an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Rose And Chrysanthemum
Author: Carlton Dawe
eBook No.: 2300131h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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With the exception of “The Silken Cord,” which is now published for the first time, all these Stories have appeared serially in the pages of the English Illustrated Magazine. C. D.
Rose and Chrysanthemum
At The Shrine Of Shinto
The Yellow Kimono
The Silken Cord
From Hakodate in the north,
To Nagasaki in the south,
There’s many a gleaming eye and cheek,
And many a rosy mouth.
And when the long day’s task was done,
And we from toil were free,
We sat and watched the yellow sun
Sink in the Yellow Sea.
The junks still round the headland steep,
The flowers bloom on the hill;
Chrysanthemum and roses keep
Beauty and fragrance still
Big ships swing idly in the bay
From many a stormy main;
But he who stole from thee away,
Shall ne’er come back again.
No more the kina, and no more
The tinkling of guitar:
Beneath a duller sky he treads,
Beneath a colder star.
And yet in fancy beautiful
He often sits with thee,
To watch again the yellow sun
Sink in the Yellow Sea.
Lotus-San stood upon the headland that guards the entrance to the Bay of Nagasaki and dreamily gazed away to seaward. Above her hung the clouds in pearly clusters: the sun, sloping away westward, filled the air with a delicious warmth, and illumined with a broad sheet of light its pathway to the ocean. Here and there sped the white gulls, occasionally startling the still air with a hoarse caw: the junks, gaunt birds of a monstrous growth, whipped round the headland and glided like sentient beings into the smooth water of the harbour. And the sun saw and smiled upon the labours of men, and lit the eyes of Lotus-San with wonder and beauty.
And yet it was none of these things that held the girl’s eyes riveted to seaward, though the great, throbbing scene had a weird influence of its own. Away to the south she had seen a cloud of smoke, which at first fluttered like a torn ribbon on the horizon, and this she had watched and watched until that ribbon, woven in the mysterious loom of the gods, had taken unto itself a black and prodigious shape, which spread like some uncouth monster across the sea.
But presently Lotus-San guessed the meaning of that dark cloud, and, as she watched, the topmasts of a steamer peeped up behind the hill of sea. Then, like a thing feeling its way, higher and higher it climbed the hill, until it stood upon the very summit, and she saw its masts and its one big funnel, and the white line of foam which rose before it as if to check its progress. But on it swung, straight on for the headland upon which she was standing, the distance lessening rapidly between it and her. Now she could even distinguish the flag that flew aft. It was the red English flag, the flag that flew from so many vessels down in the bay. Presently she almost fancied she could see the men hurrying hither and thither upon the decks; then from the red funnel there issued a thick cloud of smoke, which hung like a curtain upon the sea. Instinctively she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, the smoke, fading away in the distance, had risen before the sun, and a filmy, golden haze greeted her eyes, totally transforming the face of the waters. The ship, too, had rapidly drawn near, and as it passed beneath her, her face filled with melancholy, and instinctively her hand went to her breast. For of a sudden, unknown to her, as it were, a chilliness had crept into her heart: with the fall of the anchor, which she almost fancied she could hear, she shuddered, and then turned wearily away.
Time after time she had seen the ships come and go, a wondering curiosity following them on their way, a strangeness as of awe filling her for those who go down to the sea in ships; but never had the coming or going of any vessel so strangely affected her as the advent of this monster with the red funnel. Her imagination trifled with it until it became a part of her. From her home on the hillside she searched the bay for that red funnel. She watched the sampans come and go, dreaming, dreaming.
Her mother found her beside the gate, and was much struck by the strange new look of her daughter’s face.
“What ails thee, child?”
But the child answered not, because she did not know. With a weary smile she turned away, and the mother, wise in her generation, shook her head and imagined things. And still the thoughts of Lotus-San reverted to the ship with the red funnel, and in her dreams that night she stood once more upon the headland and saw the smoke-belching monster sweep grandly up out of the sea, glide through the narrow entrance to the bay and drop anchor. And the sound of the rushing cable smote a chill on her heart, and she awoke, frightened, and peered up tremblingly into the night.
Now the orchard of Otoko, the father of Lotus-San, was famous throughout the whole of Nagasaki. It nestled on the side of the hill amid the quaint roofs of the pretty houses, and commanded an extensive view of the town and the bay. There it was the wandering tourists toiled upward to drink tea and eat fruit, and as often as not pretty Lotus-San attended to their wants. And it so happened that on the day following the arrival of the red-funnel boat, two strangers presented themselves at Otoko’s orchard and begged permission to eat and drink. And Lotus-San, who was in attendance, brought them tea in quaint little cups without handles, out of which they drank with excellent Oriental gravity.
She knew by their talk that the men were English, and but for a certain easy familiarity of manner might have been father and son. The one was young, tall, fresh of face and shapely of limb, which was displayed to full advantage in a knicker suit; the other was short, thick-set—the average middle-aged man with a beard.
Of him Lotus-San thought little; but the younger man was exceedingly good to look upon. Though she had but stolen a maidenly glance at him, she carried away with her an impression of blue eyes and fair hair, and a smiling mouth that showed white teeth. And then, her eyes wandering towards the bay, they became riveted upon the ship with the red funnel, and of a sudden her hand went to her breast, and she felt a chill, like a revelation, at her heart. Strange — strange; but as she watched she saw the ship climb the hill of sea once more, and again heard the ponderous cable rattle through the hawse-pipes. With a start she awoke from her dream. The strangers were calling.
Once more she stood before them, but this time she was no longer the musumé the waitress, but a woman with a secret, a secret ill-defined, no doubt, but to her one of much moment. At all events, it robbed her of her ease, brought the blushes to her face, and a fluttering to her heart. Though she never once turned her eyes towards the younger man, she felt the intensity of his gaze, just as one who lies upon the grass with shut eyes will feel the sun burning his eyelids.
Neither spoke Japanese well, but the younger man, who knew least, talked most. But him Lotus-San ignored, and confined her remarks to the elderly gentleman with the beard. Elderly gentlemen with beards are so fatherly. Young men must be kept in their place.
They wanted some cherries. Could she get them any? Decidedly. She would go at once and pluck them.
“I will come and help you,” said the young man.
“Nonsense,” said his companion.
Lotus-San bowed low and departed, but from out the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of the admiring face of the young man. It was all very strange, this new sensation, these confused thoughts. Why should her heart palpitate so freely? Why should thought make her face and neck burn?
As soon as she had disappeared the two men turned and interrogated each other with significant glances. The elder man had a pair of quizzing eyes, and as he looked at his companion he stroked his beard, an action which seemed to add a singularly penetrative force to his scrutiny. By the almost imperceptible smile which played about his face, it was evident that he was fairly well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of a certain young gentleman.
“Eh, Bob!” said the younger of the two, accompanying the exclamation with a nod towards the orchard.
The beard wagged slowly. “Pooh!”
The young man sprang to his feet with a laugh. He had seen that beard wag before: it was not the first time he had heard that contemptuous “Pooh.” Bob was a good sort, any way. Dear old Bob!
“I believe that silly girl has forgotten our cherries,” protested the young man. “I’d better go and hurry her up.”
“I would if I were you,” replied the elder man drily.
Again the beard wagged, but this time unmarked by smiling eyes. The young man had taken his companion at his word. Having looked forward with no little pleasure to the fruit, he was not inclined to forego the sensation of tasting it.
He discovered her in the far corner of the garden, perched upon an impromptu pedestal in the shape of a box, struggling hard to reach a cluster of delicious-looking fruit. For some moments he stood watching her vain efforts to clutch the bough: then with a smile he advanced.
When she saw him she blushed still more deeply, and looked about her with a pretty timidity which appealed to the young man’s imagination. Beside the box lay her little straw sandals; the clean white tabi, or socks, which enclosed her feet, appeared to him but large enough for a child. Dainty little feet were hidden, he doubted not—feet as dainty as the rest of her dainty person.
Seeing her embarrassment, and knowing the cause of it, he begged she would permit him to help her to descend from her precarious position. He held out his hands, and, after a momentary hesitation, she let him take hers. And here the adventure did not quite end, for as she leant forward his hands glided round her waist and she felt a pair of strong arms encompass her. Perhaps, but it might only have been her fancy, something in the nature of an embrace followed. At all events, it seemed to her that long after all danger was past he still held her close to him, and that his embrace was of a singularly warm and protecting nature. Indeed, instinct bade her free herself, and she accordingly began to struggle.
He was wise in experience, if not in years, and he at once apologised with a profound grace. The box was high, the position extremely dangerous. He would have been absolutely inconsolable had any harm befallen her. Poor Lotus-San! The harm was yet to come.
Blushing and stammering charmingly, she succeeded, though not without some difficulty, in getting into her sandals, and that effort accomplished, she stood indecisive, knowing not whether to run or stay. But Fulkes, the foreign devil in question, was a young gentleman of some knowledge and perception. The recollection of that embrace had apparently vanished from his memory. It was a thing of the moment, unavoidable, but now forgotten. He did not even betray by a look the thought that was rioting in his mind. Timid as a fawn, this dainty little creature might have dashed off at the first signal of danger.
“Hold your kimono” he said. “I will gather the fruit for you.”
“But, excellency” she protested.
“Nay, nay, it is my wish, little flower. I am tall—see!” And he held his arms above her, and truly to her he seemed great and beautiful as a giant; and she thought how tenderly those great strong arms had enfolded her, and she wondered at his gentleness.
But in the meantime he had sprung upon the box, and the fruit being well within his reach, he began to pluck it, and slowly to drop the cherries one by one into her kimono, which she had spread out for the occasion. And as each cherry fell he looked at her and smiled, and she, encouraged by the geniality of the white giant, smiled up at him again.
But when the cherries were plucked he stood upon the box and thoughtfully regarded the quaint little figure beneath him, and something very like the shades of irresolution chased each other across his face. Into his eyes crept a strange softness, and the curves of his mouth grew serious. And Lotus-San, who had watched him with an intentness which a vain man might have considered complimentary, let her eyes fall before his concentrated gaze. When she saw him again he was standing beside her; his blue eyes were sparkling with laughter, the serious curves had disappeared from his mouth.
He gallantly escorted her back towards the house, where the middle-aged gentleman with the beard had been left all this time in solitary state; but not more than half of the journey had been accomplished before the two came to a standstill. A gap in the garden disclosed a pretty view of the harbour below, and Fulkes, stopping for a moment, pointed towards the red-funnel boat.
“You see that ship, Lotus?” He had already learnt her name, and in a decorous manner had duly complimented her on its prettiness.
“Yes,” she cried. See it! She had seen it day and night—waking, dreaming— ever since it first climbed that hill of sea to the southward. But she trembled, nevertheless, at the question, and looked more like a lotus than ever.
“It arrived yesterday from Hong-Kong.”
“I was on the bluff. I watched it come up out of the sea, a strange monster belching clouds of smoke.”
“Curious,” he said. “I was on board.” It was more curious than he imagined. Lotus-San’s underlip trembled, and her heart grew chill as with a deadly fear. If he had not been watching the bay so intently he might have noticed the sudden pallor overspread her face. As it was, she had somewhat regained her normal colour when he looked again.
“Yes,” he repeated, “I was on board her. It is rather strange that we should meet thus, Lotus-San.”
Strange indeed; and yet she felt that it was not so very strange. Why, she could not say. Only it was not wonderful that she should meet some one who had come by that ship.
“She sails to-morrow for Yokohama direct,” he continued, the tone of his voice being well calculated to arouse one’s curiosity, even though the information was not of a paralysing nature. Yet the girl turned a white, eager face to him as she said—
“I was going,” he said; “but since I have seen you, Lotus-San, I am not sure.”
“Your excellency means—”
“That I have seen you, Lotus-San, and that I think heaven is nearer Nagasaki than Yokohama.”
* * * * * * *
The middle-aged gentleman with the beard waited patiently for his cherries.
As Fulkes had said, or thought, Bob was a good sort, philosophically phlegmatic. The sun created a drowsy atmosphere, the cheroot burnt well, and the cane chair in which the philosopher stretched his comfortable bulk bore him without complaining. But cigars will burn low, and dreams end, and too much green tea is not good for the digestion. Besides, even the patience born of philosophy, like all things human, flourishes but to die. Bob didn’t get excited, he didn’t even swear, but his patience gave out. With deep regret he dragged himself from the comfortable recesses of the chair, stretched himself, yawned, looked at his watch, and then ventured out into the orchard. Those cherries must be getting cold, he thought.
He discovered Fulkes and Lotus-San in one of the quietest and most delightful nooks of the garden. Their attitude did not surprise him. He knew Fulkes, he knew youth—he knew himself. There was not the slightest reason why the girl should blush, and hang her head, and try to look ashamed. Her mother had done the same before, her own daughter would undoubtedly verify the truism that history repeats itself. There was nothing in it all—nothing. Why on earth should Fulkes look embarrassed? This was painful— and serious.
“What about those cherries, Fulkes?”
“A thousand pardons, old chap,” cried the culprit, laughing just a little stupidly. “But I believe we’ve eaten them all.”
“Um!” was the grim reply. Then he looked at the girl. “Rather pretty, Fulkes.”
“Rather!” echoed the young man. “Why, she’s lovely!”
“Pooh!” said the philosopher. “Where are my cherries?”
* * * * * * *
The red-funnel boat was to sail at daybreak on the following morning, and that evening the philosopher discovered Fulkes going ashore with his baggage.
“What’s this?” said he.
“I’m not going round to Yokohama just yet.”
“Oh!” exclaimed the philosopher.
“No—not altogether. I find that I needn’t be back until the twelfth. The P. and O. boat will just fit in.”
“Um!” muttered the philosopher once again; “you’re a fool.”
The young man smiled. Fool! Lord, it was heavenly fooling.
When, on the following morning, he looked through the gap in Otoko’s orchard, the red-funnel boat was nowhere to be seen. He smiled complacently to himself, and then turned to greet Lotus-San, who came through the perfume of the orchard towards him, a new and wonderful light in her eyes. Presently he forgot all about the philosopher and the ship with the red funnel.
The days passed merrily in Otoko’s orchard. The gardener himself was a struggling man of business; his wife was a shrewd woman who loved the sight of money, who did not look askance at presents of silks and jewels. And this young foreigner was generous in the extreme, and Lotus-San was a dutiful daughter—one who fully recognised the obligations of filial piety. The wife of Otoko had visions of an age of ease.
As for Fulkes, he took up his abode in Otoko’s house, and was received with all the honour which accompanies a big purse. It might be foolish or it might be wise—it all depends on the point of view. Fulkes took one view of the situation; the gardener and his wife another. If each was satisfied, there is nothing more to be said. The Japanese loves money just as much as his Western brother. At any rate, the weather was delightful, the orchard was at its best, and Lotus-San seemed the loveliest flower there. Fulkes passed whole days with her in the sweet-scented air. The sunshine and the odour of flowers crept into their blood, into their brain. Lotus-San awoke from the girl to the woman, and took unto herself a finer air, a fuller dignity. Yet she was as a child in his hands—a piece of clay ready to be moulded to his will. Of her he might make what he chose, whether for good or evil. The thought of such responsibility often made him pause. It deepened the furrow between his eyes: caused him many heart-searchings.
He was but an ordinary man, she a native woman. In the Far East men do not set women on a pedestal and pretend to worship with fear and trembling. No doubt it is wrong of them, but they don’t. Fulkes had lightly entered into this compact, believing that he could as lightly break it off. But in a few days the girl had become a woman, and the woman serious. Intuitively he guessed that before he came her life had been a blank. He had filled it, opened wide her eyes, awakened the dormant soul. The sparkling of the eyes, the glad flushings of the cheeks, the thousand-and-one things he noted, all told him what he had become to her. And his brow contracted still deeper in thought, and he was more than sorry that he had not gone on to Yokohama with the philosopher. It was always the same old tale—make love and ride away.
But the parting was bitter—bitter as death. He hesitated long, fearing for her, liking not the task; but when it could no longer be avoided, he told her gently what had to be. Though she must have known that sooner or later it had to come, while it was yet in the distance it was but a vague, shadowy sort of terror. He had said, “To-morrow I must leave you, Lotus-San,” and that to-morrow descended instantly like a chilly cloud and smote upon her heart. She did not cry, but she hung cold and lifeless in his arms; and all his tender words, all his warm kisses, could not bring back the colour to those pallid cheeks.
“It will be long before my lord returns?”
“Nay, I know not,” he answered falteringly. “Perhaps”
“But he will return—tell me, O my lord?”
He could not tell her, even though he knew it would be the more honourable thing to do. He was sorry for her, and his sorrow made him weak.
“I will come back,” he said.
The look of gratitude she turned upon him made him feel intensely his most miserable cowardice. He pressed her face close into his breast so as to hide her eyes.
“My lord is good,” she murmured. “I will wait.”
“It may be long, Lotus-San.”
“What matters it? My lord has said he will come. I shall wait in night watching for the sun to burst.
“And should it never burst?”
“I shall know that my lord has gone to the hakaba [cemetery], whither I shall quickly follow.”
“But should I forget you, Lotus-San, what then?”
Her frank eyes made him feel still more contemptible.
“How can my lord forget?”
* * * * * * *
From the gap in her father’s orchard she saw, as one might see in a dream, her lover’s ship steal across the bay and out into the ocean, and yet she sat exactly in the spot where he had left her an hour before. The worst of the parting had taken place the previous day. A few hurried words, a kiss, and he was gone. In her lap he flung a big roll of bank-notes, also some jewelled pins for her hair, some trinkets for her wrists. “It will soften the blow,” he said to himself. “She is sad now, poor little woman, but in a month I shall be forgotten.”
But if he could have seen her sitting there, the jewels and the money untouched, unnoticed, he might not have freed his conscience so easily.
Some time after, the wife of Otoko found her daughter lying senseless by the gap, and beside her were the trinkets and the money, which the good mother secretly appropriated before attempting to restore consciousness to her daughter. Then Lotus-San was borne within doors, where she lay ill for many weeks, the ceaseless moan upon her poor, pale lips, “My lord, O my lord!”
But he came not, and though youth triumphed, it left her but the wreck of her former self. “She will die,” the people said; but she knew differently—if she could only see him.
One after the other the days dragged painfully along. Each night she went to sleep with the half-expressed hope, “Tomorrow — perhaps to-morrow.” It was always to-morrow—the day that never comes. Many and many an hour she filled the gap in her father’s orchard, watching—a pitiful picture. One day she saw the red-funnel boat come in, but it brought no one for her. Nothing ever came for her. The world was a blank—dead.
Other sorrow came to her when her people told her that she would mother a half-breed, and they taunted her, and made mock of her until life became unbearable. And yet, in a desperate sort of way, she was secretly glad. “When he knows it, he will come,” she said to herself. “It is mine— and his! Ours, all ours! O my lord!”
But he came not.
One day a man from the British Consulate presented himself before her.
“You are Lotus-San,” he said, “the daughter of Otoko?”
He pressed a roll of bank-notes into her hand. She drew back astounded.
“It is from him,” he said. “He has not forgotten.”
Her poor face flushed vividly. A cry of exultation sprang from her lips.
“He is coming?”
The man’s face fell.
“I cannot say. Perhaps.”
It was always that dreadful word— “Perhaps.”
“He is dead?”
The pitiful look of anguish smote him to the heart; yet, sad as it was, he almost wished he could have answered in the affirmative.
“I know not. Only this I know—he will come no more to Japan.”
She was not certain that she heard aright, or that she rightly understood. And though long after he had gone she still pondered over his words, she could only distinctly recollect that last utterance —“He will come no more to Japan.” It beat into her brain, it chilled her heart, it filled the world with darkness. He would come no more! Never again should she glow in the sunshine of his smile, feel the touch of that dear arm about her shoulders, listen to the loved accents of his voice! All was past—all was gone. There was no sun in heaven, no light in the world; life had died with him. For since he would come no more, he must be dead, as nothing but death could keep him from her. And so she brooded over the thought until it became a reality, and his sad, pale face looked up at her through the infinite depths of sea.
