A FIERCE and sudden gust, which swelled to greater fury the flood of a howling gale, slammed the smoking-room door in my face, at the very moment that a quivering, throbbing heave from the great screw shook the mighty liner from stem to stern. Beaten back from the wall, as the ship rolled heavily, I pitched headlong, and went sliding and tumbling across the deck, clutching wildly at its edge for the netting of the rail. There, huddled against the side, I gasped until breath came, and then painfully traversed the wet and slippery deck on hands and knees. With a sudden effort I caught at the big brass handle, turned it and sprang within, accompanied by a drenching spray.
No contrast could have been greater than the sudden change from the wild drift of bitter wind and rain without to the bright warmth and quiet comfort of the smoking-room within. The habitues who commonly filled the alcoves and the centre were mainly absent, chained to their berths, for the gale which had lasted a full two days had swept from the room all but two quartettes of bridge players, a placid Britisher in full dress in the centre, who was solacing himself with his invariable evening's occupation of Scotch and soda, and Tom, alone, in a corner alcove, his back against the wall, his feet sprawling along the cushions, and his pipe firmly clenched between his teeth. As I pushed my way by the square centre table of the alcove and sank down on the opposite cushions, he looked up, a thoughtful frown wrinkling his forehead.
. " I've been thinking about our next move," he began, only to break off abruptly. " What on earth is the matter with you ? You look as if you had been shipwrecked."
" This is merely the result," I answered, " of a perilous trip outside the smoking-room door for the purpose of taking a weather observation. As a matter of fact, you're responsible for it; I was driven to the act by your loquacity. We came up here at half past seven and you have spoken exactly three times since, each time to give an order. I really had to do something desperate to attract your attention."
" You did it," said Tom decisively. " Hurt in any way ? "
" Oh, no," I answered. " Slight bruises, really nothing of any consequence at all."
Turned by the incident from his preoccupation, Tom rose, stretched himself thoroughly, and bent to peer out of the rain-swept porthole. " This certainly is a nasty night," he said, as he resumed his original position. " She is rolling and pitching at a great rate. If it does not quit soon, this gale will send many a good ship to the bottom. We're safe enough here, but this weather must be pretty hard on the small boats."
As Tom refilled his pipe, I sat musing on the images his words had roused of the strange and sudden plunge of a mighty ship down, down to the very depths of the sea, of that wonderful world that lies below the waves, upon whose sandy floor lie many navies whose gallant ships rest in their last anchorage, whose thousands of rugged sailors are buried in their last sleep, whose burdened, hoarded wealth is kept forever idle by that great miser, the deep. As I mused, I spoke unconsciously. " I wonder how this storm would seem on the bottom of the sea."
" Quiet enough there, I presume," answered Tom, following, to my surprise, my spoken thought. " You know men who sought for sunken treasure ships have found things quite unmoved, after centuries have rolled away. Save for the covering of sand or silt, the boat which reaches the bottom may leave its bones for centuries unchanged."
My mind travelled a step farther, from normal shipwrecks to abnormal ones, and then turned swiftly to those catastrophes which were never far from my mind, the beginning and in one sense the end of our mission, the battleships which disappeared. " If Dorothy's belief is correct, and the engines of destruction used by ' the man ' affect metal only, then I suppose the crews of the Alaska and the rest went to the bottom."
" Undoubtedly," answered Tom laconically.
One by one, as in a naval review, the Alaska, the Dreadnought Number 8, La Patrie Number 3, the Kaiserin Luisa and the Kaiser Charlemagne imaged themselves upon the tablets of my brain, and with the last appeared a film of Portsmouth Harbor where the great engine of war anchored for the last time. I straightened up suddenly and leaned across to Tom, who now sat gazing peacefully at space.
