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The Bishop's Jaegers
BAD TALK AND WORSE WEATHER
GET the hell out of here, you booby!' boomed out the great voice, making an unpleasant evening even more unpleasant.
'Seafaring men have such unbridled tempers,' mildly observed the Bishop.
'I'd hate to be called a booby even in a fog,' Peter declared. 'It's a word to which I strongly object. Seems to strike at the very roots of one's being.'
Apparently the skipper felt the same way about it.
'Who the hell are you calling booby?' he cried from the hidden aloofness of his little pilot house.
'I'm calling you a booby,' answered the other skipper across the milling fog.
'You're a booby yourself,' retorted the defender of the ferry-boat, seeing no reason to improve on the word. 'A blundering booby at that.'
'Call me a booby!' almost screamed the other voice. 'I'd like to cut you in two. What do you mean running into an ocean liner, endangering the lives of my passengers?'
'What do you mean by picking on a ferry-boat carrying American citizens?' demanded the local skipper, introducing an international flavour to the dispute.
'Your passengers don't count for a damn,' he was informed. 'They're dirty commuters. They aren't even human.'
'Is that so? Well, so are yours. You're all boobies—the lot of you.'
A clatter of protesting voices burst through the fog. One shrill, ironical voice made itself disagreeably articulate.
'You can drown commuters by the handful,' announced this voice, 'and the world would be better off—much better off.'
This time the commuters' voices shattered the fog with indignant discord.
'Your passengers are a lot of pleasure-loving swine,' screamed the skipper of the ferry, his voice rising above the disgraceful din.
'Will you keep that rabble quiet?' came the voice of the liner's skipper. 'Can't hear a word you say.'
'Keep your own immigrants quiet,' retorted the small craft's skipper. 'Why don't you fumigate 'em?'
The reception of this crude suggestion by the passengers of the liner was deafening. Obviously they were infuriated far beyond the bounds of good taste. The ferry-boat jeered triumphantly, and the word 'immigrants' found immediate favour, also such terms of endearment as wops, kikes, bolshies, anarchists, reds, and a few others that will not bear repetition. In the midst of this hubbub the voices of the two skippers could be distinguished passionately cursing the passengers they had so recently been defending. Gradually the voices died exhaustedly away so that the respective representatives of the opposing ships were enabled to continue insulting each other in comparative peace and quiet.
'An edifying way for ships to act,' observed Peter, 'when fogbound far at sea.'
'If you don't take that waterlogged louse of yours away from my ship I'm going to run you down,' the voice from the liner shouted. 'I've got a peace delegation aboard.'
'Sounds more like a mob from hell,' the ferry-boat replied.
Upon hearing this, the peace delegation apparently became so warlike it had to be roundly cursed back into silence. Aspirin Liz, with the light of battle in her eyes and closely supported by a quivering Josephine, made for the head of the ferry. The others followed the two women.
'Go to hell, you!' shouted Aspirin Liz as soon as she had taken up her station. 'We've got a bishop of the Episcopal Church on our boat, and if you don't believe that, his name's Waller.'
'My dear! My dear!' protested the Bishop. 'Don't use my name in all this fog.'
'What's wrong with your name?' snapped Jo, then shrieked through her hands at the opposing ship. 'His name is Waller—Bishop Waller. Never heard of Bishop Waller, you big stiff?'
'I'm doing the shouting, lady,' the ferry-boat's captain called down to Jo.
'Don't give a damn if he's the twelve apostles,' the seafaring skipper blasphemously retorted. 'Go tell him to waller in the waves. That's where he'll soon be and you, too, you Jersey broad.'
'My God! He called me a broad!' cried Josephine, white with rage, then furiously to the fog, 'Shut up, you lily.'
'What!' screamed back the fog. 'Me, a lily! I'd like to come down there and punch you on the nose.'
'A most violent character,' objected the Bishop; then, suddenly losing his ecclesiastical calm: 'Take your vile craft out of the way, you zany, and let God-fearing people proceed in peace.'
'Yes,' yelled Aspirin Liz. 'Get a move on. I want some beer.'
'Who the hell cares about you and your beer?' the liner flung back coarsely. 'All you'll get is salt water and lots of that, you dizzy Jersey broad.'
'Lily! Lily!' sang out Jo. 'Think up another name.'
'Oh, my God,' came the voice of the distracted skipper, and Peter in his mind's eye caught a glimpse of weather-beaten features distorted with impotent rage. 'Oh, my God,' came the strangled voice. 'If I could only come down there and pull your nose.'
