Willa Cather > One of Ours > Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises VI.
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Willa Cather (1873–1947).  One of Ours.  1922.

Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises

VI
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.”   1
  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.   2
  “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!”   3
  “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!”   4
  “What’s the matter with you? Come over here and sit down on this box and tell me.”   5
  Private Fuller willingly let himself be led, and dropped on the box. “I’m so sick, Lieutenant!”   6
  “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.”   7
  “No, sir. I can’t eat the awful stuff on this boat.”   8
  “It is pretty bad. Where are you from?”   9
  “I’m from P-P-Pleasantville, up on the P-P-Platte,” the boy gulped, and his tears began to flow afresh.  10
  “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?”  11
  “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.”  12
  “I know it’s a little gloomy. But don’t you shame me before these English stewards.”  13
  “I won’t do it again, sir,” he promised.  14
  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.”  15
  “What can you do for him, Doctor?”  16
  “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.”  17
  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?”  18
  “Yes. It’s too crowded in here, if you’ve got to stay in bed.”  19
  “Glad of it. His stories are too raw for me. I’m no sissy, but that fellow’s a regular Don Quixote.”  20
  Claude laughed. “You mustn’t talk. It makes you cough.”  21
  “Where’s the Virginian?”  22
  “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.”  23
  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.”  24
  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.  25
  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.  26
  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.  27
  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.  28
  “Then who’s to be up and around? No bed for me, tonight. But I will have a hot bath by and by.”  29
  Claude asked why the ship’s doctor didn’t do anything and added that he must be as little as he looked.  30
  “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.”  31
  The Doctor rose, shored up his shoulders and took his bag. “You’re looking fine yourself, Lieutenant,” he remarked.  32
  “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.”  33
  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 hack 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.  34
  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.”  35
  “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.  36
  “Mein’ arme Mutter!” he whispered distinctly.  37
  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.  38
  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.  39
  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.  40
  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.  41
  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?  42
  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.  43
  “I’ll take these,” he said. “And the others—just pitch them over, don’t you think?”  44

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