The Siamese Cat/Chapter 8
Colombo was long to figure in Scarlett's mind as a Delphic city hidden behind numberless sunsets, towards which his ship crawled with sluggish keel, bringing the weightiest question in the Orient. Should he ever see Laura? This uncertainty, assuming the various guises of confidence, despair, resignation, prolonged and embittered his westward course; till at last the oracle gave answer, in a G. O. H. envelope, inscribed with the same handwriting that had saved his life two thousand miles away.
Colombo was a joyful place; and the Clock Tower Light winked a knowing farewell. Nothing else had mattered. Heaving aside the oily stillness of the Arabian Sea, the ship throbbed northward. Slowly, one by one, the friendly world unrolled familiar sights to beguile him into patience: the clinkered mounts of Aden; the scorching, breathless floor of the Red Sea; the steady host of ships that passed, close aboard, dipping their ensigns greedy ships of empire, sullenly racing for the treasures of the East; and then the solemn desert mountains of Asia and Africa narrowing in on either hand, sharp, crinkled peaks—changeless background of the Exodus—in dusty yellow, ashen grey, and ashen pink, with ghostly clouds of sandstorm lifting, swirling, falling about their bases.
In the mean time, Laura's letter had grown worn with folding and unfolding.
"We are very glad"—she had written—"to find your cable message waiting for us here at Colombo. I wish we were to stay here till you yourself follow it; but my aunt consents only to make a flying visit to Kandy, and then will hurry on. She has already spent two winters in Egypt; and as it is now the off season there, and hot, she was for sailing calmly by. At this point, however, I—who have not seen Egypt—rebelled. So we shall go up the Nile at least to Assouan, and then return to Port Said and take ship for Marseilles. As that will be about the fifteenth of next month, can't you join us there?
"I am overjoyed to think that you are bringing back old Chao Phya. You cannot imagine our surprise when you went plunging down the gang-plank to rescue him.… Aunt Julia still thinks that every one had gone mad after the cat. We are both consumed to hear what it was all about, and why they locked you up and chased you, and whether they killed that poor wretched Borkman, and what your despatch means by 'Collar had ruby, now lost.' I have invented wild romances to explain it all. So you must come along and tell us, and give us an opportunity to thank you for the kind things you have done.…"
All went happily, he reflected, as the ship slid out of the Bitter Lakes, past Serapium, and on between the desolate banks of the canal. For two days yet, no ship would leave Port Said for Marseilles. He was sure to find her. Chao Phya, in snug quarters below, was sleeping out the voyage. The Burmese ruby, to be sure, was gone. Only the shank of the bell, nipped off as by strong pincers, remained to prove that their past adventures were not a dream. Whether Ho Kong had won, whether Borkman had kept it and survived, or dying had given it to his friend Justine, they would never know. What odds? thought Scarlett: one jewel the less—not worth a grain of this tawny dust where, on the rim of Egypt, he should meet Laura.
It was high, dry noon by the desert sun when—among the crowded hulls of the world, Greek, Welsh, Italian, Russian, Khedivial, jostling in a black smudge of smoke and coal-dust—his steamer crept to her moorings in the canal mouth. And as fast as his Arab could row to the quay, Scarlett made for the shipping-offices. All remaining doubts he soon resolved; for there, booked among the next week's sailings, he found the names of Aunt Julia and her niece. He despatched a dragoman for his trunks, brought Chao Phya ashore, mewing, in a basket, and settled down at the least dingy hotel in Port Said, to wait with content.
As he gave in his name, the manager surprised him by saying:
"Your friend has expected you. He has inquired several times."
"What friend?" asked Owen. The manager could not remember,—was not sure that the gentleman had given his name: but he was a tall man, clean-shaven, of military appearance, though very pale,—in fact, plainly an invalid. He had spoken, said the manager, as though he lived in Alexandria.
No one in the roll-call of memory answered to the description; no one in all Egypt, save Laura and her aunt, knew that Scarlett was to pass even through that part of the world; and he was puzzled not a little. When the days lagged by, however, and brought no news of the stranger, Owen gave up the matter as a mistake.
