Fiction

THE SHIPWRECKED MONEYBELT

was crammed with every dollar Morten had saved from five dangerous years at sea. How could he get it past the U-boats and the hungry Atlantic that stood between him and the lovely Lise?

PETER FREUCHEN September 15 1954
Fiction

THE SHIPWRECKED MONEYBELT

was crammed with every dollar Morten had saved from five dangerous years at sea. How could he get it past the U-boats and the hungry Atlantic that stood between him and the lovely Lise?

PETER FREUCHEN September 15 1954

THE SHIPWRECKED MONEYBELT

Fiction

was crammed with every dollar Morten had saved from five dangerous years at sea. How could he get it past the U-boats and the hungry Atlantic that stood between him and the lovely Lise?

PETER FREUCHEN

THE CASHIER of the Danish Consulate smiled at the tall sailor just in from Rio and asked, "Well, how much are you depositing this time, Morten Mortensen?"

“I am taking it out,” Morten said. “At last I am taking it all out. Home for sure this time.”

The cashier consulted his books, wrote a cheque for the total of the deposits Morten had made, savings from the voyages of five years. “Sign here, and here—that’s it.” He handed the cheque to a clerk. “How do you want it?”

“In fives and tens, please,” Morten said. The clerk nodded, walked away quickly.

“That will make a wad and a half,” the cashier said. “You got a suitcase?”

Morten laughed to show that he knew he was joking, but this money wasn’t really funny. How many times before, completing a voyage in New York, he had wanted to go home but, being offered another berth had taken it for the sake of his “pile,” or rather for

Lise’s sake, and had put in instead of taking out at the consul’s. He looked up at the clock: hadn’t that clerk been gone long enough?

“Going to surprise somebody?” the cashier asked.

“I hope. My folks.”

“Your folks and who else?”

This cashier was a shrewd businessman, the kind who could read your thoughts. Morten had just been thinking of Lise, waving her white apron as he went down the street of their village five years ago. She was a tall dark-haired girl. He could hear her deep slow voice when he began thinking of her. He was sure she was still there. He wasn’t one for writing a lot of letters, nor she either; but he always sent her a greeting when he wrote to his folks. “Tell Lise I am okay. Hoping she is the same.” And his mother might write: “Lise got the present from Lima. She was pleased, she asked me to tell you.”

The talkative cashier said: “Anxious to be home again?”

“Takes time,” Morten told him. “Worry won’t shorten it.” As a matter of fact he had already signed on the Marta, a 2,000-ton Norwegian freighter that would sail from Hoboken in a day or two. “What’s keeping that clerk?” he asked. His heart gave a great leap of terror. “By God, he’s run off with my money !” He looked wildly around and might have started running after him had the man not just then appeared in the door, both hands carrying packets of money. When he had counted all the clean crackling stuff, Morten stowed it into his coat pockets, his trouser pockets and said, “Excuse me, please,” and went out into the hall to the men’s room where, behind a locked door, he folded the bills away into the grey-leather moneybelt he had bought in Rio. Buckled around his waist he found it made his jacket a close fit; he felt as if he had a beerstomach. Never mind, this was a healthier sort of fat. Walking in an odd self-conscious sort of way he went back to the cashier to say good-by.

“Good luck, Morten.” (You’ll need it.) “Be careful now.” (Don’t start drinking, for heaven’s sake, nor betting with strangers.) As for submarines—the cashier wanted to say, “Morten, why didn’t you go home last year when peace of a sort still ruled the Atlantic?” But all he said was: “Send me a postal from Copenhagen.”

“I’ll do that,” Morten answered.

Continued on page 46

The Shipwrecked Moneybelt

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 20

IT WAS a mixed lot in the fo’c’sle of the Marta, most of them like Morten working their way homeward. The older ones were silent about the war: they could remember the first one and what was happening had a nightmarish familiarity. Morten acted like a man with a secret, a secret sorrow, they decided, and nobody asked him questions. He didn’t even touch his moneybelt, except when alone and unobserved. As for poker, he said he never played cards, a lie that had almost choked him.

The Marta slogged along through grey November day and black night, making easting, getting nearer home and nearer to danger. The wind blew stronger, a sou’easterly, and it was hard to stay in one’s bunk. From time to time Sparks passed along bits of news,

I none of it good. The Germans were I sinking neutrals all right.

