Cruise of the Jasper B/Chapter 7

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Cruise of the Jasper B by Don Marquis
Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII FIRST BLOOD FOR CLEGGETT

As his feet struck the top of the rubbish heap in the hold of the vessel, Cleggett stumbled and staggered forward. But he did not let go of his revolver.

Perhaps he would not have fallen, but the Pomeranian, which had leaped into the hold after him, yelping like a terrier at a rat hunt, ran between his legs and tripped him.

"Damn the dog!" cried Cleggett, going down.

But the fall probably saved his life, for as he spoke two pistol shots rang out simultaneously from the forward part of the hold. The bullets passed over his head. Raising himself on his elbow, Cleggett fired rapidly three times, aiming at the place where a spurt of flame had come from.

A cry answered him, and he knew that at least one of his bullets had taken effect. He rose to his feet and plunged forward, firing again, and at the same instant another bullet grazed his temple.

The next few seconds were a wild confusion of yelping dog, shouts, curses, shots that roared like the explosion of big guns in that pent-up and restricted place, stinking powder, and streaks of fire that laced themselves across the darkness. But only a single pistol replied to Cleggett's now and he was confident that one of the men was out of the fight.

But the other man, blindly or with intention, was stumbling nearer as he fired. A bullet creased Cleggett's shoulder; it was fired so close to him that he felt the heat of the exploding powder; and in the sudden glow of light he got a swift and vivid glimpse of a white face framed in long black hair, and of flashing white teeth beneath a lifted lip that twitched. The face was almost within touching distance; as it vanished Cleggett heard the sharp, whistling intake of the fellow's breath--and then a click that told him the other's last cartridge was gone. Cleggett clubbed his pistol and leaped forward, striking at the place where the gleaming teeth had been. His blow missed; he spun around with the force of it. As he steadied himself to shoot again he heard a rush behind him and knew that his men had come to his assistance.

" Collar him!" he cried. "Don't shoot, or----"

But he did not finish that sentence. A thousand lights danced before his eyes, Niagara roared in his ears for an instant, and he knew no more. His adversary had laid him out with the butt of a pistol.

Cleggett was not that inconsiderable sort of a man who is killed in any trivial skirmish: There was a moment at the bridge of Arcole when Napoleon, wounded and flung into a ditch, appeared to be lost. But when Nature, often so stupid, really does take stock and become aware that she has created an eagle she does not permit that eagle to be killed before its wings are fledged. Napoleon was picked out of the ditch. Cleggett was only stunned.

Both were saved for larger triumphs. The association of names is not accidental. These two men were, in some respects, not dissimilar, although Bonaparte lacked Cleggett's breeding.

When Cleggett regained consciousness he was on deck; George, Kuroki and Cap'n Abernethy stood about him in a little semicircle of anxiety; Lady Agatha was applying a cold compress to the bump upon his head. (He made nothing of his other scratches.) As for Elmer, who had not stirred from his seat on the oblong box, he moodily regarded, not Cleggett, but a slight young fellow with long black hair, who lay motionless upon the deck.

Cleggett struggled to his feet. "Is he dead?" he asked, pointing to the figure of his recent assailant. Cap'n Abernethy, for the first time since Cleggett had known him, gave a direct answer to a question.

"Mighty nigh it," he said, staring down at the young man. Then he added: "Kind o' innocent lookin' young fellow, at that."

"But the other one? Was he killed?" asked Cleggett.

"The other?" George inquired. "But there was no other. When we got down there you and this boy----" And George described the struggle that had taken place after Cleggett had lost consciousness. The whole affair, as far as it concerned Cleggett, had been a matter of seconds rather than minutes; it was begun and over like a hundred yard dash on the cinder track. When George and Kuroki and Cap'n Abernethy had tumbled into the hold they had been afraid to shoot for fear of hitting Cleggett; they had reached him, guided by his voice, just as he went down under his assailant' s pistol. They had not subdued the youth until he had suffered severely from George's dagger. Later they learned that one of Cleggett's bullets had also found him. Cleggett listened to the end, and then he said:

"But there WERE two men in the hold. And one of them, dead or wounded, must still be down there. Carry this fellow into the forecastle--we'll look at him later. Then bring some lanterns. We are going down into that hold again."

