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The Bishop's Jaegers
FROM THE NOWHERE INTO THE UNKNOWN
THINGS are not so desperate,' said Jo, breaking a heavy silence made a little less awe-inspiring by the heaving of the indomitable Bishop. 'Here we all are, the six of us. Three men and three women—just as it should be. There's Peter and myself, Yolanda and Little Arthur, and—'
'Just call me Liz,' supplied the retired model. 'Everybody does. Aspirin Liz—the former being one of my vices.'
'A name in a million,' said Jo. 'I like it. Well, then, there's Aspirin Liz and the Bishop. All cosy in a little boat.'
'With more than enough water under our feet,' put in Little Arthur miserably, 'to swaller us all in the blink of an eye.'
'Are you by any chance bracketing my name with that unwashed mite of a criminal?' Yolanda demanded arrogantly.
'I knew he was a criminal,' replied Jo, 'but I didn't know he was an unwashed one. How did you find that out?'
'I am accustomed to clean men,' Yolanda asserted coldly. 'Clean men with fresh linen.'
'Have you gone as far as that with Little Arthur already?' inquired Jo. 'You must have worked fast and deftly.'
'One needs only to look at the man to get an unpleasant conception of what lies beneath,' vouchsafed Yolanda.
'Is that any way to talk?' Little Arthur was on the verge of tears. 'Call yourselves ladies, do yer? If you'd like to know it, I am washed, and if I hadn't been looking for a—-a—'
'For clean linen,' said Jo helpfully.
'Yes,' said Little Arthur. 'If I hadn't been looking for a fresh pair of those I'd of been taking the old ones off right now in the privacy of my own kip.'
'Do you?' inquired Jo.
'Do I what?' asked the pickpocket.
'Take 'em off?' the girl replied.
'Of course I do,' the small man lying stated.
'I didn't know,' Jo told him. 'Some men don't. You impressed me as being such a type.'
'Don't see why you should be discussing my habits at all right out loud in this fog and weather,' Little Arthur complained. 'Ain't we got no private lives?'
'Thus far,' observed the red-headed girl, 'my life has been much too private. I have decided to take steps.'
'We won't have any lives at all,' Peter put in, 'if you two charming young things don't abandon Little Arthur's drawers as well as what's in them, and listen like hell for the shore.'
'Well meant but indelicately expressed,' replied Jo. 'In moments of great danger the mind has a way of fixing itself on trifles. Should we sing, perhaps? People always do in little boats.'
'Not a bad idea, that,' Bishop Waller pronounced. Singing lightens the spirits. Why not try a snatch of a song while I row?'
'I know a song,' said Aspirin Liz.
'Let's have it,' suggested Peter.' Any one got a pill?' she asked.
'Might have one in my bag,' said Jo. 'I'll look.'
The girl succeeded in finding a rather soiled aspirin tablet and passed it to Liz.
'What are you going to use for water?' Little Arthur asked.
'Never use water,' she said. 'Keep it under my tongue. It's better that way.'
Little Arthur shook his head in the darkness. This woman was hard indeed.
When the tablet had been satisfactorily adjusted under Aspirin Liz's tongue, she broke suddenly into violent song, her voice floating mournfully across the water:
|O bury me not on the lone prairie-e-e
Where the wild coyotes will howl o'er me,
But lay me out in a quiet churchyard
In a grave dug six by three.
So sang Aspirin Liz as a depressed silence fell upon the occupants of the little boat. Their spirits were not lightened.
'Golly,' said Little Arthur with a slight shiver. 'That's an awfully sad song. Them howling coyotes. I can hear 'em now.'
'Wish I could,' replied Jo. 'I'd let a chorus of wild coyotes howl o'er me if they'd give me a prairie to park on. There must be something solid behind all this fog and darkness.'
'Wonder what it is,' said Yolanda in a subdued voice.
'Africa, maybe,' Jo answered.
'Wish it were the Riviera,' observed Peter.
'Ain't we got enough water already without adding some foreign river to it?' the ignorant little felon demanded.
No one paid any attention to him, each being occupied with his or her thoughts.
'It's a miscellaneous cargo we have aboard,' observed Aspirin Liz at last. 'A bishop and a crook and a lady of fashion—what are you, Mr. Van Dyck? I'm a model, myself—that is, I was one before I lost my shape.'
'Don't know what I am exactly,' Peter replied, somewhat in doubt himself. 'What am I, Jo?'
'An indifferent coffee importer,' answered Jo. 'And I'm his invaluable secretary.'
'He's the only surviving male of one of New York's oldest families,' Yolanda Wilmont proclaimed, not without pride.
