have been more fitting to have left the Pontifex on that last voyage after V-J Day, trim and neat in a new coat of paint and with a full complement of officers and men. More fitting perhaps, but he wasn’t going to leave her to someone who didn’t know and didn’t care. He shivered a little in the raw winter wind.
“Lucky if we get there at all,” he said gruffly, “with a skeleton crew and two boilers. Did you see the weather report?”
The first lieutenant nodded. “Yes, looks as though we’ll run right into it. Well, Lord knows she’s used to dirty weather.” He laughed a little bitterly.
“It’s about all she ever has had.”
“I’m going to turn in, David. We’ve no butter and no guns and nothing to worry about—much. Have me called at six bells unless the weather gets bad.” George Hall turned and climbed down the ladder to his cabin, throwing off his heavy coat. Pretty good to be able to turn in in pyjamas once again, and to know that no sudden alarm gong would blast sleep away in a mad rush to action stations. And yet, not all good, for there had always been the hope that this time they really would get a sub. Only somehow the Pontifex never had any luck. Lord knows how many convoys she had shepherded across—but it had always been some other ship that had got the subs. Three long years of filthy weather and damned hard
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work and nothing to show for it. Nothing tangible anyway. Of course there was always a certain amount of satisfaction in the knowledge that they had done their job. But if only . . . The ship gave a roll and he brought up against the settee. They were getting out of the Channel now and into the open sea, and it was going to blow pretty hard if the weather report was correct. Better turn in and get some sleep while he could. The Pontifex was a good ship, as good as any ship in the Royal Navy emdash;but two boilers and a scratch crew! Sic transit. He doubled up his six-feet-odd of frame into a bunk that had been built by some optimist, and switched out the light.
THE first lieutenant was hanging onto the brioge rail and swearing softly to himself. For days it had been blowing great guns. He braced himself as the ship lifted to an enormous wave. Up and up until the forecastlehead was silhouetted against the overcast sky and the wind tore through the rigging until it screamed. The boiling crest of the wave passed under her, and for a moment the rigging seemed to sing a song of short-lived triumph. Then she plunged down and sickeningly down, until the horizon, or what there was of it, was blotted out by menacing water until it seemed that she must be overwhelmed.
But the Pontifex was game. Time and again her decks were swept fore and aft and still she kept going. The first lieutenant thought of the poor devils in the engine room, shorthanded and hardly able to keep their feet, let alone tend the engines. He wondered if the captain would heave her toemdash;it was getting pretty bad and they were down to five knots. You couldn’t eat or sleep. Not that there was much to eat anyway with the galleys flooded out.
As though in answer to his thoughts George Hall staggered onto the bridge and cupping his hands, yelled against the wind.
“Pm going to heave to, David. Tell the chief engineer . . .” his words were drowned in a roai7 of water as a wave broke high over the side and came thundering down on deck. 'Ihe ship shuddered and George Hall clenched his hands. A messenger touched him on the arm and hanued him a signal pad. He glanced at it and beckoning the first lieutenant to follow him, he hurried into the comparative haven of the cnartroom.
The first lieutenant read the message aloud.
All ships: S.O.S. Numbers Two and Three holds flooded and pumps unable to cope. Afraid that engine room bulkhead will not last much longer. Have two hundred troops aboard. All boats washed away and situation grate. Position 41 10' N 65 42'W. Master. S.S. Coulton.
The first lieutenant stopped reading and pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. “The old Coultonƒ”
“Yes. Get her position down on the chart and let’s see where she is.”
They knew the Coulton from convoy days. The American ship that had made voyage after voyage and carried thousands of troops despite her 20 years of age. The old ship and her captain, who had been in her since the day she was launched, were almost a legend.
Quickly the first lieutenant plotted her position and measured the distance from the Pontifex.
“Thirty miles, sir. Right on our
George Hall braced himself against the table and reached for a pencil. “It’ll take us about seven hours to reach her, at this rate.” He scribbled a message on the signal pad. “Send this down to the radio room, David; we’re going to the rescue!” He glanced at the barometer. It was still low but had not dropped much in the last two hours. He looked at the clock on the bulkhead.
“David, it’s four bells now. With luck we should be able to reach her by 1900 if the weather doesn’t get any worseemdash;and I don’t think it will. If the Coulton can hold out until daylight the sea will probably have gone down a bit, and I’ll keep shoving Pontifex alongside until we have taken them all off. We’ll have to take a few at a time for it’ll be impossible to hold her alongside, and they’ll have to jump for it. It’s taking a hell of a chance, and we’re bound to smash things up, but there’s no other way. You’d better have collision mats ready.” He opened the chartroom door and they went out onto the bridge. Ice-cold spray stung his face and ran down his neck. He peered up at the sky where a white blur was showing through the racing scud of cloud.
“I’ll get some oil up and put it down the forward heads, sir. May help a bit.”
George Hall nodded. It was easier than trying to yell against the noise of the wind. He stared out to windward. Perhaps it was imagination but it seemed as though the clouds were breaking up a little. It was madness to try to put a little frigate alongside a freighter in heavy weather, but if anyone could do it he could. The Pontifex was bound to be damaged more or less emdash;probably moreemdash;just as long as he didn’t sink her. He waited for a lull in the pitching and slid down the ladder to his cabin. Better let the Aumiralty know what he was doing. He scribbled out a signal, thinking of the captain of the Coulton. It was bad enough that he was going to lose the Pontifexemdash;after three years he knew every rivet in her! But what must it be like after twenty years in a ship? He signed the message and pressed the bell for a messenger, then he returned to the bridge.
“You go and turn in, David,” he said to the first lieutenant, “I’ll take the rest of your watch.”
