The Adventures of Miss Gregory/The Adventure in the Hotel at Beira
THE ADVENTURE IN THE HOTEL AT BEIRA
THE afternoon sun slanted over Beira and the heat-blur trembled man-high in the sandy streets as Miss Fraser slipped through the door of the German mail-boat offices to the spacious shadows within. She was flushed as if with haste, and her breath came pantingly. The stout, fatherly clerk whose business it was to answer inquiries looked at her with mild rebuke: it is neither safe nor seemly to be energetic in Beira during the hours of the sun's strength.
"Id is very hot outside," he remarked, in his soft, throaty German voice.
"Yes," murmured Miss Fraser, but none the less she shivered as she made her inquiry.
The big blond clerk smiled regretfully and shook his head. He had answered that question many times during the last two days. The offices overlooked the bay, and from his desk he could see through the open door the two big steamers of the line lying over their anchors on the mud-brown water, with shore-boats thronging at the gangway like a litter of young at the teat. They had come in within an hour of each other, the one bound north for Europe, the other south along the Coast. And both were full to the utmost limit of their capacity: not one of the people waiting for them at Beira could be received aboard.
"I am very sorry," he murmured. "Id is most unfortunate. There is nod one blace—nod one. I am very sorry."
Miss Fraser's lips quivered and she stared at him dumbly. She was a small, dark girl, not more than twenty years of age, and there was an almost childish softness in her brown eyes and in the contour of her face. There was about her that freshness which reminds one of cool breezes and country flowers; a year in the tropics had not robbed her of it. The stout clerk was stirred with an impulse of compassion for the girl—she seemed so small and forlorn a thing to be alone in Beira.
"There will be another boat in a fortnight," he assured her. "Id is nod long."
She looked at him rather desperately. She had not money enough for another fortnight in a Beira hotel.
"Then—then I must just wait?" she asked.
He shrugged his big shoulders in amiable impotence. "I am very sorry," he said again.
"Thank you," said Miss Fraser, and tried to smile. She turned away hesitatingly; there was comfort in the soft voice and the grave sympathy of the stout clerk, and she felt the sickness of terror for what awaited her in the hot light of the streets. She hesitated again in the doorway, while the fat man gazed after her doubtfully; he knew many reasons why a girl like Miss Fraser should be eager to get away from Beira.
She went through the stagnant heat with her eyes on the ground, looking neither to the right nor the left. The streets of Beira are mere channels of loose sand lying between the houses; no horse can use them. A narrow trolley line runs along the middle of each, and those who can afford it pass on their way on little trucks with an awning, propelled by sweating Kaffirs. Save for the rumble of these, Beira is a city of stillness: the sand muffles one's footfalls; one treads abroad at noonday as silently as an eavesdropper. The man who came forth from the shade of the doorway where he waited was at her side before she heard him; but it needed not her startled upward glance to tell her who he was; her days had been disfigured by his persistent presence ever since she had arrived in Beira. She knew the lean, slouching figure, the loafer's droop of the shoulders, the ruined face that preserved yet, in its slackness and meanness, the remains of tawdry good looks. Under his black moustache, his mouth was loose and red; it widened to a smile as she looked up.
"No room in the boat, eh?" he said. His voice had a thread of hoarseness in it. "Well, now, did n't I tell you so? Did n't I?"
Miss Fraser gave him no answer, and did not look up again.
"You 'll have to believe me next time," he went on. "We 'll understand each other by and by."
He glanced over his shoulder with the precaution of a coward. The street, save for themselves, was empty; the houses showed a row of closed shutters to the sun. He made a swift snatch at her arm and drew it through his own.
Miss Fraser uttered a little cry, a mere gasp, and tore her arm from him. He laughed and caught hold of her again, and they struggled in the foot-clogging sand under the blind eyes of the houses. He had her by the elbows, gripping her in front of him; his breath was on her face. She did not cry out again: half her dread was that she should be seen by some one; but she put out her young strength and fought to get away. She was a healthy girl, and she had not been long enough in the tropics to slack her muscles. The man's cheeks suddenly showed high spots of red as he tried to hold her.
"Silly little thing," he was saying. "Silly little thing." He tried to speak softly, but he was already breathless. He was without strength as he was without honour, the wreck of a man, foundered and spent. With a last wrench, the girl dragged herself from him and stumbled back against the wall, white and cowering. Her right sleeve was torn where he had gripped it; she smoothed the rent unconsciously with her other hand.
