As we stood there in the hush that followed the last bars of the song, Tom came towards us. Dorothy turned to him, starry eyed, and he looked quickly at me. I nodded. Tom smiled widely, as he stretched out his hand.
" Nobody else in the world I'd as soon would have her, old man," he said, as he nearly wrung my hand off. Then turning to his sister, " Well, little girl, so you've waked up at last to the real state of things." Dorothy clung to his arm.
" Tom, dear, I have, and I am very happy, but — " her voice broke. " It may only be for tonight. Jim leaves at once for the fleet. He is going out to watch the battle, and if the man sends out his waves to sink those ships, I am afraid he'll sink every other boat anywhere near."
" This, my children," said Tom, with a flowing gesture, " is where your old uncle Thomas steps in as the benevolent fairy who saves the handsome lover of the beautiful young princess."
Dorothy looked at him, her whole soul in her eyes. " Tom, don't joke. Have you any way by which Jim can go and be safe ? I can't ask him to stay behind for me, when he ought to go."
" Dorothy," said Tom seriously, " I think Jim can go and be perfectly safe. I thought this whole business out, coming over in the boat. Not being completely and totally blind, I foresaw the inevitable occurrence which has inevitably occurred, and I didn't want to lose Jim for my own sake, as well as my sister's. I've had this on my mind ever since we left Portsmouth. I knew he'd think he ought to go; so as soon as I reached Folkestone I had a little yacht built, a sloop with an auxiliary motor, which hasn't a nail in her. She's all wood, rubber and canvas, except the engine, and if the engine disappears there's a set of rubber valves that instantly closes the shaft hole. ' The man ' can come right up alongside, stand up and throw waves at her, and she can't sink. I had a wire from there to-night that she was done. They've been working on her twenty-four hours a day since I started her, and she's a mighty nice little boat. The crew is engaged, and all Jim has to do is take possession."
" That ought to save the boat," said Dorothy, shaking her head sadly, " but how can you save Jim from the fate of Dr. Heidenmuller, or of the men on the battleships who died as he did ?"
" You never did have much opinion of my brains, Dorothy," said Tom. " Don't you suppose I thought of the effect those waves would have ? You know none of the other ships in Portsmouth harbor were injured, when the German ship disappeared. That proves that the man has some way of directing his waves. So he may not hurt Jim at all. But I didn't take any chances on that. I've had a cage of caema built over the cockpit, and everything is arranged so that the boat can be run without going outside that cage."
Dorothy heaved a sigh of relief. She bent forward and kissed Tom in the full face of the assembly.
" Tom, you're the finest, best man in the world, except one."
" That's it," said Tom with a grin. " Second place for old uncle Thomas now."
" But Tom," I said, " I follow the boat construction all right, but for Heaven's sake what is this caema that I've heard so much about, and what's the use of the cage ? "
" Oh, I forgot you might not understand that," said Tom. " You know, or you ought to know, it's in every school physics, that if you put a cage of a conductor like copper around any instrument which is easily affected by any electrical discharge, the electrical waves spread out, follow the surface of the cage, and don't penetrate the interior. The instrument is wholly unaffected. Well, caema is the newest organic conductor. It acts the same way with any radio-active waves. They spread out all over it, and can't get through. I've had a cage built of it to insulate you and everything else that's inside."
" Why wouldn't it work around the battleships then ?" I asked.
" Because the battleships are made of steel; and if you put a cage like that around them, they could hardly move. It only worked on your boat because it's wood outside."
" Tom," I said gravely, " I imagine your forethought and knowledge will save my life."
" I know it will," said Tom cheerfully. " Now, what time do you leave ? "
" In fifty-five minutes, from Charing Cross, on the Channel Express," I said.
" We'll go with you to Folkestone," said Tom. " Of course," said Dorothy. A few minutes at the Savoy, a brief ride down the lighted Strand in the midst of the noisy crowds, a moment in the rush of the station, and a long ride in the darkness, in a full compartment, brought us back to Folkestone.
All the way down I held Dorothy's hand in my own. All the way down her warm body was close to mine. Despite all Tom's precautions, something might go wrong, but, if it ended to-night, we had this, and hope persisted that it would not end to-night, that, on the other hand, this was the beginning of many happy years. The crew of three was on board the little yacht, which looked no different in the dark from any other boat, though, as we came alongside in the skiff, I could just see a cage of some dark substance above the cockpit. We entered through a latticed door toward the bow, and Tom for half an hour examined every part of the boat with a lantern, the caema screen most vigilantly of all. Dorothy and I sat close together, watching the lights and their reflection in the water. All about the pier was hurry and movement. Three tugs, bearing correspondents, passed us as we lay at anchor, and half a dozen despatch boats and cutters. Tom came up to us at last.
