E-text prepared by Al Haines
PARROT & CO.
Author of "The Best Man," "The Carpet from Bagdad," "The Place of Honeymoons"
With Four Illustrations in Color
By Andre Castaigne
[Frontispiece: The Game of Gossip.]
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ———— New York Copyright 1913 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
I EAST IS EAST II A MAN WITH A PAST III THE WEAK LINK IV TWO DAYS OF PARADISE V BACK TO LIFE VI IN THE NEXT ROOM VII CONFIDENCES VIII A WOMAN'S REASON IX TWO SHORT WEEKS X THE CUT DIRECT XI THE BLUE FEATHER XII THE GAME OF GOSSIP XIII AFTER TEN YEARS XIV ACCORDING TO THE RULES XV A BIT OF A LARK XVI WHO IS PAUL ELLISON? XVII THE ANSWERING CABLE XVIII THE BATTLE XIX TWO LETTERS XX THE TWO BROTHERS XXI HE THAT WAS DEAD
The Game of Gossip . . . . . . Frontispiece
A Bit of a Lark
He That Was Dead
J. J. CURTIS
PARROT & CO.
EAST IS EAST
It began somewhere in the middle of the world, between London which is the beginning and New York which is the end, where all things are east of the one and west of the other. To be precise, a forlorn landing on the west bank of the muddy turbulent Irrawaddy, remembered by man only so often as it was necessary for the flotilla boat to call for paddy, a visiting commissioner anxious to get away, or a family homeward-bound. Somewhere in the northeast was Mandalay, but lately known in romance, verse and song; somewhere in the southeast lay Prome, known only in guide-books and time-tables; and farther south, Rangoon, sister to Singapore, the half-way house of the derelicts of the world. On the east side of the river, over there, was a semblance of civilization. That is to say, men wore white linen, avoided murder, and frequently paid their gambling debts. But on this west side stood wilderness, not the kind one reads about as being eventually conquered by white men; no, the real grim desolation, where the ax cuts but leaves no blaze, where the pioneer disappears and few or none follow. The pioneer has always been a successful pugilist, but in this part of Burma fate, out of pure admiration for the pygmy's gameness, decided to call the battle a draw. It was not the wilderness of the desert, of the jungle; rather the tragic hopeless state of a settlement that neither progressed, retarded, nor stood still.
Between the landing and the settlement itself there stretched a winding road, arid and treeless, perhaps two miles in length. It announced definitely that its end was futility. All this day long heavy bullock-carts had rumbled over it, rumbled toward the landing and rattled emptily back to the settlement. The dust hung like a fog above the road, not only for this day, but for all days between the big rains. Each night, however, the cold heavy dews drew it down, cooling but never congealing it. From under the first footfall the next day it rose again. When the gods, or the elements, or Providence, arranged the world as a fit habitation for man, India and Burma were made the dust-bins. And as water finds its levels, so will dust, earthly and human, the quick and the dead.
It was after five in the afternoon. The sun was sinking, hazily but swiftly; ribbons of scarlet, ribbons of rose, ribbons of violet, lay one upon the other. The sun possessed no definite circle; a great blinding radiance like metal pouring from the mouth of a blast-furnace. Along the road walked two men, phantom-like. One saw their heads dimly and still more dimly their bodies to the knees; of legs, there was nothing visible. Occasionally they stepped aside to permit some bullock-cart to pass. One of them swore, not with any evidence of temper, not viciously, but in a kind of mechanical protest, which, from long usage, had become a habit. He directed these epithets never at animate things, never at anything he could by mental or physical contest overcome. He swore at the dust, at the heat, at the wind, at the sun.
The other wayfarer, with the inherent patience of his blood, said nothing and waited, setting down the heavy kit-bag and the canvas-valise (his own). When the way was free again he would sling the kit-bag and the valise over his shoulder and step back into the road. His turban, once white, was brown with dust and sweat. His khaki uniform was rent under the arm-pits, several buttons were gone; his stockings were rusty black, mottled with patches of brown skin; and the ragged canvas-shoes spurted little spirals of dust as he walked. The British-Indian government had indulgently permitted him to proceed about his duties as guide and carrier under the cognomen of James Hooghly, in honor of a father whose surname need not be written here, and in further honor of the river upon which, quite inconveniently one early morning, he had been born. For he was Eurasian; half European, half Indian, having his place twixt heaven and hell, which is to say, nowhere. His father had died of a complication of bhang-drinking and opium-eating; and as a consequence, James was full of humorless imagination, spells of moodiness and outbursts of hilarious politics. Every native who acquires a facility in English immediately sets out to rescue India from the clutches of the British raj, occasionally advancing so far as to send a bullet into some harmless individual in the Civil Service.
James was faithful, willing and strong; and as a carrier of burdens, took unmurmuringly his place beside the tireless bullock and the elephant. He was a Methodist; why, no one could find lucid answer, since he ate no beef, drank from no common cup, smoked through his fist when he enjoyed a pipe, and never assisted Warrington Sahib in his deadly pursuit of flies and mosquitoes. He was Hindu in all his acts save in his manner of entering temples; in this, the European blood kept his knees unbended. By dint of inquiry his master had learned that James looked upon his baptism and conversion in Methodism as a corporal would have looked upon the acquisition of a V. C. Twice, during fever and plague, he had saved his master's life. With the guilelessness of the Oriental he considered himself responsible for his master in all future times. Instead of paying off a debt he had acquired one. Treated as he was, kindly but always firmly, he would have surrendered his life cheerfully at the beck of the white man.
Warrington was an American. He was also one of those men who never held misfortune in contempt, whose outlook wherever it roamed was tolerant. He had patience for the weak, resolution for the strong, and a fearless amiability toward all. He was like the St. Bernard dog, very difficult to arouse. It is rather the way with all men who are strong mentally and physically. He was tall and broad and deep. Under the battered pith-helmet his face was as dark as the Eurasian's; but the eyes were blue, bright and small-pupiled, as they are with men who live out-of-doors, who are compelled of necessity to note things moving in the distances. The nose was large and well-defined. All framed in a tangle of blond beard and mustache which, if anything, added to the general manliness of his appearance. He, too, wore khaki, but with the addition of tan riding-leggings, which had seen anything but rocking-horse service. The man was yellow from the top of his helmet to the soles of his shoes—outside. For the rest, he was a mystery, to James, to all who thought they knew him, and most of all to himself. A pariah, an outcast, a fugitive from the bloodless hand of the law; a gentleman born, once upon a time a clubman, college-bred; a contradiction, a puzzle for which there was not any solution, not even in the hidden corners of the man's heart. His name wasn't Warrington; and he had rubbed elbows with the dregs of humanity, and still looked you straight in the eye because he had come through inferno without bringing any of the defiling pitch.
From time to time he paused to relight his crumbling cheroot. The tobacco was strong and bitter, and stung his parched lips; but the craving for the tang of the smoke on his tongue was not to be denied.
Under his arm he carried a small iron-cage, patterned something like a rat-trap. It contained a Rajputana parrakeet, not much larger than a robin, but possessor of a soul as fierce as that of Palladia, minus, however, the smoothing influence of chivalry. He had been born under the eaves of the scarlet palace in Jaipur (so his history ran); but the proximity of Indian princes had left him untouched: he had neither chivalry, politeness, nor diplomacy. He was, in fact, thoroughly and consistently bad. Round and round he went, over and over, top-side, down-side, restlessly. For at this moment he was hearing those familiar evening sounds which no human ear can discern: the muttering of the day-birds about to seek cover for the night. In the field at the right of the road stood a lonely tree. It was covered with brilliant scarlet leaves and blossoms, and justly the natives call it the Flame of the Jungle. A flock of small birds were gyrating above it.
"Jah, jah, jah! Jah—jah—ja-a-a-h!" cried the parrot, imitating the Burmese bell-gong that calls to prayer. Instantly he followed the call with a shriek so piercing as to sting the ear of the man who was carrying him.
"You little son-of-a-gun," he laughed; "where do you pack away all that noise?"
There was a strange bond between the big yellow man and this little green bird. The bird did not suspect it, but the man knew. The pluck, the pugnacity and the individuality of the feathered comrade had been an object lesson to the man, at a time when he had been on the point of throwing up the fight.
"Jah, jah, jah! Jah—jah—ja-a-a-h!" The bird began its interminable somersaults, pausing only to reach for the tantalizing finger of the man, who laughed again as he withdrew the digit in time.
For six years he had carried the bird with him, through India and Burma and Malacca, and not yet had he won a sign of surrender. There were many scars on his forefingers. It was amazing. With one pressure of his hand he could have crushed out the life of the bird, but over its brave unconquerable spirit he had no power. And that is why he loved it.
Far away in the past they had met. He remembered the day distinctly and bitterly. He had been on the brink of self-destruction. Fever and poverty and terrible loneliness had battered and beaten him flat into the dust from which this time he had had no wish to rise. He had walked out to the railway station at Jaipur to witness the arrival of the tourist train from Ahmadabad. He wanted to see white men and white women from his own country, though up to this day he had carefully avoided them. (How he hated the English, with their cold-blooded suspicion of all who were not island-born!) The natives surged about the train, with brass-ware, antique articles of warfare, tiger-hunting knives (accompanied by perennial fairy tales), skins and silks. There were beggars, holy men, guides and fakirs.
