The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter X: A Warning Accepted
"It is with no desire to interrupt my friend Cassandra unnecessarily," said Mrs. Noah, as the prophetess was about to narrate her story, "that I rise to beg her to remember that, as an ancestress of Captain Kidd, I hope she will spare a grandmother's feelings, if anything in the story she is about to tell is improper to be placed before the young. I have been so shocked by the stories of perfidy and baseness generally that have been published of late years, that I would interpose a protest while there is yet time if there is a line in Cassandra's story which ought to be withheld from the public; a protest based upon my affection for posterity, and in the interests of morality everywhere."
"You may rest easy upon that score, my dear Mrs. Noah," said the prophetess. "What I have to say would commend itself, I am sure, even to the ears of a British matron; and while it is as complete a demonstration of man's perfidy as ever was, it is none the less as harmless a little tale as the Dottie Dimple books or any other more recent study of New England character."
"Thank you for the load your words have lifted from my mind," said Mrs. Noah, settling back in her chair, a satisfied expression upon her gentle countenance. "I hope you will understand why I spoke, and withal why modern literature generally has been so distressful to me. When you reflect that the world is satisfied that most of man's criminal instincts are the result of heredity, and that Mr. Noah and I are unable to shift the responsibility for posterity to other shoulders than our own, you will understand my position. We were about the most domestic old couple that ever lived, and when we see the long and varied assortment of crimes that are cropping out everywhere in our descendants it is painful to us to realize what a pair of unconsciously wicked old fogies we must have been."
"We all understand that," said Cleopatra, kindly; "and we are all prepared to acquit you of any responsibility for the advanced condition of wickedness to-day. Man has progressed since your time, my dear grandma, and the modern improvements in the science of crime are no more attributable to you than the invention of the telephone or the oyster cocktail is attributable to your husband."
"Thank you kindly," murmured the old lady, and she resumed her knitting upon a phantom tam-o'-shanter, which she was making as a Christmas surprise for her husband.
"When Captain Kidd began his story," said Cassandra, "he made one very bad mistake, and yet one which was prompted by that courtesy which all men instinctively adopt when addressing women. When he entered the room he removed his hat, and therein lay his fatal error, if he wished to convince me of the truth of his story, for with his hat removed I could see the workings of his mind. While you ladies were watching his lips or his eyes, some of you taking in the gorgeous details of his dress, all of you hanging upon his every word, I kept my eye fixed firmly upon his imagination, and I saw, what you did not, that he was drawing wholly upon that!"
"How extraordinary!" cried Elizabeth.
"Yes--and fortunate," said Cassandra. "Had I not done so, a week hence we should, every one of us, have been lost in the surging wickedness of the city of Paris."
"But, Cassandra," said Trilby, who was anxious to return once more to the beautiful city by the Seine, "he told us we were going to Paris."
"Of course he did," said Madame Recamier, "and in so many words. Certainly he was not drawing upon his imagination there."
"And one might be lost in a very much worse place," put in Marguerite de Valois, "if, indeed, it were possible to lose us in Paris at all. I fancy that I know enough about Paris to find my way about."
"Humph!" ejaculated Cassandra. "What a foolish little thing you are! You don't imagine that the Paris of to-day is the Paris of your time, or even the Paris of that sweet child Trilby's time, do you? If you do you are very much mistaken. I almost wish I had not warned you of your danger and had let you go, just to see those eyes of yours open with amazement at the change. You'd find your Louvre a very different sort of a place from what it used to be, my dear lady. Those pleasing little windows through which your relations were wont in olden times to indulge in target practice at people who didn't go to their church are now kept closed; the galleries which used to swarm with people, many of whom ought to have been hanged, now swarm with pictures, many of which ought not to have been hung; the romance which clung about its walls is as much a part of the dead past as yourselves, and were you to materialize suddenly therein you would find yourselves jostled and hustled and trodden upon by the curious from other lands, with Argus eyes taking in five hundred pictures a minute, and traversing those halls at a rate of speed at which Mercury himself would stand aghast."
"But my beloved Tuileries?" cried Marie Antoinette.
"Has been swallowed up by a play-ground for the people, my dear," said Cassandra, gently. "Paris is no place for us, and it is the intention of these men, in whose hands we are, to take us there and then desert us. Can you imagine anything worse than ourselves, the phantoms of a glorious romantic past, basely deserted in the streets of a wholly strange, superficial, material city of to-day? What do you think, Elizabeth, would be your fate if, faint and famished, you begged for sustenance at an English door to-day, and when asked your name and profession were to reply, 'Elizabeth, Queen of England'?"
"Insane asylum," said Elizabeth, shortly.
"Precisely. So in Paris with the rest of us," said Cassandra.
"How do you know all this?" asked Trilby, still unconvinced.
"I know it just as you knew how to become a prima donna," said Cassandra. "I am, however, my own Svengali, which is rather preferable to the patent detachable hypnotizer you had. I hypnotize myself, and direct my mind into the future. I was a professional forecaster in the days of ancient Troy, and if my revelations had been heeded the Priam family would, I doubt not, still be doing business at the old stand, and Mr. Aeneas would not have grown round- shouldered giving his poor father a picky-back ride on the opening night of the horse-show, so graphically depicted by Virgil."
"I never heard about that," said Trilby. "It sounds like a very funny story, though."
