FICTION

CALM

BERNARD J. FARMER March 1 1932
FICTION

CALM

BERNARD J. FARMER March 1 1932

CALM

BERNARD J. FARMER

JOE sat on the edge of a box and waited while the dressers put on his heavy, lead-soled shoes. His eyes, wide and blue and thoughtful as a child's, stared over the side of the salvage ship, and the pink woollen cap he wore gave him the appearance of a great overgrown boy. His left foot was done, and with a mechanical gesture he put out the right.

“Tight,” he said.

The man nodded and tugged at the thick canvas. Another unscrewed the glass windows of the helmet and held it up. Joe inclined his head slightly, his eyes never wavering from their stare at the water. As the helmet rested down on the shoulder bitts, he spat out a chew of tobacco.

They started to fasten down the clamps, giving them half a turn at a time so that the pressure should be absolutely even. His heavy features framed in the brassy cavern, Joe looked more childlike than ever. With ponderous slowness he rose to his feet and stamped twice. One of the men slipped behind him and packed the lead weights, thirty pounds each, in the belt round his waist. The other signalled to those round the air pump, and they started to turn, slowly and evenly. The glass windows of the helmet were shut and clamped up tight.

Joe waited impassively while the air line and life line were laid out neatly behind him, then one of the men tapped sharply on his helmet, and he raised his hand. They led him on to the diving platform and lie was swung over the side.

As he reached the surface of the water, he paused for an instant and tugged the life line twice. The men above responded. Then Joe adjusted the air supply valve on his left breast by “squeezing” his suit, and let himself go into the sea. The water closed over his helmet and air bubbles hissed furiously to the surface.

No one would have guessed from his manner that twenty fathoms down were five men. skilled engineers, trapped in Experimental Submarine Z6. She was of the very latest design; so experimental, in fact, that no one knew just how she would behave, not even the men who had designed her. for she was controlled by beam radio from a tower ashore. All had gone well till she had made her second dive; then for two frantic hours they had sent out signals, but she had never risen to the surface. From their instruments they knew she had never even moved off the bottom.

A hurry call was sent to the dockyard, and in the early hours of the morning men had come to the little house in Airlie Street and wakened Joe. With a swiftness born of practice, his wife had laid out his thick underwear, the heavy knitted shoulder pads that prevented the chafing of the canvas suit, and his flask filled with hot whisky and tea.

"Submarine,” he had grunted at her. as she bent over the flask. ”LX)wn off Sheerness.”

“Poor fellows,” she said softly. “You must hurry. Joe. They'll never get them up without you.”

THIS was quite true. Joe was the best diver in the Salvage Corps.

When other men came up sick and quivering from the “bends” after one hour, he would stay down for two; and once, when they were raising the destrover (¡alliant, he had been down to a depth of over 130 feet.

He was not a tall man divers rarely are but he was tremendously strong and thick set. There was something monumental about his calm, as if he had lived long ago and would always live; something that liad captured the fancy of Elsie. 1 le had not wooed her in the sense that most men woo. There had been few presents and fewer caresses, but she seemed drawn to the diver as a speck of dust might be to a steam roller. Overwhelmed by him. Within two months of their first meeting they were married, and they settled down in Airlie Street.

Elsie never knew quite what to make of her stolid husband. He was not actively kind or unkind. Regularly, week by week, his pay envelope was delivered to her with a grunt. Out of it she extracted the housekeeping money, tier own allowance and the deposit for the bank, and returned him seven shillings. Four of it he spent on tobacco; the rest she thought he must save. There seemed so little to spend it on. He rarely did any treating, though men were always ready to treat him. It was curious how popular he was. When he went down to the dockyard, walking with calm, deliberate stride, his childlike eyes looking straight ahead, everyone would notice him. everyone would call out, “Hullo, Joe.” He always replied with a grunt.

Elsie and he were happy in their way—until Jack Wench came. He was brought to Chatham for special work on the Z6. and was staying in lodgings. Because he was lonely Joe had brought him home to supper one night, and while Joe was outside in the yard attending to his chickens Jack had sprawled in the best armchair, smoking. Elsie came in to lay supper, and he swept her with his bold dark eyes.

"Pretty dull for you when Joe’s away?"

Elsie kept her eyes on the table. “I’ve plenty to do.”

“Oh. ah.” Jack Wench rolled another cigarette. All the time he kept

his eyes on Elsie, following her every movement. She seemed conscious of it, for her hands twitciied nervously and a plate slipped from her grasp. They both stoojjed for it and their eyes met. Jack bent forward suddenly and kissed her.

