Tod Fanning held out better than many of the stronger men; his vitality surprised the doctor. The death list was steadily growing; and the worst of it was that patients died who were not very sick. Vigorous, clean-blooded young fellows of nineteen and twenty turned over and died because they had lost their courage, because other people were dying,--because death was in the air. The corridors of the vessel had the smell of death about them. Doctor Trueman said it was always so in an epidemic; patients died who, had they been isolated cases, would have recovered.
"Do you know, Wheeler," the doctor remarked one day when they came up from the hospital together to get a breath of air, "I sometimes wonder whether all these inoculations they've been having, against typhoid and smallpox and whatnot, haven't lowered their vitality. I'll go off my head if I keep losing men! What would you give to be out of it all, and safe back on the farm?" Hearing no reply, he turned his head, peered over his raincoat collar, and saw a startled, resisting look in the young man's blue eyes, followed by a quick flush.
"You don't want to be back on the farm, do you! Not a little bit! Well, well; that's what it is to be young!" He shook his head with a smile which might have been commiseration, might have been envy, and went back to his duties.
Claude stayed where he was, drawing the wet grey air into his lungs and feeling vexed and reprimanded. It was quite true, he realized; the doctor had caught him. He was enjoying himself all the while and didn't want to be safe anywhere. He was sorry about Tannhauser and the others, but he was not sorry for himself. The discomforts and misfortunes of this voyage had not spoiled it for him. He grumbled, of course, because others did. But life had never seemed so tempting as it did here and now. He could come up from heavy work in the hospital, or from poor Fanning and his everlasting eggs, and forget all that in ten minutes. Something inside him, as elastic as the grey ridges over which they were tipping, kept bounding up and saying: "I am all here. I've left everything behind me. I am going over."
Only on that one day, the cold day of the Virginian's funeral, when he was seasick, had he been really miserable. He must be heartless, certainly, not to be overwhelmed by the sufferings of his own men, his own friends--but he wasn't. He had them on his mind and did all he could for them, but it seemed to him just now that he took a sort of satisfaction in that, too, and was somewhat vain of his usefulness to Doctor Trueman. A nice attitude! He awoke every morning with that sense of freedom and going forward, as if the world were growing bigger each day and he were growing with it. Other fellows were sick and dying, and that was terrible,--but he and the boat went on, and always on.
Something was released that had been struggling for a long while, he told himself. He had been due in France since the first battle of the Marne; he had followed false leads and lost precious time and seen misery enough, but he was on the right road at last, and nothing could stop him. If he hadn't been so green, so bashful, so afraid of showing what he felt, and so stupid at finding his way about, he would have enlisted in Canada, like Victor, or run away to France and joined the Foreign Legion. All that seemed perfectly possible now. Why hadn't he?
Well, that was not "the Wheelers' way." The Wheelers were terribly afraid of poking themselves in where they weren't wanted, of pushing their way into a crowd where they didn't belong. And they were even more afraid of doing anything that might look affected or "romantic." They couldn't let themselves adopt a conspicuous, much less a picturesque course of action, unless it was all in the day's work. Well, History had condescended to such as he; this whole brilliant adventure had become the day's work. He had got into it after all, along with Victor and the Marine and other fellows who had more imagination and self-confidence in the first place. Three years ago he used to sit moping by the windmill because he didn't see how a Nebraska farmer boy had any "call," or, indeed, any way, to throw himself into the struggle in France. He used enviously to read about Alan Seeger and those fortunate American boys who had a right to fight for a civilization they knew.
But the miracle had happened; a miracle so wide in its amplitude that the Wheelers,--all the Wheelers and the roughnecks and the low-brows were caught up in it. Yes, it was the rough-necks' own miracle, all this; it was their golden chance. He was in on it, and nothing could hinder or discourage him unless he were put over the side himself--which was only a way of joking, for that was a possibility he never seriously considered. The feeling of purpose, of fateful purpose, was strong in his breast.