For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

ON THE THAMES

THOSE on the Wanderer were all so glad to see him back, and showed it so positively, that he felt almost disloyal in wanting to leave the boat. Ensign Stowell, although he only returned Nelson's salute when the latter stepped aboard, later shook hands with him and enquired about the arm and was "so awfully decent," as Nelson called it to himself, that he found himself wishing that Fate would somehow fix it so that when his transfer came, if it did come, he would find himself still under the Ensign.

A week passed, and then another, and he began to think that, after all, he was destined to knock about Cape Cod in the Wanderer for the rest of the war. He had not mentioned the encounter with the Navy official to anyone, not even to Billy Masters, who would have heard it if anyone had. And as the days went by and it became more and more evident that nothing was to come of that meeting on the train, he was glad he had kept it to himself. He wondered whether the official had lost the card with the name scrawled on the back or whether he had just decided not to bother about the affair.

Meanwhile life on the Wanderer was by no means lacking in interest. They had been allowed, at last, sufficient ammunition for gun practice and this was held several times a week. Nelson was assigned to the after gun crew, under Lanky Staples, and in the course of the next few weeks obtained quite a little instruction and experience. Lanky had a fine contempt for the toy, as he called the three-pounder, but managed to make some creditable hits with it. Nelson bought a book on ordnance and ammunition and studied it in his leisure time, determined that sooner or later he would qualify as gunner's mate. He got practice in sighting and loading and showed enough promise to cause Cochran to take him under his wing and teach him a good deal of practical gunnery, which was the only kind the gunner's mate knew.

The Wanderer flitted up and down the coast in fair weather and foul, although there was not much of the latter that Spring, and had her moments of interest. There was a submarine scare early in June and one breezy morning the patrol boat went dashing off to the south, quite hopefully, in obedience to orders. But the rumored sub didn't materialize and they ran into a heavy sea and broke a propeller shaft and had to wallow into New London for repairs. It was a three-day job to install a new shaft and Nelson and Billy Masters went sight-seeing on various occasions and found quite a lot to interest them. Some four hundred reserves from the Newport station had recently been dumped down on a New London pier and were using it as barracks, and they discovered several acquaintances amongst them and had a rather good time. They attended a dance at the hotel one evening—although Nelson didn't dance, went over a mine layer, shopped along State street and visited the submarine base up at the old Navy Yard.

The latter excursion happened in an odd way. Nelson and Billy were admiring some perfectly gorgeous strawberry-pink and nile-green shirts in a haberdasher's window one afternoon when they heard someone say:

"I'll buy you a dozen of those if you'll put them on." The speaker was a chap in sailor's togs whose cap ribbon bore the legend "U. S. Submarine Base." He was a good looking fellow, about two years Nelson's senior, slim, sun-browned and merry, and Nelson took to him on the instant. But it was Billy who answered; Billy always had an answer ready.

"Sure, I'll put 'em on," he said. "I'll take the pink ones."

"Right-o! Me for you, son! Come on in and pick them out."

But Billy declined to carry his bluff any further. "Tell you what I will do, though," he hedged. "I'll take 'em now and wear 'em the day we march into Berlin!"

"Nothing doing, old man. I want to live to see it. What's the Wanderer? Mine-layer?"

"No, coast patrol," answered Billy. "We bust a shaft the other day chasing a U-boat and are in for repairs."

"Chasing a U-boat? Sounds exciting. Catch her?"

"We would have, but she wasn't there," replied Billy gravely. "Are you up at the submarine base? Do they allow folks in there?"

"Yes. And they don't. But if you want to look us over I'll fix it for you. What are you doing now? Want to run up and see us? I'll give you transportation." He nodded at a vividly blue roadster automobile at the curb. "That's my boat, and if you don't mind squeezing a bit——"

"Phew!" exclaimed Billy. "Do they supply you with those dinguses? Guess I'll transfer to the submarine branch and get me one."

The car was a handsome affair of a world-famous foreign make. Their new acquaintance laughed.

"No, I had that and brought it with me. We're about three miles from town and it's a long way to walk. What do you say? Want to take a ride?"

