In that hour after dawn the horizon did not seem far away. The line where the watery sky met the gray sea was not well defined; it was as if the cheerless clouds grew denser out towards that circle until at the final meeting, all the way round, there was not an abrupt transition, but a simple mingling of twin elements. So the area confined under that low sky was not a large one. Beyond the circle, in every direction, the sea extended for a thousand miles, and beneath it the water was two miles deep; neither figure was easily to be grasped by the imagination, although acceptable as an academic fact. Two long miles below lay the sea bottom, darker than the center of the longest and darkest tunnel ever built by man, under pressures greater than any ever built up in factory or laboratory, a world unknown and unexplored, to be visited not by men but perhaps by their dead bodies encased in and made part of the iron coffins of their crushed-in ships. And the big ships, to insignificant man so huge and so solid, sank to that sea bottom, to the immemorial ooze in the darkness and cold, with no more ado or stir than would be caused comparatively by specks of dust falling on a ballroom floor.
On the surface the limited area enclosed by the near horizon bore many ships. The long gray rollers from the northeast swept in endless succession across the area, each demonstrating its unlimited power. To each one as it arrived the ships made obeisance, rolling far over, and then heaving up their bows, mounting towards the sky, next rolling far over the other way, bows down, sterns up, slithering down the long slope before beginning the next roll and the next pitch, the next rise and the next fall; there were many ships in many lines and many columns, and by looking at the ships the course and position of each wave could be traced diagonally across line and column-ships here rising on the crest and there sinking in the trough until the mastheads only were visible, ships here rolling far to port and ships there rolling far to starboard, towards each other and away, as long as patience could endure to watch.
And the ships were diversified like their motions-big ships and small, samson posts and cargo booms, freighters and tankers, new ships and old. Yet they all seemed to be animated by one will, all heading doggedly to the east, their transient washes all parallel; furthermore, if they were watched for any length of time it would be seen that at long irregular intervals they changed their direction a few degrees to port or a few degrees to starboard, rear ships following their leaders. But despite these variations of course it would soon be apparent to the observer that the resultant general direction of travel of this mass of ships was eastward, doggedly and steadily, so that with every hour that passed they had covered a few of the thousand miles that lay between them and their easterly goal, whatever it might be. The same spirit animated each ship.
Nevertheless, continuous observation would also reveal that the animating spirit was not infallible, that these ships were not faultless machines. Hardly one of those alterations of course failed to produce a crisis somewhere among those thirty-seven ships. That might have been expected by the experienced observer even if each ship had been a mere machine not subject to human direction, because every ship was different from her neighbors; each reacted slightly differently at the application of the rudder, each was influenced in a different way by the waves which met her from dead ahead, or on the bow, or on the beam, and each was variously influenced by the wind. With ships hardly half a mile apart in one direction, and hardly a quarter of a mile apart in the other, these small differences of behavior grew into matters of intense importance.
This would have been true even if each ship had been perfect in herself, and that was far from the case. The laboring engines grinding away in each of them were not capable of quite consistent performance, nor was the fuel absolutely uniform, and as time went on tubes might clog and valves might stick, so that the propellers that the engines drove would not continue to turn at a uniform rate. And compasses might not be absolutely true. And with the consumption of fuel and stores and with the consequent change of displacement the thrust of the propellers would bring about a different result even if miraculously they were kept turning at uniform speed.
All these variables might bring about a relative change of position of only a few feet in a minute, but in those close-packed columns of ships a few feet's difference in one minute could bring disaster in twenty.
Above and beyond all these variables was the human variable, the greatest variable of all. Men's hands turned wheels, men's eyes watched the gauges, men's skill kept the compass needles steady on the cards. All kinds of men, of slow reactions and of fast, cautious men and reckless men, men of vast experience and men of almost none; and the differences between the men were of more importance than the differences between the ships; the latter differences might bring about disaster in twenty minutes, but the human variable-a careless order or a misheard order, a wheel turned the wrong way or a calculation brought to a wrong conclusion-could bring disaster in twenty seconds. The alterations in course were directed by the leading ship in the center column; the hauling down of the signal flags which blew stiffly from her halyard indicated the exact moment when the turn had to be begun, one turn of a series planned days before. It was easy enough to make a wrong turn; it was easier still to feel a slight doubt about which turn was due to be made; it was just as easy to doubt the competence of one's neighbors. A cautious man might linger awhile before giving the order, waiting to see what the others were doing, and those moments of delay could bring the bows of a ship in the next column pointing right at the beam, at the center and heart, of the ship that hesitated. A touch could be death.
Compared with the immensity of the sea on which they floated, the ships were tiny, insignificant; it might seem miraculous that they should cross that immensity in the face of the forces of nature and arrive with certitude at their destination. It was the intelligence and ingenuity of man which made that possible, the accumulation of knowledge and experience since the first flint was chipped and the first picture signs were written. Now it was the intelligence and ingenuity of man which were adding to the hazards. There was menace in that lowering sky and in those huge waves, yet despite that menace the ships were continuing their complex and difficult maneuvers, close-packed to within a hairs-breadth of disaster, for should they discontinue those maneuvers, should they spread out to a safe distance, they were facing worse disaster still.
A thousand miles ahead of them men were waiting for those ships to arrive, men and women and children, although they did not know of the existence of those particular ships, not their names, nor the names of the men inside them with three quarters of an inch of iron between them and the cold immensity of the sea. If those ships, if thousands of other ships equally unknown, did not reach their destination, the men and women and children who awaited their arrival would be hungry, cold, diseased. They might be torn to pieces by explosives. They might suffer a fate even worse-a fate they had years earlier decided, coldly, would be worse; they might be subjected to a tyrant of alien thought, their liberties torn from them, and in that case-they knew it by instinct even when they were not capable of logical deduction-not only they, but the whole human race would suffer, and liberty would decline throughout the world.
