The Stiller of the Storm
“BE OF GOOD CHEER; IT IS I; BE NOT AFRAID”
“It’s Christmas eve at home,” murmured the young lad after he had said his prayers and tumbled into his narrow berth on the great ship. “I suppose they’re trimming the Christmas tree now and hanging up the stockings. I wish I were there.”
He was very young to serve his country, but not too young according to the standards of mankind to be a midshipman on the great steel monster keeping the leaden deep. It was the first time he had ever been away from home on Christmas day, too. The youngsters had all laughed and joked about it in the steerage mess. They had promised themselves some kind of a celebration in the morning, but in his own cot with no one to see, a few tears which he fondly deemed unmanly would come. He had the midnight watch and he knew that he must get some sleep, but it was a long time before he closed his eyes and drifted off to dream of home and his mother.
Athwart that dream came a sudden, frightful, heart-stilling roar of destruction; a hideous crash followed, a terrible rending, breaking, smashing, concatenation of noises, succeeded by frightful detonations, as through the gaping hole torn in the great battleship by the deadly torpedo, the water rushed upon the heated boilers, the explosion of which in turn ignited the magazines. By that deadly underwater thrust of the enemy the battleship was reduced in a few moments to a disjointed, disorganized, sinking mass of shapeless, formless, splintered steel.
As the explosions ceased, from every point rose shrieks and groans and cries of men in the death-agony hurled into eternity and torn like the steel. And then the boy heard the surviving officers coolly, resolutely calling the men to their stations.
He had been thrown from his berth by the violence of the explosion. His face was cut and bleeding where he had struck a near-by stanchion. His left arm hung useless. He had lain dazed on the deck for a few moments until he heard the orders of his lieutenant. He was one of the signal midshipmen stationed on the signal bridge. Whatever happened that was the place to which to go; he still had a duty to perform.
Picking himself up as best he could, he hurried to report to the lieutenant. With such means as were available signals were made. Calls for help? Oh, never! Warnings that the enemy’s submarines were in the near vicinity and that other ships should keep away.
The captain was on the half wrecked bridge above. The boy noticed how quiet he was, yet his voice rang over the tumult.
“Steady, men, steady. Keep your stations. Stand by. Be ready.”
The old quartermaster whose business it was to tell the hours saluted the captain.
“Eight bells, sir,” he said, “midnight. Christmas day,” he added.
“Strike them,” said the captain.
And, as clear as ever, the four couplets rang out over the chaos and the disaster.
“Christmas day,” the boy murmured.
“She’s going, men,” said the captain, as the cadences died away. “Save yourselves. Abandon the ship.”
“Christmas morning,” said the boy. “I wonder what they’re doing at home.”
“Overboard with you, youngster,” said the signal lieutenant; “I wish I had a life-preserver for you, but—”
“Merry Christmas, sir,” said the lad suddenly.
“Good God!” said the man. “Merry Christmas! They will think of us at home.”
What was left of the ship gave a mighty reel.
“Quick or she’ll suck you down,” the officer roared, as he fairly flung the boy into the water,—and how he hurt that broken arm! “You can swim. Strike out. Good-by.”
The boy had caught a glimpse of the captain standing on the bridge as the wreck went down and then the wild waters closed over his head. It was frightfully cold. A hard gale was blowing. The waves ran terribly high. His left arm was helpless. His head ached fiercely. What was the use? Still the boy struck out bravely with his free hand. The instinct of life! It was too dark to see. The sky was covered with drifting clouds. Only here and there a little rift of moonlight came through.
“Christmas morning,” he sobbed out as the waves rolled him over. “Oh, my God!”
He felt himself going down. All at once the waters seemed to grow still. It was suddenly calm. He was no longer cold. He threw his head up for one last look at the sky and life and then he hung, as it were, suspended in some strange way. He saw a figure walking across the smooth of the seas as it had been solid ground. The figure drew nearer, the wind seemed to have died away, but the draperies that shrouded it swung gently as they would while a man walked along. The face he saw dimly, vaguely, but there was light in it somehow. It came slowly nearer.
“Christmas morning,” whispered the boy.
The hand of the figure reached down. It caught the boy’s right arm. He was lifted up.
“Home and Christmas morning,” whispered the boy, closing his eyes.
The moonlight broke through a cloud and fell upon him. A wave rolled over him and the sea was empty as before.[/sociallocker]