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his boat; the one astern instantly followed suit, and a course was
shaped for Bull Roads, an open anchorage barely two miles distant.

Arriving here the boats had orders to anchor, and for four long hours
they rolled heavily in the tide-way. Naval patrol-boats of all sorts
and sizes passed continually, but none appeared to pay the slightest
attention to the two strangers within their gates. It was not until
well into the afternoon that a patrol-boat eased down within a few
feet of Derek's craft.

"You can proceed," announced the officer.

"Why have we been detained?" asked Derek, wondering at the bald
announcement and the lack of explanation.

The sub-lieutenant R.N.R. shrugged his shoulders.

"Ask me another, old sport," he replied. "If you want to carry on do
so at once, before the Old Man puts another stopper on you. _Bon
voyage!_"

The motors were started up; foot by foot the chain cables were
brought on board until the anchors, their palms smothered in blue,
slimy clay, were hauled up and secured. Then, in the gathering
twilight, the boats headed for their destination. By this time the
mist had increased considerably. Visibility was a matter of a couple
of hundred yards. It was bitterly cold, the air being raw and damp.
"Verily," thought Derek, "motor-boating in November differs
considerably from yachting in August."

At length the huge air-sheds of the Wagshot Station loomed up through
the mist. Ordering half-speed, Derek brought his boat alongside the
pier, and signalled to the second craft to lie up alongside him.

"Where are you from?" enquired a great-coated individual from the
pier-head - the Officer of the Watch.

"From. Sableridge," replied Derek. "We've come to take away a
sea-plane."

"First I've heard about it," rejoined the O.W. "You'd better see the
Adjutant. You're stopping here the night?"

"'Fraid there's no option," replied Daventry.

"Right-o! Moor your craft out there. I'll send a duty-boat out to
take off the crews."

"Out there" was a partially-protected anchorage, about a hundred
yards from the pier. The boats pushed off and made for their
appointed stations for the night, Derek taking particular care that
each boat was properly moored with both anchor and kedge.

This done the crews were taken off. Visions of a hot meal first for
his men and then for himself (for it is an unwritten law that
officers must first provide for the comfort of their crews before
"packing up" themselves) were rudely shattered when the Officer of
the Watch appeared.

"I've seen the Adjutant," he announced. "You'll have to take those
boats across to Bumble Creek. They'll be in the way of our
flying-boats if they stay there."

Derek felt inclined to use forcible language; to enquire pointedly
why these instructions could not have been given him before the
elaborate process of mooring the boats had commenced. To be ordered
at the end of a strenuous day's work to undertake another hour's toil
was a tough proposition for the cold and hungry men to tackle.

"I'll send the duty-boat to pilot you," continued the O.W. "She'll
bring you back to the station." Thankful for small mercies Derek
turned his men to. It required fifteen minutes of hard work to unmoor
and get under way. Fortunately the duty-boat was standing by, for the
run across to Bumble Creek meant crossing an arm of the sea that was
constantly alive with traffic.

Once more the two boats were secured for the night, this time
alongside a hulk. It was pitch dark when Derek and his men returned
to Wagshot Air Station.

Having seen his men installed in their temporary quarters and
provided with a hot meal, Derek made his way to the officers' mess.
Instead of a bright, cheerful building like that at Sableridge, he
was directed to a large hut, which was divided into two large rooms
and a few smaller ones.

"There's the ward-room, sir," replied a girl in the uniform of the
W.R.N.S. "The steward will arrange for dinner and quarters."

The ward-room was a wood-lined but devoid of almost every comfort.
Floor and walls were bare, except, in the case of the walls, for a
few technical prints of sea-planes and flying-boats. In one corner
was a table piled high with leather coats, helmets, gloves, and other
garments affected by airmen. A fire burned dully in a large grate,
round which were seated, shoulder to shoulder, half a dozen young
"quirks".

They greeted Daventry with supercilious glances; then, having
surveyed him in stony silence, they resumed their conversation in
loud tones, apparently with the idea of impressing the new arrival
with their importance and familiarity with life in town.

"Cubs - utter outsiders," thought Derek. "And what a bear-garden this
mess is."

Chilled both mentally and physically, Daventry went out, preferring
to pace the bleak parade-ground until dinner was served to remaining
in such inhospitable company.

