The Brain of the Battleship
by Morgan Robertson
Build an inverted Harvey-steel box about eight feet high, one hundred and fifty feet long, half as wide, with walls of eighteen-inch thickness, and a roof of three, and you have strong protection against shot and shell. Build up from the ends of the box two steel barbettes with revolving turrets as heavy as your side-walls; place in each a pair of thirteen-inch rifles; flank these turrets with four others of eight-inch wall, each holding two eight-inch guns; these again with four smaller, containing four six-inch guns, and you have power of offense nearly equal to your protection. Loosely speaking, a modern gun-projectile will, at short range, pierce steel equal to itself in cross-section, and from an elevated muzzle will travel as many miles as this cross-section measures in inches. Placed upon an outlying shoal, this box with its guns would make an efficient fortress, but would lack the advantage of being able to move and choose position.
Build underneath and each way from the ends of the box a cellular hull to float it; place within it, and below the box, magazines, boilers, and engines; construct above, between the turrets, a lighter superstructure to hold additional quick-fire guns and torpedo-tubes; cap the whole with a military mast supporting fighting-tops, and containing an armored conning-tower in its base; man and equip, provision and coal the fabric, and you can go to sea, confident of your ability to destroy everything that floats, except icebergs and other battle-ships.
Of these essentials was the first-class coast-defense battle-ship
Argyll. She was of ten thousand tons displacement, and was propelled by twin screws which received ten thousand horse-power from twin engines placed below the water-line. Three long tubes—one fixed in the stem, two movable in the superstructure—could launch Whitehead torpedoes,—mechanical fish carrying two hundred and twenty pounds of guncotton in their heads,—which sought in the water a twenty-foot depth, and hurried where pointed at a thirty-knot rate of speed. Their impact below the water-line was deadly, and only equaled in effect by the work of the ram-bow, the blow of the ship as a whole—the last glorious, suicidal charge on an enemy that had dismounted the guns, if such could happen.
Besides her thirteen-, eight-, and six-inch guns, she carried a secondary quick-fire battery of twenty six-pounders, four one-pounders, and four Gatling guns distributed about the superstructure and in the fighting-tops. The peculiar efficacy of this battery lay in its menace to threatening torpedo-boats, and its hostility to range-finders, big-gun sights, and opposing gunners. A torpedo-boat, receiving the full attention of her quick-fire battery, could be disintegrated and sunk in a yeasty froth raised by the rain of projectiles long before she could come within range of torpedo action; while a simultaneous discharge of all guns would distribute over seven thousand pounds of metal with foot-tons of energy sufficient to lift the ship herself high out of water. Bristling, glistening, and massive, a reservoir of death potential, a center of radiant destruction, a spitting, chattering, thundering epitome of racial hatred, she bore within her steel walls the ever-growing burden of progressive human thought. She was a maker of history, a changer of boundaries, a friend of young governments; and it chanced that on a fine tropical morning, in company with three armored cruisers, four protected cruisers, and a fleet of torpedo-boats and destroyers, she went into action.
She was stripped to bare steel and signal-halyards. Davits, anchors, and cables were stowed and secured. Ladders, gratings, stanchions, and all movable deck-fittings were below the water-line. Wooden bulkheads, productive of splinters, were knocked down and discarded, while all boats, with the plugs out, were overboard, riding to a sea-anchor made up of oars and small spars.
The crew was at quarters. Below, in the magazine, handling-rooms, stoke-holds, and bunkers, bare-waisted men worked and waited in stifling heat; for she was under forced draft, and compartments were closed, even though the enemy was still five miles away. The chief and his first assistant engineer watched the main engines in their twin compartments, while the subordinate aids and machinists attended to the dynamos, motors, and auxiliary cylinders that worked the turrets, pumps, and ammunition-hoists. All boilers were hot and hissing steam; all fire-pumps were working; all fire-hose connected and spouting streams of water. Perspiring men with strained faces deluged one another while they waited.
In the turrets were the gun-crews, six men to a gun, with an officer above in the sighting-hood; behind the superstructure-ports were the quick-fire men, sailors and marines; and above all, in the fighting-tops, were the sharp-shooters and men who handled the one-pounders and Gatling guns—the easiest-minded of the ship's company, for they could see and breathe. Each division of fighters and workers was overseen by an officer; in some cases by two and three.
