After the case was concluded, Mr. Wheeler joined his neighbour at the door and they went downstairs together.
"Well, what do you hear from Claude?" Mr. Yoeder asked.
"He's still at Fort R—. He expects to get home on leave before he sails. Gus, you'll have to lend me one of your boys to cultivate my corn. The weeds are getting away from me."
"Yes, you can have any of my boys,—till the draft gets 'em," said Yoeder sourly.
"I wouldn't worry about it. A little military training is good for a boy. You fellows know that." Mr. Wheeler winked, and Yoeder's grim mouth twitched at one corner.
That evening at supper Mr. Wheeler gave his wife a full account of the court hearing, so that she could write it to Claude. Mrs. Wheeler, always more a school-teacher than a housekeeper, wrote a rapid, easy hand, and her long letters to Claude reported all the neighbourhood doings. Mr. Wheeler furnished much of the material for them. Like many long-married men he had fallen into the way of withholding neighbourhood news from his wife. But since Claude went away he reported to her everything in which he thought the boy would be interested. As she laconically said in one of her letters:
"Your father talks a great deal more at home than formerly, and sometimes I think he is trying to take your place."
On the first day of July Claude Wheeler found himself in the fast train from Omaha, going home for a week's leave. The uniform was still an unfamiliar sight in July, 1917. The first draft was not yet called, and the boys who had rushed off and enlisted were in training camps far away. Therefore a redheaded young man with long straight legs in puttees, and broad, energetic, responsible-looking shoulders in close-fitting khaki, made a conspicuous figure among the passengers. Little boys and young girls peered at him over the tops of seats, men stopped in the aisle to talk to him, old ladies put on their glasses and studied his clothes, his bulky canvas hold-all, and even the book he kept opening and forgetting to read.
The country that rushed by him on each side of the track was more interesting to his trained eye than the pages of any book. He was glad to be going through it at harvest,—the season when it is most itself. He noted that there was more corn than usual,—much of the winter wheat had been weather killed, and the fields were ploughed up in the spring and replanted in maize. The pastures were already burned brown, the alfalfa was coming green again after its first cutting. Binders and harvesters were abroad in the wheat and oats, gathering the soft-breathing billows of grain into wide, subduing arms. When the train slowed down for a trestle in a wheat field, harvesters in blue shirts and overalls and wide straw hats stopped working to wave at the passengers. Claude turned to the old man in the opposite seat. "When I see those fellows, I feel as if I'd wakened up in the wrong clothes."
His neighbour looked pleased and smiled. "That the kind of uniform you're accustomed to?"
"I surely never wore anything else in the month of July," Claude admitted. "When I find myself riding along in a train, in the middle of harvest, trying to learn French verbs, then I know the world is turned upside down, for a fact!"
The old man pressed a cigar upon him and began to question him. Like the hero of the Odyssey upon his homeward journey, Claude had often to tell what his country was, and who were the parents that begot him. He was constantly interrupted in his perusal of a French phrase-book (made up of sentences chosen for their usefulness to soldiers,—such as; "Non, jamais je ne regarde les femmes") by the questions of curious strangers. Presently he gathered up his luggage, shook hands with his neighbour, and put on his hat—the same old Stetson, with a gold cord and two hard tassels added to its conical severity. "I get off at this station and wait for the freight that goes down to Frankfort; the cotton-tail, we call it."
The old man wished him a pleasant visit home, and the best of luck in days to come. Every one in the car smiled at him as he stepped down to the platform with his suitcase in one hand and his canvas bag in the other. His old friend, Mrs. Voigt, the German woman, stood out in front of her restaurant, ringing her bell to announce that dinner was ready for travellers. A crowd of young boys stood about her on the sidewalk, laughing and shouting in disagreeable, jeering tones. As Claude approached, one of them snatched the bell from her hand, ran off across the tracks with it, and plunged into a cornfield. The other boys followed, and one of them shouted, "Don't go in there to eat, soldier. She's a German spy, and she'll put ground glass in your dinner!"
Claude swept into the lunch room and threw his bags on the floor. "What's the matter, Mrs. Voigt? Can I do anything for you?"
She was sitting on one of her own stools, crying piteously, her false frizzes awry. Looking up, she gave a little screech of recognition. "Oh, I tank Gott it was you, and no more trouble coming! You know I ain't no spy nor nodding, like what dem boys say. Dem young fellers is dreadful rough mit me. I sell dem candy since dey was babies, an' now dey turn on me like dis. Hindenburg, dey calls me, and Kaiser Bill!" She began to cry again, twisting her stumpy little fingers as if she would tear them off.
"Give me some dinner, ma'am, and then I'll go and settle with that gang. I've been away for a long time, and it seemed like getting home when I got off the train and saw your squaw vines running over the porch like they used to."
"Ya? You remember dat?" she wiped her eyes. "I got a pot-pie today, and green peas, chust a few, out of my own garden."
"Bring them along, please. We don't get anything but canned stuff in camp."
Some railroad men came in for lunch. Mrs. Voigt beckoned Claude off to the end of the counter, where, after she had served her customers, she sat down and talked to him, in whispers.
"My, you look good in dem clothes," she said patting his sleeve. "I can remember some wars, too; when we got back dem provinces what Napoleon took away from us, Alsace and Lorraine. Dem boys is passed de word to come and put tar on me some night, and I am skeered to go in my bet. I chust wrap in a quilt and sit in my old chair."
"Don't pay any attention to them. You don't have trouble with the business people here, do you?"
"No-o, not troubles, exactly." She hesitated, then leaned impulsively across the counter and spoke in his ear. "But it ain't all so bad in de Old Country like what dey say. De poor people ain't slaves, and dey ain't ground down like what dey say here. Always de forester let de poor folks come into de wood and carry off de limbs dat fall, and de dead trees. Und if de rich farmer have maybe a liddle more manure dan he need, he let de poor man come and take some for his land. De poor folks don't git such wages like here, but dey lives chust as comfortable. Und dem wooden shoes, what dey makes such fun of, is cleaner dan what leather is, to go round in de mud and manure. Dey don't git so wet and dey don't stink so."
Claude could see that her heart was bursting with homesickness, full of tender memories of the far-away time and land of her youth. She had never talked to him of these things before, but now she poured out a flood of confidences about the big dairy farm on which she had worked as a girl; how she took care of nine cows, and how the cows, though small, were very strong,—drew a plough all day and yet gave as much milk at night as if they had been browsing in a pasture! The country people never had to spend money for doctors, but cured all diseases with roots and herbs, and when the old folks had the rheumatism they took "one of dem liddle jenny-pigs" to bed with them, and the guinea-pig drew out all the pain.
Claude would have liked to listen longer, but he wanted to find the old woman's tormentors before his train came in. Leaving his bags with her, he crossed the railroad tracks, guided by an occasional teasing tinkle of the bell in the cornfield. Presently he came upon the gang, a dozen or more, lying in a shallow draw that ran from the edge of the field out into an open pasture. He stood on the edge of the bank and looked down at them, while he slowly cut off the end of a cigar and lit it. The boys grinned at him, trying to appear indifferent and at ease.
"Looking for any one, soldier?" asked the one with the bell.
"Yes, I am. I'm looking for that bell. You'll have to take it back where it belongs. You every one of you know there's no harm in that old woman."
"She's a German, and we're fighting the Germans, ain't we?"
"I don't think you'll ever fight any. You'd last about ten minutes in the American army. You're not our kind. There's only one army in the world that wants men who'll bully old women. You might get a job with them."
The boys giggled. Claude beckoned impatiently. "Come along with that bell, kid."
The boy rose slowly and climbed the bank out of the gully. As they tramped back through the cornfield, Claude turned to him abruptly. "See here, aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
"Oh, I don't know about that!" the boy replied airily, tossing the bell up like a ball and catching it.
