Fiction

SURVIVAL

JOSEPH,ADELINE MARX April 15 1948
Fiction

SURVIVAL

JOSEPH,ADELINE MARX April 15 1948

SURVIVAL

JOSEPH

ADELINE MARX

THOSE cigarettes ought to be dry by now,” Mrs. Davis said. She had been saying it for a long time, with a childlike insistence, and every time she said it Mr. Davis had said, “Not yet, Isabel.” But this time he leaned forward and touched the cigarettes where they lay drying on the thwart, picked one up and put it between his lips. And then looked up, facing them all, with a look that, was half embarrassed and half disappointed.

“Matches too, you know,” he said. “We need matches.”

George’s hand went, automatically, to his pocket.

“Honestly, Howard!” Mrs. Davis said, her voice shrill with anger and disappointment. “You might have thought of that sooner!”

George’s hand in his pocket stayed very still. He sat in the stern, looking at them all, looking at these four people he had managed to drag into the lifeboat with him. Mr. Davis, steadiest one of all, looked as disappointed as a child over the small matter of the cigarettes. Mrs. Davis, a flighty woman, vented her disappointment. Mrs. Branson, the middle-aged widow, looked sensible and good-natured about it.

And McGovern, with his baby-blue eyes staring expressionlessly out of his round, fat face, was the last one he had saved. McGovern, whose job it was to arrest him.

McGovern was reaching for his pocket. “I’ve a lighter,” he said slowly, “but it’s out of juice.” George saw with relief none of them had noticed when he had reached for his pocket. For he had a match, a dry match, tucked safely away inside his rubber-lined tobacco pouch, a pipe smoker’s reserve. He intended to keep it. He knew, better than any of the others, they might need that match later. He knew, better than any of them, what they were in for.

McGovern opened his lighter and spun the little wheel. His big hands were clumsy and ineffective in their anxiety; he wasted two precious sparks before George leaned forward and took the lighter from him. He spun it carefully and one spark came and then another and then the wick caught. It lit three cigarettes before it died for good.

The cigarettes had been soaked with salt water and dried. They tasted terrible, but for the moment they were food and drink and rest. Nerves relaxed, anxiety lessened. Even Mrs. Branson, who seldom smoked, took a good many puffs on hers before she turned it over, smilingly, to Mrs. Davis, who took it hungrily.

“Do you think,” Davis asked, “that the radio operator had a chance to send any message?” He had asked that before, but it was somehow reassuring to ask it again.

“Might have,” George said. “Most probably.” He didn’t think so, for the ship had gone down so fast. It wasn’t a large ship, nor an impressive one. Just a small converted troop transport and the first explosion had been a bad one. Then the boilers exploding had finished her off.

Even if there had been time to lower the boats it

wouldn’t have helped much, because most of the boats had been blown to pieces. This one had simply been blown into the sea. He had managed to get to it and get into it and, before it was too late, to reach the Davises and Mrs. Branson and, just before he went under, the man named McGovern.

GEORGE looked up, as he thought of him, and found that McGovern was watching him—just sitting there watching him, the pale-blue eyes staring. George looked steadily into them; after a minute they shifted. “I was just wondering,” McGovern said.

“Yes?”

“Wondering if you knew it was me you were pulling out of the water.”

The blue eyes swung back, stared again. George met them. “Yes,” he said shortly, “I did.”

He knew that the others were staring at them; Davis looking uneasy, Mrs. Davis looking curious. “What’s the matter?” Davis said, trying to sound jovial. “Don’t you two like each other?”

McGovern leaned back. He was again the affable, easy-going fat man. He said, “Sure we do. George and I like everybody, don’t we, George?” George nodded and glanced down at the watch on his wrist. It was a very good watch, waterproof, and very expensive. His wife had given it to him during the war. This was its second dunking. He was glad that he had it; somehow it added to his authority, just as his uniform and his cap did. The landlubber watches that the others wore had all stopped at eleven last night.

“Your watch now, McGovern,” he stud shortly. “I’m going to try to sleep a little. Wake me if anything happens.”

