For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

CASTAWAYS

NELSON was watching the disembarkation of the prisoners after breakfast when an orderly tapped him on the arm. "Report to the Exec, Troy," he said.

"What? Where is he?"

"Where would he be? Sitting on the for'ard funnel warming his feet, of course. Get a move on!"

Nelson didn't find the Executive Officer where the orderly said, perhaps because he didn't look for him there. Instead, he went aft and paused before a door opening from the wardroom passage, brushing an imaginary speck from his over-shirt and adjusting a gauze bandage which, running diagonally across his forehead above his right eye, gave him a somewhat reckless look. Then, the door being open, he saluted and: "Ordered to report to you, sir," he announced.

"Come in. What's the name?"

"Troy, sir."

"Right" The lieutenant-commander swung about in his swivel chair and scrutinized Nelson swiftly. "You are trainer of Number Four gun crew?"

"Yes, sir."

"You are mentioned in the Gunnery Officer's report, Troy. Tell me what happened yesterday morning on your station."

"The enemy got a five-inch shell into us, sir, about thirty feet forward of Number Four gun. The explosion killed two of our crew, Hoskins and Maynard, and wounded our division officer and four men."

"I see. Your gun captain was wounded, too, wasn't he?"

"Yes, sir, but he's doing finely."

"After that shell came aboard you were minus six of your number then: plugman, pointer, two shellmen——"

"Sight setter, sir, and one powderman."

"What happened then?"

Nelson hesitated. "The injured were removed, sir——"

"The gun was not damaged?"

"Firing circuit was broken, but we got that repaired pretty quick."

"I see." The Executive Officer glanced at a paper that lay on the desk beside him. "And after making repairs you and others continued to serve the gun until the end of the engagement?"

"Yes, sir."

"Who took command?"

"I did, sir. I seemed to be—I thought it was up to me, sir."

"How many were with you?"

"Three, sir, until they got word that we were short-handed. Then they sent us four more men."

"How long were you short-handed, Troy?"

"I don't know, sir. About twenty minutes, maybe."

"Make any hits during that time?"

"Yes, sir, we didn't miss many. We were firing pretty slow, though, because Scott, one of the powdermen, who took the plug, didn't understand it at first. And we had no shellman."

"What did you do?"

"I pointed, sir, and Jennings trained; and we all helped at loading."

"You were hurt, too?"

"Not much, sir. A bit of shell cut my head a little."

"The Gunnery Officer reports that 'Seaman Gunner Troy, Naval Reserve, then took command and with three other seamen, made repairs to electrical circuit and served gun for upwards of half an hour.' You estimate the time at twenty minutes."

"It might have been a half-hour, sir,"

"It's a bit difficult to judge the passage of time under some circumstances." The officer smiled. "In any case you did good work, Troy, and I shall take pleasure in recommending you for promotion."

Nelson flushed. "Thank you, sir," he murmured. Then: "I didn't do any more than Jennings and Scott and Farley, sir," he disclaimed. "They——"

"I understand. I have their names, too. That's all, Troy."

Nelson saluted and made his way out. In the passage he looked down at his right sleeve and tried to vision a white silk eagle and a single red chevron and) possibly, the crossed cannons of a gunner's mate. He smiled happily as he went on to pay a visit to Garey and tell him of his good fortune. The gun captain had been wounded in the left arm, but a week would put him right.

The Gyandotte laid up at South Shields for three days, during which time the sound of pneumatic drills and hammers made life hideous. Then there was painting to be done over the new plates. Ashore the Gyandotte's crew swaggered a little, less from vanity than from a sense of pleasure in having contributed their bit, and no longer had to sit mum while "Limie" men told of desperate deeds in the North Sea. A message of praise from their own Admiral and one from the British Admiral were posted, and they learned that they had "worthily upheld the traditions of the United States Navy." The public, however, received a very meager account of that engagement.

The Gyandotte hurried back to Queenstown as soon as repairs were completed and reported for duty. It may have been imagination, but it really seemed to Nelson that the little battle-tried cruiser held herself more cockily than usual when she steamed between the forts that afternoon. Two days later she was pounding the seas off Cape Clear, bound west to meet another covey of nervous transports, and the monotony of the old life threatened again.