"Well, you ought to be. I didn't expect to see anything of this kind until I got to the front. I'll be back here in a week, and I'll make it hot for anybody that's been bothering her." Claude's train was pulling in, and he ran for his baggage. Once seated in the "cotton-tail," he began going down into his own country, where he knew every farm he passed,—knew the land even when he did not know the owner, what sort of crops it yielded, and about how much it was worth. He did not recognize these farms with the pleasure he had anticipated, because he was so angry about the indignities Mrs. Voigt had suffered. He was still burning with the first ardour of the enlisted man. He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.
Most of his friends at camp shared his Quixotic ideas. They had come together from farms and shops and mills and mines, boys from college and boys from tough joints in big cities; sheepherders, street car drivers, plumbers' assistants, billiard markers. Claude had seen hundreds of them when they first came in; "show men" in cheap, loud sport suits, ranch boys in knitted waistcoats, machinists with the grease still on their fingers, farm-hands like Dan, in their one Sunday coat. Some of them carried paper suitcases tied up with rope, some brought all they had in a blue handkerchief. But they all came to give and not to ask, and what they offered was just themselves; their big red hands, their strong backs, the steady, honest, modest look in their eyes. Sometimes, when he had helped the medical examiner, Claude had noticed the anxious expression in the faces of the long lines of waiting men. They seemed to say, "If I'm good enough, take me. I'll stay by." He found them like that to work with; serviceable, good-natured, and eager to learn. If they talked about the war, or the enemy they were getting ready to fight, it was usually in a facetious tone; they were going to "can the Kaiser," or to make the Crown Prince work for a living. Claude, loved the men he trained with,—wouldn't choose to live in any better company.
The freight train swung into the river valley that meant home,—the place the mind always came back to, after its farthest quest. Rapidly the farms passed; the haystacks, the cornfields, the familiar red barns—then the long coal sheds and the water tank, and the train stopped.
On the platform he saw Ralph and Mr. Royce, waiting to welcome him. Over there, in the automobile, were his father and mother, Mr. Wheeler in the driver's seat. A line of motors stood along the siding. He was the first soldier who had come home, and some of the townspeople had driven down to see him arrive in his uniform. From one car Susie Dawson waved to him, and from another Gladys Farmer. While he stopped and spoke to them, Ralph took his bags.
"Come along, boys," Mr. Wheeler called, tooting his horn, and he hurried the soldier away, leaving only a cloud of dust behind.
Mr. Royce went over to old man Dawson's car and said rather childishly, "It can't be that Claude's grown taller? I suppose it's the way they learn to carry themselves. He always was a manly looking boy."
"I expect his mother's a proud woman," said Susie, very much excited. "It's too bad Enid can't be here to see him. She would never have gone away if she'd known all that was to happen."
Susie did not mean this as a thrust, but it took effect. Mr. Royce turned away and lit a cigar with some difficulty. His hands had grown very unsteady this last year, though he insisted that his general health was as good as ever. As he grew older, he was more depressed by the conviction that his women-folk had added little to the warmth and comfort of the world. Women ought to do that, whatever else they did. He felt apologetic toward the Wheelers and toward his old friends. It seemed as if his daughters had no heart.
XI Camp habits persisted. On his first morning at home Claude came downstairs before even Mahailey was stirring, and went out to have a look at the stock. The red sun came up just as he was going down the hill toward the cattle corral, and he had the pleasant feeling of being at home, on his father's land. Why was it so gratifying to be able to say "our hill," and "our creek down yonder"? to feel the crunch of this particular dried mud under his boots?
When he went into the barn to see the horses, the first creatures to meet his eye were the two big mules that had run away with him, standing in the stalls next the door. It flashed upon Claude that these muscular quadrupeds were the actual authors of his fate. If they had not bolted with him and thrown him into the wire fence that morning, Enid would not have felt sorry for him and come to see him every day, and his life might have turned out differently. Perhaps if older people were a little more honest, and a boy were not taught to idealize in women the very qualities which can make him utterly unhappy—But there, he had got away from those regrets. But wasn't it just like him to be dragged into matrimony by a pair of mules!
He laughed as he looked at them. "You old devils, you're strong enough to play such tricks on green fellows for years to come. You're chock full of meanness!"
One of the animals wagged an ear and cleared his throat threateningly. Mules are capable of strong affections, but they hate snobs, are the enemies of caste, and this pair had always seemed to detect in Claude what his father used to call his "false pride." When he was a young lad they had been a source of humiliation to him, braying and balking in public places, trying to show off at the lumber yard or in front of the post office.
At the end manger Claude found old Molly, the grey mare with the stiff leg, who had grown a second hoof on her off forefoot, an achievement not many horses could boast of. He was sure she recognized him; she nosed his hand and arm and turned back her upper lip, showing her worn, yellow teeth.
"Mustn't do that, Molly," he said as he stroked her. "A dog can laugh, but it makes a horse look foolish. Seems to me Dan might curry you about once a week!" He took a comb from its niche behind a joist and gave her old coat a rubbing. Her white hair was flecked all over with little rust-coloured dashes, like India ink put on with a fine brush, and her mane and tail had turned a greenish yellow. She must be eighteen years old, Claude reckoned, as he polished off her round, heavy haunches. He and Ralph used to ride her over to the Yoeders' when they were barefoot youngsters, guiding her with a rope halter, and kicking at the leggy colt that was always running alongside.
When he entered the kitchen and asked Mahailey for warm water to wash his hands, she sniffed him disapprovingly.
"Why, Mr. Claude, you've been curryin' that old mare, and you've got white hairs all over your soldier-clothes. You're jist covered!"
If his uniform stirred feeling in people of sober judgment, over Mahailey it cast a spell. She was so dazzled by it that all the time Claude was at home she never once managed to examine it in detail. Before she got past his puttees, her powers of observation were befogged by excitement, and her wits began to jump about like monkeys in a cage. She had expected his uniform to be blue, like those she remembered, and when he walked into the kitchen last night she scarcely knew what to make of him. After Mrs. Wheeler explained to her that American soldiers didn't wear blue now, Mahailey repeated to herself that these brown clothes didn't show the dust, and that Claude would never look like the bedraggled men who used to stop to drink at her mother's spring.
"Them leather leggins is to keep the briars from scratchin' you, ain't they? I 'spect there's an awful lot of briars over there, like them long blackberry vines in the fields in Virginia. Your madder says the soldiers git lice now, like they done in our war. You jist carry a little bottle of coal-oil in your pocket an' rub it on your head at night. It keeps the nits from hatchin'."
Over the flour barrel in the corner Mahailey had tacked a Red Cross poster; a charcoal drawing of an old woman poking with a stick in a pile of plaster and twisted timbers that had once been her home. Claude went over to look at it while he dried his hands.
"Where did you get your picture?"
"She's over there where you're goin', Mr. Claude. There she is, huntin' for somethin' to cook with; no stove nor no dishes nor nothin'—everything all broke up. I reckon she'll be mighty glad to see you comin'."
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Mahailey whispered hastily, "Don't forgit about the coal-oil, and don't you be lousy if you can help it, honey." She considered lice in the same class with smutty jokes,—things to be whispered about.
After breakfast Mr. Wheeler took Claude out to the fields, where Ralph was directing the harvesters. They watched the binder for a while, then went over to look at the haystacks and alfalfa, and walked along the edge of the cornfield, where they examined the young ears. Mr. Wheeler explained and exhibited the farm to Claude as if he were a stranger; the boy had a curious feeling of being now formally introduced to these acres on which he had worked every summer since he was big enough to carry water to the harvesters. His father told him how much land they owned, and how much it was worth, and that it was unencumbered except for a trifling mortgage he had given on one quarter when he took over the Colorado ranch.
