Art Pact 31

Naturally, in response to this slight I took the perfectly reasonable position that, as the first person on board the vessel, I was by primogeniture (to stretch an analogy) the obvious inheritor of the mantle of command. Had I stepped foot upon it seconds after he, I told the drudge, I should cede the position to him, assuming the rank of second-in-command, or lieutenant, or sub-altern, or some other undistinguished post which the vagaries of fate and the keenness of his stride might have laid upon my shoulders. However, as it was the simple nature of my having been first to lay boot-leather upon the deck of the conveyance rendered me the captain and he my inferior in this way (as well as - although I did not say this at the time, wishing to spare at least some of the feelings of the poor wretch - in all the other ways in which nature and the almighty had made him my inferior).

"Now see here," he spluttered, failing to remove his hand from the steering stick. "I have as much right to direct the beast as you do. I know your type, never content to simply do things, always grasping for a little more control. Well this, my lord, is not the old world. This is the new world, and here we do things somewhat differently. This is a meritocracy."

I did not scruple to tell him immediately what I thought of that idea, of course. The mere implication that the hereditary system is no meritocracy in itself was insult enough to rouse my ire, and I let go at him with both barrels, explaining that if he thought that God Himself had not done a good enough job in deciding who was fit to lead and whose broad shoulders the yoke of obedience best fit, then he should by all means take up his argument with the nearest priest. Since the nearest priest to us was lying in a shallow grave a mere five-hundred yards from the point at which the docile vehicle of our deliverance was moored, I also suggested that he might like to go directly to hell, that way to more quickly discover the deceased cleric and enter into the conversation.

"Now we see you true colours," the vile drone spat. "You're happy enough to pal around with us when it's the only way you'll see your next meal, or to try to worm your way inside the unmentionables of one of the ladies, but give you a whiff of power and you're all bile and entitlement. Well, Mister Leversleigh, I say this ends now. I have been a driver and a ship's captain-"

I reminded him that a merchant's ship's captain was hardly an accomplishment to be proud of, and that furthermore his navigational and leadership skills could hardly have been impeccable if they had somehow been instrumental in bringing him to his current predicament. At the same time I took my cane and, placing the silvered end below his wrist, gently lifted it away from the steer-stick and let it rest again on the navigator's compass. Freed of the pressure against its guiding instrument, the vessel shifted uneasily on its massive legs and let out a sonorous but melancholy lowing noise.

"You've upset it," he accused.

Since it was not I but he, I reminded him, who had been trying to hold the vehicle in place, I thought it most likely that the creature had been disturbed by him up until this point, but - like a good Christian beast - too polite to display its displeasure openly. Thus released from the heavy hand of a glorified farmer and thus the psychic implication that the magnificent vessel might be nothing more than an overgrown tractor or plough-horse, I implied that it might have the opportunity to relax for a moment and put itself in the proper state of mind to receive the subtle guiding hand of a true gentleman, leading it like a dance partner in the slow waltz instead of tugging at it like a dray-steersman.

"If you touch me again," he warned, bunching his meaty hand into one gigantic fist, "I will betray all my politeness and lay you on the deck. Don't doubt that I can."

I did not doubt it, but there are times in one's life when it is best to call the bluff of one's opponent even when the result might be a woeful reduction in the clarity of one's features. I rested my hand on the steering stick and awaited his response.

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