He stood over her, getting his breath, and at that moment there reached both of them the grating rumble of a trolley. The man edged a pace away as it came round the corner, and his eyes were uneasy. Miss Fraser tried to stand upright; she was faint and dizzy, but she felt no relief in the trolley's approach. There was still the same dread lest she should be marked in the company of this man who haunted her. She would have walked on, but for the time she could not. But here was no rescuer. Under the striped awning of the trolley sat a stout, torpid Portuguese officer, monumentally at his ease while the gaunt Kaffirs paddled in the sun and thrust him along. He had the absorbed and introspective air of a man who digests a good meal at leisure; he did not see Miss Fraser and her fidgety companion till he was close to them. He eyed them both without turning his head, obviously taking in the situation. Then suddenly his big, swarthy face creased into smiles. He was amused; he found it funny. A girl's helplessness was the opportunity of an enterprising man. As the trolley passed them, he leaned out, looking back, a vast mask of easy laughter, till it turned the farther corner and rolled out of sight. Out of her distress and weakness. Miss Fraser found herself gazing after him in sheer amazement and some horror. The man put her feelings into words for her.
"See?" he said, coming nearer again. "See? That's the way things are in Beira. Now, what do you want to be such a little fool for? You can't get away; why not play the game and let's be friends?"
Miss Fraser was still fingering the torn cloth of her sleeve, slowly, thoughtfully, almost absently. Still she did not speak.
"The minute I saw you," he went on, "I said to myself, 'There's the girl for me.' And that's what I say still. Why don't you play the game?"
Miss Fraser stood up and let her left hand fall to her side. Then she began to run. He snatched at her as she broke past him, but missed her. He snapped out an oath and gave chase. But such hunters need sitting game. Twenty yards over the loose, sliding sand saw him in extremity. He slackened and paused, blowing painfully, and called out to her between his gasps.
"It's all right," he cried. "Need n't run—any more. I won't—touch you."
But Miss Fraser did not heed him. She continued to run, a distressful little figure of flight, pelting abjectly on, with lips clenched and eyes that saw the world through a mist of pain and humiliation. Running still, she turned into the one street of Beira that still shows life in the hot hours, abandoning appearances and propriety now in her utter extremity. There was a footpath, at last, to relieve her from the terrible sand. Passers-by and people on verandas turned to stare and exclaim at her passage, but she kept on. The hotel in which she had a room was a shell of a house inclosing a courtyard at the back of the customs shed. She was running still as she turned in at the great gate, threaded her way through the little marble-topped tables in the courtyard, and climbed the stairs to the wooden balcony from which her room opened. With the last of her strength she bolted and locked the door and stumbled to her bed.
It was an hour before she was able to rise and cool her smarting face with brackish water. There was a need to review her position. She sat in the half-darkness of the bare little room and tried to think, staring hopelessly at its stained walls and cheap, heat-warped furniture. She had no need to count her money; she knew to a penny how she stood in that regard. There was enough for her bill, and a little over, if she could get away at once, and that was the best that could be made of it. The lady in Rhodesia, who had imported her a year ago to serve her as a paid companion, had paid her bare fare home; the rest was what remained out of her exiguous wages. Mrs. Colby—that was the lady's name—had made a point of buying her a first-class ticket.
"I am disappointed in you," she had said. "You seem to me to be nothing more than a child; but I will send you home first-class."
And this was the result of it. She had come down to Beira to wait for the boat; and the man, the terror from which she had run through the deadly sunlight, had spoken to her even as she was getting out of the train. He had haunted her ever since; his whispers defiled her loneliness; it was not the first time he had laid hands on her. In all that arid little town, glowing on its spit of sand like a hectic between the mangrove swamps and the shallow bay, there was not a soul to raise a hand for her, not one that she could call upon to aid and defend her.
There came a knock on her door, and a sound of feet that shuffled. She started upright.
"Who is it?" she demanded through the closed door.
"It is a note," came the answer in a flat, guttural voice.
Miss Fraser unlocked the door and looked out. It was the manager of the little hotel, slippered and in his shirt-sleeves. He knew that Miss Fraser could not leave on the mail-boat, and was presenting his bill without delay. She took the envelop from his brown hand.
"Veekly settlement," he said. "Eet is de rule."
Miss Fraser nodded mechanically. "I shall come down at dinner-time," she said. "I will pay then."
