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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter23)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XXIII

    CUTLASSES

    There was no thought of guns or pistols. There was no time to aim or fire. Loge's rush had lodged him on the deck. Roaring like a wild animal, he carried the fight to the defenders. He meant to make a finish of it this time, and with the edged and bitter steel.

    As the women scurried into the cabin the two lines met, with a ringing clash of blades, on the deck of the Jasper B., and the sparks flew from the stricken metal. Cleggett strove to engage Loge hand to hand; and Loge, on his part, attempted to fight his way to Cleggett; they shouted insults at each other across the press of battle. But in affairs of this sort a man must give his attention to the person directly in front of him; otherwise he is lost. As Cleggett cut and thrust and parried, a sudden seizure overtook him; he moved as if in a dream; he had the eerie feeling that he had done all this before, sometime, perhaps in a previous existence, and would do it again. The clangor of the meeting swords, the inarticulate shouts and curses, the dance of struggling men across the deck, the whirling confusion of the whole fantastic scene beneath the quiet skies, struck upon his consciousness with that strange phantasmagoric quality which makes the hurrying unreality of dreams so much more vivid and more real than anything in waking life.

    In the center of Cleggett's line stood the three detectives shoulder to shoulder. Their three swords rose and fell as one. They cut and lunged and guarded with a machine-like regularity, advancing, giving ground, advancing again, with a rhythmic unanimity which was baffling to their opponents.

    On either flank of the detectives fought one of the gigantic negroes. Washington Artillery Lamb, almost at once, had broken his cutlass, and now he raged in the waist of the Jasper B. with a long iron bar in his hand. Miss Pringle's Jefferson, with his high cockaded hat still firmly fixed upon his head, laid about him with a heavy cavalry saber; in his excitement he still held his harmonica in his mouth and blew blasts upon it as he fought. The Rev. Simeon Calthrop, in a loud agitated voice, sang hymns as he swung his cutlass. And, among the legs of the combatants, leapt and snapped Teddy the Pomeranian, biting friend and foe indiscriminately upon the ankles.

    But gradually the weight of superior numbers began to tell. Farnsworth staggered from the fight with a face covered with blood which blinded him. Cap'n Abernethy likewise was bleeding from a wound in the head; George the Greek and Watson Bard were hurt, but both fought on. The crew of the Jasper B. and their allies of the Annabel Lee were being slowly forced back towards the cabin, when there came a sudden and decisive turn in the fortunes of the fight.

    Cleggett, straining to meet Loge, who hung sword to sword with Wilton Barnstable, saw Giuseppe Jones, deserted by his nurses, tumbling feebly over the bow of the Jasper B. in the rear of Loge's line. Barelegged, a red blanket fastened about his throat with a big brass safety pin, a thermometer in one hand and a medicine bottle in the other, he tottered, crazily and weakly between Loge and Barnstable, chanting a vers libre poem in a shrill, insane voice.

    Loge, who had extended himself in a vigorous lunge, was struck by the weight of the young anarchist's body at the crook of the knees, and came down on the deck at full length, his machete flying from his hand as he fell.

    Cleggett was upon the criminal in an instant, his hand at the outlaw's throat. They grappled and rolled upon the deck. But in another second Wilton Barnstable and Barton Ward, coming to Cleggett's assistance, had snapped irons upon the president of the crime trust, hand and foot.

    His overthrow was the signal of his men's defeat. As he went down they hesitated and wavered. The two great negroes, taking advantage of this hesitation, burst among them with mighty blows and strange Afro-American oaths, Castor and Pollux in bronze. With a shout of "Banzai!" Kuroki rushed forward with his kris; the other defenders added weight and fury to the rally. Before the irons were on the wrists of Loge his men were routed. They leaped the rail and made off for their fleet of taxicabs, flinging away their weapons as they ran.

