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Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 14833

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Lost in bewilderment, Hal stared at the machinery, wondering at its size and complexity, and which were the main and which the auxiliary parts. Then someone addressed him:

"Fine engines, and as clean as waste will make them," remarked a little man, who was dressed in naval uniform. "What can I do for you? I'm the 'second.'"

Hal turned round to find himself face to face with the second engineer.

"They are, indeed, very fine, and I have never seen anything like them before," he said. "But perhaps you will think I have no business here, so I had better tell you I am the new hand. I have shipped as a greaser."

"Ah, then you're the fellow I was told to expect. Now, tell me what you know about engines. Mind you, if you are ignorant of your surroundings, you have picked a very dangerous job. I've seen more than one man maimed for life, simply because he did not know where to look out for accidents, and therefore could not avoid them. On the other hand, I've known a greaser who had been at the game for many years meet his end simply and solely on account of carelessness. But I'm going ahead. What experience have you had?"

"I am sorry to say that I have never been in the engine-room of a ship before," Hal replied; "but I've worked amongst the machines we had at the foundry, and have learned to grease them, and also how to effect small repairs. Then I have spent some time in the turning shops, and, latterly, have been in the casting-pits and in the drawing-office."

"That's a record to be proud of. But it will be different here, and you will have much to learn. Come along with me. I'll take you round. Whip off your coat, and get hold of a handful of that cotton waste. After this you'll never be without it, for it's always wanted down here, and fellows get so used to having it; in fact, prefer it to a handkerchief."

Mr. Stoner, as the second in command of the ship's engines was known, smiled in a friendly way, and patted Hal on the shoulder as if to show that he had already made up his mind to patronize him during the voyage to America, so as to make it as pleasant as possible.

"When do you sail?" asked Hal, returning from the corner in which he had placed his coat.

"Late to-night, or to-morrow morning, I should think. We are due on the other side in about nine days, and put out again a week later."

Leading the way, he passed to the back of the nearer of two enormous pillars, which supported the cylinders above the revolving parts of the machinery. Then he pointed to the pistons, which drove the propeller shaft, and from these to the hundreds of other parts which it would be useless to attempt to describe.

"Chockful of bits that make the old girl go, isn't it?" said Mr. Stoner. "Now we'll get into the stoke-hole. The dirty part first, and afterwards the job you'll have to tackle. But it's as well for you to see all that we've got down here."

He passed into a lower part of the ship. A wave of heat fanned Hal's face as he followed, and he was conscious of stepping into a warmer atmosphere.

"Yes, it's warm," said the "second," "but nothing to what I've known it in the Suez Canal or in the Red Sea. That's where it is hot. Now for the coal bunkers," he said. "We've one here, and another amidships, which we usually keep in reserve. Look out for your head again, and follow closely."

After inspecting the bunkers, Mr. Stoner then led the way back to the engine-room, and began to show Hal round it.

"This'll be your particular job," he said, "and you will have to keep your ears open. I'll tell you all I can, and then hand you over to our 'fourth.' His name is Masters, and he's been with us only a few trips. He's our electrical expert, and is as mischievous as a monkey."

For half an hour longer the "second" devoted himself to Hal, and instructed him in his duties. Then, as someone came swarming down the ladder, he led him forward to the foot.

"Here's Masters," he said. "I'll hand you over at once. He'll tell you about the life, and will let you know your hours of duty, and when you grub. Good-by, and bear in mind what I have told you."

Hal thanked him, and was then introduced to the "fourth," a young fellow of his own age, but shorter and slighter than himself.

"There," said Mr. Stoner, "I've brought you a pal. He's not exactly green, and he's only a temporary hand. He's tramping it to the other side."

"Right; I know the sort. Out of work at home, and bitten with the Yanks," laughed the youth known as Masters. "By the way," he continued, "what's your name, and where do you come from?"

"As we are to be comrades," said Hal, "I'll tell you something about myself. But I must not forget that you are an officer, so that comrade is not quite the word I should have used."

