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A BIT OF A LARK
Mallow gave Craig one of his favorite cigars. The gambler turned it over and inspected the carnelian label, realizing that this was expected of him. Mallow smiled complacently. They might smoke as good as that at the government-house, but he rather doubted it. Trust a Britisher to know a good pipe-charge; but his selection of cigars was seldom to be depended upon.
"Don't see many of these out here," was Craig's comment, and he tucked away the cigar in a vest pocket.
"They cost me forty-three cents apiece, without duty." The vulgarian's pleasure lies not in the article itself so much as in the price paid for it. On the plantation Mallow smoked Burma cheroots because he really preferred them. There, he drank rye whisky, consorted with his employees, gambled with them and was not above cheating when he had them drunk enough. Away from home, however, he was the man of money; he bought vintage wines when he could, wore silks, jingled the sovereigns whenever he thought some one might listen, bullied the servants, all with the childish belief that he was following the footsteps of aristocracy, hoodwinking no one, not even his kind. "I'm worth a quarter of a million," he went on. "Luck and plugging did it. One of these fine days I'm going to sell out and take a whack at that gay Paris. There's the place to spend your pile. You can't get your money's worth any place else."
Paris. Craig's thought flew back to the prosperous days when he was plying his trade between New York and Cherbourg, on the Atlantic liners, the annual fortnight in Paris and the Grand-Prix. He had had his diamonds, then, and his wallet of yellow-backs; and when he had called for vintage wines and choice Havanas it had been for genuine love of them. In his heart he despised Mallow. He knew himself to be a rogue, but Mallow without money would have been a bold predatory scoundrel. Craig knew also that he himself was at soul too cowardly to be more than despicably bad. He envied Mallow's absolute fearlessness, his frank brutality, his strength upon which dissipation had as yet left no mark; and Mallow was easily forty-five. Paris. He might never see that city again. He had just enough to carry him to Hongkong and keep him on his feet until the races. He sent a bitter glance toward the sea where the moonlight gave an ashen hue to the forest of rigging. The beauty of the scene did not enter his eye. His mind was recalling the luxurious smoke-rooms.
"When you go to Paris, I'd like to go along."
"You've never let on why they sent you hiking out here," Mallow suggested.
"One of my habits is keeping my mouth shut."
"Regarding your own affairs, yes. But you're willing enough to talk when it comes to giving away the other chap."
"You can play that hand as well as I can." Craig scowled toward the dining-room doors.
"Ha! There they come," said Mallow, as a group of men and women issued out into the cafe-veranda. "By gad! she is a beauty, and no mistake. And will you look at our friend, the colonel, toddling behind her?"
"You're a fine lady-killer." Mallow tore the band from a fresh cigar and struck a match.
"I know when I've got enough. If you could get a good look at her when she's angry, you'd change your tune."
Mallow sighed audibly. "Most women are tame, and that's why I've fought shy of the yoke. Yonder's the sort for me. The man who marries her will have his work cut out. It'll take a year or two to find out who's boss; and if she wins, lord help the man!"
Craig eyed the group which was now seated. Two Chinamen were serving coffee and cordials. Mallow was right; beautiful was the word. A vague regret came to him, as it comes to all men outside the pale, that such a woman could never be his. He poured out for himself a stiff peg and drank it with very little soda. Craig always fled, as it were, from introspection.
"Haven't seen the crow anywhere, have you?"
"No, nor want to. Leave him alone."
"Afraid of him, eh?"
"I'm truthful enough to say that I'm damned afraid of him. Don't mistake me. I'd like to see him flat, beaten, down and out for good. I'd like to see him lose that windfall, every cent of it. But I don't want to get in his way just now."
"Rot! Don't you worry; no beach-comber like that can stand up long in front of me. He threatened on board that he was going to collect that fifty pounds. He hasn't been very spry about it."
"I should like to be with you when you meet."
Mallow grinned. "Not above seeing a pal get walloped, eh? Well, you get a ring-side ticket. It'll be worth it."
