For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

"SURFACE!"

DINNER was not very tempting to Nelson, probably because he still felt the effects of his adventure of the night before. Besides, he had eaten nearly a pint of Cookie's remarkable oatmeal gruel, which had been like no other gruel Nelson had ever tasted. The meal consisted of beef stew and potatoes, bread, pudding and tea. While the variety was not great, there was plenty of everything. During the meal Nelson got better acquainted with the crew of the Q-4. They averaged, he guessed, about twenty-two years of age, although one or two were apparently no older than he and several were in the thirties. He very soon learned that, just as the destroyer men looked down on the men of the battleships as mollycoddles, so the submarine men viewed the destroyer crews with pitying contempt. There was a good deal of interest betrayed in the fortunes of the other subs, one or two of which were very small boats and, in the opinion of the Q-4's men, not able to look after themselves in a storm like the present. There was also much speculation as to whether the companion boats had "run it out" or dived. Nelson gathered that each commander had been free to follow his judgment as to submerging. One or two of the others were known to have left the surface and communication had been held with one by means of the submarine telegraph during the morning.

After dinner Martin went on duty in the torpedo compartment, taking Nelson with him. The latter spent nearly two hours there, busied part of the time wiping, while Martin went over the mechanism of a torpedo and delivered a lecture on the missile. Nelson was initiated into the mysteries of the tiny four-cylinder engine, the automatic steering device and the depth gear. In fact, by the time Martin had finished his discourse Nelson could have passed an examination on the subject of the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo very creditably. Martin informed him that the nose contained three hundred pounds of TNT or trinitrotoluol, and after that Nelson treated the business ends of the torpedoes with great respect, although Martin assured him that until the butterfly nut on the protruding tip of the firing pin was off there was no danger. This nut looked like a miniature propeller, having wings that caused it to turn in the water and so release the locking gear of the firing pin. A second safety device was a bolt passing from the outside of the war head to the firing pin to prevent the latter being moved back against the percussion cap. Behind the war head was the compressed air tank by which the propeller at the tail was rotated. When Martin remarked that the air chamber was at the moment charged with 2,250 pounds of air Nelson began to wonder if the war head was, after all, the more dangerous part of the thing! He sincerely hoped that the steel wells were equal to that pressure of over a ton to each square inch! The balance chamber mechanism was a bit too much for Nelson, although Martin patiently tried to make him understand the functions of the gyroscope and the pendulum control. In the end Nelson mastered the reason for those devices, but he was hazy as to why they performed the remarkable stunts attributed to them!

Martin stopped lecturing before he became tiresome and the two boys talked of less technical things, one of them being home. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that Martin talked about his home and Nelson listened. Nelson's home just then had few attractions for him as a matter for discourse. They became very well acquainted that afternoon, and by supper time Nelson, for his part, felt as if the acquaintance was of years' standing. Possibly there is something in being in a watertight cylinder a hundred or more feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean that expedites friendship! At all events, the two boys got along fast, and Nelson, who had never had a real chum of anywhere near his own age, was quite breathlessly happy. The afternoon flew by and it was "grub time" again. Nelson's appetite was fifty per cent better than at noon. They had "submarine turkey" for supper, a viand better known to Nelson as canned salmon, and bread and butter and apple-sauce—also canned—and enough coffee to float the boat. The big coffee urn was always simmering and always on tap, and the amount of the beverage that was consumed during twenty-four hours aboard the Q-4 was awe-inspiring. Some of the men seldom passed the galley that they didn't stop and pour a cupful of it down their throats. And, or so Nelson thought, it wasn't awfully good coffee at that!

By six bells the air in the submarine had become rather foul, and one noticed it by an increased drowsiness and an irritated condition of eyes and throat. In the quarters they began to speak of going up, and it seemed to Nelson that several of the men showed a distinct uneasiness, while many who should have been in their bunks remained up. Nelson found his eyes closing several times and had to move about to throw off the sleepiness that was creeping over him. About half an hour later there was a sudden inclination of the submarine as she began to rise. The sensation was a novel one to Nelson and he cast an alarmed look at Martin.

