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Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 23788

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Thanks to a healthy constitution, and to the fact that, though painful, his wound was really a simple one, Hal Marchant was very soon off the sick-list, and in the stage of convalescence.

From the railway station at which the train had set them down, he and Mr. Brindle, together with Dora and Gerald, were driven into the country, along dusty roads which were fenced in on every side by luxuriant vegetation of every description and hue. Sometimes a long, flat, and unsightly marsh came into view, and at the sound of the wheels thousands of wild-fowl rose, screaming, into the air. But they soon began to ascend, though at a gentle slope, which the mules galloped up, still at the same steady pace.

Up and up the road mounted, curved suddenly to the left, and then quickly disappeared into a dense jungle of trees and growth, from which the delicious perfume of orange blossom was wafted.

"Here we are, and very thankful we ought to be, my lad," said Mr. Brindle, addressing Hal. "Look over there. Welcome to the 'Barn.' This is our winter residence, and here I guarantee that you will soon get back that color which you have lost."

He pointed with his cane to a fine bungalow which appeared at that moment at the end of an open glade, nestling beneath a wreath of foliage.

It was, indeed, a perfect place for an invalid. Perched high up on sandy soil, and surrounded by a forest of gorgeous orange trees, the house peeped over the top of the leaves at a scene beautiful beyond description. In the veranda, arm in sling, and with legs lazily stretched along the sides of a big cane chair, Hal could lie the whole day long, gazing across a sea of green shrubs and leaves-a sea which rustled musically, and was ever changing from brightest green to shimmering blue in the rays of the southern sun. And if he but lifted his eyes an inch or two, a rocky, irregular coast, and an ocean beyond, looking for all the world like a strip of brightly burnished steel, filled him with a sort of rapture, so that to lie there was no hardship, and the hours never dragged, but flew by almost too rapidly for his liking.

"You are an exceedingly good patient," said Dora one day, more than two weeks later, coming on to the veranda and taking a seat which stood vacant by his side; "but I suppose this obedience will not continue for long. The doctor who has been attending you says that your wound is merely a pin-prick-how he can be so very unfeeling I do not know! Still, he is convinced that it is now so far healed that it requires very little attention or dressing. That means, I suppose, that you will throw off my authority, and do your best to get into trouble again at the very first opportunity. What have you to say to that, sir?"

"Pin-prick! Quite so, Dora," Hal answered, with a smile. "The wound is, of course, quite a simple affair, and I am really fit for anything. As to more trouble, I can only say that, if it comes, I hope you will be there to nurse me again."

It was an unusual thing for Hal to indulge in pretty speeches, and it was as much as he could do to get the words out. His bashfulness made them stick in his throat, though he meant every syllable.

"I'm sure you've been awfully good to me, Dora," he said. "How can I repay you?"

"Oh, nonsense! Good, indeed! I have only done what any other girl would gladly have undertaken; and you forget, Hal, that you were wounded in helping my father. There, we are evens! We owe nothing to each other, though, if you ever have an opportunity, I am sure you will do your utmost for us."

"Hallo! What's this? Pretty speeches, and from my Dora, too! Who would have thought it!"

Mr. Brindle stepped on to the veranda just in time to overhear the end of the conversation between the young people, and burst into a hearty fit of laughter.

"There, it is only my chaff," he added with a smile. "A little gratitude on either side is what one would have expected. But how are you, Hal? When do you think you could travel?"

"Now; as soon as you like, Mr. Brindle," exclaimed Hal, springing to his feet. "Take a look at me. I am as well as ever; and as for the arm, beyond a little stiffness, which will soon pass away, I have no trouble with it."

"Then, we'll clear for the ever-faithful island of Cuba, and for our gay little hacienda, Eldorado. Hal, you shall see a spot which compares favorably with this. I built this house in which we are living more than fifteen years ago, but the hacienda not for some time later. To my eyes the latter is perfect. It is a gentleman's country residence, and, with its grounds, is a beautiful oasis in a desert of impenetrable jungle and burnt-out plantations-not to mention swamps innumerable, for which the eastern end of the island is notorious. But you shall judge for yourself. To-morrow we will make our preparations, and on the following day the steamer will sail with us from Tampa for Havana."

