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AFTER TEN YEARS
The consul-general had, figuratively, a complete assortment of masks, such as any thorough play-actor might have, in more or less constant demand, running the gamut from comedy to tragedy. Some of these masks grew dusty between ships, but could quickly be made presentable. Sometimes, when large touring parties came into port, he confused his masks, being by habit rather an absent-minded man. But he possessed a great fund of humor, and these mistakes gave him laughable recollections for days.
He saw before him an exquisite, as the ancient phrase goes, backed by no indifferent breed of manhood. Thus, he believed that here was a brief respite (as between acts) in which the little plastic hypocrisies could be laid aside. The pleasant smile on his high-bred face was all his own.
"And what may I do for you, sir?" He expected to be presented with letters of introduction, and to while away a half-hour in the agreeable discussion of mutual acquaintance.
"I should like a few minutes' private talk with you," began the well-dressed stranger. "May I close the door?" The consul-general, with a sense of disappointment, nodded. The blond man returned and sat down. "I don't know how to begin, but I want you to copy this cablegram and send it under your own name. Here it is; read it."
So singular a request filled the consul-general with astonishment. Rather mechanically he accepted the slip of paper, adjusted his glasses, and read--
"The Andes Construction Company, New York: A former employee of yours wishes to make a restitution of eight thousand dollars, with interest to date. He dares not give his name to me, but he wishes to learn if this belated restitution will lift the ban against his returning to America and resuming his citizenship. Reply collect."
"This is an extraordinary request to make to me, sir."
"I know it."
"But why bring it to me?"
"Could I possibly offer that to the cable operator? Without name or address? No; I could not do it without being subjected to a thousand questions, none of which I should care to answer. So I came to you. Passing through your hands, no one will question it. Will you do this favor for a poor unfortunate devil?"
Oddly enough, the other could not get away from his original impression. The clothes, the way the man wore them, the clarity of his eyes, the abundant health that was expressed by the tone of the skin, derided such a possibility as the cablegram made manifest.
He forced the smile back to his lips. "Are you sure you're not hoaxing me?"
"No. I am the victim of the hoax," enigmatically. "If one may call the quirks of fate by the name of hoax," the stranger added. "Will you send it?"
The years he had spent in the consular service had never brought before him a situation of this order. He did not know exactly what to do. He looked out of the window, into the hotel-court, at the sky which presently would become overcast with the daily rain-clouds. By and by he remembered the man waiting patiently at his elbow.
"What is your name?"
"My real name, or the one by which I am known here?"
"Your real one."
"I'd rather not give that until I hear from New York."
"Well, that is reasonable."
"I am known out here by the name of Warrington."
Warrington. The puzzlement vanished from the older man's face, and his eyes became alert, renewing from another angle their investigation of the stranger. Warrington. So this was the man? He could understand now. Who could blame a girl for making a mistake when he, a seasoned veteran, had been beguiled by the outward appearance of the man? Mallow was right. He was a handsome beggar.
"I promise to send this upon one condition."
"I accept without question," readily.
"It is that you must keep away from Elsa Chetwood, now and hereafter. You made her acquaintance under false pretenses."
"I deny that. Not under false pretenses." How quickly things went about! "Let me tell you how I met her."
The consul-general listened; he listened with wonder and interest, and more, with conviction that the young man had been perfectly honest. But the knowledge only added to his growing alarm. It would not be difficult for such a man to win the regard of any young woman.
"And you told her what you had done?"
"Your first misstep?" touching the cablegram.
"My first and only misstep. I was a careless, happy-go-lucky young fool." The sky outside also had attraction for Warrington. A thousand times a fool!
"How long ago did this happen?"
"Ten years this coming April."
"And now, after all this time, you wish to go back?"
"I have wished to go back many times, but never had money enough. I have plenty now. Oh, I made it honestly," smiling. "In oil, at Prome. Here's a cutting from a Rangoon paper."
