The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter IX: Captain Kidd Meets with an Obstacle
"Excuse me, your Majesty," remarked Helen of Troy as Cleopatra accorded permission to Captain Kidd to speak, "I have not been introduced to this gentleman nor has he been presented to me, and I really cannot consent to any proceeding so irregular as this. I do not speak to gentlemen I have not met, nor do I permit them to address me."
"Hear, hear!" cried Xanthippe. "I quite agree with the principle of my young friend from Troy. It may be that when we claimed for ourselves all the rights of men that the right to speak and be spoken to by other men without an introduction will included in the list, but I for one have no desire to avail myself of the privilege, especially when it's a horrid-looking man like this."
Kidd bowed politely, and smiled so terribly that several of the ladies fainted.
"I will withdraw," he said, turning to Cleopatra; and it must be said that his suggestion was prompted by his heartfelt wish, for now that he found himself thus conspicuously brought before so many women, with falsehood on his lips, his courage began to ooze.
"Not yet, please," answered the chairlady. "I imagine we can get about this difficulty without much trouble."
"I think it a perfectly proper objection too," observed Delilah, rising. "If we ever needed etiquette we need it now. But I have a plan which will obviate any further difficulty. If there is no one among us who is sufficiently well acquainted with the gentleman to present him formally to us, I will for the time being take upon myself the office of ship's barber and cut his hair. I understand that it is quite the proper thing for barbers to talk, while cutting their hair, to persons to whom they have not been introduced. And, besides, he really needs a hair-cut badly. Thus I shall establish an acquaintance with the captain, after which I can with propriety introduce him to the rest of you."
"Perhaps the gentleman himself might object to that," put in Queen Elizabeth. "If I remember rightly, your last customer was very much dissatisfied with the trim you gave him."
"It will be unnecessary to do what Delilah proposes," said Mrs. Noah, with a kindly smile, as she rose up from the corner in which she had been sitting, an interested listener. "I can introduce the gentleman to you all with perfect propriety. He's a member of my family. His grandfather was the great-grandson a thousand and eight times removed of my son Shem's great-grandnephew on his father's side. His relationship to me is therefore obvious, though from what I know of his reputation I think he takes more after my husband's ancestors than my own. Willie, dear, these ladies are friends of mine. Ladies, this young man is one of my most famous descendants. He has been a man of many adventures, and he has been hanged once, which, far from making him undesirable as an acquaintance, has served merely to render him harmless, and therefore a safe person to know. Now, my son, go ahead and speak your piece."
The good old spirit sat down, and the scruples of the objectors having thus been satisfied, Captain Kidd began.
"Now that I know you all," he remarked, as pleasantly as he could under the circumstances, "I feel that I can speak more freely, and certainly with a great deal less embarrassment than if I were addressing a gathering of entire strangers. I am not much of a hand at speaking, and have always felt somewhat nonplussed at finding myself in a position of this nature. In my whole career I never experienced but one irresistible impulse to make a public address of any length, and that was upon that unhappy occasion to which the greatest and grandest of my great-grandmothers has alluded, and that only as the chain by which I was suspended in mid-air tightened about my vocal chords. At that moment I could have talked impromptu for a year, so fast and numerously did thoughts of the uttermost import surge upward into my brain; but circumstances over which I had no control prevented the utterance of those thoughts, and that speech is therefore lost to the world."
"He has the gift of continuity," observed Madame Recamier.
"Ought to be in the United States Senate," smiled Elizabeth.
"I wish I could make up my mind as to whether he is outrageously handsome or desperately ugly," remarked Helen of Troy. "He fascinates me, but whether it is the fascination of liking or of horror I can't tell, and it's quite important."
