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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter24)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XXIV

    THE DUEL

    Cleggett took Wilton Barnstable by the sleeve and drew him towards Loge, who, still seated on the deck with his long legs stretched out in front of him, was now yawning with a cynical affectation of boredom.

    "I wish you to act as my second in this affair," said Cleggett to the detective, "and I suggest that either Mr. Ward or Mr. Bard perform a like office for Mr. Black."

    Loge shrugged his shoulders, and said with a sneer:

    "A second, eh? We seem to be doing a great deal of arranging for a very small amount of fighting."

    "I suggest," said Wilton Barnstable, "that a night's rest would be quite in order for both principals."

    Loge broke in quickly, with studied insolence: "I object to the delay. Mr. Cleggett might find some excuse for changing his mind overnight. Let us, if you please, begin at once."

    "It was not I who suggested the delay," said Cleggett, haughtily.

    "Then give us the pistols," cried Loge, with a sudden, grim ferocity in his voice, "and let's make an end of it!"

    "We fight with swords," said Cleggett. "I am the challenged party."

    "Ho! Swords!" cried Loge, with a harsh, jarring laugh. "A bout

    with the rapiers, man to man, eh? Come, this is better and better! I may go to the chair, but first I will spit you like a squab on a skewer, my little nut!" And then he said again, with a shout of gusty mirth, and a clanking of his manacles: "Swords, eh? By God! The little man says SWORDS!"

    Wilton Barnstable drew Cleggett to one side.

    "Name pistols," he said. "For God's sake, Cleggett, name pistols! If I had had any idea that you were going to demand rapiers I should have warned you before."

    Cleggett was amused at the great detective's anxiety. "It appears that the fellow handles the rapier pretty well, eh?" he said easily.

    "Cleggett——" began Barnstable. And then he paused and groaned and mopped his brow. Presently he controlled his agitation and continued. "Cleggett," he said, "the man is an expert swordsman. I have been on his trail; I know his life for years past. He was once a maitre d'armes. He gave lessons in the art."

    "Yes?" said Cleggett, laughing and flexing his wrist. "I am glad to hear that! It will be really interesting then."

    "Cleggett," said Barnstable, "I beg of you——name pistols. This is the man who invented that diabolical thrust with which Georges Clemenceau laid low so many of his political opponents. If you must go on with this mad duel, name pistols!"

    "Barnstable," said Cleggett, "I know what I am about, believe me. Your anxiety does me little honor, but I am willing to suppose that you are not deliberately insulting, and I pass it over. I intend to kill this man. It is a duty which I owe to society. And as for the rapier——believe me, Barnstable, I am no novice. And my blood tingles and my soul aches with the desire to expunge that man from life with my own hand. Come, we have talked enough. There is a case of swords in the cabin. Will you do me the favor to bring them on deck?"

    Loge's irons were unlocked. He rose to his feet and stretched himself. He removed his coat and waistcoat. Then he took off his shirt, revealing the fact that he wore next his skin a long-sleeved undershirt of red flannel.

    Cleggett began to imitate him. But as the commander of the Jasper B. began to pull his shirt over his head he heard a little scream. Everyone turned in the direction from which it had emanated. They beheld Miss Genevieve Pringle perched upon the top of the cabin, whither she had mounted by means of a short ladder. This lady, perhaps not quite aware of the possibly sanguinary character of the spectacle she was about to witness, had, nevertheless, sensed the fact that a spectacle was toward. Miss Pringle had with her a handsome lorgnette.

    "Madam," said Cleggett, hastily pulling his shirt back on again and approaching the cabin, "did you cry out?"

    "Mr.——er——Cleggett," said Miss Pringle, pursing her lips, "if you will kindly hold the ladder for me I think I will descend and retire at once to the cabin."

    "As you wish," said Cleggett politely, complying with her wish, but at a loss to comprehend her.

    "I beg you to believe, Mr. Cleggett," said Miss Pringle, averting her face and flushing painfully, while she turned the lorgnette about and about with embarrassed fingers, "I beg you to believe that in electing to witness this spectacle I had no idea of its exceedingly informal nature."

    With these words she passed into the cabin, with the air of one who has sustained a mortal insult.

    "Ef you was to ask me what she's tryin' to get at," piped up Cap'n Abernethy, "I'd say it's her belief that it ain't proper for gents to sword each other with their shirts off. She's shocked, Miss Pringle is."

    "In great and crucial moments," said Cleggett soberly, pulling off his shirt again and picking up a sword, "we may dispense with the minor conventions without apology."

