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A MAN WITH A PAST
The moonless Oriental night, spangled with large and brilliant stars, brilliant yet mellow, unlike the crisp scintillating presentment in northern latitudes, might have served as an illustration of an air-tight bowl, flung down relentlessly upon this part of the world. Inside this figurative bowl it was chill, yet the air was stirless. It was without refreshment; it became a labor and not an exhilaration to breath it. A pall of suffocating dust rolled above and about the Irrawaddy flotilla boat which, buffeted by the strong irregular current, strained at its cables, now at the bow, now at the stern, not dissimilar to the last rocking of a deserted swing. This sensation was quite perceptible to the girl who leaned over the bow-rail, her handkerchief pressed to her nose, and gazed interestedly at the steep bank, up and down which the sweating coolies swarmed like Gargantuan rats. They clawed and scrambled up and slid and shuffled down; and always the bank threatened to slip and carry them all into the swirling murk below. A dozen torches were stuck into the ground above the crumbling ledge; she saw the flames as one sees a burning match cupped in a smoker's hands, shedding light upon nothing save that which stands immediately behind it.
She choked a little. Her eyes smarted. Her lips were slightly cracked, and cold-cream seemed only to provide a surer resting place for the impalpable dust. It had penetrated her clothes; it had percolated through wool and linen and silk, intimately, until three baths a day had become a welcome routine, providing it was possible to obtain water. Water. Her tongue ran across her lips. Oh, for a drink from the old cold pure spring at home! Tea, coffee, and bottled soda; nothing that ever touched the thirsty spots in her throat.
She looked up at the stars and they looked down upon her, but what she asked they could not, would not, answer. Night after night she had asked, and night after night they had only twinkled as of old. She had traveled now for four months, and still the doubt beset her. It was to be a leap in the dark, with no one to tell her what was on the other side. But why this insistent doubt? Why could she not take the leap gladly, as a woman should who had given the affirmative to a man? With him she was certain that she loved him, away from him she did not know what sentiment really abided in her heart. She was wise enough to realize that something was wrong; and there were but three months between her and the inevitable decision. Never before had she known other than momentary indecision; and it irked her to find that her clarity of vision was fallible and human like the rest of her. The truth was, she didn't know her mind. She shrugged, and the movement stirred the dust that had gathered upon her shoulders.
What a dust-ridden, poverty-ridden, plague-ridden world she had seen! Ignorance wedded to superstition, yet waited upon by mystery and romance and incomparable beauty. As the Occidental thought rarely finds analysis in the Oriental mind, so her mind could not gather and understand this amalgamation of art and ignorance. She forgot that another race of men had built those palaces and temples and forts and tombs, and that they had vanished as the Greeks and Romans have vanished, leaving only empty spaces behind, which the surviving tribes neither fill nor comprehend.
"A rare old lot of dust; eh, Miss Chetwood? I wish we could travel by night, but you can't trust this blooming old Irrawaddy after sundown. Charts are so much waste-paper. You just have to know the old lady. Bars rise in a night, shift this side and that. But the days are all right. No dust when you get in mid-stream. What?"
"I never cease wondering how those poor coolies can carry those heavy rice-bags," she replied to the purser.
"Oh, they are used to it," carelessly.
The great gray stack of paddy-bags seemed, in the eyes of the girl, fairly to melt away.
"By Jove!" exclaimed the purser. "There's Parrot & Co.!" He laughed and pointed toward one of the torches.
"Parrot & Co.? I do not understand."
"That big blond chap behind the fourth torch. Yes, there. Sometime I'll tell you about him. Picturesque duffer."
She could have shrieked aloud, but all she did was to draw in her breath with a gasp that went so deep it gave her heart a twinge. Her fingers tightened upon the teak-rail. Suddenly she knew, and was ashamed of her weakness. It was simply a remarkable likeness, nothing more than that; it could not possibly be anything more. Still, a ghost could not have startled her as this living man had done.
"Who is he?"
