A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter III. On Deck
Throughout the long summer day a gentle excitement had fluttered the hearts of those ladies, young, or not so young, who had received invitations to the ball on board the "Consternation" that night. The last touches were given to creations on which had been spent skill, taste, and money. Our three young women, being most tastefully and fashionably attired, were in high spirits, which state of feeling was exhibited according to the nature of each; Sabina rather stately in her exaltation; Dorothy quiet and demure; while Katherine, despite her mother's supplications, would not be kept quiet, but swung her graceful gown this way and that, practising the slide of a waltz, and quoting W. R. Gilbert, as was her custom. She glided over the floor in rhythm with her chant.
"When I first put this uniform on I said, as I looked in the glass, 'It's one to a million That any civilian My figure and form will surpass.'"
Meanwhile, in a room downstairs that good-natured veteran Captain Kempt was telling the latest stories to his future son-in-law, a young officer of the American Navy, who awaited, with dutiful impatience, the advent of the serene Sabina. When at last the ladies came down the party set out through the gathering darkness of this heavenly summer night for the private pier from which they were privileged, because of Captain Kempt's official standing, to voyage to the cruiser on the little revenue cutter "Whip-poor-will," which was later on to convey the Secretary of the Navy and his entourage across the same intervening waters. Just before they reached the pier their steps were arrested by the boom of a cannon, followed instantly by the sudden apparition of the "Consternation" picked out in electric light; masts, funnel and hull all outlined by incandescent stars.
"How beautiful!" cried Sabina, whose young man stood beside her. "It is as if a gigantic racket, all of one color, had burst, and hung suspended there like the planets of heaven."
"It reminds me," whispered Katherine to Dorothy, "of an overgrown pop-corn ball," at which remark the two girls were frivolous enough to laugh.
"Crash!" sounded a cannon from an American ship, and then the white squadron became visible in a blaze of lightning. And now all the yachts and other craft on the waters flaunted their lines of fire, and the whole Bay was illuminated like a lake in Fairyland.
"Now," said Captain Kempt with a chuckle, "watch the Britisher. I think she's going to show us some color," and as he spoke there appeared, spreading from nest to mast, a huge sheet of blue, with four great stars which pointed the corners of a parallelogram, and between the stars shone a huge white anchor. Cheers rang out from the crew of the "Consternation," and the band on board played "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"That," said Captain Kempt in explanation, "is the flag of the United States Secretary of the Navy, who will be with us to-night. The visitors have kept very quiet about this bit of illumination, but our lads got on to the secret about a week ago, and I'll be very much disappointed if they don't give 'em tit for tat."
When the band on the "Consternation" ceased playing, all lights went out on the American squadron, and then on the flagship appeared from mast to mast a device with the Union Jack in the corner, a great red cross dividing the flag into three white squares. As this illumination flashed out the American band struck up the British national anthem, and the outline lights appeared again.
"That," said the captain, "is the British man-o'-war's flag."
The "Whip-poor-will" speedily whisked the party and others across the sparkling waters to the foot of the grand stairway which had been specially constructed to conduct the elect from the tide to the deck. It was more than double as broad as the ordinary gangway, was carpeted from top to bottom, and on every step stood a blue-jacket, each as steady as if cast in bronze, the line forming, as one might say, a living handrail rising toward the dark sky.
Captain Kempt and his wife went first, followed by Sabina and her young man with the two girls in their wake.
"Aren't those men splendid?" whispered Katherine to her friend. "I wish each held an old-fashioned torch. I do love a sailor."
"So do I," said Dorothy, then checked herself, and laughed a little.
"I guess we all do," sighed Katherine.
