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Chapter 20

JIMMIE HIGGINS TAKES A SWIM

I

You did not stop very long in the mobilization-camp, for the arrival of your train was timed with the arrival of the ship on which you were to sail. You had a meal, sometimes you slept a night, then you marched to the docks. Nor was there much of the traditional "sweet sorrow" about the departure of these great fleets; the weeping mothers and sisters had not been notified to be present, and the ladies of the canteen-service had given coffee and sandwiches, cigarettes and chocolate, to so many tens of thousands that they had forgotten about tears. It was like the emigration of a nation; the part of America that was now on the other side was so large that nobody would need to feel homesick.

Jimmie's embarking was done at night; on the long, covered piers, lighted by arc-lights, the soldiers set down their kits and stood about, munching food, singing songs, and keeping one another's wits sharpened for battle. They filtered on board, and then without a light or a sound the vessel stole down the long stretches of the harbour, and out to sea. One never knew at what hour the enemy submarines might attempt a raid on the American side, so the entrance to the harbour was mined and blockaded, a narrow passage being opened when the ships passed through.

When morning came the convoy was out at sea, amid glorious green rollers, and Jimmie Higgins was lying in his narrow berth, cursing the fates that had lured him, the monster of Militarism into whose clutches he had been snared. The army medical service had a serum to prevent small-pox and another to prevent typhoid, but they had nothing for sea-sickness as yet; so for the first four days of the trip Jimmie wished that a submarine would come and end his misery once for all.

At last, however, he came on deck, an utterly humbled Socialist agitator, asking only a corner to lie in the sunshine--preferably where he could not see the Atlantic surges, the very thought of which turned him inside out. But gradually he found his feet again, and ate with permanence, and looked out over the water and saw the other vessels of the convoy, weirdly painted with many-coloured splotches, steaming in the shape of a gigantic V, with two cruisers in front, and another on each side, and another bringing up the rear. Day and night the look-outs kept watch, and the wigwag men and the heliograph men were busy, and the wireless buzzed its warnings of the movements of the underwater foe. The U-boats had not yet got a transport, but they had made several tries, and everyone knew that they would continue trying. Twice a day the clanging of bells sounded from one end of the vessel to the other, and the crews rushed to the boat-drill; each passenger had his number, and unless he was ill in his berth he had to take his specified place, with his life-preserver strapped about his waist.

The passengers played cards, and read and sang and skylarked about the decks. Up on the top deck, to which Jimmie was not invited, were officers, also a number of women and girls belonging to the hospital and ambulance units. "Janes" was the term by which the soldier-boys described these latter; you could see they were a good sort of "Janes", serious and keen for their job, looking business-like and impressive in their uniforms with many pockets. Among them were suffragists, answering the taunt of the other sex, showing that in war as well as in peace the world needed them; it had to find a place for them on board the most badly crowded transport.

Never having been on an ocean-liner before, Jimmie did not know that it was crowded; it did not trouble him that there was hardly room for a walk on the decks. He watched the sea and the great white gulls and the piebald ships; he watched the crew at work, and got acquainted with his fellow-passengers. Before long he found a driver of an ambulance who was a Socialist; also an I.W.W. from the Oregon lumber-camps. Even the "wobblies", it appeared, had come to hate the Kaiser; a bunch of them were in France, and more would have come, if the government had not kept them cross by putting their leaders into jail. An army officer with some sense had gone into the spruce-country of the far North-west, and had appealed to the patriotism of the men, giving them decent hours and wages, and recognizing their unions; as a result, even the dreaded I.W.W. organization had turned tame, and all the lumberjacks had pitched in to help in "canning the Kaiser!"

II

The fleet was nearing the submarine-zone and it was time for the convoying destroyers to arrive. Everybody was peering out ahead, and at last a cry ran along the decks: "There they are!" Jimmie made out a speck of smoke upon the horizon, and saw it turn into a group of swiftly-flying vessels. He marvelled at the skill whereby they had been able to find the transports on this vast and trackless sea; he marvelled at the slender vessels with their four low, rakish stacks. These sea-terriers were thin skins of steel, covering engines of enormous power; they tore through the water, literally with the speed of an express train, leaving a boiling white wake behind. Seeing them rock and swing from side to side in the waves, hurled this way and that, you marvelled that human beings could live in them and not be jerked to pieces. Jimmie never tired of observing them, nor did they tire of racing in and out between the vessels of the convoy, weaving patterns of foam, the men on their decks watching, watching for the secret foe.