" Tom," I exclaimed quietly, but earnestly, " I can tell you the next move. We'll send down to the bottom of the sea, and find out what record remains there of the work done by ' the man.' "
Quick as a flash Tom was all attention. " By George," he ejaculated, lowering his voice an instant later, as he saw that his exclamation had startled the bridge players opposite. " I believe that is the scheme. It ought not to take us very long, and we might get a bully clue from it. How shall we go about it ? "
Swiftly I unfolded my plan, the ideas rushing in upon me as I proceeded. " We land at Southampton, anyway, and it's only an hour's run down Southampton Water to Portsmouth. We won't go up to London at all; we'll go straight to Portsmouth and put up there. Then we'll find out just where the Kaiser Charlemagne or the Kaiserin Luisa stood, and get some divers to go down and report."
" That's a great idea," said Tom reflectively. " It resolves itself really into two parts, — finding out just exactly where one of the German ships stood, and getting down to the bottom there. It ought not to be so very difficult. I wonder nobody has thought of it. But if they had, I imagine, we should have heard of it, because the wireless newspaper on board is giving news of that kind pretty well in full. I'll tell you one thing though," he went on, " I wish Dorothy could have been with us instead of having to wait over a couple of boats to straighten out that Boy's Club business of hers. I'd like mighty well to get her opinion."
" Same here," I remarked forcefully.
Two days later saw us safely through the English Customs and rolling along over the little line which runs past old Clausentrum, relic of the days when Rome with bloody hand made peace in Britain, to Portsmouth and its harbor, with the Isle of Wight forming the foreground to the broad blue reaches of the Channel.
No greater hum of business could have been found all Britain over than in this seaport town. Jackies hurried to and fro with orders. Marines marched in companies to the wharves. Officers in service dress scurried by in motor cars. Tommies for once moved swiftly, without even a sidelong glance at the red-cheeked nurses in the Park. Everything gave the impression of activity, of preparation pushed to the last degree of haste. Whatever the prospects of war might be, Portsmouth was as busy as if war were on.
Though we reached Portsmouth at noon, it was more than two o'clock before we could secure rooms. Every hotel was crowded. Scarcely could we get a word from the busy clerks, and at last we were driven to lodgings. Throwing ourselves on the mercy of a cabman we wandered up and down, thoroughly thankful when we obtained some clean, decent rooms in a little house in the Portsea region.
Somewhat to our surprise, our quest proved difficult. We drove to the dockyard. " No admittance without special orders from the admiralty," stared us in the face, — an order made yet more effective by the gruff silence of the sentinels. We tried the harbor authorities and the Town Hall. Both had been turned into governmental bureaus, and both refused admittance on any terms. Vainly I pleaded my connection with the press. That move only increased the suspicious reserve which surrounded us. Vainly we tried the soothing effect of the golden sovereign. We were rebuffed at every turn, till forced to temporary inaction, we gloomily turned back towards our lodgings.
" There's nothing doing so far as the authorities are concerned," remarked Tom, as we walked along. " We've got to try some other tack. If we could only find somebody here in town who wasn't an official, and yet who would know where either of those ships stood. None of the dealers in ships' stores would know, because the German boats would have received their stores at the wharf. By Jove, though, here's an idea." He brightened up. " If, by any lucky chance, they took on fuel here, we might get some light on the place from the coal man. Here's a chemist's shop, let's look up a directory."
We entered, and ran rapidly over the names of dealers in the business directory that was handed us. Dealer after dealer, whose name appeared therein, sold goods that belong with the sea. Ship chandlery, plumbing for yachts and vessels, calkers, sailmakers. Ah, here it was! Fuel supplied to vessels. There were some fifteen names on the list. I copied them off, and turned to the young man behind the counter. " Which of this list," I asked, " would be entirely capable of coaling a large merchantman immediately ? " The clerk ran his eye down the list. “This, and this, and this firm.” he answered briefly, pointing at three.
The office before which we finally stopped looked peculiarly businesslike as we reconnoitred through its broad window. " Looks just like home," murmured Tom, as we gazed at the smart young man in dapper tweeds dictating to a stenographer whose pompadour, though like a single tree in a forest had it been on lower Broadway, yet seemed a rare exotic in this English seaport town. The Remington machine at one side, the brightness of the office furniture, the whole atmosphere, in short, was a stage picture, a sudden revival of the world we had left less than a week ago. " He is," exclaimed Tom, without the slightest apparent connection. " See that life insurance calendar on the wall! "
A flaming, big-lettered, American calendar appeared at the end of his pointing finger.
