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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBlix - Chapter 9
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Blix - Chapter 9 Post by :freebie Category :Long Stories Author :Frank Norris Date :May 2012 Read :3182

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Blix - Chapter 9

Chapter IX

The old-fashioned Union Street cable car, with its low, comfortable outside seats, put Blix and Condy down just inside the Presidio Government Reservation. Condy asked a direction of a sentry nursing his Krag-Jorgensen at the terminus of the track, and then with Blix set off down the long board walk through the tunnel of overhanging evergreens.

The day could not have been more desirable. It was a little after ten of a Monday morning, Condy's weekly holiday. The air was neither cool nor warm, effervescent merely, brisk and full of the smell of grass and of the sea. The sky was a speckless sheen of pale blue. To their right, and not far off, was the bay, blue as indigo. Alcatraz seemed close at hand; beyond was the enormous green, red, and purple pyramid of Tamalpais climbing out of the water, head and shoulders above the little foothills, and looking out to the sea and to the west.

The Reservation itself was delightful. There were rows of the officers' houses, all alike, drawn up in lines like an assembly of the staff; there were huge barracks, most like college dormitories; and on their porches enlisted men in shirt sleeves and overalls were cleaning saddles, and polishing the brass of head-stalls and bridles, whistling the while or smoking corn-cob pipes. Here on the parade-ground a soldier, his coat and vest removed, was batting grounders and flies to a half-dozen of his fellows. Over by the stables, strings of horses, all of the same color, were being curried and cleaned. A young lieutenant upon a bicycle spun silently past. An officer came from his front gate, his coat unbuttoned and a briar in his teeth. The walks and roads were flanked with lines of black-painted cannon-balls; inverted pieces of abandoned ordnance stood at corners. From a distance came the mellow snarling of a bugle.

Blix and Condy had planned a long walk for that day. They were to go out through the Presidio Reservation, past the barracks and officers' quarters, and on to the old fort at the Golden Gate. Here they would turn and follow the shore-line for a way, then strike inland across the hills for a short half-mile, and regain the city and the street-car lines by way of the golf-links. Condy had insisted upon wearing his bicycle outfit for the occasion, and, moreover, carried a little satchel, which, he said, contained a pair of shoes.

But Blix was as sweet as a rose that morning, all in tailor-made black but for the inevitable bands of white satin wrapped high and tight about her neck. The St. Bernard dog-collar did duty as a belt. She had disdained a veil, and her yellow hair was already blowing about her smooth pink cheeks. She walked at his side, her step as firm and solid as his own, her round, strong arms swinging, her little brown eyes shining with good spirits and vigor, and the pure, clean animal joy of being alive on that fine cool Western morning. She talked almost incessantly. She was positively garrulous. She talked about the fine day that it was, about the queer new forage caps of the soldiers, about the bare green hills of the Reservation, about the little cemetery they passed just beyond the limits of the barracks, about a rabbit she saw, and about the quail they both heard whistling and calling in the hollows under the bushes.

Condy walked at her side in silence, yet no less happy than she, smoking his pipe and casting occasional glances at a great ship--a four-master that was being towed out toward the Golden Gate. At every moment and at every turn they noted things that interested them, and to which they called each other's attention.

"Look, Blix!"

"Oh, Condy, look at that!"

They were soon out of the miniature city of the Post, and held on down through the low reach of tules and sand-dunes that stretch between the barracks and the old red fort.

"Look, Condy!" said Blix. "What's that building down there on the shore of the bay--the one with the flagstaff?"

"I think that must be the lifeboat station."

"I wonder if we could go down and visit it. I think it would be good fun."

"Idea!" exclaimed Condy.

The station was close at hand. To reach it they had but to leave the crazy board walk that led on toward the fort, and cross a few hundred yards of sand-dune. Condy opened the gate that broke the line of evergreen hedge around the little two-story house, and promptly unchained a veritable pandemonium of dogs.

Inside, the place was not without a certain charm of its own. A brick wall, bordered with shells, led to the front of the station, which gave directly upon the bay; a little well-kept lawn opened to right and left, and six or eight gaily-painted old rowboats were set about, half filled with loam in which fuchsias, geraniums, and mignonettes were flowering. A cat or two dozed upon the window-sills in the sun. Upon a sort of porch overhead, two of the crew paced up and down in a manner that at once suggested the poop. Here and there was a gleam of highly polished red copper or brass trimmings. The bay was within two steps of the front door, while a little further down the beach was the house where the surf-boat was kept, and the long runway leading down from it to the water. Condy rapped loudly at the front door. It was opened by Captain Jack.

Captain Jack, and no other; only now he wore a blue sweater and a leather-visored cap, with the letters U. S. L. B. S. around the band.

Not an instant was given them for preparation. The thing had happened with the abruptness of a transformation scene at a theatre. Condy's knock had evoked a situation. Speech was stricken from their mouths. For a moment they were bereft even of action, and stood there on the threshold, staring open-mouthed and open-eyed at the sudden reappearance of their "matrimonial object." Condy was literally dumb; in the end it was Blix who tided them over the crisis.

