On the Fever Ship by Richard Harding Davis

There were four rails around the ship's sides, the three lower ones of iron and the one on top of wood, and as he looked between them from the canvas cot he recognized them as the prison-bars which held him in. Outside his prison lay a stretch of blinding blue water which ended in a line of breakers and a yellow coast with ragged palms. Beyond that again rose a range of mountain-peaks, and, stuck upon the loftiest peak of all, a tiny block-house. It rested on the brow of the mountain against the naked sky as impudently as a cracker-box set upon the dome of a great cathedral.

As the transport rode on her anchor-chains, the iron bars around her sides rose and sank and divided the landscape with parallel lines. From his cot the officer followed this phenomenon with severe, painstaking interest. Sometimes the wooden rail swept up to the very block-house itself, and for a second of time blotted it from sight. And again it sank to the level of the line of breakers, and wiped them out of the picture as though they were a line of chalk.

The soldier on the cot promised himself that the next swell of the sea would send the lowest rail climbing to the very top of the palm-trees or, even higher, to the base of the mountains; and when it failed to reach even the palm-trees he felt a distinct sense of ill use, of having been wronged by some one. There was no other reason for submitting to this existence save these tricks upon the wearisome, glaring landscape; and now, whoever it was who was working them did not seem to be making this effort to entertain him with any heartiness.

It was most cruel. Indeed, he decided hotly, it was not to be endured; he would bear it no longer, he would make his escape. But he knew that this move, which could be conceived in a moment's desperation, could only be carried to success with great strategy, secrecy, and careful cunning. So he fell back upon his pillow and closed his eyes, as though he were asleep, and then opening them again, turned cautiously, and spied upon his keeper. As usual, his keeper sat at the foot of the cot turning the pages of a huge paper filled with pictures of the war printed in daubs of tawdry colors. His keeper was a hard-faced boy without human pity or consideration, a very devil of obstinacy and fiendish cruelty. To make it worse, the fiend was a person without a collar, in a suit of soiled khaki, with a curious red cross bound by a safety-pin to his left arm. He was intent upon the paper in his hands; he was holding it between his eyes and his prisoner. His vigilance had relaxed, and the moment seemed propitious. With a sudden plunge of arms and legs, the prisoner swept the bed-sheet from him, and sprang at the wooden rail and grasped the iron stanchion beside it. He had his knee pressed against the top bar and his bare toes on the iron rail beneath it. Below him the blue water waited for him. It was cool and dark and gentle and deep. It would certainly put out the fire in his bones, he thought; it might even shut out the glare of the sun which scorched his eyeballs.

But as he balanced for the leap, a swift weakness and nausea swept over him, a weight seized upon his body and limbs. He could not lift the lower foot from the iron rail, and he swayed dizzily and trembled. He trembled. He who had raced his men and beaten them up the hot hill to the trenches of San Juan. But now he was a baby in the hands of a giant, who caught him by the wrist and with an iron arm clasped him around his waist and pulled him down, and shouted, brutally, "Help, some of youse, quick! he's at it again. I can't hold him."

More giants grasped him by the arms and by the legs. One of them took the hand that clung to the stanchion in both of his, and pulled back the fingers one by one, saying, "Easy now, Lieutenant—easy."

The ragged palms and the sea and blockhouse were swallowed up in a black fog, and his body touched the canvas cot again with a sense of home-coming and relief and rest. He wondered how he could have cared to escape from it. He found it so good to be back again that for a long time he wept quite happily, until the fiery pillow was moist and cool.

The world outside of the iron bars was like a scene in a theatre set for some great event, but the actors were never ready. He remembered confusedly a play he had once witnessed before that same scene. Indeed, he believed he had played some small part in it; but he remembered it dimly, and all trace of the men who had appeared with him in it was gone. He had reasoned it out that they were up there behind the range of mountains, because great heavy wagons and ambulances and cannon were emptied from the ships at the wharf above and were drawn away in long lines behind the ragged palms, moving always toward the passes between the peaks. At times he was disturbed by the thought that he should be up and after them, that some tradition of duty made his presence with them imperative. There was much to be done back of the mountains. Some event of momentous import was being carried forward there, in which he held a part; but the doubt soon passed from him, and he was content to lie and watch the iron bars rising and falling between the block-house and the white surf.