"Ladies," resumed the captain, his uneasiness increasing as he came to the point, "I am but the agent of your respective husbands, fiances, and other masculine guardians. The gentlemen who were previously the tenants of this club-house have delegated to me the important, and I may add highly agreeable, task of showing you the world. They have noted of late years the growth of that feeling of unrest which is becoming every day more and more conspicuous in feminine circles in all parts of the universe--on the earth, where women are clamoring to vote, and to be allowed to go out late at night without an escort, in Hades, where, as you are no doubt aware, the management of the government has fallen almost wholly into the hands of the Furies; and even in the halls of Jupiter himself, where, I am credibly informed, Juno has been taking private lessons in the art of hurling thunderbolts--information which the extraordinary quality of recent electrical storms on the earth would seem to confirm. Thunderbolts of late years have been cast hither and yon in a most erratic fashion, striking where they were least expected, as those of you who keep in touch with the outer world must be fully aware. Now, actuated by their usual broad and liberal motives, the men of Hades wish to meet the views of you ladies to just that extent that your views are based upon a wise selection, in turn based upon experience, and they have come to me and in so many words have said, 'Mr. Kidd, we wish the women of Hades to see the world. We want them to be satisfied. We do not like this constantly increasing spirit of unrest. We, who have seen all the life that we care to see, do not ourselves feel equal to the task of showing them about. We will pay you liberally if you will take our House-boat, which they have always been anxious to enter, and personally conduct our beloved ones to Paris, London, and elsewhere. Let them see as much of life as they can stand. Accord them every privilege. Spare no expense; only bring them back again to us safe and sound.' These were their words, ladies. I asked them why they didn't come along themselves, saying that even if they were tired of it all, they should make some personal sacrifice to your comfort; and they answered, reasonably and well, that they would be only too glad to do so, but that they feared they might unconsciously seem to exert a repressing influence upon you. 'We want them to feel absolutely free, Captain Kidd,' said they, 'and if we are along they may not feel so.' The answer was convincing, ladies, and I accepted the commission."
"But we knew nothing of all this," interposed Elizabeth. "The subject was not broached to us by our husbands, brothers, fiances, or fathers. My brother, Sir Walter Raleigh--"
Cleopatra chuckled. "Brother! Brother's good," she said.
"Well, that's what he is," retorted Elizabeth, quickly. "I promised to be a sister to him, and I'm going to keep my word. That's the kind of a queen I am. I was about to remark," Elizabeth added, turning to the captain, "that my brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, never even hinted at any such plan, and usually he asked my advice in matters of so great importance."
"That is easily accounted for, madame," retorted Kidd. "Sir Walter intended this as a little surprise for you, that is all. The arrangements were all placed in his hands, and it was he who bound us all to secrecy. None of the ladies were to be informed of it."
"It does not sound altogether plausible," interposed Portia. "If you ladies do not object, I should like to cross-examine this--ah-- gentleman."
Kidd paled visibly. He was not prepared for any such trial; however, he put as good a face on the matter as he could, and announced his willingness to answer any questions that he might be asked.
"Shall we put him under oath?" asked Cleopatra.
"As you please, ladies," said the pirate. "A pirate's word is as good as his bond; but I'll take an oath if you choose--a half-dozen of 'em, if need be."
"I fancy we can get along without that," said Portia. "Now, Captain Kidd, who first proposed this plan?"
"Socrates," said Kidd, unblushingly with a sly glance at Xanthippe.
"What?" cried Xanthippe. "My husband propose anything that would contribute to my pleasure or intellectual advancement? Bah! Your story is transparently false at the outset."
"Nevertheless," said Kidd, "the scheme was proposed by Socrates. He said a trip of that kind for Xanthippe would be very restful and health-giving."
"For me?" cried Xanthippe, sceptically.
"No, madame, for him," retorted Kidd.
"Ah--ho-ho! That's the way of it, eh?" said Xanthippe, flushing to the roots of her hair. "Very likely. You--ah--you will excuse my doubting your word, Captain Kidd, a moment since. I withdraw my remark, and in order to make fullest reparation, I beg to assure these ladies that I am now perfectly convinced that you are telling the truth. That last observation is just like my husband, and when I get back home again, if I ever do, well--ha, ha!--we'll have a merry time, that's all."
"And what was--ah--Bassanio's connection with this affair?" added Portia, hesitatingly.
"He was not informed of it," said Kidd, archly. "I am not acquainted with Bassanio, my lady, but I overheard Sir Walter enjoining upon the others the absolute necessity of keeping the whole affair from Bassanio, because he was afraid he would not consent to it. 'Bassanio has a most beautiful wife, gentlemen,' said Sir Walter, 'and he wouldn't think of parting with her under any circumstances; therefore let us keep our intentions a secret from him.' I did not hear whom the gentleman married, madame; but the others, Prince Hamlet, the Duke of Buckingham, and Louis the Fourteenth, all agreed that Mrs. Bassanio was too beautiful a person to be separated from, and that it was better, therefore, to keep Bassanio in the dark as to their little enterprise until it was too late for him to interfere."
A pink glow of pleasure suffused the lovely countenance of the cross- examiner, and it did not require a very sharp eye to see that the wily Kidd had completely won her over to his side. On the other hand, Elizabeth's brow became as corrugated as her ruff, and the spirit of the pirate shivered to the core as he turned and gazed upon that glowering face.
"Sir Walter agreed to that, did he?" snapped Elizabeth. "And yet he was willing to part with--ah--his sister."