Accordingly, all at the "Barn" were extremely busy, Hal even taking his arm from the sling to lend a hand on occasion. By the second morning their packing was completed, and, leaving the house in possession of a negro caretaker, the party was driven away in the mule cart to the harbor at Tampa. Three days later they sighted the coast of Cuba, the biggest and one of the oldest of Spanish colonies in the West which remained at that moment in the hands of Spain.

"It is at once the finest and the most unfortunate island in these seas," remarked Mr. Brindle to Hal and Gerald, as they gazed towards the distant shore. "For years-I cannot at the moment recollect how many-the bulk of the inhabitants have been in rebellion. Fighting has taken place almost incessantly between the Spanish rulers and the native population; and things have come to such a pass that ruin stares everyone in the face. Planters and their laborers have had hard times indeed, but I trust a brighter future is in store for us. America has intervened between insurgents and Spaniards, and it seems that her influence will avert further bloodshed, and peace and prosperity will then return to this smiling land. I am sure I hope it will be so. Personally I have not lost, though others have. But it is a long story, lads, and I will reserve it for another time. Take a look through my glasses, Hal, and tell me what you see."

Mr. Brindle suddenly handed his field-glasses to Hal, and pointed towards the harbor.

"I see a big passenger boat in there," the latter said, after taking a long and steady look. "She is lying against the quay, and close beside her are two ships, which look like men-of-war-one flying Spanish colors, and the other the Stars and Stripes of America."

"Good! I thought so," Mr. Brindle exclaimed. "That vessel sailing beneath the colors of Yankee land is the battleship Maine, and she is here on a special visit, which it is hoped will cement a long friendship between the two countries. Now, I fancy we had better go below and prepare for dinner. The gong sounds in half an hour."

By half-past eight that night, the ever-memorable 15th of February, 1898, the ship upon which Hal and his friends were passengers had anchored in the harbor of Havana. On the upper deck, beneath the glare of the electric light, they made a group that was interesting and pleasing to the eye.

Stretched in hammock chairs, Mr. Brindle cigar in mouth, and all dressed in white, relieved in Dora's case by a sash of palest blue, they chatted in low voices, now and again lapsing into silence and listening to the sounds that came from other ships across the placid water and from the dimly lit streets of the town. Some sailor lad aboard the Maine was delighting his fellows with banjo and song, and our hero and his friends listened as if enchanted.

"Ah, honey, my honey"-the words came clear and strong; then they died down and became merged with the notes of the banjo, only to burst forth again as the audience took up the chorus, and sent it swelling across the harbor.

"How nice it sounds! How peaceful!" exclaimed Mr. Brindle, thoughtfully. "God grant that this visit from America to a Spanish port may settle every squabble. I am sure braver and more agreeable fellows could not have been sent; and if only the Dons are as friendly, all will be well. Listen! How those lads love that song! They would sing it by the hour if they were able. But there sounds the bugle, and away they go to their hammocks. I think, Dora dear, that it is time you and Gerald also went to your bunks. Remember, we have a long and tiring day before us to-morrow, and you will be in need of all your energies. Now, off with you! Hal and I will stay on deck a little longer, as I wish to speak to him."

The two young people looked somewhat disappointed, but strict obedience being amongst their virtues, they said "good-night" and retired.

"Now for a stroll, Hal," commenced Mr. Brindle. "I have much to say to you, and you have a great deal before you, for which a little advice given now will prepare you. Within three days we shall be at Eldorado, and new duties and new faces will confront you. I want you to have some knowledge of them beforehand, for it will be better if my overseer can come to the plantation ready for any emergency. You will thus make a better start, and will be held in higher estimation by the men. That is the secret of plantation work. Respect yourself, show that you are capable, fair, and strong, and the negro hands will be ready to obey you in every particular."

