Wanda of the Mysteries
A New Incident in the Charmed Life of Miss Austin 
It was Sunday afternoon in Tientsin. In the little park that is the most perfectly British thing in the British Concession, a Sikh band of fifty pieces was playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Tourists strolled about the gravel paths. Japanese, Hindu, and Chinese amahs placidly wheeled the perambulators of ruddy British babies. Outside, on the corner, a yellow Shantung policeman, baton under arm, languidly watched the carriages and rickshaws roll by.
Within the park, on a bench that was set far back amid the shrubbery, sat Miss Edith Austin, with a red portfolio on her knee, writing a letter with it fountain-pen. Beside her a tiny Pekinese dog, black with one white ear, was curled in slumber. Tucked away inside the portfolio was a bag of American chocolates, into which Miss Austin's left hand made occasional little forays. Her slim figure was comfortably relaxed; but her pretty mouth twisted itself unconsciously with the movement of the pen, her brows gathered every now and then into a V-wrinkle just above the straight, rather long nose, and her usually demure hazel eyes were deep with the immense seriousness of a philosophy based on nearly twenty years of living.
I realize now, Harriet dear, that can never, never again be the simple, ignorant child I was up to this year. Life has been particularly hard for me I think. Even with Mother I have to be careful what I say. She's a dear, but she isn't modern. She just isn't. And Aunt and Uncle--now, you know how perfectly bully it was of them to bring me on this glorious journey round the world. You're right--I owe them everything for that
Miss Austin had been hazily conscious, while she was writing, of some unusual disturbance on the grass-plot at her right, where, a few moments earlier, three little Britons had been playing a game with jack-knives. Now she looked over there and with an effort collected her faculties.
A young girl of about her own age--a remarkably small and remarkably pretty girl whom she had seen of late about the hotel--came running out from the bushes, closely pursued by a sinister little band of Chinese coolies. Her hat had been nearly torn off and one sleeve of her bodice was in shreds. She was deathly pale, and was panting for breath.
As Edith's startled eyes were taking in the extraordinary scene, a good-looking young American hurried to the rescue. But two of the Chinese held the girl, and the others bore the American to the ground, beating him savagely.
Edith wondered if it were a dream. The band, she knew, was still playing.
The American lay still--there on the ground. They were leaving him, and were dragging the girl away. Edith sprang up, dropping the portfolio, and ran after them. "Don't do that!" she found herself shouting. "Help her! Help her!"
A few steps carried her past a group of trees and shrubs, and there, out of view from her bench, was a large camera on a tripod, and a young fellow beside it, smoking a cigarette and turning a crank. By him stood a thin man with a derby hat on the back of his head, grayish hair, and big horn spectacles. He was smoking a cigar. And crowding in a semicircle behind these two was a respectful little gathering of tourists, amabs, children, and Chinese.
Edith stopped short. She looked at the struggling group. The face of the pretty girl was thickly painted. For a moment Edith was too confused to move; she felt the red coming into her cheeks.
Then the man with the horn spectacles took his cigar from his mouth and waved it. The camera operator stopped turning the crank. The man on the ground got up and brushed off his clothes--he was painted, too. The girl smiled--even through the thick grease-paint her smile was radiant--and nodded toward Miss Austin. "Thanks just as much," she called out in a musical voice.
Slowly Miss Austin returned to her bench, gathered up the belongings that had scattered out of her portfolio, and tried to resume the thread of her letter. But for all of half an hour she could only munch chocolates and listen to the band. Gradually, however, her composure returned. After a time she even indulged in a faint smile, and gave Wing, the dog, a friendly little pat. Then she wrote on:
. . . I owe them everything for that. But they could never in the world understand our views, yours and mine. I wouldn't dare tell them. I think it would kill them.
But, I was going to say--you remember the talks we used to have--back before either of us knew the world at all--when we were first reading "Candida" and "Woman and Economics"--and we used to wonder how it would seem really to escape from our dreadful suburban seclusion and see a bit of this great man's world for ourselves.
Well, I have seen a bit of it!
I've seen--don't ever whisper a word, dear!--a prize-fight in a Shanghai opium den. I was second to one of the fighters. I helped him take off his shirt. And oh, Harriet, it was wonderful! You've no idea--the thrill, the humanness of it!
And I've been in a revolt--at Peking--with bombs and looting Manchus, and a revolver in my own hand that I almost used--and against a white man! I would have used it, too, if I hadn't been rescued--you couldn't guess--by a girl gambler!
