For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 18
TIP, OF THE "SANS SOUC!"
THE next day Nelson went sight-seeing. He started out with a liberty party that filled several boats, but lost them somewhere ashore and presently found himself wandering along the river street alone. There was so much to see, however, that he failed to notice the absence of his companions for some time. It was a revelation to find that his country had built docks and ways, coal yards and cranes and great storehouses in which to pile the tons and tons of supplies that were landed almost every day from the big cargo boats. He found the transports which they had accompanied through the submarine zone empty of troops, lying along the river and preparing to speed back for a new load. Many were coaling, others were awaiting their turns. He learned that the boys in khaki had debarked the day before and had marched out of town to the big camp which had been built for them. In fact, at times yesterday he had heard the bugles and the strains of the regimental bands as the men had formed on the docks and gone marching away across the bridge and over the hill.
A United States uniform, army or navy, was sufficient voucher to carry its wearer almost anywhere, he found. The French folk smiled and murmured "Bon jour!" and every face seemed to hold a welcome. Nelson wished he knew more French; wished, too, that he was more courageous with the little he did know! The coalyards and dockyards were guarded by United States Marines, and with several of these Nelson conversed. They weren't exactly enthusiastic about their work, for they all wanted something more exciting, or, at least, more diversified, than standing guard over piers. But they spoke hopefully of better times. "We aren't worrying," said one chap, a tow-headed youth who showed more curiosity about the standing of the Chicago American baseball team than anything else. "Pershing'll have us out of here pretty quick. Anyone can do this job. We're fighters and we'll be needed at the front before long. Meanwhile we're doing pretty well for ourselves. This is a nice old burg and the folks are mighty decent to us."
Further along beyond the big locks a huge transport that had been a German liner a few months ago was taking on coal. Nelson's uniform gained him admittance at the gate and he looked on for some time. Coaling ship by machinery was, he decided, a pretty easy proposition compared to doing it by hand. Presently his attention was attracted by a squad of workers in gray uniforms who appeared on the scene. There were about forty of them in all and a half-dozen picturesque French soldiers, carrying guns with extremely long bayonets, were in charge. For an instant Nelson was puzzled. Then it dawned on him that he was looking on his first batch of German prisoners, and he moved nearer. A great pile of coal-blackened planks which had been used on some ship to form temporary bunkers was to be moved away from the front of the dock to a storage place beyond, and at this the prisoners were set. As they passed Nelson, two men to a plank, they looked dirty but cheerful. Evidently they preferred such a task to holding down a muddy trench somewhere on the Front. And, doubtless, they were getting enough to eat, which, if the tales one heard were true, would not have been the case had they been back in their own country. Nelson couldn't manage to work up much enmity against them: they looked too commonplace and dull. Many of them viewed him with mild curiosity as they passed, and one or two grinned. The guards leaned on their rifles and merely watched. Escape would probably have been impossible, since a marine was stationed at every outlet, and, for that matter, it was extremely doubtful, Nelson thought, whether they wanted to escape!
Presently he moved across to where the new pile was forming. The prisoners worked methodically but slowly. When out of ear-shot of the guards they conversed in low tones. One of their number, a round-faced youth of twenty-two or thereabouts, was working by himself, carrying long iron bolts. Nelson observed that he wasn't overburdening himself and that he looked quite satisfied with conditions. The second time he passed he looked across at Nelson, smiled and said: "Hello, kid!" Nelson said "Hello" in reply before he was struck with the oddity of the phrase from the lips of a German prisoner of war. Coming back again the youth stopped.
"How's everything in America?" he asked. He spoke with very little accent.
"All right," answered Nelson.
"I used to live there," went on the other. "St. Louis. Great town, St. Louis. I lived there eight years. Say, were those American soldiers on those ships?"
Nelson replied in the affirmative again and the German looked thoughtful. "If that's true they lied to us," he said. "In Berlin they told us the Yankees wouldn't come. They say that yet, I think. Are you telling the truth?"
"Of course! If you've lived in St. Louis you ought to know an American soldier when you see one."
The other shook his head. "I never saw any when I was there. Well, I guess this war won't last much longer, eh?"
"I hope not."
"So do I. I've had three years of it."
"How long have you been a prisoner?" asked Nelson.
