Above the Bidding
ABOVE THE BIDDING
IT was a boisterous afternoon when Captain Bell entered the ornamental offices of the Torwood coasting line, which had been plain enough before old Torwood died, and Linstock undertook the management of the company. His methods were modern, and he believed in display, but the shareholders had ground for being satisfied with him. The satisfaction, however, was not shared by the coasters' crews, and shippers began to remark that Torwoods were no longer marked by the blunt honesty that had characterised the founder of the firm.
When Bell tapped on the mahogany counter, a grey-haired clerk opened a window. He was one of old Torwood's servants, and it was believed in the office that he would not be there long.
"We have kept you busy, captain, but you may get a day off," he said. "I don't think you'll go to sea next tide."
The clerk lowered his voice. "We've had an Admiralty warning about submarines lurking near the Calf of Man, but the chief didn't leave it in the outer office. However, he's waiting, and told me to send you in."
Bell went through to the manager's private room, where a very well-dressed man looked up for a moment and let him stand, though Torwood, who was rough and untidy, had generally given him a cigar. After a minute or two Linstock turned to him.
"The weather seems bad, but you must take the coal, which is urgently wanted in Ireland, across to-night."
"Very well, sir, though I'd have liked a day in port. Ferguson wants to dismantle his high-pressure engine."
"We'll give him a chance next trip. There's another matter. I understand you refused to sail with Mr. Waltham, the mate, and ordered him ashore."
"That's so," Bell answered quietly. "He shipped a couple of hands I didn't approve of, and was insolent when I sent them off."
Linstock looked hard at him. "I'm told you never got on with Waltham. Are you sure you're not prejudiced? He came to us well recommended, and I gave him the post."
Bell was silent for a few moments. He had distrusted Waltham— there was something he thought of as un-English about the fellow—and he had a similar feeling for his employer. Moreover, he knew instinctively that Linstock disliked him and favoured the mate. To be firm might cost him something, but he did not mean to yield.
"I've no fault to find with his seamanship, but I must have ray orders obeyed," he said. "Besides, he'd engaged two foreigners, and I prefer a British crew just now."
Linstock gave him a keen glance, and then made a gesture of dismissal. "Very well, if you insist. You'll take precautions against attack, and telegraph us when you arrive."
Bell went out in a thoughtful mood. He had, no doubt, offended the manager, but his distrust of him had increased; it was strange the fellow had not mentioned the Admiralty warning. He transacted some business with the clerk, and then caught a train that arrived some hours later at a small North-country port. It was raining hard, and a bitter wind swept the dingy streets as he walked to his lodgings. They were not in a fashionable neighbourhood, because the pay of coasting skippers is not high, but the pretty, delicate woman who met him with a loving smile had made them homely, and Bell shook off his troubles when he kissed her and his child.
For all that, the troubles returned when the little feast she had prepared was over and they sat by the fire. The tawdry carpets and curtains and shabby furniture suggested careful economy, and Mrs. Bell had a faded look. Bell remembered her fresh beauty when she married him; but he was mate of a big liner then, though he lost the post after a dispute with an autocratic superintendent. Bell was obstinate, and characterised by certain fixed ideas of his duty that sometimes brought him into conflict with his employers. By and by it struck him that his wife had something on her mind, and he glanced at the little girl, who sat very quietly in a corner with a book.
"Lucy doesn't look much better," he remarked. "Has the doctor been again?"
Mrs. Bell hesitated. "He was here this morning, and thought her cough was worse. He said we ought to take her south as soon as possible. It's too bleak on this exposed coast."
"I don't see how it can be managed," Bell remarked, with a troubled look. "But did he say nothing about yourself?"
"He thought the change would be good for both of us," she answered reluctantly.
Bell mused, studying his wife. She had never been strong, and now looked unusually thin. But he imagined she had something more to say. Presently she took up a letter and gave it to him with an apologetic air.
"It's impossible, of course, but Lucy would soon get well if we could go. Cousin Mabel says the Mill House will be sold very cheap, and she can find most of the money, if we will join. Besides, we could let it for the summer months."
Bell's face turned grim as he read the letter, for he knew his wife was anxious about the child, who- did not thrive among the blast-furnace fumes and colliery smoke that blew across the bleak North-country town. Now the comfortable old house where she had been born in a sheltered Devon valley was for sale, and her relative had made a very practical suggestion for its purchase.
"My dear," he said, "it cuts deep to refuse a chance like this, but I haven't a quarter of the money our share would come to. I wish I had!"
"I know," she answered, with gentle sympathy. "You would deny yourself of everything for us; but we won't talk about it. A man called to see you this afternoon."
