TWO DAYS OF PARADISE
At first Elsa did not know whether she was annoyed or amused. The man's action was absurd, or would have been in any other man. There was something so singularly boyish in his haste that she realized she could not deal with him in an ordinary fashion. She ought to be angry; indeed, she wanted to be very angry with him; but her lips curled, and laughter hung upon them, undecided. His advice to her to go home was downright impudence; and yet, the sight of the parrot-cage, dangling at his side, made it impossible for her to take lasting offense. Once upon a time there had been a little boy who played in her garden. When he was cross he would take his playthings and go home. The boy might easily have been this man Warrington, grown up.
Of course he would come and apologize to her for his rudeness. That was one of the necessary laws of convention; and ten years spent in jungles and deserts and upon southern seas could not possibly have robbed him of the memory of these simple ethics that he had observed in other and better times. Perhaps he had resented her curiosity; perhaps her questions had been pressed too hard; and perhaps he had suddenly doubted her genuine interest. At any rate, it was a novel experience. And that bewildering likeness!
She returned to her chair and opened the book again. And as she read her wonder grew. How trivial it was, after all. The men and women she had calmly and even gratefully accepted as types were nothing more than marionettes, which the author behind the booth manipulated not badly but perfunctorily. The diction was exquisite; there was style; but now as she read there was lacking the one thing that stood for life, blood. It did not pulsate in the veins of these people. Until now she had not recognized this fact, and she was half-way through the book. She even took the trouble to reread the chapter she had thought peculiarly effective. There was the same lack of feeling. What had happened to her since yesterday? To what cause might be assigned this opposite angle of vision, so clearly defined?
The book fell upon her knees, and dreamily she watched the perspective open and divaricate. Full in her face the south wind blew, now warmed by the sun and perfumed by unknown spices. She took in little sharp breaths, but always the essence escaped her. The low banks with their golden haze of dust, the cloudless sky, the sad and lonely white pagodas, charmed her; and the languor of the East crept stealthily into her northern blood. She was not conscious of the subtle change; she only knew that the world of yesterday was unlike that of today.
Warrington, after depositing Rajah in the stateroom, sought the bench on the stern-deck. He filled his cutty with purser-loaned tobacco, and roundly damned himself as a blockhead. He had forgotten all the niceties of civilization; he no longer knew how to behave. What if she had been curious? It was natural that she should be. This was a strange world to her, and if her youth rosal-tinted it with romance, what right had he to disillusion her? The first young woman in all these years who had treated him as an equal, and he had straightway proceeded to lecture her upon the evils of traveling alone in the Orient! Double-dyed ass! He had been rude and impudent. He had seen other women traveling alone, but the sight had not roused him as in the present instance. In ten years he had not said so much to all the women he had met; and without seeming effort at all she had dragged forth some of the half-lights of his past. This in itself amazed him; it proved that he was still weak enough to hunger for human sympathy, and he of all men deserved none whatever. He had been a fool as a boy, a fool as a man, and without doubt he would die a fool. He was of half a mind to leave the boat at Prome and take the train down to Rangoon.
And yet he had told her the truth. It was not right that a young and attractive woman should wander about in the East, unattended save by a middle-aged companion. It would provoke the devil in men who were not wholly bad. Women had the fallible idea that they could read human nature, and never found out their mistake until after they were married. He knew her kind. If she wanted to walk through the bazaars in the evening, she would do so. If a man followed her she would ignore the fact. If he caught up with her and spoke, she would continue on as if she had not heard. If a man touched her, she would rely upon the fire of her eyes. She would never call out for help. Some women were just that silly.
He bit hard upon the stem of his pipe. What was all this to him? Why should he bother his head about a woman he had known but a few hours? Ah, why lie to himself? He knew what Elsa, usually quick and receptive, did not know, that he was not afraid of her, but terribly afraid of himself. For things ripen quickly in the East, men and women, souls and deeds. And he was something like the pariah-dog; spoken kindly to, it attached itself immediately and enduringly.
He struck the cutty against his boot-heel. Why not? It would be only for two days. At Rangoon their paths would separate; he would never see her again. He got up. He would go to her at once and apologize abjectly. And thus he surrendered to the very devil he had but a moment gone so vigorously discountenanced.
He found her asleep in her chair. The devil which had brought him to her side was thrust back. Why, she was nothing more than a beautiful child! A great yearning to brother her came into his heart. He did not disturb her, but waited until five, that grave and sober hour, when kings and clerks stop work for no logical reason whatever--tea. She opened her eyes and saw him watching her. He rose quickly.
"May I get you some tea?"
And so the gulf was bridged. When he returned he set the cup and plate of cakes on the arm of her chair.
"I was very rude a little while ago. Will you accept my apologies?"
"On condition that you will never take your playthings and go home."
He laughed engagingly. "You've hit it squarely. It was the act of a petulant child."
"It did not sound exactly like a man who had stoked six months from Singapore to the Andaman Islands. But there is one thing I must understand before this acquaintance continues. You said, 'Who knows what manner of man I am?' Have you ever done anything that would conscientiously forbid you to speak to a young unmarried woman?"
Take care of herself? He rather believed she could. The bluntness of her question dissipated any doubt that remained.
"No. I haven't been that kind of a man," simply. "I could look into my mother's eyes without any sense of shame, if that is what you mean."
"That is all I care to know. Your mother is living?"
"Yes. But I haven't seen her in ten years." His mother! His brows met in a frown. His proud beautiful mother!
Elsa saw the frown, and realized that she had approached delicate ground. She stirred her tea and sipped it slowly.
