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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter2)

2006-08-28 15:17

    CHAPTER II

    THE ROOM OF ILLUSION

    That part of Brooklyn in which Cleggett lived overlooks a wide sweep of water where the East River merges with New York Bay. From his windows he could gaze out upon the bustling harbor craft and see the ships going forth to the great mysterious sea.

    He walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, and as he walked he still hummed tunes. Occasionally, still with the rapt and fatal manner which had daunted the managing editor, he would pause and flex his wrist, and then suddenly deliver a ferocious thrust with his walking-stick.

    The fifth of these lunges had an unexpected result. Cleggett directed it toward the door of an unpainted toolhouse, a temporary structure near one of the immense stone pillars from which the bridge is swung. But, as he lunged, the toolhouse door opened, and a policeman, who was coming out wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, received a jab in the pit of a somewhat protuberant stomach.

    The officer grunted and stepped backward; then he came on, raising his night-stick.

    "Why, it's——it's McCarthy!" exclaimed Cleggett, who had also sprung back, as the light fell on the other's face.

    "Mr. Cleggett, by the powers!" said the officer, pausing and lowering his lifted club. "Are ye soused, man? Or is it your way of sayin' good avenin' to your frinds?"

    Cleggett smiled. He had first known McCarthy years before when he was a reporter, and more recently had renewed the acquaintance in his walks across the bridge.

    "I didn't know you were there, McCarthy," he said. "No?" said the officer. "And who were ye jabbin' at, thin?"

    "I was just limbering up my wrist," said Cleggett.

    "'Tis a quare thing to do," persisted McCarthy, albeit good-humoredly. "And now I mind I've seen ye do the same before, Mr. Cleggett. You're foriver grinnin' to yersilf an' makin' thim funny jabs at nothin' as ye cross the bridge. Are ye subjict to stiffness in the wrists, Mr. Cleggett?"

    "Perhaps it's writer's cramp," said Cleggett, indulging the pleasant humor that was on him. He was really thinking that, with $, of his own, he had written his last headline, edited his last piece of copy, sharpened his last pencil.

    "Writer's cramp? Is it so?" mused McCarthy. "Newspapers is great things, ain't they now? And so's writin' and readin'. Gr-r-reat things! But if ye'll take my advise, Mr. Cleggett, ye'll kape that writin' and readin' within bounds. Too much av thim rots the brains."

    "I'll remember that," said Cleggett. And he playfully jabbed the officer again as he turned away.

    "G'wan wid ye!" protested McCarthy. "Ye're soused! The scent av it's in the air. If I'm compilled to run yez in f'r assaultin' an officer ye'll get the cramps out av thim wrists breakin' stone, maybe. Cr-r-r-amps, indade!"

    Cramps, indeed! Oh, Clement J. Cleggett, you liar! And yet, who does not lie in order to veil his inmost, sweetest thoughts from an unsympathetic world?

    That was not an ordinary jab with an ordinary cane which Cleggett had directed towards the toolhouse door. It was a thrust en carte; the thrust of a brilliant swordsman; the thrust of a master; a terrible thrust. It was meant for as pernicious a bravo as ever infested the pages of romantic fiction. Cleggett had been slaying these gentry a dozen times a day for years. He had pinked four of them on the way across the bridge, before McCarthy, with his stomach and his realism, stopped the lunge intended for the fifth. But this is not exactly the sort of thing one finds it easy to confide to a policeman, be he ever so friendly a policeman. Cleggett——Old Clegg, the copyreader——Clegg, the commonplace——C. J. Cleggett, the Brooklynite-this person whom young reporters conceived of as the staid, dry prophet of the dusty Fact——was secretly a mighty reservoir of unwritten, unacted, unlived, unspoken romance. He ate it, he drank it, he breathed it, he dreamed it. The usual copyreader, when he closes his eyes and smiles upon a pleasant inward vision, is thinking of starting a chicken-farm in New Jersey. But Cleggett——with gray sprinkled in his hair, sober of face and precise of manner, as the world knew him——lived a hidden life which was one long, wild adventure.

    Nobody had ever suspected it. But his room might have given to the discerning a clue to the real man behind the mask which he assumed-which he had been forced to assume in order to earn a living. When he reached the apartment, a few minutes after his encounter on the bridge, and switched the electric light on, the gleams fell upon an astonishing clutter of books and arms. . . .

