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The Bishop's Jaegers
SIX CHARACTERS EMBARK IN MORE FOG
FOR a brief moment Peter stood confronting Yolanda, his face shocked expressionless; then, remembering her question, he actually feigned madness. Waving his hands about as if leading a multitude in song, he burst out in a high, quavering voice with:
|My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty—
God help the king.
'Stop that awful noise,' Yolanda commanded imperiously. 'It's bad enough to be caught doing what you were doing without singing about it.'
'He's a little light in his head,' Jo said in a quiet voice. 'And he's not singing about it.'
'He's crazy in the head if he thinks he's fooling me,' ripped out Yolanda. 'He acts more like a drunken man than a delirious one.'
To force conviction home on Yolanda, the quavering voice redoubled its efforts, this time running short of words:
|I love your rocks and brooks|
Gangsters and dirty crooks—
Who's got the king?
'Peter Van Dyck, if you don't stop making those sounds you'll wake the whole ship up,' said Yolanda.
'Spangles,' said Peter inanely. 'Pretty spangles and banners by the score.'
'Do you think he's really gone?' Yolanda asked doubtfully.
'Must be,' Jo replied. 'He mistook me for you. Didn't you notice how he was acting?'
'I hope you don't imagine I let him carry on like that?'
'I sincerely hope not,' said Jo. 'But just the same, it was pretty nice. Hadn't you better get him inside? He might suddenly take it into his head to go in swimming.'
'Heavens!' exclaimed Yolanda. 'He appears to think he's a seagull now.'
Josephine considered the man seriously.
'Either that or a dog,' she said at last. 'Come here, Fido.'
'There's not much similarity between a seagull and a dog,' Yolanda remarked in a superior voice.
'Not much,' replied Jo, 'but a little—just enough to make it interesting. Couchez-là, Fido.'
'Avec vous,' snapped Peter. 'I know French. Ha, ha! Thistledown!'
Yolanda took the fluttering man by the arm and led him babbling cheerfully into the cabin. Jo turned back to the fog. There was a happy mist in her eyes. If that kiss had lasted thirty more seconds she would have been sure of the man for life. As it was, she felt reasonably safe. She had even room enough in her heart to feel pleasurably sorry for Yolanda.
Dawn, instead of dispersing the fog, drew it closer together. From the air above her the voice of the fog horn sounded wearily. Josephine did not mind. The fog could solidify for all she cared. She felt herself authentically in love, and she was ready and willing to fight it out along those lines. She tossed all scruples into the face of the soggy day.
Morning became evening and evening became night and the commuters became bored. Beer seemed so far away to Aspirin Liz that she found it almost impossible to think of it in the abstract. Whatever good works the Bishop had set out to perform in New Jersey—a state which can stand a lot—remained unaccomplished. Drawers no longer played an important part in Little Arthur's life. Even Yolanda had forgotten about the house party. She was in the presence of grim reality. Having slept in public, an object of desirous scrutiny from God knows how many pairs of vulgar eyes, the fastidious young woman felt herself slightly deflowered. As for Peter Van Dyck, he was far from well. Unlike the others he had been unable to get any real sleep. His arm was swollen and feverish. The Bishop feared infection, but kept his fears to himself. Alone of the little party Josephine seemed unperturbed. Yolanda gained the impression that her fiancé's secretary was actually deriving no little ill-bred enjoyment from the situation. Yolanda was not far wrong. Jo had decided that so long as she could be near Peter it did not make much difference what the ferry did on the surface of the sea. Her only anxiety was that the boat might take it into its head to do things beneath. The way the situation stood between herself and Peter gave her a strong desire to live. So she contented herself with bathing the man's arm and enjoying the assaulted lorry-driver's attempts haughtily to disregard her hateful presence. She even grinned at him.
Commuters were spread out all over the place. The decks were littered with bodies in action or repose. Several packs of cards had mysteriously appeared, and little groups of gentlemen were playing pinochle as happily and as stolidly as if they had been seated opposite one another on the 5.15 or the 5.32.
