A dramatic tale of war-time adventure and the scotching of a sea-wolf in sheep's clothing
FREDERICK B. WATT
THE grizzled captain haif-accusingly eyed the young lieutenant who stood before him. “I suppose you’ve heard, Berry,” he said heavily, “that the eastbound convoy lost a ship yesterday in your territory? Mined—as usual.”
The lieutenant nodded unhappily, though there was no undue humility in his brine-puckered eyes and tired features.
“Yes, sir, I’ve heard,” he admitted, “nor am I forgetting that it’s the third in six weeks.”
“Well?” The captain left the question an open one. “I’ve nothing to say, sir,” stated Berry quietly, “except that we finished sweeping the area not more than half an hour before the ship struck. We had just handed over to the relieving section when we heard the explosion behind us.”
The captain tapped the desk deliberately with his fingers for some moments before he spoke again.
“Naturally,” he said, “there is the possibility of a mine-laying submarine following right astern of your ships and sowing a fresh field as fast as you swept. I’m not accusing you of carelessness, mark you—”
“When the first boat went up six weeks ago,” interrupted Berry, “I was inclined to suspect a sub myself. Since then I’ve had a trawler sculling about to guard against anything like that happening. Yet two more vessels have gone under. No, sir, it’s not an underwater layer.”
The captain frowned.
“You’re deliberately depriving yourself of your only alibi,” he warned.
The lieutenant colored.
"I’m in no need of an alibi,” he shot impetuously. “If ever a minesweeping section was worked to skin and bone mine has been. The men are asleep on their feet by the time we come in. The area has been swept in weather when the brass-bound navy would quit cold. Three ships have been mined, true enough, but by heaven . . .”
“Easy, easy,” ordered the captain sternly. “Remember you’re not talking to one of your volunteer reservists. I’m willing to take into consideration the fact that you’ve been sorely tried and a bit worn out, but don’t count on my good nature for too much.”
Berry stiffened and his face became a wooden mask.
“Very good, sir,” he answered shortly.
“Also remember,” continued the senior officer, “that even though I appear to say nasty things to you,
I have much nastier things said to myself by experts in the art of being cutting when the war channel is found mined. I know you have a tough assignment. Perhaps I could rake up another couple of ships, which would make it possible for a thorough sweep.”
The lieutenant retained his patience with difficulty.
“I insist, sir,” he said stubbornly,
“that the sweep has always been a thorough one since we’ve been on the job. Two more boats would only be in the way. I’ve been so certain that those waters have been clear that my only solution to the three losses would be that the boats blew themselves up.”
“Very logical,” replied the captain sarcastically. “Probably you can explain, too, what their motives were?”
“On the face of it,” said Berry,
“the main idea appears to be to drive me crazy.”
The captain scrutinized the harassed features.
“It is a big responsibility,” he confessed, more kindly. “It might be a good thing if you were to have a lay-off for a couple of weeks.”
“No, sir,” declared the lieutenant quickly. “I’d like to see this through. There’s more to it than appears on the surface. You have noted in the reports, perhaps, that after each sinking the sweepers, on going over the ground, have never found more than a couple of mines? Even saying it was a submarine minelayer that’s getting away with it, it wouldn’t be as sparing with puddings. The channel isn’t so narrow that an enemy would depend on two or three to do the work. It’d let go the whole load.”
“Perhaps it did, but the other escaped you,” said the captain in a matter-of-fact way.
Hot words again rose to Berry’s lips, but he choked them off with an effort.
“Perhaps they did, sir,” he answered, with no air of admission, “but if such was the case it was the fault of the equipment with which the navy serves us, not of the men who work it. It may seem that I’m attempting to shift the blame on spooks instead of the enemy, but I’d be willing to put up a lot of money that when the mystery is solved—if it ever is—the mine sweepers will be exonerated.”
“I sincerely hope they are,” said the captain coldly. “In the meantime I’m counting on you to see that there is no repetition of these sinkings. I’m sorry to tell you, but this will be your last chance.”
Berry bowed slightly.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied in a tone that sent his superior’s eyebrows into tall arches.
THE lieutenant returned to his ship in a towering rage. It was bad enough to have the sinkings going on in his territory, without having veiled insinuations
cast at his section of trawler sweepers. As he had declared, the little ships had worked their hearts out in an attempt to prevent the disasters that had been blamed on them. And the captain had been gracious enough to give him a last chance to make good. Blast him and his graciousness! Berry penned his resignation. He’d chuck the works and enlist as a private in the army. No, that would be quitting under fire. He damned the captain as a stupid dry-land sailor, tore up his resignation and ordered “Steam up” for dawn.