With their pistols in their right hands and lanterns in their left they descended, Cleggett first. It was not impossible that the other intruder might be lying, wounded, but revived enough by now to work a pistol, behind one of the rubbish heaps.

But no shots greeted them. The hold of the Jasper B. was not divided into compartments of any sort. If it had ever had them, they had been torn away. Below deck, except for the rubbish heap and the steps for the masts, she was empty as a soup tureen. The pile of debris was the highest toward the waist of the vessel. There it formed a treacherous hill of junk; this hill sloped downward towards the bow and towards the stern; in both the fore and after parts, under the forecastle and the cabin, there were comparatively clear spaces.

The four men forced their way back towards the stern and then came slowly forward in a line that extended across the vessel, exploring with their lanterns every inch of the precarious footing, and overturning and looking behind, under, and into every box, cask, or jumble of planking that might possibly offer a place of concealment. They found no one. And, until they reached a clearer place, well forward, on the starboard side of the ship, they found no trace of anyone.

Cleggett, who was examining this place, suddenly uttered an exclamation which brought the others to him. He pointed to stains of blood upon the planking; near these stains were marks left by boots which had been gaumed with a yellowish clay. A revolver lay on the floor. Cleggett examined it and found that only one cartridge had been exploded. The stains of blood and the stains of yellow clay made an easily followed trail for some yards to a point about halfway between the bow and stern on the starboard side.

There, in the waist of the vessel, they ceased; ceased abruptly, mysteriously. Cleggett, not content, made his men go over the place again, even more thoroughly than before. But there was no one there, dead or wounded, unless he had succeeded in contracting himself to the dimensions of a rat.

"There is nothing," said Cleggett, standing by the ladder that led up to the deck. "Nothing," echoed George; and then as if with one impulse, and moved by the same eerie thought, these four men suddenly raised their lanterns head-high and gazed at one another.

A startled look spread from face to face. But no one spoke. There was no need to. All recognized that they were in the presence of an apparent impossibility. Yet this seemingly impossible thing was the fact. There had been two men in the hold of the Jasper B. They had entered as mysteriously and silently as disembodied spirits might have done. One of them, wounded, had made his exit in the same baffling way. Where? How?

Cleggett broke the silence.

"Let us go to the forecastle and have a look at that fellow," he said, and led the way.

No one lagged as they left the hold. These were all brave men, but there are times when the invisible, the incomprehensible, will send a momentary chill to the heart of the most intrepid.

Cleggett found Lady Agatha, her own troubles for the time forgotten, in the forecastle. She had lighted a lamp and was bending over the wounded man, whose coat and waistcoat she had removed. His clothing was a sop of blood. They cut his shirt and undershirt from him. Kuroki brought water and the medicine chest and surgical outfit with which Cleggett had provided the Jasper B. They examined his wounds, Lady Agatha, with a fine seriousness and a deft touch which claimed Cleggett's admiration, washing them herself and proceeding to stop the flow of blood.

"Oh, I am not an altogether useless person," she said, with a momentary smile, as she saw the look in Cleggett's face. And Cleggett remembered with shame that he had not thanked her for her ministrations to himself.

A pistol bullet had gone quite through the young man's shoulder. There was a deep cut on his head, and there were half a dozen other stab wounds on his body. George had evidently worked with great rapidity in the hold.

In the inside breast pocket of his coat he had carried a thin and narrow little book. There was a dagger thrust clear through it; if the book had not been there this terrible blow delivered by the son of Leonidas must inevitably have penetrated the lung.

Cleggett opened the book. It was entitled "Songs of Liberty, by Giuseppe Jones." The verse was written in the manner of Walt Whitman. A glance at one of the sprawling poems showed Cleggett that in sentiment it was of the most violent and incendiary character.