" Jim, if you keep the door of the cage fastened, nothing can happen to you."
" Don't be foolhardy, though, for my sake," said Dorothy.
" Come, Dorothy, we must go. It's time for Jim to start," said Tom gently, and I strained Dorothy to my heart and felt her wet cheek against mine.
" I'll be back safely, dear love," I whispered, as I helped her into the waiting boat.
Tom wrung my hand as he left. " Jim, I'd go with you, but I think I ought to stay with Dorothy."
" I know you ought," I replied, and they cast off.
As we started off into the blackness, Dorothy's clear " Till we meet again, dear," were the last words that reached me.
Our London office had been able to obtain pretty definite information as regards the whereabouts of the fleet, and our little boat was a marvel of swiftness. So it was with no great surprise that, as the morning dawned, I saw far ahead of me, off the port bow, the rear ships of the squadron going slowly ahead, and shortly after came in sight of the whole fleet. My binoculars showed the greatest spectacle I had ever beheld. From East and West, from North and South had come the hurrying ships to guard the coasts of the great island empire from attack. I counted forty mighty ships as I gazed. In regular formation they went onward, slowly, disdainfully, proudly. Somewhere to the north, beyond that gray line which bordered my view on every side, another fleet was coming. At best, it was to be the greatest trial of naval strength the world had ever seen. All other naval battles would sink into obscurity before this, in which were met the utmost resources of Germany and England. At worst, it would be a series of dumb, helpless disasters, as the fleet, stricken by an unseen, unknown foe, would perish. Near me were two of the boats bearing men from the papers. The men on them jeered as they saw our dark cage, and passed uncomplimentary remarks on the appearance of my boat. I kept silence, watching the line of sky and sea. Out on the farthest point, at last I saw a dot, then half a dozen more, then more, and I counted up to thirty. Over on my right a great splash of water rose, and a dull reverberation sounded. Germany had fired the first shot. The flagship of the English admiral was nearest me, on the extreme left of the line. As I watched, I saw the great ship turn slightly, and I knew by the sound that they had fired in return. Sight availed nothing in telling whence came the shot, for the newest smokeless powder left no trace. The ship swung back on her course, the great flag of the Empire hanging at her stern, scarce lifted by the breeze. I could see figures, through my powerful glasses, hurrying about the decks, and three or four officers on the bridge peering through their glasses at the enemy. I had focussed wholly on the British flagship, and watched intently for her next move. Suddenly my lenses grew blank, and I was staring at sea and sky. The gray waves, rising and falling, filled the field. The battleship had disappeared. I dropped my glasses in utter amaze. I found myself once more repeating the words of Joslinn concerning the Alaska. " Vanished like a bursting soap-bubble." I looked to right and left. I raised my glasses. Of all that company of men, of all those implements of war and of destruction, not one thing remained. Yes, there was a dark spot on a lifting wave. Eagerly I trained my lenses on it. Now it came up on a higher wave. A gleam of color. It was like cloth. Again it rose. It was the flag of England. Alone it had survived.
" The man " was at work. Where would he strike next? The rest of the fleet went on, as if no blow had come. Not by a sign did they show what had come upon them. I glanced at my wire screen, and at my crew who stood in a huddled group. The correspondents, in the boats nearby, were standing with white faces, peering ahead. I turned my glasses on the German fleet. The leading ship was coming forward, under full steam. A shot struck just to my right, and I realized that peril might come from other sources than from the man who was trying, no, who was stopping all war. But it was all in the game of life. My part in the game just then was to be at that very place, and I thrust back the thought of parting with Dorothy that, despite myself, arose.
