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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter5)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER V

    BEAUTY IN DISTRESS

    "Can you tell me where I can get some ice? Can you sell me some ice?" cried the lady excitedly, when she was still some yards distant from Cleggett.

    "Ice?" The request was so unusual that Cleggett was not certain that he had understood.

    "Yes, ice! Ice!" There was no mistaking the genuine character of her eagerness; if she had been begging for her life she could not have been more in earnest. "Don't tell me that you have none on your boat. Don't tell me that! Don't tell me that!"

    And suddenly, like a woman who has borne all that she can bear, she burst undisguisedly into a paroxysm of weeping. Cleggett, stirred by her beauty and her trouble, stepped nearer to her, for she swayed with her emotion as if she were about to fall. Impulsively she put a hand on his arm, and the Pomeranian, dropped unceremoniously to the ground, sprang at Cleggett snarling and snapping as if sure he were the author of the lady's misfortunes.

    "You will think I am mad," said the lady, endeavoring to control her tears, "but I MUST have ice. Don't tell me that you have no ice!"

    "My dear lady," said Cleggett, unconsciously clasping, in his anxiety to reassure her, the hand that she had laid upon his arm, "I have ice——you shall have all the ice you want!"

    "Oh," she murmured, leaning towards him, "you cannot know——"

    But the rest was lost in an incoherent babble, and with a deep sigh she fell lax into Cleggett's arms. The reaction from despair had been too much for her; it had come too suddenly; at the first word of reassurance, at the first ray of dawning hope, she had fainted. High-strung natures, intrepid in the face of danger, are apt to such collapses in the moment of deliverance; and, whatever the nature of the lady's trouble, Cleggett gained from her swoon a sharp sense of its intensity.

    Cleggett was not used to having beautiful women faint and fall into his arms, and he was too much of a gentleman to hold one there a single moment longer than was absolutely necessary. He turned his head rather helplessly towards the vehicle in which the lady had arrived. To his consternation and surprise it had turned around and the chauffeur was in the act of starting back towards Fairport. But he had left behind him a large zinc bucket with a cover on it, a long unpainted, oblong box, and two steamer trunks; on the oblong box sat a short, squat young man in an attitude of deep dejection.

    "Hi there! Stop!" cried Cleggett to the chauffeur. That person stopped his machine. He did more. He arose in the seat, applied his thumb to his nose, and vigorously and vivaciously waggled his outspread fingers at Cleggett in a gesture, derisive and inelegant, that is older than the pyramids. Then he started his machine again and made all speed in the direction of Fairport.

    "I say, you, come here!" Cleggett called to the squat young man.

    "Can't you see that the lady's fainted?"

    The squat young man, thus exhorted, sadly approached.

    "Can't you see the lady has fainted?" repeated Cleggett.

    "Skoits often does," said the squat young man, looking over the

    situation in a detached, judicial manner. He spoke out of the left corner of his mouth in a hoarse voice, without moving the right side of his face at all, and he seemed to feel that the responsibility of the situation was Cleggett's.

    "But, don't you know her? Didn't you come here with her?"

    The squat young man appeared to debate some moral issue inwardly for a moment. And then, speaking this time out of the right corner of his mouth, which was now nearer Cleggett, without disturbing the left half of his face, he pointed towards the oblong box and murmured huskily: "That's my job." He went and sat down on the box again.

    Without more ado Cleggett lifted the lady and bore her onto the Jasper

    B. She was a heavy burden, but Cleggett declined the assistance of Cap'n Abernethy and George the Greek, who had come tardily out of the forecastle and now offered their assistance. "Get a bottle of wine," he told Yosh, as he passed the Japanese on the deck, "and then make some tea."

    Cleggett laid the lady on a couch in the cabin, and then lighted a lamp, as it got dark early in these quarters. While he waited for Yoshahira Kuroki and the wine, he looked at her. In her appealing helplessness she looked even more beautiful than she had at first. She was a blonde, with eyebrows and lashes darker than her hair; and, even in her swoon, Cleggett could see that she was of the thin-skinned, high-colored type. Her eyes, as he had seen before she swooned, were of a deep, dark violet color. She was no chit of a girl, but a mature woman, tall and splendid in the noble fullness of her contours. The high nose spoke of love of activity and energy of character. The full mouth indicated warmth of heart; the chin was of that sort which we have been taught to associate with determination.

    The Japanese brought the wine, and Cleggett poured a few spoonfuls down the lady's throat. Presently she sighed and stirred and began to show signs of returning animation.

