-- Chapter 9
As he slept Captain Neill was seized by the crew and clapped into irons. Michael was elected Captain, and, setting a course by the stars, he sailed for the Spanish Main. When they again reached Cape Town Captain Michael hastily explained to his indignant crew that he had returned for oil.
"But we had enough to take us to Madeira", said Pyecraft. "Why go south again?"
Then it came out that Michael had forgotten that he was in the southern hemisphere, and had mistaken the Southern Cross for the Great Bear. So Gordon was made captain, and when he had brought them to Ceylon, Evelyn was elected in his stead.
"The method of trial and error", said Pyecraft wearily, after they had touched at Rio and Hong Kong and Thursday Island, "must oneus back tot Europe." And it did ultimately. One morning they looked out and saw the Rock of Gibraltar. They were not sure, so they brought Neill up in his irons, and he identified the Rock, for he had spent a few days there once.
The Bay of Biscay was, as ususal, rough, and the bad sailors had a beastly time. "Funny", said David, "but the first day at sea you are afraid the ship will go down, and the rest of the voyage you're afraid it won't."
"Is that original?" asked Pyecraft.
"Of course", said David. "Why?"
"Only that I said that in 1925", said Pyecraft.
"Mean to tell me that you hadn't read Mark Twain till 1925?" asked Michael.
Gordon, on the bridge, summoned Bunny to his side.
"See that over there?" he said. "If I didn't know that we were the only people left alive, I'd swear that was the periscope of a submarine."
"Maybe it is", said Bunny. "Maybe filled with stone men. Let's fire a salvo at it for practice."
So they cleared for action, and six guns roared and bleched.
"Got it!" cried Gordon, "right through the periscope. Will you have a cigar or nuts?"
They were all laughing at the joke when a torpedo went zooming past the ship. They stared in consternation at the submarine which was now riding on the water. It ran up the flag of Nationalist Spain. Its gun spoke and hit the torpedo boat clean amidships.
"Fire!" yelled Gordon, but before they could get the range the submarine sought the depths.
"Depth charge it!" roared Gordon, but they did not know where the depth charges were kept. However, Betty found one but it failed to explode...but Evelyn did when she discovered that her plum pudding had been sent to the bottom of the bottom of the Bay of Biscay.
Meanwhile Neill was shouting from his hold. He had no idea of what was happening. It was Evelyn who went down and unlocked his irons, and, when attacked by the others, she said it was absurd to have anyone in irons when they were in such great danger. Pyecraft agreed with her, and the others reluctantly consented to Neill having his freedom. Bunny was heard to say in disappointed tones that they should have made him walk the plank. He had seen and admired the film The Mutiny on the Bounty.
It was a time for action.
"We've got to get ahead full steam", said Neill. "If I were captain --"
"You are not going to be captain", said Robert firmly. "I'm going to stay on the bridge til we reach Portsmouth."
He finished speaking and then: Crash! A torpedo got them in the engine-room, and the ship began to heel over. They rushed for the boats. In less than three minutes they were tossing helplessly on the sea, trying frantically to keep their small boat steady in the whirlpool the sinking torpedo boat made.
Franco's boat came to the surface and approached them slowly. Pyecraft asked them in Spanish what they meant to do, but they did not understand him.
"I am Italian", said the captain of the submarine, "and my men are German. Why did you fire on us?"
Gordon explained that it was a joke, that they did not know the submarine had live men in it.
"Oh", said the Italian suspiciously, "what side are you on?"
"What do you mean?" asked Michael.
"What side were you on in the Spanish War?"
"Government", said Michael boldly.
"So it was no joke", said the Italian. "You deliberately tried to sink us."
"No", said Michael with brave honesty, "but if we had known you were Franco's men we would have sunk you at sight."
"Kind of you", sneered teh Itaian, and he gave a quick order to his men, and they tied a rope to the boat, and the submarine set off to tow it into Santander.
In Santander they were put into the town prison, and two German guards were stationed outside. Fritz spoke to them in German and learned that the captain was one Silvo, one of the cruellest of the Nationalists. Neill, who had read Spanish Testament, quaked with fear. He asked for a private interview with Silvo and was given one.
"Look here", said Neill, "why are you keeping us prisoners? We don't want to fight you. All we want is to get back to England. You can have all Spain and the whole of Europe."
Silvo smiled cynically.