"Four months. It's better than fighting." He grinned and winked. "There was an American in the prison camp where I was guard last Winter who used to say the United States would be in the war this Summer, but I didn't believe him. He was a sailor, like you, but not in the Navy. Now I know that he was right."
"What sort of a looking man was he?" asked Nelson.
"Oh, he was a tall, oldish man. I must go on or Frenchie will stick me with his bayonet."
"Wait! What was his name, this man you speak of?"
"I don't know. I never knew his name. He had a number, but I forget it. He was all right. Nice man. Ship's captain, I think. Tall, big fellow, with——"
There was a shout from the direction of the water and one of the guards came running toward them,lowered. The German laughed and moved on to receive a scolding. Having finished with the prisoner, the guard hurried toward Nelson. He was polite but stern and talked so fast that, even had Nelson understood French, he would not have been able to follow him. But the meaning was apparent. It was forbidden to speak with the prisoners. Nelson tried haltingly to explain that the prisoner in question had information of interest to him, but he couldn't begin to find enough words, and the guard evidently knew no English save "No"; and afterwards Nelson decided that he hadn't even been saying "No," but "Non"!
Nelson lingered about a few minutes longer, but on his next trip the German sedulously avoided his vicinity, and, as the guards were watching him closely every moment, he finally gave up the attempt and made his way forth again. Of course, he reflected, it was probably only a coincidence. There were doubtless many Americans at German prison camps who had been ship's captains and who were tall and "oldish." Still, he couldn't get it out of his head that the man who had predicted the entry of America into the war was his father. He determined to get further speech with the prisoner and tried to think how to arrange for it. In the end he decided to secure the intercession of the Gyandotte's commander, and with that thought in mind returned to the ship at the first opportunity. But Fate was against him, for the captain was on shore and remained there until late that evening. Nelson took his gun captain, Garey, into his confidence meanwhile, and Garey was sympathetic but not overly impressed.
"It's one chance in a hundred, Troy," he said. "Take the average Yankee skipper and it's dollars to doughnuts that he's thin and tall and middle-aged. You see, about all the American prisoners the Germans have got so far are men they're taken off ships. It wouldn't do any harm to hear what that Fritz has to say, but I wouldn't hope for much. What camp was it?"
"He didn't tell me. I was going to ask, but the guard butted in just then."
"Well, you get speech with the Old Man and maybe he can fix it for you. He will if he can, anyway."
But it wasn't to be, and Nelson never saw the round-faced German from St Louis again. The next morning, soon after daybreak, the Gyandotte pulled her anchors up from the bottom of the Gironde and picked her way down-stream and through the mine fields and headed back toward Queenstown.
Nevertheless, after his first disappointment, Nelson was happier for that chance meeting. Sometimes he told himself that it was silly to think that the German had really had speech with his father, but, as drowning persons clutch at straws, so Nelson clutched at that little bit of encouragement. It made life far happier, in any case, and now that Martin was gone life wasn't terribly joyous.
For a month longer the Gyandotte had her base at Queenstown and spent more than half her time at sea convoying transports and great cargo ships back and forth through the danger zone. Six days outside followed by three days in port was the usual rule. Excitement was always just over the horizon, but seldom appeared to cheer the monotony. Only once was the Gyandotte engaged with a U-boat, and that was a long-distance affair that netted nothing save disappointment. The German submarine was not anxious for battle and, after firing four shells wide of the mark, quickly submerged. The Gyandotte's fire was no more deadly than the U-boat's, nor did the depth bombs which were later dropped from the cruiser succeed any better than the shells. All the comfort the Gyandotte could gain from that brief and unsatisfactory encounter lay in the fact that the tramp steamer which had been the U-boat's intended prey was rescued.
On every trip there were alarms, and sometimes a periscope or conning tower was actually sighted. But always the sub dived before she was in range. Nelson found himself sympathizing with the destroyer men who chanted a ditty to the effect that:
But if actual battles were few in the American patrol flotilla that Summer and Fall, there was plenty of incident. Storms became numerous as Autumn appeared, and the Gyandotte gave the lie to those pessimists who doubted her seaworthiness. There were occasions when Nelson concluded that if he ever reached land again it would be either in a small boat or atop a deck hatch, but the little cruiser always came through somehow, even if she almost stood on her beam ends doing it! Meanwhile Nelson found promotion of a sort. A vacancy in the crew of Number Four gun placed him as trainer, a position for which his study and Garey's instructions had well fitted him, and he blossomed forth with a seaman gunner's distinguishing mark, a bursting bomb worked in white silk on his sleeve. He was rather proud of that insignia and fairly ached for a chance to make good at his job.
