"I'VE been sitting here for four hours", said Commander Vanrhyn, of the U.S. Navy, and there was a note of disappointment in his deliberate speech, "and I've heard you boys telling what you consider is the most wonderful story of the war and I've said nothing. And what is more Bestwin has said nothing—which shows that we sailor-men, whether we are American or British, are possessed to a larger extent of what Napoleon called 'the greatest ornament of illustrious lives' than our comrades of the Army."
There was a howl of protest from the club smoke-room, for all present, save the American commander and Commander Sir George Bestwin, were of the land service.
"It is only modesty which prevents my telling you the story of the U904 which has never before been related—unless you've told it George?"
Sir George Bestwin shook his head gravely.
"It is not a story I am competent to tell," he said; "the honours are with you Vanrhyn."
"Well, I don't know," reflected Vanrhyn, "anyway it is a wonderful story."
I MUST begin this yarn at the beginning (said the Yankee sailor, yielding at last to the demand of the club) by telling you something about myself. No, Colonel, I am not forgetting Napoleon's dictum, but this explanation is necessary. I went into the Navy as a boy and served seven years, part of the time in the old coast-defence ship 'Miantonomoh'—but that's neither here nor there.
My naval career was uneventful and I left with the rank of Lieutenant on the death of my uncle. Uncle Harvey was the proprietor of one of the most prosperous newspapers in Chicago, which since I have no desire to advertise, I will call the Monitor-Post. By his death I became the sole proprietor of this proposition, and I only refer to the fact because it was in this new field of journalism that I first woke up to the fact that there was a mighty big world outside Chicago.
It was here that I was educated up to German mentality and learned that there was a place called Germany where men were not content with the realisation of modern ideals, but thought backward way into the dark ages, where the only law was the law of the sword, and the only right was the right of the stronger.
I am indebted to this day to my chief tutor, a cub reporter named Willie Mainz, who was a storehouse of information on militarism and for some extraordinary reason was proud of his ineffaceable right to be kicked by his masters as a normal citizen is of Pure Government.
I guess that Willie was never just as reliable on any other subject as he was on Germany and her future. He turned in stories which got us into no end of trouble. He had only to see a foreign looking woman registering as Mrs. Smith at an hotel to found a story of a Grand Ducal misalliance and the flight of the guilty couple to America, which got even the romances of old Dumas looking as mean as a meteorological report. He cost us too much money, and the staff wasn't big enough to allow us to send out four men to verify his facts, so we fired him, and I at least parted from him with regret.
Often after the European war started I have thought of all his predictions and how marvellously true they were. He foretold the invasion of Belgium, the U-boat campaign, the collapse of Russia—everything came true except the taking of Paris. I admit I had a genuine liking for the little fellow, and when the news reached Chicago that he had been killed at Verdun, I wrote his obituary with my own hand.
Now there was one prediction which I have thought about a great deal since America came into the war. I was discussing with Willie once, just before he left for Germany, this very question of convoys which we were talking about earlier in the evening. There was some discussion in the English Press in the early part of '15 as to whether merchantmen should or should not be convoyed. Emden and Karlsruhe and other light cruisers were playing the devil with English shipping at the time, and Willie had produced a map and shown me that it was impossible to protect shipping by any other means than sending with them an escort.
"Here," he said, pointing to the map—I won't tell you exactly where 'here' was—"is the only place where a patrol could protect an unarmed convoy, and even a U-boat could not get past because there is twenty miles of shallow water."
I tell you war strategy and German tactics were his consuming vices.
Well, the coincidence in this story—or one of them—lies in this fact, that early this year, having rejoined the Navy at the outbreak of war, I found myself in command of one of a flotilla of four destroyers, two of which were American and two British, patrolling this very area. That is why I say that Willie's words came back to me in the dark watches, and I often wished I could bring the young man back from the shambles of Verdun to repeat some of the points which I had forgotten.
Bestwin commanded one of the British destroyers and, as he will confirm, I had often discussed, in the light of Willie's information, the practicability of a U-boat evading the patrol and slipping through across the track of the U.S transports.