Squatted in the dust before the door of a first-class carriage was a solemn brown man, in turban and clout, exhibiting performing parrots. It was Rajah's turn. He fired a cannon, turned somersaults through a little steel-hoop, opened a tiny chest, took out a four-anna piece, carried it to his master, and in exchange received some seed. Thereupon he waddled resentfully back to the iron-cage, opened the door, closed it behind him, and began to mutter belligerently. Warrington haggled for two straight hours. When he returned to his sordid evil-smelling lodgings that night, he possessed the parrot and four rupees, and sat up the greater part of the night trying to make the bird perform his tricks. The idea of suicide no longer bothered him; trifling though it was, he had found an interest in life. And on the morrow came the Eurasian, who trustfully loaned Warrington every coin that he could scrape together.
Often, in the dreary heart-achy days that followed, when weeks passed ere he saw the face of a white man, when he had to combat opium and bhang and laziness in the natives under him, the bird and his funny tricks had saved him from whisky, or worse. In camp he gave Rajah much freedom, its wings being clipt; and nothing pleased the little rebel so much as to claw his way up to his master's shoulder, sit there and watch the progress of the razor, with intermittent "jawing" at his own reflection in the cracked hand-mirror.
Up and down the Irrawaddy, at the rest-houses, on the boats, to those of a jocular turn of mind the three were known as "Parrot & Co." Warrington's amiability often misled the various scoundrels with whom he was at times forced to associate. A man who smiled most of the time and talked Hindustani to a parrot was not to be accorded much courtesy; until one day Warrington had settled all distinctions, finally and primordially, with the square of his fists. After that he went his way unmolested, having soundly trounced one of the biggest bullies in the teak timber-yards at Rangoon.
He made no friends; he had no confidences to exchange; nor did he offer to become the repository of other men's pasts. But he would share his bread and his rupees, when he had them, with any who asked. Many tried to dig into his past, but he was as unresponsive as granite. It takes a woman to find out what a man is and has been; and Warrington went about women in a wide circle. In a way he was the most baffling kind of a mystery to those who knew him: he frequented the haunts of men, took a friendly drink, played cards for small sums, laughed and jested like any other anchorless man. In the East men are given curious names. They become known by phrases, such as, The Man Who Talks, Mr. Once Upon a Time, The One-Rupee Man, and the like. As Warrington never received any mail, as he never entered a hotel, nor spoke of the past, he became The Man Who Never Talked of Home.
"I say, James, old sport, no more going up and down this bally old river. We'll go on to Rangoon to-night, if we can find a berth."
"Yes, Sahib; this business very piffle," replied the Eurasian without turning his head. Two things he dearly loved to acquire: a bit of American slang and a bit of English silver. He was invariably changing his rupees into shillings, and Warrington could not convince him that he was always losing in the transactions.
They tramped on through the dust. The sun dropped. A sudden chill began to penetrate the haze. The white man puffed his cheroot, its wrapper dangling; the servant hummed an Urdu lullaby; the parrot complained unceasingly.
"How much money have you got, James?"
Warrington laughed and shook the dust from his beard. "It's a great world, James, a great and wonderful world. I've just two rupees myself. In other words, we are busted."
"Two rupees!" James paused and turned. "Why, Sahib, you have three hundred thousand rupees in your pocket."
"But not worth an anna until I get to Rangoon. Didn't those duffers give you anything for handling their luggage the other day?"
"Not a pice, Sahib."
"Rotters! It takes an Englishman to turn a small trick like that. Well, well; there were extenuating circumstances. They had sore heads. No man likes to pay three hundred thousand for something he could have bought for ten thousand. And I made them come to me, James, to me. I made them come to this god-forsaken hole, just because it pleased my fancy. When you have the skewer in, always be sure to turn it around. I believe I'm heaven-born after all. The Lord hates a quitter, and so do I. I nearly quit myself, once; eh, Rajah, old top? But I made them come to me. That's the milk in the cocoanut, the curry on the rice. They almost had me. Two rupees! It truly is a great world."
"Jah, jah, jah! Jah—jah—jah—ja-a-a-h!" screamed the parrot. "Chaloo!"
"Go on! That's the ticket. If I were a praying man, this would be the time for it. Three hundred thousand rupees!" The man looked at the far horizon, as if he would force his gaze beyond, into the delectable land, the Eden out of which he had been driven. "Caviar and truffles, and Romanee Conti, and Partagas!"
"Chicken and curry and Scotch whisky."
"Bah! You've the imagination of a he-goat."
"All right, Sahib."
"James, I owe you three hundred rupees, and I am going to add seven hundred more. We've been fighting this old top for six years together, and you've been a good servant and a good friend; and I'll take you with me as far as this fortune will go, if you say the word."
"Ah, Sahib, I am much sorry. But Delhi calls, and I go. A thousand rupees will make much business for me in the Chandney Chowk."
"Just as you say."
Presently they became purple shades in a brown world.
A MAN WITH A PAST
The moonless Oriental night, spangled with large and brilliant stars, brilliant yet mellow, unlike the crisp scintillating presentment in northern latitudes, might have served as an illustration of an air-tight bowl, flung down relentlessly upon this part of the world. Inside this figurative bowl it was chill, yet the air was stirless. It was without refreshment; it became a labor and not an exhilaration to breath it. A pall of suffocating dust rolled above and about the Irrawaddy flotilla boat which, buffeted by the strong irregular current, strained at its cables, now at the bow, now at the stern, not dissimilar to the last rocking of a deserted swing. This sensation was quite perceptible to the girl who leaned over the bow-rail, her handkerchief pressed to her nose, and gazed interestedly at the steep bank, up and down which the sweating coolies swarmed like Gargantuan rats. They clawed and scrambled up and slid and shuffled down; and always the bank threatened to slip and carry them all into the swirling murk below. A dozen torches were stuck into the ground above the crumbling ledge; she saw the flames as one sees a burning match cupped in a smoker's hands, shedding light upon nothing save that which stands immediately behind it.
She choked a little. Her eyes smarted. Her lips were slightly cracked, and cold-cream seemed only to provide a surer resting place for the impalpable dust. It had penetrated her clothes; it had percolated through wool and linen and silk, intimately, until three baths a day had become a welcome routine, providing it was possible to obtain water. Water. Her tongue ran across her lips. Oh, for a drink from the old cold pure spring at home! Tea, coffee, and bottled soda; nothing that ever touched the thirsty spots in her throat.
She looked up at the stars and they looked down upon her, but what she asked they could not, would not, answer. Night after night she had asked, and night after night they had only twinkled as of old. She had traveled now for four months, and still the doubt beset her. It was to be a leap in the dark, with no one to tell her what was on the other side. But why this insistent doubt? Why could she not take the leap gladly, as a woman should who had given the affirmative to a man? With him she was certain that she loved him, away from him she did not know what sentiment really abided in her heart. She was wise enough to realize that something was wrong; and there were but three months between her and the inevitable decision. Never before had she known other than momentary indecision; and it irked her to find that her clarity of vision was fallible and human like the rest of her. The truth was, she didn't know her mind. She shrugged, and the movement stirred the dust that had gathered upon her shoulders.
What a dust-ridden, poverty-ridden, plague-ridden world she had seen! Ignorance wedded to superstition, yet waited upon by mystery and romance and incomparable beauty. As the Occidental thought rarely finds analysis in the Oriental mind, so her mind could not gather and understand this amalgamation of art and ignorance. She forgot that another race of men had built those palaces and temples and forts and tombs, and that they had vanished as the Greeks and Romans have vanished, leaving only empty spaces behind, which the surviving tribes neither fill nor comprehend.
"A rare old lot of dust; eh, Miss Chetwood? I wish we could travel by night, but you can't trust this blooming old Irrawaddy after sundown. Charts are so much waste-paper. You just have to know the old lady. Bars rise in a night, shift this side and that. But the days are all right. No dust when you get in mid-stream. What?"
"I never cease wondering how those poor coolies can carry those heavy rice-bags," she replied to the purser.
"Oh, they are used to it," carelessly.
The great gray stack of paddy-bags seemed, in the eyes of the girl, fairly to melt away.
"By Jove!" exclaimed the purser. "There's Parrot & Co.!" He laughed and pointed toward one of the torches.
"Parrot & Co.? I do not understand."
"That big blond chap behind the fourth torch. Yes, there. Sometime I'll tell you about him. Picturesque duffer."
She could have shrieked aloud, but all she did was to draw in her breath with a gasp that went so deep it gave her heart a twinge. Her fingers tightened upon the teak-rail. Suddenly she knew, and was ashamed of her weakness. It was simply a remarkable likeness, nothing more than that; it could not possibly be anything more. Still, a ghost could not have startled her as this living man had done.
"Who is he?"
"A chap named Warrington. But over here that signifies nothing; might just as well be Jones or Smith or Brown. We call him Parrot & Co., but the riff-raff have another name for him. The Man Who Never Talked of Home. For two or three seasons he's been going up and down the river. Ragged at times, prosperous at others. Lately it's been rags. He's always carrying that Rajputana parrot. You've seen the kind around the palaces and forts: saber-blade wings, long tail-feathers, green and blue and scarlet, and the ugliest little rascals going. This one is trained to do tricks."