'Go on! Is he, now?' said Little Arthur. 'Well, I'm proud to be wearing his drawers, but if we don't find a scrap of dry land soon it looks like that old family is about due to lose its last male survivor.'
'Right, Little Arthur,' Jo maliciously agreed. 'Instead, they can lay claim to having the soggiest non-surviving male of any old family anywhere.'
'That, at least,' remarked Peter, 'would lend me a little distinction.'
'I like you better dry,' said Jo, 'and very much alive —pulsating, in fact.'
'What do you mean by that?' asked Peter.
'My dear,' Jo replied. 'Spare the Bishop's feelings.'
'You're a wicked lady,' declared Little Arthur. 'And you use horrid words—pulsating.'
'I'll use horrid words on you,' Jo told him. 'Change places with the Bishop or this skiff will ride higher from the loss of one feather-weight crook.'
'Which end of these sticks do you pull?' gasped Little Arthur after the perilous exchange of seats had been made, not without endangering the safety of all hands. 'Just to hold 'em still is hard enough, much less waggling 'em about.'
'Don't make yourself out any dumber than you are,'replied Jo. 'Put the wet ends of these sticks in the water and pull your small but black heart out.'
'Sure, sonny,' said Aspirin Liz encouragingly. 'Find a pocket in the fog and pick your way through it.'
'I can't stand wisecracking women,' Little Arthur remarked to misty chaos. 'Bad taste and worse manners.'
Slowly the rowboat moved ahead, but very slowly—too slowly. Peter critically watched his valet.
'Little man,' he said, 'you're not pulling these oars. They're pulling you. Put your shoulders into it.'
'Put my shoulders into what?' groaned Little Arthur. 'Wish I could put them into a bed.'
'Use your back, man,' the Bishop commanded somewhat impatiently.
Little Arthur laughed hysterically.
'Use my back,' he sneered. 'Can't even use the mere end of my back. Every time I try to put it down on the seat these here oars deliberately flip it off as if it was a moth. First thing you know I'll be flying. And you ask me to use my back.'
'If you don't use your back I'll kick it,' said Jo.
'Want me to sit on your lap—asked Aspirin Liz. 'That would hold it down.'
'That would break it down,' he told her. 'Let me alone for a minute. I'll get the hang of it soon. What do you expect a pickpocket to be—a motor boat all of a sudden?'
'I expect you'll be a sinking body if you don't get a move on,' Josephine declared.
'Have a heart, lady,' he pleaded. 'This was your idea, having me row. I didn't ask for the job.'
'I think he talks too much,' said Peter. 'Let's gag the little blighter.'
'I'm gagging already,' the little blighter complained. 'No need to help me. Fair sick I am, what with all this brutality and bobbing about.'
'Pipe down, everybody,' Jo commanded. 'I hear something.'
Something was wallowing close by in the fog.
'Who's there?' called Peter.
'Only us,' replied a familiar voice ironically.
'You mean the ferry?' Peter almost screamed.
'Yoohoo!' called the voice. 'That's who we are.'
For God's sake go away,' yelled Peter.
'What for?' said the voice. 'We like it here. Want to come back home?'
'No!' shouted four voices from the rowboat, Little Arthur being too discouraged to answer and Yolanda too disgusted.
All sorts of unpleasant noises were launched from the ferry. Personal insults fell thick around them. Even Little Arthur was stung to life and action.
'How's our dear sweet captain?' he inquired, with an astounding vocal inflexion.
Immediately the captain told them not only how be was, but also how he hoped they were and where he hoped they would go. He referred individually and collectively to the characters, antecedents, and habits of every one in the rowboat, and finished up by threatening to run the small craft down. It was too much for Little Arthur. He stood up suddenly, and like Ajax defying the lightning, impotently thumbed his nose at the fog in the direction of the ferry. There was a loud cry and a small splash. Little Arthur was no more with them.
It required some minutes to drag the wet snatch-purse back over the side. He was delicate about it. His fear of rough handling was equal to his fear of cold water. He was a small, soggy mass of moist lamentation, the utter futility of ever changing one's undergarments being his chief source of complaint. At last he lay panting in a puddle in the bottom of the boat.
'Bruised, body and soul,' he muttered. 'A nervous breakdown, no less. A mangled man.'
'If you ever try to give us the slip again,' Jo gritted at him between her small white teeth, 'you'll be a mutilated man.'
'What he choked. 'Do you think I tried to do it?'
'Of course you tried to do it. Wanted to run away,' said Jo.
'Across the bottom of the sea, I suppose?' he retorted. 'I ain't no blarsted mermaid.'
'Well, if you're not a mermaid,' she continued, 'I'd like to know what you are. Certainly, you're not human.'
