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Title: The Mystery Ship
       A Story of the 'Q' Ships During the Great War

Author: Percy F. Westerman

Illustrator: A. Morrow

Release Date: December 28, 2015 [EBook #50781]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE MYSTERY SHIP ***




Produced by R.G.P.M. van Giesen





Cover
[Illustration: cover art]




THE MYSTERY SHIP






GLORIES OF SEA
AND AIR SERIES

By
PERCY F.
WESTERMAN

THE MYSTERY SHIP
THE RIVAL SUBMARINES
BILLY BARCROFT OF THE R.N.A.S.
A WATCH-DOG OF THE NORTH SEA

Publishers
PARTRIDGE
LONDON




Image: 02_frontispiece.jpg
["THE MYSTERY BOAT WAS MOVING SLOWLY, HER TRIPLE TORPEDO-TUBES READY WITH THEIR DEADLY COMPLEMENTS."]




THE MYSTERY SHIP

A STORY OF THE "Q" SHIPS
DURING THE GREAT WAR




BY

PERCY F. WESTERMAN



Author of
"The Fritzstrafers," "Billy Barcroft of the R.N.A.S."
"A Watchdog of the North Sea," "A Sub of
the R.N.R.," etc., etc.


ILLUSTRATED BY A. MORROW




Publishers
PARTRIDGE
London





Made in Great Britain
First published 1920




CONTENTS


CHAPTER  
I.   The Two Sub-Lieutenants
II.   On Patrol
III.   Sunk in Action
IV.   The Spy
V.   The Prowess of Kapitan von Preugfeld
VI.   Picked Up
VII.   A U-Boat of Sorts
VIII.   Von Preussen's Blank Day
IX.   How the Lighters Fared
X.   The Salvage Syndicate
XI.   Von Preugfeld's Resolve
XII.   Prisoners of War
XIII.   A Struggle for Life
XIV.   A Double Decoy
XV.   Confirmed Suspicions
XVI.   Covering His Tracks
XVII.   Mutiny
XVIII.   A Big Proposition
XIX.   The Tables Turned
XX.   The End of U 247
XXI.   Bluffed
XXII.   On the Trail
XXIII.   "Prepare for Immediate Action"
XXIV.   In the Hour of His Triumph
XXV.   Trapped
XXVI.   Her Last Bolt
XXVII.   Battered but Undaunted
XXVIII.   The Homecoming
XXIX.   Who Fired that Torpedo?
XXX.   A Night of Coincidences
XXXI.   The Great Surrender
XXXII.   A Navy Impotent
XXXIII.   The Relief Vessel
XXXIV.   The Scuttling
XXXV.   What They Fought For




THE MYSTERY SHIP





CHAPTER I

THE TWO SUB-LIEUTENANTS

"Below there! You in, George?"

George—otherwise Kenneth Meredith, sub-lieutenant R.N.V.R. and second-in-command of H.M. Motor Launch 1071—deliberately blotted five lines of his weekly epistle to the fond ones at home. Unperturbed by a heavy fusillade upon the deck—the sound being caused by a broken golf club vigorously manipulated by an as yet invisible person—Meredith dexterously threw into envelopes and blotting-pad into a conveniently placed rack, rammed the cork into the glass ink-bottle, and thrust his fountain-pen, which either "founted" like a miniature Niagara or else obstinately refused to "fount" at all, into the breast pocket of his monkey-jacket.

Interruptions are many and varied on board the M.L.'s. At almost any hour of the day and night when the little craft were lying alongside the parent ship, casual visitors were apt to drop in, to say nothing of callers on more or less urgent Service matters. An officer is supposed to receive visitors with complete equanimity whether he be in the midst of shaving, dressing, having a meal, or even a bath. Privacy is practically non-existent. Almost the only exception is when the lawful occupant of the cabin is engaged in private correspondence.

Hence Meredith's hurried preliminaries before replying to the noisy summons on deck.

"Come in," he shouted. "Visitors are requested to leave sticks and umbrellas in charge of the hall porter—Oh, dash it all! That's my toe!" he ejaculated, as the steel-shod end of the golf club was dropped through the hatchway and fell with a dull thud upon the Sub's foot.

Seizing the lethal weapon, Meredith stood up and prepared to take summary vengeance upon the lower portions of its owner, who was descending the vertical ladder leading to the diminutive ward-room of M.L. 1071.

Instinctively the newcomer must have realised that reprisals were in the air, for, grasping the rim of the coaming, he dropped lightly to the floor and faced the second-in-command.

"Cheerio!" exclaimed the visitor. "Where's everybody? Where's Wakefield this fine evening?"

Kenneth, without replying, opened the door leading into the after-cabin and took a lengthy survey; he repeated the tactics in the galley at the for'ard end of the ward-room. Then, going on his knees, he lifted the blue baize table-cloth and peered under the swing table.

"'Fraid he's not here, old man," he remarked. "Now I think of it, I believe he went on the beach at seven bells. Have a cigarette?"

"Thanks.... Wakefield wasn't on the links this afternoon. Strange—very. What's his little game, Meredith? Don't tell me he went ashore in his Number Ones, with his trousers creased an' all that sort of thing! 'A wedding has been arranged and a subscription-list will follow in due course,' eh?"

Jock McIntosh lit his cigarette and took stock of the ward-room, looking for evidence to confirm his suspicions of the absent Wakefield's mysterious visits "to the beach."

Sub-lieutenant McIntosh and Sub-lieutenant Meredith were widely different in appearance. The former was a tall, raw-boned Scot with fair features and close-cut sandy hair that even in its closeness evinced a tendency to curl. Never cut out for a seafaring life, he found himself much against his will in the uniform of an R.N.V.R. officer, while his brother Angus, who simply loved the sea and was part-owner of a yacht and knew how to handle almost every type of small craft afloat, was given a commission in a line regiment.

Jock would have made an ideal platoon commander: Angus would have shone as a skipper of an M.L.; but since from time immemorial the powers-that-be who run the Admiralty and War Office delight in putting square pegs in round holes, Jock McIntosh was manfully sticking to a job that was obviously uncongenial, while his brother was doing likewise; and each envied the other.

Meredith, on the other hand, was literally "made for the job." Slightly above middle height, broad and square-shouldered, heavy-browed and with a firm and somewhat prominent jaw, Kenneth looked and was a sailor-man, every inch of him. At the age of twelve he could handle a sailing dinghy with a skill that was the envy and admiration of many so-called yachtsmen, who would be hopelessly at sea in a double sense without the assistance of their paid hands. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen he spent every available holiday afloat in his father's ten-ton yacht, until he knew intimately the art of fore and aft sailing, and incidentally gained first-hand information of practically every harbour and creek on the south coast of England.

Then came the outbreak of the Great War. Promptly the Ripple, Mr. Meredith's cutter, was laid up, while her owner, exchanging a yachting suit for a khaki uniform, went to India as second-in-command of a Territorial battalion.

Kenneth went back to school, bitterly bewailing the fact that he had not been born three years earlier. Fellows from the senior form—in many cases physically inferior to him—donned khaki and disappeared into the mists of Flanders. At intervals some turned up at the old school, bronzed, aged and ballasted with a more than nodding acquaintance with life and death: others never returned—their names figured prominently in the School Roll of Honour as fingerposts to the path of Higher Duty.

At length Meredith's chance came. He had to admit that it was influence that did the trick. A certain retired Admiral whose name Kenneth had never heard, but who knew Mr. Meredith years ago, worked the oracle, and the lad found himself a full-fledged sub-lieutenant of the R.N.V.R. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that Meredith had been appointed to a northern M.L. flotilla, where, in strange and remote waters, there appeared to be little chance of seeing the "actual thing." He had hoped to be appointed to the Dover Patrol, where his intimate knowledge of the Channel would be a decided asset and where the prospects of smelling powder would be almost certain to materialise.

M.L. 1071, one of the fifteen motor launches belonging to the Auldhaig Patrol, was lying next but one alongside the parent ship Hesperus, an obsolete second-class cruiser. It was early in May. Already the northern evenings were drawing out and the nights becoming shorter and shorter. In the land-locked firth the lofty serrated hills were capped with fleecy mists that threatened with the going down of the sun to steal lower and lower and envelop the placid water in a pall of baffling fog.

"The main object of my visit this evening," remarked McIntosh ponderously—he was rather prone to verbosity—"is to enlist your assistance in the matter of this mashie."

"I thought it was a patent lead-swinging device," interposed Meredith drily—"a sort of means of getting me on the sick-list with a pulverised instep."

"Not at all, laddie," continued Jock, unruffled by the interruption. "D'ye ken, I'm no hand at splicing, and I'm not giving myself away by asking any of my merry wreckers to take on the job. Perhaps you'll be kind enough to do it to-morrow."

"When do you want this instrument of torture?" asked Meredith, as he examined the fractured ends.

"By three on Wednesday afternoon," replied McIntosh.

Kenneth shook his head.

"Can't be done, old son—that is, if you want me to tackle it to-morrow."

"Why not?"

"'Cause I'm on patrol to-night."

A terrible reverberation as the engine-room staff gave a preliminary run with the powerful motors corroborated Meredith's statement.

"But I'll do it now, if you like," he added. "You might ask Coles to bring along some seaming-twine and beeswax."

"Don't envy you, old thing," remarked Jock, returning with the required articles. "It's coming on thick. Personally, I'm jolly glad."

"Why?"

"The matter of those X-lighters," replied McIntosh. "We are handing them over to the R.A.F., and we've been expecting some one from that crush down to inspect 'em. And we look like going on expecting. 'Tany rate, the S.N.O.'s fed up with the lighters, so I've orders to take 'em round to Donnikirk and dump 'em on the R.A.F. people. Hanged if I want the job! Plugging along with four-knot barges isn't in my line, so I hope it's foggy."

Meredith nodded sympathetically, as his deft yet horny fingers waxed the twine and began the intricate task of "whipping" the broken pieces of the golf club. He little knew the part those unwieldy X-lighters would play in his subsequent experiences afloat.

The X-lighters were almost flat-bottomed barges, about a hundred feet in length and with a beam of roughly twenty feet. Originally built for work in connection with the naval river flotillas in Mesopotamia, they had found their way to a northern base. Then as a result of negotiations between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, the former expressed their intention of turning over the lighters to the Royal Air Force for kite-balloon work.

Anxious to get rid of the cumbersome craft, which occupied a large amount of valuable mooring-space in Auldhaig Harbour, the Senior Naval Officer had decided not to await the long-delayed visit of the Air Force representative, but to send the barges round to their new base.

"You're quite right, old man," observed Meredith, when, the task of mending the golf club completed, he accompanied Jock McIntosh on deck. "It's going to be a beast of a night. An' No. 1071's doing the Outer Patrol stunt this time."

"Well, good luck!" exclaimed McIntosh.

Kenneth smiled sourly.

"Good luck!" he echoed bitterly. "Nothin' doin', I'm afraid. It's out nosing through the fog, seeing nothing and doing nothing. Haven't had so much as a sniff at a strafed U-boat yet, and don't seem like doing so until the end of the war—whenever that comes off."

"Sooner the better as far as I'm concerned," said McIntosh. "I'm fed up to the back teeth absolutely."

"Think so?" asked Meredith quietly. "From a purely personal point of view, we'll be jolly sorry when the war is over. Most of us will be wishing ourselves back in the M.L.'s before many weeks have passed."

"I'll risk it," rejoined Jock. "Give me the piping times of peace any old day—s'long as we win, which we're bound to do. Hello! here's Wakefield. Now the fun's about to commence. I'll hook it."

And with a friendly gesture of greeting to the returning officer commanding H.M.M.L. 1071, McIntosh leapt over the rail, crossed the deck of an intervening craft, and ascended the accommodation-ladder of the parent ship Hesperus.




CHAPTER II

ON PATROL

"Bright sort of evening, Meredith," was Wakefield's greeting as he came on board. "I see you've had the engines running. Any trouble down below?"

Cedric Wakefield was a burly, pleasant-faced youth of twenty-four, upon whose broad shoulders rested the weight of responsibility of M.L. 1071, her crew and equipment. In those far-off days before practically the whole civilised world was plunged into the throes of war Wakefield was farming in Canada. Had anyone suggested that within a few months he would be treading the deck of a diminutive warship flying the White Ensign, Wakefield would have scouted the idea. The peril of the German menace had hardly made itself felt as far as Western Canada was concerned; while the young Englishman, coming straight from a Public School to the thinly populated slopes of the Rockies, little thought that the call of duty would bring him home hot-foot to fight for King and Country.

But when war broke out with startling suddenness Cedric promptly "packed up," worked his passage from Quebec to Liverpool as a fireman, and upon arrival in the Old Country promptly joined the R.N.V.R. as an ordinary seaman. In less than twelve months he was granted a commission, and after a brief course in gunnery and navigation was given command of a motor launch.

Quiet-spoken, he found that the fact of being in command was not without its disadvantages. At first he possessed hardly sufficient self-confidence to give an order loudly and peremptorily. But by degrees the force of authority asserted itself, and when necessary he could bellow like a bull and make himself heard in a gale of wind. He was daring, but at the same time cautious. He could make up his mind in an instant, and rarely was his judgment at fault, while his courageous bearing in many a tight corner had won the admiration and confidence of his crew.

Judging by their previous occupations, the crew of M.L. 1071 were a "scratch lot." There were two clerks, a butcher, a chauffeur, an insurance agent, a London County Council schoolmaster, an hotel porter, a theological student and a poacher, although the latter was camouflaged under the designation of farm labourer. And these men, volunteers all, had been banded together under the White Ensign to do their level best to make things mighty unpleasant for Fritz by means of a quick-firer and an assortment of particularly obnoxious depth-charges. True, up to the present, opportunities for direct action had been denied them, but nevertheless it was not for want of trying.

It was certainly a beast of a night. The moon had risen, but her light hardly penetrated the white eddying wreaths of vapour. Viewed from the deck of M.L. 1071, the hull of her parent ship appeared to terminate twenty yards away, while her steel masts and fighting-tops, grotesquely distorted by the erratic mists, were visible at one moment like pillars of silver, while at another they appeared to be cut off at less than fifteen feet above the deck. Already three of the six vessels detailed for the forty-eight hours' patrol had been swallowed up in the mist, as with lights screened they groped their way blindly towards the invisible mouth of the harbour and the seemingly boundless expanse of sea and fog beyond.

With the air reverberating with the roar of the exhausts and the deck quivering under the pulsations of the throttled motors, Wakefield and Meredith made their way to the diminutive wheel-house, where the coxwain (ex-theological student) was standing by the steering-wheel and peering with a studied professional manner into the dimly illuminated compass-bowl.

"All ready?" inquired the skipper in stentorian tones. "Let go for'ard!... Let go aft!"

The engine-room telegraph bells clanged as Wakefield thrust the starboard indicator to easy ahead and the port one to half-speed astern. Literally spinning round on her heel, M.L. 1071 edged away from the Hesperus, the towering hull of which was quickly swallowed up in the mist.

"Good enough, Sub!" exclaimed Wakefield. "We're right in the wake of the next ahead. Now carry on. It's my watch below. Give me a shout if anything's doing, and get them to call me at four bells."

Left in charge, Meredith prepared to make the best of his four hours' "trick." Experience had long since taught him that warmth and dryness were absolutely essential on night patrol. Clad in two thick woollen sweaters, serge-trousers and pilot-coat, and wearing woollen gloves, sea-boots, muffler, oilskins and sou'wester, he was well equipped for the work in hand. The three-sided erection known as the wheel-house afforded little protection from the spray, as the windows had to be kept wide open otherwise the moisture settling on the glass panes would render the mist still more baffling than it actually was.

Right for'ard the dim outlines of the look-out could be discerned, as, crouching to dodge as far as possible the clouds of spray, the man peered through the darkening mist. It was his duty to see that M.L. 1071 kept fairly in the bubbling wake of the boat next ahead. Fifty yards astern another M.L., unseen but plainly audible, was likewise making use of the swirl of No. 1071's twin propellers as a guide through the fog-laden water.

So well, so good. Provided the flotilla kept station in "single column line ahead," there was little cause for the science of navigation except on the part of the navigating officer of the leading M.L. It was a case of seamanship, a sort of marine follow-my-leader work, until on arriving at a certain rendezvous the boats had to work independently; and No. 1071 had been detailed for the Outer Patrol stunt.

At a reduced speed of ten knots and an M.L. is a difficult craft to handle at slow speed—the flotilla plugged seawards.

The short steep tide rip at the harbour's mouth gave place to the long sullen undulations of the North Sea. Although navigation was carried on without steaming lights, the chances of collision were hardly worth taking into consideration, since the noise of the exhausts could be plainly audible for a distance of a couple of miles.

For the best part of an hour the flotilla held on then just before midnight came an order from the leading M.L. for the boats to proceed independently.

Meredith, hitherto inactive, roused himself.

"Port fifteen!" he ordered. "Course east a half north!"

"East a half north it is, sir," repeated the coxwain.

In obedience to the Sub's order, a man made his way aft and paid out the patent log-line. The mileage as recorded by this instrument and the course as determined by the magnetic needle were the sole factors used to take the M.L. to her appointed station, four miles from a prominent headland and right in the steamer-track of vessels proceeding northwards from the Firth of Forth. Kenneth felt no particular enthusiasm for this kind of work. It was Duty, spelt with a capital D. Whether the patrol were essential to safeguard shipping had yet to be proved. For the best part of a twelvemonth M.L.'s were constantly on duty off the headland, yet on no occasion had a U-boat been definitely sighted. There had been false alarms. A boat-hook stave floating perpendicularly and drifting with the tide had caused the waste of a couple of depth-charges and incidentally the slaughter of thousands of fish; a derelict fore-topmast had been responsible for the expenditure of twenty rounds of six-pounder ammunition.

On the other hand, what might have happened had the Auldhaig M.L. Patrol not been in existence can well be conjectured. The slow-moving tramps chartered by the Admiralty to take naval stores to the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow would have afforded easy targets to U-boat commanders but for the constant vigilance on the part of the M.L.'s. In effect, the little patrol boats had frightened off the modern pirates, thereby performing a useful though somewhat monotonous rôle in the question of Sea Power.

"'Tany rate, I'm afloat," soliloquised Meredith. "Better than sitting tight in a muddy trench and being strafed day and night by Boche artillery; but I wish to goodness I'd been in the Dover Patrol. There's no Zeebrugge this end of the North Sea to make things a bit lively."

"Wireless message, sir."

Meredith turned abruptly to find an operator proffering a leaf from a signal pad.

"Anything important?" he asked.

The lad—he was one of the two ex-bank clerks—smiled.

"Looks like business this time, sir," he replied. "A U-boat's been shelling Aberspey. One of our blimps nearly got one home, and Fritz sheered off and was lost in the mist."

Switching on an electric torch, Meredith read the message. It was couched in matter-of-fact official terms and left much to the imagination. Briefly, the U-boat was believed to be damaged and incapable of submerging. It was last sighted at 22.30 (half-past ten), steering eastward and apparently on fire aft.

"Very good; inform the skipper," said Kenneth. "Yes; we stand a chance of seeing something this time."

In less than a couple of minutes Wakefield was on deck.

"Some wheeze, this, Meredith!" he exclaimed gleefully. "With luck we may spot little Fritz. I don't think it's much use following the directions given in this signal. There'll be a swarm of destroyers and all that sort of fry buzzing around already, and if the skipper of the U-boat is up to snuff he'll have altered course to the south'ard. We'll just stand on and keep our wits on the alert. If he's legging it to the south'ard he'll cut athwart our course. I'll try what luck we can get with the hydrophone first."

The M.L.'s engines were stopped, and the boat rolled heavily in the oily swell. Over her starboard side a weird contraption of wires was lowered, the wires terminating in submerged metal plates, while inboard they led to a complicated device known as a hydrophone. In the wireless-room a man sat with receivers clipped to his ears. He was not listening to wireless messages, but for the sound of a U-boat's propellers.

"Anything doing?" inquired Meredith for the twentieth time, as the minutes slowly passed.

This time the listener did not shake his head.

"Fancy I hear something, sir," he reported. "Would you like to listen?"

Kenneth took the proffered ear-pieces and clipped them to his head. Very faintly he could hear the characteristic thud of a marine motor.

"Evidently she's knocking around," he observed, as he handed the apparatus to the operator. "All right; carry on."

Slowly the man revolved a handle until the thudding sound reached a maximum intensity. A glance at the compass showed that the hydrophones were pointing east by south. Still turning the handle, he noted that the volume of sound gradually decreased until a certain point; then it began to increase again, reaching a state of maximum intensity in a bearing south by east. That was all the operator required. Experience had taught him that the source of emission of the sound came from a direction midway between the two maxima, while a further test revealed the fact that the U-boat was moving in a southerly direction.

"If only this blessed fog would lift!" exclaimed Wakefield when his Sub communicated the result of the hydrophone test.

"Get the gear inboard, Meredith. See that the ammunition is brought up and the gun cleared for action. Now for a game of blind man's buff."

"None of our submarines are about here, I suppose?" asked Meredith.

"Not within seventy miles," replied the skipper. "So if we do have the luck to run across a submarine, we'll go for the brute bald-headed."

"And if Fritz can't dive?"

"Then, of course, we'll have to try our best to tickle his ribs with a shell while he's on the surface. Tricky work, but we'll keep him fully occupied with our little pea-shooter"; and Wakefield indicated the six-pounder, by the side of which the gun-layer was standing ready and alert to train the weapon upon its objective.

A quarter of an hour passed. Both officers realised that in this game of hide-and-seek the U-boat stood a better chance, since she could hear the noisy explosions of the M.L.'s exhausts, especially if she floated motionless with her motors switched off. Again, if it came to a trial of gunnery, the odds were tremendously in favour of the Hun, since the U-boat mounted a couple of 4.7-inch or even 6-inch weapons.

Wakefield was counting on the chance of catching his foe napping, and that, if the U-boat were able to dive, she would submerge precipitately. It was then that the depth-charges would play their deadly part.

Conscious of a peculiar sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, Meredith confessed to himself that "he had the wind up." Faced with the possibility of going into action for the first time, he both dreaded and welcomed the chance. Fervently he gave thanks for the fact that it was dark, and that none of his comrades could see his face. For his own part, he felt that every vestige of colour had vanished from his usually bronze features.

Again M.L. 1071 was brought to a standstill and recourse made to the hydrophone. The result was disappointing. Except for a faint rumbling that could only be ascribed to the surf lashing the distant cliffs, not a sound was recorded. Apparently the U-boat was again capable of submerging, and was lying doggo on the bed of the North Sea, while the destroyers engaged in hunting her had passed beyond the range of the M.L.'s hydrophone.

"We'll just carry on," decided Wakefield. "The fog looks like lifting."

Overhead the moonlight was streaming down through a thin layer of mist, while the range of visibility varied from fifty to five hundred yards as banks of dispersing vapour bore down before the light easterly wind.

Wiping the moisture from the lenses of his powerful night glasses, Meredith raised the binoculars and scanned the limited expanse of visible sea. Even as he did so a weird greyish object swept across his field of vision.

"By Jove!" he ejaculated.

"By Jove, what?" asked Wakefield sharply. "Good heavens! Yes, there she is!"

He jerked the telegraph indicator to full speed ahead.

"See her, Clarkson?" he shouted to the gun-layer. "Two points on your starboard bow. Let her have it."




CHAPTER III

SUNK IN ACTION

A blinding flash and a deafening roar, followed by a sickening lurch of the little patrol boat as the lightly built hull reeled to the recoil, announced that the action had commenced. Almost immediately the breech-block of the six-pounder was jerked back and the still smoking metal cylinder clattered noisily on the deck. The air reeked of burnt cordite as the excited gun's crew, who had never before been in action, loaded and fired like men possessed.

With the first shot Kenneth's sense of nervousness fell from him like a cast garment. Up to the present the foe had not replied to the M.L.'s fire, but it was not to be supposed that she would decline the combat. Glowing steel messages of death would presently be hurtling through the air with the avowed object of wiping out the little M.L. and her crew. Kenneth fully realised this, but beyond a curious feeling of elation the Sub was as cool as if bringing No. 1071 alongside her parent ship.

Her antagonist's reply was not long delayed. With a lurid red flash that completely eclipsed the wan moonlight, her after quick-firer let rip. A shrill whine as the projectile passed overhead caused every man on the M.L.'s deck to duck his head.

"If she can't do better than that it's time she packed up!" shouted Wakefield. "Keep it up, men! Let her have it properly in the neck!"

A provoking wreath of vapour drifting down hid the misty outlines of her opponent from the M.L.'s crew. Only the constant flashes of the former's guns gave the six-pounder's gun-layer an inkling of her direction. Whether five hundred or a thousand yards separated the combatants remained a matter for speculation, and whether the foe was "legging it" or closing upon Wakefield's command was equally a speculative proposition.

"That's a near one," thought Meredith, as a shell literally scraped the searchlight mounted on the roof of the wheel-house.

Hitherto the opposing craft had been firing with too much elevation. Apparently realising her mistake, her gunner was lowering the sights.

Kenneth's thought was also shared by his skipper. Wakefield decided first to increase the distance in order to baffle the enemy gun-layers, and then make a dash for his opponent and thus bring the depth-charges into action.

Grasping the telegraph levers, he intended to signal full ahead on the starboard and full astern on the port engine in order to spin the M.L. on her heel in the shortest possible time. But at the critical moment the mechanism failed badly: both levers became interlocked.

Savagely Wakefield wrenched at the refractory indicator. Manoeuvring under engines alone was out of the question. The use of the helm was the sole solution of the difficulty.

"Cease fire!" shouted the skipper, judging that the absence of flashes from the puny six-pounder would mystify the hostile craft, and give the M.L. a better chance to close and use her depth-charges. "Stand by aft, Meredith, and give an eye to things. If those fellows get jumpy and fool about with the firing key, we're in the soup."

Promptly the Sub obeyed, yet as he did so he almost involuntarily crouched under the lee side of the "tin" dinghy that was hanging inboard from the davits. Then he laughed at what he had done. The idea of imagining that the thin galvanised steel plates of the dinghy would stop a 4.7-inch shell struck him as the height of absurdity.

Yet even as he sidled past the dinghy a concussion shook the M.L. from stem to stern. It was a far different concussion from that caused by her own quick-firer. This time her opponent had got one home.

M.L. 1071 stopped dead, like a man who receives a knock-out blow between the eyes. Pungent smoke enveloped her, as she rolled sullenly on the long swell. Then the pall of smoke was rent by a furious blast of red flame. An unlucky shot had struck her amidships, playing havoc in the engine-room and igniting one of the petrol-tanks.

Nor was that the worst of the business. A fire could be subdued with little difficulty by means of patent extinguishers; but the projectile, luckily without exploding, had passed completely through both sides of the wooden hull of the M.L., tearing jagged holes that were admitting volumes of the North Sea into her engine-room.

Valiantly the artificers, directly they recovered from the disconcerting effects of the projectile, strove to quench the flames until, knee-deep in water on which floated patches of blazing petrol, they were compelled to evacuate their untenable posts. Scorched and almost suffocated by the fumes from the chemicals, they gained the deck and collapsed.

"Fall in aft!" roared Wakefield. "Swing out the boat! Look lively there, men!"

The crew needed no second bidding. Every man on board, save the two unconscious engine-room ratings, who were unceremoniously dragged aft by their messmates, knew that M.L. 1071 was doomed. It was a question whether she would blow up or founder, for the flames were momentarily increasing in violence and threatening to explode the magazine, while already the waves were lapping over her foredeck.

Quickly, yet without a vestige of panic, the men swung out the dinghy and lowered her from the davits. The two casualties were then lifted in, and the rest of the crew followed—Meredith and Wakefield being the last to leave.

"She's going down with flying colours at all events," exclaimed the skipper. "Give way, lads!"

The men pulled with a will. There is a powerful incentive to do so when in the vicinity of a couple of depth-charges that might at any moment be detonated with disastrous results.

"What's Fritz doing?" inquired one of the rowers, when at length the order was given to "Lay on your oars."

No one knew. The enemy had ceased fire, but when he did so none of the late M.L.'s crew could say. In the excitement of abandoning ship, the fact that they were under shell-fire hardly concerned them.

"Pushing off at the rate of knots, he is," hazarded another. "Unless we've given him gyp. P'raps he's been knocked out, same as us."

"Shouldn't be surprised," remarked Clarkson, the gun-layer. "I'll swear I got half a dozen home in his hide before the fog came on again. Otherwise he'd be sniffing around and giving us a dose of machine-gun fire. That's Fritz's little joke when a fellow can't hit back. If——"

A terrific roar caused the man to break off suddenly. Somewhere within the radius of a mile, although the now increasing fog gave no indication of direction, an explosion of no slight magnitude had occurred. For nearly a minute came the sound of falling debris, and then deep silence.

"Is that Fritz or us?" inquired one of the men, as the rowers resumed their task.

"How far is it to Auldhaig?" asked another. "Lucky for us we aren't in the ditch. 'Twould be a longish swim."

Wakefield let the men talk. It helped to keep up their spirits, although they were not apt to be down-hearted. For his part, he was kept busily employed in steering the boat by means of a small compass that was little better than a toy. By a fortunate chance, he had found it with a miscellaneous assortment of small articles in the inside pocket of his monkey-jacket. A fortnight previously he had been induced by an attractive damsel at a bazaar in aid of the Auldhaig Seamen and Fishermen's Society to buy what then occurred to him to be an utterly useless article, but now he found himself trusting implicitly to the doubtless highly erratic magnetised needle. It was a sorry substitute for the boat-compass that ought to have been in the boat, but wasn't; but even in the baffling fog Wakefield knew that he was provided with a means of direction. With reasonable luck, the boat ought to hit the Scottish coast somewhere, if the survivors were not picked up by one of the other patrol-boats known to be cruising in the vicinity.

At frequent intervals Wakefield bade the men rest on their oars, taking advantage of the silence to listen for sounds indicating the presence of other craft; but beyond the lap of the water against the metal sides of the boat the stillness was unbroken.

It was an eerie experience, climbing the slope of the long rollers and sliding down into the trough beyond, the while encompassed by a fog now so dense that at twenty yards sea and air blended into nothingness. Fortunately there was little or no wind, and the boat rode the swell without shipping as much as a pailful of water, but both Wakefield and Meredith knew full well that those sullen rollers portended a storm at no distant date. The while the pale rays of the moon penetrated with little difficulty the relatively thin stratum of fog overhead, the ghostly light adding to the weirdness of the scene.

"Prop.!" exclaimed Kenneth laconically.

A tense silence fell upon the boat's crew. Through the mists came the unmistakable thud of a vessel's propellers, but whether from north, south, east or west the baffling atmospheric conditions gave no clue.

Then the subdued sound ceased abruptly.

"Give a hail, lads!" exclaimed Wakefield; but before the bowman could stand and give vent to a bellowing "Ahoy!" the skipper countermanded the order.

"We'll put a stopper on the hailing business," he remarked, without giving any further explanation. "Ah, there it is again!"

"Nearer this time," announced Meredith. "Voices, too."

"Too jolly guttural for my liking," added Wakefield. "It's a Fritz surface cruising. We'll lie doggo."

"Wish they'd push along out of it," said the stroke in a low tone. "We want to get another move on."

These sentiments were shared by the rest of the boat's crew. Every man knew what detection meant. A machine-gun turned upon the boat, or perhaps a bomb thrown with the whole-hearted generosity that Fritz was wont to display towards a boat-load of helpless seamen.

"Silence!" hissed Wakefield, holding up his hand to impress upon the men the necessity for absolute noiselessness.

A minute passed in breathless suspense. Although the unseen craft had again switched off the ignition, the plash of water against her bows was distinctly audible.

"Stand by to give way, men," whispered the skipper. "If she spots us we may be able to give her the slip in the fog."

Even as he spoke a sudden gust of wind swept over the boat. As if by magic the hitherto enfolding pall of mist was torn relentlessly aside, revealing in the full light of the moon the outlines of a U-boat at less than fifty yards from the survivors of M.L. 1071.




CHAPTER IV

THE SPY

"Fifteen metres fine grey sand, Herr Kapitan."

Ober-leutnant Hans von Preugfeld, commanding officer of U 247, was typically Prussian in his thoroughness. Carefully he examined the sand adhering to the "arming" of the lead line that the leadsman held up for his inspection.

He grunted a sort of congratulatory reply and, turning his back upon the black oilskinned seaman, addressed himself to the second-in-command.

"Good, Eitel!" he exclaimed. "We are not far from the spot. But caution the men to keep their ears open and to stop running at intervals. I am in no mood to fall in with any of those hornets, nor do I want an English destroyer cutting us in twain."

Eitel von Loringhoven, unter-leutnant of the Imperial German Submarine Service, nodded his head comprehendingly. He, too, fully realised the perils that beset pirate unterseebooten, for, despite all possible precautions, Germany's under-water fleet was in a bad way. It came home to him in a very personal manner, too, for he was the last survivor of five brothers who had gone out into the North Sea mists at the behest of Admiral von Tirpitz. Four had never returned. Of the manner of their demise he was in total ignorance. Perhaps some day, if he survived the period of hostilities, the British Admiralty might enlighten him, but until then his knowledge of how four von Loringhovens simply vanished was merely a matter for conjecture. And the very mystery of it all was both nerve-racking and terrifying not only to Eitel von Loringhoven but to every officer and man serving in the unterseebooten flying the dishonoured Black Cross Ensign.

Throughout the day U 247 had been feeling her way through fog of varying intensity by aid of compass, lead line, and patent log. Whenever the thud of the engines of an approaching vessel was heard the U-boat submerged promptly and without ceremony. Although five out of every six vessels that passed within audible distance were of the British Mercantile Marine, U 247 made no effort to ascertain that they were not warships. The risk of closing with any craft in the fog was too great, for, although the U-boat could shell an unarmed merchantman with impunity, she had long learnt to respect both men-of-war and armed merchant ships.

Von Preugfeld had vivid recollections of the s.s. Contraption, a six-knot tramp two hours out of Grimsby. He had had information from an unimpeachable source that the Contraption was unarmed, that she carried munitions for Archangel, and that she expected to join a convoy off Flamborough Head.

With these facts in his possession, the ober-leutnant showed far less discretion than he usually exercised. Unable to resist a chance of playing upon the nerves of the crew of the English ship, he brought U 247 to the surface, and at reduced speed maintained a position a bare cable's length from the tramp's starboard bow.

Therein he made a great mistake. He had completely underrated the stubborn courage of the British Mercantile Marine.

Hard-a-port went the Contraption's helm. Barely had the crew of the U-boat time to scurry below and submerge at record speed when the tramp's forefoot rasped athwart the U-boat's deck. It was a near thing, as the moisture on von Preugfeld's ashen-grey features testified.

Twenty minutes later U 247 rose to the surface, and at a safe distance shelled her antagonist and sent her to the bottom; but the U-boat had to "leg it" back to Wilhelmshaven with her pumps going continuously to keep down the water that oozed through ominous dents in her hull.

"Ten metres, Herr Kapitan."

"Any signs of the lighthouse?" he demanded.

"None, Herr Kapitan."

"Keep her at that," continued the ober-leutnant. "Inform me when you strike eight metres, unless you sight the headland before that."

Running just awash, and with her surface motors well throttled down, U 247 held on until the look-out man gave the much desired information:

"Land right ahead, Herr Kapitan. A white lighthouse two points on our starboard bow."

It was now close on sunset. A partial lifting of the fog revealed at a distance of about a mile a serrated ridge of dark cliffs culminating in a bold promontory crowned by the massive squat tower of a lighthouse. There was no need for von Preugfeld to verify the statement by means of his reflex glasses. He rapped out a curt order, and the U-boat swung round through eight points of the compass and settled down to a course south-south-west, or parallel with the forbidding shore.

"Tell von Preussen to hold himself in readiness," said von Preugfeld, addressing the unter-leutnant. "If he is not set ashore within forty-five minutes, I will accept no further responsibility in the matter."

Von Loringhoven clicked his heels and saluted.

"Very good, Herr Kapitan," he replied. "Von Preussen is even now changing into the accursed English uniform. Ach, here he is."

The ober-leutnant wheeled abruptly to see standing within three paces of him a tall, thickly built man wearing a khaki uniform.

"So you are ready?" remarked von Preugfeld, not with any degree of cordiality. Truth to tell, he was not at all keen about this particular undertaking, namely, to set ashore a German spy disguised as a British officer. "Well, I suppose your get-up will pass muster, von Preussen? If it does not, I fancy you'll be in a tighter hole than ever you've been before."

"I can look after myself, I think, Herr Kapitan," replied the spy. "I can assure you that from my point of view my work ashore will be child's play to the time I spent on board your vessel. Ach! I do not hesitate to confess that I am not of a disposition suitable for unterseebooten work. It appals me."

The ober-leutnant shrugged his shoulders.

"It will help you to appreciate the perils that we undergo for the honour of the Fatherland," he observed. "Perhaps, on your return, you might communicate your views on the subject to the Chief of Staff. Our task grows more difficult every day. The men, even, are showing signs of discontent, thereby magnifying our dangers. But, there—better come below and let von Loringhoven and me have a final kit inspection; and at the same time we may join in a bottle of Rhenish wine and drink to the success of our joint enterprise."

The kapitan having enjoined a petty Officer to maintain a vigilant watch, led the way, followed by von Preussen, the unter-leutnant bringing up the rear, and the three adjourned to a narrow, complicated compartment that served as a ward-room. In spite of scientific apparatus for purifying the air, that confined space reeked abominably. Everything of a textile nature was saturated with moisture, while the metal beams, although coated with cork composition, exuded drops of rust-tinged water.

In the glare of the electric lamps Karl von Preussen stood stiffly erect, clad in the uniform of a captain of the British Royal Air Force. In height he was about five feet eight, broad of build, and with decidedly Anglo-Saxon features. He could speak English fluently and colloquially, and thanks to a British Public School education, followed by a three years' appointment in a London shipping office, he was well acquainted with the peculiarities and customs of a country that was Germany's chief enemy.

Long before August 1914 von Preussen had been a spy. One might say that the seeds of the dishonourable profession were germinating during his school-days: they were certainly decidedly active when he was occupying an ill-paid post in Threadneedle Street, where his modest pound a week was augmented by sundry substantial sums paid in British gold but emanating from Berlin.

The outbreak of hostilities found von Preussen fully prepared. Posing as one of the principals of a steel factory, he practically had an entry to every British Government establishment. Armed with forged documents, he was not for one moment suspected. From Scapa Flow to the Scillies, and from Loch Swilly to Dover, his activities brought valuable information to the Imperial Government. Within a week of the mining of a British Dreadnought—a calamity that the Admiralty vainly attempted to conceal—von Preussen had conveyed details and photographs of the lost vessel to Berlin, and on the following morning the German Press published illustrated reports of a "secret" known throughout the world.

When occasion offered, von Preussen did not hesitate to commit acts of sabotage. More than once, disguised as a munition worker, he was instrumental in the destruction of a shell factory, while it was he who gave instructions and furnished material to the noted spy Otto Oberfurst in order that the latter could and did destroy the cruiser Pompey in Auldhaig Harbour.

The stringent passport restrictions placed upon all travellers to and from Great Britain considerably curtailed von Preussen's activities. The difficulty of making a sea passage to the Continent was almost insurmountable. Once, indeed, the spy essayed to fly, and was within an ace of success, when the stolen machine crashed. Fortunately for the spy, the accident happened in an unfrequented spot, and being but slightly injured he contrived to get away; but the mystery of the abandoned machine puzzled the brains of the Air Ministry for months. Von Preussen returned to the Fatherland via Bergen, disguised as a fireman on board a Norwegian tramp.

The spy had not long been in Berlin before he was peremptorily ordered off on another "tour." The Hun High Command knew how to get the best out of their secret service agents, and since Karl von Preussen had been a success his employers kept him running at high pressure. Accordingly, armed with instructions to report upon various British air stations, and to obtain accurate information respecting the bombing 'planes known to be building for the express purpose of blowing Berlin to bits, the spy was sent on board U 247, the commander of which was furnished with orders to land his passenger on the east coast of Scotland.

"Here's to your venture, von Preussen!" exclaimed Ober-leutnant von Preugfeld, as he raised his glass. "Your health."

With a profusion of "Hoch, hoch, hoch!" their glasses clicked and the toast was drunk. Then, tightening the belt of his trench-coat, the spy ascended the ladder and gained the deck.




CHAPTER V

THE PROWESS OF KAPITAN VON PREUGFELD

"The fog is thicker than ever," grumbled the ober-leutnant as he emerged from below. "It is so far fortunate for your landing, von Preussen, but give me a clear night. Then there is far less risk of being run down by those accursed P-boats."

"You need to be doubly careful on a night like this," rejoined the spy.

"And one way is to lose no time in getting into the dinghy," added von Preugfeld pointedly.

Rubbing alongside the bulging hull of the U-boat was a small collapsible dinghy manned by a couple of hands clad in oilskins. In the stern-sheets, muffled by a piece of tarpaulin, was a lighted compass.

"I am sending my unter-leutnant in charge of the boat," observed von Preugfeld.

"Then I hope Herr von Loringhoven realises the sense of his responsibility," laughed the spy, as he stepped into the boat. "Auf Wiedersehen!"

The dinghy pushed off under muffled oars and well-greased rowlocks. In less than half a minute it was inaudible and invisible, swallowed up in the fog.

The kapitan of U 247 remained on deck, half-buried in his greatcoat. He was both irritable and impatient—impatient for the return of the boat, irritable since he wanted to smoke and durst not. Another U-boat commander had smoked on deck while his boat was recharging batteries at night. The fumes of the cigar, drifting far and wide, assailed the keen nostrils of a submarine hunter. As it was, the U-boat got away, but her kapitan learnt a lesson and did not hesitate to inform his fellow-pirates of his very narrow escape.

