The Siamese Cat/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER THREE

THE LURKER IN THE RUINS

 

 

CHAPTER THREE
THE LURKER IN THE RUINS

The barefoot guards saluted the lordly foreign bust framed in the window of a first-class compartment; Borkman, graciously returning the salute, raised a heavy black tamarind stick, tipped with kerbau horn; and as if at the great man's signal, the little train rolled out from the station, out from the bush and palm environs of Bangkok, into the cool, fragrant, dazzled morning on the open plain. With a parting tally of tiffin-baskets, he modestly retired to the next compartment, and left his employers with Scarlett.

"Hello, Chao Phya," said the young man. "I didn't expect you'd be coming." He falsely patted the beast, which lay on the leather cushion beside Miss Holborow, in the attitude of a sleepy Royal Bengal.

"The guide's frightened me about him," she answered. "He says we mustn't let him out of our sight here, he'd be snapped up so quickly; and he says the pawnbroker may try to have him stolen: it's his regular trick, to sell him again."

"What 'he,' and what 'him'?" demanded Mrs. Holborow, acutely. The same white topi that made the niece a young Pallas helmeted, made the aunt a grimly sporting zenana missionary. "That's quite the most careless and confused speech I've ever heard, even from you, my dear."

"Now don't pretend, Aunt Julia," said Laura mischievously. "Of course, one he is my big dear" (she hugged the seal-brown head) "and the other is—yours."

Aunt Julia smiled; she was in a good humour this morning.

"You must confess he is a remarkable man," she replied. "He looks quite vulgar at first, but really shows excellent qualities: well educated, very respectful—I begin to wonder how we ever obtained such a man."

"An unusual chance," said Owen dryly. Laura gave him a look full of ambiguity.

Gradually, as the heat grew stronger, their talk languished into a silence, drowsy and companionable. The train jolted northward over the glaring buff plain of Lower Siam,—once rice-fields, now split and parched surfaces of sheet-brick that wavered through tremendous heat—to where, on the horizon-line, scorched palms straggled along an invisible river. Sometimes—beside the garish box of a station, or by a clump of stunted rubber trees with glossy leaves shining, in the vast scene of drought, as though miraculously wet—the train jarred to a halt; set down from the happy third-class pens, little chattering village men and women, to file slowly away, gay-breeched in pink and yellow panungs, and bearing burdens erect on cropped heads; then jolted northward again in the growing glare. Sometimes they passed a wretched rain-pit of brown water, brightened by a half-dead lotus, where down clay-cut steps clambered the Rebekahs of a dozen thirsty hamlets; or passed a small oasis of wet mud, which the roar of the train frightened into an oozy upheaval, as a smeared and shining buffalo reared from his wallow, dripping clods, like some new-born beast in the Miltonic picture of Creation.

Chao Phya and the three travellers were all dozing, when Borkman called through the window:

"Your station, madam: Ayuthia."

From bank to bank of the sharp-gabled village they crossed the copper Me-nam, in a boat whose thwarts and roof-posts were polished by generations. A handsome young Dane, in a white tunic, spurred, belted with a sword, saluted them on landing. All was ready, he said, glancing admiration at Laura; he regretted that his duties prevented him from serving them as guide. And again the lone officer saluted, gravely, when they trotted off on his ponies, from headquarters of the mounted gendarmerie.

Borkman, with Chao Phya at his saddle-bow, led them along the silent, stifling, brown-burnt paths of the jungle. The split clay underfoot exhaled heat; the palm fronds overhead reflected heat; on either side, tumbling heaps of brick—outskirts of the ancient city destroyed by Burmese, and now worse racked by jungle creepers—reverberated heat unbearable.

"It's a perfect stoke-hole," sighed Miss Holborow.

"You—you—w-would come!" gasped Aunt Julia. She jolted on, flushed, awry, patient, like a saint enduring the trials of both Mazeppa and Abed-nego. "You would c-come, L-Laura!"

"There!" cried the girl suddenly, as they swung round a bend.

Indeed, she was right to wonder; for before them, in a waste of fallen walls and broken spires, rose the ragged, tree-grown, pillared ruins of a temple; and among these, roofless, throned above climbing growth, sat the gigantic Buddha, outlined by incandescent gleams of bronze, smiling majestically from out his eternal thought. The walls rent and overthrown by the wild fig, "Splitter of sepulchres"; the year-long crumbling of stout prachadees; the green bush growing on the shoulder of the Holy One: all measured the duration and marked the repose of his dream.