Everyone on board the transports, of course, was on the alert. Jimmie in his secret heart was scared stiff, but he did not reveal it to these mocking soldier-boys, who made merry over German U-boats as they did over sauerkraut and pretzels and Limburger and "wienies", otherwise known as "hot dogs". Actually, Jimmie found, they were hoping to encounter a submarine; not to be hit, of course, but to have the torpedo pass within a foot or two, so that they might have something thrilling to write to the folks at home.

There came storms, and blinding sheets of rain across the water, and mists that hid everything from view; but still the little sea-terriers dashed here and there, winding their foam wakes about the fleet, by night as well as by day. How they managed to avoid collisions in the dark was a mystery beyond imagining; Jimmie lay awake, picturing one of them plunging like a sharp spear into the rows of bunks in the steerage where he had been stowed. But when morning dawned, his berth was unspeared, and the watch-dogs of the sea were still weaving their patterns.

It was a day of high wind, with clouds and fitful bursts of sunshine in which the waves shone white and sparkling. Jimmie was standing by the fail with his "wobbly" friend, watching the white-caps, when his companion called his attention to a sparkle that seemed to persist, hitting one in the eye. They pointed it out to others, and as the orders were strict to report anything out of the way, someone shouted to the nearest look-out. A cry went over the ship, and there was hasty wigwagging of the signalman, and three of the destroyers leaped away like hounds on the chase.

There were some on board who had glasses, and they cried out that it was a black object, and finally reported it a raft with people on it. Later, when Jimmie reached port, he heard an explanation of the sparkle which had caught his eye--a woman on the raft had a little pocket-mirror, and had used this to flash the sun's rays upon the vessel, until at last she had attracted attention.

Those who had glasses were mostly on the upper deck, so Jimmie did not see anything of the rescue; the transports, of course, did not swerve or delay, for their orders forbade all altruisms. Even the little destroyers would not approach the raft until they had scoured the sea for miles about, and then they did not stop entirely, but slid by and tossed ropes to the people on the raft, dragging them aboard one by one. A seaman standing near Jimmie explained this procedure; it appeared that the submarines were accustomed to lurk near rafts and life-boats, preying upon those vessels which came to their rescue. Distressed castaways were bait--"live bait", explained the seaman; the U-boats would lurk about for days, sometimes for a week, watching the people in the life-boats struggle against the waves, watching them die of exposure, and starvation and thirst, watching them signal frantically, waving rags tied on to oars, shouting and praying for help. One by one the castaways would perish, and when the last of them was gone, the U-boat would steal away. "Dead bait's no good," explained the seaman.

III

This mariner, Toms by name, came from Cornwall; for the transport was British, and so also the convoying warships--Jimmie's fate had been entrusted to "perfidious Albion"! Seven times this Toms had been torpedoed and seven times rescued, and he had most amazing tales to tell to landlubbers, and a new light to throw on a subject which our Socialist landlubber had been debating for several years--the torpedoing of passenger-vessels with women and children on board. Somehow Jimmie found it a different proposition when he heard of particular women and children, how they looked and what they said, and what happened when they took to open boats in midwinter, and the boats filled up with water, and the children turned blue and then white, and were rescued with noses and ears and hands and feet frozen off.

Jimmie was a working-man, and understood the language of working-men, their standards and ways of looking at life. And here was a working-man; not a conscious Socialist, to be sure, but a union man, sharing the Socialist distrust of capitalists and rulers. What this weather-bitten toiler of the sea told to Jimmie, Jimmie was prepared to understand and believe; so he learned, what he had refused to learn from prostitute newspapers, that there was a code of sea-manners and sea-morals, a law of marine decency, which for centuries had been unbroken save by pirates and savages. The men who went down to the sea in ships were a class of their own, with instincts born of the peculiar cruelties of the element they defied--instincts which broke across all barriers of nations and races, and even across the hatreds of war.

But now these sea-laws had been defied, and the Hun who had defied them had placed himself outside the pale of the human race. In the souls of seamen there had been generated against him a hatred of peculiar and unique ferocity; they hunted him as men hunt vipers and rattlesnakes. The union to which this Toms belonged had pledged itself, not merely for the war, but for years afterwards, that its members would not sail in German ships, nor in any ship in which a German sailed, nor in any ship which sailed to a German port, nor which carried German goods. It had refused to carry Socialist delegates desiring to attend international conferences with German Socialists; it had refused to carry for any purpose labour leaders whom it considered too mercifully disposed towards Germany.

