Chapter V: A Conference on Deck
 

"Here's a kettle of fish!" said Kidd, pulling his chin whisker in perplexity as he and his fellow-pirates gathered about the captain to discuss the situation. "I'm blessed if in all my experience I ever sailed athwart anything like it afore! Pirating with a lot of low- down ruffians like you gentlemen is bad enough, but on a craft loaded to the water's edge with advanced women--I've half a mind to turn back."

"If you do, you swim--we'll not turn back with you," retorted Abeuchapeta, whom, in honor of his prowess, Kidd had appointed executive officer of the House-boat. "I have no desire to be mutinous, Captain Kidd, but I have not embarked upon this enterprise for a pleasure sail down the Styx. I am out for business. If you had thirty thousand women on board, still should I not turn back."

"But what shall we do with 'em?" pleaded Kidd. "Where can we go without attracting attention? Who's going to feed 'em? Who's going to dress 'em? Who's going to keep 'em in bonnets? You don't know anything about these creatures, my dear Abeuchapeta; and, by-the-way, can't we arbitrate that name of yours? It would be fearful to remember in the excitement of a fight."

"Call him Ab," suggested Sir Henry Morgan, with an ill-concealed sneer, for he was deeply jealous of Abeuchapeta's preferral.

"If you do I'll call you Morgue, and change your appearance to fit," retorted Abeuchapeta, angrily.

"By the beards of all my sainted Buccaneers," began Morgan, springing angrily to his feet, "I'll have your life!"

"Gentlemen! Gentlemen--my noble ruffians!" expostulated Kidd. "Come, come; this will never do! I must have no quarrelling among my aides. This is no time for divisions in our councils. An entirely unexpected element has entered into our affairs, and it behooveth us to act in concert. It is no light matter--"

"Excuse me, captain," said Abeuchapeta, "but that is where you and I do not agree. We've got our ship and we've got our crew, and in addition we find that the Fates have thrown in a hundred or more women to act as ballast. Now I, for one, do not fear a woman. We can set them to work. There is plenty for them to do keeping things tidy; and if we get into a very hard fight, and come out of the melee somewhat the worse for wear, it will be a blessing to have 'em along to mend our togas, sew buttons on our uniforms, and darn our hosiery."

Morgan laughed sarcastically. "When did you flourish, if ever, colonel?" he asked.

"Do you refer to me?" queried Abeuchapeta, with a frown.

"You have guessed correctly," replied Morgan, icily. "I have quite forgotten your date; were you a success in the year one, or when?"

"Admiral Abeuchapeta, Sir Henry," interposed Kidd, fearing a further outbreak of hostilities--"Admiral Abeuchapeta was the terror of the seas in the seventh century, and what he undertook to do he did, and his piratical enterprises were carried on on a scale of magnificence which is without parallel off the comic-opera stage. He never went forth without at least seventy galleys and a hundred other vessels."

Abeuchapeta drew himself up proudly. "Six-ninety-eight was my great year," he said.

"That's what I thought," said Morgan. "That is to say, you got your ideas of women twelve hundred years ago, and the ladies have changed somewhat since that time. I have great respect for you, sir, as a ruffian. I have no doubt that as a ruffian you are a complete success, but when it comes to 'feminology' you are sailing in unknown waters. The study of women, my dear Abeuchadnezzar--"

"Peta," retorted Abeuchapeta, irritably.

"I stand corrected. The study of women, my dear Peter," said Morgan, with a wink at Conrad, which fortunately the seventh-century pirate did not see, else there would have been an open break--"the study of women is more difficult than that of astronomy; there may be two stars alike, but all women are unique. Because she was this, that, or the other thing in your day does not prove that she is any one of those things in our day--in fact, it proves the contrary. Why, I venture even to say that no individual woman is alike."

"That's rather a hazy thought," said Kidd, scratching his head in a puzzled sort of way.

"I mean that she's different from herself at different times," said Morgan. "What is it the poet called her?--'an infinite variety show,' or something of that sort; a perpetual vaudeville--a continuous performance, as it were, from twelve to twelve."

