The mystery of the Merrifield
As an Atlantic gale tossed the corvette like a cork, something weird and wonderful happened to Ordinary Seaman Chick McAllister
ABOUT TWO INCHES of water had flooded into the seamen's mess-deck, adding the master stroke to a scene of desolation. It was rust-reddened dirty water, befouled with comic books, cigarette butts, sea-boots, bread crusts and stockings, and it behaved with the malice of a spoiled child. When HMCS Mcrrifield began her labored climb up the side of an onrushing sea the water crouched beneath the hammock rack, snickering slyly to itself; then, as the ship teetered on the crest before pitching into the trough, the slime slithered forward with indecent haste and slammed into the forward bulkhead, clawing at the clips of the paint locker. Again it lay in wait until a sea broke over the port bow' and sent the corvette reeling on her beam ends, upon which the water raced across the deck and crashed against the starboard lockers, soaking everything within reach. Forward, aft, port, starboard, round and round it raced, untiring in its happy task.
Dusty Miller climbed on to a mess-table to keep his feet out of the water. He was a waspish youth, prematurely aged with vice and intellect, and as the blue night light beat down upon him it etched the peaks and hollows of his cadaverous face. He dragged the last lungful from his cigarette and flicked the butt into the water at his feet. The hiss snapped his reverie and his face settled into its customary sneer. Time to shake McAllister. He raised his head and for a moment watched the hammocks swinging above him.
Caterpillars: row on row of huge, hump-backed, dirty-grey caterpillars clinging to the shifting deckhead; as the ship rolled to port their swollen buttocks moved sluggishly and thudded against the steel, clung there for a moment then in unison reversed their motion and swung to starboard, swaying with monotonous regularity. His own hammock caught his eye and recalled him to the task at hand, and he groped his way forward to the forepeak where a bedraggled sack bumped in the least desirable location in the mess-deck. So cramped was the space that the arc of the hammock's swing was a scant two feet, blocked on one side by a stanchion, on the other by the ship's side. Here slept Chick McAllister, Ordinary Seaman.
Miller cocked an eye. estimated the location of McAllister's ribs and drove his fist into the side of the mick. Silence. Annoyed, he beat a tattoo on all available bulges but still neither sound nor stir from within the canvas. The sneaking dogsbody. Dusty seized the edge of the hammock and toyed with the idea of spilling McAllister out on to the deck; it would be a drop of six feet and should at least break a leg. One more chance.
Not a flicker.
“Roll out before I spill you out!”
Over the edge of the violently shaken hammock arose a most unlovely face, a hang-dog mask that would have appeared at home amid a gathering of gargoyles. The nose was magnificent, a great beak created to grace some Roman patrician but in its present context it leered like a caricature; the hair
The Mystery of the Merrifield continued
above the sloping forehead was mouse-coloured, the eyes muddy, the skin bestudded with blackheads.
"What the hell you shaking me for. Dusty? I ain’t the killick of the watch. Why don’t you shake Perstanski, eh? You scared, eh? Eh?"
The voice had an irritating nasal quality, a highpitched whine which resembled the yapping of a mongrel, and as usual it rasped Miller into a rage.
"That’s the thanks I get for shaking you early so you can have a pot of pluie and a fag, eh? I’ll get you for this, McAllister. One of these nights it's over the side with the jellyfish, see? Now roll out!”
“I ain't getting out! I ain’t the killick!”
As McAllister’s complaints shrilled above the storm angry heads lifted from nearby hammocks to bay protest.
‘‘Tais-toi, maudit cochon!”
"Pipe down, Dogsbody!”
"Fill him in. Dusty! Hammer him!”
“Spill him out! Spill him out!”
Miller seized the edge of the hammock, tipped it with the roll of the ship and brought his relief squealing to the deck. As the corvette lurched to starboard the water snickered over McAllister’s stocking feet and the little seaman clambered cursing to the nearest table.
"Now shake the rest of the watch.”
Dusty then smiled serenely, fastened his duffle-coat and returned to the bridge, leaving the mess-deck to sink back into the bliss of slumber.
Forlorn, unlovely and unloved, Chick McAllister brooded on the edge of the mess-table, his stare fixed upon the grimy toes which protruded through his stockings. The middle watch; midnight until four in the morning; three hours on deck, one at the wheel.
His feet were soaked. His sea-boots leaked. Someone had stolen his balaclava and his mitts. He was tired and hungry. Miller was a sneak. They hate me. And why? Cause I stick up for my rights, that’s why. Who gets browned off to do the dirty work, eh? Me. Who cleans the heads? Me. Who mops up when some clown gets sea-sick? Me. Always me me me! They’re all bullies.
Having refreshed himself with this draught of self-
pity McAllister crawled CONTINUED ON PAGE 69
Continued from page 19
Perstanski choked him gently and said, “Chickie, you’re a nice kid. But wake me again and you die”
along the starboard lockers, fished his clothing from beneath the blankets in his hammock and proceeded to hide filthy underwear beneath filthy jersey and trousers. Now to shake the watch. The thought of this dangerous chore sent his nerves into a flutter and he lit a cigarette. Perstanski, Pariseau, Campbell and Jones, all bigger than he, all more violent. Why don’t Dusty shake ’em? It’s his job, ain’t it? He sidled up to Leading Seaman Perstanski’s hammock and shook it gently.
‘‘You sleeping, Mike? Time to close up. Mike."
No answer. Chick gnawed his lip in worried indecision then raised his voice and shook the hammock vigorously.
"Hey, Perstanski! Wakey wakey! Roll out and . . .”