On deck the bluff captain of the "Consternation," in resplendent uniform, stood beside Lady Angela Burford of the British Embassy at Washington, to receive the guests of the cruiser. Behind these two were grouped an assemblage of officers and very fashionably dressed women, chatting vivaciously with each other. As Dorothy looked at the princess-like Lady Angela it seemed as if she knew her; as if here were one who had stepped out of an English romance. Her tall, proudly held figure made the stoutish captain seem shorter than he actually was. The natural haughtiness of those classic features was somewhat modified by a pro tem smile. Captain Kempt looked back over his shoulder and said in a low voice:
"Now, young ladies, best foot forward. The Du Maurier woman is to receive the Gibson girls."
"I know I shall laugh, and I fear I shall giggle," said Katherine, but she encountered a glance from her elder sister quite as haughty as any Lady Angela might have bestowed, and all thought of merriment fled for the moment; thus the ordeal passed conventionally without Katherine either laughing or giggling.
Sabina and her young man faded away into the crowd. Captain Kempt was nodding to this one and that of his numerous acquaintances, and Katherine felt Dorothy shrink a little closer to her as a tall, unknown young man deftly threaded his way among the people, making directly for the Captain, whom he seized by the hand in a grasp of the most cordial friendship.
"Captain Kempt, I am delighted to meet you again. My name is Drummond-- Lieutenant Drummond, and I had the pleasure of being introduced to you at that dinner a week or two ago."
"The pleasure was mine, sir, the pleasure was mine," exclaimed the Captain with a cordiality equal to that with which he had been greeted. He had not at first the least recollection of the young man, but the Captain was something of an amateur politician, and possessed all a politician's expertness in facing the unknown, and making the most of any situation in which he found himself.
"Oh, yes, Lieutenant, I remember very well that excellent song you--"
"Isn't it a perfect night?" gasped the Lieutenant. "I think we are to be congratulated on our weather."
He still clung to the Captain's hand, and shook it again so warmly that the Captain said to himself:
"I must have made an impression on this young fellow," then aloud he replied jauntily:
"Oh, we always have good weather this time of year. You see, the United States Government runs the weather. Didn't you know that? Yes, our Weather Bureau is considered the best in the world."
The Lieutenant laughed heartily, although a hollow note intervened, for the young man had got to the end of his conversation, realized he could not shake hands for a third time, yet did not know what more to say. The suavity of the politician came to his rescue in just the form the Lieutenant had hoped.
"Lieutenant Drummond, allow me to introduce my wife to you."
The lady bowed.
"And my daughter, Katherine, and Miss Amhurst, a friend of ours-- Lieutenant Drummond, of the 'Consternation.'"
"I wonder," said the Lieutenant, as if the thought had just occurred to him, "if the young ladies would like to go to a point where they can have a comprehensive view of the decorations. I-- I may not be the best guide, but I am rather well acquainted with the ship, you know."
"Don't ask me," said Captain Kempt. "Ask the girls. Everything I've had in life has come to me because I asked, and if I didn't get it the first time, I asked again."
"Of course we want to see the decorations," cried Katherine with enthusiasm, and so bowing to the Captain and Mrs. Kempt, the Lieutenant led the young women down the deck, until he came to an elevated spot out of the way of all possible promenaders, on which had been placed in a somewhat secluded position, yet commanding a splendid view of the throng, a settee with just room for two, that had been taken from some one's cabin. A blue-jacket stood guard over it, but at a nod from the Lieutenant he disappeared.
"Hello!" cried Katherine, "reserved seats, eh? How different from a theatre chair, where you are entitled to your place by holding a colored bit of cardboard. Here a man with a cutlass stands guard. It gives one a notion of the horrors of war, doesn't it, Dorothy?"
The Lieutenant laughed quite as heartily as if he had not himself hoped to occupy the position now held by the sprightly Katherine. He was cudgelling his brain to solve the problem represented by the adage "Two is company, three is none." The girls sat together on the settee and gazed out over the brilliantly lighted, animated throng. People were still pouring up the gangways, and the decks were rapidly becoming crowded with a many-colored, ever-shifting galaxy of humanity. The hum of conversation almost drowned the popular selections being played by the cruiser's excellent band. Suddenly one popular selection was cut in two. The sound of the instruments ceased for a moment, then they struck up "The Stars and Stripes for Ever."
