Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
ACCORDING TO THE RULES
Elsa sought the hotel rickshaw-stand, selected a sturdy coolie, and asked to be run to the botanical gardens and back. She wanted to be alone, wanted breathing-space, wanted the breeze to cool her hot cheeks. For she was angry at the world, angry at the gentle consul-general, above all, angry at herself. To have laid herself open to the charge of indiscretion! To have received a lecture, however kindly intended, from the man she loved and respected next to her father! To know that persons were exchanging nods and whispers behind her back!
It was a detestable world. It was folly to be honest, to be kind, to be individual, to have likes and dislikes, unless these might be regulated by outsiders. Why should she care what people said? She did not care. What made her furious was the absolute stupidity of their deductions. She had not been indiscreet; she had been merely kindly and human; and if they wanted to twist and misconstrue her actions, let them do so.
She hated the word "people." It seemed to signify all the useless inefficient persons in the world, massed together after the manner of sheep and cattle, stupidest of beasts, always wanting something and never knowing what; not an individual among them. And they expected her to conform with their ways! Was it necessary for her to tell these meddlers why she had sought the companionship of a self-admitted malefactor? . . . Oh, that could not be! If evil were to be found in such a man, then there was no good anywhere. What was one misstep? Was it not written that all of us should make one or more? And surely this man had expiated his. Ten years in this wilderness, ten long lonely years. How many men would have stood up against the temptations of this exile? Few, if any, among the men she knew. And they criticized her because she was sorry for the man. Must she say to them: "Dear people, I spoke to this man and engaged his companionship because I was sorry for him; because he looked exactly like the man I have promised to marry!" It was ridiculous. She laughed. The dear people!
Once or twice she saw inwardly the will-o'-the-wisp lights of her soul. But resolutely she smothered the sparks and bolstered up the pitiful lie.
The coolie stopped suddenly.
"Go on," she said.
But the coolie smiled and wiped his shaven poll. Elsa gazed at the hotel-veranda in bewilderment. Slowly she got out of the rickshaw and paid the fare. She had not the slightest recollection of having seen the gardens. More than this, it was a quarter to seven. She had been gone exactly an hour.
"Perhaps, after all," she thought, "I am hopeless. They may be right; I ought to have a guardian. I am not always accountable for what I do."
She dressed leisurely and with calculation. She was determined to convince every one that she was a beautiful woman, above suspicion, above reproach. The spirit within her was not, however, in direct accord with this determination. Malice stirred into life again; and she wanted to hurt some one, hurt deeply. It was only the tame in spirit who, when injured, submitted without murmur or protest. And Elsa, only dimly aware of it, was mortally hurt.
"Elsa," said Martha, "that frown will stay there some day, and never go away."
Elsa rubbed it out with her finger. "Martha, do you recall that tiger in the cage at Jaipur? How they teased him until he lost his temper and came smashing against the bars? Well, I sympathize with that brute. He would have been peaceful enough had they let him be. Has Mr. Warrington called to-day?"
"Well, if he calls to-morrow, say that I am indisposed."
Martha evinced her satisfaction visibly. The frown returned between Elsa's eyes and remained there until she went down-stairs to join the consul-general and his wife. She found some very agreeable men and women, and some of her natural gaiety returned. At a far table on the veranda she saw Craig and Mallow in earnest conversation.
She nodded pleasantly to the colonel as the head boy came to announce that dinner was served. Anglo-Indian society had so many twists and ramifications that the situation was not exactly new to the old soldier. True, none had confronted him identical to this. But he had not disciplined men all these years without acquiring abundant self-control. The little veins in his nose turned purple, as Elsa prophesied they would, but there was no other indication of how distasteful the moment was to him. He would surely warn the consul-general, who doubtless was innocent enough.
They sat down. The colonel blinked. "Fine passage we had coming down."
"Was it?" returned Elsa innocently.
The colonel reached for an olive and bit into it savagely. He was no fool. She had him at the end of a blind-alley, and there he must wait until she was ready to let him go. She could harry him or pretend to ignore him, as suited her fancy. He was caught. Women, all women, possessed at least one attribute of the cat. It was digging in the claw, hanging by it, and boredly looking about the world to see what was going on. At that moment the colonel recognized the sting of the claw.
