CHILD of the SONG-FO RIVER
A NOVELETTE COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE
G. APPLEBY TERRILL
I CAME to a standstill, took out my tobacco pouch, and rolled a cigarette. The village ahead of me was roughly four hundreds yards away.
It lay just clear of the spur of high land covered by wood and copse which stretched right out into the plain; so that, save for the spur, it was environed by the vast, level, Berkshire fields. With its old, dim brown, squaretowered church and its handful of cream-washed cottages timbered with faded oak, with its quality of intense rural calm which it got from the great fields, it was, I thought, the most peaceful little village I had ever set eyes on.
I lit the cigarette.... The picture of the other village was in my mind, the reed-built hamlet in the mountain valley of north Tongking—Se-Mera-Adon, on the SongFo river. I saw the Se-Mera-Adon of that torch-illumined evening three years back, when some of the reed hovels lay overturned and crushed in, and the river bank was kicked-about, torn, and blood-splashed; and wounded men were everywhere, and dead men had gone downstream in the rushing little Song-Fo; and—central figure of my memories—the girl stood smiling in the pinkish light of the torches.
It was very strange, very incongruous, that the peaceful English village in front of me should be linked with that scene by the Song-Fo.
But linked it was. For, unless my information were wrong, the girl was living in one of these cottages; and now I had come here—to see her for the first time since that evening, and to recall it to her.
It was when the fight was over, and I, who had foolishly mixed in a native quarrel and led the attacking (and totally defeated) party, was a wounded prisoner in the hands of the Se-MeraAdon men, that the girl had appeared from among the hovel s—appeared amazingly as an entrancing child, and proved, amazingly, the most heartless young wretch conceivable. The little fiend!—with her shimmering eyes and her paganly pitiless trill of a laugh.
I began to make a second cigarette.
I had halted because I was still without an answer to the question which had puzzled me so during the past few months. When I found myself face to face with the girl, what then? What was I going to do? Or rather what was I going to say?
I was not out for vehement revenge. Thank’goodness I had recovered sufficient command of myself to detest the idea of a man of thirty-nine (or of any age) “taking it out of” a child. I could only think of her as a child, though she would be about nineteen now. No, I did not want revenge; butll really did want to give her a “stinger” of a talking-to;
I really did want to see her looking very sick and sorry, otherwise I should not have troubled to employta private detective_to track her down.
That phrase of his, by the way, that she was “daughter in*a family of nice, re-
spected gentlefolk, who were rather poor,” was somewhat difficult to reconcile with her. One simply couldn’t fit the child of the Song-Fo river, who was so exultantly at home amidst sheerest barbarism, into a family of “nice, respected gentlefolk.” But she, the girl in this village, was the right one, almost beyond a doubt. Her surname tallied, and she had been in French Indo-China.
T LIT the cigarette. Well, once and for all, what was I going to say and do?—say rather? Do was crossed out months ago.
For a couple of minutes I pondered, then my thoughts slipped from the line. There was no denying that the nearness of the interview had caused a curiously strong excitement in me; and I suppose this prevented me from keeping a proper grip on my thoughts. At any rate the knowledge that the girl was, to all intents, within hand touch, had made Se-Mera-Adon in the pinkish light of the torches marvellously plain; and thither my mind went —to the child, of course, and to the thing she did.
It had seemed so completely incredible that I might have believed in after days that the parang swipe above the eyes, which had quickly rendered me delirious, had made me imagine both the girl and the transaction—had not Chennsiang assured me to the contrary.
Vividly, now, I saw the tall, slim child with the flushed face and the bare head of thick, short, dark hair, the English girl of sixteen (or scarcely that) with the wide open dark blue eyes which shimmered so strangely all the time; vividly I saw her, smiling, ever smiling, with the ground at her feet kickedup and bloody, with the black-toothed, bladdery native faces, the faces of the SeMera-Adon men, cheek by jowl with her. Vividly I had seen her then, though my eyes were full of blood from the parang cut. She stood not ten feet from where I sat sprawled and propped against a hut.
But, as I have implied, she might well have remained in my memory as only a vivid hallucination, but for Chen-nsiang. It was so hard to believe that she did the thing—that she sold me to Chen-nsiang for a palmful of low grade sapphires.
That was the business; and it came about in this way: While I looked at her wondering how she could have got to this place in the wilds; wondering also whether the winning side would dare to sling me into the Song-Fo, or whether they would hand me over to the French authorities, who, presumably, would ask me what the ten thousand blazes I meant by attacking Se-Mera-Adon; and forthwith hang me—while I looked and wondered, the Se-Mera-Adon people, who had no wish for a French
inquiry into the affray, and had—temporarily, anyhow— misgivings as to inflicting deadly punishment themselves, somehow arrived at the notion of paying an extreme compliment to their guest of rare type. They offered me to her as her slave—to be her slave in her journeyings and in her own city, where, assuredly, when she told how I was given her, after an old custom, none would wish to free me from her.
I was regarding her as sweet-faced, enchanting, at the time, despite that she could smile when the ground was torn and bloody. Deeply flushed, excited, flattered by the offer, smiling, so sweetly, she accepted, and sent my heart leaping and racing. This meant life and safety for me. I never doubted that, together with a child’s great pity, she had, behind those blue, shimmering eyes of hers, a maiden’s keen wit. I never doubted that she was rejoicing at the chance which was now hers—the chance to take me, her own countryman (as she had been told) away with her, clean out of danger. Yes; although, for some reason, if she looked in my direction, her eyes gave no sign; although they just shimmered on, seeing me yet ignoring me, I never doubted she was full of pity and comprehension. I loved her face with its fresh sweetness. I could not speak to her; I was too badly in. And then I heard her laugh with a trill, heard her say that she would not like to have me near her—that she would be afraid of me. Whereupon the half-bred Chinese outlaw, Chennsiang, who had just strolled in, attracted by the recent racket, deciding that his humour would be exactly suited by holding a white man as a slave, bought me from her for a palmful of rotten sapphires.
Small wonder that I required Chen-nsiang’s corroboration before I really believed that.
CHEN-NSIANG was as ominous a customer as you would find in any mountain nook between Luang Prabang and the Yun-nan border, but somehow we hit it off remarkably well together; and he declared he was not lying in any detail to me. Again and again, during the two years and four months that he kept me in his rogues’ eyry—far aloft to the west of the Black river—he reiterated that there were three English people in Se-MeraAdon when poor Doniao-kai, my native ally (who had pitched dead into the Song-Fo) and I made our disastrous attempt to hurl the village into the stream. There was an Englishman lying sick—he had lent the rifles which beat us, there was a woman, his wife, and there was—indeed! there was the shimmering-eyed child who had sold me. She had laughed prettily to Chen-nsiang when she held her palm for the sapphires.
“Most prettily,” quoth Chen-nsiang. He presumed that I should kill her if I managed to escape from him and could find her.
He had no real bias in the matter, but, after a while, out of friendliness, he gave me such information, useful for tracing her, as he possessed. The man’s name was Ah-ah-lin—a riddle which I took to represent R. R. Lynn; the girl was daughter to his brother, Ah-ah-lin dwelt in Ke-Sho—Hanoi, as the French called it. He was a strange man who made strange journeys, whereof he wrote books. With the women he had come up through the Laos region, through Luang Prabang; and he was making for the upper Black river and the high mountains of the Cloudy South Province (of China—Yun-nan) when sickness delayed him at Se-Mera-Adon.... A man who would kill the girl quickly, as one would strike the head from a fowl, was a fool—so Chen-nsiang would meditate, at this point.