The interval of waiting passed pleasantly. Now that Chao Phya, stripped to his intrinsic worth, could be immured or left with servants like any common cat, he had ceased to be a clog and burden. At this lively coal-bin by the great ditch, where night and day, to the click of backgammon men and the thin strains of café violins, the chattering races of all continents continents smoked and drank in a clutter of pistachio shells, he hailed more than one familiar white-clad figure that passed, lonely and bored, with rolling gait, through the feathery shade of the acacias. More than one of these old friends—skippers of China ships, bound outward or homeward—sat late with him, rejoicing to exchange the latest gossip from the little, far-scattered community of the East. At tiffins aboard ship, noisy and grimed with coaling, or at bad dinners in cramped rooms ashore, they talked of men, women, and ships, of things past, of wars, bargains, jokes, and tragedies half a world away. And then, with a laugh and a "Chin-chin!" these transient friends were gone, never, by all chance, to be seen again.
Such encounters carried his thoughts back to many a scene beyond the Straits; but on the night before Laura should arrive, something else was to carry them, and with a start of astonishment, back to those bewildered days in Bangkok.
He had entered his bedroom and turned on the light; and there along the wall stood his trunks and bags, yawning open, their contents tumbled in disorder. The former attempt of Ho Kong recurred to him so vividly that he unbolted the shutters of the French window, and stepped out quickly, as though half expecting to see again the plump goldsmith's clerk. But this time the long, dark verandah was empty.
As midnight was now past, the intruder could have had choice of the four hours since dinner. For his pains he had got little enough: he had left all of Scarlett's few valuables, but taken his revolver and cartridges, and—strangest of all—had cut in two every cake of soap in the room, had poured into the basin a pint of excellent brandy, had flayed half the leather from the flask itself, and torn to shreds every one of fifty fat, black Indian cigars. It seemed the mischief of an ape or a madman.
He reported to a sleepy Arab, received his vain protestations, and was soon in bed. Sleep, however, came reluctantly. Long thoughts of the morrow filled his mind, of how he should meet Laura, of what they should tell each other; then these grew confused, and gave way to a weary half sleep.
It must have been towards morning that he found himself awake and wondering. The room was flooded with light. He rolled over, and through blur of sleep and haze of mosquito-curtain saw, sitting at the table in the middle of the room, a stranger in grey flannels. The trembling brilliancy of the drop-light swung just above the close-cropped head. They eyed each other in silence for a moment. "The stranger from Alexandria," was Owen's first rational thought; for his visitor was tall, square-shouldered, with a hard, imperious face, clean of feature, and pale as with a mortal sickness. The thin lips drooping cynically at the corners, the deep parenthetic gravings in either cheek, not only gave the face a cruel look, but bespoke a man tugged of fortune. Both the broad forehead and the heavy-shadowed eyes, alert and thoughtful, were curiously familiar. The stranger smiled.
"Don't know me, do you, Mr. Scarlett?" he said, with the voice of Borkman. "Good-morning."
The surprise brought also a presentiment of disaster. Owen stared, incapable of speech.
"One's beard does make a difference, doesn't it?" said the other, affably. "But I see you know my voice. No way of shaving that off, is there? Unfortunate, because the further west of Suez we go, the more persons know me whom I'm not anxious to meet again. However, I'm hoping we part company to-night,—this morning, rather."
"What do you want?" asked Owen, sitting up.
"What do you suppose?" laughed Borkman. "What could have brought me all this way to see you, when the doctor said it would finish me to move? What took me down to visit your cat in the cellar of 'this battered caravanserai'? Eh? What made me go through all your things this evening soap, flask, boot-heels, shaving-brush handle, cigars, the whole sub chiz,—and your clothes since you've been asleep? Come now, you're by no means an ass. I used to believe I wasn't, till that morning I lost my temper aboard the 'Muang-Fang.' That was my misplay in this game, wasn't it?"
"If you mean the ruby that Ho Kong told me about," said Owen, "I haven't it. I've never even seen it."
Borkman shrugged his great shoulders, but stopped with a twitch as of pain.
