The Siamese Cat/Chapter 6
THE LADY FROM MAURITIUS
THE LADY FROM MAURITIUS
At breakfast, the captain's presence forbade explanation; and three times in the shore-going sampan, Aunt Julia herself forbade it in good set terms. Clasping Chao Phya beside her on the thwart, she sat as upright as her parasol.
"But I must tell you," urged Owen desperately. "You don't know the risk. That cat's collar has a—"
"Our luggage is all that I need trouble you about," she interrupted, frowning. "Please understand, Mr. Scarlett, that unless this silly and unfortunate subject is dropped, I shall be seriously displeased."
Her frigid air, her careful choice of words, and above all a stealthy glance from her niece, warned him that this prim little matron could prove a Tartar.
"Have it your own way, then," he reflected. "Whatever else happens, I must keep in favour at court."
It amused him to think of what a secret she had robbed herself. On the other hand, he was chafing for a look inside Chao Phya's middle bell. Neither in sampan nor in gharri could he pass the word to Laura; and, hardly were they alighted at their hotel, when hateful strangers encountered them, and hailing the Holborows as old friends, carried them off in a victoria.
Owen, left alone once more, with directions to forward their trunks to the strangers house, watched that victoria depart, and found it, from twinkling wheels to jingling chains, from snowy turbans to polished hoofs, a needless and loathsome apparition.
His instructions, however, he followed faithfully; and when leaving the courier's pay with the Eurasian clerk, ordered that whoever might call for it should not be told the whereabouts of the Holborows.
Next day, coming back to his room, he found Borkman seated in his best long-chair, smoking calmly, though with an aspect black and lowering.
"I like your cheek," began Owen; but the other leapt upright and opened fire:
"Don't give a hang what you like. I've come here to ask you just one question. Where's the cat, or where's my property?"
"In my keeping," replied Scarlett promptly. "Stowed safely where you won't see either of them."
"Knew you'd say that," sneered the courier. "Now listen. If you know as much as you appear to, you'll know enough to give up that—that thing. Leave it for me at the Chartered Bank by to-morrow noon, or whoever has it will be—in a mess, that's all!"
"That's all, then," assented Scarlett. "Good-day."
"I'm not joking," began Borkman.
"Nor am I. Do you remember," asked Owen, "what happened in that club at Cebu? It's going shortly to happen in this doorway, unless you go."
Scowling piratically, the courier looked back over his shoulder from the threshold: "I've served fair notice. Don't imagine I'm tamely going to give it up to that little flapper of yours. She'd better look.…"
Scarlett ran two steps towards him, and shot out his right foot with the skill of an old drop-kicker. It would have scored an accurate goal. With a shout of rage, the big man wheeled; but Scarlett's guard was up, and at that instant a squad of newly arrived Dutch planters waddled round the corner of the verandah.
"Won't take you on to-day, my boy!" laughed Borkman ostentatiously. "Some other time we'll fight it out, eh? Chin-chin!" He swaggered off, waving gay farewells before the staring audience of Batavian crop-heads.
This episode made Owen far more cheerful. The kick, though he knew it had only further enraged an enemy, left him aglow with satisfaction. It was pleasant, also, to know that Borkman considered him still the guardian of Chao Phya.
He deferred his note of explanation to Laura: "no need yet," he decided, "of stirring them up." The courier's threat he disregarded; and the next day, with the appointed noon, passed in tranquil succession of black, splashing showers and aching glare.
On the second morning, however, as he lay smoking in the main verandah, a Chinese boy brought news at which his heart leapt. A lady wished to see him: and wild hope told him it might be Laura.
On reaching the carriage archway, he found a strange face smiling at him from the gharri window. A pretty and alluring face,—even to his disappointed vision: Italian in the darkness of the cheeks, Parisian both in the quickness of the black eyes and in the pointed, piquant contour, it was lively and mischievous as a kitten's.
"Is zees Mr. Scarlett?" she asked, with a smile at once dangerous and engaging. As she leaned forward, the stranger showed trim, youthful shoulders, and one sleeve of her shapely white jacket, ringed with the black band of perfunctory mourning.
"My friend Mrs. Hol-bo-row," laughed the stranger merrily. "She has sent me to ask a so fonny question! It is zees: 'Haf you ze cat?' Is not zat droll! 'Haf you ze cat?'"
