Between the Millstones

by Morgan Robertson

He stood before the recruiting officer, trembling with nervousness, anxious of face, and clothed in rags; but he was clean, for, knowing the moral effect of cleanliness, he had lately sought the beach and taken a swim.

"Want to enlist?" asked the officer, taking his measure with trained eye.

"Yes, sir; I read you wanted men in the navy."

"Want seamen, firemen, and landsmen. What's your occupation? You look like a tramp."

"Yes," he answered bitterly, "I'm a tramp. That's all they'd let me be. I used to be a locomotive engineer—before the big strike. Then they blacklisted me, and I've never had a job above laborin' work since. It's easy to take to the road and stay at it when you find you can't make over a dollar a day at back-breakin' work after earnin' three and four at the throttle. An engineer knows nothin' but his trade, sir. Take it away, and he's a laborin' man.

"I'd ha' worked and learned another, but they jailed me—put me in choky, 'cause I had no visible means o' support. I had no money, and was a criminal under the law. And they kept at it,—jailed me again and again as a vagrant,—when all I wanted was work. After a while I didn't care. But now's my chance, sir, if you'll take me on. I don't know much about boats and the sea, but I can fire an engine, and know something about steam."

"A fireman's work on board a war-vessel is very different from that of a locomotive fireman," said the officer, leaning back in his chair.

"I know, sir; that may be," the tramp replied eagerly; "but I can shovel coal, and I can learn, and I can work. I'm not very strong now, 'cause I haven't had much to eat o' late years; but I'm not a drinkin' man—why, that costs more than grub. Give me a chance, sir; I'm an American; I'm sick o' bein' hunted from jail to jail, like a wild animal, just 'cause I can't be satisfied with pick-and-shovel work. I've spent half o' the last five years in jail as a vagrant. I put in a month at Fernandina, and then I was chased out o' town. They gave me two months at Cedar Keys, and I came here, only to get a month more in this jail. I got out this mornin', and was told by the copper who pinched me to get out o' Pensacola or he'd run me in again. And he's outside now waitin' for me. I dodged past 'im to get in."

"Pass this man in to the surgeon," said the officer, with something like a sympathetic snort in the tone of his voice; for he also was an American.

An orderly escorted him to the surgeon, who examined him and passed him. Then the recruit signed his name to a paper.

"Emaciated," wrote the surgeon in his daily report; "body badly nourished, and susceptible to any infection. Shows slight febrile symptoms, which should be attended to. An intelligent man; with good food and care will become valuable."

The tramp marched to the receiving-ship with a squad of other recruits, and on the way smiled triumphantly into the face of a mulatto policeman, who glared at him. He had signed his name on a piece of paper, and the act had changed his status. From a hunted fugitive and habitual criminal he had become a defender of his country's honor—a potential hero.

On board the receiving-ship he was given an outfit of clothes and bedding; but before he had learned more than the correct way to lash his hammock and tie his silk neckerchief he was detailed for sea duty, and with a draft of men went to Key West in a navy-yard tug; for war was on, and the fleet blockading Havana needed men.

At Key West he was appointed fireman on a torpedo-boat, where his work—which he soon learned—was to keep up steam in a tubular boiler. But he learned nothing of the rest of the boat, her business, or the reason of her construction. Seasickness prevented any assertion of curiosity at first, and later the febrile symptoms which the examining surgeon had noted developed in him until he could think of nothing else. There being no doctor aboard to diagnose his case, he was jeered by his fellows, and kept at work until he dropped; then he took to his hammock. Shooting pains darted through him, centering in his head, while his throat was dry and his thirst tormenting.

Life on a torpedo-boat engaged in despatch duty and rushing through a Gulf Stream sea at thirty knots is torture to a healthy, nervous system. It sent this sick man into speedy delirium. He could eat very little, but he drank all the water that was given him. Moaning and muttering, tossing about in his hammock, never asleep, but sometimes unconscious, at other times raving, and occasionally lucid, he presented a problem which demanded solution. His emaciated face, flushed at first, had taken on a peculiar bronzed appearance, and there were some who declared that it was Yellow Jack. But nothing could be done until they reached the fleet and could interview a cruiser with a surgeon.

