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

Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises


“LOOK at this, Doctor!” Claude caught Dr. Trueman on his way from breakfast and handed him a written notice, signed D. T. Micks, Chief Steward. It stated that no more eggs or oranges could be furnished to patients, as the supply was exhausted.

The doctor squinted at the paper. “I’m afraid that’s your patient’s death warrant. You’ll never be able to keep him going on anything else. Why don’t you go and talk it over with Chessup? He’s a resourceful fellow. I’ll join you there in a few minutes.”

Claude had often been to Dr. Chessup’s cabin since the epidemic broke out,—rather liked to wait there when he went for medicines or advice. It was a comfortable, personal sort of place with cheerful chintz hangings. The walls were lined with books, held in place by sliding wooden slats, padlocked at the ends. There were a great many scientific works in German and English; the rest were French novels in paper covers. This morning he found Chessup weighing out white powders at his desk. In the rack over his bunk was the book with which he had read himself to sleep last night; the title, “Un Crime d’Amour,” lettered in black on yellow, caught Claude’s eye. The doctor put on his coat and pointed his visitor to the jointed chair in which patients were sometimes examined. Claude explained his predicament.

The ship’s doctor was a strange fellow to come from Canada, the land of big men and rough. He looked like a schoolboy, with small hands and feet and a pink complexion. On his left cheekbone was a large brown mole, covered with silky hair, and for some reason that seemed to make his face effeminate. It was easy to see why he had not been successful in private practice. He was like somebody trying to protect a raw surface from heat and cold; so cursed with diffidence, and so sensitive about his boyish appearance that he chose to shut himself up in an oscillating wooden coop on the sea. The long run to Australia had exactly suited him. A rough life and the pounding of bad weather had fewer terrors for him than an office in town, with constant exposure to human personalities.

“Have you tried him on malted milk?” he asked, when Claude had told him how Farming’s nourishment was threatened.

“Dr. Trueman hasn’t a bottle left. How long do you figure we’ll be at sea?”

“Four days; possibly five.”

“Then Lieutenant Wheeler will lose his pal,” said Dr. Trueman, who had just come in.

Chessup stood for a moment frowning and pulling nervously at the brass buttons on his coat. He slid the bolt on his door and turning to his colleague said resolutely: “I can give you some information, if you won’t implicate me. You can do as you like, but keep my name out of it. For several hours last night cases of eggs and boxes of oranges were being carried into the Chief Steward’s cabin by a flunky of his from the galley. Whatever port we make, he can get a shilling each for the fresh eggs, and perhaps sixpence for the oranges. They are your property, of course, furnished by your government; but this is his customary perquisite. I’ve been on this boat six years, and it’s always been so. About a week before we make port, the choicest of the remaining stores are taken to his cabin, and he disposes of them after we dock. I can’t say just how he manages it, but he does. The skipper may know of this custom, and there may be some reason why he permits it. It’s not my business to see anything. The Chief Steward is a powerful man on an English vessel. If he has anything against me, sooner or later he can lose my berth for me. There you have the facts.”

“Have I your permission to go to the Chief Steward?” Dr. Trueman asked.

“Certainly not. But you can go without my knowledge. He’s an ugly man to cross, and he can make it uncomfortable for you and your patients.”

“Well, we’ll say no more about it. I appreciate your telling me, and I will see that you don’t get mixed up in this. Will you go down with me to look at that new meningitis case?”

Claude waited impatiently in his stateroom for the doctor’s return. He didn’t see why the Chief Steward shouldn’t be exposed and dealt with like any other grafter. He had hated the man ever since he heard him berating the old bath steward one morning. Hawkins had made no attempt to defend himself, but stood like a dog that has been terribly beaten, trembling all over, saying “Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” while his chief gave him a cold cursing in a low, snarling voice. Claude had never heard a man or even an animal addressed with such contempt. The Steward had a cruel face,—white as cheese, with limp, moist hair combed back from a high forehead,—the peculiarly oily hair that seems to grow only on the heads of stewards and waiters. His eyes were exactly the shape of almonds, but the lids were so swollen that the dull pupil was visible only through a narrow slit. A long, pale moustache hung like a fringe over his loose lips.

When Dr. Trueman came back from the hospital, he declared he was now ready to call on Mr. Micks. “He’s a nasty looking customer, but he can’t do anything to me.”

