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The Ship

by C.S. Forester

 

Chapter One

From the Captains Report:

. . . and at 11:30 hours the attacks ceased although enemy aircraft were still occasionally visible . . .

PAYMASTER Commander George Brown put his fountain pen back into his pocket, put on his cap and got up from the table where he had been ciphering.

"I'm going for a prowl," he told the petty officer beside him.

He slid his rather rotund bulk out through the narrow door and down three successive ladders, turning each corner and making each steep descent with the careless facility of long practice, even in the darkness that prevailed with the doors all shut. Emerging on the deck he stood and blinked for a moment in the sunshine — clear, sparkling sunshine which gave less warmth than might be expected in the Mediterranean in March. The sky was blue and the tossing sea was grey, the two colors blending exquisitely, the whitecaps and the white stretch of the wake completing the color scheme to an artist's satisfaction.

The Paymaster Commander took a step or two farther into the waist, and stood and blinked again. He was not wasting time, nor idly taking the air; he was, as he might have expressed it himself, engaged in outthinking Mussolini. The guns' crews at the four-inch guns, at the pom-poms and at the .50-caliber machine guns, were standing at their stations; as Artemis rolled in the heavy sea the brass cases of the ammunition expended in beating off the last attack jangled on the iron decks on which they lay heaped like autumn leaves.

The men at the guns were vigilant and yet relaxed, they would lose no time, not one tenth of a second, in opening fire should another attack be launched; but they were not wasting their strength in staying keyedup unnecessarily. These men were veterans of nearly three years of war, three years during which at any moment death might swoop at them from the skies, and every movement they made showed it. The weapons they handled were part of their lives by now; not toys for formal parade, nor wearisome nuisances to be kept cleaned and polished in accordance with a meaningless convention; those cannons were of the very essence of life, as was the long rifle to the frontier pioneer, the brush to the artist, the bow to the violinist. In a world where the law was 'kill or be killed' they were determined to be the killers and not the killed — the tiger stalking his prey lived under the same law.

The Paymaster Commander had finished outguessing Mussolini; his experience of aerial attacks told him that another was unlikely in the immediate future. And at the same time what he knew from the signals he had been deciphering made him quite certain that the respite was only a respite, and that more desperate work lay ahead even than beating off Italian dive bombers. He turned into the galley, where the Chief Petty Officer Cook, burly and competent, stood waiting for orders — apparently the only man in the ship (until the Paymaster Commander decided to take his stroll) not engaged in the business of making the ship the complete fighting machine; and yet he, too, had his part to play.

"Half an hour to send food round," said the Paymaster Commander. He picked up the telephone. "Wardroom."

In the wardroom the telephone squealed plaintively and the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander answered it.

"Wardroom."

"Hullo, P.M.O. Purser here. Let's have some of my boys back. You can spare 'em."

The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander looked round him. When H.M.S. Artemis was at action stations the wardroom ceased to be the officers' mess and became the Medical Distributing Station. Here the wounded were brought for treatment — the sick bay, forward under the bridge, was both too small and too exposed to be used as anything other than a dressing station. The two casualties were quiet now, and the stretcher-bearer force was squatting on the deck. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander carried grave responsibility in yielding to the Paymaster Commander's request. A sudden attack might leave twenty — fifty — wounded on the decks; a score of lives might depend on prompt collection and treatment. Wounded left lying were bad for discipline, bad for morale, apart from the guilty conscience which would torment the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander if his job were not properly done. But he had been shipmates for two years with the Paymaster Commander, and could appreciate his cool judgment and sober common sense. Pay was not the kind of man who would make a frivolous or unnecessary or ill-timed request. He could trust him.

"Right-o, Pay. I'll send 'em along."

He looked along the row of squatting forms.

"You eight. You're all galley's crew? Report to the Paymaster Commander at the galley."

The eight queerly dressed men — between them all they hardly bore a single trace of uniform clothing — scrambled to their feet, and doubled aft into the sunshine which illuminated the waist, and halted at the galley. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander watched them go. Perhaps it was the sight of the ragged group running which started a train of subconscious memory, starting with the recollection of an Inter-Hospital cross-country race; the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander suddenly found before his mind's eye a picture of the interior courtyard at Guy's — the green grass; the dribbling fountain where pigeons tried to wash off London grime; the nurses, white-aproned, in blue or lilac uniforms; first-year students carrying microscopes, third-year men lounging, pipe in mouth and comically manly, out from the gloomy entrance to the dissecting room; the youthfulness and eager anticipation of the best in life. All bombed to hell now, he had heard. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander shook the vision from him as though it were water out of his eyes when he was swimming; he turned back to take a fresh look at the rating with the head wound. There was a chance that the wounded man might live and be none the worse for his experience.

