The mystery of the Merrifield
Two very different beings struggled for the unlovely body of Chick McAllister. Seamen and officers alike trembled and waited. World War II was forgotten while the hilarious tragi-comedy raced to a breathless finale
F A R LI FR AC'I ION: First washed overhoard in an Atlantic gale, then washed back on board again, Able Seaman McAllister has been regarded as a jinx — if not the devil in disguise — by the crew of HMCS Merrifield. Briefly and unwillingly, he keeps changing from his normal craven ignorant self into a fearless wit who keeps the corvette in a ferment.
LAST OF THREE PARTS
CHICK McALLISTER was cold and miserable and wet. Someone had stolen his sea-boots during his leave and he was standing watch in frozen Wellingtons; the last toggle had been snipped from his duffel coat and he was forced to hold the garment wrapped with his arms to prevent the wind from plucking it from his back; he had been unable to locate his scarf before closing up and the spray and snow in the back of the hood formed a slush which trickled down the ridges of his spine. He was seasick, horribly seasick; the first three days at sea were always a tribulation, but after six weeks on dry land the pitching and rolling of the corvette battered his stomach into a knot. And he was afraid, afraid with the ancient fear ol night and sea which had haunted him from the time of his first evening watch on the Merrifield. Cold and miserable and wet. and the despondency of his spirit equaled the suffering of his body.
Jeez, what a life. I'd be happier if I was dead. Bloody bullies. I hat Sub-Lieutenant Potter! What the hell's he always picking on me for, eh? What did 1 ever do to him? Admiral of the Fleet Lord Rotier. How would 1 ever have enough brains to think up a name like that, eh? The thief did it. The guv who’s stealing me. Did it to get me into trouble. Where is he now? Somewhere out there, waiting until 1 fall asleep. But
why me? Why me? What did I ever do, eh? I'm cold. All the other matelots got scarfs and mitts and stuff, and me, I got nothing. Keep your eyes open. Potter says. Don't 1 always stand a good w'atch? And Potter, what does he do? Dreams all the time. Dreams he’s a big shot. Everybody knows it and everybody laughs behind his back, but he’s such a show-off he don’t even know he’s acting like a nut. I should have gone over the hill when I was home on leave. Jeez, look at them!
He stared in awe at the great seas which marched down upon the corvette and smashed across the fo’c'sle. Suddenly a new' sound pricked his senses alert, a low moaning which sent a shiver trembling up his back. He strained his ears to catch and pinpoint the sound, heard it again, louder this time and apparently dead ahead. What did it mean? He glanced toward Potter, the officer of the watch, but sawno sign of alarm, glanced at the snoozing signalman and shook his head in bewilderment. Was he dreaming? Was it a hallucination brought on by the cold wet misery of his body? Was it another skylark being played by his alter ego/ Once more the mournful howl came throbbing over the sea. much louder and much closer, eerie and strangely insistent. A foghorn! It was a foghorn!
"Bearing dead ahead! shouted Chick. "A foghorn!
No reply from the officer of the watch. An interval of silence then the sound of the horn again, much closer. The lookout glanced despairingly at the sub-lieutenant, danced with excitement and once more raised his voice in warning.
“Vessel dead ahead! A ship! A ship!"
Looming through the snow-squalls and the driving spray he saw a black-hulled fishing schooner scudding before the wind with reefed sails, saw the oil-skinned men on her deck and saw her skipper curse the corvette with clenched fist. Almost beside himself Chick leaped to the centre of the bridge and shook the officer roughly.
"A schooner! We're gonna ram her!”
. . . and down dropped the second Hun, up leaped the third Boche to grapple with the valiant major and down drove the dirk, another German seized Potter’s arm and shook it roughly, the hero seized the villain hy the throat and lifted his knife . . .
Chick felt the subby's hand at his throat and he stared in fright at the knife poised above his head.
The dream burst into a thousand fragments and the erstwhile commando gazed stupidly into the face of the lookout.
“What’s the matter? Who are you?”
“Ship! Schooner! Collision!”
“What what what?”
“Starboard bow! Ship!"
"Action Stations!” squealed the subby. “Action Stations!”
WHEN the gong exploded Captain Moses Winters leaped fully clothed from a dreamless sleep at the first stroke and raced for the bridge. Sub-Lieutenant O'Rourke tore himself from the embrace of his plump bunk and stumbled toward the fo'c'sle. Sub-Lieutenant Simpson stuffed his bankbook into his pocket and his feet into his boots and clattered up the ladder toward his post in the asdic hut, and First Lieutenant Westlake shook his head in exasperation, dressed himself carefully and strode majestically to join the lesser lights on the bridge.