Mr. Brindle took Hal by the arm, and walked him up and down beneath the awning. At length, having communicated to him all the information he wished, he led the way aft, and the two leaned against the rails at the stern of the ship.

Havana, one of the oldest harbors in the West, lay wrapped in the black mantle of night, dotted here and there by the riding light of some small fishing schooner, bobbing gently to the swell which ran through the harbor channel. Closer at hand were other lights, flashing, tier above tier, from the state cabins of the City of Washington-a leviathan which was filled to overflowing with passengers. She was a contrast to the Maine, aboard which all those who had been so merry and lighthearted seemed now fast asleep. But for her riding lights, and the reflection from her gunroom, she was enveloped in darkness, into which a flicker from her smoke-stacks sometimes flew, to disappear in a moment. Not a sound came from her deck. All was still, and every soul beneath her armor-plates, save the few who kept the watch, lay wrapped in sleep-sleep, alas! to extend forever and ever, to hold them in its cold embrace till the end of everything.

What was that? Crash! A second or two's interval, and then a nerve-shaking boom, an appalling explosion, a rush of flame into the night, that lights up the surroundings for miles. And then? Ah, Heavens! shriek upon shriek, the clatter of scattered wreckage and rent iron upon quay and neighboring ships, and the hissing of flaming woodwork falling into the sea. A minute before there floated as fine a vessel as ever sailed from the shores of America, carrying, too, as gallant a crew as ever shipped under the famous star-spangled banner. Where were they now?

Clinging to the rail, stunned by the roar of the explosion, and dazed by the suddenness of it all, Hal and Mr. Brindle looked at a heap of flaring wreckage, and wondered what had happened. Then the explanation burst upon them with a shock and a rush which almost unmanned them.

"She has blown up! The Maine has been smashed to pieces! How dreadful!" exclaimed Mr. Brindle, in a breath.

"Yes, something awful has happened," Hal answered. "Quick, sir; there may be men to be saved. Let us help; everyone will be required, and we may be of use. Come; I see them manning one of the boats."

Without waiting for further

conversation, he sprang towards the gangway, followed closely by Mr. Brindle.

"That's it! More lads for the work. Slip along down that 'ere gangway, and get fixed up to your places," sang out a quartermaster, who stood on the deck close to the ladder leading to the boat below.

As cool as if nothing unusual had happened, he waited a few moments to collect more men, and then hurried down to the boat in which Hal and Mr. Brindle had taken their places.

"Get hold of them there oars," he cried hoarsely. "Some of yer aer new at the game, but yer can pull for what we want. There, shove her off, my lad, and out oars all of yer. Bust me! aer some of yer goin' ter take two weeks about it? Bustle yourselves! Aer yer ready? Then fetch hold of your time from me. Now-pull-again-once more, my hearties-pull-at it, lads-we are nearer-good boys-with a will;-pull ho-all together-ah, steady there all."

Never could an amateur crew have had a better coxswain. There was no confusion, and no desperate hurry. Instead, coached by the quartermaster, they sent the boat flying through the water, and before they could have expected it, were close beside the Maine.

"She's down by the head," cried Mr. Brindle, who sat next to Hal. "Keep a look-out for any man in the water."

"Aye, she's down, and will go more too," the quartermaster shouted. "She's flaring like a torch, so I reckon we ought ter see any poor feller who happens ter be about in need of help."

Indeed, the bows of the Maine were crushed into shapeless wreckage, which was burning fiercely, the flames lighting up the whole of the harbor. By this time, too, the death-like silence, which had fallen immediately after the first cries for help, was broken by a roar of frightened voices from the town. People rushed from their houses demanding what had happened. Bells clanged the alarm, and the fire-brigade turned out, ready for any emergency. And, meanwhile, every ship in the harbor sent her boats on an errand of mercy, and soon the sailors, who but a few short minutes before had been sleeping peacefully, were being lifted from the water. But not all were there to be helped; numbers of the poor fellows had sunk, others still slept-the everlasting sleep-beneath the shattered plates of the Maine.