Preparatory work was done, and, excepting the "black gang," men were quiescent, but feverish. Few spoke, and then on frivolous things, in tones that were not recognized. Occasionally a man would bring out a piece of paper and write, using for a desk a gun-breech or -carriage, a turret-wall, or the deck. An officer in a fighting-top used a telegraph-dial, and a stoker in the depths his shovel, in a chink of light from the furnace. These letters, written in instalments, were pocketed in confidence that sometime they would be mailed.
From the captain down each man knew that a large proportion of their number was foredoomed; but not a consciousness among them could admit the possibility of itself being chosen. The great first law forbade it. Senior officers pictured in their minds dead juniors, and thought of extra work after the fight. Junior officers thought of vacancies above them and promotion. Men in the turrets bade mental good-by to their mates in the superstructure; and these, secure in their five-inch protection, pitied those in the fighting-tops, where, cold logic says, no man may live through a sea-fight. Yet all would have volunteered to fill vacancies aloft. The healthy human mind can postulate suffering, but not its own extinction.
In a circular apartment in the military mast, protected by twelve inches of steel, perforated by vertical and horizontal slits for observation, stood the captain and navigating officer, both in shirt-sleeves; for this, the conning-tower, was hot. Around the inner walls were the nerve-terminals of the structure—the indicators, telegraph-dials, telephones, push-buttons, and speaking-tubes, which communicated with gun-stations, turrets, steering-room, engine-rooms, and all parts of the ship where men were stationed. In the forward part was a binnacle with small steering-wheel, disconnected now, for the steering was done by men below the water-line in the stern. A spiral staircase led to the main-deck below, and another to the first fighting-top above, in which staircase were small platforms where a signal-officer and two quartermasters watched through slits the signals from the flag-ship, and answered as directed by the captain below with small flags, which they mastheaded through the hollow within the staircase.
The chief master-at-arms, bareheaded, climbed into the conning-tower.
"Captain Blake, what'll we do with Finnegan?" he said. "I've released him from the brig as you ordered; but Mr. Clarkson won't have him in the turret where he belongs, and no one else wants him around. They even chased him out of the bunkers. He wants to work and fight, but Mr. Clarkson won't place him; says he washes his hands of Finnegan, and sent me to you. I took him to the bay, but he won't take medicine."
Captain Blake, stern of face and kindly of eye, drew back from a peep-hole, and asked: "What's his condition?"
"Shaky, sir. Sees little spiders and big spiders crawling round his cap-rim. Him and the recording angel knows where he gets it and where he keeps it, sir; but I don't. I've watched him for six months."
"Send him to me."
"Very good, sir."
The master-at-arms descended, and in a few moments the unwanted Finnegan appeared—a gray-bearded, emaciated, bleary-eyed seaman, who brushed imaginary things from his neck and arms, and stammered, as he removed his cap: "Report for duty, sir."
"For duty?" answered the captain, eying him sternly. "For death. You will be allowed the honorable death of an English seaman. You will die in the fighting-top sometime in the next three hours."
The man shivered, elevated one shoulder, and rubbed his ear against it, but said nothing, while Mr. Dalrymple, the navigating officer, with his eyes at a peep-hole and his ears open to the dialogue, wondered (as he and the whole ship's company had wondered before) what the real relation was between the captain and this wretched, drunken butt of the crew. For the captain's present attitude was a complete departure. Always he had shielded Finnegan from punishment to the extent that naval etiquette would permit.
"I have tried for six years," continued the captain, "to reform you and hold you to the manhood I once knew in you; but I give you up. You are not fit to live, and will never be fitter to die than this morning, when the chance comes to you to die fighting for your country. But I want you to die fighting. Do you wish to see the surgeon or the chaplain?"
"No, no, no, cappen; one's bad as t' other. The chaplain'll pray and the doctor'll fill me up wi' bromide, and it just makes me crazy, sir. I'm all right, cappen, if I only had a drink. Just give me a drink, cappen,—the doctor won't,—and send me down to my station, sir. I know it's only in my head, but I see 'em plain, all round. You'll give me a drink, cappen, please; I know you'll give me a drink."
