Concerning the sad fate of a “hay-wire” torpedo boat and the high triumph of her crew
FREDERICK B. WATT
HER name at the time when a bottle of pre-war champagne dripped down her stem was Flying Fish. She was considered a trim enough packet in those days before the advent of the torpedo-boat destroyer, and had ripped off her twenty-five knots beneath the feet of more than one proud commander. That a fellow had to stoop taking a drink in her poky wardroom didn’t matter any more than the fact that the skipper, had he wished, could have leaned from the bridge and fired the main armament, a twelve-pounder that perched on the stubby forecastle. Everything was sacrificed to speed, the speed that was to whisk the dinky torpedo tube on the stern into deadly action. Nearly a generation of permanent-service captains had kept her brasswork well polished and protruded their chests when admitting that they commanded her.
With the arrival of the destroyers she was forced to take a modest back seat. When the war broke out she was obsolete. As with many of her kind, however, the shortage of small craft saved her life for a considerable time. An apologetic commander took her to sea, appreciating that the painting-over of her spotless metal-work had ruined the last of her good looks. A grey blob on a grey ocean, she looked to all the world like an ugly, though still somewhat speedy, slug. The Flying Fish of halcyon days became known to the service as the Aerial Bloater.
Permanent service men are about as devoid of humanity, outwardly at least, as an income-tax collector. Seldom lasting more than two years aboard any one ship, they become accustomed to forming only superficial affection for a vessel. Not so the outfit who eventually took over the Aerial Bloater to the relief of her former skipper. The officers were, to a man, volunteer reservists. Edwards, the commander, was a Canadian yachtsman; Bender, the chief, an American marine engineer with decided anti-German leanings; Ward, the first lieutenant, a London banker. The crew, too, was drawn almost in its entirety from the reserve.
Never, in her palmiest days, had the Aerial Bloater been overwhelmed with such affection. She could have received no more attention had she been a privately owned yacht. Discipline was scarcely of the big ship variety, but if some gadget was lacking that would improve her appearances and a tight-fingered Admiralty refused it, Edwards and Ward bought it out of their own considerable funds. The engines that in less skilled hands than Bender’s would scarcely have turned an ice-cream freezer, still sent the ship through the water at twenty-three knots, which was something miraculous in view of the age of her boilers.
By 1917 she was the last of her breed afloat, the enemy and time having removed the remainder. The Aerial Bloater became “The Ship The Admiralty Forgot.” Supremely happy, despite the fact that two years of warfare had brought them nothing but continuous punishment at the hands of a merciless sea, Edwards & Co. continued to pour their own lifeblood into the thinning veins of their craft. She was still good for twenty knots. At that, there were disturbing rumors to the effect that she was due for the scrap heap, rumors that filled the tiny wardroom with gloom and drove the devoted crew to new efforts.
“Gad,’’exclaimed Edwards one evening in port, “if we could only stir up an action and prove that we’re still good for plenty of service.”
rT'HE opportunity came with the next trip. Steaming -*• at the head of her convoy, the Bloater was startled in the grey of a North Sea dawn by a sudden explosion behind her. Edwards whipped about to see the spray descending in a great sheet over one of the freighters. At the same time an accompanying trawler waddled off to starboard, her gun firing.
“Hard aport!” snapped the skipper. “Gun’s crew stand to!”
Excitedly he stepped to the engine-room speakingtube.
“Hi, chief,” he bellowed. “The break’s come! Give her every revolution she’s worth and a few for good measure.”
“You’re damn right,” crackled the un-navylike reply.
His heart singing, Edwards felt the little craft strain beneath him, heard the engines speed up until every stanchion in the ship vibrated madly. He could tell by the terrific thrust of the screws that Bender was taking him literally. Deep into the hump-backed swells the Bloater dug her unlovely nose, sending great waves of spume over the men hunched about the twelvepounder. Oblivious of the deluge the gunners spat on their hands in anticipation of the moment for which they had waited two years.
A thousand yards ahead, a thin object feathered the surface for a second, then disappeared.
“Periscope, port bow,” bawled a lookout.
Edwards and his men knew the habits of a submarine in action; knew that unless it dived blindly it would be up for another peep in a matter of seconds. They anticipated the point of reappearance perfectly and spotted the baleful eye the moment it showed above surface. The blam of the twelve-pounder greeted it almost instantly, the shell raising a column of spray ten feet short of the mark.
