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CHAPTER ONE

TIME AND CHANCE

 

 

CHAPTER ONE
TIME AND CHANCE

A cat, and the Fates, brought it all to pass. In doing so they roamed a wide territory,—the privilege both of those grim gadabout humourists, the Parcae, and of harmless, necessary cats.

By chance, within the gates of a Japanese temple, a sudden shower caught Owen Scarlett idling, and drove him into the nearest shelter, which happened to be a tiny, dark aquarium. There, lounging pleasantly, listening to the raindrops on the roof, watching the purple and golden fish steer through cool bubbles green as jade, he found himself near a group of three women in the dusk. Europeans, therefore tourists, he thought. As the tank contained nothing but a few coral rocks and pink sponges, he was about to pass on, when by chance he saw that one of the sponges was breathing, with an oozy, half-organic motion, sucking in bubbles through some shapeless orifice. He watched, and suddenly the breathing mass shot out, opened like a ragged umbrella of pink flesh, sailed along the glass with tentacles writhing, and stared with an evil black eye set in a pulpy face.

The women squealed, and the nearest of them turned instinctively to Owen.

"Horrible!" she cried. "Ugh!" They both made the same face of disgust, and then in a comic impulse of relief, smiled at each other. Even in the green light from the tank, she was a pretty girl. Her eyes shone blue and friendly, her face bright with the candour of youth. In a flash, however, she had bethought herself and turned away.

"It's a devil-fish, Aunty," she said with composure. "Do come see something pleasant." And she led away her two elder companions.

That was all: but for months afterward, when hard work had crushed out the memory of his brief holiday in Japan; in odd moments, among the leprous goblin cities of the China Coast, among the million rat-hole lives of treaty ports, or in offices overlooking the saffron flood and slushy bund of a Shanghai winter, he remembered the incident, and in imagination saw the girl's clear and merry eyes. A trifle to recall; yet it was a vague comfort in some of those lonely, worried, weary moments which, among unholy sights, sounds, and stenches, come to a solitary white man lost in the flux and flow of the yellow myriads. Once, in Hong-Kong, half way through a letter to his uncle's firm, he looked up from the type-writer, stared across the harbour turmoil of junks and launches to the brick-red hills beyond Kowloon, and said: "I'll bet her aunts were from New England." He laughed, remembering their prim, cool glances. And she herself had been dressed in blue and white things.…

What nonsense! Back to work, hammering at the keyboard: "… in my opinion, therefore, best to sacrifice a little of H. K. profits and get a bigger start in the provinces, with more of the following chops: 'Dragon-pearl,' 'Long Life,' 'Monkey-Bird' …" He ticked manfully onward.

Again by chance: on a steamer bound for Saigon, as he stepped out of his bath, a roll threw him plump against a burly man in a green silk kimono.

"Hello! No harm done!" boomed a cheerful bass. The man was a broad six-footer, with a short, vigorous, grizzled beard parted down the middle, and under jutting brows, a pair of deep-set eyes that shone with a changeable light. His air was that of some robust, good-humoured Taipan. "All right?" he laughed; and the tail of his green bedragoned silk whisked into the next compartment, from which soon issued a genial roar: "O boy! My no towel no have-got! Catchee mai-wun! Fai-di!"

On the evening of the same day, in the dining-room, a German antiquary going to Angkor looked up from his solitaire, caught Scarlett's eye across the table, and said guardedly:

"You are not a friendt to der larch man in der corner smoking, and who now hass gone top-side, no?" His glance took in the retreating figure of the man with the trimly parted beard.

"No," said Scarlett.

