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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter10)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER X

    IN THE ENEMY'S CAMP

    At seven o'clock that morning five big-bodied automobile trucks rolled up in a thundering procession. As they hove in sight on the starboard quarter and dropped anchor near the Jasper B., Cleggett recalled that this was the day which Cap'n Abernethy had set for getting the sticks and sails into the vessel. In the hurry and excitement of recent events aboard the ship he had almost forgotten it.

    A score of men scrambled from the trucks and began to haul out of them all the essentials of a shipyard. Wheel, rudder, masts, spars, bowsprit, quantities of rope and cable followed——in fact, every conceivable thing necessary to convert the Jasper B. from a hulk into a properly rigged schooner. Cleggett, with a pith and brevity characteristic of the man, had given his order in one sentence.

    "Make arrangements to get the sails and masts into her in one day," he had told Captain Abernethy.

    It was in the same large and simple spirit that a Russian Czar once laid a ruler across the map of his empire and, drawing a straight line from Moscow to Petersburg, commanded his engineers: "Build me a railroad to run like that." Genius has winged conceptions; it sees things as a completed whole from the first; it is only mediocrity which permits itself to be lost in details.

    Cleggett was like the Romanoffs in his ability to go straight to the point, but he had none of the Romanoff cruelty.

    Captain Abernethy had made his arrangements accordingly. If it pleased Cleggett to have a small manufacturing plant brought to the Jasper

    B. instead of having the Jasper B. towed to a shipyard, it was Abernethy's business as his chief executive officer to see that this was done. The Captain had let the contract to an enterprising and businesslike fellow, Watkins by name, who had at once looked the vessel over, taken the necessary measurements, and named a good round sum for the job. With several times the usual number of skilled workmen employed at double the usual rate of pay, he guaranteed to do in ten hours what might ordinarily have taken a week.

    Under the leadership of this capable Watkins, the workmen rushed at the vessel with the dash and vim of a gang of circus employees engaged in putting up a big tent and making ready for a show. To a casual observer it might have seemed a scene of confusion. But in reality the work jumped forward with order and precision, for the position of every bolt, chain, nail, cord, piece of iron and bit of wood had been calculated beforehand to a nicety; there was not a wasted movement of saw, adze, or hammer. The Jasper B., in short, had been measured accurately for a suit of clothes, the clothes had been made; they were now merely being put on.

    Refreshed by the first sound sleep she had been able to obtain for several nights, Lady Agatha joined Cleggett at an eight-o'clock breakfast. It was the first of May, and warm and bright; in a simple morning dress of pink linen Lady Agatha stirred in Cleggett a vague recollection of one of Tennyson's earlier poems. The exact phrases eluded him; perhaps, indeed, it was the underlying sentiment of nearly ALL of Tennyson's earlier poems of which she reminded him——those lyrics which are at once so romantic and so irreproachable morally.

    "We must give you Americans credit for imagination at any rate," she said smilingly, making her Pomeranian sit up on his hind legs and beg for a morsel of crisp bacon. "I awake in a boatyard after having gone to sleep in a dismantled barge."

    "Barge!" The word "barge" struck Cleggett unexpectedly; he was not aware that he had given a start and frowned.

    "Mercy!" exclaimed Lady Agatha, "how the dear man glares! What should I call it? Scow?" "Scow?" said Cleggett. He had scarcely recovered from the word "barge"; it is not to be denied that "scow" jarred upon him even more than "barge" had done.

    "I beg your pardon," said Lady Agatha, "but what IS the Jasper B., Mr. Cleggett?"

    "The Jasper B. is a schooner," said Cleggett. He tried to say it casually, but he was conscious as he spoke that there was a trace of hurt surprise in his voice. The most generous and chivalrous soul alive, Cleggett would have gone to the stake for Lady Agatha; and yet so unaccountable is that vain thing, the human soul (especially at breakfast time), that he felt angry at her for misunderstanding the Jasper B.

    "You aren't going to be horrid about it, are you?" she said. "Because, you know, I never said I knew anything about ships."

    She picked up the little dog and stood it on the table, making the animal extend its paws as if pleading. "Help me to beg Mr. Cleggett's pardon," she said, "he's going to be cross with us about his old boat."

    If Lady Agatha had been just an inch taller or just a few pounds heavier the playful mood itself would have jarred upon the fastidious Cleggett; indeed, as she was, if she had been just a thought more playful, it would have jarred. But Lady Agatha, it has been remarked before, never went too far in any direction.

    Even as she smiled and held out the dog's paws Cleggett was aware of something in her eyes that was certainly not a tear, but was just as certainly a film of moisture that might be a tear in another minute. Then Cleggett cursed himself inwardly for a brute——it rushed over him how difficult to Lady Agatha her position on board the Jasper B. must seem. She must regard herself as practically a pensioner on his bounty. And he had been churl enough to show a spark of temper——and that, too, after she had repeatedly expressed her gratitude to him.

