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CHAPTER FOUR

BLINDMAN'S-BUFF

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR
BLINDMAN'S-BUFF

Mr. Sanders, a florid little man, accurately dressed for summer evenings in England, hopped down from the Holborows carriage and came trotting back through the hotel garden.

"I say," he chirped, "Mr. Scarlett! Won't you come dine with us to-morrow night? Ah, good! Very glad. Surawongse Road. Right! Good-night again."

And so their expedition ended. Midnight had passed, but Owen had no desire to sleep. Calling for ice, soda, and cigars, he stretched out in his verandah chair, and stared blankly down into the moonlit compound. Banana leaves drooped in pennants of hoary silver; the tin roof of a go-down shone like snow; a coolie, sleeping in the dust, scowled upward, with the shadowed sockets of a death's-head, into the pale radiance. Now and then a pedlar's bell clanked faintly; a gust of laughter told where sea-captains drank late under the almond trees; or breaking the charm of stillness, a lizard cried: "To-kay! to-kay!" in a voice dogmatic and hiccoughing.

"I can't believe him," thought Scarlett. "He seemed plausible there in the boat, but—" Instinct declared the man a liar; reason tried to marshal the facts both for and against him:

"First of all, Borkman suggested buying the cat. That proves nothing, either way. Second, he knew the thief before—bumped him in the bazaar—and was not glad to see him. Third, grabbing the coolie by the queue, as he ran, would rip his hand exactly as it was ripped. But then all those thorn bushes—I can hardly shut my own fist. Fourth, Borkman's story is improbable. If an unknown person—a second thief, an accomplice—fought and killed the coolie, then why leave behind the only apparent cause of quarrel—the cat—perched on the wall? But he may have heard Borkman coming, or have seen him, and cut and run. After all, that seems the most likely way; for Borkman could have no accomplice stationed out there to do the killing, no such weapon to do it with himself. Fifth, if Borkman were the murderer, then his remark—'I saw directly by Miss Holborow's face'—was made when off his guard, and explains why he reported to the Dane. Humph!

"If there had been a weapon," thought the young man, "I'd be certain: or if it were any thing but a cat—"

Muffled hammering at doors sounded in the distance, and the raucous singsong cry of a runner from the lottery, shouting the lucky number for the night. Dawn was near, then; Owen rose wearily, and crept under his mosquito netting, to sleep over the whole blind puzzle.

He woke to find himself still thinking of the courier.

"Borkman started all this cat-pidgin; he knew where to buy, had a letter to the pawnbroker—" What a long, empty day, before seeing Laura at dinner! "I'll spend it," he decided, "looking in on this devious gentleman's friends."

But even starting early after breakfast, he wasted most of the morning before he found the pawnbroker's shop; and then was rewarded only by the gory smile of the betel-chewer, and a furious exhibition of undesired cats.

"No go," he thought. "This chap doesn't savee anything. No can do, my friend. Finish! Put your beasts back. We'll try the collar man." He entered the stone-flagged alley, to find that every other door revealed a goldsmith's shop. "Lim Chong, Chin Leong—what was it? Sounded familiar, too. But they're all alike. Here it is—Sin Cheong."

In the dusk, on clean matting, stood glass cases full of shining wares. Behind a lamp-lit counter, a jolly fat merchant sat clicking his abacus. He looked up, nodded, grinned. "Tsu s'n," he remarked affably; then called aloud for his assistant. Through the rattling strings of the curtain, slid a sleek young Chinaman in pale green silk pyjamas. His face was glossy, keen, guileless, like that of an intellectual babe.

"Ho Kong," explained the merchant, "He speakee Ingalis, my no can do."

"Good-moh? ning-seh," chanted Ho Kong, "I hop you? ah velly well. You wan tehee buy nice golo-smit culio, I can? show you, seh."

The slant, thick-lidded eyes watched every movement, as Scarlett peered along the cases. In one corner lay a silver bracelet, which, but for having no bells, was the mate to Borkman's gift.

"How much is this? S'pose you put bells on, how much?" Owen looked squarely into the clerk's eyes. They met his with a strange gleam, but not a curve changed in the sallow, infant face.

"Fiftee tical, he velly nice."

"This chap does savee," thought Owen. "Fifty—say that means twenty: the cat was forty. Do men kill each other over sixty ticals?" Aloud he said—"Too much. What price this silver casket?"