Meadows, who skippered a submarine, called on him that night.
“I’m laying myself open to a court-martial, old pirate,” he said, “but you’re too good a friend of mine to have such things going on behind your back. I happen to know that some of our boats are going to shadow your strip of the war channel from now on—lie doggo during the daylight hours. So sailor beware, sailor take care!” Berry scowled.
“The idea being,” he gritted, “to see if I really do sweep the area, I suppose?”
“Oh, it’s not quite so bad as that,” answered Meadows. “It isn’t a straight snooping expedition. I think the captain has an idea, though, that you aren’t taking proper precautions against minelaying subs, and our underwater boats are just going to hang around and give their hydrophones a bit of exercise; see if they can pick up the chunk, chunk of a U-boat’s screws while the Fritzie undoes all the work you’ve accomplished.” “Nothing wrong with that,” grunted the trawler man. “In fact, it is the first intelligent thing I ever saw the captain arrange. But why warn me?”
Meadows shrugged his shoulders.
“I thought you might as well know that you weren’t alone out there,” he answered. “You know, we all get a bit careless when we figure we’re out of sight of the world.”
Berry turned sharply on his friend.
“Meadows,” he said icily, “if I didn’t know that you were a good pal I’d kick you off my ship. It’s plain to see that you’re just as convinced as the captain is that I’ve been laying down on the job . . .”
“My dear fellow—” protested the submarine man.
“Oh, it’s not hard to see that the whole base thinks the same way,” insisted Berry bitterly. “Well, blast you all, I hope another ship gets it in the neck first day I’m back on the job. Then some other poor beggar will know what it’s like to sweep for phantom mines and get blazes because he can’t land them.”
“You’re unstrung,’’ comforted Meadows. “Come over to the mess and lift a couple. Good for the nerves and all that.”
“Yes,” shot the minesweeper, “and have my misfortunes blamed on the demon rum. No thanks, I’ll see this thing out with a clear head —if only for my own personal satisfaction.”
GRIMLY the men he commanded. “I’m fully aware, chaps,” he said, “that I’ve worked you harder than any sweepers in the business. I’ve thought all the more of you because there’s been no grousing over the matter. This trip, though, we’ll work harder than ever. Another sinking from a mine in our section of the war channel and I’ll lose my command. I ■want to keep it, not to spite the asses who claim we’re no good, but just so that I may remain among the finest lot of seamen I have ever worked with.” It was a sincere statement and diplomatically put. The men cheered him, damned his superiors, and threw themselves into their arduous and
GRIMLY he put to sea with the first light of morning. Before leaving he delivered a short speech perilous occupation with fresh spirit. For two weeks their territory was swept as thoroughly as with a crossing-sweeper’s broom, and the great armadas of freighters passed on their way across the North Sea without a loss. The only thing that prevented Berry’s soul from being at peace with the world was the constant knowledge that, unseen, every movement of his section was followed by friendly submarines. Berry, being a democratic soul, took a good deal of pleasure out of yarning with the latter as he leaned in the door of his galley. The old chap had spent his life at sea and had much to tell in the ways of ships. His conversation took the lieutenant’s mind from a decidedly unpleasant subject.
“Ruddy stool pigeons!” he would remark, malevolently eyeing the seemingly tenantless sea.
During those two weeks not a solitary mine was brought up by the sweeps. Not that much was proved by the fact. The average mine with which Berry had to contend was only revealed when it blew the bows from some unfortunate steamer.
IT WAS not until the setting sun gilded the masts of an especially large convoy one evening that the lieutenant suddenly became panicky. The channel had just been swept, hidden watchers—and listeners—had guarded against a submarine re-sowing, and yet Berry was convinced that tinned destruction awaited the approaching vessels. Perhaps it was because he recognized the merchant fleet as one of the larger convoys to the Scandinavian countries. It had always been in these groups that the harm had been done. So genuinely alarmed was he that it took a real effort to fight down an impulse to steam in the path of the approaching vessels and hold up their progress like a traffic policeman.
“Don’t be a giddy fool,” he addressed himself fiercely. “You know there can’t possibly be anything in the channel.”
“Neither there was when those three ships went under,” buzzed a torturing message in the back of his mind.