"But the man!" impatiently.
He eyed her, mildly surprised. "Oh, he puzzles us all a bit, you know. Well educated; somewhere back a gentleman; from the States. Of course I don't know; something shady, probably. They don't tramp about like this otherwise. For all that, he's rather a decent sort; no bounder like that rotter we left at Mandalay. He never talks about himself. I fancy he's lonesome again."
"It's the way, you know. These poor beggars drop aboard for the night, merely to see a white woman again, to hear decent English, to dress and dine like a human being. They disappear the next day, and often we never see them again."
"What do they do?" The question came to her lips mechanically.
"Paddy-fields. White men are needed to oversee them. And then, there's the railway, and there's the new oil-country north of Prome. You'll see the wells to-morrow. Rather fancy this Warrington chap has been working along the new pipelines. They're running them down to Rangoon. Well, there goes the last bag. Will you excuse me? The lading bills, you know. If he's with us tomorrow, I'll have him put the parrot through its turns. An amusing little beggar."
"Why not introduce him to me?"
"I'm not afraid," quietly.
"By Jove, no! But this is rather difficult, you know. If he shouldn't turn out right . . ." with commendable hesitance.
"I'll take all the responsibility. It's a whim."
"Well, you American girls are the eighth wonder of the world." The purser was distinctly annoyed. "And it may be an impertinence on my part, but I never yet saw an American woman who would accept advice or act upon it."
"Thanks. What would you advise?" with dangerous sweetness.
"Not to meet this man. It's irregular. I know nothing about him. If you had a father or a brother on board. . . ."
"Or even a husband!" laughing.
"There you are!" resignedly. "You laugh. You women go everywhere, and half the time unprotected."
"Never quite unprotected. We never venture beyond the call of gentlemen."
"That is true," brightening. "You insist on meeting this chap?"
"I do not insist; only, I am bored, and he might interest me for an hour." She added: "Besides, it may annoy the others."
The purser grinned reluctantly. "You and the colonel don't get on. Well, I'll introduce this chap at dinner. If I don't. . . .
"I am fully capable of speaking to him without any introduction whatever." She laughed again. "It will be very kind of you."
When he had gone she mused over this impulse so alien to her character. An absolute stranger, a man with a past, perhaps a fugitive from justice; and because he looked like Arthur Ellison, she was seeking his acquaintance. Something, then, could break through her reserve and aloofness? She had traveled from San Francisco to Colombo, unattended save by an elderly maiden who had risen by gradual stages from nurse to companion, but who could not be made to remember that she was no longer a nurse. In all these four months Elsa had not made half a dozen acquaintances, and of these she had not sought one. Yet, she was asking to meet a stranger whose only recommendation was a singular likeness to another man. The purser was right. It was very irregular.
"Parrot & Co.!" she murmured. She searched among the phantoms moving to and fro upon the ledge; but the man with the cage was gone. It was really uncanny.
She dropped her arms from the rail and went to her stateroom and dressed for dinner. She did not give her toilet any particular care. There was no thought of conquest, no thought of dazzling the man in khaki. It was the indolence and carelessness of the East, where clothes become only necessities and are no longer the essentials of adornment.
Elsa Chetwood was twenty-five, lithely built, outwardly reposeful, but dynamic within. Education, environment and breeding had somewhat smothered the glowing fires. She was a type of the ancient repression of woman, which finds its exceptions in the Aspasias and Helens and Cleopatras of legend and history. In features she looked exactly what she was, well-bred and well-born. Beauty she also had, but it was the cold beauty of northern winter nights. It compelled admiration rather than invited it. Spiritually, Elsa was asleep. The fire was there, the gift of loving greatly, only it smoldered, without radiating even the knowledge of its presence. Men loved her, but in awe, as one loves the marbles of Phidias. She knew no restraint, and yet she had passed through her stirless years restrained. She was worldly without being more than normally cynical; she was rich without being either frugal or extravagant. Her independence was inherent and not acquired. She had laid down certain laws for herself to follow; and that these often clashed with the laws of convention, which are fetish to those who divide society into three classes, only mildly amused her. Right from wrong she knew, and that sufficed her.
Her immediate relatives were dead; those who were distantly related remained so, as they had no part in her life nor she in theirs. Relatives, even the best of them, are practically strangers to us. They have their own affairs and interests, and if these touch ours it is generally through the desire to inherit what we have. So Elsa went her way alone. From her father she had inherited a remarkable and seldom errant judgment. To her, faces were generally book-covers, they repelled or attracted; and she found large and undiminishing interest in the faculty of pressing back the covers and reading the text. Often battered covers held treasures, and often the editions de luxe were swindles. But in between the battered covers and the exquisite Florentine hand-tooling there ranged a row of mediocre books; and it was among these that Elsa found that her instinct was not wholly infallible, as will be seen.
To-day she was facing the first problem of her young life, epochal. She was, as it were, to stop and begin life anew. And she didn't know, she wasn't sure.
There were few passengers aboard. There were three fussy old English maidens under the protection of a still fussier old colonel, who disagreed with everybody because his liver disagreed with him. Twenty years of active service in Upper India had seriously damaged that physiological function, and "pegs" no longer mellowed him. The quartet greatly amused Elsa. Their nods were abrupt, and they spoke in the most formal manner. She was under grave suspicion; in the first place, she was traveling alone, in the second place, she was an American. At table there was generally a desultory conversation, and many a barb of malice Elsa shot from her bow. Figuratively, the colonel walked about like a porcupine, bristling with arrows instead of quills. Elsa could have shouted at times, for the old war-dog was perfectly oblivious. There was, besides, the inevitable German tourist, who shelled with questions every man who wore brass-buttons, until there was some serious talk of dropping him astern some day. He had shelled the colonel, but that gentleman was snugly encased in the finest and most impenetrable Bessemer, complacency.
Upon these Irrawaddy boats the purser is usually the master of ceremonies in the dining-saloon. The captain and his officers rarely condescended. Perhaps it was too much trouble to dress; perhaps tourists had disgusted them with life; at any rate, they remained in obscurity.
Elsa usually sat at the purser's right, and to-night she found the stranger sitting quietly at her side. The chair had been vacant since the departure from Mandalay. Evidently the purser had decided to be thorough in regard to her wishes. It would look less conspicuous to make the introduction in this manner. And she wanted to meet this man who had almost made her cry out in astonishment.
"Miss Chetwood, Mr. Warrington." This was as far as the purser would unbend.
The colonel's eyes popped; the hands of the three maidens fluttered. Warrington bowed awkwardly, for he was decidedly confused.
"Ha!" boomed the German. "Vat do you tink uff . . . ."
And from soup to coffee Warrington eluded, dodged, stepped under and ran around the fusillade of questions.
Elsa laughed softly. There were breathing-spells, to be sure. Under the cover of this verbal bombardment she found time to inspect the stranger. The likeness, so close at hand, started a ringing in her ears and a flutter in her throat. It was almost unbelievable. He was bigger, broader, his eyes were keener, but there was only one real difference: this man was rugged, whereas Arthur was elegant. It was as if nature had taken two forms from the same mold, and had finished but one of them. His voice was not unpleasant, but there were little sharp points of harshness in it, due quite possibly to the dust.
"I am much interested in that little parrot of yours. I have heard about him."
"Oh! I suppose you've heard what they call us?" His eyes looked straight into hers, smilingly.
"Parrot & Co.? Yes. Will you show him off to-morrow?"
"I shall be very happy to."
But all the while he was puzzling over the purser's unaccountable action in deliberately introducing him to this brown-eyed, golden-skinned young woman. Never before had such a thing occurred upon these boats. True, he had occasionally been spoken to; an idle question flung at him, like a bare bone to a dog. If flung by an Englishman, he answered it courteously, and subsided. He had been snubbed too many times not to have learned this lesson. It never entered his head that the introduction might have been brought about by the girl's interest. He was too mortally shy of women to conceive of such a possibility. So his gratitude was extended to the purser, who, on his side, regretted his good-natured recommendations of the previous hour.
When Elsa learned that the man at her side was to proceed to Rangoon, she ceased to ask him any more questions. She preferred to read her books slowly. Once, while he was engaging the purser, her glance ran over his clothes. She instantly berated her impulsive criticism as a bit of downright caddishness. The lapels of the coat were shiny, the sleeves were short, there was a pucker across the shoulders; the winged-collar gave evidence of having gone to the native laundry once too often; the studs in the shirt-bosom were of the cheapest mother-of-pearl, and the cuff-buttons, ordinary rupee silver. The ensemble suggested that since the purchase of these habiliments of civilization the man had grown, expanded.
Immediately after dinner she retired to her state-room, conscious that her balance needed readjusting. She had heard and read much lore concerning reincarnation, skeptically; yet here, within call of her voice, was Arthur, not the shadow of a substance, but Arthur, shorn of his elegance, his soft lazy voice, his half-dreaming eyes, his charming indolence. Why should this man's path cross hers, out of all the millions that ran parallel?
