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CHAPTER FIVE

ABOARD THE "MUANG-FANG."

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE
ABOARD THE "MUANG-FANG"

Scarlett, the naked sword in his hand, maintained an uncompromising stare. Hostile silence filled the little cabin.

"Well?" drawled the guide, at last. He combed his beard with steady fingers. "Well, what of it?"

"I think," said Owen coldly, "any further talk should come from you."

"Very good. It will," replied Borkman, with a robust air of generosity. "No reason why it should, you know. I'm not accountable to you. Only don't look so damned righteous and judgmatical." He closed the door, and cramped his great bulk down on the lounge below the porthole. "Come, come," he laughed, "look natural, my boy. Unbend, unbend! Take your mask off, every one else is unmasked, eh?"

"Cut out the humour," replied Scarlett, sheathing the sword grimly. "And spare me your friendliness. Straight facts or nothing."

"As you please." The guide lighted a Burmah cheroot, and sighed forth a blue cloud of smoke. "Be a prig if you like. I see you're in a frightful wax because I killed that swine of a coolie. But he'd have done for me if I hadn't. 'Dilly, Dilly, come and be killed'—that doesn't appeal to me. So I hit first, and—'my vorpal blade went snicker-snack.' As you must have seen. Got the beast right enough. Finish! A good job, too. If we judge a man by his friends characters, you ought to know that coolie was no angel. It's dry talking: just ring for drinks, won't you?"

Scarlett made no movement.

"Can't stoop to it eh?" jeered Borkman. "Murderers not good enough? Now look here, Mr. Virtue, I'll do some preaching on my own. I stuck that pig because I had to. You'd have done the same. It was kill or be killed. Young man—" he pegged out his emphasis with a heavy index ringer; his face and tone were candid—"young man, towards you I've had no feelings but the most friendly. Yet you pull a frozen face on me, and treat me like a stage villain. Actually, I believe you think I've plotted against you with that Chinese gang. No fear! Why, they've kept me sleepless for four nights. Your mafoo told me the little lame Chinaman cut at you in your carriage driving home from dinner. Well, he'd have stayed and finished you if he hadn't known that I was running down the road after him. And last night, when those three went gunning for you in your bedroom: if I'd been on their side instead of yours, shouldn't I have told them that you'd changed quarters to the other wing? That was a sensible move, and gave me genuine pleasure. Genuine, by Jove! You see I've watched you closely, and as a friend."

The deep-set eyes met Owen's without shift or tremour. Something in their light, as in the man's voice, told that he could not be altogether lying.

"But why," objected Scarlett, "why have you dragged these ladies into danger?"

"Accidental, dear chap!" cried the other eagerly. "Pure accident. I'm as sorry as you."

"Can't know when you are telling the truth," growled Scarlett. "So what's the use of asking you questions?"

"Now is that a pretty speech?" complained the courier. "You've never tried me. Put some questions. Come on."

"Well, then, what the devil is all this fuss? Why do you chaps poison and stab people for the sake of a cat?"

"Poison?" echoed Borkman. He whistled softly. "So they tried that on you, too. Hmm! Now you ask why, Mr. Scarlett, that's a hard question—a complex matter. You see, this cat—" He pointed to Chao Phya, who sat in the bunk describing half-circles of ablution round his ear, with a puffy paw bent like a boxing-glove. "This particular cat happens to be a kind of sacred animal. A secret society—"

Scarlett jumped up and flung open the door.

"That's enough!" he cried angrily. "Stop this baby-talk, and get out! I can't sit stewing in here over nonsense!"

Borkman rose laughing. His opal eyes twinkled merrily.

"There you are," said he. "The moment I do try lying, you bowl me clean. I'm no expert, my boy, and you're no fool. Now honestly, I can't tell you the real facts just yet; but will this do? I prevailed on the old lady—pardon me: Mrs. Holborow—to come away for her health. That was true, for the place was getting too hot, in every sense. We're all absolutely safe now. And I give you my word that when we reach Singapore, I'll explain everything. Show you the whole bag of tricks. Come now, that's fair."

They stumbled out over the high threshold, for the ship had begun to scend in a rising sea.

"That's fair," repeated Borkman. "You couldn't force me to say a word, you know. But I like your style."