Dumbly he waited, elbows on the bridge-rail and chin in his fists. Closer and closer came the convoy, thirty tramp steamers—most of them neutrals—and their escort of two destroyers and eight armed trawlers. They made an impressive spectacle in the twilight with the smoke of two score funnels twisting up into the gold of the sunset. Sturdy, solid, implacable things they seemed. For a moment Berry’s fears were almost allayed.
The destroyer at the head of the parade glided past the minesweepers like a mettlesome hunting-dog casting about for game. Then commenced the long lines of ships of all sizes and nations; powerful “egg and butter boats,” sullenly impatient at the casual eight-knot pace: decrepit tramps, stoking for all they were worth to keep up with their companions.
“Don’t envy anyone herding that outfit,” advanced Berry’s mate. “Sweeping’s bad enough ...”
At that moment a 4,000 ton Danish boat near the end of the convoy lifted her bows like a rearing horse, an ominous column of spray shot as high as her foremast truck, and a muffled roar shook the dusk. When the ship again found an even keel the clean-cut bow had disappeared and a great, jagged rent offered a sluicegate through which the sea poured into her forward hold. Almost instantly she began to dip by the head.
“Blast them, I knew it’d happen,” roared Berry. “Full speed ahead.”
The law of convoy will not countenance delay. As though entirely unmoved by the predicament of their companion, the ships that had been fortunate enough to avoid her fate surged forward more rapidly than ever. Only a trawler on the starboard flank of the armada cut in toward the wounded vessel.
“We’ve no business butting in here,” Berry ground out, shaping his course in the same direction as the convoy trawler, “but I’m going to get to the bottom of this business if it costs me my ship.”
As it happened, it cost him his ship and he was as far as ever from solving the mystery. Recklessly he cut through the first line of ships, grazing the stern of a rusty British tramp and drawing a volley of curses from the bridge of the merchantman. Hampered by the deceptive twilight he attempted to repeat the trick with the second line. A large neutral on his port quarter hooted angrily and put her helm over in a clumsy attempt to make way for the sweeper. In the confusion, however, she went to port rather than starboard. Frantically Berry threw the engine room telegraph to “Full astern,” but he was several long seconds too late. The high bow of the merchantman rose grimly mountainous above the minesweeper. Subconsciously Berry read her name, Kondal, as the tall, white letters bore down on him. There was a terrific crash. Below him, just forward of the winch, he could see the black prow of the steamer cutting its way through his ship like a cheese-knife, the splintered deck planks springing to all sides, match-stick fashion.
In a daze he heard his own voice directing the members of his crew up the lines that were dropped from the forecastle of the merchantman; could sense himself following them to the accompaniment of excited shouts from above. When he again felt halfway human he was in a cold sweat and leaning over the bow of the Kondal.
The minesweeper was sliding down the prow upon which it was impaled, seeming to clutch madly at the sides of the steamer for support, but finding no hold on the smooth metal skin. A moment later it gave up the fight, dropped away like a thoroughly worn-out human and sank from view. Dumbly Berry faced about and turned his steps toward the Kondal’s bridge.
The first mate of the ship had preceded him, and was apparently reassuring the red-faced captain that the boat had suffered little damage as a result of the collision. The latter turned as Lieutenant Berry approached.
“It is too bad, sir,” he said in English with only a slight foreign accent, “but you had only yourself to blame.”
The naval officer made no protest. He was past the point where anything mattered. Fate had smashed him on both ends and in the middle.
“You’re quite right,” he admitted. “It was madness to try and get to the mined ship in the poor light. I was excited.”
“I will signal the escort that I have rescued your entire crew,” offered the merchantman, “but I don’t suppose they will attempt to take you off at night. My steward will make you comfortable until the morning.”
“He’ll have to be a wonder worker,” answered Berry, with an unhappy grin. “I had plenty on my conscience before this happened. I’d probably have been better off if I’d stayed with my ship.”
“You are young,” comforted Captain Weiss. “You will soon forget.”
“Yeh,” laughed Berry bitterly, “but I happen to be working for an outfit that is neither young nor forgetful.”
DESPITE the weight on his mind he slept; slept as he had been unable to do for months. After all, nothing more could happen to him now—except the court-martial that awaited him. It would be in his power to make that mercifully short. A plea of “Guilty” would dispense with the usual long, painful examination. He’d be chucked out of the service, of course, but that would be easy compared to what he had gone through already.
It was ten o’clock before he appeared on deck next morning. Weiss greeted him affably.
“You seem to have slept well,” he said.
