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Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

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although for the most part they were new or only partially-trained
hands. Selecting the new crew, Derek sent them off to don oilskins
and sea-boots.

"I'm not quite certain of the channel, sir," said the coxswain, as
the crew mustered on the pier-head. "I've only been up once, and that
was in daylight."

"All right," replied Derek "I'll come with you." For nearly twenty
minutes Derek waited on the boat in the driving scud and rain, for
the motor, that had hitherto been running without a hitch, evinced no
tendency to start.

"It's the rummiest Christmas Eve I've ever spent," declared the young
officer to himself. "Ah! well, it's all in a day's work. Nothing like
yachting in December to give a fellow an appetite. By Jove! it's
nearly dinner-time already, and this stunt will take an hour, if not
more."

At length the engineer conquered the refractory motor, and, after
running the engine with the clutch out for a couple of minutes, Derek
decided to start.

"Cast off, there!" he shouted to the signalman. "Easy ahead!"

The boat gave a final grind against the pier, then forged ahead with
a strong tide under her. Barely had she got beyond heaving distance
of the pier-head, when, with a fierce roar, the whole of the confined
space of the engine-room seemed to burst into flames. Simultaneously
the motor ceased firing.

It was not an enviable situation. Adrift in a roughish sea with the
engine-room well alight, it looked as if the crew had the choice
either of being burnt or else compelled to take an involuntary bath
in the icy-cold water. In the latter case there would be slight
chance of reaching the shore, since the strong tide would carry the
swimmers into the wide and exposed harbour, and in the pitch darkness
of the night the possibility of rescue by another boat would be very
remote.

In spite of the danger the crew kept their heads. There was not the
slightest sign of panic. One of the men raised a laugh by exclaiming:

"We can only drown once, lads; but we may burn twice, so let's get
the fire under."

Without hesitation the engineer acted, directing a heavy discharge of
"pyrene" into the heart of the flames. In a few seconds the anti-fire
apparatus did its work. As if by magic the fierce tongue of flame
died down, but for some minutes the crew were almost overcome by the
fumes.

During that interval the broken-down boat had drifted across the bows
of two other craft moored in the vicinity. Standing on the plunging
fore-deck the intrepid bowman, maintaining his precarious position,
succeeded in fending off by means of a boat-hook. Then, with three
miles of water to leeward, the crew had time to consider their
position and act accordingly.

At length the motor was restarted, and the long, tedious run up to
Fisherton began. Steering by means of a series of leading lights
Derek held on, drenched with spray and numbed with the cold, until,
with a sigh of relief, he ported helm past the revolving green light
at the entrance to Fisherton Quay.

A motor-car was waiting to take Derek and the men back to Sableridge,
where Daventry found that the signalman had reported the fire, and
that the depot had been in a state of ferment over the news.

"You practically spoiled our dinner, you rotter!" exclaimed Kaye.

"I've certainly lost mine," rejoined Derek.

"That's base ingratitude," protested his chum, "considering I told
the messman to keep it hot. I say, you guys!" he added, addressing
the other five or six occupants of the ante-room. "Daventry's raising
a moan about his grub. What's the penalty?"

The next instant a rolled-up flag came hurtling at Derek's head. It
was the signal for battle. There was ammunition in plenty, for nearly
fifty rolled signal-flags that were left over after decorating the
mess were lying on the table in the hall.

Grabbing half a dozen missiles, Derek ran upstairs; Kaye, out of
loyalty, joined him, and Dennis threw in his lot with the weaker
side. Ensued a battle royal. From the first-floor landing bundles of
tightly-rolled bunting came flying down with tremendous force, while
the attackers of the ground-floor retaliated with similar missiles,
until the air was stiff with a hurtling galaxy of signal-flags.

For a time it seemed as if weight of "metal" and superior numbers
would prevail. Already the attackers were half-way up the stairs,
dauntlessly facing an overhead fusillade, when the youthful Adjutant
was seized with a "toppin' brainy idea".

Grasping one of the filled fire-buckets, he balanced it on the
balustrade, then, awaiting his opportunity, poured the cold contents
upon the heads of his opponents. Kaye and Derek, fired by Dennis's
example, followed suit, and the attack melted away.

"Gosh!" exclaimed Dennis, "won't little Wells be in a horrible tear
when he finds his precious signal-flags used like this?"