Two trips to the border of the danger zone she made before an incident worth recording occurred, and then the incident was of more interest to Nelson than to others aboard. They were steaming westward, some eighty miles from the Cape at the time. Ahead and astern were three destroyers and two cruisers. The sea was as much like a mill-pond as it ever gets in that locality, where fathoms are few, and a bright late October sun made dancing ripples across the water as it climbed into the eastern sky. It was at about half-past seven when a lookout reported to the bridge that what seemed to be a small boat was in sight to the north. Signals were exchanged with the four-stack cruiser behind and presently the Gyandotte left her place and bore northward toward where a tiny dark speck lay on the blue ocean.

Rescuing "strafed" mariners in open boats had long since become an old story, but one never knew what would be revealed in the way of suffering and pathos, and as the cruiser drew near the little boat the officers and men flocked. to the rail. At a quarter of a mile distant the tiny craft seemed empty, but the foretop lookout reported persons in the bottom of the boat. The Gyandotte gave a questioning blast and, in answer, an arm appeared above the gunwale and waved feebly. As the cruiser slowed and began to turn a boat was lowered and presently was pulling lustily for the derelict. Reaching it, the rescuers made a line fast to the bow and brought it alongside in tow, and then those on deck could see what was there.

It was a tiny boat, no larger than a yacht's tender. In the bottom of it were five forms, three sailors and two officers. At first glance life seemed to have departed from all of them, but as they were lifted out two showed consciousness. Quickly they were raised aboard and carried to the hospital: an elderly officer whose salt-stained uniform showed him to be a British Naval Reserve lieutenant, a younger man with the insignia of a midshipman and three sailors. Something in the appearance of the younger officer stirred Nelson's memory and he thrust himself through the throng for a closer look. And as he did so, the midshipman, being borne past, opened his eyes for a brief instant and his listless gaze encountered Nelson's face, and in that instant recognition flickered in the blue eyes. Then the lids fell again wearily and he passed from sight, and Nelson, steadying himself against a stanchion, felt sick and faint. For the gray countenance had been that of Tip!

Nelson spent a miserable half-hour before he at last got word with one of the hospital apprentices and asked for news.

"Eh?" said the apprentice. "Him? Oh, he'll pull through, The old chap's been dead two days, though, I guess. One of the sailors, too. The midshipman and one of the others will come around. We haven't got their story yet. Too weak to talk. I reckon a couple of them'll he taking their meals regular tomorrow."

He was very, very glad that Tip would live, so glad that for a moment he forgot the others. Then, recalling the somewhat melancholy and stiff-mannered elderly lieutenant to whom Tip had introduced him on the Sans Souci that day, he felt horribly sorry. He wondered what had been the fate of that gallant little patrol boat, and whether all the rest of the crew had perished. In the afternoon he took his courage in hand and made inquiry of the Medical Officer, explaining his interest. The officer was very kind and gave Nelson all the information he had, which was that Midshipman Tipper was suffering from hunger and exposure and at the moment was very weak, but that he was responding excellently to treatment and that he would undoubtedly be on his feet in a day or two. Then it was the Medical Officer's turn to question, and Nelson told him what he knew of the rescued men and the Sans Souci, and the officer made notes.

"We'll make report," he said. "Glad to get the information. I'll see that you have a chance to talk with your friend as soon as he's in condition to see you."

It was not until the second day later, however, by which time the Gyandotte was headed eastward once more, while many troopships and convoys led and followed, that Nelson received permission to visit Tip. He found him in one of the officers' staterooms, whither he had been removed after a brief stay in the sick bay. He didn't look much like the white-faced, hollow-eyed youth who had been lifted over the side three days before. He was lying in a berth, partly dressed, with an American magazine in his hand when Nelson appeared. The magazine dropped to the floor and Tip gave a very healthy whoop of delight as the door swung open.

"Wot cheer, Troy!" he exclaimed. "I thought you weren't coming to see a chap." He reached forth an eager hand and gave Nelson's a hard grip. "Isn't it rum I should have been picked up by your ship? I say, when I saw you last I never looked for this sort of a—whatyoucall it—reunion! Isn't it horrible about the poor old Sans Souci?" His smile faded abruptly and he shook his head.

"What happened?" asked Nelson, seating himself.

"That's so, you don't know, do you? I'll spin the yarn for you in a moment. Tell me first about yourself. Everything all right? I hear you're in line for a petty officership all along of being a bloomin' hero awhile back."

