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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter17)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XVII

    MISS PRINGLE CALLS ON MR.CLEGGETT

    But the rushing onset of events struck them apart. Out of the night leaped danger, enhancing love and forbidding it. From the starboard bow Captain Abernethy shrilled a cry of warning, and the heavy, bellowing voice of Loge shouted an answer of challenge and ferocity. The wind had fallen, but the lightning played from the clouds now almost without intermission. Cleggett saw Loge and his followers, machete in hand, flinging themselves at the rail. They lifted a hoarse cheer as they came. The fire from the Jasper B. had checked the assault temporarily; it had not broken it up; once they found lodgment on the deck the superior numbers of Loge's crowd must inevitably tell.

    Loge was a dozen feet in advance of his men. He had cast aside the light sword which belonged to Cleggett, and now swung a grim machete in his hand. Cleggett flung down his gun, grasped a cutlass, and sprang forward, his one idea to come to close quarters with that gigantic figure of rage and power.

    But before Loge reached the bulwark on one side, and while Cleggett was bounding toward him on the other, this on-coming group of Cleggett's foes were suddenly smitten in the rear as if by a thunderbolt. Out of the night and storm, mad with terror, screaming like fiends, with distended nostrils and flying manes and flailing hoofs, there plunged into the midst of the assaulting party a pair of snow-white horses——astounding, felling, trampling, scattering, filling them with confusion. A rocking carriage leaped and bounded behind the furious animals, and as the horses struck the bulwark and swerved aside, its weight and bulk, hurled like a missile among Cleggett's staggered and struggling enemies, completed and confirmed their panic.

    No troops on earth can stand the shock of a cavalry charge in the rear and flank; few can face surprise; the boarding party, convinced that they had fallen into a trap, melted away. One moment they were sweeping forward, vicious and formidable, confident of victory; the next they were floundering weaponless, scrambling anyhow for safety, multiplying and transforming, with the quick imagination of panic terror, these two horses into a troop of mounted men.

    This sudden and almost spectral apparition of galloping steeds and flying carriage, hurled upon the vessel out of the tempest, flung, a piece of whirling chaos, from the chaotic skies, had almost as startling an effect upon the defenders. For a moment they paused, with weapons uplifted, and stared. Where an enemy had been, there was nothing. So doubtful Greeks or Trojans might have paused and stared upon the plains of Ilion when some splenetic and fickle deity burst unannounced and overwhelming into the central clamor of the battle.

    But it is in these seconds of pause and doubt that great commanders assert themselves; it is these electric seconds from which the hero gathers his vital lightning and forges his mordant bolt. Genius claims and rules these instants, and the gods are on the side of those who boldly grasp loose wisdom and bind it into sheaves of judgment. Cleggett (whom Homer would have loved) was the first to recover his poise. He came to his decision instantaneously. A lesser man might have lost all by rushing after his retreating enemies; a lesser man, carried away by excitement, would have pursued. Cleggett did not relax his grasp upon the situation, he restrained his ardor.

    "Stand firm, men! Do not leave the ship," he shouted. "The day is ours!"

    And then, turning to Captain Abernethy, he cried:

    "We have routed them!" "Look at them crazy horses!" screamed the Captain in reply.

    The animals were rearing and struggling among the ruins of the broken gangplank. As the Captain spoke, they plunged aboard the ship, and the carriage, bounding after them, overturned on the deck——horses and carriage came down together in a welter of splintering wheels and broken harness and crashing wood.

    A negro driver, whom Cleggett now noticed for the first time, shot clear of the mass and landed on the deck in a sitting posture.

    For a moment, there he sat, and did nothing more. The pole broke loose from the carriage, the traces parted, and the two big white horses, still kicking and plunging, struggled to their feet and free from the wreckage. Still side by side they leaped the port bulwark, splashed into the canal, and swam straight across it, as if animated with the instinct of going straight ahead in that fashion to the end of the world. Cleggett never saw or heard of them again.

    "Bring a lantern," said Cleggett to Abernethy. "Let's see if this man is badly hurt."