Fresh water was running low, and faces were growing dingy. Yet it may be surprising to learn that many of the passengers on that long-lost ferry were not so distressed as it might seem. Men and women with serious obligations to meet, debts to pay, dull engagements to keep, too familiar faces to look at and voices to hear, stockings to wash, furnaces to stoke, dogs to walk, and even letters to write, found in the fogbound ferry a good excuse ready to hand.
In one quarter of the cabin a harmonica had broken out in spasms of lippy rhythm to which several stenographers danced from time to time. Jo finally succeeded in dancing with the assaulted lorry-driver, a development which surprised the man as much as it pleased Bishop Waller, who enjoyed seeing people happy and on amicable terms.
The few encounters they had with passing but unseen ships led only to further unpleasantness and deepened the captain's misanthropic attitude towards life in general and seafaring men in particular.
'What sort of ship are you?' he was once so ill advised as to inquire of a wandering vessel.
'Oh, I'm just the loveliest sort of ship,' came back the derisive reply, and the captain almost swooned from humiliation in the privacy of his pilot house.
'Go to hell!' he shrieked through the fog as soon as he had collected his scattered faculties.
'Can't even find that,' the fog retorted in tones of deep dejection.
'Have you no idea where you are?' asked the skipper a little mollified by the other's obvious discouragement.
'Yes,' came the ready reply. 'I have no idea where I are. How about yourself?'
'1 have no idea, too,' yelled the ferry captain.
A moment of brooding silence.
'Well,' came the voice from the unseen ship, 'this conversation doesn't seem to be helping either one of us. You have no idea and I have no idea. That makes two no ideas. Wonder who's cornered them all?'
'God knows,' retorted the skipper.
'I guess He'd have a high old time putting His finger on me at this moment,' observed the other. 'It's a hell of a helpless feeling for a great big ship.'
'Think of me!' exclaimed the skipper. 'I'm only a little ferry.'
Silence, then muted laughter.
'You're only a little what?' asked the fog.
'I'm only a little ferry,' declared the skipper in a voice soft with self-pity.
'Fancy that!' came back the other voice in most insipid tones. 'I thought you sounded queer all alone out there in the fog. You poor dear! Just a little ferry—a pansy, as it were.'
The next minute a deckhand had caught the maddened skipper just as he was on the point of hurling himself from the rail of his ship. The man was blue in the face, and the fringes of the fog round him were curling up beneath the violence of his obscenities.
'Tell 'em you're an ocean liner next time,' the deckhand said soothingly to his captain. 'Don't let on you're a ferry.'
The captain turned on him a face in which remained only the remotest suggestion that it had once been human, then staggered to his pilot house.
'And so are you,' he mouthed as he slammed the door behind him.
Wondering so was he what, the deckhand sat down on a packing-box and breathed heavily into the fog.
Josephine in the wet darkness was leaning over the rail of the slowly drifting ferry. Her ears and eyes were strained to the point of exhaustion in their efforts to tear from the fog the secrets that lay behind. Her eyes failed utterly, but her ears gave food for hope. From somewhere far away in that mysterious chaos of night and fog, sounding vaguely like rustling leaves in a fast receding dream, came the faint, rhythmical cadence of water washing against rocks. From what great distance the sound came, the girl was unable to estimate, but that it came from land she was convinced. To Jo at that moment land was all-important. Peter was getting no better. If anything he was worse. She disliked the feverish glitter in his eyes and the tight discoloured skin round the wound. Exhausted as he was, he had been unable to go to sleep. The realization of Peter's condition had forced Josephine to revise her opinion of the ferry-boat. It was no place for a wounded man. She wanted him safe on dry land, and in some desperate way, unknown at the time to herself, she intended to get him there. For a few seconds longer she listened. That distant murmur still crept to her through the fog. Rapidly she made her way to the pilot house.
