Sergeant Carmichael

He was very young, and injured; the night sea was black, and strange, and cruel—But then, there was Carmichael

H. E. BATES November 1 1942

Sergeant Carmichael

He was very young, and injured; the night sea was black, and strange, and cruel—But then, there was Carmichael

H. E. BATES November 1 1942

Sergeant Carmichael


He was very young, and injured; the night sea was black, and strange, and cruel—But then, there was Carmichael


FOR SOME time he had a feeling that none of them knew where they were going. They had flown over France without seeing the land. Now they were flying in heavy rain without a glimpse of the sea. He was very young, it was his first trip, and suddenly he had an uneasy idea that they would never see either the land or the sea again.

“Transmitter pretty u.s., sir,” he said.

For a moment there was no answer. Then Davidson, the captain, answered automatically, “Keep trying, Johnny,” and he answered “okay,” quite well knowing there was nothing more he could do.

He sat staring straight before him. Momentarily he was no longer part of the aircraft. He was borne away from it on sound waves of motors and wind and rain, and for a few minutes he was back in England, recalling and reliving odd moments of life there. He recalled for a second or two his first day on the station; it was August and he remembered that some straw had blown in from the fields across the runways and that the wind of the takeoffs whirled it madly upward, yellow and shining in the sun. He recalled his father eating red currants in the garden that same summer and how the crimson juice had spurted on to his mustache, so that he looked rather ferocious every time he said, “That, if you want it, is my opinion.” And then he remembered, most curiously of all, a girl in a biscuit-yellow hat sitting in a deck chair on the sea

front, eating a biscuit-yellow ice cream, and how he had been fascinated because hat and ice were miraculously identical in color end how he had wanted to ask her, with nervous bravado because ho was very young, if she bought her hats to match her ice cream or her ice cream to match her hats, but how he never did. He did not know why he recalled these moments, clear as glass, except perhaps that they were moments of a life he was never going to see again.

He was suddenly ejected out of this past world, fully alert and aware that they were not flying straight. They had not been flying straight for some time. They were stooging round and round, bumping heavily, and losing height. He sat very tense, and became gradually aware that this tension was part of the plane. It existed in each one of them, from Davidson and Porter in the nose, down through Johnson and Hargreaves and himself to Carmichael, in the tail.

He heard Davidson’s voice. “How long since we had contact with base?”

He looked at his watch; it was almost midnight. “A little under an hour and three quarters,” he said.

Again there was silence; and again he felt the tension running through the plane. He was aware of their chances and almost aware, now, of what Davidson was going to say.

“One more try, boys. Sing out if you see anything. If not, it’s down in the drink.”

He sat very still. They were losing a little height. His stomach felt sour and he remembered that he could not swim.

For some reason he never thought of it again. His thoughts were scattered by Davidson’s voice.

“Does anyone see what I see? Isn’t that a light? About two points to starboard.”

He looked out; there was nothing he could see.

“I’m going down to have a looksee,” Davidson said. “It is a light.”

As they were going down lie* looked out again, but again he could see nothing. Then he heard Davidson speaking to Carmichael.

“Hack the fuselage door off, Joe. This looks like a lightship. If it is, we’re as good as home. Tell me when you’re ready and I’ll put her down.”

He sat very still, hearing the sound of hatchet blows as Carmichael struck at the fuselage. He felt suddenly colder, and then knew that it must be because Carmichael had finished and that there was a gap where the door had been. He heard again the deep slow Canadian accent of Carmichael’s voice, saying, “Okay, skipper, all set,” and then the remote flat English voice of Davidson in reply:

“All right, get the dinghy ready. All three of you. Get ready and heave it out when I put her down.”

Helping Joe and Hargreaves and Johnson with the dinghy he was no longer aware of fear. He was slung sideways across the aircraft. The dinghy seemed very large and he wondered how they would

get it out. This troubled him until he felt the plane roaring down in the darkness, and it continued to trouble him for a second after the plane had hit the water with a great crash that knocked him back against the fuselage.

