FICTION

Four Gold Bands

ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN April 15 1935
FICTION

Four Gold Bands

ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN April 15 1935

Four Gold Bands

ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN

IT WAS a beautiful day. Early afternoon, and midsummer; the sky a robin’s-egg blue, clouds of fleecy white piled high; and the sea a deep purple, flawed with light airs and ruffled by countless lacy little waves. Astern of the Cardiff Ranger the chalk cliffs of the receding land were still plain, while beyond them the hills were lush and green, with tiny flecks that were cottages nestling in the hollows. Close inshore crawled the black hull of a coasting freighter, the smoke long-drawn behind her. To the south the dun sails of a fishing fleet spanned across the water, while up-channel, from the west, came foaming the knife bow of an Atlantic greyhound, four-funnelled and immense.

Captain Armstrong stood in his own bridge wing and surveyed her through his glasses—the clean lines of her. the tiered decks black with passengers—and he admired her but felt no envy. Well found and competently manned, he had the Cardiff Ranger beneath his feet, and though she was a bare 8,000 tons and carried a scant half dozen passengers, she was his own. His first command. London to Hobart, via the Strait of Magellan. Part of her cargo coal, since no stops were planned. And he was master. Thirty-four years old and twenty years at sea. He would not in that moment have exchanged into the largest ship afloat, not even if they offered him a commodore’s ranking and the income of a prince.

“She’s a beauty,” he said to the pilot standing beside him. And the pilot tapped out his stubby black pipe and grunted.

“She’s a lot of grief for her old man,” he observed cynically. “You’ll find out.” He buttoned his serge jacket, looked overside and signalled to his boat. “Time for me to be going, sir. You’re all clear now.”

Captain Armstrong nodded and called to the third mate at the telegraph. The Cardiff Ranger slowed and drifted, and the pilot boat surged alongside. And then the pilot was

gone, and it came to Captain Armstrong, with a faint apprehension, that he was really alone at last, for with the pilot went the last senior authority. He had a momentary sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Entirely alone. For all the long run to Hobart there would be no one now to whom he could turn, upon whose shoulders he could set his troubles and his blames. But there was no earthly use in thinking of that, he reflected. Not now. The die was cast. He turned inboard from the wing rail and called to the third mate again.

“Full ahead!”

“Full ahead, sir,” repeated the third, and the sharp jangle of the telegraph cut across the words. So the voyage commenced.

THERE WERE quite a number of queer sensations that came to Captain Armstrong as he paced back and forth across his bridge that summer afternoon. Instinctively, of course, he was trying to readjust himself to the changed conditions of his life. He had to keep remembering he was the master of the Cardiff Ranger, and not the first mate as he had been for several years. When he had first been appointed to command, some three weeks previously, he had known elation and a certain relief. The end of twenty years of work had been achieved. But so long as the Cardiff Ranger lay in port there was little or nothing for him to do, nothing to bring sharply home to him that his status was changed. The mates attended to the loading of the cargo. The office handled most of the official details. He was mainly concerned with visiting relatives, celebrating with old shipmates, and being fitted for new uniforms. Now he was at sea. everything was different. He was master in fact as well as in name.

He remembered with some embarrassment his glow of pleasure over that uniform business. The golden oak leaves upon the peaks of his new caps; the four gold bands upon his uniform cuffs. The tailor who had made other uniforms for him had queried that. Four bands? Yes, four this time. He lifted his hand now as if to shade his eyes and he glanced covertly at the shining braid. Well, he was qualified. At certain intervals since his nineteenth year, white-haired, seaweathered shipmasters had examined and passed him. Second mate. Then first mate. Then master. Then extramaster. He had his certificates and there was nothing higher. He was fully qualified to command a vessel of any tonnage sailing into any ocean in the world. What then was there to make him feel self-conscious now, to make him apprehensive? He thought he understood the last. The

new and terrible unaccustomed weight of full responsibility.

“You’ll check the course, sir?” the second mate was saying. He pulled himself together with an effort and murmured, “Certainly.” That was his duty now. To check the course. To check everything. The last court of appeal. Abruptly and with his new title he had become a man apart.