“Oh!” Elsie jumped to her feet and stood staring at him. “Howdare you!”

Jack grinned. He struck a match and gazed at her over the rim of his cupjied hands. “Like another?”

As he made a movement there was a heavy tread outside.

“No!” she gasped. “It’s Joe!”

Jack glanced at the door and sat back. When his host entered the room he was busy with his cigarette.

Supper was a silent meal, but Elsie was used to that. Joe rarely spoke much. Jack kept glancing at her from the foot of the table, and she was in terror lest Joe should notice. At the bottom of her heart she w'as rather afraid of Joe. But he never seemed to see.

THE next afternoon, w'hen Joe w-as down at the dockyard, Wench called again, ostensibly for a pipe he had left behind, and after much persuasion she accompanied him to the movies. They met many times after that. Wench was not backw-ard. When he wanted anything he went after it, and there w'ere many opportunities, for Joe w-as aw'ay at all hours of the day and night. Elsie was mortally afraid he would find them out, but the strain of weakness in her character that had sent her unresisting to Joe’s arms, sent her again to Wench.

Then at night, when she w'as expecting her husband home, she w’ould lie awake and tremble. If he did know', what would he do? He was always SÍ; quiet.

She confided her fears to Wench. One afternoon she broke down completely.

“He does know; I tell you he does! Oh, what is he going to do?” “Nonsense,” said Jack comfortably. He had rather a contempt for Joe. A good man at his job, but a fool in everything else. A man w'ho couldn’t hold the affection of his wife must be a fool.

Elsie rose determinedly. “Jack, I’m going to tell him. I can’t go on like this any longer. The suspense is killing me.”

Wench was somewhat alarmed at such a possibility. A desperate woman would not suit his purpose now.

He had only another month at Chatham before his work was finished.

"Listen.” he said persuasively, “I’m sure he doesn’t know. Why, only the other day he told me how much he thought of you. If you tell him you’ll only ruin everything—and you won't help yourself any.”

Elsie hesitated. “That doesn’t sound like Joe; he never talks.”

“He does to me,” said Wench. “You’re just getting scared; making Joe out a sort of bogey. He’s good-natured when you know him. If he did find out about us he wouldn’t do much, but there's no reason why he should.”

Elsie allowed herself to be persuaded.

She wouldn’t see Jack any more, she told herself Perhaps he really was right and Joe was just good-natured. But his words lost their comfort when she had to face Joe. If only she knew what he was thinking . . .

TMPRISONED in the narrow steel A hull of Z6, the five men waited in dull despair, broken by hectic flashes of hope as an idea occurred to one or other of them. But the flashes grew fewer; they had been down over two hours now and the darkness was oppressive It bore down like the warm, suffocating folds of a blanket. When the smash came, the lights had gone out at once. The submarine had dived at such an angle that she buried her nose ten feet in the mud, and the special control gear for the

Undersea drama starring the diver who trusted as he loved and the “friend” who tried to steal the diver’s wife

motors liad been jarred out of action and the accumulators scattered all over the battery room. There was an acrid smell of chlorine in the air. One of the men burst into violent, retching coughs. The others stirred uneasily.

"Hey, cheese it!"

The man went on coughing. Finally he slipped down into the watei tnat covered the floor and rolled over. Without a word his mate caught him by the shoulder and hauled him painfully on to the side of a bunk, where he sagged, inert.

"What's the time?” asked a voice.

A luminous dial glowed in the darkness. "Quarter past six.”

“Well, keep that thing where I can see it. will you?”

The owner of the watch held up his wrist.

Another silence, then: "Wench?”

“Try the transmitter again."

Jack Wench was sitting by the radio apparatus. He turned languidly and ran his fingers over the transmitter, but the damage was too great. The shock of impact had shattered the tubes.

"No good,” he said.

The man who had suggested trying, laughed. His merriment grew and grew—a weird, unnatural scream that sobbed and yelled in the darkness.

“Stow it!”

“Gag him.”

There was a violent scuffle, but still that dreadful laugh rang out. Then—crack ! A piece of lead pipe descended. The man laughed no more.

“That’ll stop him,” said a calm voice. “He’d drive us all mad. How much more oxygen have we got, Wench?”

Wench struck a match. It burnt palely in the foul air, lighting a rim of anxious, straining eyes, then he cupped the flame carefully in his hands and went over to the oxygen cylinder.