His voice gurgled into silence as a hand closed about his throat, and raising his eyes he gazed into the smiling face of the killick. The latter shook his head in kindly disapproval, and with each shake he sent the seaman's skull waggling from side to side until the eyes rolled in their sockets.
"Chickie-boy, you’re a nice kid. but you bother me again and you die.”
"1 gotta shake you, don’t I?”
“No, Chickie-boy, you ain’t gotta shake me. Miller’s the matelot who’s supposed to do the shaking, see? At five minutes to. understand? Now keep silence."
Chick slunk to the nearest lockers, braced his sea-boots against a stanchion and began chewing his nails in frustration. Every middle watch and every morning watch called forth the same routine. What could he do? He was afraid of Miller, afraid of Perstanski, afraid of every officer and every rating aboard the corvette. He feared the sea, dreaded the darkness, and cringed with horror at the mention of death. Fear had clutched him in his mother’s womb and had grow n as his body grew; family and friends had bullied him, teachers, policemen, streetcar conductors, movie ushers and clergymen had all cowed his spirit. Now, aboard the Merrifield, he found himself in the same intolerable position, the dupe of every prankster and the butt of every bully yet lacking the solace of a dog to kick or a cat to curse.
He glanced at his watch and his stomach retched. Only fifteen minutes before midnight and still Perstanski. Pariseau, Jones and Campbell snored on, snug in their swaying cocoons. If the watch ain’t relieved they'll put me on the captain’s report. I’ll be court-martialed! Chick’s heart began to pound painfully, his throat tightened and breathing became difficult. Hysteria overwhelmed him. Leaping to the mess-locker he seized a pan and a heavy spoon and began banging and clattering furiously, at the same time singing out at the top of his lungs:
"Wakey! Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine the morning’s fine! Come on. my sons, you've had your time now I want mine! Wakey! Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine the air's like wine and the sun'll burn your eyes out! Roll out and bit the deck! Wakey wake.”
A sea-boot came flying out of the gloom to catch him in the mouth and he staggered back against the bulkhead. Bedlam burst loose within the mess-deck and anguished curses put the gale to shame; some seamen slid obediently from their hammocks in the belief that it was reveille while others sat up and stared about in drowsy stupidity. When the true state of affairs became known the pack yowled for McAllister's blood, and the wretch lied whimpering into the night.
SUBLIEUTENANT Leslie P. Potter glanced about to be sure he was not observed, planted his feet far apart on the heaving deck, removed his hands from the wheel-house voice-pipe and struck a Nelsonian pose. As the ship rolled and pitched beneath him he twisted grotesquely to maintain his balance, chin up. chest out. pink round face molded into a frown: forty-one, forty-two. fortythree . . . excitement surged within him as he counted on beneath his breath: forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty! Made it! Made it, by Jove! He lunged for the bridge-rail and hung on for dear life as triumph wreathed his lips. Fifty seconds without holding on. and in this gale! And therewithal Sir Potter marveled exceeding wise at his prowess and smote his breast for joy. And wit ye well he was one of the worthiest knights of the world, and
of the best conditions. And ever in all places Sir Potter gat great worship, so that he was nobly renowned among many knights of the Table Round.
Come come, young sir, you really must curb that magnificent imagination. After all, this is the twentieth century, the age of steel and all that sort of thing. And yet, would it be too farfetched to fancy that a mysterious force is intentionally drawing a parallel between the heroes of knight-errantry and, and me? The subby drew a deep breath, his inner eye dazzled by the vistas which opened before
him. The Soul of Sir Launcelot du Lac activating the body of Leslie P. Potter! And why not? Why not indeed? Action Stations! Star-shells! U-boats! Sub-Lieutenant Potter back aft, wounded, but steady. Suddenly a submarine surfaces to open fire upon the corvette and the pom-pom gun's crew is wiped out! The valiant Potter leaps to the breach as the sub closes in for the kill. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! A direct hit, sir! She's afire, sir! Hurrah! Hurrah for Potter.
And it so befell that fame of Sir Pot-
ter's deed reached unto the ears of my lord the king, who bade the young squire appear before him; and when the king beheld the noble childe and saw him seemly and demure as a dove, with all manner of good features, he weened never to have seen so fair a man of form. And thereupon Sir Potter kneeleth before my lord the king and receivcth the high order of knighthood for his marvelous deeds of arms, and all men had wonder of him.
Higher, higher, and yet higher soared the exulting imagination to overlap in
disdain the bounds of possibility and probability: sub - lieutenant, lieutenant,
lieutenant-commander, commander, captain, commodore, rear-admiral, viceadmiral, admiral. Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Potter And why not? Why not? When one is young, brave, intelligent, mature beyond one's years. If only there were action! Why doesn't a battleship attack the convoy, or a pack of submarines? A delightful shiver tingled through him and he hugged his responsibilities with jealous pride: the ship, the crew, the convoy, in a sense the whole outcome of the war rested squarely upon the shoulders of Leslie Potter!
He spoke brusquely into the wheelhouse voice-pipe:
“Sir,” mumbled a sleepy voice.
“Keep her steady, man. You’re wandering all over the Atlantic.”
The officer of the watch cut a caper to warm his toes and swept his glance across the bridge. Sharp eyes and steady nerves were required in mid-Atlantic, and it behooved an officer to see that the enlisted men followed the example he set for them. Now for McAllister. A smile twinkled the subby’s face and he shook his head waggishly; McAllister was always good for a bit of fun; not since the days of the medieval jesters had nature produced such a misshapen caricature. I mean, one must be charitable toward those less fortunate and all that sort of thing, but this clod was so hopelessly, so pathetically ugly, his mind such a distorted lump of ignorance, his spirit so incredibly craven! I mean, how else could one justify the fool’s existence unless one assumed that he was created as a living jest?