He bought a few things, handled many more, called for a list of prices. Ho Kong the clerk, rattling the abacus, jotted down figures on a sheet of paper, which he folded trimly, and delivered with a bow. Then, clapping on a rakish Panama hat, he escorted Owen to his carriage, and as it rolled away, bowed again in best European fashion.

"I startled him about that bracelet," thought Owen. "The writing on this price-list looks familiar, too. Where could I have seen it? Hmm! So he comes into the affair, too; but what affair?"

The drowsy afternoon lagged by, the sun dropped behind the teak-mills, the brown smoke of twilight swiftly turned to darkness. At last it was time to dress for dinner. Returning to his room, he switched on the swinging bulb just in time to see, on the back-verandah rail, a pair of green-sleeved arms release their clutch and drop out of sight. He ran to the edge. In the dim light, a plump figure under a Panama hat slid down a post, and flitted across the compound into darkness.

"Young Mr. Ho Kong returns his calls promptly. Heard me direct the driver, of course. What has he stolen?"

The wardrobe door stood open, a coat lay on the floor, the lock of his trunk had been picked, and there were other signs of recent and hurried search. Nothing, however, seemed to be missing. On the table lay a letter, printed in English with a pencil, on hotel paper.


To Honourable Esqre:

I beg to inform Your Honour should be leaving Cat in this room tomorrow all afternoons complete from tiffin till dark-times and leave same here all alone. Cat do not came out, remain all right very good, can do harmless. Your Honour catch him coming back inside. Leave cat, enjoy days, long life much jade best wishes. Suppose you do not, then some mans have got hurt become kill Your Honour, become kill your Honour's girl, very sorry. I write this to obliged for you nextime.

Yours triily, and complete servant,
Christian Friend.

N. D. Now, suppose you go, tell another mans look-see watch room, no good. Undersigned will kill Your Honour I think all same.


"My Christian friend," chuckled Owen grimly. "They teach them well at the missions—So unless I give you a private interview with the cat, you will regretfully kill me and—" he laughed—"'Your Honour's girl.' By George, I wish she were! Whatever he wants, this chap is making a rather silly bluff."

He dressed hurriedly, and after a short drive, reached Mr. Sanders's house. Not before coffee in the verandah when the ladies were talking of Home, and the men betting whether the French would give up Chantabun—did he get free speech of Laura. Lamps on a long table divided them from most of the company.

Her first words out-valued all she had ever said.

"I've waited the whole day to talk to you," she said guardedly; "Do you know, I'm getting—rather afraid."

"Afraid of what?" he asked.

Leaning forward, she answered the question with another.

"Did you hear what Mr. Sanders told at table, about our burglar,—that his Sikh watchman chased some one out of the compound last night? Well, I could have told them more. What do you think? Last night I couldn't get to sleep, after all that happened in the ruins. So perhaps about three o'clock I thought of wandering out into my verandah to watch the moonlight and find a breeze. I stepped out through the door quickly, and almost ran into a man—a Chinaman. He was creeping in, bent over—didn't even stop to see what I was,
 
P 074--The Siamese cat.jpg

"So you will regretfully kill me"

 

just bounced away and down the verandah stairs."

"Plump, was he?" asked Scarlett. "Wear any sort of hat?"

"No," she reflected. "Little thin—bareheaded. He ran lame but very fast. At the front of the stairs there, another popped up, and both men ran off together. Then a third jumped out from that shrubbery. That was the only one the Sikh saw, for just then his turban came bobbing round the corner. He didn't catch any one."

"Haven't you spoken of all this?" whispered Owen.

"Not a word. Because—because I wanted your advice first, somehow. You see, that wasn't all. Just before the Sikh appeared, another man, a European, stepped out of that shadow by the wall." Laura pointed to a far corner, densely blurred with flamboyer branches and tall crotons. "He was big, very tall even crouching; he ran forward a few steps, dodged back until the Sikh passed, and then stood out an instant watching. I can't be sure: but the moonlight was like day, and he stood there so broad, with his feet braced apart—you know—yes, like our courier Borkman. He held a sort of staff in one hand, and the end flashed bluish, like steel—a sword-blade or a spear-head. But you don't look surprised."

"I'm not," said Scarlett dryly. "Where did the cat stay last night?"

