The Iron Pirate/Chapter 25



He put up the helm as he spoke, and brought our head round so that we were in a position to have rammed the cruiser had we chosen. This was not Black's object. He desired first to cripple her completely, then to finish her with the Maxim guns.

"Now, let's see what that Scotsman's worth," he cried, as he laid down his cigar, and spoke through one of the tubes. Almost with his words the tower shook with the thunder, the twenty-nine ton gun in the fore turret belched forth flame, and the hissing shell struck the steamer over her very magazine. We waited for a response, but none came. She had received the shot, as it proved, right on her great gun; and the weapon lay shivered and useless, cast quite free from its carriage, while dead men were around it in heaps.

"Dick's earned his dinner," said Black, taking up his cigar again, as he rang twice, and the men rushed to the small guns, and prepared to get them into action. "We'll give 'em a little hail this time, for they haven't the cover we have. If we don't get aboard before the other comes up, they get the trick."

The nameless ship bounded forward into the night as he spoke, and, soon coming up with the helm a-starboard, she was not fifty yards away from her long opponent when the deadly steel storm began its havoc. For our part, the men had cover of a sort in the fore-top, and there were steel screens round the deck-guns; but when the cruiser replied with her own small arms many fell; and groans, and shrieks, and curses rose, and were audible even to us in the tower. Never have I known anything akin to that terrible episode when bullets rang upon our decks in hundreds, and the dead and the living in the other ship lay huddled together, in a seething, struggling, moaning mass. For she had little cover, being a cruiser, and we had opened fire upon her before such of her men as could be spared had got below.

"Let 'em digest that!" cried Black, as he watched the havoc, and puffed away with serene calmness amidst the stress of it all; "let 'em swallow lead, the vultures. I'd sink 'em with one shot if it wasn't for their oil; but they ain't alone!"

It was true. I, who had not ceased to watch that distant light which marked another war-ship on the horizon, knew that a second light had shone out as a star away over the sea; and now, when I looked again at his words, I saw a third light, but I had no courage to tell him of it. Indeed, we were being surrounded, and the danger was the greater for every minute of delay. The cruiser, although she suffered so grievously from the storm of lead which we rained upon her, had not hurled down her flag, and still replied to our fire, but more feebly. And the search-lights of the distant ships were clearer to my view every moment, so that I watched them alone at the last; and Black saw them, and took a sight from the glass. Then for the first time his cigar fell from his lips, and he muttered an exclamation which might have been one of fear.

"Boy," he said, "you should have told me of this. I see three lights, and that means a fleet of the devils to come. Well, I'll risk it, as I've risked it before. If I can stop ’em now with a shot, the game's ours; if she sinks, they trump us."

He gave a long order in careful words down through the tube to the turret; and, coming up to position, we fired at the cruiser for the last time, hitting her low down in the very centre of her engine-room. A great volume of steam gushed up from her deck, with clouds of smoke and fire; and as all shooting from her small arms ceased, we went out to the gallery, and the boats were cast free. A minute after, the ensign of the other was lowered, and we had beaten her.

"You, 'Four-Eyes,' take the launch, and get her oil," Black sang out at the sight; "you'll have five hands, that's all you want. Go sharp, if you'd save your skins!"

I stood on the gallery, and watched the passage of the small boat, which was at the side of the maimed cruiser almost in a moment. There was no longer any resistance to our men, for the hands of the other ship had too much work of their own to do. I saw some running quickly to the aft boats, while some were bearing wounded from below, and others stood beneath the bridge taking orders from a very young officer, who had no colleagues in the work. Not that there was any confusion, only that awful crying of strong men in their agony, of the dying who feel death's hand upon them, of the wounded who had pain which was hardly to be endured. For a long time it seemed as though no one heard the hail of "Four-Eyes" to be taken aboard; and when at last we watched him get on deck, he met with no resistance, but did as he would. Under the spreading rays of our great arc you could follow the whole scene as though by day—the hurrying crowd of seamen, the work at the boat, the fear and terror of it all. And you could see at the last a sight which to Black had more import than anything else in that picture of distress and desolation.