"Hello," cried Katherine, "can your band play Sousa?"
"I should say we could," boasted the Lieutenant, "and we can play his music, in a way to give some hints to Mr. Sousa's own musicians."
"To beat the band, eh?-- Sousa's band?" rejoined Katherine, dropping into slang.
"Exactly," smiled the Lieutenant, "and now, young ladies, will you excuse me for a few moments? This musical selection means that your Secretary of the Navy is on the waters, and I must be in my place with the rest of the officers to receive him and his staff with all ceremony. Please promise you will not leave this spot till I return: I implore you."
"Better put the blue-jacket on guard over us," laughed Katherine.
"By Jove! a very good idea."
Dorothy saw all levity depart from his face, giving way to a look of sternness and command. Although he was engaged in a joke, the subordinate must see no sign of fooling in his countenance. He said a sharp word to a blue-jacket, who nimbly sprang to the end of the settee, raised his hand in salute, and stiffened himself to an automaton. Then the girls saw the tall figure of the Lieutenant wending its way to the spot where the commander stood.
"I say, Dorothy, we're prisoners. I wonder what this Johnny would do if we attempted to fly. Isn't the Lieutenant sumptuous?"
"He seems a very agreeable person," murmured Dorothy.
"Agreeable! Why, he's splendid. I tell you, Dorothy, I'm going to have the first dance with him. I'm the eldest. He's big enough to divide between two small girls like us, you know."
"I don't intend to dance," said Dorothy.
"Nonsense, you're not going to sit here all night with nobody to speak to. I'll ask the Lieutenant to bring you a man. He'll take two or three blue-jackets and capture anybody you want."
"Katherine," said Dorothy, almost as severely as if it were the elder sister who spoke, "if you say anything like that, I'll go back to the house."
"You can't get back. I'll appeal to the guard. I'll have you locked up if you don't behave yourself."
"You should behave yourself. Really, Katherine, you must be careful what you say, or you'll make me feel very unhappy."
Katherine caught her by the elbow, and gave it an affectionate little squeeze.
"Don't be frightened, Miss Propriety, I wouldn't make you unhappy for the world. But surely you're going to dance?"
Dorothy shook her head.
"Some other time. Not to-night. There are too many people here. I shouldn't enjoy it, and-- there are other reasons. This is all so new and strange to me: these brilliant men and beautiful women-- the lights, the music, everything-- it is as if I had stepped into another world; something I had read about, or perhaps dreamed about, and never expected to see."
"Why, you dear girl, I'm not going to dance either, then."
"Oh, yes, you will, Katherine; you must."
"I couldn't be so selfish as to leave you here all alone."
"It isn't selfish at all, Katherine. I shall enjoy myself completely here. I don't really wish to talk to any one, but simply to enjoy my dream, with just a little fear at the bottom of my heart that I shall suddenly wake up, rubbing my eyes, in the sewing room."
Katherine pinched her.
"Now are you awake?"
Dorothy smiled, still dreaming.
"Hello!" cried Katherine, with renewed animation, "they've got the Secretary safe aboard the lugger, and they seem to be clearing the decks for action. Here is my dear Lieutenant returning; tall even among tall men. Look at him. He's in a great hurry, yet so polite, and doesn't want to bump against anybody. And now, Dorothy, don't you be afraid. I shall prove a perfect model of diffidence. You will be proud of me when you learn with what timidity I pronounce prunes and prism. I think I must languish a little at him. I don't know quite how it's done, but in old English novels the girls always languished, and perhaps an Englishman expects a little languishment in his. I wonder if he comes of a noble family. If he doesn't, I don't think I'll languish very much. Still, what matters the pomp of pageantry and pride of race-- isn't that the way the poem runs? I love our dear little Lieutenant for himself alone, and I think I will have just one dance with him, at least."
