For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 23
THE CAPTAIN COMES ABOARD
NELSON and Tip and Martin leaned beside Number Four gun and explained to each other at great length and with much vehemence just why there wasn't the ghost of a chance of the Gyandotte reaching the scene of action in time to take a hand. And then, having absolutely convinced themselves of that fact; they at once proceeded to prove just as conclusively that, being only sixty miles away when the message was caught, it would be the easiest thing in the world to arrive before it was too late. From which you will gather, and rightly, that all three wanted very much to have a finger in the pie and were too anxious and excited to be consistent.
The Gyandotte was shaking from stem to stern with the ardor of her engines and her two big stacks were spouting smoke. A good twenty-three miles an hour was what she was reeling off, and had the sea been a bit less unfriendly she might have bettered that by a fraction. What bothered the cruiser's men more than anything else was the fear that another patrol boat or convoy, either nearer to the scene or faster, had picked up the wireless and would, in the words of Mart, "beat them to it." There was one thing in their favor, however, which was that a low-lying mist shrouded the ocean, and they might be able to get within range of the U-boat before the latter took warning. They well knew how such jaunts usually ended. You pounded hard over sixty or eighty or a hundred miles and found either a lot of boats scattered over a ten mile radius or a merchantman just dipping her bows under for the final dive. Almost never did you glimpse the enemy. Of course it was a fine and satisfactory feat to rescue the steamer's crew, but if only once in a blue moon you might get in a few shots at the Hun it would be a welcome variation!
In foretop cage the lookout strained aching eyes through the haze, and all about the rail glasses were leveled when, shortly after eleven, the Gyandotte drew near the indicated position. Half an hour before the final message had been caught from the attacked vessel:
"S O S from O E L; please hurry, both engines done in; one hold on fire; will have to abandon soon."
To this the Gyandotte had answered: "Be with you forty minutes; don't give up."
As there had come no further message it was feared that the merchantman, the American "Three L" liner Antietam, had been forced to surrender. At seven-thirty the General Quarters alarm sounded and the crew went to stations. A few minutes afterwards the foretop lookout reported smoke one point off the starboard bow and presently a deck lookout reported "something to port, sir, low on the water! Might be the sub!" A moment's search from the bridge and then, over the fire control system sped range and deflection.
"Number Four! Are you on?"
Seven thousand yards away over the port bow lay a faint something that might have been a dead whale until a flare of light shot through the mist from it and the sound of a shell came across the water. Further off, to starboard, a cloud of low-hanging smoke indicated the position of the Antietam, and it was toward this mark that the shell sped.
"Ready!" called Garey. "Fire!"
Number Four barked sharply as Nelson closed the contact. A dozen yards short of the submarine a column of water shot into the air. The spotter sent his correction of range. The elevating wheel moved slightly. A new shell was thrust in and the breech was closed.
The target was growing smaller, sinking from sight now!
Again the gun spat and an instant of breathless anxiety followed. Then a cheer, shrill and wild, went up from the Number Four crew. The submarine's conning tower, low-set between slanting wave-breakers, crumpled up as the five-inch shell struck it fairly!
"Got her!" shouted Garey, peering along the gun. "Give her another, boys! Hurry up, with that powder! Ram her! Ready!"
Number Two gun was firing now, but her range was short. Nelson again shot the spark and again the gun barkc'd, but this time the shell passed over the target. The submarine was still awash. Why didn't they submerge? Well, if they wanted more——
Number Two landed a shell under the stern and the U-boat plunged and rolled.
"Ready!" cried Garey.
Number Four spoke again and the forward fair-water flattened and the riddled tower disappeared as though a giant hand had swept it into Hie sea. The U-boat canted. Nelson, darting a look across the water, wondered. Holding the gun on the target, he waited for the thud of the closing breech and Garey's "Ready!" Something was moving on the deck of the U-boat, an uncertain something amidst the tangled and twisted wreckage. The breech closed.
"Rea—" Garey's voice broke. "Cease firing!"