"A chap named Warrington. But over here that signifies nothing; might just as well be Jones or Smith or Brown. We call him Parrot & Co., but the riff-raff have another name for him. The Man Who Never Talked of Home. For two or three seasons he's been going up and down the river. Ragged at times, prosperous at others. Lately it's been rags. He's always carrying that Rajputana parrot. You've seen the kind around the palaces and forts: saber-blade wings, long tail-feathers, green and blue and scarlet, and the ugliest little rascals going. This one is trained to do tricks."
"But the man!" impatiently.
He eyed her, mildly surprised. "Oh, he puzzles us all a bit, you know. Well educated; somewhere back a gentleman; from the States. Of course I don't know; something shady, probably. They don't tramp about like this otherwise. For all that, he's rather a decent sort; no bounder like that rotter we left at Mandalay. He never talks about himself. I fancy he's lonesome again."
"It's the way, you know. These poor beggars drop aboard for the night, merely to see a white woman again, to hear decent English, to dress and dine like a human being. They disappear the next day, and often we never see them again."
"What do they do?" The question came to her lips mechanically.
"Paddy-fields. White men are needed to oversee them. And then, there's the railway, and there's the new oil-country north of Prome. You'll see the wells to-morrow. Rather fancy this Warrington chap has been working along the new pipelines. They're running them down to Rangoon. Well, there goes the last bag. Will you excuse me? The lading bills, you know. If he's with us tomorrow, I'll have him put the parrot through its turns. An amusing little beggar."
"Why not introduce him to me?"
"I'm not afraid," quietly.
"By Jove, no! But this is rather difficult, you know. If he shouldn't turn out right . . ." with commendable hesitance.
"I'll take all the responsibility. It's a whim."
"Well, you American girls are the eighth wonder of the world." The purser was distinctly annoyed. "And it may be an impertinence on my part, but I never yet saw an American woman who would accept advice or act upon it."
"Thanks. What would you advise?" with dangerous sweetness.
"Not to meet this man. It's irregular. I know nothing about him. If you had a father or a brother on board. . . ."
"Or even a husband!" laughing.
"There you are!" resignedly. "You laugh. You women go everywhere, and half the time unprotected."
"Never quite unprotected. We never venture beyond the call of gentlemen."
"That is true," brightening. "You insist on meeting this chap?"
"I do not insist; only, I am bored, and he might interest me for an hour." She added: "Besides, it may annoy the others."
The purser grinned reluctantly. "You and the colonel don't get on. Well, I'll introduce this chap at dinner. If I don't. . . .
"I am fully capable of speaking to him without any introduction whatever." She laughed again. "It will be very kind of you."
When he had gone she mused over this impulse so alien to her character. An absolute stranger, a man with a past, perhaps a fugitive from justice; and because he looked like Arthur Ellison, she was seeking his acquaintance. Something, then, could break through her reserve and aloofness? She had traveled from San Francisco to Colombo, unattended save by an elderly maiden who had risen by gradual stages from nurse to companion, but who could not be made to remember that she was no longer a nurse. In all these four months Elsa had not made half a dozen acquaintances, and of these she had not sought one. Yet, she was asking to meet a stranger whose only recommendation was a singular likeness to another man. The purser was right. It was very irregular.
"Parrot & Co.!" she murmured. She searched among the phantoms moving to and fro upon the ledge; but the man with the cage was gone. It was really uncanny.
She dropped her arms from the rail and went to her stateroom and dressed for dinner. She did not give her toilet any particular care. There was no thought of conquest, no thought of dazzling the man in khaki. It was the indolence and carelessness of the East, where clothes become only necessities and are no longer the essentials of adornment.
Elsa Chetwood was twenty-five, lithely built, outwardly reposeful, but dynamic within. Education, environment and breeding had somewhat smothered the glowing fires. She was a type of the ancient repression of woman, which finds its exceptions in the Aspasias and Helens and Cleopatras of legend and history. In features she looked exactly what she was, well-bred and well-born. Beauty she also had, but it was the cold beauty of northern winter nights. It compelled admiration rather than invited it. Spiritually, Elsa was asleep. The fire was there, the gift of loving greatly, only it smoldered, without radiating even the knowledge of its presence. Men loved her, but in awe, as one loves the marbles of Phidias. She knew no restraint, and yet she had passed through her stirless years restrained. She was worldly without being more than normally cynical; she was rich without being either frugal or extravagant. Her independence was inherent and not acquired. She had laid down certain laws for herself to follow; and that these often clashed with the laws of convention, which are fetish to those who divide society into three classes, only mildly amused her. Right from wrong she knew, and that sufficed her.