"Dot iss goot," the German nodded heavily. "It iss Borkman, der biggest scountrel in der Oryent. For cardts, women,fraudts, and allerlei badt business, sober or dronk, iss he der vorst." After intellectual labour, the antiquary played a red Knave cautiously upon a black Queen. "And dere are many off dem … You haf heardt, no, of der missionair' girl at der Boxers' troupple, who wass skinnedt alife? He safed his own skin zo. Oh, yess, it iss true." The antiquary leaned back and told a hideous story in detail, blowing pompous, contented clouds of cigar smoke, brushing the sparks from his Chefoo silk, and looking serenely out of the open door, where to the roll of the ship a large and lustrous star lowered and mounted in the pale moonlit blue. "Alzo, Borkman—he escaped with loot. Der efilmen brosber—immer so—Ach! … But he wass kicked out yet once, in a clubp off Zébu. Gootness me, yess."

The story was interesting if true, thought Scarlett; but the big man, for all that his eyes held at times an opal glow, appeared too frank and hearty for so grim a history. And later, the German innocently told a set of gross fictions, palpable Shanghai "bunders"; whereas the big man, when they reached Saigon, went out of his way to oblige Scarlett with some valuable information, and laughing all thanks jovially aside, disappeared down a wide and empty boulevard of red clay, into that artificial Paris of the Orient.

Again by chance, it was late March when Scarlett opened and joyfully read a letter from his uncle's firm which, ending his long exile on the China seaboard, recalled him to take charge of their Oriental department, and gave him till September to wind up his affairs and reach the home office.

"Must have made good, more or less," thought Owen, happily. "Now which way Home? Pacific or Suez?" The Telegraph Express showed, among the earliest departures, a German Lloyd for Nagasaki and an Apcar for Singapore. "Toss for it," he decided. "Heads Lloyd, tails Apcar. "And Fortune, once more pouncing down into the game, rang the Mexican dollar on the table, tails up.

On an April evening in Singapore, he had gone to a ball at the Tanglin Club, where a somewhat fagged company were dancing away the humid hours. Tired of the crowding couples, the lights, the music, the labour of this clammy tropical pastime, Owen was heading for the card-tables, when a friend seized and bore him back:

"No you don't … come along … present you … compatriot of yours … Miss Holborow—"

Among the pale and jaded residents she shone out a breezy, tanned seafarer.

"Why, you're the devil-fish girl!" he exclaimed. Their laughter mingled happily.

"What a horrid name! But it shows a flattering memory," she said. "Still, I knew you clear across from the doorway, coming in—"

Scarlett replied, in cold and feeble words for a heart aglow. Their faces might have shown how glad they were; and of this the girl was perhaps aware, for on a sudden she made the matter less personal, saying:

"It's good to see an American again, isn't it? You live out here in the East?"

"Not now, thank Heaven," said Owen. "Ship me somewhere west of Suez. I'm tired of it. I'm just going—" By a flash of genius he stopped before committing himself. "I'm just going about on a few errands, to and fro in the world. You're travelling, too, aren't you?"

"Yes," replied the girl. "My aunt and I are going back by Suez. Her friend deserted her in China, and we've taken a courier to protect us, and now we're running up to Siam, to Bangkok."

"That's odd, isn't it?" he returned, brazenly. "I have to go there myself, on—a matter. You go by the German Mail, I suppose?"

"Oh, no, by the 'Prapatom,' on Saturday," she explained. "There'll be a crowd on board, and a stupid crowd of foreigners, I'm afraid."

"I can promise not to be a foreigner, at least," he laughed. "The 'Prapatom' happens to be my steamer.…"

A straight and shining military youth suddenly drew himself up tall before them, and drawling officially, reported that the dance was his.

"I hope to see you on board, then, Mr. Scarlett," she called with a smile over her shoulder, as she was caught into the whirl of skipping feet and sad, preoccupied faces.

As for Owen, he found an obscure chair in the verandah. For a long time he smoked, grateful to destiny, watching the broad banana leaves, a sheaf of giant quill-pens in living green, as they drooped and swayed in the lamplight under the cool, damp breath of the night breeze. "What luck, what luck!" he told himself in wonder.