* * * * * * *
Once more she stood upon the headland that guards the entrance to the Bay of Nagasaki, and looked away to seaward; but this time no ship with a red funnel broke the perfect line of blue. All was still and calm, and as she looked down into the sea the old vision came back to her, and the sad, pale face of her beloved seemed to beckon her to him.
“I come,” she said. “I have waited long, O my lord, and life has been heavy and void of light. But the night is past, the day is come. Open wide your arms, my beloved. We are coming—we are coming—”
* * * * * * *
The startled seagull gave a hoarse caw as it beheld the body of Lotus-San cleave the still waters.
There’s a voice in vale and wood,
A sweet voice in every flood,
There’s a note that never jars
’Mid the tinkling of guitars,
And the music of the stars,
Shall you e’er forget the day,
wandered by the bay,
Nagasaki’s Bay so sweet
Where the wave and blossoms meet—
And the stranger at your feet?—
Oh, like us the day was young,
There was honey on your tongue,
And I marked your bosom’s rise
’Neath the ardour of sweet sighs,
For the love was in your eyes,
But the dream has passed away,
And there dawns a duller day,
Yet I often think, my dear,
If you listen you may hear
That low voice which calls so clear,
That there was a considerable strain of European blood in Asuma-San no one could doubt who saw her. It showed itself in the grey tinge of the eyes, the comparatively straight features, the delicacy of her complexion, and the glossy brown hair which she strove to spoil by parting and pounding in the most approved native fashion. Yet no blundering vanity could entirely rob of their charm those rich brown masses, and, judging from the way Asuma-San decorated them with pretty pins of coral and mother-of-pearl, it was evident that in her own peculiar manner she was not without some knowledge of their exceeding beauty.
She was certainly a handsome girl, with a beauty peculiar to the half-breed of the Ear East. The yellow, after all, is but a darker shade of white, and some surprising results are often obtained through a judicious mixture of the blood; surprising, that is, from the physical standpoint; the moral side of the question, the injudicious mixing of the vices of two nations, had better be passed over in silence.
Asuma-San had not a few physical gifts which were sure to attract the admiration of many, and the attention of all. She was tall, supple, and exceedingly graceful; her mouth was red and full, and when she laughed she showed two dazzling rows of teeth. Her cotton kimono, with its monstrous designs, became her like a royal robe. There was a grace, a dignity in the figure which no poverty of dress could conceal.
And yet she was merely a musumé, a waitress, at Ninko’s famous tea-house in Hiogo; a place much frequented by the better-class foreign residents of the adjacent Kobe, and also by many of the surrounding native gentry. Ninko himself, a foxy little man with wicked eyes, was supposed, by many nefarious methods, rapidly to be making a fortune. At all events, his house was decidedly the best patronised of any in the town; and if that wasn’t attraction enough for you, a few yen extra would procure a most delightful exposition of the kina—a dance much appreciated by visitors and the foreign residents. For Ninko’s girls were even more famous than Ninko himself, and while the girls laughed and posed, Ninko’s purse waxed fat.
I’ll never forget the first day I saw Asuma-San. Moulmaine had called round at my office with some work which had kept us busy until close upon five o’clock. Then, thinking we had earned a little relaxation, we jumped into our rickshaws and told the boys to run us out of the town. Instinctively they turned in the direction of Hiogo, and just as instinctively they drew up before the door of Ninko’s tea-house. I am at a loss to know why it should be so, but unless I gave my boy a distinct order, I invariably found myself being whirled in the direction of the famous chaya.
The accustomed stir and bustle, consequent upon the advent of strangers, followed our arrival. Some of the girls came out on the verandah, others crowded to the wide, open windows. Asuma-San bowed us in at the door. At first I paid little heed to her, my attention being fixed elsewhere; but when I turned to address Mouhnaine I was startled at the surprised look of admiration which had spread over his face. My eyes, immediately following his, encountered the glance of the new girl, Asuma-San.
I regret to add, but common honesty forces the confession from me, that I received almost as great a shock as he; but I had not his susceptible nature, and did not retain an impression of things which were decidedly to my disadvantage. Yet not alone was the girl exceedingly handsome, but I saw at a glance that she was a half-breed; and, little as I admire the native, I admit that there is a fascination about the half-breed Jap or Chow, when of the feminine gender, which altogether defies analysis.
“I wonder where she came from?” said he.
“The stars. They all do.”
“No, Osman; no larks. Have you seen her before?”
We sat inside against the open window, and Asuma-San brought us the tea in little transparent cups of quaint design; and Moulmaine insisted upon her drinking with us, and when he paid I saw him slip a silver yen into her little pink palm. Her eyes shone brightly as she made a humble obeisance, and with trembling fingers she hid the coin in her broad sash. Moulmaine, who was usually a man of the utmost prudence, and one not prone to cheapen himself, sought to persuade her to sit upon his knee; but even Ninko’s girls were, occasionally, not without an assumption of modesty, and with a deprecating shake of the head she toddled off.
“Well, Osman,” said he, “what do you think of that?”
There was a gloating tone of triumph in his voice which I thought it advisable to check.
“Admirable,” I answered slowly, “for a half-caste.”
“Half-caste or no,” he replied enthusiastically, “she’s the handsomest girl I’ve ever seen. I should like to know who she is.”
“Much better rest content with what she is.”
“You’re a beastly old cynic,” said he.
“My dear fellow, I am just what the world has made me.”
“Oh, yes, I know your sort,” he laughed. “You indulge your own evil propensities, and then blame the world. But that will not do, Osman. I have never yet blindly followed precedent, and I don’t intend to begin now. Heavens! would you have a man without a mind of his own?”
“There are some things in which it is better for a man not to have a mind of his own.”
“Would you have your friend such a poor creature?”
“I would have him wise, Moulmaine.”
“And your wisdom consists of a blind obedience?”
“Not in all things. But it is just possible that wise men have marked a path which we fools may follow with safety.”
“Any way,” he said, “the world shall not fashion me.”
“Obstinacy, my dear Moulmaine, is not stronger than argument. The world will fashion you just as it has fashioned me. Are you a creator, think you?”
“To this extent—that I can create sufficient for my own needs.”
“Impossible. You would not be content with your creation forty-eight hours. And I will go further. I will say that not alone can you not create sufficient for your needs, but that you are not great enough to destroy one little convention.”
“I can at least defy it.”
“Madness. One may defy God with impunity, but one dare not defy a social convention.”
“If you preach like this, Osman,” said he, rising, “I shall have to seek out my half-caste in self-defence. She, at all events, will not bore.”
“My dear fellow, you never heard me censure you for doing a wise thing. By all means seek out your half-caste. I rather admire your taste. In fact, I’m not certain that I shan’t try to cut you out.”
He went off laughing, and I strolled out on to the verandah and lit a cheroot. Ninko’s verandah was deep and cool, and Ninko’s girls were exceedingly attractive; but all the same, Moulmaine’s absence began to look serious, the more so as he was a good, sober fellow, and of an age that reasons. But it was this very soberness, or deadly earnestness of the man’s nature, which caused me the most alarm. If he made up his mind to do a thing, I knew he would do it in spite of the most strenuous opposition. There was a rigid, puritanical justness and independence about the man which often brought him in conflict with the world’s cherished traditions. Ostensibly he was no whit better than his fellows; and yet, if one took the trouble to dig beneath the surface, there would be found a vein of pure gold which would amply repay one for the toil.
Moulmaine, being a reasonable man, ought to have known better. A boy fresh out from home, charmed by the novelty of his surroundings, cannot be expected to think. With net outstretched he chases the dainty butterfly, desperately zealous. But Moulmaine was a man, and a man who looked upon life seriously, and regarded the problems of the future with a good deal of reverential awe. Dozens of times we had been to Ninko’s together, yet never had I known him act so erratically. But I must in fairness admit that never had he met such a girl as Asuma-San.
At last he returned, looking half-ashamed of himself, and yet half-defiant; but as he took my chaffing inquiries rather unpleasantly, and as I knew his sense of humour was not abnormally developed, I instantly desisted. Then I proposed that we should go, a proposal to which he acquiesced by simply nodding. Clearly Moulmaine was not himself at all. I had seen many a fellow serious in the pursuit of a musumé, but I had never heard of one who had been allowed to die of apprehension. Moulmaine was different, or at least he was serious in another way.
I had invariably found him at the club every afternoon between five and six, but for quite a week after our visit to Ninko’s I saw neither sight nor sign of him. For the first two or three days I thought nothing of this, taking it for granted that a sudden rush of business had kept him away. But as the days ran into a week, I instituted inquiries among the servants, and to my amazement I learnt that he had not been near the club during the whole of that period. Then I feared that he must be ill, for I could not otherwise explain an absence so unusual. I therefore hastened round to his office, and to my inquiry if Mr. Moulmaine was in, learnt that he had just gone out.
“Then he is not ill?” said I.
“Curious. I thought he must have been.”
I spoke like one speaking to oneself; but the clerk, a promising young Jap, answered with an odd shake of the head, “No, sir, he is not ill.” But he looked something more, and his tone was full of meaning.
I saw that the rascal wanted to speak, but I had no intention of discussing with him his master’s secrets; so I told him to let his master know that I had called, and that I had something of importance to communicate, which was not a fact; but in a way I wished to justify my solicitude.
Unfortunately, this statement seemed to be the very thing for which the clerk was waiting.
“If it, is very important,” he said, “the master will be found at Ninko’s.”
“Oh, indeed!” said I, professing to be highly gratified with this surprising piece of intelligence. “Are you sure?”
“The master is always at Ninko’s,” was the reply.
This was serious. I had almost forgotten Asuma-San and my friend’s admiration for her. Curiously enough, if I had thought of it at all, I had judged him from my own level. But I had been greatly mistaken. The steady, sober-sided Moulmaine had evidently fallen in love with the musumé. Fortunately such love was not serious, and Asuma-San was worthy of some attention; though I often doubt the wisdom of that man who teaches a woman her worth.
Though it was getting rather late, I jumped into my rickshaw and ran out to Ninko’s, and there, in the garden at the back of the house, I discovered the delinquent Moulmaine with the girl Asuma-San. As I appeared before them she started, uttered a little cry, and would have run away; but he held her fast by the hand, and even drew her to him and flung his arm about her shoulders.
“So this is it,” I cried. “I thought you were very ill.”
“So I have been, old chap; but, thank God, I’m better now.”
Truly I had always regarded him as the possessor of an odd personality; but I thought it highly incongruous to use God’s name in connection with an affair of this nature. It implied a justification, and looked more serious and solemn than I liked.
“Why do you thank God?” said I.
“Because He has helped me to be a man.”
I looked at the woman, and some very different thoughts entered my head. Still, many a decent fellow has gone to the devil under the mistaken impression that he is being a man. I could be lenient, for I had known something of the feeling; but, thank heaven, I had never let it wholly conquer my innate selfishness.
His treatment of the girl was inexpressibly tender; so different from anything I had ever seen under like conditions that I was perfectly amazed. His face actually seemed to beam as he looked at her, and a light no sinner could possibly comprehend shone in his eyes. It was a look full of infatuated folly, or reverence— I could not say which. The man was blindly, idiotically, in love.
But the woman, even as she nestled to him, seemed uncomfortable, and stole at me strange, inquiring glances from mistrustful eyes. To my thinking they were cold, calculating eyes without any depth of soul, and I wondered how Moulmaine could not see it—until I recollected the proverbial blindness of love. I believe she followed pretty closely the thoughts that were running in my mind, and from the frequent flashes of suspicion with which she regarded me I knew she doubted my friendship. Nor was she far wrong, if, as I imagined, she had some interested motive in view.
Moulmaine and I left the tea-house together, I very considerately allowing him a long five minutes with his beloved. As the night was fine, I suggested that we should walk, for I had something on my mind and wished to get rid of it. The suggestion he welcomed, which was good: then we set out, our rickshaw coolies following some distance behind.
I at once, assuming the prerogative of an old friend, which is not always wise, attacked him on his desertion of the club and the frequency of his visits to Ninko’s, and as he stammered somewhat inconsistently in his reply, I boldly broached the subject of Asuma-San, and in a way that must have been anything but agreeable to him. He stood my badinage well enough, but when I spoke seriously of the indifferent fame of Asuma-San and her class, he, stopped me.
“You take too much for granted,” he said. “I believe that Asuma-San is a good girl.”
“You always were one of those humbugs who profess to see good in everything.”
“And if I thought you half the callous, selfish brute you pretend to be, do you suppose I would still call you my friend? Do you remember, about three years ago, when a certain Moulmaine lay sick unto death with fever? His friends forsook him; the doctor, even, was afraid of catching the infection. But there was a surly, growling old bear called Osman, who was mother, friend, doctor, all in one.” And he laid his hand lovingly on my shoulder. “No, no, don’t speak! Let me remember, Osman.”
“Rubbish!” I replied, though that loving hand on the shoulder had brought the cursed tears close to my eyes. “That was nothing. This is serious.”
“Very serious,” he answered solemnly.
I was startled. What the deuce did he mean by taking such a solemn tone?
“I thought I knew you, Moulmaine; but I am not so certain of it now. What do you mean?”
“Merely this, my dear Osman, I’m going to back my faith.”
“In what way?”
“I am going to make Asuma-San my wife.”
“Of course; and a very pretty wife she’ll make.”
“You are mistaken, Osman,” he replied, with a quiet earnestness which was highly effective. “I am going to marry her.”
“I hope you are going to do nothing of the kind.”
“I think so, nevertheless.”
“You are serious, Moulmaine?”
Though I put the question, I had little doubt of the genuineness of his declaration. And he was just the man to put it into effect.
“Then God help you.”
“I believe He will.”
We walked on and on through the night, and in the fulness of my anxiety I used every argument of which I was master to dissuade him from committing such a deadly piece of folly; but all my thunderbolts were shattered against the impregnable rock of his belief. Once only did I think he was wavering, and that was when he condescended to admit that Asuma-San was not altogether a native; but he repented of the weakness almost immediately after, and protested that, even if she were, it would make no difference. I could not tell him that it was better for a woman to have the failings of one nation than the vices of two.
I am prepared to admit that to him my argument must have sounded detestable.
Yet I spoke the truth—cruel and selfish as it was—the truth gained from bitter experience. Philanthropy is a good thing in its way, and there is something infinitely noble in the abstract theory of the universal brotherhood of man; but resolve that theory to its elements, or put it to practical use, and its inherent folly is colossal. But Moulmaine had faith, that faith which levels mountains. And was he so much less fortunate than I?
The next thing I heard was that he had married Asuma-San, and that he had set up housekeeping in a neat little bungalow on the hill at the back of the town. During the next month or so I accidentally met him once or twice, and from his manner I judged that he had not quite forgotten my plain-speaking. However, the deed was done and I had had my say, so I merely referred in the most casual way to his marriage, quickly perceiving that this was a subject which permitted of no trifling. Nor did I refer to his desertion of the club, or the dropping of old friends. Things, no doubt, would right themselves in their own good time.
Then one evening he called on me and took me up to his house to dinner, and once again I saw Asuma-San, now grown stately with the dignity of her new life. And very beautiful she looked, and in a way I thought Moulmaine was a lucky beggar; but she was a native, a native body and soul, and nothing could alter that. Out of deference to him she had pounded less fat into her hair, but she still wore the national kimono, while nothing could persuade her to wear shoes and stockings. In fact, at heart she was still the musumé of Ninko’s tea-house, and I had no doubt that she would willingly have exchanged all her solitary splendour for the tinkle of the samisen, and the laughter and the life.
She received me with chilling coldness, but that I looked upon as a matter of course, for I had been anything but a friend to her. Still I tried my best to be civil, remembering her altered condition, and treated her with a consideration which should have rendered her more amicable. But I saw that she neither forgot nor forgave, and she went about with a childish pout on her lips, or sat silent and sullen.
As I shook hands with Moulmaine at parting, I said, “You are happy, old fellow?”
But there was a tone in his voice that did not please me. It was too assertive to be convincing.
Though we did not meet again for many weeks, his neglect did not anger me. I knew that when he wanted me he would come. Then one day, as I was walking towards Ninko’s, I stepped aside to make room for a rickshaw which came dashing through the narrow street. Curiosity prompting me to turn round, I caught a hurried glimpse of Moulmaine as he flashed by. I saluted, but he did not seem to see me, though his eyes were apparently staring straight into mine. Mad eyes they were, full of rage and horror. I called to him, but he did not heed me. Then a turn in the street hid the flying vehicle.
I passed on full of strange conjecture, wondering, fearing. That something dreadful had happened was obvious; that something dreadful would happen was equally certain. His face haunted me; I could not close my eyes upon the livid picture.
Some eight or ten minutes later I met him again. This time his wife was in the rickshaw with him. His face was still deadly pale; but hers was black and sulky, and most evil and ugly in its anger. I guessed in a moment what it meant. He had been to Ninko’s to fetch her home.
With something more to think about I continued my way to the tea-house; but though I carefully inquired I could learn nothing. Ninko was a clever man, and his chaya was always beyond reproach.
One night, a week or so after this, just as I was thinking of going to bed, there came a great rapping at my door, and when I opened it, in rushed Moulmaine in a fearful state of excitement. His face was more hideously pale than ever, his eyes glared wildly; he was without hat, coat, or collar. He never spoke, but with a moan sank into a chair. Quickly I mixed him some whisky-and-water, which he gulped in a way that nearly choked him. Then, slowly regaining his breath, he looked up at me and in a hoarse voice gasped, “I’ve done it, Osman.”
Something cold smote my heart and sent the shivers flying through me. But I would not understand.
“Killed whom?” I cried.
“Man, you are mad!”
“Not a bit of it,” and he arose, laughing diabolically. I backed away. “I was mad, “Osman,” he went on, still laughing like one who enjoys a pleasant memory; “but the madness has worn off, I tell you, you son-of-a-gun, the madness has worn off,” and he brought his hand down with a murderous clap upon my shoulder. “I am sane now, old cynic, and see with clear eyes. But you understand, I wanted to do the right thing. I tried to bribe heaven with a monstrous bribe. God would have none of it.”
“Calm yourself,” I cried, “and tell me what has happened.”
“You know how I loved her, Osman— what I did for her? Had she possessed but one little virtue she would at least have pitied me. But one cannot gather grapes from thorns. Though I had long known her for what she was, I still tried to deceive myself. The musumé was always the musumé. The poison of Ninko’s den was in her blood; the smell of the place was as the breath of life to her. So she went there day after day, until at last I heard of it. Then I followed her, and brought her forth, and she sobbed and begged hard to be forgiven; and remembering what she was, I pardoned her. But she had tasted of the vileness once again, and neither threat nor fear could check her. And then, I know not exactly how it came about, but we quarrelled deeply, furiously, and my hands found their way to her throat, and presently I was staring into the vacant eyes of a dead woman.”
This was the mad story he poured into my ears, and when he had finished he drank deeply of the whisky and laughed at my troubled face.
“Yes, I know,” he said, “I have committed murder; but I also know that it is justified of God, no matter what man may say.”
He would not sit down, he would not stay; and when I tried a little gentle persuasion he shook me off with a savage oath, flung open the door, and passed out into the night.
His body was found next morning in the little garden at the back of his own bungalow. A revolver with one empty chamber lay beside him.
When the music of the samisen was ringing,
And the voices rose and fell in cadence low;
And the luscious moonlit hours were swiftly winging,—
Just as hours the most delightful seem to go;
Like a being of enchantment did she wend her
Way, before me ’twixt the moonlight and the trees:
Glossy hair, and laughing eyes, and figure slender,
Redolent of love and all its mysteries.