In the seamen’s mess-deck Leading Seaman Henshaw goaded his unwilling shipmates into boots and coats w ith shouted curses and sent them howling into the well-deck. Below in the stokers' mess Théophile Gauthier smiled a blessing upon the blasphemers who swore most viciously as they stumbled across the deck, offered a prayer for the safety of his soul, crossed himself and dressed CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
continued from page 17
“Find out why he rang action stations — before I crack your heads together!” Winters roared
for the fray. Alert was the watchword and alert they were indeed, an oak-hearted and oak-headed company.
"Range and bearing!" shouted Captain Winters when he reached the bridge. "What's the range and bearing, man?"
"Glory be to God! Are you panicking too. the way that other fresh-water dandy did? Why isn't the asdic repeater turned on? What's the classification of the echo? Speak up. you bloody fool!"
"Hell’s bells, boy. have you gone out of your mind? What's that you've got in your hand? A dirk?"
"What in blistering hell are you doing
with a knife? Playing cowboys and Indians?"
The captain knocked the gaping officer of the watch out of his way and seized the bridge-asdic voice-pipe: "Give me
the range and bearing of that contact. Lively, now!”
"No contact, sir!” cried Joey Smith from within the hut.
“No contact? Glory be to God. man. you mean you've lost it already? Carry out lost contact procedure!”
Sub-Lieutenant Simpson rapped the asdic set with his knuckles and frowned crossly at the operator: "How dare you argue with the captain! Carry out his orders at once, do you hear?"
"Well?” bellowed the captain through the voice-pipe. “What about that contact?”
Simpson's face blanched and he stared helplessly at Henshaw: "What shall we do?”
"Tell him the truth.”
"Well?” roared the captain.
“We. that is. Smith . .
"Speak up. man!”
"No contact, sir. We haven't had a ping all night.”
On the sea-swept bridge Winters lifted his head from the asdic voice-pipe in time to receive a slash of spray across his jaw. His hatred for these inland playboy sailors rose to fever pitch, anti his eyebrows contracted with fury as he turned toward the officer of the watch. Leslie Potter gulped and quaked and trembled, and the hand which held the legendary dirk shook so fearfully that the knife was in danger of clattering to the deck.
"Sir?" sniffed the first lieutenant.
"Ask this shackle - mouthed juvenile why he sounded action stations. Lively now. before the whole crew's washed over the side.”
"I beg your pardon, sir." replied the first lieutenant stiffly, "but if I may say so this is hardly the time and place to interrogate a commissioned officer. SubLieutenant Potter is a gentleman, and to subject him to—■”
"Sub-Lieutenant Potter's a pot-headed moron!" raged the captain. "A pot-bellied, pot-licking potful of daydreaming irresponsibility! 'I he boy s potty, d you understand? Potty! Nov/ will you find out why he rang action stations, before I crack your heads together like empty chain berpots?”
Lieutenant Westlake glared at his commanding officer. Good heavens, this was intolerable! Simply intolerable! Was the chaos in the elements to be matched by anarchy in the social order? How else could one explain the hideous reality of a Toronto Westlake knuckling to the brutal threats of this garbage-scow pilot, this illiterate sea - scum? What price breeding? What price wealth? What price any of the advantages poured upon his head by a doting parent? If only he were the captain! If only he could bribe the powers-that-be into a sudden reversal of the positions of Winters and himself! How he would make him suffer then! How he would grind him down and down . ..
Hie first lieutenant swallowed his re-
sentinent for the time being and turned upon the hapless subby: "Well, Potter? Why did you sound action stations?"
"But I didn't, Peter! I didn't!"
"Then who did?"
"McAllister! It was McAllister!"
Westlake turned upon the commanding officer with a triumphant sneer: "You see? McAllister. I warned you something would happen if you let that lunatic aboard."
"How the hell could a lookout give the order to sound action stations?"
"He reported a submarine! That's why ! sounded the alarm!"
"A sub on the surface in this gale?" asked the captain. "Bring that lookout over here."
McAllister was brought to the centre of the bridge and propped roughly against the shrapnel mats; directly in front of him glowered the awful figure of the captain, to his right towered the jimmy and to his left shone the cherubic countenance of Leslie Potter. C hick s eyes darted from face to face, his body trembled with cold and his liver shrank with fright. Now what? Now what had he done?
"How could you see a surfaced submarine in this storm?" demanded the captain.
"Submarine? I didn't see no submarine, sir!"
"You lie!" squealed Potter. "You reported a sub!"
"What did you see?" asked Winters.
"A fishing schooner, sir! 1 hears this foghorn so I reports it to Sub-Lieutenant Potter, then a minute later I sees this sailing vessel . . ."