He did not remember getting up. Something was wrong with his left wrist, and he thought of his watch. It was a good watch, a navigational watch given him by his father on a birthday. The next moment he knew that the dinghy had gone and he knew that he had helped, somehow, to push it out. Carmichael had also gone. The sea was rocking the aircraft violently to and fro, breaking water against his knees and feet. A second later he stretched out his hands and felt nothing before him but the open space in the fuselage where the door had been.

He knew then that it must be his turn to go. He heard Carmichael’s voice calling from what seemed a great distance out of the darkness and the rain. He did not know what he was calling. It was all confused; he did not answer, but a second later he stretched out his hands blindly and went down on his belly in the sea.

WHEN he came up again it was to find himself thinking of the girl in the biscuit-colored hat and how much, that day, he had liked the sea, opaque and green and smooth as the pieces of seawashed glass he had picked up on the shore. It. flashed through his mind that this was part of the final imagery that comes with drowning, and he struggled wildly to keep his face above water. He could hear again the voice of Carmichael, shouting, but the shock of sea water struck like ice on his breast and throat, so that he could not shout in answer. The sea was very rough. It heaved him upward and then down again with sweeps of slow and violent motion. It tossed him about in this way until he realized at last that these slow, barbaric waves were really keeping him up, that the Mae West was working and that he was sinking away no longer.

From the constancy of Carmichael’s shouts he felt that Carmichael must have seized, and was probably on, the dinghy. But he was not prepared for the shout: “She’s upside down!” and then a moment or two later two voices, yelling his name.

“Johnny! Can you hear us? Can you hear us now?”

He let out a great yell in answer but sea water broke down his throat for a moment and almost suffocated him, bearing him down and under the trough of a wave. He came up sick and struggling, spitting water, frightened. His boots were very heavy now under the water and it seemed as if he were being sucked continually down. He tried to wave his arms above his head but one arm had no response. It filled him suddenly with violent pain. “Okay, Johnny, okay, okay,” Carmichael said. He could not speak. He knew that his arm was broken. He felt Carmichael’s hands painfully

clutching his one free hand. He remembered for no reason at all that Carmichael had been a pitcher for a baseball team in Montreal and he felt the hands move down until they clutched his wrist, holding him so strongly that it was almost a pain.

“Can you bear up?” Carmichael said. “Johnny, try bearing up. It’s okay, Johnny. We’re here, on the dinghy. Hargreaves is here. Johnson’s here.” He didn’t mention Davidson or Porter. “It’s okay, Johnny. Can you heave? Where’s your other arm?”

“I think it’s bust,” he said.

He tried heaving himself upward. He tried again, helped by Carmichael’s hands, but something each time drew the dinghy away. He tried again and then again. Each time the same thing happened and once or twice the sea, breaking on the dinghy, hit him in the face, blinding him.

He knew suddenly what was wrong. It was not only his arm but his belt. Each time he heaved upward the belt caught under the dinghy and pushed it away. In spite of knowing it he heaved again and all at once felt very tired, feeling that only Carmichael’s hands were between this tiredness and instant surrender. This painful heaving and sudden tiredness were repeated. They went on for some time. He heard Carmichael’s voice continually and once or twice the sea hit him again, blinding him; and once, blinded badly, he wanted to wipe his face with his hands.

Suddenly Carmichael was talking again. “Can you hang on? If I can got my knee on something I’ll get leverage. I’ll pull you up. Can you hang on?”

Before he could answer the sea hit him again. The wave seemed to split his contact with Carmichael. It momentarily cut away his hands. For an instant it was as if he were in a bad and terrifying dream, falling through space.

Then Carmichael was holding him again. “I got you now, Johnny. I’m kneeling on Dicky. Your belt ought to clear now. If you try hard it ought to clear first time.”

