Open main menu

CHAPTER TWO

CHITS AND CATS

 

 

CHAPTER TWO
CHITS AND CATS

Owen let the launch go puffing to the land, bearing with it—a white figure among the bow cushions—all the good, all the gain of the Orient. He stood and formed a plan.

At the foot of the bridge-ladder he found the Captain, mollified by the happy effects of epigram, oratory, command, and a stengah with the Customs Officer.

"Good-bye, sir, I've had a pleasant voyage," said Scarlett; and when they had shaken hands—"By the way, what's wrong with that fellow Borkman? I meant to ask before—"

The ruddy little Captain rested his gaze upon the spire of a distant wat, and meditated, as if the secret were impaled on the pinnacle. "His damned ubiquity, for one thing," he asserted, in a voice of slow, tolerant conviction. Then, as his glance came back to the deck, his eyes flashed: "Wrong? Why, the fellow's a rotter! A confounded waister! Shouldn't have allowed him aboard my ship, sir! What the devil do those ladies let him tow round after them for, eh? Biggest bloomin' rascal in the East—notorious! Ask Newton about the elephants on his teak concession, or poor old Gatcomb how he lost his billet, over one scheme. Was an I. D. B. in Kimberley once, they say. Bah!—"

The Captain meditated again.

"You seem to know them—nice girl, too … Put them near, as you Americans say. He's working some squeeze or other now, mind you—"

Beside them there bobbed up an umbrella of yellow paper, glossily varnished, from beneath which a pigtailed compradore in claret-coloured robes peered up at them with slant eyes and oily brown smile. The Captain turned on him viciously:

"And here's another squeeze! What do you want, eh? Money, money—good God, what a world! See you later, Mr. Scarlett. Just now we're in a perfect hurrah's nest.…"

Vague as the testimony was, it sufficed for Scarlett. Duty had linked arms with desire, and his heart was fixed. No rotter, not even the mildest waister, should be allowed to guide the Holborows so freely and flagrantly. The sampan that sculled across the brimming race of the Me-nam carried an indignant champion and his luggage.

From the dwindling steamer, the Captain trumpeted through his hands—"Did me in the eye for Four Hundred Ticals!"

For the next few days Owen went diving hopefully into the dark interiors of wats. Whole afternoons he waited there, an impatient lover blinded with hot illusions, confronting the mystic smile of the soft-gleaming Buddhas, who sit aloft, forever peaceful, rapt in the timeless dream of the infinite. In courtyards, seated upon squat Chinese dog-lions who guard the rolling pearl between their teeth, he passed uncounted Eastern hours, while the breeze rustled the tamarind pods, and set the little golden bells tinkling along the temple cornices; till the level sunlight stole upward, from the vermilion flowers overhead, to the threefold, fang-pointed gables, the glistening roofs of blue and chestnut tiles, the highest golden spire of the prachadee. He loitered at the royal stables till the white elephants wearied of saluting him; he stood inanely watching the Siamese nobles fly their star-shaped kites over the Premane ground; he drove sadly along the empty reaches of the King's boulevard. But he caught no sight of aunt, or guide, or girl.

At last he become a known visitor at the counters of shipping-clerks, and between-times, a solitary sitter in the hotel garden. He felt both silly and desperate; but at least that ill-sorted trio should not sail down the Me-nam unobserved.

On a hot, lonesome day, as he sat on the little platform which, from the shade of high-arched, breezy almond trees, looks across the racing copper flood to the teak-mills, he was roused by a heavy step and a cheerful hail:

"Oh, there you are, eh?" Borkman, clothed in white, resplendent with gold tical buttons, sat down and grinned across the white-painted disc of the little tin table.

"Looking for you all over, Mr. Scarlett," he said. "Nice hotel this—I'm staying at a livelier place, though, myself, if you understand me. Go up to their house every morning and report. Good fun! Got a chit here that ought to please you!—O Boy, dua stengah, Scotch and Tansan. Where the mischief is the thing?"

He fumbled through many pockets, his deep-set eyes beaming kindly. "Miracle what rubbish a man stows away in his poche. Nice girl that, Miss Holborow, eh?"

From a pocket-book he dumped a small heap of paper scraps on the table, and began sorting them. Two or three he read smiling, and tore up. "Drunk again, Giles Borkman," he commented, leniently, to his alter ego. At last, seizing a fresh white envelope, he pushed the remaining scraps aside. "There's her chit," he said. "No need of your writing. Just reply 'Yes' or 'No' by me—Here's fortune!"