"Liar!" shrilled Potter. "Liar! Liar! Liar!"
"Keep silence!" roared the captain. "(io on. McAllister."
"I thought we was gonna ram her. sir. so I hollers at the sub-lieutenant again, but he's waving that knife around like he's butchering a hog. so I . .
"Liar!" screamed Potter. "Forktongued liar!”
"Cio on. McAllister.
"I figured he was having one of his daydreams, so I grabbed his arm and
"You dared lay hands upon a commissioned officer?" gasped the first lieutenant. "You’ll gel detention for this, McAllister! Ninety days hard labor!"
Moses Winters measured his executive officer with contempt, glanced with compassion at the frightened lookout then turned upon the subby.
"Well. Potter? What's your story?"
"I was standing watch in the proper manner, sir. eyes wide open, alert, and all that sort of thing, you know, when suddenly this seaman began to shout some unintelligible nonsense about submarines olf the port bow. I tried to reason with him but he became violently abusive and threatened to fire oil all the bridge rockets at once: he seized me by the throat.
I drew my knife to defend myself and ordered action stations to save the ship, fhe man is a maniac, sir! A stark raving maniac!"
"But it was a fishing schooner! I saw it with my own eyes!"
"Keep silence!" shouted the jimmy. "You're on my report!"
Winters saw the frightened truth in the eyes of the little seaman and he dropped his own eves in bitter shame. What could he do? Defy custom and tradition to espouse a lost cause? It was the word of an officer against the word of a rating and the lookout's fate was sealed as surely as if he had attacked the sub-lieutenant in actuality.
IN the seamen's mess-deck Dusty Miller sprawled upon a bench and smoked hungrily, his craving for mischief stilled by the narcotic pleasure of his cigarette. Through heavy-lidded eyes he gazed at the hammocks swaying above his head, swept his glance over the littered tables and lockers and a sneer twitched his lips. Cattle: dirty cattle, that's all they were: hunkies and Frenchies and herringchokers and slum-rats. He fingered the bos'n's pipe which hung from a lanyard about his neck, licked his lips, chuckled malicioush at the sleeping forms and
blew a blast which shrilled through tired nerves.
"Wakey! Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine the morning's line! Come on. my sons, you've had your time now 1 want mine! Roll out and hit the deck! Wakey! Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine the air's like wine the sun'll burn your eyes out! Roll out! Roll out!"
He listened with pleasure to the curses which greeted his shout and his grin spread wider as his shipmates rolled from their hammocks. How he loved to prick their hides with the barb of his malice!
He lifted the pipe to his lips and repeated the call, even louder and shriller than ever, and a surge of satisfaction warmed his bile as he saw them wince at the noise.
Miller threaded his way across the littered deck until he reached the forepeak and stood beneath the hammock of Chick McAllister. The dogsbody. Dogsbody McAllister. He-hee! He picked a broken brush-handle from the deck and began to thump the bottom of the hammock with might and main, grinning and shouting and cursing like a madman.
“Wakey! Wakey! Wakey! Make a move, you creep!”
"Hey! Lay off that kid. Miller!"
"He can't feel it! He's a Jonah! Roll out!"
Dusty ended his exhortation with a last vicious cut and stepped hack to draw breath for the next attack. Before he could strike again the hammock tilted to one side and the face of McAllister appeared over the edge of the canvas, twinkling in a cheerful grin.
"1 thought I would find you at the other end of the stick, friend jackal."
The changeling raised himself within the hammock and craned his neck to drink in the scene, ran his eye over tables arid lockers and bulkheads and faces, and he beamed with delight.
“Well. The whole menagerie.”
rpnH electrifying news crackled into .1. every corner of the Merrifield, and if an impudent U-boat had surfaced alongside her that morning it would have been pointedly snubbed by the excited matelots. The weird and wonderful stranger from the sea had returned to visit them. It no longer mattered whether he was McAllister or Davey Jones, man or devil, ego or alter ego. it no longer mattered whether the whole affair was a skylark being played by the genuine McAllister; all that mattered was that a novelty had been introduced into the drab routine of convoy duty and that with each appearance of the stranger a shock of happiness thrilled the crew. He was a being apart, a subliminal spirit who had come aboard to champion the lower decks, and the initial antipathy of the ratings had now been replaced with rabid hero-worship. Had he not deflated the insufferable subby with his sly Admiral of the Fleet Lord F otter' Had he not laughed at the mighty Westlake? Had he not tweaked the beard of the coxswain? Let hypocrites and bullies beware! The new Chick was aboard again and woe unto the Scribes and the Pharisees.
