For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

THE MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS

AN hour later they found themselves getting ashore on the farther side of the harbor in a dense mist. By now they had acquired a comfortable philosophy that took no account of dampness. They had hired a small boat that leaked cheerfully every minute and their feet were as wet a& their noses, and the latter were dripping all the time. As one place was as good as another to two boys seeking adventure they had only attempted to keep from running into the sinking one of the numerous ships that dotted the channels. Just where they were, now that they had landed and pulled the boat up, was something they neither knew nor cared about. They could see about fifty feet ahead of them, which, as Martin pointed out, was quite sufficient to keep them from traffic dangers. After leaving the beach they crossed a field, pausing to read an interesting "No trespassing" sign, and came to a road. It wasn't a bad road as south of Ireland roads go, but it looked uninteresting. So they disregarded it and broke through a hedge on the other side of it and walked into a bog.

Five minutes afterwards they were out again, their feet squishing musically in their shoes. It seemed to them intensely funny, and they laughed hilariously over their plight and tried to see who could make the more pleasing squishes. Martin ventured the opinion that it was one of the justly celebrated peat-bogs, which drew Nelson to murmur: "For the love of peat!" Beyond the bog—they had gone straight across it in spite of its tenacity—was a field that climbed upward through the fog, ending always fifty feet ahead. The danger of walking off into a railway cut or into the sea added excitement. That the sea was not far distant was evident from the salt tang in the air. They ultimately reached the summit of the hill and made out the shape of a small building which proved to be a tumbled-down cabin. There was nothing inside save a litter of stone and rubbish and the roof was gone except in one corner. Weeds and grass grew from the crevices, and Martin observed that it was without doubt extremely picturesque, and that if he had his camera with him he would snap it, but that as a place of sanctuary it was a fizzle. Nelson pointed out the remains of a fireplace and chimney, but there was nothing in sight that looked like fuel, and, as Martin said, they hadn't brought away enough of the peat-bog to make much of a fire. So they went on again, unhurriedly, happily, hands in pockets and shoulders humped to keep the fog from trickling down their necks. After ten or fifteen minutes, during which they were twice turned back by a hedge and a ditch, it dawned on them that they were quite as thoroughly lost as any collar button that ever rolled under a bureau!

Whereupon they clutched each other tightly and laughed long and loud!

Martin presently looked at his watch and, having recovered a degree of sobriety, announced the hour as half-past four. That struck Nelson as being very, very comical, and he began to laugh all over again. Martin called him a silly ass and said it was a good thing it wasn't twelve o'clock, since in that case Nelson would probably have hysterics.

I might give a detailed account of what transpired during the next four hours, but you would find it tiresome, although not so tiresome as they did! Briefly, though, let me tell you that they tried to find, first of all, the tumble-down hut, in which they failed utterly, and that they subsequently put the coast behind them, according to their calculations, and set out for the harbor, in the hope that they would either find the boat they had rowed across in or, failing that, some other means of transportation. They got thoroughly wet and a trifle shivery, as night drew near, but they didn't find the shore of the harbor. They simply couldn't find anything! They were fairly certain that not far away in more than one direction lay villages, or, at least, dwellings, but Fate guided their footsteps so carefully that not the slightest sign of a habitation rewarded them. As Martin grumbled—for they reached the grumbling stage eventually—if they had committed murder and were trying to keep away from folks they'd probably bump into a house every fifty yards!

When darkness came, earlier because of the mist which grew heavier as time went on, they did at last reach a shore, but it wasn't the harbor that lay before them. There were rocks and no sign of a beach save at infrequent intervals where the ledges broke apart, and the big waves that roared against those stone battlements were straight from the Atlantic. So, of course, what they had done was to cross the headland, a matter of a full five miles, keeping in a direction quite contrary to the one sought, which, in fog or darkness, is exactly what one is most likely to do. They knew that to their right was the entrance to the harbor, with a lighthouse on a point, but how far away it might be there was no telling. What lay along the shore in the other direction they didn't know. Consequently they turned westward, toward the light. The night was not cold, but here on the cliffs a chill breath from the ocean penetrated their saturated clothing, sent shivers up and down their backs and set their teeth chattering. Perhaps if they had been able to walk briskly they could have kept warm, but when one doesn't know whether the next step is to drop him over the edge of a cliff, walking briskly is not advisable. They went on, making what progress they might, trying to keep the feel of the turf underfoot, but frequently finding themselves stumbling over the bare surface of the ledges. They were doing but little talking now and had quite forgotten for the time how to laugh. They were miserably hungry, and when Nelson spoke feelingly out of the darkness of a cup of hot coffee Martin threatened to throw him over the cliff if he didn't stop. There is no saying how fast they traveled, but I think that if they covered a quarter of a mile of that going in a half-hour they did well. It was close on nine when Martin looked at the faintly illuminated dial of his wrist watch for the last time. They were then in the lee of a rock which for the moment disputed their path, and they had paused to regain their breaths before finding their way around it. And it was at that moment of panting silence that they saw the light.