In April the Atlantic was thick with American troops bound for Europe and a pretty heavy strain was imposed on the patrols, when we received a wireless from the flagship that a tin-fish was loose in our neighbourhood and that it was one of the latest type. It had passed without sinking two small merchantmen in the English Channel, and that looked pretty ominous. Of course we got all the information which the English Intelligence Department could gather; the name of the commander was Scholtz, a well-known skipper, famous for his daring and resourcefulness, the boat's number was 904, and she had left Bremen on such and such a date.
Naturally, being a bit rattled by our responsibility, we wondered why the artist who had written her biography, so to speak, had not rounded off the job whilst he was admiring her classic lines and put a shell into her. For rattled we were, Bestwin and I. The patrol had been reduced to two, and away out there on the Atlantic were some 20,000 innocent doughboys full of pep and blissfully confident in the power of the Navy to hold back anything that sported a periscope.
I won't tell you the size and power of their escort. This was April, remember, men were badly needed in France, and we took a few risks what we don't take nowadays.
Our patrol covered the only deep water for a hundred miles and that wasn't too deep in places. It lay between two shoals and we had buoyed the four corners of the deep patch to save us the bother of continuously taking observations. Day and night we raced up and down, crossing and recrossing, or else lay with engines stopped, listening at the microphone for some sound of a submarine propeller.
I can testify that the night the U 904 got through we were on the qui vive. It was a calm, starlit night with scarcely any wind but a gentle breeze from the south. The sea was dead calm and I guess that if two lobsters had rubbed together we'd have heard them. And yet that U-boat got through. Patiently, silently it had drifted right underneath us and might have got into the convoy and finished my career and Bestwin's but for a happening which justifies me in saying that this is the most wonderful story of the year.
Bestwin had come on board the Dade for breakfast—the Dade was the destroyer I commanded. We exchanged notes and agreed that nothing had passed and went below to eat.
"I think she'll come by night if she comes at all," said Bestwin, "especially as the difficulty of this passage seems to be well known even in non-naval circles of Germany."
"Of course you saw nothing?" I said.
"I saw nothing important," he said, "except that there seem to be a number of very large devil-fish in this quarter. I was looking over the side at four bells in the middle watch and I saw one chap as big as a table. I could see him quite plainly, all phosphorescent and hideous with his long tentacles folded behind him."
"It's rather far north for that kind of animal," I said, and we changed the subject and discussed the sort of things that men discuss at breakfast, razors and soaps, and mail and the scarcity of clean shirts.
We came on deck just as the officer of the watch hailed me.
"Something in the water ahead, sir," he said.
We made a jump for the bridge and fixed our glasses.
Sure enough something was happening. The water was swirling and foaming as though some monstrous body was in mortal agony and was threshing out its life in the depths of the sea. It was on the wrong side of the shoal—the side we didn't want to see a U-boat so that when all of a sudden a submarine broke surface my heart went down into my boots.
Bestwin took a flying leap and jumped for his boat, which was lying alongside, and the last I saw of him, his crew were pulling for their ship.
We got bear the range and opened fire.
The first shell went over, the second fell short. But what worried and puzzled me was the erratic behaviour of the U-boat. It didn't attempt to get away, but was bucking up and down for all the world like a porpoise. First the bow came out, then the stern, then it submerged altogether, and when it re-appeared it was twisting round in a circle.
I heard the gun of the Floss go and saw a column of water leap up astern of the U-boat, and then I saw it come to the level and a figure appeared on the deck waving a white flag.
It was the commander, and when he was taken off and brought to me I had never seen but one man who presented so wild and terrified an appearance. He was shaking and moaning like someone demented.
Bestwin had returned to the Dade and together we got the German down to my mess-room and forced some brandy between his chattering teeth. He looked round dazed and bewildered.
"Then it isn't a dream," he said in German.
We found afterwards that he spoke good English, and after Bestwin and I had gathered in the crew, and put some of our men aboard the submarine to bring her into harbour, and when we were through with wirelessing our report to the flagship and filling and comparing logs, we went down to see him.
He was more composed, and that was when he revealed his knowledge of the English language.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I have no doubt you have formed a very low opinion of my courage."
"Not at all," said Bestwin with innate British courtesy, "you probably thought we were going to hang you."
Kapitšn-Leutnant Scholtz—for so he introduced himself—shot at George what I would describe as a look of positive dislike.
