Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
IN THE NEXT ROOM
"Craig?" Warrington whispered the word, as if he feared the world might hear the deadly menace in his voice. For murder leaped up in his heart as flame leaps up in pine-kindling.
The weak young man got to his knees, then to his feet. He steadied himself by clutching the back of a chair. With one hand he felt of his throat tenderly.
"He tried to kill me, the blackguard!" he croaked.
"Craig, it is you! For ten years I've never thought of you without murder in my heart. Newell Craig, and here, right where I can put my hands upon you! Oh, this old world is small." Warrington laughed. It was a high thin sound.
The young man looked from his enemy to his deliverer, and back again. What new row was this? Never before had he seen the blackguard with that look in his dark, handsome, predatory face. It typified fear. And who was this big blond chap whose fingers were working so convulsively?
"Craig," said the young man, "you get out of here, and if you ever come bothering me, I'll shoot you. Hear me?"
This direful threat did not seem to stir the sense of hearing in either of the two men. The one faced the other as a lion might have faced a jackal, wondering if it would be worth while to waste a cuff on so sorry a beast. Suddenly the blond man caught the door and swung it wide.
"Craig, a week ago I'd have throttled you without the least compunction. To-day I can't touch you. But get out of here as fast as you can. You might have gone feet foremost. Go! Out of Rangoon, too. I may change my mind."
The man called Craig walked out, squaring his shoulders with a touch of bravado that did not impress even the plucked pigeon. Warrington stood listening until he heard the hall-door close sharply.
"Thanks," said the bewildered youth.
Warrington whirled upon him savagely. "Thanks? Don't thank me, you weak-kneed fool!"
"Oh, I say, now!" the other protested.
"Be silent! If you owe that scoundrel anything, refuse to pay it. He never won a penny in his life without cheating. Keep out of his way; keep out of the way of all men who prefer to deal only two hands." And with this advice Warrington stepped out into the hallway and shut the door rudely.
The youth walked over to the mirror and straightened his collar and tie. "Rum go, that. Narrow squeak. Surly beggar, even if he did do me a good turn. I shan't have to pay that rotter, Craig, now. That's something."
"Pay the purser and get a box of cigars," Warrington directed James. "Never mind about the wine. I shan't want it now."
James went out upon the errands immediately. Warrington dropped down in the creaky rocking-chair, the only one in the boarding-house. He stared at the worn and faded carpet. How dingy everything looked! What a sordid rut he had been content to lie in! Chance: to throw this man across his path when he had almost forgotten him, forgotten that he had sworn to break the man's neck over his knees! In the very next room! And he had permitted him to go unharmed simply because his mind was full of a girl he would never see again after to-morrow. What was the rascal doing over here? What had caused him to forsake the easy pluckings of Broadway in exchange for a dog's life on packet-boats, in squalid boarding-houses like this one, and in dismal billiard-halls? Wire-tapper, racing-tout, stool-pigeon, a cheater at cards, blackmailer and trafficker in baser things; in the next room, and he had let him go unharmed. Vermin. Pah! He was glad. The very touch of the man's collar had left a sense of defilement upon his hands. Ten years ago and thirteen thousand miles away. In the next room. He laughed unpleasantly. Chivalric fool, silly Don Quixote, sentimental dreamer, to have made a hash of his life in this manner!
He leaned toward the window-sill and opened the cage. Rajah walked out, muttering.
When it was possible, Elsa preferred to walk. She was young and strong and active; and she went along with a swinging stride that made obvious a serene confidence in her ability to take care of herself. She was, in many respects, a remarkable young woman. She had been pampered, she had been given her head; and still she was unspoiled. What the unknowing called wilfulness was simply natural independence, which she asserted whenever occasion demanded it.
Tongas cut into her nerves, the stuffy gharry made her head ache, and the springless phaetons which abound in the East she avoided as the plague. Elephants and camels and rickshaws were her delight; but here in Rangoon none of these was available. There were no camels; the government elephants had steady employment out at MacGregor's timberyards and could not get leave of absence; while rickshaws were out of fashion, as only natives and Chinamen rode in them. So Elsa walked.
She loved to prowl through the strange streets and alleys and stranger shops; it was a joy to ramble about, minus the irritating importunities of guide or attendant. It was great fun, but it was not always wise. There were some situations which only men could successfully handle. Elsa would never confess that there had been instances when she had been confronted by such situations. She could, however, truthfully say that these awkward moments had always been without endings, as, being an excellent runner, she had, upon these occasions, blithely taken to her heels.
