The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter XI: Marooned
When Captain Holmes arrived upon deck he seized his glass, and, gazing intently through it for a moment, perceived that the faithful Shem had not deceived him. Flying at half-mast from a rude, roughly hewn pole set upon a rocky height was the black flag, emblem of piracy, and, as Artemus Ward put it, "with the second joints reversed." It was in very truth a signal of distress.
"I make it a point never to be surprised," observed Holmes, as he peered through the glass, "but this beats me. I didn't know there was an island of this nature in these latitudes. Blackstone, go below and pipe Captain Cook on deck. Perhaps he knows what island that is."
"You'll have to excuse me, Captain Holmes," replied the Judge. "I didn't ship on this voyage as a cabin-boy or a messenger-boy. Therefore I--"
"Bonaparte, put the Judge in irons," interrupted Holmes, sternly. "I expect to be obeyed, Judge Blackstone, whether you shipped as a Lord Chief-Justice or a state-room steward. When I issue an order it must be obeyed. Step lively there, Bonaparte. Get his honor ironed and summon your marines. We may have work to do before night. Hamlet, pipe Captain Cook on deck."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Hamlet, with alacrity, as he made off.
"That's the way to obey orders," said Holmes, with a scornful glance at Blackstone.
"I was only jesting, Captain," said the latter, paling somewhat.
"That's all right," said Holmes, taking up his glass again. "So was I when I ordered you in irons, and in order that you may appreciate the full force of the joke I repeat it. Bonaparte, do your duty."
In an instant the order was obeyed, and the unhappy Judge shortly found himself manacled and alone in the forecastle. Meanwhile Captain Cook, in response to the commander's order, repaired to the deck and scanned the distant coast.
"I can't place it," he said. "It can't be Monte Cristo, can it?"
"No, it can't," said the Count, who stood hard by. "My island was in the Mediterranean, and even if it dragged anchor it couldn't have got out through the Strait of Gibraltar."
"Perhaps it's Robinson Crusoe's island," suggested Doctor Johnson.
"Not it," observed De Foe. "If it is, the rest of you will please keep off. It's mine, and I may want to use it again. I've been having a number of interviews with Crusoe latterly, and he's given me a lot of new points, which I intend incorporating in a sequel for the Cimmerian Magazine."
"Well, in the name of Atlas, what island is it, then?" roared Holmes, angrily. "What is the matter with all you learned lubbers that I have brought along on this trip? Do you suppose I've brought you to whistle up favorable winds? Not by the beard of the Prophet! I brought you to give me information, and now when I ask for the name of a simple little island like that in plain sight there's not one of you able so much as to guess at it reasonably. The next man I ask for information goes into irons with Judge Blackstone if he doesn't answer me instantly with the information I want. Munchausen, what island is that?"
"Ahem! that?" replied Munchausen, trembling, as he reflected upon the Captain's threat. "What? Nobody knows what island that is? Why, you surprise me -
"See here, Baron," retorted Holmes, menacingly, "I ask you a plain question, and I want a plain answer, with no evasions to gain time. Now it's irons or an answer. What island is that?"
"It's an island that doesn't appear on any chart, Captain," Munchausen responded instantly, pulling himself together for a mighty effort, "and it has never been given a name; but as you insist upon having one, we'll call it Holmes Island, in your honor. It is not stationary. It is a floating island of lava formation, and is a menace to every craft that goes to sea. I spent a year of my life upon it once, and it is more barren than the desert of Sahara, because you cannot raise even sand upon it, and it is devoid of water of any sort, salt or fresh."
"What did you live on during that year?" asked Holmes, eying him narrowly.
"Canned food from wrecks," replied the Baron, feeling much easier now that he had got a fair start--"canned food from wrecks, commander. There is a magnetic property in the upper stratum of this piece of derelict real estate, sir, which attracts to it every bit of canned substance that is lost overboard in all parts of the world. A ship is wrecked, say, in the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately all the loose metal upon her will succumb to the irresistible attraction of this magnetic upper stratum, and will find its way to its shores. So in any other part of the earth. Everything metallic turns up here sooner or later; and when you consider that thousands of vessels go down every year, vessels which are provisioned with tinned foods only, you will begin to comprehend how many millions of pounds of preserved salmon, sardines, pate de foie gras, peaches, and so on, can be found strewn along its coast."
