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THE GAME OF GOSSIP
During the concluding days of the voyage Elsa had her meals served on deck. She kept Martha with her continually, promenaded only early in the morning and at night while the other passengers were at dinner. This left a clear deck. She walked quickly, her arm in Martha's, literally propelling her along, never spoke unless spoken to, and then answered in monosyllables. Her thoughts flew to a thousand and one things: home, her father, episodes from school-life; toward anything and everywhere like a land-bird lost at sea, futilely and vainly in the endeavor to shut out the portrait of the broken man. In the midst of some imaginary journey to the Sabine Hills she would find herself asking: What was he doing, of what was he thinking, where would he go and what would he do? She hated night which, no longer offering sleep, provided nothing in lieu of it, and compelled her to remain in the stuffy cabin. She was afraid.
Early Wednesday morning she passed Craig and Mallow; but the two had wit enough to step aside for her and to speak only with their eyes. She filled Craig with unadulterated fear. Never had he met a woman such as this one. He warned Mallow at the beginning, without explaining in detail, that she was fearless and dangerous. And, of course, Mallow laughed and dragged along the gambler whenever he found a chance to see Elsa at close range.
"There's a woman. Gad! that beach-comber has taste."
"I tell you to look out for her," Craig warned again. "I know what I'm talking about."
"What's she done; slapped your face?"
"That kind of woman doesn't slap. Damn it, Mallow, she rammed a hat-pin into me, if you will know! Keep out of her way."
Mallow whistled. "Oho! You probably acted like a fool. Drinking?"
Craig nodded affirmatively.
"Thought so. Even a Yokohama bar-maid will fight shy of a boozer. I'm going to meet her when we get to Singapore, or my name's not Mallow."
Craig laughed with malice. "I hope she sticks the pin into your throat. It will take some of the brag out of you. Think because you've got picturesque gray hair and are as strong as a bull, that all the women are just pining for you. Say, let's go aft and hunt up the chap. I understand he's taken up quarters in the second-cabin."
"Doesn't want to run into me. All right; come on. We'll stir him up a little and have some fun."
They found Warrington up in the stern, sitting on the deck, surrounded by squatting Lascars, some Chinamen and a solitary white man, the chief engineer's assistant. The center of interest was Rajah, who was performing his tricks. Among these was one that the bird rarely could be made to perform, the threading of beads. He despised this act as it entailed the putting of a blunt needle in his beak. He flung it aside each time Warrington handed it to him. But ever his master patiently returned it. At length, recognizing that the affair might be prolonged indefinitely, Rajah put two beads on the thread and tossed it aside. The Lascars jabbered, the Chinamen grinned, and the chief engineer's assistant swore approvingly.
"How much'll you take for him?"
"He's not for sale," answered Warrington.
The parrot shrilled and waddled back to his cage.
"Fine business for a whole man!"
Warrington looked up to meet the cynical eyes of Mallow. He took out his cutty and fired it. Otherwise he did not move nor let his gaze swerve. Mallow, towering above him, could scarcely resist the temptation to stir his enemy with the toe of his boot. His hatred for Warrington was not wholly due to his brutal treatment of him. Mallow always took pleasure in dominating those under him by fear. Warrington had done his work well. He had always recognized Mallow as his employer, but in no other capacity: he had never offered to smoke a pipe with him, or to take a hand at cards, or split a bottle. It had not been done offensively; but in this attitude Mallow had recognized his manager's disapproval of him, an inner consciousness of superiority in birth and education. He had with supreme satisfaction ordered him off the plantation that memorable night. Weak as the man had been in body, there had been no indication of weakness in spirit.
Occultly Warrington read the desire in the other's eyes. "I shouldn't do it, Mallow," he said. "I shouldn't. Nothing would please me better than to have a good excuse to chuck you over the rail. Upon a time you had the best of me. I was a sick man then. I'm in tolerable good health at present."
"You crow, I could break you like a pipe-stem."
Mallow rammed his hands into his coat pockets, scowling contemptuously. He weighed fully twenty pounds more than Warrington.
Crow! Warrington shrugged. In the East crow is a rough synonym for thief. "You're at liberty to return to your diggings forward with that impression," he replied coolly. "When we get to Singapore," rising slowly to his height until his eyes were level with Mallow's, "when we get to Singapore, I'm going to ask you for that fifty pounds, earned in honest labor."
"And if I decline to pay?" truculently.
"We'll talk that over when we reach port. Now," roughly, "get out. There won't be any baiting done to-day, thank you."
The chief engineer's assistant, a stocky, muscular young Scot, stepped forward. He knew Mallow. "If there is, Mr. Warrington, I'm willing to have a try at losing my job."