To which I would reply that I was not going to kill the girl, but that I hoped to give her one day the father-andmother-and-complete-ancestry of a thrashing that she would squirm at the thought of fifty years hence.
I meant that. I would brood for hours with a mirage of that flushed face with its wide open, shimmering, blue •eyes before me; and I would tell myself I would not rest until I had met the owner of it and just about flayed her. I am afraid that, weakly, I muttered names at the face. Some were baleful; some were puerile, such as Poisonflower. I used Poison-flower quite often. For one could not blind oneself to the sweetness of the face—and it was the face of a little fiend who “laughed prettily” when she sold a half-dead white man.
Of’course, when I landed back in Hanoi, I dropped the thrashing idea. The touch of civilization, a bath and a dinner at the Hotel Metropole, promptly rendered me normal enough to lose relish in it; and certainly it would not have done for England, whither I discovered, the girl was supposed to have gone—to her parents. I laughed once or twice at the notion of paying a call on people for the purpose of cutting strips from the daughter of the house with a rattan, and that was the end of the item.
“Ah-ah-lin” was a surname, Aralin—I quickly learnt; and Chen-nsiang’s information was bedrock fact. The chap Aralin had taken the women on that insane journey through the Laos to the north, through the wildest places —with the heat months overtaking him, to add to the insanity of the affair. Well, Aralin had nearly died; so had the girl. La mere Aralin was tough as tough. At present she was with Aralin, lost to the world somewhere on High
Pamir. But the girl’s parents in England—so ran Hanoi gossip—had demanded la petite back with fury after the Laos-Yun-nan jaunt—avec la plus grande furie contre Monsieur Aralin. It wasn't surprising. Aralin did not figure well as guardian of a kid—particularly if her deal at Se-Mera-Adon were an example of the precepts he inculcated.
WHY, as soon as I reached England, I set about discovering the girl with as much eagerness as though my virulence against her were unchanged, I could not explain to myself very satisfactorily. If I found her I should not know what to do. I merely had that vague project of a “stinger” of a talking-to. And yet, though the search went on for several months, I never wavered, never grudged the expense. I felt —I seemed to know with certainty, that I should never rest until I saw her and gave her that talking-to. This attitude was so totally unreasonable that after some weeks I concluded that I was hoodwinking myself more or less—that the real explanation of my keenness was that sub-consciously I knew that by interesting myself in the search I was escaping quite a lot from the gloomy thoughts which kept trying to settle on me.
One or two circumstances of the recent years had left a very wretched impression. There was Se-Mera-Adon, involving the death of Doniao-kai and many others. I had been fond of that barbarian friend of mine, and I had to bear the knowledge that if I had used my influence with him, probably I could have put him quite against the idea of starting a fight.... I had not thought of him very much while Chen-nsiang held me in the mountains, but I had tried (vainly) to find his wife and youngsters on my way down to Hanoi, and I had thought of them pretty frequently since my return to England. And though I could talk lightly enough (when not on French territory) of my battle at Se-Mera-Adon, it was none the less a sorrow to
That was one circumstance. Another was the spell I passed in Chen-nsiang’s eyry, or more particularly the latter part of the first year, when, weak a*ter long illness which resulted from the parang wound, I had—in spite of Chen-nsiang’s amiability—what might be described as “months of the horrors.” That is, I believed Chennsiang meant to kill me. And though my nerve came back fairly well after the first year, I was still sapped by those months.
AT H I R D circumstance which, for all my incredulity, affected me to some extent was the prediction of my excellent friend Flower of the Lolos, Chen-nsiang’s mother and a reader of auguries—the prediction that before my years were two score and one I should lie dead in the village of Hai-Uong, on the Song-Fo river. Kua, surnamed Flower of the Lolos, tiny, frail, quaintly trousered, with the black eyes in her skull-like visage kindly and yet, despite her age, masterful, was in the ordinary way no empty talker, no feather pate. It was she who ultimately forced—ay, forced Chen-nsiang to release me on my mere promise to send him a small ransom; and she had shaken her head in grief over the short space that was left me for enjoying freedom. She felt assured of my fate. It was easy enough for me to say that I should take care to avoid the region of the SongFo until I was past forty-one. Flower of the Lolos’ reply— that one day before then, wherever I might be, I should hear the voices of Doniao-kai’s children beseeching me to hasten to Hai-Uong to aid them, for memory of their father, and that I should go, was ominous. Hai-Uong was Doniao-kai’s village, and I was not at all sure even when back in England, that, if I got the idea that the widow and her
youngsters had returned to Hai-Uong, from which they had disappeared, and were in trouble of some sort—I should not go out and look them up—go out immediately.
My travels certainly had produced a sombre aftermath. Perhaps this served me right, for I had gone searching for trouble in far-off places when I might have stayed comfortably at home. I naturally craved for a means to avoid my moody thoughts, and this craving— there seemed little doubt—explained my absorption in the search for a girl I simply wished to nag at.
As I stood anchored to the field path in the sunshine of this June afternoon, bringing my thoughts back from the past to the immediate future—the interview and the “stinger,” and rolling a third cigarette, I was not only excited, I was elated—rarely elated, despite the fact that probably in half an hour everything would be over, my occupation finished, and I should proceed to drift into a miserable mood.
Instead of putting the cigarette between my lips .1 softly whistled an air, gazing over the fields, solidly green with young crops. Then, remembering that time was passing, I looked at the clock in the church tçwer. Exactly five minutes to five.... The hands and numerals of the clock were gleaming bravely from a fresh coat of gilt; and now I surmised idly as to whether the girl had watched the work of gilding; as to whether, in the course of a day, she often lifted those wide open eyes of hers to read this clock face.
Come, what was I going to say to her?
I fell to whistling again. And presently I smiled at discovering that with my inherent tendency to do the inopportune thing I was whistling, of all songs, a love song. It was that little quick-time, composed by an English fellow out • East, with crude and decidedly energetic wording, but with an utterly haunting tune—“ShanGirl.”
“Oh, listen, my Shan girl, the shine of that star,
Oh, my lovely Yun-nan girl, is fainter by far When I look at it there in-the sky than when now I see it reflect on your lips and your brow.”
Of course what helped the “appeal” of the song was that he’d married the kid—at a Catholic mission.
¥ LIT the cigarette, and made a final attempt to keep my 1 thoughts to the “stinger.” Useless; in about three seconds I was calculating that five o’clock was probably the girl’s tea time, and that if I did not hold off for a bit longer I should reach the cottage when the whole family were at tea. That would be awkward. In fact the rest of the family represented a difficulty, which hitherto I had scarcely heeded. It was to be hoped—though there was barely^ chance—that they would have gone out for a walk,leaving the girl, when I called.
Then my reflections took another turn. She wouldn’t know in the least who I was until I told her. All she had seen of my countenance was a pair of blood-swamped eyes—the rest was beneath a veil of blood and mire. Unpleasant—but she might have realized it was pitiable. How could a child, especially with her face, beso paganly pitiless!
Between five minutes and ten minutes past five I had had more than enough of the field path, took my rattan walking-stick from under my arm and sailed forward., I would risk the tea business; and as for the “stinger”— well, I was beaten. Unless I resorted to sundry of the old epithets, I should have to rely upon such observations as occurred to me during the interview. When one came to think of it, there was quite a likelihood that the sight of her would give my faculties a considerable rousing.
Blithely I whistled, until I stepped across a stile and entered the still, empty village street—and even then I whistled under my breath.
“Oh, listen, my Shan girl, the star with its shine,
Oh, my lovely Yun-nan girl, would bid me divine Where is joy for my life; and so down the ray slips And rests on your brow and your half open lips.”