“But only neutrals bound for Kng! land,” the big Finnish bo’sun said.

“Where they got no business, anyway,” said his friend the carpenter.

“That make you feel good?” this from a young Norwegian. “Sure, we’re bound for Oslo, suppose we first have to put in at Liverpool?”

Double watch forward, and on the bridge, daily lifeboat drill. The lifeboats were checked for provisions and swung out on their davits, ready to go. It seemed as if the young captain never J slept at all. He was always on deck.

For a time there was fog but no fogI horn sounded: in silence and without lights they went on.

The hours below were the longest. If a game was on Morten did not even I watch, or tried not to. After all, though,

J he thought craftily to himself, he need risk no more than the few bills he had in his pants pocket. But again he resisted. He rearranged the contenta of his locker, a heavy old-fashioned one that had belonged to his father. There were the presents for Lise, but he didn’t look at them. He checked over his clothes. On deck he would feel of his moneybelt. A wonderful belt! The money wouldn’t be soaked through for days and even then that belt would keep it all safely buttoned together. But what was he thinking of? If he tried swimming home it wouldn’t make much difference to Lise how much money there had been in that belt. It occurred to him that then she wouldn’t ever know about his saving through those years. He had a new feeling, that she was far away, that maybe he’d be sailing toward her the rest of his life. A morbid notion.

To forget it he remembered how once long ago his father had come home from the sea and had put money of silver and gold on the mahogany table that stood in the middle of their parlor.

I The coins covered it, or so he remembered. He was a little kid then.

I The money had seemed mysterious;

! it seemed to shine a light on the faces of his father and his mother, but pretty soon they laughed. While he remembered this he was at the wheel of the Marta. Lise seemed to be next to him. Well, his money might seem as wonderful to her.

The mate came by and asked him if ; he was awake. “Yessir, I’m awake.” i The mate leaned over the starboard rail peering into the darkness. At this moment it happened, the cruel blow on the soles of his feet, the shudder and deep smothered sound of the explosion that smashed the engine room, filling it with a hell of live steam, an inward

rush of the sea which surged around. .

As the Marta lost steerageway all her movement changed. She rolled and pitched, giving in to the wind and the sea. There was a great growing clatter of wreckage being smashed against bulkheads. The lifeboats madly swung on their davits. From the bridge the captain’s voice trumpeted above everything, and it was calm. Lower the starboard lifeboats . . .

The forward boat no sooner wet its keel than it was smashed against the ship’s side. The men in her were thrown into the sea.

They had better luck with the second. Two men got her down and free of her hooks, and working desperately fended her off until they could get oars in play; but then they were : carried away, now high on a crest, nowhalf out of sight in the trough. That was No. 2 lifeboat. The captain called its number, ordering men assigned to lier in the drills to jump for it. Most of them were stokers and engineers, and where were they now? No. 1 crew! They were to jump for it, too. They went overside, one by one, into the black water. It was no great jump now, | for the ship was sinking fast. Racing waves set the port lifeboats as they hung in their davits, and then, lower still—the remaining boats were afloat even as they hung. The waves lifted them from their hooks, and they crashed down onto the deck.

The forward port lifeboat rested for a moment on the deck. The captain shouted to cast off right there on deck, and shove her off with the next wave. Men clambered aboard, filled every thwart. The first mate led the run aft for the last one.

How they did it Morten did not remember, but as quickly as at a drill, it was afloat and free.

“Captain!” called the mate.

The captain holding to the rail of the bridge with one hand, one knee up, was trying with his other hand to tie up the ship’s papers with a bit of cord using his mouth to hold one end. That was the last they saw of him. With enormous, deliberate power the stern of the Marta rose higher. The mate slid on his pants to the rail, and overboard. He began to swim. They picked him up and pulled away. The ship’s neutral ensign fluttered. Waves received it. The propeller emerged and for a moment dripped high in the air. The Marta slid straight down then. The Atlantic creamed over her.

A sailor was swearing. “The dirty dogs,” he was saying. “The goddam —and he called curses over the dark water, a feeble sound.

