The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter VIII: On Board the "Gehenna"
When the Gehenna had passed down the Styx and out through the beautiful Cimmerian Harbor into the broad waters of the ocean, and everything was comparatively safe for a while at least, Sherlock Holmes came down from the bridge, where he had taken his place as the commander of the expedition at the moment of departure. His brow was furrowed with anxiety, and through his massive forehead his brain could be seen to be throbbing violently, and the corrugations of his gray matter were not pleasant to witness as he tried vainly to squeeze an idea out of them.
"What is the matter?" asked Demosthenes, anxiously. "We are not in any danger, are we?"
"No," replied Holmes. "But I am somewhat puzzled at the bubbles on the surface of the ocean, and the ripples which we passed over an hour or two ago, barely perceptible through the most powerful microscope, indicate to my mind that for some reason at present unknown to me the House-boat has changed her course. Take that bubble floating by. It is the last expiring bit of aerial agitation of the House-boat's wake. Observe whence it comes. Not from the Azores quarter, but as if instead of steering a straight course thither the House-boat had taken a sharp turn to the north-east, and was making for Havre; or, in other words, Paris instead of London seems to have become their destination."
Demosthenes looked at Holmes with blank amazement, and, to keep from stammering out the exclamation of wonder that rose to his lips, he opened his bonbonniere and swallowed a pebble.
"You don't happen to have a cocaine tablet in your box, do you?" queried Holmes.
"No," returned the Greek. "Cocaine makes me flighty and nervous, but these pebbles sort of ballast me and hold me down. How on earth do you know that that bubble comes from the wake of the House-boat?"
"By my chemical knowledge, merely," replied Holmes. "A merely worldly vessel leaves a phosphorescent bubble in its wake. That one we have just discovered is not so, but sulphurescent, if I may coin a word which it seems to me the English language is very much in need of. It proves, then, that the bubble is a portion of the wake of a Stygian craft, and the only Stygian craft that has cleared the Cimmerian Harbor for years is the House-boat--Q. E. D."
"We can go back until we find the ripple again, and follow that, I presume," sneered Le Coq, who did not take much stock in the theories of his great rival, largely because he was a detective by intuition rather than by study of the science.
"You can if you want to, but it is better not to," rejoined Holmes, simply, as though not observing the sneer, "because the ripple represents the outer lines of the angle of disturbance in the water; and as any one of the sides to an angle is greater than the perpendicular from the hypothenuse to the apex, you'd merely be going the long way. This is especially important when you consider the formation of the bow of the House-boat, which is rounded like the stern of most vessels, and comes near to making a pair of ripples at an angle of ninety degrees."
"Then," observed Sir Walter, with a sigh of disappointment, "we must change our course and sail for Paris?"
"I am afraid so," said Holmes; "but of course it's by no means certain as yet. I think if Columbus would go up into the mizzentop and look about him, he might discover something either in confirmation or refutation of the theory."
"He couldn't discover anything," put in Pinzon. "He never did."
"Well, I like that!" retorted Columbus. "I'd like to know who discovered America."
"So should I," observed Leif Ericson, with a wink at Vespucci.
"Tut!" retorted Columbus. "I did it, and the world knows it, whether you claim it or not."
"Yes, just as Noah discovered Ararat," replied Pinzon. "You sat upon the deck until we ran plumb into an island, after floating about for three months, and then you couldn't tell it from a continent, even when you had it right before your eyes. Noah might just as well have told his family that he discovered a roof garden as for you to go back to Spain telling 'em all that San Salvador was the United States."
"Well, I don't care," said Columbus, with a short laugh. "I'm the one they celebrate, so what's the odds? I'd rather stay down here in the smoking-room enjoying a small game, anyhow, than climb up that mast and strain my eyes for ten or a dozen hours looking for evidence to prove or disprove the correctness of another man's theory. I wouldn't know evidence when I saw it, anyhow. Send Judge Blackstone."
"I draw the line at the mizzentop," observed Blackstone. "The dignity of the bench must and shall be preserved, and I'll never consent to climb up that rigging, getting pitch and paint on my ermine, no matter who asks me to go."
"Whomsoever I tell to go, shall go," put in Holmes, firmly. "I am commander of this ship. It will pay you to remember that, Judge Blackstone."
"And I am the Court of Appeals," retorted Blackstone, hotly. "Bear that in mind, captain, when you try to send me up. I'll issue a writ of habeas corpus on my own body, and commit you for contempt."