" May as well play it boldly, anyway," murmured Tom, pushing open the door. " Pardon me," he said, as he entered. " We're Americans, and want to know something about coal."
Our dapper friend from behind the desk was on his feet in a moment, stepping towards me with outstretched hand. " Mr. Orrington, I'm proud to see you here." I looked at him in complete surprise, while Tom looked on in equal amaze. The stenographer sitting behind her keys raised one hand to pat her hair, and stared in undisguised and interested wonder.
" I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," I remarked.
" That's not surprising," answered the young man with a smile. " You never saw me before, but look here."
I followed blindly around his desk, and waited while he pulled open a drawer at the side. " Exhibit Number one," he remarked as he took out an American illustrated weekly bearing an imprint of my features. It had appeared just after my second signed story came out.
" Oh," I remarked briefly and lucidly.
" Exhibit Number two," our friend went on, bringing to my astonished gaze a file of my own paper, whereupon my own stories showed their large familiar headlines at the top.
" That's what it is to be famous," said a laughing voice over my shoulder. " Now, I could travel the world over and never find anybody to recognize me."
" Then it's up to me to bring you into the limelight," I said, recovering. " This is Prof. Haldane, Mr.—?"
" Thompson, at your service," supplied the manager. " From New York, sent over here to take charge of this end two years ago, likewise a sincere admirer of your work. Now, what can I do for you ? "
I glanced at the stenographer meaningly.
" Say anything you please; it will go no farther, gentlemen. Let me introduce Mrs. Thompson."
We rose and bowed.
" We were both in the same office there," explained the manager, " and when they gave me this berth we decided to come together."
" I am over here on business," I began.
" Still after the man who is trying to stop all war ? " interrupted Thompson.
" Yes," I answered. " What we want now is to find out just where the Kaiser Charlemagne or the Kaiserin Luisa went down. If we can find that, we shall get divers and go down to the bottom. As we could get no news at any of the government offices, we thought we would try to find some dealer here who might have supplied either of the boats with coal."
" Hit it first time trying," said Thompson, with a smile. " The Kaiser Charlemagne took on no liquid here, but the Kaiserin Luisa took a thousand barrels the day before she sunk." Tom let out a long whistle. " That's one reason why the Kaiserin Luisa, the Alaska, and the rest went down without a sound. Extraordinary that I never thought of that before. They all burn hydrocarbons instead of coal, and the new hydrocarbon fuels would disappear in the water.
" Not a modern warship left to-day which doesn't burn liquid fuel, and most of it's ours," said Thompson enthusiastically. " They had to come to it, especially when we put out our new boiler attachment by which they could change their furnaces over to use liquids without changing any other part of the machinery."
Tom nodded appreciatively. " I see," he said. " Now as to the main question. How can we find out just where the Kaiserin Luisa went down ? "
Thompson turned to his wife. " Lulu, will you telephone down and see if Cap'n McPherson is at the wharf. If he is, have them send him here at once."
A moment's low conversation in the telephone booth, and Mrs. Thompson returned. " He'll come right up," she said, and, turning to her machine, was soon pounding away at the keys with a practised hand.
" Remarkable woman, my wife," said Thompson, swelling with intense pride behind the shelter of his rolltop desk. " Took a medal for speed in an open competition. Smart as they make 'em any deal. Never lets family relationships stand in the way of business. B. F. T. S. I call her, ' business from the start.' “ He would have gone on, but the door opened, and a huge grizzled sailor with an officer's cap in his hand lumped in. His massive bulk loomed above us for a moment, as Thompson motioned him to a chair.
" You put the liquid on board the Kaiserin Luisa the day before she disappeared, didn't you ?" asked Thompson.
" Aye, sir," came the deep answer from the depths of the Captain's chest.
" Can you tell us just where she lay ? " the manager went on.