"When you come back," he said, "you and Ralph won't have to hunt around to get into business. You'll both be well fixed. Now you'd better go home by old man Dawson's and drop in to see Susie. Everybody about here was astonished when Leonard went." He walked with Claude to the corner where the Dawson land met his own. "By the way," he said as he turned back, "don't forget to go in to see the Yoeders sometime. Gus is pretty sore since they had him up in court. Ask for the old grandmother. You remember she never learned any English. And now they've told her it's dangerous to talk German, she don't talk at all and hides away from everybody. If I go by early in the morning, when she's out weeding the garden, she runs and squats down in the gooseberry bushes till I'm out of sight."
Claude decided he would go to the Yoeders' today, and to the Dawsons' tomorrow. He didn't like to think there might be hard feeling toward him in a house where he had had so many good times, and where he had often found a refuge when things were dull at home. The Yoeder boys had a music-box long before the days of Victrolas, and a magic lantern, and the old grandmother made wonderful shadow-pictures on a sheet, and told stories about them. She used to turn the map of Europe upside down on the kitchen table and showed the children how, in this position, it looked like a jungfrau; and recited a long German rhyme which told how Spain was the maiden's head, the Pyrenees her lace ruff, Germany her heart and bosom, England and Italy were two arms, and Russia, though it looked so big, was only a hoopskirt. This rhyme would probably be condemned as dangerous propaganda now!
As he walked on alone, Claude was thinking how this country that had once seemed little and dull to him, now seemed large and rich in variety. During the months in camp he had been wholly absorbed in new work and new friendships, and now his own neighbourhood came to him with the freshness of things that have been forgotten for a long while,—came together before his eyes as a harmonious whole. He was going away, and he would carry the whole countryside in his mind, meaning more to him than it ever had before. There was Lovely Creek, gurgling on down there, where he and Ernest used to sit and lament that the book of History was finished; that the world had come to avaricious old age and noble enterprise was dead for ever. But he was going away....
That afternoon Claude spent with his mother. It was the first time she had had him to herself. Ralph wanted terribly to stay and hear his brother talk, but understanding how his mother felt, he went back to the wheat field. There was no detail of Claude's life in camp so trivial that Mrs. Wheeler did not want to hear about it. She asked about the mess, the cooks, the laundry, as well as about his own duties. She made him describe the bayonet drill and explain the operation of machine guns and automatic rifles.
"I hardly see how we can bear the anxiety when our transports begin to sail," she said thoughtfully. "If they can once get you all over there, I am not afraid; I believe our boys are as good as any in the world. But with submarines reported off our own coast, I wonder how the Government can get our men across safely. The thought of transports going down with thousands of young men on board is something so terrible—" she put her hands quickly over her eyes.
Claude, sitting opposite his mother, wondered what it was about her hands that made them so different from any others he had ever seen. He had always known they were different, but now he must look closely and see why. They were slender, and always white, even when the nails were stained at preserving time. Her fingers arched back at the joints, as if they were shrinking from contacts. They were restless, and when she talked often brushed her hair or her dress lightly. When she was excited she sometimes put her hand to her throat, or felt about the neck of her gown, as if she were searching for a forgotten brooch. They were sensitive hands, and yet they seemed to have nothing to do with sense, to be almost like the groping fingers of a spirit.
"How do you boys feel about it?"
Claude started. "About what, Mother? Oh, the transportation! We don't worry about that. It's the Government's job to get us across. A soldier mustn't worry about anything except what he's directly responsible for. If the Germans should sink a few troop ships, it would be unfortunate, certainly, but it wouldn't cut any figure in the long run. The British are perfecting an enormous dirigible, built to carry passengers. If our transports are sunk, it will only mean delay. In another year the Yankees will be flying over. They can't stop us."
Mrs. Wheeler bent forward. "That must be boys' talk, Claude. Surely you don't believe such a thing could be practicable?"
"Absolutely. The British are depending on their aircraft designers to do just that, if everything else fails. Of course, nobody knows yet how effective the submarines will be in our case."
Mrs. Wheeler again shaded her eyes with her hand. "When I was young, back in Vermont, I used to wish that I had lived in the old times when the world went ahead by leaps and bounds. And now, I feel as if my sight couldn't bear the glory that beats upon it. It seems as if we would have to be born with new faculties, to comprehend what is going on in the air and under the sea."
The afternoon sun was pouring in at the back windows of Mrs. Farmer's long, uneven parlour, making the dusky room look like a cavern with a fire at one end of it. The furniture was all in its cool, figured summer cretonnes. The glass flower vases that stood about on little tables caught the sunlight and twinkled like tiny lamps. Claude had been sitting there for a long while, and he knew he ought to go. Through the window at his elbow he could see rows of double hollyhocks, the flat leaves of the sprawling catalpa, and the spires of the tangled mint bed, all transparent in the gold-powdered light. They had talked about everything but the thing he had come to say. As he looked out into the garden he felt that he would never get it out. There was something in the way the mint bed burned and floated that made one a fatalist,—afraid to meddle. But after he was far away, he would regret; uncertainty would tease him like a splinter in his thumb.
He rose suddenly and said without apology: "Gladys, I wish I could feel sure you'd never marry my brother."
She did not reply, but sat in her easy chair, looking up at him with a strange kind of calmness.
"I know all the advantages," he went on hastily, "but they wouldn't make it up to you. That sort of a—compromise would make you awfully unhappy. I know."
"I don't think I shall ever marry Bayliss," Gladys spoke in her usual low, round voice, but her quick breathing showed he had touched something that hurt. "I suppose I have used him. It gives a school-teacher a certain prestige if people think she can marry the rich bachelor of the town whenever she wants to. But I am afraid I won't marry him,—because you are the member of the family I have always admired."
Claude turned away to the window. "A fine lot I've been to admire," he muttered.
"Well, it's true, anyway. It was like that when we went to High School, and it's kept up. Everything you do always seems exciting to me."
Claude felt a cold perspiration on his forehead. He wished now that he had never come. "But that's it, Gladys. What HAVE I ever done, except make one blunder after another?"
She came over to the window and stood beside him. "I don't know; perhaps it's by their blunders that one gets to know people,—by what they can't do. If you'd been like all the rest, you could have got on in their way. That was the one thing I couldn't have stood."
Claude was frowning out into the flaming garden. He had not heard a word of her reply. "Why didn't you keep me from making a fool of myself?" he asked in a low voice.
"I think I tried—once. Anyhow, it's all turning out better than I thought. You didn't get stuck here. You've found your place. You're sailing away. You've just begun."
"And what about you?"
She laughed softly. "Oh, I shall teach in the High School!"
Claude took her hands and they stood looking searchingly at each other in the swimming golden light that made everything transparent. He never knew exactly how he found his hat and made his way out of the house. He was only sure that Gladys did not accompany him to the door. He glanced back once, and saw her head against the bright window.
She stood there, exactly where he left her, and watched the evening come on, not moving, scarcely breathing. She was thinking how often, when she came downstairs, she would see him standing here by the window, or moving about in the dusky room, looking at last as he ought to look,—like his convictions and the choice he had made. She would never let this house be sold for taxes now. She would save her salary and pay them off. She could never like any other room so well as this. It had always been a refuge from Frankfort; and now there would be this vivid, confident figure, an image as distinct to her as the portrait of her grandfather upon the wall.
Sunday was Claude's last day at home, and he took a long walk with Ernest and Ralph. Ernest would have preferred to lose Ralph, but when the boy was out of the harvest field he stuck to his brother like a burr. There was something about Claude's new clothes and new manner that fascinated him, and he went through one of those sudden changes of feeling that often occur in families. Although they had been better friends ever since Claude's wedding, until now Ralph had always felt a little ashamed of him. Why, he used to ask himself, wouldn't Claude "spruce up and be somebody"? Now, he was struck by the fact that he was somebody.