The sick man solved the problem. He scrambled out of his hammock at daylight in the morning and dressed himself in his blue uniform, carefully tying his black neckerchief in the regulation knot. Then, muttering the while, he gained the deck.

The boat was charging along at full speed, throwing aside a bow wave nearly as high as herself. Three miles astern, just discernible in the half-light, was a pursuing ram-bowed gunboat, spitting shot and shell; and forward near the conning-tower were two blue-coated, brass-buttoned officers, watching the pursuer through binoculars.

The crazed brain of the sick man took cognizance of nothing but the blue coats and brass buttons. He did not look for locust clubs and silver shields. These were policemen—his deadliest enemies; but he would escape them this time.

With a yell he went overboard, and, being no swimmer, would have drowned had not one of the blue-coated officers flung a lifebuoy. He came to the surface somewhat saner, and seized the white ring, which supported him, while the torpedo-boat rushed on. She could not stop for one man in time of war, with a heavily armed enemy so near.

A twenty-knot gunboat cannot chase a thirty-knot torpedo-boat very long without losing her below the horizon; but this pursuit lasted ten minutes from the time the sick man went overboard before the gunboat ceased firing and slackened speed. The quarry was five miles away, out of Spanish range, and the floating man directly under her bow. He was seen and taken on board, with Spanish profanity sounding in his unregarding ears.

He lay on the deck, a bedraggled heap, gibbering and shivering, while a surgeon, with cotton in his nostrils and smelling-salts in his hand, diagnosed his case. Then the gunboat headed north and dropped anchor in the bight of a small, crescent-shaped sand-key of the Florida Reef. For the diagnosis was such as to suggest prompt action. Two brave men bundled him into the dinghy, lowered it, pulled ashore, and laid him on the sand.

Returning, they stripped and threw away their clothing, sank the boat with a buoy on the painter, took a swim, and climbed aboard to be further disinfected. Then the gunboat lifted her anchor and steamed eastward, her officers watching through glasses a small, low torpedo-boat, far to the southeast,—too far to be reached by gun fire,—which was steering a parallel course, and presumably watching the gunboat.

An idiot, a lunatic, with bloodshot eyes glaring from a yellow face, raved, rolled, and staggered bareheaded under the sun about the sandy crescent until sundown, then fell prostrate and unconscious into the water on the beach, luckily turning over so that his nostrils were not immersed. The tide went down, leaving him damp and still on the sands. In about an hour a sigh, followed by a deep, gasping breath, escaped him; another long inhalation succeeded, and another; then came steady, healthy breathing and childlike sleep, with perspiration oozing from every pore. He had passed a crisis.

About midnight the cloudy sky cleared and the tropic stars came out, while the tide climbed the beach again, and lapped at the sleeping man's feet; but he did not waken, even when the Spanish gunboat stole slowly into the bay from the sea and dropped anchor with a loud rattling of chain in the hawse-pipe. A boat was lowered, and a single man sculled it ashore; then lifting out a small cask and bag, he placed them high on the sands and looked around.

Spying the sleeping man, half immersed now, he approached and felt of the damp clothing and equally damp face. Not noticing that he breathed softly, the man crossed himself, then moved quickly and nervously toward his boat, muttering, "Muerto, muerto!" Pushing out, he sculled rapidly toward the anchored craft, and disposed of the boat and his clothing as had been done before; then he swam to the gangway and climbed aboard.

Shortly after, the sleeping man, roused by the chill of the water, crawled aimlessly up the sand and slept again—safe beyond the tide-line. In three hours he sat up and rubbed his eyes, half awake, but sane.

Strange sights and sounds puzzled him. He knew nothing of this starlit beach and stretch of sparkling water—nothing of that long black craft at anchor, with the longer beam of white light reaching over the sea from her pilot-house. He could only surmise that she was a war-vessel from the ram-bow,—a feature of the government model which had impressed him at Key West,—and from the noise she was making. She quivered in a maze of flickering red flashes, and the rattling din of her rapid-fire and machine guns transcended in volume all the roadside blastings he had heard in his wanderings. Dazed and astonished, he rose to his feet, but, too weak to stand, sat down again and looked.