Wan daylight faded into darkness. The old Pontifex had picked up speed a little as though she knew what lay ahead. With a feeling of thankfulness the captain realized that she was not pitching quite so heavily. Two hundred troops and probably a hundred crew. Where the devil could they put three hundred men? Well, it had to be done.
“Light ahead*« sir!” The lookout man’s voice cut sharply across his thoughts. He grabbed up his night glasses and focused them. As the ship rose to a swell he could see a pin point of light. Then gradually he made out a ship, dead in the sea like a waterlogged piece of wood. Through the darkness a signal lamp started to blink and he waited for his signalman to report. “Says his number two bulkhead’s gone, sir, but he thinks he can last till morning.”
“Tell him that we’ll come alongside at daylight if he can hold out.”
The signal lamp chattered and blinked and an answering message came back from the merchant ship. The signalman droned out the message as he received it. “Coulton to Pontifex. We shall be okay for a while. Thanks, Limey.” The signalman sputtered a little as he said the last word, but George Hall only laughed.
For the rest of the night the Pontifex
lay off, heaved to, while the signal
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lamps chattered, sending instructions
and preparing for the morning.
The first grey streaks of dawn were lighting the horizon when the message came. “Settling fast. Can you come alongside now? Am pumping out oil.”
George stood by the helmsman’s voice p.pe, conning the ship himself. Slowly she gathered way and swung toward the CouLon. In the gathering light they could make out the long lines of khaki-clad figures standing on the deck.
The beat of the engines lessened and as they moved into the oil-covered water to leeward the seas slopped breaking and the motion of the ship eased. But the swell was still heavy and it would be a miracle if they managed the job without loss of life. Skilfully George eased the Pontifex alongside, closer and closer. She lifted to a swell and there was a crash and a shudder as the two hulls met. He raised his hand in a geslure to the petty officer stationed at the loudspeaker.
As the order boomed out a dozen men jumped and landed sprawling on the deck of the frigate. Willing hands picked them up and helped them aft out of the way. The swell passed and the ships fell away. There was a cheer from the men on the Coulton and George Hall waved, wondering as he did so how much punishment the Pontifex could Lake without opening up her plates.
“Starboard a little.”
He brought the ship round in a circle and crept up under the Coulton’s quarter. Again the two ships crashed together and again men jumped—more this time. One of the soldiers on the merchant ship started to sing:
She kissed me once—she kissed me twice . . . and the song was taken up by the men in the Pontifex. George smiled grimly and repeated the manoeuvre. And again, and again.
It was almost noon, and a watery sun was trying to break through the overcast when they took the captain of the Coulton off. She was listing over and there was no time to waste. The starboard side of the frigate looked like an accordion, and the deck forward was buckled and torn. In one place a frame had come up through the deck like a great broken rib. She was shaken and racked from stem to stern and leaking forward. But she had done her job!
“Port a little. Half-speed.”
THE Pontifex drew away, her decks packed with soldiers and merchant seamen, their faces white and tense. ’I he singing had long since stopped and they watched in helpless silence. The wind had dropped to little more than a strong breeze, and the sea about them, heavy with oil, had moderated. George stopped the engines, keeping just sufficient way on to steer.
There was a gasp from the men on deck, as a great surge of water swept up and seemed to overwhelm the Coulton’s foredeck. Her stern rose up
out of the water until the propeller was high above the sea, and they could see her bilge keels streaked with weed. A white cloud of steam gushed out from amidships, breaking into long wisps as the wind caught it and flung it away.
Suddenly the main-topmast snapped off short with a crack that cut through the silence.
Slowly and majestically the old ship slid lower and lower into the water. For a moment a pale shaft of sunlight caught the flag still flying from her stern.
A wheeling gull screamed.
And there was nothing left but troubled oily water.
The thin wail of a bo’sun’s pipe broke the tension. George turned. An elderly man in the uniform of a captain of the U. S. Merchant Marine stood behind him with the first lieutenant. The first lieutenant stepped forward.
“Captain of the Coulton, sir.”
For a moment the stranger said nothing. His eyes were fixed on the spot where the Coulton had sunk. Then slowly he turned, his face tired and worn. He saluted George and held out his hand.
“Thank you, commander.”
George took his hand. “Let’s go below. I think we could both do with a drink.” He turned to the first lieutenant. “Put her back on her course, David, and tell the chief to keep the pumps going. Let me know at once if the water is gaining on us—and oh, send a full report to Admiralty right away.”
In his cabin George poured out two stiff drinks and handed one to the Captain of the Coulton. The old man drank it down at a gulp.
“Commander, that was one of the finest bits of seamanship I’ve seen in a lifetime at sea. You know your ship ... I ... I hope you never lose her.”
George Hall hesitated. “I know,” he began, “just how . . .” he stopped — What use was there in telling him that he was going to lose his ship to a junk dealer!—“just how the Coulton must have carried 10,000 troops across in the last four years. She’s won her laurels, captain.” He poured out another drink. The Coulton was gone—but she had graduated.
A ROSY DAWN was lighting the New England coast when the Pontifex, battered and leaking and looking more like a submarine awash than a frigate, crept up to the Boston pilot vessel.
As George wearily turned to greet the pilot, a telegraphist handed him a message.
“Cap,” said the pilot as he shook hands, “you sure put your ship on the front pages.” He gestured toward the city. “Boston’s got a real welcome waiting for you—and it ain’t no tea party!”
But George Hall hardly heard. Weariness had gone from his face, and he stood up straight and proud, staring at the message he held. He called to the first lieutenant and grinned happily as he read aloud:
“From Admiralty repeated to all ships. Well done Pontifex.” ir
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