and steel.
The boat itself rattled along with that insensibility of mechanism that sometimes astounds an apprehensive man. Twenty minutes later, she turned into the open lane, and was rushing westward again at full steam.
An immense relief spread over the crew. Galton, who stood on the bridge at the wheel beside Caradoc, blew out a long breath and wiped the sweat from his face, Farnol Greer began a windy whistling of "Winona, Sweet Indian Maid." Madden felt as if a weight had been lifted off his brain. Hogan was humming a tune. But all eyes turned anxiously seaward, to see where the submarine would "blow."
Ten minutes later, a distant ripple in the water caught their watchful eyes and the wireless masts popped up, on the opposite side of the great weed field, four or five miles distant.
A spontaneous cheering broke out on the Vulcan's decks.
"Double crossed! Double crossed!" bellowed Hogan.
"Back track! We put one over! Hurrah for Cap'n Smith!" they shouted above the pounding of the engines.
Everyone but Caradoc wore the fixed exultant grin of the man who outwits his rival. The submarine had been thoroughly outgeneraled. North and west of the Vulcan lay the whole Sargasso for an endless chase. The diving boat had lost the great advantage of having the steamer cornered.
As the crew whistled and sang the Vulcan kicked a frothy course down the long westward lane. To every one's surprise, the submarine did not dive immediately, but straightened herself on the other side of the seaweed field on a course parallel with her quarry.
Madden climbed up on the bridge and found a pair of binoculars in the chart room. He took these outside and trained them on the little vessel. Apparently the submarine intended to remain at the surface for some time, for she had opened her hatches and an officer had come out on the slender deck, and stood looking at the Vulcan through a telescope.
At the distance, Madden could see the fellow plainly, and even the inky shadow he threw on the deck. The officer perused the tug for several minutes, then allowed his glass to wander around the horizon.
"They've come up for air," observed Caradoc, who had approached his friend from behind. "I believe we'd best stop that. Good air is a luxury with those fellows." He turned to Galton, who was steering. "Swing her into the northwest, my man."
The tug answered to her helm with a quiver, and in twenty minutes more was nosing her way again through the ooze of weed. The German officer calmly completed his survey, folded his telescope, then disappeared down the hatch. A few minutes later the submarine dived and the ocean lay empty in the burning sunshine.
From below came the clanging of Gaskin's gong announcing dinner. It was odd how the little details of life went calmly on even when life itself was threatened with extinction. As Madden went below to his meal, he met Malone who came from below, looking as black as an Ethiopian. The mate had been directing the firing in this extreme necessity.
The two fell in together as they walked to the wash room.
"I daresay those fellows wish they had sunk the Vulcan when they had her," observed the American.
"They needed 'er theirselves," explained the mate in a matter-of-fact way. "Those German cruisers 'ave captured a whole flotilla of prizes lately, and they needed th' tug to 'andle 'em for 'em."
"And they didn't need the Minnie B?"
"Oh, no, not at all."
"Why didn't they sink her at once?"
"Her cap'n told me she carried more copper than one submarine could reship, so they 'ad to wait for another, as they didn't want to throw no copper away."
Madden nodded. "It was the second submarine I saw on the night she foundered." He began smiling when he thought what a bewildering mystery the vessel had been, and how very simple was the explanation.
By this time Caradoc had joined the two men, hoping to snatch a sandwich and a cup of coffee before he was needed again.
"Have we plenty of coal, mate?"
"Bunkers are 'arf full, sir."
"What's she turning over now?"
"Six, seventy-five to th' minute, sir." There was a pause, then Malone asked, "Is there any 'opes of them running out o' fuel?"
"Not likely; they make the trip to Hamburg, you know."
They were just turning into the smelly galley, when a startled voice sang out forward:
This stopped the trio instantly.
"Where away?" called Caradoc.
"Dead ahead, sor!"
All three turned and went running back updeck. When they regained the bridge, Madden stared in the direction indicated. At first the western horizon looked empty, then along its level line his eye caught two tiny marks against the brilliant sky. As it was too small for his naked eyes, he resorted to the binoculars once more. Caradoc was doing the same thing.
"W'ot is it, sir?" inquired Malone anxiously.
When he had focused his glasses, Madden made out two fighting tops—steel baskets circling steel masts, thrust up menacingly over the slope of the world.
"W'ot is it, sir?" repeated Malone uneasily.