"Munchausen," said Holmes, smiling, "by the blush upon your cheek, coupled with an occasional uneasy glance of the eye, I know that for once you are standing upon the, to you, unfamiliar ground of truth, and I admire you for it. There is nothing to be ashamed of in telling the truth occasionally. You are a man after my own heart. Come below and have a cocktail. Captain Cook, take command of the Gehenna during my absence; head her straight for Holmes Island, and when you discover anything new let me know. Bonaparte, in honor of Munchausen's remarkable genius, I proclaim general amnesty to our prisoners, and you may release Blackstone from his dilemma; and if you have any tin soldiers among your marines, see that they are lashed to the rigging. I don't want this electric island of the Baron's to get a grip upon my military force at this juncture."
With this Holmes, followed by Munchausen, went below, and the two worthies were soon deep in the mysteries of a phantom cocktail, while Doctor Johnson and De Foe gazed mournfully out over the ocean at the floating island.
"De Foe," said Johnson "that ought to be a lesson to you. This realism that you tie up to is all right when you are alone with your conscience; but when there are great things afoot, an imagination and a broad view as to the limitations of truth aren't at all bad. You or I might now be drinking that cocktail with Holmes if we'd only risen to the opportunity the way Munchausen did."
"That is true," said De Foe, sadly. "But I didn't suppose he wanted that kind of information. I could have spun a better yarn than that of Munchausen's with my eyes shut. I supposed he wanted truth, and I gave it."
"I'd like to know what has become of the House-boat," said Raleigh, anxiously gazing through the glass at the island. "I can see old Henry Morgan sitting down there on the rocks with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, and Kidd and Abeuchapeta are standing back of him, yelling like mad, but there isn't a boat in sight."
"Who is that man, off to the right, dancing a fandango?" asked Johnson.
"It looks like Conrad, but I can't tell. He appears to have gone crazy. He's got that wild look on his face which betokens insanity. We'll have to be careful in our parleyings with these people," said Raleigh.
"Anything new?" asked Holmes, returning to the deck, smacking his lips in enjoyment of the cocktail.
"No--except that we are almost within hailing distance," said Cook.
"Then give orders to cast anchor," observed Holmes. "Bonaparte, take a crew of picked men ashore and bring those pirates aboard. Take the three musketeers with you, and don't let Kidd or Morgan give you any back talk. If they try any funny business, exorcise them."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Bonaparte, and in a moment a boat had been lowered and a sturdy crew of sailors were pulling for the shore. As they came within ten feet of it the pirates made a mad dash down the rough, rocky hillside and clamored to be saved.
"What's happened to you?" cried Bonaparte, ordering the sailors to back water lest the pirates should too hastily board the boat and swamp her.
"We are marooned," replied Kidd, "and on an island of a volcanic nature. There isn't a square inch of it that isn't heated up to 125 degrees, and seventeen of us have already evaporated. Conrad has lost his reason; Abeuchapeta has become so tenuous that a child can see through him. As for myself, I am growing iridescent with anxiety, and unless I get off this infernal furnace I'll disappear like a soap-bubble. For Heaven's sake, then, General, take us off, on your own terms. We'll accept anything."
As if in confirmation of Kidd's words, six of the pirate crew collapsed and disappeared into thin air, and a glance at Abeuchapeta was proof enough of his condition. He had become as clear as crystal, and had it not been for his rugged outlines he would hardly have been visible even to his fellow-spirits. As for Kidd, he had taken on the aspect of a rainbow, and it was patent that his fears for himself were all too well founded.
Bonaparte embarked the leaders of the band first, returning subsequently for the others, and repaired with them at once to the Gehenna, where they were ushered into the presence of Sherlock Holmes. The first question he asked was as to the whereabouts of the House-boat.
"That we do not know," replied Kidd, mournfully, gazing downward at the wreck of his former self. "We came ashore, sir, early yesterday morning, in search of food. It appears that when--acting in a wholly inexcusable fashion, and influenced, I confess it, by motives of revenge--I made off with your club-house, I neglected to ascertain if it were well stocked with provisions, a fatal error; for when we endeavored to get supper we discovered that the larder contained but half a bottle of farcie olives, two salted almonds, and a soda cracker--not a luxurious feast for sixty-nine pirates and a hundred and eighty-three women to sit down to."
"That's all nonsense," said Demosthenes. "The House Committee had provided enough supper for six hundred people, in anticipation of the appetite of the members on their return from the fight."