"In my room," replied Laura. "Then you think, too—"

"Had you always kept him?" he interrupted.

"Why, no," she answered. "Last night was the first time. The guide had always taken care of him. But last night when we landed, Mr. Sanders said, 'Bring him along to show the
 
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"Where did the cat stay last night?"

 

children to-morrow.' I remember the courier objected, and Mr. Sanders snubbed him for being impudent."

"Miss Holborow," said Owen, gravely, "It sounds foolish, but I think it's dangerous for you to keep that beast. The burglars came here because he came. Whether Borkman sent them, or whether he stood on guard against them, I can't tell yet. The entire affair is blindman's-buff. But one thing I begin to see: wherever Chao Phya goes, there'll be trouble."

"I won't give him up now," she declared, with the pout of a spoiled child. "But we can't fill Mr. Sanders's house full of Chinese burglars, can we? Please tell me what to do?"

"Promise me one thing," he answered. "When you engage passage back to Singapore, tell me; and let me take the same steamer. Our friend the King of Spades is not the safest of guides. Does your agreement let you discharge him here? No: well, that might not be wise, anyway. You promise? Thank you—Then, let me take Chao Phya home to-night, and keep him. No, there's no danger, in a hotel full of people. So that's settled; and now, tell Mr. Sanders privately, without fail, just enough to show that you were frightened last night. So that he'll have a boy or two sleep in your verandah and the Sikh on close watch. Good!"

Mr. Sanders peeped waggishly round the lamp.

"Aha!" he exclaimed, "I thought it was very quiet this side! Mr. Scarlett, you've forgotten to drink your stengah, and we're on the second. This is bad!"

Scarlett had man's natural contempt for cats; but as he lifted Chao Phya to the carriage cushions, he felt not ungrateful to this solemn, green-eyed puzzle.

From the verandah Aunt Julia called down in astonishment—

"Are you taking him?"

"Yes," he laughed back. "Miss Holborow lends him. A friend of mine is anxious to see him. In fact, several men—Good-night."

Just how anxious, he was soon to learn. The moon still lurked behind the eastern palm-groves, the road was a gully of ragged shadows. Once or twice, as they rolled along it, he seemed to hear footsteps pattering swiftly.

"Hi, gharri-wallah!" he called. The bearded Mohammedan pulled up. "Who runs behind? We had no sais."

The driver listened.

"Master, I think Ee-Sander Sahib send one man."

But the sound had stopped. The carriage was slowly getting under way again, when some one dived in head first—a half-naked Chinaman, thin and feverishly spry, clutched once in desperation just as Scarlett swept the cat under his left arm. With his right he struck out heavily. The man toppled into the road, but rebounding like a ball, cleared the ditch, skimmed a hedge, and was lost. The Mohammedan lashed the ponies. They had galloped a hundred yards before Scarlett discovered that Chao Phya was scratching venomously.

"By George, that chap ran lame!" he thought. "Laura's burglar: they keep a good watch. Now my troubles begin—but that one was harmless enough!"

Under the lights of his verandah, however, he decided otherwise. A ragged triangle of leather, wads of curled hair, flapped at his shoulder. An upward stab had disembowelled the back cushion. His fist had been none too ready.

"So Christian Friend was not bluffing," he told himself, when at last stretched on his bed. "Chao Phya, if you could only talk!"

The cat, sitting beside Owen's feet, blinked sagely at the night-lamp with goblin eyes of changing fire. He yawned hungrily, jingled his silver bells, then in slow revolution trod out a lair and curled down to sleep. Owen lay wakeful; or dozing wearily, started at every flutter of bats without, every stir of geckoes on his chamber wall. But the pink mists of dawn glimmered at last through the doors: nothing had happened.

And although—mindful of Ho Kong's letter—he stationed boys to watch for prowlers, and kept his room all afternoon, the hours dragged by tame and empty.

"Beast!" he grumbled next day at tiffin. "This makes five meals in my room, all on your account. If I owned you, Chao my boy, I'd stop their nonsense—wring your neck. Keep out of my curry. Scat! You and your absurd collar both aren't worth sixty tics." He examined it idly: the silver was thin and light, the workmanship curious but crude, the three silver cockle-shells—their edges slightly parted to make resonant the tinkling pellets within—were fat and clumsy. "No," he repeated, "in harness as you stand, Chao, not sixty. Hallo, what's this?"