"I don't want to see you get licked," denied Craig irritably. "All I ask is that you shelve some of your cock-sureness. I'm not so dead-broke that I must swallow all of it. I've warned you that he is a strong man. He used to be one of the best college athletes in America."
"College!" exploded Mallow. "What the devil does a college athlete know about a dock-fight?"
"Ever see a game of football?"
"Well, take it from me that it's the roughest game going. It's a game where you put your boot in a man's face when he's not looking. Mallow, they kill each other in that game. And Ellison was one of the best, fifteen years ago. He used to wade through a ton of solid, scrapping, plunging flesh. And nine times out of ten he used to get through. I want you to beat him up, and it's because I do that I'm warning you not to underestimate him. On shipboard he handled me as you would a bag of salt; damn him! He's a surprise to me. He looks as if he had lived clean out here. There's no booze-sign hanging out on him, like there is on you and me."
"Booze never hurt me any."
"You're galvanized inside," said Craig, staring again at Elsa. He wished he knew how to hurt her, too. But he might as well throw stones at the stars.
"How would you like to put one over on this chap Ellison?"
"In what way?"
Mallow smoked for a moment, then touched his breast pocket significantly.
"Not for mine," returned Craig. "Cards are my long suit. I'm no second-story man, not yet."
"I know. But supposing you could get it without risk?"
"In the first place, the bulk of his cash is tied up in letters of credit."
"Ah, you know that?"
"What good would it do to pinch those? In Europe there would be some chance, but not here where boats are two weeks apart. A cable to Rangoon would shut off all drawing. He could have others made out. In cash he may have a few hundreds."
"All gamblers are more or less yellow," sneered Mallow. "The streak in you is pretty wide. I tell you, you needn't risk your skin. Are you game to put one over that will cost him a lot of worry and trouble?"
"So long as I can stand outside the ropes and look on."
"He has a thousand pounds in his belt. No matter how I found out. How'd you like to put your hand on it if you were sure it would not burn your fingers?"
"I'd like to, all right. But it's got to be mighty certain. And the belt must be handed to me by some one else. I've half a wonder if you're not aiming to get rid of me," with an evil glance at his tempter.
"If I wanted to get rid of you, this'd be the way," said Mallow, opening and shutting his powerful hands. "I'm just hungering for a bit of a lark. Come on. A thousand pounds for taking a little rickshaw ride. Ever hear of Wong's? Opium, pearls, oils and shark-fins?"
"Not many do. I know Singapore like the lines on my hands. Wong is the shrewdest, most lawless Chinaman this side of Canton and Macao. Pipes, pearls and shark-fins. Did you know that the bay out there is so full of sharks that they have to stand on their tails for lack of space? Big money. Wong's the man to go to. Want a schooner rigged out for illicit shell-hunting? Want a man shanghaied? Want him written down missing? Go to Wong."
"See here, Mallow; I don't mind his being beaten up; but what you say doesn't sound good."
"You fool, I don't want him out of the way. Why should I? But there's that thousand for you and worry for him. All aboard!"
"You don't love Parrot & Co. any more than I do."
"No. I'd sleep better o' nights if I knew he was broken for keeps. Too much red-tape to put the United States after him. How'd you rig him?"
"Faro and roulette. They never tumble. I didn't have anything against him until he ran into me at Rangoon. But he's stepped in too many times since. Is this straight?"
"About lifting his belt? Easy as falling off a log. Leave it to me. His room is on the first gallery, facing southwest. You can chalk it up as revenge. I'll take it on as a bit of good sport. Wong will fix us out. Now look alive. It's after nine, and I'd like a little fun first."
The two left the cafe-veranda and engaged a pair of rickshaws. As they jogged down the road, Warrington stepped out from behind the palms and moodily watched them until the night swallowed them up. He had not overheard their interesting conversation, nor had he known they were about until they came down the steps together. He ached to follow them. He was in a fine mood for blows. That there were two of them did not trouble him. Of one thing he was assured: somewhere in the dim past an ancestor of his had died in a Berserk rage.