The sea swung him away. As he came back the belt did not hit the dinghy so violently. He was kept almost clear. Then the sea swung him away again. On this sudden wave of buoyancy he realized that it was now, or perhaps never, that he must pull himself back. He clenched his hand violently and then suddenly, before he was ready, and very lightly, as if he were a child, the force of the newwave and the strength of Carmichael’s hand threw him on the dinghy, face down.

He wanted to lie there for a long time. He lay for only a second, and then got up. He felt the water heaving in his boots and the salt sickness of it in his stomach. He did not feel at all calm but was terrified for an instant by the shock of being safe.

“There was a light,” he said. “That’s why he came down here. That’s why he came down. There was a light.”

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He looked round at the sea as he spoke. Sea and darkness were one, unbroken except where waves struck the edge of the dinghy with spits of faintly phosphorescent foam. It had ceased raining now but the wind was very strong and cold, and up above lay the old unbroken ten-tenths clouds. There was not even a star that could have been mistaken for a light. He knew that perhaps there never had been.

HE WENT into a slight stupor brought on by pain and the icy sea water. He came out of it to find himself furiously baling water from the dinghy with one hand. He noticed that the rest were baling with their caps. He had lost his cap. His one hand made a nerveless cup that might have been stone for all the feeling that was in it now.

The sea had a rhythmical and awful surge that threw the dinghy too lightly up the glassy arcs of oncoming waves and then too steeply over the crest into the trough beyond. Each time they came down into a trough the dinghy shipped a lot of water. Each time they baled frenziedly, sometimes throwing the water over each other. His good hand remained dead. He still did not feel the water with it but he felt it on his face, sharp as if the spray were splintered and frozen glass. Then whenever they came to the crest of a wave there was a split second when they could look for a light. “There should be a light,” he thought. “He saw one. He shouted it out. That’s why he came down.” But each time the sea beyond the crest of the new wave remained utterly dark as before.

“There should be a light !” he said. “There was a light.”

“All right, kid,” Carmichael said. “There’ll be one.”

He knew then that he was excited. He tried not to be excited. For a long time he didn’t speak, but his mind remained excited. He felt drunk with the motion of pain and the water, and sick with the saltness of the water. There were moments when he ceased baling and held his one hand strengthlessly at his side, tired out, wanting to give up. He did not know how he kept going after a time, or how they kept the water from swamping the dinghy. Looking down, he saw the eight feet belonging to himself and the rest in the well of the dinghy, and he did not know which were his own feet and which were theirs.

Coming out of periods of stupor, he would hear Carmichael talking. The deep Canadian voice was slow and steady. It attracted him. He found himself listening simply to the sound and the steadiness of it, regardless of words. It had the quality of Carmichael’s hands; it was calm and steadfast.

It occurred to him soon that the voice had another quality. It was like the baling of the water; it never stopped. He heard Carmichael talking of ball games in Montreal; the way the crowd ragged you and how you took no notice and how it was all part of the game; and then

how he was injured in the game one summer and for two months couldn’t play and how he went up into Quebec province for the fishing. It was hot weather and he would fish mostly in the late evenings often by moonlight. The lake trout were big and strong and sometimes a fish took you an hour to get in. Sometimes at week ends he went back to Quebec and he would eat steaks as thick, he said, as a volume of Dickens and rich with onions and butter. They were lovely with cold light beer and the whole thing set you back about two dollars and a half.

“Good, eh, Johnny?” he would say. “You ought to come over there some day.”

All the time they baled furiously. There was no break in the clouds and the wind was so strong that it sometimes swivelled the dinghy round like a toy.

How long this went on he did not know. But a long time later Carmichael suddenly stopped talking and then as suddenly began again.

“Hey, Johnny boy, there’s your light.”

He was startled and he looked up wildly, not seeing anything.

“Not that way, boy. Back of you. Over there.”

He turned his head stiffly. There behind him he could see the dim cream edge of daylight above the line of the sea.

“That’s the light we want,” Carmichael said. “It don’t go out in a hurry either.”