"That hurt my side," he grumbled. "The thing's barely healing—So you've never seen it, eh? Naturally, that's the first light in which you'd wish to view the affair. Please consider. I've another argument to bring forward later, if necessary."
"I haven't it," repeated Owen. "You've taken your journey for nothing. I've thought either you had it or the goldsmith's clerk."
"Think again," said Borkman, satirically. "When you saw Ho Kong cutting me up there in the carriage-way, I'd just come from bribing the cat out of the servants' quarters. There wasn't light enough or time enough for me to unlock the collar or cut it off. As for the goldsmith coolie, he hopped out of those bushes and knifed me like winking. The beastly cat jumped straight out of my arms into yours. Well?"
"I didn't know that," said Owen. "That makes it more of a puzzle than ever." He recounted briefly his dealings in Singapore. "So you see you're here for nothing."
"Interesting story and well told," admitted Borkman, smiling. "Only I don't believe a word of it. Now it's time you saw things in that other light I spoke of. Here's what may persuade you." He withdrew his hand from the table, and disclosed a black, polished object—the missing revolver. "I should regret using this, both for your sake and my own. But my affairs are at such low ebb, nothing can make them much worse. And the thing itself is a good tidy fortune. I'll give you one minute to tell where you've stowed it. Then if you are still stubborn, I'll begin firing promptly, and the odds are I'll pot you first shot. You'd best not move in the mean time."
He unhooked his watch, laid it on the table, and studied it for an instant, like a lecturer preparing to speak by the dial.
"Minute begins now," he announced. The ticking sounded at once loud and distant.
"You don't dare to, in this hotel." Owen managed to speak calmly.
"Don't I?" retorted Borkman. "Wait and see. I'll put the revolver beside you, leave this good-bye chit for the girl—you know how well I do your handwriting: wish there were time to read you my bit of composition—then go out by the verandah, bolt the shutters in the same way that I unbolted them. No one else on your floor. Clear case, eh? Felo de se?" Grinning, he bent towards the watch. "Half-time. Anything to say?"
"I give you my word of honour," said Owen, slowly, "that I've never seen the stone, that I haven't it now, and that I don't know where it is."
The pale face, strange and yet well-known, regarded him unchanging, from beneath the light. The tiny voice of Time continued, brisk as a cricket. A sense of monstrous unfairness oppressed him, that on the eve of rejoining Laura this could happen, and for something that he had neither sought nor possessed.
"Past three-quarters," said Borkman. He raised the eloquent cold muzzle. "Feel like saying anything?"
"What's the use?" rejoined Scarlett, angrily. "I gave you my word of honour."
A few seconds of silence followed; then Borkman lowered his hand.
"Wish I had a drink," he grumbled. "Haven't had one since the doctor cut me off. Might as well, though. As you say, what is the use? Damn it, youngster!" he tossed the pistol on the table, nodding vigorously, with an air of disgust—"do you know, I believe you. Wish I didn't. Wish I had a drink. No, it wasn't courage on your part, … or lying it out … just the truth. I felt that … because I'd put you in a blue funk."
"You'd not!" cried Owen, disdainfully.
"Then why, to be precise, are you trying to rip down the curtain?"
For the first time, Owen was aware that his hand, raised and full of torn mosquito-gauze, was trembling violently.
"Don't attempt lying," advised the big man, with a contemptuous chuckle. "You can't. Rum things, these words of honour." He snapped the chain back on his watch, stood musing, then added with a note of wonder: "My word, I've seen them make a man act against his own interest—mind you, his own interest. Funny things.…"
He pondered again, shaking his cropped head. "So Giles Borkman is on his blooming little beam-ends," he continued. "That stone … the only perfect pigeon-blood I've ever seen; even badly cut, it was a fortune. Well, makee finish! The pockmarked coolie has it, I dare say, or the other Chinaman. Yes: that's where it's gone. They followed us down to the Straits, just as Ho Kong did; and if I could bribe the servants that evening, why so could they—and before I arrived."
He looked very white and old as he stood there, a tired giant, stroking by force of habit his bare chin.