“Best in my life,” answered the lieutenant cheerfully. “I have been in touch with the flagship,” advanced the captain. “You and your men will remain aboard here until we reach the Norwegian coast, when they will take you off. Doubtless you will enjoy another day free from official cares.”
The crew of the Kondal was entirely a Scandinavian one, and with the exception of the captain and the cook —a proper old shell-back—none could speak English.
“Yes,” he chirped, “you never know your luck. Here are you, a young fellow, whose days at sea have been one misfortune after another. Here am I, a man old enough to be your father, who has never known a wreck. There’s a good angel watching over me, I suppose, for heaven knows I have come close enough to disaster from time to time. You would scarcely believe it, but four times in the last two months this very ship has passed directly over a mine and the vessel astern has been sunk.”
It was pretty steep and Berry put it down to the tendency of an accomplished story-teller to touch up his yarns with a bit of the spectacular. That afternoon on the bridge, however, he recalled the statement and questioned Weiss on the subject. It struck him that the captain was vaguely annoyed, though he smiled tolerantly.
“Oh, we have had some narrow escapes, I suppose,” he said disparagingly, “and have, in truth, been in four convoys that have suffered loss. But it hasn’t been as close a thing as the old man would paint it. Of course, he doesn’t think a story is worth telling unless it is full of thrills.”
THE next dawn revealed the snowcovered peaks of the iron-bound Norwegian coast. Regretfully Berry awaited the destroyer that would take him back to the grim-faced masters of his naval career. Hour after hour went by without any indication of its arrival, however. Norwegian coastal waters were reached, and a tiny torpedo boat bounced out from the direction of land to see that the neutrality of the three-mile limit was not violated by war craft. The destroyer flagship of the convoy wheeled about and commenced to retrace its course, the other escort vessels following suit. The lean, grey ship came within a quarter of a mile of the Kondal, yet even when it was directly abeam, it made no sign of altering course.
“Lord, they must have forgotten us,” ejaculated Berry. “Toss ’em another signal, will you, captain?”
Weiss had undergone a subtle change. He still smiled, but there was no longer a free-and-easy expression on his face.
“I fear I can bother them no further,” he said easily. “They appear to be in a hurry to get back to England. I shall land you in Bergen.”
“Good heavens, man,” the lieutenant burst out, “we’ll be interned if we go ashore there.”
“What of it?” he said. “It will mean that you won’t be called to account for losing your ship—and I imagine things would go hard with you after your stupidity.”
Berry regarded the other narrowly.
“That’s not the point,” he said. “They’ll believe I was purposely interned to escape a court-martial—that I ran away.”
The captain smiled benignly.
“Don’t worry on that account,” he suggested. “I never reported picking you up at all. I said that I had looked for survivors without success. It was too dusky for anyone to see you clambering aboard.”
“You lousy devil,” he hissed. “You’re doing this deliberately.”
“Why not?” asked Weiss smoothly. “Because I choose to trade with your country doesn’t necessarily say that I am in sympathy with it. Rather, the Germans are my real friends. It will help them a little, perhaps, to have you and your crew spend the rest of the war in an internment camp.”
“I’ll get word of this to our consul, by hook or by crook, damn you,” gritted the lieutenant. “That’ll end your trading.”
“I don’t think you’ll say a word,” came the unruffled reply. “If you do I shall merely report that I brought you in out of the kindness of my heart when you pleaded with me to save you from the court-martial. It is all in your own interests to be interned, and my word will be taken before yours.”
Berry realized that he was cornered. He suddenly grew deadly calm.
“So be it,” he said. “Some day, however—and I’ll be willing to wait a long time—I’ll have the extreme pleasure of breaking your neck.”
Weiss’s placid exterior remained unaltered. He glanced meaningly at the receding shapes of the escort vessels, then turned again to the navigation of his own ship.
“Youngsters,” he said, as though speaking to the world at large, “are always threatening someone or other. Only years teach them the futility of it, though it is a good way to blow off excess steam.”
The iron sank more deeply into Berry’s soul when an escort of Norwegian soldiers came aboard the Kondal at Bergen and marched the little company of minesweepers away. It wasn’t so much the smirking face of Weiss at the head of the gangway that hurt him; it was the suspicious glances his own men gave him. He had attempted to explain the whole thing to them but it was apparent that the captain of the Kondal had preceded him, and that the seeds of doubt had been well sown. By their attitude he realized the futility of attempting to get in touch with his consul in Bergen. The cards had been stacked against him with devilish cleverness. He was helpless to save himself.