Just then Madden's eye caught the flag at the peak, as it fluttered under the drive of the distant ship. It was the black cross on the white ground, with the dark upper left quarter of the German navy.
Caradoc took down his glass at the same time.
"They've been using the wireless," he stated evenly, "to run us in a cul de sac. I might have known German cruisers were close around." He looked steadily at the distant fighting tops, then turned to Galton.
"Steer due north, quartermaster."
After a moment, he said to Malone:
"When you go below, send me up coffee and a biscuit."
THE LONE CHANCE
Rushing up the slope of the world in a battle line that covered a wide sector of the southwestern horizon, steamed four German battle cruisers. They were four sea eagles dashing at a little water beetle of a tug—the hammer of Thor swinging forward to crush an insect. The submarine had signaled by wireless the whole German South Atlantic fleet to destroy the tug.
Only in the face of this demonstration did Madden realize that a great German naval stratagem hinged upon the fate of the little English boat. The slow, clumsy little Vulcan would decide the fate of millions of dollars worth of English shipping. The little vessel was freighted with huge consequences.
At first glimpse of the battle line, the Vulcan had sheered about, and now rushed northward, stringing her black smoke flat behind her. Up from the south, the submarine followed on the surface, although she could not make as good time through the weed as did the Vulcan. However, the burden of destroying the English craft had been transferred to the cruisers that came rushing forward at at least twenty-five knots an hour.
As Madden stood on the bridge in the skirling wind, the little Vulcan, the seaweed drifts and the cruisers reminded him of nothing so much as a rabbit flying across cotton rows in front of four greyhounds; only here there were no friendly briar patches or fence corners in which to double or hide. Never had the Sargasso appeared so vast, so empty, so brilliant, so hot.
"Any chance?" he shouted to Caradoc above the rumble of machinery and the whistling of the wind.
"There's always a chance! They might foul in these weeds!" he nodded aft.
"Lloyds would hardly insure us," admitted the commander dryly.
At that moment, as if to lend point to the remark, came a sharp clap of thunder off their port bow. Madden whirled quickly. A ball of white smoke, the size of a balloon, drifted up in the air a quarter of a mile distant.
The American stared at the smoke quite wonderstruck, then looked around at the distant ships that had not yet topped the horizon.
"Did they shoot this far?"
"A request to heave to."
"Are you going to do it?"
At the bursting of the shell, the men on deck came walking aft to the superstructure, with the apprehensive gait of men getting under shelter from blasting operations.
Caradoc leaned over the rail of the bridge. "Greer!" he shouted, "go to the flag locker, get out a union jack and show our colors on the peak!"
The men pulled up at this, and half a dozen men, two or three of them crippled, hurried to carry out the order. In a few minutes they came running back on deck with the flag. They tangled the sheets after the manner of landsmen, but finally the red pennant traveled skyward. There was a brief hoarse cheering from the cockneys.
The flag was scarcely at the peak, when above the throb and rumble of the machinery, Madden's ear caught a queer droning noise, and a moment later came a deafening crash about two hundred yards to the starboard. The water beneath it was beaten to a foam, while another balloon of smoke slowly expanded and thinned in the breathless air. A long time after the bursting of the shell, Leonard heard the grumble of the cannon that had fired it."
"Now, lads," shouted Caradoc, "go below and bring up some rockets!"
The men set off with a will, but Madden viewed the situation without any thrill of patriotism to gild a death under the union jack. The cruisers were slowly coming into full view. Through his glasses he could now see their turrets and the black gun ports.
"What's the idea, Smith? You can't fight with rockets?"
"Some English vessel may see us," answered Caradoc shortly.
Madden was still more astonished. "What good would that do?" he called above the wind. "She'd be captured, too."
"Certainly," agreed the Englishman brusquely, "but if she had a wireless, she might report the situation to the Admiralty before they sank us."
Madden removed his binoculars and stared at his friend. "Are you staking your life on as long a chance as that?"
"My boy," said Smith, in an oddly matured tone, "when the safety of one's country is at stake, one man's life doesn't amount to that!" he snapped his fingers. "If there's a point to be gained, you accept any chance automatically—or no chance at all."
The American returned no answer, but there flashed into his mind the legend of the Tyrian who beached his galley in order to save the secret of Cornwall. Caradoc's narrative was oddly prophetic of the fate of the Vulcan. And Madden wondered with a quirk of grim humor if there were a foreigner aboard that Tyrian's galley, and what he thought about the sacrifice.