He was in the chartroom then before he knew it, with the second mate and the mate standing deferentially by. But he was not thinking of them, nor clearly seeing the chart, nor the parallel rulers in his hands. He was seeing a young man of nineteen taking his first bridge watch. Third officer on the San Criterion out of Hull for Genoa. A very apprehensive young man. A very self-conscious young man, now he thought back on it. Very much afraid that something might happen while he had the bridge to himself, when he might not perhaps know just what to do. Acutely aware the whole crew understood he wras making his first voyage as an officer. Acutely aware that he was discussed in the fo’c’s’le, and that the other mates and the master regarded him with a certain amused and impatient tolerance, as perhaps his mates and his crew' were secretly discussing him and regarding him now, a green captain.

“The course is good,” he said mechanically, setting down the parallel rulers. The tw’o mates went out on the bridge with a respectful “Aye, aye, sir,” and Captain Armstrong looked at himself in the little chartroom mirror. Well, he had something to be proud of. Master at thirty-four. He was young, strong, clear-eyed and outwardly very calm. His w’eather-tanned face was smooth and unlined, and time had not yet marred his black hair with grey. Yes, he had the best part of his life before him. And there wras nothing, really, to be apprehensive about. All his sea life he had envied captains their ease and their pay, their glamor and their power. And now he had all that himself.

HE WENT below after a w'hile, and it was not until then, in the quiet privacy of his suite, that another feeling swept over him, the full force of his utter loneliness. Always before when he had gone off wratch there had been something to do. Poke a head inside the steward’s room for a baw'dy jest; drop into the engineers’ mess and argue heatedly about getting the w'inches fixed; or make the deck rounds w'ith the bosun. But all that was finished. He felt a little dazed as he realized it. No one could be friends with him now'. He lived alone, on the low'er bridge, with his private

bath, his bedroom, his office, his draw'ing-room. No w'atches to keep. Not a soul to come near him unless he summoned them, or unless there w'as an important query to be made, or something unusual occurred. No one would ever again slam open his door and yell a lusty greeting, or invite him to a drink, or with consummate gall borrow his shirts and money and tobacco. _ He was sacred. He was alone. Above and beyond. The price of discipline and the four gold bands.

He thought of his mate, the mate of the Cardiff Ranger. Bobby Sand had been second on the ship when he had been first, before they both got their step. But he wouldn’t be Bobby now'. Probably not even in private or ashore. He would be Mr. Sand. Between them always there would be that iron if invisible barrier. But perhaps . . . He crossed to the desk in his office and pressed a button for his stew'ard.

“Ask the mate to step in.” he ordered. The stew'ard murmured a quiet “Right away, sir,” and w'as gone. And after a while Bobby came. First a discreet tap on the door. Then the deferential, “You w'anted me, sir?”

Captain Armstrong stared at him with a faint smile. They had been together on half a dozen ships. They had drunk together, shared money and troubles and fights. And now it w'as, “You wanted me, sir?”

“I . . . ” the captain started, uncertain, and then he took the plunge. The yearning for the old friendships. “I just w'anted to see you, Bobby.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed the mate and w'aited, his cap in his hand. “I haven’t had much chance to congratulate you, sir, but I’d like to do it now.”

There was a small strained silence, a formal silence, and then in a wave of sheer bitterness the impossibility of the thing he contemplated sw'ept over Captain Armstrong. There could be no friendships any more. He made a tired little gesture and succumbed to the tradition.

“Thank you, Mr. Sand. I appreciate it. I—er—when do you think we should have a toat drill?” he ended lamely. The mate stared at him. Funny time to think about boat drill.

“Well, whenever you say, sir. If the weather holds good, tomorrow would be all right.”

“Make it tomorrow then,” the captain agreed. “Would you care for a drink?”

The mate hesitated.

“Well, sir . . .”

“Might as well. I’ll take one with you.”