The great ship began to heel right over. Her stern came high out of the water, so that her screws were visible. She dipped her foc’s’le clean under the breaking sea; and so she rode during some terrible minutes. Her own men now cast off their boats anyhow, leaving the wounded, who cursed, or implored, or prayed, or shrieked; but "Four-Eyes" did not come, and Black raved, looking away where the search-lights of the other ships now showed their rapid approach. To this extraordinary man it was the great cast of life. If the cruiser went down and his men got no oil, we should infallibly be taken by the warships then coming upon us; and I wonder not that in that moment he lost something of his old calm, pacing the bridge with nervous steps, and alternately cursing or imploring the men who could not hear.

"Why don't they come?" he asked desperately. "The lazy, loitering snails! What are they doing there? Do you see her heeling? She can't weather that list another five minutes. Dick! for God's sake signal to them—the creeping vermin! Ahoy, there! Do you hear me? You aboard, are you looking to live to-morrow, or will you lay a hundred fathoms under—look, boys! Do you see them lights? They're war-ships, three of 'em! We've got to show 'em our heels, and we can't—we've no oil, not a gallon! And they're taking their ease like fine gentlemen aboard there—the guzzling swine—but I'll stir 'em! You Dick, fire a shot at 'em!"

Dick had just answered him, saying, "Ay, Captain, I'll gie him a wee bit o' iron in his gizzard," when his further words were broken on his lips, for our hands appeared at the ladder of the doomed steamer, and they tumbled into the launch anyhow, flying madly from her side as she plunged to a huge sea, and with one mighty roll went headlong under the surface of the Atlantic. At that moment day broke, and, as the silver light of the dawn spread over the dark of the sea, we saw three ironclads approaching us at all their speed, and then not three miles distant from us. But the launch was at our side, and as Black leant over, and the new light lit up his bloodshot eyes and haggard face, he asked, with hoarseness in his voice—

"Have ye got the oil?"

"Not a drop!" replied the cox.

The strong man reared himself straight up, and he turned to Karl, at his side. In that moment he was really great, and I shall never forget the nonchalance with which he drew another cigar from his case and lighted it. The two men, who had found their calm as the danger thickened, were in perfect accord; and, as one descended the ladder to the engine-room with slow steps, the other went again to the tower, where I followed him.

"Boy," he said, "I've often wondered how this old ship would break up; now we'll see, but she's going to bite some of 'em yet, if she can't last."

"Are you going to run for it?" I asked.

"Run for it, with two engines, yes; but it's a poor business. And we'll have to fight! Well, who knows? There's luck at sea as well as on shore. If I run, they'll catch me in ten miles; but we'll all do what we can. Now smoke and have a brandy-and-soda. You may not get another."

The drink I took, but his calm I could not share. If the nameless ship were trapped at last I had freedom; but of what sort? The freedom of a bloody fight, the lottery of life, the remote possibility that, the ship being taken, I should get to the shelter of the war-vessels. The man soon undeceived me on both points.

"If we're out-manœuvred and crippled in what's coming," said he, "I have given Karl my orders. This ship I've built and loved like a child isn't going to knuckle under to any man living. She's going to sink, lad, and we're all going to blazes with her! What's the odds? A man must die! Let him die on his own dunghill, say I, and a fig for the reckoning! We shall last out as long as we can, and then we'll let the cylinders fill with hydrogen, and blow her up. But you're not smoking."

The threat, so jaunty yet so terrible, was almost like a sentence of death to me. I looked from the glass of the tower, and saw the foremost ironclad but two miles away from us, and the others were sweeping round to cut us off if we attempted flight. In the old days, with the nameless ship at the zenith of her power, we should have laughed at their best efforts—have flown from them as a bird from a trap. But we lay with but two engines working, and a speed of sixteen knots at the best. Nor did we know from minute to minute when another engine would break down.

At the beginning of this flight we almost held our own, shaping a curious course, which, if pursued, would have brought us ultimately to the Irish coast again. For some hours during the morning I thought that we gained slightly, and those following evidently felt that it would be a waste of shell to fire at us, for they were silent: only great volumes of smoke came from the funnels of the battleships, and we knew that their efforts to get greater speed were prodigious.