When Jimmie learned this, you can imagine the arguments, continuing far into the night! Quite a crowd gathered about, and they gave it to the little Socialist hot and heavy. The upshot of it was that somebody reported him, and the officer in command of his "motor-unit" read him a stern lecture. He was not here to settle peace-terms, but to do his work and hold his tongue. Jimmie, awed by the fangs and claws of the monster of Militarism, answered, "Yes, sir," and went away and sulked by himself the whole day, wishing that the submarines might get this transport, with everybody on board except two Socialists and one "wobbly".

IV

It was the morning of the day they were due in port. Everybody wore life-preservers, and stood at his station; when suddenly came a yell, and a chorus of shouts from the side of the ship, and Jimmie rushed to the rail, and saw a white wake coming like a swift fish directly at the vessel. "Torpedo!" was the cry, and men stood rooted to the spot. Far back, where the white streak started, you could see a periscope, moving slowly; there was a volley of cracking sounds, and the water all about it leaped high, and the little sea-terriers rushed towards it, firing, and getting ready their deadly depth-bombs. But of all that Jimmie got only a glimpse; there came a roar like the opening of hell in front of him; he was thrown to the deck, half-stunned, and a huge fragment of the rail of the vessel whirled past his head, smashing into a stateroom behind him.

The ship was in an uproar; people rushing here and there, the members of the crew leaping to get away the boats. Jimmie sat up and stared about him, and the first thing he saw was his friend the "wobbly", lying in a pool of blood, with a great gash in his head.

Suddenly somebody began to sing: "Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light--" Jimmie had always hated that song, because jingoes and patrioteers used it as an excuse to bully and humiliate radicals who did not jump to their feet with sufficient alacrity. But now it was wonderful to see the effect of the song; everybody joined and the soldier-boys and working-men and nurses and lady ambulance-drivers, no matter how badly scared, recalled that they were part of an army on the way to war. Some helped the crews to get the boats into the water; others bound up the wounds of the injured, and carried them across the rapidly-slanting decks.

The great ship was going down. It was horrible to realize--this mighty structure, this home for two weeks of several thousand people, this moving hotel with its sleeping-berths, its dining-saloons, its kitchens with lunch ready to be eaten, its mighty engines and its cargo of every kind of necessity and comfort for an army--all was about to plunge to the bottom of the sea! Jimmie Higgins had read about the torpedoing of scores of ocean-liners, but in all that reading he had learned less about the matter than he learned in a few minutes while he clung half-dazed to a stay rope, and watched the life-boats swing out over the sides and disappear.

V

"Women first!" was the cry; but the women would not go until the wounded had been taken, and this occasioned delay. Jimmie helped to get his friend the "wobbly", and passed him on to be lowered with a rope. By that time the deck had got such a slant that it was hard to walk on it; the bow was settling, and the stern rearing up in the air. Never could you have realized the size of an ocean-liner, until you saw it rear itself up like a monstrous mountain, preparatory to plunging beneath the waves! "Jump for it!" shouted voices. "They'll pick you up from the other vessels. Jump and swim."

So Jimmie rushed to the rail. He saw a life-boat below, trying to push away, and being beaten against the vessel by the heavy waves. He heard a horrible scream, and saw a man slip between the boat and the side of the liner. People on every side of him were jumping--so many that he could not find a clear spot in the water. But at last he saw one, and climbed upon the rail and took the plunge.

He struck the icy water and sank, and a wave rolled over him. He came up quickly, owing to his life-preserver, and gasped for breath, and was choked by another rushing wave and then pounded on the head by an oar in the hands of a struggling sailor. He managed to get out of the way, and struck out to get clear of the vessel. He knew how to do this, thanks to many "swimmin'-holes"--including the one he had visited with the Candidate. But he had never before swam in such deadly cold as this; it was colder than he had dreamed when he had talked about it with Comrade Meissner! Its icy hand seemed to smite him, to smite the life out of him; he struggled desperately, as one struggles against suffocation.

The waves beat him here and there; and then suddenly he was seized as if by the falls of Niagara, drawn along and drawn under--down, down. He thought it was the end, and when again he bobbed up to the surface, his breath was all but gone. The great bulk of the vessel was no longer in sight, and Jimmie was struggling in a whirlpool, along with upset boats and oars and deck-chairs and miscellaneous wreckage, and scores of people clinging to such objects, or swimming frantically to reach them.