“Silence,” the mate said evenly. He was at the tiller, in command. “They can’t hear you. They’re far away.”

f I THERE were nine men and four Ji_ were hurt. Cold, dark night covered them. There was no sign of the other boats. Waves were high. Their crests, sliced by the wind, rained inboard. Two men set to bailing. Wreckage floated by. There was something that might have been Morten’s locker, but he couldn’t be sure. He thought of the things for Lise in it—specially a Chinese kimono, blue brocade with butterflies embroidered on the back and sleeves lined by apple-green silk. He was sorry she would never see that, ! and the other things. He felt of his money belt. A chair floated up, riding the waves easily, and after it a coat, j but when they got hold of this a face; less corpse was wearing it.

The mate said they were maybe two hundred miles from Scotland with a ! wind against them. There were four ¡ pairs of oars going now. The men bailj ing grunted and one or the other would j say in a steady rhythm, “Water out, I

water out,” as they emptied the bailer.

Doubled up amidships, covered with a tarpaulin was the cook’s helper, a boy who had been hurt. He didn’t groan or complain, but talked to himself in a high voice, or tried to sing. He was out of his mind.

The big bo’sun was there, his friend the carpenter beside him. “I’ll never finish that ship,” the bo’sun said, pulling steadily on his oar. He looked and sounded as if he could pull like that for a week without stopping. He meant the model ship he’d been working on. “Now,” he said, “I got just nothing to bring home.” As a matter of fact he had no family, but had planned to give the little ship to a church in Vipurri.

As the night deepened it grew colder. From time to time they lit a flare. They saw each other’s face leap up in the glare, and then darkness again, the sea darker. The dawn was grey. It revealed an empty sea. They stepped the mast, made sail but could get little easting with this wind. The bo’sun broke open and distributed rations, hard biscuits I and meat from a big tin, squares of chocolate, water. The bo’sun un! covered the kid to feed him, but he was dead.

His body floated for a while face up. The waves moved the arms, turned him over. He floated near to the boat; a wave raised him high above it, finally he was out of sight.

Just before darkness of their second day a man forward shouted out that he saw a light. He stood up and waved his arms. They had to force him to lie down, covered him with the tarpaulin, j Next morning the bo’sun got to the j tiller and took it. The mate who hadn’t slept was all in. They covered him, too, j with the tarpaulin.

“Now, by gar! we’ll go west with the wind,” the bo’sun said. “There’s ships j somewheres.”

They all ate biscuits and each had a : half-box of headcheese. The fat food ! gave them strength. Morten took the next turn at the tiller. He felt for his money belt, unsnapped one of the I pockets and poked a finger within. Damp, but so far okay.

In the morning of the fourth day the mate was dead. And the man lying beside him who had been hurt inside had blood on his mouth and breathed with a boiling sound in his chest. But not for long. The cold was terrible. Night came again. On the fifth a Norwegian sailor, giving his last strength to the bailing, half stood up, tottered with a wave and fell. A man half asleep reached for him, but too slowly, too weakly. So there were live of them.

Morten was again at the tiller when they saw the steamer, not far either, grey-painted, enormous, without a light showing. He called to the bo’sun. The bo’sun set off a flare. They tried to shout, to wave. The ship slid on, became part of the twilight, if it had seen them, it had not dared to chance I it, fearing a submarine ambush.

Morten bailed and dozed. “Water i out . . . water out ...” It seemed that j the hoarsely whispered phrase became ! each time another rung of an endless ! ladder. He slept, awoke, felt for his j money belt, slept again.

IT WAS broad day when the second steamer was sighted. Somehow Morten went back to sleep. He awoke in a bunk. Between sleeps that was ! enough to know. He counted his legs, his arms. He felt the good clean sheets, j and slept, and dreamed of Lise waving j her snowy apron.

A voice woke him. Very close to him stood a steward in a white coat. He had a tray with a cup of hot soup. He asked in a Dutchman’s English did Morten want it? Morten tqok the cup in both hands. Wide awake he lay

feeling the long roll of the ship. As she rose to starboard he could look across the sick bay to the bo’sun’s bunk without turning his head, which was a convenience. The bo’sun had a top berth: under him was the carpenter. Morten could hear him now. Soon he knew there were four of them left. Five had come on board, four had come in time.