In her cool white drill, her wide white pith-helmet, she presented a charming picture. The exercise had given her cheeks a bit of color, and her eyes sparkled and flashed like raindrops. This morning she had taken Martha along merely to still her protests.
"It's all right so long as we keep to the main streets," said the harried Martha; "but I do not like the idea of roaming about in the native quarters. This is not like Europe. The hotel-manager said we ought to have a man."
"He is looking out for his commission. Heavens! what is the matter with everybody? One would think, the way people put themselves out to warn you, that murder and robbery were daily occurrences in Asia. I've been here four months, and the only disagreeable moment I have known was caused by a white man."
"Because we have been lucky so far, it's no sign that we shall continue so."
"Raven!" laughed the girl.
Martha shut her lips grimly. Her worry was not confined to this particular phase of Elsa's imperious moods; it was general. There was that blond man with the parrot. Martha was beginning to see him in her dreams, which she considered as a presage of evil. There was also the astonishing lack of interest in the man who was waiting at home. Elsa rarely spoke of him. Nobody could tell Martha that chance had thrown the blond stranger into their society. Somewhere it had been written. (As, indeed, it had!) How to keep Elsa apart from him was now her vital concern. She would never feel at ease until they were out of Yokohama, homeward-bound.
"I feel like a child this morning," said Elsa. "I want to run and play and shout."
"All the more reason why you should have a guardian. . . . Look, Elsa!" Martha caught the girl by the arm. "There's that man we left at Mandalay."
"Coming toward us. Shall we go into this shop?"
"No, thank you! There is no reason why I should hide in a butcher-shop, simply to avoid meeting the man. We'll walk straight past him. If he speaks, we'll ignore him."
"I wish we were in a civilized country."
"This man is supposed to be civilized. Don't let him catch your eye. Go on; don't lag."
Craig stepped in front of them, smiling as he raised his helmet. "This is an unexpected pleasure."
Elsa, looking coldly beyond him, attempted to pass.
"Surely you remember me?"
"I remember an insolent cad," replied Elsa, her eyes beginning to burn dangerously. "Will you stand aside?"
He threw a swift glance about. He saw with satisfaction that none but natives was in evidence.
Elsa's glance roved, too, with a little chill of despair. In stories Warrington would have appeared about this time and soundly trounced this impudent scoundrel. She realized that she must settle this affair alone. She was not a soldier's daughter for nothing.
"Hoity-toity!" he laughed. He had been drinking liberally and was a shade reckless. "Why not be a good fellow? Over here nobody minds. I know a neat little restaurant. Bring the old lady along," with a genial nod toward the quaking Martha.
Resolutely Elsa's hand went up to her helmet, and with a flourish drew out one of the long steel pins.
"Oh, Elsa!" warned Martha.
"Be still! This fellow needs a lesson. Once more, Mr. Craig, will you stand aside?"
Had he been sober he would have seen the real danger in the young woman's eyes.
"Cruel!" he said. "At least, one kiss," putting out his arms.
Elsa, merciless in her fury, plunged the pin into his wrist. It stung like a hornet; and with a gasp of pain, Craig leaped back out of range, sobered.
"Why, you she-cat!"
"I warned you," she replied, her voice steady but low. "The second stab will be serious. Stand aside."
He stepped into the gutter, biting his lips and straining his uninjured hand over the hurting throb in his wrist. The hat-pin as a weapon of defense he had hitherto accepted as reporters' yarns. He was now thoroughly convinced of the truth. He had had wide experience with women. His advantage had always been in the fact that the general run of them will submit to insult rather than create a scene. This dark-eyed Judith was distinctly an exception to the rule. Gad! She might have missed his wrist and jabbed him in the throat. He swore, and walked off down the street.
Elsa set a pace which Martha, with her wabbling knees, found difficult to maintain.
"You might have killed him!" she cried breathlessly.
"You can't kill that kind of a snake with a hat-pin; you have to stamp on its head. But I rather believe it will be some time before Mr. Craig will again make the mistake of insulting a woman because she appears to be defenseless." Elsa's chin was in the air. The choking sensation in her throat began to subside. "The deadly hat-pin; can't you see the story in the newspapers? Well, I for one am not afraid to use it. You know and the purser knows what happened on the boat to Mandalay. He was plausible and affable and good-looking, and the mistake was mine. I seldom make them. I kept quiet because the boat was full-up, and as a rule I hate scenes. Men like that know it. If I had complained, he would have denied his actions, inferred that I was evil-minded. He would have been shocked at my misinterpreting him. Heavens, I know the breed! Now, not a single word of this to any one. Mr. Craig, I fancy, will be the last person to speak of it."
