For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER

MANY of the subsequent details Nelson failed to see, for he was put aboard the Wanderer and consigned to his bunk, after which Sawyer, machinist's mate and the nearest thing to a surgeon that the boat boasted, made a fairly neat job of cleansing and bandaging the wound.

"The bullet's in there yet, Chatty," he said with what sounded like professional satisfaction. "I can feel it and——"

"Ouch! So can I!" affirmed Nelson.

"Sure! But a doc will have it out in no time. If it hasn't bust the bone you'll be lucky, though." With which cheering observation Sawyer went his way and Nelson laid there and ruefully considered his luck and tried to picture, through the evidence of his ears, what was going on "topside."

Half an hour after the surprise party in the cave, the four prisoners were safely aboard, Cochran with much gusto had put a three-inch shell through their motor boat and the Wanderer was hiking back to New Bedford. There was a conversation between the captain and Lieutenant Haegel in the after cabin on the way back, attended by Ensign Stowell, but what was said no one else aboard ever knew. Nelson's personal interest in the affairs of the four conspirators ended soon after he had worried down a small portion of diluted broth, for he went to sleep and slept until the Wanderer reached port. It was the rattling of the winch that aroused him. Presently Ensign Stowell entered.

"How's the arm, Troy?" he enquired. "I was down here an hour ago, but you were sleeping."

"It doesn't hurt, sir," replied Nelson, not very truthfully.

"Good! I'm going to send you up to the hospital and have that bullet out. You'd better stay there a few days. No use trying to use your arm until the stiffness has gone. When they discharge you, report back on board. We'll be glad to see you again. I'll send one of the men to help you dress. Good, luck, Troy."

It was Billy Masters who appeared to act the rôle of valet, but Billy divided between resentment at being kept out of the underground fracas and elation over the successful outcome of the Wanderer's first engagement with the enemy. He expressed no sympathy for Nelson, but on the contrary regarded him with envy. While he handed Nelson his clothes and helped him to get into them he rattled on with his news.

"Some haul that was, Chatty, believe me. This fellow with the waxed mustache is a German army officer. He's been living over at a place called Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard pretending his name was Schmitt or something. Made believe he was an American citizen and said he was writing a book about the island and its history and all that. The others don't amount to much. One's a German named Anhalt and another's a sort of Russian; I forget what sort. The fellow who did the telegraphing is a poor mutt they picked up in Canada. Guess he hasn't got any nationality. Seems the Secret Service has been after this Haegel guy for months but couldn't find him. They knew he was in the country, though, and suspected he'd be mixed up in some wireless stunt. A couple of days ago the Canadian—if that's what he is, which I don't believe, because he don't look like any Canadian I ever saw—goes into a drug store in New Bedford and gets a prescription filled. He had to wait awhile for it, you see, and while he was waiting he leans on the counter and does like this, see? Like he was working a telegraph key. Well, the drug fellow was one of these wireless fiends before the government put 'em out of business and he listened to what the guy was tapping out. First he says, 'Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up'! like that, over and over. Then he says a lot of figures that don't mean anything to the drug fellow, and after that some more nonsense. And he gets his medicine and goes out. But the drug fellow gets to thinking about him. He's seen the guy around for about a month and he don't ever seem to have anything special to do. So that evening he goes and tells his story to a fellow he knows who's some sort of a United States attorney or something. The attorney hands it along to the Secret Service sleuths who've been snooping around looking for a wireless station somewhere on the Cape, do you see? After that it was easy. They find out where this poor guy lives and watch him and they see this Anhalt fellow come sneaking around at night and they hears 'em make a date for this morning at four o'clock and hears 'em speak of that island back there. The Hollis got the job first, but she had another date up the coast and so hands it over to us. What this Haegel fellow was doing was getting news of sailings from American ports from some pal in New York or somewhere by mail and then going over to that island and sending it by wireless to Swedish and Norwegian ships out to sea. All they had to do was pass it on when they got near enough the other side. Easy, eh? Don't you say anything about it, for no one's supposed to know."

"Where did you hear it?" asked Nelson.

Billy blinked and hesitated. Finally: "Well, I was leaning over the rail aft last night after we left New Bedford and the cap and the junior was talking it over in the cabin and it sort of floated out!"

"You made believe you didn't know anything about it!" charged Nelson. Billy Masters grinned.

"Sure! A fellow don't repeat what he ain't supposed to know, does he?"

"What are you doing now?" Nelson laughed.

"Oh, it don't matter now. It's all over. Gee, you're a lucky guy, Chatty. You get swell grub in the hospitals!"

