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   Chapter 16 THE BEGINNING OF HOSTILITIES

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 23471

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Now, you fellows can just sit right down there and let me have every bit of the tale," said the American officer cheerfully, motioning Hal and Gerald to two seats which were fixed against the side of the tiny cabin of the torpedo boat. "I'm dying to hear all about your adventure, and let me ask you to be particularly slippy, for as soon as the admiral is informed that you've dropped in with the fleet, he'll be wanting you, so as to get all possible information. Come now; the grub will be along in a very few minutes, so you may as well fill in the time. I can tell you, sirs, that I'm right glad to meet you."

He stretched across the narrow swinging table, and shook both heartily by the hand; then he shouted to a steward, and himself helped to place food before the lads.

"Beg pardon, sir, but the admiral aer a-waggin' ter yer ter send 'em aboard," said someone at this moment, calling down the companion.

"The dickens! Signal right back that they're famishing, and will be all the better for a square meal," the officer exclaimed. "It's the truth, after all," he added, with a smile. "I should be uncomfortably hungry if I had taken nothing but thin air since the sun came up."

Some pressed beef, bread and butter, and hot tea were placed upon the table, and Hal and Gerald needed no second bidding to fall to. The keen night air had indeed given them an appetite, to which long hours of suspense and excitement had only added zest. They fell upon the viands, therefore, with a will, and made the food disappear with great rapidity.

"My! There's no doubt that you were hungry," remarked the officer, with a smile. "Don't stop. Go right on, for there is plenty more if you need it."

At last they managed to satisfy their hunger, and then they gave a rough outline of their adventures. They were in the act of completing the story when the same voice called to them again.

"Them signals aer a-waggin' fit ter split theirselves," the man cried. "Reckon it erd be jist right ter send 'em aboard."

"So; then we'll get under way. Get to your post."

The torpedo boat quivered and throbbed from stem to stern as the screws revolved in the water.

"Say," said the officer, "there's steam and plenty of it in that old tub of yours. Suppose we go aboard the flagship in it; it'll be the handier."

Hal and Gerald acquiesced, and at once stepped into the launch. A man was left in charge of the wheel of the torpedo boat. Then two were sent aboard the launch, one of whom dived into the engine-room; the lashings were cast off, and they steamed alongside the huge vessel which flew the admiral's flag.

A monster she looked, too, for the New York was one of the largest of armored cruisers afloat.

"Down below there! Hook on, and we'll bring you flyin' up," someone shouted, and the tackle of the two falls began to descend, a sailor clinging to the lower block of each. Hal was no seaman, and it was a revelation to him to see the way in which the hooks were made fast, and the launch, engines, and all, whisked aloft. A minute later he and Gerald, together with the officer, were standing on the white decks of the magnificent flagship New York.

"Admiral's compliments, and will ye sthep below?" an Irish marine said, saluting.

"To be sure I will! Stay here till I come up again," replied the officer, turning to the lads.

As he left them for his interview with the admiral, another officer approached.

"Should say that this was irregular," he said, looking keenly at Hal and Gerald. "Two prisoners left unguarded! But you'd be amazin' clever, I reckon, to do us much harm. Hallo! What's this? I've a kind of recollection of one of you. Now, where have we met?"

"And I remember you; I saw you aboard the Maine," replied Hal quietly.

"Why, the Maine! That you did, certainly. Are you not the Britisher? You are, of course, but what are you doin' with this young fellow aboard a Spanish craft?"

This needed another explanation, which was barely completed when Admiral Sampson, the commodore of the squadron of American ships, came up.

"Congratulations, young gentlemen," he said, extending his hand in welcome. "I have heard part of the story, and shall be glad to learn more. Meanwhile, I fancy that a bath and some clean clothes will be more in your line than anything else. Mr. Perkins, I'll be obliged if you will hurry next time something turns up. This time it's different, for they're excellent young fellows."