In the chaya, there behind us, there was singing,
Dancing geisha, tinkling samisen, and wine;
And the laughter of glad voices came a-ringing
Through the night that she and love had made divine.
But we heeded not the laughter nor the chorus,
Heard no music but the music of sweet sighs;
For the glory of the night was all before us,
And the present is the kingdom of the wise.
* * * * * * * *
Dreams that come and dreams that go, forever changing,
Till the very earth itself shall pass away;
And we mortals through our little orbit ranging,
Play our part, and then have finished with the play.
Have we finished? Who shall say? In the hereafter,
When behind life’s dim horizon sinks the sun,
Shall our follies, and our maskings, and our laughter,
Weigh the balance ’gainst the good that we have done?
Hanu-San knelt before the great Shinto shrine and prayed to the Master-of-the-August-Centre-of-Heaven. Pain had been hers, pain wrought of the deep anguish of bitter thoughts, and her soul was full of sorrow and her eyes were shaded with melancholy. For she had reached that age when maidens wed, and her beauty had found favour in the eyes of Sakata— Sakata of the hundred junks and many houses; and he had dreamed of her, and his dreams had filled his brain with restlessness and his heart with a great desire.
Being rich, he had the courage of riches. It mattered nothing that he was old, that his limbs were shrunken, that his lips were blue, that his little black eyes were lost behind innumerable yellow wrinkles. He counted his yen by the thousand; he was lord of a hundred junks, of many people. Those who did not love him bowed low in his presence; deep salutations greeted him as he passed along the street. “There goes the honourable Sakata,” the people would whisper one to the other, “he who fills many mouths.” And in this lay the cause of all reverence: “He who fills many mouths.” His faults were many, his person unlovely, his manners uncouth. Of him tales had been told which reflected little credit on humanity. They said he had no heart, no feeling; that when he died one more spirit-wolf would join the spectral band which haunted the mountain recesses. But they said these things in whispers, for Sakata was a man with whom no one dared to trifle.
Of him, then, Hanu-San thought as she knelt before the shrine, and in her dumb, dull way called the gods to her aid. Not that she was wholly without fear of the efficacy of prayer. Her mother had said, “It is time that thou shouldst wed and rear sons to the glory of thy lord. The honourable Sakata hath exceeded condescension in casting his august eyes on our contemptible offspring. The gods are truly blessing the house of Naku, the compradore.” Her father had added, “Worthless though we be, and as dirt in the eyes of the gods, yet are we singled out for this great happiness. The honourable Sakata is the lord of a hundred junks.”
“Ay,” echoed his wife, “and of a hundred houses as well.”
And Hanu-San knew that here the gods themselves were of no avail. They, as she, were powerless against a hundred junks. The halo that surrounded Sakata no cloud could diminish.
And yet she knelt and prayed, but with a doubting soul. Your Oriental is more or less of a fatalist, and what the gods have once written they will in no wise blot out. Moreover, it was the wish of her honourable parents, and to thwart that wish would have been a crime beyond all pardon. If there is any religion in Japan it is that of, filial obedience—obedience, first of all, to the Emperor, by whose exceeding magnanimity one lives, for whom it would be a pleasure and an honour to die; then comes obedience to one’s parents, and, when one marries, the reverence of the mother-in-law. Fortunately, and in this Hanu-San discovered some consolation, Sakata had buried his honourable mother some twenty years before.
She knew that it was sinful, this appeal to the gods in opposition to the wishes of her parents; but her mind was beginning to expand, and life was presenting its right and its wrong side, and she thought of what ought to be and what was. And a long dwelling on what was kindled the smouldering embers of rebellion, and all else failing, she appealed to the infinite justice of the gods. But the ways of the divine ones were ever inscrutable, and even as she prayed she knew it was a futile thing she asked, and her selfish and unfilial conduct filled her with shame and apprehension. Her duty was clear, her obedience to the parental wishes assured. How could the gods look with benign eyes upon one whose soul was charged with angry and rebellious thoughts? She would claim pardon; she would fulfil the wishes of her parents, even to entering the arms of Sakata, the lord of a hundred junks. She would—
Here she raised her head, her heart throbbing with a new and noble resolution, and, behold! her eyes fell upon the figure of a man who stood back some little way, regarding her intently. At first, owing to a quick, uncertain glance, she thought the figure was one of the priests from the adjacent temple, and for fear of incurring his displeasure she made a pretence of continuing her devotions; but the man’s form came between her and the gods, and in a way he seemed to read her thoughts, and she trembled like a child who is suddenly discovered in mischief.
Intuitively, for she had not the courage to look, she felt the presence draw near, and the strange throbbing of her pulses told her that it was no priest. In fact, she knew it now, even by that timid glance, in which he was seen silhouetted as something dark and big against the sky. Her imagination carried her even farther than that. Was he of her country?
She tried to think, but her brain whirled confusedly. Lower she bowed her head; she sought to interpose between her and this stranger the faces of the gods, those vague, mysterious deities who lived in clouds and rode upon the typhoons; but the effort proved unavailing. The gods were but shadowy substances at best: this stranger was a tangible reality.
Then she became conscious of the fact that a voice was whispering softly in her ear, and at first she scarcely knew if the accents were human or divine; but her agitation quickly passing, she recognised the commonplace words of everyday greeting uttered with a foreign tongue.
Her agitation was, if possible, even more profound; but it was of an entirely different nature. Hitherto she had been subdued by the strength of her spiritual aspirations; she had wandered in the realms of imagination, had trodden the borderland of the unknown, and her steps had been slow and her feet had faltered; but this voice and this presence recalled her to earth, and with a pretty show of confusion she began to scramble to her feet. Then it was, almost unknown to her, a hand grasped hers, and her burning palm slipped into his—so cool, so steady.
“Do not be alarmed,” he said, a deep sincerity in every tone of his voice; for he saw her terror, and he had had some experience of the timidity of these strange little creatures. “I assure you there is nothing to be afraid of. I am merely a stranger who has come to see—who has come to learn.” He dropped her hand as he spoke, and she, feeling herself at liberty, had a great inclination to dash away from this presumptuous stranger with the soft voice, who stumbled so charmingly with her language. But her dignity and better sense came to the rescue; perhaps her feminine curiosity had not a little to do with the determination. Perhaps, also, the gods, who worked in a way unknown to mortals, had not turned a deaf ear to her prayers. Perhaps—but her soul almost sickened with terror at the awful, the sacrilegious thought—perhaps the god himself, the Master-of-the-August-Centre-of-Heaven, had—
With a strange throbbing of the breast she raised her eyes slowly from the ground, whereon was firmly planted a pair of white boots, and as her glance began slowly to ascend the legs of the deity, she thought they were monstrous long, and totally unlike those of the men of her own race. But even as she thought, her glance continued its upward course, and presently she was looking into a pair of earnest eyes, the colour of which seemed to have been stolen direct from the farthest blue of the ocean.
The face was fair, white as she had dreamed the face of a god should be, and the thick golden hair fringed it as with an aureole. Amazement sat upon her face: indecision flickered across it in little hurrying waves of shadow and shine. Conscious of this unprecedented encounter, and of the proper behaviour of young ladies under such conditions, she hesitated to leave, impelled thus to defy the laws of decorum by a power which she felt acutely, but which she was utterly unable to analyse. And he saw her irresolution, and the smile deepened in his eyes and brightened his whole face, and in a vague way Hanu-San thought of the sun sinking in the sea.
He stumbled atrociously with the language as he attempted to propitiate her, to still her fears; but she found his strange phrasing and mispronunciation delightfully quaint and fresh, and she would not have had him speak in any other fashion for the world. Moreover, she discovered, after the first shock of nervousness had passed away, and she could listen with something like tranquillity, that he was English, and she delighted him, in reply to one of his questions, by answering him in his native tongue. For was she not the daughter of Naku, the compradore, he who traded with the English, who spoke their language with fluency? And had she not wished to know something of these people of the West, and striven to learn that language which everyone seemed to speak?
Castleton, the voyager in question, was overjoyed at the discovery, and henceforth eschewed all attempts to make himself understood in Japanese. It is enough for the Englishman that other people should struggle with his language; he never discloses any great inclination to battle with theirs. When Hanu-San fought valiantly with a word he came to her rescue; but her pretty struggles pleased him infinitely, and he was cruel enough to prolong her exquisite agony to the full.
Once her restraint had worn off she prattled glibly in an odd mixture of English and Japanese. She would begin solemnly enough with the foreign language, but she invariably finished at express speed in her native tongue. And though he did not thoroughly understand her, he learnt that she was the daughter of Naku, the compradore, he who provided the victuals for the great English ships. As he had never heard of the honourable Naku, the information contained nothing of much importance. The chief point was that she was somebody’s daughter.
He looked at the quaint little doll-like figure, and even through her loose kimono saw the budding girl was blossoming into the rose of woman. Perhaps she was not entirely pretty—he had never become quite reconciled to the strange eyes with the puffy lids—but her complexion was good, her mouth full and fresh and pouting like a child’s, and when she smiled she was wholly charming.
“Your name?” he said. “How shall I call you?”
“Hanu-San,” he repeated, admiration and pleasure blending with singular adroitness in his look. “An appropriate name, indeed, for you are just the sweetest flower that I have ever seen.”
She blushed, but at the same time solemnly shook her head.
“Nay, your excellency, I am but a poor creature who has incurred the anger of the gods.”
“The gods,” said he disdainfully, “are old, and deaf, and blind. What have they to do with thee, Hanu-San, with living flesh and blood? We go our way in spite of them, living, as the birds sing, the trees put forth their leaves, the sun rises and sets—simply because we must. All things in nature pursue their appointed course, and we, that are a part of nature, shall we not walk rightly, guided by the spirit which is within us?”
Poor Hanu-San could not quite grasp the subtlety of such fine argument; but through the confusion of words and images she caught a fleeting vision of that vague something which, on more than one occasion lately, had flashed through her own brain; and she was aware that the stranger, or the essence of him, was entering her soul through her eyes, and unconsciously she abandoned herself to the strange, delicious process.
An hour after they passed down beneath the great torii, or granite archways, which are the invariable symbol of Shintoism, that old, vague, ill-remembered form of worship which is called a religion; but this time his arm was thrown caressingly about her shoulders, and many times he stopped, irresolute, and gazed into her face with doubting looks; but she smiled up at him, and the sunshine danced in her eyes, and lit with a deeper scarlet her lips; and the man drew her suddenly to him and pressed her face into his breast. There was a pathos, a trustfulness in those clear eyes which overwhelmed him with a knowledge of his own guilt.
But the weakness, as he called it, quickly passed, and presently he remembered nothing but that this fantastic little doll was a living, breathing woman—a creature in whom was the pleasure and the pain of life. So he pressed her closer, and kissed her, until she wondered at his passion; and when she stumbled, he caught her up in his arms, nor would he release her until he had reached the very bottom of the long flight of steps. And then, all panting and blushing, and burning with an unknown fire, Hanu-San was set upon her feet, and for some moments she had not the courage to look into those eyes which were so like the sea. But it was delightful—all this strange whirl of excitement. Her soul would ever remain within the embrace of those strong arms.
He accompanied her for still a little way until he noticed that she began to cast uneasy glances about her; then he stopped and took her hand, and once more searched her eyes for the soul which had already filled them with a new light. But the doglike, wondering pathos of the look touched him keenly. He would rather her eyes were not quite so serious.
“You will come to-morrow, Hanu-San,” he said, “at the same hour?”
She hesitated, but only for a moment.
“I will come,” she whispered.
He watched the quaint little figure as it descended the hill towards the town; then as it disappeared entirely he sat himself upon one of the great granite steps, lit a cheroot, and began to think.
He had only arrived at the port the day before. Coming from Yokohama, where he had spent the last twelve months of his life, he had intended to stay in Nagasaki for one week prior to his departure for England. Old friends were to be looked up, visits to be repaid, general farewells exchanged. In a week the southern-bound steamer would call and take him to Hong-Kong, there to join the greater home boats. He had spent some happy months in Dai Nippon, or Great Japan, as the natives proudly call their country. He would have some pleasant memories to take back with him—and, possibly, one regret.
The panorama that opened out beneath him was an exceedingly fair one—the far-stretching picturesque town, the masses of foliage, and the blue bay, upon the waters of which the light junks scudded to and fro and the great steamers lay asleep. But he saw all these things with the eye only; his brain was full of the image of a doll-like figure in a blue-and-white kimono. And he wondered what he ought to do. Curiosity had led him to explore the temple. As he passed up beneath the great torii, his thoughts were chiefly concerned with his voyage and his home-greeting. It was not until he beheld the devout form of Hanu-San bowed before the shrine that they took another turn. Then, for the time being, voyage, and home, and every other thought was obliterated. Was it not strange that just on the eve of his departure he should have met her? There was no consistency in fate.
But the next day, at the self-same hour, he toiled once more towards the shrine, and as he approached the great gaunt torii he almost wished that she might not be there. But this was not to be. All athrob with an anxiety the like of which had hitherto been a stranger to her, she had requested permission to ascend once more to the shrine, and as she even sounded the name of Sakata in a tone of maidenly reverence, the permission was at once accorded. Slowly, and with the utmost circumspection, she bowed herself from the august presence of her honourable mother; but once she had begun her ascent of the hill her speed increased in spite of stumbles and hard breathing. He might be there, or he might have been there and gone! Both thoughts seemed to have an equally disastrous effect.
But he was not there, and she knew not if he had been, and a long bitter wait was hers, her heart beating with sickening suspense. The shrine was before her, but the gods were not those of yesterday. Another had come to fill their place—one whose hair was charged with the gold of sunset, whose eyes were as blue and as fathomless as the sea.
At last she caught a glimpse of him as he mounted the path towards her, and every nerve of her seemed to leap with a mighty bound, and for a moment her vision was blurred as by a mist. She could not understand this strange and sudden throbbing; she never sought to; but long after she remembered it, and life would gladly have been given for such another sensation, even though she knew not if the grip upon her heart was one of pleasure or of pain.
His greeting was inexpressibly tender; she nestled to him as a child might to its parent, and he, looking down at her, wrinkled his brow with thought. Then he stopped, irresolute, and held her away from him, and looked at her so strangely, so fiercely, that she trembled, wondering what she had done. But suddenly he threw up his head and laughed somewhat bitterly to himself. Then, seizing her hand, together they walked amid the trees and the flowers; and the birds sang to them, and the sun leapt into the eyes of Hanu-San and lit her face with happiness. And he said to her, “Know you me, O Hanu-San?”
She was at a loss for a suitable reply, because she did not wholly understand the question, but she smiled reassuringly.
“It is very strange, but I seem to have known your excellency for many days.”
“But as I am?” he said.
“As you are?” she echoed. “Ay, of course.”
He saw she did not understand. Why should he make her? Again that hesitant, irresolute look showed itself in his eyes. Then he sneered at his own weakness.
And so for the five succeeding days, at the self-same hour, Hanu-San toiled upward to the shrine, and her parents marked with pleasure this proof of devotion in their daughter, and spoke repeatedly of the honourable Sakata and his hundred junks. And that daughter listened with a grave face, as became a maiden who was so highly honoured. It was a momentous event, this union with the illustrious Sakata, and no doubt the thought of it robbed her of the power of making an adequate reply. But the dazzle of her approaching greatness added a lustre to her stupidity. It was evident that she had not intelligence enough rightly to appreciate the magnificent condescension of Sakata; but she was young, and to such the gods are forbearing.
And so each day the quaint little figure toiled its way upward with a beating heart. Sometimes the thought of Sakata obtruded its hateful presence, and filled her breast with pain; but it only needed a glimpse of the well-beloved figure near the shrine to banish the hateful sensation. With her hand in his there was no longer any fear or trouble in the world. Even Sakata was but the memory of a bad dream, which was shadowed but indistinctly in the mist of things.
And so the days flew all too rapidly, and never once had she breathed the name of the illustrious owner of the hundred junks, and Castleton had but hinted vaguely at the date of his departure; but now the time had drawn horribly near, and his manliness forbade him longer to conceal the fact.
He regretted that he had not spoken sooner, that he had not gently approached the subject, and so by degrees have prepared her for the inevitable. Yet she would probably accept the news with the stoicism of her race, that Oriental fatalism which explains every incongruity. It is written. Who shall gainsay the wisdom of the gods?
After many ineffectual attempts at an opening, he said, “Know you, O Hanu-San, that to-morrow morning the Mindoro will arrive from Kobe?”
“Indeed,” she said. What had she to do with the Mindoro or Kobe? Her heaven was here—here in Nagasaki.
“Ay,” he continued, rather nervously, “and to-morrow evening she leaves for Hong-Kong.”
And still she was not interested. Ships were always coming and going. Surely they were built for no other purpose?
“For Hong-Kong,” he repeated. “You do not seem to understand?”
Some strange note in his voice arrested her attention.
“I understand,” she said, perhaps a little nervously. “To-morrow evening the Mindoro will sail for Hong-Kong. Is that not so?”
“Good. In three weeks she will be back again.”
“Yes,” said he, “that is true; the ship will be back—but she will not return with all the people she took away.”
Then for the first time her breast responded with a chill throb to the strange tone his voice had assumed, and she seemed to realise that under this apparently trivial piece of information there lay a serious meaning. Her eyes sought his, and in them he saw a look of pitiful anxiety. The mouth, too, quivered painfully as she spoke.
“I do not understand,” she faltered. “Tell me.”
He felt her little hands close tightly on his. They were throbbing and burning like fire; but as he spoke they grew, oh, so cold.
“Have you forgotten that I am but a visitor?” he said. “My home is away, away in the West. I could not stay here always.”
Ay, to be sure. And yet she had not thought of it. The delight of the day had brought her sweet dreams in the night. Her life was full of dreams, of hopes, of soft sensations. Why should it not always be thus?
“I had already booked my passage in the Mindoro” he continued, sparing himself nothing—her nothing, though he saw her face pale and felt her hands tremble. “I must go home, Hanu-San; it is imperative. That is what I meant when I said that the Mindoro would not bring back all those people she took away. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she gasped; but she staggered as though she would fall. He caught her, and their eyes met; but to the longest day of his life Castleton will be haunted by the stricken pathos of that look.
Slowly, and for the last time, they descended beneath the great torii together. His arm was about her as before; the vague suggestion that he was murmuring words of consolation stole into her numbed brain; but the birds no longer sang; the sun, fierce as it had been a moment ago, now failed to warm the chilly air. The trees waved their phantom arms before her and flung cold shadows into her eyes; the rustle of the leaves sounded like a jeer at human hopes. Below she saw the bay and the ships as through a haze. Hateful bay! hateful ships! But for them he would not have come; but for them he could not go.
They stopped at the old parting of the ways, and again he sought to render her consolation; but the pathos of her eyes stole right into his heart and stilled his tongue. He could not say what he did not mean. It would have been too pitiful.
“My lord will come again?” she said.
“Perhaps,” he answered.
She bowed low and pressed his hand to her forehead.
“I have been yours,” she whispered, “and you mine, and so it shall be for all eternity. I have looked into your eyes, O my lord, and the sunshine of your glance has dazzled me. But the gods are good. I thank them for this glimpse of paradise. It is written. Sayonara”
“Sayonara” he answered.
It was the last word of farewell.
Where Fuji-Yama rears his crest,
And tinkling bells in temples ring;
And girls are picturesquely drest,
And love is god of everything,
Myosho of the tranquil eyes,
And placid smile, her way doth keep,
Greeting the sunbeams as they rise
From out the great Pacific deep.
Myosho of the soft brown eye,
I wonder if her memory yet
Keeps clear the day, long since gone by,
When she and I?—Does she forget?
Does she forget the stranger rude,
The fervent clasp, the lips that kist?—
Ah! God, it is not always good
That man should worship where he list!
A momentary pang of pain,
A transitory gleam of joy!
I wonder should I do again,
If power were given me to destroy?