Her immediate relatives were dead; those who were distantly related remained so, as they had no part in her life nor she in theirs. Relatives, even the best of them, are practically strangers to us. They have their own affairs and interests, and if these touch ours it is generally through the desire to inherit what we have. So Elsa went her way alone. From her father she had inherited a remarkable and seldom errant judgment. To her, faces were generally book-covers, they repelled or attracted; and she found large and undiminishing interest in the faculty of pressing back the covers and reading the text. Often battered covers held treasures, and often the editions de luxe were swindles. But in between the battered covers and the exquisite Florentine hand-tooling there ranged a row of mediocre books; and it was among these that Elsa found that her instinct was not wholly infallible, as will be seen.
To-day she was facing the first problem of her young life, epochal. She was, as it were, to stop and begin life anew. And she didn't know, she wasn't sure.
There were few passengers aboard. There were three fussy old English maidens under the protection of a still fussier old colonel, who disagreed with everybody because his liver disagreed with him. Twenty years of active service in Upper India had seriously damaged that physiological function, and "pegs" no longer mellowed him. The quartet greatly amused Elsa. Their nods were abrupt, and they spoke in the most formal manner. She was under grave suspicion; in the first place, she was traveling alone, in the second place, she was an American. At table there was generally a desultory conversation, and many a barb of malice Elsa shot from her bow. Figuratively, the colonel walked about like a porcupine, bristling with arrows instead of quills. Elsa could have shouted at times, for the old war-dog was perfectly oblivious. There was, besides, the inevitable German tourist, who shelled with questions every man who wore brass-buttons, until there was some serious talk of dropping him astern some day. He had shelled the colonel, but that gentleman was snugly encased in the finest and most impenetrable Bessemer, complacency.
Upon these Irrawaddy boats the purser is usually the master of ceremonies in the dining-saloon. The captain and his officers rarely condescended. Perhaps it was too much trouble to dress; perhaps tourists had disgusted them with life; at any rate, they remained in obscurity.
Elsa usually sat at the purser's right, and to-night she found the stranger sitting quietly at her side. The chair had been vacant since the departure from Mandalay. Evidently the purser had decided to be thorough in regard to her wishes. It would look less conspicuous to make the introduction in this manner. And she wanted to meet this man who had almost made her cry out in astonishment.
"Miss Chetwood, Mr. Warrington." This was as far as the purser would unbend.
The colonel's eyes popped; the hands of the three maidens fluttered. Warrington bowed awkwardly, for he was decidedly confused.
"Ha!" boomed the German. "Vat do you tink uff . . . ."
And from soup to coffee Warrington eluded, dodged, stepped under and ran around the fusillade of questions.
Elsa laughed softly. There were breathing-spells, to be sure. Under the cover of this verbal bombardment she found time to inspect the stranger. The likeness, so close at hand, started a ringing in her ears and a flutter in her throat. It was almost unbelievable. He was bigger, broader, his eyes were keener, but there was only one real difference: this man was rugged, whereas Arthur was elegant. It was as if nature had taken two forms from the same mold, and had finished but one of them. His voice was not unpleasant, but there were little sharp points of harshness in it, due quite possibly to the dust.
"I am much interested in that little parrot of yours. I have heard about him."
"Oh! I suppose you've heard what they call us?" His eyes looked straight into hers, smilingly.
"Parrot & Co.? Yes. Will you show him off to-morrow?"
"I shall be very happy to."
But all the while he was puzzling over the purser's unaccountable action in deliberately introducing him to this brown-eyed, golden-skinned young woman. Never before had such a thing occurred upon these boats. True, he had occasionally been spoken to; an idle question flung at him, like a bare bone to a dog. If flung by an Englishman, he answered it courteously, and subsided. He had been snubbed too many times not to have learned this lesson. It never entered his head that the introduction might have been brought about by the girl's interest. He was too mortally shy of women to conceive of such a possibility. So his gratitude was extended to the purser, who, on his side, regretted his good-natured recommendations of the previous hour.