"Cockalorem!" jeered Mallow. Craig touched his sleeve, but he threw off the hand roughly. He was one of the best rough and tumble fighters in the Straits Settlements. "You thieving beach-comber, I don't want to mess up the deck with you, but I'll cut your comb for you when we get to port."
Warrington laughed insolently and picked up the parrot-cage. "I'll bring the comb. In fact, I always carry it." Not a word to Craig, not a glance in his direction. Warrington stepped to the companionway and went below.
The chief engineer's assistant, whistling Bide Awee, sauntered forward.
Craig could not resist grinning at Mallow's discomfiture. "Wouldn't break, eh?"
"Shut your mouth! The sneaking dock-walloper, I'll take the starch out of him when we land! Always had that high and mighty air. Wants folks to think he's a gentleman."
"He was once," said Craig. "No use giving you advice; but he's not a healthy individual to bait. I'm no kitten when it comes to scrapping; but I haven't any desire to mix things with him." The fury of the man who had given him the ducking was still vivid. He had been handled as a terrier handles a rat.
"Bah as much as you please. I picked you out of the gutter one night in Rangoon, after roughing it with half a dozen Chinamen, and saved your wad. I've not your reach or height, but I can lay about some. He'll kill you. And why not? He wouldn't be any worse off than he is."
"I tell you he's yellow. And with a hundred-thousand in his clothes, he'll be yellower still."
A hundred thousand. Craig frowned and gazed out to sea. He had forgotten all about the windfall. "Let's go and have a peg," he suggested surlily.
Immediately upon obtaining her rooms at Raffles Hotel in Singapore (and leaving Martha there to await the arrival of the luggage, an imposing collection of trunks and boxes and kit-bags), Elsa went down to the American Consulate, which had its offices in the rear of the hotel. She walked through the outer office and stood silently at the consul-general's elbow, waiting for him to look up. She was dressed in white, and in the pugree of her helmet was the one touch of color, Rajah's blue feather. With a smile she watched the stubby pen crawl over some papers, ending at length with a flourish, dignified and characteristic. The consul-general turned his head. His kindly face had the settled expression of indulgent inquiry. The expression changed swiftly into one of delight.
"Elsa Chetwood!" he cried, seizing her hands. "Well, well! I am glad to see you. Missed you when you passed through to Ceylon. Good gracious, what a beautiful woman you've turned out to be! Sit down, sit down!" He pushed her into a chair. "Well, well! When I saw you last you were nineteen."
"What a frightful memory you have! And I was going to my first ball. You used the same adjective."
"Is there a better one? I'll use it if there is. You've arrived just in time. I am giving a little dinner to the consuls and their wives to-night, and you will add just the right touch; for we are all a little gray at the temples and some of us are a trifle bald. You see, I've an old friend from India in town to-day, and I've asked him, too. Your appearance evens up matters."
"Oh; then I'm just a filler-in!"
"Heavens, no! You're the most important person of the lot, though Colonel Knowlton . . ."
"Colonel Knowlton!" exclaimed Elsa.
"That's so, by George! Stupid of me. You came down on the same boat. Fine! You know each other."
Elsa straightened her lips with some difficulty. She possessed the enviable faculty of instantly forming in her mind pictures of coming events. The little swelling veins in the colonel's nose were as plain to her mind's eye as if he really stood before her. "Have him take me in to dinner," she suggested.
"Just what I was thinking of," declared the unsuspecting man. "If any one can draw out the colonel, it will be you."
"I'll do my best." Elsa's mind was full of rollicking malice.
Contemplatively he said: "So you've been doing the Orient alone? You are like your father in that way. He was never afraid of anything. Your mental make-up, too, I'll wager is like his. Finest man in the world."
"Wasn't he? How I wish he could have always been with me! We were such good comrades. They do say I am like father. But why is it, every one seems appalled that I should travel over here without male escort?"
"The answer lies in your mirror, Elsa. Your old nurse Martha is no real protection."
"Are men so bad, then?"
"They are less restrained. The heat, the tremendous distances, the lack of amusements, are perhaps responsible. The most difficult thing in the world to amuse is man. By the way, here's a packet of letters for you."
"Thanks." Elsa played with the packet, somberly eying the superscriptions. The old disorder came back into her mind. Three of the letters were from Arthur. She dreaded to open them.
"Now, I'll expect you to come to the apartments and have tea at five."
"Be glad to. Only, don't have any one else. I just want to visit and talk as I used to."
"I promise not to invite anybody."
"I must be going, then. I'm not sure of my tickets to Hongkong."
"Go straight to the German Lloyd office. The next P. & O. boat is booked full. Don't bother to go to Cook's. Everybody's on the way home now. Go right to the office. I'll have my boy show you the way. Chong!" he called. A bright-eyed young Chinese came in quickly and silently from the other room. "Show lady German Lloyd office. All same quick."
"All light. Lady come."