Dinner over, payment was promptly demanded - another difference
compared with the way they ran things at Sableridge, where any
strange officer who happens to blow into the mess is given
hospitality and never charged for his entertainment.

"I've secured a room for you in the new building, sir," announced the
steward. "There'll be a car ready to take you up in twenty minutes."

Derek spent the time in revisiting his men. They were none too happy,
although making the best of things. There were abundant evidences
that Wagshot was what is known as a "Mouldy Station", but worse was
to follow.

Up rattled the car; Derek took his seat, and off the ramshackle
vehicle went. It may have been owing to the state of the road, but
the jolting of the car was worse than any he had experienced in
France. Over narrow-gauge railway lines, sometimes grinding on
shingle, at others sinking in sand and mud, the car held on its way.
The road was narrow, with the sea on either side, for Wagshot Air
Station is built on a natural peninsula of which the isthmus is long,
narrow, and rugged. The shore was littered with the skeletons of
burned sea-planes and flying-boats, the gaunt framework of which
stood out clearly against the misty sky.

Presently the car gained the mainland, swung round several sharp
corners, and pulled up outside the quarters known as the New
Buildings.

An orderly conducted Derek to his temporary quarters, which were well
termed "New", for they were still in the builders' hands. After
traversing several hundred yards of corridors that looked like those
of a prison, with dozens of doors exactly alike, his guide stopped,
produced a key, and threw open the portal of the "cabin".

It was a small room lighted by a feeble electric lamp. Walls and
floor were of concrete that literally ran with moisture. There was
neither carpet nor rug on the floor, while the furniture was of a
most Spartan character, comprising two beds - one already occupied by
a soundly-sleeping officer - a trestle table, and a chair.

"Hope you'll be comfortable, sir," remarked the batman ironically. He
had seen strange officers "blow in" many times before, but he could
not resist the temptation to indulge in mild _plaisanterie._ "Lights
are turned off at ten-thirty," he added, with infinite relish; "and
if you shut the door on the outside you can't get in unless you come
to me for a key, sir."

Left to the sole companionship of the soundly-snoring officer, Derek
prepared to turn in. Investigations showed that the bed had a wire
mattress, a straw pillow, and two army blankets. The pillow showed
signs of disintegration; the blankets felt damp and smelt musty.
Daventry felt inclined to use strong language. On active service on
the Western Front he would have borne the discomfort with equanimity;
in a permanent home-station there was no excuse for the wretched
accommodation.

Kicking off his sea-boots and tunic Derek turned in practically "all
standing", to pass a fitful night, and to awake to find a white mist
enveloping everything.

He had breakfast with about twenty young officers, the meal
consisting of a tablespoonful of luke-warm porridge, two square
inches of American bacon, bread, margarine, and tea. Before he left
the building the messman presented a bill for half a crown for this
sorry repast.

Upon arriving at the pier-head Derek found that his men had fared no
better, and in spite of the thick fog they brightened up considerably
when their officer announced his intention of getting away from
Wagshot Air Station "even if it rained ink".

The first step was to induce the Officer of the Watch to send the
duty-boat over to Bumble Creek to fetch the motor-boats. This was
successfully accomplished, notwithstanding the fact that twice the
duty-boat ran aground, fortunately on soft mud and on a rising tide.
By ten o'clock Derek's two craft were alongside the pier, and the
sea-plane that had to be towed back to Sableridge was prepared for
her voyage.

"The fog's lifting, I fancy," remarked the Officer of the Watch.
"You'll be able to get away to-day after all."

"I mean to," rejoined Derek grimly.




CHAPTER XXIII

An Error of Judgment


A lifting fog, a calm sea, and the sun shining brightly overhead, all
presaged a successful voyage. With the first pulsations of the motors
Derek's feelings of resentment towards the Wagshot Air Station
vanished. The bright, healthsome feeling of being afloat once more
dispelled the hideous nightmare of damp concrete walls, hard beds,
and inadequate food.

It soon became apparent that the task of towing the sea-plane was not
so easy as Derek imagined. The unwieldy machine - for out of its
natural element it was unwieldy - yawed, dipped, and strained at the
towing-hawser until Derek ordered the second boat to make fast astern
of the sea-plane and run at half throttle in order to steady the
awkward tow.