CHICK was most unhappy. The seaboot had split his upper lip and in spite of the constant application of his tongue the spume and the snow stung the wound until he wept with misery. His spirit quailed beneath the howling gale and the roaring sea, and with each toss of the ship he expected to find himself hurling into the maw of death. Jeez, what a life.
Chick leaped in alarm: “Sir?”
“Have you been sleeping on watch, McAllister?”
“Me, sir? No sir! I ain't closed my eyes since I closed up, sir!”
Sub-Lieutenant Potter bent a frown upon the uncouth wight and strove to repress a giggle. Good heavens, what a monster! But will it be the gentlemanly thing to do. in view of McAllister's limited intelligence? Come come, now, surely one is permitted an innocent jest to break the tedium of a long cold watch? Of course.
“Why didn’t you report that light olí the port bow?”
Among the multitude of terrors which gnawed McAllister none could equal that which he experienced at the thought of falling asleep on watch. No punishment was too severe for such a crime: he could be shot out of hand; keel-hauled; hanged from the yard-arm; flayed alive with the cat-o’-nine-tails. What should he do? What should he do?
“Sure I seen it, sir! I was jist gonna report it, sir, when you spoke to me. sir!"
Leslie Potter swallowed a snicker and intensified his frown. Oh, this was delightful! Simply delightful! I mean, how can the clod possibly be so stupid? He brought his nose down to the seaman's level and thundered:
"What color was it?”
"How could it be red when we're on the starboard side of the convoy?”
“I mean green, sir! Green!”
"It was black, you color-blind ass!” "Black, sir?”
“Black.” Potter thrust his face closer until the tip of his aristocratic nose was a scant inch from the rating's beak. “McAllister?”
“In view of your youth and inexperience I'm going to let you off this time. But remember, you’ve been guilty of a most flagrant neglect of duty; do you understand?”
Chick's relief was of such intensity that his knees shook and he grasped the bridge-rail for support, and he saluted and blurted and saluted in slavish respect.
"Jeez, thanks, sir! Thanks a million, sir! Thank you, sir!”
“Time to change rounds! Carry on! Look sharp! Eyes peeled, and all that sort of thing!”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
Then did the good knight laugh in marvellous wise at the rascally varlet, and made mock of him. For in sooth Sir Potter was the best bourder and japer that ye might meet withal, and the merriest knight and maddest talker of all the Table Round, albeit a full noble lord, and the periloust in all the king's realm.
BACK aft on the pom-pom platform Able Seaman Pariseau crouched in the lee of the shrapnel shield, waiting for Chick McAllister to replace him for a trick. He growled impatiently to himself. Comme il fait freu. Two minutes before two and still his relief was not in sight; ce maudit McAllister! I he next trick was at the wheel, and Marcel closed his eyes to savor the coming bliss. It would be warm and almost dry; the coder would have a hot cup of coffee waiting for him. Perstanski would offer him a drycigarette and for a long hour he and Mike would exchange obscenities, oblivious of the gale. But where was McAllister?
Shielding his eyes against the spray he gazed intently forward and was rewarded by the sight of a figure cautiously groping its way along the fiddley deck. So black was the night that only an outline of the man was distinguishable against the snow, and Pariseau jigged impatiently at the slow progress being made. At last a cowled head appeared over the rim of the gun platform, but the profane welcome which he had prepared died on his lips at the sight of Perstanski.
"What the hell you doing here, Frenchie? Where's Chick?"
"How de hell i know where 'e is? You're de killick, why you don't send ’im back 'ere on time, eh?"
“Aw, pipe down.”
"What for we 'ave dat dogsbody aboard ’ere, eh? 'E is dirtiest matelot we ever see; a pig, him! Spitting, swearing, snoring. coughing, squealing, telling lies, ugh!'
"So what? You perfect? Look, there he is now. Watch me blast him for being adrift.”
Both men watched the form which huddled abaft the funnel. In his dark duflle-coat the sailor was barely discernible against the superstructure and at times the sleet and spray hid him from their sight. He appeared to be working up courage for the final dash along the open boat-deck, and he had reason for his fears: the storm had reached its peak and in spite of all the efforts of the helmsman the Merrifield kept sliding into the troughs, giving the seas free rein to smash her at will. Perstanski and Pariseau bellowed out profane encouragement as they alternately threatened and cajoled the terrified wretch. Suddenly he shot aft toward the pom-pom platform, a great sea crashed down upon the corvette and McAllister disappeared into the night. "Man overboard!"
HHHE gale blew itself out during the night and the forenoon watch found the Merrifield skittering about in search of the convoy, shooing a few battered freighters ahead of her. The Icelandic seas had clothed her in a sheath of ice,
and when the sun broke through the overcast it set a million sequins sparkling along the superstructure and rigging; the four-inch gun had lost its belligerence and was now an ornament fit to grace a gunner’s wedding cake; the anchor cables were chains of white coral, w'hile bollards, fair-leads, and mushroom ventilators resembled the iced-over lumps of a bride's first cake.
Lieutenant Moses Winters, commanding officer of HMCS Merrifield. had no intention of being coddled into a good humor by the vagaries of sea and sky.
Fair w'eather meant submarines and submarines meant long sleepless hours on the bridge, sarcastic blasts from the senior officer of the escort group, cold meals, cold feet, signals, survivors, decisions, noise and stomach powders. Phew! What was to be expected when seas and ships were cluttered up with dirty inlanders? He stomped across the bridge in his seal-skin boots, wiped the smile from the young signalman's face and proceeded to light his pipe in the lee of the asdic hut. A square block of a man was Moses Winters, long-armed, short-
legged, and bull-necked; he was a professional seaman by trade, a merchant mariner sadly miscast in the role of naval officer.