“What sort of an old pot is she?” the carpenter wanted to know.

“A Dutchman,” said the bo’sun. “Good food.”

“Turbines,” Morten said.

The captain came with his first mate and a steward to put everything in the ship’s log. The captain asked questions and Morten answered them and his answers were written down.

The bo’sun sat on the edge of his bunk. “Now,” he said, “I go home. I’m through, I tell you. I go home and I stay home. It’s a dog’s life. It always was a dog’s life. And now it is worse with murderers loose, sneaking up from under, falling down from op!” The way he said “op” made Morten

begin to laugh at him, and the carpenter. Suddenly they stopped laughing. After a little silence they could sleep again.

They would talk about home. The Swede’s home was a little village, hardly a village even, high up north on Botten Bay; according to him it was a better place than any other, really, when you came to know it; and the Norwegian was going back to a farm on the lake of Jolster. In that lake there were trout a yard long.

“Listen,” Morten said, “in Norway even the fleas, mind you, are big as canary birds!”

The bo’sun only wanted to talk about Finland. Now take Finnish potatoes! Not like other potatoes which one ate only not to be hungry. Finnish potatoes, he said, were as good as oranges. There were flowers, blue and white flowers everywhere, in the spring. But the winter was the merry time. Everybody in Finland went to church on skis.

So they talked. Not of strange cities, fights, hardships, but of more distant memories, a cat that was a good mouser, or a calf that had been mysteriously taken ill, or a sister’s boy who was clever for his age . . . Morten listened and he felt that these were good fellows, but that they knew little about the business of finding the right place to live. He thought about a Danish village on an island where the sand was white and the harbor could be as blue as the sky —that is, when it. wasn’t raining—where there were no mountains to cut off the view', where lived one’s friends, one’s folks and Lise.

Just where were they going? Maybe now the captain himself had yet to decide which of Holland’s ports he’d make. “Anyway, Morten there has

ling to worry about,” the carpenter m■ ■ “Being a shipwrecked Dane his ; government will supply him with new ! Jplothes and a ticket home. That’s ; what they always do.” He looked ; across at Morten. “Now what’s up j with him?”

MORTEN was on the edge of his bunk, bare legs dangling. He was very thin and he looked crazy.

“My money! I’ve been robbed !”

The steward came in with a tray. Morten stood in front of him, tall and wild in his nightshirt, yelling Danish at the poor man. His money, his fiveyears’ savings —where was it!

Morten’s three companions could not look at each other. This was bad. Not one of them spoke. The waiter asked in English what in hell had broke loose, anyway?

“I want the captain,” Morten shouted. “I want to speak to him now', this minute.”

The waiter put down his tray and went away. Morten padded up and down, up and down, now swearing, j now letting loose a little barking sort of sob.

The steward returned. “Old man’s J busy,” he said.

The Dutch skipper, who had manj aged a bit of a nap twenty hours before, gazed through a misty November day j toward England. The first mate said sarcastically, blowing his thick musJ tache: “The Dane’s yelling murder j about a lot of money he says he had.” | “I make it sou’sou’east,” the captain Í said, meaning the direction of what he j thought he saw. “Destroyer?”

“1 don’t see it, sir. This Dane ...”

The captain gasped. “Jacob, what’s j in your eye today? She is a destroyer!” j “Aye.”

“A Britisher.”

“She’s signaling now.”

“Two weeks in a control port. Or a month. Oh, damn. Tell her we’ll follow along.” He stepped to the engine telegraph . . . Bells sounded below, the smooth thrustof the turbines slackened, the course changed. “All right,” said the skipper. “Go speak to that Dane.” j Morten was lying face down on his j bunk.

“What’s wrong with you?” The mate was a round-bellied red-faced man who wore his cap over one eye like Admiral Beatty. Morten didn’t speak. “You had a lot of money, hah?”

“Had it in a grey-leather money belt.”

“That’s your story. But how do we know? Your buddies here know about it?” He stared at each one of them in turn and each one had to shake his head slowly, regretfully, but definitely. No, they had never seen or heard of Morten’s money.

“Well, if it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Morten at last. It didn’t sound like his own voice. He sat up and looked around. Ht* kept nodding his head like an old man.

