[Frontispiece: "THE BLACK CROSS FLAG WAS HAULED DOWN, AND REHOISTED UNDER THE WHITE ENSIGN"]
The Submarine Hunters
A Story of Naval Patrol Work in the Great War
PERCY F. WESTERMAN
"Rounding Up the Raider" "The Dispatch-Riders" "The Fight for Constantinople" &c. &c.
Illustrated by E. S. Hodgson
BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED
LONDON GLASGOW AND BOMBAY
I. THE MYSTERIOUS MEETING ON ST. MENA'S ISLAND II. THE TABLES TURNED III. KIDNAPPED IV. THE AWAKENING V. ABOARD U75 VI. THE TRAMP VII. ON THE BED OF THE SEA VIII. BALKED BY A SEA-PLANE IX. THE LANDING AT PORT TREHERNE X. A TREACHEROUS PLOT XI. PREPARATIONS XII. THE WHITE FLAG—AND AFTERWARDS XIII. THE ARM OF THE LAW XIV. A FRUITLESS QUEST XV. THE ADMIRAL WORKS THE ORACLE XVI. H.M.S. "CAPELLA" XVII. A DOUBLE BAG XVIII. THE SMOKE-SIGNALS XIX. THAT FRIDAY NIGHT XX. TO THE RESCUE XXI. ADRIFT IN THE CHANNEL XXII. AN UNEXPECTED CAPTURE XXIII. MINED XXIV. "SHRAP" XXV. OFF THE BELGIAN COAST XXVI. DISABLED IN MID-AIR XXVII. NOT ON PAROLE XXVIII. ALMOST RECAPTURED XXIX. BOUND FOR THE BALTIC XXX. THE AFFAIR OFF KIEL
"THE BLACK CROSS FLAG WAS HAULED DOWN AND RE-HOISTED UNDER THE WHITE ENSIGN" . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece
THE INTERVIEW WITH THE GERMAN CAPTAIN (missing from book)
"'D'YE KEN YON?' ASKED THE BRITISH SKIPPER, AS HE EYED THE PODGY GERMAN LEUTNANT WITH CONTEMPT"
"THE 'TREMENDOUS' WAS HEADING STRAIGHT FOR THE DOOMED SUBMARINE"
THE SINKING OF THE "ORONTABELLA" (missing from book)
"THE WORK OF DEMOLITION WAS ACCOMPLISHED"
THE SUBMARINE HUNTERS
The Mysterious Meeting on St. Mena's Island
"We've made a proper mess of things this time!" ejaculated Ross Trefusis—"or rather I have."
"It can't be helped," rejoined his chum, Vernon Haye. "We've done our level best to get her off. How long is it before the tide floats her?"
"A matter of seven or eight hours, worse luck. You see, it was only half ebb when we landed."
Ross bent down to remove a streak of bluish-grey mud from his ankle.
"I wish we'd taken the rowing-boat instead of this heavy old tub," he continued. "We'll be pretty peckish before we get back to the Hall, and dinner's at seven-thirty."
"It wouldn't be the first time I've had to go without grub," he remarked. "If you don't mind, I don't."
"Then it's no use standing here," said Ross. "Let's get on our shoes and go for a stroll."
Vernon Haye was a broad-shouldered lad of fifteen, with clear-cut features and dark hair. His companion was of about the same age, but a good two inches taller. His complexion was florid, his hair of an auburn tint that narrowly escaped coming within the category of red or ginger. His features were full and rounded. In short, he was a typical Cornish youth.
Ross's father, Admiral Paul Trefusis, lived at Killigwent Hall, a large, rambling, sixteenth-century house, standing within a mile of the sea on the North Cornish coast.
Both lads went to the same public school, but owing to the fact that Vernon's father, Captain Haye, was on active service with the Grand Fleet, young Haye was spending the summer holidays with his chum at Killigwent Hall.
That afternoon the lads had taken a small sailing-boat and had made for St. Mena's Island, a small rocky piece of land lying about a mile off shore, and nearly five miles from Killigwent Cove. The island was roughly three-quarters of a mile in length, and four hundred yards wide in the broadest part. The north and west sides were precipitous, but on the side nearest to the mainland the ground sloped gradually, and was indented by several narrow tidal coves.
The glamour of romance lay thickly around that rocky pile. Centuries ago it was the abode of a hermit, who, amongst his various self-imposed tasks, had built a chapel on the summit, from the tower of which a wood fire was kindled nightly to warn mariners of the treacherous reefs in the vicinity of the island.
In course of time, St. Mena's Island became the haunt of wreckers and smugglers. The chapel, in spite of its massive construction, fell a victim to the ravages of wind and weather, but still served as a convenient shelter for the lawless Cornishmen who profited by the misfortunes of honest seamen. Immune from interference, by reason of the superstitious awe in which the island was held by the country-folk, the smugglers and wreckers thrived exceedingly until late in the eighteenth century, when stern measures were taken to suppress their misdeeds. From that time St. Mena's Island was deserted, except for the casual visits of tourists and summer visitors from the neighbouring towns of Padstow and Newquay, and countless numbers of sea-birds that take up their abode in crannies in the almost inaccessible cliffs.
Ross Trefusis was right in taking the blame of their misfortunes upon himself. He knew better, but, neglecting to take ordinary precautions, he had allowed the boat to be left high and dry by the falling tide. Upon returning to the cove the lads had found the heavy craft lying on its bilge in the stiff bluish clay, with a ridge of jagged rocks cutting her off from the sea.
"Perhaps," suggested Vernon, "some other boat will put off to the island, and we can get them to put us ashore."
"Hardly likely," was the reply. "Anyway, we'll keep a look-out. Which would you prefer to do—explore the Smugglers' Cave and Dead Man's Cave, or climb up to the ruins?"
"The ruins," decided young Haye eagerly. "I like fooling about old ruins, and I've already seen the caves. Besides, we can see if there are any boats about. It's almost like being shipwrecked on a desert island."
"Hard lines if we were," commented Ross. "Suppose we take an inventory of our possessions? Let the see: one pocket-knife, a silver watch that has refused duty, a notebook and pencil, and five shillings and three halfpence. What have you to add to the common stock?"
"A knife, a pocket compass, my watch—which does go; it's now five-and-twenty to four—and sixteen shillings and eightpence in paper money and hard coin."
"Not a morsel of grub between the pair of us, then," declared Ross. "Outlook beastly unpromising. Faced with starvation unless we make up our minds to knock over some gulls. They are horribly fishy to eat, I believe, and we've nothing to make a fire."
"It makes you pine for the flesh-pots of Kllligwent Hall, old man," exclaimed Vernon laughingly. "Never mind, let's make a move. I vote we get rid of these sweaters. It is frightfully hot."
Stripping off their woollen garments, and placing them for safety under a gorse bush, the two lads made their way up the steep ascent to the ruins, till, hot and well-nigh breathless in spite of being "in training", they reached the summit of the island.
"What a jolly view!" exclaimed Vernon, turning and taking in the panorama of rocky coast-line, an expanse of jagged, frowning, brownish cliffs topped by the brilliant green of the Cornish moorland.
"Not bad," agreed Ross complaisantly, for the view was no stranger to him. "See that cliff shaped like the head and shoulders of a bearded man? That's Hidden Money Cove that I was speaking to you about last night. We'll go there next week, all being well. You see, there's not a sail in sight, so our chances of getting back to dinner are very remote. What's more, unless I'm very much mistaken, there's a rain-storm coming. See that dark cloud working up against the wind?"
"Yes," assented Haye. "What of it? A little rain won't hurt."
"It's the after effect," said Ross. "It's quite possible it may blow hard before night, in which case we're done for. I've known it impossible to approach Killigwent Cove for a week at a time."
"Sounds lively," he remarked.
"Of course that is in the winter," his chum hastened to remind him. "These summer gales don't last very long, but we'll be feeling precious hungry by the time we get home, I guess."
"Look here," said Vernon after a while. "I vote we get those sweaters. We don't want to be soaked."
"Very well," assented Ross. "But there's no great hurry."
Having retrieved the sweaters, the chums leisurely retraced their way to the ruins. For half an hour or more they wandered around the remains, descending into the dark crypt, and running considerable risk in climbing to the summit of the tower. Since the spiral stone steps had vanished long ago, the only means of getting to the top was by climbing the gnarled stem of the ivy which grew profusely on the face of the building. The tower was roofless, a low, partly demolished parapet encircling it on three sides, while a couple of weather-worn oak-beams supporting a few planks formed a kind of platform where the roof formerly existed.
"Think it's safe?" asked Vernon anxiously, as his chum, having got astride the parapet, was about to lower himself upon the decrepit woodwork.
"I've done it scores of times," said Ross confidently. "That's right, I'll guide your foot. Now let go."
"By Jove!" suddenly exclaimed Haye; "there's a fellow coming towards the ruin. How on earth did he get here?"
"Goodness only knows," said Trefusis inconsequently. "He may have landed in Main Beach Cove. Anyhow, he's at perfect liberty to do so. I suppose he's interested in ruins."
