The _Rapier_ was an old destroyer, one of the 370-ton "thirty-knotters"
completed in about 1901. She burnt coal and was driven by
reciprocating engines, instead of using oil fuel and being propelled by
new-fangled turbines, while 23 to 24 knots were all she could be relied
upon to travel in the best of weather. She had a low, sharp bow and
the old-fashioned turtle-back forward instead of the high, weatherly
forecastle of the later destroyers, and in anything more than a
moderate breeze or a little popple of a sea she was like a half-tide
rock in a gale o' wind. In fact, except in the very calmest weather,
she was a regular hog, for she rolled, pitched, and wallowed to her
heart's content, varying the monotony at odd moments by burying herself
in green seas or deluging herself in masses of spray.
Her small bridge, with its 12-pounder gun, steering wheel, compass, and
engine-room telegraphs, was placed on the top of the turtle-back and
about 25 feet from the bows. It acted as a most excellent breakwater
and took the brunt of the heavier seas, and how often the _Rapier_ came
back into harbour with her bridge rails flattened down and her deck
fittings washed overboard, I really do not know. It was a fairly
frequent occurrence, for war is war, and they kept the little ship out
at sea in practically all weathers.
Even in harbour, when her officers and men were endeavouring to obtain
a little well-earned sleep, she sometimes had an exasperating habit of
rolling her rails under and slopping the water over her deck, and then
it was that Langdon, her lieutenant in command, wedged in the bunk in
his little cabin in the stern, and driven nearly frantic by the
irregular thump, thump, crash of the loosely hung rudder swinging from
side to side as the ship rolled, rose in his wrath and cursed the day
he was born.
But whatever he thought in his heart of hearts, he would not hear a bad
word against his old _Rapier_ in public. She might be ancient; but
then she had done "a jolly sight more steaming" than any other craft of
her age and class. She might burn coal in her furnaces instead of
oil-fuel, and every ounce of coal had to be shovelled on board from a
collier by manual labour, whereas, in an oil-driven destroyer, one
simply went alongside a jetty or an "oiler," connected up a hose, and
went to bed while a pump did all the work. But Langdon never could
endure "the ghastly stink" of crude petroleum, while coal, though
dirty, was clean dirt. The _Rapier_ might have old-fashioned engines,
but with them one ran no chance of developing that affliction of
turbine craft: water in the casing, the consequent stripping of blades
off the turbine rotors, and a month or so in a dockyard as a natural
concomitant. Moreover, everybody knew that destroyers with
reciprocating engines were far and away the easiest to handle.
So, from what Langdon said, though it is true that he may have been
rather prejudiced by the fact that she was his first independent
command, the fifteen-year-old _Rapier_ was a jewel of fair price. The
powers that be perhaps did not regard her with such rose-tinted
optimism, but for all that, were evidently of the opinion that she was
still capable of useful work, and kept her constantly at sea
Exactly what her function was I had better not say, but she always
seemed to be on the spot when things happened, and had assisted at the
"strafing" of Hun submarines, and had been under fire a great many more
times than some of her younger sisters, many of whom were craft at
least three times her size, eight knots more speed, and infinitely
better armed and more seaworthy.
So it was not to be imagined that the _Rapier_, ancient though she was,
suffered from senile decay.
* * * * *
"Curse this weather," the Lieutenant muttered, wrinkling his eyes in a
vain endeavour to see through the murk. "We've been forty-eight hours
on patrol, and now we're due to go into harbour this beastly fog comes
down and delays us. It IS the limit!"
Pettigrew, the Sub-Lieutenant, agreed. "We shall have to coal when we
arrive," he observed mournfully. "That'll take us two hours, and by
the time we've finished, made fast to the buoy, had our baths, and made
ourselves fairly presentable, it'll be two o'clock. I take it we go to
sea at the usual time this evening, sir?"
Langdon nodded. "Bet your life!" he said with a sigh. "We shall be
off again at eight p.m. I was looking forward to having a decent lunch
ashore for once," he added regretfully, "but now this beastly fog's
gone and put the hat on it. Lord! I'm fed up to the neck with the
grub on board!"
