Patriotic pieces from the Great War/The American
By permission of the author
The first long swells of a rising storm ran endlessly past Land's End from the open ocean, and the Ardmore rolled heavily as she headed for the Atlantic. Sea after sea smashed against the blunt bow of the freighter, breaking into stinging clouds of spray that showered over the gun on the forecastle and drove aft, forcing the lookouts to turn their faces from the biting gusts. High on the foremast the man in the crow's-nest protected himself as best he could by crouching low behind his canvas weather-cloth, sliding lower still as each whirling cloud of spray, whistling up from the blunt bow far below, spattered against the swaying mast, to drip in slanting streams back to the deck. Forward of the bridge the seas piled over the weather rail, to rush and gurgle around the hatches and finally to pour in little cascades back into the sea.
In the overheated galley the cook was lashing a pot of stew on to the stove, to prevent its sliding to the heaving deck. He had carefully made it fast, adjusting it to the already well-filled space, when a seaman, bundled up in dripping oilskins, burst in through the door, accompanied by part of a spent wave that spread over the galley floor in a slippery flood. Following the example of one of his own pots, which at that moment boiled over onto the red-hot stove, the cook turned upon the intruder, sputtering a volley of abuse.
"Aw, come on, Al," replied the seaman. "I didn't mean to let the English Channel in. Give us a cup of coffee. I'm just off watch."
Al forgot his wrath as quickly as it had come upon him, and reached for the huge coffee-pot that was wedged securely amid the assemblage of cooking utensils on the heated stove. Swinging it with a practiced hand, he poured a cup of the steaming coffee, as he balanced himself to the rolling of the ship, and with a good-natured grin handed it to the waiting sailor.
"I'm glad I ain't on deck to-day," Al said, as he watched the coffee disappear. "Bein' cook ain't just the job for a man, but it's more comfortable than standin' watch and watch in the English Channel in February."
"Well," replied the other, "I won't kick, 'cause the worse job on this ship ain't standin' watch on the bridge. To my notion, bein' one of them armed guards is the worst. You ought to see 'em up on the forecastle tryin' to keep from bein' washed overboard and tryin' at the same time to find a sub to shoot at."
The cook looked up and grinned.
"Could they get one a day like this?" he asked.
"They say they could," answered the sailor. "Heavy weather don't seem to make much difference to—"
He stopped abruptly, stood listening for a moment, and jumped for the door. Peering forward through the driving spray, he saw the breech of the forward gun open and an empty shell, still smoking from the discharge, jumped onto the wet deck. The loader, timing his action to the pitch of the ship, slid another shell into the opening, and the plugman slammed home the breech.
The muzzle lifted as the ship rolled and a blinding flash burst from it. A roar rolled down the deck toward the sailor and the cook, both of whom stood clutching the rail, heedless of the breaking seas. Looking intently into the haze, they saw a splash in the tumbling water, and saw, too, the streaming deck of a submarine. The gun on the stern of the Ardmore roared, and another splash appeared beside the submarine. The gun crew forward, working with a precision gained from many a drill, loaded again. The ship slid over a swell, rolling slowly. The pointer elevated the muzzle, and an ear-splitting blast burst forth. The submarine shuddered beneath the shock. A part of her deck flew into the air, and a sea, driving against her side, buckled her broken back. She pitched laboriously in the heavy seaway as the inrushing water sucked her slowly beneath the surface, while the endless seas surged relentlessly on, playfully tossing two tiny, struggling forms.
Slowly the Ardmore turned and headed toward the spot. On the wing of the bridge a sailor stood, swinging a life-buoy. As the ship passed the struggling men he tossed it into the water. Another life-buoy, thrown by the captain, dropped beside it, and a few minutes later the almost lifeless bodies of two German sailors were dragged over the rail.
"Take them to the galley," ordered the captain, "where it's warm. Al can bring them around."