"And give you England? Your young people go back to England and they grow up and have children, while we, having no women, die out. No, sir, no. We are willing to let the males go to England, but the females will stay with us. Nationalist Spain must live."
When Neill reported this conversation the boys saw no difficulty about it.
"Quite simple", said David. "We don't want the girls, do we, lads?" And they were all of the same opinion.
But Fritz said that was all very well, but what did the girls think about it? Did they want to stay and marry the foreigners when they grew up? Evelyn said she didn't mind much, but Jean and Betty were furious at the boys for what they called treachery.
"Betraying your womenfolk to save your own miserable hides", spat Betty. "You can go if you like, but rather than marry a Francoite I'll kill myself." And she looked as if she meant it.
About half an hour later one of the German sailors came in carrying a gramophone. Silvo followed with a record in his hand.
"Kind man after all", whispered Evelyn, "going to play us a hot rhythm."
The sailor wound up the gramophone, and Silvo put on the record. Everyone grew pale, for the record was a speaking one: it was speaking in English, reproducing the words that they had spoken half an hour before.
"You didn't know there was a microphone in the cell", said Silvo grimly. He turned to Betty. "So you are the girl who said that you rather kill yourself than marry a Francoite? Bah!" and he gave Betty a wipe on the cheek. Robert started up and reached for a gun that wasn't there, but he sank down again when one of the sailors covered him with a revolver.
When Silvo had gone they found themselves in a dilemma. The question was how to speak without being registered by the microphone. David suggested the deaf and dumb alphabet, and they used it until Silvo put a stop to it by switching out the light. They finally settled the conversation problem by using the language they had picked up from Spike, and Silvo spent a whole day playing and replaying a record that began with: "Nuts on the frail biz." (It was Robert speaking). "Us for the Summerhill lam. Give the dagoes the woiks and step on the graft gas if they stall on the up grade." Silvo was furious, but he would have been less furious if he had known that Robert's sentences conveyed a different meaning to each of his listeners. He brought the record of Robert's conversation in, and ordered Michael to translate it. "Oke," said Michael unblushingly, "Nuts on the frail biz, that means that Robert likes nuts to eat. The word frail means fragile, easily broken. Robert likes nuts that are easily broken."
"What does biz mean?" demanded Silvo.
"That", said Gordon, "is poetic licence...it was summer time and the bees were bizzing around the nut trees."
Silvo frowned. " What does Us for the Summerhill lam mean ? "
Michael put on an innocent smile. "We are longing to get back to Betty's little lamb," he said. " Its fleece was white as snow..."
"You are swindling me", cried Silvo in anger. " It is a code, a cypher. If you use it again I will have you all beaten with rubber sticks", and he went out, slamming the cell door.
Fritz, the electrician, did things to the mike with a horse nail, and, as none of the Germans knew anything about mikes, the recordings stopped, but poor Fritz was badly beaten up. The German guards were then ordered to listen to every conversation, for they knew English, but Neil and Pyecraft tricked them by speaking German. The guards could not understand it.
One morning, about a week after their imprisonment, Silvo arrived and announced that the males were to be put into a motor-boat to make their way as best they could to England. The females would stay behind.
"If we refuse ?" asked Bunny.
Silvo tapped his revolver significantly, and David sang to a foxtrot tune: "Nix on the mix in. We'll scram and tag the broads from the froggie circuit."
"What does that mean ?" asked Silvo.
Just a song," smiled David, " a mere song, an old French ballad."
Silvo fumed but could do nothing. He lifted his gun and seemed about to shoot David, but David put on so innocent a look that Silvo reparked his gun. They were put in a boat with provisions for seven days, and they set out on what looked like a long voyage. When darkness fell Neill turned to David: "I presume that when you said we would tag the broads from the froggie circuit you meant to convey to the girls that we'd land in France and try to rescue them across the Pyrenees ? "
"Apennines", corrected David, "Yes. We can't leave them to blokes like that."
"I think," said Robert, "that we ought to creep back in the dark and pinch their submarine."
"Too well guarded", said Pyecraft. "We're sure to find a submarine in a harbour like Bordeaux."
And they found one of the most modern submarines riding in the harbour of Bordeaux, a lovely ship. They began to explore it.
"Wonder how it sinks", said Bunny, and a moment later, when Pyecraft came aboard, it sank right away. Bunny managed to close the hatch in time to prevent the ship's flooding. None of them had ever been in a submarine before, and all were scared stiff. Luckily, Bunny tripped over the lever for the oxygen ventilating apparatus, and they gradually lost their fear.