'Oh, my dear, how vicious!' Josephine tossed back girlishly. 'We're thumbing our noses at you, in case you can't see us.'
'Make that woman stop,' called the liner's captain, appealing directly to the commander of the ferry-boat. 'By rights she should be put in irons for calling me such names.'
'Oh, you lily!' yodelled a chorus of voices through the fog, a group of truck drivers seeming to be especially gifted at this form of derision.
'You're forgetting to sound your whistle, sir,' the local skipper pleasantly reminded the other. 'It ain't sounded for seven minutes. I'll report that little neglect of duty.'
'I'm forgetting I'm a human being,' the voice came back wildly from the liner. 'I'm forgetting I'm an officer and a gentleman. I'm forgetting I've got a soul.' The last word rose in a howl. 'I'm mad. I'm going mad, I tell you,' it resumed. 'Going mad alone in the fog.' A burst of maniacal laughter followed, then a snatch of demented song. 'All alone on the telephone,' quavered the voice of the liner's skipper. 'Sleep, sailor, sleep, all alone on the telephone—ha, ha, ha!' The climax was a volley of incoherent obscenities, which ceased suddenly as a new voice was heard, a quiet, reasonable, cultured voice.
'Sorry,' this voice sang out, 'but our skipper has just lost his reason or had a stroke or something. Do you happen to know where we are?'
'Too bad about your old man,' answered the ferry-boat captain. 'Merely having a bit of a jaw-back. I swear to God I don't know where we can be.'
'Might be off the old Rock herself for all I know,' the other replied hopelessly. 'Sounds like open water to me.'
'Are you anchored?' asked the ferry captain.
'Been anchored for hours,' he was told.
'Well, I haven't got any anchors,' declared the skipper of the ferry.
'Wish you had one round your neck,' a vulgar voice observed weightily, 'an' that you was right with it forty fathoms deep.'
'Pipe down, there!' cried the cultured voice. 'I say, Captain, would you care to tie up 'longside of me?'
'No, thanks,' replied the other. 'I'll go smousing round for a bit yet. Might find something. Hope the old man gets well.'
'And tell him for me,' Little Arthur surprisingly shouted, 'a ocean-going liner shouldn't have a weak-minded skipper.'
'Shut up, you worm!' snapped Jo. 'You would pull a wisecrack just when we were getting nice and friendly. Don't you realize you aren't good enough to insult even a body-snatcher?'
If the skipper of the liner had been incapacitated, his passengers still remained loyal. As the two ships parted company in the fog their insults fell thick and fast. The ferry-boat did not remain silent. Foul words and frantic filled the air.
'If an angel should appear now,' remarked the Bishop with a sigh of regret, 'I very much fear he would mistake the earth for a region far below. These maddened voices in the fog sound like spirits in torment.'
'How long have we been afloat?' Peter asked a little wearily.
'Nearly two and a half hours,' replied the Bishop, glancing at his watch.
'I'm hungry,' complained Little Arthur.
'We're not interested,' Jo retorted, then considered him with sudden interest. 'Come here, Little Arthur,' she said at last in a dangerously honeyed voice. 'I want to have a friendly talk with you.'
'Are you sure it's friendly?' he asked with justifiable suspicion. 'I've had more than enough trouble for one day.'
'There's not going to be any trouble,' Josephine assured him. 'You're going to like this.'
For a few moments they conversed earnestly together; then, with a backward glance at the others, wandered innocently off in the direction of several trucks hunched in the gloom of the traffic alleys filled with fog and the fumes of gas. Peter and his companions returned to the relative comfort of the cabin. A trifle depressed after the excitement caused by the recent encounters, they sat down and confronted the faces of their fellow passengers. Those faces were a study in conflicting emotions. They furnished ample food for thought if one felt inclined to think under such exasperating conditions. Peter's brain was working dreamily on the borderland of sleep. His head felt hot and heavy. There was a throbbing pain in his arm.
So many interrupted lives, he mused. So many routines broken. Wives waiting all over New Jersey. Dinners getting cold. Children staying up for Daddy, then going to bed without him. Mothers glancing out of windows and running to front doors. Little speeches of greeting being rehearsed. Furious little speeches—perfect gems of sarcasm and sweet recrimination.