Myosho, do you ever think
Of that tall stranger, bronzed and free,
Who stopped to crave of thee a drink,
And stole thy loveliness from thee?
Hallerton lived in Tokio, and Glynton in Shanghai, and the latter, after many a keen disappointment, at last turned his face eastward and steered for Chrysanthemum Land. Only six weeks could be spared, but in that time an energetic man may accomplish much. Glynton, albeit of a staid and resolute exterior, was an energetic man. He made little noise, but he moved swiftly and with precision, the result of which was that he saw much, accomplished much—and carried away with him one everlasting memory.
He was no stranger to Japan, but he had been a stranger for three years, and his first glimpse of the country awakened many pleasant recollections. There was Nagasaki crowded with old memories; the beautiful inland sea; Kobe, and Ninko’s chaya, and the tinkling of the samisen and the mellower note of the koto. Then came Yokohama Bay and the capital beyond.
Hallerton received him with open arms and took a week’s holiday in his honour, and they went on excursions into the country, or sailed on the Bay of Yedo, and lived generally like two boys just let loose from school.
But this had to end, and for the next week Glynton was left for the greater part of the day alone, his friend being called on business to Yokohama every morning. Glynton, however, was a man who could tolerate his own company, and as it was that time of the year when the land is aglow with cherry-blossoms white and red, and when every breath inhaled, laden with the perfume and the sunshine, is a delicious intoxicant, he found his aimless little excursions into the surrounding country profitable and invigorating.
On one occasion, wandering with no fixed purpose, his steps led him to surmount a little hill which, though it lay back some distance from the water, still commanded an extensive view of the bay and the surrounding country. He began a slow ascent of this hill, for the sun was warm and the dust lay thick on the road, and he felt inclined to loiter by the way; but the cool green and white of his goal held out an invitation which he could not resist.
Slowly he trudged upward until he came to where a narrow footway branched off from the main road, and, as the former looked the more inviting of the two paths, he took it, though not without a feeling that he was encroaching on private property. However, that troubled him but little, and even if it had caused him much concern it is doubtful if his curiosity would have bowed to his discretion. For, insensibly as it were, a desire to penetrate this mound of flowers and of leaves had come to him, and one that he knew it would be necessary to gratify.
As he made his way upward the foliage thickened, and presently, the path taking a sudden bend, he found himself before a small clearing, in the midst of which was the daintiest little bandbox of a house that he had ever seen. Startled, he drew back, and through the leaves peered like a guilty creature at the pretty picture. The house was like a toy embedded in blooms. Flowers innumerable shone from every point of vantage, while the heavy perfume of the fruit trees stole towards him in a golden cloud. The day was so still that he seemed to hear the multitudinous murmurs of the insect life in the grass.
But suddenly the soft note of a samisen was wafted through one of the wide-open windows, and he drew still closer in against the leaves—an involuntary movement which he might not have been able or willing to analyse. Intuitively he seemed to guess that the hand which struck the strings was that of an artist, and he leant forward eager in anticipation.
A sharp, defiant note followed, a coarse twanging of numbers, as though the player was seized with a sudden fit of anger, and, having nothing else upon which to vent it, tortured the poor unoffending instrument. Then there was silence for the space of many moments, and then once more the clear notes vibrated on the still air. To the uninitiated ear, all Eastern music is nothing more or less than a bewildering series of discordant sounds; but this particular listener was not uninitiated, and he distinguished in the notes a melancholy which, under such conditions, was singularly impressive.
Presently a voice—a low-wailing voice— began to sing with the music; and though Glynton could catch no word distinctly, he knew that it was the outpouring of a sad and desolate heart. Like one spell-bound, he stood and listened, breathing hard as the singer’s voice rose in the scale.
Truly it was a novel experience, one the like of which his wanderings had known no parallel. Even when the singer’s voice had died away, and the strings of the samisen no longer ached and throbbed in the air, he still stood for some sign or token. Then, with a strange little cynical laugh, he stepped out from his retreat and made towards the house. Come what might, he was going to have a peep at this singer of dirges.
As he approached the house he was greeted by the sharp yelping of a little dog, which came out on the verandah and presented a furious front. Almost at the same moment a woman’s face appeared at the window, through which had floated the strains of the guitar. She seemed rather amused at the prodigious anger of her small dog, and laughingly called to it to desist; and then, with a gracious smile to the stranger, she apologised most prettily for the rudeness of her pet.
Glynton raised his hat and honoured the lady with a profound obeisance; but in the smiling, round-faced girl before him he failed utterly to recognise the melancholy singer whose sad song had tuned him to such an extraordinary pitch. Indeed, he doubted much if this handsome girl, with her reckless, defiant smile, and her marvellous self-consciousness, could possibly have any connection with the woman who so lately had poured forth her woes to the sky.
“I beg your pardon,” he said; “I fear I am intruding. I saw this pretty spot, and trudged upward to explore. Then across the sunshine, on a cloud of perfume it seemed, came the delightful notes of a bird, and I could not retreat without one glance at the sweet singer.”
He bowed again, and the girl smiled happily; but at that moment, warned by the barking of the dog, two men appeared from the back of the house, and the girl’s face as she turned towards them assumed a darker shade.
“This stranger is weary and thirsty,” she said; “bring him refreshment.”
The servants made low obeisance, and then slunk swiftly away to do her bidding. She watched them disappear, watched with a keen eye, a shaded brow, which, however, passed from her with the passing of the men. Then she turned once more to the stranger.
Presently he was seated in the cool verandah, and, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, the girl came out and joined him. He looked at her critically, but found no fault. She was exceedingly handsome, and in her grey kimono looked particularly fresh and sweet. Her eyes were wonderfully dazzling, and almost bold, he thought; but her face was, perhaps, a trifle pallid, and sometimes a strange line formed about the corners of her mouth.
Tea was brought to them in quaint little egg-shell cups, and sweetmeats, too, were placed upon the table. This was an adventure full of charm. Glynton leant back and eyed his companion through the thin wreaths of cigarette smoke.
“As I stood among the leaves down yonder I heard a bird,” he said. “May I not see her?”
She laughed. He thought it one of the prettiest mouths that he had ever seen.
“It is possible,” and she laughed again.
“It was not you?”
“Why not!” she said.
“But it was a song full of sadness—” he began.
“And how know you that I may not be sad at times?”
“Nay, I know not,” he answered; “but I hope that happiness is ever with you.”
She filled her little silver pipe and lit it, but there was trouble in her eyes as she stared up at him through the smoke.
“Yes,” she answered slowly, “I have the reputation of being good friends with happiness. It is something, is it not?”
“No,” he said; “not if the song I heard came from your heart.”
“Heart!” she echoed, with a disdainful laugh. “You do not know me, eh?”
“I only know that you are beautiful, and that, in spite of your charming face, you are very sad.”
“Ah!” she murmured, “you see deeper than most people.”
As she knocked the ash from her pipe, he rose to go.
“You are very kind,” he said. “May I not come again?”
She hesitated, and looked him keenly up and down.
“You live here in Tokio?”
“For a few weeks only. Then I return to Shanghai.”
“That I cannot say. It is in the hands of the gods. And you—do you live here alone?”
“Not always alone.”
“You are married?”
He looked puzzled, and she smiled.
“Why should one marry?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Nevertheless, there was unobtrusive evidence of wealth about her and her belongings. The house, small as it was, was charming; the kimono she wore, though modest in tone and in design, was spun of silk. The obsequious servants, the boxes of choice flowers, the indefinite and yet general air of comfort, all proclaimed that this was no ordinary establishment.
Nor was its owner an ordinary woman, at least so Glynton thought as he walked away, having stayed longer than common politeness warranted. But she was very charming, and had given him permission to call again; and all the way home he saw her handsome face and sparkling eyes, and something behind those eyes which was as sad as death. Strange woman, strange creature living thus alone: a bird breaking its heart against the bars of a gilded cage.
When Hallerton returned that night from Yokohama he began to apologise profusely for having left his friend; but Glynton cut him short. He had found something which had entirely compensated him for his friend’s absence.
The next day, at the selfsame hour, he once more mounted the path which led to the cottage; but this time she was waiting for him, and as he walked up the little pathway she appeared at the window, although there was no barking of the dog to herald his approach. Upon this occasion she was dressed very elaborately, and her eyes and her cheeks were touched up in the approved native fashion. While in one way this heightened her beauty, it seemed to rob her of much of her former charm; and though he felt flattered at her evident desire to please, he could have wished that she looked not quite so like a geisha. Then he laughed somewhat cynically to himself. Heavens! what did it matter to him what she looked like?
As for her, the presence of this stranger seemed infinitely to please. He was bigger, stronger, more beautiful than any of her own men. His hair was fair, soft, and silky, and marvellously fascinating; his eyes were so blue that she was never tired of searching them for the many mysteries which lay in their depths. Truly, these white people were very lovely! She wondered if he had a wife, a sweetheart, of his own race. She had heard of the soft, delicate beauty of the white women. Were they so much more lovely than the Japanese?
“Tell me,” she said, as they once more sat in the verandah sipping tea, “are the women of your race so very beautiful?”
“Many of them,” he answered, “are very beautiful.”
“And have they hair like yours, and eyes like yours?”
“I am hideous,” he laughed. “They have hair like a cluster of sunbeams; to look into their eyes is to enter the gates of paradise. Their faces are like the red and white cherry-blossoms yonder; their lips are sweeter than roses.”
She pouted, and something like a frown ran down her forehead to her eyes.
“How hideous we Japanese must seem beside them!”
He smiled. It was the piqued daughter of Eve. And so is it all the world over— black or white, brown or red.
“I know one Japanese,” he said, “who combines in her dainty little person all the charms of the white woman, and more. And her name—what think you they call her?”
“I know not,” she answered; “but I should like to see one who possesses so many graces.”
“Look in your mirror, Kiku,” he said, “and then you will see the lady of whom I speak.”
Kiku blushed very prettily, if not violently, and her eyelids drooped. He noticed her fingers fumble excitedly with each other as they lay in her lap.
“I mean it, Kiku,” he whispered. “You are very lovely.”
A palpable shudder shook her from head to foot, which he attributed to anything but the right cause. Yet when he looked into her eyes again, he saw that they were full of regret, of a pathos which made him pause and think.
When he reached the bungalow that night his friend Hallerton had already dined, and had even got through the larger half of his second cigar.
“I must apologise, old fellow; but I waited a deuce of a time. Have you dined?”
This was clearly in the manner of an interrogation, but Glynton was in no confidential mood. He did not say where he had dined, or with whom. Why should he?
Hallerton got up, made his friend a whisky-and-soda, and then handed him the cigar-box.
“Yes,” said Glynton; “had a long day.”
“Where have you been?”
“A large order.”
“I am sorry, old chap, that I have to leave you so much alone; but you quite understand, don’t you?”
“My dear fellow,” said Glynton, “I beg of you not to mention it if you do not wish me to feel uncomfortable.”
Hallerton laughed good-naturedly. He was an excellent old beggar, this serious eyed Glynton.
“By the way,” said Hallerton presently, as he stretched forth to replenish his glass, “I have received an invitation from Count Idzumo. He gives a big garden-party sort of affair to-morrow afternoon. You will come, of course?”
“I think not, old fellow. Such things are no longer in my line.”
“I must go, of course,” said Hallerton. “Diplomatic etiquette, you know. What shall you do with yourself?”
“Oh, I shall be all right. Don’t bother about me. I suppose Idzumo is a big man now?”
“Bless you, yes. A future Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and heaven alone knows what else.”
“He is very wealthy?”
“Very; and he has a magnificent place. An ugly little black beast—a native all over; but one must not show one’s dislikes.”
“Um! I don’t think his excellency will interest me.”
“But perhaps his geisha may. Kiku is going to dance.”
Glynton threw off his lethargy and sat upright.
“Of course, you are a stranger—you haven’t heard of her. She is the chief favourite of the day. All Tokio has gone mad over her. Commands fabulous prices, they say.”
Mr. Glynton was now thoroughly interested in Idzumo’s garden party. Kiku— Kiku! Over and over again he repeated the name to himself. But of course it could have no significance. There were thousands of Kikus in Japan.
“She is good, eh?” he asked nonchalantly.
“I suppose so—or at least as good as such performers can be. She was bought out of her indentures about eighteen months ago by Nadzu, a son of the War Minister, who only lived six months to regret his rash act. He committed the happy despatch in a peculiarly horrible manner upon her doorstep. Her servants kicked the body into the road.”
“Quite right, too. Dirty fellow.”
“It was inconsiderate. Kiku is not renowned for her sentiment. They say she is very rich.”
“Then, of course, she is pretty?”
“My dear fellow, is the East so very different from the West in that respect? Kiku is very pretty, and she dances excellently—for a native.”
“And this Idzumo?”
“My dear fellow, you know as much about it as I do. Gossip says—but then you know gossip says many things. I believe it is generally conceded that the Count takes a fatherly interest in her. He never has an entertainment of any kind of which she is not the bright particular star.”
Later on, as the two men separated for the night, Glynton said to his friend, “I have changed my mind, Hallerton. I think I shall go and see Kiku dance to-morrow.”
He devoutly hoped that his Kiku might not be the notorious geisha of Tokio whose private history was evidently the theme of so much gossip. How could she be? There was nothing in her speech or manners indicative of the degraded professions. She was a woman of sense and sentiment, and totally unlike the harpy who calls herself a geisha. And yet there was something strange about her, something that reminded him of days when he first came to Japan with the wild fever of youth upon him. And then her manner of living was strangest of all, and one, when he thought of it, well calculated to awaken suspicion.
In the forenoon of the following day he trudged once more towards her house, having previously made up his mind to set all doubt at rest. But as he drew near the verandah a figure appeared in the doorway, and it was not the figure of Kiku. It was a little dark man who stood before him, an ugly scrap of a fellow with a ridiculously thin moustache and beard, narrow black slits of eyes set close to the nose, and a retreating forehead of some considerable dimensions.
Glynton did not remember seeing the man before, but having no doubt that he was a servant, he merely nodded familiarly and asked if the honourable mistress of the house was within. The little man replied slowly with a shake of the head. Then it was that Glynton, more closely scrutinising, saw that in his informant which he had previously failed to notice. The man, though obviously most carelessly attired, carried himself quite unlike a servant; and Glynton, when he set his wits to work, recognised this in an instant. Then who was he, and what was he doing in Kiku’s house?
“She has been gone long?” asked Glynton, a shade of greater deference in his tone.
“I believe so, excellency.”
The Englishman duly noted the peculiar tone in which the word “excellency” was expressed.
“She will return soon—perhaps?”
“Perhaps, excellency; but I think not.”
“Because to-night she dances for the great Count Idzumo.”
“How do you know that?”
“Why should I not, excellency? Is not Kiku the loveliest and most illustrious geisha in all Japan, and is not the honourable Count one of her most successful patrons?”
A self-complacent smile, which excessively irritated Glynton, played about the man’s mouth.
“You take great liberties with the reputation of your mistress,” he said. “Gossip, my worthy fellow, is not wise in a servant.”
“No, excellency. I will think of it. And your excellency’s business?”
“Is with your mistress.”
“But who shall I say has called?”
“Describe me. She will know.”
But the man’s face was a perfect study, and though at the best of times Glynton was not a particularly keen observer, he did not fail to notice the singular expression which played about the little Jap’s beady eyes.
He flung the fellow half a yen, and turned on his heel. He was angry and he was disappointed, and, in spite of a prodigious effort to laugh, he felt a creeping sickness about the heart which caused him intense annoyance. Something suggested love, but he laughed loudly, and perhaps a trifle idiotically at the mere idea. Lord! how he had been fooled! The sweet singer, the mournful maiden with whom he had sympathised, who lived alone without love, without happiness, was the most notorious woman in all Tokio.
It was with a disgusted and desperate feeling that he went with his friend to the reception. A dozen times during his journey homewards he had hesitated to take the step, but as often his weakness to see her overcame his pride. It would be something to be able to laugh at his own folly.
It was late when he and Hallerton arrived, but they immediately went in search of the Count, and presently beheld him coming towards them in close conversation with the French Minister. Hallerton advanced, a glib apology on his tongue, but Glynton followed in no easy mood. The little gentleman who was so deeply engaged in conversation with the Frenchman was the illustrious Count Idzumo—the person whom Glynton had seen at Kiku’s house that morning.
The Count smiled meaningly as Hallerton introduced his friend, and immediately his hand went to his waistcoat pocket. But withdrawing it instantly, he said, with a smile, “No; I will keep it as a souvenir.” Which cryptic utterance filled Hallerton’s face with bewilderment.
When they were once more alone, he said to Glynton, “What did the Count mean?”
“Oh!” replied his friend, with an inscrutable smile, “the Count and I have met before.”
“The devil!” muttered the diplomat.
Glynton was like a man pulled two different ways. He was eager, anxious to see Kiku dance; and yet, with all his soul he loathed the thought of it. Nevertheless, he followed the crowd into the great room which had been transformed into a temporary theatre, and patiently awaited her turn; and when at length she came on and began to cut capers and grimace, a veritable painted geisha, his chin dropped forward and he could not look; but through an atmosphere of theatric affectation, through-the sounding of the drum and the tinkling of the samisen, he heard a dirge-like wail, and saw the white, sad face of a woman.
When he looked up again, Kiku was making her exit to tumultuous applause. Men made strange jokes and laughed strange laughs. The atmosphere stifled him; he made his apologies and withdrew.
That night she was to dance again, but when, an hour or so after, Glynton and Hallerton met, the diplomat informed his friend that the pet geisha had suddenly been taken ill, and would appear no more that day. But plenty of entertainment was promised. Idzumo knew how to do the thing well. There were rumours of a magnificent exposition of the kina. It had been hoped that Kiku would lead. . . .
Glynton heard no more, but that night found him not among the Count’s guests. Angry with himself, and yet impelled onward by a force which he would have been powerless to analyse, even had he striven, he had wended his way to the little house on the hill, and with a shamed, hesitating manner, she came down the path to meet him.
“They told me you were ill,” he said, “and so I came to see.” She did not tell him that her illness was brought on by a glimpse of him with shame and confusion writ large upon his face. “I did not know you were a geisha.” She bowed her head without answering. “Idzumo’s geisha,” he added, meaningly.
“No, my lord,” she cried, “not that! Idznmo, he is rich and great, but I hate him. Let my lord say the word and Idzumo employs me no more.”
“Why should I? What is it to me?”
“Ay, what is it to my lord?”
“Kiku, they tell strange tales of you.”
“It is so, my lord. I know. Kitsune-tsuki—fox-woman—witch—I have heard them repeated. But those who do not know me tell the strangest tales of all.”
The story of Nadzu, the War Minister’s son, leapt to his lips. But the bowed figure and the penitent face were an irresistible appeal to silence. And, after all, what was it to him?
Her little hand slipped tremblingly into his.
“If we love, my lord, is it not enough?”
“They say the love of the kitsune-tsuki is death.”
“But my lord does not believe?”
“No,” he said. “And Idzumo?”
“My lord’s eyes have blinded me,” she murmured.
His arms slipped round her shoulders, and she nestled closely to him.
“Kiku,” he said, “I think they are right. You are a witch.”
I’ve wandered wide o’er many lands and sailed o’er many seas,
And of the cup of beauty quaffed a full and flouring share;
But memory fondly loiters with my little Japanese—
O-Setsu of the English eyes and glossy Eastern hair.
For fervent recollection in my soul has set a shrine,
And in that shrine her soft eyes burn—a heaven-illumined light
I mark the red lip redder grow beneath the blood-red wine,
And kiss the rose that comes and goes, a red one or a white.
* * * * * * *
Oh, they were days when life was young and all the world was glad,
And in my dreams I sometimes think I hear the koto ring;
And half of me is weary and the other half is mad,
And my pulses leap and quicken to the throbbing of the string.