ONE thing alone cheered him. It was the thought of getting his hands about Weiss’s windpipe. For a week it buoyed him as he desperately sized up the internment camp in which he found himself. It still put spirit in his weary frame when, eight nights after he had been put ashore, he wormed his way to freedom and drifted through the shadows toward the docks.
The Kondal had been in the stream when he had left her and it required three hours of stealthy slinking from quay to quay to discover her. He achieved his objective with dramatic suddenness, coming face to face with the tall white letters as he rounded a shed to avoid a suspicious dockyard policeman. It seemed that the word Kondal positively glared in the night like a guiding star. He repeated the name over and over again as though it were a war cry. The approaching steps of the policeman echoed hollowly in the darkness behind him. Swiftly, hand over hand, he hoisted himself up one of the ship’s stern hawsers and clambered on to the poop.
His pursuer passed below, paused for a moment, then proceeded on his way. Berry made a movement toward the hawser, only to change his mind abruptly. His original intention had been to lay for Weiss somewhere ashore but it suddenly struck him that it would be quite satisfactory to do for him aboard his own ship—in his own cabin.
The Kondal was already fairly familiar ground to him. Very cautiously he let himself down the poop ladder and slid across the well deck. So far so good. Apparently there was no particularly careful watch being maintained. His foot on the ladder leading to the upper works, he came to a sudden halt as a voice from above challenged him in a foreign tongue. As he slunk beneath the ladder the rays from an electric torch sought the deck and darted enquiringly about.
Again the watchman challenged, approaching the head of the ladder Berry had just vacated. Then came another voice from forward. The hiding man recognized it as belonging to Weiss. The bearer of the flashlight replied and walked in the direction of the captain. Berry accepted the opportunity to retrace his steps warily to the poop. As he was on the point of slipping to the hawser that had been his means of coming aboard, he recalled that there were a couple of littleused lockers in the stern. The cook had complained that the captain had not allowed him to use them for extra stores on deck when they were serving no particular purpose. In a flash he dived for the starboard one. The door was unlocked. Darting inside he buried himself beneath some canvas odds and ends he felt in the dark.
It was well he was thorough, for a moment later he distinguished the footfalls of several men on deck. Closer and closer they came until they were in the poop itself. The door of his hiding-place swung open and the glow of a light came faintly through his covering. A cold sweat clinging to his brow, he held his breath. With a gasp of relief he heard the door slam shut. His satisfaction was short-lived, however. A metallic noise announced that the steel panel had been hooked on the outside. He was well hidden, right enough. A vision of a slow death from thirst and hunger rose before him and caused a shudder to shake his frame.
There was nothing to be gained by stewing about in the dark, though. Weary enough to be philosophical he curled up in his canvas covering, made himself as comfortable as possible, and after a considerable time fell asleep. When he awoke it was daylight, according to the feeble
rays that slipped through the grating in the steel door, and there was a sound of considerable activity on deck. To his trained seaman’s ear, preparations were being made for putting to sea. Half an hour later he sensed the ship being towed into the stream, and then came the thump of the propeller turning over beneath him.
ALL day the ship was under way, U*bucking a steep swell, but in the evening it entered quiet waters and bumped alongside what sounded like a wooden jetty. During that day Berry had suffered moderately from hunger and acutely from thirst. The close air of his narrow hiding-place threatened to choke him. He had not been inactive, however. A search of the locker had revealed what he longed for next to food and water— several pieces of stiff wire. The longest of these he hooked at one end. Trusting that his ears had not played him false and that the poop was really deserted, he slipped his crude fishing tackle through the grating and began a nerve-wracking probe for the hook that sealed his prison.
At times he feared he would go out of his mind, what with his lowered physical condition and his anxious task. It was an hour before he seemed to locate the hook definitely, then, just as success beckoned, someone walked aft and he was forced to hurriedly withdraw his clumsy apparatus. Once again left to himself, he resumed his frantic labors. In another half hour he knew by the feel of the wire that he had a firm hold on the all-important piece of metal. Slowly, carefully, he put pressure on his fishing-line. The hook was undoubtedly being lifted out of its staple. Then something gave. All he had to do was push the door when he felt inclined and he was free! Exultantly he pulled in the wire. A groan escaped him. What he had imagined was the unlocking of his cell had merely been the straightening out of the hooked end of the wire. He laughed hysterically, cursed like a madman, then, regaining control of himself, went back to work.