"There's no use of sending the Judge, anyhow," said Raleigh, fearing by the glitter that came into the eye of the commander that trouble might ensue unless pacificatory measures were resorted to. "He's accustomed to weighing everything carefully, and cannot be rushed into a decision. If he saw any evidence, he'd have to sit on it a week before reaching a conclusion. What we need here more than anything else is an expert seaman, a lookout, and I nominate Shem. He has sailed under his father, and I have it on good authority that he is a nautical expert."
Holmes hesitated for an instant. He was considering the necessity of disciplining the recalcitrant Blackstone, but he finally yielded.
"Very well," he said. "Shem be it. Bo'sun, pipe Shem on deck, and tell him that general order number one requires him to report at the mizzentop right away, and that immediately he sees anything he shall come below and make it known to me. As for the rest of us, having a very considerable appetite, I do now decree that it is dinner-time. Shall we go below?"
"I don't think I care for any, thank you," said Raleigh. "Fact is-- ah--I dined last week, and am not hungry."
Noah laughed. "Oh, come below and watch us eat, then," he said. "It'll do you good."
But there was no reply. Raleigh had plunged head first into his state-room, which fortunately happened to be on the upper deck. The rest of the spirits repaired below to the saloon, where they were soon engaged in an animated discussion of such viands as the larder provided.
"This," said Dr. Johnson, from the head of the table, "is what I call comfort. I don't know that I am so anxious to recover the House- boat, after all."
"Nor I," said Socrates, "with a ship like this to go off cruising on, and with such a larder. Look at the thickness of that puree, Doctor- -"
"Excuse me," said Boswell, faintly, "but I--I've left my note--bub-- book upstairs, Doctor, and I'd like to go up and get it."
"Certainly," said Dr. Johnson. "I judge from your color, which is highly suggestive of a modern magazine poster, that it might be well too if you stayed on deck for a little while and made a few entries in your commonplace book."
"Thank you," said Boswell, gratefully. "Shall you say anything clever during dinner, sir? If so, I might be putting it down while I'm up--"
"Get out!" roared the Doctor. "Get up as high as you can--get up with Shem on the mizzentop--"
"Very good, sir," replied Boswell, and he was off.
"You ought to be more lenient with him, Doctor," said Bonaparte; "he means well."
"I know it," observed Johnson; "but he's so very previous. Last winter, at Chaucer's dinner to Burns, I made a speech, which Boswell printed a week before it was delivered, with the words 'laughter' and 'uproarious applause' interspersed through it. It placed me in a false position."
"How did he know what you were going to say?" queried Demosthenes.
"Don't know," replied Johnson. "Kind of mind-reader, I fancy," he added, blushing a trifle. "But, Captain Holmes, what do you deduce from your observation of the wake of the House-boat? If she's going to Paris, why the change?"
"I have two theories," replied the detective.
"Which is always safe," said Le Coq.
"Always; it doubles your chances of success," acquiesced Holmes. "Anyhow, it gives you a choice, which makes it more interesting. The change of her course from Londonward to Parisward proves to me either that Kidd is not satisfied with the extent of the revenge he has already taken, and wishes to ruin you gentlemen financially by turning your wives, daughters, and sisters loose on the Parisian shops, or that the pirates have themselves been overthrown by the ladies, who have decided to prolong their cruise and get some fun out of their misfortune."
"And where else than to Paris would any one in search of pleasure go?" asked Bonaparte.
"I had more fun a few miles outside of Brussels," said Wellington, with a sly wink at Washington.
"Oh, let up on that!" retorted Bonaparte. "It wasn't you beat me at Waterloo. You couldn't have beaten me at a plain ordinary game of old-maid with a stacked pack of cards, much less in the game of war, if you hadn't had the elements with you."
"Tut!" snapped Wellington. "It was clear science laid you out, Boney."
"Taisey-voo!" shouted the irate Corsican. "Clear science be hanged! Wet science was what did it. If it hadn't been for the rain, my little Duke, I should have been in London within a week, my grenadiers would have been camping in your Rue Peekadeely, and the Old Guard all over everywhere else."
"You must have had a gay army, then," laughed Caesar. "What are French soldiers made of, that they can't stand the wet--unshrunk linen or flannel?"
"Bah!" observed Napoleon, shrugging his shoulders and walking a few paces away. "You do not understand the French. The Frenchman is not a pell-mell soldier like you Romans; he is the poet of arms; he does not go in for glory at the expense of his dignity; style, form, is dearer to him than honor, and he has no use for fighting in the wet and coming out of the fight conspicuous as a victor with the curl out of his feathers and his epaulets rusted with the damp. There is no glory in water. But if we had had umbrellas and mackintoshes, as every Englishman who comes to the Continent always has, and a bath- tub for everybody, then would your Waterloo have been different again, and the great democracy of Europe with a Bonaparte for emperor would have been founded for what the Americans call the keeps; and as for your little Great Britain, ha! she would have become the Blackwell's Island of the Greater France."