On Monday morning Mrs. Wheeler wakened early, with a faintness in her chest. This was the day on which she must acquit herself well. Breakfast would be Claude's last meal at home. At eleven o'clock his father and Ralph would take him to Frankfort to catch the train. She was longer than usual in dressing. When she got downstairs Claude and Mahailey were already talking. He was shaving in the washroom, and Mahailey stood watching him, a side of bacon in her hand.
"You tell 'em over there I'm awful sorry about them old women, with their dishes an' their stove all broke up."
"All right. I will." Claude scraped away at his chin.
She lingered. "Maybe you can help 'em mend their things, like you do mine fur me," she suggested hopefully.
"Maybe," he murmured absently. Mrs. Wheeler opened the stair door, and Mahailey dodged back to the stove.
After breakfast Dan went out to the fields with the harvesters. Ralph and Claude and Mr. Wheeler were busy with the car all morning.
Mrs. Wheeler kept throwing her apron over her head and going down the hill to see what they were doing. Whether there was really something the matter with the engine, or whether the men merely made it a pretext for being together and keeping away from the house, she did not know. She felt that her presence was not much desired, and at last she went upstairs and resignedly watched them from the sitting-room window. Presently she heard Ralph run up to the third storey. When he came down with Claude's bags in his hands, he stuck his head in at the door and shouted cheerfully to his mother:
"No hurry. I'm just taking them down so they'll be ready."
Mrs. Wheeler ran after him, calling faintly, "Wait, Ralph! Are you sure he's got everything in? I didn't hear him packing."
"Everything ready. He says he won't have to go upstairs again. He'll be along pretty soon. There's lots of time." Ralph shot down through the basement.
Mrs. Wheeler sat down in her reading chair. They wanted to keep her away, and it was a little selfish of them. Why couldn't they spend these last hours quietly in the house, instead of dashing in and out to frighten her? Now she could hear the hot water running in the kitchen; probably Mr. Wheeler had come in to wash his hands. She felt really too weak to get up and go to the west window to see if he were still down at the garage. Waiting was now a matter of seconds, and her breath came short enough as it was.
She recognized a heavy, hob-nailed boot on the stairs, mounting quickly. When Claude entered, carrying his hat in his hand, she saw by his walk, his shoulders, and the way he held his head, that the moment had come, and that he meant to make it short. She rose, reaching toward him as he came up to her and caught her in his arms. She was smiling her little, curious intimate smile, with half-closed eyes.
"Well, is it good-bye?" she murmured. She passed her hands over his shoulders, down his strong back and the close-fitting sides of his coat, as if she were taking the mould and measure of his mortal frame. Her chin came just to his breast pocket, and she rubbed it against the heavy cloth. Claude stood looking down at her without speaking a word. Suddenly his arms tightened and he almost crushed her.
"Mother!" he whispered as he kissed her. He ran downstairs and out of the house without looking back.
She struggled up from the chair where she had sunk and crept to the window; he was vaulting down the hill as fast as he could go. He jumped into the car beside his father. Ralph was already at the wheel, and Claude had scarcely touched the cushions when they were off. They ran down the creek and over the bridge, then up the long hill on the other side. As they neared the crest of the hill, Claude stood up in the car and looked back at the house, waving his cone-shaped hat. She leaned out and strained her sight, but her tears blurred everything. The brown, upright figure seemed to float out of the car and across the fields, and before he was actually gone, she lost him. She fell back against the windowsill, clutching her temples with both hands, and broke into choking, passionate speech. "Old eyes," she cried, "why do you betray me? Why do you cheat me of my last sight of my splendid son!"
Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises
A long train of crowded cars, the passengers all of the same sex, almost of the same age, all dressed and hatted alike, was slowly steaming through the green sea-meadows late on a summer afternoon. In the cars, incessant stretching of cramped legs, shifting of shoulders, striking of matches, passing of cigarettes, groans of boredom; occasionally concerted laughter about nothing. Suddenly the train stops short. Clipped heads and tanned faces pop out at every window. The boys begin to moan and shout; what is the matter now?
The conductor goes through the cars, saying something about a freight wreck on ahead; he has orders to wait here for half an hour. Nobody pays any attention to him. A murmur of astonishment rises from one side of the train. The boys crowd over to the south windows. At last there is something to look at,—though what they see is so strangely quiet that their own exclamations are not very loud.
Their train is lying beside an arm of the sea that reaches far into the green shore. At the edge of the still water stand the hulls of four wooden ships, in the process of building. There is no town, there are no smoke-stacks—very few workmen. Piles of lumber lie about on the grass. A gasoline engine under a temporary shelter is operating a long crane that reaches down among the piles of boards and beams, lifts a load, silently and deliberately swings it over to one of the skeleton vessels, and lowers it somewhere into the body of the motionless thing. Along the sides of the clean hulls a few riveters are at work; they sit on suspended planks, lowering and raising themselves with pulleys, like house painters. Only by listening very closely can one hear the tap of their hammers. No orders are shouted, no thud of heavy machinery or scream of iron drills tears the air. These strange boats seem to be building themselves.
Some of the men got out of the cars and ran along the tracks, asking each other how boats could be built off in the grass like this. Lieutenant Claude Wheeler stretched his legs upon the opposite seat and sat still at his window, looking down on this strange scene. Shipbuilding, he had supposed, meant noise and forges and engines and hosts of men. This was like a dream. Nothing but green meadows, soft grey water, a floating haze of mist a little rosy from the sinking sun, spectre-like seagulls, flying slowly, with the red glow tinging their wings—and those four hulls lying in their braces, facing the sea, deliberating by the sea.
Claude knew nothing of ships or shipbuilding, but these craft did not seem to be nailed together,—they seemed all of a piece, like sculpture. They reminded him of the houses not made with hands; they were like simple and great thoughts, like purposes forming slowly here in the silence beside an unruffled arm of the Atlantic. He knew nothing about ships, but he didn't have to; the shape of those hulls—their strong, inevitable lines—told their story, WAS their story; told the whole adventure of man with the sea.
Wooden ships! When great passions and great aspirations stirred a country, shapes like these formed along its shores to be the sheath of its valour. Nothing Claude had ever seen or heard or read or thought had made it all so clear as these untried wooden bottoms. They were the very impulse, they were the potential act, they were the "going over," the drawn arrow, the great unuttered cry, they were Fate, they were tomorrow!...
The locomotive screeched to her scattered passengers, like an old turkey-hen calling her brood. The soldier boys came running back along the embankment and leaped aboard the train. The conductor shouted they would be in Hoboken in time for supper.
It was midnight when the men had got their supper and began unrolling their blankets to sleep on the floor of the long dock waiting-rooms,—which in other days had been thronged by people who came to welcome home-coming friends, or to bid them God-speed to foreign shores. Claude and some of his men had tried to look about them; but there was little to be seen. The bow of a boat, painted in distracting patterns of black and white, rose at one end of the shed, but the water itself was not visible. Down in the cobble-paved street below they watched for awhile the long line of drays and motor trucks that bumped all night into a vast cavern lit by electricity, where crates and barrels and merchandise of all kinds were piled, marked American Expeditionary Forces; cases of electrical machinery from some factory in Ohio, parts of automobiles, gun-carriages, bath-tubs, hospital supplies, bales of cotton, cases of canned food, grey metal tanks full of chemical fluids. Claude went back to the waiting room, lay down and fell asleep with the glare of an arc-light shining full in his face.
He was called at four in the morning and told where to report to headquarters. Captain Maxey, stationed at a desk on one of the landings, explained to his lieutenants that their company was to sail at eight o'clock on the Anchises. It was an English boat, an old liner pulled off the Australian trade, that could carry only twenty-five hundred men. The crew was English, but part of the stores,—the meat and fresh fruit and vegetables,—were furnished by the United States Government. The Captain had been over the boat during the night, and didn't like it very well. He had expected to be scheduled for one of the fine big Hamburg-American liners, with dining-rooms finished in rosewood, and ventilation plants and cooling plants, and elevators running from top to bottom like a New York office building. "However," he said, "we'll have to make the best of it. They're using everything that's got a bottom now."