With the ebb tide the passage through the "gateway" was soon
completed. Another ten miles would find the sea-plane and her tug out
in the open sea.

In the tide-rip off Fort Churst the behaviour of the sea-plane gave
rise to some anxiety, but, upon gaining the exposed waters of the
English Channel, the rate of progress was uniformly maintained.

Presently Derek noticed that a bank of fog was bearing down before a
stiff southerly, or on-shore breeze. Already the outlines of Thorbury
Head, nine miles away, were blotted out, while, on the starboard
hand, the long line of low, yellowish cliffs was cut up into sections
by the rolling, fleecy vapour.

Consulting the chart Derek found that his course was due west
magnetic, which would pass at least a mile to the south'ard of the
dangerous headland. Allowing for the reduced speed of the boats and
the tow, he calculated that it would take about an hour to bring
Thorbury Head broad on the beam.

Down swept the fog, enveloping everything. From the steering-wheel it
was almost impossible to distinguish the boat's stem-head; while
astern the sea-plane was absolutely invisible.

At the end of forty minutes Derek began to feel a bit doubtful of his
position. Miles astern he could hear the monotonous, mournful wail of
the Bodkin Lighthouse. The sea, hitherto calm, was now setting in
with a long roll, breaking heavily upon the invisible shore with a
continuous, sullen roar.

"It seems rather shallow, sir," remarked the coxswain, as he shook
the drops of moisture from the rim of his sou'wester. "Shall I take a
cast, sir?"

"Yes, please."

In his anxiety about keeping the boat on her course Derek had
forgotten the indispensable lead-line. A cast gave two and a quarter
fathoms, whereas, according to the chart, there ought to be a depth
of nine.

"Steer south-west," ordered Derek. "There's something strange about
this business," he added in an undertone.

"Breakers ahead, sir!"

A partial lifting of the fog enabled the range of visibility to
extend to nearly a quarter of a mile. As far as the eye could see the
water was one seething mass of huge waves, from which there was no
escape. The boats were trapped in the dangerous Thorbury Bay.

It was the result of an error of judgment on the part of Derek
Daventry. He had laid off the course of the chart without taking into
consideration the leeway made by the slowly-moving boats and the
ungainly sea-plane; neither had he made allowance for the deviation
of the compass, which happened to be one and a half points on a
westerly course; there was also the indraught of the tide, which
tended to set a vessel shorewards. All three factors were hard at
work during the run through the fog-bank.

The first breaker bore down, enveloping the leading boat's bows in a
swirling cascade of water. Lifting the stocked anchor from its bed it
swept the heavy mass of metal overboard. With a rush and a rattle the
cable paid out until the boat brought up with a savage jerk.
Simultaneously she swung round broadside on to a particularly
fearful-looking breaker. Pouring over the cockpit the water promptly
short-circuited the ignition, and the motor stopped dead. Helpless in
the trough of the sea, the boat was at the mercy of the next crested
wave.

"Cut away the sea-plane!" shouted Derek.

A hand gave the tautened cable a slash with a knife. Simultaneously
the second boat cast off her steadying-line, and the abandoned
sea-plane began drifting towards the shore with incredible rapidity.

To make matters worse the engineer, under the impression that the
next sea would roll the boat completely over, kicked off his
sea-boots and plunged overboard. In the grip of the tide he was swept
to leeward, and even had he been an exceptionally good swimmer his
chances of reaching the shore alive were very remote.

A deck-hand, seeing his comrade's predicament, jumped into the sea
and struck out to his aid. It was a gallant but unavailing act,
although by so doing he additionally hampered the work of rescue.

Meanwhile the second boat, ignorant of what had occurred, was making
heavy weather in the breakers. She had all her work cut out to keep
"end-on" to the hissing, seething masses of water that threatened to
overwhelm her. Her coxswain-learner, who had a few months previously
been steering a plough on a chalky Wiltshire down, was handling the
boat with cool and calculated skill.

For want of an engineer Derek tackled the broken-down engine, working
in feverish desperation in order to make an effort to save his two
men. Plugs were out and replaced in record time, the magneto was
wiped and dried, and the cylinders "doped". A couple of determined
swings of the cranking-lever and the engine fired, spasmodically at
first, then with every indication of "carrying on".

"Slip the cable!" shouted Derek.

