For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

BOYS IN KHAKI

JUST as the sun broke forth from the bank of mist that trailed its gray banners along the hillsides to the east a squeaking wagon, drawn by a pair of thin, decrepit looking white horses and occupied by two youths in what remained of the blue uniforms of United States sailors, drew up in front of police headquarters in Queenstown. It was too early for many of the citizens to be abroad, although here and there a sleepy pedestrian cast a vacantly curious stare at the odd apparition. From the seat one of the occupants yielded the frayed lines and got down stiffly, disappearing into the station. Those few early persons who paused to witness subsequent events were forced to wait for a good ten minutes. Then the youth in sailor togs, whose left sleeve bore an eagle above crossed cannons, done, in white, and a single scarlet chevron below, emerged once more in company with two stalwart "Bobbies." A hasty glance into the back of the wagon, and the jaded horses were again started and the whole outfit disappeared behind the gates and was lost to view of the curious observers.

Five minutes later a police sergeant was very gingerly introducing a chisel under the lid of the nearest box on the wagon. The sergeant looked a bit unhappy, for Martin had innocently advanced the possibility of the cases containing explosives. At each creak of the lid as it gave to the chisel the sergeant flinched perceptibly, while his companion edged the fraction of an inch further into the background. Even Nelson was none too certain that a nice collection of dynamite bombs or guncotton cylinders was not about to reward their investigation. But in a moment a sigh of relief went up from the sergeant as the lid gave at last and revealed the contents.

"Guns!" he said devoutly.

And guns they were, rifles, neatly nested between much excelsior, with wicked looking sights of a sort quite new to either of the boys if not to the sergeant.

"Ha! German! Cast your eye on 'em, Flaherty! What do you say to that now? The murderin' rapscallions! 'Twas to Dublin they was meanin' to take 'em, mark my words, Flaherty! It's the Sinn Feiners as landed 'em and that divil of a Rosmoyne crowd that was handlin' 'em. If them horses didn't have their last feed forninst the Two Rocks I'll eat me hat. Unhitch 'em, Flaherty, an' put 'em in the stable till the Captain comes on an' tells us what'll we do with 'em. You gentlemen will wait an' give your evidence, please. Step inside, sirs."

"That's all well enough," objected Nelson, "but we're hungry. We haven't had anything to eat since yesterday noon. We'll get our breakfasts and be back in half an hour."

But the sergeant was adamant. They must await the appearance of the captain who was due in another twenty minutes. So, with sighs, they preceded their captor up the steps and into the bare office inside where, for the subsequent twenty or twenty-five minutes, they stifled the demands of two healthy hungers and impatiently awaited the advent of the police captain. The sergeant and the other officer, who appeared to be an ordinary constable, although he exuded so much dignity that the boys were in doubt as to that, were inclined to be chatty but found little encouragement from their guests.

In the course of time, following the arrival of several constables who dribbled in at intervals and had to hear the story of the capture from the sergeant, the captain himself at last materialized. He proved to be a slight, wistful looking man with a Cockney accent and a manner at once apologetic and suspicious. The boys' troubles began the moment the sergeant had finished his story. The captain bent a mild blue eye on them and announced sadly: "Wotever you sy will be used agynst you, my men." At least, that is what Martin always stoutly averred that he said. Nelson thinks he phrased it slightly differently.

However, nothing was used against them, so it didn't matter. The captain asked them so many questions that they were almost dizzy—although lack of food may have had something to do with it—and wrote every answer down slowly, sadly, laboriously. They had to delve into the ancient history to satisfy that official and reveal their ancestors as far back as the third generation, and tell their religious beliefs, political predilections and ethical standards. At last they were allowed to stagger forth, although they were severely informed that it would be their duty to hold themselves in readiness at all times to answer further questions.

If ever food tasted better than it did that morning neither of the boys was able to remember the occasion. They ate until it was necessary to slump down and sit on their spines, until even the cheerful and untidy waitress viewed them apprehensively. After a long, dreamy half hour over the empty coffee cups they arose, paid their scores and made for the landing and the ships to face the music.

Reaching the Gyandotte, Nelson reported to the officer of the deck and hurried below to change his togs before he was sent for to face the first lieutenant. That proved less of an ordeal than he feared, for his straightforward story, strange as it was, carried conviction and even brought more than one fleeting smile to the officer's face. "I'll look into the story, Troy," was the decision, "and if I find it's just as you've told it you'll hear no more. Hereafter, however, see that you keep close enough to the ship so that weather conditions won't get you into trouble. Frustrating Feinians is all very well in a way, Troy, but you aren't here for that."