By the time the ship tied up at dusk the hook was drawn. How he had accomplished it was more than he could tell. All he knew was that he was a mental and physical wreck, to whom speedy liberty was essential if he was to remain in his normal senses. When darkness had fallen he quietly pushed open the door, slipped out in the open and drew in great lungfuls of clean air. With each breath he could feel life and the will to live creeping back into his aching body. Then he took in his surroundings.
LOOKING into the well deck he saw ' that the hatches were off the afterhold, and in the feeble glare of a couple of lanterns, cargo was being taken aboard. It came in a number of square, good-sized boxes. What struck the watcher most forcibly was that each box was brought aboard singly, not in netted bunches as would ordinarily be the case, and the crew were handling them as gingerly as though they contained rare old china. One by one they disappeared into the blackness of the hold.
Only one idea was prominent in the mind of Berry, however, and that was to get ashore, even though it meant giving up his hopes of vengeance. The working men offered him no opportunity, however, effectively guarding his one path to freedom. The cargo aboard, the hatches were speedily battened down, other members of the crew in the meantime casting off the shore lines. Once more the screw took up its monotonous song and the dark shoreline dropped away. With a sob of despair the fugitive slumped back into his shelter and rested his throbbing head in his hands.
Approaching footsteps brought to life the instinct of self-preservation. He half hoped he would be discovered and that his troubles would end, one way or another. The men, however, of whom there were several, stepped up to a similar locker, immediately across from Berry’s hiding-place. One of them entered; there was a metallic clanking; then, in order, the other seamen followed. There were seven in all. Berry knew that, at a pinch, the locker couldn’t hold any more than three full-grown men, and knowing, marvelled. For several hours he waited, an alarming procession of thoughts crossing his mind. Then the men reappeared. He counted them carefully to make sure that none remained behind.
The poop deserted, he scurried across the passageway. As he feared, the door of the mysterious locker was locked, not merely hooked. Angrily he drove his fist against the implacable iron door. The blow produced a pained curse and skinned knuckles. His hand had encountered something sharp he had failed to note in the dark. He felt for the offending projection and discovered a key. First decent ¡break he’d had! It would be necessary to work fast, though, if he was to pursue his investigation before the key was discovered to be missing and the careless seaman sent to retrieve it.
Swiftly he unlocked the door and stepped inside. As far as he could feel there was little difference between this locker and the one that had been his hiding-place. Groping in his pocket he produced a box of matches. The first two he attempted to light fizzed out pitifully without taking hold, maintaining the best traditions of their inferior wartime generation. A sudden draught extinguished the third as it showed signs of behaving nicely. The fourth also proved a dud. Prayers were mixed with Berry’s curses, as he scratched the last chance. The match hissed like a defective fuse, glowed feebly a moment as though making up its mind, then burst into a cheering flame. In its all-too-short moments of illumination Berry hurriedly kicked aside the rubbish on the floor and, as the light burned his fingers and went out, he found a small ring flush with the deck. Grasping it he pulled upward and discovered a small manhole, at the bottom of which a steady light glowed.
There was no time for caution. Feeling for the rungs that he knew must be present, he went quickly, hand over hand, into the narrow iron pit. Tensed for action he dropped into the electric-lit room below. A swift survey assured him that he was alone.
But there was much of interest to be seen. On either side of the chamber were trackways leading to the stern and on each track rested eight large round objects with which Berry was painfully familiar. They were German mines of the latest and deadliest model. Where the tracks met the stern were ingenious releasing gears which Berry examined with considerable interest. It appeared that the mines made their exit just above the waterline. It stood to reason that the plates of the hull were so arranged that nothing unusual was visible from the outside.
Lieutenant Berry’s hitherto befogged brain was rapidly receiving enlightenment. He wished that the sarcastic captain of minesweepers was present to share his discovery with him. It was all so beautifully simple. No wonder he had failed to sweep the mines that had brought about his humiliation when the minelayer was enjoying a position in the heart of the convoys themselves and dropping puddings whenever it decided that the time was ripe and the water was sufficiently shallow to blow up the next ship astern. It was hardly surprising that Weiss had been annoyed when the cook had blurted out the tale of the Kondal’s four narrow escapes.
Berry spent more time, possibly, than was wise in puttering about the deathdealing mechanism, examining the gear and the mines themselves with an expert eye. It was an ingenious bit of work, no getting away from it, and even the man
who had suffered so heavily from its ingeniousness was forced to grant it grudging admiration. Some minutes later, however, he appeared to realize that time had been flying. Two rungs at a time he went up the manhole and dived back into his hiding-place. Ten minutes later a seaman, grumbling to himself, returned to the mysterious locker, made certain the door was locked, and pocketed the key.