He brushed his knees gingerly, and stepped suddenly away from an isolated speaking-tube. Captain Blake's stern face softened. His mind went back to his midshipman days, to a stormy night and a heavy sea, an icy foot-rope, a fall, a plunge, and a cold, hopeless swim toward a shadowy ship hove to against the dark background, until this man's face, young, strong, and cheery then, appeared behind a white life-buoy; and he heard again the panting voice of his rescuer: "Here ye are, Mr. Blake; boat's comin'."
He whistled down the speaking-tube, and when answered, called: "Send an opened bottle of whisky into the conning-tower—no glasses."
The captain resumed his position at the peep-hole, and Finnegan busied himself with his troubles until a Japanese servant appeared with a quart bottle. The captain received it, and the Jap withdrew.
"Help yourself, Finnegan," said the captain, extending the bottle; "take a good drink—a last one." Finnegan took the equivalent of three. "Now, up with you." The captain stood the bottle under the binnacle. "Upper top. Report to Mr. Bates."
"Cappen, please send me down to the turret where I b'long, sir. I'm all right now. I don't want to go up there wi' the sogers. I'm not good at machine-guns."
"No arguments. Up with you at once. You are good for nothing but to work a lever under the eye of an officer."
Finnegan saluted silently and turned toward the stairs.
He turned. The captain extended his hand. "Finnegan," he said, "I don't forget that night, but you must go; the eternal fitness of things demands it. Perhaps I'll go, too. Good-by."
The two extremes of the ship's company shook hands, and Finnegan ascended. When past the quartermasters and out of hearing, he grumbled and whined: "No good, hey? Thirty years in the service, and sent up here to think of my sins like a sick monkey. Good for nothin' but to turn a crank with the sogers. Nice job for an able seaman. What's the blasted service a-comin' to?"
The two fleets were approaching in similar formation, double column, at about a twelve-knot speed. Leading the left column was the
Lancaster, and following came the
Atholl, the last two, like the
Lancaster, armored cruisers of the first class. On the
starboard bow was the flag-ship
Cumberland, a large unarmored cruiser, and after her came the
Sutherland, unarmored craft like the flag-ship, equally vulnerable to fire, the two columns making a zigzag line, with the heaviest ships to the left, nearest the enemy.
Heading as they were, the fleets would pass about a mile apart. Led by a black, high-sided monster, the left column of the enemy was made up of four battle-ships of uncouth, foreign design and murderous appearance, while the right column contained the flag-ship and three others, all heavily armored cruisers. Flanking each fleet, far to the rear, were torpedo-boats and destroyers.
"We're outclassed, Dalrymple," said Captain Blake. "There are the ships we expected—Warsaw,
Moscow, all of fighting weight, and the
Orenburg. Leaving out the
Argyll, we haven't a ship equal to the weakest one there. This fight is the
is equal to it, captain. All I fear is torpedoes. Of course our ends and superstructure will catch it, and I suppose we'll lose men—all the quick-fire men, perhaps."
"Those in the tops surely," said the captain. "Dalrymple, what do you think? I don't feel right about Finnegan. He belongs in the turret, and I've sentenced him. Have I the right? I've half a mind to call him down." He pushed a button marked "Forward turret," and listened at a telephone.
"Mr. Clarkson!" he called. "I've put your man Finnegan in the upper top; but he seems all right now. Can you use him?"
The answer came:
"No, sir; I've filled his place."
"Die, then. On my soul be it, Finnegan, poor devil," muttered the captain, gloomily.
His foot struck the bottle under the binnacle, and, on an impulse due to his mood, he picked it up and uncorked it. Mr. Dalrymple observed the action and stepped toward him.
"Captain, pardon me," he said, "if I protest unofficially. We are going into action—not to dinner."
The captain's eyes opened wide and shone brighter, while his lip curled. He extended the bottle to the lieutenant.
"The apologies are mine, Mr. Dalrymple," he said. "I forgot your presence. Take a drink."
The officer forced a smile to his face, and stepped back, shaking his head. Captain Blake swallowed a generous portion of the whisky.