'Might not be human,' the man admitted, beginning to doubt it himself. 'Don't feel like it right now. But I ain't no mermaid, at any rate, and I ain't no trained seal, either, like you think I am, making me do boat-racing all over the fog.'
'Little valet,' put in Peter with calm conviction, 'if you don't get up quietly and quickly and stop all that yapping, I'm going to put you beyond the reach of the law for ever, and that with this one hand.'
Little Arthur took a look at the one claw-like hand extended over him and thanked his God it was not two.
'Yes, sir,' he muttered. 'Can I sit down by you?'
'I'm going to row,' said Peter. 'Rested up, Bishop? I'll take the starboard oar.'
When this arrangement had been worked out, the row-boat once more got under way. The gratuitous but hardly constructive suggestions of the ferry-boat's passengers followed them through the fog, then gradually died away. Silence settled down on the occupants of the rowboat.
Peter and the Bishop were too deeply occupied to speak. Little Arthur was too miserable, Yolanda too aloof. Josephine listened for offshore sounds, and Aspirin Liz seemed content to sit and do nothing. The minutes piled up and drifted by until time became as nebulous as the fog. Still the two rowers stuck to their oars. Peter was cracking under the strain. His face had grown a little more haggard, his cheeks flushed. Josephine quietly removed the oar from his hand and seated herself by the Bishop.
'Give way,' she said. 'I hear waves washing on something more substantial than fog.'
Peter sank down by Aspirin Liz and again the boat moved forward, tunnelling its way mole-like through the fog. Sounds of a chugging motor came from the port side.
'Who are you?' called the Bishop, resting on his oar.
'A group of American citizens, sir, running rum into their native land,' came the prompt reply.
'You're frank about it,' Bishop Waller declared.
'We can afford to be in this fog,' the voice answered cheerfully. 'We're more than frank—we're abandoned.'
'We're abandoned, too, but without any rum,' Josephine informed the American citizens.
'That's bad,' came the sympathetic reply. 'Perhaps you would care for a bottle?'
'We'd devote our lives to it,' yelled Peter. 'Dedicate them to the bottle.'
'Have you a corkscrew?' called Jo.
'You all can't be American citizens,' came back the voice, 'if you haven't one of those things. Stand by to break the Eighteenth Amendment, and keep on shouting.'
The chugging of the motor drew nearer, and presently a hand holding a quart bottle, and reminding Peter of a picture of Excalibur in some long-forgotten book, was thrust through the fog.
'It is open,' said the hand cryptically. 'Remove the cork and drink.'
'Awfully good of you,' said Peter, plucking the bottle from the fog.
'Don't mention it,' replied the voice, equally courteous.
At this moment a stealthy breath of wind blew the fog aside. The moon swam through the mist. The night became vivid.
'Why, you're all naked,' said Peter, too stunned to be surprised.
'Yes, quite,' said the man in the motor boat. 'We all are.' A synchronous gasp broke from the rowboat.
'God send back the fog,' prayed the Bishop, in a fervid voice; then added, with a note of prudence 'Temporarily, at least.'
Although there were only five naked figures in the motor boat, they were quite enough for those in the smaller craft. To them the motor boat was fairly swarming with naked figures. It was by no means difficult to distinguish between three men and two women. It is a singular thing yet nevertheless true that there seems to be a lot more to five naked persons than to five persons either fully or partially clad. There was certainly more than enough to those five naked bodies.
'Gord,' breathed Little Arthur. 'How come you lost all yer clothes?'
'We didn't lose them,' the naked spokesman replied. 'We took them off.'
'Whatever for?' the crook asked incredulously.
'Don't ask such silly questions of the gentleman,' Josephine primly told the pickpocket.
'I see no good reason for asking him any questions at all, silly or otherwise,' put in Yolanda, her eyes averted but not closed.
'Oh, don't mind us,' said the man easily. 'This is our way of doing things, that's all.'
'It's a poor way, indeed,' said Bishop Waller. 'Wouldn't it be more thoughtful to do such things elsewhere?'
'We don't mind where we are,' declared the man.
'You seem to think we're considering your plight,' replied the Bishop, 'whereas in reality we're considering only ours. It's distressing enough to be investigating an unknown body of water without the enforced companionship of five naked ones.'
'Oh, you'll get used to all that,' said the man prophetically.
'Do you mean by that,' inquired the Bishop, 'that you plan to continue this close association?'
'If that great big strapping woman with the mole on don't stop grinning at me,' chimed in Little Arthur, 'I'm going to jump clean back in the ocean.'
'Where's the mole?' demanded Jo.
'What a thing to ask,' the valet retorted indignantly. 'It's where nobody should see it, that's where it is.'
'Then why look?' asked Bishop Waller.