He wondered if that was childish of him, bossing McGovern around. While he still could, before they got to shore, before the moment when McGovern tapped him on the shoulder and said, “All right, now, George Wilson. Come along.”

George Wilson. He had worked so hard pretending to be George Walker that his real name meant

very little to him, but now that McGovern was in the boat with him it had suddenly become very important again.

He tried, as best he could, to sit on the tloor and pillow his head on his arm so that sleep wasn’t too impossible. He could see, through his nearly closed eyes, that McGovern was still sitting up straight, staring at the horizon as though it were something he had to focus on.

It would be funny, he t hought , if the others in the boat knew about him and McGovern. Maybe it would be better, easier for him. He could imagine himself saying it “You see, my name is really George Wilson. And McGovern’s a detective and he’s looking for me. Because I jumped ship once, during the war, and because I’ve been sailing ever since undera false name, with the wrong papers.”

HE HAD to stop thinking about McGovern. It didn’t do any good just to sit there and think about it. The others had managed to go to sleep, exhausted from t he night, and he turned his head to look at them. Mrs. Davis’ wide mouth was a little crooked now as she slept. This would be a surprise for Mrs. Davis all right—hunger and hardship for the first time in her life. Mr. Davis was different; lie was all right. Money or not, he was a decent guy, and he looked to be in good shape, able to stand a litt le beating.

Mrs. Branson slept beside Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Branson would probably be no trouble to him at all. In her fifties, fat and quiet, her son missing since the war, and her husband recently dead. George knew her type -dull as dishwater, but with a surprising kind of firmness. She’d come through all right.

“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Davis said, sitting up suddenly. Her face had rearranged itself a little and she was fumbling at her hair with futile, shaky hands.

“Don’t talk about it,” George said. “You’ll mako it worse. For all of us.”

She looked at him fretfully.

“You don’t like me, Mr. Mate, do you?” she asked, her wide lips in a pout. “What’s your name, Mr. Mate?”

“Walker.” He had told her t hat the first day on the boat and about once a day since then.

“Just Walker?”

“George Walker,” he said.

“Why don’t you like me, George Walker?” sho said.

“I can’t say, I’m sure,” he said shortly.

“Then you don't like me, do you?” she said. Her voice was soft. With her lips and eyes so round she gave the impression of baby talk, although no word was actually slurred. “Oh, I’m so sorry, George.” In back of the baby talk there was sarcasm.

“Sure he likes you. George and I like everybody.” It was McGovern, sitting there looking at them. He hadn’t moved a muscle and his pale, unblinking blue eyes were fixed on George humorlessly. George looked back at him and said nothing. Davis awoke, stretched Continued on page 36

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Survival

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himself, and sat up very suddenly as he remembered where he was. Mrs. Branson was the last to wake. “Where are we?” she asked slowly. “What happened?” Just as she had asked before.

“Somewhere in the Atlantic,” George said. “The ship blew up last night. Remember?”

She remembered.

MR. DAVIS, wide - awake now, stared all around them. He turned back to the boat, facing the others.

“Tell me,” he said, “can you navigate?”

“With instruments,” George said. “Oh.”

“It would be nice to know where we are,” George said slowly. He didn’t say what they knew already—that they were a thousand miles from anywhere and no way to get there. “It would be nice to know which direction the nearest land is in,” he said, “but it wouldn’t do us any good. We couldn’t possibly make it and the rowing would only make us thirstier. Besides, if he did get a message off, we’re better off here, near where she went down.”

“How do you suppose it happened?” McGovern said.

George shrugged. “A floating mine, perhaps. There are still a few they haven’t located. Or something wrong in the boiler room, so that one boiler went haywire and then the rest followed. She wasn’t much of a ship, you know.”

Mr. Davis looked at Mrs. Davis. “But you had to be back in time for the wedding,” he said, “and so we couldn’t wait for a better one.”

“We’re always having to hurry around because of your business,” she said furiously, “just for once, why shouldn’t we hurry somewhere for something I want to do?”

“I thought,” McGovern said, ignoring them, “that lifeboats had to have emergency provisions.”