"Why, he is an anarchist!" said Cleggett in surprise.

"Oh, really!" Lady Agatha looked up from her work of mercy and spoke with animation, and then gazed upon the youth's face again with a new interest. "An anarchist! How interesting! I have ALWAYS wanted to meet an anarchist."

"Poor boy, he don't look like nothin' bad," said Cap'n Abernethy, who seemed to have taken a fancy to Giuseppe Jones.

"Listen," said Cleggett, and read:

"As for your flag, I spit upon your flag! I spit upon your organized society anywhere and everywhere; I spit upon your churches; I spit upon your capitalistic institutions; I spit upon your laws; I spit upon the whole damned thing! But, as I spit, I weep! I weep!"

"How silly!" said Lady Agatha. "What does it mean?"

"It means----" began Cleggett, and then stopped. The book of revolutionary verse, taken in conjunction with the red flag that had been displayed and then withdrawn, made him wonder if Morris's were the headquarters of some band of anarchists.

But, if so, why should this band show such an interest in the Jasper B. ? An interest so hostile to her present owner and his men?

"If you was to ask me what it means," said Captain Abernethy, who had taken the book and was fingering it, "I'd say it means young Jones here has fell into bad company. That don't explain how he sneaked into the hold of the Jasper B., nor what for. But he orter have a doctor."

"He shall have a physician," said Cleggett. "In fact, the Jasper B. needs a ship's doctor."

"It looks to me," said Captain Abernethy, "as if she did. And if you was to go further, Mr. Cleggett, and say that it looks as if she was liable to need a couple o' trained nurses, too, I'd say to you that if they's goin' to be many o' these kind o' goin's-on aboard of her she DOES need a couple of trained nurses."

"Captain," said Cleggett, "you are a humane man --let me shake your hand. You have voiced my very thought!"

Long ago Cleggett had resolved that if Chance or Providence should ever gratify his secret wish to participate in stirring adventures, he would see to it that all his wounded enemies, no matter how many there might be of them, received adequate medical attention. He had often been shocked at the callousness with which so many of the heroes of romance dash blithely into the next adventure--though those whom they have seriously injured lie on all sides of them as thick as autumn leaves--with only the most perfunctory consideration of these victims; sometimes, indeed, with no thought of them at all.

"Something tells me," said Cleggett seriously, "that this intrusion of armed men is only a prelude. I have little doubt of the hostility of Morris's; I am sure that the men who hid in the hold are spies from Morris's. I do not yet know the motive for this hostility. But the Jasper B. is in the midst of dangers and mysteries. There is before us an affair of some magnitude. Ere the Jasper B. sets sail for the China Seas, there may be many wounds."

And then he began to outline a plan that had flashed, full formed, into his mind. It was to rent, or purchase, the buildings at Parker's Beach, and fit them up as a field hospital, with three or four nurses in charge. Lady Agatha, who had been listening intently, interrupted.

"But--the China Seas," she said. "Did I understand you to say that you intend to set sail for the China Seas?"

"That is the ultimate destination of the Jasper B." said Cleggett.

"I have heard--it seems to me that I have heard--that it's a very dangerous place," ventured Lady Agatha. "Pirates, you know, and all that sort of thing."

"Pirates," said Cleggett, "abound."

"Well, then," persisted Lady Agatha, "you are going out to fight them?"

"I should not be surprised," said Cleggett, folding his arms, and standing with his feet spread just a trifle wider than usual, "if the Jasper B. had a brush or two with them. A brush or two!"

Lady Agatha regarded him speculatively. But admiringly, too.

"But those nurses----" she said. "If you're going to the China Seas you can't very well take Parker's Beach along."

"I was coming to that," said Cleggett, bowing. "I contemplate a hospital ship--a vessel supplied with nurses and lint and medicines, that will accompany the Jasper B., and fly the Red Cross flag."

"But they are frightful people, really, those Chinese pirates, you know," said Lady Agatha. "Do you think they'll quite appreciate a hospital ship?"