Always within easy distance of the open conning-tower hatchway and ready to submerge at an instant's notice, Ober-leutnant von Preugfeld maintained his solitary vigil, for the rest of the crew had been ordered to their diving stations. It was the life of a hunted animal, haunted by an ever-present fear. Von Preugfeld, prematurely aged and careworn, had suffered the torments of the damned since the order had been issued for unrestricted submarine warfare, At first he had entered into the business with grim zest. A firm believer in the policy of ruthlessness as applied to war, the ober-leutnant had no compunction in sinking unarmed merchantmen and hospital ships, but when the British Mercantile Marine took unto itself guns and gun-layers who could shoot uncommonly straight, and when the Royal Navy adopted certain sinister devices to cope with the pirate Hun, von Preugfeld did not feel at all happy.

By this time he was convinced that he was on the losing side. Almost every officer in the German Submarine Service had the same opinion, although individually they were loth to admit it. The men, too, knew that the U-boat campaign was a failure, but, unlike their officers, they discussed the matter amongst themselves and thought that it was quite about time they had a say in the business.

For a full forty minutes von Preugfeld paced the limited expanse of steel platform that comprised the U-boat's deck, until a faint whistle like the call of a curlew was borne to his ears.

Ordering a couple of hands on deck, the ober-leutnant gave the pre-arranged reply. For another five minutes the interchange of signals continued as the dinghy, baffled by the fog, endeavoured to find her way back to her parent ship.

Presently the black outlines of the little boat loomed through the moonlit mist. The bowman threw the painter, and von Loringhoven clambered on board.

"This confounded fog!" he exclaimed. "I have not seen a worse one even off the Friesland shore."

"And von Preussen?" asked the kapitan laconically.

"We landed him safely, Herr Kapitan," replied the unter-leutnant. "There was no one about. The actual business of setting him ashore was simple. We are to look out for him at the same place at midnight on the first of next month, I believe?"

"That is so," assented von Preugfeld. "That is, if we are still alive," he added, speaking to himself.

"If what, Kerr Kapitan?" asked his subordinate anxiously.

"Nothing," rejoined the other gruffly. "Now, to your post, von Loringhoven. We have a tricky piece of navigation in front of us if we are to arrive off Aberspey by midnight."

Thanks to his intimate knowledge of the coasts of Great Britain, von Preugfeld was able to take the intricate inner passage round St. Rollox Head. He did not expect to find any patrols in that waterway on a foggy night, and his anticipations were well founded. Running awash and at full speed, U 247 literally scraped past the outlying rocks, the thresh of her propellers being deadened by the constant roar of the surf upon the far-flung ledges that thrust themselves seaward from the bold headland. Through a winding channel barely a hundred yards in width, beset with dangers on either hand and swept by furious currents and counter-eddies, the U-boat held steadily onwards, until with a grunt of relief von Preugfeld "handed over" to his subordinate.

"We're through," he observed. "Now keep her south by west at nine knots. Call me in twenty minutes."

At the expiration of the given time the kapitan went on deck and ordered the leadsman to sound. Very slowly the U-boat held on, until through a rift in the fog the look-out sighted a green buoy on the starboard hand.

"That is what I was looking for," remarked von Preugfeld to the unter-leutnant. "It's a wreck-buoy placed there as a monument to our achievement last March. You remember?"

"The Camperdown Castle, Herr Kapitan?"

"No, you fool," snapped the kapitan. "We sank the Camperdown Castle eighty kilometres away to the south-eastward."

"The Columbine, then?"

"That's better," exclaimed von Preugfeld. "That red cross on her port bow made an excellent mark, illuminated by electric light as it was for our convenience. Now, shut off the motors. Call away the guns' crews. Elevate to eight thousand metres, and fire anywhere between west by north and west by south, and I'll warrant we'll make a mess of things ashore in Aberspey."

The two six-inch guns mounted on U 247 were quickly manned. The glistening, well-oiled breech-blocks were flung open, and the metal cylinders with their deadly steel shells were thrust home. For a brief instant the gun-layers lingered over their sights, training the weapons upon an invisible target roughly five miles off.

"Open fire!" ordered von Preugfeld in a strained, harsh voice.

Both guns barked almost simultaneously, stabbing the foggy night with long tongues of dark red flame. Even as the U-boat heeled under the recoil the shrill whine of the projectile could be distinctly heard, followed by the distant crashes of the exploding shells.

"Hit something," observed von Loringhoven. "Let us hope that the objective was worth hitting."

"Carry on!" shouted the kapitan. "Twelve rounds each gun, and be sharp about it."

The required number of rounds did not take long. The German gunners were working in feverish haste, fearful lest the tip-and-run bombardment would bring swift retribution in its wake in the shape of a flotilla of destroyers.

Directly the last shell case had been ejected and passed below—for brass was worth almost its weight in silver to the German military and naval authorities—the guns were secured and the crews returned to diving stations.

Pausing only to listen intently for sounds of approaching vessels, von Preugfeld disappeared through the conning-tower hatchway. The metal fastening clanged into its appointed place, the ballast tanks were flooded and U 247 submerged to thirty metres.

For the next hour she proceeded warily, until her kapitan deemed it safe to rise to the surface. The engines were stopped, and as soon as the U-boat floated just awash the officers went on deck to listen.

"Petrol engine!" exclaimed von Loringhoven, as the noisy exhaust beats of an internal combustion engine were plainly audible although at a considerable distance.

"Down with her then!" ordered von Preugfeld.

As he moved towards the hatchway, the chief motor engineer approached.

"We have a bad case of short circuiting, Herr Kapitan," he began. "Both on magneto and accumulator the motors refuse to fire. I have——"

"Donnerwetter!" exclaimed von Preugfeld angrily. "What monkey tricks have you been playing? And there are hostile motor craft around. Von Loringhoven, what depth have we?"

"Too great to rest on the bed of the sea, Herr Kapitan," replied the unter-leutnant.

Without motive power the submarine was helpless for under-water work. She could fill her ballast tanks, but it would be impossible to sink only to a required depth. She would sink rapidly until the tremendous external pressure of water would crush her thick steel hull like an egg-shell.

"How long will it take you to make good defects?" demanded von Preugfeld of the thoroughly scared mechanic. "Half an hour—twenty minutes?"

"I will try, Herr Kapitan. Perhaps in half an hour——"

"Then get on with the task," almost shouted the excitable ober-leutnant. "First couple up the surface-cruising engines. Von Loringhoven, turn out the guns' crews. If that motor vessel comes in sight we must try and settle her before she uses her depth-charges, or it will be all up with us. Ten thousand curses on von Preussen for having got us into this mess!"

Although scared himself, von Loringhoven could not help smiling at his superior's words. He realised that the spy had little or nothing to do with U 247's present predicament. It was just possible that the concussion caused by the bombardment of Aberspey might have set up a short circuit, but von Preugfeld would never admit that.

At frequent intervals the U-boat's engines were stopped. The noise of the unseen motor vessel's exhaust alternately grew louder and fainter. Somewhere in that baffling mist was the danger. Engaged in a mutual game of maritime blind man's bluff the submarine and the submarine-hunter were groping for each other. At any moment a rift in the veil of fog might bring the adversaries almost broadside to broadside.

Von Preugfeld glanced at the luminous dial of his watch.

"Fifteen minutes more," he muttered. "Will it be in time?"




CHAPTER VI

PICKED UP

"Pull starboard; back port!... Give way together!" ordered Lieutenant-Commander Wakefield, as the blunt bows of the U-boat appeared through the dispersing fog-bank.

The men obeyed with a will. Almost in its own length the "tin" dinghy spun round and darted towards the pall of misty vapour. It was a dog's chance, and the men realised it, but they were not going to throw up the sponge without a determined effort to escape.

Alas for the bold resolve! With a rapidity that was little short of miraculous for a vessel of her type, the U-boat turned to starboard. Then, with her engines reversed, she brought up dead with her bows within an oar's length of the M.L.'s dinghy.

Right for'ard were half a dozen men clad in oilskins. One of them brandished a long boat-hook.

"Game's up, Fritz," shouted an unmistakable Devonshire voice. "Be yu comin' quiet-like?"

For a moment the men sat dumfounded. Then Wakefield laughed mirthlessly.

"She's one of our new submarines!" he exclaimed. "And we've been engaging her by mistake. Good heavens, what a proper lash up! Make fast there!"

The bowman threw a coil of rope, and as the boat swung alongside the giant submarine Wakefield leapt on board, followed by Meredith.

The surprise of M.L. 1071's officers was more than equalled by the consternation of the skipper of the submarine, who burst out into a torrent of eager questions.

"Then I've sunk you, by Jove!" exclaimed the latter. "How was I to know? Why the deuce didn't you make your private signal? You fired first, you know."

"Admitted," replied Wakefield. "We spotted what we took to be a U-boat and, having had official information that none of our submarines was within eighty miles of us, we naturally let rip the moment we sighted you."

He gave a quick glance at the deck and superstructure.

"Any damage?" he asked.

The other smiled grimly.

"Not to us... 'Fraid I cannot congratulate you on the excellence of your gunnery. Every shell went overhead handsomely."

The gun-layer of M.L. 1071's six-pounder, overhearing the remark, groaned at the slight upon his marksmanship.

"Sorry I can't return the compliment," observed Wakefield. "You caught us a beauty—only it failed to explode or we wouldn't be here. As it is, I've lost my command and sustained a couple of casualties. Rough luck!"

"Rough luck indeed!" rejoined the other sympathetically. "Come below and have a glass of grog. I'll have your men attended to. We must cut your boat adrift, I'm afraid."

Meredith followed the two lieutenant-commanders to the little ward-room, which, though small, was not chock-a-block with the usual appendages to a submarine's officers' quarters.

The skipper of the boat threw off his oilskin, revealing a burly figure rigged out in the uniform of a lieutenant-commander R.N.R. In height he was over six feet, with massive neck and bull-dog features. His face was tanned a deep red that contrasted vividly with his light-blue eyes and white, even teeth. From the outer corner of his left eye to within an inch of the extremity of his jaw-bone ran a greyish scar that tended to accentuate the grim tenacity of expression.

"Sit you down," he said, in unmistakably Northumbrian accents. "A stiff peg will pull you fellows together, although the sun's not over the fore-yard. But let that slide. What's your name?"

Wakefield gave the required information and introduced Meredith to the burly R.N.R. skipper.

"Morpeth's my tally," announced the latter, in answer to Wakefield's inquiry: "Geordie Morpeth, or 'Tough Geordie,' as they used to call me when I was first mate in the Foul Anchor Line—them that runs cattle boats to Monte Video, you might remember."

"Tough work, eh?" inquired Wakefield.

"You're about right," agreed Morpeth. "Handling a crew of Dagoes and such-like takes a bit of doing. My present job is an easy one in comparison."

"What made you go in for the Submarine Service?" asked Meredith.

The bull-necked R.N.R. officer leant back in his chair and laughed uproariously.

"Got you cold, by Jove!" he ejaculated. "Submarine Service—a precious lot I know about it, 'cept that I know a U-boat when I spot her. Leastways, I thought I did until I mistook your hooker for Fritz: but you fired on me first, my man. Ha! ha! ha! Submarine indeed!"

"Well, isn't this one?" inquired Wakefield.

"She won't submerge unless a Hun tinfish gets her," replied Morpeth oracularly. "And that ain't likely, since Fritz can't distinguish between a real U-boat and this old hooker. We're just a decoy."

"Sort of Q-boat?" asked Meredith.

"You've about hit it, old thing," replied the R.N.R. man. "We're just off to the Heligoland Bight to see if that fish will bite. Excuse my joke. Hope you're not in a hurry, 'cause you'll have to be shipmates along with us for the next fortnight."

"Any old job'll suit me," said Wakefield. "The only thing that troubles me is how we are to get in touch with the S.N.O., Auldhaig. We'll be posted as missing and all that sort of thing."

"Can't help you there," declared Morpeth. "We don't get in touch with patrolling craft during this stunt for a very good reason. They'd fire on us at sight long before we could establish our identity."

"Why not wireless?" suggested Meredith.

"We've got a wireless rigged up, but we don't use it except in cases of actual danger," explained Morpeth. "Once we start sending out messages all our chances go by the board. Fritz might intercept them, and there you are. We'll receive as many as they care to send, and a fine old collection we've got. You should see our wireless decoder with his German signal code-book. That's the way to get a true insight into the U-boat campaign. No, gentlemen, it can't be did; but I'll do my level best to make you comfortable. There's a spare bunk in my cabin, Mr. Wakefield, and Mr. Meredith can have a hammock slung in the ward-room. As for grub, there's enough and to spare for all hands."

"Good enough!" exclaimed Wakefield heartily. "Only I hope you've got a job for us?"

"You trust me for that," rejoined the R.N.R. officer grimly.

He glanced at the clock on the after-bulkhead.

"Seven bells," he remarked. "We've spent a solid hour kagging away when we ought to be turned in. It'll be daybreak in another hour. Tired?"

Wakefield and Meredith replied in the negative. The excitement of the unfortunate engagement was still making itself felt, rendering the desire for sleep impossible.

"Take my tip and turn in," suggested Morpeth. "I'll get the steward to bring some grub first, and then you'll be all right for the next few hours. You'll excuse me, but I must see how things are going on deck. I've got a ripping officer of the watch, but at the same time the responsibility is mine."

Picking up his cap, the gold lace and badge of which was green with exposure to the salt spray, Lieutenant-Commander Morpeth left his involuntary guests and went on deck.

"Tough customer," remarked Wakefield. "His nickname is well bestowed. I shouldn't care to fall foul of him."

"A good man for the job, I should imagine," said Meredith, as he proffered his cigarette-case to his superior officer. "Where the Navy would be without the R.N.R. goodness only knows. Those fellows could carry on straight away, but we had to be trained—after a fashion. I remember the first time I tried to bring an M.L. alongside a jetty. There wasn't much tide and hardly any wind, but it took five attempts before I did the trick."

"You were not the only one," said Wakefield reminiscently. "First time I was running at fifteen knots I had the wind up properly. Knew every article on the Rule of Road and all that sort of thing by heart, but the first lumbering old tramp I met drove the whole blessed lot out of my head. Scraped her quarter by less'n a yard, an' it might have been worse."

Kenneth puffed thoughtfully at his pipe.

"Rummy war this," he observed. "When you take things into consideration——"

"Fog's cleared away, and it's a bright moonlight night," announced Morpeth, thrusting his head, surmounted by the salt-stained cap and tarnished badge, through the doorway. "Care to come up and have a look round?"

"Right-o, old thing," replied Wakefield.

Preceded by their host, the M.L. officers ascended the almost vertical steel ladder and gained the deck.

"Mind our tram-lines," cautioned Morpeth, "That's right. Now, what do you think of the old hooker?"




CHAPTER VII

A U-BOAT OF SORTS

The "old hooker" was plugging along at a steady twelve knots. At frequent intervals copious quantities of spray would be flung inboard as her bows plunged into the long swell. Running dead into the eye of the wind, she gave one an exaggerated idea of speed, for even in a light breeze the wire rigging supporting the two short masts verberated tunefully in the night air.

From the partly closed fo'c'sle hatchway came sounds of mild revelry. Meredith smiled at the noise, for he recognised amongst others the voices of some of his own men. Evidently the ex-crew of M.L. 1071 were taking kindly to their new surroundings, and were not in the least perturbed by their change of fortune.

"Hefty sort of hooker after an M.L." remarked Wakefield. "And what did you tell me was her name?"

"I didn't tell you any name, for the simple reason that she hasn't one. She's simply Q 171, while to Fritz she appears as U 251—but Fritz doesn't get away to tell the tale."

"What are these for?" asked Kenneth, kicking his boot against one of a pair of metal rails that ran fore and aft.

"Our tram-lines," explained the lieutenant-commander of Q 171. "A little device to clear decks for action in a brace of shakes. See our conning-tower and that superstructure arrangement abaft it? They're duds. Stand aside a minute, and I'll give a little demonstration of how things are worked. A bit further—that's it; now you are clear of the rails. Jackson!"

"Sir!"

A bearded petty officer came aft at a double, and awaited orders.

"The gadget!" exclaimed Morpeth laconically.

The man ran for'ard and was lost to sight beyond the break of the conning-tower.

Ten seconds later, impelled by a swift and invisible force, the conning-tower and the raised superstructure glided forward along the rails, leaving exposed in all their stark aggressiveness three large objects resembling exaggerated drain-pipes.

"Torpedo-tubes, by Jove!" exclaimed Wakefield.

"Guess you've never seen the type before," remarked the lieutenant-commander of Q 171. "They are shorter than the standard pattern, and, as you might observe, are not exactly parallel. Discharge all three torpedoes simultaneously, and they run on slightly divergent courses."

"Doesn't give Fritz much of a chance," observed Meredith.

"Not a dog's chance, old thing," rejoined Morpeth. "They're only 14-inch torpedoes, but they're just some. Blow a hole in a battleship's hull large enough to take a stage-coach, so you can imagine what happens when Fritz stops one—perhaps two, and very occasionally three. In a way a fellow can't help feeling sorry for Fritz, but he's asked for it all along the line. If he'd played a straight game with his U-boats we would have given him credit for what he'd done, and taken our chances. That chap who torpedoed our Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir early in the war did a smart thing, and the Navy admitted it; but now all the decent U-boat skippers have packed up, or else have degenerated into low-down curs."

"Precisely," agreed Wakefield. "Hospital ships, and all that sort of business."

"Unarmed merchantmen—that's why we've had to take on the Q-boat stunt. Hardly seems proper jonnick to lure a Fritz within range, and then blow him to bits, but, as I said before, he's asked for it."

"Bagged many?"

"A few," admitted the R.N.R. man modestly; then, pleased at a sudden recollection, he squared his massive shoulders and burst into a hearty roar of laughter. "That reminds me of the last Fritz we scuppered. We had information that a U-boat was knocking around off Bass Rock, playing Old Harry with small coasting craft out of Arbroath and Granton, so we sent out the old s.s. Niblick—one of the Pink Funnel Line. She had been sold to a firm of ship-breakers, but when the pinch came they fitted her out again. Well, we followed an hour after the Niblick left Montrose, got within range, and started firing at her, or rather putting shells into the sea within a hundred yards or so. Presently we sighted a periscope. Fritz couldn't quite understand things, since he imagined he was the only U-boat sculling around. But after a while he couldn't resist the temptation of joining in the pursuit, and he blew ballast-tanks and came to the surface at a cable's length broad on our starboard beam. Before he could get to work on the Niblick with his bow quick-firer, he went to the bottom for good and all. It required only one of our torpedoes for that job."

"That's the stuff to give 'em!" exclaimed Meredith.

"It strikes me, Sub," observed Wakefield, as he stifled a yawn, "that we of the M.L. patrol will have to pack up. There's nothin' doin' for us now the Q-boats are out."

"Ever sighted a Fritz?" inquired Morpeth.

Wakefield was obliged to confess that he had not.

"I'm not surprised," continued the R.N.R. skipper. "Your little packets make too much noise. I wouldn't mind betting that Fritz has had a squint at you many a time through his periscope, and then he's promptly legged it. You're like a fat policeman on the track of a young burglar. It's the moral effect that tells. Before we cover up these beauties I'd like to show you the torpedoes."

With a dexterous movement Morpeth opened the breech of one of the tubes. Unlike the standard pattern, which is closed by means of six butterfly nuts, the breech mechanism consisted of an intercepted thread action somewhat similar to that of a quick-firer.

"We bagged that idea from the Hun," remarked Morpeth. "Now here is our tinfish: it has a range of only two miles, but quite enough for our purpose. Propulsive force, electric, and no fooling about with compressed air."

The M.L. officers examined the well-oiled glistening steel cylinders. In the bright moonlight the missiles looked harmless enough, but it took very little effort of the imagination to picture the fate of a craft torn by the explosion of fifty pounds of gun-cotton and aminol.

"The hydrophone-room," announced Morpeth, indicating a hatchway almost amidships. "That's nothing new to you, I'm sure. Here is our engine-room—petrol motors, of course."

"And your speed?" asked Wakefield.

"We are running normally—twelve knots."

"Yes—but all out?"

"With luck we might touch thirty-eight," was the unconcerned reply. "It isn't very often we do that—it's not necessary when we're Fritz-hunting—but when the Hun does come out with his light cruisers and torpedo boats, then we just show a clean pair of heels before they as much as sight us. Once they get an inkling that a British Q-boat is out disguised as a U-boat, then we may just as well pay off and save the taxpayers."

"But if their aircraft spotted you?" asked Meredith. "Your speed wouldn't help you much then."

"I agree," said Morpeth. "Aircraft are, in my opinion, unmitigated nuisances—that is, as far as we are concerned on this little stunt. When I see any of our blimps or flying-boats I get the wind up, because they naturally take us for a U-boat; and unless we're pretty smart at making our distinguishing signs, and they are equally smart at reading the same, they proceed with the utmost relish to strafe us. When I meet the Air Force fellows ashore I chip 'em and say it's because they're jealous."

"And when you spot a Hun 'plane?" inquired Wakefield.

"That's quite a different story. Just step aft a minute."

Morpeth led the way abaft the engine-room hatchway. On the centre line of the narrow deck was a metal flap about eighteen inches square.

"Our anti-aircraft gun is below there," observed the R.N.R. officer. "No, we don't lug it on deck. It's fired from below. Now, when a Hun spots us and we can't make ourselves scarce, we stop our engines and display a signal as per Imperial German Navy Code Book, a copy of which was issued to me by the British Admiralty."

"I know the thing," remarked Wakefield.

"Down swoops inquisitive Fritz," continued Morpeth, "and then we have him cold."

Wakefield stifled another yawn.

"'Scuse me," he murmured apologetically, "but it's not because I'm not interested. I am, really; but Nature is reminding me that I've had no sleep for the last twenty-four hours."

"By Jove! Why didn't you tell me before?" demanded Morpeth, in genuine concern. "Turn in, both of you, at once; and if you're out before the sun's over the fore-yard there'll be trouble."

"Right-o, on one condition," rejoined Wakefield.

The R.N.R. lieutenant-commander smiled grimly.

"I don't have fellows making conditions with the skipper of this hooker as a general rule," he remarked. "But what is it?"

"That we are called if there's any little stunt on," continued Wakefield.

"That's a deal," agreed Morpeth. "Good-night."




CHAPTER VIII

VON PREUSSEN'S BLANK DAY

"What a ghastly welcome!" soliloquised Leutnant Karl von Preussen, as he approached the "prohibited area" of Auldhaig. For the present his assumed name was Captain George Fennelburt, R.A.F., and in adopting the name and character he had left very little to chance. His pocket-book bulged with spurious official documents, printed in Germany, and replicas of papers that had either been surreptitiously obtained from British air stations, or had been found on captured men.

It was not a pleasant sort of evening. The sea mist had turned to a steady drizzle, accompanied by gusts of icy-cold wind. On the road, cut up by exceptionally heavy motor traffic, the mud lay four inches deep. Wearing a heavy trench coat, thick boots and leggings, and encumbered by a bulky haversack, von Preussen found himself decidedly hot and clammy before he had covered many miles of his long tramp.

He had studiously avoided the cliff road, preferring to make a detour inland and to approach Auldhaig from the railway station.

At length he gained the summit of the hill overlooking the town. On his left lay the important munition factory of Sauchieblair, shrouded in utter darkness, although there were aural evidences in plenty of the activity that was in progress day and night. A mile to the north gleamed lights. Von Preussen smiled grimly as he saw them. He knew precisely the meaning of the unscreened gleams. They were decoys, shown for the purpose of putting a raider off the scent, and up to a certain point had justified their existence.

Ahead lay Auldhaig, also shrouded in utter darkness. Neither in the wide ramifications of the landlocked harbour, nor from the vast expanse of wharves and docks, was there the faintest sign of a light; but the clatter of pneumatic hammers and the rumbling of locomotives indicated pretty plainly that the shipyards were running at high pressure.

Without difficulty, von Preussen passed the guard at the block-house on the bridge and entered the sombre town. It was now four o'clock in the morning, and the spy wisely decided to make for an hotel and have a much needed rest.

In response to a knock the door of the Antelope Hotel was opened by a sleepy night porter, who evinced no surprise at the belated arrival of a guest.

"You'll be registering in the morn, sir," he remarked.

"Thanks; I may as well register at once," replied the spy, not that he wanted to take the trouble to do so, but because he had ulterior motives.

In a bold hand he made the perfunctory declaration:—"George Fennelburt, Captn. R.A.F.; business—on duty; where stationed —Sheerness; name of Commanding Officer—Lieut.-Colonel H. B. L. Greathooks, O.B.E."

"Silly lot of rot, sir," remarked the porter, "giving a gent no end of trouble. If you was to put down 'Julius Caesar' or 'Christopher Columbus' I don't see as how it 'ud matter."

"It's regulations, you know," said von Preussen, handing the fellow half a crown. "Now get me a glass of something hot and a snack. I'm hungry."

The porter hurried off to execute the commission, pondering in his mind on the inconsistency of the officer, who almost in one breath had upheld the regulations and had broken them in the matter of obtaining liquor during prohibited hours.

Seizing his opportunity during the man's absence, von Preussen scanned the pile of registration forms lying on the reception clerk's desk. It behoved him to ascertain "who's who" with regard to the naval, military and air officers staying at the hotel—particularly the latter, as he had no desire to meet anyone hailing from Sheerness or Isle of Grain air stations.

Satisfied on that point, the spy went to bed, apologising for the muddy state of his boots by stating that he had missed the last train from Nedderburn, and had been compelled to walk to Auldhaig.

He slept soundly till close on eleven in the morning. At noon, spick and span, he made his way to Auldhaig Dockyard, with the plausible intention of inspecting X-lighters, but with the real object of keeping his ears and eyes open.

Noon was a well-chosen time. The dockyard "maties" had knocked off work for dinner, while the officials, with the prospects of lunch in the near distance, would almost certainly request the pseudo-Captain Fennelburt to call again at three. That meant, once inside the dockyard gates, the spy had three hours in which to make useful observations.

The first official he called upon was the Senior Naval Officer, who, forgetting that the X-barges had left early that morning in the charge of Sub-lieutenant Jock McIntosh, R.N.V.R., referred Captain Fennelburt to the Captain of the Dockyard. That individual, who had a dim recollection that the craft in question were in his charge and were about to be handed over to the Royal Air Force, requested the soi-disant representative of that branch of the Service to inquire of the Chief Writer. The Chief Writer, about to go to lunch, summoned the Head Messenger, who in turn told off a messenger to accompany Captain Fennelburt on his search for the elusive X-lighters.

For the next three-quarters of an hour the spy was hurried to and fro over the slippery cobble-stones of Auldhaig Dockyard. He saw very little that would be of service to the Imperial German Government. For one reason, the messenger stuck like a leech and lost no time, since he too was wanting his dinner. For another, everything in the way of new ship construction was being done under cover, while zealous, lynx-eyed policemen—picked men from the Metropolitan Police Force—were everywhere in evidence; and von Preussen had a wholesome respect for men in blue.

"What's that vessel?" inquired von Preussen, indicating a tramp steamer with her sides and deck covered with tarpaulins.

"Merchantman, sir," replied his escort.

"Why is she in a Government dock?" continued the spy. "I thought tramp steamers would be repaired in the commercial dock."

"So would she," answered the man. "Only there wasn't room. Torpedoed, she was, 'bout a month ago."

"Then why all that canvas over her?" asked von Preussen, beginning to find himself on the track of something mysterious.

"'Tis like this, sir," explained his companion with the utmost gravity. "Her captain is living on board, an' 'e's got a bald 'ead. When it rains they rigs up an awning to keep the drops off 'is pate, 'cause 'e gets awfully up the pole an' leads the crew a regular dog's life if he's upset by gettin' 'is 'ead wet."

"I perceive you are a humorist," remarked von Preussen drily.

"Didn't know it, sir," rejoined the man. "My mates usually call me 'Mouldy Bill.' But hangin' around 'ere won't find what you're lookin' for, sir, so let's make a move."

It was an application of "official reticence and reserve" on the part of this minor servant of the Admiralty. He knew perfectly well that the tramp was in reality a Q-boat, and that under those canvas awnings lay hidden a collection of mysterious "gadgets," for a detailed description of which the authorities at Berlin would give a high sum in gold.

To linger would arouse suspicion, so reluctantly the spy followed his guide on what he knew to be a vain quest for craft that were no longer at Auldhaig.

"Why not try the Kite and Balloon Section of the R.A.F.?" suggested an official. "The depot is just across the harbour. I'll let you have a boat."

Von Preussen debated before replying. The offer was a tempting one, for not only would he get a chance of having a closer view of various warships in the stream, but there was no telling what information he might pick up at the depot. On the other hand, he didn't want to be asked awkward questions by men wearing the same uniform as himself. He knew, however, that it was no exception to detail perfectly incompetent officers on inspection duties. He had heard of a case of one who hardly knew one end of a boat from another who was sent on a 700-mile journey to report upon some rowing-boats about to be purchased for a station in the south of England.

"Thanks," he replied. "I may even yet get on the track of those elusive X-barges."

Twenty minutes later von Preussen was seated in the stern-sheets of a harbour service duty boat. To his guarded inquiries of the coxwain as to the names of the vessels lying at the buoys, he received an equally guarded answer:

"Dunno, sir they comes and goes all hours of the day and night, an' not havin' no names painted on 'em, and bein' all disguised-like, I can't tell no more'n a nooborn baby."

The duty-boat rubbed gently alongside the stone steps of the jetty. Von Preussen stepped ashore, returned the sentry's salute, and inquired the way to the adjutant's office.

"X-barges?" queried the adjutant. "None this side. We used to borrow 'em from the dockyard, but we transferred most of our observation balloons more than a month ago, and so we don't require the barges. But now you are here, come and have lunch. It's close on one-thirty."

"Many fellows here?" asked the spy, as he accompanied his host across the wide parade-ground to a long wooden hut used as the mess.

"Twenty," was the reply. "All old R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. men. Most of them have been here for quite a long time. It's a posh station, and once here a fellow doesn't want to be transferred elsewhere."

In the absence of the commanding officer, the head of the table was taken by the major. On his right sat the adjutant. Next to him was placed von Preussen, who on his right had a youngster who looked barely eighteen, yet he wore a captain's uniform, embellished by the ribbons of the D.S.O. and M.C.

The lunch was liberal and appetising. Deft-handed girls in W.R.A.F. uniforms were kept busily employed in attending to the wants of twenty odd ravenous officers, for the keen northern air, combined with plenty of out-door activity, created vast appetites.

As the meal progressed, conversation, at first desultory, grew in volume and interest. Although "shop" figured largely, strictly official matters were rigidly tabooed. Von Preussen had again to confess that from his point of view he was getting precious little change out of the entertainment.

"Did you say you were from Calshot?" inquired the officer on the spy's right.

"No—from Sheerness," replied von Preussen, devoutly hoping that none of the men present had been stationed there recently.

"Who said Calshot?" inquired an indignant voice lower down the table. "Beastly hole!"

"What's that?" demanded the major.

"Had to spend a night there, sir," was, the reply. "Forced landing. They gave me a cubicle that was more like a condemned cell. Concrete walls and floor dripping with moisture; not even a mat on the floor; a bedstead without a mattress and only two blankets. No other furniture. In the morning I had the worst breakfast I ever had on this side of the North Sea. Filthy margarine, rancid bacon and weak tea; and they took jolly good care to make me plank down half a dollar on the nail for my breakfast. Ugh! Makes me shudder to think of it."

"Sheerness," remarked the captain, returning to the attack. "You must know Smithers, then? A big, fat chap, with a mole just under his eye. He's been quartermaster there since '16."

Von Preussen acknowledged that he knew the quartermaster. He could not very well have denied it in the face of his inquisitor's remarks.

"And Tomlinson?" continued the latter. "Suppose he's still there, but I haven't heard from him recently. A short, very dark-featured old bean, with a very dry sense of humour. Plays 'pack and brag' every available five minutes, and uses most atrocious language when he's put out and when he isn't."

"Tomlinson was sent to Dunkirk last month," declared von Preussen mendaciously; then, eager to change what was a most distasteful and embarrassing topic, he inquired:

"Is there a decent theatre at Auldhaig?"

"Not bad," replied Captain Cumberleigh—for that was the name of von Preussen's heckler. "'Maid of the Mountains' is on to-night. Seen it? Then, by Jove, you must, you priceless old thing!" he exclaimed effusively. "No, we won't take a refusal. We've booked a box, and you simply must come. After your fruitless journey to inspect those X-lighters, you owe yourself some relaxation. And I say, Jefferson," he continued, addressing a lieutenant across the table, "we'll take Fennelburt out fishing this afternoon, just to kill time. Fine sport just off the harbour."

"I ought to be on my way back," protested von Preussen, as he weighed up the possible advantages and disadvantages of remaining at Auldhaig Air Station.

"Rot, you conscientious old blighter!" said Cumberleigh boisterously. "In any case, you wouldn't get further than Edinburgh to-night. We'll fix you up with a cabin, and you'll be all O.K., old bean!"




CHAPTER IX

HOW THE LIGHTERS FARED

"Hope the brutes won't konk," thought Sub-lieutenant Jock McIntosh, R.N.V.R., as he dispassionately surveyed the unlovely outlines of X-lighters 5 and 6.

After being second-in-command of a crack M.L., McIntosh felt no violent enthusiasm over his job—to take the two cumbersome craft to a strange port eighty odd miles along the coast. At a maximum speed of five knots, it meant a sixteen hours' run; but McIntosh, knowing the vagaries of the X-lighters' motors, refrained from being sanguine on the matter.

It was one of the jobs that fall to all branches of the Navy. With a strange crew, and not having navigated a lighter before, McIntosh was taking on "some stunt." He had charts and navigating instruments, but he would have felt easier in his mind had he possessed "local knowledge" of this part of the coast. On an M.L., where he was under a competent officer, navigation was fairly simple as far as the Sub was concerned; but now the whole responsibility of getting his charges safely into port rested on his shoulders.

It was the morning of von Preussen's visit to Auldhaig. The fog had dispersed. In its wake had sprung up a fresh southerly breeze, which in turn gave indications of decreasing in velocity before noon.

Stopping to give his final instructions to the coxwain of No. 6, and impressing upon him to follow at a cable's length in her consort's wake, McIntosh boarded the lighter which for the nonce was to be the leading craft. Already the twin heavy oil engines were "warming up," making the decks quiver, and filling the air with oil-laden smoke.

Making his way aft to the rough wooden hut that served as a wheel-house, the Sub gave the signal to the engine-room staff to "stand by."

"Rummiest packets that ever sailed under the White Ensign," he soliloquised, as his eye caught sight of the dingy bunting floating from the yard-arm of the lighters' stumpy masts. "Ah, well; it's all in a day's work."

He gave the telegraph lever another jerk.

"Cast off!" he shouted.

Sluggishly the deeply-laden barge gathered way. She had a freeboard of barely ten inches—a fact that portended wet decks before long.

Having satisfied himself that No. 6 was following, McIntosh devoted his attention to shaping a course out of harbour, undergoing a dozen mental thrills as his unwieldy packet scraped past buoys and showed a decided tendency to commit suicide across the steel stems of a couple of anchored cruisers.

Once clear of the harbour, the Sub called to a seaman.

"Take her," he ordered, handing over the wheel. "Keep her as she is: south a half west."

"South a half west it is, sir," replied the man in the time-honoured formula of the sea.

Free to devote his attention to other things, McIntosh secured the storm-flap of his oilskin coat and, leaving the shelter of the wheel-house, looked towards the following boat.

No. 6 was coming along well. The "bone in her teeth" glistened white as she pushed her snub nose through the waves. Both craft were "taking it green" as the water flowed over the tarpaulined hatches and surged along the broad waterways.

"We'll carry our tide for another hour," he said to himself. "Then it'll be a slow job. One thing, we can't have every blessed thing in life, but I hope to goodness nothing goes wrong."

He glanced ahead. In an incredibly short space of time, the bold outlines of Dunkennet Head had vanished. Dead to windward haze, possibly fog, was bearing down. It was something that McIntosh had not bargained for. The glass had shown indications of fine weather, but unfortunately it was not capable of indicating the approach of mist.

"Hazy ahead," he remarked to the petty officer.

"Yes, sir," was the reply. "Will you be altering course a point or so, sir? There's a nasty set of the tide inshore about these parts."

"Yes," decided the Sub, and gave the necessary instructions to the helmsman.

"Get a nun-buoy ready to veer astern," he continued, "and signal to No. 6 to keep the thing dose under her bows. If she doesn't, we'll be losing each other."

While the men were making these preparations the hideous clamour of No. 6's foghorn attracted their attention. The lighters had increased their distance to nearly a quarter of a mile, and No. 6 was still dropping astern.

"Ask 'em what's wrong," ordered McIntosh.

A signalman, steadying himself with feet planted widely apart on the plunging deck, semaphored the message. From No. 6 two red and yellow hand-flags replied. McIntosh, unable to follow the swift movements of the flags, was obliged to await the signalman's report:

"Says, sir, she's overheated her bearings. She'll have to stop or her engines'll seize up."

It was exactly what the Sub was anticipating, and now trouble had come he met it promptly and resolutely.

"Tell them to stand by and receive a hawser," he ordered, at the same time ringing down for "Slow." "Look alive, there, with that six-inch rope."

While the men were engaged in bringing one end of the hawser to the after "towing-bitts," McIntosh took the helm and began to run to starboard in order to close with the disabled lighter. He was working against time, for already the mist was upon them—the outflung tentacles of a bank of fog. With a range of visibility of three or four hundred yards, matters were somewhat complicated, but the manoeuvre of establishing communication with the helpless craft would be rendered fourfold difficult, should the baffling fog envelop the two boats.

"All ready with the heaving-line?" shouted the Sub.

"All ready, sir."

Slowly, even for the low-speed lighter, McIntosh, made for the disabled vessel, which was now lying broadside on to the fairly confused sea. The Sub was cautious. Strange to the boat, he knew that there was a vast difference between the manoeuvring capabilities of an M.L. and a lighter, and with that fact in mind he displayed an excess of caution.

Almost before he realised the danger, disaster came. Answering too slowly to her helm, No. 5 crashed heavily against the bluff steel bows of No. 6. Amidst the hiss of inrushing water, the two engineers scrambled through the smoke-laden atmosphere of the motor-room and gained the deck with the tidings that the sea was pouring in like a mill-race. And to add to the peril the fog was then enveloping the colliding craft.

There seemed no doubt about it: No. 5 was sinking. Had she been struck anywhere but right aft, her heavy rubbing-strake would have saved her. As it was she had been hit in a vital spot—her engine-room.

As luck would have it, both lighters drifted together, their metal-bound sides grinding and bumping in the agitated waves. Since No. 5 was evidently sinking, the only refuge for her crew was the deck of disabled No. 6.

"Jump for it!" shouted McIntosh. "Every man for himself."

Waiting till the last, the Sub snatched up his confidential papers, thrust them into the pocket of his oilskins, and, as the two lighters rolled heavily together, he made a flying leap for the deck of No. 6.

He was not a moment too soon. At the next roll there was a gap of five or six yards between the two vessels. Separated by a freak eddy of the tidal stream, they increased their distance more and more, until the holed lighter, with her stern level with the water, was lost to sight in the fog.




CHAPTER X

THE SALVAGE SYNDICATE

"What's your little game, Cumberleigh?" demanded the major. "Hanged if I can see what you are driving at."

Lunch was over at Auldhaig Air Station. Most of the officers had drifted in twos and threes into the ante-room to seize the opportunity of enjoying a smoke before falling in on parade. The second-in-command and Captain Cumberleigh found themselves alone.

"I may be mistaken, sir," replied Cumberleigh, "but I'm not at all sure about that fellow Fennelburt."

"What d'ye mean, old thing? asked the major.

"It's a rotten business to explain," replied the captain. "I hope I don't do the fellow an injustice, but I believe he's a spy."

Major Sparrowhawk raised his eyebrows in a manner that indicated incredulous objection.

"Goodness gracious, Cumberleigh!" he exclaimed. "What are you driving at? The idea's preposterous. There are limits to the imagination, and I think you're exceeding them."

"I have reasons, sir,"

"Well, what are they?"

"You remember I asked him about Smithers and Tomlinson? I know for a fact that they were both at Sheerness a week ago."

"Yes, and Captain Fennelburt said he knew them."

"He did—but I deliberately gave him a totally wrong description of them. Smithers is fat, but he's short—about five six, I should think—and he certainly hasn't a mole under his eye. Tomlinson is fair, not dark, and I've never known him to touch a card either in the mess or out of it."

"There are some very queer cusses in the Service, I'll admit," remarked Major Sparrowhawk thoughtfully. "Getting a commission in war time isn't the same as in normal times. The chap may be pulling your leg, Cumberleigh. But why did you pal up to him and promise to take him to the theatre and all that?"

"Just to gain time, sir," answered Captain Cumberleigh. "I thought I'd ask your permission to telegraph to Sheerness Air Station. The inquiry could be worded discreetly, and if the reply's satisfactory there's no harm done. If it isn't, then we can take action."

"But what aroused your suspicions in the first instance?" asked the second-in-command.

Cumberleigh shrugged his shoulders.

"Just a little mannerism of his, sir," he replied. "I've never before tumbled across it on this side of the Rhine. Spent part of my far distant youth at Heidelburg, and one notices certain things. So I've practically put the fellow under arrest, only he doesn't know it. Young Jefferson'll take him fishing this afternoon, and in the meanwhile the wires can be getting busy."

"Bet you a double whisky you're wrong, Cumberleigh," offered Major Sparrowhawk.