'Nonsense,' Aspirin Liz observed with the utmost calm. 'She's a fine figure of a woman. I was very much like her myself in my day.'
'What do yer mean?' cried Arthur. 'Mean ter say you ran about naked?'
'I usually stood or lay,' replied the imperturbable Liz.
'And you openly admit it in public?' the small crook got out in a scared voice. 'Oh, you are a one, you are. A regular broad and no mistake.'
'Fiddlesticks!' snapped the retired model. 'I made my living that way.'
'It ain't a thing to dig up out of the past,' Little Arthur told her, 'much less to brag about when we're all in danger.'
The naked man and his companions had been enjoying this conversation. One of the women now spoke.
'Why don't you get naked like us, midget?' she asked Little Arthur with a touch of malice. 'Or are you afraid you'd fall apart?'
'Mind your own business,' the small man answered stoutly. 'Should be ashamed of yourself.'
'I've lost all shame,' said the woman.
'Madam,' pronounced the Bishop, 'if you'll pardon me, you've lost a lot more than that, and if you don't do something about yourself rather soon I'm afraid I'll lose the training of years and go a little bit mad.'
What the woman could have done about herself will never be learned, because the fog intervened at that moment and devoured her nakedness.
'Mr. Van Dyck,' resumed the Bishop when the unique group had faded from view, 'I think it would be just as well if some one else tried that bottle other than yourself.'
'Pardon me,' said Peter, passing the bottle to the Bishop. 'The incident rather unnerved me.'
'I'm hardly tranquil myself,' replied the Bishop. 'And then, of course, there's the fog. That is equally, or rather almost, as dangerous.'
He raised the bottle and drank, then passed it to Jo, his rowing partner.
'My child,' he said in a hoarse voice, 'this will strengthen your arms.'
It must have had that effect, for no sooner had the girl polished off her drink and passed the bottle to Aspirin Liz than she and the Bishop began to row with surprising speed and irregularity. The boat darted capriciously through the fog. Once it pivoted crazily round, then started off at its mad pace. Evidently Josephine and the Bishop were intent on seeing which side of the boat would get anywhere first.
'How far is the nearest land?' called Peter after the motor boat.
'That depends on which way you're heading,' came the rather disturbing reply. 'Not far in one direction, but thousands of miles in the other.'
'Which way are we going?'
'Just about the middle,' the voice drifted back.
'A lot of help that is,' grumbled Little Arthur. 'Can I have some of what's in that bottle?'
'Give the little convert a dram or so,' puffed the Bishop. It will do him a world of good.'
'I don't want to do him any,' said Aspirin Liz. 'Here you are, crime wavelet, choke yourself to God while you're still redeemed.'
'No need ter get nasty about it,' objected Little Arthur, accepting the bottle with an eager hand. 'If a bishop can keep this stuff down I ought ter be able ter get it down, at least.'
With a feeling of fascinated revulsion Yolanda watched the Adam's apple as it bobbed and quivered, paused, then bobbed again in Little Arthur's throat.
'There seems to be even less sex distinction in this boat than in the other,' she observed bitterly.
Little Arthur took the bottle away from his lips and eyed the young lady reprovingly.
'Shouldn't talk about sex,' he rebuked her. 'We've seen too much of that already. Have some of this?'
'After watching you,' she informed him, 'I find it easy to refuse.'
'Ain't nobody civil in this here boat?' the small man asked hopelessly.
'I'm just sufficiently civil to accept a drink from you, Little Arthur,' Peter told him, reaching for the bottle.
'Even though I am trying,' remarked the Bishop,resting a moment on his oar, 'still I can't quite forget that singular encounter of a few minutes ago.'
'Wouldn't have been more surprised,' remarked Aspirin Liz, 'if that boat had been chock-full of bounding lions.'
'No doubt we'll never learn the beginning or end of that story,' Josephine said. 'This whole business has a dreamlike quality.'
'I don't mind it,' replied Peter drowsily. Fatigue, grog, and fever were assaulting him with sleep. Soon he was well off, half drunk and half in dreams.
'It certainly wasn't no way for American citizens to act,' put in Little Arthur with an air of one who had always done a little more than his duty to his country.
'Look! What's that?' cried Aspirin Liz in a startled voice, pointing to a white strip lying pallid beneath the altered light of a moon swinging high above the fog.
'That's dry land,' Josephine informed her. 'Ever hear of it before?'
'It seems to have been connected with my far-distant past,' said Aspirin Liz, her eyes devouring the smooth beach. 'That and beer.'
A few minutes later the rowboat scratched its nose on the sand, but Peter Van Dyck never knew it. He was unconscious of what lay behind him as well as of what lay ahead. Had he not been so, he might have put back to sea.
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