The other read it carefully. It was romance, romance such as he liked to read in his books, but which was mighty bewildering to have at his elbow in actuality. What a life the man must have led! And here he was, with no more evidence of the conflict than might be discerned in the manliness of his face and the breadth and depth of his shoulders. He dropped the cutting, impatiently.
"Don't you believe it?"
"Believe it? Oh, this? Yes," answered the consul-general. "What I can not believe is that I am awake. I can not quite make two and two equal four."
"That I can not . . . Well, you do not look like a man who would rob his employer of eight thousand dollars."
"Parrot & Co. It's odd, but I recollect that title. You were at Udaipur during the plague."
Warrington brightened. "So that's got about? I happened to be there, working on the prince's railway."
"I will send the cable at once. You will doubtless hear from New York in the morning. But you must not see Miss Chetwood again."
"You will let me bid her good-by? I admire and respect her more than any other woman. She does not know it, for as yet her soul is asleep; but she is one of those few women God puts on earth for the courage and comfort of man. Only to say good-by to her. Here in this office, if you wish."
"I agree to that."
"Thank you again." Warrington rose.
"I am genuinely sorry for you. If they say no, what will you do?"
"Go back just the same. I have another debt to cancel."
"Call in the morning. I'll let you know what the charges are."
"I forgot. Here are twenty pounds. You can return the balance when I call. I am very grateful."
"By the way, there is a man here by the name of Mallow," began the consul-general.
"Yes," interrupted Warrington, with a smile which was grim and cruel. "I expect to call upon him. He owes me something like fifty pounds, and I am going to collect it." Then he went out.
The consul-general dropped Mallow's perfecto into the waste-basket and lighted his pipe. Once more he read the cablegram. The Andes Construction Company. What a twist, what an absurd kink in the skein! Nearly all of Elsa's wealth lay bound up in this enormous business which General Chetwood had founded thirty odd years before. And neither of them knew!
"I am not a bad man at heart," he mused, "but I liked the young man's expression when I mentioned that bully Mallow."
He joined his family at five. He waved aside tea, and called for a lemon-squash.
"Elsa, I am going to give you a lecture."
"Didn't I tell you?" cried Elsa to the wife. "I felt in my bones that he was going to say this very thing." She turned to her old-time friend. "Go on; lecture me."
"In the first place, you are too kind-hearted."
"That will be news to my friends. They say I have a heart of ice."
"And what you think is independence of spirit is sometimes indiscretion."
"Oh," said Elsa, becoming serious.
"A man came into my office to-day. He is a rich copra-grower from Penang. He spoke of you. You passed him on going out. If I had been twenty years younger I'd have punched his ugly head. His name is Mallow, and he's not a savory chap."
Elsa's cheeks burned. She never would forget the look in that man's eyes. The look might have been in other men's eyes, but conventionality had always veiled it; she had never seen it before.
"Go on;" but her voice was unsteady.
"Somewhere along the Irrawaddy you made the acquaintance of a young man who calls himself Warrington, familiarly known as Parrot & Co. I'll be generous. Not one woman in a thousand would have declined to accept the attentions of such a man. He is cultivated, undeniably good-looking, a strong man, mentally and physically."
Elsa's expression was now enigmatical.
"There's not much veneer to him. He fooled me unintentionally. He was quite evidently born a gentleman, of a race of gentlemen. His is not an isolated case. One misstep, and the road to the devil."
The consul-general's wife sent a startled glance at Elsa, who spun her sunshade to lighten the tension of her nerves.
"He confessed frankly to me this morning that he is a fugitive from justice. He wishes to return to America. He recounted the circumstances of your meeting. To me the story appeared truthful enough. He said that you sought the introduction because of his amazing likeness to the man you are going home to marry."
"That is true," replied Elsa. "Uncle Jim, I have traveled pretty much over this world, and I never met a gentleman if Warrington is not one." There was unconscious belligerency in her tone.