"All I know about a submarine", said Neill, is that under water it runs off accumulators, but you have to sail on the surface in order to charge these accumulators. Test them, Michael."
Michael tested them and found them almost fully charged, and they began to experiment with various levers. After a time they found how to raise the ship so that only the periscope was above the surface, and then they found how to make the engines go. They looked gingerly at the torpedo tube, but decided not to experiment with it till they were well out to sea. Later, they practised with a dummy torpedo and found that they could hit the target about six times in a hundred.
"We'll have to rely on the four-inch gun", said Gordon, "even if it means coming to the surface to fire it each time."
They cautiously made their way back to Santander, and, in the early morning, they lay outside the harbour. Pyecraft, who was using the periscope, suddenly cried: "The Franco submarine has disappeared!" It had. They came to the surface and sailed into dock. The enemy had gone, taking the girls with them. They searched the prison but could find no clue to their whereabouts. Suddenly Bunny pounced on a tiny scrap of paper in a corner of the prison yard. On it was the word BURGOS . . . in red ink.
"Betty's writing", he said, " writ with her own blood. But where is Burgos?"
No one knew until they found a map. Burgos was inland, and that meant abandoning the submarine. Michael's suggestion to put wheels on the submarine was not taken very seriously.
"It's either footing it or horsing it", said Robert, "and I've got an idea. Do you notice how all the stone people are growing whiter in the rain and sun? I votes we get whitewash, and then we can approach as near them as we like if we don't let them see us moving."
They found as many rifles and revolvers as they required, and they started out on the road to Burgos. They tried to catch horses, but these had become too wild. They tried a car but the roads were chock full of troops and artillery and provision wagons. It was the heat of summer, and marching was cruel, for most of them were unaccustomed to walking, and their feet got blistered.
They came to the outskirts of Burgos, and then they decided to wait till dark before they entered. They slept in a Red Cross wagon by the side of the road. About midnight Robert awoke suddenly. He nudged Michael.
"I heard steps outside", he whispered. They peered over the side of the wagon. "It's one of the German blokes", said Michael. "Come on, let's get him."
They crept out of the wagon, and began to track the unsuspecting German. He sat down on a stone and lit a cigarette. The boys crept up behind him, and suddenly they pulled a sack over his head. Robert made things surer by clumping him over the head with his rifle, and then they ran and awoke the others. Robert's blow had made him unconscious but not wounded.
"I know", said Fritz. " He is me very like. I vill his clothes take off and I vill go and they vill think I am his."
"That's all very well", said Neill, " but you don't know where to go to."
"But", said Fritz, "I can all places go and I vill find them."
So Fritz set off in the German's uniform. They deliberated about what they should do with the German soldier.
"Spike would have bumped him off," said David.
"Yes, but we couldn't very well do that", said Bunny. "He hasn't done us any harm."
"No", said Michael, "but he might. We can't keep him unconscious by biffing him on the nut all the time, and if we tie him up he'll yell unless we gag him. Really it would be safer to do him in."
At this point the German woke up and stared about him vacantly. Suddenly he found that lie was in his shirt and underpants, and he looked alarmed.
"Wo ist mein Uniform ?" he asked excitedly.
Neill explained to him that a fellow countryman had borrowed it.
"But", cried the German, "they vill him shoot. I run avay because the man Silvo so cruel to the womans. I am deserter. They vill shoot him." He had just spoken when the noise of a rifle shot pierced the air.
"Follow I", cried the German, and he rushed towards the town. They followed at a run. At the corner of the first street Bunny tripped over something. It was the body of Fritz. He had been shot through the heart. They all stopped.
"Oh, the swine!" cried Robert with clenched fist; "they will pay for this. Hi, you, what's your name?"
"Sepp", said the German.
"O.K., Sepp, are you on our side?"
Ich hasse Silvo", said Sepp tensely.
"I don't know what that means", said Robert, "but the way you said it is all I want to know. Where are they?"
"They is in a what you say Kaserne in the next street. I take you by little streets. Come."
As they approached the barracks they heard a girl's scream.
"That is the Betty", whispered Sepp. "Silvo he not her like because she say him he bad man, not?"
Said Neill: "I don't see how we are to attack the barracks across that open space."