}N the wardroom, breakfast was proceeding with restrained dignity, and the three officers devoured eggs and bacon and toast with such decorum that the food seemed to disappear without the vulgarity of mastication. The end of the gale and a good night's sleep had restored Lieutenant Westlake’s tolerance to all its pristine glory, and the smiles he bestowed on his companions were a credit indeed to the Theory of Tolerance for the Guidance of Wealthy Young Gentlemen. Simpson positively basked in their rays, and his yearning to establish himself on a first-name basis with the splendid Westlake leaped alive and set his palms perspiring with desire. Potter was also in fine fettle, and wisdom and witticisms tumbled from his lips in such abundance that one would have thought the seven Muses had slept upon his tongue. Hovering about the perimeter of the feasting Jovians was Steward fessier, his face so contorted with suppressed excitement that his cheeks quivered under the strain.
"Fishing schooner indeed." scoffed Potter. "Really. Peter, 1 swear that man's wits are as addled as his nose is long."
"Definitely paranoid," agreed the first lieutenant. "His attack on you last night proves beyond question that he is a homicidal maniac."
"Jolly good thing I had my commando dirk with me."
"I still think the man is subject to recurrent fits of schizophrenia." said Simpson timidly. "He's such a pathetic little creature when he's normal, it hardly seems—"
"Pathetic?" gasped Potter. "I hat would-be murderer?”
“Well, T mean, that is, he . . .” Simpson's voice trailed off into silence and he felt his neck crimsoning under Westlake's stare.
"A gentleman, Simpson, does not leap to the defense of every Tom, Dick, and Harry, particularly when one of them has just attacked a fellow officer."
"Yes. Uh, sorry, Number One. Sorry.” Westlake shifted his gaze from the subby to the steward and his tolerant smile slipped into irritation.
"Is there any reason for that idiotic grin, Tessier?”
“Yes, sir! Certainly, sir!"
“The gentleman’s back in the messdeck, sir!”
"Yes sir! The new McAllister, sir! He's back again!”
The officers stared at each other in dismay. and as the import of the news made itself felt on their minds their faces reflected the emotions created by it: tolerance vanished from the Westlake visage; a harried frown replaced Simpson's flush; all color fled from Potter’s cheeks and the poor boy's lips began to quiver tearfully.
"It's not fair, Peter,” he whimpered. "I mean, it really isn't, you know. It's not. No.”
ABOVE in the captain's cabin, Moses Winters listened thoughtfully to Chief Macdonald's plaintive tale, and at its conclusion he leaned forward to jab with his pipe-stem.
"Of course the boy saw a schooner. What else would it be in this latitude with a westerly gale blowing? Of course that pot-headed subby was dreaming. What else does he ever do? And I stood by and let them bear false witness against an innocent lad for the sake of peace and quiet. My soul for a mess of pottage, chief, and now the jig s up and it s time to pay the piper."
"I'm sure, I dinna ken. sir."
"Wel I pay,” repeated the captain grimly. “We II pay his fee before the voyage is over."
Macdonald stared at his commanding officer in horror and his face paled at this unexpected confirmation of his superstitious fears.
REQUEST MEN and defaulters fall in on the wardroom flats! Requestmen and defaulters to the wardroom flats! On the double! Chop! Chop!”
The quartermaster underlined his orders with a squeal from his bos n s pipe, tossed back the hood of his duffel coat and grinned at the assembled sailors, and his knowing winks and grimaces threatened to twist his face into a granny knot. An audience always brought out the best in the man and the opportunity to perform pantomime before this distinguished gathering sent him soaring to the pinnacle of mimicry. Grouped about the starboard table were Perstanski and Pariseau, Henshaw, Campbell, Miller and McLeod, to say nothing of a great swarm of lesser dignitaries drawn from every mess in the ship: there were off-duty stokers and off-duty coders, signalmen, telegraphists, cooks and stewards, all of them staring in awe at the little changeling who sat at his ease on the table.
"A noisy young man,” said Chick. “Anyone that pleased with himself must bring bad news."
"Bad news for you,” said Campbell sorrowfully.
“This is what we been telling you about, Chiekie." explained Perstanski. "This is defaulters, see?”
"Ych. But this won’t be a trial, it'll be a farce. They’re gonna railroad you right into chokey.”
"Detention barracks, sir,” explained Billy Mel.cod. "Dey'll give you ninety days, sir, sure as sin, sir.”
"And you tire all quite sure I'm innocent?''
"Of course you’re innocent,” cried Henshaw. "Whoever heard of a sub on the surface in a gale like that? You saw a schooner, all right, and Potter's trying to frame you to cover up his daydreaming.”
"Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lotter?"