    "I am deeply sorry, Lady Agatha," he began, blushing painfully, "if——"

    "Silly!" She interrupted him by reaching across the table and laying a forgiving hand upon his arm. "Don't be so stiff and formal. Eat your egg before it gets cold and don't say another work. Of course I know you're not REALLY going to be cross." And she attacked her breakfast, giving him such a look that he forthwith forgave himself and forgot that he had had anything to forgive in her.

    "There's going to be a frightful racket around here today," he said presently. "Maybe you'd like to get away from it for a while. How'd you like to go for a row?"

    "I'd love it!" she said.

    "George will be glad to take you, I'm sure."

    "George? And you?" He thought he detected a note of disappointment in her voice; he had not thought to disappoint her, but when he found her disappointed he got a certain thrill out of it.

    "I am going over to Morris's this morning," he said.

    "To Morris's? Alone?"

    "Why, yes."

    "But——but isn't it dangerous?"

    Cleggett smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

    "Promise me that you will not go over there alone," she demanded.

    "I am sorry. I cannot."

    "But it is rash——it is mad!"

    "There is no real danger."

    "Then I am going with you."

    "I think that would hardly be advisable."

    "I'm going with you," she repeated, rising with determination.

    "But you're not," said Cleggett. "I couldn't think of allowing it."

    "Then there IS danger," she said.

    He tried to evade the point. "I shouldn't have mentioned it," he murmured.

    She ran into the stateroom and was back in an instant with her hat, which she pinned on as she spoke.

    "I'm ready to start," she said. "But you're not going."

    "After what you've done for me I insist upon my right to share whatever danger there may be." She spoke heatedly.

    In her heat and impulsiveness and generous bravery Cleggett thought her adorable, although he began to get really angry with her, too. At the same time he was aware that her gratitude to him was such that she was on fire to give him some positive and early proof of it. It had not so much as occurred to her to enjoy immunity on account of her sex; it had not entered her mind, apparently, that her sex was an obstacle in the way of participating in whatever dangerous enterprise he had planned. She was, in fact, behaving like a chivalric but obstinate boy; she had not been a militant suffragette for nothing. And yet, somehow, this attitude only served to enhance her essential femininity. Nevertheless, Cleggett was inflexible.

    "You would scarcely forbid me to go to Morris's today, or anywhere else I may choose," she said hotly, with a spot of red on either cheek bone, and a dangerous dilatation of her eyes.

    "That is exactly what I intend to do," said Cleggett, with an intensity equal to her own, "FORBID you."

    "You are curiously presumptuous," she said.

    It was a real quarrel before they were done with it, will opposed to naked will. And oddly enough Cleggett found his admiration grow as his determination to gain his point increased. For she fought fair, disdaining the facile weapon of tears, and when she yielded she did it suddenly and merrily.

    "You've the temper of a sultan, Mr. Cleggett," she said with a laugh, which was her signal of capitulation. And then she added maliciously: "You've a devil of a temper——for a little man!"

    "Little!" Cleggett felt the blood rush into his face again and was vexed at himself. "I'm taller than you are!" he cried, and the next instant could have bitten his tongue off for the childish vanity of the speech.

    "You're not!" she cried, her whole face alive with laughter. "Measure and see!"

    And pulling off her hat she caught up a table knife and made him stand with his back to hers. "You're cheating," said Cleggett, laughing now in spite of himself, as she laid the knife across their heads. But his voice broke and trembled on the next words, for he was suddenly thrilled with her delicious nearness. "You're standing on your tiptoes, and your hair's piled on top of your head."

    "Maybe you are an inch taller," she admitted, with mock reluctance. And then she said, with a ripple of mirth: "You are taller than I am——I give up; I won't go to Morris's."

    Cleggett, to tell the truth, was a bit relieved at the measurement. He was of the middle height; she was slightly taller than the average woman; he had really thought she might prove taller than he. He could scarcely have told why he considered the point important.

    But after the quarrel she looked at Cleggett with a new and more approving gaze. Neither of them quite realized it, but she had challenged his ability to dominate her, and she had been worsted; he had unconsciously met and satisfied in her that subtle inherent craving for domination which all women possess and so few will admit the possession of.

    Cleggett started across the sands toward Morris's with an automatic pistol slung in a shoulder holster under his left arm and a sword cane in his hand. He paused a moment by the scene of the explosion of the night before, but daylight told him nothing that lantern light had failed to reveal. He had no very definite plan, although he thought it possible that he might gain some information. The more he reflected on the attitude of Morris's, the more it irritated him, and he yearned to make this irritation known.

    Perhaps there was more than a little of the spirit of bravado in the call he proposed to pay. He planned, the next day, to sail the Jasper B. out into the bay and up and down the coast for a few miles, to give himself and his men a bit of practice in navigation before setting out for the China Seas. And he could not bear to think that the hostile denizens of Morris's should think that he had moved the Jasper B. from her position through any fear of them. He reasoned that the most pointed way of showing his opinion of them would be to walk casually into Morris's barroom and order a drink or two. If Cleggett had a fault as a commander it lay in these occasional foolhardy impulses which he found it difficult to control. Julius Caesar had the same sort of pride, which, in Caesar's case, amounted to positive vanity. In fact, the character of Caesar and the character of Cleggett had many points in common, although Cleggett possessed a nicer sense of honor than Caesar.