"You're almost as funny as Punch isn't," drawled Wellington, with an angry gesture at Bonaparte. "You weren't within telephoning distance of victory all day. We simply played with you, my boy. It was a regular game of golf for us. We let you keep up pretty close and win a few holes, but on the home drive we had you beaten in one stroke. Go to, my dear Bonaparte, and stop talking about the flood."
"It's a lucky thing for us that Noah wasn't a Frenchman, eh?" said Frederick the Great. "How that rain would have fazed him if he had been! The human race would have been wiped out."
"Oh, pshaw!" ejaculated Noah, deprecating the unseemliness of the quarrel, and putting his arm affectionately about Bonaparte's shoulder. "When you come down to that, I was French--as French as one could be in those days--and these Gallic subjects of my friend here were, every one of 'em, my lineal descendants, and their hatred of rain was inherited directly from me, their ancestor."
"Are not we English as much your descendants?" queried Wellington, arching his eyebrows.
"You are," said Noah, "but you take after Mrs. Noah more than after me. Water never fazes a woman, and your delight in tubs is an essentially feminine trait. The first thing Mrs. Noah carried aboard was a laundry outfit, and then she went back for rugs and coats and all sorts of hand-baggage. Gad, it makes me laugh to this day when I think of it! She looked for all the world like an Englishman travelling on the Continent as she walked up the gang-plank behind the elephants, each elephant with a Gladstone bag in his trunk and a hat-box tied to his tail." Here the venerable old weather-prophet winked at Munchausen, and the little quarrel which had been imminent passed off in a general laugh.
"Where's Boswell? He ought to get that anecdote," said Johnson.
"I've locked him up in the library," said Holmes. "He's in charge of the log, and as I have a pretty good general idea as to what is about to happen, I have mapped out a skeleton of the plot and set him to work writing it up." Here the detective gave a sudden start, placed his hand to his ear, listened intently for an instant, and, taking out his watch and glancing at it, added, quietly, "In three minutes Shem will be in here to announce a discovery, and one of great importance, I judge, from the squeak."
The assemblage gazed earnestly at Holmes for a moment.
"The squeak?" queried Raleigh.
"Precisely," said Holmes. "The squeak is what I said, and as I always say what I mean, it follows logically that I meant what I said."
"I heard no squeak," observed Dr. Johnson; "and, furthermore, I fail to see how a squeak, if I had heard it, would have portended a discovery of importance."
"It would not--to you," said Holmes; "but with me it is different. My hearing is unusually acute. I can hear the dropping of a pin through a stone wall ten feet thick; any sound within a mile of my eardrum vibrates thereon with an intensity which would surprise you, and it is by the use of cocaine that I have acquired this wonderfully acute sense. A property which dulls the senses of most people renders mine doubly apprehensive; therefore, gentlemen, while to you there was no auricular disturbance, to me there was. I heard Shem sliding down the mast a minute since. The fact that he slid down the mast instead of climbing down the rigging showed that he was in great haste, therefore he must have something to communicate of great importance."
"Why isn't he here already, then? It wouldn't take him two minutes to get from the deck here," asked the ever-auspicious Le Coq.
"It is simple," returned Holmes, calmly. "If you will go yourself and slide down that mast you will see. Shem has stopped for a little witch-hazel to soothe his burns. It is no cool matter sliding down a mast two hundred feet in height."
As Sherlock Holmes spoke the door burst open and Shem rushed in.
"A signal of distress, captain!" he cried.
"From what quarter--to larboard?" asked Holmes.
"No," returned Shem, breathless.
"Then it must be dead ahead," said Holmes.
"Why not to starboard?" asked Le Coq, dryly.
"Because," answered Holmes, confidently, "it never happens so. If you had ever read a truly exciting sea-tale, my dear Le Coq, you would have known that interesting things, and particularly signals of distress, are never seen except to larboard or dead ahead."
A murmur of applause greeted this retort, and Le Coq subsided.
"The nature of the signal?" demanded Holmes.
"A black flag, skull and cross-bones down, at half-mast!" cried Shem, "and on a rock-bound coast!"
"They're marooned, by heavens!" shouted Holmes, springing to his feet and rushing to the deck, where he was joined immediately by Sir Walter, Dr. Johnson, Bonaparte, and the others.
"Isn't he a daisy?" whispered Demosthenes to Diogenes as they climbed the stairs.
"He is more than that; he's a blooming orchid," said Diogenes, with intense enthusiasm. "I think I'll get my X-ray lantern and see if he's honest."