"Going up," said the latter reassuringly. "Come have a look."

They went to the door leading to the central station and peered through. But save that the captain was at the motor control and that the other occupants of the shining, white compartment looked more alert, the scene was no different than earlier. A petty officer in front of the depth gauge said distinctly:

"Eighty-five, sir."

There was silence again. It seemed to Nelson that there was a more perceptible hum from the end of the passage where the motors were. The slant from bow to stern was slight, but you realized it when you walked, and there was a different motion to the boat, less a roll than a queer side sway. The captain moved a lever in front of him gently.

"Sixty, sir!" announced the officer at the gauge.

"Hold her at fifty," said the captain.

"Ay-y-y, sir!"

The men at the diving rudder controls moved imperceptibly.

"Fifty-seven! Fifty-five! Fifty-three!"

The captain swung the lever again. The sensation of climbing upward passed and the submarine rode on an even keel, the men at the wheels turning them slowly, their eyes on the indicators. The Q-4 was in less quiet water now, for she swung sidewise and dipped fore and aft. The first officer spoke across the compartment.

"Still at it up there."

The captain nodded, peered at the gyroscopic compass and turned about. "We'll give her another three hours, I think. Pass the word for all hands off watch to bunk in and get some sleep."

Nelson climbed into his bunk, after removing boots and jacket, which was as much as any of the others took off, and did his best to get to sleep. But, although he couldn't keep his eyes open save by an effort, sleep was elusive. He finally fell into a sort of doze during which he was more than half aware of movement and sound about him and of the unquiet swinging of the boat. He felt much as he had felt once several years before when a dentist had given him gas to extract a tooth, sort of half here and half there, as he expressed it to himself. He dreamed ridiculous things, although he would have declared afterwards that he had not been enough asleep to dream. One vivid nightmare, in which he was astride a torpedo and shooting along the surface of the water at something like a mile a minute making straight for the towering side of the biggest dreadnought that human imagination had ever visioned, brought him awake with a yelp of terror.

"'Tain't so," said a sleeply voice from across the passage.

The clock in the central station said ting-ting, ting-ting, ting! Relieved to find that it really wasn't so, Nelson settled his head in the crook of his arm again and again closed his eyes. But just as drowsiness was stealing back he heard from beyond the door the short command: "Rise!"

It didn't refer to him, of course, but he obeyed it, curiosity getting the better of sleepiness. There was a sound of rushing air and water as the tanks were blown. He tumbled out of the bunk and stole to the door, doing the last few steps uphill as the submarine began its climb toward the surface. He was sensible of increased speed. There was a new man at the depth gauge, a gunner's mate, and he was calling off the depths in a gruff voice:

"Forty! … Thirty! … Twenty! …"

Every instant the boat rolled more and more and Nelson clutched the side of the bulkhead to keep his feet.

"Raise Number Two periscope!"

"Ten! … Five!"

"Surface!"

Instantly a terrific jar and clatter broke forth as the Diesels took up the task. The submarine wallowed and plunged and quivered. The sudden change from silence to pandemonium was nerve-shattering and appalling. Nelson could hear the seas thunder down on the steel deck and rush off, leaving the submarine staggering. The air already reeked of oil. The first officer hurried up the ladder to the conning tower, followed by a seaman. The captain, who had been peering into the eye-piece of the periscope, swinging it to all points of the compass, turned away.

"Conning tower hatch," he ordered.

A response came from above, and an instant late Nelson felt the refreshing air that blew down into the foul depths. The first officer descended again, a precarious proceeding with the little craft trying her best to turn upside down.

"Wind about forty, I think, and a bad sea. I could see nothing up there."

