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Chapter XIV


IN twenty minutes the Ithuriel ran alongside the Britain, which was one of the five most formidable battleships in existence. For five years past a new policy had been pursued with regard to the navy. The flagships, which of course contained the controlling brains of the fleets, were the most powerful afloat. By the time war broke out five of them had been launched and armed, and the Britain was the newest and most powerful of them.

Her displacement was twenty-two thousand tons, and her speed twenty-four knots. She was armoured from end to end with twelve-inch plates against which ordinary projectiles smashed as harmlessly as egg-shells. Twelve fourteen-inch thousand-pounder guns composed her primary battery; her secondary consisted of ten 9.2 guns, and her tertiary of twelve-pounder Maxim-Nordenfeldts in the fighting tops.

It was the first time that Erskine had seen one of these giants of the ocean, and when they got alongside he said to Denis Castellan:

"There's a fighting machine for you, Denis. Great Scott what wouldn't I give to see her at work in the middle of a lot of Frenchmen and Germans, as the Revenge was among the Spaniards in Grenville's time. Just look at those guns."

"Yes," replied Castellan, "she's a splendid ship, and those guns look as though they could talk French to the Frenchies and German to the Dutchmen and plain English to the lot in a way that wouldn't want much translating. And what's more, they have the right men behind them, and the best gun in the world isn't much good without that."

At this moment they heard a shrill voice from the forecastle of the nearest destroyer.

"Hulloa there, what's the matter?" came from the deck of the Britain.

"Four French destroyers coming up pretty fast from the south'ard, sir. Seem to be making for the flagship," was the reply.

"That's a job for us," said Erskine, who was standing on the narrow deck of the Ithuriel, waiting to go on board the Britain. "Commander, will you be good enough to deliver this to the Admiral? I must be off and settle those fellows before they do any mischief."

The commander of the destroyer took the letter, Erskine dived below, a steel plate slid over the opening to the companion-way, and when he got into the conning-tower he ordered full speed.

Four long black shapes were stealing slowly towards the British centre, and no one knew better than he did that a single torpedo well under waterline would send Admiral Beresford's floating fortress to the bottom inside ten minutes, and that was the last thing he wanted to see.

A quartermaster ran down the ladder and caught the letter from the commander just as the Ithuriel moved off.

"Tell the Admiral, with Captain Erskine's compliments, that he'll be back in a few minutes, when he's settled those fellows."

The quartermaster took the letter, and by the time he got to the top of the ladder, the Ithuriel was flying through a cloud of foam and spray towards the first of the destroyers. He heard a rattle of guns, and then the destroyer vanished. The Ithuriel swung round, hit the next one in the bows, ground her under the water, turned almost at right angles, smashed the stern of the third one into scrap iron, hit the fourth one abreast of the conning-tower, crushed her down and rolled her over, and then slowed down and ran back to the flagship at twenty knots.

"Well!" said Quartermaster Maginniss, who for the last few minutes had been held spellbound at the top of the ladder, in spite of the claims of discipline, "of all the sea-devils of crafts that I've ever heard of, I should say that was the worst. Four destroyers gone in five minutes, and here he is coming back before I've delivered the letter. If we only have a good square fight now, I'll be sorry for the Frenchies."

The next moment he stiffened up and saluted. "A letter for you, Admiral, left by Captain Erskine before he went away to destroy those destroyers."

"And you've been watching the destruction instead of delivering the letter," laughed Lord Beresford, as he took it from him. "Well, I'll let you off this time. When Captain Erskine comes alongside, ask him to see me in my room at once."

The Ithuriel ran alongside even as he was speaking. The gangway was manned, and when he reached the deck, Admiral Beresford held out his hand, and said with a laugh:

"Well, Captain Erskine, I understood that you were bringing me a message from Commodore Hoskins, but you seem to have had better game to fly for."

"My fault, sir," said Erskine, "but I hope you won't court-martial me for it. You see, there were four French destroyers creeping round, and mine was the only ship that could tackle them, so I thought I'd better go and do it before they did any mischief. Anyhow, they're all at the bottom now."