“Starboard five,” chanted the skipper, swinging the ship’s head dead on the underwater craft.
He stepped to the engine-room speaking-tube again.
“Give her everything you have, chief,” he shouted.
“I’ve nothing left to give her except my life,” replied
Bender—and his voice conveyed the impression that it
was no joke.
Nine hundred yards to go! Eight hundred! The sound of the spray, flung high to either bow, was like an exultant cry in Edwards’ ears. They’d do it! They’d do it! The opportunity had been sent as a gift of the gods to save an old war horse from the eager hands of the wreckers. Seven hundred! The periscope had dipped, but the torpedo boat skipper followed the seashark’s course under water in his mind’s eye. He’d catch her as she came up. Should he fail to ram her, there were always the depth charges—almost certain death at such close range.
“Steady!” he growled. The ship was tearing straight for the spot he had picked out as the sub’s next point of appearance.
The uniform shaking of the vessel was suddenly interrupted by a jolt; there was a crunching sound from below, then a wild hissing of steam. The Flying Fish, which had been living up to its once glorious name, faltered, like a perfectly aimed arrow unexplainably deprived of its driving force. The stanchions settled into their customary, stolid rigidity; the thrust of the screws died away, and a moment later she was drifting anaemically forward, carried only by the ghost of her former terrific speed.
“Blast!” exploded the skipper. The single word conveyed a volume of rage and shattered hope.
Four hundred yards ahead, at the spot where the Bloater would have been had her speed been maintained, a periscope stuck its impudent eye on top for a moment. The twelve-pounder drove an angry round at it. It looked like a direct hit, but whether or not that was the case, the intruder had disappeared when the spray cleared away.
“That will be all for today, I imagine,” announced Edwards in a hopeless voice.
Beneath him the Aerial Bloater had come almost to a dead stop and was rolling helplessly in the long swell.
The voice-pipe whistled thinly.
“Sorry, George,” came Bender’s apologetic voice. “My mistake. I thought I was running a hundred-knot airplane.”
“I asked for it,” Edwards cut in. “Anybody hurt below?”
“There’s an engine room full of hurt pride,” answered the chief, “but apart from that everything’s all right— except for the engines. I don’t imagine we could raise more than a couple of bucks on them at Cohen’s salvage yard.”
“Can you patch ’em up . . . and how soon?” demanded the captain.
“Oh, I guess we’ll be able to drag our way into port in an hour or two—as far as I can see at the moment,” was Bender’s laconic answer. “But I doubt if we can keep up with the others.”
“Righto,” said Edwards. “Tell me if you need any hands from the deck to help you.”
Reluctantly he signalled to his trawlers to carry on with the convoy. The breakdown of the engines had complicated things considerably. Not only had it deprived the merchantmen of the torpedo-boat’s protection, but it had left the Bloater almost defenseless should the submarine guess its incapacity and return to the attack.
“How about telling one of the trawlers to stay behind until we can limp again?” suggested Ward. “We’ll be cold turkey if the sub chooses to get nasty . a proper standing target.”
“No,” said Edwards. “We’ve brought this on ourselves and if the worst comes to the worst we’ll have to take our medicine. The convoy comes first, and Lord knows it’s badly enough off as it is, with us out of the running. Anyway, we ought to be able to run a bluff. The German is probably hiking for all he’s worth, and even if he looks back and sees us lying motionless, he’ll think we’ve only stopped to pick up the men from the torpedoed steamer. What’s more, our reputation can’t stand a converted fishing-boat looking after us. We’re going to have a whale of a job keeping the Bloater from the scrap heap as it is, after this.”
To which Ward sadly agreed.
I 'HE stricken steamer had taken a severe list and -*■ was undoubtedly doomed. Boats put away from her and brought the crew to the decks of the torpedo craft. In the meantime the convoy reformed and was soon hull down to the north. From the Bloater the merchant seamen saw their blasted, five-thousand-ton home take the final dip. Her captain, tears in his eyes, watched the water boil where the boat had disappeared; watched until the last ripples had been ironed out by the pitiless swell. Then he turned fiercely on Edwards.
“By heavens,” he thundered with unbridled bitterness, “my ship would still be steaming along as gay as ever if they’d sent us out with something better than a gutless lobster pot to guard us. What sort of an abortion d’you call this chunk of tin that goes limp on itself the moment something happens? It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew that we’d got our own back at the devils that
sunk me, but to see them amble away with their noses thumbed is too much for me. By thunder, the Admiralty will hear plenty about this when you put me ashore !”
