The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter VI: A Conference Below-Stairs
When, with a resounding slam, the door to the upper deck of the House-boat was shut in the faces of queens Elizabeth and Cleopatra by the unmannerly Kidd, these ladies turned and gazed at those who thronged the stairs behind them in blank amazement, and the heart of Xanthippe, had one chosen to gaze through that diaphanous person's ribs, could have been seen to beat angrily.
Queen Elizabeth was so excited at this wholly novel attitude towards her regal self that, having turned, she sat down plump upon the floor in the most unroyal fashion.
"Well!" she ejaculated. "If this does not surpass everything! The idea of it! Oh for one hour of my olden power, one hour of the axe, one hour of the block!"
"Get up," retorted Cleopatra, "and let us all return to the billiard- room and discuss this matter calmly. It is quite evident that something has happened of which we wotted little when we came aboard this craft."
"That is a good idea," said Calpurnia, retreating below. "I can see through the window that we are in motion. The vessel has left her moorings, and is making considerable headway down the stream, and the distinctly masculine voices we have heard are indications to my mind that the ship is manned, and that this is the result of design rather than of accident. Let us below."
Elizabeth rose up and readjusted her ruff, which in the excitement of the moment had been forced to assume a position about her forehead which gave one the impression that its royal wearer had suddenly donned a sombrero.
"Very well," she said. "Let us below; but oh, for the axe!"
"Bring the lady an axe," cried Xanthippe, sarcastically. "She wants to cut somebody."
The sally was not greeted with applause. The situation was regarded as being too serious to admit of humor, and in silence they filed back into the billiard-room, and, arranging themselves in groups, stood about anxiously discussing the situation.
"It's getting rougher every minute," sobbed Ophelia. "Look at those pool-balls!" These were in very truth chasing each other about the table in an extraordinary fashion. "And I wish I'd never followed you horrid new creatures on board!" the poor girl added, in an agony of despair.
"I believe we've crossed the bar already!" said Cleopatra, gazing out of the window at a nasty choppy sea that was adding somewhat to the disquietude of the fair gathering. "If this is merely a joke on the part of the Associated Shades, it is a mighty poor one, and I think it is time it should cease."
"Oh, for an axe!" moaned Elizabeth, again.
"Excuse me, your Majesty," put in Xanthippe. "You said that before, and I must say it is getting tiresome. You couldn't do anything with an axe. Suppose you had one. What earthly good would it do you, who were accustomed to doing all your killing by proxy? I don't believe, if you had the unmannerly person who slammed the door in your face lying prostrate upon the billiard-table here, you could hit him a square blow in the neck if you had a hundred axes. Delilah might as well cry for her scissors, for all the good it would do us in our predicament. If Cleopatra had her asp with her it might be more to the purpose. One deadly little snake like that let loose on the upper deck would doubtless drive these boors into the sea, and even then our condition would not be bettered, for there isn't any of us that can sail a boat. There isn't an old salt among us."
"Too bad Mrs. Lot isn't along," giggled Marguerite de Valois, whose Gallic spirits were by no means overshadowed by the unhappy predicament in which she found herself.
"I'm here," piped up Mrs. Lot. "But I'm not that kind of a salt."
"I am present," said Mrs. Noah. "Though why I ever came I don't know, for I vowed the minute I set my foot on Ararat that dry land was good enough for me, and that I'd never step aboard another boat as long as I lived. If, however, now that I am here, I can give you the benefit of my nautical experience, you are all perfectly welcome to it."
"I'm sure we're very much obliged for the offer," said Portia, "but in the emergency which has arisen we cannot say how much obliged we are until we know what your experience amounted to. Before relying upon you we ought to know how far that reliance can go--not that I lack confidence in you, my dear madam, but that in an hour of peril one must take care, to rely upon the oak, not upon the reed."
"The point is properly taken," said Elizabeth, "and I wish to say here that I am easier in my mind when I realize that we have with us so level-headed a person as the lady who has just spoken. She has spoken truly and to the point. If I were to become queen again, I should make her my attorney-general. We must not go ahead impulsively, but look at all things in a calm, judicial manner."