"I don't think I should have much case if I court-martialled you for that, Captain Erskine," laughed the Admiral, "especially after what you've done already, according to Commodore Hoskins' note. That must be a perfect devil of a craft of yours. Can you sink anything with her?"

"Anything, sir," replied Erskine. "This is the most powerful fighting ship in the world, but I could put you at the bottom of the Channel in ten minutes."

"The Lord save us! It's a good job you're on our side."

"And it's a very great pity," said Erskine, "that the airships are not with us too. I had a very narrow squeak in Spithead about three hours ago from one of their aerial torpedoes. It struck part of a destroyer that I'd just sunk, and although it was nearly fifty yards away, it shook me up considerably."

"Have you any idea of the whereabouts and formation of the French Fleet? I must confess that I haven't. These infernal airships have upset all the plans for catching Durenne between the Channel Fleet and the Reserve, backed up by the Portsmouth guns, so that we could jump out and catch him between the fleet and the forts. Now I suppose it will have to be a Fleet action at sea."

"If you care to leave your ship for an hour, sir," replied Erskine, "I will take you round the French fleet and you shall see everything for yourself. We may have to knock a few holes in something, if it gets in our way, but I think I can guarantee that you shall be back on the Britain by the time you want to begin the action."

"Absolutely irregular," said Lord Beresford, stroking his chin, and trying to look serious, while his eyes were dancing with anticipation. "An admiral to leave his flagship on the eve of an engagement! Well, never mind, Courtney's a very good fellow, and knows just as much about the ship as I do, and he's got all sailing orders. I'll come. He's on the bridge now, I'll go and tell him."

The Admiral ran up on to the bridge, gave Captain Courtney Commodore Hoskins' letter, added a few directions, one of which was to keep on a full head of steam on all the ships, and look out for signals, and five minutes later he had been introduced to Lennard, and was standing beside him in the conning-tower of the Ithuriel listening to Erskine, as he said into the telephone receiver:

"Sink her to three feet, Castellan, and then ahead full speed."

The pumps worked furiously for a few minutes, and the Ithuriel sank until only three feet of her bulk appeared above the water. Then the Admiral felt the floor of the conning-tower shudder and tremble under his feet. He looked out of the side porthole on the starboard bow, and saw his own fleet dropping away into the distance and the darkness of the November night. The water ahead curled up into two huge swathes, which broke into foam and spray, which lashed hissing along the almost submerged decks.

"You have a pretty turn of speed on her, I must say, Captain Erskine," said the Admiral, after he had taken a long squint through the semicircular window. "I'm sorry we haven't got a score of craft like this."

"And we should have had, your lordship," replied Erskine, "if the Council had only taken the opinion that you gave after you saw the plans."

"I'd have a hundred like her," laughed the Admiral, "only you see there's the Treasury, and behind that the most noble House of Commons, elected mostly by the least educated and most short-sighted people in the nation, who scarcely know a torpedo from a common shell, and we should never have got them. We had hard enough work to get this one as an experiment."

"I quite agree with you, sir," said Erskine, "and I think Lennard will too. There has never been an instance in history in which democracy did not spell degeneration. It's a pity, but I suppose it's inevitable. As far as my reading has taken me, it seems to be the dry-rot of nations. Halloa, what's that? Torpedo gun-boat, I think! Ah, there's the moon. Now, sir, if you'll just come and stand to the right here, for'ard of the wheel, I'll put the Ithuriel through her paces, and show you what she can do."

A long grey shape, with two masts and three funnels between them, loomed up out of the darkness into a bright patch of moonlight. Erskine took the receiver from the hooks and said:

"Stand by there, Castellan. Forward guns fire when I give the word — then I shall ram."

The Admiral saw the three strangely shaped guns rise from the deck, their muzzles converging on the gunboat. He expected a report, but none came; only a gentle hiss, scarcely audible in the conning-tower. Then three brilliant flashes of flame burst out just under the Frenchman's top-works. Erskine, with one hand on the steering-wheel, and the other holding the receiver, said:

"Well aimed — now full speed. I'm going over him."

