For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

TWENTY FATHOMS DOWN

HE knew then that Providence had guided him to the side of one of the other ships, that, could he but make himself heard above the roar of the elements, he might yet be saved. The realization brought a renewal of courage. The mere physical contact with something more solid, more stable than the hungry waves endowed his aching body with strength. If he could only hold on! The strain on his cramped fingers was terrific, and at every roll of the hull his body was thrown against it with a violence that must soon bring endurance to an end. He dashed the salt water from his face and shouted at the top of his tired lungs. And then, coming up choking and sputtering from a wave, again sent his appeal toward the deck. Surely, he thought, someone must hear him!

He could no longer stand the pain in the hand and arm that held him to the ship, and with difficulty he reached his right hand up and set the fingers into the narrow crevice and dropped the other away, numb and aching. This brought his face to the hull and turned his body so that it lay closer to the steel plates and was less buffeted. And the position raised his head further so that his breathing periods were more frequent. When his head was above water he shouted, but he began to lose hope now, for in that confused roar of wind and water his cries were scarcely audible to him. His hold was precarious and more than once he felt his fingers slipping away. Then, by every effort of weary muscles, pushing against the smooth surface with his left hand, he regained his hold. During one such struggle, with head thrown back and for the instant above the waves, he blinked the water from his eyes and tried to pierce the darkness and glimpse the rail far above him. It must have been some sense other than sight that told him the truth, for no gloom was ever more impenetrable and even the hand that protected his face from the hull was beyond his vision. But, looking up, he suddenly realized that there were no towering sides above him, that it was not a cruiser or destroyer he was clinging to, but a submarine!

And then something that had puzzled him dimly was explained. In groping along the hull he had gained the impression that, instead of bulging outward as it arose it did the opposite. Now, at the risk of losing his hold, he sent his left hand exploring at arm's length and found instant corroboration. The hull receded sharply. He realized then that perhaps no more than another twelve inches beyond his utmost reach was the deck. If he could only pull himself up there! But nothing to grip to, neither protuberance nor recess, met his searching fingers. Somewhere not very far distant must be the conning tower and bridge, and when the next deluge had washed over him and passed he shouted with a desperation born of the knowledge of help at hand and of failing strength. But even as he shouted the thought came to him that in such weather they would be navigating the boat from the tightly-closed conning tower and not from the exposed bridge, and that no cries he was capable of would penetrate its steel sides.

He knew that he could not last much longer. His arm felt as though it was dead, or, to be more exact, it didn't feel at all; sensation had quite passed from it, and it was only by painfully working a finger that he could be certain that his hand still clutched the edge of the little crevice. He was far less reconciled to drowning than he had been before. The injustice of being thrown into the path of rescue and then mercilessly denied it produced a sense of rebellion and even anger. A few feet away from him, beyond that thin steel well, men were talking, perhaps laughing, in warmth and light and comfort, while he was doomed to perish miserably within arm's length of them! A sudden surge of mingled wrath and terror overcame him, and he rained weak blows on the hull until his knuckles were torn and bleeding and the salt set them to stinging, and strove, as the waves would let him, to knock his knees, too, against the plates. Then a calmer mood came, and the hopelessness of further struggle settled over him. If he abandoned the submarine he would be no worse off than before save that he had depleted his strength for swimming. In one way he would better himself, for drowning was far less imminent when riding the seas than while being smothered with the waves that broke over and against the boat. And, after all, he had no choice, for he could no longer hold on. His fingers were slipping fast now and he had no strength to work them back into place. But, somehow, having decided, he found it hard to act. As unfeeling as it had proved, that submarine was tangible and friendly, and letting go would be like releasing one's hold of a rope to drop into unknown depths. He compromised with his decision. He would stay where he was as long as he could. Time enough to cast adrift when his fingers no longer performed their task. He shouted no more now. He only waited and endured.

Moments passed, and then light beat on his closed lids and he opened his eyes. A wave hissed over him, but through it a white glare penetrated. The water passed, the boat rolled, and, choking and gasping, his aching body tossed sprawling against the hull, he heard a voice issue from the fierce radiance that still engulfed him. The words were whisked away by the wind. Something dragged at his free arm and he felt himself being pulled like a sack of grain up the wet, sloping side. He experienced neither joy nor relief, but only a dim wonder. And about that time he ceased to take further interest in things.

Minutes later he awoke to the knowledge of something hot and fragrant at his lips and a voice saying "Drink." He obeyed and a warm glow permeated his chilled body. For a brief instant he opened his eyes wide enough to receive an impression of a painfully white place that, to a vision so long accustomed to darkness, seemed ablaze with lights. Forms moved hazily. The air reeked of oil. An appalling tumult assaulted his ears. The force that held his head up was removed and he sank back with a sigh and went to sleep again.

When he next awoke he was still in the white place and the lights still gleamed, but the noise had ceased and the smell of oil had given way to an odor he could not describe even to himself. And, which was stranger than all, instead of the pitching and tossing he remembered, the place where he lay was almost motionless.