The company formed for roll-call at one end of the shed, with their packs and rifles. Breakfast was served to them while they waited. After an hour's standing on the concrete, they saw encouraging signs. Two gangplanks were lowered from the vessel at the end of the slip, and up each of them began to stream a close brown line of men in smart service caps. They recognized a company of Kansas Infantry, and began to grumble because their own service caps hadn't yet been given to them; they would have to sail in their old Stetsons. Soon they were drawn into one of the brown lines that went continuously up the gangways, like belting running over machinery. On the deck one steward directed the men down to the hold, and another conducted the officers to their cabins. Claude was shown to a four-berth state-room. One of his cabin mates, Lieutenant Fanning, of his own company, was already there, putting his slender luggage in order. The steward told them the officers were breakfasting in the dining saloon.
By seven o'clock all the troops were aboard, and the men were allowed on deck. For the first time Claude saw the profile of New York City, rising thin and gray against an opal-coloured morning sky. The day had come on hot and misty. The sun, though it was now high, was a red ball, streaked across with purple clouds. The tall buildings, of which he had heard so much, looked unsubstantial and illusionary,—mere shadows of grey and pink and blue that might dissolve with the mist and fade away in it. The boys were disappointed. They were Western men, accustomed to the hard light of high altitudes, and they wanted to see the city clearly; they couldn't make anything of these uneven towers that rose dimly through the vapour. Everybody was asking questions. Which of those pale giants was the Singer Building? Which the Woolworth? What was the gold dome, dully glinting through the fog? Nobody knew. They agreed it was a shame they could not have had a day in New York before they sailed away from it, and that they would feel foolish in Paris when they had to admit they had never so much as walked up Broadway. Tugs and ferry boats and coal barges were moving up and down the oily river, all novel sights to the men. Over in the Canard and French docks they saw the first examples of the "camouflage" they had heard so much about; big vessels daubed over in crazy patterns that made the eyes ache, some in black and white, some in soft rainbow colours.
A tug steamed up alongside and fastened. A few moments later a man appeared on the bridge and began to talk to the captain. Young Fanning, who had stuck to Claude's side, told him this was the pilot, and that his arrival meant they were going to start. They could see the shiny instruments of a band assembling in the bow.
"Let's get on the other side, near the rail if we can," said Fanning. "The fellows are bunching up over here because they want to look at the Goddess of Liberty as we go out. They don't even know this boat turns around the minute she gets into the river. They think she's going over stern first!"
It was not easy to cross the deck; every inch was covered by a boot. The whole superstructure was coated with brown uniforms; they clung to the boat davits, the winches, the railings and ventilators, like bees in a swarm. Just as the vessel was backing out, a breeze sprang up and cleared the air. Blue sky broke overhead, and the pale silhouette of buildings on the long island grew sharp and hard. Windows flashed flame-coloured in their grey sides, the gold and bronze tops of towers began to gleam where the sunlight struggled through. The transport was sliding down toward the point, and to the left the eye caught the silver cobweb of bridges, seen confusingly against each other.
"There she is!" "Hello, old girl!" "Good-bye, sweetheart!"
The swarm surged to starboard. They shouted and gesticulated to the image they were all looking for,—so much nearer than they had expected to see her, clad in green folds, with the mist streaming up like smoke behind. For nearly every one of those twenty-five hundred boys, as for Claude, it was their first glimpse of the Bartholdi statue. Though she was such a definite image in their minds, they had not imagined her in her setting of sea and sky, with the shipping of the world coming and going at her feet, and the moving cloud masses behind her. Post-card pictures had given them no idea of the energy of her large gesture, or how her heaviness becomes light among the vapourish elements. "France gave her to us," they kept saying, as they saluted her. Before Claude had got over his first thrill, the Kansas band in the bow began playing "Over There." Two thousand voices took it up, booming out over the water the gay, indomitable resolution of that jaunty air.
A Staten Island ferry-boat passed close under the bow of the transport. The passengers were office-going people, on their way to work, and when they looked up and saw these hundreds of faces, all young, all bronzed and grinning, they began to shout and wave their handkerchiefs. One of the passengers was an old clergyman, a famous speaker in his day, now retired, who went over to the City every morning to write editorials for a church paper. He closed the book he was reading, stood by the rail, and taking off his hat began solemnly to quote from a poet who in his time was still popular. "Sail on," he quavered,
"Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State, Humanity, with all its fears, With all its hopes of future years, Is hanging breathless on thy fate."
As the troop ship glided down the sea lane, the old man still watched it from the turtle-back. That howling swarm of brown arms and hats and faces looked like nothing, but a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere. But the scene was ageless; youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase... and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea.
All the first morning Tod Fanning showed Claude over the boat,—not that Fanning had ever been on anything bigger than a Lake Michigan steamer, but he knew a good deal about machinery, and did not hesitate to ask the deck stewards to explain anything he didn't know. The stewards, indeed all the crew, struck the boys as an unusually good-natured and obliging set of men.
The fourth occupant of number 96, Claude's cabin, had not turned up by noon, nor had any of his belongings, so the three who had settled their few effects there began to hope they would have the place to themselves. It would be crowded enough, at that. The third bunk was assigned to an officer from the Kansas regiment, Lieutenant Bird, a Virginian, who had been working in his uncle's bank in Topeka when he enlisted. He and Claude sat together at mess. When they were at lunch, the Virginian said in his very gentle voice:
"Lieutenant, I wish you'd explain Lieutenant Fanning to me. He seems very immature. He's been telling me about a submarine destroyer he's invented, but it looks to me like foolishness."
Claude laughed. "Don't try to understand Fanning. Just let him sink in, and you'll come to like him. I used to wonder how he ever got a commission. You never can tell what crazy thing he'll do."
Fanning had, for instance, brought on board a pair of white flannel pants, his first and only tailor-made trousers, because he had a premonition that the boat would make a port and that he would be asked to a garden party! He had a way of using big words in the wrong place, not because he tried to show off, but because all words sounded alike to him. In the first days of their acquaintance in camp he told Claude that this was a failing he couldn't help, and that it was called "anaesthesia." Sometimes this failing was confusing; when Fanning sententiously declared that he would like to be on hand when the Crown Prince settled his little account with Plato, Claude was perplexed until subsequent witticisms revealed that the boy meant Pluto.
At three o'clock there was a band concert on deck. Claude fell into talk with the bandmaster, and was delighted to find that he came from Hillport, Kansas, a town where Claude had once been with his father to buy cattle, and that all his fourteen men came from Hillport. They were the town band, had enlisted in a body, had gone into training together, and had never been separated. One was a printer who helped to get out the Hillport Argus every week, another clerked in a grocery store, another was the son of a German watch repairer, one was still in High School, one worked in an automobile livery. After supper Claude found them all together, very much interested in their first evening at sea, and arguing as to whether the sunset on the water was as fine as those they saw every night in Hillport. They hung together in a quiet, determined way, and if you began to talk to one, you soon found that all the others were there.
When Claude and Fanning and Lieutenant Bird were undressing in their narrow quarters that night, the fourth berth was still unclaimed. They were in their bunks and almost asleep, when the missing man came in and unceremoniously turned on the light. They were astonished to see that he wore the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps and carried a cane. He seemed very young, but the three who peeped out at him felt that he must be a person of consequence. He took off his coat with the spread wings on the collar, wound his watch, and brushed his teeth with an air of special personal importance. Soon after he had turned out the light and climbed into the berth over Lieutenant Bird, a heavy smell of rum spread in the close air.
Fanning, who slept under Claude, kicked the sagging mattress above him and stuck his head out. "Hullo, Wheeler! What have you got up there?"
"Nothing smells pretty good to me. I'll have some with anybody that asks me."
No response from any quarter. Bird, the Virginian, murmured, "Don't make a row," and they went to sleep.
