Men were placed at the water-pumps, the oxygen containers, air-purifiers and vdistilling machinery, and the vhatchways were thoroughly examined; the gunners took their posts at the torpedo tubes. The order had been given to move about as little as possible, to keep in the berths when not on duty, and not to talk and laugh. Then the watchman left the vconning tower, and the main hatchway was vhermetically closed.
Captain Andrey gave the order to submerge and went over to the navigating compartment. Water rushed into the ballast tanks, the boat grew heavy, and its rolling and pitching ceased: the Kate sank and ran ahead under water, steering by means of the periscope. Andrey pushed a button and a cone of pale blue rays poured from the tube. The screen of the periscope grew alive with tiny waves, passing clouds, and a tail of smoke on the skyline. With his chin resting on his arm, Andrey scanned the image of the sea which lay before him. Presently the smoke vanished, and on the right hand appeared the hazy outline of land.
At nightfall, the boat, taking advantage of the darkness, rose to the surface of the sea and sailed without lights. Andrey stood on the bridge throughout the night. The water was placid, the stars were screened by a light mist, and far away to the south the pale blue gleam of an enemy searchlight moved through the clouds.
The boat was now approaching a mine field. At dawn, when the greenish-orange light began slowly to pervade the fleecy clouds, the Kate sank to a great depth at a definitely fixed point in the sea. Steering solely by compass and map, she commenced to pick her way under the mines. Yakovlev was in charge of the steering apparatus, while Prince Bylopolsky calculated the vside drift and reported to the chief engineer in charge of the motors. Andrey, leaning over the map, gave orders to the man at the wheel.
There was no sensation of movement, and it seemed as if the Kate stood still amidst the eery darkness. The men for the most part were stretched on their backs, seeking to consume as little oxygen as possible. In spite of this precaution, however, the air was thick, and the sailors felt a tingling sensation in the ears.
Suddenly the boat’s keel struck against something hard, and a grating sound broke the stillness.
“Stop! Stop!” called out Andrey, dashing forth from the navigating cabin.
The pinions cracked and the motors ceased to pulsate. Immediately the air became hot, as in a Turkish bath. Andrey entered the water-tight conning tower, which was flooded with diluted, greenish light from the ports provided for the purpose of giving a view of the surrounding waters. He peered through the glass pane. Vague, blurred forms and shadows gradually became visible in the twilight of the deep. One of the shadows wavered and glided along the window, and the round, tragic eyes of a fish glanced at Andrey. The fish disappeared in the depths below the boat. Evidently the Kate had not run aground, nor were there any submerged reefs in that quarter. Andrey gave an order to raise the boat several feet. Then numerous shadows leaped aside and scattered, and the captain plainly saw a jumbled heap of ropes and ladders. It was obvious that the Kate had blundered into the remains of a sunken ship.
The halt was unfortunate—indeed, might prove fatal. The uniform motion of the boat had been disturbed, the vorientation lost; the inevitable small error made at the point of submerging must have increased in the course beneath the waves. The Kate had lost her way, and something must be done. Andrey drummed nervously on the window-pane as he thought. It was impossible to stay under water any longer, and yet to rise to the surface meant to be seen and attacked by enemy warships. Only in this way, however, was it possible to determine the boat’s position.
Andrey, giving an order for the boat to rise slowly, returned to his observation point. The water gradually grew clearer. Suddenly a dark ball moved down to meet the craft. “A mine!” flashed across Andrey’s mind, and, overcoming the torpor which had begun to oppress his brain, he ordered the submarine to be swerved from her course. The ball moved away, but another appeared on the right. There was another change of direction. And now everywhere in the midst of the greenish twilight cast-iron shells lay in wait. The Kate was in the toils of a mine net!
Sea water, when viewed from a great height, is so transparent that large fishes can even be seen in it. Owing to this fact, the Kate was discovered by two enemy vhydroplanes as she rose among the mines toward the surface of the bay. The aircraft were seen, however, and the boat dived again to a great depth.
The Kate now blindly groped her way forward. The motors worked at their top speed, and the body of the boat trembled. Hundreds of demons called horsepowers fiercely turned the various wheels, pinions, and shafts. The air was hot and stuffy; the men at the engine, stripped to the waist, worked feverishly. Speed was necessary, for only oxygen enough to sustain the crew for one hour remained in the lead cylinders.
Yakovlev still sat at the compass, his elbows on his knees and his hands pressing his head. The men lounged in the cabins and corridors, their faces livid with suffocation. Prince Bylopolsky remained leaning over his vlogarithmic tables, which had now become useless. From time to time he wiped his face, as if removing a net of invisible cobwebs. Finally he rose to his feet, took a few steps, and fainted dead away.