    The Pomeranian, which had followed them into the cabin, and which now lay whimpering at her feet, also seemed to feel that she was awakening, and, crawling higher, began to lick one of her hands.

    "Make some tea, Yosh," said Cleggett. "What is it?"

    This last was addressed to the lady herself. Her eyes had opened for a fleeting instant as Cleggett spoke to the Japanese, and her lips had moved. Cleggett bent his head nearer, while Yosh picked up the dog, which violently objected, and asked again: "What is it?"

    "Orange pekoe, please," the lady murmured, dreamily. And then she sat up with a start, struggled to recover herself, and looked about her wildly.

    "Where am I?" she cried. "What has happened?" She passed her

    hand across her brow, frowning.

    "You fainted, madam," said Cleggett.

    "Oh!" Suddenly recollection came to her, and her anxieties rushed

    upon her once more. "The ice! The ice!" She sprang to her feet, and grasped Cleggett by both shoulders, searching his face with eager eyes. "You did not lie to me, did you? You promised me ice! Where is the ice?"

    "You shall have the ice," said Cleggett, "at once."

    "Thank God!" she said. And then: "Where are Elmer and the box?"

    "Elmer? Oh, the short man! On shore. I believe that he and your chauffeur had some sort of an altercation, for the chauffeur went off and left him."

    "Yes," she said, simply, as they passed up the companionway to the deck together, "that man, the driver, refused to bring us any farther."

    Cleggett must have looked a little blank at that, for she suddenly threw back her head and laughed at him. And then, sobering instantly, she called to the squat young man:

    "Elmer! Oh, Elmer! You may bring the boxes on board!" She turned to Cleggett: "He may, mayn't he? Thank you——I was sure you would say he might. And if one of your men could just give him a lift? And——the ice?"

    "George," called Cleggett, "help the man get the boxes aboard. Kuroki, bring fifty pounds of ice on deck."

    She sighed as she heard him give these orders, but it was a sigh of satisfaction, and she smiled at Cleggett as she signed. Sometimes a great deal can happen in a very short space of time. Ten minutes before, Cleggett had never seen this lady, and now he was giving orders at her merest suggestion. But in those ten minutes he had seen her weep, he had seen her faint, he had seen her recover herself; he had seen her emerge from the depths of despair into something more like self-control; he had carried her in his arms, she had laughed at him, she had twice impulsively grasped him by the arm, she had smiled at him three times, she had sighed twice, she had frowned once; she had swept upon him bringing with her an impression of the mysterious. Many men are married to women for years without seeing their wives display so many and such varied phases; to Cleggett it seemed not so much that he was making a new acquaintance as renewing one that had been broken off suddenly at some distant date. Cleggett, like the true-hearted gentleman and born romanticist that he was, resolved to serve her without question until such time as she chose to make known to him her motives for her actions.

    "Do you know," she said, softly and gravely to Cleggett as George and Elmer deposited the oblong box upon a spot which she indicated near the cabin, "I have met very few men in my life who are capable of what you are doing?"

    "I?" said Cleggett, surprised. "I have done nothing."

    "You have found a woman in a strange position——an unusual position, indeed!——and you have helped her without persecuting her with questions."

    "It is nothing," murmured Cleggett.

    "Would you think me too impulsive," she said, with a rare smile, "if I

    told you that you are the sort of man whom women are ready to trust implicitly almost at first sight?"

    Cleggett did not permit himself to speak for fear that the thrill which her words imparted to him would carry him too far. He bowed.

    "But I think you mentioned tea?" she said. "Did I hear you say it was orange pekoe, or did I dream that? And couldn't we have it on deck?"

    While Kuroki was bringing a table and chairs on deck and busying himself about that preparation of tea, Cleggett watched Elmer, the squat young man, with a growing curiosity. George and Cap'n Abernethy were also watching Elmer from a discreet distance. Even Kuroki, silent, swift, and well-trained Kuroki, could not but steal occasional glances at Elmer. Had Cleggett been of a less lofty and controlled spirit he would certainly have asked questions.

    For Elmer, having uncovered the zinc can and taken from it a hammer and a large tin funnel, proceeded to break the big chunk of ice which Kuroki had brought him, into half a dozen smaller pieces. These smaller lumps, with the exception of two, he put into the zinc bucket, wrapped around with pieces of coffee sacking. Then he put the cover on the bucket to exclude the air.

    The zinc bucket was thus a portable refrigerator, or rather, ice house.

    Taking one of the lumps of ice which he had left out of the zinc bucket for immediate use, Elmer carefully and methodically broke it into still smaller pieces——pieces about the size of an English walnut, but irregular in shape. Then he inserted the tin funnel into a small hole in the uppermost surface of the unpainted, oblong box and dropped in twenty or more of the little pieces of ice. When a piece proved to be too big to go through the funnel Elmer broke it again.