"Dat's him. sir!" cried Billy. "Dat's him!'" lie turned rapturously toward the attentive sailors: "Lord, did you ever see such a corker, me sons?”
"Here's your cap. Chick or Sir or Devil or whoever the hell you are,” laughed Perstanski. "Billy will take you down to the wardroom flats, the coxswain will parade you up before the jimmy and order Oil Caps, you'll doll your trilby, he'll read the charges, you'll stare the braid into the deck and singe their bloody eyeballs! Good-oh!”
From the sun-necked well-deck Turnbull's voice roared above the chattering in the mess.
"The Grand Inquisitor." said Chick. He swept the cap from his head and bowed to his peers: "Gentlemen, your honor is in safekeeping.”
And amid the cheers and well-wishes of his shipmates the changeling marched oil' to battle.
OFF caps!” ordered the coxswain.
McAllister removed his cap. held it behind his back, spread his legs apart and beamed pleasantly at the officers before him. Turnbull stared at the relaxed rating and his black beard began to bristle with rage: were his eyes deceiving him? Was this bloody misfit actually lounging, yes, lounging, while up before the executive officer as a defaulter? The chief’s hands knuckled at his side and he fought down an impulse to beat the insolent wretch within an inch of his life. "Defaulter, defaulter hun!"
"1 beg your pardon?"
"Don’t stand there gaping and gawping. Stand at attention! Attention!"
"You really must watch that blood pressure, sir.” said Chick kindly. "With your choleric disposition ..."
The coxswain ground his teeth in a frenzy, rubbed a sleeve across his forehead and rolled a reddened eye toward the deck - head. Ten seconds of deep breathing enabled him to regain partial self-control, and he turned panting toward the first lieutenant.
"Begging your pardon, sir. but as you can see, sir. Ordinary Seaman McAllister is not quite right, sir. A bit balmy, sir. Bonkers.”
"1 told you he was dangerous. Peter,” whispered Potter. "He should be in a strait jacket. Pie's mad. I tell you. Mad.” The subby leaped back in alarm as the defaulter suddenly snapped to attention with a click of his heels.
"Admiral of the f leet Lord Loiter! The darling of Toronto! The scourge ot the Hun! l he watchdog of the Western Approaches! The hero of the North Atlantic! The modern Sir Launeelot! The Nelson of the North! The Canadian Hamlet! The Commando Kid! The . . . ” “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!'' squealed Leslie.
So carried away was he by his hatred of the mocking elf that he jumped up
and down in a tantrum and shook his fist under the nose of his tormentor. The latter widened his eyes in surprise and stepped back out of harm's way. and whether by accident or intent he ground the sharp heel of his Wellington into the sea-booted toe of the coxswain. Turnbull emitted a howl of pain and sent the defaulter flying forward with a brutal shove, the defaulter collided with the subby. the subby tripped over the jimmy and both officers ended up in a nerve-shattered heap on the wardroom settee. The coxswain gaped at his superiors in dismay, and in the furious face of the first lieutenant he saw all his dreams of commissioned rank bursting before his eyes like bubbles in the bow wash.
"Begging your pardon, sir. An accident. sir."
"Accident?" shrilled Westlake. "An accident?"
"Yes. sir. Accidental, sir. You see, sir. the defaulter stepped—"
"It was deliberate. Peter!"
"Of course it was deliberate!" The first lieutenant struggled to his feet, his face so masked by injured pride that it was scarcely human: "You'll pay for this. Turnbull! I'll make you suffer for that shove!"
"But sir, it was an accident!"
"It was deliberate. A deliberate attempt to embarrass your superiors. We know how bitterly you and the captain resent Potter and 1. We know how you sneer behind your beard at our civilian mannerisms!"
"Don't think for a moment that we've been taken in by your apple-polishing, your obsequious sniveling and boot-licking!"
“Certainly," sniffed Potter.
"And you thought I'd recommend you for a commission, did you? Is that what you thought, Turnbull? Considered yourself to be wardroom material, did you? Ha! Ha! Ha!"
"Hee hee hee!" echoed Potter.
A scowl was rapidly replacing the coxswain's original dismay, and as his anger increased his face grew blacker and blacker until the dividing line between skin and beard was almost obliterated. Westlake watched the gathering storm and reveled in the man's suffering.
"You a commissioned officer! Why, you aren't even a gentleman. Turnbull. You're nothing but an ignorant lout. A social-climber."
"Definitely." sniffed Potter.
A burst of fury shook the coxswain and he waved his paw an inch from Potter's chin: "Badger me. will you.
you little crumb! I'll break your . . ."
"Hun!" shouted the first lieutenant.