Edwards was in no mood to be berated. Neither had he any of the diplomacy of a permanent-service officer.
“Wait until you get ashore before you start anything,” he advised sternly. “I shouldn’t be surprised if we were torpedoed ourselves within the next ten minutes, and it’ll be a long swim to port, even for a tough ’un like you. I’m sorry your packet took it in the beam, but nobody could have avoided that. I wish to the devil I’d never strained the innards out of my own craft to try and even up accounts . . . especially for such an ungrateful beggar.”
The grizzled merchant skipper bristled like a bulldog. He was hardly accustomed to young, clean-faced men answering him back. For a moment he wrestled with a fiery reply, but only produced a half-strangled grunt. In high dudgeon he stamped to the after end of the ship.
“How about wirelessing our position?” suggested Ward, left alone ^rith his captain again.
“Not if I know it,” replied the still agitated Edwards. “Shoot ’em a message ashore, reporting that we’ve had a minor breakdown and that the convoy has gone on. But we don’t want assistance . . . don’t need it . . . can’t afford to need it. You’d better take the bridge. If you spot the sub again, let us know and I’ll clear the engine room. In the meantime I’m going below to give Bender a hand.”
From a permanent service point of view, the scene below for the next hour was a shocking one. In the intricate depths of the engine room two dirty, disreputable figures worked and swore over a mess of pistons and cylinder heads that held more patches than a tramp’s trousers. One of the workers was the ship’s chief engineer and the other was her skipper. Standing by the spanners, blowtorches and other engine-room paraphernalia, were the men who, in more respectable surroundings, should have been doing the actual work under Bender’s directions. Finally the grease-spattered individuals climbed to their feet and solemnly shook hands.
“That ought to get us in,” said the chief, “and there are a few odds and ends I can do while we’re under way.
I’ll have things sufficiently shipshape that we can probably get by when the examiners hit us.”
“Good boy,” exclaimed Edwards. “We’ve got to keep her from the shipbreakers until she’s won her battle honors at least. We’ll have better luck next time.”
“You bet we will,” declared the optimistic American.
There were grave doubts in the minds of both men, however. It had been a decidedly unpleasant business. Edwards knew as well as the engineer that the Aerial Bloater was literally hung together with hay wire.
Fortunately the submarine decided that the day’s work had been sufficiently successful and exciting to warrant a rest, and the ship was spared the anticipated attack. Abjectly she limped for port, nursed along at ten knots by the unfaltering devotion of Bender and his assistants. There was none of the joy of life in the strained engines, however. Every thrust of a piston was a sigh, every revolution of a propeller shaft a groan. The whole spirit of the Aerial Bloater was one of resignation, an admission that she had carried the bluff to the breaking-point and was ready to admit that she was no longer up to her job. The feel of the ship communicated itself to the men in charge. Even the lesser members of the crew went about with long faces and short tempers.
The survivors from the merchantmen were set ashore at Scarborough. All were obviously pleased to leave the rickety craft. The men of the Bloater were equally pleased to be rid of them. Their presence had been a constant reminder of their own shortcomings, and the vitriolic tongue of the merchant captain hadn’t improved matters in the least. He went ashore, promising Edwards everything from dismissal from the service to death at the hands of a firing-squad.
^"\RDERS awaited the Canadian to sail for his base in the morning. His spirits lower than the keel of his vessel, he buried himself in the tiny wardroom with his cronies. Neither Bender nor Ward had a cheerful word to brighten up the occasion. For an hour the three sat and drank, drank and sat.
“We’re through this time,” the skipper finally muttered. “They’ll have the examiners aboard the moment we dock and she’ll be condemned in ten minutes. Gad, it’ll be like having a favorite daughter led out and shot. If we only had twenty-four hours to make things tiddly we might get by for another trip or two, but what’s the use . . .?”
“We’ve got tonight,” offered Bender, sitting up abruptly. “It’s worth a try. Perhaps, if we staged a decent trial run when we get back, the axe could be avoided.”
“Well, anything’s better than squatting here, and getting moldier and moldier every minute,” agreed Ward. “Let’s see what we can do.”