And I've been made love to. By a perfect dear of a boy. Sometime, when I'm sure of my sense of humor, I'll tell you about that. The queer thing was that for about twenty minutes I really wanted to fall in love. Can you believe it? I wanted to. Me!
Then I got sensible all once. It slipped by like a sneeze that won't come. And after that I wasn't even interested. You aren't much interested in sneezes afterward, you know.
Miss Austin lingered a moment over this sentence with a pleased smile; then continued:
I'm almost sorry. It's rather saddening to learn that you're not the falling-in-love kind. But I suppose it's safer.
Aunt doesn't dream. Nor Uncle. They think I'm just the green little thing I look like.
Well, Harriet dearest, I've learned one thing that is invaluable.
We were right. A girl can go anywhere alone--even here on the China Coast. All they used to try to make us believe, that life is full of mysterious hidden dangers, that people are such dreadfully complicated things, is just plain bunk. I'll admit that I've been afraid once or twice out here, but that was because I was ignorant. I was always looking for something terrible beyond words to happen. It never did. I can see now that it never will. Why, I haven't even been insulted but once. After this I'm not going to be afraid of anything.
Really, Harriet, there's no particular mystery about life. People are simple. . . .
A shadow fell across the paper. She raised her eyes, and found the moving-picture heroine standing before her.
This girl was hardly above five feet tall, and could have weighed little more than ninety pounds. Even as she stood quietly there, her lithe young body seemed to respond uncontrollably to the swinging rhythm of the band; by some subtle physical suggestion, she appeared on the point of breaking into a bewildering succession of bendings and posings. "She's the gracefulest thing I ever saw," said Edith to herself. Her skin was fair and fresh; her hair, under the big shade hat, was really golden; her facile mouth was quivering on the brink of a smile; her eyes were large, blue, and liquid.
"Mind if I sit down with you?" asked the girl.
Edith was conscious of a thrill of pleasure. This adorable little creature, who looked like a child, was really a grown-up actress. She earned her living, independently, in a world of men. She came and went as she chose. She had certainly traveled far; she had doubtless experienced much. Yet there was not a wrinkle in the fair skin, and the blue eyes were as candid as a baby's. "I'm right," thought Edith, as she made room on the bench; "she's as simple and sweet as if they'd kept her in a convent."
"I noticed your dog," said the girl, in a pleasantly casual tone; "and then, I liked your looks."
"That was silly of me--running over there," began Edith.
The girl waved the remark carelessly aside. "Oh, that," she said. "We get used to that. You're at the Astor House too, aren't you?" An ingenuous person, clearly. She chattered along as easily as a child of ten. "I don't know your name."
Edith told her.
"Mine's Connidge--my stage name, that is. I'm from Bridgeport, Connecticut. You see 'idge' from my city, 'Conn' from my State. I think it's nice to be patriotic where we can--don't you? Your first name's Edith, you say? I'm going to call you that, if you don't mind. I always get mixed on last names."
"I don't mind at all," replied Edith, conscious that she was being swept along rather rapidly.
"My first name's Wanda. You are stopping at the Astor House, aren't you?"
As Wanda put the question she turned and looked back through the shrubbery toward the big hotel across the street. Built for comfort during the long summers, the front wall of the structure was set back behind a tier of broad verandas or galleries that extended the full width of the building and on around the corner. The outside rooms on each floor opened on the gallery by shuttered doors, long rows of them. Thus it was possible, by using the galleries and the outside stairways connecting them (these latter were around the comer at the end of the building), to go from anyone outside room to any other without entering the interior corridors of the building.
"That's my room," said Edith, "on the third floor, second from the corner--near where that man is walking up and down, the one with the little black mustache."
Wanda's eyelids drooped for a moment, as if her thoughts had strayed afield. Then, in an impenetrably casual tone, she said: "Do you know that man?"
Edith did not. "Oh, I've seen him around. And he's tried to flirt with me."
Wanda's face assumed a sympathetic expression. "He would do that," she murmured. "He's a bad actor, if you want my opinion. But then,"--she gave a little sigh,--"most of 'em are. And he has nice eyes. He's the tenor in that English concert company that's doing the Coast--the' Purple Mysteries.' You know."
Edith said she had seen the advertisements.
"They're a phony bunch. The press is that they're big London people who can't afford to have their names known. They play in purple costumes and purple silk masks. We've been running into 'em all along--Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai."
The conversation flagged for a little while. The two girls watched the passers-by. A note of melancholy crept into the voice of the little actress.
"Oh, my dear," she observed later, "if you knew what I've had to endure from men. A girl is so helpless."