The color of daylight was deeper, like pale butter, when he looked over his shoulder again. He remembered then that it was late autumn. He thought that now, perhaps, it would be four o’clock.

As the daylight grew stronger, changing from cream and yellow to a cool grey bronze, he saw for the first time the barbaric quality of the sea. He saw the faces of Carmichael and Hargreaves and Johnson. They were grey - yellow with weariness, and touched at the lips and ears and under the eyes with blue.

He was very thirsty. He could feel a thin caking of salt on his lips. He tried to lick his lips with his tongue but it was very painful. There was no moisture on his tongue and only the taste of salt, very harsh and bitter, in his mouth. His arm was swollen and he was sick with pain.

“Take it easy a minute, kid,” Carmichael said. “We’ll bale in turns. You v'atch out for a ship or a kite or anything you can see. I’ll tell you when it’s your turn.”

He sat on the edge of the dinghy and stared at the horizon and the day. Both were empty. He rubbed the salt out of his eyes and then closed them for a moment, worn out.

“Watch out,” Carmichael said. “We’re in the Channel. We know that. There should be ships and there should be aircraft. Keep watching.”

He kept watching. His eyes were painful with salt and only half open. Now and then the sea hit the dinghy and broke right over it, but he did not care. For some reason he did not

think of listening, but suddenly he shut his eyes and after a moment or two he heard a sound. It was rather like the sound of the sea beating gently on sand and he remembered again the day when he had seen the girl in the biscuit-colored hat, and how it was summer and how much he had liked the sea. That day the sea had beaten on the shore with the same low sound.

As the sound increased he suddenly opened his eyes. He felt for a moment that he was crazy, and then he began shouting.

“It’s a plane! It’s a bloody plane ! It’s a plane, I tell you, it’s a plane.”

“Sit down,” Carmichael said.

The dinghy was rocking violently. The faces of all four men were upturned, grey-yellow in the stronger light.

“There she is !” he shouted. “There she is!”

THE PLANE was coming over from the northeast, at about five thousand. He began to wave his hands. She seemed to be coming straight above them. Hargreaves and Johnson and then Carmichael also began to wave. They all waved frantically and Hargreaves shouted, “It’s a Hudson, boys. Wave like raving Hallelujah! It’s a Hudson.” The plane came over quite fast and very steady, flying straight. It looked the color of iron except for the bright rings of the markings in the dull sea light of the early morning. It flew on quite straight and they were still waving frantically with their hands and caps long after it had ceased looking like a far-off gull in the sky.

He came out of the shock of this disappointment to realize that Carmichael was holding him in the dinghy with one arm.

“I’m all right,” he said.

“I know,” Carmichael said.

He knew then that he was not all right. He felt dizzy. A slow river of cold sweat seemed to be pouring from his hair down his backbone. “What happened?” he said. “You’re all right,” Carmichael said. “Don’t try to stand up again, that’s all. How is your arm? I wish there wassomething I could do. Everything’s okay,” he said.

He remembered the plane. The sky was now quite light, barred with warm strips of orange, low above the water in the east. He remembered also that it was autumn. The wind was still strong and cold but soon, he thought, there will be sun. He looked overhead at the grey-blue and the yellow-orange bars of cloud. They were breaking a little more overhead and he knew now that it would he a fair day for flying.

“Does the sun rise in the east or a little to the northeast?” Carmichael said.

They held a little discussion, and Johnny and Hargreaves agreed it rose a little to the northeast.

“In that case we seem to he drifting almost due north. If the wind helps us we might drift into the coast. It’s still strong.”

“It’s about forty,” Hargreaves said. “It must have been about eighty last night.”

“It was a point or two west of south then,” Johnny said.

“I think it’s still there,” Carmichael said.

They all spoke rather slowly. His own lips felt huge and dry with blisters. It was painful for him to sperk. He was not hungry, but the back of his throat was scorched and raw with salt. His tongue was thick ar.d hot and he v anted to roll it out of his mouth, so that it would get sweet and cool in the wind.