So once again, through an entire night, the dilapidated entrails of the Aerial Bloater received the undivided attention of the men who, for no other reason than sheer sentimentality, were resolved to save the boat from the boneyard. More patches were applied; cracked blocks were made to appear solid by the liberal use of putty, red lead and aluminum paint. When dawn came, the ship was capable of a careful fifteen knots in a pinch, and the engine room, to outward appearances, was as fit as the day the ship had been delivered over by her builders.
Hope was again in the heart of Lieutenant Edwards as he docked the torpedoboat and walked, hiding his nervousness, to the office of the Senior Naval Officer.
“Pretty poor show you staged,” began the S.N.O. abruptly, “according to all reports. Of course I can’t blame you personally, but it has proved conclusively that we’ll have to write off that monstrosity you command. Be a good thing for you. You’ll probably get a decent ship.”
“That would be splendid,” lied Edwards enthusiastically, “but in all justice to the Flying Fish, it wasn’t her fault that she cracked up. In the excitement of the moment I asked more of her than could be reasonably expected. The damage was slight and it was altogether due to my impatience. She’s fit as a fiddle now and good for another year at least, according to my chief.”
“Yes, I know all about that,” drawled the great one dryly. “Bender’s as big a liar as you . . . for all that he’s a mechanical wizard . . and he’s got the same idiotic crush on the Flying Fish. Why you’re so eager to keep her afloat is beyond me . . but that’s got nothing to do with my job. Evans will go over her today, and unless you can work wonders she’ll tie up at the quay tonight . . for
“Very good, sir,” answered Edwards with a cheerfulness that he was far from feeling.
Evans, the engineer officer of the base, was already aboard the ship when the skipper returned. Edwards found him scrutinizing the engine room with Bender at his elbow.
“I’m not saying that your scrap heap doesn’t look shipshape,” the inspector was declaring, “but I know that you could make a speed boat out of a couple of tin cans and a length of pipe, Bender. It stands to reason that this hulk is falling to pieces underneath all that paint and polish. It’s bound to be when you consider her age.”
“She must have been an especially well-built craft,” protested the chief stoutly.
“Well, we’ll see,” stated Evans, rubbing his chin dubiously. “Will you please take her outside, captain, and let me see how she behaves under way.”
EDWARDS went t-o the bridge
' whistling Tosti’s Good-hy under his breath. He felt slightly reassured when the Bloater moved smoothly out of the lockpits and slid down the river at an effortless ten knots. Once in the open
sea he could stand the suspense no longer, however, and, leaving Ward on top, clambered down the iron ladder to the engine room.
Evans was following the behavior of the pounding pistons with a skilled eye.
“Try her at fifteen,” he ordered.
Bender carefully twirled the throttle, making certain that the increasing pressure met the mechanism gradually. Edwards removed his cap and mopped his forehead.
“Gosh, this hole’s warm,” he remarked.
The engines were making a brave show of it at fifteen knots. That was the limit, though, unless the age of miracles had returned. Edwards knew it . . . and showed it. Bender knew it, too, but outwardly he was absolutely at ease.
“She ought to be good for twenty,” remarked Evans, a friendlier note in his voice. “I guess any tub that can make that is good enough to keep to sea until we get some new ships.”
“Sure,” drawled the chief. “She ought to make twenty easily.”
“Let’s see her do it,” shot the inspector. “Righto,” assented Bender coolly.
More steam rushed through the main feed and was transmitted to the cylinders. The screws picked up thirty revolutions. That was the limit. Gradually the lunging mechanism began to pant and wheeze like a runner on his last legs. A dozen separate “knocks” developed. Bender’s expression didn’t alter. He was a good poker player, was Bender.
“All right,” snapped Evans. “Ease down before you shake the ventilators in on us or take someone’s head off with a broken piston. I’ve seen enough . . . too much.”
Edwards turned heartlessly to the ladder. As he climbed to the deck he could hear the chief still unexcitedly arguing.
“It’s that jolt we took yesterday,” he was saying. “It was only a makeshift job I did on it . . . only had about fifteen minutes to work. Give me a day and everything’ll be hunky-dory. The ship’s as sound as they make ’em, but ...”
The skipper heard no more, but he had heard enough to increase his love for the engineer. It was like Bender, fighting to the last ditch, yet never getting a sweat up. They would probably be separated when the ship was washed out. That would be tough. It had been a great partnership; Bender, Ward, the Flying Fish and himself.
