The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter XII: The Escape and the End
If there was anxiety on board of the Gehenna as to the condition and whereabouts of the House-boat, there was by no means less uneasiness upon that vessel itself. Cleopatra's scheme for ridding herself and her abducted sisters of the pirates had worked to a charm, but, having worked thus, a new and hitherto undreamed-of problem, full of perplexities bearing upon their immediate safety, now confronted them. The sole representative of a seafaring family on board was Mrs. Noah, and it did not require much time to see that her knowledge as to navigation was of an extremely primitive order, limited indeed to the science of floating.
When the last pirate had disappeared behind the rocks of Holmes Island, and all was in readiness for action, the good old lady, who had hitherto been as calm and unruffled as a child, began to get red in the face and to bustle about in a manner which betrayed considerable perturbation of spirit.
"Now, Mrs. Noah," said Cleopatra, as, peeping out from the billiard- room window, she saw Morgan disappearing in the distance, "the coast is clear, and I resign my position of chairman to you. We place the vessel in your hands, and ourselves subject to your orders. You are in command. What do you wish us to do?"
"Very well," replied Mrs. Noah, putting down her knitting and starting for the deck. "I'm not certain, but I think the first thing to do is to get her moving. Do you know, I've never discovered whether this boat was a steamboat or a sailing-vessel? Does anybody know?"
"I think it has a naphtha tank and a propeller," said Elizabeth, "although I don't know. It seems to me my brother Raleigh told me they'd had a naphtha engine put in last winter after the freshet, when the House-boat was carried ten miles down the river, and had to be towed back at enormous expense. They put it in so that if she were carried away again she could get back of her own power."
"That's unfortunate," said Mrs. Noah, "because I don't know anything about these new fangled notions. If there's any one here who knows anything about naphtha engines, I wish they'd speak."
"I'm of the opinion," said Portia, "that I can study out the theory of it in a short while."
"Very well, then," said Mrs. Noah, "you can do it. I'll appoint you engineer, and give you all your orders now, right away, in advance. Set her going and keep her going, and don't stop without a written order signed by me. We might as well be very careful, and have everything done properly, and it might happen that in the excitement of our trip you would misunderstand my spoken orders and make a fatal error. Therefore, pay no attention to unwritten orders. That will do for you for the present. Xanthippe, you may take Ophelia and Madame Recamier, and ten other ladies, and, every morning before breakfast, swab the larboard deck. Cassandra, Tuesdays you will devote to polishing the brasses in the dining-room, and the balance of your time I wish you to expend in dusting the bric-a-brac. Dido, you always were strong at building fires. I'll make you chief stoker. You will also assist Lucretia Borgia in the kitchen. Inasmuch as the latter's maid has neglected to supply her with the usual line of poisons, I think we can safely entrust to Lucretia's hands the responsibilities of the culinary department."
"I'm perfectly willing to do anything I can," said Lucretia, "but I must confess that I don't approve of your methods of commanding a ship. A ship's captain isn't a domestic martinet, as you are setting out to be. We didn't appoint you housekeeper."
"Now, my child," said Mrs. Noah, firmly, "I do not wish any words. If I hear any more impudence from you, I'll put you ashore without a reference; and the rest of you I would warn in all kindness that I will not tolerate insubordination. You may, all of you, have one night of the week and alternate Sundays off, but your work must be done. The regimen I am adopting is precisely that in vogue on the Ark, only I didn't have the help I have now, and things got into very bad shape. We were out forty days, and, while the food was poor and the service execrable, we never lost a life."
The boat gave a slight tremor.
"Hurrah!" cried Elizabeth, clapping her hands with glee, "we are off!"
"I will repair to the deck and get our bearings," said Mrs. Noah, putting her shawl over her shoulders. "Meantime, Cleopatra, I appoint you first mate. See that things are tidied up a bit here before I return. Have the windows washed, and to-morrow I want all the rugs and carpets taken up and shaken."