If they had been only humanely kind, his lot would have been bearable, but they starved him and held him down when he wished to rise; and they would not put out the fire in the pillow, which they might easily have done by the simple expedient of throwing it over the ship's side into the sea. He himself had done this twice, but the keeper had immediately brought a fresh pillow already heated for the torture and forced it under his head.

His pleasures were very simple, and so few that he could not understand why they robbed him of them so jealously. One was to watch a green cluster of bananas that hung above him from the awning, twirling on a string. He could count as many of them as five before the bunch turned and swung lazily back again, when he could count as high as twelve; sometimes when the ship rolled heavily he could count to twenty. It was a most fascinating game, and contented him for many hours. But when they found this out they sent for the cook to come and cut them down, and the cook carried them away to his galley.

Then, one day, a man came out from the shore, swimming through the blue water with great splashes. He was a most charming man, who spluttered and dove and twisted and lay on his back and kicked his legs in an excess of content and delight. It was a real pleasure to watch him; not for days had anything so amusing appeared on the other side of the prison-bars. But as soon as the keeper saw that the man in the water was amusing his prisoner, he leaned over the ship's side and shouted, "Sa-ay, you, don't you know there's skarks in there?"

And the swimming man said, "The h-ll there is!" and raced back to the shore like a porpoise with great lashing of the water, and ran up the beach half-way to the palms before he was satisfied to stop. Then the prisoner wept again. It was so disappointing. Life was robbed of everything now. He remembered that in a previous existence soldiers who cried were laughed at and mocked. But that was so far away and it was such an absurd superstition that he had no patience with it. For what could be more comforting to a man when he is treated cruelly than to cry. It was so obvious an exercise, and when one is so feeble that one cannot vault a four-railed barrier it is something to feel that at least one is strong enough to cry.

He escaped occasionally, traversing space with marvellous rapidity and to great distances, but never to any successful purpose; and his flight inevitably ended in ignominious recapture and a sudden awakening in bed. At these moments the familiar and hated palms, the peaks, and the block-house were more hideous in their reality than the most terrifying of his nightmares.

These excursions afield were always predatory; he went forth always to seek food. With all the beautiful world from which to elect and choose, he sought out only those places where eating was studied and elevated to an art. These visits were much more vivid in their detail than any he had ever before made to these same resorts. They invariably began in a carriage, which carried him swiftly over smooth asphalt. One route brought him across a great and beautiful square, radiating with rows and rows of flickering lights; two fountains splashed in the centre of the square, and six women of stone guarded its approaches. One of the women was hung with wreaths of mourning. Ahead of him the late twilight darkened behind a great arch, which seemed to rise on the horizon of the world, a great window into the heavens beyond. At either side strings of white and colored globes hung among the trees, and the sound of music came joyfully from theatres in the open air. He knew the restaurant under the trees to which he was now hastening, and the fountain beside it, and the very sparrows balancing on the fountain's edge; he knew every waiter at each of the tables, he felt again the gravel crunching under his feet, he saw the maître d'hôtel coming forward smiling to receive his command, and the waiter in the green apron bowing at his elbow, deferential and important, presenting the list of wines. But his adventure never passed that point, for he was captured again and once more bound to his cot with a close burning sheet.

Or else, he drove more sedately through the London streets in the late evening twilight, leaning expectantly across the doors of the hansom and pulling carefully at his white gloves. Other hansoms flashed past him, the occupant of each with his mind fixed on one idea—dinner. He was one of a million of people who were about to dine, or who had dined, or who were deep in dining. He was so famished, so weak for food of any quality, that the galloping horse in the hansom seemed to crawl. The lights of the Embankment passed like the lamps of a railroad station as seen from the window of an express; and while his mind was still torn between the choice of a thin or thick soup or an immediate attack upon cold beef, he was at the door, and the chasseur touched his cap, and the little chasseur put the wicker guard over the hansom's wheel. As he jumped out he said, "Give him half-a-crown," and the driver called after him, "Thank you, sir."