It flashed forth suddenly below them as though in the water: once—twice—three times, and disappeared. So surprised were they that it was not until its faint rays had gone that Martin opened his mouth to hail. That only a sort of gasp issued was due to the fact that his companion laid a warning clutch on his arm.

"Wait!" whispered Nelson. "Don't shout!"

"Why not? It's a boat, you chump!" But Martin dropped his voice to match Nelson's.

"I know, but what's it doing? Let's wait a minute, Mart, and find out. The light wasn't directed toward us, but out to sea, and—Look!"

Very faintly an answering beacon glimmered through the mist: once and again.

"Well, that doesn't prove anything, does it?" asked Martin impatiently. "What's the big idea? Maybe you think it's the German Navy come to take Ireland?"

"I don't know what it is," responded Nelson cautiously, "but when you see lights flashing along the shore these days it's a good plan to keep your eyes peeled."

"Probably a Coast Guard or a—a—look here, we don't want to spend the night on this forsaken place, Nep. That fellow, whoever he is, has a boat, and even if he won't take us off he can probably tell us how to find a village."

"I don't think the light down there was in a boat," said Nelson. "I think there's a bit of beach there. A boat where that light was would be right in the surf. Listen, Mart. We're farther from the water than we were."

"Yes, but——" Martin began querulously, but stopped. After a moment he went on in a different tone. "Maybe you're right, Nep," he said softly. "Come on and let's see where we are, first of all."

They crept gingerly in the direction of the first light, testing each step for fear that they might reach the edge of the cliff too suddenly. Low bushes took the place of the sod, and small stones impeded their uncertain steps. After a minute they stopped abruptly, for, below them and nearer now, the first light they had glimpsed was again flashing its message into the mist and gloom. Three times it showed and then went out. The boys waited. Moments passed and no answering beacon appeared at sea. Then, when they had almost reached the conclusion that they had imagined that first reply, two dim flashes lit the darkness.

"It's much nearer," whispered Mart.

"Yes, and that light down here is from a lantern on the beach. It looks queer to me, Mart."

"Sure it's queer! It's some funny business that we've got to find out about, old man. Flop down on your tummy and crawl out to the edge, but be careful and don't make a row. Come on."

The edge was much farther than they had thought, and long before they had reached it they were wriggling down a slope of worn ledge, fissured and broken, that was extremely detrimental to clothing. Mart found the edge first when his exploring hand failed to touch anything ahead of him and he gave a warning whisper. Lying on their stomachs with their heads close together they exchanged impressions.

"The beach can't be more than twenty feet down," whispered Nelson. "I think I heard the chap with the lantern a second ago."

"Someone's trying to make a landing," said Martin, "and that light is to guide him. What gets me is how they'd dare show a light if everything wasn't—well, all right."

"Why? Who's to see it a night like this? None of the patrol boats would be near enough to catch even a glimpse of it. Light doesn't travel far in a mist of this sort."

"Right-o! I suppose they chose tonight on purpose, eh? What'll we do now?"

"I guess we can't do anything but wait and watch. If we could—Listen! Oars!"

Oars, indeed, and quite distinct in a muffled way, oars rattling and creaking against row-locks or thole-pins and becoming louder each instant. A faint sound came from almost below them, as though the watcher on the beach had kicked a stone in moving. Then the lantern appeared once more and swung back and forth several times, moving slowly away from the cliff as the bearer approached the edge of the surf.

"Gee, this is exciting!" murmured Martin. "Say, it would help a bit if we had our automatics with us, wouldn't it? We might capture a German landing-party!"

"I don't think they're Germans," said Nelson thoughtfully, his voice no more than a whisper. "Not even a German sub would dare come so close."

"It might be 'Kelly,'" suggested Martin.

"Who's 'Kelly'?"

"Haven't you heard about him? He's a German submarine commander who does all sorts of stunts, if you believe what you hear, like landing on the coast hereabouts once and going into Cork and living there a couple of days. And he leaves messages tacked on the Channel buoys, they say. Of course it's probably all yarns. That boat's pretty close to the surf, Nep."

They listened in silence a moment. Then Nelson said: "I think they're probably Irish rebels; Sinn Feiners, don't they call them?"

"Oh, that's all over with, I guess. Besides, what would they be doing in a boat off-shore?"

"Landing rifles or ammunition, or both," responded the other. "I don't believe that trouble is all over, either, Mart. They threw stones at our sailors in Cork only a few weeks ago."

"At our men? What for?" asked Martin in an indignant whisper.

"Because we're fighting the Germans, and the Sinn Feiners are pro-German, or pro-anything that'll make trouble for England. There they come!"

From below came the sound of a boat's keel grating on the sand, and the unmistakable tramp of feet within it, followed by a splashing noise as someone leaped out and guided the bow out of water. After that the silence was over. Low voices murmured. Feet scuffled softly on sand or shingle. Although they could see nothing, their imaginations pictured the busy scene below: men, perhaps a half-dozen all told, bearing burdens from boat to shore, splashing through the ripples, grinding over the shingle, disappearing somewhere beneath, perhaps into a cave. The old tales of smuggling in the British Isles returned to memory and they had visions of a great, high cavern running back from the edge of the beach, a cavern piled with mysterious boxes and bales. But the cavern theory was quickly dissipated, for of a sudden footsteps sounded near at hand and they heard the labored breathing of men as they made their way up some unseen pass from below, and, once, a muttered exclamation and the trickling fall of a dislodged stone. It seemed to the boys that the men must be almost upon them, and they prepared themselves for flight, but the footsteps crunched past a dozen feet away and became soundless as they reached the rough turf of the summit. Then others followed. Whatever the burdens were that they bore up the cliff they must have been fairly heavy, for breathing was labored and the scuffling sound of the booted feet suggested that they labored under considerable weight.