In the afternoon the Chief Constable, although that might not have been his real title, came aboard in company with two minor officials and Nelson had to go through his story again. This time he was made to feel somewhat less like a criminal. In fact, the Chief intimated that he and Martin had displayed wit and courage, and seemed inclined to be a trifle grateful; which, considering that they had captured more than a hundred rifles, Nelson secretly thought appropriate. There were most sensational if extremely vague stories in the newspapers in which Martin's name was "Townser" and Nelson's "Tory." That ended the incident, so far as they were concerned. What ultimately became of the white horses, which had so faithfully performed their duty that night, and the creaking wagon, they never learned. They met only once more during the stay at Queenstown, and on that occasion their liberties barely overlapped, and they were together but an hour or so. The next day the submarine flotilla slid quietly out of the harbor, with the old mother ship wobbling along behind, and were soon out of sight around Roche's Point. On the Gyandotte it was rumored that they were to go up to the north coast of Scotland and join the British submarines on guard there, but no one knew for certain. There were a great many things concerning the movements of ships that one didn't know in those days.

Nelson missed Martin horribly at first, and was a bit mopey as long as the old Gyandotte stayed at the base. Fortunately for his spirits, that wasn't long. She followed the submarines through the booms just two days later, picking her way between anchored mines as daintily as any fine lady avoiding mud puddles, and, wigwagging a last signal to the forts, headed south. Nelson saw the hills of Queenstown fade into the brown and purple shadows of evening and finally disappear. Later the cruiser altered her course and in the first full darkness the light of Fastnet flashed at them from starboard. Nelson slept finely that night, for the Gyandotte rolled comfortably and creaked and rubbed her seams and was quite home-like again.

In the morning they were out of sight of land, lounging over a calm gray-blue sea in company with three destroyers. At daylight the four ships scuttled into line and held a deal of conversation by means of gay signal flags. The lookouts had hourly spasms, for that summer the waters around Great Britain and France for three hundred miles away from the coasts were thick with floating débris, and, with sufficient imagination on the part of the lookout, an empty lard pail makes an excellent periscope a mile away, while an abandoned mattress at two miles is as fine a conning tower for practice purposes as soul could desire. Those destroyers were new at the game and filled with enthusiasm, and half a dozen times that day the sharp bark of three-inch or four-in guns added to the joy of life. When it wasn't inanimate wreckage that made a lookout gasp and shout incoherently it was a porpoise. A porpoise appearing suddenly near the bow suggests just one thing in the world, and it isn't "Porpoise!" It's "Torpedo!" The Gyandotte was theoretically blown to bits at least five times that day by playful porpoises! What distressed the Gyandotte's secondary battery crews was that while the destroyers were forever letting fly at something, or, at least, preparing to, the Gyandotte's place at number three in the formation presupposed her to be safely guarded and gave no excuse for potting mythical periscopes.

That was a wonderful day, though. Aside from imitation U-boats, there was other excitement. Once they sighted and bore down on a big four-masted schooner from which trailed a long veil of black smoke. One of the destroyers slipped out of column and had speech with the schooner and later reported to the cruiser: "American ship Annie B, Wells, Baltimore, in cargo. Struck a mine yesterday evening and started a fire in some turpentine casks. Says she has fire under control and will be able to make Havre without assistance."

Later two mine sweepers wallowed along under convoy of a diminutive chaser painted with more colors than she had tonnage. Again it was a big Italian freighter, high-sided, rusty-red in spots and squares, ambling along for Bordeaux. But by night the highway was empty and the four ships slid westward into a gentle sea while a soft breeze blew from the south and whispered of Spanish orange groves. Nelson was always glad he experienced the North Atlantic under the conditions he found that day and night, for never again, for as long as he roamed it, was it so kindly and bland.

In the morning, five hundred miles west of Land's End, they awoke to green seas that buffeted the bow under the steady push of a southeast wind and to a sky that alternated sun and squall. The destroyers rolled merrily and the spindrift flew aft as far as their second stacks. There was more signaling about noon and at two o'clock smoke was sighted ahead and the four ships picked up their pace and plowed on into an anxious group of transports and convoys. The transports were big passenger liners and their decks were solid brown streaks where boys in khaki waved and cheered, three and four deep behind the rails, as the newcomers sped amongst them.