Half a mile seaward, where the beam of light ended, a small craft, low down between two crested waves, was speeding toward the gunboat in the face of her fire. The water about her was lashed into turmoil by the hail of projectiles; but she kept on, at locomotive speed, until within a thousand feet of the gunboat, when she turned sharply to starboard, doubled on her track, and raced off to sea, still covered by the search-light and followed by shot and shell while the gunners could see her.

When the gun fire ceased, a hissing of steam could be heard in the distance, and a triumphant Spanish yell answered. The small enemy had been struck, and the gunboat slipped her cable and followed.

The tired brain could not cope with the problem, and again the man slept, to awaken at sunrise with ravenous hunger and thirst, and a memory of what seemed to be horrible dreams,—vague recollections of painful experiences,—torturing labor with aching muscles and blistered hands; harsh words and ridicule from strong, bearded men; and running through and between, the shadowy figures of blue-coated, brass-buttoned men, continually ordering him on, and threatening arrest. The spectacle of the night was as dream-like as the rest; for he remembered nothing of the gunboat which had rescued and marooned him.

His face had lost its yellowish-bronze color, but was pale and emaciated as ever, while his sunken eyes held the soft light which always comes of extreme physical suffering. He was too weak to remain on his feet, but in the effort to do so he spied the cask and bag higher up on the beach and crawled to them. Prying a plug from the bunghole with his knife, he found water, sweet and delicious, which he drank by rolling the cask carefully and burying his lips in the overflow. Evidently some one in authority on the gunboat had decreed that he should not die of hunger or thirst, for the bag contained hard bread.

Stronger after a meal, he climbed the highest sand-dune and studied the situation. An outcropping of coral formed the backbone of the thin crescent which held him, and which was about half a mile between the points. To the south, opening out from the bay, was a clear stretch of sea, green in the sunlight, deep blue in the shadows of the clouds, and on the horizon were a few sails and smoke columns. West and east were other sandy islets and coral reefs, and to the north a continuous line of larger islands which might be inhabited, but gave no indication of it.

Out in the bay, bobbing to the heave of the slight ground-swell, were the three white buoys left by the Spaniards to mark the sunken boats and slipped cable; and far away on the beach, just within the western point, was something long and round, which rolled in the gentle surf and glistened in the sunlight. He knew nothing of buoys, but they relieved his loneliness; they were signs of human beings, who must have placed him there with the bread and water, and who might come for him.

"Wonder if I got pinched again, and this is some new kind of a choky," he mused. "Been blamed sick and silly, and must ha' lost the job and got jailed again. Just my luck! S'pose the jug was crowded and they run me out here. Wish they'd left me a hat. Wonder how long I'm in for this time."

He descended to the beach and found that repeated wettings of his hair relieved him from the headache that the sun's heat was bringing on; and satisfied that the strong hand of local law had again closed over him, he resigned himself to the situation, resenting only the absence of a shade-tree or a hat. "Much better 'n the calaboose in El Paso," he muttered, "or the brickyard in Chicago."

As he lolled on the sand, the glistening thing over at the western point again caught his eye. After a moment's scrutiny he rose and limped toward it, following the concave of the beach, and often pausing to rest and bathe his head. It was a long journey for him, and the tide, at half-ebb when he started, was rising again when he came abreast of the object and sat down to look at it. It was of metal, long and round, rolling nearly submerged, and held by the alternate surf and undertow parallel with the beach, about twenty feet out.

He waded in, grasped it by a T-shaped projection in the middle, and headed it toward the shore. Then he launched it forward with all his strength—not much, but enough to lift a bluntly pointed end out of water as it grounded and exposed a small, four-bladed steel wheel, shaped something like a windmill. He examined this, but could not understand it, as it whirled freely either way and seemed to have no internal connection. The strange cylinder was about sixteen feet long and about eighteen inches in diameter.

"Boat o' some kind," he muttered; "but what kind? That screw's too small to make it go. Let's see the other end."