A couple of hands made their way along the heaving, slippery
fore-deck, hanging on tenaciously as masses of solid water swept over
them. Watching his opportunity one of the men dropped down the
fore-hatch, which his companion immediately replaced. In utter
darkness, for the inspection lamp he carried was jerked violently
against the coaming of the hatchway, the man toiled desperately,
knocking out the stubborn pin of the shackle and allowing the cable
to fly through the fair-lead.

The moment Derek saw the end of the cable disappear beneath the waves
he slipped in the clutch, while the coxswain steadied the vessel on
her helm and bore down toward the two swimmers. By dispensation of
Providence the waves were no longer of such a threatening character.
They were still formidable, and had to be treated with caution.

Judging his distance well the helmsman brought the boat close
alongside the now well-nigh exhausted men. Already Derek had thrown
the clutch into neutral, and, losing way, the motor-boat stopped to
windward of the swimmers. Willing hands hauled them into safety, the
engineer bleeding from a severe cut on the forehead, and showing
distinct signs of light-headedness.

Meanwhile the second boat, having drawn clear of the dangerous
breakers, was returning to the aid of her consort. As she did so her
motor "konked". Instead of rendering assistance she was now in urgent
need of help.

Another partial lifting of the fog revealed the true position. Within
three hundred yards to the west'ard could be discerned the bold
outlines of Thorbury Head, while to the nor'ard were the sand-dunes
at the mouth of the shallow Thorbury Harbour, and it was between
these two points that the breakers were raging. Elsewhere the sea was
almost as calm as the proverbial mill-pond, but in the mist Derek had
steered his boat right through the danger-zone.

Heaving a line to the disabled motor-boat Derek took her in tow,
steering a circuitous course to avoid the now very apparent danger.
Then, having made a good offing, he handed the helm to the coxswain.
The engineer was quite _hors de combat_. Stripped of his saturated
clothing and wrapped up in blankets, he was being attended to in the
warm but cramped engine-room. Still light-headed, he required the
sole attentions of one of the crew to keep him under control.

Derek was now able to review the situation. He felt far from
comfortable on the matter. The seaplane was lost - probably smashed to
matchwood on the beach. Both boats were considerably knocked about,
while two of the crew were out of action, and a third was temporarily
disabled by reason of a badly-crushed finger-nail. In addition there
was the loss of a practically brand-new anchor and forty fathoms of
galvanized cable, two life-buoys, and a White Ensign and its staff,
which had been carried away during the towing manoeuvres.

And now, with malevolent irony, the sun was shining brightly, the
last vestiges of fog had dispersed, and the sea was as smooth as
glass.

Visions of a court martial, or at least a stringent court of enquiry,
stared Derek in the face, with the possibility of being dismissed
from the Marine Branch of the R.A.F.

"We'll be back just in time to miss the after-dinner parade, sir,"
remarked the coxswain, as the leading boat swept round the
south-westerly extremity of Sableridge and the pier opened out at
less than two hundred yards distance. "It's close on three bells."

"There's not a man on the parade-ground," rejoined Derek, "but
there's a crowd on the pier-head, and all the boats are on their
moorings 'cept the duty-boat. Looks jolly funny."

But the mystery of suspended activity on the part of the Marine Depot
was soon elucidated, for a stentorian voice called Derek as his boat
ran alongside the pier.

"Cheerio, old bird! Can you fancy yourself out of a job?"

Derek had been doing so for the last hour.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

A dozen voices answered the question.

"ARMISTICE!"




CHAPTER XXIV

The Guard-ship


"You don't look particularly happy over the news, old man," remarked
one of the officers on the pier-head. "P'raps, like old Mouldy here,
you think that you'll be out of a job very soon. Cheer up, the war's
not over yet."

Derek made no reply. As a matter of fact he was thinking more about
the loss of the sea-plane than the news that Germany had thrown up
the sponge. The two, taken in conjunction, might make things rather
unpleasant for him, since it was evident that the navy, army, and air
force must be drastically reduced after the cessation of hostilities
- and Derek Daventry had not had enough of life in the R.A.F. He
wanted to remain.

Just then someone slapped him vigorously on the back. Turning, he
found himself face to face with his old flying-chum, John Kaye.

"What in the name of goodness brings you down here?" asked Derek.