"What was his name?"
"He didn't say, but somehow I didn't like his looks."
Bell let the matter drop. He must go to sea soon, and meant to make the most of the hour or two he had left; and he said nothing about his fear that Linstock would discharge him.
At twelve o'clock he left the house and walked to the dock where the Pharpar lay alongside the giant coal-tips. Her decks were foul with black dust, which a few shivering men were sullenly washing off, and the air was thick with rain. She was an old iron steamer of about four hundred tons, but with finer lines and more powerful engines than most coasters. Once upon a time she had been engaged in the Mediterranean fruit trade, where speed was needed, but she burned more coal than modern boats, and Tor wood had bought her cheap. Bell knew she was well insured.
When he went to his room, he found a man waiting, who asked for a few minutes' talk, and offered him a cigar. Bell, who did not take it, told him to be quick. He was unable to remember all that passed, but the interview went something like this—
"You can't get into port until high water, but you'll be across before then," the stranger remarked.
"Yes," said Bell. "What about it?"
"As you'll have to wait for the tide, you may as well steam dead slow for a few hours and save some coal."
Bell studied the other, and thought his wife was right. The man was well dressed and spoke good English, but Bell did not like his looks.
"It would suit me better to anchor on the Irish coast."
"I can show you the contrary. You'd find it would pay you well to spend the time at sea."
"Ah!" said Bell, who began to see where the other was leading. "Go on."
"You have four large cases of tools on board, which won't be asked for by the Irish consignees. You could mark them off as 'short-shipped,' and deliver them, on application, near the Calf of Man."
"Why should I do this?"
"Because you won't have to account for the cases, and will earn a hundred pounds!"
Bell was silent a moment, and then asked: "Have you the money?"
The other smiled. "We pay when the work's done—as soon as you tranship the goods. But, as a proof of good faith, I'll give you ten pounds now."
"Who'll apply for the cases?" Bell asked, with stern restraint as he took the money.
"We'll avoid particulars. Stop your engines when the Chickens Light bears south-east six miles, where you'll be in pretty smooth water. Perhaps you can arrange with your engineer for a bearing to get hot. Show no alarm at what happens, but do what you're told, and, when the cases are hoisted out, you'll be allowed to proceed."
"I understand," Bell said shortly. "Is this all?"
"I might add that your police would have hard work to find me, and that to land the cases in Ireland might get you into serious trouble. In fact, I could make it very awkward for you if you tried to stop me leaving the ship.
The man went away, and Bell lighted his pipe. He had overcome the strongest temptation he had ever had to face, and now felt puzzled as well as angry. It was strange that the fellow knew so much, and took it for granted that he could be bribed; but perhaps his appearance had something to do with this. He looked careworn, and his clothes were shabby. Disappointment, bad times, and the struggle to maintain his delicate wife and child, and meet the heavy doctor's bills, had left their mark on him. But his honour was not for sale.
When he went out on the rain-swept deck, a man under a lamp on the quay hailed him, and he saw it was the owner of some coasters that competed with the Torwood boats. Bell had met him once or twice.
"Will you give me a passage?" he asked.
"You'll have to rough it, Mr. Harkness. Then I'm told there are submarines about."
Harkness got on board. "I learned something about roughing it in the sailing ships, and I'll risk a torpedo. They've stopped the mail-boats, but the Cygnet's badly ashore near Strangford Lough, and I must get across."
Bell gave him his room, and went to the bridge when the Pharpar warped out of dock. The ropes were cast off from the pierhead, and with a smoke-cloud trailing behind her, and the white combers bursting on her bows, she lurched away into the spray that swept the Irish Sea. An hour later he went down and sent for his elderly Scots engineer. They were good friends, and Bell told him what the stranger had said.
"It's queer," Ferguson remarked. "I'll no waste time asking what ye mean to do."
"You needn't. My cousin and most of his crew were drowned in a torpedoed ship a month ago!"
"Weel," said Ferguson, "we'll tak' a look at the cases by and by, but I canna leave the old mill yet. She's no running as I like; ye'll mind I asked for a day to sort her."
"It's Linstock's fault you didn't get it."
"I ken that line. Mr. Linstock's a man o' parts and earns good dividends, but he sometimes makes mistakes."
"He wouldn't grieve if the Pharpar went to the bottom with you and me on board."
"Maybe, but she's no there yet. It's a comfort to remember the old boat's faster than she looks."
He was somewhat oracular, but Bell knew his man, and felt sure of his support. After a time, however, Ferguson came up to the bridge looking grave.
"I'll have to stop her," he remarked. "Ye can alloo for two hours before she's under steam again."