"Has she lost him already?" cried Owen in consternation. Next instant he could have bitten off his tongue. Suppose this joyful young woman had come from Borkman? Her next words, however, reassured him.
"No, no!" Her laugh was a mere delight. "Zat is a miss-take. You must pardon me. My home is not long in Singapore, but many years in Mauritius. I spik ze English tongue so ver' badly. But see. I vould not haf said—'Haf you ze cat?' I vould say 'Vill you ze cat?' Zat is it."
She handed him an open envelope.
"Here is Mrs. Hol-bo-row's letter. But I must ask you first, it sounded a so fonny question!"
Owen drew out the letter:
Dear Mr. Scarlett:
I have a favour to ask of you. Will you kindly take charge once more of this wretched pet of Laura's? It seems foolish to ask, but recent events make me think it really unwise for us to keep it.
We are spending the day with Mrs. Fargueil, who will give you this note, and who joins us in begging that if possible you will come to tiffin with us. Laura and I have much to say to you, especially in explaining the apparent absurdity of our request.
"You vill come to ze tiffin?" begged Mrs. Fargueil, smiling radiantly. "Ah, zat is so naice! I send zees carriage for you, a little after noon." Her parting glance was so lustrous as to border on coquetry.
"That is a gay bird for Aunt Julia to flock with," thought Owen. "Glad she's getting reasonable, at last, about Chao Phya. I wonder what has happened?" The more he studied the letter, the more plainly he saw that Aunt Julia had had a fright.
The carriage called for him promptly, in such a drenching equatorial downpour as made him keep the shutters closed. Between the slats he could catch glimpses only of pink roads flooded, pools lashed with upward-leaping drops, and now and then the stout sallow calves of a rickshaw coolie splashing past on the jog trot. He was nearing the outskirts of the city, in the general direction, as he guessed, of the impounding reservoir, when the carriage swerved between gate-posts, followed the long curve of a drive thick-set with dripping shrubbery, and stopped beneath the white arches of a verandah. Substantial but damp-stained, Flamboyer Villa—to judge from a hurried glance—stood in a dense little wilderness of tropical greenery. A white-bearded durwan, Biblical in robes and turban, salaamed gravely at the foot of the stairs.
Owen mounted gaily, hoping to see Laura at the head; but the verandah was empty. A table with a tray of bottles stood near the rail. Except for this and a few rattan chairs, the place was meagrely furnished; the pillars were patched with rusty mould; and missing the swing of the punkah, Owen looked upward to find the bare ropes dangling.
"Pardon ze ap-pear-ance," said a soft voice behind him. The lady from Mauritius, smiling mischief, stepped forward into the verandah. "It is all in ver great des-ordre, is it not? Ve are pre-paring for ze paint. What a mees-er-able r-rain! You vill haf a pahit?" She mixed the gin and bitters skilfully. They drank together, the lady pledging with coy, Jonsonian eyes.
"Oh, I am forgetting," she cried in arch dismay. "Mrs. Hol-bo-row, she spiks wiz you before ze tiffin."
With what, in Anglo-Saxon glances, would have been an ogle, she led Scarlett within the house again, and held aside the curtain from a doorway.
"In here, please," she cooed. "Mrs. Hol-bo-row comes directly. Pardon ze darkness—zese mees-er-able clouds!"
She vanished with a look which made the young man consider. "By George, she is pretty! But if she weren't Aunt Julia's friend, I'd say she almost made eyes at people."
He stumbled into a chair. The room was black as midnight, damp, and airless; he could neither see nor feel the stir of any punkah. Gradually, as he sat in this funereal darkness, the two windows glowed brighter, till a faint yellow gleam told of sunshine without: faint, because heavy green reed curtains, barred with wide vertical stripes, thickly veiled both windows. Through them glimmered the white columns of the verandah, a few slim, vermilion shafts of sealing-wax palm, and, on the trees that gave their name to the villa, broad burgeonings of arterial red.
He waited a long time. The sepulchral air of the room, the dead silence marked by the tiny scratchings of lizards on the plaster, disquieted him strangely. "Aunt Julia takes her time," he thought. The more his eye-sight cleared in the dusk, the less inviting loomed his surroundings. The few draperies lighted by the dim glow, took on a tawdry look; the knick-knacks were common Japanese bazaar stuff; and the scragged plants stood in Chinese pots of the cheapest ware. From the table he caught up a paper to flap as a fan. The frontispiece looked familiar; the heading … it was a Graphic nearly two years old.
