Authors: C. S. Forester
The lieutenant-commander stood amidships in the
A thirty-knot gale howled past his ears. The engine bellowed fit to deafen him, but he eyed coolly the lessening range between him and the
, and the curving course which was bringing his ship fast towards the enemy’s stern where there was no gun to bear. It was his duty not merely to win the easy victory, but to see that victory was won at the smallest cost. He looked back to see that the
was in her proper station, looked at the range again, shouted an order into the ear of the man at the wheel, and then waved his hand to the sub-lieutenant in the bows by the gun. The three-pounder broke into staccato firing, report following report so that the ear could hardly distinguish one sound from the next. It was a vicious, spiteful sound, implying untold menace and danger.
The three-pounder shells began to burst about the
’s stern. At first they merely blew holes in the thin plating, and then soon there was no plating left to explode them, and they flew on into the bowels of the ship spreading destruction and fire everywhere, each of them two pounds of flying metal and a pound of high explosive. The steering gear was smashed to fragments, and the
swerved back suddenly from her circling course and headed on in a wavering straight line. The lieutenant-commander in the
gave a new order to the man at the wheel, and kept his boats dead astern, and from that safe position sent the deadly little shells raking through and through the ship from stern to bow.
had not really been designed as a fighting ship; her engines and boilers were above waterline instead of being far below under a protective deck. Soon one of those little shells came flying through the bulkhead, followed by another, and another. There was a deep, sullen roar as the boiler was hit, and the
was wreathed in a cloud of steam. The engine room staff were boiled alive in that moment.
The lieutenant-commander in the
had been expecting that moment; his cool brain had thought of everything. When he saw the steam gush out he gave a quick order, and the roar of the
engine was stilled as the throttle closed and the engine pulled out of gear. When the steam cleared away the
was lying a helpless hulk on the water, drifting very slowly with the remnant of her way, and the motor boats were lying silent, still safely astern. He looked for a sign of surrender, but he could see none; the black cross was still flying, challenging the red. Something hit the water beside the
with a plop and a jet of water; he could hear a faint crackling from the
. Some heroic souls there were firing at them with rifles, and even at a mile and a half a Mauser bullet can kill, and on the great lakes of Africa where white men are numbered only in tens, and every white man can lead a hundred black men to battle, white men’s lives are precious. He must not expose his sailors to this danger longer than he need.
“Hell,” said the lieutenant-commander. He did not want to kill the wretched Germans, who were achieving nothing in prolonging their defence. “God damn it; all right, then.”
He shouted an order to the gun’s crew in the bows, and the fire recommenced, elevated a little so as to sweep the deck. One shell killed three coloured ratings who were lying on the deck firing with their rifles; the prosecuting officer never knew how he escaped. Another shell burst on the tall bridge, and killed Lieutenant Schumann, but it did not harm the commander, who had gone down below a minute before, venturing with his coat over his face into the scalding steam of the engine room to do his last duty.
“Perhaps that’ll settle ’em,” said the lieutenant-commander, signalling for fire to cease. Even three-pounder shells are troublesome to replace over the lines of communications a thousand miles long. He looked at the
again. She lay motionless, hazed around with smoke and steam. There was no firing now, but the black-cross flag was still flying, drooping in the still air.
Then the lieutenant-commander saw that she was lower in the water, and as he noticed it the
very suddenly fell over to one side. The commander had done his duty; he had groped his way through the wrecked engines to the seacocks and had opened them.
“Hope we can save the poor beggars,” said the lieutenant-commander, calling for full speed.
came rushing up just as the German ensign, the last thing to disappear, dipped below the surface. They were in time to save all the living except the hopelessly wounded.
is an elation in victory, even when wounded men have to be borne very carefully along the jetty to the hospital tent; even when a telegraphic report has to be composed and sent to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; even when a lieutenant-commander of no linguistic ability has to put together another report in French for the Belgian governor. He could at least congratulate himself on having won a naval victory as decisive as the Falklands or Tsushima, and he could look forward to receiving the D.S.O. and the Belgian Order of the Crown and a step in promotion which would help to make him an admiral some day.
His mind was already hard at work on his new plans, busily anticipating the time soon to come when he would escort the invading army across the Lake. “Strike quickly, strike hard, and keep on striking”; the sooner the invaders were on their way the less time would Von Hanneken have to recover from this totally unexpected blow and make arrangements to oppose a landing. The lieutenant-commander was urgent in his representations to the senior Belgian officer on the spot, to the Belgian headquarters, to the British headquarters in East Africa.
Yet meanwhile he could not be free from the worry of all commanders-in-chief. That long line of communications was a dreadful nuisance, and he had fifty blue jackets who expected English rations in Central Africa, and now he had some captured German wounded—coloured men mostly, it is true, but a drain on his resources all the same—on his hands as well as some unwounded prisoners. He had to act promptly in the matter. He sent for Rose and Allnutt.
“There’s a Belgian escort going down to the coast with prisoners,” he said, shortly. “I’m going to send you with them. That will be all right for you, I suppose.”
“I suppose so,” said Allnutt. Until this moment they had been people without a future. Even the destruction of the
had increased that feeling of nothingness ahead.
“You’ll be going to join up, I suppose,” said the lieutenant-commander. “I can’t enlist you here, of course. I can’t do anything about it. But down on the coast you’ll find a British consul, at Matadi, I think, or somewhere there. The Belgians’ll put you on the right track, anyway. Any British consul will do your business for you. As soon as you are over your malaria, of course. They’ll send you round to join one of the South African units, I expect. So you’ll be all right.”
“Yessir,” said Allnutt.
“And you, Mrs.—er—Miss Sayer, isn’t it?” went on the lieutenant-commander. “I think the West Coast’s the best solution of the problem for you, too, don’t you? You can get back to England from there. A British consul—”
“Yes,” said Rose.
“That’s all right then,” said the lieutenant-commander with relief. “You’ll be starting in two or three hours.”
It was hard to expect a young officer planning the conquest of a country half the size of Europe to devote more attention to two civilian castaways. It was that “Mrs.—er—Miss” of the lieutenant-commander’s which really settled Rose’s future—or unsettled it, if that view be taken. When they came out of the lieutenant-commander’s presence Rose was seething with shame. Until then she had been a woman without a future and in consequence without any real care. It was different now. The lieutenant-commander had mentioned the possibility of a return to England; to Rose that meant a picture of poor streets and censorious people and prying aunts—that aunts should be prying was in Rose’s experience an essential characteristic of aunts. And it was terribly painful to contemplate a separation from Allnutt; he had been so much to her; she had hardly been out of his sight for weeks now; to lose him now would be like losing a limb, even if her feelings towards him had changed; she could not contemplate this unforeseen future of hers without Allnutt.
“Charlie,” she said urgently. “We’ve got to get married.”
“Coo,” said Allnutt. This was an aspect of the situation he actually had not thought of.
“We must do it as quickly as we can,” said Rose. “A consul can many people. That officer in there spoke about a consul. As soon as we get to the coast . . .”
Allnutt was a little dazed and stupid. This unlooked-for transfer to the West Coast of Africa, this taken-for-granted enlistment in the South African forces, and now this new proposal left him hardly a word to say. He thought of Rose’s moderate superiority in social status. He thought about money; presumably he would receive pay in the South African army. He thought about the girl he had married twelve years ago when he was eighteen. She had probably been through half a dozen men’s hands by now, but there had never been a divorce and presumably he was still married to her. Oh well, South Africa and England were a long way apart, and she couldn’t trouble him much.
“Righto, Rosie,” he said, “let’s.”
So they left the Lakes and began the long journey to Matadi and marriage. Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.