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THE CUT DIRECT
It was after five in the morning when the deckhands tried to get Craig to go down to his room. With the dull obstinacy of a drunken man, he refused to stir; he was perfectly satisfied to stay where he was. The three brown men stood irresolutely and helplessly around the man. Every one had gone below. The hose was ready to flush the deck. It did not matter; he, Craig, would not budge.
"Leave me alone, you black beggars!"
"But, Sahib," began one of the Lascars, who spoke English.
"Don't talk to me. I tell you, get out!" striking at their feet with his swollen hands.
Warrington, who had not lain down at all, but who had wandered about the free decks like some lost soul from The Flying Dutchman, Warrington, hearing voices, came out of the smoke-room. A glance was sufficient. A devil's humor took possession of him. He walked over.
"Get up," he said quietly.
Craig blinked up at him from out of puffed eyes. "Go to the devil! Fine specimen to order me about."
"Will you get up peacefully? These men have work to do."
Craig was blind to his danger. "What's that to me? Go away, all of you, to the devil, for all I care. I'll get up when I get damn good and ready. Not before."
Warrington picked up the hose.
"Sahib!" cried the Lascar in protest.
"Be still!" ordered Warrington. "Craig, for the last time, will you get up?"
Warrington turned the key, and a deluge of cold salt-water struck Craig full in the chest. He tried to sit up, but was knocked flat. Then he rolled over on the deck, choking and sputtering. He crawled on his hands and knees until he reached the chair-rail, which he clutched desperately, drawing himself up. The pitiless stream never swerved. It smacked against the flat of his back like the impact of a hand.
"For God's sake stop it!" cried Craig, half strangled.
"Will you go below?"
"Yes, yes! Turn it away!" sober enough by now.
Warrington switched off the key, his face humorless, though there was a sparkle of grim humor in his sleep-hungry eyes. Craig leaned against the deck-house, shaking and panting.
"I would I could get at your soul as easily." Warrington threw aside the hose, and the Lascars sprang upon it, not knowing what the big blond Sahib might do next.
Craig turned, venom on his tongue. He spoke a phrase. In an instant, cold with fury, Warrington had him by the throat.
"You low base cur!" he said, shaking the man until he resembled a manikin on wires. "Had you been sober last night, I'd have thrown you into the sea. Honorless dog! You wrote to Miss Chetwood. You insulted her, too. If you wish to die, speak to her again."
Craig struggled fiercely to free himself. He wasn't sure, by the look of the other man's eyes, that he wasn't going to be killed then and there. There was something cave-mannish and cruel in the way Warrington worried the man, shaking him from side to side and forcing him along the deck. Suddenly he released his hold, adding a buffet on the side of the head that sent Craig reeling and sobbing into the companionway.
"Here, I say, what's the row?"
Warrington looked over his shoulder. The call had come from the first officer.
"A case of drunkenness," coolly.
"But I say, we can't have brawling on deck, sir. You ought to know that. If the man's conduct was out of order, you should have brought your complaint before the captain or me. We really can't have any rowing, sir."
Warrington replied gravely: "Expediency was quite necessary."
"What's this?" The officer espied the soaked bedding. "Who turned the hose here?"
"I did," answered Warrington.
"I shall have to report that to the captain, sir. It's against the rules aboard this steamship for passengers to touch anything of that sort." The officer turned and began violently to abuse the bewildered Lascars.
"I shouldn't bullyrag them, sir," interposed Warrington. "They protested. I helped myself. After all, perhaps it was none of my affair; but the poor devils didn't know what to do."
The officer ordered the Lascars to take the mattress and throw it on the boat-deck, where it would dry quickly when the sun rose. Already the world was pale with light, and a slash of crimson lay low on the rim of the east.
"I shouldn't like to be disagreeable, sir," said the officer. "I dare say the man made himself obnoxious; but I'm obliged to report anything of this order."
"Don't be alarmed on my account. My name is Warrington, cabin 78. Good morning."
Warrington entered the companionway; and a moment later he heard the water hiss along the deck. He was not in the least sorry for what he had done; still, he regretted the act. Craig was a beast, and there was no knowing what he might do or say. But the hose had been simply irresistible. He chuckled audibly on the way down to his cabin. There was one thing of which he was assured; Craig would keep out of his way in the future. The exhilaration of the struggle suddenly left him, and he realized that he was dreadfully tired and heart-achy. Still dressed, he flung himself in his bunk, and immediately fell into a heavy dreamless sleep that endured until luncheon.