    Stevenson, cavalry sabers, W. Clark Russell, pistols, and Dumas; Jack London, poignards, bowie knives, Stanley Weyman, Captain Marryat, and Dumas; sword canes, Scottish claymores, Cuban machetes, Conan Doyle, Harrison Ainsworth, dress swords, and Dumas; stilettos, daggers, hunting knives, Fenimore Cooper, G. P. R. James, broadswords, Dumas; Gustave Aimard, Rudyard Kipling, dueling swords, Dumas; F. Du Boisgobey, Malay krises, Walter Scott, stick pistols, scimitars, Anthony Hope, single sticks, foils, Dumas; jungles of arms, jumbles of books; arms of all makes and periods; arms on the walls, in the corners, over the fireplace, leaning against the bookshelves, lying in ambush under the bed, peeping out of the wardrobe, propping the windows open, serving as paper weights; pictures, warlike and romantic prints and engravings, pinned to the walls with daggers; in the wardrobe, coats and hats hanging from poignards and stilettos thrust into the wood instead of from nails or hooks. But of all the weapons it was the rapiers, of all the books it was Dumas, that he loved. There was Dumas in French, Dumas in English, Dumas with pictures, Dumas unillustrated, Dumas in cloth, Dumas in leather, Dumas in boards, Dumas in paper covers. Cleggett had been twenty years getting these arms and books together; often he had gone without a dinner in order to make a payment on some blade he fancied. And each weapon was also a book to him; he sensed their stories as he handled them; he felt the personalities of their former owners stirring in him when he picked them up. It was in that room that he dreamed; which is to say, it was in that room that he lived his real life.

    Cleggett walked over to his writing desk and pulled out a bulky manuscript. It was his own work. Is it necessary to hint that it was a tale essentially romantic in character?

    He flung it into the grate and set fire to it. It represented the labor of two years, but as he watched it burn, stirring the sheets now and then so the flames would catch them more readily, he smiled, unvisited by even the most shadowy second thought of regret.

    For why the deuce should a man with $, in his pocket write romances? Why should anyone write anything who is free to live? For the first time in his existence Cleggett was free.

    He picked up a sword. It was one of his favorite rapiers. Sometimes people came out of the books——sometimes shadowy forms came back to claim the weapons that had been theirs——and Cleggett fought them. There was not an unscarred piece of furniture in the place. He bent the flexible blade in his hands, tried the point of it, formally saluted, brought the weapon to parade, dallied with his imaginary opponent's sword for an instant. . . .

    It seemed as if one of those terrible, but brilliant, duels, with which that room was so familiar, was about to be enacted. . . . But he laid the rapier down. After all, the rapier is scarcely a thing of this century. Cleggett, for the first time, felt a little impatient with the rapier. It is all very well to DREAM with a rapier. But now, he was free; reality was before him; the world of actual adventure called. He had but to choose!

    He considered. He tried to look into that bright, adventurous future. Presently he went to the window, and gazed out. Tides of night and mystery, flooding in from the farther, dark, mysterious ocean, all but submerged lower Manhattan; high and beautiful above these waves of shadow, triumphing over them and accentuating them, shone a star from the top of the Woolworth building; flecks of light indicated the noble curve of that great bridge which soars like a song in stone and steel above the shifting waters; the river itself was dotted here and there with moving lights; it was a nocturne waiting for its Whistler; here sea and city met in glamour and beauty and illusion.

    But it was not the city which called to Cleggett. It was the sea.

    A breeze blew in from the bay and stirred his window curtains; it was salt in his nostrils. . . .And, staring out into the breathing night, he saw a succession of pictures. . . .

    Stripped to a pair of cotton trousers, with a dripping cutlass in one hand and a Colt's revolver in the other, an adventurer at the head of a bunch of dogs as desperate as himself fought his way across the reeking decks of a Chinese junk, to close in single combat with a gigantic one-eyed pirate who stood by the helm with a ring of dead men about him and a great two-handed sword upheaved. . . . This adventurer was——Clement J. Cleggett! . . .

    Through the phosphorescent waters of a summer sea, reckless of cruising sharks, a sailor's clasp knife in his teeth, glided noiselessly a strong swimmer; he reached the side of a schooner yacht from which rose the wild cries of beauty in distress, swarmed aboard with a muttered prayer that was half a curse, swept the water from his eyes, and with pale, stern face went about the bloody business of a hero. . . . Again, this adventurer was Clement J. Cleggett!

    Cleggett turned from the window.

    "I'll do it," he cried. "I'll do it!"

    He grasped a cutlass.

    "Pirates!" he cried, swinging it about his head. "That's the thing-pirates and the China Seas!"

    And with one frightful sweep of his blade he disemboweled a sofa cushion; the second blow clove his typewriting machine clean to the tattoo marks upon its breast; the third decapitated a sectional bookcase.

    But what is a sectional bookcase to a man with $, in his pocket and the Seven Seas before him?

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