"Surest thing you know," agreed Billy. "Who gets in first?"

"I do. One of you can sit on the seat and the other on the floor, Don't drag your feet, though, it tears up the road. All right? Here we go then."

The blue car chugged demurely enough down the street and took its place with a dozen other vehicles before the ferry slip. The driver shut off the engine, since the boat was only just entering, and turned to Nelson, who was in the seat, while Billy sat on the floor, with his knees hunched under his chin, and observed the world with a cheerful grin. "How long have you been this way?" asked the owner of the car.

"What way?" inquired Nelson.

"Oh, you can talk?" laughed the other. "I thought you were dumb. I wondered if you were born that way or if it was just shell-shock! Where's your ship?"

Nelson pointed across to the yard. "On the ways over there. I don't have to talk when Masters is around. Have you been at the submarine base long?"

"No, only about two months. If I stay two months more I'll be gray-headed. It's a hard life." But he smiled as he said it, and Nelson took the statement with a grain of salt.

"Have you ever been submerged?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, they send us down every little while. Maybe they're hoping we won't come up again, but we always do. So far," he added as an afterthought and with a grin.

"Do you like it? The submarine service, I mean."

"First rate. It's mighty interesting and the fellows are corkers; officers, too—most of them. I'd like to see some service, though, before the war's over. They say they're likely to keep us up here six or eight months. Think the war will last that long?" "I think it will last several years yet," replied Nelson soberly.

"Good!" exclaimed the other, starting his engine again as the procession of vehicles moved toward the now empty boat. "No, I didn't mean that, of course," he corrected when they were on board. "But I certainly do want a crack at the Huns before it's over. Want to get out and go forward?"

Nelson elected to remain where he was, but Billy murmured something and strolled off toward the bow.

"So do I," said Nelson, taking op the conversation again. "I want to get across as soon as I can. I suppose it's pretty hard to get into the submarine school, isn't it?"

"Yes, rather. I was in the Naval Militia, but I dropped out and enlisted in the Navy and applied for the submarine branch. Somehow, I got it. Most of the fellows are service men, though."

Billy moseyed back and perched himself on the floorboards again and the blue car rattled across the gang-plank, charged up-hill in the wake of its fellows, turned abruptly to the left and dashed off in a cloud of dust. There wasn't much conversation on the way up to the base, for the driver had his hands full keeping the lurching car to the road and his guests were very busy holding themselves in. But they did exchange names. And soon after that Martin Townsend,—for that, it developed, was the car owner's name—turned the automobile into a field and jumped out.

"How do you like my garage?" he inquired laughingly.

"You don't mean it lives out here?" exclaimed Nelson. The other nodded.

"Surest thing you know. They aren't very much interested in our autos. I notice, though, that the officers are mighty glad to borrow them, when they want to get to town, or to beg a ride. Say, I've gone into New London with eight in that old boat! Had them clinging on to every part except the wheels! Come on down and I'll see if I can get you through."

They were halted by a guard, but Townsend was haughty and insistent and they were finally allowed to enter the gate. There wasn't much that was imposing about the submarine base, but they found it interesting. Townsend took them into the barracks, introduced them to several fellows and then led the way down to the boats. There were only four submarines tied up at the stone dock that afternoon and their guide explained that the others were cruising or doing submerging stunts down the river. They were shown over one of the craft and Billy, who, to use his own words, had never seen one of the contraptions close up, was visibly impressed and asked so many questions that Townsend began to look distressed and Nelson dragged his friend back to the dock. Townsend apologized for not taking them back to the ferry in his car, but he had used up his day's liberty, and so, shaking hands cordially, the boys took leave and climbed into a decrepit "jitney" that had just unloaded three young officers at the gate. Townsend waved them a gay farewell, a straight, lithe form against the sunset glow, and was lost to sight. Nelson was sorry to leave him, for he had taken an unusual fancy to the chap, and he hoped that they would meet again.