I was rather inclined to suspect that this persistent whistling was not wholly free from a motive—the calming of my nerves. For two or three minutes, that is from the moment I up-anchored, I had been distinctly aware of nerviness, engendered most likely by my anticipation of meeting the rest of the family. However, there was no doubt that I was feeling really light-hearted, really happy. It was good indeed to feel really happy!
'T''HE girl of thirteen in a short sleeved white frock, who opened the door of the biggish cottage, was a sister. I knew it at once. She was a pretty youngster of the same slim type, with the same blue eyes and very dark hair. But there was nothing in her eyes reminiscent of the callous shimmer. On the contrary there was a remarkably nice beam of greeting blended with their hint of questioning.
“Could Miss Aralin see me?” I asked.
The eyes became radiant with what seemed to be conviction—though why the possessor of them should thus suddenly become convinced of something I could not imagine. Her smile brimmed with friendship, and, with her gaze travelling slowly over my face, she addressed me in confidential tones in which there was amused exasperation.
“Amy is a pirate—a regular cool perverter!”
“I’m sorry she’s so deplorable,” I said hazily.
“Oh, it’s just to keep people from being interested in you. I suppose she doesn’t want anyone else—Nora Haig, perhaps—cutting in.” The scrutiny continued. “Still, she needn’t have said right on her honour that
your looks weren’t—weren’t worth calling looks, need she? .... And the cuts haven’t spoilt you a bit. Was it a motor bike accident?” The question, very sympathetic, gave me an opportunity to cover up my blushes.
“No,” I said, “it wasn’t an accident. You might call it a design—a parang design—the big one.”
“A Malay sword? Phew!” She drew in her breath sharply, and there was tremendous sympathy in the look she gave me. Then, in the most natural manner, she put her hand on my sleeve. “But do come in. I’ll call Amy.” The door opened directly into the cottage dining-room, a long, low, pretty room, its walls distempered with the faintest blue, its windows hung with faint blue curtains. At the far end there went up an old, black-oak stairway. I placed my hat and rattan on a chair, and stood with a remarkably tense feeling. The interview was very near now. There was no doubt as to whom Amy was. But Amy’s sister had not quite done with me. The removal of my hat appeared to have increased her gay exasperation. “She is a perjured pirate!”
I smiled down at the laughing face. “What’s the matter now?” I asked.
“Said you were bald! And you’ve heaps of nice fair hair. Why—” she whirled about and brought up leaning against the table, frowning in pretended venom and yet smiling merrily at me. “I wish I was a few years older. I’d cut in between her and you—honestly! to pay her out for such lies. Wouldn’t she be furious!.... She’s brushing her teeth just now. What kind of breath do you like people to blow in your ear—violet, lavender? Shall I tell her to switch on any particular brand?”
“My dear child!” I ejaculated.
WITH a chuckle she pushed herself from the table and slid across the oak floor towards the stairway. “Look here!” I said; “be careful what you say to her, please. You’re mistaking me for someone else. I’m a complete stranger.”
“Complete?” A derisive glance came to me from the stairway.
Whereupon my youthful friend, mounting one stair, vociferated upward with all her power: “HEM! HEM! HEM!”
“Don’t you think that’s rather an embarrassing method of announcing a visitor?” I asked.
As she swung round to me, her face alight with roguery, there was a gentle creak of the floor above us, and, low and possessed and clear, a voice sounded. “Christine, behave!”
“You’ve done it, my son,” I said.
Miss Christine approached me stealthily. “She daren’t say much in front of you. You might wonder if you’d get the same if you married her.”
“You utterly graceless—” I began; and then I stopped. And I forgot Christine.
My eyes had gone to the stairway; and—paused half way down it—I saw the child of the Song-Fo river, changed by the three years, and yet so little changed that for an instant I ceased to know that the three years had passed. The dark background of the stairway became to me the night jungle beyond the narrow Song-Fo, and it seemed that I was still asprawl against the hovel, winking the blood out of my eyes as I watched her.
She was, I began to note, taller now; and, though slim enough, broader of breast. The slender shape of the face—the poison-flower face, had not altered a shade, but the sweetness, without hardening, had strengthened into beauty. Her hair, though long now, was so loosely folded about her temples and ears that momentarily it had looked short hair. Most change was in her eyes. There was a mere hint of a shimmer caused, I believed, by her surprise at discovering a stranger to be the subject of Christine’s announcement —but the curious rapid shimmer and all suggestion of the old callous ignoring were gone. In fact her eyes, though puzzled, had that soft beam of greeting which her sister’s had given me. She was flushed, as at SeMera-Adon. Christine’s “HEM!’S” would account for this.
T SET my mouth suddenly and hard—because I felt A there was a chance that there and then I should laugh—laugh outright in my helpless astoundment. The thing was so overwhelmingly astonishing, so unbelievable—the reason, the true reason, why I had wanted to find her. ... Oh I knew it now—now that I saw her actually. I knew what undreamed-of thought had lain behind my anger as I brooded over her mirage face in the Tongking mountains. . . . And I knew that my spirits were leaping to such a height of happiness as, in all my life, I had never experienced.
I set my mouth also because / had the whip hand of this girl who embodied my happiness, and, if necessary, I would use that whip hand with more pitilessness than had been hers, until I gained her.
She came down the stairway and paused again.
glancing with a smile at her sister. “May I not know your friend?’’ she asked.
I looked at Christine, in unkind triumph. Christine’s jaw dropped. In consternation she surveyed me.
“Please, I'm most awfully sorry! Aren’t you really Major Minier?”
My spirits, my thoughts of the whip hand, and my capacity for mismanagement, combined somehow to send me on a most stupid and brutal tack.
“No, my dear,” I said; "I'm Major ‘Sprinter’—when the battle’s going the wrong way. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sprint last time out.”
“Where was that?” Christine’s gaze went for a second to the parang scar, and then, eager with interest, returned to my eyes.
"That,” I said, “was the Battle of Se-Mera-Adon. Perhaps they put it in your history book as the Battle of the Song-Fo River.”
“Was it a big show?” Christine had caught the note of banter in my tone, and, with dancing eyes, was preparing to make me confess to a mere duel.
“It was one of the decisive battles of the world,” I answered impressively, but absently. I was following another matter. There had been the sound of a quiet sigh from near the stairway—just a quiet sigh which told nothing in particular. Then, though my eyes did not leave Christine, I noted her sister turn casually from us and walk to one of the windows and kneel on the window seat to look into the garden.
“Of the world!” Christine was agog to upset that. “Did it win an empire—or something?”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t about empires; it was about sixteen pounds of salt fish.”
Christine shut her eyes and roared.
“It wasn’t a joke,” I said indignantly. “I marched with an army to get that fish back.”
“A real army?” She opened her eyes and wondered how much to believe.
“Rather—twenty-five men, three boys, and an old lady who wouldn’t be left out. I was Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief.”
Christine reeled in hilarity, and gasped a question about defeat.
“Yes, we were defeated,” I said more soberly, thinking now of Doniao-kai. “The enemy had some useful old parangs, heirlooms from Malay grandfathers. But worst of all they had a couple of modern rifles which ‘pinged’ a lot of my people over before we could get to hand-fighting.”
“Did they take you prisoner? Do tell me about it properly—no joking.”
Before I could reply I was spoken to from the windowspoken to but not looked at, as I
could tell from the sound of the voice.
“I am not asking you not to tell Christine. But wouldn’t it be more honourable if you spoke to me instead of using the little sister as a—a weapon to—to goad at me with?”