He studied the fresh-faced signalman through the tobacco smoke and shook his head grimly: landlubbers, nothing but landlubbers. How was he supposed to sail a ship without sailors? Apart from some three or four herring-chokers and one lone Newfie there was not a saltwater man in the whole crew, and as for his officers! Glory be to God! Of all the prancing dandies, his lot took the pot. A
playboy, a college-boy, a bookkeeper, and a schoolteacher. And all of them so refined, so educated, so superior! Steward, there's a spot of grease on this spoon. Steward, stop coughing into the gravy. Glory be to God! Things were different on the Peggy-R! It took seamen to sail her! Out of the corner of his eye he caught the figure of the first lieutenant ascending the bridge ladder, and he turned quickly to study the horizon.
PETER Timothy Westlake paused at the top of the ladder to bathe sky and sea and ship in the rays of his tolerant smile, and the sun scurried shame-faced behind a wisp of cloud. A splendid man indeed was the first lieutenant, a spiritual descendant of Elizabethan courtiers and Jacobean cavaliers; dark - brown hair crowned the massive brow, the eyes were thin, the nose thin, the lips thin, the chin a symbol of aristocracy. He was immediately aware of the captain’s evasive action in turning outboard, and he smiled tolerantly at the snub: silly old goat.
Tolerance came easily to Lieutenant Westlake. His father had labored long to amass a fortune in the distilling trades, and it was not until his mid-forties that reflection pointed up the dangerous combination of wealth without virtue. Even though the cardinal virtues were of no value to the rich, the head of the Westlakes had reasoned, there might exist a minor one which could be cultivated without detriment to the bank balance. His secretary prepared a summary; once more the great mind labored and brought forth an answer: tolerance. The simplicity of the solution left him awed at his own brilliance. Who could better afford to be tolerant than a man with millions? The poor could be tolerated because they drank huge quantities of alcoholic beverages. Negroes and Jews could be tolerated because residential restrictions kept them segregated from their betters. Painters, poets, and musicians, priests, ministers, and teachers, salesgirls, servants, and pooi' relatives—all had less money than the Westlakes therefore all could be neatly disposed of with a dab of tolerance.
Orders were issued. The little Westlakes were fed discreet doses of tolerance with their cod-liver oil capsules and in no time at all developed tolerant smiles,
tolerant voices, and the correct modicum of tolerant courtesy.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but there’s a matter I should like to discuss with you.”
Winters burrowed deeper within his duffle-coat, rumbled in his throat and stared ahead.
Westlake sniffed delicately: senile
idiot. Imagine the incredible bad luck of having to serve under this refugee from a garbage scow! Of course, if things became too unbearable he could always have Father drop a discreet word in Ottawa. but not yet, not yet.
“The recent spot of bad weather has made a shambles out of the mess-deck, sir,” he continued pleasantly, “and all hands will be required to square them ofl. We’ve also shipped aboard a considerable weight of ice; enough, I think, to reduce our speed to some extent, perhaps even to jeopardize the safety of the ship.”
Smiling tolerantly, Westlake paused with rare dialectical skill to permit the duller-wittcd captain to absorb the information. The squat figure at the raii emitted a grunt, and thus encouraged the executive officer went on:
“We appear to be skewered neatly on the horns of a dilemma, sir. Living conditions in the mess-decks have been rather unpleasant during the last few days, and it's reasonable to assume that the ratings will want to turn to and square things off a bit. The problem is this: if the weight of the ice . . .”
The captain swung about like an enraged bull, shook his cowled head and bellowed: “Point be everlastingly bc-
damned! I'd like to point out to you. Mister, that working the ship is your detail. not mine!”
"Quite true, sir,” agreed Number One. “However, as this is a somewhat ticklish spot, I . . .”
"What the hell's ticklish about it? Get the hands up on the fo'c’stlc and clear the bloody ice!”
"Aye, aye, sir. I'll tell the buffer that your orders are to leave the mess-decks in their present deplorable condition."
A mighty struggle was taking place within the breast of Moses Winters. He had spent a long hard life at sea and both instinct and experience urged him to smash this sneering coxcomb who was poisoning his life; on the other hand the
knowledge that he was out of his natural element and bound by the traditions of the navy preyed upon his mind and sapped the sinews of his will. He swept his glance across the bridge, hatefully gimleted the signalman lounging beside his light, the look-out gaping from the port corner, and finally, the Buffer.
“What the hell do you want?”
Petty Officer Stanley Newcombe, the Chief Bos’n's Mate abroad HMCS Merrifield, had slipped quietly up behind the first lieutenant during the argument, and being a most correct and pusser rat-
ing he had remained impassively at attention, mouth shut and ears open.
He snapped off a salute: “Begging your pardon, sir, but the coxswain asked me to inform the first lieutenant that Ordinary Seaman McAllister is still alive, sir.”
Westlake was annoyed: “But I was given to understand that the man was practically dead! I’ve already issued orders for the burial.”
“Very sorry, sir, but it appears he may live."
“I should have expected something like
this from that idiot. Well, what does the coxswain want me to do about it—splice the main brace?”
Westlake’s irritation was balm to the captain’s nerves. Seizing the advantage he drew himself up to the fullest extent of his five foot four inches and puffed his chest with thunder.
“I imagine. Number One, that the coxswain expects you to take an interest in the lives and welfare of the crew, instead of nattering on the bridge like a Newfie fish wife. Now smack it about and get below where you belong.”
