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 then: 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?