For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

OFF FOR THE OTHER SIDE

THE captured steamship proved to be the Mahlow, before the war a French passenger ship plying between Marseilles and Spanish ports under the name of the Golfe du Lion. She was of some thirty-seven hundred tons. She had been armed with small caliber guns in profusion, for her main deck fairly bristled with them and a multiplicity of ports had been cut on the lower deck. The latter were not apparent when closed, and, as the deck guns were easily hidden, she doubtless looked quite harmless when posing as a merchantman. She was credited by Lloyds with being a fast ship, and her inability to get away from the Gyandotte was later explained by her engineer force as due to poor coal taken aboard at a South American port. She had been at sea two months and had in that time caused considerable havoc from Rio de Janeiro north to the Caribbean. When taken she had on board twenty-six men of the crews of the San Felipe and a second vessel, both destroyed within the past three weeks. These men, however, seemed scarcely more pleased to reach the deck of the Gyandotte than did the bulk of the German sailors. About half of the Mahlow's complement was taken aboard the cruiser and the rest was taken care of by the United States gunboat Hastings, which appeared shortly after the surrender. The Hastings' men were a disgruntled lot, for the tiny gunboat had nearly ripped her seams for six hours, in an effort to get to the scene. The Mahlow had twenty-two dead and a score injured, while aboard her adversary eight had been killed and nine wounded. Of the dead five were of the crew of Number One gun and the rest were of the engineering force. Among the Mahlow's wounded was her executive officer, a young junior lieutenant, who later died in hospital. What happened to the other prisoners Nelson never learned. The last he saw of them was at Norfolk two days later when they were marched away under a guard of marines.

The Mahlow was hopelessly battered and sank about six o'clock, rolling over like a dead whale just before she went under. Her officers looked on unemotionally from the decks of the two enemy ships, seeming to those who watched them more relieved than sorry to see the last of the raider. To Nelson fell the duty of guarding a squad of the prisoners the next day. The men were herded in two lots on the lower deck and the officers occupied fairly comfortable quarters aft. Many of the prisoners had been supplied with clothing, for when taken aboard they were in some cases in tatters. Nelson found that nearly half of the German sailors spoke English enough to be understood. To him they seemed a rather childish lot, more concerned with the rations dealt to them than with their recent misfortunes or their ultimate fate. There were exceptions, however, notably one dark-visaged man who wore the insignia of a machinist's mate. This man refused to eat any food for the first twenty-four hours and spent his time reviling his captors and, or so it appeared, his companions. The latter seemed in fear of him, but the fact didn't keep them from grinning at him behind his back.

The ship's doctor and assistants were busy all the way across to Norfolk, for some of the wounds sustained by the injured men of the German ship were serious. The bodies of the dead aboard the Mahlow had gone down with the ship, but on stretchers, under sheets of sailcoth the Gyandotte's dead went back to their own country for burial. Nelson couldn't help reflecting that the shell that had wrecked Number One gun might just as easily have chosen Number Four, in which case it was probable that he would have been lying quiet under a tarpaulin or groaning in the sick bay at this moment. But he didn't let his thoughts dwell overmuch on that subject. Life was a thing one risked when one joined the country's forces in time of war, and whether one was to die or come safely through was up to the Great Commander.

At Norfolk the Gyandotte underwent repairs and lay in the harbor four days with steam up. Liberty was granted the second day, but not after, and life aboard threatened to grow monotonous in spite of drills and duties. The newspapers made all they could of the action off Bermuda, but, as the Navy Department had given out but the barest facts, there was little to build a story on. Nelson made friends of a sort and picked up all the information and lore obtainable on the subject of guns, ammunition, explosives and fire control. Garey, gun captain of Number Four, was the chief victim of Nelson's passion for knowledge, and Garey, who wore two service stripes and the Navy "E," and who was an untalkative chap ordinarily, spent hours at various times on the boy's enlightenment. Nelson soon had a large fund of information on many subjects concerned with gunnery. He learned the why and wherefore of gas check pads and rings, and how to seat them, learned how to clear powder chamber and mushroom head of oil before firing, how to sponge and re-oil after, learned that anyone using emery or brick dust on certain parts was inherently a criminal who would murder his poor old blind grandmother, learned how to find leaks in the recoil cylinders and how to refill them and much more severely practical information, some of which he had known and forgotten and much of which was new to him.

He dipped into the subject of explosives, which he found intensely interesting, and borrowed a book about them from the ship's library and, I suspect, made rather a nuisance of himself during those four days at anchor and for several days after.

Norfolk was a busy scene just then and scarcely a day passed that didn't witness the arrival or departure of one or more warships. There were submarines there, too, and Nelson often wondered if Martin Townsend was aboard one of them. On the morning of the fourth day of the Gyandotte's stay there was much activity in the submarine basin, followed just before noon by a wholesale exodus of the little underwater craft. They went sliding past the cruiser on their way out to sea, one after another, until Nelson had counted eight of them. Somehow and somewhere the rumor started that they were going across under their own steam, which rumor, whether true or not, aroused much enthusiasm on the Gyandotte, and as the subs filed past they were roundly cheered.