"Let's drop a bit of stone and give him a shock when he gets here," suggested Vernon. "We'll apologize afterwards. Ten to one he'll give us a passage back."
"I'm not so keen on dropping chunks of stone," objected Ross. "I vote we lie low for a bit at any rate, and see what he's up to."
"Why, do you think he's a spy?" asked his companion. Trefusis grunted scoffingly.
"Spy?" he repeated. "What object would a spy have on St. Mena's Island? This part of Cornwall is well outside the military area. There's nothing in the fortification line for miles. No, it's not that. But cave, here he comes."
The lads crouched behind the crumbling parapet, and by means of conveniently placed gaps in the masonry watched the stranger's approach.
There was nothing about the man's appearance to suggest that he was anything but an ordinary holiday-maker. He was slightly above average height, rather heavily built, and inclined to flabbiness. His complexion was undoubtedly florid, although his face and hands were tanned a deep brown.
He was dressed in a light-grey lounge suit, with a straw hat and brown shoes, while in his right hand he carried a thick Malacca cane.
The exertion of climbing up the hill on which the ruined chapel stood apparently told upon him, for he was considerably out of breath when he passed under the ivy-clad arch. Here he stopped to wipe his face with a handkerchief, and while doing so dropped his cane.
It fell upon the stones with a dull thud.
At the same time the stranger gave vent to an exclamation that certainly was not English.
The lads exchanged glances. Here was the beginning of a mystery. The heaviest Malacca cane would not have made that dull metallic sound in falling, while it was evident by the careful examination the stranger made of the retrieved article that he was more than considerate for its appearance.
The man made no attempt to explore the ruins. The weather-worn fane had no attractions for him. It was apparently only a rendezvous, as far as he was concerned, for at frequent intervals he would walk stealthily through the archway, and look attentively down the hill leading to the coves on the side facing the mainland.
It had now begun to rain—big drops that were the precursors of a heavy shower. The lads, in their exposed position on the tower, paid scant heed. Their interest and attention were centred upon the anxiously awaiting stranger fifty feet beneath them.
Presently Ross happened to glance towards the stretch of water that separated St. Mena's Island from the mainland. A boat was approaching. Already it was more than half-way across. It was a rowing-boat, containing only one person. What object would anyone have in rowing across on a wet afternoon like this? wondered the lad.
Just then the stranger began rubbing his hands with ill-concealed satisfaction. Although he had been frequently on the look-out, he had evidently only just caught sight of the approaching boat.
The lads watched the little craft till it was hidden by the intervening high ground, but already Ross felt certain that it was making for Main Beach Cove.
There were three landing-places on St. Mena's Island—Half Tide Cove, where the lads had left their stranded boat; Main Beach Cove, a little to the north-east; and Deadman's Cove, farther away. Of these, only Main Beach was available between one hour on either side of low water. The fact that the boat was making for it, and had already successfully skirted the submerged reef lying off it, proved that its occupant had local knowledge.
Some considerable time elapsed between the temporary disappearance of the boat and the appearance of the new-comer; but at length he came into view, walking rapidly up the steep incline without showing anything of the physical strain that the first stranger had betrayed.
Suddenly Ross Trefusis recognized the man. He almost felt inclined to laugh at his suspicions. It was Dr. Ramblethorne, the medical practitioner at St. Bedal—a town of considerable importance about seven miles from Killigwent Hall. The doctor was a frequent guest of Admiral Trefusis, and was generally considered a good, all-round sportsman. He was about thirty years of age, over six feet in height, of sinewy frame and of great muscular power. He was the wildest motorist in that part of Cornwall, as the endorsements on his driver's licence testified. A keen golfer, good shot, and fisherman, he was also a botanist; and that, perhaps, thought Ross, might account for his presence on St. Mena's Island, although it was difficult to reconcile the fact that Ramblethorne had an appointment with a stranger at this desolate spot. If a joint botanic expedition had been fixed up, why had not the two men met on the mainland?
The unknown made no attempt to advance to meet the doctor. Instead, he remained within the ruins until Ramblethorne entered.
Their greeting was a surprise even to the lads, for the doctor, holding out his hand, exclaimed in German:
"Well met, von Ruhle! Let us hope that your arrangements will prove satisfactory."
The Tables Turned
Both Ross Trefusis and Vernon Haye understood and could speak German. Ross was especially good in his knowledge of the language of the modern Hun, for in his early youth he had been inflicted with a German governess. Since German is one of the subjects for Sandhurst—for which both lads were preparing—their knowledge had been considerably improved under the cast-iron rule of a native professor.
"Eminently satisfactory," replied von Ruhle. "We will go into details later. You had no difficulty in coming here, I hope?"
"No suspicions?" asked von Ruhle anxiously.
"My dear von Ruhle," he replied. "A medical practitioner is above suspicion. He is free to go anywhere at any hour of the day or night without question. No man would suspect——"
"You are clever, von Hauptwald——"
"Ssh!" interrupted the doctor. "Call me Ramblethorne, if you please. Of course there is no danger here, but at other times and in other places you might incautiously give the show away. You had a good passage?"
"Excellent," replied von Ruhle. "I am getting well-known to the strafed English custom-house officers at Queenboro' and Harwich. They recognize me by my stick, I believe, but they little know that it is a new one every time. What do you think of this? I have brought it as a specimen for you to see. Just fancy! every time I cross to Holland twenty kilogrammes of good copper are on their way to the Fatherland. By this time Herr Stabb of Essen is well acquainted with my Malacca canes."
"A good weight to carry about," remarked Ramblethorne, wielding the disguised bar of copper. "I wonder you troubled."
"Mein Gott! I could not leave it," declared von Ruhle. "Someone might take a fancy to it, and then the secret would be out. But tell me: have you succeeded in getting that commission you spoke of?"
"I am still living in hopes," replied Ramblethorne. "Of course I could have obtained a post of temporary surgeon in the British Navy, but it wasn't good enough. It's no fun running the risk of being torpedoed by our own Submarines. The English Army offers a wider scope. Believe me, I am worth more than a division to the Emperor. I'll get a commission, never you fear, for I have heaps of influence. Then, of course, I will do my utmost to fight against a terrible epidemic that will mysteriously break out amongst the troops."
Ramblethorne, otherwise von Hauptwald, threw back his shoulders and laughed uproariously.
"Careful!" hissed his companion. "You will be heard over the whole island."
"What matters? There is not another soul in sight besides ourselves. How much petrol have you?"
"Fifty two-gallon tins. I expect some more by boat to-morrow. It's safely stored in a cave on the side of the creek. It is a nuisance it is raining. I do not fancy a night's work in weather like this. Himmel, what's that?"
Accidentally Vernon's foot had dislodged a small piece of stone.
"Nerves, my dear von Ruhle," said Ramblethorne, with his usual good-natured smile. "A bit of masonry has fallen from the tower. See, the floor is covered with similar pieces."
"If anyone should be up there——" suggested von Ruhle, pointing to the top of the tower.
The lads could feel their hearts thumping against their ribs. Through a small crack in the planking they could see the eyes of the two Germans directed upwards.
"Impossible; there are no steps," declared Ramblethorne. "Besides, what object would anyone have in ascending a tower on a day like this? I fully appreciate the danger of being overheard, of course. We've said enough to find ourselves faced by a firing-party in the Tower of London, my friend."
"Don't!" expostulated von Ruhle, closing his eyes as if to shut out the unpleasant mental vision. Then: "You have the signalling apparatus, I hope?"
"Trust me for that, von Ruhle," replied his companion, tapping his breast-pocket. "All we have to do is to wait until yonder lighthouse exposes its light. Really the ways of these English pass understanding. They rigorously forbid the showing of lights in private houses on shore, imagining that our agents would be so foolish as to start blinking with a lamp; yet they allow these lighthouses to work as usual, and obligingly enable us to communicate to our hearts' content."
Von Hauptwald was not far wrong in his remarks, for the instrument he had enabled him to flash a message to a confederate without having to be in possession of a lamp. The flash was obtained from any distant and visible light by means of a complicated system of mirrors. The reflected rays could then be projected in any desired direction so as to be quite invisible except on a certain bearing. It was one of the carefully-thought-out plans adopted by the German Government to permit its spies to communicate with their submarines without running any great risk of detection.
"It's two hours to sunset," remarked the doctor; "three before we commence operations. I would suggest that we adjourn to the cave and partake of refreshment. You see, I have not omitted to make suitable provision."
"Very good!" agreed von Ruhle; "but I only wish I had a waterproof. The rain is most annoying."
Arm-in-arm the two men left the building, and presently disappeared from view behind a slight rise in the ground.
"I say!" exclaimed Ross; "we've tumbled on something this time. Fancy Ramblethorne a rotten German spy. I always thought he was a rattling good chap."
"Evidently he isn't," rejoined Vernon. "But the point is: what do you propose to do? It's beastly wet here."
"It is, now I come to think of it," agreed his chum. "The fact is, that until you mentioned it I was hardly aware that it was raining. We'll discuss this knotty point."
"I vote we make tracks for the boat," suggested Haye. "The tide must be rising by this time. We can then slip off and raise the alarm."
Ross shook his head.