"Over him!" echoed the Admiral. "Don't you ram under the waterline?"

"If it's the case of a big ship, sir," replied Erskine, "we sink and hit him where it hurts most, but it isn't worth while with these small craft. You will see what I mean in a minute."

As he spoke a shudder ran through the Ithuriel. The deck began to quiver under the Admiral's feet; the ram rose six feet out of the water. The shape of the gunboat seemed to rush towards them; the ram hit it squarely amidships; then came a shock, a grinding scrape, screams of fear from the terrified sailors, a final crunch, and the gunboat was sinking fifty yards astern.

"That's awful," said the Admiral, with a perceptible shake in his voice. "What speed did you hit her at?"

"Forty-five knots," replied Erskine, giving a quarter turn to the wheel, and almost immediately bringing a long line of battleships, armoured cruisers, protected cruisers and destroyers into view.

The French Channel Fleet was composed of the most powerful ships in the navy of the Republic. The two portions from Brest and Cherbourg had now united their forces. The French authorities had at last learned the supreme value of homogeneity. The centre was composed of six ships of the Republique class, all identical in size, armour and armament, as well as speed. They were the Republique, Patrie flagship, Justice, Democratie, Liberte and Verite. They were all of fifteen thousand tons and eighteen knots. To these was added the Suffren, also of eighteen knots, but only twelve thousand seven hundred tons: she had come from Brest with a flotilla of torpedo boats.

There were six armoured cruisers, Jules Ferry, Leon Gambetta, Victor Hugo, Jeanne d'Arc, Aube and Marseillaise. These were all heavily armed and armoured vessels, all of them capable of manoeuvring at a speed of over twenty knots. A dozen smaller protected and unprotected cruisers hung on each flank, and a score of destroyers and torpedo boats lurked in between the big ships

The Ithuriel ran quietly along the curving line of battleships and cruisers, turned and came back again without exciting the slightest suspicion.

Erskine would have dearly loved to sink a battleship or one or two cruisers, just to show his lordship how it was done, but the Admiral forbade this, as he wanted to get the Frenchmen, who still thought they were going to easy victory, entangled in the shallows of the narrow waters, and therefore with the exception of rolling over and sinking three submarines which happened to get in the way, no damage was done.

The British Channel Fleet, even not counting the assistance of the terrible Ithuriel, was the most powerful squadron that had ever put to sea under a single command. The main line of battle consisted of the flagship Britain, and seven ships of the King Edward class, King Edward the Seventh, Dominion, Commonwealth, Hindustan, New Zealand, Canada and Newfoundland; all over sixteen thousand tons, and of nineteen knots speed. With the exception of the giant flagships, of which there were five in existence — the Britain, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales — and two nineteen thousand ton monsters which had just been completed for Japan, these were the fastest and most heavily-armed battleships afloat.

The second line was composed of the armoured cruisers, Duke of Edinburgh, Black Prince, Henry the Fourth, Warwick, Edward the Third, Cromwell, all of over thirteen thousand tons, and twenty-two knots speed; the Drake, King Alfred, Leviathan and Good Hope, of over fourteen thousand tons and twenty-four knots speed; and the reconstructed Powerful, and Terrible, of fourteen thousand tons and twenty-two knots. There was, of course, the usual swarm of destroyers and torpedo boats; and in addition must be counted the ten cruisers, ten destroyers, and fifteen torpedo boats, which had escaped from Spithead and the Solent. These had already formed a junction with the left wing of the British force.

For nearly two hours the two great fleets slowly approached each other almost at a right angle. As the grey dawn of the November morning began to steal over the calm blue-grey water, they came in plain sight of each other, and at once the signal flew from the foreyard of the Britain, "Prepare for action — battleships will cross front column of line ahead — cruisers will engage cruisers individually at discretion of Commanders — destroyers will do their worst."

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