‘‘Keep your mouth shut, Johnny,” Carmichael said. “Keep it shut.”

He discovered that Carmichael was still holding him by the arm. In the hour or two that went by between the disappearance of the Hudson and the time when the sun was well up and he could feel the warmth of it on his face, he continually wanted to protest; to tell Carmichael that he was all right. Yet he never did, and all the time Carmichael held him and he was glad.

All the time they watched the sea and the sky and most of the time Carmichael talked to them. He talked to them again of Canada, the lakes in the summertime, the fishing, the places where you could eat in Montreal. The sea was less violent now, but the waves, long and low and metallically glittering in the sun, swung the dinghy ceaselessly up and down troughs that bristled with destructive edges of foam. Toward the middle of the morning Hargreaves was very sick. He leaned his head forward on his knees and sat very quiet for a long time, too weak to lift his head. After this only Johnson and Carmichael troubled to watch the horizon, and they took turns at baling the water, Carmichael using one hand.

For some time none of them spoke. Finally when Johnny looked up again it was to see that Johnson too had closed his eyes against the glitter of sunlight and that only Carmichael was watching the sea. He was watching in a curious attitude. As he held Johnny with one hand he would lean forward and with his hat bale a little water out of the dinghy. Then he would transfer the hat from one hand to the other and with the free hand press the fabric of the dinghy as you press the inner tube of a tire. As he pressed, it seemed flabby. Then he would look up and gaze for a few moments at the horizon, northward, where at intervals the sea seemed to crystallize into long lips of misty grey. For a long time Johnny sat watching him, following the movements of his hands and the arrested progress of his eyes.

Very slowly he realized what was happening. He did not move. He wanted to speak but the back of his throat was raw and his tongue was thick and inflexible. When he suddenly opened his mouth his lips split and there was blood in the cracks that was bitterly salt as he licked it with his tongue.


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He did not know which struck him first; the realization that the thin j lips of grey on the horizon were land : or that the dinghy was losing air. j For a second or two his emotions ! were cancelled out. The dinghy was i upside down; the air pump was gone. He felt slightly lightheaded. Above the horizon the clouds were white ¡ edged now and suddenly the sun broke down through them and shone ! on the line of land, turning the lips of grey to brown. He knew then that it | was land. There could be no mistake. But looking down suddenly into the dinghy he knew that there was, and could be, no mistake there either.

He began to shout. He did not i know what he shouted. His mouth was very painful. He rocked his body forward and began to bale excitedly with his free hand. In a moment the rest were shouting too.

“Steady,” Carmichael said. “Steady.”

“How far is it away?” Hargreaves said. “Five miles? Five or six?”

“Nearer ten.”

“I’ll take a bet.”

“You’d better take one on the air in the dinghy.”

IT WAS clear that Hargreaves did not know about the air in the dinghy. He ceased baling and sat very tense. His tongue was thick ! and grey-pink and hanging out of his mouth.

It seemed to Johnny that the dinghy, slowly losing resilience, was like something dying underneath them.

“Now don’t anybody go and get excited,” Carmichael said. “We must be drifting in fast and if we drift in far enough and she gives out we can swim. You all better bale now while you can. All right, Johnny? Can you bale?”

Baling frantically with his one hand, looking up at intervals at the ; horizon, now like a thin strip of creambrown paint squeezed along the edge ' of the sea, he tried not to think of the j fact that he could not swim.

All the time he felt the dinghy losj ing air. He felt its flabbiness grow in proportion to his own weight. It moved very heavily and sluggishly in the troughs of water, and waves broke over it more often now. Sometimes the water rose almost to the knees of the men. He could not feel his feet and several times it seemed as if the bottom of the dinghy had fallen out and that beneath him there was nothing but the bottom of the sea.