The two men were presently deposited on the galley floor by the sailors who had hauled them over the side. For a moment the rescuers stood gazing at the dripping forms, until Al, assuming command in his realm of pots and pans, ordered them out so as to allow him to attend to the wants of the unconscious Germans.
The sailors departed, and Al turned to the two bedraggled forms that lay huddled near the stove. He had hardly decided on a course to pursue, however, when one of them opened his eyes.
"Hello," said Al. "How you feelin'?"
The man looked blankly at the cook.
"Oh," continued Al, "you're German; that's right. Well," and he continued in the language of the Fatherland, "so am I. Or at least I was until I went to America. But now I'm an American."
The expression on the face of the German sailor changed.
"American, are you?" he replied. "And you were born in Germany?"
"Yes," answered Al. "Born in Germany and trained in the German army. And I have a brother in the German navy, too."
The other grunted his contempt. Al reached for the pot and poured out a steaming mug of coffee.
"Yes," he continued. "I've been in America six years now, and I've got to where I can see what's wrong with Germany. I used to cheer for the Kaiser, and I thought, just as you do, that he is a sort of superior being. I used to think that the little impudent officers that strutted around were better than I was. I had been trained to think so, and they had been trained to think so, too. So when I was in the army I imagined that they were really better—that their blood was of a different grade, I suppose.
"And then I got out of the army and went to America on a freight ship. When I went ashore in New York, I had a job offered me, and I didn't go back to the ship. And now I'm glad I didn't. I've saved nearly two thousand dollars, being cook in a restaurant. And then this war came on, and they needed more men for the new ships they were building. So I offered to go as cook. I told them that I was born in Germany, but that I wanted to help the world get rid of the Kaiser. I had some trouble getting a ship, but at last our captain took me. This is my second trip over. And we haven't been sunk yet. Instead of that we got you to-day."
He stopped a moment and then continued.
"Why, if you knew what America is you'd want to be an American too."
He seized the coffee-pot again and refilled the sailor's cup.
"Here," he said, "have some more."
He poured out another cupful and turned to the form that still lay quietly on the deck. Seizing the unconscious man, he straightened him up and started to pour the coffee down his throat. He turned the white face toward the light and stifled a cry. The cup clattered from his hand and rolled to and fro about the deck with the rolling of the ship, finally stopping in a dark-red blot that marked the place where the unconscious sailor had been lying.
"Hans!" screamed the cook, as he held the limp form and felt a sticky warmth against his hand where it pressed the sailor's side.
Slowly the wounded man's eyes opened. For a moment he looked blankly at the frightened cook, and then a smile of recognition spread over his face.
"Albert," he said huskily. His eyes rolled aimlessly for a moment, and his head dropped forward. A shudder passed through him, and he collapsed in his brother's arms.
The cook lowered the still form to the deck. He rose to his feet and stood holding unsteadily to the lashing he had put on the pot of stew. The German sailor watched him intently.
"Your brother?" he asked.
The cook nodded slowly, and looked blankly at the form that now moved only with the rolling of the ship. A look of triumph crept into the eyes of the sailor.
"You're no American." he said, and with narrowed eyes watched for the effect of his words. "An American gun just killed your brother."
Al gazed uncomprehendingly at his companion.
"Listen," continued the sailor. "We can get into the hold and open the sea-cocks."
Al set his teeth and stood rigidly as the ship rolled. The German sailor continued.
"We can open the sea-cocks," he repeated. "The ship'll sink. We can get away. We'll be picked up. Come." He rose to his feet and stood waiting for the cook's decision.
Al pulled himself together with the strength of a sudden determination. He looked at the stiffening body of his brother, then glanced up at the sailor.
"Yes, come," he answered, slowly.
Together they stepped out onto the deserted deck, and the sailor's eyes twinkled with devilish glee at winning the American over.
"This way," said the cook, and he led the sailor forward and down a hatchway. He turned and entered a door. The sailor followed, peering around to see that they were not followed.
The captain looked up from a report he was writing.
"I brought this man around," said the cook, slowly. "But the other,"—his voice broke—"my brother—is dead."