Scarlett gave an unsociable grunt:

"Needn't bother, unless it's the truth."

"The whole truth, when we land," replied the big man, cheerfully. "And mind you, we're not in the slightest danger now."

This seemed to be the case. In fact, for two days Owen found the voyage dull. On that first night, the growing gale sent the ladies to their cabin; and as the "Muang-Fang" staggered out from the shelter of distant Cambodia, the grey waste of the South China Sea rolled full sweep in howling onslaughts. By day, Owen watched their slow fight southward through whirling rain and smoking wave-crests; by night, he see-sawed, half-awake, on a charpoy lashed beneath dripping canvas. Here he woke, in a dismal dawn, to find that the courier was mistaken.

A figure in a long yellow oilskin coat flapped by, shouting:

"Get out, ye suar! Below with you! Can't speak your lingo, can't I?" A glistening rubber boot kicked out mightily. Something soft thumped the lower deck. "Perhaps you'll savee that!" shouted the man in oilskin. He turned chuckling: it was the first officer, a light-hearted young Anglo-Indian.

"Morning!" he laughed. "These coolies are jungli enough, aren't they? Think the whole gory ship belongs to 'em! The beggar'd have nosed into your cabin if I'd not caught him."

Scarlett reeled to the ladder-head. The fallen prowler crawled up from the slewing deck, clutched a hand-rail, limped aft under the double awning. His dirty blue garb was that of a coolie, but his face the plump baby face of Ho Kong, Christian Friend and goldsmith's clerk.

The courier, then, had undervalued their opponents.

That day—which, like all days without Laura, dragged through stale, vacant hours—Scarlett spent in planning. By night he had evolved a simple stratagem. Deserting his canvas bed on deck, he took to his cabin, and camped down on the little couch by the door, which he hooked back, invitingly open. Above his head was the switch for the light, and ready to hand lay his revolver. Chao Phya slept, tethered, in the lower berth.

"A little trap," thought Owen drowsily. "A trap for Christian friends, and Chao Phya as bait."

To his disgust it caught nothing. Only one night more, and they would be in port. An unprofitable voyage: the stubborn puzzle of their situation enraged him; and except for inquiries and condolence, he had had no speech of Laura.

The last night wore away, till something woke him from uneasy sleep. The creaking roll had ceased; the ship throbbed steadily on even keel; and beside his couch daybreak glimmered vaguely in the doorway. But it was not these changes that had made him start: some other stir—

He reached up cautiously. The knob of the switch clicked down. In the sudden glare, a kneeling man leapt upright: Ho Kong's slant eyes blinked at the black muzzle of the Webley. Then both men sprang for the door. Just in time, Scarlett hammered the butt on the shaven forehead, knocked up the brass hook, slammed the door. He had forgotten that to Chinamen a gun is no threat. With a straight punch he sent the thief whimpering to the floor: then from the forgotten bundle of sticks, drew Borkman's sword and held the point pricking the naked saffron chest.

"I should have remembered the cold steel pidgin first off," he said. "Now, Mr. Ho Kong, speak up. What thing you wantchee? What thing you catch inside here?"

An anxious twitch wrinkled the baby mask, vanished, left it smooth, cool, intellectual. Pillowed on a snaky tangle of queue, Ho Kong stared upward in blank innocence. From the bunk, the cat glowered at them both.

"Chop-chop!" growled Scarlett. "You speakee!" He pressed the sword-point harder, twirled it slightly.

"Yai-eee!" squealed the thief. "Yai-eee! Pleasse ik-scusse me! I b'long Chlistian boy! Bling kim off! I talkee You Honour all velly good!"

Scarlett maintained his pressure. The captive writhed.

"I-I come walkee here," he moaned, "wantchee catch him cat. You Honour pleasse ik-scusse me. I hop you?—ah velly well. Cat he b'long my fa-tha. You savee fa-tha? You Honour fliend—big man, Bolkoman, he steal cat. My fa-tha he talkee my—'Go catchee cat, bling back my house!' I b'long velly good boy. I go. You savee fa-tha?"

"No savee your father," grinned Scarlett. "Haven't the old gentleman's acquaintance. A filial son, aren't you? Now forget your father and give me the truth." He pricked a fresh spot between the yellow ribs. "You fashion speakee no good. No can do." He dropped into Cantonese: "Speak the truth, or I kill you with many cuts and pains. Remove this father-lie. Tell the truth quickly."