Edith looked at her, and was surprised to see that the corners of her mouth were sagging wearily and that there were tears in her eyes. She wondered what disturbing memory had so suddenly depressed that volatile spirit. It seemed hardly possible that there could be any strain of sadness in the life of so lovely and youthful a person.
Wanda slowly turned her head and met Edith's troubled gaze. She brushed a tear from her cheek.
"You'll think I'm a fool," she murmured.
Edith shook her head. "Indeed I won't," she replied impulsively. "I wish you would tell me what is the matter." And she rested a gentle hand on the girl's sleeve.
Wanda mused. "I wonder if I could tell you!"
"Please. Were you reminded of something sad?"
Wanda smiled mournfully. "I never forget it," she replied. "Only you have to keep up most of the time. I guess that's what makes life so hard. 'Laugh and the world laughs with you,' you know." She fell to musing again. "Tell me, Edith," she remarked, after a moment, "do you think there's such a thing in the world as true friendship?"
"I'm sure there is!" cried Edith. "Won't you tell me? Perhaps I could help."
Wanda shrugged her shoulders. "It's beyond that. Nobody could help me now." Her pathetic eyes again sought Edith's girlish face. "I don't know what on earth to do. You're a dear girl, Edith, but I don't believe you've had enough experience of life to understand."
"I've seen a good deal," said Edith.
There was so much quiet assurance in her tone that Wanda flashed at her a glance of surprise and inquiry, then dropped her eyes and remarked:
"You see, dear, I was married two years ago--"
The exclamation slipped by Edith's guarding lips. Then, in fear that she had betrayed some inexperience, she hurried on: "You surprised me. You seem so young and inexperienced yourself."
"Oh, my dear, my dear!" murmured Wanda. "If you knew all I've suffered. I--I had to leave 'im. He's a drunkard. And he beat me."
"With a razor-strop. I could show you--there's marks on my back now. He got to bringing other women right into our apartment--made me wait on them. He was--oh, I can't! You wouldn't understand! He made me work all the time, rehearsing and playing, and then took my salary away from me--every cent. Not even carfare for me--and I get two hundred a week in New York. Edith dear, if you knew what men are, and what we women have to endure from 'em!"
"I know a little about men," said Edith grimly.
"Well, twice I tried to kill myself. Once by gas. He came home sober that night, for once, and kicked the door in, and beat me till I fainted. The other time I was just jumping out the window when he caught me--by my night-gown. Just see what he's brought me to."
She opened her hand-purse; and there, nestling among three diamond rings and a diamond pendant, a box of lip-carmine and a diminutive powder-puff, a rumpled-up handkerchief, some tightly folded cablegrams, a Mexican dollar (value, fifty cents) with red paper inscribed in Chinese characters pasted on one side of it, and a little silver change, was a small rough glass bottle marked "Poison."
The pupils of Edith's eyes contracted and her lips pressed together. But, true to her new standing as a woman of experience, she suppressed the exclamation of horror that was struggling to her lips.
"I ran away from 'im and went to Chicago. I had a dreadful time--no money at all. There was men who would have advanced me some, but of course I couldn't take it--not that way."
"Of course not," murmured Edith.
"And, as I couldn't very well go to any other manager until I was free from Will--you see, he had always been my manager; Will M. Ryan of the Ryan Amusement Co.--there liter'ly wasn't any way I could turn. One week I almost starved. Will sent horrid telegrams. He hired detectives to shadow me. One of 'em told me who he was, and said that if--oh, you've no idea what I've been through!
"Then I got a chance to come out here with this company and do moving pictures. The money wasn't much, of course, but there was the ocean trip and a chance to see Japan, and I jumped at it. Just came right along, all impetyus as usual, and hopped straight out of the frying-pan into the cheerfully glowing coals. That's me, you know, all over. I don't look into things careful enough; I'm too intense."
There was a huskiness in Edith's throat. As she looked at the delicately modeled face under the big hat, at the soft little mouth and the great childlike blue eyes, she felt that she was being permitted to witness one of life's inexplicable tragedies--that before her was quivering an innocent but tortured soul. She was conscious of a new gravity, almost a solemnity, within herself.
She managed to ask: "And so you--you've found more trouble out here?"
Wanda pressed her handkerchief to her eyes. "It's terrible. I don't know how I came to confide in you this way. But I've got to talk to somebody. It's either some kind of sympathy and help or"--her voice quivered--"or that little bottle. I'm in a trap. I don't know what to do." And she took to clasping and unclasping her fingers in her lap.
"Try to be calm," said Edith gently. "Relax. And tell me quietly. I'm going to help you if I can."