She opened her window and looked up at the stars again. She saw one fall, describe an arc and vanish. She wondered what this man had done to put him beyond the pale; for few white men remained in Asia from choice. She had her ideas of what a rascal should be; but Warrington agreed in no essential. It was not possible that dishonor lurked behind those frank blue eyes. She turned from the window, impatiently, and stared at one of her kit-bags. Suddenly she knelt down and threw it open, delved among the soft fabrics and silks and produced a photograph. She had not glanced at it during all these weeks. There had been a purpose back of this apparent neglect. The very thing she dreaded happened. Her pulse beat on, evenly, unstirred. She was a failure.
In the photograph the man's beard was trimmed Valois; the beard of the man who had sat next to her at dinner had grown freely and naturally, full. Such a beard was out of fashion, save among country doctors. It signified carelessness, indifference, or a full life wherein the niceties of the razor had of necessity been ignored. Keenly she searched the familiar likeness. What an amazing freak of nature! It was unreal. She tossed the photograph back into the kit-bag, bewildered, uneasy.
Meantime Warrington followed the purser into his office. "I haven't paid for my stateroom yet," he said.
"I'll make it out at once. Rangoon, I understand?"
"Yes. But I'm in a difficulty. I have nothing in change but two rupees."
The purser froze visibly. The tale was trite in his ears.
"But I fancy I've rather good security to offer," went on Warrington coolly. He drew from his wallet a folded slip of paper and spread it out.
The purser stared at it, enchanted. Warrington stared down at the purser, equally enchanted.
"By Jove!" the former gasped finally. "And so you're the chap who's been holding up the oil syndicate all these months? And you're the chap who made them come to this bally landing three days ago?"
"I'm the chap."
It was altogether a new purser who looked up. "Twenty thousand pounds about, and only two rupees in your pocket! Well, well; it takes the East to bowl a man over like this. A certified check on the Bank of Burma needs no further recommendation. In the words of your countrymen, go as far as you like. You can pay me in Rangoon. Your boy takes deck-passage?"
"Yes," returning the check to the wallet.
"Shouldn't mind. Thanks."
"Now, sit down and spin the yarn. It must be jolly interesting."
"I'll admit that it has been a tough struggle; but I knew that I had the oil. Been flat broke for months. Had to borrow my boy's savings for food and shelter. Well, this is the way it runs." Warrington told it simply, as if it were a great joke.
"Rippin'! By Jove, you Americans are hard customers to put over. I suppose you'll be setting out for the States at once?" with a curious glance.
"I haven't made any plans yet," eying the cheroot thoughtfully.
"I see." The purser nodded. It was not difficult to understand. "Well, good luck to you wherever you go."
Alone in his stateroom Warrington took out Rajah and tossed him on the counterpane of the bed.
"Now, then, old sport!" tapping the parrot on the back with the perch which he used as a baton. Blinking and muttering, the bird performed his tricks, and was duly rewarded and returned to his home of iron. "She'll be wanting to take you home with her, but you're not for sale."
He then opened his window and leaned against the sill, looking up at the stars. But, unlike the girl, he did not ask any questions.
"Free!" he said softly.
THE WEAK LINK
The day began white and chill, for February nights and mornings are not particularly comfortable on the Irrawaddy. The boat sped down the river, smoothly and noiselessly. For all that the sun shone, the shore-lines were still black. The dust had not yet risen. Elsa passed through the dining-saloon to the stern-deck and paused at the door. The scene was always a source of interest to her. There were a hundred or more natives squatting in groups on the deck. They were wrapped in ragged shawls, cotton rugs of many colors, and woolen blankets, and their turbans were as bright and colorful as a Holland tulip-bed. Some of them were smoking long pipes and using their fists as mouthpieces; others were scrubbing their teeth with short sticks of fibrous wood; and still others were eating rice and curry out of little copper pots. There were very few Burmese among them. They were Hindus, from Central and Southern India, with a scattering of Cingalese. Whenever a Hindu gets together a few rupees, he travels. He neither cares exactly where the journey ends, nor that he may never be able to return; so long as there is a temple at his destination, that suffices him. The past is the past, to-morrow is to-morrow, but to-day is to-day: he lives and works and travels, prisoner to this creed.
Elsa never strolled among them. She was dainty. This world and these people were new and strange to her, and as yet she could not quite dominate the fear that some one of these brown-skinned beings might be coming down with the plague. So she stood framed in the doorway, a picture rare indeed to the dark eyes that sped their frank glances in her direction.
"No, Sahib, no; it is three hundred."
"James, I tell you it's rupees three hundred and twelve, annas eight."
Upon a bench, backed against the partition, almost within touch of her hand, sat the man Warrington and his servant, arguing over their accounts. The former's battered helmet was tilted at a comfortable angle and an ancient cutty hung pendent from his teeth, an idle wisp of smoke hovering over the blackened bowl.
Elsa quietly returned to her chair in the bow and tried to become interested in a novel. By and by the book slipped from her fingers to her lap, and her eyes closed. But not for long. She heard the rasp of a camp-stool being drawn toward her.
"You weren't dozing, were you?" asked the purser apologetically.
"Not in the least. I have only just got up."
"Shouldn't have disturbed you; but your orders were that whenever I had an interesting story about the life over here, I was to tell it to you instantly. And this one is just rippin'!"
"Begin," said Elsa. She sat up and threw back her cloak, for it was now growing warm. "It's about Parrot & Co., I'm sure."
"You've hit it off the first thing," admiringly.
"Well, go on."
"It's better than any story you'll read in a month of Sundays. Our man has just turned the trick, as you Americans say, for twenty thousand pounds."
"Why, that is a fortune!"
"For some of us, yes. You see, whatever he was in the past, it was something worth while, I fancy. Engineering, possibly. Knew his geology and all that. Been wondering for months what kept him hanging around this bally old river. Seems he found oil, borrowed the savings of his servant and bought up some land on the line of the new discoveries. Then he waited for the syndicate to buy. They ignored him. They didn't send any one even to investigate his claim. Stupid, rather. After a while, he went to them, at Prome, at Rangoon. They thought they knew his kind. Ten thousand rupees was all he asked. They laughed. The next time he wanted a hundred thousand. They laughed again. Then he left for the teak forests. He had to live. He came back in four months. In the meantime they had secretly investigated. They offered him fifty thousand. He laughed. He wanted two hundred thousand. They advised him to raise cocoanuts. What do you suppose he did then?"
"Got some other persons interested."
"Right-o! Some Americans in Rangoon said they'd take it over for two hundred thousand. Something about the deal got into the newspapers. The American oil men sent over a representative. That settled the syndicate. What they could have originally purchased for ten thousand they paid three hundred thousand."
"Splendid!" cried Elsa, clapping her hands. She could see it all, the quiet determination of the man, the penury of the lean years, his belief in himself and in what he had found, and the disinterested loyalty of the servant. "Sometimes I wish I were a man and could do things like that."
"Recollect that landing last night?"
Elsa's gesture signified that she was glad to be miles to the south of it.
"Well, he wasn't above having his revenge. He made the syndicate come up there. They wired asking why he couldn't come on to Rangoon. And very frankly he gave his reasons. They came up on one boat and left on another. They weren't very pleasant, but they bought his oil-lands. He came aboard last night with a check for twenty thousand pounds and two rupees in his pocket. The two rupees were all he had in this world at the time they wrote him the check. Arabian night; what?"
"I am glad. I like pluck; I like endurance; I like to see the lone man win against odds. Tell me, is he going back to America?"
"Ah, there's the weak part in the chain." The purser looked diffidently at the deck floor. It would have been easy enough to discuss the Warrington of yesterday, to offer an opinion as to his past; but the Warrington of this morning was backed by twenty thousand good English sovereigns; he was a different individual, a step beyond the casual damnation of the mediocre. "He says he doesn't know what his plans will be. Who knows? Perhaps some one ran away with his best girl. I've known lots of them to wind up out here on that account."
"Is it a rule, then, that disappointed lovers fly hither, penniless?"
The mockery escaped the purser, who was a good fellow in his blundering way. "Chaps gamble, you know. And this part of the world is full of fleas and mosquitoes and gamblers. When a man's been chucked, he's always asking what's trumps. He's not keen on the game; and the professional gambler takes advantage of his condition. Oh, there are a thousand ways out here of getting rid of your money when the girl's given you the go-by!"
"To that I agree. When do we reach Prome?"
"About six," understanding that the Warrington incident was closed. "It isn't worth while going ashore, though. Nothing to see at night."
"I have no inclination to leave the boat until we reach Rangoon."
She met Warrington at luncheon, and she greeted him amiably. To her mind there was something pitiful in the way the man had tried to improve his condition. Buttons had been renewed, some with black thread and some with white; and there were little islands of brown yarn, at the elbows, at the bottom of the pockets, along the seams. So long as she lived, no matter whom she might marry, she was convinced that never would the thought of this man fade completely from her memory. Neither the amazing likeness nor the romantic background had anything to do with this conviction. It was the man's utter loneliness.
"I have been waiting for Parrot & Co. all the morning," she said.
"I'll show him to you right after luncheon. It wasn't that I had forgotten."
She nodded; but he did not comprehend that this inclination of the head explained that she knew the reason of the absence. She could in fancy see the strong brown fingers clumsily striving to thread the needle. (As a matter of fact, her imagination was at fault. James had done the greater part of the repairing.)