"We were just going by--just taking a walk," she explained, "and we thought we'd like to see the station. Is it all right? Can we look around?"

"Why, of course," assented the Captain with great cordiality. "Come right in. This is visitors' day. You just happened to hit it--only it's mighty few visitors we ever have," he added.

While Condy was registering for himself and Blix, they managed to exchange a lightning glance. It was evident the Captain did not recognize them. The situation readjusted itself, even promised to be of extraordinary interest. And for that matter it made little difference whether the captain remembered them or not.

"No, we don't get many visitors," the Captain went on, as he led them out of the station and down the small gravel walk to the house where the surf-boat was kept. "This is a quiet station. People don't fetch out this way very often, and we're not called out very often, either. We're an inside post, you see, and usually we don't get a call unless the sea's so high that the Cliff House station can't launch their boat. So, you see, we don't go out much, but when we DO, it means business with a great big B. Now, this here, you see," continued the Captain, rolling back the sliding doors of the house, "is the surf-boat. By the way, let's see; I ain't just caught your names yet."

"Well, my name's Rivers," said Condy, "and this is Miss Bessemer. We're both from the city."

"Happy to know you, sir; happy to know you, miss," he returned, pulling off his cap. "My name's Hoskins, but you can just call me Captain Jack. I'm so used to it that I don't kind of answer to the other. Well, now, Miss Bessemer, this here's the surf-boat; she's self-rightin', self-bailin', she can't capsize, and if I was to tell you how many thousands of dollars she cost, you wouldn't believe me."

Condy and Blix spent a delightful half-hour in the boat-house while Captain Jack explained and illustrated, and told them anecdotes of wrecks, escapes, and rescues till they held their breaths like ten-year-olds.

It did not take Condy long to know that he had discovered what the story-teller so often tells of but so seldom finds, and what, for want of a better name, he elects to call "a character."

Captain Jack had been everywhere, had seen everything, and had done most of the things worth doing, including a great many things that he had far better have left undone. But on this latter point the Captain seemed to be innocently and completely devoid of a moral sense of right and wrong. It was quite evident that he saw no matter for conscience in the smuggling of Chinamen across the Canadian border at thirty dollars a head--a venture in which he had had the assistance of the prodigal son of an American divine of international renown. The trade to Peruvian insurgents of condemned rifles was to be regretted only because the ring manipulating it was broken up. The appropriation of a schooner in the harbor of Callao was a story in itself; while the robbery of thirty thousand dollars' worth of sea-otter skins from a Russian trading-post in Alaska, accomplished chiefly through the agency of a barrel of rum manufactured from sugar-cane, was a veritable achievement.

He had been born, so he told them, in Winchester, in England, and-- Heaven save the mark!--had been brought up with a view of taking orders. For some time he was a choir boy in the great Winchester Cathedral; then, while yet a lad, had gone to sea. He had been boat-steerer on a New Bedford whaler, and struck his first whale when only sixteen. He had filibustered down to Chili; had acted as ice pilot on an Arctic relief expedition; had captained a crew of Chinamen shark-fishing in Magdalena Bay, and had been nearly murdered by his men; had been a deep-sea diver, and had burst his ear-drums at the business, so that now he could blow tobacco smoke out of his ears; he had been shipwrecked in the Gilberts, fought with the Seris on the lower California Islands, sold champagne--made from rock candy, effervescent salts, and Reisling wine--to the Coreans, had dreamed of "holding up" a Cunard liner, and had ridden on the Strand in a hansom with William Ewart Gladstone. But the one thing of which he was proud, the one picture of his life he most delighted to recall, was himself as manager of a negro minstrel troupe, in a hired drum-major's uniform, marching down the streets of Sacramento at the head of the brass band in burnt cork and regimentals.

"The star of the troupe," he told them, "was the lady with the iron jore. We busted in Stockton, and she gave me her diamonds to pawn. I pawned 'em, and kept back something in the hand for myself and hooked it to San Francisco. Strike me straight if she didn't follow me, that iron-jored piece; met me one day in front of the Bush Street Theatre, and horsewhipped me properly. Now, just think of that"--and he laughed as though it was the best kind of a joke.

"But," hazarded Blix, "don't you find it rather dull out here-- lonesome? I should think you would want to have some one with you to keep you company--to--to do your cooking for you?"

But Condy, ignoring her diplomacy and thinking only of possible stories, blundered off upon another track.

"Yes," he said, "you've led such a life of action, I should think this station would be pretty dull for you. How did you happen to choose it?"

"Well, you see," answered the Captain, leaning against the smooth white flank of the surf-boat, his hands in his pockets, "I'm lying low just now. I got into a scrape down at Libertad, in Mexico, that made talk, and I'm waiting for that to die down some. You see, it was this way."

Mindful of their experience with the mate of the whaleback, Condy and Blix were all attention in an instant. Blix sat down upon an upturned box, her elbows on her knees, leaning forward, her little eyes fixed and shining with interest and expectation; Condy, the story-teller all alive and vibrant in him, stood at her elbow, smoking cigarette after cigarette, his fingers dancing with excitement and animation as the Captain spoke.