They were dismounting, when Laura cried in a startled voice:

"What was that?"

"Where?" asked Owen, beside her.

"Behind that wall. Some one dodged out of sight—Just then—"

Owen strode forward, but saw only a pair of bare feet whisk round the corner of a distant thicket.

"Some native," he laughed. "He had a worse fright than you."

Borkman had gone ahead with their coolie.

"Tiffin-basket here, I take it, madam?" he inquired, returning. At a glance he had chosen the only possible corner in the stifled clearing—a ruinous archway, under which the travellers found both shade from the truculent sun, and a draught of air, in faint, hot breaths, of scant relief. Their coolie had hardly set down his baskets, before Aunt Julia was drooping beside them, propped against the ancient wall.

"Well," she panted, "this is a preposterous, preposterous—" words and breath failed her. "I would not stir," she declared feebly, "for all the Buddhas of the Five Worlds."

Laura knelt beside her in some anxiety; but her next remark was reassuring:

"Don't crouch and stare in that undignified posture, like a native! The time for any solicitude was before we started—before you dragged me out on this preposterous—" Again she found no word sufficient.

The tartness of her tone made Chao Phya regard her gravely with his goblin eyes. He stretched, rubbed himself against the wall in a slant, voluptuous curve, and lay down at the edge of the shadow in the doorway.

"After tiffin we shall all be livelier," said Owen cheerfully. "It's been a hard pull in this heat."

Borkman was busily opening the baskets—the picture of a genial comedian playing at butler.

The tinkle of soda-bottles, and the harsh crackle of dry palm-tops in the hot breeze, disturbed the dreamy noon. Suddenly, loose bricks rattled down close by in a scrambling rush—

"Oh, stop him!" cried Laura.

In the doorway glare, a pair of yellow arms made one desperate thrust, seized the dozing cat, and vanished. Owen caught the flash of a muscular back and the switching of a black queue.

Both men leapt to the entrance, slid breakneck down the steep rubble. But with a flying start, the thief had ten yards law; and gaining their feet on solid ground, they saw his saffron back and blue trousers vanish into a clump of bamboo. Scarlett plunged through it next, Borkman at his heels. Guided by the crashing ahead, they fought their way as it were through a white-hot furnace stuffed crisscross with dry stalks and rasping leaves, a tangle burning to the touch, but incombustible and tough to penetrate.

Borkman swerved to the right.

"No, no! This way!" cried Scarlett, and held his course, plunging and tearing. Straightway his chase grew confused, his hearing puzzled, deceived by twofold sounds of crashing: which was the Chinaman's flight, and which the guide's pursuit? He panted on, blind and dizzy with the heat. His temples throbbed as if to burst.

Suddenly he ripped and fell through into a clearing, just in time to see Borkman dive into the opposite side, well to the right.

"He may have struck it," thought Scarlett, as he ran through the open. The thief could have cut across to any point of the compass; all trails were now equal.

Nevertheless he pounded across, doggedly; pierced again into the smothering jungle; wrestled through a wall of thorn bushes; tripped, fell, rose again, and stumbled forth into another clearing, with face and hands bloody. The futility of the chase flashed upon him so clear and sudden that he stopped, swore, mechanically listened. The Chinaman might be hidden, chuckling, in some thicket far behind; or far to their left, be speeding down a free jungle path. The parched crackle of palm fronds continued, sharp as the rattle of carriage wheels. His thorn cuts smarted with salt sweat. Once—if it was not the dizzy thumping in his ears—a strange, gabbling cry sounded, away to the right. He tramped wearily in that direction; shouted, listened, shouted again, but with no answering sight or sound.

"Foolishness!" he muttered, angry and chagrined. "Wouldn't run in this heat for twenty coolies with twenty cats."

Yet when he had scouted fruitlessly for Borkman, and through the bewildering sameness of jungle and ruins had toiled back to the archway by the great Buddha, it was with a downcast face that he reported failure.

"Lost him," he said, gloomily. "Stupid."

"What a shame!" said Laura. "You've run till you're half dead. Good-bye, Chao Phya! It's all my fault for bringing him. You poor man—but there's blood on you!"

"Thorns," he explained. "Perhaps the guide has caught him."

Aunt Julia roused, with a weary stir.

"I hope not," she said grimly, and again collapsed.