    Loge chose a weapon with the extreme of care and particularity, trying the hang and balance of several of them. He looked well to the weight, bent the blade in his hands to test the spring and temper, tried the point upon his thumb. He handled the rapier as if he had found an old friend again after a long absence; he looked around upon his enemies with a sort of ferocious, bantering gayety.

    "And now," said Loge, "if this is to be a duel indeed, Mr. Cleggett and I will need plenty of room, I suggest that the rest of you retire to the bulwarks and give us the deck to ourselves."

    "For my part," said Cleggett, "I order it."

    "And," said Wilton Barnstable, drawing his pistol, "Mr. Black will please note that while I am standing by the bulwarks I shall be watching indeed. Should he make an attempt to escape from the vessel I shall

    riddle him with bullets."

    "Come, come," said Loge, "all this conversation is a waste of time!"

    "That is my opinion also," said Cleggett.

    They saluted formally, and engaged their blades.

    With Cleggett, swordsmanship was both a science and an art. And something more. It was also a passion. A good swordsman can be made; a superior swordsman may be born; the real masters are both born and made. It was so with Cleggett. His interest in fencing had been keen from his early boyhood. In his teens he had acquired unusual practical skill without great theoretical knowledge. Then he had recognized the art for what it is, the most beautiful game on earth, and had made a profound and thorough study of it; it appealed to his imagination.

    He became, in a way, the poet of the foil.

    Cleggett seldom fenced publicly, and then only under an assumed name; he abhorred publicity. But there was not a teacher in New York City who did not know him for a master. They brought him their half worked out visions of new combinations, new thrusts; he perfected them, and simplified, or elaborated, and gave back the finished product.

    They were the workmen, the craftsmen, the men of talent; he was the originator, the genius.

    And he was especially lucky in not having been tied down, in his younger years, to one national tradition of the art. The limitations of the French, the Spanish, the Italian, or the Austrian schools had not enslaved him in youth and hampered the free development of his individuality. He had studied them all; he chose from them all their superiorities; their excellences he blended into a system of his own.

    It might be called the Cleggett System.

    The Frenchman is an intellectual swordsman; the basis of his art is a thorough knowledge of its mathematics. Upon this foundation he superimposes a structure of audacity. But he often falls into one error or another, for all his mental brilliancy. He may become rigidly formal in his practice, or, in a revolt from his own formalism, be seduced into a display of showy, sensational tricks that are all very well in the studio but dangerous to their practitioner on the actual dueling ground.

    The Italian, looser, freer, less formal, more individual in his style, springing from a line of forbears who have preferred the thrust to the cut, the point to the edge, for centuries, is a more instinctive and less intellectual swordsman than the Frenchman. It is in his blood; he uses his rapier with a wild and angry grace that is feline.

    The Frenchman, even when he is thoroughly serious in his desire to slay, loves a duel for its own sake; he is never free from the thought of the picture he is making; the art, the science, the practical cleverness, appeal to him independently of the bloodshed.

    The Italian thinks of but one thing; to kill. He will take a severe wound to give a fatal one. The French are the best fencers in the world; the Italians the deadliest duelists.

    Cleggett, as has been said, knew all the schools without being the slave of any of them.

    He brought his sword en tierce; Loge's blade met his with strength and delicacy. The strength Cleggett was prepared for. The delicacy surprised him. But he was too much the master, too confident of his own powers, to trifle. He delivered one of his favorite thrusts; it was a stroke of his own invention; three times out of five, in years past, it had carried home the button of his foil to his opponent's jacket. It was executed with the directness and rapidity of a flash of lightning.

    But Loge parried it with a neatness which made Cleggett open his eyes, replying with a counter so shrewd and close, and of such a darting ferocity, that Cleggett, although he met it faultlessly, nevertheless gave back a step.

    "Ah," cried Loge, showing his yellow teeth in a grin, "so the little man

    knows that thrust!"

    "I invented it," said Cleggett.

    With the word he pressed forward and, making a swift and dazzling feint, followed it with two brilliant thrusts, either of which would have meant the death of a tyro. The first one Loge parried; the second touched him; but it gave him nothing more than a scratch. Nevertheless, the smile faded from Loge's face; he gave ground in his turn before this rapid vigor of attack; he measured Cleggett with a new glance.

    "You are touched, I think," said Cleggett, meditating a fresh combination, "and I am glad to see you drop that ugly pretense at a grin. You have no idea how the sight of those yellow teeth of yours, which you were evidently never taught to brush when you were a little boy, offends a person of any refinement."