It was a beautiful world, this world outside of the iron bars. Every one in it contributed to his pleasure and to his comfort. In this world he was not starved nor man-handled. He thought of this joyfully as he leaped up the stairs, where young men with grave faces and with their hands held negligently behind their backs bowed to him in polite surprise at his speed. But they had not been starved on condensed milk. He threw his coat and hat at one of them, and came down the hall fearfully and quite weak with dread lest it should not be real. His voice was shaking when he asked Ellis if he had reserved a table. The place was all so real, it must be true this time. The way Ellis turned and ran his finger down the list showed it was real, because Ellis always did that, even when he knew there would not be an empty table for an hour. The room was crowded with beautiful women; under the light of the red shades they looked kind and approachable, and there was food on every table, and iced drinks in silver buckets. It was with the joy of great relief that he heard Ellis say to his underling, "Numéro cinq, sur la terrace, un couvert." It was real at last. Outside, the Thames lay a great gray shadow. The lights of the Embankment flashed and twinkled across it, the tower of the House of Commons rose against the sky, and here, inside, the waiter was hurrying toward him carrying a smoking plate of rich soup with a pungent, intoxicating odor.

And then the ragged palms, the glaring sun, the immovable peaks, and the white surf stood again before him. The iron rails swept up and sank again, the fever sucked at his bones, and the pillow scorched his cheek.

One morning for a brief moment he came back to real life again and lay quite still, seeing everything about him with clear eyes and for the first time, as though he had but just that instant been lifted over the ship's side. His keeper, glancing up, found the prisoner's eyes considering him curiously, and recognized the change. The instinct of discipline brought him to his feet with his fingers at his sides.

"Is the Lieutenant feeling better?"

The Lieutenant surveyed him gravely.

"You are one of our hospital stewards."

"Yes, Lieutenant."

"Why ar'n't you with the regiment?"

"I was wounded, too, sir. I got it same time you did, Lieutenant."

"Am I wounded? Of course, I remember. Is this a hospital ship?"

The steward shrugged his shoulders. "She's one of the transports. They have turned her over to the fever cases."

The Lieutenant opened his lips to ask another question; but his own body answered that one, and for a moment he lay silent.

"Do they know up North that I—that I'm all right?"

"Oh, yes, the papers had it in—there was pictures of the Lieutenant in some of them."

"Then I've been ill some time?"

"Oh, about eight days."

The soldier moved uneasily, and the nurse in him became uppermost.

"I guess the Lieutenant hadn't better talk any more," he said. It was his voice now which held authority.

The Lieutenant looked out at the palms and the silent gloomy mountains and the empty coast-line, where the same wave was rising and falling with weary persistence.

"Eight days," he said. His eyes shut quickly, as though with a sudden touch of pain. He turned his head and sought for the figure at the foot of the cot. Already the figure had grown faint and was receding and swaying.

"Has any one written or cabled?" the Lieutenant spoke, hurriedly. He was fearful lest the figure should disappear altogether before he could obtain his answer. "Has any one come?"

"Why, they couldn't get here, Lieutenant, not yet."

The voice came very faintly. "You go to sleep now, and I'll run and fetch some letters and telegrams. When you wake up, maybe I'll have a lot for you."

But the Lieutenant caught the nurse by the wrist, and crushed his hand in his own thin fingers. They were hot, and left the steward's skin wet with perspiration. The Lieutenant laughed gayly.

"You see, Doctor," he said, briskly, "that you can't kill me. I can't die. I've got to live, you understand. Because, sir, she said she would come. She said if I was wounded, or if I was ill, she would come to me. She didn't care what people thought. She would come anyway and nurse me—well, she will come.

"So, Doctor—old man—" He plucked at the steward's sleeve, and stroked his hand eagerly, "old man—" he began again, beseechingly, "you'll not let me die until she comes, will you? What? No, I know I won't die. Nothing made by man can kill me. No, not until she comes. Then, after that—eight days, she'll be here soon, any moment? What? You think so, too? Don't you? Surely, yes, any moment. Yes, I'll go to sleep now, and when you see her rowing out from shore you wake me. You'll know her; you can't make a mistake. She is like—no, there is no one like her—but you can't make a mistake."