"Officer!" Masters cried hotly. "Officer be hanged! You've got to remember nothing of the sort. I am an officer if you like, but we're not going to talk about it. We are aboard a vessel plying to America, and the Yanks don't take too much notice of officers. Everyone as good as his fellow, whether millionaire or pauper, is what they think. But I interrupted you."

"You asked me who I was," said Hal, "and I may as well tell you. Things have gone rather badly for me, and you will realize the truth when I tell you that, barely a week ago, I had a fair prospect of some day becoming the owner of a flourishing foundry. But there was a smash, and the shock killed my poor father. I had to do something for a living, and it occurred to me that I might manage to get employment over the water. A friend helped me to get this berth, and here I am, ready to be guided by you, and prepared to rough it to any extent."

"Which shows that you are starting with the right kind of spirit," exclaimed the "fourth." "This is no drawing room, I can assure you, and at times the work is very hard indeed. But you'll get used to it. But, I say, this isn't work. Come along with me."

Masters gathered up a handful of cotton waste and led the way amongst the engines. Hal followed, taking pains to listen to all that was told him. After all, he found that the duties of a greaser were not onerous, for the parts of the machinery requiring constant oiling were not numerous, and in most cases were automatically lubricated. Half an hour was sufficient for his lesson, and then he left the engine-room.

"Say, young feller," said Masters, who, on the strength of a few trips over to America, was much given to aping its ways and speech, "suppose we knock off now. You've had a tidy teaching, and by the time we're over you'll have had your fill of machinery. Let's get something inside, for the old ship sheers off precious soon, and then there won't be so much as a bite for us still we're out of the river. Come on, and I'll show you to your mess, and fix it for you with your mates. They are a rough set, but good fellows."

Climbing out of the engine-room and turning to the left till he came next to the room in which Hal had already deposited his belongings, then glancing into a cabin, ushered his companion in. It was a tiny place, and a fixed table in center of it seemed to fill it almost entirely. Round it sat some five or six men, dressed in blue cotton overalls, and for the most part with sleeves rolled to the elbow and grimy hands. They were the greasers, or rather, half of them.

"Here's a new pard," Maste

rs sang out. "Look after him, men. He's tramping it."

"Walk in, and make yerself comfortable," one of the men answered. "Sit right down there, pard, and fall to at it."

Thus bidden, Hal entered and took a place at the table. There was a dish of smoking and extremely appetizing sausages before him, and within a minute the man who had welcomed him had forked one on to a plate, and had added a pile of potato to it.

"There yer are," said the first. "We're sailin' ter day, and coffee and tea aer the stuff we drink. It's a kind er rule on the line. Fall to, pard, and look lively, for the standby'll be soundin' afore long."

Hal took the advice given him, and after eating heartily felt like working again. For a few minutes he remained in the cabin chatting with the men, then rose from his seat, and was in the act of leaving, when a bell sounded far away, and he, as well as the other greasers, hurried to the engine-room.

"The signal's gone to 'stand by,'" said Masters, who stood on the plates below. "Keep your optic on that dial, and watch 'Old Yank' when he comes. Another thing, mind you touch your cap to him. He's boss down here, and knows it."

A few minutes later the first engineer made his appearance, and stood to look round at the engines and men, ere he went to inspect all more closely. Hal stood near him, and at once touched his cap.

"Helloo! that you?" cried the "first" in a friendly voice. "Hang me, but you've took to it like a duck. Cappin' the chief and all. Wall, come a few hours more, and we'll see the stuff you're made of."

He made a round of the engines, and then returned to the bottom of the long iron ladder, where he waited talking to the third officer, by name Mr. Broom. Suddenly the bell tinkled, and the hand on the dial placed on the wall pointed to "stand by."

Again the gong sounded, and, looking up, Hal saw that the hand now indicated half steam ahead. He saw the "chief" place his fingers on a big wheel and revolve it rapidly to the right. Then he moved a lever, and the big piston-rods shot downward, the crank plunged forward, swished round in a circle, and sent the propeller shaft rolling round. The Mohican trembled all along her length, and Hal felt her move ever so slightly. After that he had little time for observation, for his services were required.

About three in the morning the Mohican cleared the bar, and slowed up to allow the pilot to leave. Then the gong sounded again, and the lever was pushed right over, giving full steam to the engines.