“ 'Nother fifteen cubic feet.”

“Well, let it go then. Might as well die at once as drag it out in this hell.”

“What say, you chaps?”

“Let it go.”

The cylinder hissed softly. The match burnt up in a brilliant flame, then died out. There were long gasps of relief as their tortured lungs inhaled the life-giving gas.

“Hey, take it easy, chaps. What do you think you areballoons?” The breathing grew easier, but only for a space. Sn it began to labor again. Once more Wench struck a match and read the gauge. As the light went out he made no comment.

AS JOE neared the bottom he adjusted the air supply valve, inflating ■ his suit and slowing his descent. He landed on the mud as lightly as a feather.

For a moment he paused there, motionless, accustoming his eyes to the dim grey light, then he began to wade along the bottom. His great gloved hands felt at his belt and switched on an electric lamp, specially constructed to withstand the tremendous water pressure; but, powerful as the light was, the slightest movement of the water refracted it in a hundred different directions, making it difficult to see more than a few feet.

Joe’s eyes narrowed a little. His progress became a series of short steps. Fishes slipixxi like shadows between his legs, and vague, filmy things waved round him. A blurred form showed ahead and he gave a grunt of satisfaction. 1 hen the form grew clearer and his satisfaction died. It was only an old wreck.

A rotting bulk of timber that had once been the bowsprit swung round with treacherous suddenness and caught in his air line. With practised, unhurried movements he raised his arms to disentangle it. The bulk waved and danced above him like a wisp of straw for all its apparent weight, and the air line coiled itself round twice, and the bubbles from the helmet ceased.

Joe’s calm eyes grew rigid in their stare. W ith infinite care he grasped the tautening line, striving to slide it along the wood, but it showed a maddening tendency to bind, and the Wfxxl floated sideways and down.

Joe’s face turned a mottled grey. His breath came in great suffocating gasps. As the air in his suit became exhausted, the suit collapsed, and the terrific pressure of the water above made him crouch like an old man. By an effort oí will he forced his mind to the task. Straddling the bulk before it floated away again, he seized the coils and tried to straighten them out. Mercifully, one of them slipped a little and a puff of fresh air came into his helmet. He pulled the coils free, then, over the end of the bulk, and the air came again in a regular flow.

Joe waited till the pressure was restored and his breathing had become normal, then went on. Another shape loomed up. At last! He saw a long tubular hull that must be the submarine, lying at an angle of thirty degrees to the bottom. He flashed his lamp on the bows and revealed huge white letters, half obscured by mud - Z6.

Drawing a hammer from his belt, he rapped on the steel. It is almost impossible to hear any sound encased in a divers suit, but water transmits the slightest vibration with extra-

ordinary fidelity. Putting his hand on the hull, Joe felt a faint answering tremor.

He ir >ved toward the conning tower. Before going down he had studied the plans and understood as much of the layout as was necessary for the rescue work. The conning tower liad a sliding steel dfx>r, on the principle of the roller blind, which could be opened both from the inside and outside. Ahaft of this were two salvage valves, non-reversible and o|x*ratod only from the inside, which could be connected to an air host». 1 le would have to bring a hose down, connect it up. then signal to those inside to open the valve; which would let in sufficient air to keep them alive till the hull could lx* raised.

There was no other method of rescue. In the present stage Z6 was not fitted with torjx;do tubes; she was just a complicated box of machinery.

Joe rapjied again on the hull, then inflated his suit and gave the life line four jerks, the signal to ascend.

AS HE neared the surface, agonizing pains shot through his arms and legs. They felt as if they were lx*ing blown up like a balloon. When he was lifted out of the water on to the diving stage, his face was a dark red and the pupils of his eyes were horribly dilated.

They would have rushed him to the "iron doctor”—the decompression chamber but he raised his hand and jxnnted to his helmet. The glass front was unscrewed and immediately blood gushed from his nose' and mouth. Joe wiped it away as if it were nothing, and as rapidly as he could, explained his i>lan. A long flexible steel pijx' was rigged ov-rside and buoyed at thirty fathoms; the other end was attached to a powerful air pump.

Then Joe prepared to dive again. Another diver. Eames, had been sent for and would have relieved him, but Joe shook his head. Eames could go down later when they were raising the hull.

As they were closing his helmet, a man came forward. "There’s a gal come across in the supply boat. Reckon she’s your missus, Joe.”

Joe grunted. "What does she want?”