“They do,” George said shortly. “This one should have. Only people get careless and things go wrong. Even inspectors make mistakes sometimes. There should be provisions and there aren’t. But we’re lucky to have the boat, just the way she is.”

“George is mad,” said Mrs. Davis. “Please, Isabel,” said Mr. Davis.

IT RAINED a little that night. The rain was cool, it made them shiver, but they took off most of their clothes and let it beat against their bodies. Their clothes soaked up the water and they squeezed it into their mouths, angry and excited if their haste cost them a single wasted drop. It tasted of cloth and sweat, but it cooled their throats and gave them hope.

The next day the sun was searing, the sea was oily, and they were all seasick. The two women and McGovern were sunburned almost past recognition. George and Mr. Davis were better off, being tanned already. There was nothing to think or talk about but water and they couldn’t talk about that. Hunger was less important. First they were hungry, then terribly hungry, and then just hungry again. But the main thing was water.

George knew enough to forbid them to talk of it, but he could not stop himself from thinking about it. His mind kept picturing all the fresh water he had ever seen. Not water in carafes, or in drinking glasses, but running water, brooks and streams and rivers.

IHe had a picture in his mind of a fast-running, shady stream, slipping

over clean, smooth bricks and into a little pool. He would lie on his stomach and look down into it; he would dip his face in it and open his eyes under the water and see the smooth, speckled rocks, until his hair was wet and he could not longer hear the stream running, since it was running in his ears. Then his eyes would snap open; he would look at the others with a guilty start, wondering if they knew what he had been thinking. And in their eyes, too, he would see the reflection of water.

“We’d better talk,” he said. “Doesn’t do just to lie here and think.”

“Right,” said Davis. “We’ll go balmy.” And then he wished he hadn’t said it. “You begin, George,” he said quickly. “Tell us about yourself. What made you go to sea, where your people are, what it was like at home.”

George started talking, unwillingly at first, for he had trouble with his voice. It hurt his throat as the words came through. Then, as he talked, he found he did not want to stop. It was a relief, a luxury, a pleasure, the first he’d found for two days, to tell them about himself.

He told them of his childhood in Maine, of the ocean just over the horizon, of his longing for it and his love for it. He told them of the dreams he’d had of owning his own boat and sailing it where he wanted. He told them about being poor, of delivering milk in the morning and working at night in a grocery, of spending vacations working on ships and of his struggles to keep on studying and get his papers.

He told them of Janet, his wife, and how they met and how they got married. Of the things he would buy for her on his trips and how glad he’d be to get back and see her. He told them of how he’d worked and saved his money. He even told them just how much he had saved. It seemed terribly important to tell them everything.

He told them some more of his own story, too, though he pretended he was telling about a friend of his. George Wilson, he called him, feeling strange as he pronounced his own name for the first time in years. He told how his friend George Wilson and he had grown up together and gone to sea together and been torpedoed together. He told how his friend had jumped ship during the war, just before it ended, because he thought his wife was dying. And of the troubles he had had afterward, not daring to look for another berth, because it is not a good idea to jump ship in wartime.

And then he told them, looking right at McGovern, how his friend George Wilson had died three years before. He did not tell them the rest of it—how he, who was really Wilson, had slipped his friend’s papers in his pocket right after he died and had been George Walker ever since. He did not bother to tell that; McGovern knew it already. Of course he did. Why else was he following him?

MRS. BRANSON talked next. She told of her husband, who had been an industrial engineer, and of his death, three months before. She spoke proudly of her son and told what squadron he had been with and where he had been stationed during the war and of how proud she had been when he had won his wings. It was not until the end that she mentioned, casually, that he was listed as missing. It made George hurt to see her trying to be so casual about it. He was glad when she finished talking and McGovern started.

He was a detective, McGovern said. A Government man—he always had been. He told them little about his

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life, except that he lived in a furnished

room and had no relative except a sister, but he talked for some time about cases he had worked on, criminals he had found, criminals he never would find.

“Are you looking for someone now?” Mrs. Davis asked.

