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“Fact is, sir,” he said, speaking brokenly as the galloping gusts every now and then forced a word back into his mouth, “that that rip-rarin' stem, with the white foam flyin' off both sides of it, bearing down right for where I was standin' -all that was so like what I saw the night of Jutland in the Firebrand that—that the turn it give me took my mind right back and—and I wasn't thinkin' o' anything else till the 'Lympus was gone by.”
I assured him that, since the Olympus had doubtless been sighted from the bridge several winks before she had been visible from his less-favourable vantage, they would probably have been too busy to respond to his call at the voice-pipe even had he tried to report what he
"If I were you,” I said, “I would forget all about that, and try to explain how a cruiser that the Firebrand was about to ram bow-to-bow" (I had, of course, already heard something of that dare-devilish exploit) "could have looked to you like the Olympus ramping down on a right-angling course and threatening to slice off the Flyer's stern with all her depth-charges. I quite understood that one ramming is a good deal like another, as far as a big ship hitting a destroyer fair and square is concerned, but—"
“ 'Twasn't that first cru'ser 'tall, sir," Melton interrupted, nuzzling into my “lammy" hood again to make himself heard. " 'Twas 'nother 'un, sir-a wallopin' big 'un. The seas was stiff wi' cru'sers fer a minit, sir, an' no sooner was we clear o' the first un than the second come tearin' down on us, tryin' to cut us in two amidships. An' that last un was a battl' cru'ser nigh as big as the ’Lympus, all shot up in the funnels and runnin' wild an' bloody-minded like a mad bull. We were pretty nigh to
bein' stopped dead, an' if she hadn't been slower'n cold grease wi' her helm she'd ha' eat us right up.”
There had been nothing of malice aforethought in my action in cornering Melton on the searchlight platform that night, for, as it chanced, I had failed to learn up to that moment that he had been in the famous Firebrand at Jutland. Nor, with the wind and sea getting up as fast as the glass and the thermometer were going down, was the time or the place quite what a man would have chosen for anything in the way of cosy fireside reminis
But, both these facts notwithstanding, I felt that, since I was leaving the Flyer to go to another base directly she arrived in harbour on the morrow, it would be criminal to neglect the opportunity of hearing what was perhaps the most sportingly spectacular of all the Jutland destroyer actions related by one who was actually in it. I did not dare to distract Melton's attention from his lookout by drawing him into talking while he was still on watch, but, when he was relieved at ten o'clock, I waylaid him at the foot of the ladder with a pot of steaming hot ship's cocoa (foraged from the galley by a sympathetic ward-room steward) and both pockets of my “lammy” coat filled with the remnants of a box of assorted Yankee "candy" looted from the American submarine in which I had been on patrol the week before.
Melton rose to the lure instantly—or perhaps I should say "fell to the bribe"—for the British bluejacket, if only he were given a chance to develop, is quite as sweet of tooth as his brother Yank. Because I could hardly take him to the captain's cabin, which I was occupying for the moment, for a yarn, and because he, likewise, could not take me down to the mess deck to disturb the off-watch sleepers with our chatter, there was nothing to do but carry on as best we could in the friendly lee of one of the funnels.
It was a night of infernal inkiness by now, and only clinging patches of soft snow and their blanker blankness revealed the dimly guessable lines of whaler and cowls and torpedo tubes and the loom of the loftier bridge. The battleship line was masked completely by the double curtain of the darkness and the snow, and only a tremulous greyness, barely discernible in the intervals of the flurries of flakes where the starboard bow-wave curled back from the Olympus, gave an intermittent bearing to help in keeping station. Underfoot was the blackness of the pit, not the faintest gleam reflecting from the waves washing over the weather side to swirl half-knee high about our sea boots. Even overhead all that was visible were fluttering patches of snow flakes dancing through the haloes of pale rose radiance that crowned the tops of the funnels. The wail of the wind in the wireless aerials, the crash of the surging beam seas, the throb of the propellers, and the pussy-cat purr of the spinning turbines—these were the fit accompaniment to which Melton A. B. recited to me the epic of the Firebrand at Jutland.
The cocoa I quaffed mug for mug with Melton, down to the last of the sweet, sustaining “settlings” in the bottom of the pot; but the candy I kept in reserve to draw on from time to time as it was needed to lubricate his tongue and stoke the smouldering fires of his memory. I started him off with a red-and-white "barber's pole” stick, which took not a little fumbling with mittened hands to extract from its greased tissue paper wrapper, and the seductive fragrance of crunched peppermint mingled with the acrid fumes of burning petroleum as he leaned close and began to tell how the —th Flotilla, to which the Firebrand belonged, screening the
-th B. S. of the Battle Fleet, came upon the scene toward the end of the long summer afternoon. He had witnessed Beatty's consummate manæuvre of "crossing the T” of the enemy line with the four that remained of his battered First Battle Cruiser Squadron, and he had seen the main Battle Fleet baulked of its action by the lowering mists and the closing in of darkness; but it was not until full night had clapped down its lid that the fun for the Firebrand really began.
“It was 'twixt daylight an'dark,” he said, reaching me a steadying hand in the darkness as the Flyer teetered giddily down the back of a receding sea, “that the flotilla dropped back to take stashun 'stern the battl’ships we was screenin'. The Killarney was leadin' an' after her came the Firebran', Seagull, Wreath, an' Consort, makin' up the First Divishun. Wreath an' Consort sighted some Hun U-boats and 'stroyers while this move was on, an' plunk'd off a few shots at 'em. Don't think wi'any fatal consequence. Then there come the rattle of light gun fire from the south'ard, like from cru'sers or battleships repellin' T. B. D.'s. Then it was all serene for mor'n an 'our, an' then all hell opens up."
I suspected, from the sounds he made, that Melton had bitten into a block of milk chocolate without removing its wrapping of foil and paper, but presently his enunciation grew less explosive and more intelligible.
“It was Hun cru'sers drivin' down on us from the starboard quarter that started the monkey-show," he said, “an' that bein' the nor'west it was hardly where we'd reason to expect 'em from. It looks like we had 'em clean cut off, wi' the 'hole Battl' Fleet steamin' 'tween 'em an' their way back home, an' that they was tryin' to sneak through in the darkness. The Wreath, at the end o' the line nearest 'em, spotted 'em first, and she, 'cause she didn't want to give herself 'way wi' flashin', reported what she'd seen by low-power W. T. to the rest o' the flotilla. Course I-standin' watch aftdidn't know nothin' 'bout that signal, so that the first I hears o' the Huns was when they all opened up on the poor ol' Killarney, 'cause she was the leader, I s'pose, and she started firin' back at their flashes.
“The leadin' Hun flashed his searchlight on the Killarney as he opened up, but shut off sharp when Killarney came back at him. I could see some o' the projes flittin' right down the light beam until it blinked off, an' it was a flock of two or three of these that I kept my eye on all the way till they bashed into the Killarney's bridge and busted. She was zigzaggin' a coupl' o' points on Firebrand's starboard bow just then, so my standin' aft didn't prevent my gettin' a good look at what was happenin'. I could see the bodies o' four or five men flyin' up wi' the wreckage o' the explosion, an' then, all in a minnit, she was rollin' in flames from the funnels right for'ard. By the light o' it I could see the crews o' the 'midships and after guns workin' 'em like devils, an' twice anyhow, an' I think three times, I saw a bright, shiny slug slip over the side, an' knew they were loosin' mouldies to try to get their own back from the Hun.
“The sea was boilin' up red as blood where the light from the burnin' Killarney fell on the spouts the Huns' projes was throwin' up all round her. She was the fairest mark ever a gun trained on, and p'raps that was