Before the morning had time to glare, Owen had rattled in a dark-shuttered gharri to the shipping-office; and two days later, sweltering in the muffled sunlight under the "Prapatom's" awning, he had the satisfaction of seeing large canvas trunks, marked "L. H.," slung upon the forward deck by the wild-haired Malays.

"Lucky I didn't toss heads," thought this young adventurer. Never before did clank of winch or chatter of coolies seem so joyful; never before the act of waiting so happy and so vexatious.

But he was not of the sort to hurry matters, or plan vulgar stratagems among deck-chairs or places at table. From the upper end of the captain's mess, he had the mild pleasure of bowing to Miss Holborow at the lower. She sat, in white, beside a prim little woman in grey. Down the length of the table the punkah wagged slow and cool, like a boom with a valance of canvas flapping below. As he stole a look under the frill of this from time to time, he could see the aunt utter a few staid sentences, and the girl reply.

Presently, to his surprise, in marched a white-clad giant, his friend of the Saigon boat,—Borkman of the parted beard. He chose the chair opposite the two ladies, and bowed with an almost familiar air. They returned the bow graciously enough.

The captain grunted. He was a clean elderly Englishman, with cheeks ruddy from whisky and tropic weather, but fine grey eyes full of honesty. All through dinner he watched the lower end of the table; at last he beckoned to an alert, little, withered Chinaman in a pale blue robe.

"Ah Fook," said the captain, rather loudly, "how fashion this coffee b'long no good? Make him more better, chop-chop!"

"Can do," said the steward, blinking gravely.

"Man-man," the captain went on, in a lowered voice, barely audible to Scarlett. "You see gentleman down next Number One officer? He eat his chow bottom-side Number Two table breakfast. B'long so. You catchee cards. You savee?"

"Can do," repeated the Celestial.

"Impudent bounder," the captain grumbled; and then, changing the subject, he remarked to Scarlett, "She's making a good thirteen knots to-night, do you know?"

Whatever hopes Owen might have had for that evening were disappointed; for Miss Holborow stayed in the stuffy saloon and played picquet dutifully with her aunt. Walking seven miles round the deck,—passing from the mystery of vast moonlit space and a witch-fire ocean of phosphorous, astern, into the swaying lantern-light amidships—he could see the two women through one porthole, and through the next, in the little hazy smoking-room, the big countenance of Borkman, presiding radiantly over a circle of yellow glasses.

"He has cheek enough," thought Scarlett. "I'll have to ask the captain about him some time."

Then came a whole morning of delight. Soon after breakfast, he found himself being introduced to the aunt, and presently sitting in a canvas sling chair next Miss Holborow herself.

The aunt was a bright-eyed, spare, spinster-like little matron, whose grey hair was close-hauled about a pert though elderly head. She drew in her chin with a bird-like motion, and gave Owen an odd look, half-friendly, half-suspicious, which declared—"You seem passable, but one can't be too careful." All that she said, however, was:

"How do you do, Mr. Scarlett. My niece has told me of having met you at the Tanglin dance." She spoke as one whose conscience pursues her to the minutest parts of speech. "Your name is very familiar to me: it must be that you have relatives in—" And, being satisfied on this point, Mrs. Holborow withdrew from the conversation, to become calmly engrossed in a magazine essay on "Thoreau, the Man." Evidently her mind to her a kingdom was; yet Owen, looking up from the happiest of talk, could now and then catch the reader's eye flickering back at them warily out of the corner, like the glance of a nervous mare driven without blinders.

There was nothing in the talk to disturb that best of chaperons. The girl and the young man, having laboriously dug up common acquaintances, pitched them overboard and began to find out more about each other. From their long chairs in the canvas-muffled sunlight, they could look under the rail-awnings, out over the sapphire calm of the South China Sea. All about the ship flying-fish, like silver humming-birds, skimmed along on shivering wings, to vanish into the slope of a little wave with a sunlit splash as of bullets volleyed and scattering.

