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TWO SHORT WEEKS
When Elsa stepped out of the companionway the next morning she winced and shut her eyes. The whole arc of heaven seemed hung with fire-opals; east, west, north and south, whichever way she looked, there was dazzling iridescence. The long flowing swells ran into the very sky, for there was visible no horizon. Gold-leaf and opals, thought Elsa. What a wonderful world! What a versatile mistress was nature! Never two days alike, never two human beings; animate and inanimate, all things were singular. She paused at the rail and glanced down the rusty black side of the ship and watched the thread of frothing water that clutched futilely at the red water-line. Never two living things alike, in all the millions and millions swarming the globe. What a marvel! Even though this man Warrington and Arthur looked alike, they were not so. In heart and mind they were as different as two days.
She began her usual walk, and in passing the smoke-room door on the port side she met Warrington coming out. How deep-set his eyes were! He was about to go on, but she looked straight into his eyes, and he stopped. She laughed, and held out her hand.
"I really believe you were going to snub me."
"Then you haven't given me up?"
"Never mind what I have or have not done. Walk with me. I am going to talk plainly to you. If what I say is distasteful, don't hesitate to interrupt me. You interest me, partly because you act like a boy, partly because you are a man."
"I haven't any manners."
"They need shaking up and readjusting. I have just been musing over a remarkable thing, that no two objects are alike. Even the most accurate machinery can not produce two nails without variation. So it is with humans. You look so like the man I know back home that it is impossible not to ponder over you." She smiled into his face. "Why should nature produce two persons who are mistaken for each other, and yet give them two souls, two intellects, totally different?"
"I have often wondered."
"Is nature experimenting, or is she slyly playing a trick on humanity?"
"Let us call it a trick; by all means, let us call it that."
"Your tone . . ."
"Yes, yes," impatiently; "you are going to say that it sounds bitter. But why should another man have a face like mine, when we have nothing in common? What right has he to look like me?"
"It is a puzzle," Elsa admitted.
"This man who looks like me--I have no doubt it affects you oddly--probably lives in ease; never knew what a buffet meant, never knew what a care was, has everything he wants; in fact, a gentleman of your own class, whose likes and dislikes are cut from the same pattern as your own. Well, that is as it should be. A woman such as you are ought to marry an equal, a man whose mind and manners are fitted to the high place he holds in your affection and in your world. How many worlds there are, man-made and heaven-made, and each as deadly as the other, as cold and implacable! To you, who have been kind to me, I have acted like a fool. The truth is, I've been skulking. My vanity was hurt. I had the idea that it was myself and not my resemblance that appealed to your interest. What makes you trust me?" bluntly; and he stopped as he asked the question.
"Why, I don't know," blankly. Instantly she recovered herself. "But I do trust you." She walked on, and perforce he fell into her stride.
"It is because you trust the other man."
"Thanks. That is it precisely; and for nearly two weeks I've been trying to solve that very thing."
After a pause he asked: "Have you ever read Reade's Singleheart and Doubleface?"
"Yes. But what bearing has it upon our discussion?"
"None that you would understand," evasively. His tongue had nearly tripped him.
"Are you sure?"
"Of this, that I shall never understand women."
"Do not try to," she advised. "All those men who knew most about women were the unhappiest."
They made a round in silence. Passengers were beginning to get into their deck-chairs; and Elsa noted the backs of the many novels that ranged from the pure chill altitudes of classic and demi-classics down to the latest popular yarn. Many an eye peered over the tops of the books; and envy and admiration and curiosity brought their shafts to bear upon her. It was something to create these variant expressions of interest. She was oblivious.
"We stop at Penang?" she asked.
"Five or six hours, long enough to see the town."
"We went directly from Singapore to Colombo, so we missed the town coming out. I should like to see that cocoanut plantation of yours."
"It is too far inland. Besides, I am a persona non grata there." As, indeed, he was. His heart burned with shame and rage at the recollection of the last day there. Three or four times, during the decade, the misfortune of being found out had fallen to his lot, and always when he was employed at something worth while.
Elsa discreetly veered into another channel. "You will go back to Italy, I suppose. How cheaply and delightfully one may live there, when one knows something of the people! I had the Villa Julia one spring. You know it; Sorrento. Is there anything more stunning than oranges in the rain?" irrelevantly.