Misgivings seized him: something was wrong with this house. His watch showed that he had waited half an hour. He stepped towards the entrance, pulled aside the curtain, and bumped against a smooth door of heavy teak-wood—closed and locked.
Disgust was his chief emotion: he had proved such an easy fool. "This charmer from Mauritius," he thought savagely, "first she pumped me, then had me walk into her parlour—or Borkman's. I wonder what for?—especially as the windows are open."
He crossed the room, thrust sharply outward at the heavy reed "chicks," and nearly broke a finger. What had seemed vertical bands on the curtain were iron bars, newly set in, with all the neat solidity of Chinese workmanship. Even as he rose from a vain attempt to loosen them, past the window glided the noiseless figure of a brown Malay, from whose waist-knot stuck the handle of a kriss. It was a stout trap, and well watched.
Vexed with surmise, he went back to his chair and waited. Borkman, it was plain, had worked methodically. "First he claps me in jail here. What's the next move?" Evidently it would be against the Holborows. In vague and conflicting anxiety, he outwatched the drowsy afternoon.
At last the floor above creaked stealthily. In the upper chamber, voices murmured. Without a sound, Owen climbed on the table, stood upright, listened.
"But he is just below!" expostulated a sprightly voice. The lady from Mauritius had lost her foreign accent. "It will not do."
"Have to," grumbled a surly bass. It was unmistakeably Borkman. "Do you suppose … afford to hire every villa in Singapore? …. must be in here. Where else? … Nonsense … Let him shout, then … no one within quarter of a mile … troublesome, I'll jolly soon stop his mouth … And another thing, Justine, … do the respectable better than you did … I saw you … can't stop making eyes at the men … No! rot … I tell you it must be in here.…"
The grumble died away; furniture grated lightly along the floor just over Scarlett's head; then cautious footsteps departed.
The voices had sounded so clear that Owen looked up involuntarily; and now for the first time he saw that the discoloured whiteness over head was no plaster, but a ceiling-cloth stretched taut over the beams.
"Hello! "he muttered, "if only … It's a bare chance." Whipping down from the table, he seized the tallest chair in the room—a solid piece of Chinese carving, cheaply inlaid—and lifted it to the table. Then climbing upon this, and gripping a loose end of punkah-rope that dangled from a hook, he slashed away with his big clasp-knife two good square yards of cloth. The cross-beams showed, over two feet apart. Enveloped in trailing strips of mouldy cloth, he stabbed upward at the floor-boards; then grunted in disappointment, for the knife-blade stopped short in seasoned wood, hard as iron.
"Take all night for it, then," he thought, and jabbed again and again, doggedly.
Suddenly the blade ran up, as through cheese, the hilt jarred softly home, and left his hand powdered with dry dust. "White ants!" he whispered, rejoicing. A few slashes carved out a long meandering slit from beam to beam. The rest held firm, but here was a lucky start.
Peering up through the hole, he could discern only obscure light, beneath some smooth, dark surface which he could not explain. He paused for breath, tangled his left wrist thoroughly in the punkah-rope, and began to whittle along the slit. Stubborn shavings, one by one, fell past him to the floor. Sweat coursed down him, from forehead to ankles.
Night came on, but still he worked steadily, fingering the invisible edges. At last he could feel that of one wide board there remained only a strip at either side. These he was about to risk the noise of breaking, when the crunch of carriage wheels sounded in the driveway, brisk feet mounted the stairs, and to his dismay voices murmured overhead, as if at the door of the room. A bright shaft of lamplight slanted down through the gap, and then, to the creak of footsteps that seemed to trample the very edges of the hole, became unaccountably obscured.
"It's all up," he thought, and hung by the wrist, waiting in despair. The sounds again retreated,—the neat tread of a single pair of feet, though in his confusion he had seemed to hear two persons entering. He waited anxiously. At the long-forgotten memory of hanging thus on straps in crowded cars, he felt a foolish desire to laugh.
Presently the carriage wheels crunched away again into the distance. The chamber above remained silent. Nothing happened. Half an hour must have passed.
"Here goes, anyway," he decided, and tugged at one of the whittled edges. It snapped faintly, splintered, came down. He waited, then pulled at the other, which broke with an alarming crack. Cutting his wrist-rope, and seizing the new borders, he swung like a gymnast, kicked violently, and with a wrench of muscles surged up through the hole.