He launched it with difficulty, and noticed that when floating end on to the surf it ceased to roll and kept the T-shaped projection uppermost, proving that it was ballasted. Swinging it, he grounded the other end, which was radically different in appearance. It was long and finely pointed, with four steel blades or vanes, two horizontal and two vertical,—like the double tails of an ideal fish,—and in hollowed parts of these vanes were hung a pair of unmistakable propellers, one behind the other, and of opposite pitch and motion.

"One works on the shaft, t' other on a sleeve," he mused, as he turned them. "A roundhouse wiper could see that. Bevel-gearin' inside, I guess. It's a boat, sure enough, and this reverse action must be to keep her from rolling."

On each of the four vanes he found a small blade, showing by its connection that it possessed range of action, yet immovable as the vane itself, as though held firmly by inner leverage. Those on the horizontal vanes were tilted upward. Just abaft the T-shaped projection—which, fastened firmly to the hull, told him nothing of its purpose—were numerous brass posts buried flush with the surface, in each of which was a square hole, as though intended to be turned with a key or crank. Some were marked with radiating lines and numbers, and they evidently controlled the inner mechanism, part of which he could see—little brass cog-wheels, worms, and levers—through a fore-and-aft slot near the keyholes.

Rising from the forward end of this slot, and lying close to the metal hull in front of it, was a strong lever of brass, L-shaped, connected internally, and indicating to his trained mechanical mind that its only sphere of action was to lift up and sink back into the slot. He fingered it, but did not yet try to move it. A little to the left of this lever was a small blade of steel, curved to fit the convex hull,—which it hugged closely,—and hinged at its forward edge. This, too, must have a purpose,—an internal connection,—and he did not disturb it until he had learned more.

To the right of the brass lever was an oblong hatch about eight inches long, flush with the hull, and held in place by screws. Three seams, with lines of screws, encircled the round hull, showing that it was constructed in four sections; and these screws, with those in the hatch, were strong and numerous—placed there to stay.

Fatigued from his exertion, he moistened his hair, sat down, and watched the incoming tide swing the craft round parallel with the beach. As the submerged bow raised to a level with the stern, he noticed that the small blades on the horizontal vanes dropped from their upward slant to a straight line with the vanes.

"Rudders," he said, "horizontal rudders. Can't be anything else." With his chin in his hand and his wrinkled brow creased with deeper corrugations, he put his mind through a process of inductive reasoning.

"Horizontal rudders," he mused, "must be to keep her from diving, or to make her dive. They work automatically, and I s'pose the vertical rudders are the same. There's nothing outside to turn 'em with. That boat isn't made to ride in,—no way to get into her,—and she isn't big enough, anyhow. And as you can't get into her, that brass lever must be what starts and stops her. Wonder what the steel blade's for. 'T isn't a handy shape for a lever,—to be handled with fingers,—too sharp; but it has work to do, or it wouldn't be there. That section o' railroad iron on top must be to hang the boat by,—a traveler,—when she's out o' water.

"And the fan-wheel on the nose—what's that for? If it's a speed or distance indicator, the dial's inside, out o' sight. There's no exhaust, so the motive power can't be steam. Clockwork or electricity, maybe. Mighty fine workmanship all through! That square door is fitted in for keeps, and she must ha' cost a heap. Now, as she has horizontal rudders, she's intended to steer up and down; and as there's no way to get into her or to stay on her, and as she can't be started from the inside or steered from the outside, I take it she's a model o' one o' those submarine boats I've heard of—some fellow's invention that's got away from him. Guess I'll try that lever and see what happens. I'll bury the propellers, though; no engine ought to race."

He pushed the craft into deeper water, pointed it shoreward, and cautiously lifted the curved blade to a perpendicular position, as high as it would go. Nothing happened. He lowered it, raised it again,—it worked very easily,—then, leaving it upright, he threw the long brass lever back into the slot. A slight humming came from within, the propellers revolved slowly, and the craft moved ahead until the bow grounded. Then he followed and lifted the lever out of the slot to its first position, shutting off the power.

