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My heart sank a little, and I had already been in skirmishes and battles and dangerous places enough. But this was new, treacherous, and insecure. The submarine fleets! Ah, you have seen human agony in plenty, perhaps, but you have not been in the submarine service. Cruel, you might say. But I know now that it is only one of the finer meshes of the machine.
"I will not tell you about all our voyages and successes— successes, we called them, you must remember-and our failures. I did not worry a great deal. My engines were beautiful instruments, and I began to love them and play with them and think about them. There was not much else to think about in that iron shell of a boat, unless you thought about the successes. And I kept my mind off the successes. But what do they matter?
"We had a good captain, a stern, short-spoken man who handled his boat like a part of his own body, and did not talk to Fritz and myself. Fritz was the second officer, and a bully, but one had to have a companion, and he was not silent like the captain. The latter was, however, a good man, and that means that we sank many vessels and made many trips, and the other officers at Cuxhaven slapped us on the back and congratulated us and secretly envied us because they knew that our boat was safer than theirs, with less competent commanders. But you are not supposed to voice such fears aloud. So the others were demonstrative only in their congratulations and not in their envy, and nearly every trip that we made back to Cuxhaven we would learn that some of the congratulators of the last trip had gone never to come back. We quietly kept a list of the boats which would never return, and it grew longer and longer, and after a time came to include boats that were younger than our own. But still we went on, and the others thought that we led charmed lives.
"You may imagine that it was bad leaving harbor on those voyages, never sure that this one was not to be the last. It was on the little narrow deck, watching the shore fade away in the early dawn, or going out in the chops of the late evening ebb tides, that some idea of the great machine came to me, the great machine that had caught all of us madmen, and was grinding us out slowly, boat-load by boat-load, and dropping the refuse, the
leavings, into the cold ocean waters. It frightened and tormented me then, because I did not understand yet that it all really did not matter. It frightened me, I confess, because it was all so slow and cruel and cold and irresistible. Bah! And so I would run below and attend to my engines. And think about Victoria's pale cheeks, because I didn't know then what a stupid thing that was to do. As stupid as worrying about the successes; almost as stupid as rejoicing over them.
"But the one success that I remember I must tell you of. I was in the engine-room at the time it occurred, and when I heard the orders passed to submerge, I asked Fritz what the matter was. "A destroyer?' I said.
'No,' he cried, blustering a bit at the men. He always blustered a good deal. 'One of their damned liners. Alone. We'll get them, curse 'em!' His eyes were exultant. I did not like to look at them, and was just as well satisfied that my duty required me in the engine-room where my motors were purring beautifully to themselves. There was the usual trying silence in the boat, until after a long while I heard them release one of the bow torpedoes, and waited for the shock of its explosion. When it came it was unusually severe. The vessel must have been very close indeed. I was flung violently against a bulkhead, staggered, lost my footing, and falling on the iron flooring was knocked unconscious.
"I did not come to until a long while after. I was sick and weak in my bunk for a day or two more. All this time we had been lying on the bottom of the German Ocean. The steward told me that we had not risen once since we sank the liner. Why? He did not know. The captain never told us anything. Why should he?
"When I came out of my bunk at last there was nothing to do. The walls of the boat sweated clammily all the time, the electrics got fogged and dim, it was hot and wretched. There is nowhere to go on a submarine except the deck; when you cannot go on deck, there is nowhere to go at all. We sat about, and sat about in different places, and talked a little, but only a little. The captain said nothing. He was a very grim man. At last the three of us sat down to a card game in our little ward-room. We played all day and night, continuously. There was nothing else
to do. We played cards down there at the bottom of the German Ocean under the electrics, between those long, clammy walls. And the captain said nothing. He said nothing when Fritz and I were irritable and accused each other of cheating; he said nothing when we joked; he said nothing even when Fritz began to talk over this last exploit of ours.
"Ah,' said Fritz, 'that did for them. Never saw a better shot. Right under the counter it must have been.' He lolled lazily back on the transom in that insolent way of his. But the captain leaned forward and spoke.
'Yes,' he said, and Fritz and I both started nervously, his voice was so unexpected. It was hard and queer and grim. 'Yes,' he said, 'that ship, too, has gone to the bottom. She will never rise again.' She will never rise again! You have not been in a submarine on the floor of the German Ocean for days and nights together. You would not feel the oppression of those words as we did. Clammy, like the drops on the steel walls that glittered in the electrics.