"Done, sir," was the prompt reply.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Jefferson, assisted by a couple of air-mechanics, was getting his boat ready for the fishing expedition. One of the advantages of being in the Service in war time is that the uniformed owner of a private boat has a "pull" over his civilian confrère. The one can make use of his craft almost without restraint the other is hedged in by a formidable and galling array of restrictions that are none the less necessary for the well-being of the State.

The Pip-squeak, Jefferson's boat, was about fifteen feet in length and provided with a standing lug-sail and centre-board. Formerly she belonged to an Auldhaig waterman, who on being mobilised for the R.N.R. sold her for £3. Her new owner, who contrived to escape the irregular meshes of the Recruiting Officer's net, had palmed the Pip-squeak off on Jefferson for six times the amount he had paid, or, roughly, the same sum that the boat had cost to build twenty years ago.

The Pip-squeak was no chicken, nor did she lay claim to beauty. Bluff-bowed, and with an almost entire lack of sheer, she had one compensating quality: she was as stiff as a house.

At the edge of the jetty gathered most of the crew—Cumberleigh, Jefferson, a "second loot" named Pyecroft, and von Preussen.

"An' what are we waitin' for?" demanded Pyecroft, clapping his hands and stamping his feet. "When I go sailing I like to get on with it. What are we waitin' for?"

"Bait," replied Jefferson laconically.

"A sine quâ non for a fishing expedition," added the major, who, though not one of the party, had strolled down to the jetty ostensibly to see the start but in reality to observe "Captain Fennelburt" more closely. The seeds of suspicion are apt to shoot rapidly.

"Here's Blenkinson with the bait," announced Cumberleigh, as another khaki-clad individual, a first lieutenant, appeared carrying a rusty tin in one hand and a mud-covered spade in the other.

"Here are your precious rag-worms, Jeff," he remarked bitterly. "Next time you get me on that job I'll borrow your rubber boots. The mud's stiff with broken glass, and I've cut mine through—look."

To prove his words, Blenkinson adroitly balanced himself on one foot and kicked off a rubber boot. As the foot-gear fell upon the wooden staging of the jetty a quart of black sea-water poured out.

Jefferson sniffed judiciously at the tin.

"Fresh enough," he observed, "but, old son, pity you didn't devote your energies to the worms instead of wasting your time pulling bits of glass out of your boots. These won't last any time."

"No more will my boots, you slave-driving blighter," rejoined the worm-digger. "I'll swear I shifted a ton of mud without finding a single worm."

"Don't stop there arguing all the blessed afternoon!" exclaimed Cumberleigh. "If we can't fish we can sail. 'Once aboard the lugger,' my hearties."

The party embarked awkwardly after the fashion of men wearing breeches, puttees or leggings, and heavy boots. With the exception of Jefferson and von Preussen, they were raw amateurs in the art of sailing save on board a coastal airship. On those occasions they shone. In the present instance they did not.

The spy was on his best behaviour. Although he kept his eyes and ears open, he purposely avoided asking any questions relating to naval or military affairs at Auldhaig. Once, when Cumberleigh tried to "draw" him by pointing out the scene of the disaster to the Pompey, von Preussen adroitly changed the subject by a reference to the forthcoming performance of "The Maid of the Mountains."

For an hour or more the Pip-squeak made steady progress under a stiffish breeze. She was by no means a flyer, but on the other hand she sailed well with the wind broad on the beam. Beyond a few slaps of spray she proved herself a dry boat, so that the crew, with the exception of Jefferson, who was at the helm, were able to sit on the bottom boards and smoke to their heart's content.

"Get a move on, you lazy hogs!" exclaimed Jefferson. "We're close on the right spot. Down with the canvas! Blenkinson, stand by to let go the anchor."

With a splash the anchor was lowered to obtain a grip in ten fathoms of water. Riding head to wind and tide, the boat brought up, pitching sharply in the short crested waves.

As long as the supply of bait lasted, sport was good. So engrossed were the sportsmen that they failed to notice that the wind was rising, and with the turn of the tide the waves were growing decidedly vicious.

"Hadn't we better be getting a move on?" suddenly inquired Cumberleigh, as he realised that the motion was causing an uncomfortable sensation in the pit of his stomach. "Remember, some of us are going to the theatre to-night."

"What's the hurry, old bean?" inquired the enthusiastic boat-sailer, Jefferson. "If it comes to that, you can see the 'Mountains' from here, although there's no 'Maid'—not even a mermaid. But, I say, what's that?"

He pointed seawards. At about a mile distant was a long, low-lying black hull, apparently drifting broadside on to the waves.

"Boche submarine, perhaps," ventured the facetious Pyecroft. "She's coming to give us a tow back to Auldhaig. Did anyone remember to bring a Lewis gun in his trouser pocket?"

With the others, von Preussen looked in the direction of the mysterious craft. He had no pressing desire to renew acquaintance with one of His Imperial Majesty's unterseebooten, although the consequences would be far less awkward for him than it would be for his present companions. But a brief glance assured him on that point. The craft, whatever it might be, was certainly not a U-boat. No amount of camouflage could alter that.

"She's a derelict," exclaimed Jefferson. "Get up the anchor, you fellows. We'll run alongside and have a look at her."

Quickly the anchor was broken out and the sail hoisted. Cumberleigh, who had been silently keeping the derelict under observation, suddenly turned and thumped von Preussen on the shoulder.

"Fennelburt," he vociferated, "Providence has played into your hands! You came here to inspect X-barges. Lo and behold, one of them obligingly drifts down to greet you!"

"You're right, Cumberleigh," said Pyecroft. "It's one of those that left Auldhaig this morning. I saw them go out. That red-haired Scot chap—McIntosh, you know him—was in charge."

"Hanged if he is now, at any rate," added Jefferson. "An' the old thing is well down by the stern. I believe she's sinking."

It took ten minutes for the Pip-squeak to close with X-lighter No. 5. Running up into the wind on the lee side, Jefferson got way off the boat.

"How about it, you fellows?" he inquired. "Think it's safe to run alongside?"

"Might have a shot at it, old thing," replied Cumberleigh. "She hasn't altered her trim during the last five or ten minutes. I say, do we get salvage on a job like this, or is there some rotten regulation debarring underpaid officers from making a bit? What do you make of her, Fennelburt? You are a marine expert."

Von Preussen, who had been maintaining a discreet silence, ventured an opinion that it might be safe to board her provided the sailing-boat were kept alongside.

"Good enough," replied Cumberleigh. "You, Blenkinson and I will comprise the boarding-party; the others stand by in the boat. En avant, mes braves! Over the top you go, and the best of luck."

Fending off the Pip-squeak lest her planks should be stove in against the massive rubbing-strake of the lighter, the three men contrived to effect a safe transhipment. A brief examination revealed the fact that the derelict had been in collision and that she had been badly holed right aft. The engine-room was flooded, and only the iron bulkhead between it and the hold had kept the craft from foundering.

"Now what's to be done?" inquired Blenkinson. "We can't tow her in. That's a moral cert."

"No, but we can send for a tug," said Cumberleigh. "Jefferson can sail back to Auldhaig in about an hour even if he doesn't fall in with a tug or even an M.L. on the way."

"What about 'The Maid of the Mountains'?" asked Blenkinson.

"We'll cut the appointment," replied the captain, with a laugh. "Excuse—the exigencies of the Service."

"But," protested von Preussen, "the lighter might founder. We should be in an awkward predicament if she did, the boat having left us. I would suggest that we all go back in the Pip-squeak and report the matter."

"I agree," added Blenkinson. "After all's said and done, we don't stand a chance of getting anything out of the deal. And what matters if the old tub does sink? Her value is but a mere fleabite out of six millions a day."

But Captain Cumberleigh was made of sterner stuff. Once having set his hand to this maritime plough, he was loth to turn back.

"We'll stick it," he decided resolutely. "Jefferson will cruise around in case of an accident. If we find we are drifting on shore we can let go that anchor. I don't see there's much to get the wind up about."

"Cheers for the R.A.F. Salvage Syndicate," exclaimed Blenkinson, fired by his companion's enthusiasm, but von Preussen merely shrugged his shoulders. He hadn't risked the perils of the North Sea in order to protect the property of His Majesty the King of England.




CHAPTER XI

VON PREUGFELD'S RESOLVE

"Donnerwetter! I am utterly sick of this business, Kaspar," whispered Seaman Furst. "It is the life of a dog, or worse. If this war is not over by the beginning of the winter there will be trouble amongst the unterseebooten crews."

"S'sh, not so loud," cautioned his companion, as the grumbler raised his voice towards the end of his tirade. "I agree with you, Hans. This game does not pay. We were told that we should save the Fatherland and bring England to her knees by our submarines. But have we? Just look! Here we are hungry, wet and unhappy, yet in England there is, they say, plenty. Just before we left Cuxhaven my wife had a letter from her brother who is a prisoner in England. He wrote and said that even our men who are held in captivity receive three good meals a day."

"That is what I do not understand," remarked Hans Furst. "If we are winning, as our officers tell us we are, how comes it that we cannot get eatable food? Of course, at the beginning of the war we were lucky. All we had to do was to run alongside an English merchantman, take what we wanted in the way of food and tobacco, and then sink her; but now——"

"But now," continued Kaspar Krauss, taking up the parable, "every strafed English ship has a gun, and one never knows but that a coasting vessel is not a death-trap for us. You remember that fishing-smack off Flamborough?"

Furst shuddered.

"Will I ever forget it?" he answered. "'Tis marvellous that we live to tell the tale. What would I not give for a life ashore with a tankard of Munich beer, a loaf of good bread and cheese? And tobacco—what is tobacco? I have almost forgotten."

"There was some in that Dutch vessel we burnt a week ago," said Krauss.

Furst clenched his fists.

"And where did it go?" he demanded. "That schweinhund our kapitan put it under lock and key. He and the pig-faced von Loringhoven smoke every night when we rise to recharge batteries, but never a cigar or a pipeful comes our way."

"We'll be back again on Friday if all goes well," said the other. "Then we can enjoy ourselves."

"Enjoy ourselves!" echoed Furst contemptuously. "How? I've got a bundle of notes in my belt, but precious little use are they. In the good old days a mark was a mark, but now——"

"Yes, I know," snarled Krauss. "Just before the war I came back from America on the George Washington with eight hundred and fifty marks to my name. I was going to buy a small business in Bremen and settle down to a life ashore. I should have done well. Then came the war. The rascally swindlers told us that if we lent our money to the State it would be repaid with twenty-five per cent. when peace was proclaimed. Just imagine! I handed over my eight hundred marks in silver, fool that I was! Even supposing the government does pay me back a thousand marks, it will be in rotten paper money, and I know that five thousand now will not buy the place I had offered to me for eight hundred and fifty four years ago."

"There will be trouble," agreed Furst. "Do you know that there is a movement amongst the men of the U-boats' crews to hoist the Red Flag?"

"Have I not heard of it!" exclaimed Kaspar grimly. "And when the time comes here is one who will jump at the opportunity. Now, at——"

The clang of a gong interrupted the discourse. The men jumped up smartly. The cast-iron discipline of the German Navy was as yet too powerful a force to be flouted by embryo revolutionists.

"Empty two and four tanks," came a guttural order through a voice tube. "And be quick about it, you numskulls!"

U 247 was preparing to rise to the surface in order to verify her position. For several hours she had rested on the bottom, scared by the presence of a swarm of destroyers and M.L.'s which had hurried to avenge the bombardment of Aberspey.

The material damage to the little town had been slight—almost negligible—for the majority of the shells had fallen in open spaces. Two people had been slightly injured by flying fragments. Actual destruction of military property was nil. Financially the bombardment was a failure. The cost of the ammunition far exceeded that of the damage; but morally an insult had been offered to the island shores of Britain, and the destroyer flotillas were quick to avenge the affront.

Ober-leutnant Hans von Preugfeld, kapitan of U 247, had acted with great discretion after his brave bombardment of Aberspey. "Legging it," submerged for several miles, he allowed the submarine to lie on the bottom for a considerable period. Then, hearing no suspicious sounds, he had the motors restarted and, the while submerged, shifted his position a good five miles. At length, assuming that it was safe to blow ballast-tanks and come to the surface, he gave the necessary orders.

Directly a patch of white light showed upon the object-bowl of the periscope, signifying that the tip of the latter had "broken surface," von Preugfeld made a cautious survey. Through nearly three hundred degrees the periscope revolved. Then, abruptly, the kapitan checked the rotary movement of the training-wheel.

"Come here, Eitel!" he exclaimed peremptorily.

Von Preugfeld stood aside to allow the unter-leutnant to view the object that had attracted his superior's attention.

"Come now," said the ober-leutnant irritably. "What do you make of it?"

"It is a vessel of some kind, Herr Kapitan," replied Eitel von Loringhoven.

"Of course it is," snapped von Preugfeld. "Any fool could see that. What I want to know is: what sort of craft is it? Stand aside if you cannot do better than that."

"It is a long, low-lying craft painted black," resumed Loringhoven, retaining his place at the periscope in order to ingratiate himself in the eyes of his commanding officer. "There are men standing aft. Amidships I can see a small sail—it may be that there is a sailing boat alongside."

"That's better," remarked von Preugfeld, literally pushing the unter-leutnant aside. "Port helm fifteen degrees," he ordered. "A touch ahead with both motors."

The U-boat shuddered under the beats of the twin screws, then forging slowly ahead approached the puzzling object.

"Stop!"

A bell clanged somewhere in the confined recesses of the modern pirate craft. At a curt nod from the kapitan the quartermaster pulled over a lever which had the effect of actuating the twin horizontal rudders. Once more the periscope reared its sinister head above the waves.

"Ach! I see men in uniform," exclaimed von Preugfeld. "We must be cautious. Men in khaki," he continued, scratching his closely cropped head in perplexity. "I cannot understand it. Look again, Eitel: can you see if she carries any guns or torpedo-tubes?"

"None, as far as I can see, Herr Kapitan," replied von Loringhoven after a careful scrutiny. "To me it looks as if she is sinking. Her stern is well down. Yes, there is a sailing-boat alongside or close to her. The boat is moving ahead."

"We will submerge and come up again on the other side," declared von Preugfeld. "We may then solve the mystery. Down to ten metres," he ordered.

Bubbling with latent insubordination, Furst and Krauss at their posts at the auxiliary ballast-tank valves obeyed promptly. In spite of all their revolutionary tendencies and expressions of general "fed-uppedness," they realised that their lives depended upon the prompt execution of their hated superior's orders. Knowing nothing of what was going on without, they submitted to discipline as the only remedy for their present predicament. After a period of ten minutes' total submergence the periscope shoved its squat snout above the surface—like a reluctant puppy about to receive a hiding. When a periscope is in danger of getting a blinding blow in the shape of a six-pounder shell, or the hull to which it belongs is liable to be pulverised by a trio of torpedoes, the need for extreme caution becomes apparent.

"They have not observed us," muttered von Preugfeld with fervent gratitude to the providence that looks after Hun submarines. "There's 'X 5' painted on her bows. Know what that means, Eitel?"

Von Loringhoven confessed that he did not. In spite of a careful perusal of all works dealing with numbers and nomenclature of British shipping—and Berlin was kept fairly up-to-date in such matters—the mystic symbol "X 5" was to him an unknown quantity. Incidentally it recalled days when he was studying mathematics at the Kiel Naval College.

The ober-leutnant steadied the periscope and touched a switch. Immediately, by the introduction of a special lens, the "field" covered by the eye-piece of the periscope was reduced, but the object actually seen was considerably magnified. It was like looking through a telescope.

"They are men of the English Air Force," he observed. "I believe—here, Eitel, look—the man walking for'ard. What do you make of him?"

"Donnerwetter!" ejaculated von Loringhoven. "Surely it is our friend von Preussen?"

"Yes," replied the ober-leutnant. "Von Preussen playing the part of a Jonah to an English whale. I wonder what he does there?"

"It would be well to clear out and leave him alone, Herr Kapitan," suggested von Loringhoven. "It could only be that von Preussen is engaged in highly important confidential work that brings him afloat again. Himmel! He is a clever fellow."

The ober-leutnant tugged at his moustache thoughtfully. Eager to have a finger in any pie without the risk of burning himself, he was loth to take his subordinate's advice. Here, apparently, was an unarmed craft, crewless, with the exception of a few officers. To him it suggested that highly confidential experiments were being carried on—so important that no one beneath the rank of officer was permitted to be present. Perhaps they were staff officers of high rank?

Eagerly von Preugfeld kept each man under observation. The trench-coats gave no indication of their wearers' rank, but —disappointing fact—none of the officers wore gilt leaves round the peaks of their caps. The sailing-boat alongside was also a puzzle. Why should the experimenters make use of an insignificant sailing-boat when there were steam pinnaces and motor launches available?

"Stand by!" he ordered. "Guns' crews prepare to take your stations. Blow main and auxiliary tanks."

Bells clanged, valves hissed and pumps grated, men hurried to and fro in execution of loud-voiced orders.

Von Preugfeld turned to his unter-leutnant.

"Bring her up," he ordered. "I am going to take those fellows prisoners."




CHAPTER XII

PRISONERS OF WAR

"What in the name of goodness is that?" exclaimed Captain Cumberleigh.

He knew perfectly well. The sight of a slender pole inclined slightly from the perpendicular and throwing out a double feather of spray as it cleft the water told him that it was the periscope of a submarine.

His exclamation attracted the attention of his companions. Even as they looked appeared the tip of the second periscope, followed almost immediately by the bows and conning-tower of the submarine. Then like a gigantic whale the long, bulging hull slithered above the surface, the water pouring from its deck in cascades of swirling foam.

"One of our submarines, by Jove!" exclaimed Pyecroft. "Wonder what she's doing here?"

"A Hun!" corrected Cumberleigh. "We're properly in the soup, you fellows."

He gave a hurried glance in the only direction from which they could expect aid—skywards. Not an aircraft of any description was in sight. The gorgeous prospect of seeing a seaplane swoop down upon an incautious Fritz was out of the question.

"Jefferson!" he shouted. "Run for it, man. Don't wait for us."

The owner of the Pip-squeak took in the situation at a glance. True, the U-boat was between him and the shore, but there was a stiff leading wind. While the Hun was concentrating his attention upon the X-lighter the sailing-boat had a fair chance of getting away, but Jefferson was a "white man."

"No fear, old bird!" he shouted. "We're all in this stunt. I am coming on board."

With that he ran the sailing-boat alongside the barge, and, without waiting to lower the sail, leapt on deck and secured the painter.

Meanwhile the hatches of the U-boat had been thrown open and her two guns manned and trained point-blank upon the helpless lighter.

"'Fraid this isn't the time for a death-or-glory stunt," remarked Cumberleigh. "Fritz is evidently 'one up.'"

Of the five, "Captain Fennelburt" was the least perturbed. The spy was distinctly annoyed at the unexpected turn of events. It looked as if his carefully prepared campaign was to be nipped in the bud. Consequently he was liable to heavy financial loss in addition to a waste of valuable time, for his employers in Berlin paid only for definite results. "No work, no pay," was the motto of the German Secret Service, and before von Preussen could be landed in Great Britain again weeks might elapse. As a secondary consideration, there was the doubt of how he would be received by his compatriots. For very good reasons he wished to conceal his identity from his companions on the lighter. In spite of strenuous precautions, British prisoners of war sometimes contrived to effect their escape, and it would be a very serious matter for von Preussen if it became known through the medium of a former captive in Germany that the soi-disant Captain Fennelburt was a Secret Service agent of the German Intelligence Department.

"Gentlemen!" observed Pyecroft facetiously. "The R.A.F. Salvage Syndicate is dissolved."

With her guns still trained upon the lighter, U 247 approached slowly and with evident hesitation. At the back of von Preugfeld's mind lurked the haunting suspicion that X 5 was a snare. The very temptingness of the bait increased his suspicions. Perhaps a British submarine was lying in wait to blow him and his U-boat to atoms; or somewhere in the clouds a coastal airship was floating motionless, awaiting an opportunity to swoop down and let loose an aerial torpedo before the Germans had time to close hatches and submerge.

On the other hand, there was von Preussen, clad in a British R.A.F. uniform and standing seemingly unconcerned upon the lighter's deck. Surely, if there were a trap, the Hun would contrive to make a mute signal to his compatriots.

Von Preussen gave none. He was content to let events take their course.

Presently U 247 reversed engines and brought up within half a cable's length of the barge. Clambering upon the raised platform abaft the conning-tower, the kapitan raised a megaphone to his lips.

His delivery of English was execrable, but he was unaware of the fact. He rather prided himself on the knowledge that he could speak the language, having learnt it from a third-rate German professor in a minor university in the Fatherland.

"You vos surrender make!" he shouted. "It all of an instant up is mit you. Get into der leedle boat and put you yourselves on board dis scheep. If you drouble giff, den we shoot."

"Right-o, old bean!" hailed Cumberleigh in reply.

Von Preugfeld was puzzled by the reply. Mentally he resolved at the first opportunity to consult Volume II (Ba-Cu) of a British Encyclopaedia that he had on board.

"Look you pointed about it!" he exclaimed angrily. "I you give half a minute to quit der boat."

"Come on, boys!" said Cumberleigh. "The old josser's getting jumpy."

"Is that an order or a request, Cumberleigh?" asked Pyecroft. "If it's an order, well and good; if not, I'm not having any."

"Please yourself, old man," replied the captain. "And the very best of luck."

The four stepped into the Pip-squeak. Her sail was hurriedly stowed, and under oars the boat approached the submarine.

"Der vos five!" exclaimed Ober-leutnant von Preugfeld, as the prisoners came over the side. "Vere is der odder?"

A look of blank ignorance appeared on each man's face. Even the spy failed to betray any sign that would reveal the secret. The kapitan turned to a petty officer.

"Place these men below," he ordered.

"These three in No. 3 store-room; this one will go aft. You, there," he added, addressing another seaman. "Take an axe and knock out the garboards of that boat."

Cumberleigh, Blenkinson and Jefferson found themselves escorted below in double quick time. When fear hangs on the heels of a U-boat's crew the promptness to execute an order borders on panic. Literally hustled along a narrow alley-way bristling with dozens, nay, scores, of valve-wheels, they were bundled into a dark, moisture-laden recess that at one time contained a quantity of consumable stores. The door was slammed and locked, and the three R.A.F. officers found themselves prisoners of war under highly objectionable circumstances—trapped in a U-boat.

Giving another glance skywards and all around the horizon, von Preugfeld walked aft to the hatchway through which von Preussen had disappeared. "I'll see you in the ward-room in less than five minutes, von Preussen," he said. "Apparently this affair requires an explanation. But what has become of the fourth Englishman?"

"Still on board," replied the spy. "He's trying to evade capture."

"There is an alternative," remarked the ober-leutnant grimly. "He's welcome to it."

Making his way back to the outside of the conning-tower, von Preugfeld noted that his order concerning the sailing-boat had been carried out. Levelling his binocular, he scanned the shelving deck of the X-lighter. There was no sign of life on board X 5.

Ringing for half speed, von Preugfeld increased the distance between the U-boat and her prize to three hundred yards.

"Give her a round amidships!" he ordered.

The U-boat rolled sluggishly to starboard under the recoil of the gun. Almost simultaneously with the report of the weapon came the crash of exploding shell. Amidst a welter of foam and yellow smoke X 5 disappeared beneath the waves, leaving the water dotted with floating debris in the shape of buoyant articles released from her hold by the shattering of her hatches.

For a full half-minute the ober-leutnant kept the flotsam under observation; then, satisfied that his work of destruction had been accomplished in its entirety, and that to remain on the surface much longer after the roar of the explosion was hazardous, he turned to von Loringhoven.

"Down to twenty-five metres," he ordered. "Course due west at eight knots for ten minutes. Then let her sound."

Leaving the unter-leutnant to carry out his instructions, von Preugfeld made his way to the cabin where the returned spy awaited him.

"I hardly expected to see you so soon, Karl," he began. "I hope I haven't disturbed your elaborate plans."

"You have," replied the spy, with marked emphasis.

"Himmel! How is that? Were you taken into the confidence of these English officers, and were your investigations a secret project that was being experimented upon to the disadvantage of the Fatherland?"

"You have put me to considerable inconvenience," replied von Preussen. "My kit is at an hotel at Auldhaig."

"No compromising documents, I hope?" asked the kapitan anxiously.

"No; but a man cannot get about in comfort without his travelling belongings," remarked the spy. "You will have to land me again, but my venture in the Auldhaig district is a failure. It means that I must make my way south and try my luck in Dover and Portsmouth. And I was getting on so nicely with those fellows at the air station," he added, little knowing to what purpose the hospitality had been extended.

"And what was the experiment?" asked von Preugfeld.

"Experiment? There was no experiment," declared the spy. "Those fools of Englishmen took a liking to me and insisted on my going with them on a fishing expedition. We fell in with an almost water-logged barge, and while we were exploring you appeared. Now comes the question, where and when do you intend to set me ashore?"

Von Preugfeld's feelings were far from those of composure. On the one hand, he had sunk an English vessel of sorts. It was true that she looked like sinking before, but that was a side issue. He had made a capture of three English officers and had killed a fourth. Unfortunately, they were of no great rank as he had hoped—merely junior officers. On the other hand, he would have to delay his return journey in order to set von Preussen ashore. Stores, fuel and provisions were already running short, and the delay would mean considerable inconvenience, possibly danger. His afternoon's work, like that of the bombardment of Aberspey, was not worth the candle.

"I have already carried out instructions with reference to yourself," he remarked stiffly.

"And almost immediately you have undone all the work required of you in the matter," added the spy.

The ober-leutnant shrugged his shoulders. He was obstinate, pig-headed and arrogant, but in argument he was no match for the trained finesse of the Secret Service agent.

"As a favour——" he began.

"No—as a right," corrected von Preussen firmly.

"Donnerwetter! You insist too much," grumbled von Preugfeld. "I suppose there is nothing to be done but to fall in with your whim."

"With official instructions," interpolated the spy.

"Have your own way then," snapped the ober-leutnant. "To land you must necessarily entail night-work. I propose, then, to set you ashore at the same place as before. We are, in fact, within a couple of miles of it, and you will observe that we have shut off the motors, and U 247 is even now resting on the bed of the German Ocean. I would suggest that you should walk to Nedderburn and catch the mail train south that stops at the junction shortly after three in the morning."

"And more than likely stumble across some of the officers and men from Auldhaig Air Station," objected the spy. "No, my friend, I prefer to lay my own plans; then, if anything does go wrong, I have only myself to blame. And since Captain George Fennelburt is either a prisoner of war or 'missing—presumed drowned,' I must needs beg, borrow or steal another name. Henceforth, until further notice, I am Captain Broadstone, also of the Royal Air Force. Will you oblige me by lending me a pen? There are certain forms which I must now fill in to bear out my new character."




CHAPTER XIII

A STRUGGLE FOR LIFE

With Captain Cumberleigh's valedictory words ringing in his ears, Pyecroft began his preparations to avoid capture. While his comrades were hurriedly lowering the Pipsqueak's sail, the "second loot," hidden from the pirate craft by the flapping canvas, slipped over the side as noiselessly and silently as an eel.

The shock of the icy-cold water almost took his breath away.

"By gosh!" he muttered. "It is a bit of a stinger. But cheer up, old son, you may get it pretty hot in a very short time."

With that he dived under the lighter's hull. Literally groping his way down the weed and barnacle-covered bottom, he scraped under the keel and up again on the other side until darkness gave place to a glint of pale green water that in turn gave place to the salt-laden air. He had now placed the hull of No. 5 between him and the U-boat. So far so good, but the late member of the R.A.F. Salvage Syndicate had to consider another pressing problem.

Even supposing, as he fondly hoped, that the Huns had not noticed him, it was logical to assume that they would not sheer off before sending the lighter to Davy Jones's locker. How? By ramming? Hardly. A U-boat would not hesitate to crash into a ship's boat deeply laden with the survivors of a torpedoed merchantman, but she would think twice before trying conclusions with the lighter's massive rubbing-strake. By placing bombs on board? That meant making use of a boat and consequently delay. Gunfire? Yes; that looked like the answer to the question.

Now for the subsidiary problem. Assuming that the Huns would turn a quick-firer upon the lighter, where would they aim? At the engine-room? Hardly, as the stern was already awash. Amidships, into the heavily-laden hold, the work of destruction would be most easily accomplished.

"So here's for her bows," decided Pyecroft, having reviewed the situation. "If my theories are all wrong, then it's a case of 'going west.'" He swam with slow, easy strokes towards the bows. There was no immediate hurry, since the boat with his companions had not yet reached the pirate submarine. He knew that he had to conserve his strength and his energies for the ordeal that promised to be forthcoming.

To his great delight, he found a rope trailing overboard. A tug reassured him that it was made fast to the towing bollards. By hanging on to it Pyecroft could support himself with ease, while the bluff, overhanging bows would effectually screen him should any of the Huns board the abandoned craft.

For a long-drawn ten minutes—it seemed like ten hours—Pyecroft waited. Already the numbing cold was taking effect. His upstretched arm seemed to have lost all sensation of feeling. It was merely the grip of the tightly closed fingers, contracted by the cold, that supported him.

Then with appalling suddenness came the crash of the exploding shell. Jerked almost clear of the water, Pyecroft had a vision of the forepart of the massive hull rearing high in the air. Flying debris hurtled over him, pungent smoke filled the air. Then, with a rush of eddying water, the X-lighter slithered beneath the waves.

Under cover of the smoke Pyecroft struck out. Fragments hurled high in the air were now falling all around him, while buoyant objects, taken down by the vortex, were rising to the surface with terrific force. A plank, the jagged edge of which would have almost cut the swimmer in two, shot upwards from beneath the waves. Missing him by inches, it described a parabola, rising to a height of twenty feet or more before it fell back with a resounding smack.

With his senses deadened by the stupendous roar, the pungent smoke and the coldness of the water, Pyecroft kept himself afloat automatically until he came in contact with a huge wicker basket that was floating upside down with about a third of its bulk exposed.

As he grasped it, the basket turned completely over, the rim striking the swimmer a smart rap on the face. The sting of the blow had the effect of partly restoring his mental faculties. Gaining a firmer grip of the basket, he took stock of his surroundings.

The surface of the water was coated with a deposit of oil, for part of the cargo of X 5 had consisted of turps, linseed, and lubricating oil in casks. One effect of the explosion of the shell had been to liberate the contents of the casks; another, the oil acted as an antidote to the coldness of the water.

Before the haze of smoke had completely disappeared Pyecroft drew the basket over his head. Within there was enough space to keep his head clear of the water, and at the same time there remained considerable buoyancy on the part of the stout wicker-work.

Presently the outlines of the U-boat that had been responsible for Pyecroft's predicament became visible. She was slowly forging ahead. Her deck was deserted. She was preparing to submerge.

"She's gone," he soliloquised. "That's a blessing. I wouldn't swop places with Cumberleigh for a tenner."

He dodged outside his place of concealment and glanced around. A hundred yards away was the water-logged Pip-squeak. Even with her garboard smashed the staunchly built boat kept afloat.

"Wonder if I can do it?" thought the swimmer.

Fumbling with benumbed fingers to draw a knife from his pocket, he proceeded to cut the laces of his leggings.

"There's thirty-one and six gone," he muttered ruefully. "An' they aren't paid for yet."

His boots were likewise ruthlessly sacrificed. Then, quitting his hold of the basket, he struck out towards the derelict boat. A few strokes convinced him that the overhand method of swimming has its disadvantages when hampered with sodden clothing. The breast stroke, he found, required comparatively little effort, yet by the time he covered that hundred yards he felt that he had reached the limit of his prowess in the swimming line.

Grasping the gunwale, Pyecroft attempted to clamber into the boat, with the result that the water-logged boat dipped completely under his weight.

At the second attempt he slithered over the transom and, still submerged, lightly grasped one of the thwarts. Here was a precarious shelter. Provided he made no attempt to draw himself clear of the water, there was just sufficient buoyancy to keep him afloat.

His next task—there was little time before he would be overcome by the cold—was to unship the mast and lash it to the thwarts. Thrice the boat dipped before the effort met with success. The stout spar, secured to the thwarts by the main-sheets and halliards, added considerably to the liveliness of the boat.

An oar, amongst other flotsam, drifted alongside. This Pyecroft secured, and by its aid added another oar, although of different length, to his life-saving appliances. A circular life-buoy and a couple of empty petrol tins were also taken possession of; these he lashed under thwarts, with the result that the boat's gunwales showed four inches above the surface amidships.

Groping on the bottom boards, the young officer discovered a pair of gun-metal rowlocks that had apparently escaped the eye of the destructive Hun. Thus equipped, he began to row for the distant shore.

It was hard work. At the best the water-logged craft made a bare mile an hour, but the effect of the heavy toil was to bring warmth to the man's chilled body and limbs. Setting his jaw tightly, he held on, glancing from time to time over his shoulder in the direction of the cliffs, now growing dim in the dusk of approaching night.

"How much further?" he asked himself at the end of two hours. "Hanged if they seem any nearer. Wind and tide are with me, too."

Compared with flying through the air at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, his present rate of progression was indeed painfully slow, yet with the dogged determination of an Englishman, "never to say die till you're dead," he tugged at the heavy oars until his blistered hands grew raw and his muscles ached as if his back would break.

With night the wind dropped and the sea assumed a placid, oily aspect. The land was now invisible, for not a light could be seen from seaward. Fortunate it was that the young airman had been compelled to undergo a course of astronomy. He hated it at the time; now he was glad, for by keeping the North Star broad on his starboard beam, he knew that he was heading towards the shores of Scotland.

His task was stupendous. The drag of the boat, which contained more than a ton of the North Sea, was terrific. He was wearing badly. Cold, hunger and fatigue were telling. Almost mechanically he swotted at the heavy oars.

He had lost all count of time, when he heard a faint rumble. It was the surf lashing the beach. Encouraged, yet realising that other dangers lurked on that surf-beaten shore, he rallied his remaining energies, counting each stroke as he bent to the oars.

At the one thousand and eightieth stroke he desisted. Around him the water was phosphorescent and white with the backlash of the waves. His task was accomplished. Human endurance had attained its limit. He was powerless to control his water-logged craft in the breakers. All he could do was to sit tight and trust in Providence.

For another five minutes the sorely-tried Pip-squeak was tossed and buffeted in the broken water, until a tremendous jar announced that in the trough of the waves she had touched hard shingle.

Then, like an avalanche, a cascade of foam swept completely over the boat. Frantically Pyecroft strove to grip the gunwale. Torn away by the rush of water, he was conscious of being pounded on the shingle. Then came the dreaded undertow.

Vainly he attempted to grasp the rolling shingle. He felt himself being swept backwards to be again overwhelmed by the next roller, when his retrograde motion was arrested by a heavy object. It was the Pip-squeak. Even in the last stages of her existence Jefferson's boat seemed destined to be of service.

With a final effort as the frothy water slithered past Pyecroft gained his feet. The hiss of the approaching breaker gave strength to his limbs. Stumbling, terror-stricken, and well-nigh exhausted, he contrived to win the race by inches until, realising that the dreaded enemy had fallen short, he fell on his face on the wet shingle.

For some moments he lay thus until, haunted by the horrible suspicion that the rising tide would overwhelm him, he staggered a few paces until he was above high-water mark, and then collapsed inertly upon the seaweed-strewn shore.

How long he lay unconscious he had no idea; but when he came to himself the moon was shining dimly through a watery haze. The tide had fallen, and with it the horrible ground-swell had disappeared.

He was bitterly cold: his limbs were like lead. An effort to rise was a dismal failure. He tried to shout, but no sound came from his parched lips. While he had lain unconscious there must have been a short spell of wind, for he found that he was covered with dried wrack and seaweed.

"It must be close on daybreak," he thought. "I'll have to stick it a little longer."

He made an attempt to look at his wristlet watch. The dial was no longer luminous, while an ominous silence had taken the place of an erstwhile healthy tick. A prolonged submergence had ruined the delicate mechanism for all time.

As he lay, too benumbed to move, he became aware that a boat had grounded on the beach within a few yards of his involuntary resting-place. The little craft must have come in very silently, for until the men's boots grated on the shingle he was unaware of their presence.

Again he tried to shout, but without result. Then, even as he tried to raise himself, he noticed that with one exception the men wore unfamiliar uniforms. They were talking softly, with an unmistakable guttural Teutonic accent.

"Huns," thought Pyecroft. "What's their little game? I've done them so far, and I'm hanged if I want them to put a half-nelson on me now. I'll lie doggo."

Which, considering his weak physical state, was an easy matter to do.

The Huns were evidently in a hurry, for after a few words with a greatcoated individual, they pushed off and rowed seaward, while the man they had left ashore lifted a portmanteau from the shingle and made his way towards the cliff with the air of one who is confident of his surroundings.

He passed so close to the prone figure lying partly covered by seaweed that for a brief instant Pyecroft expected the stranger to stumble against him.

"Good heavens!" ejaculated the astonished Pyecroft. "Where have I seen that fellow? By Jove—it's Fennelburt. Up to some dirty work: I wonder what?"




CHAPTER XIV

A DOUBLE DECOY

"Gun-fire!" exclaimed Lieutenant-Commander Morpeth, sniffing the salt air like an alert terrier scenting a rat.

"Away to the south-east'ard," corroborated Wakefield. "Is this going to be one of your lucky days, George?"

"It won't be for the want of trying," rejoined the R.N. R. man grimly; then bending till his lips nearly touched the mouth of the voice tube, he shouted, "Stand by, below there, to whack her up."

A few crisp orders followed. Men moved swiftly and silently to their appointed stations, while the course was altered a couple of points to take Q 171 to the scene of the supposed action.

It was the second day of Wakefield's and Meredith's enforced but none the less interesting detention on board the mystery ship. Q 171 was well out into the North Sea, bound for a certain position a few miles to the west'ard of the now famous Horn Reefs Lightship. The sea was calm, a light breeze blew from the west'ard, while the sky was filled with small fleecy clouds drifting slowly athwart the lower air-currents—an indication of a forthcoming change of wind.

The three officers, clad in black oilskins to keep up the rôle of Hun pirates, had been sitting on the cambered edge of the base of the dummy conning-tower, yarning of times not long gone and holding forth wondrous theories of what might happen in the seemingly far distant epoch after the war.

"Small quick-firers," declared Morpeth, as the rumble of the sharp reports grew louder and louder. "None of our M.L.'s in action by any chance, I hope?"

Slinging his binoculars round his neck, Morpeth, with an agility that his ponderous frame belied, clambered to the domed top of the conning-tower, reckless of the fact that his weight was causing the frail metal-work to "give" ominously.

Bringing his glasses to bear upon a faint dot just on the horizon, Morpeth made a long and steady scrutiny.

"Merchant vessel—tramp, by the look of her—chased by a Fritz," he reported, "Unhealthy work—for Fritz. I'll keep her on my lee bow a bit. It's no use butting in too soon. Too much dashed hurry spoils everything."

At sixteen knots Q 171 held on, with the apparent object of joining in the chase and cutting off the fleeing merchantman. Quickly the chase came in sight—a bluff-bowed, wall-sided tramp, with an elaborately camouflaged hull.

"Confounded scheme that razzle-dazzle," commented Morpeth. "Meet three or four in a crowded waterway, and you begin to wonder whether you'll see mother again. Can't tell whether they are bows on, or what. Fancy we've got her cold, though. For'ard gun, let her have it."

The bow-chaser spat viciously, sending a shrieking missile within a hundred yards of the tramp, which, badly on fire aft, was still proudly flying the Red Ensign. Her funnel, hit about six feet above the deck, was showing signs of collapse, being supported only by the wire rope guys. Making a bare eight knots, she was evidently at the mercy of the pursuing U-boat, which, capable of doing eighteen on the surface, was slowing down after the manner of a cat playing with a mouse.

Q 171, firing rapidly, but deliberately planting her shells wide of the merchant vessel, now turned twelve points to port. This had the effect of bringing her into a decidedly convergent course with that of the U-boat. The latter, probably "smelling a rat," or taking exception to what appeared to be another of her kind "spoiling the game," edged away to starboard, at the same time hoisting a signal.

By the aid of the appropriated German Naval Code Book, Q 171's skipper deciphered the signal. It was a peremptory request for the pseudo U-boat to make her number and thus proclaim her identity.

This was easily done. A four letter hoist of bunting fluttered from Q 171's mast, giving the information that she was U 251 of the Imperial German Navy.

"This is my prize," signalled the dog-in-the-manger Fritz.

"I have good reasons for joining in the chase," was Morpeth's reply.

During the lengthy exchange of flag messages, both boats had maintained a hot fire upon the tramp. From the genuine U-boat the result of Q 171's shells could not be observed. Had the Huns been able to do so, they would have expressed considerable surprise at their supposed consort's decidedly erratic gunnery; but in the heat of rivalry they became reckless.

Almost imperceptibly, Q 171 lessened the distance between her and her prey. The tramp was two miles ahead, while barely half a mile separated the U-boat and the decoy.

"Stand by the tubes!" ordered Morpeth, at the same time motioning to Wakefield and Meredith to step clear of the rails.

Meredith felt a distinctly unpleasant sensation in his throat. Perspiration oozed from his forehead. Fascinated, he watched the alert faces of the men standing by the mechanism that was to lay bare the deadly torpedo-tubes.

"Let her have it!" shouted Morpeth.

With hardly a rumble, the dummy conning-tower rolled over the well-oiled rails, revealing the triple tubes trained abeam upon their prey. The next instant the glistening cigar-shaped missiles leapt over the side and disappeared in a welter of foam.

Travelling at the rate of an express train under the impulse of small but powerful electric motors, the torpedoes took very little time to cover the intervening distance. So intent were the Huns at shelling the tramp that they failed to notice the tracks of the sinister weapons until, with an appalling roar, two of them exploded simultaneously and thirty yards apart against the U-boat's hull.