Painfully, for he felt weak and dizzy, and every bone and muscle in his tired body ached, he stopped gazing at the bottom of the bunk above him and moved his head so that he could view his surroundings. He began to remember slowly as he did so, and by the time he realized his surroundings the events of the night before were in orderly sequence. He sighed deeply, and:

"Gee! I'm still alive!" he muttered.

It was a strange place in which he found himself, but his visit to the submarine in New London that time enabled him to recognize it. He was lying in one of the lower bunks in the forward battery compartment which is the men's quarters. There were twelve of these bunks in all, six on each side, three in a tier. One or two of those opposite were occupied. An iron ladder led from the floor to a closed hatch above. Everything was painted white and sweated moisture. A table disputed the center of the compartment with the ladder and about it four men, in soiled and greasy dungarees, were seated. Further aft a sixth man was in evidence. He was drawing coffee at a steaming urn, and Nelson knew him for the cook. There was an electric range beside him, and, opposite, food lockers. Beyond the galley end of the compartment a watertight door stood open, revealing a vista of further compartments. Everywhere ran pipes and wires, with a multitude of valves and switches. The odor which had puzzled him at first now yielded certain recognizable ingredients: hot coffee and food; battery fumes; moist clothing.

He was beneath a cover of two gray blankets. They had removed his outer clothing and it lay, half dried, across his feet. He sniffed longingly at the coffee streaming from the faucet of the shining urn, and when, after a moment, the cook approached the table with three aluminum cups of it in hand, he found his voice.

"May I have some, please?" he asked weakly.

The cook, a lad not much Nelson's senior, with an unmistakable Irish countenance, looked over his shoulder, and the men at the table craned their heads.

"Hello, kid!" said the cook. "You comin' to? Sure you can have some. All you want, I guess."

One of the others stepped across to the bunk. "How are you, Jack?" he asked.

"All right, I think. What boat's this?"

"Q-4. Where'd you come from?"

"Don't be bothering the lad with questions, Terry. He's down and out, I'll bet."

"I feel pretty fair, thanks," said Nelson. "I belong on the Gyandotte. I was on lookout last night—is it morning now?" The man nodded. "Last night it was, then. Something happened. Maybe a boat blew off the davits. Anyway, I went overboard. After awhile I caught hold of this boat and hung on. I shouted, but I thought you didn't hear me. Then someone flashed a light and I woke up down here. That's about all."

"And it's plenty, kid! You were all in when they grabbed you. How long were you in the water?"

"How does he know?" asked one of the others with deep disgust. "Suppose he looked at his watch and timed himself? Sit down here, you chuckle-head, and sop up your coffee and leave the lad be."

"Out o' my way, Terry!" The cook thrust a cup of coffee into Nelson's hand and added sugar. "Kid," he said, "you won the long-distance rough-and-tumble record last night, all right! One of you fellows tell the luff the boy's awake. He wants to speak to him."

"Ay, ay, Cookie! Cut some more bread while I'm gone, will you?" One of the men arose and disappeared through the after door. Nelson propped himself on an elbow and stirred his coffee.

"The storm's all over, isn't it?" he asked.

"Is it, then?" said the cook. "You wouldn't think so if you was up above. It was blowin' about seventy when we left."

"Left? Oh, you mean that you've submerged?"

"You bet you! We've been down nearly four hours now. I've seen a few rough nights in my short but eventful life, kid, but last night had 'em all beat! We was shufflin' around here like dice in a box. How you ever lived in the water is what gets me!"

"How far down are we? Are we sitting on the bottom?"

"Sitting on the bot—say, where do you think you are? New York harbor? There ain't no bottom here, or if there is it would take a day to find it! We're a hundred and twenty feet under, or were an hour ago, and we're doing about four knots."

"Gosh!" exclaimed Nelson in awed tones. "A hundred and twenty feet below the surface! Isn't that a lot?"

"It ain't too much in this rumpus, kid, believe me! Have some coffee? I'd give you some hash, but they said you wasn't to eat till the luff seen you. Here he comes now."

The lieutenant was a man of about thirty-two or -three years of age, short, squarely-built, bearded, round of face and dressed in a stained uniform whose gold braid was dulled and discolored. He had a gruff voice and an all-enveloping smile.

"Hello, Neptune!" he greeted. "All ready to go back where you belong, are you? We're going to shoot you out a tube in a minute."

"No, sir." Nelson saluted weakly, and smiled. "Not quite yet, sir."

"Well, how are you feeling? And where in the name of common sense did you come from?"

"I'm sort of tired, sir, that's all. I went overboard from the Gyandotte. Something broke loose on deck and struck me and first thing I knew I was in the water."

"Pleasant experience! Go ahead and finish your coffee."

"I've bad enough, sir, thanks."

"Feeling hungry?"

"No, sir, not a bit."

"Just as well. We'll feed you up later. Don't know how soon we'll be able to land you back on your ship, though. If this gale keeps on we'll be down some time. What kept you from drowning?"

"I don't know, sir. I had a life-vest on, of course. After I'd been floating around awhile my hand struck against this boat and found a sort of hole——"

"Scupper, probably. How long were you hanging on before we got you?"