“If. was wet, you blockhead.” Morten didn’t seem to be listening. “The captain had it dried out bill by bill. Here it is, folded back into your money bolt.”

The waiter, holding the belt across two outstretched hands like something in an old ceremony, offered Morten the | fortune he thought he’d lost, and j Morten slowly got off his bunk and hardly daring to believe his eyes accepted if, clinched hard his grasp on the grey leather, turned his head to say what he could to the good officer there, and then . . .

Out on deck and beyond it other things were happening. The destroyer put on steam, altered her course sharply, and was away, a great white bone in her teeth, running for her life. The Dutch lookout forward saw a

periscope off the port bow, and just then the torpedo arrived, and let go.

MORTEN MORTENSEN was now

rather widely distributed. He was, in fact, in a number of different places at once. In New York, for instance, the cashier could see him clearly and this made him feel important so that he spoke of Morten to his wife, to friends. In an island village in Denmark Morten’s father, a stout greybeard, walked about in Morten’s company. It was always Morten people wanted to talk ¡ilvi'il. They listened to old Mortensen

as if he were a professor or the mayor of Copenhagen. As for the little old lady who was Morten’s mother and the tall dark-haired Lise, who had waited long and faithfully for Morten’s return, they were different from all other women because of him. Even in Copenhagen, in streets he had never known, there he was also ... It was all, of course, a matter of radio and cable, of the newspaper editors who know their readers’ curiosity.

Morten Mortensen did not himself know that he was famous. He had been told but the fact made no sense to him.

Surprising enough to have a Danish ship’s doctor try to talk to you in Dutch, and be astonished when you at last answer him in—Danish. What else would Morten talk? But it was simple: he’d been torpedoed twice and the second rescue was by this Danish ship. He didn’t remember getting on deck but he remembered being in the water with a life preserver round him. Something hit him a bad blow on the head: it was the corner of a life raft. He dragged somebody else onto it, a big man who was badly hurt, right arm mangled. He said this was one of the

rafts they’d carried on the toarte there’d be a waterproof tank iî? . with first-aid stuff, and food, too. All you had to do was to give that handle a twist; but there wasn’t any handle. The stuff was there, an inch or two away, but unreachable. The raft was floating upside down.

The Danes had picked them up within an hour but to Morten it might have been days or weeks. His memory confused it with the first sinking, and the endless suffering in the lifeboat with his friends from the Marta. Not one of them had come through this one. The big Dutchman was dead, too, but that wasn’t known till he was safe on board. The blood on Morten was not his own, and he was breathing.

They rounded Skagen and were in Danish waters at last. Morten was awake. He thanked God, not only in thought but in the very marrow of his bones, so to speak, that he was alive; and this was not gratitude for having been chosen, but simply a realization of the mystery of being alive. He admired his own hand, and wondered that a thought would move his fingers. The Danish doctor was proud of him. “So anxious to get home,” joked the doctor, “that he sets off in a nightshirt and a life belt.”

Soon they were to learn that Morten’s father and mother had come by the mail boat to Copenhagen and were there waiting for him, that Lise had stayed home to do some last things for his welcoming. No doubt that parlor table once so dramatically decorated by his father stood there well dusted— ready. Never mind . . . The doctor asked him what was troubling him, why did he frown and shake his head?

Morten had been trying and trying to remember something he had forgotten. Now he knew it was about the cashier back in New York. Suddenly he smiled. “I got it! I promised that fellow I’d send him a postal card from Copenhagen. What’ll I write on it? Morten gave it some sober, intense thought. Should he mention how he almost got the money there? And lost it? Oh, that was personal business, though. The doctor who had volunteered to write the card for him poised his fountain pen. Morten began to sweat, trying to think of something important enough to write down. “Greetings,” he dictated at last. “Arrived okay. Then put down my name, Morten Mortensen.”

The doctor gazed at him a while. “I suppose you don’t remember the struggle we had to get your right hand loose from that money belt?”

Morten took it calmly. He shook his head. No, he didn’t remember that. It is easy to he calm when you are tired out, and comfortable. He was thinking of Lise, anyway: but gradually he let himself know that after all he had taken it with him, and after a while that was a wonderful thing to know. ★