,-PHE blow fell without delay. Two I hours after they had tied up, the order came for the entire ship’s company to stand to for transfer to the barracks. Disconsolately the three officers ordered their gear packed and went ashore to escape the mournful business of witnessing the last activity aboard. Their course carried them past a remote dock where a ship, larger and slightly more modern then the doomed Bloater, was in a state of disintegration at the hands of the breakers. Drawn by a morbid fascination the three perched on a wooden boom and watched the gutting of the vessel.
Her guns had already been removed, her masts and funnels gone also. Part of the quarterdeck had been ripped away, laying the wardroom open, and great blow torches were carving off other portions of the hull.
“Downright disgustin’,” averred Ward gloomily, “when you think of the things that packet has done, the fine men she’s carried. There ought to be a law against letting ships fall into the hands of those filthy dockyard maties. Should allow ’em a decent burial at sea if they’ve no further use for ’em.”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” agreed Edwards. “Gosh, if that torpedo had only caught us instead of the freighter I’d have been happy. Wouldn’t have minded losing the old Bloater at sea, but to be publicly dissected . . . ugh, it’s sickening. Let’s get out of here.”
1 I 'HEY returned to their ship and apathetically awaited the final order to abandon her to her unhappy fate. Half an hour later a messenger appeared with an order.
“Curtain,” announced Edwards, flipping it open.
For a moment he scrutinized it, then hailed the messenger.
“Hey,” he called, “you’ve made a mistake. These can’t be for me. They’re sailing orders.”
“They’re for the Flying Fish,” persisted the man.
The skipper regarded the order again. He noted a message on an ordinary piece of writing paper attached to it. It was in the S.N.O.’s handwriting.
“I have no right to send you to sea,” it ran, “but the Antler was damaged this morning and there is absolutely nobody I can send with the convoy to the Tyne today. You will go, not because I have become suddenly soft-hearted, but because there is no other way out of my difficulty. It will be a slow convoy, and you should manage, provided you don’t break down. I say this merely to guard you against any false hopes that the Flying Fish will be kept in commission after this cruise is completed.”
Edwards took the news quietly, but his companions emitted whoops of joy. Kits were unpacked and hurried preparations made for putting to sea. Through all the excitement the skipper remained on the bridge, staring meditatively at the ocean.
“Great things turning over in the owner’s monumental mind,” observed Bender, gazing at the still figure in a puzzled way.
“Yes,” agreed Ward. “Something tells me this is going to be an eventful trip.”
TF THE ships in the deadly slow convoy
had been aware of the concentrated thoughts aboard the dumpy little torpedo boat at their head during that night and the next day, there would have been consternation aboard. Where the ordinary escort vessel prayed for an uneventful passage, every man aboard the Aerial Bloater, from the captain to the lowest stoker, spent twenty-four hours in fervently hoping that an entire fleet of submarines would appear at the earliest possible moment. The nastier the dispositions of the attackers, the better the men on the torpedo boat would have relished it. Surely the gods of war had granted the old ship this one last journey, so that she could go to her hapless reward with the knowledge of at least one good battle to her credit.
It was not to be, however. The breakwaters at the mouth of the Tyne heaved in view early in the evening, and with a breath of relief the nervous merchantmen rolled into safety. Apathetically the torpedo boat came about and headed back into the night; headed for home . . . and the wreckers. It was like the commencement of a funeral procession in which the corpse provided its own hearse.
Bender, who had never been far from his engines while there was a convoy to be guarded, clumped to the deck. Ordinarily he would have slipped below to his cabin for a snatch of sleep or a drink, but tonight he dreaded the loneliness of the place. Edwards and Ward would be on the bridge, he knew. Accordingly he directed his steps in that direction and ran the two shadowy figures to earth in their lair.
“Well, it’s all over except the weeping,” he remarked cheerfully.
“Right,” admitted Edwards grimly, “except that there ain’t goin’ to be no weeping. Come below a shake, old man. I want to talk to you. Ward can keep the ship by himself for a while.”
In the wardroom light Bender noted a
new expression on his skipper’s face, not the woebegone look that he had anticipated, but a glance of cheerful expectancy.
“Wouldn’t you feel better,” Edwards began, “if the Bloater was to go to a sailor’s grave in the heat of an action, especially without loss of life?”
“Don’t ask foolish questions,” remonstrated the chief.