The chief snapped to attention in automatic response to years of training and only the black scowl and the clenched fists revealed the inner turmoil. Westlake sneered in mocking silence for a few seconds, savoring the exquisite delight of his power over the man in front of h i m.
"I'll break you for this. Turnbull. Break you to able seaman."
"Break and bedamned, sir."
"You heard that. Sub-Lieutenant Potter'.'"
"I certainly did. sir!" brayed Potter.
"Marvelous." said the defaulter. "Bullbaiting at its finest." He bowed with mock humility before the first lieutenant: "Forgive me, sir. for having earlier compared you with a Pomeranian; the wolverine is your prototype, sir."
Lieutenant Westlake panted under the stress of his swelling rage and his muscles coiled for the spring. All his pent-up
rancor focused upon the ugly gnome before him. focused and burst in a scream of hate as he hurled himself at his nemesis.
With swift sure motion the coxswain knocked the defaulter out of the way and stepped into the path of the jimmy. The latter swung wildly at the figure in front of him. battered the chest and face of the impassive chief and clawed the hated beard with his nails.
"Peter!" squealed Potter. "That's the coxswain!"
The words pierced tiie red mist which had enveloped Westlake's brain and ho dropped his arms to his sides. He stared stupidly into the face of the chief, saw a trickle of blood oozing through the latter's beard, saw the left eye reddening with pain and saw the gleam of triumph behind the pain.
"An accident, chief, I assure you. You see . . ."
"You'll be court-martialed and cashiered for this, sir," said the coxswain. "I request to sec the commanding officer to state a complaint."
"Oh come now. chief. I'm sure we can settle this matter between ourselves. Shall we dismiss the charges against this rating and go to my cabin?"
"Arc the charges against Ordinary Seaman McAllister dismissed, sir?"
"Yes, of course. It was a mistake, wasn't it. Sub-Lieutenant Potter?"
"Dismissed! " snapped the coxswain. "On caps! About turn! Double away!"
The changeling bowed to his betters, clapped his oversized cap on his head and sauntered away. The first lieutenant waited until the sound of the Wellingtons died away on the deck above then turned toward Turnbull.
“Shall we go to my cabin, chief?"
"Begging your pardon, sir. but 1 should first like to see the captain.
Westlake swallowed his returning anger and forced his mouth into a smile: “Now really, coxswain, why jeopardize your career by being stubborn? I'm willing to drop the whole affair, if you arc.”
“Begging your pardon, sir. but as the senior non-commissioned officer on board it is my duty to protect the rights of all hands, including my own. I have been brutally beaten by my superior officer, and 1 request to sec the captain to state, a complaint."
“Request granted!" snarled Westlake. “You'll curse the day you made that request. Turnbull!"
“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.”
AN indescribable air of happiness hung over the mess-deck, a feeling of joyous release which found expression in rough good humor, clumsy dances and snatches of song. The seamen crowded about the mess-locker to obtain cups for Up Spirits. Stokers poured up through their hatchway with mugs in hand, communications rtitings and miscellaneous ratings joined the throng and the deckhead echoed with boisterous merriment. Stewards Tessier and Williams held the centre of attraction, and in response to eager questions they told and retold and told again the tale of Chick's adventures in the wardroom, of how he had punctured Potter and needled Westlake, of how the jimmy and the subby had been sent Hying and of the epic battle between the coxswain and the first lieutenant. With each retelling the story added exaggeration upon exaggeration, and the changeling grew' in stature until he assumed the status of a demigod. Chick was the toast of the lower decks, and if Théophile Gauthier had been able to
prove beyond question that he was the devil incarnate they would have been hooted from the mess for their pains.
"Hey Billy! How come you got two mugs?"
"Chick’s giving me his tot. look," beamed Billy. “After 1 explains about the rum. Billy-boy, says he. you may have my share, says he. as polite and easy as a politician at a christening."
"Where is he now?"
"Up on the fiddley. me son. Up dere on the fiddley. look, jist abaft the funnel. sitting and smiling and staring off into the sky as happy as a skylark. Lord, lie's a corker, dat fellow; a proper corker."
TUT convoy had been sighted, the coastal escorts relieved and the Mcrrilicld assigned to her customary station astern. The dusk of late afternoon had brought an abrupt change in the weather, and as the laboring ships headed northeast toward Iceland, snow squalls began to arch the back of the sea into the ridges so characteristic of the North Atlantic.
Dusty Miller ducked low beneath the swinging hammocks and worked his way across the dock until ha reached the messtable. He fished a dry cigarette from his dungarees, lit it eagerly, squatted on the table and grinned at the men on the lockers.
"Dogsbody's still asleep, eh? I his will wake him up."