On board the ships there were men imbued with the same knowledge, even if that knowledge was forgotten in the urgency of keeping station and maintaining course and speed, and even though in the same ship with them were plenty of men who did not have that knowledge, men who were there amid those perils for other reasons or for no reason, men who desired money or drink or women or the security that money can sometimes buy, men with much to forget and half-wits with nothing to forget, men with children to feed and men with problems too difficult to face.
They were engaged upon the task of keeping the propellers turning, or of keeping the ships afloat, or of maintaining them in their stations or of keeping them in working condition, or they were engaged in feeding the men who occupied themselves with these tasks. But while they carried out their duties, whether from motives lofty or base or nonexistent, they were no more than parts of the ships they served-not machined to any measurable tolerance thanks to their human variability-and they, or their ships (not to differentiate between ships and their crews) were things to be fought for, things to be protected by one side or destroyed by the other; things to be escorted across the ocean or things to be sent down into the freezing depths.
Wednesday. Forenoon Watch: 0800-1200
There were nearly two thousand men in the convoy; there were over eight hundred in the four destroyers and escort vessels that guarded it. Expressing uselessly values quite immeasurable, three thousand lives and property worth fifty million dollars were in the charge of Commander George Krause of the United States Navy, age forty-two, height five feet nine, weight one hundred and fifty-five pounds, complexion medium, color of eyes gray; and he was not only escort commander but captain of the destroyer Keeling of the Mahan class of fifteen hundred tons displacement, commissioned in 1938.
These were bald facts; and facts may mean very little. Back in the center of the convoy was the tanker Hendrikson; it was of no importance that in the books of the company that owned her she was valued at a quarter of a million dollars and the oil that she carried at another quarter of a million. That meant literally nothing; but the fact that if she should arrive in England her cargo would provide an hour's steaming for the entire British Navy meant something too important to be measured at all-what money price can be put on an hour's freedom for the world? The thirsty man in the desert pays no heed to his pocketful of bank notes. Yet the fact that Commander Krause tipped the scale at a hundred and fifty-five could be of appreciable importance; it could be a measure of the speed with which he could reach the bridge in an emergency, and, once on the bridge, it might give some faint indication of his ability to withstand the physical strain of remaining there. That was something of far more importance than the book value of the Hendrikson; it was of more importance even to the men who owned her, although they might not believe it, never having heard of Commander George Krause of the United States Navy. And they would not have been in the least interested to hear that he was the son of a Lutheran minister, that he had been devoutly brought up, and that he was a man very familiar with the Bible. Yet these were matters of primary importance, for in war the character and personality of the leader is decisive of events much more than minor questions of material.
He was in his cabin, having come out from under the shower, and he had toweled himself dry. It was the first opportunity he had had in thirty-six hours to take a bath, and he did not expect to have another for a long time. This was the blessed moment after securing from general quarters with the coming of full daylight. He had put on his thick woolen underclothes, his shirt and his trousers, his socks and his shoes. He had just finished combing his hair-a rather perfunctory gesture, for the mouse-colored bristles, recently cropped short, were insusceptible to treatment. He started into the mirror to check that his shave had been all that it should be. His eyes (gray by courtesy; more hazel than gray, and with a stony quality) met those of the reflection in the mirror without recognition or sympathy, as they would meet those of a stranger-for Krause was indeed a stranger to himself, someone to be regarded impersonally if regarded at all. His body was something to be employed upon duty.
This bathing and shaving, this putting on of a clean shirt at this hour of the morning, all this dressing with the day far advanced, was a distortion of the proper order of things caused by the exigencies of war. Krause had already been on his feet for three hours. He had gone to the bridge in the darkness before general quarters had sounded, ready for the crisis that dawn might bring, and he had stood there as the blackness of the night turned slowly into the gray of dawn, with his ship and his men braced for action. With full daylight-if that melancholy grayness merited the term-the ship had secured from general quarters, and Krause could read the accumulated messages brought him by the communications officer, and he could receive brief reports from his heads of department, inspect with his own eyes, by the aid of his binoculars, the fighting ships under his command to starboard and port, and the vast mass of the convoy maneuvering far astern of him. With dawn an hour ago it might be considered that the safest moment of the day had come, and Krause could briefly retire. He could offer up his prayers on his knees.
He could take his breakfast. And then he could bathe and change even though it seemed highly irregular to do so at this time and not at the beginning of a new day.
He turned away from the stranger in the mirror, satisfied that he was properly shaved, and then he stood still, with one hand on the chair back and his eyes cast down to the deck on which he stood.
"Yesterday, and today, and forever," he said to himself, as he always did when he had passed his own inspection. That was a passage from Hebrews XIII; it marked the fact that he was starting out on a fresh stage of his journey through the temporary world, to the grave and to immortality beyond it. He gave the necessary attention to that train of thought; and while his mind was so occupied his body automatically retained its balance, for the ship was rolling and pitching as only a destroyer can roll and pitch-as she had rolled and pitched without ceasing for the past several days. The deck was rising and falling beneath his feet, inclining sharply to port and starboard, forward and aft, sometimes seemingly changing its mind, with a tremor, in mid-movement, interrupting the rhythm of the rattle of the scant furnishings of the cabin under the urging of the vibration of the propellers.