"No go," he decided. "We might get nabbed ourselves. Besides, who would be able to lay these chaps by the heels? There's only that motor-boat chap at Penydwick Cove, and he's precious little use. There are no soldiers nearer than at St. Bedal. I propose we hang on here. There's a snug, sheltered hole in these ruins, just big enough for us to lie hidden. Then we stand a good chance of hearing more of the conversation between those beggars."
"Three hours more, remember."
"Yes, I know. In the meanwhile we might slip down to Main Beach Cove. There's plenty of cover amongst the rocks."
"What for?" asked Vernon.
"To see what these fellows are up to. I'm rather anxious to renew my slight acquaintance with friend Copperstick. By Jove, what a cute move to get contraband metal into Germany!"
"Not much at a time. It shows how hard up the Germans must be for copper when it pays a fellow to carry over about half a hundredweight at a time."
"Well, let's get a move on," said Ross. "Be careful how you descend. The ivy will be fairly slippery with the wet."
Cautiously the two lads descended, reaching the ground without mishap.
"Our sweaters!" exclaimed Vernon.
"Dash it all! Yes," agreed his companion. "I had forgotten all about them."
The sweaters, carefully rolled up, had been placed for security in one corner of the chapel. Unless anyone actually came close to the spot, they were hidden from sight.
"Neither of those fellows stood about here, I think," remarked Ross as the chums retrieved and donned the additional clothing. "It's jolly lucky, or they would have smelt a rat."
Trefusis and his companion went out into the rain, walking rapidly towards a slight mound capped by a few irregularly shaped stones. It was behind this rise of ground that the two spies had gone. Up to this point, Ross argued, there was little need for caution; beyond, it would be necessary to keep well under cover until they reached Main Beach.
"'Ware the skyline," cautioned Ross as the chums approached the hillock.
"Ay; 'ware the skyline," said a deep voice mockingly, "It's bad strategy."
Turning, the lads made the disconcerting discovery that Ramblethorne and von Ruhle were within five yards of their would-be trackers.
Ross realized that he and his chum had been badly outmanoeuvred. Evidently the Germans suspected that they had been overheard, and ostentatiously leaving the ruins for Main Beach Cove, they had made a detour from the hillock, and had waited until Ross and Vernon had emerged from the chapel. Then, taking advantage of the wet grass that effectually deadened the sound of their footsteps, they had turned the tables on their shadowers.
So completely taken aback were the two lads that they stood stock-still as if rooted to the earth.
"Not a nice evening to be out, Trefusis," continued the doctor. "What brings you on St. Mena's Island at this late hour of the day?"
"Our boat was left high and dry by the tide, so we had to wait and take shelter," replied Ross.
"And so you chose a place where there was no shelter," remarked Ramblethorne. "Idiotic thing to do—very idiotic. Now tell me: what were you doing on the top of the tower?"
Ross did not hesitate in his reply. Perhaps it would have been better had he done so, for he had never betrayed his knowledge of German to the doctor on any of their previous meetings, and it would have been judicious to keep up the deception.
"What were we doing? Listening to your precious schemes," he retorted boldly. "Now we know all about you, and it will be our duty to report you as spies to the authorities. We are expecting a search-party from Killigwent Hall at any moment, you see."
"So that's the line of defence you propose to adopt, eh?" sneered Ramblethorne. "Well, look out!"
With a sudden spring the athletic man flung himself upon Ross, while von Ruhle with equal promptitude made a rush to secure Vernon.
Strong and active though he was, Ross was no match for his huge and powerful antagonist. Knowing that flight was impossible, the lad feinted, and aimed a blow with his left straight for the doctor's chin. This Ramblethorne parried easily, and grasping the lad's wrist, held it as in a vice, and in such a manner that rendered fruitless any attempt on Trefusis' part to make use of his right arm.
Having thus secured his opponent, Ramblethorne watched the result of the encounter between his fellow-spy and young Haye.
Von Ruhle had opened the attack by brandishing his heavy stick, and calling upon Vernon to surrender.
Haye returned the compliment by closing, and dealing the German such a terrific blow upon the chest that von Ruhle recoiled quite a couple of yards. The lad's onslaught had only missed the German's solar plexus by a few inches; had it not, the chances were that von Ruhle would have lost all interest in life for the next quarter of an hour.
But instead of following up his initial success Vernon, seeing Ross helpless in the doctor's grip, rushed to his chum's aid. For a few seconds he feinted, striving to find an opening, while Ramblethorne, dragging his captive with him, pivoted in order to keep his front towards his new antagonist.
Those few seconds were Vernon's undoing.
Quickly recovering himself, von Ruhle sprang forward with the agility of a panther. The imitation Malacca cane descended with a dull thud upon the lad's head, and like a felled ox Vernon fell inertly upon the sodden grass.
"Hold him—so," exclaimed Ramblethorne, handing Ross over to the custody of von Ruhle. Then drawing a small hypodermic syringe from a case, the former inserted the needle into the lad's forearm.
Five seconds later Ross Trefusis lay unconscious beside his companion in misfortune.
"I thought you had killed him, von Ruhle," said the doctor, bending over Vernon and making a cursory examination of the unconscious lad.
"I thought I had," was the unconcerned reply. "Dead men tell no tales."
"There I beg to differ," protested Ramblethorne. "Corpses have a nasty way of turning up at inopportune moments. These youngsters are worth more to us alive than dead."
"One is a son of Admiral Trefusis; his companion is, I believe, also a son of a distinguished English naval officer."
"Well, and what of it?" asked von Ruhle.
"Hostages," replied the doctor briefly. "Later I will explain. Meanwhile we'll carry them to the cave. It's farther than back to the ruins; but perhaps, as young Trefusis said, there may be a search-party, and the ruins would be one of the first objects of investigation."
Although, with the exception of periodical visits abroad, Dr. Ramblethorne had lived in England all his life and was a fully qualified medical man, he was a highly trusted and talented agent of the German Secret Service. Months before the outbreak of war, he had been ordered to report upon the defences of Devonport, and in order to do this he had bought a practice on the outskirts of Plymouth. Upon the commencement of hostilities, he was detailed to keep under observation the military preparations of the Duchy of Cornwall, and also to take necessary steps for communicating with German submarines that, under von Tirpitz's prearranged scheme, were to operate in the Bristol Channel. Von Ruhle was one of the few subordinates he actually knew. There were others with whom he communicated only through an intermediary, and who knew him only by a number.
Von Ruhle was almost as mentally clever as his superior. Ostentatiously he was an Englishman. Sometimes he posed as a mining engineer; at others as a commercial traveller; as an accredited representative of the British Red Cross Society he was in the habit of making frequent journeys to Holland, presumably in connection with work at Groningen Internment Camp. At the present time, his activities were centred upon the formation of a secret petrol depot for the supply of fuel to unterseebooten operating in the Bristol Channel and off the south coast of Ireland.
A couple of slight incidents had served to put the cautious Ramblethorne on his guard during his interview with von Ruhle in the ruined chapel.
Although he verbally deprecated his subordinate's alarm when the lads accidentally dislodged a stone from the tower, it was merely to disarm possible eavesdroppers of any suspicion that their presence was suspected.
The ability to control his feelings was one of the super-spy's chief assets. Suspicion once aroused, he proceeded without the faintest sign to investigate his surroundings. His keen eye soon lighted upon the lads' sweaters. Then it was that an adjournment was suggested to Main Beach Cove.
This was simply and solely a "blind", for on gaining the cover of the boulder-strewn hillock the doctor communicated his suspicions to his companion. The pair then crouched behind the rocks, whence they were able to command a view of the tower.
It was not long before their enterprise met with success. They saw Trefusis and his chum cautiously descend by means of the ivy; then, directly the lads set out upon their ill-starred tracking expedition, the Germans, as before related, succeeded in outflanking them and effecting their capture.
"Time!" announced Ramblethorne, consulting his watch.
"Are these safe?" asked von Ruhle, stirring Vernon's unconscious form with his foot.
"Quite; though, perhaps, to make sure I will give this youngster a slight injection. Pity you hadn't held him with the double arm-lock instead of cracking him over the head. Herr Kapitan Schwalbe won't want to be troubled with a passenger with a swollen head."
Leaving their senseless victims in the cave, the two Germans again ascended the hill to St. Mena's Chapel. As they breasted the summit, they could see the fixed white light of Black Bull Head showing momentarily brighter and brighter against the rapidly failing daylight.
Setting a prismatic compass in position upon the sill of one of the glazeless windows, Ramblethorne took a careful bearing in a seaward direction. This done, he pointed the projector of the signalling apparatus in precisely the same direction, and threw a waterproofed cloth over the instrument.
"Too early yet, von Ruhle," he remarked. "Nevertheless it is advisable to fix our bearings while twilight lasts. A light might spell disaster."
"A deucedly unpleasant night for such a task," grumbled von Ruhle.
"On the contrary, it is just the very thing," replied the doctor. "It is not thick enough to be dangerous, but the rain is just sufficient to assist in the screening of U75. Do not think of your personal comfort, my dear von Ruhle, when urgent work for the Fatherland has to be undertaken."