Morpeth gave a grunt of satisfaction as he watched the tall column of water break and fall in a shower of smoke-mingled spray.

"Simple—quite simple," he remarked; then, observing Meredith's white face, he clapped the young officer on the shoulder.

"Cheer up!" he ejaculated. "Nothing to look white about the gills.... When you've been on the game as long as I have, and seen what an utter bounder Fritz is, you'll understand."

With the discharge of the torpedoes Q 171 altered helm and resumed her former course. Morpeth meant to take no chances by revealing his identity to the tramp. He preferred to let the crew of the merchant vessel think that the disaster of her supposed consort had effectually put the wind up the second U-boat. Q 171 was a mystery ship, and once her true character was known the story would be all over the first port at which the tramp touched. And, after all, it was not a very far cry from an East Coast port to Berlin in war time, and benevolent neutrals had an unfortunate liking for spreading reports, true or otherwise, of what they saw and heard in British harbours.

A sudden ejaculation from Morpeth attracted Meredith's attention. The R.N.R. man was pointing with outstretched arm in the direction of the tramp.

He had good reason for astonishment. The apparently badly battered tramp had swung round and was forging through the water at high speed—possibly a good twenty-five knots. The Red Ensign had been struck, and the White Ensign streamed proudly in the breeze.

"Look alive there!" shouted Morpeth. "Up with our rag, or they'll be planking a four-point-seven into us. Hanged if she isn't a Q-boat too!"

The R.N.R. man was right concerning the rôle of the oncoming ship; but he was wrong in his surmise as to her intentions. Her skipper had noticed that the shells fired from the second U-boat had purposely gone wide, he had spotted the uncovered torpedo-tubes on her deck, and had seen the sudden disintegration of U-boat No. 1. Metaphorically speaking, he was foaming at the mouth.

A hoist of bunting rose to the masthead of the approaching vessel. "Heave-to; I wish to communicate," read the signal.

Morpeth rang for "half speed" and then "stop." He turned to Wakefield.

"Now's your chance to get a lift back," he remarked.

"Fancy I'll hang on," replied the late skipper of M.L. 1071. "A day or two won't make much difference. Had I been ashore I suppose the S.N.O. would have packed me off on leave."

"And you, my festive?" inquired Morpeth, addressing Meredith.

"I'm following my senior officer's lead," replied the Sub promptly.

"As regards your men, I'll put them on board if she'll have 'em," continued Morpeth. "It'll relieve the pressure on the grub locker. Hope they won't kag too much about us, though."

"I don't think so," replied Wakefield, who had great faith in the sound sense of his crew.

"But after all it won't matter so very much," added the R.N.R. officer. "By the time they get ashore my little stunt will, I hope, be a back number. Now, let's see what this camouflaged blighter has to say."

The Q-boat had now ranged up within fifty or sixty feet of her small co-worker. Men, rigged out in the nondescript garments affected by the Mercantile Marine, were clustered for'ard, while a couple of stalwart individuals, rigged out in pilot-coats, serge trousers and sea-boots, were leaning over the side abreast the mainmast.

"Dash you, you meddling bounder!" roared one of the latter. "What d'ye mean by butting in and spoiling our sport? D'ye think we stood a gruelling for four mortal hours just for the fun of seeing you give Fritz socks? An' we had her nicely within range when you let rip."

"Sorry," replied Morpeth apologetically, "But how the blazes was I to know?"

"You'd have known quick enough if we had shown our teeth," replied the other grimly. "Three of my men killed and six wounded, and nothing to show for it."

"So I suppose when I fall in with a genuine tramp being chased by a Fritz, I'll just carry on?" inquired Morpeth caustically.

"I won't say that," replied the other. His wrath was fast evaporating. He was beginning to realise that, after all, cooperation was the thing, and that rivalry, except of the healthy order, was detrimental to the great work in hand. "When all's said and done, it's something to think that we took you in. At first I thought you were a Fritz: your get-up was so good. But I say, isn't your name Morpeth—Geordie Morpeth?"

"I have a notion that you've hit the right nail on the head," replied the skipper Of Q 171. "But I'm dashed if I can call your face to mind!"

"Met you in Rio in January '12," announced the other, with a typical sailorman's memory for dates. "You were in the Humming-Bird. I was on the Glaucis, second mate at the time."

"By Jove!" exclaimed Morpeth, "you're Bellairs. I didn't recognise you; you've altered some."

"Hardly recognise myself at times," remarked Bellairs. "If you want to age rapidly, try a trick in a Q-boat. I see you're trying it already. Well, I must be pushing along. I'm making for Newcastle, after three weeks off the Lofoden Islands. Fritz was pretty busy in Norwegian waters, but I guess he's put up his shutters for a time at least. We've driven a few nails into his coffin."

"Left one or two for me, I hope?" remarked Morpeth. "But look here, can you give a passage to a few hands?"

"A few," agreed Bellairs guardedly. "How many?"

Morpeth told him.

"I've also two officers on board," he added. "They wish to stay and have a rest cure. I'm doing my best to educate 'em at the same time."

The other R.N.R. man laughed. "Right-o!" he exclaimed. "If you educate 'em like you did the youngsters on the Humming-Bird I can see them writing home to mother about you."

"Hear that?" inquired Morpeth, turning to Wakefield and Meredith. "Old man Bellairs evidently thinks I'm a tough nut. Hope Fritz'll think so too; that's the thing that counts."




CHAPTER XV

CONFIRMED SUSPICIONS

"From Sub-lieut. J. McIntosh to S.N.O., Auldhaig. Regret to report X-lighter No. 5 sunk in collision. Crew saved."

"From Officer Commanding No. Umpteen Group to Air Ministry. I have to report that the following officers are reported missing, believed drowned:—Captain R. G. Cumberleigh, Lieut. H. L. Jefferson, 2/Lieut. W. Pyecroft, Lieut. J. Blenkinson, all of Auldhaig Air Station; and Captain G. Fennelburt, from Sheerness Air Station, on detached duty. It is understood that these officers left Auldhaig in a private boat on a fishing expedition. It is requested that Sheerness may be informed concerning the officer mentioned above."

"From O.C. Lintieness Coast Guard Station to Inspecting Officer of C.G., Auldhaig. I have to report that at 4 P.M. a lighter which had been signalled passing south at 11 A.M. was observed to be derelict 3 miles E. by S. off Lintieness Head. It was afterwards lost in the haze, drifting to the northward. At 5 P.M. a violent explosion was heard, apparently from a direction bearing E. by N."

"From O.C. Auldhaig M.L. Flotilla to S.N.O., Auldhaig. Acting upon instructions, I proceeded in search of X-lighter No. 5. At a position bearing N.E. by E., five miles from Lintieness Head, quantity of wreckage discovered floating, including a buoy marked 'X-lighter No. 5.' The debris gave indication of an explosion. Saw no trace of boat reported missing by Air Station, Auldhaig."

"From Superintendent of Police, Abercuish, to O.C. Auldhaig Air Station. Report that at 5 A.M. on the — inst. 2/Lieutenant W. Pyecroft, R.A.F., was discovered in an exhausted condition on the shore at Abercuish. He was removed to a house in the village, and thence to the Abercuish Cottage Hospital. According to his statement, his companions were taken prisoners by a German submarine from X-lighter No. 5."

"From Air Ministry to O.C. No. Umpteen Group, Auldhaig. Nothing known of Captain Fennelburt at Sheerness Air Station. Please ascertain if a mistake has been made in this officer's name, and report the nature of the detached duty referred to in your telegram No. 4452 of the — inst."

These messages, written on official forms, lay on the table in the private room of the Commander-in-Chief's office at Auldhaig.

There were three persons in the room. One, the Commander-in-Chief, a breezy, dark-featured, clean-shaven naval officer of about fifty-five; the second, the dapper, boyish-faced lieutenant-colonel who held the post of Officer Commanding the R.A.F. Air Station. The third was the Commander-in-Chief's secretary—a silent, almost taciturn individual whose face was almost the same colour as that of his gilt aiguillettes. In his head the secretary held knowledge upon which depended the success of the Grand Fleet and for which Germany would willingly have paid millions; but that firmly set mouth was sealed upon all matters appertaining to the war save when lawful occasion demanded. And in a few months' time John Elphinhaye would be placed upon the Retired List with a pension that, with Income Tax deducted, would be little more than the wages of an artisan.

"The whole business seems a general muck-up, Greyhouse," observed the Commander-in-Chief, addressing the lieutenant-colonel. "There's something wrong somewhere. How can this confounded lighter be sunk in collision and shortly afterwards be blown up?"

"There were two lighters, sir," replied Colonel Greyhouse. "It is quite possible that one was mistaken for the other."

"As a matter of fact there were half a dozen," explained the Commander-in-Chief. "And all, except No. 5, are accounted for. That is so, Elphinhaye?"

"Yes, sir," corroborated the secretary.

"But the main reason why I came to see you, sir," said Lieutenant-Colonel Greyhouse, "was the affair of my missing officers. In the first instance they went off in a boat belonging to one of my lieutenants. I cannot conceive how they came to be on board the lighter. True, she was to be transferred to the R.A.F., but she left here under an R.N.V.R officer and crew."

"Sub-lieutenant John McIntosh, sir, who reported from Donnikirk," announced the secretary, in response to his superior's inquiry —mutely expressed by the raising of his bushy eyebrows.

"Exactly," agreed the Commander-in-Chief. "The situation required further information, and I have wired instructions to Mr. McIntosh to report immediately upon his return to-day."

"Then there is the question raised by the presence of Captain Fennelburt——"

"That," interrupted the naval officer, "is a matter that concerns the Air Force. I have no jurisdiction in the case."

"But," persisted Colonel Greyhouse, "that officer visited Auldhaig Dockyard."

"He called upon the Staff Captain, sir," reported the secretary, who appeared to have a knowledge of the movements of every stranger within the gates of Auldhaig Dockyard at his fingers' ends.

"And yet the Air Ministry and Sheerness Air Station deny all knowledge of him," continued Colonel Greyhouse. "I was away on duty at the time he reported at my station, but curiously enough Captain Cumberleigh, one of the missing officers, entertained a suspicion of him. He communicated his doubts to my second-in-command, Major Sparrowhawk, who this morning reported to me on the matter. It is now his belief, although he scouted the idea at the time, that this Captain Fennelburt is a spy, or at least an impostor, masquerading as an R.A.F. officer, with certain shady motives behind him. That is why I came, in order to find out his alleged motives for visiting Auldhaig Dockyard."

"That's the worst of these new-fangled shows," declared the Commander-in-Chief vehemently. He was a sailor of the Old School who did not take kindly to innovations. "When the R.N.A.S. was in existence we had good men who could fly. Now with this amalgamation it seems to me that for every effective pilot the Air Ministry grants a dozen commissions to men who never will 'go up' and who apparently have nothing better to do than to knock about in uniform doing work badly that a civilian clerk could do well, and trying to bluff people that they are the salt of the earth. Apparently Captain Fennelburt is one of this crowd, only the Air Ministry has forgotten his existence. I rather feel inclined to pooh-pooh the spy theory."

The colonel suffered the Commander-in-Chief's strictures in silence. Although his career in the Service had been limited to a period of four years, his promotion had been rapid. He had a real pride in the R.A.F., but at the same time he knew that there was considerable truth in the naval man's assertions. Also he realised that it was both inadvisable and contrary to discipline to argue with an officer of superior rank.

"Your best course," continued the Commander-in-Chief, "would be to send some one over to Abercuish Cottage Hospital to interview Mr. Pyecrust—I mean, Pyecroft. That is, naturally, if he is in a fit state to give information."

Colonel Greyhouse inclined his head in assent. It was, moreover, exactly what he had already given instructions to be done. The colonel took his leave, and just as he stepped ashore at the Air Station a motor car dashed into the parade-ground. From it alighted Major Sparrowhawk.

"I've seen young Pyecroft, sir," he reported with a salute. "He's going on well in the circumstances. The doctor informed me that he will be fit to be removed to-morrow."

"That's good," commented the colonel. Together they walked a few paces out of hearing of the transport driver and the coxwain of the motor boat.

"Well?" inquired Colonel Greyhouse laconically.

"Dashed queer business, sir," replied the major. "Pyecroft is perfectly fit mentally, which, considering what he has gone through, is rather to be wondered at. It appears our fellows boarded a derelict lighter and while on board were surprised by a Hun submarine. Pyecroft got away, had a sticky time on a water-logged boat, and finally drifted ashore more than half dead with cold and exposure. The others, it seems, were taken prisoners by the Huns. And now comes the extraordinary part of the story. We had an officer here on inspection duties. Fennelburt—Captain George Fennelburt—he announced himself on reporting."

Colonel Greyhouse nodded.

"Yes," he observed. "I know that much."

"Well, sir," explained Sparrowhawk, "he came ashore from the German submarine at night, while Pyecroft was lying helpless on the beach. Four men brought him ashore in a collapsible boat, and he vanished inland, still rigged out in R.A.F. uniform. Pyecroft can swear definitely on that point."

"And Sheerness Air Station has disclaimed all knowledge of him," remarked the C.O. "Why the deuce the Air Ministry cannot be more particular in posting the movements of officers passes my understanding! Can you give a fairly accurate description of Captain—er—Fennelburt?"

"I think so, sir; he was at the mess to lunch, and I saw a good deal of him."

"Good," ejaculated Colonel Greyhouse. "Send a report to 'Area,' and at the same time to Scotland Yard. The police will then take the matter up. You might also inform the Naval and Military Authorities. If we don't lay the fellow by the heels within the next twelve hours I'll eat my hat."

A vow that, taking into consideration the copious gold leaves that adorned the peak, was an exceedingly rash one, unless Greyhouse had the digestion of an ostrich.




CHAPTER XVI

COVERING HIS TRACKS

For the second time within forty-eight hours Karl von Preussen tramped the deserted road leading to Nedderburn Junction railway station. On the previous occasion he called himself Captain George Fennelburt; on the second he had assumed the name of Ronald Broadstone.

He travelled light, but in place of his khaki, leather-reinforced haversack he carried a small portmanteau, which, owing to unforeseen circumstances, was practically empty. He decided that at the first favourable opportunity he would replenish a portion of his kit and replace that lying at the Auldhaig Hotel. But in the portmanteau was an automatic pistol of British manufacture. Its possession showed economy and discrimination in small details. Since it had been acquired from a battlefield, it had cost von Preussen nothing; and being of British make it was in keeping with the spy's rôle as an officer of the Royal Air Force.

He walked quickly and unhesitatingly along the bleak, unfrequented road. Delay meant the great possibility of missing the night train and a consequent detention at Nedderburn, which was too close to Auldhaig to be pleasant. He had good reasons for steering clear of Auldhaig "for the rest of the duration." The place had been a "wash-out," and since von Preussen was of a superstitious nature he always avoided scenes of previous failures.

Beyond meeting a belated shepherd, who greeted the spy in an unknown Highland dialect, von Preussen arrived at Nedderburn without encountering anyone. The station had just been lit up, two feeble paraffin lamps providing the necessary illumination for the safety of passengers. Peeping through the high wooden palisade, von Preussen took stock of the people on the up-platform.

There were half a dozen "Jocks" with full equipment, including "tin hats" and rifles with the breech-mechanism bound in strips of oiled cloth.

"Highlanders returning from leave to the Front, curse them!" muttered von Preussen.

He had reason for his maledictory utterance. In the earlier days of the war, when he was a lieutenant of Uhlans, he soon learnt to have a wholesome respect for the stalwart, bare-kneed, kilted men from "Caledonia stern and wild." He recalled an incident at a certain village about twenty kilometres from Mons. His squadron had overtaken twenty tired Highlanders tramping along the pavé. Observation by means of binoculars showed that they were bordering on utter fatigue. Most of them wore blood-stained bandages. They had no officer with them. They looked to be an easy prey to the lances of his Uhlans. Von Preussen never had a worse shock. Instead of the kilted men taking to their heels at the sight of the charging cavalry and thus falling easy victims to the steel-tipped lances, they coolly threw themselves into a circle fringed by a ring of glittering bayonets. Three volleys in quick succession were too much for the Uhlans to stomach. They galloped off, amongst them von Preussen groaning and cursing with a bullet wound through his left shoulder.

In the present instance he decided that he had nothing to fear from these men. A little further on were three greatcoated officers. With a grunt of satisfaction von Preussen noted that their cap-bands were not black with the badge of the crown, eagle and wings. He had good cause to avoid Air Force officers and men just at present.

Beyond stood a sturdily-built man with a long black coat and soft hat—evidently a clergyman. He was trying to decipher a poster in the feeble glimmer of the station lamps.

The changing of the signal from red to green warned the spy that it was time to enter the station. Outside the entrance stood an old and somewhat decrepit porter who, after inquiry as to whether the new arrival had any luggage and receiving a negative reply, hobbled off to ring the bell. At the doorway stood a girl ticket-collector.

"Warrant, miss!" exclaimed von Preussen, holding out a buff paper.

The girl examined it perfunctorily.

"Carlisle—change at Edinburgh!" she announced.

The spy thanked the girl for the gratuitous and unnecessary information. To change at Edinburgh was his intention. By so doing he could withhold and destroy the faked railway warrant, which, had it been retained by the ticket collector, would eventually be presented to the Air Ministry for payment. Already von Preussen had travelled thousands of miles over British railways without payment, and never once had he surrendered the buff slip that would otherwise have been a clue to his movements.

With much hissing of steam the night mail train drew up at the platform. The handful of travellers hurried along, peering into the dimly-lit compartments in the hope of finding vacant seats. Von Preussen happened to secure one in the company of five naval officers who were already "bored stiff" with their tedious journey from a far northern base. The spy soon discovered that there was precious little information to be picked up from them.

At Perth the spy changed compartments. He now found himself in the company of four rather lively subalterns and the clergyman he had noticed on Nedderburn Junction platform. The latter, deep in the pages of the Church Times, took no notice of the new arrival.

"Tickets, please!"

A gigantic inspector examined the tickets and vouchers of the occupants of the compartment.

"Change at Edinburgh," he remarked, as he clipped von Preussen's warrant. "Through train to Carlisle at 7.5."

With the resumption of the journey, the clerical passenger offered von Preussen a copy of an evening paper as a prelude to opening conversation. He was, he informed the spy, travelling from Nedderburn to Hawick, where he was about to take up an Army chaplaincy at Stobs Camp. In return von Preussen told a fairy tale to the effect that he was joining an R.A.F. balloon station near Carlisle and gave some vivid and totally imaginary stories of his adventures in the air. Yet in spite of several attempts to draw the subalterns into the conversation, the hilarious representatives of the "One Star Crush" limited their discourse to anecdotes calculated to bring blushes to the cheeks of the padre.

It was nearly six in the morning when the train reached Edinburgh. Without difficulty von Preussen passed the barrier and emerged into Princes Street. For the rest of the day he remained in seclusion at a small private hotel just behind Edinburgh's main thoroughfare.

He had a nasty shock that evening. The evening papers came out with an announcement that there was a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to the detection of a certain individual giving the name of George Fennelburt, aged about thirty; height, five feet seven or eight; broadly built, fair featured with blue eyes. Believed to be wearing the uniform of a captain in the Royal Air Force, and last seen in the neighbourhood of Auldhaig.

Von Preussen broke into a gentle perspiration. Furtively he glanced at his companions in the commercial room. They were, fortunately for him, deep in a game of chess.

The spy had registered in the name of Captain Broadstone. That was now, of itself, a decidedly risky proceeding, since, the hue and cry being raised, there would most certainly be a stringent examination of registration forms at all the hotels.

Even in his panic von Preussen was curious. He could form no satisfactory theory on the matter. How was his presence known, since it was reasonable to conjecture that the authorities knew he had gone on the fishing expedition that had been so unpropitious to his temporary companions? Obviously the notice offering a reward for his apprehension had not been issued before his visit to Auldhaig; and since he, with others, was missing and presumed to be drowned, why go to the length of advertising for his arrest? Perchance U 247 had been captured and the British prisoners released. Even in that case none of those knew the true facts. When they were sent below they were under the impression that he, von Preussen, was also a prisoner of war. In the absence of detail the newspaper notice was terrible in its gaunt wording.

"I will have to find a different disguise," he decided. "But how? To purchase civilian clothing would be courting instant suspicion. I cannot get it myself, nor can I trust anyone to obtain it for me. Yet to persist in appearing in this Air Force uniform would be simple madness. It is equally futile to dye my hair and eyebrows. The people here would notice the difference instantly. And if I changed my hotel I would run fresh and possibly greater risks. Himmel! What can I do?"

He glanced suspiciously round the room. The players, deep in their game, paid no attention to anyone or anything else.

"There's one blessing," he soliloquised. "I registered as Broadstone, not Fennelburt. I think I'll go to bed. It's safer."

He went, placed his automatic pistol under his pillow, and found himself looking at the empty portmanteau. Then, switching off the light, he attempted to court slumber.

It was in vain. For hours he lay wide awake, racking his ready brain for a solution to the apparently insurmountable difficulty. He heard the occupant of the next room retiring, the click of the electric light switch, and very soon after, the first of a series of loud snores.

"At all events," thought the spy, "the fellow is luckier than I: he can sleep soundly."

The sleeper and the empty portmanteau: subconsciously von Preussen connected the two. Why, he knew not, but gradually and with increasing lucidity a plan matured. Why not steal the sleeper's clothes, pack them into his portmanteau, and change in a remote country spot?

"It may throw suspicion on me," he thought, "but it's worth trying. Given four or five hours' start, I'll throw them off the scent."

Cautiously von Preussen got out of bed and opened the door. A light burned in the corridor. By its aid he could see pairs of boots standing outside the various rooms: either the servant responsible for the cleaning of them was late, or else the task of collection was left till early in the morning.

Silently the spy picked up a boot belonging to the person he intended to rob and examined it carefully. It was an "eight":—a similar size to his. So far so good; he could only hope that the fellow resembled him in build and height. He must at all events avoid the incongruity of donning the clothes of a man five feet two or six feet one.

Very deftly von Preussen tried the door-handle. The sleeper had omitted to bolt the door. The snores continued.

Creeping into the room the intruder closed the door. The lawful occupant had evidently not intended to wake up and switch on the light, otherwise he would not have thrown back the heavy curtains and admitted the moonlight. Neatly folded on a chair were the man's clothes. For once the methodical habits of their owner were to his disadvantage.

Quickly von Preussen collected the articles, and, pausing only for a few minutes to make sure that the corridor was deserted, regained his own room.

Ten minutes later, having crammed his portmanteau with his newly-gotten booty, he again turned in.

He had arranged to be called at eight-thirty. He saw no object in anticipating the hour. Let the occupier of the adjoining room discover his loss. The management would not dare to question the officer guest or examine his portmanteau.

At seven he was awakened by a furious ringing and a bellowing voice. He smiled grimly. The fun was about to commence. He could hear various members of the hotel staff talking excitedly, while the indignant tones of the robbed guest dominated all.

Pleading a headache caused by the noise and that he was suffering from shell-shock, von Preussen had his breakfast brought to his bedroom. Then, having shaved and paid his bill, he grasped his now heavy portmanteau and left the hotel.

He made his way to Princes Street, feeling horribly self-conscious. At every salute he received and returned, he felt that the man who gave it had his suspicions. He made haste to board the first tramcar, which, he noticed, was marked "Portobello and Joppa."

Before the car had passed Scott's Monument a couple of R.A.F. officers boarded it and, to the spy's consternation, took seats immediately behind him.

Presently one of them, a captain, tapped von Preussen on the shoulder:

"Can you oblige me with a match, old bean?"

The old bean complied without a word.

The next question came with startling suddenness:

"'Spose you haven't come across Captain Fennelburt?"

The spy, controlling himself with an effort, turned his head and laughed.

"Hope you don't think I'm the fellow?" he inquired. "If, so, you won't get that hundred pounds, old son. I heard this morning that he had been collared at Perth."

"Is that so?" asked the other, a subaltern. "What was all the racket about?"

"Misappropriation of mess funds, I believe," replied von Preussen. He now felt more at ease and master of the situation. He forced the conversation on trivial topics until his undesirable acquaintances reached their destination.

The spy remained until the car stopped at the terminus; then he started to walk briskly inland, reproving himself for his bad manoeuvre in taking a car bound for a coast town.

A four hours' stiff walk brought him to a desolate moor, standing well on eight hundred feet above the sea. Sheltering from possible observation behind an overhanging rock, he made the necessary change from Captain Broadstone, R.A.F., to plain Thomas Smith, commercial traveller, representing Collar & Grab, wholesale provision merchants (and incidentally profiteers), of Liverpool.

For the next four days he remained at Galashiels, lying low and explaining his presence by the plausible statement that the samples his firm had dispatched had gone astray. On the fifth he decided to go to York, where he knew of a Polish Jew, Polinski by name, who was in reality a German Secret Service agent.

At Newcastle he caught a fast train bound for London. He now travelled third class, finding himself in the company of four bluejackets proceeding "on leave."

Within a few minutes of the train leaving the station the commercial traveller was apparently fast asleep. He was keenly on the alert to gather information, and his wishes were realised.

"S'elp me," exclaimed one of the men. "We'd got a blanked U-boat blazing away at us like mad. 'Course we didn't reply, an' they didn't 'arf give us a dustin'. Then up comes another of the swine an' starts firin', only 'er shells goes wide. Still our owner sticks it without so much as winkin'. Hopin', you see, to bag 'em both."

"And did 'e?" inquired another.

"Not 'e, worse luck," replied the other. "Just as we was about ter drop our false bulwarks an' give 'em perishin' socks, one of the U-boats slipped in a couple o' tawpedas into t'other an' blew 'er to blazes."

"Wot for?" asked a bearded petty officer.

"Wot for?" snorted the other. "To do us out of our bloomin' prize money, of course. There was we, with our decks littered with sheep and cattle, stickin' it for four mortal hours in the hope we'd put it abaft the swine, an' all for nothin'. The U-boat was one of our own mystery ships, rigged up to bamboozle Fritz. She was orf right into Heligoland Bight to do 'er dirty work, if I remember right."

Von Preussen chuckled inwardly. Here indeed was a "scoop." Before eight that evening the information, transmitted in the form of an apparently genuine business telegram to a firm in Amsterdam, was in the hands of the German Admiralty.




CHAPTER XVII

MUTINY

"Hans!" whispered Seaman Kaspar Krauss of U 247. "Do you know what our swine-headed kapitan has made up his mind to do?"

"How should I?" responded Hans Furst with a grunt. "Something that has upset your apple-cart."

"He's taking the vessel back to Ostend," announced Krauss. "It's madness. To say nothing of the danger of mines, it's putting our heads into a noose. With Wilhelmshaven and Heligoland dead under our lee, why does he persist in making for Ostend? The boat is hardly seaworthy; we are short of food, and yet——"

A petty officer, stooping to avoid the overhead gear, thrust his head and shoulders through the oval aperture in the transverse bulkhead.

"Herr Kapitan wants you, Kaspar Krauss," he exclaimed curtly. The seaman wiped his hands on a piece of cotton waste, looked into the burnished reflector of a lamp to assure himself that his cap was on straight, and hurried along the congested alleyway.

"Wonder what he wants me for?" he thought. He had done nothing as far as he knew to merit either praise or censure. It was somewhat unusual for a kapitan to summon a seaman. Orders would be generally communicated through the medium of a petty officer.

Ober-leutnant von Preugfeld was sitting on a camp-stool on the after-part of the deck. Behind him stood Unter-leutnant Eitel von Loringhoven, while at his side were three men rigidly at attention.

The U-boat was running awash, the conning-tower being occupied for the time being by the chief petty officer.

Kaspar Krauss felt far from comfortable. The sight of the three motionless wooden-faced seamen—comrades of his—heightened his discomfiture.

"See here, you swine!" began the amiable von Preugfeld, curtly acknowledging the man's salute. "You were slow—abominably slow—in executing orders. What have you to say?"

Krauss moistened his dry lips, trying vainly to recall the incident to which the ober-leutnant referred.

Von Preugfeld eyed him like a cat about to pounce on a mouse. He was furiously angry, and wanted to vent his wrath upon some one who could not retaliate. The cause of his fury had nothing to do with Kaspar Krauss's delinquency. He had just been referring to the English Encyclopaedia to discover the meaning of the epithet "old bean," and to his almost speechless indignation he found that one of his Royal Air Force prisoners had likened him to "the seed of certain leguminous plants, universally cultivated for food"—and old at that.

"You were fifteen seconds slow in carrying out my order to blow the auxiliary ballasttank, you wooden-faced pig!" exclaimed von Preugfeld. "For the remainder of the voyage you will work double tricks and keep for'ard look-out on deck whenever we are running on the surface. Now go!"

Kaspar Krauss, outwardly pale but inwardly fuming, saluted with a faint suspicion of reluctance, and began to make his way aft until the guttural voice of his kapitan called him back.

"Is that the way you salute me, schweinhund?" demanded von Preugfeld. "If I find any more signs of slackness on your part, look out. That's all. Now, again: dismiss!"

Von Preugfeld watched the fellow out of sight and then turned to his subordinate.

"There's nothing like being firm with these brutes, von Loringhoven," he said in a loud voice, as if to impress the fact upon the three seamen. "Take my advice: come down on them like Thor's hammer the moment you see them giving signs of discontent. How many men have been placed in the report this trip?"

"Eleven, Herr Kapitan," replied the unter-leutnant, smacking his lips with relish. "A third of the ship's company."

"That shows good discipline, Eitel," rejoined von Preugfeld. "Cast-iron discipline—that's the secret of efficiency."

He made his way to the conning-tower and spent some moments poring over a chart of the centre portion of the North Sea. There were mine-fields in profusion. Those laid by the British were shown in blue, those of German origin were indicated in red. On paper they looked formidable, but unfortunately for von Preugfeld there were hundreds of others either drifting or else uncharted. He, too, cursed the wireless order that was responsible for U 274 making for Ostend.

Having checked the course and given further instructions to the quartermaster, von Preugfeld strolled aft, took a leisurely survey of the horizon and, finding nothing in the shape of a vessel, settled himself once more in his deck-chair.

Meanwhile 'tween decks discontent was seething. The men, disheartened and hungry, were aghast at the idea of making for the Belgian coast. Many of them were undergoing punishment for various slight offences. Krauss, one of the more advanced agitators, was holding forth upon the purposeless brutality of the kapitan.

Just then von Loringhoven made his way for'ard. Possibly by accident, one of the group of malcontents lurched against him, for the submarine was rolling in the sullen swell.

"Pardon, Herr Offizier!" exclaimed the man. It was Furst, slow of action yet quick to take offence.

The next instant von Loringhoven raised his clenched fist and struck the man heavily in the face. It was the unter-leutnant's idea of imparting discipline with an iron hand according to the advice given by Kapitan von Preugfeld.

Von Loringhoven had struck his men before. He had seen them stand rigidly at attention, meekly bearing blows as becomes a military or naval subject of the Kaiser. He expected Furst to do likewise, but to his unbounded astonishment the German bluejacket planted a staggering blow right in the centre of the unter-leutnant's chest.

Von Loringhoven reeled and fell heavily against a large air-flask. There he lay breathless and unable to utter a sound.

For a few moments the men were dumfounded. Oft-times they had formed mental pictures of striking their officers to the deck. Now the idea had become a reality.

"You'll be shot for this, Hans Furst," exclaimed one of the men.

"Perhaps," replied Furst. "And all of you with me. I struck the pig, I admit, but you were standing by and did not stop me. So that's mutiny."

"Yes; that is so," agreed Krauss. "We've started, so why not carry it through? I owe the kapitan a debt which I mean to pay. Furst will help. Who joins?"

There was no lack of offers of assistance. The men knew that whether guilty or innocent they would have to suffer. They had no definite plan. It was merely a sudden conflagration on the part of men stifled by adverse conditions. Carried away by the unexpected turn of events, their seething discontent flared up into the red flame of mutiny.

"Down with von Preugfeld!" hissed Krauss. "Come with me, brothers!"

Maintaining a certain amount of caution, a dozen of the mutineers swarmed up the fore-hatch and made their way aft. Von Preugfeld, seated in the deck-chair and deep in a book, took no heed of their approach until, with a cat-like spring, Krauss leapt upon him. The chair collapsed. The kapitan and his assailant fell on the deck in a confused heap.

Although a bully and a coward by nature, von Preugfeld put up a stiff fight when cornered. Recovering from his sudden surprise, he fought and struggled desperately, shouting in vain to von Loringhoven for assistance. The unter-leutnant was at that moment being held by two stalwart Frisian seamen.

Over and over rolled von Preugfeld and his attacker. Punching, kicking, snarling and even biting, the two tackled each other tenaciously—the blue-blooded Prussian and the plebeian Frisian—while the rest of the mutineers looked on with evident relish, until it occurred to them that they might have a hand in the discomfiture of their hated taskmaster.

It was not until half a dozen had thrown themselves upon the wellnigh breathless von Preugfeld that the unequal struggle ended. The ober-leutnant was bound hand and foot and secured to a ring-bolt—an object for derision and coarse jests from his captors.

Shouting to the quartermaster to telegraph to the engine-room to stop the motors, Furst, who by common consent was acclaimed the ringleader, ordered all hands on deck. The mutineers' first council of war was about to begin.

The outbreak had been spontaneous. A general mutiny of submarine crews had been thought about, and the idea was taking firm root; but this ebullition was almost unpremeditated. The men had no definite plan. They were literally and metaphorically at sea.

"Let's hoist the Red Flag," suggested one. "Our comrades on the other unterseebooten will join us."

"Unless we meet an English ship of war in the meanwhile," added another. "I propose we hoist the White Flag and take the boat into an English port. We'll be well treated."

"Yes," admitted Furst; "but what will happen after the war? Supposing the English treat us as mutineers and hand us over to Germany when peace is signed? What then?"

"And I, for another, wish to get back to my wife and children," exclaimed a mutineer of timorous fibre. "I vote we alter our course for Hamburg or Wilhelmshaven."

"And what then?" demanded Krauss scornfully. "There'll be questions asked. We will be put under arrest straight away and no doubt shot. That's not good enough."

"It will be all right if we throw these pigs overboard," said Furst, indicating the two officers, who were now both lying bound on deck. "We can say that they were swept overboard in heavy weather. We must all stick to the same tale. It will be of no use for anyone to betray us. We're all hand in glove in this business."

"Supposing an English ship of war does appear?" queried the timorous one. "We'll be sunk at sight. You know the way they have."

"We could submerge," declared Krauss loftily.

"And who will take command if we do," persisted the man. "I know of no one of us able to manage this boat under water. I'd rather take my chance and hoist the White Flag. Besides, haven't we English prisoners—officers—on board? They might help us if we treated them well."

"That is so," admitted Furst. "Meanwhile we'll steer east for Germany."

"Who is navigator?" asked a mechanic. "Do you know anything of navigation, Hans Furst?"

Furst was obliged to admit that he knew but little. Taking observations—a very necessary accomplishment when one has to thread a way through mine-fields—was beyond him.

"I'll try," he added. "We can but hope for the best. But now we must first get rid of these."

He pointed to the late kapitan and unter-leutnant of U 247.

"Shoot them," suggested the revengeful Krauss.

"Too easy a death," objected Furst. "We'll toss them overboard."

Some of the men moved aft to carry out the suggestion, but Furst called on them to stand by.

"Cast off those lashings," he ordered, with a grim laugh. "We'll give them a chance to swim for it. The nearest land is only about two hundred miles away. It will give them time to think over things. Start up those motors again and get way on her."

The men obeyed promptly. The idea of seeing their former officers struggling for life "in the ditch" appealed to their innate cruelty. After all, they argued, they were only revenging themselves upon two tyrants who had shown no mercy to the crews of British merchant vessels they had sunk.

Von Loringhoven squealed like a stuck pig when he saw one of the seamen advancing with a drawn knife. With a couple of deft cuts the unter-leutnant's bonds were severed. Two brawny men seized him by arms and legs and with a swinging heave tossed him over the side into the water.

Von Preugfeld, cursing, imploring and struggling, shared the same fate, his exit watched by all the hands on deck save one, who, evidently lacking the nerve to witness the tragedy, had stepped unobserved to the other side of the conning-tower.

Then, increasing her speed to twelve knots, U 247 turned eight degrees to port and headed for the distant shore of Germany, leaving von Preugfeld and his subordinate struggling for life in the cold waters of the North Sea.




CHAPTER XVIII

A BIG PROPOSITION

"Know anything about motor bikes?" inquired Morpeth, helping himself to a liberal chunk of margarine and pushing the earthenware jar across to his companion. "After you with the jam. Thank heaven it's not the everlasting plum and apple!"

Meredith and the "owner" of Q 171 were at tea in the ward-room. Wakefield was taking deck duties in conjunction with the Q-boat's official sub-lieutenant—a youth of twenty, Ainslie by name.

Tea was served in war time fashion afloat—an iron-moulded table-cloth, two enamelled cups, plates of the same material, and wooden-handled steel knives that had evidently not made the acquaintance of a knife-board since they came aboard. A loaf of large and decidedly ancient appearance, a pot of jam and a generous pat of margarine (referred to in conversation as nut-butter) formed the edible part of the feast. Black, strongly brewed tea, condensed milk and moist sugar in more senses than one combined to provide liquid refreshment. The whole contents of the swing table were executing a rhythmic dance with the vibrations of the twin engines, the propeller shafts of which ran under and on either side of the table.

"I have one," replied Meredith. "At least I believe I have—unless my young brother has pinched it," he added feelingly and with the knowledge of past experiences. "Why?"

"Rather curious to know what you paid for it?" replied Morpeth.

"As a matter of fact I got it a great bargain from a pal of mine who was given a commission in '15," replied Meredith. "Twenty-two pounds."

"I guess I can beat that," remarked the R.N.R. officer, deliberately and deftly harpooning a slice of bread in the act of skimming over the fidleys on to the floor. "I bought one for a sovereign."

"Scrap iron, then," declared Kenneth.

"No; in good running order," continued Morpeth, "twin cylinders, magneto, countershaft, kick starter and all that sort of fake-a-lorum. True, the old 'bus had been in the ditch for a fortnight. Do you remember when the old Tantalus was torpedoed some while back? They got her into shallow water down Cornwall. Well, this motor bike was on board. Bought it from a chap called Farrar, who told me he had bought it from a marine officer for four bob and had refused a fiver for it as the vessel was sinking. Spent best part of seven days' leave cleaning the thing up, and now, by Jove!——"

"You're wanted on deck, sir," exclaimed a sailor excitedly. "We've just sighted two men in the ditch——"

Taking a hasty and copious gulp of tea on the principle that "you never know when you may get another chance," Lieutenant-Commander Morpeth ran up the ladder, Meredith only hanging back sufficiently to clear the heels of the R.N.R. officer's seaboots.

The mystery ship had already slowed down and altered course. Men, grasping coiled bowlines, were grouped on her long narrow bows. Ainslie, standing well for'ard, was conning the ship by movements of his arms. Wakefield, binoculars to his eyes, was keeping the men in distress under observation.

"A pair of Huns!" he exclaimed, as Morpeth and Meredith joined him. "They're clinging to a U-boat's buoy. I can see the number 'U 247' painted on it."

"One of our submarines has been busy, then," remarked Morpeth. "Hope to goodness she doesn't jolly well take it into her head to slap a tinfish into us."

Wakefield shrugged his shoulders. This was another phase of U-boat tactics. When a fellow rigs himself up like a Fritz to bag a Fritz, presumably he must run the risk of being taken for a genuine Fritz by other Fritz-hunters. He glanced at Morpeth inquiringly. The R.N.R. man's face was set and determined.

Above the risks of war another issue dominated. Human life was at stake, not in the heat of battle but in the ceaseless struggle of man with the sea—a fight that has been waged ever since men adventured themselves upon the waters. Friends or foemen made no difference: Morpeth was determined to pluck the two distressed men from the grip of the voracious sea.

The swimmers were Ober-leutnant Hans von Preugfeld and Unter-leutnant Eitel von Loringhoven. More than an hour had elapsed since they had been ruthlessly jettisoned by the mutineers. Their chances of being picked up were small indeed. Had it not been for the fact that one of the U-boat's crew, more humane than the rest, had surreptitiously released a life-buoy from the starboard side of the submarine—he had done this just before the two officers were hurled overboard—von Preugfeld and von Loringhoven would have perished. As it was, the support afforded by the cylindrical hollow metal buoy had kept both afloat, although they were almost exhausted by the numbing cold.

Slowing down until she carried bare steerage way, Q 171's bows passed within three yards of the life-buoy and the two men. A bowline, thrown with admirable judgment and precision, fell over the unter-leutnant's head, but von Loringhoven was too exhausted to slip his arms and shoulders through the looped line. Without hesitation, the bluejacket who had hurled the coil of rope thrust the tail end into the hands of a man standing next to him.

"Hold hard, mate!" he exclaimed, as he took a flying leap over the low stanchion rail.

Deftly the rescuer adjusted the bowline under von Loringhoven's shoulders, and with a stentorian "Heave away roundly!" he swung himself back to the Q-boat's fo'c'sle.

In another fifteen seconds two dripping and water-logged individuals joined the rescuer.

Kapitan von Preugfeld, gasping like a stranded carp, was speechless with exhaustion and astonishment. Up to that moment he had been deceived into believing that the vessel that had effected his rescue was a U-boat. He was still hazy on that point, but there was no shadow of doubt that the crew were British.

"Give the blighters a stiff glass of grog and shove them into hot blankets," ordered Morpeth. "I'll see them later and find out how they came to be in the ditch."