"Aye, aye, sir,” mumbled the heir to the Westlake millions and, turning on his heel, he groped his way below.
ORDINARY Seaman McAllister lay sprawled upon a mess-deck table. The hair straggled limply across the forehead, the lips had drawn back from the discolored teeth and the flesh had the color and consistency of paste. A mound of blankets was heaped over his torso and legs, but for some inexplicable reason the feet had been left uncovered and his toes peeped obscenely through wet stockings. Chick was unattractive at the best of times; now, with death’s hand at his lungs, he was startlingly repulsive.
His kindly shipmates were gathered reverently about the table, their mouths agape with curiosity as they jostled and elbowed each other in a vicious battle to obtain a closer view of the death scene. Ever since the fateful hour when Perstanski and Pariseau had dragged the waterlogged body into the mess-deck the ship had buzzed with rumors: McAllister was dead; he was alive, but going fast; the bump on his head had affected his brain and he was a hopeless idiot; the wave had swept him over the starboard side, carried him under the keel and dumped him back over the port side. Faster and more furious grew the galley buzzes, and as the morning watch passed into the forenoon watch and brought a welcome end to the gale and all its hardships the morale of the ship’s company improved tremendously, thanks to the unselfish sacrifice of young McAllister.
Chief Petty Officer Turnbull, the coxswain aboard HMCS Merrifield, intently fingered the scrawny hero’s wrist as he sought to time the faltering pulse. The chief was a typical naval hardcase, commission-bound come hell or high water, and his black beard matched his ugly disposition. Now, as he pitted his wits against death for the body of McAllister a scowl of annoyance creased his forehead. He had followed directions to the letter: treatment for drowning, treatment for shock, treatment for exposure, all had been carried through without success; the patient's obstinate refusal to live smacked strongly of disrespect, and it was all the coxswain could do to keep from picking up the dogsbody and shaking some life into it.
Assisting Turnbull with every skill at his command was Sick-Berth Attendant Horace Pettipiece, a befuddled little man cursed with a nervous stutter and chronic uncertainty. He was seated across the table from the coxswain and grasped in one hand a thick medical tome while with the other he timidly patted McAllister's head, much in the manner of a mother soothing a fretful child.
The chief glared balefully across the body: “What are you doing that for?" “D-d-doing what, Cox’n?”
“Patting his head. We're trying to wake him up, not put him to sleep.”
“B-b-but it says on page forty-four that whenever the patient is in a nervous state . . .”
“Try the rum again.”
"N-n-now, Cox’n, I think we’ve used quite enough rum. The manual recommends hot tea, and I’m sure Chick doesn’t want to meet his Maker with the smell of rum on his breath.”
Chief Turnbull leaned across the corpse and thrust his fist under the sick-berth attendant's nose.
"Pay attention, half-wit. You were put aboard this ship to look after bodies, not souls. Now smack it about and fetch that rum or you’ll meet your Maker with these knuckles in your mouth.”
Horace scrambled from the locker seat and began to retreat, protesting at every step: "N-now, Chief, an angry man is a sick man. and I don’t want two patients on my hands. You need some aspirin, and when I . . .”
“Fetch that bloody rum!”
“Tea’s the ticket, Cox’n, not rum. The
manual recommends h-h-hot tea . . The sound of his voice grew fainter as he climbed down into the communications ratings’ mess, although a mumbling from the hatchway gave notice that he was still vigorously upholding his belief in absolute temperance.
The exit of the tiffy relaxed the tension and the men who were gathered about the table lit cigarettes and chatted among themselves in high good spirits, much in the manner of spectators enjoying an intermission. The coxswain stroked his beard reflectively as he scowled at the body before him, while at his side the little messman from Cape Breton. Billy McLeod, smoked on serenely, his rumpurpled face solemn with thought. At last the idea struggling within his skull reached maturity and he turned gravely toward the chief.
"Tell me, 'Swain, d'ye think Chick'll cash in before Up Spirits?”
The coxswain stared coldly at the little Cape Bretoner: “What's Up Spirits got to do with it?”
“Look now, you sending the Tiffy for rum gets me to thinking dat the captain might double the tot for us, like, to case the pain of the poor lad's passing.” “Shut up.”
"But look now, ’Swain,” wheedled Billy hoarsely, “don’t you think you should mention it to the captain about splicing the main brace? A funeral's a solemn occasion, like, and us poor matelots needs an extra nip to buck us up.” Turnbull's self-control began to fray at the edges and he turned upon the messman with a snarl: "Listen, you rumsoaked herring-choker, there'll be no funeral, understand? McAllister got knocked off his feet by a green one, cracked his head on the deck and swallowed a mouthful of salt water. How could that kill anyone?”
Marcel Pariseau leaped indignantly to his feet: “What you talk about, Cox'n? I see Chick wit my own eyes, me! E's standing by de funnel when crash comes dc biggest wave 1 ever see and bang ’e goes over de side! Mike and me we run like hell to t’row over a life-buoy, another green one hit de ship, over she goes, de whole starboard side's she's under water, up she comes slow, we look by de depth-charge rails on de quarterdeck, dere's Chick!”
The silent form of McAllister was in imminent danger of being forgotten, but the arrival of Horace Pettipiece focused attention once more upon the central figure. Bearing aloft a white mug with all the pomp and ceremony befitting its contents the Tiffy talked his way cheerfully through the mourners.
“N-n-now, boys, gangway, gangway. There’s a human life at stake here, and minutes count." Horace passed the chalice under the twitching nose of Billy McLeod and held it just out of the coxswain's reach. “I'm doing this under protest, you understand. H-h-hot tea is the remedy I would prescribe, and as mother used to say . . .”