Drummond had captured a camp-stool somewhere, and this he placed at right angles to the settee, so that he might face the two girls, and yet not interrupt their view. The sailor on guard once more faded away, and the band now struck up the music of the dance.
"Well," cried Drummond cheerfully, "I've got everything settled. I've received the Secretary of the Navy: our captain is to dance with his wife, and the Secretary is Lady Angela's partner. There they go!"
For a few minutes the young people watched the dance, then the Lieutenant said:
"Ladies, I am disappointed that you have not complimented our electrical display."
"I am sure it's very nice, indeed, and most ingenious," declared Dorothy, speaking for the first time that evening to the officer, but Katherine, whose little foot was tapping the deck to the dance music, tossed her head, and declared nonchalantly that it was all very well as a British effort at illumination, but she begged the young man to remember that America was the home of electricity.
"Where would you have been if it were not for Edison?"
"I suppose," said the Lieutenant cheerfully, "that we should have been where Moses was when the candle went out-- in the dark."
"You might have had torches," said Dorothy. "My friend forgets she was wishing the sailors held torches on that suspended stairway up the ship's side."
"I meant electric torches-- Edison torches, of course."
Katherine was displeased at the outlook. She was extremely fond of dancing, and here this complacent young man had planted himself down on a camp stool to talk of electricity.
"Miss Kempt, I am sorry that you are disappointed at our display. Your slight upon British electrical engineering leaves us unscathed, because this has been done by a foreign mechanic, whom I wish to present to you."
"Oh, indeed," said Katherine, rather in the usual tone of her elder sister. "I don't dance with mechanics, thank you."
She emphasized the light fantastic word, but the Lieutenant did not take the hint; he merely laughed again in an exasperatingly good-natured way, and said:
"Lady Angela is going to be Jack Lamont's partner for the next waltz."
"Oh," said Katherine loftily, "Lady Angela may dance with any blacksmith that pleases her, but I don't. I'm taking it for granted that Jack Lamont is your electrical tinsmith."
"Yes, he is, and I think him by all odds the finest fellow aboard this ship. It's quite likely you have read about his sister. She is a year older than Jack, very beautiful, cultured, everything that a grande dame should be, yet she has given away her huge estate to the peasantry, and works with them in the fields, living as they do, and faring as they do. There was an article about her in one of the French reviews not long ago. She is called the Princess Natalia."
"The Princess Natalia!" echoed Katherine, turning her face toward the young man. "How can Princess Natalia be a sister of Jack Lamont? Did she marry some old prince, and take to the fields in disgust?"
"Oh, no; Jack Lamont is a Russian. He is called Prince Ivan Lermontoff when he's at home, but we call him Jack Lamont for short. He's going to help me on the Russian business I told you of."
"What Russian business?" asked Katherine. "I don't remember your speaking of it."
Dorothy went white, edged a little way from her friend, while her widening eyes flashed a warning at the Lieutenant, who, too late, remembered that this conversation on Russia had taken place during the walk from the bank. The young man coughed slightly behind his open hand, reddened, and stammered:
"Oh, I thought I had told you. Didn't I mention the prince to you as we were coming here?"
"Not that I recollect," said Katherine. "Is he a real, genuine prince? A right down regular, regular, regular royal prince?"
"I don't know about the royalty, but he's a prince in good standing in his own land, and he is also an excellent blacksmith." The Lieutenant chuckled a little. "He and his sister have both been touched a good deal by Tolstoian doctrine. Jack is the most wonderful inventor, I think, that is at present on the earth, Edison notwithstanding. Why, he is just now engaged on a scheme by which he can float houses from the mountains here down to New York. Float them-- pipe-line them would perhaps be a better term. You know they have pipe-lines to carry petroleum. Very well; Jack has a solution that dissolves stone as white sugar dissolves in tea, and he believes he can run the fluid from the quarries to where building is going on. It seems that he then puts this liquid into molds, and there you have the stone again. I don't understand the process myself, but Jack tells me it's marvelously cheap, and marvelously effective. He picked up the idea from nature one time when he and I were on our vacation at Detroit."
