At half-past five on the morning of the 23rd of June, the Cunard liner Aurania left New York for Queenstown and Liverpool. She was the largest and swiftest passenger steamer afloat, and on her maiden voyage she had lowered the Atlantic record by no less than twelve hours; that is to say, she had performed the journey from Sandy Hook to Queenstown in four days and a half exactly. Her measurement was forty-five thousand tons, and her twin screws, driven by quadruple engines, developing sixty thousand horse-power, forced her through the water at the unparalleled speed of thirty knots, or thirty-four and a half statute miles an hour.
Since the outbreak of the war it had been found necessary to take all but the most powerful vessels off the Atlantic route, for, as had long been foreseen, the enemies of the Anglo–German Alliance were making the most determined efforts to cripple the Transatlantic trade of Britain and Germany, and swift, heavily-armed French and Italian cruisers, attended by torpedo-boats and gun-boats, and supported by battle-ships and depôt vessels for coaling purposes, were swarming along the great ocean highway.
These, of course, had to be opposed by an equal or greater force of British warships. In fact, the burden of keeping the Atlantic route open fell entirely on Britain, for the German and Austrian fleets had all the work they were capable of doing nearer home in the Baltic and Mediterranean.
The terrible mistake that had been made by the House of Lords in negativing the Italian Loan had already become disastrously apparent, for though the Anglo–Teutonic Alliance was putting forth every effort, its available ships were only just sufficient to keep the home waters clear and the ocean routes practically open, even for the fastest steamers.
The task, therefore, which lay before the Aurania when she cleared American waters was little less than running the gauntlet for nearly three thousand miles. The French cruiser which had been captured by the Andromeda, thanks to the assistance of the Ithuriel, had left Brest with the express purpose of helping to intercept the great Cunarder, for she had crossed the Atlantic five times already without a scratch since the war had begun, showing a very clean pair of heels to everything that had attempted to overhaul her, and now on her sixth passage a grand effort was to be made to capture or cripple the famous ocean greyhound.
It was by far her most important voyage in more senses than one. In the first place, her incomparable speed and good luck had made her out of sight the prime favourite with those passengers who were obliged to cross the Atlantic, war or no war, and for the same reasons she also carried more mails and specie than any other liner, and this voyage she had an enormously valuable consignment of both on board. As for passengers, every available foot of space was taken for months in advance.
Enterprising agents on both sides of the water had bought up every berth from stem to stern, and had put them up to auction, realising fabulous prices, which had little chance of being abated, even when her sister ship the Sidonia, the construction of which was being pushed forward on the Clyde with all possible speed, was ready to take the water.
But the chief importance of this particular passage lay, though barely half a dozen persons were aware of it, in the fact that among her passengers was Michael Roburoff, chief of the American Section of the Terrorists, who was bringing to the Council his report of the work of the Brotherhood in the United States, together with the information which he had collected, by means of an army of spies, as to the true intentions of the American Government with regard to the war.
These, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, were a profound secret, and he was the only man outside the President’s Cabinet and the Tsar’s Privy Council who had accurate information with regard to them. The Aurania was therefore not only carrying mails, treasure, and passengers, but, in the person of Michael Roburoff, she was carrying secrets on the revelation of which the whole issue of the war and the destiny of the world might turn.
America was the one great Power not involved in the tremendous struggle that was being waged. The most astute diplomatist in Europe had no idea what her real policy was, but every one knew that the side on which she threw the weight of her boundless wealth and vast resources must infallibly win in the long run.
The plan that had been adopted by Britain for keeping the Atlantic route open was briefly as follows:— All along the 3000 miles of the steamer track a battleship was stationed at the end of every day’s run, that is to say, at intervals of about 500 miles, and patrolled within a radius of 100 miles. Each of these was attended by two heavily-armed cruisers and four torpedo-boats, while between these points swifter cruisers were constantly running to and fro convoying the liners.
Thus, when the Aurania left New York, she was picked up on the limit of the American water by two cruisers, which would keep pace with her as well as they could until she reached the first battleship. As she passed the ironclad these two would leave her, and the next two would take up the running, and so on until she reached the range of operations of the Irish Squadron.
