LOOK at this, Doctor! Claude caught Dr. Trueman on his way from breakfast and handed him a written notice, signed D. T. Micks, Chief Steward. It stated that no more eggs or oranges could be furnished to patients, as the supply was exhausted.
The doctor squinted at the paper. Im afraid thats your patients death warrant. Youll never be able to keep him going on anything else. Why dont you go and talk it over with Chessup? Hes a resourceful fellow. Ill join you there in a few minutes.
Claude had often been to Dr. Chessups cabin since the epidemic broke out,rather liked to wait there when he went for medicines or advice. It was a comfortable, personal sort of place with cheerful chintz hangings. The walls were lined with books, held in place by sliding wooden slats, padlocked at the ends. There were a great many scientific works in German and English; the rest were French novels in paper covers. This morning he found Chessup weighing out white powders at his desk. In the rack over his bunk was the book with which he had read himself to sleep last night; the title, Un Crime dAmour, lettered in black on yellow, caught Claudes eye. The doctor put on his coat and pointed his visitor to the jointed chair in which patients were sometimes examined. Claude explained his predicament.
The ships doctor was a strange fellow to come from Canada, the land of big men and rough. He looked like a schoolboy, with small hands and feet and a pink complexion. On his left cheekbone was a large brown mole, covered with silky hair, and for some reason that seemed to make his face effeminate. It was easy to see why he had not been successful in private practice. He was like somebody trying to protect a raw surface from heat and cold; so cursed with diffidence, and so sensitive about his boyish appearance that he chose to shut himself up in an oscillating wooden coop on the sea. The long run to Australia had exactly suited him. A rough life and the pounding of bad weather had fewer terrors for him than an office in town, with constant exposure to human personalities.
Chessup stood for a moment frowning and pulling nervously at the brass buttons on his coat. He slid the bolt on his door and turning to his colleague said resolutely: I can give you some information, if you wont implicate me. You can do as you like, but keep my name out of it. For several hours last night cases of eggs and boxes of oranges were being carried into the Chief Stewards cabin by a flunky of his from the galley. Whatever port we make, he can get a shilling each for the fresh eggs, and perhaps sixpence for the oranges. They are your property, of course, furnished by your government; but this is his customary perquisite. Ive been on this boat six years, and its always been so. About a week before we make port, the choicest of the remaining stores are taken to his cabin, and he disposes of them after we dock. I cant say just how he manages it, but he does. The skipper may know of this custom, and there may be some reason why he permits it. Its not my business to see anything. The Chief Steward is a powerful man on an English vessel. If he has anything against me, sooner or later he can lose my berth for me. There you have the facts.
Claude waited impatiently in his stateroom for the doctors return. He didnt see why the Chief Steward shouldnt be exposed and dealt with like any other grafter. He had hated the man ever since he heard him berating the old bath steward one morning. Hawkins had made no attempt to defend himself, but stood like a dog that has been terribly beaten, trembling all over, saying Yes, sir. Yes, sir, while his chief gave him a cold cursing in a low, snarling voice. Claude had never heard a man or even an animal addressed with such contempt. The Steward had a cruel face,white as cheese, with limp, moist hair combed back from a high forehead,the peculiarly oily hair that seems to grow only on the heads of stewards and waiters. His eyes were exactly the shape of almonds, but the lids were so swollen that the dull pupil was visible only through a narrow slit. A long, pale moustache hung like a fringe over his loose lips.
The doctor made a grimace to his companion and walked in. The Steward was sitting at a big desk, covered with account books. He turned in his chair. I beg your pardon, he said coldly, I do not see any one here. I will be
The doctor held up his hand quickly. Thats all right, Steward. Im sorry to intrude, but Ive something I must say to you in private. Ill not detain you long. If he had hesitated for a moment, Claude believed the Steward would have thrown him out, but he went on rapidly. This is Lieutenant Wheeler, Mr. Micks. His fellow officer lies very ill with pneumonia in stateroom 96. Lieutenant Wheeler has kept him alive by special nursing. He is not able to retain anything in his stomach but eggs and orange juice. If he has these, we may be able to keep up his strength till the fever breaks, and carry him to a hospital in France. If we cant get them for him, he will be dead within twenty-four hours. Thats the situation.
The steward rose and turned out the drop-light on his desk. Have you received notice that there are no more eggs and oranges on board? Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do for you. I did not provision this ship.
No. I understand that. I believe the United States Government provided the fruit and eggs and meat. And I positively know that the articles I need for my patient are not exhausted. Without going into the matter further, I warn you that Im not going to let a United States officer die when the means of saving him are procurable. Ill go to the skipper, Ill call a meeting of the army officers on board. Ill go any length to save this man.
In a moment, Steward. I know that last night a number of cases of eggs and oranges were carried into this room. They are here now, and they belong to the A. E. F. If you will agree to provision my man, what I know wont go any further. But if you refuse, Ill get this matter investigated. I wont stop till I do.
At about four oclock every morning, before even the bath stewards were on duty, there was a scratching at Claudes door, and a covered basket was left there by a messenger who was unwashed, half-naked, with a sacking apron tied round his middle and his hairy chest splashed with flour. He never spoke, had only one eye and an inflamed socket. Claude learned that he was a half-witted brother of the Chief Steward, a potato-peeler and dish-washer in the galley.
Four day after their interview with Mr. Micks, when they were at last nearing the end of the voyage, Doctor Trueman detained Claude after medical inspection to tell him that the Chief Steward had come down with the epidemic. He sent for me last night and asked me to take his case,wont have anything to do with Chessup. I had to get Chessups permission. He seemed very glad to hand the case over to me.
He hasnt a look-in, and he knows it. Complications; chronic Brights disease. It seems he has nine children. Ill try to get him into a hospital when we make port, but hell only live a few days at most. I wonder wholl get the shillings for all the eggs and oranges he hoarded away. Claude, my boy, the doctor spoke with sudden energy, if I ever set foot on land again, Im going to forget this voyage like a bad dream. When Im in normal health, Im a Presbyterian, but just now I feel that even the wicked get worse than they deserve.
Something caught his eye through the porthole,a great grey shoulder of land standing up in the pink light of dawn, powerful and strangely still after the distressing instability of the sea. Pale trees and long, low fortifications close grey buildings with red roofs little sailboats bounding seaward up on the cliff a gloomy fortress.
He had always thought of his destination as a country shattered and desolated,bleeding France; but he had never seen anything that looked so strong, so self-sufficient, so fixed from the first foundation, as the coast that rose before him. It was like a pillar of eternity. The ocean lay submissive at its feet, and over it was the great meekness of early morning.
This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea. It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months. It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldiers death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes. For them this kind release,trees and a still shore and quiet water,was never, never to be. How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?