Jimmie was just about ready to roll over and let his face go under, when suddenly there loomed above him on the top of a wave a boat rowed swiftly by sailors. One in the boat flung a rope to him, and he tried to catch it, but missed; the boat plunged towards him, and an arm reached out, and caught him by the collar. It was a strong and comforting arm, and Jimmie abandoned himself to it, and remembered nothing more for a long time.

VI

When Jimmie opened his eyes again he was in a most extraordinary position. At first he could not make it out, he was only aware of endless bruises and blows, as if someone were shaking him about in a gigantic pepper-cruet. As Nature protested desperately against such treatment, Jimmie fought his way back to consciousness, and caught hold of something, in his neighbourhood, which presently turned out to be a brass railing; he struggled to ward off the blows of his tormentors, which turned out to be the aforesaid railing, plus a wall, plus two other men, one on each side of him, the three of them being lashed to the brass railing with ropes. The wall and railing and Jimmie and the other men were behaving in an incredible fashion--swinging down, as if they were plunging into a bottomless abyss, then swinging up, as if they were going to part altogether from this mundane sphere; the total enormous swing, from bottom to top, being mathematically calculated to occupy a period of five and one-half seconds of time.

Jimmie discovered before long that there were a whole row of men, lashed fast and subjected to this perplexing form of torture. They made you think of a row of carcasses in a butcher-shop--only, who could picture a butcher-shop whose floor careened to an angle of forty-five degrees in one direction, and then, in a space of precisely five and a half seconds, careened to an angle of forty-five degrees in the opposite direction?

And they kept bringing more carcasses and hanging them in this insane butcher-shop! Two sailors in uniforms would come staggering, carrying a man between them, clinging to the railing, to Jimmie, to the other men, to anything else they could grab. They would make a desperate rush while the swing was right, and get to a new place on the railing, where they would tie the new man with a bit of rope about his waist, and leave him there to be mauled and pounded. One side of the room was lined solid with carcasses, and then the other side, and still they came. This was apparently a dining-saloon, there being a table down the middle, and two rows of chairs; they lashed people into these chairs, they brought others and lashed them to the bottom of the chairs--any old place at all! There were some who thought they could hold on for themselves; but after the sailors were gone they discovered that it took more skill to hold on than they realized, and they would come hurtling across the floor, winding up with a crash on top of someone else.

It was not the first time in Jimmie's life that he had had to scramble for himself in some uncomfortable situation; he got his wits together quickly. He was shivering as if with ague, and he managed to get out of his wet coat. There being a couple of ladies strapped into chairs in front of him, he did not like to go further; but presently came sailors with armfuls of blankets, and made him perform the complicated feat of getting out of his dripping icy uniform and getting the blanket wrapped around his middle, so that the rope would not saw him into halves. Then came a steward with a pot of hot coffee; being marvellously expert at holding this at all angles of the ship, he poured it into cups with little funnels for drinking, and thus got some down Jimmie's throat.

The little machinist felt better after that, and was able to devote attention to the man on his right, who had hit his nose so many times that it was bleeding in a stream, and had been tilted at so many angles that the blood had run into his eyes and made him blind. The man on the other side of him apparently could make no effort at all to keep his face from being pounded, or his feet from being thrown into the pit of Jimmie's stomach; after Jimmie made a number of protests, an officer came along, and put his ear to the man's chest and pronounced him dead. They brought another rope, and lashed him tighter, so that he would behave himself.

For several hours Jimmie clung to that railing. The destroyer would soon be in port, they kept telling him; meantime they brought him hot soup to keep up his strength. Some people fainted, but there was nothing that could be done for them. The first boat-loads of the rescued had filled up the berths of both officers and crew; the rest must hang on to the railings as best they could. They should be thankful it was decent weather, said one of the sailors; the vessel didn't roll any faster in bad weather, but it rolled much farther in the same time--a distinction which struck Jimmie as over-subtle.

The poor fellow's arms were numb with exhaustion, he had lost hope that anything in the world ever could be still, when the announcement was made that the harbour was in sight, and everybody's troubles would soon be over. And sure enough, the rolling gradually became less. The little vessel still quivered from stem to stern with the movement of her enormous engines, but Jimmie didn't mind that--he was used to machinery; he got himself untied from the railing, and lay down on the floor, right there where he was, and fell asleep. Nor did he open his eyes when they came with a stretcher, and carried him on to a pier and slid him into a motor-truck and whisked him off to a hospital.

Upton Sinclair

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