"Fortune!" echoed Scarlett, happy and eager. He touched the glass to his lips, set it down, and opened the letter:

 

Dear Mr. Scarlett:

My aunt and I go with the guide to the ruins at Ayuthia on Thursday morning, and come back by launch in the evening. If you can come too, we shall be very glad. The Admirable Bearer will bring your answer by word of mouth. I hope you can come.

Yours sincerely,
Laura Holborrow.

Can't you help us buy a Siamese cat this afternoon? We pick up the A. B. at your hotel, four o clock.


"You'll come?" said Borkman, who seemed to have grasped the situation completely. He gave the young man a benignant smile, and the faintest flutter of a wink,—at once impudent and paternal. "That's good. The ladies will be pleased, eh?" He rose with the air of one who ends an audience. "Thursday, then? Train at 7:40, you know. Right-oh! Good-bye, my boy." And he swaggered off across the clean sand of the little garden.

Scarlett was left to discover that this pernicious waister had hobnobbed with him, patronized him, suggested that his dearest secret was an open one, and yet made him uncommonly happy. At least, while he read the note again, he could harbor no ill-will.

A puff of the cool afternoon breeze sent the forgotten papers flying into the river—all except three bits which fluttered to Scarlett's side of the table. He stopped them mechanically. One was a gharri chit, in marvellous English, from Nawab Shah's livery stable. The second was a chit from Sin Cheong, "Goldsmith or Curio," across which was written in a crabbed, boyish hand, "It is in the middle one. They are following you." "Sounds like melodrama," Owen reflected, idly. The third was a paste-board ticket bearing tiny Japanese characters, a telephone address, the name "Ko-Katu," and a street number notorious throughout the Orient.

"He's a savoury person for a guide," thought the young man, with indignation. Had it not been too much work, he would have formed moral reflections on woman's judgment of character. Instead, he puzzled once more over the situation: "A man covered with gold tics and diamond watch-strap buckles is not of the courier type. What's his game?"

He found no answer; and Borkman, when he reappeared later, stalking large in the river-garden, did not enlighten him. At the same moment wheels rattled in the road, and a victoria drew up at the verandah-end, with a flash of white through the sunny leafage.

It was she! it was also Aunt Julia: from one, a radiant, all-rewarding smile; from the other an indrawn chin and bird-like nod: and Owen found himself perched on a half-seat facing them, while Borkman, cracking a whip, led the way nobly in a high Tum-Tum cart with a Waler.

The ponies scampered along the New Road, clattered down a row of Chinese shops in Sam Peng, and out along the old city wall, where they shied at an elephant plodding to his bath. Scarlett neither marked their course nor knew that they were in Siam: he was with Laura Holborow again, hearing her speak, meeting the glance of those honest eyes where mirth lived and moved, like swiftness playing over depth. After an age of dumb sloth, he was restored to life, to speech, to joy.

"… Very interesting indeed," Aunt Julia was expounding, "especially to see and study Buddhism at home. With all their tolerant innovations, they seem to have kept the purer, primitive beliefs, such as—"

"Do look!" cried Laura, eagerly. Below the road stretched a canal, empty at ebb-tide; and in a sampan on the flat waste of filthy ooze, a little Siamese, trousered in a yellow panung, lay supine, pointing a flute skyward and blowing pastoral notes. Laughing together, these two young people never listened to pure and primitive Buddhism.

Mrs. Holborow was naturally somewhat acidulated.

"This is a very silly expedition that the guide has persuaded you into," she told Laura. "The cat will be a great nuisance, and I dare say a source of contagion."

"Oh," said Scarlett cheerfully, "there's not much plague or cholera here now."

"A little would be quite sufficient," replied Aunt Julia, stiffly.

Presently their driver swerved after Borkman's whiplash round a corner, and pulled up behind the Tum-Tum in a crowded bazaar that reeked of betel, burning joss-sticks, Chinese tobacco, frying lard, and green drainage. Their burly guide, scattering ducks, pariah dogs, and black sows, dived under a monstrous Chinese lantern, and led the party into the dusk and disorder of a pawnshop. On his platform beside a tall glass case of silver ware, a young Chinaman, naked to the waist, sat braiding pink threads into his queue. He stared at the ladies, and coiled the half-finished strand about his neck.

Borkman presented a hieroglyphic letter, which the pawnbroker read slowly through horn-rimmed spectacles, whispering to himself, and spacing off groups of characters with a long blue thumb-nail. Meantime the booth was penned in by a chattering crowd, both Thai and Hainanese, gathered to watch the bargain; while imps of children, smeared as with yellow ochre and dressed only in heel-bangles or silver fig-leaves, gleefully skipped in pestilential dust.

