AT SUPPER that evening they were served with prunes, bread without butter, and weak tea, with neither milk nor sugar.
“Orders from for’a’d, sir,” said Daniels, noticing Denman’s involuntary look of surprise. “All hands are to be on short allowance for a while—until something comes our way again.”
“But why,” asked Denman, “do you men include us in your plans and economies? Why did you not rid yourself of us last night, when you sent one of your number ashore?”
Daniels was a tall, somber-faced man—a typical ship’s cook—and he answered slowly: “I cannot tell you, sir. Except that both you and the lady might talk about this boat.”
“Oh, well,” said Denman, “I was speaking for this lady, who doesn’t belong with us. My place is right here.”
“Yes, sir,” agreed Daniels; “but I am at liberty to say, sir, to you and the lady, that you’d best look out for Billings. He seems to be goin’ batty. I heard him talking to himself, threatening harm to this lady. I don’t know what he’s got against her myself—”
“Tell him,” said Denman, sharply, “that if he enters this apartment, or steps one foot abaft the galley hatch on deck, the parole is broken, and I’ll put a bullet through his head. You might tell that to Jenkins, too.”
Daniels got through the wardroom door before answering: “I’ll not do that, sir. Jenkins might confine him, and leave all the work to me. But I think Billings needs a licking.”
Whether Daniels applied this treatment for the insane to Billings, or whether Billings, with an equal right to adjudge Daniels insane, had applied the same treatment to him, could not be determined without violation of the parole; but when they had finished supper and reached the deck, sounds of conflict came up from the galley hatch, unheard and uninterrupted by those forward. It was a series of thumps, oaths, growlings, and the rattling of pots and pans on the galley floor. Then there was silence.
“You see,” said Denman to Florrie, with mock seriousness, “the baleful influence of a woman aboard ship! It never fails.”
“I can’t help it,” she said, with a pout and a blush—her blushes were discernible now, for the last vestige of the scalding had gone—“but I mean to wear a veil from this on. I had one in my pocket.”
“I think that would be wise,” answered Denman, gravely. “These men are—”
“You see, Billie,” she interrupted. “I’ve got a new complexion—brand new; peaches and cream for the first time in my life, and I’m going to take care of it.”
“That’s right,” he said, with a laugh. “But I’ll wager you won’t patent the process. Live steam is rather severe as a beautifier!”
But she kept her word. After the meager breakfast next morning—which Daniels served with no explanation of the row—she appeared on deck with her face hidden, and from then on wore the veil.
There was a new activity among the men—a partial relief from the all-pervading nervousness and irritability. Gun and torpedo practice—which brought to drill every man on board except Munson, buried in his wireless room, and one engineer on duty—was inaugurated and continued through the day.
Their natty blue uniforms discarded, they toiled and perspired at the task; and when, toward the end of the afternoon, old Kelly decided that they could be depended upon to fire a gun or eject a torpedo, Jenkins decreed that they should get on deck and lash to the rail in their chocks four extra torpedoes.
As there was one in each tube, this made eight of the deadliest weapons of warfare ready at hand; and when the task was done they quit for the day, the deck force going to the bridge for a look around the empty horizon, the cooks to the galley, and the machinists to the engine room.
Denman, who with doubt and misgiving had watched the day’s preparations, led Florrie down the companion.
“They’re getting ready for a mix of some kind; and there must be some place to put you away from gun fire. How’s this?”
He opened a small hatch covered by the loose after edge of the cabin carpet, and disclosed a compartment below which might have been designed for stores, but which contained nothing, as a lighted electric bulb showed him. Coming up, he threw a couple of blankets down, and said:
“There’s a cyclone cellar for you, Florrie, below the water line. If we’re fired upon jump down, and don’t come up until called, or until water comes in.”
Then he went to his room for the extra store of cartridges he had secreted, but found them gone. Angrily returning to Florrie, he asked for her supply; and she, too, searched, and found nothing. But both their weapons were fully loaded.
“Well,” he said, philosophically, as they returned to the deck, “they only guaranteed us the privilege of carrying arms. I suppose they feel justified from their standpoint.”
But on deck they found something to take their minds temporarily off the loss. Sampson, red in the face, was vociferating down the engine-room hatch.
“Come up here,” he said, loudly and defiantly. “Come up here and prove it, if you think you’re a better man than I am. Come up and square yourself, you flannel-mouthed mick.”
The “flannel-mouthed mick,” in the person of Riley, white of face rather than red, but with eyes blazing and mouth set in an ugly grin, climbed up.
It was a short fight—the blows delivered by Sampson, the parrying done by Riley—and ended with a crashing swing on Riley’s jaw that sent him to the deck, not to rise for a few moments.
“Had enough?” asked Sampson, triumphantly. “Had enough, you imitation of an ash cat? Oh, I guess you have. Think it out.”
He turned and met Jenkins, who had run aft from the bridge.
“Now, Sampson, this’ll be enough of this.”
“What have you got to say about it?” inquired Sampson, irately.
“Plenty to say,” answered Jenkins, calmly.
“Not much, you haven’t. You keep away from the engine room and the engine-room affairs. I can ’tend to my department. You ’tend to yours.”
“I can attend to yours as well when the time comes. There’s work ahead for—”
“Well, attend to me now. You’ve sweated me all day like a stoker at your work; now go on and finish it up. I’ll take a fall out o’ you, Jenkins, right here.”
“No, you won’t! Wait until the work’s done, and I’ll accommodate you.”
Jenkins went forward; and Sampson, after a few moments of scarcely audible grumbling, followed to the forecastle. Then Riley got up, looked after him, and shook his fist.
“I’ll git even wi’ you for this,” he declared, with lurid profanity. “I’ll have yer life for this, Sampson.”
Then he went down the hatch, while Forsythe on the bridge, who had watched the whole affair with an evil grin, turned away from Jenkins when the latter joined him. Perhaps he enjoyed the sight of some one beside himself being knocked down.
“It looks rather bad, Florrie,” said Denman, dubiously; “all this quarreling among themselves. Whatever job they have on hand they must hold together, or we’ll get the worst of it. I don’t like to see Jenkins and Sampson at it, though the two cooks are only a joke.”
But there was no more open quarreling for the present. As the days wore on, a little gun and torpedo drill was carried out; while, with steam up, the boat made occasional darts to the north or south to avoid too close contact with passing craft, and gradually—by fits and starts—crept more to the westward. And Jenkins recovered complete control of his voice and movements, while Munson, the wireless man, grew haggard and thin.
At last, at nine o’clock one evening, just before Denman went down, Munson ran up with a sheet of paper, shouting to the bridge:
“Caught on—with the United—night shift.”
Then, having delivered the sheet to Jenkins, he went back, and the rasping sound of his sending instrument kept up through the night.
But when Denman sought the deck after breakfast, it had stopped; and he saw Munson, still haggard of face, talking to Jenkins at the hatch.
“Got his wave length now,” Denman heard him say. “Took all night, but that and the code’ll fool ’em all.”
From then on Munson stood watch at his instrument only from six in the evening until midnight, got more sleep thereby, and soon the tired, haggard look left his face, and it resumed its normal expression of intelligence and cheerfulness.