“Well, she’s going to,” announced the captain. “The compass is going to be smashed tonight by accident, we’re going to drift off our course, and tomorrow at dawn, before the light’s good, we’re going to ram the Derring Rock in mistake for a submarine. Ward will see that the boats are ready for ‘Abandon ship’ and I’ll clear lower deck and engine room so that no one will be below. We’ll save the country the expense of breaking up the ship, save the ship a flat finish, and save ourselves some unhappy memories. Everybody wins.”
“That’s all right in its own way,” admitted Bender. “Mighty clever. But you’ll take the rap. There’ll be a court of enquiry and your reputation will suffer.”
“Who gives a hoot?” retorted Edwards. “I don’t, certainly. I’m not dependent on the navy for a job after the war. Oh, I’m going to pull it, right enough. It’ll be worth a little trouble. It may be damned foolishness and a playing for dramatic effect . . . but I’m built that way.”
“And me,” added the chief heartily. “TheBloater and I thank you in advance.”
It didn’t strike the plotters that they were playing with sedition. All they knew was that they had nursed their ship for two years beyond her ordinary span of life, and they were blowed if they were going to see her disposed of in any manner that they didn’t approve of. They played their parts like actors in a drama which pleased them mightily.
TOURING the middle watch Ward, apparently stumbling on the wheelhouse grating, fell heavily against the binnacle. The heavy mug of coffee in his hand smashed through the glass protecting the compass, drove in the face of the card, and in releasing his hand he pulled the compass off its gimbals.
“By Jove, I’m afraid I’ve ruined the blessed thing,” he exclaimed apologetically.
“Clumsy brute,” reprimanded his skipper, putting forced anger into his voice. “We’ve nothing to go on now except my hand compass . . . and it’s about as accurate as I am at Greek.”
“I’m frightfully sorry,” insisted Ward pathetically.
Edwards grunted, fearing that speech would give away the laughter that bubbled in him. Things were working splendidly !
For two hours the ship slipped ahead through the darkness, guided only by the toy the captain had produced from his pocket. Eventually Edwards drew his first lieutenant off to a corner of the bridge.
“We’re not as clever as we thought,” he whispered. “Should have saved the compass-smashing bee until later. I am actually at a loss as to where we are now, and we’ll be lucky if we pick up the Derring Rock at all. It’ll be light in another hour, and unless we get a bigger break than we deserve the whole scheme’s going to miscarry. Of course I’m doing my best under the circumstances, but if we pick up the rock it’ll convince me that I’m the world’s greatest blind navigator.”
“Whew!” was Ward’s only comment.
A faint finger of light appeared in the east. Edwards paced the little bridge, as a racehorse at the starting-post. Ward
remained glumly in the shadow of a wind screen. Gradually the murk began to thin, and there was a strong feeling of dawn in the air . . . the dawn of the last day the Aerial Bloater would burrow her aged bosom in the brine she loved. The skipper stopped his anxious pacing at Ward’s side and pounded the bridge rail with an overstrung fist.
“Blast, blast, blast!” he gritted. “The gods never intended this poor old tub to have a chance.”
Ward suddenly sprang into nervous rigidity and pointed ahead.
“Lord,” he jerked, “I’ll swear I saw it . . . but it’s gone again.”
“Saw what?” demanded Edwards.
“Derring Rock,” returned thè excited first lieutenant.
Both craned eagerly forward, attempting to pierce the half light of the breaking day. It was Edwards’ turn to jump.
“By gad, it is,” he whispered. “Who said there’s no power to guide the faltering footsteps of the blind? Boy, oh boy, we’ve done it. Are the boats ready for ‘Abandon ship’?”
Ward nodded eagerly.
AHEAD of them, stark against the thin patch of lightening sky, the square bulk of the rock became more definite. As far as the skipper was able to determine it was about a quarter of a mile distant. That just allowed a decent margin of time for the clearing of the lower deck and the engine room.
As though he had perceived the object for the first time, Edwards started.
“My hat! Ward, a sub!” he exclaimed loudly. “Clear the mess decks! I’m going to try to ram him.”
He leaped to the engine room voicepipe as the first lieutenant bolted from the bridge.
“Full speed ahead,” he thundered, “and that means every ounce of steam you’ve got. Open her wide and get all hands on deck. I’m going to ram.”
“Aye, aye,” came Bender’s reply.