"It is my duty," said Cleggett, simply. "Whether they appreciate it or not, a hospital ship they shall have. This is the twentieth century. And although the great spirits of other days had much to commend them, it is not to be denied that they knew little of our modern humanitarianism. It has remained for the twentieth century to develop that. And one owes a duty to one's epoch as well as to one's individuality."

"But," repeated Lady Agatha, with a meditative frown, "they are really FRIGHTFUL people!"

"There is good in all men," said Cleggett, "even in those whom the stern necessities of idealism sentence to death. And I have no doubt that many a Chinese pirate would, under other circumstances, have developed into a very contented and useful laundry-man."

Lady Agatha studied him intently for a moment. "Mr. Cleggett," she said, "if you will permit me to say so, a great suffragist leader was lost when fate made you a man."

"Thank you," said Cleggett, bowing again.

He dispatched George--a person of address as well as a fighter in whom the blood of ancient Greece ran quick and strong--on a humanitarian mission. George was to walk a mile to the trolley line, go to Fairport, hire a taxicab, and make all possible speed into Manhattan. There he was to communicate with a young physician of Cleggett's acquaintance, Dr. Harry Farnsworth.

Dr. Farnsworth, as Cleggett knew, was just out of medical school. He had his degree, but no patients. But he was bold and ready. He was, in short, just the lad to welcome with enthusiasm such a chance for active service as the cruise of the Jasper B. promised to afford.

It was something of a risk to weaken his little party by sending George away for several hours. But Cleggett did not hesitate. He was not the man to allow considerations of personal safety to outweigh his devotion to an ideal.

"And now," said Cleggett, turning to Lady Agatha, who had hearkened to his orders to George with a bright smile of approval, "we will dine, and I will hear the rest of your story, which was so rudely interrupted. It is possible that together we may be able to find some solution of your problem."

"Dine!" exclaimed Lady Agatha, eagerly. "Yes, let us dine! It may sound incredible to you, Mr. Cleggett, that the daughter of an English peer and the widow of a baronet should confess that, except for your tea, she has scarcely eaten for twenty-four hours--but it is so!"

Then she said, sadly, with a sign and sidelong glance at the box of Reginald Maltravers which stood near the cabin companionway dripping coldly: " Until now, Mr. Cleggett--until your aid had given me fresh hope and strength--I had, indeed, very little appetite."

Cleggett followed her gaze, and it must be admitted that he himself experienced a momentary sense of depression at the sight of the box of Reginald Maltravers. It looked so damp, it looked so chill, it looked so starkly and patiently and malevolently watchful of himself and Lady Agatha. In a flash his lively fancy furnished him with a picture of the box of Reginald Maltravers suddenly springing upright and hopping towards him on one end with a series of stiff jumps that would send drops of moisture flying from the cracks and seams and make the ice inside of it clink and tinkle. And the mournful Elmer, now drowsing callously over his charge, was not an invitation to be blithe. If Cleggett himself were so affected (he mused) what must be the effect of the box of Reginald Maltravers upon sensibilities as fine and delicate as those of a woman like Lady Agatha Fairhaven?

"Could I--if I might----" Lady Agatha hesitated, with a glance towards the cabin. Cleggett instantly divined her thought; for brief as was their acquaintance, there was an almost psychic accord between his mind and hers, and he felt himself already answering to her unspoken wish as a ship to its rudder.

"The cabin is at your service," said Cleggett, for he understood that she wished to dress for dinner. He conducted her, with a touch of formality, to his own room in the cabin, which he put at her disposal, ordering her steamer trunks to be placed in it. Then, taking with him some necessaries of his own, he withdrew to the forecastle to make a careful toilet.

It might not have occurred to another man to dress for dinner, but Cleggett's character was an unusual blend of delicacy and strength; he perceived subtly that Lady Agatha was of the nature to appreciate this compliment. At a moment when her fortunes were at a low ebb what could more cheer a woman and hearten her than such a mark of consideration? Already Cleggett found himself asking what would please Lady Agatha.