Submarine U93 Part 24

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And there remained upon the troubled surface of the water, now lifted high upon the crest of rolling waves, now buried in the wide trenches of the sea, the black forms of the heads and shoulders of a dozen struggling men.

The majority of these had gone into the water clinging to the loose spars by means of which they hoped to save themselves from drowning.

They were all strong swimmers; and, moreover, with their cork lifebelts, it was hardly possible for them to die until the icy coldness of the water had chilled them to the bone.

As chance had it, Jimmy Burke found himself clinging to the same piece of wreckage as both Captain Crouch and the burly skipper. This was a big iron-ringed boom which--though it floated--was too heavy to rise to the top of the waves that swept over it in quick succession. Hence, it was all that they could do to retain their hold, and neither would they have succeeded in this had it not been that a rope was attached along the entire length of the spar.

How long they remained in this desperate situation not one of them was afterwards able to say. The water was bitterly cold; it was as if they were being frozen to death, and were dying from the feet upwards. Before long they had lost all power of sensation. They did not speak to one another, nor were they so foolish as to try to. Every few seconds a great wave swept over them, and they were buried in the sea, sometimes as much as three fathoms deep. At such times, there was a rus.h.i.+ng in their ears--a great sound like a mult.i.tude of cataracts; and then, gasping, breathless, with but little of life remaining to them, they emerged once more upon the surface, to behold the dim starlight, a pale, dying moon screened by a mist, and the great rolling sea on every side.

Quite suddenly, the loud siren of the steamer sounded near at hand. It was as if the noise was within their very ears. They had no means of answering; there was not one who had strength enough to shout. They could only wait, half-frozen and altogether desperate, trusting to Providence that they would be discovered in the midst of the illimitable darkness.

It was Providence, indeed, that came to their aid, that brought the "Mondavia" to the very place where they were struggling for their lives; otherwise, they could never have been found. There was no searchlight on board the s.h.i.+p, and the sea was still so rough that, even had it been broad daylight, they would have been hidden by the waves.

The captain of the "Mondavia" had done all that was in his power; he had ordered every cabin and deck lamp to be lighted, so that in the darkness the old sea-going tramp was like a liner, with every porthole s.h.i.+ning, brilliantly illumined.

And no sooner did this great blaze of light stand forth before those who were struggling in the sea than, as one man, they threw themselves from the spars to which they had been clinging and struck out towards the s.h.i.+p. The gangway had been lowered, as well as every rope ladder that the "Mondavia" had on board; and it was Jimmy Burke himself who was the first to know that he was saved.

Dripping, aching in every limb, so numbed that he could not stand upright, he crawled to the main-deck, and there fell, speechless and coiled up, with his knees drawn to his chin.

There was no need for him to speak. His very presence there was direct evidence of all that the captain of the steamer wished to know. On the instant, the engine-room bell rang down for the s.h.i.+p to "stop," and then "half-speed astern"; and--as nearly as she could--she remained stationary, rolling on the heavy swell that still moved the sea.

One after the other, those drenched, frozen and half-suffocated men dragged themselves on board; and of them all, Captain Crouch was the only one who had the ability either to move or find his voice. He was a man so inured to hards.h.i.+p and so wiry that it was as if his vitality was endless. He sat up and looked about him, and then slowly counted with a finger the number of the drenched and motionless figures that lay in the lamplight on the deck.

"Bluffed!" he cried. "Bluffed, as by a miracle! There's not a man missing. The cowards might as well have tried to drown a shoal of mackerel." Then, on a sudden, he seized the pockets of his coat.

"Thunder!" he uttered, in tones of mingled mortification and rage.

"Thunder, I've lost my favourite pipe!"

Captain Cookson of the "Mondavia" was staring at him in amazement, after the manner of one who beholds a ghost. Then, seizing Crouch by both shoulders, he shook him so violently that the salt water flew from off him as from a dog on a river bank.

"It's Crouch!" he cried. "It's Crouch!"

"The same man," said Captain Crouch, holding out a wet, ice-cold hand.

"The same man, Cookson, but without his favourite pipe."

CHAPTER XXIV--The Tables Turned

In all probability, there was not one of these men who had not been s.h.i.+pwrecked before. They were fishermen by trade, who earned their living at the peril of their lives amid the fogs and shoals of the Dogger Bank. Their forefathers had followed the same calling for generation after generation; and in consequence, this race of hardy men had been bred on the principle of the survival of the fittest. They had become strong, brave and skilful. The sea was at once their natural element and the mother of them all, who gave her gifts unsparingly, but who ever and anon strove to betray and to destroy.

In the warmth of the stokeholds of the "Mondavia," before the opened doors of blazing furnaces, these half-perished men rapidly revived. They were provided with dry clothes; and those who wished it were given a tot of rum.

In the meantime, Captain Crouch, habited once again in the clothes that became him best of all--a rough pea-jacket and a pair of slacks--was seated in Captain Cookson's cabin, with a borrowed pipe between his lips.

Word by word, from the very day when he had set sail from New York with his orders from Mr. Jason, Junior, he told the whole of his story, concealing nothing, neither the details of how he himself had been fooled, the marked gallantry of Jimmy Burke, nor the full perfidy of Stork.