There is music all about me, there is laughter, there is wine,
There’s a cosy seat that nestles ’neath the great wistaria tree.
Oh, the day that long has vanished is the day we call divine,
And the love that is beyond us is the love for you and me.
Floyd’s uncle being an official of some importance at the Legation in Tokio, it not unnaturally followed that when the nephew paid his never-to-be-forgotten visit he saw the imperial city at its best. Like many well-to-do young fellows, he had, on finishing his education, set out to circumnavigate the globe; and his wanderings having led him to the Far East, he paused there a little while—and was sobered ever after.
No one, of course, blamed him. In the East, as in the West, no one ever blames the man—that is, no one of any distinction. A few narrow-minded Pharisees may rail, creatures of no birth or breeding; but your gentleman is above any such puerile sentiment. It is always the woman who suffers, the woman who pays. Yet the sufferings of Omi-San, she whom the great Count Tora condescended to honour, made the most thoughtless pause and think.
Floyd was young, good-looking, well set up—one in whom was personified the glory of life. The whole wide world lay before him, and into it he leapt with the mad impetuosity of youth. There is no joy like that of living, of squeezing the last drop of pleasure out of life. The young may grow reckless without losing their charm. There is a world between the follies of youth and the sins of age.
As I have already said, his connection with the aforesaid high official gave him a decided advantage over the wandering tourist, or the ordinary inhabitant of a treaty port; and it was through this diplomatic connection that he first came in contact with Omi of the Yellow Kimono. Not that the diplomat was directly responsible. It was written, that is all. And what is written neither diplomat nor emperor can blot out. Only things turn out very strangely at times, and we who have the power to think and learn are gifted with many riches.
Count Tora, when free of the exigencies of his office about the court, spent his days on the very beautiful estate which he owned on the shores of the Bay of Yedo, and thither Floyd went with his uncle to pass a couple of days. The Count knew very little English, and Floyd absolutely no Japanese; but the uncle was thoroughly conversant with the native tongue, and the young man found amusement enough in the novelty of his surroundings.
By some judicious questioning he quickly realised that the reputation of his host did not ill agree with his appearance, and though that reputation was no concern of his, it enabled him to contemplate somewhat leniently his own folly. For Tora was neither pleasant in manners nor in appearance. Short of stature, and broad beyond all proportion, he wore a heavy, ugly mask of a face out of which peered two little slits of black fire. He owned a starved beard and moustache (the yellow men cannot grow much hair on the face), of which he was believed to be inordinately fond. For the rest, his nose was broad and flat, his mouth not ill-formed, but heavy. The sophisticated would say, upon looking at him, that he was fond of good things, and that he could be cruel when angry.
But what did all this matter? He was Count Tora, one upon whom the Emperor deigned to cast his illustrious eyes. What other honour is there for man to achieve? And even if that was not enough, which is highly incredible, Count Tora had many of this world’s riches, and in his own way he was still the daimio, the feudal chief.
Floyd and his uncle arrived in time for the midday meal, after which they spent a couple of hours in viewing the extensive grounds of the Count; but after that the young man felt the time begin to drag. He could not sit still, drink tea, and listen to a language he did not understand. So, under the pretence of smoking a cigar, he went out into the grounds, the beauty of which compensated him somewhat for the unintelligible chatter within.
Wandering aimlessly about, he suddenly found himself facing a bank of roses— roses red, and pink, and white, the perfume of which was wafted like a cloud through the sunshine. He stopped for a moment to inhale the delicious fragrance; and as he drew in the sweet air with long, deep breaths, it suddenly struck him that Tora had not shown them this bank, certainly one of the most charming spots of his garden. But there were so many charming spots. Tora was embarrassed with riches.
He walked on slowly, feasting his eyes with the brilliant masses of colour, his senses with the sweet air, and presently he espied a light gate of trellis-work let into the hedge. This evidently led into an inner garden, one which he felt sure they had not explored with Tora. Why?
He pushed back the gate and entered, and as he did so he caught the flutter of a yellow dress in the distance. It was in the far corner of the garden, down by the bank of roses. The owner thereof might even have been watching him through the blooms.
Without stopping to think, he made direct for the clump of shrubbery behind which he had seen the yellow kimono disappear; but when he arrived there, he just caught a glimpse of it vanishing behind another clump further down the garden. Redoubling his speed, for the glimpse he had caught of the flying figure, coupled with its evident desire to avoid him, had whetted his curiosity, he soon overtook it and brought it to bay in a corner of the garden.
He felt rather ashamed of himself as he saw her distress. His conduct was not in conformity with good taste or good manners; but he was in the East, where the white man is usually a law unto himself. What the native thinks of him is a matter of no concern. Who thinks anything of a native?
A closer scrutiny revealed many charms in the wearer of the yellow kimono, not the least of which were the pretty blushes which chased each other across her troubled face. He looked, and saw that she was embarrassed, but her embarrassment lent her such a fascination that he would willingly have committed a more serious crime for a like result.
“Ohayo!” he said.
It was one of the few words of Japanese which comprised his limited vocabulary, and the pronunciation, or mispronunciation, of it afforded him a moment of pleasure. It was equivalent to our greeting, “Good day.”
Then slowly she raised her head, and in a low voice stammered, “Ohayo!” Floyd knew not why it should be so, but he felt his pulses leap as the soft word rang through his brain. He hurriedly mispronounced a few more words, and then came to a sudden standstill. After all, upon occasion, it is just as well to know even Japanese.
But if the tongue is not always understood, it can invariably make itself fairly intelligible with the aid of the eyes; and in her wondering way Omi-San thought the full grey eyes of the stranger something more than human. Never had she looked into such eyes, except in her dreams, and then she confused them with the clouds and the sky, and the white spirits which haunted the snow regions of the North. And they were now looking into hers, burning, unfathomable, and in a vague way she seemed to realise that a new influence was taking possession of her heart and her soul.
In the meantime, his brain had not been slow to grasp certain possibilities. With the eyes of a connoisseur, he had been quietly absorbing each and every particular of the quaint, winsome creature before him—from the butterfly pattern of her hair to the rich yellow kimono with its red flowers and leaves of embroidered silk. She was, perhaps, taller than the average native woman, and her head was set on a neck which would have delighted the soul of a Japanese artist. Her mouth was soft and lovable, and, so Floyd thought, made for kisses. And yet it was more than probable that she knew nothing of that Western delight. Heavens! but he would like to teach her—and might, if the opportunity arose.
He took her hand, and she let him hold it without demur. He paid her extravagant compliments, in his own language, of course. Did she know what he meant? Well, woman is woman. Place a man in juxtaposition to her, give him a pair of eyes. He wants nothing else—nor she either.
In this rose-scented garden the minutes flew upon the wings of the lightning. The air was full of sunshine and sweetness, and the drowsy hum of the small life in the grass. But the rose bank against which they sat began to throw a long shadow upon the ground, though neither seemed to notice it. Then of a sudden the sound of a human voice disturbed the tranquillity of the scene. It was Tora speaking on the other side of the hedge. Floyd awoke and looked into the face of Omi-San.
It had suddenly gone white with terror. Her eyes were full of fear; she breathed quickly, shortly, with great difficulty. He formed his mouth as though to speak, but hurriedly she covered it with her hand. That he was surprised, the expression of his eyes denoted; nevertheless, he had sufficient presence of mind to kiss the little pink pahn.
A moment she sat, head erect, eyes and ears alert, and presently the voice came again, this time in the distance. Then she rose to her feet, seized Floyd by the hand, and with a scared look hurried him towards the trellis-gate through which he had entered. Then with an excited gesticulation she bade him begone. But knowing nothing of her danger he had none of her fear; so that when she turned to go he sprang after her, caught her in his arms, and held her face up to his; and though she struggled, it was only in a weak, womanish way. He made her eyes meet his. Then he kissed her. He knew Omi-San would not forget.
Without being observed, he made his way from the garden, and in a distant part of the grounds discovered Tora and his uncle.
“Where have you been?” he said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
“And we for you,” said his host.
He bore without flinching the scrutiny with which the illustrious Tora honoured him. And yet he wondered why he should feel so antagonistic towards the Count—why his back should stiffen because the august little slit-eye took upon himself the liberty to look.
But that night, as his uncle and he smoked together before retiring, he suddenly evinced an uncommon interest in the native language.
“I listened hard to you and the Count talking,” he said. “It seemed to me a very pretty tongue.”
It was a feeble, boyish excuse, and quite unnecessary. But Floyd was young at deception, and he showed the raw hand.
“Believe me,” said his uncle, “some excellent compliments may be paid even in Japanese.”
“I should like to learn a few.”
The uncle favoured him with a quizzing smile. After all, it was natural enough; and the little creatures had a charm of their own which especially appealed to the new-comer.
“You have found the language rather a difficulty, eh?”
“My dear uncle, a man should know how to pay a compliment to a lady.”
“I have no fault to find with the desire to acquire knowledge; the danger lies in the uses to which knowledge is put. For instance, I should not advise you to try your ’prentice hand on any lady whom the illustrious Tora delights to honour.”
“My dear uncle!”
The young gentleman protested with a stern shake of the head. This imputation of poaching evidently did him a great injustice. The uncle marked, and smiled. Though a diplomat, and one well versed in the wily ways of the East and West, he still had a sneaking fondness for the scruples of youth.
“I merely mention it—in parenthesis. Our esteemed host, in spite of his smattering of our language, and a thin coating of veneer, is still the Oriental, and that means anything and everything.”
“Has he many women?” inquired the young man.
“My dear boy, he is an Oriental.”
“And a deuced ugly little specimen too.”
There was, perhaps, more bitterness in the words than the occasion warranted. Ugliness in a Jap did not strike the diplomat as being at all singular. Indeed, he could not conceive any one making such an entirely superfluous remark.
“Of course he’s ugly, and if rumour be true, he can at times act in conformity with his distressing physiognomy.”
“I am not surprised. He looks a little devil. Always reminds me of one of those hideous masks which the native artists delight in carving. He must have been born after a nightmare.”
“I believe he was,” said the diplomat.
Nevertheless, Floyd’s mistrust of Tora did not lessen his interest in that nobleman’s language. He had discovered that, although English is almost universal, it is not quite so, and until the happy epoch arrives when it will be, it might not be disadvantageous to know a few words of some of the barbarous languages which are still in existence. So he prevailed upon his uncle to write out a dozen or two of the commonest phrases or expressions, which, coupled with another two or three dozen words, completed a very handy vocabulary. But the words that seemed to interest him most were those intimately connected with what old-fashioned folk used to call the “tender passion,” and half-a-dozen other pretty but wholly inadequate names. And the uncle, thoroughly enjoying this display of youthful ingenuousness, the like of which did not often illumine the dreary desert of political guile, entered into his work with an assiduity beyond all praise.
At parting that night Floyd carefully folded the papers on which the precious words were written, and deposited them deep down in his pocket-book.
“I shall look over them in the morning,” he said. “I think I shall find them very useful.”
The elder man smiled. It was well for old fogies that their youth should be reviewed from time to time.
Three hours later the young man was still heroically striving to grapple with a sleepy brain; but in this instance nature was stronger than will, though even that could not wholly subdue the spirit. In his dreams he paid sweet compliments in Japanese to the blushing Omi-San.
The next morning he was up early and about; but though he haunted the precincts of the rose garden, he caught but one glimpse of Omi-San in the distance, or rather, he caught a glimpse of a yellow kimono which looked like hers. Whether she saw him or not he could not say, but when he had reached the big clump of rhododendrons behind which she had vanished, she was nowhere to be seen.
Not a little angry with himself, he retraced his steps, and doubt as to the wisdom or propriety of the course he had adopted assailed him. What if she was one of the women of whom his uncle had spoken? This made him pause—gave him time to catch his breath. Well, and even so—what then? It was not an entirely satisfactory answer that he gave himself. The problem had merely been guessed at, not solved. After all, why should he attempt to solve it? Things have a way of righting themselves—sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. Well, it is not for youth to waste its glory in wondering what might be. Regret must come with the years, and wisdom brings not happiness. Eat, drink, and be merry—was there ever a wiser philosophy?
There is something desperately splendid in youth, for whom the words “fear” and “failure” do not exist, to whom death itself is a grotesque and jocular monster. Floyd was not one lightly to abandon an idea, especially one which had seized him with a grip which was almost a challenge. Tora, nor fifty Toras, should not thwart him. As for the woman—well, a woman’s resource is practically unlimited. And things have a way of righting themselves, you know.
That afternoon, as before, he went out into the grounds to smoke a cigar, leaving his uncle and the illustrious Tora deeply engrossed in a game of shogi, or Japanese chess. As both were good players, and as the game was progressing at a snail’s pace, he thanked heaven for the bewildering complications of the board. It would give him breathing space.
With but a slight pretence of deviation, he went towards the rose garden, passed through the trellis-gate, and then paused. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was within a few minutes of the hour in which he first saw her, and in a vague sort of way he mused. Would she be there? Why should she be? His modesty would not permit him to answer the question. Or, since he was there, why should he not ask, Why should she not be? Yet there were many reasons. To him it was likely to prove rather an interesting adventure. The reckless spirit of youth urged him to see it through—just for the fun of the thing. But, if some of his imaginings were to be realised, it would be anything but fun for her.
He looked rather guiltily past the sun’s shoulder and slowly walked on, and presently, in a little bower of roses, he caught a glimpse of the yellow kimono. Stealthily he approached and peered through the leaves, and he felt his nerves thrill in a strangely unaccountable fashion.
She was sitting, cross-legged, upon the grass; over her knees lay a long, printed scroll, which had evidently failed in interest. Her eyes were, apparently, fixed on a certain tree, the branches of which towered highest in the sky; but the watcher doubted if she saw the tree at all; he doubted if she saw anything but some vague picture of the brain. Not a movement saw he of eyelid or of limb—the rise and fall of her bosom was almost imperceptible. A quaintly costumed doll she seemed, vaguely suspicious of life.
He drew closer, and yet she stirred not. Her dream was most profound, and not, if he might judge from a certain ineffable sadness which, like a shadow, played about her eyes, tinged with the rosiest of hues. A momentary throb of compunction made him pause. Then he flung his head back and stood before her.
At the sight of him she started, blushed, and began to tremble violently; but he knelt beside her and took her hand in his, and in a broken, stumbling manner, without sense or sequence, he repeated over and over again the pretty words and phrases his uncle had written down for him the night before. And from the eyes of Omi-San he drove the shadow of melancholy, and her bosom, rising and falling rapidly, throbbed with the new life which had so suddenly filled it to overflowing. And the sunshine flooded the roses with a deeper gold, and the sweet-scented air whispered a thousand bewildering secrets in her ears.
The visit to Tora ended all too quickly, but Floyd had no intention of letting the acquaintanceship lapse for lack of intercourse. The Count’s estate was only some seven or eight miles from the capital. A couple of rickshaw coolies could easily do the distance in an hour. When Floyd thought he wanted some fresh air, he usually found himself bowling along the road that led to Tora’s house, and if the illustrious owner did not happen to be in—well, it was a great misfortune, but he would call again soon. And it was really remarkable how many times he did happen to call while the Count was away, and though, on such occasions, he appeared profoundly distressed, he usually solaced himself with a turn in the beautiful grounds.
These constant visits of the Englishman at length gave the honourable Tora some food for reflection. He learnt something of the story of the rose garden, and that morning his household knew that he was to set out at midday for Osaka.
That night Omi-San waited impatiently for the coming of her lover. She was restless—ill at ease. Excitedly she paced up and down her room; occasionally she went to the window, and, drawing it back an inch or so, peered out. But at last came the tap on the shutter, the low call, “Omi-San,” and she was in his arms. Then there was a sudden commotion round about, lights flashed in the room, and her lord and master, Tora, stood before her, his ugly face livid with rage, his limbs trembling with excitement.
Without speaking, he turned and beckoned to the two servants who held the lights, and they immediately advanced towards Omi-San. She saw the movement, her face blanched with terror, and, recoiling before them, she flung herself at Floyd’s feet, and in a voice that rang with acutest fear she implored his protection.
Now, whatever virtues he may have lacked, courage was not one of them. He was quick to perceive that he had got himself in a tight corner, and just as quick to act. He had only his hands to aid him, but in a trice they went up, and presently one of them shot out like a streak of lightning, and the man nearest him staggered heavily backward, the candle, meteor-like, flashing through the firmament of the chamber. Omi-San, doubled in a heap upon the floor, buried her face in her hands and moaned aloud.
Tora’s hand flew to his pocket, but he as suddenly withdrew it. Then he went and opened the door through which Floyd had entered, and, turning to him, said the one word—
He looked at the Count, and across his face flickered the shades of obstinacy and irresolution. He knew not what to do; yet wisdom would not be denied.
“Count Tora,” he said, “I apologise freely for my presence here to-night. I frankly admit that I am entirely in the wrong, and I am perfectly willing to assume the consequences. For what has happened I, and I only, am to blame. This woman was a child in my hands. I assume responsibility for her also.”
“Your honourable generosity shall not be put to the test,” sneered the Count. “I have no need of you or your illustrious virtues.” Then, once more, he pointed sternly to the door.
Floyd flushed hotly; his eyes shone with fury and dogged impotence.
“I will not go,” he said, “until you have forgiven her also.”
“I have not forgiven you yet,” was the reply. “Go, before I forget who and what you are.”
“Go, go!” Wailed the unhappy woman. “O my lord!”
The plaintive cry went to his heart and stirred every manly impulse. She was all the world to him at that moment. He sprang forward with arms outstretched, but the servants barred his way. He looked into their grim, impassive faces. These men were machines guided by the voice of the master yonder.
Recognising the hopelessness of his position, he turned once more to Tora.
“Let us talk,” he said. “The folly and the blame are mine. I want you to remember that.”
“I shall not forget.”
“If anything I can do—”
“You can do nothing. I am weary. To-morrow we will talk.”
“To-morrow, be it. Until then you will forget?”
“I will forget.”
He looked about the room, at the faces of Tora and his servants, at the thin partitions behind which many more might eagerly be awaiting the signal. Then his eyes rested for a moment on the crouching, moaning figure of the woman.
“Farewell, Omi-San,” he said. “I will come again to-morrow.”
“To-morrow! O my lord!”
All through the long run back to the city her voice haunted him; he heard it above the rattle of his rickshaw; it palpitated in the air like the wailing of a lost soul. “To-morrow! O my lord!” Early the next day he presented himself at the gates of Tora’s estate, and was there handed a letter by an obsequious retainer.
“What is this!” he said.
“Had not your excellency better read it and see?”
With nervous fingers he tore open the envelope, and these words, written in English, met his gaze—
“Count Tora is sorry to deprive himself of the honour of once more basking in the illustrious presence of Mr. Floyd, but the promised interview is quite unnecessary now, as Omi-San died suddenly last night.”
Where the window of the day
Floods with living light the earth;
On the shores of Yedo Bay,
Where my fancy loves to stray,
She of whom I dream had birth.
And I hear soft voices still
Calling over sea and hill.
And like music through my brain
Steals the ecstasy of sound;
And the longing comes again,
Longing wrought of joy and pain,
Pain and joy alike profound.
For the voices tender be
Calling over hill and sea.
And I see a sweet girl face
Crowned with blossoms of the plum;
And I feel the close embrace,
Watch the smiles each other chase,
Hear a soft voice murmur “Come”
Far across the throbbing sea
That low murmur reaches me.
In the East a shaft of light,
And in her heart a shining rose:
And stars that are forever bright.
Perfume of the day and night
Through my senses comes and goes.
