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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter3)

2006-08-28 15:17

    CHAPTER III

    A SCHOONER, A SKIPPER, ANDA SKULL

    It was a few days later, when a goodly number of the late Uncle Tom's easily negotiable securities had been converted into cash, and the cash deposited in the bank, that Cleggett bought the Jasper B.

    He discovered her near the town of Fairport, Long Island, one afternoon. The vessel lay in one of the canals which reach inward from the Great South Bay. She looked as if she might have been there for some time. Evidently, at one period, the Jasper B. had played a part in some catch-coin scheme of summer entertainment; a scheme that had failed. Little trace of it remained except a rotting wooden platform, roofless and built close to the canal, and a gangway arrangement from this platform to the deck of the vessel.

    The Jasper B. had seen better days; even a landsman could tell that. But from the blunt bows to the weather-scarred stern, on which the name was faintly discernible, the hulk had an air about it, the air of something that has lived; it was eloquent of a varied and interesting past.

    And, to complete the picture, there sat on her deck a gnarled and brown old man. He smoked a short pipe which was partially hidden in a tangle of beard that had once been yellowish red but was now streaked with dirty white; he fished earnestly without apparent result, and from time to time he spat into the water. Cleggett's nimble fancy at once put rings into his ears and dowered him with a history.

    Cleggett noticed, as he walked aboard the vessel, that she seemed to be jammed not merely against, but into the bank of the canal. She was nearer the shore than he had ever seen a vessel of any sort. Some weeds grew in soil that had lodged upon the deck; in a couple of places they sprang as high as the rail. Weeds grew on shore; in fact, it would have taken a better nautical authority than Cleggett to tell offhand just exactly where the land ended and the Jasper B. began. She seemed to be possessed of an odd stability; although the tide was receding the Jasper B. was not perceptibly agitated by the motion of the water. Of anchor, or mooring chains or cables of any sort, there was no sign.

    The brown old man——he was brown not only as to the portions of his skin visible through his hair and whiskers, but also as to coat and trousers and worn boots and cap and pipe and flannel shirt——turned around as Cleggett stepped aboard, and stared at the invader with a shaggy-browed intensity that was embarrassing.

    It occurred to Cleggett that the old man might own the vessel and make a home of her.

    "I beg your pardon if I am intruding," ventured Cleggett, politely, "but do you live here?"

    The brown old man made an indeterminate motion of his head, without otherwise replying at once. Then he took a cake of dark, hard-looking tobacco from the starboard pocket of his trousers and a clasp knife from the port side. He shaved off a fresh pipeful, rolled it in his palms, knocked the old ash from his pipe, refilled and relighted it, all with the utmost deliberation. Then he cut another small piece of tobacco from the "plug" and popped it into his mouth. Cleggett perceived with surprise that he smoked and chewed tobacco at the same time. As he thus refreshed himself he glanced from time to time at Cleggett as if unfavorably impressed. Finally he closed his knife with a click and suddenly piped out in a high, shrill voice:

    "No! Do you?"

    "I——er——do I what?" It had taken the old man so long to answer that Cleggett had forgotten his own question, and the shrill fierceness of the voice was disconcerting. He regarded Cleggett contemptuously, spat on the deck, and then demanded truculently:

    "D'ye want to buy any seed potatoes?"

    "Why——er, no," said Cleggett.

    "Humph!" said the brown one, with the air of meaning that it was only to be expected of an idiot like Cleggett that he would NOT want to buy any seed potatoes. But after a further embarrassing silence he relented enough to give Cleggett another chance.

    "You want some seed corn!" he announced rather than asked.

    "No. I——"

    "Tomato plants!" shrilled the brown one, as if daring him to deny it.

    "No."

    He turned his back on Cleggett, as if he had lost interest, and began to wind up his fishing line on a squeaky reel.

    "Who owns this boat?" Cleggett touched him on the elbow.

    "Thinkin' of buyin' her?"

    "Perhaps. Who owns her?"

    "What would you do with her?"

    "I might fix her up and sail her. Who owns her?"

    "She'll take a sight o' fixin'."

    "No doubt. Who did you say owned her?"

    The old man, who had finished with the rusty reel, deigned to look at Cleggett again.

    "Dunno as I said."

    "But who DOES own her?"

    "She's stuck fast in the mud and her rudder's gone."

    "I see you know a lot about ships," said Cleggett, deferentially, giving up the attempt to find out who owned her. "I picked you out for an old sailor the minute I saw you." He thought he detected a kindlier gleam in the old man's eye as that person listened to these words.

    "The' ain't a stick in her," said the ancient fisherman. "She's got no wheel and she's got no nothin'. She used to be used as a kind of a barroom and dancin' platform till the fellow that used her for such went

    out o' business."

    He paused, and then added:

    "What might your name be?"

    "Cleggett."

    He appeared to reflect on the name. But he said:

    "If you was to ask me, I'd say her timbers is sound."

    "Tell me," said Cleggett, "was she a deep-water ship? Could a ship

    like her sail around the world, for instance? I can tell that you know all about ships."