There was another jagged report as a shell burst just aft the tug, then a missile of some thousands of pounds shrieked through the air just above the stumpy masts and filled the sky with fire and thunder a hundred yards ahead.
Out of the cabin came the rocket bearers, quite over their fright by now, and acting with the nervous steadiness which acute danger brings. One of the sailors from the regular crew of the tug moved along the rail, mounting the fire signals one after the other for shooting. Immediately behind him came Hogan, using his one good hand to fish matches from his watch pocket and light the fuses.
The first rocket lit with a sputter, for a moment its fiery blowing filled the deck with smoke, then it darted skyward, with a tremendous swis-s-sh! Up, in a long black column it went, into the very heart of the hot brazen sky, then it exploded with a faint pop, and a black head of smoke expanded at a prodigious height. In the midst of the smoke-filled deck, Hogan was applying his match to another. So as the tug plowed forward, tall slender pillars of smoke, crowned with swelling palm-like heads, arose to dizzy heights out of her path.
By this time huge shells were bursting about the Vulcan with crashing monotony. Sometimes the dodging little vessel ran through the pungent gases of the shells that were sent to destroy her. Now and then the giant missiles exploded under water and sent furious waterspouts leaping over her decks. Something touched the top of her steel mainmast and snapped it off as if it were a straw. A few minutes later the crew had cleared the union jack from the wreckage and had it flaunting defiantly from the forepeak.
It was an odd defiance, a tugboat's challenge to a German battle line. The nibbling of a mouse once set a lion free. Here was a mouse endeavoring to net a whole herd of lions.
The cruisers did not overhaul the little vessel as rapidly as Madden had anticipated. The Vulcan skurried through the seaweed fields, dodging this way and that in order to take advantage of every lane of open water, but the unwieldy battleships could not accept small advantages, and were forced to plow straight ahead, through weed or wave as it came.
Thus the cruisers still fired at extreme range, and the tug escaped destruction as a gnat might jiggle between raindrops and survive a summer's shower.
Amid steady crashes, Madden awaited stoically for the shot that would erase the Vulcan from the face of the sea. There came another splintering shock; the upper half of the foremast made a curious jump, and came down with its rigging and plunged overboard in the rushing water. The obstruction instantly choked down the tug's speed. Every man in the crew seized axe, saw, anything, and rushed forward in a fury of impatience, hacking, chopping, sawing, working through the wreckage and cutting the ropes with jackknives, in an effort to clear the tug of debris. After an intolerable while, the last ratlines snapped like pistol shots, the whizzing end of a rope struck a sailor and laid him out as if clubbed, then the foremast fell away and the Vulcan rushed forward again.
"Look ahead, Madden!" shouted Caradoc in the uproar. "We've got to run among thicker fields than these!"
By this time the tug's rockets were spent and the German cruisers were rushing down a line of gigantic smoke-palms that were planted by the little vessel.
"You might as well surrender," called the American coolly. "You won't find a merchantman if you go in thicker fields—you know that."
"Surrender!" bawled Smith. "Do you think they shall have this tug to haul their prizes? Let 'em sink us, and then pick us up in boats! Look ahead!"
The American turned his binoculars obediently and scanned the west and north. His eyes traversed skein after skein of the brilliant colorful patternings, but he was unable to find a very closely netted region. He was about to announce his discovery to Caradoc when his lense focussed on another grim menace almost dead ahead.
He stared at it with a curious dropping of hopes that he had not suspected were in his breast.
What he saw was another fighting top. That pertinacious submarine had apparently surrounded the elusive Vulcan with German fighting ships.
Leonard removed his field glasses and stood for a full minute filled with a keen frustration. The splitting din about him roared on uninterruptedly, and yet somehow he had been hoping the Vulcan would escape.
"What do you make of it?" bawled Smith, who had been watching the submarine, which was once more drawing dangerously close.
"We can't go in this direction, Smith!" shouted Leonard hopelessly. "There are more ships in that direction."
"Warships?" demanded Caradoc swinging his spyglass around.
"Yes, fighting tops!"
Both lads focused in the new direction.
"Those Germans do everything thoroughly," shouted Leonard, "even to sinking a tug!"
But instead of despairing, Caradoc, after a single glance, rushed over to the speaking tube to the boilers. He blew the whistle shrilly, then folded it back and screamed down.
"Malone! Malone! Malone!"
"Very well, sir!" came back the muffled voice through the pipe.
"Give her all steam possible! Blow her up! Speed her, man, speed her!"