"Look, there is one sailor," cried Mr. Brindle suddenly, pointing to a figure struggling close beside the Maine, and seeming to be almost enveloped in flame. "Quick, quartermaster; let us row in and rescue him."

"No; can't be done. It's hard ter say it, but it can't," was the curt answer, given with a sad shake of the head. "That 'ere chap don't scorch, because he's under water. We should, though. We'd be blistered and dried like so many herrings. It's hard, sir, but it's out o' the question."

"Not quite," muttered Hal. "Hold on to my oar, Mr. Brindle. I'm going for him."

Next moment there was a splash, and he was overboard, swimming towards the flaming wreck as strongly as though he had never suffered a wound on his shoulder. A few lusty strokes took him close to the man, who by this was spinning round and round in the water, wholly unconscious, and on the point of sinking. His hand shot in the air, his fingers clutching desperately, while his eyes seemed on the point of bursting from their sockets. A sudden flare from the burning woodwork lit up the ghastly scene, and showed the poor fellow's mouth wide open in the act of giving vent to a cry for help. But just then the water swirled about him, overflowing his face, and hiding all but the pair of hands, which still grasped despairingly at the air.

"I'll save him whatever happens," said Hal to himself, sinking for a moment to escape the fierce heat of the flames, which burst forth furiously from the deck and sides of the unfortunate Maine. He swam beneath the water, and rising a minute later beside the man, grasped him by the shoulders, and easily turned him upon his back. From that moment all was plain sailing, for it was not for nothing that Hal had learned to swim. Floating beside the drowning sailor, he kicked out with his legs, and towed him towards the boat. Before he thought it possible they were alongside, and were being hauled on board.

"Good lad! You're one of the right sort!" sang out the quartermaster. "There, sit right down and get hold of your wind. Perhaps yer'll be wanting it again in a minute. Hillo! aint that another poor feller?"

He shielded his eyes from the glare by placing his hand to his forehead, and looked towards the Maine once more. A piece of wreckage floated into the light, and on it was seen another poor sailor, clinging for his life.

"Ah, there he aer! Can't yer see him, boys? He's right under the ship, and she's scorching the life out of him."

"Yes, he's too close to the fire again; and if we row in there we should all be shriveled," remarked Hal, very quietly. "Here, I'm for it again, so keep a look-out for me, quartermaster."

Once more he slipped overboard, and, pursuing the same tactics, escaped the heat by diving beneath the water. When he reached the plank upon which the sailor was lying, it was to find him, like the other, unconscious, and almost dead from the combined results of heat and smoke. He did not trouble to take the man from the float, but pushed it towards the boat, and in due time had the satisfaction of seeing him lifted from the water with the aid of many willing hands. Then the boat pulled round the flaming wreck, and, finding no one else in the water, went beneath the stern, which was free of flames, and made fast to a rope.

"Now, right aboard, my hearties!" cried the quartermaster. "If there's chaps blown into the sea, there's safe ter be a tidy few knocked silly between the decks, and they'll want helping. Aer there any man aboard this boat as feels like coming up? It's ticklish business, for this craft has tons of powder in her magazines, and I reckon the fire'll soon find it out. Aer anyone following?"

He sprang at the rope ladder which dangled overboard, and swarmed up it, followed by everyone who had accompanied him in the boat, save, of course, those who had been rescued from the sea.

"What, aer the whole crew of yer coming?" exclaimed the quartermaster. "George, but yer aer the finest set of pards I ever come across! Every blessed soul of yer itchin' ter get blow sky-high!"

He waved to them, motioning to them to scatter in all directions, which they did at once, diving below, and penetrating as far forward as the heat would allow.

"There is danger of the magazines exploding right aft here," Hal heard someone exclaim in the calmest tones. "Say, men, who is for it? I want six of the boldest and best."

The voice, which was that of a young man, came from an officer standing beside him. At the words a number of dark figures sprang forward from a group occupied in lowering a boat, and Hal promptly pushed his way in amongst them.

"That's the way; and now for the buckets, boys," the officer who had spoken first exclaimed. "Fill 'em up, and follow down below. Quick's the word, for there isn't much time to lose."