This was awkward, because it meant that the Pharpar would pass the Calf of Man about the time the spy had mentioned; but Bell ordered the small, sooty sails to be hoisted, and walked up and down his bridge in a dangerous mood. He had had his troubles before he sailed, and now it might be made to look as if he had been bought by his country's enemies; but if the worst came, they should find that he could fight. With this object, he had a heavy grindstone and a big spare anchor-stock lashed outside the bridge. These would do some damage to anything they fell upon. The steamer was heading about south, which, with the ebb tide on her lee bow, would carry her into the danger zone, but the drag of the propeller prevented his bringing her round. At length a message came from Ferguson, and Bell left the bridge.
"Evans can finish the job noo," said the engineer. "As she's no quite ready for starting yet, we'll look at the cases."
He brought a lantern, and they went down alone into the dark hold. The cases were large and strongly made, and the steamer rolled awkwardly, but after working hard they loosened the top of one.
"What do you think we'll find?" Bell asked breathlessly, as he threw down his crowbar.
"Drums o' oil that would suit engines o' the Diesel type, and maybe cylinders o' oxygen, though I dinna ken much about submarines."
"Then look here!" Bell exclaimed, with a hoarse laugh, when he had pulled off the loose boards.
Ferguson looked and rubbed his forehead. The case, which was marked "Tools," was filled with axes, navvies' picks, and saws.
"Weel," he said, "this is no what I expected. Maybe it's a blind. We'll open another."
They did so, and found it contained the articles described in the manifest. Then as they stood, at a loss, amidst a litter of broken boards and torn jute packing, Bell swung round at a footstep and saw Harkness close by.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"About ten minutes. I saw a hatch plank had been lifted, and came quietly down. Though it's not my business, I suppose you have some reason for broaching this cargo?"
Bell rather liked the man, who had a good name with his captains. He thought he could trust him, and he might need an independent witness. In consequence, he related his interviews with Linstock and the stranger. Harkness pondered for a few moments, and then said—
"To begin with, the German agent's game is tolerably plain—he wanted to ensure your being near a spot where the submarine could find and sink you. You were right to take the money, which, of course, is all you would have got."
"He's ten pounds to the good, onyway!" Ferguson remarked.
"The old boat's hardly worth a torpedo," Bell objected. "Linstock would be glad to lose her."
"Just so," Harkness agreed very dryly. "For all that, a British steamer of four hundred tons would swell the German pirates' bag. It's strange your manager said nothing about the submarines, but you may see how two objects would be gained by one shot."
Bell looked hard at him, and Harkness smiled. "Nobody seems quite sure about Mr. Linstock's nationality, though I suppose he has satisfied the police. Still, if we assumed him to be a foreigner, one could understand——"
Bell's face set hard and he clenched his fist. "The rogues thought they'd buy me, and then let me go down with the ship!"
"Without e'en paying the full price!" Ferguson interposed.
"That was, no doubt, their plan," said Harkness. "However, as I imagine we're near the dangerous spot, what are you going to do?"
"Run, if I can," Bell answered. "If not, I'll fight!" Then he turned to Ferguson. "Start your engines and raise all the steam the old boiler will stand."
He went up, saw the hatch battened down, put out his navigation lights, and changed his course when the engines began to throb. It was blowing fresh, but the air had cleared and the rain had stopped. The line of Manx hills cut black against the sky, and though the vessel was under the lee of the land, a confused swell was running. She lurched across it, flinging the spray aloft in clouds, but while the engines were now running well, Bell thought it prudent to keep some speed in hand. Few modern colliers were as fast as the old fruit boat. The light on the Chickens rock had been extinguished, but he was steering for the dangerous channel between it and the Calf island when the look-out forward hailed him.
"White streak crossed our bows, sir, like a flash!" Then there was silence for a moment, and the fellow called again in a harsh voice; "Something big on port bow—looks like a submarine."
Bell rang for full speed, and after signing to the helmsman, said to Harkness, who stood near him on the bridge: "You'd better get below. Some of them carry guns."
"I sent my two boys to the Navy, to take worse risks," Harkness answered, with a short, stern laugh.
Listing down as her helm went over, the Pharpar swung to starboard, and Bell, who snatched up his night-glasses, saw a low dark object rushing after him through a broad track of foam. It was now on his port quarter.
"That's a submarine, boys!" he called to the startled watch. "Stand by me like Britons, and we'll beat him yet!"