Wanda gave her a grateful look, and continued: "We weren't three days out from San Francisco before I found that I had to fight the director of this company."
"You don't mean--" breathed Edith.
Wanda's eyes were brimming again. She nodded. "He was dreadful. I had to keep my state-room door locked--until Miss La Place came in with me. You must have seen him around here--thin man with grayish hair. Mr. Hemmingway."
"And horn spectacles."
"Yes. Always smoking a cigar."
"Why," Edith mused, "I thought he looked very quiet and--"
"My dear," Wanda interrupted impressively, "the quiet ones are the worst. There was a tenor singer--he was only a high baritone, really--with the Acorn Opera Company--he was the quiet kind--that--You've no idea! I got worn out fighting him. Sometimes I wonder what's the use."
"But you mustn't feel that way. That is weakness. You must keep up the fight--always."
"I know. But it does wear you out. Specially when you can't see anything ahead. . . . Well, anyway, when we landed at Yokohama I found these cablegrams from Will." She took the folded papers from her purse and spread them out for Edith to read. "While we were in Japan and Shanghai I got a cable every day. Then for two weeks there was nothing. I couldn't imagine what it meant. Hemmingway knew something, I'm sure--he acted so queer. Then, two days ago, this came."
She laid the message on Edith's portfolio. "See, it's from Shanghai. He came clear across the Pacific on a fast boat. He's half way up the Coast now--be here by Wednesday."
Edith read the message:
Leaving here to-night for Tientsin. Am sure everything will be all right when I see you. WILL.
"Are you sure he--your husband--doesn't love you?" asked Edith, a trace in her voice of that same huskiness.
Wanda compressed her lips and shook her head. "No. It isn't real love. Sometimes, when he hasn't seen me for a while, I fascinate him." She turned her big, appealing eyes to Edith's. "Why is it, dear--I always seem to attract men--that wrong way? Can it be my fault? It's so disappointing. It hurts so."
"I'm sure it's not your fault, Wanda. You can't help being beautiful."
Wanda looked pleased for an instant; then her eyes filled again. "The poor little thing'" thought Edith. "What a bundle of emotions she is. She's all temperament. There ought always to be some one to take care of her. And she's so sweet and so--so helpless."
Wanda was sobbing now, very softly, and pressing her handkerchief to her nose. "Oh, it's too dreadful to tell!" she burst out. "Here I am talking in this matter-of-fact way and--Well, that man tried to get into my room this afternoon--while I was dressing. I'm actually not safe there--in my own room. I ran out of the hotel. I came here because it was open and safe and there were people. And you were here. I thought maybe you'd let me talk. I had to talk to somebody. I'm all alone--and perfickly helpless. Hemmingway is even holding back my salary, just the way Will always did. I don't know what to do. If life has got to be like this, I don't want--to--live!"
Again she fell to sobbing. But after a few moments, with an obvious effort at self-control, she quieted. Then she wiped her eyes; deftly, with a quick glance to left and right, applied the diminutive powder-puff to her nose; dropped her hands listlessly to her lap; and gazed, with eyes that seemed to be looking very far, in the direction of the band-stand, with its glitter of silver and brass, its dreamy brown faces, its enormous red turbans.
Edith, her color slightly heightened, was thinking intently, and toying absently with the silky little dog as she thought. There was a coaster sailing that night for Shanghai. And there was Harry Purnell of the Consular staff, who had been three grades above her in the public school at home. He had been nice and attentive during her stay here. Well, now was his chance to be nicer. Should she tell Wanda about the need of including Harry in her plans? No; it would be better to tell Wanda nothing. It was a situation to try the mettle of the cosmopolitan Miss Austin. She must manage it alone. Her money was all, or nearly all, in the form of travelers' checks. These must be converted into gold; but they distinctly must not be cashed at the Astor House, the only place at which she was known that was open on Sundays. . . . Yes, it was quite a little situation. But a calm assurance within her, an assurance that surprised herself, brought a faith that she would be equal to whatever it might prove necessary to do.
"Don't you see," Wanda was saying, "there may be dreadful trouble when Will gets here. Suppose he found out about Hemmingway. When he's drunk you just can't talk to 'im. You can't tell what he'd do. I'm horribly afraid. There might even be--shooting."
"Listen," said Edith, with a quiet sort of determination in her voice; "I'm going to bring you right in with me--in my room. Now, tell me, if you should run away, is there any place you could go?"