“Dunno.”

"Well, I can’t wait.”

The dressers, who had paused, screwed down the front and lifted Jx; to his feet. As he reached the side Elsie scrambled aboard. She had learned with horror that the submarine was the Zb and that Jack Wench was in it. It seemed to her that all her husband’s monumental calm had led up to this; that in some strange fashion he knew the accident would hapiien and had been biding his time to revenge himself on Wench. In her distorted fancv, she could see Joe, inhuman in his great brass helmet, waiting, waiting, while the taps on the .mil grew fewer, died altogether.

"Anyone alive?” they would ask when he came up.

Joe would shake his head.

“Tried everything?”

"Yes, everything. They’ve all gone."

And Joe would go home, home to his wife, silent and inscrutable as ever, pretending that nothing had happened.

Elsie laughed hysterically. At any cost she must set' him before he went down; before he let four men suffer for the sins of one. So she hurried to the dockyard and bribed the man in charge of the supply fx>at to take her out to the salvage ship.

She was just in time to see the diving platform lowered.

"Joe !” she cried, and rushed forward.

One of the dressers interposed. "E’s going down now. missus. You'll see 'im later.”

"But 1 must see him now; you don't understand." She struggled with the man. “I've got something to tell him." She called again; "Joe!

Joe!”

" E won’t 'ear you, missus, with that ’elmet on.

Wait till 'e comes up.”

"But he must hear me. I’ve got to tell him that — he must hear me.”

The man winked. "A proper little love bird you are -No, you don’t," as Elsie slipped from his grasp and rushed to the side.

Joe was halfway down to the water. The platform stopped for an instant and swung round a little, and two white specks on the gleaming brass top of the helmet seemed to wink up at her like eyes. Satanic. Mocking. Mocking, as Joe’s eyes must be. She cried out again. The next moment the platform reached the surface of the water and he was gone.

Joe had little difficulty in connecting the flexible hose to the salvage valve. The chief trouble was his growing weariness. He had already been down j>ast his regulation time, and there was yet much to do. He jerked the life line for them to start the pump, then tapped on the hull in the Morse code :

"Open S valve."

There was no reply.

With his hand on the hull, Joe waited a moment, then tapped out his message again, but still there was no reply. The foulness of the air had driven the last member of the crew into unconsciousness.

Laboriously Joe climbed up to the conning tower. It took him twenty minutes to get there. 'File tremendous air pressure under which a deep-sea diver must work to counteract the pressure of the water, added to the 200 pounds weight of his suit, was affecting his heart; and his sight was growing dim, while his legs felt strange and inert.

He waited a moment to rest himself, then surveyed the shutter dx>r. It could be opened from the outside, disclosing an air-lock chamber, which would, of course, fill w ith water the moment the dcxir was moved. But the dcxir could be locked again behind him, giving him free entrance through the inner door into the hull, with only the amount of water in the air lock, which would make little difference.

But what about his own air line? If Jcx.* were to enter, the air line would have to enter too; and that w'as impossible.

For a moment he deliberated, then pulled the lever operating the outer door. It slid back quickly, leaving a long wide gap through which the water rushed, filling the air lock. He next opened his air supply valve, inflating his suit to the utmost which would still allow him to remain down, then shut off the valve and disconnected the pipe, jamming it in a convenient niche, where it bubbled freely.

The risk he was running he realized fully. The air in his suit would have to last him till he had entered the hull and screwed ojxrn the salvage valve. But Joe was inured to risks. With difficulty because of his bulk, he pushed himself through the outer d;x>r into the air-lock chamber, closing the door behind him. Then he opened the inner door and was carried down by the rush of water into the hull.

TNSIDE, the last faint hiss of the oxygen cylinder had A ceased. One man lay head downward in a pool of water; two others were unconscious in their bunks; a fourth crouched up against a bulkhead. Jack Wench sat on a box,

his feet in the water that covered the floor, his eyes staring at the illuminated dial of the wristwatch, glowing faintly on the wrist of its unconscious owner—his last link with consciousness.

He knew he was going to die, but every man had to die some day. Life was a series of counters, to be scrambled for and spent. Elsie had been only one of the counters. He knew that probably Elsie’s husband would be the diver sent down—if they were found—and it was rather ironical

to think of Joe. poor fool, trying to save the man who had stolen his wife.

He heard a rap. It seemed hours before the significance of it entered his mind. Then he stretched out his hand, felt for something hard, and rapped back.