    Something like a grin of gratified vanity began to show on the brown one's features. He leaned back against the rail and looked at Cleggett with the dawn of approval in his eyes.

    "My name's Abernethy," he suddenly volunteered. "Isaiah Abernethy. The fellow that owns her is Goldberg. Abraham Goldberg. Real estate man."

    "Cleggett began to get an insight into Mr. Abernethy's peculiar ideas concerning conversation. A native spirit of independence prevented Mr. Abernethy from dealing with an interlocutor's remarks in the sequence that seemed to be desired by the interlocutor. He took a selection of utterances into his mind, rolled them over together, and replied in accordance with some esoteric system of his own.

    "Where is Mr. Goldberg's office?" asked Cleggett.

    "You've come to the proper party to get set right about ships," said Mr. Abernethy, complacently. "Either you was sent to me by someone that knows I'm the proper party to set you right about ships, or else you got an eye in your own head that can recognize a man that comes of a seafarin' fambly."

    "You ARE an old sailor, then? Maybe you are an old skipper? Perhaps you're one of the retired Long Island sea captains we're always hearing so much about?"

    "So fur as sailin' her around the world is concerned," said Mr. Abernethy, glancing over the hulk, "if she was fixed up she could be sailed

    anywheres——anywheres!"

    "What would you call her——a schooner?"

    "This here Goldberg," said Mr. Abernethy, "has his office over town

    right accost from the railroad depot."

    And with that he put his fishing pole over his shoulder and prepared to leave——a tall, strong-looking old man with long legs and knotty wrists, who moved across the deck with surprising spryness. At the gangplank he sang out without turning his head:

    "As far as my bein' a skipper's concerned, they's no law agin' callin' me Cap'n Abernethy if you want to. I come of a seafarin' fambly."

    He crossed the platform; when he had gone thirty yards further he stopped, turned around, and shouted:

    "Is she a schooner, hey? You want to know is she a schooner? If you was askin' me, she ain't NOTHIN' now. But if you was to ask me again I might say she COULD be schooner-rigged. Lots of boats IS schooner-rigged."

    There are affinities between atom and atom, between man and woman, between man and man. There are also affinities between men and things-if you choose to call a ship, which has a spirit of its own, merely a thing. There must have been this affinity between Cleggett and the Jasper B. Only an unusual person would have thought of buying her. But Cleggett loved her at first sight.

    Within an hour after he had first seen her he was in Mr. Abraham Goldberg's office.

    As he was concluding his purchase——Mr. Goldberg having phoned Cleggett's bankers——he was surprised to discover that he was buying about half an acre of Long Island real estate along with her. For that matter he had thought it a little odd in the first place when he had been directed to a real estate agent as the owner of the craft. But as he knew very little about business, and nothing at all about ships, he assumed that perhaps it was quite the usual thing for real estate dealers to buy and sell ships abutting on the coast of Long Island.

    "I had only intended to buy the vessel," said Cleggett. "I don't know that I'll be able to use the land."

    Mr. Goldberg looked at Cleggett with a slight start, as if he were not sure that he had heard aright, and opened his mouth as if to say something. But nothing came of it——not just then, at least. When the last signature had been written, and Clegget's check had been folded by Mr. Goldberg's plump, bejeweled fingers and put into Mr. Goldberg's pocketbook, Mr. Goldberg remarked:

    "You say you can't use the ship?"

    "No; the land. I'm surprised to find that the land goes with the ship."

    "Why, it doesn't," said Mr. Goldberg. "It's the ship that goes with the land. She was on the land when I bought the plot, and I just left her there.

    Nobody's paid any attention to her for years."

    The words "on the land" grated on Cleggett.

    "You mean on the water, don't you?"

    "In the mud, then," suggested Mr. Goldberg.

    "But she'll sail all right," said Cleggett.

    "I suppose if she was decorated up with sails and things she'd sail.

    Figuring on sailing her anywhere in particular?"

    "Subtly irritated, Cleggett answered: "Oh, no, no! Not anywhere in particular!"

    "Going to live on her this summer?——Outdoor sleeping room, and all

    that?"

    "I'm thinking of it."

    "You could turn her into a house boat easy enough. I had a friend

    who turned an old barge like that into a house boat and had a lot of fun with her."

    "Barge?" Cleggett rose and buttoned his coat; the conversation was somehow growing more and more distasteful to him. "You wouldn't call the Jasper B. a BARGE, would you?"

    "Well, you wouldn't call her a YACHT, would you?" said Mr. Goldberg.

    "Perhaps not," admitted Cleggett, "perhaps not. She's more like a bark than a yacht."

    "A bark? I dunno. Always thought a bark was bigger. A scow's more her size, ain't it?"

    "Scow?" Cleggett frowned. The Jasper B. a scow! "You mean a schooner, don't you?"

    "Schooner?" Mr. Goldberg grinned good-naturedly at his departing customer. "A kind of a schooner-scow, huh?"

    "No, sir, a schooner!" said Cleggett, reddening, and turning in the doorway. "Understand me, Mr. Goldberg, a schooner, sir! A schooner!"