    Loge writhed and twisted and lashed the deck with his legs and body for a moment, striving even against the bands of steel that bit into his wrists and ankles. And then he lay still with his face against the planks as if in a vast and overwhelming bitterness of despair.

    It had been Cleggett's earlier thought to take the man alive, if possible, and turn him over to the authorities. But now that Loge was taken he burned with the wish for personal combat with him. He desired to be the agent of society, and put an end to Logan Black himself.

    Cleggett, as he gazed at the fellow lying prone upon the deck, could not repress a murmur of dissatisfaction.

    "We never fought it out," he said.

    Whether Loge heard him or not, the same thought was evidently running is his mind. He lifted his head. A slow, malignant grin that showed his yellow canine teeth lifted his upper lip. He fixed his eyes on Cleggett with a cold deadliness of hatred and said:

    "You are lucky."

    Outwardly Cleggett remained calm, but inwardly he was shaken with an intensity of passion that matched Loge's own.

    "Lucky?" he said quietly. "That is as may be. And if, as I infer, you desire a settlement of a more personal nature than the law recognizes, it is still not too late to accommodate you."

    "Desire!" cried Loge, with a movement of his manacled hands. "I would go to Hell happy if I sent you ahead of me!"

    "Very well," said Cleggett. "Since you have challenged me I will fight you. I will do you that honor." Loge was about to answer when Wilton Barnstable broke in:

    "Mr. Cleggett," he said, "I scarcely understand you. Are you consenting to fight this man?"

    "Certainly," said Cleggett. "He has challenged me."

    "A duel?" said Wilton Barnstable in astonishment.

    "A duel."

    "But that is impossible. His life is forfeit to the law. I hope, before

    the year is out, to send him to the electric chair. Under the circumstances, a duel is an absurdity."

    "An absurdity?" Cleggett, with his hands on his hips, and a little dancing light in his eyes, faced the great detective squarely. "You permit yourself very peculiar expressions, Mr. Barnstable!"

    "I beg your pardon," said Wilton Barnstable. "I withdraw 'absurdity.' But you must see yourself, Mr. Cleggett, that a duel is useless, if nothing else. The man is our prisoner. He belongs to the law."

    Loge had struggled to a sitting posture, his back against the port bulwark, and was listening with an odd look on his face.

    "The law?" said Cleggett. "I suppose, in one sense, that is true. But the matter has its personal element as well."

    "I must insist," said Wilton Barnstable, "that Logan Black is my prisoner."

    Cleggett was silent a moment. Then he said firmly: "Mr. Barnstable, it is painful to me to have to remind you of it, but your attitude forces me to an equal directness. The fact that Logan Black is now a captive is due to his efforts to recover certain evidence which may be used against him. This evidence I discovered and defended, and this evidence I now hold in my possession."

    Wilton Barnstable was about to retort, perhaps heatedly, but Cleggett, generous even while determined to have his own way, hastened to add: "Do not think, Mr. Barnstable, that I minimize your work, or your assistance——but, after all, what am I demanding that is unreasonable? If Logan Black dies by my hand, are not the ends of justice served as well as if he died in the electric chair? And if I fall, the law may still take its course."

    Loge had listened to this speech attentively. He lifted his head and glanced about the deck, filling his lungs with a deep draft of air. Something like a gleam of hope was visible in his features.

    "It is irregular," said Wilton Barnstable, frowning, and not half convinced. "And, in the name of Heaven, why imperil your life needlessly? Why expose yourself again to the power of this monstrous criminal?"

    "The fellow has challenged me, and I have granted him a meeting," said Cleggett. "I hope there is such a thing as honor!"

    "Clement!" It was Lady Agatha who spoke. As she did so she laid her hand on Cleggett's arm. She had hearkened in silence to the colloquy between him and Barnstable, as had the others. She drew him out of sight and hearing behind the cabin."

    "Clement," she said with agitation, "do not fight this man!"