"We’re found!” He tried to shout. In reality he shouted nothing. His lips did not even move. His eyes closed and even the watch dial faded.

Ages later he heard another rap, coming from overhead. At least, dull sounds penetrated the mist that hovered between him and the final blackness.

"Must—rap back,” he thought. "Must—”

There was a terrific crash, a deluge of water, and something descended into the hull.

The deluge jerked Wench back to life. He raised himself up and opened his eyes. A flash of light blinded them, then it moved up to the control platform. Wench understood. They had connected up to those patent valves. Weakly he staggered to the platform and fumbled with the wheel. There was a hiss of air. Air! How he thanked God for it! Then out it came in a great pulsing stream.

For a moment Wench hung over the rail of the platform, motionless, then he looked down. The light was shining on the water that covered the engine-room floor, and leaning against the bulkhead he saw the figure of a diver.

“Joe!” he cried.

Slowly the figure raised its head. Deep in the brassy cavern he saw two eyes, fixed and expressionless. They seemed to look through him, right into his very soul.

"Joe!” he cried again. “Thank God you’ve come!”

The diver gave no sign. One hand lifted slowly to his breast, then dropped.

"Joe!” Wench took a step down, then paused. Why did Joe stare at him like that? He took another step, then paused again. The hull was flooded with air now, tainted with engine oil from the pump, but to him it seemed the most wonderful smell he had ever known. He was recovering with every minute that passed. But why didn’t Joe move? Why didn’t Joe do something?

Surely, surely he couldn’t know about Elsie? Wench stared at that terrible, immobile figure. He looked away from those eyes, then relentlessly his gaze was drawn back again. So Joe did know— and had saved him only to kill him. In another minute that tremendous bulk, the strongest man in Chatham dockyard, would move toward him, would—

Wench leaned forward and bellowed so that the diver might hear.

“Joe! Can you hear me? I didn’t take her. One kiss, Joe. Only one kiss. I swear it. I can’t help it if a girl runs after me. can I, Joe?”

He looked to see some movement, some sign from those accusing eyes. But they never moved.

Wench wiped his face. It was streaming with sweat, and the hand that grasped the rail of the control platform trembled. He looked to see if any other member of the crew had revived. One man stirred slightly and groaned, but when he shouted his name he made no answer.

Wench cleared his throat huskily. This was horrible. Jtx; was trying to break his nerve. Elsie was right. There was something about him. He was a kind of demon. He had known about them all along and had waited for this moment.

Wench gave a violent start, like the sudden plunge of a horse frightened beyond endurance. He would kill Joe first. He didn’t care if Joe were staring at him; if the man was a demon. There was a bar of iron behind. He would send it smashing through the glass of the helmet, into the eyes behind. They wouldn’t stare at him then.

He turned swiftly, grabbed the bar, and swung it in the air. He took a pace forward to hurl it. The next instant his foot slipped on the wet iron and he came crashing down. His head struck on the bottom step, cracking open his skull, and he rolled over in the water and lay still.

The eyes of the diver remained staring at the third step of the ladder, where Wench had been; for though he had retained sufficient instinct to open his air valve again when he had entered the hull, the sudden difference in pressure had produced an acute attack of the "bends,” and Joe was temporarily paralyzed and blind.

pOR some fifteen minutes Joe’s dilated eyes remained staring at the step, then they closed a little. The mist before them cleared, and he forced his agonized limbs into motion. Heavily he moved forward, his light flashing strange patterns on the bloodstained water.

One of the three men living turned over and groaned. Then another. Joe felt in his belt for his flask. There was infinite compassion in his touch as he forced brandy between their lips. It takes a man who goes down into the deep to understand the perils of the deep, and there was something pitiful about the struggle back from th^ borders of eternity.

Continued on page 38

Continued from page 14

Lastly Joe came to Wench* lying in the water. His heart contracted with pity. Poor fellow! How young he was to die. Elsie, who had liked him, would be sorry, too. It never occurred to him that there might be anything wrong between Wench and his wife. How could there be when Wench had been to his house and eaten at his table?

Gently he turned the body over. Some-

thing of the fear and horror of Wench’s death showed in his distorted features, and Joe’s eyes grew luminous. To think he was too late!

It would have been a surprise, indeed, for the woman sitting in the parlor in Airlie j Street, shivering with apprehension, if she I could have seen her husband then. For the ' man she thought a demon, who was a byj word for his inscrutable calm, was crying ! j