He had been watching Elsa. It disturbed but did not mystify him to see her talking to the colonel. Table-chance had brought them together, and perhaps to a better understanding. How pale she was! From time to time he caught the flash of her eyes as she turned to this or that guest. Once she smiled, but the smile did not lighten up her face. He was very wretched and miserable. She had taken him at his word, and he should have been glad. He had seen her but once again on board, but she had looked away. It was best so. Yet, it was as if fate had reached down into his heart and snapped the strings which made life tuneful.
And to-morrow! What would to-morrow bring? Would they refuse? Would they demand the full penalty? Eight thousand with interest was a small sum to such a corporation. He had often wondered if they had searched for him. Ten years. In the midst of these cogitations he saw the group at the table rise and break up. Elsa entered the hotel. Warrington turned away and walked aimlessly toward town. For hours he wandered about, seeing nothing, hearing nothing; and it was long past midnight when he sought his room, restless and weary but wide awake. He called for a stiff peg, drank it, and tumbled into bed. He was whirled away into broken dreams. Now he was running down the gridiron, with the old thrill in his blood. With that sudden inconceivable twist of dreams, he saw the black pit of the tramp-steamer and felt the hell-heat in his face. Again, he was in the Andes, toiling with his girders over unspeakable chasms. A shifting glance at the old billiard-room in the club, the letter, and his subsequent wild night of intoxication, the one time in his life when he had drunk hard and long. Back to the Indian deserts and jungles. And he heard the shriek of parrots.
The shriek of parrots. He sat up. Even in his dream he recognized that cry. Night or day. Rajah always shrieked when some one entered the room. Warrington silently slid out of bed and dashed to the door which led to the gallery. A body thudded against his. He caught hold. The body was nude to the waist and smelled evilly of sweat and fish-oil. Something whip-like struck him across the face. It was a queue.
Warrington struck out, but missed. Instantly a pair of powerful arms wound about him, bearing and bending him backward. His right arm lay parallel with the invader's chest. He brought up the heel of his palm viciously against the Chinaman's chin. It was sufficient to break the hold. Then followed a struggle that always remained nightmarish to Warrington. Hither and thither across the room, miraculously avoiding chairs, tables and bed, they surged. He heard a ring of steel upon the cement floor, and breathed easier to learn that the thief had dropped his knife. Warrington never thought to call out for help. The old fear of bringing people about him had become a habit. Once, in the whirl of things, his hand came into contact with a belt which hung about the other's middle. He caught at it and heaved. It broke, and the subsequent tinkling over the floor advised him of the fact that it was his own gold. The broken belt, however, brought the fight to an abrupt end. The oily body suddenly slipped away. Warrington beheld a shadow in the doorway; it loomed there a second against the sky-line, and vanished. He ran to the gallery railing, but it was too dark below to discern anything.
He returned to his room, breathing hard, the obnoxious odor of sweat and fish-oil in his nose. He turned on the lights and without waiting to investigate, went into the shower-room and stood under the tepid deluge. Even after a thorough rub-down the taint was in the air. The bird was muttering and turning somersaults.
"Thanks, Rajah, old sport! He'd have got me but for you. Let's see the damage."
He picked up the belt. The paper-money was intact, and what gold had fallen he could easily find. He then took up his vest . . . and dropped it, stunned. The letter of credit for half his fortune was gone. He sank back upon the bed and stared miserably at the fallen garment. Gone! Fifty thousand dollars. Some one who knew! Presently he stood up and tugged at his beard. After all, why should he worry? A cable to Rangoon would stop payments. A new letter could be issued. It would take time, but he had plenty of that.
Idly he reached for the broken cigar that lay at the foot of the bed. He would have tossed it aside as one of his own had not the carnelian band attracted his attention. He hadn't smoked that quality of tobacco in years. He turned it over and over, and it grew more and more familiar. Mallow's!
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