No other Power in the world could have maintained such a system of ocean police, but Britain was putting forth the whole of her mighty naval strength, and so she spared neither ships nor money to keep open the American and Canadian routes, for on them nearly half her food-supply depended, as well as her chief line of communication with the far East.
On the other hand, her enemies were making desperate efforts to break the chain of steel that was thus stretched across the hemisphere, for they well knew that, this once broken, the first real triumph of the war would have been won.
Five hundred miles out from New York the Aurania was joined by the Oceana, the largest vessel on the Canadian Pacific line from Halifax to Liverpool. So far no enemy had been seen. The two great liners reached the first battleship together, and were joined by the second pair of cruisers. Before sunset the Cunarder had drawn ahead of her companions, and by nightfall was racing away alone over the water with every light carefully concealed, and keeping an eager look-out for friend or foe.
There was no moon, and the sky was so heavily overcast with clouds, that, under any other circumstances, it would have been the height of rashness to go rushing through the darkness at such a headlong speed. But the captain of the Aurania was aware of the state of the road, and he knew that in speed and secrecy lay his only chances of getting his magnificent vessel through in safety.
Soon after ten o’clock lights were sighted dead ahead. The course was slightly altered, and the great liner swept past one of the North German Lloyd boats in company with a cruiser. The private signal was made and answered, and in half an hour she was again alone amidst the darkness.
It was nearly eleven o’clock, when Michael Roburoff, who was standing under the lee of one of the ventilators amidships, smoking a last pipe before turning in, saw a figure muffled in a huge grey ulster creeping into the deeper shadows under the bridge. It was so dark that he could only just make out the outline of the figure, but he could see enough to rouse his ever ready suspicions in the furtive movements that the man was making.
He stole out on the starboard, that is the southward, rail of the spar-deck, and Michael, straining his eyes to the utmost, saw him take a round flat object from under his coat, and then look round stealthily to see if he was observed. As he did so Michael whipped a pistol out of his pocket, levelled it at the man, and said in a low, distinct tone —
“Put that back, or I’ll shoot!”
For all answer the man raised his arm to throw the object overboard. Michael, taking the best aim he could in the darkness, fired. The bullet struck the elbow of the raised arm, the man lurched forward with a low cry of rage and pain, grasped the object with his other hand, and, as he fell to the deck, flung it into the sea.
Scarcely had it touched the water when it burst into flame, and an intensely bright blaze of bluish-white light shot up, shattering the darkness, and illuminating the great ship from the waterline to the trucks of her masts. Instantly the deck of the liner was a scene of wild excitement. In a moment the man whom Roburoff had wounded was secured in the act of trying to throw himself overboard. Michael himself was rapidly questioned by the captain, who was immediately on the spot.
He told his story in a dozen words, and explained that he had fired to disable the man and prevent the fire-signal falling into the sea. There was no doubt about the guilt of the traitor, for he himself cut the captain’s interrogation short by saying defiantly, in broken English that at once betrayed him as a Frenchman —
“Yees, I do it! I give signal to ze fleet down there. If I succeeded, I got half million francs. I fail, so shoot! C’est la fortune de la guerre! Voilà, look! They come!”
As the spy said this he pointed to the south-eastern horizon. A brief bright flash of white light went up through the night and vanished. It was the answering signal from the French or Italian cruisers, which were making all speed up from the south-east to head off the Aurania before she reached the next station and gained the protection of the British battleship.
The spy’s words were only too true. He had gone to America for the sole purpose of returning in the Aurania and giving the signal at this particular point on the passage. Within ten miles were four of the fleetest French and Italian cruisers, six torpedo-boats, and two battleships, which, by keeping well to the southward during the day, and then putting on all steam as soon as night fell, had managed to head off the ocean greyhound at last.
Two cruisers and a battleship with two torpedo-boats were coming up from the south-east; one cruiser, the other battleship, and two torpedo-boats were bearing down from the south-west, and the remaining cruiser and brace of torpedo-boats had managed to slip through the British line and gain a position to the northward.
This large force had not been brought up without good reason. The Aurania was the biggest prize afloat, and well worth fighting for, if it came to blows, as it very probably would do; added to which there was a very good chance of one or two other liners falling victims to a well-planned and successful raid.