And then it was that Condy and Blix, in that isolated station, the bay lapping at the shore within ear-shot, in that atmosphere redolent of paint and oakum and of seaweed decaying upon the beach outside, first heard the story of "In Defiance of Authority."

Captain Jack began it with his experience as a restaurant keeper during the boom days in Seattle, Washington. He told them how he was the cashier of a dining-saloon whose daily net profits exceeded eight hundred dollars; how its proprietor suddenly died, and how he, Captain Jack, continued the management of the restaurant pending a settlement of the proprietor's affairs and an appearance of heirs; how in the confusion and excitement of the boom no settlement was ever made; and how, no heirs appearing, he assumed charge of the establishment himself, paying bills, making contracts, and signing notes, until he came to consider the business and all its enormous profits as his own; and how at last, when the restaurant was burned, he found himself some forty thousand dollars "ahead of the game."

Then he told them of the strange club of the place, called "The Exiles," made up chiefly of "younger sons" of English and British-Canadian families, every member possessed of a "past" more or less disreputable; men who had left their country for their country's good, and for their family's peace of mind--adventurers, wanderers, soldiers of fortune, gentlemen-vagabonds, men of hyphenated names and even noble birth, whose appellations were avowedly aliases. He told them of his meeting with Billy Isham, one of the club's directors, and of the happy-go-lucky, reckless, unpractical character of the man; of their acquaintance, intimacy, and subsequent partnership; of how the filibustering project was started with Captain Jack's forty thousand, and the never-to-be-forgotten interview in San Francisco with Senora Estrada, the agent of the insurgents; of the incident of her calling-card--how she tore it in two and gave one-half to Isham; of their outfitting, and the broken sextant that was to cause their ultimate discomfiture and disaster, and of the voyage to the rendezvous on a Panama liner.

"Strike me!" continued Captain Jack, "you should have seen Billy Isham on that Panama dough-dish; a passenger ship she was, and Billy was the life of her from stem to stern-post. There was a church pulpit aboard that they were taking down to Mazatlan for some chapel or other, and this here pulpit was lashed on deck aft. Well, Billy had been most kinds of a fool in his life, and among others a play-actor; called himself Gaston Maundeville, and was clean daft on his knowledge of Shakespeare and his own power of interpretin' the hidden meanin' of the lines. I ain't never going to forgit the day he gave us Portia's speech. We were just under the tropic, and the day was a scorcher. There was mostly men folk aboard, and we lay around the deck in our pajamas, while Billy--Gaston Maundeville, dressed in striped red and white pajamas--clum up in that bally pulpit, with the ship's Shakespeare in his hands, an' let us have--'The quality o' mercy isn't strained; it droppeth as the genteel dew from heavun.' Laugh, I tell you I was sore with it. Lord, how we guyed him! An' the more we guyed and the more we laughed, the more serious he got and the madder he grew. He said he was interpretin' the hidden meanin' of the lines."

And so the Captain ran through that wild, fiery tale--of fighting and loving, buccaneering and conspiring; mandolins tinkling, knives clicking; oaths mingling with sonnets, and spilled wine with spilled blood. He told them of Isham's knife duel with the Mexican lieutenant, their left wrists lashed together; of the "battle of the thirty" in the pitch dark of the Custom House cellar; of Senora Estrada's love for Isham; and all the roll and plunge of action that make up the story of "In Defiance of Authority."

At the end, Blix's little eyes were snapping like sparks; Condy's face was flaming, his hands were cold, and he was shifting his weight from foot to foot, like an excited thoroughbred horse.

"Heavens and earth, what a yarn!" he exclaimed almost in a whisper.

Blix drew a long, tremulous breath and sat back upon the upturned box, looking around her as though she had but that moment been awakened.

"Yes, sir," said the Captain, rolling a cigarette. "Yes, sir, those were great days. Get down there around the line in those little, out-o'-the-way republics along the South American coast, and things happen to you. You hold a man's life in the crook of your forefinger, an' nothing's done by halves. If you hate a man, you lay awake nights biting your mattress, just thinking how you hate him; an' if you love a woman--good Lord, how you do LOVE her!"

"But--but!" exclaimed Condy, "I don't see how you can want to do anything else. Why, you're living sixty to the minute when you're playing a game like that!"

"Oh, I ain't dead yet!" answered the Captain. "I got a few schemes left that I could get fun out of."

"How can you wait a minute!" exclaimed Blix breathlessly. "Why don't you get a ship right away--to-morrow--and go right off on some other adventure?"

"Well, I can't just now," returned the Captain, blowing the smoke from his cigarette through his ears. "There's a good many reasons; one of 'em is that I've just been married."

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Chapter VCondy began his week's work for the supplement behindhand. Naturally he overslept himself Tuesday morning, and, not having any change in his pockets, was obliged to walk down to the office. He arrived late, to find the compositors already fretting for copy. His editor promptly asked for the whaleback stuff, and Condy was forced into promising it within a half-hour. It was out of the question to write the article according to his own idea in so short a time; so Condy faked the stuff from the exchange clipping, after all. His description of the
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