Rajah took the center of the stage; and even the colonel forgot his liver long enough to chuckle when the bird turned somersaults through the steel-hoop. Elsa was delighted. She knelt and offered him her slim white finger. Rajah eyed it with his head cocked at one side. He turned insolently and entered his cage. Since he never saw a finger without flying at it in a rage, it was the politest thing he had ever done.
"Isn't he a sassy little beggar?" laughed the owner. "That's the way; his hand, or claw, rather, against all the world. I've had him half a dozen years, and he hates me just as thoroughly now as he did when I picked him up while I was at Jaipur."
"Have you carried him about all this time?" demanded the colonel.
"He was one of the two friends I had, one of the two I trusted," quietly, with a look which rather disconcerted the Anglo-Indian.
"By the actions of him I should say that he was your bitterest enemy."
"He is; yet I call him friend. There's a peculiar thing about friendship," said the kneeling man. "We make a man our friend; we take him on trust, frankly and loyally; we give him the best we have in us; but we never really know. Rajah is frankly my enemy, and that's why I love him and trust him. I should have preferred a dog; but one takes what one can. Besides . . ." Warrington paused, thrust the perch between the bars, and got up.
"Jah, jah, jah! Jah—jah—ja-a-a-h!" the bird shrilled.
"Oh, what a funny little bird!" cried Elsa, laughing. "What does he say?"
"I've often wondered. It sounds like the bell-gong you hear in the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, in Rangoon. He picked it up himself."
The colonel returned to his elderly charges and became absorbed in his aged Times. If the girl wanted to pick up the riff-raff to talk to, that was her affair. Americans were impossible, anyhow.
"How long have you been in the Orient?" Elsa asked.
"Ten years," he answered gravely.
"That is a long time."
"Sometimes it was like eternity."
"I have heard from the purser of your good luck."
"Oh!" He stooped again and locked the door of Rajah's cage. "I dare say a good many people will hear of it."
"It was splendid. I love to read stories like that, but I'd far rather hear them told first-hand."
Elsa was not romantic in the sense that she saw heroes where there were only ordinary men; but she thrilled at the telling of some actual adventure, something big with life. Her heart and good will went out to the man who won against odds. Strangely enough, soldier's daughter though she was, the pomp and glamour and cruelty of war were detestable to her. It was the obscure and unknown hero who appealed to her: such a one as this man might be.
"Oh, there was nothing splendid about the thing. I simply hung on." Then a thought struck him. "You are traveling alone?"
"With a companion." A peculiar question, she thought.
"It is not wise," he commented.
"My father was a soldier," she replied.
"It isn't a question of bravery," he replied, a bit of color charging under his skin.
Elsa was amused. "And, pray, what question is it?" He was like a boy.
"I'm afraid of making myself obscure. This world is not like your world. Women over here. . . Oh, I've lost the art of saying things clearly." He pulled at his beard embarrassedly.
"I rather believe I understand you. The veneer cracks easily in hot climates; man's veneer."
"And falls off altogether."
"Are you warning me against yourself?"
"Why not? Twenty thousand pounds do not change a man; they merely change the public's opinion of him. For all you know, I may be the greatest rascal unhanged."
"But you are not."
He recognized that it was not a query; and a pleasurable thrill ran over him. Had there been the least touch of condescension in her manner, he would have gone deep into his shell.
"No; there are worse men in this world than I. But we are getting away from the point, of women traveling alone in the East. Oh, I know you can protect yourself to a certain extent. But everywhere, on boats, in the hotels, on the streets, are men who have discarded all the laws of convention, of the social contract. And they have the keen eye of the kite and the vulture."
To Elsa this interest in her welfare was very diverting. "In other words, they can quickly discover the young woman who goes about unprotected? Don't you think that the trend of the conversation has taken rather a remarkable turn, not as impersonal as it should be?"
"I beg your pardon!"
"I am neither an infant nor a fool, Mr. Warrington."
"Shall I go?"
"No. I want you to tell me some stories." She laughed. "Don't worry about me, Mr. Warrington. I have gone my way alone since I was sixteen. I have traveled all over this wicked world with nobody but the woman who was once my nurse. I seldom put myself in the way of an affront. I am curious without being of an investigating turn of mind. Now, tell me something of your adventures. Ten years in this land must mean something. I am always hunting for Harun-al-Raschid, or Sindbad, or some one who has done something out of the ordinary."
"Do you write books?"
"No, I read them by preference."
"Ah, a good book!" He inclined against the rail and stared down at the muddy water. "Adventure?" He frowned a little. "I'm afraid mine wouldn't read like adventures. There's no glory in being a stevedore on the docks at Hongkong, a stoker on a tramp steamer between Singapore and the Andaman Islands. What haven't I been in these ten years?" with a shrug. "Can you fancy me a deck-steward on a P. & O. boat, tucking old ladies in their chairs, staggering about with a tray of broth-bowls, helping the unsteady to their staterooms, and touching my cap at the end of the voyage for a few shillings in tips?"
"You are bitter."
"Bitter? I ought not to be, with twenty thousand pounds in my pocket."
"Tell me more."
He looked into her beautiful face, animated by genuine interest, and wondered if all men were willing so readily to obey her.
"It always interests me to hear from the man's own lips how he overcame obstacles."
"Sometimes I didn't overcome them. I ran away. After all, the strike in oil was a fluke."
"I don't think so. But go on," she prompted.
"Well, I've been manager of a cocoanut plantation in Penang; I've helped lay tracks in Upper India; had a hand in some bridges; sold patent-medicines; worked in a ruby mine; been a haberdasher in the Whiteaway, Laidlaw shop in Bombay; cut wood in the teak forests; helped exterminate the plague at Chitor and Udaipur; and never saved a penny. I never had an adventure in all my life."
"Why, your wanderings were adventures," she insisted. "Think of the things you could tell!"
"And never will," a smile breaking over his face.
How like Arthur's that smile was! thought the girl. "Romantic persons never have any adventures. It is to the prosaic these things fall. Because of their nearness you lose their values."
"There is some difference between romance and adventure. Romance is what you look forward to; adventure is something you look back upon. If many disagreeable occupations, hunger and an occasional fisticuff, may be classed as adventure, then I have had my run of it. But I always supposed adventure was the finding of treasures, on land and on sea; of filibustering; of fighting with sabers and pistols, and all that rigmarole. I can't quite lift my imagination up to the height of calling my six months' shovel-engineering on The Galle an adventure. It was brutal hard work; and many times I wanted to jump over. The Lascars often got out of trouble that way."
"It all depends upon how we look at things." She touched the parrot-cage with her foot, and Rajah hissed. "What would you say if I told you that I was unconventional enough to ask the purser to introduce you?"
The amazement in his face was answer enough.
"Don't you suppose," she went on, "the picture you presented, standing on that ledge, the red light of the torch on your face, the bird-cage in your hand,—don't you suppose you roused my sense the romantic to the highest pitch? Parrot & Co.!" with a wave of her hands.
She was laughing at him. It could not be otherwise. It made him at once sad and angry. "Romance! I hate the word. Once I was as full of romance as a water-chestnut is of starch. I again affirm that young women should not travel alone. They think every bit of tinsel is gold, every bit of colored glass, ruby. Go home; don't bother about romance outside of books. There it is safe. The English are right. They may be snobs when they travel abroad, but they travel securely. Romance, adventure! Bah! So much twaddle has been written about the East that cads and scoundrels are mistaken for Galahads and D'Artagnans. Few men remain in this country who can with honor leave it. Who knows what manner of man I am?"
He picked up the parrot-cage and strode away.
"Jah, jah!" began the bird.
Not all the diplomacy which worldly-wise men have at their disposal could have drawn this girl's interest more surely than the abrupt rude manner of his departure.
TWO DAYS OF PARADISE
At first Elsa did not know whether she was annoyed or amused. The man's action was absurd, or would have been in any other man. There was something so singularly boyish in his haste that she realized she could not deal with him in an ordinary fashion. She ought to be angry; indeed, she wanted to be very angry with him; but her lips curled, and laughter hung upon them, undecided. His advice to her to go home was downright impudence; and yet, the sight of the parrot-cage, dangling at his side, made it impossible for her to take lasting offense. Once upon a time there had been a little boy who played in her garden. When he was cross he would take his playthings and go home. The boy might easily have been this man Warrington, grown up.
Of course he would come and apologize to her for his rudeness. That was one of the necessary laws of convention; and ten years spent in jungles and deserts and upon southern seas could not possibly have robbed him of the memory of these simple ethics that he had observed in other and better times. Perhaps he had resented her curiosity; perhaps her questions had been pressed too hard; and perhaps he had suddenly doubted her genuine interest. At any rate, it was a novel experience. And that bewildering likeness!
She returned to her chair and opened the book again. And as she read her wonder grew. How trivial it was, after all. The men and women she had calmly and even gratefully accepted as types were nothing more than marionettes, which the author behind the booth manipulated not badly but perfunctorily. The diction was exquisite; there was style; but now as she read there was lacking the one thing that stood for life, blood. It did not pulsate in the veins of these people. Until now she had not recognized this fact, and she was half-way through the book. She even took the trouble to reread the chapter she had thought peculiarly effective. There was the same lack of feeling. What had happened to her since yesterday? To what cause might be assigned this opposite angle of vision, so clearly defined?