"They're coming up!" That was Tip, until the moment a silent if thrilled spectator.
"They're surrendering!" That was Garey, in hoarse triumph.
The U-boat arose, dripping, rocking drunkenly, on an uneven keel, her stern down and her sharp bow well out of water, and through the gaping hole amidship crawled men. One—two—three—and still they came, arms upheld in token of surrender, feet slipping on the wet, slanting deck. One fell, clutching wildly at the air, and disappeared into the water. He came up again and found a hold on something and clung there. None offered to help him back. The deck was lined with the Germans now and more were fighting at the torn hatchway. The Gyandotte slowed and swung nearer. Across the silence came, faintly, confused cries.
"'Kamerad!' muttered a shelfman disgustedly. "I'd 'kamerad' the swine if I had my way!"
Over went the boats while the cruiser, with propellers idle, sidled closer through the leaping waves. The submarine's bow rose higher and higher and it was evident that she would soon go down stern-first. Some of those on the deck, jostled by their companions, slid off into the water. Others deliberately plunged in and began to swim toward the battleship. From Number Four gun port they saw the boats halving the distance.
"I'd let 'em swim," said Garey. "They've all got life-vests on, every one of 'em."
"Every Hun of them," corrected Tip softly. He plucked at Mart's sleeve. "Let's go topside and have a look."
One of the small boats was pulling the Germans from the water, while the other went on toward the submarine on which some ten or a dozen men still maintained a precarious foothold on the forward deck. The numbers on the bow were easily read now: "U C 46"; and it was possible to pick out the officers by the tarnished gold braid on sleeves and caps. The Gyandotte's propellers churned and the cruiser stopped and swung her bow to starboard. Signals were fluttering to the Antietam, promising speedy assistance. The small boats were coming back, loaded to the water's edge. Number Four's crew leaned out and gazed curiously down at the prisoners as they passed toward the boom. A sorry, dejected looking lot they were, thought Nelson. The commander, a tall, yellow-bearded man, was talking to the ensign in charge of the boat, smiling faintly as he gazed up toward the deck. The second boat, filled with dripping men who had been pulled out of the sea, passed next. On the faces of the sailors was a vague terror as they, too, looked apprehensively upward.
"They're expecting to be shot, I suppose," said Jennings. "Well, they deserve it, but they won't be. They'll have a nice easy life of it until the war's over. And plenty to eat, too, and, judging by the looks of 'em now, that's something that'll be welcome."
Nelson, gazing down, felt a tinge of compassion for the captives. They looked so hopelessly resigned to the fate they imagined awaited them. One moon-faced fellow had the temerity to smile up at the clustered rail, but the others scowled sullenly. In the middle of the boat one taller than the rest sat with head dropped on his hands, the picture of dejection.
"Secure!" came the command over the control, and Nelson and the others set about washing and oiling the bore and setting the gun in order. Meanwhile the fire and rescue signal had been given and the Gyandotte, turning her back on the sinking submarine, approached the merchantman. The fire and rescue party pulled around to the further side, out of the low-hanging smoke, and disappeared from sight. When the smoke lifted momentarily the Antietam showed herself a smart-looking freighter of some six thousand tons. But the German shells had worked sad havoc. Her decks were littered and both stacks were gashed by shrapnel. At least a dozen shots had taken effect on her hull and she was badly down by the head. It was half an hour before Number Four gun was secured and Nelson was free to return to the main deck to see what was going on. He found Martin and Tip there, and, grimy and oil-stained as he was, stopped for a moment's talk by the rail.
"Nep, you're some little shootist," declared Martin. "That second effort of yours was a work of art. You've got a good joke on Number Two gun, by the way. They got the word as soon as you fellows, but they had a mis-fire. They're a mad lot."
"Hard luck," said Nelson. "What I want to know, though, it why the sub didn't submerge when they saw us coming up. It wasn't a bit like their usual style."