"The fool!" mused the navigator, as he looked through the peep-hole. "The whole world is watching him to-day, and he turns to whisky. That's it, dammit; that's the bond of sympathy: Blake and Finnegan, Finnegan and Blake—dipsomaniacs. Lord, I never thought. I've seen him drunker than Finnegan, and if it wasn't for his position and obligations, he'd see spiders, too."
Mr. Dalrymple was not the only one on board who disapproved of "Dutch courage" for captains. The Japanese servant, whose station was at the forward-turret ammunition-hoist, reported the service of the whisky to his mates, and from here the news spread—as news will in a cellular hull—up to turrets and gun-rooms, through speaking-tubes and water-tight bulkheads, down to stoke-hold, engine-rooms, and steering-room; and long before Captain Blake had thought of taking a drink the whole ship's company was commenting, mentally and openly, and more or less profanely, on the story that "the old man was getting drunk in the conning-tower."
And another piece of news traveled as fast and as far—the whereabouts of Finnegan. Mr. Clarkson had incidentally informed his gun-captain, who told the gun-crew; and from them the news went down the hoist and spread. Men swore louder over this; for though they did not want Finnegan around and in the way, they did not want him to die. Strong natures love those which may be teased; and not a heart was there but contained a soft spot for the helpless, harmless, ever good-natured, drunk, and ridiculous Finnegan.
The bark of an eight-inch gun was heard. Captain Blake saw, through the slits of the conning-tower, a cloud of thinning smoke drifting away from the flag-ship. Stepping back, he rang up the forward turret.
"Mr. Clarkson," he said to the telephone when it answered him, "remember: aim for the nearest water-line, load and fire, and expect no orders after the first shot."
Calling up the officer in the after-turret, he repeated the injunction, substituting turrets as the object of assault. He called to the officers at the eight-inch guns that conning-towers and superstructure were to receive their attention; to those at the six-inch guns to aim solely at turret apertures; to ensigns and officers of marine in charge of the quick-fire batteries to aim at all holes and men showing, to watch for torpedo-boats, and, like the others, to expect no orders after the first shot. Then, ringing up the round of gun-stations, one after another, he sang out, in a voice to be heard by all: "Fire away!"
The initial gun had been fired from the flag-ship when the leading ships of the two fleets were nearly abreast. It was followed by broadsides from all, and the action began. The
Argyll, rolling slightly from the recoil of her guns, smoked down the line like a thing alive, voicing her message, dealing out death and receiving it. In this first round of the battle the fire of the eight opposing vessels was directed at her alone. Shells punctured her vulnerable parts, and, exploding inside, killed men and dismounted guns. The groans of the stricken, the crash of steel against steel, the roar of the turret-guns, the rattling chorus of quick-fire rifles, and the drumming of heavy shells against the armor and turrets made an uproarious riot of sound over which no man above the water-line could lift his voice. But there were some there, besides the dead,—men who worked through and survived the action,—who, after the first impact of sound, did not hear it, nor anything else while they lived. They were the men who had neglected stuffing their ears with cotton.
A fundamental canon of naval tactics is to maintain formation. Another is to keep moving, at the full speed of the slowest ship, not only to disconcert the enemy's fire, but to obtain and hold the most advantageous position—if possible, to flank him. As these rules apply equally well to both sides, it is obvious that two fleets, passing in opposite directions, and each trying to flank the rear of the other, will eventually circle around a common center; and if the effort to improve position dominates the effort to evade fire, this circle will narrow until the battle becomes a mêlée.
The two lines, a mile apart and each about a mile in length, were squarely abreast in less than five minutes from the time of firing the first gun; and by now the furious bombardment of the
by eight ships had ceased, for each one found it more profitable to deal with its vis-à-vis. But there was yet a deafening racket in the
conning-tower as small projectiles from the rear battle-ship abreast impinged on its steel walls; and Captain Blake, his ears ringing, his eyes streaming, half stunned by the noise, almost blinded and suffocated by the smoke from his forward guns, did not know that his ship had dropped back in the line until the signal-officer descended and shouted in his ear an order signaled from the admiral: "Move ahead to position."
"Hang the man who invented conning-towers," he muttered angrily. "Keep a lookout up there, Mr. Wright," he shouted; "I can see very little."