    But the negro was not injured. He rose to his feet as the Captain brought the light——the storm was now subsiding, and the lightning was less frequent——and stood revealed as a person of surprising size and unusual blackness. He was, in fact, so black that it was no wonder that Cleggett had not seen him on the seat of the carriage, for unless one turned a light full upon him his face could not be seen at all after dark. He was in a blue livery, and his high, cockaded coachman's hat had stayed on his head in spite of everything.

    Even sitting down on the deck he had possessed an air of patience. When he arose and the Captain flashed the light upon his face, it revealed a countenance full of dignified good humor.

    "Where did you come from?" asked Cleggett.

    The negro removed the hat with the cockade before answering. He did it politely. Even ceremoniously. But he did not do it hastily. He had the air of one who was never inclined to do things hastily. "From Newahk, sah," he said. "Newahk, New Jehsey, sah."

    "But who are you?" said Cleggett. "How did you get here?"

    The negro was gazing reflectively at the broken carriage.

    "Ah yo' Mistah Cleggett, sah? Mistah Clement J. Cleggett, sah, the ownah of dis hyeah boat?"

    "Yes."

    The negro fumbled in an inner pocket and produced a card. He gave it to Cleggett with a deferential bow, and then announced sonorously:

    "Miss Genevieve Pringle, sah——in de cah-age, sah——a callin' on Mistah Clement J. Cleggett."

    He completed the announcement with a dignified and courtly gesture, which seemed to indicate that he was presenting the ruined carriage itself to Cleggett.

    "You don't mean in that carriage?" cried Cleggett.

    "Yes, sah," said the negro. "Leas'ways, she was, sah, some time back. Mah time an' mah 'tention done been so tooken up wif dem incompatible hosses fo' some moments past, sah, dat I cain't say fo' suah ef she adheahed, or ef she didn't adheah."

    He glanced speculatively at the carriage again. Cleggett sprang towards the broken vehicle, expecting to find someone seriously injured at the very least. But, from the ruin, a precise and high-pitched feminine voice piped out:

    "Jefferson! Kindly assist me to disentangle myself!"

    "Yassum," said the negro, moving forward in a leisurely and dignified manner, "comin', ma'am. I hopes an' trusts, Miss Pringle, ma'am, yo' ain't suffered none in yo' anatomy an' phlebotomy from dis hyeah runaway."

    With which cheerful wish Jefferson lifted respectfully, and with a certain calm detachment, the figure of a woman from the debris.

    "Thank you, Jefferson," she said. "I fear I am very much bruised and shaken, but I have been feeling all my bones while lying there, and I believe that I have sustained no fractures."

    Miss Pringle was a woman of about fifty, small and prim. Prim with an unconquerable primness that neither storm nor battle nor accident could shake. If she had been killed in the runaway she would have looked prim in death while awaiting the undertaker. She must have been wet almost to those unfractured bones which she had been feeling; her black silk dress, with its white ruching about the neck, was torn and bedraggled; her black hat, with its jet ornaments, was crushed and hung askew over one ear; nevertheless, Miss Pringle conveyed at once and definitely an impression of unassailable respectability and strong character.

    "Which of you is Mr. Cleggett?" she asked, looking about her, in the lantern light, at the crew of the Jasper B., as she leaned upon the arm of Jefferson, her mannerly and deliberate servitor.

    "I am Mr. Cleggett."

    "Ah!" Miss Pringle inspected him with an eye which gleamed with a hint of latent possibilities of belligerency. "Mr. Cleggett," she continued, pursing her lips, "I have sought an interview to warn you that you are harboring an impostor on your ship."

    At that moment Lady Agatha joined the group. As the light fell upon her Miss Pringle stepped forward and thrust an accusing, a denunciatory finger at the Englishwoman.

    "You," she said, "call yourself Lady Agatha Fairhaven!"

    "I do," said Lady Agatha.

    "Woman!" cried Miss Pringle, shaking with the stress of her moral wrath. "Where are my plum preserves?"

    And with this cryptic utterance the little lady, having come to the end of her strength, primly fainted.

    Jefferson picked her up and carried her, in a serene and stately manner, to the cabin.

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