"We got all that," said Tip. "If there's anything you wish to know, sir, enquire within. It seems the sub didn't submerge for the excellent reason that it couldn't. Someone——"
"The American, of course," interrupted Martin. "They've got him back in the Old Man's quarters now. Sure to have been him. What would you have done under the——"
"Quite so, old dear, quite so! That was their mistake, wasn't it? Took an American prisoner aboard, Troy, as a member of the crew. Funny thing, I say, but I heard months ago that they were having a hard time manning the subs. Well, he cooked their goose for them, what?"
"What are you talking about?" asked Nelson. "Do you mean that there was an American aboard that boat?"
"Just so! And he did something to their tanks——"
"Broke the valves, probably," corrected Martin. "Don't see just how he could, either. Still, they say he did. If he had——"
"You mean he fixed the boat so it couldn't dive?"
"That's the way we got it. One of your fellows was talking to a petty officer and he says this American——"
"But how did an American come to be in the crew?"
"Oh, he was a prisoner and they needed men and just took him. Suppose they told him he'd have to do it or be shot. That's about the way they'd put it, I fancy. I dare say he agreed in the hope that some time he'd either be able to escape or"—Tip shrugged his shoulders—"drown himself and the rest of them. That's what I'd do if they put it to me like that."
"An American!" exclaimed Nelson. "Did you see him?"
"Not close. They took him back to the Old Man. He's there yet, I guess." Martin looked back along the deck. "They've got the officers there, too. One of them——"
"What is it, Troy?" cried Tip. "I say, you don't think——"
"I—I don't know," muttered Nelson, wide-eyed, tremulous.
Martin stared uncomprehendingly for an instant. Then: "By Jove!" he exclaimed awedly. "Nep, it couldn't be, could it? Listen! This man's tall and thin; looked sort of half-starved; grayish hair, I think "
"Gray?" faltered Nelson. Then he shook his head, and: "It probably isn't," he said. "Dad's hair is brown, about like mine. I thought—maybe——"
"Hold up!" cried Tip. "Anyone's hair might be gray after a year in a German prison camp!"
"That's so!" agreed Martin.
Nelson looked from one to the other anxiously. "Do you think—it could be?" he whispered.
"I wouldn't hope too hard," muttered Martin.
Nelson stared thoughtfully at his grimy hands and then over toward where the Antietam lay, the smoke lessening about her torn deck. Finally: "I guess I'll go and—and make sure," he murmured.
"Right-o!" said Tip cheerfully. "Like me to go along, old man?"
Nelson shook his head, smiling faintly. "No, because it mayn't be, and—and then I-—I guess I don't want anyone around!"
At the after companion he halted. He had no right to go where he was going without orders. And what should he say? Perhaps he had better wait. …
But he went on. In the wardroom passage he paused again. Through a partly open door ahead came faint voices, for the ship with its idle engines was very still. He listened, his heart beating hard and chokingly. That was the captain talking now: "… After what you've been through, Captain … make you comfortable … find some clothes …" Then another voice came to the listener, a deeper voice, speaking slowly, wearily. …
Nelson went forward like one in a dream. The door of the captain's cabin stood half open. On the threshold he stopped and raised his hand in salute, and the captain, glancing up, saw him.
"Well, my man?" he demanded sharply.
The second occupant of the cabin was hidden by the door.
Nelson answered in a queer, weak voice: "Beg pardon, sir. May I speak to my father?"
"Eh? To your father!" The captain's gaze swept perplexedly from Nelson to the tall, gaunt figure in the chair beside him. "Bless my soul! What—what——"
The man beside him was on his feet, and striding to the door, had thrown it open.
"Bless my soul!" repeated the captain.
"Nelson, boy! Is it you?" cried the stranger.
Nelson's arms went out and he clung to the tall figure with straining grasp of dirty, oil-stained hands.
"Gee, Dad, I thought you were dead!" he sobbed
The captain blew his nose loudly, and: "Bless my soul!" he said, "Bless my soul!"