For another half-hour the two men paced the grass-grown stones. Their choice of St. Mena's Island as a secret signalling station was an excellent one. It was isolated, and, being slightly greater in elevation than the cliffs of the mainland in the immediate vicinity, would effectually screen any ray of light sent landwards from the expected German submarine. Thus all danger of the narrow gleam of reflected light being detected by the none too smart members of the coast patrol was entirely obviated.
"Time!" exclaimed the doctor, consulting the luminous face of his watch.
Dexterously, and without disturbing the position of the instrument, von Ruhle whipped off the covering. Although there were no visible signs that anything was taking place, both men knew that a beam of light, reflected from the distant lighthouse on Black Bull Head, was being directed seawards.
In silence the two men peered through the driving rain, von Ruhle making use of a pair of powerful night-glasses.
Suddenly, after an interval of almost five minutes, a faint pin-prick of light flickered from the surface of the sea.
Instantly Ramblethorne stepped a dozen paces to the right.
"I can see nothing from here," he announced in a low voice. "Can you?"
"Yes," replied his companion.
"Good: that's friend Schwalbe."
The doctor was right. From the deck of the unterseeboot a signalling apparatus similar to that employed by the spies was in use. By an ingenious automatic arrangement it projected a beam of light, derived from the same sources as that on St. Mena's Island, rigidly in a fixed direction, regardless of the "lift" of the submarine under the action of the waves.
For several minutes a rapid exchange of signals was maintained; then the two spies, folding up their apparatus, walked rapidly towards Main Beach Cove.
They had not long to wait before the faint sound of oars was borne to their ears.
"Himmel! They have arrived already," exclaimed von Ruhle.
"So it appears," replied Ramblethorne dryly. "I pride myself that I have exceptionally good eyesight, but I fail to see her. The neutral colour of the submarine is indeed excellent for night work."
They descended the sandy and shingly beach until further progress was barred by the lapping wavelets of the rising tide.
Through the mirk loomed up the outlines of a canvas collapsible boat crowded with men. At two lengths from the shore the rowers laid on their oars. One of the men gave vent to a low whistle resembling the call of a curlew.
"All clear," replied Ramblethorne.
The boat's keel rasped on the shingle. A cloaked figure in the stern-sheets made his way for'ard and leapt ashore.
"Herr von Hauptwald?" he asked.
"The same," replied the doctor. "And Kapitan Schwalbe?"
"The captain is still on board," replied the officer. "It is hard to resist the opportunity of getting ashore after being cooped up there for more than a fortnight. But the petrol?"
"We have not so much as we hoped to obtain," replied von Ruhle.
The Leutnant muttered an oath.
"And how is business?" asked Ramblethorne, with a view of distracting the officer's thoughts from the shortage of fuel.
The Leutnant muttered another oath.
"Bad!" he replied savagely. "Only one wretched little tramp steamer, which we fell in with about twenty miles from the Stacks. She gave us a run for our money, but we had her at last. Even then she tried to ram us. One has to be most cautious also. These accursed English have been far too active with their new-fangled contrivances. We called up U71 early this morning. She replied. Again at noon we called her, but there was no reply. U70 we have lost all touch with since Monday, yet she was under orders to assist in the blockade of the Bristol Channel until we, as senior unterseeboot, gave instructions to return to Wilhelmshaven."
"Lost, I suppose," remarked Ramblethorne.
The Leutnant had walked to a distance of nearly ten yards from his men, who were drawn up in military order awaiting their officer's commands.
He lowered his voice.
"Although I am sorry to say it," he declared, "I am afraid she has gone too. Our losses are not only serious—they are appalling. Submarine work is now a continual nightmare. We do our duty, but before long, if we are sufficiently fortunate to escape the toils that these English cast about us, we shall all be physical wrecks."
The man's agitation increased as he spoke. Obviously he was labouring under a severe strain.
"And this petrol?" he asked anxiously. "What quantity?"
Ramblethorne told him.
"Not enough," declared the Leutnant. "Himmel, it is not enough to get us round Cape Wrath. On board we have only sufficient for six hours' surface running, while our batteries are not far short of running down. You had better see the captain and explain."
Leaving von Ruhle to direct the seamen to the secret petrol store in the cave, Ramblethorne accompanied the Leutnant to the submarine.
The U75 was one of the latest type of Germany's submarines. Over three hundred feet in length, there was little about her in common with the accepted idea of under-water craft. Her deck ran in one continuous sweep for almost her entire length, and rose nearly six feet above the surface. The visible part of her sides was perpendicular, the bulging sections being entirely beneath the surface. Her conning-tower was surrounded by a platform as long as the navigation-bridge of a modern destroyer. The two periscopes were "housed", but two slender "wireless" masts gave the boat the appearance of a swift torpedo craft.
Acknowledging a salute from a burly quartermaster, Ramblethorne gained the deck, and was escorted aft by the Leutnant. Pacing the tapering platform was a broad-shouldered, fair-haired man of about thirty, although a carefully trimmed blonde beard made him look much older.
He lacked the natural elastic stride of the British naval officer. His movements resembled those of a thoroughly drilled soldier, yet ever and anon he would glance furtively in the direction of the open sea as if in constant dread of sudden and unknown peril.
"Greetings, Herr von Hauptwald!" he exclaimed, when the Leutnant had formally introduced his visitor. "You are well known to me by repute, but I doubt whether we have met before."
"I fancy so," rejoined the doctor. "Do you not remember that little affair in the Strauer Platz? Ah, I thought you would! But to come to the point. We have been unable to obtain the requisite quantity of petrol."
"Somehow I thought it," replied Kapitan Schwalbe. "How much have you?"
Ramblethorne told him.
"Enough, with what we have left on board, for only eight hundred miles run. It will not take us home, and we are under orders not to leave these waters before Friday next. We have been let down badly."
"I know that it is useless to express regrets," said Ramblethorne boldly. "I can only hope that other means of supplying the requisite fuel will be forthcoming. But here is another matter. We have had to secure two English lads, both sons of distinguished naval officers. Unfortunately they overheard a conversation between von Ruhle and myself. In the interests of the Secret Service it is absolutely necessary that they are kept out of the way for at least a couple of months. I am averse to doing them personal injury."
"Then what do you wish?" asked Kapitan Schwalbe.
"Take them on board with you. If possible, land them at a German port. If this be possible, you will realize that we have a strong tool to work with."
"I fail to understand," said the Kapitan of U75.
"They could be made good use of as hostages," resumed Ramblethorne. "If these English persist in talking about reprisals, we can hint that—well, it is unnecessary to go into details."
"I see," remarked Kapitan Schwalbe. "But if it is impossible to land them?"
"Then you must put them on board the first outward-bound tramp steamer you fall in with—provided she is bound for South American ports, or anywhere that will mean a long voyage."
"Very well," assented the submarine officer. "I quite understand your anxiety to get them out of the way."
"Temporarily, mind," added Ramblethorne.
"Precisely. Herr Rix," he exclaimed, addressing the Leutnant. "Take four men and go ashore. Von Ruhle will tell you where these English boys are; have them brought on board."
"One moment," interrupted Ramblethorne. "They came to the island in a boat. There is nothing unusual in that, I admit, but the fact remains that the boat is still lying in the cove next to this. You might order the men to set the boat adrift."
"Water-logged, and with sails set and the main-sheet made fast. Another deplorable accident. Ach! It shall be so."
Half an hour later Ross Trefusis and Vernon Haye, still unconscious under the action of the anaesthetic injection, were brought on board U75 and passed below. Their boat, lying on its beam-ends, was drifting slowly in the direction of Black Bull Head. Ramblethorne and von Ruhle, their work for the present done, were already on the way to the mainland.
Meanwhile, alarmed at the non-appearance of the young heir to Killigwent Hall and his guest, a party had set off to search St. Mena's Island.
Just as the boat's keel grounded on the beach of Half Tide Cove, the German submarine slipped quietly through the blurr of misty rain, and under cover of darkness headed towards the mouth of Bristol Channel.
"Dash it all! What am I doing here?" muttered Ross Trevor drowsily, as he opened his eyes.
For the moment he quite imagined that he was in his dormitory at school, and that by an oversight the rest of his chums had left him in bed. The suggestion was strengthened by the sound of gurgling water, as if the bathroom tap were running. Then he became aware that everything was pitching up and down. Once before he had experienced a similar sensation—when he had had a violent headache following a slight touch of sunstroke.
It puzzled him, too, that he was almost in darkness. Somewhere without, and partly screened by some projection, an electric light was burning. The reflected rays were just sufficient to enable him to take stock of his surroundings.
No, he was not back in the school dormitory. True, he had a headache, but that would not account for the actual motion. He fumbled, his fingers came in contact with a curved board that served to prevent the occupant of the bed—or, rather, bunk—from falling on the floor.
Almost mechanically he rolled out, and stood supporting himself by grasping the ledge of the bunk. The swaying, due partly to dizziness and partly to an unaccountable see-saw motion, would have thrown him to the floor but for the assistance afforded by the side of the bunk.