Wanda's face brightened. "You're awfully good, Edith. I was thinking, if I could only get to Shanghai--the Auckland Amateurs offered me a job when we were at Kobe. They'll be there next week. That would keep me going until I could make some arrangements to get back home."
"What's the fare?"
"Well," replied Wanda more briskly, "of course that's hopeless. I haven't got three dollars. It costs forty or so--and then there's all the extras, and something for Shanghai--"
Edith interrupted her: "Now, Wanda dear, you're not to be hurt or offended at what I'm going to say. It's a crisis, and you must be sensible. I've got money enough. You can send it to me later on--any time. I could let you have a hundred dollars or more easily, without Aunt or Uncle suspecting a thing."
But Wanda made no objections. Instead, she cried again. And after a moment she asked in an unsteady voice, from behind her handkerchief: "Is that gold or Mex, dear?"
"Gold, of course. Now come, Wanda; we mustn't be sitting here if I'm to get you off to-night."
"To-night'" repeated Wanda, almost in consternation.
"To-night," smiled Edith. "And you're to put yourself absolutely in my hands."
"But I can't get three trunks off without Hemmingway knowing."
"I can," said Edith calmly.
"But he'll be watching. And if he misses me, he'll watch the boat."
Edith hesitated but a moment. Then she replied: "I'll guarantee to get you off to-night. Now come."
As they entered the hotel, Edith observed the tenor with the black mustache sitting alone on the porch over a half-consumed whisky and Tan San. His face was flushed, his eyes were roving and, she thought, a bit wild. He glanced furtively at them. Edith felt Wanda tremble and draw close to her, and she hurried her into the building and up the stairs.
Edith called a boy and sent a hurriedly written chit to Harry Purnell at the Consulate. She and Wanda speedily packed the three trunks, then slipped down the corridor to Edith's room. There Wanda was attired in a negligée of Edith's and left to rest on the couch.
Edith next wandered down to the lounge on the main floor, and, with a large volume of "Views of Tientsin" on her knee, sat where she could command the porch and front steps through a window and the main hall through a wide door.
The tenor saw her, and, hastily gulping a fresh whisky and Tan San, sauntered, with an assumption of carelessness, to the door and stared in at her. He wore a soft straw hat pulled down on one side of his head, and carried, a light bamboo stick. She watched him, over her book. After a moment he sauntered away and ascended the stairs.
"He's a vain brute," thought Edith. "And it's just about certain that he wants to annoy Wanda." She deliberately laid down her book and followed.
Sure enough, he was hovering outside the room Wanda had occupied. At sight of Edith he flushed to an even deeper red, and hurried out to the gallery by the door at the end of the corridor.
Edith returned to the lounge and resumed her chair and book. A little time passed. Then the thin figure and the horn spectacles for which she was watching appeared in the hall. She couldn't help thinking that the director person looked rather nice. He was the last man she would have picked for a monster. He had strong lines in his face and a patient expression about the eyes. "So goes life," she thought. "To me that tenor is a horrid thing; but Wanda thinks he has nice eyes. Wanda knows this manager is a brute; and here I'm thinking I might like him."
Very deliberately Mr. Hemmingway descended the steps, called a rickshaw, and rode away. Edith stepped out on the porch and followed the vehicle with her eyes until it disappeared. Then she found the Chinese head porter, slipped a key and a gold sovereign into his impassive hand, and gave him certain very positive instructions in her best Pidgin-English. Five minutes later, standing near the side entrance, she had the pleasure of seeing three trunks carried out and wheeled away. On the two ends of each trunk, where the words, "Wanda Connidge, New York," had appeared, there was now a row of Astor House labels, pasted symmetrically side by side.
So much accomplished, Edith crossed to the park. There, walking to and fro in a secluded comer, she found Harry Purnell. He had grown rather good-looking since their school days; and his manner, a businesslike briskness tempered by a whimsical, rather facetious humor, was not altogether unpleasing, she thought. He wore nose-glasses, and carried a heavy cane. He was humming in a light tenor voice.
"Very mysterious," he said, as they shook hands--"very mysterious."
"It had to be, Harry. You've got to help me smuggle a poor girl off on the Shanghai boat tonight, and you're not to ask any questions."
"Discretion is my middle name," smiled Harry. "Can do. But you very nearly didn't find me in. And if you ever doubt yourself as a charmer, Edith, it may help some to know that I'm breaking a previous engagement with a particularly attractive person for this very evening."
"That was good of you, Harry."
"No--just weak. Sufficiency. Let's have your instructions. Chop-chop!"