"Very well, sir!" returned the same voice.
"Caradoc! Caradoc! Are you insane!" bawled Leonard. "Do you imagine you can outrun two squadrons of German cruisers?"
"German cruisers! That's England's line of battle, Madden! England! Old England! God let me get to them and tell 'em what I know, then I don't care what happens!"
"Th' signal book! Get the signal book!" bawled Greer amid the uproar.
"W'ere is it?"
"In the flag locker! Chuck the flags out, too! Scatter 'em out!"
"W'ot you want to signal?"
"Submarine—tell 'em to look out for submarines!"
Hogan, who held the volume in the crook of his bandaged arm, licked his thumb and jabbed through the leaves in distracted attention. "There aren't no code letters for submarine!" he cried at last—"not in here!"
"No," shouted Black, the Vulcan's former captain, "that's an old code—wasn't any submarines then!"
"Spell it out!" commanded Caradoc from the bridge. "Sharp about it!"
The men worked in a clutter of buntings, assembling the flags in nervous haste. Black laid out the nine letters and the crew hurriedly hooked them together. Ten minutes later, they strung the signal between the two splintered masts with a queer drunken gala effect.
The Vulcan was no longer the German squadron's sole target. Down on the Teuton battle line thundered five English cruisers, filling the north with rolling smoke, their turrets spangled with cannon flashes, prows shearing white walls of foam.
The sky above the Vulcan was filled with the drone of hurtling shells. They sounded as thick as swarming bees. The cannon fire of the approaching English ships mounted to a ragged roar. When the on-coming line was less than five miles distant, Caradoc shouted an order to Galton and the little tug swung around broadside on, displaying her warning signal like a billboard. Through the battle smoke, Madden saw an answering flag go up on the nearest ship. A cheer broke out from the crew at this recognition of their work.
"They'll pass it around among the fleet by wireless!" shouted Caradoc in Madden's ear.
"Do you know that ship, Smith?" called Madden excitedly.
"The Panther—held a commission on her once."
"Is it possible?" Madden peered at her through his glasses with renewed scrutiny.
They were so close now that the American could pick out the crew of range finders working in the fighting tops; he could glimpse the huge guns in the forward turrets as they flashed and roared amid shrouds of smokeless powder haze. Madden realized he was seeing what every landsman dreams of seeing: a naval battle. For some inscrutable reason, Caradoc had headed the Vulcan clear around and now faced the enemy, like a rat terrier amid a battle of mastiffs.
Madden turned aft as the tug swung around to follow the fortunes of the Panther. He could see German shells exploding now and then on her decks; sometimes they would strike the sea and send up typhoons of water and weed. As he gazed a small-calibre gun was struck, and there was nothing but a ragged smoking hole where the port had been. An instant later, the mizzen top was shrouded in an emerald flame, and when the smoke cleared, only a jagged stump of iron thrust skyward. The crew of range finders had been wiped out in an instant. Several hours later, Leonard learned that the whole German gunfire had been focussed for several minutes on the Panther.
But now that gray, smoke-wreathed cruiser rushed on indomitably, flanked by her thundering consorts. The half-naked men on the Panther's decks looked curiously small in their huge rushing fortress. German shells battered her decks amid spangling green flames but could not stop her. As she overtook the Vulcan, the concussion of cannon fire and bursting shells grew so terrific it ceased to be noise. It resolved itself into blows, terrific air movements that smote Madden all over. It pounded his ear drums with physical blows; it tore at the bridge of his nose, jarred his teeth, sent shooting pains through his head, for he was not wise enough to stuff his ears with cotton and hold his mouth open. It shook the pit of his stomach and nauseated him. It was a sound cyclone. Added to this the sickening acrid smell of niter explosives filled the atmosphere.
On came the Panther through the green foam of German fire, mingling the mighty vibrations of her engines, the hiss of leaping walls of water, tempests of cannon fire and vindictive shriek of leaping shells.
Caradoc leaned over to Madden and yelled something at the top of his voice. Madden shook his head as a signal that he could not hear. Smith repeated so loudly that his long face grew red with the strain. It was impossible to catch a word. Besides, Leonard's ears ached as if the drums were ruptured.
Caradoc caught up a speaking trumpet and held it to his friend's ear.
"Don't look at the Panther!" cried a drowned voice. "Watch ahead for the submarine!"
