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CHAPTER SEVEN

THE CAT'S HOLIDAY

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN
THE CAT'S HOLIDAY

Chao Phya was revelling in his liberty. Dropped on the quay by a cabin-boy who had no time to find buyers or drive bargains, he had fled zigzag through a labyrinth of hurried and hostile shins. Wherever coolies were not too busy, rapacious arms had swooped at him, but these he readily dodged. At the dock-gate a small, red-queued Straits boy fell on him cleverly, and held hard; but kicking with science, scratching the chubby arms, he fought loose, wormed between the little baba's trousered legs hopped over his fat white soles, and raced down the wide street. A coal-black Tamil dropped his shovel with a clang, and gave chase; but fleshless Dravidian legs could not wobble fast enough. Presenting to all pursuers a tail uplifted above the humping gallop of stiff hind-legs, Chao Phya gained the safe reaches of an empty road.

Here, under the lee of silent go-downs, he trotted, with a faint tinkle of silver bells; then gradually slackening his pace, sauntered free and proud as one of his great jungle cousins. The sunset coolness, premonition of congenial night, prompted him to frisk. For pure wantonness, he hopped upon the high threshold of a warehouse, caressed the iron doors in a long, luxurious glide, hopped down again to stretch and wallow slantwise through a patch of packing-straw, then gambolled across the road for a tiger pounce on a dried sirih leaf that stirred along the curb. The whim of neatness seized him next; and sitting doubled upon himself, he had begun to lap his fawn-coloured flanks with a curled, heraldic tongue, when the sudden rush of footsteps set him off again, galloping.

Down an alley of shops, that smelled deliciously of mature fish and frying ducks, he frolicked in the spirit of holiday. The threatening feet still pounded the flagstones, but more faintly in the distance. This fitful flight, this easy escape, was such a lark as—

In the very nick of exultation, a pair of white-swaddled legs darted across the path, dark fingers gripped him behind the ears, and an oily, grinning black man, in a tinsel-broidered skull cap, swung him into a dim-lighted shop. He thumped the matting like a landed fish, fighting gamely. Acrid smoke filled the air, diffusing in spirals above a blossom of red coal that grew, tall-stalked, from the fat, gleaming brass belly of a hookah.

Suddenly he was hurled through a narrow door, which slammed behind him. In this new prison there was nothing likable—a dirty charpoy, a few dishes around a brazier, a box or two. All the smells were insipid or unpromising. Angry voices filled the shop, without. No, the place was not comfortable. Chao Phya began leaping for the tiny window cut through the split bamboo of the rear wall. It was very high: he fell back, leapt again, clawed his way up ward, fell back, persevered in leaping and scratching.…

Had maledictions any force, Chao Phya never would have lived to do this; for Scarlett, racing in pursuit, had panted them so long as he could spare the breath. Trusting in the invariable delay of steamers, he had—to the amazement of Laura and her aunt—sprung down the gangway and across the docks. Fresh hope had changed to fresh rage, as he saw that crouching, fawn-and-seal-brown imp thread uncaptured among the chattering natives, wriggle from under the Khek urchin, outstrip the Tamil, and at last—so nearly taken unawares at his toilet—gallop free down the alley. "Back aboard ship," Owen had told himself after each failure; and as often, disgust at losing the sole reward for all their trouble and danger, goaded him to another last attempt. "Just once more," he was saying; as if fortune agreed, he saw Chao Phya caught up by the native in the dhoti.

Into which shop they disappeared, as he ran nearer, he could not be certain; for that end of the lane proved a small colony of Bengalis. But beneath the sign "Gobind Dass, Pinwallah of Calcutta," the slamming of a door gave him pause.

"I want that cat," he panted, to a dim figure that squatted by the pulsing coal of the hookah. "He's mine. Quick! Hand him over!"

Gobind Dass rose and salaamed in the bitter smoke. Smiling, fawning, he submitted to the Sahib that there was no cat. How should there be a cat? See, there was nothing in this shop—

"Five dollars," cried Owen. "Come! Hurry!"