He drew a lump of slush-ice from his pocket and reached over to drop it into McAllister's mouth, but before he could carry out his joke Billy McLeod knocked his hand aside. Campbell leaped from the locker and shook him roughly while Perstanski cursed all three of them with hoarse impartiality.
"Pack it up. before 1 fill somebody in!" "What's the matter? 1 was only trying to wake up the little sneak."
Miller directed his most irritating sneer at the four men in turn, but they ignored his taunts and continued to stare wordlessly at the sleeper. Piqued by their indifference Miller smoked furiously for a long minute.
"What's everybody sitting around staring at him for? You waiting to see if his horns sprout?"
"We're waiting to see who he is when he wakes up. " said Campbell. "Whether he's the new Chick or the old Chick.
"He-hee! You've really fallen for his skylark, haven't you? You really believe he's a supernatural being who can skip from one personality to another, dont you?"
“Nobody could put on an act like that.”
"He's crazy, that's the answer.” said Perstanski. " I hat crack on the skull rattled his brains."
"You're the one who's bonkers. I say it's a skylark."
"I say 'e is devil!"
"The hand of God!"
"Look now, me sons," said Billy. "What difference docs it make whether he's crazy or whether lie's skylarking, whether he's an angel or a devil or a sign from above? What I says is dis: the new Chickie is a proper corker, like, a merry little gentleman who makes dis old bucket of guts sparkle with excitement like a cruise ship on the West Indies run. What I says is we got to get rid of the old Chick, look: we got to throw him out of dat body and turn it over to the new lad for keeps, cause I says dat the new one is a spirit of good luck and dat as long as he's on board dere ain't a torpedo nor a mine nor a
bomb made dal can hurt us.”
Pcrstanski and Pariseau nodded thoughtfully. Sensing some support. Billy McLeod went on: "Whatever he is we got to keep him on board, and we got to chase the old dogsbody spirit out dere into the darkness where it belongs.”
Dusty Miller fastened the toggles of his duffel coat, flipped the hood over his head and climbed down from the table. He stared in mocking contempt at his messmates for a moment then leaned forward for his parting shot.
"Do you clowns want to know how to solve the riddle? Sew Dogsbody up in his mick, drag him back aft and dump him over the stern: if he's an angel he'll tly; if he's a devil he'll swim; and if he's a lunatic or a phony he'll sink like a stone."
The sea-lawyer disappeared into the stormy well-deck and Billy hunched forward again in eager haste.
"I've been thinking about dis all the long day, me sons. What 1 says is dis: the new spirit got inside dere the night Chickie was washed overboard and cracked on the skull. So we'll sit here patient-like until he wakes up; if it's the new one. well and good; if it's the old one, look, why den we douses him wit a bucket of sea-water, raps him on the head wit a mallet, scares away the dogsbody spirit and leaves the coast clear for the proper lad to move in.”
“Suppose the old Chick won't leave?” asked Campbell.
“Dat cowardly little rat?" scoffed Billy. "When we hits him wit the water and the mallet he'll tear off into the night like a scared rabbit!"
"Har! Har! Why not? Why not? It's only McAllister! Okay. Billy-boy, you got the gear for the doings?"
"Dat I have, me son! Here's the mallet, look, and I'll be back wit the sea-water in a leap!"
Billy drew a mallet from beneath his duffel coat and placed it on the tabic beside Perstanski. groped beneath the mess-locker for a fire-bucket and hurried out to the well-deck. A warning hiss from Campbell focused attention once more upon the sleeping changeling and the three men drew closer. A bitter struggle was racking the body of the seaman: he twisted and tossed on the locker cushion. his arms and his legs shot out into grotesque patterns, held rigidly for a few seconds then doubled and contracted into muscular knots; saliva dribbled from his slack lips, beads of sweat stood out
on his forehead and fragments of broken words tumbled from his mouth in pain. The three sailors watched the agony in silence, and not even the arrival of Billy McLeod with his sea-water could distract their attention.
"He's waking! He's waking, look!"
"The new one! Make it be the new one!" prayed Billy.
McAllister uttered a shuddering sigh, opened his eyes to stare blankly at the deckhcad and sat up. His mouth hung open to reveal the discolored teeth, his wispy hair straggled across his forehead and his stubblcd chin and checks were mottled with red patches from the locker cushion. Beneath their sleep-heavy litis his eyes darted from one man to the other and in the glance neither wit nor wisdom was to be seen. Only a lurking fear. He watched his mates warily, his muscles tensed for flight: reassured that no hostile moves were forthcoming he pushed back the hair from his eyes and forced a smile.