The submarine! Sure enough, there was the submarine, silent stiletto, waiting beneath the sea to stab this fiery monster. Madden's heart leaped into his throat. Was it possible so slight an antagonist could engulf the battle cruiser?
The American turned and stared ahead over the shell-beaten sea with all his eyes. The little Vulcan was now racing along some half-mile in front of the English battle line, her warning signal still stretched between her splintered masts. She rushed at top speed, vibrating under the stress of her engines. Five or six miles ahead the German squadron had turned and was flying southward before the superior English force. Flashes of fire and dull thunder still belched from their after turrets.
Leonard tried to confine his attention to the adjacent waters in careful search for the diving boat's periscope, but the terrific spectacle across the smoky spangled sea gripped his eyes beyond his control.
The ship on the eastern wing of the Teuton line was in flames. The fire burst out of the gun deck ports, lapping up over the boat decks in long red curling tongues. Her cannon fire had ceased, and from what Leonard could see, he thought the English ships had quit firing at her. She still fled southward, however. Smoke began to roll out of her turrets, and her crew came swarming out on her deck like a disturbed ant's nest. Through his glasses, Madden saw them hunched against the fire, working to launch a boat, when of a sudden there was a blinding flare; a huge cloud of smoke leaped from the sea, and after four or five minutes, a thunder heavily audible even amid the roar of battle rumbled in Madden's ears. It was the solemn note of a battleship destroyed by its own magazines. When the smoke cleared away there was left nothing save tossing waves and bits of flotsam here and there.
The horror of the tragedy was lost for Leonard in another, more appalling scene. The right central battleship had lost control of her steering gear, and now she ran wildly amuck in the fleeing line like a drunken giant of steel.
Through accident, or by the last shift of seamanship, she veered about broadside on, her huge guns still belching defiance. In crazy flight, she barely missed one of her own squadron, then rounded back in a great circle for the English line. No doubt her crew did not try to stop her, hoping that her unguided charge might work some damage to the enemy.
On she came, against the focussed storm of English cannon, her prow, forward turrets, bridge, masts, fairly disintegrated under a bastinado of twelve and fourteen-inch shells. Yet it seemed as if she would survive it all and ram some English cruiser, when a cloud of steam broke out of her hold. A lucky shot had exploded her boilers. Her wild charge ceased instantly, but her sub-calibre guns still chattered defiance at the crushing odds. Giant shells were now pounding her at point-blank range. At some stroke of a cruiser to the right of the Panther, the German ship heeled heavily on her starboard side.
Through his glasses, Madden could see the sailors still struggling to work the guns, though scores of them were wiped from the deck at every English shell. Amid clouds of smoke the black cross of the German battle flag fluttered undaunted.
In a few minutes the enemy listed until her guns were at such a high angle they could no longer be trained against the enemy. Her forward turret was completely blown away. Bursting shells kept a constant glare around her. Her boiler and furnace rendered her hold untenable, for her crew came out of the smoke and formed orderly platoons on her crippled deck. Shells swept gaps through their files, but they closed again in regular formation, standing oddly erect on the up-tilted deck. There was not a gun they could man, not a blow could they strike, yet the men stood firm in the steel cyclone sweeping across their shattered deck. Then Madden turned his lens on a group a little to one side of the main formation, and his eye caught the gleam of silver horns, the rise and fall of a drummer's arm, the fierce beating of a director with a baton. It was the ship's musicians. The band was playing, the men were chanting the battle hymn of the empire; out of the heart of the foundering cruiser, out of the souls of the passing warriors rose triumphantly, "Die Wacht am Rhein."
Sudden tears filled the eyes of the American and dimmed the splendid sight. He turned impulsively to his friend.
"Caradoc! My God!" he screamed in his ear, "why don't they quit firing!"
"Their flag is still flying—no doubt the halyards are shot away!"
Even while Smith screamed, a sudden and startling attack was launched from the Panther's rapid fire and machine guns. They sounded a shrill treble amid the profound shaking bass of the giant cannon. The boys looked sharply about to see the object of this abrupt attack, when they suddenly heard the shrill whistling of steel all about their ears.
With the utmost horror, Madden saw every tiny port spouting continuous flame in his direction. Steel frothed the sea all around the Vulcan. Missiles struck the little tug and glanced off with sharp musical twangs. The crew of the little boat, who swarmed on deck, wonderstruck at the battle of the giants, suddenly darted to cover with wild yells.
"They're crazy! They're daft!" screamed Madden. "Shooting at us! What's the matter with 'em?"
