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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter1)

2006-08-28 15:16

    CHAPTER I

    A BRIGHT BLADE LEAPSFROM A RUSTY SCABBARD

    On an evening in April, -, Clement J. Cleggett walked sedately into the news room of the New York Enterprise with a drab-colored walkingstick in his hand. He stood the cane in a corner, changed his sober street coat for a more sober office jacket, adjusted a green eyeshade below his primly brushed grayish hair, unostentatiously sat down at the copy desk, and unobtrusively opened a drawer.

    From the drawer he took a can of tobacco, a pipe, a pair of scissors, a paste-pot and brush, a pile of copy paper, a penknife and three half-lengths of lead pencil.

    The can of tobacco was not remarkable. The pipe was not picturesque. The scissors were the most ordinary of scissors. The copy paper was quite undistinguished in appearance. The lead pencils had the most untemperamental looking points.

    Cleggett himself, as he filled and lighted the pipe, did it in the most matter-of-fact sort of way. Then he remarked to the head of the copy desk, in an average kind of voice:

    "H'lo, Jim."

    "H'lo, Clegg," said Jim, without looking up. "Might as well begin on this bunch of early copy, I guess."

    For more than ten years Cleggett had done the same thing at the same time in the same manner, six nights of the week.

    What he did on the seventh night no one ever thought to inquire. If any member of the Enterprise staff had speculated about it at all he would have assumed that Cleggett spent that seventh evening in some way essentially commonplace, sober, unemotional, quiet, colorless, dull and Brooklynitish.

    Cleggett lived in Brooklyn. The superficial observer might have said that Cleggett and Brooklyn were made for each other.

    The superficial observer! How many there are of him! And how much he misses! He misses, in fact, everything.

    At two o'clock in the morning a telegraph operator approached the copy desk and handed Cleggett a sheet of yellow paper, with the remark:

    "Cleggett——personal wire."

    It was a night letter, and glancing at the signature Cleggett saw that it was from his brother who lived in Boston. It ran:

    Uncle Tom died yesterday. Don't faint now. He splits bulk fortune between you and me. Lawyers figure nearly $, each. Mostly easily negotiable securities. New will made month ago while sore at president temperance outfit. Blood thicker than Apollinaris after all. Poor Uncle Tom.

    Edward.

    Despite Edward's thoughtful warning, Cleggett did nearly faint. Nothing could have been less expected. Uncle Tom was an irascible prohibitionist, and one of the most deliberately disobliging men on earth. Cleggett and his brother had long ceased to expect anything from him. For twenty years it had been thoroughly understood that Uncle Tom would leave his entire estate to a temperance society. Cleggett had ceased to think of Uncle Tom as a possible factor in his life. He did not doubt that Uncle Tom had changed the will to gain some point with the officials of the temperance society, intending to change it once again after he had been deferred to, cajoled, and flattered enough to placate his vanity. But death had stepped in just in time to disinherit the enemies of the Demon Rum.

    Cleggett read the wire through twice, and then folded it and put it into his pocket. He rose and walked toward the managing editor's room. As he stepped across the floor there was a little dancing light in his eyes, there was a faint smile upon his lips, that were quite foreign to the staid and sober Cleggett that the world knew. He was quiet, but he was almost jaunty, too; he felt a little drunk, and enjoyed the feeling.

    He opened the managing editor's door with more assurance than he had ever displayed before. The managing editor, a pompous, tall, thin man with a drooping frosty mustache, and cold gray eyes in a cold gray face that somehow reminded one of the visage of a walrus, was preparing to go home.

    "Well?" he said, shortly.

    He was a man for whom Cleggett had long felt a secret antipathy. The man was, in short, the petty tyrant of Cleggett's little world.

    "Can you spare me a couple of minutes, Mr. Wharton?" said Cleggett. But he did not say it with the air of a person who really sues for a hearing.

    "Yes, yes——go on." Mr. Wharton, who had risen from his chair, sat down again. He was distinctly annoyed. He was ungracious. He was usually ungracious with Cleggett. His face set itself in the expression it always took when he declined to consider raising a man's salary. Cleggett, who had been refused a raise regularly every three months for the past two years, was familiar with the look.