Gradually he became aware that there was a similar sleeping-place immediately beneath the one he had been occupying. Someone was lying there, breathing heavily. There was sufficient light for Ross to recognize him. It was his chum Vernon.
Just then a bell clanged noisily. The sound of running water was outvoiced by the loud din of machinery in motion. A wave of hot air that reminded the lad of the atmosphere of a Tube station wafted past him. The whole fabric trembled under the powerful pulsations of the mechanism.
With his legs trembling through sheer physical weakness, Ross hung on grimly. He wanted to shout, but no sound came from his parched tongue. He was bewildered. It seemed as if he were in the throes of a terrible nightmare, and that he would awake on finding himself falling into a bottomless abyss.
The reflected light was obscured as a broad-shouldered man made his way along the narrow corridor in which the bunks were placed. As he did so he caught sight of the lad. Without a word he seized Ross in his arms, not roughly, but nevertheless unceremoniously, and lifted him back into the bunk. There was something so peremptory in the action that Ross lay still and closed his eyes. All his will power seemed to have deserted him.
"Make a dash for it, old man!" exclaimed a muffled voice that Trefusis hardly recognized as his chum's. "Make a dash for it. Don't let them collar us."
It was Vernon rambling in his sleep. The words were sufficient to give Ross a key to the hitherto baffling problem.
Like a flash he recalled the episode of their adventure on St. Mena's Island. He remembered himself being held in the grasp of the powerful Ramblethorne until unconsciousness overcame him. He was still a prisoner, but with the qualifying knowledge that he was not alone. Vernon Haye was sharing his captivity, wherever it might be.
"We're afloat then," he muttered. "What has happened?"
Moistening his lips, Ross leant over the side of the bunk and called his chum by name. His voice sounded strangely unfamiliar. He could only just hear himself above the clamorous noise of the engines.
It was not long before another man appeared at the end of the corridor. As he did so he switched on a lamp almost above the lad's head. For a few seconds Ross was temporarily blinded by the sudden transition from artificial twilight to the intense brilliancy of electric light.
"So! You are now awake, hein?" asked a guttural voice. "How you vos feel?"
"Rotten!" replied Ross emphatically. His reply was brief and to the point. It summed up his sensations during the last ten minutes.
The man laughed.
"So you look. You better soon will be. You know where you now vos?"
"On board a ship," answered the lad. He was still hoping against hope that his questioner was anything but a German. There was a small chance that he had by some means been picked up at sea by a Dutch or a Swedish vessel.
The man's announcement "put the lid on" that possibility.
"Sheep—goot!" he chuckled. "German unterseeboot—vot you vos call submarine. No danger to you boys if you yourselves behave. Much to see—ach! plenty much."
The lad's eyes had now become more accustomed to the light. He could see that his visitor was a broad-shouldered, muscular man of average height, florid-featured, and with light-yellow hair and a fair moustache. He was dressed in a uniform that was apparently a bad copy of that worn by executive officers of the British Navy. On the breast of his coat he wore an Iron Cross.
"Me Hermann Rix, Ober-leutnant of unterseeboot," he announced. "Der Kapitan send me to see how you get better. Goot! I tell seaman to bring food quick. In one hour you go on deck. Den you feel all well."
The German Leutnant bent and peered into the lower cot.
"Fat head," he remarked seriously. "Bad knock, but he get well soon."
With that the officer went away, leaving the light switched on.
Scrambling out of his bunk, Ross approached his chum. Vernon was now sleeping quietly. His face, however, was flushed, while it was quite evident that he had received a fairly heavy blow across the skull, for the top of his head was swollen to a considerable extent.
Before Ross had finished his examination a sailor entered, bearing a tray on which were three slices of rye bread, some tinned beef, and a bottle of Rhenish wine.
"Sprechen Sie deutsch?" he asked.
For an instant Trefusis hesitated before replying. To profess ignorance of the German language would be an immense advantage while on board the submarine, provided he could control his facial expressions and listen without betraying himself. Then, on the other hand, he reflected that Ramblethorne, the spy, might have been instrumental in getting him into this predicament. More than likely the Captain of the submarine had been informed of the fact that his unconscious passengers were well acquainted with the tongue-twisting language of the Fatherland.
"Here is food for you," said the man, placing the tray on the floor. "You had better take hold of the bottle before it upsets. We are rolling a bit. When your friend open his eyes, call me. I am in yonder compartment. It would be well for you to dress. I will bring your clothes to you very soon."
Ross made a sorry meal. The food was not at all appetizing. His throat was in no condition to enable him to swallow easily. A feeling of nausea, due either to the motion, the hot, confined air, or the after effects of the stupefying injection—perhaps a little of all three—was still present.
He was actually on board a German submarine—one of Tirpitz's twentieth-century pirates. He racked his brains to find a reason. With its limited accommodation an unterseeboot seemed the last type of craft that would receive a pair of prisoners—and non-combatants—within its steel-clad hull. It must have been at Ramblethorne's instigation; yet why had not the spy knocked the pair of luckless eavesdroppers over the head and tumbled them into the sea? It seemed by far the easiest solution; yet, in spite of that, Ross and Vernon were being carried to an unknown destination in one of the "mystery-craft" of the Imperial German Navy.
The reappearance of the seaman bearing Ross's clothes cut short the latter's unsolved meditations. Without a word the man laid the neatly folded garments on the bunk—a pair of flannel trousers, cricket shirt, underclothes, and the sweater that had been the cause of the lads' undoing; but in place of his shoes a pair of half-boots, reeking with tallow, had been provided.
Ross proceeded to dress. As he did so a voice that he hardly recognized asked:
"Hulloa, Trefusis, where are we?"
It was Haye. His companion was now awake, but hardly conscious of his surroundings.
"Better?" asked Ross laconically. He could not at that moment bring himself to answer the question.
"Didn't know that I was ill," remonstrated Vernon. Then, after a vain attempt to raise his head—perhaps fortunately, since the bottom of Ross's cot was within a few inches of his face—he added:
"Dash it all! I remember. That beastly German gave me a crack over the head with his copper walking-stick. Where are we?"
"In a rotten hole, old man. We're in a German submarine, bound goodness knows where."
"Where are my clothes?" asked Haye, this time successfully getting out of his bunk. "Since you have yours, there seems to be no reason why I shouldn't have mine. Hang it! What's the matter with me? Everything's spinning round like a top."
Mindful of the seaman's words, and with a docility that would have surprised him in different circumstances, Ross staggered along the corridor. The passage was about thirty feet in length. On one side the metal wall was flat, on the other it had a pronounced curve. Against it were six bunks arranged in pairs. Four were used as stowing-places for baggage, the remaining ones had been given up to the two prisoners. The roof was almost hidden by numerous pipes, most of them running fore and aft, while a few branched off through the walls. The flat bulkhead evidently formed one of the walls of the engine-room, for, as the lad placed his hand against it to steady himself, he could feel a distinct tremor, quite different from the vibration under his feet. The floor was of steel, with a raised chequer pattern in order to give a better grip to one's feet. At frequent intervals there were circular places, similar to those covering the coal-shoots in the pavement of residential thoroughfares. Walls, ceiling, and floor were covered with beads of moisture, but whether from condensation or leakage Ross could not decide.
At the end of the corridor or alley-way was a steel water-tight door, running in gun-metal grooves packed with india-rubber. The door was closed.
Seizing the lever that served as a handle, Trefusis tried to turn it, but without success. Failing that, he kicked the steelwork with his heavy half-boots, yet no response came to his appeal.
"The fellow told me to call," he muttered airily. "What did he want to play the fool for?"
Retracing his steps, Ross went to the other end of the alley-way. There was barely room to pass his companion as he did so. The place from which he had previously seen the reflected light was now shut off by a door similarly constructed to the one that he had vainly attempted to open. He was locked in a steel tomb that was itself a metal box within a metal box—a water-tight compartment of the submarine.
"They might just as well have switched off the light while they were about it," he exclaimed bitterly; then at the next instant he wildly regretted his words. The idea of being imprisoned in that cheerless compartment without a light of any description appalled him.
Almost frantically he returned to the door that had previously baffled him. As he did so he became aware that the submarine was tilting longitudinally. Since he was unaware of the direction of the craft, and which was the bow or stern, he was unable to judge whether the unterseeboot was diving, or ascending to the surface.
The incline became so great that he had to grasp the door-lever for support. Turning his head, he saw that Vernon was hanging on grimly to the partition between the tiers of bunks.
Then, as the vessel regained an even keel, silently and smoothly the door slid back in its grooves, revealing a small space barely six feet in length and five in breadth, and separated from the rest of the vessel by a closed water-tight panel. Part of the compartment was occupied by a bend, at which the seaman to whom he had previously spoken was busily engaged in mending a rent in an oilskin coat.
"My friend is now awake," announced Ross.
The man laid aside his work.
"Good!" he replied. "He is just in time. I will bring him his food and his clothes. After that you will both go on deck for fresh air before you are interviewed by Herr Kapitan Schwalbe. See that door? Beyond that you must not pass without permission. It is forbidden. If you do so, you will not have another opportunity in a hurry."
"What are they going to do with us?" asked Ross.
The sailor shook his head.