He received one letter from Martin about the first of October, mailed at some town on the East coast of Scotland whose name Nelson could not decipher, and which, he decided, he wouldn't have been able to pronounce in any case. Martin reported that the Q-4 was lying up undergoing battery replacements. "We've had a busy time of it since I saw you last," he continued. "We're helping the Limie subs patrol this beastly coast around here. There's a big base about twelve miles away where the British fleet is tucked up, and it's our stunt to see that no one slips in and 'strafes' them when they're having tea. It isn't bad fun, but nothing ever happens. They talk about going up and shelling the German fleet out of its base, but I guess it's only talk. It's none of my business, but if I was Jellicoe I'd want more action. The Englishers are a fine lot and we get along with them top-hole. (I'm getting to talk like one fast!) But this is a bleak old corner of the world and we nearly freeze to death when we go out. I wish they'd change us to the Mediterranean this Winter. Send me a letter to the address below and tell me what you're doing these days. Did you see that New York had copped the pennant? Some team, old scout, some team! You remember Jimmy Sanford, on my crew? He's the one with a bald spot in the middle of his head. Well, Jimmy's from Chicago and he won't speak to anyone since he's learned that Chicago has lost the World's Championship. I'll be mighty glad when this shindy is over, old settler. Me for home the first chance I get. I'm sort of fed up on this 'submarinery.' 'I know now that dad was right!"'
Nelson answered the first time he went ashore, but there came no further response from the distant Martin. Nelson had made other friends by now, both aboard the cruiser and ashore, but with none of them was he very intimate and none took the place of Martin in his affections. There was a young English midshipman named Tipper—more generally known as Tip—with whom Nelson chummed ashore. Tip was nineteen, a freckle-faced, tilt-nosed youngster full of fun and enthusiasm. Tip was aboard the British patrol boat Sans Souci, the flippant name having, through inadvertency, been allowed to remain, although most craft of the kind were distinguished by a mere number. Tip was second in command of the Sans Souci and had for superior officer a grave and reverend Reserve lieutenant of fifty-seven or -eight years who, if one believed Tip, left such trifles as navigation in the hands of the junior. There was a further complement of twelve petty officers and men, mostly young and enthusiastic, who apparently begrudged every day that the little converted yacht spent inside the booms. It was the Sans Souci's mission to ride a certain square section of the sea south of St. George's Channel, fair weather or foul, and watch for U-boats, mines and suspicious characters generally.
Nelson made young Mr. Tipper's acquaintance quite by accident in the Y. M. C. A. hut, Tip having come across a joke in an English weekly which he felt compelled to share with someone else. As Nelson happened to be the nearest, Nelson was chucklingly invited to read the humorous paragraph. He did so, found it funny, laughed and was instantly—and metaphorically—clasped to the breast of the smart, good-looking young midshipman. The fact that Nelson was not even a petty officer appeared to have no weight with Tip, who was surprisingly democratic for a British naval officer. Later Nelson discovered a kind of explanation, which was that in Tip's eyes an American was quite different from other beings and that with him the ordinary rules didn't hold good. Tip had queer ideas on the subject of American life and customs, largely due to his reading. He firmly believed that New York and San Francisco were, if not adjacent, at least within a day's journey of each other, and that anywhere between the two cities one plunged into trackless forests and crossed limitless plains inhabited by Indians, cowboys, "bad men," panthers, rattlers, alligators and a variety of less ferocious animals such as elk, bison and antelope. Somewhere north of the plains and forests lay a wild pile of mountains, filled with glaciers and mountain sheep, and beyond those again was a country called Canada, inhabited by Younger Sons. He surprised Nelson one day by asking him if he had Indian blood in him, and was palpably disappointed when Nelson said no. At first Nelson dubbed his new acquaintance "a cheerful idiot," but it didn't take long to find that while Tip was undoubtedly cheerful he was far from being an idiot. Tip had plenty of money and was happiest when spending it. A "jolly good feed" was his favorite extravagance, and Nelson was frequently his guest. Had Tip had his way Nelson would have been entertained in the little hotel he had discovered, at every meal ashore, but Nelson had to refuse many times when he wanted very much to accept simply because he didn't care to be in the other's debt too greatly. On thirty-six dollars a month, which was his present pay as a seaman gunner, he couldn't play host very frequently. One day he went out in a very smart little gig to the Sans Souci and was shown that diminutive "warship."