Caradoc, also, seemed to share the madness. He suddenly spun his wheel to the left, veered in a sharp circle, and dashed straight toward the course of the Panther into the thickest of the hail. Leonard stood beside him, frozen stiff, when straight ahead, he suddenly saw a periscope show for an instant, then disappear in a little swirl of water. The submarine had come into the action.
The tug rushed straight through the bullet-rumpled water to the point where the metal fin had disappeared, like a terrier dashing at a rathole.
With the disappearance of the submarine's "eye," the fusillade ceased abruptly. The great cannon were firing more slowly now and there came short intervals of comparative silence in the battle.
From the bridge Caradoc bellowed fiercely at his men: "Spread around the rail—keep a sharp lookout for the submarine!" The crew came back with a will now that they learned the bombardment had not been intended for them.
In the meantime the tiny David had put the great Goliath to flight. The Panther was endeavoring to save herself. She veered out of the thundering battle line and zigzagged easterly, in full flight from any enemy that she could almost drop down one of her smokestacks.
And the little Vulcan swung about in an effort to keep up with her principal. On she rushed, shaking and puffing like a locomotive, her bright flags flying the submarine warning, as if the speeding giant ahead of her were likely to forget it.
Suddenly Hogan bawled out: "By th' port! By th' port, sir! There she rises!"
Another shrill storm from the giant showed that the gunners aboard the Panther also saw the periscope.
Again the Vulcan dashed at the diving terror as it disappeared and the cruiser swung clear around in a northerly tack. Her commander was trying to outguess the man under the sea.
A strange game of blind-man's-buff the three dissimilar crafts were playing. Caradoc assumed the submarine pilot would guess that the Panther had fled north, and he sent the tug spitting along a course that would lie between the cruiser and her enemy. The Panther was forced to repass the Vulcan in the new maneuver. The giant and pygmy were flying along at top speed, fairly abreast, scarcely five hundred yards apart.
Leonard took his eyes off the starboard sea a moment to look at the lion which this mouse was trying to nibble free, when suddenly, not thirty yards on the inside of the tug popped up the periscope.
The American rushed to the wheel, jerked it to the starboard. "Yonder! Yonder!" he bellowed in Caradoc's ear, pointing.
Again the guns shrilled forth; a steel sleet wailed about the Vulcan. Into the teeth of this blast, the tug circled and lunged.
With fascinated eyes, Madden watched the periscope cut a swirling circle on the midst of the beaten water and straighten on the Panther.
Now the metal eye was directly under their swaying starboard. A moment they sped side by side, toward the imperiled cruiser. Madden could almost have touched the wireless masts. A whine of bullets ripped one of their lifeboats like a saw and sputtered through the superstructure.
The periscope, which thrust six or seven feet out of water, disappeared under the swell of the Vulcan's hull. Suddenly the tug swung her blunt beak around with the sidelong blow of an angry swine. Madden went flying to the right rail of the bridge to stare down at the imminent tragedy.
A dim shadowy bulk was hurtling through the blue water. Suddenly, just as the tug's prow swung athwart her course, the submarine lined up straight with the Panther. A great belching of bubbles wallowed up through the turbulent sea as a sign that the torpedo was launched.
A heart-stopping moment, in which the diving boat, the darting shadow of the torpedo, the blocking prow of the Vulcan was clear.
A titanic upheaval of water; volcanic fires leaping out of the heart of the deep; a roar so absolutely appalling that it reduced the battle to a whisper!
The prow of the Vulcan reared up and bent back over the main deck. In the same instant, out of the cauldron sea, an enormous cigar-shaped object was flung end-over-end, as a child flings a spindle. There was one flashing glimpse of conning tower, smashed plates. Then a clap of surging air that seemed as solid as oak picked Madden up as if he had been thistledown. He felt himself whirling through space. Somehow, he caught a glimpse of a string of signals that had been blown from the wrecked masts of the shattered Vulcan. Then he felt a stinging blow of water as he hit the sea.
The submarine had destroyed both herself and the tug with her first torpedo.
THE VICTORIA CROSS
Shocked, stunned, half blinded, Madden found himself kicking in the water amidst a wreckage of spars, planks, buoys, with here and there a swimmer struggling to stay on the surface. The whole mass of flotsam swung slowly around the whirlpool where tug and submarine had sunk.