That was a fine sight to Nelson. Leaning from the Gyandotte's Number Four gun port, he waved back, and cheered a little, too, but was rather too chokey to make much noise. Lewis, first shellman, who leaned at Nelson's elbow, didn't try to shout. He just grinned all the time, and blinked his eyes, and kept muttering, over and over: "They're the boys to do it! Good old kids from the U. S. A.!" Nelson wondered at the tier on tier of faces, blurred by distance, that looked down from the many decks of the big liners. He couldn't see the expression of any individual countenance, for the Gyandotte didn't get close enough for that, but it seemed to him that a sort of composite and kindly grin beamed over the water from every one of the troopships. Now and then, when the wind allowed, he could hear the cheering, steady, continuous, and always broad-brimmed campaign hats fluttered like brown leaves in a breeze.

"They're the boys! Good old kids from the U. S. A.!" He found himself repeating Lewis' slogan in time to the song of the ship's engines. He felt very warm about his heart and a trifle damp of eye, and was proud and haughty and wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for the whole German Empire just then.

The Gyandotte, flags fluttering, siren shrieking once or twice, sped along the edge of the crowd and wheeled into position far back on the starboard, almost touching elbows with a still smaller cruiser, whose graceful, yacht-like lines brought memories of Guantanamo. Twelve transports and six convoys had been the story until the new escort arrived. Now there were but four of the original convoys left, for two were already showing their propellers and hiking back to the west: "Straight for Broadway," as one yearning voice on the Gyandotte phrased it. Altogether the convoy now consisted of three cruisers—one an armored craft—and five destroyers. The "Big Lady" was saturnine looking and forbidding, like a great gray bulldog, and had four ridiculously high funnels and a basket mast forward and a military mast aft and was all broken out with search lights like a child with measles. She was the flagship, and didn't she know it? She signaled orders so fast that the signalmen dripped perspiration in the teeth of a southeast wind, and she gave the impression of being short-tempered and dangerous to fool with, and the result was that in an incredibly short time everyone was in the right place and on the very best possible behavior and the twelve adventurers were plowing on again at standard speed, every nose set straight for the port of Bordeaux.

It was well worth seeing, that little armada, and so Nelson thought He couldn't see it all at once, for the two destroyers plowing ahead were so far away that he caught only occasional frisky glimpses of their rolling sticks or the fluttering ribbons of their oily smoke, and one ship had a mean way of hiding another. But he could see enough to get a fine proud thrill. The convoys encompassed the transports as collies herd a flock of sheep. In the lead were the two destroyers, while along the flanks were the four cruisers. Two other destroyers plunged along behind. So they steamed until darkness, when, obeying the good night instructions of the flagship, the convoys quartered off toward the rim of the world and the liners increased their intervals. But in the morning the destroyers came scampering back and the cruisers closed in again. That was a blustery, pitch-and-toss day, and Nelson, gazing across after gun drill, felt a bit sorry for those landsmen cooped up on the rolling top-heavy troopships. In such weather, he reflected grimly, there must be many absent from roll-call!

There were few excitements that day, and only once was a gun fired. Then what the target really was Nelson never knew, for the destroyer was far away and seemed to be firing at the horizon. By afternoon staring across the water at the nearest transport palled and even the lookouts slouched despondently at their stations and the watch officers yawned behind their hands and seemed to be asking of the gray skies if it was for this that they had left their cosy firesides! Another night and they were looking for the landfall. More than once on that voyage Nelson's thoughts had dwelt on the events of that tragic night, now almost eleven months ago when the Jonas Clinton had met her fate and he had last seen his father. Doubtless the Gyandotte, since leaving Queenstown, had passed within a hundred miles of the spot, and for all he knew some of the wreckage they had sighted might have been from the schooner. Wind and current play strange tricks with flotsam. Doubtless his nearness to the Clinton's grave accounted for the fact that his father was a great deal in his mind just then. He still managed to cling to the conviction that Captain Troy was alive, although as time passed and no word nor sign reached him the conviction grew weaker. But he had not yet given up hope. Perhaps so long as positive proof was wanting he never would.

The dim, blue shore-line of France crept of above the misty edge of the sea about mid-day and that evening they were anchored in the broad estuary of the Gironde. It was early morning before the tide favored and the transports and one convoy rattled their winches and steamed up the river. The other ships slept at their anchors until daylight and then turned their bows seaward once more. When Nelson looked through a port in the morning he found the Gyandotte lying in sight of the picturesque, red-roofed city of Bordeaux.