For a little time they walked about the park, Harry listening attentively while Edith explained her needs. They walked around to the Consulate, and Edith waited on the comer while Harry slipped inside. They took a pony victoria and drove rapidly to the wharf. Here she waited, while he boarded the ship. Finally they separated, and Edith hurried back to the hotel and up to her room.
She softly tried the door. It was locked. There was no sound within. She tapped softly. She was glad that Wanda had locked the door: it was a wise precaution. She tapped again. Doubtless the poor child had fallen asleep. She walked to the end of the corridor and back, considering whether to waken her. She lingered a moment at the door, then knocked more loudly -with her knuckles this time. Still there was no response. She felt a bit worried--there was no telling what the child might do. . . .
She was turning irresolutely away, when the sound came to her ears of a door closing within the room. It must have been the gallery entrance, as the room had but the two doors. She heard light feet crossing the room; then the key turned, and Wanda opened to her.
The little actress had found a lacy boudoir-cap of Edith's, which, with the thick yellow braids hanging down her back almost to her knees, her high color, nervous smile, and a peculiar sparkle and glow in the expressive eyes, gave her something the appearance of an excited little fairy. For a moment Edith gazed at her in a sort of admiring dismay. Was it right to pack off this alarmingly beautiful little girl on a four-day journey alone--and to such a destination as Shanghai? Yet--to leave her here to be quarreled over by a violent husband and an unscrupulous manager--!
Edith took her hand and led her to the couch. "You lie down and rest," she commanded.
"I can't," said Wanda; "I get so nervous, Edith dear. The room seemed stuffy--I had to step out on the gallery for a breath."
"That was unwise," Edith replied. She felt very old and experienced and responsible. "There isn't much use in hiding you, you know, if you're going to get excited and show yourself the first thing.
"Now, dear," Edith continued, "please put this money in your purse. I don't want to carry so much about with me. Two--three--five--eight--twelve, thirteen--fifteen sovereigns. That's about seventy-five dollars, isn't it? I figure that you'd better have at least that much. And here's your ticket. Your name, for the present, is Miss Robinson."
The tears again came rushing to Wanda's eyes. She took Edith's hand in both of her own, and kissed it. "You're very, very good to me, Edith dear," she murmured brokenly.
"Now you behave," was all Edith could manage by way of reply.
Wanda dropped the gold coins into her purse, one by one. And each coin, as it fell, clinked softly against the bottle of poison. Then she said: "You must be sure and tell me just how much you spend, dear. So I'll know."
Edith smiled, patted the soft cheek, and left her.
She went downstairs and out to the porch, looking about for her aunt and uncle. Just outside the door she encountered the tenor, who was hurrying around the corner of the building, his face working nervously, switching his little cane against the chairs and tables as he passed them. At sight of her, he stopped short, stared for an instant (very rudely, she thought), then turned and hurried back around the corner.
Edith gazed after him thoughtfully. Whatever unknown terrors might be lying in wait for lovely little Wanda at Shanghai or on the remainder of the long, hard journey home, it would certainly be a relief to get her safely out of Tientsin.
That evening, at dinner, Mr. Wilberly said unexpectedly:
"Oh, say, Edith, Hemmingway, the moving-picture man, wanted me to ask if you've seen anything of his Miss Connidge in the past few hours."
For a moment Edith's pulse stopped.
"He saw her talking to you earlier in the afternoon. I told him you'd hardly know. It seems she has disappeared completely. He got a key from the management, entered her room, and found her trunks gone. Funny thing."
Just then the Chinese waiter drew Mr. Wilberly's attention to the menu; and that gentleman hunted about his waistcoat for his nose-glasses, put them on, and gave his attention undividedly to the important matter of the next course.
Edith controlled the impulse to draw a long breath. Instead, she nibbled a bread-stick and looked out about the big dining-room with a face that was inscrutably demure.
At one o'clock that night, except for an occasional hilarious sound from the bar-room, the big hotel was still. Lights were out in the lounge. Porch chairs were piled on porch tables. And on the corner a Chili policeman, arms folded, motionless, leaned against a tree.
Two slim figures in long rain-coats, each carrying a hand-bag, came tiptoeing out of a room on the third floor, walked softly along the veranda, turned the corner, and descended two flights of stairs. Walking more rapidly, they came around the hotel into Victoria Road and headed north.
On the next corner, in the shadow of the trees, a young man awaited them. He stepped forward as they approached, and took the bags from them. But, instead of moving on with them, he stood motionless and peered under the big hat that crowned the smaller of the two figures.
"Oh," he said, in what was evidently genuine surprise--"how do you do!"
"Why, you--you know each other!" exclaimed Miss Austin.