In the outer office she paused for a moment or so to look at the magazines and weeklies from home. The Chinese boy, grinning pleasantly, peered curiously at Elsa's beautiful hands. She heard some one enter, and quite naturally glanced up. The newcomer was Mallow. He stared at her, smiled familiarly and lifted his helmet.
Elsa, with cold unflickering eyes, offered his greeting no recognition whatever. The man felt that she was looking through him, inside of him, searching out all the dark comers of his soul. He dropped his gaze, confused. Then Elsa calmly turned to the boy.
There was something in the manner of her exit that infinitely puzzled him. It was the insolence of the well-bred, but he did not know it. To offset his chagrin and confusion, he put on his helmet and passed into the private office. She was out of his range of understanding.
Mallow was an American by birth but had grown up in the Orient, hardily. In his youth he had been beaten and trampled upon, and now that he had become rich in copra (the dried kernels of cocoanuts from which oil is made), he in his turn beat and trampled. It was the only law he knew. He was without refinement, never having come into contact with that state of being long enough to fall under its influence. He was a shrewd bargainer; and any who respected him did so for two reasons, his strength and his wallet. Such flattery sufficed his needs. He was unmarried; by inclination, perhaps, rather than by failure to find an agreeable mate. There were many women in Penang and Singapore who would have snapped him up, had the opportunity offered, despite the fact that they knew his history tolerably well. Ordinarily, when in Penang and Singapore, he behaved himself, drank circumspectly and shunned promiscuous companions. But when he did drink heartily, he was a man to beware of.
He hailed the consul-general cordially and offered him one of his really choice cigars, which was accepted.
"I say, who was that young woman who just went out?"
The consul-general laid down the cigar. The question itself was harmless enough; it was Mallow's way of clothing it he resented. "Why?" he asked.
"She's a stunner. Just curious if you knew her, that's all. We came down on the same boat. Hanged if I shouldn't like to meet her."
"You met her on board?"
"I can't say that. Rather uppish on the steamer. But, do you know her?" eagerly.
"I do. More than that, I have always known her. She is the daughter of the late General Chetwood, one of the greatest civil-engineers of our time. When he died he left her several millions. She is a remarkable young woman, a famous beauty, known favorably in European courts, and I can't begin to tell you how many other accomplishments she has."
"Well, stump me!" returned Mallow. "Is that all straight?"
"Every word of it," with a chilliness that did not escape a man even so impervious as Mallow.
"Is she a free-thinker?"
"What the devil is that? What do you mean?"
"Only this, if she's all you say she is, why does she pick out an absconder for a friend, a chap who dare not show his fiz in the States? I heard the tale from a man once employed in his office back in New York. A beach-comber, a dock-walloper, if there ever was one."
"Mallow, you'll have to explain that instantly."
"Hold your horses, my friend. What I'm telling you is on the level. She's been hobnobbing with the fellow all the way down from the Irrawaddy, so I'm told. Never spoke to any one else. Made him sit at her side at table and jabbered Italian at him, as if she didn't want others to know what she was talking about. I know the man. Fired him from my plantation, when I found out what he was. Can't recall his name just now, but he is known out here as Warrington; Parrot & Co."
The consul-general was genuinely shocked.
"You can't blame me for thinking things," went on Mallow. "What man wouldn't? Ask her about Warrington. You'll find that I'm telling the truth, all right."
"If you are, then she has made one of those mistakes women make when they travel alone. I shall see her at tea and talk to her. But I do not thank you, Mallow, for telling me this. A finer, loyaler-hearted girl doesn't live. She might have been kind out of sympathy."
Mallow bit off the tip of his cigar. "He's a handsome beggar, if you want to know."
"I resent that tone. Better drop the subject before I lose my temper. I'll have your papers ready for you in the morning." The consul-general caught up his pen savagely to indicate that the interview was at an end.
"All right," said Mallow good-naturedly. "I meant no harm. Just naturally curious. Can't blame me."
"I'm not blaming you. But it has disturbed me, and I wish to be alone to think it over."
Mallow lounged out, rather pleased with himself. His greatest pleasure in life was in making others uncomfortable.
The consul-general bit the wooden end of his pen and chewed the splinters of cedar. He couldn't deny that it was like Elsa to pick up some derelict for her benefactions. But to select a man who was probably wanted by the American police was a frightful misfortune. Women had no business to travel alone. It was all very well when they toured in parties of eight or ten; but for a charming young woman like Elsa, attended by a spinster companion who doubtless dared not offer advice, it was decidedly wrong. And thereupon he determined that her trip to Yokohama should find her well guarded.
"I beg your pardon," said a pleasant voice.
The consul-general had been so deeply occupied by his worry that he had not noticed the entrance of the speaker. He turned impatiently. He saw a tall blond man, bearded and tanned, with fine clear blue eyes that met his with the equanimity of the fearless.
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