'No, dear. Little junior couldn't wait up until dawn. Sorry, but if you must step off at a speakeasy, you'll have to do without your son. Of course, it doesn't matter about me. I haven't counted for years. Do you fund it close in here, dear? I'll open up all the windows so the neighbours can enjoy your breath, too. No. Don't try to get around me. Keep your horrid hands off. Save them for one of your flash stenographers. You seem to prefer their company to mine.'
Peter's thoughts veered off at another tangent. He was convinced that the little chap with the pinched face across the way was making up a lie already. Years of experience had taught the man that his wife would never believe the truth. He must perjure his soul to keep peace in the family. He must tell a lie to give her the pleasure of catching him in it. If he told the truth and stuck to it, the lady would feel herself injured. She always felt injured. She was born with an axe to grind with life in general, and he had been feeling its blade for years until he was chipped away to his spiritless soul.
That quiet-looking fellow a few seats away seemed actually to be enjoying the situation. He was probably welcoming this fogbound interlude in his unadventurous days. Doubtless wished the ferry-boat would never find its rightful slip. Peter felt that the man hated that ferry slip, had been hating it night after night, week after week, for many years. No wonder war was popular when life was unable to dig up anything better than a couple of ferry slips with uncongenial destinations at either end.
But there was a person eager to get home. Newly married, Peter placed him. Probably a baby on the way. No word from his wife for twelve whole hours. The poor devil was too nervous to sit down. Kept walking about and doing silly things with his hands. Aimless things—futile gestures. And all because some unremarkable girl in some equally unremarkable town in New Jersey was about to add her even more unremarkable contribution to an already overcrowded world. But none of it seemed unremarkable to this young fellow. Neither the town nor the girl nor the baby. Life for him was touched with wonder. For him there was a zest in things. Peter decided that if he had the chap in his office, he would give him a worth-while raise.
There was a pretty girl who had had about enough of fog horns for one night. Probably worked in some office near the river. Had been hearing them all day long. Some day she would probably contribute to the world's population. Funny thing, that. She would grow old and change and look different, and years from now another girl looking not unlike her would come there and sit in that same seat. And the whole thing would begin over again. Just like a picture with the same picture in it and the same one in that, only a little smaller, going on for ever.
Peter wondered drowsily if he were growing a little delirious. Snatches of conversation kept getting mixed up in his mind. Why was he leading these people's lives for them, hearing the things they said, imagining their thoughts? The world was being eaten up by fog and driven mad by fog horns. A detective story would go well now. Somebody should be murdered. Somebody almost had been murdered. A few inches to the right with that bullet, and he would not have cared whether the boat made land or not. Where would he be now? Out there in the fog somewhere, lending his voice to the whistles?
That girl down the line—what was her trouble? Why that bitter expression? She was getting along in years now. Already that deadly look of efficiency, that expression of command, was stealing into her face. Perhaps she had passed up a date to spend the week-end somewhere with her boss. Maybe her last chance—her last chance to find out about a lot of things, to experience a lot of things. When she reached home to-night—if she ever did—two old people would be waiting there for her. A little worried perhaps. Always a little fearful. Something might happen to this girl of theirs, this girl growing old like themselves, yet still almost as inexperienced as the day when she was born. Family loyalty and self-sacrifice could be carried too far. Always was. This girl would never add to the world's population, and she damn well should. Some-one should seduce her—make a mother out of her, give her a break in life. Peter wouldn't want to do it, but then there was always some one.
Peter's brain was once more snatching conversations from the air—Hello, J. B. How's tricks? Reached your quota yet? He's a ten-thousand-dollar-a-year man. Must be a nice guy. Thought you always rode up with another party—tall, dark feller. Usually do. He's a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-year man. Must be a wonderful guy. The little lady all right? Nervous—this depression. Have to send her to Lakewood. Mine, too. Got to pack her off. Women can't stand depression. Nobody can. Depression's bad for the country. That's what I say. See that guy over there? He's a five-thousand-dollar-a-year man. Must be a wash-out. Where does he get off to carry a cane? There's a pip—what a leg! Know her? Oh, you do—any good? I should tell you. Hoover's a gentleman, at any rate, not a goddam red. Get your ticket ready. Here comes Pete. Getting old, Pete. Been punching my ticket for the past seventeen years. Got a piece I want to read. Bedtime stories? Right. Tell 'em to the kiddies. Nothing like kiddies. She has got a swell leg.
The synthetic snatches faded away. Peter's head sank lower and lower. Aspirin Liz collected it and propped her well-padded shoulder against his cheek. Close to the surface of consciousness Peter slid along through the fog.