The pawnbroker gravely finished the painted scroll, nodded, grinned—his mouth gaping blood-red with betel—and snarled something over his shoulder. A mysterious scuffle rose in the back shop, and presently a neat-bodied little Luk-Chin woman came clambering over a heap of brass-work, hugging three rebellious cats close to her kerchiefed breast.

Poured sprawling upon the platform, the cats tried vainly to bolt, then sat ruffled and indignant, darting side glances of sullen light.

"Isn't he a beauty?" cried Miss Holborow.

"Careful," Scarlett warned her. "Don't admire. Let me do the bargaining; may I?"

"The big fellow is the only one to buy, sir," Borkman advised. Before the ladies, his manner seemed unnaturally subdued, his genius rebuked. "Don't buy the little ones, Mr. Scarlett, that's all. The big chap would fetch fifty to a hundred pounds in London, as he stands."

"But the two small ones are blue," said Mrs. Holborow, forgetting her general objection in a particular. "And the King has officially declared that blue cats are.…"

"Oh, Aunt Julia," cried the girl reproachfully, "just see the other. He's a dear."

The dear uttered a "Yaow!" of unearthly volume, and stared up with the ice-blue eyes of a goblin. He was not of the royal hue, but fawn-coloured, with seal-brown face, paws, and tail, bat-ears, and bristling moustachios of snow-white.

"He heard me!" said Laura "I must have him."

"No enthusiasm," commanded Scarlett. "Let me." Then, turning to the Chinaman, who sat in a fine oblivion, smoking a Malacca tin pipe like a long-spouted silver tea-pot:

"Ni teng ha," he said, and pointed to one of the blue cats. "Miu chai gi dǒ?"

 
P 046--The Siamese cat.jpg

The big chap would fetch fifty to a hundred pounds in London

 
"Yit ba bat," sang the pawnbroker, with a quick gleam in his beady eyes.

"M-hai!" Owen laughed in scornful good humour. "Ngō gin po guai a!"

Negotiations ceased. Scarlett turned airily and surveyed the crowd outside.

"What did you tell him?" asked Miss Holborow, amused.

"I asked how much can catchee this cat," Owen replied. "He wants a hundred tics,—absurd: so I told him to lower his price. Don't be impatient."

The coolies and the children gaped. One tall Chinaman, who had looked feverishly intent, turned about tactfully to await the renewal of the bargain, presenting an oily brown back.

"Hallo," said Owen. "See that, Miss Holborow."

Between the muscular shoulder-blades, in Siamese fashion, was tattooed a circular design in blue.

"An old friend, isn't it?" continued Scarlett. "The symbol of Creation, the Dual Powers—two whales rolled together to form the world—as you see them on the Korean flag, the Madura praus, the Northern Pacific Railroad, and everywhere. He's not a Hoi-how boy."

The pawnbroker suddenly resumed the chaffering.

"Ni! Ni!" he cried vehemently, suspending by the scruff of his neck the fawn-coloured cat, who squirmed and clawed like a dragon. "Ni! Mau! Gi dǒ?"

"M-hai," Scarlett shook his head indifferently. "M-sē-nē. No wantchee."

The Chinaman returned calmly to the blue "miu-chai." And so the bargain tossed and wavered, while the chuckling crowd muttered gibes. At last Scarlett changed his mongrel speech to English:

"Well," he said, "you can buy the big chap for forty ticals. He's an unusually good one—probably stolen. But before you close the bargain, I must tell you that it's a risk: they often die going Home, they're quarantined in London, and probably not even admitted by our delightful authorities in New York."

Laura's face clouded, but Borkman came to the rescue.

"It's not so bad as that, sir," he declared cheerfully. "I'll see to him. Get him home for you with no trouble whatever—absolutely. If Mr. Scarlett is afraid, I'll buy him on my own responsibility, and you can get him from me whenever you like, Miss Holborow."

He had drawn himself up tall, a bearded protector of ladies.

"He's the boy to carry cats," whispered Laura to Owen, behind Aunt Julia's back. Borkman caught the buzz of the whisper, and for a second his eye gleamed with an odd suspicion. Then he repeated, amiably—"It's quite safe."

"The whole affair is absurd," said Aunt Julia. "We have too much stuff already. A cat is a—a beast."

There was no gainsaying this.

"And I foresee, Laura," she continued gloomily, "this will be like those white rabbits that you begged so for when you were little, and that I had afterwards to feed."

"Oh, Aunt Julia," laughed her niece, "what a memory you have! But it was only for a week.…"

Owen saw that this discussion tended beside the point.

"I may be wrong," he admitted. "And if Mr. Borkman thinks he can—"

"Oh, absolutely," boomed the courier. "Perfectly simple. It's too fine a bargain to miss."

"Then I'll take him," declared Laura quickly, opened her purse, and closed the argument.