"Of course they did," said Confucius; "and it was a good one, too-- salads, salmon glace, lobsters--every blessed thing a man can't get at home we had; and what is more, they'd been delivered on board. I saw to that before I went up the river."
"Then," moaned Kidd, "it is as I suspected. We were the victims of base treachery on the part of those women."
"Treachery? Well, I like that. Call it reciprocity," said Hamlet, dryly.
"We were informed by the ladies that there was nothing for supper save the items I have already referred to," said Kidd. "I see it all now. We had tried to make them comfortable, and I put myself to some considerable personal inconvenience to make them easy in their minds, but they were ungrateful."
"Whatever induced you to take 'em along with you?" asked Socrates.
"We didn't want them," said Kidd.
"We didn't know they were on board until it was too late to turn back. They'd broken in, and were having the club all to themselves in your absence."
"It served you good and right," said Socrates, with a laugh. "Next time you try to take things that don't belong to you, maybe you'll be a trifle more careful as to whose property you confiscate."
"But the House-boat--you haven't told us how you lost her," put in Raleigh, impatiently.
"Well, it was this way," said Kidd. "When, in response to our polite request for supper, the ladies said there was nothing to eat on board, something had to be done, for we were all as hungry as bears, and we decided to go ashore at the first port and provision. Unfortunately the crew got restive, and when this floating frying-pan loomed into view, to keep them good-natured we decided to land and see if we could beg, borrow, or steal some supplies. We had to. Observations taken with the sextant showed that there was no port within five hundred miles; the island looked as if it might be inhabited at least by goats, and ashore we went, every man of us, leaving the House-boat safely anchored in the harbor. At first we didn't mind the heat, and we hunted and hunted and hunted; but after three or four hours I began to notice that three of my sailors were shrivelling up, and Conrad began to act as if he were daft. Hawkins burst right before my eyes. Then Abeuchapeta got prismatic around the eyes and began to fade, and I noticed a slight iridescence about myself; and as for Morgan, he had the misfortune to lie down to take a nap in the sun, and when he waked up, his whole right side had evaporated. Then we saw what the trouble was. We'd struck this lava island, and were gradually succumbing to its intense heat. We rushed madly back to the harbor to embark; and our ship, gentlemen, and your House-boat, was slowly but surely disappearing over the horizon, and flying from the flag-staff at the fore were signals of farewell, with an unfeeling P.S. below to this effect: 'Don't wait up for us. We may not be back until late.'"
There was a pause, during which Socrates laughed quietly to himself, while Abeuchapeta and the one-sided Morgan wept silently.
"That, gentlemen of the Associated Shades, is all I know of the whereabouts of the House-boat," continued Captain Kidd. "I have no doubt that the ladies practised a deception, to our discomfiture, and I must say that I think it was exceedingly clever--granting that it was desirable to be rid of us, which I don't, for we meant well by them, and they would have enjoyed themselves."
"But," cried Hamlet, "may they not now be in peril? They cannot navigate that ship."
"They got her out of the harbor all right," said Kidd. "And I judged from the figure at the helm that Mrs. Noah had taken charge. What kind of a seaman she is I don't know."
"Almighty bad," ejaculated Shem, turning pale. "It was she who ran us ashore on Ararat."
"Well, wasn't that what you wanted?" queried Munchausen.
"What we wanted!" cried Shem. "Well, I guess not. You don't want your yacht stranded on a mountain-top, do you? She was a dead loss there, whereas if mother hadn't been in such a hurry to get ashore, we could have waited a month and landed on the seaboard."
"You might have turned her into a summer hotel," suggested Munchausen.
"Well, we must up anchor and away," said Holmes. "Our pursuit has merely begun, apparently. We must overtake this vessel, and the question to be answered is--where?"
"That's easy," said Artemus Ward. "From what Shem says, I think we'd better look for her in the Himalayas."
"And, meanwhile, what shall be done with Kidd?" asked Holmes.
"He ought to be expelled from the club," said Johnson.
"We can't expel him, because he's not a member," replied Raleigh.
"Then elect him," suggested Ward.
"What on earth for?" growled Johnson.
"So that we can expel him," said Ward. And while Boswell's hero was trying to get the value of this notion through his head, the others repaired to the deck, and the Gehenna was soon under way once more. Meanwhile Captain Kidd and his fellows were put in irons and stowed away in the forecastle, alongside of the water-cask in which Shylock lay in hiding.