"True gold fears no fire," quoted the prisoner glibly. "Should Your Greatness transfer his treasures of jade to my hovel, he would find there much wretchedness, but the jewel of truth."

"Show it, then, before I slice you."

"Your Greatness knows I am a pauper," gabbled Ho Kong, clawing at Scarlett's feet. "I am Chlistian boy. I can speak the Chlistian
 
P 126--The Siamese cat.jpg

"Now forget your father and give me the truth"

 
language, but yet I work for a few cash under the goldsmith's lamp. Sin Cheong is a hard master, The big man, your friend—"

"Go on," said Scarlett. "What of him? Borkman is no friend."

The thick-lidded eyes gave their first gleam of interest. The Chinaman sat up, fearlessly.

"Good. I hate him. He is a bad man. See now, here is the story. Many months, two rains ago, this big Bolkoman and Sin Cheong, my master, they were secretly partners. Your wisdom foreknows that the Phai-lin mines bring forth no good rubies, but chips and small rubbish. Very true: but one mine at Phai-lin of late gave birth to five, six of good size and value. No man knew this. Why? Because the coolies stole them secretly. My master and Bolkoman, they bought them all. With these hands I cut them, and Bolkoman took them forth of Siam and sold. Then one night came a Luk-chin man with such a stone as you have never seen—large, perfect as the Dragon's Pearl, red as the blood of doves. I lay on the roof, as always, and moving a certain tile, saw down into the room behind the shop, where the three squatted by the lamp.

"The Luk-chin thief would not loose that stone from his hand.

"'Ten thousand ticals,' he said. He breathed like a man in great fear. And it was worth seven times ten thousand.

"'This is neither Phai-lin nor Krat,' whispered my master. 'This is Burmah.'

"The Luk-chin swore it was Phai-lin, by five generations of his fathers.

"'It is Burmah,' said my master softly; 'and this man is a stranger here.'

"Bolkoman knew the fulness of that saying, and reached swiftly and caught the Luk-chin by the throat, and so killed him without noise. It was decorously unknown to neighbours.

"Then my master took down from the corner the God of Longevity. From the bottom of the image they cut out a cube of the soapstone, and thrust in the ruby, and sealed it with a thin shell of soapstone.

"But three other thieves had followed the dead Luk-chin, and now they watched Bolkoman, and my master, and the shop."

"Wait," interrupted Scarlett. "Was one tall, with the Two Whales tattooed on his back, so—?"

"Your wisdom includes him," nodded the clerk gravely. "Yes, and two others, Ah Pin the Flat Nose, and Tau-p'éí the Pockmarked, who is little and lame. But your first man has gone—where?"

Scarlett nodded in turn. "Borkman killed him with this sword."

The clerk held up two roly-poly fingers. "And he would have killed me for the third. Maskee! These three, then, hovered close as spirits, or the Funiao. Sin Cheong, my master, has not left his shop once. Then also the policemans would have searched Bolkoman, for some other act of his wickedness, which is manifold. So he sailed away to the Straits, leaving my master to watch the Burmah treasure in the God of Longevity.

Within this month he returned. He came as a great man, friend to wealthy women. May his house offend both the Green Dragon and the White Tiger! He bought my folly for a thousand ticals, that I should steal the stone, the dove-blood, the priceless. For my master would not give it up: 'Together we own,' I heard him say, 'Together we go sell. Not singly.' But he could not wake always. So one night, in the time it takes to drink a cup of hot tea, I pried it out from the image, and next day conveyed it out of the shop in—" Ho Kong's eye suddenly turned lack lustre, his voice indifferent—"in a cunning manner."

"Oho!" cried Scarlett eagerly. There flashed before him the memory of the wind-blown papers in the river garden, that afternoon Laura had—"Oho! You wrote that! 'It is in the middle one. They will follow you.' Then the ruby is in the middle bell—" he laughed aloud—"on the cat!"

"You know all things!" assented Ho Kong gloomily. His slant eyes held a curious gleam. "Yes, I wrote in Chlistian letters,—The middle one."

A glance at Chao Phya's collar showed the silver cockle-shells intact.

"Go on," laughed Scarlett. "By George! Go on."