"It is forbidden to ask questions," he said sternly. "Whatever is necessary that you should know will be told you."
He turned his back upon his questioner, signifying in a plain manner that it was useless for Trefusis to say more. Taking the hint the lad returned to his chum, wondering deeply at the fate that had thrown them into the hands of the enemy.
Like Ross, Vernon Haye made a poor meal. He had barely finished when a petty officer appeared and curtly ordered the lads to follow him. Since he did so in German it was fairly certain that Trefusis' admission had been communicated to both officers and crew.
Staggering, they passed along the alley-way into a broad subdivision that extended completely athwartships. It was one of the two broadside torpedo-rooms, and contained two tubes of slightly greater diameter than the British 21-inch. In "launching-trays" by the side of the tubes were eight torpedoes with their deadly war-heads attached. Both transverse bulkheads were almost hidden by indicators, voice-tubes, and pipes for transmitting the compressed air from the air-flasks to the torpedo-tubes.
Passing through another water-tight door the prisoners found themselves in yet another compartment. On one side was an "air-lock", with its complement of life-saving helmets; on the other was an oval-shaped door forming means of communication with the small room built against the curved sides of the submarine. Ross guessed, and rightly as it afterwards transpired, that the door led into a space that could be flooded at will, and which in turn enabled a diver to operate from the U-boat while submerged.
Confronting the lads was an almost perpendicular steel ladder communicating with the conning-tower. Their guide was about to ascend when a stern voice exclaimed in German:
"Not that, you idiotic clodhopper! Have you lost your reason? The forward hatchway, don't you know?"
"Pardon, Herr Leutnant," said the petty officer, abjectly apologetic, and, backing down the ladder, he passed through another door entering into an alley-way between the officers' cabins. Here was the bowl of a supplementary periscope, so that a vision of what was taking place could be obtained without going into the conning-tower.
The alley-way terminated at another broadside torpedo-room, the pairs of tubes pointing in the opposite direction to those the lads had just seen.
Beyond were the living-quarters of the crew, kept spotlessly clean and tidy, yet Spartan-like in their simplicity. Two of the men were sound asleep in their bunks. Three more, who were playing cards at a plain deal table, glanced up from their game as the British lads passed by; but their interest was of brief duration, and stolidly they resumed their play.
Stooping down to avoid a large metal trough—the "house" for the for'ard 105-millimetre disappearing gun—Ross and his chum arrived at the ladder by which they were to gain the open air.
The hatch-cover was thrown back. For the first time during their captivity they made the discovery that it was night. Looking upwards, they could see a rectangle of dark sky twinkling with stars that, with the slight motion of the submarine, appeared to sway to and fro.
The cool night breeze fanned their heated foreheads as they gained the deck. For some time, coming suddenly from the glare of the electrically lighted interior, their eyes were blinded. They could see nothing but an indistinct blurr of star-lit, gently heaving water.
Gradually the sense of vision returned. They found themselves on the fore-deck of the unterseeboot. They had made up their minds to see a turtle-back deck with a narrow level platform in the centre; instead they found that the deck was almost flat and, in nautical parlance, flush, save where it was broken by the elongated conning-tower topped by the twin periscopes and slender wireless mast.
Lying on the deck in all conceivable attitudes were most of the U-boat's crew, taking advantage of a brief spell on the surface to breathe deeply of the ozone-laden atmosphere.
Not a light was visible on board. Even the hatchway by which the lads had gained the deck was constructed to trap any stray beam from the brilliant glare below.
Miles away, and low down upon the horizon, a white light blinked solemnly; then after a brief interval it was succeeded by a red gleam. This in turn was followed by white again.
Trefusis, with a sailor's inborn instinct, began to count the intervals. Although having no means of consulting the only time-recording watch in the possession of the two captives, he had a fair idea of counting seconds. At fourteen from the disappearance of the red light the white appeared. An almost identical space of time occurred before the red reappeared.
"It's the Wolf Light," mentally ejaculated the lad.
His next step was to fix the bearing of the lighthouse. This he did by looking for the Great Bear, and then, following the Pointers, the North Star.
"Phew!" he muttered softly. "Nor'-nor'-west. This brute of a submarine is right in the chops of the Channel—the main highway for vessels making for London and the south coast ports."
"What's that?" asked Vernon, who heard his chum speaking, but had failed to grasp the significance of his words.
"Nothing," replied Ross almost in a whisper. "I'll tell you later."
The cool air had revived both lads wonderfully. They had been left to their own devices, for the petty officer had gone aft. Those of the crew who were on deck seemed as apathetic as the men below concerning the presence of the kidnapped youths. They looked like men utterly worn out by fatigue and nervous strain.
Grasping the flexible wire hand-rail Ross continued his survey of the horizon, all of which was visible except a small portion obscured by the rise of the conning-tower. The air was remarkably clear. Taking into consideration the refraction of the atmosphere, the navigation lamps of a vessel shown at twenty feet above the sea would be visible from the low-lying deck of the submarine at a distance of six to seven miles.
But there were no signs of any vessels in the vicinity. The German submarine rolled lazily in complete isolation, waiting, like a snake in the grass, for its prey.
"Herr Kapitan would see you," exclaimed the guttural voice of the petty officer. "Come aft. Remember, when you are addressed, to remove your caps."
The man led the way, making no attempt to avoid the recumbent limbs and bodies of the crew who impeded his passage. Treading with discretion Ross and Vernon followed till, after skirting the base of the conning-tower, they found themselves in the presence of Lieutenant-Commander Schwalbe, the Kapitan of U75.
Schwalbe was sitting in a small arm-chair which had been brought from his cabin. He was smoking a cigar. At his elbow stood his satellite, Hermann Rix, who was also smoking. This luxury was denied the crew, the officers being permitted to smoke only when the submarine was running awash or resting on the surface.
"So you have recovered from your little involuntary rest," exclaimed Schwalbe in excellent English. He was a remarkably good linguist, for previous to the outbreak of the war he had been the skipper of a North-German-Lloyd boat. By sheer good luck he had reached a home port the day after the momentous declaration of hostilities, having narrowly escaped capture by a British destroyer.
Owing to the great expansion of the German submarine service, and its equally rapid reduction at the hands of the British Navy, the supply of specially trained officers of the Imperial Navy for this branch had run out. More had been transferred from the pent-up High Seas Fleet, while others had been absorbed from the now useless German Mercantile Marine, and hastily put through a course of instruction. Schwalbe was one of these, and after less than two months' hazardous work in the capacity of Unter-leutnant found himself in command of U75, one of the "last words" of von Tirpitz's piratical fleet.
Neither Ross nor Vernon replied. They could form no suitable answer. It was no doubt very considerate on the part of the Kapitan to enquire after their healths, but somehow the lads felt that the skipper of U75 was responsible for their presence on board.
"Come, come," continued Schwalbe. "Don't be sulky."
"We are not," expostulated Ross.
"I'm glad to hear it," rejoined the Kapitan, with a grin that had the effect of letting his cigar fall to the deck. He stooped to retrieve it, but, suddenly remembering that it was beneath his dignity, changed his mind and kicked the glowing stump on one side. Having taken another from a gun-metal case, he lit it with a device that merely smouldered instead of giving a bright light.
"It is as well we understand each other," he continued. "Do you know why you are on board U75?"
"No, sir," replied Ross.
"Neither do I," rejoined Schwalbe with astonishing candour. "I wish I had not been honoured with your company."
"The remedy is in your hands then, sir," said Trefusis. "You can land us the next time you put in at St. Mena's Island for petrol, or else put us on board the first fishing craft we fall in with."
"I beg to differ," was the rejoinder. "Unfortunately you are on board, and you must make the best of it, I understand from my friend—shall I say Dr. Ramblethorne—that you are both very inquisitive. Inquisitiveness is a bad trait in ones so young. You see, it has got you into trouble. The doctor has strong reasons for getting me to take care of you for some considerable time, so you will have an opportunity of seeing how we Germans make war. No half-measures, mark you. It is useless to make war with a velvet glove. You English people call us pirates, I believe?"
"It certainly looks like piracy when German submarines sink harmless merchantmen without warning," declared Vernon.
"For my part I have never sent a merchant vessel to the bottom without warning," said Schwalbe. "As a seaman I regret having to sink any ship of commerce. As an officer of the German Navy I have to obey orders unquestionably. Nevertheless I have always given the crews of British ships a chance of escape, and have never sunk any vessel until the men are safely in the boats, unless she attempts to show fight or to run away."
"Would you blame a skipper for trying to save his ship?" asked Ross.
"You do not understand," exclaimed Schwalbe. "We are at war. A blockade has been declared upon the British Islands. If, after full warning, merchantmen persist in taking the risk, it is their look-out, not mine. However, to return to a more personal matter: having been saddled with you, I must endure your presence. You will be well fed, as far as the resources at our command will allow. You will be free to go wherever you wish on board, with the exception of the conning-tower, motor- and torpedo-rooms. I am not ungrateful, for my brother, who had the misfortune to be in the Ariadne, was captured by your fleet. He is being well treated somewhere in England. Hence I give privileges to the son of Admiral Trefusis and the son of Commander Haye so long as they are my compulsory guests. But bear in mind: you will be watched. Should you commit any fault, however slight, you will pay dearly for it. If you are foolish enough to attempt any act of treachery, death will be the penalty. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
"Yes, sir," replied both lads.