The officer half saluted, half nodded, and ran up the stair, while Captain Blake rang "full speed" to the engines. The indicators on the wall showed increased revolution, and he resumed his place at the peep-hole. In a few moments Mr. Wright reappeared with a message from the flag-ship to "starboard helm; follow ship ahead."
"All right. Watch out up there; report all you see," he answered. Peeping out, he saw the
sheering to port, and he moved the lever of the steering-telegraph. There was no answering ring. "Shot away, by George," he growled. He yelled into a supplementary voice-tube to "starboard your wheel—slowly." This was not answered, and with his own hands he coupled up the steering-wheel on the binnacle and gave it a turn. It was merely a governor, which admitted steam to the steering-engine, and there was no resisting pressure to guide him; but a helm indicator showed him the changed position of the rudder, and, on looking ahead, he found that she answered the wheel; also, on looking to starboard, he found that he had barely escaped collision with the
Montrose, whose fire he had been masking, to the scandal of the admiral and the
A little unnerved, Captain Blake called down a seven-inch tube to an apartment in the depths,—a central station of pipes and wires, to be used as a last resort,—directing the officer on post to notify the chief engineer of the damage, and to order the quartermasters in the steering-room to disconnect their wheel and stand by. This was answered, and the captain resumed his lookout, one hand on the wheel.
"Reduces the captain of the ship to a helmsman," he muttered.
The navigating officer approached, indicating by gesture and expression his intention of relieving him, but was waved away.
"I want the wheel myself," shouted the captain. "Devil take a conning-tower, anyhow! Keep a lookout to port. But say, Dalrymple, send up for Finnegan. I'll not have him killed. Get him down, if he's alive."
Mr. Dalrymple ascended the stair to pass the word for Finnegan, but did not come down. He had reached the signal-platform, where one quartermaster lay dead, and was transmitting the order to Mr. Wright, when a heavy shell struck the mast, above their heads and below the lower top, exploded inside, killed the three men on the platform, and hurled the upper part of the mast, with both tops full of dead men and living, high in air. The conning-tower was filled with gas and smoke; but Captain Blake, though burned and nearly stripped of clothing by the blast of flame, was uninjured by the flying fragments of the shell. Smarting, gasping, and choking, fully aware of the complete destruction above, his mind dwelt for an instant on the man who had once saved his life, whom he had sentenced to death. He looked up the hollow within the wrecked staircase, but saw nothing.
Mr. Clarkson, however, happened to be looking through an upper peep-hole in the sighting-hood at this moment, and saw the upper half of the mast lift and turn; also, dimly through the smoke, he noticed, among the dozen of men hurled from the tops, the blue-shirted figure of one whom he knew to be Finnegan, clinging at arm's-length in mid-air to a Gatling gun, which had been torn from its fastenings. Then the smoke thickened and shut out the view; but a moment later he heard the rattling crash of the mast as it fell upon the superstructure beneath.
"The whole mast's gone, boys," he shouted to his crew—"both tops. Finnegan's done for."
And the story of Finnegan's finish went down the hoist and through the ship, everywhere received with momentary sorrow, and increased malediction on the drunken captain, who thought no more—and knew no more—of a blue-jacket than to masthead him with the marines.
The tactics of both admirals being the same, and the speed of both fleets—that of their slowest ships—being equal, they turned, and, like two serpents pursuing each other's tails, charged around in a circle, each ship firing at the nearest or most important enemy. This fire was destructive. A ship a mile distant is a point-blank target for modern guns and gunners, and everything protected by less than eight inches of steel suffered. The
had lost her military mast and most of her secondary guns. The flag-ship
Cumberland, raked and riddled by nine- and eleven-inch shells, surrounded herself with steam from punctured boilers shortly after the signal to turn, and swung drunkenly out of line, her boilers roaring, her heavy guns barking. A long, black thing, low down behind the wave created by its rush, darted by her, unstruck by the shells sent by the flag-ship and the
Marlborough. A larger thing, mouse-colored and nearly hidden by a larger wave, was coming from the opposite direction, spitting one-pound shot at the rate of sixty a minute, but without present avail; for a spindle-shaped object left the deck of the first when squarely abreast of the helpless flag-ship, diving beneath the surface, and the existence and position of this object were henceforth indicated only by a line of bubbles, a darting streak of froth, traveling toward the
Cumberland. In less than a minute it had reached her. The sea alongside arose in a mound, and she seemed to lean away from it; then the mound burst, and out of it, and spouting from funnels, ventilators, and ports, came a dense cloud of smoke, which mingled with the steam and hid her from view, while a dull, booming roar, barely distinguishable in the noise of battle, came across the water. When the cloud thinned there was nothing to be seen but heads of swimming men, who swam for a time and sank. The flag-ship had been torpedoed.