"Morgan is right, admiral!" put in Conrad the corsair, acting temporarily as bo'sun. "The times are sadly changed, and woman is no longer what she was. She is hardly what she is, much less what she was. The Roman Gynaeceum would be an impossibility to-day. You might as well expect Delilah to open a barber-shop on board this boat as ask any of these advanced females below-stairs to sew buttons on a pirate's uniform after a fray, or to keep the fringe on his epaulets curled. They're no longer sewing-machines--they are Keeley motors for mystery and perpetual motion. Women have views now they are no longer content to be looked at merely; they must see for themselves; and the more they see, the more they wish to domesticate man and emancipate woman. It's my private opinion that if we are to get along with them at all the best thing to do is to let 'em alone. I have always found I was better off in the abstract, and if this question is going to be settled in a purely democratic fashion by submitting it to a vote, I'll vote for any measure which involves leaving them strictly to themselves. They're nothing but a lot of ghosts anyhow, like ourselves, and we can pretend we don't see them."

"If that could be, it would be excellent," said Morgan; "but it is impossible. For a pirate of the Byronic order, my dear Conrad, you are strangely unversed in the ways of the sex which cheers but not inebriates. We can no more ignore their presence upon this boat than we can expect whales to spout kerosene. In the first place, it would be excessively impolite of us to cut them--to decline to speak to them if they should address us. We may be pirates, ruffians, cutthroats, but I hope we shall never forget that we are gentlemen."

"The whole situation is rather contrary to etiquette, don't you think?" suggested Conrad. "There's nobody to introduce us, and I can't really see how we can do otherwise than ignore them. I certainly am not going to stand on deck and make eyes at them, to try and pick up an acquaintance with them, even if I am of a Byronic strain."

"You forget," said Kidd, "two essential features of the situation. These women are at present--or shortly will be, when they realize their situation--in distress, and a true gentleman may always fly to the rescue of a distressed female; and, the second point, we shall soon be on the seas, and I understand that on the fashionable transatlantic lines it is now considered de rigueur to speak to anybody you choose to. The introduction business isn't going to stand in my way."

"Well, may I ask," put in Abeuchapeta, "just what it is that is worrying you? You said something about feeding them, and dressing them, and keeping them in bonnets. I fancy there's fish enough in the sea to feed 'em; and as for their gowns and hats, they can make 'em themselves. Every woman is a milliner at heart."

"Exactly, and we'll have to pay the milliners. That is what bothers me. I was going to lead this expedition to London, Paris, and New York, admiral. That is where the money is, and to get it you've got to go ashore, to headquarters. You cannot nowadays find it on the high seas. Modern civilization," said Kidd, "has ruined the pirate's business. The latest news from the other world has really opened my eyes to certain facts that I never dreamed of. The conditions of the day of which I speak are interestingly shown in the experience of our friend Hawkins here. Captain Hawkins, would you have any objection to stating to these gentlemen the condition of affairs which led you to give up piracy on the high seas?"

"Not the slightest, Captain Kidd," returned Captain Hawkins, who was a recent arrival in Hades. "It is a sad little story, and it gives me a pain for to think on it, but none the less I'll tell it, since you ask me. When I were a mere boy, fellow-pirates, I had but one ambition, due to my readin', which was confined to stories of a Sunday-school nater--to become somethin' different from the little Willies an' the clever Tommies what I read about therein. They was all good, an' they went to their reward too soon in life for me, who even in them days regarded death as a stuffy an' unpleasant diversion. Learnin' at an early period that virtue was its only reward, an' a-wish-in' others, I says to myself: 'Jim,' says I, 'if you wishes to become a magnet in this village, be sinful. If so be as you are a good boy, an' kind to your sister an' all other animals, you'll end up as a prosperous father with fifteen hundred a year sure, with never no hope for no public preferment beyond bein' made the super-intendent of the Sunday-school; but if so be as how you're bad, you may become famous, an' go to Congress, an' have your picture in the Sunday noospapers.' So I looks around for books tellin' how to get 'Famous in Fifty Ways,' an' after due reflection I settles in my mind that to be a pirate's just the thing for me, seein' as how it's both profitable an' healthy. Pass-in' over details, let me tell you that I became a pirate. I ran away to sea, an' by dint of perseverance, as the Sunday-school book useter say, in my badness I soon became the centre of a evil lot; an' when I says to 'em, 'Boys, I wants to be a pirate chief,' they hollers back, loud like, 'Jim, we're with you,' an' they was. For years I was the terror of the Venezuelan Gulf, the Spanish Main, an' the Pacific seas, but there was precious little money into it. The best pay I got was from a Sunday noospaper which paid me well to sign an article on 'Modern Piracy' which I didn't write. Finally business got so bad the crew began to murmur, an' I was at my wits' ends to please 'em; when one mornin', havin' passed a restless night, I picks up a noospaper and sees in it that 'Next Saturday's steamer is a weritable treasure- ship, takin' out twelve million dollars, and the jewels of a certain prima donna valued at five hundred thousand.' 'Here's my chance,' says I, an' I goes to sea and lies in wait for the steamer. I captures her easy, my crew bein' hungry, an' fightin according like. We steals the box a-hold-in' the jewels an' the bag containin' the millions, hustles back to our own ship, an' makes for our rondyvoo, me with two bullets in my leg, four o' my crew killed, and one engin' of my ship disabled by a shot--but happy. Twelve an' a half millions at one break is enough to make anybody happy."