Shortly after luncheon something happened down in the engine-room; and the chief engineer said that they would have to travel at half speed to Penang. In other words, they would not make the port to-day, Sunday, but to-morrow. Another day with this mysterious tantalizing woman, thought Warrington. He went in search of her, but before he found her, he was summoned to the captain's cabin. Warrington presented himself, mildly curious. The captain nodded to a stool.
"Sit down, Mr. Warrington. Will you have a cheroot?"
A crackle of matches followed.
"This fellow Craig has complained about his treatment by you this morning. I fancy you were rather rough with him."
"Perhaps. He was very drunk and abusive, and he needed cold water more than anything else. I once knew the man."
"Ah! But it never pays to manhandle that particular brand of tippler. They always retaliate in some way."
"I suppose he has given you an excerpt from my history?"
"He says you can not return to the States."
"I am returning on the very first boats I can find."
"Then he was lying?"
"Not entirely. I do not know what he has told you, and I really do not care. The fact is, Craig is a professional gambler, and I warned him not to try any of his tricks on board. It soured him."
"And knowing myself that he was a professional, I gave no weight to his accusations. Besides, it is none of my business. The worst scoundrel unhung has certain rights on my ship. If he behaves himself, that is sufficient for me. Now, what Craig told me doesn't matter; but it matters that I warned him. A word to any one else, and I'll drop him at Penang to-morrow, to get out the best way he can. Ships passing there this time of year are generally full-up. Will you have a peg?"
"No, thanks. But I wish to say that it is very decent of you." Warrington rose.
"I have traveled too long not to recognize a man when I see him. Do you play cricket?" asked the captain, his gaze critically covering the man before him.
"No; I regret I'm not familiar with the game."
"Ah! Well, drop in any night after ten, if you care to."
"I shall be glad to accept your hospitality."
Outside, Warrington mused on the general untruths of first impressions. He had written down the captain as a pompous, self-centered individual. One never could judge a man until he came to the scratch. It heartened him to find that there was a man on board who respected his misfortune, whether he believed it or not. He sought Elsa, and as they promenaded, lightly recounted the episode of the morning.
Elsa expressed her delight in laughter that was less hearty than malicious. How clearly she could see the picture! And then, the ever-recurring comparisons: Arthur would have gone by, Arthur would not have bothered himself, for he detested scenes and fisticuffs. How few real men she had met, men who walked through life naturally, unfettered by those self-applied manacles called "What will people say?"
"Let us go up to the bow," she invited. "I've a little story myself to tell."
They clambered down and up the ladders, over the windlass and anchor-chains which a native was busily painting. A school of porpoise were frolicking under the cutwater. Plop! plop! they went; and sometimes one would turn sidewise and look up roguishly with his twinkling seal-like eyes. Plop! plop! Finally all save one sank gracefully out of sight. The laggard crisscrossed the cutwater a dozen times, just to show the watchers how extremely clever he was; and then, with a plop! that was louder than any previous one, he vanished into the deeps.
"I love these Oriental seas," said Elsa, with her arms on the rail and her chin resting upon them. She wore no hat, and her hair shimmered in the sun and shivered in the wind.
"And yet they are the most treacherous of all seas. There's not a cloud in sight; in two hours from now we may be in the heart of a winter storm. Happily, they are rarities along this coast; so you will not have the excitement of a shipwreck."
"I am grateful for that. Mercy! Think of being marooned on a desert island with the colonel and his three spinsters! Proprieties, from morning until night. And the chattering tourists! Heaven forfend!"
"You had a story to tell me," he suggested. His heart was hot within him. He wanted to sweep her up in his arms and hold her there forever. But the barrier of wasted opportunities stood between. How delicately beautiful she was: Bernini's Daphne.
"Oh, yes; I had almost forgotten." She stood up and felt for wandering strands of hair. "I find the world more amusing day by day. I ought to feel hurt, but I am only amused. I spoke to the colonel this morning, merely to say howdy-do. He stared me in the eye and de-lib-erately turned his back to me."
"The doddering old---"
"There, there! It isn't worth getting angry about."
"But, don't you understand? It's all because of me. Simply because you have been kind to a poor devil, they start in to snub you, you! I'll go back to my old seat at the table. You mustn't walk with me any more."
"Don't be silly. If you return to your chair, if you no longer walk with me, they'll find a thousand things to talk about. Since I do not care, why should you?"
"Can't I make it clear to you?" desperately.
"I see with reasonable eyes, if that is what you mean. The people I know, mine own people, understand Elsa Chetwood."
So her name was Elsa? He repeated it over and over in his mind.
She continued her exposition. "There are but few, gently born. They are generous and broad-minded. They could not be mine own people otherwise. They are all I care about. I shun mediocrity as I would the plague. I refuse to permit it to touch me, either with words or with deeds. The good opinion of those I love is dear to me; as for the rest of the world!" She snapped her fingers to illustrate how little she cared.