Portia meanwhile had discovered the naphtha engine, and, after experimenting several times with the various levers and stop-cocks, had finally managed to move one of them in such a way as to set the engine going, and the wheel began to revolve.
"Are we going all right?" she cried, from below.
"I am afraid not," said the gallant commander. "The wheel is roiling up the water at a great rate, but we don't seem to be going ahead very fast--in fact, we're simply moving round and round as though we were on a pivot."
"I'm afraid we're aground amidships," said Xanthippe, gazing over the side of the House-boat anxiously. "She certainly acts that way--like a merry-go-round."
"Well, there's something wrong," said Mrs. Noah; "and we've got to hurry and find out what it is, or those men will be back and we shall be as badly off as ever."
"Maybe this has something to do with it," observed Mrs. Lot, pointing to the anchor rope. "It looks to me as if those horrid men had tied us fast."
"That's just what it is," snapped Mrs. Noah. "They guessed our plan, and have fastened us to a pole or something, but I imagine we can untie it."
Portia, who had come on deck, gave a short little laugh.
"Why, of course we don't move," she said--"we are anchored!"
"What's that?" queried Mrs. Noah. "We never had an experience like that on the Ark."
Portia explained the science of the anchor.
"What nonsense!" ejaculated Mrs. Noah. "How can we get away from it?"
"We've got to pull it up," said Portia. "Order all hands on deck and have it pulled up."
"It can't be done, and, if it could, I wouldn't have it!" said Mrs. Noah, indignantly. "The idea! Lifting heavy pieces of iron, my dear Portia, is not a woman's work. Send for Delilah, and let her cut the rope with her scissors."
"It would take her a week to cut a hawser like that," said Elizabeth, who had been investigating. "It would be more to the purpose, I think, to chop it in two with an axe."
"Very well," replied Mrs. Noah, satisfied. "I don't care how it is done as long as it is done quickly. It would never do for us to be recaptured now."
The suggestion of Elizabeth was carried out, and the queen herself cut the hawser with six well-directed strokes of the axe.
"You are an expert with it, aren't you?" smiled Cleopatra.
"I am, indeed," replied Elizabeth, grimly. "I had it suspended over my head for so long a time before I got to the throne that I couldn't help familiarizing myself with some of its possibilities."
"Ah!" cried Mrs. Noah, as the vessel began to move. "I begin to feel easier. It looks now as if we were really off."
"It seems to me, though," said Cleopatra, gazing forward, "that we are going backward."
"Oh, well, what if we are!" said Mrs. Noah. "We did that on the Ark half the time. It doesn't make any difference which way we are going as long as we go, does it?"
"Why, of course it does!" cried Elizabeth. "What can you be thinking of? People who walk backward are in great danger of running into other people. Why not the same with ships? It seems to me, it's a very dangerous piece of business, sailing backward."
"Oh, nonsense," snapped Mrs. Noah. "You are as timid as a zebra. During the Flood, we sailed days and days and days, going backward. It didn't make a particle of difference how we went--it was as safe one way as another, and we got just as far away in the end. Our main object now is to get away from the pirates, and that's what we are doing. Don't get emotional, Lizzie, and remember, too, that I am in charge. If I think the boat ought to go sideways, sideways she shall go. If you don't like it, it is still not too late to put you ashore."
The threat calmed Elizabeth somewhat, and she was satisfied, and all went well with them, even if Portia had started the propeller revolving reverse fashion; so that the House-boat was, as Elizabeth had said, backing her way through the ocean.
The day passed, and by slow degrees the island and the marooned pirates faded from view, and the night came on, and with it a dense fog.
"We're going to have a nasty night, I am afraid," said Xanthippe, looking anxiously out of the port.
"No doubt," said Mrs. Noah, pleasantly. "I'm sorry for those who have to be out in it."
"That's what I was thinking about," observed Xanthippe. "It's going to be very hard on us keeping watch."
"Watch for what?" demanded Mrs. Noah, looking over the tops of her glasses at Xanthippe.