But von Preugfeld, recovering his speech, was anxious to explain matters at once. The thought paramount in his mind was that of revenge. It mattered not by what motive or through whose agency retribution was accomplished as long as the mutineers were accounted for.

"I kapitan am of unterseebooten 247," he announced in his broken English. "My crew haf mutiny make an' throw me into der zee. Der submarine is dere"—he pointed eastwards—"not von hour an' half gone."

"Peculiar bird," thought Morpeth, then—"Good enough, cap'n," he replied. "We'll be on her track. With luck she'll be scrap iron before night."

"No, no," protested von Preugfeld. "Do not to der bottom send. Make capture. I tink not dat she can sink."

"Won't she," interrupted the R.N.R. officer grimly. "You leave that to us."

"He means 'submerge,' I fancy," remarked Wakefield.

"Ach! Dat is so. She submerge cannot make. Take prisoners dose mutineer sailors."

"What's he driving at, Wakefield?" inquired Morpeth. "Hanged if I can cotton on to the yarn."

"He apparently wants to get his own back," suggested Wakefield. "A true type of the egotistical, arrogant Prussian. D'ye notice he never referred to his fellow victim of the mutiny. Perhaps they got what they jolly well deserved."

"No business of mine," quoth the R.N.R. man. "Sinking Fritzes is my job. Take that fellow below, Walters."

He jerked his thumb in the direction of the fore hatchway, whither von Loringhoven had already been escorted; but von Preugfeld had another card to play.

"Englisch officers der are on board der submarine," he declared. "Four officers prisoners—nein, it is three," and he held up three fingers to emphasise the fact.

Except to serve his own ends, von Preugfeld would not have mentioned the fact. It mattered nothing to him whether the prisoners were sent to the bottom inside the hull of the U-boat if she were destroyed by the British craft; but as a lever to influence Morpeth's decision, in order to enable von Preugfeld to take vengeance on the mutineers at some distant date, the Prussian blurted out the disconcerting news.

Almost at the same time he realised that the situation was a complicated one. There was the question of the spy, von Preussen. The R.A.F. officers would, on their release, certainly demand an explanation of their supposed comrade's whereabouts, and then the spy would be revealed in his true character. It would be awkward—decidedly awkward—for von Preussen, but in his vindictiveness against the mutineering crew von Preugfeld swept aside the question. He had little qualms in sacrificing von Preussen to attain his immediate aim.

"What officers are they?" demanded Morpeth. He pictured the plight of master mariners of Mercantile Marine held captive on board the submarine that had sent their vessel to the bottom—hostages who, contrary to all the recognised canons of war, had been compelled to run a grave risk of being slaughtered by their fellow countrymen while in the hold of a modern pirate submarine.

"Von der Air Regiment at Auldhaig," replied von Preugfeld. "It fair capture vos," he hastened to explain.

"We know most of them," exclaimed Meredith. "I wonder who they are?"

Morpeth as inquisitor-in-chief put the question, but von Preugfeld shook his head and professed ignorance on the matter.

With a gesture Morpeth dismissed him. Shivering with cold and trembling with rage, the kapitan of U 247 disappeared below, to enjoy a far greater hospitality than he had ever bestowed upon his prisoners of war.

Meanwhile Q 171, running at thirty knots, was fast overhauling the mutineers. In forty minutes after von Preugfeld's rescue the conning-tower of the fugitive was sighted at a distance of five miles.

Morpeth immediately rang down for fifteen knots. The enormous speed of the Q-boat would be sufficient to cause surprise and suspicion in the minds of the U-boat's crew, and supposing it were another submarine which could dive and succeed in getting away, then the story of a decoy capable of attaining a terrific pace would be known to the German Admiralty. In that case Morpeth's "little stunt" would bid fair to become a "wash-out."

Ten minutes later the White Ensign was hoisted at Q 171's masthead, and a shell, purposely fired wide, threw up a column of water fifty yards from the U-boat's port bow.

"That's done the trick," exclaimed Wakefield, as a white flag was promptly hoisted on the mutineer. "It's 'Kamerad' all the time when they're cornered. By Jove! the old blighter did speak the truth for once. There are fellows in khaki standing aft."

Morpeth merely grunted. He was pondering in his mind—not on the question of how to deal with his prize, but one on which weightier matters depended. It meant an addition of thirty odd people to feed and quarter—a big proposition indeed.




CHAPTER XIX

THE TABLES TURNED

"What's for dinner at the mess to-night?" inquired Blenkinson. "Wonder if the management has got rid of our box for 'The Maid of the Mountains'? If not, will he try and make us pay up?"

"The theatre people can try," replied Cumberleigh grimly. "Hope they'll accept the excuse: unavoidable absence."

"Wonder how Pyecroft got on?" remarked Jefferson.

The three R.A.F. officers were cooped up in the otherwise empty storeroom of U 247. They were in utter darkness. The place was damp, ill ventilated, and reeked abominably. Moisture was constantly forming on the curved angle-iron deck beams and dripping promiscuously upon the captives.

"It is presumed that the genial captain of this vessel," continued Jefferson, "has not yet invested in a cinematograph. If he had it would be reasonable to suppose that he would have us on deck at regular intervals, supply us with cigarettes and cock-tails, and at the same time take a film to let neutrals know how benevolent and humane the Hun is when he is on the warpath. I am afraid my surmise is correct. Therefore we languish in captivity."

"Anyone any idea of the time?" inquired Cumberleigh. "My watch says half-past three, but I can't depend upon it."

"Mine shows ten o'clock," reported Blenkinson, consulting the luminous dial of his wristlet watch. "Unfortunately it omits to inform me whether it is AK Emma or PIP Emma, and I'm hanged if I know which it is."

"My watch went west the day before yesterday," said Jefferson. "The best Waterbury in existence is not proof against the back-fire of a six-cylinder car. Now if that fellow Fennelburt were here, he had a ripping little watch, I noticed."

"By the way, what happened to Fennelburt?" inquired Cumberleigh.

"Happened?" echoed Jefferson. "Why he's in the cart, same as us. Hard lines on the chap—taking him out on a joy trip and then landing him in this mess."

Cumberleigh grunted. He was not at all sure that he agreed with Jefferson's sentiments. Not that he had any suspicion that Fennelburt had conjured up the U-boat to take the Salvage Syndicate prisoners. The suggestion that the party should go fishing emanated from himself. Yet it was somewhat curious that Fennelburt should be separated from the others.

The three Auldhaig Air Station officers had had a sticky time during the last twenty-four hours. During that period they had been twice supplied with scanty and unappetising meals; they had dozed fitfully in the foetid atmosphere of their cell, but up to the present they had not been allowed on deck to get a breath of fresh air.

"Hope old Pyecroft pulled it off all right," remarked Blenkinson. He had harped on the matter at least a dozen times. Pyecroft had been his special pal. They had flown over the German lines together; they had crashed in the same 'bus; they had spent six weeks in the same hospital—in all, quite sufficient to cement a casual acquaintance into a lifelong friendship.

"There's the chance, anyway," said Jefferson. "He may not have been missed, and—hello what's the game now? They've stopped the motors."

The three men listened intently. The faintest alteration in the rhythmic purr of the U-boat's engines set their nerves on edge. They knew something of the fearfully ingenious devices used to strafe Hun submarines, and now they were metaphorically at the business end of a big gun, whereas formerly they had been behind it. It was a disconcerting affair, exposed to unseen perils that might without warning send them to their death in company with a crowd of Huns. And, unless Pyecroft had succeeded in getting safely ashore, the manner of their going would remain a secret for all time.

For several long-drawn seconds the trio listened in silence. They knew by the difference in the pulsations of the motors that the U-boat had been running on the surface. The diving-tanks had not been filled, otherwise they would have heard the gurgling inrush of water. For some reason the submarine had brought up and was drifting with wind and tide.

A quarter of an hour elapsed, then the petrol-motors were restarted. Very soon after the door of their cell was unlocked and a couple of Hun seamen appeared.

"Come you on deck!" one exclaimed, with such a broad smile that Cumberleigh and Co. suspected a dirty trick on the part of Fritz.

"Anything to get a breather," ejaculated Blenkinson. "Lead on, old bird!"

In single file the three British officers followed their guide along the intricate alley-way and on deck via the conning-tower hatchway.

A hurried glance gave no clue to the unexpected change of environment. The U-boat was forging ahead. By noting the position of the sun the captive officers knew that the course was approximately east, and that direction led towards Germany. The skyline was unbroken. Neither the proximity of land nor the presence of another craft was evident to account for the change of attitude on the part of their captors.

"We friends is," continued the Hun who had previously addressed them; and as evidence of good faith he handed the Englishmen a box of cigarettes.

The dearth of tobacco, cigars and cigarettes that had been noticeable amongst the ratings during von Preugfeld's regime was now, temporarily at least, a thing of the past. The former ober-leutnant's cabin had been systematically ransacked, with the result that a goodly store of tobacco had been discovered and distributed.

"What has gone wrong?" inquired Captain Cumberleigh, speaking slowly in order to make himself understood. "Where are your officers?"

The seaman paused before replying. In order to ingratiate himself he would not have hesitated to confess that the Prussian tyrants had been thrown overboard; but in the event of the submarine making Hamburg safely or else being overhauled by a vessel flying the Black Cross Ensign, the knowledge that the Englishmen knew the secret might prove decidedly awkward.

"They overboard fell, Herr Offizier," replied the German. "They stand so, making what the Englisch sailors call 'shooting der sun.' A big wave come an' pouf!—dey are gone."

Cumberleigh nodded. For the present he deemed it prudent to accept the statement, although he was aware by the comparatively easy motion that the U-boat had not encountered heavy weather. Nor had the German sailor given any explanation why the collapsible canvas boat had not been lowered to effect a rescue.

"And where is Captain Fennelburt?" he asked. "There were four of us taken prisoners."

A blank look overspread the Teuton's heavy features. He extended his palms in a manner that expressed complete disinterestedness.

Cumberleigh pressed the point. The Hun turned and consulted his comrades. Apparently they had not taken this factor into their calculations.

"I want no lies," continued Cumberleigh, who was rapidly finding his feet. "What has become of the fourth officer (he was about to prefix the word British, but somehow he checked himself) who was taken on board?"

"Kapitan von Preugfeld him sent on land last night, Herr Offizier," announced the man.

"For what reason?"

"I do not know der plans of Kapitan von Preugfeld," explained the German. "An' he not is here to ask."

This was simple, but none the less truthful logic. It was hardly conceivable that the ober-leutnant should explain his actions to a lower-deck rating.

"It's jolly rummy, any old way," remarked Blenkinson. "The whole business is fishy—decidedly fishy. And I reckon that big wave yarn won't go down."

Again the German strolled up, smiling and apparently unperturbed.

"You know der mine-fields, Herr Offizier?" he asked. "You can take us to Zhermany?"

"All I know," replied Cumberleigh pointedly, "is that there are mines—thousands of them—and that you're going straight for them. I might add that I know the course to Auldhaig. It's a jolly sight safer than barging along as you're doing."

The German apparently saw the wisdom of the suggestion. He retired to consult his companions. On a Soviet-controlled ship everyone has to have a say—with conflicting and other disastrous results.

Kaspar Krauss and Hans Furst vehemently opposed the suggestion, which, considering the fact that they were the ringleaders in the mutiny, was somewhat remarkable. The desire to get home overruled their fears of running against a mine. Others, fearful lest the curse be brought home to them, clamoured to be taken into a British port, bringing forward the argument that German prisoners of war in England were well treated and that no difference was made in the case of men who had served in U-boats.

How long the drolly-conducted debate would have lasted remains a matter for speculation, but it was brought to an abrupt and still undecided conclusion by one of the men raising a shout and pointing astern.

A vessel of some description was approaching rapidly. The enormous "bone in her teeth" as her sharp bows cleft the waves into frothy clouds of foam showed that she was moving at a terrific rate.

"An English ship!" exclaimed the fellow excitedly. "A U-boat hunter! Quick, run up the white flag, or we'll be blown to bits!"

All was scurry bordering on panic. There was a hasty rush to find the emblem of surrender. Hans Furst, gripping the interpreter by the shoulders, shouted to him to ask the English officers to go aft and stand in a conspicuous place.

Cumberleigh and his companions fell in with the request with the greatest good humour. They had no desire to become objectives for the approaching vessel's quick-firers. They realised that deliverance from a hideous captivity was at hand.

Suddenly Kaspar Krauss, who was standing just abaft the conning-tower, shouted to his fellow mutineer-in-chief.

"It's one of our U-boats after all," he exclaimed. "Now we shall have to be most careful."

"Surely not," questioned Furst, snatching up a pair of binoculars.

Then, after a brief scrutiny, he added, "You're right, Kaspar. There's a number—U 231—painted on her conning-tower. Kick those Englishmen below. They will be of no further use to us. Dietrich, untoggle that white flag and hoist our ensign again. Make our private signal, too. For heaven's sake look sharp about it!"

Calling to two or three of his comrades, Kaspar Krauss began to make his way aft, with the intention of putting into execution the congenial task of kicking the Englishmen below.

Before he had taken a couple of steps, the flash of a gun brought him up all standing. Dumfounded, he stared at the oncoming vessel. Even the terrific splash of the ricochetting shot, barely fifty yards away, failed to detract his attention, for the approaching craft had hoisted her colours—no Black Cross Ensign, but the White Ensign of a navy that has a glorious tradition covering over a thousand years.

The seaman Dietrich paused in the act of hoisting the U-boat's ensign. Frantically Furst shouted to him to run up the white flag after all.

"Be quick!" yelled half a dozen voices. "Be quick before she fires again!"

It was an excellent example of the lack of discipline. When the men were ruled, although by an iron hand, they did their work smartly and well. In secret they grumbled, but the fact remained they carried out the orders of their commanding officers with automaton-like precision. Deprived by their own act of a real leader, they had deteriorated within the space of a few hours into a panic-stricken mob.

The Black Cross Ensign—the hoisting of which might have drawn a devastating fire upon the mutineers—was untoggled and rolled into a ball with indecorous haste, and a rectangular piece of white cloth was hoisted to the mast-head. Even Hans Furst heaved a sigh of relief. Captivity awaited him, but, after all, it was preferable to being "bowled out" by the German naval authorities and ignominiously shot as a mutineer.

Then as Q 171—to outward appearances she was U 231—lost way a cable's length astern of her prize and trained her formidable armament upon the mutineers, the Huns lined up on deck with hands upraised, shouting their craven shibboleth of "Kamerad."

Blenkinson smiled.

"Good as a play, eh, what?" he remarked.

"I agree," remarked Cumberleigh. "After all, I'm glad I missed 'The Maid of the Mountains.'"




CHAPTER XX

THE END OF U 247

"It seems as if Old Man Morpeth's keen on taking all the Auldhaig crush for a joyride," said Meredith, as he shook hands with Cumberleigh and was introduced by the latter to the other R.A.F. officers.

Both Wakefield and the R.N.V.R. Sub knew most of the staff at Auldhaig Air Station by sight, while Meredith had met Cumberleigh on several occasions, both officially and socially, as they were members of the same club.

"The world is small," quoth Cumberleigh. "All the same, I hardly expected to tumble across you half way across the North Sea. What are you doing on this hooker?"

"Supernumeraries," replied Wakefield. "Same as you. Unless anything unforeseen takes place, I fancy we're off to German waters on a particular stunt."

"Hope there won't be too many underwater stunts," said Blenkinson. "I've had enough submarine work during the last twenty-four hours to last me a lifetime. Give me an old 'bus at five thousand feet any day."

"There'll be no under-water performances this trip, I hope," remarked Wakefield gravely. "If there is, it will be a case with us."

"Is that so?" asked Cumberleigh. "I thought this was a captured U-boat."

"So did I once upon a time," said Wakefield, and he briefly explained Q 171's true rôle.

The five officers were standing aft watching the transhipment of the mutineers. Morpeth and Sub-lieutenant Ainslie were far too busy to pay any attention to the released captives. The R.N.R. skipper was alertly watching events, ready to cope with any sinister designs on the part of Fritz, while Ainslie was superintending the task of clapping the surrendered Huns under hatches.

With a good knowledge of German—it was mainly on that account that he was appointed to Q 171—Ainslie soon obtained the mutineers' carefully concocted account of what had happened to merit their tame surrender; what was more, he literally "knocked the stuffing out of them" by informing them that their precious yarn was all eye-wash, and that Ober-leutnant von Preugfeld and Unter-leutnant von Loringhoven had been picked up and were now on board as prisoners of war. Yet with the Hun's typical effrontery Hans Furst coolly told the examination officer that after the war he proposed to settle in England, become naturalised, and make plenty of money.

"The English," he added "will be grateful to me when they learn that I threw the German officers overboard."

While the cross-questioning of the mutineers was in progress Morpeth was taking steps to destroy the prize.

"You might have a look round before we send her to the bottom," he said to Wakefield, who jumped at the suggestion.

So Wakefield, Meredith and three of the Q-boat's crew manned the collapsible dinghy belonging to the captured submarine and boarded the prize.

A hasty examination showed that no attempt had been made to play tricks with the sea-cocks, nor had Fritz, according to his usual custom, placed bombs with time-fuses in the hold. It was another example of the lack of a master. So intent had the Huns been to save their own skins that they took not the faintest precaution to prevent the confidential signal-book, log-book and other documents from falling into the hands of their enemy.

"It's a pity to have to scuttle her," remarked Meredith regretfully, as he surveyed the complicated array of mechanism. "It would be just my mark to navigate her to Auldhaig under a prize crew."

"No doubt, Sub," rejoined Wakefield drily. "But unfortunately there are objections. Morpeth's short-handed although he's choc-a-block with useless passengers. We couldn't make the Hun mechanics take on in the engine-room. On the way, even supposing you tackled the job, there's a risk of falling in with a Boche U-boat, or a greater risk of being torpedoed or bombed by our destroyers and aircraft. No doubt Cumberleigh and the R.A.F. fellows would bear a hand, but they're amateurs at the game. We should be if we were called upon to navigate a coastal airship."

"And we should be out of Morpeth's big stunt," added Meredith. "Having gone so far I should be sorry to miss it."

"Exactly," agreed the R.N.V.R. lieutenant. "So U 247 must go to Davy Jones. I think we've seen everything of importance."

The U-boat was to be scuttled by opening the under-water valves. Destruction by means of explosives was undesirable, as the report might bring inquisitive craft upon the scene, and Q 171 was for the nonce a sort of social pariah and liable to be fired upon by British patrol boats, which acted upon the principle of shoot quick and shoot straight at anything resembling a German submarine.

Ordering the boat's crew to stand by, Wakefield went below once more. By the aid of an electric torch, for the internal lighting arrangements had given out, he found the levers that operated the big valves. So great was the inrush of water that Wakefield fancied he would be trapped by the miniature Niagara. Without waiting to manipulate the second sea-cock, he hastened precipitately on deck and followed Meredith into the dinghy.

"Done the trick?" inquired Morpeth, as the two R.N.V.R. officers regained the mystery ship. "She doesn't seem in a hurry."

Nor was she. It seemed quite a long time before the volume of water admitted into the U-boat's hull made any visible change in her trim. At length her freeboard diminished. She began to settle by the stern.

"I suppose you made certain that there were no other prisoners of war on board?" inquired Captain Cumberleigh.

"Trust me for that," replied Wakefield. "Why did you ask?"

"Because I'm rather mystified about a fellow who called himself Captain Fennelburt. He was with us when von Preugfeld collared us. One of the mutineers pitched me a yarn to the effect that von Preugfeld set him ashore. If so, what was the motive?"

"I'll see Morpeth about it," decided Wakefield.

"Ask von Preugfeld," suggested the skipper. "I can't do so myself just at present. Make him own up, and don't stand any nonsense."

Cumberleigh, Wakefield and Blenkinson went below to interview the prisoner. They acted on Morpeth's tip and stood on no ceremony. Time was a consideration, as the U-boat was sinking and they wanted to see the end.

Wakefield came straight to the point.

"I understand, Kapitan von Preugfeld," he said sternly, "that you had on board another prisoner, a Captain Fennelburt of the R.A.F. He was not found when we searched U 247. Now where is he?"

"You ask him," replied von Preugfeld, indicating von Loringhoven.

"I do not know," protested the unter-leutnant, "but he does."

Evidently von Loringhoven was getting pretty sick of being made a convenience of by his egotistical skipper.

Wakefield's brows lowered. There was an ominous glint in his eye.

"I give you five seconds," he said darkly. "Otherwise, if you refuse to tell me, back you go on board U 247. I might add that she is sinking. Now: one... two... three... four—-"

"I tell you!" exclaimed von Preugfeld. "All I tell you. Der offizier he try to escape. He vos shot. It is der rules of der war."

"Unfortunately for the statement," interposed Captain Cumberleigh, "I heard from one of your men that you landed him early this morning."

"In dat case," rejoined von Preugfeld, shrugging his shoulders, "why you ask me? You take der word of a common sailor instead of a Prussian offizier—a von Preugfeld? I tell you he lie."

Wakefield turned his back upon the bullying Prussian.

"It's evident that there was no other British officer on board," he remarked to his companions. "We'll go into the matter later. Come along, if we are to see the last of U 247."

The door was locked upon the prisoners, and the three officers hurried on deck. Q 171 was forging ahead, moving in wide circles around the sinking pirate craft.

By this time the U-boat had dipped her stern. Waves were lapping along her deck as far as the after quick-firer. Her stem was correspondingly raised until the bow tubes were visible above water.

Higher and higher rose the submarine's bows. Tons of water were flung into her hull through the open after-hatch. Compressed air was hissing loudly. Little rivulets of iridescent oil were forming on the surface. Occasionally interior fittings, giving way under the ever-increasing pressure, creaked and groaned to add to the discordant noises of the sinking craft.

Then, with a shuddering movement, the U-boat slithered under the water. For a brief instant her bows stood almost on end. A column of water, forced by the terrific pressure through the fore-hatch, spurted a good fifty feet, ejecting with it a quantity of debris and oil.

"Bon voyage!" exclaimed Wakefield.

A turmoil of agitated water marked the spot where the submarine disappeared. For a full minute the maelstrom surged and swirled, then, overcome by the liberation of tons of heavy oil, the disturbed water died down, leaving in its place an ever-increasing patch of multi-hued colours. Forty fathoms down the submarine had made a permanent acquaintance with the bed of the North Sea.

"Well, any luck?" inquired Morpeth, who, having left Ainslie in charge, had rejoined his unofficial guests in the ward-room. "What did you get out of von Preugfeld?"

"Precious little," admitted Wakefield. "He tried to hedge. We'll have to confront him with some of his mutineering men."

"I'll find out if there's any reference to the mysterious captain in this," said the R.N.R. skipper, holding up U 247's log-book. "Any of you fellows read the lingo?"

"Sorry," replied Meredith.

"You needn't be, old son," rejoined Morpeth. "I can't an' don't want to, although just now it would come in mighty handy. Some years back the Foul Anchor Line turned me down when I wanted a job as Second Officer on one of their crack boats because I couldn't speak German. They were carrying a lot of German passengers and South Americans at that time. Another fellow—Campbell was his name—got the billet 'cause he'd gained a first prize for German on a cadet training-ship. First trip he piled the old hooker aground off the entrance to Rio Harbour, 'and a dozen or more Huns got drowned."

"So you were glad you didn't get the appointment after all?" asked Cumberleigh.

"Rather," agreed Morpeth, with a laugh. "Not that I'd have put the ship aground. Guess I know that part of the South American coast too well. But, looking back on it, young Campbell was a patriot, only he didn't know it. We might have had another dozen Huns to fight. But to get back to business: here's this log wants looking into, and it's young Ainslie's trick. He's the Hun lingoist."

"I'll have a shot at it," volunteered Captain Cumberleigh. "I was in Germany. ...Long before the war," he added apologetically, speaking with the weight of experience of twenty-two years.

He opened the log-book at the last-written page.

"'Fraid it won't help us much," he announced. "Apparently it doesn't go beyond 8 A.M. of the 15th—that is the morning of the day they collared us. By Jove! Morpeth, you've caught a much-wanted specimen. Von Preugfeld's the fellow who torpedoed the hospital ship Columbine and the Camperdown Castle."

"The Lord have mercy on his soul, then!" said Morpeth solemnly.




CHAPTER XXI

BLUFFED

"However," remarked Cumberleigh briskly, "the Columbine business hasn't anything to do with friend Fennelburt. We get no forrarder."

"I don't know so much about that," demurred Morpeth. "I'll use it as a lever to prize a secret out of this von Preugfeld. We'll have him up here and give him the shock of his life."

The R.N.R. officer touched a bell.

"Take a couple of hands and bring the U-boat skipper here," he ordered.

"Say, Skipper," remarked Cumberleigh, who had been skimming the pages of the log-book, "here's a rummy entry:—'2 A.M. Landed von Preussen.' Who's von Preussen, and where else could he have been landed except on the Scottish coast? One minute."

He turned over more leaves rapidly, nevertheless scanning the sloping, flourish-embellished words.

"No mention of this von Preussen having been taken on board again," he continued. "First this fellow and this Fennelburt are landed—that is, if the German bluejacket's yarn is correct. Will you allow me to commence the examination, Skipper?"

"Tough Geordie's" weather-lined face wrinkled with a smile.

"By all means," he replied. "I'm not much of a hand at talky-talky. The best argument I used in the Foul Anchor Line was a big boot. Dagoes and Dutchies understood that. Stand by; they're bringing the swine in."

Kapitan von Preugfeld entered jauntily. He had imagined, judging from the result of the previous interview, that he had completely bluffed his captors on the subject of Captain Fennelburt, and that, if he persisted in his story, he would emerge triumphant from the ordeal.

Cumberleigh came to the point at once. "I'm anxious to know," he remarked, "what connection there is between Leutnant Karl von Preussen of the Prussian Guards and Captain George Fennelburt of the British Air Force. You can enlighten me, Herr Kapitan, and I await your explanation."

Attacked from a totally unexpected quarter, von Preugfeld's defences were literally rushed.

"I know not," he replied sullenly.

"Try again," persisted Cumberleigh.

"Der Teufel! vot you mean?" asked the U-boat commander.

"Mean? This," replied Cumberleigh, holding up U 247's log-book. "Here is one entry:—'2 A.M. Landed von Preussen.' That is in your handwriting."

Von Preugfeld was forced to admit the truth of the impeachment.

"It was practically the last entry you made," continued Cumberleigh, "but there are more, apparently written by your subordinate officer. I'll read some:—'5 P.M. Broke surface. Found large barge, X 5, derelict. Took off her as prisoners three English officers'—not four, you'll note. There certainly were four in R.A.F. uniforms. Now again:—'4.10 A.M. Set von Preussen ashore.' It's perfectly obvious that if von Preussen were set ashore twice he must have come on board during that interval. There is no mention of your vessel communicating with the shore between the two times you mentioned. So I put it to you that von Preussen and Fennelburt are one and the same person."

The Hun's face grew pale. Beads of perspiration oozed from his forehead.

"A curse on von Loringhoven!" he muttered in German. "His lack of caution has spoiled everything." Then in broken English he added: "I call you to make testimony. It vos not I dat betray von Preussen. It vos mein unter-leutnant, von Loringhoven."

"That's all we wanted to know," rejoined Captain Cumberleigh quietly. "I might add, however, that it is hardly playing the game to put the blame upon your subordinate. Perhaps it is a way Prussian officers have, so it would not be surprising to hear that, later on, you will blame him for torpedoing the hospital ship Columbine and the unarmed liner Camperdown Castle. Think it over."

He turned to Lieutenant-Commander Morpeth.

"Any further questions you want to ask, sir?" he inquired, with strict formality.

"No," replied Morpeth. "Take him away."

The sliding door closed on the prisoner. "Tough Geordie" turned to the successful amateur barrister.

"By Jove, Cumberleigh," he exclaimed, "you bowled him out this time! But I thought you said that the log-book wasn't up to date."

"Neither was it," admitted Cumberleigh, passing his cigarette-case. "I took the liberty of imagining that it was and ascribing the authorship to that little worm of a von Loringhoven."

The R.A.F. captain was flushed with pleasure at his triumph. He had vindicated himself concerning his doubts of "Fennelburt's" genuineness. Until he had done so he was considerably uneasy in his mind, for he hated a suspicious nature.

"I suppose you can wireless the information to Auldhaig?" he continued. "Goodness only knows what that spy might be up to before he's laid by the heels!"

Morpeth shook his head.

"Sorry," he replied. "It can't be did. We mustn't get ourselves into the cart over our forthcoming stunt for the sake of putting a stopper on a spy. You see, we don't know who might tap the wireless. Fritz might, and that would make him horribly suspicious."

"Is there no other way to communicate with Auldhaig?" asked Cumberleigh.

"Possibly," admitted the R.N.R. officer. "We might send a code message by the first vessel we fall in with. I don't as a rule want to speak a vessel, unless she's a Fritz, and then I do more than speak. But I can't carry on with this crowd of Huns on board. Must get rid of them somehow, and the best plan will be to tranship them. Then'll be your chance to pass the word about your pal 'Fennelburt.'"

The conference then dissolved, Morpeth and the R.A.F. fellows turning in for a much needed sleep, while Wakefield and Meredith went on deck.

About half an hour later the look-out reported smoke away to the north-east. In ordinary circumstances Q 171 would have held on, purposely avoiding the stranger. But now she altered helm, steering a course to intercept the ship.

It was fairly reasonable to suppose that the as yet invisible vessel was not a Hun. German surface craft were rare birds in these waters. When they did come out they appeared in force, accompanied by a Zeppelin or two to give them plenty of warning should a British patrolling squadron appear. She might be a disguised German raider, but these generally chose to sneak along the Norwegian coast and gain mid-Atlantic by a circuitous route.

Before long the oncoming vessel appeared above the horizon, and presently by the aid of binoculars it was seen that she was a large Norwegian tramp.

"That's good!" exclaimed Morpeth, who had been roused from his slumbers by the announcement of the tramp's approach. "Decent fellows these Norwegian skippers! 'Fraid I can't say the same for the Swedes. Pro-Huns, waiting to see which way the cat jumps, every time. Up with the German ensign, bos'n's mate, and hoist the International 'ID.' Sorry to have to put the wind up 'em, but it can't be helped."

"Hanged if I ever thought I'd be under the Black Cross Ensign!" remarked Blenkinson, as the emblem of modern piracy was sent aloft. "And what's the meaning of those flags?" he inquired, indicating a square of yellow bunting with a circular black patch in the centre surmounting a blue pennant with a white ball.

"Just a polite intimation to stop and pass the time of day," volunteered Meredith. "Kind of invitation to have a drink. Technically it's a signal meaning 'Heave-to or I'll sink you.'"

Approaching at an aggregate speed of twenty-seven knots, the tramp and the Q-boat were soon at close quarters. True to her rôle of U-boat, the latter was cleared for action, the R.A.F. officers like the rest of the crew disguised in black oilskins in order to heighten the deception.

The Norwegian tramp reversed engines. She flew her national ensign and had the distinctive colours painted on her sides, together with the word "Norge" in huge letters. But that was no guarantee that she was a genuine Norwegian vessel. She might be a Hun raider in disguise, with a heavy armament concealed behind hinged bulwarks.

Once more the collapsible boat was lowered, and Ainslie and Cumberleigh, whose knowledge of German enabled them the better to impersonate Hun officers, were rowed off to the tramp.

"Dash it all!" whispered the R.A.F. captain to his companion, as he eyed askance the dangling Jacob's ladder hanging over the side of the rolling vessel. "Do I swarm up that? I'll give the show away right off."

All the same he made a creditable performance, following Ainslie to the deck of the Ole, for such was her name.

A glance reassured the sub-lieutenant that the tramp was not a disguised raider. He made a prearranged signal to the Q-boat to relieve Morpeth of further anxiety on the subject, and then proceeded to interview the Norwegian skipper, who also spoke German.

The latter fully expected his command to be sunk, as her papers showed her to be bound for Leith with a cargo of foodstuffs. Nor did he look surprised, although he expressed indignation, when Ainslie ordered him into the boat.

"And my crew?" he asked. "Surely you will give them time to provision and man the boats?"

"That will be decided later," replied the Sub. "Be quick. We are waiting."

The Norwegian crew, taking it for granted that their skipper was to be made a prisoner, showed a decidedly threatening attitude. Ainslie and Cumberleigh were inwardly perturbed. Without "giving the show away," it was difficult to see how they were to get out of the trouble, until the Norwegian captain, anxious to save his men from further ill-usage at the hands of the German pirates, ordered them to adopt a passive attitude.

Morpeth met the skipper of the Ole as he came over the side of Q 171 and escorted him below.

"Can you speak English?" he asked abruptly.

"Yes," was the reply of the astonished Norwegian. "For fifteen years I have run between British and Norwegian ports. A man has then an excellent chance to learn the English language."

"Then you will not be sorry to hear that this is a British vessel," continued Morpeth, producing a bottle of whisky. "Say when. That's good!"

The Norwegian hesitated to accept the proffered glass.

"Why, then, am I arrested?" he asked.

"Not arrested," corrected Morpeth—"merely invited on board. I want to ask a favour. Will you give a passage to three British officers and twenty-six Germans?"

"Explain, please," said the master of the Ole.

"Tough Geordie" did so.

"I have no objection to offering hospitality to the British officers," decided the Norwegian; "but there are difficulties as far as the German sailors are concerned."

"Their passage will be paid for."

"I was not troubling about that question," continued the Norwegian. "You see, I am a neutral. These men will be free while under the Norwegian flag."

"They won't be when you set them ashore, Skipper," rejoined the R.N.R. man meaningly. "As for International Law and the rights of neutrals, all I can say is that if Germany had respected them the war would have been over long ago, and I wouldn't be holding you up to-day."

"That is quite true," admitted the master of the Ole. "We Norwegians have no love for the Germans, and our mercantile navy has suffered more at their hands than the rest of the neutral nations combined. But I have another objection. These Germans would outnumber my crew. Supposing they take possession forcibly of my ship and make for a German port?"

"They won't do that," said Morpeth emphatically. "Knowing their skipper is alive, they wouldn't go back to Germany and put their heads through a running noose."

"That is so," remarked the Norwegian. "I will take them."

The two men, brothers of the sea, shook hands. The Norwegian returned to his vessel in Q 171's dinghy and gave orders for the Ole's boat to be lowered.

"Now, gentlemen," said Morpeth briskly, addressing the three R.A.F. officers, "the best of pals must part. Circumstances demand that I send you back in yonder vessel. I've got my job, and no doubt one is waiting for you at Auldhaig. I wouldn't shine as an airman, and I don't think you're cut out for Q-boat work. See my meaning?"

"Quite," agreed Cumberleigh gravely.

"Of course we're sorry to have to part company, but your remarks fit the case absolutely. And I'm rather keen to follow this Fennelburt business."

"I've had a code message written out," continued Morpeth. "You can take charge of that. I'm afraid you'll have von Loringhoven and those mutineering Huns as travelling companions. Von Preugfeld I'm keeping on board for the benefit of his health. The risks he'll run here will be slight compared with those he'd have on board the Ole. Some of his former crew would doubtless cut his throat in order to clinch matters. Here's the boat coming alongside. Good-bye and good luck!"

Bidding Wakefield, Morpeth and Ainslie farewell, the three members of the dissolved R.A.F. Salvage Syndicate went over the side and were transhipped to the Norwegian vessel. The Hun seamen followed in another boat, but von Loringhoven refused to go with them. He, too, felt that he was in danger at the hands of the mutineers, and Morpeth, knowing the facts and having no cause to wish the unter-leutnant harm from a personal point of view, allowed him to remain.

Twenty minutes later the Ole was hull down.

Morpeth, who had been busy with a sextant, laid the instrument down and began to work out his position. Presently he turned to Wakefield.

"Here we are," he said, sticking a point of the divider into the chart. "Lat. 55 deg. 50' 10" N. Long. 6 deg. 15' 10" E. We fired our passengers just in time. Another four hours and with luck we'll pick up the Hoorn Reefs Lightship. Then the fun'll commence."

"All our passengers?" queried Wakefield smiling.

"Yes," replied "Tough Geordie." "You, my lad, are a worker. I'll see that you do your bit. We'll bag some pheasants although it's close season."

"Let's hope so," said Wakefield cheerfully.

"An' I'm a rotten sportsman," added Morpeth. "'Owing to the war,' I suppose. 'Tany rate if I've the chance I'm going to bag 'em while they're sitting up. After all, Fritz-strafing's my job, and the more the merrier."




CHAPTER XXII

ON THE TRAIL

Philip Entwistle puffed thoughtfully at his briar.

"That was the fellow right enough," he soliloquised. "Had I been informed directly the Air people made the discovery, I'd have nabbed him before this."

It was a few days after Karl von Preussen's hasty and almost panic-stricken exodus from Edinburgh. Entwistle, Secret Service agent, with a highly respectable record, had been called in by the authorities to trace the elusive spy. As usual, he was not consulted until after the police had declared themselves baffled. No doubt it was a tribute to Entwistle's sagacity, but he looked upon it in a totally different light. To him it meant precious hours and minutes wasted.

He remembered the wanted man. Entwistle was one of those comparatively rare individuals who hardly ever forget a face. Disguised as a country parson, he was returning from a case at Aberdeen—he had convinced the naval authorities the whole thing was a mare's nest and that a supposed spy was a harmless professor of a Scottish University—when, having to change at Nedderburn Junction, he found himself in the same compartment with the man whom the Admiralty, War Office, and Air Ministry wanted most particularly.

And when von Preussen showed his railway warrant to the ticket inspector, Entwistle, taking cover behind the Church Times, had memorised the particulars written on the buff form. It was not idle curiosity. It was to him a mental exercise. During the brief instant in which the inspector was holding the warrant to the light of the carriage lamp Entwistle had committed the following facts to memory: the number and date of the warrant, the holder's name and rank, his points of departure and his destination—details that were jotted down at the first opportunity in the Secret Service agent's pocket-book.

Entwistle was sitting in his study at his house in Barborough. The windows were wide open. It was a bright, sunny morning, and from where he sat he could see the rugged outlines of the distant hills and the tall chimneys of the factories in the valleys.

As he sat scanning the newly-arrived dossier of his latest case, Entwistle's thoughts went back to other scenes. The hills above Blackberry Cross and towards Tarleigh reminded him of the von Eitelwurmer case.

"Wonder if this Fennelburt fellow (of course, that's an assumed name) has anything to do with the late Herr Eitelwurmer?" he mused. "May as well go through those papers again, and perhaps it would be advisable to look up the von Gobendorff case."

He unlocked a drawer and pulled out two bulky packets of documents, neatly tied with string. Entwistle had a distaste for red tape, both metaphorically and literally. For the best part of an hour he busied himself with the various and for the most part faulty clues, endeavouring from the tangled skein to weave a thread of conclusive facts.

The offer of the one hundred pounds reward had had its disadvantages. Amateur detectives and others attracted by the offer had seen "Captain Fennelburt" in a dozen or more different places at approximately the same time. Copies of letters from these individuals had been included in the dossier sent to Entwistle from Scotland Yard. One was from a farmer at Penzance, who was certain that he saw the wanted man making for Poldene Air Station. Another emanated from a fisherman at Wick, who stated that an R.A.F. officer answering to the description of Captain Fennelburt stopped him and inquired the way to Loch Thrumster Flying School. Yet another correspondent, hailing from Ramsgate, reported that the spy was boarding at a small house near Pegwell Bay.

"Even in these days of high speed in aviation," thought Entwistle, "there are limits. We have yet to find conclusive evidence of a man starting from Wick, say, at 9 A.M. and finishing at Penzance at 11 A.M.—650 miles in two hours. And when he stops on the way to partake of refreshments at Ramsgate—involving a detour of another couple of hundred miles—the imagination is stretched beyond breaking-point. I'm afraid these worthy people are following the red-herring trail. The R.A.F. uniform has put them on a false scent. Now, if I were in Captain Fennelburt's position—without, presumably, a change of clothes—in a fairly distinctive uniform, what would I do?"

His meditations were interrupted by the entrance of a maid with a telegram.

"No answer," said Entwistle briefly.

The wire was from the stationmaster at Carlisle. No R.A.F. railway warrant bearing the number E99109 had been given up at Carlisle.

"That is quite what I expected," thought the Secret Service agent. "The warrant was a forged one, and Carlisle was a bit of bluff. He's probably lying low in Edinburgh. Suppose it's not much use trying to pick up the trail there now? Yet—H'm! I'll risk it."

He took an up-to-date time-table from a shelf. Experience had taught him to be particularly careful as far as the times of departure of trains were concerned.

"H'm this will do. Arrive Waverley Station at so-and-so. Yes, that will do."

In ten minutes Entwistle had made all necessary preparations, and with a small hand-bag as his total luggage was walking briskly to the station.

It was not until the train stopped at Carlisle that he was fortunate enough to take a corner seat. Already he had scanned The Times and The Scotsman those hubs of the newspaper worlds north and south of the Tweed. The rest of the occupants of the compartment still retained that insular reserve that has been partly broken down since the memorable August 1914, so Entwistle amused himself by admiring the scenery as the train ascended picturesque Liddisdale. Many a time had Entwistle travelled north by this route, but the beauties of the Lowlands as viewed from the North British Railway never palled.

As the train approached Galashiels it slowed down rapidly, coming to a standstill just outside the station. It was an unusual occurrence, for the express was supposed to make a non-stop run from Carlisle to Edinburgh. Carriage windows were opened and passengers thrust their heads out to ascertain the cause of the delay.

"A truck with a lot of luggage has fallen off the platform on to the line," remarked one of the passengers. "They've removed it now."

The train began to move. Before it gathered much speed it was running through the station. Suddenly Entwistle was all attention, for standing on the opposite platform was "his man"—the soi-disant Captain Fennelburt.

