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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises


THE MORNING of the third day; Claude and the Virginian and the Marine were up very early, standing in the bow, watching the Anchises mount the fresh-blowing hills of water, her prow, as it rose and fell, always a dull triangle against the glitter. Their escorts looked like dream ships, soft and iridescent as shell in the pearl-coloured tints of the morning. Only the dark smudges of smoke told that they were mechanical realities with stokers and engines.

While the three stood there, a sergeant brought Claude word that two of his men would have to report at sick-call. Corporal Tannhauser had had such an attack of nose-bleed during the night that the sergeant thought he might die before they got it stopped. Tannhauser was up now, and in the breakfast line, but the sergeant was sure he ought not to be. This Fritz Tannhauser was the tallest man in the company, a German-American boy who, when asked his name, usually said that his name was Dennis and that he was of Irish descent. Even this morning he tried to joke, and pointing to his big red face told Claude he thought he had measles. “Only they ain’t German measles, Lieutenant,” he insisted.

Medical inspection took a long while that morning. There seemed to be an outbreak of sickness on board. When Claude brought his two men up to the Doctor, he told them to go below and get into bed. As they left he turned to Claude.

“Give them hot tea, and pile army blankets on them. Make them sweat if you can.”

Claude remarked that the hold wasn’t a very cheerful place for sick men.

“I know that, Lieutenant, but there are a number of sick men this morning, and the only other physician on board is the sickest of the lot. There’s the ship’s doctor, of course, but he’s only responsible for the crew, and so far he doesn’t seem interested. I’ve got to overhaul the hospital and the medical stores this morning.”

“Is there an epidemic of some sort?”

“Well, I hope not. But I’ll have plenty to do today, so I count on you to look after those two.” The doctor was a New Englander who had joined them at Hoboken. He was a brisk, trim man, with piercing eyes, clean-cut features, and grey hair just the colour of his pale face. Claude felt at once that he knew his business, and he went below to carry out instructions as well as he could.

When he came up from the hold, he saw the aviator—whose name, he had learned, was Victor Morse—smoking by the rail. This cabin-mate still piqued his curiosity.

“First time you’ve been up, isn’t it?”

The aviator was looking at the distant smoke plumes over the quivering, bright water. “Time enough. I wish I knew where we are heading for. It will be awfully awkward for me if we make a French port.”

“I thought you said you were to report in France.”

“I am. But I want to report in London first.” He continued to gaze off at the painted ships. Claude noticed that in standing he held his chin very high. His eyes, now that he was quite sober, were brilliantly young and daring; they seemed scornful of things about him. He held himself conspicuously apart, as if he were not among his own kind. Claude had seen a captured crane, tied by its leg to a hencoop, behave exactly like that among Mahailey’s chickens; hold its wings to its sides, and move its head about quickly and glare.

“I suppose you have friends in London?” he asked.

“Rather!” the aviator replied with feeling.

“Do you like it better than Paris?”

“I shouldn’t imagine anything was much better than London. I’ve not been in Paris; always went home when I was on leave. They work us pretty hard. In the infantry and artillery our men get only a fortnight off in twelve months. I understand the Americans have leased the Riviera,—recuperate at Nice and Monte Carlo. The only Cook’s tour we had was Gallipoli,” he added grimly.

Victor had gone a good way toward acquiring an English accent, the boys thought. At least he said ‘necess’ry’ and ‘dysent’ry’ and called his suspenders ‘braces’. He offered Claude a cigarette, remarking that his cigars were in his lost trunk.

“Take one of mine. My brother sent me two boxes just before we sailed. I’ll put a box in your bunk next time I go down. They’re good ones.”

The young man turned and looked him over with surprise. “I say, that’s very decent of you! Yes, thank you, I will.”

Claude had tried yesterday, when he lent Victor some shirts, to make him talk about his aerial adventures, but upon that subject he was as close as a clam. He admitted that the long red scar on his upper arm had been drilled by a sharpshooter from a German Fokker, but added hurriedly that it was of no consequence, as he had made a good landing. Now, on the strength of the cigars, Claude thought he would probe a little further. He asked whether there was anything in the lost trunk that couldn’t be replaced, anything “valuable.”

“There’s one thing that’s positively invaluable; a Zeiss lens, in perfect condition. I’ve got several good photographic outfits from time to time, but the lenses are always cracked by heat,—the things usually come down on fire. This one I got out of a plane I brought down up at Bar-le-Duc, and there’s not a scratch on it; simply a miracle.”