"Bah!' said Fritz, sitting up suddenly and blustering once more, as if he had waked up from a sort of doze. 'You sentimental! That's a good one for the fellows at Cuxhaven to hear. Who said she would rise again? Must have torn the sides out of her. God, what a shot!' And he threw his card on the table. The captain followed the lead. I was opposite to him, and there was a curious, far-off stare in his steely eyes. He was not looking at me, but through me and far beyond.
"Yes,' he went on slowly, 'at least it was a good shot.'
'Rather,' said Fritz with a ghastly sort of jocularity. 'Teach 'em a lesson. Oh, you're a good little schoolmaster. You'll get your decoration soon enough. Wish I was in your shoes.'
"Do you?' asked the captain coldly, and we fell silent. "But we could not endure silence long. The air was bad. Those narrow walls were near, too near.
""We must have been close to her, then," I said, for the sake of saying something.
'Right under her.' Fritz was effusive. "The skipper kept his head. She wasn't going to get away from him. Clever work. Oh, damned clever work!'
"The captain turned and gazed at Fritz for a moment. quailed a bit under the glance. The captain turned his head away again.
"It was clever, was it? We have that much to our credit, then.'
"That much to our credit! Why, man
"But the captain interrupted him suddenly.
"Do you know something? I'll tell you. We were so close to her that one of them drifted by the periscope as we dived. Yes, it was a woman, drifting in the water. I saw her in the glass. She thrust out her hand and clutched for the periscope. I saw it, the fingers and the wrist, rise up in the lens as if she were grasping at me. The fingers-there was a wedding ring on one of them-clutched at me, just like that, and then we went under.'
"He was silent again. We were surprised and uneasy. We had never heard anything like that from him before. It was oppressive.
"Bah!' snapped Fritz suddenly. 'What are you doddering about all this of fingers and wedding rings? Stuff! Let's have some beer.'
"We called the steward in and told him to bring us the drink. After he had put the bottle and glasses down beside us he lingered a bit.
'Well,' demanded the captain gruffly, 'what is it?'
'By your leave, sir,' said the steward, very awkward, 'the air's getting bad forward. It's very stuffy.'
'Isn't it stuffy here?' said the captain. 'That will do.'
"The man went out. It was ghastly in that boat. So ghastly that it was funny, and I laughed in an aimless sort of way.
'Stop that confounded noise,' yelled Fritz wildly. I stopped. We were all living above ourselves, if you know what I mean. We spoke wildly, we thought recklessly, we exaggerated everything that we did.
""Oh, what a bore,' said Fritz, in that insolent voice of his, but more insolent than usual; overdone. 'Here we've won and lost everything we own three times over at this stupid game. Can't we make it exciting?"
"Yes, it's beastly dull,' I said, being very much too blasé. And then the captain smiled. I do not remember ever having seen him smile before. I am glad that I shall not have to see him smile again.
"My friends,' he said, 'do you know how to make your little games exciting? It is very simple. Play for the thing that is dearest above all in the world to you.
It is quite easy.'
"That sounds like sheer lunacy to you. Perhaps it was.
"Now, what on earth do you mean by that?' cried Fritz. 'What a fancy! But somehow I fell in with the captain's mood. Things look differently on those cold sea floors.
"'Of course,' I assented. 'Put the stakes high!' I don't think Fritz understood us at all. But he was not to be left out, so he swaggered a bit and said, 'All right, if it amuses you. The greatest thing in the world? That's easy. Here's mine: chances of promotion and my War Cross-when I get it.'
"What was the greatest thing in my world? I stopped to realize that I did not know. I understood more about the machine then. There is not a world, but a machine, and if one is being ground through it, what matters? But still, there was one thing that seemed to count.
""Here's mine,' I cried, 'Victoria!'
"It was all foolish and wild and weird. Even Fritz only giggled. 'If you're a sentimental softy, that's all right,' he said. 'What's yours, Captain?'
"Yes, what's yours?'
"Mine-Life!' he said. We started. Fritz turned pale.
"My God!' he gasped out. "This is mad nonsense! This-' he steadied up a bit-'is too much in the way of a joke, Captain.' "You don't like my pleasant little joke?' said the captain.
'Play on.' I spoke recklessly. Without a word we began. "That game took years to finish. Years. I threw down the cards mechanically, thinking of how silly it all was, thinking of Victoria, who had got me into this crazy game where I was pretending to stake her as if she has been a roll of bank-notes, against glory on the one hand and life itself on the other; thinking of that dead woman who had drifted by the periscope clutching at us with drowning fingers; thinking of the seas and the land and the trenches and the entire world and the stars and