"You had better put the pin back into your hat," suggested Martha.
"Pah! I had forgotten it." Elsa flung the weapon far into the street.
Once they turned into Merchant Street, both felt the tension relax, Martha would have liked to sit down, even on the curb.
"I despise men," she volunteered.
"I am beginning to believe that few of them are worth a thought. Those who aren't fools are knaves."
"Are you sure of your judgment in regard to this man Warrington? How can you tell that he is any different from that man Craig?"
"He is different, that is all. This afternoon he will come to tea. I shall want you to be with us. Remember, not a word of this disgraceful affair."
"Ah, Elsa, I am afraid; I am more afraid of Warrington than of a man of Craig's type."
"It sounds foolish, but I can't explain. I am just afraid of him."
"Bother! You talk like an old maid."
"And I am one, by preference."
"We are always quarreling, Martha; and it doesn't do either of us any good. When you oppose me, I find that that is the very thing I want to do. You haven't any diplomacy."
"I would gladly cultivate it if I thought it would prove effectual," was the retort.
"Try it," advised Elsa dryly.
Warrington's appearance that afternoon astonished Elsa. She had naturally expected some change, but scarcely such elegance. He was, without question, one of the handsomest men she had ever met. He was handsomer than Arthur because he was more manly in type. Arthur himself, an exquisite in the matter of clothes, could not have improved upon this man's taste or selection. What a mystery he was! She greeted him cordially, without restraint; but for all that, a little shiver stirred the tendrils of hair at the nape of her neck.
"The most famous man in Rangoon to-day," she said, smiling.
"So you have read that tommy-rot in the newspaper?"
They sat on her private balcony, under an awning. Rain was threatening. Martha laid aside her knitting and did her utmost to give her smile of welcome an air of graciousness.
"I shouldn't call it tommy-rot," Elsa declared. "It was not chance. It was pluck and foresight. Men who possess those two attributes get about everything worth having."
"There are exceptions," studying the ferrule of his cane.
"Is there really anything you want now and can't have?"
Martha looked at her charge in dread and wonder.
"There is the moon," he answered. "I have always wanted that. But there it hangs, just as far out of reach as ever."
"None. My sugar-tooth is gone."
Elsa had heard that hard drinkers disliked sweets. Had this been the Gordian knot he had cut?
"Perhaps, after all," she said, "you would prefer a peg, as you call it over here."
"No, thanks. I was never fond of whisky. Sometimes, when I am dead tired, and have to go on working, I take a little."
So that wasn't it. Elsa's curiosity to-day was keenly alive. She wanted to ask a thousand questions; but the ease with which the man wore his new clothes, used his voice and eyes and hands, convinced her more than ever that the subtlest questions she might devise would not stir him into any confession. That he had once been a gentleman of her own class, and more, something of an exquisite, there remained no doubt in her mind. What had he done? What in the world had he done?
On his part he regretted the presence of Martha; for, so strongly had this girl worked upon his imagination that he had called with the deliberate intention of telling her everything. But he could not open the gates of his heart before a third person, one he intuitively knew was antagonistic.
Conversation went afield: pictures and music and the polished capitals of the world; the latest books and plays. The information in regard to these Elsa supplied him. They discussed also the problems of the day as frankly as if they had been in an Occidental drawing-room. Martha's tea was bitter. She liked Arthur, who was always charming, who never surprised or astonished anybody, or shocked them with unexpected phases of character; and each time she looked at Warrington, Arthur seemed to recede. And when the time came for the guest to take his leave, Martha regretted to find that the major part of her antagonism was gone.
"I wish to thank you, Miss Chetwood, for your kindness to a very lonely man. It isn't probable that I shall see you again. I sail next Thursday for Singapore." He reached into a pocket. "I wonder if you would consider it an impertinence if I offered you this old trinket?" He held out the mandarin's ring.
"What a beauty!" she exclaimed. "Of course I'll accept it. It is very kind of you. I am inordinately fond of such things. Thank you. How easily it slips over my finger!"
"Chinamen have very slender fingers," he explained. "Good-by. Those characters say 'Good luck and prosperity.'"
No expressed desire of wishing to meet her again; just an ordinary every-day farewell; and she liked him all the better for his apparent lack of sentiment.
"Good-by," she said. She winced, for his hand was rough-palmed and strong.
A little later she saw him pass down the street. He never turned and looked back.
"And why," asked Martha, "did you not tell the man that we sail on the same ship?"
"You're a simpleton, Martha." Elsa turned the ring round and round on her finger. "If I had told him, he would have canceled his sailing and taken another boat."
|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.