Chapter LII

On the very day the Narcissus left Galveston the German submersible V-l4 left her base at Zeebrugge, with oil and torpedoes sufficient to last her on an ordinary three weeks' cruise, and promptly headed for that section of the Atlantic where information and belief told her commander the hunting would be good. And it was--so good, in fact, that to the very great disgust of her crew she had just two torpedoes in stock when the man on watch at her periscope reported a large freight steamer to the west. Promptly the V-l4 submerged and proceeded on a course calculated to intercept the freighter, which presently was discovered to be the U.S.S. Narcissus.

The captain of the V-l4 almost licked his chops. He had heard of the Narcissus. The neutrality laws of the United States had prevented him from hearing of her by wireless when she cleared from Galveston, but he had been on the lookout for her, just the same, ever since a Dutch steamer from New York, with an alert German chief mate, had touched at Copenhagen, from which point the dispatches that mate carried had gone underground straight to the office of the German Admiralty. The information anent the Narcissus had been brief but illuminating: She had been chartered to carry horses for the British Government from Galveston to Le Havre, and the word to get her at all hazards had been passed to the submarine flotilla.

Captain Emil Bechtel, of the V-l4, did not possess an Iron Cross of any nature whatsoever, and as he studied the oncoming Narcissus through the periscope he reflected that this big brute of a boat would bring him one, provided he was lucky. He remembered he had but two torpedoes left, and under the circumstances he paused to consider.

Clearly--since the Narcissus was laden with horses and mules for the enemy she was carrying contraband--she must not escape. On the other hand, there had been a deal of unpleasantness of late because President Wilson had been protesting the sinking of vessels without warning--and the Narcissus was a United States steamer. Consequently if he torpedoed her without warning the temperamental Kaiser might make of Captain Emil Bechtel what is colloquially known as the goat; whereas, on the other hand, should he conform to international law and place her crew in safety before sinking her, there was a chance that her wireless might summon a patrol boat to the vicinity--Bechtel had sighted one less than an hour before--and patrol boats had a miserable habit, when they sighted a periscope, of shooting it to pieces.

Then, too, it was just possible that the perfidious English had mounted a couple of six-inch guns on her after getting to sea--and the German knew a six-inch shell, well-placed, would send his vessel to the bottom. Moreover, it was sunset; in half an hour it would be twilight; he had no knowledge of the speed of the Narcissus and she might try to make a run for it, thus forcing him to come to the surface and shell her should he miss with his torpedoes. Further, if he attacked her and she escaped, there was an elderly gentleman with whiskers back in Berlin who would do things to him if the Kaiser didn't.

There was, however, one course open to the German. To his way of thinking, during the exciting diplomatic tangle with the United States, he would be damned if he did and damned if he didn't; but if he did, and nobody could prove it, old Von Tirpitz would ask no questions.

"I'll let her have it," Captain Emil Bechtel concluded; and he passed the word to get ready.

A minute later Cappy Ricks, smoking his after-dinner cigar on the bridge of the Narcissus with her skipper and Mike Murphy, pointed far off the port bow.

"There's a shark or a swordfish, or something, breaching," he said. "I can see his wake."

Mike Murphy took a casual glance in the direction Cappy was pointing, while the master of the Narcissus reached for his marine glasses and lazily put them to his eyes.

"Shark be damned!" yelled Murphy. "It's a torpedo or I'm a Chinaman! Hard-a-starboard!"

He leaped for the engine-room telegraph and jammed it over to Full Speed Astern; then dashed into the pilot house and commenced a furious ringing of the ship's bell, summoning the crew to boat drill, the while his anxious eye marked the swift progress of the white streak coming toward them. What wind there was happened fortunately to be on the vessel's port counter, and as the helmsman spun the wheel the big vessel fell off quickly and easily, while the rumble of her shaft, suddenly reversed, fairly shook the ship. To Cappy Ricks it seemed that the vessel must be brought up standing, like one of the broncos he had seen ridden with a Spanish bit; but a big ship under full headway is not stopped very abruptly, and the Narcissus swept on, turning as she went in order to offer as little target as possible to the torpedo.

"Will we make it, Mike?" Cappy Ricks queried in a very small, awed voice.

Mike Murphy turned and found his owner at his elbow.

"I hope it hits her forward," he replied. "That motor cruiser is cradled aft and we might save it. They never hailed us--ah-h-h, missed!"

The torpedo flew by, missing the big blunt bow by less than three feet.

"I guess they'll get us just the same," Mike Murphy murmured quietly; "but we're going down fighting."

And, disregarding the master of the Narcissus, who was staring vacantly after the flying torpedo, he rang for Full Speed Ahead, and called down the speaking tube to the chief to hook her on for all he had; then, with his helm still hard-a-starboard, he swung the ship in as small a circle as possible and headed her at full speed back over the course so recently traveled by the torpedo.

"That was a beautifully timed shot--that last one," he informed Cappy Ricks admiringly. "If we'd sighted it thirty seconds later--"

"Where the devil are you going, man?" Cappy yelled frantically.

"I'm going to give that fellow a surprise," Murphy growled. "He expected us to run for it after that first one missed--and I'm running for him! He may not get me with the next one if I come bows on--and I might ram him! I'll take a chance. Keep your eyes open for his periscope."