"Tinned salmon fish-cakes for breakfast," murmured the Sub. "Curried
salmon for lunch, and tinned rabbit pie for dinner. My sainted aunt!
The Ritz and Carlton aren't in it!"
The skipper laughed.
The fog had come down at dawn, and now, halfway through the forenoon,
the weather was still as thick as ever; so thick, indeed, that it was
barely possible to see more than a hundred yards through the white,
cotton-wool-like pall. It was one of those breathless, steamy days in
mid-July. The sea was glassily calm, while the sun, a mere molten blot
in the haze overhead, whose heat was unmitigated by the least suspicion
of a breeze, was still sufficiently powerful to make it most
uncomfortably warm. Altogether the torrid clamminess of the
atmosphere, and its distinct earthy flavour, reminded one irresistibly
of the interior of a greenhouse.
It was the sun who had been guilty of causing the fog at all. His rays
had saturated the earth with warmth the day before, heat which had been
given off during the cooler hours of darkness in a mass of invisible
vapour. Impelled slowly seaward during the night, the heat wave, if
one can so call it, had eventually come into contact with the colder
atmosphere over the water, where, following the invariable law of
nature, it had condensed into an infinite number of tiny particles of
moisture. These, mingling and coalescing, had formed the dense masses
of vapour which hung so impalpably over the dangerous, thickly
populated sea-areas in the closer vicinity of the coast. Further
afield, seven or eight miles away from the shore, there was nothing but
a haze. More distant still the sun shone undimmed, and there were no
signs of fog at all.
* * * * *
Thick weather at sea is always exasperating, and to avoid the chance of
colliding with something they could not possibly avoid at any greater
speed, Langdon had been forced to ease to the leisurely speed of eight
knots, and eight knots to a T.B.D., even a relic of the _Rapier's_ age,
is just about as irritating as being wedged in a narrow lane in a
40-horse power Daimler behind a horse pantechnicon.
They had a man on the forecastle keeping a lookout. The automatic
sounding machine was being used at regular intervals to give them some
sort of an idea as to their position by a comparison of the depths
obtained with those shown on the chart, but even then the eccentricity
of the tidal currents and, let it be said, the erratic and most
unladylike behaviour of the _Rapier's_ standard compass, made
navigation a matter of some conjecture and a good deal of guesswork.
Somewhere ahead, veiled in its pall of fog, lay the coast. Ahead, and
to the right, was a large area of shoal water, portions of which
uncovered at low tide. It had already proved the graveyard of many
fine ships whose bones still showed when the water fell, and Langdon
had no wish to leave his ship there as an everlasting monument to his
memory, while he, probably court-martialled, and at any rate having
"incurred their Lordships' severe displeasure," left the destroyer
service under a cloud which would never disperse.
Added to which there was always the chance of a collision, for the sea
seemed full of ships. Time and tide wait for no man, and, Hun
submarines or not, mines or no mines, fog or no fog, merchant vessels
must run. To-day they seemed to be running in battalions and brigades,
judging from the howling, yelping, and snorting of their steam whistles
here, there, and everywhere.
But the _Rapier_ managed to avoid them somehow, and, shortly before
noon, having heard the explosive fog signal on the end of the
breakwater, she slid slowly past the lighthouse at the entrance and
groped her way into the harbour. It was still as thick as it possibly
could be, but she found the collier, and, after completing with coal,
secured to her buoy.
Ten minutes later Langdon and the Sub were talking together in the
little wardroom when there came a knock at the door.
"Signal just come through, sir," the signalman announced with a smile
on his face. "_Rapier_ will proceed to Portsmouth at daylight
to-morrow to refit. She will not be required for patrol to-night."
The ship was long overdue for the dockyard, but the skipper and
Pettigrew looked at each other, hardly able to believe their ears.
"Lord!" muttered the former. "That means a week's leave, Sub. D'you
"Do I not, sir!" answered the Sub-Lieutenant, as the signalman retired
with a grin.