"This is where the whitewash comes in", said Robert, and he deftly whitened all their faces. "Now look", he went on, "you see there are lots of statues dotted about the place. Our game is to get among these statues, and then edge our way by inches nearer the barracks."
"Er", said Pyecraft, "I think it a splendid idea, but with this cough of mine I might give you all away."
Neill cleared his throat. " Getting a cold too", he said cheerfully.
Robert gave the men a withering look, and his silence said more than any words could have said.
It was still dark, but the dawn was creeping on them.
"We must act at once", said Robert, and he led the way creeping on all fours. When dawn came the four boys and Sepp were standing rigid and white in the barrack square.
"That takes nerve", said Pyecraft as he and Neill watched from behind a stone Major-General of generous cover.
"I know", said Neill. "Let's creep round and do a flank movement. The garrison will shoot at us and that will give the boys a chance to move forward."
So they crept round, and, when they were on the west side of the barracks, Neill sent a rifle shot through a window. He was answered by a volley, and Pyecraft, who could see the boys, cried that they had advanced a lot. " Give 'em another shot", he said. Neill emptied his magazine, and Pyecraft shouted in delight that Robert and David had reached a point ten yards from the barracks. Then came a mishap. Gordon had a wasp settle on his nose, and if there was one thing that put the shivers down Gordon's spine it was a wasp on his nose. He stood it as long as he could, then he slogged it. He was seen by Silvo and a shot rang out. It got the wasp.
"Take cover!" yelled David, and they dropped behind statues. They began to fire, while Neill and Pyecraft continued to fire from the flank. In a lull in the firing they heard Silvo's voice.
"Surrender at once or we shall kill the girls."
"Keep him talking", whispered Bunny. "Do you notice that old Pyecraft is shoving the Major-General before him and getting closer?"
"Right", said Robert, and then to Silvo: "If we surrender will you spare our lives?"
"And let the girls come with us ?"
Robert kept one eye on Pyecraft, who was by this time quite close.
"Well, then, will you make a bargain, Silvo ? Give us one of the girls and you can keep the other two."
"The one with the beautiful face", said Robert.
"Which one is that ?" asked Silvo.
They saw Pyecraft raise his right arm, and a bomb crashed into the wall. There was a loud explosion, and when the smoke had cleared away they saw a huge gap in the wall. They had been wise enough to rush forward in the cover of the smoke and dust. Pyecraft got there at the same time, and they stormed the barracks. The Germans threw up their hands, but Silvo fired straight at Robert, missed him by a hair's breadth, and got Sepp in the throat. Sepp dropped with a horrible gurgle. Then Pyecraft laid Silvo low with the butt of his revolver, and the battle was lost and won. Rapidly they tied the prisoners up, and Neill went in search of the girls. He found them tied to posts in a dungeon. They wept with joy. They had a terrible story to tell of anxiety and torture. They had not been subjected to beating or any bodily torture, but they had been driven almost mad by Silvo, who kept telling them what he intended to do to them if the boys attempted a rescue. The German soldiers, they said, were quite nice to them, and Sepp had even tried to restrain Silvo from inflicting terror on them. They were very sad when they heard that Sepp was dead, but when they were told of Fritz's death they wept passionately.
There were five Germans left. The question was what to do with them and Silvo.
"He ought to be court-martialled and shot", said Betty with heat. Then she looked at Robert. "No", she said, " you are my brother, and it is your duty to fight a duel with him to redeem my honour."
"Didn't know you had any", said Robert sourly. "This is a communal affair. I'm all for a court-martial."
"I agree with Betty", said Neill. " Betty has suffered, and there is an unwritten law that, when a damsel suffers, her lover, or, failing a lover, her brother, should challenge the offender."
"You are her headmaster," said Robert; " it's your duty to protect her. You are in -- in -- what's the Dutch phrase ?"
"In loco parentis", said Neill, " and it isn't Dutch; it's Greek. Well, what about it, Robert? Of course if you are afraid I'll have to do it myself."
"Who said I was afraid?" demanded Robert.
"Beg pardon," said Neill with a bow, " but I knew you would act the gentleman."
So when Silvo recovered from his stunning, Robert went up to him and hit him in the face with a glove, which of course is the correct way to invite a man to fight a duel. Silvo rose unsteadily.
"My second will call on you when you are ready."