After a week of it, however, Nelson didn't agree with Billy. But minor surgical case such as he was is not likely to find hospital food quite satisfying. After the first two days Nelson's normally healthy appetite returned in its full vigor and more than once he would gladly have exchanged his rations for the solid "chow" of the Wanderer's forecastle. The bullet had slightly splintered the bone of the upper arm. The doctor called it the "humerus," a name for it which Nelson entirely disapproved of. Two weeks was the period of convalescence, in any case, and for a full fortnight Nelson mooned around the hospital and the town. During that time the Wanderer came into port but once and Billy Masters and Lanky Staples came to see him and told him of their doings. He hadn't missed much in the way of excitement, however, for the patrol boat had done nothing more adventurous than fire at a butter firkin, narrowly escape collision with a trawler in a fog and back into a wharf at Provincetown. Lanky expressed disgust at the monotonous emptiness of existence and Billy hinted darkly at deserting and enlisting in the British Army in Canada if things didn't pick up pretty soon.

Nelson had plenty of time for thought during that dragging fortnight, and the more he thought the more he was inclined to agree with Lanky and Billy. He had enlisted in the Naval Reserves because he wanted to fight the Germans. Apprehending a spy or two might be useful work, but it wasn't to his mind vital enough to the matter in hand, which was beating Germany. He had spoken very nearly the truth when he had told Ensign Stowell that it wasn't exactly revenge for a personal injury inflicted that he sought, but he was, after all, quite human, and there were times when revenge seemed very desirable to him. He still refused to believe, in the face of all probability, that his father was really dead, although none of his relatives up in Maine shared his confidence. Nelson's nearest relation now was his Uncle Peter, a mild-mannered, elderly man who had once served as mate on a lumber schooner but who now eked out a scant living as proprietor of a little store in the home town. Uncle Peter firmly believed that his younger brother was dead, and, or so it had seemed to Nelson, had taken a sort of sad satisfaction in so believing. He had frowned on the boy's expressed determination of entering the Navy and had even done what little was in his power to thwart him. After a fortnight at home, a home now presided over by an ancient, sharp-featured woman housekeeper whom Nelson had grown into the habit of calling "Aunt Mehitabel," although she was no relation, he had bidden a constrained good-bye to Uncle Peter and a sad one to Pickles and, possessed of the munificent sum of eighty-odd dollars, had made his way to Boston. There a cousin by marriage had taken him in overnight and the next day he had sought advice, enlisted in the Reserves and been sent to Newport.

The months that followed had been pleasant and busy, and he had succeeded for whole hours at a stretch in forgetting to be lonely. He had made many acquaintances but no firm friends. He didn't make friends readily, it seemed, although he was naturally affectionate and, now that he no longer had his father to chum with, would gladly have spent some of that pent-up affection on one of his fellows. But that experience on the night of the fourteenth of October had sobered him even more than he himself realized and possibly his quiet, silent ways unintentionally held others off. He had done well at the station, for he had more or less nautical knowledge to build on and was keen to observe and quick to learn. He had sought to specialize in gunnery, but owing to the crowded condition of the station at the time and to confusion resultant on constant changes in plans and methods he had made only slight progress when his transference to the coast Patrol Service came. He left the station with the rating of second-class seaman and with a good all-around knowledge of a seaman's duties.

As the time to report aboard the Wanderer drew near he found that, while he was impatient for duty again, existence aboard the patrol boat appealed but little to him. He set his wits to work in the endeavor to find some means of securing a transfer, but when the morning of his discharge from the hospital arrived he had failed so far to find any. The Wanderer was at Buzzard's Bay and he was to go there by train, arriving at four-twenty in the afternoon. Between New Bedford and Buzzard's Bay Fate stepped in and took a hand in his affairs.

The train was a leisurely one and stopped frequently. Nelson, hunched in the window end of a red velvet seat, with his canvas bag between his feet—that bag holding nearly all his worldly possessions until such time as the slow-moving arm of the Law, set in motion by Uncle Peter, had distributed his father's estate—looked out on the pleasant vistas of villages and harbors and open water warming in the May sunlight and felt, for some reason, rather pathetic. It was what he himself would have called "a corking day," and yet the very "corkingness" of it somehow depressed him. He was so busy feeling depressed that he scarcely noticed when, after leaving one of the small stations along the route, someone took the other half of his seat. Nelson merely drew into himself a bit more, kicked his bag a little further toward the window and went on being mournful. He didn't see that the newcomer observed him more than once with kindly interest and seemed inclined to open a conversation. He was a man of apparently fifty years, with a pair of very deep blue eyes behind shell-rimmed glasses, a closely-cropped gray mustache and a sun-tanned face. He sat very erect in his seat, a light overcoat, carefully folded, laid across the knees of his immaculate steel-gray trousers, and at intervals ran his gaze over a Boston morning paper which, however, failed to hold his attention for long at a time. It was he who finally commenced the conversation.