Elsa turned to her right and engaged the French consul discursively: the vandalism in the gardens at Versailles, the glut of vehicles in the Bois at Paris, the disappearing of the old landmarks, the old Hotel de Sevigne, now the most interesting musée in France. Indeed, Elsa gradually became the center of interest; she drew them intentionally. She brought a touch of home to the Frenchman, to the German, to the Italian, to the Spaniard; and the British official, in whose hands the civil business of the Straits Settlements rested, was charmed to learn that Elsa had spent various week-ends at the home of his sister in Surrey.
And when she admitted that she was the daughter of General Chetwood, the man to whom the Indian government had cause to be grateful, upon more than one occasion, for the solidity of his structures, the colonel realized definitely the seriousness of his crucifixion. He sat stiffer and stiffer in his chair, and the veins in his nose grew deeper and deeper in hue. He saw clearly that he would never understand American women. He had committed an outrageous blunder. He, instead of dominating, had been dominated by three faultfinding old women; and, without being aware of the fact, had looked at things from their point of view. A most inconceivable blunder. He would not allow that he was being swayed less by the admission of his unpardonable rudeness on board than by the immediate knowledge that Elsa was known to the British official's sister, a titled lady who stood exceedingly high at court.
"Miss Chetwood," he said, lowering his voice for her ears only.
Elsa turned, but with the expression that signified that her attention was engaged elsewhere.
"I am an old man. I am sixty-two; and most of these sixty-two I have lived roughly; but I am not too old to realize that I have made a fool of myself."
Interest began to fill Elsa's eyes.
"It has been said," he went on, keeping the key, "that I am a man of courage, but I find that I need a good deal of that just now. I have been rude to you, and without warrant, and I offer you my humble apologies." He fumbled with his cravat as if it had suddenly tightened. "Will you accept?"
"Instantly." Elsa understood the quality of courage that had stirred the colonel.
But ruthlessly: "I should, however, like your point of view in regard to what you consider my conduct."
"Is it necessary?"
"I believe it would be better for my understanding if you made a full confession." She did not mean to be relentless, but her curiosity was too strong not to press her advantage.
"Well, then, over here as elsewhere in the world there are standards by which we judge persons who come under our notice."
"Agreed. Individuality is not generally understandable."
"By the mediocre, you might have added. That's the difficulty with individuality; it refuses to be harnessed by mediocrity, and mediocrity holds the whip-hand, always. I represent the mediocre."
"Oh, never!" said Elsa animatedly. "Mediocrity is always without courage."
"You are wrong. It has the courage of its convictions."
"Rather is it not stubbornness, wilful refusal to recognize things as they are?"
He countered the question with another. "Supposing we were all individuals, in the sense you mean? Supposing each of us did exactly as he pleased? Can you honestly imagine a more confusing place than this world would be? The Manchurian pony is a wild little beast, an individual if ever there was one; but man tames him and puts to use his energies. And so it is with human individuality. We of the mediocre tame it and harness and make it useful to the general welfare of humanity. And when we encounter the untamable, in order to safeguard ourselves, we must turn it back into the wilderness, an outlaw. Indeed, I might call individuality an element, like fire and water and air."
"But who conquer fire and water and air?" Elsa demanded, believing she had him pocketed.
"Mediocrity, through the individual of this or that being. Humanity in the bulk is mediocre. And odd as it seems, individuality (which is another word for genius) believes it leads mediocrity. But it can not be made to understand that mediocrity ordains the leadership."
"Then you contend that in the hands of the stupid lies the balance of power?"
"Let us not say stupid, rather the unimaginative, the practical and the plodding. The stubbornest person in the world is one with an idea."
"Do you honestly insist that you are mediocre?"
"No," thoughtfully. "I am one of those stubborn men with ideas. I merely insist that I prefer to accept the tenets of mediocrity for my own peace and the peace of others."
Elsa forgot those about her, forgot her intended humiliation of the man at her side. He denied that he was an individual, but he was one, as interesting a one as she had met in a very long time. She, too, had made a blunder. Quick to form opinions, swift to judge, she stood guilty with the common lot, who permit impressions instead of evidence to sway them. Here was a man.