They went to the Chief Steward’s cabin and knocked.

“What’s wanted?” called a threatening voice.

The doctor made a grimace to his companion and walked in. The Steward was sitting at a big desk, covered with account books. He turned in his chair. “I beg your pardon,” he said coldly, “I do not see any one here. I will be—”

The doctor held up his hand quickly. “That’s all right, Steward. I’m sorry to intrude, but I’ve something I must say to you in private. I’ll not detain you long.” If he had hesitated for a moment, Claude believed the Steward would have thrown him out, but he went on rapidly. “This is Lieutenant Wheeler, Mr. Micks. His fellow officer lies very ill with pneumonia in stateroom 96. Lieutenant Wheeler has kept him alive by special nursing. He is not able to retain anything in his stomach but eggs and orange juice. If he has these, we may be able to keep up his strength till the fever breaks, and carry him to a hospital in France. If we can’t get them for him, he will be dead within twenty-four hours. That’s the situation.”

The steward rose and turned out the drop-light on his desk. “Have you received notice that there are no more eggs and oranges on board? Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do for you. I did not provision this ship.”

“No. I understand that. I believe the United States Government provided the fruit and eggs and meat. And I positively know that the articles I need for my patient are not exhausted. Without going into the matter further, I warn you that I’m not going to let a United States officer die when the means of saving him are procurable. I’ll go to the skipper, I’ll call a meeting of the army officers on board. I’ll go any length to save this man.”

“That is your own affair, but you will not interfere with me in the discharge of my duties. Will you leave my cabin?”

“In a moment, Steward. I know that last night a number of cases of eggs and oranges were carried into this room. They are here now, and they belong to the A. E. F. If you will agree to provision my man, what I know won’t go any further. But if you refuse, I’ll get this matter investigated. I won’t stop till I do.”

The Steward sat down, and took up a pen. His large, soft hand looked cheesy, like his face. “What is the number of the cabin?” he asked indifferently.


“Exactly what do you require?”

“One dozen eggs and one dozen oranges every twenty-four hours, to be delivered at any time convenient to you.”

“I will see what I can do.”

The Steward did not look up from his writing pad, and his visitors left as abruptly as they had come.

At about four o’clock every morning, before even the bath stewards were on duty, there was a scratching at Claude’s door, and a covered basket was left there by a messenger who was unwashed, half-naked, with a sacking apron tied round his middle and his hairy chest splashed with flour. He never spoke, had only one eye and an inflamed socket. Claude learned that he was a half-witted brother of the Chief Steward, a potato-peeler and dish-washer in the galley.

Four day after their interview with Mr. Micks, when they were at last nearing the end of the voyage, Doctor Trueman detained Claude after medical inspection to tell him that the Chief Steward had come down with the epidemic. “He sent for me last night and asked me to take his case,—won’t have anything to do with Chessup. I had to get Chessup’s permission. He seemed very glad to hand the case over to me.”

“Is he very bad?”

“He hasn’t a look-in, and he knows it. Complications; chronic Bright’s disease. It seems he has nine children. I’ll try to get him into a hospital when we make port, but he’ll only live a few days at most. I wonder who’ll get the shillings for all the eggs and oranges he hoarded away. Claude, my boy,” the doctor spoke with sudden energy, “if I ever set foot on land again, I’m going to forget this voyage like a bad dream. When I’m in normal health, I’m a Presbyterian, but just now I feel that even the wicked get worse than they deserve.”

A day came at last when Claude was wakened from sleep by a sense of stillness. He sprang up with a dazed fear that some one had died; but Fanning lay in his berth, breathing quietly.

Something caught his eye through the porthole,—a great grey shoulder of land standing up in the pink light of dawn, powerful and strangely still after the distressing instability of the sea. Pale trees and long, low fortifications … close grey buildings with red roofs … little sailboats bounding seaward … up on the cliff a gloomy fortress.

He had always thought of his destination as a country shattered and desolated,—“bleeding France”; but he had never seen anything that looked so strong, so self-sufficient, so fixed from the first foundation, as the coast that rose before him. It was like a pillar of eternity. The ocean lay submissive at its feet, and over it was the great meekness of early morning.

This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea. It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months. It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes. For them this kind release,—trees and a still shore and quiet water,—was never, never to be. How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?

He was startled by a weak voice from behind.

“Claude, are we over?”

“Yes, Fanning. We’re over.”