The book fell upon her knees, and dreamily she watched the perspective open and divaricate. Full in her face the south wind blew, now warmed by the sun and perfumed by unknown spices. She took in little sharp breaths, but always the essence escaped her. The low banks with their golden haze of dust, the cloudless sky, the sad and lonely white pagodas, charmed her; and the languor of the East crept stealthily into her northern blood. She was not conscious of the subtle change; she only knew that the world of yesterday was unlike that of today.
Warrington, after depositing Rajah in the stateroom, sought the bench on the stern-deck. He filled his cutty with purser-loaned tobacco, and roundly damned himself as a blockhead. He had forgotten all the niceties of civilization; he no longer knew how to behave. What if she had been curious? It was natural that she should be. This was a strange world to her, and if her youth rosal-tinted it with romance, what right had he to disillusion her? The first young woman in all these years who had treated him as an equal, and he had straightway proceeded to lecture her upon the evils of traveling alone in the Orient! Double-dyed ass! He had been rude and impudent. He had seen other women traveling alone, but the sight had not roused him as in the present instance. In ten years he had not said so much to all the women he had met; and without seeming effort at all she had dragged forth some of the half-lights of his past. This in itself amazed him; it proved that he was still weak enough to hunger for human sympathy, and he of all men deserved none whatever. He had been a fool as a boy, a fool as a man, and without doubt he would die a fool. He was of half a mind to leave the boat at Prome and take the train down to Rangoon.
And yet he had told her the truth. It was not right that a young and attractive woman should wander about in the East, unattended save by a middle-aged companion. It would provoke the devil in men who were not wholly bad. Women had the fallible idea that they could read human nature, and never found out their mistake until after they were married. He knew her kind. If she wanted to walk through the bazaars in the evening, she would do so. If a man followed her she would ignore the fact. If he caught up with her and spoke, she would continue on as if she had not heard. If a man touched her, she would rely upon the fire of her eyes. She would never call out for help. Some women were just that silly.
He bit hard upon the stem of his pipe. What was all this to him? Why should he bother his head about a woman he had known but a few hours? Ah, why lie to himself? He knew what Elsa, usually quick and receptive, did not know, that he was not afraid of her, but terribly afraid of himself. For things ripen quickly in the East, men and women, souls and deeds. And he was something like the pariah-dog; spoken kindly to, it attached itself immediately and enduringly.
He struck the cutty against his boot-heel. Why not? It would be only for two days. At Rangoon their paths would separate; he would never see her again. He got up. He would go to her at once and apologize abjectly. And thus he surrendered to the very devil he had but a moment gone so vigorously discountenanced.
He found her asleep in her chair. The devil which had brought him to her side was thrust back. Why, she was nothing more than a beautiful child! A great yearning to brother her came into his heart. He did not disturb her, but waited until five, that grave and sober hour, when kings and clerks stop work for no logical reason whatever—tea. She opened her eyes and saw him watching her. He rose quickly.
"May I get you some tea?"
And so the gulf was bridged. When he returned he set the cup and plate of cakes on the arm of her chair.
"I was very rude a little while ago. Will you accept my apologies?"
"On condition that you will never take your playthings and go home."
He laughed engagingly. "You've hit it squarely. It was the act of a petulant child."
"It did not sound exactly like a man who had stoked six months from Singapore to the Andaman Islands. But there is one thing I must understand before this acquaintance continues. You said, 'Who knows what manner of man I am?' Have you ever done anything that would conscientiously forbid you to speak to a young unmarried woman?"
Take care of herself? He rather believed she could. The bluntness of her question dissipated any doubt that remained.
"No. I haven't been that kind of a man," simply. "I could look into my mother's eyes without any sense of shame, if that is what you mean."
"That is all I care to know. Your mother is living?"
"Yes. But I haven't seen her in ten years." His mother! His brows met in a frown. His proud beautiful mother!
Elsa saw the frown, and realized that she had approached delicate ground. She stirred her tea and sipped it slowly.
"There has been a deal of chatter about shifty untrustworthy eyes," he said. "The greatest liars I have ever known could look St. Peter straight and serenely in the eye. It's a matter of steady nerves, nothing more. Somebody says that so and so is a fact, and we go on believing it for years, until some one who is not a person but an individual explodes it."
"I agree with you. But there is something we rely upon far more than either eyes or ears, instinct. It is that attribute of the animal which civilization has not yet successfully dulled. Women rely upon that more readily than men."
"And make more mistakes," with a cynicism he could not conceal.
She had no ready counter for this. "Do you go home from Rangoon, now that you have made your fortune?"
"No. I am going to Singapore. I shall make my plans there."
Singapore. Elsa stirred uneasily. It would be like having a ghost by her side. She wanted to tell him what had really drawn her interest. But it seemed to her that the moment to do so had passed.
"Vultures! How I detest them!" She pointed toward a sand-bar upon which stood several of these abominable birds and an adjutant, solemn and aloof. "At Lucknow they were red-headed. I do not recollect seeing one of them fly. But I admire the kites; they look so much like our eagles."
"And thus again the eye misleads us. There is nothing that flies so rapacious as the kite."
Little by little she drew from him a sketch here, a phase there. She was given glimpses into the life of the East such as no book or guide had ever given; and the boat was circling toward the landing at Prome before they became aware of the time.
Warrington rushed ashore to find the dry-goods shop. His social redemption was on the way, if vanity went for anything. It was stirring and tingling with life again. With the money advanced by the purser he bought shirts and collars and ties; and as he possessed no watch, returned barely in time to dress for dinner. He was not at all disturbed to learn that the inquisitive German, the colonel and his fidgety charges, had decided to proceed to Rangoon by rail. Indeed, there was a bit of exultation in his manner as he observed the vacant chairs. Paradise for two whole days. And he proposed to make the most of it. Now, his mind was as clear of evil as a forest spring. He simply wanted to play; wanted to give rein to the lighter emotions so long pent up in his lonely heart.
The purser, used to these sudden changes and desertions in his passenger-lists, gave the situation no thought. But Elsa saw a mild danger, all the more alluring because it hung nebulously. For years she had walked in conformity with the cramped and puerile laws that govern society. She had obeyed most of them from habit, others from necessity. What harm could there be in having a little fling? He was so amazingly like outwardly, so astonishingly unlike inwardly, that the situation held for her a subtle fascination against which she was in nowise inclined to fight. What had nature in mind when she produced two men exactly alike in appearance but in reality as far apart as the poles? Would it be worth while to find out? She was not wholly ignorant of her power. She could bend the man if she tried. Should she try?
They were like two children, setting out to play a game with fire.
She thought of Arthur. Had he gone the length of his thirty-five years without his peccadillos? Scarcely. She understood the general run of men well enough to accept this fact. Whomever she married she was never going to worry him with questions regarding his bachelor life. Nor did she propose to be questioned about her own past. Besides, she hadn't married Arthur yet; she had only promised to. And such promises were sometimes sensibly broken. There ran through her a fine vein of mercilessness, but it was without cruelty, it was leavened with both logic and justice. When the time came she would name the day to Arthur, or she would with equal frankness announce that she would not marry him at all. These thoughts flashed through her mind, disconnectedly, while she talked and laughed.
It never occurred to her to have Martha moved up from the foot of the table. Once or twice she stole a glance at the woman who had in the olden days dandled her on her knees. The glance was a mixture of guilt and mischief, like a child's. But the glance had not the power to attract Martha's eyes. Martha felt the glances as surely as if she had lifted her eyes to meet them. She held her peace. She had not been brought along as Elsa's guardian. Elsa was not self-willed but strong-willed, and Martha realized that any interference would result in estrangement. In fact, Martha beheld in Warrington a real menace. The extraordinary resemblance would naturally appeal to Elsa, with what results she could only imagine. Later she asked Elsa if she had told Warrington of the remarkable resemblance.
"Mercy, no! And what is more, I do not want him to know. Men are vain as a rule; and I should not like to hurt his vanity by telling him that I sought his acquaintance simply because he might easily have been Arthur Ellison's twin brother."
"The man you are engaged to marry."
"Whom I have promised to marry, provided the state of my sentiments is unchanged upon my return; which is altogether a different thing."
"That does not seem quite fair to Mr. Ellison."
"I beg your pardon, Elsa; but the stranger terrifies me. He is something uncanny."
"Nonsense! You've been reading tales about Yogii."
"It is a terrible country."
"It is the East, Martha, the East. Here a man may wear a dress-suit and a bowler without offending any one."
"And a woman may talk to any one she pleases."
"Is that a criticism?"
"No, Elsa; it is what you call the East."
"You have been with me twenty years," began Elsa coldly.
"And love you better than the whole world! And I wish I could guard you always from harm and evil. Those horrid old Englishwomen . . ."
"Oh; so there's been gossip already? You know my views regarding gossip. So long as I know that I am doing no wrong, ladies may gossip their heads off. I'm not a kitten."
"You are twenty-five, and yet you're only a child."
"What does that signify? That I am too young to manage my own affairs? That I must set my clock as others order? Good soul!" putting her arms around the older woman. "Don't worry about Elsa Chetwood. Her life is her own, but she will never misuse it."
