For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

OVERBOARD

SOME twenty-five hundred miles lay before them, which meant from five to six days at sea, depending on weather and other fortunes. On the Gyandotte it was pretty unanimously the opinion that the submarines had tackled a "man's job," and that those aboard them were "regular fellows." For the first two days it was customary to ask of a morning: "Have we still got 'em all? But the subs themselves appeared to neither ask nor expect sympathy. They went at their task with a fine nonchalance, plowing along sturdily and steadily at some twelve knots an hour, sometimes hidden from sight beyond the seas that tumbled them, always dripping from end to end. The bridges invariably held one or more rubber-clad forms swaying up and down, back and forth, behind the scant protection of the canvas weather shields. It was a gallant little band, and those on the larger ships were proud of them and, while never losing a chance to make fun of them, would have fought on the instant had anyone so much as hinted that those submarine officers and men weren't the pluckiest chaps in the service.

The usual fog met them off the Banks and the summer weather that had accompanied them up the coast gave place to chill days and chillier nights. On the morning of the third day at sea the fog blew away before a strong northeast wind and they had stormy sunlight until well toward evening. By that time there was talk of dirty weather ahead, and the prediction was verified before midnight. At six bells the Gyandotte was plunging and shaking, while a freshening gale threw whole seas aboard her and seemed to be trying to blow her back where she had come from. The cruiser made hard going of it, showing a nasty disposition to stick her nose under the seas rather than through them. Everything was afloat forward of amidships. Word came presently from the flagship to reduce speed to ten knots, and later it was still further reduced. There was much anxiety as to the submarines and in the Gyandotte's forecastle many a head was shaken commiseratingly that night. The gale increased rather than lessened toward morning and when daylight came it showed a world of mountainous seas and leaden sky. But it also showed fourteen submarines still in sight, although badly out of position. At least, so Nelson was told. Personally he could see but one or two from the Gyandotte, and those only occasionally. Watching the nearer one, a half-mile off the port bow, he shuddered as the tiny gray thing pitched and tossed and rolled and he tried to think what life inside her must be at such a time. And yet that furtive desire still lurked at the back of his consciousness, the desire to cast his lot with those heroic lads. Toward evening, though, the wish was less well defined, for Nelson discovered to his surprised dismay that he was just about half seasick. He had thought himself quite through with such foolishness and was not a little disgusted and ashamed and went to all sorts of lengths to prevent his shipmates from suspecting his condition. He need not have troubled so much, however, for there were older and more experienced men aboard that day who moved about with a greenish pallor and sad eyes. He put his will to it and refused to be beaten, with the result that, after a miserable attempt to eat some supper, merely for the sake of appearances, he felt better and when he went on watch was able to look the tumbling seas in the face without quailing. The gate subsided toward night, but the ocean didn't appear to know it and kept right on being cantankerous, perhaps because it was aware, as those in the plunging ships were not, that the gale's reformation was but temporary.

At seven bells Nelson was on lookout duty, a life-vest strapped around his body and everything but his face hidden by rubber garments. His station was near the waist and, fortunately or unfortunately, according to one's view of subsequent events, on the starboard. Behind him, affording partial shelter from wind and flying spray, arose one of the high funnels, while, above him, a whale-boat, one of the few small boats carried in time of war, lurched against the gloom of the sky. Occasionally he caught the faint glow of a dimmed stern light somewhere ahead, but for the rest the darkness was unrelieved. The night was chill, but he was warmly dressed under his slicker and felt no discomfort from cold. What was uncomfortable was the spray that flew slanting along and across the deck from the big waves that battered the ship's port bow. When a more than usually big sea came aboard the spray rattled against him like hail and the water came swashing about his feet, ankle deep, on its way to the scuppers. That was at half-past eleven, and for some ten minutes before that he had fancied that the wind, which had moderated earlier, was becoming fiercer again. Once a sudden hurricane gust sent him lurching against the pipe rail, tearing his feet from under him in its fury and leaving him clutching desperately at a davit. The onslaught had been so unexpected that it left him gasping for breath. After that he dung with gloved hands to the rail.

A quarter of an hour later he was no longer in doubt as to the behavior of the wind. It had swung a few points further north and had redoubled its fury. The Gyendotte heeled under its assault until Nelson was flattened against the rail. Its voice was a roar between the funnels and a demoniacal shriek in the rigging. Far above him the wireless aerial whistled shrilly. The wind was a blast from the icy reaches of the Greenland Sea and his clutching fingers inside the wet gloves stiffened and numbed. He was heartily glad that his relief would come soon and that he could tuck himself in his hammock, even though it seemed doubtful that sleep would come to many that night. The little cruiser was taking it hard, and no mistake. Steps hurried along the deck in the darkness behind him and off the starboard bow signals flashed. It was the flagship's blinker at work. Presently it ceased and then from here and there in the night other white throbs of light traveled across the hurtling waters. The Gyandotte's speed decreased and the tempest smote Nelson from a new angle. He knew that it meant that the ships had been ordered to change their course and run into the gale. His thoughts sped to the little submarines. He wondered if they could stay afloat in such a sea. And then, so suddenly that it had all happened before the cry of alarm was out of his throat, a wild gust threw itself upon the ship, the deck slanted until the boiling water threatened to engulf it, there was a rending crash behind the boy, something gigantic felled him and drove the breath from his body, and he knew no more.