"I should say so," said Abeuchapeta, with an ecstatic shake of his head. "I didn't get that in all my career."

"Nor I," sighed Kidd. "But go on, Hawkins."

"Well, as I says," continued Captain Hawkins, "we goes to the rondyvoo to look over our booty. 'Captain 'Awkins,' says my valet-- for I was a swell pirate, gents, an' never travelled nowhere without a man to keep my clothes brushed and the proper wrinkles in my trousers--'this 'ere twelve millions,' says he, 'is werry light,' says he, carryin' the bag ashore. 'I don't care how light it is, so long as it's twelve millions, Henderson,' says I; but my heart sinks inside o' me at his words, an' the minute we lands I sits down to investigate right there on the beach. I opens the bag, an' it's the one I was after--but the twelve millions!"

"Weren't there?" cried Conrad.

"Yes, they was there," sighed Hawkins, "but every bloomin' million was represented by a certified check, an' payable in London!"

"By Jingo!" cried Morgan. "What fearful luck! But you had the prima donna's jewels."

"Yes," said Hawkins, with a moan. "But they was like all other prima donna's jewels--for advertisin' purposes only, an' made o' gum- arabic!"

"Horrible!" said Abeuchapeta. "And the crew, what did they say?"

"They was a crew of a few words," sighed Hawkins. "Werry few words, an' not a civil word in the lot--mostly adjectives of a profane kind. When I told 'em what had happened, they got mad at Fortune for a- jiltin' of 'em, an'--well, I came here. I was 'sas'inated that werry night!"

"They killed you?" cried Morgan.

"A dozen times," nodded Hawkins. "They always was a lavish lot. I met death in all its most horrid forms. First they stabbed me, then they shot me, then they clubbed me, and so on, endin' up with a lynchin'--but I didn't mind much after the first, which hurt a bit. But now that I'm here I'm glad it happened. This life is sort of less responsible than that other. You can't hurt a ghost by shooting him, because there ain't nothing to hurt, an' I must say I like bein' a mere vision what everybody can see through."

"All of which interesting tale proves what?" queried Abeuchapeta.

"That piracy on the sea is not profitable in these days of the check banking system," said Kidd. "If you can get a chance at real gold it's all right, but it's of no earthly use to steal checks that people can stop payment on. Therefore it was my plan to visit the cities and do a little freebooting there, where solid material wealth is to be found."

"Well? Can't we do it now?" asked Abeuchapeta.

"Not with these women tagging after us," returned Kidd. "If we went to London and lifted the whole Bank of England, these women would have it spent on Regent Street inside of twenty-four hours."

"Then leave them on board," said Abeuchapeta.

"And have them steal the ship!" retorted Kidd. "No. There are but two things to do. Take 'em back, or land them in Paris. Tell them to spend a week on shore while we are provisioning. Tell 'em to shop to their hearts' content, and while they are doing it we can sneak off and leave them stranded."

"Splendid!" cried Morgan.

"But will they consent?" asked Abeuchapeta.

"Consent! To shop? In Paris? For a week?" cried Morgan.

"Ha, ha!" laughed Hawkins. "Will they consent! Will a duck swim?"

And so it was decided, which was the first incident in the career of the House-boat upon which the astute Mr. Sherlock Holmes had failed to count.