The French spy was at once sent below and put into safe keeping, and the signal to “stoke up” was sent to the engine-rooms. The firemen responded with a will, extra hands were put on in the stokeholes, and the furnaces taxed to their utmost capacity. The boilers palpitated under the tremendous head of steam, the engines throbbed and groaned like labouring giants, and the great ship, trembling like some live animal under the lash, rushed faster and faster over the long dark rollers under the impulse of her whirling screws.
There was no longer any need for concealment even if it had been possible. Speed and speed only afforded the sole chance of escape. Of course the captain of the Aurania had no idea of the strength or disposition of the force that had undertaken his capture. Had he known the true state of the case, his anxiety would have been a good deal greater than it was. He fully believed that he could outsteam the vessels to the south-east, and, once past these, he knew that he would be in touch with the British ships at the next station before any harm could come to him. He therefore headed a little more to the northward, and trusted with perfect confidence to his heels.
Michael Roburoff was the hero of the moment, and the captain cordially thanked him for his prompt attempt to frustrate the atrocious act of the spy which deliberately endangered the liberty and perhaps the lives of more than a thousand non-combatants. Michael, however, cut his thanks short by taking him aside and asking him what he thought of the position of affairs. He spoke so seriously that the captain thought he was frightened, and by way of reassuring him replied cheerily —
“Don’t have any fear for the Aurania, Mr. Roburoff. That’s only a cruiser, or perhaps a couple, down there, and the enemy haven’t a ship that I can’t give a good five knots and a beating to. We shall sight the British ships soon after daybreak, and by that time those fellows will be fifty miles behind us.”
“I have as much confidence in the Aurania’s speed as you have, Captain Frazer,” replied Michael, “but I’m afraid you are underrating the enemy’s strength. Do you know that within the last few days it has been almost doubled, and that a determined effort is to be made, not only to catch or sink the Aurania, but also to break the British line of posts, and cut the line of American and Canadian communication altogether?”
“No, sir,” replied the captain, looking sharply at Michael. “I don’t know anything of the sort, neither do the commanders of the British warships on this side. If your information is correct, I should like to know how you came by it. You are a Russian by name”—
“But not a subject of the Tsar,” quickly interrupted Michael. “I am an American citizen, and I have come by this information not as the friend of Russia, as you seem to suspect, but as her enemy, or rather as the enemy of her ruler. How I got it is my business. It is enough for you to know that it is correct, and that you are in far greater danger than you think you are. The signal given by that French spy was evidently part of a prearranged plan, and for all you know you may even now be surrounded, or steaming straight into a trap that has been laid for you. If I may advise, I would earnestly counsel you to double on your course and make every effort to rejoin the other liner and the cruisers we have passed.”
“Nonsense, sir, nonsense!” answered the captain testily. “Our watch-dogs are far too wide awake to be caught napping like that. You have been deceived by one of the rumours that are filling the air just now. You can go to your berth and sleep in peace, and tomorrow you shall be half-way across the Atlantic without an enemy’s ship in sight.”
“Captain Frazer,” said Michael very seriously, “with your leave I shall not go to my berth; and what is more, I can tell you that very few of us will get much sleep to-night, and that if you do not back I hardly think you will be flying the British flag tomorrow. Ha! look there — and there!”
Michael seized the captain’s arm suddenly, and pointed rapidly to the south-east and north-east. Two thin rays of light flashed up into the sky one after the other. Then came a third from the south-west, and then darkness again. At the same instant came the hails from the look-outs announcing the lights.
Captain Frazer was wrong, and he saw that he was at a glance. The flash in the north-east could not be from a friend, for it was a plain answer to the known enemy in the south-east, and so too in all probability was the third. If so, the Aurania was almost surrounded.
The captain wasted no words in confessing his error, but ran up on to the bridge to rectify it as far as he could at once. The helm was put hard over, the port screw was reversed, and the steamer swung round in a wide sweep, and was soon speeding back westward over her own tracks. An hour’s run brought her in sight of the lights of the North German and her escort. She slowed as she passed them, and told the news. Then she sped on again at full-speed to meet the Oceana and the two cruisers, which were about fifty miles behind.