"In a second", said Robert, and he indicated to one of the Germans that lie should be Silvo's second. So the German presented Silvo's card to Robert, and Robert didn't know what to do with it; but then lie had a bright idea, and, taking out a pair of pliers, he punched the card, and they all laughed, except Silvo, who glared.
"Give me as many insults as you like," he said. "I shall avenge them. Since you have challenged me I have the choice of weapons." He paused to let this sink in. "I was the best swordsman in the Italian army," he added, and again paused to let this one sink in. It sank in all right, and Robert's heart sank still deeper, for he had never fenced in his life. Silvo looked at him and laughed harshly. "I see you go pale", he said.
"Not through this whitewash, on your life" came back Robert as quick as lightning. Then he turned on his heel. "We meet at sun-rise", he said stiffly, and, falling over the mat, he left the room.
The Germans were concerned about Robert. They had had no love for Silvo, and had only obeyed him through fear. One of them spoke to Neill.
"It is madness to let the boy fight Silvo", he said earnestly. " I have seen Silvo fence, and he is really wonderful. He has killed many men in duels. I think you would be justified in taking the boy's place, sir."
Some of the others thought so too, but Neill waived their objections aside.
"You are asking me," he said indignantly, "to -- to step in and deprive Robert of the greatest adventure of his life. Do you want me to make him a coward for ever? Would Robert ever forgive me for spoiling his fight ?"
"Oh", said Robert, "I guess I could forgive you all right."
"Always generous", said Neill quickly, "but of course he would never let me deputise for him."
"Of course", said Robert, "if you really want to have a go at the blighter, Neill, I'm quite willing to stand aside this time."
"Robert," said Neill solemnly, "your self-sacrifice is great, but, well, another time. This is your funer-- I mean your hour."
Robert looked troubled.
"But I can't use a sword. He'll run me through first go off, unless -- "
"Unless what ?"
"Would it be playing the game to put on a chain armour under my jumper?" asked Robert.
"Robert", said Neill, "you are not yourself. If you were, you would blush to suggest so vile a method of saving your skin."
"I was only asking", said Robert with irritation. "Oh, if only the blighter would have rheumatism or something!"
"Ah !" said his sister, and she rose hurriedly and left the room.
Robert spent most of the night trying to hit a sack with a cavalry sword. When dawn came he was wild-eyed and nervous. Pyecraft rang the barracks bell, and they went out to the parade ground. Silvo was in his shirt sleeves, and Robert took off his coat too. Pyecraft held out two swords, and they each took one. Silvo smiled with contempt and made a lunge at Robert. Robert side-stepped and gave the other's sword a wallop. Silvo said Ugh! and squirmed.
"Don't see much of his famous swordsmanship", whispered David to Betty.
Betty smiled brightly. "Robert's going to win."
"How do you know ?"
"'Cos I put clean sheets on Silvo's bed last night."
"But what have clean sheets to do with a duel ?"
"They were damp," said Betty with a giggle. "Didn't you see him squirm when Robert hit his sword? Rheumatism."
"Seems a bit low down", said David.
"Don't see it", said Betty. " People have handicaps at golf and tennis, so why shouldn't a plus-four bloke like Silvo have a five over bogey handicap when playing a beginner like Robert ?"
Silvo had tried to use his left hand, but the rheumatism had gripped him there too. He cursed and changed over to his right again. This gave Robert an idea. He had once read a story of Napoleon's march to Moscow, when a French soldier was fighting a Russian. The Frenchman did a trick by suddenly changing his sword from one hand to the other, and sending his opponent's blade whizzing through the air. Silvo lunged at him, and Robert changed hands, and . . . there was a gasp as Silvo's sword flew through the air.
"Cut him down !" yelled the boys, and Robert pointed his blade at the Italian's throat.
"Stop!" cried Betty. "Don't give him a sudden death. I have a better plan."
"What plan ?" said Robert.
"Let him live with rheumatism", said Betty. "Let him hobble about on crutches till he dies."
All eyes were turned on Betty. Silvo, with a rapid movement, whisked Bunny's revolver out of his belt, and, putting it to his own head, he blew his brains out.
There is not much more to tell about this Spanish episode. The Germans said that they wanted to go home, and they set off after a friendly good-bye. Poor fellows, they were eaten by wolves on their way through France. The English party found a motor-yacht in Bilbao, and a week later were safely back in Summerhill.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Chapter 9 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A.S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.