The Pinwallah of Calcutta reconsidered the possibilities. Perhaps his neighbor Nabook had seen the cat, perhaps stolen one, for Nabook was a bad man. He would go see. Ten dollars, however, would hardly make Nabook restore any possible cat—

But just then, while Owen fumed, he heard a thin, silvery jingle within. "Oh, zoolum!" cried the shopkeeper: what violence and stronghand! for Owen had shoved him aside, plunged through the smoke, and torn open the door of the inner chamber.

Brown hindquarters and a ruffled tail struggled over the edge of the little window, and vanished.

For the first time, Scarlett paused to reason. To give up,—if Ho Kong had told the truth—was to renounce all sight of a fabulous treasure. On the other hand, he had already been lured so far from the docks, that now, run as hard as he might, the odds were he would miss the steamer, lose Laura, and have to show for it not even a jewel.

"Make sure of this, anyway," he thought, exasperated. "Cable her at Colombo—catch them on the way Home." And wrenching open the back door, he ran out. In the dusk, through rancid effluvia of Asiatic cooking, he sped after a small, furtive shadow that flitted, with tantalizing ease and swiftness, between disorderly skeleton lines of half-woven baskets.

It scuttled round the corner, into a noisy street. Already the giant lanterns glimmered before Chinese shops, like swinging fire-balloons inscribed with symbols red and black; already the double file of rickshaws, streaming past with a faint wooden rattle and a "slap-slap" of flat soles, bore their jogging lights, as of stretched concertinas holding glow-worm fire. Evening gossips, squat on their haunches along the curb, broke into ripples of laughter, as the red-faced young European panted by, hot and scowling, at the heels of a worthless cat. The laughter rose to a cackle when Owen, gaining, stooped and snatched, to miss by a hand's-breadth, while Chao Phya again hoisted tail and loped away in terror.

The chase spread merriment thus for a furlong or two, the cat loitering and spurting with diabolic humour. Even British blue-jackets, racing their rickshaws against each other, cheering, and flogging the coolies with their canvas hats, found time to grin, wave passing encouragement, or shout satirical advice: "Stern chase, guvnor!" … "Ooray!" … "Salt on 'er tail!" … "Stole away!" … "Well run, puss!"

Chao Phya led by some thirty yards. But suddenly, before a white-washed building, a burly little man in sailor's clothes jumped before him, blocked him with a ready foot, and scooped him up handily. At the same instant Owen slipped and fell headlong; struggling to his feet, dazed and muddy, he saw the man turn into the doorway.

Though the verandah lights had shone brightly down, the stairs within were dark. Chao Phya's new captor tramped overhead. As Scarlett stumbled upward, a faint light shone somewhere on the floor above, and a roaring bass filled the house:


… meeserable sinnerr when I'm soberr,
But I'm awfu', awfu' happy when I'm fou!

An I'm fou, the noo,
Absolutely fou,
But I adorre the country I was borrn in!
Me name is Jock …


The bang of a door shut off both light and song.

Scarlett limped along the corridors, sighted the bright slit of a threshold. His knock was lost in a smothered uproar of applause. He opened the door, and went in.

Among blue, filmy layers of cigar-smoke, the strong glow of unshaded lamps lighted the faces Of a ruddy, laughing company: men lounging in unbuttoned tunics, or bare-armed in their cinglets, filled both room and verandah. All watched a jovial giant who stood swaying on a battered billiard-table, rolling his grizzled head with the gusto, real or feigned, of drink. The singer, responding to his encore, bellowed:


I've jist com' frae a weddin' 'r a funeral,
'R a chriss'enin 'r a somethin'-o'-th'-kind.…


At a corner table, apart, Owen spied the burly little man of the doorway. He held beneath a lamp the rebellious body of Chao Phya, and seemed to study the silver collar. Skirting the chairs, unheeded by singer or audience, Owen accosted the man in an undertone:

"That's my cat, you know. I was chasing him when you caught him, below there."