That same afternoon the Gyandotte, too, up-anchored and stood out past Fortress Monroe and Cape Charles and set her course northeastward. There was a heavy rain falling and the lights ashore twinkled wanly as the cruiser crossed the mouth of the bay. Nelson spent a wet watch on deck between midnight and four in the morning, and was heartily glad to throw off his glistening rubber clothing and turn in at eight bells. In the morning the Gyandotte was steaming at half-speed, out of sight of land, at the tail-end of a one column formation of cruisers and destroyers that reached ahead until lost in the gray murk. It was a miserable, cheerless sort of morning, and even "chow" with all the hot coffee he could drink didn't dispel the gloom. But something else did shortly after, for there appeared on the ship's bulletin the soul-stirring announcement that the Gyandotte was to convoy submarines to an American base in British waters!

There was joy, loud and unrestrained, on the cruiser. Nelson forgot lowering skies, unfriendly sea and reeking decks and wanted to cheer or dance—or both. There was only one fly in the ointment, and that was indicated by Ferris, the lanky third class yeoman who had been one of Nelson's first acquaintances on board.

"It'll be a rotten voyage," said Ferris mournfully. "Those subs are old tubs that can't stand any weather and we'll be waiting on them hand and foot all the way. Likely as not we'll have to tow them! It'll take us about two weeks to get over, you mark my words, Troy. And if we don't lose two or three of them on the way it'll be a miracle."

But Nelson wasn't to be downcast by any such talk as that. He had long since decided that Ferris was a natural-born pessimist, anyway. And, besides, Nelson wasn't particular how long the voyage lasted just so long as it led them to the other side. What did worry him slightly was the question of whether the Gyandotte, which, after all, was a third class cruiser and, even for her class, not especially efficient as a warship, was to remain on the other side or come home again. If, he decided, she was to do the latter, and he learned of it in time, he would do all in his power short of actually deserting, to remain behind. However, there was no sense in crossing a bridge before you came to it, and meanwhile he was in high spirits.

The weather got thick toward noon and the half-speed became less than half and the bow lookouts had their work cut out for them, for there is always danger of treading on the heels of the ship ahead of you in a heavy fog. Nothing of the sort happened, however, and somewhere that night they picked up their charges. When it was Nelson didn't know, for he was asleep at the time, but when he looked out the next morning there they were, fourteen of the little steel cylinders, bobbing along with the spray drenching their canvas-protected bridges and the waves breaking along the decks. They were a plucky lot, Nelson decided, and he told himself that he wasn't half sorry to be where he was instead of in one of those tiny "tin cigars." But, nevertheless, he found that down at the bottom of his heart was a sort of sneaking desire to see what it was like to eat and sleep and have his being in one of the strange craft. There were all kinds in sight, single hull and combination, coastal and fleet, large and small. Indeed, one tiny Class H boat, which was wallowing along within a short distance of the Gyandotte, looked to be scarcely more than a toy and appeared to have set forth on a most suicidal venture. Further ahead were larger boats, submarines of possibly a thousand or twelve hundred tons displacement with sterns queerly cut away and much superstructure. In the gray of the morning it was difficult to pick them out a half mile away so closely did their hulls match the hue of sky and water. They were in two column formation, well spaced, and the leaders were far away from the Gyandotte, their presence indicated now and then by a dash of white foam when a wave broke against a conning tower. The convoyers consisted of three cruisers, the Gyandotte amongst them, a heavy looking, high-decked ship which someone said was a submarine tender and two destroyers of about four hundred tons, themselves looking scarcely more seaworthy than their charges. All that day the flotilla steamed northeastward and all of the next, the weather remaining either drizzly or foggy. Some time in the early morning of the fourth day after leaving Norfolk the light on Cape Sable shone off to port and in the afternoon they put in to Halifax.

That was rather fun, for they received a fine reception from the warships and merchantmen lying in the outer harbor and, later, ashore, were welcomed quite as cordially. There was liberty every day during the four days the ships lay there, and Nelson, sometimes with shipmates and sometimes alone, saw about all there was to be seen of the old city which, in the month of July, fortunately unaware of the destruction and death that was to be her portion a few months later, was bright and cheerful in spite of all the war activities within and about her. The Gyandotte took on coal one day and Nelson had his first experience of the joys of such a job. After the bunkers were filled, the coal being handled aboard the Gyandotte in bags by hand, every speck of coal dust had to be washed away, and that was a task almost as difficult as loading. But at last the job was done, though the Gyandotte's men didn't threaten the Navy record that time, and soiled dungarees were pulled off and baths were in order. For the first time Nelson realized the advisability of winning speedy promotion, for petty officers didn't have to carry bags of coal across a canvas covered deck.

They were to have started on again after three days at Halifax, but one of the submarines had managed to get an engine out of commission and repairs required another day, so that it was just after sunset on the fourth evening that underwater craft and convoys pulled up hooks and turned noses seaward again. British and French flags dipped as they passed out of the harbor and from one of the warships came the strains of the American anthem, in response to which the departing Jackies cheered and waved. Devil's Island Light blinked farewell to them and they steamed away into the ocean lane, one more contribution to the cause of Justice and Humanity.