He said, slowly, “Yes. You see, I was transferred to narcotics a couple of years ago. Keeps us busy these days. During the war, you see, there was lots of opportunity to smuggle a little dope. And lots of the boys did it. Things didn’t matter so much during the war, you know—not when they all knew they had a good chance of being blown to bits before they ever got home.”

George sat very still, his eyes focused on nothing, feeling the prickles run up his spine and the back of his neck. The papers in his pocket—the precious papers that had made it possible for him to go back to sea, that had seemed to save his life—had suddenly turned into something that might take him away from the sea forever. So George Walker had been smuggling dope. And now he was George Walker.

He found that Mr. Davis had been talking, but he had not heard. He had reached the point where he had gone to work in his father’s bank before George’s ears began to hear. He went on to tell about his travels and how when the war came he had gone to Washington to offer his services and had been put in some kind of intelligence work. “That’s where I met Isabel,” he said briefly.

And then he began to talk about his boat, the Argosy, which he had given to the Government during the war and which had been lost. He told them in detail about her engines and the gold leaf on the figurehead. He could not stop now that he had started. He wanted them to see the Argosy as he saw her, to make her real to them, and to him. He wanted to make it seem as though he would get her back and sail her once again.

Mrs. Davis’ story, when shestarted it, was almost incoherent, and embarrassed them all. Her mind jumped fitfully. She mentioned places she had seen and men she had known and compliments they had paid her. She would tell a long story in great detail and then laugh terribly hard. After a while she stopped laughing and just began to cry and later she stopped that and sat there dully, her hand trailing in the water.

IT DIDN’T rain that night, but the darkness helped. Helped until morning, when they were all chilled and shivered so hard that the boat shook under them. George would make up his mind to stop and grip the gunwales with both hands, his feet pressed hard against the floor, and then in a minute he would be shivering again. The effort to stop was cruel and left him exhausted, but he knew he had to stop. When he went the others would KR-

Mrs. Branson suffered most from the cold. She had been in bed when the explosion came and she was dressed only in her nightgown. George gave her his coat and she wrapped it around her knees; her hair was long and heavy and she would let it down at night and pull it all around her shoulders.

“I used to be so proud,” she said once, “because I could sit on my hair. My friends always wanted me to cut it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.” When morning came she would braid it up again and twist it around her head so that it would stay up and protect her head from the sun.

Just before the sun set George felt that he had awakened, although he had

not been sleeping. But his mind cleared; his eyes could see again, he looked at his companions and knew who they were and what lay ahead of them. His body was removed from him; as long as he sat perfectly still he could not feel the pain of it; it had no connection with his clear, light head.

He knew now that he would never see Janet again and he was sorry, for Janet would grieve. He pictured her face, with her yellow hair and her freckles and her small red mouth. He could see her sitting there on the seat beside Mrs. Branson. Next to her Janet was as fresh and pretty as a stream of clear water and the best part of it was that Janet would always be that way. She would never get fat, she would never have grey hair, she would never lose her teeth. If it meant keeping Janet like that, he didn’t mind at all not seeing her again.

And he wouldn’t have seen her again anyway, he thought, suddenly triumphant, for McGovern wouldn’t have let him. Not for years, maybe. Many years in jail and then what would there be left of him—and of Janet? But McGovern wouldn’t get him; he had fooled McGovern. By not being saved he had fooled McGovern. He had fooled everyone. He chuckled to think of it.

It was hard on the others. He looked at them again and shook his head. It was not hard on the others. Take Mrs. Branson now, she was the best example. What did she want to go back for? Back to a life where the only thing she had left was an almost impossible hope. No, Mrs. Branson should be the first to admit that there wasn’t much reason for going back—and if she didn’t agree, you could mention her husband, or ask her where her son could possibly have been all these years since he’d been reported missing.

And Mrs. Davis—she was too old already, she’d lived past her prettiest years and she’d never get them back. Nothing in her life but men and they were getting fewer and cheaper as each year went by. She had caught Davis with the last of her youth and the upset of the war, but she would have a hard time holding him. Davis didn’t love her; anyone could see that.