For the second time Christine’s jaw dropped.
“I’m blowed! You two do know each other. Oh—” she drew a long breath—“is the Song-Fo in French Asia? Amy’s been out there.”
“We met down that way,” I said. “I want to have a chat with your sister. Do you mind if—”
“A/fIND clearing out?” Christine’s glance was affec-
-L^tionate. She was a winning kid. “Of course not.” As I held the door for her, she added serenely: “Seems to be a tiff. You’ll have a nasty time. Rather you than me —a jolly sight.”
I shut the door and looked at the figure which knelt in the window seat, and wore a thin white frock, a bigger edition of Christine’s frock. The face was kept rigidly towards the garden; the slant of the sun made a golden gloss about the dark hair. There was no movement, except that one hand touched and touched again some creeper leaves by the window.
“To fascinate the little sister, just because you wanted to use her against me, was unthinkably low,” she said.
She touched the leaves once more, and then suddenly slipped foot to floor and stood up and faced me, her cheeks so white that I was fairly startled, her blue eyes steady on me.
“The hour of vengeance,” she said, the ghost of a smile edging her lips; “chosen when father and mother are away.” Her eyes went past me, and once, but once only, the lids sank over them; then she had them steady again, fixed on the wall beside the door. “Will you announce your vengeance?” she asked. I could not tell how far she was serious in that; but her next remark ended with distinct appeal. “You may be going to hurt me,” she said; “but I know you wouldn’t hurt Christine as well.”
MY VOICE shook a trifle, the whole suggestion was so appalling. “What do you take me for?” I asked. I touched the handle of the door. “If you are really nervous of me, I’ll go now—after telling you one thing—and come back when your people are home.... But I’m sure you’re not nervous; you could have dropped out of the window. You were certain I would never, never hurt you.”
“Fairly certain.” Her colour was coming back. “By your voice you were a gentleman. That was reassuring. But—” the ghost of a smile returned to her lips—“but I was quite certain you should not chase me round the garden.” She looked at the chair beside her. “What do you wish to tell me? My sentence, of course. Very well. Sit down if you wish. I am going to.” She moved a pace and slipped into the chair; and now there was much more of a shimmer in her eyes, which she lifted to me—a shimmer of exictement and strain. Probably, I found myself surmising, such emotions always made her eyes shimmer.
She saw that I noted her feelings; and she nodded. “I suppose I do look rather hapless,” she said in that admirable, clear voice of hers. Then she glanced down with a sigh. “I’ve been dreading this on and off for a long time. I’ve been bad enough to hope occasionally, just during a few seconds, that you were dead. That’s how dread works on one.... I’m very glad you’re safe. But this is— is horrible. Oh—” she moved one of her shoulders high and a quiver went over her lips—“Oh, say what my penalty is. Naturally you think there should be a penalty, seeing that I—bartered you. I quite understand.” “There’s no penalty,” I said; “at least I hope that in time you will not consider it a penalty.”
I moved slowly nearer, trying to get a grip on my courage. I stopped beside her chair, about a yard from it, looking down at the dark hair, at the beautiful sideface, the chin now held high as she stared down the room. A dignity had shown very plainly through her stress; arid, whatever my whip hand, I required courage to tell her, at this early minute, what I
had determined I would tell her.
“It’s a case of ‘once a slave, always a slave’,” I said. “I was made your slave—in—in what seems like a dream—”
I paused. She waited silently.
“And you got rid of me very promptly; but I find this evening that I’m still your slave. I’ve discovered that I always shall be. Therefore I’m going to marry you.”
/'"’OLOUR in her neck and cheek leapt and flamed. It ^ was marvellous—the leap of that colour. She gave me one sight of her eyes—shimmering, actually laughing; and then she leaned back in the big oak chair with her hands on the arms. She took a long, tremulous breath and, hot-cheeked, biting her lips, smiled down the room. Then, with relief and laughter blended in her voice, with a mock dramatic turn to her words, which — I was to learn—was rather a favourite trick with her, she exclaimed:—
“I thought that he came for my head, and presto! he came for my heart!”
“I didn’t know why I came,” I said, “until I saw you a few minutes ago; and then I knew that I had been, in some strange way, utterly in love with you ever since you were that child by the Song-Fo river.”
She straightened herself a little, not looking at me.
“Of course this isn’t true?” she asked, a shade anxiously.
“True as true.” I moved a step and put my hand on the back of her chair. “I don’t know how it happened. -1 thought your face was sweet at Se-Mera-Adon—marvellously sweet. I blessed it when I thought you meant tp save me. Afterwards—shall I be honest?”
"Afterwards, I thought I hated it. I called it a poisonflower and worse names. I called you a little fiend. Up in the mountains, where you had sent me, I would think of that sweet face of yours for hours after hours, and hate it savagely—so I thought, hate it and mean to thrash you atrociously when I should meet you. But really I didn’t hate you. No; the extraordinary thing is that though I believed I did, I was really in love with you—utterly. And when I came to England, though I knew then I didn’t hate you, it seemed that the one thing in life I wanted to do was to find you—only to give you a bad-tempered talking to, I thought. I didn’t guess that the one thing in life I wanted was you because I loved you. But that was it. I was miserable, for certain reasons, when I was not thinking about finding you. And the day before yesterday, when a telegram came to say you were found, I was ever so delighted—because I was going to say badtempered words to you, I thought.” I bent an inch nearer to the dark head. “But when I saw you, Child of the Song-Fo River—saw you in the stairway, I knew. I knew that you stood for my life’s happiness. I knew—I know— that I can’t go on with life without you, Child of the Song-Fo river.”
She had listened, keeping quite still, except for her slow, steady breathing. It had striven to flutter once or twice, but she had mastered it.
“You make it ring true,” she said softly, after a moment; “yes, true as true.”
Her words trailed into a little laugh. “Oh, surely this is a dream, it’s so strange!” She looked at one of her hands on the chair arm. “It’s a generous, kind return for what I did. But of course it ends with that. I’m going to marry a Major Minter.”
“Forgive me,” I said; “you’re not.”
She made no answer.
“He shan’t blame you,” I said. “I shall tell him that I won’t let you keep your promise. I suppose you’ve promised him?”
“I’ve—almost promised.... I shall promise now as soon as I see him.”
“Let me make you a promise,” I said. “From the moment you are married to me I’ll truly and honestly be your slave. I won’t go counter to your tiniest wish. I’ll give you leave—” I took my hand from the back of the
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chair with a light-hearted gesture—“I'll give you leave to exhibit me as the most henpecked and happy husband in existence.”
Her head went back. She was smiling, biting her lip again.
“I promise all this. But I won’t let you—keep from marrying me. ... If you knew how much you mean to me!
. . . I’m fighting for my life in fighting to get you.”
SHE glanced down at a bunch of lilies of the valley which was in her dress. And then, as though in thought, her gaze went slowly along the floor to the foot of the blue wall opposite. Then, leaning forward a trifle, she slipped her hands from the chair arms to her lap, and sat with fingers linked.
“You’re fighting to hopeless defeat,” she said, with a certain seriousness. “But let’s leave that for the time. Won’t you please sit down? I should like to tell you something. It’s—it’s not in
defence of myself. I don’t defend myself when I’m in the wrong. But, as it’s rather—rather noble of you to be so in love with a Tittle fiend,’ you deserve to know that there was a tiny excuse for her fiendishness.”
“I want you—without any excuse,” I said, moving a chair so that I should be able to sit nearly facing her. “But if you will let me stay for a bit, and talk to me, I shall be very grateful.”