"There has been a deal of chatter about shifty untrustworthy eyes," he said. "The greatest liars I have ever known could look St. Peter straight and serenely in the eye. It's a matter of steady nerves, nothing more. Somebody says that so and so is a fact, and we go on believing it for years, until some one who is not a person but an individual explodes it."
"I agree with you. But there is something we rely upon far more than either eyes or ears, instinct. It is that attribute of the animal which civilization has not yet successfully dulled. Women rely upon that more readily than men."
"And make more mistakes," with a cynicism he could not conceal.
She had no ready counter for this. "Do you go home from Rangoon, now that you have made your fortune?"
"No. I am going to Singapore. I shall make my plans there."
Singapore. Elsa stirred uneasily. It would be like having a ghost by her side. She wanted to tell him what had really drawn her interest. But it seemed to her that the moment to do so had passed.
"Vultures! How I detest them!" She pointed toward a sand-bar upon which stood several of these abominable birds and an adjutant, solemn and aloof. "At Lucknow they were red-headed. I do not recollect seeing one of them fly. But I admire the kites; they look so much like our eagles."
"And thus again the eye misleads us. There is nothing that flies so rapacious as the kite."
Little by little she drew from him a sketch here, a phase there. She was given glimpses into the life of the East such as no book or guide had ever given; and the boat was circling toward the landing at Prome before they became aware of the time.
Warrington rushed ashore to find the dry-goods shop. His social redemption was on the way, if vanity went for anything. It was stirring and tingling with life again. With the money advanced by the purser he bought shirts and collars and ties; and as he possessed no watch, returned barely in time to dress for dinner. He was not at all disturbed to learn that the inquisitive German, the colonel and his fidgety charges, had decided to proceed to Rangoon by rail. Indeed, there was a bit of exultation in his manner as he observed the vacant chairs. Paradise for two whole days. And he proposed to make the most of it. Now, his mind was as clear of evil as a forest spring. He simply wanted to play; wanted to give rein to the lighter emotions so long pent up in his lonely heart.
The purser, used to these sudden changes and desertions in his passenger-lists, gave the situation no thought. But Elsa saw a mild danger, all the more alluring because it hung nebulously. For years she had walked in conformity with the cramped and puerile laws that govern society. She had obeyed most of them from habit, others from necessity. What harm could there be in having a little fling? He was so amazingly like outwardly, so astonishingly unlike inwardly, that the situation held for her a subtle fascination against which she was in nowise inclined to fight. What had nature in mind when she produced two men exactly alike in appearance but in reality as far apart as the poles? Would it be worth while to find out? She was not wholly ignorant of her power. She could bend the man if she tried. Should she try?
They were like two children, setting out to play a game with fire.
She thought of Arthur. Had he gone the length of his thirty-five years without his peccadillos? Scarcely. She understood the general run of men well enough to accept this fact. Whomever she married she was never going to worry him with questions regarding his bachelor life. Nor did she propose to be questioned about her own past. Besides, she hadn't married Arthur yet; she had only promised to. And such promises were sometimes sensibly broken. There ran through her a fine vein of mercilessness, but it was without cruelty, it was leavened with both logic and justice. When the time came she would name the day to Arthur, or she would with equal frankness announce that she would not marry him at all. These thoughts flashed through her mind, disconnectedly, while she talked and laughed.
It never occurred to her to have Martha moved up from the foot of the table. Once or twice she stole a glance at the woman who had in the olden days dandled her on her knees. The glance was a mixture of guilt and mischief, like a child's. But the glance had not the power to attract Martha's eyes. Martha felt the glances as surely as if she had lifted her eyes to meet them. She held her peace. She had not been brought along as Elsa's guardian. Elsa was not self-willed but strong-willed, and Martha realized that any interference would result in estrangement. In fact, Martha beheld in Warrington a real menace. The extraordinary resemblance would naturally appeal to Elsa, with what results she could only imagine. Later she asked Elsa if she had told Warrington of the remarkable resemblance.
"Mercy, no! And what is more, I do not want him to know. Men are vain as a rule; and I should not like to hurt his vanity by telling him that I sought his acquaintance simply because he might easily have been Arthur Ellison's twin brother."
"The man you are engaged to marry."
"Whom I have promised to marry, provided the state of my sentiments is unchanged upon my return; which is altogether a different thing."
"That does not seem quite fair to Mr. Ellison."
"I beg your pardon, Elsa; but the stranger terrifies me. He is something uncanny."
"Nonsense! You've been reading tales about Yogii."
"It is a terrible country."
"It is the East, Martha, the East. Here a man may wear a dress-suit and a bowler without offending any one."
"And a woman may talk to any one she pleases."
"Is that a criticism?"
"No, Elsa; it is what you call the East."
"You have been with me twenty years," began Elsa coldly.
"And love you better than the whole world! And I wish I could guard you always from harm and evil. Those horrid old Englishwomen . . ."
"Oh; so there's been gossip already? You know my views regarding gossip. So long as I know that I am doing no wrong, ladies may gossip their heads off. I'm not a kitten."
"You are twenty-five, and yet you're only a child."
"What does that signify? That I am too young to manage my own affairs? That I must set my clock as others order? Good soul!" putting her arms around the older woman. "Don't worry about Elsa Chetwood. Her life is her own, but she will never misuse it."
"Oh, if you were only married and settled down!"
"You mean, if I were happily married and settled down. There you have it. I'm in search of happiness. That's the Valley of Diamonds. When I find that, Martha, you may fold your hands in peace."
"Grant it may be soon! I hate the East!
"And I have just begun to love it."