AN ADVENTURE OFF CHARLESTON
The news that a strange vessel was in sight soon travelled throughout the ship, and all who could do so, crowded to the spar deck, while the officers stationed themselves on the forecastle, bridge and other points of vantage.
There was no necessity to give the order, "Clear ship for action!" for the Brooklyn was already cleared. Moreover, all the big guns contained their charges of eight-inch and other shells. The six-pounders and the Colts were now "provided," as it is termed, and then there was nothing to do but to lie by the guns and await further orders.
Immediately upon notification that a strange sail was in sight, the flagship had run up a signal to the Scorpion, "Follow the unknown ship to the southward," and away darted the little gunboat at a rate of speed which caused the mighty waves of the Atlantic to wash her decks from end to end. Presently the sea proved almost too heavy for her and she had to reduce her speed, and the Brooklyn went ahead, her high freeboard sending the water to port and starboard with scarcely an effort. Once, however, she did get caught below an unusually high crest and all on the forward deck received a liberal drenching.
"Fire a shot across her bow!" was the order given, when the strange craft again emerged from a fog-bank, and boom! one of the smaller guns belched forth. The echoes of the shot had scarcely died away when the unknown ship was seen to hoist the British flag.
"Only a Britisher!" sighed Caleb, when the news came down to him. "And I thought we were going to have the profit of a nice Spanish prize."
Not caring, to go entirely by the flag displayed, since the unknown ship had acted so strangely, the Scorpion was again sent forward to make an investigation. In quarter of an hour she came up within hailing distance.
"What ship is that?" was bawled out through a megaphone.
"British steamer Elsie. What gunboat is that?"
"The Scorpion, of the United States navy. Where are you bound and what have you on board?"
"Bound for Norfolk, Virginia, with a cargo of phosphate rock."
"Why didn't you show your flag before?"
"Well, to tell the truth we were afraid we had run into some Spanish warships, and that England might be mixed up in this muss, in which case we didn't want to become a Spanish prize. How is it? are we in it yet?"
"No, Uncle Sam is running this war without outside help," was the concluding remark, and then the two vessels separated; and the Flying Squadron proceeded on its way.
Saturday found the course of the Brooklyn changed to southwest by south. "We are still hugging the coast," explained Si. "I shouldn't wonder if we are to make a stop somewhere, say at Charleston or Savannah."
"Perhaps the commodore has word that the Spanish ships are sailing for our southeast coast," suggested Walter. "My! what a nasty day it is going to be." He referred to the mist, which was so heavy that it felt almost like rain. For May, the weather was raw and cold, and all hands were glad to stay below decks as much as possible.
On this day another long exercise at the gun was had, and Walter learned more thoroughly than ever how the charge was raised from the ammunition hoists to the gun, pushed into place by the mechanical rammer, and how the gun was moved up, down, or sideways by merely touching this button or that wheel or lever. "It's wonderful!" he observed. "I suppose it would be next to impossible to move such a big gun by hand."
"Oh, it can be done," answered Caleb. "In the old navy they used to do it by hand, and each gun had ten to sixteen men to man it. In those days they had no device to lessen the shock of the recoil as we have now. Instead of having a water cushion for the gun to strike on, they used a heavy rope in the back, and sometimes the rope broke, and the gun did more damage flying backward than the charge did flying forward."
"They didn't have any breech-loaders in those days, did they?"
"They had some in the Civil War, but not many before that. Everything in the way of powder and ball had to be put into the muzzle, and was rammed home by hand. The first breech-loading guns were clumsy affairs, and not a few accidents were had by guns going off before the breeches were properly locked."
"And what about sighting the pieces?"
"Oh, they have had dozens of devices for getting a correct aim, some pretty good and some decidedly bad. In the old navy the guns didn't carry near so far as they do now, and your old-time gunner was just what his name calls for, for he sighted the piece and fired it himself. But the old times are gone, and I expect one of these days all the work still left will be done by machinery, and a dozen men sitting up in the conning tower will control the warship from stem to stern."
Walter laughed at this. "I reckon we're some time off from that yet, Walton. But it is wonderful how much the commander can control by using his bells, annunciators, speaking-tubes, and electrical indicators. I guess that is a great improvement on the old way of yelling orders through a speaking-trumpet and having a dozen middies rushing around telling this man and that what to do."
"No doubt of it, lad. But when it's all done and said, you must remember one thing—we have still to prove the worth of our floating forts in war times. Dewey did well at Manila, but it may be that the Spanish warships out there weren't in the best condition. Now this Admiral Cervera, whom we are after, has ships that are thoroughly up to date, and when his outfit meets ours, then—well, we'll see what we will see," concluded the old gunner.