"Ah, there's the difficulty which women will never be made to understand. Every man can, at one time or another, put himself upon his good behavior. Underneath he may be a fine rascal."
"Not this one," smiling. "He warned me against himself a dozen times, but that served to make me stubborn. The fault of my conduct," acidly, "was not in making this pariah's acquaintance. It lies in the fact that I had nothing to do with the other passengers, from choice. That is where I was indiscreet. But why should I put myself out to gain the good wishes of people for whom I have no liking; people I shall probably never see again when I leave this port?"
"You forget that some of them will be your fellow passengers all the way to San Francisco. My child, you know as well as I do that there are some laws which the Archangel Michael would have to obey, did he wish to inhabit this earth for a while."
"Poor Michael! And if you do not obey these laws, people talk."
"Exactly. There are two sets of man-made laws. One governs the conduct of men and the other the conduct of women."
"And a man may break any one of these laws, twist it, rearrange it to suit his immediate needs. On the other hand, the woman is always manacled."
"I consider it horribly unfair."
"So it is. But if you wish to live in peace, you must submit."
"Peace at that price I have no wish for. This man Mallow lives within the pale of law; the other man is outside of it. Yet, of the two, which would you be quickest to trust?"
The consul-general laughed. "Now you are appealing not to my knowledge of the world but to my instinct."
"Is there any reason why you should defend Mr. Warrington, as he calls himself?"
The consul-general's wife desperately tried to catch her husband's eye. But either he did not see the glance or he purposely ignored it.
"In defending Mr. Warrington I am defending myself."
"A good point."
"My dear friend," Elsa went on, letting warmth come into her voice once more, "my sympathy went out to that man. He looked so lonely. Did you notice his eyes? Can a man look at you the way he does and be bad?"
"I have seen Mallow dozens of times. I know him to be a scoundrel of sorts; but I doubt if bald sunlight could make him blink. Liars have first to overcome the flickering and wavering of the eyes."
"He said that."
"Who, Warrington?" puzzled.
"He said almost the same thing. Would he say that if he were a liar?"
"I haven't accused him of being that. Indeed, he struck me as a truthful young man. But he confessed to me that ten years ago he robbed his employer of eight thousand dollars. By the way, what is the name of the firm your father founded?"
"The Andes Construction Company. Do you think we could find him something to do there?" eagerly. "He builds bridges."
"I shouldn't advise that. But we have gone astray. You ought not to see him again."
"I have made up my mind not to."
"Then pardon me for all this pother. I know what is in your heart, Elsa. You want to help the poor devil back to what he was; but he'll have to do that by himself."
"It is a hateful world!" Elsa appealed to the wife.
"It is, Elsa, dear. But James is right."
"You'll get your balance," said the guardian, "when you reach home. When's the wedding?"
"I'm not sure that I'm going to be married." Elsa twirled the sunshade again. "I really wish I had stayed at home. I seem all topsy-turvy. I could have screamed when I saw the man standing on the ledge above the boat that night. No; I do not believe I shall marry. Fancy marrying a man and knowing that his ghost was at the same time wandering about the earth!" She rose and the sunshade described a half-circle as she spoke. "Oh, bother with it all! Dinner at eight, in the big dining-room."
"Yes. But the introductions will be made on the cafe-veranda. These people out here have gone mad over cock-tails. And look your best, Elsa. I want them to see a real American girl to-night. I'll have some roses sent up to you."
Elsa had not the heart to tell him that all interest in his dinner had suddenly gone from her mind; that even the confusion of the colonel no longer appealed to her bitter malice. She knew that she was going to be bored and miserable. Well, she had promised. She would put on her best gown; she would talk and laugh and jest because she had done these things many times when her heart was not in the play of it.
When she was gone, the consul-general's wife said: "Poor girl!"
Her husband looked across the room interestedly. "Why do you say that?"
"I am a woman."
"That phrase is the City of Refuge. All women fly to it when confronted by something they do not understand."
"Oh, but I do understand. And that's the pity of it."
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