And throughout it all the dumb,
Low, sweet voice that whispers “Come”
Captain Michael Barryton, the master of the S.S. Samarang, was a lank, easy-going Irishman with a ruddy face, a shock of red hair, and a decided penchant for his great compatriot, John Jameson. When he engaged me at the shipping-office he was drunk; he was anything but sober the day he received me on board his noble packet, and on the afternoon we put to sea he was drunkest of all. But a too liberal indulgence of strong spirits mattered little or nothing to him, for drunk or sober his navigation was equally faulty. That also was a mere detail, though it surprised many to see how successfully his incompetence waged war with fate. For he was one of that small army to whom is entrusted valuable property and valueless lives.
Robinson meets Brown in the street and says, “Ah, I see the Samarang is back again.”
“Dear me,” cries Brown, to whom the good luck of Barryton is a source of wonder and distress; “when is that old tub going to the bottom!” They know she will go down some day and take her worthy master with her. But the delay is, to say the least of it, somewhat exasperating.
I frankly admit that Captain Barryton did not impress me; I am also at liberty to express the belief that he never tried to do so. I knew that some exceedingly queer fish infest the China Seas, and in that respect my new skipper was not so distinctly unique as he might be; but hitherto it had not been my good fortune to sail with them, and if I did not duly admire the man, I can only apologise for my lack of enthusiasm by the novelty of my surroundings. There was undoubtedly a breeziness about him which, to the uninitiated, was so like a sailor; though I fear he caught it from his particular brand, and not from the ocean breezes. Still, that was of little moment: the effect was there. His friends said he was a “good sort,” and, in admitting so much, had no idea they were taking away his character.
When I joined the Samarang as chief mate, she was about to proceed to Nagasaki for coal; for she was what is known in sea parlance as a “tramp,” and went wherever she was likely to pick up a cargo. After my arrival on board I naturally seized the earliest opportunity of making myself acquainted with a few facts concerning the ship, and the particular idiosyncrasies of my shipmates. And in this I was singularly fortunate, as from the chief engineer, a worthy but garrulous North-countryman, I learnt much that I required—and something more.
According to the man of cranks and wheels, Captain Barryton was an exceedingly good sort of fellow, and was extremely affable for one in such an exalted position. Indeed, upon occasion, he had been known to drink even with the engineers. This marks the extreme limit of the boundaries of condescension, and I duly appreciated such heroic magnanimity. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to say that the captain was not overburdened with sense or sentiment; but still he was a man who might have risen in the world had he not taken to whisky—and a wife.
Not unnaturally, this vague suggestion led me to suppose that things were not exactly ship-shape with Mrs. Barryton; and when I very delicately hinted as much, the engineer favoured me with a look ambiguously wise. For it meant many things, proving a source of infinite speculation. Yet the implied colloquialism, “What do you think!” was painfully evident.
I felt my way with a nicety beyond all praise; but, having gone so far, the fellow grew alert, even suspicious, and I laboured under the disadvantage of being practically an unknown quantity. But I oiled his bearings in the most artful manner, and presently they began to run smoothly.
“Don’t you know who she is!” he asked.
“How should I? I never heard of Captain Barryton until I joined the Samarang.”
“But you’ve heard of her?” The engineer put the question with a due appreciation of its value.
He looked me blankly in the face. Never heard of her? Was it possible? I could see that he was sorry for me in my benighted state, but out of regard for my feelings he did not openly express his pity.
“Then you don’t know what she is?” he asked incredulously.
“What she is?” Upon my soul I neither knew nor cared. What should or could she be?
He looked up and down the deck before answering. Then, sinking his voice to a whisper, he said, “We call her Singapura.”
A look of infinite pity swept his ill-shaped face.
“Why,” he echoed, “because she’s a Malay, of course.”
I saw the connection in a moment. Singapura, or Sinhapura, which is, perhaps, more correct, is the native word for Singapore.
“So madam is a native, eh?”
“Yes; don’t you think it’s rather rum?”
“I don’t fancy it myself. But has he really married her?”
“He has. We had our doubts at first— but it’s gospel.”
“Well, good luck to him. He’s a bold man.”
“Oh, she’s handsome enough for him, or for anybody,” he answered sturdily; “but the devil’s in her—in her eyes, in every movement of her heavenly figure. I’ll tell you what it is,” he added impressively, “she can just twist the old man round her dainty little finger.”
I thought the engineer envied the captain that exquisite species of torture; but I said rather bluntly, “Rather a comedown, isn’t it?”
“Ah, well, poor man,” said he consolingly, “he finds a power of comfort in the bottle. And she’s a spanker.”
His enthusiasm caused me to look closer, and I saw that which the engineer had no intention of showing.
“She is with him, of course?”
“She always travels with us, but she never stays on board while we are in port. At the present time she is putting up at the Hong-Kong Hotel. Trust the missis for doing the thing in style.”
“A Malay woman,” said I.
“But a spanker, and as handsome as paint, and don’t you forget it,” he replied, with what I considered to be an unnecessary display of warmth. I looked again and was sorry for him, for I guessed that he had failed to realise his hopes. Yet in an instant, how he was up in arms! No doubt he aspired highly, but luck might change. After all, she might possess that singular feminine characteristic which revels in the hideous. If so, there was hope for the engineer.
Though caring little one way or the other, I nevertheless often found myself thinking of Singapura; and as our day of sailing drew near, and the fellows began to talk about her, I experienced a mild sort of excitement in anticipating her advent. And yet her coming was nothing to me, and as I handed her up the gangway, I experienced none of that inward throbbing which seemed almost to lay the engineer prostrate. She appeared to be a fine figure of a woman, and her complexion was such that at the distance of a dozen paces she might easily have passed for a European. Her dress was singularly neat and effective, and her terai hat became her as it becomes few women. Had I not been warned, I should never have guessed her nationality.
My disappointment was curiously acute. I freely admit that I had expected something very different. What? Who shall say? At the same time, I thought the engineer was a fool, and that the fool had fooled me. She smiled and said “Thank you” very prettily as I led her on to the deck, and I saw her teeth gleam and her eyes shine. Lustrous eyes, dark as night with the fire of stars in them.
Soon after we cleared the Ly-ee-moon Pass, and were steaming northward at the rate of nine knots an hour. The captain, who had bidden a convivial goodbye to his numerous friends on shore, then set the course and went below. Drunk or sober mattered nothing to him. He could have felt his way along the coast blindfolded.
I did not have the honour of seeing or speaking to his wife any more that day; but the next morning she was up early and about, and after hanging round the quarterdeck for a time, she came forward and mounted the bridge. I raised my cap and said “Good morning” in my very best manner, for you must remember that a handsome woman is a handsome woman, be she Malay or white, and when she attains the dignity of a captain’s wife, she is not to be dumped in the category of lesser mortals. She honoured me with an exceedingly pretty inclination of the head and a quick look from her wonderful eyes, and having received as much attention as I merited, I turned and continued to keep a remarkably sharp look-out. Nevertheless, I thought she carried her head well, and that she had a gloriously free step. The engineer was not far wrong when he said she was as handsome as paint. It was a homely figure, but it expressed his admiration in full, and conveyed to his mind an image entirely beautiful. And though without much difficulty I might find a more elegant phrase, I doubt if it would better express the impression left upon one by her ladyship. She was as handsome as paint.
And yet, singular as it may seem, I still marvelled at the skipper marrying her. For, beauty as she was, she was only a native beauty, and men in the East don’t usually honour such. It may be wrong. I hold a brief for neither side; but I have my own opinion. Contact with the whites may enable her to ape their manners; but a thousand layers of veneer cannot change the blood. There is a gulf between the white and the coloured which no philosophy can bridge.
Eager as was my lookout, I kept it with my eyes only. The brain which should have guided those eyes and told them what they saw communicated no information; for it was busy with the woman whose presence I felt, and whom I knew was watching me. But I persevered with a persistence worthy of the utmost admiration, and, even when I walked to her end of the bridge, I did so in a manner of much unconcern. Truth to tell, I was not a little annoyed. I felt that I was a fool, and was angry in consequence. Against my will this woman was asserting her influence, and I knew not how much vanity was responsible for the state of my nerves, and I felt contemptible accordingly. What the deuce had Hecuba to do with me, or I with Hecuba?
Presently, thinking, no doubt, that I would not presume to address a lady of her exalted rank, she came over to me and began to talk. A junk about a quarter of a mile ahead, which seemed determined to make us run it down, afforded the opening. She laughed excitedly as we skimmed by.
“A warning,” I said.
She shook her head.
“The Chinese never take warning.”
I wondered how many people do, and quietly expressed the thought. She laughed again, showing her beautiful little teeth. I had a potent warning before me at the moment, only I didn’t know it. Then, the ice once broken, we chatted away with a right good will. Though she spoke with a curious, hollow accent, her English was excellent, and interesting.
As she was, comparatively speaking, a child of Nature, she did not suffer from the reproach of being excessively ladylike—a term which not infrequently carries with it a suggestion the reverse of complimentary; but as these Eastern peoples are rarely vulgar, she gained somewhat by the loss of such a distinction. However, she was good enough to bombard me with a host of pertinent questions, evincing a curiosity concerning my antecedents which I naturally regarded as extremely flattering.
In the clear light of the early day she did not seem quite as handsome as I had thought her. Her complexion had been stained by Nature to an interesting brown which did not altogether appeal to me, though the skin itself was so clear that I seemed to see the red blood leaping underneath. The black brows sharply accentuated the whiter skin of her forehead, while her eyelids seemed weary of bearing the long, silken lashes. The eyes themselves were full, but so intensely black that I appeared to look straight into illuminated night. The nose was good, the mouth full-lipped and perhaps a trifle large. Certes! When I come to catalogue her charms, I find the engineer was not so much beside the mark.
After that she paid me many a visit during my watch, sometimes at an hour which, prudent man as I was, caused me considerable anxiety. But she made light of my fears, and I was always too weak to treat a lady harshly. Barryton was asleep; no one saw but the man at the wheel, and he apparently saw nothing. And it was really marvellous how swiftly the time passed while she was on the bridge; and life was not so gay aboard of us that I dared turn my back on a little relaxation.
Well, the old Samarang plodded steadily on until at last we dropped anchor in the Bay of Nagasaki. Then the captain pulled himself together and prepared to conduct his business like a man of affairs; and as he was shrewd enough when sober, he probably found little difficulty in imposing upon strangers. But for the first time in the recollection of the chief engineer, Singapura lived on the ship in port. And this was doubly strange, as the loading of coal makes a ship perfectly uninhabitable. True, she went ashore every day at about eleven o’clock, but she always returned at sunset, and never left again that night.
But if the other officers were surprised at this, I cannot with a free conscience say that to me it was a very great mystery. And yet, having no wish to write myself down a coxcomb, I dare not say what was passing in my mind. One may easily produce a wrong impression, and I am not heroic enough to defy wrong impressions. But I was not utterly devoid of all power of observation, though some people seem to think that a hero should be.
I saw much of her during those quiet nights. After the heat and bustle of the day, tired out in body and mind, it was pleasant to sit in the cool of the evening with a cheroot, a glass, and a pretty woman. Barryton rarely came off until after midnight, so that no little unpleasantness ever broke the harmony of our genial environment. Occasionally the chief engineer joined us, but not for long. She used to freeze up whenever he drew near; and, try as he would, he could scarcely prevail upon her to return him a civil answer. And this was sad, because a word from her, a look, would have made him her abject slave.
I see it now. It was playing with fire; but I was not sufficiently vain to imagine that there could be a conflagration unless I heaped on the fuel and stirred the embers. And that I was determined not to do, and though I found her an extremely agreeable companion, I never forgot to treat her with due courtesy. True, I was not blind, though she must have thought me so, seeing me ignore the number of excellent openings that were offered for a better understanding.
Nevertheless, they were pleasant nights, and as I think of them now I reproduce the whole scene, feel the peculiar atmosphere with its cool smell of the sea. Again I see the ships whose yellow riding-lights look like great golden stars swinging low in the sky: the moon bursting away back over the hills: the stars glimmering deep down into the sea. And then round about, and all over the still water, suddenly comes the sound of the ships’ bells as the men on watch strike the hour. The whole air is full of bells which the night and the water soften and mellow to an infinite sweetness. And the strange light sets deep shadows round the woman’s eyes, out of which strange flashings come and go, and her voice with its low, cooing sighs like sweet music that is but half understood.
Well, we finished loading at last, and without any unnecessary delay set our nose southward. But had I hoped that the presence of Captain Barryton would act as a check upon his wife, I was speedily to be undeceived: though I had grown extremely prudent, I found, as so many have found before me, the difficulty of retracing my steps.
Then came that which, knowing the nature of the woman, I feared, yet half expected.
It was on the morning of the third day out, about that hour which trembles between daylight and darkness. I had not long come up from below, and no thought of the captain’s wife was in my mind. For I was thinking of a little girl with sweet eyes and a dainty head, who was waiting patiently for that letter which was to say, “Dearest, I have just been appointed to a command. There is no reason why we should not marry now. Will you come to me, O my love!” I was thinking of this, I say, leaning on the rail of the bridge and picturing the flushed gladness of that sweet face, when I felt a hand laid lightly on my shoulder. Turning round, I encountered the burning eyes of the Malay woman. Though I had a presentiment of impending evil, I think I betrayed no sign of it.
“Good morning,” said I. “You are up very early.”
“I have not been to bed,” she answered.
“You are ill?”
“I am so sorry. Can I do anything?”
“Yes.” But this time her voice was so hoarse and muffled that I could scarcely distinguish the word.
She came close to me and laid her hands on my shoulders, and I knew that every pulse of her was throbbing with madness. Her beautiful mouth quivered like a whipped child’s; there was a starved longing in her look which was absolutely painful to witness.
“Look into my eyes, Stanbridge. Close, close,” she added excitedly, drawing my face down to hers. “What do you see there!” And all the time her hot breath was burning my face, and her eyes shone so luridly that I dared not look into them.
“You are excited—feverish,” I began hesitatingly, withdrawing from her hands, the palms of which burnt like fire. But I felt a fool, and half afraid in the bargain.
“Feverish, yes, Stanbridge—feverish!” and she laughed madly as she spoke.
I backed farther from the man at the wheel, who stole an occasional glance in our direction. She followed, and in the starboard corner of the bridge brought me to bay.
“Look in my eyes, Stanbridge,” she repeated once again. “Tell me, do you know that fever? It burns my heart; it burns my eyes till they ache; it burns my brain till I feel that I am going mad. Stanbridge, Stanbridge!” She flung her arms about me; she pressed her burning face into my breast.
I candidly admit that never was I in such an awkward predicament. Being unaccustomed to a situation so embarrassing, I was at a complete loss as to the better course to pursue. To encourage her would have been fatal; not to encourage her would probably have an equally disastrous effect. I had not here a woman of my own race to deal with, but a wild, passionate creature in whom there was no power of restraint. A nature such as hers would overleap every obstacle; no thin or thick coating of veneer could check the flow of savage blood. If I valued my peace of mind I dared not spurn her; if I submitted to her influence it meant being ruled like a slave. Nor could I temporise, for fear she should mistake my meaning. Altogether I was in a position requiring extreme circumspection, and I inwardly cursed myself for a blundering fool.
And yet I feared that to temporise was the only course open to me. This was no ordinary woman with the rigid, conventional notions of right and wrong, but a child of nature, who threw herself madly, blindly, upon the bosom of her mother. Far from subduing her wild nature, civilisation had but taught it the extremity of passion.
So with soft words and gentle pleadings I sought to pacify her, and though she listened with commendable restraint to my feeble argument, her lips curled disdainfully whenever I mentioned the words “husband” and “duty.” I confess that I could not say much in honour of the husband, while duty was a nebulous sort of thing which absolutely had no existence for her. Duty was synonymous with inclination, and that swept her forward with a perfect whirlwind of passion and regret. There was but the one awful cry—a cry which came from the profoundest depths of a soul pregnant with remorse, and dread, and hope. “I love you, Stanbridge! Love me, love me!” Unfortunately, I was unable to accede to her request, but I hadn’t the courage to say so.
I blamed myself consumedly for this tragic development of the situation. I ought to have foreseen what would happen. Perhaps I did in a way. Perhaps, too, my prudence had been at fault; but, heaven! can a man be expected to study all these things while looking into a pair of bright eyes? What kind of man would he be, I wonder? Well, it might be playing with fire, but the pastime has its fascination.
The danger lay in the strange nature of the woman. There was no telling what she would do next. So, to pacify her, I explained that my religion forbade me to love her, as she already belonged to another.
“And if I had not him?” she said, pointing away aft.
Well, it would have been all the same to me, but I dared not admit as much. I’m afraid I did not fully appreciate such an intensely emotional young woman. I misread her entirely if wisdom would ever govern her impulse. No drop of cold blood leavened the whirling torrent which urged her onward. She only knew the two extremes of love and hate, and between them her wild soul was buffeted.
So, weakly temporising once more, I gave her to understand that Captain Barryton was an insuperable bar to a closer intimacy between us, and I congratulated myself on having devised such an excellent reason. I did not love the old man, but I was forced to admit that he had an excuse for his existence.
She laid her cheek against, my breast and thought for several moments. Then she pulled my face down to hers and treated me as though I already belonged to her. The deuce take it! I never thought I was such a muff!
I saw her no more that day, which in a way was a relief, and yet almost a terror. For my mind grew full of some exceedingly horrid misgivings, fostered by an uncertainty which was absolutely intolerable.
But the next morning, between the daylight and the dawn, she came to me on the bridge, and, dropping at my feet, seized my hands and covered them with passionate kisses.
“I am yours, Stanbridge,” she whispered, “all yours. Nothing can separate us now.”
“You cannot be mine—and his.”
“His!” she laughed almost fiercely. “His! He is gone. I am alone. I live for you, my lord, only for you.”
“Alone? I do not understand.”
“Come with me, Stanbridge, and you shall see.”
She rose, still retaining my hand, smiling at me in a way that made her face look wonderfully soft and sweet. But though she was so solemn, and so calm, I felt every nerve of me tingle with apprehension.
She descended the ladder before me, but, upon reaching the deck, waited with outstretched hand. There was no denying her sweet, imperious look; so I let her take my hand, and in the same calm, stately way she led me aft, turning now and again to smile on me and to murmur, “For you, Stanbridge—everything for you.”
When we reached the deckhouse, which the captain had transformed into a cabin, she stopped and put her finger to her lips. Then, slipping from my side, she walked towards the window and looked in. At that moment the sun rushed up out of the eastern sea.
When she again turned her face to me it had grown deathly pale, and the early sun flushed her burning eyes with a mad light; but her lips smiled almost sweetly as she beckoned me to her.
“Come, Stanbridge,” she whispered hoarsely. “Look—see what I have done for you, my lord!”
And I looked, and with a gasp sprang back.
The sunbeams, passing through the window, threw a broad shaft of light across the dark cabin on to the bunk at the farther side, and there I saw the quaintly carved handle of a Malay creese sticking out above the breast of a man.
She saw the horror, the loathing in my face, and she fell before me and clasped my knees, and murmured in a weak, whining voice, “It was all for you, Stanbridge—it was all for you.”
For the moment I forgot what she was. I saw only the murderess at my feet, and I threw her off with some bitter words. But instead of rising in anger, as I thought she would, she grovelled in a heap upon the deck, sobbing and murmuring, “What have I done, Stanbridge, O my love!” Scarcely knowing what I did or said, I left her there and ran forward to waken the second mate and acquaint him with the tragedy. The chief engineer being next door, I also awoke him, and when we three returned to the deck Singapura was nowhere to be seen. We went in to look at the old man, who lay there bathed in the glory of the early sunshine. The knife had been driven straight into his heart, and, by the frightened look of his face, death must have come to him with awful suddenness.
As for the woman, no trace of her was discovered. As she could kill without compunction, so without compunction could she die. My bitter words had awakened her to a realisation of her crime: the sea had quenched for ever the fierce flame of her passion.
A sigh for the memory of glad days gone,
Days of mirth which have long since sped:
Life that with youth and with beauty shone—
And all the past is a thing that’s dead:
And all but remembrance of joy is fled,
And I in my firmament move alone.
