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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter14)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XIV

    CLEGGETT STANDS BY HISSHIP

    Cleggett did not fear (or rather, expect, since there was very little that Cleggett feared) an attack until well after nightfall. Nevertheless, he began to prepare for it at once. He called the entire ship's company aft, with the exception of Miss Medley, who was on duty with Giuseppe Jones.

    "My friends——for I hope we stand in the relation of friends as well as that of commander and crew——I have every reason to expect that the enemy will make a demonstration in force sometime during the night," he said. "We have opposed to us the leader of a dangerous and powerful criminal organization. He is, in fact, the president of a crime trust. He will stop at nothing to compass the destruction of the Jasper B. and all on board her. My quarrel with him has become, in a sense, personal. I have no right to ask you to share my risk unless you choose to do so voluntarily. Therefore, if there is anyone of you who wishes to leave the Jasper B., let him do it now."

    Cleggett paused. But not a man moved. On the contrary, a little murmur of something like reproach ran around the semicircle. The ship's company looked in each other's eyes; they stood shifting their feet uneasily.

    Finally Cap'n Abernethy spoke, clearing his throat with a prefatory hem:

    "If you was to ask me, Mr. Cleggett," said the Captain, with less than his usual circumlocution, "I'd say the boys here ain't flattered by what you've just said. The boys here DOES consider themselves friends of yours, and if you was anxious to hear my opinion of it I'd say you've hurt their feelin's by your way of putting it. Speakin' for myself, Mr. Cleggett, as the nautical commander of this here ship to the military commander, I don't mind owning up that MY feelin's is hurt."

    "Aye, aye, sir," said George the Greek, addressing the nautical

    commander, and the word went from lip to lip.

    "Aye, aye, sir," said Dr. Farnsworth, "the Captain speaks for us all."

    And the Reverend Mr. Calthrop remarked with a sigh: "You may

    have cause to doubt my circumspection, Mr. Cleggett, but you have no cause to doubt my courage."

    Cleggett was not the sort of man who is ashamed to acknowledge an error. "Friends," he cried impulsively, "forgive me! I should have known better than to phrase my remarks as I did. I would not have hurt your feelings for worlds. I know you are devoted to me. I call for volunteers for the perilous adventure which is before us!"

    The ship's company stepped forward as one man. As if by magic the atmosphere cleared.

    "Now," said Cleggett, smiling back on the enthusiastic faces before him, but inexpressibly touched by the fineness of his crew's devotion, "to get to the point. There are seven of us, but there are at least a dozen of them. We have, however, the advantage in position, for we can find cover on the ship, whereas they must attack from the open. More than that, we will have the advantage in arms; here is a magazine rifle for each of you, while they, if I am not mistaken, will attack with pistols. We must keep them at a distance, if possible. If they should attempt to rush us we will meet them with cutlasses and sabers."

    "Mr. Cleggett," said Lady Agatha, rising when he had finished, and speaking with animation, "will you permit me to make a suggestion?"

    She went on, without waiting for an answer: "It is this: Choose your own ground for this battle! The Jasper B. is now a full-rigged schooner. Very well, then, sail her! At the moment you are attacked, weigh anchor, fight your way to the mouth of the canal, take up a position in the bay in front of Morris's within easy rifle range and out of pistol shot, and compel the place to surrender on your own terms!"

    As the brilliance of this plan flashed upon her hearers, applause ran around the room, and Kuroki, who spoke seldom, cried in admiration:

    "The Honorable Miss Englishman have hit her head on the nail! Let there be some naval warfares!"

    "You are right," cried Cleggett, catching fire with the idea, "a hundred times right! And why wait to be attacked? Let us carry the war to the enemy's coast. Crack all sail upon her!——Up with the anchors! We will show these gentry that the blood of Drake, Nelson, and Old Dave Farragut still runs red in the veins of their countrymen!"

    "Banzai!" cried Kuroki. "Also Honorable Admiral Togo's veins!"