"It was not that, gentlemen," he said coldly, "no normal danger ever terrifies a German officer, but I have been through an experience which I can only describe as appalling."
He shuddered at the recollection.
"Last night," he said, "I was approaching your patrol, well knowing, of course, that a very vigilant look-out was being maintained for the protection of your transports which are now in latitude so and so, longitude so-much. I had orders, I will be perfectly frank with you, to sink the giant liner which you have stolen from my country and which carries eight thousand men of the —th U.S. Regiment of Infantry."
He had all the details pat and I don't doubt that he could have told me the birthplace of the chief steward.
"Naturally I was anxious to avoid you; but nevertheless I kept to the surface as soon as night fell and did not submerge until I was about nine nautical miles from your beat."
"To the North-west?" asked Bestwin.
"North-north-west from here," said Scholtz, and went on, "but before I submerged, and when, of course, I was in diving trim so that the boat was susceptible to the least unusual resistance, I observed I was moving in what seemed to be a veritable ocean of devil-fish."
Bestwin uttered an exclamation.
"Why, yes," he said, "I saw them myself."
"There were thousands of them," said Kapitšn Scholtz with a shiver, "they lit the sea with their uncanny light. I was not greatly impressed except to find them so far north—I am something of a naturalist, particularly in relation to maricolous animals. I observed that they were rather of the order of Octopus punctatus than Octopus vulgaris, that is to say they were larger and possessed more tentacles than the European species—in fact they differed in many structural respects from the typical Cepholopoda of their order."
"I've got you," said Bestwin, who is no scientist, "they were different."
"Quite", said Scholtz; "as I say, I was not worried except in so far as the possibility with so many of these fish in the neighbourhood there was a danger that my propeller would be fouled. But really this wasn't a great danger. I was taking a final look round before submerging and my second officer had already gone below when I saw on my starboard bow what I took to be the broken mast of a ship lying in the water. I altered my course to keep it well away when, to my amazement it moved."
He wiped his brow with a handkerchief and blew as though to blow away the memory.
"It was moving broadside toward me, so that in three or four minutes I could see it plainly."
"It—then it was alive?" I asked.
"Yes," said Scholtz. "I will try to describe it. In length it was not far short of a hundred feet. It was more or less tubular in shape and the back was covered with a green mossy growth. The head, which lay flat on the water, was spatula-shaped and horny, rather like a crocodile, though as I afterwards discovered it had a huge pair of gills. It was gliding toward me without any perceptible motion. I called the second officer, but before he could reach the deck the thing had rolled over, revealing a white belly and two great fins like the centre-board of a yacht, and had disappeared. I had just time to notice what looked like a ruff of red fur about its neck, but which I afterwards discovered was a broad band of pink seaweed, Polysiphonia Urceolata."
I must confess that both Bestwin and I were staggered. Everybody has heard of the sea-serpent, the existence of which is, of course, one of the stock jokes of the world. But probably at the back of every sane man's mind there has lurked a reservation, that such animals should exist is not absolutely outside the range of possibility.
"Do you suggest," asked Bestwin, who had taken out a sheet of paper and was noting down the extraordinary facts, "that you saw the sea-serpent?"
Kapitšn Scholtz shrugged his shoulders.
"What can I say?" he said, "Naturally as one interested in animals and in the sea I have heard of the sea-serpent which was seen in '48 by Captain M'Quhae in the tropic of Capricorn, and I have read Lt. Drummond's account of the monster he saw, and the description which Dr. Drevar of the Pauline furnished in '75 of the battle he had seen between a sea-serpent and a whale. Then, of course, there is the account given by the Captain of Queen Victoria's yacht Osborne, which fell in with the sea-serpent off Sicily in June 1877. I confess I am as sceptical as you, gentlemen, but there was the thing in front of my eyes. There was no question of my being under any illusion or my mistaking the animal for anything but what it was.
"However, after a little while we went below and submerged, keeping the periscope level with the water. It was not long before I picked up the destroyers. Probably my silencer accounted for the fact that you did not hear me. I had shut off and was going down a little deeper to drift under you when I saw this strange animal again. It was swimming in a wide circle and its head evidently struck against my bows, for I felt a trembling shock and we began to roll. Immediately after I felt another shock, this time against the side of the boat, and this last was so violent that I decided to come to the surface and take the chance of being observed. Accordingly I came up.