"Transferring?" he inquired.

Nelson looked around rather blankly. "Sir?"

The man smiled. "I asked if you were transferring. I see you have your bag with you."

"No, sir, I'm rejoining my boat at Buzzard's Bay."

The other nodded, darting a swift glance at the boy's cap ribbon. "Wanderer, eh? Patrol boat?"

"Yes, sir." Nelson was, in turn, doing some looking, too, and there was something about his neighbor that suggested authority. Still it didn't do to talk too freely. They had been plentifully warned against that.

"Been on liberty?" pursued the man.

"No, sir. Hospital."

"Really? Nothing serious, I hope."

"No, sir." The gentleman looked expectant of further details, but Nelson said no more. After a moment the former asked: "Who's in command of the Wanderer?"

"Lieutenant Hattuck."

"Hattuck, eh?" He seemed trying to recall something. Finally: "Yes, yes, of course. I thought I knew the name. Commanded the Andover in '98. So he's in the Reserve, is he? How large is your boat, the Wanderer?"

"Not very big," answered Nelson, evasively. The other chuckled.

"You're right, my boy, not to talk too much. I forget that—Hm, let me see." He dipped into a pocket, drew forth a case and selected from it a card which he passed across. "Merely to reassure you," he explained. Nelson accepted the bit of engraved cardboard in surprise, a surprise which increased when he read the name on it, the name of a man high in the Naval affairs of the nation.

"Excuse me, sir, I didn't know——" began

Nelson in some confusion.

"Naturally you wouldn't," laughed the other. "I'm not tagged, thank goodness! You see, I've been on liberty too," he added smiling, "but not, I am glad to say, in hospital. I've been visiting my family for a week. And now, like you, I'm going back to duty."

"Yes, sir," murmured Nelson. As the Navy man made no offer to take his card back the boy held it in his hand, wondering what to do with it. "I guess there's plenty to do in Washington just now, sir," he hazarded.

The other nodded. "A terrific amount of work, yes. I felt guilty most of the time I was away; maybe I enjoyed my vacation more for that reason," he added with his contagious chuckle. Nelson smiled in sympathy.

"It's like playing hookey, sir," he suggested.

"That's it. How do you like the Reserve service—er—by the way, what's your name?"

"Troy, sir. I like it very well, only—I'd rather be on the other side."

"I see. Yes, of course. Well, I dare say you'll get there in time. How long have you been serving?"

"Only about five months. I joined in November. I was at Newport until a month ago. Do you think, sir "

"Well?" asked the man, encouragingly, as Nelson hesitated.

"Do you think I'd have stood a better chance to get across soon if I'd joined the Navy instead of the Reserves, sir?"

"I don't think that would have made much difference, Troy. You youngsters have to wait your turns, you know. We try to select men for the other side who have seen service, but we can't be too particular now, for there's a ship asking a complement every day or two and you new men are getting your chances fast. Navy enlistment has been slower than we hoped for so far, but I think it will pick up. Meanwhile you must console yourself with the knowledge that what you are doing along the coast is just as important as. what our lads are doing in British waters. It's very necessary work, even if it isn't spectacular.

"Yes, sir, I suppose it is, only I want to learn gunnery, and there isn't much chance on our boat. I'm hoping that if I don't get across pretty soon I'll get transferred to the Atlantic Fleet."

"Gunnery, eh?" mused the other. "I see." He was silent a minute. Then: "Just write your name on the back of that card, will you?", he asked. "Here's a pencil. That's it, thanks. I'll tuck this away and perhaps I can do something for you before long. Now tell me," he went on as he slipped the card into a leather wallet, "about that little adventure you had a couple of weeks ago, for I take it that it was the Wanderer that brought in that German spy, Lieutenant—Haegel, isn't it?—and his cronies."

So Nelson told of the incident, and afterwards, led on by his sympathetic audience, told about everything else he knew! It was a veritable orgy of talk for Nelson, and later on, no longer under the spell of the other's personality, he wondered how he had ever come to do it! They parted at a junction soon after Nelson had completed an account of the attack on the Jonas Clinton, and his new acquaintance shook hands and said he hoped they would meet again and got off without further reference to that half promise. But Nelson rejoined the Wanderer in quite a hopeful frame of mind and in much better spirits than when he had left New Bedford. Of course, he reflected, it might be that nothing would come of that encounter, but there had been something about the Navy official suggesting that he had a good memory and that his half promise was as good as another man's written agreement