"Very well. Is there anything you would like me to do within the bounds of reason?"
"Could we communicate with our parents?" asked Ross.
"No," replied Schwalbe decisively. "There are strong objections. And, while I am on the subject, should you fall in with the crews of destroyed ships you are strictly forbidden to communicate with them either by word or gesture. That will be a punishable offence of the second degree. Anything more?"
"My friend has had a nasty knock on the head," said Trefusis. "Have you a doctor on board?"
Again Kapitan Schwalbe smiled broadly.
"No," he replied. "There is no need. Cases of illness must wait till we return to port. The only injuries we are likely to sustain would put us beyond all medical aid. But several of the men are fairly skilled in rough surgery, so I will——"
"Vessel on the port bow, sir; she's showing no lights," announced a voice.
"All hands to stations!" ordered the skipper.
"Down below with you!" hissed the petty officer, who during the interview had stood rigidly at attention at two paces to the rear of his charges.
Already the hitherto recumbent men were alert. Quickly, yet in order, they disappeared down the fore hatchway, and amongst them were Ross and Vernon.
The officers had taken their places inside the shelter of the conning-tower. Everything was battened down from within, and with a gentle purr the electric motors were set in motion, while at the same time water ballast was admitted into the trimming-tanks.
Swift and stealthy had been their preparations, but the presence of the submarine was betrayed by the phosphorescent swirl of the water caused by the churning of the twin propellers as she slipped beneath the surface.
Twenty seconds later a swift vessel that looked suspiciously like a trawler, although her speed belied her, tore over the place where U75 had disappeared. Bare inches only separated the top of the latter's conning-tower from the massive keel plates of the craft that had all but accomplished its mission.
The watch-dogs of the British Navy were at work.
Like a startled hare the unterseeboot fled for shelter. Not until she reached a depth of fifteen fathoms did she check her diagonally downward course. At intervals a dull booming, audible above the rattle of the motors, proclaimed the unpleasant fact that her antagonist was circling around the spot marked by the phosphorescent swirl and the iridescence of escaped oil, and was firing explosive grapnels in the hope of ripping open the U-boat's hull.
Kapitan Schwalbe, looking very grey in the artificial light, was standing behind the quartermaster. His hands were clenched in momentary apprehension. Beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead. He was experiencing a foretaste of the torment of the lost.
As a submarine officer of the Imperial German Navy he was a failure. Only sheer luck had hitherto saved him from the fate that had overtaken scores of his brother officers in that branch of the service. Skilled as he was in the handling of a huge liner, he lacked the iron nerve that is essential to the man who has to risk his life in a steel box that, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, offers no means of escape in the event of a catastrophe.
Yet he had to do his duty, notwithstanding his utter distaste for submarine work. He had had no option. The officers of the British Navy volunteer for submarine duties; those of the German Navy are simply told off whether they want to or not.
The nerve-racking work was beginning to tell upon him. His orders condemned him to a forlorn hope, for the English Channel was known to be a death-trap for the under-sea blockaders. The sight of a trawler filled him with feelings akin to terror. The possibility, nay probability, of a merchantman carrying guns made him approach his intended prey with the utmost caution; yet, as he had remarked to Ross Trefusis, he had never torpedoed any vessel flying the red ensign without giving her warning.
But it was not chivalry that prompted Schwalbe to act with consideration. Had he been untrammelled he would have sent his prey to the bottom without compunction, for he had all the brutal instincts of the kultured Hun. It was a superstitious fear that held his frightfulness in check—a presentiment based upon the Mosaic Law, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Having placed a considerable distance between him and his attacker, Kapitan Schwalbe ordered the electric motors to be stopped. The ballast tanks were "blown", and cautiously U75 rose to the surface.
It was the best course open to her. The depth of the water was much too great to allow her to rest on the bed of the sea. On the other hand, in order to keep submerged, the motors would have to be in motion. No one knew better than Schwalbe that the British patrol-boats would be in a position to locate with uncanny certitude the presence of their quarry, unless the strictest silence were maintained by the fugitive.
So, ready to dive at the first alarm, U75 floated awash until such times as were considered favourable for getting under way. Decidedly this part of the English Channel was, for the time being at least, unhealthy; and Kapitan Schwalbe resolved to make for the Bristol Channel, where the dangers of being destroyed by modern mosquitoes were more remote.
Meanwhile Ross and Vernon had been sent back to the quarters in the alley-way, by the side of the motor-room. Not knowing the reason for the U-boat's sudden submergence, and consequently unaware of the danger that threatened her, they formed the erroneous impression that the submarine was about to attack.
"The old fellow gave us a pretty straight tip," remarked Vernon, when the chums found themselves alone. "All the same, I vote we get out of it at the first opportunity, favourable or otherwise."
"'Ssh," whispered Ross. "Someone might be listening. I don't see how you propose to clear out, though."
"We were on deck just now."
"We were," agreed Trefusis.
"It was fairly dark. All the men up for'ard were lying down. It would have been an easy matter to have dived overboard and swum for it, if we hadn't been twenty miles or more from land."
"There was a bright look-out kept, all the same," objected Ross. "And I wouldn't mind saying that if the submarine were closer inshore, getting a supply of petrol, for example, we should be closely watched. All the same, I'm with you if we get the ghost of a chance. But it's a rummy affair altogether. Fancy that chap knowing our names and the rank of our respective fathers."
"Ramblethorne must have told him that," said Vernon.
"I suppose so; but for what reason? By Jove, if we get out of this mess all right, we'll have something to talk about—having been prisoners on a German submarine!"
The lads were not allowed on deck again that night. Acting upon Haye's suggestion they "turned in", and slept fitfully until awakened by the noise of the watch being relieved.
The seaman, Hans Koppe, brought them their breakfast. The meal consisted of fish, coffee, and the usual black bread. By this time the captives had practically recovered from the effects of the injection. Haye's head was still painful, although the headache had left him.
They ate with avidity, owing possibly to the atmosphere of the confined space, which was highly charged with oxygen.
"What is the Captain's name?" asked Ross, when the man came to remove the breakfast things.
The sailor told him.
"Where are we now?" enquired Vernon.
The man winked solemnly.
"Afloat," he replied. "Be content with that."
Just then there were unmistakable signs of activity on the part of the submarine crew. Several men hurried along the alley-way, each with a set purpose. They paid little heed to the Englanders as they passed.
At their heels came Herr Rix, the Leutnant of the submarine. He was beaming affably.
"Goot mornings!" he exclaimed. "You come mit me, den I show you how we blockade."
He led the way to the compartment in which the bowl of the supplementary periscope was placed. It was now broad daylight, and consequently the bowl showed a distinct image. A junior officer was standing by, but on seeing Rix approach he saluted and moved aside.
"Look!" exclaimed the Leutnant.
Both lads peered into the bowl. On its dull sides, an expanse of sea and sky was portrayed. Beyond that they could see nothing, until Rix called their attention to a small dark object.
"Englische sheep!" he declared. "Now you vos watch."
He touched a metal stud. Instantly an arrangement of telescopic lenses came into play within the tube of the periscope, with the result that a small portion of the view was greatly magnified upon the object card. It revealed a tramp of about nine hundred tons. She had a single funnel painted black, with two broad red bands; two stumpy masts, with derricks, and a lofty bridge and chart-house abaft the funnel. She was wall-sided. Her rusty hull was originally painted black. Here and there were squares of red lead, showing that her crew had been engaged in trying to smarten her up before she reached port. Aft, frayed and dirty with the smoke that poured from her funnel, floated the red ensign.
The submarine began to rise. Although she tilted abruptly, the image of the tramp steamer still remained upon the object bowl. By an ingenious arrangement, the lenses were constructed to compensate for any deviation of the tube of the periscope from the vertical. The lads could see the bows of the U-boat shaking clear of the water, throwing cascades of foam off on either side as the passing craft forged ahead at at least eighteen knots.
Now, for the first time, the skipper of the tramp saw the danger. He was a short, thick-set man, with white hair and an iron-grey moustache, and a face the colour of mahogany. For an instant he grasped the bridge-rails and looked towards the submarine, then gesticulated violently to the man at the wheel.
The spikes ran through the helmsman's hands, as he rapidly revolved the wheel actuating the steam steering-gear. The tramp swung hard to port, with the idea of baffling the momentarily expected torpedo.
Kapitan Schwalbe acted up to his principles. In any case he was loath to use a torpedo upon a comparatively small vessel. In response to an order, half a dozen of the submarine's crew swarmed on deck, three going for'ard and three aft. Within forty-five seconds the two disappearing guns were raised from the water-tight "houses".
Ross, Vernon, and the German Leutnant remained gazing into the bowl of the periscope. The vision so absorbed the attention of the two lads that they hardly heeded the presence of Herr Rix, who occasionally emitted grunts of satisfaction or annoyance as the scene was enacted.