The other looked up. The lines of his broad, sunburned face were sullen, the cold grey eyes stared insolence.

"Ho, is 'e? Wot a bloomin' shame!" he growled. "'Cause 'e 'appens to be mine."

"That won't go," cried Owen testily. "You never saw him before. Give him here. I'm willing to pay you for catching him, of course."

"Are you now?" scoffed the stranger. "That's 'andsome of you, too. Pay me for catchin' of my own cat—my old shipmate that as gone with me all these voyages!"

The song had stopped abruptly. The giant on the billiard-table, sober and aggrieved, was reasoning down at them in plaintive tones:

"Thats all I say! I don't wish to force myself on the present company, and am far from wishing to continue against the wishes o' any members that may be wishing me to stop. But when a man is asked to sing, and I may say urged to sing, and is only willing to oblige by singing, then—"

"I'm sorry to interrupt you," said Owen, amicably. "I didn't mean to make a disturbance,—and apologize for intruding."

Flushed, dripping with sweat, and smeared full-length with mud as from a street-fight, he focused the attention of the roomful. "This animal here is a pet that escaped from shipboard. I've chased him all the way from the German Mail dock—probably lost my steamer. And now this man claims him, and refuses to give him up."

"Stow your nonsense, there, Bob," commanded the singer. He consulted a fat silver watch. "You may have time to make her yet, sir. Give the gentleman his property."

"Ho, hindeed!" growled Bob. "Wot are you sufferin' from, Metcalf? I say this is my cat, 'cause it is mine. 'E's gone many a voyage along of me." Scowling pugnaciously, he perched the cat on his broad shoulder. "If any o' my mates was 'ere, they'd swear theirselves black in the face to that. 'E's a Japanee cat. I bought 'im in Kobe, and I lost 'im 'ere this mornin'."

"That's odd," retorted Scarlett. His hope of reaching the ship had revived; and with rising temper, he sketched Chao Phya's history. Their common interest in pets drew the sailors by one's and two's, into a group round the disputants,—a group that broke out in good-humoured wrangling.

"That's wot 'e is.… Who's to prove it?… I tell you it ain't no Jap … I was in Bangkok once, an' they 'ad … Don't have no such sharp noses, I tell you There's a Blue Funnel man 'ad a monkey that … 'E's a bloomin Manx, wot run away afore they could chop off his tail … spit an' image of 'im. Old Spiesen o' the "Chow Fa" has one, name of Peter … I can bloomin' well prove it …"

Ransacking his pockets, Scarlett felt only a handful of Straits silver and his useless letter of credit … Chao Phya's possessor noted the movement, and his surly eyes brightened.

"I'm willin to sell," he admitted. "But this cat—w'y, this old chum an me, we wouldn't part under five pound—no, nor under fifty dollars!"

Scarlett could contain himself no longer.

"You'll part with him for nothing," he said angrily. "Will you give him up without trouble, or do you want to fight for him?"

Open-mouthed stupour fell on the company. Then, to Owen's surprise, all hands laughed uproariously.

"Cert'nly, mate," replied the sailor, with an obliging air. "That's a fair offer. I'd fight you for less." He grinned cheerfully, winked at the on-lookers, and plied his stubby fingers at his buttons.

Murmurs of protest mingled with the laughter: "… not hardly fair … Will 'e fight? well, rather! … Go on, tell 'im, Mac … The youngster looks 'andy enough, too … But he'd ought to know who he was takin on.…"

A grey-beard engineer shook his head at Scarlett, solemnly.

"Man," said he, "'tis but honest to inforrm ye, thon man is Bob Cutts, that fought a drawn fight o' twenty rounds at Kowloon, wi' Tom Johnston—him they call the Champion o' the China Squadron."

"Thanks," said Owen; then added stiffly—"It doesn't affect my offer."