He brought whisky from a locker. And the mate stcxxl

patiently and waited until the captain had lifted his glass before he ventured to take his own.

“Luck.” said the captain.

“Very good luck, sir.” agreed the mate. He tossed down his drink. “And now if that's all. sir . . .”

"That’s all, Mr. Sand,” said Captain Armstrong wearily. What else was there to say? The ghosts of a thousand generations of master mariners stood behind the Law . . .

THE SIREN of the Cardiff Ranger boomed eerily in the thick fog, curiously muffled and echoing back and forth through the ghostly whiteness. For three days now she had crept along, without sight, blinded from the sun and the stars, and from the very sea itself. And for three days, sleepless, Captain Armstrong had held the bridge, peering, listening, constantly consulting the chart, checking and rechecking the groping uncertainty of his dead reckoning. He was unwashed, unshaven and haggard, wrapped in his wet oilskins and with the tiny fog drops falling from the brim of his black sou’wester. He was, he knew, somewhere near a group of islands, but whether they were ahead of him, or to ¡x>rt or starboard by this time, he had no real idea. Then, too, the Cardiff Ranger must be in the shipping lane. Twice already they had heard answering sirens lxx>m out of the whiteness and fade into the whiteness again. He ought to sleep. Several times the mate had suggested he lie down in the chartroom for an hour or so. And he had tried. But every other moment found him upright and shaken with apprehension, the sweat cold upon him. His ship. Steaming blind. Those islands and those other ships. The mate was a gcxxl man, but— and after a few fruitless minutes of trying to close his eyes he would get up and go on the bridge again.

He ¡x“ered ahead now, his eyes red-rimmed and strained as the mate touched his arm.

"There’s one over there, I think, sir,” he said.

They both listened as the boom of their own siren died. Silence for a while, save for the faint engine beat and the whisper of chill wind against the bridge dodger. And then it came to them, faint and far, the cry of another ship crawling blind in the smother. Their own siren answered, muttered away, and again the whimpering wail came back. Nearer.

“Seems like she’s crossing our bows, sir,” observed the mate. He was haggard himself and unshaven, as was the second mate, moving restless back and forth in the bridge wing. It was hard to take a watch below in such weather. One worried. Even a second mate.

Captain Armstrong said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Sirens were deceptive in the fog. He laid a hand on the telegraph handle and waited, straining his ears, straining every nerve of his being. The strange siren was closer yet, and their owm shattering warning flung back.

“Maybe we ought to stop her,” muttered the captain. He was a little annoyed that the mate did not answer him. nor venture his opinion. If the mate only agreed—but why should the mate agree? It was his, Captain Armstrong’s problem now. When he had been a mate himself it was a certain amount of comfort to think that someone else had to decide.

r"pHE STRANGE siren boomed so close to them it seemed it must be over their heads, but they could see nothing in the w'hiteness. To stop the Cardiff Ranger or to jam her full ahead? Full ahead gave you quick steerage way if a crisis came, but more frequently to stop was safer. Yes. sometimes, but not always. He was racked with indecision while his own siren blubbered and roared over him. And then as the fog rifted for a moment, he saw' the other ship, even as the frightened lookouts shouted; even as the second mate swung white-faced back from the bridge wing. A great black bow bearing full upon them, midships. Captain Armstrong’s heart contracted to a pin-point.

“Port, hard over !” he screamed and jammed the telegraph to full ahead. He heard vaguely the startled jangle of the other vessel’s telegraphs and then all there was to do was to pray. For those scant long drawn minutes when it seemed the ships must crash, when it seemed they hung together, drawn by some inevitable sea pull, Captain Armstrong died a hundred aching deaths. His ship. Should he have stopped her? Had he done the wrong thing? He clung weakly to the telegraph and watched, fascinated. And they cleared, cleared so closely it seemed their paintwork must have touched, and the Cardiff Ranger lifted to the sw'ell ot the other’s wash.

“Course again,” said Captain Armstrong w'eakly. and pulled the telegraph back to half ahead. The mate was wiping his lips with a hand that shook a little. The second mate had swung about to stare pop-eyed at the other ship’s vanishing stem.