It was indeed a scene of chaos. Partly unfolded the flags lay
everywhere. Pools of water lay in the hall, while a considerable
quantity had made its way down into the basement to the discomfiture
of the batmen.

"It's merely a change in the day's occupation," declared Kaye. "Blame
Daventry; he must have a safety-valve to let off superfluous energy
after having tried his level best to provide the fishes with roast
meat for Christmas."

"Who's turning in?" asked Derek, stifling a yawn. "It's ten o'clock,
and I've been at it since six this morning."

Before anyone could reply there came from outside the officers'
quarters a voice singing the words of a well-known carol.

"What's this stunt?" asked Dennis.

"The sergeants," replied the Orderly Officer. "They've come to
serenade us, I believe. It'll mean a bottle of whisky against the
mess."

"Invite them in," suggested another.

The suggestion was acted upon, but little did the mess know what it
was in for when it invited the roystering serenaders into its fold.

Very solemnly the sergeants filed in - eleven N.C.Os., of whom every
man save one had been in the Royal Navy before transferring into the
Royal Air Force. Headed by a sergeant with a side-drum, and followed
by two with fifes, the motley-arrayed crush took up semi-circular
formation at one end of the ante-room, the Sergeant-Major acting as
master of the ceremonies. In half an hour their repertoire of carols
was exhausted, so they "switched on" to the old-time sea-chanties.
Followed an interval for refreshments and speechmaking, to which
Derek, in his capacity of Deputy Mess-President, had to reply.

"It's about time they piped down," thought Derek, glancing at his
wristlet-watch.

But no!

"Would the officers like to hear Sergeant Butler sing 'The Long-Lost
Cabin-Boy'?" asked the Sergeant-Major.

In a weak moment Derek assented on behalf of the officers, and the
act of torture began. There were twenty-five verses of "The Long-Lost
Cabin-Boy", each with a double chorus. Then, with hardly a break, the
now almost exhausted mess had to listen to another song, "You stand
by the Ship, lads, I must be ashore by five", and a pointedly topical
recitation, "Christmas Day in the Marine Depot", in which the
sergeants got in several witty hits against their officers.

It was not until just on midnight that, after rendering "God Save the
King", the lusty vocalists marched back to their quarters, leaving
the mess to its rightful occupants.

"But," remarked Kaye, "Christmas Eve only comes once a year, and
goodness only knows where we'll be in a twelvemonth's time. There's
Eight Bells! A Merry Christmas, you fellows!"




CHAPTER XXVII

Hard and Fast Aground


Christmas Day dawned bright and clear - a pleasing contrast to the
preceding day. Hardly a ripple disturbed the surface of the sea,
while the hills surrounding the harbour were perfectly hidden by
light, fleecy mists. The air, too, was mild. From a weather aspect it
was as unlike the old-time festive day as one could possibly imagine.

The depleted mess sat down to breakfast in high spirits, but behind
the display of gaiety was the thought that to many it would be the
last Christmas Day that they would spend under Active Service
conditions. Already demobilization was working havoc both with
numbers and efficiency. Months of strenuous training looked like
being wasted, while there was uncertainty of the future. Quite
possibly the "Band of Brothers" would be dispersed to the four
quarters of the globe. Many of them, of course, wanted to get back to
their homes, but others, particularly the young crash pilots,
regarded their possible release to civil life with feelings akin to
consternation. Growing up to manhood as responsible officers of a
fighting force, they had no enthusiasm for the hum-drum life that
awaited them upon demobilization. In several cases their post-school
studies had been entirely interrupted, and their chance of qualifying
for professional careers hopelessly shattered. The phantom
"after-the-war" problem was merging into a real and burning question.

Being Christmas Day, parade did not take place until ten o'clock,
after which the C.O. made a tour of the buildings and inspected the
decorated messes. This over, Derek had to take the duty-boat and
visit the R.A.F. vessels moored in the harbour.

Almost the first craft visited was a large motorboat lying right in
the tide-way. As the duty-boat ran alongside the bowman stepped on
board with the intention of making fast with a rope. As he did so the
boats' bows began to drift apart.

"Look out!" shouted Derek. "You'll be in the ditch in half a shake!"

The warning came too late. With one foot on the motor-boat and the
other on the duty-boat, the luckless bowman tried to save himself by
recovering his lost balance. In vain; the gap increased more and more
until, with a loud splash, the man plunged into the icy water.