The period of insensibility was probably brief. Perhaps less than a minute elapsed from the instant that the big funnel, torn away by the wind, crashed down upon boy and rail, until consciousness returned to him. When it did he was for the first brief moment too dazed to realize what had happened or where he was. It was the icy, breath-taking coldness that cleared his brain. He found himself rising through blackness and space, bruised, gasping, struggling instinctively, with the crash of waters about him and the howl of the gale.

He was overboard!

Terror clutched at his heart with fingers colder than the sea. He shrieked aloud, but the sound was torn from his lips by the wind. He thrashed his arms impotently and went down into a great depth, turning over and over while tons of water seethed over him with a dull roaring. He fought for the surface, his garments impeding him but the life-vest aiding, and presently felt the air in his nostrils again. His lungs were choked with the water he had swallowed and he felt horribly sick. But the first panic of unreasoning fright had passed and he was able to think, if not calmly, at least with some clearness. He realized that, horrible as his condition was, drowning was as yet a long way off if he could keep his head above water, for his life-vest would sustain him for days. If death came it would come from exhaustion, for to keep air in his lungs would mean a constant struggle and struggling would soon weary him. The cold he believed he could stand for some time. But he had no illusions. He knew that his chance of being rescued was not one in a hundred, that even could he hold out until daylight, and the storm should pass, there might be no ship to

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The big funnel crashed down upon the boy.

see him. Realizing the utter hopelessness of his plight calmed him. Having once accepted the inevitable, there was no sense in mutiny. He would live as long as he could. After that—well, after that one's troubles were past.

He had worked out of his rubber coat—his cap was long since gone—and now he struggled with his sea boots, and presently cast them off. The buoyance so gained helped wonderfully. His arms were freer for swimming and his feet no longer pulled him down. The seas seemed miles long at times. He was dragged up and up for whole minutes, the gale shrieking its fury in his ears, the water dashing itself into his eyes and mouth and nose, and then held poised for a brief moment high up between sea and sky and finally dropped sickeningly down the slant of rushing water into the next great hollow. All was turmoil and darkness. It was impossible to keep his head out of the water more than half the time, for he was rolled about like a log, and the best he could do was hold his breath and wait, then fill his lungs with the icy blast and be thankful. Somewhere about him were ships, but the nearest might now be a mile away, and even could he sight one in the impenetrable darkness those aboard would never hear his cries. Just to keep on was the only thing; swim as best he could to keep the cramps from his muscles, breathe when he might and die hard.

His mind was unnaturally active. Thoughts flew through his brain at lightning speed. He recalled a thousand incidents, visioned them swiftly and distinctly and passed them on. He wondered about his father, and sobbed once and felt terribly alone and weak. He remembered what he had set out to do a few short months before, and the war which had taken so much of his thought vanished to a mere pin-point of unimportance. Even a world war seemed a puny, silly thing here in this universe of blackness and storm. It would go on to its end, whatever that end might be, and after an interval everything would be the same as before. Flowers would spring up over a million graves and a new generation would run the plowshares across them, and the world would go on and on endlessly. It was strange and puzzling. He would not be there and no one would know or care. His life was just one tiny drop in a great ocean, and of no more importance. He wondered why. …

"Troy, Nelson A., seaman, lost overboard from U. S. S. Gyandotte; uncle, Peter Troy, Wonson, Me." That's the way the papers would have it. There was something woefully uninteresting about it. He had sometimes imagined his name with "killed in action" after it, but here was no implication of heroism. Perhaps he might say that he had "died in performance of his duty." He didn't know. Anyway, what did it matter, for there wouldn't be anyone to tell! Unless, he reflected the next moment, he could tell his mother. Nelson believed implicitly in Heaven, but whether he would get there was another question, he thought. And even if he did, what would it be like, and—Oh, it was a terrible jumble! All a fellow could do was wait and see. And meanwhile there was a task at hand, which was to get his head out of water occasionally and make a fight for it. That was it! He'd go down fighting, as became an American Navy man! There was comfort in that thought. It heartened him, and he struck out more vigorously and shook the brine from his eyes with new determination. He had found a reason for keeping up the struggle.

How long he had been in the water he neither knew nor considered, but it is likely that no more than a quarter of an hour at most had passed since he had been hurtled past the broken rail of the Gyandotte. Sliding over and over, fighting for breath, down the slope of a sea, his outflung hand touched something. He drew it back instinctively, conscious of a sudden pain in the numb fingers. Then startled reason sent him swiftly groping, and in that instant he sensed rather than saw something beside him, something huge that flung the waves back in his stinging eyes. His eager fingers touched again, slid along a hard, wet surface that offered no hold, and he threw his head back and shouted with all his strength. And at the same moment his fingers found a hold, a tiny recess in the smooth object that was sliding past him, and they clutched convulsively and he felt himself being dragged forward through the welter of wind and water, his arm straining at its socket and his body pounded against an object as hard and resisting as a block of stone.