“Well.” said Captain Armstrong with an attempt at humor, pulling himself together. “A miss is as good as a mile. I wonder who she was?”

The wireless operator came on the bridge a minute or so later, pale and shaken still from the nearness of disaster.

“I’ve heard from her, sir,” he reported, thrusting a flimsy

Continued on page 50

Continued from page 13

into the captain’s hand. "Don’t know why I I couldn’t get her before. The fog does funny j things.” The captain looked down and read.

I while the fog drops sprinkled the paper.

NEAR THING. CONGRATULATIONS FOR BOTH OF US. FOG ONLY EXTENDS ABOUT FIFTEEN MILES AHEAD OF YOU. WHO ARE YOU. S. S. SAN PEDRO. FUNCHAL TO BOSTON. CLEMMJNGS. MASTER.

Captain Armstrong smiled faintly. There had been, of course, that other captain, too, staring strained over his bridge rail and all tight inside to hear the blind siren wailing in the murk ahead of him. He went into the chartrooni, scribbled an answering cheery message and asked the San Pedro for her j position so he could check his own.

“Well, that’s one thing,” he told the mate when he returned to the bridge. "Only fifteen miles more of this and we’ll be in clear water, thank ( iod !”

In less than an hour it was apparent the fog was thinning. Rifts appeared more frequently. A faint hint of the sun overhead seeped down, more imagined than felt or seen. And half an hour after that the Cardiff Ranger was steaming through little more than a heavy mist, while the long roils of the sea grew plainer and plainer. Captain Armstrong sighed with relief. He felt incredibly tired and completely drained now, but for a while at least he would have ; some peace. He waited until the vessel burst forth into a dazzling sun-lit sea, with a ! clear sky above and clear water ahead, and ! then he began to unfasten his oilskins.

"I guess I’ll tum in,” he told the mate. "You ought to be all right now. Call me,

! though, if we run into any more thick stuff.”

He went down to his rooms and passed j into the warm silence with a sigh of relief,

! not unmingled with a faint regret. He was alone again. Not a soul to drowsily discuss the events of the past days with as he undressed. nor to speculate with as to what must have happened if the San Pedro had hit them. He t(X)k a lonely drink and. staring in the mirror, ran quick fingers through his black hair. It was a wonder it wasn’t white,

1 he reflected, what with the terrible strain of I groping through that fog and the stark horror of that near collision. Well, the mates would be gossiping now, and the engineers arguing in the mess and making sarcastic remarks about the inefficiency of the deck crowd. But that was all past for him. If he tried to join such gatherings they would fall silent and be embarrassed, waiting for him to speak. He painfully removed his clothes, tapped the barometer once or twice, inspected the tell-tale compass over his bunk to see what the course was, and then thankj fully fell asleep.

I THINK you’d better see the men, sir,” said the mate some days later. Captain Armstrong looked up from the depths of a cane chair on his lower bridge and laid down his book. It was warm, and he was feeling contented, the nightmare of the fog all but forgotten.

“What is it this time, Mr. Sand?” he wanted to know.

The mate shrugged.

“Same old trouble. Grub. We get it every voyage. They say the jxjtatoes are bad, the meat isn't cooked and there isn’t enough anyway.”

"Well, why don’t they have it out with the steward?”

“They’ve seen the steward. He says he can’t do any more than he has been doing.” Captain Armstrong got up with a sigh. It was just a petty thing, one of those small affairs that can harass and annoy a man nearly out of his mind at times and yet must be attended to. A ship suffers from a discontented crew, and anyway the steward might be grafting.

“Send up their spokesman,’ said the captain. "I don’t want the whole fo’c’s’le on the bridge.”

And thereafter for an hour he listened to complaints and inspected kits of food; called the steward on the carpet and reprimanded the cook. There are many things not covered in the examinations that qualify a man for command, and some of these are tact, patience, humor and inflexible good temper. To peacefully arbitrate and amicably settle the differences between a Liverp<x)l dock rat, a belligerent Irish steward and an obstinate German cook, would be something no statesman would undertake, but a master mariner must, and of necessity he succeeds.