    Cleggett noticed that there were five of these small holes in the box, and that Elmer was slowly working his way down the length of it from hole to hole, sitting astride of it the while.

    From the way in which he worked, and the care with which he conserved every smallest particle of ice, Elmer's motto seemed to be: "Haste not, waste not." But he did not appear to derive any great satisfaction from his task, let alone joy. In fact, Elmer seemed to be a joyless individual; one who habitually looked forward to the worst. On his broad face, of the complexion described in police reports as "pasty," melancholy sat enthroned. His nose was flat and broad, and flat and broad were his cheek bones, too. His hair was cut very short everywhere except in front; in front it hung down to his eyebrows in a straggling black fringe or "bang." Not that the fringe would have covered the average person's forehead; this "bang" was not long; but the truth is that Elmer's forehead was lower than the average person's and therefore easily covered. He had what is known in certain circles as a cauliflower, or chrysanthemum, ear. But melancholy as he looked, Elmer had evidently had his moments of struggle against dejection. One of these moments had been when he bought the clothes he was wearing. His hat had a bright, red and black band around it; his tweed suit was of a startling light gray, marked off into checks with stripes of green; his waistcoat was of lavender, and his hose were likewise of lavender, but red predominated in both his shirt and his necktie. His collar was too high for his short neck, and seemed to cause him discomfort. But this attempt at gayety of dress was of no avail; one felt at once that it was a surface thing and had no connection with Elmer's soul; it stood out in front of the background of his sorrowful personality, accentuating the gloom, as a blossom may grow upon a bleak rock. As Elmer carefully dropped ice, piece by piece, into the oblong box, progressing slowly from hole to hole, Cleggett thought he had never seen a more depressed young man.

    Captain Abernethy approached Cleggett. There was hesitation in the brown old man's feet, there was doubt upon his wrinkled brow, but there was the consciousness of duty in the poise of his shoulders, there was determination in his eyes.

    The blonde lady laughed softly as the sailing-master of the Jasper B. saluted the owner of the vessel.

    "He is going to tell you," she said to Cleggett, including the Captain himself in her flashing look and her remark, "he is going to tell you that you really should get rid of me and my boxes at once——I can see it in his face!"

    Captain Abernethy stopped short at this, and stared. It was precisely what he HAD planned to say after drawing Cleggett discreetly aside. But it is rather startling to have one's thoughts read in this manner.

    He frowned at the lady. She smiled at him. The smile seemed to say to the Cap'n: "You ridiculous old dear, you! You KNOW that's what you were going to advise, so why deny it? I've found you out, but we both might just as well be good-humored about it, mightn't we?"

    "Ma'am," said the Cap'n, evidently struggling between a suddenly born desire to quit frowning and a sense that he had a perfect right to frown as much as he wished, "Ma'am, if you was to ask me, I'd say ridin' on steamships and ridin' on sailin' vessels is two different matters entirely."

    "Cap'n Abernethy," said Cleggett, attempting to indicate that his sailing master's advice was not absolutely required, "if you have something to say to me, perhaps later will do just as well."

    "As fur as the Jasper B. is concerned," said the Cap'n, ignoring Cleggett's remark, and still addressing the lady, "I dunno as you could call her EITHER a sailin' vessel, OR a steamship, as at present constituted."

    "You want to get me off your boat at once," said the lady. "You know you do." And her manner added: "CAN'T you act like a good- natured old dear? You really are one, you know!"

    The Cap'n became embarrassed. He began to fuss with his necktie, as if tying it tighter would assist him to hold on to his frown. He felt the frown slipping, but it was a point of honor with him to retain it.

    "She WILL be a sailin' vessel when she gets her sticks into her," said the Cap'n, fumbling with his neckwear.

    "Let me fix that for you," said the lady. And before the Cap'n could protest she was arranging his tie for him. "You old sea captains!——" she said, untying the scarf and making the ends even. "As if anyone could possibly be afraid to sail in anything one of YOU had charge of!" She gave the necktie a little final pat. "There, now!"

    The Captain's frown was gone past replacement. But he still felt that he owed something to himself.

    "If you was to ask me," he said, turning to Cleggett, "whether what I'd got to say to you would do later, or whether it wouldn't do later, I'd answer you it would, or it wouldn't, all accordin' to whether you wanted to hear it now, or whether you wanted to hear it later. And as far as SAILIN' her is concerned, Mr. Cleggett, I'll SAIL her, whether you turn her into a battleship or into one of these here yachts. I come of a seafarin' fambly."