But, without speaking further, Harry Purnell briskly led the way up Victoria Road to a corner some two blocks above the steamer wharf, then turned off to the bank of the very narrow, very sluggish little river that is known as the Pei-ho. The girls followed.
A sampan, manned by two native boatmen, awaited them. Harry tossed the baggage aboard, and handed the two girls in after it.
The boat drifted out into the current. Wanda curled up in the bow, silent and pensive. Harry gave all his attention to guiding their little craft. And Edith looked from one to the other, wondering.
There was no moon. A little way below them the black bulk of the ship, held out nearly in mid-channel by fenders, loomed big and mysterious. In the absurd little river and from their lowly point of observation, the small coasting steamer appeared as huge as a transatlantic liner. High above the shadowy hull, lights were blazing. A belated passenger, very drunk, as is not unnatural on the Coast after midnight, was reeling up the long gang-plank above the water, followed by a line of porters with baggage.
The sampan drifted down on the farther side of the ship, out of sight from the wharf. Wanda was humming a gay little tune.
They scraped softly along the plates of the hull, that towered above them like a wall. Well aft, two thirds of the way to the stern, a rope was flapping gently. Harry caught it. A head peered out of an opening just above them. Then a rope ladder was lowered.
Harry climbed up with the bags; then returned for Wanda. The actress threw her arms around Edith's neck and kissed her. Edith could see that her eyes were shining and that she was smiling dreamily.
As she placed a dainty foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, Wanda giggled outright in sheer delight at the romantic quality of her flight. Then Harry picked up her slight body in his arm and carried her up, disappearing with her within the ship. After a moment he reappeared, dropped down into the sampan, and pushed off.
They were back on firm earth before he spoke. Then he said, with some evidence of feeling that he seemed unable wholly to suppress:
"Edith, I wonder if you know what you've been mixing in?"
"What do you mean, Harry?"
"I wonder if you know what that girl is up to?"
Edith was tired, and Harry's tone disturbed her. "I know this." she broke out almost hotly: "if I hadn't helped her get away to-night she would have been in terrible trouble here. I'm not sure that I haven't saved her life, even."
"Oh," murmured Harry, with a touch of mystification in his voice. And for a little way he walked without speaking, looking straight ahead.
When they had nearly reached the hotel, he asked:
"Did you give her any money, Edith?"
"Why, yes, if you must know--I did."
"Mm," said he non-committally.
At the hotel steps, she turned and faced him.
"Now listen, Harry," she said. "You and Wanda Connidge have met before."
"Oh," he replied, "is her name Wanda Connidge?"
Miss Austin stamped her foot.
"Really," said he, almost cheerfully, "we have met before, but I didn't know her name."
"Look here, Edith; you've knocked about some, you've seen a bit of life--I guess perhaps you've got sense enough to understand. I met that girl on the street just this morning. Flirt-pidgin--like two infants. We took a walk. We were silly, of course--my engagement for to-night was with her. That's--well, that's all"
Edith was puzzled. "No, that isn't quite all," she said. "What made you say what you did, at the landing. Did you see anything on the steamer?"
Harry prepared to beat a retreat. "It's late, Edith. No can keep awake my side. And you're tired out. I've told you all I know. All I know," he repeated, with an odd emphasis. Then he said good night, and left her.
After a late breakfast, on the following morning, Edith wandered into the lounge, and found her uncle and Mr. Hemmingway talking in the offhand manner that men affect. Edith stood by the table behind them, and picked up a postcard labeled, "View on Taku Road, Tientsin."
"Speaking as a business man,"--it was Mr. Wilberly who was speaking thus,--"I don't see how you handle these crazy actresses at all. I'd be inclined to bring 'em up with a round turn if they tried any of their 'temperament' on me."
"It wouldn't work," replied Mr. Hemmingway quietly. "It hasn't worked in this case. I've exceeded all legal bounds, as it is, trying to keep that girl here. But I cabled Bill Ryan that I'd hold her until he could get here. You see, I had promised him that if he'd bring out Elsie Baker from our Chicago company, he could take Wanda back. Now here he is, tearing up the Yellow Sea with Miss Baker, as per agreement, and I've got no Wanda. I've fallen down. And I watched that boat myself last night until she sailed at two."
"Do you know she was aboard?"
"Certainly. After they'd castoff, the little devil waved at me from the deck. She was with that fool tenor of the 'Purple Mysteries.' He had his arm around her."