The Bloater leaped like a horse given a vicious touch of the whip, and rushed toward the rock with ever-increasing speed. Up to fifteen knots she proceeded without protest. Then the familiar wrenchings and shakings became apparent. The ventilators rattled as though they were on the point of jumping over the side, the funnel stays twanged like banjo strings, and the masts trembled so violently that they seemed on the point of snapping off short from the vibration. Still the ship gained speed. She was doing nearly twenty now. But at what a cost! The pounding engines were threatening to leap out of their beds. The rattle and bang had increased to an ear-jarring clatter, loosened fittings sounding like the clanging of tin cans behind the car of a newly wedded couple. The racket and the speed were becoming unearthly. It seemed to jar Ward’s senses loose, for he laughed wildly and added shouts of encouragement to the bedlam. Edwards was silent, although his lips constantly formed the words like a prayer, “If she’ll only hold together till we get there.” Bender, who had reached his side, was quiet also, but there was a glitter of excited pleasure in his eyes.
“There she is, there she is!” came the cry of a seaman at the forecastle gun, spotting the grim shape.
The petty officer in charge of the twelvepounder turned to the bridge eagerly.
“May I fire, sir?”
“Go ahead,” shouted the skipper. Then under his breath, “That’ll give it the final touch of realism.”
The gun spoke instantly, the flash momentarily wiping out the view of the target. It was a well-laid shot, for the explosion of the shell came almost instantly.
“Nothing like solid rock to make a shell burst nicely,” remarked Bender above the ever-increasing clatter from the engine room.
Never before had a ship gone into action to such an unearthly accompaniment. Even the decks shook, so that it seemed electric shocks were running up the legs of the men who stood upon them. The gun got in another round . . . then the rock rushed at them out of the gloom. Ward swore they were hitting forty knots when the collision occurred. Division of that estimate by half brought the correct figure, but a large, solid object speeding out of the mysterious light of dawn is a hard thing to estimate.
“Hold on, lads,” bellowed Edwards.
The jolt, when it came, was severe, but nothing like as bad as the skipper had anticipated. It was more as though the rock had been made of tough rubber. There was a momentary grinding as the bow plates gave; then a weird, smooth sensation as though the hull was passing over a bank of slime. What was really occurring, however, was that the longoverworked keel plates of the Bloater were being peeled off in one piece, like the removal of skin from a banana. This was discovered almost instantly, when the ship came to an abrupt stop and commenced to settle at breath-taking speed. There was no dipping by bow or stern, no list to port or starboard. As one sailor put it, “She went down by the middle . . . and no hesitating.”
It was well that the boats were swung outboard and the life rafts unlashed. The deck of the Bloater was almost flush with the sea when Edwards, the last man to leave, jumped to his dinghy. There was a gigantic glug! and the torpedo boat was gone, leaving the survivors swirling foolishly around in the whirlpool her departure had created.
As the disturbance died away, the skipper found his boat bumping alongside the Carley float on which Ward and several seamen perched.
“A close thing, Ward, and a highly expensive way of sinking a submarine,” he declared, winking slyly, “but a very successful manoeuvre.”
“It was that,” agreed the first lieutenant with spirit. “Too bad we couldn’t have picked up a survivor or two to back up our claim, though. It always . .
HE WAS silenced by an excited hail from Bender, whose seaboat was rocking in the swell some distance from them.
“Captain ahoy!” he was.shouting. “Aye?” answered Edwards.
“I’ve picked a German officer out of the drink,” announced the American. “He’s belly-aching because you caught him with his pants down. Didn’t give him a chance either to dive or surrender.” “Yah,” supplemented an indignant voice. “Rushing at me out of the dark like a chattering devil out of hell. Fair play! Bah!”
“Oh, pipe down, Bender,” shouted the captain testily. “If you must have your little joke save it until ...”
The sun had poked its head coyly above the horizon. The unusual placidity of th water about the boat caught Edwards eye. Feverishly he dipped his hand in the sea and brought it away black with oil. “Goshamighty!” he muttered.
He turned again toward the engineer’s boat, and as he did so, a bold object, a full mile to starboard, caught his eye. It was the Derring Rock! Neither was there any getting away from it that the bedraggled fellow of Teutonic countenance, scowling beside the broadly grinning Bender, was a man on whom he had never set eyes before. The captain of the Aerial Bloater, that aged lady who had gone to a sailor’s grave with the laurels of victory fresh on her riven bow, slumped heavily to athwart.
“Goshamighty,” he repeated.