They rattled back through a golden haze of dust, dodging other cars by a series of miracles, and reached the Wanderer barely in time to escape a reprimand. They saw Martin Townsend once more before the Wanderer weighed anchor. It was the following morning. Nelson, Billy and Lanky Staples were leaning over the rail after breakfast when there came a swishing sound from the other side of the boat and they looked across the cabin roof. The sound came from a submarine running down-river on the surface. She passed close to the Wanderer and the two officers on the conning tower saluted Lieutenant Hattuck, while the half dozen men standing or walking about the narrow deck waved across. One of them was Townsend, looking much less trim today in a soiled dungaree. He put his hands to his mouth and said something, but Nelson couldn't get the message, and, under the sharp eyes of the officers, Townsend didn't dare repeat it. In a moment the submarine had slipped stealthily past and, with a final wave of his hand, Townsend vanished as the superstructure hid him from view. That, thought Nelson regretfully, was probably the last time he would ever see the fellow. But Fortune plays odd pranks, and, although Nelson couldn't know it then, he was destined to meet Martin Townsend again before long and under strange circumstances.

The Wanderer left New London that afternoon and dropped anchor in New Bedford just before supper time. Ensign Stowell went ashore and came back about nine with mail and newspapers. The arrival of mail was a matter of slight interest to Nelson, since letters seldom came his way. It always made him feel a little lonesome and neglected to watch the others tear open envelopes and hear them read bits of home news, and tonight he left the forecastle to its pleasant diversion and went up on deck. The watch was on duty at the bow, while aft Lieutenant Hattuck and his junior were pacing up and down in conversation. Nelson leaned against the wheel house and watched the lights of the town, and presently bits of the officers' talk came to him along the deck, for the June night was calm, with scarce a breath of wind blowing, and the harbor was quiet.

"Well, I see 'Black Jack's' reached the other side," said the captain.

"Yes, the London dispatches make quite a lot of it."

"It's epochal, Jack. Look at it. An American general and his staff welcomed in England, cheered on the dock and along the street, if the paper speaks true, received like a conqueror——"

The voices died away. Then: "I'm glad it's Pershing," the ensign was saying as the couple neared the listener again. "They'll like him, the English. He's quiet, unassuming, business-like, just the man for the job."

"Hope they give him a free hand over there. He will be too far from home to succeed if they nag him. What I'd like to know——"

So it was General Pershing who had arrived in England, thought Nelson. He tried to picture the event, thrilling a little with pride as he did so. The lieutenant was right: it was epochal. All sorts of epoch-making events were happening nowadays, and would happen. It was rumored that a big army was to follow the commander across within the month. Think of an American army in France! The Stars-and Stripes waving over her trampled, blood-stained battle-fields! It was wonderful and glorious; and it made him feel more out of it than ever. While such great things were happening he was scrubbing decks and polishing bright-work and greasing toy guns on a converted motor boat along Cape Cod! It was unbearable!

He had been so busy with his thoughts that he had not heard the officers' talk for several moments when he was suddenly aroused by the sound of his own name. It was the lieutenant who spoke it and Nelson caught only the tag end of the sentence:

"—— Troy. Have him report to me in the morning."

"I will," said the other. "I'm glad for his sake. He's been wanting badly to get across. I told you about his father, didn't I?"

"Yes. Too bad. Thinks he's still living, you said. Not much chance, I'd say. Still——"

Nelson's heart thumped wildly. It had come at last! He wondered where they were sending him and would have given a good deal to have been able to ask just then. But it wouldn't do. He must wait until morning. He was going across; the ensign had said as much; and that was the main thing! It didn't matter a bit what the ship was so long as it sailed for France or England. He felt sorry for the others then: Lanky, whose one ambition was to serve a fourteen-inch gun; Ensign Stowell, too, and Billy, and all the rest. They would still be kicking their heels aboard the Wanderer back home while he, Nelson, was in the thick of it. Then he wondered if he had heard aright. Perhaps, after all, he had been mistaken. He listened as the officers paced back toward him, but now they were talking of other things. After awhile he went below and laid down in his bunk and was alternately happy and depressed until he finally fell into what was to prove his last sleep aboard the Wanderer.