It hardly troubled her at all to find the bill larger than it should have been, with cunning items not to be foreseen or avoided by the economical guest. She could pay it, and there would still be a little money left; but, sooner or later, she must be turned out. That was the broad fact in her consciousness which overwhelmed all lesser troubles—that and the indefatigable man who pursued her. The contemplation of it filled the rest of her afternoon; she was still empty of all resource when the shrill bell tinkled in the courtyard, announcing the hour of dinner. It startled her with a heavy sense of the passing of time; in a few hours more, if she should venture to go out again, she would be able to watch the lights of the big mail-boat moving down to the mouth of the harbour, carrying out of reach all that life held for Margaret Fraser,
She paid her bill in the little office at the side of the great gate of the courtyard, where the manager sat, under a yellow lamp, at the heart of a strange disorder of papers, old clothes, cases of liquor, and the like. She had herself under command again; she was grave and composed to his shrewd glances as he took her money and achieved the production of a receipt.
"You vill stay longer?" he inquired, as he took her money.
"For the present," she replied.
He had it in mind to require her to pay in advance, but decided that it was not yet necessary. From his seat under the lamp, he had seen very many insolvent guests endeavouring to carry off their condition with a brave front, and he was something of a connoisseur in impecuniousness. Miss Fraser showed none of the signs he was accustomed to recognize. The penniless, in his experience, might be aggressive or conciliatory, buoyantly cheerful or moist and resigned; but they always talked a little too much, whereas this girl did not talk at all. He hoisted himself half out of his chair, in a convention of politeness, to hand her the receipted bill across the top of his desk. She took it and went to dinner.
Her place was at a table near the centre of the courtyard, close to where a water-pipe dribbled and gurgled through a heap of stones and answered to the title of "fountain." By this time she found herself tired; a great weariness oppressed her; and it was with hardly a thrill that she saw the man who followed her come in at the gate and bear straight down on her table. There were one or two other people about; she was aware of their presence without noticing them individually, but the fact that they were there saved her from the need of seeking refuge in her room and going without her dinner. She bent over her plate as he paused at the other side of the table.
"Well," he was saying, "you had a run, did n't you? How are you feelin' after it?"
He drew out a chair and seated himself opposite to her, leaning forward with both elbows on the table. It was a narrow table, and his attitude forced her to sit back. The hunted feeling returned to her, and all her shrinking fear at the sight of his lean, broken face, stamped with the unmistakable signs of drink, idleness, and bestiality. The smile upon it deepened its horror; it had a quality of relish, of cold glee.
"If you don't go away ——" she began, and put her hands on the table in the action of rising from her chair.
"Yes?" he inquired. "Yes? If I don't go away—what?"
She sighed; it meant that she was to have no dinner. She gathered her belongings together, her purse, her gloves. He watched her with hot, narrow eyes.
"You mean it?" he asked. "You're goin'? Just because I wanted to——"
He stopped. From one of the tables under the veranda, where she had been sitting alone, an elderly lady had come toward them. She was standing at his side, stout, imperturbable, formidable. He stared up at her in amazement, and she looked down at him with the hard, cool face of one who is sure of herself.
"Waiter!" she called, so suddenly that he jumped; and the waiter came running.
"I will dine here," she announced, in a clear, deliberate voice. "Now! That is to say, if this young lady does not object."
Miss Fraser glanced up timidly. "Not at all," she managed to answer, almost prayerfully. Her heart was beating tumultuously. After days of helplessness and suffering, here was the angel charged with deliverance. From the first moment, she had no doubt of it. The stranger was a gray-haired lady, short and thick-set. A flannel jacket, shaped like a man's, was loose on her broad shoulders; on her head, a felt hat added to the masculine character of her personality. She carried a large sun-umbrella as one carries a walking-stick; she was, altogether, a figure of some force. But Margaret Fraser looked past these items of accoutrement to the strong, confident face, the countenance of one in whom breeding has shaped character—the face, she told herself, of that most definite and finished thing, a "lady."
The man licked his lips and cleared his throat.
"I've taken this place," he said shortly.
The strange lady continued to look at him for a space of moments. Her scrutiny had a tinge of curiosity, as if he were something new and unusual. Then——
"Call the manager!" she ordered sharply.
The waiter ran; he knew the tones of authority when he heard them. The other people sitting at tables looked on with gratitude for these diversions. Meanwhile she waited, still holding the man with an arrogant eye which had power to disconcert him mightily. He squirmed under it.
"Ain't there places enough for you?" he began to whine. "Comin' here like this——"
The manager arrived, still coatless, still with his effect of being insecure about the buttons.
"I will dine here," the strange lady announced to him, with that fine calm of hers, and tapped her hand on the table.
"1 was sittin' here," complained the man, "an' up she comes an' says she's goin' to have my place."
The manager surveyed them, all three, with little twinkling eyes; he had the situation by the throat, as it were, before the man had finished speaking. He never made the mistake of backing the weaker party in any contest.