"That's the ticket!" cried a voice, hearty though nasal. "That's the way to talk to 'em, mister." A tall young man, with a lean, hard face of the American type, clapped him on the shoulder. "Say, take me for your second? That's the ticket! Oh Boy! bring towels, savee?"

Working with seamanlike despatch, they dragged the tables aside, and placed the lamps in safety. As Owen stripped to the waist in a corner, his second maintained a friendly chatter. "Say, you're an American, ain't you? I spotted you right off. So'm I,—born in Salem, Mass'—third on the 'Lambert'—oil-ship. Here, take my deck-shoes—keep you from slippin', see?" He felt Owen's shoulder and biceps, gave a muted whistle. "Say, if you get a good crack at that feller, he won't think no goose kicked him, will he?"

The grizzled singer and the Scots engineer approached with ceremony, to propose themselves as referees. Scarlett, his thoughts flying forward to the ship and Laura, nodded assent to their terms.

"Make it a short bout," he stipulated.

From the other corner, his foe nodded, half-friendly and half-scornful. His face and neck, ruddy as briar-root, reared from shoulders of knotted ivory.

"Right-oh!" he laughed. "It'll be short enough, guvnor."

The man from Salem, tying to Scarlett's wrists a pair of dark, malodorous gloves, whispered excitedly: "Don't you mind him. I've seen his work—'tain't so much slugger … strong as a bullock … but old-fashioned. Don't mix it up … use plenty o' footwork … look sharp and cross-counter.… Mind you, use your right on him.…"

A bell rang sharply. The spectators lined the edge of the verandah, swung up to the tables, flattened themselves in corners. With a parting slap, the second muttered in Scarlett's ear. "Kill the bloomin' lime-juicer!" And the two men stepped out into the centre, where a swaying Chinese lantern twirled on the floor a spidery shadow of thin spokes.

Pre-eminent on the billiard-table, the engineer announced judicially:

"This argument, gentlemen, will tairminate in seven rounds. It will effect a deceesion as to whether this cat is a Jap or a Siamee cat, and which of these two human bein's is the better man."

Thus, for the first time in his life, and against all expectation, Scarlett found himself a "principal" in a ring. He was too eager and angry to care, though his heart thumped curiously. Opposite him, Cutts, crouching already, and hunching upward one of his Atlantean shoulders, stretched out arms tattooed from wrist to deltoid in red and blue patterns on a satin skin,—arms heavy, long as a gorilla's, and rippling with tense muscles. Their padded hands clinched once, lightly, in formal salute. Then, as if stung by an electric contact, the two men sprang apart. The sailor,—his lips curled in a set, ominous smile, and his tattooed arms slowly working—crouched and shifted warily, like a bull-dog stealing in for his under-hold. Through a long, indelible moment, Scarlett noted the light scuff of their feet, a tinkle of the cat's bells in the hush, the heavy sweetness of incense, and smothered thunder of vesper gongs from some neighbouring joss-house.

In the first minute, at the first onset, the whole affair seemed over. Reckless, and with the fatal folly of bad temper, Owen had rushed in, driven straight at that taunting smile the full force of his left, and met a staggering counter-shock that jarred his head backward as if on a bad hinge. His vision swam hazily; and in a ringing confusion the sailor's onslaught swept him back with a whirl of battering, half-guarded blows,—drove him to a corner, penned him, forced him to clinch. Hugging the smooth, hard-wrenched body, he heard a cool chuckle of triumph; then—as with straining muscles they pushed asunder, cautiously—a vicious jab, just above the belt, sent him sick and hopeless to the floor.

It slanted like a deck while he laboured dizzily to hands and knees. Above the tumult, the nasal cry of his friend from Salem rang indignant—"Foul, a foul!" He heard a slow voice counting:"Five, sax, seven.…"

"No!" he gasped. "No foul! No, no! A fair blow."