Fortunately he could swim, but the task of getting him on board,
encumbered as he was with oilskin jacket and trousers, was not an
easy one. It was not until Derek and the engineer came to his
assistance that the bowman was hauled into the boat.

There was now no option but to return to the pier and land the
shivering man. Provided with a stiff glass of brandy, he was sent
back to his room to change, his arrival in saturated clothes being
hailed with good-natured banter by his comrades.

As the duty-boat pushed off to resume her interrupted patrol the
sergeant-coxswain must needs emulate the bowman's example, for on
stepping from the pier steps to the boat his foot slipped, and into
the water he went.

That meant more brandy and another coxswain. "The next man who
tumbles into the ditch will not get any brandy," declared Derek, by
way of warning. Doubtless the hint was taken, for there was no
further trouble in that direction.

Back to the depot to change for dinner, and Derek's duty ended for
the rest of the day. Yet there was work for him to do - the task of
getting ready to proceed on his eleven days' leave.

At eight the following morning Derek set out on his long journey,
travelling to the railway station in a tender in default of a car,
for the three motor-cars attached to the depot had all been placed
_hors de combat_ on Christmas Eve. It was an enjoyable, though a
crowded railway journey. Packed in with nine other officers, a
civilian, and a dog in a first-class compartment, Derek found himself
in good company. The spirit of Yule-tide predominated, and even
though the crowded train was an hour late, stopping at every station,
and frequently between stations, the prospect of getting home
smoothed over the inconvenience of travelling.

"Well, Derek," remarked Captain Daventry after dinner, when father
and son were alone, "the war's over, or practically so. Men are being
demobilized right and left. The papers teem with advertisements from
released officers requiring employment. What do you propose doing?"

"Hanging on, Pater, in the Micawber-like spirit: hoping that
something may turn up."

"And what are the prospects?"

Derek had to confess that up to the present there was nothing
definite. No decided information was forthcoming from the Air
Ministry, although the air was thick with rumours.

"I'd go in for flying again if the Medical Board passed me," he
added. "Failing that, I'd like to continue in the Marine Branch. It's
a weird and fairly exciting existence, and every day I like it more
and more."

"Thought so," rejoined his father laconically; "it's the adage:
'What's bred in the bone,' &c. With generations of sea-faring
ancestors, Derek, you can't get away from the fact that you've an
innate desire for the sea. Flying was only a sort of
stop-gap - necessary, no doubt, but it's not the rock-bottom of an
Englishman's constitution, so to speak. The sea made Britain what it
is to-day, and the sea will continue to do so, unless the country
allows her maritime supremacy to pass into the hands of others. To
return to a personal view - I mentioned the matter before, I
believe - you'll be able to go to sea till you're well over middle
age, but it's an obvious certainty that you won't be flying at that
time of life."

"You don't seem very sanguine over the future of aviation, Pater."

"I hardly like to express an opinion, Derek; but when comparing a
ship with an aeroplane you must remember that the former is in its
natural element. Given a seaworthy craft ably managed, a ship is as
safe as a house. Even if the engines break down the vessel floats.
But take an aircraft. If anything happens to it, it is not in its
natural element. It must descend."

"A heavier-than-air machine, you mean."

"Precisely. And take the case of an airship. Its vulnerability to
fire is a great drawback, while I doubt its ability to ride out a
gale. A ship has a grip upon the water; an airship, if disabled, is
simply at the mercy of the winds."

"And that is where we - the marine section - come in," added Derek.
"Once the authorities realize that, our future is assured."

The eleven days passed only too quickly, and almost before he
realized that his leave would expire that night Derek found himself
packing his kit-bag and haversack.

It was eleven o'clock when he arrived at Fisherton Station, and
nearly midnight by the time he reached Sableridge depot. All the rest
of the occupants of the officers' quarters were in bed; there was no
supper left out for him, and the ante-room fire had died down.
Without it was blowing a gale from the south-east, and raining
heavily. The spray was dashing against the windows, while above the
howling of the wind could be heard the continuous roar of the surf
upon the Dairymaid Sands.

"What a night!" soliloquized Derek, as he proceeded to unpack and
prepare to turn in. "Thank goodness I'm not out. Wonder if our boats
will drag their moorings? Well, here's to bed. I'll sleep like a log
till morning."

Alas for that resolution! It seemed as if Daventry had been asleep
but a few minutes when he was aroused by the Officer of the Watch.