“Just as well I cleared out,” remarked Berry. “I’d have had a devil of a time escaping from there with a piece of wire —though there must be an entrance into the mine chamber from the hold. No wonder they brought those cases aboard with care.”
"pOR a time the hunger and thirst question had been forgotten in the excitement of his discovery, but it was too acute a problem to be long overlooked. Prowling across the deck he furtively made his way to the galley which, to his great joy, he found untenanted. A moment later he was fighting down the temptation to drown himself on the contents of the fresh-water tank. A visit to the larder partially eliminated the yawning cavity in his stomach. Foraging about he provided himself with a container for water and a sack for food, filled each, and turned to make his escape to his den: In the galley doorway stood Captain Weiss, a thin smile on his lips and a black revolver in his hand.
“You seem to like my ship, Berry,” he said amusedly.
“I’m damned if I do,” returned the lieutenant impulsively, his chagrin plainly revealed in his voice.
“Perhaps it is me you admire so, eh?” questioned Weiss coldly. “You said something about anticipating another meeting, didn’t you?”
Berry had regained control sufficiently to be cautious.
“Perhaps I did,” he admitted. “My present visit, though, was largely concerned with getting back to England and proving that I didn’t intentionally run
“Oh, no, my friend,” the captain contradicted him. “That may sound very well, but, if you were truthful, hasn’t your visit got something to do with a certain breaking of necks?”
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to,” confessed Berry frankly.
Weiss’s smile was sinister.
“I had no idea you were such a serious young man,” he purred. “I thought you were only a boastful talker. It would have been better for you had my first impression been correct. Also it would have saved me the trouble of killing you.”
Berry had the courage of desperation.
“I can’t see that the circumstances call for my death,” he said with forced calmness, “but if you must have your target practice, go ahead.”
“Everything in its time,” answered the unruffled captain. “There are things I would show you before you are disposed of. If you will be so kind as to come to my cabin you will be my guest until ...”
Directing the naval officer ahead of him with the muzzle of his gun, Weiss ushered his unexpected guest to his cabin behind the bridge. Here he offered Berry a settee to stretch out on while he, himself, reclined on his bunk. He first, however, set a seaman on guard outside the scuttle, where he could hear nothing, but could take in the entire cabin.
“Don’t let me keep you up any longer,” the minesweeper offered, sparring for time. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you to the extent that I have.”
“No trouble at all, my dear fellow,” answered the captain lightly. “Somehow I felt it in my bones that there was someone aboard who shouldn’t be.”
“I did worry you, then?” sneered Berry. “Any man is liable to be troubled slightly as long as he knows that there is a mad dog alive who would take pleasure in sinking his fangs in him,” returned the suave skipper. “However, mad dogs make themselves so conspicuous as a rule that they are easily disposed of.”
“Yes, it should be comparatively simple,” agreed the other,” “in view of the fact that you are travelling alone. Given up the convoy system, eh?”
“For the time being,” admitted Weiss. “One is in more danger travelling with them than he is alone. As for the Allies’ much-vaunted war channel it is a joke. Simply bristles with mines. But I forget, you would know all about that.”
“Yes, I certainly do,” declared Berry with emphasis. “However, if I must die in the morning, I hope you don’t object to my snatching a last bit of shut-eye.” “Certainly,” agreed his host. “Only, unless you’re in a hurry to get it over with, don’t attempt any tricks if I should appear asleep myself. The man at the scuttle has very definite orders.”
Berry replied by yawning lazily and turning his face to the wall.
AT DAYLIGHT the guard aroused ■L*. him. Weiss was no longer in the cabin, but a hearty breakfast stood temptingly before him. Without bothering to ask questions the famished man made short work of it. Then the guard motioned him toward the bridge. Here he found Weiss in close consultation with his officers, all of whom regarded with more than usual interest a long smudge of smoke on the horizon. The appearance of a wireless operator with signal sheet sent a high, excited buzzing from the group. Then, above the murmur of the others the voice of Weiss crackled. His subordinates left the bridge like a gun’s crew going to action stations. The captain turned to Berry.
“You are just in time,” he announced, a quiver of anticipation making itself apparent despite his effort to control his voice. “You are to witness something unique in naval history. Here you see an ordinary tramp steamer. That smoke yonder comes from your battle-cruiser fleet. The tramp is going to give the cruisers an unholy drubbing.”
Berry grasped some of the significance of the statement but feigned innocence.