"For a little time I could see nothing, but presently right aft I discerned the head of the beast, lying across the deck, its body being under water. The head was about eleven or twelve feet long and the eyes, which turned on me and which filled me with the most awful terror, were green and luminous, like those of a crocodile. The head slid sideways toward me with such force that it swept the iron stanchions clear, and I jumped below and again submerged.
"Throughout the night I drifted aimlessly with my engines shut off, not daring, for something more than the fear of your patrol, to come to the surface, and daring as little to stay below because at odd intervals we felt the horny head of the beast striking against the boat. We had excited his curiosity and probably his anger and he kept us close company. Once he came over us and momentarily rested his weight upon the hull. I thought that our end had come. As you know, gentlemen, a submarine is so sensitively balanced that a few pounds of unexpected weight is quite sufficient to set it wobbling. Imagine what happened when two or three tons of marine monster rested on us. My bows dipped down and I should have had some difficulty in recovering, but happily the beast slipped off.
"At seven o'clock this morning I cleared the shallow water, but I had not shaken off my companion. I caught a momentary glimpse of him through my periscope, his cavernous mouth, his triple rows of teeth, his staring green eyes, but I was beginning to get used to him, and to enjoy the novel experience when something suddenly enraged him. I had risked showing my periscope and I was looking through this when the thing happened. He rose half out of the water so that the upper part of him towered over me, and then for the first time I saw that the great under-fins were working to and fro as a man might work his hands. They were for all the world like hands in fingerless mittens. The under side was covered with wide silvery scales, the fins were a dark purple and, as I say, horribly like hands. As suddenly he rose he fell again, sending up a mountainous wave. Then before I knew what had happened he had thrown himself on his back as a playful cat would lie on the ground and had seized the bottom and the sides of the boat in his terrible fins.
"The boat rolled to and fro. I could see him biting at the steel-covered bow and inside we could hear the grating of his teeth. I put on full speed and tried to sink, but the body of the creature was holding me up.
Then suddenly the stern went down and I knew, without seeing, that he had flung his tail clear of the water and had coiled it round my little boat. We rose and fell in a most alarming fashion. The crew who knew nothing of the circumstances, and the officers, to whom I had not confided my fears, could not understand what I was doing and imagined that I was manipulating the diving rudder.
"It was then that you opened fire, and I think the first shell must have wounded the beast, for he released his hold and we came up on a level bottom. Since I did not wish to share the fate of the sea-serpent," said Kapitšn Scholtz with a smile, "I had nothing to do but to surrender."
We looked at one another, the three of us.
Bestwin was perhaps more excited than I.
"This is the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened," he said, "and it is quite natural in this extraordinary war, with its submarines, its depth charges and the like, that we should disturb whatever is at the bottom of the sea."
"You understand, gentlemen," interrupted Kapitšn Scholtz, "and I am sure you will not take it amiss, that I myself would like to describe this event in my own way."
"In other words," said I, "you want the copyright of this story."
Kapitšn Scholtz nodded. "Both the serial and the book rights," he said, and I stared at him.
"Why, Willie," I said.
He gasped. "Mr. Vanrhyn!" said he.
"Willie!" I said, "I thought you were dead, But you are alive and lying."
I shook him warmly by the hand.
"Say, Mr Vanrhyn," he said, looking mighty foolish, just as he used to when we caught him in the old Monitor-Post days. "That's a pretty good story anyway."
"Willie!" I said and introduced him.
"Scholtz is my real name," he explained, "Mainz was my nom de plume, and I got the idea for that story," he said, "by seeing all those devil fish—and Mr.Vanrhyn," he said earnestly, "I wanted some story bad. That old transport is full of Chicago boys, half of 'em friends of mine. It was a question," he said, "of thinking or sinking, and I had to think up an excuse for surrendering pretty quick or my second officer would have shot me. I got all my facts and Latin words out of an encyclopedia I looted. How does the story go?"
"Willie," I said, "that sea-serpent copyright is yours for all time. I'll file it just as soon as I get back to New York."