The circling water was filmed with oil, the life-blood of the stricken submarine. Presently the concavity in the ocean mounted to level, and its rotation slowly died away. The American found that his arms had unwittingly clasped something which proved to be an empty tin canister with a screw top. He hung to it apathetically. His ears bled from the concussion of the torpedo, and it was with difficulty that he focussed his eyes on anything.
Presently he became aware of a voice calling his name. It seemed a long way off, but when he looked around he saw Farnol Greer quite close to him. The thick-set black-headed fellow motioned for Madden to approach, and the American kicked himself and his float in that direction. A little later he saw that Malone was with Farnol, and that the two were supporting a third man.
"Lend us a 'and, 'ere, Madden," called Malone; "our chap's knocked out."
"Who is it? Oh, it's Caradoc!" Madden stared down into the still, upturned face with a dull emotionless feeling. He was too numb to feel or sympathize. "Is he dead?" he finally asked.
"Wounded, sir," replied Greer.
At that moment, the Englishman moved slightly, opened his eyes. "We—stopped it, Madden."
"Are you badly hurt?" inquired the American, becoming more nearly normal himself.
"Punch through my shoulder."
"Were you hit in the explosion?"
"One of the Panther's machine guns—ricocheted, I think."
"What rotten luck!" growled Madden.
Smith reached his good arm to the float. "Had it all my life in little things, Madden, but the Panther—that torpedo——"
"Boat ahoy!" called Farnol Greer suddenly.
Leonard looked about and saw that the Panther had laid to, a good two miles distant, and two of her cutters were coming back to pick up the survivors. A blue-jacket on the sharp bow of the little vessel waved an arm at Farnol's cry, and presently the rescuing party was alongside. Caradoc went up first, then Farnol, Malone and Madden, who automatically clung to his tin canister.
The sailors from the warship were chattering excitedly over the miraculous preservation of the Panther.
"If that tug had been 'arf a second later," declared one, "she'd 'ave 'ad us, Sniper, sure—to th' port, there, Bobby, there's another chap kickin' in th' water."
One of the sailors had a roll of bandages, and he now moved over to Caradoc and stooped over the wounded man.
"You're pinked," he said in a tone of authority. "I'll take a turn o' this linen around your shoulder." Suddenly he paused as he glanced into the sufferer's face. "Why—why, hit's the Lieut'nant!" he stammered. Then he stood erect and saluted properly. "Would you 'ave a bandage, sir?" he asked in a different one.
Caradoc assented wearily and shifted his shoulder for the band of linen. The fellow must have been a surgeon's helper, for he applied the strip rather dexterously as the cutter steamed about picking up the rest of the Vulcan's crew who had survived the catastrophe.
Half an hour later friendly hands helped the waifs up the Panther's accommodation ladder, where a group of officers and men waited to be of service to the Vulcan's crew.
The deck of the cruiser was torn and blackened from the German fire; here and there were sailors in bandages. Stretchers were placed at the head of the ladder for the tug's wounded.
The crew, of the Panther showed the utmost cordiality and also the utmost curiosity toward their visitors. A dapper young midshipman gripped Madden's hand as he stepped on the broad deck.
"Where did that tug come from?" he inquired at once. "Most extraordinary sight—whole fleet pounding away at a tug—Ponsonby is my name."
Madden mentioned his own, and several brother officers, seeing that here was an intelligent fellow, gathered about the American. Two or three were introduced with English formality.
"If you are not too bowled over, old chap," begged a middy named Gridson, "explain to us how a tug ever happened in the middle of the Sargasso in full flight from a hostile fleet."
Some of the wounded were still coming up from the cutter, as Madden made a beginning of the tug's story. Just then he was interrupted by Ponsonby.
"Pardon, Madden, but who is that chap coming up—Say, Gridson, that isn't—why that's Wentworth!" The middy suddenly dropped his voice. "That's Wentworth or his ghost, fellows—off of a tug!"
Madden looked. Smith was coming on the deck under the solicitous escort of a surgeon.
"That's Caradoc Smith," said Madden. "He assumed command of the tug when he found out war was declared."
"Smith was part of his name," explained Gridson. "Caradoc Smith-Wentworth was the way he signed the register. He's of the Sussex Smith-Wentworths. His brother took the title, you know."
"Just fancy!" marveled Ponsonby. "Cashiered six months ago, comes back chasing submarines on a tug, a hero, from boot strap to helmet—a bloody hero——"
"Hold there, Ponsonby," cautioned another officer named Appleby. "The chap may be hurt seriously—you oughtn't to laugh."