That day strange figures began to mount the sides of the ship, and to occupy its every turn and angle of space. Some of them fell on their knees and slapped the bare decks with their hands, and laughed and cried out, "Thank God, I'll see God's country again!" Some of them were regulars, bound in bandages; some were volunteers, dirty and hollow-eyed, with long beards on boy's faces. Some came on crutches; others with their arms around the shoulders of their comrades, staring ahead of them with a fixed smile, their lips drawn back and their teeth protruding. At every second step they stumbled, and the face of each was swept by swift ripples of pain.

They lay on cots so close together that the nurses could not walk between them. They lay on the wet decks, in the scuppers, and along the transoms and hatches. They were like shipwrecked mariners clinging to a raft, and they asked nothing more than that the ship's bow be turned toward home. Once satisfied as to that, they relaxed into a state of self-pity and miserable oblivion to their environment, from which hunger nor nausea nor aching bones could shake them.

The hospital steward touched the Lieutenant lightly on the shoulder.

"We are going North, sir," he said. "The transport's ordered North to New York, with these volunteers and the sick and wounded. Do you hear me, sir?"

The Lieutenant opened his eyes. "Has she come?" he asked.

"Gee!" exclaimed the hospital steward. He glanced impatiently at the blue mountains and the yellow coast, from which the transport was drawing rapidly away.

"Well, I can't see her coming just now," he said. "But she will," he added.

"You let me know at once when she comes."

"Why, cert'nly, of course," said the steward.

Three trained nurses came over the side just before the transport started North. One was a large, motherly looking woman, with a German accent. She had been a trained nurse, first in Berlin, and later in the London Hospital in Whitechapel, and at Bellevue. The nurse was dressed in white, and wore a little silver medal at her throat; and she was strong enough to lift a volunteer out of his cot and hold him easily in her arms, while one of the convalescents pulled his cot out of the rain. Some of the men called her "nurse"; others, who wore scapulars around their necks, called her "Sister"; and the officers of the medical staff addressed her as Miss Bergen.

Miss Bergen halted beside the cot of the Lieutenant and asked, "Is this the fever case you spoke about, Doctor—the one you want moved to the officers' ward?" She slipped her hand up under his sleeve and felt his wrist.

"His pulse is very high," she said to the steward. "When did you take his temperature?" She drew a little morocco case from her pocket and from that took a clinical thermometer, which she shook up and down, eying the patient meanwhile with a calm, impersonal scrutiny. The Lieutenant raised his head and stared up at the white figure beside his cot. His eyes opened and then shut quickly, with a startled look, in which doubt struggled with wonderful happiness. His hand stole out fearfully and warily until it touched her apron, and then, finding it was real, he clutched it desperately, and twisting his face and body toward her, pulled her down, clasping her hands in both of his, and pressing them close to his face and eyes and lips. He put them from him for an instant, and looked at her through his tears.

"Sweetheart," he whispered, "sweetheart, I knew you'd come."

As the nurse knelt on the deck beside him, her thermometer slipped from her fingers and broke, and she gave an exclamation of annoyance. The young Doctor picked up the pieces and tossed them overboard. Neither of them spoke, but they smiled appreciatively. The Lieutenant was looking at the nurse with the wonder and hope and hunger of soul in his eyes with which a dying man looks at the cross the priest holds up before him. What he saw where the German nurse was kneeling was a tall, fair girl with great bands and masses of hair, with a head rising like a lily from a firm, white throat, set on broad shoulders above a straight back and sloping breast—a tall, beautiful creature, half-girl, half-woman, who looked back at him shyly, but steadily.

"Listen," he said.

The voice of the sick man was so sure and so sane that the young Doctor started, and moved nearer to the head of the cot. "Listen, dearest," the Lieutenant whispered. "I wanted to tell you before I came South. But I did not dare; and then I was afraid something might happen to me, and I could never tell you, and you would never know. So I wrote it to you in the will I made at Baiquiri, the night before the landing. If you hadn't come now, you would have learned it in that way. You would have read there that there never was any one but you; the rest were all dream people, foolish, silly—mad. There is no one else in the world but you; you have been the only thing in life that has counted. I thought I might do something down here that would make you care. But I got shot going up a hill, and after that I wasn't able to do anything. It was very hot, and the hills were on fire; and they took me prisoner, and kept me tied down here, burning on these coals. I can't live much longer, but now that I have told you I can have peace. They tried to kill me before you came; but they didn't know I loved you, they didn't know that men who love you can't die. They tried to starve my love for you, to burn it out of me; they tried to reach it with their knives. But my love for you is my soul, and they can't kill a man's soul. Dear heart, I have lived because you lived. Now that you know—now that you understand—what does it matter?"