"Look! He's smiling, me sons! He must be the new one!"
"Wait'll he talks!" hissed Mike.
What were they whispering about'.’ What was the mallet doing on the table? Why was McLeod holding that firebucket? Why were they staring at him? Was this another skylark? Fear knotted Chick's windpipe and parched his lips. What should he do? Run? Curse? He would grin and bluff it out. He grinned and grinned until his jaws ached.
"He’s nervous wit us all staring at him," whispered Billy. "Suppose 1 gives him a smile and a good word, me sons, by way of a welcome?"
"Good evening. sir." said Billy. "Would you like a cup of tea. sir. before closing up on watch?"
So! It was a skylark! The smile vanished from McAllister's face and was replaced by a hangdog scowl: he dinged on the locker top and his eyes darted fearfully from one to another.
"You guys bettei' lay oil, see? Youse are always picking on me! I m gonna make a complaint to the jimmy!'
"It's the old one!" howled McLeod furiously. "Drive him out. me sons! Drive him out!"
The messman picked up the fire-bucket and dashed cold salt water into the face of the little seaman. Chick squealed and leaped gasping and choking trom the locker. Pariseau whooped with delight and hurled himself upon the victim.
Campbell seized the thrashing legs and the grinning killick waved his mallet before the fear-filled eyes.
"What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?”
"Chase you out of dere!” snarled Billy. "Dis body belongs to the other one!”
"Hold him steady!" cried Mike, and he laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks. "Hold him till I get a good crack at him!”
Chick sobbed and twisted and wriggled in terror until he landed upon the deck. He kicked himself free from the clutching hands of his shipmates, grabbed his duffel coat and fled into the night, and at his back the laughter of the awakened mess-deck cackled above the gale.
IT was cold and miserable and wet. By the time the fourth hour of the middle watch rolled around Chick McAllister no longer cared whether he was alive or dead, and so intense was his misery that existence paled into futility and nothing mattered but the ache which enveloped him. He had stood his watches without mitts or scarf or balaclava or sea-boots; he had taken his trick at the wheel amid the jibes and jeers of his watch-mates; now he stood alone on the pom-pom platform, an unwanted outcast, and the why and the what of his life grew until they dwarfed the sky and the waters. The gale increased in force as the night wore on and the seas smashed ceaselessly across the fo’c’sle, battered the bridge and the fiddley and raced along the flats to break with a roar on the quarterdeck. Raging gusts hurled the snow and spray with such force that the spume swept across the very funnel and blotted the corvette from sight, and the violence of the storm found a ready response in the turgid emotions of the lookout on the pom-pom platform.
He cupped his bare hands at his mouth and blew upon them to ease the pain of his frozen fingers, but the wind snatched the breath from his lips. His boots and his clothing were soaked with sea-water and stiff with ice, his head ached. Chills and flashes of fever trembled through the length of his body. I'he first watch
was drawing to a close. Soon Perstanski and Pariseau and Campbell and Jones would be hurrying forward to the snug warmth of their hammocks. What would he do? Where would he go? Return to the mess-deck to be exorcised once again, to have Billy McI.eod once more attempt to drive him from his rightful body? What if they succeeded? He stared at the black sky and the black sea, saw himself whirling in endless agony between two worlds, saw himself stripped of flesh and nullified to the substance of a cry in the night. Wave after wave of terror broke across his mind, and to counterbalance the fear a spark of resentment began to glow within him.
What had he ever done to them, eh? Didn't he stand his watches? Didn’t he turn-to and work like the others? What was he, a dog for everybody to kick? Hadn’t he volunteered like the rest of them? What right had they to tease and torment him? He had as much right to the warmth and light of the mess-deck as they had. His soul was his, his body was his, his life was his. Let the skylarking thief howl in vain. He would see the captain. He would state his complaint directly to the commanding officer. Winters would see that justice was done. They would have to let him in the messdeck. Yes. He would ask for a transfer ashore. Yes. He would see the captain right now. Yes. Go straight to his cabin. Yes. Personal reasons. Yes. Tell him the whole story. Yes. Yes. Yes.
PERSTANSKI clung to a funnel-stay as the Merrifield rolled on her beam ends, and when the green sea had broken its back on the fiddley deck he paused to wipe the salt from his eyes. He glanced at the waves to time the next onslaught, braced himself for the sprint across the open boat-deck then froze into disbelief as he looked aft toward the pom-pom platform. Chick McAllister was walking toward him, head up, arms swinging, scorning lifelines and rails. The killick opened his mouth to shout a warning and a great black sea crashed down upon the corvette; when the ship righted herself the little changeling was gone, swept into the sea without a sound.
"Man overboard!” ir