Giving the order to proceed at full speed, Andrey hoped to pass the mine zone, even though some of his men succumbed for lack of air. Pale and excited, his hair in disorder, and his coat unbuttoned, he was everywhere at once, and his voice sustained the failing strength of the half-suffocated crew. Seeing the prince stretched unconscious on a berth, Andrey poured a few drops of brandy in his mouth and kissed his wet, childlike forehead. In making too rapid a movement, lurid flames danced before his eyes, and he bent back, striking his head against a sharp angle of an engine. He felt no pain from the blow.
“Bad!” thought Andrey, and crawled over to the emergency oxygen container. He opened the faucet and inhaled the fragrant stream of gas. His head began to swim and a sweet fire ran through his veins. With an effort he rose to his feet. The outlines of the objects around him were strangely distinct, and the faces of the men imploringly turned to him—some of them bearded and high-cheekboned, others tender and childlike—seemed to him touchingly human....
In the corridor Andrey came upon a man standing against the wall and gulping the air like a fish. Seeing the commander, he made an effort to cheer up and mumbled, “Beg pardon, sir; I’m a bit unwell.” The captain leaned over and looked into his eyes, which a film of death was already beginning to veil. Andrey, turning to the telephone tube, gave a command to rise. The Kate shook all over and dived upward. The ascent lasted four minutes and a half, at the end of which time the boat stood still and light fell on the screen of the periscope. The sailors crawled up to the main hatchway and unscrewed it. Cold salt air rushed into the boat, swelling the chests of the sufferers and turning their heads; the sensation of free breathing was delicious after the suffocation they had so long endured.
Andrey, leaping on the bridge, found the evening sun suspended above vast masses of warm clouds and the sea quiet and peaceful. He began to take observations with the vsextant, which shook in his trembling hand. Presently a loud buzzing was heard in the sky, followed by the measured crackling of a machine gun; from the hull of the boat came a sharp rat-a-tat, as if some one was throwing dry peas on it. A hydroplane was circling above the Kate.
Andrey bit his lip and kept on working; a squad of his men loaded their rifles. The hydroplane swooped down almost to the surface of the sea, then soared with a shrill “F-r-r-r” and flew right over the boat. A clean-shaven pilot sat motionless, his hands on the wheel; below him an observer gazed downward, waiting. Suddenly the latter lifted a bomb and threw it into a tube. The missile flashed in the air and plunged into the sea at the very side of the boat. One of the crew fired his rifle, and the observer threw up his leather-covered arms with outspread fingers. Slowly circling under the fire of the submarine crew, the aircraft rose toward the clouds and sailed off.
Over the sky-ridge another aeroplane appeared, looking like a long thin line. Meantime the Kate picked her way with graceful ease across the orange-colored waters as if cutting through molten glass. Andrey, buttoning his coat, said with a grimace, “Well, Yakovlev, the mines are behind us, but what are we going to do now?”
“This region is full of reefs and sandbanks,” replied Yakovlev.
“That’s just the trouble. I wouldn’t risk sailing under the water. Wait a moment.” He raised his hand.
A violent whizzing sound came from the west; Andrey ordered greater speed. A vgrenade hissed on the right, and a jet of water spurted up from the quiet surface. The Kate tacked sharply toward the purpling horizon in the west, and behind, in her shadowy wake, another bomb burst and blossomed out into a small cloud. The boat then turned east again, but now in front of her, on both sides, everywhere, shells burst and sputtered fire. The scouting hydroplane dashed over the submarine like a bat; two pale faces looked down and disappeared. Then right above the stern of the Kate a grenade exploded and one of the sailors dropped his rifle, clutched his face, toppled over the railing, and disappeared beneath the water.
“All hands below!” cried Andrey; and, watching where the shells fell thickest, he began to give his orders. The Kate circled like a run-down hare, while all along the darkening skyline the smoking stacks of mine-layers and destroyers were visible as the enemy’s ruthless ring rapidly tightened about the submarine.
Having had her wireless mast shot off by a shell, the Kate now dashed toward the rocky shore, running awash. Six sparks shot up in the dark and six steel-clad demons hissed above the boat. The long shadow of a ship glided along the shore. The Kate shook, and a sharp-nosed torpedo detached itself from her hull and glided away under the water to meet the vsilhouette of the vessel. A moment passed, and a fluffy, mountainous mass of fire and water rose from the spot where the stacks of a mine-layer had projected shortly before. The mountain sank and the silhouette disappeared. The Kate entered a baylet among the rocks, submerged, and lay on the sandy sea-bed.
Two weeks the submarine remained in the inlet, completely cut off from the rest of the world. By day she hid in the deep, and only under the cover of night did she rise to the surface to get a supply of air. The greatest precautions were necessary, for there was little likelihood that the enemy believed the submarine to be destroyed.