For the first time she was intently looking me over, frankly examining me. Instead of sitting, I glanced with a sense of guilt at my muddy shoes.
“You came over the fields from the junction,” she said. “Did you manage to get tea anywhere? I don’t believe you did. Do let me make you some!” She stood up eagerly. “Or there is some of father’s whisky.”
Tea made by her for me was an alluring offer. But she would have to leave me for a minute or so to get it, BO I refused it, refusing the whisky also —though she urged me in a bright, every-day manner which was queerly out of keeping with the circumstances —and thanking her very much.
“By the way”—she was still standing, scanning my face now—“I was never told your name.”
“Carvalho,” I said; "James Carvalho.” Her brows came together prettily. She eyed me for a moment longer, thinking fast, racking her brain—I thought. With a breath of an exclamation she went across the room, stooped over some newspapers, and straightened with an illustrated paper in her hand. I knew what was coming; I had seen my father’s photograph in that paper earlier in the week.
“ ‘Sir James Bruire Carvalho, Eleventh Baronet’,” she read aloud slowly, “ ‘is sixty-four today. ... Sir James and Lady Carvalho recently went through a period of grave anxiety owing to total absence of news of their only son, who was exploring in the fastnesses of southeast Asia—whence, happily, he reappeared safe and sound.’ ”
“No mention of Chen-nsiang, you see,” I remarked. “I told him I wouldn’t give him undesired publicity. That was one of the conditions of my release. Chen-nsiang is the gentleman you—you lent me to.”
She took that coolly, with her eyes on the photograph.
“You’re very like your father,” she observed. . . . She laid down the
paper and came back.
“Didn’t you notice anything peculiar about me at Se-Mera-Adon—apart from the fiendishness?” she asked, sitting again.
I sat and crossed my knees and returned her gaze. “No,” I said, “except for the sweetness of your face and the way your eyes had of shimmering. I could only notice what was very obvious . . . I had a headache.”
“I’m very sorry.” She glanced in Christine’s manner at the parang seam; and in her eyes there was much of Christine’s sympathy. "I ought,” she went on, “to have been very sorry that evening; but I was practically out of my mind with fever—not jungle fever, something worse. I scarcely knew, and
I certainly couldn’t help, anything I did or said.”
I thought of the flushed face, of the strangely shimmering eyes.
“Oh, you poor little child!” I said.
1DID not intend to surprise her, but apparently I had—and I’d gained one of her sweet smiles into the bargain.
“That is nice of you, but wait . . . I knew—I understood, scarcely anything but this—that some fearful white man was attacking Se-Mera-Adon and that if he won, he would kill everyone in it, kill me and my uncle and Aunt Kate. . . . I was mad, mad with fear during the fight.”
She drew a long breath.
“If only I’d known you were there!” I said regretfully. “There’d have been no attack then. As for killing—why, killing even combatants wasn’t on our original program. The others started that. All we wished to do was to knock them about a bit and push the village into the river.”
Her lips wavered into a smile. “Most harmless,” she whispered with gentle irony. . . . “Well, presently I knew —barely knew that the white man was beaten and captured. I felt that I was laughing with joy. I thought that I was bidden to look at him, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anyone except some of the Se-Mera-Adon men who were close to me. And then, because! I seemed to be out on the bank with them, and Aunt Kate was in a hut with my uncle, I began to feel lonely, 'to. feel afraid, afraid of the Se-Mera-Adon men. When I partly understood that they were giving the white man to me I could have shrieked and Shrieked. But I was afraid of making them angry. I dared not refuse you—for a minute. Then I knew I must tell them I was afraid of you.” She turned in her chair, looking towards the garden. “Can you guess what I thought I was doing—just after that?” she asked. She nodded towards the garden. “I thought I was out there playing with Christine. I thought I had found some bits of violet-coloured glass.”
“I’m deeply thankful you pulled through,” I said quietly; “I don’t mean selfishly thankful; I shall still be deeply thankful even though—though somehow you defeat me. . . . And of course
I’m glad that really there was no fiendishness.”
SHE turned, touching her lilies which she had pressed with her arm, and regarding me with the light of laughter in her eyes.
“There’s a sound of regret in your gladness—that I’m not a little fiend.” “Yes,” I answered candidly. “Now I shall seem ten times more of a brute than I should have if you had been to blame.”
She stared down at the lilies, playing with their white globules.
“Oh, I understand,” she said; “I detected the manoeuvre instantly. ‘Marry me, woman, or I will tell the world of your nefarious deed; and, though you were a child and unconscious at the time, the world will execrate you!’ . . . Isn’t that the idea?”
I was silent for a moment. But as this certainly was the idea, I was bound to admit it.
“Yes,” I said, feeling a touch of heat in my cheeks.
She shook her head. “It’s a hopeless manoeuvre. Believe me, you’re utterly defeated already. She brought her lips nearer to the lilies. “I’ll finish my story. .... I was ill for a long time. I did not know how I had got the bits of sapphire until my aunt told me at Soumao. Then I loathed myself for the horrid affair; and my uncle sent a Chinaman with the sapphires to find your Chen-nsiang and buy you free. But we heard later that this Chinaman had simply kept the sapphires for himself. At Hanoi I made my uncle send a native, whom he thought trustworthy, with dollars worth seventy pounds—every dollar my uncle would let me have— to buy you free.” She moved her shoulders. “Another case of theft. Then I begged my uncle to go. He wouldn’t.
I said I would tell the Government about you—have troops sent. My uncle argued that if I told the Government, the Government would get you and—execute you. He argued also, now, that if you got free it would be bad for me. He said he knew nothing about you, but obvi-
ously you were a dangerous character, and you might shoot me for what I had done at Se-Mera-Adon. His advice was ‘leave things alone.’ He frightened me very much—so I left things alone . . . and hoped sometimes you were dead.” She sighed, and did not take her eyes from the lilies. “Tell me about yourself with Chen-nsiang,” she said.
I told her—everything; and then I persuaded her to tell me of her own experiences—on that journey through the wilds to the mountains of Yun-nan province. And they were rare experiences for a girl, and one so young. She was only sixteen years and two months when I saw her at Se-Mera-Adon. . . . I say I persuaded her, because she had clung curiously to my own tale—to Flower of the Lolos, to my fear when I was weak, and to the sense of misery that troubled me nowadays, which she had led me to speak of.
I had been in that pretty blue room with her two hours when, feeling that I certainly ought not to stay longer, I stood up.
“About Kua, Flower of the Lolos,” she said, not stirring.
“Yes?” I spoke absently. My thoughts, like my eyes, were on Amy Aralin, the grown child of the Song-Fo river, in her white dress in the big oak chair.
“Of course, whatever you do, you won’t go near Hai-Uong?”
Rather shamefacedly I moved a little silver vase on the mantelpiece. ‘,‘Don’t think me wretchedly weak—mesmerised by Hai-Uong,” I said. “I tell myself that I shall not go; but I—I believe I shall think those kids want me, and go.”
“Oh, what madness! what perfect madness!” She had whipped up straight in her chair. Her blue eyes, I discovered, were wide with indignation—truly angry. “What madness! You know—better than I do, that these foretellings happen —often happen—come exactly true. You know! Oh, I do think you weak—awfully. Of course you mustn’t go! . . . How did she predict—a bowl of sap?”
“Stars—watched ’em whizz,” I answered with pretended huffiness. “If she saw a shooter as she crooned some particular word—you’ve heard of the kind of thing.”
“I have.” She got up and came and stood quite close to me, and fingered the silver vase which I had moved. “At Vinh I heard of a star-telling—it came true—a French officer—he was drowned.”