Aboard the V-l4 Captain Emil Bechtel said nothing, but thought a great deal--when he saw that his first torpedo had missed its prey. He was in for it now; he had started something and he had to go through. And, anticipating that the Narcissus would show him her heels and steer a zigzag course, he immediately launched his last torpedo as the horse transport lay quartering to him.

To his disgust, however, the steamer, having avoided the first torpedo, did not run as he had anticipated. Instead, she continued to turn round on her heels, each revolution of her wheel lifting her out of the course of the second torpedo, since the submarine had fired slightly ahead of the vessel, knowing that if she continued for two minutes on the course he expected her to take she would steam fairly across the path of the huge missile. So he missed again--the torpedo slid under her stern--and here was that demon horse transport bearing down on him at full speed and with a bone in her teeth.

"The jig is up," murmured Bechtel, and gave the order to submerge deeper, for he would not risk showing his periscope to the keen eyes on that bridge.

For ten minutes he waited, while the submarine scuttled blindly out of the path of the onrushing transport; then, concluding that the Narcissus had passed him, he came up and took a look round. He was right. A cable length astern and another off his port quarter the steamer was plunging over the darkening sea, and Captain Emil Bechtel knew he had her now; so promptly he came to the surface.

Mike Murphy, glancing off his starboard quarter, saw her periscope come swiftly up; then her turret showed; then her turtle deck flashed for a moment on the surface, like a giant fish, before she rose higher and the water cascaded down her sides.

Cappy Ricks' anxious face turned a delicate green; he glanced up at his bully port captain as if in that rugged personality alone could he hope for salvation. Murphy caught the glance, shook his head, walked over to the engine-room telegraph and set the handle over to stop.

"No use, sir," he informed Cappy. "That Dutchman is out of torpedoes, so he's coming up to shell us. We'll heave to and save funeral expenses." He turned to the master of the Narcissus. "Captain, I'll stay on the bridge and conduct all negotiations with that fellow; get your mates, round up everybody and prepare to abandon the ship in a hurry. Get the motor cruiser overside first."

As the captain hurried away, Terence Reardon came up on the bridge. The port engineer's gloomy visage portended tears, but through his narrowed lids Cappy Ricks saw not tears, but the light of murder. Terence did not speak, but thoughtfully puffed his pipe, and, with Murphy and Cappy Ricks, watched the booby hatch on the submarine's deck slide back and her long, slim, three-inch gun appear, like the tongue of a huge viper.

Heads appeared round the breech of the gun; so Michael J. Murphy seized a megaphone and shouted:

"Nein! Nix!" accompanying his words with wild pantomime that meant "Don't shoot!"

Captain Emil Bechtel was vastly relieved. He was not an inhuman man, even if, on occasion, as has already been demonstrated, he could, for the sake of national expediency, sink a ship without warning. Having missed with both torpedoes, he could now, in the event of national complications, enter a vigorous denial of any affidavits alleging an attempted breach of international law, and his government would uphold him. This knowledge rendered him both cheerful and polite, as he hove to some hundred yards to starboard of the Narcissus and informed Captain Michael J. Murphy that the latter had just fifteen minutes in which to save the ship's company; whereat Michael J. proved himself every inch a sailor, while Terence P. proved himself a marine engineer. If there was a word of opprobrium, mundane or nautical, which the port skipper didn't shout at that submarine commander, the port engineer supplied it. In all his life Cappy Ricks had never listened to such rich, racy, unctuous abuse; it lifted itself about the level of the commonplace and became a work of art. Cappy was horrified.

"Boys! Boys!" he pleaded. "This is frightful!"

"What do you expect from a German, sir?" Murphy demanded. "Frightfulness is his middle name."

"I mean you two--and your language. Stop it! You'll contaminate me."

"Well, sor," Terence Reardon replied philosophically, "I suppose there's small use cryin' over spilt milk--musha, what are they up to now?"

"They're dragging a collapsible boat up from below," Mike Murphy declared. "That means they're going to board us, place bombs in the bilges, and sink us that way. They know blamed well we've wirelessed for help and a patrol has answered; so that--"

"No profanity!" Cappy shrilled.

"So he has decided he won't try to sink us by shell fire with such a small gun. It'll be dark in five minutes and he's afraid the flame of the discharge or the reports of the gun may guide the patrol boat here before he's finished his job. Oh, wirra, wirra!"

Murphy's surmise proved to be correct, for he had scarcely finished speaking before the submarine commander hailed him and ordered him to let down his gangway. Terence P. Reardon's eyes flamed with the lust for battle.

"Be the great gun av Athlone," he cried, "if they're comin' aboard sure we can get at them!"

Murphy's rage vanished as suddenly as it had gripped him; he smiled at Terence affectionately, approvingly.

"You with your monkey wrench, eh, Terry, my lad? And they with automatic pistols and wishful of an excuse to use them, not to mention the nitroglycerin and guncotton bombs they'll be carrying--a divilish bad thing to have kicking round in a free-for-all fight?" he queried.

Terry's face showed his deep disappointment.

"They'll see us all in the boats," Murphy continued; "then they'll go below, set the bombs, light a slow fuse to give them time to get back to the submarine--and then--"

"With all these poor dumb beasts aboard?" Cappy Ricks quavered. "Horrible! Horrible! I could kill them for it."

"I could kill them for a greater crime than that," his port captain reminded him. "Didn't they try twice to sink us without warning? Damn them! They're forty fathoms outside the law this minute."