Edith's body seemed to freeze as she stood motionless there. The blood rushed out of her face; and then, as swiftly, rushed back until her fair skin was suffused with color. Had she, after all, accomplished nothing more than the financing and stage-managing of a wretched amour!
Gradually she became conscious that Mr. Hemmingway was still speaking:
"Rather an interesting case, by the way, for the psycho-pathologists. That girl has run away with five different men, to my knowledge; and everyone of them was a tenor singer. Even including Bill himself--he used to be a light opera tenor. It's a mania, apparently; always a runaway, and always a tenor. Can you beat it?"
"People are queer," observed Mr. Wilberly sententiously.
"They certainly are. People are some queer. I knew one other case like this--a middle-aged business man who had a mania for falling in love with star actresses. No matter how beautiful she might be, she had to be an actress and a star--with her name on the billboards. We counted up eleven of them. He pestered them--pursued them--wrote outrageous letters. Several times he was arrested. But he couldn't stop--worse than liquor to him. Well, there's two things I would certainly like to know: how Wanda got on that boat, and who put up the money. Wilson, the Mysteries manager, tells me that the tenor didn't have twenty cents. Why, they haven't paid salaries for five weeks. And this guy hasn't got brains enough to swindle anybody. No; it was our little Wanda that got into some sympathetic spirit. I wish I knew who."
"It's probably a good thing, after all," said Mr. Wilberly sagely.
"That she made her get-away. If she and her tenor were here when the husband walked in, there'd likely as not be trouble. I know how these cases go."
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
"Oh, row--punch his face--shoot, maybe."
The director sniffed. "Not a bit of it. Bill Ryan's the best-hearted fellow in the world--couldn't hurt a fly."
"But the tenor. He's the crazy kind, you say--"
"Tenors don't shoot people," grunted Mr. Hemmingway.
Edith, her head a chaos of emotions and thoughts, quietly made her way out of the room and across to the park, where, though there might be disturbing memories, there was air.
After dinner that evening, Edith became aware that Mr. Hemmingway was trying to catch her eye. Finally he encountered her at a moment when her aunt and uncle had gone into the office to look at a new lot of painted snuff-bottles, and asked if she would step out to the porch for a moment. He was so grave and kindly in manner that she did not see how to refuse.
He led her to a corner behind a group of potted palms, and drew a paper from his pocket. He looked puzzled, she thought.
"I--I've received a wireless from Wanda Connidge," he said. "She instructs me to pay you twenty-six pounds, four shillings, and eight-pence out of her salary. Here it is." He produced a heavy little canvas bag. Then he cleared his throat.
"If you don't mind my asking," he went on, pushing his hat back and running his long fingers into his hair, "is that the right amount? Is that just what she owed you?"
Edith did a little mental arithmetic, then nodded. "Yes," she said; "it is. Exactly. Why, she has even remembered the chocolate!"
Mr. Hemmingway sighed and made a gesture of despair. "That's the queerest of all," he said. "That kid has kept me guessing from the start. Last week I began to think I had her number. I knew she was a born actress. I knew she was a quick thinker, and--yes--a temperamental little liar. And yet, here she turns out to be scrupulous with money--down to the last cent. Comes pretty close to what we sometimes call honor, doesn't it? . . . Well, it beats me. I guess the fact is we don't really know anybody--ever." He smiled, rather shyly, she thought, and added: "I thought you would probably want me to consider it confidential."
She could have hugged him for that. Instead she returned his smile unflinchingly; said, "Thank you very much, Mr. Hemmingway;" and, concealing the bag in her hand, ran lightly upstairs to her room.
The money she placed in the top drawer of her bureau. In this same drawer was her red portfolio. Smiling a little, and blushing, she drew it out, opened it, and deliberately read her unfinished letter to Harriet, read it through to the end: "Really, Harriet, there's no particular mystery about life. People are simple. . . ."
Several times she read these concluding words; stood there reading them until the blush and the smile had slowly left her face. Then she brought Wing from his basket by the window, drew a big chair to the light, curled up in it, sitting comfortably on her foot, and very soberly wrote a letter that began as follows:
We've been at Tientsin quite a while now, and I must say it is nothing like so interesting as Peking. It is more like a European city, you know. There are shops, of course, when you know where to look for them; and they have some nice things. I bought a beautiful Mandarin coat--an old red one. And then there is very nice raw silk lace that the Chinese girls make in the French Convent. It is astonishingly cheap. I picked up a lot of it, it goes so wonderfully with the piece of natural Assam silk that Aunt bought at Shanghai to make me a dress out of. And I may get some Satsuma buttons--blue and tan--to go with it. What do you think? . . .
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).|