The officer saluted, and at once descended the gangway, and entered a boat which had been lowered, bestowing a wink on Hal and Gerald as he did so.

"Mr. Billing, you'll do me the favor of looking after our guests," proceeded the admiral. "Fix them up, and bring them along to dinner to-night."

"Thankee, sir, I will," was the reply; then he turned to Hal and Gerald, and led them below.

"You've had a good square meal, I understand," he said, "so we'll see right away what's to be done about togs. Come along here."

He led them into a cabin, and began to ransack various drawers, producing, after a long hunt, undergarments and a spare suit for each.

"Perhaps you won't mind telling us what's going on?" said Hal. "We know no more than that war was declared a few days ago."

"Then I fancy that you are as well primed with information as we are. I can tell you that this is a very queer war-in fact, quite the strangest I have ever heard of. The truth is, that neither the Dons nor my country are prepared for fighting; for, you see, ships are not sufficient to enable a nation to carry on hostilities. An army to invade is wanted, and where is ours to come from? Mind you, sir, I've not a morsel of doubt that we shall raise all the troops we want, and that very quickly too, for all America is buzzin' with enthusiasm at this very moment. But you must understand that men who have not been trained to work together stand a very poor chance when confronted with regulars. Then, again, where would our supply department be? I can inform you right now that there would be terrible confusion when it was found that a hastily raised arm of the service was called upon to feed, say, twenty thousand men, perhaps in Cuba, or elsewhere.

"So it comes to this, that we must wait till all is ready ashore. Meanwhile, the navy will have to do all the fighting, and, if only the Dons show the spirit for which their ancestors were famous, we shall have some very ticklish brushes with them.

"After our forces are ready to move, and the various departments have got into thorough working order, we shall want ships to carry them to Cuba, or even to Spain, for all I know; and then I have a notion that there'll be a heap of fun, and a mighty lot for all of us to do."

"Then there is no chance of an invasion taking place yet a while?" Hal asked.

"No, that's just how it stands. But how does it interest you, Mr.-er-er-oh, I can't remember your name. Anyhow, you're a Britisher. How do you come into the quarrel?"

"It did not interest me greatly till a few days ago," said Hal. "Now it does. You see, these Spaniards have given us a very bad time. I must admit that the greater part of the trouble has arisen through one Don in particular, who is a very bad specimen of humanity. He attacked our hacienda, and the next day did his utmost to have us shot as spies. In fact, if matters had not turned out otherwise, you may take it that he would be gloating over our deaths at this very moment."

"George! That is most uncomfortable to think of!"

"We had a precious near squeak for it," continued Hal; "and now you ask how it concerns me. I am going back to the island, and, if I find that all is secure at the hacienda, I shall join the invading forces."

"Just to make matters even, I suppose?" laughed the officer. "I can easily follow you. These Dons have given you and the youngster a warmish time, and have roused you into a temper. You Britishers have the reputation of being as easy-going as possible, and of being able to put up with a heap; that is, up to a certain point. After that, we all know that the old bull-dog nature comes to the fore, and then there's going to be trouble. And so you've got to that point? Well, I am not a morsel surprised, for there are few who would stand what you have gone through, and forget in a hurry. In fact, I reckon that the majority would have failed to come through at all. There's no doubt that you youngsters were in an almighty mess. Say, sir, what was the name you mentioned?"

"Hal Marchant."

"Ah! So that is it. Well, sir, I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Billing; Lieutenant aboard the New York. Lieutenant Samuel K. Billing."

He held out his hand, which Hal took and shook with enthusiasm.

"And so you have decided to join the boys?" continued the officer. "It's the kind of thing that a lad of your sort would do, and I don't suppose that you'll have much difficulty about the matter. But in case you have, apply to me. I haven't forgotten how you came to the fore and helped to dowse the magazines aboard the poor old Maine, and, if I can, I'll do something to repay you. Come, think the matter over right now."

He motioned both the lads to seats, and threw himself into another opposite.