"Which is pretty hard work with a sea like this on," remarked Ophelia, faintly, for she was getting a trifle sallow, as indeed she might, for the House-boat was beginning to roll tremendously with no alleviation save an occasional pitch, which was an alleviation only in the sense that it gave variety to their discomfort. "I don't believe a chief-justice could look at things calmly and in a judicial manner if he felt as I do."
"Poor dear!" said the matronly Mrs. Noah, sympathetically. "I know exactly how you feel. I have been there myself. The fourth day out I and my whole family were in the same condition, except that Noah, my husband, was so very far gone that I could not afford to yield. I nursed him for six days before he got his sea-legs on, and then succumbed myself."
"But," gasped Ophelia, "that doesn't help me -
"It did my husband," said Mrs. Noah.
"When he heard that the boys were seasick too, he actually laughed and began to get better right away. There is really only one cure for the mal de mer, and that is the fun of knowing that somebody else is suffering too. If some of you ladies would kindly yield to the seductions of the sea, I think we could get this poor girl on her feet in an instant."
Unfortunately for poor Ophelia, there was no immediate response to this appeal, and the unhappy young woman was forced to suffer in solitude.
"We have no time for untimely diversions of this sort," snapped Xanthippe, with a scornful glance at the suffering Ophelia, who, having retired to a comfortable lounge at an end of the room, was evidently improving. "I have no sympathy with this habit some of my sex seem to have acquired of succumbing to an immediate sensation of this nature."
"I hope to be pardoned for interrupting," said Mrs. Noah, with a great deal of firmness, "but I wish Mrs. Socrates to understand that it is rather early in the voyage for her to lay down any such broad principle as that, and for her own sake to-morrow, I think it would be well if she withdrew the sentiment. There are certain things about a sea-voyage that are more or less beyond the control of man or woman, and any one who chides that poor suffering child on yonder sofa ought to be more confident than Mrs. Socrates can possibly be that within an hour she will not be as badly off. People who live in glass houses should not throw dice."
"I shall never yield to anything so undignified as seasickness, let me tell you that," retorted Xanthippe. "Furthermore, the proverb is not as the lady has quoted it. 'People who live in glass houses should not throw stones' is the proper version."
"I was not quoting," returned Mrs. Noah, calmly. "When I said that people who live in glass houses should not throw dice, I meant precisely what I said. People who live in glass houses should not take chances. In assuming with such vainglorious positiveness that she will not be seasick, the lady who has just spoken is giving tremendous odds, as the boys used to say on the Ark when we gathered about the table at night and began to make small wagers on the day's run."
"I think we had better suspend this discussion," suggested Cleopatra. "It is of no immediate interest to any one but Ophelia, and I fancy she does not care to dwell upon it at any great length. It is more important that we should decide upon our future course of action. In the first place, the question is who these people up on deck are. If they are the members of the club, we are all right. They will give us our scare, and land us safely again at the pier. In that event it is our womanly duty to manifest no concern, and to seem to be aware of nothing unusual in the proceeding. It would never do to let them think that their joke has been a good one. If, on the other hand, as I fear, we are the victims of some horde of ruffians, who have pounced upon us unawares, and are going into the business of abduction on a wholesale basis, we must meet treachery with treachery, strategy with strategy. I, for one, am perfectly willing to make every man on board walk the plank; having confidence in the seawomanship of Mrs. Noah and her ability to steer us into port."
"I am quite in accord with these views," put in Madame Recamier, "and I move you, Mrs. President, that we organize a series of sub- committees--one on treachery, with Lucretia Borgia and Delilah as members; one on strategy, consisting of Portia and Queen Elizabeth; one on navigation, headed by Mrs. Noah; with a final sub-committee on reconnoitre, with Cassandra to look forward, and Mrs. Lot to look aft--all of these subordinated to a central committee of safety headed by Cleopatra and Calpurnia. The rest of us can then commit ourselves and our interests unreservedly to these ladies, and proceed to enjoy ourselves without thought of the morrow."
"I second the motion," said Ophelia, "with the amendment that Madame Recamier be appointed chair-lady of another sub-committee, on entertainment."
The amendment was accepted, and the motion put. It was carried with an enthusiastic aye, and the organization was complete.