"We have gone far afield," she said, a tacit admission that she could not refute his dissertations. This knowledge, however, was not irksome.
"Rather have we not come to the bars? Shall we let them down?"
"In the civil and military life on this side of the world there are many situations which we perforce must tolerate. But these, mind you, are settled conditions. It is upon new ones which arise that we pass judgment. I knew nothing about you, nothing whatever. So I judged you according to the rules."
Elsa leaned upon her elbows, and she smiled a little as she noted that the purple had gone from his nose and that it had resumed its accustomed rubicundity.
"I go on. A woman who travels alone, who does not present letters of introduction, who . . ."
"Who attends strictly to her own affairs. Go on."
"Who is young and beautiful."
"A sop! Thanks!"
Imperturbably he continued: "Who seeks the acquaintance of men who do not belong, as you Americans say."
"Not men; one man," she corrected.
"A trifling difference. Well, it arouses a disagreeable word, suspicion. For look, there have been examples. It isn't as if yours were an isolated case. There have been examples, and these we apply to such affairs as come under our notice."
"And it doesn't matter that you may be totally wrong?"
His prompt answer astonished her. "No, it does not matter in the least. Simmered down, it may be explained in a word, appearances. And I must say, to the normal mind . . ."
"The mediocre mind."
"To the normal and mediocre mind, appearances were against you. Observe, please, that I did not know I was wrong, that you were a remarkable young woman. My deductions were made from what I saw as an outsider. On the Irrawaddy you made the acquaintance of a man who came out here a fugitive from justice. After you made his acquaintance, you sought none other, in fact, repelled any advances. This alone decided me."
"Then you were decided?" To say that this blunt exposition was not bitter to her taste, that it did not act like acid upon her pride, would not be true. She was hurt, but she did not let the hurt befog her sense of justice. From his point of view the colonel was in no fault. "Let me tell you how very wrong you were indeed."
"Doubtless," he hastily interposed, "you enveloped the man in a cloud of romance."
"On the contrary, I spoke to him and sought his companionship because he was nothing more nor less than a ghost."
"Ah! Is it possible that you knew him in former times?"
"No. But he was so like the man at home; so identical in features and build to the man I expected to go home to marry. . . ."
"My dear young lady, you are right. Mediocrity is without imagination, stupid, and makes the world a dull place indeed. Like the man you expect to marry! What woman in your place would have acted otherwise? And I have made my statements as bald and brutal as an examining magistrate! Instead of one apology I offer a thousand."
"I accept each and all of them. More, I believe that you and I could get on capitally. I can very well imagine the soldier you used to be. I am going to ask you what you know about Mr. Warrington."
"This, that he is not a fit companion for a young woman like yourself; that a detractable rumor follows hard upon his heels wherever he goes. I learned something about him in Rangoon. He is known to the riff-raff as Parrot & Co., and I don't know what else. All of us on shipboard learned his previous history."
"Ah!" She was quite certain of the historian. "And not from respectable quarters, either."
"If I had been elderly and without physical attractions?" Elsa inquired sarcastically.
"We are dealing with human nature, mediocrity, and not with speculation. It is in the very nature of things to distrust that which we do not understand. You say, old and without physical attractions. Beauty is of all things most drawing. We crowd about it, we crown it, we flatter it. The old and unattractive we pass by. If I had not seen you here to-night, heard you talk, saw in a kind of rebellious enchantment over your knowledge of the world and your distinguished acquaintance, I should have gone to my grave believing that my suspicions were correct. I dare say that I shall make the same mistake again."
"But do not judge so hastily."
"That I promise."
"Did you learn among other things what Mr. Warrington had done?"
"Yes. A sordid affair. Ordinary peculations that were wasted over gaming-tables."
Warrington had told her the truth. At least, the story told by others coincided with his own. But what was it that kept doubt in her mind? Why should she not be ready to believe what others believed, what the man himself had confessed? What was it to her that he looked like Arthur, that he was guilty or innocent?
"And his name?" She wondered if the colonel knew that also.
"Warrington is assumed. His real name is Paul Ellison."
"Paul Ellison." She repeated it slowly. Her voice did not seem her own. The table, the lights, the faces, all receded and became a blur.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.