"The Detroit River."
"Well, that runs between Michigan and Canada."
"No, no, this is in France. I believe the real name of the river is the Tarn. There's a gorge called Detroit-- the strait, you know. Wonderful place-- tremendous chasm. You go down in a boat, and all the tributary rivers pour into the main stream like jets from the nozzle of a hose. They tell me this is caused by the rain percolating through the dead leaves on the surface of the ground far above, and thus the water becomes saturated with carbonic acid gas, and so dissolves the limestone until the granite is reached, and the granite forms the bed of these underground rivers. It all seemed to me very wonderful, but it struck Jack on his scientific side, and he has been experimenting ever since. He says he'll be able to build a city with a hose next year."
"Where does he live?"
"On the cruiser just at present. I was instrumental in getting him signed on as John Lamont, and he passed without question. No wonder, for he has scientific degrees from all sorts of German universities, from Oxford, and one or two institutions in the States. When at home he lives in St. Petersburg."
"Has he a palace there?"
"He's got a blacksmith shop, with two rooms above, and I'm going to stop with him for a few months as soon as I get my leave. When the cruiser reaches England we pay off, and I expect to have nothing to do for six months, so Jack and I will make for St. Petersburg."
"Why do you call him Lamont? Is it taken from his real name of what-d'ye-call-it-off?"
"Lermontoff? Yes. The Czar Demetrius, some time about the beginning of the seventeenth century, established a Scottish Guard, just as Louis XI did in France two hundred years before, and there came over from Scotland Lamonts, Carmichaels, Buchanans and others, on whom were bestowed titles and estates. Prince Ivan Lermontoff is a descendant of the original Lamont, who was an officer in the Scottish Guard of Russia.
"So he is really a Scotchman?"
"That's what I tell him when he annoys me, as I am by way of being a Scotchman myself. Ah, the waltz is ended. Will you excuse me a moment while I fetch his Highness?"
Dorothy inclined her head, and Katherine fairly beamed permission.
"Oh, Dorothy," she exclaimed, when the Lieutenant was out of hearing, "think of it! A real prince, and my ambition has never risen higher than a paltry count, or some plebeian of that sort. He's mine, Dorothy; I found him first."
"I thought you had appropriated the Lieutenant?"
"What are lieutenants to me? The proud daughter of a captain (retired) cannot stoop to a mere lieutenant."
"You wouldn't have to stoop far, Kate, with so tall a man as Mr. Drummond."
"You are beginning to take notice, aren't you, Dot? But I bestow the Lieutenant freely upon you, because I'm going to dance with the Prince, even if I have to ask him myself.
She'll toddle away, as all aver, With the Lord High Executioner.
Ah, here they come. Isn't he perfectly splendid? Look at his beard! Just the color of a brand-new twenty-dollar gold piece. See that broad ribbon diagonally across him. I wonder what it means. And gaze at those scintillating orders on his breast. Good gracious me, isn't he splendid?"
"Yes, for a blacksmith. I wonder if he beat those stars out on his anvil. He isn't nearly so tall as Lieutenant Drummond."
"Dorothy, I'll not allow you to disparage my Prince. How can you be so disagreeable? I thought from the very first that the Lieutenant was too tall. If the Prince expects me to call him 'your Highness,' he'll be disappointed."
"You are quite right, Kate. The term would suit the Lieutenant better."
"Dorothy, I believe you're jealous."
"Oh, no, I'm not," said Dorothy, shaking her head and laughing, and then "Hush!" she added, as Katherine was about to speak again.
The next moment the young men stood before them, and, introductions being soberly performed, the Prince lost no time in begging Katherine to favor him with a dance, to which request the young woman was graciously pleased to accede, without, however, exhibiting too much haste about her acceptance, and so they walked off together.