"There," he said pleasantly. "Now, fire away."

"You have asked me how you can help us," said Hal, after some moments of silence. "It is very kind of you, and if you will arrange to have us landed somewhere near Santiago, we shall be most grateful to you."

"Can't be done. It is out of the question altogether," replied the officer, leaning back in his chair, and shaking his head emphatically. "See here, Mr. Marchant, you'll admit that we Amurricans have a reputation for smartness. Well, whatever the Dons may be in ordinary circumstances, they are fully alive to the situation just now, and have their eyes very wide open. Christopher, man! the coast is bristling with guns and men, and it is no exaggeration to state that you could hardly float a piece of bread ashore without its being discovered. That will give you an idea of the vigilant watch that is being maintained."

"But we must return to the hacienda. The safety of our friends demands it!" exclaimed Hal hotly.

"Is that so? What friends, may I ask, sir? Relatives, by any chance?"

"Well, not exactly in my case," Hal answered, in some confusion. "Gerald's father and sister live at the hacienda."

"You don't say so!" the officer answered quizzingly. "You don't fear that your pa's in danger, do you, Mr. Gerald?"

"Yes, I fancy he is," replied Gerald. "You see, we are anxious about him with those rascally irregulars about. Besides, there's Dora."

"Oh, ho; there's Dora!" repeated the officer, smiling at Hal. "And so you have determined to rush into all sorts of dangers, Mr. Marchant, just on the chance of rescuing your friends from some scoundrels who, after all, may never have been near the hacienda of which you speak. Well, it's a fix, for you can't exactly fly ashore, and you'll be shot so sure as you attempt to get there in a boat."

"Then I'll swim," said Hal quietly. "I'll go overboard some day when you are close inshore."

"Yes, and what about the sharks? Those loathsome brutes are just jostlin' one another round here."

"I'll swim for Cuba all the same," replied Hal steadily. "I'll chance the sharks, for I am convinced that real danger threatens our friends."

"So bad as that, is it?" the officer exclaimed, lifting his eyebrows. "Well, if you are set upon it, I'll do a trifle for you, but it won't be yet a while. We're bound elsewhere, and will be cruising up the other side of the island. But when the chance comes you shall go, and you can trust

Samuel K. Billing to help you."

The young American officer, whom Hal had first met beside the magazines on board the ill-fated Maine, and who had so miraculously escaped the disastrous results of the explosion, had not exaggerated matters when he declared that America was not ready for war.

True, her people, the nation as a whole, and the newspapers for the most part, had asked for war-nay, demanded it. Sympathy for the miserable people in the concentration camps had first stirred them into action, but the awful calamity on board the Maine, and the particular circumstances in which the explosion had occurred, had roused their anger and indignation. At their very door thousands of poor helpless people were dying of sheer starvation, and of the hundred and one diseases which follow inevitably where want and destitution have undermined the constitution. That in itself was an offense against their feelings of humanity. And there was no error in this case, for no lying tales had reached their ears, but only the truth. They had not been told stories innumerable of awful misery existing in Cuba when such was not the case. No. There was no doubt that there was reason for intervention between oppressor and oppressed, and America had espoused the cause of the latter with great earnestness.

She had insisted on war, and had embarked upon it, as the reader knows. But under what conditions? Her navy was one of which she was justly proud; her army, on the other hand, was far too small to undertake the task which America had set herself-namely, the expulsion of Spain from the Island of Cuba. Twenty-seven thousand officers and men were, roughly, the army of this great country; but, though few in numbers, they were, indeed, men to be proud of, for all were picked, and many were accomplished in that most important branch of war-scouting.

In addition, America possessed militia, though few of the battalions were in an efficient state; and the reason of this was that a reaction had followed the fierce civil war between North and South. There was no longer need for soldiering, and trade occupied the attention of the people instead. Had it been otherwise, the lads of the States are too much like our own to have done otherwise than throw their hearts and energy into the army, and fight for their country. And in this emergency they came to the fore with a zeal and impetuosity which warranted the statement of Hal's naval friend, to wit, that the whole of the American nation was roused to enthusiasm.

