Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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 Chapter 17

White Ensign

The general decided that it was time to fish. They stopped rowing and ran out their fishing poles to windward as they drifted. Watching the destroyer cut through the water in their general direction at a good twenty knots, the general said,

"She was probably sent out on patrol from Wilhelmshaven in response to the opening of hostilities."

Sam replied,

"She must have noticed the explosion in Rosbeck. I wonder what they made of that."

Yo-wen replied,

"They may think that the town's been bombed. If not by the Poles, by the French or British. In any case, it won't occur to them that the people who caused the explosion would already be miles out to sea."

"They may stop to question us."

"We're a holiday fishing party, and we'll ask them what the hell is happening in Rosbeck, as if it's their fault."

Sam was himself convinced that they looked fairly innocent, but was concerned that they might be instructed to return to shore. His attention was then drawn to the second ship, which was also a destroyer, and was closing the first one. As he watched, she ran up the English flag, in fact, the white battle ensisn. In reply, the nearer destroyer hoisted the Nazi flag. The general and Yo-wen spoke rapidly in Chinese, too fast for Sam to understand. But he understood well enough that they might be about to witness the first naval engagement of the war.

As the destroyers closed to about a half-mile, what amounted to point-blank range for guns, and even torpedoes, Yo-wen said,

"The British couldn't possibly have declared war this quickly."

Sam replied,

"They raised the white ensign."

"That's just an act of bravado. You don't declare war by raising a flag."

The two destroyers were now steaming parallel, each with turrets trained on the other. Brenda, who had been watching intently, said,

"One thing's certain. They're worried about each other, not us."

As the destroyers steamed past them, the general pointed out that they were just outside German waters and added,

"If the British destroyer crosses the line, there'll be shooting."

Sam replied,

"The English captain won't want to cross the line, but he's honor bound not to turn away in the face of the enemy. Since the line follows the coast, he may end up crossing it."

Since there was no longer any point in fishing, they crossed behind the two destroyers, in the direction of the sail.

The general hardly went anywhere without binoculars, and he handed them to Brenda while he rowed. She had trouble training them on the sail, but finally said,

"I think the boat has two masts and at least two sails. Anyhow, it's heading for us."

It soon became clear that the ketch, running broadside to the fresh southwest breeze with all sails set, was cleaving through the chop at a good rate. They themselves were going well, and it wasn't long before the ketch went about and hove to, in order that they could come under her lee.

They were too busy throwing lines and getting the boats together without serious collision for elaborate greetings. Sam couldn't imagine what the children thought as they were hoisted aboard, or what Jack thought, but it didn't take long. Introductions were made quickly, and Shih-ninh was particularly enthusiastic about the explosion they had seen.

Deciding to take the rowboat in tow, they got under way, this time on the port tack to the west northwest.

The English destroyer captain solved his problem by doubling back along the coast. It wasn't a retreat, but it kept him from steaming into German waters. The German destroyer also reversed his course, now taking up a position a half mile behind the Englishman.

Jack had a large American flag flying from the mizzen top, and another from the jackstaff at the stern. The English destroyer made right for them and slowed down only a hundred feet to windward. A voice with a vaguely Oxford accent shouted across,

"War may be declared at any time, and this isn't a good place for you to be knocking about."

Jack had Shih-ninh steer closer, so that he was sure to be heard, and shouted back,

"We have refugees from Germany on board who may be arrested if that destroyer searches us. Can we abandon our boat and come with you?"

The man on the wing of the destroyer's bridge conferred with someone else, and replied,

"Yes. All right. But be quick about it."

A line was thrown, and, when they banged alongside the destroyer, a rope ladder was dropped. Sam carried Johanna up with one arm around her and the other on the ladder. Jack came up last, and a big bluff officer who seemed to be the captain said,

"If we leave your boat drifting, she'll become a yacht for some Nazi big-wig. We'd better sink her."

Jack agreed, and, as soon as they were clear, one of the after 4.7 inch guns was trained on the ketch. The first shell went over, but the second penetrated the hull, exploded the deck into the air with a mass of splinters in all directions, and knocked down the mainmast. The ketch was soon ablaze amidships, but the American flag at the stern was still visible. The German destroyer was now fairly close and the officer at Sam's side said laconically,

"Those krauts aboard her must be wondering why we're sinking an American vessel."

"I'm glad they haven't started shooting at us."

"Bit tricky, this situation. We hardly know if we're at war or not. Of course, Sammikins isn't specially cautious. He'd as soon have the war start here and now."

It turned out that Sammikins was Lieutenant Commander the Honorable Samual Hoxley, RN, the captain. They were now steering for England, and the German destroyer had slowed down to observe the burning ketch. It was obvious that she would burn to the water line if she didn't sink first, and her column of smoke was almost in line with the much larger one from Rosbeck. Commenting on it to Brenda, Sam pointed out,

"The building was stone but the floors and interior beams were all wood. Whatever papers and documents Hokensen's institute had will probably be destroyed."

"I wonder how many scientists and classicists were killed."

"A good many, certainly. I don't gloat, the way Yo-wen and her father may, but I don't have any regrets."

"No. You're more like the officers on this ship. They'll do whatever they have to in the coming war without any hesitation."

Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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