Grasping the rope attached to a wooden bucket, one sturdy sailor flung it overboard, and soon filled a couple of others, which stood at his feet, while four more were taken to a sea-cock close at hand. Hal quickly possessed himself of one, and at once hurried below to the magazine.

"Hillo! and who's this?" the officer asked, stepping up to him and lifting a lantern to his face.

"I'm a volunteer from a ship alongside," Hal answered.

"And a Britisher?"


"Good! Put it right there." The lieutenant shook him heartily by the hand.

A moment later the men threw open the magazine, in spite of the terrible risk they ran, and flung the contents of their buckets upon the explosives. Then they raced to the deck again for a fresh supply of water, and did not cease from their arduous labors till all danger of another explosion was at an end.

Flinging his bucket away, Hal now made a tour of that part of the ship which was not in flames. Then, having helped to lift three injured men into the boat, he descended himself, and at the quartermaster's order they returned to their own ship. A few minutes later, Captain Sigsbee, the commander of the Maine, stepped sadly from her deck, and was rowed away, the last living man to leave the terrible scene.

As for Hal, he slipped into a fresh suit of clothes, and for hours worked with the other passengers endeavoring to alleviate the sufferings of the poor fellows brought aboard the ship. Then, tired out with his labors, for he had taken a prominent and a large share in the work of rescue, he retired to the upper deck, with Mr. Brindle, Gerald, and Dora, and flung himself into a chair. But though utterly fatigued, he was too horrified by the ghastly tragedy he had witnessed, and too shaken by all that had happened in the past few hours, to be able to get to sleep. It was out of the question, so that instead of going straight to his bunk, he felt that he must stay in the open air, where he could rest, and at the same time talk over the occurrence with his friends.

"I've a weight here," he cried peevishly, striking himself on the chest. "The horror of it all distresses me. What a terrible calamity!"

"Aye, what a misfortune! What an inhuman deed!" replied Mr. Brindle, in a voice which faltered in spite of himself. "Think of it; try to realize the cruelty of it all. In the times of peace, in the cause of good-will, and in the earnest attempt to bring alleviation of suffering to a long-stricken people, the poor lads of my adopted country are cruelly blown to pieces, sent into eternity at the very door of those who have invited them. They came with nothing but friendship in their hearts, expecting to meet with the same. The shock of the news will be felt from east to west, and from north to south, and everywhere will be received at first with incredulity, and later with loathing and scorn, for never was such a dastardly deed committed."

"Committed by whom? What do you mean?" asked Hal, in astonishment. "Do you really think that the explosion was arranged-that it was not a pure accident?"

"I do; unhappily, I do," answered Mr. Brindle sternly. "How could it have been otherwise? It is sad, far too sad for words, and I shall be mistaken if to-night's work does not prove the cause of a war between Spain and America."

"But why war, Mr. Brindle? Had matters come to such a pass that the destruction of the Maine would set the countries at each other's throats?"

"Perhaps not that, Hal, for the aspect of affairs of late was distinctly brighter. Still, I think I am right in saying that the wrath of the American people will be so great when the news is known, that serious trouble will be inevitable. But come, let us to our bunks. To-morrow we will talk the matter over."

"To our bunks, dad! I could not possibly sleep!" exclaimed Dora.

"Nor I," chimed in Gerald.

"And I must confess that I am too troubled and too disturbed to sleep," said Mr. Brindle.

"Then why not fill the time in till morning dawns by telling us about this affair?" cried Hal. "We are all agreed that we cannot sleep; we have done our utmost for those who suffered during or after the explosion, and now we have nothing to do but to lounge here, and fume and fret till to-morrow. Be kind to us, Mr. Brindle. Stir your memory, and let us know the ins and outs of the whole story."

"Well, I will; and if I try your patience, bear with me a little," replied Mr. Brindle. "The quarrel is not of a day's making, nor does it turn upon one single point. Cuba is the cause of it all, and as we are here, perhaps no more fitting spot could be selected for a description of the rebellion and bloodshed which have caused trouble between Spain and America."

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