The sons of the States came forward in their thousands. Those of the militia battalions who were still of the right age, and medically fit, volunteered for active service almost to a man, and within a very short space of time America found herself with a hundred thousand men added to her regular army. The latter was sent down to the department of the South, to Tampa in Florida, and the remaining volunteers were transferred from the various departments into which the States are divided, to certain training camps, from which they were to be sent to Chickamauga in Tennessee, and from there, when efficient, to Tampa.

And now, having hinted at the manner in which the army of invasion was raised, we will turn to the navy, and to events in and around Cuba.

"There, sir, that's just about where we are," said the American lieutenant, who had introduced himself as Samuel K. Billing, throwing himself back in his chair. "As I've hinted to you, the boys ashore are drilling their boots off, and up to this it has been a naval war. On April the 21st hostilities commenced, and America made a haul, for we captured the Cataluna, with a cargo of mules, about to sail from New Orleans to Cuba. Then Admiral Sampson-that's the commodore, you'll understand-flew his signals, and out the fleet sailed from Key West. We steamed to sea with orders to blockade the coast of Cuba from Cardenas to Cienfuegos, that is right along east of Havana. Next day we fell in with the Buenaventura, and captured her, sending her along home with a prize crew aboard. That, sir, is all the news. Here we are, and here we shall stay till the troops are ready. Lucky for you both that we happened to put in an appearance! It was by the merest chance that we came cruising down this way."

No doubt it was remarkably fortunate for Hal and Gerald; but, though Santiago with the neighboring coast was, from this day, efficiently blockaded, the failure to carry the movement out before had allowed the Montserrat, a Spanish liner, to approach the southern part of the island, and land troops, ammunition, and stores at Cienfuegos, whence they were conveyed to Havana. Beyond this nothing of importance had occurred in the neighborhood, while thousands of miles away, in the Pacific Ocean, an American fleet lay at anchor in Mirs Bay, on the Chinese coast, ready to make an attack upon the Philippines, Spain's stronghold in those waters. The fleet of which Spain boasted had gone to St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands, and awaited events there.

"And what will happen now?" asked Hal. "Are you likely to be sailing in close to Santiago? If you are, I shall take my chance and hop overboard. Besides, I'd forgotten, there's the launch. The commodore would allow us that."

"So he would, Marchant, and what would happen to you? Why, sir, that little tub would be sucked up by a Spanish gunboat before you could wink. And then--Phit! man, it would be all over with you! It is out of the question, and you'll have to get the idea out of your mind for a time. In the first place, we're not for cruisin' close in. We're bound for Havana, and when we get there you will see some fun. There's a talk of bombarding Matanzas, a coast town that comes next in size to Havana."

"Then you will have some fighting," said Hal. "I should like to be there."

"And so you shall, sir. You're guests aboard this ship, and if you want to stay, say the word. The commodore is not the man to stop you."

"Thanks, very much," answered Hal. "Until I can see a chance of being landed near Santiago, I should certainly like to remain on this ship. But why not attack Havana? It is the chief Spanish port."

"And get badly knocked about!" exclaimed the lieutenant. "George, man! There are mines to be thought of, and, besides, where should we be if we got into the harbor? Fifty thousand Spanish troops would be confronting us. No, Marchant, it is not to be thought of."

No one could quarrel with this decision. Had America possessed the necessary land forces, an attack might have been attempted; but, even then, to try to enter a harbor over live mines would have been hazardous in the extreme.

Admiral Sampson, however, had decided to attack Matanzas, for it was necessary to do something to calm the clamor of the American public. Almost two weeks had already passed since the declaration of war, and no success had been achieved, save the capture of a few merchant vessels. In consequence, the people of the States were roused to anger, for they had expected great things on the outbreak of war.