We ran in this state all the morning, our men silent and brooding; Black smoked cigar after cigar with a dogged assumption of indifference; the German came to us often with his desperate gestures and his woe-begone face. It was well on in the afternoon before the position changed in any way, and I had gone down with the Captain to the lower saloon to make the pretence of lunching. There we sat—"Four-Eyes" with us—a miserable trio, cracking jokes, and expressing desperate hopes; sending up the nigger every other moment to learn how the ironclad lay, and much comforted when at the fifth coming he said—

"You gain, sar, plenty sar; you run right away, sar."

"We do?" cried Black, who jumped from his seat and ran up the companion-way to confirm the tale, and he shouted down to us, "Crack another bottle, if it's the last, and give it to the nigger; we're leaving them!"

His elation was contagious. "Four-Eyes" awoke from his lethargy, and drank a pint of the wine at a draught. The nigger put out a glass with a satisfied leer. The Captain took a bottle and laid his hand on the cork. But there it stayed, for at that moment there came a horrible sound of grating and tearing from the engine-room, and it was succeeded by a moment of dead and chilling silence.

"The second engine's gone," said a man above, quite calmly, and we knew the worst, and went on deck again.

We found the crew sullen and muttering, but Friedrich, the engineer's eldest son, sat at the top of the engine-room ladder, and tears rolled down his face. The great ship still trembled under the shock of the breakdown and was not showing ten knots. The foremost ironclad crept up minute by minute; and before we had realised the whole extent of the mishap, she was within gunshot of us; but her colleagues were some miles away, she outpacing them all through it.

"Bedad, she signals to us to let her come aboard," said "Four-Eyes," who watched her intently.

"Answer that we'll see her in chips first," said Black, and he called for Karl and made signs to him.

"If so be as ye don't come to, he'll be about to fire upon ye," cried "Four-Eyes," again, who stood at the flag-line, and this time Black thought before he answered—

"Then parley with 'em; we'll come alongside and hear their jaw."

There was a leer of positive devilry on his face as he said this, and he beckoned me into the conning-tower, when he closed the tower and bade me watch. Those on the battle-ship made quite sure of us now, for they steamed on and came within three hundred yards of us. Black watched them as a beast watches the unsuspecting prey. He stood, his face knit in savage lines, his hand upon the bell. I looked from the glass, and saw that no man was visible upon our decks, that our engines had ceased to move. We were motionless. Then in a second the bells rang out. There was again that frightful grating and tearing in the engine-room. The nameless ship came round to her helm with a mighty sweep: she foamed and plunged in the seas; she turned her ram straight at the other; and, groaning as a great stricken wounded beast, she roared onward to the voyage of death. I knew then the fearful truth: Black meant to sink the cruiser with his ram. I shall never forget that moment of terror, that grinding of heated steel, that plunge into the seas. Holding with all my strength to the seat of the tower, I waited for the crash, and in the suspense hours seemed to pass. At last, there was under the sea a mighty clap as of submarine thunder. Dashed headlong from my post, I lay bruised and wounded upon the floor of steel. The roof above me rocked; the walls shook and were bent; my ears rang with the deafening roar in them; seas of foam mounted before the glass; shrieks and the sound of awful rending and tearing drowned other shouts of men going to their death. And through all was the hysterical yelling of Black, his cursing, his defiance, his elation.

"Come and see," he roared, dragging me by the collar to the gallery; "come and see. They sink, the lubbers! They go to blazes every one of them. Look at their faces, the crawling scum. Ha! ha! Die, you vermin! as you meant me to die; fill your skins with water, you sharks! I spit on you! Boys, do you hear them crying to you? Music, fine music! Who'll dance when the devil plays? Dance, you lazy blacklegs; dance on nothing! Ha, ha!"