"Yes, I shall go to Italy once more. But first I am going home." He was not aware of the grimness that entered his voice as he made this statement.
"I am glad," she said. "After all, that is the one place."
"If you are happy enough to find a welcome."
"And you will see your mother again?"
He winced. "Yes. Do you know, it does not seem possible that I met you but two short weeks ago? I have never given much thought to this so-called reincarnation; but somewhere in the past ages I knew you; only . . ."
"Only, you weren't going home to marry the other fellow."
She stopped at the rail. "Who knows?" she replied ruminatingly. "Perhaps I am not going to marry him."
"Don't you love him? . . . I beg your pardon, Miss Chetwood!"
"I still need some training. I have been alone so much that I haven't got over the trick of speaking my thoughts aloud."
"No harm has been done. The fault lay with me."
"I used to learn whole pages from stories and recite them to the trees or to the parrot. It kept me from going mad, I believe. In camp I handled coolies; none of whom could speak a word of English. I didn't have James with me at that time. During the day I was busy enough seeing that they did their work well. When things ran smoothly I'd take out a book and study. At night I'd stand before my tent and declaim. I could not read at night. If I lighted a lantern the tent would become alive with abominable insects. So I'd declaim, merely to hear the sound of my voice. Afterward I learned that the coolies looked upon me as a holy man. They believed I was nightly offering prayers to one of my gods. Perhaps I was; the god of reason. In the mornings I used to have to shake my boots. Frogs and snakes would get in during the night, the latter in search of the former. Lively times! All that seems like a bad dream now."
"And how is Rajah?"
"Ugly as ever."
"Are you going to take him with you?"
"Wherever I go. Looks silly, doesn't it, for a man of my size to tote around a parrot-cage? But I don't care what people think. Life is too short. It's what you think of yourself that really counts."
"That is one of the rules I have laid down for myself. If only we all might go through life with that idea! There wouldn't be any gossip or scandal, then."
"Some day I am going to tell you why I have lived over here all these years."
"I shouldn't, not if it hurts you."
"On the contrary, there's a kind of happiness in unburdening one's conscience. I called that day in Rangoon for the express purpose of telling you everything, but I couldn't in the presence of a third person."
"I do not demand it."
"But it's a duty I owe to myself," he insisted gravely. "Besides, it is not impossible that you may hear the tale from other lips; and I rather prefer to tell it myself."
"But always remember that I haven't asked you."
"Are you afraid to hear it?"
"No. What I am trying to convince you with is the fact that I trust you, and that I give you my friendship without reservations."
He laid his hand on hers, strongly. "God bless you for that!"
She liked him because there was lacking in his words and tones that element of flattery so distasteful to her. Men generally entertain the fallacy that a woman demands homage, first to her physical appearance, next to her taste in gowns, and finally to her intellect, when in the majority of cases it is the other way around. Elsa knew that she was beautiful, but it no longer interested her to hear men state the fact, knowing as she did that it was simply to win her good will.
"Would you like to sit next to me at the table?"
"May I?" eagerly.
"I'll have Martha change her chair for yours. Do you speak Italian?"
"Enough for ordinary conversation. It is a long time since I have spoken the tongue."
"Then, let us talk it as much as possible at the table, if only to annoy those around us."
"I was educated in Rome," she added.
"Are you religious?"
Elsa shrugged. "At present I don't know just what my religion is. Scandalous, isn't it? But for many weeks a thousand gods have beset me. I've got to get back to civilization in order to readjust my views. At luncheon, then. I am beginning to feel snoozy."
Craig had been eying the two, evilly. Set the wind in that direction? An idea found soil in his mind, and grew. He would put a kink, as he vulgarly expressed it, into that affair. He himself wasn't good enough for her. The little cat should see. Warrington's ultimatum of the night before burned and rankled, and a man of Craig's caliber never accepted the inevitable without meditating revenge, revenge of a roundabout character, such as would insure his physical safety. The man could not play fair; there was nothing either in his heart or in his mind upon which square play could find foothold. There was nothing loyal or generous or worthy in the man. There is something admirable in a great rascal; but a sordid one is a pitiful thing. Craig entered the smoke-room and ordered a peg. At luncheon he saw them sitting together, and he smothered a grin. Couldn't play cards, or engineer a pool, eh? All right. There were other amusements.
