“Rats,” I affirmed, “add to the local color. Ships are their native habitat. Only sinking ships don’t have them.”
But her answer was to retort that rats carried bubonic plague, and to exit, carrying the sugar-bowl. I was ravenous, as are all convalescent typhoids, and one of the ways in which I eked out my still slender diet was by robbing the sugar-bowl at meals.
That day, I think it was, the deck furniture was put out on the Ella—numbers of white wicker chairs and tables, with bright cushions to match the awnings. I had a pair of ancient opera-glasses, as obsolete as my amputating knives, and, like them, a part of my heritage. By that time I felt a proprietary interest in the Ella, and through my glasses, carefully focused with a pair of scissors, watched the arrangement of the deck furnishings. A girl was directing the men. I judged, from the poise with which she carried herself, that she was attractive—and knew it. How beautiful she was, and how well she knew it, I was to find out before long. McWhirter to the contrary, she had nothing to do with my decision to sign as a sailor on the Ella.
One of the bright spots of that long hot summer was McWhirter. We had graduated together in June, and in October he was to enter a hospital in Buffalo as a resident. But he was as indigent as I, and from June to October is four months.
“Four months,” he said to me. “Even at two meals a day, boy, that’s something over two hundred and forty. And I can eat four times a day, without a struggle! Wouldn’t you think one of these overworked-for-the-good-of-humanity dubs would take a vacation and give me a chance to hold down his practice?”
Nothing of the sort developing, McWhirter went into a drug-store, and managed to pull through the summer with unimpaired cheerfulness, confiding to me that he secured his luncheons free at the soda counter. He came frequently to see me, bringing always a pocketful of chewing gum, which he assured me was excellent to allay the gnawings of hunger, and later, as my condition warranted it, small bags of gum-drops and other pharmacy confections.
McWhirter it was who got me my berth on the Ella. It must have been about the 20th of July, for the Ella sailed on the 28th. I was strong enough to leave the hospital, but not yet physically able for any prolonged exertion. McWhirter, who was short and stout, had been alternately flirting with the nurse, as she moved in and out preparing my room for the night, and sizing me up through narrowed eyes.
“No,” he said, evidently following a private line of thought; “you don’t belong behind a counter, Leslie. I’m darned if I think you belong in the medical profession, either. The British army’d suit you.”
“You know—Kipling idea—riding horseback, head of a column— undress uniform—colonel’s wife making eyes at you—leading last hopes and all that.”