But the torpedo-boat followed her. Pursued by the mouse-colored destroyer, she circled around and headed back in the endeavor to reach her consorts; but she had not time. Little by little the avenger crept up, pounding her with small shot and shell, until, leaking from a hundred wounds, she settled beneath the surface. She had fulfilled her mission; she was designed to strike once and die.
No armored cruiser may withstand the fire of a battle-ship. The
Lancaster, leading the
Argyll, received through her eight-inch water-line belt the heavy shot and shell of the
Orenburg. Nine- and eleven-inch shell fire, sent by Canet and Hontoria guns, makes short work of eight-inch armor, and the doomed
settled and disappeared, her crew yelling, her screws turning, and her guns firing until the water swamped her. The following
scraped her funnels and masts as she passed over.
Eight hundred feet back in the line was the
Beaufort, armored like the
Lancaster. Her ending was dramatic and suicidal. Drilled through and through by the fire of the
Riga, she fought and suffered until the
foundered; then, with all guns out of action, but with still intact engine-power, she left the line, not to run, but to ram. The circle was narrowing, but she had fully four minutes to steam before she could reach the opposite side and intercept her slayer. And in this short time she was reduced to scrap-iron by the concentrated fire of the
Kharkov. Every shot from every gun on the three battle-ships struck the unlucky cruiser; but in the face of the storm of flame and steel she went on, exhaling through fissures and ports smoke from bursting shells and steam from broken pipes. Half-way across, an almost solid belching upward and outward of white steam indicated a stricken boiler, and from now on her progress was slow. She was visibly lower in the water and rolled heavily. Soon another cloud arose from her, her headway decreased, and she came to a stop, two hundred yards on the port bow of the onrushing
Riga, whose crew yelled derisively—whose quick-fire guns still punished her.
But the yells suddenly ceased and the gunners changed their aim. A small thing had left the nearly submerged tube in the cruiser's stem, and the gunners were now firing at a darting line of bubbles, obliterating the target for a moment with the churning of the water, only to see the frothy streak within their range, coming on at locomotive speed. They aimed ahead; two five-inch guns added their clamor, and even a Hontoria turret-gun voiced its roar and sent its messenger. But the bubbles would not stop; they entered the bow wave of the battle-ship, and a second later the great floating fort separated into two parts, with a crackling thunder of sound and an outburst of flame and smoke which came of nothing less than an exploded magazine. The two halves rolled far to starboard, then to port, shivered, settled, turned completely over, and sank in a turmoil of bursting steam and air-bubbles. Three minutes later the
lifted her stern and dived gently after her victim, still groaning hoarsely from her punctured iron lungs. In her death-agony she had given birth to a child more terrible than a battle-ship.
The rear ship of the inner column, the
Atholl, was officially an armored cruiser, but possessed none of the attributes of the cruiser class. She was the laggard of the fleet, and her heaviest guns were of six-inch caliber; but, being designed for a battle-ship, she carried this temporary battery behind sixteen inches of steel, and had maintained her integrity, taking harder blows than she could give. With the going down of the
she took a position astern of the
Sutherland, and the double line of battle was reduced to a single line; for the
had left the column when the flag-ship sank.
And this is why the overmatched, battered, and all but demoralized cruisers received no more attention from the enemy; it were wiser to deal with the
Saratov, blazing fiercely from the effects of a well-planted shell, had drawn out of line, the better to deal with her trouble. Her place in the line and that of the sunken
were filled by the following ships drawing ahead; but the fleet still held to double column, and into the lane between the lines the
was coming at sixteen knots, breathing flame, vomiting steel—delivering destruction and death.