"Dat's right," he said briskly. "Giuseppe,"—to the waiter,—"lay de place for de lady. An' you come along."
The last words were for the man; he gave in, and rose, growling.
"This is a hell of a game," he said.
"Yes," said the manager. "Dis way."
The strange lady took the chair he had vacated, and smiled at Miss Fraser.
"I 've not made a mistake, have I?" she inquired. "I was watching, and I thought you might be glad of an interruption."
Miss Fraser found a difficulty in answering. She laid her knife and fork down, and sat back, fighting with herself to keep from crying. All through the week that was passed, she had shed no tear. From the gate of the courtyard there reached them the final stages of a debate between the manager and the parting guest.
"You go out on your 'ead or your feet, vich you like," the former was saying.
Miss Fraser managed at length to find words. "If I only knew how to thank you," she said "He—he has been haunting me for a week. I did n't know what to do."
The elder woman stared at her critically. "No," she said; "I suppose you wouldn't know. But next time, my dear, try to remember that a man who occupies himself with a woman is sentimental, and therefore weak. Bark at him, my child; say things crudely in a loud, unsympathetic voice. They are always afraid that others will hear. Waiter!"
"The wine list!" She turned to Miss Fraser again. "And now," she said, "tell me about yourself. My name's Gregory—Miss Gregory; that 'll do for a basis of understanding."
She took the wine list from the obsequious hand of Giuseppe, and ran an experienced finger down a page. She selected a popular brand of champagne. "And bring me the cork," she ordered.
She was bright and shrewd, panoplied with assurance, a woman of potency and energy. She dominated the place; it became a mere pale background to her personality, and the people in it mere shadows. But, with all her strength and directness, there was a note of humanity; little Miss Fraser found herself leaning forward, telling the whole pitiful tale of her troubles, from Mrs. Colby's disappointment in her as a companion to her lack of funds. Miss Gregory ate in silence while she heard her.
"Colby!" she said then. "I don't know the name. And so she turned a child like you adrift on this Coast? I'm going to Rhodesia presently. I wonder if I shall meet her."
"But what do you think I ought to do?" asked Miss Fraser, rather timidly, for Miss Gregory seemed to be occupied with thoughts.
"Do!" repeated that lady. "Do! Oh—drink some of this champagne. Do you think that man will come back here to-night?"
"Sometimes he comes and knocks at my door," said Margaret, with a shudder.
Miss Gregory nodded. "Well, eat your dinner," she said. "No sense in starving yourself, particularly as you'll be going aboard the boat in another hour."
"The boat!" Miss Fraser let her knife and fork fall into her plate. "The boat!"
"Sit still," said Miss Gregory. "Don't jump like that; you'll upset your glass. Yes; the boat's the only thing for you. You see, I have a berth to Lourenço Marquez; you can take that and meet the homeward-bound boat there. There'll be no trouble about the extra fare; I 'll attend to that. Now, if you 're going to cry, for goodness' sake go and cry in your room."
"I—I'm not going to c-c-cry," said Margaret. "But what will you do?"
"I shall make a few notes on Beira for a book which I am writing," replied Miss Gregory.
It was nearly midnight when Miss Gregory, tasting the night breeze from the road above the sea-wall, saw the steamer's departure—lights upon lights in beady rows, floating over the level waters to the rhythm of moving engines. With them, installed in an upper-deck cabin, fevered with gratitude and happiness, went little Margaret Fraser, whom Mrs. Colby had found to be nothing more than a child. Miss Gregory eyed the distant lights thoughtfully, and emitted that token of mental exercise which, in men, is called a grunt.
"She was a moist little thing," she said, in recollection of the girl's parting tears; "but, since she could n't save her own soul, somebody had to save it for her."
She walked back to the hotel at a leisurely pace, remarking, for purposes of literature, that Beira was at its liveliest at midnight. The manager greeted her with much deference as she entered the courtyard again; he had the born innkeeper's affection for people who could both bully him and pay him. At her order, he had given her the room left vacant by Miss Fraser's departure, though it warred with his sense of fitness that she should not inhabit a more stately (and a costlier) apartment. She went now to her room, and in its privacy relieved herself of her more constrained garments. A dressing-gown and slippers helped her to the frame of mind in which she wrote most easily, and she set herself to her big note-book and the chronicle of her days. There was a deck-chair there; she adjusted it to the scanty light of her lamp and went to work.
"The pistol-pocket in my tweed skirt is very well concealed, but the weight of the revolver drags it to one side too much."
She had just written these words in her diary, at the end of a couple of hours of note-making, when the boards of the balcony outside her door creaked loudly; there was an unmistakable footstep. She laid her diary down, with the pencil between its leaves, and rose from her chair, listening acutely. Some one was approaching on tiptoe. A hand touched the door.