AND then with a throb of my heart that shook me, I found that I was looking right into her great blue eyes from a distance of no more than a foot. “You mustn’t go,” she said; “you mustn’t be very silly.”
I did not heed her words.
“I mustn’t love you—you tell me,” I said shakily, whisperingly. “I’m going to defeat—you tell me. I won’t let you defeat me. I can’t, I can’t lose you, Child of the Song-Fo River.”
She tilted the vase. “Child of the Song-Fo River—prettily am I entitled. But—I’m not a child.”
“Lady,” I said; “Lady of the Laos— Lady of Luang Prabang.”
“Poison Flower of Se-Mera!” She moved back with a laugh, turned, and went a few paces up the room; and suddenly, mockingly, exquisitely, she whistled some soft bars:
“Oh, listen, my Shan girl, the shine of that star,
Oh, my lovely Yun-nan girl, is fainter by fa—”
“Omen,” I said; “he married her.”
“. . . on your lips and your brow,” (she whistled).
She stood, and touched and turned a yellow pencil which lay on the table.
“But she loved him—and could please herself,” she said; “that little Cloudy South girl ... I hope they’re happy.” “They are; he’s lately brought out another song about her. I heard it at Hanoi:
“In Cloudy South, a province Of ancient Shih-pa-Sheng”
(I sang quietly).
“There’s your omen!” she said. “Shihpa-Sheng means China, doesn’t it? But I know another Chinese word shih. It means”—she picked up the pencil and began to draw something on a sheet of notepaper—“it means exactly what Mr. Carvalho is going to do.”
I stepped to the table and saw what
she had sketched, the symbol, shih, the sign meaning to lose.
“He isn’t,” I said.
“He is—completely, crushedly.” She laid down the pencil and turned away to the window. “Meanwhile—am I in a state of siege? Are you stopping at the junction hotel?”
“Yes . . . I’ll go now.”
“You’ll be very dull for the rest of the evening—at that place. ... I can afford to observe certain empty courtesies of war. Will you stay and have supper with Christine and me?”
“You merciful foe!” I said; “rather, I’ll stay. . . . And as for courtesies of war—” my voice was wonderfully gay with happiness—“there’s a car for hire at the hotel, quite a decent car. Don’t you think you could let me take you and Christine somewhere tomorrow? I’ll not run away with either of you, honestly. Couldn’t we start early—I’ll bring the car round here by the road—and drive right off to Bristol or somewhere for lunch, pictures, and tea? . . . Please, please, say you’ll come, Child of the SongFo River!” '
She leaned on the window sill, peered down at the garden flowers.
“Father and mother are coming back from Swindon early to-morrow evening.” “Fits in splendidly. Telegraph them in the morning that we’ll pick them up at Swindon, motor them back.
Oh, we’d have such a rare day, Child!” I pleaded. She sank her cheek on her hand. “I don’t think I can resist this courtesy,” she said with a little sigh.
IT was the third week of the siege. The Besieged and I sat beneath the dwarfoak trees on the spur of high land, with the village just below us and the plain of fields spread far and wide in set sunlight.
By now I was on friendly terms with her parents. She had never told them— it appeared—of the sapphire matter, and, with what amounted to cool bravery, she had given them no hint that I was other than an inoffensive suitor—whose chance was hopeless. To Christine, who had glimpsed the undercurrent, there was a heap more than met the eye, but the sense of a secret merely increased the favour with which the young person was kind enough to regard me. The way in which—by all accounts —she had sung my praises to Major Minter must have caused that professional warrior extreme uneasiness.
The Child had not yet made her promise to him. She had decided to beat me first, to prove that I was not driving her into that course—she told me tranquilly.
She had been seeing this Major Minier at a friend’s house, a few stations up the line. But within the last ten days he had taken to calling at the cottage.
Twice, to the glee of Christine and myself, he had been obliged to insert his card through the letter-box of an empty cottage, because I had the family thirty miles away in the car from the hotel.
IN spite of circumstances Amy invariably gave me a pretty welcome which sent my heart racing—a bright smile, a gaze perhaps with laughing mockery in it, deliberately shown, yet with friendliness in it. And there was always a little rising flush in her cheeks. But this afternoon, opening the cottage door to me, she had been so radiant, with the shimmer of excitement in her eyes; she had agreed so readily to come out with me at once, that, just for minutes, I thought the day must prove the happiest of the days during which I had known her. When, as we reached the spur, she reverted to one of her very calm, almost cold moods, I thought little of it. Swift, bewildering changes of mood, or pretended changes, were essentially part of her nature. However, when she had sat down, and I sat beside her, she placed on the turf between us some opened envelopes which I had noticed her carrying, rested her finger on the top one, and said softly, singingly: “Defeat! defeat! . . . Shall I read you the news of your defeat? It is utter.”
I glanced at the envelope and noted the deep blue French stamp.
“Vrancaisl" I said.
She pressed the brim of her light straw hat back from her brow. With a tiny gesture of triumph she linked her hands in her lap, and with head high looked
over the plain. “Do you understand?” she asked.
“Something of it.” I picked at a tuft of grass. “I didn’t expect it.”
She moved her head and watched the grass I was picking at. “No reproaches?” she asked; “unless ‘didn’t expect’ was meant for one.”
“It wasn’t, my dear,” I said. “I don’t know what you’ve let me in for, but there’re no reproaches. I love you.”
She fingered the envelopes, scanning them, so that her lashes were lowered and seemed wonderfully long. Then she took the envelopes into her lap, glanced at several, and drew a letter from one.
“I’ve let you in for nothing—at present,” she said. “But, oh! you were stupid—headstrong and stupid! to try to overpower me, when you had such a huge gap in your armour. ... I haven’t mentioned your name or the name of Se-Mera-Adon. An anonymous Englishman attacked an anonymous village in a French Protectorate three years ago, in the case which I stated to my Uncle Ralph, who is a solicitor in London. He restated the case, in confidence, to a Monsieur Othon, who is a lawyer in Paris. The question was, would the French Government be likely to take action against the Englishman?.... I won’t read all the correspondence.” She unfolded the letter. “Just a sentence or two from Monsieur Othon’s latest letter, which I got from my uncle to-day.... Un séditieux is a kind of insurrectionist, isn’t he?”
She read: “ ‘To extradite the man
from England as an insurrectionist against the peace of the French Protectorate is a political matter—very difficult; but to extradite him as a common criminal guilty •of killing and of inciting to kill will be very easy. Have the great kindness to inform me of the whereabouts of this ■criminal, and—’ ” she slipped into the original French—“ immédiatement nous mettrons marcher la loi. . . . We shall set the law to march!’ ” she translated exultantly, staring over the plain, her voice low pitched in half mocking dramaticism. “We—shall—set—the—law—to—march —upon you, Mr. Carvalho.”
She folded the letter, not looking at me. “The siege is raised. You will retreat forthwith—pell-mell with the loss of all your guns and standards. For if, to my knowledge, you are within fifty miles of me to-morrow, Mr. Carvalho, I shall set the law to march!”
She dropped her hands on either side of her with a soft breath of triumph; and she still stared over the plain, her face sideways to me against the blue of the sky, her lips smiling.
“It’s in self-defence,” she said again. “I suppose, after all, I am a fiend.... I’m sorry, but I WILL defend myself.... Oh-h, do speak!” I was studying her sideface; I leaned back on my elbow and looked too over the plain.
“There’s nothing fiendish in it,” I said. “It’s a clever move and an open, honest defence. I don’t believe you could go— any further with it.” I looked at her face again. “Of course I don’t believe it,” I exclaimed confidently.
