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

Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises


B COMPANY’S first officer, Captain Maxey, was so seasick throughout the voyage that he was of no help to his men in the epidemic. It must have been a frightful blow to his pride, for nobody was ever more anxious to do an officer’s whole duty.

Claude had known Harris Maxey slightly in Lincoln; had met him at the Erlichs’ and afterward kept up a campus acquaintance with him. He hadn’t liked Maxey then, and he didn’t like him now, but he thought him a good officer. Maxey’s family were poor folk from Mississippi, who had settled in Nemaha county, and he was very ambitious, not only to get on in the world, but, as he said, to “be somebody.” His life at the University was a feverish pursuit of social advantages and useful acquaintances. His feeling for the “right people” amounted to veneration. After his graduation, Maxey served on the Mexican Border. He was a tireless drill master, and threw himself into his duties with all the energy of which his frail physique was capable. He was slight and fair-skinned; a rigid jaw threw his lower teeth out beyond the upper ones and made his face look stiff. His whole manner, tense and nervous, was the expression of a passionate desire to excel.

Claude seemed to himself to be leading a double life these days. When he was working over Fanning, or was down in the hold helping to take care of the sick soldiers, he had no time to think,—did mechanically the next thing that came to hand. But when he had an hour to himself on deck, the tingling sense of ever-widening freedom flashed up in him again. The weather was a continual adventure; he had never known any like it before. The fog, and rain, the grey sky and the lonely grey stretches of the ocean were like something he had imagined long ago—memories of old sea stories read in childhood, perhaps—and they kindled a warm spot in his heart. Here on the Anchises he seemed to begin where childhood had left off. The ugly hiatus between had closed up. Years of his life were blotted out in the fog. This fog which had been at first depressing had become a shelter; a tent moving through space, hiding one from all that had been before, giving one a chance to correct one’s ideas about life and to plan the future. The past was physically shut off; that was his illusion. He had already travelled a great many more miles than were told off by the ship’s log. When Bandmaster Fred Max asked him to play chess, he had to stop a moment and think why it was that game had such disagreeable associations for him. Enid’s pale, deceptive face seldom rose before him unless some such accident brought it up. If he happened to come upon a group of boys talking about their sweethearts and war-brides, he listened a moment and then moved away with the happy feeling that he was the least married man on the boat.

There was plenty of deck room, now that so many men were ill either from sea-sickness or the epidemic, and sometimes he and Albert Usher had the stormy side of the boat almost to themselves. The Marine was the best sort of companion for these gloomy days; steady, quiet, self-reliant. And he, too, was always looking forward. As for Victor Morse, Claude was growing positively fond of him. Victor had tea in a special corner of the officers’ smoking-room every afternoon—he would have perished without it—and the steward always produced some special garnishes of toast and jam or sweet biscuit for him. Claude usually managed to join him at that hour.

On the day of Tannhauser’s funeral he went into the smoking-room at four. Victor beckoned the steward and told him to bring a couple of hot whiskeys with the tea. “You’re very wet, you know, Wheeler, and you really should. There,” he said as he put down his glass, “don’t you feel better with a drink?”

“Very much. I think I’ll have another. It’s agreeable to be warm inside.”

“Two more, steward, and bring me some fresh lemon.” The occupants of the room were either reading or talking in low tones. One of the Swedish boys was playing softly on the old piano. Victor began to pour the tea. He had a neat way of doing it, and today he was especially solicitous. “This Scotch mist gets into one’s bones, doesn’t it? I thought you were looking rather seedy when I passed you on deck.”

“I was up with Tannhauser last night. Didn’t get more than an hour’s sleep,” Claude murmured, yawning.

“Yes, I heard you lost your big corporal. I’m sorry. I’ve had bad news, too. It’s out now that we’re to make a French port. That dashes all my plans. However, c’est la guerre!” He pushed back his cup with a shrug. “Take a turn outside?”

Claude had often wondered why Victor liked him, since he was so little Victor’s kind. “If it isn’t a secret,” he said, “I’d like to know how you ever got into the British army, anyway.”