"There, she'll stick at that if we've ordinary luck," said Masters. "Your watch is up, Marchant, and I'd advise you to turn in and make the most of the off time, for you'll feel pretty boiled in four hours if you don't get a rest."

Hoisting his weary body up the long ladder, Hal made for the greasers' cabin, and, without troubling to undress, threw himself on the bunk. He was asleep almost immediately, in spite of the proximity of the engines.

Four days passed uneventfully, and meanwhile the Mohican had been steadily forging a course towards America. The weather had been fine, but for the past two days a fresh breeze had been blowing from the north, and now a fine sleet was accompanying it.

When Hal turned in at night, and lay down to make the most of the respite allowed him, the Mohican was wallowing in the seas, and our hero was anything but comfortable. But he resolutely forced himself to swallow his evening meal. And now he lay down on the hard bunk, and at last he fell into an uneasy doze, when there was a terrific crash, and the Mohican was thrown on to her side. Hal was hurled from his bunk, and was brought to a sudden stop by striking against the wooden wall, now in the position of the floor. Close beside him was the door, and he struggled to it, aided by the light given by the electric burners, which still did their work.

Then shrill cries and a loud thumping proceeded from the engine-room.

"There's trouble down there. She's on her beam ends," thought Hal, in a half-dazed way. "I suppose she's sinking."

Next moment his soliloquy was cut short by the sudden righting of the ship. There was a tremendous tearing crash as the weight of water on her decks wrenched the rails and bulwarks away; then she swung into her proper position, throwing Hal violently to the other side of the cabin. Instantly he sprang to his feet, and darted towards the engine-room. It was dangerous work descending, but Hal did not pause, and soon gaining the iron plates below, he saw a sight that made him pause in consternation.

"Good gracious!" he exclaimed. "What a wreck!"

Close beside the door leading to the stoke-hole lay the "second," motionless. Just within the door stood one of the stokers clutching the ironwork, and looking upon the scene as if in a dream. Farther to the right lay two other figures, while in the center was the most ghastly sight of all. Up and down, thrusting with irresistible force, the piston-rod of the low-pressure cylinder worked, revolving the crank which still hung loosely to its bearings, and tossing six feet of broken propeller shaft from side to side.

Thump, thump, thump! Time and again the sharp end crashed upon the plates, tearing them like paper. Bang! The bearing gave way, and the shaft of steel plunged downward, threatening to crash through the bottom of the ship.

What was to be done? Cut off steam? Yes. But who would take the risk? for still that giant shaft swung like a flail, smashing the floor of the engine-room; and all the while a huge jet of scalding steam shrieked from a severed pipe close by.

"It must be done," said Hal to himself, taking in the situation at once. "I'll do it."

He waited a moment while the ship rolled her rails under, when he let his fingers slip from the ladder, and darted to the lever which cut off the steam.

Bang! Crash! The shaft struck the plates just beside his foot, and, giving him a violent blow upon the shoulder, sent him flying to the other side of the engine-room.

"I won't be beaten!" Hal exclaimed recklessly. "It must be done, or the ship will go to the bottom."

Once more he approached the lever, and with a jerk threw it over to the notch above which was stamped the word "Off." A moment later Hal felt a stunning blow on the side of his head, and fell to the floor as helpless and as unconscious as the "second."

What happened afterwards he did not know, but when he came to, he found himself lying in a corner of the engine-room, with Masters leaning over him, while a short length of rope secured him to a bolt in the wall, and prevented him from rolling with the ship.

"Pull yourself together now," said the latter. "There, sit up, and say how you feel. All right? Then I'll get off. We're in an awful mess below here."

He went across the iron plates, clinging to anything that would give him a holding. Hal watched him dreamily at first, and then with awakening interest. Then he moved, and a violent pang shot through his shoulder.

"George!" he groaned, "I feel badly knocked about. That shaft has given me a nasty bang, for my head's aching as if it would burst, and I am sore all over."

He lay back again, but thinking his services might be of use soon, sat up again and struggled to his feet.

"There's work to be done," he said doggedly, "and I am going to take a share of it."

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