    Loge's answer was a sudden attempt to twist his blade around Cleggett's; followed by a direct thrust, as quick as light, which grazed Cleggett's shoulder; a little smudge of blood appeared on his undershirt.

    "Take care, take care, Cleggett!" warned Wilton Barnstable, from his post by the starboard bulwark.

    "Make yourself easy," said Cleggett, parrying a counter en carte, "I am only getting warm."

    And both of them, stung by the slight scratches which they had received, settled to the business with an intent and silent deadliness of purpose.

    To all appearances Loge had an immense advantage over Cleggett; his legs were a good two inches longer; so were his arms. And he knew how to make these peculiarities count. He fought for a while with a calm and steady precision that repeatedly baffled the calculated impetuosity of Cleggett's attack. But the air of bantering certainty with which he had begun the duel had left him. He no longer wasted his breath on repartee; no doubt he was surprised to find Cleggett's strength so nearly equal to his own, as Cleggett had been astonished to find in Loge so much finesse. But with a second slight wound Loge began to give ground.

    With Cleggett a bout with the foils had always been a duel. It has been indicated, we believe, that he was of a romantic disposition and much given to daydreaming; his imagination had thus made every set-to in the fencing room a veritable mortal combat to him. Therefore, this was not his first duel; he had fought hundreds of them. And he fought always on a settled plan, adapting it, of course, to the idiosyncrasies of his adversary. It was his custom to vary the system of his attack frequently in the most disconcerting manner, at the same time steadily increasing the pace at which he fought. And when Loge began to give ground and breathe a little harder, Cleggett, far from taking advantage of his opponent's growing distress to rest himself, as a less distinguished swordsman might have done, redoubled the vigor of his assault. Cleggett knew that sooner or later a winded man makes a fault. The lungs labor and fail to give the blood all the oxygen it needs. The circulation suffers. Nerves and muscles are no longer the perfect servants of the brain; for a fraction of a second the sword deviates from the proper line.

    It was for this that Cleggett waited, pressing Loge closer and closer, alert for the instant when Loge would fence wide; waxing as the other waned; menacing eyes, throat, and heart with a point that leaped and dazzled; and at the same time inclosing himself within a rampart of steel which Loge found it more and more hopeless to attempt to penetrate. It was as if Cleggett's blade were an extension of his will; he and his sword were not two things, but one. The metal in his hand was no longer merely a whip of steel; it was a thing that lived with his own life. His pulse beat in it. It was a part of him. His nervous force permeated it and animated it; it was his thought turned to tempered metal, and it was with the rapidity, directness and subtlety of thought that his sword responded to his mind.

    "Come!" said Cleggett, as Loge broke ground, scarcely aware that he spoke aloud. "At this rate we shall be at home thrusts soon!"

    Loge must have thought so too; a shade passed over his face, his upper lip lifted haggardly. Perhaps even that iron nature was beginning to feel at last something of the dull sickness which is the fear of death. He retreated continually, and Cleggett was smitten with the fancy to force him backward and nail him, with a final thrust, to the stump of the foremast, which had been broken off some eight feet above the deck.

    But Loge, gathering his power, made a brilliant and desperate rally; twice he grazed Cleggett, whose blade was too closely engaged; and then suddenly broke ground again. This time Cleggett perceived that he had been retreating in accordance with a preconceived program. He was certain the man contemplated a trick, perhaps some foul stroke.

    He rushed forward with a terrible thrust. Loge, whose last maneuver had taken him within a yard of the hatchway opening into the hold, grasped Cleggett's blade in his left hand, and at the same instant flung his own sword, hilt first, full in Cleggett's face. As Cleggett, struck in the mouth with the pommel, staggered back, Loge plunged feet foremost into the hold. It was too unexpected, and too quickly done, for a shot from Barnstable or any of Cleggett's men.

    Cleggett, with the blood streaming from his mouth, recovered himself and leaped through the aperture in the deck. He landed upon his feet with a jar, and, shortening his sword in his hand, stared about him in the gloom.

    He saw no one.

    An instant later Wilton Barnstable and Cap'n Abernethy were beside him.

    "Gone!" said Cleggett simply.

    Barnstable drew from his pocket a small electric lantern and swept the beam in a circle about the hold. Again and again he raked the darkness until the finger of light had rested upon every foot of the interior.

    But Loge had vanished as completely as a snowflake that falls into a tub of water.

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