Here in the city a stranger, I
Roam amid millions who know me not;
Who care not whether I live or die,
Who see no God in the human blot.
Man may flourish or man may rot,
What is it all to the passer-by?
Sometimes I wish that the dying sun
Would bear me away on his burning breast;
Launch me onward till day be done,
And the East looms out of the purple West:
And the tinkling samisen lulls to rest,
And the music and laughter blend as one.
For the day is drear and the wind is keen,
And the sky shows never a patch of blue;
And the faces about me are white and lean,
And I loathe the things that the worldlings do.
And life is madness and love untrue,
Our fate a sigh for what might have been.
And I sit and dream of the things that were,
And tread the path to the Shinto shrine;
And my senses throb with the perfumes rare,
That madden the blood like a draught of wine.
But the days that were shall no more be mine—
I have gathered my harvest wheat and tare.
We had frequently warned Brading to be more circumspect in his dealings with Miss Cherry-Blossom, for it was an open secret to the habitual frequenters of Ninko’s chaya, or tea-house, that Kamakura, a native gentleman of some pretension, had looked with condescension upon the pretty geisha. But one might as well have offered advice to the typhoon, or sought by argument to stay its furious course. Brading was a good sort, and we all liked him; but, while we duly admired his virtues, we were not blind to his faults, chief among which was a mulish obstinacy. This, under certain conditions, is an excellent characteristic, and one that has had not a little to do with the building up of this empire which we are all extolling; but at the same time it may occasionally prove a trifle inconvenient. He declared that he cared not for Kamakura, nor fifty such, and no one doubted him for a moment. Like most fellows who have no fear, he had no wisdom either.
What her real name was I never knew, and really it was a matter of no consequence; but we called her Cherry-Blossom because we first saw her at Ninko’s in the spring when the cherry-bloom abounds everywhere, and she wore the sweet flower in her hair and in her breast, and looked as sweet as the bloom itself. Undoubtedly she created a favourable impression on our little party, and the questions went round, Who is she? Where does she come from? And when the putty-faced patron, Ninko, came our way he was received with a fusilade of questions. Now, Ninko was accounted a shrewd man, and it was known that he was as disreputable as he was shrewd, but his knowledge was great, and the men found him useful. So they tolerated the rascal as creatures are tolerated everywhere; for his chaya was esteemed beyond all others, and his girls were renowned for their grace and beauty.
The putty-faced one received the attack with an ungainly shrugging of the shoulders. Their excellencies were pleased to be facetious. What was wrong with the girl? Did she not sing well? Was not her posturing in the dance all that their exalted condescension desired? Perhaps she might dance for their excellencies in a different fashion if—and again the fat shoulders rose with a deprecating shrug. He was sorry, the rascal, if the girl did not please us, as he always strove to propitiate those who condescended to honour his contemptible hovel.
“I should think she does please us,” said Brading, upon whom the girl had produced an instantaneous effect. “Where did you get her, Ninko!”
“Ninko’s eyes are everywhere,” said one of the party.
“They need be,” replied the patron, with a low bow, “if I am to please your illustrious excellencies.”
An inscrutable smile played about his ugly mouth as he shuffled away. He knew his visitors, and they knew him. After all, it mattered nothing who she was or where she came from. That she had come to the chaya was the main fact; that she was pretty we had the witness of our own senses.
Brading, rashly impetuous always, exceeded himself upon this occasion. Never one upon whom the niceties of circumspection had any considerable influence, he was not inclined to let the grass grow beneath his feet. The girl had strongly appealed to him, and a closer acquaintance with her was the natural outcome. So, in spite of the affected protestations of the worthy Ninko, he made for the door through which the little geisha had disappeared, and with that determined, devil-may-care look on his face which I knew so well, passed from sight.
Ninko brought us some wine and a pack of cards. It was not often we came to the tea-house now, and when we did we strove our best to make merry. Of course, though not absolutely enthusiastic over the charms of the attendant houris, we were not insensible to them; but we were more or less old hands, and felt no keenness in the game. So we made merry in a highly decorous manner, treading, perhaps not too lightly, on the corns of the estimable Ninko. Usually that putty-faced one bore our pleasantries with consummate grace, and a calmness which showed a close acquaintance with opprobrium; but to-night, and more especially since the disappearance of Brading, he seemed hardly his impervious self. Restless, void of his usual calm indifference, he continually threw uneasy glances over his shoulder in the direction Brading had taken, and I watched him with an interest which I might have found it extremely difficult to explain.
“How long have you had her, Ninko?”
He started, and instinctively turned to the door. Then his flabby face came back my way, and his little eyes honoured me with a sharp, penetrating look. I had no longer any doubt of the tenor of his thoughts. We understood each other, Ninko and I.
“About three weeks, excellency.”
“She is a good girl, excellency.”
“Ninko’s girls are renowned for their virtues,” I replied.
“Your excellency is pleased to recommend my contemptible hovel.”
“I speak as I find it, Ninko. And the girl—”
“Not yet, excellency. But the honourable Kamakura—”
Here he ended abruptly, for at that moment the door through which Brading had disappeared was suddenly dashed back, and that worthy appeared leading the girl, Cherry-Blossom, by the hand.
Brading’s face was flushed with anger, and his eyes flashed darkly; but the girl, on the contrary, was very pale, and she hung back as though she were an unwilling participator in the scene.
“Come, come,” he said softly, “don’t be afraid. I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, but I couldn’t leave you with him.” Then he turned to us with a grim smile. “Boys, I have a rival.”
“My dear Brading, this begins to look interesting.”
“Devilish!” said he.
“Who is it?”
The contemptuous tone with which the word “native” was uttered conveyed with singular directness the idea of the ignominy which had fallen upon the white man.
“It is his excellency the honourable Kamakura,” explained the obsequious Ninko.
“And who the thunder is Kamakura?” cried Brading, swinging suddenly round on the patron.
“Please, your illustrious condescension, the honourable Kamakura is one of our old nobility,” said Ninko.
“Is he? Then please tell him the next time he calls that my exalted magnanimity had better not be put to the test a second time.”
“I dare not, excellency. Kamakura would raze my chaya to the ground. He is rich—powerful. I dare not thwart him.”
“You must thwart him—or me.”
Ninko shrugged his heavy shoulders and bowed low.
“Excellency, you make my hard lot harder.”
But I saw—though I doubt if Brading did—the slightest suspicion of a sneer play about the corners of Ninko’s mouth. I had no doubt which master would be served. This presumptuous foreigner had perforce to be treated civilly to his face, otherwise Ninko’s soft flesh might have suffered; and he hated pain this good Ninko. But what the foreigner could not command was obedience. During his interesting career the patron had been called upon to smooth the rough edges of many difficulties, for he was a great diplomat, this excellent Ninko, and that he had succeeded his present prosperity amply testified.
For the next week Brading haunted the tea-house by day and night, sadly neglecting his business in his anxiety to keep his eye on Cherry-Blossom and the hated rival Kamakura. I did my utmost to persuade him to abandon the girl, using an argument of some singular selfishness and common-sense; but he had got beyond argument: common-sense was a thing that never appealed to him. The girl liked him and he liked her, and were it not for Kamakura, aided by that putty-faced rascal, Ninko, things would right themselves in a trice.
So he said, and he meant it without doubt, and I have no valid reason for believing otherwise; but, nevertheless, I sought in a friendly way to dissuade him from going on with the affair, the end of which might not be foreseen. But at my fears he laughed.
“Is not an Englishman a match for a native?”
“I hope not—at underhand work.”
“You think this fellow will go to extremes?”
“Who can say what a native will do— a native, rich, powerful: a rival?”
“Pooh!” said he disdainfully. “If he dares to look at my Cherry-Blossom again, I’ll wring his dirty little neck.”
His Cherry-Blossom! This was excellent. He spoke as though he were already the man in possession.
Some two or three days after this he came into my office, and, dropping into a chair, looked at me with troubled eyes. Notwithstanding the fact that I had shown him but scant sympathy in this affair, he still honoured me with his confidence, and wearisome as that was, I naturally was highly gratified at this mark of his esteem.
“I suppose you’ll think I’m a fool!” he began abruptly.
“My dear Brading!” I protested.
“Well, perhaps I am, but I think it better to be a fool over one thing than wise in all.”
I bowed. There was a subtlety of thought here which was not lightly to be received.
“What have you been doing now?”
“It’s like this,” he said. “You know, of course, that she’s bound apprentice to Ninko?”
“One naturally would have imagined as much.”
“Well, she cannot cancel her indentures for five years.”
“And so I’ve made him an offer”
“What! To buy her out?”
“And it will cost you—?”
“A thousand yen.” (dollars).
“My dear fellow, are you sure that you are not buying the tea-house?”
He looked annoyed.
“I knew you’d call me a fool. But lord! Osman, if you’d only heard her beg and pray. She loves me, you see, and she is afraid of Ninko and Kamakura.”
“Ay, Kamakura—what of him?”
“Still keen as a hound on the scent. But I think we’ve doubled on him this time. Ninko will cancel her indentures for a thousand dollars. To-morrow she shall be a free woman.”
His enthusiasm was not infectious, for such a mad-brained scheme did not appeal to me. Of all the follies he had ever committed, and their name was legion, this was the most astounding.
“You will excuse me, Brading,” I said, “but you are an idiot,”
He laughed gaily.
“I knew you would say that; but, man, you forget—we love each other.”
“Pooh! Take my advice: keep your money and let Kamakura take the girl. A thousand dollars for a Jap! Why, you could buy half the country for that sum.”
“I don’t want half the country,” he said, “I only want to free one woman from the life she loathes. I would do it if it cost me ten times as much.”
I believe the idiot spoke without exaggeration. He was just the one who would delight in such a magnificent piece of folly; for, crack-brained as he was, there was always something chivalrous in his disposition; and though at first he might have been tempted merely to rival Kamakura, I believed that a nobler sentiment had gradually been awakened.
That he was serious, however, I was shortly to see, for on the noon of the next day he came to me, his face beaming with satisfaction, and carried me off to Ninko’s. He wanted a witness to the transaction, and he did me the honour to say that I was the only man in the settlement whom he felt that he could freely take into his confidence. Of course, I bowed and blushed. When one is unused to such pretty trifles they are apt to prove slightly embarrassing.
Upon arriving at the tea-house we at once demanded the presence of the illustrious patron, a demand which the girls who came round us received with some lack of composure. Indeed, I noticed that they glanced somewhat mysteriously at each other, and that furtive looks were turned in the direction of my companion.
He, apparently oblivious of this, peered here, there, and everywhere, searching intently for some one who did not appear.
“Where is Cherry-Blossom!” he said.
The girls made no answer, but with mysterious looks sidled off. Brading’s eyes followed them, and something like alarm fluttered in his face.
Presently Ninko came, more obsequious and more pallid than usual, and in a tone of infinite humility wanted to know to what he was indebted for the honour of our illustrious visit.
Without speaking, Brading drew a roll of bank-notes from his pocket and counted out a thousand dollars. These he laid before the patron.
“There,” he said. “A thousand yen.”
Ninko looked bewildered.
“Yes, excellency, I see. A thousand yen. It is a large sum.”
“That is my affair.”
“Yes, indeed, excellency.” But at the same time he utterly ignored the money.
This was curious. I saw a black shade sweep suddenly across Brading’s face as he looked up at the inscrutable yellow man.
“Well, it’s good money, isn’t it?”
“Then why don’t you take it and produce the indentures?”
“The indentures, excellency?”
Ninko’s look grew puzzled. It was painfully apparent that the poor man had not the least notion of what my friend was driving at.
Brading rose and bent across the table, and I saw the anger smouldering in his eyes.
“You dog,” he said in a low voice, “you’ve not sold me?”
The patron shrugged his heavy shoulders. It was not the first time he had been assailed impolitely.
“Your excellency will explain?”
“You told me that you would cancel the indentures of Cherry-Blossom for a thousand yen. There is the money. I suppose, rascal as you are, you are capable of fulfilling a business contract?”
“I have that reputation, excellency— when I enter into one.”
“How!” cried Brading, “when you enter into one? What the deuce do you mean?”
“Merely that your excellency, who does not speak our language quite perfectly, has made a slight mistake in taking for a contract what was merely thrown out as a suggestion.”
This was rather clever of the rogue, though a palpable lie. Brading knew Japanese well enough to make no mistake of that sort.
“Ninko,” he said sternly, “this will not do. You must not trifle with me. You know perfectly well there was no mistake. A thousand yen was the sum. Here is the money—where is the girl?”
Brading’s face was growing set and hard. One who deals with the peoples of the East must be ready to strike. Otherwise, he will get no satisfaction. It is a hard lesson to learn. Some men never learn it. They go under.
“Excellency,” said the patron, whose eyes were as sharp as his wits, “I am sorry to say that the girl is gone.”
“Gone! What do you mean by gone!” He stood erect without flinching. His mouth hardened a little, perhaps; but his voice was very low and steady.
“She disappeared last night, excellency, and has not been seen since.”
It was a facer for Brading, but he took it splendidly. Advancing softly, he seized the patron by the arm.
“Don’t lie to me, Ninko. She is gone?”
“Yes, indeed, excellency.”
“Nay, I know not. With some thief, no doubt. She was always a bad one. But the law shall speak—the law—”
He stopped suddenly, for those iron fingers were eating into his flesh: his arm had been twisted nigh to breaking point. “With whom went she, Ninko?”
The voice was cold and steady, but it cut like a sword.
Again he felt those cruel muscles begin to stir. He sought to shake himself free, but the wrench sent the pain shivering to his brain. Those iron fingers were as remorseless as death.
“With Kamakura, excellency. She insisted. I—”
“What did he pay you?”
“Fifteen hundred, excellency.”
Brading dropped the man’s arm, and turned to me with a grim smile.
“I’m afraid so.”
“What ought I to do with this intolerable rascal?”
“My dear Brading, business is business.”
“Ay, of course,” and he laughed bitterly. Then turning to the illustrious Ninko, he said, “A shabby trick, Ninko, but one I might have expected from such a dog.”
The patron’s heavy shoulders went up again. “Can your excellency’s illustrious wisdom blame me? I am a poor man. I do not work for pleasure. The exalted Kamakura gave fifteen hundred. Your excellency only offered one thousand.”
“Ninko, in spite of all thy wickedness and thy knavery, thou art nothing better than a fool. I would have given thee two thousand yen.”
Ninko knitted his brows, perplexed; yet something he saw in Brading’s face convinced him of his folly.
“As I am an honest man,” he said, “your excellency should have had her in spite of Kamakura.”
He looked with longing eyes at the bundle of bank-notes which Brading lifted indifferently from the table and dropped as carelessly into his pocket. Poor Ninko. For the first time in his life he had let his private feelings interfere with business. There was no knowing what sum Cherry-Blossom might not have brought if he had only skilfully played off the rivals one against the other.
Well, there was nothing more to do, so, without acknowledging Ninko’s obsequious salutation, we left the tea-house, and I thought the low titter of the girls followed us down the road. Not that that was of much consequence. In my heart I was glad Brading had failed.
But he took the matter not so philosophically. That he was really fond of the girl I had no doubt; that his self-love was wounded was equally obvious. The two combined gave birth to a mad obstinacy.
We walked on for some time in silence, and from the occasional glances I stole at his gloomy face I could see the black spirit gathering. Never one lightly to bear a slight, it would have surprised me greatly had he shown no signs of retaliation. Discretion formed no part of his composition. His philosophy might be summed up in one word—fight.
After a time he spoke. I knew he would, and I accordingly waited for him to begin.
“Of course, this sort of thing is intolerable.”
“I don’t see it.”
“But to be bested by a native!”
“Nonsense! The girl went to the best market.”
“But she couldn’t help herself.”
“How do you know?”
“I shall find out.”
“If you are wise, you will do nothing of the kind. Kamakura is of her own race; he is rich, unscrupulous. It is not likely that he will tolerate the least interference on your part. Moreover, my dear Brading —between ourselves—is the game worth the candle?”
“You don’t understand, Osman. To you, of course, she is nothing—only a native; but to me she is much more. You will say there are hundreds such, but I do not see one other. She believes in me, she loves me, and I have promised that Kamakura shall not come between us. That promise I must keep.”
I knew it was no use arguing with him; and, truth to tell, I couldn’t. If they were really fond of each other, how could I counsel abandonment? I might have thought the whole affair both sad and foolish, but I could not forget that in such foolishness a mortal is often blessed.
We parted with an affectionate shake of the hand. He knew what was passing in my mind. I read his like a book. I hoped, but feared.
“Good luck to you, Brading!” I said.
“Thanks, old fellow!”
About a week after he slipped once more into my office, and as he came towards me I saw that his face was beaming with happiness. Evidently the course of true love was running smoothly at last.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve seen her. She loathes Kamakura; she loves me. It was rather a difficult enterprise. She was well guarded, but I promised her, you see, and I always like to keep a promise—especially to a lady.” He laughed softly to himself. The triumph over Kamakura was exquisite. But I could see that he had something else up his sleeve.
“And now?” I asked, for this seemed to me but the beginning of the end, not the end itself.
“Well,” he said, “I have not had a holiday for a long time. Early to-morrow morning the Yokohama Mara sails for Nagasaki. I shall go by her.”
“And the lady?”
“It is highly probable that she will go too.”
“You have outwitted the native?”
He smiled complacently.
“My dear Osman, could you possibly imagine any other ending!”
And if I lightly touch the strings
Of memory, ’tis a sweet regret.
Alas! who knows not many things
That he would willingly forget?
And if I fling a careless rhyme,
A sigh for that which oft has been,
And live again a vanished scene,
Is’t not the folly of all time?
For men shall work, and think, and love,
And kiss, perchance, and ride away;
And dream, although they dreaming move
’Mid desolation and decay—
A wilderness of vain desire,
Peopled by shadows one and all:
Anon the weary lids shall fall,
And sleep shall soothe the eyes that tire.
Ever since the episode of the “Stolen Emperor,” when I rendered his Imperial Majesty, the Son of Heaven, a personal service, I have been a sort of privileged individual in Peking, and within the sacred precincts of the Forbidden City. It was here I often came in contact with Loh-wi-Kung, one of the numerous officials of the celestial court. He was a fine-looking man, some thirty or thirty-five years of age, handsome as his race allows, well knit and splendidly proportioned. A general favourite at court, or, at least, as general a favourite as one could be among that envious crowd, he had been but lately promoted to the position of a Grand Secretary to the Emperor, and all people predicted that a vice-royalty would naturally follow.
As for Loh himself, he seemed to entertain no foolish dreams of any such exalted post; and when I jokingly questioned him as to the probability of such a high mark of imperial favour, he shook his head. There was a great difference between writing a royal letter and governing a royal province.
The fact is, Loh had not carved a vice-royalty out of his reputation: it was not one out of which a vice-royalty could be carved. True, he was a favourite of the Emperor, he was also a scholar of some pretensions; but he was a man of a somewhat equivocal reputation—a libertine, a debauchee. When the Emperor forgot his dignity he herded with fellows like Loh; when an event of moment loomed upon the horizon, he called to his council a totally different class of men.
All the same, Loh and the gentlemen of his kidney came in for most of the good things of this life, and but for his presumption he might still be basking in the royal smiles of his imperial master. It is natural that contact with royalty must rob it of some of its terrors; it is even possible, in some instances, that royalty may marvel at its own glory; but even when most dissolute, it has a sort of drunken dignity which is apt to prove dangerous. Loh, wise in general knowledge, overlooked one essential. He forgot that the pallid youth who occasionally condescended to hang on his arm was the absolute lord and master of some four hundred millions of human beings.
That Loh was an accomplished gentleman was indisputable; that he was extremely handsome no impartial observer could deny. I also thought that he was something more than a libertine. I believed that he had it in him to rise to distinction if he would only go to work in a proper manner; but he was cynical to a degree, and always made fun of my serious proposals.