"Nor I," replied the captain. He picked up the mouthpiece of a voice tube. "Collins? Try to get the flagship, please. Stiles, code our position and ask for orders. Report that we're recharging batteries and shall submerge again in about four hours."

Nelson pulled his boots on with difficulty, rocking about on the bunk, and had just succeeded when Martin climbed down from above like a monkey, yawning and blinking, to subside at Nelson's side.

"We're up, aren't we?" he inquired sleepily. "Fine little sea on, I must say. We'll have four or five hours of this now while they make juice. Oh, gee, why did I ever leave home?" He yawned dismally. "This thing of being a bloomin' hero isn't what it's cracked up to be, Nep. Listen to that! Sometimes I wish this old sardine can had a double hull! Wouldn't you think those seas meant to come right on in and sit in your lap? Well, no more sleep while we're dancing around up here, that's sure and certain! Say, wouldn't it be a bully night to get a torpedo square under the conning tower?"

"Would a torpedo run straight in such a sea?" asked Nelson practically.

"Search me! I suppose not, though. Still, if a U-boat came close enough and aimed at our broadside—Bang! Good night, everybody!"

"But there aren't any U-boats way over here, are there?"

"Probably not, though we aren't so far out of the zone after all. If you could always tell where those sneaking critters kept themselves everything would be easy. They've got a cute way of being where you don't expect them, Nep. Thank goodness, we're getting air in here at last. It was sort of fierce when I went by-low."

"Are they recharging the batteries now?" asked Nelson.

"Suppose so. They'd better be if they aren't, because first thing anyone knows one of these little ripples will bust in a few plates and we'll be exceedingly wet! Let's go through and get some coffee."

Martin didn't trouble to pull his boots on, but shuffled, staggering along, to the forward quarters. Most of the men off duty were already there, which, since a submarine operating on the surface requires but few men to handle her, means that the forward battery compartment was crowded from bulkhead to bulkhead. Nelson and Martin plumped in amongst them, stumbling over a confusion of legs, and subsided on the edge of a bunk whose occupant, sprawled fully dressed therein, only grunted as they collided with his ribs. Two or three of the men were singing, although their voices were scarcely to be heard above the roar of the engines and riot of the seas, and the cook, looking rather sleepy, leaned against the stove and strummed imaginary music from a sauce-pan.

"When I first went to sea my father said to me,
'Jack, keep away from the Submariney.'
Bottled up tight and sick all night,
I know now that Dad was right!"

"Aw, cut it!" begged a miserable voice from an upper bunk.

"Hello, Tim! What cheer?" cried a facetious youth below. There was no reply to the challenge.

"We'll all be like that if we stay up here much longer," grumbled a tall youth with an incipient mustache and a smear of grease across one cheek. "Say, where are we, anyhow, fellows? How much further is it to where we get off?"

"About fifteen hundred miles," answered someone consolingly. "Or it was before we got blown all over the shop. Bet you we aren't any nearer Ireland than we were this time yesterday!"

"Thought we were going to Queenstown," said another.

"So we are, you chump. Where do you think Queenstown is?"

"France, of course! Isn't it?"

There was a laugh at that, and he was informed that unless Ireland had had another Big Wind Queenstown was still across the Channel from France. Nelson began to feel squirmy after awhile and, seeing that Martin was half-asleep, propped up against the bunk frame, he unobtrusively picked his way through the crowd, aware of surreptitious smiles, and made his way back to his bunk, narrowly missing a collision with the junior lieutenant on the way.

The next few hours were most unhappy ones for Nelson. He was just sick enough to be miserable, and for a long time his efforts to get to sleep were vain. He finally fell into a restless slumber, however, from which he was later awakened by a swirling and rushing of water beneath him, followed after a minute by a gurgling sound that proclaimed the main tanks filled. He waited for the engines to stop their racket, but, waiting, he fell asleep again, and when he next awoke the silence was for a moment quite startling.

"Down again," he murmured comfortably. "Fine! Nice and quiet!"

Then he really and truly went to sleep.