"Well, it wasn't so humorous for some as it was for others," said Cassandra, with a sly glance at Helen. "The fact is, until you mentioned it yourself, it never occurred to me that there was much fun in any portion of the Trojan incident, excepting perhaps the delirium tremens of old Laocoon, who got no more than he deserved for stealing my thunder. I had warned Troy against the Greeks, and they all laughed at me, and said my eye to the future was strabismatic; that the Greeks couldn't get into Troy at all, even if they wanted to. And then the Greeks made a great wooden horse as a gift for the Trojans, and when I turned my X-ray gaze upon it I saw that it contained about six brigades of infantry, three artillery regiments, and sharp-shooters by the score. It was a sort of military Noah's Ark; but I knew that the prejudice against me was so strong that nobody would believe what I told them. So I said nothing. My prophecies never came true, they said, failing to observe that my warning as to what would be was in itself the cause of their non- fulfilment. But desiring to save Troy, I sent for Laocoon and told him all about it, and he went out and announced it as his own private prophecy; and then, having tried to drown his conscience in strong waters, he fell a victim to the usual serpentine hallucination, and everybody said he wasn't sober, and therefore unworthy of belief. The horse was accepted, hauled into the city, and that night orders came from hindquarters to the regiments concealed inside to march. They marched, and next morning Troy had been removed from the map; ninety per cent of the Trojans died suddenly, and Aeneas, grabbing up his family in one hand and his gods in the other, went yachting for several seasons, ultimately settling down in Italy. All of this could have been avoided if the Trojans would have taken the hint from my prophecies. They preferred, however, not to do it, with the result that to-day no one but Helen and myself knows even where Troy was, and we'll never tell."
"It is all true," said Helen, proudly. "I was the woman who was at the bottom of it all, and I can testify that Cassandra always told the truth, which is why she was always so unpopular. When anything that was unpleasant happened, after it was all over she would turn and say, sweetly, 'I told you so.' She was the original 'I told you so' nuisance, and of course she had the newspapyruses down on her, because she never left them any sensation to spring upon the public. If she had only told a fib once in a while, the public would have had more confidence in her."
"Thank you for your endorsement," said Cassandra, with a nod at Helen. "With such testimony I cannot see how you can refrain from taking my advice in this matter; and I tell you, ladies, that this man Kidd has made his story up out of whole cloth; the men of Hades had no more to do with our being here than we had; they were as much surprised as we are to find us gone. Kidd himself was not aware of our presence, and his object in taking us to Paris is to leave us stranded there, disembodied spirits, vagrant souls with no familiar haunts to haunt, no place to rest, and nothing before us save perpetual exile in a world that would have no sympathy for us in our misfortune, and no belief in our continued existence."
"But what, then, shall we do?" cried Ophelia, wringing her hands in despair.
"It is a terrible problem," said Cleopatra, anxiously; "and yet it does seem as if our woman's instinct ought to show us some way out of our trouble."
"The Committee on Treachery," said Delilah, "has already suggested a chafing-dish party, with Lucretia Borgia in charge of the lobster Newberg."
"That is true," said Lucretia; "but I find, in going through my reticule, that my maid, for some reason unknown to me, has failed to renew my supply of poisons. I shall discharge her on my return home, for she knows that I never go anywhere without them; but that does not help matters at this juncture. The sad fact remains that I could prepare a thousand delicacies for these pirates without fatal results."
"You mean immediately fatal, do you not?" suggested Xanthippe. "I could myself prepare a cake which would in time reduce our captors to a state of absolute dependence, but of course the effect is not immediate."
"We might give a musicale, and let Trilby sing 'Ben Bolt' to them," suggested Marguerite de Valois, with a giggle.
"Don't be flippant, please," said Portia. "We haven't time to waste on flippant suggestions. Perhaps a court-martial of these pirates, supplemented by a yard-arm, wouldn't be a bad thing. I'll prosecute the case."
"You forget that you are dealing with immortal spirits," observed Cleopatra. "If these creatures were mortals, hanging them would be all right, and comparatively easy, considering that we outnumber them ten to one, and have many resources for getting them, more or less, in our power, but they are not. They have gone through the refining process of dissolution once, and there's an end to that. Our only resource is in the line of deception, and if we cannot deceive them, then we have ceased to be women."
"That is truly said," observed Elizabeth. "And inasmuch as we have already provided ourselves with a suitable committee for the preparation of our plans of a deceptive nature, I move, as the easiest possible solution of the difficulty for the rest of us, that the Committee on Treachery be requested to go at once into executive session, with orders not to come out of it until they have suggested a plausible plan of campaign against our abductors. We must be rid of them. Let the Committee on Treachery say how."
"Second the motion," said Mrs. Noah. "You are a very clear-headed young woman, Lizzie, and your grandmother is proud of you."
The Committee on Treachery were about to protest, but the chair refused to entertain any debate upon the question, which was put and carried with a storm of approval.
Five minutes later a note was handed through the port, addressed to Cleopatra, which read as follows:
"Dear Madame,--Six bells has just struck, and the officers and crew are hungry. Will you and your fair companions co-operate with us in our enterprise by having a hearty dinner ready within two hours? A speck has appeared on the horizon which betokens a coming storm, else we would prepare our supper ourselves. As it is, we feel that your safety depends on our remaining on deck. If there is any beer on the ice, we prefer it to tea. Two cases will suffice.
"HENRY MORGAN, Bart.; First Mate."
"Hurrah!" cried Cleopatra, as she read this communication. "I have an idea. Tell the Committee on Treachery to appear before the full meeting at once."
The committee was summoned, and Cleopatra announced her plan of operation, and it was unanimously adopted; but what it was we shall have to wait for another chapter to learn.