Captain McPherson stirred uneasily as he looked at us. " I've heer'd said we were to say naught of that unfort'nit ship," he rumbled, turning half round to regard us with a fixed stare.
" That's all right, Cap'n," said Thompson. " These gentlemen have been sent here to investigate the matter, and you are to tell them all you know."
The Captain evidently felt misgivings, but the habit of obeying the orders of his superiors was not lightly to be broken. " If ye go straight out from the carstle till the Ry'al Jarge buoy's in line with three chimneys t'gether on the shore, ye'll have the spot where she lay when we were 'longside."
" Thank you, Cap'n, that's all," said Thompson.
Whereupon Captain McPherson rose and lumbered off as heavily as he had come.
" I've seen the castle," I remarked, " but how on earth can I find the Royal George buoy, and what is it ? "
" Queer thing that," said Thompson. " That's where the Royal George went down, with all on board, a hundred and thirty years or so ago. Now the Kaiserin Luisa disappears, in the same place. It's a red buoy right off Smithsea, you can't miss it."
" Right," said Tom. " So far so good. Now, you haven't a couple of divers in your desk drawer, have you ? "
Thompson laughed. " Sure thing," he said. " At least I can send you to one, Joe Miggs, who has done more or less work for us. There's the address," he said, writing it on a card. " Come and see us before you go."
Exultantly we left the office, looking back through the window to see our compatriot waving farewell, while his wife, patting her pompadour with one hand, fluttered her handkerchief with the other. By dock and arsenal, through sounds of clanging furnaces and roar of forges, we passed to the street we sought and to the house, a house of mark which bore proudly upon its front a life-size picture of a diver completely apparisoned, with the words " J. Miggs, Diver," in very small letters below. The low, dark door gave entrance to a small shop, where a man, whistling cheerfully, was using a small soldering tool on a diver's helmet, assisted by a boy clad in a ticking apron. The man was J. Miggs. Our friend Thompson's card brought a sudden stop to the cheerful whistle, and it was with a somewhat troubled face that J. Miggs rose, sending his young assistant from the room. The boy out, he locked both doors to the shop carefully, and returned to us.
" Mr. Thompson says that you want a diver," said Miggs, in a low voice. " I'd do anything I could for Mr. Thompson. Many's the good job he's got for me, but I can't, I absolutely can't. We've been forbidden to take any jobs at all. Notice was served on every diver in town, and me and my partner can't risk it."
" What's your regular rate for going down here in the harbor? " asked Tom.
" Two pounds a day, sir, for each of us. Four pounds for the two, if me and my partner work together."
" I'll give you ten pounds apiece for one night's work," said Tom.
The man wavered. " I've no money for a fortnight, sir, and I'd like to do it, but I dare not; the officers would put me out of business, and I've got to support my family."
Tom persisted. " I'll give you ten pounds for your family, and ten pounds more when you go down."
J. Miggs took thought, hesitated, wavered, and at length capitulated. " I'll do it, sir," he said, " if you'll do one thing. If they take my diving rig away, will you agree to pay for a new one :
" I will," said Tom, " and I'll leave the price of it with Mr. Thompson to-night."
His last scruples vanished, and J. Miggs was ours. " We've got two suits over at Brading Harbor, on the Isle of Wight, where we were working. If you'll tell me your place, we'll meet you tonight where you're staying, take you across in the motor boat, get the suits, and get back in time to have five or six hours to work, wherever you say. But it must be to-night. To-night's the last night without a moon."
Leaving J. Miggs our address, we went back to our lodgings, by way of Southsea Castle and the piers, to take a preliminary observation of the buoy of the " R'yal Jarge." We had swallowed a hasty supper, laid in a good store of clothing for the chill of night on the water, and were waiting patiently for the call, when there was a knock at the door. As it opened, there entered not J. Miggs, but his small boy helper, whom we had seen earlier.
" Miggs's been jugged," he cried breathlessly. " He and Joe Hines. The bobbies come and took 'em an hour ago. He told me, when he saw 'em comin', to run and tell you."