Delighted with his success, he backed it out farther than before and again threw back the brass lever, this time with the curved blade down flat on the hull. With the sinking of the lever into the slot the mechanism within gave forth a rushing sound, the propellers at the stern threw up a mound of foam, and the craft shot past him, dived until it glanced on the sandy bottom, then slid a third of its length out of water on the beach and stopped, the propellers still churning, and the small wheel on the nose still spinning with the motion given it by the water.

"Air-pressure!" he exclaimed, as he shut it off. He had seen a line of bubbles rise as the thing dived. "An air-engine, and the whole thing must be full o' compressed air. The brass lever turns it on, and if the steel blade's up it gives it the slow motion; if it's down, she gets full speed at once. Now I know why it's blade-shaped. It's so the water itself can push it down—after she starts."

He did not try to launch it; he waited until the tide floated it, then pushed it along the beach toward his store of food, arriving at high water too exhausted to do more that day than ground his capture and break hard bread. And as the afternoon drew to a close the fatigue in his limbs became racking pain; either as a result of his exposure, or as a later symptom of the fever, he was now in the clutch of a new enemy—rheumatism.

Then, with the coming of night came a return of his first violent symptoms; he was hot, shivery, and feverish by turns, with dry tongue and throat, and a splitting headache; but in this condition he could still take cognizance of a black, ram-bowed gunboat, which stole into the bay from the east and dropped anchor near the buoys.

A half-moon shone in the western sky, and by its light the steamer presented an unkempt, broken appearance, even to the untrained eye of this castaway. Her after-funnel was but half as high as the other; there were gaps in her iron rail, and vacancies below the twisted davits where boats should be; and her pilot-house was wrecked—the starboard door and nearest window merged in a large, ragged hole.

Officers on the bridge gave orders in foreign speech, in tones which came shoreward faintly. Men sprang overboard with ropes, which they fastened to the buoys; then they swam back, and for an hour or two the whole crew was busy getting the boats to the davits and the end of the cable into the hawse-pipe.

The man on the beach recognized the craft he had seen when he wakened.

He felt that she must in some way be connected with his being there, and he waited, expecting to see a boat put off; but when both boats were hoisted and he heard the humming of a steam-windlass, he gave up this expectation and tried to hail.

His voice could not rise above a hoarse whisper. The anchor was fished, and after an interval he heard the windlass again, heaving in the other chain. They were going away—going to leave him there to die.

He crawled and stumbled down to the water's edge. The tide was up again, rippling around the strange thing he had resolved to navigate. It was not a boat, but it would go ahead, and it would float—it would possibly float him.

With strength born of desperation and fear, he pushed it, inch by inch, into the water until it was clear of the sand, and tried the engine on the slow motion. The propellers turned and satisfied him. He shut off the power, swung the thing round until it pointed toward the steamer, and seated himself astride of it, just abaft the T-shaped projection in the middle. The long cylinder sank with him, and when it had steadied to a balance between his weight and its buoyancy he found that it bore him, shoulders out; and the position he had taken—within reach of the levers behind him—lifted the blunt nose higher than the stern, but not out of water. This was practicable.

He reached behind, raised the blade lever, threw back the large brass lever, and the craft went ahead, at about the speed of a healthy man's walk. He kept his left hand on the blade lever to hold it up, and by skilful paddling with his right maintained his balance and assisted his legs in steering. He had never learned to swim, but he felt less fear of drowning than of slow death on the island.

In five minutes he was near enough to the steamer to read her name. He pulled the starting-lever forward, stopping his headway; for he must be sure of his welcome.

"Say, boss," he called faintly and hoarsely, "take me along, can't you? Or else gi' me some medicine. I'm blamed sick—I'll die if I stay here."

The noise of the windlass and chain prevented this being heard, but at last, after repeated calls on his part, a Spanish howl went up from amidships, and a sailor sprang from one of the boats to the deck, crossed himself, and pointing to the man in the water, ran forward.

"Madre de Dios!" he yelled. "El aparecido del muerto."

Work stopped, and a call down a hatchway stopped the windlass. In ports and dead-lights appeared faces; and those on deck, officers and men, crowded to the rail, some to cross themselves, some to sink on their knees, others to grip the rail tightly, while they stared in silence at the torso and livid face in the moonlight on the sea—the ghastly face of the man they had marooned to die alone, who had been seen later dead on the beach.

