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

Book Four: The Voyage of the Anchises

II
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.   1
  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.”   2
  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.   3
  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.   4
  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.   5
  “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!”   6
  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.   7
  “There she is!” “Hello, old girl!” “Good-bye, sweetheart!”   8
  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.   9
  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.”
  10
  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.  11

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