And McGovern, in his furnished room. He had no interest but his work and he did not really like that. He was a kind man and to be successful in his work he had to be cruel. But he went on working, he went on arresting.

“You gotta live,” McGovern had said, telling about a case he had hated to close. “I don’t like to do it, but you gotta live.”

But you don’t, George thought. All the years I’ve worked so hard just to keep on living. And I just found out you don’t have to.

He slept then, in comfort, his head nodding with the roll of the boat. And he woke up to see a shape, a dull, grey shape on the horizon.

“I’m seeing things,” he said firmly and turned his eyes away. And when he looked back it was bigger. Outlined against the afterglow where the sun had set.

They’ll never see us, George thought idly. Not dark as it is, low in the water as we are. And besides, she wasn’t headed right for them—she was too big, he was seeing her broadside. She was far away. He heard a creak from the bow of the boat and a gasp. Davis had seen her, too.

“Will they see us?” he whispered hoarsely.

“No,” said George. “Never in the world.”

“But my Lord, George! We’ve got to do something.”

“Nothing to do.”

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Davis began to shake; he beat his fists against the gunwale and swore in wild frustration. George watched him, faintly surprised. He felt removed, unconcerned with it all. It occurred to him to tell Davis that he had found out that it didn’t matter whether they got back or not. On second thought, seeing how upset he was, he decided not to. Davis didn’t understand, not yet.

“If we could only make a light,” Davis moaned. “If we’d saved the juice in that lighter, if there was something we could signal with !”

George thought of bis match. He sat there with his hands pressed against the bump the tobacco pouch made in his pocket, thinking of that safe, dry match. He thought of how he had saved it and hoped for a chance to use it. Here was his chance. There was the ship, but the match stayed in his pocket.

He had thought it was the ship he wanted, the chance to get to shore again, the chance to go on living. It wasn’t at all; it was the things they’d have on the ship, the water and the food and the soft beds, the shade and the healing lotions for sunburn. Just the little things, the things they wouldn’t need at all, in the end. Better off without them, now. On the ship they’d have food and great tubs of water, sloshing about and running over, so much that you could spill it, step in it, let it run on the decks, wash clothes in it, take baths, lie in it . . .

Suddenly, removed from himself, quite apart from his cool, clear mind that had no use for the things they had on the ship, George’s body woke up and started hurrying. His body was frantic, it could not wait. His trembling hands tore at his pocket, dug into the pouch, laid the match carefully on the seat beside him. Then the hands tore at his shirt, his undershirt, stripped them off and laid them next to the match. His mind watched—amused, considering, detached. The undershirt is rayon, his mind reflected—it’ll burn like a house afire. And then the shirt, that’s cotton, it ought to burn slower and last longer —and suddenly his mind woke up. His mind was working with his body, steadying his hands, guiding the match, cautioning him to move slowly and not waste the chance.

He had thought there was no wind. Now that he had a match to strike he knew there is never a time without wind. He dared not strike the match and he couldn’t wait to strike it. He shoved the match across the board, quickly, sharply. It lighted. It broke as it lighted. He snatched it up and felt it burn his hand as he held it. He felt stupidly grateful for this proof that fire was hot; if it burned his hand, surely it would burn his shirt. He held the edge of his undershirt over the flame, taking care not to smother it and saw the little red beads of embers run up the cloth.

The match died out. It seemed pocket-dark now that the flame was gone, but still the red embers glowed in the threads of his shirt. He breathed on it gently. It burst into a little flame, died out again and then burned suddenly, all over at once. He held his cotton shirt over it and watched it catch and smolder. It burnt more slowly, with less of a fire, but so steadily that he dared wave it a little. It burnt completely, all but the end he -Jutched in his hand and the strange Jiing was that the fire was no longer 'rot; it licked around the edge of his uand but did not seem to burn him, so that he felt only a dull, slow pain.

Before the flame was gone he felt Davis’ shirt thrust into his other hand and after that Davis’ undershirt.

