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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter8)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER VIII

    A FLAME LEAPS OUT OF THEDARK

    Kuroki announced dinner; Cleggett entered the captain's mess room of the cabin, where the cloth was laid, and a moment later lady Agatha emerged from the stateroom and gave him her hand with a smile.

    If he had thought her beautiful before, when she wore her plain traveling suit, he thought her radiant now, in the true sense of that much abused word. For she flung forth her charm in vital radiations. If Cleggett had possessed a common mind he might have phrased it to himself that she hit a man squarely in the eyes. Her beauty had that direct and almost aggressive quality that is like a challenge, and with sophisticated feminine art she had contrived that the dinner gown she chose for that evening should sound the keynote of her personality like a leitmotif in an opera. The costume was a creation of white satin, the folds caught here and there with strings of pearls. There was a single large rose of pink velvet among the draperies of the skirt; a looped girdle of blue velvet was the only other splash of color. But the full-leaved, expanded and matured rose became the vivid epitome and illustration of the woman herself. A rope of pearls that hung down to her waist added the touch of soft luster essential to preserve the picture from the reproach of being too obvious an assault upon the senses; Cleggett reflected that another woman might have gone too far and spoiled it all by wearing diamonds. Lady Agatha always knew where to stop.

    "I have not been so hungry since I was in Holloway Jail," said Lady Agatha. And she ate with a candid gusto that pleased Cleggett, who loathed in a woman a finical affectation of indifference to food.

    When Kuroki brought the coffee she took up her own story again. There was little more to tell.

    Dopey Eddie and Izzy the Cat, it appeared, had mistaken their instructions. Two nights after they had been engaged they had appeared at Lady Agatha's apartment with the oblong box.

    "The horrid creatures brought it into my sitting-room and laid it on the floor before I could prevent them," said Lady Agatha.

    "'What is this?' I asked them, in bewilderment.

    "They replied that they had killed Reginald Maltravers ACCORDING TO ORDERS, and had brought him to me.

    "'Orders!' I cried. 'You had no such orders.' Elmer, who lived on the same floor, was absent temporarily, having taken Teddy out for an airing. I was distracted. I did not know what to do. 'Your orders," I said, 'were to——to——'"

    She broke off. "What was it that Elmer told them to do, and what was it that they did?" she mused, perplexed. She called Elmer into the cabin.

    "Elmer," she said, "exactly what was it that you told your friends to do to him? And what was it that they did? I can never remember the words."

    "Poke him," said Elmer, addressing Cleggett. "I tells these ginks to poke him. But these ginks tells th' little dame here they t'inks I has said to croak him. So they goes an' croaks him. D' youse get me?"

    Being assured that they got him, Elmer downheartedly withdrew.

    "At any rate," continued Lady Agatha, "there was that terrible box upon my sitting-room floor, and there were those two degraded wretches. The callous beasts stood above the box apparently quite insensible to the ethical enormity of their crime. But they were keen enough to see that it might be used as a lever with which to force more money from me. For when I demanded that they take the box away with them and dispose of it, they only laughed at me. They said that they had had enough of that box. They had delivered the goods——that was the phrase they used——and they wanted more money. And they said they would not leave until they got it. They threatened, unless I gave them the money at once, to leave the place and get word to the police of the presence of the box in my apartment.

    "I was in no mental condition to combat and get the better of them. I felt myself to be entirely in their power. I saw only the weakness of my own position. I could not, at the moment, see the weak spots in theirs. Elmer might have advised me——but he was not there. The miserable episode ended with my giving them a thousand dollars each, and they left.

    "Alone with that box, my panic increased. When Elmer returned with Teddy, I told him what had happened. He wished to open the box, having a vague idea that perhaps after all it did not really contain what they had said was in it. But I could not bear the thought of its being opened. I refused to allow Elmer to look into it.

    "I determined that I would ship the box at once to some fictitious personage, and then take the next ship back to England.

    "I hastily wrote a card, which I tacked on the box, consigning it to Miss Genevieve Pringle, Newark, N. J. The name was the first invention that came into my head. Newark I had heard of. I knew vaguely that it was west of New York, but whether it was twenty miles west or two thousand miles, I did not stop to think. I am ignorant of American geography.

    "But no sooner had the box been taken away than I began to be uneasy. I was more frightened with it gone than I had been with it present. I imagined it being dropped and broken, and revealing everything. And then it occurred to me that even if I should get out of the country, the secret was bound to be discovered some time. I do not know why I had not thought of that before——but I was distracted. Having got rid of the box, I was already wild to get it into my possession again.

    "I confided my fears to Elmer, and was surprised to learn from him that Newark is very near New York. We took a taxicab at once, and were waiting at the freight depot in Newark when the thing arrived. There I claimed it in the name of Miss Genevieve Pringle.

    "It became apparent to me that I must manage its final disposition myself. Elmer hired for me the vehicle in which we arrived here, and we started back to New York.

    "But the driver, from the first, was suspicious of the box. His suspicions were increased when, upon returning to my apartment hotel, where I now decided to keep the box until I could think out a coherent plan of action, the manager of the hotel made inquiries. The manager had seen the box brought in, and taken out again, before. Its return struck him as odd. He offered to store it for me in the basement. I took alarm at once. Naturally, he questioned me more closely. I was unready in my answers. His inquiries excited and alarmed me. I felt that any instant I might do something to betray myself. I cut the manager short, paid my bill, got my luggage, and ordered the chauffeur to drive to the Grand Central Station. But when we had gone three or four blocks, I said to him: 'Stop!——I do not wish to go to the Grand Central Station. Drive me to Poughkeepsie!' I wished a chance to think. I knew Poughkeepsie was not far from New York City, but I supposed it was far enough to give me a chance to determine what to do next by the time we arrived there.