It went on like this for a long time, the dinghy losing air, the land coming a little nearer, deeper colored now, with veins of green.

“We’ll never make it,” Hargreaves said. “We’ll never make it.”

Carmichael did not speak. The edge of the dinghy was low against the water, almost level. The sea lapped over it constantly and it was more now than they could bale.

Johnny looked at the land. The sun was shining down on smooth uplands of green and calm brown squares of upturned earth. Below lay long chalk cliffs, changing from sea-grey to white in the sun. He felt j suddenly exhausted and desperate, j He felt that he hated the sea. He '

wasfrightened by it and suddenly lost his head and began to bale with one arm, throwing the water madly everywhere.

“We’ll never do it!” he shouted. “We’ll never do it. Why the hell didn’t that Hudson see us? What do they do in those fancy kites?”

“Shut up,” Carmichael said.

He felt suddenly quiet and frightened.

“Shut up. She’s too heavy, that’s all. Take your boots off.”

Hargreaves and Johnson stopped baling and took off their boots. He tried to take off his own boots but they seemed part of his feet and with only one arm he was too weak to pull them off. Then Carmichael took off his own boots. He took off his socks too and Johnny could see that his feet were blue and dead.

For a minute he could not quite believe what he saw next. He saw Carmichael roll over the side of the dinghy into the sea. He went under and came up again at once, shaking the water from his hair. “Okay,” he shouted. “Okay. Keep baling. I’m pushing her in. She’ll be lighter now.”

Carmichael put his hands on the end of the dinghy and swam with his feet.

“I’m coming over too,” Hargreaves said.

“No. Keep baling. Keep her light. There’ll be time to come over.”

They went on like this for some time. The situation in the dinghy was bad but he did not think of it. His knees were sometimes wholly submerged and the dinghy was flabby and without life. All the time he hated the sea and kept his eyes in desperation on the shore. Then Carmichael gave Hargreaves the order to go over and Hargreaves rolled over the side as Carmichael had done and came up soon and began swimming in the same way.

They were then about five hundred yards from the shore and he could see sheep in the fields along the cliffs but no houses. The land looked washed and bright and for some reason abandoned, as if no one had ever set foot there. The sea was calm now but it still washed over the dinghy too fast for him to bale, and he still hated it. Then suddenly Johnson went over the side without waiting for a word from Carmichael, and he was alone in the dinghy, being pushed along by the three men. But he knew soon that it could not last. The dinghy was almost flat and between the force of the three men pushing and the resistance of water it crumpled and submerged and would not move.

As if there were something funny about this Johnson began laughing. He himself felt foolish and scared and waited with clenched teeth for the dinghy to go down.

It went down before he was ready, throwing him backwards. He felt a wave hit him and then he went under, his boots dragging him down. He struggled violently and quite suddenly saw the sky. His arm was very painful and he felt lopsided. He was lying on his back and he knew that he was moving, not of his own volition, hut easily and strongly, looking at the lakes of clear sky between the white and indigo hills of cloud. He was uneasy and glad at the same

time. The sea still swamped over his face, scorching his broken lips, but he was glad because he knew that Carmichael was holding him again and taking him into the shore.

WHAT seemed a long time later he knew that they were very near the shore. He heard the loud warm sound of breaking waves. He was borne forward in long surges of the tide. At last he could no longer feel Carmichael’s arms; but tired, and kept up by his Mae West, he drifted in of his own accord. The sun was strong on his face and he thought suddenly of the things he had thought about in the plane—the

straw on the runways, his father eating the currants, the girl in the biscuit-colored hat. He felt suddenly that they were the things for which he had struggled. They were his life. The waves took him gradually farther and farther up the shore, until his knees beat on the sand. He saw Carmichael and Johnson and Hargreaves waiting there. At last new waves took him far up the shore until he lay still on the wet slope of sand and his arms were outstretched to the sky.

As he lay there the sea ran down over his body and receded away. It was warm and gentle on his hands and he was afraid of it no longer.