The particular business of the crew’s food disposed of, Captain Armstrong returned to his chair and picked up his book again. It was not a particularly interesting book. It was, in fact, a South America Pilot. As it happened he had never before in his sea career had occasion to pass through the Strait of Magellan, and he was compelled to learn something of that tortuous passage before the Cardiff Ranger attempted it. He read slowly and for perhaps half an hour, but that day was fated to be a disturbed one for him. He had just come to an ominous, "Squalls of considerable violence frequently sweep down from the mountains without warning, often accompanied by flurries of sleet or snow, destroying the visibility. Extreme caution should be exercised,” when he was aware the steward was before him again, worried and nervous.

“That fool Jones boy, sir,” the steward said. "He was playing around aft, got his foot jammed behind the steampipe casing and broke his leg. I’ve warned him time and again. It looks pretty nasty, sir.”

CAPTAIN ARMSTRONG climbed out of his chair with a stifled oath, and entering his cabin jerked the Ship Captain's Medical Guide from its shelf. The Jones boy, a youngster of fourteen belonging to one of the passengers, had been a perpetual nuisance ever since the Cardiff Ranger had sailed, getting into mischief and annoying everyone. But passengers are passengers and a crew must take it and like it.

"Where is he now?” the captain demanded. "I’ve never set a leg before.” "Nor me, sir,” admitted the steward. "I’ve got him laid out on the saloon table. He’s fainted, I think, and his mother—” "All right, we’ll take a look,” said Captain Armstrong wearily, because there was nothing else to do. If no one wanted to tackle the job it was obviously up to him. They placed it upon his shoulders as simply and as naturally as they placed everything else. He was captain, wasn’t he? He went down to the saloon and had a distressful fifteen minutes with a hysterical and unreasonable mother, and a bewildered father, so distressful indeed that he had to have them forcibly put out of the saloon while he figured out the problem of a compound fracture. And when be had done his best with that, and the Jones boy was as comfortable as could be expected, he found the mate waiting to take him aft.

“It may be nothing at all, sir,” the mate explained, “but there’s certainly a queer smell coming up the ventilators of number four.”

“Number four?” repeated Captain Armstrong when they had reached the hatch and he gave several critical and solemn sniffs. There certainly was a queer smell; sweetish, warm, a little acrid even.

“It doesn’t smell like anything burning,” said the mate. "At least not yet. And it isn’t a bilge smell.”

"What is there to bum in number four?” "Cotton goods in the shelter deck, and several cases of shoes,” said the mate. "We’ve steel and machinery in the lower holds. I’ll get the cargo plan.”

“And have the men take the hatches off.

You’d better rig a couple of electric clusters, too. We’ll see if we can locate the trouble.” He returned to his room, climbed into some work dungarees, secured his flashlamp and returned aft to crawl around the top of the cargo with the mate, probing and sniffing into every crevice. It was mystifying because there was no smoke and no real clue of fire, and it was also worrying because strange, fetid smells didn’t just simply occur without reason and Captain Armstrong wanted no fire on his first command nor any cargo ruined by something leaking or decaying. They decided finally that whatever it was was in a far comer of the shelter deck and beneath a solid block of cotton goods.

"Well, put the watch to work and get some of that cargo out of her.” said Captain Armstrong at last. "We’ll dig down to it.” It took them several hours by the time they had the derricks hoisted and working, and had taken out sufficient cargo to locate the trouble. Three large boxes of oranges, lying in the warm hold all through the tropics, were one rotten mass, and the sides of the boxes were distinctly hot to the touch. Captain Armstrong exploded. He had spent considerable time sweating and crawling around the cargo, and he had been worried, so he had a right to explode.

"What the devil are oranges doing down there?” he wanted to know. "The freezer’s the place for stores.”