SHE spoke more coldly than I had ever heard her. “Please believe it—and go . . .1 don’t say that I shall enjoy. . . . telling your name; but I shall far rather do it than suffer any more of this—this being dragooned and—and blackmailed! into marrying you—this being quietly oppressed without ceasing. I haven’t the kind of temper that endures bullying. I can appear to endure it ‘sweetly’ while I’m arranging to crush the bully, that’s all.”
She had hurt me this time. Up to now I had been practically proof against unhappiness in her presence, but her measured words, her unswerved determination to rid herself of me, sent me suddenly miserable, though I remained obstinate.
“I’m sorry,” I said; “I didn’t know you took it so badly. Ihoped you were not minding very much. Your—your eyes seemed to laugh.” I broke off a stalk of grass and tied it into triangular knots. “I’ll long-distance ’phone my solicitor in the morning—get him to defend my flank against this attack, as well as he can.. . . Your eyes seemed to laugh,” I said again; “so much. I don’t undestand.” For another full minute there wasn’t a word from either of us. Then:
“You don’t mean you—will—not] go!” she asked slowly.
“Why should I go? If I go I lose you at once. If I stay I shall see you and talk with you every day for perhaps a week before I’m arrested. When I’ve gone from you I shall be too wretched, so long as I live, to care very much whether I’m free or in a French prison or penal settlement. So by staying I gain a week and lose nothing to be compared with that week. Therefore I shall stay, Child of the SongFo River—” I lifted myself a little, bringing my lips nearer to her shoulder— “Child whom I’ll love whatever happens.’” She picked up the envelopes from her lap, sorting them and gazing at each of them. “They might—execute you.” “Might—but I very much doubt it.” She threw back her head, turning her face quite away from me. “Oh, whydon’t you say what really you are thinking— that you’re going to great danger of death, betrayed by Amy Aralin—Amy Aralin, your evil star, who once before sent you to horrible imprisonment— nearly to death? Why don’t you say that?”
“I wasn’t thinking it. I was simply thinking that I was up here on this hill with Amy Aralin, whom I adore.”
She crumpled the envelopes slowly, hard. I heard her give a tiny hiss. “Yes, you know it!” she said with what seemed bitter anger in her voice. “You know that really I can’t go on—betray you, unless I’m driven — frantically desperate. . . . It wouldn’t be human .... I—I hope you’ll drive me desperate!”
"I won’t go away from you,” I said. “It would be more than my life’s worth.”
“And much more than mine’s worth— to be forced to marry you.” She put out her hand to a drifting bit of gossamer fluff. “So we’re fighting for our lives.” Her mood had changed; the anger had left her voice. “My life’s happiness against yours,” she said serenely, hurting me badly again. She caught the fluff and held it, with her little finger arched back. “We might fight for years, which perhaps you would consider gain to you, but which I—.” She broke off, and allowed the fluff to drift on. Then:— “Are you brave enough to decide the fight at once or—or in a day or two, by a fair method— to settle win or lose in a matter of minutes —the loser to obey the winner without question? If you lose you go, and I never hear of you again. If I lose—” her voice trailed low—“I marry you,” she said, almost under her breath; “not by your orders—” she spoke more loudly—“no, but because I lost a game I asked for— a game I permitted you to play . ... I might force you to play it. I might say ‘this or France;’ but I’m not a bully. Still, as I’m holding back—about France, it would be only a fair return if you agreed to this—if you can dare.” And then by her tones I knew that half-mocking laughter must noy be in her eyes. “Dare you? .... Dare you be as brave as she you fain would wed?”
I was not as brave. I did not like this sudden idea at all. It looked too much as though, if I lost, I really should lose her irretrievably. Having failed to scare me with France, she mercifully, almost helplessly, vacillated regarding that, and doubtless would never get beyond vacillating—leaving me still with quite a chance. But this game, as she termed it, would be a very different thing. If she won she would get rid of me completely without involving me in danger. And then, laughing over the memory of the adventure. . . .she would go to Minter.
“Dare you be as brave as she?” The mocking laughter had crept into her voice now.
“Yes—since you talk of a ‘fair return’,”
I said, with a sigh. “Apparently it’s to be something like a hand of cards—though I know it won’t be that. You’d loathe cards—for this.”
SHE nodded. “I was thinking of Kua, Flower of the Lolos, and the shooting stars—of somebody’s gruff words,
‘watched ’em whizz.’ Have you ever played the game of shooting stars? You and somebody sit side by side and watch for a shooting star. The one who sees it first, who first cries ‘Look!’ wins. Shall we decide by a shooting star one evening?”
“Man-war nu-’rk (slowly, girl-child),”
I said. The.. I reverted from Chinese. “I shan’t have a fair chance. Why, I shall keep turning to look at your face, to see it outlined against the sky. You—you
“Weak! weak!” My mind was made up that she should not beguile me.
“No; let’s have a truce, an ordinary walk, to-night.”
“I was thinking we might all motor up to London to-morrow, have a matinee and dinner, and drive back late.”
She drew a breath happily. “The night after?”
“I thought of repeating to-morrow’s program. Let’s say next Monday three weeks—provisionally.”
Back tilted her head. She was laughing silently, with her eyes closed against the sunlight.
“Matinees or something every weekday,” I pleaded.
She shook her head.
“Next Monday evening,” she said with decision.
A SMOKY purple haze lay all over the fields late on that Monday evening; smokiness and wraiths of purple were in the western sky, low down; but the greater part of the sky was a clear nightblue, with the stars like silver in it.
I glanced round the scene as the Child and I stood at the edge of the dwarf-oaks, hatless both of us, she with a long, loose coat over her white dress.
A speck of a star showed for an instant moving, and then was gone; and together we gasped “Look!” and laughed. For by the rules, the game did not begin until we were sitting down.
With her hands in her deep coat pockets with utter gracefulness, she sank to her knees and then was sitting. A turn of her arm flung a skirt of the coat spread beside her. “The grass is damp. Sit here—well back, not to hinder my view. . . .Now,” she said with a long breath, as we sat, shoulders touching; “now! please don’t
talk, just watch.....I wish I was tall
enough to look over your head.... Ready? .... Now!”
My thoughts at that instant were that I was actually trembling a bit whilst her shoulder was steady as a rock, a soft, firm rock. Reluctantly I moved an inch that she might not note my trembling,though probably she already had felt it.
For while I gazed more or less in front of me, glancing at intervals upward and right and left, by a lightning shift of my eyes rather than by any appreciable motion of my head, for in that way, it seemed to me, I covered a big stretch of sky in the shortest possible time. Occasionally, however, I tilted my head and looked straight upward, or turned my face clean to the left. I did not turn it to the right, where a silhouette—the dearest sight in the universe—would be hiding some of the sky and for a second would hold my eyes .... I commenced to wonder what radius her eyes were moving over, to wish that somehow I could follow that radius with her so that I should see whatever she saw and perhaps cry out before she could.... And then I felt the strain of the thing. I had so much to lose!
This game, outwardly so trivial, arranged so lightly by Amy Aralin that afternoon, with a ripple of a laugh, a ripple of mockery—so lightly that even now, in a manner, it seemed a mere joke— this game was grim earnest. Beneath her bright mockery, beneath her great sweetness and blitheness—and during the last few days she had shown only sweetness and blitheness—she was, I believed, a near approach to iron.... And now I admired her for that! But if I lost this evening—I lost her!
Yes, I was feeling the strain.... and suddenly my heart numbed, veritably numbed with a premonition that in the next second I should hear her call “Look!” Ah, she did not. But then my heart numbed again with a similar foreboding. I felt I must—I must relieve the strain for a moment. Foolishly, jestingly I whispered “Look!”