In the galley the Paymaster Commander was ready with the scheme he had long mapped out, had tested in a dozen engagements. He had six hundred men to feed, and none of them had eaten for six hours. The Paymaster Commander thought of the hungry six hundred with a queer tenderness. He was a man born for parenthood, for self-sacrifice, to think for others. If fate had made him a millionaire, he might have been a notable philanthropist; if fate had given him children, he might have been the much-loved father of a family, but fate had ruled that he should be a childless man and a poor one. And as the senior officer of the paymaster branch in a light cruiser, his inborn instincts had play in other directions. At present his thoughts were queerly paralleling those of the housewife planning what would be best for her men-folk getting in the harvest or working at the mill — it was only common sense that they should be given the best available, and it was pleasant that that should be what he liked doing anyway.

There was no flame in the range by which cooking could be done — the oil fuel for the range had all been safely drained away below, where it was less likely to start a fire — but there was a steam jet; and super-heated steam — not the flabby vapor that issues from a kettle's spout, but steam at four hundred degrees, live, active steam — can do remarkable things in the quickest time. The cook was already putting the ingredients into the cauldron. No economy soup this, but the best the ship could provide, the best the limited imagination of the Admiralty could encompass for the men who fought the battles. To make the forty gallons of soup necessary the cook was ripping open four dozen vast tins of tomatoes; stacked round him were the sixteen tins of corned beef which would go in next. The Paymaster Commander, without wasting time, took the fourteen pounds of corn flour and began to mix it into a paste with water, so as to make it smooth for admixture with the soup. While he was doing so he issued his instructions to the men who came panting up to the galley at the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander's orders.

"Get going on those sandwiches," he said. "Hopkins, open the tins. Clarke and Stanton, cut the meat. The rest of you see to the spreading."

The men fell naturally into the parts they had to play, like actors in a well-rehearsed performance. The long loaves which the Cook's crew had made and baked during the night were run through the slicer, the slabs of corned beef were slapped on the buttered slices, and the completed sandwiches were stacked aside; the knives flickered with the speed at which they worked, and they had no time for speech except for brief sentences: "Let's have another tin here, Nobby." "More butter here!"

Corn flour, meat, vegetables, all had gone into the soup cauldron, and now the Chief Petty Officer Cook dropped in the three pounds of sugar and the handfuls of herbs which were his own contribution to the formula for producing appetizing soup. He stirred with his vast ladle, and then moved the lever of the steam valve round its pipe. Only a slight crackling and tremor indicated that steam from the ship's boilers — steam as hot as red-hot iron — was heating up the cauldron.

The Canteen Manager and his assistant came to attention before the Paymaster Commander.

"We've been sent to report to you from the wardroom, sir," said the Canteen Manager.

"Very good. Start on the cocoa. Murchie, get those pickles opened."

The Paymaster Commander swept his gaze round the galley. The soup was nearly hot, the forty gallons of cocoa were preparing, the mass of sandwiches nearly completed. He checked the other tubs — they were full of fresh water, in accordance with his standing orders. The Paymaster Commander had fought in another battle, once, in a cruiser which had filled with water nearly to the level of her main-deck. Desperate determination and brilliant seamanship had brought her in tow back to harbor after forty-eight hours of struggle against wind and sea, submarines and aircraft; but those forty-eight hours had been spent without drinking water, thanks to the holing of some tanks and the submersion of the others. The Paymaster Commander remembered the insanity of thirst and fatigue, and never again would he allow his men to suffer that agony as far as it was in his power to mitigate it. These tubs held half a gallon for each man of the ship's company — men could go for days on two pints of water if necessary.

His final inspection completed, the Paymaster Commander stepped out again on deck, balancing against the roll and heave of the sea. The horizon was still clear; there were no planes in the sky. On the starboard quarter the convoy still rolled along over the grey surface. Mussolini, the Paymaster Commander decided, was not going to cause any more trouble immediately; so he took up the telephone again and said "Commander." The Commander answered from his Damage Control Station on the boat deck.

"Pay here, Commander. Dinner's ready to serve. May I pipe to that effect?"

"Yes, carry on," said the Commander.

The Paymaster Commander made his way forward and heaved himself up over the prodigiously high coaming to the foot of the ladder leading to the bridge.