With his gula the boy Ah Ling brought in a basket of golden mangoes. Mr. San Dass sent them by bearer, explained Ah Ling: "Name card no have-got."

"Sanders, eh," said Owen, choosing the most luscious. "He's a brick! These are Number One Gold Chop mangoes." He sliced one, and had raised the first spoonful to his lips, when Ah Ling laid beside the plate a letter addressed in a hand which drove all else to oblivion. He tore it open and read:

 

Dear Mr. Scarlett:

Aunt Julia has just decided that we go by the "Muang-Fang," sailing to-morrow. The climate is getting too much for her, and the King of Spades urgently advises her to go.

All quiet here these last two nights. I hope it has been so with you.

In great haste,
L. H.


"Hurrah!" cried Scarlett. Clapping Chao Phya under his arm, and leaving both gula and mangoes untasted, he hurried down to his carriage. Just as he had booked for the "Muang-Fang," and was leaving the office, he ran against a round little man, tight-buttoned in cheerful flannels.

"You here, too!" exclaimed Mr. Sanders. His red necktie lent a needless touch of heat to the torrid compound. He waggled a roguish finger. "I spy, I spy! Same steamer, eh? You sad young dog! And the cat—now I call that devotion, if you like!"

Owen reddened.

"I'll try to look out for them, sir. You see—"

"I don't blame you," chirruped the older man. "Never leave a defenceless aunt! Lucky chap … Youth, youth!"

"And Mr. Sanders," interrupted Owen stiffly, "Let me thank you for the mangoes. They're capital.…"

"Mangoes?" The little gentleman frowned. "What mangoes?"

"Why, the basket you sent me this noon, sir."

"No fear!" cried Sanders, jovially. "Not I. I've not seen a decent mango this season. Mangoes? You're in luck, but don't thank me.… Why, I've been pining for them this fortnight," he lamented. "You'd have been the first, my dear chap; but I couldn't have spared you a mango now, if I had one."

A sudden idea made Scarlett a poor listener to the rest of the little man's chat. On reaching the hotel again, his first act was to stuff two or three mangoes into his pockets. A friendly chemist in the dispensary stared at his request, disappeared smiling into a tiny laboratory, and returned with a puzzled face, very serious.

"May I ask where you got these?" he said. "Anonymous friend.… Hmm! Quite right to be suspicious … Hydrocyanic acid, squirted full, permeated." He showed, in a strip of the mango skin, a pinhole puncture. "Regular subcutaneous, you see. Prussic enough to kill an elephant, sir."

"Good. Thank you," said Scarlett, laughing. "I don't die to-day. Some Christian friend will be disappointed."

But once outside, he stopped smiling, and acknowledged the chill that had touched his spirit: death, the unreal and remote, had struck short by a fang's breadth. "It was at my lips!" he thought, staring downward, while streets and shops reeled past the carriage like shapes in a dream. "I should be dead some two hours … but for Laura's chit."

That night he changed his room to the opposite wing, and from midnight on, paced barefoot in the dark verandah. Between moon-set and dawn, a black shape swarmed up the post below his former quarters, vanished within, reappeared, slid down to earth. Two other shadows joined it, and moved off, whispering, towards the river. In the farthest corner of the compound, a bush gradually swelled, divided, threw off the shadow-bulk of a man standing on watch. Then noiseless, faint, like the last vestige of a thing imagined, it moved away slowly after the other three. For a second, crossing the smoky light of the servants' door, it focused as the silhouette of Borkman.

When the little "Muang-Fang" next day swung southward from the fairy temple of Pak-nam, Scarlett heaved his shoulders as though to let slip all the burdens of a troubled kingdom. He was off, the Holborows were on board, and Chao Phya, by sufferance of an easy captain, lay in his lower bunk. Owen was about to lock him in, when he noticed that the cabin-boys had mixed their luggage. Among his bags lay an unfamiliar bundle of sticks, from which two had slipped out on the floor. One was the big black tamarind that the guide had carried in the ruins. As Scarlett lifted it, the knob of kerbau horn turned slightly.

"Idiot! blockhead!" he muttered, twisting and tugging. Something clicked, gave way,—and there in his hand, sliding from the polished wood, shone a bright sword-blade.

Some one laughed behind him.

"Found it, have you?"

The guide, his heavy frame filling the doorway, smiled in mockery.