Twilight crept out of the east over leagues of empty sea. The Antietam, patched and tinkered, hobbled slowly toward the oncoming darkness. A mile away the Gyandotte kept her company. A few miles astern a spreading patch at oil marked the grave of the U C 46. For the rest all was tumbling sea, gray green ahead, glinting with copper lights behind where the last rays of the sun touched it. Somewhere behind the darkening horizon lay the shores of France—and safety for the wounded, corpse-laden Antietam.
In a quiet niche of the lower deck a little group sat and talked after supper. Two of them sat very close together, a tall, thin man with grayish hair and a smiling, wistfully happy youth of eighteen. With them were Martin and Tip and Garey. Captain Troy had told his story for them and they had listened raptly. They had heard how, after the explosion of the first shell aboard the Jonas Clinton, he had come to himself in the water, and how, dazed by a blow on the head and consequently unconscious, he had vainly tried to get back to the schooner, and had only recovered full consciousness days later, when he found himself lying in a bunk in the submarine. They had treated him fairly enough and had landed him a week later on German soil. After that he had been taken, with many other prisoners of war, to a great prison camp in East Prussia. He had been there almost a year when he and nearly a hundred others of many nationalities, all of whom had been sailors, were packed into cars and shipped westward again. At some port—the Captain believed it to have been Bremerhaven—they had been given their choice of going onto the submarines or working on the fortifications on Heligoland. Captain Troy had hesitated but a moment. The sea was his home and, once afloat again, he believed he could make his escape. But there had never been a chance. He had been the only prisoner aboard and they had watched his every movement. The U C 46 had been out nearly three weeks before she had sighted her first prey, the Antietam. By that time Captain Troy had in a measure gained the confidence of the officers and crew and was given work in the engine room. His chance had come that day when the U-boat had gone to the surface and the crew had been serving the deck guns or watching the destroying of the merchantman. He had not tampered with the valves, for he had not known how to, but, finding a moment when he had the motor room to himself, he had managed to disconnect and short-circuit the main feed cable between battery and dynamo. He had expected to be found out and killed, but, with the Gyandotte's shells raining about them, the officers of the U-boat had been too confused to trace the trouble. Finding that the motors would not work and that they could not submerge, they had blown out the tanks again and surrendered. Evidently no suspicion had attached to him, for he had been allowed to follow the others on deck, from where he had leaped overboard and tried to reach the cruiser.
"And now, sir," asked Tip when the tale was ended, "what will you do?"
"Get back home as soon as I can," replied the Captain unhesitatingly, "and find another ship. She'll be steam this time, I guess. And she'll have a gun and a gun-crew aboard her, and all I'm asking is that one of those dirty 'fishes' will poke her pipes up where I can see 'em!"
"I wish I was going to be along," said Nelson, "I'd like to point that gun for you, dad!"
"Then come. I'd be mighty glad to have you, boy."
But Nelson shook his head slowly. "I guess not, sir. I think I'll stay right here. I suppose I couldn't change if I wanted to, and I don't want to. No, sir, I'll stick and see it out on the Gyandotte."
"Well, just as you say, Nelson. I'd like to have you with me, but you seem to fit pretty well where you are. Maybe it won't be for long now, son. There's got to be an end of it some time."
"And it's going to be the right end, when it comes," said Tip emphatically. "No half-way business, Captain Troy. We're going to fight Germany to her knees, sir!"
"Aye, sir, I hope we will! I wish I was young enough to take a hand! But I ain't. Nelson here'll have to do my fighting for me, I guess."
"Well," laughed Martin, "he seems to be able to! Eh, Tipperary?"
"Rather! What price Number Four gun? Speech, Mr. Garey!"
Garey smiled quietly. "Number Four speaks for herself! And," he added, "every time she speaks she says something!"
"I guess," said Nelson, "I wouldn't like any other gun so well. Nor any other ship so well. So I guess well see it through together until we get what we came after, the little old Gyandotte and I."
"Victory for the Allies!" said Tip.
"Peace for the whole world," added Martin.
"Yes," said Nelson soberly, "and the Freedom of the Seas!"