That afternoon Walter took his first lesson in making knots. He had had some idea concerning a variety of knots which had been taught to him by Larry, when he and his younger brother were sailing about Lake Erie, but those which were now exhibited were truly bewildering.
"The single bend and figure of 8 are easy enough," he sighed. "But when you come to that sheep-shank and bowline upon the bight, as you term them, it grows confusing."
"This is only the beginning," answered Caleb. "After you know the knots, you'll want to learn the hitches—half-hitch, rolling-hitch, and so on,—and after that you'll want to take up the splices, and then the different kinds of tackle,—long-tackle, single-whip, and all that. I reckon those will keep your mind busy for a week or two. To be sure, those things belong more to a seaman than a gun-hand, but it's good to know how to do, in case you are called upon at some time."
The night came on with a storm in the air. As before, all the lights were extinguished, and the different watches took their turns at the guns. Walter had just turned in when a shout rang out. "Another vessel in sight!" As rapidly as possible the lad leaped up.
"Is it a Spanish warship?" he asked. "Don't know," answered Caleb, laconically, but leaped to the gun, with Walter and the others following.
But it was only another scare, for the vessel in sight proved to be a merchantman bound for a northern port. The big searchlight of the Brooklyn was turned upon her, and instantly every light on the merchantman went out and the ship sneaked away with all sails set. No effort was made to pursue her.
"The captain of that craft will report falling in with a big Spanish fleet; see if he don't," said Caleb; and the old gunner was right, as a newspaper of a few days later proved.
By noon on Sunday Charleston Harbor was sighted, and a few hours later the squadron came to anchor near Charleston Bar, nine miles from the city.
"The Sterling isn't in sight," said Walter, as he came on deck and took a look behind. "I wonder if the heavy sea was too much for the collier."
"Oh, she'll turn up sooner or later," answered Si. "But a boat loaded as she was isn't the safest thing to sail around such a point as Cape Hatteras, I can tell you that." The collier came in before night, reporting a thoroughly disagreeable trip.
A lighthouse tender was at hand, ready to take the mail ashore, as well as to deliver letters and special messages. The messages were at once delivered to Commodore Schley.
"I wonder how long we'll stop here," said Walter. "I wouldn't mind a run ashore, just to see what the city looks like."
"There goes a signal to the Texas," said Si, as the signalman took up his flag and began to wig-wag. "Wait a moment till I read what he is saying."
"Can you read it?" asked Walter, in deep interest.
"Certainly, it's easy enough." Si began to spell to himself. "'W-h-a-t, what—i-s, is—y-o-u-r, your—b-e-s-t, best—r-a-t-e, rate—o-f, of—s-p-e-e-d, speed—n-o-w, now?' He is asking what the Texas can do at once, so far as speed is concerned. That means something important. Hold on, here comes the answer." Again the Yankee youth began to spell. "Might go fifteen and a half knots." Then the signalman on the Brooklyn sent another message. "We are off on business now." And the signal went up for the squadron to weigh anchor again.
"We're off for a fight!" ejaculated Walter. "But tell me about that wig-wagging, Si; how do they signal the letters?"
"It's easy enough. You take a small flag of some bright color, attached to a pole six or eight feet long. As soon as you attract the attention of the other fellow, you begin to use the flag in three motions, to the right, the left, and down in front. To the right means one, to the left means two, and down in front means three. Now all the letters are represented by combinations of numbers, and all you have to do is to learn the combinations and spell ahead. It's easy enough when one gets the hang of it. At night you can use a lantern instead of a flag."
"That is easy," commented Walter. "But what about those signals at the masthead. Can you read those?"
"No. In those, most every flag represents a letter, or a word, or sentence; but to read the signal you have got to have either the international signal code-book, or else the United States Navy code-book. The navy code is locked up in the captain s cabin, and the book is weighted with lead, so that if anything happens, it can be heaved overboard and sunk, thus keeping it out of the enemy's hands."
"I declare, signalling isn't so difficult, after all," cried Walter. "To me it looked like a perfect jumble."
"The trouble with flags is, that when there's no wind they won't straighten out so you can see 'em," put in Caleb, who had joined the pair. "Lanterns are more to be depended upon, and they have a new system now, called the Ardois electric, in which they use four powerful electric lights, so that the signals can be read at a distance of several miles. You'll learn all about them if you stay in the navy long enough."