Miss Bergen shook her head with great vigor. "Nonsense," she said, cheerfully. "You are not going to die. As soon as we move you out of this rain, and some food cook—"

"Good God!" cried the young Doctor, savagely. "Do you want to kill him?"

When she spoke, the patient had thrown his arms heavily across his face, and had fallen back, lying rigid on the pillow.

The Doctor led the way across the prostrate bodies, apologizing as he went. "I am sorry I spoke so quickly," he said, "but he thought you were real. I mean he thought you were some one he really knew—"

"He was just delirious," said the German nurse, calmly.

The Doctor mixed himself a Scotch and soda and drank it with a single gesture.

"Ugh!" he said to the ward-room. "I feel as though I'd been opening another man's letters."


The transport drove through the empty seas with heavy, clumsy upheavals, rolling like a buoy. Having been originally intended for the freight-carrying trade, she had no sympathy with hearts that beat for a sight of their native land, or for lives that counted their remaining minutes by the throbbing of her engines. Occasionally, without apparent reason, she was thrown violently from her course; but it was invariably the case that when her stern went to starboard, something splashed in the water on her port side and drifted past her, until, when it had cleared the blades of her propeller, a voice cried out, and she was swung back on her home-bound track again.

The Lieutenant missed the familiar palms and the tiny block-house; and seeing nothing beyond the iron rails but great wastes of gray water, he decided he was on board a prison-ship, or that he had been strapped to a raft and cast adrift. People came for hours at a time and stood at the foot of his cot, and talked with him and he to them—people he had loved and people he had long forgotten, some of whom he had thought were dead. One of them he could have sworn he had seen buried in a deep trench, and covered with branches of palmetto. He had heard the bugler, with tears choking him, sound "taps"; and with his own hand he had placed the dead man's campaign hat on the mound of fresh earth above the grave. Yet here he was still alive, and he came with other men of his troop to speak to him; but when he reached out to them they were gone—the real and the unreal, the dead and the living—and even She disappeared whenever he tried to take her hand, and sometimes the hospital steward drove her away.

"Did that young lady say when she was coming back again?" he asked the steward.

"The young lady! What young lady?" asked the steward, wearily.

"The one who has been sitting there," he answered. He pointed with his gaunt hand at the man in the next cot.

"Oh, that young lady. Yes, she's coming back. She's just gone below to fetch you some hardtack."

The young volunteer in the next cot whined grievously.

"That crazy man gives me the creeps," he groaned. "He's always waking me up, and looking at me as though he was going to eat me."

"Shut your head," said the steward. "He's a better crazy man than you'll ever be with the little sense you've got. And he has two Mauser holes in him. Crazy, eh? It's a damned good thing for you that there was about four thousand of us regulars just as crazy as him, or you'd never seen the top of the hill."

One morning there was a great commotion on deck, and all the convalescents balanced themselves on the rail, shivering in their pajamas, and pointed one way. The transport was moving swiftly and smoothly through water as flat as a lake, and making a great noise with her steam-whistle. The noise was echoed by many more steam-whistles; and the ghosts of out-bound ships and tugs and excursion steamers ran past her out of the mist and disappeared, saluting joyously. All of the excursion steamers had a heavy list to the side nearest the transport, and the ghosts on them crowded to that rail and waved handkerchiefs and cheered. The fog lifted suddenly, and between the iron rails the Lieutenant saw high green hills on either side of a great harbor. Houses and trees and thousands of masts swept past like a panorama; and beyond was a mirage of three cities, with curling smoke-wreaths and sky-reaching buildings, and a great swinging bridge, and a giant statue of a woman waving a welcome home.