In the meantime Jo and Little Arthur were lurking round the trucks like wolves round a wagon train. They were inspecting the trucks with careless-seeming yet calculating eyes. Each truck was wondered about, each truck peeped into, poked and felt. Their hands were furtively caressing. Little Arthur's favourite truck gave promise of fancy groceries. He opened a knife in his pocket, looked quickly about him, then operated on the truck with the skill of a surgeon on a mere appendix. Jo's hands were darting into another truck. Jo believed in bread. She succeeded in snatching cake, also a thermos bottle, the personal property of the driver. Little did Jo care whose personal property it was. She had to provide for her own.
'This is the first time I ever stole a chicken,' Little Arthur whispered, pointing to a bulge in his coat.
'Put it back!' said Jo. 'Put it back. The damn thing will squawk all over the ferry.'
'It ain't that kind of a chicken.'
'Mean it's a dumb chicken?'
'No, it's a dead chicken.'
'But raw?' asked Jo.
'Very,' admitted the crook. 'Cold and raw.'
Jo thought rapidly but effectively.
'Come,' she said at last. 'There must be a fire in the engine room. We'll borrow a chunk of the ship's fire, but listen, Little Arthur, let me do the talking.'
'Don't I know!' the little chap replied. 'I'd never try to can your chatter.'
'Follow me, little thief,' said Jo almost tenderly.
A few minutes later some passengers were slightly interested in seeing two figures, crouched as if in pain, move swiftly to the small door of the engine room and neatly disappear behind it. Jo descended a short steep metal ladder, regretting the while the absence of an audience below. She felt sure that had the engineer been present he would have granted her every wish. Men were like that—foolish. A blackened face seated on a box rolled two white eyes at her from behind a stanchion.
'Hello!' said the face. 'What's up?'
'Nothing much,' replied Jo easily. 'I'm the daughter of a ship's captain myself.'
'I'm not a ship's captain, lady,' the face replied, 'much less his daughter.'
'Don't be silly,' said Jo. 'I want to cook a chicken.'
'Oh, yeah?' the face grinned back. 'I'd like to run races. Is that the bird you want to cook?'
The face pointed at Little Arthur.
'No,' said Jo. 'Hell isn't hot enough for that one.'
'It's too noisy here,' the dip complained.
'What do you want to do?' asked Jo. 'Sing?'
'No. It hurts my ears.'
Jo turned away from Little Arthur and considered a small black door, through the edges of which gleamed a frame of fire.
'Might cook it in there,' she remarked.
'To a cinder,' grinned the man.
'Might fix something up.'
'Sure, lady. What do you think this is, the Ritz?'
'Slip me that chicken,' said Jo.
Arthur produced the chicken as a magician produces a rabbit and handed it to Jo, who in turn passed it to the man with the black face.
'Pretty slick chicken, that,' allowed Jo.
When the man had finished his examination the chicken looked pretty black.
'It's a good chicken,' he agreed, holding it out to Jo.
'I don't want it,' she told him. 'Put it on some fire.'
'Listen, lady, are you nuts?' the man asked.
'Certainly not,' the girl replied. 'Why?'
'Nothing,' said the man. 'Only I was afraid you figured yourself home in your own kitchen and had mistaken me for your cook.'
'You don't look a bit like my cook,' said Jo. 'You're much nicer.'
'Come on, quit your kidding!' The man looked pleased.
'Can't you cram it into some fire?' asked Jo.
The man looked at her and grinned. Then he spat copiously. After that he got up.
'You're a funny sketch,' he said at last. 'This chicken all ready?'
'Don't know,' replied Jo. 'Let me look at it. No. You look at it.'
The man thereupon elevated the chicken and sighted through it, one white eye professionally closed. It was not a nice scene to witness under the most favourable conditions, but in that engine room and done by a man with a black face it was almost more than Little Arthur could bear. He closed both his eyes.
'What do you see?' the girl asked breathlessly.
'Wish I could see land,' said the man. 'We seem to have lost that. Even the fog horns are getting scarcer, but I'll cook your chicken for you, lady.'
'That's swell,' said Jo. 'You're a good egg, chief. I've a sick man up there. He's been shot.'
'Heard about that guy,' the chief replied as he moved searchingly about the confined area. 'Sort of queer thing, that. And all the time there's some man sitting quietly on this boat who was intended to stop that bullet. It just shows. You never can tell. Who'd ever thought I'd be cooking a chicken in a fog?'