The various committees retired to the several corners of the room to discuss their individual lines of action, when a shadow was observed to obscure the moonlight which had been streaming in through the window. The faces of Calpurnia and Cleopatra blanched for an instant, as, immediately following upon this apparition, a large bundle was hurled through the open port into the middle of the room, and the shadow vanished.
"Is it a bomb?" cried several of the ladies at once.
"Nonsense!" said Madame Recamier, jumping lightly forward. "A man doesn't mind blowing a woman up, but he'll never blow himself up. We're safe enough in that respect. The thing looks to me like a bundle of illustrated papers."
"That's what it is," said Cleopatra who had been investigating. "It's rather a discourteous bit of courtesy, tossing them in through the window that way, I think, but I presume they mean well. Dear me," she added, as, having untied the bundle, she held one of the open papers up before her, "how interesting! All the latest Paris fashions. Humph! Look at those sleeves, Elizabeth. What an impregnable fortress you would have been with those sleeves added to your ruffs!"
"I should think they'd be very becoming," put in Cassandra, standing on her tip-toes and looking over Cleopatra's shoulder. "That Watteau isn't bad, either, is it, now?"
"No," remarked Calpurnia. "I wonder how a Watteau back like that would go on my blue alpaca?"
"Very nicely," said Elizabeth. "How many gores has it?"
"Five," observed Calpurnia. "One more than Caesar's toga. We had to have our costumes distinct in some way."
"A remarkable hat, that," nodded Mrs. Lot, her eye catching sight of a Virot creation at the top of the page.
"Reminds me of Eve's description of an autumn scene in the garden," smiled Mrs. Noah. "Gorgeous in its foliage, beautiful thing; though I shouldn't have dared wear one in the Ark, with all those hungry animals browsing about the upper and lower decks."
"I wonder," remarked Cleopatra, as she cocked her head to one side to take in the full effect of an attractive summer gown--"I wonder how that waist would make up in blue crepon, with a yoke of lace and a stylishly contrasting stock of satin ribbon?"
"It would depend upon how you finished the sleeves," remarked Madame Recamier. "If you had a few puffs of rich brocaded satin set in with deeply folded pleats it wouldn't be bad."
"I think it would be very effective," observed Mrs. Noah, "but a trifle too light for general wear. I should want some kind of a wrap with it."
"It does need that," assented Elizabeth. "A wrap made of passementerie and jet, with a mousseline de soie ruche about the neck held by a chou, would make it fascinating."
"The committee on treachery is ready to report," said Delilah, rising from her corner, where she and Lucretia Borgia had been having so animated a discussion that they had failed to observe the others crowding about Cleopatra and the papers.
"A little sombre," said Cleopatra. "The corsage is effective, but I don't like those basque terminations. I've never approved of those full godets--"
"The committee on treachery," remarked Delilah again, raising her voice, "has a suggestion to make."
"I can't get over those sleeves, though," laughed Helen of Troy. "What is the use of them?"
"They might be used to get Greeks into Troy," suggested Madame Recamier.
"The committee on treachery," roared Delilah, thoroughly angered by the absorption of the chairman and others, "has a suggestion to make. This is the third and last call."
"Oh, I beg pardon," cried Cleopatra, rapping for order. "I had forgotten all about our committees. Excuse me, Delilah. I--ah--was absorbed in other matters. Will you kindly lay your pattern--I should say your plan--before us?"
"It is briefly this," said Delilah. "It has been suggested that we invite the crew of this vessel to a chafing-dish party, under the supervision of Lucretia Borgia, and that she--"
The balance of the plan was not outlined, for at this point the speaker was interrupted by a loud knocking at the door, its instant opening, and the appearance in the doorway of that ill-visaged ruffian Captain Kidd.
"Ladies," he began, "I have come here to explain to you the situation in which you find yourselves. Have I your permission to speak?"
The ladies started back, but the chairman was equal to the occasion.
"Go on," said Cleopatra, with queenly dignity, turning to the interloper; and the pirate proceeded to take the second step in the nefarious plan upon which he and his brother ruffians had agreed, of which the tossing in through the window of the bundle of fashion papers was the first.