Authors: Alan Evans
Mention of patients sent his gaze back to the Captain. His feeble hold on life was slipping away with the night.
He died at daybreak.
They buried him at sea. Afterwards Smith confirmed the course he had ordered the previous night when the Captain fell. Then it had been an attempt to get the Captain to a hospital ashore but now it was to reach a telegraph office and inform the British Consul in Chile.
had radio but the Navy’s signalling stations did not cover South American waters. Admiralty kept in touch with her by cables and she entered ports at intervals to collect them. The Consul had to be informed of the Captain’s death and that Smith had assumed command; he would advise Admiralty.
Now it came to him. The Captain was dead and he was in command. He was conscious of a lightening of the atmosphere in the ship but that, he believed, was not because he had assumed command but because the bitter presence aft had gone.
As if in mourning the weather was breaking and the wind rising. When they raised the coast of Chile in the early evening a bright sun still shone but astern the clouds were breeding black.
The sun had no warmth in it. Smith shivered. The Captain’s death was a bad start to a command and Smith was still not accepted, nor likely to be, he was certain.
The Signal Yeoman shattered his mood of introspection. “Signal from shore, sir! S.O.S.! Bearing red three-oh!”
Smith swung around and raised his glasses, berating himself for not having seen that winking light, for day-dreaming. Night was falling, the setting sun sending
shadow stretching long towards the shore that was still bathed in that last light.
“T-H-D-R.” The Yeoman spelt out the slow flashes of the point of light. “Think they mean
What else could it mean? But who would know this ship?
The Yeoman: “S.O.S. again, sir. An’ it’s a light from a motor car. Front light.”
“Hard to see but I think it’s a 24/30 Buick tourer.” Midshipman Somers was on the bridge for some reason and had a telescope clapped to his eye. Excitement had wrung the comment from him. Now he realised his temerity and said meekly, “Sorry, sir.”
Smith scowled. He could barely make out that it was a motor car. “Don’t see that it matters, but what makes you so sure?”
“My father had one before the war, sir. But of course, when the war started he gave it to the Army with most of the others.”
Somers was undoubtedly the richest, or potentially richest man aboard. His father probably did have half-a-dozen motor cars including a Rolls-Royce. He was a tall, handsome boy, a fine athlete with a good brain. In spite of all these reasons for envy he was well-liked.
Smith ordered, “Port ten.”
began to close the shore. Dusk had swept over them and now reached the blinking light that seemed to flicker in that dusk more brightly before it died.
Smith snapped, “Ask nature of emergency.”
signal-lamp clattered out but there was no answer.
The Yeoman grumbled, “Stopped now, sir. Can’t see much of anything. Thought I saw a flash, though.”
Garrick had pounded up on to the bridge and stood panting, too late to see the signal but he’d found out what had happened. He panted, “Damn funny business. S.O.S. from the
Smith said laconically, “Yes.” He tried to hide his own curiosity. The obvious answer was to send — No, he would not! “Fires lit in the pinnace?”
“Yes, sir.” Somers answered. “And steam up.”
“Bit early, weren’t you?”
Somers replied straight-faced, “Mr Knight said we had to be ready, sir.”
Knight was the Signals Officer and also drew an interpreter’s pay for his labouring Spanish so he went ashore to send and collect telegrams. He was stout and when the ship held a concert he did a knock-about turn with Lieutenant Day of the Royal Marine Artillery as a coster and his missus. It was vulgar, obscene and funny. He would be eager not to miss a moment of that run ashore in Castillo.
Smith grunted, “Then we’ll go and see what it’s all about.” And to Garrick: “I’ll go myself. Tell the doctor to come along ready to do his stuff.”
hove to, the winch hammered and the derrick swung the pinnace over the side and down to the water. Her crew boarded her and cast off. Smoke belched from her stubby funnel and they could hear the rapid scrape and clang as the stoker below hurled coal on the fire. They ran in to the shore, Somers at the wheel straining his eyes against the gathering dusk, steering for a stretch of beach. The engines stopped, thrashed briefly astern, stopped again and they ran in to the shallows.
The shore was quiet, peaceful, empty. Smith wondered uneasily if he was the victim of some practical joke, if he would return to the ship having made a fool of himself. He snapped, “Come on, Doctor. You too, Buckley.” He jumped over the bow and up to his waist in water and waded ashore, followed by Albrecht and the burly leading hand of the picket-boat. Beyond the beach the ground rose steeply. They could not see the motor car nor any sign of life. There was silence but for the crashing of the surf.
As they climbed up from the beach Albrecht panted, “Wonder what it can be? You can have nasty accidents with motor cars, though. Once had a fracture of the wrist — some chap not cranking the damn thing properly. And —”
Smith rasped, “I won’t be sorry for any fool who sends an S.O.S. to my ship because he’s fractured a wrist.”
They climbed over the crest, crossed a little plateau and looked into a shallow depression that twisted away inland. They could see the big Buick Tourer, a dull gleam of metal in the dusk, a score of yards to their right. They halted, peering. Albrecht said, “There’s a body, at the front of the car.” Smith saw it, lying crumpled untidily under the dead carbide lamps, one arm thrown out. Albrecht took a pace forward and a shot cracked out.
There was the spit of flame to their left, from further inland up the depression and then the crack of the shot. Immediately it was answered by a shot from the car. In the flash Smith saw the head lifted briefly from behind the car, then the darkness closed in and his night vision was destroyed. “Get down!” He shoved Albrecht down. “Buckley! Back to the pinnace and bring back two men, rifles for all of you!”
“Aye, aye, sir!” Buckley plunged away. Smith thought Buckley was under the impression they were going to fight a little war here but he was very wrong. This was a neutral coast, Smith and his men were belligerents and any action of that kind would be a flagrant breach of neutrality. But they had to be ready to defend themselves.