“Pirate and perverter—to use the expletives of a pal of yours,” she answered calmly. Then came her soft laugh. “That robs me of all scruples. I might have lost by looking your way. Now you shall look my way—at me.”
“Wish I could, but I ‘durs’n’t’.”
She laughed again—teasingly. Then softly, with deliberate allurement, she began to whistle; and then softly she was singing:
“Oh, listen, my Shan girl, the shine of that star,
Oh, my lovely Yun-nan girl, is fainter by far—”
This proved decoying enough. With every one of her sweet notes, as she went
right through the song, she entreated me by her intonation to look at her, to look at her lips just moving in the starlight. Then, since I was obdurate, she decoyed still more. With another little laugh she experimented in tampering with the lyric.
“Oh, listen, my Shan girl, the shine of that star,
Oh, my Luang Prabang girl, is fainter by far—”
That was the first essay. A pause— and:
“Oh, listen Song-Fo girl, the star with its shine,
Oh, my lovely Song-Fo girl, would bid me divine
Where is joy for my life, and so down the ray slips
And rests on your brow and your half open lips.”
“And rests on my brow and my half open lips,” she sang whisperingly.... “On my half open lips”—whisperingly, mournfully.
And I had to look.
I saw those half open lips; I saw them swiftly open further in a smile of delight— for, though her eyes were on the sky, she knew I was looking; I saw the lips form for other words....And then, sharply, her head moved, showing me more of her face; and I saw her teeth flash white—literally flash.
“Look!” she shrieked in triumph. “Look! Oh-h! Oh-h!” With her hand pointing past me, she had partly turned and was leaning against me. “Oh-h!” she cried again in ecstasy. “It roars! It roars! It roars down!”
The long, brilliant wake of that shooting star remained for a second or so in the sky; and while I watched it disappear, and watched the place where it had been, Amy Aralin still leaned against my arm with her hand stretched past me. It was beyond a doubt—my moment of losing her—and, for the first time in our lives, she leaned breathing against me.
She sat back, slipping her hand to the edge of her coat. “Move—get up,” she said; and with a wrench—it seemed a vicious wrench—she freed the coat from me, and stood. I just stayed sitting.
She took a little dancing step and brought her hands together. She clasped them and stood looking at me. I could see that' she was laughing, shimmering-eyed; that she was quivering now with exultation. “Free!” she whispered. “Free without hurting you!” Then, in an instant— though I could not tell how far this was a mock mood—she was in a state of unleashed temper. “Free of you, you bully. After these hateful weeks!” Her voice rang, in a deep, quiet way, with anger. “You can’t go back to your threats. You’d have no scrap of honour, you’d be a liar, if you did. And if you were that— I’d send you to France—gladly!. . . .You dared order me to marry you, you beaten bully!”
And then with another dancing step she turned herself completely round. And when she faced me she was smiling, and her voice was cool and level. “When you love another girl, Mr. Carvalho, don’t dragoon her, even if you have a grip on her. It won’t pay you.” She moved her shoulders; shook her head slowly. “If I had—had come to love you—rather dearly, I’d never have told you unless you’d asked me gently, with no thought to bully....Oh, I’m free!” She unlinked her hands, looked at them, and distended her fingers as though to emphasize her sense of relief.
“T WOULD rather have won without
1 making you—contemplate me,” she said, scanning her fingers; “but, considering the fearful risk I was running, to spare you imprisonment, I’m not in the least troubled.”
She looked at me again.
“Three weeks of secret threatening,” she said. She bent a little towards me, touching her breast with her finger. “A fairly young girl, Mr. Carvalho—not very much over nineteen.... Are you ashamed at all?.... Do you know that some poor excitable young girl might have been too frightened to see that you were not really a hardened brute, only intensely stupid—intensely stupid—and she might-—might have killed herself in fear? That would have been rather worse for you to remember than the deaths at Se-Mera-Adon which—” her voice soft-
ened for an instant—“which I will never consider were your fault.... That would have been worse!” That changing voice of hers was suddenly angry again—very angry. “Are you ashamed? If you wish to tell me so before I go—” she drew a quick breath and gestured—“crawl and tell me, crawl, you—you bully!”
She stood breathing fast. She had spurred herself into such anger with those last words that her very shoulders were moving with her breathing. Her eyes were gloriously bright in the starshine.
I stood up. I wasn’t by any means sure that I could speak. It was all very well to remind myself of my years and my experience of life, of the self-control which should go with these. I felt broken, griefchoked, lonely—horribly lonely.
“I’m very, very sorry,” I managed to say. “I hope—your dear life—will.be happy—always.”
She looked away, at the dark purple on the fields. “Where will you go—to-morrow?”
“London—to see my people.... I shall stay with them for a week or two.”
“Wander off somewhere.”
“Yes,” she said very quietly; “I know —Hai-Uong, on the Song-Fo river, where you’re to lie dead. I can tell you mean that.”
“I think I ought to hunt up that poor little family.. . .Oh, there’s no question ......I ought.”
She still looked towards the fields. “Father has a friend, a mining man— didn’t he tell you yesterday?—who’s leaving England soon and means to travvel right along the Song-Fo. He would make inquiries, do anything you wished for the family, readily.. .. Don’t go yourself! Think of your father and mother.”
“I shall come back all right, I expect.”
SHE shook her head very slowly. Then, with a breath of a sigh, she turned and looked at the dwarf oaks. “Won’t anything keep you from going?”
“Only you—in all this world—could have.”
“Ah,” she said. She turned her head again, staring down at the dull, orangecoloured lights of the village, and passed from the subject. “Will you come back to the cottage with me—to bid farewell to the others?” she asked. “Oh, of course! Your hat’s there.” She spoke airily, with a hint of a laugh. “Perhaps, now that I’m free,” she said, “I shall quite forget to be present when you’re saying farewell down there.” Without turning her face my way, she held her left hand a little towards me. “So take your formal leave of me here.” And as her hand was held straight-armed, palm down, I knew that —perhaps in the sheerest mockery—she intended that I should kiss it.
I took it between my hands, and bent, trying gently to lift it. But it resisted me, forcing my hands downward; so I went on my knees, and at that it lay passive in my hands. I brought my lips near—and then —well, I shook. I shook convulsively, and a weird sob broke from me, and I laid my forehead on the hand and sobbed again.
“Sh-s-s-sh!” I heard her whisper. And in all the changes of mood and tone which I had known in her not one had been a fiftieth part so unexpected, a hundredth part so—so wonderfully gladdening to me, as the change which this breathed word signified—with its cadence of remorse and of much beyond that. “Sh-s-s-sh!” she whispered; and her lips were close to my head, and she had one arm across my shoulders. “Oh, I didn’t mean you to go! I was only cruel— terribly creul—to punish.... I didn’t want you to go! Ask me, dear, Oh my dear! ask me, and see.” I pressed her hand more tightly to my forehead. How I wanted to look at her— to speak! But, even in my happiness, sob after sob was wrenching out of me. I couldn’t look—and sob right in her dear face. One of my hands crept inarticulately over her wrist and held her forearm, striving to explain.
Her arms moved slightly, that across my shoulders pressing for an instant; her body touched my head, passed downward, and she was kneeling too, in front of me. I partly raised my head; I tried to call her “Child,” but a sob was all that came from me. Then her arm which had been about my shoulders, and now was around my neck, drew me, so that my forehead was against her breast. And with both her arms around me, she whispered again “Sh-s-s-sh!”