By one A.M. the three cruisers and the three liners had joined forces, and were steaming westward at twenty knots an hour, the liners in single file led by a cruiser, and having one on each beam. Soon the flashes on the horizon grew more frequent, always drawing closer together.
Then those in the westward dropped from the perpendicular to the horizontal, and swept the water as though seeking something. It was not long before the darting rays of one of the searchlights fell across the track of the British flotilla. Instantly from all three points converging flashes were concentrated upon it, revealing the outline of every ship with the most perfect distinctness.
The last hope of running through the hostile fleet unperceived had now vanished. There was nothing for it but to go ahead full-speed, and trust to the chances of a running fight to get clear. With a view of finding out the strength of the enemy, the British cruisers now turned their searchlights on and swept the horizon.
A very few moments sufficed to show that an overwhelming force was closing in on them from three sides. They were completely caught in a trap, from which there was no escape save by running the gauntlet. Whichever way they headed they would have to pass through the converging fire of the enemy.
The weakest point, so far as they could see, was the one cruiser and two torpedo-boats to the northward, and so towards them they headed. At the speed at which they were travelling it needed but a few minutes to bring them within range, and the British commanders rightly decided to concentrate their fire for the present on the single cruiser and her two attendants, in the hope of sinking them before the others could get into action.
At three thousand yards the heavy guns came into play, and a storm of shell was hurled upon the advancing foe, who lost no time in replying in the same terms. As the vessels approached each other the shooting became closer and terribly effective.
The searchlights of the British cruisers were kept full ahead, and every attempt of the torpedo-boats to get round on the flank was foiled by a hail of shot from the quick-firing guns. Within fifteen minutes of opening fire one of these was sunk and the other disabled. The French cruiser, too, suffered fearfully from the tempest of shot and shell that was rained upon her.
Had the British got within range of her half an hour sooner the plan would have been completely foiled. As it was, her fate was sealed, but it was too late. The three British warships rushed at her together, vomiting flame and smoke and iron across the rapidly-decreasing distance, until within five hundred yards of her. Then the fire from the two on either flank suddenly stopped.
The centre one, still blazing away, put on her forced draught, swerved sharply round, and then darted in on her with the ram. There was a terrific shock, a heavy, grinding crunch, and then the mighty mass of the charging vessel, hurled at nearly thirty miles an hour upon her victim, bored and ground her resistless way into her side.
Then she suddenly reversed her engines and backed out. In less than thirty seconds it was all over. The Frenchman, almost cut in half by the frightful blow, reeled once, and once only, and then went down like a stone.
But by this time the other two divisions of the enemy were within range, and through the roar of the lighter artillery now came the deep, sullen boom of the big guns on the battleships, and the great thousand-pound projectiles began to scream through the air and fling the water up into mountains of foam where they pitched.
Where one of them struck, death and destruction would follow as surely as though it were a thunderbolt from Heaven. The three liners scattered and steamed away to the northward as fast as their propellers would drive them. But what was their utmost speed to that of the projectiles cleaving through the air at more than two thousand feet a second?
See! one at length strikes the German liner square amidships, and bursts. There is a horrible explosion. The searchlight thrown on her shows a cloud of steam and smoke and flame rising up from her riven decks. Where her funnels were is a huge ragged black hole. This is visible for an instant, then her back breaks, and in two halves she follows the French cruiser to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The sinking of the German liner was the signal for the appearance of a new actor on the scene, and the commencement of a work of destruction more appalling than anything that human warfare had so far known.
Michael Roburoff, standing on the spar-deck of the flying Aurania, suddenly saw a bright stream of light shoot down from the clouds, and flash hither and thither, till it hovered over the advancing French and Italian squadron. For the moment the combat ceased, so astounded were the combatants on both sides at this mysterious apparition.
Then, without the slightest warning, with no flash or roar of guns, there came a series of frightful explosions among the ships of the pursuers. They followed each other so quickly that the darkness behind the electric lights seemed lit with a continuous blaze of livid green flame for three or four minutes.
Then there was darkness and silence. Black darkness and absolute silence. The searchlights were extinguished, and the roar of the artillery was still. The British waited in dazed silence for it to begin again, but it never did. The whole of the pursuing squadron had been annihilated.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08