"Joined the Marine Branch at Sableridge yesterday," replied Kaye. "Of
course you took jolly good care to be out of the way when I wanted a
pal to take me by the hand and show me the ropes. So when your two
packets were sighted coming over the bar I came down to the pier to
give you my candid opinion of your perfidious desertion. Had a good
time?"

"Just so so," answered Derek.

"Then we're in for a lively evening, old thing," chipped in another
officer. "We've packed up for the rest of the day. There's a football
match on this afternoon, and to-night we all go to the theatre and
let 'em know what an armistice means. So cut and shift, you
salt-encrusted ancient mariner."

But there was work to do before Derek could be at liberty. The spare
gear had to be taken out of the boats; the boats themselves had to be
moored to their respective buoys; the crews had to be marched off,
and their officer had to satisfy himself that they were able to
obtain a belated dinner. Then there was his report to be made out and
submitted to the C.O.

Greatly to his surprise and satisfaction the report was favourably
received. In view of the circumstances, it was conceded that the
officer in charge of the boats had extricated himself with skill and
determination. The loss of the sea-plane was considered to be
unavoidable, and, as a telegram had been received from the
coast-guards at Thorbury Head saying that she had drifted ashore
practically uninjured, the work of salvage had to be undertaken at
the first favourable opportunity.

Armistice night was, to quote the general consensus of opinion, a
topping rag. Earlier in the evening all the men who could be spared
were taken into the town by "liberty-boats", otherwise three large
motor-lorries. Shortly afterwards the officers followed, every
available motor-vehicle on the station being pressed into service.
Derek and Kaye, together with seven other kindred spirits, crowded
into and upon a car normally constructed to hold five, including the
driver, two officers riding on the footboard, while another perched
himself upon the bonnet.

Fifty yards behind came another similarly-laden car, followed by a
third, and possibly it was solely tolerance on the part of the local
police that every officer of the depot was not summoned to appear
before the Bench for exceeding the speed limit.

Upon approaching the limits of the town the speedy cortège reduced
its pace considerably. Through crowds of wildly-excited people the
cars threaded their way. No one yet knew the terms of the Armistice.
They were perfectly convinced in their own minds that the war was
virtually over and that the Allies were top dog. It was an occasion
for jollification, and the opportunity was seized.

"Some crowd, eh, what?" remarked Kaye.

"Rather," agreed Derek. "But what strikes me most is the display of
street lamps. After years of almost total darkness at night one can
hardly recognize the town in its blaze of light. Hallo! here we are."

The cars came to a standstill outside the theatre. Into the first two
rows of the stalls trooped the Royal Air Force contingent, determined
to have, at all costs, a topping rag. It was a dull play, but the
audience amply atoned for its shortcomings. The members of the
orchestra were invited to partake of bitter lemons, to the
discomfiture of the wind-instrumentalists; the principal actors were
presented with huge bouquets of cabbages and carrots; the manager was
bombarded with requests for a speech, and was unmercifully ragged
when he responded to the vociferous invitation. The _pièce de
résistance_ was the appearance upon the stage of His Worship the
Mayor, who did his level best to deliver a patriotic harangue, at the
conclusion of which he was solemnly presented with a titanic replica
of a gorgeous jewel (tinselled cardboard) purporting to be the O.B.E.

Then, at the conclusion of the impromptu performance, the R.A.F.
contingent filed out into the crowded street, to make their way to an
hotel to enjoy a sumptuous supper in the unwonted setting of a
brilliantly-lighted room with uncurtained windows. It was merely one
way of bidding defiance to D.O.R.A., but it was symbolical of the
beginning of a new regime.

During the ensuing week there was very little serious work done at
the depot. It was a period of rejoicing, to which was added the
disquieting consideration that sooner or later demobilization would
bring its disturbing influence to bear upon efficiency. Followed a
series of congratulatory calls between the officers of the various
naval and military establishments in the district.

One of these was a visit to the Coastal Airship establishment at
Downbury. Why the motor-cars on the return journey took a wrong
turning and did not arrive at Sableridge till two o'clock in the
morning was never satisfactorily explained, but upon returning the
Adjutant discovered that he had left behind his favourite stick,
fashioned from the blade of an air-propeller, with a top turned from
the fuse-cap of a Boche shell that, fortunately for the present
owner, had failed to explode.


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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 12 of 16)