When Elsa learned that the man at her side was to proceed to Rangoon, she ceased to ask him any more questions. She preferred to read her books slowly. Once, while he was engaging the purser, her glance ran over his clothes. She instantly berated her impulsive criticism as a bit of downright caddishness. The lapels of the coat were shiny, the sleeves were short, there was a pucker across the shoulders; the winged-collar gave evidence of having gone to the native laundry once too often; the studs in the shirt-bosom were of the cheapest mother-of-pearl, and the cuff-buttons, ordinary rupee silver. The ensemble suggested that since the purchase of these habiliments of civilization the man had grown, expanded.
Immediately after dinner she retired to her state-room, conscious that her balance needed readjusting. She had heard and read much lore concerning reincarnation, skeptically; yet here, within call of her voice, was Arthur, not the shadow of a substance, but Arthur, shorn of his elegance, his soft lazy voice, his half-dreaming eyes, his charming indolence. Why should this man's path cross hers, out of all the millions that ran parallel?
She opened her window and looked up at the stars again. She saw one fall, describe an arc and vanish. She wondered what this man had done to put him beyond the pale; for few white men remained in Asia from choice. She had her ideas of what a rascal should be; but Warrington agreed in no essential. It was not possible that dishonor lurked behind those frank blue eyes. She turned from the window, impatiently, and stared at one of her kit-bags. Suddenly she knelt down and threw it open, delved among the soft fabrics and silks and produced a photograph. She had not glanced at it during all these weeks. There had been a purpose back of this apparent neglect. The very thing she dreaded happened. Her pulse beat on, evenly, unstirred. She was a failure.
In the photograph the man's beard was trimmed Valois; the beard of the man who had sat next to her at dinner had grown freely and naturally, full. Such a beard was out of fashion, save among country doctors. It signified carelessness, indifference, or a full life wherein the niceties of the razor had of necessity been ignored. Keenly she searched the familiar likeness. What an amazing freak of nature! It was unreal. She tossed the photograph back into the kit-bag, bewildered, uneasy.
Meantime Warrington followed the purser into his office. "I haven't paid for my stateroom yet," he said.
"I'll make it out at once. Rangoon, I understand?"
"Yes. But I'm in a difficulty. I have nothing in change but two rupees."
The purser froze visibly. The tale was trite in his ears.
"But I fancy I've rather good security to offer," went on Warrington coolly. He drew from his wallet a folded slip of paper and spread it out.
The purser stared at it, enchanted. Warrington stared down at the purser, equally enchanted.
"By Jove!" the former gasped finally. "And so you're the chap who's been holding up the oil syndicate all these months? And you're the chap who made them come to this bally landing three days ago?"
"I'm the chap."
It was altogether a new purser who looked up. "Twenty thousand pounds about, and only two rupees in your pocket! Well, well; it takes the East to bowl a man over like this. A certified check on the Bank of Burma needs no further recommendation. In the words of your countrymen, go as far as you like. You can pay me in Rangoon. Your boy takes deck-passage?"
"Yes," returning the check to the wallet.
"Shouldn't mind. Thanks."
"Now, sit down and spin the yarn. It must be jolly interesting."
"I'll admit that it has been a tough struggle; but I knew that I had the oil. Been flat broke for months. Had to borrow my boy's savings for food and shelter. Well, this is the way it runs." Warrington told it simply, as if it were a great joke.
"Rippin'! By Jove, you Americans are hard customers to put over. I suppose you'll be setting out for the States at once?" with a curious glance.
"I haven't made any plans yet," eying the cheroot thoughtfully.
"I see." The purser nodded. It was not difficult to understand. "Well, good luck to you wherever you go."
Alone in his stateroom Warrington took out Rajah and tossed him on the counterpane of the bed.
"Now, then, old sport!" tapping the parrot on the back with the perch which he used as a baton. Blinking and muttering, the bird performed his tricks, and was duly rewarded and returned to his home of iron. "She'll be wanting to take you home with her, but you're not for sale."
He then opened his window and leaned against the sill, looking up at the stars. But, unlike the girl, he did not ask any questions.
"Free!" he said softly.
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