    And then he said to the lady, indicating the tie and bobbing his head forward with a prim little bow: "Thank ye, ma'am." "Isn't he a duck!" said the lady, following him with her eyes, as he went behind the cabin. There the Cap'n chewed, smoked, and fished, earnestly and simultaneously, for ten minutes.

    Indeed, the blonde lady, from the moment when Elmer began to put ice into the box, seemed to have regained her spirits. The little dog, which was an indicator of her moods, had likewise lost its nervousness. When Kuroki had tea ready, the dog lay down at his mistress' feet, beside the table.

    "Dear little Teddy," said the lady, patting the animal upon the head.

    "Teddy?" said Cleggett.

    "I have named him," she said, "after a great American. To my mind, the greatest——Theodore Roosevelt. His championship of the cause of votes for women at a time when mere politicians were afraid to commit themselves is enough in itself to gain him a place in history."

    She spoke with a kindling eye, and Cleggett had no doubt that there was before him one of those remarkable women who make the early part of the twentieth century so different from any other historical period. And he was one with her in her admiration for Roosevelt——a man whose facility in finding adventures and whose behavior when he had found them had always made a strong appeal to Cleggett. If he could not have been Cleggett he would have liked to have been either the Chevalier d'Artagnan or Theodore Roosevelt.

    "He is a great man," said Cleggett.

    But the lady, with her second cup of tea in her hand, was evidently thinking of something else. Leaning back in her chair, she said to Cleggett:

    "It is no good for you to deny that you think I'm a horridly unconventional sort of person!"

    Cleggett made a polite, deprecatory gesture.

    "Yes, yes, you do," she said, decidedly. "And, really, I am! I am impulsive! I am TOO impulsive!" She raised the cup to her lips, drank, and looked off towards the western horizon, which the sun was beginning to paint ruddily; she mused, murmuring as if to herself: "Sir Archibald always thought I was too impulsive, dear man."

    After a meditative pause she said, leaning her elbows on the table and gazing searchingly into Cleggett's eyes:

    "I am going to trust you. I am going to reward your kindness by telling you a portion of my strange story. I am going to depend upon you to understand it."

    Cleggett bowed and murmured his gratitude at the compliment. Then he said:

    "You could trust me with——" But he stopped. He did not wish to be premature.

    "With my life. I could trust you with my life," finished the lady, gravely. "I know that. I believe that. I feel it, somehow. It is because I do feel it that I tell you——" She paused, as if, after all, she lacked the courage. Cleggett said nothing. He was too fine in grain to force a confidence. After a moment she continued: "I can tell you this," she said, with a catch in her voice that was almost a sob, "that I am practically friendless. When you call a taxicab for me in a few moments, and I leave you, with Elmer and my boxes, I shall have no place to go."

    "But, surely, madam——"

    "Do not call me madam. Call me Lady Agatha. I am Lady Agatha Fairhaven. What is your name?"

    Cleggett told her.

    "You have heard of me?" asked Lady Agatha.

    Cleggett was obliged to confess that he had not. He thought that a

    shade of disappointment passed over the lady's face, but in a moment she smiled and remarked:

    "How relative a thing is fame! You have never heard of me! And yet I can assure you that I am well enough known in England. I was one of the very first militant suffragettes to break a window——if not the very first. The point is, indeed, in dispute.

    And were it not for my devotion to the cause I would not now be in my present terrible plight——doomed to wander from pillar to post with that thing" (she pointed with a shudder to the box into which Elmer was still gloomily poking ice)-"chained to me like a——like a——" She hesitated for a word, and Cleggett, tactlessly enough, with some vague recollection of a classical tale in his mind, suggested:

    "Like a corpse."

    Lady Agatha turned pale. She gazed at Cleggett with terror-stricken eyes, her beautiful face became almost haggard in an instant; he thought she was about to faint again, but she did not. As he looked upon the change his words had wrought, filled with wonder and compunction, Cleggett suddenly divined that her occasional flashes of gayety had been, all along, merely the forced vivacity of a brave and clever woman who was making a gallant fight against total collapse.

    "Mr. Cleggett," she said, in a voice that was scarcely louder than a whisper, "I am going to confide everything to you——the whole truth. I will spare myself nothing; I will throw myself upon your mercy.

    "I firmly believe, Mr. Cleggett——I am practically certain——that the box there, upon which Elmer is sitting, contains the body of Reginald Maltravers, natural son of the tenth Earl of Claiborne, and the cousin of my late husband, Sir Archibald Fairhaven."

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