The bow gun spat viciously. The range was but three hundred yards. The missile passed a few feet in front of the tramp's bows, and, throwing up a shower of spray that burst inboard on the British vessel's fo'c'sle, ricochetted a mile or so away.
The tramp's skipper showed his mettle. Round swung the vessel, listing heavily as she did so. By this time the call for more steam had been responded to, and dense clouds of black smoke belched from her funnel, mingled with puffs of white vapour as the siren bleated loudly for aid.
Running awash, U75 had a great advantage of speed; overtaking her prey she was able to send half a dozen shells into the lofty target presented as she slid by.
Holes gaped in the thin plating close to the waterline. A shell, passing completely through the funnel, demolished the siren. Being without wireless, the tramp was now without means of long-distance signalling.
Another missile hit the chart-house and, exploding, swept the frail structure overboard in a thousand fragments. The old skipper, hit by a splinter of wood, fell inertly upon the bridge; but the next instant he staggered to his feet, bawling to the crew to get the hand-steering gear connected.
"He's down again!" exclaimed Ross breathlessly, as the brave old man dropped upon the shattered planking of the bridge. "Hurrah! He's still alive."
The skipper had deliberately taken cover behind the slender shelter afforded by the metal side-light boards. By the frantic movement of his arm, it was evident that he was exhorting his men to "stick it" like Britons.
The hail of shells continued. Already fire had broken out on board in several places. A sliver of metal sheered through the ensign staff. Without hesitation one of the crew rushed off, retrieved the weather-worn bunting, and made his way to the mainmast.
Slowly and deliberately he re-hoisted the ensign until it fluttered proudly from the truck, then with apparent unconcern the man disappeared below.
By this time the tramp was again under control, with a course shaped for land, which lay about ten miles to the S.S.E. It was, however, a foregone conclusion that unless help were speedily forthcoming the vessel was doomed.
The tramp began to heel, almost imperceptibly at first, then with increasing speed. She had received her coup de grace.
Still the engines were kept going full speed ahead. The dauntless skipper remained on the bridge, with a look of grim resolution on his weather-beaten features.
Slowly the vessel's way diminished. Her bow-wave, owing to the gradually increasing draught, was greater, but less sharp than before. In a few minutes the water would be pouring over her fore-deck.
Seeing that their work was completed, the pirates ceased fire, the guns' crews standing with folded arms and stolidly watching the tramp as she struggled in her death-throes.
Presently a vast cloud of steam issued from her engine-room. The inrush of water had damped her furnaces. The engineer and firemen, their faces black with coal-dust and streaming with moisture, hurried on deck.
For another quarter of a mile the doomed vessel carried way, then came to a sudden stop. As she did so she gave a quick list to starboard, until only a few inches of bulwark amidships showed above the waves.
Then, and only then, did the skipper give orders for the boats to be lowered. In an orderly manner the crew manned the falls, and the task of abandoning the ship began.
Without undue haste, the crew dropped into the waiting boats, each man with a bundle containing his scanty personal effects wrapped up in a handkerchief. The Captain was the last to leave. He did so reluctantly, his left hand tightly grasping the ship's papers.
Having rowed a safe distance from the foundering vessel, the men rested on their oars, and waited in silence for the end. It was not long in coming.
The tramp was heeling more and more, and slightly down by the bows. Suddenly she almost righted; then, amid a smother of foam as the compressed air burst open her hatches, she flung her stern high in the air.
Even then she seemed in no hurry. The after part from the mainmast remained in view, the now motionless propeller being well clear of the water.
For quite a minute she remained thus, then with a quick yet almost gentle movement slid under the waves. The last seen of her was the weather-worn red ensign still fluttering from the truck.
The periscope's bowl showed nothing but an expanse of sea and sky, and the two boats rising buoyantly to the waves.
A grim chuckle brought Ross and Vernon back to their surroundings. Herr Rix was rubbing his hands and grunting with evident satisfaction.
"Goot!" he ejaculated. "Now, how you like dat? Now you see how we German make blockade, hein?"
"A brave deed," replied Ross scornfully, and, gripping Vernon by the arm, led him back to their uncomfortable quarters in the alley-way.
On the Bed of the Sea
For the next twenty-four hours nothing exciting occurred. The U-boat kept to the surface as much as possible, running under her petrol motors at fifteen knots. To exceed that pace would mean too great a consumption of fuel, and already the vessel was short of petrol.
Kapitan Schwalbe was prone to act on the side of extreme caution. Having sunk one vessel, he would not tackle another in the same vicinity. He invariably put at least a hundred miles between him and the scene of his latest ignominious exploit before attempting another act of kultur.
Three times during that twenty-four hours he dived: twice on sighting what were unquestionably Bristol Channel pilot-boats, and on the third occasion when a Penzance lugger under motor-power (for it was a dead calm) crossed his track.
All this time a regular stream of shipping was passing up and down the Bristol Channel, as unconcernedly as in the piping days of peace. To anyone but a bumptious German, the sight would have told its own tale; for the British Mercantile Marine, used to danger and difficulties, was not to be deterred by the "frightfulness" of von Tirpitz's blockade. On the contrary, the possibility of falling in with a hostile submarine gave an unwonted spice to the everyday routine of the toilers of the sea.
After breakfast on the following morning Ross and Vernon were told to go on deck. The sea was still calm, and the submarine, now running awash at full speed, was cleaving the water with practically dry decks.
The lads soon realized what was in progress. A couple of miles away was a large ocean cargo-boat, outward bound, and U75 was in pursuit.
Trefusis and his chum were not allowed for'ard, where the quick-firer was already in position for opening fire. They were ordered abaft the conning-tower, the hatch of which was open.
Kapitan Schwalbe's head and shoulders could be seen projecting above the opening. On the raised grating surrounding the conning-tower, stood a boyish-looking Unter-leutnant. Hermann Rix was nowhere to be seen. Apparently his duties compelled him to remain below.
Presently the quick-firer barked, and a projectile struck the water about a hundred yards from the starboard side of the pursued vessel. With the discharge of the gun, a sailor hoisted the black cross ensign of Germany from a small flagstaff aft, while a signal in the International Code ordering the British vessel to heave to instantly fluttered from the light mast immediately abaft the conning-tower.
The only response from the chase was the hoisting of the red ensign, for previously she had shown no colours. Slowly, defiantly, the bunting was hauled close up, and ironically "dipped" three times.
Again and again the submarine's bow-chaser fired. The shells were well aimed as regards direction, but all fell short. Imperceptibly the merchantman had increased distance.
"Look at the fools!" Ross heard the Kapitan remark, as he kept his binoculars focused on his intended prey. "They are trying to snapshot us. Are all Englishmen so blind to peril?"
"Are you sure they haven't a couple of quick-firers mounted aft, sir?" asked the Unter-leutnant. "There are several men gathered round something on the poop."
"Himmel, I hope not!" ejaculated Schwalbe. "But no; had they any guns they would have opened fire before now. What is the matter with our gun-layer? It is about time he got a shell home."
The Unter-leutnant lowered himself on the foredeck, and shouted angrily at the seaman whose duty it was to "lay" the bow-chasers. The man again bent over the sights.
This time the shell pitched ahead of the chase, but slightly to port. Some of the spray thrown up by the projectile fell on board.
"Is that the best you can do, you brainless idiot?" shouted Schwalbe wrathfully. Now that he was in pursuit he was loath to be baffled, but at the same time he realized that the submarine was using a lot of precious fuel and a prodigious amount of ammunition without any definite result.
In the midst of his torrent of abuse directed upon the luckless gun-layer, Kapitan Schwalbe suddenly stopped. Gripping the rim of the oval hatchway he gazed, horror-stricken, at two objects bobbing in the water directly in the path of the submarine. Then, recovering his voice, he shouted to the quartermaster to port helm.
The fellow obeyed promptly, but it was too late. Practically simultaneously, two barrels swung round and crashed alongside the submarine's hull.
Officers and men, expecting momentarily to find themselves blown into the air, stood stock-still. Then, as nothing so disastrous occurred, Schwalbe gave orders for easy astern.
The barrels, connected by a span of grass rope, had been thrown overboard from the pursued vessel, in the hope that the submarine would foul her propellers in the tangle of line. Once a blade picked up that trailing rope, the latter would coil round the boss as tightly as a band of flexible steel.
The plan all but succeeded; only the metal guards protecting the propellers saved them from being hopelessly jammed. Yet the attempt was attended with good results as far as the British ship was concerned, for by the time U75 had lost way and had cautiously backed away from the obstruction, the swift cargo-vessel had gained a distance that put her beyond all chance of being overhauled.
Infuriated by his failure, Kapitan Schwalbe went aft and descended into his cabin. He was hardly conscious of the presence of his two involuntary guests as he passed. He was thinking of the fate that had consigned him to a perilous and uncongenial task. Without doubt the vessel he had been pursuing was equipped with wireless, and by this time a number of those dreaded hornets would be tearing towards the spot. To add to his discomfiture it was reported to him that the reserve of fuel on board had seriously dwindled. In order to remain effective it was necessary that U75 should replenish her tanks before another forty-eight hours had passed.