As they walked up and down in the rain, Victor told his story briefly. When he had finished High School, he had gone into his father’s bank at Crystal Lake as bookkeeper. After banking hours he skated, played tennis, or worked in the strawberry-bed, according to the season. He bought two pairs of white pants every summer and ordered his shirts from Chicago and thought he was a swell, he said. He got himself engaged to the preacher’s daughter. Two years ado, the summer he was twenty, his father wanted him to see Niagara Falls; so he wrote a modest check, warned his son against saloons—Victor had never been inside one—against expensive hotels and women who came up to ask the time without an introduction, and sent him off, telling him it wasn’t necessary to fee porters or waiters. At Niagara Falls, Victor fell in with some young Canadian officers who opened his eyes to a great many things. He went over to Toronto with them. Enlistment was going strong, and he saw an avenue of escape from the bank and the strawberry-bed. The air force seemed the most brilliant and attractive branch of the service. They accepted him, and here he was.

“You’ll never go home again,” Claude said with conviction. “I don’t see you settling down in any little Iowa town.”

“In the air service,” said Victor carelessly, “we don’t concern ourselves about the future. It’s not worth while.” He took out a dull gold cigarette case which Claude had noticed before.

“Let me see that a minute, will you? I’ve often admired it. A present from somebody you like, isn’t it?”

A twitch of feeling, something quite genuine, passed over the air-man’s boyish face, and his rather small red mouth compressed sharply. “Yes, a woman I want you to meet. Here,” twitching his chin over his high collar, “I’ll write Maisie’s address on my card: ‘Introducing Lieutenant Wheeler, A. E. F.’ That’s all you’ll need. If you should get to London before I do, don’t hesitate. Call on her at once. Present this card, and she’ll receive you.”

Claude thanked him and put the card in his pocketbook, while Victor lit a cigarette. “I haven’t forgotten that you’re dining with us at the Savoy, if we happen in London together. If I’m there, you can always find me. Her address is mine. It will really be a great thing for you to meet a woman like Maisie. She’ll be nice to you, because you’re my friend.” He went on to say that she had done everything in the world for him; had left her husband and given up her friends on his account. She now had a studio flat in Chelsea, where she simply waited his coming and dreaded his going. It was an awful life for her. She entertained other officers, of course, old acquaintances; but it was all camouflage. He was the man.

Victor went so far as to produce her picture, and Claude gazed without knowing what to say at a large moon-shaped face with heavy-lidded, weary eyes,—the neck clasped by a pearl collar, the shoulders bare to the matronly swell of the bosom. There was not a line or wrinkle in that smooth expanse of flesh, but from the heavy mouth and chin, from the very shape of the face, it was easy to see that she was quite old enough to be Victor’s mother. Across the photograph was written in a large splashy hand, À mon aigle! Had Victor been delicate enough to leave him in any doubt, Claude would have preferred to believe that his relations with this lady were wholly of a filial nature.

“Women like her simply don’t exist in your part of the world,” the aviator murmured, as he snapped the photograph case. “She’s a linguist and musician and all that. With her. every-day living is a fine art. Life, as she says, is what one makes it. In itself, it’s nothing. Where you came from it’s nothing—a sleeping sickness.”

Claude laughed. “I don’t know that I agree with you, but I like to hear you talk.”

“Well; in that part of France that’s all shot to pieces, you’ll find more life going on in the cellars than in your home town, wherever that is. I’d rather be a stevedore in the London docks than a banker-king in one of your prairie States. In London, if you’re lucky enough to have a shilling, you can get something for it.”

“Yes, things are pretty tame at home,” the other admitted.

“Tame? My God, it’s death in life! What’s left of men if you take all the fire out of them? They’re afraid of everything. I know them; Sunday-school sneaks, prowling around those little towns after dark!” Victor abruptly dismissed the subject. “By the way, you’re pals with the doctor, aren’t you? I’m needing some medicine that is somewhere in my lost trunk. Would you mind asking him if he can put up this prescription? I don’t want to go to him myself. All these medicos blab, and he might report me. I’ve been lucky dodging medical inspections. You see, I don’t want to get held up anywhere. Tell him it’s not for you, of course.”

When Claude presented the piece of blue paper to Doctor Trueman, he smiled contemptuously. “I see; this has been filled by a London chemist. No, we have nothing of this sort.” He handed it back. “Those things are only palliatives. If your friend wants that, he needs treatment,—and he knows where he can get it.”

Claude returned the slip of paper to Victor as they left the dining-room after supper, telling him he hadn’t been able to get any.

“Sorry,” said Victor, flushing haughtily. “Thank you so much!”