    "I must," he said simply. It cut him to the heart to refuse the first request that she had asked of him since his avowal of his love for her and her tacit acceptance. But, to a man of Cleggett's ideas, there was no choice.

    "Clement," she said in a low tone, "you have told me that you love

    me."

    "Agatha!" he murmured brokenly.

    "And you know——" she paused, as if she could not continue, but her

    eyes and manner spoke the rest. In a moment her lips spoke it too; she was not the sort of woman who is afraid to avow the promptings of her heart. "You know," she said, "that I love you."

    "Agatha!" he cried again. He could say no more.

    "Oh, Clement," she said, "if you were killed——killed uselessly!——now that I have found you, I could not bear it. Dear, I could not bear it!"

    Cleggett was profoundly moved. He yearned to take her in his arms to comfort her, and to promise anything she wished. And the thought came to him too that, if he should perish, the one kiss, given and received in the darkness and danger of fight and storm, would be all the brave sweetness of her that he would know this side of the grave; the thought came to him bitterly. For an instant he wavered.

    "Agatha!" he said with dry lips. "I have already accepted the fellow's challenge."

    "And what of that?" she cried. "Would you cling to a barren point of

    honor in despite of love?"

    "Even so," he said, and sighed.

    "Oh, Clement," she said, "I cannot bear it! I cannot bear to lose you!

    I always knew you were in the world somewhere——and now that I have found you it is only to give you up! It is too much!"

    Cleggett was silent for a moment. When he spoke it was slowly and gently, but earnestly.

    "No point of honor is a barren one, dear," he said. "What the man lying there may be matters nothing. It is not to him that I have given my word, but to myself. In our hurried modern life we are not punctilious enough about these things. Perhaps, in the old days, the men and women were worse than we in many ways. But they held to a few traditions, or the best of them did, that make the loose and tawdry manners of this age seem cheap indeed. All my life I have known that there was something shining and simple and precious concealed from the common herd of men in this common age, which the brighter spirits of the old days lived by and served and worshiped. I have always seen it plainly, and always tried to live by it, too. Perhaps it was never, in any period, more than a dream; but I have dreamed that dream. And anyone who dreams that dream will have a reverence for his spoken word no matter to whom it is passed. may be a fool to fight this man; well then, that is the kind of fool I am! Indeed, I know I am a fool by the judgments of this age. But I have never truly lived in this age. I have lived in the past; I have held to the dream; I have believed in the bright adventure; I have walked with the generous, chivalric spirits of the great ages; they have come to me out of my books and dwelt with me and been my companions, and the realities of time and place have been unreal in their presence. I see myself so walking always. It may be that I am a vain ass, but I cannot help it. It may be that I am a little mad; but I would rather be mad with a Don Quixote than sane with an Andrew Carnegie and pile up platitudes and dollars.

    "And all this foolishness of mine is somehow bound up with the thought that I have engaged to fight that evil fellow, and must do it; all the bright, sane madness in me cries out that he is to die by this hand of mine.

    "I have opened my heart to you, as I have never done to anyone before. And now I put myself into your hands. But, oh, take care——for it is something in me better than myself that I give you to deal with! And you can cripple it forever, because I love you and I shall listen to you. Shall I fight him?"

    She had listened, mute and immobile, and as he spoke the red sun made a sudden glory of her hair. She leaned towards him, and it was as if the spirit of all the man's lifelong, foolish, romantic musings were in her eyes and on her face.

    "Fight him!" she said. "And kill him!"

    And then her head was on his shoulder, and his arms were about her. "Don't die!" she sobbed. "Don't die!"

    "Don't fear," he said, "I feel that I'll make short work of him."

    She smiled courageously back at him; with her hands upon his shoulders she held him back and looked at him with tilted head.

    "If you are killed," she said, "it will have been more than most women ever get, to have known and loved you for two days."

    "Two days?" he said. "Forever!"

    "Forever!" she said.

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