“How interesting,” he said, as though slightly bored.
Weiss was eyeing him with a fierce intentness.
“You have no idea what sport it is going to be,” he said slowly, “and you, if you wish, may be in on it. You see this lever? Every time it is pulled a mine drops astern of the Kondal! It will be pulled several times when we cross the path of the battle cruisers. Even now my men are setting the anchor cables at the proper depth for these waters. Would you like to witness the sport?”
“I can’t say that it would give me a great deal of joy,” returned Berry. “If I am going to be scuppered anyway you’d better do it now.”
“ I rather like you and your nerve,” said Weiss frankly. “I’d dislike very much killing you. But if you are to live I must have some guarantee that you will never dare face your countrymen again. Here is my proposition. You shall pull the lever—only once—and you shall live.”
Berry whitened at the devilishness of the idea, but maintained his composure.
“You are suggesting,” he said slowly, “that I personally lay a death-trap for my comrades to save my own skin?” Weiss smiled disparagingly.
“I suppose it amounts to that in your clumsy Anglo-Saxon code,” he said, “but, looking at it from a common-sense point of view, someone else will release the first mine, even if you don’t, so you will gain nothing for your friends by a refusal.” The minesweeper was silent for some moments.
“I’ll think it over,” he said finally. “Got a cigarette?”
For the next fifteen minutes he leaned in one corner of the bridge, lazily puffing his cigarette and eyeing the distant smoke as it swiftly resolved itself into four long, rakish battle cruisers guarded by a destroyer screen. Weiss, too, was regarding them intently, an almost maniacal glow in his eye as he altered the Kondal’s course so as to cross the squadron’s path well ahead of the foremost destroyer. It was no time to take chances. Each of the cruisers represented an outlay of three million pounds or so.
“Well?” demanded the captain, as Berry abruptly tossed his cigarette butt over the side.
“I’ll do it,” answered the lieutenant shortly.
YY ^EISS gasped. He had never, at any *V stage of the proceedings, imagined that his prisoner would comply. Berry, he had imagined was the soul of honor. He had been surprised when the suggestion had drawn no furious outburst. And here he was coolly agreeing to go through with it. The German became instantly suspicious.
“Splendid,” he said. “Only remember, there must be no fooling. Any attempt to pull the lever sooner or later than I say, and I’ll shoot you down without a moment’s hesitation.”
“Make your own rules,” invited Berry with a brittle laugh.
“Very good, take your place,” ordered Weiss, drawing his weapon.
For ten more minutes the steamer forged ahead, gradually putting the approaching warships on her starboard beam. Another minute or so would leave her directly in the path of the squadron. Weiss, while snapping orders to the helmsman and engine room, seldom took his eyes from the rigid figure by the minerelease lever. His mounting excitement obliterated the last of his mock courtesy.
“So you slipped aboard to break my neck?” he ground out. “A pretty joke, sir. War is a surprising business. You will pull the lever when I say Hoch der Kaiser! A fitting signal for a Judas to answer to.”
Berry made no answer, nor did he present his face to his tormentor. His eyes were on a distant bit of bunting fluttering at the gaff of the nearest destroyer. Behind him he heard the labored breathing of Weiss as the latter made a final survey of the situation.
“Hoch der Kaiser!”
“Hoch!” yelled Berry, and yanked the bar.
There were sixteen full-grown mines in the false stern of the Kondal and they all went off in a single explosion. Berry had figured they would when, during his hurried visit to the mine chamber, he had done a bit of expert tampering with the releasing gear. It was a terrific eruption. The poop and the after well-deck were torn to atoms and a blast like fiery hurricane swept what remained off the ship. Berry felt himself hurled clear of the bridge, tensed himself for the crash to the deck below, but after seeming ages found himself struggling in a decidedly chilly sea.
The bow of the Kondal was already pointed skyward. He struck out wildly to fight clear of the great vortex the sinking vessel would leave behind it. A tangled mass of wreckage confronted him and he pulled himself clear of the waves. Close at hand a destroyer was racing up to the scene of the disaster. He waved his hand and his signal was acknowledged from the bridge of the speeding craft.
Then he noticed that he was not the only occupant of the makeshift raft. Another man had preceded him; had apparently been thrown bodily upon the planks. His head lay half in the water and bobbed about in the swell with a motion that, temporarily, left Berry slightly ill. In fact, the man’s neck was broken.
“A pretty joke, Captain Weiss,” muttered the survivor. “War is a surprising business.”