"Oh, if you were only married and settled down!"
"You mean, if I were happily married and settled down. There you have it. I'm in search of happiness. That's the Valley of Diamonds. When I find that, Martha, you may fold your hands in peace."
"Grant it may be soon! I hate the East!
"And I have just begun to love it."
BACK TO LIFE
The two days between Prome and Rangoon were distinctly memorable for the subtle changes wrought in the man and woman. Those graces of mind and manner which had once been the man's, began to find expression. Physically, his voice became soft and mellow; his hands became full of emphasis; his body grew less and less clumsy, more and more leonine. It has taken centuries and centuries to make the white man what he is to-day; yet, a single year of misfortune may throw him back into the primordial. For it is far easier to retrograde than to go forward, easier to let the world go by than to march along with it. Had he been less interested in Elsa and more concerned about his rehabilitation, self-analysis would have astonished Warrington. The blunt speech, the irritability in argument, the stupid pauses, the painful study of cunning phrases, the suspicion and reticence that figuratively encrust the hearts of shy and lonely men, these vanished under her warm if careless glances. For the first time in ten years a woman of the right sort was showing interest in him. True, there had been other women, but these had served only to make him retreat farther into his shell.
If the crust of barbarism is thick, that of civilization is thin enough. As Warrington went forward, Elsa stopped, and gradually went back, not far, but far enough to cause her to throw down the bars of reserve, to cease to guard her impulses against the invasion of interest and fascination. She faced the truth squarely, without palter. The man fascinated her. He was like a portrait with following eyes. She spoke familiarly of her affairs (always omitting Arthur); she talked of her travels, of the famous people she had met, of the wonderful pageants she had witnessed. And she secretly laughed at reproachful conscience that urged her to recall one of those laws Elsa herself had written down to follow: that which forbade a young unmarried woman to seek the companionship of a man about whom she knew nothing. It was not her fault that, with the exception of Martha who didn't count, they two were the only passengers. This condition of affairs was directly chargeable to fate; and before the boat reached Rangoon, Elsa was quite willing to let fate shift and set the scenes how it would. The first step toward reversion is the casting aside of one's responsibilities. Elsa shifted her cares to the shoulders of fate. So long as the man behaved himself, so long as he treated her with respect, real or feigned, nothing else mattered.
The phase that escaped her entirely was this, that had he not progressed, she would have retained her old poise, the old poise of which she was never again to be mistress. It is the old tale: sympathy to lift up another first steps down. And never had her sympathy gone out so quickly to any mortal. Elsa had a horror of loneliness, and this man seemed to be the living presentment of the word. What struggles, and how simply he recounted them! What things he had seen, what adventures had befallen him, what romance and mystery! She wondered if there had been a woman in his life and if she had been the cause of his downfall. Every day of the past ten years lay open for her to admire or condemn, but beyond these ten years there was a Chinese Wall, over which she might not look. Only once had she provoked the silent negative nod of his head. He was strong. Not the smallest corner of the veil was she permitted to turn aside. She walked hither and thither along the scarps and bastions of the barrier, but never found the breach.
"Will you come and dine with me to-night?" she asked, as they left the boat.
"No, Miss Innocence."
"That's silly. There isn't a soul I know here."
"But," gravely he replied, "there are many here who know me."
"Which infers that my invitation is unwise?"
"Frankly, I ought not to be seen with you."
"Why? Unless, indeed, you have not told me the truth."
"I have told you the truth."
"Then where's the harm?"
"For myself, none. On the boat it did not matter so much. It was a situation which neither of us could foresee nor prevent. I have told you that people here look askance at me because they know nothing about me, save that I came from the States. And they are wise. I should be a cad if I accepted your invitation to dinner."
"Then, I am not to see you again?"
The smile would have lured him across three continents. "To-morrow, I promise to call and have tea with you, much against my better judgment."
"Oh, if you don't want to come . . ."
"Don't want to come!"
Something in his eyes caused Elsa to speak hurriedly. "Good-by until to-morrow."
She gave him her hand for a moment, stepped into the carriage, which already held Martha and the luggage, and then drove off to the Strand Hotel.
He stood with his helmet in his hand. A fine warm rain was falling, but he was not conscious of it. It seemed incredible that time should produce such a change within the space of seventy hours, a little more, a little less. As she turned and waved a friendly hand, he knew that the desolation which had been his for ten years was nothing as compared to that which now fell upon his heart. She was as unattainable as the north star; and nothing, time nor circumstance, could bridge that incalculable distance. She was the most exquisite contradiction; in one moment the guilelessness of a child, in another, the worldly-wise woman. Had she been all of the one or all of the other, he would not have been touched so deeply. If she loved a man, there would be no silly doddering; the voice of the petty laws that strove to hedge her in would be in her ears as a summer breeze. For one so young—and twenty-five was young—she possessed a disconcerting directness in her logic. So far he observed that she retained but one illusion, that somewhere in the world there was a man worth loving. His heart hurt him. He must see her no more after the morrow. Enchantment and happiness were two words which fate had ruthlessly scratched from his book of days.
Mr. Hooghly had already started off toward the town, the kit-bag and the valise slung across his shoulders, the parrot-cage bobbing at his side. He knew where to go; an obscure lodging for men in the heart of the business section, known in jest by the derelicts as The Stranded.
Warrington, becoming suddenly aware that his pose, if prolonged, would become ridiculous, put on his helmet and proceeded to the Bank of Burma. To-day was Wednesday; Thursday week he would sail for Singapore and close the chapter. Before banking hours were over, his financial affairs were put in order, and he walked forth with two letters of credit and enough bank-notes and gold to carry him around the world, if so he planned. Next, he visited a pawn-shop and laid down a dozen mutilated tickets, receiving in return a handsome watch, emerald cuff-buttons, some stick-pins, some pearls, and a beautiful old ruby ring, a gift of the young Maharajah of Udaipur. The ancient Chinaman smiled. This was a rare occasion. Men generally went out of his dark and dingy shop and never more returned.
"Much money. Can do now?" affably.
"Can do," replied Warrington, slipping the treasures into a pocket. What a struggle it had been to hold them! Somehow or other he had always been able to meet the interest; though, often to accomplish this feat he had been forced to go without tobacco for weeks.
There is a vein of superstition in all of us, deny it how we will. Certain inconsequent things we do or avoid doing. We never walk home on the opposite side of the street. We carry luck-stones and battered pieces of copper that have ceased to serve as coins. We fill the garret with useless junk. Warrington was as certain of the fact as he was of the rising and the setting of the sun, that if he lost these heirlooms, he never could go back to the old familiar world, the world in which he had moved and lived and known happiness. Never again would he part with them. A hundred thousand dollars, almost; with his simple wants he was now a rich man.
"Buy ling?" asked the Chinaman. He rolled a mandarin's ring carelessly across the show-case. "Gold; all heavy; velly old, velly good ling."
"What does it say?" asked Warrington, pointing to the characters.
"Good luck and plospeity; velly good signs."
It was an unusually beautiful ring, unusual in that it had no setting of jade. Warrington offered three sovereigns for it. The Chinaman smiled and put the ring away. Warrington laughed and laid down five pieces of gold. The Chinaman swept them up in his lean dry hands. And Warrington departed, wondering if she would accept such a token.
By four o'clock he arrived at the Chinese tailors in the Suley Pagoda Road. He ordered a suit of pongee, to be done at noon the following day. He added to this orders for four other suits, to be finished within a week. Then he went to the shoemaker, to the hatter, to the haberdasher. There was even a light Malacca walking-stick among his purchases. A long time had passed since he had carried a cane. There used to be, once upon a time, a dapper light bamboo which was known up and down Broadway, in the restaurants, the more or less famous bars, and in the lounging-rooms of a popular club. All this business because he wanted her to realize what he had been and yet could be. Thus, vanity sometimes works out a man's salvation. And it marked the end of Warrington's recidivation.
When he reached his lodging-house he sought the Burmese landlady. She greeted him with a smile and a stiff little shake of the hand. He owed her money, but that was nothing. Had he not sent her drunken European sailor-man husband about his business? Had he not freed her from a tyranny of fists and curses? It had not affected her in the least to learn that her sailor-man had been negligently married all the way from Yokohama to Colombo. She was free of him.
Warrington spread out a five-pound note and laid ten sovereigns upon it. "There we are," he said genially; "all paid up to date."
"This?" touching the note.
"A gift for all your patience and kindness."
"You go 'way?" the smile leaving her pretty moon-face.
"You like?" with a gesture which indicated the parlor and its contents. "Be boss? Half an' half?"
He shook his head soberly. She picked up the money and jingled it in her hand.
"Oh, I'm not going until next Thursday."
The smile returned to her face, and her body bent in a kind of kotow. He was so big, and his beard glistened like the gold-leaf on the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. She understood. The white to the white and the brown to the brown; it was the Law.