"It's a strange tale," said Captain Cookson, folding his arms and staring hard at Jimmy, who was sound asleep in his bunk. "It's a strange tale; and from the lips of any man but you, Crouch, I should never believe a word of it."

"I don't care a rap," said Crouch, "whether you believe it or not. The point is, you must do what I tell you, or--if you like--give over the command of the s.h.i.+p to me. You've served as my first mate once; I see no reason why you should not do it again."

"And I see every reason," said the other. "In the first place, I've my own orders, which are to take my cargo to Leith. In the second place, though you may be senior to me, and you're a man for whom I have always had a most sincere respect, this s.h.i.+p happens to be under my command, as the papers I carry will prove. I can't s.h.i.+rk my responsibilities, nor do I mean to."

"That's the right spirit!" cried Captain Crouch. "I'm proud to be your friend. And meanwhile, this pipe don't draw, and your tobacco has no more taste than a pinch of hay."

"Then why smoke it?" asked the other with a smile.

"Because," said Crouch, "as far as a man's brain-box is concerned, tobacco acts like steam in an engine-room. It's the motive power, so to speak, if you manage to follow my meaning. Without steam, there's no use in a boiler, a connecting-rod or a shaft. Without tobacco smoke, there's no use in the convolutions of the human brain. That's how it is with me; though I'm bound to confess I can't, as you might call it, get much steam up with a brand of fuel like this."

"It costs fourpence an ounce," said Captain Cookson.

"And that's more than I ever paid for Bull's Eye s.h.a.g," said Crouch. "I wouldn't use this stuff to smoke out a wasps' nest. What do you call it--School Girls' Mixture, Fairy Footsteps or some such name as that?"

"No. Navy Cut," said the other.

"And that's an insult to the Royal Navy," answered Crouch. "I reckon a sober-minded British man-o'-war's man wouldn't give it to his youngest baby to chew. If Lord Nelson had smoked a tobacco like that, he'd never have won the Battle of Trafalgar."

"Look here," said Captain Cookson, who had come to the end of his patience; "all I've got to say is this: if you don't like my 'baccy, don't smoke it."

"I won't," said Crouch.

And at that, without any more ado, he hurled the pipe out of the porthole into the sea.

"My favourite pipe!" cried Cookson, springing to his feet.

"That's your misfortune," answered Crouch. "And after all, you're in no worse luck than I am. Still, we waste time, when there is much of importance to discuss. Whether you or I command this s.h.i.+p matters no more than the two b.u.t.tons on the back of the frock coat of a shopwalker.

I and my friends set out in the 'Kitty McQuaire' to run down the 'Marigold,' and we've been hoist on our own petard--as the saying goes.

For all that, I'm not disposed to give up the chase. As soon as day breaks, we should sight the fis.h.i.+ng-smack with Stork on board; and it's my suggestion that, counting the pop-gun she carries for nothing, we run her down, and serve all on board in the way they treated us."

"You forget the submarine," said Captain Cookson.

"I forget nothing of the sort," said Captain Crouch. "I'm ready enough to take what risks there are."

Cookson thrust both hands deep into his trousers pockets, and strode to and fro in his little cabin. For some moments, he seemed to be deep in thought. Then, at last, his mind made up, he approached his old s.h.i.+pmate, and held out a weather-beaten, h.o.r.n.y hand.

"I'm with you, Crouch," said he. "I'm with you, come what may."

Crouch rose to his feet, at the same time bringing the fist of one hand into the opened palm of the other, with a gesture suggestive of the utmost satisfaction.

"Good!" he cried. "There's three men on board who won't be baulked by anything--three men who have sailed the seas together for the greater part of their lives. And there's the boy, too--a rare lad, as I promise you, who knows no more of fear than I about keeping bees. Whisker's in a bad way just at present, but he'll pull round long before morning. He was never born to be drowned; and for the matter of that, neither were you or I."

In spite of the dangers that the morrow was almost certain to bring forth, in spite of the immediate presence of so formidable an adversary as the U93, these two merchant captains--men who had spent the best of their years in facing the manifold dangers of the sea, in every quarter of the globe--laid them down to sleep, as if nothing unusual had occurred, or was likely to occur. Captain Crouch snored l.u.s.tily; whereas Captain Cookson appeared perfectly comfortable stretched at full length upon the floor, with a rolled-up overcoat doing duty for a pillow.

Jimmy, in the meantime, slept the sleep of pure exhaustion on the comfortable bunk in Captain Cookson's cabin. Soon after his rescue, he had been given some hot soup; and almost immediately after drinking it, he had dropped off into a heavy slumber, from which he did not awake until the first signs of daybreak were far spread upon the eastern skyline.

The first thing he saw was the lean, wiry figure of Crouch, standing in the open doorway, with a large telescope under his arm. On the one side of Crouch was Cookson; on the other, Whisker, who seemed more bulky, more huge than ever, since his great form was silhouetted against the half-light of approaching day.

"That's her, right enough," Captain Crouch was saying. "That's the 'Marigold' that we came out of Hull to look for; and on board of her there's the greatest villain that ever tied a reef-knot or a bowline in a bight."

Submarine U93 Part 24

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Submarine U93 Part 24 summary

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