In the morning, when the bath steward came, he edged his way into the narrow cabin and poked his head into the berth over Bird's. "I'm sorry, sir, I've made careful search for your luggage, and it's not to be found, sir."
"I tell you it must be found," fumed a petulant voice overhead. "I brought it over from the St. Regis myself in a taxi. I saw it standing on the pier with the officers' luggage,—a black cabin trunk with V.M. lettered on both ends. Get after it."
The steward smiled discreetly. He probably knew that the aviator had come on board in a state which precluded any very accurate observation on his part. "Very well, sir. Is there anything I can get you for the present?"
"You can take this shirt out and have it laundered and bring it back to me tonight. I've no linen in my bag."
Claude and Fanning got on deck as quickly as possible and found scores of their comrades already there, pointing to dark smudges of smoke along the clear horizon. They knew that these vessels had come from unknown ports, some of them far away, steaming thither under orders known only to their commanders. They would all arrive within a few hours of each other at a given spot on the surface of the ocean. There they would fall into place, flanked by their destroyers, and would proceed in orderly formation, without changing their relative positions. Their escort would not leave them until they were joined by gunboats and destroyers off whatever coast they were bound for,—what that coast was, not even their own officers knew as yet.
Later in the morning this meeting was actually accomplished. There were ten troop ships, some of them very large boats, and six destroyers. The men stood about the whole morning, gazing spellbound at their sister transports, trying to find out their names, guessing at their capacity. Tanned as they already were, their lips and noses began to blister under the fiery sunlight. After long months of intensive training, the sudden drop into an idle, soothing existence was grateful to them. Though their pasts were neither long or varied, most of them, like Claude Wheeler, felt a sense of relief at being rid of all they had ever been before and facing something absolutely new. Said Tod Fanning, as he lounged against the rail, "Whoever likes it can run for a train every morning, and grind his days out in a Westinghouse works; but not for me any more!"
The Virginian joined them. "That Englishman ain't got out of bed yet. I reckon he's been liquouring up pretty steady. The place smells like a bar. The room steward was just coming out, and he winked at me. He was slipping something in his pocket, looked like a banknote."
Claude was curious, and went down to the cabin. As he entered, the air-man, lying half-dressed in his upper berth, raised himself on one elbow and looked down at him. His blue eyes were contracted and hard, his curly hair disordered, but his cheeks were as pink as a girl's, and the little yellow humming-bird moustache on his upper lip was twisted sharp.
"You're missing fine weather," said Claude affably.
"Oh, there'll be a great deal of weather before we get over, and damned little of anything else!" He drew a bottle from under his pillow. "Have a nip?"
"I don't mind if I do," Claude put out his hand.
The other laughed and sank back on his pillow, drawling lazily, "Brave boy! Go ahead; drink to the Kaiser."
"Why to him in particular?"
"It's not particular. Drink to Hindenburg, or the High Command, or anything else that got you out of the cornfield. That's where they did get you, didn't they?"
"Well, it's a good guess, anyhow. Where did they get you?"
"Crystal Lake, Iowa. I think that was the place." He yawned and folded his hands over his stomach.
"Why, we thought you were an Englishman."
"Not quite. I've served in His Majesty's army two years, though."
"Have you been flying in France?"
"Yes. I've been back and forth all the time, England and France. Now I've wasted two months at Fort Worth. Instructor. That's not my line. I may have been sent over as a reprimand. You can't tell about my Colonel, though; may have been his way of getting me out of danger."
Claude glanced up at him, shocked at such an idea.
The young man in the berth smiled with listless compassion. "Oh, I don't mean Bosch planes! There are dangers and dangers. You'll find you got bloody little information about this war, where they trained you. They don't communicate any details of importance. Going?"
Claude hadn't intended to, but at this suggestion he pulled back the door.
"One moment," called the aviator. "Can't you keep that long-legged ass who bunks under you quiet?"
"Fanning? He's a good kid. What's the matter with him?"
"His general ignorance and his insufferably familiar tone," snapped the other as he turned over.
Claude found Fanning and the Virginian playing checkers, and told them that the mysterious air-man was a fellow countryman. Both seemed disappointed.
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Lieutenant Bird.
"He can't put on airs with me, after that," Fanning declared. "Crystal Lake! Why it's no town at all!"
All the same, Claude wanted to find out how a youth from Crystal Lake ever became a member of the Royal Flying Corps. Already, from among the hundreds of strangers, half-a-dozen stood out as men he was determined to know better. Taking them altogether the men were a fine sight as they lounged about the decks in the sunlight, the petty rivalries and jealousies of camp days forgotten. Their youth seemed to flow together, like their brown uniforms. Seen in the mass like this, Claude thought, they were rather noble looking fellows. In so many of the faces there was a look of fine candour, an expression of cheerful expectancy and confident goodwill.
There was on board a solitary Marine, with the stripes of Border service on his coat. He had been sick in the Navy Hospital in Brooklyn when his regiment sailed, and was now going over to join it. He was a young fellow, rather pale from his recent illness, but he was exactly Claude's idea of what a soldier ought to look like. His eye followed the Marine about all day.
The young man's name was Albert Usher, and he came from a little town up in the Wind River mountains, in Wyoming, where he had worked in a logging camp. He told Claude these facts when they found themselves standing side by side that evening, watching the broad purple sun go down into a violet coloured sea.
It was the hour when the farmers at home drive their teams in after the day's work. Claude was thinking how his mother would be standing at the west window every evening now, watching the sun go down and following him in her mind. When the young Marine came up and joined him, he confessed to a pang of homesickness.
"That's a kind of sickness I don't have to wrastle with," said Albert Usher. "I was left an orphan on a lonesome ranch, when I was nine, and I've looked out for myself ever since."
Claude glanced sidewise at the boy's handsome head, that came up from his neck with clean, strong lines, and thought he had done a pretty good job for himself. He could not have said exactly what it was he liked about young Usher's face, but it seemed to him a face that had gone through things,—that had been trained down like his body, and had developed a definite character. What Claude thought due to a manly, adventurous life, was really due to well-shaped bones; Usher's face was more "modelled" than most of the healthy countenances about him.
When questioned, the Marine went on to say that though he had no home of his own, he had always happened to fall on his feet, among kind people. He could go back to any house in Pinedale or Du Bois and be welcomed like a son.
"I suppose there are kind women everywhere," he said, "but in that respect Wyoming's got the rest of the world beat. I never felt the lack of a home. Now the U. S. Marines are my family. Wherever they are, I'm at home."
"Were you at Vera Cruz?" Claude asked.
"I guess! We thought that was quite a little party at the time, but I suppose it will seem small potatoes when we get over there. I'm figuring on seeing some first-rate scrapping. How long have you been in the army?"
"Year ago last April. I've had hard luck about getting over. They kept me jumping about to train men."
"Then yours is all to come. Are you a college graduate?"
"No. I went away to school, but I didn't finish."
Usher frowned at the gilded path on the water where the sun lay half submerged, like a big, watchful eye, closing. "I always wanted to go to college, but I never managed it. A man in Laramie offered to stake me to a course in the University there, but I was too restless. I guess I was ashamed of my handwriting." He paused as if he had run against some old regret. A moment later he said suddenly, "Can you parlez-vous?"
"No. I know a few words, but I can't put them together."
"Same here. I expect to pick up some. I pinched quite a little Spanish down on the Border."
By this time the sun had disappeared, and all over the west the yellow sky came down evenly, like a gold curtain, on the still sea that seemed to have solidified into a slab of dark blue stone,—not a twinkle on its immobile surface. Across its dusky smoothness were two long smears of pale green, like a robin's egg.
"Do you like the water?" Usher asked, in the tone of a polite host. "When I first shipped on a cruiser I was crazy about it. I still am. But, you know, I like them old bald mountains back in Wyoming, too. There's waterfalls you can see twenty miles off from the plains; they look like white sheets or something, hanging up there on the cliffs. And down in the pine woods, in the cold streams, there's trout as long as my fore-arm."