A sharp blow on the head dazed him. Some one gave a little shriek. He rolled over, expecting the next stroke of the same bludgeon to brain him, and found himself a-sprawl beneath a table on which a lamp still dangerously tottered.
Bolt upright in a chair, as if Medusa were to make a formal call, Aunt Julia glared at him with a Gorgon face of unbelief and wrath. She was the first to break their frozen stupefaction.
"Please explain, Mr. Scarlett. Why, after writing that incomprehensible letter, why have you kept me waiting while you lurked under a table?"
"I—I came up through the floor, you know," he stammered, prostrate and guilty.
Then your conduct is even more incredible." The little matron bristled. "If you are given to practical jokes …"
"Ssh!" warned Scarlett, regaining at once his feet and his presence of mind. "Please whisper!"
"I shall do nothing of the sort," she declared, in clear tones and penetrating. "Whisper indeed! Unless you have taken leave of your senses, you will explain everything at once."
"Please, please," whispered Owen imploringly, "not so loud. It isn't safe. What did I write to you?"
"This, of course," replied Aunt Julia. With an air of patient contempt, she drew from her pocket a letter. He darted with it to the lamp. A good imitation of his own handwriting, it begged Mrs. Holborow to meet him that evening at Flamboyer Villa, to discuss privately "a matter of the gravest importance." He skimmed it, frowning. "Every reason to believe … serious danger to you and Miss Holborow … cannot explain in writing … absurd as it may seem, absolutely imperative that you bring the Siamese cat … shall send my gharri for you promptly … under no circumstances mention this to any one … not responsible for consequences …" The signature, "Owen Scarlett," was a capital forgery.
"Where is he?" asked the young man.
"Who, please?" inquired Mrs. Holborow, with the same cold, weary patience.
"The cat," he explained. The word stung her into animation.
"That!" she exclaimed. "Really, that, Mr. Scarlett, was a length to which I could not go. No cat, or other dumb animal, could be necessary for any discussion whatsoever. It was folly enough to come here at all."
"You left him behind?" cried Scarlett in cautiously. "Good! Good!" With joy, he pictured Borkman raging; but on the heels of that thought followed another which startled him. Borkman would not give up so easily—and Chao Phya was now with Laura.
"We must get out of here." He spoke with curt conviction. "I never wrote this letter. The man you discharged has concocted it. He brought me here first, by forging this note from you."
With a growing flush at her outraged identity, Aunt Julia scanned the invitation to tiffin.
"No, indeed," he assured her. "Of course you never wrote it. It fooled me, however. They locked me into the room below, to keep the coast clear for deceiving you. I broke jail—there!" He pointed to the pool of darkness under the table. "Borkman is a dangerous man, and his next move he'll make against your niece. The carriage drove off immediately after you came—without Chao Phya. We'd best make for home at once—if we can get out."
"By all means," replied Aunt Julia. Though her flush gave way to pallor, she rose quiet and ready, a prim little mistress of her feelings.
Their captors had counted on bewilderment, in a lonely house of unknown environs, to keep the second prisoner secure; for the room was not so much as curtained from the long corridor. They stole out, crept down the stairs, stopped, gave ear to the dead silence, crept down again safely to the verandah floor. By the newel-post sprawled a Malay, drugged with sleep. Through the bare hall a cool evening draught bullied the flame of the hanging lamps; the strip of matting rose along the floor; except for the sedate, humdrum figure of Aunt Julia, their escape recalled the flight of the fabled lovers on Saint Agnes' Eve. Down-stairs again to the doorway they stole, past another sleeping Malay, and so out, free of the arches, free of the dim lamplight on the gravel.…
A voice shouted,—the durwan was giving the alarm. "Run!" cried Scarlett. He caught the swish of reefing skirts, and there beside him bounded Aunt Julia, with the speed, if not the grace, of Atalanta. They raced to gether through the blurred shadows of tropic starlight. As the ghostly form of the gate-post shot behind, a hard patter of bare feet followed them, gaining.
The highway, overarched, ran to their left as black as a tunnel. To their right, far off, the orange radiance of a street lamp lighted a dim fringe of theatric green. He seized his companion, swung her over the ditch, and pinning her against the outer face of the compound wall, whispered fiercely: "Quiet! Let them pass us!"