Nelson frowned and shook his head. "I don't know. It seemed a long time, but I don't think it could have been more than a quarter of an hour."

"Great Scot! Who was it heard the knocking? You, Clancy, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir. Brainard heard it, too. I thought we were scraping a mine. I wouldn't have heard it only I was in my bunk, and it's a top one, and the knocks were right alongside my head."

"Yes, and he fell out in a hurry, sir!" chuckled the man called Terry. "He did it in the quickest time I ever saw!"

"So would you have if you'd heard it," growled Clancy. "I thought sure we were making friends with a floating mine and I didn't want to be so close to it."

"Don't blame you!" laughed the lieutenant. "Lucky for this man we're a single-huller and that you heard it, though. What's your name?"

"Troy, sir; seaman, second class, Reserve."

"Reserve, eh? Well, there's hope for the Reserves if they're all like you, Troy. You have luck, my boy, and that's better than being born rich. Mix him up some gruel in an hour or so, Cook, and make him take it. We'll put you aboard your ship the first chance there is, Troy, but you'll have to make the best of as for awhile."

"Thank you, sir. I—I'd like to—that is, I mean I'm awfully grateful to you for taking care of me, sir. I guess I'd have been a goner by this time if you hadn't pulled me aboard."

"I guess you would have," rejoined the lieutenant dryly. "Don't see how you stuck it out as long as you did. You'll never die by drowning, young Neptune! Those your duds there? Why aren't they dried? Can't you hang these in front of the stove somehow, Cook? He will want something to put on when he gets up. Here, Clancy, you take charge of this man. See that he's fed and has dry clothing. When he gets up give him something to do to earn his passage."

The lieutenant nodded, frowned, smiled, and strode back to the central station.

Clancy, a red-haired youth of twenty-four or so, rating as a first class machinist's mate, forthwith took over his duties. He viewed Nelson severely, standing beside the bunk with legs spread wide and oil-stained hands on his hips.

"Now then, Mr. Neptune, you heard the luff's words, didn't you?"

Nelson nodded and smiled.

"What you grinning about? Respect is what I'll have from you, my son, and a lot of it! Don't you know better than to grin at your superior officer? What sort of manners do they teach you in the Naval Reserve? Stow that grin, I tell you, and look respectful!"

"Yes, sir," responded Nelson demurely. The petty officer grunted.

"That's better. Now then, hungry?"

"No, thank you."

"Good thing you ain't. You wouldn't get anything fit to eat on this boat, anyway. Just the same there'll be some gruel for you pretty soon if the cook don't forget it or fall asleep. Now then, Cookie, look alive with the young gentleman's wearing apparel! Oh, you've got it, have you?"

"I have; and as to fallin' asleep, believe me, Clancy, I ain't never fallen asleep standin' on my two feet like you do most of the time."

"Is that so? One of your feet would be big enough, without using the other at all. When those clothes are dry, you'd better get into 'em, Mr. Neptune, and then feed your face with some gruel—if you can eat it, which I misdoubt. Then report to me in the engine room. Get that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Right-o!" Clancy viewed him with a fierce scowl, dropped one eyelid in a portentous wink and swung himself out.

Only the cook was left now, save for the occupants of one or two bunks who stirred uneasily in their sleep. The cook had improvised a clothes line above the electric stove and Nelson's things were already gently steaming.

"Wet clothes is against the rules entirely," observed the cook cheerfully. "But if the luff passes 'em it's not for me to be kickin'. Now I'll start that gruel for you, Nep, but I don't know what it'll be like, for I never made none!"

"It doesn't matter," murmured Nelson. "I'm not hungry."

"Makes no difference. If the luff says you eat, you eat if it kills you."

Nelson digested that in silence a moment. Then: "How many are there aboard here?" he asked.

"Three officers and twenty-one men. And one fresh young Reservist," he added as an afterthought.

"Meaning me? If you call me fresh I'll report to Clancy that your gruel's no good."

"Clancy? That club-footed, knock-kneed galoot! Much I care about Clancy. Where's that package o' oatmeal I had once? Gruel on a submarine! They'll be askin' for asparagus and artichokes next!"

A new party of men entered, three capable looking youngsters not much older than Nelson, and only removing their sea-boots, climbed into bunks. They viewed Nelson with a sort of tired interest, but asked no questions. In something less than three minutes as many new and assorted snores were added to the symphony. Occasionally a sailor passed through toward the bow, or hurried aft again. The sound of voices traveling from the compartments further back reached Nelson as from an underground passage. There was only a slight motion perceptible, a queer lunging and rolling combined that was quite new to anything he had before experienced. Save for the sound of voices and the musical efforts of the sleeping men and Cookie's muttered apostrophes to the simmering gruel, the boat was oddly still. Once when someone far forward in the engine compartment dropped a wrench the clatter was startling. The atmosphere was close, but Nelson found no inconvenience in breathing. Something, and he thought it might be the air, made him strangely sluggish and sleepy, and he was on the point of dozing off again when he heard from beside his bunk a startled exclamation:

"For the love of Mike! See who's here!" Opening his eyes he looked up into the astounded face of Martin Townsend.