But, meanwhile, the ship upon which Hal and Gerald were receiving hospitality was steaming along the coast.

"It'll be two days before we get right round," said Lieutenant Billing, "so I propose that you young fellows get some sort of togs. The tailor aboard will measure you for coats and things, and if we chaps weren't able to dig out the unders, why, we wouldn't be any good. As you stand you'll do for the commodore to-night, for on active service there is no dressing for dinner. Come along with me, and I'll see what the tailor man has to say."

Hal and Gerald did as they were asked, and were very glad that their naval friend had thought of it, for they were absolutely destitute of belongings when they escaped from Santiago. Naturally, their flight from prison, and their subsequent adventures, had not helped to improve their clothes, so that, when they stepped aboard the New York, it was coatless and bootless, and with only the remains of very dirty plantation suits. Indeed, Hal was more like a coal-heaver than anything, and the heat of the little stoke-hole had been so great that he had even discarded his shirt, and kept on only trousers and vest.

"New suit for two Britishers?" exclaimed the ship's tailor, who was a typical Yankee. "Say, where on airth did yer get hold of them ere togs? Oh, from the lieutenant? Wall, I'll fix yer up as good. That aer the way. Hold yer arm out, so, and I'll take yer measure."

He soon obtained all the necessary particulars, after which the lieutenant led Hal and Gerald to the New York's gunroom, where they were introduced to the other officers.

"Say, Mr. Marchant, sir," said one of them, "our friend here, the lieutenant, has got the better of us. How was it that you came to be aboard that old tank of a launch? Spin the yarn, like a good fellow, and we'll feel obliged."

There was nothing for it but to recount again how they had escaped from the Morro Castle; and that same evening the commodore also insisted upon hearing all the particulars of their adventures, and probed Hal so astutely with questions that he drew from him the tale of José d'Arousta's attack upon the hacienda, and the manner in which it had been foiled.

"You never let on about that, sir," said Samuel K. Billing reproachfully, "and the admiral has scored one. Say, Mr. Marchant, you seem unusually concerned about that Spaniard, and I don't wonder at all, for he's a low-down sort of beggar; but how did it happen that you first knocked up against him? Now, no hanging back, if you please, for if you don't feel inclined to oblige me, there's Admiral Sampson, who won't let you off."

"Indeed, no. Come, Mr. Marchant, I trust you will give us the story," chimed in the commodore. "This Spaniard seems to have some special spite against you. If I remember rightly, he and his rascally accomplice would have shot you in cold blood when the hacienda was taken. What was the quarrel between you?"

Nothing loath, for the officers seemed genuinely interested, Hal told how José d'Arousta had first come across his path, and how, on three successive occasions, he had been able to thwart him.

"There's luck, they say, in the number three," remarked the admiral. "Young, sir, I consider that you have done very well, and that you have been ably helped by your friend. But luck may pull you through danger on one occasion, while on another it leaves you in the lurch. Pluck and strength of purpose are of far more use in difficulties, and when combined with luck make the issue less doubtful. So, you see, I take it that you both have a very good allowance of what we in the States call 'grit.' But for that I reckon you would have been shot this very morning, for how else could you have succeeded in escaping from the Morro Castle? As for that fellow of a Spaniard, I am not in the least surprised that you feel uneasy about him. Beware of the man, is the caution I would impress upon you. Three, I have said, is considered a lucky number. Take care when you run up against him for the fourth time, that he does not shoot you at sight. No amount of good fortune will preserve a man when a revolver is fired at point-blank range. But there, what am I doing? Giving advice to a youngster who, in spite of his few years, has seen more adventures than many a man of forty. You've been almighty spry, my lad, and will pull through, whatever the danger."

"You may put it at that," exclaimed the lieutenant, who seemed to have taken a particular fancy to Hal. "I can tell you, sir, that this young guest of ours is as smart and as full of pluck as they make them."

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