    "But I could not think coherently. I could only feel and fear. The drive was longer than I had expected, but when we arrived at Poughkeepsie and the chauffeur asked me again what disposition to make of the box, I was unable to answer him. Thereupon he insolently demanded an enormous fare.

    "I could not choose but pay it. For four days we went from place to place, in and about New York City's suburbs——now in town and now in the country——crossing rivers again and again on ferryboats——stopping at hotels, road houses and all manner of places——dashing through Brooklyn and out among the villages of Long Island——and with the fear on me that we were being followed.

    "Elmer and I were continually on the lookout for some way to dispose of the box, but nothing presented itself. The driver, who had become more and more impudent in his attitude and outrageous in his charges, was now practically a spy upon us. The necessity for ice made frequent stops imperative; at the same time the increasing fear of pursuit made it agony for me to stop anywhere.

    "Today, at a road house thirty or forty miles from here, I made certain that I was pursued. The very man from whom I had claimed the box at the railway goods station in Newark confronted me. It appears, from what Elmer says, that he is taking a holiday and is visiting his brother, who is the proprietor of the road house.

    "And the person who is pursuing me is——a Miss Genevieve Pringle!

    "As fate would have it, there lives in Newark a person who really owns that name which I thought I had invented. It seems that she had been expecting a shipment, and had called to inquire for it; upon learning that a box had been delivered to a person in her name she had taken up the trail at once. Having somehow traced me to Long Island, she had actually made inquiries at this very road house some hours earlier. The railway employee, I am certain, would have denounced me at once——he would have accused me of theft, and would have endeavored to have me held until he could get into communication with Miss Pringle or with the authorities——but I bought from him a promise of silence. It cost me another large sum.

    "A few hours ago the chauffeur, divining from a conversation between Elmer and me that I was running short of ready money, deserted me here. You know the rest."

    Her voice trailed off into a tired whisper as she finished, and with her elbows on the table Lady Agatha wearily supported her head in her hands. Her attitude acknowledged defeat. She was despairingly certain that she would never see the last of the box which she believed to contain Reginald Maltravers.

    Cleggett did not hesitate an instant. "Lady Agatha," he said, "the Jasper B. is at your service as long as you may require the ship. The cabin is your home until we arrive at a solution of your difficulties."

    His glance and manner added what his tongue left unuttered——that the commander of the ship was henceforth her devoted cavalier. But she understood.

    She extended her hand. Her answer was on her lips. But at that instant the jarring roar of an explosion struck the speech from them.

    The blast was evidently near, though muffled. The earth shook; a tremor ran through the Jasper B.; the glasses leaped and rang upon the table. Cleggett, followed by Lady Agatha, darted up the companionway.

    As Cleggett reached the deck there was a second shock, and he beheld a flame leap out of the earth itself——a sudden sword of fire thrust into the night from the midst of the sandy plain before him. The light that stabbed and was gone in an instant was about halfway between the Jasper

    B. and Morris's. A second after, a missile——which Cleggett later learned was a piece of rock the size of a man's head——fell with a splintering crash upon and through the wooden platform beside the Jasper B., not thirty feet from where Cleggett stood; another splashed into the canal. The next day Cleggett saw several of these fragments lying about the plain.

    Calling to his men to bring lanterns——for the night had fallen dark and cloudy——Cleggett ran towards the place. Lady Agatha, refusing to remain behind, went with them. Moving lights and a stir of activity at Morris's, and the gleam of lanterns on board the Annabel Lee, showed Cleggett that his neighbors likewise were excited.

    But if Cleggett had expected an easy solution of this astonishing eruption he was disappointed. Arrived at the scene of the explosion, he found that its nature was such as to tease and balk his faculties of analysis. The blast had blown a hole into the ground, certainly; but this hole was curiously filled. Two large bowlders that leaned towards each other had stood on top of the ground. These had been split and shattered into many fragments. A few pieces, like the one that came so near Cleggett, had been flung to a distance, but for the most part the shivered crowns and broken bulks had been served otherwise; the force of the blast had disintegrated them, but had not scattered them; the greater part of this newly-rent stone had toppled into the fissure in the ground, and lay there mixed with earth, almost filling the hole. It was impossible to determine just where and how the blast had been set off; the rocks hid the facts. But Cleggett judged that the force must have come from below the bowlders; mightily smitten from beneath, they had collapsed into the cavern suddenly opening there, as a building might collapse into and fill a cellar. The pieces that had been thrown high into the air were insignificant in proportion to the great bulk which had settled into the hole and made its origin a mystery.

    As Cleggett, bewildered, stood and gazed upon the mass of rock and earth, Cap'n Abernethy gave a cry and pointed at something with his finger. Cleggett, looking at the spot indicated, saw upon the edge of this singular fracture in the earth a thing that sent a quick chill of horror and repulsion to his heart. It was a dead hand, roughly severed between the wrist and the elbow. The back of it was uppermost; the fingers were clenched. Cleggett set down his lantern beside it and turned it over with his foot. The dead fingers clutched a scrap of something yellow. On one of them was a large and peculiar ring.

    "My God!" murmured Lady Agatha, grasping Cleggett convulsively by the shoulder, "that is the Earl of Claiborne's signet ring!"

    But Cleggett scarcely realized what she had said, until she repeated her words. Fighting down his repugnance, he took from the lifeless and stubborn fingers the yellow scrap of paper.

    It was a torn and crumpled twenty-dollar bill.

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