Turnbull placed a hand on McAllister's chest and half-vaulted over the table. With a curse he seized the mug and wrested it from Horace's grasp, and during the struggle a great drop of rum splashed upon the forehead of the unconscious seaman. Silence clamped down upon the mess-deck, and the men stared at the brown splotch with superstitious dread.
"C'est .son viaticum," whispered Theophile Gauthier.
"Christened with rum,” said Dusty Miller in shocked surprise. “Like a babe in a blind pig.”
Horace Pettipiece bristled at the sacrilege: "We don't want any of that blasphemous talk aboard here. Dusty Miller! B-b-baptism is a holy sacrament and don't you forget it! And as for you. Chief, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, spilling that devil’s potion over a dying man . . .’’ “Keep silence,” snapped the coxswain.
McAllister came • to and peered around at the mob. “Is this a prison?”
He stared intently into McAllister’s face for a long moment then began to massage the limp wrist. “His eyelids moved! His pulse is getting stronger! Where the hell’s the jimmy and the buffer?”
The excitement reached fever heat as the men crowded closer to the table. A burial at sea would have been a delightful break in the monotony, but this epic struggle between death and the coxswain for the flesh of McAllister was infinitely more absorbing.
"Here! Hold this mug, somebody!” Billy McLeod’s hand shot out to seize the precious cup and his mouth drooled in ecstasy as he sniffed the liquid; slowly and furtively he slipped down beneath the table, and safe at last he gulped a toast to little Chick’s recovery.
Turnbull glowed with triumph as he watched a glow kindling his patient’s face.
"We’re winning, my sons! I knew we’d do it! Take his other wrist, Campbell, and rub it the way I’m doing. Chop! Chop!”
“N-n-now, Chief, I’m the sick-berth attendant aboard this ship and Chick is my patient. If you’ll just leave the poor boy alone, I'll see . . .”
“Pipe down and fetch some hot tea.” “T-t-tea?”
"Don’t stand there gawping. Fetch a mug of pluie and splice it with a tot of rum! On the double!”
It was all too confusing for Horace Pettipiecc. Muttering fretfully he started off toward the communications ratings’ mess, almost knocking over the first lieutenant in his bewildered haste.
ALL right, you men, stand clear, stand clear. Make way for the first lieutenant,” ordered the coxswain.
Peter Westlake smiled tolerantly as the men fell back to let him approach the table. An adequate supply of seamen, stokers, telegraphists and other odds and sods was essential aboard a man-of-war, and the wise gentleman was one who schooled himself to tolerate the rabble. But his smile stiffened as he looked down upon Ordinary Seaman McAllister, and it required considerable muscular control to keep the corners of his mouth turned up. He had loathed Chick violently from the moment that unfortunate youth had crossed the gangway; Westlake had been brought up to expect deference from others, but the fawning cringing timorous servility which McAllister displayed in his presence was a monstrous exaggeration, absurd to the point of embarrassment.
“Well, Chief, not dead yet?”
“No sir. And not likely to be, sir, if the Tiffy hurries up with the tea. The pulse is getting stronger by the minute.”
The triumphant grin on the coxswain’s face was gall and wormwood to the first lieutenant. McAllister’s apparent death and miraculous recovery were obviously part of a plot designed with the sole purpose of embarrassing Lieutenant Westlake; vindictive dolts. He masked his distaste and peered closely at the body on the table.
"Are you sure it is alive, Coxswain?” "Certainly, sir. Here, feel the pulse.” “No no, there’s no need for that!” shuddered Westlake. “Have some of the hands bundle him back into his hammock. There’s work to be done, and we can’t have him cluttering up the mess-table all day.”
"But sir, he hasn’t regained consciousness yet!”
A mutter of disapproval rose from the men surrounding the table, and the first lieutenant’s regal smile began to crumble at the corners. This sort of thing was intolerable; simply intolerable! He was about to blast the rabble with Olympian thunder when the arrival of Horace Pettipiece stayed the bolt.
“N-n-now, boys, gangway, gangway for the Tiffy. H-hot tea, shockingly befouled with evil rum.”
Silence descended upon the mess-deck as the unconscious McAllister was raised to a sitting position and the blankets fell away to reveal the sunken chest. Turnbull forced open the jaws and poured in some hot tea, but nothing happened. A short pause then another spoonful was forced down the throat. Suddenly there was a violent reaction: McAllister heaved convulsively, coughed, choked, gasped in obvious pain and opened his eyes. Triumphant cheers, and deck and deckhead rattled to the clapping of hands and the stamping of feet.
“We made it!” bellowed Turnbull. “Oh my weakened nerves! Here, somebody, hold this mug!”
Billy McLeod’s hand flashed out and seized the precious cup; he sniffed the contents carefully, and satisfied that the tea was spiked he slid beneath the table again.
The patient was making an extraordinary recovery. The opening of his eyes was accompanied by a violent fit of coughing, followed by a paroxysm of shivering which set his body trembling uncontrollably. Turnbull draped a blanket over the rounded shoulders, while Pettipiece clucked and mumbled and fidgeted in the best medical tradition.
The coughing and shivering passed, the tenseness drained from the body and the heart resumed its normal rhythm. Slowly the head lifted, the mouth closed and the eyes opened once again. A lively curiosity peeped beneath the lids as the seaman’s gaze swept across the gaping faces which encircled the table; the vacant McAllister stare had vanished, and wonder hushed the mess-deck. The quizzical smile spread ever wider as he examined his examiners, and the only sound to be heard was the slapping of the waves against the ship’s side and the muted pulsing of the main engine. At last his eyes lifted from the pack and traveled over the mess, and the inquisitive glance flicked from deck to deck-head, from stanchions to lockers, — from hammocks to lifebelts, as if seeing for the first time their stark austerity.