"Did you notice the thief?" asked the girl. "It was the same native we saw lurking behind that wall—Our guide was right, wasn't he? Chao Phya was too good for us to keep long."

It was a tedious time before footsteps crunched without on the heap of powdered masonry. Scarlett and the girl sprang to the entrance. Red as with apoplexy, smiling, flourishing his big tamarind stick in triumph, up marched Borkman, with the cat clasped to his ample breast.

They applauded, but he bore his honours meekly.

"My word!" he puffed, "that chap could run! Yes, Miss, he's safe and sound, not a scratch."

"But you're not," exclaimed Laura. As he restored Chao Phya to her shoulder, the palm of his left hand showed raw and bleeding.

"I say!" he cried, in a curious tone of surprise. "I am flayed a bit, eh?"

"You must have run through Mr. Scarlett's thorns," said the girl.

"Of course!" he boomed. "That was it. 'Jumped into a bramble-bush!' Well, rather!"

He returned to the tiffin-baskets as though nothing had happened.

"Did you—I hope you didn't hurt that poor thief," Laura continued, stroking the ruffled cat.

"Er—no," said Borkman over his shoulder, as he stooped. "Er—by Jove, the ice has gone futt—clean melted. I dropped it in the sun. Why, that chap got away clear, Miss. He could run, if you like. Saw game was up—dropped the cat—off like a shot. This heat, too, poor devil—my word, he ran!"

The excitement over, he became once more a subdued professional guide and handy man,
 
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"My word" he puffed, "that chap could run!"

 
gravely serving their tiffin of limp sandwiches and tepid soda. And when Aunt Julia had revived, he led her out, incongruous under a wide umbrella, to confront the Dreamer in the Ruins. The hum of explanation came drowsily to Owen and the girl.

Their pretext—of hunting for small Buddhas among the rubbish—led them slowly out of ear-shot. Prodding into likely or impossible corners, happy to be together, they encountered awkward, expectant silences, which neither knew how to break. From above crumbled walls, and parching screens of jungle, the bronze face of the Dreamer smiled with downcast eyes, as though they too appeared in the illusion of Forms, along with so many past phantoms—war and worship, growth and decay, other lives and loves—so many eager shadows flitting imperious and futile across this solitude.

"Aren't we wandering rather far?" asked Laura. It was not the subject uppermost in her mind.

"We're not lost," replied Scarlett. "This is the way we chased the coolie." It was not at all his uppermost thought.

They dug listlessly, in silence.

"Mr. Scarlett," began the girl resolutely. "I've thought over what you said aboard ship."

"So have I," said Owen, in great relief. "And been thoroughly ashamed. You're very good—I didn't hope to see you again after that—and—and—"

"It was rather a cheeky thing to do, wasn't it?" Her tone was cool, her blue eyes shone with uncompromising candour.

"No two opinions about that," he admitted ruefully. "Just brazen cheek."

To his surprise, she laughed clear and joyful.

"That's what I like. You don't make excuses and—and that, but just own up nice and squarely."

"So it's all right?" said Owen. They faced each other, radiantly. Flies hummed in the tense, quivering stillness. "Then I'll do it again—for another reason—"

His tone was dangerous. Laura started on, quickly; they turned the little promontory of a ruin; and what he wished and feared to say was forgotten.

It was here that the flies were humming. Close under the wall, half covered by vines burnt hard as wire, a man sprawled prone—the Chinaman, dead, with a clotted knife-wound in the back.

Owen whipped in before the girl.

"You can't do anything here," he commanded. "Let me. Wait round the corner there."

With a queer catch in her breath, she obeyed. Owen stood staring. He had seen violent death before, but this—

Just above the knife-thrust, on the broad, sallow back, showed in blue tattooing the Dual Powers, the convoluted Symbol of Creation. This, then, was the coolie whom Borkman had menaced outside the pawnbroker's shop.

Gently, in a nausea of repugnance, he turned the body over. As it rolled limply on its back, something scratched his hand. The queue bristled with long, sharp pins. Oil shone on the naked chest. Scarlett whistled thoughtfully: "Came prepared, didn't he? Regular burglar's make-up." The Mongol face, more inscrutable even than in life, gaped at the blazing sky, idiotic and daunting. He had been run almost through the body, pierced as if by a lance.

The stout belt-purse had been half wrenched away.