    The main entrance to Morris's was on the west side. From the west verandah one could enter directly either the main dining-room, at the north side of the building, the office, or the barroom. The barroom, which was large, ran the whole length of the south side of the place. Doors also led into the barroom, from the south verandah, which was built over the water, and from the east verandah, which was visible from the Jasper B.——and onto the roof of which Cleggett had seen Loge tumble the limp body of his victim, Heinrich. That had been only the day before, but so much had happened since that Cleggett could scarcely realize that so little time had elapsed.

    Cleggett strolled into the barroom and took a seat at a table in the southeast corner of it, with his back to the angle of the walls. He thus commanded a view of the bar itself; a door which led, as he conjectured, into the kitchen; the door communicating with the office, and a door which gave upon the west verandah——all this easily, and without turning his head. By turning his head ever so slightly to his right, he could command a view of the door leading to the east verandah. Unless the ceiling suddenly opened above him, or the floor beneath, it would be impossible to surprise him. Cleggett took this position less through any positive fear of attack than because he possessed the instinct of the born strategist. Cleggett was like Robert E. Lee in his quick grasp of a situation and, indeed, in other respects——although Cleggett would never under any circumstances have countenanced human slavery. There were only two men in the place when Cleggett took his seat, the bartender and a fellow who was evidently a waiter. He had entered the west door and walked across the room without looking at them, withholding his gaze purposely. When he looked towards the bar, after seating himself, the waiter, with his back towards Cleggett's corner, was talking in a low tone to the bartender. But they had both seen him; Cleggett perceived they both knew him.

    "See what the gentleman wants, Pierre," said the bartender in a voice too elaborately casual to hide his surprise at seeing Cleggett.

    The waiter turned and came towards him, and Cleggett saw the man's face for the first time. It was a face that Cleggett never forgot. Cleggett judged the man to be a Frenchman; he was dark and sallow, with nervous, black eyebrows, and a smirk that came and went quickly. But the unforgettable feature was a mole that grew on his upper lip, on the right side, near the base of his flaring nostril. Many moles have hairs in them; Pierre's mole had not merely half a dozen hairs, but a whole crop. They grew thick and long; and, with a perversion of vanity almost inconceivable in a sane person, Pierre had twisted these hairs together, as a man twists a mustache, and had trained them to grow obliquely across his cheek bone. He was a big fellow, for a Frenchman, and, as he walked towards Cleggett with a mincing elasticity of gait, he smirked and caressed this whimsical adornment. Cleggett, fascinated, stared at it as the fellow paused before him. Pierre, evidently gratified at the sensation he was creating, continued to smirk and twist, and then, seeing that he held his audience, he took from his waistcoat pocket a little piece of cosmetic and, as a final touch of Gallic grotesquerie, waxed the thing. It was all done with that air of quiet histrionicism, and with that sense of self-appreciation, which only the French can achieve in its perfection. "You ordered, M'sieur?" Pierre, having produced his effect, like the artist (though debased) that he was, did not linger over it.

    "Er——a Scotch highball," said Cleggett, recovering himself. "And with a piece of lemon peeling in it, please." Pierre served him deftly. Cleggett stirred his drink and sipped it slowly, gazing at the bartender, who elaborately avoided watching him. But after a moment a little noise at his right attracted his attention. Pierre, with his hand cupped, had dashed it along a window pane and caught a big stupid fly, abroad thus early in the year. With a sense of almost intolerable disgust, Cleggett saw the man, with a rapt smile on his face, tear the insect's legs from it, and turn it loose. If ever a creature rejoiced in wickedness for its own sake, and as if its practice were an art in itself, Pierre was that person, Cleggett concluded. Knowing Pierre, one could almost understand those cafes of Paris where the silly poets of degradation ostentatiously affect the worship of all manner of devils.

    An instant later, Pierre, as if he had been doing something quite charming, looked at Cleggett with a grin; a grin that assumed that there was some kind of an understanding between them concerning this delightful pastime. It was too much. Cleggett, with an oath——and never stopping to reflect that it was perhaps just the sort of action which Pierre hoped to provoke——grasped his cane with the intention of laying it across the fellow's shoulders half a dozen times, come what might, and leaving the place.

    But at that instant the door from the office opened and the man whom he knew only as Loge entered the room.

    Loge paused at the right of Cleggett, and then marched directly across the room and sat down opposite the commander of the Jasper B. at the same table. He was wearing the cutaway frock coat, and as he swung his big frame into the seat one of his coat tails caught in the chair back and was lifted.

    Cleggett saw the steel butt of an army revolver. Loge perceived by his face that he had seen it, and laughed.

    "I've been wanting to talk to you," he said, leaning across the table and showing his yellow teeth in a smile which he perhaps intended to be ingratiating. Cleggett, looking Loge fixedly in the eye, withdrew his right hand from beneath his coat, and laid his magazine pistol on the table under his hand.

    "I am at your service," he said, steadily, giving back unwavering gaze for gaze. "I am looking for some information myself, and I am in exactly the humor for a little comfortable chat."

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