"Just look at the old man shaking his hand!" ejaculated Gridson, as a very erect gray-headed officer came down off the bridge and extended his hand. "You wouldn't think he had cashiered him six months ago."
"I hope he gets his commission back," said Ponsonby, "but he will likely lose it again from tippling."
"I believe he is cured," said Madden.
Appleby made some reply as the little group moved forward to meet the wounded man. However, the surgeon and three senior officers were walking with him below to the ship's hospital.
It required two full days to get the Panther into shipshape condition, and during that time the entire fleet kept a sharp lookout for the German mother ship, but that huge mysterious vessel had disappeared as utterly as if the Sargasso had swallowed her up.
Perhaps she did destroy herself to prevent capture, or perhaps her sky-blue hue allowed the fleet to sail under her very prow while she remained invisible. No doubt the two German warships which escaped had warned their consort of her danger, and she had sailed for some port in German Africa. At any rate she was never captured or destroyed.
However, on the evening of the third day, the looming red walls of the floating dock appeared on the eastern horizon. It was so huge and vast that even the crew of the battleship burst into a cheer.
Captain Ames of the Panther immediately communicated with the admiralty and arrangements were made to tow the dock to Antigua, where she would be kept as a naval reserve until the end of the war and then allowed to proceed to Buenos Aires.
The British Towing and Shipping Company was repaid for the loss of the Vulcan, and a prize of five hundred thousand dollars distributed among the tug's crew for sinking the submarine. Thus the dreams of wealth aroused by the ill-fated Minnie B were realized in a small way by the dock's crew. No doubt Deschaillon has his frog pond, old Mrs. Galton her plot of flowers, and Hogan a tall hat, a long-tailed coat and a silver-headed cane.
One week after the Battle of the Sargasso, a formal dinner was given in the officers' mess. At this affair two civilians were present, Leonard Madden and Caradoc Smith-Wentworth.
Under the radiance of many electric lights, Caradoc appeared rather weak and bloodless. However, everyone seemed quite cheerful. The talk was naturally of the war. The officers were speculating upon the entrance of Italy and Turkey into the struggle.
Presently Captain Ames touched an electric button and Gaskin, serene, deferential and wearing an added dignity along with his new uniform, entered the cabin with a basket full of ice and bottles on his arm.
When his helpers had cleared the table, the fat fellow moved decorously from diner to diner, announcing each port of call by the subdued pop of a champagne cork muffled in his napkin. Madden shook his head when the solemn fellow bent solicitously over him. "Make mine water, Gaskin," he requested in an undertone, laying three fingers over his goblet.
The cook changed almost imperceptibly from a straw colored bottle to a glittering carafe of water; then he moved to Caradoc.
The Englishman hesitated a moment, glanced at Madden and said, "Same thing, Gaskin."
Captain Ames must have observed his action, and showed his silent approval by requesting water for himself. A few moments later the captain arose.
"Gentlemen," he began in his crisp military voice, "His Majesty, and all England, are greatly pleased at the work of the South Atlantic fleet. In the report of our recent victory, the commander of the Panther had an extremely cogent reason to commend very heartily the action of a former officer of this vessel. To be exact and fair, it was an act upon which the safety of this vessel and her crew depended."
A little polite applause filled the slight interval in the speech. Caradoc colored somewhat and the captain continued.
"It is pleasant to me to announce that His Majesty, through the Admiralty, has seen fit to reward this act by tendering Caradoc Smith-Wentworth his commission as first lieutenant in His Majesty's navy."
A real outburst of applause greeted this announcement, but the captain held up his glass and raised his voice for silence.
"And I have the further pleasure to tender to Mr. Smith-Wentworth, at his Majesty, George the Fifth's, express command, the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery upon the field of battle."
"Let us drink his health!" he finished above the congratulatory uproar that broke out on the announcement.
The men held their goblets at arm's length.
"Here's to you, Wentworth!" "To your deserved honor, my boy!" "To your well-earned promotion, Wentworth!" they chorused heartily.
In the lull of drinking, Madden lifted his water to his friend.
"Here's to the remittance man," he proposed solemnly, "who vanishes to-night and leaves a Man."
Caradoc's long face was deeply moved as he looked into the eyes of the youth whose life Providence had so intimately entwined with his own. After a moment he responded steadily enough, "With all my heart, Madden. And here's to the land which you taught me how to serve, my country—my home—Old England!"