That evening Claude was on deck, almost alone; there was a concert down in the ward room. To the west heavy clouds had come up, moving so low that they flapped over the water like a black washing hanging on the line.
The music sounded well from below. Four Swedish boys from the Scandinavian settlement at Lindsborg, Kansas, were singing "Long, Long Ago." Claude listened from a sheltered spot in the stern. What were they, and what was he, doing here on the Atlantic? Two years ago he had seemed a fellow for whom life was over; driven into the ground like a post, or like those Chinese criminals who are planted upright in the earth, with only their heads left out for birds to peck at and insects to sting. All his comrades had been tucked away in prairie towns, with their little jobs and their little plans. Yet here they were, attended by unknown ships called in from the four quarters of the earth. How had they come to be worth the watchfulness and devotion of so many men and machines, this extravagant consumption of fuel and energy? Taken one by one, they were ordinary fellows like himself. Yet here they were. And in this massing and movement of men there was nothing mean or common; he was sure of that. It was, from first to last, unforeseen, almost incredible. Four years ago, when the French were holding the Marne, the wisest men in the world had not conceived of this as possible; they had reckoned with every fortuity but this. "Out of these stones can my Father raise up seed unto Abraham."
Downstairs the men began singing "Annie Laurie." Where were those summer evenings when he used to sit dumb by the windmill, wondering what to do with his life?
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; altimeters 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 overseas would help to change all that.
That night the Virginian, who berthed under Victor Morse, had an alarming attack of nose-bleed, and by morning he was so weak that he had to be carried to the hospital. The Doctor said they might as well face the facts; a scourge of influenza had broken out on board, of a peculiarly bloody and malignant type.* Everybody was a little frightened. Some of the officers shut themselves up in the smoking-room, and drank whiskey and soda and played poker all day, as if they could keep contagion out.
* The actual outbreak of influenza on transports carrying United States troops is here anticipated by several months.
Lieutenant Bird died late in the afternoon and was buried at sunrise the next day, sewed up in a tarpaulin, with an eighteen pound shell at his feet. The morning broke brilliantly clear and bitter cold. The sea was rolling blue walls of water, and the boat was raked by a wind as sharp as ice. Excepting those who were sick, the boys turned out to a man. It was the first burial at sea they had ever witnessed, and they couldn't help finding it interesting. The Chaplain read the burial service while they stood with uncovered heads. The Kansas band played a solemn march, the Swedish quartette sang a hymn. Many a man turned his face away when that brown sack was lowered into the cold, leaping indigo ridges that seemed so destitute of anything friendly to human kind. In a moment it was done, and they steamed on without him.
The glittering walls of water kept rolling in, indigo, purple, more brilliant than on the days of mild weather. The blinding sunlight did not temper the cold, which cut the face and made the lungs ache. Landsmen began to have that miserable sense of being where they were never meant to be. The boys lay in heaps on the deck, trying to keep warm by hugging each other close. Everybody was seasick. Fanning went to bed with his clothes on, so sick he couldn't take off his boots. Claude lay in the crowded stern, too cold, too faint to move. The sun poured over them like flame, without any comfort in it. The strong, curling, foam-crested waves threw off the light like millions of mirrors, and their colour was almost more than the eye could bear. The water seemed denser than before, heavy like melted glass, and the foam on the edges of each blue ridge looked sharp as crystals. If a man should fall into them, he would be cut to pieces.
The whole ocean seemed suddenly to have come to life, the waves had a malignant, graceful, muscular energy, were animated by a kind of mocking cruelty. Only a few hours ago a gentle boy had been thrown into that freezing water and forgotten. Yes, already forgotten; every one had his own miseries to think about.
Late in the afternoon the wind fell, and there was a sinister sunset. Across the red west a small, ragged black cloud hurried,—then another, and another. They came up out of the sea,—wild, witchlike shapes that travelled fast and met in the west as if summoned for an evil conclave. They hung there against the afterglow, distinct black shapes, drawing together, devising something. The few men who were left on deck felt that no good could come out of a sky like that. They wished they were at home, in France, anywhere but here.
The next morning Doctor Trueman asked Claude to help him at sick call. "I've got a bunch of sergeants taking temperatures, but it's too much for one man to oversee. I don't want to ask anything of those dude officers who sit in there playing poker all the time. Either they've got no conscience, or they're not awake to the gravity of the situation."
The Doctor stood on deck in his raincoat, his foot on the rail to keep his equilibrium, writing on his knee as the long string of men came up to him. There were more than seventy in the line that morning, and some of them looked as if they ought to be in a drier place. Rain beat down on the sea like lead bullets. The old Anchises floundered from one grey ridge to another, quite alone. Fog cut off the cheering sight of the sister ships. The doctor had to leave his post from time to time, when seasickness got the better of his will. Claude, at his elbow, was noting down names and temperatures. In the middle of his work he told the sergeants to manage without him for a few minutes. Down near the end of the line he had seen one of his own men misconducting himself, snivelling and crying like a baby,—a fine husky boy of eighteen who had never given any trouble. Claude made a dash for him and clapped him on the shoulder.
"If you can't stop that, Bert Fuller, get where you won't be seen. I don't want all these English stewards standing around to watch an American soldier cry. I never heard of such a thing!"
"I can't help it, Lieutenant," the boy blubbered. "I've kept it back just as long as I can. I can't hold in any longer!"
"What's the matter with you? Come over here and sit down on this box and tell me."
Private Fuller willingly let himself be led, and dropped on the box. "I'm so sick, Lieutenant!"
"I'll see how sick you are." Claude stuck a thermometer into his mouth, and while he waited, sent the deck steward to bring a cup of tea. "Just as I thought, Fuller. You've not half a degree of fever. You're scared, and that's all. Now drink this tea. I expect you didn't eat any breakfast."
"No, sir. I can't eat the awful stuff on this boat."
"It is pretty bad. Where are you from?"
"I'm from P-P-Pleasantville, up on the P-P-Platte," the boy gulped, and his tears began to flow afresh.
"Well, now, what would they think of you, back there? I suppose they got the band out and made a fuss over you when you went away, and thought they were sending off a fine soldier. And I've always thought you'd be a first rate soldier. I guess we'll forget about this. You feel better already, don't you?"
"Yes, sir. This tastes awful good. I've been so sick to my stomach, and last night I got pains in my chest. All my crowd is sick, and you took big Tannhauser, I mean Corporal, away to the hospital. It looks like we're all going to die out here."
"I know it's a little gloomy. But don't you shame me before these English stewards."
"I won't do it again, sir," he promised.
When the medical inspection was over, Claude took the Doctor down to see Fanning, who had been coughing and wheezing all night and hadn't got out of his berth. The examination was short. The Doctor knew what was the matter before he put the stethoscope on him. "It's pneumonia, both lungs," he said when they came out into the corridor. "I have one case in the hospital that will die before morning."
"What can you do for him, Doctor?"
"You see how I'm fixed; close onto two hundred men sick, and one doctor. The medical supplies are wholly inadequate. There's not castor oil enough on this boat to keep the men clean inside. I'm using my own drugs, but they won't last through an epidemic like this. I can't do much for Lieutenant Fanning. You can, though, if you'll give him the time. You can take better care of him right here than he could get in the hospital. We haven't an empty bed there."
Claude found Victor Morse and told him he had better get a berth in one of the other staterooms. When Victor left with his belongings, Fanning stared after him. "Is he going?"
"Yes. It's too crowded in here, if you've got to stay in bed."
"Glad of it. His stories are too raw for me. I'm no sissy, but that fellow's a regular Don Quixote."
Claude laughed. "You mustn't talk. It makes you cough."
"Where's the Virginian?"