"Bosun's mate," he ordered, "pipe 'Cooks to the galley'. "

The bosun's mate switched on the loud speaker, and the eerie squeal of his pipe went echoing through every corner of the ship. He was a Northcountryman, and his years in the Navy had not eliminated the Northcountry tang of his speech. He drew out the double o of the word 'cooks' until it was a treble or quadruple o, and he made no attempt to pronounce the th sound in the 'the'.

"Coo-ooks to t'galley," he said into the loud speaker, "Coo-ooks to t'galley."

The Paymaster Commander went back to the galley. In the hundreds of years of the history of the British Navy this meaning of the word 'cooks' had suffered a change. They were no longer the men who actually cooked the food of their respective messes; they were merely the men who, each on his appointed day, carried the food from the galley to the mess. Already they were assembling there; men from the six-inch turrets and men from the four-inch H.A. guns; men from the magazines and men from the engineroom — in every quarter of the ship one man knew that it was his duty, as soon as he heard "Cooks to the galley" piped, to come and fetch food for his mates who could not leave their stations. The Paymaster Commander watched the food being served out, from A mess right through the alphabet to Z mess; from AA to ZZ, and then from AAA to EEE — food for five men, food for seven men, food for nine men, according to the number in each quarter; for each mess the food was ready stacked, and the Paymaster Commander nodded in faint self-approval as he saw how smoothly the arrangements were working over which he had sat up late on so many evenings. This was his own special plan and he thought it improved on the system prevailing in other ships. It called for forethought and organization to feed six hundred men in half an hour, men who could not leave their guns, their gauges, or their instruments even for a moment while death lay only just beyond the horizon.

"I want those mess-traps brought back," said the Paymaster Commander sharply, "don't leave them sculling about on the decks."

It was his duty to fill the bellies of his men, but at the same time it was his duty to safeguard Navy property. Just because a battle was being fought was no excuse for exposing crockery — even crockery of enameled iron — to needless damage. The cooks had all left, and the Paymaster Commander picked up a sandwich and stood eating it, looking down at the galley's crew squatting on the decks spooning up soup into their mouths. Five minutes more of this let-up in the battle and everyone in the ship would have food inside him, and be fit and ready to go on fighting until nightfall or later.

He finished his sandwich and pulled out his cigarette case, and then stood with it unopened as a further thought struck him. He looked down fixedly at the Canteen Manager and his assistant.

"The boys'll want cigarettes," he said. "I expect half of 'em are short already."

The Paymaster Commander was of the type that could use the word 'boys' instead of 'men' without being suspected of sentimentality.

"I expect so, sir," said the Canteen Manager.

"Better take some round," said the Paymaster Commander. "You and Murchie see to it."

"Aye aye, sir," said the Canteen Manager, and then he hesitated. "Shall I issue them, sir?"

"Issue them? Good God, no."

The Paymaster Commander had visions of the endless reports and explanations he would have to make if he gave cigarettes away free to the Navy on the mere excuse that they were in action. And he had been in the service long enough to see nothing incongruous in the idea of sailors' having to pay for their cigarettes in a ship which might during the next ten minutes be battered into a shapeless wreck.

"Half of 'em'll have no money, not after Alex, sir," said the Canteen Manager.

"Well," said the Paymaster Commander, the struggle between regulations and expediency evident in his face, "let 'em have credit. See that every man has what he wants. And some of the boys'll like chocolate, I expect -- take some round as well."

The Paymaster Commander really meant 'boys' and not 'men' when he said "boys" this time — there were plenty of boys on board, boys under eighteen, each with a sweet tooth and a growing frame which would clamor for sweetmeats, especially after the nervous strain of beating off aerial attack for four hours.

The 'mess-traps' about which he had worried — the 'fannies' of soup, the mugs and the plates — were already being returned to the galley. Things were going well. The Canteen Manager and his assistant filled mess-cans with packets of cigarettes and packets of chocolate, and began to make their way from action station to action station, selling their wares as though at a football match. Like the Paymaster Commander, neither the Canteen Manager nor the men saw anything incongruous in their having to put their hands into their pockets to find the pennies for their cigarettes and their bars of chocolate. It was a right and proper thing that they should do so, in fact.

"You men return to your action stations," said the Paymaster Commander to the galley's crew.

He looked round the galley once more, and then turned away. He walked forward, stepped over the coaming, took one last glance backward at the blue sky and the grey sea, and then set himself to climb the dark ladders again back to the coding room. Even if he did nothing else in the battle he had supplied the food and the strength to keep the men going during a moment in the future when history would balance on a knife-edge — his forethought and his training and his rapid decision had played their part.

 

The Ship by C.S. Forester
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