'Captain,' she began without preamble, 'there's land somewhere about.'
'Yes?' grunted the brooding man. 'About what—the North Pole?'
'Maybe,' said Jo. 'But there's land nearer than that. Listen.'
The captain thrust his head out of his door and listened. Several times he nodded, then closed the door and returned to his brooding.
'Well,' asked Jo. 'What are you going to do about it?'
'Nothing,' replied the skipper. 'It ain't near enough yet to do us any harm.'
'Harm!' cried Jo. 'What do you mean, harm? Aren't you going to land this ferry?'
'You mean run my ship aground on an unknown shore —maybe a reef or a mud flat? Don't be silly, lady.'
'But if you don't land somewhere,' Jo protested, 'we may end up in Cape Town.'
'What's wrong with Cape Town?' inquired the captain.
'Who said anything was wrong with Cape Town?'
'You don't appear to want to go to Cape Town.'
'Would you want to go to Cape Town?' Jo flung back.
'If what?' asked the captain.
'If what?' she demanded. 'How do you mean, if what?'
'I don't understand the question,' the captain replied hopelessly.
'I didn't understand yours,' she told him.
'Then let's begin again,' he suggested. 'You asked me would I like to go to Cape Town, and it seemed to me you hadn't finished what you wanted to ask and that you meant to say, would you like to go to Cape Town if something or other happened, or words to that effect. Anyway, I'm tired of Cape Town now and I don't want to go there any more.'
'Neither do I,' Jo agreed. 'But that place we hear might be Atlantic City for all you know.'
'Well, I certainly don't want to go to Atlantic City,' replied the skipper in exasperation. 'Of all places to land up in!'
'Will you tell me, in God's name, what's wrong with Atlantic City?' she asked in a tired voice.
'Will you tell me what isn't wrong with Atlantic City?' he retorted.
'I don't know,' she said.
'It's nice we agree about something,' he replied bitterly. 'Some little thing.'
Jo felt inclined to ask him how he would like to go to hell, but instead she tried to find out where he did want to go.
'I want to get back to my slip,' the captain told her. I'm not an excursion boat, lady. I'm a—' He stopped suddenly, remembering his recent encounter with that tormenting voice in the fog.
Jo felt stumped and discouraged. It was not that she and the skipper spoke two entirely different languages. They spoke too much alike. That was the trouble. Probably the fog had driven both of their minds off on a spur line. Glancing through one of the pilot-house windows, her eyes encountered a small boat lashed to the deck. And whether or not her mind was off the main line, it still continued to function.
'If you don't want to go to Cape Town or Atlantic City,' she said in a stipulating voice, 'or any other nice, reasonable seaside resort, will you let me borrow that little boat?'
'Anything to get you out of this pilot house, lady,' the captain replied with sincere dislike. 'I'll get her into the water for you and bid you good-bye with the best of feelings. As soon as the fog gets you out of my sight I'll try to get you out of my mind.'
'You don't have to go as far as that,' said Jo. 'What's to become of the rest of the passengers?'
'You can take every damn one of 'em with you if you want,' he assured her. 'If not, they can stay here until somebody comes and drags me home.'
'I suppose you expect the grand fleet to escort your damn scow to its slip?' said the girl annoyingly.
But the captain was past being annoyed.
'I don't care if it's a grand duke,' he replied. 'I ain't going to endanger my ship for a handful of commuters.'
A few minutes later Jo addressed herself to Little Arthur. 'Can you row, shrimp?' she asked him.
'No,' replied Little Arthur. 'I never learned how.'
'Only how to pick pockets, eh?'
'I'm trying to forget that,' he said.
'I used to row,' put in Bishop Waller. 'Very fond of the exercise at one time.'
'You never will be again,' said Jo. 'Not after to-night.' She turned back to Little Arthur. 'Little man,' she continued, 'if a man of God and honest ways is willing to row, you can at least try. And that's just what you're going to do if you want to come along with us. You're going to row us to land if you have to get out and push.'