The ingenuity at once amused and angered him. Safely smuggled out of the goldsmith's shop; stowed in a place too incredible for search, yet always in sight, always easily watched: this stone, which already had killed two men, had weighted Laura with unknown responsibility and danger. A thief and murderer had made her his pretext of respectability, his stalking-horse and receiver. "He will pay for it," said Scarlett. "Go on."

"Then I asked for my money!" cried the clerk hoarsely. "He laughed, this big man! He said, 'Why should I pay you? Go ask your master. You are a fool!'

"I saw this was true. First I thought, 'I will go kill myself on his door-step.' But he does not fear the evil spirits: he would only laugh. Then I thought 'He shall not have the ruby.' So I told the Pockmarked and the other two. The tall coolie, you say, he killed. But we three followed the stone everywhere. Four times we tried to kill you, wishing the stone, and thinking you Bolkoman's friend. Pleasse ik-scusse me. That is all. Now if you kill, push quickly."

In the silence, they could feel the slower throb of the engines, could hear the slush of water, the heavy dragging of hose, the patter of the Malays scrubbing deck.

"No," said Scarlett, at last. "Listen, Ho Kong. The stone belongs to a dead man, who stole it. It is no man's jewel. This liar, he has given it in the middle bell, to—to My Honour's girl. Good: she shall keep it. Write on this card your name and house. It is no trick. Fear nothing. Write."

The clerk, crouching, scrawled painfully against a bulkhead.

"Good," said Scarlett. "You have set me above this breaker of bargains. Now I shall make him the fool. He shall not see the stone again; and if it is as you have said, I shall send your thousand ticals to the Hongkong bank in Bangkok. You deserve only the bastinado; but this, perhaps, will square my conscience towards the dead man." He opened the door. "Now go, and never again come before me, for next time I also should kill."

Silent, placid, the clerk slipped through the door and flitted aft. Owen turned to the cat.

"Chao Phya, if what that fellow said is true—" He stooped to examine the middle bell. This fat shell of fluted silver might contain a treasure. But the fastening held strongly, the collar was locked on. "Borkman has the key," thought Owen. He could not bend or break the bell off, and the narrow slit showed only something that joggled and tinkled, and that might be pebble, or ruby, or child's marble. "I must get a silversmith to file it off."

He screwed home the shutter, locked his door, and ongoing to breakfast hired a Malay to stand guard. The ship lay anchored in Singapore harbour; on their port hand rose the city. The flat stretch of Collyer Quai, the low billows of arsenical verdure, slept cool and silent; but sunrise tipped the pale Memorial tower, and the signal masts on the hill.

Beside the breakfast table, already being laid on deck, Mrs. Holborow and Laura stood facing their guide,—all three, from heel to helmet, rigid with anger.

"That will do! That is quite sufficient!" snapped Aunt Julia, her voice trembling like a plucked bow-string. "Mr. Scarlett, will you please—Good-morning—will you please see us to our hotel presently, or at least to the Johnston Pier? And kindly inform this—this man that he is not to address me again. His wages we shall leave at the hotel office."

"Damn the wages!" roared the guide. "Look here, do you think—"

Scarlett's face was suddenly within an inch of his own. Both men were dangerously pale.

"You heard your orders," said the younger. "Or shall I repeat them, Mr. Jeweller?"

The deep-set eyes contracted evilly, met Scarlett's in a mutual menace. Without moving them, the courier spoke:

"Very well, Miss Holborow. Now I understand. Let your young man keep him for you. He'll be sorry."

Owen's arms tightened, drew slowly up from his sides. Borkman wheeled, and marched away aft.

"Oh, the—wretch!" cried both women together. Laura's cheeks flamed. Her aunt first broke the awkward silence.

"That cat has been our bane," she declared with energy. Then answering Owen's look, "Laura said that you should have charge of him, and this—this fellow became, became—Oh, he dared speak so to us! Laura, this ridiculous beast of yours—"

Her lips narrowed into a line of precision.

"It shall trouble us no more," she asserted. "Hereafter, I shall look to it myself."

"But Mrs. Holborow—" began Scarlett.

"Not a word, please!" Aunt Julia bowsed her chin taut home. "Let us drop this subject here. The cat, if we keep it, is in my charge."