"I'm never tired of seeing them," said the girl, and screened her eyes with one brown hand.

"No—yes—very pretty," replied Scarlett. It was the flutter of her hair in the hot, faint breeze that he had been watching; and his mind was filled with speculation and misgiving. "You've chosen lucky weather, and a good voyage. Travellers don't come up here so often; Bangkok's a quiet place."

"That's just it," she rejoined. "I'm tired of being a tourist in a groove; my aunt's tired of places that are not quiet. We have an acquaintance or two up there. And then, she hasn't been happy since we left Japan—doesn't like the East very well, I'm afraid. Do you, Aunt Julia?"

Mrs. Holborow, frowning over the fine print, tossed her chin impatiently.

"No," she said; then launched a thunderbolt. "All the men are bibulous, and the women devoid of ideas. Of course," she added, glancing off the page, "the scenery is extremely—er—picturesque."

She ducked again into the cool depths of Walden Pond. Scarlett discovered that a pretty face can twitch into odd curves.

"You see, her friend Mrs. Bolton decided to stay with relatives," the girl explained. "After that I had trouble persuading my aunt to come on; but she finally gave in when we found we could take a reliable courier, to manage our trunks and plunder and things. He's a jewel, that man! Very good recommendations, and knows everything! My aunt approves of him, and she's hard to please. Aunt Julia!"

No answer came from among the pages.

"Aunty dear! Isn't our courier a lovey duck?"

Mrs. Holborow looked up severely.

"No," she informed them. "I wish you wouldn't be so silly, Laura. He's quite capable and obliging; but please don't interrupt me now, dear. I'm reading such an excellent thing. This 'Thoreau, the Man,'—it's—so—er—suggestive, and—human, and—er—stimulating."

"Let's take a walk, then," the girl said promptly; and lagging somewhat in the drowsy heat, the two started off round the deck. She was very straight, with no seeming effort to poise; walked easily, without slatting her arms or whisking her skirts or thrusting her face forward; and, altogether, he thought, had the gait and action of a sensible girl. Several turns they made together, passing the loungers in the deck-chairs: Mrs. Holborow, still rapt and stimulated; a trim nervous Englishman rustling the sheets of the "Pink 'Un," whom Owen set down vaguely as the admired courier; a plump little brown Japanese, smiling toothfully at the dreamy universe; Borkman parting with jewelled fingers his sable-silvered beard, as he listened politely, but with mirthful eyes, to the earnest talk of a sallow missionary; and a rich Chinese merchant who, in a robe of black figured silk, sat reading with grave approval "The Swiss Family Robinson."

In this company they made the voyage, five lazy, shining days of companionship: cool sunrise hours when they met in wraps and sandals, to eat mangoes and watch the Malays scrub the deck with half-cocoanut-shells; noons of fierce heat smiting from the zenith, when the steerage Klings, in turbans of rainbow plaid, trolled for barracouta in a wake as of snow and bluing; and nights of veiled moon light, when the wide gulf shivered with heat-lightning, at whose all-pervading tremor the lost horizon leapt forth black and startling. No marvel of sea or sky appeared to Scarlett as more than Laura's rightful setting and background. And speech, that to others had been flat and tedious, became to them as simple as the elements, potential as springtime, miraculous as revelation.

In those days they should have blessed "Thoreau, the Man."

On the last morning, when the azure Gulf of Siam was lost in the yellow outpour at Koh-si-chang, and crossing the bar, the "Prapatom" had steamed into the river, Scarlett and the girl stood together by the rail. They were silent, looking back to where, in the liquid light of dawn, the temple of Pak-nam rose from a fairy island, like the tall white helmet of a sunken genie. Slowly the ship moved up a river of molten copper, between low banks of vivid green bush and slim areca palms. From the bosky mouth of a hidden waterway, here and there, sampans stole out,—a lithe figure bent forward at the sweep—to break the green reflection with a curved long-bow of ripples. It was the season of the mango showers, and the breeze came heavy with perfume from yellow-burgeoning acacias. On the lower deck, Chinamen sluiced their sallow bodies with muddy water; soft-eyed Cingalese thrust in their round-combs; Malays knotted their bright sarongs for another day.