    A good breeze had sprung up out of the northwest while the conference in the cabin was in progress.

    Cleggett was relieved that it was not from the south. There is not much room to maneuver a schooner in a canal, and a breeze from the south might have sailed the Jasper B. backwards towards Parker's Beach, which would undoubtedly have given the enemy the idea that Cleggett was retreating. The Jasper B.'s bow was pointed south, and Cleggett was naturally anxious that she should sail south.

    At the outset a slight difficulty presented itself with regard to the anchors——for although, as has been explained before, the Jasper B. was a remarkably stable vessel, Cleggett had had the new anchors furnished by the contractor let down. Having the anchors down seemed, somehow, to make things more shipshape. It appeared that no one of the adventurers was acquainted with an anchor song, and Cleggett, and, indeed, all on board, felt that these anchors should be hoisted to the accompaniment of some rousing chantey. Lady Agatha was especially insistent on the point.

    While they stood about the capstan debating the matter the Reverend Simeon Calthrop hesitatingly offered a suggestion which showed that, while he was a novice as far as the nautical life was concerned, he was also a person of resource. "How many of those present," inquired the young preacher, "know 'Onward Christian Soldiers'?"

    All were acquainted with the hymn; the pastor grasped a capstan bar and struck up the song in an agreeable tenor voice; they put their backs into the work and their hearts into the song, and the anchors of the Jasper

    B. came out of mud to the stirring notes of "Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war!" While they were so engaged the breeze strengthened perceptibly. Looking towards the west, Cleggett perceived the sun sinking below the horizon. A long, blue, low-lying bank of clouds seemed to engulf it; for a moment the top of this cloud was shot through with a golden color; then a mass of quicker moving, nearer vapors from the north seemed to leap suddenly nearer still; to extend itself at a bound over almost a third of the sky; in a breath the day was gone; a storm threatened.

    The rising wind made the task of getting the canvas on the poles extraordinarily difficult. Cleggett was well aware that the usual method of procedure, in the presence of a storm, is rather to take in sail than to crack on; but, always the original, he decided in this case to reverse the common custom. Ashore or at sea, he never permitted himself to be the slave of conventionalities. The Jasper B. had lain so long in one spot that it would undoubtedly take more than a capful of wind to move her. Cleggett did not know when he would get such a strong wind again, coming from the right direction, and determined to make the most of this one while he had it. Genius partly consists in the acuteness which grasps opportunities.

    From the struggles of Cap'n Abernethy and the crew with the canvas, which he saw none too clearly through the increasing dusk from his post at the wheel, Cleggett judged that the wind was indeed strong enough for his purpose. Yards, sheets and sails seemed to be acting in the most singular manner. He could not remember reading of any parallel case in the treatises on navigation which he had perused. Every now and then the Cap'n or one of the crew would be jerked clean off his feet by some quick and unexpected motion of a sail and flung into the water. When this occurred the person who had been ducked crawled out on the bank of the canal again and went on board by way of the gangplank, returning stubbornly to his task.

    The booms in particular were possessed of a restless and unstable spirit. They made sudden swoops, sweeps, and dashes in all directions. Sometimes as many as three of the crew of the Jasper B. would be knocked to the deck or into the water by a boom at the same time. But Cleggett noted with satisfaction that they were plucky; they stuck valiantly to the job. A doubt assailed Cleggett as to the competence of Cap'n Abernethy, but he was loyal and fought it down.

    Finally Cap'n Abernethy hit upon a novel and ingenious idea. He tied stout lines to the ends of the booms. The other ends of these ropes he ran through the eyes of a couple of spare anchors. Taking the anchors ashore, he made them fast to the wooden platform which was alongside the Jasper

    B. Then he took up the slack in the lines, pulling them taut and fastening them tightly. Thus the booms were held fast and stiff in position, and the crew could get the canvas spread without being endangered by their strange and unaccountable actions.