With clear eyes he had chosen the muddy path—his shoes were thick with mud. He had gained the Emperor’s friendship, but at the loss of his own self-respect. I am of opinion that he did not think the gain of the one outweighed the loss of the other.
There was a tone of desperate pessimism about the man which attracted me in spite of myself. Shame bred it, and pride brought the bitter words to the tongue. The Grand Secretary Loh, the confidant of the Fount of All Wisdom, was a miserable man.
One day he came to me in my office, stealthily closed the door and locked it after him, and then stood staring at me with quick, inquisitive eyes. Every action, even the way he breathed, showed me that the man laboured under great excitement. His face was more pallid than usual; his long fingers beat inconsequent tattoos upon the breast of his coat. It was perfectly obvious that something serious had happened.
Suddenly he shot out his open hand, saying, “You are my friend?”
“I hope so.”
“I think I understand you, Clandon. You have the cold blood of the Englishman, the thoughtful brain.”
“My dear Loh, you flatter me.”
“I do not mean to flatter, Clandon; no Chinese compliments, as you call them. I only think you are not so great a fool as I.”
“But I insist, my dear Loh; you are very kind.”
He waved his hand deprecatingly.
“I insist that you are not so great a fool. If you were, should I come to you?”
“But I protest.”
“Listen. How many times have you said, ‘Loh, you are a yellow turnip; you fail utterly to do yourself justice?’ Tell me, how many times?”
“I hope I was never so rude.”
“I threw away the husk, but preserved the kernel. The rudeness was forgiven for the wisdom within it. Is a man a swine that he should lead the swine’s life of horrid indolence? Was imagination given him to gloze his imperfections? You are a wise man, Clandon; tell me.”
“It was scarcely necessary that you should come to me for such an obvious reply. What has happened?”
He looked at the door, then he turned once more and faced me.
“Clandon, you are my friend?”
“Remember,” said I, “that it is you who have come to me. I have not sought your confidence.”
“Pardon me.” Again he looked round. Then he uttered oracularly the Chinese proverb, “When you converse in the road, remember there are men in the grass.”
“You are perfectly safe here.”
“Then, Clandon, I’m in trouble.”
I looked at him without speaking. It frequently happens that the surest way to obtain a secret is to evince but slight curiosity concerning it.
“You are not inquisitive?”
“My dear Loh, I rely entirely upon your wisdom.”
For a few moments he remained silent, as if cogitating within himself. Then he said, “I am in disgrace.”
Here, too, I might have indulged in a little cheap moralising upon the fickleness of princes, but out of deference to his feelings I refrained. At the same time, I was not a little surprised. I should have given the secretary a longer lease of royal favour.
“How did your wisdom let you stumble so foolishly?”
He looked hard at me, lowered his voice, and whispered, “Woman.”
This was odd. That a stupid white man should make a fool of himself for a woman was a recognised form of idiocy; but that a philosophic Chinaman should court disgrace for such a worthless cause was enough to make the learned Confucius turn in his grave.
“My dear Loh,” I answered, “you disappoint me horribly. Who is the lady?”
“The Princess Me.”
“The sister of the Emperor?”
The secretary bowed his head and murmured, “Unhappy Loh.”
“And the Emperor knows?”
“If he did, think you I should be alive to answer that question?”
I did not. And yet the Emperor must know something, else how could the secretary be in disgrace?
“He knows nothing for certain,” Loh answered in reply to my query; “but I believe he is growing suspicious.”
“Then you are not absolutely in disgrace?”
“No, but I feel that I am tottering upon the verge.”
“Then draw back while it is yet time.”
“You do not understand. We have met many times in secret. We love each other. Heaven made us one for the other.”
“Tut, tut! What do you know of heaven? The Princess Me is betrothed to Chung, the President of the Board of Ceremonies.”
“But she loathes him. He is old and hideous.”
“Not so very old, and not so very hideous. Remember, friend Loh, you look with a rival’s eyes. You have been exceedingly indiscreet. The Emperors word is law. The Princess Me is not for you.”
A hot word leapt to his tongue, but with an effort he held it back. An ominous flush swept his brow—the spirit of revolt had risen to blood heat.
“My friend,” I said, rising and taking his hand, “be wise. Are you strong enough to pit your strength against the Emperor? I think not. You come to me for advice, I give it, and it proves unpalatable. Yet I beg of you to listen, for it is the friend who speaks. I know not how far this affair has gone, but I beg of you not to let it go farther. You must renounce the Princess.”
“I cannot. You do not know. Why, already she—” Then he stopped suddenly and looked confused.
“Tell me nothing,” I said, seeing that I dared not be sympathetic. “It is folly for a man like you to ape the puling boy. Why let that vanity of thine set its heart on a star? Go home, friend Loh, and ponder over what I have said, and think not ill of me because I speak harsh words. Good medicine is bitter to the taste.”
He went away with bowed head and a face which betokened the keenest disappointment. Like many of my Chinese friends, he came to me for advice, much as one would consult an oracle; and when I spoke with the plain tongue of a reasoning man I invariably dispelled the oracular illusion. But like most people whose interests clash with reason, though the two should go hand in hand, he was profuse in his thanks for my advice, though I feared he had no intention of carrying it into effect.
The intrigue with the Princess Me was not renounced, as I, knowing the man, really did not believe it would be. Assuming many disguises, he repeatedly saw her, and, undoubtedly, his continued success bred in him a recklessness which conduced to his downfall. One night, disguised as a coolie woman, he was seen to leave the apartments of the Princess. The chamberlain who saw him, mistaking him for a thief, seized him. Loh fought furiously, but in the struggle his wig fell off. Aroused by the noise, the attendants came rushing forward, and instantly a dozen menials were in the possession of his secret.
Knowing that the intrigue must now come to the light, Loh, who was released as soon as he was identified, hurried at once to his home, and, boldly facing the danger, spent the rest of that night in preparing a memorial to the throne. In this he reiterated his undying affection for the Princess, and his devotion to the illustrious Son of Heaven, whose royal clemency he begged. It was couched in the glaringly sycophantic form of such documents, a form calculated to sicken any one but a king, and not until it was written and rewritten again and again did he justly appreciate the bold step he was taking. Then his nerve failed him, and he thought of flight; but that would mean ruin, perhaps death, to all his family, and his filial piety would not permit him to bring shame upon his honoured parents. For, with all their vices, the Chinese have one virtue—they do honour their parents. Of how many nations can we say the same?
With the advent of day Loh forwarded his humble petition to the throne, and all through the long hours that followed he paced his rooms in an agony of expectation. But the day brought no tidings. After a certain hour he knew that no communication would leave the palace. That hour came and passed. He breathed more freely. Afterwards he partook of food, the first for many hours.
The next day came and went, and still no word from the throne. Loh’s spirits rose.
The Emperor had not forgotten the friendship which had existed between them. Perhaps he might even forgive? The secretary saw something like his old face staring at him from the mirror.
But at noon of the third day a court messenger arrived at the door, and into the secretary’s own hands presented his fate. Loh received it humbly, as one who is honoured by the imperial condescension; but his face grew very pale, and his dry tongue beat vainly against the dry roof of his mouth. It was his fate. What was his fate?
He examined it closely. He knew that wrapping well—the imperial seal was still intact. A dozen times he made as though he would break it, and a dozen times his trembling fingers seemed powerless to obey. At last when he did, he found that the package contained no word of writing— nothing but a silken cord.
His face blanched to a ghastly whiteness; he staggered back, his hand to his throat, and gasped. Then he tottered to a seat, and sat shivering like one suddenly stricken with ague. Loh’s sun was about to set.
This Silken Cord was the last mark of the Emperor’s favour. It meant that the secretary was to die, but it allowed him the great honour of taking his own life, an honour only permitted the highest in the land. Strangulation, ensuring as it does an unmutilated body, necessarily ensures an unmutilated soul; whereas decapitation, mutilating the body, also mutilates the soul, which causes an inextricable amount of confusion in the other world, where mutilated souls are constantly rushing about in search of their own heads.
Being a true Chinaman, and well grounded in the traditions of his race, he could not look upon this wordless message as anything short of an undeserved mark of imperial favour. To be permitted the privilege of taking his own life showed in what remarkable esteem he was held by the Emperor. Only the very highest in the land are accorded such a distinguished honour. Therefore, as one in duty bound, he felt much pride in having achieved such eminence in the State. And yet—such was his black ingratitude—he was not sure that he really appreciated the honour at its proper value. The Silken Cord was finely woven, and it would bear his weight to perfection; yet he seemed to entertain an insuperable objection to it. The fact is, he did not want to commit the happy dispatch; ungracious as it may seem, he did not even thank the Son of Heaven for his pretty present.
Yet how could he avoid his fate? He pondered deeply, but no avenue of escape offered itself. Though he fled from the city he could not take his parents with him, and to leave them behind meant that they would suffer in his place. For Chinese law, or justice, distinguishes little between the individual and his family. If it cannot punish the one, it will the other. Therefore all thought of flight must be abandoned. If he were not the basest of ingrates, he would go down upon his knees and thank the Emperor for his imperial consideration.
And yet, strangely enough, he did not want to die, though given the imperial sanction to die in such a magnificent manner. Perhaps the thought of the Princess Me made him cling foolishly to life; perhaps the thought of the grief of his aged parents; perhaps of the annihilation of a certain proud and pleasure-loving individual. Loh was a philosopher, and he saw but vaguely the end of the journey. Yet the hours were creeping on, and he had done no packing. At sunset the emissaries of the Emperor would appear. They must find him swinging by the Silken Cord.
Not having seen him during the two or three days which he spent at home awaiting the reply to his petition, and meanwhile having heard a rumour of what had taken place, I approached an official and made inquiries, and learnt the whole story. As the official in question was just starting for Loh’s house to see that the imperial behest had been obeyed, I offered to accompany him, and together we set out.
Arriving there we found the house in gloom, while the dreary sounds of lamentation vibrated in the air. The father met us at the door, and between his sobbings and his moanings welcomed us to the house of sorrow. His son, the flower of his race, the pride of his life, was no more; but, thanks to the exalted magnanimity of the Son of Heaven, his paragon of filial piety had entered the land of spirits with a head on his shoulders. For such right royal clemency, the heart-broken father felt sure that heaven would lay up ten thousand merits for the Root of All Wisdom. Then, sounding once more his dreary note of lamentation, he led us slowly to an inner room, in the middle of which, suspended from a beam, floated the body of Loh.
Though somewhat distorted, there was little difficulty in recognising him. The clothes were the same as those he had worn when last I saw him, and though I did not scrutinise his face very closely, I shuddered as I thought how hideous death makes a man.
We turned away fully satisfied that the Emperor’s behest had been obeyed, and I sent some kind thoughts after the soul of Loh. Again the weeping father preceded us, proclaiming the virtues of his son, and attesting to the magnanimity of the Emperor. Then, as he handed us tea, he favoured us with a few particulars concerning the doings of his son before that imperially-honoured one undertook the happy dispatch; and among other things I learnt that, just previous to his suicide, Loh had paced madly up and down his garden for at least an hour, wildly bemoaning his fate. Indeed, he walked straight from the garden to his room, and, with the silken cord which the Emperor had so thoughtfully presented, put an end to his miserable life.
Of course we offered our condolence. It was very sad, yet we all three admitted that the Emperor had behaved in a way that was worthy of the imperial tradition. The star was great, but if it entered into a conflict with the sun it would be eaten up. But for reasons of my own I asked the father a question or two.
“You said that the lamented Loh went straight from his garden to the room?” He stopped his sighing and eyed me with a singularly penetrating look.
“Even so,” he answered.
“And that, previous to committing the happy dispatch, he walked in the garden for at least an hour?”
He hesitated a moment or two. Then he said, “Even so, your excellency.”
“Poor fellow!” I replied. “Poor Loh! We were excellent friends.”
At this the fond father burst once more into tears, in the midst of which we left him. As we walked along my companion turned to me and said, “What made you ask those questions about the garden?”
That was the worst of a man in my position. To those who knew me, my every word, my every action had some hidden meaning.
“You must not forget that Loh was a close friend of mine, and that my grief for him is only exceeded by my reverence for the Emperor.”
But what I really saw was the pair of new shoes which the suicide wore, shoes absolutely unsoiled, and I wondered how he could have walked in his garden for an hour without soiling them.
But I had sufficient reticence to keep the thought to myself. The man beside me, court creature and sycophant, would have made much of my suspicions, and probably would have reaped extraordinary credit for a little ordinary acumen. In such a state of society he who was the last to gain the august ear had the best chance of preferment. Moreover, this man was quite satisfied. He would duly certify that with his own eyes he had beheld the Secretary Loh hanging by his neck. Equally so would I. Then why set the calm mind throbbing with suspicion?
And after all, what was there in this suspicion? It is true that if Loh from his garden had gone and straightway hanged himself, his shoes must have shown the wear and tear of walking. And yet, who was to say that he had not changed them and put on a new pair for the journey? A Chinese corpse is usually well dressed. It must make an excellent first appearance in the next world.
Yet, unexpected, the thought had come, and having arrived, it seemed extremely like making a long stay. My mind was ill at ease. I would have given a good deal for the permission further to examine the corpse. I would have gone back then and there if I could have done so without arousing the suspicions of my companion. Even when I tried to break away he insisted upon my journeying with him to the palace, at the gates of which we separated.
I at once retraced my steps to Loh’s house, and was again greeted by the sorrowing father. Could I look once more upon the face of my beloved friend, the pride of his race, the flower of manhood, the soul of chivalry? The father wept copiously, but amid his tears I learnt that Loh had been taken down, that the coffin had already closed upon him, and that he would be buried secretly, as one who had died a shameful death. Expressing my deep regret at not being able once more to gaze upon the face of my friend, I took my departure, my suspicions not in the least allayed. It was evident that Loh was not appreciated above board.
From a personal point of view his case interested me deeply, and for some considerable time, in one form or another, I devoted much attention to his particular domicile. But nothing coming of it, I began to make inquiries concerning the Princess Me, and I learnt that she was practically a prisoner in her own apartments, her royal brother and lord being undecided how to punish her. It was said that her marriage with Chung was broken off, as the Emperor had judged her unworthy of an alliance with that exalted official; but what the facts really were no one seemed exactly to know. Only one thing was certain. The Princess Me was in disgrace.
One day, as I lounged beside the gates that led to the women’s quarters, I saw a coolie woman, her face half smothered with a big bonnet, come staggering along beneath a huge bundle which she carried on her head. The bundle, being soft, hung almost to her shoulders, so that I got but an indifferent glance of her as she passed me. I saw her look my way and as quickly turn again—almost too quickly for one who would avoid suspicion. I watched her through the gate, and then advanced to the guard.
“Who is that coolie with the bundle?”
“The Princess’s washerwoman, excellency.”
“A strapping wench,” said I, giving him a meaning look.
He smiled. “Quite hopeless. I have tried.”
“She is an old hand?”
“On the contrary, excellency, she has only been coming here two weeks.”
“How often does she come?”
“Twice a week.”
I smiled as I whispered, “Courage, my brave soldier.”
He said something, but what I don’t remember, for my eyes were following the washerwoman as she approached a bend in the path. Would she look round? Something told me that she would, notwithstanding a cold, calculating mistrust of conjecture. And yet the intuition proved correct. As she rounded the bend the great bundle on her head slowly turned. I knew that the quick, black eyes were looking back. I walked away from the gate feeling the best of friends with myself, and all because a coolie woman had honoured me with a glance of her black eye. In fact, I had already made up my mind to see more of her, and with that intention I took my seat at the window of a restaurant which commanded a view of the gates, and ordered something to eat. And yet the meal was cooked, eaten, and paid for, and the second cigar half-way through before my patience was rewarded.
She came towards me, a somewhat similar bundle on her head, and as she approached I saw her quick, comprehensive glances shoot from side to side. That she did not see me I felt certain; but from my coign of vantage I could see without being seen. When she had passed I went out into the street and followed her.
For a long time I was in doubt as to whether she knew she was followed or not, and this rather undermined the foundations of the imaginary edifice which I had so laboriously constructed. It was obviously natural that a coolie woman who had no secrets would never dream of doubting her own insignificance. Such a woman would march straight on to her goal, never turning to right or left. And this was exactly what this woman did, striding sturdily forward as though oblivious of all the world. My doubts began to multiply like a ready reckoner. I was beginning to feel glad that this was not an official mission.
Hitherto the woman had been making for one of the poorer parts of the city, but now she suddenly turned to the left and shot off at an acute angle, I after her. Through many streets she led me, now up, now down, and yet always nearing one point. That point was Loh’s house. She approached it without hesitation, but instead of entering at the front door, made her way round to the back. A high wall enclosed the garden in which poor Loh had taken his last earthly walk.
By this time it was almost dark, and as the woman fumbled with the gate I advanced noiselessly and laid my hand on her shoulder. She sprang back with a slight exclamation, and instantly a knife flashed in the twilight.
Stepping back with a smile, I said, “Why so suspicious, my moon-faced divinity?”
“What do you want?” she answered in a low voice, a voice which quivered with agitation.
“Merely to see your pretty face. I have come far, stimulated by the breath of hope.” She turned, and without speaking began to fumble at the lock. “You are not inquisitive,” I continued; “you do not ask how far. Let me tell you: from the gate which leads to the apartments of the Princess Me — the Princess Me for whom my good friend Loh committed the happy dispatch. Is it not a little curious that the woman who washes for the Princess should also wash for his parents?”
The woman stopped fumbling with the gate and faced me, apparently gaining courage from the growing darkness.
“You have dogged me? You are a spy?”
“And if I admit as much—what then?”
“I say that you are a dog of the street, to be kicked and beaten.”
“And yet it is possible that you would regret doing either, for when a dog is kicked he sometimes turns and bites. But this dog is of another breed. He likes to do good, to sound the alarm when danger approaches. He is not a very wise dog, but he is just a little bit wiser than the other dogs about him.”
“Your words are strange,” she said, “but your tone is friendly.”
“I was the friend of Loh—I am the friend of all on whom the world frowns. It is not in accordance with established wisdom that the washerwoman of the Princess Me should come, even by a roundabout way, from the palace to the home of the imperially-honoured Loh. If the official blockheads knew, even they might suspect something. For I must tell you that though Loh walked direct from his garden to the room in which we found him hanging, the shoes the dead man wore were absolutely new. Most remarkable indeed. He might have changed them, of course; only he didn’t. Luckily the official who was with me did not notice such a trifling detail. If he had, he might have examined the dead man more closely.”
The woman was silent for a moment or two. Then she said, “You speak like a friend. What would you advise?”
“You run great risk in visiting the Princess, because somebody may presently trace the connection between this house and the palace. Doubtless you have a sweetheart? Try and persuade him to go with you to Hong-Kong. There you will be under English law, beyond the reach of the Emperor and all his mandarins.”
In a moment the woman was on her knees before me, kissing my hands and murmuring broken words of devotion. And then my fingers curled round hers in a hearty grip.
Having sown the seeds, I left time to ripen the harvest, and it ripened with a quickness which was truly abnormal. Within a week the news spread among us officials that the Princess Me was missing, and my inability to discover her whereabouts has always been used against me by my enemies. But about three months after, the Princess having been given up for dead, I received a curious epistle from Hong Kong, which purported to be the account of a man who had received the Silken Cord from the Emperor, but who had so far disobeyed the Son of Heaven as to purchase a substitute, which he did for a very reasonable sum. But though the real offender had played his game with extreme ingenuity, he overlooked the fact that a man cannot walk in his garden without soiling his shoes. In a kind of postscript was the added information that a certain coolie washerwoman had prevailed upon her sweetheart to accompany her to Hong Kong.
Notwithstanding the sneers of my enemies, I really do believe I know what became of the Princess Me.
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