Warrington went up to his room. He was welcomed by a screech from the parrot and a dignified salaam from James, who was trimming the wick of the oil-lamp. For the last year and a half this room had served as headquarters. Many a financial puzzle had been pieced together within these dull drab walls; many a dream had gone up to the ceiling, only to sink and dissipate like smoke. There were no pictures on the walls, no photographs. In one corner, on the floor, was a stack of dilapidated books. These were mostly old novels and tomes dealing with geological and mathematical matters; laughter and tears and adventure, sandwiched in between the dry positiveness of straight lines and squares and circles and numerals without end; D'Artagnan hobnobbing with Euclid! Warrington was an educated man, but he was in no sense a scholar. In his hours of leisure he did not find solace in the classics. He craved for a good blood-red tale, with lots of fighting and love-making and pleasant endings.
James applied a match to the wick, and the general poverty of the room was instantly made manifest.
"Well, old sober-top, suppose we square up and part like good friends?"
"I am always the Sahib's good friend."
"Right as rain!" Warrington emptied his pockets upon the table; silver and gold and paper. "Eh? That's the stuff. Without it the world's not worth a tinker's dam. Count out seventy pounds, James."
"Seventy or nothing," declared Warrington, putting his hands down upon the glittering metals. Rupees and sovereigns never lose their luster in the East.
Calmly, then, James took sovereign after sovereign until he had withdrawn the required sum. "Gold is heavy, Sahib," he commented.
"Hang it, your hands are steadier than mine!"
"You go back home?"
"Yes. Something like home. I am going to Paris, where good people go when they die. I am going to drink vintage wines, eat truffles and mushrooms and caviar, and kiss the pretty girls in Maxim's. I've been in prison for ten years. I am free, free!" Warrington flung out his arms. "Good-by, jungles, deserts, hell-heat and thirsty winds! Good-by, crusts and rags and hunger! I am going to live."
"The Sahib has fever," observed the unimaginative Eurasian.
"That's the word; fever. I am burning up. Here; go to the boat and give the purser these six sovereigns. Here are three more. Go to the Strand and get a bottle of champagne, and bring some ice. Buy a box of the best cigars, and hurry back. Then put this junk in the trunk. And damn the smell of kerosene!"
James raised his hand warningly. From the adjoining room came the sound of a quarrel.
"Rupees one hundred and forty, and I want it now, you sneak!"
"But I told you I couldn't square up until the first of the month."
"You had no business to play poker, then, if you knew you couldn't settle."
"Who asked me to play?" shrilled the other. "You did. Well, I haven't got the money."
"You miserable little welcher! That ring is worth a hundred and forty."
"You'll never get your dirty fingers inside of that."
"Oh, I shan't, eh?"
Warrington heard a scuffling, which was presently followed by a low choking sob. He did not know who occupied the adjoining room. He had been away for weeks, and there had been no permanent boarders before that time. He rushed fearlessly into the other room. Pinned to the wall was a young man with a weak pale face. The other man presented nothing more than the back of his broad muscular shoulders. The disparity in weight and height was sufficient to rouse Warrington's sense of fair play. Besides, he was in a rough mood himself.
"Here, that'll do," he cried, seizing the heavier man by the collar. "It isn't worth while to kill a man for a handful of rupees. Let go, you fool!"
He used his strength. The man and his victim swung in a half-circle and crashed to the floor.
With a snarl and an oath, the gambler sprung to his feet and started toward Warrington. He stopped short.
"Good God!" he murmured; and retreated until he touched the foot-board of the bed.
IN THE NEXT ROOM
"Craig?" Warrington whispered the word, as if he feared the world might hear the deadly menace in his voice. For murder leaped up in his heart as flame leaps up in pine-kindling.
The weak young man got to his knees, then to his feet. He steadied himself by clutching the back of a chair. With one hand he felt of his throat tenderly.
"He tried to kill me, the blackguard!" he croaked.
"Craig, it is you! For ten years I've never thought of you without murder in my heart. Newell Craig, and here, right where I can put my hands upon you! Oh, this old world is small." Warrington laughed. It was a high thin sound.
The young man looked from his enemy to his deliverer, and back again. What new row was this? Never before had he seen the blackguard with that look in his dark, handsome, predatory face. It typified fear. And who was this big blond chap whose fingers were working so convulsively?
"Craig," said the young man, "you get out of here, and if you ever come bothering me, I'll shoot you. Hear me?"
This direful threat did not seem to stir the sense of hearing in either of the two men. The one faced the other as a lion might have faced a jackal, wondering if it would be worth while to waste a cuff on so sorry a beast. Suddenly the blond man caught the door and swung it wide.
"Craig, a week ago I'd have throttled you without the least compunction. To-day I can't touch you. But get out of here as fast as you can. You might have gone feet foremost. Go! Out of Rangoon, too. I may change my mind."
The man called Craig walked out, squaring his shoulders with a touch of bravado that did not impress even the plucked pigeon. Warrington stood listening until he heard the hall-door close sharply.
"Thanks," said the bewildered youth.
Warrington whirled upon him savagely. "Thanks? Don't thank me, you weak-kneed fool!"
"Oh, I say, now!" the other protested.
"Be silent! If you owe that scoundrel anything, refuse to pay it. He never won a penny in his life without cheating. Keep out of his way; keep out of the way of all men who prefer to deal only two hands." And with this advice Warrington stepped out into the hallway and shut the door rudely.
The youth walked over to the mirror and straightened his collar and tie. "Rum go, that. Narrow squeak. Surly beggar, even if he did do me a good turn. I shan't have to pay that rotter, Craig, now. That's something."
"Pay the purser and get a box of cigars," Warrington directed James. "Never mind about the wine. I shan't want it now."
James went out upon the errands immediately. Warrington dropped down in the creaky rocking-chair, the only one in the boarding-house. He stared at the worn and faded carpet. How dingy everything looked! What a sordid rut he had been content to lie in! Chance: to throw this man across his path when he had almost forgotten him, forgotten that he had sworn to break the man's neck over his knees! In the very next room! And he had permitted him to go unharmed simply because his mind was full of a girl he would never see again after to-morrow. What was the rascal doing over here? What had caused him to forsake the easy pluckings of Broadway in exchange for a dog's life on packet-boats, in squalid boarding-houses like this one, and in dismal billiard-halls? Wire-tapper, racing-tout, stool-pigeon, a cheater at cards, blackmailer and trafficker in baser things; in the next room, and he had let him go unharmed. Vermin. Pah! He was glad. The very touch of the man's collar had left a sense of defilement upon his hands. Ten years ago and thirteen thousand miles away. In the next room. He laughed unpleasantly. Chivalric fool, silly Don Quixote, sentimental dreamer, to have made a hash of his life in this manner!
He leaned toward the window-sill and opened the cage. Rajah walked out, muttering.
When it was possible, Elsa preferred to walk. She was young and strong and active; and she went along with a swinging stride that made obvious a serene confidence in her ability to take care of herself. She was, in many respects, a remarkable young woman. She had been pampered, she had been given her head; and still she was unspoiled. What the unknowing called wilfulness was simply natural independence, which she asserted whenever occasion demanded it.
Tongas cut into her nerves, the stuffy gharry made her head ache, and the springless phaetons which abound in the East she avoided as the plague. Elephants and camels and rickshaws were her delight; but here in Rangoon none of these was available. There were no camels; the government elephants had steady employment out at MacGregor's timberyards and could not get leave of absence; while rickshaws were out of fashion, as only natives and Chinamen rode in them. So Elsa walked.
She loved to prowl through the strange streets and alleys and stranger shops; it was a joy to ramble about, minus the irritating importunities of guide or attendant. It was great fun, but it was not always wise. There were some situations which only men could successfully handle. Elsa would never confess that there had been instances when she had been confronted by such situations. She could, however, truthfully say that these awkward moments had always been without endings, as, being an excellent runner, she had, upon these occasions, blithely taken to her heels.
In her cool white drill, her wide white pith-helmet, she presented a charming picture. The exercise had given her cheeks a bit of color, and her eyes sparkled and flashed like raindrops. This morning she had taken Martha along merely to still her protests.
"It's all right so long as we keep to the main streets," said the harried Martha; "but I do not like the idea of roaming about in the native quarters. This is not like Europe. The hotel-manager said we ought to have a man."
"He is looking out for his commission. Heavens! what is the matter with everybody? One would think, the way people put themselves out to warn you, that murder and robbery were daily occurrences in Asia. I've been here four months, and the only disagreeable moment I have known was caused by a white man."
"Because we have been lucky so far, it's no sign that we shall continue so."
"Raven!" laughed the girl.
Martha shut her lips grimly. Her worry was not confined to this particular phase of Elsa's imperious moods; it was general. There was that blond man with the parrot. Martha was beginning to see him in her dreams, which she considered as a presage of evil. There was also the astonishing lack of interest in the man who was waiting at home. Elsa rarely spoke of him. Nobody could tell Martha that chance had thrown the blond stranger into their society. Somewhere it had been written. (As, indeed, it had!) How to keep Elsa apart from him was now her vital concern. She would never feel at ease until they were out of Yokohama, homeward-bound.
"I feel like a child this morning," said Elsa. "I want to run and play and shout."
"All the more reason why you should have a guardian. . . . Look, Elsa!" Martha caught the girl by the arm. "There's that man we left at Mandalay."
"Coming toward us. Shall we go into this shop?"
"No, thank you! There is no reason why I should hide in a butcher-shop, simply to avoid meeting the man. We'll walk straight past him. If he speaks, we'll ignore him."