Life Among The Savages, Part 14.
[NOTE: If you want to start from the beginning, here's Part 1 or, if you reject linear storytelling, here's a link to all the parts so you can choose for yourself.]
Starkey was, of course, deeply ashamed of both his noisome intrusion and the undoing of the incipient course, and his apology, though vulgar in its phrasing, was poetical in its sincerity. Captain Stagg arose from his chair, his face atwitch and ruddy with a maintenance of decorum, and walked calmly to where his crewman stood, surrounded by the remnants of the dinner-to-be. Carefully avoiding the placement of his foot into a loose potato, he looked upon Starkey and said “If I might bend your ear, for a moment…” The captain whispered something to Starkey (what it was I could not say, as distance muted the exhortation), and when he finished, Stagg smiled at the younger man and patted him on the shoulder, before grabbing his own hat and commencing to swat at the cringing sailor while launching into a tirade of fearsome volume and profanity. After the captain had promised to scoop out Starkey’s eyeballs, boil them, and sell them as trinkets to the ugliest whores of the Pacific islands, Jones and Turner forcibly escorted the captain back to his seat, where he breathed heavily for a few moments and regained his composure. Thereafter, he apologized to us as profusely as he had berated Starkey, while Starkey ran off to find replacement comestibles, and other deckhands whose names I did not yet know cleared away the remnants of the hapless seaman’s transportational mishap.
The second course, when it did arrive, was a nourishing combination of roasted potatoes and some other root vegetables (though mostly potatoes), delicately seasoned and only very slightly burnt.
While we partook of this hearty fare, the widow von Kant elaborated upon her travels with her husband all across the Asiatic continent. The Baron’s wanderlust could not be quenched; he would no sooner come to the peak of one mountain before another taller summit entreated him to venture toward its airy top. This pattern was repeated with tempestuous rivers, secluded lakes, desolated plains, and the cities and civilizations of man all through that region. von Kant’s expeditions roamed far and collected nigh-innumerable treasures, and his restlessness propelled a fleet of boats around the globe, ferrying artifacts from every known dominion back to his estate in Prussia, for cataloguing and storage.
“Originally, his acquisitions ranged from artifacts of extinguished cultures to examples of contemporary art, but as I mentioned, as time progressed, the objects he procured were more often relics and reliquaries, totems, charms, and amulets, anything possessed or endowed with magical properties,” she said. “I noticed also that the very act of obtaining these items was becoming more strenuous, and that the native peoples we encountered were less amenable to his desires. Whereas before, indigenous persons were eager to assist us in our travels, in the latter of our expeditions, such charity was quickly dissipated by my husband’s descriptions of his goals. I could detect fear in their eyes, where before there had only been curiosity and joy.”
“Strange then, that your husband persisted in these searches,” Dr. Blight said. “No offense intended to your husband, may G-d have mercy on his soul, but surely as these dangers were impressed upon him, he must have had concern for your safety, if not his own.”
“He did, Dr. Blight, but his quest was like a fever. It consumed him, and he could not resist its demands. The concern of which you speak is quite natural, as I felt it at times in those final days, for both of us…” Here, the widow von Kant, turned her face away from her attentive audience for a moment, but she quickly regained her composure and continued with her enthralling tale. It would be difficult for my admiration for this amazing woman to have grown beyond the near-limitless bounds which it already encompassed, but with each word of her story, those boundaries did expand, and my heart swelled with them. I felt that this Prussian noblewoman might well be of the rarest species of human femininity, and wondered if her peer could even be found amongst the fairer sex’s Scandinavian population, where I had in earlier journeys first glimpsed what I held to be the female exemplar. Perhaps she was a “thing unto herself”, without equal on the face of this earth, the only world I could – at that time – honestly include in my considerations of such a topic. But here my lofty contemplations were once again proving somewhat detrimental, as the widow had proceeded with her story.
“– and that clockwork beast was only one of the many bizarre pieces we found. As the items he sought became rarer, more esoteric, some might even say malevolent, he told me less and less about what he sought and what it might do. Our last and longest expedition began near Danzig over a year ago, searching innumerable Baltic villages and cities scattered throughout both Prussian and Habsburg lands, and ended in the Indus valley, where he sent me ahead with the majority of guides and servants to Kolkata, while he and a handful of his most trusted men continued on in pursuit of some last key artifact. Before I parted from him, he professed again his love for me, and begged my forgiveness for the dangers I had faced while accompanying him. I told him such apologies were unnecessary, as I could not imagine a life without him and the adventures we had shared. With a final kiss, we parted.
“I waited one month for my husband,” the widow von Kant said, with a stark finality.
“And he never returned?” Dr. Blight said.