"Is this a prison?”
THE dun-colored hair was McAllister’s, and nature could never have duplicated her feat of pinning such a massive set of ears upon such a head. And was that not the McAllister nose, that pendulous hook which mounted guard over the buck teeth and receding chin? Who but Chick McAllister would possess such an emaciated body, hollow-chested, dirty, blotched, pimpled and scrofulous? The eyebrows were his, the mouth was his, the neck was his, the fingernails and the toenails were his.
But the mellow voice was not his. McAllister’s voice was an irritating, highpitched, grating whine which was known and detested by everyone aboard.
It was not McAllister who had just spoken.
A sibilant silence settled over the messdeck. No one spoke, no one moved, all eyes were fixed upon the little man with a fascination tempered in some by fear, in others by speculation. What did it mean?
A rumbling belch burst from beneath the table and the weird spell was broken.
“What the hell you doing under there. McLeod? Come on, climb out.”
Billy McLeod rose unsteadily to his feet, carefully placed the empty mug on the table and smiled his gentle smile. “Thinking, Cox’n. Jist thinking, look.” He bobbed respectfully in the direction of the jimmy, nodded a greeting to the buffer and bent over the table to peer into McAllister’s face.
"Well well well! You ain’t a bit dead. Chickie-boy. Welcome aboard, me son.” The man on the table shook the proffered hand heartily.
“Thank you very much. I was beginning to wonder whether anyone here could speak English.”
It was not Chick. Those nearest the table involuntarily stepped back. Billy McLeod noticed nothing unusual; he sat down on the table-top beside McAllister, lit a cigarette and puffed serenely.
"Right you are, Chickie me son; right you are. Look now, see dat little French stoker over dere? He can't speak but one word of English. Know what it is? Rum! Sure as sin in Sidney. Rum’s the only word.”
“You’ve been drinking a bit of rum too. haven't you?”
"Have an eye, me son, have an eye! We've got the jimmy with us, look, and the cox'n. and the buffer!" Billy slid from the table, drew himself up with drunken dignity and waggled his finger under McAllister's nose. "You've jist told a great spanking lie. Chickie. Rum is a fine drink, but never a drop passes me lips before Up Spirits.”
"But I don't tell lies.”
A statement of such simplicity was incomprehensible to McLeod, and with a resigned shake of his head he melted into the crowd.
Théophile Gauthier watched McAllister with mingled fear and curiosity. The little stoker had just come off watch. He was still dressed in oil-stained dungarees with a dirty sweat-rag twisted about his neck, and his sallow face was streaked with sooty perspiration. He stood with his hands folded loosely in front of him. and after listening intently to Chick's reply to Billy McLeod he turned to question Pariseau.
"Qu'est-ce que c’est qu’avec le petit Chick?”
Théophile shook his head in perplexity: "Moi. je crois qu’il est possédé, le pauvre.”
Dusty Miller was annoyed. He too had been astounded at the mellow voice which had rolled from McAllister's lips, but his amazement had been of short duration. Miller was the ships" wit, a sophisticate from Vancouver; as an inveterate prankster he knew the value of magnifying a practical joke to the point of absurdity and he grudgingly gave Chick credit for a job well done. But the skylark had gone far enough; McAllister was hogging the spotlight. A diversion was necessary. Dusty turned with calculated insolence upon Marcel Pariseau.
"Pack up the frog-talk, Frenchie. If you've got something to say, speak English.”
The expected reaction was instantaneous. "Cochon! You don't know dat Théophile 'e don’t speak English, eh? Dis is Canadian ship, we speak French all we want, understand?"
"Not in the mess-deck. Pea-soup jabbering on the upper deck only."
Marcel leaped for Miller's throat, and in his efforts to escape, Miller rammed his head squarely into the first lieutenant s stomach.
IT had been a dreadful day. Simply dreadful. Westlake Senior had never contemplated situations of such excruciating agony when lie drew up his 1 heory of Tolerance for Wealthy Young Gentlemen. First they had roused him from a warm bunk to inform him that McAllister had been swept overboard then back aboard. Breakfast had been cold and unpalatable. Then that horrifying scene on the bridge. Now this nightmare! McLeod drunk; the hands insolent; the Frenchmen chattering; McAllister mad as mutton; the coxswain smug as a church warden. 1 ears filled Peter Westlake's eyes and he gasped for breath.
"You! You clumsy — ”... he reached for words.
Dusty Miller was not one to be browbeaten by braid in the sanctity of the seamen's mess-deck. He drew himself up to attention and tilted an arrogant beak at his superior.
"1 beg your pardon, sir?”
The inflection of premeditated insolence in the voice was loo much for the f heory of Tolerance, and years of expensive training dissolved in hysteria.
"What do you mean by ramming your head into my stomach? Can t you recognize a superior when you see one?” "I'm sure 1 would, sir.”
"Recognize a superior when I saw one, sir.”
Muffled snickers danced through the mess-deck and Jimmy's voice quavered into falsetto.
"Coxswain! Bufferi Arrest that man Put him in irons!" Yes sir," said the coxswain. A growl of disapproval from the men and Petty Officer Newcomb steppec smartly to the first lieutenant's side equal ly prepared for death or promotion. "Pack up the flattering! Keep silence!' "Put them all under arrest!" squealc& Peter Timothy Westlake. his toleranc~ shattered beyond hope of repair by tht insolence of the rabble. "Stop the run' issue! Cancel all shore leave! No make and-mends for thirty days!"