"Well, your Majesty," began Kidd, hesitatingly, "you see it was this way: Sir Walter--er--did say that, but--ah--he--ah--but he added that he of course merely judged--er--this man Bassanio's feelings by his own in parting from his sister--"
"Did he say sister?" cried Elizabeth.
"Well--no--not in those words," shuffled Kidd, perceiving quickly wherein his error lay, "but--ah--I jumped at the conclusion, seeing his intense enthusiasm for the lady's beauty and--er--intellectual qualities, that he referred to you, and it is from yourself that I have gained my knowledge as to the fraternal, not to say sororal, relationship that exists between you."
"That man's a diplomat from Diplomaville!" muttered Sir Henry Morgan, who, with Abeuchapeta and Conrad, was listening at the port without.
"He is that," said Abeuchapeta, "but he can't last much longer. He's perspiring like a pitcher of ice-water on a hot day, and a spirit of his size and volatile nature can't stand much of that without evaporating. If you will observe him closely you will see that his left arm already has vanished into thin air."
"By Jove!" whispered Conrad, "that's a fact! If they don't let up on him he'll vanish. He's getting excessively tenuous about the top of his head."
All of which was only too true. Subjected to a scrutiny which he had little expected, the deceitful ambassador of the thieving band was rapidly dissipating, and, as those without had so fearsomely noted, was in imminent danger of complete sublimation, which, in the case of one possessed of so little elementary purity, meant nothing short of annihilation. Fortunately for Kidd, however, his wonderful tact had stemmed the tide of suspicion. Elizabeth was satisfied with his explanation, and in the minds of at least three of the most influential ladies on board, Portia, Xanthippe, and Elizabeth, he had become a creature worthy of credence, which meant that he had nothing more to fear.
"I am prepared, your Majesty," said Elizabeth, addressing Cleopatra, "to accept from this time on the gentleman's word. The little that he has already told us is hall-marked with truth. I should like to ask, however, one more question, and that is how our gentleman friends expected to embark us upon this voyage without letting us into the secret?"
"Oh, as for that," replied Kidd, with a deep-drawn sigh of relief, for he too had noticed the gradual evaporation of his arm and the incipient etherization of his cranium--"as for that, it was simple enough. There was to have been a day set apart for ladies' day at the club, and when you were all on board we were quietly to weigh anchor and start. The fact that you had anticipated the day, of your own volition, was telephoned by my scouts to me at my headquarters, and that news was by me transmitted by messenger to Sir Walter at Charon's Glen Island, where the long-talked-of fight between Samson and Goliath was taking place. Raleigh immediately replied, 'Good! Start at once. Paris first. Unlimited credit. Love to Elizabeth.' Wherefore, ladies," he added, rising from his chair and walking to the door--"wherefore you are here and in my care. Make yourselves comfortable, and with the aid of the fashion papers which you have already received prepare yourselves for the joys that await you. With the aid of Madame Recamier and Baedeker's Paris, which you will find in the library, it will be your own fault if when you arrive there you resemble a great many less fortunate women who don't know what they want."
With these words Kidd disappeared through the door, and fainted in the arms of Sir Henry Morgan. The strain upon him had been too great.
"A charming fellow," said Portia, as the pirate disappeared.
"Most attractive," said Elizabeth.
"Handsome, too, don't you think?" asked Helen of Troy.
"And truthful beyond peradventure," observed Xanthippe, as she reflected upon the words the captain had attributed to Socrates. "I didn't believe him at first, but when he told me what my sweet- tempered philosopher had said, I was convinced."
"He's a sweet child," interposed Mrs. Noah, fondly. "One of my favorite grandchildren."
"Which makes it embarrassing for me to say," cried Cassandra, starting up angrily, "that he is a base caitiff!"
Had a bomb been dropped in the middle of the room, it could not have created a greater sensation than the words of Cassandra.
"What?" cried several voices at once. "A caitiff?"
"A caitiff with a capital K," retorted Cassandra. "I know that, because while he was telling his story I was listening to it with one ear and looking forward into the middle of next week with the other-- I mean the other eye--and I saw--"
"Yes, you saw?" cried Cleopatra.
"I saw that he was deceiving us. Mark my words, ladies, he is a base caitiff," replied Cassandra--"a base caitiff."
"What did you see?" cried Elizabeth, excitedly.
"This," said Cassandra, and she began a narration of future events which I must defer to the next chapter. Meanwhile his associates were endeavoring to restore the evaporated portions of the prostrated Kidd's spirit anatomy by the use of a steam-atomizer, but with indifferent success. Kidd's training had not fitted him for an intellectual combat with superior women, and he suffered accordingly.