The Sans Souci had once been a rather luxurious cruising yacht, but luxuries had been shorn away with a stern hand until now she was little more than a hull accommodating engine and bunks, with a small rapid-fire gun mounted on the bow. In length she was just over the dimension of the Wanderer. In seaworthiness, however, she appeared to have the better of that boat. She burned gasoline—or petrol, as they called it in those waters—and storage tanks were scattered all over her, above deck and below. The officers lived in Spartan simplicity, commander and junior sharing a tiny stateroom abaft the engine and eating forward in the galley.
"We have our chunk first, you know," explained Tip. "But it's very seldom we sit down to it, for when this little lady gets into a sea you simply can't keep anything on the table."
Nelson secretly thought that careening about the channel in the Sans Souci might be exciting enough, but he was sort of thankful he didn't have to do it. Sailing the waters of Nantucket Sound in the old Wanderer had been fairly safe work, but tossing about a hundred miles from land in this shallop was another thing entirely! He admired Tip's pluck but didn't envy him.
The Sans Souci had been black at one time, and then the vogue of decorating ship's hulls with lines and ripples and spots had come in, and the little craft was a strange and fearsome thing above the water line. Tip was very proud of the camouflaging, though. He had even taken a hand at it himself, borrowing a brush from the painter and adding some gruesome streaks of pea green to the black, gray, white and blue already there. Tip claimed that you couldn't tell the Sans Souci from a mermaid half a mile distant, and Nelson was prepared to believe it, even though he had never seen a mermaid. Lieutenant Putnam-Earle greeted Nelson politely but failed to accept the hand that Nelson unthinkingly extended. ("You mustn't mind Put," said his junior afterwards. "He's like that. Awf'ly fussy, you know, about rank and all that rot. Comes of one of our oldest families. So old it's fairly putrid. He's not a half bad old chap.") Nelson didn't allow the incident to worry him. Of course the lieutenant had been quite right. A commanding officer doesn't shake hands with an ordinary seaman on being introduced; at least, not on duty. The lieutenant struck Nelson as being a far from cheerful companion for a fellow like Tip, and wondered what it was like to have to live with him for three days at a stretch at sea. The crew seemed a fine lot of young Britons, and he could understand a portion of Tip's enthusiasm for his command.
As the Sans Souci spent three days on duty and three days in port alternately, Nelson usually had a good deal of Tip's society when the Gyandotte was in Queenstown. Liberty was freely granted when the cruiser was in port and Nelson and Tip made several excursions to nearby points of interest, once getting as far afield as Dublin and once to Limerick. Cork was a favorite jaunt until the men of the fleets were forbidden to visit that city because of Sinn Fein demonstrations. Ireland was as much terra incognita to Tip as it was to Nelson, and they had a good deal of fun in exploring it
The Limerick trip was made at Tip's suggestion. He declared that all his life he had wanted to go and see where the poetry was made. Once there, and perched on an outside car, he had inquired affably of the jarvey where they made the limericks. "I'd like to see the factory, you know. We might take home a couple." This was beyond the driver, however. He, it appeared, had never heard of a limerick verse, and didn't seem to think very much of those that Tip recited for his benefit. On the return journey Nelson suggested that Limerick was not likely to win fame, as Cork had done, through the medium of one of the verses named for it, since there was nothing to rhyme with Limerick. Whereupon Tip had gazed fixedly out the carriage window for a space and had then recited triumphantly:
"There was an old man of Limerick
Who said: 'I'm the boy as can trim a rick.'
They gave him a fork,
But he ran off to Cork.
I forget if his name it was Jim or Mick."
"I guess," said Nelson, "the supper is on me."
All the rest of the way back to Queenstown Tip invented limericks, until Nelson said despairingly that he wished he had never mentioned the things!