A savage growl answered him, and he glanced aft again. The black object was plainer, and drawing up; he could see the torn swell wash across its rounded top. The enemy was faster than the Pharpar, but she could not bring her torpedo tubes to bear as she was steering, and to change her course would lose her ground. Still, Bell knew he had another danger to face, and gripped the bridge-rails hard as a quick red flash blazed out of the dark. Smoke gushed from the side of the punctured funnel, and the crash of the gun was followed by a detonation and a white cloud in the air ahead.
"Something wrong with their percussion gear," he said to Harkness coolly. "If he gives me a chance to swing off, I'll run for the Calf Sound and drown him among the reefs; but he'll hit us with his starboard tube if I let her swerve." Then he pushed Harkness back with a cry of: "Look out!"
There was another flash, the back of the wheel-house was torn to splinters, and somebody screamed inside; but Bell, springing in among the wreckage, seized the wheel in time. A shadowy figure lay groaning at his feet, and half the bridge had gone, but the Pharpar was still on a course that prevented the submarine bringing her tubes to bear. Then rifles began to crackle, and bullets sang past and struck chips from the wrecked bridge, while a small shell made fragments of a swung-out boat. A cry of pain and hoarse curses rose from the deck below, and Bell felt a sudden burning pang in his shoulder, after which something fell upon him, and the shattered wheel-house was filled with smoke. His hands slipped from the spokes, but next moment Harkness sprang in and seized the wheel.
"Fight your ship, if you can! I'll take the helm!" he cried.
Bell staggered out, choking with the smoke, half dazed and faint. His face was blackened, warm blood ran down his arm, and he had lost his cap, but he pulled himself together as he leaned on the broken rails. The submarine was converging on the Pharpar and drawing further forward. Her low, dark hull emerged in patches from the tumbling foam, and the small superstructure near its middle was level with the bridge. It looked as if she did not mean to waste a costly torpedo when she could finish her victim with her gun; but if she held on for another minute, Bell saw what he could do.
"Starboard!" he called to Harkness, as a shell burst aft. "Hard over!"
A bullet screamed past him, but he laughed as he felt the Pharpar list and saw her bows begin to swing. Then the crackle of rifle-fire stopped, and the submarine swerved; but she was too late, for the Pharpar's helm had gone over first The collier's tall black forecastle lurched out of a cloud of spray, towering over the other's almost submerged hull. The submarine could dive, but this would need some preparation, and Bell meant to help her down before she was ready.
"Hold fast, all!" he shouted feebly.
There was one wild cry of terror, and then a heavy crash. The Pharpar trembled, but did not stop, and her crew heard the thin steel shell she struck crumple up. Four hundred tons travelling at twelve knots carries its momentum well, and her shattered enemy was pressed beneath the collier's keel. For a few moments there was a harsh grinding and grating that steadily passed aft, and then the steamer leaped ahead. A patch of frothing white broke out and vanished in her wake, and Bell, who slipped from the rails, sat down limply on the bridge.
An hour later he found himself lying on the settee in his room, though he did not know how he got there. His arm was bound to his side, and there was a bandage round his head.
"How's the boat?" he asked Harkness, who sat close by.
"Something the worse for wear, but steaming well on a course to Belfast."
"She's not consigned to Belfast," the captain objected feebly.
"We're going there, anyhow. We have two men badly hurt, who must be sent to hospital. Besides, you're damaged yourself."
"Some fool has tied my head up, but that wasn't where I was hit."
"It looked pretty bad," said Harkness. "I imagine a stanchion fell on you, and it was the blow that knocked you out. The bullet went clean through your shoulder, and, if it hasn't smashed the blade, mayn't have done much harm. But drink this and go to sleep."
Bell, who felt very thirsty, drained the offered glass and closed his eyes. When he wakened, the Pharpar was moored, and two of the crew put him into an ambulance.
Three or four days later Harkness came to see him at the hospital.
"We got the Cygnet off, but I've sacked the fellow who stranded her," he said. "That means some changes, and you can have command of the Merganser, if it suits you. She's a big boat, and the pay's better than anything you're likely to get from Torwoods."
"It's tempting," Bell replied. "Still, though I think Linstock meant——"
"Linstock's gone. He seems to have vanished when the news of your exploit got home, and I hear that Torwoods are badly upset. Some of the old shareholders never trusted the manager, and now there's talk of defalcations and reconstructing the company. Anyhow, as they mean to sell off the worst paying boats, you had better come to us."
"Thanks!" said Bell, with feeling. "I'll do my best; but you don't know much about me yet. Then there's Ferguson——"
"I know enough," Harkness answered, smiling. "There are probably more submarines about, and it looks as if you could be trusted by your country and your employer. Besides, we're rather short of good engineers, and. to satisfy you, we'll put Ferguson in the Mallard."
Copyright, 1915, by Harold Bindloss, in the United States of America.