Entwistle recognised him at once, in spite of the fact that he wore civilian clothes. He was evidently waiting for a train bound south.

For a brief instant the Secret Service man deliberated on the chance of being able to leap from the train. He would have cheerfully run the risk of violating the Company's rules and regulations, but there are limits to personal activity. He would not have hesitated to jump, for he possessed more than a moderate amount of courage; but prudence predominated. It would be of little use to find himself stranded at Galashiels with a broken limb, he argued; but there was the communication-cord.

Even as he pulled the chain that gave the alarm in the guard's van, greatly to the surprise of his fellow passengers, another train thundered past. There was not a moment to lose.

"What's wrong, sir?" inquired eight or nine curious voices. "Are you ill?"

Without replying, Entwistle grasped his bag and stick, went into the corridor, and began to make his way towards the guard's van. The train showed no signs of slowing down. Already it must have run a couple of miles beyond Galashiels.

Presently the vacuum brakes were put in action, and with a peculiar sensation, akin to the rapid stopping of a lift, the train drew up.

"Guard!" exclaimed Entwistle peremptorily, as the uniformed official attempted to hurry past him in the narrow corridor. "I pulled the communication-cord."

"What for, sir?"

Entwistle produced a card from his pocket and explained matters. By this time another two precious minutes had passed.

"Very good, sir," said the guard, retaining the piece of cardboard. "If you'll alight, we'll get on. It's a tidyish step back to Galashiels, d'ye ken?"

The Secret Service man clambered down the footboard on to the permanent way, his progress watched with unabated interest by scores of passengers. Then, taking to his heels, he ran with the ease of a trained athlete towards the station.

He was too late. Already the train—a slow local—had taken up its quota of passengers and was out of sight. Entwistle promptly tackled the ticket collector.

"A tallish chap in a grey overcoat and a bowler, sir?" inquired the man. "Yes; I remember him. He's got a ticket for Hawick. ...No, sir, third, single."

"Is there a motor available?" asked Entwistle, loth to go to the extremity of telegraphing or telephoning to the Hawick police.

One was—a powerful six-cylinder. The driver, rising to the exhortation to "drive like blue blazes," pressed heavily upon the accelerator, and the car leapt along the road.

There was every chance of reaching Hawick before the train, punctures and other road mishaps excepted. The route through Selkirk was practically a direct one, while the iron road made a considerable detour through Melrose. Consequently, nothing happening to delay the car, Entwistle found himself, cool but elated, waiting outside the entrance to Hawick Station a good six minutes before the advertised time of the train's arrival.

Keenly alive to the necessity for prompt action, the Secret Service man took up a position immediately behind the open door.

The train drew up. There seemed no hurry on the part of the arriving passengers to leave the platform. A boy wearing a tam-o'-shanter and a plaid was the first to appear, then an old woman bearing a large wicker basket. A couple of huge, red-faced farmers next jostled through the doorway, discussing in loud tones the latest ruling market prices of oats and oil-cake. After them a pale, thin-featured woman with a baby, and last of all a nervous young man who walked with hesitating steps as he fumbled for a mislaid ticket.

"Confound it!" muttered Entwistle savagely.

Leaving his place of concealment, he made for the platform. Luggage was still being put out of the van. There might be time to look into all the carriages. He would have to take the risk of "Captain Fennelburt" recognising him as the cleric who travelled with him from Nedderburn to Edinburgh.

But Entwistle was again disappointed. The train, a non-corridor one, carried no passengers at all resembling the wanted man. "Captain Fennelburt" had adroitly covered his tracks.

The baffled Secret Service man hied him to the telephone—the Railway Company's private wire—and rang up Galashiels.

A brief but emphatic conversation both with the ticket collector and the booking clerk elicited the information that the bowler-hatted man might have alighted at one of the four intermediate stations.

"You'll be for trying St. Boswell's Junction, mon?" came a suggestion on the telephone.

Entwistle tried St. Boswell's Junction, with the result that a man answering his description had left the train, and had booked for York, via Alnwick and Alnmouth.

The clue was developing into a man-hunt after Entwistle's own heart. It afforded him scant satisfaction to attain his object with little trouble. The greater the obstacles, the keener became his interest.

"'Fraid I don't want you again," he remarked to the waiting chauffeur, as he paid him.

Inquiries resulted in the information that there was a fast train through to Carlisle, whence it was possible to arrive at York within twenty minutes of the East Coast express. Entwistle, having had time to make a satisfying meal, was retracing his course.

Luck was against him. It was not until about eight on the following morning that he alighted on York platform. His first step was to make inquiries at the Postal Censor's Office. On presentation of his card, he was allowed to scan the duplicates of telegraphic messages sent during the preceding twelve or fifteen hours. There was nothing to excite suspicion. The foreign cables proved more fruitful, especially one from "Messrs. Grabnut & Plywrench to Mynheer Jakob van Doornzylt, woollen merchant, of Amsterdam."

The message was in plain English (according to war time regulations), and referred to a consignment of merchandise about to be dispatched from Leith to Ymuiden. On the duplicate was an official stamp "Passed by Censor."

"Has this been dispatched?" asked Entwistle.

"Yes," replied the postal official. "It was held back for three hours according to procedure when dealing with foreign cablegrams, and was sent off at 7.50 P.M. yesterday."

Entwistle, having provided himself with a copy, went to a desk in a secluded corner of the large room.

"Close bales 251 in number—" began the message.

Consulting his code-book (the identical one that he had taken from the spy von Eitelwurmer), Entwistle began his translation. "Close" signified "disguised," "bale" was the counterpart of "Q-boat," and so on. In ten minutes the secret message stood revealed as follows:—

"Q-boat disguised as U 251 left Leith on 9th for Hoorn Reefs.—VON PREUSSEN."

That was all—but sufficient to lure "Tough Geordie" Morpeth and his gallant comrades into a veritable death-trap.




CHAPTER XXIII

"PREPARE FOR IMMEDIATE ACTION"

The Admiral's secretary at Auldhaig stood at the Commander-in-Chief's elbow. It was close on lunch-time, and the Admiral had still a bulky though fast diminishing pile of documents either to sign or initial before he could complete his morning's work. But, being mortal, even the Commander-in-Chief was hungry, and consequently short-tempered.

"What is it, Elphinhaye?" he demanded tartly. "Can't you deal with it yourself?"

"'Fraid not, sir," replied the secretary, still proffering the newly-arrived telegram.

"What is it?" asked the Admiral again. "Who's it from?"

"Entwistle? Never heard of him."

The secretary coughed deprecatingly. He was slightly surprised and pained to think that his worthy chief had not heard of the famous Secret Service agent.

"Oh, yes; now I do," corrected the Commander-in-Chief. "He was barging about down in Cornwall over that von Gobendorff case, when I was Senior Officer at Trecurnow. Well, what is it now?... By Jove!"

The telegram had been dispatched from York. It read as follows:—

"To S.N.O., Auldhaig. For your information and necessary action:—Discover Captain Fennelburt, R.A.F., to be Leutnant Karl von Preussen (vide dossier 445). He has dispatched the following cablegram to Admiralty, Berlin: 'Q-boat disguised as U 251 left Leith on 9th for Hoorn Reefs."

"Someone's let the cat out of the bag," declared the Commander-in-Chief. "It's an absolute mystery to me how intelligence does leak out. Now, what's to be done, Elphinhaye? What Q-boat does the message refer to?"

"Q 171, sir," replied the secretary, never at a loss to supply the requisite information. "She was the old Tollerdale, and was adapted at Leith in January last."

"Who's her commanding officer?"

Elphinhaye had to consult a current Navy List.

"Morpeth, sir. George Morpeth, an R.N.R. officer with the D.S.C."

"By Gad! Morpeth! I knew him at Trecurnow," exclaimed the Admiral. "Smart fellow, but a bit of a rough diamond. I've no doubt that he can take care of himself, but all the same——"

"We could wireless him, sir."

"And warn every Fritz on this side of Germany," declared the Commander-in-Chief. "No, no, Elphinhaye. We must think of a better plan—one that, with luck, will entail a clean sweep of every Fritz who dares to poke his nose outside his kennel."

Twenty minutes later the joyful signal was received by the Nth Light Cruiser Squadron and the Z Destroyer Flotilla:—

"Raise steam for thirty knots and prepare for immediate action on clearing harbour."




CHAPTER XXIV

IN THE HOUR OF HIS TRIUMPH

"Have you any means of tracing the person who brought this message? inquired Entwistle.

"Hardly," replied the Postal Censor's assistant. "One receives so many cables and telegrams for dispatch in the course of the day. I'll find out the name of the clerk on duty at the time, although I'm afraid the information will be disappointing." By means of a voice-tube, the official made various inquiries.

"O'Donovon, is it?... Is he on duty now?... Just reported, eh? Good. Ask him to step up to my room, please."

Presently a brisk tap on the door was followed by the appearance of a slight, rather pale-faced young man of pronounced Hibernian features.

"This," said the Censor's assistant, "is 'Mr. O'Donovon. Mr. O'Donovon, this gentleman, Mr. Entwistle, wishes to ask you some information respecting a certain cablegram. Will you answer as fully as you can on the matter?"

"I want you, Mr. O'Donovon," began Entwistle, "to give me a description of the person who handed in the message."

It was Entwistle's way. Instead of asking if the clerk perchance remembered the individual, he assumed that he already did so.

"Sure," replied Mr O'Donovon, after reading the duplicate message. "It was a boy of twelve or about. Black hair and eyes and a Jewish nose. He had a mole on his chin. I remember he gave me two pound notes and I gave him half a crown change."

"I suppose by no possibility could you show me the notes? inquired Entwistle.

"No, sir," replied Mr. O'Donovon. "That I can't. We put all notes into a drawer. I call to mind that they were rather dirty, although it's dirtier ones I've seen in Dublin."

"I thought not," remarked Entwistle. "Perhaps it's as well, for in all probability you gave the lad half a crown for sending the cablegram. If you've time you might examine the notes in that drawer. Ten to one, you'll find two were printed in Germany. Now, will you please send me a priority telegram—on H.M.S.—to Leith, Auldhaig, and Wick; the latter to be transmitted by wireless to Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, Scapa Flow."

Having done all that he could possibly do to scotch von Preussen's activities on the Continental cables, Entwistle prepared to follow up the clues that would, he hoped, lead to the running to earth of the cunning and resourceful spy.

His next step was to trace the boy with the Jewish features and the mole on his chin. It was rather a tall undertaking, for, in spite of the fact that there was a hideous massacre of Jews in York in the remote days when Richard Coeur de Lion reigned, there seemed to be a distinct predilection on the part of people of Hebraic origin to live in the city that holds the position of capital of the Shire of Broad Acres. Besides, many people have moles on their faces, and O'Donovon might have been slightly wide of the mark in describing the mole as being on the lad's chin. It might have been his cheek—either his left or his right.

It was in Petergate, one of those narrow, old-world thoroughfares leading to the Cathedral precincts that Entwistle came face to face with the immediate object of his investigations. Sauntering towards him was a young Jewish lad with a mole on the point of his chin.

Entwistle gave him no opening.

"I say, my lad," he exclaimed, holding out a bright half-crown to the astonished youth, "I gave you the wrong change when you handed in that telegram from Grabnut & Plywrench. Here you are."

The boy took the proffered coin eagerly. As Entwistle expected, he devoted more attention to the coin than he did to the donor.

"He won't recognise me again," mused the Secret Service man as he hurried away, leaving the boy testing the bright half-crown in case he had been "had."

Swallowed up in the crowd, for Petergate was thronged, Entwistle dived into a tobacconist's shop and made a small purchase, the while keeping a sharp look-out upon the passers-by.

Presently the lad, whistling blithely, hurried along. At a discreet distance Entwistle followed, noting with satisfaction that the boy lingered outside a cinema palace.

"He would have spent that half-dollar had the place been open," he theorised. "As it is, he'll go home to his dinner and he won't say a word about the wrong change."

Keeping within sight of his chase, Entwistle followed until the boy turned down a narrow street close to Bootham Bar—one of the still-existent gateways of mediaeval York. On the other hand the roadway was bounded by the masonry of the city wall.

Entwistle followed no further. He promptly ascended the steps of Bootham Bar and gained the paved walk that runs along the top of the walls. From his coign of vantage he watched, and saw the lad enter a house—stopping, however, to glance up and down the cobbled street.

"Good enough for the present," soliloquised Entwistle. "I feel fairly satisfied with my morning's work. Until to-night there's nothing doing, so I will have a little relaxation from duty. Philip, my festive, you can be reckless: you can have a whole coupon's worth of roast beef at the best restaurant in York."

Having done ample justice to the inner man, Entwistle decided to put in an hour or two at the railway station. Railway stations had a peculiar fascination for him. Incidentally he had obtained a good many clues while waiting on a platform, although he was bound to admit that the almost general use of motor cars had robbed the railway of a questionable record of affording quick transit to fugitive criminals.

As he entered the booking hall he ran against a familiar figure wearing an unfamiliar garb—a thick-set, clean-shaven man of about forty-seven or eight, in height about five feet ten. He was in R.A.F. officer's uniform. Just beneath his cap his iron-grey closely-cropped hair contrasted forcibly with his brown, almost reddish complexion.

"B a r c r o f t !" exclaimed Entwistle. "What on earth are you doing here? And in uniform, too. By Jove! I'm pleased to see you."

"I'm here for fifteen and a half minutes more," replied Peter Barcroft, consulting his wristlet watch. "That is, if the North Eastern Company run their train punctually. That's question one answered. I'm in uniform because I wanted to be, and didn't mean to be out of the fun. What are you doing, might I ask?"

"Same old thing—'the trivial round, the common task' sort of business, you know," answered the Secret Service man.

"But you've not explained: how comes it that you are in khaki?"

"I suppose," replied Barcroft, "it's a case of 'following in father's footsteps' reversed. I'm a mere 'second loot'; my son Billy is now a major, so if I meet him in public I must salute him. This war's been responsible for a lot of funny incidents and conditions, hasn't it?"

"It has," agreed Entwistle. "We've been mixed up in a few together, haven't we? But to get back to the point. I'm curious to know how you managed to get a commission. You told me you were blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. How did you pass the doctor?"

"I passed, or was passed by, three," replied Barcroft proudly. "Bluffed them absolutely. Merely a triumph of mind over matter. I learnt the letters on the sight-testing card off by heart. Perfectly simple, eh, what? I'm in the Marine Section, R.A.F., and incidentally I'm the senior officer in the depot in point of age. I'm on my way to Auldhaig to take some boats round to Sableridge—that's on the South Coast."

"Not X-lighters, by any chance?"

Barcroft stared.

"Yes," he admitted. "What do you know about them?"

Entwistle laughed.

"Bet you twopence you won't find them at Auldhaig," he said. "More than that, you'll stand a chance of being arrested. There's been a fellow on the same sort of game, and that's why I'm here—to nab him on sight. By the by, how are Ponto and Nan?"

"Going strong," replied Barcroft. "At the present moment they are assisting my crowd of merry wreckers to digest railway buffet sandwiches and bully beef. We'll go and find them."

The two old chums walked down the platform. Just beyond the covered part was a large truck piled high with a miscellaneous assortment of kit-bags, blankets, sea-boots, oilskins, charts, and a pair of hand semaphore flags. Mounting guard over the luggage were Barcroft's two shaggy sheep-dogs.

"They remember me," remarked Entwistle, as the animals began to wag their stumpy tails.

"Of course," replied the R.A.F. officer. "But you wouldn't dare to lay a finger on that pile of kit."

"I won't experiment," replied Entwistle. "Your dogs' teeth are just a trifle too formidable. When do you think you'll get back to Sableridge? I'm going down south in a fortnight or so, and I may run across you."

"Look me up, then," replied Barcroft. "With decent luck I ought to get my five-knot convoy round in a fortnight, mines and contradictory Air Ministry orders permitting. And if I knock up against Captain Fennelburt I'll give him your chin-chin."

"You won't," said Entwistle confidently—"at least, not under that name. But I hope to deny you that pleasure by having him under lock and key before many hours."

The signal for the train's departure interrupted the conversation. Barcroft, having seen his crew into the train and the baggage in the van, entered a compartment followed by his two dogs—to bear the responsibility of navigating two of His Majesty's vessels, together with thousands of pounds worth of stores and a score of valuable lives, over six or seven hundred miles of mined waters; for which a grateful government paid him the magnificent sum of half a guinea a day.

"And how is Mrs. Barcroft?" inquired Entwistle. "I ought, of course, to have inquired before."

Peter Barcroft was lighting a cigarette.

"Mrs. Barcroft is A1, thanks," he replied. "At present she is engaged in keeping the home fires burning—with coal at fifty-five and six a ton, but I have not the faintest doubt that she will carry on to my utmost satisfaction. Well, cheerio, Entwistle! Glad to have met you again."

The train moved off, leaving Entwistle to "carry on" in his particular line even as Barcroft Senior was "doing his bit" in a different sphere.

Leaving the station, the Secret Service man made his way to the premises of Messrs. Grabnut & Plywrench. As he expected, a brief interview with the manager elicited the information that no cablegram had been sent by the firm to Holland. In fact, the Continental transactions of Messrs. Grabnut & Plywrench had ceased early in 1915. They had as much business in connection with Government contracts as they could possibly tackle.

At sunset Entwistle returned to his post of observation on the city walls. Soon York, or as much of it as he could see from his lofty perch, was in darkness. He could hear the crowds in the main thoroughfares, the whirr of machinery in the workshops, the rumble of heavily laden trains, and the "chough-chough" of motor barges on the canal conveying raw material for the manufacturing centres of Yorkshire and the coast. It was a hive of industry working under cover of darkness.

Cold work it was keeping the poverty-stricken tenement under observation. Occasionally people would pass along the narrow path on the walls. Entwistle would then lean on the lichen-grown parapet and feign a deep interest in the darkness until their footsteps died away; otherwise he hardly stirred during his prolonged vigil.

"Great Peter" would have been tolling the hour of nine had it not been that the world was at war, when Entwistle heard a street door open. Straining his eyesight, he discerned a bent figure emerging stealthily from the house he was keeping under observation.

"H'm!" he soliloquised. "A man with a military bearing ought never to trust to the disguise of decrepitude. Von Preussen, you've overreached yourself, I fancy."

Keeping under the shelter of the breast-high parapet, Entwistle moved cautiously to the steps by the side of Bootham Bar. Gaining the roadway, he pressed against the side of the Gothic archway. For the present the thoroughfare was deserted. He could hear von Preussen's boots shuffling on the cobbles. Nearer, nearer...

With a sudden spring Entwistle hurled himself upon the spy. The Secret Service agent had not mistaken his man. Almost before von Preussen knew what had happened he found himself lying face downwards on the pavement and his elbows being drawn together behind his back.

"The game's up, Karl von Preussen," exclaimed Entwistle.

"Yes," admitted the spy breathlessly. "You've scored this time. I'd like to know how you traced me."

"You will in due course," replied Entwistle grimly, as he jerked his captive to his feet.

The next instant a cloud of pungent, burning powder struck Entwistle full in the face. The sudden, agonising pain as the grains filled his eyes took the Secret Service agent completely off his guard. Gasping for breath, and holding both hands to his face, he staggered blindly against the wall. Even in his physical torment he could hear von Preussen running swiftly.

In the moment of his triumph a craven trick had robbed Entwistle of his prey.




CHAPTER XXV

TRAPPED

Cold, grey dawn was stealing over the North Sea. Hull down to the east'ard, her cage-mast just showing above the horizon, lay the Hoorn Reefs Lightship. Off the tail of the bank that fringes Denmark's shores Hun submarines were in the habit of bringing up and receiving wireless orders before venturing through the inner mine-fields either to the mouth of the Elbe or northwards to the Baltic through the Kattegat.

Q 171 was moving slowly through the greyish-green water. Her triple torpedo-tubes were ready with their deadly complements; her quick-firers, trained fore and aft after the manner of U-boats returning to their bases, were ready for action at a moment's notice. The torpedo-men and gun crews, sheltering under the lee of the dummy conning-tower, were keenly on the alert, watching their commanding officer as he, in his turn, watched the broad expanse of sea over which the rising sun would shortly throw its slanting rays.

Supporting himself by the shaft of the periscope, which, like the conning-tower, was a "dud," Morpeth again and again raised his prism-binoculars to his eyes. Just below him stood Wakefield, conscious of a peculiar sensation of mingled doubts and hopes. He, too, shared with Morpeth the feeling that the climax was at hand. The great stunt that was to deal a terrific blow to Germany's campaign of unrestricted warfare was imminent. Would it succeed?

The plan of operations was daring in its simplicity. According to information obtained from a British Secret Service agent in Kiel, two giant submarine-cruisers were leaving the German Baltic port, passing through the Imperial Kiel Canal during the hours of darkness, and leaving Brunsbuttel the following night for the Hoorn Reefs rendezvous. Here they were to take on board two experienced U-boat commanders from submarines expected to be homeward-bound from the Irish Sea, and then proceed to the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. Capable of keeping the sea for a period of sixty days without having to re-fuel or re-provision, these submarine-cruisers were a direct menace to the Allies in general and to Uncle Sam in particular. Consequently, if Morpeth's plans were successful and he were able to destroy both submarine-cruisers before the returning U-boats arrived at the rendezvous, the moral effects of the mysterious disappearance of two brand-new additions to Germany's under-sea fleet would be more far-reaching than their actual loss.

And the hour was approaching when the two submarine-cruisers would arrive at the rendezvous—and then Q 171 would strike—swiftly and with annihilating force.

Right aft stood Meredith and Ainslie. The former was in charge of the after quick-firer, while on the other sub-lieutenant rested the responsibility of "dumping the ash-cans," or, in other words, dropping the depth-charges, should they be required. He also had charge of the hand-steerage flat, where, in the event of the electrically-operated wheel becoming disabled, the work of steering the Q-boat would be undertaken.

"Fritz is late in keeping his appointment," remarked Meredith. "Beastly uncivil of him on a cold morning like this."

Ainslie swung his arms vigorously and stamped with his rubber boots upon the metal deck.

"We'll forgive him if he shows up," he remarked. "Wonder if there'll be a chance of a scrap? By the by, you've your gasmask ready?"

"Yes, old son," replied Meredith, producing a hideous-looking contraption from the pocket of his oilskin coat. "We hadn't them issued to us on the M.L.'s, for which many thanks. Gosh! What would the old folks at home say if they could see their little Kenneth in this?"

"You do look a Hun," admitted Ainslie, as Meredith rather clumsily clipped the antigas device to his nose. "What a dash you'd cut at a kids' Christmas party! Got everything—pneumatic life-belt, first-aid outfit, meat lozenges, spirit flask an' all, in case you fancy rivalling a cross-Channel swimmer?"

Meredith gravely assured his questioner that he had all the articles named.

"Right-o," rejoined Ainslie. "And just kick over the oiler. Here's a link that wants a drop of oil pretty badly. Thanks, old thing."

The Sub was about to attend to what appeared to be a stiff link in the dummy deckgear release, when a cry came from for'ard:

"Submarine two points on the starboard bow, sir!"

At a distance of two miles in the direction indicated lay a U-boat motionless, with her deck just awash. Telescopes and binoculars were brought to bear upon her.

"That's not the bird I want," declared Morpeth. "She's one of the ordinary submarine mine-layers. We'll sheer off. No sprat to catch a mackerel for me!"

Q 171 turned eight points to port. Expecting at any moment to be challenged by the U-boat, Morpeth gave a curt order to the signalman. The latter toggled the soi-disant U 251's signal numbers to the halliards and stood by.

"They don't keep a sharp look-out," remarked Wakefield. "If we can spot them lying awash, surely they've twigged us by now."

"Just back from a cruise, I expect," surmised the R.N.R. officer. "And jolly glad to be back out of it, so they're holding on to the slack."

"Where's the other one, then?" inquired Wakefield. "There were two expected."

"She's neither of 'em," explained Morpeth. "Sort of stray cat coming home. The ones expected to meet the submarine-cruisers are big ones—three hundred feet or thereabouts. This one's not more'n a couple of hundred. I'd slip a tinfish into her with the greatest of pleasure, only that would spoil the proper stunt. Au revoir, Fritz!"

"Seaplane, sir!" shouted one of the crew.

"Confounded nuisance!" muttered "Tough Geordie." "Get our decorations ready, lads, and look slippy about it."

Two or three of the hands prepared to unroll a couple of square pieces of canvas. These were Morpeth's "decorations," or, in other words, the vessel's "aircraft distinction discs." On one side of the canvas were painted red, white and blue concentric circles—the British hall-mark for aerial efficiency. On the reverse were black Maltese crosses on a white ground—the symbol adopted by Hun aircraft. In both cases the same device showed on the deck of a ship denoted her either as a friend or foe.

"Hun, sir!" shouted three or four voices in unison, when the rapidly approaching seaplane drew near enough for the crew of Q 171 to distinguish the Black Crosses on her wings.

"Up with 'em!" shouted Morpeth.

Dexterously "Tough Geordie's" decorations were unfolded and exhibited—one at the top of the conning-tower, the other just abaft the for'ard gun.

Right aft the gun-layer of the concealed anti-aircraft weapon kept the sights trained on the approaching Hun, ready and eager at the word of command to let fly with a novel type of shell that on bursting would entail the immediate destruction of any aircraft within a couple of hundred feet of the point of detonation.

"'Nother seaplane right astern, sir!" roared a seaman in stentorian tones.

"Confound it!" ejaculated Morpeth. "What is their little game?"

The anti-aircraft gun could have effectively silenced one seaplane, but the other would have turned and flown off to give the alarm. So impassively Q 171 held on, every man on board (except von Preugfeld and von Loringhoven, who were ignorant of what was transpiring) fervently hoping that the Hun airmen would take it for granted that she was a U-boat.

With a rush and a roar the first seaplane dived steeply, flattening out and passing within fifty feet of the mystery ship's deck. Meredith distinctly felt the rush of air from her wake and could make out the goggled and helmeted heads of the observer and machine-gunner. The pilot behind his triple glass screen was invisible.

The seaplane began climbing in vast circles, until it became a mere dot in the now sunlit sky. The second Hun, content with hovering at five hundred feet for nearly five minutes, also began climbing, and finally both disappeared behind a stratum of high, fleecy clouds.

"Hanged if I like that!" remarked Morpeth.

"They've probably mistaken us for one of the returning U-boats," suggested Wakefield. "In that case they've cleared off to report that the submarine-cruisers can repair to the rendezvous."

"Let's hope you're right," added Morpeth. "Once I bag those submarine-cruisers, I'll take my chance with the seaplanes."

He rapped out an order to the quartermaster.

Round swung Q 171 until she steadied on a course that would bring her once more within a short distance of the U-boat they had sighted soon after dawn.

She was practically in the same position, but had swung with the change of tide—a fact which indicated that she was riding at anchor.

For full half an hour Morpeth kept her under observation, but no sign of life was visible on board.

"Another mutiny?" queried Meredith.

"Hardly," replied Wakefield. "Unless it were a general mutiny amongst the submarine fleet, and this one were left behind. No, it's not that."

"Then what do you think?" asked the Sub.

"A booby-trap, possibly. If so, then Morpeth's stunt is off. I'll see what he says."

The late skipper of M.L. 1071 went up to the R.N.R. officer and saluted—as he always did when on deck.

"Yes," admitted "Tough Geordie" gloomily. "I'm afraid that it's a booby-trap. Those seaplanes, too, rather support the theory. And there are no signs of the submarine-cruisers. If nothing turns up by noon I'll torpedo that packet and leg it home at the rate of knots."

"Any objection to my boarding her?" asked Wakefield.

"None, as far as I am concerned," replied Morpeth, "provided, of course, you take all reasonable precautions. I'll be ready in case of an accident, but I must insist upon your taking a volunteer crew."

A boarding-party was quickly forthcoming, consisting of Wakefield, Meredith, an armourer's mate, and two bluejackets. Launching the collapsible dinghy, they approached the U-boat, while Q 171, her concealed torpedo-tubes bearing on the former's hull, was ready to frustrate or at any rate to avenge any attempt upon the boarding-party.

A rope ladder trailed forlornly over the U-boat's bulging side. This Wakefield studiously avoided, making for the after-part where the long tapering stern dipped beneath the surface.

He hailed in German. No reply came from the apparently deserted craft, which was fretting at her cable in the now strong tideway.

Wakefield motioned to the rowers to pull alongside. Followed by Meredith and the armourer's mate, he gained the rusty deck.

"Hatches are closed," he said, in a low voice.

"Soon have them open, sir," declared the petty officer confidently.

"I think not," replied Wakefield. "Not until we've looked round a bit."

The three men moved for'ard. There were signs that the boat had not recently been in commission. Apparently she had been towed out of harbour and moored in the isolated position off the Hoorn Reefs. Why? If as a mark-boat to assist returning submarines to verify their position, the fact of closed hatches was easily explained. Being shut, they enabled her to ride out a spell of bad weather, otherwise she would have foundered.

"That's curious," exclaimed Meredith, pointing to the closed fore-hatch.

"What?" asked Wakefield.

"This," replied the Sub, pointing to a small, almost unnoticeable disc let in flush with the steel lid.

"By Jove, rather!" agreed the lieutenant. "An ebonite plug with a copper core! Yes; look here. There's a corresponding gadget on the deck. The two would come in contact when the holding down bolts of the hatch are released and the cover flies back. I fancy we were wise not to meddle with those hatch covers, or our curiosity would have landed us in a hole."

"She's stuffed with explosives, then?"

"Precisely," agreed Wakefield. "Once the circuit is completed by opening any of these hatches, up she goes, and anyone on board with her. We've seen enough. We'll clear out."

"What's the reason?" inquired Meredith.

"Ask Morpeth," was the reply. "He'll probably tell you that details of his stunt have leaked out. Hello! Seaplanes coming back? Look alive there!"

The boarding-party hurried to the boat. Quickly the rowers gave way. It was a race between a comparatively slow-moving boat and a pair of swift seaplanes. The former had to cover about two hundred yards: the latter a distance of from two to three miles.

The aircraft would have won hands down had they not banked and circled. As it was, there was time for Wakefield and his party to regain the mystery ship.

"Fritz has smelt a rat," reported the R.N.V.R. officer. "That U-boat's chock-a-block with explosives."

"Good enough!" declared Morpeth, ringing for "Easy ahead, both engines." "See that the smoke-screen gear is ready, Wakefield. We may want it, badly."

Q 171 increased her distance from the booby-trap to a good two cables' length, then she turned until she could bring her broadside torpedo-tubes to bear upon the anchored U-boat.

Diving steeply, the first seaplane swooped down to within three hundred feet. From underneath her fuselage a black object dropped swiftly—then another. Four seconds later the first missile struck the water, exploding with a deafening report unpleasantly close to the Q-boat's starboard quarter and deluging the after quick-firer's crew with spray. The second bomb fell further away.

Morpeth gave no signal to the anti-aircraft gun, although the departing seaplane offered a tempting target. His cool and ready wit saw an opening and he took it.

Both Hun machines were now flying on a parallel course, the first one manoeuvring to return to the attack. Incautiously they were approaching the anchored U-boat.

Like an arrow from a bow, a gleaming steel cylinder leapt from the Q-boat's side. Striking the water with a shower of spray, it dived obliquely and made straight for the Hun's booby-trap, its trail clearly defined by the milky foam on the surface.

Suddenly there was a lurid flash that seemed to outshine the light of the sun. A roar so stupendous that it shook Q 171 from stem to stern gave warning that the torpedo had reached its mark.

The terrific crash was not merely the result of the torpedo detonating. Laden with tons of powerful explosive, the decoy U-boat was literally blown to fragments. Even at the intervening distance pieces of molten metal hit Q 171 with great force. Fragments rattled against her side and on her deck like hailstones upon a galvanised iron shed.

For a brief space officers and men were stupefied by the overpowering concussion. Wakefield and three of the seamen were hit by flying debris, although fortunately the wounds were nothing worse than skin deep. In fact, Wakefield, in the excitement of it all, was unaware of the fact until Meredith called his attention to a trickle of blood down his cheek.

The first seaplane, which at the moment of explosion was immediately above the anchored U-boat, had vanished utterly in the irresistible blast of fire. The other, with her wings and tail planes riddled and rent, fluttered downwards like a wounded bird until, the drop developing into a tail-spin, she crashed into the sea. Floats were shattered under the impact, and almost before the foam had subsided the wreck of the second seaplane had disappeared beneath the waves.

"The stunt's a wash-out," declared Morpeth disappointedly. "It might have been worse, though, if those seaplanes had brought a crowd of their pals with them instead of being too sure off their own bat. We'll have to leg it for home."

"If we can," added Wakefield calmly. "Look!"

He pointed with outstretched arm towards the south-west. Pelting along at high speed, with their funnels belching out clouds of oil-fed smoke, were seven German ocean-going torpedo boats. Simultaneously, away to the nor'ard, three more columns of smoke indicated pretty plainly that Fritz was doing his utmost to trap the too daring Q-boat.

"Tough Geordie" shrugged his massive shoulders.

"Looks like a bit of a scrap after all," he remarked.




CHAPTER XXVI

HER LAST BOLT

It was a formidable trap. Already there was less than seven miles between the jaws of these rapidly closing pincers as the two divisions of hostile torpedo-craft steamed towards each other. To make matters more unpleasant a Zeppelin—a comparatively rare bird in the latter stages of the Great War—appeared from the east'ard, possibly from the airsheds at Tondern, and without venturing to make a direct attack was evidently communicating by wireless with the torpedo boats.

"Hoist our Ensign!" ordered Morpeth. "That'll show 'em we aren't going to take it lying down. We'll give them a run for their money."

Up rose the White Ensign bravely in the breeze. Simultaneously came the tell-tale bark of a torpedo. With a quick movement of her helm Q 171 avoided the missile, but even as she did so another torpedo came hissing under the waves. To avoid the new menace by alteration of course was impossible. The Q-boat carried too much way to reverse and gather sternway in time. To Meredith, standing by the after quick-firer, the sight of the approaching torpedo was a nerve-thrilling one. Gripping the rail, he watched its approach as it headed almost under that part of the deck on which he stood. Mechanically he gripped the wire and waited. He could do nothing: not even run a few paces in order to avoid, if possible, the direct effect of the explosion. He felt much as the French aristocrats must have felt when they lay strapped to the bed of the guillotine waiting for the fatal knife to fall....

"How much longer?" he thought. "How much——"

"Stand by with the depth-charges," roared Morpeth, as Q 171 swung round and made straight for the spot where the twin periscopes of a U-boat were disappearing.

The torpedo had been aimed truly, save in one respect. The commander of the U-boat had gauged the draught of the mystery ship by that of his own craft, forgetting that, although above water Q 171 resembled a German submarine, her depth beneath the water-line was only seven feet six inches. The missile had travelled harmlessly under her to finish its run three miles beyond.

Outboard toppled the two metal canisters. At the speed of an express train the reel of wire ran out; then, with a detonation that threatened to shake every rivet in the Q-boat's hull, the depth-charges exploded simultaneously.

There was no time to investigate whether the U-boat had been destroyed, or whether, with buckled plates and gaping seams, she was blowing her tanks in an attempt to reach the surface. In any case, even if she did survive, her crew would be so shaken by the concussion that they would be "down and out" as far as further submarine work was concerned.

The shrill whine of a 6-inch shell drew attention to the fact that the destroyers were getting within range, and that a "registering shot" had been fired to test the accuracy of their range-finder.

Almost immediately after, and before a second flash came from the nearmost torpedo boat, Q 171 liberated her smoke-screen; then, answering rapidly to her helm, spun round and practically retraced her course.

There was a chance of escape—that of making for Danish waters—but Morpeth scorned the idea. As he had remarked, he meant to give Fritz a run for his money. He would go down with flying colours, biting savagely till the last. And his men were with him. Discarding their black oilskin coats, and tightening their belts, they spat upon their hands after the manner of sailor-men and prepared to take their gruelling.

An artificial fog-screen cannot last indefinitely. Sooner or later Q 171 had to emerge from her concealment. When she did she was steering almost due west, or towards the tail of the seven torpedo boats.

Directly the movement was observed, the Huns turned sixteen degrees to port, all firing as they swung round. At the same moment Q 171's quick-firers replied for the first time.

The bark of her own guns eased the tension amongst the crew. Although outnumbered, they realised that there was some satisfaction in being able to reply.

The Q-boat took her punishment grimly—and it was punishment! Several shells of varying calibre hit her in quick succession. The dummy conning-tower had vanished, all but a few bent and twisted steel girders. Acrid-smelling fumes swept down upon Meredith as he assisted the last member of the after quick-firer to load and train the weapon. Through the eddying vapour he could see men feverishly working the other gun. He fancied he could distinguish Wakefield, but he was not sure... And Morpeth: where was he?

Suddenly Meredith felt his legs give way under him. The sensation was akin to that of receiving an unexpected blow behind the knees. Surprised and resentful, he tried to regain his feet. Some one was lying across them. It was Ainslie—or rather all that was left of Ainslie.

For perhaps twenty seconds Meredith lay on the deck striving to recollect where he was and how he came there. A red mist swam before his eyes, then it cleared, and he saw Ainslie's body once more.

There were rents on the deck. The whole fabric of the vessel was throbbing under the continued concussions. Q 171 was turning in a wide circle to starboard, exposing the whole of her broadside to the hostile fire.

With an effort Meredith freed his legs, and by the aid of the shoulder-piece of the now silent after quick-firer regained his feet. As he did so a man, grimy and blood-stained, lurched aft.

"Cap'n's down, sir," he reported. "Steering-gear carried away.... There's the hand-gear, sir."

Heavens! Morpeth down, Ainslie killed, Wakefield nowhere to be seen. The responsibility of fighting Q 171 to a finish had fallen upon the supernumerary, Sub-lieutenant Kenneth Meredith.

Staggering right aft, the Sub, assisted by the bluejacket who had reported to him, contrived to unshackle the useless wires from the heavy tiller. Then in answer to a powerful heave on the metal bar the boat began to swing once more to port.

Standing up, Meredith gave directions by gesture to the emergency helmsman. It was impossible to be understood otherwise, so terrific was the din, and, apart from that, Meredith's throat was so dry that he was unable to utter a sound.

Rapidly the Sub took in the situation. Morpeth's idea was to "cross the tee" of the approaching line of torpedo boats, which had changed their course so that the rearmost boat was now leading the flotilla. The demolition of the steering-gear, and Morpeth being knocked out of action, had temporarily thwarted the manoeuvre, but there was yet time to mend matters. The steady pulsations of the motors showed that below decks the badly battered vessel was still making good. For'ard a solitary gun was barking at wide intervals, keeping up a sullen and determined show of defiance. Otherwise the whole length of deck resembled, as far as the eddying smoke permitted, a gaunt and hideous charnel-house.

"Fritz has got to have it in the neck," thought Meredith. "Here goes!"

Conning the still swiftly moving Q-boat, he made straight for the leading German vessel. The latter held stubbornly on her course, at the same time masking the fire of her consorts astern.

It was a tense moment. Approaching at a speed of about sixty miles an hour, the two vessels, British and German, were heading to mutual destruction. With telescoped bows and interlocked framework, they would assuredly founder together in a common and awe-inspiring dissolution.

But almost at the last moment the nerve of the German commander failed. He ported his helm in a vain attempt to avoid the despairing act of a mad Englishman. He was too late. Meredith held on.

It was true that the kapitan-leutnant of the V 199 saved the bows of his boat from being telescoped, but by giving the vessel starboard helm he had neglected the important fact that the stern would swing to starboard more rapidly than the bows would turn to port.

Almost before he was aware of the fact, the bows of Q 171 bit deeply into the German torpedo boat's quarter. The shock was lighter than the Sub expected: it was the tortional wrench that hurled him sideways against the disabled quick-firer.

Then, swinging outwards under the way carried by her opponent, Q 171 literally levered the partly severed stern away from the rest of the rammed torpedo boat. With a gurgling sound, audible above the hiss of steam from the flooding engine-room, the after-part of the Hun boat sank, leaving two-thirds of the hull floating almost motionless and kept afloat solely by the badly strained bulkheads.

Freed from the interlocking embrace, Q 171 drifted clear, but she was no longer under control. Both her propellers had fouled some of the wreckage, and the bosses were stripped clear of their phosphor-bronze blades.

The gallant mystery ship, with the White Ensign flying from her stumpy mast—how it withstood that tornado of hurtling metal was little short of miraculous—was doomed.

But the end was not yet. The second enemy torpedo boat, unable to bring her guns to bear lest she should hit her disabled consort, was manoeuvring to obtain a favourable position to deliver the coup de grâce. It seemed an easy thing to do, for Q 171 was little better than a floating scrap-heap.

Suddenly, from what appeared to be a tangle of riddled steel-plating and grotesquely twisted girders, a gleaming steel cylinder flashed in the sunlight.

Q 171 had shot her last bolt. One of the torpedo-tubes was still intact, and a grievously wounded man had seized his chance.

Fifteen seconds later the torpedo got home, literally blowing the Hun in twain.

Meredith saw the Q-boat's last blow. Defiantly, almost exultantly, he drew himself to full height, then a blinding flash seemed to leap from beneath his feet, and he toppled unconscious upon the deck.




CHAPTER XXVII

BATTERED BUT UNDAUNTED

"Fore-control, there! Anything to report?"

It was ten and a half hours after the light-cruiser squadron had left Auldhaig. At thirty knots the light cruisers were approaching the rendezvous mentioned in their sealed orders—orders that were no longer secret, since they were opened and communicated within one hour of clearing harbour.

On either side of the cruisers, which were steaming in double column line ahead, were the destroyers—long, lean, and eager to be released from the leash that held them to that comparatively modest thirty knots.