    This brilliant idea of anchoring the booms to the land would not have been practicable had it not been for a whimsical cessation of the wind, a lull such as incident to the coming of spring storms in these latitudes. While the wind was in abeyance the men got the sails spread. Then the Captain untied the lines, brought the spare anchors on board, knocked the gangplank loose with a few blows of his ax, and waited for the wind to resume.

    When the wind did blow again it came in a gust which was accompanied by a twinkle of lightening over the whole sky and grumble of thunder. A whirl of dust and fine gravel enveloped the Jasper B. For a moment it was like a sandstorm. A few large drops of water fell. The gust was violent; the sails filled with it and struggled like kites to be free;here and there a strand of rope snapped; the masts bent and creaked; the booms jumped and swung round like live things; the whole ship from bowsprit to rudder shook and trembled with the assault.

    Cleggett, watchful at the wheel, prepared to turn her nose away from the bank, but he was astonished to perceive that in spite of her quaking and shivering the Jasper B. did not move one inch forward from her position. He was prepared for a certain stability on the part of the Jasper B., but not for quite so much of it.

    With the next gust the storm was on them in earnest. This blast came with zigzag flashes of lightning that showed the heavens riotous with battalions of charging clouds; it came with deafening thunder and a torrential discharge of rain. One would have thought the power of the wind sufficient to set a steel battleship scudding before it like a wooden shoe. And yet the extraordinary Jasper B., although she shrieked and groaned and seemed to stagger with the force of the blow, did not move either forward or sidewise.

    She flinched, but she stood her ground.

    Second by second the storm increased in fury; in a moment it was no longer merely a storm, it was a tempest. Cleggett, alarmed for the safety of his masts, now ordered his men to take in sail.

    But even as he gave the order he realized that it could no longer be done. A cloudburst, a hurricane, an electrical bombardment, struck the Jasper B. all at once. One could not hear one's own voice. In the glare of the lightning Cleggett saw the rigging tossing in an indescribable confusion of canvas, spars, and ropes. Both masts and the bowsprit snapped at almost the same instant. The whole chaotic mass was lifted; it writhed in the air a moment, and then it came crashing down, partly on the deck and partly in the seething waters of the canal, where it lay and whipped ship and water with lashing tentacles of wreckage.

    But still the unusual Jasper B. had not moved from her position.

    Cleggett's men had had warning enough to save themselves. They gathered around him to wait for orders. More than one of them cast anxious glances towards the land. Shouting to them to attack the debris with axes, and setting the example himself, Cleggett soon saw the deck clear again, and the Jasper B., to all intents, the same hulk she had been when he bought her. But such was the fury of the tempest that even with the big kites gone the Jasper B. continued to shake and quiver where she lay. Speech was almost impossible on deck, but Cap'n Abernethy signed to Cleggett that he had something important to say to him.

    The whole company adjourned to the cabin, and there, shouting to make himself heard, the Cap'n cried out:

    "Her timbers have been strained something terrible, Mr. Cleggett.

    She ain't what I would call safe and seaworthy any more. The' don't seem to be any danger of her sailin' off, but that's no sign she can't be blowed over onto her beam ends and sunk with all on board. If you was to ask me, Mr. Cleggett, I'd say the time had come to leave the Jasper B. "

    The anxiety depicted on the faces of the little circle about him might have communicated itself to a less intrepid nature. The old Cap'n himself was no coward. Indeed, in owning to his alarm he had really done a brave thing, since few have the moral courage to proclaim themselves afraid. But Cleggett was a man of iron. Although the tempest smote the hulk with blow after blow, although both earth and water seemed to lie prostrate and trampled beneath its unappeasable fury, Cleggett had no thought of yielding.

    Unconsciously he drew himself up. It seemed to his crew that he actually gained in girth and height. The soul, in certain great moments, seems to have power to expand the body and inform it with the quality of immortality; Ajax, in his magnificent gesture of defiance, is all spirit. Cleggett, with his hand on his hip, uttered these words, not without their sublimity:

    "Whether the Jasper B. sinks or swims, her commander will share her fate. I stay by my ship!"

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