Always, as they lighted one garment from the next, there was the same sick moment when it seemed that the flame would die out altoget her.

The women were awake now. Mrs. Davis yelled “Whoops!” laughing like a maniac and tore off her dress and her silk slip. It went up with a roar. McGovern added his big shirt. Mrs. Branson was crying. She sat in the stern wringing her hands and moaning, saying, over and over again, “1 haven’t anything, I’ve nothing to add to it, I’ve nothing to burn.”

McGovern’s shirt was smoldering out when Mrs. Branson leaped up, screaming and moving toward the fire. “My hair! My hair will burn, burn my hair!” “You’re crazy,” Davis said shortly. “It would kill you.”

“Cut it off first! Haven’t you got a penknife, haven’t you anythingthere must be somet hing, I’ve got to do it—” She bent down suddenly and leaned over the side of the boat. One hand clutched at the end of her hair, keeping it up out of the water, the other held the gunwale in a death grip. A wave swept pást. She stuck her whole head in the water and came up choking, her face and the top of her head wet, the ends of her hair dry. “There!” she said and before they could stop her she had thrust the dry part against the dying blaze of McGovern’s shiit, her eyes closed tight, her face screwed up in terror. The hair burned with a puff of foul smoke and no flame at all, sizzling out angrily when it reached the wet part.

“Did it show much?” she cried, opening her eyes. “Did it blaze up?” “Like a torch,” George said gently. “Like a blooming torch.” And he slipped down to the floor of the boat.

(Y EORGE thought the sun had come y up. It was shining in his eyes. He reached a hand up to shield them and the sun went out. In another minute it came on again and then there was another sun. They bot h moved around and then came back, always to rest in George’s eyes. He closed them tight and held his hand over them. He was glad when a shadow came between them and bim and he heard a queer breaking voice saying, “It’s all right, buddy, vfrb’ve got you. It’s all right, feller, we’ve got you. It’s all right—” “Of course it ’s all right,” George said crossly and sat up.

He climbed into the ship’s boat almost by himself, so did Davis. But the women and McGovern had to be lifted. They put McGovern on the seat next to George and he slumped over, his head on George’s shoulder, his baby-blue eyes open. Looking down on him, George had an amused feeling of superiority. “For a big fellow,” he thought, “he doesn’t amount to much.” He put his arm around McGovern’s limp shoulders and gave him a sympathetic dig in the ribs. McGovern grunted.

“So you got me,” George said. “You got me after all.”

“No,” said McGovern. Sr mewhere out of the depths of his weakness his voice came grating slowly, hesitantly. “No, George. I’ve been meaning to tell you. Fellow I was looking for—he died three years ago. Case of mistaken identity, you might say. Forget it, George. I’m going to.”

That’s a joke on me, George thought dizzily, it’s a joke on me all right. Suppose I hadn’t lighted that match, suppose I hadn’t signaled and then he’d told me this . . . He was sick all over as he thought how easily that might have happened.

I was wrong anyway, he thought, I was wrong about them all. Why shouldn’t they go on living? Maybe Mr. Davis’ new boat will be just as

good as the old; maybe Mrs. Davis will sel tie down some after this. And Mrs. Branson —how do I know'her son won’t turn up someday? It isn’t likely, but it could happen. And McGovern—why, McGovern’s a nice guy.

Through his numbness he heard Davis’ voice in his ear. “George,” Davis was saying. “George, we’re saved, and you did it for us. I’m a director of one of the steamship lines, George. How would you like to be a captain, before too long?”

“I am the captain,” George said. “I have been all along. Ever since it happened. That’s why we’re here.”

“I mean after this,” Davis said gently. “I mean a first mate on your next trip and maybe captain after that.”

“I’d like that,” George said gravely. “I’d like that very much, sir. I like you, Mr. Davis—I meant to tell you that—I was glad you were with us, Mr. Davis.”

His head dropped forward. His burned hand was beginning to hurt and his faintness was too much for him. Through the grey wool around him he could just hear McGovern’s shaky laugh. “Sure, George and I like everybody, don’t we, George?” ★