"All these will be scattering into Siam," said Miss Holborow. "Isn't it fun guessing where people come from and go to, out here? The East is a wonderful kaleidoscope in that way, I think—always changing, pictures, pictures, appearing, melting.… Do you know, sometimes I'm a little afraid of it."

"I know," said Scarlett, and was silent. Eight years of China had left him little fun in that sort of guessing. At Bangkok, all these particular sights would vanish: this girl and her aunt would, like the rest, depart into memories. They would join their friends, he would languish among strangers, and all his valiant, hare-brained stratagem would come to nothing. That would never do.

"Miss Holborow," he began in a resolute voice. "Please don't be offended." His tone made her look up quickly for an instant; and for that instant he floundered in a new and singular confusion. "You'll think it very odd, and blunt, and.… Well, I've seen you three times, twice by chance. But for all that.… By George, it won't do to have you go disappearing here in Siam. The world's terribly big; especially the East, where you lose your memory: people and things drop out of sight everywhere, and maskee!—but for friends.…" He stopped, ashamed of this foolish floundering. Meantime she looked at him, so frank and so puzzled that the absurdity of it all overpowered him.

"Let me be honest, anyway," he continued, laughing. "I've not the shadow of any kind of business up here. I was heading for Europe, in general, and when you said the other evening that you were coming up,—why, I lied and came, too.…"

There fell a rather long silence. Below on the deck, the black fans of the coolies fluttered, brown legs stirred uneasily on the matting, a two-stringed riddle was wailing, and from be hind the ventilator-cowl a sing-song voice chanted an endless improvisation. Metallic thunder resounded along the ship, and a bare-foot Chinese boy pattered past, beating the breakfast gong with a skilful, rubbing stroke.

"We've been good friends for a time," said Owen, in conclusion, and then smiled. "It's best not to have been so on false pretences."

The girl searched him through with one bright, incomprehensible look.

"I think," she declared slowly, "that you're a very honest, funny—Boy. Very funny! Didn't you see, you couldn't dog us round the world in this way?"

"Couldn't I?" he answered stubbornly.

"No," said Miss Holborow. "My aunt would never allow it, for one thing." They laughed, and moved away towards breakfast. "If you hadn't told me all that—"she stopped abruptly—"I knew you were very honest, when I saw you at the devil-fishes."

When the ship had anchored in the racing Me-nam, and the howls of coolies and bumping of sampans announced the hour of disembarking, Scarlett paid his farewell compliments.

"And a pleasure for us, too," the little spinster-like matron averred, as if it had been a vote, not wholly of disapproval. "I hope we may happen to meet again somewhere. No, many thanks, our man is seeing to our luggage. Good-bye, Mr. Scarlett."

"Good-bye," said he, and answered the girl's smile; but it was gloomily that he swung down on the forward deck and picked out his trunks from the heap.

"I'm an ass," he thought, and gave almost savage directions to the hotel boy.

Near by, Borkman of the glowing eyes towered calm above the confusion. In cream-coloured pongee, with a diamond buckle on his watch-strap, he surveyed the trunks, choosing among them with a silver-mounted stick of polished stingaree. "Those b'long my, eight piecee, catchee that house, chop-chop!" he commanded, giving the coolie a written card.

The stingaree rapped down sharply on the canvas trunks marked "L. H."

Scarlett stared in wonder.

"I am an ass," he repeated. "Never guessed it, never asked Her—"

From the bridge-rail above, the Captain—a purple, sarcastic cherub in the pea-green halo of a sun-helmet—was forgetting the presence of ladies.

"Can't you see?" he roared. "You've fouled the bloomin' stanchion? Be-george, you're as nimble as that bird they call the elephant!"