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The Lost Sheep






The glass had gone down with a thump during the afternoon, and all
through the night the destroyer had been steaming home against a
rapidly rising gale.

Of how she came to be alone and parted from her flotilla the less said
the better. It was due to a variety of circumstances, among them being
a blinding rain squall after dark the evening before, in which the
officer of the watch was unable to see more than twenty yards, and some
temporary trouble with an air pump which necessitated stopping to put
it right.

The sea, as is usual with the wind from the south-west, had risen fast,
and by midnight it was heavy and steep, while the little ship, punching
against it, had pitched, rolled, thumped and thudded as only a
destroyer can. The motion was dizzy and maddening--a combined pitch
and heavy roll which was the very acme of discomfort. Sometimes the
bows fell into the heart of an advancing, white-topped hillock of grey
water with a sickening downward plunge, and the breaking sea came
surging and crashing over the forecastle to dash itself against the
chart-house and bridge with a shock which made the whole ship quiver
and tremble. Then, with

[Transcriber's note: pages 41 and 42 missing from source book.]

edged volumes with unerring accuracy on to his long-suffering head.

The only person who really did not mind the motion at all was the
wireless operator in his little cubby-bole abaft the chart-house. He,
with a pair of telephone receivers clipped on over his ears ready to
catch stray snatches of conversation from invisible ships and distant
shore stations, sat enthroned in a chair bolted to the deck. His den
was hermetically sealed to keep out the water. The smell and the heat
were indescribable; but he was reading a week-old periodical with every
symptom of enjoyment and calmly smoked a foul and very wheezy pipe
filled with the strongest and most evil-smelling ship's tobacco. But
"Buzzer," as he was known to his friends, had the constitution of an ox
and an interior like the exterior of an armadillo. He could stand
anything.

* * * * *

An oil-skinned apparition, dripping with wet, appeared at the
chart-house door. "The orficer of the watch says it's daylight, sir,"
it reported. "There's nothin' in sight, but 'e thinks as 'ow the sea's
goin' down a bit."

The skipper, who had actually been asleep for forty consecutive
minutes, sat up with a grunt, rubbed his eyes, and yawned. Then, in
the dull grey light of the dawn, he surveyed the unsavoury mixture on
the floor with his nose wrinkled and an expression of intense disgust
on his face. But the sight of the broken cup reminded him of
something, and reaching his hand underneath the cushion he extracted a
vacuum flask, applied it to his lips, and swallowed what remained of
the cocoa inside it. He was hungry, poor wight, for his dinner the
night before had consisted of two corned-beef sandwiches and a biscuit.
Next, with a little sigh of satisfaction, he produced a pipe, tobacco,
and matches from an inner pocket and lit up, examined the chart with
the ship's track marked upon it, and glanced at the aneroid on the
bulkhead and noticed it was rising slowly.

Two minutes later, with his pipe bowl carefully inverted, he clambered
up the iron ladder to the bridge.

"Hail, smiling morn!" he remarked sarcastically, ducking his head as a
sheet of spray came driving over the forecastle and across the bridge.
"Well, 'Sub,' how goes it?"

"Pretty rotten, sir," answered the sub-lieutenant, whose watch it was.
"The wind shows no signs of going down, but I think the sea's a little
less than it was. We're not bumping quite so badly as we were."

* * * * *

The motion certainly was less violent, and after looking for a moment
at the angry sea and the grey, cloud-wrapped sky streaked with its
wisps of flying white scud, the skipper nodded slowly. "You're right,"
he said. "It has gone down a bit. We're beginning to feel the lee of

the land. Work her up gradually to twelve knots and see how she takes
it."

The "Sub" did so, and though the increase in speed brought heavier
spray and more of it, the movement of the ship no longer synchronised
with the period of the waves, and she became steadier.

Before long the sea had gone down even more and the speed was increased
to twenty knots. Then, on the grey horizon ahead, appeared the smoke
of many steamers, and a quarter of an hour later the destroyer was
threading her way through a sea-lane so densely populated with shipping
that it reminded one of dodging the traffic in Piccadilly.

The next thing which hove in sight was a red-painted lightship, and
half an hour later the destroyer, her funnels white with dried salt,
was steaming into the harbour where the remainder of the flotilla were
lying. They, having escaped the really bad weather, had arrived the
evening before, and one of them made a facetious signal to this effect
as the destroyer secured to the tank steamer to replenish her supply of
oil-fuel.

The lost sheep had returned to its fold.





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