“You get all the loot when you bring down a machine, do you?” Claude asked encouragingly.

“Of course. I’ve a good collection; alimeters and compasses and glasses. This lens I always carry with me, because I’m afraid to leave it anywhere.”

“I suppose it makes a fellow feel pretty fine to bring down one of those German planes.”

“Sometimes. I brought down one too many, though; it was very unpleasant.” Victor paused, frowning. But Claude’s open, credulous face was too much for his reserve. “I brought down a woman once. She was a plucky devil, flew a scouting machine and had bothered us a bit, going over our lines. Naturally, we didn’t know it was a woman until she came down. She was crushed underneath things. She lived a few hours and dictated a letter to her people. I went out and dropped it inside their lines. It was nasty business. I was quite knocked out. I got a fortnight’s leave in London, though. Wheeler,” he broke out suddenly, “I wish I knew we were going there now!”

“I’d like it well enough if we were.”

Victor shrugged. “I should hope so!” He turned his chin in Claude’s direction. “See here, if you like, I’ll show you London! It’s a promise. Americans never see it, you know. They sit in a Y hut and write to their Pollyannas, or they go round hunting for the Tower. I’ll show you a city that’s alive; that is, unless you’ve a preference for museums.”

His listener laughed. “No, I want to see life, as they say.”

“Umph! I’d like to set you down in some places I can think of. Very well, I invite you to dine with me at the Savoy, the first night we’re in London. The curtain will rise on this world for you. Nobody admitted who isn’t in evening dress. The jewels will dazzle you. Actresses, duchesses, all the handsomest women in Europe.”

“But I thought London was dark and gloomy since the war.”

Victor smiled and teased his small straw-coloured moustache with his thumb and middle finger. “There are a few bright spots left, thank you!” He began to explain to a novice what life at the front was really like. Nobody who had seen service talked about the war, or thought about it; it was merely a condition under which they lived. Men talked about the particular regiment they were jealous of, or the favoured division that was put in for all the show fighting. Everybody thought about his own game, his personal life that he managed to keep going in spite of discipline; his next leave, how to get champagne without paying for it, dodging the guard, getting into scrapes with women and getting out again. “Are you quick with your French?” he asked.

Claude grinned. “Not especially.”

“You’d better brush up on it if you want to do anything with French girls. I hear your M. P.’s are very strict. You must be able to toss the word the minute you see a skirt, and make your date before the guard gets onto you.”

“I suppose French girls haven’t any scruples?” Claude remarked carelessly.

Victor shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I haven’t found that girls have many, anywhere. When we Canadians were training in England, we all had our week-end wives. I believe the girls in Crystal Lake used to be more or less fussy,—but that’s long ago and far away. You won’t have any difficulty.”

When Victor was in the middle of a tale of amorous adventure, a little different from any Claude had ever heard, Tod Fanning joined them. The aviator did not acknowledge the presence of a new listener, but when he had finished his story, walked away with his special swagger, his eyes fixed upon the distance.

Fanning looked after him with disgust. “Do you believe him? I don’t think he’s any such heart-smasher. I like his nerve, calling you ‘Leftenant’! When he speaks to me he’ll have to say Lootenant, or I’ll spoil his beauty.”

That day the men remembered long afterward, for it was the end of the fine weather, and of those first long, carefree days at sea. In the afternoon Claude and the young Marine, the Virginian and Fanning, sat together in the sun watching the water scoop itself out in hollows and pile itself up in blue, rolling hills. Usher was telling his companions a long story about the landing of the Marines at Vera Cruz.

“It’s a great old town,” he concluded. “One thing there I’ll never forget. Some of the natives took a few of us out to the old prison that stands on a rock in the sea. We put in the whole day there, and it wasn’t any tourist show, believe me! We went down into dungeons underneath the water. where they used to keep State prisoners, kept them buried alive for years. We saw all the old instruments of torture; rusty iron cages where a man couldn’t lie down or stand up, but had to sit bent over till he grew crooked. It made you feel queer when you came up, to think how people had been left to rot away down there, when there was so much sun and water outside. Seems like something used to be the matter with the world.” He said no more, but Claude thought from his serious look that he believed he and his countrymen who were pouring over-seas would help to change all that; the old dungeons and cages would be broken open for ever. The image of a black prison, lying out in a blue Gulf, lingered in his mind, and he felt as if he had been there.