"Ye-s sir,~' said the coxswain. Lieutenant Westlake jabbed a trembling nger at Chick McAllister: "Why isn~t lat rating standing at attention?" "G-g-good gracious. sir, little Chickie's sick boy!" "1 want him on his feet!" "N-n-no sir," stuttered the Tiffy defi ntly. "Keep silence!" roared the buffer again. ien coughed apologetically as he caught cold and questioning stare from Chief ettv Officer rtirnbtill. "This is intolerable! Sim~lv intolerable!
Did you hear that insolent sick-berth at tendant. Coxswain? Did you? Did you?" "Yes, sir." "Then do something!" "Yes sir." replied the coxswain, and wisely did nothing. Meanwhile the innocent cause of the turmoil was enjoying the scene immense lv. The new McAllister had drawn his knees tip tinder his chin, and with his long neck sticking out through the hian kets which Horace Pettipiece had heaped over his shoulders he bore a striking re semblance to a cheerful turtle. The great
nose wiggled with enjoyment, the eyes snapped, and the flaccid lips twitched and grinned in delight. He was a gargoyle plucked from the Gothic past, infused with life and tossed aboard the Merrifield to infect the ship with misrule.
Peter Timothy was close to the breaking point: “Wipe that smile off your face, McAllister!"
“Magnificent! Magnificent!” The changeling’s mouth widened and laughter bubbled through the mess-deck." I don’t know when I last saw such a hilarious bit of burlesque."
“Yes,” nodded the seaman. "You're obviously following the Old Comedy pattern of Aristophanes, but in your farce have substituted dogs for frogs. The men in the background form the chorus of mongrels. The gentleman you refer to as the coxswain is the mastiff. Those three habitants are excitable French poodles. That unpleasant little Miller fellow is a jackal, and you, dear sir, represent the yapping Pomaranian.”
A howl of laughter from the background and the first lieutenant’s eyes
started from his head in disbelief. This was unreal: a nightmare. No one had laughed openly at a Westlake since the banking of the first million! Dusty Miller writhed in equal fury: to be ridiculed is the supreme insult to a jester, but when the mockery is inspired by the erstwhile scapegoat! Suddenly, as if activated by a common charge, both the officer and the seaman flung themselves toward their tormentor; up leaped Chief Petty Officer Turnbull, sent Miller sprawling with a deft swing of his hips and barred the executive officer with a massive chest.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” he said coldly. “This rating is delirious, perhaps insane. If you will be so good as to leave the matter in my hands, sir, I shall bring you a full report in the wardroom.” Westlake clutched eagerly at the preferred straw: “Yes yes. He’s mad, all right. Absolutely insane. Carry on. Coxswain. Lash him into a strait jacket and report to me as soon as possible.”
THERE was a momentary silence as the dazed lieutenant stumbled from the mess-deck, but no sooner had the steel door clanged shut behind him than bedlam burst loose. The French Canadians chattered excitedly among thmselves beside the hammock-rack, Miller cursed the Lazarus with the foulest language he could muster, Billy McLeod quavered a doleful ditty from the port lockers, Perstanski and Campbell argued furiously concerning McAllister's sanity, while Horace Pettipiece expostulated with true evangelical fervor against the incessant profanity. Chief Turnbull watched them coldly for a few moments before slapping the mess locker with his open hand.
“Keep silence, you nattering cows, and have an ear.” He stared the bewhiskered faces into attention then went on. “Some of you deep-sea jacks thought it was a great skylark to get stroppy with the jimmy just now, right? Well, get this: there’ll be no insubordination aboard any ship I'm coxswain on, and God help any matelot who gets out of line from here on in. Understand?”
Chick McAllister had been listening to the hubbub with lively curiosity, and the smile which illuminated his face — transformed the ugly features into a satyr’s mask glowing with mischief. Rage boiled within Turnbull at the sight of the mocking grin, and it was only by tremendous restraint that he kept his knuckles from the provocative nose.
“You started this bloody lot, McAllister. You’re a Jonah, understand? We’ve had nothing but trouble since you came on board. You know why the sea threw you back last night? Because you're such a bloody hoodoo that even Davey Jones couldn't stomach you.”
Chick’s head began to nod sleepily while the coxswain was speaking and a yawn split his face. He stifled it with his hand, rubbed the gathering sleep from his eyes and smiled up apologetically.
“If you'll excuse me, sir, 1 find myself extremely drowsy.”
Turnbull shook a hairy fist between McAllister’s eyes. “Yawn in my face again, Dogsbody, and I’ll crack your head! Now pack up that phoney voice! ” “Isn’t this my natural voice?”
"Not if you’re Chick McAllister!"
"Is that my name?”
The little man crinkled his forehead in thought, smiled and shrugged indifferently: “It’s not at all familiar, but at the moment I’m too sleepy to care.”
Another yawn stretched his face, his eyes closed and his head fell forward with fatigue. Horace Pettipiece clucked in sympathy and stepped forward to ease the changeling’s shoulders to the table.
" [here now, there now. You lie down and have a g-g-good sleep, Chickie. A nap is an extra year of life.”
Turnbull watched the tifl’y tucking in McAllister with amazement: “I was talking to that matelot, you fool!”
“Ssssh! Quiet now, Chief, quiet. The poor boy’s sound asleep already.”
It was true. The dirty blankets heaved rhythmically and rasping snores bore witness that Chick McAllister had lost interest in either his own or anyone else’s identity. The trumpeting signaled the end of the first act. iu
In a second installment in the next issue, the Merrifield encounters a U-boat and the strange spell of the changeling again exerts its hilarious influence.