And that wasn’t all. Smith was here; that was a fact. If anyone was killed or injured,
, while Smith meekly stood by and looked on it would not make pleasant reading in his report. He thought bitterly, What a bloody mess!
To rub it in, the shots came again, from left, from right. A slug clanged against the motor car and howled off into the night.
Albrecht whispered, “Somebody’s going to get hurt if this goes on, besides that chap lying there already.”
Smith ground out, “Keep still.” He rose to his feet. He was a score of yards at least from either of those firing, they had pistols and he knew it was very long odds against anyone hitting him with a pistol at that range in this light. He swallowed just the same before he shouted: “Cease firing! I am a naval officer!” He spoke in English because he had no Spanish. “Show yourselves and put up your hands!”
It worked. A moment of silence then a man rose from behind a rock to the left, his hands lifted above his shoulders. He started to walk towards Smith. As he approached, he spoke. “Ah sir. I’m very glad to see you —”
But Smith’s eyes were on the girl. A
! He stared dumbfounded as she stepped around the motor car and walked towards him, holding herself stiffly erect, hands at her sides in the folds of her skirt, that ended just above her buttoned boots. He saw her face, pale under a mass of dark hair and the lips were a tight line and the eyes glared past Smith.
They were close now, the man’s hands coming down, one sliding inside his jacket. “I have my papers which will —”
The girl’s arm lifted from her side, straight, the barrel of the pistol like a pointing finger. She shot him.
The flame seemed to bum past Smith’s face as he started forward. He was momentarily blinded but his outstretched hand clamped on hers and tore the pistol from her. Sight returned and he saw her face again and it was rigid, without any emotion at all.
Smith swung away from her. The shot at point-blank range had kicked the man on to his back. He lay spread-eagled, eyes wide, a huge stain across his chest. Albrecht came running and dropped to his knees. When he arose he shook his head and started towards the man who lay by the motor car.
The girl said, “Luis is dead!” Her voice was flat, without emotion and Smith wondered was this really a
Light glowed inland along the depression and they heard the sound of an engine. Albrecht stood up again and came back to Smith. He said softly, “He’s dead too, sir.”
The glow had grown and another motor car lurched around a bend in the depression and its lights swept the dark, wavered on the little group and the motor car halted. Smith held up his hand against the glare. The girl tried to run but Albrecht grabbed her. She fought him. “It’s the rest of them!”
Before the words could sink in the firing started. One shot, then a fusillade and Smith heard the air whisper around his head. He thrust Albrecht towards the beach. “Run for it!” He saw Albrecht running, the girl ahead of him, then dropped to one knee and lifted the pistol. He fired twice towards the lights and the shooting, aiming high but he heard a yell and the firing stopped. It was only for a few seconds but it gave him time to run up and across the plateau. As the firing started again he stopped and knelt and fired again, just one shot then the pistol was empty. He threw it away and started towards the beach, skidding down the slope in a shower of sand and pebbles.
Halfway down he met Buckley and two seamen, all three of them with rifles at the high port. Smith panted, “We’re being fired on and they may be following. Return the fire to keep their heads down but
! I don’t know who they are.” It was certain they had more right on this coast than he, even possible they were justified. Suppose they were police or troops? What a
They fell back towards the beach. Buckley jerked out, “There’s one.” A shadow lifted above the crest and spurted flame and sand kicked up a yard away. But then Buckley and the seamen fired a volley and the shadow ducked from sight.
They retired to the beach in good order, waded out to the pinnace and scrambled aboard. Smith gasped, “Return to the ship.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” The engines thumped slowly then gathered speed. The pinnace went astern then spun on her heel and headed out to sea. Smith watched the shore but he saw no one, there was no firing. It was still and silent, empty as they had found it, as if nothing had happened.
But it had.
The clouds humped black overhead now. Lightning flickered and thunder rumbled distantly. A flurry of rain blew in their faces. The sea was getting up and the pinnace pitched through it.
Smith asked, “Where’s the Doctor and — and —”
Somers answered, “He took the young lady into the cabin, sir.” He was intent on conning the pinnace but Smith could feel his curiosity and knew the seamen were watching him, too. They weren’t the only ones who were curious but Smith
to have answers to a number of questions and would probably have to be careful in finding some answers himself when he wrote his report.
He moved to the cabin but just then the girl blundered from it, staggered and almost fell then lurched to the side and hung over it, very sick. Smith stood beside her but did not touch her. When she raised her head he said, “I would like an explanation.” He said it stiffly, formally because this was a formal business; a man had been killed in front of him.
The girl said, “I’ll tell the Captain.” There was a trace of cockney in the accent.
“The Captain is dead. I am in command.”
Her face turned up to him, eyes searching. The lips trembled but the voice was still steady, tightly controlled. “What’s your name?”
“Smith. Commander David Smith.”
“I came aboard two weeks ago.” Then, realising: “But how do you know —”
“I know the names of most of them. Garrick, Aitkyne, Kennedy —” She shook her head as if to clear it. “My name is Sarah Benson. I suppose you could call me a spy.” She caught Smith’s stare and her lips twitched in bitter amusement. “Cherry, the Consul at Guaya, will vouch for me.” Guaya lay a hundred-odd miles to the south.
She paused but when Smith only nodded guardedly she went on, “The German Intelligence agents are thick as fleas on a dogs back all up and down this coast. The last three months I’ve
all up and down it. I dug up a little bit here and a little bit there and maybe I dug too much because yesterday some fellers came looking for me. We had to run for it. Luis, the chap with me, a sort of chauffeur and handyman, he got shot. I had to drive the Buick. We were trying to reach Castillo so I could send a telegram to Cherry but they got word ahead of us somehow and headed us off.