He regained his feet somehow, dodged unsteadily but swiftly from the attack, slipped away, skirted the room full circle. A lucky instinct made him duck below a ferocious swing; and the whiff and wind of it, passing over his crown, seemed miraculously to clear the air. He bobbed up a fighting man again, cool, amused, anxious to win, and to keep a painful smile on cracked and puffing lips.

The downfall had done him good. Presently, in the exchange of feinting and checked blows, his fist landed true on the jaw. "'Andy work, mate," grunted his opponent, cheerfully. And spurred by that contempt, but without hurry, he landed three times more on body and head. He had begun to enjoy himself, and the sailor to puff somewhat, when the bell rang and the loud talk broke out.

Relaxed in a chair, he submitted his face to the mopping of the second, who chatted steadily: "You're all right … but didn't I tell you not to mix it … plain straight counter that got you first … child's play … I thought 'twas all off.… That was a shore way o' doin' things, wasn't it?…" Flapping his towel punkah-wise, he fanned vigorously. "Don't you try that no more, now.… Put your right hand to him … mind what I tell you … lick him yet.… Hear that? He said that he didn't expect no second round!"

On the billiard cloth Chao Phya sat blinking. He gave a cavernous, pink yawn, then started nervously as the Scotchman hammered the plunger of the table-bell.

At the first stroke Cutts rolled out to his place, and before the last he was plunging forward, greedy to give and take. This time, however, Scarlett danced free, just beyond reach, "with wanton heed and giddy cunning"; placed a light blow now and then, romped round the sailor, and stepped aside from his heavy charges, as a chulo evades a bull. Once or twice, laughter rose. And as Owen had hoped, the sunburned face that swayed before him took on a settled scowl. For two minutes he skirmished thus. "That's the game!" crowed his backer, repeatedly. At last, with a snarl—"Fight, damn ye!"—Cutts ran for him wildly, lashed out at full stretch.

The glove rasped hot past Owen's neck, in the same instant that, with all his power and to the impetus of both bodies, he gave the cross-counter. The sailor staggered back with chin uplifted, swayed, for an interminable space, as though undecided which way to fall, then gently collapsed like a limp bolster.

After dumbfounded silence, a roar drowned the engineer's counting; but above the hubbub shrilled the voice of Scarlett's second, who, with an idiot face of glee, pirouetted in a skirt of towels, chanting:


Yankee doodle doodle doodle
Doodle doodle doodle …


The figure on the floor had not moved. Two men were kneeling beside it. One looked up suddenly, and said:

"He's killed him."

Long afterwards Owen recalled the fellow's face, the matter-of-fact tone, the stillness and scared looks in the room, the scolding singsong of coolies chattering in the road below. Nor did he soon forget the equal shock of relief when an uncertain voice broke the silence, mumbling:

"'E jolted me proper, didn't 'e?"

The sailor stirred, rolled over, and with a heave of white shoulders, sat up, grinning, dazed and sheepish.

"I give ye best man," he announced to the general world. Catching Owen's eye, he nodded, feebly but amiably. "If I'd kept off the drink this week past, p'raps ye wouldn't be, guvnor. 'E's your cat."

Scarlett would have snatched the prize and run; but a late comer from the docks had seen the ship leave half an hour before. Laura was gone; his new acquaintances thronged about him, with artless compliments; so yielding to pressure, he adjourned with them to a disreputable small hotel, where they had a capital dinner of French cookery in a tiny closed garden, with good liquor, songs, and curious tales from many ports. They broke up at three in the morning; when Bob Cutts, shaking hands affectionately for the last of some two-score farewells, declared with tears that the pair of them together could abolish the German navy.

In his bedroom, Scarlett was rubbing his bruised and stiffened limbs.

"You're all that's left me, Chao," he reflected. "Had a merry evening, haven't we?"

The cat stared up with pale, distrustful eyes, yawned, lifted his nose in a sleepy stretch. His collar shone in the lamplight. The middle bell was missing.