For the sixth time in the last hour the Commodore had asked the question. His impatience was natural. Visibility was good, and from the lofty eerie of the fore-control platform a wide expanse of horizon lay revealed.

Before the fore-control could reply, the navigating lieutenant, who was standing by the Commodore on the bridge, threw back his head and listened intently.

Above the whine of the wind past the tautened wire shrouds and sagging aerials came a long, low rumble.

"Gunfire!" he announced laconically, yet there was keen anticipation in his tone.

"Quick-firers," added the gunnery lieutenant.

"Suppose it's too much to expect—to find Fritz's battle fleet out?" remarked the navigator. "We'd shake 'em up a bit, I reckon."

The Commodore smiled at the subordinate's enthusiasm for a "hussar-stroke" of the light, swiftly-moving vessels against the heavily-armoured battleships of Germany.

"We'll think ourselves more than lucky if their light cruisers are out," he replied. "Lucky if there are only destroyers. If——"

He broke off abruptly to receive a message through a voice-tube.

"Good enough," he replied. "Increase speed to thirty-four," he ordered. "Keep her as she is, Quartermaster."

"Is it they, sir?" asked the gunnery lieutenant.

"Look-out has reported a smoke-screen dead ahead," replied the Commodore. "We'll be seeing the enemy ships above the horizon in a few minutes."

"Then my name's Johnny Walker, sir," said the gunnery officer whimsically, as he hurried off to his post to superintend the firing of the long-distance salvoes.

A signal was hoisted to the signal-yard arm of the flagship. Hardly had it appeared ere a similar hoist appeared "at the dip" on every ship of the squadron—there to pause for a brief instant before being hauled "close up."

It was a signal well understood, although the opportunities for its use were few and far between. It signified "Enemy in sight; prepare to open fire."

"Enemy torpedo boats beating east by north, sir," came the welcome news. "Heavy firing from the leading boats." Then, fifty seconds later: "One blown up, sir.... Another on fire."

Moments of suspense followed. Would the Huns, intent upon battering the vessel that the approaching flotillas were bent upon rescuing, spot the presence of the British light cruisers and destroyers before they drew within effective range?

Up in the fire-control station the range-finding officer was calling out the range, much like an intonation: "Twelve thousand yards... eleven thousand yards... ten thousand——"

A flash, immediately followed by a loud report, gave very audible warning that the flagship had opened the ball. The officers and men on the bridge could follow the flight of the spinning projectile, until it was lost to sight in the blue atmosphere. But they knew it was hurtling and climbing to an immense height, thence to drop, still with terrific speed, until it burst where, according to the highest efforts of ballistic science, and when it was intended to do—to the detriment, physical and moral, of the King's enemies.

Simultaneously the leading light cruiser of the port division opened fire, the following vessel executing an echelon manoeuvre in order that they too could join in the grim carnival of battle and sudden death.

The hitherto flanking destroyers were now, with two exceptions, far ahead, one division steering east by south in order to cut off, if possible, the enemy's retreat behind the Heligoland batteries; the other was pelting east-north-east to frustrate Fritz's flight round the northernmost point of Denmark. The exceptions were the T.B.D.'s Pylos and Polyxo, on board of which their officers fumed in impatient and excusable wrath while sweating engine-room artificers were desperately striving to effect repairs to defective condensers.

So at a modest fifteen, soon afterwards increased to twenty-two, knots, the Pylos and Polyxo followed their more fortunate competitors in the "Fritz Stakes." To all appearances they were "out of it" and numbered amongst the "Also Rans." Yet they held on, hoping like Mr. Wilkins Micawber that something might turn up.

Already Fritz had turned tail. Under cover of a heavy smoke-screen the remaining Hun torpedo boats were "legging it," steering zig-zag courses in order to avoid, if possible, the long-range shells that followed with uncanny accuracy. And they were steering neither for the Bight nor for the Kattegat. The Zeppelin, that had been hovering around throughout the operations, had given warning of the outflanking British destroyers, and they were making for a place of security which is recognised as such by the navies of the world save that of Germany—the three-mile limit of a neutral seaboard.

The light cruisers opened outwards to avoid the far-flung line of artificially-created fog. It was unwise to penetrate that screen. A Hun torpedo boat at bay might seize an opportunity to "slap a tinfish" into an opponent at close range, or U-boats might be lurking in the fringe of the pall to claim a victim.

The Pylos and the Polyxo, jogging along, held straight on. By the time they reached the fog-screen the smoke would have lifted, and there was a chance that they might pick up some of the light cruisers' leavings in the shape of a few Huns.

It so happened that a sudden dispersal of a part of the smoke-screen under the steady westerly breeze revealed to the Polyxo what appeared to be an intact hostile torpedo boat with her engines broken down. She was still flying the Black Cross Ensign.

Gleefully the destroyer altered helm, let fly with her bow quick-firer, and prepared to send Fritz to the bottom by means of a torpedo.

But Fritz objected. He had had no compunction at firing, together with half a dozen of his kind, at a solitary British Q-boat; and he had been considerably surprised when the Q-boat had chopped off twenty or thirty feet of her stern. But when a destroyer suddenly loomed out of the fog, the panic-stricken kapitan-leutnant promptly gave orders to lower the Black Cross Ensign and substitute one that was as blank and pale as his face.

While the officers and men of the Polyxo were enjoying a performance of the "Kamerad" order, the Pylos, slower than her consort, butted up against what she took to be at first sight a Hun submarine, down by the head and with practically all her top hamper gone. From her mast-head hung a flag, tattered, torn and dun-coloured by smoke and dust.

"By Jove!" ejaculated the astonished lieutenant-commander of the Pylos. "It's Q 171."

Every officer and man on board the destroyer had been firmly convinced that the mystery ship had been sunk. Indeed it seemed incredible that the lightly-built vessel could have withstood a hammering from half a dozen relatively heavily-armed ocean-going torpedo boats, and yet remain afloat.

On the Q-boat's deck were standing ten or twelve grimy men, stripped to the waist, and for the most part wearing bandages. There were others—some sitting with their heads supported by their hands, others stretched motionless.

"Pass the word for the surgeon," ordered the lieutenant-commander, as he rang for "half-speed" and then "stop."

Adroitly manoeuvred, the Pylos ran alongside the cruelly battered Q-boat and made fast. A sub-lieutenant, the surgeon and a dozen hands boarded the disabled boat.

"Not an officer left standing, sir," reported a chief petty officer, whose rank was indicated only by a battered peak cap set at a raking angle on his head and partly counterbalanced by a stained bandage. The rest of his attire consisted of a pair of trousers hanging in shreds below the knees, and the remains of a singlet that failed to conceal a lacerated wound on the man's broad chest. "And only a handful of us—mostly engine-room ratings."

Leaving the doctor and his assistants to deal with their grim and stupendous task, the sub-lieutenant proceeded to investigate the state of the ship. A decision had to be arrived at with the utmost promptitude—whether she should be sunk or steps taken to tow her back across the North Sea.

Her bows were battered and the for'ard compartment flooded. Beyond that she seemed fairly water-tight. Her engine-room was practically intact, although there were several gaping holes just above the water-line.

"I think we can save her yet," decided the Sub—a lad of nineteen, with the mature judgment of one who has seen three years of naval warfare.

He made his way aft, encountering the surgeon.

"A hard case, Pills," he remarked. "How many casualties?"

"Seventeen killed," was the reply. "Nine wounded. The disparity shows that she must have had a gruelling. There are only eight men fit to carry on, and most of them have scratches or are shaken up by the concussion. There are three officers right aft—all badly knocked about."

Lying side by side, close to the disabled after quick-firer, were Morpeth, Wakefield and Meredith. A short distance away was all that was mortal of young Ainslie.

Morpeth was unconscious, his left arm shattered below the elbow and his skull laid bare by a fragment of shell. Wakefield, already under the influence of morphia, was lying on his back, staring blankly at the tattered White Ensign. Aware that something was wrong with him, he was ignorant of the fact that four pieces of German shells were finding a temporary lodging in his body. For the present, he was serenely happy—not solely on account of the morphia injection, but because he realised that he had "seen it through," and that Q 171 was still flying the flag that symbolises the real Freedom of the Seas.

Next to him was Kenneth Meredith, his bandaged head supported on a coir fender. Seeing the destroyer's sub-lieutenant, he made an effort to rise.

"Now lie still, my lad," said the doctor kindly, but authoritatively. "You can tell us all about it when we get you in the sick bay."

He turned to his companion.

"That youngster's got something on his chest that he wants to get rid of," he remarked. "I can't make out what he wants. P'raps you can. It will relieve his mind." The Sub of the Pylos knelt by Meredith's side.

"Well, what is it?" he asked.

Kenneth moved his lips in a vain endeavour to speak.

"This won't hurt him, I suppose?" inquired the sub-lieutenant, producing a spirit flask.

"Only a small nip," replied the doctor, as he busied himself with another case.

Kenneth drank the proffered brandy. The spirit put fresh life into him. He raised himself and pointed below, but no words came from his lips.

The Sub of the Pylos looked puzzled.

"It's all right," he replied soothingly. "She's as tight as a bottle. We'll tow her in yet."

Meredith shook his head.

"I'm on the wrong tack evidently," thought the Sub. "I wonder if he can write down what he wants."

He handed Kenneth a pencil and notebook. The wounded officer took them eagerly and, with trembling fingers feebly grasping the pencil, he wrote:

"Prisoners still below."

"Good enough," exclaimed the other. "I'll see to that."

Kenneth smiled, closed his eyes, and relapsed into unconsciousness.


* * * * *

Accompanied by a couple of hands, the sub-lieutenant of the Pylos went below and hurried aft.

Stretched at full length in the narrow alley-way was one of the mystery ship's crew. He had been detailed at the commencement of the action to mount guard outside the compartment in which von Preugfeld and von Loringhoven had been placed. His orders were, in the event of the ship beginning to sink, to liberate the prisoners and give them an equal chance with their captors of saving their lives.

Unknown to the rest of the crew, the sentry had been rendered insensible, apparently by concussion only, for no marks of injury were visible.

They found the key of the compartment lying on the floor within a few inches of the man's hand, but no amount of persuasion could shoot back the wards of the lock. They had jammed possibly through the same shock that had rendered the bluejacket unconscious.

"Stand clear inside there!" shouted the Sub warningly; then, placing the muzzle of his revolver a few inches off the door, he fired and shattered the lock.

The sight which met his eyes was an unexpected one. Ober-leutnant Hans von Preugfeld was lying on his back with a ghastly wound in his chest. Even in death his heavy Prussian features looked grim and forbidding.

In the far corner von Loringhoven was leaning against the bulkhead, pale-faced and terror-stricken, with three fingers of his right hand torn away.

"You're all right, old bean!" exclaimed the sub-lieutenant of the Pylos. "You'll enjoy the hospitality of Donnington Hall yet. Come along and let's see what our doc. can do for you."

In spite of every precaution that Morpeth had taken to safeguard his prisoners, Nemesis in the shape of a German shell had overtaken von Preugfeld. Placed for his protection as far below the water-line as possible, the ober-leutnant had been slain by a three-pounder shell, which, without exploding, had penetrated Q 171's side about two feet above the water-line. Glancing from the underside of the metal base of one of the triple torpedo-tubes, the missile had been deflected downwards. Penetrating the roof of the prisoners' cell, the pointed missile had gone completely through von Preugfeld's body and had ended its career by pulverising von Loringhoven's fingers and jamming the door.

By the time the Sub returned to the deck the work of rendering first aid to the wounded was accomplished. The Polyxo, having transferred the German crew as prisoners from the torpedo boat that Q 171 had rammed, was engaged in sending to the bottom the still floating portion. Already the light cruisers were returning, having been robbed of the fruits of complete victory by their foe taking shelter in neutral waters.

Twenty minutes later Q 171, taken in tow by the Pylos, was on her way back to Britannia's shores.




CHAPTER XXVIII

THE HOMECOMING

"It's time those scallywags of ours put in an appearance, Sparrowhawk," remarked Colonel Greyhouse of the Auldhaig Air Station. "They reported from Leith two days ago. We're short-handed, and there's a patrol needed to escort the light cruisers back."

"Quite true, sir," agreed Major Sparrowhawk. "I'll 'phone through. Because they had a joy-ride on a Q-boat is no excuse for kicking their heels around Leith and Edinburgh."

"And how's young Pyecroft?" inquired the C.O.

"Reported for duty this morning, sir," replied the second-in-command. "I asked him if he wanted sick leave and he declined."

Colonel Greyhouse raised his eyebrows in surprise. Never before had he known of a case of a junior officer refusing leave.

"Wonder what his game is?" he remarked, as he gathered his cap, gloves and stick from an untidy heap on the ante-room table.

Before the second-in-command could think of a suitable reply, the door was thrown open and the three absentees filed into the room—Captain Cumberleigh leading, followed by Lieutenants Blenkinson and Jefferson.

"Detained at Area Headquarters, sir," reported Captain Cumberleigh.

"All right," rejoined the C.O. drily. "As it happens, you're just in time, Major Sparrowhawk will give you your orders."

He went out, leaving the three returned officers exchanging inquiring glances.

"The light-cruiser squadron went out yesterday to give a leg-up to your pals in Q 171," explained the major. "There are U-boats knocking about off the north of the Dogger. The C.O. wants a couple of blimps to go out and get in touch with the cruisers."

"And Q 171: what of her, sir?" asked Blenkinson.

The major shook his head.

"No news has come through," he replied. "Apparently you fellows had an exciting time."

"Rather, sir," exclaimed Jefferson. "I suppose Pyecroft told you everything up to the time we lost sight of him. Plucky blighter, Pyecroft!"

"There's one point I'd like to mention, sir," remarked Cumberleigh.

"What's that?" asked Major Sparrowhawk.

"You owe me a double whisky," said Cumberleigh solemnly.

"By Jove, I do!" admitted the second-in-command. "You were right about that Fennelburt fellow. They are on his track, but I've had no news of his capture."

"That's why we were detained," explained Cumberleigh. "There's a 'tec—Entwistle is his name—on the spy's track. Almost nabbed him at York, but he managed to slip through the 'tec's fingers. This Entwistle came to Leith to ask us certain questions. It appears that Fennelburt's real name is Karl von Preussen, and he's a don hand at the game."

It was early on the following morning that the light-cruiser flotilla came into Auldhaig Harbour. All had their funnels blistered and stripped of paint, testifying to the efforts of the engine-room staff to break all records in the matter of speed. After them came the destroyers, a few showing signs of having been in action.

In single column line ahead they stole on at reduced speed, their passing greeted with resounding cheers from the crews of the vessels at anchor and from dense crowds of spectators who lined the shore. Silently, as if too modest to take unto themselves any credit for what they had done, the cruisers went to their appointed mooring-buoys and the destroyers disappeared from view within the entrance to the large basin in Auldhaig Dockyard.

But still the crowd refused to disperse.

They expected something more. Even the bald official Admiralty announcement—"One of our Light-Cruiser Squadrons, supported by destroyers, sighted and engaged enemy forces in the North Sea. Three enemy destroyers were sunk; the rest escaped, apparently heavily damaged. Our casualties were light"—had failed to keep one of the salient features of the action a secret. The inhabitants of Auldhaig remained on the shore, expecting, and were not disappointed of, a spectacle.

Well in the rear of the flotilla came three vessels, one towing another and the third steaming slowly a cable's length astern. Overhead, their envelopes glistening in the sunlight, were three coastal airships.

As the expected vessels drew nearer telescopes and field-glasses were levelled in a formidable battery by the throng.

"That's the Inattentive, sure," declared a man who wore a silver badge and had the appearance of a sailor despite the fact that one coat-sleeve was empty and pinned across his breast. "She's got the Q-boat in tow. Looks like the old Pylos coming up astern."

"Looks like a U-boat in tow," remarked another spectator. "P'raps they've captured her before her crew could sink her—dirty dogs!"

The Silver Badge man handed his telescope to a boy and tapped the second speaker on the shoulder.

"Look here, my man!" he exclaimed. "She's flying a flag, isn't she? What flag is it?"

"White Ensign—half-mast high," replied the other.

"Then what d'ye mean by saying she's a blinkin' U-boat?" demanded the ex-bluejacket hotly. "If she were, you'd be seein' that White Ensign flyin' over Fritz's rotten ensign. That, I tell you, is the Q-boat our light cruisers went out to bring in. And they've jolly well done it, too. Stand by, you chaps, an' give her a proper British cheer."

Slowly, very slowly, the Inattentive passed the Outer Bar Buoy, and turning close in shore followed the line of buoys marking the approach channel to Auldhaig Harbour.

The spectators wanted a sight. What they saw was a long hull, battered and scarred. The deck was little more than a litter of torn and riddled steelwork, but conspicuous among the debris was the muzzle of a dismounted quick-firer that tilted at an acute angle to the sky. Right aft a space had been cleared, and on it were rows of motionless figures wrapped in canvas hammocks. Clustered round the hastily repaired stanchion-rails were a few bandaged heroes whose appearance resembled that of tramps rather than British bluejackets.

Cheers? Not a sound. At the sight of the half-masted Ensign and the gallant dead lying upon the deck of the ship that they had fought so well, the desire to cheer was quelled. As if by a common impulse the crowd stood silent and bareheaded, as a tribute to those who had laid down their lives for King and Country.

But "Tough Geordie," Wakefield and Meredith were ignorant of the silent tribute. They were still unconscious.

With those dishevelled but undaunted survivors of her crew standing at attention, Q 171 glided past the port flagship, the towing hawser was slipped, and the battered mystery ship, taken in charge of a dockyard tug, was safely berthed alongside the jetty.

Ambulances were already in attendance, and the work of transferring the wounded to the naval hospital was immediately put in hand.

Wakefield opened his eyes as he was being carried up the broad steps into the building. Morpeth had a partial return to consciousness almost at the same time.

Looking round at the unfamiliar surroundings, he appeared to be solving some perplexing problem. His last conscious vision as he lay with a shattered arm upon the deck of the ship he had handled so magnificently was that of a man scrambling through the smoke and across a pile of debris to the triple torpedo-tubes. He watched the unknown hero fumbling over the releasing levers until at last a "tin fish" leapt from the only serviceable tube. Then in a swirl of pungent smoke the vision grew blurred and faded into nothingness.

"What I want to know is," he exclaimed with startling clearness, "who the blue blazes fired that last torpedo? 'Tany rate, it got her properly."

And Wakefield smiled to himself and closed his eyes again. But Kenneth Meredith was still in blissful ignorance of his surroundings.




CHAPTER XXIX

WHO FIRED THAT TORPEDO?

It was close on eight o'clock on a clear October evening that Kenneth Meredith, promoted to Lieutenant-Commander R.N.V.R., and having the distinctive letters D.S.C. tacked on to his name, was pacing the crowded departure platform at King's Cross.

Six months was a big chunk out of a man's life—six months of comparative idleness, spent partly in Haslar Hospital, partly in a convalescent home on the South Coast, and latterly at his own home. But carving fantastic-shaped pieces of shell—which, being German by origin, showed decided tendencies to produce gangrene—out of a patient and allowing the wounds to heal takes time, especially when the fragments are lodged in close proximity to the spine. For some weeks it was touch and go, but Meredith's record of clean living and high vitality were in his favour. And now he found himself at King's Cross, bound north to take command of M.L. 1497, attached to the fleet at Scapa Flow.

Only once since that memorable May evening when he travelled south in a hospital train had Kenneth been in London. That was a fortnight ago, when he had business at the Admiralty. Just outside the old entrance he encountered a burly, bearded man with one arm in a sling and the D.S.O. ribbon on his breast. It was Morpeth, very much down in the mouth despite the fact that he had been decorated by his Sovereign. The grievance was that "Tough Geordie's" sea-days were over. Neither the Royal Navy nor the Mercantile Marine has a use for a one-armed man. It was useless to remind My Lords that Nelson was one-armed, besides possessing only one eye. Autres temps, autres moeurs. So Morpeth was given a pension for wounds and sent out to join the vast and ever-increasing throng of wounded heroes, to jog along as best he might on a sum that, taking into consideration the low purchasing power of a "Bradbury," was barely sufficient to keep his head above water.

Apart from that chance meeting, Meredith had heard from Morpeth but twice. The R.N.R. officer was a bad correspondent at the best of times, and now, hampered by physical disabilities, he simply could not bring himself to put pen to paper.

It was different as far as Wakefield was concerned. Wakefield, too, had passed through some critical moments during his prolonged stay in hospital, but from the first, even though he had to correspond through the medium of a hospital nurse, he never failed to keep in touch with his late subordinate and brother-in-arms. He had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and had been appointed to M.L. 1499, also attached to the Scapa Flow Base.

The two R.N.V.R. officers had arranged to travel north together; but the hour fixed for the departure of the train was drawing nigh, and Wakefield, who usually made a point of being half an hour too early rather than half a minute too late, had not yet put in an appearance.

Already Meredith had secured a doubleberth sleeping compartment and had handed his compact kit over to the care of the guard. The passengers were exclusively Naval, Military, or Air Force. Bluejackets, holding their scanty kit in black silk scarves, were conversing with khaki-clad Tommies equipped with rifles and bayonets, "tin-hats" and other paraphernalia associated with that delectable region known as "The Front." There were men, too, clad in tropical uniform and wearing sun-helmets, whose appearance contrasted vividly with a party of fur-clad Engineers about to leave for Northern Russia. Amongst the officers, who for the most part had already secured their seats and had bought evening papers from the loud-yelling newsboys, could be seen every diversity of uniform. Naval rig predominated, but there were khaki-clad infantry officers, kilted Highlanders, R.A.F.'s in gorgeous if unserviceable light blue, slouch-hatted Australians and Canadians, flat brim-hatted New Zealanders, and a solitary subaltern of an Indian regiment wearing a turban. One and all were going to be shed from the crowded train at various stopping-places between King's Cross and Thurso, their diverse ways governed by an all-absorbing factor—to break for ever the menace of Prussian Kaiserism.

Everywhere a cheerful spirit pervaded. The end was in sight. After over four years of desperate fighting, in which there were dark periods when it seemed as if Germany was having much her own way, there were unmistakable signs that the Hun was "cracking up." On the naval side things had been going steadily worse with her since the glorious operations that resulted in the blocking of Zeebrugge and Ostend. Almost from that time the submarine menace paled. Convoys of merchantmen were continuously arriving unscathed at British ports; a huge American army had been successfully transported across the Atlantic, and the U-boats had been powerless to say them nay. Rumours, that were subsequently confirmed, were in the air that the Hun High Seas Fleet had been ordered out to commit felo-de-se under the guns of the Grand Fleet, and that the crews had declined to sacrifice their lives even to please the whim of the arch cannon-fodder provider, the Emperor Wilhelm.

And on land things were no better for the Hun. His stupendous attempt to break through at Arras had failed. Another desperate effort against Paris had resulted in his masses being thrown back dispirited and disorganised. All along the line between the North Sea and the Swiss Frontier the field-grey troops were being pushed back, while elsewhere their allies—Turkish, Austrian, and Bulgarian—were practically "down and out."

Amongst the naval people the news was received phlegmatically. Rumours of a German naval mutiny had been received before—perhaps it was a move on Germany's part to throw us off our guard. It seemed impossible to think otherwise but that the Hun High Seas Fleet would put to sea as a forlorn hope. British naval officers generously tried to credit the Germans with a sense of honour approaching their own; hence they could not expect anything else but a big scrap before the end. It would be a foregone conclusion, but it would give the Huns a chance to vindicate themselves and the British to clinch the opportunity that they had missed at Jutland.

While his fellow passengers were discussing the world-wide situation in general and the naval one in particular, Meredith was still keeping watch for his chum Wakefield. Almost at the last minute Wakefield hove in sight, cheery and smiling as of yore, having in tow a bearded, greatcoated individual whom Meredith recognised as "Tough Geordie Morpeth."

"Let's get aboard," exclaimed Wakefield briskly. "We can kag afterwards.... Yes; Morpeth's coming along, too.... Never mind about a porter; we'll sling this gear into the corridor. In you hop, Morpeth. My word! it was a narrow shave, eh, what?"

The three edged along the corridor, making their way over handbags and portmanteaux until they came to the compartment Meredith had secured.

"Leave your kit here," he remarked. "I'll find the attendant and get you a berth, Morpeth. S'pose you're going beyond York?"

He looked inquiringly at the bearded R.N.R. man, who wore a brand-new uniform under his sea-stained greatcoat.

"Yes, to Scapa, too," he replied. "I've got a shore berth there. Goodness knows how. Someone put their oar in for me—must have done. Anyhow, it's good money and a chance to get afloat occasionally, so I jumped at it. 'Fraid it's only for the duration though."

And he sighed deeply. Like many another man whose heart and soul are wrapped up in his work, he both longed for and dreaded the time when "Fritz chucked his hand in."

Meredith helped him off with his coat.

"Jolly strange," remarked Morpeth, "being one-armed; but I'm getting used to it. Often I can feel my missing fingers—absolute fact."

He sat down on an upturned suit-case and proceeded to fill his well-blackened pipe with a dexterity that surprised his companions. "That's a thing I've no use for now," he added, indicating a razor that Wakefield was removing from a handbag. "Being single-handed, in a manner of speaking, gives me an excuse for not shaving."

Just then a short, thick-set man in the rig of a commander R.N.R. thrust his head through the doorway.

"Sorry," he exclaimed apologetically. "Thought there might be a vacant berth. Why, dash my wigs, it's 'Tough Geordie'!"

"Anderson, my lad, delighted! Squeeze in. We'll find a tot of something. I've a flask in my bag. Wakefield, an old chum of mine. And this is a young chum—Meredith by name."

"Let me see," remarked the commander. "Weren't you in a Q-boat? Yes, I thought so. Had many exciting stunts?"

"A few," replied Morpeth modestly. "One of the rummiest was when Wakefield tried to knock paint off my old hooker with his six-pounders, and I sank his little M.L."

"Accidents will happen," quoted Commander Anderson. "I nearly sank one of our own submarines once.... But your missing arm.... and the D.S.O. ribbon—what about that?"

"A little scrap," explained Morpeth. "I don't know why they gave me the D.S.O., although they said I torpedoed a Hun destroyer. For details ask Wakefield; he's our torpedo expert."

Wakefield flushed hotly.

"I don't know what you mean," he expostulated.

The conversation flowed into other channels, continuing briskly until someone suggested turning in.

Anderson said good-night, and resumed his interrupted search for somewhere to lay his head. Morpeth was about to follow Meredith to the berth the latter had secured for him, when Wakefield called the R.N.R. man back.

"Say," he remarked, lapsing into one of his Canadian-acquired expressions, "what did you mean when you told the merchant I was a torpedo expert?"

"Tough Geordie's" face wrinkled more than usual, as he playfully prodded Wakefield in the ribs with the fingers of his remaining hand.

"You're a sly dog, Wakefield," he chuckled; "but you can't get to wind'ard of Geordie Morpeth. Happened to meet one of my ship's company at Waterloo this morning, and he told me something that's been puzzling me for months past. You were the blighter who slapped that torpedo into the Hun torpedo boat; and that's what got me this."

And he touched the bit of ribbon on his coat.

"Tut, tut!" expostulated Wakefield. "No; I can't deny it since you've taxed me with it. But let the thing drop, Morpeth. If you don't, I'm hanged if I'll take you for a joy-ride in my M.L. as long as I'm at Scapa Flow. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you dear old thing!"




CHAPTER XXX

A NIGHT OF COINCIDENCES

It was late on the following day when Meredith and his companions, together with close on six hundred naval ratings and a corresponding quantity of kit and baggage, found themselves dumped down upon the platform at Thurso. The long Highland night had fallen, bringing with it wind and rain in plenty, and altogether things looked too desolate for words. It was bitterly cold, too, and occasionally drifting flakes of snow eddied in the howling wind.

"Cheerful sort of show, this!" exclaimed Wakefield, as he buttoned the storm-flap of his waterproof coat. "Can't say I like the idea of this part as a cruising-ground. Auldhaig was bad enough at times, but this!"

"Wonder our fellows could stick it, summer and winter, for over four, years," remarked Meredith. "Hark at the roar of the surf! And Thurso's in a bay, isn't it?"

For the most part the bluejackets were accepting the conditions with the same equanimity as when they fall in on the lower deck for dinner. Clad in glistening oilskins, and gripping their bundles, they formed up and marched off to a long shed to partake of refreshment, laughing and cutting jokes like overgrown schoolboys.

The officers, too, were sorting themselves out and drifting away in search of a repast. Their baggage was left to take care of itself. Far from the Metropolis, and free from the inconveniences of being at the mercy of opulent and independent porters, Thurso was run strictly on Service lines. There was no necessity on the part of the owners to worry about their luggage. Under the supervision of a "baggage officer" a crowd of bluejackets threw themselves upon the weird assortment of "officers' effects," and in due course the luggage, marshalled and sorted, would be transferred to various tenders for conveyance to the Fleet.

Presently the refreshment-rooms disgorged their temporary occupants. Voices in the night were heard shouting, "Men for Furious fall in." "Iron Dukes to the right." "Ninth Destroyer Flotilla men, this way"—until the hitherto jumbled crowd of humanity was formed up into a distinct semblance of order.

In fours the bluejackets marched along the pier to embark on various tugs and harbour craft that were to take them to their respective ships across the wild Pentland Firth, their movements regulated by a bull-throated piermaster, whose capacity for organisation alone, apart from the cap, greatcoat and sea-boots, would have proclaimed him to be a naval officer.

At frequent intervals he would be interrupted to answer questions by harassed officers and men, yet with the ease of a Cook's courier he would supply the necessary information and then revert to his main task of supervising the embarkation.

"M.L.'s?" he exclaimed, in answer to Wakefield's query. "Take passage in Growler. She's lying at No. 3 berth.... What's that? Beach-master at Skelda Holm? H'm! let me see. Yes! you'd better carry on with the M.L. party. You'll find a duty boat at Scapa."

"So we don't part company yet awhile," said Morpeth. "Lead on, Wakefield, and let's get out of the rain. I can stick plenty of salt spray, but I'm hanged if I like this."

They found the Growler, a tubby twin-screw tug, grinding against the pier, massive rope fenders notwithstanding. On board were half a dozen R.N.V.R. officers and about fifty men. The former eyed the newcomers keenly, as if expecting to find former acquaintances.

"Give us your paw, laddie. I am delighted to see you," exclaimed a hearty voice, as a big, muscular hand gripped Meredith's shoulder. "Bless me, and Wakefield too!"

"McIntosh!" ejaculated Meredith. "What are you doing here?"

"I'll tell ye all in guid time," replied the R.N.V.R. officer, whose shoulder-straps denoted that he was a Sub no longer but a full-blown lieutenant. "But just tell me: where's that golf club of mine I gave you to mend?"

"'Fraid it's at the bottom of the North Sea," replied Meredith. "'All goods left at owner's risk,' you know. But tell me when did you leave Auldhaig?"

"Last May," replied Jock gloomily. "After I lost that confounded lighter my name was Mud. They gave me an M.L., but she's a swine. She's known as the Scapa Misfit—an' she is," he added bitterly. "There's been three fires in the galley—petrol stoves are a curse—once I stove her bows in 'cause the rudder chains jammed, and now she's laid up with a fractured cylinder. Hope she is still!"

"Chuck it, you bloomin' pessimist!" exclaimed Wakefield boisterously. "Say you re glad to see us——"

"I did," declared McIntosh. "And my Sub! He's what you'd call a knock-out. I'll swop with you, Meredith. P'raps you could make something of him—give him poison, or muzzle him, or shanghai him."

"What's he done?" asked Kenneth.

Before Jock McIntosh could go very far into the reasons why Sub-lieutenant Jasper Clinch was the bane of his existence, the piermaster came hurrying along the jetty.

"Too bad outside," he yelled, addressing the skipper of the tug. "We've just got orders to transfer the men to Wick. It will be an easier passage."

The master of the Growler signified acquiescence. He gave a jerk at the engine-room telegraph, shouted "Finished with the engines, George!" and descended the bridge with the air of a man who has suddenly come into a small fortune. In his case it was a stroke of rattling good luck. Expecting a tempestuous trip across the swirling "Swilkie"—one of the most dangerous "tidal races" round the British Isles—he was greatly surprised and relieved to find that his orders had been countermanded.

One man's meat is another man's poison. This axiom was clearly demonstrated when the order came for all officers and men to disembark, entrain once more, and proceed to Wick—a railway journey of about twenty miles, tedious enough when tacked on to long hours of travelling.

Upon arrival at Wick another surprise awaited Wakefield and Meredith, for on the pier-head they encountered Jefferson and Pyecroft.

"Cheerio!" exclaimed Jefferson. "So we are to be shipmates again! Hope neither of us is a Jonah this trip. D'ye remember that old lighter?"

"Yes, rather," replied Meredith. "Coincidences are tumbling over one another tonight. McIntosh, let me introduce you to Jefferson and Pyecroft. They picked up the X-barge you lost."

"They were welcome to her," remarked McIntosh. "So you fellows saw the inside of a U-boat?"

"Yes," admitted Jefferson. "I did. Pyecroft, here, preferred a swim in the North Sea. By the by, Meredith, old Cumberleigh's knocking around somewhere. He was on the pier five minutes ago. We're off to Stenness Air Station—it's not far from Scapa—for aerial observation duties. Hello! This our boat?"

A large, two-funnelled vessel was approaching the jetty, her decks deserted save for a few muffled and greatcoated passengers. Usually she brought a full complement of liberty men from the Grand Fleet, but now, in anticipation of a move on the part of the Hun Navy, all leave had been stopped.

"Better than crossing in a tug," commented Wakefield. "And we'll be under the lee of the land till we clear Duncansbay Head. Hello! here's Cumberleigh. Cheerio!"

Greetings were exchanged between the R.A.F. captain and the R.N.V.R. officers, while Morpeth came in for a fair share of congratulations.

"Thank goodness I found my sea-legs aboard your old hooker, Morpeth," remarked Cumberleigh. "My word, there's a swell running!"

The steamer made fast. The wire hawsers were made fast and the gangways run out.

"Bless my soul," ejaculated McIntosh, pointing to a cloaked figure descending the gangway, "'if that isn't my Sub! Wonder what he's doing here?"

He detached himself from the crowd and confronted Sub-lieutenant Jasper Clinch.

"Hello, Sub!" he exclaimed. "Got leave?"

"No," was the reply. "No such luck. The S.N.O. ordered me to Auldhaig. There's a Court of Inquiry about something. Has the train left yet?"

Jefferson nudged Cumberleigh in the ribs.

"Good enough!" exclaimed the R.A.F. captain, and to the surprise of everyone standing around, the two officers literally leapt at the astounded Clinch.

Before the latter had time to consider the situation he was lying on his back on the wet and muddy jetty, with Cumberleigh sitting on his chest and Jefferson gripping his ankles.

"Find the A.P.M., somebody," exclaimed Cumberleigh in an exultant tone; "or a picquet will answer the purpose. Now then, Captain Fennelburt, or whatever you call yourself—no, don't wriggle, it's bad form—there's no need to worry about the Auldhaig train. You'll soon be in safe quarters, my festive!"




CHAPTER XXXI

THE GREAT SURRENDER

"Supposing the Huns won't sign," remarked Wakefield, somewhat wistfully.

"They will," said Meredith reassuringly. "We've got them cold—absolutely."

"And the sooner the better," added Jock McIntosh. "It was a close thing to say who would be fed up first—Fritz or us. Fritz did win that, but by a short length."

"You are speaking for yourself, my lad," said Wakefield. "You can see your release in sight, but I'll bet you'll be wishing yourself back again before you're out six months."

It was the morning of the memorable 11th day of November. The three M.L. skippers, just back from patrol, had foregathered in the ward-room of No. 1497 during the period known as "stand easy."

The M.L.'s were lying in a fairly sheltered creek—one of the numerous indentations of Scapa Flow. Beyond a neck of rocky ground could be discerned a forest of tripod masts and lofty funnels, marking the war-time anchorage of the most powerful fleet that the world has yet seen.

"You are a bit far-seeing, my festive," remarked Meredith.

"I am," admitted Wakefield. "After four years of it, are we going to settle down to a humdrum life, rubbing shoulders with those blighters who stayed at home and made pots of money out of the Empire's days of supreme trial? Can you imagine yourself, Meredith, on the beach with all your kit, demobbed and with nothing to do? It'll come to that. The Government were jolly glad to get hold of us, and when the war is over it'll be a case of 'Thank you and get out.' There will be thousands of young fellows, used to command and innured to peril, who will be literally on their beam ends, because they never had the chance of completing their peace-time education."

"There's the sea behind us," suggested Meredith.

"Is there?" questioned Wakefield, "I doubt it, unless it's potting around in private yachts and small sailing-boats. We've learnt to handle M.L.'s pretty efficiently, but after the war you try for a post as skipper of a trading steamer. Think you'll get it? You won't. You'll be up against all the red tape of Board of Trade officialdom and all that sort of thing. But Fritz hasn't accepted the terms of the Armistice yet."

"By the by," remarked Kenneth. "Have you heard any more news of Cumberleigh's pal, Karl von Preussen?"

"Now, how could I?" expostulated Wakefield. "Haven't we been on patrol for umpteen hours? Just before we left we heard that he was being sent under escort to London."

"He's a plucky fellow, in any case," observed McIntosh.

"Deucedly daring," corrected Wakefield.

"I don't know," remarked Meredith. "It may be pluck or daring, or both. Hanged if I should like the job! Yet both sides employ spies. These fellows go about their work with the utmost certainty of finding themselves up against a wall and looking down the muzzles of a dozen rifles if they're caught."

"Seems to me it's a despicable sort of job," said Wakefield, as he relit his pipe. "Sort of stabbing-your-foeman-in-the-back business. If, for instance, von Preussen hadn't been at Auldhaig the chances are that Morpeth wouldn't have lost his arm, and a dozen or so Q 171's men wouldn't have been killed in action."

"And yet, from von Preussen's point of view, his activities resulted in two Hun submarine-cruisers being prevented from being sent to the bottom," argued Meredith. "Put the boot on the other foot and imagine von Preussen working for us, you'd say he was a dashed smart fellow. Hello! here's Cumberleigh coming alongside."

A dinghy had just brought the R.A.F. captain from the beach, and Cumberleigh was looking down the ward-room ladder.

"Come down," sung out Meredith, who, since the informal gathering was held on his M.L., was master of the ceremonies. "We're discussing your friend, von Preussen. We were debating whether he were plucky or not."

"He's slippery, at any rate," declared Cumberleigh, as he settled himself in one comer of the settee and lit a cigarette. "You know I was warned as a witness at the court-martial. Rotten job giving evidence against a fellow. To my mind it's like murdering him in cold blood. I was to have left for London this afternoon, but this morning I had a wire postponing the most unpleasant duty. Then I learnt from the adjutant that von Preussen was at liberty again."

"Released?" asked Meredith and Wakefield in one voice.

"After a fashion," replied Cumberleigh.

"Details please?"

"There are none—except that he managed to escape. However, I don't fancy von Preussen will count after to-day. The Armistice——"

"Has it been signed?" asked McIntosh.

Before Cumberleigh could reply there came a low roar of distant cheering, accompanied by the hooting of steam whistles and the long-drawn boom of sirens.

"By Jove!" exclaimed Wakefield.

The four officers started to their feet and scrambled indecorously for the ladder. Gaining the deck, they found the signalman of the anchored M.L.'s taking in a message from the swiftly moving arms of a shore semaphore.

"What is it, Signalman?" inquired Meredith.

"'Report rounds of quick-firing ammunition on board,' sir," was the unexpected reply.

But on the heels of the first came a second signal——

"ARMISTICE SIGNED."

The M.L. crews cheered lustily. Hostilities had ceased. Gone, for all time presumably, were those long, tedious vigils on the grey North Sea, those hazardous patrols through the mine-infested waters, those anxious nights when, blow high or blow low, the frail little craft had to put to sea on an apparently trivial errand.

Germany had caved in. Without striking a blow, the powerful fleet with which the Kaiser had hoped to wrest the trident from Britannia's grasp was to pass into inglorious internment. The strangle-hold of the British Navy had triumphed.

More than that. The Freedom of the Seas was established more firmly than before. In the subsequent words of Sir David Beatty, "The surrender of the German Fleet has secured the Freedom of the Seas for such as pass thereon upon their lawful occasions, and is a testimony to the value of sea power which the people of the British Empire will forget at their peril."

A week later the vast anchorage of Scapa Flow was practically empty. The Grand Fleet had left for the Firth of Forth to arrange the actual surrender of the pick of Germany's battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Of the U-boats the first batch of a total of 120 was due to arrive at Harwich on the 20th, but "Beatty's Day" was fixed for the 21st.

"Here's luck, Meredith," exclaimed Wakefield. "Five of us are to represent the M.L. flotillas, and have a joy-trip to meet Fritz. The S.N.O.'s just drawn the names. You're one, and so am I, so pack up and get ready. We're to be temporarily accommodated on board the Lion."

The Day dawned grey and misty as the mighty steel-clad battleships steamed eastward to meet their surrendering foes. Grey predominated everywhere, from the leaden-coloured skies to the leaden-hued water churned by the propellers of a hundred grey-hulled warships. The fluttering White Ensign and the Admirals' flags flying from the leading ships of each division provided a fitting contrast to the otherwise sombre yet soul-inspiring pageant of "Might and Right."

"We're taking no risks," thought Meredith, as a bugle rang for "Action Stations." "It only shows how low a Hun's honour is rated."

Silently yet rapidly the battle-cruiser's ship's company fell in at their appointed stations. The securing chains of the huge turrets were cast off and the monster guns trained and elevated to test the intricate mechanism. The quick-firers were manned and trained abeam, ammunition was sent up from the magazines, torpedoes launched home into the under-water tubes, fire hoses were coupled up and watertight doors closed. Officers and men, with gas-masks ready to hand, were keenly on the alert, those whose stations prevented them from seeing what was going on without plying their more fortunate comrades with eager questions.