'Ain't he even going ter wash it?' asked Little Arthur.
'What for?' asked Jo. 'We'll burn the dirt off.'
Little Arthur shrank even smaller.
'Always like my chickens washed,' he muttered.
The black-faced man had found what he wanted. It as a pan—a large pan. This he filled with glowing coals upon which he placed another and smaller pan.
'Ask him to dust the ashes out,' urged Little Arthur.
'Will you be quiet!' said Jo, who was by now greatly interested.
From a suspicious-looking can the chief poured some water into the smaller pan, plopped the chicken in it, then covered the whole affair with a galvanized washtub.
'Wouldn't want no better oven than that,' he remarked, surveying his rude creation.
'Who wouldn't?' muttered Little Arthur.
'You're a genius,' said Jo admiringly. 'Have a hunk of cake.'
She produced a box of cake from beneath the duster she had managed to retain and tore off the cover.
'Just a little,' said the chief.
'Go on. Take a lot.'
He accepted the cake and munched.
'Good cake,' he observed. 'I like cake. You know—good cake.'
Little Arthur decided that here was a man who would be at home in any surroundings. He was the same as a dog or any other animal. His reactions were the simple ones of the brute. The girl was like him. Little Arthur, to show how much nicer he was than his companions, produced his knife and cut himself a slice of cake.
'Nice, ain't it?' said the chief, rolling his eyes at the little man. 'Orange icing's good.'
Little Arthur waited until his mouth was clear, then spoke with marked distinctness.
'Not bad for store cake,' he replied. 'It's sticking on your chin.'
'What?' asked the black-faced man.
'The crumbs,' said Little Arthur.
The man once more laughed coarsely.
'If that's all,' he got out. 'Bah!'
'That's not all,' replied Little Arthur meticulously. "There's bits of waste and coal dust and oil.'
'I guess that chin can stand it,' the man remarked, not even taking the trouble to wipe his chin.
'No doubt,' agreed the pickpocket, 'but I almost can't.'
'What do you mean?' the other demanded truculently.
'Oh, nothing,' said Little Arthur, 'only there's a lady present and you ain't doing yourself justice with that chin. Looks like an ashcan, it does.'
'Oh, all right,' the chief grumbled, looking furtively at Josephine, now seated on the box by the chicken. 'All right. Here goes.'
He produced a wad of waste from his pocket and drew it across his chin.
'That makes your chin look better,' said Arthur, 'and the rest of your face worse.'
'Don't mind him,' Jo put in. 'I like your face as it is. Let's take a look at the chicken.'
With a steel rod the man raised the washtub. Three pairs of eyes were fastened on the chicken.
'Smells good,' said the man. 'She'll be done pretty soon now—sooner than in a regular oven.'
She was. The chicken was done, or partly done, in a surprisingly short time. The man with the face refused.
'No, thank you, lady,' he protested. 'I put on the feed bag before we shoved off. Take her up to your young man with the compliments of the chef.'
For some reason Jo blushed. She realized she was blushing, and that made her blush all the more. The girl was amazed. She had never thought of herself as having a young man. With her it had always been grabbing off a guy or being grabbed herself. She had never had a real, acknowledged young man for herself. Hers had been the easy-come, easy-go type. For a moment she caught a mental image of Peter's pale, bony face, with its sardonically set mouth and mild blue eyes full of vagrant fancies. God knows what he actually thought of her. She had not tried to show herself in an any too favourable light. Making herself impudent and more than plenty tough. True, he wasn't quite a young man, but then she did not care much for that sort. There and then amid the smells and grime of the ship's clanking bowels she knew that Peter meant much to her and that she was going to make herself mean even more to Peter in spite of all the Yolanda Wilmonts in the world. But perhaps he was dead by now. She had forgotten about his wound.
'Thanks, chief,' she said, holding out a hand to his. 'Got to hurry. Grab that bird, Little Arthur, and come right along.'
'Here,' said the man with the black face, producing a thick cup, and tipping the gravy from the pan into it. 'Here. Might as well take this along. It'll strengthen the young feller up.'
'God bless your black face, chief,' said the girl as she turned to the ladder. 'You're white, clean white inside.'
'I know that poem, too,' cried the man, as if some one had touched a button somewhere concealed about him. 'I can say it all by heart.'
'Wish he hadn't said that,' thought Josephine as she toiled up the ladder. 'If Peter knows that poem I'll eat this chicken myself and throw the bones in his face.'
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