“Only his body, devoid of life,” Mrs. von Kant said. “Spiegel, his lieutenant of sorts, was the sole survivor. When he met me at my boarding house, his eyes were sunken but wild, his clothes in tatters, and his left arm completely missing. He could not remember how he had lost it, but the wound had been expertly dressed. His shoulder was an expanse of flat unblemished skin. If I had not known he was born with two arms, I might have guessed he never possessed the left one at all. Spiegel gave me a key to a storage building on the dock, where he had placed the corpse of my beloved husband, and a cabinet which contained the last accumulations of the Baron’s obsession, those pieces which, due to his ever-increasing secrecy regarding the matter, not even I knew the nature of. Spiegel assisted me in finding proper interment for my husband’s body, and then disappeared amidst the throngs of Kolkata. I never saw him again. I contacted Captain Stagg the next day, and booked passage with him to return home.”
“A terrible loss, a most regrettable loss,” said the Captain. “Now, this cabinet of which you speak, is this the… parcel, which currently resides below decks?”
“It is, captain,” said Mrs. von Kant.
“And you have no idea what is in it? No idea at all?”
“None. My husband took the cabinet’s mysteries with him to his premature grave.”
“Yes… mystery…” the captain was deep in thought.
“I should say it is quite mysterious!” I said cheerfully. “It was a veritable font of peculiarity when I saw it!”
The widow von Kant look quite perturbed. “When did you see my cabinet? Captain, I gave express instruction that no one be allowed near it.”
“Ah, m’lady –” the captain began, but sensing that a more thorough explanation was required, I commenced to provide one forthwith.
“Blame not the captain, Mrs. von Kant. It was an accident of timing and expediency. When I came aboard, the cabin that was originally intended to be mine had been inadvertently filled with potatoes, some of which I’m sure we’ve enjoyed as part of this delicious meal. While finding more suitable accommodations for myself, First Mate Jones told me to wait in the same cabin as your cabinet was stored – again, purely as a temporary solution – while he procured bedclothes, and another bed for them to be put on, in another room that was not as full of potatoes. As he left, the door to the chamber swung closed, and closed resolutely. I am not sure, not being a locksmith, but I believe the latch suffered some kind of mechanical failure, for I can see no other way that the door would not have allowed me egress from the cabin in which I stood. Perhaps some errant piece of timber was lodged in the lock… but no matter! As it was, due to the unopenability of the door and the ineffectuality of my calls for help, I was marooned, for the briefest of intervals, in the cabin with your cabinet.”
“You see?” said Captain Stagg. “No harm done, to the cabinet or to the fine young boy here.”
The widow’s countenance was still clouded with concern, and perhaps even anger. “You said it behaved strangely,” she said to me. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sure whatever the boy thinks he saw or heard can be explained away as any number of maritime commonplaces, the creaking of the ship, or the movement of its rigging,” said the captain.
“First, there was scratching,” I said, “coming from within the cabinet itself. I attempted to communicate with whatever was inside by scratching in the same manner, but this proved ineffective. Then the cabinet began to advance on me.”
“What?” said the widow von Kant and the captain in unison, though Mrs. von Kant then shot a furious look at the captain, and he was quieted immediately.
“Yes, the cabinet pressed upon me until I thought I might be crushed, but the timely return of Mr. Jones and the captain seemed to quell the cabinet’s agitation, and thus was I saved. I am certain I have the remnants of a bruise that I suffered while trapped with the cabinet, if you would be interested in seeing it.”
“M’lady,” Captain Stagg said, rising to his feet, “I do not wish to make untoward accusations, but if there is a living creature enclosed in that cabinet, we will have to renegotiate the terms of our contract.”
“That cabinet has been sealed for over thirty days. There cannot be anything living inside it!” The widow von Kant was now discernibly vexed. “I must check on the cabinet immediately. Please excuse me.” Mrs. von Kant rose, and with hasty pleasantries made her exit.
“Jones, help the widow with her… parcel,” the captain said, but the widow’s voice echoed back to the Captain’s chamber: “No, thank you, captain!” Jones looked at Captain Stagg and puffed on his pipe.
“Well,” said the Captain, with a heavy exhalation, “I guess that’s the end of dinner then, unless any of you are curious about what the galley chief’s cooked up for dessert.”
“Candied bleedin’ potatoes, most likely,” Turner muttered.
I, meanwhile, was unconcerned with the nature of the dinner’s final course. Clearly, the widow was upset, and her distrust of the captain was nearly as obvious as the captain’s unseemly interest in the cabinet’s contents. I ascertained an opportunity to gain the widow’s trust and her favor by assisting her with the current dilemma, and felt it would be a disservice to us both if I allowed that opportunity to pass by unfulfilled.
With bold decisiveness, I stood up from my chair and announced, “Excuse me, gentlemen, but I feel that I am needed elsewhere at this moment, and cannot be detained by this evening’s dessert. I ask that you not impede my departure any further!” And with that declaration, I walked quickly from the room, to the aid of the alluring widow von Kant.