That afternoon Martha chanced to sit down in a vacant chair, just out of the range of the cricketers. She lolled back and idly watched the batsmen. And then she heard voices.
"She is Elsa Chetwood. I remember seeing her pictures. She is a society girl, very wealthy, but something of a snob."
Martha's ears tingled. A snob, indeed, because she minded principally her own affairs!
"They think because they belong to the exclusive sets they can break as many laws of convention as they please. Well, they can't. There's always some scandal in the papers about them. There was some rumor of her being engaged to the Duke of What's-his-name, but it fell through because she wouldn't settle a fortune on him. Only sensible thing she ever did, probably."
"And did you notice who sat next to her at luncheon?"
"A gentleman with a past, Mr. Craig tells me."
"I dare say Miss Chetwood has a past, too, if one but knew. To travel alone like this!"
Busybodies! Martha rose indignantly and returned to the other side of the deck. Meddlers? What did they know? To peck like daws at one so far above them, so divinely far above them! Her natural impulse had been to turn upon them and give them the tongue-lashing they deserved. But she had lived too long with Elsa not to have learned self-repression, and that the victory is always with those who stoop not to answer. Nevertheless, she was alarmed. Elsa must be warned.
All Elsa said was: "My dear Martha, in a few days they and their tittle-tattle will pass out of my existence, admitting that they have ever entered it. I repeat, my life is all my own, and that I am concerned only with those whom I wish to retain as my friends. Gossip is the shibboleth of the mediocre, and, thank heaven, I am not mediocre."
While dressing for dinner Elsa discovered a note on the floor of her cabin. The writing was unfamiliar. She opened it and sought first the signature. Slowly her cheeks reddened, and her lips twisted in disdain. She did not read the note, but the natural keenness of her eye caught the name of Warrington. She tore the letter into scraps which she tossed out the port-hole. What a vile thing the man was! He had had the effrontery to sign his name. He must be punished.
It was as late as ten o'clock when she and Warrington went up to the bow and gazed down the cut-water. Never had she seen anything so weirdly beautiful as the ribbons of phosphorescence which fell away on each side, luminously blue and flaked with dancing starlike particles, through which, ever and anon, flying-fish, dripping with the fire, spun outward like tongues of flame.
"Beautiful, beautiful! This is the one spot on the ship. And in all my travels I have never seen this before. All silence and darkness in front of us, and beneath, that wonderful fire. Thanks for bringing me here. I should not have known what I was missing."
"Often, when I was stoking, during an hour or so of relief, I used to steal up here and look down at the mystery, for it will ever be a mystery to me. And I found comfort."
"Are you religious, too?"
"In one thing, that God demands that every man shall have faith in himself."
How deep his voice was as compared to Arthur's! Arthur. Elsa frowned at the rippling magic. Why was she invariably comparing the two men? What significance did it have upon the future, since, at the present moment, it was not understandable?
"There is a man on board by the name of Craig," she said. "I advise you to beware of him."
"Who introduced him to you?" The anger in his voice was very agreeable to her ears. "Who dared to?"
"No one. He introduced himself on the way up to Mandalay. In Rangoon I closed the acquaintance, such as it was, with the aid of a hat-pin."
"A hat-pin! What did he say to you?" roughly.
"Nothing that I care to repeat. . . . Stop! I am perfectly able to take care of myself. I do not need any valiant champion."
"He has spoken to you about me?"
"A letter. I saw only his name and yours. I tore it up and threw it overboard. Let us go back. Somehow, everything seems spoiled. I am sorry I spoke."
"I shall see that he does not bother you again," ominously.
They returned to the promenade deck in silence. When Warrington found Craig the man was helplessly intoxicated. He lay sprawled upon his mattress, and the kick administered did not stir him. Warrington looked down at the sodden wretch moodily.
Craig's intoxication was fortunate for him, otherwise he would have been roughly handled; for there was black murder in the heart of the broken man standing above him. Warrington relaxed his clenched hands. This evil-breathing thing at his feet was the primal cause of it all, he and a man's damnable weakness. Of what use his new-found fortune? Better for him had he stayed in the jungle, better have died there, hugging his poor delusion. Oh, abysmal fool that he had been!
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