"Who, Bird?" Claude asked in astonishment,—Fanning had stood beside him at Bird's funeral. "Oh, he's gone, too. You sleep if you can."
After dinner Doctor Trueman came in and showed Claude how to give his patient an alcohol bath. "It's simply a question of whether you can keep up his strength. Don't try any of this greasy food they serve here. Give him a raw egg beaten up in the juice of an orange every two hours, night and day. Waken him out of his sleep when it's time, don't miss a single two-hour period. I'll write an order to your table steward, and you can beat the eggs up here in your cabin. Now I must go to the hospital. It's wonderful what those band boys are doing there. I begin to take some pride in the place. That big German has been asking for you. He's in a very bad way."
As there were no nurses on board, the Kansas band had taken over the hospital. They had been trained for stretcher and first aid work, and when they realized what was happening on the Anchises, the bandmaster came to the Doctor and offered the services of his men. He chose nurses and orderlies, divided them into night and day shifts.
When Claude went to see his Corporal, big Tannhauser did not recognize him. He was quite out of his head and was conversing with his own family in the language of his early childhood. The Kansas boys had singled him out for special attention. The mere fact that he kept talking in a tongue forbidden on the surface of the seas, made him seem more friendless and alone than the others.
From the hospital Claude went down into the hold where half-a-dozen of his company were lying ill. The hold was damp and musty as an old cellar, so steeped in the smells and leakage of innumerable dirty cargoes that it could not be made or kept clean. There was almost no ventilation, and the air was fetid with sickness and sweat and vomit. Two of the band boys were working in the stench and dirt, helping the stewards. Claude stayed to lend a hand until it was time to give Fanning his nourishment. He began to see that the wrist watch, which he had hitherto despised as effeminate and had carried in his pocket, might be a very useful article. After he had made Fanning swallow his egg, he piled all the available blankets on him and opened the port to give the cabin an airing. While the fresh wind blew in, he sat down on the edge of his berth and tried to collect his wits. What had become of those first days of golden weather, leisure and good-comradeship? The band concerts, the Lindsborg Quartette, the first excitement and novelty of being at sea: all that had gone by like a dream.
That night when the Doctor came in to see Fanning, he threw his stethoscope on the bed and said wearily, "It's a wonder that instrument doesn't take root in my ears and grow there." He sat down and sucked his thermometer for a few minutes, then held it out for inspection. Claude looked at it and told him he ought to go to bed.
"Then who's to be up and around? No bed for me, tonight. But I will have a hot bath by and by."
Claude asked why the ship's doctor didn't do anything and added that he must be as little as he looked.
"Chessup? No, he's not half bad when you get to know him. He's given me a lot of help about preparing medicines, and it's a great assistance to talk the cases over with him. He'll do anything for me except directly handle the patients. He doesn't want to exceed his authority. It seems the English marine is very particular about such things. He's a Canadian, and he graduated first in his class at Edinburgh. I gather he was frozen out in private practice. You see, his appearance is against him. It's an awful handicap to look like a kid and be as shy as he is."
The Doctor rose, shored up his shoulders and took his bag. "You're looking fine yourself, Lieutenant," he remarked.
"Parents both living? Were they quite young when you were born? Well, then their parents were, probably. I'm a crank about that. Yes, I'll get my bath pretty soon, and I will lie down for an hour or two. With those splendid band boys running the hospital, I get a little lee-way."
Claude wondered how the Doctor kept going. He knew he hadn't had more than four hours sleep out of the last forty-eight, and he was not a man of rugged constitution. His bath steward was, as he said, his comfort. Hawkins was an old fellow who had held better positions on better boats,—yes, in better times, too. He had first gone to sea as a bath steward, and now, through the fortunes of war, he had come back where he began,—not a good place for an old man. His back was bent meekly, and he shuffled along with broken arches. He looked after the comfort of all the officers, and attended the doctor like a valet; got out his clean linen, persuaded him to lie down and have a hot drink after his bath, stood on guard at his door to take messages for him in the short hours when he was resting. Hawkins had lost two sons in the war and he seemed to find a solemn consolation in being of service to soldiers. "Take it a bit easy now, sir. You'll 'ave it 'ard enough over there," he used to say to one and another.
At eleven o'clock one of the Kansas men came to tell Claude that his Corporal was going fast. Big Tannhauser's fever had left him, but so had everything else. He lay in a stupor. His congested eyeballs were rolled back in his head and only the yellowish whites were visible. His mouth was open and his tongue hung out at one side. From the end of the corridor Claude had heard the frightful sounds that came from his throat, sounds like violent vomiting, or the choking rattle of a man in strangulation,—and, indeed, he was being strangled. One of the band boys brought Claude a camp chair, and said kindly, "He doesn't suffer. It's mechanical now. He'd go easier if he hadn't so much vitality. The Doctor says he may have a few moments of consciousness just at the last, if you want to stay."
"I'll go down and give my private patient his egg, and then I'll come back." Claude went away and returned, and sat dozing by the bed. After three o'clock the noise of struggle ceased; instantly the huge figure on the bed became again his good-natured corporal. The mouth closed, the glassy jellies were once more seeing, intelligent human eyes. The face lost its swollen, brutish look and was again the face of a friend. It was almost unbelievable that anything so far gone could come back. He looked up wistfully at his Lieutenant as if to ask him something. His eyes filled with tears, and he turned his head away a little.
"Mein' arme Mutter!" he whispered distinctly.
A few moments later he died in perfect dignity, not struggling under torture, but consciously, it seemed to Claude,—like a brave boy giving back what was not his to keep.
Claude returned to his cabin, roused Fanning once more, and then threw himself upon his tipping bunk. The boat seemed to wallow and sprawl in the waves, as he had seen animals do on the farm when they gave birth to young. How helpless the old vessel was out here in the pounding seas, and how much misery she carried! He lay looking up at the rusty water pipes and unpainted joinings. This liner was in truth the "Old Anchises"; even the carpenters who made her over for the service had not thought her worth the trouble, and had done their worst by her. The new partitions were hung to the joists by a few nails.
Big Tannhauser had been one of those who were most anxious to sail. He used to grin and say, "France is the only climate that's healthy for a man with a name like mine." He had waved his good-bye to the image in the New York harbour with the rest, believed in her like the rest. He only wanted to serve. It seemed hard.
When Tannhauser first came to camp he was confused all the time, and couldn't remember instructions. Claude had once stepped him out in front of the line and reprimanded him for not knowing his right side from his left. When he looked into the case, he found that the fellow was not eating anything, that he was ill from homesickness. He was one of those farmer boys who are afraid of town. The giant baby of a long family, he had never slept away from home a night in his life before he enlisted.
Corporal Tannhauser, along with four others, was buried at sunrise. No band this time; the chaplain was ill, so one of the young captains read the service. Claude stood by watching until the sailors shot one sack, longer by half a foot than the other four, into a lead-coloured chasm in the sea. There was not even a splash. After breakfast one of the Kansas orderlies called him into a little cabin where they had prepared the dead men for burial. The Army regulations minutely defined what was to be done with a deceased soldier's effects. His uniform, shoes, blankets, arms, personal baggage, were all disposed of according to instructions. But in each case there was a residue; the dead man's toothbrushes, his razors, and the photographs he carried upon his person. There they were in five pathetic little heaps; what should be done with them?
Claude took up the photographs that had belonged to his corporal; one was a fat, foolish-looking girl in a white dress that was too tight for her, and a floppy hat, a little flag pinned on her plump bosom. The other was an old woman, seated, her hands crossed in her lap. Her thin hair was drawn back tight from a hard, angular face—unmistakably an Old-World face—and her eyes squinted at the camera. She looked honest and stubborn and unconvinced, he thought, as if she did not in the least understand.
"I'll take these," he said. "And the others—just pitch them over, don't you think?"
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 seasickness 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 ago, 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, 'A 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."