At the end of that time some action was inevitable, as the boat’s supplies had given out; for three days the crew had fed on fish which one of the men had caught at great risk. Audrey decided to leave the bay and make a supreme effort to run the enemy’s cordon.
About daybreak, as the Kate was nearing the surface of the sea, the crew became aware of a tremendous muffled cannonade; and when the boat emerged into a white fog, the whole coast shook and echoed with the roar and crash of a sea battle. Broadsides and terrific explosions alternated with the crackling of guns. It was as though a multitude of sea-devils coughed and blew and roared at each other.
“Quick, sir,” shouted Yakovlev, holding on to the railing; “we can break through now!” His teeth rattled.
The preparations for the dash had been completed. A strong gale swept away the fog and drove its torn masses over the sea, laying bare the rocky shore. The Kate dashed out of the bay into the open. The firing was now heard behind and on the right; the road to the port was open at last. The submarine rushed along, ripping in twain the frothing waves.
In this moment of exaltation, to return safely to base, simply to do one’s duty, seemed too little to these fearless men. The feeling that possessed them was not enthusiasm but a greediness, a yearning for destruction.
“We cannot go away like this,” Yakovlev shouted in Audrey’s ear; “turn back or I will shoot myself!” The man was completely beside himself; his pale face twisted convulsively.
Just then the sun arose, turning the rolling sea into a dull orange. Near at hand invisible ships thundered against each other. Suddenly a gray mountain-like shape emerged from the fog, enveloped in flame and smoke. Above its turrets, stacks, and masts fluttered a flag bearing a black eagle.
Mad with the thought that the opportunity had come at last, Andrey rushed down the hatchway, knocking over Yakovlev on the way, and loaded the torpedo tube. The Kate submerged a little, and sailing awash, headed straight for the enemy vessel.
The shadow of the hostile ship glided along the periscope screen, every now and then wrapping itself into a cloud pierced with fiery needles of shots. The Kate fired a torpedo but missed her aim. Leaning over the screen and biting his lips to bleeding, Andrey examined the tiny image of the vessel, one of the mightiest of battleships. The distance between the Kate and the enemy vessel continued to decrease; the image of the ship already occupied half of the periscope screen.
“Another torpedo!” shouted Andrey.
At that very instant a blow was struck the boat and the periscope screen grew dark. Andrey ran out from the navigating compartment and shouted:
“The periscope is shot away! Full speed forward!”
The engineer seized the handle of a lever and asked, “Which way?”
Andrey went into the conning tower; straight in front of him foamy eddies whirled furiously. The dark hull of a ship appeared, obscuring the light.
“Stop!” shouted Andrey. “Fire another one! Full speed backward!” He closed his eyes.
For a moment it seemed to him that the end had come. He was hurled by the explosion of the torpedo into the corridor and dashed against the wall. The outcries of the men were drowned by the muffled thud of the inrushing water. The light went out; the Kate began to rotate and sink.
The boat did not stay long in the deep; freed from the weight of two torpedoes, she slowly began to rise, stopped before reaching the surface, and commenced to sink again as the water continued to leak into her hull.
A sailor found Andrey in a narrow passage unconscious, though breathing regularly. The man dressed the captain’s wounds, but could not bring him to his senses. Another sailor tried to revive Yakovlev, but soon saw that that officer was dead. All the available hands toiled at the pumps, while the engineer and his two assistants worked frantically at the engine.
The Kate was near the surface, but as the periscope and the indicator had been destroyed, it was impossible to tell precisely where she was. On the other hand, to unscrew the hatch and look out would subject the boat to the risk of being flooded. Finally, the engineer reported that it was necessary to replace the cylinder, but that this was difficult to do because the supply of candles was giving out. Kuritzyn, a sailor who had assumed command, ordered the men at the pumps to pump until they dropped dead, if necessary, but to raise the boat at least one yard. The men obeyed in grim silence. Presently the last candle went out. “It’s all over, boys,” said some one, and the pumps stopped. The only sound that now broke the silence was the monotonous splash of water leaking down on the periscope screen.
“Follow me,” said Kuritzyn hoarsely to two of the men. “Let us unscrew the hatches. What’s the use of fooling any longer?”
Feeling their way in the darkness, several men followed the leader into the corridor and up the spiral staircase in the main hatchway. When they reached the top, they grasped the bolts of the lid.
“Here’s our finish,” said one of the men.
Just then the sound of footsteps on the outside of the boat reached their ears. Some one was walking on the Kate’s hull!
“Down to the ballast tanks!” Kuritzyn ordered. “When I fire, blow them out. We are ordered not to surrender the boat.”
With his revolver between his teeth, he pressed the bolt. The lid yielded; light and air rushed into the opening.
“Hey, who is there?” Kuritzyn shouted.
“Russians, Russians,” replied a voice.
“Thank God!” said Kuritzyn in a tone of intense gratitude.