    "Go on, go on——what is it?" asked Mr. Wharton unpleasantly, frowning and stroking the frosty mustache, first one side and then the other.

    "I just stepped in to tell you," said Cleggett quietly, "that I don't think much of the way you are running the Enterprise."

    Wharton stopped stroking his mustache so quickly and so amazedly that one might have thought he had run into a thorn amongst the hirsute growth and pricked a finger. He glared. He opened his mouth. But before he could speak Cleggett went on:

    "Three years ago I made a number of suggestions to you. You treated me contemptuously——very contemptuously!"

    Cleggett paused and drew a long breath, and his face became quite red. It was as if the anger in which he could not afford to indulge himself three years before was now working in him with cumulative effect. Wharton, only partially recovered from the shock of Cleggett's sudden arraignment, began to stammer and bluster, using the words nearest his tongue:

    "You d-damned im-p-pertinent——"

    "Just a moment," Cleggett interrupted, growing visibly angrier, and seeming to enjoy his anger more and more. "Just a word more.

    I had intended to conclude my remarks by telling you that my contempt for YOU, personally, is unbounded. It is boundless, sir! But since you have sworn at me, I am forced to conclude this interview in another fashion."

    And with a gesture which was not devoid of dignity Cleggett drew from an upper waistcoat pocket a card and flung it on Wharton's desk. After which he stepped back and made a formal bow.

    Wharton looked at the card. Bewilderment almost chased the anger from his face.

    "Eh," he said, "what's this?"

    "My card, sir! A friend will wait on you tomorrow!"

    "Tomorrow? A friend? What for?"

    Cleggett folded his arms and regarded the managing editor with a touch of the supercilious in his manner.

    "If you were a gentleman," he said, "you would have no difficulty in understanding these things. I have just done you the honor of challenging you to a duel."

    Mr. Wharton's mouth opened as if he were about to explode in a roar of incredulous laughter. But meeting Cleggett's eyes, which were, indeed, sparkling with a most remarkable light, his jaw dropped, and he turned slightly pale. He rose from his chair and put the desk between himself and Cleggett, picking up as he did so a long pair of shears.

    "Put down the scissors," said Cleggett, with a wave of his hand. "I do not propose to attack you now."

    And he turned and left the managing editor's little office, closing the door behind him. The managing editor tiptoed over to the door and, with the scissors still grasped in one hand, opened it about a quarter of an inch. Through this crack Wharton saw Cleggett walk jauntily towards the corner where his hat and coat were hanging. Cleggett took off his worn office jacket, rolled it into a ball, and flung it into a waste paper basket. He put on his street coat and hat and picked up the drab-colored cane. Swinging the stick he moved towards the door into the hall. In the doorway he paused, cocked his hat a trifle, turned towards the managing editor's door, raised his hand with his pipe in it with the manner of one who points a dueling pistol, took careful aim at the second button of the managing editor's waistcoat, and clucked. At the cluck the managing editor drew back hastily, as if Cleggett had actually presented a firearm; Cleggett's manner was so rapt and fatal that it carried conviction. Then Cleggett laughed, cocked his hat on the other side of his head and went out into the corridor whistling. Whistling, and, since faults as well as virtues must be told, swaggering just a little.

    When the managing editor had heard the elevator come up, pause, and go down again, he went out of his room and said to the city editor:

    "Mr. Herbert, don't ever let that man Cleggett into this office again. He is off——off mentally. He's a dangerous man. He's a homicidal maniac. More'n likely he's been a quiet, steady drinker for years, and now it's begun to show on him."

    But nothing was further from Cleggett than the wish ever to go into the Enterprise office again. As he left the elevator on the ground floor he stabbed the astonished elevator boy under the left arm with his cane as a bayonet, cut him harmlessly over the head with his cane as a saber, tossed him a dollar, and left the building humming:

    "Oh, the Beau Sabreur of the Grande Armee Was the Captain Tarjeanterre!"

    It is thus, with a single twitch of her playful fingers, that Fate will sometimes pluck from a man the mask that has obscured his real identity for many years. It is thus that Destiny will suddenly draw a bright blade from a rusty scabbard!

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