"I am a man under a cloud, to be avoided."
"Perhaps that cloud has a silver lining," with a gentle smile. "I do not believe you did anything wrong, premeditatively. All of us, one time or another, surrender to wild impulse. Perhaps in the future there awaits for me such a moment. I cannot recollect the name of Warrington in a cause célèbre," thoughtfully.
He could only gaze at her dumbly.
"Don't you suppose there is a vast difference between you and this man Craig? Could you commit the petty crime of cheating at cards, of taking advantage of a woman's kindness, of betraying a man's misfortune? I do not think you could. No, Mr. Warrington, I do not care what they say, on board here or elsewhere."
"My name is not Warrington," finding his voice. God in heaven, what would happen when she found out what his name was? "But my first name is Paul."
"Paul. I have had my suspicions that your name was not Warrington. But tell me nothing more. What good would it do? I did not read that man's letter. I merely noted your name and his. You doubtless knew him somewhere in the past."
"Might there not be danger in your kindness to me?"
"In what way?"
"A man under a cloud is often reckless and desperate. There is always an invisible demon calling out to him: What's the use of being good? You are the first woman of your station who has treated me as a human being; I do not say as an equal. You have given me back some of my self-respect. It throws my world upside down. It's a heady wine for an abstemious man. Don't you realize that you are a beautiful woman?"
She looked up into his eyes quickly, but she saw nothing there indicating flattery, only a somber gravity.
"I should be silly to deny it. I know that had I been a frump, the colonel would not have snubbed me. I wonder why it is that in life beauty in a woman is always looked upon with suspicion?"
"Envy provokes that."
She resumed her inclination against the rail again. "After Singapore it is probable that we shall not meet again. I admit, in my world, I could not walk upon this free and easy ground. I should have to ask about your antecedents, what you have done, all about you, in fact. Then, we should sit in judgment."
"And condemn me, off-hand. That would be perfectly right."
"But I might be one of the dissenting judges."
"That is because you are one woman in a thousand."
"No; I simply have a mind of my own, and often prefer to be guided by it. I am not a sheep."
Silence. The lap-lap of the water, the long slow rise and fall, and the dartling flying-fish apparently claimed their attention.
But Warrington saw nothing save the danger, the danger to himself and to her. At any moment he might fling his arms around her, without his having the power to resist. She called to him as nothing in the world had called before. But she trusted him, and because of this he resolutely throttled the recurring desires. She was right. He had scorned what she had termed as woman's instinct. She had read him with a degree of accuracy. In the eyes of God he was a good man, a dependable man; but he was not impossibly good. He was human enough to want her, human enough to appreciate the danger in which she stood of him. He was determined not to fail her. When she went back to her own world she would carry an unsullied memory of him. But, before God, he should not have her.
"Why did you do that?" she asked whimsically.
"Shut your jaws with a snap."
"I was not conscious of the act."
"But you were thinking strongly about something."
"I was. Tell me about the man who looks like me." His gaze roved out to sea, to the white islands of vapor low-lying in the east. "In what respect does he resemble me?"
"His hair is yellow, his eyes are blue, and he smiles the same way you do."
He felt the lump rise and swell in his throat.
"If you stood before a mirror you would see him. But there the resemblance ends."
"You say that sadly. Why?"
"Did I? Well, perhaps I was thinking strongly, too."
"Is he a man who does things?" a note of strained curiosity in his tones. Ten years!
"In what way do you mean?"
"Does he work in the world, does he invent, build, finance?"
Mayhap her eyes deceived her, but the tan on his face seemed less brown than yellow.
"No; Mr. Ellison is a collector of paintings, of rugs, of rare old books and china. He's a bit detached, as dreamers usually are. He has written a book of exquisite verses. . . . You are smiling," she broke off suddenly, her eyes filling with cold lights.
"A thousand pardons! The thought was going through my head how unlike we are indeed. I can hardly tell one master from another, all old books look alike to me, and the same with china. I know something about rugs; but I couldn't write a jingle if it was to save me from hanging."
"Do you invent, build, finance?" A bit of a gulf had opened up between them. Elsa might not be prepared to marry Arthur, but she certainly would not tolerate a covert sneer in regard to his accomplishments.
Quietly and with dignity he answered: "I have built bridges in my time over which trains are passing at this moment. I have fought torrents, and floods, and hurricanes, and myself. I have done a man's work. I had a future, they said. But here I am, a subject of your pity."
She instantly relented. "But you are young. You can begin again."
"Not in the sense you mean."
"And yet, you tell me you are going back home."
"Like a thief in the night," bitterly.
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