'I can bear a hand with one arm,' said Peter.
'It's a silly-sounding sentence,' she told him, 'but I guess your heart's in the right place.'
'A sailor once rowed me round Central Park,' Aspirin Liz contributed reminiscently.
'Yeah, and after that treat what did he do—collapse?' Little Arthur inquired.
'Are you looking for trouble?' the lady asked with terrifying quietness.
'No,' said Little Arthur quickly. 'We've got trouble. I was just thinking—'
'Don't,' Aspirin Liz admonished him. 'That is, don't think about me.'
Up to the moment of departure Yolanda Wilmont protested against this new and dangerous venture. She could see no good resulting from going rowing at night in a fog. However, as the others gave every indication of abandoning the ship as well as herself and the luggage unless she altered her attitude, Yolanda reluctantly tagged along with the strangely assorted party.
'If you hadn't insisted on bringing that dangerous criminal along,' she told Peter, 'you never would have been shot. Obviously the murderer was aiming at him.'
'Can't say as I blame the murderer,' said Aspirin Liz, heaving herself over the side of the ferry to the small boat below her.
'I blame him for missing,' put in Jo, following the ex-model down into what impressed her as being illimitable space turned uncompromisingly black.
'Ain't you all ever going ter stop nagging at me?' asked Little Arthur. 'Everybody should be friendly and all at a dreadful time like this.'
It required the close co-operation of both the Bishop and Peter, wounded as he was, to lower the small crook into the bobbing boat. Passengers shouted advice while from the upper deck the captain peered down at them sardonically.
'For a worthless thing, Little Arthur,' grunted Peter, 'you place too high a value on that damned life of yours. Pardon the word, Bishop.'
'Perhaps it would make us all feel better if we called a temporary armistice on the niceties of speech,' observed the Bishop as his foot searched thoughtfully for something or anything in the darkness below him. 'At the moment I feel like expressing myself in terms employed by only the most recondite students of obscene language.'
'So long, chief,' called Jo from the boat to the black-faced man who was looking gloomily over the side. 'Next time I steal a chicken I'll let you cook it for me.'
'Hope I never see a chicken again,' said the chief. 'Good luck, lady.'
'Hope you never see one of mine,' put in the lorry-driver. 'Here, little miss,' he called down to Jo, and stooping, passed her several packages. 'You forgot to take these when you and the rest of this ship's company were robbing my lorry. Thanks for the dance.'
'Thank you,' replied Jo. 'How did you know I liked cheese and crackers?'
'I sort of hoped you didn't,' said the man, grinning down at her.
'Shove off,' Peter sang out to the Bishop, who was resolutely manning the oars. 'And, ladies, please stop milling about so blithely. The boat might lose its patience.'
As the little boat shoved off into the fog and darkness, a cheer broke from the passengers lining the rails of the ferry. Individual voices quickly became indistinct and merged with the general babble. Suddenly a parting impulse of malice warmed Little Arthur's chilled breast.
'What did you say you were, Captain?' he called in a high-pitched voice. 'Only a little what?'
Immediately the fog was made hideously vocal by the voice of the now invisible skipper. Jeers and catcalls broke from the passengers. They seemed to be directed against their own ship's officer. The Bishop increased his stroke.
'If you're trying to row us out of the way of all that bad language,' said Josephine, 'you might just as well save your strength, Bishop. We don't mind it in the least.'
'It's odd, but neither do I,' Bishop Waller got out between strokes. 'It gives me a kind of vicarious kick—I think that is the word.'
'Listen,' Jo commanded. 'It would never do to lose that offshore sound or whatever it is.' For a moment the voluntary castaways held their breath in anxious silence. 'All right,' said Jo at last. 'It's coming from dead ahead.'
'Can't you say straight ahead?' asked Little Arthur. 'We're too close ter being the other.'
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