"You'll have to turn out, Daventry, old man," he announced. "There's
a vessel of some sort ashore on the Dairymaid Bank. The Fisherton
life-boat is coming down harbour, and they want us to stand by. I've
turned out the Duty Watch and told off No. 21's crew. Take her out
and keep to windward of the shoal. There's a deuce of a sea breaking
over it, so look out!"

Already Derek was out of bed and donning his sea-kit. A glance at his
wristlet-watch showed that it was 3 a.m. The gale was at its height.
Windows were rattling, stones were being hurled up from the beach and
thudding against the shuttered windows of the building. Rain and
sleet were descending in hissing and blinding sheets.

Literally battling his way to the pier-head Derek found his crew
busily engaged in preparing motor-boat No. 21 for the coming contest
with the elements. The craft was a stout one, specially built for
hard work, and heavily engined. If any vessel on the station were
capable of keeping the sea that night it was No. 21.

"Plenty of petrol, engineer?" shouted Derek, as he gained the deck of
the plunging boat.

"Tanks full, sir."

"Good enough," rejoined Derek, holding on like grim death as the boat
ground and bumped heavily against the piles of the pier. "Any sign of
the life-boat, signalman?"

"Not yet in sight, sir."

The youthful Lieutenant gazed seaward. All was a chaotic blur of
driving rain and spray. In vain he waited to see the occulting light
on the distant Bar Buoy. It was no longer there. An unfortunate
accident had extinguished the friendly gleam; and Heaven help the
mariner who, running for shelter into Fisherton Harbour, reckoned
upon finding the important light in position!

"Life-boat in sight, sir!"

With her red, blue, and white hull looming up in the glare of the
high leading light the life-boat was fighting her way towards the
scene of the disaster. She was under sail - close reefed main and
mizzen. Her yellow-oilskinned crew were crouching on the thwarts, the
only man visible being the coxswain as he stood erect and gripped the
long tiller. In another hundred yards a bend in the channel would
bring the life-boat's course dead to windward and against a surging
flood-tide. It was now that No. 21 would be able to render timely
aid.

"Cast off bow and stern warps," shouted Derek. "Easy ahead!"

With helm hard-a-port the motor-craft swung round, passed to windward
of the life-boat, turned again, and ranged up to windward, her crew
standing by, ready to pass a stout grass hawser to the life-boat.


[Illustration: THE TASK OF GETTING HIM ON BOARD WAS NOT AN EASY ONE]


The latter lost no time in accepting the proffered aid. In a trice
her scanty canvas was lowered and stowed; a heavy line fell athwart
the R.A.F. boat's deck, and to this the towing-warp was bent and paid
out.

"All fast!" shouted the life-boat's bowman in stentorian tones. It
was as well that he confirmed the information with a gesture, for in
the roar of the elements his voice was inaudible.

"Easy ahead!" ordered Derek.

With a jerk that shook No. 21 from keel to truck the hawser took up
the strain. For some moments it seemed as if no progress were being
made against wind and tide, until foot by foot the hardly-pressed
boat and her tow fought their way towards the surging waters on the
bar.

At one minute the motor-craft's stern was deep in the water. At
another the propeller was whirling in the air and the powerful engine
racing madly. Sheets of solid water poured over her bluff bows, until
the thick glass panes of the wheel-house threatened to give way under
the formidable onslaught.

Well it was that Derek knew the channel well both by night and day.
All he had to guide him were the leading lights astern. Ahead nothing
but inky blackness; to port the breakers threshing against the Tinker
Shoal; to starboard more white-foamed masses of water hurling
themselves upon the flats of the Dairymaid Sands. An error of eighty
yards on either hand would result in disaster both to the R.A.F. boat
and her tow, for, notwithstanding her strong construction and
uncapsizable design, the life-boat would stand no earthly chance
should she be hurled upon the boiling breakers over the sands.

Suddenly a light flashed through the darkness away on the starboard
bow.

"NC - NC - NC" it called, signifying in code language: "In distress;
require immediate assistance."

"Three hundred yards over the Dairymaid Bank," declared Derek to his
coxswain. "Keep her as she is; we can't edge in any closer. I'll slip
the life-boat when she's dead to windward."

"Aye, aye, sir!" replied the man, wiping the spray from his eyes. The
wheel-house window was open, for closed, with the water continually
being flung against the glass, the limited range of vision was still
further reduced.