Through my glasses, I gazed fixedly at the German ship as she came on. Then, as before, came the utter blankness, the gray sky and the waves rising and falling. One English ship and one German. Where would he strike next? As I asked the question, another English ship disappeared more swiftly than a cloud of light smoke scattered by the wind. I found myself counting aloud. In a state of utter unconsciousness as to anything else, I gazed fixedly to see which would go next. " Four," I counted, as a German cruiser off on the right went down. " Five ! six! " They were going at the rate of one every two or three minutes now. " ' The man ' must be in one spot, and he has the range now," I said to myself, as two more ships disappeared. Those ships that remained were firing rapidly. Now and again a shot would hit, and a cloud of steel fly out from a turret, or a big hole appear in a side. Their brothers were dying an awful death, the sister ships of the fleet were disappearing before their eyes, but the men who directed those gray bull dogs of war kept on. In a perfect frenzy of excitement, I cheered aloud. " Oh plucky, plucky ! " I cried, as the squadrons, closing their thinned ranks, bore down on each other. Twenty had gone from eighty-two, destroyed by this wonder-worker. Ten of the rest were in sore straits. Shots were falling on every side of me, but, in the mad excitement of the moment, I heeded them no more than if they had been paper pellets. Then the death-dealing machine seemed suddenly to accelerate its action. " Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight," I counted slowly. The fleets never changed a point of their course. Not by a gun was the fire slackened, save in the few ships disabled by the enemy. The fortieth ship had disappeared for ten minutes. Then, as by a common understanding, the fire of each side slackened for a moment as the ships, closing up their ranks, maneuvered for new positions. In the lessening din, I could hear the chug-chug of the little motor of our boat. That sound always carried me back to the night when Dorothy and I sought the man who saw the Alaska go down. The dark Jersey shore, the little launch, and Dorothy beside me suddenly rose before my eyes, and I was there, and not in the midst of this awful carnage. But it was only for a moment. The pause in the work of destruction ended almost as it began. One after another, twenty-two ships more went down, and the antagonists, who had started with eighty-two of the proudest ships that any empire ever sent forth, were reduced to a shattered remnant of twenty. Then suddenly they gave way. Flesh and blood could stand no more. Slowly, but proudly as ever, and with no haste of flight, the Germans drew off to the north, the English to the south. As they parted, another ship and yet another disappeared. I groaned in impotent agony. " Spare them, spare the rest !" I cried wildly. " Can't you see they have given up the fight."
Remorseless in his purpose, the man went on. Again and again, with measured blows, he struck the retreating fleet. One by one, their existence ended, and the now sunlit ripples of the Channel rose and fell, where a moment before had sailed these massive hulks.
I veiled my eyes at the close, but opened them as I felt a touch on my shoulder. " Are we to be killed too, sir ? " said my skipper, with twitching lips and corded brow, where the cold sweat stood in great drops. " Can we go now, sir ? "
I nodded numbly, and we started. The only boats in sight were two boats of the newspapers, that had lain in apathy near us. As they saw us start, their skippers started, too. The correspondents on their decks sat in stricken attitudes. Not one was writing. They crouched, huddled together, like men dying from cold. The three boats ran towards shore, side by side. With fixed gaze I followed the one on the right. Suddenly, she also disappeared, and I fell into a wild rage. " You fool, you fool," I cried, shaking my fists. " Don't you know a non-combatant ? "
The men on the boat to the left rose in an agony of alarm, shouted incoherently, waved handkerchiefs. My fury suddenly became extinct, and I watched them apathetically. It would be their turn next, or ours. I had lost all faith in Tom's protective schemes. One thing ran back and forth in my brain. " If I had only married Dorothy before I came, she could have worn black. Now, as it was, would she or wouldn't she ? " That was the only thing which distressed me. They say a man awaiting instant death thinks over all his past life. I didn't, I only worried as to whether Dorothy would or would not wear black.
I looked up wearily. The sea was blank. The other boat had gone. " So you went first," I said, calmly enough now. " I've always wondered what the next world was like. Now, I'm going to know.
Ceaselessly went the chug, chug of the engine. Back and forth into the shuttle of my thought went the Jersey coast, and the problem of whether or not Dorothy would wear black.
The noise ceased in an instant, and I wondered at it dully. The crew sat heavily in the stern, the skipper holding the wheel. I could see his brown, knotted hands white with the anguished grip with which he clasped its rim. We lay in the long swell of the Channel in utter silence. Of all those thousands, we were left alone, rising and falling on the billows, absolutely without energy and without the slightest desire to act. The motor stopped, we could hoist the main sail from the cage, but we thought of no such thing. For minutes, which seemed like hours, we lay there while I gazed indifferently at the water. A hoarse cry from the skipper aroused me.
" Lookee there ! " he shouted. I turned at the command and started. Scarce a hundred yards away was the conning tower of a submarine above the waves. Its top was open and a man's head, the face masked with huge goggles, faced us. As I gazed with open mouth, the head disappeared, the top closed, and the conning tower sunk beneath the waves. I had seen " the man."
The sight somehow galvanized me into energy. Now I had seen that the antagonist was a human being, and not a superhuman power, I would fight for my life. I ordered the sail raised through the cage, taking great care not to disturb it, and we started slowly back to Folkestone. Hours later, as we came up towards the harbor, I saw a yacht approaching. On the bridge were three figures. There was the flutter of a white dress beside the man at the wheel. As they came nearer, I saw it was the yacht I had chartered for our hunt in the Channel. The man and the girl on the bridge were Tom and Dorothy. As they came alongside, Tom called.
" What happened ? "
I raised my head. " We four are all that are left," I said sadly.