"May as well be thorough," thought Owen; and kneeling, he opened it. A poor handful of silver coins, salungs bent in some gambling-house, clinked within; and among them lay a pasteboard ticket, third-class,—Bangkok to Ayuthia, stamped with that day's date, punched and forgotten by the guard. He had followed them to these ruins: to steal a cat, and meet his death. Why?

Why indeed? The thief sprawled among the vines, tawny as the lifeless ground, agape, mysterious, inaccessible.

There was nothing more to do. Retreating slowly from the rebuke of that presence, Owen turned the corner of the wall.

"Come," he said. They moved off among the ancient mounds, the air before them dancing in blurs of heat. The girl shivered slightly, paused as for breath:

"Was it—?" she whispered. "Did he do it?"

"No," said Owen, as though she had named the guide aloud. "No, I hope—I think not. The wound—you see, he couldn't carry such a weapon,—a spear or a long dagger. Couldn't conceal it. No—"

"Oh, he wouldn't anyway!" she cried. "But—what shall we do?"

"Say nothing to him," he replied slowly "Report—gendarmerie headquarters. What else?"

In silence, they gained the temple and the archway. Among the baskets Chao Phya and the coolie bearer dozed together; Aunt Julia and the guide were returning at a distance.

"Remember—don't show that anything is up," whispered Owen.

It was a silent company that jogged back to the living Ayuthia. Aunt Julia's one comment expressed the general desire: "Let us go back to civilization as soon as possible." So Borman cantered on ahead to see that their launch should have steam up. At the outskirts of the village he cantered back again, calling:

"To your left, please! We'll ride straight to the landing. I have boys to take the ponies home." He swung before them towards the river.

"Very thoughtful, isn't he?" sighed Aunt Julia. "But we should thank that kind young officer."

"I'll go," said Owen. He had already reined about.

In the verandah of barracks the young Dane looked up from inspecting Mannlicher carbines. Handsome and impassive, he saluted, bowed gravely to the message of thanks.

"But there's another matter," continued Owen. "Out there in the ruins we found a man killed, the dead body—"

"Ah, yes," interrupted the Dane slowly. "That coolie—We shall find the place, thanks to your—ah—most accurate description. It is nothing to retain you more long, no? Some quarrels of thiefs. However, allow me your address, as a favour; it may be well."

"So you knew already!" cried Scarlett.

"Naturally." The young officer smiled. "Your—ah—courier reported just since. He found the body, and willed to refrain alarming the ladies; is it not? I go investigate shortly."

Scarlett rode down to the river with his chin on his breast. As their launch slipped down stream, in the level light that flamed through the silhouette bars and tatters of palm-groves, he remained silent and thoughtful. Crowded among cushions at the bow, they had no room for secrets.

The great tide turned in flood, making the launch labour slowly; the cool darkness of the East fell at a blow; and the easy slumber of the East at last overcame the tired women. Yet now and then they woke, with weary murmurs of delight, at some picture fleeting past: a tug whipping up-river an endless string of rice-boats, each with a ruddy fire that lighted up the brown legs of a squatting circle, and each leaving a pungent wake of cookery and sour betel; the bellying whiteness of a lateen sail, swan-like, unreal, seen and lost in a moment of ghostly moonshine; splashes of lamp light wriggling deep in the river pools below some floating bazaar or open house-boat, where, as if kneeling on the water, black profiles of Chinamen threatened each other, chattering at Chai-mooey, the coolies game of forfeits. All these passed swiftly in a dream, measured by the monotonous, happy chant of the steersman, and heavy with the perfume of acacias.

When the other two slept soundly, Owen leaned toward Borkman.

"What was all this?" he whispered. His glance, in the lantern-light, was hard and severe. "What did you tell them at gendarmerie headquarters?"

"The facts, of course," said the guide readily. "Strange business, wasn't it? Saw directly by Miss Holborow's face that you'd found him. Well, that's the way I found him, too—dead—and the cat perched on the wall. Lied to them, obviously. Silly to frighten women about it, eh? What? Much in the dark as you. My dear chap, I'd give anything to know—"

The young man leaned back again. Perhaps, then, his thoughts had wronged Borkman; but if they had, what was all this tangle? What stratagems, what violence, could centre in the absurd figure of a cat? He must puzzle out the problem. But athwart his first efforts came the thought of Laura, the flutter of her breathing beside him, to confuse and erase his reasoning.

"This much is good," he thought. "If there is danger to her, I'm to be in it."