Plunging, rolling, and staggering, the staunch little craft plugged
steadily onwards, the life-boat straining and yawing at the end of
three hundred feet of stout grass hawser. With little protection save
that afforded by the high, rounded fore-deck, the life-belted and
oilskinned crew of the life-boat were literally sitting in water, in
spite of the relieving tubes that allowed the boat to free itself of
any breaking seas.

"Far enough," decided Derek. "Keep her head to wind, coxswain!"

Making his way aft the young officer ascended the short iron ladder
and looked astern. He had to hold on like grim death, for the lively
motion of the motor-craft made it impossible to stand unaided on the
slippery deck.

Raising one arm Derek motioned to the life-boat to cast off. The
coxswain of the latter saw the signal. The motionless crew became
active. The hawser was cast off, and oars fell into the crutches.
Backing the while, the life-boat vanished into the darkness.

Returning to the wheel-house Derek consulted his watch. It was now
nearly six o'clock. Already he had been afloat for more than two
hours, and the time had passed with inconceivable rapidity. In
another hour and a quarter there would be sufficient light to
distinguish the position and nature of the vessel in distress.

Meanwhile ensued a tedious wait. Unable to anchor, since the seas
were vicious and breaking, and the holding-ground was bad, No. 21 had
to keep her motor running, continuously throttling down, so that her
position was practically unaltered. Yet the task of keeping to the
channel was one that taxed the helmsman's and the engineer's skill to
the uttermost. The latter, unfortunately, was seized with a violent
attack of sea-sickness, yet in spite of the nausea, accentuated by
the reek of hot oil, he stuck doggedly to his post, knowing full well
that any failure on his part to keep the motor running would
inevitably result in the boat becoming a total wreck on the Dairymaid
Sands, with the possibility of loss of life on the part of the crew.

Very slowly the day dawned, the growing light laying bare the dangers
that the veil of night had partly hidden. R.A.F. No. 21 was still
chugging away in the centre of the channel. Ahead, astern, as far as
the eye could see, was a foaming mass of broken water, thundering to
leeward upon the flat, sandy beach. Broad on the starboard beam the
Bar Buoy, the light of which had ignominiously failed, was plunging
in the foaming water. Beyond the buoy the outlines of Old Tom, the
detached chalk pinnacle, could be faintly discerned through the mirk.
The lofty hills were as if they were not. Hidden in the driving rain,
their absence gave the coast-line an unfamiliar aspect.

Midway between the edge of the buoyed channel and the sand-dunes lay
a long, low grey craft over which the breakers were sweeping
continuously. From a light mast two flags streamed out stiffly in the
breeze. Being end-on they were unrecognizable until a temporary
change in the wind revealed their nationality. The upper one was the
Rising Sun of Japan; underneath was the craven Black Cross of
Germany. The stranded craft was a surrendered U-boat that had been
handed over to Japan, and it was an unfortunate occurrence that on
the commencement of her voyage to the Far East the prize showed every
sign of slipping through her new owner's fingers.

"This is a rummy world," thought Derek. "A few months ago I was doing
my level best to strafe these bounders; now I'm doing ditto to assist
in the salvage of one of them. But, by Jove! I wouldn't give much for
her chance; she's done in, I fancy."

Midway between the motor-craft and the U-boat lay the life-boat,
buoyantly riding to a long cable. She had approached the stranded
vessel as close as she dared, and was even now in danger of bumping
her keel on the hard sand. Solidly constructed and well built as she
was, she could not afford to risk stranding in the breakers, which
would roll her over and over like a barrel. It was almost dead low
water, and until the flood had made considerably it was madness for
the life-boat to attempt to run alongside the U-boat and take off the
crew.

But as long as the life-boat was engaged in the work of rescue R.A.F.
No. 21 had to stand by. Chilled to the bone by the cold and wet, and
fatigued by their night's exertions, the life-boat-men would be
relying on the motor-craft to tow them into harbour.

In the grey dawn a long, lean black destroyer was sighted making her
way slowly towards the Bar Buoy. Green seas were tumbling viciously
over her raised fo'c'sle, while showers of spray were sizzling
against her hot funnel. As she approached, Derek noticed that her
life-buoys were painted white with four bands of red. Buoys painted
thus are foreign to the British navy; and, although the destroyer
resembled in almost every detail the British "River" Class boats,


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