She had rounded the
stern, raking her as she came, and sending armor-piercing shells through her citadel. Some exploded on impact, some inside; all did work. An eight-inch projectile entered the after turret-port, and silenced the gun and gun-crew forever. Before the
was abeam the
had ceased firing. Rolling and smoking, her crew decimated, her guns disabled and steering-gear carried away, she swung out of line; and the appearance in his field of vision of several rushing waves with short smoke-stacks behind, and the supplementary pelting his ship was now receiving from the
Marlborough, decided her commander to lower his flag.
On the starboard bow of the
was the armored cruiser
Orenburg. Her fire, hot and true, ceased on the explosion of a large shell at her water-line, and she swung out of the fight, silent but for the roar of escaping steam, heeled heavily to port, and sank in ten minutes, her ensigns flying to the last. Mr. Clarkson rejoiced with his gun-crew. He had sent the shell.
On stormed the
Argyll. Her next adversary was the
Kharkov, a battle-ship nearly equal in guns and armor to herself, but not quite—by an inch. And that inch cost her the fight. With her main turrets damaged, her superstructure, secondary guns, and torpedo-tubes shot away, she yielded to fate, and, while the
passed on, hauled down her ensigns at the request of a torpedo-boat.
Ahead and to starboard was the cruiser
Tobolsk, leaving the neighborhood as fast as her twin screws could push her. Her end was in sight; in her wake were two gray destroyers, and behind, charging across the broken formation, was the fleet
Tobolsk; for slowing down to await her coming was the black and high-sided
Warsaw, the monster of the fleet, bristling with guns, somber, and ominous in her silence.
Ahead of her, and turning to port, was the flag-ship
Obdorsk, also slowed down; but she promised to be fully occupied with the
Montrose, who had wheeled in their tracks, no longer obliged to traverse a circle to reach an enemy.
On rushed the
Argyll, and when nearly up to the
Warsaw, the latter gave steam to her engines. Breast to breast the gladiators charged across the sea, roaring, flaming, and smoking. A torpedo left the side of the
Warsaw, pointed diagonally ahead, to intercept the
Argyll. But it was badly aimed, and the hissing bubbles passed under her stern. Before another could be discharged, the torpedo-room, located by the
officers, was enlarged to the size of three by the succeeding bombardment and the explosion of the remaining torpedoes.
Twelve-inch armor cannot keep out thirteen-inch armor-piercing shell, and torpedoes cannot explode on board without damage to machinery, steering-gear, and vital connections. The
yawed, slackened speed, and came to a stop, her turret-guns still speaking, but the secondary guns silent. The
circled around her, sending her thirteen-, eight-, and six-inch shells into her victim with almost muzzle energy. The two military masts of the
sank, and dead men in the fighting-tops were flung overboard. The forward turret seemed to explode; smoke and flame shot out of the ports, and its top lifted and fell. Then the
turned and headed straight for her side.
There was little need of gun fire now; but the forward-turret guns belched once during the charge, and the more quickly handled eight- and six-inch rifles stormed away while there was time to reload. Smoking, rolling, and barking,—ten thousand tons of inertia behind a solid steel knife,—she pounced on her now silent enemy. There was a crunching sound, muffled and continuous. The speed of the
seemed hardly checked. In went the ram farther and farther, until the slanting edge began cutting above the water. Then the
Warsaw, heeled far over by the impact, rolled back, and the knife cut upward. The smooth plates at the
water-line wrinkled like paper, and the pile of shattered steel which had once been her forward deck and bulkheads was shaken up and adjusted to new positions; but not until her nose was actually buried in the wound—until the
was cut half in two—did the reversed engines begin to work. The
backed out, exposing for a moment a hole like a cavern's mouth; then the stricken ship rolled heavily toward her, burying the sore, and, humming and buzzing with exhausting steam and rushing air, settled rapidly and sank, while out from ports, doors, and nearly vertical hatches came her crew, as many as could. They sprang overboard and swam, and those that reached the now stationary
were rescued; for a cry had gone through the latter from the central station in her depths: "All hands on deck to save life! Bring ladders, life-buoys, and ropes' ends!"