A hoarse whisper carried through it.
"Little one," it said. "Little one."
Miss Gregory did not move; she stood motionless, waiting.
"Come," sounded the whisper, again. "I don't want to hurt you. Unlock the door just for a minute." It was as though some hangman had tried to speak persuasively; there was a horrible tone of cajolery in the voice.
Miss Gregory looked at the door; it was not locked nor bolted. A cautious hand sounded on the handle, and it opened three inches. There was a pause, as though this midnight visitor were alarmed to find the door would open.
"Hey, little one," he said again, in the same urgent whisper, and pushed the door open.
"Ah,' said Miss Gregory. "Stand there, please. You did n't expect to see me?"
He had started back and made as if to flee when his eyes fell upon her, but her command held him. He gaped at her impotently.
"Don't move," said Miss Gregory. She sat down again. "I want to look at you, first; I won't keep you long."
He was desperately afraid of what was to come. This was not a woman in any sense that he understood. This was one of those creatures of which such men as he go in fear; they have neither sex nor nationality, but only strength. He stood, breathing irregularly, and Miss Gregory leaned her head back against the chair and surveyed him.
There was fear in his face, abject and overmastering fear, and the features on which it dwelt seemed shaped for its habitation. Once, perhaps, that face had expressed possibilities; one could trace it in the empty form of that conventional amiability which is the very seed-ground of weakness. But it was swamped, merged, drowned in the wrecking influences of all vileness. It was hungry and lewd and foolish, false and empty and sorrowful—the face of an imbecile Judas. Miss Gregory pursed her lips as she scanned it, and saw the features writhe and twitch as the broken man groped for his bearings.
She took up her note-book, and sat considering.
"How old are you?" she said suddenly.
The man started; he had no time to lie. "Thirty," he answered, with a gasp. He looked fifty.
Miss Gregory made a note. "Public school?" she shot at him again.
He gulped, and Miss Gregory nodded and wrote in her book. He was shaking now like a man in an ague. He put out a hand and steadied himself by the door-post.
"Stay where you are," said Miss Gregory curtly. "Changed your name, of course? Parents living?"
He found his voice. "Let me go," he said. He quavered as he spoke among shrill notes.
"Presently," said Miss Gregory. "The girl who used to have this room said that sometimes, did n't she? Answer me."
"Yes," he said sullenly. "I did n't hurt her," he added. "What are you going to do?"
"Hurt you," was the answer. "Were you in prison in England?"
She looked up as she put each question, and he could not summon force to defy her.
"Yes," he said.
"Yes," he answered again.
Miss Gregory wrote, and sucked her pencil thoughtfully.
"And now you persecute young women," she said at length. "I wonder what you meant to do—in the end. I suppose——" She paused, and scanned him again. He shuffled in wretched distress.
"Are you married?" demanded Miss Gregory.
He started and took his hand from the doorpost. A flush mounted into his face.
"To hell with you!" he cried hysterically. "Why do you——"
"Are you married?" repeated Miss Gregory.
She rose suddenly to her feet, and took a step toward him, pointing at him with the hand that held the pencil. "Say—are you married?"
There was a moment's war of eyes; so long his sudden anger sustained him. But it was no more than a moment; he was flimsy, shoddy, rotten to the core. He groaned and put his hands before his face with a child's movement.
"Are you married?" came the chill question again.
"Yes," he said, behind his hands.
Miss Gregory wrote, and put the book in her pocket. She drew a deep breath, and then shouted. The man, startled beyond endurance, uttered a shrill yelp and nearly fell. Miss Gregory shouted again and yet again. There came the noise of hurried feet on the flagged courtyard; men drummed up the wooden stairs. The fat, swarthy face of the manager showed itself at the door.
Miss Gregory pointed to the abject man.
"This man came to my door and opened it," she said. "You ought to take better care of your guests. Hand him over to the police at once. To-morrow I shall complain to the consul."
The manager grinned unpleasantly. "Madame," he said, "I am mos' sorry. Once today I 'ave t'rowed 'im out; you see yourself. Dis time I settle 'im. I am mos' extrem-a-ly sorry."
Miss Gregory waved her hand. Some one grasped the abject man from behind and dragged him through the door with a jerk. He cried out as they surrounded him. As she closed her door—and locked it—Miss Gregory heard the tumultuous descent down the staircase. Once there was a scream.
She shook her head. Sadness fell upon her like a shadow.
"Another soul to be saved," she said—"if one only could. But what a character for the book!"