"Take me with you, boss," he pleaded with his weak voice. "I'm sick; I can't hold on much longer."

It was not the dead man's body washed out from the beach, for it moved, it spoke. And it was not a living man; no man may recover from advanced yellow fever, and this man had been found afterward, dead—cold and still. And no living man may swim in this manner—high out of water, patting and splashing with one hand. It was a ghost. It had come to punish them.

"Por qué nos atormentan así, hombre, deja?" cried a white-faced officer.

"Can't you hear me?" asked the apparition. "I'll come closer."

He threw back the starting-lever, and the thing began moving. Then a rifle-barrel protruded from a dead-light. There was a report and a flash, and a bullet passed through his hair. The shock startled him, and he lost his balance. In the effort to recover it his leg knocked down the blade lever, and the steel cylinder sprang forward, leaving him floundering in the water. Pointed upward, it appeared for a moment on the surface, then dived like a porpoise and disappeared. In five seconds something happened to the gunboat.

Coincident with a sound like near-by thunder, the black craft lifted amidships like a bending jack-knife, and up from the shattered deck, and out from ports, doors, and dead-lights, came a volcano of flame and smoke. The sea beneath followed in a mound, which burst like a great bubble, sending a cloud of steam and spray and whitish-yellow smoke aloft to mingle with the first and meet the falling fragments. These fell for several seconds—hatches, gratings, buckets, ladders, splinters of wood, parts of men, and men whole, but limp.

A side-ladder fell near the choking and half-stunned sick man, and he seized it. Before he could crawl on top the two halves of the gunboat had sunk in a swirl of bubbles and whirlpools.

A few broken and bleeding swimmers approached to share his support, saw his awful face in the moonlight, and swam away.

A few hours later a gray cruiser loomed up close by and directed a search-light at him. Then a gray cutter full of white-clad men approached and took him off the ladder. He was delirious again, and bleeding from mouth, nose, and ears.

The surgeon and the torpedo-lieutenant came up from the sick-bay, the latter with enthusiasm on his face,—for he was young,—and joined a group of officers on the quarterdeck.

"He'll pull through, gentlemen," said the surgeon. "He is the man Mosher lost overboard, though he doesn't know anything about it, nor how he got on that sand-key. I suppose the Destructor picked him up and landed him. He found bread and water, he says. You see, the first symptoms are similar in Yellow Jack and relapsing bilious fever. I don't wonder that Mosher was nervous."

"Then it was the Destructor?" asked an ensign, pulling out a note-book and a pencil. "And Lieutenant Mosher was right, after all?"

"Yes; this man read her name before she blew up; and a Spanish sailor has waked up and confirmed it. She was the Destructor, just over, and trying to get into Havana. Instead of blowing up in Algeciras Bay, as they thought, she had left with despatches for Havana, only to blow up on the Florida Reef."

"The Destructor," said the ensign, as he pocketed his note-book and pencil, "carried fifty-five men. Don't we get the bounty as the nearest craft?"

"Not much," said the young and enthusiastic torpedo-lieutenant. "We were not even within signal distance, and came along by accident. Listen, all of you. When an American war-craft sinks or destroys a larger enemy, there is a bounty due her crew of two hundred dollars for every man on board the enemy. That is law, isn't it?" They nodded. "If a submarine boat can be a war-craft, so may a Whitehead torpedo, and certainly is one, being built for war. A war-craft abandoned is a derelict, and the man who finds her becomes her lawful commander for the time. If he belongs to the navy his position is strengthened, and if he is alone he is not only commander, but the whole crew, and consequently he is entitled to all the bounty she may earn. That is law.

"Now, listen hard. Lieutenant Mosher sent one torpedo at the gunboat; it missed and became derelict, while Mosher escaped under one boiler. This man found the derelict adrift, puzzled out the action, waited until the gunboat came back for her anchor, then straddled his craft, and rode out with the water-tripper up. They shot at him. He turned his dog loose and destroyed the enemy. If the Destructor carried fifty-five men he is entitled to eleven thousand dollars, and the government must pay, for that is law."