    And standing with a frown on his face until every vestige of the smile had died from Mr. Goldberg's lips, Cleggett repeated once more: "A schooner, Mr. Goldberg!"

    "Yes, sir——there's no doubt of it——a schooner, Mr. Cleggett," said Mr. Goldberg, turning pale and backing away from the door.

    The ordinary man inspects a house or a horse first and buys it, or fails to buy it, afterward; but genius scorns conventions; Cleggett was not an ordinary man; he often moved straight towards his object by inspiration; great poets and great adventurers share this faculty; Cleggett paid for the Jasper B. first and went back to inspect his purchase later.

    The vessel lay about two miles from the center of Fairport. He could get within half a mile of it by trolley. Nevertheless, when he reached the Jasper B. again after leaving Mr. Goldberg it was getting along towards dusk.

    He first entered the cabin. It was of a good size and divided into several compartments. But it was in a state of dilapidation and littered with a jumble of odds and ends which looked like the ruins of a barroom. As he turned to ascend to the deck again, after possibly five minutes, intending to take a look at the forecastle next, he heard the sound of a motor.

    Looking out of the cabin he saw a taxicab approaching the boat from the direction of Fairport. It was a large machine, but it was overloaded with seven or eight men. It stopped within twenty yards of the vessel, and two men got out, one of them evidently a person who imposed some sort of leadership on the rest of the party. This was a tall fellow, with a slouching gait and round shoulders. And yet, to judge from his movements, he was both quick and powerful. The other was a short, stout man with a commonplace, broad red face and flaxen hair. The two stood for a moment in colloquy in the road that led from Fairport proper to the bayside, passing near the Jasper B., and Cleggett heard the shorter of the two men say:

    "I'm sure I saw somebody aboard of her."

    "How long ago, Heinrich?" asked the tall man.

    "An hour or so," said Heinrich.

    "It was old man Abernethy; he's harmless," said the tall fellow. "He's the only person that's been aboard her in years."

    "There was someone else," persisted Heinrich. "Someone who was talking to Abernethy."

    The tall man mumbled something about having been a fool not to buy her before this; Cleggett did not catch all of the remark. Then the tall fellow said:

    "We'll go aboard, Heinrich, and take a look around."

    With that they advanced towards the vessel. Cleggett stepped on deck from the cabin companionway, and both men stopped short at the sight of him, Heinrich obviously a trifle confused, but the other one in no wise abashed. He made no attempt, this tall fellow, to give the situation a casual turn. What he did was to stand and stare at Cleggett, candidly, and with more than a touch of insolence, as if trying to beat down Cleggett's gaze.

    Cleggett, staring in his turn, perceived that the tall man, ungainly as he was, affected a bizarre individualism in the matter of dress. His clothing cried out, rather than suggested, that it was expensive. His feet were cased in button shoes with fancy tops; his waistcoat, cut in the extreme of style, revealed that little strip of white which falsely advertises a second waistcoat beneath, but in his case the strip was too broad. There were diamonds on the fingers of both powerful hands. But the thing that grated particularly upon Cleggett was the character of the man's scarfpin. It was by far the largest ornament of the sort that Cleggett had ever seen; he was near enough to the fellow to make out that it had been carved from a piece of solid ivory in the likeness of a skull. In the eyeholes of the skull two opals flamed with an evil levin. The man suggested to Cleggett, at first glance, a bartender who had come into money, or a drayman who had been promoted to an important office in a labor union and was spending the most of a considerable salary on his person. And yet his face, more closely observed, somehow gave the lie to his clothes, for it was not lacking in the signs of intelligence. In spite of his taste, or rather lack of taste, there was no hint of weakness in his physiognomy. His features were harsh, bold, predatory; a slightly yellowish tinge about the temples and cheek bones, suggestive of the ivory ornament, proclaimed a bilious temperament.

    Cleggett, both puzzled and nettled by the man's persistent gaze, advanced towards him across the deck of the Jasper B. and down the gangplank, hand on hip, and called out sharply:

    "Well, my friend, you will know me the next time you see me!"

    The tall man turned without a word and walked back to the taxicab, the occupants of which had watched this singular duel of looks in silence. In the act of getting into the machine he face about again and said, with a lift of the lip that showed two long, protruding canine teeth of an almost saffron hue:

    "I WILL know you again."

    He spoke with a kind of cold hostility that gave his words all the effect of a threat. Cleggett felt the blood leap faster through his veins; he tingled with a fierce, illogical desire to strike the fellow on the mouth; his soul stirred with a premonition of conflict, and the desire for it. And yet, on the surface of things at least, the man had been nothing more than rude;as Cleggett watched the machine make off towards an isolated road house on the bayside he wondered at the quick intensity of his own antipathy. Unconsciously he flexed his wrist in his characteristic gesture. Scarcely knowing that he spoke, he murmured:

    "That man gets on my nerves."

    That man was destined to do something more than get on Cleggett's nerves before the adventures of the Jasper B. were ended.

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