"Not all beer and skittles, is it?" he inquired eying Scarlett as though out of a reverie. "I mean my sort of pidgin, you know. Now it's back to the East again. There's a Bibby to sail this morning, early. God knows what next … perhaps I'll makee finish myself, eh? Had some queer thoughts lately, lying on my back so long. By the way, tell the ladies that their shipmate, the invalid gentleman, sends them his salaam. I travelled all the way here with them, knowing you'd turn up, of course."
He edged closer to the table, picked up the revolver, snapped it open, jingled the cartridges in his palm.
"You never can tell just how far to trust these word-of-honour persons, after all," he explained. "Words of honour! Anyway, good-bye, my boy."
Something in the painful movements, the downcast face, the air of defeat, evoked a kindly feeling as Owen replied:
"Good-bye. I wish you luck, Borkman, and a better pidgin."
"Don't preach," he answered with a grimace. "That's how you have always made me tired. Thanks, all the same."
He unhooked the door, went out, and closed it. Suddenly, opening it again, he thrust in his head, and fixed the young man with a long scrutiny.
"I don't see what it is about you," he declared, as if in deep perplexity. "Why didn't I pull trigger then? Hmph! And do you recall kicking me once? What do you think? Turned Christian, or am I? You're beyond me. … And yet talk of your open books.…"
He withdrew his head, shut the door, and departed. After a space, however, he returned and looked in once more, grinning sourly:
"That must be the reason why you can never read any one else. That Holborow girl—nice little thing: may interest you to know, she's head over heels in love with a young idiot."
This time he was gone forever, leaving Scarlett bolt upright, with his mind in a whirl.
And yet this final message, which at the dawn was worth all the dangers he had passed, became by daylight the palest mockery and dream; for that afternoon, as he walked with Laura, it did not in the least encourage or avail him. Their ship was to sail next morning; Aunt Julia was despatching a multitude of letters; they had shared half the bright day. He had unfolded the full history of Chao Phya and the lost ruby of Burmah; the cat himself now trotted with them along the Quai François Joseph, as they gave him, with fluctuating success, his first lesson in following to heel; nothing remained for Owen but to tell his own story: yet the sun was drawing down behind Lake Menzaleh, and still their talk idled in generalities. Never, of any one in his life before, had he been so afraid.
They loitered out on the long breakwater, and passed beside the pedestal on which the bronze de Lesseps, stiff and commonplace, waves clumsy permission to sailor nations who hold the gorgeous East in fee. Four times, between this statue and the end of the breakwater, Owen began; and four times Laura, constrained and wary, slipped away like the poet's filly in the fields.
"How large a ruby could they put inside the bell?" she asked, irrelevantly.
"Who cares?" said Owen. "But I'll show you."
An old Arab perched on the edge, fishing,—a little heap of bait beside him, and his provender of unripe dates forming a vermilion puddle in the sunlight. He lent his knife, courteously, with a wrinkled smile.
Owen caught up Chao Phya, and pried at one of the remaining bells.
"Do be careful!" commanded Laura. "You'll cut him. You wouldn't care, would you? Men don't like cats."
The edges of the cockle-shell began slowly to gape.
"Love me, love my dog," said Owen suddenly, looking up. "That holds, even with a Siamese cat. Laura.…"
His voice trembled. Both had turned a little pale, and the girl, studying the broad squares of stone, would have drawn away. But they stood now at the outermost verge; and as he continued speaking, she could find no way of escape. The moist wind fluttered her skirts. The dark waves of the Mediterranean, mother sea of our anxious western world, danced towards them from the sunset.
Something tinkled at their feet. In their happy trouble and confusion, they glanced down.
Ho Kong had fooled them one and all, had played his own hand, and lost; for there on the warm-lighted granite shone a pebble brighter than the dates, brighter than the blood it had cost.
"Oh!" cried Laura, her eyes wide and frightened. She had stepped back as if from a cockatrice. "Look, Owen! What.…"
He stooped, caught it up, and held his closed hand over the water that plashed below.
"Unless you hear me out now," he threatened, "I'll throw it in."