The Chinaman grinned, by a sleight of hand passed the bank-notes apparently into his belly, and rejected the blue cats headlong into his wife's apartment. The fawn-coloured hero sat staring with ice-blue eyes, haughty and intellectual.

"Isn't he a lordly creature?" said the girl, sitting down beside him on the platform. "What shall I name him? Something that's big and dignified"—she mused—"and Siamese.…"

"Call him Chao Phya, then," suggested Owen.

"Good! Just it!" she exclaimed. "Come, Chao Phya! Come to Missy!"

The new member of the peerage stared coldly, cried an amazing "Yaow!" and suddenly leapt upon the girl's shoulder.

"There!" she cried in triumph. "He's purring already. The little old dear!"

"Excuse me a moment," said Borkman, "I'll be back directly—if you will please wait here?"

As he stepped out into the glare, he bumped against the tall Chinaman of the tattooed symbol. "Look out there!" he snapped. Then suddenly they saw, from the shop, his whole frame struck by some change, and his clenched fists quiver. The coolie was slinking away; and as Borkman wheeled half about, his eyes flamed with rage. It was a new face that they caught sight of, and not a pleasant one to remember.

"Out o' the way!" he roared. "What thing you do here? You wantchee catch bamboo-chow? Vamoose!"

The Chinaman meekly disappeared in the crowd. Borkman turned and stalked into a dark alley across the bazaar.

"Why should he abuse that poor coolie so?" Miss Holborow wondered. "I never saw him lose his temper before."

He was gone a noticeable time, but reappeared all sunshine.

"I saw a little curio in a shop the other day," he announced, smiling down at them with benevolent respect. "I was reminded of it just now, and—er—made bold to get it, Miss Holborow, as a present to Chao Phya. I hope he'll accept it."

He handed over a silver collar, hung with three rather large bells, fluted cockle-shells that tinkled musically. It was wrought with raised figures of men and elephants, in a maze of lotus-leaves.

"Lao work, from a bracelet," he explained. "It makes a rather good collar, and I had Sin Cheong's man put on 'Chao Phya,' while I waited."

Mrs. Holborow was drawing on the dignity of an employer:

"Why, Mr. Borkman," she began, "you know we can hardly.…"

"We can hardly thank you enough," cut in Laura, with a dangerous glance at her aunt. "It's beautiful work, and—and a great surprise. See, it fits His Highness as if made for him!"

The paternal Borkman beamed on her as she thanked him once more.

"Almost as well," he agreed. "And now if you wish to see that Wat of the Lotuses, it's time we were going."

So they left the pawnbroker braiding the pink threads into his pigtail, and crossed the viscid drain to the street. The light streamed level down the white vista of shops. Chao Phya shook his silver bells in Miss Holborow's lap, the sais shouted at the opium dreamers in the road, and they drove off through a double line of yellow coolies, each shouldering twin baskets like scales of justice and streaming past at a stiff-kneed,wincing trot.

Beyond the town, the race-course and the plains lay flooded in sunset light, and the shafts of betel palm against the west stood black and slender, like the crossed lances of a crowded squadron. The sight-seers alighted before the gates of Sapatomawan, where a carved and gilded bridge spanned a klawng brimming with great pink lotus chalices, and broad green leaves, stiff as bronze-work. When they had halted on the steps of the temple, it was already twilight; the bodies of kites roosting in high branches showed dark and indistinct as clusters of jack-fruit. And through the temple doors came an increasing light, as an old priest in saffron robe, the tiny flame of a taper in his shaking hand, moved among the leaping shadows of the sanctuary, from lamp to lamp, before the golden-glimmering Buddhas.

Even Borkman's voice became an undertone, as he stood expounding to Aunt Julia the doctrine of the Fully Enlightened One:

"The Hinayâna church differs from the Mahâyâna on those points above all. And yet curiously.…"

From a safe distance behind them, Laura, stroking Chao Phya's head, pursued a train of thought broken only by two miles of space and a hundred varied sights:

"I had to accept it," she whispered to Owen; "and he meant it well, but—why do you dislike him so?"

"I've said nothing of the sort," retorted the young man.

"I can tell you what you think," she replied from her meditation. "Our friends here, Mr. and Mrs. Sanders, wonder where we got him, I can see. But what's wrong? He only looks like the King of Spades with his hair cropped. And Aunt Julia is fond of him!" A moment of silent mirth overcame her; then she looked grave again. "What do you think he's up to?"

Scarlett shook his head. "It's—it's absurd!" he said. The futility of his vague, hearsay evidence irritated him. "I only wish I knew."

"Yaow!" remarked Chao Phya, and jingled his silver bells in the dusk.