Three shapes, breathing hard, swept by towards the light.
"Now, then!" he whispered; and facing about, led the way into the darkness opposite. They stole ahead, stopped, listened, hurried on again, caught suddenly, to the right, another distant gleam, and plunged towards it, down a soggy lane. Already they could see the black column of the lamp-post and the flat shine of a broad road, when once more the pursuing feet pattered down the lane behind them. Spurting headlong, the two emerged on a broad, well-lighted road. A stone's throw along it, like a row of stationary fireflies, twinkled the lanterns of a rickshaw stand. Instantly the two nearest rickshaws wheeled out, came trundling to meet the fugitives. The coolies dropped their brass-bound shafts; Scarlett lifted Aunt Julia to one seat, and shouting "Scott Road!" swung into the other; then, as the coolies caught their balance and jogged off, he saw, over his shoulder, three Malays dart from the mouth of the lane and stand at fault.
It was pleasant—with the grateful breath of motion cooling his cheeks—to jog homeward down the humid vista of overhanging foliage, or under the starry marvel of open sky. Yet Owen's thoughts tugged forward. If Laura should be safe, then their luck held. If not—but he clenched his fists against that uncertainty.
Beside the gate into which their coolies veered, stood a carriage. Through the window, as they spun past, Owen saw the white figure of a single occupant. Next moment he had leapt from the rickshaw and run forward; for towards them, down the carriageway, his eyes green fire against their lanterns, raced Chao Phya, back arched, tail hoisted, like a galloping monkey. The beast wavered, stopped, crouched, dodged, and with long, stealing steps began to slink aside to the croton shadows. Owen caught him up, and sprinting, forged alongside Aunt Julia's rickshaw.
In the road ahead, at the verge of the lantern glow, a bulky white shape struggled to rise from the gravel. Above it a smaller man, with an underswing outrageously swift and violent, struck twice and thrice, seemed to wrench his fist away, turned. The slant eyes of Ho Kong blinked at the nearing lights. Then the blade of his knife gleamed as he dived into black leafage. The kneeling figure lurched to its feet, rose; and in a drunken stagger Borkman reeled past, his white tunic badged with blood.
"Giles! Giles!" screamed a woman's voice at the gate.
Scarlett, transfixed, stared into the darkness, turned to speak, and found the rickshaw coolie trotting on as though nothing had occurred. He overtook Aunt Julia at the carriage steps, in time to hear Laura call from the stair-head—"Why, there she is! Where have you been all this time, Auntie?"
"Here, quick!" he panted. "Take Chao Phya! Quick! I must go see what happened."
"What was it? What was it?" begged Aunt Julia, hugging the cat with a frantic tension. His dragon squirming seemed to recall her to herself.
"I shall not alarm Laura," she whispered. "Come soon and tell me—everything." He was rushing away, when she recalled him. "Oh, please! Please, without fail, get passage for us on the earliest steamer possible—yes, Colombo—to-morrow, any day, the sooner the better. I've had quite enough of this—"
Owen was off, running, to the gate. No one was there; the carriage had gone; well down the road echoed a rumble and a clatter. He recaptured his rickshaw and gave chase; but though the coolie bounded along at a flying stride, the ponies drew steadily away, and after many corners, disappeared.
Next morning he learned that a German mail steamer would sail for Colombo that afternoon. By furious despatch, he managed to get himself, the Holborows, and all their belongings safely on board. Beside him at the rail stood Laura, dressed—as when they first met before the tank of the devil-fish—in blue and white. Her colouring, in the level glow of sunset, was radiant; and her eyes danced with provocation.
"Why," she asked wickedly, "did you dash away so last night? And why is Aunty so mysterious ever since? Where had you two been disporting yourselves?"
"It's a long story," he laughed, "and a strange one. I'd have told you to-day, but didn't see either of you except in this rush, and before people. Maskee! we have the whole voyage for telling it." He could not have helped the rejoicing in his tone. "A good long voyage. But it all begins with the cat. By the way, where is he? I'll show you something—he has a present for you."
Through the orderly bustle of departure, Aunt Julia approached along the deck.
"Where's Chao Phya?" called her niece. "Mr. Scarlett's going to—"
In Aunt Julia's voice, as in her look, vexation strove with guilt.
"I have settled it," she announced. "These impudent officers forbade me to keep him with us. That was the last straw. I gave him to the cabin-boy to take ashore."