No man has ever looked on a more awful sight. We had struck the battleship low amidships—we had crashed through the thinnest coat of her steel. She had heeled right over from the shock, so that the guns had cast free from the carriages, and the sea had filled her. Thus for one terrible minute she lay, her men crowding upon her starboard side, or jumping into the sea, or making desperate attempts to get her boats free; and then, with a heavy lurch, she rolled beneath the waves; and there were left but thirty or forty struggling souls, who battled for their lives with the great rollers of the Atlantic. Of these a few reached the side of our ship and were shot there as they clung to the ladder; a few swam strongly in the desperate hope that the brutes about me would relent, and sank at last with piercing and piteous cries upon their lips; others died quickly, calling upon God as they went to their rest.

For ourselves we lay, our bows split with the shock, our engine-room in fearful disorder, our men drunk with ferocity and with despair. The other warships were yet some distance away; but they opened fire upon us at hazard, and, of the first three shells which fell, two cut our decks; and sent clouds of splinters, of wood, and of human flesh flying in the smoke-laden air. At the fifth shot, a gigantic crash resounded from below, and the stokers rushed above with the news that the fore stoke-hold had three feet of water in it. The hands received the news with a deep groan; then with curses and recriminations. They bellowed like bulls at Black; they refused all orders. He shot down man after man, while I crouched for safety in the tower; and they became but fiercer. Our end was evidently near; and, knowing this, they fell upon the liquor, and were worse than fiends. Anon they turned upon the captain and myself, and fired volleys upon the conning-tower; or, in their terrible frenzy, they pitched themselves into the sea, or raved with drunken songs, and vented their vengeance upon the Irishman, "Four-Eyes," chasing him wildly, and stabbing him with many cuts, so that he dropped dying at our door, with no more reproach than the simple words—

"God help me! but had I died in me own counthry I would have known more pace."

Through all this our one engine worked; and so slowly did the great ironclad draw upon us that the end of it all came before they could reach us. Suddenly the men rushed to the boats and cast them loose. Fighting with the dash of madmen, they crowded the launch, they swarmed the jolly-boat and the life-boat. Even the engineer's son felt the touch of contagion, and joined the mêlée. We watched their insane efforts as boat after boat put away and was swamped, leaving the devilish men to drown as the worthier fellows had drowned before them; and amongst the last to die was "Dick the Ranter," who went down with blasphemies gurgling upon his lips. When six o'clock came, Black and Karl and myself were alone upon the great ship; and in the stillness which followed there came another weird and wild and soul-stirring shriek—the cry of the dumb engineer, who found speech in the great catastrophe. Then Black pulled me by the arm and said—

"Boy, they've left nothing but the dinghy. The old ship's done and it's time you left her."

"And you?" I asked.

He looked at me and at Karl. He had meant to die with the ship, I knew; but the old magnetism of my presence held him again in that hour. He followed me slowly, as one in a dream, to the davits aft, and freed the last of the boats, overlooked by the hands in their frenzy and their panic. Then he went to his cabin, and to the rooms below; and I helped him to put a couple of kegs of water in the frail craft, with some biscuit, which we lashed, and a case of wine which he insisted on.

The preparation cost us half-an-hour of time, and when all was ready, the captain went to the engine-room and brought Karl to the top of the ladder; but there the German stayed, nor did threats or entreaties move him.

"He'll die with the ship," said Black, "and I don't know that he isn't wise;" but he held out his hand to the genius of his crime, and after a great grip the two men parted.

For ourselves, we stepped on the frailest craft with which men ever faced the Atlantic, and at that moment the first of the ironclads fired another shell at the nameless ship. It was a crashing shot, but it had come too late to serve justice, or to wreck the ship of mystery; for Karl had let the hydrogen into the cylinders unchecked, and with a mighty rush of flame, and a terrific explosion, the craft of gold gave her "Vale!" And in a cascade of fire, lighting the sea for many miles, and making as day the newly-fallen night, the golden citadel hissed over the water for one moment, then plunged head-long, and was no more.

A fierce fire it was, lighting sea and sky—a mighty holocaust; the roar of a great conflagration; the end of a monstrous dream. And I thought of another fire and another face—the face of Martin Hall, who had seen the finger of Almighty God in his mission; and I said, "His work is done!"

But Black, clinging to the dinghy, wept as a man stricken with a great grief, and he cried so that the coldest heart might have been moved—

"My ship, my ship! Oh God, my ship!"