"Why, surely you are going to have lookouts stationed on deck?" said Elizabeth.
"Not at all," said Mrs. Noah. "Perfectly absurd. We never did it on the Ark, and it isn't necessary now. I want you all to go to bed at ten o'clock. I don't think the night air is good for you. Besides, it isn't proper for a woman to be out after dark, whether she's new or not."
"But, my dear Mrs. Noah," expostulated Cleopatra, "what will become of the ship?"
"I guess she'll float through the night whether we are on deck or not," said the commander. "The Ark did, why not this? Now, girls, these new-fangled yachting notions are all nonsense. It's night, and there's a fog as thick as a stone-wall all about us. If there were a hundred of you upon deck with ten eyes apiece, you couldn't see anything. You might much better be in bed. As your captain, chaperon, and grandmother, I command you to stay below."
"But--who is to steer?" queried Xanthippe.
"What's the use of steering until we can see where to steer to?" demanded Mrs. Noah. "I certainly don't intend to bother with that tiller until some reason for doing it arises. We haven't any place to steer to yet; we don't know where we are going. Now, my dear children, be reasonable, and don't worry me. I've had a very hard day of it, and I feel my responsibilities keenly. Just let me manage, and we'll come out all right. I've had more experience than any of you, and if--"
A terrible crash interrupted the old lady's remarks. The House-boat shivered and shook, careened way to one side, and as quickly righted and stood still. A mad rush up the gangway followed, and in a moment a hundred and eighty-three pale-faced, trembling women stood upon the deck, gazing with horror at a great helpless hulk ten feet to the rear, fastened by broken ropes and odd pieces of rigging to the stern-posts of the House-boat, sinking slowly but surely into the sea.
It was the Gehenna!
The House-boat had run her down and her last hour had come, but, thanks to the stanchness of her build and wonderful beam, the floating club-house had withstood the shock of the impact and now rode the waters as gracefully as ever.
Portia was the first to realize the extent of the catastrophe, and in a short while chairs and life-preservers and tables--everything that could float--had been tossed into the sea to the struggling immortals therein. On board the Gehenna, those who had not cast themselves into the waters, under the cool direction of Holmes and Bonaparte, calmly lowered the boats, and in a short while were not only able to felicitate themselves upon their safety, but had likewise the good fortune to rescue their more impetuous brethren who had preferred to swim for it. Ultimately, all were brought aboard the House-boat in safety, and the men in Hades were once more reunited to their wives, daughters, sisters, and fiancees, and Elizabeth had the satisfaction of once more saving the life of Raleigh by throwing him her ruff as she had done a year or so previously, when she and her brother had been upset in the swift current of the river Styx.
Order and happiness being restored, Holmes took command of the House- boat and soon navigated her safely back into her old-time berth. The Gehenna went to the bottom and was never seen again, and when the roll was called it was found that all who had set out upon her had returned in safety save Shylock, Kidd, Sir Henry Morgan, and Abeuchapeta; but even they were not lost, for, five weeks later, these four worthies were found early one morning drifting slowly up the river Styx, gazing anxiously out from the top of a water-cask and yelling lustily for help.
And here endeth the chronicle of the pursuit of the good old House- boat. Back to her moorings, the even tenor of her ways was once more resumed, but with one slight difference.
The ladies became eligible for membership, and, availing themselves of the privilege, began to think less and less of the advantages of being men and to rejoice that, after all, they were women; and even Xanthippe and Socrates, after that night of peril, reconciled their differences, and no longer quarrel as to which is the more entitled to wear the toga of authority. It has become for them a divided skirt.
As for Kidd and his fellows, they have never recovered from the effects of their fearful, though short, exile upon Holmes Island, and are but shadows of their former shades; whereas Mr. Sherlock Holmes has so endeared himself to his new-found friends that he is quite as popular with them as he is with us, who have yet to cross the dark river and be subjected to the scrutiny of the Committee on Membership at the House-boat on the Styx.
Even Hawkshaw has been able to detect his genius.