"Never mind about me, Tip. I'm all right. What happened to you?"

"Oh, me? We-ell, it was a rotten bit of luck, Troy. You know the dear old Luff's gone?" Nelson nodded. "Yes, flickered out the first night we were afloat. Died like a hero, though." Tip's lip trembled. "Troy, if—if the Lord doesn't make 'em pay for all the wickedness they've done——" He swallowed hard, and then the old smile flooded back. "They got us a week ago today—no, a week ago yesterday. We were jaunting along all cozy about twenty miles so'west of St. Gowan's Head. It was a fine moonlight night and the sea was decently calm and the dear little tub was doing her standard of twelve knots. There was one of our destroyers running close to starboard and she'd just blinked us to keep off when Nutley, who was standing look- out for'ard, gave a yell. I was on the bridge and didn't hear what he shouted, but I ordered hard aport, taking a chance, as you'd say. I fancy it wouldn't have made a pennyworth of difference what I'd ordered, for the 'moldie' was right under us before Nutley saw it. It struck us amidship and broke us fair in two. We never saw hide nor hair of the 'fish' thet did it. We just made an infernal noise and went down in about two minutes, like a match you'd broken in the middle. Most of the men were killed by the explosion, but there was Nutley and Grogan and me for'ard and out of it, for some reason. The bridge went half-way up to the signal pole, with me clinging to it, and came down in pieces. Nutley was cutting the lashings of the boat—we had only the one—and Grogan was tangled up in the wheel. I made a flying leap below, and I could see the water boiling up already where the bottom was ripped, and got the dear old Luff out. Another chap, Milton, an awfully decent fellow, bobbed up alongside and we five got into the boat. By that time the destroyer was signaling and trying to pick us up with her searchlight, but for some unknown reason she didn't come near us. You wait till I get the Admiralty's ear, rot her! We lay around for a long while and tried to find some more of our men, but they didn't come up. Finally, about two in the morning, we started to make Lundy Island, the nearest land. But the wind came up before we were half-way there and there were only Nutley and me to row and only two oars and a piece of a third, and the sea was making fast Seeing we couldn't reach Lundy, we tried keeping her headed south, thinking we'd fetch Penzance or somewhere down there. But the wind blew us straight out and we couldn't do a thing. The Lieutenant died about four o'clock. He'd been rather badly hurt, 'though I didn't know how badly then. I wasn't very fit myself. Nutley was the only one of us in decent shape, I guess."

"Milton, poor chap, died the next forenoon. You wouldn't believe that we could have blown all the way from about ten miles this side of Lundy to where you found us and never seen a sail. That's what we did, though. Practically, at any rate. That first night—meaning the second night, really—we saw lights twice and used up all the matches we had trying to make a flare. After that we had all we could do to keep in the boat, for a beastly storm came up and we thought we were done for. Not that we'd have cared much, anyway. We saw Fastnet Light through the rain, but it was ten miles away at least. The next morning we were out of sight of land and didn't know where we were. We hadn't any water and hadn't any food, and—oh, it was pretty bad, Troy! Grogan kept going until the evening before you got us. Then he went off. That left just Nutley and me. We wanted to get rid of the others to lighten the boat, but we couldn't lift them. That morning when you sighted us I was saying my prayers, or trying to. I thought Nutley was dead, too. He didn't answer when I spoke to him. He says I didn't speak, but he's quite wrong. Well, you know the rest."

"It must have been awful," said Nelson. "Is the man you spoke of all right now? Nutley, I mean?"

"Right as a trivet. But it makes a chap a bit serious to think that out of fourteen of us only two are alive today. Well, as our friends the French say, it is the war."

"What will you do now?" asked Nelson.

"Get back to Queenstown first, I fancy, and then try hard to get a command of my own. I say, I'd like that, what? There's no reason why I shouldn't have it, you know. Lots of chaps not half so brilliant and clever as I am have command of chasers."

"You sort of hate yourself, don't you?" laughed Nelson.

Tip grinned. "You've got to be a bit cocky or you don't get anything. Wait till I have a chin with the dear old Admiral!"

"Bet you he will put you in irons," jeered the other.

"Take you, Yank! Now what about that stunt of yours when you licked the German Navy alone and unassisted? Er, what is it you say? Come—come over, eh?"

"Come across?"

"Right-o! Come across!"