For a number of minutes Nelson and Martin lay and listened, and in that time, they gathered, three loads were brought up, and the first bearers began their descent again. Now and then a low word was spoken, but the hearers failed to gather the sense of it. Martin tugged at Nelson's sleeve.

"Listen for the last of them to go back," he whispered. "Then follow me and we'll see where they're taking the stuff, Better keep in touch so we won't get lost. Ready now?"

They crept back from the edge and then, arising to their feet, left the cliff behind and made their way as quietly as possible into the darkness. When they had gone some thirty yards or so Martin drew Nelson down beside him. "We'll wait here until they come back," he said. "Maybe we can hear where they go."

"Hope we aren't in their way," whispered Nelson. "Hate to have them walk on me."

"If they do, don't move. Just make a noise like a shamrock!" Martin chuckled softly. "Say, Nep, I haven't had so much fun since I ran a nail in my foot! Where do you suppose they're caching the stuff?"

"Can't imagine unless—Ssh! They're coming up again!"

Whether the mist grew momentarily thinner or whether his sight had grown more accustomed to the darkness Nelson didn't know, but a second later he caught a dim vision of two shapes appearing above the cliff's edge. The vision was instantly lost, however, and they had only the sounds to guide them. The men seemed to be bearing to their left, and after an instant Martin tugged at Nelson and they skirmished in that direction. Once Nelson tripped over something and sprawled on his hands and knees, and Martin fell to the ground beside him and they kept very still for a minute. But if Nelson had made any noise it had gone unnoted by the men, for the boys could still, hear them ahead there. Once there came the unmistakable sound of a heavy object dropping with a jarring thud onto a wooden surface.

"Boxes," whispered Nelson. "They're piling them up over there."

"We might fill our pockets with them and beat it," suggested Martin. "Think they've gone back yet?"

"I don't know. Listen. Hear anything?"

"No. Come on and let's get to the bottom of this."

Once more they crept forward. The ground was rough now, interspersed with tiny bushes, and they had to feel their way cautiously to avoid noise. Suddenly Martin, slightly in the lead, stumbled down a little bank, repressing an exclamation of surprise, and felt wheel ruts underfoot. With a low warning to his companion he peered intently into the enshrouding gloom. Was it imagination or did the darkness loom more black? Cautiously, with outstretched hands, he moved forward. Then his fingers brushed a chill, damp surface and a dim shape took form before him.

"Back up!" he cautioned. "We've got it! It's—great Scott, it's a wagon! You listen for them, Nep, and I'll feel around a bit. Hear anything? We'll have to drop if they come. Whoa, boy!" Nelson heard his friend whispering as he drew away. There was a jingle of harness, such a sound as a horse might cause by tossing his head. Meanwhile Nelson's hands were passing enquiringly over the vehicle. He made out a big, wide-tired wheel, the body, a cloth top stretching upward from it, and then, moving a pace, the lowered tailboard and the face of a box lying at one side of the wagon bed. At that moment Martin stepped back to his side.

"It's a covered wagon," he whispered, "with two horses. They've got them anchored with a cobblestone as big as your head. I cut the cable, though."

"What for?" asked Nelson.

Martin chuckled, but his explanation had to wait, for the men were coming back again and there was just time for the two boys to reach the farther side of the wagon and drop to the earth before the leaders lurched to the back.

"One, two—heave!" said a voice, and there was a jar as another box landed. Then someone scrambled inside and the box was pushed into place. Other steps shuffled up and the performance was repeated. Then:

"How many more are there, Petey?" asked a voice.

"Two more. By the Saints, boys, it's broke entirely me back is."

"Don't talk so loud, you! Sure, there's other backs here. Stand aside there. Aisy now, boys! No noise!"

A third burden was deposited and shoved into place. "Is that the last?" one of the men asked.

"It is not. I'm wishin' it was. There's two more down below."

"Let Mike carry them, then. I'm through."

"Is that so? You'll take your end, just the same, my lad." The speaker sounded authoritative. "Come on now and get it through."

They turned back along the path and low voices and footsteps dwindled to silence. For a minute only the occasional drip of the moisture from the wagon broke the stillness. Then one of the horses pawed impatiently at the ground and Martin sprang to action.

"Come on!" he whispered. "Here's where we take a drive!"

"What are you going to do?" asked Nelson hoarsely.

"Put your foot on the hub and climb in. Whoa, boys! Easy now! Are you in?"

"Yes, but——"

"We're off! Get ap, Jehosophat!" The wagon creaked, Nelson collided with something extremely hard behind him and they went lurching off through the darkness.