The mate was as angry and as mystified. "They put the stores on board about the time the last of the freight was coming on board, sir,” he remembered. "You know how stevedores are when they’re in a hurry to get through. I suppose things got mixed.” "Mixed!” snapped Captain Armstrong. “How could anyone mix oranges with cotton goods? They’re not supposed to get mixed. I’ll see the stevedores hear about it all right. But apart from that the steward should look after his stores, and it’s the second mate’s job to watch the cargo stowing aft here.” He swore. It seemed to be the steward’s bad day. ' "I’ll have a little conversation with those gentlemen.”

He had a good deal of conversation in fact, and it was some time before he cooled down.

“It’s things like that,” he told himself when he had dismissed the culprits, “that turn a man grey before his time. Complaints about food. A fool kid breaking his leg. And oranges upsetting the whole confounded ship. Oranges!”

He ate dinner alone that evening, in no mood for the conversation of the saloon passengers, and when he was finished he picked up his South America Pilot and continued where he had earlier been compelled to leave off, on matters dealing with the Strait of Magellan: “Outside the Sarmiento Bank the flood stream sets N.W. along the coast and the ebb S.W. . . . and a vessel may so time her arrival at the First Narrows ... as to get to Punta Arenas in one day

It was very late before he retired.

THE STEWARD was quite cheerful as he laid out his clippers and scissors. It was part of his duty to act as barber on the Cardiff Ranger, and he gained a neat little addition to his income that way. Captain

Armstrong was always good for a dollar, for instance, and this time he’d have to take extra care of the job. because the ship would be in Hobart tomorrow and there would be a swarm of officials on board, so Captain Armstrong would have to look his best.

"Forty-eight days out. sir.” said the steward. “That’s about the longest passage I ever made.”

“It’s quite long.” Captain Armstrong agreed. He wondered if it could only be forty-eight days since he had stcxxl on his bridge and watched the pilot leave him. It seemed an age. He had been through so much, he had grown used to do much. He felt older, calmer, incredibly wiser. The first voyage as master was inevitably a terrific strain, but he felt now that between him and all those other masters who were at sea there was a subtle bond and an understanding. They all knew. How terribly they all knew!”

He thought back to his first days of acute self-consciousness, those days, too. when loneliness had oppressed him. He thought I of the racking hours in the fog bank, the j nearness of disaster when the San Pedro had barely cleared them, the ugly business of setting the Jones boy’s broken leg. And the lorty anxious hours crawling through the Strait of Magellan, with the squalls whipping off the glaciers and the thick mists driving up to hide the rocky shores of the narrow pass. And after the Strait there had been that roaring gale in the Pacific that had taken three of the Cardiff Ranger’s boats. | washed a man overside, and battered in the forehatch so he had to heave to, stern first, for a day and a half, fearing for the ship again while the damage was repaired and the seas went down. But that was all done. Tomorrow they would dock and there would be a swamp of ship’s business, agents to see, papers to sign, officials to placate, stores to arrange for, new passengers to greet. And after that there would be other voyages, other passages, and the never-ending, slow, hard strain that tempered a man—or broke him—and with time gave him the grim patience of fortitude. He nodded to himself. On the bridge above he could hear his mates laughing at some jest, light-hearted, and ; planning shore trips, and girls they would see, and he knew once more a poignant regret. Ah, well. Time was. Time had been.

"Ready, sir?” said the steward, and whisked a towel about the captain’s throat. The clippers clicked experimentally and the steward tilted the captain’s head to one side. Then he paused for a moment and laughed, half-apologetic.

“Well, that’s something, sir. I see you’re getting quite a few grey hairs. I never noticed them before.”

Captain Armstrong experienced a distinct shock as he gathered the steward’s meaning. ' Grey hairs? Involuntarily he lifted one hand and touched his temple, and as he did so the light glinted upon his cuff. He stared at it, silent and grim for a moment, and then a faint, grave smile touched his lips. One paid for everything. The four gold bands. And grey hairs.

"No. steward,” he said at last, and the resignation and regret in his voice were the echoes of all command. “No, steward. I don’t suppose you ever did notice them before.”