The battle was ended; for, with the ramming of the
struck to the three ships circling around her. They had suffered, but the battle-ship
was reduced to a monitor. Her superstructure and the bow and stern above the water-line were shattered to a shapeless tangle of steel. What was left of her funnels and ventilators resembled nutmeg-graters, and she was perceptibly down by the head; for her bow leaked through its wrinkled plates, and the forward compartment below the protective deck was filled. Yet she could still fight in smooth water. Her box-like citadel was intact, and standing naked out of the wreck, scarred and dented, but uninjured, were the turrets, ammunition-hoists, and conning-tower. In the latter was the brain of the ship, that had fought her to victory and then sent the call to her crew to save the lives of their enemies.
Two men met on a level spot amidships and clasped hands. Both were bare-waisted and grimy, and one showed red as a lobster under the stains. He was the chief engineer.
"We've won, Clarkson," he said. "We've won the hottest fight that history can tell of—won it ourselves; but he'll get the credit."
"And he's drunk as a lord—drunk through it all. What did he ram for? Why did he send two millions of prize-money to the bottom? O Lord! O Lord! it's enough to make a man swear at his mother. We had her licked. Why did he ram?"
"Because he was drunk, that's why. He rang seven bells to me along at the first of the muss, and then sent word through young Felton that he wanted full speed. Dammit, he already had it, every pound of it. And he gave me no signal to reverse when we struck; if it wasn't for luck and a kind Providence we'd have followed the
Warsaw. I barely got her over. Here, Mr. Felton; you were in the central, were you not? How'd the old man appear to be making it? Were his orders intelligible?"
A young man had joined them, hot, breathing hard, and unclothed.
"Not always, sir; I had to ask him often to repeat, and then I sometimes got another order. He kept me busy from the first, when he sent the torpedoes overboard."
"The torpedoes!" exclaimed Mr. Clarkson. "Did we use them? I didn't know it."
"He was afraid they'd explode on board, sir," he said. "That was just after we took full speed."
"And just before he got too full to be afraid of anything," muttered the lieutenant. "Why don't he come out of that?" He glanced toward the conning-tower. Other officers had joined them.
"We'll investigate," said Mr. Clarkson.
The door on the level of the main-deck leading into the mast was found to be wedged fast by the blow of a projectile. Men, naked and black, sprawled about the wreckage breathing fresh air, were ordered to get up and to rig a ladder outside. They did so, and Mr. Clarkson ascended to the ragged end of the hollow stump and looked down. Standing at the wheel, steering the drifting ship with one hand and holding an empty bottle in the other, was a man with torn clothing and bloody face. In spite of the disfigurement Mr. Clarkson knew him. Jammed into the narrow staircase leading below was the body of a man partly hidden by a Gatling gun, the lever of which had pierced the forehead.
"Finnegan," yelled the officer, "how'd you get there?"
The man at the wheel lifted a bleary eye and blinked; then, unsteadily touching his forehead, answered: "Fe' dow'-shtairs, shir."
"Come out of that! On deck there! Take the wheel, one hand, and stand by it!" Mr. Clarkson descended to the others with a serious look on his grimy face, and a sailor climbed the ladder and went down the mast.
"Gentlemen," said the first lieutenant, impressively, "we were mistaken, and we wronged Captain Blake. He is dead. He died at the beginning. He lies under a Gatling gun in the bottom of the tower. I saw Finnegan hanging to that gun, whirling around it, when the mast blew up. It is all plain now. Finnegan and the gun fell into the tower. Finnegan may have struck the stairs and rolled down, but the gun went down the hollow within and killed the captain. We have been steered and commanded by a drunken man—but it was Finnegan."
Finnegan scrambled painfully down the ladder. He staggered, stumbled, and fell in a heap.
"Rise up," said Mr. Clarkson, as they surrounded him; "rise up, Daniel Drake Nelson Farragut Finnegan. You are small potatoes and few in the hill; you are shamefully drunk, and your nose bleeds; you are stricken with Spanish mildew, and you smell vilely—but you are immortal. You have been a disgrace to the service, but Fate in her gentle irony has redeemed you, permitting you, in one brief moment of your misspent life, to save to your country the command of the seas—to guide, with your subconscious intelligence, the finest battle-ship the science of the world has constructed to glorious victory, through the fiercest sea-fight the world has known. Rise up, Daniel, and see the surgeon."
But Finnegan only snored.