Kenneth and Wakefield were standing just under the fore-bridge. Above them every tier of "Monkey Island" bore its quota of sightseers, all looking steadily ahead into the grey mirk in a kind of competition as to who should first discern the masts of the expected Hun ships.

"Think they'll show up? If so, will they fight?" asked Wakefield.

A naval officer standing by answered him.

"They'll show up all right. As to fighting, it's a toss up. Judging from our standpoint, I shouldn't be surprised if they did; but, by Jove! they will be smashed in twenty rounds."

The whirr of an aerial propeller sounded overhead, and a large seaplane, literally skimming over the fore-topmast truck, raced noisily eastward, and was lost to sight in the grey dawn. Another, passing well to windward, followed, and then a huge airship, her yellow gas-bag glinting in the pale light, sailed serenely overhead at a great height. The scouts of the modern navy were at work.

"They're coming, sir!" announced a messenger, as he flung himself at the bridge ladder. "Airship's just wirelessed through."

"Then that's done it—one way or the other," murmured the naval officer. "I look like getting Christmas leave after all."

Approaching rapidly, came the line of pale-grey Hun battle-cruisers, led by the British light cruiser Cardiff. As far as could be seen, they flew no ensigns. Either in fear or in shame they hesitated to hoist the dishonoured Black Cross—the battle-cruisers had figured prominently in the raid on Scarboro' and Hartlepool, and the Huns were far from comfortable at the thought of their reception.

The German vessels had rigorously carried out the conditions of surrender. Their guns were trained fore and aft. The slightest deviation from that position would invite a veritable tornado of shells into the vitals of any ship that disregarded that command. Their own supply of ammunition had been left ashore, together with the war-heads of their torpedoes. The huge warships were like pythons with their poisonous fangs removed—formidable in appearance yet powerless to do harm.

From the British flagship a string of bunting streamed in the wind. With mathematical precision the two parallel columns turned sixteen degrees in succession, so that the head of each line was parallel to and on the same course as the leading German vessel.

Simultaneously the Huns hoisted their colours. Surrounded by a galaxy of White Ensigns, the Black Cross fleet was being shepherded into captivity, while the British battle-cruisers, led by the Lion, formed a supplementary column betwixt the Hun vessels and the British battleships following the mighty Queen Elizabeth.

The "Cat Squadron" had been within sight and within range of the German battle-cruisers on more than one previous occasion, but for the first time since the outbreak of war the former were almost within hailing distance of the hitherto elusive but much-sought-after Seidlitz, Derfflinger, Moltke, and Von der Tann.

And so into the Firth of Forth passed the Hun Armada on the first stage of the final journey to Scapa Flow. One signal did the gallant Beatty make. It was brief, peremptory, and left in its exactitude no possibility for doubt. It was sent to Admiral von Reuter, the Commander-in-Chief of the surrendered fleet:

"The German Flag is to be hauled down at 15.57 to-day, Thursday, and is not to be hoisted again without permission."

Precisely at sunset, the time mentioned in the signal, the Black Cross Ensign fluttered down on every Hun ship—but von Reuter had his tongue in his cheek.

It was a fitting climax to the Bloodless Trafalgar of November 21, 1918.




CHAPTER XXXII

A NAVY IMPOTENT

Throughout the winter and the following spring Kenneth Meredith still carried on at Scapa. Wakefield, too, was temporarily retained, but otherwise the band of R.N.V.R. officers and men of the M.L. patrol was steadily and rapidly diminishing.

Almost brand-new boats would steam out for the last time, bound south to lie, neglected and forlorn, in a Hampshire river, where a tier, four-deep and lengthening daily, was one of the many signs that the Great War was practically over, even if Peace were not yet signed.

Jock McIntosh was one of the first to be "demobbed." He went smilingly, confident of the future, yet something about him seemed to strike Meredith that his bright, almost jocular demeanour was a little simulated.

There were reductions amongst the Air Force people, too. Blenkinson and Jefferson went almost at the same time, reluctantly, into an unaccustomed world to start life afresh, as it were—Blenkinson into an office, setting aside the "joy-stick" to take up the pen; Jefferson into slightly more congenial surroundings—to wit, a large motor business.

Some months later Pyecroft went, via a demobilisation centre in the south of England, to take up the almost forgotten threads of study at an Engineering College.

Of all the R.A.F. fellows who, by chance, had been Meredith's comrades on board Q 171, only Cumberleigh remained, "carrying on" until the order came for the Air Station to "pack up."

During those months following the Armistice, Kenneth and Wakefield saw a good deal of Cumberleigh. Although there was much work to be done with the remaining M.L.'s, there was plenty of opportunity for leisure, and it was not to be wondered at that after months of strenuous and perilous occupation there was a decided tendency to "slack." Joy-riding, both afloat and in the air, was freely indulged in. For one thing, it "kept one's hand in," and it was better to make use of both boat and machine than to allow them to rust and deteriorate for want of use.

Several times Meredith accompanied Cumberleigh on a flight in a blimp over the interned German fleet. It was a novel sensation, driving along at fifty miles an hour in a motor-propelled gas-bag above the now impotent Hun navy and observing battleship, battle-cruiser, cruiser and destroyer rusting at their respective moorings.

"I can't imagine why we don't shunt those Huns," remarked Cumberleigh, during one flight. The ignition of both motors had been switched off and the blimp was floating almost motionless in the still air. "They're supposed to be 'care and maintenance parties,' but I'm hanged if I've ever seen them at work. The ships ought to have been surrendered and prize crews put on board."

"Wakefield and I were talking to a pukka commander on the very subject," said Meredith. "He quite agreed that Fritz ought to be shunted, but it appears that the Allied Council insists upon the German ships being kept in a state of internment."

"What for?" asked Cumberleigh.

"Pending a decision as to their disposal," replied Meredith. "Personally I think it's rather a good scheme towing the lot out to sea and sinking them, as the Admiralty suggested."

"Why?" asked the R.A.F. captain. "It would be a precious waste of good material."

"It would," agreed Kenneth; "but at the same time it would do away with any danger of friction between the Allies as to the sharing-out deal. Without a doubt it was the British Navy that brought about the surrender. The Yanks, too, helped considerably. But neither we nor the Americans want the ships. France, Italy and Japan might; but there, you see, is a chance of squabbling. However, there they are, and seem likely to remain until Peace is signed."

"At the same time it's a risky business leaving Fritz on board," declared Cumberleigh. "Everyone on the station is of the same opinion, but, I hear, the Commander-in-Chief is helpless in the matter. Virtually the ships are German territory, even though they daren't hoist their dirty flags."

"And we cannot board them to see what's going on," added Meredith. "All we can do is to overhaul the weekly relief boat to see that she carries no war material. There was a yarn knocking around that the Huns were deliberately tampering with the big guns."

"Yes," said Cumberleigh, "cutting deep grooves round the chases and filling them in with putty and paint, so that if they were fired they would burst and kill the guns' crews. That was authenticated, and photographs printed showing Fritz's rotten trick."

"The Hun relief boat's due to-morrow," observed Meredith. "Wakefield and I have to meet her at the entrance to Pentland Firth. Like to come along with us?"

"Delighted," replied Cumberleigh, as he motioned to the mechanic to "carry on." "Look there a minute," he added. "See that Hun just abaft the after-turret?"

Kenneth levelled his binoculars upon the deck of the ship indicated—the giant Hindenburg. The blimp was barely five hundred feet up, and at that height it seemed as if one could touch the trucks of her mast with a fishing-rod.

Standing on the quarter-deck was a burly German bluejacket. Others were sitting or sprawling on the formerly almost sacred deck, where no officer or man would step without saluting the Black Cross Ensign. The fellow had his head thrown back and was gazing upwards at the British coastal airship, the while making hideous grimaces and shaking his fist, while his comrades were laughing at his antics and doubtless applauding his expressions of anger.

"Sort of thing you'd expect from a Hun," observed Cumberleigh. "He knows we can't strafe him, so I suppose he thinks he's getting some satisfaction in making faces at us."

Meredith replaced his glasses.

"Yes," he remarked. "Case of little things please little minds. Good heavens! Can you imagine our fleet lying in captivity at Kiel? I can't. And yet those fellows don't seem to realise their rotten position in the slightest."

"Well, we've seen all that there is to be seen," said Cumberleigh. "Outwardly the Hun fleet seems in statu quo, but I'd like to know what's going on 'tween decks."

"And so would a good many people," added Meredith.

The noise of the motors interrupted further conversation, as the blimp, describing a graceful curve, headed for the distant sheds.

The airship made a faultless descent. With plenty of hands available, she was guided into her lofty stable, while Meredith, declining an invitation to stay to lunch at the mess, bade Cumberleigh good-day.

"And don't forget to-morrow," he added. "We are getting under way at nine."

At the landing-stage he encountered Morpeth.

"Been up?" inquired "Tough Geordie." "I mean to have a trip aloft before I finish here."

"Find things a bit dull?" asked Kenneth.

"A bit," admitted Morpeth. "Since the Grand Fleet pushed off there's not much doing. A fellow gets sick of looking at a crowd of Hun ships day after day and not knowing what's going on."

"Eh?" inquired Kenneth curiously.

"'Twouldn't have been my way with the brutes," explained Morpeth. "Practically leaving them to their own devices. We made them come out: why can't we put the stopper on them?"

"What's the matter with your foot?" asked Meredith, noticing that his "companion walked with a slight limp.

"For over four years," he said, "I never had a chance to lay a Fritz out. I don't call blowing a few dozen up the same thing. But I did to-day. I was up beyond Stenness, where you know the Huns are allowed the run of the show. Hanged if I didn't bear a woman yelling like billy-o. So I ran up in double quick time and found three Huns robbing her hen-roost. Took a fowl under her very nose, as cool as brass. When they saw me they looked a bit scared, until they found that I had only one arm and there was no one else about. Three of them to a one-armed man is about their mark. They showed fight. So did I. I forgot my missing arm and imagined I was handling Dagoes in the old Foul Anchor Line. Biffed one right in the jaw, staggered another on the solar plexus. The third hooked it."

"And your foot?"

"Travelled a little faster than the fellow who hooked it," replied Morpeth grimly. "Three knots faster, I'll allow, but I forgot that I was wearing thin shoes and not fat, solid sea-boots. By the way Fritz yelled I reckon I hurt him more than he did me, and he won't go robbing hen-roosts again in a hurry."

"Have a trip to-morrow?" asked Meredith. "We're going out to look for the Hun relief ship. Cumberleigh's coming."

"Suppose I can manage it," replied Morpeth. "I'll fix it up with my opposite number. Right-o. I'll be aboard by eight bells."




CHAPTER XXXIII

THE RELIEF VESSEL

The next day dawned bright and clear. Hardly a ripple disturbed the placid surface of the Flow, although beyond the harbour the flood tide was boiling and seething through the Pentland Firth, with a roar that sounded like a continuous peal of thunder.

M.L.'s 1497 and 1499 were ready to cast off when Cumberleigh stepped on board the former—Meredith's command. Morpeth had forestalled the R.A.F. officer by a good hour.

"When do you pick her up?" inquired Cumberleigh, referring to the German vessel bringing stores and relief crews to the fleet in bondage. "I hope," he added anxiously, "that it won't be like that."

He pointed to the turbulent tidal current. "We'll be miles outside that," replied Meredith. "I expect to sight her fifteen or twenty miles east of Duncansbay Head—off the Pentland Skerries, to be exact. Hullo! Wakefield's moving."

With much spluttering of exhausts, No. 1499 swung out, gathered way, and headed for the open sea.

"Let go for'ard... let go aft!" ordered Meredith.

He invariably took the helm himself when leaving or approaching the harbour. A true son of the sea, he delighted in feeling the kick of the helm and the lift of the little craft to the curling waves. Yet, sadly, he realised that the time was drawing near when no more would he sail under the White Ensign and have the responsibility of command. For the future he would either relegate to an amateur yachtsman or go as a passenger on a pleasure steamer when he went afloat. Vaguely he wondered whether it would be anything like holding command. He thought not.

He had had a letter from Pyecroft that morning. Pyecroft was literally eating his heart out in Bournemouth, already utterly fed up with civilian life.

"I went up yesterday," he wrote. "They're running flights at two guineas a head in a Handley-Page. Couldn't resist it; but, by Jove! it was as dull as ditch-water having to watch another bloke at the joystick. Just fancy paying two guineas, when I was paid twelve bob a day in the Service for practically the same thing. And the price of everything! I never realised it when I was in the R.A.F. I tell you, it will knock the bottom out of my gratuity when I get it."

"Sufficient is the day..." thought Meredith, and as the M.L. took the first comber over her sharp bows and flung a shower of spray completely over the fluttering pennant, he threw forebodings to the winds.

"Fine little boat, eh, what?" he exclaimed, addressing Morpeth, who like an old war-dog was revelling in the sensation of being afloat once more. "Take her, if you like."

"Tough Geordie" did so with alacrity. To him it was a novel sensation. Apart from the fact that he was no longer commander of a vessel, and had perforce to spend his time superintending the embarking and landing of bluejackets and naval stores, he had been used to handling ships of large tonnage. To him No. 1497 appeared like a swift skimming-dish, and required but little helm to make her turn almost in her own length.

"Fine little craft!" he declared enthusiastically. "Takes some getting used to. I feel like a carter riding a Derby winner. Hello! Destroyer on our starboard quarter."

"Yes," said Meredith. "She stands by while we board—just a matter of precaution, you know. We can run alongside a vessel; but if she took on the boarding stunts he'd have to lower a boat."

He gave orders for the M. L. to show her distinguishing number, then, having received the acknowledgment from the destroyer, Meredith told off one of the crew to take the helm.

An hour and a half later the two M.L.'s arrived at the rendezvous. There was no sign of the Hohenhoorn—the expected relief ship.

"Another dirty trick of Fritz's to keep us barging about in a seaway," bawled Wakefield through a megaphone. "Sorry I can't have you fellows on board to lunch."

"Don't want any, thanks," replied Cumberleigh feelingly. It was a far different motion, running dead slow in an M.L., from that of the heavily-ballasted Q 171. He was beginning to feel unpleasantly warm in the region immediately below the buckle of his belt.

"Nothing like a little rifle practice to buck a fellow up," shouted Wakefield. "I'll tow a bottle astern. Bet you fifty cigarettes you don't smash it in a dozen rounds."

"Done," replied Cumberleigh; and the skipper of M.L. 1499 proceeded to carry out his share of the programme.

Even at a bare five knots the bottle was a difficult target as it bobbed and zigzagged in the wake of the M.L. At the sixth shot Cumberleigh began to lose his optimism; at the ninth he looked positively glum; at the eleventh, that ricochetted clean over the target, he turned to Meredith.

"The barrel isn't leaded, is it?" he inquired. "I had the beastly bottle dead on the sights every time."

"One more to go," observed Kenneth.

Cumberleigh raised the rifle to his shoulder, took careful aim, and pressed the trigger. The bullet struck the water a couple of yards beyond the untouched target.

"You've won," shouted Cumberleigh.

"Have you a pistol on board?" inquired Morpeth, who had been a silent but interested spectator.

"Yes," replied Kenneth.

"I'll borrow it, then," continued Morpeth. "Ahoy, there! Will you take me on the same terms?"

"Right-o," replied Wakefield.

"A hundred yards," commented "Tough Geordie," thrusting the weapon under the stump of his left arm, and opening the breech to ascertain that the chambers were loaded.

Without any apparent effort, and with what appeared to be a careless movement, Morpeth raised the weapon.

"Bang! bang! bang!" it barked in quick succession.

"A hit!" exclaimed Cumberleigh enthusiastically, as the bottle leapt almost clear of the swirling wake.

"No," replied Morpeth. "I've only cut the towline."

Thrice more the heavy pistol barked. At the sixth shot the bottle, smashed to fragments, disappeared from view.

"Not bad," commented Morpeth modestly. "Considering the lively platform, it wasn't a bad shot."

"A capital shot, by Jove!" declared Kenneth.

"S'pose I'm a bit out of practice," exclaimed the R.N.R. officer. "It used to be a favourite pastime in the old Foul Anchor Line. You see, if a Dago thought of using a knife, he'd consider twice when he knew a fellow could shoot straight. For my own part, I'd as lief use my fist in a close scrap, but you can't hit a periscope at two hundred yards with your fist. One of our skippers shattered one at two hundred—that was early in '15, when Fritz wasn't so careful as he was later—and it wasn't all luck either. He was a good shot, and no mistake."

By this time Cumberleigh's threatened indisposition had passed away, and when a little later the Hohenhoorn was sighted he had completely regained his sea-legs.

In answer to an International Code signal the German vessel slowed down, and finally lost way within a couple of cables' lengths of Meredith's command.

"Coming aboard?" inquired Kenneth, as No. 1497 ran alongside the towering hull of the Hun ship.

Cumberleigh mentally measured the length of the wire rope ladder that had been let down from the vessel's bulwarks. Many a time he had clambered out of the fuselage of a blimp at anything up to five thousand feet, but the swinging monkey ladder as it flogged the side of the rolling ship was quite another proposition.

He was on the point of declining the invitation when, looking up, he caught sight of a German officer regarding him with a supercilious smile.

"Yes, I'm coming," he replied. "But one minute."

Meredith paused in the act of making a cat-like spring, and stepped back a couple of paces.

"What is it?" he asked.

"See that fellow? He's an old acquaintance—von Preussen, to be exact."

"Never," declared Meredith incredulously. "He wouldn't dare risk it."

"He has, at any rate," said Cumberleigh. "More, he knows we can't touch him. Logically he's on German soil, and in a German vessel that's been given safe conduct."

"I suppose you're right," admitted Kenneth regretfully. "All I can do is to report to the S.N.O."

"That may stop his little game—for he's up to some mischief, I'll be bound," said Cumberleigh. "Right-o, I'll follow you!"

The boarding-party, consisting of Meredith, Cumberleigh, a petty officer and two bluejackets, negotiated the ladder with no casualty beyond a few barked knuckles. Meredith, receiving and returning the German captain's salute, asked for the ship's papers.

"And what is Herr von Preussen doing on board?" he demanded abruptly.

"It vos mein order," replied the skipper of the Hohenhoorn. "Dis Zherman scheep."

"Quite," agreed Meredith. "At the same time I warn you that von Preussen's presence will be reported, and it would be well if he refrained from any activities that will certainly lead to trouble. Now, I'll look under hatches."

A systematic search of the holds revealed nothing in the nature of the cargo beyond what was stated in the official documents. Everything, apparently, was in order.

"Now I'll see what's aft," declared the boarding officer.

Again there was nothing to elicit suspicion, but as Kenneth passed along the main deck he saw something covered by a tarpaulin. Lifting one comer, there was what appeared to be a huge pile of evergreens.

"What's that for?" he inquired. "It's rather too early for Christmas."

"Ja, Herr Kapitan," agreed the German. "Dese are for—how you call it?—Ach, I haf it: wreaths. It is a Zherman officer that vos died, an' dese are tribute from der Vaderland."

"Then he must be deeply lamented," thought Kenneth, as he moved on. Then, filled with well-grounded suspicion, he stopped abruptly.

"Just shift those things," he ordered, addressing the two members of the M.L.'s crew. "It would be well to see if anything's underneath, although Fritz would, I take it, choose a craftier hiding-place."

The men obeyed, the German officer making no protest. They were genuine evergreens, and on plucking a leaf Kenneth found that the sap was still fresh.

"All right. Put them back and carry on," he ordered.

Meanwhile, Karl von Preussen—spy, ex-officer of the Prussian Guards, and now wearing a naval uniform—was holding Cumberleigh in conversation.

"Ah, good morning, Cumberleigh," he exclaimed with all the assurance possible, and extended his right hand. "Delighted to see you again."

"For what reason?" asked the R.A.F. captain, ignoring the Hun's hand.

"It is good to meet old acquaintances," continued the unabashed German. "Now the war is over we must be friends, and get back to our old footing. I, for example, am looking forward to visiting London again, but in a different capacity than on the last occasion."

"Might I remind you that the war is not yet over," said Cumberleigh coldly.

"Practically so," protested von Preussen. "So let bygones be bygones. I myself bear you no animosity for knocking me down on Wick pier. It was an unfortunate mistake for me to have been there. I ought to have known better. But on the other hand I thank you for your excellent entertainment at the mess at Auldhaig. The lunch was splendid, but I am afraid I cannot say the same for your entertainment of me on the fishing expedition. It caused me a considerable amount of inconvenience."

"And more to me," added Cumberleigh. "By the by, what are you doing on board?"

"I am following a temporary post as assistant secretary to Admiral von Reuter," explained von Preussen without hesitation. "It is mainly on account of my knowledge of England and the English. I am sorry you are so stand-offish, Captain Cumberleigh. It is hardly the way to treat a man who has worn the same uniform as yourself. Remember me to Jefferson, Pyecroft and Blenkinson, also other old acquaintances at Auldhaig, if you should come across them. There is some one else I should like to send a message to—a Mr. Entwistle. I believe you have met him. Well, I see your friend has completed his examination of the Hohenhoorn, so we must part. Until our next meeting!"

"What has that poisonous blighter to say?" inquired Meredith, as the boarding-party returned to the M.L.

"A lot," replied Cumberleigh. "He's no fool, and in spite of his assurances I firmly believe he's something up his sleeve. I'd like to have him in irons as a matter of precaution."

"Same here," rejoined Meredith. "But it can't be did, you know. He's pinning his faith on the old saying, 'An Englishman's word is his bond'; and there you are."

"Precisely," admitted Cumberleigh.




CHAPTER XXXIV

THE SCUTTLING

"I say, old bean!" exclaimed Cumberleigh. "Can you give me a good tip?"

"For what?" inquired Meredith cautiously.

"It's like this," explained the R.A.F. officer. "I've three days' leave. Why I've been granted it is a mystery, as one doesn't get much in the R.A.F. without asking for it. However, that is a digression. The bald facts of the case are I have three days' leave, which means that I have to report for duty on Monday. Now it's perfectly obvious that I can't get home and back in the time; I haven't the cheek to wire for an extension, so what can I do to spend the time?"

"You miserable blighter!" exclaimed Kenneth laughing, "Do you mean to tell me you didn't know we were running round to Aberdeen?"

"Guilty, m'lud," confessed Cumberleigh. "I may as well admit that I was fishing for an invite. More'n that, I've packed my kit-bag in anticipation of a sea-trip for the benefit of my health."

It was now summer. In the warm long-drawn days the Orkneys were at their best. Forgotten almost were those strenuous periods of patrol amidst the fierce winter gales and snowstorms—or at least time mellowed the reminiscences, partly obliterating the dark phases and keeping alive the pleasing episodes of the Long, Long Trick.

M.L. 1497 had been ordered to convey a small bulk of naval stores to Aberdeen—articles urgently required but not sufficient to warrant the use of a naval storeship. The run was a short one—a little over 100 miles. It would give the crew a few hours ashore to see the sights of The Granite City.

"Wakefield's not coming along, I suppose?" asked Cumberleigh.

"No; he's on Inner Patrol," replied Kenneth. "I'm short-handed, too; had to land my Sub yesterday. Got mumps or some other cheerful thing—no, don't look alarmed. It was my mistake. Toothache. I knew it was something with a swollen face about it. In a way it's a blessing in disguise. There's a bunk waiting for you."

Almost without incident, the run to Aberdeen was accomplished in record time. The motors ran without a hitch, and carrying a favourable tide most of the way M.L. 1497 averaged 19 knots "over the ground."

"Enough for to-day," remarked Meredith as the M.L. was safely berthed, and he was changing into shore-kit in the ward-room. "I'll give general leave till eleven to-night. One man will have to remain on board. Now, then, Cumberleigh, my dear old thing——"

"Gentleman to see you, sir," called out one of the men.

"Who the——" began Meredith wonderingly. He had no acquaintances in Aberdeen as far as he knew. But the next instant he gave an exclamation of pleasurable surprise as a well-known voice exclaimed:

"Eh, laddie, I thought 'twas you I saw coming in past the North Pier."

"Jock McIntosh, by the powers!" ejaculated Meredith. "Come on down. By Jove! This is great—absolutely."

It was Jock, but not the Jock of yore. McIntosh was rigged out in civilian clothes of distinctly post-war quality. He had lost the alertness that he had acquired, despite his heavy build, during his service afloat. He descended the steep ladder awkwardly, his heavy boots clattering and slipping on the brass treads of the steps.

"Eh, lad," he remarked, "but you were about right. I'm downright sorry I'm out of it. Life ashore is a bit dour, and when I saw you bringing the old packet into harbour I'd have given my last shilling to have been in sea-rig again."

"Cheer up," said Meredith. "We'll all be in the same boat before very long. Demobbing is going strong just at present. What are you doing in Aberdeen?"

"Buying a boat," replied Jock simply.

"What? Buying a boat?" exclaimed Kenneth. "What sort of boat? I thought you'd had enough of the sea."

"A good many of us thought that," said McIntosh soberly. "I was mistaken. It's the call of the sea, d'ye ken? So half a dozen of us, all out of the Motor-Boat crush, have pooled and bought a drifter. There's money in it... and we'll be afloat. You must come along, see the old boat, and be introduced to the lads."

"Glad to," replied Meredith. "So you're going fishing?"

Jock shook his head.

"No; coastal trade," he replied. "Running up along to Peterhead, Frazerburgh, Banff and perhaps Wick. The autumn we'll go south. Some of the fellows were in the Dover Patrol and at Scilly. There's freight always to be picked up."

"That chap's on a sound scheme," remarked Cumberleigh, when McIntosh had gone ashore.

"Yes; and he was always talking of what he was going to do on the beach when the War was over," said Kenneth. "There were dozens of M.L. fellows who ran yachts before the war. Now there's a chance—a good chance—to combine business with pleasure and go in for the coasting trade. It's worth thinking over."

Early next morning M.L. 1497 discharged her small but valuable consignment of Government stores, filled up with petrol, and awaited instructions. Somewhat to Meredith's disappointment, came telegraphic orders:—

"Proceed at once."

"It means a night trip," observed Meredith. "Fortunately it's calm and the nights are short. It will rather upset your leave, old man, to find yourself back at Scapa to-morrow."

"Anything wrong, I wonder?" asked Cumberleigh.

"Don't suppose so," replied Kenneth. "Merely a brain wave on the part of some shore-loafing minion in the S.N.O.'s office. However, 'a norder's a norder; an' it's a nard life,' as I once overheard a matloe remark."

Apparently M.L. 1497 was in no hurry to return to her base, for shortly after midnight her engines "konked." For some hours she wallowed in the swell a few miles from the shores of Caithness, while sweating mechanics struggled with sooted plugs and choked jets.

It was broad daylight before the trouble was overcome, and the M.L. was able to resume her interrupted return run.

"I wonder what von Preussen is doing," remarked Cumberleigh, as the rocky shores of the Orkneys appeared above the horizon. "Somehow I've got the idea that he was up to some mischief when we spotted him aboard the Hohenhoorn."

"Shouldn't be surprised," agreed Meredith. "I reported the incident, but nothing seems to have been done. Unfortunately our people are hampered by the Allied Congress; otherwise the Huns wouldn't be on board now—nearly six months after the Armistice."

A quarter of an hour later Kenneth raised his binoculars.

"Seems much the same old show," he observed. "Fritz is still occupying the best berths in Scapa Flow. Wonder why we were recalled so hurriedly? Hello! There's old Wakefield coming out to meet us."

M.L. 1499 approached rapidly, then turning sixteen points to port, drew within hailing distance.

"What's wrong?" shouted Meredith through a megaphone.

"Nothing, as far as I know," replied Wakefield. "Why are you back so soon?"

"Ask me another," rejoined Kenneth. "I was afraid we had orders to pack up."

"I've heard nothing more about demobilisation," said Wakefield. "So it's not that."

"Who said there was nothing wrong?" inquired Cumberleigh, pointing with outstretched arm towards the German vessels. "They've hoisted their ensigns."

"So they have, by Jove!" exclaimed Meredith. "What does it mean? Surely the Peace Conference blokes haven't restored the ships to Germany? Wakefield, look! Germans have hoisted their colours."

Somewhere in the grey distance came the report of a gun, followed by another. A British destroyer was taking drastic measures to deal with the flagrant breach of Beatty's peremptory order.

"Whack her up!" ordered Meredith through the voice-tube. "All out."

The motor mechanics responded smartly. M.L. 1497 simply tore through the water.

"They're sinking!" exclaimed Cumberleigh. "Every one of them. The dirty dogs: they're scuttling the fleet!"

There was no doubt about it. Already seven destroyers were awash. The larger vessels were heeling with distinct rapidity. The giant Hindenburg was practically on her beam ends, while her meagre crew, prepared for the consequences of the dastardly act, had already taken to the boats and were watching the mammoth vessel in her death-throes.

Close by, the Seidlitz, Derfflinger and other Hun battle-cruisers were going down with flying colours, not gloriously in the heat of battle but ignominiously scuttled by their crews. Further on the Bayern, the most powerful battleship of the German navy, was capsizing. With a loud crash her heavy guns in superimposed turrets burst from their armoured bases. For a while the vessel's list was checked, until, under the action of the terrific inrush of water through her open sea-cocks, she lay completely over on her beam ends. Then, still heeling, her barnacle-covered bottom and bilge-keel showed above a smother of foam, like the back of an enormous whale. The next instant she had disappeared.

Already the crews of the M.L.'s 1497 and 1499 were at action stations. On his part Kenneth Meredith realised that he could do nothing to save the larger ships. There might be a chance of preventing the foundering of some of the Hun destroyers, and he meant to try.

Passing astern of the line of sinking battle-cruisers, Kenneth made straight for a large destroyer of the V-class that for some unknown reason was settling down slower than her consorts.

His course lay close to three or four boats manned by German officers and bluejackets, who viewed the rapidly-moving M.L.'s with considerable apprehension. Possibly they expected a few shells from the patrol boats' quick-firers. Up went their hands above their heads, and the now monotonous cry of "Kamerad!" rose from the craven crews.

Paying no heed to the boats, although the "wash" from the M.L. gave the finishing touch to the "wind up" stunt, Kenneth brought his command alongside the destroyer. Her crew were still on board, but were preparing to take to the boats.

With levelled revolver Kenneth climbed over the destroyer's rail and covered the unter-leutnant in charge.

"Have those sea-cocks closed instantly!" he ordered.

For a moment the Hun hesitated, but the stern face and set jaw of the Englishman gave him warning that delay meant trouble. He turned and gave a hurried order to some of the men. They hurried below, while to make sure that they would reclose the valves Kenneth ordered the hatches to be secured until the work was properly done.

Meanwhile two of the M.L.'s crew were at work for'ard, knocking out the Senhouse slip, and thus freeing the vessel from her mooring.

"All clear, sir!" shouted one of the hands.

Returning to the M.L., Meredith ordered "Easy ahead, starboard engine."

Still lashed alongside, No. 1497 had a stiff task to tow the partly flooded Hun, but gradually the two vessels gathered way. The nearest shoal water was a bare two cables' length away, and great was Meredith's delight when he heard the destroyer's forefoot grate on the hard bottom.

"She'll do: tide's falling," he observed. "Get those Huns out of it, Cumberleigh. Order them to embark in their own boat and row ashore. We may be in time to save another.... By Jove! I'll collar that ensign as a souvenir."

Although Cumberleigh boosted the Huns pretty severely, there was considerable delay before M.L. 1497 could cast off. It was evident that she had reached her limit in the salvage line. The Hun vessels were nearly all gone. A few had been beached through the prompt action of the British patrol and harbour service vessels. By the time Meredith gave the order for "Easy astern," the vast anchorage, crowded a brief half-hour previously, was now bare save for small craft and boats laden with Germans, who, now that their act of melodramatic bravado was accomplished, were wondering what the result of their gross breach of faith would entail.

There was flotsam everywhere. The water was covered with oil and wreckage, and the M.L.'s and other craft had to exercise great caution lest their propellers should foul the drifting planks and spars as they cruised round, shepherding the Huns to a place of safe custody.

"By Jove! Look!" exclaimed Kenneth, calling Cumberleigh's attention to a large circular mass of foliage.

"Looks like a wreath," observed the R.A.F. officer.

"Exactly," agreed Meredith. "There were dozens of them on board the Hohenhoorn. The blighters said they were for an officer's funeral—a ship's funeral, if you like. And there's another one."

There were, in fact, scores, each wreath entwined with red, white and black ribbons and bearing the name of the ship on which it had been placed when the act of scuttling was performed—a circumstance which tends to prove that the violation of the Armistice terms had been connived at by the existing German government.

"Who's that semaphoring?" asked Cumberleigh, indicating a steam pinnace about three hundred yards away, in the stern-sheets of which a bluejacket was waving a pair of hand-flags.

Kenneth levelled his glasses. Simultaneously one of the M.L.'s crew prepared to receive the message.

"It's Geordie Morpeth," exclaimed Meredith. "His old packet's broken down and he's getting his signalman to ask us for a tow."

"Will—you—come—alongside?" read out the receiving signalman. "They don't give a reason, sir," he added; "but it looks as if they've fouled some wreckage."

Very cautiously M.L. 1497 approached the apparently disabled steam pinnace.

"Ahoy, there!" shouted Kenneth. "What's wrong?"

Morpeth swung his arm in the direction astern.

"We've got some one in tow," he replied. "I knew Captain Cumberleigh was aboard you, and he might be interested."

Sitting on the engine-room casing were half a dozen Germans, including an unter-leutnant, all dripping wet and looking thoroughly dejected.

"Just lugged 'em out of the ditch," remarked Morpeth, stating what was an obvious fact. "But that's not what I hailed you for. Just look aft."

What had appeared to be at first sight a tangle of debris caught in the steam pinnace's propeller was one of the German funeral wreaths. In the centre was the body of a man, his feet secured to the stern-sheets by means of a running bowline.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Cumberleigh. "It's von Preussen."

"And as dead as a door-nail," added Morpeth. "I had an account to settle with him, too; but it's wiped out now. No; it wasn't my doings. One of their boats got swamped, so I went to the rescue. There was von Preussen hanging on to a life-buoy and looking as pleased as a dog with two tails—gloating over his share in the dirty work, I suppose. We weren't more than twenty yards off when there was an explosion—compressed air, you know. Up came a jagged plank and heaved von Preussen almost clear of the water. Killed him in half a shake. And then one of these wreaths came up and floated alongside of him just as we were slipping a bowline round his feet."

"Poor devil!" ejaculated Cumberleigh. "It's strange that he met his fate that way. Sort of Nemesis."

"Perhaps it was as well," added Meredith. "He would have been in a pretty hole had he got ashore."

"Rather," agreed Morpeth. "Every Fritz, officer and man, is being shoved under arrest. Old von Reuter, the Admiral, is collared too. There's one thing: the Allies can't squabble over the disposal of the Hun Fleet now; so Fritz has unwittingly done us a good turn. Well, cheerio. I'll run my little lot of Huns across to the beach. Cheerful-looking cargo, eh?"

Going dead slow, the steam pinnace headed towards the pier, the corpse of the spy towing astern; while M.L. 1497 "carried on," patrolling the land-locked waters upon which but a brief hour ago floated the fleet by which the German Emperor had hoped, and hoped in vain, to obtain the domination of the world.




CHAPTER XXXV

WHAT THEY FOUGHT FOR

"Confound it!" ejaculated Cumberleigh, ruefully contemplating a small amount of silver in his palm. "Bang goes another Bradbury. At this rate I'll be on the rocks before many days are over."

"Cheer up, Mr. Cumberleigh," exclaimed Pyecroft, with a marked emphasis on the "Mister." "You're only just beginning to feel your feet."

"You'll feel them in half a tick if you don't shut up," remarked the ex-R.A.F. captain grimly. "Now, then, Meredith, how's that patch setting? Or do we intend to stop here the night?"

It was the month of August 1919. The four demobbed chums—Meredith, Wakefield, Cumberleigh, and Pyecroft—were again tasting of the mixed blessings of civil life, carrying out a long-promised vow that they would celebrate their release from active service by going on a motor-cycling tour through Glorious Devon and the Delectable Duchy of Cornwall.

Barely three days had elapsed since Meredith and Wakefield found themselves "on the beach," with an accumulation of gear that they had acquired during their service afloat—kit that for the most part would be practically useless in the future.

Meredith had dug out his old 1913 motor cycle, thanking his lucky stars that he had not disposed of it when he first joined the Motor-Boat Reserve. Wakefield, too, was fortunate in that respect, although he quickly learnt the cost of accessories in the motor line compared with the price of far superior and more readily accessible articles of pre-war days.

Pyecroft had been hard hit. On the strength of his as yet unpaid gratuity he had just purchased a second-hand motor cycle, paying £20 more than it had originally cost five years ago; and he was still waiting hopefully for an advice from his R.A.F. bankers informing him that his gratuity had been paid. Moreover, he had hopes that he would be placed upon the "Unemployed List," with the rank of captain. With the advantage of a hundred and twenty days' experience of civil life he was the mentor and financial adviser of the party.

It was a change with a vengeance. Accustomed to living well at a cost of half a crown per diem for "messing," the demobbed ones were simply astounded at the prices demanded for meals at hotels, while the cost of petrol staggered them, especially when they had seen the volatile spirit wasted like water while on service.

"That's holding, I think," remarked Meredith, surveying the reinflated back tyre. "Don't know so much about it, though," he added doubtfully.

"Risk it," suggested Wakefield. "We're only two miles from Shaftesbury. You can get another tube there. This one looks as if it were on its last legs."

"That's the game," agreed Pyecroft. "Let's push on. We're expecting letters at the Post Office, and they'll be closed before we get there if we don't get a move on."

Without further delays the four climbed the long ascent out of Semley and dismounted at the old-world town of Shaftesbury, that has the reputation of being one of the loftiest boroughs in England, being nearly 800 feet above the sea.

"I'll call at the Post Office," suggested Cumberleigh, when the party had secured rooms at the hotel. "Don't worry about that tyre to-night, Meredith. I'll be back in half a tick."

"Tea won't be ready for half an hour," announced Wakefield, after the two had shed their overalls and had removed the dust of the road from their hands and faces. "Let's go for a stroll. I'll leave word with the boots for Cumberleigh to pick us up. By Jove! I feel like a fish out of water."

"So did I," admitted Pyecroft. "Missed my batman as much as anything, dear old soul!"

"I bought some tobacco this morning," said Meredith. "First lot other than Navy I've bought for months. And a shilling an ounce, too!"

"I begin to wonder whether we have won the War," declared Wakefield. "While we've been fighting the Huns the people who stayed at home have become top-dog. They seem to have plenty of money to chuck about, and don't seem to mind if a Bradbury is worth only nine shillings. Because we licked Fritz is no reason why the price of everything should go up after the War. Mind you, I'm not complaining of the prices of things during the War. We had to grin and bear it. But now, why?"

"Reaction, I suppose," suggested Meredith. "Same's us, only certain sections of the community go about it a different way—strike, and all that sort of thing."

"And meanwhile our sea-borne trade is being collared by the Yanks and Japs," remarked Wakefield. "It's all very fine talking about the superiority of British manufactured articles, but when, owing to labour troubles, they can't be got, or, if they can, they are prohibitive in price, where are you? Germany, our former serious rival, is down and out, and instead of bucking to and capturing their markets we play the fool and pay out unemployment doles. Hello'! here's Cumberleigh."

"Almost a wash-out," announced Cumberleigh. "Only one letter between the four of us, and that's for Pyecroft. Marked Air Ministry, too. Pyecroft, if that's your captaincy, it's fizz all round at dinner to-night."

The ex-lieutenant took the proffered envelope eagerly, and tore the seal with feverish haste.

"Bilkers!" he ejaculated savagely. "Listen to this: 'With reference to Air Ministry orders, your pay should have been issued at B rates instead of at the old Technical rates. It is therefore necessary to recover the pay which has been over-issued to you, and upon your gratuity being issuable the balance, i.e. £47 11s., will be deducted from your gratuity.' What do you think of that?"

"That," replied Cumberleigh, "is Economy, spelt with a big E. Retrenchment must begin somewhere, so they start on you, just to remind you that the War is over and you're a back number, old son. But, cheer up, you might have been under the daisies."

"True," admitted Pyecroft. "Yes, we've seen life, and it's no use grousing; but what did we fight for?"

"This," said Meredith, giving a comprehensive sweep of his arm across the wide valley three hundred feet below. "I don't want to pile it on and spout and all that sort of thing, but just look. Those cottages might have been in ruins like the homesteads of France and Belgium. But they're not. Our country has been spared from the foot of the victorious Hun. That's the main thing. Other considerations are simply side-issues, 'if England to herself be true.'"




THE END



PRINTED BY PURNELL AND SONS
PAULTON (SOMERSET) AND LONDON




Transcriber's Notes:

This book contains a number of misprints.
The following misprints have been corrected:

[Karl von Pruessen stood stiffly] —>
    [Karl von Preussen stood stiffly]
[in geniune concern] —> [in genuine concern]
[Cumberleigh——for that was the name] —>
    [Cumberleigh—for that was the name]
[Cumbereigh shrugged] —> [Cumberleigh shrugged]
[four bluejackets proceeding "on leaf."] —>
    [four bluejackets proceeding "on leave."]
[so much as winkin'. hopin'] —> [so much as winkin'. Hopin']
[imparting descipline with] —> [imparting discipline with]
[you aan be reckless] —> [you can be reckless]
[Some of the follows] —> [Some of the fellows]
[unless its potting] —> [unless it's potting]

A few cases of punctuation errors were corrected, but are not
mentioned here.





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