One day I fronted him—a frayed and broken man—and snatched his glasses from his face. Without them, those eyes seemed just as big and stared just as relentlessly. I handed his glasses back to him, and he didn’t even cease his stare as he slipped them on again.
“Okay. I’ll do anything you want if you’ll stop staring at me.”
“Anything. You swear on your honour?”
Remarkably for such a place, honour was everything, apparently. To go back once you swore on your word of honour was utterly inconceivable.
“Yeah, as long as you give your word of honour never to look at me again.”
“I want you to pick a fight with me.”
“Consider it picked.”
“After school behind the main shelter shed.”
“Can’t I just declare you the winner now?”
“Bring three witnesses.”
“If you must.”
She was still doing forty knots when, as if by magic, a great gaping hole appeared in her bows just above the water-line. Shell-fire, possibly, but unlikely at that angle. It must have been a torpedo from a U-boat, not yet located: a sudden dip of the bows could have coincided with the upthrust of a heavy sea forcing a torpedo to the surface. Such things had happened before: rarely, but they happened… The Ulysses brushed aside the torpedo, ignoring the grievous wound, ignored the heavy shells, crashed into her and kept on going.
She was still doing forty knots, driving in under the guns of the enemy, guns at maximum depression, when “A” magazine blew up, blasted off the entire bows in one shattering detonation. For a second, the lightened fo’c’sle reared high into the air: then it plunged down, deep down, into the shoulder of the rolling sea. She plunged down and kept going down, driving down to the black floor of the Aortic, driven down by the madly spinning screws, the still thudding engines her own executioners.
Of HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean said: the technique was to create a ship with a bunch of interesting characters for a crew and then kill one of them off in every chapter. This he does—even the bold captain is dead fifty pages before the end and the man who takes over also dies, along with the whole ship eventually. As in Moby Dick, there is only one man who lives to tell the tale.
Alistair MacLean got off to a great start with this book and The Guns of Navarone, but the rot began to set in by his third work—South By Java Head. It was probably meant to be a serious work but it went too far the way of Denis Wheatley, a well-handled novel of the escape from the Fall of Singapore slowly dissolves into an admittedly exciting but formulaic tale of spies and secret documents and traitors and it was along that line that MacLean would continue despite his own best efforts.