The Lieutenant surveyed the spectacle with cynical disbelief. He was far too wise and far too cunning to be bewitched by it. In his heart he pitied the men about him, who laughed wildly, and shouted, and climbed recklessly to the rails and ratlines. He had been deceived too often not to know that it was not real. He knew from cruel experience that in a few moments the tall buildings would crumble away, the thousands of columns of white smoke that flashed like snow in the sun, the busy, shrieking tug-boats, and the great statue would vanish into the sea, leaving it gray and bare. He closed his eyes and shut the vision out. It was so beautiful that it tempted him; but he would not be mocked, and he buried his face in his hands. They were carrying the farce too far, he thought. It was really too absurd; for now they were at a wharf which was so real that, had he not known by previous suffering, he would have been utterly deceived by it. And there were great crowds of smiling, cheering people, and a waiting guard of honor in fresh uniforms, and rows of police pushing the people this way and that; and these men about him were taking it all quite seriously, and making ready to disembark, carrying their blanket-rolls and rifles with them.

A band was playing joyously, and the man in the next cot, who was being lifted to a stretcher, said, "There's the Governor and his staff; that's him in the high hat." It was really very well done. The Custom-House and the Elevated Railroad and Castle Garden were as like to life as a photograph, and the crowd was as well handled as a mob in a play. His heart ached for it so that he could not bear the pain, and he turned his back on it. It was cruel to keep it up so long. His keeper lifted him in his arms, and pulled him into a dirty uniform which had belonged, apparently, to a much larger man—a man who had been killed probably, for there were dark brown marks of blood on the tunic and breeches. When he tried to stand on his feet, Castle Garden and the Battery disappeared in a black cloud of night, just as he knew they would; but when he opened his eyes from the stretcher, they had returned again. It was a most remarkably vivid vision. They kept it up so well. Now the young Doctor and the hospital steward were pretending to carry him down a gangplank and into an open space; and he saw quite close to him a long line policemen, and behind them thousands of faces, some of them women's faces—women who pointed at him and then shook their heads and cried, and pressed their hands to their cheeks, still looking at him. He wondered why they cried. He did not know them, nor did they know him. No one knew him; these people were only ghosts.

There was a quick parting in the crowd. A man he had once known shoved two of the policemen to one side, and he heard a girl's voice speaking his name, like a sob; and She came running out across the open space and fell on her knees beside the stretcher, and bent down over him, and he was clasped in two young, firm arms.

"Of course it is not real, of course it is not She," he assured himself. "Because She would not do such a thing. Before all these people She would not do it."

But he trembled and his heart throbbed so cruelly that he could not bear the pain.

She was pretending to cry.

"They wired us you had started for Tampa on the hospital ship," She was saying, "and Aunt and I went all the way there before we heard you had been sent North. We have been on the cars a week. That is why I missed you. Do you understand? It was not my fault. I tried to come. Indeed, I tried to come."

She turned her head and looked up fearfully at the young Doctor.

"Tell me, why does he look at me like that?" she asked. "He doesn't know me. Is he very ill? Tell me the truth." She drew in her breath quickly. "Of course you will tell me the truth."

When she asked the question he felt her arms draw tight about his shoulders. It was as though she was holding him to herself, and from some one who had reached out for him. In his trouble he turned to his old friend and keeper. His voice was hoarse and very low.

"Is this the same young lady who was on the transport—the one you used to drive away?"

In his embarrassment, the hospital steward blushed under his tan, and stammered.

"Of course it's the same young lady," the Doctor answered, briskly. "And I won't let them drive her away." He turned to her, smiling gravely. "I think his condition has ceased to be dangerous, madam," he said.

People who in a former existence had been his friends, and Her brother, gathered about his stretcher and bore him through the crowd and lifted him into a carriage filled with cushions, among which he sank lower and lower. Then She sat beside him, and he heard Her brother say to the coachman, "Home, and drive slowly and keep on the asphalt."

The carriage moved forward, and She put her arm about him, and his head fell on her shoulder, and neither of them spoke. The vision had lasted so long now that he was torn with the joy that after all it might be real. But he could not bear the awakening if it were not, so he raised his head fearfully and looked up into the beautiful eyes above him. His brows were knit, and he struggled with a great doubt and an awful joy.

"Dearest," he said, "is it real?"

"Is it real?" she repeated.

Even as a dream, it was so wonderfully beautiful that he was satisfied if it could only continue so, if but for a little while.

"Do you think," he begged again, trembling, "that it is going to last much longer?"

She smiled, and, bending her head slowly, kissed him.

"It is going to last—always," she said.